‘Thoughts as Thoughts’ 5X5in prints — Original work by the author

Mind & Body

While I was still living in London I attended a talk given by a former university professor. It was presented as an evening of ‘deep thought and reflection on the future of spirituality’. Almost immediately, however, it was clear that this was no expert on spirituality, but a hobbyist who thought he’d come up with something profound: that for human beings to grow and move forward, we had to unite body with mind, instead of separating the two.

From the questions he was asked once he’d finished giving his talk, I deduced that I was far from a minority in finding what he had to say pretentious, uninformed and full of conceit. My personal slight came when he remarked that previously the ‘great spiritual teachers of the world’ — apparently classifying himself as a future great spiritual teacher — emphasised a separation of body and mind. This statement was accompanied by a slide with images of various religious deities and figureheads, including the Buddha. I am not familiar with the details of other religions regarding body and mind, but I can wholeheartedly and emphatically say that the Buddha most certainly didn’t teach that mind should transcend the body. Quite the opposite, in fact.

However, looking around that room, I was aware that we were people who had chosen to attend such a talk because it was an area that interested us. We were an audience who thought about these kinds of things and therefore, in the greater population, we may, in fact, be a minority in our understanding that spirituality is not a path of transcendence or separation, but one of interconnectedness.

I have thought of that talk many times in the years since I attended it, and while I cannot speak to other religions, and I am hardly an expert on Buddhism, I do consider myself qualified to speak to how this misunderstanding occurs — as someone who did once think that a spiritual path was about transcendence of all things material, the body included. In doing so I aim to dispel some of the myths specific to Buddhism, but also to share insight into the very grounded nature of spirituality.

On the surface, given its emphasis on meditation, it’s easy to assume that Buddhism does indeed focus on the mind. However — and anyone who has done introductory meditation will tell you this — the first thing covered when teaching almost any form of meditation, is not about the work we do with our mind, but about our body. In more formal settings, usually more traditionally Buddhist ones, posture is the first thing covered: how to sit, how to hold your spine and your head, where to put your hands, whether to have eyes closed or open ever so slightly and cast two to three feet ahead of you. In more secular settings a body scan is often done. The sitter is encouraged to notice where they are holding tension, to breathe into that tension, to wiggle a bit to loosen themselves up. And then, after posture is covered and the meditation begins, the focus is not on our thoughts, but on the breath — an autonomic function of the body.

This is because the aim of meditation is not to ‘not think’ or ‘be calm’, but to be present. Our thoughts tend to jump into the past or look forward to the future, bouncing around unrestrained, but our body is always in the present moment. It’s the only place it can exist — and it’s where the mind lives. Indeed, the entire practice of meditation is to develop awareness of how mind and body exist and work together and are dependent on one another, whether we are paying attention or not.

An interesting aside to this, and something which I have loved and embraced since I first learned of it, is how ‘mind’ is understood in Tibetan culture. While Buddhism is not from Tibet, it built solid roots there and much of the practices I do have been handed down along lineages developed in Tibet. Very early on in my studies I learned, when asked where the mind is, that Tibetans indicate their heart. I love this so much as it makes sense on a personal, but also, very practical scientific level.

Think of how we associate emotions with sensations in the body, often in the chest and around the heart. Elation, desire, sadness, grief — these often have physical sensations rooted in or strongest around the heart. All these emotions are chemical. They start in the brain, which sends the hormones throughout our bodies, creating the physical sensations we attribute to these emotions. What the Tibetans are recognising, is that the ‘mind’ is not synonymous with the brain. ‘Mind’ is the communication between the brain and the body, and the coming together of experience, thought, sensation and awareness. Again, it’s recognising that mind and body are synonymous. Without the body, there would be nowhere for the mind to reside.

Traditionally, in Western culture, logic and reasoning are given high value whilst emotions are widely seen as indicators of irrationality and deemed invaluable. Yes, emotions are normal, but we still expect people to be able to reason their way out or around them. Basically we’ve declared war between the ‘logical’ left brain and the ‘emotional’ right.

The problems with this line of thinking are numerous. Firstly, it equates language and thinking with logic. But meditating for just a short while quickly shows us how irrational a lot of our thinking can be. More often than not our neurotic responses come from a thought that’s not grounded in reality. This is because the brain gets bored. The left brain generates language, it recognises symbols and patterns. This doesn’t make it logical, it makes it analytical. On the other hand, the right brain, associated with creativity and emotions, is seen as irrational because these things aren’t given the same value as the functions that come out of the left brain. In fact, the right is visual and intuitive. And both sides have mutual responsibility for muscle function — the left controls the right side of the body, the right the left. The sides of the brain do not function independently of one another any more than the mind can function independently of the body.

This separation of the two sides of a single organ that functions to operate an entire human being creates an imbalance when it comes to rational thought. In studies of long-time Buddhist practitioners, and from my personal experience, when we cultivate awareness of intuition alongside verbal cues, we function better.

The lesson here is the importance of equanimity. When we become familiar with how the left and right brain operate in tandem, how the left processes what we hear and the right captures how we hear it, we are better able to understand what is being communicated.

Learning to give both sides of the brain due respect, to see how they work together and how the brain operates within the body, is a significant part of spiritual practice. It’s not about unifying, it’s about simply seeing: These things are relative and dynamic, intrinsically linked.

While this seems adequate enough evidence that Buddhism does not and never has taught a separation of body and mind, I wouldn’t want to conclude without clarifying the teachings on non-attachment, which could easily be seen as hypocritical to the assertion that mind and body function in union. This is, however, quickly cleared up by understanding what non-attachment means.

Non-attachment is our ability to let go. No to get rid of or reject, but to not cling onto. It’s a practice done to help us grow more comfortable with the inevitability of change. When Buddhist teachers speak of attachment, they’re speaking of the very human desire to make things static. We misguidedly seek comfort by trying to make permanent that which is not permanent, a way of being which causes great suffering.

Non-attachment to the body is not about separating from the body, which would be detachment, but about not clinging to it. Non-attachment to the body is learning to accept our body will age, it won’t work as well as it used to and we, like everything, are impermanent. i.e. Everybody dies.

Buddhism puts great emphasis on the importance of caring for our bodies while not getting overly protective of them. It is necessary as practitioners, if we want to use our life well, to do everything we can to ensure it is long and healthy. We are taught the preciousness of a human birth — of all the living things we could have been born as out of all the millions of creatures and plants, we actually get to be human. It is only as a human that we have the ability to cultivate awareness of the unity of body and mind, and so it’s only with a human birth that we have a shot at enlightenment. For this reason we should care for the body, treating it as we would the only vessel on an ocean-covered planet. It is an essential key to our enlightenment and should not be treated carelessly.

Developing an understanding of the unity of body and mind is just one aspect of spiritual practice. Meditation is a practice that brings our awareness to interconnectedness, to the fact that nothing exists objectively. We begin this within the ‘self’, as we learn to see how our thoughts influence our emotions or our emotions influence our thoughts and how we experience this within the body. How, upon close examination, we cannot find a singular ‘self’ at all. We are not singularly what we think or what we feel or what we experience. We are all these things, in combination, and constantly changing.

The reason we do practices to cultivate awareness of this interconnection is so we can begin to expand it. The next great wave* of spirituality is not to unify body and mind, but to see that all things are interconnected. What we do matters. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are global citizens and what happens ‘over here’ will and does and always has had an effect on what happens ‘over there’. Over there isn’t something we exist independently from. The entire Universe, just like our body and mind, is dynamic, changing and subjective.

And by ‘next great wave’ I mean yet another fundamental teaching of the Buddha that has been around for 2,500 years.

I have included references links within the text but want to give a particular nod to the work of Jill Bolte Taylor—especially her book My Stroke of Insight and accompanying TEDtalk.

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