09/18/2012 07:49 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Mindfulness and the Body

When I first started meditating in the early 1980s, I had a very hard time sitting still. I had read some books on Zen and whatnot and had a fantasy of myself remaining motionless for hours at a time, probably in full lotus posture, feeling bliss. Upon attempting to sit, I was shocked to discover that this vision of ecstacy did not immediately manifest. I fidgeted. I itched. It was boring. I coughed. My hips hurt. My mind wandered. My legs fell asleep. I fidgeted some more. The sad reality was that I really disliked sitting still -- an essential ingredient in the practice of mindfulness.

This made me kind of mad at my body. Here I was, trying to transcend my petty ego and its desires, and the weakness of my body was holding me down. Still, I persisted with my meditating, and as the years progressed, I developed a kind of adversarial relationship with my body. Many aspects of the meditative literature and culture will help you do this. My job as a meditator was (supposedly) to exert my will over the body, with its sad, earthly weaknesses and needs, and to force it to sit still while I worked on purifying my mind. I even bought into the idea that I was an immortal soul, forever perfect and pure, and my body was a mere vessel, impure, imperfect, made of clay. The problem.

It took me a long time and a lot of meditation to discover that the body is not the problem. In fact, the body is a vital part of the solution. Mindfulness is not a matter of the transcendental mind overcoming the earthly body, but instead involves becoming reacquainted, familiar, and even loving with the body. This is a bit harder than it sounds, but by understanding it from the very beginning, you can save yourself years of hardship and struggle. With a little guidance, even the first steps can be relatively easy. And when you begin to really touch the body deeply, to connect with it, to know it inside out, and to love it, you will begin to be at home in your skin and at home in the universe.

I have a lot to say about meditating on the body, so this article is the first in a whole series of posts about mindfulness of body sensation. Here I want to talk about what I mean when I say meditating on the body.

If I told you that meditating on something was different than thinking about it, you'd probably say that, duh, you already know that. Yet when people first meditate on the body, that is often what they do: think about it. When you direct your attention toward the physical body, you will feel some body sensation, but you will also experience a lot of mental images of the body. Pictures of the positions of your limbs, mental images of the shape of your torso, and so on. And these mental images are thoughts, not physical sensations.

Meditating on the body means meditating on body sensation, not mental images of the body. So, for example, if you close your eyes and meditate on the bottoms of your feet right now, notice that you can feel the bottoms of your feet, but you may also be experiencing a mental picture of your feet. That imaginal image of your feet is fine and natural, but in meditating on the body, it is important to let go of it. Not push it away, not get angry at it, but simply let it go. Instead, allow your attention to focus on the feeling of the bottoms of your feet. The actual physical sensations. Concentrate on just that sensation, letting go of mental images.

I liken it to a blind man recognizing another person by feeling their face with his hands, his fingertips. Or like feeling a wooden sculpture with your eyes closed. You get into the actual, earthly contact of body sensation; you feel it in the meat, so to speak. Not in your head. In your body. Notice if you can get into the sensation in the bottoms of your feet in that way. There are the pads of the toes, the soles, the arches, and the solidity of the heels. Feel each area of sensation individually. And then feel them all together again. This is actual contact with body sensation. This is meditating on the body. This is where to begin.

In future articles, we'll go much deeper into mindfulness of body sensations.

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