Remembering the body

The four foundations of mindfulness (or frames of reference) play a central role in Buddhist meditation, particularly in the Burmese vipassanā tradition. They are roughly translated as follows:

  1. Kayanupassana: contemplation of the body
  2. Vedananupassana: contemplation of feeling
  3. Cittanupassana: contemplation of consciousness/mind
  4. Dhammanupassana: contemplation of mental objects/qualities

I don’t know about you, but my tendency is certainly mind over body when it comes to the practice, and I have a lot more cittanupassana and dhammanupassana under my belt as a result – not that they were meant to be separated – together they are a systematic means of practice leading to awakening. For the same reason, I am more oriented toward insight than samādhi practices (see Marguerite Manteau-Rao’s recent discussion of practitioner types here). To elucidate further the distinction between these two aspects of practice, Bhikkhu Bodhi in the introduction to Soma Thera’s essay The Way of Mindfulness says “In Satipatthana, the act of attending to each occasion of experience as it occurs in the moment fixes the mind firmly on the object. The continuous attention to the object, even when the object itself is constantly changing, stabilizes the mind in concentration, while the observation of the object in terms of its qualities and characteristics brings into being the insight knowledges.”

Sayadaw U Tejaniya is known for emphasizing wisdom over concentration and, not to say that concentration practice must be rooted in the body, but just to connect all the dots, his teacher Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw — who studied with Mahasi, etc. — was said to believe that if one practices cittanupassana and dhammanupassana, then the other two contemplations are necessarily included. (At the same time, he used to instruct students to focus on the solar plexus in their practice.)

Well, I’m not entirely sure that just doing the more mental aspects of satipatthana will be inclusive. Here’s why. (Edit: I should emphasize that I don’t for one moment doubt my teacher’s wisdom here – if practicing with right understanding and right attitude, he’s surely correct – but we don’t always do that.) Yes, if you are doing an awareness practice, no matter if it’s of a choiceless bent or if it’s a concentration practice which is methodical and systematic (and slow), one is aware of movement, of physical discomfort, of taste, of whatever is being experienced sensorily. Similarly, one can be aware of the felt body – how emotions are manifesting physiologically. However, it is one thing to be aware of, and it is another to really plumb the depths of difficult emotion. I’ve alluded to this before, as being a weakness of mine. I think being able to call up an emotion intentionally, or investigating one thoroughly when it arises requires a certain amount of stability of mind to begin with. So what happens is that when the emotions arise, if I’m even in formal meditation practice (which often I’m not), then there’s a resistance, a wall that comes up, an inability to really explore. My staying power is pretty shallow when it comes to an unknown and intense emotion. Attention turns away, and the opportunity for growth goes ignored.

We all know the familiar knot in the throat, constriction in chest, butterflies of stomach. We know the emotion they signal. But there are others that one can’t even name. Example: day before yesterday the body was characterized by a very intense vibratory feeling – all over. It may have been exhaustion, it may have been something else, but whatever it was, there was a cause and if there was a direct one, I hadn’t been sufficiently aware during the day to see it in the making. It was largely entrenched by the time consciousness really set in. I sat with it, but as often is the case with pervasive emotions, there was no particular thought content associated with it. What does one do at that point? What is the source? Is it deep, psychic, unconscious? Can it be known in a rational way? It didn’t even have meaning from an intuitive vantage point – where do you go from here?

There may be a time when I need to deepen my practice through other “techniques” or through body work like yoga, or there may be times when I’ll need to call on psychotherapy and other Western modes of self-knowledge, but for now, I think I will explore some teachings that focus more on somatic experience.

One such teacher is Reggie Ray, another is David Rome – both students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. David Rome’s teaching draws on Western psychology and the work of Eugene Gendlin and is called “focusing”. This practice can supposedly resolve the “felt sense”. In a 2004 article in Shambhala Sun Rome says:

The felt sense lies “beneath” emotions like anger, jealousy or desire; it is more subtle and less susceptible to naming. Felt senses are free of the story line that accompanies an emotion: “I am angry because such and such happened.” They are more vague and physical; a person in touch with a felt sense might say something like, “There is this region just under my breastbone that is constricted like a jack-in-the-box.” When we first notice a felt sense, it does not have a specific “aboutness” yet. It is nonconceptual. But as we use the Focusing process to be with and listen to the felt sense, it may come into clearer focus (hence the name Focusing) and it may “open” in a way that gives us fresh understanding of our situation. At that point—which cannot be rushed—we can begin to try out concepts on it, begin to inquire what it might be “about.” But the felt sense itself is always primary, not the conceptualization, and the practice of Focusing involves repeatedly letting go of conceptual activity and returning to the body sense.

A friend with whom I was discussing this challenge in my practice recently, recommended I read some John Welwood right away, so I was interested to see the reference to him in Rome’s article. He says of focusing:

It is also a powerful antidote against “spiritual bypassing,” which John Welwood, in his excellent book Toward a Psychology of Awakening, describes as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.”

So much work to do! My hunch is that a lot of western contemplatives struggle with the emotional and physical aspects of the practice, certainly in different ways than they do the monkey mind. In general – if we have worked as professionals, had lots of critical thinking in our formal education, etc., our conditioning is so much more discursive in nature. That means we are probably at a disadvantage when it comes to the felt body, and that we may be less naturally inclined toward concentration.Is it wise to integrate other contemplative practices, possibly rooted in psychology, with our meditation? Or is the Satipatthana Sutta all we need?

I’d love to hear from you if you practice either focusing or Reggie Ray’s body work, or just in general if you’ve worked with the challenge of the felt sense in your meditation practice.

Some reading, etc. on the body and meditation practice:

Forum: Start with Your Body: A panel discussion with Phillip Moffitt, Cyndi Lee, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Reggie Ray, Fall 2009, Buddhadharma

Conversations: May 2010: David Rome (audio)

Focusing: An Interview with David Rome, May 2010, Shambhala Times

Audio Teachings from Reginald Ray

Review: Your Breathing Body, Vol. 1 & 2 (Reginald Ray), April 2009, Elephant Journal

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  1. Thanks, Katherine, for connecting some more dots around this very important topic.

    I can only answer from my small, personal self. I was in Jungian analysis and various forms of Western psychotherapy for ten years. I have also worked briefly using focusing technique. I used art extensively also as a form of self-exploration. And I had an intensive yoga practice for many years, before my back brought it to an almost stop. After all that, it is interesting that the single most profound, and transformative experience was my decision to step on the path again. I have found mindfulness practice to be so much deeper than all the personal psychotherapy work I had done before. Now, it may be that psychotherapy prepped me to receive the full benefit of mindfulness, and I failed to give it all the credit it deserves. Still, I feel much of the Western techniques are just watered versions of some narrow aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. At this point, I am finding all I need in the Dharma. But then again, this is such a personal, and circumstantial thing.

    Thank you for the depth of your sharing. You always give me an interesting question to ponder.

    I trust that the next step will reveal itself for you :)

    • I’ve done Jungian analysis as well and it hasn’t been my cup of tea. My godmother (I’m so lucky to have one who takes the job very seriously!), who’s a psychotherapist, greatly influenced by Winnicott, warned when I went to Burma that I’d have to complement that work with psychotherapy or I might run into trouble. Since then, she’s changed her tune and proudly tells colleagues that her goddaughter has found that “it’s just not her modality” but meditation is! I used to say psychotherapy builds up the self, and couldn’t understand how it could complement the work of dismantling the self…but people like John Welwood and John Tarrant give me pause and make me realize the importance of integrating our own cultural conditioning into this work we do. Yes, right practice is to a certain degree circumstantial as you said yourself in the post I referenced of yours. Thank you too for sharing. I’m definitely enjoying the dialogue.

  2. Hi Katherine,

    I have been working with the Reggie Ray body practices for about a year now, and I find them incredibly beneficial. Before that, I had a mainly zen style practice and I found I was getting too much energy concentrated in my head. I was given the instruction to get more in touch with my body, and so I started doing Reggie’s practices more regularly. They definitely helped my practice to sink down out of my head and into my body and my meditation has benefited greatly from the body work.

    The body has a tendency to store traumatic emotions and, besides myself, I know a few other practitioners who have derived great benefit from taking up somatic based practices/therapies prior to or during their mediation practice.

    I think the Satipatthana Sutta is sufficient for some people, I think other people have a different range of experiences they need to learn how to process. I think Marguerite says it best: trust, and the next step will reveal itself. : )

    • Indeed, there are definitely different practices for different people at different times. It always astounds me how much faith I actually have. You reach a certain point where there’s no turning back and it’s all practice. So despite the uncertainty and challenges, I am happy as a clam ;) Thanks for sharing your experience – looking forward to talking more and sitting together with Reggie next week.

  3. EBE

     /  September 7, 2010

    I found this article brave and wise.

    As for myself, physical “basic” emotinal pain, felt in chest as an example, is a phenomena I can handle much easier than a composed physical pain, say in the leg. I found that the composed physical pain is attached to a certain unpleasent memory from childhood, while the basic emotional pain, though emotional, is only felt as physical phenomena, without the mental issues.

    Thanks for the post!


    • Thank you for your kind words, as always. Emotions are complex. I find them all too easy to explain away if too much in my head. Thus, looking at adding some tools to my practice tool box!

  4. Sharanam,

    What a treat to read a post that combines Eugene Gendlin’s focusing with vipassana! I wasn’t aware of Reginald Ray’s work on this, so thanks for bringing it to my intention. I’ve often thought that Gendlin’s “felt senses” could be a fifth foundation of mindfulness! They are mental/sensory objects (dhammas?) that are not really mentioned in the traditional Buddhist literature… it’s certainly one way that the insights from modern psychology can supplement and add to traditional Buddhist teachings.

    • Seth, thank you for your comment. I’m very new to the concept of focusing, so may be speaking out of turn, but I wonder if it might not be able to incorporate all four foundations. I suppose if, like mind is the sixth sense, then, we could say focusing (edited, intended to say “felt sense”) is the fifth foundation. I find myself looking for different tools right now, even though there is also a strong affinity toward the not-doing, no-thing, pure awareness kind of practice of some of the nondual teachers. I have really been enjoying your blog and noticed that you practiced with Toni Packer for some time. She would fall in that camp from my perspective as well — nothing to do indeed.

      May your wisdom continue to blossom. With palms together, Katherine


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