The Awakening Body: Somatic Meditation for Discovering Our Deepest Life by Reginald Ray. Shambhala. 176 pp. $16.95
Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body by Reginald Ray. Sounds True. 416 pp. $19.95
Ever since I began meditating, I’ve found it natural to focus on the body. When my first teacher Larry Rosenberg gave his initial instructions, he said we could notice our breathing at the nostrils, in the chest, or in the belly, and I immediately focused on the belly, which I felt to be the center of my being long before I read any theories about it. By the time I began practicing Soto Zen with Josho Pat Phelan, I had been focused on that part of myself for a couple of years, and there was no transition to the new practice at all. Whatever problem came up in our sitting, even things that—like anxiety—seemed to be “mental,” her first question was, How is that in your body? Where do you feel it in your body? That process—of differentiating between the thoughts that were endlessly proliferating in the mind and the actual present experience of the body—was most fruitful.
In many ways my whole life had been leading me in that direction. My fourth novel, published just before I discovered meditation, was The Autobiography of My Body, and in the therapy I had done in the years preceding that novel, I’d worked with a therapist who was very much body based, and who had trained with Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics. As part of my therapy, I’d been doing the Bioenergetics exercises for years, and some of them resembled yoga asanas, and were a means of opening up the body.
I’ve wondered sometimes if there are body types and mind types in meditation, people who perceive things one way or the other. Larry Rosenberg, who was a very physical man in person, and who had had a yoga practice for years, nevertheless spoke most often of mind, of the vastness of mind. I stayed in touch with him for years after I’d started practicing Zen, and was telling him once of my experience of going into the body, that my experience was that the body seemed vast, in fact infinite.
“That’s the mind,” Larry said.
I didn’t disagree. But I honestly experienced it as body.
I never thought someone needed to write about body practice, or talk about it too much. Bring your attention into the body: that seemed instruction enough. It seemed strange, for instance, that Chan Master Sheng Yen had written a whole book entitled, The Method of No Method. Why weren’t the pages blank? And though at our zendo we sometimes included other body practices, like Qigong, or Sensory Awareness, we always depended on a skillful teacher, which we fortunately always found. Body practice seemed to be something that had to be transmitted body to body. It wasn’t easy to talk about.
For that reason I resisted Reginald Ray’s Touching Enlightenment for months. I saw it in bookstores, read an excerpt in a magazine, leafed through it. I didn’t see why someone needed to write a book on the subject. But a friend in the Shambhala lineage—which has been a major influence on me—told me it was definitely worth reading, so I finally broke down and bought it, and at this point have read it three or four times, given it as a gift, discussed it at length with my wife. It’s one of the most important books on spiritual practice I’ve come across.
I therefore purchased The Awakening Body as soon as it came out. I couldn’t imagine what Ray had to add to the earlier volume, though I was eager to know. “Maybe he’ll expand on what he said in the appendices,” my wife said, and in a way that is what he did. But I would say this later, more slender volume, is a natural deepening of his teachings. He’s been leading what he now calls somatic meditation retreats for years, and has more to say.
A few things about the man himself. Ray was a student of Chogyam Trungpa from very early on; he had also studied religion as an academic subject, and worked with the famous religious scholar Mircea Eliade. When he first met Trungpa his instinct was to give himself up to practice and drop the academic work altogether, but Trungpa saw his academic work as important and insisted he continue. His early books—which I have not read, though they’re on my list—seem to be scholarly works. I think of Touching Enlightenment as the first book where Ray spoke as a teacher rather than a scholar. I don’t think he necessarily quarreled with the Shambhala organization, but respectfully separated from them once Trungpa died and started his own organization, Dharma Ocean, which I believe he would call the true lineage of Trungpa. He writes superbly. And he’s done some fascinating interviews as well. My favorite—a must read—is one he did a few years ago about the chakras.
The Awakening Body expands on Touching Enlightenment in that it describes some alternative practices that Ray uses in addition to sitting meditation, though he sees them all as forms of meditation, despite the fact that most begin in a supine position. Most will not sound unfamiliar to someone who has done Soto Zen; he speaks of Yin Breathing, which is really just breathing into the Hara; he describes breathing into the Central Channel, which is something I’ve naturally felt; the Whole Body Breathing and Rooting is a lot like what Master Sheng Yen wrote about, though Ray goes into more detail, and what he calls Earth Descent seems something that naturally happens in a sitting practice. Of particular interest is Twelve-Fold Lower Belly breathing, which involves conscious long exhalations that resemble the way we breathe at our zendo as we chant. It also resembles the method of breathing that Katsuki Selkida talks about in Zen Training. It’s definitely calming to begin a sitting by exhaling deeply into the belly.
But Ray is most inspiring when he waxes eloquent about what this body practice really is, and does. Here, for instance, he talks about the tension that we naturally feel when we begin to focus on our bodies.
“Your tension is not something fundamentally impure or evil. It is not like pollution. Tension is basic energy; it is the life force; that life force originally came from the earth via the lower belly, the source, and gave birth to everything we are; and it continues to flow into us moment by moment to nourish and give us life. But in tension, we are misusing the life force that always ultimately belongs to the earth; we are, in a way, damming it up, possessing it for our own, and trying to have it serve our need to fuel the apparent existence of an isolated ego. When we release tension, we are simply returning the dammed-up energy of life to its original status as the primordial life force.”
Though he is not a practitioner of Zen, he gives one of the best explanations I’ve ever heard for Dogen’s famous phrase “drop body and mind.”
“By ‘body’ he means here the tensed-up, conceptualized body we have been speaking of, the body we assume ourselves to have; by mind, he means the tensed-up, reactive emotional/mental process of separating and retreating into mental disconnection. You let both fall away and what remains is the naked Soma, present to itself, aware of itself. This is the moment of realization for Dogen and all of us.”
He also speaks of the limitless feeling to the body that I spoke of to Larry Rosenberg.
“When we hear about this vastness of our body—that it has no boundaries and that our Soma in fact includes the cosmic Totality of what is—we might suspect dissociation. But this is not a dissociated state; in fact, it is the opposite. The ego is the dissociated state. To awaken to the cosmic dimension of our own body is to be, finally, fully 100 percent present and embodied, because this is the actual situation of our incarnation. The more we attend to our Soma and the more fully we come into it, without judgment or conceptualization, the more we see what our body actually is: it is limitless. We feel grounded, rooted, and physically completely present; we feel fully embodied and absorbed in concrete, present reality in this way; and, when we arrive there, we find our Soma is this limitless, this infinitely inclusive, domain.”
Inspiring words. If there’s a problem, it’s that they’re almost too inspiring; we find ourselves trying to connect with the whole cosmos, when the key is to connect to just this, whatever small thing is happening. That’s where the vastness can be found.
I can’t recommend these books too highly. They continue to deepen my practice.
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