2022-05-30 Kāya (1 of 5) The Karmic Body
3:18PM May 30, 2022
On this Monday, I will begin the five part series on the body.
Mindfulness of the body is a core aspect of the Buddha's teachings. He repeats it often and with great enthusiasm. He talks about how all kinds of wonderful qualities – tranquility, concentration, peace, whatever is wholesome and skillful, the different stages towards liberation, and liberation itself – are all based on or experienced with the body. To be more specific, through mindfulness of the body.
In my years of Buddhist practice – practicing in this country with Zen and in Japan and Asia – what struck me was how much the body was used in the practice. Certainly, the meditation is meant to be a physically embodied practice. But also in the monasteries, there is a lot of physical work, activities, chanting, bowing and ritual that involve using the body.
What gets awakened in the body through this kind of practice or activities we were involved in was probably as important as meditation for me. I was not given instructions or told that this attention to the body, this engagement to the body was important. It slowly seeped into me and changed me from the inside out.
To give one example, in the monastery, we did a lot of bowing. Most often it was a kind of standing bow – like even as simple as if we passed someone in the path. As we were walking around the monastery, we were supposed to stop for a moment and bow to them as we passed them. Or the people who served the food – we always had to bow before and after being served. When we came into the meditation hall, we would always bow.
Over and over again, there was lots and lots of bowing throughout the day. If you do that for months and years, something changes. This gesture of putting the hands together in front of the chest, and bending forward a little bit is not just a physical gesture, it evokes certain kinds of emotion, and attitudes within. For me it was an attitude of appreciation, an attitude of letting go of self-centeredness, and a feeling of reverence and respect.
It was not dramatic that I would feel that. It would be these teeny feelings, sometimes unrecognized even, because I was busy doing my life – doing my things. But slowly drip by drip, drop by drop, those little gestures began to establish those feelings in me in a deeper way – in a valuable way for my life.
There was a transformation in the body of sentiment, attitude, feelings, and of sensations that I became familiar with. Then multiply that by all the different things we did in practice. A whole bunch of things which came up would change in the body.
Meditation was especially so. Surprisingly, the way that I experienced my body changed dramatically in the course of the years of meditation practice that I had. Sometimes they would change within a single meditation session. Sometimes it changed over years and years of practice – so much so that I came to appreciate that we have different bodies.
I mean that the body that we experience shifts and changes depending on the states of mind we have – how the mind is used – the attitudes, the thoughts, the perceptions, and the intentions. All kinds of things come together to shape how we experience our body. It is not that the material body changes – in and of itself. That does not change particularly, except in the ordinary ways we all know – exercise or the lack of it, and aging.
The way that the body is experienced is very much conditioned by what is going on in the mind. The mind begins to shift and change in very significant ways in meditation. Thereby, the way we experience the body changes as well.
So this week, I would like to talk about five different bodies that we can experience. Do not take this to be ontological. The material body does not change. We are talking about the experienced body, how it is experienced. Today, I want to talk about the karmic body, tomorrow about the bliss body, then the peace body, the insight body, and the liberation body. Each of these represent different ways the body can be experienced.
The karmic body is the body that we have shaped through the activities of our lifetime, especially those which are volitional, that come from the deliberateness of the mind. As opposed to, if you have a particular profession where you use your body over and over in certain ways, it shapes the body. Maybe we can consider it a karmic body, but it does not come necessarily from the attitudes of the mind that exists there.
Or people's faces are a little bit different because of the languages they speak. Depending on different languages – we engage over a lifetime different muscles or teeny micro- muscles in the face. So there is a subtle differences in people's faces, depending on the languages they speak. Those are not necessarily karmic, they are just – I do not know what to call that.
The karmic has to do with our attitudes. It involves the tensions that we hold – the holding patterns in your body. When there is anxiety and fear, we hold our body a certain way. If that fear is chronic, then the tension gets built in and becomes almost hardwired into us. If we spend a lot of time being angry, and the anger is chronic, that affects the micro-muscles of the face, around the eyes and shoulders in different places.
If we are oriented more for desires, the desires are searching and looking. The eyes, the face, the movements of the body shift and change, and are expressive of those desires. If it is anger that we express, the body takes a different stance, a different posture. Confidence, generosity, love are all different things which shift and change all kinds of things in our body, not just the muscles, but also the chemicals of our body – and how the neurons fire in our body.
When we sit down to meditate, for many people, we are encountering our karmic body. We experience initially a lot of the tensions we hold in our body, the shoulders, the face, the belly, the hand, anywhere at all. I discovered in my early years of meditation, that I carried tension in my thighs. That tension in my thighs traveled up and affected my lower back. The tension was a bracing of myself against something happening.
I have known people who have had a tremendous feeling of wanting to bolt out of meditation. That feeling of escaping, of running away might be encased in our bodies. It shapes the experience we have of this body of ours. Sometimes some of the pain we experience in the early stages of meditation practice is karmic pain. A very common place to experience that is the shoulders, shoulders that are held high like mine were when I was younger. As they begin to release, they begin hurting.
It could be that there is a certain kind of despair or some thing that we are experiencing, so we are collapsing and giving up. That certainly affects the musculature and the feelings in the chest. It also makes a big impact on the upper back. As we sit in meditation, we might feel the legacy of a long time of sitting in a certain way. The muscles are tired, and some have contracted. Working with that is working with a karmic body.
Knowing that this is what it is, hopefully, gives us a lot of patience, a lot of compassion, and a lot of understanding that this is often what we are working with – when we first start meditating. The karmic body, the karmic breathing has been affected by our emotions, our attitudes, experiences, traumas, or challenges we have had in our life.
This is what we are slowly working with – relaxing and breathing with. Some of the relaxation, we can contribute to. We do not want to make it into too big of a project – to relax all the time. Some of it just comes with sitting quietly and meditating, letting go of thoughts and being present in a sincere way, here and now. It gives the body a chance to unwind. It gives things the chance to release, to soften.
It is wonderful to watch meditators over a few years, and to see the slow evolution into what is sometimes called the yogic body. The body of a meditator – you can see how they sit down. There is a comfort level. There is an ease. There is an embodiment there, that has evolved over time.
The karmic body begins to recede, at least temporarily. Sometimes as we get concentrated, the karmic body recedes, and other kinds of experiences of the body enter into the foreground. Then as the concentration leaves, the karmic body returns. We get back in touch with the tensions and holding patterns we have. That massage is part of the process of healing, of opening up and coming to some resolution of the karmic body.
As you go about your day today, you might see if you can notice what I am calling the karmic body. Notice the holding patterns you have both in the muscles, but also in your posture. How is your posture affected by your attitude, by your desires, your aversions, your confidence or lack of confidence? Where are things tight? Where are things holding?
Maybe some of the physical pains you have really come from physical conditions. Sometimes a small percentage of them might be from activities we have done. The activities are expressed as karmic. The activities we have done expressed anger, impatience, being in a hurry, desire, greed, resistance, all kinds of things. Then because we were that way, maybe something got injured. Now we have to live with the after effect of this – of this karmic body we have to work with.
We are not stuck in the karmic body. This is what practice is about, to some degree, to find freedom from that karma. This is what we will talk about for the next few days. So thank you.