Recently, SBA Community Director Jennifer Hawkins engaged us with folks from the North American Buddhist Alliance to talk about the body scan, a practice used widely in both Buddhist meditation and mindfulness programs. If you’re not familiar with it, it consists of systematically directing your concentrated awareness to one body part at a time, starting at one end of your body and gradually working your way to the other. The discussion concerned the fact that transgender or disabled practitioners may have very different relationships with their bodies than cisgender or non-disabled/able-bodied folks, especially regarding those places most associated with gender identity, and that these differences that may not be accounted for by the standard body scanning instructions. Would it be possible, Jenn asked us, to come up with a body scan practice that might be especially useful for such practitioners?
Our conversation began with looking at the descriptions (or euphemisms, frequently) that mindfulness teachers use to describe genitalia in their body scan instructions. This was a helpful beginning, but as I thought about the topic, it seemed to me a deeper understanding of the body scan process itself might help lead to a more supportive practice.
In the MBIs, body scanning serves three main purposes. First, it introduces us to the act of concentrating and focusing awareness. As basic as this might sound, most of us in our daily lives seldom take an opportunity to pay attention on purpose to a single aspect of our moment-to-moment experience. Since training the mind is what mindfulness is all about, it’s first necessary to learn that focusing awareness is possible, and to gain initial experience in what it’s like to bring attention back to it’s object over and over again. Rather than beginning with something subtle or abstract, we start simply: What does your left foot feel like right now?
Secondly, the body scan allows us to explore being an embodied living being. We tend to live in our heads, in our thoughts and fantasies, to the extent that we seem to be piloting our bodies at a slight remove, sort of like the Power Rangers in their big robots. But the split between the body and the mind is only an illusion: our consciousness always arises from and pervades the entire body. Concentrations of neurons emerging from the spine begin to process information well before it reaches the brain, which is why we have “gut feelings” and “take things to heart,” why a tightening of the throat lets us know we’re about to cry. Our bodies contain the wisdom of millions of years of evolution, and they hold the unresolved tension and stress of our traumatic experiences. Before we can receive what the body has to teach us, however, we have to learn to listen to it, to experience the natural unity of what we call mind and body.
Finally, the body scan gives us a chance to practice non-judgmental acceptance. This is perhaps its most challenging aspect. Nearly all of us have a fraught relationship with our bodies: we don’t like the way they look, they don’t perform the way we want them to, they hurt, they demand things we can’t supply, they get sick and old. Especially if our body is storing trauma, it may seem to difficult to spend intimate time with it. Imagine, then, (if you aren’t already well familiar), what it’s like to feel that you have the wrong voice, the wrong skin, etc, that the most intimate parts of your body are foreign to you, and to face the life upheaval of trying to become who you most deeply are. Our difficulties with our bodies can only get worse when we experience them as places of shame, coercion, and resistance.
While not all of us face the challenges many transgender practitioners do, all of us struggle to be who we really are, and the body is the site of that struggle. But the body is also the site of our living experience. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, as long as we’re breathing, there’s more right with us than wrong with us. Ignoring the body, fighting with it or numbing it, may seem like the only coping strategies available to us, but they amount to pushing away our own lives. This doesn’t mean that changes might not be necessary for our physical and emotional well-being. And we certainly ought to be committed to the struggle to change how our society acts on the bodies of those it constructs as different. But unless we can learn to be with and accept our bodies as they are, right now, then any change we try to make will only tend to deepen our alienation from our own lives. When we can accept whatever our bodies present to us with kind attention, then we can act to change what we can from an intention of self love and compassion, and accept the inevitable changes we can’t prevent with more grace and ease.
As I thought through these things, it seemed to me that transgender folks, as well as anyone who has a greater share of difficulty being with the body, might benefit from a body scan with greater focus on loving acceptance than the standard body scan instructions provide. Benefactor practice is one of my favorite ways to experience the power of loving kindness and self compassion, because it begins with the tangible recollection of the love we have received from others, and helps us radiate that love to ourselves. So when Practice Circle meets this Sunday, October 22, 2017, at 8 pm Central, we’ll try out a body scan that invites us to bring the loving energy of our benefactors to help us hold whatever arises as we contemplate the body. If you’d like to be part of this experiment, you can join our video conference group simply by following this link: https://zoom.us/j/968569855.