Being in Body Time
– Lama Willa Blythe Baker
(Lama Willa Blythe Baker is a dharma teacher and lineage holder in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.)
Unlike our minds, our bodies always exist in the radical present. We can develop awareness through careful attention to the body. We can move beyond the present moment to a more expansive—and embodied—understanding of time.
Our sense of time is linear and bounded. We check our watches and count the days. Time is something to be quantified and measured. We set our timers and will ourselves not to look at minutes ticking away.
In some mystical traditions, there exists a different kind of time. The Aranda people [also known as Arrernte, Arunta, or Arrarnta] of Australia describe a time out of time, or the Dreamtime. This is the time in which ancestors live eternally. There’s a similar idea in Buddhism: in the practice of refuge, we call on our spiritual ancestors to be present, beyond space and time.
Buddhists also have the notion of a timeless time. Twelfth-century Tibetan meditation master Longchenpa called this the “fourth time,” the past being the first time, the present the second time, and the future the third time. The fourth time is a time beyond time or a time out of time. The timeless time doesn’t lean on the past or the future. It is an absolute nowness that is unbounded and radically present.
The radical present is not something that we create. It is always happening, spontaneously. Even when we’re ruminating on the past or anticipating the future, there is an unfolding in the present that is always happening—even when we’re missing it, when we’re distracted by our thoughts about the past or the future.
The doorway into the fourth time is not dreaming, but rather meditation. In meditation, we enter into this absolute nowness that has no beginning, no middle, and no end. One of the reasons that meditation is so powerful is it’s constantly encouraging us to land back into the moment. The ordinary mind that is our thinking mind or ruminating mind tends to resist being in the present—we’re always just a little bit ahead or a little bit behind. And our mind likes the ideas of minutes and days; it gives us a security and a grounding.
So how is it that meditation helps us come into the now? The bridge for coming into the now is the body. The body exists in the radical present. Paying attention to it has the power to draw us into this present moment and to show us how to settle into the vividness of our own experience as it is unfolding.
This is why the timeless time is the body’s time. The body does not live in the past and not in the future, it is feeling, experiencing, and breathing right now. This is the body of the radical present. To come into relationship with the radical now, or absolute now, or the timeless time can be as simple as just coming into contact with a sensation that is happening in the body. And that moment we go from being caught up in the past and the future into just now, just being.
Being in the Body’s Time: A Practice
We can begin by closing our eyes. Notice a sensation happening right now in your feeling body. It could be something as simple as the feeling of the air on your skin. Whatever that feeling is, allow it to draw and absorb your attention so that you’re not focusing on the feeling so much as you are allowing the feeling to draw you in. You’re not so much paying attention to the feeling as you are letting attention saturate the feeling in the same way that a sponge draws up water. Notice how this feeling is not happening in the past. It’s not happening in the future. It’s unfolding in the now—fresh, vivid, and awake.
See if you can relax into that feeling without needing to go anywhere other than where you are. You might try asking the question: has there ever been anything other than this?
When you practice in this way, it’s not hard to notice how the ruminating mind and the feeling body are operating in two different dimensions of time. The mind’s dimension is linear, tugging away from the present. The experiential body’s dimension is now, zeroing in on the present. As long as that lateral tug is happening there’s a sense of alienation, a pulling apart of the mind and the body.
This is the duality of yogic understanding. Not an existential dualism of a subject and an object, but a somatic dualism, body and mind being a little out of sync with each other. To heal the pain of that dualism begins with the act of inviting the mind to pay attention to the body’s time so that the mind can learn a simple truth: there is just now. The mind notices that this is all there is and that draws us into a peaceful gap, the place where wakefulness is found.
Breath Moves Body
– Will Johnson
Stillness in meditation refers to the mind, not a rigidly stiff body
We live in a world in which everything moves. Yet the first thing I invariably notice when I look out over a roomful of sitting meditators is how still almost everyone is, holding themselves as though the goal of the practice is to become like a stone garden statue of the Buddha. Granted, the practice is relatively still. But as a value applied to the practice of meditation, stillness refers only to a quality of mind, not to a rigidly stiff body. If you are truly able to relax in your sitting posture, subtle movements can be felt throughout the entire body in response to each breath you take. When you allow these natural motions to occur, your mind becomes calmer and bodily sensations come more alive. But if you brace yourself against them and become frozen in your posture, your mind gets stirred and your body loses touch with its feeling presence.
The Satipatthana Sutta describes a progression of mileposts in one’s evolving sensitivity to the action of breath. Starting out from a place that watches the breath just at the front of the body, we’re gradually guided to become more sensitive to all breath’s nuances and are eventually led to the suggestion to “breathe through the whole body.” To better understand how to breathe with the conscious participation of the whole body, nothing is more helpful than to recognize that, in a deeply relaxed body, the force of breath can cause the entire body to remain in a state of subtle, constant, fluid motion.
The Mechanics of Breath
The action of breath is primarily initiated through the repetitive contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdomen and functions as a pump that draws oxygen-rich air into your body on the inhalation and expels the waste products of respiration on every exhalation. The rhythmic movement of the diaphragm generates a propulsive force similar to the force that causes waves to move through a body of water. But what we tend to do is resist the force of the breath by introducing tension into the musculature and effectively freezing the body at its joints.
Tension in the body always causes some degree of stillness at the nearest skeletal joint, and areas of frozen stillness always resist the force of breath that wants to pass through that part of the body. Simply put, when you tense your body, you become still; when you relax your body, everything can start to move again in response to the natural flow of the breath.
While stillness—and resistance to the force of the breath—can exist anywhere in the body, it’s particularly evident in the head and neck. But when we hold our head completely still in meditation, we draw tension into the upper back, neck, and cranium, and this pattern of tension keeps fueling the silent parade of thoughts that pass through the mind. So when we stiffen our neck to the extent that our head becomes unmoving, we inadvertently support the very process of semi-conscious thought that the practice wants to help us slow down, perhaps even dissolve.
Breath wants to liberate itself, to free itself from its encasing in the body’s frozen stillness. The whole of the body wants to keep moving—not even a single little part left out, everything in motion, just like the universe.
EXERCISE: Breathing the Spine
The joints between the vertebrae of the spine are not very different from joints anywhere else in the body: they exist solely for the purpose of movement. As you sit in meditation in an upright and relaxed body, start feeling how every vertebra can move ever so slightly, shifting its angle and distance from its immediate neighbors in response to each and every breath.
As you breathe in, feel how the entire spine lengthens along its curves. As you breathe out, feel how the entire spine settles back down.
As the force of breath keeps passing through the entire length of the spine, the head can be felt to bob up and down and back and forth, ever so slightly, just like a fishing bobber floating on the surface of a lake over which a breeze is blowing. When the body moves naturally like this, the mind starts slowing down. Exposed to the constant, gentle motions of the body, the inner monologue doesn’t have as stable a stage on which to stand and broadcast its views.
Still places in the spine, indeed anywhere in the body, often function as repositories for unfelt sensations and energies that may have an emotional tone or semi-conscious storyline attached to them. By allowing movement to return back into these areas in the spine, these sensations and energies can be gradually released back into feeling awareness. However, you can’t force movement to occur in these places like a dancer performing a choreographed motion. These still places need first to be felt into exactly as they are. Then, as you begin to relax through these places, the breath can start naturally nudging up against the frozen vertebrae, and movement can start returning.
The Buddha on Immersion Into Mindfulness in the Body
– The Buddha
Kayagata-sati Sutta: Mindfulness Immersed in the Body (MN 119 PTS: M iii 88)
An Opening to the Higher Knowledges
“When anyone has developed & pursued mindfulness immersed in the body, then whichever of the six higher knowledges he turns his mind to know & realize, he can witness them for himself whenever there is an opening.
“Suppose that there were a water jar, set on a stand, brimful of water so that a crow could drink from it. If a strong man were to tip it in any way at all, would water spill out?”
“Yes, Awakened One.”
Fullness of Mind
“Monks, whoever develops & pursues mindfulness immersed in the body encompasses whatever skillful qualities are on the side of clear knowing. Just as whoever pervades the great ocean with his awareness encompasses whatever rivulets flow down into the ocean, in the same way, whoever develops & pursues mindfulness immersed in the body encompasses whatever skillful qualities are on the side of clear knowing.
“Now, in whomever mindfulness immersed in the body is developed, is pursued, Mara gains no entry, Mara gains no foothold. Suppose that a man were to throw a ball of string against a door panel made entirely of heartwood. What do you think — would that light ball of string gain entry into that door panel made entirely of heartwood?”
“No, Awakened One.”
“In the same way, in whomever mindfulness immersed in the body is developed, is pursued, Mara (the unwholesome) gains no entry, Mara gains no foothold.
When Fully Developed-
Mindfulness of the Body Has These Ten Benefits
– The Buddha
Kayagata-sati Sutta: Mindfulness Immersed in the Body (MN 119 PTS: M iii 88)
“For one in whom mindfulness immersed in the body is cultivated, developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken, ten benefits can be expected. Which ten?
 “One conquers displeasure & delight, and displeasure does not conquer him. He remains victorious over any displeasure that has arisen.
 “One conquers fear & dread, and fear & dread do not conquer him. He remains victorious over any fear & dread that have arisen.
 “One is resistant to cold, heat, hunger, thirst, the touch of gadflies & mosquitoes, wind & sun & creeping things; to abusive, hurtful language; he is the sort that can endure bodily feelings that, when they arise, are painful, sharp, stabbing, fierce, distasteful, disagreeable, deadly.
 “One can attain at will, without trouble or difficulty, the four jhanas — heightened mental states providing a pleasant abiding in the here & now.
 “One wields manifold supranormal powers. Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one. He appears. He vanishes. He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, & mountains as if through space. He dives in & out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting crosslegged he flies through the air like a winged bird. With his hand he touches & strokes even the sun & moon, so mighty & powerful. He exercises influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.
 “One hears — by means of the divine ear-element, purified & surpassing the human — both kinds of sounds: divine & human, whether near or far.
 “One knows the awareness of other beings, other individuals, having encompassed it with his own awareness. He discerns a mind with passion as a mind with passion, and a mind without passion as a mind without passion. He discerns a mind with aversion as a mind with aversion, and a mind without aversion as a mind without aversion. He discerns a mind with delusion as a mind with delusion, and a mind without delusion as a mind without delusion. He discerns a restricted mind as a restricted mind, and a scattered mind as a scattered mind. He discerns an enlarged mind as an enlarged mind, and an unenlarged mind as an unenlarged mind. He discerns an excelled mind as an excelled mind, and an unexcelled mind as an unexcelled mind. He discerns a concentrated mind as a concentrated mind, and an unconcentrated mind as an unconcentrated mind. He discerns a released mind as a released mind, and an unreleased mind as an unreleased mind.
 “One recollects his manifold past lives (lit: previous homes), i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction & expansion, [recollecting], ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus he remembers his manifold past lives in their modes & details.
 “One sees — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — beings passing away & re-appearing, and he discerns how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, & mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech, & mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’ Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — he sees beings passing away & re-appearing, and he discerns how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.
 “Through the ending of the mental effluents, one remains in the effluent-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known and made them manifest for himself right in the here & now.
“For one in whom mindfulness immersed in the body is cultivated, developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken, these ten benefits can be expected.”