While tension and imbalance manifest as discursiveness, argues Will Johnson, a truly balanced body generates an ease and relaxation that naturally supports the awakened mind.
For the most part, Buddhism has not made a big deal about the body. The great majority of Buddhist schools continue to focus on mind as the arena of maximum reward and accord body a much more diminished status as an avenue worthy of exploration.
The inherent problem with this attitude is that it is the experience of the body that provides the feeling ballast for the mind. If that is forfeited, the mind can all too easily float off into rarefied realms that, lofty as they might be, are but a shadow of the consciousness that meditation practices are designed to reveal. Mind ultimately wants to ground itself in the feeling presence of the body, not escape from it. If you want a mind that is balanced, then you need to create a balanced body to support it.
Alignment, Relaxation and Resilience
If the body is out of balance, it must create constant tension to offset the downward pull of gravity. This tension will manifest as discursiveness at the level of the mind. True balance of body, on the other hand, generates an ease and relaxation that naturally and spontaneously supports the awakened mind. In the words of Sasaki Roshi, “Buddha is the center of gravity.” To find the center of gravity within oneself means to balance the energy field of the body with the gravitational field of the earth.
This balance appears through the conscious embodiment of three basic principles: alignment, relaxation and resilience.
Alignment: Ordinarily, we think of gravity as a force we need to brace ourselves against in order to stand erect. But gravity actually functions as a source of support for structures that are properly aligned around a predominantly vertical axis.
Relaxation: A human body that becomes aligned in this way can then begin to relax. It doesn’t have to tense its musculature to offset the downward pull of gravity, because its aligned structure provides it with all the support it needs. Through the relaxation of its tensions, it can literally drop its weight and its mind, surrendering to the pull of gravity, and it doesn’t topple over.
Resilience: To maintain its relaxed uprightness, a balanced body then begins to make spontaneous movements and adjustments, ever so slightly, ever so resiliently. If the body resists this natural urge to move and holds itself rigidly, it creates tension and forfeits its relaxation.
Of these three principles, resilience can be the most challenging for Buddhist practitioners, who have been taught to sit very still in order for the mind to become still. Stillness, however, implies quiescence, not rigidity, and so the Zen poet Ikkyu reminds us: “To harden into a Buddha is wrong.” If you hold your body rigidly, your mind will become very active and agitated. If you allow subtle resilient movement to pass through your body, however, the mind naturally becomes calmer, and you remain relaxed and alert. The whole purpose of playing with balance is that it lifts the curtain of muscular tension that ordinarily conceals the body’s sensations. In the words of the Buddha, “Everything that arises in the mind starts flowing with a sensation in the body.” If we remain unconscious of these sensations because of imbalance and constant muscular tension, we remain unconscious of the full depth of the mind and we forfeit our access to the wholesome states of mind of which the Buddha speaks. But when body is vibrantly present, mind is naturally clear and deep. Attempting to manifest clear mind without attending to the experience of your body is like trying to drive away in your car without first turning the key in the ignition.
While the principles of alignment, relaxation, and resilience can guide you as you explore your body’s relationship with gravity, balance can’t be superimposed from without but must be felt within. This discovery of feeling is the practice. Balance never appears as a static end state or an attained goal. It is something to play with constantly, a dance and practice that never ends.
An Exercise in Balance
Stand for a moment barefoot on the floor with your feet touching.
Envision the major segments of your body-your feet, lower and upper legs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, neck and head-as building blocks a child has stacked one on top of the other. If these blocks are stacked up carefully, one directly on top of another, the pile will remain standing. But if they’re not, the column will probably come crashing to the ground. With the least amount of effort possible, feel the major segments of your body lining up, one on top of the next, just like the child’s building blocks.
Alignment has a distinct feeling of ease and effortlessness associated with it, so be careful not to bring tension into your body as you coax your bodily segments into a more vertical relationship with one another. Then with your feet firmly planted on the floor, begin to sway the body slowly as a unit-to the right and to the left, to the front and to the back.
At first, make your movements quite extreme, almost to the point of toppling over. Feel what it’s like to be out of alignment, and then contrast that with the feeling as the body regains its verticality. When the body veers away from alignment, you can feel tension and holding; when the body moves back into a more aligned structure, the tension and holding fall away. Keep bobbing and swaying randomly, gradually making your movements smaller and smaller. Eventually, you will come to a place where the body does not sway much at all.
While this place may feel unfamiliar to you, it will also have a feeling of rightness. The body just stands, supported by gravity. This is your place of alignment. Now begin to relax. Relaxation is nothing more or less than the surrender of the weight of the body to gravity. Because your body is aligned, you can do this without toppling over. Starting with your head, feel the tension in your body literally dropping away. As long as the tension drops directly through the building block underneath, you will stay standing easily. Can you drop your mind as well? Spiritual teachers tell us to drop the mind-can you feel what it might be to take that instruction literally?
Quite likely this new place of balance will feel willowy and insecure. Wonderful! True balance is never stable and still. A body in balance is constantly, resiliently moving. Feel how natural it is to allow these subtle, spontaneous movements to occur. Keep surrendering and letting go. Play with your alignment. Relax your tensions. Go with whatever movements need to occur for you to stay upright and relaxed.
Keep monitoring the feelings and sensations in the body. They are the guide that helps you maintain your effortless balance. These sensations and feeling tones will constantly change. You can’t hold on to any of them; you just have to keep letting go, moment by moment. What is your mind doing? See how when you become lost in thought your body immediately forfeits its balance. Let go of the tension again, allow the body to move like a prayer flag in a gentle breeze, and watch the thoughts disappear effortlessly.
Let’s look at one of Buddhism’s favorite objects of contemplation, the passage of the breath. In most schools, breath is presented as an object for the mind to observe and concentrate upon. We count it. We watch it move in and out of our nostrils. We observe how it causes our belly to rise and fall. While all this is very helpful in concentrating the mind, the Buddha never wanted us just to observe the breath, as though we were watching a parade from a safe distance. He wanted us to dive right into the thick of it, to so merge our awareness of self with the action of the breath that we would become breathing, and in this way, experience how breath, body and being are inextricably one. When you breathe in, do it with your whole body, the Buddha tells us in the Satipatthana Sutra. And then, when you have to breathe out, make sure the entire body participates in that act as well.
To breathe with your whole body, you need to feel the whole thing, every little cell and sensation, vibrantly and palpably alive. You can’t just retreat to the cool observatory of your mind, watching passively as the breath moves in and out, and expect to feel this fundamental union of breath and body.
Let your whole body become the organ of respiration. The action of the breath doesn’t have to be confined to just the mouth, the windpipe, the lungs, the ribs and the diaphragm. It can be felt to move through the whole body, just like a wave that moves through water, causing subtle movements at every joint. The movement of such a breath will massage the entire body and stimulate even more sensations to appear.
Such an unrestricted pattern of breath, however, is only truly available when the body is balanced. The holding and tension that are necessary to keep an imbalanced body erect will function as blocks to the free movement of the breath, and breathing will remain shallow, sensations dim. Bring the body to balance, however, and the breath can become an extraordinary event that blows away the inner cobwebs of cloudy mind and dull sensation.
Surrender to your next inhalation, let the breath breathe you, and simultaneously relax the body as much as possible. Feel all its energies, all its sensations, head to foot, leaving none out. Go deep inside to a place in which you can feel the whole body all at once as a relaxed, unified field of sensations. Find this place and then surrender to the full power of the breath-in and out, in and out, over and over again.
Don’t force the breath, but don’t coddle yourself and hold back on it either. Just surrender to its innate power. It will come open on its own, organically and naturally, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively. If you can surrender to the breath in this way, it will take you on a journey deeper and deeper into the uncharted regions of your body, where withheld and unfelt sensations are just waiting to be nudged from their slumber. Over time, as the breath succeeds in melting and healing the restrictions to its freest expression, it will cleanse you from head to toe.
This Very Body
Remember the Zen master Hakuin’s declaration, “This very body is the Buddha.” When consciousness and the felt presence of body come together as a single, merged phenomenon, awakening occurs naturally. Consider the following instructions from one of the most famous texts of vajrayana Buddhism, Tilopa’s “Song of Mahamudra”:
Do nothing with the body but relax.
Let the mind rest in its natural, unformed state.
Become like a hollow bamboo.
The only thing you ever need to do with your body is to relax. But once again, this can only occur if you play with balance. Without aligning the body, you can’t fully relax, and without surrendering to the spontaneous, resilient movements that naturally want to occur through the body, relaxation cannot continue over time.
The ultimate purpose of balance is that it lets the current of the life force, felt as an unending flow of sensations, pass freely and continually through the entire conduit of the body, just like wind passing through the empty center of a hollow piece of bamboo. U Ba Khin, the twentieth-century Burmese meditation master and proponent of one of the few body-oriented approaches to Buddhist practice, called this bodily force nibbana dhatu, literally, the force that generates the enlightened mind. Once this force is activated, it functions like a grass fire that burns away old debris and brush, preparing the ground for new growth. When nibbana dhatu becomes operational, it rages through the body and mind and burns away the residues and accretions that keep the enlightened mind hidden and contained. Because any blockage to the free flow of energy in the body will hamper the passage of this force, only if your body becomes like a hollow bamboo will you be able to experience and benefit from its purificatory action.
If you play with balance, whether doing formal sitting practice or moving about in your life, the condition of mind that you long to give birth to will gradually appear as a natural consequence. But never think that there is a perfected end to balance, that you are going to arrive at some kind of ultimate balanced state. Such a condition doesn’t exist, and would become a great bondage if it did. Breath by breath, sensation by sensation, everything moves and shifts. Balance is constantly adjusting itself. Just keep staying open to this movement, this ongoing dance of balance.