2022-02-14 Satipaṭṭhāna (29) Resting in the Wisdom of the Body
4:04PM Feb 14, 2022
This part of the discourse on the foundations for awareness is the simplest of them all. It is simply a description. It says, "In this body, there is the property of earth, the property of water, the property of fire, and the property of air or wind". And that's it. It does give an analogy, which I will mention tomorrow.
There is a recognition of each of these properties as they appear within us. This is so simple that it might be overlooked. We might not understand how profound it is. This is actually one of the central ways that vipassana is practiced – really delving deep into the level of the sensations of our experience.
It is easy to not be in the sensations. It is possible to have sensations of some kind, and then start interpreting them, making stories around them, and having reactions to them. It is possible to not be connected to our sensations at all – to be living in the abstract world of thoughts, ideas, and feelings that are disconnected from our body.
Part of mindfulness practice is to awaken the body. There is one Mahayana sutra that says that awakening and enlightenment happen through the body. The Buddha himself said that there is no awakening without mindfulness of the body. What we are doing, by dropping into our sensations and feeling them as they appear, is to expand our awareness throughout our body. So more and more of our body starts awakening. We feel really connected to it. We start feeling embodied.
This does a lot of wonderful things for us. One result is that the body itself can process so much of our life – so many of our difficulties, emotions, thoughts, concerns, and tensions. This is partly because when we are not in our body, we are often in reactivity – in the thoughts, interpretations, and stressful ways of thinking that are reinforcing the tension in the body. If we drop down into the body, then there is room for things to unfold. There is breathing room for things.
Some things will just naturally unfold and resolve themselves – like tension, for example, oftentimes. Some things do not resolve themselves. There can be chronic physical tension in the body. But there is an art to just feeling that tension without adding any second arrows to it – without adding any extra tension to it.
Then we can delve even deeper into the pain, so we are no longer experiencing it at the conceptual level. What I mean by that is – to take pain as an example – the word "pain" is an abstraction. It is an umbrella term for sensations that are quite intense. But those sensations can be varied. There can be intense burning, stabbing, twisting, stretching, pulling and tightening going on. There can be intense exhaustion of the muscles – they are really aching. So all those specific sensations will be called "pain." Two people can say they have pain, and yet have very different sensations.
Sometimes when we call something "pain," we react to the all the ideas or notions we have about pain. It is the abstraction we are really reacting to – what it means, where it is going, what is going to happen in the future – rather than just dropping into the pain itself, and feeling the particularities of the sensation.
At the level of calling it "pain," it can feel like it is constant. But when we drop into the level of sensations, we can discover – if we are really focused – that the sensations are not constant. They are inconstant: they come and they go. They appear and they disappear.
When I was a new Zen student, I used to bring my attention to feel the pain in my knees, which I had a lot of. Sometimes the pain would be reduced to just a little square centimeter. In that centimeter, there would be dancing of intense sensations – sparking sensations of stabbing, tightening, and different sensations. It was fascinating to watch the dance flicking around. There was no one sensation to hold onto or react to, because they were constantly moving within this little square centimeter.
For some things, the ability to just feel them at the sensation level gives breathing room for them to resolve themselves, to unwind and dissolve. For other things which are pleasant and enjoyable, there is breathing room for them to grow and expand. Some of the great feelings of well-being that come with practice – that we want to have come with practice – are much more accessible if we can feel them more fully in the body.
The more we are awake in the body, the more the body becomes a field of sensations. Much of our happiness, joy, and well-being can be felt in an embodied way. These feelings are more stable and fuller as they course through us if we can really feel them through the body. So the ability to drop down and feel the sensations increases our capacity for experiencing joy and happiness.
We drop down and are embodied with our experience – referring everything back to the body and letting the body hold it. Then the body wakes up and becomes more expansive, in a sense, with our sensations. We are not living from the neck up. It also turns out that, embodied, we have a lot more capacity to be with difficulties. The mind does not actually have a lot of capacity for that. With its stories, ideas, reactions, beliefs, memories, and projections in the future, it can get very claustrophobic.
But if we can be centered, grounded, and stable in our body, making room to feel the sensations – letting the sensations come and making room for them – then we have a much bigger capacity to deal with challenges. We have a much greater ability to be uncomfortable, so that we are not knocked over, pushed around, becoming reactive, getting tense, or feeling like our boundaries are being pushed. Because we we have the capacity to hold it all and be aware of it.
It is like the analogy that if you put put a pyramid on its head – on the point – it is not very stable. Maybe you can get it perfectly balanced for a moment, but if someone just taps it, it falls over. But if you turn the pyramid right side up, so it is sitting on its base, then when you push it, it is not going to tip over at all. There is something about being stably centered, in the physicality of our body – the sensations of our body – that we do not easily get pushed over or thrown off balance by events of the world.
So this simple exercise (maybe the exercise is not always simple to do, but the instructions are simple) opens up to a vast world of possibilities – the world of our body. Being centered, grounded, and embodied in our body – letting the body process our life. Letting the body be the place where we compost things.
When I have difficult emotions, I find it so valuable to sit and meditate – and just feel those emotions in my body. Trusting the body, as if the body is composting them. I put the emotions back into my body and feel them within the body. It is a relief to realize that the wisdom of the body knows how to take care of things – sometimes much better than the mind, which is trying to figure it all out, or trying to navigate, negotiate, mediate, or bargain with reality.
So, to begin increasing your vocabulary for sensations. You might want to draw up a list – maybe ask friends to add words to it – of all the ways that direct sensory experience is felt. The longer that vocabulary list, the more you may have to enter into the world of sensations and feeling them. Entering in so fully that, at some point, you start feeling the dynamism of sensory experience. The dynamic way in which it changes, moves, flows, and comes alive more and more as we rest in the body – as awareness is embodied.
I offer you this exercise to support the sensation meditation. To draw up a long list of all the words in your language that describe sensations: twisting, pulling, hot, cold, heavy, light, itching – whatever it might be. Get your friends involved. Maybe they have different words than you do, so your vocabulary increases. As your vocabulary increases, perhaps your sensitivity also increases, so you will be able to identify the differences between some of your sensations, which otherwise you would have missed.
I hope that there will come a day – maybe today – when you love your body. Much metta to your body. May your body be one of your valentines. Thank you.