Our Bodies as Teachers

Our Bodies as Teachers

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,


Our Bodies as Teachers
Thursday, April 29, 2010


Dear Friends,

As I get older, I notice that I have the various aches and pains of aging, and I see how difficult it can sometimes be to stay mindful of my body as it is in the moment.  All sorts of judgments arise about myself and my body, especially as I age, and it’s difficult to be present for both the uncomfortable sensations arising from physical pain, such as an aching lower back, and unpleasant sensations arising from thoughts about how my body should or shouldn’t be in this moment.  I sometimes find it difficult to be present with my body as it is. 

Yet, whenever I am able to be fully present with my body, I find that it holds the key to experiencing this moment fully.  I can sense my body sensations, my breath, my energies, my emotions, and even the way that my thoughts reverberate in my body.  I can learn so much about myself and my present moment experience, just by dropping into what my body is experiencing at any particular moment.  The Buddha taught that the first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body because it is such a clear doorway to the present moment.  The body is always in the present moment, while the mind travels through time and space in the blink of an eye.

A good time to observe our bodies is while we are doing sitting meditation.  If an ache, pain or even pleasant sensation arises, do we notice it?  Can we sit with it, or do we try to push it away by thinking about something else.  If we are uncomfortable, can we offer ourselves the loving kindness that we would offer a friend, and allow ourselves to gently change position, or do we try to squelch the discomfort because we think we should be able to sit in a particular way?  We spend a lot of time thinking about our relationships with friends and families, what is our relationship with our own physical and energetic body? 

This Thursday, we will practice mindfulness of our bodies, moving deeply into the present moment through the doorway of the body.  After our guided meditation, we can share about our experiences of being with the body through difficult times and pleasant times.  How do we care for our bodies in a mindfully loving way, without indulging every sense desire?  The Buddha discovered that neither neglect of the body nor indulgence of the body lead to enlightenment, but instead offered the middle way.  For me, that middle way involves being present for my body in a way that I can choose the best way to respond to my own physical, energetic, and emotional needs.  The body offers us a direct way into the present moment and also gives us the gift of embodied life.  As Phillip Moffitt says (see below) we can begin to see our bodies as our teachers, and practice mindfulness of the body to help free our minds from suffering.

Please enjoy the two excepts below on Mindfulness of the Body.

I hope to see you on Thursday. 

with love,

From Awakening in the Body, Phillip Moffitt, Shambhala Sun, September 2007:

Many meditation students view body awareness as just a starting point for their practice. They tend to skip over it in order to focus on their mind states and emotions, believing that’s where they will experience the deepest insights. But the truth is, your body is the ideal mirror for discovering the Buddha’s great truths of suffering (dukkha), change (anicca), and “not self” (anatta).

In the Anguttara Nikaya (sutta I, 21) the Buddha states, “There is one thing, monks, that, cultivated and regularly practiced leads to a deep sense of urgency…to the supreme peace…to mindfulness and clear comprehension…to the attainment of right vision and knowledge…to happiness here and now…to realizing deliverance by wisdom and the fruition of Holiness: It is mindfulness of the body.”

Despite the Buddha’s recommendation, practicing mindfulness of the body is often overlooked as an opportunity for awakening, even when the body is demanding attention. For instance, recently a student informed me at the beginning of a ten-day vipassana meditation retreat I was leading that she would not be able to sit still through any of the meditation sessions because she had fibromyalgia. During past retreats her pain had become so intense after fifteen minutes of sitting that she either had to lie down on the floor or leave the hall. I assured her that we would work with her limitations and expressed sympathy for her pain. Then I asked for more details. Listening to her story, it became clear that this well-meaning yogi was conflating two separate experiences, and it was making her miserable. Yes, she had genuine physical discomfort, and at times her body hurt a lot. But she had also developed a reactive mind state to her difficulty. She anticipated that her body was going to hurt even before discomfort arose, and she reacted by becoming stressed and anxious. So even if the pain was minor, she contracted into it. Her mental experience of pain far outweighed the physical experience. And on those occasions when really strong physical pain arose, she fell into negative speculation about how long it would last and how difficult it would be. By conflating her physical experience and her mental reaction, over the course of three years, the pain became her identity—she took birth as a “fibromyalgia person.”
The Buddha taught that being mindful of the sensations that arise in your body without clinging to them is essential to spiritual practice. In the Majjhima Nikaya (sutta 36), the Buddha says, “If the body is not mastered by meditation, the mind cannot be mastered. If the body is mastered, mind is mastered.”

I encouraged the student with fibromyalgia to take a fresh approach to her meditation practice and suggested that a new relationship to her body was possible. During the retreat I taught her some of the many ways she could make her experience in her body the primary object of her meditation. To her credit, she was willing to give this new body orientation a chance, despite her disbelief and anxiety. At the end of the retreat, she reported that, for the first time, she had sat through every session. To her amazement, she had had only mild physical discomfort, and she felt as though she was finally starting to understand why vipassana practice is called “insight” meditation. She also wondered why this retreat had been so different from the others and whether her body would behave so well when she returned to her daily life. “You have begun to use your body as your teacher,” I told her, “and if you make mindfulness an ongoing practice at work and in your home life, it will continue to serve you. But body awareness is not an aspirin you take for pain relief. It is a practice that frees your mind from suffering, regardless of conditions.”

Cultivating a Felt Sense of the Body

In practicing mindfulness of the body, it is your direct experience or felt sense that is important, not your judgments about your body, your wishes for what it might be, or even your stories about how your body came to be as it is. The Buddha called this felt sense “awareness of the body in the body,” meaning that your attention has dropped into the actual physical experience rather than your views and concepts about the body.

The Body As Storehouse

As you begin to practice mindfulness of the body, you discover that it is the storehouse of all the physical and emotional events of your life to this point, starting with your genetic inheritance. Through reflection you gain the insight that these conditions, while unique to you, are actually impersonal, like conditions in nature, and that clinging to them with anger, resentfulness, or self-pity only adds to your suffering. Your liberation lies not in what the body has stored from the past but in how you respond to whatever manifests in your body in any given moment. This is the insight of karma—that what is happening in this moment is dependent on past seeds of action that are now blossoming due to the right causes and conditions. Your freedom, now and in the future, will be determined by how you respond to these impersonal conditions. Are your actions wholesome or not? This is awakening in the body.

For example, you may have inherited favorably proportioned leg bones that make it possible for you to sit cross-legged in meditation without any discomfort, or perhaps you inherited disproportionate leg bones that make it difficult for you to sit for long periods, even in a chair. In either case, you learn to sit in meditation with your body just the way it is, feeling neither superior nor inferior. These are simply conditions, and your practice is to respond to these conditions from your deepest values.

Coming into the Present through the Body

You can learn to utilize mindfulness of the body as a way of training yourself to stay present in this very moment. It’s quite a feat to stay mindfully present in your body despite of the pressures and responsibilities in your life, not to mention all your anxieties and uncertainties. Most people are mindful of their own embodied presence for only brief moments, usually around specific functions; more often than not, they are lost in the past or the future or in escaping altogether through disassociation or distraction. But if you are not mindfully present, you are missing the unfolding of your precious human life and you are forsaking any chance to consciously participate in how it unfolds.

Phillip Moffitt is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers’ Council and the founder and president of the Life Balance Institute. He teaches vipassana meditation and mindful movement at retreat centers throughout the U.S. His book Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Moving from Suffering to Joy is published by Rodale.  


From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma Talk in Plum Village, 1998

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the body in the body, according to the way the Buddha spoke. "Mindfulness of the body in the body" means that when you bring mindfulness into your body, mindfulness becomes the body. Mindfulness is not an outside observer anymore. Mindfulness becomes the body, and the body becomes mindfulness. When mother embraces child, mother becomes child, and child becomes mother. That is why the Buddha used the expression "mindfulness of the body in the body." In true Buddhist meditation, the subject and the object of meditation no longer exist as separate entities. In fact, that distinction is removed. So when you generate the energy of mindfulness, embracing your breathing, embracing your body, that means mindfulness of the body in the body. Mindfulness is not an outsider observing, but it is the body. The body becomes the object of mindfulness and the subject of mindfulness at the same time.

It is as nuclear scientists in our day say: in order to understand an elementary particle, in order to really enter into the world of the infinitely small, you have to become a participant, and not an observer anymore. In India they use this example to illustrate the fact: a grain of salt would like to know how salty the water of the ocean is. How can a grain of salt understand the degree of salinity of the ocean water? The only way is for the grain of salt to jump into the ocean, and the understanding will be perfect. The separation between object of understanding and subject of understanding is no longer there. In our time, nuclear scientists have begun to see that. That is why they say that in order to really understand the world of the elementary particle, you have to stop being an observer, you have to become a participant.


Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 29, 2010


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