Where Buddhism Meets Gendlin

Category: body

Attention of and to the Matrix of Life

When I think over the fifty-six years since I left high school, I can say confidently that I can think of no single thing which has contributed to my healthy development (in terms of growing up and waking up) more than wisely-directed attention. Conversely, if I think of the suffering which I have brought upon myself and others at one juncture or another in that time, inevitably the most influential factor in my harmful behaviour was unskilful attention. If you ask what characterizes unskilful attention, I would say that in general I have hurt myself and others when selfishness has guided attention.

This may sound harsh, especially because when I left high school I was young – inexperienced, naive, and (in my case) very lost. That’s so. And yet, looking at the situation with an honest gaze, it was exactly that lack of self-knowledge that played a part in directing my attention unskilfully. I had much to learn, and the learning which has occurred was precisely due to the ‘right’ use of attention.

What characterizes ‘right attention’? Development became possible when attention was directed to knowing myself as a concrete life. The etymology of ‘concrete’ is helpful here. The word descends from a Latin root which means: to grow together. In the present context, what are the processes which are connected, or ‘grow together’?

I find this tricky to talk about, because the two processes I will start with aren’t ‘connected’ in the sense of there being ‘two processes’ at all. We talk that way, and it helps; but it’s not the most accurate way to conceive of our situation. That is, in a very real way the human individual is a growth movement with and of their matrix – which is the natural world. An individual is a separate process in some important respects, but not in all respects. World and organism are one interaction and move forward together. Your lived world and the big world of nature are indissolubly united in growing together. In his A Process Model Gendlin says that while the body and environment are in some respects different, “The body is a nonrepresentational concretion of (with) its environment.” That is, in its fundamental actuality it is one body-environment process.

So, let me suggest that the world of personal experience is both ‘within’ and of the bigger world. This has been recognised for a long time. What the European phenomenologists called ‘the lived world’ the Buddha called ‘a world within a world.’ The important thing to note here is that one’s lived world and the bigger life process have always grown together.

Humans have not only evolved ‘up from Eden,’ as has been said –  but, we have evolved with Eden. And the human process we call attention is still in the process of developing with vast nature as its matrix. When, at last, skilful attention led me to this realisation, and when I could confidently conceive of my body as of the world, then healthy development became organic.

But where do we now find ourselves, at this point within the evolution of the wider world? Poised for extinction, or for a further development? At our present level of development, we can think of our attention as functioning on two different levels. One level is shaped by three major urges such as: the need to possess people and things (a going toward); the desire to be aggressive (a going against); and a limited ability to learn from the matrix of primordial experiencing (a going away).

The other level involves disconnecting from the concrete in an even stronger way than simply a limit on learning. Via our capacity for symbol-making we effect a dissociation from bodily life. This second level creates the kinds of thinking and recreation of the world which are out of kilter with the way things are. This happens when preferences, thoughts, self-representations, and societal conditioning come into play. The matrix itself, of course, doesn’t prohibit this, but it is obvious that this level’s malfunctioning is not in favour of our continued life on planet earth.

The arising of symbolizing in the species was not itself a problem. For a time this level carried human life forward. However, it is how we are using it at this stage in our development which has brought our present dangerous predicament.

We will explore how this has happened, and the way forward. A large part of my project here is directed toward understanding what healthy attention is, and how it can develop from this ‘default mode.’ It might help us survive if we can develop attention in such a way that it can fulfil its true function as the world’s attention. It seems to me that this is an invitation that the bigger world offers.

Ways of Seeing the Body

What is clear from the experience of mindfulness, from this practice of immediacy, is that the lived body is not the body of science, nor the medical body; that it has gradations from (what might be called) course experience to very subtle. And instead of being a mere ‘housing’ for an owner, it has level upon level of intelligence of its own. Perhaps if humanity listened more attentively to the body’s wisdom, we might find a way forward in a way that respects nature, and doesn’t dominate it. Anyhow, at the very least, you and I can contribute by finding our way into belonging on the earth, by attuning to our bodies.

An Aspiration

Jacob Needleman, always a servant of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, posted these words on the body, on his blog, at http://jacobneedleman.com/blog/

“And what we are seeking is a body, a life on earth, in which our actions and behavior serve the higher impulses and intentions, the higher feelings, that constitute the heart of true human virtue. We are not simply searching for an improved version of moralist automatism nor for childish self-assertion masquerading as freedom. In a breathtakingly real sense, we are searching for a new kind of body, a body that has a new aim, a new purpose: voluntarily to serve the Good. And, to compound the mystery, in the search for a new kind of body within ourselves, there exists the possibility of discovering a new heart, source of love within ourselves that we have perhaps glimpsed within our lives, as in the legends where the seeker or the hunter has but one fleeting glimpse of a serenely beautiful face or a great winged being – a glimpse which, when understood, has the power to change entirely the direction of one’s life.”

– Excerpt from Why Can’t We Be Good

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.”


It’s been a difficult few weeks for this body – a lot of pain; yet, the mindfulness has never left me. I’m so grateful for those who have introduced me to the practice.

“If one thing, O [Bhikkhus], is developed and cultivated, the body is calmed, the mind is calmed, discursive thoughts are quietened, and all wholesome states that partake of supreme knowledge reach fullness of development. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body…” AN.I.xxi

Lately I’ve been experiencing a lot of pain due to pressure on some nerves in my left lower neck and left shoulder – a combination of stress and osteo-arthritis, it seems – and I’ve noticed that no matter how intense the pain becomes, I can go inside it. There is nothing to inhibit me going inside the pain to investigate the nature of reality (here in the form of physical pain), except, naturally, my conditioned preferences – the usual “I want…” and “I don’t want…”

Yesterday lying belly down on my chiropractor’s apparatus, arms dangling down at the sides, the pain was particularly severe, and so I went into it and asked the question that I used to guide my child with, when, as a little girl, she had her ‘growing pains’ (or as she called them, “the hurty-bendies”). That is: “Is the awareness itself painful?”

There is the object of awareness – here, it is the pain in the arm – but, right there co-existent with that pain, is awareness-in-itself painful. I couldn’t say ‘yes.’ It was awareness of pain. On ‘its own side’ (so to speak) the awareness was simply open and accomodating of deeper and deeper layers of the pain, until the pain was energy, vibrating energy. I didn’t take the opportunity right then, because too much else was going on; with my body being manipulated by the chiropractor – but, such moments are a good opportunity to inquire into the nature of things. The matter of exactly what is the quality of ‘unpleasant’ prior to or independent of preferences, for example.

And on reflection, there is no doubt that while I was turned towards the pain, rather than wishing it away, the discursive chatter had ended, and some wholesome states bending toward awakening were present, such as: investigation of reality, compassion, concentration.

And, of course, in terms of immediate benefit, the suffering of resisting the pain was absent. Good stuff.


Through my years of Buddhist practice, I’ve come to a very different understanding of the place of the body in our practice than I had when I set out. I’m struck with how powerful this practice statement by the Buddha is:

Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will develop and cultivate mindfulness directed to the body, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.’ Thus, bhikkhus, should you train yourselves.”

I’ll post regular comments on the subject, to share an inquiry into this. And I’ll slowly collect texts – mostly from the Pali Nikayas (early Buddhist texts), but not exclusively – which support embodied meditation and mindfulness practice.

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