Watching the body is watching the mind

The interplay between the mind and the body is one of the most fascinating and fruitful areas of practice. One spurs the other in an endless loop; one moment you feel that the body is driving the mind, the next the mind is driving the body. I spent a lot of my practice feeling like the body and its sensations were something quite independent of the mind, but now I see much less distinction between the two. Cartesian ideas about a concrete separation between the mind and the body don’t hold up for long once you plunge into meditation and mindfulness practice, and once you have let go of those kinds of ideas then your eyes are open to finding out what is really going on. I used to treat mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of the mind as two discrete practices, strongly feeling that you could only understand the contents of the mind by watching the mind. But through my experiences over the years I have seen that watching the body and its sensations can show me just as much about the contents of the mind as watching the mind directly will do.

It’s no surprise that so many spiritual traditions have, or are complemented by, an embodied form of practice. It is only by working directly with the mind and the body together that you can witness how the two are interrelated, and how much of what you experience is conditioned by mind states. A headache, or a feeling of drowsiness are very real experiences, but when we use our tools of investigation in practice we can find that one very real experience can quickly become another, entirely different but just as real, experience. Sometimes all it takes for this change to happen is to just wait, sometimes it happens just by becoming aware of it, and sometimes it happens if we take a new perspective on it. The realness of what we feel doesn’t exclude it from being connected to our mind, and when the source of a physical sensation is in our mind that doesn’t preclude the feeling of it being very real. If we want to be freed from the tyranny of our mind though, one of the quickest ways to get a handle on that is to investigate the body.

You might not think of the teachings described in the Pali canon as having much of an embodied element compared to something like yoga, but body work is a crucial element within this tradition too. Mindfulness of the body both during meditation and in all activities is prescribed by the Buddha; and while standing, sitting, walking, and lying down mindfully isn’t quite as Instagram friendly as pretzel yoga poses in front of a sunset, it is still an embodied practice just the same.

My practice over the last few months has mainly been driven by the exploration of the relationship between mind and body. I find this an interesting development because I have always been a cerebral person, academically focussed, and only interested in the mind. Unlike many people, or most perhaps, I actually find it easier to meditate in a sitting posture rather than walking, so practice for me was always about sitting on a cushion and watching the mind. Other activities like yoga, tai chi, sweat lodges, etc. seemed like mere pleasant distractions to me at the time, and I admit I saw some of these activities as having as much spiritual relevance as lying in a warm bath with scented candles.

I was so convinced that people who spent a lot of time doing body work were just trying to access the wellbeing side of the practice that I went out of my way to avoid it – I even used body meditations for the least amount of time possible, just the bear minimum to allow me to know what sensations were arising in the body and no more than that.

Now I haven’t necessarily changed my mind about some people and why they feel like they are more drawn to movement practices than meditation – yes some people really do just want to avoid hard work, sometimes I’m one of them – but now I can recognise that if you do focus on embodiment practices but you only do it to feel better then that is a real shame because you are missing out on a major learning opportunity. To see how the mind and body operate together in real time opens the door to a veritable ocean of knowledge, as deep and broad as you can ever imagine.

So what changed my take on all of this? Did I finally give in and turn myself over to body work? Well no actually, I stayed very firmly on my cushion with my focus on the workings of the mind. But it was by doing so that I was able to observe the role of the mind in the experience of physical sensation, and having seen this I was now able to pick up the body practices I had been avoiding and investigate the same phenomenon through physical practices.

I could have gone to yoga and spent a lot of time trying to get my limbs to stretch, and perhaps I would have eventually realised that it was my mind that was the main limiting factor. But instead I done it the other way round; I investigated the mind until I saw in theory that it would impact on the body when I was stretching, so then I started using stretches as part of my practice to test my hypothesis. The mind and body are so interconnected to each other that it really doesn’t matter if you come at it body first or mind first; you will, I think, still arrive at the same understanding.

I recently started incorporating a little bit of running into my weekly exercise regime. I used to do quite a lot of running when I was younger up to half marathon distance, but when I started practicing Buddhism I noticed that there was always a lot of ego involved in the way I approached exercise. Every time I went for a run it had to be further, or fast, or both. There was never a point where everything was fine as it was, it always had to be better, I always had to be better. This led me to stop running, and it is only now that I have picked it up again – but with some provisos that will hopefully stop it from turning into an egotistical endeavour again.

The main thing that should curtail that performance orientated mindset is the sheer lack of distance – my current loop is once round my block, a grand total of 0.6 miles. For someone who used to clock up 40 miles a week this seems miniscule; I can remember a time in my life where I thought a run of anything less than 6 miles was a waste of effort. But despite those old misgivings I must admit that I have already seen an improvement in my cardiovascular fitness, so it may be just enough to keep this human body in good enough condition to do the practice, which is all that I need now.

I have found many fascinating things as I pull my old running habits out of storage and apply my new mindset to them. As a practice in mindfulness of the body (and mind) it can be quite illuminating; in fact I quickly came to realise that these short, sharp runs were more of a moving meditation than they were about fitness. Finding myself having to pay so much attention to the sensations in the body and mind, I saw that desire and aversion were coming up every second, and if I all I did when I went running was to run then I was missing out on exactly the kinds of experience that we are crying out for in our meditations.

I had a lot of trepidation before my first run, mostly borne by experience – if you have been through the process of starting running either for the first time, or after a hiatus, then you know all too well how painful those first few runs can be. Stitches, burning thighs, gasping for breath, face as red as a beetroot, and all after only a couple of minutes – recovering your fitness is a very steep curve. I was concerned about how difficult this first run was going to be, and I have had many difficult runs over the years to remind myself of how bad it could get. Added to that, it was my first ‘serious’ piece of exercise since abdominal surgery in February and there was always the possibility that my body wasn’t ready for it.

But these concerns proved to be quite useful because they made it clear that my intention should be to stay as relaxed as I possibly could. As I set out from my front door I observed just how much tension I was holding in my muscles; my shoulders were stiff so I kept my arms as loose as possible, but also I was holding some tension in my thigh muscles and hips too. I focused on releasing all the tension from my body, and the surprising outcome was that I ran a lot faster than I intended to! This gave me the unusual sensation of feeling like my body was running me instead of the other way round, but I just went along with it – no tension.

Before when I was training for half-marathons I always managed my energy reserves to make sure I could last the distance, but I can now see that I done this by deliberately restricting the movement of my legs. I limited the range of motion to conserve my energy, and perhaps to avoid the discomfort of running harder.

This insight really made explicit to me the connection between physical actions and mind states. My half-marathon mind set used to be one of conservation and caution – to last the distance, to avoid injury, and to avoid discomfort- and this had a direct impact on the actions of my leg muscles. Conversely when I went out on that first run I ran with a mind set of relaxation; my leg muscles were loose and could stretch to their full range, and I ran faster.

I was surprised at the end of that first run that despite bolting round at much faster than my normal speed that my legs weren’t aching, nor were my feet, knees, or ankles sore. It seemed as if without my mind putting any tension into my body that it had been able to just flow with the experience. Having tension in your limbs makes you stiffer, and when stiff limbs pound on solid tarmac this is a potential source of injury.

The week after my first run I had another insightful experience. Though my route is short it still has one long downhill section and one long uphill section, like I said it seems to have everything I need. As I get to the bottom of the downhill I only have a few paces on level ground before it is uphill for pretty much the rest of the way, and needless to say that uphill starts to bite the leg muscles at some point.

That day as I got to a point where I was only a quarter of the way up the hill and my legs were starting to burn I had the thought ‘oh here’s the hard bit’, but when I noticed I corrected myself – that was just a thought. This didn’t actually have to be hard, the thought that it would be, or that it was, was me making it harder for myself. In the Salla Sutta (SN 36.6 The Arrow, or The Dart: the Buddha uses the scenario of someone shooting us with an arrow to show how the mind creates and exacerbates suffering. We can’t avoid the discomfort from the first arrow we were shot with, but if we let our mind get involved in it then the outcome of our thoughts will be as painful as shooting ourselves with a second arrow. Burning thighs running uphill was the first arrow, my mind deciding that it would be hard was the second.

Deciding that I needed to drop this second arrow, my mind helpfully said to me ‘there is no pain, only mind’. I already knew this in principle, pain is a sensation that comes primarily from the mind, but it was the first time I had ever phrased it in such a way as to point out to myself that there was no pain really – all I was experiencing was the state of my mind.

I really wanted it to be true, because my quads were getting pretty flamey. I put my attention on the feeling of burning in my legs and said to myself a few times ‘there is no pain, only mind’, and allowed my mind to let go of the places where it was grasping onto the feeling. The pain faded quite significantly, which was both a relief and something of a surprise – I really didn’t think it could be that easy.

And I’m sure it isn’t always; I don’t deny the existence of a physical body, broken legs clearly happen in the physical realm, not the mental one. Despite his enlightenment the Buddha couldn’t avoid injury, old age, sickness, and death; and he lived for many years with a painful back condition that he only ever got temporary relief from by going into deep meditation states – if there was no physical body of any kind then presumably the Buddha wouldn’t have experienced any pain. The Buddha said that we couldn’t avoid the first arrow, and I don’t dispute what he said. The practice isn’t for avoiding all of life’s misfortunes and living in perfect comfort all the time, but for being able to deal with whatever hand life deals us, painful or otherwise.

When I got home my partner congratulated me for another successful run, but casually dropped in a dhamma bombshell by suggesting to me that ‘breathing too hard is a kilesa’. In all my years of running previously I had always treated the breath as something that happened automatically, and it does of course, but I had never considered if I was bringing anything to it from my mind.

Did I need to take big gasps of air when I recover from a run, or is this grasping for air, grasping for comfort? Did I take in too much air while I was running? As I look back now on my questions it strikes me that it could have been a lot more obvious to me that the mind worked on the breath all the time, after all that is why we use the breath as a meditation object – because it is so intimately connected to our state of mind, both as a reflection of it and as a means to influence it.

But breathing during running had always seemed like a natural thing, the body would just breathe harder when it wanted more air; I wasn’t doing anything to it, or so I thought. The next time I went for a run I really paid attention to how much I wanted to breathe versus how much I needed to breathe, and I noticed that I didn’t actually have to breathe hard until I was close to the top of the uphill section. When I finished that run I also realised that I could get my breathing to slow down to its normal rate much faster by paying attention to how much air I actually needed, and not just gasping in as much as I could.

It isn’t always plain sailing trying to be mindful of breathing and run; admittedly there are times when I have been trying to keep my muscles loose, trying to watch my mind, and trying to not breathe too much, at the same time and have found myself a bit bamboozled trying to keep everything in check. When that happens I just leave my lungs to do their own thing and just concentrate on muscle and mental tension.

This week though, when I went for my run I paid attention to my breathing, and kept reminding myself that ‘there is no pain, only mind’, and it was all working nicely. But this time when I got half way up the hill I noticed that I was deliberately tensing my thigh muscles to get more performance out of them. This is standard running practice of course, you power up the hills and you relax everything to run back down them again, so it’s not a great surprise that I was doing it, old habits die hard and all that. But I wasn’t out for a personal best, I was just going for a tiny run and trying to be mindful, so I made the effort to untense those muscles.

Perhaps it was because I wanted to go faster, or perhaps it was because I wanted it to be over sooner, but either way the action of my mind was desire, I wanted something, and the result on my body was tension in my muscles. The body has tension in the muscles naturally anyway, that is how they work after all. One muscle contracts and the other one relaxes, that is how muscles move. But this was an extra tension, a second arrow if you like, a tension that I realised didn’t need to be there – it was only there because my mind was grasping.

Perhaps grasping is important for athletic performance, the message always seems that ‘you’ve got to want it’ to win, but then again training for peak performance doesn’t seem to have the same outcomes as embodied practices. Maybe if they didn’t want it so much they might actually perform better, but that’s not anything I need to worry about. When you practice, performance isn’t about minutes and seconds but about wisdom and awareness. If you can see what you are experiencing, and you can understand it as it really is, then you are well on the way to winning. My 0.6 mile runs aren’t going to take me to the pinnacle of physical capability, but if I always see where the actions of the mind manifest in the body then I can develop a different kind of capability entirely.

I’d looked at the relationship between physical sensation and mind state from only one side previously – that the pain in you knee is in your mind – but after using my mini runs as a source of practice material I realised the coin has two sides – the action of your mind is making your knee sore is also potentially what can be happening. Watching the body for sensations and then tracing them back to a mind state is a really fascinating practice, and it makes sense of why the Buddha directed us to observe the actions of the body at all times. The way we sit, the way we stand, the way we walk, everything we do reflects the state of our mind. Even when we sit in meditation those tense muscles, or lazy ones, that are disturbing our settled posture are a reflection of our mind state. So pay attention to the body, because it has an awful lot to tell you about what is going on in your mind.

Image by Patrikphotos from Pixabay

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