One of the immediate benefits we receive when we start practice is that we cease to identify awareness with thinking.
From the start, we’re within this space of awareness: our mind, our body, our environment; everything is within this general spacious awareness. We’re like fish in an ocean of awareness. However we don’t think of it as a benefit because we’re keenly aware of how polluted this ocean is with the intrusive, persistent and repetitive nature of our thoughts.
When we’re confronted with the persistence of our thoughts in practice, the temptation is to try one of two strategies.
The first is to try to defeat those thoughts through mental effort; to change their nature, to extinguish them, or to push them to the periphery of awareness.
The second is to go as far as possible from the apparent location of those thoughts – the imaginary space of the mind within the imagined space of the brain – to something else – our breath, our body, our wider environment – whatever.
Counterintuitively however, what is actually very helpful for us to do is to give specific awareness to what we can feel in our head. It’s no accident that one of the preliminary vipassana practices is to focus on the breath coming in and out of our nostrils. That’s obviously one thing that we can be aware of. We can also be aware of patterns of tension that we’re holding in our forehead. We can be aware of our teeth; the expansive, alive presence of our tongue and our mouth; the tension or the spaciousness at the back of our head; all these kinds of things.
What you’ll notice, if you pay careful attention, is that it’s impossible for a thought and an awareness of something sensate to exist at exactly the same time. You have to pay careful attention, because quite often we flip between the two, but you’ll find that they cannot coexist, in the same way that phantoms cannot appear in sunlight. Which is not to say that the thought becomes a vacuity. Rather, it’s experienced as something energetic: embodied noise.
Practically, it’s much easier to be aware of sensations in our head than in our torso, or legs, but more importantly through this approach we cease to identify the mind with the head, and no longer relegate “the body” to our body below the head. We embody, as it were, the mind in the head and reconcile the two.
And that reconciliation can then extend throughout the whole.body. In that way we can resolve the familiar mind-body dualism.