Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share some insights that I’ve gained from reading a book called Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body. The author, Reggie Ray, studied Buddhist meditation with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and with H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa.
Let us begin tonight’s meditation practice by using a conscious body scan.
Inspired by his close friend of the African spiritual teacher, Malidoma Patrice Somé, Reggie teaches about grounding human spirituality in the earth and in the body. For 45 years, he has explored somatic disciplines such as Rolfing, Felednkrais, Qigong, and Tibetan yoga. His wife Lee’s transformative energy work has helped Reggie deepen appreciation for the body’s inner health and wisdom.
As Reggie says, “To be awake, to be enlightened, is to be fully and completely embodied. To be fully embodied means to be at one with who we are, in every respect, including our physical being, our emotions, and the totality of our karmic situation.” To promote this kind of embodiment, Reggie uses what he calls “somatic protocols,” meditative practices that entail approaching, entering, exploring and fully fathoming the body. These practices involve extending awareness from the surface of the body into its interior, extending from its larger parts down to a cellular level.
Central to his teaching is the use of the breath, to open the body, to carry awareness to otherwise inaccessible levels of subtlety, and to unlock inner energy—what Zen masters call the “authentic life” of the practitioner that is waiting to be expressed. Reggie claims that “meditating with the body” eventually brings us to a new experience of what it means to be human and what it means to be at all.
I agree with his complaint that many people confuse second-order concepts about spirituality with primary, first-order experiences of spiritual life itself. Meditating is better than reading or talking about meditation, because it is only in the depths of individual experience that the spiritual can be discovered and lived in a fully real way.
Dogen, the founder of the Japanese Soto School of Zen, sometimes referred to the body as the gateway to ultimate realization, and the Dzogchen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism affirm that enlightenment is found in the body. You may have already realized that attempting in a disembodied state to practice meditation and to follow a spiritual path is doomed to failure.
Some meditation practitioners become so dependent on a meditation teacher as a source of wisdom, power, and authority that they find themselves “infantilized” in a state of spiritual, emotional and developmental immaturity. The Buddha himself instructed his disciples to remain free from fixed views and to find what’s true for themselves.
Reggie points out that within the Indian culture of the Buddha’s era, the forest was considered an ideal place for spiritual practice because, in the forest, there are no rules and no presiding authorities. The only authority is the forest itself. The only rule is what awaits there for each practitioner to discover. Memories of the past and plans for the future do not apply there. In the forest, there is only the ever-present possibility of events, encounters, and insights that emerge directly from nature itself, pure and uncontaminated by human desires, expectations and attitudes. Within the forest, we have direct contact with primordial being.
As we discussed last week, amidst radical global climate change, there are fewer and fewer forests for retreats. Forests have been sold off and cut down by multinational corporations, and roads have been built through former retreat areas. With the current Buddhist emphasis on “social engagement” and “ethical impact,” the very idea of a “forest” is disappearing.
Reggie posits that the physical body is our new wilderness, an unknown and limitless territory that can transcend colonization and domestication by human ambition and greed and that cannot be mapped completely by human logic and rationality. This “forest body” is not the body we think we have, the body that we conceptualize as part of our self-image. Instead, Reggie is referring to the body that we meet when we are willing to descend into it, to surrender into its darkness and its mysteries, and to explore it with our awareness. He warns that this true, limitless body cannot be entered until we are willing to leave our own thinking process behind.
In traditional Buddhist philosophy, spirituality is not seen as separate from human life itself; the spiritual journey and human existence are one and the same. At the core of our innate Buddha nature, we long to become fully and completely who we are, and to experience ourselves and our lives, fully and freely, without doubt, reservation, or holding back. The Buddha described the final realization of ourselves as all-loving and powerful, allowing us to discover deep trust and confidence in life just as it is and to open up to the world and its suffering beings.
Buddhism is not a tradition that seeks to provide answers to life’s questions or to dispense “wisdom” to allay our fundamental angst. Rather, it challenges us to meet ourselves in a naked, direct, and fearless way. Buddhism asks us to question everything that we think and feel about ourselves and our reality—all our most basic beliefs, assumptions and preconceptions, even the way we habitually see, hear and sense the world. Reggie warns that we must be willing to let go of everything we have believed in order to find out the final truth of who we are.
The Buddha invited practitioners to take seriously our entire human existence, to take everything in our life “as the path.” He viewed everything that ever happens to us as part of our journey toward realization. This philosophy leads to an essential optimism about what human life is and why we are here—an underlying trust that runs through life’s most difficult circumstances.
According to Buddhism, the spiritual journey is unique to each individual, a journey into the unknown, which is written in the body itself, in its deepest levels and its most subtle layers. By traveling into the body, we are making a voyage towards our authentic selves.