Body Meditation

| August 6, 2012 | 16 Comments


Buddha directed people to contemplating the body frequently, and for good reasons. Meditating on the body:

  • Helps get you out of your head
  • Reminds us of our physical nature and characteristics
  • Provides several points to settle busy minds
  • Shows us the direct experience of impermanence and not self

 

For the next couple of weeks, do this body meditation for at least 10 minutes each day, or at when you can. Over time, you’ll observe interesting changes. This body meditation also helps with concentration, and is good for especially restless minds. Sometimes I do this body meditation before settling on the breath for the rest of the meditation.

Body Mediation Steps

  • Sit on a chair or a meditation cushion so you are comfortable
  • Shake out your hands and arms, then rest them comfortably on your lap or thighs
  • Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, inhaling slowing and exhaling slowly
  • With eyes closed, bring your mental attention to the top of your head. Can you feel any sensations? Many parts of the body may be imperceptible.
  • Keep your attention on the top of your head. If your attention veers, or you are interrupted with a thought, let go of the thought, and move your attention down your ears.
  • Focus your attention on your ears. Keep your attention there, mentally observing or being present with your ears. When your attention veers again, move your attention to your face.
  • Keep your attention on your face. You can focus on your whole face, or start at your forehead and stay there, only moving down as your attention drifts, or thoughts interrupt you.
  • Next move your attention to your neck, then shoulders, then chest, then back, moving downward only as your attention is pulled away by interrupting thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc.

Throughout the rest of this meditation, you will keep your attention on a certain part of the body, stay focused there as long as you can. As soon as something arises to interrupt your concentration on that part of the body, such as a thought, sensation, sound, etc., move down to the next part of the body. Continue this body mention all the way to your feet, and then back up again. Don’t worry about the order of body parts where you direct your attention. Just stay with each part as long as you can before letting go of what interrupts you and moving to the next.

This meditation can take a long time if your concentration lasts a long time in each area. If your mind is busy and continuously interrupts you, then you move through this meditation more quickly. If you practice this meditation daily, you may experience an increase in concentration, and some days you may only have time to focus on a few body parts. Other days you’ll notice you went through a whole body scan because thoughts kept interrupting you. As with meditations on the breath, the idea is to always let go of whatever interrupts. Letting go gets a good workout while concentration increases.

Another variation of this meditation I enjoy is focusing only on body parts where I have strong sensation such as pressure, warmth, pain, etc. I start at whatever sensation is strongest in my head, then move down to the pressure points of my arms against my sides, then to the warmth of my hands on my thighs, etc.

You can also do a version of body meditation while out and about. If I’m standing in line at the grocery store, I focus my attention on the sensation of my feet pressing into the floor, any breezes that whisk past, the cool feel of the handle of the shopping cart, the feeling of my breath going in and out. Of course, while in public I keep my eyes open!

This is not about zoning out. Body meditation helps us to learn to let go of whatever arises in the mind, helps keep us in contact with an ever-changing body, the fact that our bodies are impermanent, and these changing bodies are not self. Additionally, body meditation helps keep us grounded, out of the drama and stories of our minds, and helps us to train us to only follow skillful thoughts while being mindful of where we are in our environment and how we interact with the world.

See Also:

Staying in the Body and Out of the Mind

Weekly Practice

Category: Articles

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

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  1. John D says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll give it a try.

  2. Seekingbodhi says:

    Body meditation is absolutely necessary for the liberation of the mind. We inhabit bodies, denying our bodies is to deny the reality that we are apart of. I remember as a child living heavily in the body. It was only with adolescence that I came to live inside my mind and have found that the more time spent feeling your body and the world it reacts with the more you can quiet the mind.

  3. Hi Dana,

    This is not about zoning out. Body meditation helps us to learn to let go of whatever arises in the mind, helps keep us in contact with an ever-changing body, the fact that our bodies are impermanent, and these changing bodies are not self. Additionally, body meditation helps keep us grounded, out of the drama and stories of our minds, and helps us to train us to only follow skillful thoughts while being mindful of where we are in our environment and how we interact with the world.

    As someone who is offering advice to others about such matters, I really hope you’ll give a lot more thought (pun intended!) to this modern-day rhetoric of body=good/mind=bad, as is certainly implied here of not explicitly stated. You could begin by examining the unstated values inherent in this last paragraph alone.

    Body meditation helps us to learn to let go of whatever arises in the mind,

    Why in the world should anyone want to do that? Imagine the terrible consequences for culture. Imagine having a conversation about politics and doing that. Can’t “the drama and stories of our minds” have tremendous value for us? Think of the scientist’s thought experiments or of the powerful insights of psychoanalysis or of the creative process. Just think of the breakthroughs that can follow an impassioned discussion or even argument with someone you care for about a topic that really matters to both of you. Lots of drama and story swirling around in each case. Is it possible that “keeping grounded” can be at times a hindrance to human flourishing? Is, in fact, what you are suggesting here a kind of cognitive “zoning out” after all?

    What does it mean “to only follow skillful thoughts”? How do you know if a thought is skillful or not? I know what the literary figure known as the Buddha has to say about this. I know what Jon Kabot-Zinn and Dogen say. But I mean you–how do you know? Isn’t that knowing just another register of thinking itself? It’s a form of judgement, right? Who or what validates that judgement as “skillful” or “unskillful”?

    helps keep us in contact with an ever-changing body, the fact that our bodies are impermanent, and these changing bodies are not self.

    Don’t we have plenty of evidence for all of that already, without engaging in a practice rooted in an ancient ascetic impulse toward a kind of obliteration of conceptualization? Do we share the basic values that gave rise to this practice? Do you know people who have that impulse? If so, is it necessarily healthy for them? Wouldn’t it take a gargantuan act of self-delusion not to see all of this about the body? Was this post directed to the deeply deluded among us? If so, maybe you should point that out. I myself assume that the person I’m offering advice to is as intelligent and capable as I am.

    • practicinglife says:

      Glenn. I often question the validity and relevance of this exercise as well. What I have found is that it simply offers a different point of view other than “your own.” In my personal experience I have found that attention can be absorbed in only one place at a time, either your body or your mind. One is no “better” than the other. But if you never leave your mind then you may never look at the mind itself, you can only look “from” or “through” it, and live your life driven by forces which you have never seen for your self. This, then, is the benefit that may be cultivated through this practice. Thoughts move in a linear fashion, and unless this line is broken through a channel such as meditation, our entire being is dragged along this “line” of thought without much control.
      I am not in a state of perpetual bliss, I do not feel only love toward things at all times, I might even be “doing it wrong”, but what I have gained from this practice cannot be replaced.

  4. We need better advice on how your html tags work here. Here’s my comment in better form. (Please delete the messed up version):

    Hi Dana,

    You write:

    “This is not about zoning out. Body meditation helps us to learn to let go of whatever arises in the mind, helps keep us in contact with an ever-changing body, the fact that our bodies are impermanent, and these changing bodies are not self. Additionally, body meditation helps keep us grounded, out of the drama and stories of our minds, and helps us to train us to only follow skillful thoughts while being mindful of where we are in our environment and how we interact with the world.”

    As someone who is offering advice to others about such matters, I really hope you’ll give a lot more thought (pun intended!) to this modern-day rhetoric of body=good/mind=bad, as is certainly implied here of not explicitly stated. You could begin by examining the unstated values inherent in this last paragraph alone.

    You write: “Body meditation helps us to learn to let go of whatever arises in the mind,”

    Why in the world should anyone want to do that? Imagine the terrible consequences for culture. Imagine having a conversation about politics and doing that. Can’t “the drama and stories of our minds” have tremendous value for us? Think of the scientist’s thought experiments or of the powerful insights of psychoanalysis or of the creative process. Just think of the breakthroughs that can follow an impassioned discussion or even argument with someone you care for about a topic that really matters to both of you. Lots of drama and story swirling around in each case. Is it possible that “keeping grounded” can be at times a hindrance to human flourishing? Is, in fact, what you are suggesting here a kind of cognitive “zoning out” after all?

    What does it mean to “only follow skillful thoughts”? How do you know if a thought is skillful or not? I know what the literary figure known as the Buddha has to say about this. I know what Jon Kabot-Zinn and Dogen say. But I mean you–how do you know? Isn’t that knowing just another register of thinking itself? It’s a form of judgement, right? Who or what validates that judgement as “skillful” or “unskillful”?

    About your comment that body meditation “helps keep us in contact with an ever-changing body, the fact that our bodies are impermanent, and these changing bodies are not self.”

    Don’t we have plenty of evidence for all of that already, without engaging in a practice rooted in an ancient ascetic impulse toward a kind of obliteration of conceptualization? Do we share the basic values that gave rise to this practice? Do you know people who have that impulse? If so, is it necessarily healthy for them? Wouldn’t it take a gargantuan act of self-delusion NOT to see all of this about the body? Was this post directed to the deeply deluded among us? If so, maybe you should point that out. I myself assume that the person I’m offering advice to is as intelligent and capable as I am.

    • ruedade says:

      I would say we have irrefutable evidence that every living creature born into this world will die, yet how many of us live life as if we are immortal?
      Intellectual understanding simply means we know what the words mean. Experience is the best teacher.

  5. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Glenn, I find body meditation incredibly useful for the reasons I stated. Yes, we have plenty of evidence that the body is changing, but it’s not uncommon for us to get fixated mentally about our bodies being in a specific condition: healthy, fit, young. And while that is “normal” it can cause a lot of grief and suffering when something happens. Staying in touch with our bodies helps mitigate that. If we watch the changes as they occur aging is more normal. When things go wrong it’s not so shocking. It’ just helps us maintain a realistic view. Yes, the evidence is always there, but for people who live a great deal in the head, and I’m one of them, body meditation is a good grounding experience.

    Who would want to do this? Well, obviously me, and it is discussed throughout the suttas. It’s also useful when we are stuck in our heads for some reason, and want to get off the thought merry-go-round, want to get a little distance from our thoughts. Body meditation helps us do that.

    This is a meditation people can try. This is not a directive that you must do it or die. Of course, what’s going on in our heads is important, but coming back to the body gives us some space, some time to chill, and then take a fresh look. We don’t always need that of course, but when we do, our bodies are always there.

    It’s also a nice meditation for people who are restless, who want to calm there busy minds. This meditation is for whoever decides they want to try it and see if it’s useful. I’m not judging who may be deluded or who isn’t. You do go off on some odd tangents!

  6. Candol says:

    Hey dana i really like this approach to sensations on the body. I’m going to try it with my group next week. Thanks for sharing it. btw did you make this up or did you learn it from one of your teachers?

  7. Candol says:

    In response to Glenn, i see meditation on the body in this manner and the version of Goenka when its part of a practice of mindfulness on all areas as being useful in various ways. I think one thing in particular is that it can make us more aware of our bodies, when we are holding stress, when the way we hold our bodies may cause more discomfort or be reflective of other mental states. The idea being meditating on the body in sitting meditation increases our awareness of the body and what’s going on with it outside of sitting meditation.

    People have tended to objectify their bodies and to separate their sense of themselves from their bodies with the business of loving and hating our bodies because it doesn’t look the way we wish it would or function as well as we think it should. I think this meditation on our bodies can make us more in touch with our bodily experience, more sensitive and perhaps can help bring about a kinder attitude towards ourselves as well.

    I wouldn’t however try to practice only meditation of the body. That doesn’t really make sense to me as i don’t think its the most direct way of knowing what’s going on in the deepest part of our experience. It is a way of bypassing thought though and that can sometimes be helpful. Sometimes its good to take a break from thinking and our compulsive or obsessive thoughts. Focussing our attention on the body must give the mind a chance to settle down and let some of those disturbing thoughts go away.

  8. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Candol, this is a combination of advice Shaila had given me, and more basic body meditation I read about. I have found it helpful, especially in when boredom arises. Let us know how it goes for you!

  9. Candol says:

    I did this body meditation tonight with my very small group. It went well. The guy who has Parkinsons was more alert and less restless than usual. He did not shuffle his feet at all though we are not too sure if that had anything to do with changing the height of his chair as well.

    Mind you i was also telling him to look for sensations and not just concentrate on body parts. I did complexify your method a bit. I also told them to continue doing the noting of their thoughts when they got distracted as they had learnt to do last week. And i introduced the idea of impermanence for the first time.

    So yes they were being asked to do a lot with their minds but seemed to cope and felt good afterwards.

    So i’d say what i did was half your method and half goenka’s method with a dash of Sayadaw thrown in.

    I remember when i first learnt goenka’s method. I mean the first day. It was interesting to move the mind from one spot to the other looking for sensations but it quite quickly became bloody hard work and i gave up before the end of the retreat. I found my mind wandered so little that i was working too hard and i didn’t like that. I should have just rested in anapansati but i realised that only later.

    Next week, i consider telling them to just focus on concentrating for a while and not look for sensations.

  10. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    That’s great, Candol.

    Shaila had recommended a body meditation for me when my mind was super restless. It gives you something to do while being mindful of important information. I found over time, I was able to move from body meditation to just sitting and breathing.

    Now, when I find boredom or restlessness arise unbearably, I go back to body meditation. Instead of doing a full body meditation, I just focus on pressure points or places of heat, so it’s just sitting points of contact my hands, and maybe the feeling of my arms at my sides. So there are really only about 4 places on each side of the body I’m paying attention to, and I go up and down, focusing on each of those for awhile. When my mind settles, I go back to just the breath.

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Candol says:

    Dana do you know Goenka’s method of looking for sensations? Have you done it? You know, the one where you are trying to get to the point where you can detect sensations over the whole of your body, particularly becoming aware of vibrations as well any other fine or subtle sensations and when you apply this with feeling tone and practicing equanimity? I never got to the point of feeling vibrations per se but i certainly did begin to notice a lot of tiny sensations that i am not usually aware of.

    In his method, you start of slowly and incrementally and gradually do larger and larger sections at once and also you can do it much faster “sweeping” and do it in every direction through the body. You mind can move a great deal and is very active. But you can also slow it down and do lots of focus.

    Gosh i’m kicking myself now for not trying harder the first time but luckily i am going to one again in October so i will give it my all then. And hopefully i won’t pike out this time.

  12. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Candol, I’m not familiar with Goenka at all. He’s probably been mentioned at talks I’ve been to, or in books I’ve read and maybe I don’t recall, but until you mentioned him, I didn’t know anything about him or his methods.

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