The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

Chapter 13: The Body at the Center

Mindfulness of the Body in Practice – Instructions of the Buddha

When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. – Majjhima Nikaya 119.2


I did not begin my Buddhist practice with any intention to discover my body. I had no idea that the body had any importance to the path of practice, except as something to place on the meditation cushion. Even during the early months and years of my meditation practice when my body painfully revealed areas of tightness, tension, and psychological holding patterns, I was convinced that these physical difficulties were nuisances to be ignored or transcended rather than the actual substance and unfolding of practice. Slowly, over the years as my body began to come alive, I was, and still am, repeatedly surprised at how much awareness, love and compassion are found in and through the body. I have learned that mindfulness of the body is the foundation of mindfulness practice, and one of the best friends we have for integrating that practice into daily life.

The Buddha himself said, “There is one thing that when cultivated and regularly practiced leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? Mindfulness centered on the body.” Elsewhere, the Buddha said, “If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated.”

You can find shelf after shelf of Western books on Buddhism that make virtually no mention of the body, thus giving or reinforcing the impression that Buddhism is an intellectual or mentally oriented religion. In contrast to this impression, I understand Buddhist practice, especially the practice of mindfulness, to be an invitation to experience our bodies and to embody our experience. Or as the Scripture on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness puts it, “to experience the breath in the breath and the body in the body.” Distancing himself from metaphysics and speculations, the Buddha was interested in understanding how we experience and perceive directly through our psychophysical senses. He taught that for the purpose of awakening and spiritual freedom, everything we need to realize of the world is found within our body. Without rejecting the notion of an objective world, the Buddha focused so much on the role of the senses and perception that he repeatedly claimed that “within this very fathom-long body, with its perceptions and inner sense, lies the world, the cause of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path that leads to the cessation of the world.”

During my early Vipassana practice in Thailand, Achaan Buddhadasa said at the opening of a ten-day retreat, “Do not do anything that takes you out of your body.” I carried this-for me puzzling-instruction with me during the ten-day retreat, and I began to realize how often my center of attention and gravity were projected in front of me as I so frequently reached forward to grasp or identify with something outside of myself. The anticipation of lunch or the end of a meditation period, the rehashing of memories, the planning for future events, and the desire for or aversion to emotions or states of mind all contributed to a sense of not being physically centered on myself. Often I would feel as if I was ahead of myself either by actually leaning forward, or more usually and more subtly by feeling my “center of gravity” projected forward. In the course of the ten-day retreat, I began to learn to settle back into my own center of gravity and to align my body in a balanced vertical posture. The more settled I felt in my body, the more sensitive I became to ever subtler movements away from center caused by ever subtler attachments and aversions of the mind. Gradually I learned that mindfulness of the body is one of the best windows I have into an honest view of my inner life. In contrast to a trend in western culture to posit a radical duality between the body and the mind, the Buddha saw the human mind and body as intimately interconnected. When we repress or suppress aspects of our emotional and cognitive life we tend to disconnect ourselves from our body. The exploration and awakening of the body from the inside through mindfulness and awareness can result in a rediscovery of suppressed emotions, and also a greater capacity to feel emotions, to be sentient beings.

Mindfulness of the body can greatly facilitate our capacity for being present for painful or overwhelming emotions by helping us recognize that the body is the container for those emotions. Buddhist psychology teaches that emotions are virtually always embodied and so can be felt in the body. Sometimes fear involves a tightening of the stomach, anger a heated face, joy a tingling or warmth in the chest, and restlessness an energy coursing through the arms. By focusing on the bodily sensations produced by difficult emotions, we can more easily remain present for them and allow mindfulness to reveal their deeper nature.

Our western culture has devoted a tremendous amount of resources to strengthening our predilection to treat the body as an object to be manipulated. “Body consciousness” has come to refer to the external image that we not only project but also create with the help of cosmetics, hair stylists, the fashion and advertising industries, and the local gym. By contrast, in mindfulness practice we are developing a form of body consciousness that involves a subjective awareness of the body from the inside. This inner subjective world is the source of our vitality. Objectifying the body can disconnect us from that sense of aliveness.

When we begin to be aware of how we actually and directly experience the body from the inside, we begin to learn that the body is an awareness and a process and not simply a “thing.” The Buddhist tradition distinguishes a variety of “bodies” – the energy body, the bliss body, the transformation body, the diamond body, the karmic body, and the awareness body. A meditator can experience all of these different bodies, often as a flow of energy or field of attention.

In developing mindfulness of the body, Vipassana students are counteracting not only the cultural forces that reinforce a solid and objective body image but also our own psychological forces that do so. Our psycho-physical holding patterns such as the tightening of the stomach, shoulders or jaws help create a sense of false or illusionary solidity as we shield ourselves from whatever is fearful or painful. As mindfulness practice develops we learn to trust our inner experience, our awareness, and our capacity for being present for even difficult states of being.

However, mindfulness practice does not lead to rejection of all body images and self imaging. Rather, we learn the flexibility to move easily between appropriate body images and the openness and imageless-ness of direct experience. There are times when a strong self image is crucial, and other times when it is a great limitation. And regardless of the value of open, egoless states, we must remember that holding on to such states can cause great suffering. Mindfulness practice is less about attaining some particular state than about attaining freedom and flexibility within all states.

As meditation opens the ego boundaries that the world may or may not require of us, mindfulness of the body helps to create a healthy center within the openness. Maintaining an openness to the world is safer if one remains aware of what is happening with- in the body. The body can provide, more readily than any other avenue, a tremendous amount of information about how we are affected by and reacting to any given situation. Without this information there is the danger that contracted or expansive states of being will blind us to many aspects of who we are that we will lose our sense of presence to either external situations or people or to an inner world of thoughts and feelings.

Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition there are a number of different styles of mindfulness practice. Some focus almost exclusively on mindfulness of the body. Others include, to various degrees, the other aspects of our humanity – feelings, emotions, thoughts, mental states and mental experiences. However even among these latter styles, mindfulness of the body remains, throughout one’s practice, the most foundational of the foundations of mindfulness practice. In the Scripture on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, under the foundation of the body, the Buddha included attention to the breath, body sensations of all types, physical posture, the body in activity, and the systematic exploration of the entire body. I believe that the other three foundations of mindfulness are best understood after one has begun to stabilize or awaken one’s awareness in the body.

Various streams of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition have similarly placed great stress on the importance of the body. Several Mahayana scriptures enthusiastically insist that “the body itself is bodhi (awakening).” One tantric song says, “Here in this body are the sacred rivers: here are the sun and moon, as well as all the pilgrimage places. I have not encountered another temple as blissful as my own body.” The Japanese Zen tradition has also stressed the importance of the conscious participation of the body in practice. The Zen master Dogen, teaching that Zen practice involves the unification of the body and mind, wrote that “mindfulness of the body is the body’s mindfulness.”

In the end, the central position that the body has in the Buddhist tradition does not mean that we need to direct our attention willfully toward the body as if awareness and the body were two separate things. Rather the teaching of mindfulness of the body is an invitation for us to wake up to the awareness that is already present in the body. Practice is not directing or creating something. The beginning and end of practice is the awakening of what is already there – within our bodies, hearts and minds.