On the Body
Going forward, it’s my intention to post a bit more often, every two weeks or so. I hope this is a welcome increase!
In my book Age of Anxiety I have one chapter on sex and one on money. I put these in because sex and money are major sources of anxiety in our culture. Research on couples’ therapy suggests that they are also leading causes of difficulty in sustaining intimacy. In this piece I will discuss the body in Buddhist teaching and practice and in my next piece I will focus specifically on Sex and Money.
Much of early Indian Buddhist teaching focused on the needto move toward enlightenment, the unconditioned, by letting go of the bonds of the conditioned. The focus in cemetery meditations in which monks sat in the charnel grounds was to was to let go of all attachment to the body, viewing it as a container of filth—-flesh, bones,mucus, and puss, all of which needed to be transcended if a practitioner is to experience the unconditioned.
In the Zen tradition, which grows out of Mahayana rejection of this dualism in early Buddhism, the body is of great importance and value. Since the beginning of Zen in China, there’s been an emphasis on getting out of your head and realizing that your own body, with all of its limitations, is the very body of Buddha. Several prominent Zen teachers from those early times emphasize that your very own body, needs to be cared for and valued, since it is the body of Buddha.
In American culture, it was Walt Whitman who first wrote about the sacredness of the body in defiance of our Puritan forefathers’ rejection of it. “I Sing the Body Electric” shocked straight-laced New Englanders, who had a general belief that the body was animal and indulgence of it, including sexual intercourse, was an example of our sinful and fallen state. Our major task was to conquer and subdue these animalistic tendencies(as the early Buddhist Arhats had supposedly done). Here’s an excerpt from Leaves of Grass published in 1855:
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred--
is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off,
just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession [of the universe].
Whitman and a group of his fellow New Englanders, influenced somewhat by eastern non-dualistic spirituality, relished the rich experience of the body—extolling the virtues of taste, touch, sight, smell. They developed a small but impactful counter-culture.
Fast forward a little over a century and we see the seeds of Zen being planted by Japanese Zen masters in the 1960s as they interact with members of a burgeoning American counter-culture, a counter-culture which developed out of post World War II repression.
If you looked on my own bookshelf in the early 1970s you would have seen The Joy of Sex right next to The Heart Sutra. Our counter-culture was simpatico with Zen in many different ways including the emphasis on being fully engaged in the moment. We loved the adage coined by Fritz Perls, “lose your mind and come to your senses.”
This makes sense. We connect with one another through our physical beings, whether it be through a hug, a conversation, cooking a meal, making love. In Zen, instead of viewing the body as a vile puss-filled container of poisons, we value it as our Dharma Container, complex and rich, in its capability to distinguish thousands of sounds, tastes, and scents. Here’s Whitman again:
The curious sympathy one feels
when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips,
and thence downward toward the knees,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of
O I say now these are the soul!
What great Zen! The body is the soul and the soul the body for Whitman just as the conditioned is the unconditioned for the great Zen masters. Is it possible to relish our bodies, just as they are, rather than wishing that they were different?
After all, this very body is the body of Buddha, not some other body that is thinner or taller, with more muscles or curves. If we appreciate Western Art history we see how different types of body shapes for both men and women were valued and appreciated over the centuries. Can we appreciate the full spectrum of body build, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the same way?
You might take a minute to ask yourself: what is it about your own body that you do not easily accept? How might you shift your framing of your reality to be more fully appreciative of your amazing body?
So often we think of our body as a possession that we can treat in any way. Last spring I broke a tendon in my foot and had to spend more than two months on crutches with a medically fit boot that went well above my ankle. I referred to this as my“practice partner”—if I took care of it, it would take care of me and it did. Since getting out of the cast/book I have been sensitive to and appreciative of my body and its working parts in away I never was before. Here’s Whitman again:
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one,
or rest my arm ever so lightly round
his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I / swim in it as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women
and looking on them,
and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.
In Zen Buddhist practice, we put primary focus on grounding and aligning the body both on and off our cushions. If we are continually slumping, can we gently bring ourselves to an erect posture, noticing how our body has been carrying the weight of some dissatisfaction? If we see this dissatisfaction in an attentive, non-judgmental way, our slumping usually corrects itself.
Can we be aware of each emotion or sensation, accepting them, rather than imposing old patterns that create stiffness and rigidity?
In my next post I will discuss how we can respect and love for our own bodies and those we are in intimate relationships with can enhance sexual expression and caring.
Two Kinds of Meditation
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher