Only the body

Following on from my previous post talking about getting out of your head and into your body and feelings, I’d like to take it a little further and discuss some of the insights that have come up for me around that later on as a result of practice. A snappy little soundbite summarising these insights could be: there is only the body. The external world and the mind: they don’t exist.

Now this is a little disingenuous and deliberately exaggeratory. I’m merely hammering home the point that there is no difference between the external and the internal, or the body and the mind. As people, we have separate sensate realities, constructed from the phenomena of the six sense doors: hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and thinking. They’re all the same reality and not separate from you. They make you up experientially, as how else would you even know you existed? If you had never thought of thoughts as sense objects before, then do some practice noticing how you experience them, how they mesh with feelings to create your emotional states, and noticing how you react to them. I cannot stress enough: this is the foundation of practice. Do this practice in order to really get in touch with how your experience works. There is no secret advanced teaching of vipassana I am aware of that doesn’t involve looking at sensations intimately. They impact upon your sensorium in the same way that physical sensations do, out of nowhere, out of your control, fading away quickly, meshing with the rest of the phenomena of experience to create the sense of here and now. The privileging of mental sensations over physical ones is a particularly contemporary phenomenon, not a universal one, belonging to a subset of people who put great importance on the concept of the rational as being unemotional thought. Considering how we all act on, defend and enjoy our feelings, this is not very realistic, and a tad delusive.

This is why many spiritual teachers will talk about integration a lot. One of the fruits of practice is the removal of false hierarchies in experience, as if the body needs to be harnessed to the will of the mind, rather than the two being equally essential and interacting components of a full life. The physics-minded Daniel Ingram talks about ‘field integration’, which is a technical way of describing having the insight of all the phenomena of experience as having the same essential characteristics. More hippy teachers may talk about energy or vibrations, which again gives this sense of phenomena having equality. Not focusing on one self of phenomena over another is important for physical and mental well-being in the conventional sense, as avoiding that pain in your back might lead to injury, pretending you are happy all the time can lead to secret depression, and not noticing the suffering of others is a lack of empathy. In the contemplative sense, investigating as many sensations as possible will make you intellectually and deeply realise that they are all incredibly similar, and this leads to some startling revelations around the process of suffering.

So, to go back to our exaggeration that there is ‘only the body’: have a look at your thoughts. They are not, in the end, made of a different ‘stuff’ to the physical, as the philosophers of mind-body dualism would have us believe. There is no psychic substance that I have become aware of in my practice. In fact, everything mental has become more and more physical-seeming. This is why the Buddhists talk about the heartmind or citta, a more integrated sense of thoughts and feelings coming from the same intuitive centre. I like the phrase bodymind, as it points to the same thing. Looked at extremely closely, thoughts seem to break up into itty-bitty ‘mind movements’, with a physicality all of their own. Even our metaphors rely on the physical, and this is where I encourage the linguistically minded to look at how the language you use reflects how our reality is constructed: our concepts ‘point to’ answers, we get ‘ahead of ourselves’, we ‘look forward’ to events. the Actual Freedom lot talk about there being ‘only this flesh and blood body’, and in many ways this is a very grounding way of looking at practice. Get into what is here for you, right now, rather than trying to contact some kind of magical higher plane where everything is perfect. I know that some practitioners deliberately try to contact other entities and realms, but personally, I have enough trouble with this plane of existence alone, thank you very much.

This all points us towards the truth of non-inherency, that there is no phenomenon that has even the smallest quality of separate and permanent existence. However, this is a little hard to fathom, so it can be useful to practice at a certain level of inherency. We can’t act meaningfully in the world without acting as if cause and effect are real, that we are persons with moral obligations and some continuity of existence, as opposed to throwing it all up in the air and saying we don’t exist, so bugger it all. The level, therefore, that is useful to use, is that everything is made of the same substance- the physical. Now, I didn’t work all this out through some kind of philosophical reasoning: what happened was that the mind became more and more elusive, and its contents more and more seemingly physical, that I began to identify much more with the body than with the mind. The Buddha sensibly counsels an agnostic approach for the beginner as to whether there is truly a self or not that never dies, which is to say the concept of the eternal consciousness needs to be put aside to focus on the phenomenal. I think it is telling that western scientific thinkers have begun to openly scoff at the idea of the soul, and yet many talk about ‘mind’ with such enthusiasm that they are clearly crowning it instead.

This is not to get all materialist about it and say that everything is just neurons firing, and so love is just a bunch of chemicals. The experience of love is so much more than that to me, something transcendent. Out of the mundane layers of logic gates that make up our bodies, comes something more amazing than that. While love may not have any material existence, if non-inherency is true, then there is no more reality to your body than to your thoughts. But going right into what is felt, right here and now, indirectly contacts the unconditional, which cannot be searched for directly. Service work is incredibly grounded and does not even have to involve a concept of God, and yet it hits me right in that mysterious place of absolute meaning every time. When it is embodied in rolling a patient, or singing for donations, or listening closely, it is all the more real. As a part of this ongoing exchange of assistance, the difference between your body and the outside will blur.

Suggested practices

  • Look at your thoughts. What do they feel like? What are they? How do they manifest? Where do they go?
  • Stay in the body’s sensations all day, trusting your mind to interject where required (and not required)
  • Are your responses more based on your thoughts or your feelings?