Here you’ll find a spiritual practice which bases itself on the primacy of bodily experience – a practice where wisdom is felt. Commonly, these days, this is called ’embodied presence,’ or ’embodied mindfulness,’ or some such.
In these pages this ’embodied’ aspect is thought of as “body-environment interaction,” in all its exquisite subtlety. This is a phrase I learned from the late Prof. Eugene T. Gendlin.
With his concepts of ‘interaction-first,’ and ‘body-environment interaction,’ we can discover how this ’embodied’ aliveness goes all the way in; to the extent that it includes the fact that ‘interaction’ includes the whole body’s ‘intra-action’ with its own internal processes.
Simply put: thoughts, inner imagery, memory, intense emotions, drives, everyday feelings, sensations, felt senses (felt meanings), and any inward experience nameable or unnamable – these are all included in our experience of situations. These too are called ‘environment’ in this vision, because they participate in the body’s sense of its situation. ‘Environment’ is not just what is ‘around’ the body, in the old traditional way.
Think about that. Normally, we ‘experience anything’ as though there is an ‘in here’ separate from the ‘objects’ out there. This vision says that, in significant respects, the ‘in-here’ and the ‘out-there’ inter-are. They are one movement; not two somehow bumping up against each other. The body’s deep animal knowing, therefore, is non-dual. An implication of this is that: spiritual teachings that aren’t resonated against the body’s knowing don’t change us radically.
The body is, in both early Buddhist teachings and In Gene Gendlin’s philosophy, is the ‘place’ of transformation. In Gendlin we have this:
“There is the absolutely best laboratory – as far as we know at least – in the whole cosmos, which you can have access to; because the absolutely best laboratory in the whole cosmos, which has a direct line into whatever everything is, that’s a human being. And you have that with you. So, anything that comes out of that laboratory has really great possibilities, even if it looks like a very small thing.”
– Eugene T. Gendlin, at the opening to Gems from Gene, Tape 5 of Thinking at the Edge (a five tape VHS series, produced by Nada Lou).
In early Buddhism, on wone occasion, after giving a teaching session on the intensely experiential teaching of dependent arising, the Buddha said to his students:
“Practitioners, don’t you speak about what is known by yourselves, seen by yourselves, discovered by yourselves?”
“Good, Practitioners! You have been instructed by me in this matter (of dependent arising) which is timeless, is here to be seen, is effective, and can be understood individually by the wise.”
– From the Majjhima Nikāya, I 265; here translated by Christopher Ash.
The Buddha’s purpose in teaching the process of ‘dependent arising’ was an unsurpassable freedom, brought about through the full mindfulness of the body in its situations.
“And what, bhikkhus, is the unconditioned? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the unconditioned. “And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.”
– The Buddha. Trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya
One last comment on the word ’embodied.’ In English the ‘-em’ part of the word is a prefix primarily meaning `in’, and `into.’ However, what we need to notice is that nothing (not even ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ needs to be put ‘into’ the body. I therefore prefer Akira Ikemi’s ‘combodied.’ This sensitive, interactive body is a bodying-with all/in/as all-and-everything. It is what it is as its dynamic ‘withness.’
In this context – when the body is made primary in our practice – then ‘mind’ also refers to many dimensions of experience ‘all the way in/down.’ I told Gene Gendlin once that I had come to understand that the phrase ‘body-environment interaction’ points to the same experience which is indicated by the word ‘mind.’ His response was “Amen!” This understanding of ‘mind’ was a life-changing shift for me. And it changed how I interpreted the early Buddhist texts.
Wholebody Mindfulness is Space for it All
Recently (Dialogue with Mingyur Rinpoch. 2021), Bhikkhu Anālayo was asked to explain Early Buddhist mindfulness, and he began his response with the following comment:
“That’s a question where I should either say nothing, or talk for hours!” And, he laughed at this.
What I take from his comment is that, firstly, that it’s a feature of mindfulness that it is an on-going development, and is never completed; and relatedly that mindfulness is a living process, not an isolatable ‘something.’ As such, it’s immeasurable – and it can be directly understood as immeasurable.
Then he elaborated: “What is mindfulness? My best friend! We have been spending so many years together, and still I don’t know her, you know.” (In his book Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: A Practical Guide Bhikkhu Anālayo suggests that mindfulness (Sati) should be thought of as feminine.)
You see that even as he says he should say nothing, even so, for the occasion, and out of compassion, Anālayo proceeded then to give a little of the depth of knowledge which he has about the experience of mindfulness and about the Early Buddhist tradition on mindfulness. In particular he said,
“The Early Buddhist understanding of mindfulness is much more of an open, receptive kind of awareness which can co-exist with wholesome and unwholesome mental states.” And:
“In Early Buddhism mindfulness is something that you have to intentionally arouse. It’s not always there. And, it’s most defining quality, to my personal understanding, is this presence with ‘what is,’ without immediately reacting.
“This openness has a kind of… like a broad-range sphere of attention, rather than a focussed (one). It has a protective dimension, because when we are with mindfulness we are protected.” And:
“A very important dimension of mindfulness is to be embodied – a whole body awareness. Just now, talking to you, just trying to be in my whole body. And, it’s liberating, because with mindfulness we see how things truly are.”
– from Wisdom Dharma Chats episode with Ven. Bhikkhu Anālayo & Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, hosted by Daniel Aitken.
Note: As an aside, for readers of the Kālakarāma Sutta (see a translation of the Kālakarāma Sutta on here this site), Bhikkhu Anālayo was implicitly manifesting the problem that the Buddha expressed in that sutta, which I here say in a more expanded way: “I know what I know, and at the same time it’s not comprehensively knowable in terms of concepts of ‘things,’ ‘substance,’ ‘entities,’ or ‘subject-object, ‘and so on.” First Anālayo joyously suggests he should say nothing, and then he proceeds to say what he can about the experience, knowing full well that he says it for the welfare of all, and that yet it falls short in the saying.
If we take Gendlin’s approach to saying and thinking, there is no ‘problem’ here, as regards the co-existence of propositions about the non-conceptual dimension and the conceptual dimension. They are both ways of speaking (and thinking) about experiencing; including conceptualizing the non-conceptual experience of this big life-process which we are of – and which in itself is always ‘more’ than the patterns we can – even mindfully, and therefore freshly – apply to it.
I hope to say this better and more simply in blog posts, here on this site, during 2022 (should I live so long). One wonderful thing that Gendlin said, in this context: ‘Pattern-making is not a pattern.’ In other words, thinking and saying – as living process – are not patterns. Nature doesn’t have our patterns – they are patterns to us. And at some level we are still, and always, nature.
If I apply this to the Kālakarāma Sutta, as I read it: We say what we know about anything (or everything) with patterns freshly applied – that’s so. The Buddha is saying, I know many things; and [from an important point of view] it would be insincere of me if I said I don’t know anything.
Then (and here I summarize the point in the sutta), he says, “However, I don’t conceive of a ‘knower’ or a ‘known.'”
‘Seer and ‘seen,’ ‘hearer ‘and ‘heard’ – these are patterns, and what’s going on here is more than patterns. My goldfish Georgia – has she got these patterns that I use, like ‘seer’ and ‘seen,’ or ‘knower’ and ‘known’? Or, does she have a pattern corresponding to how I say, “She’s ‘my goldfish’? Even if she had ‘patterns’ they wouldn’t be human ones, would they? I have the patterns, and yet she and I are of the same living process – which takes many forms, some of which make patterns to carry life forward.
This big life process is commonly called the ‘universe’; but, you can call it a ‘green dragon’ if you like, as does Brian Swimme; and regardless of what you call it, we can still be in wonder at ‘This’ which is not patterned – which is unconditioned.
– Christopher Ash