Drawing on Tibetan Yogic practices, a commentary on the modern crisis of disembodiment.
– Reggie Ray
During my own practice and teaching of meditation over the past thirty-five years, many things have surprised me, but none more than the growing and somewhat anguished realization that simply practicing meditation doesn’t necessarily yield results. Many of us, when we first encountered Buddhism, found its invitation to freedom and realization through meditation extraordinarily compelling. We jumped in with a lot of enthusiasm, rearranged life priorities around our meditation, and put much time and energy into the practice.
Some, engaging meditation in such a focused way, discover the kind of continually unfolding transformation they are looking for. But more often than not, that doesn’t happen. It is true that when we practice meditation on a daily basis, we often find a definite sense of relief and peace. Even over a period of a year or two we may feel that things are moving in a positive direction in terms of reducing our internal agitation and developing openness. All of this has its value.
But if we have been practicing for twenty or thirty years—or even just a few—it is not uncommon to find ourselves arriving in a quite different and far more troubling place. We may feel that somewhere along the line we have lost track of what we are doing and that things have somehow gotten bogged down. We may find that the same old habitual patterns continue to grip us. The same disquieting emotions, the same interpersonal blockages and basic life confusion, the same unfulfilled and agonizing spiritual longing that led us to meditation in the first place keeps arising. Was our original inspiration defective? Is there something wrong with the practices or the traditions we are following? Is there something wrong with us? Have we misapplied the instructions, or are we perhaps just not up to them?
In an early Theravada meditation text, the phrase “touching enlightenment with the body” is used to describe the attainment of ultimate spiritual realization. It is interesting, if a bit puzzling, that we are invited not to see enlightenment, but to touch it—not with our thought or our mind, but with our body. What can this possibly mean? In what way can the body be thought to play such a central and fundamental role in the life of meditation? This question becomes all the more interesting and compelling in our contemporary context, when so many people are acutely feeling their own personal disembodiment and finding themselves strongly drawn to somatic practices and therapies of all kinds.
My sense is that there is a very real problem among Western Buddhist practitioners. We are attempting to practice meditation and to follow a spiritual path in a disembodied state, and our practice is therefore doomed to failure. The full benefits and fruition of meditation cannot be experienced or enjoyed when we are not grounded in our bodies. The phrase from the early text, when understood fully, implies not only that we are able to touch enlightenment with our bodies, but that we must do so—that in fact there is no other way to touch enlightenment except in and through our bodies.
For most of us, and for most of modern culture, the body is principally seen as the object of our ego agendas, the donkey for the efforts of our ambitions. The donkey is going to be thin, the donkey is going to be strong, the donkey is going to be a great yoga practitioner, the donkey is going to look and feel young, the donkey is going to work eighteen hours a day, the donkey is going to help me fulfill my needs, and so on. All that is necessary is the right technique. There is no sense that the body might actually be more intelligent than “me,” my precious self, my conscious ego.
For me, and for many people I know, there is a kind of divine intervention that arrives at our doorstep and calls us back to our body. This can take many forms: injury, illness, extreme fatigue, impending old age, sometimes emotions, feelings, anxiety, anguish, or dread that we don’t understand and can’t handle. But at a certain point we start to get pulled back into our body. One way or the other, something comes in, sometimes with a terrifying crash, and begins to wake us up.
When we operate in a disembodied state, we tend to understand the experiences of our life as random, relatively insignificant, and boring. We go to great lengths to try to find something interesting or significant in our life. The more boring and gray everything gets, the more we look to sex or violence or mind-altering substances or anything that can give us some kind of rush—anything to break through the phenomenal boredom and general meaninglessness of our existence. We may find ourselves thinking, “Next week I’m going to this great restaurant where maybe I can have a meal I actually enjoy,” or “Next month I’m going on vacation and maybe then I will be in a place that will actually catch my attention and mean something,” and so on.
According to the Yogachara teachings of Indian Buddhism, the problem with our life does not lie in the individual circumstances or occurrences of our day-to-day existence. It’s not that they’re inherently meaningless and boring. The problem is that we make them meaningless and boring; because we are so invested in maintaining our own sense of self, we actually don’t relate to anything in a direct way. Unwilling to fully live the life that is arriving in our bodies moment by moment, we find ourselves left with no real life at all. In our state of disembodied dissatisfaction we may think, “I feel like I’m disconnected. Maybe I need to change my job, or change my relationship, maybe, maybe, maybe.” But the fact is that the fullness of our human existence is already happening all the time. By drawing on Tibetan Yoga practices, which explore the body from within, we can learn to allow the experience of the body to communicate with our conscious mind and to become known to us in a direct way. As we begin to open up our awareness in this way, we can find intensity, meaning, fullness, and fulfillment in the most mundane details of our life.
The Buddha said, “I follow the ancient way.” He lived in northeast India at a time of increasing agriculturalization and urbanization with all of their attendant consequences. For his part, he left aside the compelling social changes around him and retired to the jungle—in Indian thought, the nonhuman locale where the primordial may be discovered. When the Buddha touched the earth as witness of his attainment, he separated himself decisively from the disembodiment increasingly sought by so many spiritual teachers and traditions of his own day, including his own previous meditation teachers and the dominant Hindu Samkhya-Yoga system. The Buddha made, I think, the journey back that I am suggesting here, and left as his legacy the full embodiment that Buddhist meditation, in its traditional context, represents.
In the classical Buddhist traditions, meditation is deeply somatic—it is fully grounded in sensations, sensory experience, feeling, emotions, and so on. Even thoughts are related to as somatic—as bursts of energy experienced in the body, rather than nonphysical phenomena that disconnect us from our bodies. In its most ancient Buddhist form, meditation is a technique for letting go of the objectifying tendency of thought and of entering deeply and fully into communion with our embodied experience. And hence it leads to “touching enlightenment with the body.”
And yet, among many of us modern people, meditation is often practiced as a kind of conceptual exercise, a mental gymnastic. We often approach it as a way to fulfill yet another agenda or project—that of attempting to become “spiritual,” according to whatever we happen to think that is. We may try to use meditation to become peaceful, sharper, more “open,” more effective in our lives, even more conceptually adroit. The problem with this is that we are attempting to be managers, to supersede nature, to control “the other.” In this case, the “other” is ourselves, our bodies, and our own experience. Ultimately, it is our own somatic experience of reality that we are trying to override in the attempt to fulfill our ego aim.
Often we have an ideal of what meditation is or should be—what we like about meditation, which might be some experience that we’ve had somewhere along the way—and we actually end up trying to use our meditation as a way to recreate that particular state of mind. We try to recreate the past instead of stepping out toward the future. To put the matter in bald terms, we end up using meditation as a method to perpetuate and increase our disembodiment from the call and the imperatives of our actual lives.
This is what the psychologist John Welwood calls spiritual bypassing. Meditation becomes a way to perpetuate self-conscious agendas and avoid impending, perhaps painful or fearful developmental tasks—always arising from the darkness of our bodies—that are nevertheless necessary for any significant spiritual growth. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called it spiritual materialism, using spiritual practice to reinforce existing, neurotic ego strategies for sealing ourselves off from our actual lives in the pursuit of survival, comfort, continuity, and security. When we use meditation in such a way, we aren’t really going anywhere, just perpetuating the problems we already have. No wonder when we practice like this over a period of decades, we can end up feeling that nothing fundamental is really happening: because it isn’t.
I am not certain that our Asian teachers, who come from very different cultural situations, always understand the full extent of our own disembodiment or the tremendous limitations it imposes on our ability to meditate and pursue the path. Nor do the classical Buddhist texts, at least as we understand them, necessarily provide a direct and effective remedy to our situation either.
Consider, for example, the meditation technique that is so central in the texts and so often given to modern meditators: pay attention to the breath at the tip of the nose, either feeling the in-breath and the out-breath or attending to the breath there in some other way. For a fully embodied person, this is an effective technique by which the practitioner can make his or her journey. But for someone who is somatically disconnected and habitually abides almost entirely in his or her head, using a technique that requires attention on the nose will reinforce the tendency to remain entirely invested in the head and to continue to be unaware of the rest of the body. If we are already out of touch with our body, its sensations, and its life, carrying out a practice that involves attending to the breath at the nostrils often just perpetuates and even reinforces our disconnection. Those of us meditating in such a disembodied state are locked into a cycle and genuinely trapped in our practice.
When the body calls us back, we begin to find that we have a partner on the spiritual path that we didn’t know about—the body itself. In our meditation and in our surrounding lives, the body becomes a teacher, one that does not communicate in words but tends to speak out of the shadows. Moreover, rather than being able to require the body to adapt to our conscious ideas and intentions, we find that we have to begin to learn the language that the body naturally speaks. As we come under the tutelage of the body, we often think we know what is going on, only to discover, over and over, that we have completely missed the point. And then, just when we think we are completely confused, we come to see that we have understood something much more profound and far-reaching than anything we could have imagined. It is all very puzzling but, in meditating with the body as our guide, we come to feel that, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we are in the presence of a being, our own body, that is wise, loving, flawlessly reliable, and, strange to say, worthy of our deepest devotion.
In entering into this process of developing somatic awareness, we are not simply making peace with our physical existence. In fact, we are entering into a process that lies right at the heart of the spiritual life itself, something the Buddha saw a very long time ago. He saw that while spiritual strategies of disembodiment may yield apparent short-term gains, in the long run they land us right back in the mess we began with, perhaps more deeply than before.