Adapted and reprinted with permission from Tricycle, The Buddhist Review

During my own practice and teaching of meditation over the past thirty-five years, many things have surprised me, but none more than the growing and somewhat anguished realization that simply practicing meditation doesn’t necessarily yield results. Many of us, when we first encountered Buddhism, found its invitation to freedom and realization through meditation extraordinarily compelling. We jumped in with a lot of enthusiasm, rearranged life priorities around our meditation, and put much time and energy into the practice.

Some, engaging meditation in such a focused way, discover the kind of continually unfolding transformation they are looking for. It is true that when we practice meditation on a daily basis, we often find a definite sense of relief and peace. Even over a period of a year or two we may feel that things are moving in a positive direction in terms of reducing our internal agitation and developing openness. All of this has its value.

But if we have been practicing for twenty or thirty years—or even just a few—it is not uncommon to find ourselves arriving in a quite different and far more troubling place. We may feel that somewhere along the line we have lost track of what we are doing and that things have somehow gotten bogged down. We may find that the same old habitual patterns continue to grip us. The same disquieting emotions, the same interpersonal blockages and basic life confusion, the same unfulfilled and agonizing spiritual longing that led us to meditation in the first place keeps arising. Was our original inspiration defective? Is there something wrong with the practices or the traditions we are following? Is there something wrong with us? Have we misapplied the instructions, or are we perhaps just not up to them?

In an early Theravada meditation text, the phrase “touching enlightenment with the body” is used to describe the attainment of ultimate spiritual realization. It is interesting, if a bit puzzling, that we are invited not to see enlightenment, but to touch it—not with our thought or our mind, but with our body. What can this possibly mean? In what way can the body be thought to play such a central and fundamental role in the life of meditation? This question becomes all the more interesting and compelling in our contemporary context, when so many people are acutely feeling their own personal disembodiment and finding themselves strongly drawn to somatic practices and therapies of all kinds.

My sense is that there is a very real problem among Western Buddhist practitioners. We are attempting to practice meditation and to follow a spiritual path in a disembodied state, and our practice is therefore doomed to failure. For most of us, and for most of modern culture, the body is principally seen as the object of our ego agendas, the donkey for the efforts of our ambitions. The donkey is going to be thin, the donkey is going to be strong, the donkey is going to be a great yoga practitioner, the donkey is going to look and feel young, the donkey is going to work eighteen hours a day, the donkey is going to help me fulfill my needs, and so on. All that is necessary is the right technique. There is no sense that the body might actually be more intelligent than “me,” my precious self, my conscious ego.

Meditating with the body involves learning, through a variety of practices, how to reside fully within our bodies. What we are doing is not quite learning a technique and we are not quite learning how to “do” something—rather we are readjusting the focal length and domain of our consciousness. Thus we gradually arrive at an awareness that is actually in our bodies rather than in our heads. It’s not something you actually learn to do, it’s a way of learning how to be differently. According to Tibetan teaching, we can quickly and strongly bring our prana (energy) to a certain location in our body by visualizing that we are breathing into it. We might do this by visualizing that we are bringing the breath into our body from the outside, through the skin, for example; or, we might visualize that we are just breathing directly into a location, such as the interior of the lower belly. Now here is the key point: wherever our attention goes, the prana goes, and the prana carries awareness right to that point. By directing the prana, we are able to bring awareness to any location within our body.

When we are asked to place our awareness in our bodies, something different begins to happen. Often, when we begin to do this kind of interior work, we can’t feel anything at all. Some of us may feel like we don’t even have a body. But through the practices, we begin to be able to see in the dark, so to speak. We begin to become aware that a larger world is beginning to unfold at the boundaries of awareness. The only thing you see in the daylight is what you want to see; when you turn the lights off in the night, you see what wants to be seen, which is a whole different story. It’s not something we can focus on with our usual self-serving consciousness, but nevertheless, this information begins to come to us in a very subtle way. We discover that the body actually wants to be seen in certain ways. This is a rather surprising discovery for many of us. We can’t imagine the idea that the body might be a living force, a source of intelligence, wisdom, even something we might experience as possessing intention. We cannot conceive of the body as a subject.

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