the body

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

When Reginald Ray speaks of “touching enlightenment with the body”, he isn’t just saying that we can touch enlightenment with our bodies. What he really means is that there is no other way to do so. Sunada just finished her first pass through his 20-disc meditation CD series, Your Breathing Body, and gives it her ringing endorsement.

I first encountered Reginald Ray’s approach to meditation when I read his most recent book, Touching Enlightenment (excerpted elsewhere on this site), and attended one of his retreats on the same subject. As a yoga practitioner and a kinesthetic learner, I immediately took to it like a fish to water. And so I decided to invest in his CD series, Your Breathing Body – and I have to say I’m hooked.

Title: Your Breathing Body
Author: Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D.
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN Vol 1: 978-1-59179-659-6
ISBN Vol 2: 978-1-59179-662-6
Available from: Sounds True or Amazon.com.

In one sense, we could say that Ray’s perspective is unique. While many meditation teachers speak of working with the body, Ray goes so far as to say that the body is the only gateway through which we can find our most authentic core being and its ultimate connection to all of reality. But that doesn’t mean this is some minor, sideline approach. Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture. So this represents Ray’s efforts to bring meditation back to its intended roots.

Why the big emphasis on the body? Ray explains by taking us back to our prehistoric origins. When we were a hunter-gatherer species, we had to rely on our more intuitive, bodily cognitive functions in order to survive. Sensing predators in the wild, finding prey for the hunt, surviving the vagaries of nature – all this required that we lived rooted in our senses, keenly attuned to our environs. It was also a life in harmonious balance – our bodies and our sense of self were holistically embedded in our larger reality around us.

Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture.

But when we evolved into an agrarian species, our lifestyle changed to one of controlling, planning, and organizing – a more cerebral and disengaged approach to our world. This evolution has continued at a steady pace to the height of disembodiment that we find in our technological society today.

In our modern way of life, we mostly deal with our world through concepts and abstractions and much less, if at all, through experiencing it directly. In fact our society rewards those who are most adept at this kind of thinking and controlling. But of course, neither our bodies nor our world conform to our small-minded plans and desires. Such a view is bound to lead to suffering. And it’s this realization that gave rise to the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The path back to balance is through somatic awareness. And Ray suggests that our capacity for that awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup. Your Breathing Body is like a complete graduate program in reawakening our natural capacity for awareness. It’s a two-box set, each containing ten CDs. You can buy each box individually, or buy them together as a discounted pair. (If you buy the latter from the publisher, Sounds True, they throw in his Touching Enlightenment book as a bonus.)

In total it’s a goldmine of over 20 hours of in-depth teachings and guided meditations that go deeply into the subtleties of perceiving through the body. Many of the practices are based on Tibetan Yoga. If you’re a yoga practitioner, the emphasis on working with the breath and prana (a more subtle form of bodily energy based on the breath) will be familiar territory.

And Ray suggests that our capacity for somatic awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup.

I especially appreciated the very solid foundation and orderly progression of this series. Ray spends a lot of time teaching how to find one’s optimal posture, and then starts us on what are called the Ten Points and Earth Breathing Practices. These are in effect very detailed and extensive body scan and relaxation meditations.

But he leads us much further. It’s not just about bringing our awareness into our bodies. What happens is that by fully relaxing and continually letting go to our present experience, we start peeling away more layers of tension and holding. That holding, we begin to see, is not just physical. As our awareness goes more deeply inward, we find further emotional and psychological layers to release, such as doubt or fear.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness – the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise. This is how we begin to explore who we really are and what’s our unique place in this world. And isn’t this what we took up a spiritual practice for?

My approach in working with this series was to go slowly through all the discs over the period of several months. Ray says that some practices will resonate for us better than others, and that it’s good to follow our instincts to explore those more fully. So I spent longer on some discs than others. I’m now starting on a second pass, and I’m still gleaning insights from it. It’s a mark of an excellent teacher that Ray’s talks can be so clear and inspiring on the first pass, and still have more to give on repeated listening.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness—the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise.

What level meditator should you be to use this series? While he does start from the basics with an extensive talk and guided practice on posture, I don’t think it’s intended for complete beginners. I personally think that embracing these practices requires some degree of stillness and concentration off the bat.

But if you do have experience with breath-oriented/samatha meditations, dive right in! Even if you think you already know all about posture, I would encourage you to start from the beginning. He offers helpful perspectives that are often overlooked by other teachers. Overall, there’s enough depth and richness to keep you going for months, if not years.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Dr. Reginald Ray — he has been practicing for over 40 years and is a master teacher in the Tibetan lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. He is also an academic by training, and has been on the faculty of Naropa University since the beginning. He brings all that depth, knowledge, and clarity of thought to his teaching. I find him a great model of what someone well-grounded in his body should be: he has a warm, inviting, and down-to-earth way of speaking that makes you feel like he’s sitting right there talking to you personally.

So as you’ve probably gathered by now, I found Your Breathing Body to be excellent all around. It’s not only brought more depth and focus to my meditation practice, it’s helped me gain a perspective on my life that I’m sure will continue to unfold with discoveries well into the future. I highly recommend it.

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Goals in the spiritual life

Lotus bud reaching upward for the light

Are spiritual goals dangerous triggers for grasping and selfish desire? Do we need to let go of goals in order to be truly free and happy? Sunada doesn’t think so. She argues that it’s not the goals themselves that are the problem, but how we approach them.

Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.
— Yoda

We all come to the spiritual life with some sort of goal in mind. Like wanting a calmer mind, less anxiety, a kinder heart – in short, to become a better person. Yes, spiritual practice can bring us all these things, and they’re entirely valid reasons for starting down that road.

But at some point we hit a wall. What happens is that TRYING to achieve these things only gets us so far. At some point, we find ourselves with the exact opposite of what we wanted – a lot of self-doubt and frustration.

 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it.

I’ve often had people ask me whether I think they should let go of their goals – that maybe it’s a sort of grasping that has no place in the spiritual life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it. So then how do we navigate this process that seems so elusive?

The wise quote I bring in here is not from the Buddha, but a different wise man — er, creature — Yoda. When I first heard Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker 30 years ago, I thought it sounded like the ultimate parody of Zen-like wisdom. I couldn’t make any sense of it. But now many years later, I’ve discovered that it’s quite profoundly true. Yoda was a pretty wise being!

This is what happened. From very early on, I kept up a regular practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation (the development of loving–kindness). Even though I had a lot of difficulty with it, I did it because I was pretty sure it would help me to open up a heart that had shut down through years of depression. Besides, I had a sort of bulldog-ish attitude that if I kept at it, something would eventually break through.

Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it feels … out of reach.

And boy, did I struggle. My teachers would talk of feeling a warmth in my heart area, recalling kind thoughts and images, and wishing people well. But I sat there feeling blank and gray. Nothing. When the gentle approach didn’t work, I tried MAKING myself feel happier by sheer force of will. Not much success there either. It was all too forced and artificial, and I’d feel thrown right back to where I started.

I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience with the Metta Bhavana practice, so I now know it wasn’t just me! But everyone encouraged me to keep trying, that something would happen eventually.

And something did happen. It’s not that I changed in any objective way. Instead, it was my perspective that shifted. I started seeing my “problem” in a completely different way, and then it grew to no longer be a problem.

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The shift began with my decision to start every meditation session with an extensive period of a body scan (focusing on successive areas of my body to help bring my awareness to myself and the present moment). I also imagined what it feels like to come home from a long day at work and to relax — to sink into my favorite easy chair, feel proud of what I’ve accomplished today, knowing that I’ve done all I can — and now it was time to let go to the “ahhh….” feeling.

What doing this allowed me to experience, quite viscerally, was a sense of physical contentment in the here and now. In that moment, I was perfectly happy being just as I was. I didn’t need anything else to make me feel complete. It was the simple joy of being present. It didn’t mean I had gotten rid of my problems, and I was still the same imperfect person I always was. But in that moment, none of those things were weighing on me. I was content, plain and simple.

..when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching … In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly.

Once I contacted that very real, very authentic feeling of contentment, it was an easy step to move into the Metta Bhavana practice. For the first stage, I imagined myself wrapped in warm blankets of kindness, which made it easy to feel warm emotions toward myself. As long as I stayed connected with a genuine feeling of contentment and pleasure, moving toward each successive stage of the Metta practice came much more easily. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m feeling positive about myself, and in touch with my own happiness, my good mood naturally spawns kind feelings toward others. It’s pretty elementary and obvious, now that I think about it.

On days that I was not feeling so good – feeling angry or depressed, for example – this technique worked just as well. I usually couldn’t make myself feel any better, but that was OK. By starting with a foundation of relaxation and physical contentment, I found I could lift myself out of my “poor me” self-absorption. I was able to wrap myself in sympathy and acceptance of how I was, even though I couldn’t change the ugly mood. So it was this kindly self-acceptance that I touched in that moment that I used as the foundation of my metta practice.

This experience helped me to understand that metta is a quality I always have within me, and it had nothing do to with how I’m feeling at the moment. Metta is not the opposite of anger or depression. Metta is an attitude of patient acceptance toward whatever is there – good, bad, or anything in between. It’s always accessible to me, as long as I care to notice it and call it up.

As I reflect on my experience with the Metta practice, I see lots of parallels to the whole idea of personal development off the cushion as well. Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it always feels like a reach, or perhaps even out of reach. This is what I assume Yoda meant by “trying.”

If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us.

But when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching. By simply turning our kind attention to its presence, it begins to grow on its own. We don’t have to “try” anything. In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly. We don’t grasp for something distant and off in the future. We appreciate and cultivate something joyful that we already have, and can readily touch.

Now I bet there are doubters out there among you that are wondering whether you have any inkling of the qualities you wish you had. If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us. It’s only our own self-doubt that keeps us from seeing them.

So if you’ve been trying to become a better person in some way, stop trying. Instead, look for all the ways that you already have those qualities in some small, nascent form. Trust that they are there, and think of ways to encourage those qualities to blossom. For example, if we want to become kinder, it’s important that we feel good physically – that we eat well, get enough sleep and rest, and have time to laugh and enjoy ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves in the same way that we’d want to be kind to others, so that we begin to touch an authentic experience of our own kind heart. If we set these sorts of conditions, the kinder side of us can’t help but come out and grow stronger.

So the crux of the matter is in how we view our goals. Are we grasping for something off in the future in a way that denigrates our present experience and triggers a poverty mentality of lack, need, and desire? Or are we aspiring toward a higher ideal that’s on the same path we’re already on — while at the same time loving ourselves as we are now, and encouraging ourselves to feel whole, warm, abundant and blessed? It’s that switch in our state of mind that makes all the difference. That’s what sets the tone for what kind of future we create for ourselves.

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A stroke of insight

jill bolte taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor was suddenly struck by an awareness of a deep connectedness with the world, a profound spiritual realization that her body blended with the world around her, that she was a being composed of energy, connected to other beings composed of energy. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria,” she later wrote.

And this all happened because of a stroke.

Taylor was well-placed to observe the changes taking place in her brain as a blood-vessel ruptured in her left cerebral hemisphere, because she was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center. Her first thought upon realizing that she was having a stroke was “Cool! How many brain scientists get to study a stroke from the inside?”

Taylor has written in a book, “My Stroke of Insight,” and spoken at a TED conference (see video) about her experiences.

She explains in the video how the brain is split into two hemispheres, and how each has a different personality. The right brain thinks visually and kinesthetically, and sees connections. It creates empathy and and creativity. The left brain sees details, and details about those details. It thinks in words. It creates the sense of ego and separateness.

On the morning of her stroke, Taylor’s left-brain was knocked out of action by a blood-clot the size of a golf ball. She lost the ability to speak, read, to use a telephone, or to recognize faces. At the same time she stepped into the right brain world of connectedness and empathy.

Fortunately for Taylor, her left hemisphere was not permanently destroyed, and over the course of eight years she made a complete recovery.

Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

To Taylor, the experiences which she had, and which she can still have at any moment, are not mystical or supernatural, but are natural and part of the potential experience of each person.

This assessment rings true for practitioners of Buddhist meditation, who recognize that through their practice they are not exploring exotic realms or religion but are connecting with a different way of experiencing — a way of experiencing that is inherent to the mind and the brain’s capacities.

Taylor is of great interest to both meditators and scientists, although often in different ways. Meditators are excited to hear of a scientist who has shared their experiences and who can articulate in scientific terms how those experiences arise. Scientists tend to be more wary of anything that leads to “mystical” experiences, and can be suspicious that Taylor may be “losing it,” as a former colleague of hers put it.

Taylor has changed as a result of her experiences. She no longer experiments on live animals, since she now has a greater sense of empathy. And she’s keen to spread her message: “I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”

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Unweaving pain’s tapestry

There are three main approaches that can help make meditation enjoyable and sustainable when meditating with pain.

1. Learning to deal with resistance

The first hurdle is actually getting down to meditation. Even after meditating for 20 years I almost always have to overcome resistance — and I’m not alone. This tendency is especially pronounced if you’re living with pain. When you meditate you turn towards your experience in an honest and open way, including your pain. That takes courage, but often I don’t feel so brave and when I contemplate meditating suddenly I find many other things that need doing instead. I’ll make that phone call, I’ll have another cup of tea, I’ll check my emails. Alternatively, I may think, I can’t bear to sit with myself and my pain — I’m too tired. Then I roll over in bed and go back to sleep.

But I always regret it when I give in to the resistance and I always feel better when I find the energy and courage to meditate. Even if I struggle in a particular session, I still end up feeling more honest and aware, which leads to more confidence and stability as I learn to be with my pain in a clean way. It’s important to persevere and to recognize resistance rather than to be ruled by it.

2. Examining your agenda

Even when you’ve got down to meditating, attitudes still affect the practice and it’s important to investigate them. Most of us living with pain or illness long for our pain to go away and you’ll probably bring this desire with you when you start to practice meditation and mindfulness. No matter how much you think you’ve accepted your pain, many of us retain a secret hope that meditation will reduce or even eliminate it. On the face of it, this is entirely reasonable, but for people with intractable pain, mindfulness means coming to terms at the deepest level with the aspects of pain you can’t avoid and making peace with the situation.

When I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties I definitely brought an escapist agenda to my practice. I had intolerable pain and I wasn’t coping well; I wanted to escape my body and dwell in states of calm and bliss and I hoped meditation would be a quick fix. That fantasy was understandable if you consider the ideas that circulate about meditation. I’d read books on Buddhism and meditation — and selectively remembered certain parts. Most of the literature gives a rounded picture of the human condition and describes how meditation can help you to be more awake. But instead I focused on descriptions of people who achieved meditative states in which they no longer experienced their body or described having a heart and mind that was vast, clear and boundless, or described the body becoming so spacious and diffuse that it was like having a body of light. Fantastic, I thought, I want some of that.

These descriptions of higher meditative states were very attractive and each time I meditated, I strained to be magically transported to a pain-free, blissful state. I even became adept at generating similar states through willpower and fantasy. At this stage, I would gather my awareness in my head, away from my painful body or outside my body altogether, and for a time the pain would lessen and I felt calm and joyful. But there was also a lot of strain and as soon as the meditation ended, I crash-landed back in my body and felt worse than before I’d started.

Many of us who learn to meditate when living with pain are motivated by a similar wish to escape the experience of the body — friends who are experienced meditators and also live with painful bodies have told me they had experiences of strain and escapism in their early meditation experiences that were very like my own. One woman, who has a great deal of pain, told me how her practice has finally become much deeper and quieter:

Eileen
My body is aging and stiffening. More and more, I’m seeing this as an advantage as I simply can’t be very active and the frustrations just have to be faced and accepted. My life has greatly simplified this year, internally as well as externally … I’m seeing more clearly how I’ve pushed against life! Relaxation is what I’m learning right now (and I’m discovering how unrelaxed I am at a deep level). I’m meditating much more than ever before, but without pushing at it. Life is more painful, but more real and therefore more rich.

Another friend suffers from a degenerative spinal condition that causes him a great deal of pain and stiffness. He describes the end of an escapist meditation session as, “crash-landing back in hell,” which was very confusing and unpleasant. All three of us have now moved on to the next phase: using meditation to dwell ever more deeply within the body and using the experience of pain to cultivate equanimity and peace with life as it is.

One of the wonderful things about meditation is that it seems to bring out one’s native intelligence and wisdom. If you meditate with sincerity and bring an unrealistic agenda, you’ll realize that something’s not quite right. In my case it took many years to realize this, but eventually instead of trying to move away from my experience, I turned to face it. I began the journey of engaging with my body with awareness.

3. Understanding the paradox of pain

Rather than trying to move out of the body in a vain attempt to escape pain, the answer seems to lie in moving towards it, going more and more deeply into the body. This might seem a bitter pill to swallow — it’s certainly counterintuitive. It may sound as if I’m suggesting that day after day, your whole meditation experience will involve sitting with awareness of pain. Hardly an inspiring prospect! But what I’m actually suggesting goes far deeper than that. To a large extent my meditation practice consists of simply sitting with an experience that includes the discomfort and pain, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise and working with my reactions to avoid piling on secondary suffering. But there are also times when I become awake to my experience in a very accurate and refined way. My awareness sinks deeply into my body, which starts to feel diffuse and spacious. The sense of space and translucence that fills me comes not from going outside myself into space, but from sinking so far inside that space and light seem to arise from within.

As a metaphor for this experience, consider the image of a tapestry such as those you might you see in country mansions and châteaux. From a distance the tapestry depicts a complex scene that looks dense and solid, but as you come closer you realize it’s made up of thousands of colored threads. If you looked into the weave of the threads with a microscope, you’d see millions of tiny spaces in between the threads. Through meditation, you develop this open, expansive perspective and you find the spaces in the weave of your experience and gently rest there.

These experiences of profound spaciousness are part of the world opened up by meditation. They are the states that I’d read about and been drawn to when I first learned to meditate but then I made the mistake of trying to bypass my body to achieve them. Only by sitting with the pain can one access intense joy. I like to say that the open sky lies beneath the earth. Feeling supported by the earth, you can take your awareness so far inside the body that you come to a place of peace and calm.

This article is extracted and adapted from her book, “Living Well with Pain and Illness: the mindful way to free yourself from suffering,” published by Little, Brown in November of 2008.

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Exploring the face

Sitting BearWhen I lead people through a body relaxation, I tend to spend a lot of time on the face. I am not sure why I started to do this, I just found myself talking more and more about softening and relaxing in the face. Perhaps it is because this is where we often see tension. It is the most public area of our bodies, where we are on display to the world.

We have a lot of control over our faces. We try to present a certain face to the world, and we are careful in case our facial expression gives us away. It is not only poker players who learn to control their faces.

However, it is hard to get the face to do what you want and to look natural at the same time. This is one reason why acting is a lot more difficult than it appears. It is hard make a smile convincing if the associated emotions are not there. So we might find we go through the day holding our face; we grin and bear it, as the expression goes.

  Think more of becoming aware of your face than forcing it to relax.   

We might find that we hold our face not only against the outer world, but also with regard to our own emotions, though perhaps this is a particularly English trait in the form of the stiff upper lip. The English are not the only ones, of course, as I found when I lived in California, although the required expression there is a little different. People involved in retail, especially, always seem to be smiling, which their customers may find pleasant, though for someone from England it can be a little disconcerting.

So the face is a very good place to begin the process of relaxation. Think more of becoming aware of your face than forcing it to relax. Tell yourself that at least in meditation you don’t have to put on a face. Zen people sometimes talk about “finding your natural face before you were born.” As with rather a lot of Zen sayings, it’s a bit hard to know what this is getting at, but I find it a useful idea. Imagining your face before it was born suggests a sense of freedom from the pressures of daily life. It’s an encouragement to let go of world-weariness and relax into a space in which you are not subject to the judgment of the ego.

More pragmatically, try exploring your face with your hands. Be quite firm. Feel around the eye sockets with your fingers, feel into the hinge of the jaw and give your temples a firm rub. Try to get a sense of the shape of your skull. Move the jaw around, from side to side and up and down. Use your hands to encourage awareness in your face. Then just sit and imagine the face letting go. Don’t tell your face that it must relax, just imagine it softening.

  It was like a scene from a zombie movie … their faces didn’t work properly   

Imagine your face naturally expressing how you feel as you sit there, just as you are now. See if you can let go of your jaw a little, and let the tongue rest gently on the roof of your mouth, just behind the front teeth.

I haven’t said anything about the modern visual obsession with the face, the trend towards the normalization of face-lifts, botox, and the like. One of the strangest experiences of my life was a night-time bus ride from a motel on the edge of Las Vegas to the Strip. The bus was brightly lit and full of what appeared to be relatively youthful passengers. But there was something wrong, a feeling that all was not as it seemed.

It was like a scene from a zombie movie. I started to notice that their faces didn’t work properly, they didn’t move in the way the human face is meant to move. Then I noticed that many of these faces where supported by necks that appeared some decades older. It was a bizarre trip among the eternally youthful. It is odd to contrast this with those wonderful old photographs you can find of Native Americans, their faces lines like riverbeds, and full of self-blessing.


Paramananda Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher.

He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002.

This essay is an extract from his 2007 book, The Body, published by Windhorse Publications.

Paramananda’s other books include Change Your Mind and A Deeper Beauty.

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The body’s call to return

For some of us meditators, our disembodiment reaches excruciatingly painful and completely unacceptable proportions. It is almost as if our practice itself and the sensitivity it develops have brought us to a level of awareness in relation to our somatic situation that is unbearable.

We feel out of touch with our body, our emotions, our sense perceptions, even the basic experience of being alive. Perhaps this awareness has been slowly growing over many years; perhaps it happens upon us one day, rather abruptly. We realize that we are not really living our life, not really going through our relationships and our experiences in anything but a numb and mechanical way.

Although everything may seem fine with us from the outside, inwardly these experiences, just in and of themselves, plunge us into the midst of a profound personal crisis. We really feel lost. Perhaps without even knowing exactly what is wrong, we begin looking for ways back into our body, Our world, and our life. The sense of personal crisis is, itself, he call of the body to return, our inspiration to try to find a way to recover our embodiment.

For others of us, the body calls us back through the fortuitous intervention of an external event or circumstance: injury, illness, extreme fatigue, impending old age, sometimes emotions, feelings, anxiety, anguish, or dread that we don’t understand and can’t handle.

Depression is one of the most powerful ways the body calls us back — a terrible darkness, an unbearable hopelessness and despair that settles over us, wherein we are so pulled down that we barely have the energy to think a single thought, let alone rise to do anything or engage anyone.

Either way, we hear the call of the body and feel an inexorable pull toward it. It is pulling us down, one way or the other, sometimes with a terrifying crash. After a period that perhaps feels like death, which can go on for years, something in us, some new life, begins to stir.

For those of us with knowledge of meditation, it is natural that we eventually attempt to see what or how meditation may bear on the intensely somatic call that we are hearing. Whether we are injured or ill, encountering debilitating psychological states of mind, or despairing over a life that is slipping by us, it is likely that we will initially be extremely tentative in bringing meditation to our situation.

Perhaps we will take a few moments now and then to let our mind relax, rest, and open to our feelings and our situation. If we do, we may find that there is some kind of shift, not necessarily in the content of what we are experiencing, but in our relationship toward it.

Generally, in experiences such as those described above, there is an underlying feeling of “problem,” an ongoing anxiety, and a resistance toward what is happening. When we open our minds in meditation, though, we suddenly find our “problem” becomes the focus of our meditation.

Without even thinking about it, we find our body’s call to be the subject of our attention. Our meditation is naturally turned toward the body. Without even knowing, we are receiving our first lessons in “meditating with the body.”

As we turn our meditation toward the body, as we open our awareness to it, we will find that the frozen-up quality around our physical or psychological problem, or our general feeling of disconnection, suddenly has more space; moreover, it begins to communicate itself to us in a way that could only be described as “active.” At this point, we are likely to find ourselves receiving healing and transformative information that we had not previously noticed or even thought possible.

This can be extraordinarily subtle at first, perhaps just barely sensed. But at some point, we perceive that something new is coming toward us. We begin to gain increasing clarity, recognizing that our debilitation, when viewed from the point of meditation, is a learning situation for us with great possibilities. We sense that our meditation has become an invitation for the body to begin showing us things. At this point, we are “meditating with the body.”

Thus it is that we find that we have a partner on the spiritual path that we didn’t know about — our own body. In our meditation and in our surrounding lives, the body becomes a teacher, one that does not communicate in words but tends to speak out of the shadows through sensations, feelings, images, and somatic memories.

No longer able to force the body to adapt to our conscious ideas and intentions, we find that we have to begin to learn the language that the body itself naturally speaks. Having thought we knew what was going on, we discover, over and over, that we have completely missed the point. And, having supposed that we were completely confused, we come to see that we have understood something far more profound and far-reaching that anything we could have thought.

It is all very puzzling, but, with the body as our guide, we begin to feel, perhaps for the first time in our lives, that with our body, we are in the presence of a force and intelligence that is filled with wisdom, that is loving, flawlessly reliable, and, strange to say, worthy of our deepest devotion.

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“Gesture of Awareness,” by Charles Genoud

Gesture of Awareness, by Charles GenoudHow useful can books be in stimulating spiritual realization, when such realization must be grounded in experience? Paramananda takes a skeptical — yet appreciative — look at a new book attempting to pointing the way to non-duality.

It seems a little ironic that I find myself in two minds about Genoud’s book — ironic because this slim volume is all about “being” in one mind. It is not that I in any way disagree with what Genoud is trying to point the reader towards, which is the essential non-dual nature of reality. It is more that I am just a little skeptical that such “pointings” are of much use when they appear in a generalized form such as a book.

We all love those Zen stories along the lines of the Master giving the student a sharp whack and the student waking up from his deluded state. What we tend to forget is that the student has in all likelihood been sitting zazen for eight hours a day for the last ten years, with the Master observing him closely, before he administers the “enlightening” blow.

What concerns me then is the effect of such “direct” methods on those that are not ripe for the blow. Here I am of course risking being thought of as some sort of spiritual elitist, which particularly in our modern culture is often viewed with much disdain.

As I have started on this track I might as well nail my colors to the mast: I, for instance, felt the incredible popular “The Power of Now,” by Ekhart Tolle, probably sent people up the garden path. It might be that someone could attain “insight” if hit over the head with the book at just the right time but I do not think that they will do so by reading it. There is not only a paradox at the heart of spiritual “truth,” there is also one at the heart of such books, which is along the lines of: Those who think that they have “got it” have certainly not got “it.” Moreover I fear that what they have got is just a more sophisticated ego.

Genoud does, however, attempt to avoid appealing to its readers’ tendency towards inflation (a tendency we all have) and his approach is both subtle and intriguing. His book is probably as good as a book of this sort can be. In fact it is very good. It is elegantly written with a visual and poetic form. What is most appealing to me about it is that it attempts to help the reader realize the truth of “emptiness” through direct experience of the body. Here Genoud is, I feel, on to something very important.

As I feel that the majority of people in the West who take up spiritual practice are dis-embodied: that is they are not in an intimate feeling relationship to their own bodies. If I am only partially correct any spiritual approach that does not address the body is unlikely to bear fruit.

However there is an aspect of the book that I did find problematic, besides the general point I have made above, and this is to do the relationship between the body and the imagination. Genoud seemed to have no place for the imagination. It seems to me that it is the imagination that links the felt experience of the body to the “thought” experience of the mind. This being the case there is no spiritual life, no compassion, without the imagination, Our ability to feel compassion depends on being able to feel our own suffering and then through an act of imagination, put ourselves in the shoes of others. I am not sure where the imagination is in Genoud’s approach. For a book that displayed such imagination in structure and form I felt that Genoud too readily dismisses, or at least neglects, the imagination.

However the book did make me feel that a retreat with its author would be a challenging and worthwhile experience. The style of the book is such that I feel a little like I was on retreat I do hope that people read it and then go and sit with its writer, who is clearly a teacher worth experiencing further.


Paramananda Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher.

He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002.

Paramananda’s books include Change Your Mind and A Deeper Beauty.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: the Buddhist approach to excess body hair

Lon Chaney in The Werewolf

Honey, we’re out of dog food again.

Ever despair at how to cultivate lovingkindness for Dick Cheney, or ponder the effect of anti-depressants on Buddha Nature? If so, check out Auntie Suvanna, who applies her unique wisdom and wit to your queries about life, meditation, Dharma, family and relationship issues, or anything else that comes up. Why not write to her and tell her your troubles?

Dear Auntie,
I can’t stand my boyfriend’s ear hair anymore. He has little pointy gray hairs growing out of the tops of his ears. He isn’t concerned about it, he says he’s had it since he was in his 20’s. I wonder if one day he will look like a werewolf. Or maybe one day the hair will cover not only the top of his ears but the back and bottom as well and they will grow into convenient but gross natural ear muffs. Should I try to get used to the pointy hairs? Should I make him trim it? Should I seek a bald-eared partner? He doesn’t even know it bothers me. Am I petty? This is serious.
Sincerely Grossed Out

Dear Grossed Out,

American culture is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with body hair.

Dictionary.com defines petty as “of little or no importance or consequence.” In spite of her good manners, Auntie has to say she is finding it hard to envisage ear hair as important and consequential. On the other hand, irritation is at least consequential, so let’s see if we can tackle that. Otherwise you might get more and more pent up, until one day you will blow like Krakatoa, spewing burning rubble all over your boyfriend’s unsuspecting and relatively innocent hairy ears.

American culture is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with body hair. Women, especially, shave, wax, pluck, trim, or laser almost every patch of visible hair on the body. Perhaps deep down we are all Creationists worried about looking like apes… At any rate for overcoming this collective aversion, Auntie suggests doing various kinds of research. Get your facts! I know you would prefer to forget all about ear hair, but you can’t. It’s part of life. It’s part of your life. It arose in dependence on conditions, the conditions of the human form. Fact is, as men age, their hair seems to move more and more from their head to their ears and nose. That’s just the way it is. As the great Buddhist sage Shantideva said, it’s like getting angry at the sky because there is a cloud in it.

You must face — we all must face — right now, the inescapable truth of ear hair.

Though your boyfriend’s visible ear hair is dead, like all hair it is still very much a part of his body. Made up of long chains of amino acids (proteins), it (or at least the root) contains all his genetic information. His ethnic origin, what he has smoked, and what he has eaten – all this information resides in just one shaft of his ear hair. It is but one ground force unit within the battalion of hair that covers his entire body, with the exception of soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, and his lips. It grows at the same rate as other hair, about 1 cm per month, and lasts at least three years. You must face — we all must face — right now, the inescapable truth of ear hair. And as always, however things are, they can always be worse.

Another more drastic and probably more effective type of research would be to spend a great deal of time contemplating in detail the nature of your own body, part by part. Investigate it. See what’s what. Divide it into categories such as solid and liquid, and reflect on each component. In addition to ubiquitous hair you will discover nails, skin, flesh, teeth, veins, nerves, tendons, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, spleen, lungs, stomach, intestines, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, saliva, mucus, and urine. You will find what everyone’s body is composed of, and you will deeply understand ear hair. (Warning: This contemplation may cause nausea, loss of libido, and understated fashions such as coveralls.)

Finally, on a practical note, if it still bugs, kindly ask your boyfriend if he would allow you to trim it. If he agrees, invest in some clippers and have at it. Using scissors around ears is more dangerous than werewolves!

Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara

Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.

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