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The single most useful thing that I have learned from meditation, part 2

In my last post, I made a rather speculative case for body awareness as a natural state, to which we should all wish to return. In this post, I’ll explain just why we should wish to return to it, using a bit of science, some of my own and others’ experience, and maybe some more speculation. But first, you might want to read this, in which I comment (at the end) on adverse effects of meditation, which are a possibility when meditating on the body.

So, what’s so great about feeling the sensations of the body?

1) It’s not thinking

The first and more straightforward reason to feel the body is that it’s not thinking. Which is to say that it offers something else for us to do other than be hopelessly, endlessly lost in our thoughts – this being the source of much of our trouble. We often suffer because of our thoughts about things – ourselves, the world, the future, the past; and pretty much every ill-advised thing that we do, we do because we thought it would be a good idea. Over-involvement with thoughts is a scourge, and maybe one that particularly afflicts modern, highly literate societies.

Body awareness offers us a way out of this, because if our attention is focussed on the sensations of the body, then there's only so much of our attentional bandwidth left over for our thoughts. They simply cannot get enough purchase on our awareness to have the kind of impact that they otherwise would. So, to the extent that you are aware of your body, you are neccessarily not lost in thought.

There are, of course, other things that you could focus on to accomplish the same end: sights, sounds, smells, or tastes. But the sensations of the body are, I want to suggest, the Rolls Royce of objects of mindfulness. Sights and sounds are too fleeting and stir up too much thought - it's hard to hear or see anything without having a thought about it - and smells and tastes are only intermittently there - most of the time, there's nothing much to smell or to taste.

Whereas the sensations of the body are always there, stable enough to hold the attention but changeable enough to stay interesting. And, perhaps more importantly, they're you. Because what else are you, apart from a mind and a body? So, instead of walking around focussed almost entirely on your own thoughts, with barely any awareness of your sensory experience, why not learn to be a more integrated, balanced organism, experiencing thoughts as just one aspect of your personhood, and richly, directly aware of the rest of it: the shifting landscape of feeling that is your body. So, when you learn to feel the body more, you might find that your thoughts cause you less trouble, and also that you feel a bit more like a whole person.

2) It’s where emotions live

The second benefit of body awareness takes a little more explaining, and relates to one’s emotional life. Meditators often report a changed relationship to emotions; one in which they (the emotions) seem to come and go more quickly and smoothly, without causing the suffering or trouble they once did. This changed relationship has a lot to do with body awareness.

There’s an empirical claim that needs to be made here, which is that emotions can be felt physically. For some people, this is fairly obvious – they naturally feel their emotions in their body, for example as sinking feelings, light and fizzy feelings, tight, constricted feelings, and many other feelings besides. For others (and I used to be one of them) it’s not obvious at all, and emotions are experienced as mental events. But the claim here is that (at least some of) this latter group can learn to feel their emotions in their bodies.

There is some science behind this, in that some fairly distinguished psychologists and neuroscientists have put forward theories in which emotions are substantially composed of bodily affect – physical states of muscle tension, hormone levels and so on and so forth – which combines with thoughts to produce the things that we call “emotions”. So, when you are sad, ashamed, or happy, there really is something happening in your body, which your brain notices and responds to, giving you the subjective experience of emotion. To do these theories justice would take a whole book, probably, but just take it from me that the claim “emotions are in the body” has more behind it than just the whimsy of meditators and other hippyish types.

But, so what, if emotions are physical? Well, a second empirical claim is that not only are emotions physical, but we can relate to them in a new and much more helpful way if we can learn to tune in and pay attention to their physical dimension, and especially if we do it with the right kind of attitude.

It goes like this: the emotion arises, and it’s painful. It takes over, and you’re lost in it – thoughts proliferate, fuelled by the painful feeling and fuelling it in turn, as the whole unpleasant mess intensifies. And, quickly enough, you’ll probably do something in response to the emotion: if you’re scared, you’ll leave; if you’re angry, you’ll snap; if you’re ashamed, you’ll hide. And perhaps you’ll be the worse off for doing so.

Whereas, if you’ve been training yourself in the right way in meditation, you’ll have an alternative: when you notice the painful emotion starting to develop, you’ll focus your attention inwards, into the body, to locate the bodily affect that the emotion is made out of. And instead of trying to make it go away, or getting caught up in whatever upsetting thoughts go along with it, you’ll train your attention on the sensations of that bodily affect. You’ll focus on it intently, but also gently, and really get to know it. You’ll explore the sensations in all their detail, with a kindly interest, like David Attenborough observing some fascinating new species in a rainforest. And, in doing so, with practice, you might just find that the emotion doesn’t seem so bad, doesn’t last so long, and doesn’t lead you to do anything stupid.

As to exactly how this works, I’m not sure that anyone is entirely sure. But let’s have a go at explaining it. The first and most obvious effect of focussing on emotions in the body is one that we’ve already discussed: while you’re doing it, you’re not focussed on the thoughts in your mind. And it’s the thoughts in the mind that cause most of the trouble; that fuel the painful emotion and drive unhelpful behaviour. If you’re not focussed on thoughts about how badly you’ve been treated, then anger cannot sustain itself, and subsides. And if you’re not thinking obsessively about ways to retaliate, then you’re less likely do something that you’ll regret. So, when you focus intently (but gently) on the emotional sensations in the body, you starve your thoughts of the oxygen of attention, which in turn starves the painful emotion of the fuel of thought, and the situation cannot escalate.

But a second, perhaps more interesting, effect is that you come to see the emotion itself differently. You discover that it’s made up of distinct parts – thought and feelings – rather than being an undifferentiated, unmanageable blob. And you discover that the feelings aren’t actually that bad. Next time you feel really upset, see if you can find the associated sensations in the body, and ask yourself, Just how bad are these sensations, taken on their own? Do they actually hurt? Probably not. Are you literally nauseous? Probably not. Almost certainly, the sensations themselves, when divorced from the thoughts that accompany them, are manageable. Tightness, heat, heaviness. None of it’s that bad; it just seems that way when it's combined with the associated thoughts. So, by tuning into the sensations of emotion in the body, we deconstruct the emotion, and discover that it’s a paper tiger: words and pictures in the mind that we can shut out of attention by focussing on sensations in the body, which themselves are not that bad. And once we have discovered that, there’s nothing much that we need to do about our painful emotion: there is no need to run, or to snap, or to hide.

But what about that attitude of kindly interest? Well, a third effect of approaching emotions in this way is that we stop treating our negative emotions as something threatening, to be struggled against and avoided where possible, and instead start treating them as something to be approached, explored, even cared for. And in doing so, we rob them of their dark power. Because what are negative emotions, other than responses to threats? We feel fear when something might go wrong; we feel anger when someone mistreats us; we feel shame when we fear others might despise us. And we react so as to escape or neutralise the threat and make the painful emotion stop: we run, we fight, we hide. So, when we treat the emotions themselves as unpleasant and awful, we only heighten our sense of being under threat, amplifying them and perhaps generating other painful emotions besides. We become fixated on making the pain stop, and inclined to act in ways that aren’t in our long-term best interest. Whereas if we can learn turn towards the painful feeling, with an attitude of curiosity and care, it might be soothed rather than aggravated, and we have no reason to fight, run from, or hide from whatever provoked it. Instead, we might find ourselves more willing to keep moving forwards, into the threatening situation and the painful emotion, where that suits us. We can approach the lectern to give that big presentation. We can refrain from shouting at our spouse, and instead keep on talking, even if it hurts.

So, if you can learn to feel your emotions in the body with the right kind of attitude, you might find that they don’t last so long, don’t hurt so much, and, most importantly, don’t compel you to do anything in particular in response to your emotions. Which means that you’re free: you can do what you really want to. And that is why feeling emotions in the body is the most useful thing that I have learned from meditation.


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