Mindfulness of Body as a Refuge

During times of stress, cultivating a deeper sense of inhabiting our bodies can be a great relief. In many suttas [1], the Buddha describes the tremendous benefits of regularly immersing mindfulness in the body.

Cultivating a sense of embodiment, maintaining some awareness in the body (as opposed to the head or the environment), brings a sense of groundedness and stability. Any object with a high center of gravity tends to be unstable and easily knocked over, while an object with a lower center of gravity is more stable. Similarly, when we cultivate moving attention down from the head and into the body, we tend to find that life events do not topple us quite so easily.

One of the benefits of embodiment the Buddha lists is the ability to overcome fear. When we find ourselves fearful or anxious, our attention tends to be focused in the mind, or more specifically in the head. There is a story going on, whether we are conscious of it or not. There is focus on past (what has been wrong so far) and on future (what is wrong going forward). Keeping attention in a fearful mind perpetuates the fear.

When we deliberately bring attention down into the body and maintain it there for a period of time, the nervous system calms down. The body does not have a story. The body only lives in the present. The body does not even judge the sensations of anxiety or fear – they are a little uncomfortable, but nothing more.

When we deliberately bring attention down into the body and maintain it there for a period of time, the nervous system calms down.

As the nervous system calms down, the rational mind opens up and we can see reality more clearly and make wiser choices. However, if we find ourselves fearful again, we may need to bring attention back out of the mind and into the body once more.

One simple embodiment practice is to imagine that your mind is like a scanner, like an MRI machine that scans your body in thin discs through a cross-section of your body. Scan your body from head to feet and from feet to head, back and forth in your own time. As you scan through the body, you will likely encounter places of tension or holding. You might imagine that your scanning mind has a warming or massaging element attached to it, so that as the mind encounters tension, it invites release. You might also imagine that the scanning mind has a “kindness element” attached to it, so that as the mind scans through the body, kindness is offered to every organ, every muscle, every joint, every cell. You might invite the body to soften to receive and absorb this kindness.

The more mindfulness of the body is cultivated, the more the body feels like home. The body becomes a place where awareness can be at rest. In this way, mindfulness of the body is a true refuge.

[1] A sutta is a discourse of the Buddha or story about the Buddha.

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