We’ve all been there. An argument with a relative erupts, and on your drive home you relive the experience repeatedly, so when you arrive, you realize you weren’t aware of most of the drive. For the rest of the night, you replay that argument mentally, say the things you wish you’d thought of then, and drill your points home. You can’t sleep because you can’t get off the thought merry-go-round.
That scenario is not only common, but it occurs often everyday. It’s easy to fall into the habit of living in our heads, in the drama of our minds, in the details of thoughts. But this is a huge source of suffering, and absolutely unnecessary.
Before I go further though, I want to clear a myth that persists in Buddhism. Buddhist practice is not anti-thought. Thinking is an incredibly value tool, and it’s something we need to do. But there is a time and place for thinking, and there are skillful thoughts, and unskillful thoughts. So, how do we escape the unskillful thoughts, getting off the mental merry-go-round?
Buddha taught meditation on the body frequently, and for good reason. Focusing on the body, gets your attention out of your mind. Additionally, through mindfulness of body, you can catch thoughts early enough that they are easier to let go of rather than once they are in full swing.
All Buddhist mindfulness and meditation practices start with focus on the breath. The breath is a part of the body, and it’s a vital function to life. We carry it around with us wherever we go, so it’s a handy as a focal point.
But there is more to us than the breath. Our minds and nervous systems are embodied, work through numerous systems and processes. Our bodies, too, are in constant change, but a much slower pace than the quick mind. Yet, if we are not mindful of our bodies, health issues can sneak up on us, we get old, we change, and this can be difficult to accept for one who has been spending too much time upstairs, in the head.
“Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he discerns, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he discerns, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he discerns, ‘I am lying down.’ Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it. . . . Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119)
In Zen, you may have heard something similar to the above. When washing dishes, one washes the dishes. Or something along the lines of sweeping, etc. This used to puzzle me to no end. Why would you just focus on the activity you’re doing? How boring! But then I discovered why it’s important to stay with the body, with a task, rather than the mind.
For years I’ve hated weeding my yard. Every time I went out to weed, inwardly I’d grumble over pulling out perfectly good plants and throwing them out. I’d complain about the bending, my back, the effort, and for the hour or so it took me, my mind had one reason after another why weeding was a horrible task.
Then one day I went out again to survey that path of weeds I needed to pull. As I tugged on my gloves, I wondered . . . what would happen if I let all thoughts go, and I just focused on the task at hand? To my amazement, I got to the end of the yard, stood up, saw I was finished, and realized that in all that time I didn’t have a moment of suffering over having to weed the yard. I simply pulled the weeds. It was the thoughts that were creating my misery over weeding. The thoughts were making the task so miserable for me, not the task itself! I’ve not looked at weeding the same again.
What was happening was my mind was creating all my objections, all my misery, all my angst through thoughts. Because I followed the thoughts, allowed them to lead the way, they stirred up trouble where there need not be trouble. Instead of giving into thoughts that I hated weeding, I focused on the task at hand, didn’t think about it, and instead had a quiet mind without suffering. Ah, Depended Arising!
Many of us use our minds to supposedly escape tasks we don’t enjoy, without realizing it’s the mind that is making the task unenjoyable! Without the trouble making mind, there is only the task.
So, back to body meditation. As with all mindfulness meditations, this is your practice time. Because we have developed the habit of thinking as a means of escape, we now have to work on letting that go and being present by paying attention to the body and the present moment. In doing this, not only will you break the habit of living in your head, that space where thoughts were is filled instead with a feeling of just being, of being free of angst and anxiety.
Of course, there are those times when you need to be thinking. We do have to make decisions; we have to problem solve; we have to plan ahead. My job is thought oriented, so for my work I do a lot of thinking. But we need to let all of that go when thinking is not only unnecessary, but could be problematic or unskillful, like while driving, or even walking. Whenever we perform a physical task, we need to focus on that, not thinking about what we’re going to buy for dinner later. And of course, if you’re always in your head it’s easy for the trouble making types of thoughts to sneak in and ensnare you.
We make smarter decisions we were are not hampered with emotion, with angst, with anger, etc. Practicing body meditation and staying in the body whenever you can helps you learn to let go of thoughts that are not skillful, and then you can decide when the time is right to think skillfully.
Sitting and doing body meditation scans is useful, great practice. Extending that to paying attention to your body when you move around throughout your day will help you develop the practice of staying out of your head until you really need to spend some time there. You’ll be amazed how much suffering dissolves in staying in the body and out of the mind.
For More Information
- Body Meditation
- Weekly Practice (5 Aggregates: Feeling & Body)
- Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising