We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis~
Synchronizing the Body and the Mind
Unlike the Western philosophical tradition, which views mind and body as two separate things, the Buddha taught that mind and body are interconnected and inseparable.
The French philosopher Descartes established a foundation of dualism in thinking about how we experience things when he wrote that the observer and what was being observed were two separate yet equally independent realities.
The Buddha, on the other hand, never considered the body as separate from the mind. For the Buddha, and for the traditions that arose from his discoveries, a body separate from the mind is merely a corpse. So the body is alive, and what it is alive with is the mind.
The mind is the governing principle from which everything else emerges. Therefore, as the Buddha put it, “The mind is the king of all dharmas.” The body provides the necessary seat, or ground, for the mind to function. When the Buddha’s close disciple Ananda was practicing extreme asceticism in his meditation, almost to the point of starving himself, the Buddha told him (remembering his own experience years earlier!):
“Ananda, if there is no food, there is no body. If there is no body, there is no Dharma. If there is no Dharma, there is no enlightenment. Therefore go back and eat.”
Within your own meditation practice of mindfulness, one of the discoveries you will make is that the relationship between your mind and body is not that clear. It is somewhat distorted and complicated. Your mind has many ideas and concepts about your body. This overly complicated version of the body is sometimes called the psychosomatic body, which is based on the assumption of dualistic separation: “I have a body”, rather than “I am a body.”
My teacher distinguished this body created out of your thoughts from what he called the “real body”, or the “body-body.”
To emphasize the difference between the two, consider the difference between eating when you’re hungry and eating simply because it’s lunchtime—whether you’re hungry or not. The first is an activity in which you relate to the real body and its real needs, in real time. The second is an example of your tendency to relate to your expectations about the body: that you should eat at lunchtime because you always eat at lunchtime, etc. The first is grounded directly in your present experience, while the second is merely an expression of your conditioning, which you often respond to unconsciously and automatically, without paying attention to the reality of your immediate situation.
This example shows how strong and persuasive your habitual patterns of thought and action are. Your psychosomatic body is perpetuated and strengthened by the continuous flow and compelling logic of your thoughts.
A traditional Zen anecdote conveys the importance of cutting through your illusions of the psychosomatic body to the grounded reality of your body-body. When a student asks the master, “How can I practice in order to attain enlightenment?” the master replies, “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.”
Experiences of the Psychosomatic Body
In my workas a psychotherapist, I see this identification with the psychosomatic body, and its destructive effects on my clients’ sense of well-being, play out in various ways—some of which you may find very familiar. Of course, you may object that the generalities that follow are stereotyping men and women. Obviously, not all my clients fall into these divisions. But I make them in service of a point about cultural stereotypes that we do take on individually.
When experiencing anxiety—about a job interview, for example—you find yourself in the grip of your conditioned, psychosomatic body. At such times your compulsive identification with your thoughts creates tremendous tension in the body, which usually happens outside your awareness. You may even lose your sense of connection with the body altogether, because you are unconsciously trapped in the speed or fear of a particular mental state. This feeling of disconnection may be experienced in the following ways.
Among many of my male clients, it seems to play out in workaholic tendencies, fueled by the anxiety that if they don’t continue to move as quickly as they can on whatever treadmill of livelihood they are currently running on, they will fail. For my male clients, this failure is feared almost as much as dying. In the process of avoiding it, many will compromise and even sacrifice their health to stress. The body-body is buried in a mirage of future expectations, which flickers back and forth between the hope for ultimate success and the fear of ultimate failure.
Among some of my female clients, it seems to manifest in shame about body image measured against cultural ideals of beauty, and the compulsive and addictive patterns—such as eating disorders—that they use in order to cope with their belief that they are not basically good and whole just as they are.
Even a moment’s reflection about each of these syndromes takes us to a deeper consideration of the larger, destructive cultural influences and stereotypes that drive this suffering for men and for women. This is the sad consequence of a materialistic worldview, which creates an endlessly receding mirage of perfection and success that not even the most “perfect” and “successful” people can hope to reach, much less sustain. As for “ordinary” people, they can only watch this grand but punishing game of chasing illusion from the sidelines.
The deeper point is that we are all being driven by standards and expectations that we never asked for. They are socially and culturally determined, and we simply take them on, as if we had absolutely no choice, because that’s what the world says is “real”. We come up with criteria for success and failure based on these standards that become deadly serious for us. Our very lives depend on them, and individuals sometimes even kill themselves for not measuring up.
Any kind of mindful attention is quite difficult to sustain in the midst of the neurotic speed and stressful lifestyle of our society. The ceaseless subliminal message of our way of life is that we must keep moving, consuming, producing, and finding novelty. We have created a world of endlessly proliferating artificial wants, which conceal and override our simple, elemental needs. This neurotic speedy energy, which pulsates all around us, makes it challenging just to be. As it has been said, we have become human doings instead of human beings. Meditation gives us the opportunity to step back and ask ourselves, “How real is all that?”, and to ask this every day. It’s a powerful way to live.
Using Body Awareness to Tame the Mind
Your body is the place where a sense of “beingness” is first experienced. The practice of meditation facilitates the challenging process of unlearning this conditioned relationship with your body, and making contact with—even accepting and celebrating—your body as it actually is. This real body is the one that keeps giving you the message that you exist in the present moment, only in the present moment, and choicelessly in the present moment.
My teacher introduced me to the five senses as gateways to deeper wakefulness, in which the ordinary world is perceived as an inherently sacred place.
The five senses are the link between your body and the environment. But fueled by your anxiety, you usually speed past these sacred gateways. You rarely slow down enough to truly look at things, listen to things, smell, taste or touch things. This speed is invariably the expression of anxiety, or of what my teacher referred to as “the fearful mind.” Thus you miss the real juice and the real marrow of life in the present moment.
Appreciating your existence as a body-body can slow the neurotic speed of the psychosomatic body. The best way for your mind to begin to slow down enough that it can truly connect with your body is, first, to take the stable, uplifted, relaxed posture of shamatha practice. Then your mind can begin to pick up on your body’s simple message of groundedness and ease.
The Power of the Meditative Posture
Limitations of language may give the misleading impression that your mind and body are separate. But that is not the case. The best that our language can convey here is that your body and mind are two inseparable aspects of a unified field of experience. Teachers in the Zen tradition cut through the limitations of language with poetic simplicity when they issue a gentle command to students who want to go beyond words to real experience:
When you “just sit”, you automatically experience a shift in your relationship with your thoughts and with the body created by these thoughts. You slowly disengage from the momentum of your psychosomatic hopes and fears. You land fully in nowness for the first time, even if only for a fleeting moment! As my teacher put it, you discover that “your thoughts have a flat bottom.”
Another way of saying this is that your mind and body begin to synchronize. This phrase, “synchronizing mind and body,” is used to describe one of the accomplishments of Shambhala warriorship. In fact, it is said to be a necessary foundation for the warrior’s path altogether. In order to do anything properly, and to relate to the details of your daily life with any kind of precision or skill, your body and mind must be synchronized. And the breath is a major gateway to accomplishing this.
Using the Breath to Synchronize
As in the instruction for practicing shamatha, the breath is the connecting principle that joins mind and body. We can visualize that the breath is physically located midway between mind and body as it enters through orifices in the head and descends into the chest. The breath resembles the body in its tangibility, in that we can feel it. It resembles the mind in its movement, or what we might call its fickleness, because we can’t really grasp or hold onto it. It is subtler than the body, and grosser than the mind.
In the Tibetan tradition, it is taught that the mind actually rides on what are called the “inner winds” of the body. When these are disturbed, they generate neurotic mental states—such as depression, anxiety, and irritability—that can be precisely identified and correlated with the disturbances. This understanding of the inner winds is one of the foundations for Tibetan medical diagnosis. The “outer” breath that you experience, and that you make use of as an object of mindfulness in shamatha meditation practice, is actually a coarse version of these subtle, inner winds. The quality of its movement affects these winds, which in turn affect the quality of your mental and emotional experience. When you bring the mind back to the breath, the breath is an anchor for the mind—which is subtler than using the body as an anchor, but equally useful in strengthening mindfulness.
As we discussed earlier in the basic instruction for shamatha practice, your attention to posture and breath is the starting point. You begin with an upright yet relaxed posture, described memorably by my teacher as “strong back, soft front”. Then you place your attention on the natural movement of your breath as it passes in and out of your body.
As you meditate in this way, your attention on the posture and the breath make them into a connecting principle, a bridge, between the body’s groundedness and the mind’s openness.
Previous chapters from Bravery: The Living Buddha Within You (In case you missed them):
> Intro & Chapter 1: Bravery: The Living Buddha Within You.
> Chapter 2: The Journey without Goal.
> Chapter 3: Pleasing Illusions that Put Us to Sleep.
> Chapter 4: Dancing with Hope and Fear.
> Chapter 6: Why People Meditate.
> Chapter 9: The Art of Making Friends with Yourself.
> Chapter 10: Clarifying Questions about Meditation Practice.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner