To the beginning mindfulness student, it may seem odd that a Mindfulness course begins with a practice focusing on the body rather than the mind. But it’s only in our Western view that mind and body are separate; in Eastern traditions they are one and the same. And while the mind often wanders, whether into the past or into the future, the body resides in the present. So what better way to practice present-moment awareness than to focus attention on the body?
I find that many students react negatively to the Body Scan practice at first. They come to class the next week complaining that they didn’t like doing it at home, that it was unpleasant, boring, not relaxing, or conversely, it just put them to sleep. Their reactions illustrate another reason why we begin with the body: it offers a wonderful opportunity to experience the judging mind. Our minds constantly judge all experience as good, bad, or indifferent; we can do this sorting process quickly and automatically, but in so doing, something gets lost. In this case, it’s our connection to, and relationship with, our body.
The truth is, most people don’t have a positive relationship with their body. When we’re young, we take it for granted and rarely give a second thought to everything it does for us each day; when we’re old, it becomes a constant reminder of aging. Throughout our lives, we tend to focus on its perceived flaws; the body represents everything we don’t like about ourselves. And as the noted trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk tells us, The Body Keeps the Score. If we have experienced trauma, whether major or minor, the memories of it are stored in the body.
The instruction in the Body Scan practice is to focus attention on, and simply notice sensations, as you scan through the different regions of the body. When we do this, the sensations we first notice are the uncomfortable ones: the aches in the back, neck or joints, or the places where we may have been injured. It takes effort to notice the more subtle sensations, or the places where nothing’s wrong, although in fact that may represent most of the body.
Rick Hanson, in his wonderful little book, Just One Thing, invites us to consider these questions: “How has your body taken care of you over the years? . . . In return, how well do you take care of your body? . . . In what ways are you critical of your body? . . . If your body could talk to you, what might it say? . . . And if your body were a good friend, how would you treat it? Would that be different from how you treat it now?” (JOT, pp 46-47)
When I posed these questions to the students in the Keeping Mindful group this month, most of them focused their meditation on the last two questions, and we had a discussion after about this idea of befriending the body. Some of the ways to befriend the body mentioned were getting enough rest, getting exercise, and wearing cozy socks to keep the feet warm.
In turning our attention to the body, and bringing an attitude of kind, interested curiosity, just as we would to a conversation with a good friend, we become able to notice things we hadn’t noticed before: perhaps an ache or sensations of tension or fatigue in some parts, maybe a sense of okay-ness or relaxation in other parts. We can learn to listen to what the body has to tell us, and over time, we can come to trust the inner wisdom of the body. This is indeed one of the greatest benefits of establishing a mindfulness meditation practice.
Kindness begins at home. Your home is your body.– Rick Hanson