The Body in Mind
Dr. Stephen Fulder
We are born into a body. No-one asked our permission first. We simply find ourselves in a body. And there begins a long complex love-hate relationship. First and foremost, we will spend more or less our entire life looking after this body, satisfying its every whim and caprice, and making sure it is as comfortable as possible. We have to feed it three times a day, and add to it constant snacks and cups of coffee to keep it quiet. We spend around two thirds of our life working to keep the body active, in good shape, engaged and busy and the other third unconscious so as to give it enough rest. We also spend an extraordinary amount of care and resources making it look nice and dressing it up. Our minds are constantly occupied in defending the body against insults, enemies, and hurts, and its self-image against failure, blame and so on. After all that, the ungrateful body often hurts us with pains and illnesses. It is enough for anyone to want to leave this burden behind and get out. Except that leaving the body is the last thing anybody wants to do. We are entirely attached to this big needy baby.
Since being in a body is not easy, our usual response is to keep shutting out these nagging voices of need, of pain or of discomfort. We shut them out by instant gratifications, such as sugar or alcohol, or by instant relief such as painkillers. But this only quietens the shrill cries for a short while. Instead we need to re-examine our relationship with this body. We need to ask some hard questions. If the body is telling us things, do we know how to listen? For example, pain is the way the body cries and calls for our attention. Do we block the crying with painkillers or do we listen to what the pain is telling us? And if we do respond, do we think only in terms of a solution, a treatment, a way again of silencing the uncomfortable voices, or do we pay deeper attention. Perhaps we are misusing or abusing or stressing some or all of our body and we do not know it because it is ‘under the radar’ of our attention? One example that comes to mind is our heart. The core of our being. A large proportion of those who suffer a heart attack report that that was the first sign that there is something wrong with their heart. How is it that we don’t know our own heart? Or to take another example, we use our eyes intensively. And often suffer from eyestrain, headaches and wear glasses. Yet we cannot imagine giving our eyes the rest, attention, support and love that they crave instead of sticking glasses in front of them. In our relationship to our body, or its parts, are we like a mother who shoves a dummy into the mouth of a crying child to shut it up? Or are we like the mother that responds to the cry with love and attention, and can read the subtle signs to know what the baby really needs.
Much of our relationship with our body is placed in the category: ‘It’s OK. It doesn’t need me, so I can forget it’. We don’t notice our teeth unless we have a toothache. We don’t notice our head, unless we have a headache, and we don’t fully experience one breath in a million.…..unless we suffer from asthma! We guide our body in its life by automatic pilot. However meditation, mindfulness, body-centred psychotherapy and other ways of deeply attending to our body brings the automatic into awareness. We can begin to feel the living body, and what it expresses to us. We can open the experience of the body and find there a fascinating territory. What is usually under the radar becomes within range of our attention. We don’t just notice one breath, we notice one thousand breaths, each different, each telling us something about the sources of our life. We begin to notice how the experiences of our daily life leave their tracks and traces in our bodies too.
It is common knowledge that we need to relax, and many of us do, perhaps combined with yoga, Tai Ch’i and other forms of movement. However we are discussing here something beyond relaxation. Deep listening to the language of the body takes us much further. We know the stresses and strains in real time, as they happen, and so can prevent health problems at the earliest stages, we can guide ourselves to relax and care for whatever part needs us, in the right way, at the right time. And we know how to talk back to the body in its language; we can send our attention as a kind of healing internal massage, warming, softening and soothing. For example we can feel straight away any strain around the eyes, and so we can close and relax them at the right time, at the same time as bathing them with sensitive loving attention. One Cambodian Buddhist monk I know, who was at least 100 years old when I met him, said that his daily morning practice was to move over the body, part by part, and conversing with each part. “Right ear..how are you? Fine! Good. Left ear, how are you? Fine! Good. ……Upper lip, how are you………….”
Steadily, my body and me become more intimate partners in the journey through life. As we move from avoidance, and open a new channel of dialogue with our body, we have a constantly available source of joy in the experience of the living body. But at the same time it can be of major benefit if we are in pain or difficulty. We can completely shift our attitude to pain. Instead of a nagging hurt, it becomes a changing kaleidoscope of shifting unpleasant sensations, always changing according to moment-by-moment circumstances. Instead of a victim, we become a partner, instead of pain plus suffering, there is pain without suffering. That is the reason that deep mindful attention to the pain, diving into the waves rather than running away from them, is a key technique used in many chronic pain clinics around the world, such as that at Harvard Medical School.
It goes much further still. If we have the skill to pay deep attention to our body, it becomes a kind of weather vane, to direct us towards what is wholesome and healthy and harmonious in our daily lives. Our bodies can warn us of frictions, conflicts and anger, almost before our minds know it. Our feet take us in the right direction, our belly tells us its intuitions, our muscles show our defences, and our whole being dances to the impressions of the world around us. This is our body directing our minds, just as our minds are directing our bodies. This is spiritual work. It can be deeply enriching and liberating, because it is the discovery of the truth that mind and body are one continuum. There is no basic division between mind and body. Witnessing the life of the body, the greatest show on earth, will tell us that the mind and body are constantly creating and intermingling with each other. Bringing mind to our body is bringing our body to mind.