This is Post 15 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is the idea that it is a merely mental activity. Anyone who would characterise meditation in this way has been taught incorrectly. Meditation is more akin to dance than ordinary egoic thinking. We meditate with the body.
But we need a much larger and more sophisticated conception of what the body is, than scientific materialism has afforded us. We need an understanding of the subtle bodies, especially the first four subtle bodies: the Physical body; the Mental body; the Emotional body; and the Volitional body – which may be called the surface bodies. This seeming digression from my thread of discussion about the brahmavihāras is necessary if we are to fully understand the actual experience of the brahmavihāras and embrace them as transformational processes in our felt experience of resting as Consciousness.
We need ways of thinking about the body that are experientially true – conceptualisations that fit our actual experience. Prior to modern medicine and the domination of our thinking by the Newtonian / Cartesian dualism of a physical body and a mind that is entirely separate, various ancient cultures had very rich and complex ways of imagining the soul or mind/body system.
Psycho-Physical Anatomy – The Seven Bodies
For me, the most experientially true account of our psycho-physical anatomy is given to us by the great meditation traditions of India and Tibet, which identify seven subtle bodies, or ‘energy bodies’, or auras. While we can say that the first of these is most obviously connected with the physical body (which we now know from Science to be much more subtle than we had thought – pure energy and empty space in fact), and the other six are certainly not separate from the physical body. To be true to our experience we need to speak of the whole integrated system not as body and mind but as a body-mind – an integrated body-mind that is described both by the mandala and by the hierarchy of subtle bodies.
As Carl Jung recognised, the depth of human psychological experience cannot be understood unless we conceptualise it as being simultaneously individual and universal – ultimately characterised by a mysterious internal relationship between these two poles, which leads to an integration of these two poles. He gave us a vision of soul that includes a spectrum of experience – the personal, physical and instinctual at one end of that spectrum, and the universal, spiritual and archetypal at the other. This is how we experience ourselves in meditation. Far from leaving the body behind, we find ourselves greatly expanding our sense of what the body is, and opening to more and more subtle dimensions of bodily experience.
The Tibetan Buddhist Body-Mind Model as a Middle Way
The seven layers of our psycho-physical anatomy are a way of objectifying and conceptualising the paradoxical nature of our range of felt experience when we turn our attention inwards in meditative-inquiry. The range of our experience in meditation is vast – we have the experience of being a person in a physical body, but we may also recognise that the core of our experience of self is Consciousness – a non-locatable field phenomenon, that appears as a unity, and seems to pervades the universe.
The universal Consciousness in which we rest is generally ignored because it is non-personal and felt to be incongruous with our concrete experience of a separate physical body. By seeing the body as not single but seven-fold, and predominately energetic and subtle, we are able to overcome that fundamental incongruity and give ourselves a way of making the universal Consciousness central to our experience, while also emphasising the energetic dimensions in the way we think about our inner life.
Many modern Western students of Buddhism, not finding a clearly articulated body-mind model in the early Buddhist texts, tend to shy away from the challenge of giving conceptual form to our experience of the body-mind. There is some value in this attitude of avoiding conceptualisation – just letting our experience be as it is. This approach can however, paradoxically lead to extremely crude and un-thought-through conceptualisations – and at worst leads to an unconscious embrace of a scientific materialist view that is far from that proposed by the Buddha.
It is important to remember that the Buddha rejected the anti-body view that he had initially embraced when he embarked on his spiritual search. The insights gained at the time of his Enlightenment found expression in a ‘Middle Way’. This was an extremely subtle view of the path to realisation, in which the body was embraced, and seen as the vehicle of, and venue for, realisation – and valued both as the crucible in which spiritual transformation takes place, and as the vehicle for the compassionate activity of Enlightenment.
The venue for the practice of samadhi, or meditation, is the body; and the states of dhyana, or meditative absorption, are bodily-felt experiences. It is however, with a keen awareness of the reservations that some may have about this, that I have I am going to be taking the body-mind model that is found in Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the starting point for some ideas that I have found helpful. In my experience the model works. We can think of it as a somatic ‘anatomy’ – but hopefully not in a literalistic way. The main thing is that we release the literalism, and the extreme constraint that unconscious scientific materialism places on our ability to fully receive the rich, complex, and multi-layered experience of embodied Consciousness.
The Mental Body – the Somatic Reflection of the Thinking function
The somatic dimension that we can call the Mental Body is the second of the seven that are spoken of in esoteric literature. All these subtle bodies are ‘mental bodies’ of a sort, but have different felt-qualities and associations, so I will try to distinguish what we might mean by this term. This subtle body is experienced as, and ‘seen’ by some, as very slightly larger than physical body. This means that the first subtle body – the complex psycho-physical reality that we can call the Physical Body – rests inside the Mental Body. Thus it is entirely enclosed and interpenetrated by it, and subject to its contents – a fact that all healers, acupuncturists, shiatsu practitioners and applied kinesiologists would attest to. While we cannot know the mechanisms involved, it seems clear that all the subtle bodies interpenetrate and resonate with each other to some degree – and that the Physical Body and the Mental Body are a particularly closely related pair.
The Physical Body and the Mental Body exist in polarity with each other in that one is yin, or feminine, or receptive, while the other is yang, or masculine, or expansive. Understanding these polarities is of great assistance in meditation. I shall be returning to this phenomena in future posts, and shall be addressing the little known fact that the Mental Body is experienced as yin, or receptive, in men, and yang, or expansive, in women.
The Thinking Mind is Both Energetic and Neurological
Even if the mechanisms of this are not knowable, it is helpful for meditators to think of the egoic mind as an energetic and somatic phenomena – one in which thinking has an energetic reality, not just a neurological one. It seems that even though thoughts take place in the neuronal networks of the brain, there is an energetic reflection of thought in this somatic phenomenon that I am calling the Mental Body.
So, in addition to the more concrete and well-understood neurological and hormonal connections between the subjective experience of the thinking mind and physiological processes of the body, there is also a profound energetic one. And whereas the neurological re-wiring of our brains, and the calming of our endocrine systems that has been traumatised by fear-based thinking can take a little time, the energetic realignment of our Mental Body, can be achieved relatively quickly if we allow the Mental Body to rest receptively in relationship with the primordial stillness of Consciousness.
The Buddha’s Equanimity practice – Healing the Thinking Mind
This is the power of the Buddha’s Equanimity practice. It allows the Mental Body, and hence the personal thinking mind, to be held in the healing field of Consciousness itself. The transformation that takes place is a purification of the Thinking function, which starts with the Mental Body, and then via its profound effect on the Mental Body, initiates a process in which the dysfunctional wiring of the brain is progressively undone.
When we rest as Consciousness and acknowledge that from the point of view of meditation practice, the Thinking function of the mind is primarily energetic and only secondarily neurological, we open ourselves to a powerful new path of psychological transformation. By choosing to allow the Mental Body to rest as Consciousness and be informed by the field of Consciousness, we do not immediately wash it clean of all its egoic habits of punishment, judgement, justification and projection of shadow, but we do very concretely initiate that profound process.
Purifying the Mind and Integrating Mental Clarity
When we rest in a receptive relationship to Consciousness, we may not suddenly experience the perfect peace of the Great Equanimity immediately, but we can open ourselves to it, and we can readily experience a deep sense of Being, and a sense of alignment with a transpersonal healing power. It is as if we can rest under an inner waterfall of white healing light that is running through our body purifying us and washing us clean of the mental negativities that are inherent in egoic thinking. The more we rest in the mental silence and the mental stillness of the field of Consciousness, the more our mind is cleansed by it, and the more we integrate its qualities of objectivity and mental clarity.
The Buddhist tradition speaks of the purification process within our meditation practice as one in which egoic kleshas are released. These kleshas can be thought of as the energies of the egoic mind – somatic energies that accumulate in the subtle bodies. To the extent that life in self-identification we will accumulate kleshas, and those kleshas have a momentum – they will keep us in habitual egoic identification until we release them though meditation. The category of kleshas that Buddhist tradition associates with the Thinking aspect of the mind is called dvesha, or ‘hatred’ – but this includes the egoic habits of punishment, judgement, justification and projection of shadow, which I mentioned above. The more extreme kleshas that accumulate in the Mental Body show the characteristic quality of ‘hatred’, but they all fall into the category of dvesha. I shall be returning to this important theme in future articles.
Being as the Basis of Identity – Not Thought
Our experience of the Mental Body when we rest as Consciousness, is not primarily one of thought, but of Being. We are still aware of the momentum of our thought processes and of our reflections on our experience, but these are felt to be secondary to the experience of Being. Consciousness and Being are in the foreground of our experience, and thought is arising secondarily, and in that context.
The effect of resting as Consciousness is to fill the Mental Body with the experience of Being. What we experience over time is a new basis for our identity. Our identity is no longer predominantly a mental construction as the Cartesian error (“I think, therefore I am”) would suggest, but instead is rooted in Being, and in the field of Consciousness. It is as if Consciousness stands behind us like a constantly affirming friend, except that we are that Consciousness – we are that friend.