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Sandra Pawula

Are You Meditating from the Head Up?

Do you sometimes - or perhaps often - feel disconnected from your body?  Mentally overactive, an intellectual athlete, internet addict, or couch potato?  
Maybe you are like my friend who reads a book while holding her yoga stretches or the reluctant exerciser who devours the paper while walking briskly on his treadmill.  It’s possible: you may exercise and still be relatively oblivious to the felt sense of your body.

When the mind is highly active, even meditation can become a stressful game of catching the thoughts or emotions before they catch you.  It can be like watching a tennis match, where all your attention is on the ball.  So much so that there’s a sense of meditating from the head up. 


Now, don’t get me wrong.  Cultivating ongoing awareness is the essence of meditation.  But sometimes, what we think of as “awareness” may be a tense, constricted sense of over-focus concentrated in the upper part of the head. 

For example, you can get so wound up in observing the activity of your mind that your forget everything else, including your body.  Meditation, when not done properly, may even reinforce a habit of disconnection from your body, keeping you firmly situated in your head.

Using the Body as the Object of Your Meditation

To counter this tendency, try using the body as the object of your meditation practice.  Traditionally, in the practice known as The Four Applications or Foundations of Mindfulness, which originated with the Buddha, the first two “foundations” are centered squarely in the body.  They are called: 

  • Mindfulness of the Body 
  • Mindfulness of Feelings  (Sensations)


The instructions for working with The Four Foundations of Mindfulness vary depending on whether you are following the Theravadin or Mahayana Buddhist approach.  Here, we will focus on only the most essential details to simply provide a taste of the practice and as an alert to the importance of staying awake to the felt sense in meditation.

There is much more to know, learn, and understand about The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which are simple yet very profound.  It is said that these practices will help you to overcome attachment, grief, ill will, physical pain and other mental states that cause suffering.

Mindfulness of the Body

“Once an old woman came to Buddha and asked him how to meditate.  He told her to remain aware of every movement of her hands as she drew the water from the well, knowing that if she did, she would soon find herself in that state of alert and spacious calm that is meditation.” - From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche


Often, we feel separate from our body as though it exists independently on its own apart from our mind.  In fact, for the most part, our experience of the body may be comprised of mental projections and concepts of our mind rather than being a more immediate, direct experience of the body.

A simple way to begin working with Mindfulness of the Body is to sit upright in a relaxed way.  You may close your eyes if you wish.  Then, simply be loosely aware of the body.  Bring your mind home and just be aware of being in the body. Start with the head and scan down like a photocopier.  Just be present, feel the body, pay attention to the entire body inside and out.

Awareness of the breath in meditation is another form of practicing Mindfulness of the Body.  Just focus your attention lightly on your breath.  As you breath in, just be aware that you are breathing in.  And you breath out, just be aware that you are breathing out.  In the Theravadin tradition, it is recommended that you focus your attention on the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of the nostrils.  Whereas, in other traditions it is recommended to focus your awareness lightly on the out breath; just letting go and releasing all your grasping on the out breath.

Through practicing Mindfulness of the Body, you will learn to relate directly to the body as it is rather than to your concepts about the body, which is what brings about our suffering.  A greater sense of presence and a feeling of being grounded in yourself will gradually develop as well as mastery over your mind and emotions.  You will come to see the impermanent nature of the body and ultimately experience its fundamental emptiness.

Mindfulness of Feelings

“You leave all your senses - hearing, seeing, feeling - just open, naturally as they are, without grasping after their perceptions.” - From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche


In the second of the Four Foundation of Mindfulness, one’s awareness is placed on the physical and mental sensations of the body.  Although the word “feeling” is used it does not refer to emotions like anger and desire, but rather to sensations of the body and certain “mental” feelings like joy and sadness.

Sit upright in a relaxed way.  Your eyes may be closed.  Focus your attention on your forehead and be aware of whatever sensations occur  in your body.  Notice whether they are:

  • Pleasurable
  • Unpleasant or painful
  • Neutral


Simply notice each sensation with a light awareness.  Don't focus on them too strongly.

Through practicing Mindfulness of Feelings you will begin to observe the ever-changing flow of sensations, understanding their transitory nature.  You'll become more aware of the habitual tendency to react to sensations with attachment or aversion.  Gradually, you'll learn not to react to sensations as they occur, but rather to just observe them as they arise and dissolve on their own.  This releases you from a habitually reactive state, which often leads to negative thoughts, emotions, and actions. A greater sense of peace and equanimity naturally dawns.

The courage to be still, present in the body, and aware of whatever bodily sensations you experience without attachment and aversion can bring about profound healing while also transforming the turbulence of one’s mind into peace.

Do you sometimes feel disconnected from your body in meditation?  Do you ever practice Mindfulness of the Body or Mindfulness of Feelings (Sensation)?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

To learn more about The Four Foundations of Mindfulness:

Books:

  • Chögyam Trungpa, Heart of the Buddha
  • Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness
  • U Silananda, Four Foundations of Mindfulness


Online Articles:

 

Comments   

 
0 # Irene H 2012-04-05 12:56
As an arthritis sufferer I prefer not to pay attention to the sensations in the body, many of which are pretty painful. Even engaging with them in meditation doesn't make the pain go or even less, so for me staying in the head is ok.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2012-04-05 19:58
Hi Irene,

I'm very sorry for your pain. I completely understand how you feel as I am someone who has also experienced chronic pain. Understandably, there's an almost automatic tendency to pull away and disengage.

Scientific research shows us that mindfulness meditation can be effective in reducing chronic pain. Mindfulness-bas ed Stress Reduction, a program pioneered at the University of Massachusettes Medical Center has effectively help people reduce their pain using practices similar to the ones introducted in this article.

If you are curious, you can learn about it online at The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health and Society at the Univ of Mass:

umassmed.edu/.../index.aspx

There are also two videos of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of MBSR, speaking about meditation on this blog (What Meditation Really Is). This is the first one:

whatmeditationreallyis.com/... /...

The pain will not necessarily disappear altogether, but one's relationship to the pain changes and scientific studies have shown that pain levels can decrease.

This is not necessarily something I recommend trying on your own. There are MBSR courses offered in many places around the world though that are helping people manage their pain.

All the best to you!
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0 # Galen Pearl 2012-04-06 00:42
This was so me! My head was so detached from my body that I even sat and walked with my neck at an angle that broke the line from my spine to my head. I did not listen to or respect my body. It took me a long time to correct that and I still fall into it, especially when I'm tired or anxious.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2012-04-06 00:56
Me too! It's easy to fall into this. Glad you found your way out. Thanks for leading the way!
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0 # Vidya Sury 2012-04-06 07:55
Very interesting post. I remember my first experience of guided meditation. I almost fell asleep. I guess I must have been tired, but the voice of the gentleman instructing us was so wonderful and soothing that I just fell asleep for ten minutes and woke up feeling amazingly refreshed. And he told me "mission accomplished" in a very endearing way.

It is a little difficult to absolutely focus on "nothing" - at least for me - because I tend to start making lists in my head. Now I've learned to repeat a "sloka" (prayer) over and over to get my focus. It works.

I love that my son's school teaches them Yoga - so beneficial for children.

I enjoyed this post - in fact, I believe everything we do must be mindful :-) Multi-tasking is not the best habit on earth even if it is sometimes unavoidable.

Thank you, Sandra, for this valuable information.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2012-04-07 03:02
Hello Vidya,

What a kind gentleman! Yes, it does help most of us to train with an object first like a prayer, the breath, or an image before we can just rest in awareness without an object. This is a wonderful suggestion. We can use the sensations of our body in a similar way as using a prayer.

It's really wonderful that your son's school teaches him meditation! I wish that were the case in many more places.

I agree that multi-tasking just makes us more frazzled in the end. And I think it's scientifically proven not to be effective!

Thanks for your thoughts.
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0 # Jet M 2012-04-06 12:28
I also forget to breathe, focusing too hard "on catching the thoughts or emotions before they catch" me :-)
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2012-04-07 03:03
Exactly! It's good to catch ourselves with this! Thanks for sharing your experience.
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0 # Brent 2012-07-09 12:28
Good Post.
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