Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulnessby Will Johnson
The emphasis on the mind in meditation can be somewhat misleading: If we pay attention only to mental processes and overlook the experience of the body, we can remain stuck in our heads and not be able to break free of the involuntary thinking that we find so claustrophobic and toxic. This short, practical guide helps us embrace the fact of our embodiment—the experience of the sensations, movements, and gestures of the body—and to realize that mindfulness is the natural state of awareness of a body that has learned how to experience its feeling presence. Johnson takes us through the three primary principles of the posture of meditation: alignment, relaxation, and resilience. He devotes a large part of each chapter to specific practices to help the reader experience different aspects of physical presence. This book is of interest to meditators of all traditions—Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and others—as well as therapists, bodyworkers, and anyone interested in body-centered psychology and other natural modes of healing.
"Finally a book on meditation instruction that fully addresses the role the body plays in spiritual growth. It's inspiring and free of obscure language."— Utne Reader
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"Let go of what is past. Let go of what is not yet. Observe deeply what is happening in the present moment, but do not become attached to it."—Siddhartha
The practice of mindfulness has been called "the royal road to enlightenment." A
central feature of Buddhist practice, it can be found in one form or another in all spiritual traditions whose goal is to awaken from the slumber of illusions into an awareness of what is truly and profoundly real. Mindfulness can perhaps best be defined as a condition of relaxed alertness in which we see what is here to be seen, hear what is here to be heard, feel what is here to be felt,
taste what is here to be tasted, smell what is here to be smelled, and are aware of the condition of the mind that either supports the clear perception of our sensory fields or interferes with it. The emphasis is always on what is here. In a condition of mindfulness, we do not hold on to or yearn for an event that has passed. Neither do we miss what is present by our anticipation of an event that is about to occur.
Although the practice of mindfulness can be incorporated into our formal meditation practices, its real beauty lies in its ability to transform the moment-to-moment passage of our everyday lives into an aspect of practice that is every bit as important and valuable as the time we spend sitting on our cushions. Taking up the practice of mindfulness can be a very humbling experience because when we first begin to practice, what we may be most aware of is how unmindful we generally are.
At least some of the difficulties that we experience when we begin to practice mindfulness can be ascribed to the connotations of the word itself. The word
would suggest that the practice focuses solely on the arena of our minds, but without establishing a bodily posture and base that can naturally support the condition of mindfulness, our attempts to remain mindful may be frustrated and unsatisfactory. Just as our attention during the practice of sitting meditation needs to be focused as much on creating a supportive posture with our bodies as on an exclusive focus on the activity of our minds, so, too, in the practice of mindfulness the posture and experience of our bodies are as important as the attitude and movements of our minds.
The very same principles that create the posture that has been shown to support the practice of sitting meditation are equally important in supporting the engaged practice of mindfulness. By applying the principles of alignment,
relaxation, and resilience to the structure and experience of the body, we create a condition in the mind that is naturally awake, aware, and mindful. If we don't pay adequate attention to establishing this bodily base, we may find ourselves floundering in our attempts to remain successfully mindful, not unlike a surfer who, in his eagerness to get out into the waves, overlooks the preparation of his board and finds that he misses wave after wave or, worse,
gets wiped out with every attempt.
Mindfulness is not just an action of the mind. It begins with an awareness of the body. If we can become adept at remaining aware of the constantly changing presence of the body through the establishment of the posture of meditation,
then the practice of mindfulness becomes a much less daunting undertaking. By working with the three major principles that cocreate the posture of meditation, the experience of mindfulness becomes far less elusive.
The structure of this book shares a similar format with
Posture of Meditation
1996) and can be considered a companion volume to that first book. Both books,
through text and exercises, explore the principles of alignment, relaxation,
and resilience and demonstrate how they provide the necessary foundation on which meditative awareness can establish itself naturally.
Posture of Meditation
however, focuses solely on the act of sitting meditation, what might be referred to as our formal spiritual practice. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have brought a sitting meditation practice into our lives are well aware of the benefits that come to us through that practice. Over time, however, we may come to realize that formal sitting practice, even though it adds a wonderful dimension to our lives, is not by itself enough. Perhaps we are able to sit for an hour in the morning. What about the other twenty-three hours of the day? If, as we go about our business through the rest of our waking hours, we lose or forfeit the meditative awareness that we have worked so hard to gain as we sit on our cushions, we may begin to feel discouraged in our ability to proceed along our path. It's a bit like taking three steps forward and two steps back. Why not instead view the rest of our life as informal practice and apply the very same principles of awareness that have been shown to support the practice of sitting meditation to our movement through life?
This is where the practice of mindfulness plays such a crucial role. Formal meditation practices are specialized events. We generally have to remove ourselves from the routines of our lives, shut our doors, and block out the noise and commotion of the outside world to practice. Mindfulness can be viewed as the way in which we take our formal practice back out into the world, back out into the routine activities of our lives. In this way, our formal and informal practices keep on supporting each other, and it becomes easier to take three full steps forward and no steps backward. In the words of S. N. Goenka, a contemporary teacher of vipassana meditation, "Continuity of practice is the secret to success." Through the practice of mindfulness, we can maintain the continuity of focused awareness even as we stand up from our cushions and go about our lives. Some students may even prefer to forgo the somewhat artificial situation of formal sitting meditation and focus all their attention and energy on the practice of mindfulness as they make their way through their lives,
minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.
The only way in which this book's presentation of mindfulness might be seen to differ from traditional presentations is in its emphasis on the pivotal role that the body plays in the practice. It is one thing to be passively aware that the body is standing or moving. It is another to feel every cell and sensation of the body as it stands or moves. Body ordinarily gets very bad press in most spiritual and religious circles. However, the practice of mindfulness asks us to open to the entire range of perceptions and experiences that we have in this present moment. If we consistently negate any one aspect of that experience, we effectively interfere with our ability to open to the truth of what is occurring right now. If we hold back on anything that passes through us in this moment, we remain as outsiders or observers of our lives rather than fully immersed participants. The practice of mindfulness can help us dismantle the formidable scaffolding of limiting views that we hold about ourselves and the world in which we live. Such a deconstruction, however, can only occur through a profound immersion into the very depths of experience, and the body is the only place in which we can experience anything. On its own, divorced from the felt presence of the body, the mind may do everything in its power to keep us at the surface of experience, preventing us from plunging into the depths of being. By opening to the full experience of body, however, we have no choice but to dive in deeply.
My insistence on including the full awareness of body in the practice of mindfulness has led me to craft the phrase "embodied mindfulness." We could just as well turn the wording around and view what is being presented here in this book as the practice of "the mindful body." Either way, these two great forces of experience, body and mind, are given equal emphasis. Only through such equality can a marriage of partners succeed. Only through such equality can the birthright that belongs to all of us, the waking from our dreams of discontent into a clear comprehension of our true nature, reveal itself as having never been lost after all. The quotation at the beginning of this introduction presents the essence of the entire teachings on mindfulness, and I
have broken it down into smaller phrases as a way of presenting the chapters on alignment, relaxation, and resilience. It is my sincere hope that already established students of mindfulness will find their practice powerfully augmented through the orientation and exercises presented here and that students new to the practice will get started on their journey literally on the right foot. May all beings be happy, in this very moment, in this very body!
Meet the Author
Will Johnson is a certified bodyworker and director of the Institute for Embodiment Training in his hometown of Cobble Hill, British Columbia.
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