Musings on Meditation V
Disclaimer: The world of meditation is vast and complex, just like you and me and all human beings. Different lineages, schools of thought, religions and traditions have different approaches. Feel free to to form your own opinions, get curious about what I say, disagree with me, and discover your own path. What follows is an expression of my own views, experience and learning.
This post is about one of my all-time favourite topics when it comes to meditation and spiritual practice: the role of the body. This is a crucial and underlooked aspect of meditation instruction that many people never really think or talk about. It also has a lot of impact and nuance, so it is worthy of our attention and understanding.
Without further ado, let’s get right into it. Warning: myths might be busted!
9. Don’t forget your body
A lot of people, meditators included, think meditation is about the mind and not the body. In most meditation instruction, our physical form is seen as a kind of unimportant passenger that we attend to briefly at the start or from time-to-time; as tangential to the practice, something that can just be ignored; or even as an unfortunate hindrance that we need to transcend. When the body is included in the practice, it is usually in a regulated or narrow form, like focus on the breath, or on certain sensations in a body-scan. This denies and limits the fullness and richness of embodied experience, of being incarnate (“to be made flesh”), which is actually at the heart of both meditation and life.
Maybe this is some remnant of mis-translation, or a subconscious interpretation from dualistic philosophies that separate mind and body. Regardless of where it comes from, it is an unhelpful framing because the mind-body duality is an artificial separation. It is a logical imposition that does not truly correspond with direct experience, or even with contemporary materialistic-scientific arguments. The yoga and meditation tradition, especially in esoteric and Tantric forms, offers multiple expansive and nuanced definitions of body and mind. Most of them have the interconnection of mind and body built-in to them, as this is a fundamental principle of the entire tradition. If mind were not intimately connected with body, what would be the point of doing yoga asana, breathing practices or any other physical practice at all? The whole basis of yoga is that mind and body are interconnected, they are two-in-one, or one-in-two, two sides of the same coin, two wings on one bird…however you want to put it.
Here are some words in the Sanskrit language* that relate to the body, parts of the body, and mind. Note how expansive and multi-layered these definitions are; they weave through multiple dimensions of life and experience, and are not confined to material or physical reality. Each separate meaning provides that part of the self with a place in the universe, and a significance in the experience of living. Since language to a very large extent shapes our reality, you could ask yourself: what would it be like to live in a world where you and all your parts were defined in these rich, full ways? English is related to Sanskrit, so some of this carries through, of course, but not all. Take some time as you read through these to imagine, wonder and notice where you feel these definitions and words…
- हृदय · hridaya · heart (or region of the heart as the seat of feelings and sensations), soul, mind (as the center of mental operations); the heart or interior of the body, the heart or center or core or essence or best or dearest or most secret part of anything. True or divine knowledge, the Veda. Science.
- देह · deha · the body (from the root dih, to plaster, mold, fashion. Form, shape, mass, bulk (as of a cloud). Person, individual. Appearance, manifestation, having the appearance of.
- शरीर · sharira · body or solid parts of the body. Any solid body. Bodily strength or frame, physiology, anatomy. One’s own body (ie. one’s own person). A small change in one vowel in this word turns it into शारीर · shaarira · embodied soul or spirit.
- इन्द्रिय · indriya · sense, organ or faculty of sense (as in the five organs of perception—eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin). Bodily power, power of the senses. Fit for or belonging to or agreeable to Indra, the god of the senses; a companion of Indra. Power, force, the quality that belongs to the mighty Indra. An exhibition of power, a powerful act, virile power.
- जिह्व · jihva · the tongue. The tongue or tongues of god of fire, agni, ie. various forms of flame. The tongue of a balance. Speech. Voracious or greedy, as in the way animals drink water from the tongue. The root of the jasmine flower. In astrology, the twenty-eighth yoga.
- पृष्ट · prishta · the back of the body, the spinal column. Standing forth prominently. The back as a prominent part of an animal, the hinder or rear part of anything. To carry on the back. The upper side, the roof of a house, the vault of heaven. A page of a book.
- त्वच् · tvac · skin, hide. To cover, darkness. Bark, rind, peel (of a fruit or tree). Surface (of the earth). A cow’s hide used in pressing out soma, the elixir of life. A leather bag. Cinnamon, especially cassia bark. A mystical name for the letter ya.
- प्राण · prana · the breath of life. Respiration, spirit, vitality. The five vital airs: prana, apana, vyana, samana, udana. Breath as a sign of strength. Vigor, energy, power—with all one’s strength, or with all one’s heart. Filled, full.
- मनस् · manas · mind (in its widest sense as applied to all the mental powers), intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience, will. The internal organ of perception and cognition, the faculty or instrument through which thoughts enter or by which objects of sense affect the soul. Sometimes joined with hrd or hrdaya, the heart. The spirit or spiritual principle, the breath or living soul that escapes from the body at death. Thought, imagination, excogitation, invention, reflection, opinion, intention, inclination, affection, desire, mood, temper, spirit.
Do you get a sense of all the possibilities that open up here? This is where the yoga and meditation traditions come from, this matrix of interwoven connection where every part of you and every part of the world exist in relationship to one another. Your skin is like the bark of a tree or the surface of the earth, your tongue like the tongue of flame, your back an opening to heaven, your mind connected to your heart, your heart as the seat of divine knowledge, your soul touched by your perceptions, your senses as companions of divine power in the world… In the ultimate sense, the whole world that you perceive is your body, which is why some practices invite you to explore not only within your skin but also the space above your head, below your feet, all around you and far into the distance. This is the esoteric or mystical knowledge that meditation, tantra and yoga are pointing to: how to actually experience this level of reality and embody it in the world.
Coming back down to Earth for a moment: I want to burst a bubble here and say that yoga, meditation, pranayama, are not about ‘changing the mind through the body’. I hear this framing a lot, and it makes it sound like your body is a tool that you use to re-arrange your mind. It’s not an incorrect way of putting it, but I dislike it because it seems to imply a hierarchy of the mind above the body, ie. that you need to use your mind to manipulate your body to improve your mind. As you can tell, it is also convoluted and unnecessary, yet another way to retain and impose mental top-down control on the living, breathing intelligence of your physical incarnation. If you really want to put things hierarchically, the fact of the matter is that the intelligence of the body (the term I love is bio-intelligence) far surpasses that of the conscious mind. But let’s forget about hierarchies, the best way is to put the two on equal footing, because that’s what they are. Mind and body are not locked in battle trying to outcompete each other; they are symbiotically interrelated layers of being that are working together to create and sustain your life. Touch one, and it ripples out to affect the other. It doesn’t matter which one you start with, as long as you allow their connection to remain open and flourish.
All this to say that meditation is not about the mind, nor is it about the body. It is about both, because they are one. Let your meditation practice reflect this.
In the interests of maitaining the health and longevity of your practice, and also in the interests of staying sane and balanced, find a way to incorporate your body into meditation. Look out for practices that advocate you shun, disregard, transcend, overcome or otherwise mistreat your physicality. Choose practices that make you feel connected to your life force, that help you honour your unique physical form, that are generous with praise, gratitude and admiration for matter.
One more thing: I wouldn’t worry about what other people say about your practice. Some people thrive on very “detached” practices, like imagining themselves in outer space, and others thrive on very “intimate” ones like breath or body-centered practices, and yet others cycle between the two at different times of life. Remember that on some level the whole universe is your body, at least according to the yoga tradition. So nothing is off-limits. As long as it’s working for you, go for it.
Next and final post in the series will be about the ultimate purpose of meditation, and how to conceive of it. Plus how to maintain a healthy balance between meditation and life.
*sourced with gratitude from The Radiance Sutras, Lorin Roche and learnsanskrit.cc