The Somatic Solution
“There is surely nothing else than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do and nothing else to pursue.” -the Hagakure
In the above quotation, a 17th century samurai penetrates to the heart of the common American, nay worldwide quest for a fulfilling life. For without a firm grasp of right now, we are doomed to sleep-walk through life, reprocessing the past and speculating about the future.
The million-dollar question, then, is: How? How do we get with the fullness of this moment, and the next, and the next…
Impossible? Actually, yes, it is impossible, if we employ our habitual cognitive approach, an endless mind-game that feeds our ingrained tendencies of hyper-rational and consecutive thinking.
If you expect different results from an experiment, yet keep using the same data and the same methods, you are doomed to be one frustrated scientist. So it is for those of us who strive to live a more authentic life, hungrily searching out wisdom material and transformative practices to free us from the chains of our addictive tendencies. Our motives are sound, but our method is doomed to failure for one fundamental reason: our practice of mindfulness doesn’t include a disciplined study of our body’s processes.
In my youth, I had a burning desire to experience the enlightenment attributed to the great mystics of the ages. I gobbled up books on mysticism and zen meditation by the wheelbarrow full. By the age of 26, I was so enlightened I could hardly stand myself. It was at that age that I began formal zen training in the Rinzai tradition. I figured that the roshi would soon recognize a fellow adept and rubberstamp my enlightenment certificate.
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. Actual Zen training is arduous, and in the week-long sitting intensives known as sesshins, I encountered a physical agony that, somehow, the authors of my books had failed to mention.
In monastic zazen training, it is considered not unusual for the novice student to take up to three years merely to fully embody the proper posture needed for solid meditation. It soon became clear to me that what I thought to be a new way of thinking was, more accurately, a new way of living in one’s body.
To live in one’s body, vividly and spontaneously, asks us to engage with every emotion, thought, and sensation without preference or aversion.
Right, you say, easier said than done.
Here follows one method that I’ve found useful for returning to my body in those moments when I catch myself lost in the playground of my mind.
“The secret of success is to do the common things uncommonly well.”
– John D. Rockefeller
I call this method the “Kitchen Olympics”, and it points to an attitude of excellence in the performance of all our daily tasks.
In the division of tasks in our home, I end up doing the dishes most of the time. Now, I’m not real keen on doing dishes – it typically represents an onerous job that needs to be done before I do something “enjoyable”.
One evening, after watching Olympic figure skating, I found myself elbow-deep in the suds, speculating about how I’d do in the Olympics if dishwashing were an event. If a panel of judges was grading me on mindfulness and poise, how long would it be before I cracked from the pressure? I made a bit of a game of it, seeing for how long I could attend completely to the task at hand before succumbing to self-pity or day-dreaming.
I didn’t last long that first time. Fortunately, I’d learned, by then, that the heart of meditative practice is found in returning to the here and now, and I applied myself in successive evenings to “improve my score”. Over time, I found that my shift in front of the sink became less of a chore and more of a gift to myself.
This success begged the question, “What other pedestrian tasks deserve this quality of attention?” The answer, of course, is all of them.
Notice which leg you slip into your pants first. Unload the shopping cart with care and quality. Try brushing your teeth with your other hand. Hold an erect posture for as long as you can in front of your computer. When you are tired, rest, and notice the cascade of muscular release as you submit to gravity. Breathe.
Through an ongoing practice of paying attention to such “simple” tasks, we can begin to contact an intelligence that is deep enough to be the source of our learning and precise enough to show us how we learn. By living more fully in our physical selves, we find a somatic solution to the age-old problem of disconnection. We simply come home.
Daniel Kempling is the director of Mindful Movement Training. He holds a fifth degree black belt in Aikido and teaching credentials in Iaido, and is a certified Personal Trainer and an instructor of the Pilates Method. He lives with his wife and three children in Creston, BC.