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The single most useful thing that I have learned from meditation

The single most useful thing that I have learned from meditation is to feel my body, and to feel my emotions in my body.

This is an aspect of meditation and mindfulness that I found off-putting, at first: the endless harping on about the body made me think of self-indulgent wellness, of pampering oneself, of adverts featuring hot baths and chocolate. This was not a reasonable reaction by any measure, but it was also completely ill-informed; I had no idea why the body matters in meditation. In this and subsequent posts, I’ll explore why it does.

A mostly unremarked fact about modern, Western human beings is that we don’t feel our bodies much. How much attention are you paying to the sensations of your body, right now? Can you feel your feet? Your stomach? The interior of your chest? Probably not. You probably only become aware of the sensations of a particular part of your body when they are noteworthy – when something especially pleasant or unpleasant is happening there.

And what are you usually focussed on, instead? Maybe on what you can see, maybe on what you can hear. But more than anything else, you’re probably focussed on your thoughts. You’re probably thinking frantically – remembering, planning, analysing – and not paying a great deal of attention to anything else, least of all the sensations of your body.

But maybe this is remarkable. Maybe there’s something strange about inhabiting a body that is teeming with sensations and not noticing them. Maybe it’s strange to be lost in thought and disconnected from your physical experience. And maybe it’s not the natural or normative state of humanity: maybe people weren’t always like this, and maybe they still aren’t, in other places, where people have different ways of life.

The modern Westerner, on this view, is deeply odd, and out of balance. You might have seen one of those pictures that illustrates the distribution of nerves through different areas of the body by varying those areas’ relative size. So, the picture shows a figure with huge hands and mouth, these being the most sensitive areas of the body, and a skinny, atrophied torso. Well, along the same lines, you could draw us as balloon-like: huge balloon heads, swollen with facts and plans and opinions, and string-like bodies trailing along beneath, so faint are they in awareness. Our mental worlds are intensely vivid; our bodies are barely there.

Perhaps it wasn’t always like this. We evolved to use our bodies continuously, in an effort to stay alive. Running, climbing, throwing. Listening, looking, smelling. Survival would have meant exquisite sensitivity to the physical environment and the signals of one’s own body. Whereas today we can simply park our bodies on the tube, or in our office chair, and forget about them, instead focussing our attention on the riot taking place in our overstimulated minds. We succeed and fail largely on the basis of our cognitive performance, whereas for most of human history, there was only so much complex abstract thinking to be done, and the physical demands of the moment were ever-present and compelling.

So, perhaps the experience of our forebears (and their modern equivalents) was rather different. Perhaps they did feel their bodies, naturally and continuously. Perhaps they paid at least as much attention to body sensations as to the imagery and chatter of the mind. I’m inclined to believe that’s the case. First, because it’s possible for us to learn to do it, too. Second, because it turns out to feel a lot better. If we meditate consistently on the body, we might come to feel more of it more of the time, and the effects are likely to be salutary (more about that in future posts).

The procedure here is simple: meditate upon body sensations. Simply focus your attention on body sensations and keep it there. When your mind wanders, bring it back. And repeat, over and over again.

You can use any body sensations that you choose. The breath is the most popular option, and has advantages, not least because it is implicated in our emotional responses, which, as we’ll see, are well worth learning to feel in the body. But you can focus your attention anywhere in the body you choose. And you might stay focussed in one place, or you might move around – the “body scan” meditation moves your attention systematically through the whole of the body. And you can practise both formally and informally: you can sit (or lie) to scan the body or feel the breath, and you can go about your daily business while feeling the breath, or the soles of the feet, or any other part of the body.

At first, it will seem impossible: your mind will wander almost continuously, and as soon as you stop meditating, you’ll forget your body entirely, until you remember to resume your practice. But keep on going, and in time you might find that your attention starts to naturally rest on the sensations of the body. You might find that the sensations of the body are in your awareness much of the time. And you might notice that this brings you great benefits. Of which more in my next post.


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