The Body’s Path to Awakening
This very body is the Buddha
We are inside the body and the body is inside us. In Zen we have a tradition of embodying or acting koans out because if the body is not engaged it’s hard to really meet life. Once in China, there were dance forms as dialogues and as responses to koans. Those forms are believed to be lost, but I can imagine that through meditation and attention to movement and the body we might find them again.
The ancient koan masters looked for the gates of wisdom first in poetry because language is a fundamental feature of being human. We are inside language the way we are inside the air and waters of the blue planet, but I’ve been thinking that the body is it too, and wanting to treat awareness of the body as an integrative art.
In the Autumn I had back pain from lifting a wood stove, and some of the body workers at the Autumn retreat changed what I was noticing by moving me around. The pain made it so that I couldn’t extend my right arm. But an interesting moment happened when I found that by closing my eyes I could extend my arm easily. The pain, or its connection to the movement, was somehow a mapping problem. It reminded me of the phantom limb phenomenon in which the brain thinks there is pain in a limb that has been amputated.
The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran at UC San Diego performed experiments in which he used mirrors so that when the patient looked at her amputated right leg she saw her intact left leg in its place. He then asked the patient to relax the amputated leg that she could now see and the phantom limb pain diminished or disappeared.
So the body has its imagination and its stories and, like other stories, sometimes they seem true but they might not be. The process was an exploration exactly like koan work involving the body. And just as in a koan interview it was as if we were inside the same field, sharing perceptions and movements. The few other people in the room could feel in their own bodies what was happening to me.
I remembered earlier experiences of working with my body in a koan like fashion. I have an odd heart rhythm acquired long ago, probably in the islands east of New Guinea where a fever came on when I was in a canoe. About 12 years ago the non rhythm amplified into a kind of storm. I was falling down on occasion and my cardiac doc, whom I liked partly for his gloomy streak, said,
“Atrial fibrillation. You could end up crawling across the kitchen floor to get your granola.”
“What happens then?”
“Congestive heart failure.”
“Oh no,” I thought, “what will my kid do when I die?”
I was suddenly living inside an Edward Gorey rhyme, featuring caskets and orphans and men with long faces in formal Victorian clothes. So I began to explore the scenario and my beliefs about it. First of all I realized that my daughter would be fine if I died. She would live a good life whatever I did, listening to her own inward voice. It was also clear that no date had ever been set for my dying and among important things, unknowns far outnumbered the knowns. And, how to describe this?—I let a koan into the problem and the problem was not directly addressed by the koan but diminished anyway. I noticed that sometimes my heart banged in a way it was hard to enjoy but that if I didn’t worry about it, it settled down and the main effect was that I was tired sometimes in the afternoon.
I feel fine now. But sometimes I don’t and then the treasure has to be there in that pain or disorientation and restlessness in the mind, and if I can’t settle my body, the treasure is there in the not finding and the longing for healing. And that’s enough. My relationship with my body is my relationship with what I am, with how I came to this place. To disapprove of my body seems beside the point.
So there are stories about the body and, like other stories, they seem to generate themselves, like rabbits, or bacteria. I like koans because they refer to a landscape where there are less stories, or where the stories are surprising and unexpected, and we have a better relationship with what we are. Criticizing yourself is one of the great distractions and finding fault with your body is clearly in this class of delusion, expected but untrue. So much for New Year’s resolutions.
The body listens to others and is in an intimate communion with them, regardless of my opinions about them. This intimacy is a way I go beyond myself and is closely connected to the images that arise in my mind. Awareness naturally includes my body unless I make an effort to exclude it. To read my body is to be in a conversation in which I have to listen ever more closely, and not tell myself stories or explain what I’m hearing. When my body can speak for itself then my words become more true, too.
The body’s imagination has its own grammar and its images can lie in ambush for years. A friend told me she heard some 70’s music on the radio “from when I was in high school and suddenly I was in that city, the whole miserable locked in quality of waiting to escape, the dinginess of getting through that time with my angry stepfather and trying to have a normal life and knowing these were bad years, it all descended on me like a grey veil.”
PTSD and pleasant memories both waylay us via the body. Ambush is linked to enlightenment; surprise is the way an epiphany happens, that so intense flavor is the flavor of my life and there is no need to make a choice about it or criticize it, even if it is in the realm we think of as pathology. The pain of memory has some similarity to the sound of the geese clanking overhead, and while it’s happening, it is the only sound in the world.
The Koan This Week:
“In the center of the cosmos, inside heaven and earth, there is one treasure, hidden in the body. It picks up a lantern and goes into the meditation hall. It brings the great three arched entrance gate and puts it on top of the lantern.”
Putting the great entrance gate on the lantern—the impossible might come to be. Anything you think is built of the stubbornness of matter, of the intractability of what you know, of the bricks of nouns, might also be a verb, might be a koan constantly changing its shape, a person changing into tree, a cold heart melting. My heart problem might be a koan, dying might be a koan, I can’t tell why someone lives or dies and I don’t need to, even if that someone is me.
When I spend time inside it, this koan brings the usual paradoxical effects that lead to a bigger idea of what it is to be alive. We had two warm days, plum blossoms and narcissus leapt out like water from fountains, then the cold west wind returned, loud in the trees, bringing a restlessness and the thought of things changing, seasons, times and nations changing. That one treasure, it might be the sound of that wind, or the sight of a tree branch lying in the field. Then it becomes clear that the wind is in the body and the branch and the field and the lights of the river of cars at night are in the body.
There is a very old idea that the human body is itself a map of the cosmos, the fragment that contains the whole. In the Flower Garland Sutra, the universe is a jeweled net in which each jewel contains the whole, and something like this is implied in Leonardo’s image of Vitruvian man who is literally the measure of all things, the source of proportions for buildings and ultimately the world. Each moment of awareness, each twitch, each ache, each sigh, each tear, each enchantment by perfume or blossom is a world.
Here are some body questions:
- How do you use your body? Are you your body? Does it tell you what to do?
- When your body is hurting or in trouble, how do you help it heal? Can your body help you to wake up? Are healing and waking up related in any way?
- We have stories about our bodies, that they are not beautiful enough or too old or too sick or too fat or too poorly dressed… What stories rule your body? Do you like it, find fault with it, hope that others admire it, think it needs a coffee or more vitamin B?
- Do you approve of some things your body wants and disapprove of others? Be specific.
- Do you feel your body? Do you enjoy it? Do you find it exciting or alarming?
- Do you remember your body in childhood? Was it different? What body memories do you have from earlier times? Show an activity or a movement that your used to do but don’t anymore. Are you stronger in some ways? Weaker in others?
- If you could have a different body for a day, describe what body you would have.