Day 2: Exploring the Physical Body
We spent day one exploring the practice of shamatha, and we will continue exploring it throughout the series. A stable and refined focus is essential to an insight or vipassana practice. A mind that gets distracted easily will get lost in its inquiry. Therefore, expect shamatha to be foundational to any practice of vipassana.
In parallel, we begin to travel down the road of vipassana. Here we start to explore the four aspects of our experience: physical, emotional, mental and environment. These aspects are also referred to as the four foundations of mindfulness. Sometimes in life, we are driven forward by our thoughts with less attention to the nature of our body or heart. Here we begin to cultivate balanced attention to all domains of our being.
As we investigate our experience, first we take a closer look at the components of it. Experience encompasses the following: stimulus, an evaluation or judgement of that stimulus (usually pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), a reaction, followed by an action. All of these are constantly happening throughout the day whether or not we are conscious of it. The pieces that are most interesting to us in mindfulness meditation are the evaluation and reaction. We cannot control external stimulus, so we take interest in what happens on the inside in response to varying stimulus and whether these responses feel skillful and balanced over time.
Let’s consider evaluation first. It is normal and natural to evaluate things as good, bad or neutral. However, these initial judgements are not always accurate. If I dip my foot in a tub of hot water, initially it feels unpleasant. However, pausing even a few moments with my foot in the water and all of sudden unpleasant turns into soothing. So the first step to all of this is simply to stay, to stay with how we perceive a circumstance without reacting to it or changing it in any way. Staying gives us the opportunity to remain open and fresh in our experience, instead of cycling through it in a reactionary way. Our initial judgements are also based on the full array of our past experiences. Over time, those old patterns and experiences may no longer be relevant or true to us. Without pausing, we can continue cycling through current experiences in old patterned ways unskillfully.
Next is reaction. The untrained human pattern is to move toward what feels good, to move away from what feels unpleasant and to check out in a situation that feels neutral. Again, we pause and stay with our judgements and reactions without manifesting action immediately. When we begin to hold onto situations that feel good, there is no breathing room. The same goes for resisting the ones that feel uncomfortable. In reality, situations are constantly changing. Nothing remains pleasant or unpleasant indefinitely, as in the example of a tub of hot water. If we allow room for change, there will be a softening in our stronger reactions. Over the time of exploring these pieces in our meditation, we may experience shifts in our actions, reactions and judgements. Perhaps we begin to appreciate what feels good with the willingness to let it go or change. In turn, we meet experiences that feel difficult and unpleasant with the willingness to allow and honor it. Very often growth occurs in the space of discomfort. If we reactively try to make uncomfortable situations comfortable and the comfortable situations last longer, we are setting ourselves up for difficulty when situations are outside of our influence, while depleting resources in this reactionary cycle.
With this in mind, over week two we will take time to hone in to the nature of our physical experience. We will continue to use the breath as an anchor. We will attend to our natural breath pattern, but when something arises that is predominantly of the nature of thought or emotion, we can allow it as a part of our experience and the wandering mind, and kindly return our attention to our breath without any further elaborations or judgements. If what arises is the nature of the physical sensations, we take time to pause, skillfully investigate for some moments and then return to our breath. While investigating, instead of getting caught in the story around our sensation, we will dive deep into the nature of the experience itself. So if it is a sensation in our back, rather than thinking of it as unpleasant back pain and the story around why it is arising, we dive into the raw nature of the sensation without classifying it as good or bad. Is the sensation hot or cold, dull or sharp, more intense or less intense, moving or static? Through this exploration we begin to discover whether sensation is changing over the course of time. Sometimes we get so identified with certain sensations as localized, solid pain, that we become strongly identified with it. How often do we say I am having back pain? We rarely say I am experiencing some moments of sharp sensation in my back. I realize that it sounds almost too lengthy, but consider how our own languaging and immediate perceptions affect our experience. What I have found over and over again is that nature of physical sensation is constantly changing and that there is a lot more room in it than we realize. If our perceptions shift even a little, space begins to arise, and through space a quality of ease.
This is a lot of material to explore and sift through. Take your time. By using the methods, I hope you will find your own insights through practice. There is no rush, enjoy the process on route to your own destination. This practice is set up in a way for you to discover your own truths and wisdom. Practice with care and much kindness.