“There’s a common misconception that meditation is about transcending the body,” says my teacher Jack Kornfield. People can have transcendent experiences in meditation, certainly. But the intention is not to leave the body or dissociate. Rather, it is to come home to the full experience of being right here, in this moment. To be here now, we need to attune to the body.
Most importantly, awareness in the body is our source of inner wisdom. When we can fully experience the range of sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, mild or intense, only then can we connect to a deeper kind of happiness: the joy of being at home in ourselves.
Why do we disconnect?
Often in daily life, we have a tendency to disconnect from awareness of the body. This can be the result of trauma, discomfort, speeding through the day, and being caught up in the endless stream of thoughts. Also, the more we look at screens, the more we tend to dissociate from our bodies. So many of our reflexive habits—worrying about the future, rehashing the past, distracting ourselves in various ways—are like endlessly pedaling a bicycle, away from what’s here in this moment. Sometimes what’s here feels difficult or unpleasant, and we grasp for something else. As a result, without the conscious intention to be present in the body, most people disconnect often. We get lost in the mind and in the world of external distraction.
Furthermore, we sometimes learn to mistrust the body. My teacher Tara Brach says, “The body-mind split gets exacerbated by patriarchal religions that mistrust the feminine, mistrust the body, mistrust the earth, want to dominate.” And in our culture that’s so full of messages about what a perfect body should be, we often find ourselves at war with our bodies—disliking them, turning away from them, trying to control them. Pain and illness can also lead us to feel at war with our bodies, as if they’ve betrayed us.
All these forms of disconnection and dissociation lead to suffering. We ourselves suffer when we live this way, and we also tend to be less grounded, more reactive, and less empathic, thereby affecting those around us. In other words, we need to be kind and accepting toward our own internal experience—to feel at home in our own skin—in order to be truly conscious in our relationships. We need to consciously inhabit our bodies in order to be fully alive.
How do we come back?
Despite these common tendencies to disconnect, we can retrain our awareness. Fundamentally, mindfulness of the body means tuning into ourselves. There is a simple inquiry at the core of the practice:
- What is happening inside me?
- Can I be with this? (Or, Can I let this be?)
Sitting in formal meditation, it helps to have a sensory anchor. The breath is one. Feeling bodily sensations is another. For example, you can sense into your hands, seeing if you can feel them from the inside out. You might feel tingling or vibrating—the aliveness that’s there. You can also systematically scan through your body. Just let your attention arrive gently in each different part of your body. Open to whatever experience is there, feeling from the inside out. Some people refer to this internal sensation as the inner body or energy body. It is a felt sense you can cultivate through practice.
To begin, sit quietly. Feel the sensations of your clothes and the air on your skin. Feel the points of contact where your chair or cushion supports you, your hands resting on your knees or your lap. Allow any tension to release from your brow and jaw. Feel the softening sensation from the inside out. Notice the sensations in your throat, chest and belly. Feel the aliveness inside you. Let the natural movement of your breath help you to soften with whatever is here.
When your attention wanders into thoughts, keep asking yourself, What is the difference between being caught up in a thought—a kind of virtual reality—and being right here in this vivid, living reality?
It’s important to have a mindset of gentleness, curiosity, and care when re-entering the body. The process is slow. Be forgiving toward yourself and your experience. As Tara points out, we wouldn’t leave if we weren’t afraid of what’s here. Jack Kornfield says we need to approach the body very tenderly, “for all that it’s carried and all that it continues to carry.”
In cases of trauma—even small traumas we might not consciously register—we dissociate from the bodily experience. It could just be a strong emotion we don’t want to feel. It could be more severe dysregulation of the nervous system, which makes us feel unsafe. Unfortunately, when we dissociate from pain, we also cut ourselves off from joy.
“When we dissociate,” Tara says, “things get blocked and frozen and stuck. When we come back in, that presence, like the sun on ice, allows a kind of melting and a movement. And that movement is a sign of healing.”
When we’ve experienced trauma, we may need to do some healing work with a trained clinician and cultivate inner resources before we can feel safe practicing mindfulness of the body. But ultimately we will need to come back to the body in order to fully heal.
Sometimes when we feel strong emotions, we get caught in the mind’s stories. The trance of thinking keeps us stuck in the emotion, keeps it feeding itself. The first step to easing out of this cycle can be to inquire: What is this emotion? Where do I feel this in my body? What are the sensations? Is it buzzing, tight, achy, jittery, hollow? Simply naming the emotion, locating it in the body, and giving language to the sensations can help us disentangle from the mental loop. When we can acknowledge the feeling and allow it to be there—hold space for it with kindness—we realize the feeling isn’t us. It’s just a weather system moving through this vast sky of awareness, which is our true nature. Holding space kindly for an emotion can allow it to soften and dissipate.
You can place your hand on your own heart and feel the sensations of loving care. What does that feel like in your body? Breathe and feel the warmth of your own comfort.
Chronic pain can also make it hard to be in the body. This kind of pain tends to bring a lot of fear with it—fear that this will never end, that we’re stuck, that it will control our life. The fear brings more suffering. Again, if you can name the fear and offer it some care, it doesn’t have so much power. As Jack says, “Bring the fear into the light with a huge amount of kindness.” When you’re able to experience the physical sensations without an overlay of fear, you may notice that they shift and change in subtle ways. You can begin to feel less stuck.
Formal meditation is an important part of cultivating mindfulness of the body. And then as our awareness evolves, we bring the practice into everyday life. One way do this informal practice is to choose certain activities when you’ll slow down and fully tune into the body: for example, washing dishes, walking the dog, or taking a shower. Another way is to notice the signs of thinking-trance and use these as clues to reawaken in the body. Tara offers these examples:
- Obsessive thinking and habitual worries
Notice your habitual worries. Set an intention: When these arise, I’ll come back to my body. What are the sensations? Is there a deeper fear underneath these worries? Can I be with it? Can I offer it some loving care?
- Judgmental thoughts
When you notice you’re judging yourself or others, use it as a cue to come back to the body. What does judgment feel like?
- Self-distracting or numbing, as with food, TV or social media
Set an exercise: every third time you have the reflex to reach for your smartphone and browse social media, set it aside and come home to the body instead. Inquire: what feeling is here that I might be trying to avoid? If it’s just boredom, see if you can be with that. See what other feelings might be underneath it.
When you find yourself hurrying or feeling you don’t have enough time, slow down and reconnect. Walk half as fast. Feel your feet on the ground. See what happens.
The Power of Embodied Awareness
The body has enormous wisdom. It can guide us, when we learn to tune in and trust it. The trance of thinking takes us away, but we can learn to come back. Anyone can choose to cultivate this capacity for presence.
First and foremost, our bodily experience helps to ground us because it happens in the here and now. This lived experience can become our friend, even at times when it might feel unpleasant. That’s because when we befriend our embodied experience, we feel at home. We feel connected to our deep, inner instinct and the power of our own expansive awareness. This profound connection with self brings power and freedom.
Tara says entering the body is like entering the wilderness. We are nature. The bodily experience is alive and wild and largely beyond our control—sometimes pleasurable, sometimes painful, always changing. To be with our internal experience, we have to let go of grasping for control. Instead, we learn to approach life with curiosity, openness, and magnanimity.
“Coming back to the body,” Tara says, “allows for a visceral experience in the heart, which opens us up to forgiveness and compassion—the all-embracing heart. It’s the portal to wisdom.”