Thursday, February 18, 2010

Seeing What Wants to Be Seen

Human beings these days are disembodied and ethereal. Our ancestors lived close to the land; they knew where their food came from because they planted and harvested it with their own hands, and they knew where the heat in the fireplace came from because they chopped the wood themselves. Today most of us live in cities or in suburbs, far-removed from the sources of our food and energy. We buy it in units or packages, and couldn't care less where it comes from or how it's made. Many of us sit all day in an office cubicle, staring at a computer screen, while others sit all day on a sofa, staring at a TV screen or playing video games. When we leave the house or the office, we carry a portable device with us so that we are never cut off from the stream of information for more than a few minutes, as if we are uncertain what might happen to us if we don’t have constant input and output.

We live most of our lives from the neck up — constantly spinning in a mental hurricane of thoughts, ideas, commentary, story-lines, images, songs, memories, fantasies, emotions, daydreams, hopes, fears, judgments, strategies, and plans. The hurricane never seems to slow down for very long, because the wind of new information and fresh stimuli always keeps it turning. And with today’s mobile and social networking technologies, we’ve adopted the philosophy that almost every thought or idea that passes through our minds is important enough to share with the entire world, and should be injected into the minds of everyone else we know or have virtual contact with. A song plays on our iPod, and we quickly log on to Facebook to tell all our friends what we're listening to at this moment, as if they should care. And this unceasing ebb and flow of information into and out of our minds must not be interrupted at any hour of the day, no matter where we go or what we are doing. I heard about a man who took his mobile phone into the meditation hall at a weekend retreat, and was posting updates to his Twitter account during walking meditation: The person in front of me is walking WAY too slow.

Our attention is hypnotized and dazzled by this unceasing bombardment of information, and we spend all our time awash in it. As a consequence, it happens only rarely that our attention descends down out of the maelstrom of thoughts whirling in our brains and into the world of experience that is happening down below, in the rest of our bodies. We have, by and large, lost touch with what it means and what it feels like to be embodied — to experience the world and our own existence in and through the medium of this physical body made of matter and energy, alive with sensations, intimately connected to the world around it, and pulsing with information that has nothing to do with the realm of ideas and thoughts and stories. The average person today has become “a brain on a stick.”

Our 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 an enormously seductive habit, reinforced by appearances. Of our six 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” exists in the head. It’s little wonder, then, that we spend most of our time living from the neck up.

Of course, we think about the body a great deal — in fact, many of us think about our bodies obsessively — but this is very different from being in and with the body on its own terms. It is our very allegiance to thinking and strategizing about everything — mediating and managing our experience and our lives through conceptual thought — that is the root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (or sometimes obstacles) that 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, on its own terms, without an agenda, the naked experience that arises there.

In his book Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body, the American Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray shares a story that comes from the African spiritual guide, Malidoma Somé. Somé once moved to a West African village where there was no electricity. When he wanted to light some lamps at night to see better, he encountered 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 the thinking mind and down into our bodies, says Ray, 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.

Psychology speaks of the mind’s conscious and unconscious aspects, with the conscious 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. This is also 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 lurk, unexplored, beneath the surface. But it is impossible to be really present and aware of our human life if we are ignoring 95% of our embodied experience in every moment. All of that experience, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, exciting or boring, painful or pleasurable, is a vital part of the total mystery that is human existence.

The human mind is, to use a strong word, a liar. The mind is always time-traveling into the past and into the future; it is forever fantasizing about things that don’t exist, trying to relive moments and experiences that are over and gone, and plotting to control situations that have not yet arisen and may never do so. The mind is very rarely satisfied with simply being here and now, in a naked and unfabricated way: it is always projecting onto its own internal screen what it wants to see.

But the body is incapable of deceit. It is always right here, right now; it cannot be elsewhere, or elsewhen. The body puts on no airs, and makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is or feeling anything other than what it feels. Upon the internal screen of the body, there is always and only projected that which wants to be seen. If what is projected there happens to also be what we want to see, that’s nice — but the body doesn’t particularly give a damn. So, when we are grounded and mindful of the body, we cannot help but be present and awake to our actual experience, here and now. As Reggie Ray says, “We are not only able to touch enlightenment with our bodies...there is actually no other way to do so.”

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Our disembodiment and our addiction to thinking can create huge obstacles for us on the spiritual path. If we practice meditation, for example, we might do so under the mistaken belief that meditation is all about working with the thinking mind and that it has nothing to do with the body. This can be worse for us than not practicing meditation at all, since in reality meditation has a tremendous amount to do with the body. From the time we first sit down to meditate, we are working with our posture and with the restless and uncomfortable sensations that arise in our bodies. And as we continue to practice meditation, we begin to discover more and more profound depths of insight and realization within the body’s own unfolding of experience, moment to moment. This is why Saraha, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist saint and meditation master, said: “There is no place of pilgrimage as fabulous and open as this body of mine, no place more worth exploring.”

Because of our sworn allegiance to thinking, we may see our bodies, at best, as tools to be utilized to achieve the spiritual aims and ambitions of our minds — and, at worst, as pain-producing obstacles that prevent us from getting where we want to go on the spiritual path. We may, for instance, imagine that samadhi, or very deep meditation, is some kind of alternate, disembodied state, an ethereal nirvana-realm that exists somewhere other than where our asses happen to be sitting right now. Surely, we think, samadhi is something holy and pure, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the body’s aches and pains and farts. But time and again, the great masters of meditation have told us that meditation actually begins with the body and unfolds in the body, with open and mindful and unbiased awareness of our precise situation in the present moment. The Buddha’s teachings on meditation in the early scriptures began with developing a profound mindfulness of the body, and this is one of the meditations that the Buddha continued practicing even after he attained enlightenment. So why, then, do we often regard our own bodies as little more than irritating hindrances to meditation? Where do we suppose realization is going to take place, if not in and through the body?

There is a curious feedback loop between mind and body that we can begin to discover in meditation. We might notice, for example, that at times when we are lost in discursiveness and mental chatter, we also tend to be very absorbed in that level of experience that happens from the neck up. The further we go into discursiveness and mental chatter, the more we begin to physically slouch and lose touch with what’s going on in the rest of our bodies, below the surface of the iceberg. By contrast, at times when we are particularly mindful and undistracted, we tend to be more grounded in the dimensions of experience that happen below the neck, in the dark regions of the body where energy ebbs and flows according to its own patterns, beyond the control of our conscious minds. By staying with that experience, we are able to abide in a more present and relaxed way. And that, I'm increasingly convinced, is the key to unlocking every door to realization that we might encounter on the spiritual path.

No comments: