Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bodies (Cont'd)

Among meditators, there is a common misconception that "meditation" means working with the mind, while there is something else called "mind-body practice" that involves working with both mind and body. The reality, whether we acknowledge it or not, is that all meditation practice is mind-body practice.

A couple of weeks ago in this blog, I wrote about Reggie Ray's book "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body," and how Ray's iconoclastic work on meditating with the body has been reshaping my own thinking and approach to meditation. I have to confess that I have only scratched the mere surface of Ray's training -- I've taken a couple of workshops with him and read parts of his book -- but even this limited exposure to his basic philosophy about the body and spiritual practice has resonated deeply with me. I find myself contemplating Ray's approach and bringing it into my meditations again and again.

Ray says that enlightenment and realization can only happen in and through the body, through a process of returning to complete "embodiment" -- and that it is, in fact, our profound "disembodiment" and alienation from the body's own self-arising truth and wisdom that has placed us in our current predicament.

The problem as Ray sees it is that most people "are born, live, and die entirely in their heads, believing that what they think is reality and that their own feeling of complete disconnection is what life is all about."

"Those of us who live in the modern world generally exist in a state of extreme disembodiment. Most of us spend our lives with very little actual awareness of our bodies. In some cases, we seem to feel and act as if we were divested of our bodies entirely. It is not that we don't *think* we have a body. In fact, many people spend a great deal of time *thinking* about their bodies, in a self-congratulatory, apprehensive, self-deprecating, or even self-destructive way. However, even when we are supposedly attending to our bodies, we are usually still in our heads. We are not in contact with our actual bodies. We have *thoughts about* our body, but very little direct experience of the body itself. In this way, in relation to the body, we modern people are narcissistic: we are so enamored of our ideas about the body, our concepts of it and designs on it, that we have little awareness of the body or relationship to the body as an actual reality in our lives, independent of what we think."

-- Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body"

This habit of living all the time "in our heads" is toxic to our well-being and a major stumbling block on the spiritual path. But it is enormously seductive. Of our six sense consciousnesses -- sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the mental consciousness that perceives thoughts -- at least four of them, and possibly five, seem to be concentrated in the head, where our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and brain are all housed. This results in a strong felt sense that our "self" resides in the head, and we therefore spend most of our time living "from the neck up."

The image that occurs to me here is that of an iceberg, where you see only perhaps five percent of the mass of the iceberg above the surface. Similarly, with our bodies, there is a vast, unexplored region of experience unfolding, at every moment, below the neck, and all of that experience is a vital part of the total mystery that is a human embodiment.

"Does the body rule the mind?
Or does the mind rule the body?
I don't know...."

-- The Smiths, "Still Ill"

As meditators, we can labor for years (or for decades) under the misconception that meditation is something that takes place primarily or exclusively in the head, in the mind -- completely leaving aside and dismissing the wisdom of experience that arises spontaneously in and through the body. Ray says that such efforts are doomed to failure because we can only touch enlightenment with the body. As Ray points out, this is why Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen, "spoke of the body as the gateway to ultimate realization." And it is why Saraha, the great Indian mahasiddha, said: "There is no place of pilgrimage as fabulous and open as this body of mine, no place more worth exploring."

The Hevajra Tantra (quoted in the Ninth Karmapa's "Ocean of Definitive Meaning") says:

"Great wisdom abides in the body.
It has perfectly relinquished all thoughts,
Is what pervades all things, and
Abides in the body, [but] does not arise from the body."

I think that at the core of our disembodiment is the dualistic notion that body and mind are fundamentally two different things, or that they have different natures. In the "Guru Rinpoche Prayer" that we sing in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, it says:

"Grant your blessing that purifies appearance
Of objects perceived as being outside.
Grant your blessing that liberates perceiving mind,
The mental operation seeming inside."

In other words, it *seems* or appears to us that there is some kind of "mental operation" or mind going on "inside," and that this "mental operation" is distinct and separate from the body and the realm of form and objects of which the body is a part. It's as if we think there is some kind of homunculus of empty, formless mind hidden within our corporeal body (probably somewhere in our head, since that's where we spend most of our time).

But the Heart Sutra does not tell us that emptiness is somehow "hidden within" form. It tells us: "Form *is* emptiness, emptiness also *is* form. Emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness."

One possible way of interpreting this ever-puzzling line of the sutra would be: "Body is mind, mind also is body. Mind is no other than body, body is no other than mind."

To demonstrate this, we need only look at our emotions. Take an experience of anger or lust, for example. Is it in the body, or in the mind? The answer seems to be both, or neither (or somehow beyond both and neither). Something (a perception or a thought) triggers our karmic propensity towards that emotion, and then the experience arises. It manifests simultaneously as a mental event (with associated thoughts and concepts), and also as a physical event with a tangible bodily reaction (if it's anger, we get hot under the collar and want to dispel or push away the object of our anger; if it's lust, we also get hot under the collar and want to consume or merge with the object of our lust).

Over his several decades as a meditation teacher, Ray writes that he has frequently observed longtime meditators who seem to lose traction after a couple of years and fail to continue growing and progressing along the path. In most cases, says Ray, it is because "we are attempting to practice meditation in a disembodied state, and this is inevitably doomed to failure."

"To put it simply, the full benefits and fruition of meditation cannot be experienced or enjoyed when we are not grounded in our bodies. The phrase "touching enlightenment with the body," then, when understood fully, doesn't just imply that we are *able* to touch enlightenment with our bodies; beyond that, it suggests that -- except in an through our bodies -- there is actually no other way to do so."

-- Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body"

This must be why the Buddha taught Mindfulness of Body before all the others, and why he continued to practice it intensively, himself, even after attaining enlightenment.

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