The body as a spiritual path
For more than two thousand years, one of the concerns of all the traditions of East and West has been the relationship with the body and its link with spiritual practice. A sacred vessel to be honored, a manifestation of the divine, a wonderful lake where the spirit is trapped? By Koncha Pinos-Pey for Espacio MIMIND.
This is not just an abstract question to ponder, but a practical problem that we must question ourselves in the contemplative field. In the practice of yoga, the body is used to deepen the understanding of being. It is a meditative practice and a way to gain control over life, a quest for authentic liberation.
It is true that many teachers have been critical of the body. Some say, and rightly so, that Buddha emphasized the importance of non-attachment to the body and taught how through specific practices –including 32 meditations on specific parts of the body-, one attained the truth about life and death. As proof that the body is something to be subjugated and tamed, sadhus in India have strongly practiced the same principle. Some of them ridicule the practice of Western yoga, which places emphasis on orienting oneself to physical comfort, to feel good.
Such criticisms begin as authentic seeds of truth. It's easy to overidentify yourself with the body and avoid the hard work and sacrifice necessary to achieve conscious awakening. However, in my experience, using the body as a path may be the best option at different stages of practice. Far from taking a negative view of the body, I invite you to inquire into a deeper consideration of ancient pro-life practices.
By denying that the body is sacred, people, often unknowingly, embrace a dualistic spiritual approach full of judgment, aversion, and rigid behavior that undermines the spiritual values that are purported. An example could be the numerous spinal and knee injuries, so common in yoga and meditation practitioners: when the body is treated simply as a means to an end and not with compassion. Similarly, when the body's sexual impulses are not consciously worked on in meditation practice, they often sprout unconsciously as projections.
Yogis sometimes discover that they have a great concentration on the meditation cushion, but lack the knowledge necessary to embody their thoughts, words, and actions in daily practice. It's one thing to feel on the cushion while meditating, and another to act consciously while your child cries, you have a difficult boss or you just found out that your husband wants to leave you... That requires total presence of the body.
Although Buddha taught the importance of non-attachment to the body, it was clear that he saw the body as the practice of full meditation... "There is one thing, monks, important. He who cultivates the mindfulness of the body is liberated and attains supreme peace."
We come from the body
Buddha was not commenting on whether the body was good or bad, but rather emphasized the importance of using the full attention of the body to discover dharma, the truth of how things are. He was suggesting that we use the body as a object of concentration, attention and reflection in order to see through the very reality of one's existence; in other words, use the body as a path.
Following Buddha's instructions, one can aspire to work with the body and the consciousness of the body as part of one's own spiritual path, rather as a means to learn to remain present. This is called mindfulness of the body, what Buddha taught in the First Noble Truth: the practice of mindfulness. When you start meditating, begins with the body and little by little he aspires to enter into thoughts.
Do the same when you find that difficult emotions cloud your mind, even if you're having trouble knowing what you're feeling. The great benefit of body contemplation is that it is a direct physical experience, one cannot focus on anything that is going through the mind. This means that when your mind is agitated, restless or get lost in memories, reactions and fantasies, you can simply focus on shift your attention to the body.
By concentrating on breathing, or bodily sensations, you arrive at the present moment. Similarly, when you are consumed in disturbing strong emotions, it is okay to turn your attention to the contemplation of the body, and for that nothing better than yoga. Being able to turn your attention to the present moment is of vital importance, as just by being fully at the moment that arises, you can really have knowledge and take the right action.
Consciousness in the body
Working with the body as a path also frees you from being defeated by suffering and aversion to life. Both the physical pain as emotional they can be the cause of dislike, a cry of your energy that desperately wants something else, whatever it is. This aversion can arise through the body, such as the pain of a chronic injury or the pain of a lost relationship. Either way, trying to escape the moment, you contract. Unfortunately, this only makes you feel more pain. If your attention is focused on pain, aversion increases suffering.
Trying to survive the pain or denying the aversion improves the negative effect on your nervous system. To make us aware of the body, you have to stay in the present moment With pain, whether physical or emotional, which in turn will release the aversion. When aversion is reduced or eliminated through contemplation of the body, suffering decreases almost immediately, and its difficulty becomes much more bearable.
Even physical pain can help us manage the contemplation of the body. Pain is not just pain; it touches, beats, contracts, expands, comes in waves, in pulses, in beats. When you are present with the pain, you begin to see clearly, which in turn calms the nervous system and the pain becomes much more tolerable. With the emergence of pleasure, it is very useful to be present and focus on bodily sensations.
In doing so you will discover that what is pleasurable makes you awaken mental attachment, and you do not want it to end. Trying to reach and retain sympathy, the mind immediately jumps into the future with planning and fantasies... You can imagine that you are in the mountains, with a beautiful sunset... and so attachment and expectations begin. Now that you are no longer present to enjoy what is happening to you, you will lose most of your experience today.
Focus on the body
The body can be used as basis for the concentration of the mind. This means staying centered on the body until the very concentration of the moment allows you to open up to different states of deep meditation. These states are called 'jnana' in the Buddhist Suttas and Pali Samadhi in the Yoga Suta of Master Patanjali. When one is able to achieve deep concentration, the entire universe opens up beneath the experiences of the surface of everyday life.
The body is an ideal object to concentrate, if accessed by breathing, touch or tenderness. In many cases, when you enter a state of deep meditation to stay focused on the body, a new dimension opens up. Some teachers will say that we are accessing the energy body. In some deep states of meditation you can experience that there is no body, only energy patterns, or a feeling of full emptiness, which is the authentic consciousness of the body. If what you feel is numbness in your body, you can also be the object of mindfulness.
En la práctica de las asanas se puede empezar a aprender la contemplación del cuerpo, cambiando el foco de atención de la circulación externa de las extremidades y el torso. Trabajar con el aliento mientras realizas las posturas es ya el principio del camino.
Discovering the truth of the body
The body can be a path to the realization of dharma truth. This is known as the emergence of the full vision. For example, through mindfulness and observing how bodily sensations change, you realize directly anicca, or the impermanence of all phenomena. By being aware of what is happening in the body, you are able to experience dukha or suffering, which comes stronger when you cling to things as if change were not inevitable. You can witness yourself, trying to hold on to a relationship that is no longer there, or because of the attractiveness of the body, or because you own the relationship itself. In grasping, the body is strained, fear and discomfort appear and you realize that such an attitude will only bring you suffering. In turn you can begin to develop a broader approach to life.
The emergence of this type of knowledge is a natural development of mindfulness practice, and it will occur regardless of whether you use the body as a path or not, but for yogis it is easier through the body. It's very liberating to have these direct views, but it can also be emotionally disorienting. Many yogis are lost or stopped at this stage; when disturbing moments arise in your practice, you can stay in the present by keeping consciousness in your body.
Traps along the way
We all know how difficult it is to maintain a body practice. Desire is very seductive, perhaps that is why Buddha tried to counteract the temptations of the body, by revealing that all phenomena are illusory, sensory pleasures. There are a thousand ways to put comfort ahead of personal growth, postpone practice and get lost in the desire of the mind. In addition, the incomprehension of the nature of the body can create the illusion of oneself, inviting contraction and grasping of the mind.
In yoga there is also the problem of turn what is a spiritual practice into a practice of health worship. Yogis speak with spiritual pride, but in reality you have to examine mindfulness, to be more flexible, stronger and stress-free. This does not mean that the health aspect of the body should be ignored, or abused in the name of spirituality, because there is no compassion or mercy in such behavior.
You have to be honest with yourself; with the necessary honesty to be in the moment and only in that; good or evil arises. If your main motivation is to do yoga to be healthy, also practicing loving kindness towards the body and not abusing it can be interesting. Because even yogis age.
Start where you are, deeply explore the truth and integrity of the body. Because for you as for everyone else there will come a time when the body no longer provokes so much attachment and emotions will no longer be a problem. For most people this understanding comes at some point in the maturation process. If you actively practice along the way, this knowledge arises as part of spiritual development rather than fear, and brings with it the ability to live here and now, as if death itself were imminent. This is the understanding that Buddha had when he was still a prince, the three heavenly messengers: a sick man, an old man, and a corpse. The material benefits of this world are transient and we must not hold on.
One must look the source of true happiness. That is the critical point of Buddha's teaching, the contemplation of the body to help us discover that this deep sense of urgency will lead us to the right vision and knowledge, thus surrendering to the wisdom of life.
Using the body as a path is not easy for everyone; you must decide whether this is your way or not. The only way I know to know is to practice it. If you decide to use the body, you can do so knowing that it is a noble effort. Buddha said, "If the body is not dominated, the mind cannot be dominated. If the body is dominated, the mind is dominated."