Christina Feldman is of the generation of dharma teachers that began teaching in the west in 1975 after studying and practicing in Asia in both the Mahayana and Theravadan traditions. She served as a guiding teacher for IMS in its early days and is the co-founder of IMS’s women’s retreat, now in its 37th year. Christina is the author ofBoundless Heart: The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity.
Beginning January 12, Christina will lead Mindfulness & Dukkha, the first module in a nine-month online exploration, Essential Mindfulness: A Path to Understanding Our Lives. To register, clickhere.
This year’s women’s retreat, Women on the Path, was held online. This excerpt has been adapted from that retreat.
The Buddha didn’t express a lot of interest in producing perfect meditators. But he did have a lot of interest in encouraging people to thrive, flourish, and live a life of integrity and compassion—to live an embodied life, engaged with the world around them with understanding and kindness.
He gave a lot of instruction about inhabiting the body. Within the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, in the four ways of establishing mindfulness, the section on mindfulness of the body is the largest. The Buddha said that everything that is to be understood will be understood within the length of this body. He went on to say that when there is no mindfulness of the body, there is no mindfulness at all.
Whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down, coming or going, the body is our ground. Mindfulness of the body is our ally. It takes us out of the world of habit patterns, compulsion, and reactivity. It is truly our friend.
“This body, how kind you are to sit and wait for me, and when I return, it is to you.”
—Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon
So true, isn’t it? The body is where we return to.
Many of us know a lot about bodies. We have cared for small bodies. I find myself at this time of my life once more doing the diaper-changing-bathing-routine of a newborn. Many of you have found yourself in places where you’re caring for others’ aging bodies. And, of course, we spend increasing time as we age contemplating our own bodies—often in the company of other experts, like our doctors and dentists.
You imagine that because we often spend so much time close to the body, that it would be easier for us to be an embodied human being. But there’s so much that can get in the way.
If you find yourself living with chronic pain or illness, the body doesn’t really feel like a safe place to be. If you carry childhood trauma, the body doesn’t feel like a safe place to be.
Throughout our lives we’ve received so many messages about the perfect body and our appearance being a definition of who we are as people. So, the body doesn’t always feel a safe place to be.
And yet, this is what we are asked to do. To learn to defend this body, to learn what it is to have this body really be an ally, a place that we can return to gladly, no matter how the body is, no matter what the body is going through. Because here we learn the primary lessons of our lives. We learn so much about vulnerability, about our personal story—our shared story. We’re all vulnerable to aging, sickness, death. We’re all vulnerable to change. We’re all vulnerable to uncertainty in the world of conditions.
And we learn these lessons over and over again in our bodies. And they are some of the core lessons of the Buddhist teachings. And they’re some of the most challenging lessons to absorb and incorporate.
And to befriend this body.
In the discourse on establishing mindfulness, the instruction is to engage with mindfulness of breathing as being the doorway into the body. And, of course, the breath does not have to be your primary object. It may not be appropriate as your primary object, but it can help to cultivate the starting point of mindfulness.
And it’s not about watching the breath or watching your chosen object. It’s about a curiosity, a collectedness, and a gatheredness. This is one of the first lessons of meditative development. The great art in this path is about learning how to collect, gather, and sustain attention. That’s hard, isn’t it?
And it’s a movement forward through all those factors of craving, aversion, agitation, doubt, and dullness. Learning to sustain intention and attention is really a journey through those factors.
So, the encouragement in the discourse is to breathe in, calming everything that is agitated, breathing out, calming everything that is agitated. The image I have is of a good sheepdog that really knows how to gather the sheep from the pastures that are dried out and no longer nourishing. A good sheepdog does not frighten, intimidate, or harm the sheep, but gently guides them to pastures where they can flourish.
And this is what we’re doing with our practice. We’re gathering, we’re collecting. We’re guiding our attention into pastures where we flourish and thrive—the pastures of the present moment, the pastures of kindness, the pastures of joyfulness. This is where we thrive.
We don’t thrive so well in the pastures of obsession, rumination, scatteredness, fragmentation, and distractedness. This is not where we thrive.
This is not about a command structure. It’s about making choices in favor of our own wellbeing.
Within the body, we learn so many lessons—life-changing lessons about how to live in the light of understanding change and impermanence. Not just to know that intellectually, but how to live in the light of that. Because to live in the light of understanding change and impermanence is the core message of don’t cling to anything. It’s passing through. It may stay longer than we like; it may not stay as long as we like. But it’s still passing through. Don’t cling to anything. And we see this in a very felt way in the body. You feel your way; you sense your way into the life of the body. There’s nothing that’s standing still. There is only the landscape of sensations appearing and disappearing moment to moment; there is nothing that stands still.
As this is true in our bodies, this is true in all things. And the message of don’t cling to anything—this is freedom. It is a message that we learn to live in the light of.
What we learn in the body is the difference between our story about how things are and the actuality of how things are. We can have a lot of stories about, for example, my knee, my back, my headache. We learn a lot about the difference between our stories and the actuality because we probe, question, investigate, and we learn to go beneath our concepts of what we think is happening to the experiential felt sense of what is actually going on.
One of the key repeated messages in the discourse is to know the body as the body. It’s really speaking about a very big shift from the body being “me” or “mine,” to knowing the body as the body.
We can sense the difference between those two ways of seeing. If I am the body, the body is me. I have this body and everything then that happens in this body happens to me.
And we see that we’re not actually in control of this body, are we? If I was in control, I’d be doing a much better job, I can assure you.
We learn to step out of the identification.
To know the body is the body—not with the glare of attention, but with the eyes of kindness and compassion.
We learn that this body has—like all things—many feeling tones: parts of the body that are pleasant, parts that are unpleasant, and parts we hardly notice. And what we see within the body is how easily we find ourselves gravitating towards and taking hold of the pleasant and almost automatically pushing away the unpleasant, avoiding it, fearing it. And those feeling tones permeate all sensory impressions, all thoughts, all experience. And as we’re mindful within the body, we learn we can be equally near the pleasant and the unpleasant.
We learn that, yes, there can be pain in the body. But there’s much more pain in our reactions. There’s much more pain in our fears and identification. We cannot have the perfect body because bodies are simply vulnerable. But we can meet the pain within the body with some equanimity and compassion, rather than the reactivity of fear and anxiety that is more painful often even than what the body is experiencing.
If we’re present within the body, we’re learning that there’s a real art to being able to sustain intention and attention. This is so crucial. So many of us have moments of regret in our difficulty or our seeming inability to sustain intention. We get up in the morning with the intention to be patient or kind—until we meet a difficult person or the bus is late or there’s a traffic jam or the printer breaks down. And then we see that intention disappear. It is so difficult to sustain intentions, to sustain the skillful intentions of kindness, compassion, and non-clinging.
The body is our training ground for this. We’re always returning from somewhere, from the realms of thought, fantasy, speculation, or rumination. And this is a lesson for us in unbinding, in non-clinging. It’s a lesson we learn about being with what is and finding that groundedness, that weightedness of living within the body, inhabiting this body just as it is.
As we move on in this practice, we never leave the body behind. It’s not like it’s kindergarten practice, and then we’re going to graduate school somewhere else in the mind. The body is always a place of return and can be one of the greatest allies in our lives. It’s that simple connection with the body—breathing, sensing, listening, taking us out of the field of habit, taking us into a landscape where there’s a much greater sense of wakefulness, compassion, and kindness.