Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ayya Khema's Take On The Body Scan

The body scan meditation is one of the pillars of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). I find Ayya Khema's take on it - she calls it 'sweeping' - worth spending time on. Here are some relevant excerpts from her book 'When the Iron Eagle Flies', chapter on 'Mindfulness of Feelings and Sensations':
In one aspect, this is a method of purification  . . . [It] is quite specific, as becomes clear when we remember that our physical reactions to our emotions are constant and immediate, and we are unable ever to stop them . . . 
Our emotional reactions have no other way of manifesting themselves than through our body. Since birth, we have been dealing with our emotions in this manner, or maybe we could say "misdealing." The body has always reacted and has eventually retained some of these reactions in the form of tensions and blockages. This meditation method has the potential for removing blockages, or at least rendering them somewhat less obstructive, depending on the strength of our concentration, and also our karma . . . 
[This] method . . . can be likened to an internal shower. What the mind has put in through emotional reactions, the mind can remove by letting go. 
Letting go is the open secret of purification. Every time we move from one place in the body to the next, we have let go of whatever arose in the previous spot. In the end we let go through our fingertips and through our toes* into the room, because there is no longer any other body part to which we can move. We are thereby cleaning up, taking an internal shower, removing some of the inner blockages. Since this is a great help physically, our minds also feel more at ease. We don't have as many difficulties with the body an more, an we can use our mental energies unhampered by discomfort. 
This technique also has a healing quality. Anyone with some concentration can easily get rid of a headache, or even backache. Some sicknesses that are deeply rooted will be more difficult to eradicate, and indeed may be impossible to get rid of. But minor difficulties that are not chronic can be removed fairly easily. The technique has, however, many more possibilities. 
One of its important aspects is that we learn to let go of feelings, so that we need not react. Feelings comprise physical sensations and emotions . . . Here we have a method by which we can actually become aware of feelings, without any reaction being necessary. Even if anger arises, this is one occasion when we know with certainty that nobody has caused it. It has arisen, and this may be the first time in our life that we are aware of anger arising without any outside trigger. The same applies to grief, worry, fear, or any of our other emotions. 
This method also gives us an opportunity to become aware of sensations that at times are unpleasant. If we drop them and move our attention to the next part of the body, we perform exactly the same action-namely, non reaction to an unpleasant sensation by letting go of rejection. We are letting go by putting our attention elsewhere.  
This method teaches to deal with all our feelings with equanimity . . .  
Ayya Khema makes it sound so easy! My personal experience of the body scan has not been so dramatic. I would even venture as far as admitting a certain resistance to it . . . Maybe now is the time to revisit?

What is your experience of body scan meditation?

*.I was taught to do the body scan starting with the feet, which is the traditional MBSR way, as taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Ayya Khema does it in the opposite direction, starting with the top of the head, and then sweeping down the rest of the body, part by part. I am not sure it makes any difference, as long as the whole body is covered. 


  1. hi, i think resistance is a natural response to anything that stirs up our energies.

    In my late teens i suffered from depression and severe anxiety, this kind of body scanning meditation (althought the initial resistance was very intense) is what started me on the road to recovery, working together with mind and body to relieve tension. The physical tension had become so painful it had the affect of reinforcing the mental anguish.. so this concentration was very theraputic, helping to calm the mind and in turn release the pain and build up of emotions from my body. It was very slow going, but so worth it for its long lasting affects.. really getting to the root of things rather than masking it all with medication.

    I was also taught to scan from the feet up, a lot of energy therapies work from the head down.. i'm told that from the feet up is more energising, and from the head down is more relaxing.. but have never put it to the test :)

    another interesting and helpful post - thank you.. and for the links.

  2. My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and S.N.Goenka said we scan from the Head down to the Feet and from the Feet to the Head then from Head to Feeet is no difference. The most importance is we keep mindful breath and oberving feelings, sensations as it is with equanimity, with balanced mind.
    Peace and Love,
    Metta for you and all beings,

  3. I once had a group meditation on a retreat where I heard a meditation bench break in two. Staying eyes closed, I didn't pay more attention to the incident. But at the end of the retreat, I met with this young woman who mentioned the cracking sound heard during meditation as actually coming from her neck! While doing those body scans, long forgotten emotional memories came back to her and were released in that very moment. Ever since, I kept a respect for this form of meditation and the surprising link between body and mind.

  4. Thank you, for making this post richer with all your experiences, and for your teachings.

    Much metta to you.