The other day I suggested the practice of noticing our everyday blessings — things like having electricity, running water, shelter, a relatively law-abiding culture — and saying “thank you” for these things. I stressed the importance of actually articulating these words in our minds (although saying them out loud could be even more effective) in order to overcome the mind’s negativity bias, where we tend to pay attention to that which we think is going wrong and take for granted and ignore that which is going right.
Today I want to turn that inward, by reiterating a favorite practice of mine, which is of giving thanks to our bodies for the service they give us.
We have an odd relationship with our bodies. On the one hand we identify with them strongly. We tend to despair when they become sick, suffer agonies over how others perceive our appearance, take it personally when they show signs of aging, and sometimes spend large amounts of time and money trying to beautify them in order to look our best. On the other hand we neglect them, fill them full of unhealthy foods, and use them in ways that cause them long-term damage. Often, in fact, people resent their bodies, and get angry with them when they experience pain or illness.
Right now I’m lying down because my back’s sore. I strained my back a little over a week ago, and after a couple of days of apparently having returned to health it suddenly “goes” again. The truth is, I don’t take good enough care of it. I don’t exercise or stretch enough, and I’m not careful enough in how I use my body. I just take it for granted. I know I should exercise and stretch, but time always seems to be short, and there’s always much to do.
Having a sore back, though, gives me a good excuse to practice what I’m about to explain to you, which is the cultivation of gratitude toward the body. It’s similar to the practice of noticing everyday blessings that I mentioned above, since our bodies are likewise taken for granted. And in fact I often do this practice of gratitude toward the body as an extension of that practice, flowing seamlessly from one to the other.
So the practice is simple. It’s a body scan practice, where we become aware of the body, part by part, and notice the sensations arising there. The addition is that we say “Thank you” to each part of the body as we become aware of it. By saying “Thank you” we develop gratitude for that part of the body.
So we notice the feet, and say “Thank you.” It’s important to articulate the words clearly in your mind. We can allow into awareness the fact that we are, in fact, fortunate to have feet. Not everyone does. And your feet are probably functional, and capable of getting you around. Again, not everyone has this. And if your feet are damaged or in pain, recollect that your feet are doing their best. They’re trying to heal themselves. They do their best to function for you. Even if your feet are in pain, they still try to work for you and benefit you.
I think of this as like having a friend who shows up to help you even through they’re feeling below par. That’s a sign of a true friend. It’s the kind of thing only the best of friends would do. Regarding any damaged or painful part of the body like this — like a good friend who tries to help you even though they are in pain — helps me to feel extra gratitude, and to let go of resentment. My gratitude becomes a form of love and appreciation. As I experience these emotions I feel the body soften. It’s as if the body likes being loved (surprise, surprise!).
So I do this for other parts of the body: not just the feet, but the ankles, the lower legs, the knees, the thighs … all the way up to the crown of the head and even the hair. Notice any sensations that are arising as you focus on each part of the body in turn. Say “Thank you.” And allow yourself to feel that you are blessed by even having that body part. And feel extra gratitude if the part of the body you’re focusing on is struggling with pain or illness even as it tries to help you.
I notice the body’s functions: the heart beating, like a faithful old friend; the lungs pumping away, day and night. I notice the senses. How fortunate I am to have functioning eyes, ears, a sense of taste, smell, touch, balance! I notice the act of being aware — may ability to think, reflect, remember. Even the ability to pay attention in the way I am doing at that moment.
My experience of doing this practice is delightful. Gratitude is joy. It also feels like a deeply healing practice, as I let go of any resentment toward the body. Flooded with gratitude, my body itself becomes grateful, seemingly relieved to be appreciated.
PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.