The Awakening Body
The Book Brigade talks to Buddhist scholar and teacher Reginald A. Ray
Posted July 21, 2017
The search for well being requires tuning into the body directly through our senses, bypassing the thinking mind. Being deprived of the direct experience of ourselves—from our most basic reality—drives much of the anxiety in today’s world.
What is somatic spirituality and how is it different from more common, better known approaches?
Most spirituality in the modern world takes a top-down, conceptual approach: We are largely working from our left brain, thinking mind. This means that we have various preconceived ideas and beliefs about what spirituality is and what we would like to accomplish spiritually. Then we go around looking for techniques to help us fulfill our preconceptions. The problem with this approach is that we really never get out of our thinking mind, the seat of our ego consciousness. We are just trying to shore up what we already think and believe.
Authentic spirituality is about connecting with something that lies beneath and far beyond the preconceptions and judgments of our left brain. Somatic spirituality is based on a bottom up, nonconceptual process, in which we connect with the inherent, self-existing wakefulness that is already fully present within our body. Somatic spirituality involves tuning in to the vast interior world of wakefulness, freedom, and joy that lies just beneath the surface, in our body.
What do you mean by tuning into the body?
Psychology uses the term interoception to describe the ability to sense our internal, physiologic experience—our body from the inside. We do not approach our body by thinking about it or remaining trapped in our preconceptions and judgments of what the body is. Instead, we learn to know the body through direct, somatic perception. Instead of trying to know our body through the mediation of our thinking, judging, left brain, we cultivate immediate, naked, nonconceptual awareness of our body. It takes time to cultivate this kind of sensitivity and direct awareness of our body, but anybody can learn it.
How is somatic awareness cultivated?
It happens through a simple, step-by-step process of putting attention into various parts of the body and trying to sense what is there. For example, we could begin by trying to sense our toes. In the beginning, we might not feel anything. But as neuroscience tells us, when we put our attention somewhere, we immediately begin to grow new neurons of experience. Soon, we begin to find a subtle and complex web of sensations of all kinds. Then we notice how tense we are, even in our toes. The discomfort of this discovery leads us to begin to relax there. Then we discover more subtle sensations and all sorts of connected feelings. We make the same journey with all the other parts of the body, including eventually our bones, organs, nervous systems, and eventually the body as a whole.
What do we find when we do that?
The first thing we discover is that all the ideas we have had about the body are basically irrelevant to what is actually there. Once we let go of what we think about our body and actually look, we discover a very vast and, to tell the truth, unfamiliar, unexplored territory—one that inspires and excites us. For example. we find that our body is not a thing but a rich and unfolding process of direct experience. Beyond that, we discover underneath our thinking process lies a limitless ocean of openness, peace, and well-being.
You talk about the body's mind. What do you mean by that?
Many of us think and assume that it is our thinking mind, our conceptualizing, labeling, judging left brain, that knows things, knows reality. Neuroscience has lately shown that this is quite incorrect. The left brain knows only in a very limited way—through judgments and concepts; it has no direct access to our naked experience of reality.
All of our direct, naked experience of ourselves, our lives, and the world occurs completely within our bodily, or somatic, awareness. Bodily awareness is found in everything outside of our processing left brain, such as our right brain, our limbic system, brain stem, heart, and gut processing centers, and even down to our cells.
Why is this direct, non-conceptual experience of our body so important for spirituality?
Tibetan Buddhism says, “enlightenment is found in the body and no where else.” The kind of openness, freedom, love, and joy that we find in the body are exactly what is meant in the tradition by spiritual realization. This somatic awareness is also important in the way it brings about genuine spiritual transformation. Until our emotional blockages from trauma of any kind are known directly within our somatic awareness, no actual psychological transformation is possible. We all long for the kinds of ultimate transformations that lead to a full and integrated realization. Yet, when we meditate mainly with our left brain and ignore the body's central role, transformation of our state of being does not occur however much we may meditate, contemplate, or pray.
What do you believe leads so many people to feel anxious and unquiet about their lives?
People are disconnected from their bodies, from their direct experience of life, more and more so as our cybernetic age reaches literally insane intensity; hence people are no longer able to find the depths, the sanity, the health, and the feeling of well-being that only their bodies can offer. We are all talking, thinking heads, more and more cut off from anything actually real.
What are the most important things you want readers to know?
Until you connect with your body and make friends with it, not much of any importance is going to happen.
If you had one piece of advice, what would it be?
Enter the somatic journey and test this hypothesis: Everything you've been looking for outside is actually found within, already present in your body.The search for well being requires tuning into the body directly through our senses, bypassing the thinking mind. Being deprived of the direct experience of ourselves—from our most basic reality—drives much of the anxiety in today’s world.
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