In mindfulness, the body is where to begin
Mindfulness of the body didn’t come easily to me. When I first started meditating in the late 1970s, 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, legs locked in full lotus posture, feeling nothing but unalloyed bliss. In my imagination, my body would either feel fabulous, or I wouldn’t be able to feel it at all.
Upon attempting to actually sit in meditation, I was shocked to discover that this vision of ecstasy 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. I got lost in fantasies. The sad reality was that I really disliked sitting still—an essential ingredient in the practice of mindfulness. My body just wasn’t ready to be ignored, or to ignite into some sort of astral ecstasy.
This made me kind of mad at my body. Here I was, trying my best to transcend my petty ego and its desires, and the weakness of my body was holding me back. I had to overcome the stubborn mule of the body! I persisted with my meditating, and as the years progressed, I developed an even more adversarial relationship with my body. Meditative literature and spiritual culture will often help you do this. My job as a meditator was (I learned in various books) 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 idea of bringing mindful attention to the body couldn’t have been further from my mind.
The Body Is the Solution
It took me a long time and a lot of time on the cushion to realize that the body is not the problem. In fact the body is a vital part of the solution. Meditation is not a matter of the transcendental mind overcoming the earthly body, but instead involves becoming reacquainted, familiar, and even loving with the body.
Understanding 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, or mindfulness of body sensation. I will also show you how to do a body scan.
If I told you that meditating on something was different than thinking about that same something, you’d probably say, Duh, you already know that. Yet when people first practice mindfulness of the body, that is often what they do: think about the body. 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. You are mainly thinking about the body, rather than feeling it.
Feel Your Way
Meditating on the body means meditating on body sensation, not mental images or other thoughts about 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 not to focus on that. You don’t push away the mental image, or 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 any thoughts or images of the feet. This is the beginning of mindfulness of body sensation.
Imagine being blind and learning to recognizing another person by feeling their face with your hands. Learning the hills and valleys and textures of the bones and muscles of their face with your sensitive fingertips. Or imagine dipping your fingers in a bowl of puddling with your eyes closed. The goopy, wet, and somewhat pleasant sensation.
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 mindfulness of the body. This is where to begin.
How to Do a Mindful Body Scan
Once you learn to actually feel the body with the body—rather than just thinking about or imagining the body with the mind—you are ready for a more advanced practice. This is called a “body scan” and it is pretty much what that term implies. Once you have settled in and feel in touch with the body generally, you begin to meditate on each area of the body, one at a time. In other words, you scan the body in a systematic way. For example, you begin with the head, becoming mindfully aware of the sensations there. Then the neck and throat region. Then the shoulders. Then the arms and hands, first the left, then the right. And so on.
The scanning system you use doesn’t really matter. You can start from the feet and go upwards to the head instead. Or whatever. What does matter is that you give focused attention to each region of the body, one area at a time.
Doing a mindful body scan like this is a great way to get in touch with the body as a “solution.” You will notice areas that feel good, or feel bad, or that don’t feel anything at all. It’s very important to let the body feel however it feels. Try to greet any and all sensations with equanimity, meaning that you don’t prefer the pleasant ones, nor do you dislike the unpleasant ones. Every way the body feels is fine.
Over the years, I learned to love mindfulness of the body, and to appreciate its many benefits. You will be able to tune into your emotions much more clearly and fully. And—most importantly—you will find yourself landing in the present moment with clarity and openness more and more. Meditating on the body takes you out of the distracted fantasies and imaginary conflicts in the mind, and allows you to begin to touch the magic of reality.
tattooed foot photo by valentina costi
foot photo by foshydog