Meditation Challenges: Relating Skillfully To A Negative Body Image
What’s the most skillful way to relate to a negative body-image: to emotional feelings and/or an internal voice that tends to be judgmental, derisive or contemptuous of our human body?
One possibility — which might seem like the obvious one — is to replace the “negative body-image” with a “positive body-image.” But if you’ve actually attempted to do this, you’ve likely discovered first-hand that it’s easier said than done. While some might indeed find success with such a strategy — with intentionally flooding the mind with uplifting imagery and positive self-talk; and generating feelings of joyful emotional energy in the body — for the majority of us such a strategy is just as likely to backfire into increased feelings of agitation, hopelessness and frustration.
Our True Body Is The Entire Universe
Why does replacing a “negative body-image” with a “positive body-image” so often fail to produce the results we were hoping for — namely, a comfortable and joyfully relaxed relationship with our body? The reason that this strategy often doesn’t work is because it leaves certain faulty assumptions unchallenged. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh points to the mistake that we tend to make, when he says:
“Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it comes the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free.”
The mistaken belief that we need to release is the belief in a limited, autonomous and separate “self” — which typically is rooted in a strong identification with the physical body. We believe that “who we are” essentially is this physical body; and that this physical body is inherently separate from all other physical bodies, and from its surrounding environment.
Once we see clearly that our human body is ever-changing and deeply interdependent with all-that-is, it becomes easier to relax with whatever changes are happening; and to understand that our “true body” is the entire universe!
Entering The Space Of Neutrality (Beyond Superiority, Inferiority & Equality)
When we’re driving a car, and want to shift from one gear to another — say from second-gear to third-gear — we first need to go through neutral. And something similar is true when we wish to “shift” from a negative body-image to a more wholesome and positive body-image: The first step needs to be entering “neutral.” Once we’ve entered deeply into the space of neutrality, we will discover that this neutrality (this spacious equanimity) actually contains — as a natural attribute of itself — the peace and joy that we were looking for.
So how do we go about accessing a sense of neutrality in relation to our experience of the body? There are certain mindfulness practices that can be extremely helpful in this regard, in particular: mindfulness of physical sensation, and mindfulness of breathing.
In both of these mindfulness practices, we connect with our human body as a lived experience: i.e. as kinesthetic patterns of sensation. In other words, we learn to feel the body directly “from the inside” — rather than relating to our body as an image (in the mirror or in our “mind’s eye”) or as a concept (via the narrative spun out by our “thinking mind”).
Mindfulness Of Breathing
Mindfulness of breathing is one aspect of mindfulness of the body. It can be practiced on its own, or as a warm-up for your body scanning practice. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the flow of your breathing: its inhalations and exhalations, and the space between each cycle of the breath.
As you inhale, feel the breath being drawn in through your nostrils; feel the expansion of your chest and ribcage; and feel the expansion of your deep belly.
As you exhale, feel the release of the abdomen; the relaxation of your chest and ribcage; and the feeling of your breath flowing out of your nostrils.
Continue for five or ten minutes, or longer — bringing your mind back to the sensations of the breathing, in your body, whenever you become distracted.
The body scanning practice is an excellent way of cultivating mindfulness of physical sensation in your body. In this video, the well-respected teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a lovely guided body scanning practice.
The basic idea is to slowly scan the body, from head to toe, simply noticing — moment by moment, and without mental commentary — whatever sensations happen to be arising. To be “mindful” of physical sensation in this way means to “keep in mind” or “remember” to pay attention to physical sensations. It means to be alert enough to notice when your mind wanders into distraction — e.g. thinking of the past or future, or mentally commenting on what’s happening now — and be committed to coming back to simply being aware of physical sensation.
In this practice — as well as in mindfulness of breathing — we witness physical sensation with an attitude of spaciousness, openness, benevolent indifference, and neutrality — as though we were a scientist observing (for the very first time!) a rare species of butterfly. We are “detached” from the physical sensations, though at the same time — and paradoxically — deeply intimate with them. We welcome whatever is arising, without interference — simply noticing the sensation arising, “dancing” for a while, and then dissolving back into the ever-present and unchanging “space” of awareness.
Over time, generating this kind of open, spacious and neutral attitude toward physical sensations — as well as to thoughts and images related to your body — will dissolve negativity, and support a naturally wholesome relationship with your human body.