Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge, exploring the theme of Chapter Six: Awakening to the Life of the Body.
The chapter begins with advice from the poet Danna Faulds:
Trust the energy that curses through you. Trust.
Then take surrender even deeper. Be the energy.
Don’t push anything away.
Follow each sensation back to its source
In vastness and pure presence.
It’s not easy to follow these instructions. So often, as we rush through the day, we aren’t even aware of physical sensations. In a trance, we may be numb, lost in thoughts, and disconnected from what’s alive in the present moment, or we may be overwhelmed by feelings of fear, hurt or anger.
Universally, we’re conditioned to assess whatever is happening as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Further, we’re conditioned to react to pleasant sensations by approaching and grasping at them, to unpleasant ones by avoiding or contracting against them, and neutral ones by ignoring them altogether. Meditation practice gives us opportunities to notice these habitually conditioned patterns and to free ourselves from automatic reactivity.
Tara reminds us, “Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.” Because the body lives in the present moment, sensations are our most immediate way of experiencing and relating to life. All our reactions—to thoughts, to external situations, to emotions—are in response to physical sensations.
More often than not, when I wake up in the morning, I feel restless energy start to surge through my body, and my mind fills with thoughts about what I hope to accomplish during the day. I’ve learned that it’s wise to postpone planning until I connect with my body during slow, gentle Qigong exercises. Once my feet sense the support of the ground, and my movements are aligned with the rhythm of deep breathing, I feel calmer and clearer about setting priorities for the rest of the day.
The other day, I met a newcomer in a yoga class that I’ve been attending. She told me that she just moved from her homeland of Nigeria to marry a man who’s working in Houston. In the midst of culture shock, she says that she feels most “at home” when she’s breathing, stretching, and balancing in yoga ásanas. Through yoga she feels in touch with her body, which anchors her no matter where she travels in the world.
To develop a sense of embodied presence, Tara suggests an exercise to increase awareness of sensations in the extremities, which are usually associated with fewer unpleasant memories than sensitive areas like the throat, belly or pelvis. I’ll lead a short, adapted version of her guided meditation:
Close your eyes and let your hands relax, resting effortlessly and easily in your lap or on your legs. Imagine that you can place your awareness inside your hands. See if it’s possible to soften your hands a bit more and to sense the life that’s there…Can you sense any vibrating or tingling, heat or coolness? Can you feel places of pressure where your hands touch your legs and where your fingers touch each other?
Now bring your attention to your feet and imagine bringing your awareness inside them. Notice any shifting sensations of vibration, tingling and temperature in your feet. Can you feel the pressure points where your feet touch the ground?
Now widen the lens of your attention and sense the whole field of sensations in your body. Allow pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations to come and go, noticing whatever is predominant. Sense how your breath is moving through it all. When you’re ready, at your own rhythm, exhale and open your eyes, aware of what’s around you.
Are there any comments or questions about this exercise? What did you notice?
A major challenge is dealing with intensely unpleasant sensations such as acute physical pain. Chapter Six contains helpful suggestions for being with pain: Scan the body for any neutral or pleasant sensations, and rest in those areas a while. Then experiment with moving back and forth between those sensations and the unpleasant ones. Investigate the dance of sensations that you’ve labeled as “pain.” Underlying the solid concept of pain are changing experiences—pinpricks, twisting, pressure, soreness, stabbing, burning, etc. Treat your breath as a safe home base to accompany you during unpleasant sensations.
I like Tara’s image of a healthy body as a tree rooted into the earth. When we are disconnected from the body, we uproot the tree and distance ourselves from the energetic expression of our being that connects us with life. As we contact the truth that lives in the body, we reclaim our life and spirit by planting ourselves again in the world.
During vulnerable periods on long retreats, the image of the Buddha touching the ground reassures me. At the moment of his enlightenment, he sat steadily facing Mara’s temptations, distractions and doubts, and he called on the earth to witness the truth of his awakened heart and his compassionate resonance with all life. In any moment, we too can touch the earth and sense it supporting our presence.
Conscious embodiment can be a joyous experience. This past weekend, Mark and I heard Midori, the Japanese American musical prodigy, playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with Colombian-born Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting the Houston Symphony. At first glance, Midori looked delicate and fragile, and Andrés seemed short and slightly built. But they transformed as they plunged into the music.
In a kind of pas de deux, they mirrored each other’s movements, rocking back and forth, swaying, pivoting, bowing, and arching their backs. While Midori’s agile fingers produced exquisite sounds on the violin, Andrés established an almost telepathic connection with the orchestra, sweeping his arms wide to encourage the strings to play expansive musical phrases, shaking his fist above his head to animate the percussionists, and holding a finger to his lips to indicate the gentlest of tones from the flute.
The entire ensemble moved in unified waves of energy as the concerto poured through them. I could almost SEE the music being transmitted through the fluid motions of the bodies and instruments, and I was so attuned that I breathed and swayed in synchrony. Midori and Andrés led us through such fiercely passionate and tenderly nuanced passages that as the final note sounded, the audience rose as one body to cheer, “Bravo!” Everyone in the auditorium seemed to be flowing in the same current of musical vibrations.
Out in the hall at intermission, I happened upon Midori signing an autograph for a little girl. Midori met my eyes, and approached to shake my hand. Still moved, I thanked her for dancing with the orchestra as she played.
Let’s end with the guided meditation that closes Chapter Six: The Buddha’s Smile. Neurologically, even a small smile relaxes our reactivity and inclines the mind towards feeling ease and wellbeing.
Close your eyes, take a few full breaths, and with each exhalation, soften and relax the body. Imagine a smile spreading through your eyes, gently uplifting the corners. Feel a slight smile at the mouth and sense the inside of the mouth smiling. Relaxing the jaw, notice the sensations arising around the mouth and cheeks.
Imagine smiling into the heart. Sense the smile spreading through the heart and chest, creating space for whatever you might be feeling. Allow the sensations and feelings in the heart area to float in this tender space.
Imagine a smile spreading through the belly, softening any tension there. Notice awareness awakening deep inside the torso.
Now imagine a smile permeating your whole body. Take a few more full breaths, sensing the aliveness that fills your entire body held in the openness of a smile. Exhale deeply and slowly open your eyes.