Week two of our month is devoted to mindfulness of the body. Here we are also challenging the conditioning of judgment – “I’m not feeling the right things, I’m not feeling enough, I’m feeling too much.” Our goal is a balanced awareness of whatever sensations we discover through mindfulness. It is because of that balance that we have room to look more deeply into sensations in our bodies – and use that looking to discover our conditioning towards pleasure (do we allow ourselves to enjoy it or are we only trying to keep it for the future?) towards pain (are we adding fear and anger and projection into a seemingly unchanging future, or are we with our experience more in the moment and with compassion?) and neutrality (do we basically fall asleep or numb out whenever our experience isn’t intense? Are we addicted to stimulation?). There is so much to be learned through mindfulness of the body, and it is a sensitivity and groundedness we can bring into our everyday lives.
Our bodies are the most concrete vehicle we can access for moment to moment awareness. If you are at work, or commuting, or at a much dreaded family dinner, or a delightful celebration, to feel more centered, more present, the easiest objects of awareness we have are the breath and body, with the body being easier at times. One of the powerful things about mindfulness of the body is how we can drop down out of conceptual understanding (“oh, there’s my knee, my elbow”) into the world of direct sensations. The concept is important, of course, navigating the world. But there is also a kind of static perception there – I called it my elbow yesterday, today, and will tomorrow. In looking right at sensations, I experience pulsing, throbbing, pressure. etc. I’ve come right into the world of constant change. In this week’s mindfulness exercises, you will find yourself using quite ordinary movement and sensations for this kind of in depth experience. Nothing special or exotic or needed. This will take us deeper and deeper ito the dynamic, fluid world of change.
I know from so many years of teaching that some of you might be feeling discouraged right about now. We want to see that number of breaths climb from 3 to 20 to 200 to infinity, or we feel bad about ourselves and our practice. That success is measured in a different way – in how we are learning to let go of distraction more gently, we’re learning to begin again with more kindness towards ourselves – is awfully hard to believe. But it’s true. And it takes some getting used to.
We may already have seen a lot of judgment playing out last week, in working with the breath. My Burmese meditation teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, had a trick question he used to ask people, “How many breaths can you be with before your mind wanders?” The reason it is a trick question is that they believe it takes a good amount of mindfulness to notice how distracted we are. So a good answer might be, ”three breaths.” If you answer, “I can be with the breath for 45 minutes and my mind never wanders, they believe you are so lost in space you don’t even notice what’s happening.
We want the sensations in our bodies, just as in everyday life, to move from lovely tingles to serene pulses, and back. Life is sometimes like that but not always. Therefore, meditation isn’t always like that. We try to sit comfortably, or lie down if that seems necessary, or walk at a good pace when we’re experimenting with that, without blaming ourselves or feeling like we’ve failed should uncomfortable sensations come. We work in a balanced way so as to take care of our bodies as we practice. And how fortunate to have some tools we can use in times when it’s not so easy to have a physical existence. No matter who we are, those times happen.
In meditation practice we challenge a lot of deeply held assumptions about success and failure, about being in control, about happiness and strength, about the wisdom of judging ourselves, so there are always a lot of ups and downs on a path. I know it’s not easy, but the best thing is to go through the 28 days and then assess, rather than judging ourselves every single second of practice, which is more what we’re used to. For one thing, that means continually separating ourselves from the practice in order to judge it. It’s good to evaluate and decide if we’re getting any benefit and want to continue, but Feb 28 (or even March 1) is a very good day for that. In the meantime, don’t buy into those discouraging thoughts that you can’t do it – you are doing it, and the momentum will reveal itself by the end.