The Body Within the Body
Prior to becoming known as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama tried his best to completely transcend the limits of the body by fasting. It didn’t work. When he eventually began to teach, he spoke of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in no particular order:
Awareness of feelings within feelings.
Awareness of mind within mind.
Awareness of the objects of mind within these objects.
Awareness of the body within the body.
“Within” as in not standing outside to analyze from a distance. Feeling our feelings as they pass. And perceiving the arising and falling away of mental objects.
Why, then, does the body seem to get such short shrift among Dharma practitioners? I believe that many of us arrive to practice wishing to be free of the wounds of trauma, a common response to which is dissociation from the body itself. Dharma practice promises relief, and without often realizing it, we want this to mean relief from this very body as perhaps the site of so much pain. I myself spent at least a decade trying to meditate my way into some sort of pure awareness outside of this body. We can maybe visit this place, but no one lives there. Emptiness is form, and the attempt to privilege one over the other makes practice incomplete and untenable, because fundamentally misguided.
The Dharma speaks of three fields of practice: body, speech, and mind. There it is again, this body, asking to be included.
Maybe a hundred years ago, the forest tradition of Buddhism was reawakened in Thailand with a few teachers and their students. One of the great masters to emerge was Ajahn Chah, and my memory is of hearing this from a student of his: After many years practicing, this monk was told to practice “awareness of the body within the body.” At first, he felt like a graduate student being sent back to kindergarten, but he respected his teacher enough to comply. He would soon come to value this practice as the most advanced of the ones he had tried.
I recently completed my first ultramarathon, a 31-mile footrace through mostly singletrack trail — which is to say, I ran in the woods for seven hours. I had done bike races as long, a number of years ago before the injuries, but what made this one special was a new joy I hadn’t known. This time, I brought my body with me and the celebration of it as well. How lucky to be in this life while it lasts.
The Buddha said “the body is a mirage.” It’s ephemeral; it doesn’t last. This is not to say that it’s not important, or worse, that it doesn’t matter.
On the Family Retreat in September, Do Myeong Kelly Henley taught yoga classes every day, as she has been doing since we started these retreats four years ago. Although she’s also been a Zen practitioner for many years now, it might be hubris to claim any role of the Dharma in the fact that she’s the gold standard of yoga teachers. We were doing some pose this year, and as always there was a sizeable gap between what she demonstrated and what I was able to pull off. It might have been something she said — more probably the whole tone of her teaching — added to my own prior attempts to inhabit this body with kindness, but maybe for the first time in similar situations, I didn’t find myself thinking this own body incomplete until some future time as I could replicate what she was doing. I twisted into my own limit and was there already complete. There truly is no other shore.
Kindness toward the body within the body.
Koho Vince Anila