OBJECTS OF AWARENESS: BODY

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dancer plaidIn part 1 of this series, I defined the term meditation object and discussed why we might choose a single object for practicing meditation. In part 2 I reflected on using sound as an object for practice. I suggest reading those posts before this one if you haven’t read them already.

When practicing mindfulness with a single “class” or object of experience, we can choose a rather narrow focus, like the sensations of breath, or we can open our focus of attention a bit wider to include other body sensations beyond the breath. We can pay attention to body sensations while sitting still, just feeling different sensations come and go throughout the body in the same way we feel breathing. We might notice itching sensations, or a feeling of heat or cool; pressure, or tingling; we might feel energy buzzing around our nervous system, or our digestive activity. Practicing with pain in the body is an illuminating and helpful area of practice that I’ll be discussing at length in a future post.

Body scan

We might formalize our mindfulness of body sensations by intentionally scanning the attention down (or up) the body, starting at the top of the head and dropping down, or starting at the feet and scanning up, slowly, feeling the sensations at each “section” of the body: from top of the head, drop the attention to the face and back of the head, to eye area and so on down the face and back of the head, down to throat and neck, then shoulders, and so on. With this practice, every time we “wake up” from being lost in thought, we simply return our attention to whichever area of the body we were feeling before we were distracted, and continue the scan. A useful addition to the body scan might be to sense any places of tension or gripping and suggest to yourself to relax. This relaxation body scan can be a helpful practice for falling asleep, or at the beginning of a practice period when you’re tense and wound up.

Feeling the body in movement or during daily activitieswalk dog balloon

Walking meditation is a wonderful form of mindfulness of body practice. We can do this formally, setting aside time for close attention to the walking sensations, or just practice mindfully embodied while walking around in daily life. We can also practice mindfulness of body during other activities— while waiting in line or cleaning; while typing in the computer or making food, or when eating. (I’ll offer a dedicated post on eating meditation later). With mindfulness of the body during activity, we’re training our attention on the sensations associated with the activity, whether feeling our legs or feet while walking, or our arms, hands, torso, or whatever is involved in the activity. We can also just sense the whole body moving through space, the air on our skin, etc. As with the body scan, the aim is to simply return attention repeatedly to feeling the body engaged in its activity, each time we wake up from being lost in thought. And, like with practicing with sound, we can also observe our minds having thoughts and feelings about whatever we’re doing as part of the whole process of that activity—liking or disliking the sensations, directing ourselves to move in a certain way or a particular direction, judging or criticizing ourselves and our “performance,” and so on.

I suggest using body sensations as a practice object:

  • When in movement or during any activity that involves the body. You don’t necessarily have to slow down. You can do the action or task at a normal pace and still be mindfully be present to how it feels in your body.
  • To stabilize and ground yourself in your present time experience. The body is a wonderful centering tool, and it’s a stress reducer to be embodied and present with everyday activities rather than lost in worry, rumination or mind wandering. It’s also often safer and more efficient to be paying attention to what you’re doing when you’re doing it! One thing at a time…
  • To learn to work skillfully with pain (and pleasure), by investigating the nature of pain (and pleasure). Stay tuned for an upcoming post about practicing with pain in the body.
  • To calm yourself when caught up in a strong emotion: for example, by intentionally extracting your attention from the emotion and its accompanying storyline and placing it on some neutral or even pleasant place in your body, like your feet, or the breath sensations.
  • When investigating the nature of emotions, since emotions always have a body component. Stay tuned for more posts on mindfulness of emotion.
  • To bring mindfulness into your daily life, throughout the day, which supports continuity and momentum of mindfulness and developing the “habit” of mindfulness.
  • When you want to feel more embodied but need to keep some part of your attention on what you’re doing: for example, while driving you can periodically just sense your hands on the steering wheel, or when writing on the computer, feel your hands typing on the keyboard, or check into your posture; when in conversation you can touch in to your body on the chair or your feet while standing, and so on. In these instances, the breath may be too “internal” of an object to pay attention to while still maintaining the necessary focus on the activity. I wouldn’t recommend putting all your attention on the breath (or any part of your body) while driving, for example!

Once we feel fairly steady in our attention on a single object—and assessing that is a matter of experimentation—we can release our focus on the object (whether breath, sound, body) and move into choiceless practice, aka mindfulness of changing objects, which I’ll discuss in the next post in this series.

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