I did not begin my Buddhist practice with any intention to discover my body. Except for placing it on the meditation cushion, I had no idea that the body had any importance to the path of practice. Even during my early months and years of meditation when my body painfully revealed patterns of tension and psychological holding, I was convinced that these physical difficulties were nuisances to be ignored or transcended rather than the actual substance and unfolding of practice. Slowly over the years, as my body began to come alive, I was, and still am, repeatedly surprised by how much awareness, love and compassion are found in and through the body. I have learned that mindfulness of the body is the foundation of mindfulness practice, and one of the best friends we have for integrating that practice into daily life.
The Buddha himself said, “There is one thing that when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.” Elsewhere, the Buddha said, “If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated.”
There are shelf after shelf of Western books on Buddhism which make virtually no mention of the body, thus giving the impression that Buddhism is an intellectual or mentally oriented tradition. In contrast to this impression, I understand Buddhist practice, especially the practice of mindfulness, to be an invitation to experience our bodies and to embody our experience, or, as the Scripture on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness puts it, “to experience the breath in the breath and the body in the body.” Distancing himself from metaphysics and speculations the Buddha was interested in understanding how we experience and perceive directly through our psycho-physical senses. He taught that for the purpose of awakening and spiritual freedom, everything that we need to realize about the world is found within our body. Without rejecting the notion of an objective world, the Buddha focused so much on the role of the senses and perception that he repeatedly claimed that, “within this very fathom-long body, with its perceptions and inner sense, lies the world, the cause of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path that leads to the cessation of the world.”
During my early vipassana practice in Thailand, Achaan Buddhadasa said at the opening of a ten-day retreat, “Do not do anything that takes you out of your body.” When I remembered this—for me puzzling—instruction I began to realize how often my center of attention and gravity was projected in front of me. The more I settled into my body, the more sensitive I became to ever subtler movements away from that center due to ever subtler attachments and aversions of the mind. Gradually, I learned that mindfulness of the body is one of the best windows I have into my inner life.
Mindfulness of the body can also greatly facilitate our capacity for being present for painful or overwhelming emotions by helping us recognize the body as the container for those emotions. Buddhist psychology claims that emotions are always embodied and so can be felt in the body. Sometimes fear involves a tightening of the stomach, anger a heated face, joy a tingling or warmth in the chest, and restlessness an energy coursing through the arms. By focusing on the bodily sensations produced by these emotions, it becomes easier to remain present for them and allow mindfulness to reveal their deeper nature.
Much of Western culture views the body as an object to be manipulated. “Body consciousness” has come to refer to the external image that we not only project but also create with the help of cosmetics, hair stylists, the fashion and advertising industries, and the local gym. By contrast, in mindfulness practice we are developing a form of body consciousness that involves a subjective awareness of the body from the inside out. This inner subjective world is the real source of our vitality; objectifying the body can disconnect us from our own sense of aliveness.
When we become aware of how we actually experience the body from the inside, we begin to learn that the body is awareness itself, a process rather than a “thing”. The Buddhist literature even distinguishes a variety of different “bodies”—the energy body, the bliss body, the transformation body, the diamond body, the karmic body, and the awareness body. It is possible for a meditator to experience all of these different bodies, often as a flow of energy or field of awareness.
Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, mindfulness of the body is the foundation of practice. Various schools of Mahayana Buddhism also place great importance on body consciousness. Several Mahayana scriptures insist that “the body itself is bodhi (awakening).” One tantric song says, “Here in this body are the sacred rivers: here are the sun and moon, as well as all the pilgrimage places. I have not encountered another temple as blissful as my own body.” The Japanese Zen tradition has also stressed the importance of the conscious participation of the body in practice. Zen Master Dogen dissolved the dualism when he wrote that “mindfulness of the body is the body’s mindfulness.”
In the end, the central position of the body in Buddhist practice does not mean we need to willfully direct our attention toward the body as if awareness and the body were two separate things. Mindfulness of the body is, instead, an invitation for us to open to the awareness which is already present in the body. Practice is not directing or creating something. The beginning and end of practice is the awakening of what is already there—within this very fathom-long body.