Where Buddhism Meets Gendlin

Author: Christopher Page 2 of 4

Mindfulness of the Fragility of the Body.

Going into hospital this week for a small operation on this body. How fragile, how vulnerable, it is to the illnesses typical of old age. I think of that description by the Buddha of his body before he died. Ananda suggested he stay longer, don’t die now, but the Buddha said:

“Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Tathagata is kept going only with supports. It is, Ananda, only when the Tathagata, disregarding external objects, with the cessation of certain feelings, attains to and abides in the signless concentration of mind, that his body is more comfortable.

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

I find that so moving, that he counsels Ananda to take up his practice, at this point.

(By the way, often this and similar passages are rendered as “be a light unto yourselves.” However, I go with Thanissaro’s translation, here: ‘island.’ The ‘island’-translation is not only more likely, but it has phenomenological and psychological implications that are more helpful to our practice. One of the issues met on the path is the unwillingness to feel the separation that comes with increasing differentiation. “Island” raises the issue of ‘independence.’)

Anyhow, all that said, off to hospital to have them cut up this composite body of organs.

Whether Moving, Stationary, Sitting or Lying.

I am exploring the Kāyagatāsatisuttaṃ, or, Mindfulness of the Body Sutta. The opening passages encourage us to ‘let go’ of our hard-won sense of identity, ‘atta,’ and to not to be fixated on some egoistic result from our mindfulness/meditation/contemplation. This openness is usually expressed by the phrase ‘setting aside worldly concerns.’ It requires turning attention toward what is essential in our lives.

This way of freedom is to sincerely open to the ‘more’ that we don’t yet know, and to open to not knowing who or what the ‘I’ is, in us. This sutta is an invitation to really care a lot about being intimate with ‘what is.’ Anyway, let’s look at the next paragraph. It indicates that the contemplative life, the life of meditation, is about more than sitting on a zafu, a meditation cushion; more than sitting in an ashram, a temple, a safe haven; more than being good on Sundays.

“When moving about, when stationary, when sitting, or lying, or whatever way the body is, [the yogi] knows clearly what she’s doing.”

Literally speaking, the text reads that: “When moving [about], she knows: “I am moving.”‘ And, “When sitting, she knows: “I am sitting.”‘ This phrasing (which is rendered in Enlgish with speech marks) and similar phrasing in other suttas, (such as the ‘Four Establishments of Mindfulness Sutta’) has been taken by some traditions as the scriptural basis of the mindfulness practice of ‘labelling.’ It can also mean, simply, that she is present in what she is doing, fully conscious of whatever she is doing, whenever.

Then the text goes on to say that this is done in the same spirit of wakefulness expressed hitherto:

“As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about household life [mundane life] are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a practitioner develops mindfulness of the body.”

How are we householders to understand this abandonment? Certainly, this is not an invitation to not take care of outward responsibilities. I suggest that it’s best approached by understanding that we are invited to abandon our selfishness, our narcissism – nothing in our householder’s life is worth clinging to as ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ There’s nothing – not the ‘me,’ the ‘mine,’ nor the relationship between them – that is not dependently arisen. This is to be realised right in the midst of our relational life.

So, let’s put these together:
“When moving about, when stationary, when sitting, or lying, or whatever way the body is, [the yogi] knows clearly what she’s doing. As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about mundane concerns are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a practitioner develops mindfulness of the body.”

The attachment to ‘I’ and ‘mine,’ the division which constellates our preoccupation with narcissistic concerns, drops away. Such freedom is realised with mindfulness of the body. Isn’t it: “Amazing! Wonderful! Marvellous! What the Blessed One says about mindfulness of the body is amazing.”

Practising, Training & Learning

The Pāli verb in this text which is used to describe the practitioner’s process – where the whole-body awareness and the breath are unified – the verb is ‘sikkhati’ which means (from the Pāli English Dictionary) that the practitioner ‘learns; trains oneself; practises.’ The practitioner is learning to do something unusual, to intimately know the present, intimately know the actual breath, and be embodied. And the practitioner is learning to discern the difference between the concept of the breath – or of the body, or even the concepts about attention itself – and the actual referent, the event that the word point to. It’s a re-training of our natural sensitivity, after years of living in our self-representations (and their corresponding ‘world-representations.’) When I say ‘re-training,’ I don’t mean like dog-training. It’s a natural unfolding, an organic process of awakening to how things are.

Breathing with Whole Body

So, in the Kāyagatā Sutta, in response to the monks’ discussion, the Buddha expands on the practice of mindfulness of the body. And to begin with he describes a person who accustoms herself to unifying breath and whole-body awareness.

This passage is relatively straight-forward, though translators often leave the phrase, “parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā” unclear (in this and in other suttas, such as the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). It’s translated usually as, ‘setting up mindfulness in front of him.’ What can this mean? The scholars don’t know. Some practitioners take it to mean that one should concentrate on the nostrils in breathing meditation. I like the Lord Chalmers translation (1926-27), where he says: the bhikkhu sits at the foot of a tree “with mindfulness as the objective he set before himself.” Of course, we sit down with the intention to be present for our experience.

Chalmers also translates the lines about knowing the length of the breath sensibly: “[the bhikkhu] knows precisely what he is doing when he is inhaling or exhaling a long breath or a short breath.” This instead of the usual “Breathing in long, he understands that he breaths in a long breath.” This last has been taken by some to be an instruction to take long and short breaths deliberately. So, to me, the Chalmers translation makes it clearer.

Notice also that, just as in the Anapanasati Sutta, after the initial simple awareness of the breath, then the attitude of ‘schooling’ the mind (Chalmers expression) comes in. The form of the Pali verbs changes to give the idea of making the effort to teach the mind a skill. The language changes from ‘He knows the breath,’ to ‘He trains thus: I shall breath [in or out] experiencing [such and such].’

I think this means that we take a less passive approach after initially contacting the breath. There is a gentle tending of the will toward (what is for it) a new kind of knowing, a non-habitual knowledge. This, by the way, is best be done without losing our intimate entry into the experience – knowing the whole body from inside the body, not from some detached distance.

So, translating freely and with an adjustment of the usual male pronouns, and translating ‘bhikkhu’ as ‘practitioner’:

The Blessed One said, “Take a practitioner who goes to the forest, or the foot of a tree, or to some empty hut, and who sits crosslegged with her body erect – setting foremost the intention to be mindful, she is ever mindful. She knows if she is breathing in, or if she is breathing out; and she knows if she is breathing a short breath or if she is breathing a long breath. She trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in and breathe out while experiencing the body as a whole. I shall breath in and out, knowing the calming of the bodily activity.’ As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about household life are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a practitioner develops mindfulness of the body.”

As you sit gently being intimate with your breathing, and then as you intentionally include the whole body in consciousness with the breath, it naturally follows that after a short time there is a change in the body’s condition. It’s traditionally spoken of as the calming of the ‘bodily formations.’ It’s enough to know that this simply means that the body calms down after a period of this kind, whole-body attention.

This opens up new dimensions of bodily-based experience.

Kāyagatā Sutta (MN 119) – the Mindfulness of the Body Sutta

Mindfulness of the Body is often underrated. The disbelief or surprise – I imagine, even the skepticism – at this practice and teaching, the teaching of the power of mindfulness of the body, is hinted at in the beginning of the Kāyagatā Sutta, the Mindfulness of the Body Sutta, MN 119. I’m going to see if I can make the time to slowly translate it, with a commentary.

In the beginning of the sutta, the scene is set. This introduction is something like the later scene beginning the short Heart Sutra. The Buddha is meditating, and Avolokitesvara looks into the five skandhas and sees they are empty.

In this earlier Pāli sutta, the Kāyagatā Sutt, the morning almsround has has been completed and the monks are sitting around in the main hall talking after their meal. The Buddha, the Blessed One, is meditating in his hut, and the conversation in the hall turns to discussion of the Buddha’s claims about the power of mindfulness of the body. The monks’ are generally exclaiming, “Amazing! Wonderful! Marvellous! What the Blessed One says about mindfulness of the body is amazing.” One translation has it that they were in awe of the depth to which the Buddha had developed mindfulness of the body. We might well be astonished at the depth of his embodiment. So let’s add that into the atmosphere in the hall, as the Buddha, having risen from his meditation, enters the hall. The one who has seen into the nature of the body, the Blessed One, enters, and the monks go quiet.

Mindfulness of the Body is Rare

The following words from Almaas ring true, for me. People that I interact with daily are centred, for the most part, in the rarified atmosphere of their imaginal world; and some cannot at all grasp that there may be a difference between how they conceive their world to be, and their actual phenomenological, lived-world of embodied experience.

Douglas Harding’s Headlessness is a classic example – people think that the little buzzes and sensate squiggles in the space of awareness are directly a ‘head.’ They don’t get that this ‘head’ is a concept, a referring thing, meant to point to the actual experience. A typical seeker’s response, to a experiential inquiry question, is to go straight to conceptual understanding.

In an interview Almaas said: “Most people live in one part of themselves. They live in their thoughts, or their emotions. It is rare to find a human being who truly lives in his body. Most people are not that interested in their bodies, not in a real way. People are interested in their bodies in a superficial way. They take baths and go running, things like that. But to actually feel the body, sense it, make it a real part of themselves, that’s a different story.”

May all human beings inhabit their bodies.

Touching Enlightenment

The expression ‘touching enlightenment with the body’ (used by Reggie Ray in his excellent book) is not modern; it has its antecedents in the Pali canon. (If anyone wanted to track them down, I’d refer them to Ch.4 Richard Gombrich’s ‘How Buddhism Began’ for lots of examples.)

For example, in the Kītagiri Sutta (MN70) we hear of “a certain kind of person who touches with her body those tranquil , immaterial states of release, states transcending form, and dwells in them…” (My translation, not Gombrich’s.) Therewith, her “taints are destroyed by insight.”

Another example, elsewhere, from Gombrich: Maha Cunda speaks of those who “touch the deathless state with their bodies and stay there.”

My point here is that it is important and very valuable to invite the meditating body to receive the formless states when they arise; to have them both there, both form and formlessness. The formless states bring a corresponding feeling which permeates the body, transforming it. My oral instruction to students, at such a time, goes something (à la Gendlin) like: “Let yourself have the kind of body that goes with this experience.”

Inner Posture

A reminder: whatever I say here about the ‘mind-made body’ has as its background the practice of touching ‘what-is’ with our so-called worldly bodies; that is, we need to keep some perspective on the presence of our ordinary breathing bodies – this is a multi-dimensional practice that includes all levels of human experience.

Having that in mind, we might consider that it is a part of the development of the ‘mind-made body’ to cultivate and appreciate an ‘inner posture’ when meditating. This is why the nobility of mind found in meditation is often referred to as like a lion. An example might be some teachers’ insistence of ‘good shoulders and head’ in meditation. The way this conditions the mind, this matters.

Mind-Made Body

In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta we read that a meditator at some stage develops a ‘mind-made body’ (manomayakaya):

“And with [her] mind thus concentrated… imperturbable, [she] applies and directs her mind to the producing of a mind-made body. Out of this body [she] produces another body, having form, mind-made, complete in all its limbs and parts.”

What are we going to make of this? I haven’t ever heard anyone in the Pali-based field teach on this. Yet, it is squarely there in the progression of the Buddhist meditator’s path. We Westerners tend to take what makes sense to us and leave the rest, as though it was irrelevant. What if the mind-made body was more relevant than our cultural lenses could fathom?

Sue Hamilton (I of the Beholder, 2000): “Though what are commonly thought of as body and mind are thus equally integral to one’s experiencing apparatus, in early Buddhism it is accepted that it is possible for one’s body or physical locus to take different froms from that with which we are familiar. In particular, it is accepted that one’s body might be, or become, ‘subtle’, what to us in the West might be terms ‘ghostly’ or ‘ethereal’: not visible in the normal way that our dense physical bodes are visible.”

I think, when reading this, of the development of awareness of the subtle body in several disciplines, including in tantra (and, in particular, in Theravadan Tantra – see Kate Crosby on the Yogāvacara, 2000).

I hope to come up with a way into this topic of the subtle body (mind-made body), but if anyone has any suggestions, I’m welcoming of such.

Body-Mind dualisms

I recently met someone who was upset that my language reflected what he called the body-mind dualism. He was against talking about mind and body. When I talk about mind, I am referring to a different kind of experience than when I talk about body, however. The words ‘point back’ to different spheres of experiencing.

The so-called “dualism problem” isn’t one at all, of course. It’s a matter of frames of reference really, referring back to the implicit field that gives rise to experiencing; experiencing (vijnana = consciousness) itself is a bubble on the ocean of tacit knowledge. David Bohm, a quantum physicist, makes a comment that points back to ‘where’ the body and mind arise:

“Evidently this kind of tacit knowledge is very important in every phase of life. In fact, without tacit knowledge ordinary knowledge would have no meaning. In fact, when we talk, most of the meaning is implicit or tacit. And also the action which flows from it is implicit or tactit. In fact, even to talk or to think – although thinking may be explicit as it forms images – the actual activity of thinkikng is tacit. You cannot say how you do it. If you want to walk across the room, you cannnot say how it comes about, right? It unfolds tacitly.

On the basis of all of this I would then propose for further ddiscussion the notion that both mind and matter are ultimately in implicate orders, and that in all cases explicate orders emerge as relatively autonomous, distinct and independent objects, entitites and forms, which unfold from the implicate orders. This means that the way is opened up for a world view in which mind and matter may consistently be related without adopting a reductionist position.

Here we may say that mind and matter both have reality, or perhaps that they both arise from some greater common ground, or perhaps they are not really different. Perhaps they interweave. The main point, though, is: because they both have the implicate order in common, it is possible to have a rationally comprehensivle relationship between them.”

I’d suggest that it can’t be determined whether they are the same, different or both. However, we can experience and ground ourselves in what they have in common – the implicit order.

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