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You Are Not a Brain on a Stick (or Are You?)

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.

 

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Episode 12:

You Are Not a Brain on a Stick (or Are You?)

 

Jerry Kolber's recent post here about Buddhism and physical fitness sparked a lot of good, animated discussion, and got me thinking again about my own mindfulness of body (or, more truthfully, my lack thereof).

In his book "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body," Reggie Ray writes that we modern people have become tragically disembodied, alienated from the most basic level of our own experience as human beings. Ray says that most of us have lost the felt sense of 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 been born.

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, our allegiance to thinking about everything -- mediating and managing our experience and our lives through the conceptual thought function -- is the very root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (and 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, without an agenda, the naked experience that arises there.

In his "Meditating with the Body" workshops (I've taken two of them), Dr. Ray presents a range of methods for helping us learn to do exactly that, drawn primarily from the esoteric teachings of Tibetan Yoga. These teachings, says Ray, are all directed fundamentally at attaining enlightenment through the body, completely eradicating our conceptual fabrications and mistaken ideas about the physical form and leading us to a state of radical embodiment. (For those who are interested in exploring these teachings further, Dr. Ray is currently leading the November online retreat at Tricycle magazine, which includes video teachings, discussion and more.)

In the weekend 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 was particularly confounded when our body scans reached 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 uncomfortable it is to carry that tension around, and how deeply embedded this habitual pattern is for me. Each time I became aware of the subtle 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 resistance 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. Much of the time, we are like a brain on a stick. 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.

If this is our approach, 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 indeed may be some kind of imaginary, totally disembodied, heavenly nirvana-realm that lies somewhere other than where we happen to be right now. It is an unfortunate fact that people can practice Buddhism for years without ever quite realizing that meditation begins with the body and unfolds 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 the sutras suggest that it is even one of the main practices that he continued to do in the 40 or so years after he attained enlightenment. Nevertheless, we often regard our own bodies as little more than irritating hindrances to the peaceful mental samadhi we think we ought to be having. But where do we think samadhi is going to take place, if not in and through the body?

Here's something else I've noticed: at those moments 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 moments when I'm particularly mindful and aware, I feel 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. I realize that I'm not actually a brain on a stick, even though I may act like one a lot of the time.

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 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 exist beneath the surface. The body, says Ray, *is* the unconscious. The body is, literally, our karma made manifest.

Dr. Ray relates a story from the African spiritual teacher 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. They 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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Comments

Hi Dennis

Hey This is Bob from winter 09/10 Yarne. I was in the Dec 2001 SMC Dathun with Dr Ray. At that time my center of experience shifted profoundly from my head to my heart. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. After a few months my experience shifted back to my head, which totally sucked. That shift toward the heart became the basis for my meditation ever since.
So in summation, I agree with your article and appreciate its relevance.

Thanks

Hey Bob, glad to hear you enjoyed the article and really glad to hear you had that opportunity to do the Dathun with Reggie -- that must have been incredible. In the two "Meditating with the Body" weekend workshops I took with him, some seeds were planted in my mind that were further cultivated during that Yarne retreat we did with Ani Pema last year, when she taught on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Those two or three weeks we spent, towards the beginning, on mindfulness of body altered my practice in some essential way. I'm really glad I did it.

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