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Barbara O'Brien

Going Out of Our Heads

By December 10, 2012

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One of the hardest things for many people to "get" about Buddhist practice is that it's not just a mental pursuit. We talk about learning and study and mental culture leading to realization, and those things all sound like mental activities. We think the way we "know" anything is with cognition.

It ought to be obvious that there is also body knowledge that is not primarily intellectual. Swimming and riding a bicycle come to mind; you can't learn to do either by reading a book. Intellectual knowledge of buoyancy or balance won't help you. The body has to learn to do these things in its own way.

Sometimes over-thinking a physical activity can get in the way of doing it. Once I heard a dancer say she could easily perform multiple fouettes until a dance teacher insisted she analyze each part of the movement in her head. Soon she could hardly do the movement at all.

Not to go all analytical on you here, but much of what we're doing in Buddhist practice amounts to integrating brain and body "smarts." One way we do this is by training our minds to be quiet -- to stop chattering, judging and analyzing all the time -- in order to  enable other ways of "knowing."

This process of going beyond cognition is a difficult thing to explain. And of course, as a student, I'm still working on this myself. It's hard to not settle for intellectual understanding sometimes.

One way to train yourself to integrate mind and body is through what zennies call "body practice." Martial arts and yoga are traditional forms of body practice, but body practice can be anything you do, from dancing to sweeping to cooking -- with whole body-and-mind attention. Put another way, it's an activity as meditation.

Body practice is something you really can do at home. In fact, you are encouraged to do so. If you want to give it a try, pick any activity you do every day. A simple, routine task is best for starters, even something like brewing coffee or making the bed. Do your task in silence -- no listening to music; no conversation. Then do your task with attentive focus.

No multi-tasking! If your body practice washing dishes, then just wash dishes. Don't simultaneously boil water for tea or plan dinner. If your mind wanders, acknowledge the wandering and return to what you are doing. Treat every dish, fork, and cup with as much care as if it were a priceless jewel. As much as possible, use both hands.

Give it a try and see what happens.

Of course, another word for this attention is mindfulness. In the next few days I plan to explore the foundations of mindfulness, beginning with mindfulness of body.

December 12, 2012 at 2:30 pm
(1) facethemusic says:

I’ve long thought that body practice is an under utilized and under rated practice in Buddhism. My personal dharma practice took a big step forward when I finally started integrating a hatha yoga practice with it. The yogic approach to anything always boils down to focus and mindfulness. And you don’t even really have to exercise that much to get benefits.

Here is a link to a detailed essay about Tadasana – bringing balance, alignment and awareness to the simple act of standing still.


December 12, 2012 at 3:40 pm
(2) Hein says:

Drinking a cup of ta mindfully when return home from work, going for a walk whilst aware of each step and each breath (whilst reciting the Buddha’s name) and tai chi does it for me.
But this mind-body awareness is also (mostly) there when doing my daily work.
one of my previous teachers always use to say: “we need to get more into our bodies”.
Closely related to mind-body activities i suppose is prostrations and bowing in a mindful manner?

January 5, 2013 at 7:35 pm
(3) Sherry says:

From my studies prostrations are that exactly. When your mind must be on your body movement then you are aware of what you’re doing at every second. Bowing might be more about respectfullness. But I’m a newbie.

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