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Lions Roar : September 2007
46 that she would not be able to sit still through any of the medita- tion 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 sym- pathy 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 dis- comfort 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 dif- ficult 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 spiri- tual 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 expe- rience 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 physi- cal discomfort, and she felt as though she was finally starting to understand why vipassana practice is called “insight” medita- tion. She 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 Inspired by the Buddha’s words and by my own experience, I have made awareness of the body a focal point of my teaching. For the last six years I have been part of a team of Spirit Rock teachers that offers an annual retreat called “Awakening in the Body,” in which all the dharma teachings are body-centric or First Foundation based. At these retreats we teach two move- ment classes each day, in addition to walking meditation. In the weekly meditation group I lead, I incorporate movement between sittings. And during most retreats I teach, I include “mindful movement yoga” or have a guest instructor teach yoga or chi gong. These years of emphasizing body awareness in meditation have shown me that it is an effective practice for many Western students, who are all too often engaged in conceptualization. You are embodied consciousness. It greatly limits your developing wisdom if you fail to include the body in your meditation. In practicing mindfulness of the body, it is your direct expe- rience or felt sense that is important, not your judgments about your body, your wishes for what it might be, or even your sto- ries 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. You can experience this felt sense or dropped attention through the following exercise: Hold your right hand up and begin by looking at the back of it. What do you see? You might notice the skin color, the veins, and whether there are any wrin- kles or scars. Now turn it over and look at your palm. You might notice its shape or the length of your fingers. Alternate between looking at the front and the back of your hand. You might ob- serve the length of the various finger bones in relation to each other or the size of your knuckles. You might notice the pattern the lines make in the palm of the hand. Just witness these things. That’s a kind of mindfulness, right? However, because you are a removed observer, it is not the same as the felt experience. You are not directly experiencing the essence of “hand.” Now rest your hand for a moment. (I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, so you’ll need to read ahead, and then do the exercise.) With your eyes closed, raise your hand again. Start to move your hand in space. Let the wrist move with the hand. You might curl the fingers in toward your palm, then extend them SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 In practicing mindfulness of the body, it’s your direct experience that’s important, not your judgments about your body, your wishes for what it might be, or your stories about how it came to be as it is. SEPT 44-49.indd 46 SEPT 44-49.indd 46 6/25/07 4:58:22 PM 6/25/07 4:58:22 PM