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Sitting Within Zazen

The key to sitting Zazen is a dynamic spine. In turn, the key to that is the correct positioning of the pelvis so our physical weight is dropping down through our sit bones and our energetic weight, as it were, is dropping down through our base chakra.

If we’re sitting in the correct position, certain consequences follow. For example, when we breathe in, there’s a subtle and natural push down on the base chakra. It’s as if the base chakra pushes the earth and the breath floods in through there upwards, up through the body to the top of the head, and slightly beyond.  It’s like a wave coming in, followed by a naturally slower out breath, like a receding wave, falling naturally downwards through the body.

On the outbreath, alongside the downward movement, there’s a subtle and natural downward pressure. And we might think, “well, a little downward pressure is a good thing so more downward pressure must be a better thing”. And so we might consciously push down with our diaphragm, or consciously compress or otherwise act on our stomach muscles.

Similarly if our spine is dynamic, our head is naturally going up, the back of our neck is stretched and our chin is slightly tucked in, naturally. Yet we might think it a good idea to stretch the back of the neck more.  So we tense our muscles and tuck our chin in more.

This is the behaviour of an idiot.

What we require to do once we put our body in the correct posture is just to trust entirely in Zazen. If we do, all the nonsense of our self arises within Zazen. If we attempt these ‘helpful’ interventions, Zazen is arising within the ego, like everything else.

And it’s no good.

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Breathing From The Body Of Practice

Master Dogen gives virtually no instructions about the breath, apart from telling us that we should breathe through our nose not our mouth and that we should let our long breaths be long and our short breaths be short. In other words we shouldn’t try to control our breath.

This brevity gives us freedom to consider, from our actual experience of practice, how the breath should be. 

It seems to me that breath and posture are two halves of a whole. If we’re sitting properly, if our pelvis is in the right position, our weight physically is dropping down through our sit bones and energetically is dropping down through our perineum, specifically that part of the perineum which corresponds to the base chakra in the Indian perspective.

If our pelvis is in that position, then there’s a stretch that’s going on, not just at the back of our neck, but a stretch all the way between our base and the top of our head. So it’s as if the spine  energetically is like a kind of very alive tree whose roots go into the earth, whose dynamic expression flows right up our body, right up to the top of our head and beyond.

Now we know anatomically that isn’t accurate, but we’re not interested in the pictured body—the body of knowledge. What we’re interested in is the body of experience. 

The same thing applies to the breath in this analogy. 

The breath is like the leaves of that tree which spread throughout the body.

So again, although we have a knowledge of where our lungs are and the knowledge that our breath comes in through our nose or our mouth, that isn’t what we’re primarily interested in.

We’re interested in the body of practice. 

In that body of practice, if our pelvis is in the correct position, if our weight is dropping down in the way in which I’ve described on an in-breath, there’s a slight push down at the base chakra.

It’s not that our air is coming in through our nostrils and flowing down. Within the body of experience, it’s as if the breath is flooding upwards right up to the top of our head from the base chakra. That’s a relatively speedy movement, like a wave coming in.

As far as the outbreath is concerned, it’s like a wave going out, slightly slower.  The wave going out corresponds with a kind of dropping down through the body.

That’s where I think erroneous instructions arise. Because there’s this natural dropping down you think, well I can give this a helping hand. I can consciously press down in my diaphragm area. I can consciously press out with the muscles in my lower belly. I can just give it a hand—but that isn’t so.

The breath has to stay natural. 

We do not fully express our practice by exaggerating aspects of natural movement with our will. That simply makes it a technical movement.

We do it by gradually becoming aware of a greater subtlety and integration in our whole body.  If we think that breathing in is consciously breathing in through our nose, that’s not actually a natural breath at all. It’s a willed breath, because it’s coming from this knowledge of the breathing structure. Within that body of knowledge, there’s breath coming in through the nose, travelling down into my lungs. 

Whilst it appears to be a natural breath, it’s an idea. If you pay careful attention you’ll notice that if you try to breathe that way particularly in the zazen posture, you’re actually restricting your breath. 

Breathing to be natural must be natural not within some thought of what the breath should naturally be like

but natural within the posture.   

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Reflections on Kinhin

Kinhin  – walking meditation –  has an anomalous position in our practice. Dogen doesn’t mention it, and it seems that it was introduced perhaps 500 years or so after his death, possibly  by Menzan Zuiho, a wonderful teacher who lived around the turn of the 17th century.

The original instructions I received for kinhin were pretty sparse.  It was basically taking a half step forward with each cycle of breath and rolling the weight from the back foot to the front foot.

I noticed in my years of being in the International Zen Association that the Kinhin got slower and slower and slower, in contrast to what we were originally taught by Nancy Amphoux. By the time I left people were moving very short distances indeed. I’m impatient with that sort of behaviour, because it purports to declare a profundity which is, I think, fake.

What is kinhin for? 

When I went to Sanshinji  in 2012,  I noticed that they did Kinhin a little differently. In a conversation with one of Okumura’s students, she said on the step forward, just before the out-breath, they placed the heel of the forward foot on the ground first. As the out-breath continued the weight was then rolled forward onto the front of the front foot, the toes slightly splayed. The effect of that was that on the roll forward, the weight went directly over the acupressure point on the sole of the foot, near the root of the big toe, called ‘bubbling spring’. 

It’s an energy acupressure point. It’s well known among Qigong people and Acupuncture practitioners. You stimulate that point in the roll forward and then, when you breathe in, you push down with the front of the front foot and roll the foot a tiny bit backwards at the same time. Again, that push would be going through the ‘bubbling spring point.’ 

I’ve been practicing Kinhin in that way since and what I’ve noticed is that – and perhaps this is just me –  that it’s easier to find the ‘bubbling spring point’ on one foot than the other. For me, it’s my left foot, and often I can’t feel it at all.

Quite a lot of my students are unable to find it.  And if they can’t experience it, those instructions don’t make much sense, and so their focus is more on rolling their weight from one foot to the other and from the back of the foot to the front.

If we experiment with how Kinhin could be,  we could pay more attention on the back foot. All that we’re told is that when all the activity is going on with the front foot, we’re keeping our back foot on the ground. Although, it’s very difficult to stop the heel of the back foot being slightly raised off the ground. 

I realised that when the weight is completely on the front foot, the back foot is positioned in such a way that the ‘bubbling spring point’ on the back foot  is naturally accessible. The back foot is, in effect, balanced on that point.

 I wondered, if instead of on an in-breath pressing down with the front foot, what it would be like if, on the in-breath, we pressed down on the ‘bubbling spring point’ on the back foot.

It’s slightly more convoluted: at the end of the outbreath, our weight is still on our front foot, but on the inbreath, we switch our attention to include the bubbling spring point of the back foot, so we might feel that point on both feet, or perhaps just the back foot. The benefit – at least for me – is a dramatically heightened consistency of awareness of the bubbling spring point, which in turn makes it much easier to experience the body as an energetic system, rather than just a mechanical one. You can feel the energy travelling up the body.

Conceptually it’s still a bit messy: it doesn’t feel correct to pay attention to both feet at the same time, rather than alternating attention. When we’re moving energy, it’s more natural to move it from one point rather than two. If we’re bringing the energy up the body and back down to the earth again, where do we bring it down to? 

But that conceptual confusion is secondary to being able to activate this energetic point. And once we do that, we can experiment with what feels right for us within an enlivened practice. For example, it may feel right to bring the energy up through the bubbling spring point of my right foot, and as I step forward to return the energy to the earth through the same point, whilst keeping within awareness the point on the other foot.

I don’t think we should innovate for the sake of it. We  should however foster open hearted inquiry into the various aspects of our practice, and share our experience with others. Because that upholds the vital quality of practice, which avoids degeneration into hollowed out repetition, which is characteristic of religion, and fatal to spiritual enquiry. 

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More heresy about sitting

One of the curious things about Zen is that, whilst the central part of our practice, zazen, entails an intensely physical posture, and one which is very specific in its form, there’s very little discussion about that posture, apart from hackneyed instructions about having a straight spine, tucking our chin in and pushing up with the top of the head. 

Which, anyway, are wrong. The mind is forcing the body into a shape which only increases tension and reinforces an unconscious body/mind duality.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the Chinese and Japanese masters took it as a matter of course that people practicing zazen would practice in the full lotus position. 

But hardly any western zen practitioners can do full lotus.Quite often they might practice in half lotus or quarter lotus. Sometimes they practice in the burmese position. These alternative  cross-legged positions are not symmetrical.

Obviously when you’re in half lotus, your pelvis is tilting. But even if you’re in the burmese position, your pelvis isn’t symmetrical because one foot being in front of the other torques it.

By an odd coincidence, at the start of lockdown I started sitting much more. But also, because of a knee injury, I started sitting in a chair. I would sit on a little zafu, about half the height I would normally use, which I placed on a firm chair. 

Whatever else can be said for it, sitting on a chair is an even posture; there’s a clear balance between left and right. And I think because of that balance I became much more aware of my pelvic floor, much as I would have been had I ever been capable of full lotus.

In the Fukanzazengi and in other instructions about Zazen, we’re given an instruction that just before we start, when we’re in position, we sway from left to right, but we’re not given an explanation why.  I think the reason is that it balances our weight between our two sit bones, so we’re not inadvertently weighing down on one side more than the other, or having our spine off centre.

We’re balanced. Our physical weight is dropping down equally through our sit bones and energetically our weight is going down through our centre at the perineum, where, in the traditional Indian outlook, our first chakra is located.

What I’ve noticed, because of an increased awareness of my pelvic floor, is that my perineum isn’t an undifferentiated area. Specifically, I’ve noticed that if I move very slightly and slowly forward and back (my weight going slightly further forward on my pelvic floor and then slightly further back), I can find an area which  to me feels like (though may not anatomically be) a smooth, round bone. When my weight appears to drop down through that area, it does something to my posture.

It seems to produce what I experience as an energetic, pulsing response. It’s as if my spine becomes like a gently uncoiling snake, and there is sometimes pulsing in my third eye. The crown of my head and my thoracic spine feel as if they are effortlessly going up. Having an awareness of that precise position seems to make the posture deeper, my whole body and breathing dynamically integrated.

Because of all of this, I wonder if the instruction about swaying was incomplete and, hence, misunderstood. Should the sway be a delicate, deliberate sway, not just from side to side, but from front to back too?

My desire is to open up the physicality of Zazen from its subservient and given position, to make it a fruitful area for the exchange of experience, and enquiry. If we don’t do that, the risk is that zen will, with some exotic kinks, be incorporated into a dominant yet unbalanced western view of meditation, which doesn’t just privilege consciousness over alive embodiment, it doesn’t even see it. Which would be a catastrophe. 

Once we do open ourselves to somatic enquiry, then all sorts of exploration becomes possible. For example, in kundalini yoga ( and tantra), much emphasis is placed on the coccygeal gland, located near the tip of the tailbone, which is closely associated with kundalini energy. To what extent is that engaged through the posture? Isn’t it legitimate to be at least curious about that?

It may be said that somatic enquiry has nothing to do with zen. But that’s disingenuous. We are given a very specific posture, which originated in yoga. If we close ourselves off to somatic inquiry, our view will become – and often has become – brittle and ignorant, and fetishises the posture rather than becoming intimate with it. And, I think, the joy and the heart of practice would be lost.

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The Position of our hands during Zazen

In our practice we’re given instructions about our hand position. 

When we’re doing kinhin we wrap our thumb inside our left fist; we put the root of the thumb against the diaphragm and wrap the other hand around so our elbows are in a horizontal line; our shoulders are relaxed.

In zazen, we create a mudra by resting our left hand onto our right hand. Our thumbs lightly touch in a horizontal line; our little fingers are between our navel and our pubic bone, touching our lower belly. 

These instructions are universal, but the explanation of why we hold our hands in those positions is often either lacking, or superficial.  Sometimes we can reason it out from some other discipline. For example, the hand position that we have in kinhin has very substantial similarities with a mudra in yoga which encourages whole torso breathing.

But the  – much more important – mudra during zazen really isn’t given much explanation at all. We’re told that our thumbs touching horizontally are a barometer of our state. If we’re sleepy our thumbs tend to come apart; if we’re agitated our thumbs tend to push together. We’re told that having our hands in that position, touching our lower belly, directs us to breathe to our lower belly. All this is true, but the significance of the mudra is hardly exhausted by these statements. 

Part of our difficulty in understanding the mudra is that we’re attempting to get within the mind of a culture which is very different from ours. For us, what’s easiest is either to define a mudra in abstract symbolic terms, or in terms of expediency. The symbolic explanation can often be very poetic and beautiful. We can talk about this little fragment of being – the left hand – resting within all being – the right hand. We can talk about the reconciliation of opposites. But whenever we stay within this realm of interpretation, there’s a sense in which the meaning of the mudra escapes us, because our understanding of the symbolic is severely deficient.

It seems to me that when we’re sitting in the correct position,sitting on our sit bones, our spine is relaxed and uncompressed. All that opens up the pelvic area of our body. We know intellectually, in terms of anatomy, that that area of our body is quite physically dense. But we’re not concerned with anatomy, we’re concerned with our actual experience. And in terms of that, what we’re feeling when we’re doing zazen is, it seems to me, that the whole area of our pelvic bowl is a field of energized spaciousness. It also feels as if it extends further down than our anatomical picture will allow. It feels as if there’s a substantial indeterminate area behind and below where our little fingers rest against our lower belly.

From another perspective, it’s as if my spine is stretching energetically down into the ground. I’m very aware of the front of the lower spine, seen in this way,  and it’s as if this dynamic space is in front of that. This space also seems in dynamic relationship with the jade pillow, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

Your experience might be different. Obviously one always labors to describe what’s experienced in a way that’s understandable to another person. Please consider it. Try to find something that makes sense within your own experience. Don’t try to superimpose these words onto that experience.

If you were – for the sake of argument – to accept these words as possible experience for you, you could understand that the mudra takes the shape of this area, of our pelvic bowl. Granting that, it seems to me that another kind of understanding of the mudra becomes possible.

A core part of Chinese Buddhism is Buddha Nature. This is the faith that all beings –  in themselves, now – are perfect. That perfection is hidden, sometimes hidden very well indeed, but it’s there.

That idea is given the most obvious form in the concept of tathagatagarbha. In Sanskrit the word garbha is ambiguous. It can mean either womb or embryo, but the word that the Chinese chose for garbha, ‘zong’, privileged womb. 

Zong means variously womb, storehouse and treasure house. There’s lots of references to treasure house in the literature. For example, in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi there’s a reference to “the treasure house opening naturally of itself”. And isn’t the womb, as it were, behind our hands?

It seems to me that the mudra is a representation of that. It’s also a statement about what Buddha Nature is. It’s not something tangible. It isn’t something which you have. It’s something which is empty: the space that is created by the mudra is empty— dynamic and empty— so we’re not reifying Buddha Nature. And the mudra, and zazen generally, is an enactment of this faith, not a striving for some future state.

So think about all this.

Reflect on your own experience, when you’re sitting.

See if explanations of this kind make any sense to you. If they don’t, just continue with your inquiry. Find your own language, and do your best to express what you experience, not from a position of knowledge, but from a position of openness and sharing.

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352. What World Are We Describing?

When we talk about Buddhism, what world are we describing?

 The Hua-yen (‘Flower Garland’) school, a pinnacle of Tang Dynasty Buddhism, talks of the interrelationship of form and emptiness: form doesn’t obstruct emptiness, emptiness doesn’t obstruct form and form doesn’t obstruct form. 

We’re familiar with the first two, the third is unique to Hua-yen.

On the face of it, the formulation appears to be a philosophy of how the world is. It’s sometimes called a ‘philosophy of Totality’. But to understand Hua-yen in this way – in fact to understand any of the Buddhist perspectives in this way –  is making a fundamental error.

 The various buddhist schools are not schools of philosophy; they’re schools of meditation. The doctrines are not descriptions of the world; they’re descriptions of the life, actual and possible, of the world of the person meditating. They are a gift to us. Obviously, (because they’re giving a description both of how meditation is and how it can be) they’re obliged to express this in terms of how the world is – which is also one of the many services of misrepresentation other schools may offer –  but that is not the primary purpose. 

The unique insight of  Hua- yen – that everything in the world is the centre of the world; the whole universe pivots on each particular part-and-moment/event; take that as a description of your experience when sitting, whether or not you see it through the dust and noise of the self. And once experienced in meditation, it can seep out to the whole world of your existence, excluding nothing.

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The Secret of Zazen

The secret of Zazen is the integrity and the dynamism of the spine;  this is why we place such emphasis on posture.

If we sit correctly, with our pelvis at the right angle and our weight dropping down throughout sit bones, then the whole spine becomes dynamic. Our head is no longer a weight on our torso. It’s light and spacious, and our whole torso is integrated and experienced as a dynamic oneness rather than disparate parts. The spine is like an energetic central column.

The hand position that we have, with our little fingers resting between our navel and our pubic bone (depending upon the proportions of our body) broadly directs us to the right place, but I don’t think sufficiently. Our tendency with that mudra is to think that we breathe into our lower belly, which entails when we’re breathing in, our belly is going out. 

That’s not quite right. 

If our spine is in the correct position, it’s true that we’re breathing into our lower belly. But it doesn’t feel as if we’re breathing in our lower belly. Or not just there.

If our spine is in the correct position it opens up the whole space of awareness, as it were, behind and below our hands. The whole of our lower back and our pelvic floor, together with our lower belly, opens up. Specifically an area of awareness emerges which is, as it were, right within this pelvic bowl and experientially towards our front. Although it isn’t anatomically accurate to say this, it’s as if our spine is curving right down into the ground between our sit bones. We’re aware of the front of our spine and we can breathe into that general area.

I think this awareness, which you will need to experiment with yourself, is the key to understanding Dogen’s enigmatic definition of Zazen as being the dharma gate of ease and joy.

To understand ‘ease’ isn’t hard: it’s the equanimity that meditation, all sorts of meditation, promotes. 

But ‘joy’ is something, I think, dependent upon our physicality—the integration of our body and the dynamism of our body, not pictured, not objectified, but experienced.

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330. Not from the perspective of the self

Master Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, his universal recommendation of Zazen, closely follows an earlier text by the Chinese master Chang-lu Tsung-tse. However, there are several important differences. One difference in particular is that, in the earlier text, there is the following passage:

“Do not strain your body upward too far lest it cause your breathing to be forced and unsettled.”

Chang-lu Tsung-tse

That passage doesn’t appear in the Fukanzazengi. Obviously, Dogen was aware of that passage, so why isn’t it there? 

Chang-lu’s instruction has some modern-day echoes in terrible instructions that some people give in Zen about tucking in the chin, pushing up with the top of the head, and stretching the back of the neck. They are terrible for two reasons. Firstly, they simply create tension in the back of the neck. They give, perhaps, a feeling of uplift but what they actually create is tension. Although his instruction is in negative terms, it leaves effort (“strain”) there, you just shouldn’t overdo it.

There is a second reason, and a more significant one. When we put ourselves in the Zazen posture, putting ourselves in that posture is an act of will, an act of the self. But once we are in the posture we are no longer practising from the perspective of the self. We say, poetically perhaps, that we are practising from the perspective of the Buddha. In other words, we are sitting with all beings, within all Being.

 This is actually a very important point. We are so within a culture of individualism and self-improvement that we don’t notice it. It surrounds us like the ocean surrounds fish. People will habitually think of meditation as a way to get something for themselves: you get your mind calm, you become a kinder person, you become more compassionate. Sometimes, people with this perspective are more honest – they would say you become enlightened, you become spiritually evolved, your consciousness is enhanced. Drivel, obviously, but honest.

What we are doing in Zazen is simply letting everything be. We are not relying on our voluntary muscles – the muscles that are moving our hands or moving our neck; we are relying on our postural muscles, our deep muscles. It is those muscles and the engagement of those muscles through correct posture which creates a natural feeling of uplift in the body. It is a feeling of uplift that we can certainly feel in our neck and our head but which originates deep in our torso. It is not an uplift which is voluntarily created by us, it is simply something that happens when we put ourselves in the correct position and let the self be -temporarily- displaced.

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329. Dropping off ‘Body’

Perhaps Dōgen’s most famous formulation of Zazen is that it’s the continuous dropping off of body and mind. It seems to be an expression unique to him, although he claimed it was derived from his teacher, Nyojō. 

There are two parts to it: dropping off body and dropping off mind. 

Dropping off mind is reasonably easy for us to understand, but what is the dropping off of the body? Much less attention is paid to that, to what it might mean. 

One meaning is the dropping off of a habitual splitness that we experience with our body, the persistent and continual picturing of our body from a vaguely external perspective. This is often dominant over what we’re somatically feeling and experiencing. We’re frequently more aware of what we look like than how we feel. 

Dropping off the body requires, as a prerequisite, the dropping off of this visualization of the body. When we do that, the sense of the body as an object amongst other objects falls away. And although we can still maintain the primary self/world dualism even when we are somatically embodied, the boundaries are much more porous than when we are trapped in the object world, and so, particularly in Zazen, there is much more chance that we experience moments when this separation drops off.

Just as the dropping off of the body has been given inadequate attention, very often the instructions given about our body and Zazen are likewise deficient and brief.

So, I would like to make some suggestions about practice. 

If you ask someone to point to their body, they will generally point to their torso. They won’t point to their head. Yet, if we think about it for a moment, it’s obvious that our body is all of us. So it’s apparent that there’s an unconscious split that’s going on, whereby our head is identified with our self and with our mind. Our bodies are the subservient entity. That’s implicit in our everyday language. So if I asked you to paint my portrait, I would be rather surprised if you painted only my torso or if you painted my foot. I’d expect you to primarily paint my head. 

When we are asked to give attention to our body, what we will often do is try to focus our breath in our lower belly or be aware of our moving rib cage, something like that.

Because of this unconscious dualism, we ignore what is easiest for us to do, which is to bring our attention to the various aspects in our head: to the slight tension our forehead or eyes perhaps; the tightness in our jaw; the sensation of air coming in the nostrils; the sensation of the tongue within the mouth, the textured lips, and so on. All of these sensations are very accessible to us, much more so than feelings in other parts of our body.  

So, giving attention to that is helpful in a number of respects. Apart from being more accessible, it  helps to break the identification which we unconsciously make of our head with our mind—that’s one thing. Also, in a slightly different way, again because of that unconscious identification, it – as it were – embodies the mind. Once the mind is embodied in that way, that embodiment can somatically  flow down from the head to the rest of the body. Although the language is tricky, and certainly my language here doesn’t quite capture it, if you practice this, you will hopefully get a sense of it.

Another suggestion for enlivening the body is that you pay attention to a sensation which is neutral.  

Very often when people practice they’re very aware – too aware –  of their cascade of thoughts and emotions. They only become aware of their body when they experience pain or discomfort. And when they do, there’s often an anxious contraction of awareness around that pain or discomfort. A torrent of anxious thoughts occur which reinforces attention on that pain or discomfort. So it’s a very good idea to just be aware of neutral sensations in the body and develop a kind of muscle of awareness.  Being able to hold within awareness a particular body sensation and hold it within a wider awareness of the rest of the body and the rest of your environment. If you can develop that habit then you can gradually re-frame body sensation not as something physical and specifically located but energetic, changeable, and connected to everything else—changeable, impermanent, interdependent.

A third suggestion is that you make a distinction between your postural muscles and your voluntary muscles. 

Your postural muscles are what hold you up. Your voluntary muscles are those muscles which enable you to do things, reaching for a cup, for instance. If your posture is right, then you won’t be using your voluntary muscles when you’re in Zazen. You’ll simply be using your postural muscles. But if your posture isn’t right then you will be using your voluntary muscles. If, for instance, your pelvis isn’t in the right position your head’s probably going to be in the wrong position too, and you’re going to keep voluntarily moving your head or your torso using your voluntary muscles. You’ll stick your chest out, or try to lengthen the back of your neck.

One of the reasons why the distinction is important is, I think, because of the way the proprioceptive system works. Using your voluntary muscles often comes with a kind of visual sense. Your mind has a kind of picture of what your body is doing, which takes you back to the sense of the body as an object.

The postural muscles, in my experience, don’t come with that visual complement. And so, relying on the postural muscles makes it much easier to drop off the body because the ‘body as object’ isn’t unintentionally  reintroduced.

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323. Resolving the mind/body split

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.