Friday, February 24, 2012

Will Johnson - Full Body, Empty Mind

© Warren Darius Aftahi 
This is a very cool article from the Tricycle Wisdom Collection. Johnson advocates that we learn how to feel into our bodies through our meditation practice as a way to deepen it. He now teaches embodiment training, which he defines as “a path of awakening that views the body as the doorway, not the obstacle, to personal growth and spiritual transformation.

A lot of men (and women as well) are raised to experience their bodies as a tool, especially if one grows up playing sports and/or lifting weights. We do not learn to be embodied, to relax our muscles and joints, to feel the tension and tightness loosen and the contractions give way to softness and tenderness. We seldom if ever experience this deep relaxation, so with all that tension and tightness in our bodies, we remain numb to our feelings, armored against being vulnerable (as Wilhelm Reich would have taught).

Johnson's approach is based in deep experiential bodywork, Sufi teachings, and his Buddhist practice. This is good stuff - there is a lot to learn in simply reading this article/interview.

Full Body, Empty Mind

Will Johnson explains that by turning our awareness to the full range of physical sensations, the body becomes a doorway to awakening.

In many Buddhist groups, the body is addressed only in basic instructions on posture for meditation, sometimes lasting no more than a few minutes. Many practitioners are drawn to body-based practices such as yoga, martial arts, or the Alexander technique to complement or even enable their sitting practice, but they are often on their own when it comes to integrating these traditions with their larger spiritual path. What is being lost in this gap? One of the most convincing voices for the importance of the body in meditation belongs to Will Johnson, author of several books on the topic, including The Posture of Meditation; Aligned, Relaxed, and Resilient; and Yoga of the Mahamudra.

Johnson, the director of the Institute for Embodiment Training in British Columbia, Canada, began his Buddhist practice in 1972 and was certified in the deep bodywork system of Rolfing in 1976. Drawing on his experience in these traditions, Sufism, and others, he now teaches embodiment training, what he calls “a path of awakening that views the body as the doorway, not the obstacle, to personal growth and spiritual transformation.” I exchanged emails with Johnson to discuss how meditators can explore the body and what they might gain from the practice.
—Andrew Merz

You’ve said that in order to experience emptiness of mind, one must first experience fullness of body. While this intuitively resonates with many meditators, clear explanations of why that is true and how it can be integrated into a Buddhist meditation practice are hard to find. How do we start to understand this view in a Buddhist context, and how do we address it without feeling as though we are detracting from our usual sitting practice? 

This focus on awareness of the body is what, for me, the teachings always kept leading to. The part of the Four Noble Truths that attracted me the most, for example, was the explanation about why we suffer. The Buddha’s observation that we create upset for ourselves when we’re in reaction, and that we manage to do this to ourselves through the twinned actions of desire and aversion, just rang true.

The teachings tell us that actions disturb our peace of mind, but what I’m suggesting is that we can’t just look to what we conventionally call our mind to sort this out. Reaction, clinging, and aversion are physical actions that the body performs and that, no matter how subtle, create muscular tension through the repeated motions of either “pulling toward” (desire) or “pushing away” (aversion). Repeat anything often enough, and you create holding patterns in the body that predispose you to continue doing that action. Sitting practices that focus on relaxing the underlying tensions and holdings you feel in your body, as well as restrictions to the breath, help you mitigate the legacy and habit patterns of reacting, clinging, and aversion.

As the eleventh-century Mahamudra teacher Tilopa said, “Do nothing with the body but relax.” When we start to relax, we start feeling the body. Tensions and contractions in the body serve as a numbing blanket that keeps the tiny physical sensations that exist on every part of the body from being felt. Learning how to relax while remaining upright in the sitting posture allows the body’s full range of sensations to come out of hiding and make their existence felt. It’s always struck me as peculiar: If I know that sensations can be felt to exist everywhere in the body, then why don’t I feel them? And what effect does blocking out awareness of feeling have on me? And finally, if the mind that is “lost in thought” is somehow dependent on my not feeling the sensations of the body, what happens to the mind if I let myself feel the entire body, head to toe, as an unbroken field of sensations? The sitting posture itself can be a kind of crucible for burning off the tensions and restrictions to body and breath that all too often keep us lost in thought and unaware of feeling presence.

A good place to start is examining what happens to the body when you’re lost in thought. This, of course, is tricky to do, because when the mind is off wandering in involuntary thought, you’re not very aware of the body at all. But if you can include an observation of the body while you’re off in a thought, you’ll find that the condition “lost in thought” is directly accompanied somewhere in the body by muscular contraction and tensing, stillness and rigidity, and a subtle contraction or holding quality to the breath. In other words, when you’re lost in thought, you’re tense in body. It follows, then, that if you can consciously work with the body during your sitting practice to soften and relax the tensions and allow more resilient and natural movement to accompany the passage of the breath, the chatter of the mind can be reduced, and your practice can start going really deep.
Read the whole interview.

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