Understanding the body; Embracing the physical. Relaxing into action & movement. Conscious movement. Moving consciously. Understanding the need for ethical, or right action at an intuitive, or instinctual level. Stretching beyond comfortable boundaries. Stillness. Naked feet.
‘I have personally found the physical to be the most challenging of the five aspects. This is for clear and precise, personal reasons that stem from the establishment of a pattern of behaviour that closely resembled self-harm in my teens. In a way I acted out, for many years, a denial of the physical, a sort of push to separate from the confines and limitations of the physical body and enter into a way of living that was boundless and saturated in spiritual promise. That way of living caused me to push my body beyond its reasonable limits, to draw blood, smashing up physical surroundings with punches: bloody knuckles stained with cuts and grazes, and pieces of wood and plastic.
Those bloody knuckles were an attempt to silence feeling; to deaden discomfort and the messages being screamed out through the pain I felt at being in a body.’
It is much easier for me to objectify and point out the challenges and pitfalls of the emotional experience, but the physical had me stumped on where to start with the second post in this series. In looking for an opening from which some creative, articulate thread could uncoil, I had to wait patiently, and it was pain and discomfort that came calling, reminding me of how conditioned my experience of the physical has been, and continues to be, by separation from the primordial sensations that are the naked, unconditioned, uninhibited experience of presence in the physical, right here and now.
The body is always a reminder, even as we awaken, of the first noble truth; there is suffering. This never goes away while we are in physical form. We may become extremely talented at avoiding illness, injury and discomfort, but suffering is always a moment away; hidden in accidents, common colds, overexertion, and uncomfortable feelings.
Suffering is often perceived of as pessimistic by those first approaching Buddhism and many authors and teachers have been quick to point out that a better translation of both the Tibetan and Pali might be ‘discomfort’, or better still, ‘dissatisfaction’. I, for a while at least, wholeheartedly agreed, caught up in a long state of denial. Suffering was actually the wrong translation I thought, discomfort made more sense in our modern society with its modern health care, modern diets, modern comforts and modern myth of an end to all unpleasantness and inequality. I was convinced and sold on the idea, but a problem occurs when you start to open your eyes, really open them, you see that life is indeed saturated in suffering and discomfort and satisfaction are really just its more subtle faces.
A second issue is that we often relate the term suffering to something overly dramatic like broken legs, cancer, or the loss of an eye, and for most of us this obviously does not capture our day-to-day experience. Suffering is also small, minor and subtle. It hides in the stiff back we experience getting out of bed, the mild migraine at the end of work, the heaviness in our bodies when we’re tired and hungry, or the fatigue in our legs from walking round town. Suffering is clear and present in the body and it takes no sides. We are all privy to its influence.
The first noble truth of suffering becomes an issue because we try to ignore suffering. As with emotions, when we stuff down our anger and depression, we stuff down our ability to be happy, to connect, and experience joy and release. The same occurs with the body. We switch off to our day-to-day suffering and in doing so we switch off from feeling. This disconnects us from our body and our surroundings and often an obsession with happiness develops in order to fill the hole that is left.
Because we are taught by modern society that satisfaction and happiness are our birthright and that life should cushion us from the unpleasantness in the world, we push away any signs that this model might be a false promise. We deaden the pain of a headache with an aspirin or Ibuprofen. We wear exceptional clothing to separate ourselves from the cold, the wind and rain. We isolate ourselves from the heat with air-conditioning. This, all combined, has us convinced that we should feel comfortable in our bodies all the time, and never hurt. This comfort fix drives a search for predictable or coveted feelings which are often invoked through emotional manipulation (remember each direction feeds another on the wheel) through reality TV, drug addiction, chocolate addiction, excess coffee consumption, intense physical activity, in truth, obsessive behaviour of any kind.
Feeling is key. What’s interesting here then is to ponder how we tend to base much of our lives on chasing, or holding onto, a specific and limited range of feelings. I figured this out early on, that feelings govern attraction and repulsion, and those two govern pretty much all of our decision making. We create a limited range field of feelings and then move around that field playing out our attraction and repulsion as a push and pull dynamic. It’s rare that we question the game unless a crisis or challenge that cannot be ignored comes along, or we are forced to change.
There is then a deep and powerful relationship between our field of feelings and our desire to separate from discomfort, which is highly subjective and personalised: one man’s pleasure is another’s pain. This coupled with our blindness to the level of actual suffering both within and without and our suspicion of unknown feelings, leads to a voluntary blindness to the raw and chaotic nature of the world. We seek order and predictability.
To work with sensations means to slowly start to acquaint ourselves with what is actually taking place in our body. We work with the basic sensations that make up the feeling of being embodied. We allow whatever sensation that is present to be experienced as it is. The patterns of desiring certain predictable sensations emerge again and again, and again and again, and we let them go. The revulsion and subsequent attempt to push away unpleasant sensations does exactly the same and we let it go too, whilst resisting the intense impulse to jump up and run. Our job is always and primarily to work with allowing sensations, whether pleasant, or unpleasant, to emerge and be without identifying with them. This is known as mindfulness of the body.
What’s interesting is how this confronts us with the innate dynamic of escape. It plays on the deep duality of freedom and entrapment. We desire to be free, yet we are extremely scared of the unknown and the real possibility of freedom. We fear entrapment, but we want life to be predictable and for feelings to confirm what we know to be normal. This dualistic trap keeps us confused and blind to alternatives. It works at both an individual and collective level, so most often our established sense field is supported by the society we live in, or rather the rules on what we should, or should not feel are most often dictated to us by the society we emerged into and later choose.
We often confuse feelings with emotions, but they are not exactly the same. When we get angry, we say I feel angry. The emotion is anger, but how does it express itself in the body and in our immediate relationship with the environment? Anger always explodes, or implodes, so in the former it might look like this: I have tension in my hands; my breathing has become shallow and is up in the chest, almost panting, my shoulders are arching and I can feel a burning tension in my belly. My jaw is tightening and I’m grinding my teeth. Observing and breathing with the sensations deeply opens a door to understanding and to freedom from knee-jerk reaction. It releases trapped energy.
Sadness is addictive for many people, for others it is to be avoided. It leads to feeling a heaviness at the heart centre, a rising weight at the throat, a heavy brow, a sinking of the shoulders. It often takes us too close to old wounds for comfort, removing us from the adolescent pursuit of fun and the active chasing of temporary pleasures. Sadness though is part of our rich human experience. We can allow ourselves to experience it as it is and not infuse it with a story, when we do so it often allows us to deepen our connection to others and to the grace of the human condition.
Uniting attention, awareness and presence with sensations leads to us being saturated with feeling. If we are able to stay present within this process, we de-mask for a while. We touch ground, and our heart centre, and become more naked to ourselves, fragile for a moment, tender and real. If we continue to stay out of reaction and identification, we gain as the pattern reveals a deeper truth of how we have been living. This is a magical moment in a way, and this embracing of our humanity can lead to a sense of the great mystery of being.
Each person has to be sensitive to their own limitations but the path here would be to stop running away from feelings. When we sit we allow them to emerge and we stay with them for as long as they remain. In purely meditational terms, when on the cushion, we simply observe them and let whatever accompanies them rise and fall with the breath. This is the essential practice. As we develop competence in moving out of identification with feelings, we recognise how so many are sought out in order to confirm our concept of self, our identity.
As we deepen practice it loosens our identification with a fixed sense of self and shows us how much of what we feel is not our own, but is shared, it’s collective, it reveals how interdependence is. It is actually very challenging and requires courage and dedication. It is not for the timid. In fact, it runs contrary to more shallow forms of spirituality that guarantee happiness and attempt to convince you that you are in control of your world.
It is not denying or disassociating from feelings as to feel is to be alive. Feelings connect us to our basic humanity and our ability to develop and express more enlightened expressions such as compassion and empathy, and universal love. To control emotions and feeling is the realm of the psychopath. It is the way of dehumanisation. The further we move away from intimacy with feeling, the further we move away from our basic humanity and our ability to connect to others.
On a shamanic level, our feelings are seen as an invitation to power. Feelings, once cleaned of their self-affirming role, begin to act as messengers that show us the way forward, or teach us. Feelings become a key to impersonal, personal-power. They act also as a warning system. What they do not become though is conduits for emotional reaction.
In shamanism death sits with the body in the place of the west. But not only; magic, mystery, power and strength, also reside there and this bundle of qualities combine, one informing the other, whispering secrets that must be felt and lived to be known. The mineral world is one of the great teachers of the west. The rocks, stones, and minerals teach us about the ability to hold presence with great stillness. To be simply as we are with little adornment. They teach us of stability, which is gained through presence in the physical.
Working successfully with sensations leads to greater presence both in our body and in the material world that surrounds us. We can begin to perceive, as we further travel on this way, how our thoughts have a nasty habit of taking us away from direct experience. They work to filter it through a myriad of beliefs and views, which act to distract us from the simplicity of the present. Anchoring ourselves in our body counteracts the impulsive abstraction of the thinking mind. The ability to feel deeply our body and the physical, material world shifts our energy away from sustaining these cycles of thought to anchoring us in the moment. A funny thing happens when we do this. It’s like stepping off of a film set, or ending a very long drunken spell. You look around you and realise you’re kind of awake: nothing too grand or special, simply present, as you are.
As we lose this simplicity we again get caught up in our need to affirm ourselves as real and separate. Life’s demands entice us back to our usual way of being. We sit again though and continue the process and with commitment and time, we get better at allowing ourselves to step out into the world more frequently. One of the common traps that occurs within this process is to become attached to the fleeting moments of presence. This is like grasping at the wind, futile. Because presence does not actually equal stopping, but flowing, to maintain presence is to live within the process of being. Another trap is the desire for simplicity to infuse every aspect of our lives. It often starts with a sentence along the lines of, ‘If only I could stop all this messiness and complication…’ This becomes an escape mechanism. Although presence is rooted in simplicity, it does not equate to the world becoming simpler. The world continues to be the complex, dualistic, challenging place that it is.
Sooner or later this process brings us face to face with death. To sustain an ability to remain in the here and now means to allow ourselves to die and be reborn in each instant. It is another reflection of the deep duality that marks life. The more we wake up and live each moment, the more we must allow ourselves voluntarily to die and be reborn. Life brings death, and death brings life. Since there is no permanent fixed self, then obviously we must be a process.
Deep relaxation helps us establish this new pattern of relating with feeling, although it often puts us in touch with old pain and even new pain. The good news is that it also enables us to access a deeper and richer level of pleasure, of connection and feeling. There are no guarantees for what will occur. This is part of the unintended consequences of releasing the layers of conditioning, and moving closer to the mystery of being.
Opening to this process eventually leads us to experience the body as the great vehicle that it is and as a sacred act of grace that is both intensely beautiful and incredibly fragile. The practice of appreciating our ‘precious human existence’ in Buddhism is not wrong. This life you and I are living, right now, is so deeply graceful, it’s hard to express in words. Such a depth of feeling can only really be experienced directly, embraced, accepted, and then let go to be reborn in another moment.
When we learn to feel deeply we are usually humbled by the immensity of life and the simplicity of being. When we can carry such humility within as an aspect of our natural being, we start to live life more simply and slow down, we see more clearly what is happening around us and in the world, and we respond as best as we are able.
This leads to the final point, that of ethics and morality. Ethics here means not reacting to feeling, but letting it communicate. Our instincts, our intuition, help us to respond to circumstances in the best way possible when we are out of reaction, and grounded in our body. It is not a rational, or logical expression, but a felt response to life’s calling. Morality becomes a deep commitment to not turning away from experience, both within and without. Our personal-power is directly dependent on our physical presence and it is that which allows us to act more or less effectively.
Maintaining this way is of being is not so easy. It comes at first in brief flashes of courage and it tends to challenge us greatly when we’re off the cushion. It becomes an ever louder presence with time, reminding us to act responsibly, to do what is needed, to behave impeccably, and to let go of our incessant self-preservation instinct and relate to experience directly. Manifesting this right action can take many of us a lifetime to master, especially as we plumb the depths of our resistance to being and new patterns arise to keep us spinning in circles on the wheel of life. When that happens, you sit, breathe and relax. Take your posture and follow the breath and invite experience to take you deeper.
Click here for the complete Buddhism Meet Shamanism series
Click here for the complete Buddhism Meet Shamanism series