Practice Circle: Meditation Basics: The Body Scan

Whether you’re new to meditation or you’ve been doing it a long time, it’s always good, I think, to spend some time working on the fundamentals. There are a thousand kinds of meditation and more are created every day. Sometimes we forget, however, that the very basic methods that we learned starting out are still inexhaustible sources of insight and wisdom.

So when Practice Circle gathers this Sunday, May 25, at 8 pm Central, we’ll explore one of the first things one learns in a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course – the body scan.
The classic MBSR body scan moves very slowly and methodically, inviting awareness to visit every part of the body. It can take 45 minutes to complete, and for the first weeks of an MBSR class participants are asked to practice the body scan every day. Why this heavy emphasis on the body scan?

Whether we’re beginners or veterans, the body scan teaches us two very important things. First, it demonstrates to us that our awareness is always embodied. We are truly not ghosts riding around in our own heads; rather, our awareness extends throughout the body, and even beyond it into our environment. We often live so much in our heads (which is natural, given that our eyes and ears are there) that we don’t even notice the rest of the body. But every sensation is sending us a message, even if we don’t pay attention until the body has to demand it by becoming painful or sick. The body scan is the first step to accessing the body’s wisdom, which is always far greater, richer and more complex than what we can perceive or process with our thinking minds.

The second lesson is that we can, in fact, direct our own awareness. Until we practice this vital skill, our awareness spends most of the time being dragged this way and that by all kinds of things, from the popups and notifications on our phones to the chaotic chatter of our own thoughts. Because we tend to spend so much time in mindless distraction, we might not even realize that we can direct our attention. Once we have a little practice with the body scan, however, we learn that we have a choice about how to direct our own awareness, especially when some electronic distraction, or our own turbulent thoughts and emotions, attempt to pull it elsewhere.

The same interoception we practice in the body scan, then, can also be used to listen to the felt sense of the body in any situation. By directing awareness and holding a space for sensations in the core of the body – the gut, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat – we can invite the vast trove of wisdom it contains to reveal the truth of our situation to it.
In fact, we already do this all the time. The reason I’m able to have a casual conversation with you, and you’re immediately able to understand me, is that we don’t have to stop to think out what to say, or to translate what’s been said. We feel what words are right, and what they mean – and if the words aren’t right, they feel and sound “off.” This process is so subtle and fast that we don’t realize we’re doing it – until the sustained, interoceptive awareness we practice in the body scan enables us to discover that our bodies are actively involved in how we make and express meaning in the world.

So the body scan may be a vey simple practice – just being mindfully aware of the foot, the hand, the belly. But it is the key that opens the door to the incredible wealth of wisdom the body contains. It’s a practice that’s well worth returning to, again and again.

Since 2012, the SBA has offered Practice Circle, our online practice community. We meet on the second and fourth Sundays of every month at 8 p.m. Central.  It’s free, and everyone is welcome.  Just click on this link Sunday evening to attend..