In Part 6 of this series on “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” I am continuing my commentary on the meditation practice called mindfulness of the body, which is the first of the practices from the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” As noted in earlier parts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study this Buddhist approach to meditation. While the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the English translation of the name of a Buddhist Sutta; the “Satipatthana Sutta,” the basic practice can be adapted to your current beliefs whether you are one who believes in God, one who does not, or one who is not sure what to believe.
Please read the earlier posts of this series, at least the previous one or two posts, to be aware of the principal themes and practices offered so far.
In addition to the comments offered in previous posts, there is another way to improve both the quality of mindfulness and the degree of detailed awareness that arises from sustained application of mindful awareness of the sensations of the body.
This additional effort is to begin, or continue, your diligent study of Yoga, T’ai Chi, or some equally subtle form of exercise. Exercise and the study of the body during exercise is one practice of mindful awareness that is not explicitly mentioned in the original Satipatthana Sutta of the Theravada Buddhists. It is a form of practice that can and needs to be integrated into daily practice whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian or follow some other path that focuses more on the mind than the body.
The form of subtle exercise I am most familiar with is Hatha Yoga. Although I am still at a basic level of competence with Yoga, I know first hand how the study of Yoga affords excellent opportunities to deepen the practice of mindful awareness of the sensations of the body.
The first benefit is that one begins to understand how complex and intricate the human body is. You will see levels of detail of the muscles in the body that you previously were not aware of and this will expand your mindful awareness of the body. You can expand that awareness to learn more about how the respiratory, circulatory, neurological, digestive, and immune systems all work together. A wide range of insights will arise from this clear, detailed awareness of the many systems of the body. It is a basic tenet of Buddhist practice that deeper levels of insight will arise quite naturally, over time, simply as a result of a sincere and consistent practice of mindfulness and related efforts with virtue, compassion, and concentration. It is for this reason this form of meditation practice is also called Insight Meditation, or in Pali, Vipassana. The steady arising of insight into more and more subtle aspects of suffering, freedom, and joy is the primary goal of all this practice.
The second benefit is that as one performs the various Yoga asanas, they can begin to see how stiff certain muscles, joints, and connective tissues have become. In short, one can see how much work they have to do to restore health and lower the stress in their body. Over time, as one becomes more competent with the asanas, one is able to stretch the muscles and other tissues. By opening these muscles and lubricating the joints, you will create the capacity for better circulation of oxygen-rich blood and energy into those gridlocked parts of the body. This irrigation of the cells clears out the gunk in the cells that is the residue of stress. This too, will contribute to overall health and a general sense of ease and well being.
Greater awareness of the intricate lattices of muscles, joints, nerves, connective tissues, and organ systems of the body will allow you to increase the skillful application of your exercise. The conscious rhythmic breathing and more rigorous circulation of oxygen-rich blood throughout the cells of the body, especially in those tight and sore muscles, will have cumulative health benefits.
However much time you have for such efforts, be as consistent as you can be. These efforts will lower the overall level of stress in the body and strengthen the immune system. They will also increase the general level of energy available in the body and enhance the quality of the energy in the body and mind. Many times after work I have felt I was quite tired. But when I have been able to perform 20-30 minutes (or more) of Yoga, I definitely become invigorated with fresh energy. Actually, I have learned I am just utilizing the energy in the body more skillfully.
After you have developed some skill and consistency with these forms of practice, you will also notice your general mood is often lighter and more generally positive and accepting.
One reason for this is that Yoga, like any form of sustained exercise, results in the release of endorphins in the brain, spinal cord, and many other sections of the body. (If you google “endorphins” you will see many articles that explain the details of this phenomena. The article on endorphins listed on WEB MD is a good example of very readable information from a generally well respected source.)
What is important is this. If you are stressed, tired, bored, or generally feeling crappy after a long day at work, you may not feel much like sitting down on the cushion for meditation. As noted, if you have the time and setting where you can do some Yoga or T’ai Chi, these exercises will improve your health, enhance your mindful awareness of the body, and lower stress. All of these effects will serve as a very useful prelude to your meditation sessions. The body will be quite a bit more relaxed in a very natural way. Good, brisk walking or more traditional forms of calisthenics or dance will have a similar effect.
The more relaxed the body is, the more relaxed the mind can become. All of this will help you progress to whatever is the next deeper state of peace and clarity of mindfulness, insight, and concentration you are capable of. In this way, a more positive engagement of the body, and a more mindful awareness of the body, will serve the over-arching goal of helping you deepen your meditation practice.
As noted while these practices are not specifically referenced in the Satipatthana Sutta, they are a very logical and very needed addition to the practices outlined in this Sutta.
All too often Buddhist practice is focused on the mind, with the body being something to observe, neutralize, or overcome. There is little attention paid by many Buddhist teachers to explore how exercising the body in healthy and subtle ways supports the deepening of peace in meditation. The same can be said about Catholic and Orthodox commentaries on meditation. Integrating the physical exercises of Hindu and Chinese cultures such as Yoga or T’ai Chi will prove to be a very helpful support to people practicing Buddhist, Catholic, or Orthodox meditation.
These kinds of suggestions are just as relevant to those practicing meditation in other traditions such as Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Native American Indian, and New Age.
The integration of Buddhist practices of mindfulness with Hindu or Chinese forms of exercise is a good example of how the best features of the world’s meditative traditions can be grafted together. The integration of best-in-class practices from different traditions will create a more complete approach to meditation than any one culture has to offer as an individual religion.
It is good to love one’s neighbor. It is also good to be humble enough to learn from your neighbor.