The phrase “touching enlightenment with the body” occurs in an early Theravada meditation text as a way 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; and, further, that we 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.
I bring to this question my own practice and teaching of meditation over the past 35 years. During this period, 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. But, at least in my own experience as a practitioner and mentor, more often than not, that doesn’t happen. 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 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, 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 kinds of disquieting emotions arise, the same interpersonal blockages and basic life confusion, the same unfulfilled and agonizing spiritual longing that led us to meditation in the first place. 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 perhaps are we just not up to them?
My own sense is that there is a very real problem, but that it is not found in any of these questions and doubts, but rather in an entirely different direction. My own experience suggests that our problem is very simple: we are attempting to practice meditation and to follow a spiritual path in a disembodied state and that this is inevitably doomed to failure. To put it simply: the full benefits and fruition of meditation cannot be experienced or enjoyed when we are not grounded in our bodies. The title of this article, when understood fully, not only implies that we are able to touch enlightenment with our bodies, but that—except in and through our bodies, there actually is no other way to do so.
This immediately raises an all important question. How fundamental or inevitable is our modern disembodiment? Is it something that can be addressed with any realistic expectation of success? Some people, noticing that our disconnection and alienation from our bodies have a long history, reaching back at least to the early days of Christianity, arrive at a pessimistic conclusion. Let me suggest an alternative view.
The appearance of agriculture some five to ten millennia ago and the consequent shift away from hunting and gathering had an enormous impact on the embodiment of our species—the full effects of which we are seeing only today. From contemporary anthropological studies, we know that the sense of self of hunters and gatherers is fully embedded in the more bodily cognitive functions, including especially feeling and the sense perceptions and that it is highly relational and interactive in relation to the natural world. Hunters and gatherers roam the landscape on an annual cycle, reading with their feeling, senses, and intuition the ever changing patterns of animals and vegetation, and the “inanimate” worlds of landscape and weather. Through myth and ritual, they find connection, communion and even identification with the concrete, physical world given to sensation, feeling, and intuition, a world experienced as filled with living energies, intelligence, and presence. Conceptual thinking plays an important role, but in a balance with the other, more somatic functions.
The birth of agriculture had such an immense and, in some ways, negative impact on our race and our world that Paul Shepard calls it “the single most catastrophic event ever to befall the human species.” Agriculture led to increasing separation of human and world and, eventually, to our present disconnection and disembodiment. Agriculture gave rise to ownership of land, ever increasing population growth, accumulation and unequal distribution of wealth, slavery, social hierarchies, armies, warfare, and patterns of physical disease and social dislocation previously unknown, all of which we understand as coterminous with “civilization.” And it led to the increasing destruction of our earthly habitat that we are seeing today. Most important in the present context, agriculture set in motion the development of a self-concept very different from the one characteristic of hunters and gatherers.
Keep in mind that the agricultural way and the much more complex societies it involved necessitated a de-emphasis on the somatic cognitive functions and a tremendous strengthening of discursive thinking as the most important adaptive survival mechanism. One’s relation to nature is now primarily one of separation rather than communion; it is managerial rather than mainly observational, mutual, and interactive: the more you can see nature as an object and the more you can control it, the better your chances of survival. The landowner needs to keep track, in a conceptual way, of land, workers, wealth, and the complex social matrices in which he operates. This move from the body to the head in terms of primary survival function is clear today—in contemporary societies, the vast majority of us get ahead not by the acuity of our sense perceptions, the subtlety of our feeling, or the farseeingness of our intuition (which, in modern contexts are often seen as liabilities), but rather through a highly differentiated conceptual type of intelligence. In other words, in a real sense, the more disembodied we are, the more likely we are to survive and succeed.
However—and this is the key point–this seemingly long period of time since the appearance of agriculture has little significance from an evolutionary standpoint. It represents a tiny fraction of our history as a species traced back to the development of the higher primates. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are still hunters and gatherers and the full embodiment of their essential being remains incumbent on us. More than this, that embodied way of being is entirely accessible and recoverable because, in our genes and in our cells, it is ultimately who we are. No wonder that meditation, which is ultimately about regaining our integral person and becoming who we are at the deepest level, cannot possibly succeed when we maintain ourselves in a state of disembodiment.
The Buddha said, “I follow the ancient way.” He lived in Northeast India at a time of increasing agriculturalization and urbanization with all of their attendant consequences. For his part, he left aside the compelling social changes around him and retired to the jungle, in Indian thought the non-human locale where the primordial may be discovered. When the Buddha touched the earth as witness of his attainment, he separated himself decisively from the increasingly disembodiment sought by so many spiritual teachers and traditions of his own day, including his own previous meditation teachers and the domanent Samkhya-Yoga system. The Buddha made, I think, the journey back that I am suggesting here and left as his legacy the very full embodiment that Buddhist meditation, in its traditional context, represents.
In the classical Buddhist traditions, meditation is deeply somatic—it is fully grounded in sensations, sensory experience, feeling, emotions, and so on. Even thoughts are related to as somatic—as bursts of energy experienced in the body, rather than non-physical phenomena that disconnect us from our bodies. In its most ancient form in Buddhism, meditation is a technique for letting go of the objectifying tendency of thought and of entering deeply and fully into communion with our embodied experience. And hence it leads to “touching enlightenment with the body.”
And yet, among many of us modern people, meditation is often practiced as a kind of conceptual exercise, a mental gymnastic. We often approach it as a way to fulfill yet another agenda or project—that of attempting to become “spiritual,” according to whatever we happen to think that is. We may try to use meditation to become peaceful, less confused, sharper and more clear, more “open,” more effective in our lives, even more conceptually adroit. The problem with this is that we are, once again, attempting to be managers, to supersede nature, to control “the other.” In this case, the “other” is ourselves, our bodies, and our own experience. Ultimately, it is our own somatic experience of reality that we are trying to override in the attempt to fulfill our ego aim.
Now in a Western context this might not sound like a bad thing. We talk about people taking responsibility for them selves: we have to have a life, to have boundaries, to proceed with our life and become an adult and so-on. But if that’s all there is then what often ends up happening on the meditation cushion is this: we have an ideal of what meditation is or should be, what we like about meditation, which might be some experience that we’ve had somewhere along the way. We actually end up trying to use our meditation as to way to recreate that particular state of mind. Rather than being open to whatever needs to arise right now, we are basically trying to recreate the past, rather than stepping out, toward the future. To put the matter in bald terms, we end up using meditation as a method to perpetuate and, in many cases, increase our disembodiment from the call and the imperatives of our actual lives.
This is what John Welwood calls spiritual bypassing—meditation becomes a way to perpetuate self-conscious agendas and avoid impending, perhaps painful or fearful developmental tasks—always arising from the darkness of our bodies–that are nevertheless necessary for any significant spiritual growth. And this is what Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism,” using spiritual practice to reinforce existing, neurotic ego strategies for sealing ourselves off from our actual lives in the pursuit of survival, comfort, continuity, and security. When we use meditation in such a way, we aren’t really going anywhere, just perpetuating the problems we already have. No wonder when we practice like this over a period of decades, we can end up feeling that nothing fundamental is really happening, because it isn’t.
I am not certain that our Asian teachers, who come from very different and much more embodied cultural situations, always understand the full extent of our own disembodiment nor the tremendous limitations it imposes on our ability to meditate and pursue the path. Nor do the classical Buddhist texts, at least as we understand them, necessarily provide a direct and effective remedy to our situation either.
Consider, for example, the meditation technique that is so central in the texts and so often given to modern meditators: pay attention to the breath at the tip of the nose, either feeling the inbreath and the outbreath or attending to the breath there in some other way. For a fully embodied person, this is an effective technique by which the practitioner can make his or her journey. But the practice has a very different feel for someone who is somatically disconnected and habitually abides almost entirely in his or her head. For such a person, using a technique that requires attention on the nose will reinforce the tendency to remain entirely invested in the head and to continue to be unaware of the body. If we have undertaken meditation practice already out of touch with our body, its sensations, its feeling, and its life, often carrying out a practice that involves attending to the breath at the nostrils just perpetuates and even reinforces our disconnection.
Those of us meditating in such a way are really locked into a cycle and genuinely trapped in our practice. The more we analyze the situation, the more trapped we feel; the harder we work at our practice, the more we feel the whole thing closing in on us. We feel desperately that we have to get out, but we can’t find the door. As in this previous example, the practices that we are using often just don’t provide the right key. If we don’t abandon the practice entirely, which is all too common these days, we know for certain that we need help; we need outside intervention. But it is a big question where that is going to come from.
For me, and for many people I know, there is a kind of divine intervention that arrives at our doorstep–the body calls us back, and the body calls us back in a lot of different ways. Injury, illness, extreme fatigue, impending old age, sometimes emotions, feelings, anxiety, anguish, or dread that we don’t understand and can’t handle. But, somehow, at a certain point we start to get pulled back into our body. It is pulling us down and, one way or the other, something comes in, some times with a terrifying crash, and begins to wake us up.
When the body calls us back we begin to find that we have a partner on the spiritual path that we didn’t know about—our own body. In our meditation and in our surrounding lives, the body becomes a teacher in fact, but one that does not communicate in words and tends to speak out of the shadows. Moreover, rather than being able to require the body to adapt to our conscious ideas and intentions, we find that we have to begin to learn the language that the body itself naturally speaks. As we come under the tutelage of the body, we often think we know what is going on only to discover, over and over, that we have completely missed the point. And, perhaps thinking we are completely confused, we come to see that we have understood something far more profound and far reaching that anything we could have thought. It is all very puzzling but, in meditating with the body as our guide, we begin to feel that, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we are in the presence of a being, our own body, that is filled with wisdom and is loving, flawlessly reliable, and strange to say, worthy of our deepest devotion.
What is involved in meditating in an embodied way and inhabiting the body in our practice? Initially we are talking about really paying attention to the body in a direct and non-conceptual way. This involves very focused work and work that requires regularity, steadiness, and long term commitment. In fact, I would say that once one “catches on” to what meditating with the body is all about, one enters a path that will unfold as long as there is life. At the same time, the experiential impact of the work is immediately felt, so there is confirmation of the rightness of what we are doing and a natural trust in the process that is beginning to unfold.
Meditating with the body involves learning, through a variety of practices, how to be 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.
In the beginning, it seems that in the practices we are doing we are putting our awareness into various parts of our bodies and learning how to be present within the body. Initially, we have the impression that we are looking at the body from the outside, so to speak, as an object. But then there is a kind of increasing interiority that develops.
At first, for example, we put our awareness into our abdomen or into our heart center or into our limbs, into our feet, into our fingers or toes. Although initially it does feel as if we are putting our awareness into those places, as time goes on we begin to sense that what is really happening is that those places themselves are already aware and what we are doing is tuning into the awareness that already exists—as we come to learn–not just in these particular places, but throughout the entire body.
Initially one begins in a very superficial and crude way with obvious parts of the body. For example, the lower belly is a key center from which everything radiates out, so one might begin practice there. But then you begin to develop more subtlety and you gradually become aware of your tendons and ligaments, tiny muscles in out of the way places, your organs, your bones, your circulatory system, your heart, and so on.
Through that practice there slowly comes about a kind of shift in emphasis, a shift in the way we are aware as people. Habitually, there predominates in us a “daylight consciousness” which most people experience in their heads and even in their frontal lobes as a kind of being up front and “out,” “toward” the others, toward what we want or consciously or intend for our lives. This kind of consciousness is really a way of being very focused based on what we think, of bringing into awareness things that are in some way important to the project of “me” and my self image, how I make a living and survive. In this focal, intentional consciousness, we exclude a huge domain of potential information, information that is actually already at the periphery of our awareness, in order to carry on the project of being myself and making my life work.
But when you to ask people to place their awareness in their body, something different begins to happen. Usually fairly early in the practice, they come to realize that there is another way of being aware. It is almost as if you turn the lights down very, very low, and initially you can’t see anything at all. It is true that when people begin to do this kind of interior work, they often can’t feel anything at all. There is actually no sensation and nothing is happening and they feel like there is nothing there. In fact, some people say they feel like they don’t even have a body. When they look for it, they just can’t find it.
But through the practices, one begins to be able to see in the dark, so to speak. You begin to become aware, not with the kind of focused, self-serving consciousness that we usually walk around with, but you begin to feel that there is a larger world that is beginning to unfold and it’s at the boundaries of your awareness. It’s not something you can really focus on, nevertheless, information in a very subtle way begins to come to you.
I think of something related by Maladoma Some, the contemporary Central West African spiritual teacher. In his village people didn’t have electricity, but they obviously had ways of creating light at night if they wanted to. At night they might say “let’s turn the lights off so that we can see.” Malidoma had been away from his village for a long time, since the age of three. He had been kidnapped and brought up in a Catholic monastery and when he came back nearly twenty years later he wanted to get the light going one night. He was told, “no – if we light the lamps, we won’t be able to see.” You can’t see anything real in the daylight. 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 is very much the same way with our own bodies. Within our body it is not a neutral space and it’s not a dead space and it’s also not a space that is just simply there for our consumption and our use. The body actually wants—if I may speak anthropomorphically–to be seen in certain ways. This is a rather surprising discovery for many of us who, as modern people, are so very alienated from the body. 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.
For most of us, and for most of modern culture the main way we look at the body is as a donkey for our ego aims. The donkey is going to be thin, the donkey is going to be strong, the donkey is going be beautiful or handsome, the donkey is going to be a great yoga practitioner, the donkey is going to look and feel young, agile, and full of energy, the donkey is going to work eighteen hours a day, the donkey is going to help me fulfill my needs, on and on… but there is no sense actually that the body might be more intelligent than “me,” my precious self, my conscious ego, or that the body might have its own designs.
It is often quite a shock for people, when they start doing this work, that they begin to find out that actually the body has ideas about us. The body has things it wants to accomplish, and the body has a kind of very definite sense, intelligence, and intentionality toward us. It has an agenda that, unlike ours is always changing and always up to date. It has its own pace and is most skillful in the ways in which it works with us. All we have to do is begin to actually listen. The purpose of the somatic work I teach, then, is to provide—not exactly techniques, but gateways so that we learn, over a period of time, to connect with the awareness going on in the body, discovering the body as a living, breathing, communicating subject.
What happens when people actually do this kind of work? Though I don’t want to say too much because this is really something that needs to be experienced for oneself, there are some things I can relate about the unfolding journey that may be helpful. One of the exercises will have them bring their attention, for example, to their big toes. Initially, as mentioned, people often can’t feel anything. They can’t find it. “There is nothing there”. But in the teachings of Tibetan yoga, it is suggested that we can use our breathing to move the situation forward.
Tibetan yoga speaks about the outer breath, our normal respiration, and also about the inner breath, our life force or prana. The outer breath holds the inner breath, as a sheath of a plant might holds its pith. When we bring our attention to the outer breath, we gain access to our inner breath, our prana. It is of the nature of prana that, to whatever location in the body we direct our attention, there the prana will go.
According to Tibetan teaching, we can quickly and strongly bring our prana 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. In the example mentioned, the practitioner breathes into the big toe, bringing awareness there.
We may begin with absence of feeling or numbness but, as we continue breathing, the places where we are breathing may begin to show signs of life and we may become aware of some faint sensation. As we continue breathing into the various locations in our body, we are likely to begin discovering blockages and discomfort. People often uncover vivid pains and discomfort they were only subliminally aware of or perhaps were completely unaware of at all. They may realize that they feel like throwing up all the time. They may sense they are very, very tight or hard in their lower belly or their throat or their joints. They come to see that nothing is really flowing and that there are certain places where they are completely shut down. While some places feel very hard and armored, others feel incredibly vulnerable, unprotected, shaky, and weak. One side feels shorter or smaller than the other. One side feels alive, the other dead. Everything is out of kilter and we are filled with distress of all kinds. We want to scream or run, or jump out of our bodies. This initial step involves getting to know a body that is in a lot of discomfort, holding, or tightness, a lot of claustrophobia and a lot of pain. As our awareness develops, we begin to realize that our habitual, if subliminal response to our somatic distress is an unconscious or barely conscious pattern of freezing: we are holding on for dear life, fearful and paranoid, tensing onto our body and our self so we won’t have to feel.
At this point, the practitioner is instructed to receive the information of uncomfortable or even painful tension into his or her awareness without comment, judgment, or reaction. When we do so, we begin to notice that a certain area of tension is coming forward, as it were, presenting itself with special insistence to us. It clearly wants to be known, above all other potential areas. In addition, its comes with a very specific calling card, a particular portrait of sensation-feeling-energy. More than this, the area of tension comes as an invitation—its calls for release. Now at first, we might find this call painful and frustrating, because we don’t see how we can heed the call and act upon it. After all, it is the body’s tension, right?
But the invitation for release, to be discerned in the very tension itself, also brings critical information with it: it is actually us, our conscious, intentional, focal awareness that is responsible for the tension in the first place. It is our own overlay, so to speak, that is creating this feeling of freezing. As this becomes clear, we begin to discover that we have the capability to take responsibility for the tension, to enter into the soma, to feel how it is actually us that is holding on. At this point, we can, indeed, release. We have to let go of ourselves, we have to feel that the unpleasant tension is our own paranoid holding on, and we have to open, relax, surrender, and let go. This represents a leap into the unknown.
As we continue with the practice, the process of exploring our physical being goes on and on, to more and more locales and to deeper and deeper levels of subtlety. In each new experience, we bring prana, life, and awareness to our bodies, feel the blockage, find the invitation to release, surrender our hold, and experience the relaxation, sense of unknowing, and open space that results when we do.
In this process, we become acquainted with our body in ever new ways. As we continue, we may feel almost as if each particular part of our body is opening like a flower. To continue the previous example, as we continue further with our breathing, we actually begin to find a sense of vitality and life and energy in our toe. Beyond this, we sense that the toe has a particular kind of awareness that is quite unique. As we perform this same exercise with other parts of our body, we begin to realize that each part likewise has its own very specific and unique awareness-profile, if you will, its own personality, its own living truth. It has its own reason for being, its own relation to the “us” of our conscious awareness, and its own things to communicate in an ongoing way.
Thus the feet, have their own particular way of being that is alive, intelligent, and fundamentally unaffected by our conscious mind, if we can tune into it. People who go barefoot a lot will tell you how intelligent the feet are, how much they know, and how much information they receive from the earth. Such folks are continually receiving–or rather their feet are receiving as aspects of their own awareness–just from walking on the earth and feeling the continual current of life that flows upwards. With each part of the body there is a similar whole world that opens up and is available for discovery when we begin working with it. With each new discovery, who “we” are grows deeper, more subtle, more connected, and more open and extended. All of this unfolds from that first experience of absence of feeling or numbness.
As we move through the process of discovery, it may begin to dawn on us that the body itself has an agenda that it wants us to follow. The agenda begins with some region or part of the body coming forward to meet our awareness, presenting itself with a certain energy, texture, and demeanor, alerting us to our holding, and then inviting us into the process of release and relaxation. The interesting thing here is that we are dealing with something that is not us, it is not the conscious mind, it’s not like “ok, I have a back problem, I’m going to use this bodywork to solve my back problem” That’s way too ego oriented, and really, once again, imposing our agenda on the body. The body is going to say “nope. We are going to start with the arches of the feet. This is where we are going to start.” And then the next day it’s the calves, the next it’s the neck, and then the next day or the next month it’s the under the shoulder blades, under the clavicles, within the interior of the chest. In other words, the body itself actually gives us the routine. It gives us the protocols and it gives us the journey.
In this work, we are called to let go of what we think we want or think we need, and listen deeply; we are invited to surrender to the invitations that come forward from the body to become aware and to open, relax, and let go. Through that process there is a gradual shift from feeling that the body is an object or a tool of our personal ego-status quo to beginning to realize that the body itself is the source of something that actually calls to us constantly with a primal voice, that commands our attention, and that engages us in a process that we find extraordinarily compelling even all the while we do not and cannot not fully understand what is going on.
It’s quite interesting that when people do this body work thoroughly and deeply, whatever personal issues they may have turn up somatically. They appear in a way that is according to the timetable of the body, not of our ego consciousness. It is amazing how literal it can be. People who have difficulty with self-expression may feel at a certain point that they are being strangled because they sense the energy collecting at the throat and unable to move. If we have difficulty “swallowing” our situation, we may find tremendous distress at the mere act of swallowing. People who are unaware of their emotions may experience their heart as if in a vice. Such extraordinarily literal somatic experiences can be very painful and difficult. You can see why people numb themselves because basically, who wants to feel that? But when you understand that these sorts of discoveries are part of regaining, at the least, balance, energy, healing, and a more wholesome relationship to ourselves, it’s a whole different story. You begin to have confidence in the pain that you run into, and the blockages, because you have tools that you feel have some hope of leading you through.
The reader may have followed me to this point, but here we run into an obvious question. What does all this somatic work have to do with spirituality and, frankly, with meditation? We need to realize that when we develop somatic awareness and enter into the process of relaxation and release described here, we are not just making peace with our physical existence. In fact, we are entering into a process that lies right at the heart of the spiritual life itself and this is something the Buddha saw a very long time ago. He saw that while spiritual strategies of disembodiment may yeild apparent short term gains, in the long run they land us right back, and perhaps more deeply, in the mess we began with.
In meditating with the body, what’s going on is that the awareness itself is being retrained and reeducated. We begin to live our life as a continual welling up from the depths of our soma, of our pores, our tissues, and our cells. Rather than thinking that the conscious mind is or should be the engineer of our lives we begin to realize that the conscious mind is actually more appropriately the handmaiden of the body. The body becomes the continual source of what we need in order to live, the unending fount of the water of life.
There’s a very interesting teaching in the Yogachara tradition of Indian Buddhism, that it’s part of the human situation to try to maintain a certain self-image or self-representation, what Buddhists today refer to as the “the self,” the “I” or ego. The attempt to maintain the “integrity” of this continuous, solid sense of ourselves leads us to be very resistant to—in fact, to ignore–information that is inconsistent with that image. And this means that we have a huge amount of information, moment by moment, to block out.
According to the Yogachara, when we live our lives, the body itself is a completely non-judgmental receiver of experience. These days there is much talk about creating effective personal boundaries. But the interesting point is that you can’t actually can’t put up boundaries to your body. The boundaries happen up top, in the head. There are no boundaries in the body. The body is open, the body is sensitive, the body is vulnerable, the body is intelligent, and the body is completely beyond judgment. Whatever occurs in our world, whether we like it or don’t like it, whether we find it a bad situation or a good situation, from the body’s viewpoint, is irrelevant. Whatever occurs in our environment our body receives it. We receive the full experience in that way, always. There are no boundaries to the body and there’s no way you can protect yourself, unless you go into a dark dungeon and shut the door and hide down there, and even then your body’s going to be receiving all the energies that are going on around you. No matter what the mind thinks or wants, the body receives.
So, the body receives experience in a completely open and non-judgmental way, but because of our investment in who we think we are and trying to maintain this self, we refuse to receive a great part of what the body knows and feels and understands… “we” meaning our conscious self, our conscious mind, our ego. Something happens, the experience occurs on a somatic level, and we say “no.” Or we say, “I want this part of what happened but not that part.” But we don’t simply receive what the body knows, we don’t receive the information in a straightforward way.
This is what Buddhism calls ignorance. Ignorance is not being unintelligent, uninformed, or deluded. Ignorance is actually incredibly intelligent. Ignorance means that we block out the wisdom and knowledge already abiding in our body that is inconsistent with who we think we are or are striving to be. This deliberate walling off of experience is thus most aggressive in the way it maintains our fantasies about ourselves and ignores what we already know somatically.
This leads to another most important question: what happens to all that denied and rejected experience that we are already holding in our bodies? Simply put, all that somatic awareness and experience is walled off from our consciousness. It abides in a no man’s land in our tissues, our muscles, our ligaments and tendons, our blood, our bones. The literally organic journey it is making toward consciousness is aborted and it gets jammed back into itself. And there it stays, in a kind of unhealthy stagnation where, in some instances, it may be unlocked by a body worker years or even decades later as a release of “trauma.” But as with our “traumas,” so with virtually every moment of our lives—the full range of our experience is not admitted, but is pushed back, jammed down, and walled off where it abides in the body.
This rejection of the fullness of our experience is what Buddhism means by the creation of karma (articulated in the system of the 12 nidanas) and the residue of experience that has not been lived through is, in Buddhist terms, the karma of result, wherein previously created karma involves limitations on our present awareness. In other words, the experience that is pushed back and walled off into the body is not in the least inactive. It continues to function as that which our conscious standpoint must continually strive to ignore. It is much like moving around a party, trying to avoid a particular person. All of your moves, while seemingly free and consistent with the wants and desires of your “party objectives,” are actually largely defined by trying to prevent any encounter with the unwanted guest.
We could speak of the rejected experience, the somatic knowledge that we wall off, as our unlived life. It is that part of our human existence, and often a very large part, that we do not feel, engage, accommodate, or incorporate. It is something that has come to our body, for whatever reason, but that we have allowed to go no further. Many of us feel that we are missing life, that life is passing us by, that we are missing what our life could be. We don’t know why we feel that way or what to do about it. However, when viewed from the point of view of the body, this unlived life is that life that is already ours, that is already happening, but that we are ignoring and avoiding out of our fear and desire to maintain our status quo. Of course we long for this life and of course our sense of missing it can be excruciating. Meditating with the body provides a way for us to reconnect with our unlived life and, gradually and over time, learn how to live in a more complete and satisfying way.
This leads us to some important insights about Buddhism. From the Buddhist point of view, the path to enlightenment is integrating what is not conscious into consciousness. In the Yogacara teachings, within the “storehouse consciousness”, which is unconscious, are all the memories, all the experiences that we have not fully lived through. It is the human way not to ever live through anything. We only live through things up to the point that we know what to do with it, and then we shut down. We don’t allow experience to flow through all the way. Thus we are continually creating karma and remain locked in the grip of restricted awareness and incomplete experience.
Someone once asked Chogyam Trungpa “How do you exhaust karma?”. He said simply “when things come up in your life, you feel them completely and fully and you don’t hold back. You live them right through until they have completed themselves.” This applies to whatever is arising for us, not just what is painful, but what is pleasurable as well. When we are blissful and happy we will go along to a certain point and then we pull back because we are afraid—perhaps it is too much and we feel we are losing our sense of self or perhaps we are afraid it will slip away. This is because true bliss and true happiness are as much, perhaps even more than pain, a negation of the human ego.
– Reginald A. Ray