Digression #1 Dealing with the Body Before the Mind

This is a tangent continued from the last post Sense of Consciousness. Same caveats as the original post too.

Dealing with the Body Before the Mind

The details given for the contemplation of the body are quite intense. This establishes the foundation of contemplative practice since it is of an object that is always at hand, so to speak. This is also true of breath.  So whatever tradition one is coming from there is always a foundation of practice established with the physical body first. One cannot hope to understand anything else without that foundation.

The body is something we all have in common and the experiences of body-senses are similar (though of course not identical). A bright light bothers our eyes, a slap stings, soft sounds are more soothing than death metal (one may not always want to be soothed), and so on. To begin practice with these elements, like the breath brings a person into a place from which further practice can be beneficial. It also functions to reduce or contain a lot of extraneous mental activity which further helps to bring such mental activity into clearer focus.

If after a year or two nothing has happened in terms of big realizations and shifts in perspective and stuff like that it’s nothing to worry about. You don’t build a house with a couple of toothpicks to hold up the foundation. There’s got to be physical things first-clearing the lot, leveling, trenching, framing, trusses, a slab, lots of digging around, connections hooked up and so forth. It can take a long time because it’s totally a DIY project even if people shout encouragement from the sidelines.

During the first 5 or so years of my practice I thought absolutely nothing happened. Being the stubborn sort I just kept doing it more during that time rather than giving it up. I got rather fanatical and would sometimes sit for many hours per day. Then at some point a very tiny thing happened. I realized some things were not quite the way I thought they were. I realized something had changed. That I had changed. But I had no idea how. At least not for another 10 years or longer. There was just this instinctual thing that came up recurrently and said “There’s something to this.”  So I kept on doing it. Now, more than 20 years after that it’s fairly clear that stuff had been happening all along but I was not aware of it. Underground movements. To reach those internal things and bring them to clarity is a lot harder than the external, material things like the body. But it starts with the body.

And I’m not even going to say it has to be formal meditation (ohh, is that a big sin? “Must be Satan” I  thought I heard a church lady) Consider the practice of chanting for example. It encompasses the physical, the breath, the movement of the vocal chords, the shape of the mouth, the posture and so forth. The mind is focused on these things in a Dharmic context.  And further consider visualization practice. The body, the ritual, the movements, the posture, the formation of the words, the thoughts all focused in Dharmic activity.

In all these cases-meditation, chanting, prostration practice, visualization-the starting point is with the body and the objective is one of liberation in the Buddhist sense.

I have had quibbles with yoga folks on this topic when they insist that yoga is the same as Buddhism. If it is Buddhist yoga, with the same objective then I agree, but usually it is not. Same with martial arts. And by extension anything else. When there are a bunch of competing agendas such as fitness, tournaments, scores, social ties or for developing patience, focus, accuracy, grace, balance-physical or mental and perfecting other habits these are unrelated or only tangentially related  to the Buddhist objective. It is a self-help or self-perfecting exercise then. Maybe there is some mindfulness attached but it’s unlikely liberation will result. Do you know of any “enlightened” Olympic athletes? (maybe there are? I don’t know of any either)  Intention is a big part of the foundation.  If there is a divided objective then it’s effectiveness at evoking liberation will be that much more watered down.

[The other part of the yoga factor deals with the ultimate. There are the microcosm/macrocosm ideas that are part of the Hindu religion as well as the ideas about being expressions of a godhead-though not always phrased that way which are also of Hindu origin. The metaphysical elements are not the same as Buddhist ideas about self or Self-but that is a digression from the digression and I’ll save it for another blog post some time maybe]

Then there’s “The Zen of Golf” or other stuff like that–reading the comments on that post it’s fairly clear that some momentary calming of the mind is what most people equate with the Buddhist objective. To be peaceful. To be in the “zone”. To score the three-pointer.  Not to be liberated from suffering, not to realize the nature of their existence, not to change their lives but only to enhance the ego experience.

I know when I say that sort of thing some people accuse me of fundamentalism or some such thing. That would be fairly amusing if it weren’t so sad.  My definition of the Buddhist endeavor is the same as the Buddha’s. It is not something I’ve made up myself. The reason for this endeavor is because of the suffering in the world.  Not the momentary, “I can’t get my own way.” kind of squalling but the heavy duty kind. That’s why I do it.  There is no other purpose for Buddhist practice.

Now if someone wants to make up their own purposes and use Buddhist terms and methodology that’s fine. It’s not like I could stop them. I am not the Owner of Buddhism. But it will not likely lead them to liberation.  It will lead them to these other goals, maybe. And I have some concern about that. For them and for others who would follow them. So if that makes me a fundamentalist that’s OK. I’ll take the label and live with it. It’s not like it’s going to change my life the way Buddhist practice has.

It’s like multi-tasking (Multitasking Muddles Brains, Even When the Computer Is Off). And that in itself lacks mindfulness on the meta level. If we are trying to derive a lot of side benefits along with our Buddhist practice then it is those things that will receive a good deal of our attention, partly because they are a lot more immediate.

The thing is that there is so much more to Buddhist practice than these little transitory goals. A little more patience is nice sometimes as is somewhat clearer thinking and a calmer reaction to events. However these are like the little sugary decorations on the cake. When someone is starving are they enough?  That’s the crux of Bodhicitta and it’s development, which is the pre-cursor, if you will of a sustained practice.

That was quite a digression. There are a couple more digressions coming up.

Back to the original post.

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