Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Is That One Thing?

(Back from two and a half week retreat with Ruth Denison, at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, I am devoting the next few weeks to sharing Ruth's wonderful teachings.)

Learning to Cultivate the Body with Ruth.

Ruth opened the retreat with a teaching about the body. 
"The body is like a jewelry box from which to give and receive."
Over and over, she had us return to the body, whether sitting, standing, dancing, walking, eating, smelling a flower, listening to music, breathing, chanting,  gardening . . . urging us to pay attention. "Then there is no room for the hindrances."

With Ruth, sitting meditation is not just sitting, but rather a whole dance with the body. First prepping the body, with movement and vocalizations. Then, sweeping the body from feet to head, head to feet.  Several times. Part by part, sensing into the body. Then focusing on the subtleties of the breath.  Sensing the air in front of the lips, and following each breath precisely as it enters the middle of the nostrils, then going up the nose into the trachea, into the lungs, belly rising . . . visualizing, to make up for our still gross awareness. Realizing that we are never alone that way:
"You are never deserting yourself. You are always in company - the kind that will never leave you."
Always with the breath as primary focus, and when that proves too elusive for our still tenuous attention, falling back on the body, sitting, as secondary focus.
Back from the retreat, sitting at home, I remember
Body sitting, quiet,
being breathed;
mind alert.
and that is usually enough to bring me back whenever the mind wanders.

Ruth is known for her skillfulness with the body. I went to her wondering what to do about familiar experience of irritation and tightness in the throat and the stomach. In the past, I had followed other teachers' instructions to linger on the unpleasantness, and it had not worked. Ruth had a different take. "Don't focus on it. The energy is blocked there. Turn your attention to your hands instead, and feel them. Slowly move them up and down. Do you notice any change? What do you feel?  Now open and close them. Feeling anything? Then now, rest your hands on your lap, and feel." So simple. 

Actually, not so simple. I could hardly feel my hands. I felt like a child needing to learn my way through the world of body and sensations. Thinking thoughts, feeling emotions, that I could do. But being in my body, that was another matter. 

A few days, it took me before I could feel that I was coming to my senses, literally. I wrote, 'Feeling that I am only now starting to inhabit my body, all of it. Body as a place of refuge.  Unlike before, when I used to reluctantly dwell in body. Finding joy in walking, sitting, standing . . .'

Ruth ended the retreat the same way she started. With the body:
There is one thing that when cultivated and regularly practiced leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, 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? Mindfulness centered on the body. ~ Anguttara Nikaya I, 21 ~
If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated. ~ Majjhima Nikaya 36 ~
Holding strong to this simple method, and always going back to the body.


  1. Yes, indeed. I am so amazed, and filled with joy :)

    Thank you for witnessing.

    And deep bow.

  2. "You are never deserting yourself. You are always in company - the kind that will never leave you."

    (..and I think so we become capable to love more and more unconditionally...)

    Thank you, Marguerite! again. It feels so good to read your post. It also fills me with excitement and joy. :-D

  3. (I sat down in silence, reverberating with metta)
    sending you love, may you enjoy peace and harmony

    Watching your palms (and soles of the feet) and letting the sensation pass through, and out, may help to ease the knots. It helps sometimes.

    Heads on stare into the 'knot': this has to be without judgement, u have to 'look' at the knot at the level of body sensations. See the periphery of the knot, see the nucleus, where it fades, where it pulsates. Where is its boundary, does it expand or receed, just explore its nuances at the level of just sensations, be right there!

    Then move on to the next body part, with the same detachment. If the mind gets drawn back to the knot ...just try and complete the whole sweep till u come back to the throat or the stomach. Treat it just like any other sensation. The key is to not treat it as any different from any other 'sensation' on the body, to not tag it as 'good' or 'bad'. To not create any sort of importance around it. Do not to treat as 'yours', the self is not mine, how can this knot be 'mine'

    I remember one incident at the retreat-inspires me till now. We used to do sitting meditation for upto or even more than ten hours each day. One girl (somewhere around 20 years of age) was particularly attuned to subtle sensations on the body, suddenly wanted to leave. She had kept sick for two days. She agreed for a one-hour sitting. What I wanted to share was the way she sat for that one hour-unshakeable, with her eyes closed but as if facing demons, unperturbed. She got up from the sitting a changed person, she completed the retreat. Each moment, each hour is new-nothing of the old remains!

    I know someone whose knots lasted several years. He kept working through. Each moment is new and it is never the 'same old knot'

    You may/may not publish this, more of a personal note to you:)

    One forest monk said: All experiences are the same!

  4. This takes me back to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course I took about a year ago. The first few weeks of that course were spent doing a body scan...so, it wasn't even about 'meditating' in the traditional sense of sitting and focusing on the breath (Although it was meditating :)

    But, instead it was learning to re-connect with our bodies. To actually feel the sensations in every part of our body, or notice the lack of sensations. Simply, it was learning to come home. I haven't done a body scan in awhile and I'm thinking I should incorporate it back into my practice. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Thank you Doris. Yes, this reconciliation with the body runs very deep! It is too bad it is so overlooked by many.

  6. Pooja, I am with you on not giving preferential treatment to the stuck body part. It is the idea really. Ruth's intervention worked because it balanced that natural inclination to go to the disturbing sensation at the exclusion of the rest of the body. Same thing with body scan Nate is referring to.

  7. Yes, Nate, the body scan. As you know I am trained as an MBSR instructor. It is during our many daylongs training with the body scan among other things, that I noticed how uninterested I was in the technique, largely because I was not feeling very much in large parts of the body. Being a cerebral person by nature, it also felt too physical, and went against my idea of what meditation is. All ideas of the mind of course!

    What Ruth helped me realize was that the body is the primary object of meditation, including the breath. This was not an intellectual conclusion, but rather a gradual process of starting to live in the body. Being in Ruth's presence and seeing her inhabit her body, and how it led to her aliveness and complete presence was also key.

    I wish you to come alive today, into the body :)

  8. Sharing with you a link on Vedana (body sesnations) and how it is dhammanupassana, cittanupassana and such:


    dont be startled by the long words I mentioned. This link puts into context what we are talking about, how central is body sensations (not just the 'body' as understood conventionally) in deciphering, in cleansing the mind of turmoil, of removing symptoms that exists since long long dates back in time, to get rid of burdens we didnt even know we are carrying, brudens that we hv carried with us for so long that we think we are That :)

  9. Interesting . . . Ruth interpreted vedana as meaning the overall feeling tone of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or mixed.

    I will make sure to read your link. Maybe it will be more clear!

  10. Are you sure she mentioned overall...

    Sensations (body) change hues, like the breath. In the beginning these sesantions differ in body parts, like you mentioned u see the constriction u feel, may be different sensations in other body parts. If you are able to notice, look for subtler sensations, it makes the mind more subtle, sharper. You will indeed see the overall sensations, vibrations in each living cell :)

    In the beginning it is a bumpy ride, during the body scan, dont leave any part out. It is when ... it slowly does reach a place of overall sensations, body, whole body a mass of atoms, fine sensations of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

    I have had neutral sensations for a very long time. I still get pain...but even through that there is an undercurrent of neutral sensations, like everywhere else. In intense pain my mind becomes gross, and I see it as 'pain' many times, cant break through intense pain easily yet, I start judging it as pain may be to 'save' and secure the area, such strong likages and habit patterns in the mind-distracting

    Vedananupassana inhenrently accomdates dhammanupassana and cittanupassana. However, through this medium I can only write incomplete things, reading the link might give you a couple of keys, since you are matching it with exprerience too, experiencing is important.

    My best wishes :)

  11. Pooja,

    here is the link to post about Ruth's teachings about 'vedana':