As a meditator of 17 years I am often eager to admit that my practice is rarely as consistent as it should be. There are weeks when I meditate almost every day – last week I think I meditated only once. But consistency and aspirations to perfected spiritual discipline aside, the truth is that I am in familiar territory when it comes to cultivating mindfulness, the “awareness of awareness” as Daniel Seigel puts it (2007, p.13). I first taught myself to meditate from a small book as a teenager and from there explored many roads, from vipassana to visualization to yoga to zen and back to vipassana again. The longer I practice, the more I become a true beginner. Meditation is like making art: though mastery may grow with time, the practice itself is one of humility, each time stepping anew into the stream of life, to see what is there.
The novelty of a sitting practice has somewhat worn way, even if the contents of awareness continue to evolve over time. What has come to fascinate me more, in recent years, is exploring how cultivated mindfulness integrates into the practice of living and working, day by day. I’ve lived and worked briefly in spiritual communities that carried injunctions to clean toilets and wash dishes mindfully, as spiritual practice. There is great value in this – in any activity, undertaken in deep, full awareness of the present moment unfolding. William Blake saw “infinity in a grain of sand,” – and sometimes finding a whisper of inifinity in a dirty toilet bowl is exactly the kind of shock the modern American psyche needs to shake it out of its materialistic and status driven stupor. And yet something even more fulfilling can occur when mindfulness is awakened and applied into those realms of life that already carry some sense of joy, vocation, and meaning. In my case, this involves doing healing work with peoples’ bodies.
Yoga is a form of bodywork that we practice on ourselves, usually under the guidance of a teacher. My understanding of yoga, which I usually translate as “union,” understands mindfulness as an essential component to this process – that yoga without mindfulness is like a boat without water. Difficult though it may be for our celebrity culture to accept, what matters here is not what a particular yoga posture looks like, but what it feels like, how it is experienced and understood, and how that experience is worked with internally, in the moment. When I teach yoga, we usually begin with a guided mindfulness meditation: the class is invited to become more intimately acquainted first with their physical sensations (the voice of the body), and then their emotional reality, specifically how their emotions often (but not always) show up in a specific and embodied way. Finally we turn our attention to the activity of the mind, honoring the thoughts and images that arise without identifying with them, or letting them carry us away from ourselves, from our bodies, or from this moment in time. In sitting meditation this process would be an end in itself, but in the context of a yoga practice, it also works as a foundation for the somatic process to follow. It is one thing to listen to the body and emotions while sitting, another to listen and stay present after holding a physically challenging pose for three minutes, heart pounding, muscles shaking, emotions triggered. I invite my students to track the physical, emotional and mental changes that occur throughout practice, to come into more meaningful relationship with the difficulties and pleasures that arise. Body, emotions, and mind are all continually activated in the course of a physical yoga practice in a way that sitting practice does not invite. In this sense, we might say that yoga becomes an arena for mind-body alchemy, a safe space to confront the complex reality of embodied life on Earth.
But the area of my life where applied mindfulness has come to fullest fruition is in my role as a hands-on holistic bodyworker and massage therapist. In this case, it is not a matter of teaching mindfulness with words, but allowing the practice of administering healing bodywork through my hands to become a kind of meditation. I have come to recognize that this applied mindfulness is often integral to the client’s healing process.
As psychiatrist Daniel Seigel (2007) puts it, “Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to the novelty of our everyday experience” (p.5) – in this case, being sensitive to the novelty of each new aspect of every unique body-soul on my table. This means remaining fully present from one moment to the next, listening to the subtle language of tissue and biological rhythm, tracking the softening of brittle connective fascia over time, the slow, tentative release of muscle tension held far too long, the sensitive cries of tired adhesions, grasping and stretching beyond their limits – all factors which can change from one millimeter to the next. All the while I monitor breath, the pulse and circulation of life-giving fluids and energy, and the subtle vocal tones of my clients when they choose to speak, making plenty of room as well for the content of their words. One of my primary criteria for a successful healing session is the degree to which I am able to maintain this steady attention throughout the eighty-minute treatment. Of course I’m only human, and just as in sitting meditation, I contend with constant distraction and mental digression – sometimes because my client keeps drawing me into ancillary topics of conversation, or, in the case of a silent treatment, my own whirling thoughts and concerns, which take me out of my hands and away from the ever-present moment of contact with the client’s skin. Although I can sometimes get away with it for minutes at a time, it is nevertheless in these moments of distraction that I make my mistakes: pushing a bit too deep, or not deep enough, missing the spot that calls for attention, treating the body like a body I’m working on, instead of a body-soul I’m working with. As in sitting meditation, the goal is not perfection, but a deepened awareness of both presence and distraction: intimately knowing presence so as to return to it when distraction inevitably arises. The point is not to eradicate distraction (which is probably impossible) but to recognize it and gently return to center – in this case, returning to the moment of contact between therapist and client, again and again.
Certainly, neuroscience has corroborated the benefits of a sitting meditation practice for this kind of sustained, deep attention in bodywork. Research by Mclean and others suggests that regular meditation improves the ability to sustain attention over long periods of time (Maclean, et al 2009). Perhaps more important, and certainly more fascinating, is research suggesting that the very act of paying sustained attention to touch increases tactile sensitivity by literally restructuring the sensorimotor cortex of the brain. In a groundbreaking study Mike Merzanich demonstrated that monkeys trained to develop tactile sensitivity through sustained attention actually developed larger and more complex neural networks in areas associated with finger-touch (Begley, 2007, p.158). What this suggests is that the simple act of sustaining attention over time will concretely increase sensitivity, creating the “x-ray fingers” that massage therapists jokingly boast about. The more a bodyworker pays sustained attention to the quality of tissue, fluid, and energy under their hands, the more sensitive those hands will become to subtle qualities and changes.
In our largely disembodied culture, this often puts mindful bodyworkers in an unprecedented position to have greater sensitivity to the voice of the client’s body than the clients may have themselves. If this is true, it greatly expands the scope of therapy that bodywork can offer; rather than merely being a mechanistic manipulation of tissues, the bodyworker becomes a therapist for the neglected voice of the body, an attentive and nurturing presence for this abandoned, largely unconscious aspect of the soul. Further, hands-on body therapists have potential to act as experiential instructors in embodiment, bringing the body more fully into consciousness through the process of mindful tactile contact. Through perceiving the subtle work of the therapist and sharing nurturing, mindful contact with forgotten regions of the soma, the client is invited to make the unconscious body conscious, and in so doing come into a deeper sense of harmony with the self. When I say that my aim is to help my clients towards a deeper and more meaningful sense of embodiment, I’m speaking as much of psychic wholeness as physical health.
Indeed, the psychological significance of touch and physical contact runs deep, and the psychic and emotional space that can be engaged through the skin is quite real. In his monumental work Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu points out that in human embryology, the skin and the central nervous system develop out of a singular layer of cells, that they are two sides of the same primal organ of experience (1971, p. 5). In this sense, we might imagine the skin as the true window to the soul, and that skin-to-skin contact which is safe, nurturing, and mindful, may indeed have the potential to touch us to the core.
To awaken this potential as healers of the body we must be present, we must listen carefully, and above all, we must be mindful in our actions, in the navigation of this nonverbal somatic conversation. Such deliberate dialog with the body has been too long alienated both from our healthcare and our society as a whole. To develop sensitivity to the forgotten voice of embodiment, we begin by paying attention. And in learning the art of attention, sitting meditation has been, for me, a foundation to return to, again and again.
Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.
Maclean, A. et al. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination & sustained attention. Association for Psychological Science 21 (6)
Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York, NY: Harper & Row
Seigel, D. (2007). A Mindful Awareness. In The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company