Get out of your head

The most obvious, concrete, inarguable meditation object is the body. It is the archetypical starting point, as it bears so much fruit in terms of self-knowledge. Working with the body had such a cornucopia of benefits for me that I fear generalising not one little bit when I say ‘get into your body even if you consider yourself a meditation veteran’.

Your body is where the feelings are. For a long time I sneered at the very gentle, touchy-feely spiritual writers that said ‘get in touch with your emotions’. It wasn’t that I was completely cold myself and expressed a lot of love through service; but I saw all that emotional life as occurring in my head where all the opinions were, and dissonantly didn’t quite associate that fully with all the tumult in the body. I don’t even use the phrase ’emotions’ much now, as that implies to me a mixture of thought and feeling. I much prefer just saying ‘feelings’, to hammer home the fact that they are felt in the body.

Practicing with the body has immediate benefits, which is why it is increasingly (finally!) being taken seriously in mental healthcare. Lack of body awareness is unsafe and dissociative, and pretty indicative of a wider cultural trend that I won’t harp on about. I began to notice the subtleties of when I had overslept and was fuzzy, when I was overtired and buzzing, early enough that I could choose to stop burning the candle at both ends. Doing mindfulness of eating makes me want to enjoy my meals rather than not even noticing them because I’m watching the television at the same time. And you can be damn sure I bend with my legs rather than my back these days, noticing how much strain I was ignoring.

The body is, in some ways, all there is. Suffering is seen as a mental phenomenon, but it is knowable only by the physical symptoms. It all boils down to unpleasant bodily sensations in the end. Thoughts trigger them, and you can patiently rationalise to yourself why everything is fine to reassure yourself, but by that point your nervous system has already responded. When I was doing a lot of Mahasi noting practice, there was a high degree of concentration and mindfulness, and thoughts would seem to be little ‘mind movements’ with a certain physicality under this microscope. Try it yourself- I bet your eyes even roll upwards to ‘see’ what’s going on up there.

Writers like Jack Kornfield and others with a humanistic psychology background note that there is a large sociological component to this. Depending on your upbringing, you might have been told overtly or implicitly that perfectly usual bodily functions such as defecation, sweating, urination, vulval secretion or ejaculation are in some way disgusting, embarrassing or just not something that we polite people talk about. This can bring a lack of awareness to body parts such as the genitals, anus or skin as we phase them out, as well as various illnesses. Try leaving your smartphone in your pocket when you have a dump.

A spiritual healer friend of mine pointed out that whether you believe in the chakras or not, white blokes tend to be all about what’s above the waist and not really be in touch with what’s below it, and I spent a lot of time focusing on the soles of my feet as they touched the ground to counter this, and it’s very reassuring. You could even do an audit in the form of a body map about where you find your attention.

When I was on an extended retreat, I spent a few days noticing how my reactions felt. Pleasant feelings were like a light aura that seemed to extend up and out of my body; negative emotions seemed to trigger a rush of midline cringing and heaviness. Could you describe how ‘happy’ feels if I asked? What tenses when you are pissed off? How long are you stiff like that after the stimulus has gone? Gestalt therapists reportedly love this sort of thing- some of the most tall and burly blokes I know live in a perpetual hunch. It’s healthy to live with a straight back, you know! How does it feel to straighten/open up?

If this all seems remarkably concrete for someone who thinks that pretty much any quantifiable benefit of practice is a fringe bonus, it is again linkable straight away to the unconditioned. Your body is giving massive messages out irregardless of whatever you say. Is it expressing kindness even to someone you hate? Is it open despite the vulnerability this implies? Are you noticing your own craving and aversion as it blossoms in you? Inhabit your own body and find out.

Further practice suggestions

  • Sing. Do you use all your lungs? Do you know how to breathe fully to belt out a song?
  • Dance. Especially if you hate to. Caveat: All parts of your body must move.
  • Read a Biology textbook. Pray to God and give thanks for your bloody amazing body.
  • Can you notice all the pleasant sensations in your body and let yourself enjoy them?
  • Next time you are panicking, watch exactly how it manifests.