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Total Body Buddhism

In the first lines of the Dhammapada, the Buddha says that we create with world with our thoughts.

But we live in the world in our bodies.

Our thoughts about our bodies – how they look, how we think others see them, what they are able to do, how they change with age – are the source of a lot of our mental suffering. It was the body’s suffering – the unavoidable pain that accompanies birth, old age, sickness, and death – that set Siddhartha Gautama on the road that led him to become the historical Buddha.

Buddhist meditation can seem like a mostly mental exercise – and a meditation practice can become that. When the focus is on mental formations, it’s possible to forget to tune into the body. That happens to me when I study the philosophy of it intently as in some of the classes here at the Interdependence Project. I have to work to get the concepts, and that ends up being my concentration practice. I move away from my body. For me, a statement like “With the mindfulness practices comes a shift from a spatially based experience of self to a temporal one … Once mindfulness has been developed, the self can never be thought of in the same spatially based manner again” takes some mental wrestling. (Mark Epstein, “Thoughts without a Thinker,” text for Buddhism and Psychology class.)

But, as Jill Satterfield of the School for Compassionate Action, writes in a workshop description: The body genuinely reflects our heart and mind. It is a vehicle for and home to our true nature and a very sensitive, responsive home at that. Thoughts and emotions are felt in the body before they are cognized in the mind, but in our busyness we normally don’t take much notice.”

The body, Satterfield says, gives us “signals and clues so that we become increasingly aware of conditioned behavior and thought, giving us the opportunity to change what we no longer need, and add what might be more healthy and productive patterns.” It has, she continues, a ”unique ability to honestly reflect our heart/mind. Being in the body is a superb way to be in the present moment and nourish the heart.”

I became a student of Buddhism after doing a Yoga Body/Buddha Mind workshop (props to David Nichtern and Cyndi Lee for that program). I was a longtime yoga practitioner with an interest in Buddhism, and I figured that if the Buddhist part of the weekend didn’t grab me, at least I’d be spending only half of the time practicing that. Turns out, it was just what I’d been seeking, and Buddhism has become the ground for how I live my life.

Not long after I began meditating, I had a year of physical challenges: unexplained weight loss, assorted symptoms, four or five biopsies, lots of face time with doctors explaining all the possible bad outcomes of procedures as required by their malpractice insurance. I meditated in MRI machines, following my breath as I inhaled and held it while the machines worked. I quit researching what the symptoms might mean – there would be time enough to deal with the results when they were known – and tried to just stay in the moments as they came instead of projecting a bleak and hairless future.

Meditation and mindfulness training made it possible to get through that without panicking.

Five years later, I continue to walk in this world in this body. I meditate and do yoga every day, lift weights three times most weeks, walk two miles outside during my lunch breaks at work unless the weather makes it unwise (and deciding what’s unwise is an excellent opportunity to practice). I take more prescription drugs than my 82-year-old mother and a bunch of other things recommended by my naturopath. I am high maintenance. That’s just how it is.

John Sampson of the Weakerthans sings: Her body is a difficult sister/ and she loves her. That pretty much sums it up for me. Some days she’s a cranky bitch full of advice I don’t want; some days she’s my best friend. Some days I want to take her in my arms (which are her arms too, I admit, and the body and mind are an organic whole, but we’re claiming poetic license here, John and I), and others I want to smack her in the head. But until this body becomes a corpse, we are irrevocably yoked.

Like a good wine, Buddhism is a full-bodied practice. Cheers!

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Meditation creates the mind and body to both transform. Thank you for sharing. Keep posting, looking forward to your next post. Be well.

Wise words

Very true, our minds and bodies are in this life together -- we need to treat them as such. Great post, Nancy!

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