Embodiment: The invitation of meditation
The following is an excerpt from a talk. Instructions for body awareness are key to mindfulness meditation. The Buddha taught that the “fathom-long” body was the ground for awakening. In setting up practice, it’s worthy to explore what embodiment means and why the invitation is a foundation for waking up and being present to our lives as they unfold.
What is present moment awareness? Before we begin exploring mindfulness practice, why we do it, and instruction that may get us started, or maybe, if you’re an experienced meditator, why to keep committing to this act of sitting with ourselves, I invite a reflection.
“I have a body”
This starting place gives us the opportunity to consider what it is we are aiming for in our practice, and what the vehicle is for our waking up or living life in some connected way. Our body is the place where we practice tenderness, kindness, acceptance, curiosity, non-judgment, trust, letting go of expectations, experiencing impermanence. Our body gives us the opportunities to find a way to relate to the pangs, aches, urges that arise in that very body. Father Richard Roehr talks about practicing grace, forgiveness, a way of relating to our direct experience in this way, “so you can keep your heart open in hell, when hell happens.”
While that’s a good plan, and reasonable, because suffering is unavoidable, our bodies also give us the opportunity to practice knowing joy, compassion, connection, affection.
Our body engages our senses- processes our world through these amazing powers of sight, touch, hearing, taste. Our body reverberates with our emotions.
Without a body to sing out love or appreciation for the world around us, how could we know it?
Those beautiful streaks of magenta and orange of the setting sun through the trees? We know the colors, textures through our eyes, the stillness dotted with the rustle of the reed grasses in the wind and the honks of geese flying by through our ears, the brisk quality of the winter day through the snap against our cheek, the knowing of awe through our body’s sigh.
Without a body to tell us anger has arisen, or that we’re experiencing contraction towards someone, how would we know something is up for us? Without knowing ease, and openness, and friendliness, how would we know that there are alternatives to being contracted, angry, defensive?
Without a body to sing out love or appreciation for the world around us, how could we know it?
Consider what regret feels like. We become more skillful when we become sensitive to how our actions “sit” with us. If we weren’t as kind or patient as we aimed to be with our children or our coworkers today, how would the body tell us? When we experience generosity, or kindness, how does the body feel?
Presence is known through the body. Sensitivity, our inner radar, is no different than other animals who sense their environment. A fish can sense the edges of sharp coral are nearby, a dog has whiskers, a bear the keen ability to pick up scent. Finding the way to the ripest berries, or avoiding threats. Moving closer to their cubs, knowing safety, resting in the sun. Rolling in the grass without concern.
But we’re not spending our days on a mountainside tuning our attention towards our senses, feeling one foot as at a time, placing itself on the forest floor. Do you remember how your chest felt when you drove here today? Or what was happening in your body when you were scrolling on your phone for 40 minutes this morning? Do you know what body posture feels the most helpful when you’re upright? When you’re eating do you know what textures delight you the most? Or what ‘full’ feels like? Were you fully awake to the pleasure of lying next to your partner or having the warmth of your pet against you on the cold chilly night we had last night?
We also aren’t quite like that bear in that we have this gift of awareness, a capacity to not just react from primal amygdala led activities. Bears have keen instincts for danger but sometimes, they could harm us or themselves because they don’t have the same discernment as we can develop as human beings. We not only have the gift of sensitivity to our world and a complex system of sensory inputs, but also sensory processing, integrating what’s going on around us. We have cognition, a meta-cognition, aware that we’re thinking, reacting, sensing.
We have this capacity to see if we’re reacting from fear, or from bias or worry about someone who feels different than us, and we can choose a more skillful way to react so that we’re not causing harm as we go about our lives, and we’re not caught in a trap of constant escape from discomfort, or racing to find all those fleeting pleasures. So we both have this advantage, this gift, of awareness, but we also live in a world that is in many ways built to prey on our impulsive urges to get all the goodies for ourselves, or to spend all of our energy running from some imagined threat.
The more complex our worlds become, the more we’re invited to find a wise way to respond to it.
We need practices like the ones we’re working with this weekend to get more familiar with all these things going on in our bodies, and then also our thoughts, our habits, our emotions, if we want to be fully alive, if we aim to know how best to take care of this body. If we aren’t in our bodies, we can’t be with each other very well either. Having a difficult conversation, feeling our way through the most skillful ways to share our hurt, or to ask for what we need, or being open to listen… all require presence, some familiarity and contact with what is happening in this moment.
In this weekend we’re practicing familiarity with our body as a way to build the quality of kindheartedness that allows us to be skillfully present with ourselves, and with other beings. We’re going to practice taking good care of ourselves in each moment, both by appreciating those qualities of ease, softening, ‘relaxing’ as it were, but we’re also not going to turn away from ourselves when the going gets tough. When an ache shows itself, or we feel the storm rolling in, the gathering up of emotions and sensations because a thought comes up about a conversation we had with someone at work the other day, or a pattern we have with our partner. We’re going to notice the coming and going of our embodiment. We’ll see that it’s possible to notice if we’re getting hooked, and we’ll just keep practicing the kindest and wisest way to ease back into the present moment.
We’re not going to expect that we’ll be here, scrunching up our foreheads and forcing ourselves like some punishment. We’re not going to shout ‘SHOW UP’ ‘STAY HERE.’ Just like you have those good friends who you don’t often get to see, sometimes, they aren’t available when you invite them over. But you keep inviting them because you love them. It’s good when you connect. So, like that, we’re going to keep inviting ourselves to be more unified with the person we most need to love. Ourselves.
As a mindfulness teacher introducing mindfulness in practical ways to folks newer to these practices, I hear too often, “I tried it, and it didn’t work.” I bought a book, I took a class, I set my watch for a week. Awareness isn’t something we buy or acquire. As long as our brains are intact, we have a reasonably full range of cognition to connect the dots, and all of us sitting here qualify, we have awareness as the gift of our human experience as a way to relate to our actual human experience. It does take practice. And our aim is not to keep vigilant tethering to our bodies. It’s ok that we use autopilot when we need it, it’s very handy to drive our cars without having to consider each little step. And it’s ok to spend an evening relaxing our attention or getting absorbed in Netflix or even following a little story we’ve conjured up about our inadequacy. But can we wake up to it and see it for what it is? Hmmm. Now I’m going to turn off and away from this wretched cold and distract myself with a movie. Or I want a little excitement. I’m going to go out on the town for a nice dinner and conversation. I’m self-indulging a bit on this worry but I can laugh at myself for it.
James Joyce’s Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body. Saw his actions from ‘side glasses.’ And we might find that we do as well, certainly habitually from time to time, and maybe that distance feels larger at times than others. In holding space for coping – we appreciate that trauma survivorship asks us at times to let up on being ‘all in’ and in our bodies. In fact, Joyce had a great sensitivity to the impacts of harsh conditions on the human experience. In a beautiful way, you can hear in James Joyce the attention to the world in great detail that is, in practice, a tool to calm an overactive sympathetic nervous system. If we can’t be in our body, right now, let’s start by being in this room and easing into what it’s like to stay here. *
Our intention is to see if we can gently move closer to the center of our lives as we familiarize ourselves with our capacity to hold our experience with tenderness, friendliness, equanimity, and joy.
We have a body. Someday we won’t. So today, let’s be as unified with it, as open to listening, as kindhearted towards it as is available to us.
Looking for a retreat? Join us at an upcoming event.
*We aim to incorporate trauma-sensitive practices into all of our teaching. Sometimes the invitation to be in, to stay in the body or with the breath can feel inaccessible to some, or at least in some moments. We can work with anchoring to sounds in the room, the feeling of holding our own hand, or an object, like a stone or cup of tea.
Karen Laing is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher with experience in trauma and caregiving. She's spent the last 25 years supporting families through major life transitions such as birth and postpartum care.
She founded Birthways over 20 years ago to support expectant families and provide training and support for birthworkers. She created WisdomWay as a means to continue supporting all caregivers with mindfulness-based training and certifications. She speaks nationwide on mindfulness, parenting, caregiving, and mental health.