Integral Mindfulness – Body Included*
Ginny Whitelaw for Integral Post: originally published August 7, 2013
Mindfulness has made it into the Zeitgeist – even into Zite, itself, as one of the most popular topics under meditation or Zen. This is a good development. I remember being in graduate school, more than 30 years ago, when I first learned of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Its subtitle was “a Zen Master’s method of meditation, concentration, and relaxation…opening the gate to wisdom.” I was intrigued. Not many voices spoke of mindfulness back then. I resonated with his words to wash the dishes just to wash the dishes, or eat a tangerine and truly taste each segment of the tangerine. I was always racing through tasks just to get them checked off my list, so this move toward mindfulness gave me pause to consider another way life could be lived. It was right around the time my Aikido teacher was also telling me I should start training in Zen. Two nudges in one quarter did the trick: I started training in Zen and never stopped.
I ended up reading The Miracle of Mindfulness many times and practicing its exercises. I learned how to meditate on compassion, for example, how to meditate on my own skeleton, how to see my life and death at the same time. This was all pretty heady stuff compared with what I was learning in my Zen training, which was about as basic as bread: counting my breath from 1 to 10 and setting my hara (lower abdomen) with each exhale. And that heady stuff was, for me, something of a trap. To give my mind something interesting to think about, to play with, imagine, vision, embellish, and dance through various mental corridors with was like – well – giving crack to an addict.
And I’m not alone. As we know from the stages of adult development central to Wilber’s Integral Theory (and summarized in Table 1), if we’re fortunate to develop normally, it’s natural that we’ll pass through or otherwise hang out in the stage of Rationality for some period of time. It is the dominant stage of development in business, as evident in its calculating, ambitious, bottom-line thinking.
The motto of this stage could be summed up by Descartes’ famous dictum: “I think therefore I am.” For this stage is so rich in thought that even Descartes – by all accounts, a very bright guy – could mistake thought for his existence. Only as we continue to develop self awareness and the other components of emotional intelligence and move further into the stage of the Sensitive Self (sometimes called the Strategic Self), do we start to unpeel from our thoughts enough to see them – not just be them. We can start to see our thoughts as conditioned by nature, nurture, and culture, and being just one of many ways of looking at things. We can start to see our thoughts as just another sense, like our eyesight or hearing. As a post-modern colleague of mine put it, “I’m not my thoughts, I’m the thinker of my thoughts.” Which, when you think about it, is still a thought. But the point is, if we’re reasonably bright and have developed to the point where we are inclined to read things like Integral Life, chances are good we’ve spent a lot of time in our heads.
Now introduce something called “mindfulness” into this picture and chances are equally good that we’ll make it a “head thing” – that is, thoughts about awareness, rather than awareness itself. Or thoughts about compassion, rather than genuine compassion. Or thoughts about life and death, or mantras, or koans, or light beaming from our foreheads, or whatever, rather than genuine experience. I don’t say thought is a bad thing. But thought is after the fact. This little fact was brought home to me some years ago through Benjamin Libet’s research that showed, even though we think we control our movement, movement is actually initiated BEFORE the thought to move occurs.
Thought is always a layer away. I first noticed this in my own experience – maybe you’ve had this experience, too – when I was watching a movie that got to an emotionally-charged part. I felt myself tearing up and getting all swept away, and then along came thought, talking me down, “It’s just a movie, for goodness’ sake. These are actors telling a story.” I then started to notice other times I would similarly use thought to insert a little buffer of rationality between some raw experience and my sensitive self. “Let’s be reasonable,” the voice of reason would say. Reason is a safe haven in the unpredictable game of life. Reason or thought are how the sense organ called our brain makes sense of experience. But it’s not a replacement for experience, just as thoughts about food are not actually nutritious.
That said, thought has its place: thoughts about food can help us eat more nutritiously. And thoughts about how thought functions as an interpreter and separator from experience can help us move beyond thoughts about mindfulness, and develop actual mindfulness in the body. How do we develop this Integral mindfulness that includes the body? Here are a few ways that come to body-mind:
- Stand on the earth: This exercise is best done in a warm climate, which my part of the world is enjoying at the moment. Stand outside, first with shoes on, eyes 180 degrees. Similarly open all of your senses and take in the entire scene around you all at once. Allow your breath to flow to and from your belly, slow and relaxed. After a few minutes of standing and breathing in this way, take off your shoes and socks and stand barefoot on the same earth. Let your weight rock toward the balls of your feet. Return your awareness to all of your senses – 180 degree-vision, hearing all sounds, breath relaxed in the belly. Feel the earth’s connection through your feet. Feel your entire body through every sense all at once.
After standing and breathing in this way for a few minutes, put your shoes back on. Notice what changes. You may experience a sense of being one layer removed, as compared with the barefoot experience – similar to the way thought itself functions.
- Build visceral sensitivity: As you walk down the street or enter a room, several times a day, let your breath relax into your belly and make it a point to sense through every pore of your skin. Build your sensitivity to subtle signals coming from your heart or gut. We now know the heart and gut represent small brains in their own right, brains that don’t figure things out quite like the head brain does, but rather respond more intuitively and emotionally. Their signals can get drowned out by our chattering head-brain. But the more we listen to them, the more we give them space to be heard. Several times a day, listen for their subtle wisdom as they register friend or foe, relaxed or agitated, open or closed. Something seems off, what is it? It could be a devious colleague at work. It could be that you forgot to turn off the light.
- Pick a sense and develop it deeply: As Natalie Goldberg once said, “Go deeply into anything and you’ll get the whole thing.” Pick a sense that you’re drawn to and cultivate it fully, practicing it as a fine art. If you pick sound, for example, you might play a musical instrument and/or become a musical instrument. Feel how sound comes through and from your body, and how it changes as your breathing becomes more relaxed and belly-centered. You might notice how 7 different versions of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony differ in their quality. You might notice vibration right at the cusp of hearing and feel its resonance through your organs and skin. You might listen through your eyes, or place your hand on a partner’s sternum and listen through your fingertips as that person speaks about something important.
Of course a great way to develop body-and-mindfulness is through Zen meditation. In stopping the outward movements of the body, and keeping the senses fully open, ever-more subtle signals are able to register in our awareness. “I used to think of my senses as a fixed capability – like a chemistry set I was given at birth,” Gordon Greene Roshi observed in a sesshin talk I heard recently. “Not so. Every sense can go as deep as you like…Have you heard the ash fall off the incense? Keep honing your sensitivity and you will hear it.” If you’d like to experience a particularly body-centered approach to meditation, you can download this guide from The Zen Leader. For more on Zen’s particular way of using the body to enter the mind, here is an excellent article by Chozen-ji colleague, Ken Kushner Roshi.
Much rides on fully engaging the body in any mindfulness journey. Otherwise it too easily becomes a thought experiment that cannot transcend the “I” who thinks. If we keep tracing the stages of development in Table 1, we see that while it’s natural for the mind to separate from the messy emotions of the body at one stage (that it can differentiate and develop rational thought), it’s also natural that it re-integrate as we move toward the more holistic stages. Moreover, if we aren’t tuned to noticing the difference between the “moon and the finger-pointing-to-the-moon” – that is, between absolute oneness, emptiness, nothingness from which all somethings arise and our thoughts about all that, then we are caught in the ego’s discourse, which we may mistake for understanding and wonder why it doesn’t satisfy. I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes attributed to Gautama Buddha, which speaks pretty clearly to what does satisfy:
There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leadsto deep spiritual intention,
to mindfulness and clear comprehension,
to vision and knowledge,
to a happy life here and now,
and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening.
And what is that one thing?
It is mindfulness centered on the body.
*Originally posted in Integral Life, August, 2013. Adapted from K. Wilber, A Theory of Everything (2000) and the Spiral Dynamics model of D. Beck and C. Cowan.  Libet, Benjamin et al., (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential) – The Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act”. Brain 106: 623–642  M. Oka and G. Soosalu, MBraining (2012).