Body

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THE SIX BECOMES EIGHT

The body knows its activity at levels we call ‘unconscious’ (for example, its cellular activity). The following schema presents categories of ways the body ‘knows’ consciously – ways it is lucent (mindful) of its interacting. This conscious ‘having’ of experience helps the body carry forward its life.

Remember, however, although we say ‘six,’ they are not separated out like that in reality. This schema of the ‘senses and their bases’ presents them as separate only for our understanding; they are, in actuality, never separate, isolated processes. They always imply each other. It is our discriminating capacity which discerns them separately.

In the body-en approach, all these categories indicate the interactive activity of the body. The body is the one ‘organ’ (the one sensing organism).

SEEING

Sight consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its surrounds, via the eye. Seeing is an aspect of body-environment interaction (body-en).

HEARING

Sound consciousness results from the body’s interaction with its surrounds, via the ear. Hearing is an aspect of body-en, body-environment interaction.

TASTING AND SMELLING

Likewise, taste and smell consciousness are also each aspects of body-en.

TOUCHING (skin contact)

We in the West have traditionally said there are ‘five senses,’ the fifth being touch. This is an over-simplification; but let’s separate out touch:

Touch consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its surrounds, interacting via the skin (which, in particular, is the organ of touch, though muscle pressure plays a part, too). Touching is an aspect of body-en. (The word ‘feel’ is often used as a synonym for ‘touch.’ Via the skin, you can feel your clothes, for instance.)

Introduction to two other body senses:

In the light of modern scientific categories of experience, we will add two further body senses.[1] These are subtle interiorly ‘felt’ ways of knowing: ‘form perception’ and ‘innermost perception.’ (See the note on this.)

PERCEIVING FORM (Loosely speaking: Proprioception)

With form-consciousness the body registers sensations arising within its own tissues; especially those concerned with the sense of position, balance and movement of the whole body, and its limbs.

Proprioceptive consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its inner ‘environments,’ interacting inwardly. Proprioception is body-en. This, too, is the body feeling, the body’s sentience.

PERCEIVING ‘INNERMOST’ SENSATIONS

(For now, I’ll refer to this by the term short ‘Interoception’)

This points to sensations in the viscera and nerves. Interoception enables us to feel things such as: hunger, satisfaction, itching, tickles and tingles, pain, body temperature, nausea, need to urinate and defecate, physical effort, sexual arousal, emotions, and – very important, and little recognised – bodily-felt meaning. (Gendlin’s ‘felt sense.’)

Interoceptive consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its own inner processes (its own ‘environments’); specifically, through interacting inwardly with the guts and subtle energies. Interoception is body-en. This, too, is feeling; that is, sentience.

MENTALITY

Also, the body is aware of the mental – the Buddhist 6th channel of sensing.[2]

This activity – that is, knowing of concepts, ideas, images, memories, and other subtle inner energies, including consciousness of consciousness – all this too is body-en. ‘Mental’ consciousness results from the body’s interaction with its surrounds, via its inward sensing. Hearing is an aspect of body-en. Mental life, too, is sensed.[3]

EXTENDING THE USUAL MEANING OF ‘ENVIRONMENT’

How is this category – ‘mentality’ – an ‘environment’? Mind is body-environment interaction; but for this to have all its power, we have to expand our understanding of how the body has its ‘environments.’ Along with proprioception and interoception (as defined above), awareness of mental content is such a differentiated activity – which the body ‘goes on in’ (Gendlin). In this work, ‘environment’ is what you go on in.

Any organism, by virtue of reflexivity, becomes its own environment to some degree. The human body has developed a high degree of conscious differentiation of its own activities, and so its ways of ‘having’ its own activity have become differentiated as environments (situations) to be taken into account. The eight-in-interaction take shape as our states of mind, and our skill in handling them. So, I’m in a job interview, and my innermost sensing tells me I’m nervous. It that’s so, I know some things: I can sit up confidently (that feels better immediately) and I can activate the mental operations that might ease my amygdala’s presently disruptive functioning.

When we become familiar with the range of body-environment-interaction as outlined above – everything from what is ‘external to the body’ to what is ‘internal to the body,’ including the making of that distinction – then we can recognise the intricate dynamics of ‘states of mind’ and work with them skilfully.

The Buddha was teaching one day, and he said, “Practitioners, I will tell you about the ‘All.’ Listen closely.” Upon the practitioners assenting, he said: “What is the All? Simply: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘I reject this All, I will describe something more,’ if questioned as to the grounds for his claim, would be unable to explain; and would, furthermore, be at a loss. Why? Because [whatever he posits] lies beyond [the] range [of experience].”

We’re extending this some, but it remains essentially a powerful method of self-awareness.


[1] In the light of modern scientific categories of experience, we can add two further body senses to our experiential schema: proprioception, and interoception. These are subtle interiorly ‘felt’ ways of knowing. However, science has not very clearly delineated the categories, yet; so, I’ll use the phrases ‘form perception’ and ‘innermost perceptions,’ provisionally, to try to offer support for these subtle discernments.

I expect that in future this last-mentioned category of consciousness will be further differentiated by science to account for subtle energies, such as chi, or kundalini, and so on; but, at this point in history, these are included in my ‘innermost’ category.

[2] The dictionary defines ‘mental’ as of the ‘mind’; and, by ‘mind’ most people mean: thoughts, inner images, memories, and so on. However, let’s include that the mind can be aware of its own knowing of such contents. This makes this category extremely subtle as an experiential category.

While in the populace at large the word ‘mind’ has largely become restricted to a kind of content – products of the body such as thoughts, inner images, memories, dreams, and so on – we can widen the meaning of ‘mind,’ so that it includes what some call ‘awareness of awareness.’ If that’s so, then we have a broad category called the ‘mental’ which includes the subtler ‘spiritual’ experiences (If extra-sensory modes of knowing are detected, I would include them here.)

[3] Some further theoretical thoughts on the ‘mental’: Firstly, it would be too big a topic to go into, here, to explain how consciousness [or awareness] can know consciousness. This has to do with living organism’s reflexivity of process. Even one-celled organism ‘know’ organise themselves reflexively.

Secondly, and relatedly, tradition – East and West – have conceived of a separate organ – called the ‘intellect’ or the ‘mind’ as an organ, or ‘the soul’ – which knows mental phenomena. Of course, it’s quite possible that the organ especially developed for this territory is the brain. Experientially, it’s not so important to adjudicate on this issue right now; because whatever way you look at it, it’s still the body interacting – albeit extremely subtly. In the activity of become optimally lucent in our living, we just need to sensitivity to experiencing.

Lastly, a further distinction could be made here between the obvious psychological content – thoughts, concepts, ideas, images, memory, gross imagination – and more psychic or subtle level of mentality; such as subtler imagination, spontaneous visions, discrimination itself, and awareness of awareness. Again, this is not the place to explore that possibility.

Postscript on Consensus Trance

As soon as I wrote that piece about the consensus trance, I thought that I’d follow up with a further note. It’s been a while, so I’ll set some context: It’s usual since Freud for us to seek the cause of our discontent in deficiencies generated in our family of origin. What the consensus trance concept does is broaden this, so that we look at the way that society shapes us, to fit in with its values, and its dominant ideology (which in the West, includes tracing personality difficulties to family of origin). Since Marx, we can see a lot of our suffering also originates on the societal level – particularly with the injustice of unequal distribution of capital and other opportunities. There’s all this, and more – for I haven’t gone into the madness and violence of the inheritors of medieval religious beliefs.

However, the acquired patterns of culture are not all we have to clarify, to see nature, death, and ourselves in perspective. Beneath all this are the ‘innate’ patterns, brought along from our animal past and even from cellular life itself. We weren’t born a blank slate. We were born with our inherited predispositions, which, ironically, can obscure our relationship with nature, if they aren’t made conscious. However, many beliefs about ‘nature’ obscure this territory.

Even if we didn’t acquire dulling predispositions, through our conventional conceptual training in this lifetime, we still would have, in our mental continuum, tendencies which were established by our plant and animal forebears. To live harmoniously with each other and with the biospher, these tendencies, too, we need to uncover and transform into a new level of functioning – even if they are harder to see and change than the patterns of the consensus trance.

I don’t see that the animal level is being named very usefully; partly because it is dominated by a particular myth in science. That is, the dominant ‘trance’ in this area is enhanced, these days, by conventional evolutionist scientists. They provide us with a major thread in the current version of consensus trance. (Current? Consensus trances are not new – ask Socrates. Ask Hypatia or Galileo.)
The views propagated by conventional science, run like this: The universe is some kind of dumb ‘material’ or ‘physical’ stuff – ‘things’ in movement. They move in something which, ever since Newton at the turn of the seventeenth century, is imagined as absolute time and absolute space. (It’s ironic that Newton also believed in an absolute God, who was supposed to be somewhere out there, too.)

Apparently, in this story, time and space are somewhere running the show, and are independent of our conceiving. So, in this kind of time and space, a material universe pops up and evolves randomly, running mechanically, once certain chains of billiard-ball-like activity have been set somehow in motion. It’s a dead universe which gives rise to living organisms; which never are other than versions of material stuff, matter.

In this model, intelligence enters the picture with humans, or at least with primates. We are ‘homo sapiens,’ ‘wise man.’ (Yes – ‘Man.’ A nomenclature which we haven’t yet corrected, but surely it wouldn’t be a difficult move?)

No-one has shown convincingly how it is that a non-living material universe gave rise to sapience, to a creature with intelligence. Neither has this stuff (that is, ‘matter’) ever been discovered. However, this belief is comforting (for scientists) because it apparently makes nature predictable (for scientists); that is, it gives them a deterministic universe – if we can only work out the ‘laws’ of the material stuff.

One harmful consequence of this belief in ultimate ‘matter’ is that natural processes – such as the body – are treated as machine-like. The metaphor of the machine is propagated in conventional science training at all levels. There are scientists now spending millions and millions of dollars on projects aimed at storing the information in human brains (as much of it as they can get), so that machines can have it. Some of them hypothesise that there wouldn’t be any real difference between such a machine (a robot) and a human.

(This is not too different from what I was told by many an adult, when I was in my late questing teens, during the Vietnam War: You can’t stop war, because humans have always been this way, and will be this way forever. Determinism.)

So, this modern ‘materialism’ is all part of the consensus trance, too. My point, though, in this ‘footnote,’ is that all these beliefs are acquired on top of one’s natural state at birth; one’s nature – which is not perfected, or perhaps not even perfectable; but, which, one experientially accessed, can be worked with. However, by and large, these patterns remain unexamined and foundational for one’s sense of presence, because the consensus trance is not dealt with.

And, if we don’t know who we are, as life-process – if we simply go along in the trance – how do we know what death is? When no longer entranced, we might be able to understand what poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote: “Man has created death.”

Speaking About Death

So, in respect of the many situations where the word ‘death’ is used, are we attuning to our bodies’ responses; and do we know how to venture into the unknown freshly?

It is the “sphere of experience that should be known” (said the Nikāya Buddha in the Kāmaguṇa-sutta, SN 35.117)

I’m reminded that so early in our project so many of the words that I’m using can’t yet mean to you what I want them to mean. We will have to work with them, until they bear new meanings, until they mean freshly.

I’ve think I’ve made it clear that this is so with the word ‘death,’ but what of other words which I’ve used – words like: ‘body,’ ‘insight,’ and ‘inside’ – especially the way that I’ve used ‘inside’? I wrote: “Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside?” What kind of ‘inside’ can this be? Even in this last decade of my fifty-year Buddhist inquiry, my experience of ‘inside’ has changed and deepened radically.

How do we find fresh life for the old words, words we meet everyday? Words don’t only accumulate meanings to become a fixed stock. They can be renewed – extended – by our whole-bodied, present use of them. A word’s use can feed back into its accumulated meanings, carrying concepts forward freshly, in line with our living – if we let it.

We do this in the same manner that we did as children: by resonating words against our feel of the situations. Words point to our being-in-situations – they find their meaning in bodily interactions.

How conscious are we, then, of the power of our speaking and thinking? When someone uses a significant word, I want to know to what experience the speaker is pointing, before assuming that I understand their meaning. Our conversations need to demonstrate in what way the words are meant. We have taken too much for granted.

For instance, I’m not one to use the ‘God’ word. But, if I’m talking to a thoughtful Christian, once we’ve got clear what kind of experience the word is pointing to for them, then I can use it with them. We might not always meet in the concepts, but we can meet in the experiences which they are meant to carry forward.

So, when talking about death, I try to show how I uncover, or invite, the experiences that I am naming. Recently I was talking with several people who were using ‘death’ in two main ways, but they hadn’t distinguished what these two ways were doing differently for them. It helped the conversation for us to get that distinction clear. I pointed out that the two meanings which they seem to be confusing were:
1) death as the ‘over-there/out-there’ experience; dependent mostly on knowing the physical death of others; death of an object; and,
2) death as experienced; death intimately.

The group could then begin to explore the idea of dying ‘before you die,’ once they had the insight that they were mixing up or collapsing two meanings under one label. Now they could feel each reference to death differently.

Through your bodily feel, you too can do the experiments and verify the meaning of the words for yourself. Here, in this project, I’m trying to show, as I go, how I use language, to free us from concepts. Let concepts serve us, not we serve them.

On your side, can you do reality-reading? As you read you remain aware of your body’s posture, its breath, its sensory presentations, its feelings, its felt meanings, and its thoughts – all in continuous flow? Can we not get lost in the words but refer them back to the ‘one who knows’ – our bodily interactional intelligence?

So, what is the job that words do for us? I have been convinced by forty years of inquiry into the relationship of language to experiencing, that the primary purpose of thinking and saying is to carry forward the situations in relation to which we are thinking and saying.

Free of craving and grasping,
Skilled in language and its use —
Knowing the coming together of sound,
[With] what’s passed and what’s next —
One is said to be
“A great person, of great wisdom,
In one’s ultimate body.”
Dhammapada, verse 352. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Dying to Scenarios

I’m away this week, and I’ve had no time for writing. But, this morning, this came: Dying is continuous. I wake up, I die to my ‘second.’ I meditate, I die – very consciously, again and again – to my ‘second.’ I shower, I die to my ‘second.’

If you have a scenario going on in your thoughts, which takes your energy from your living presence – there, right there, is a ‘second you.’ It’s the one you imagine could be, will be, should be. It’s a conversation of the one you ‘could be’ with your partner, your lover, your boss, your teacher, your friend who hurt you. It’s what you could/should/will say or could/should/will have said; and so on. Right? A long lost friend of mine used to call them ‘scenarios.’ But, notice they imagine a ‘you’ as somewhere else in space and time. Is the one here now – the immeasureable ‘first’ which you actually are – is this one conscious of scenario-ing?

Try dropping them all day, even in your sleep. That’s a form of continuous dying. (Of course, drop the criticism of ‘scenario-ing,’ too. That’s just more ‘seconding.’ If it helps, just say “Oh, hello ‘seconding.'” And soften your bellyrelax into bodily presence-ing. Timelessly active, dying is a flow.

What is consciousness like, which has no reference point, other than the inconcoctable presence?

No-one – not your mother,
Nor father, nor your relatives –
can do as much good for you
As a well-guided (citta) mind.

Dhammapada, verse 43. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Rituals and the Body of Being

My relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophy book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveys that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture which invites the felt meaning of Being.

So, for me, the ‘object’ of devotion in a ritual is never out or over ‘there,’ or ‘out there’ in the universe somewhere. It’s not the statue to which I bow. Neither does the statue represent some deity somewhere else. I am bowing to Being itself, retrieving my connection to Being via the being of my body. This is possible because one’s body participates in Being. A ‘human being’ is a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said.

Each morning, the first thing I do, after rising, is: I put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of the goddess of compassion Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha (inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh):

“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”

I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordiality of Being.

The meaning of any words, like the true meaning of any ritual, is what the words do in us – how they shift our state of being. Each word we speak is a gesture toward Being. The Nikaya Buddha suggests, in the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta): be mindful of the body in the body. So, I have a practice of speaking the gatha from my body, with awareness in my body, and feeling into the saying. It’s an experiment in consciousness.

I check inwardly, after saying my short verses, to see how the ritual has changed my body. This way, the ritual becomes an experiment, because I am present to see how I am changed by the posture and the sayings. Has the ritual brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, with this very body as its conduit?

And, when I say ‘together with all beings,’ it invites the bodily feeling that this grounded Being is the ground of every sensing creature. The sensing bodies of all beings are in your body. So, I’ve added another verse to this gatha:

These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
All the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.

I think of the English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674): “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

Also, in the case of this particular ritual, I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does one become intimate with death, than in one’s body? In my bowing and in saying my gatha, I am putting myself in a gesture of being “one hundred percent for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it).

A Scientific American article suggests that: “Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”

David Michael Levin’s 1985 book (and his presentation therein of the work of Eugene T. Gendlin on ‘felt meaning’) gives us a good philosophical case as to why, by the gift of embodiment* our bodies respond to ritual gestures.

I’ve tried to think how I can quote Levin, to show, in a pithy way, the power of his vision, but when taken out of the context of the whole book, isolated passages are difficult to transmit. What I got from Levin’s book, though, (supported by my mindful inquiry and meditation) is as follows:

Our bodies participate in “the wholeness of the field of Being” (p.117); and so, the body’s symbol-making power combined with skillful embodiment can retrieve the primordial lived meaning of existence. Living this way, we realize our authentic belonging in Being, which illumines a host of problems we humans feel burdened by.

May all human beings – through the gift of  combodiment* – be a hundred percent for birth and death.
____________________

* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” deserves a better word than ‘embody.’ So, I use the term, coined by Akira Ikemi, ‘combodiment.’
To ‘em-body’ is to put something into a body. However, ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with.’ All of life is ‘with’ the body; all there to be revealed. It’s a body primordially intertwined with all else.
You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodying paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.

Why Meditate?

Why do you meditate? Have you thought about it? I meditate because I’m alive. For me, it goes with being awake in this world. Meditating nurtures the process of being consciously alive. Meditation reveals that being alive is basically good. And, when I know I’m alive, I experience all kinds of positivity. To sit quietly, doing nothing but know one is alive – this enhances life.

What are the core aspects of being alive? Are we experiencing optimal aliveness? If not, why not? Why aren’t we appreciating and enjoying the miracle of existence so completely that we cannot but recognise that we already-always actually are this miracle of existence? Why cannot we see our beauty?

How is it, that humans are so violent towards themselves and each other, toward other species of plant and animal life, and even toward the mineral life and the waters of this small blue planet? Speaking from an ecological viewpoint for a moment, if we are the biosphere – which is obvious, isn’t it, at least logically? – then why are we treating ourselves so badly, destroying the life of forests, rivers and seas?

Precisely because we only get that fact logically, not directly touching it with our bodies! Meanwhile, the intellect divides what is undivided.

We live as members of a deeply divided species, divided in so many ways. You know them, these ways. I don’t need to enumerate, here. We need, then, a different a kind of consciousness to meet the situation we are in as a species – to end the divisions in consciousness would be wonderful and, at the very least, we need to live with a deeper kind of attention. We need, too, to awaken a consciousness that is big and generous enough to hold all the suffering we encounter when we truly open to what is in us and around us.

The meditative mind is crucial to all these things; sitting-meditation is a catalyst for a renewed consciousness and for profound shifts in identity. Meditation is a way we have to learn new ways to direct attention and even to change our habitual brains-states, and with regular practice to produce new human traits.

If you look closely, it becomes clear that ‘experiencing’ is core for all humans. No matter what one’s personal situation – or one’s background, or one’s congenital condition – sentience is core for human beings. How, then, has our ‘experiencing’ become degraded, so that we miss so much that is going on? Further, our habitual treatment of each other, worldwide, demonstrates that in large numbers we don’t know deeply that we are all equal in this basic fact of ‘experiencing.’ People treat others in appalling ways that could only indicate that they don’t get in their marrow that others are like them in the experience of suffering.

If I am ever to love my neighbour as myself, I need to learn to love myself. Meditating has been a major help in this, for me. Funnily enough, to sit quietly, forty-five minutes a day at least – openly, non-judgementally – to sit with myself ends my self-absorption. (Brain science has shown, by the way, that solo mediation activates social neuro-circuitry).

That’s certainly an important reason why I meditate – to be less self-preoccupied. What did Dogen say? “To study the self, is to forget the self.” The irony is that forgetting the self is knowing the self. And then, in that peace there’s space for ‘the ten thousand things.’

Just Sitting

13th-century Zen master Dogen said: “A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only be mindful of authenticity or inauthenticity of practice.”

Sitting meditation is to place your body in an authentic relation to being. You obviously can’t fake sitting, you are it. To practise unelaborated meditation, we can take to heart this simple instruction by the Buddha, in Sutta Nipata verse 1055, where he says to a spiritual seeker:

‘In every direction there are things you know and recognize, above, below, around and within. Leave them: do not look to them for rest or relief, do not let consciousness dwell on the products of existence, on things that come and go.” (Translator: Hammalawa Saddhatissa)

This is excellent training for death. That’s the heart of it: Do not look to things that come and go for rest or relief. Don’t land on anything. Or, as another master, centuries later, counselled: ‘Don’t perch.’ From the point of view of turning to the deathless, it’s not worth landing on anything.

If we take ritual as placing our body in a gesture that invites Being; that is, as a way of putting our body in the most intimate relationship with Being – while simultaneously being that very gesture of Being – then meditation is a living ritual.

Simply establish and maintain the ritual sitting in one place, and there’s nothing more to do, except relax all experience. Relax ‘body and mind,’ and sit resolutely in favour of simply being here, one hundred percent for whatever condition you are in. We needn’t be disturbed about disturbance (for discomfort is bound to come).

And, a note for any beginner who might find this way of sitting hard: give yourself the gift of five minutes a day, meditating this way, familiarizing yourself slowly.

Whenever our meditation is unelaborated, straight-forward, there we invite death and the deathless; because by simply being, we dissolve identification with whatever occurs. By relaxing our usual here-there orientation, and our self-other images, we get to calmly see into the heart of dying. What a blessing is that!

Combodying Gaia’s Body

The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my reactions. My partner and I were conferring, as she drove into the traffic on the freeway. We were going back home to the mountains, from the doctor’s surgery.

She asked me how I was with the fact that my life was in danger. I felt inwardly, and I found there a feeling of tenderness. When I sat with it, it showed itself as a feeling for the whole world.  I knew (in there) that my world-wide social body was in much more trouble than my physical body was; and that my biospheric body was in a lot more trouble than my one little prostate could be. And, that my energy body was relatively peaceful. I was okay.

To come to terms with death, I live as fully as possible in my bodies – the most accessible of which are the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body.  Isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body – usually with a gross body (that is, a physical body)? Yet, are we really putting our heart into living as bodies? I realised when I was in my late twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, in the very tiny portion of it above my shoulders.

But what is the body which I am? Is it knowable, except as ‘this moment’s experiencing’? Discovering my tendency to ignore my mind, while lost ought night and day, I decided in the mid-nineties to more assiduously follow my breathing. And that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. That single commitment brought my body more fully into the centre of my practice.

If I am with my breath, then I know I am present, because the body is always present. From there I can learn about all the ways I set up my ego-boundaries, which is where ego-death gets created.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

Grounding myself in the flow of ‘body-as-experienced’ –  sensing into its condition in all conditions – helps me realize what the Japanese psychotherapist and Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. My OED says of ‘com-‘: “The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.”Em-bodying‘ means to put something into the body, from outside it.

The way that I think of it is, that any body includes all which is not that body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its participation right now in the Earth’s water cycle, carbon cycle, and nitrogen cycle. Or, what would it be without the oxygen generated by the forests of the Amazon Basin? Breathing is always of the nature of inter-being.

The body is not one thing, and the environment another. They are in each other. Right now, feel into your body, and say gently to it, “I get that you are a part of the water cycle.” See how that shifts your sense of your self; how the feeling body responds. (Later, we’ll address the duality that appears to be inherent in this instruction.)

This, with many more aspects (including the social), is, to me, combodiment. This, if we are to save ourselves and flourish, together with our fellow species on this little blue planet, this we need to explore, to know, to feel intensely – that is, the presence of, this body as together with all that is, is a bodily being-together-with-all.

What makes death such a big deal, then? Is it not our clinging to patterns of experiencing, which are of thought. Yet, these very thoughts are mean to be aiding the body to carry forward in its life; and, they are always of the body. Out of the clinging we create our ‘personality’; centred not in process, but in the body being owned by a strictly-bounded ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ (More on this, later.) The body-mind is then split.

However, as a dynamic presenting of body-mind states, in reality I am never a static or objectifiable ‘thing.’ Whatever the body – gross, emotional, or subtle – they are each patterns of experiencing at differing levels of subtlety; a fact which only mindfulness of body-mind states can reveal.

The way of mindfulness of the ‘body’ reveals the body at ever more subtle levels. Knowing myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. At the gross level, this body deteriorates and stops functioning. From the subtlest perspective, though, all that is going on is that the universe is continuing its creative dance of collecting, extending, dissolving, and creatively varying itself. So, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?

Mindfulness of the Body and the Deathless

The Deathless

Translated from the Anguttara Nikaya; from the Book of the Ones, by Christopher J. Ash

“Practitioners, one does not enjoy the deathless who doesn’t enjoy mindfulness directed to the body. One enjoys the deathless who enjoys mindfulness directed to the body. The deathless has been enjoyed, by those who have enjoyed mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one has fallen away from the deathless who has fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t fallen away from the deathless who hasn’t fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One has neglected the deathless who has neglected mindfulness directed to the body. One is bent on the deathless who is bent on mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one is heedless about the deathless who is heedless about mindfulness directed to the body. One is heedful of the deathless who is heedful of mindfulness directed to the body. One has forgotten the deathless who has forgotten mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t forgotten the deathless who hasn’t forgotten mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up the deathless who hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body. One has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up the deathless who has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised mindfulness directed to the body. One has recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who has recognized, fully comprehended and realised mindfulness directed to the body.”

Turning Toward the Body, Turning Toward the Deathless

“(A Year to Live) is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness. It is an opportunity to resolve our denial of death as well as our denial of life in a year-long experiment in healing, joy, and revitalization.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

Some people express a fear that thinking and journaling about death might invite death – physical death. That is one fear that will arise in this practice, but the primary purpose of this practice is to turn toward what we fear; to explore, feel, think, sense into, and know one’s actual relationship to this kind of life – the  life of fear –  as well as death. We help others when we help ourselves in this way, too.

One way to work with the fear of facing mortality is to keep grounded in our life as actually lived; that is, to know yourself intimately in all your daily, bodily-based changes. That’s why, in this work, I place an emphasis on mindfulness of the body; and knowing the body in the body – not simply as a concept.

“Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have to inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

So, during the practice of A Year to Live, we can clarify the Buddha’s term ‘the deathless.’ It came to me forcefully several years back, with a radical clarity, that “There is no death.” I then undertook a period of review, to be sure that I was seeing right, which has included checking with accomplished Buddhist teachers. I wish to demonstrate this radical claim to you, during this project.

My understanding of the body is the other most radical shift in thinking during this inquiry. To dwell in the body intimately and fully only happens after a thorough training; because, this ‘dwelling’ not just about being in contact with bodily sensations and actions – the organism has much subtler dimensions than these surface processes.

Because the body is a local representative of true nature – it is the intelligence of the universe manifesting in specific ways, gross and subtle – we can resolve the question of who or what dies by knowing ourselves directly. And so, for me, the enquiry naturally deepens into an understanding of human nature as being more about ‘process’ than about ‘content.’ It’s more about how we are in the world, how we interact, and less about ‘what’ we are.

While I glimpsed, forty years ago, that I could say rightly, “I am not my body,” on the other hand, it is also the case, and is helpful to realize, “I am only my body.” This is not the body of modern medicine – a constructed thing, or a machine. The body is a way of knowing.

This experience-near, process-oriented way to think of ‘selfhood’ naturally leads to a different understanding of death. When we able to see the real issue in ‘death’ as the loss of our identifications with self-images, then this changes what is important about death and being human. We then know what matters about living.

The Deathless turns out to be surprisingly near; nearer than your breath.

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