Mindfulness of the Body

by Michael W. Taft
mindfulness of the bodyWhen I first started meditating in the early 1980s, I had a very hard time sitting still. I had read some books on Zen and whatnot, and had a fantasy of myself remaining motionless for hours at a time, probably in full lotus posture, feeling bliss. Upon attempting to sit, I was shocked to discover that this vision of ecstacy did not immediately manifest. I fidgeted. I itched. It was boring. I coughed. My hips hurt. My mind wandered. My legs fell asleep. I fidgeted some more. The sad reality was that I really disliked sitting still—an essential ingredient in the practice of mindfulness.

This made me kind of mad at my body. Here I was, trying to transcend my petty ego and its desires, and the weakness of my body was holding me down. Still, I persisted with my meditating, and as the years progressed, I developed a kind of adversarial relationship with my body. Many aspects of the meditative literature and culture will help you do this. My job as a meditator was (supposedly) to exert my will over the body, with its sad, earthly weaknesses and needs, and to force it to sit still while I worked on purifying my mind. I even bought into the idea that I was an immortal soul, forever perfect and pure, and my body was a mere vessel, impure, imperfect, made of clay. The problem.

The Body Is the Solution

It took me a long time and a lot of meditation to discover that the body is not the problem. In fact the body is a vital part of the solution. Mindfulness is not a matter of the transcendental mind overcoming the earthly body, but instead involves becoming reacquainted, familiar, and even loving with the body. This is a bit harder than it sounds, but by understanding it from the very beginning, you can save yourself years of hardship and struggle. With a little guidance, even the first steps can be relatively easy. And when you begin to really touch the body deeply, to connect with it, to know it inside out, and to love it, you will begin to be at home in your skin, and at home in the universe.

I have a lot to say about meditating on the body, so this article is the first in a whole series of posts (by myself and others) about mindfulness of body sensation. Here I want to talk about what I mean when I say meditating on the body.

If I told you that meditating on something was different than thinking about it, you’d probably say that, Duh, you already know that. Yet when people first meditate on the body, that is often what they do: think about it. When you direct your attention towards the physical body, you will feel some body sensation, but you will also experience a lot of mental images of the body. Pictures of the positions of your limbs, mental images of the shape of your torso, and so on. And these mental images are thoughts, not physical sensations.

Feel Your Way

Meditating on the body means meditating on body sensation, not mental images of the body. So, for example, if you close your eyes and meditate on the bottoms of your feet right now, notice that you can feel the bottoms of your feet, but you may also be experiencing a mental picture of your feet. That imaginal image of your feet is fine and natural, but in meditating on the body, it is important to let go of it. Not push it away, not get angry at it, but simply let it go. Instead, allow your attention to focus on the feeling of the bottoms of your feet. The actual physical sensations. Concentrate on just that sensation, letting go of mental images.

I liken it to a blind man recognizing another person by feeling their face with his hands, his fingertips. Or like feeling a wooden sculpture with your eyes closed. You get into the actual, earthly contact of body sensation; you feel it in the meat, so to speak. Not in your head. In your body. Notice if you can get into the sensation in the bottoms of your feet in that way. There are the pads of the toes, the soles, the arches, and the solidity of the heels. Feel each area of sensation individually. And then feel them all together again.  This is actual contact with body sensation. This is meditating on the body. This is where to begin.

In future articles, we’ll go much deeper into mindfulness of the body.

 

photo by foshydog

 

 

Comments

  1. Being new to this, I find it much easier to concentrate on my body, whether relaxing part by part or disappearing a pain, than opening up my mind.

    It’s a gift to welcome this new way of relating to your physical being. Someday I will have mastered meditation techniques but for now I welcome pondering aches, pains and whatever else.

    1. Yes, the body is an unparalleled door to awakening. Let the mind be itself, for now, and simply pay attention to the details of your body sensations. Let the body’s wisdom allow you to relax into the present moment. Never mind mastering techniques—all that will come with time. Instead just allow yourself, as you said, to feel whatever comes up.
      All the best.

  2. Also being new to this,I agree that it is easier to concentrate on the body rather than trying to concentrate on taming your mind. The “details of your body’s sensations” is the key for me to even begin to become mindful or attempt to meditate. I findYoga helpful to that end in that it helps to create body sensations ( good and bad ) that give me something to concentrate on.

    1. That’s right. Any sort of exercise will generate body sensations that are bigger and therefore easier to concentrate on. As your concentration improves, you will begin to be able to attend to subtler and subtler sensations. Over time, even the most fleeting, tiny, extremely subtle body sensations become clear and easy to notice. All along the way, the body will help, because essentially it “wants” to be noticed and heard. Sometimes it can be a bit uncomfortable, because there may be a lot of discomfort or pain that has been flying under the radar of awareness. But as you attend to each new level of body sensation, the body begins to heal, to open up, and to feel more alive.

  3. Pingback: Tuning Into the Body with Mindfulness | Deconstructing Yourself

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