Thursday, May 21, 2009


I'm currently reading Dr. Reginald Ray's "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body," which is based on the "Meditating with the Body" teachings he's been presenting for the past several years. I've twice taken weekend workshops with him on this topic, and highly recommend both this book and his workshops.

Reggie Ray writes that we modern people -- especially in the West -- have become tragically disembodied, alienated from the most basic level of our own experience as human beings: what it is to be embodied, to experience the world in and through the medium of this material and energetic body into which we have incarnated in this lifetime. The body is, literally, our karma made manifest.

We *think* about the body a great deal, sometimes obsessively, but this is not the same as being in and with the body on its own terms. In fact, it is our allegiance to *thinking* about everything -- mediating and managing our experience and our lives through the conceptual thought function -- that is at the root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (or sometimes obstacles) to serve our ambitions and our ego's goals of attaining happiness and comfort; we rarely descend into the darkness of the body itself and witness the naked experience that arises there. In his "Meditating with the Body" work, Dr. Ray presents a range of methods for helping us learn to do exactly that, drawn primarily from the esoteric (and usually quite strictly held in secret) teachings of Tibetan Yoga (presented in the most advanced practices of Tantric Buddhism such as those found in the Six Yogas of Naropa practiced by three-year retreatants in the Kagyu tradition). These esoteric teachings, says Ray, are all directed fundamentally at attaining enlightenment through the body, completely eradicating our preconceptions about the body and leading us to a state of total embodiment.

An Alex Gray painting I had hanging on my wall for several years.

In the workshops I took with Dr. Ray, he led us through a series of experiential exercises in which we progressively trained in bringing more and more subtle and open levels of awareness to previously unseen layers of somatic experience. One such exercise involved lying on our backs on a cushion with our knees lightly bound by a yoga belt so that our leg muscles could completely relax. Slowly -- very slowly -- sometimes excruciatingly slowly -- we scanned our bodies from toe to head, bringing our attention fully to each part of the body and taking time to experience whatever sensations were present there. Both times I took the workshop, I remember being especially amazed when we got to the face; as I dwelled with the sensations and energy in my face -- especially around my eyes -- I began to realize how much subtle tension I carry there, as if my face were almost imperceptibly contorted into a slight grimace at all times. As I became aware of this tension, I realized how painful it was to carry that tension around, and how deeply embedded this habitual pattern is for me. Each time I became aware of the mask of tension on my face, I could consciously relax it for a few seconds, but then it would slowly, insidiously reassert itself according to habit. Ray says that recognizing such patterns of holding and blocking in the body is the first step to transcending habitual patterns and becoming more embodied.

One manifestation of our disembodiment that Dr. Ray writes about is our tendency to live from the neck up -- in our heads and in our thinking mind, which we associate with the brain and the perceptual organs that are centered in the head. This is especially problematic for meditation practitioners because we can get very stuck in the misconception that meditation is primarily a mental and conceptual activity that happens -- where else? -- in the head. This problem can be exacerbated, Ray points out, if the meditation technique we are taught is one that further centralizes our attention in our heads by telling us to concentrate on the sensations of the breath passing through our nostrils; this would be like giving drugs to an addict and telling him to meditate on the sensation of the drugs in order to free himself from addiction. It only makes the situation worse.

We may see our bodies, at best, as tools to be utilized to achieve the meditative aims and ambitions of our mind, and, at worst, as pain-producing obstacles that stand in the way of getting where we want to go in meditation -- which in point of fact may be some kind of imaginary, totally disembodied nirvana-realm that lies somewhere other than where we happen to be right now. Somehow it never quite seems to dawn on us that meditation begins with the body and takes place in the body, with open and mindful awareness of our total, embodied situation in the present moment. We know that the Buddha's teachings on meditation began with mindfulness of body and that this is one of the main meditations that even the Buddha himself continued to practice in the 40 or so years *after* he attained enlightenment -- yet we still regard our own bodies, often, as little more than irritating hindrances to samadhi. But where do we think samadhi is going to take place, if not in and through the body?

In my work with my meditation instructor lately, I've been looking at the difference between mindfulness and distraction -- how the two states actually look and feel. One thing I've noticed is that at times when I'm lost in discursiveness, I also tend to be very absorbed in the level of experience that happens from the neck up; and the further I go into discursiveness, the more I begin to physically slouch and lose touch with what's going on in the rest of my body. By contrast, at times when I'm particularly mindful, I tend to be more grounded in the level of experience that happens below the neck, in the dark regions of the body where energy ebbs and flows according to its own patterns, beyond the control of my conscious mind; and by staying with that experience, I'm able to abide in a more present and relaxed way.

Traditional Western psychology speaks of the mind's conscious and unconscious aspects, with the conscious aspect being likened to the small part of an iceberg that sits above the surface of the water and the unconscious being likened to that far more vast part of the iceberg that is hidden and submerged beneath the surface. In a way, this is how we relate to our bodies, concentrating so much of our attention on that small and limited part of our experience that unfolds above the neck. Only rarely does our awareness descend into the vast regions of bodily experience that exist beneath the surface.

Ray cites a beautiful example from one of his own teachers, Malidoma Some, who moved to a West African village where there was no electricity. When he wanted to light some lamps at night to see better, he met with strong resistance among the village elders, who told him, "If we light the lamps, we won't be able to see." The elders explained to him: "You can't see anything real in the daylight. The only thing you see in the daylight is what you want to see. When you turn the lights off in the night, you see what wants to be seen, which is a whole different story."

Descending out of our heads and our thinking mind and down into our bodies is like turning off the lights in order to see better. In the "darkness" of the body's own perpetual unfolding of experience, we see not what we want to see, but what wants to be seen.

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