In his book ‘Touching Enlightenment’, the Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray makes the point that many western meditation students spend a lot of time in their heads and very little in their body. Meditation practice is all too often seen as a mind practice with very little to do with somatic sensations. He goes on to say that unless we fully embody our practice, and allow it to include our physical nature as well as our mind, we will end up as a set of disembodied heads, further away from enlightenment than when we started. I tend to agree.
To me it seems strange that we have come such a long way from an embodied practice since it seems to have been part of the intention of the Buddha to learn mindfulness of the body as a base before adding anything else. However, I guess now there are far more sensory distractions and intellectual pursuits to be had than there were in India two and half thousand years ago and perhaps we need to emphasise the physicality of practice more now than ever before.
Getting the correct posture for meditation seems to me to be the starting block for an embodied practice, just as a relaxed mind is the best point from which to begin meditation. Spending a few minutes to feel the body on the cushion is a good way of settling the body and mind before practice but yet how many of us go straight from everyday activities into mental meditation without this preparatory step? I am certainly guilty of it! Yet the mind cannot be relaxed unless the body is. This preparatory stage pays dividends in our practice.
The mindfulness of the body is addressed by the Buddha in both the sutra on the mindfulness of breathing (Anapanasati Sutta) and the sutra on the four foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta). In both of these key Pali texts, mindfulness of the body is the first step and it seems implicit, if not explicit, that this has to be firmly grasped and worked with before proceeding on to the three later stages – mindfulness of feelings, emotions and thoughts. When the meditation is lost, the practice begins again with the mindfulness of the body and works onwards once this is re-established.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha instructs us to ‘breathe with the whole body’. The breath itself is a key part of most meditation practice and can also be the gateway to the sensations of our whole physical body. The quality and frequency of the breath is an indication to how much tension we are holding onto and by breathing into each part of the body in turn we can become completely awake to our whole self.
The two aforementioned sutras seem strangely ignored in both Tibetan and Zen Buddhist traditions (although Thich Nhat Hanh grasps their importance) but surely must form a basis of any attempt to embody practice? And embodiment has to continue away from the mat – being aware of the movement of the body and the sensations from moment to moment, especially at times of stress and aversion – when negative emotions arise and threaten our equilibrium. Being aware of emotions at their somatic level takes away much of their power. This can be observed with emotions such as jealousy and anger that we all experience in our lives. Instead of focussing on the thoughts which arise at this time as we tend to want to do, check in with your body and see how the emotion feels. Where do you feel jealousy in the body? What does it feel like? Without the thoughts that accompany it, isn’t an emotion just another set of sensations?
The truth is that being aware of somatic sensations brings you into the present moment, while conceptual thoughts take you away from that. Mindfulness of the body should be the first step of any practice, and key throughout the whole spiritual path. Enlightenment can only be reached through the physical body we are in. There is no other way.
Books on embodied practice
Johnson, Will. 1996. The Posture of Meditation. Shambhala.
Johnson, Will. 2005. Yoga of the Mahamudra. Inner Traditions.
Ray, Reginald. 2008. Touching Enlightenment. Sounds True.
Books on the mindfulness suttas
Buddhadasa. 1998. Mindfulness With Breathing. Wisdom.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1992. Breathe, You Are Alive! Rider.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1993. Transformation and Healing. Rider.
Rosenberg, Larry. 2004. Breath by Breath. Shambhala.