Our Forgotten Friend
When I was in one of the temples doing Vipassana training in Thailand, there was a silent monk in the kute (hut) next to mine and I used to watch him. I always found that watching skilled meditators was very informative – one could learn things just watching the way they acted. So I used to watch this monk and emulate his routine and the way he deported himself.
He was a compact and very handsome Thai man of about thirty who had been silent for five years. He rarely slept, spending most nights pacing the veranda of his kute in walking meditation, or sitting, framed by the dim light of a low watt lamp, in the middle of his kute.
And because out kute’s were close together over the months I was there, a quiet companionship developed between us. He would smile when he saw me and I would wave, and somehow, in the silent world of the monastery that was enough.
Sometimes in the mornings, as I walked back with my daily meal, I would notice him waiting in the shade of a large tree with his bowl of food before him. He would clap his hands to get my attention and wave me across to give me some of his food because the villagers, who held him in great veneration for his dedication in meditation, would always give him too much so he would share it with me and some of the other western lay people in the kutes behind the temple.
It was in the final month of my stay that the Abbott of the temple gave him permission to come out of silence, and suddenly I saw him chatting with other monks, animated and smiling where before he had always been somber and dedicated. And one day, after midday meal was over, he came to visit me and we sat on my veranda to talk.
Now it must be said at that time, I was extremely focused on grappling with my hyperactive mind, and all the thinking it was generating, and having great difficulty as a result. The more I grappled with the thinking, the more layers of thinking I found – layers and layers of chatter, concepts, worries and dreams, such that I was spending entire meditations noting, ‘thinking, thinking thinking …’ and often thought I would go mad. So it was wonderful timing to speak with this man who had been meditating in silence for 5 years.
In halting English he asked me what method I was using. I described my struggle with thinking, and how I was finding it difficult to pacify my mind. .
‘This sounds very crazy,’ he said. ‘Like a dog chasing its own tail.
I nodded in agreement.
‘It is crazy … but I think I have a very crazy mind,’ I said.
‘Well, with all the attention you give the mind, no wonder it chatters so much,’ he said, and we laughed.
So I asked him what method he used and he shrugged.
‘No method,’ he said. ‘I just sit, and if the mind is chattering I don’t bother with it. Let it talk to itself. I do nothing except feel sensations, and how they change. When I am sitting I feel the sitting body. And when I walk, I feel the body walking. And when I eat, I feel the body eating. That’s all. And sometimes the body is heavy and coarse, but other times the body is so light it disappears and there is only mind, still chattering. So I feel the chattering mind, and usually it calms down, but I don’t expect it to. I just keep on feeling it. Then sometimes it becomes so tranquil it disappears. Then there is only my attention. So then I am feeling the attention, and sometimes that disappears and then there is nothing. No body, no mind, no attention. Just awareness, like an endless sky …’
He stopped, then he shrugged.
‘No more words after that…’
‘So simple,’ I said wondrously.
‘Yes, it is simple, but then, I have been meditating for a long time … When I started I was like you. Everybody struggles in the beginning.’
I nodded, still thinking about what he’d said.
‘So … you just feel your body?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Like the Buddha said, “when sitting the monk should know the sitting. When walking, the monk should know the walking. Know what you do and everything calms down.’
We sat in silence for a while, listening to the crickets creaking in the slow, hot afternoon around us. Then he said something that totally transformed my hitherto overly technical view of meditation – in fact, looking back, it probably changed my life.
He said, ‘The body will take you where you need to go.’
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘The body knows what to do because it is your friend. All you have to do is listen, and it will tell you.’
Then he left, picking his careful way along the path to his kute.
What he said resonated in me like a perfectly made bell. And it still does, as one of the most valuable insights I’ve ever been given – a lesson particularly compelling for a Westerner, who thinks everything comes from the mind.
‘The body knows because it is your friend. All you have to do is listen.’
So why was this such a revelation to me?
Well, put simply, I’d been applying all my efforts in meditation to trying to pacify the mind, while totally ignoring my body.
Though for sure, I felt extremes of pain and pleasure i meditation, I felt these body signals in a kind of dismissive way – as if my body had no right to be heard at all. As if its sensations were of no consequence.
In this, I was ignoring the only real friend I had – the most loyal, and faithful friend anybody could have – my own body. As I had been ignoring it all my life, even though I still expected my body to do everything I wanted – to be healthy while I ignored it’s aches and pains. To be alert, while ignoring its fatigue. To be flexible while ignoring it’s tensions … and so on.
This abusive relationship with my body was how I had lived my entire life. I had ruled my body like a tyrant and when it complained or got tired, like most people, I used painkillers to suppress its signals, and whipped it back to action with stimulants. And when it failed I cursed it, worried at it, and tried to shut its complaints out with entertainment, alcohol and drugs.
So now I began to pay more attention to my body in meditation.
At first it was a painful and very disorienting experience. In my preoccupation with trying to use meditation methods to pacifying the mind, I had become unconscious to a extraordinary amount of physical tension and now, as I turned my attention to the body, these ‘lost voices’ all began to shout.
Not only that, but I found I had literally lost contact with whole sections of my body. Around my neck , shoulders, chest and lower abdomen I felt strangely numb – I knew they were there, but I couldn’t feel raw sensations of those parts – they seemed only to exist as a kind of mental event.
So it was a new world I entered in going into my body – but I persevered.
Using mental notes to keep my attention focused, I kept directing it away from my chattering mind and into my body and slowly began to feel everything I had become unconscious to – all the body tensions and physical anxiety, and all the aches and pains that had been ignored. For the next few weeks, after a lifetime of ignoring my body, I finally allowed my body to speak to me, and I realized why my mind was so crazy – because it was sitting on a volcano of unresolved physical anxiety and tension.
As the first week went by, my body opened up and, like an ignored friend being listened to for the first time, I told me everything at once, and it was quite overwhelming as all the aches and tension and pain got worse. But I kept at it, and eventually noticed some of the sensations were changing – tension was disappearing in parts of my body as muscles that had been tight for so long they knew no other way were suddenly releasing. Aches and pains were suddenly turning to tingling or pins and needles.
But most interestingly, as the body calmed down, so too did the mind.
In this I saw very clearly the mind body connection, and how the two condition and influence each other, and how essential it is to maintain awareness of our physicality in meditation … and in life.
I realized why so many of us Westerners, being so cerebral, age so badly. With our culture of not listening to the body, as we get older, we not longer feel what is actually there. With our intense focus on pleasure while at the same time using drugs, comfort and entertainment to obscure all the body signals we don’t like, our body eventually gives up telling us what’s wrong. It stops sending the sensations we need to adjust and maintain balance.
And so it becomes normal for us to regard old age as a descent into illness, mental rigidity and physical atrophy.
This often forgotten friend of ours is our most loyal and faithful companion, and will take care of us and our life if we just learn to listen to it, and understand it’s language. In this, pain and body tension are not our enemy – they are our friends trying to tell us something, so we should listen – particularly during meditation. Rather than spending your time swatting at thoughts, go into your body, and you might just find the thinking will calm all on iits own, simply because no-one is listening.
And because feelings always come before thoughts.
I’ll close with two interesting quotes:
“Each feeling of pain that cannot be integrated adds to the tension. What happens to this tension is that the person is forced to find ways to ease it. Since the only real way that tension can be erased is to have the feeling, the person must do the next best thing and seek pleasurable sensations to soothe himself. In this sense, pleasure for the neurotic is the successful anaesthesia of pain.” – Arthur Janov, ‘The Primal Revolution’
And Albert Camus, who once said, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”