October 15, 2014

Meditation, Spirituality & Embodiment: A Critical View of Mindfulness.


Mindfulness is one of the most discussed, influential and written about terms in popular, alternative and academic discourses.

The term has wide currency and is often used interchangeably when talking about meditation, including Zen Meditation.

It forms the conceptual basis for much mediation practice, enlightened thinking and contemporary stress management approaches.

This technique, which includes non-judgmental acceptance of self, developing awareness, stillness and serenity in the present, is certainly a powerful tool for creating easefulness and focus. It is especially useful for people with anxiety and depression, though all humans can benefit from its ability to create openness and conscious awareness.

However, the term “mindfulness” can be a misleading one. The term infers that this particular practice or technique is about the mind and about focusing the mind—or about taking more overt control of the mind so that there is awareness of the flow of thoughts and the transient rising of feelings.

While not downplaying the importance of the mind and the need for enhancing awareness and focus, I believe that the term is limited and does not fit more holistic notions of embodiment and the healing needs of the person as a complete spiritual being.

I argue that meditation should be primarily focused in the body, and that the mind and the body are intricately connected such that work with the body creates changes to the mind and a reprogramming of the patterns of thought. What is taken as mindful is better practiced and defined as “bodyful” and “soulful.”

To illustrate this notion let me describe a typical meditation session that focuses on this sense of the embodied and spiritual being. I begin by asking participants to sit comfortably, making sure that the spine is elongated and the stomach muscles are relaxed.

Each participant is then asked to scan through his or her body, and this usually is a guided progressive exploration of the body. As the focus shifts to each distinct point in the body, participants are asked to soften that area and send a positive message of affirmation to that area. If a particular area is feeling tense or painful, participants can stop and focus on that area, bringing a smile and warmth.

At the end of the scan of the body, participants are asked to imagine that they are projected out beyond the confines of the building they are in to the surrounding environment, to the beings who live in that environment, to the trees and vegetation and to the people who reside in the buildings.

They are asked to create and express a blessing for all creatures, ecosystems and sentient beings, and to sense their connectedness to all things. These blessings can be said aloud or expressed inwardly.
Finally, participants are asked to come back to the breath and focus on the passage of the breath through the nostrils, into the lungs and then out again. The breath should be deep, even and slowed.

As the focus shifts to the breath, participants are asked to be aware of their thoughts and see them as objects (I like to use the image of the butterfly to represent thoughts). Watch them go by and gradually diminish in number and intensity. Finally, participants reach a state without thought where they are just a body in space with breath, sitting in the stillness of being.

In the example above, just one of the many meditative ways to engage and integrate body, soul and mind, there is a three stage integrated process of “bodyfulness” and soulfulness.

1. Awareness and connection to body. The state of various parts of the body is brought into conscious awareness and the disposition of each part is examined. Positive feelings and spiritual connection to the body is engaged and fostered through deliberative affirmations.

2. Connection to other sentient beings and the environment. Through projection out of the building, body, mind and spiritual connections are engaged holistically, and the ecological sense of the connection of all things is facilitated.

3. Focused breath work. Through bringing focus back to the breath the bodily process of breathing and the life force of breath come into awareness. Thoughts are accepted but recede into the background as the stillness and equanimity of the body with mind is foregrounded.

This three stage process contains within it an inward and an outward quality, where each participant is, at once, a body in space and a spiritual being with connection out to and responsibility for all living things and sentient beings (in other words, an ethical dimension).

In this way the ecological and the embodied become fused and there is a growing awareness of self in terms of the whole. Such an outward and inward quality and ethical sense of relating can also be engaged through walking mediation in a natural environment (or what could be termed eco-meditation), movement mediation with focus on the sense of the body moving in space, and prayers and affirmations that form the spiritual content of a meditation session.

In conclusion, mindfulness is a term that limits the possibilities, or the scope, of meditation practice for us as embodied and spiritual beings in the world. By definition, it focuses too much on mind (on the inward and the reflective) and not enough on the holistic, integrated and connected nature of human existence.

A genuinely holistic, embodied and spiritual meditation practice should be based on the totality of what makes us truly human, and this practice is activated through bodily and soulful practices which are inclusive of, but not separated from, the mind.


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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr

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