Three Articles on the Body

By Reginald Ray

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Shambhala Mountain Center USA.

The Floating Heads

Many Western Buddhists, says Reginald Ray, perpetuate the mind/body, secular/sacred dualism that has marked our culture since early Christianity.

Buddhist meditation as practiced in the West frequently suffers from a profound disembodiment. Often we meditate from the neck up, as floating heads, completely cut off from the life of our bodies and our physical existence in the world. We meditate in this way because we believe, often without realizing it, that the ideal meditative state should somehow be devoid of the pain, complexity, ambiguity and physicality-in other words, the full embodiment-of our natural human condition.

You may object that the Buddha taught a dharma whose goal was to show the way out of suffering. Quite true. But often in our Western practice of Buddhism, we mistake the goal for the path, seeing the Buddha’s statement of the goal as a description of how we should go about meditating.

Many of us, when we sit down to practice, do so with a longing for quiet and peace. No problem. But then our meditation becomes an exercise in trying to attain such a state. It’s here our problems begin. If we are experienced and skilled enough, perhaps we have figured out how to meditate so as to remove ourselves from the pain, uncertainty and groundlessness of our lives and enter into a much more satisfying, unambiguous state of mind that we identify as “the meditative state.” What could possibly be wrong with this? The problem is that, in this approach, we are expressing and strengthening the profound dualism that has afflicted Western culture since at least the early Christian world of St. Paul.

According to this dualism, spiritual experience and the experience of ordinary, everyday life are two different dimensions of reality, two mutually exclusive universes. This reflects the idea that the goal of spirituality is to exit the “mundane” and attain the “transcendental,” the holy, God. Much of modern culture, from our consumerist economy to our systems of socializing and educating our children, is reflective of this kind of dualism, and Western Buddhism has not escaped its grip.

Two factors in particular facilitate this practice of dharma as a process of disembodiment. First, the social and cultural result of this dualism is so deeply rooted in our Western experience. Modern urban societies are increasingly mental and decreasingly emotion, perception and sensation oriented. Conceptual thinking, rationality, and analysis-by themselves abstract processes-are the adaptive mechanisms required for success in the modern world. Emotional sensitivity, intuition and a vivid sensory awareness of the world-adaptations previously necessary for survival and indicative of human embodiment and wholeness-are viewed in modern corporate cultures as liabilities. The disembodied world we have created is an updated expression of the dualism of our religious past.

A second factor unwittingly encouraging our meditational dualism is Asian Buddhism itself, including the traditional background and training of many of its teachers. Buddhism grew up in cultures that were far more physically oriented than ours. You don’t need to tell Tibetans, for example, to feel their emotions or “get into their bodies.” As a result, traditional Buddhism does not place the cultivation of embodiment at the forefront of its meditation instructions. And the instructions that it does give are often susceptible to being practiced by Westerners in such as way as to reinforce our alienation from our bodies, our experience, and our world.

This does not mean that within the Buddhist corpus there are not many teachings and meditation techniques to address the problems of dualism and disembodiment, for there are. It is just that these teachings are often misconstrued and their real import unexplored. Nor does it mean that there are not Buddhist teachers in all lineages that emphasize the body, for there are. But many people who practice meditation have not received these teachings or have not integrated them into their meditative path.

But again, we may ask, is this is really a problem? You might argue that as the needs of the human world have changed, the valued qualities of human nature are now different, and meditation also must change. Maybe a dualistic view of reality and a much more mentally oriented human presence are both required by modern society. If so, what is wrong with Buddhist meditation that reinforces that kind of disembodiment?

There are two problems with this approach, the first ethical, reflecting our culture, and the second spiritual, having to do with the practice of meditation itself. Western dualism and disembodiment are not neutral, innocuous developments. I would suggest that these developments are intimately bound up with the depersonalisation of modern culture, the marginalization of women and feminine qualities, the treatment of children as object, the contempt for and eradication of indigenous cultures, the destruction of the environment, the mechanization of health, and the treatment of human suffering through impersonal social, medical and psychiatric techniques. I would suggest further that the more disembodied we are, the more mentally unbalanced we become. Dualism, depersonalisation, and disembodiment are leading to a world culture in which an increasingly greater percentage of its members are, by scientific standards, clinically insane.

The second problem with this alienation from the body directly impacts meditation, and here I would like to highlight three themes: (1) the view (what we are looking for in meditation), (2) the practice (the methods by which we go about trying to attain this), and (3) the result (what our efforts actually lead to).

(1) The view of meditation as disembodiment involves not only our idea that we meditate to remove ourselves from the dirt and detritus of our habitual mental states. More subtly, it is our mental image of an ideal, disembodied state that we (perhaps unconsciously) hold up before ourselves every time we sit down to practice. This may be based on a memory of a state experienced in our practice or with a respected teacher, or something we have read or heard. No matter what specific practice we may be using, this mental image, whether conscious or unconscious, is guiding and directing our meditation. It will limit how we are able to engage and how much we are able to experience, and it will restrict what we are able to see.

(2) Based on such a view, meditation too easily involves a perversion of the basic Buddhist practice of mindfulness. For example, we may “follow the breath” in such a way that we try to factor out everything else in our experience-the physical sensations, feelings, energy and emotions that are given in our physical being, the openendedness that true physicality entails. When problematic or confusing mental states arise, we may all to easily “go back to the breath” and thus avoid engaging these phenomena. In a similar manner, if we meditate with chants, mantras, or visualizations, we may use these as a way to distance ourselves from our more usual, problematic experience.

(3) The result of this kind of practice may be, in the short run, a state that is clean and clear, devoid of pain. While that may sound appealing, the long term result is not: our bodies are left untransformed and the given ness of our lives is left as it was, unredeemed. This is disastrous for the spiritual life for a very simple reason: the meditative path unfolds only to the extent that we engage in the transformation of our ordinary experience. Simply distancing ourselves from the pain of our experience and removing ourselves from it will produce no long-term results. We will be able to remain in a disembodied state for a certain period of time and then, when the energy of maintaining such a state runs out, we will fall back into our usual ignorance and neurotic patterns. Our response to this sad result may be that we begin to distrust meditation, our meditation teachers, and even the dharma itself.

We need to realize that the problem is not with Buddhist meditation itself, but rather with the dualistic ideas we have about it and the disembodied way we practice it. In my next two columns, I will explore some of the more prominent Buddhist techniques for overcoming our inveterate dualism and the disconnected, alienated, disembodied condition it leads to.

To Touch Enlightenment with the Body

In the second of a three-part series on Buddhism and the body, Reginald Ray talks about how the body is not just the pathway to realization but the embodiment of enlightenment itself.

Like many Westerners, I always assumed that meditation was a “spiritual” phenomenon – which I took to mean that it somehow had to do with realms beyond the physical. For a long time I wasn’t aware that I believed this, but in retrospect I see that I did. At the same time, it is also obvious that meditation practice actually tended to lead me in the direction of deeper engagement with the physical. Especially in intensives or on retreat, I would feel a considerable amount of physical discomfort, which I saw as an unfortunate and unnecessary diversion from what I was “really” supposed to be doing. I thought that if I could get rid of my discomfort, I would be able to progress more quickly in my practice. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what “progressing” might mean, but it definitely did not include physical distress. So I tried a variety of stretching exercises, yoga techniques, body work and other bodily engagements that I thought might help me toward my goal of pain-free meditation.

Most meditator’s suffer from two kinds of physical problems. First, we experience specific weak points such as sore knees, lower back pain, a kinky neck, tightness, tension or pain in the shoulders or upper back, and so on. Second, a general achiness comes over our bodies, particularly when we sit more intensively: everything seems to hurt at once-our legs are aching, our shoulders and neck are sore, our back is on fire. It came as a disappointing realization one day that while I might be able to alleviate or shift the specific “hot spots,” the general achiness remained. In fact, it almost seemed that the more I was able to alleviate a specific complaint, the more achy my whole body became. I began to suspect that physical pain was just part of sitting on the cushion, at least for me. I found the prospect of endless physical pain dismal and depressing.

And then, like many who find themselves in just the place I was, I made a surprising discovery. Somewhere in the timeless terrain of a dathun – a month-long meditation intensive – I had a particularly rough day. My whole body was a mass of pain-my ankles were stiff and crampy, my knees were sore, my legs ached, and I had separate and distinct complaints of pain in my lower, middle and upper back.. We were in the middle of a long stretch of sitting, and my mind struggled mightily against the prospect of being trapped in this pain for an indeterminate amount of time. My mental state became more and more sore and inflamed and gradually I arrived at a point when I felt that I really could not stand the pain of both my mind and my body another second. I was a nuclear reactor that had attained critical mass and was about to explode. If I have had an experience of hell in this life, that moment of totally claustrophobic pain was it.

And then something abruptly shifted. All of a sudden I was utterly free of physical discomfort. I had not dissociated; in fact I was much more fully in my body than before-but somehow I let go of my resistance and struggle. I surrendered to the pain rather than continued to fight against it. My body responded by relaxing. I sat in utter peace, feeling the contentment of having a physical body – enjoying my breathing, feeling the pleasure of my heart beating and blood coursing through my veins, feeling the rich, complex, abundant life of energy going on within, fully present to the other meditator’s in the room and to the falling night outside.

That moment helped me to understand that the pain in my body was not an independent phenomenon, but was somehow tied up with my mind. When my mind changed, so did the feeling in my body. In fact, it seemed clear that my physical pain was a reflection of my mental state; a mental state characterized by ambition and aggression toward my body.

I also realized that our body is our early warning system, signalling us when our ambition is leading us to ignore and override the limitations of our physical situation. It is the blessing of our incarnation that the body can’t be fooled; in fact, it feels the full brunt of our driven behaviour. A relatively mild message might be a pain in our neck or a sore back after a day when we are awash in struggle. In more extreme cases, serious disease may interrupt our way of handling our mind.

From the Buddhist point of view, these are all physical reflections of our mental situation, and, painful though they may be, are regarded as providing needed feedback we were unable to receive in any other way. They are welcome opportunities to grow. This is why Trungpa Rinpoche, for example, remarked that one should be grateful to have physical ailments to deal with. “Those who get sick are the lucky ones,” he would say. If your neurosis doesn’t affect your body, you will just keep pushing on in your current direction until your mind reaches a point of no return.

The body, it turns out, is an ally in meditation practice. Physical distress in sitting calls our mind away from its fantasies of spiritual attainment, and brings it back to the here and now. In Buddhism, this is known as synchronizing body and mind; through practice, our mind attunes itself more and more with the body, the concrete and earthy reality of our situation. This is the meaning of paying attention to the breath in meditation: we cultivate the ability to pay attention and be present to this subtle manifestation of our physicality. In mindfulness of breathing, we are training to surrender to the body.

But physical pain is often a more powerful, direct and unavoidable route to this than following the breath. There are many times in intensive meditation retreats when you are sitting hour after hour. Your body may be incredibly sore and tender; so much so, in fact, that you are not able to follow your breath, watch your thoughts, or do anything else that might be considered “meditation.” You sit there and the only thing going on is just being with the pain, the discomfort, the fatigue, the hunger or whatever physical distress you may be feeling. Rather than saying that in those moments we are unable to meditate, I think it would be more accurate to say that we are practicing “mindfulness of the body.” We are meditating on the body because it is beyond us to do anything else. The most powerful and transformative periods in a dathun occur in the fiery furnace of meditation sessions where this is going on.

The more deeply one journeys into the world of meditation, the more one finds oneself working with the body. At a certain point, the body seems to be the main thing you are working with. For example, one of the most advanced Tibetan teachings – taken up after many years of beginning and intermediate meditation – is the practice of the inner yogas, sometimes known as the Six Yogas of Naropa. These involve using breathing exercises and yogic practices to explore more and more subtle levels of the body. The more refined one’s knowledge of the body, the more the body reveals itself as transparent to the fundamental essence of its being. This essence is nothing other than the basic nature of mind itself. The more deeply you probe the body, the more you come to understand it as the energy and awareness of the awakened state itself. This is, in the evocative language of early Buddhism, to “touch enlightenment with the body.”

But in order to do this, we have to take our bodies seriously as spiritual reality. The great Buddhist saint Saraha remarked, “In my wanderings, I have visited shrines and other places of pilgrimage, but I have not seen another shrine as blissful as my body.” We need to realize that our body is not a beginning point, not a jumping off point to something else. Rather, the body is itself the pathway to realization, and, at its deepest level, the embodiment of enlightenment itself. To know the body is to meet the awakened state. This is why Trungpa Rinpoche said, “There is no division between the spirituality of the mind and the spirituality of the body; they are both the same..” He commented further that the definition of samsara is a mind that parts company with the body. The definition of an awakened person is one for whom there is no separation of mind and body. To know the body is to know awareness. To know awareness in its pure state is to know the awakened state.

Blood, Bone, Space and Light

In the last of a three-part series on Buddhism and the body, Reginald Ray talks about the four foundations of mindfulness. When we look closely into our bodies, he says, we find “nothing but space, drenched in sunlight.”

The four foundations of mindfulness represent one of the earliest and most universally practiced teachings on Buddhist meditation. As classically given in the Theravada tradition, these foundations are mindfulness of body, feeling, mind and mental events.

Within the Buddhist world there are many different ways in which this teaching is articulated and practiced, depending on historical period, school, lineage and individual teacher. One of the most interesting approaches, taught within the Tibetan tradition, sees the four foundations as part of a single meditative progression. One begins with meditating on the body, the most obvious and accessible “object” of attention, then progresses to feeling, mind and contents, each of which is progressively more subtle than the last.

What is most intriguing about this approach is that it sees the four foundations as progressively deeper and more refined explorations of the nature of the body itself. I would like to provide a brief description of this teaching as a particularly clear illustration of the way the body and its spirituality are understood, not just in Tibetan Buddhism but more widely in Buddhism as a whole.

Mindfulness of Body

The first foundation includes various practices for developing mindfulness of the body. In this context, the practice of mindfulness involves developing the ability to hold the attention in a sustained way on some aspect of our physical body, such as posture, lower abdomen or legs. The most commonly taught of these practices is mindfulness of breathing.

Mindfulness of the body progresses through two stages. To begin with, we are not aware of our actual body but only of a mentally projected version. In other words, what we think of as our body is exactly that, a mental picture based on concepts and projections, rather than the real thing. So to begin with we meditate on our mental version of our legs, our abdomen or our breath.

Let us take mindfulness of the rise and fall of the diaphragm in the lower abdomen as an example. One directs awareness to this part of the body, attending to the rise and fall on the out-breath and in-breath. As we practice, our attention touches our diaphragm, then flies off into thinking. Gently but persistently, we bring our awareness back to the abdomen. Though each day and each week will have its ups and downs, over the long haul, we notice an increased ability to sustain our attention on our object of meditation.

Up until now, this process has been like catching repeated glimpses of someone in a crowd. In such a situation, you can’t really get to know the other in any real way. Through practice, however, we are able to hold our attention in the proximity of our abdomen for periods of time, and we begin to find out some interesting things. We begin to notice that while we thought we were paying attention to our abdomen, we were not actually aware of the literal physical sensations of this part of our body. Instead, we were hovering above it, with some slightly abstract idea of what those sensations might be.

We begin to realize we have been holding on to a coherent picture of our abdomen that has little to do with the actual sensations lying beneath. In fact, we see that our coherent image is actually getting in the way of experiencing the literal, naked sensations of our body. Through attending mindfully to our abdomen, we find ourselves digging down through layer upon layer of mental covering.

As we do so, we feel we are coming closer to actually experiencing the sensations of the rise and fall of the diaphragm. But strangely enough, the closer we seem to get, the more intangible and incoherent the “sensations” become. They are constantly changing in location, intensity, temperature, duration and so on. And they don’t present any kind of stable image. In fact, they don’t present any image or profile of our abdomen at all. Beyond this, the more we attend to these sensations, the less confident we feel in identifying them even as “physical.”

Mindfulness of Feelings

At this point, we may go to our mentor, feeling that we are stuck, and ask for help. He or she is likely to tell us, however, that we have moved into the second foundation of mindfulness, that of feeling. This second foundation involves developing mindfulness of energy. This energy is still physical in a sense, because it is viscerally felt. However, it is fluid and intangible rather than solid, concrete and fixed.

Here is the critical point: the energy that we are mindful of is not something different from the physical body, the object in the first foundation. In mindfulness of the feelings, we are still mindful of the body but it is now experienced on a deeper and more subtle level. We are still paying attention to the rise and fall of the diaphragm, but now we are finding that what we previously thought were physical sensations are in fact patterns of energy.

As in the practice of the first foundation, here there are two levels of experience. At first we may be paying attention to energies such as heat and cold. But as we attempt to attend to these feelings, we begin to realize that these are only analogies, because heat and cold already have concepts attached to them and thus have a strong mental component. The energy gradually begins to disclose itself as an elemental sensation we interpret as heat or cold. When you get right down to it, it just feels like intensity. The energy that we are to be mindful of is related to emotion, but it is emotion with the story line stripped away: it is the elemental quality behind fear or longing or anger. In this foundation, we are to attend just to the bare feeling of the energy.

We begin by paying attention, for example, to fear. We turn our attention to the feeling of fear, we look at it, we sense it, we enter into it. But the more we attend to this feeling, the less we seem to know what it is. The more intimately we make its acquaintance, the more what we call fear seems to be slipping away and we are left with something without a name and even without a face. The closer we come, the more we find ourselves looking through the fear into something else.

Mindfulness of Mind

This something else isn’t anything at all. It is empty space, though space that is bright and lucid. This is the third foundation, mindfulness of empty space. It isn’t that the energy has disappeared, but it is no longer the compelling object of meditation. It is as if we are gazing into vast space and this space is drenched, as Tulku Urgyen says, with sunlight. The sunlight is the energy that gives space a subtle demeanour, but it is the space that we are tuning into in this foundation. Most important, the object of the third foundation of mindfulness is still our body. It is just that now we experience our body on an even deeper and more subtle level. Ultimately, this body of ours is nothing but space, drenched with sunlight. Again, there are two levels in this practice. At first we may find ourselves gazing into empty space. And then, as we attend, we may suddenly find that there is no one looking: there is just space looking at itself.
Mindfulness of Dharmas

In one sense, the experience of this ultimate quality of our body is the end of the line-a “dead end,” in Ch^gyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s words. Within this space, however, things arise and disappear. In the fourth foundation, resting in the nowhere place of the third foundation, we now look back at our thinking that created so many obstacles for us in the first place. However, we don’t latch on to thoughts and build on them as we did before. Now, we simply discover what they show themselves to be. Without our investment or maintenance, they appear abruptly and flash away into nothingness, without leaving a trace. As the Mahamudra tradition says, now thoughts show themselves as just expressions of space, momentary expressions of awareness that come and are gone in an instant.

We can see now why the Western denigration of the body as “just physical” and not spiritual is read within Buddhism as such a terrible mistake. Now the tantric injunction to respect, honour and revere the body makes sense. Now we comprehend Saraha’s statement that within the body everything can be found. And now we can understand the meaning of the early Buddhist dictum that realization is attained by experiencing nirvana in the body.

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