Even as one who encompasses with his mind the mighty ocean includes thereby all the rivulets that run into the ocean; just so, O monks, whoever develops and cultivates mindfulness directed to the body includes thereby all the wholesome states that partake of supreme knowledge.
One thing, O monks, if developed and cultivated, leads to a strong sense of urgency; to great benefit; to great security from bondage; to mindfulness and clear comprehension; to the attainment of vision and knowledge; to a pleasant dwelling in this very life; to the realisation of the fruit of knowledge and liberation. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body….
If one thing, O monks, is developed and cultivated, the body is calmed, the mind is calmed, discursive thoughts are quietened, and all wholesome states that partake of supreme knowledge reach fullness of development. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body….
If one thing, O monks, is developed and cultivated, ignorance is abandoned, supreme knowledge arises, delusion of self is given up, the underlying tendencies are eliminated, and the fetters are discarded. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body.
I’ve quoted Nyanaponika Thera’s translation of AN 1.8 i in its entirety because I find it such a remarkable document (you can read the whole translation here). Gotama is saying that developing mindfulness of the body is the one essential practice of awakening. To put a point on it, we find him saying this in the second section of AN 1.8:
They have not realised the Deathless who have not realised mindfulness directed to the body. They have realised the Deathless who have realised mindfulness directed to the body.
Here we recognize “the Deathless” as a synonym for the supreme state of nibbana. Given the multitude of contemplative practices mentioned in the Pali texts, it is quite eye-opening to find a sutta that lays such primary emphasis on those catagorized as “mindfulness directed to the body.”
Why is body mindfulness so important? Gotama gives us hints in the passage: “The body is calmed, the mind is calmed, discursive thoughts are quietened.” The first discovery we make as we practice mindfulness of the body is that our awareness is not hostage to every passing distraction, but is something we can actually direct, that it is possible for us to settle it, rest it, hold it still (at least momentarily). As we experience in mediation, directing our awareness to the body — perhaps the sensation of breathing, or of our sitting posture, or of the pressure of gravity holding us — brings us out of the thoughtstream and situates us in the moment. Rather than being pulled and pushed by the egoic monkey mind, our consciousness has the opportunity to witness what is actually before it.
What it witnesses is that our experience is entirely formed of our senses making contact with their objects. We witness how that sensory experience arises, changes, and disappears. Here, too, embodiment is essential. For instance, to experience that a strong emotion is, at its basis, a series of shifting sensations in the body is to open up a space around that emotion, to divest it of its story so we can be free to choose whether and how to respond to it. And as we do so, we can observe how that story arises in reaction to the sensations and their feeling tones, and recognize that it is only a story.
If we engage in the process often enough, we come to see how the concatination of desires and aversions produce the chimerical self, and come to recognize that “selfing” as it’s happening. The body is both our anchor in the moment-to-moment flow of experience, and the platform from which we can learn about craving and release it.
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It’s interesting to note that mindfulness of the body is also the central practice taught to students of MBSR and other mindfulness-based theraputic practices. In the classic MBSR curriculum, the first form of meditation students learn is the body scan, the practice of directing curious, non-judgemental awareness to sensations from various parts of the body, starting from the feet and moving up to the head before finally resting in awareness of the whole body. Mindful yoga, a series of easy stretches and balancing poses performed slowly and with a focus on body awareness, is also a central part of MBSR practice. And the central strategy of mindfulness as taught in the MBIs is to bring awareness to emotions and sensations as they manifest themselves in the body, again with curiosity and non-judgement.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about body awareness in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, we can hear echoes of the “supreme knowledge” Gotama speaks of in the Anguttara Nikaya:
Sitting still or lying still, in any moment we can reconnect with our body, transcend the body, merge with the breath, with the universe, experience ourselves as whole and folded into larger and larger wholes. A taste of interconnectedness brings deep knowledge of belonging, a sense of being an intimate part of things, a sense of being at home wherever we are. We may taste and wonder at an ancient timelessness beyond birth and death, and simultaneously experience the fleeting brevity of this life as we pass through it, the impermanence of our ties to our body, to this moment, to each other. Knowing our wholeness directly in the meditation practice, we may find ourselves coming to terms with things as they are, a deepening of understanding and compassion, a lessening of anguish and despair.
This Sunday night, July 13, 2014, Practice Circle will be sharing a variety of techniques to help us reconnect with the body. If you’d like to join us, you can learn how here.