First Noble Truth: Embodiment as Awareness

We’ve been exploring the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. We have re-visited a couple of dharma talks on the topic and discussed our own experience of the First Noble Truth.

When we revisit a subject, especially one as big as the First Noble Truth, naturally we see areas that were not covered in the first go-round. For me, one of these areas is embodiment. What is embodiment? It is, quite simply, coming home to our bodies, to the sensations in our bodies, to anchoring our awareness in these sensations in order to stay present in the moment.

In class we do a lot of embodiment practice as we settle in to our meditation. We come into awareness of the whole body, as an energetic field, and we practice concentration practice on specific areas of the body, or on specific sensation, like the rising and/or falling of the breath or the sounds we hear as we sit.

But I don’t believe I have focused on this embodiment in my dharma talks, and as I reread the talks, with an eye to editing them into book-form, I see that this is a gaping hole in my writing, especially since I happen to be reading a book of essays titled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.

Exploring our relationship with our bodies is a vital and valid practice. It is a primary relationship and for most women, one that is fraught with much suffering — physical, emotional and mental. So it is a very useful place to explore the First Noble Truth. There is suffering. Yeah! So I’ve noticed! Ouch!

I just read an essay by Linda Chrisman titled ‘Birth.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and a woman who had done a great deal of body-focused awareness practice in many different forms, she had a hard time accepting the fact, in retrospect, that she had experienced so much pain in childbirth. She had thought all her meditation and body awareness practice would exempt her from the pain that birthing women have experienced throughout history.

She writes, “..it was only after giving birth and feeling like a failure that I realized I had expected these practices to protect me from pain.”

Through the process of writing about her experience, she saw that the point of all her practices was not to protect her from pain. Instead, they had given her the gift of being conscious and fully present for the powerful sensations that are a part of the birthing process.

This brings up such a good question about our own motivations for meditation practice. Are we expecting our practice to protect us from pain? When we experience mental, emotional or physical pain, do we feel like we must not be doing something right, that an awakened being is beyond pain?
Let’s be clear that the only being beyond pain is a corpse. And even though that’s where we will all end up, practice or no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

As you may recall Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and was a key figure in turning people on to awareness in the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s he had a stroke, and I remember his account of being strapped to a gurney and being pushed through the hospital corridor. He felt that all his years of meditative practice had forsaken him. What was it all for, if, at this moment of crisis, he was absolutely terrified and confused?

His experience of a stroke momentarily threw him for a loop. But after that initial derailment, his lifelong focus on awareness gave him a way to be with his experience, with all the losses of ability, with the loss of the life as he had known it, and he was able to find his way again. He was able to complete his book on conscious aging, titled Still Here.

That moment when he felt forsaken reminds me of how Jesus on the cross asked God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I imagine that Jesus must have previously felt so supported in his own ‘practice’ of sensing his connection to God and to his fellow beings. But on that cross, in that moment of extreme physical and emotional pain, despair arose within him as it would for any of us, as it did for Ram Dass. And one can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the point? If in the moment you most need support, the rug is pulled out from under you, what’s the point of the practice?’

But this moment passes. Whether it’s a moment in meditation where we feel we will never ‘get it’ or a moment on the scale when we feel no matter what we do we will never lose those pounds, or a moment where we have received awful news, personal or global, that leaves us wondering why bother going on when life is so sad or scary? Meditation does not make us immune to this experience. Meditative practice is not a vaccine that protects us from pain. To believe that is just one more prescription for suffering.

There is no practice, belief or behavior that will create a magic protective shield against life. And really, is that what we want? To arrive at death’s door untouched by life, as if we’d never pecked open the shell of our lives and allowed ourselves room to grow?

No, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we want to experience this earthly life fully, not by simply checking off a bucket list of things we want to do before we die, but by being fully available for whatever experience we go through, planned or unplanned, deserved or undeserved, pleasant or unpleasant. We live fully by letting life in, by letting it carve our hearts a little deeper, fill our skin with wrinkles, sags and cellulite, and letting life use up our cartilage, leaving us aching. We let life in so that we may know what it is to be alive as soft complex animals on a verdant planet traveling through vast space.

So the point of the practice is to develop awareness, not to create an insulating shield. The point is to develop compassion for ourselves and all life, to feel deeply connected to this collective is-ness of energetic being, purring in the delight of being alive.

So if you have been feeling a failure because your practice has not yet delivered the pure perfect contentment you desire, ask yourself instead if it has delivered on the only promise it ever made: that you might become more aware and more compassionate.

If things are so painful, why do we want to be aware of them? Because when we are not aware, when we go numb or unconscious, we not only experience pain but we create incredible amounts of additional suffering for ourselves and others.

The distinction between pain and suffering is crucial. This earthly existence provides abundant opportunities to experience pain — pain in our bodies through accident or illness, and pain in our hearts through loss and misunderstanding. But when we compound this pain by borrowing from the past or the future — remembering previous pains and fearing this pain will go on forever – then we suffer.

Embodiment, the practice of centering our awareness in physical sensation, helps us to make this distinction. When we notice pain, with awareness we can distinguish between the sensations that we are experiencing as unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and the emotions and thoughts that rush in around the experience. This is the practice.

The practice does not erase pain. And at moments of extreme pain, it might even seem as if the practice has forsaken us, as it did for Ram Dass in that moment of panic flat on his back on a gurney, his body screaming, his mind in anguish, being pushed through the hospital corridors.

But in fact, when our panic subsides, we find the benefits of the practice we have cultivated are there to support us. The practice doesn’t flatten the sea of our experience. Instead it provides us the means to navigate more skillfully, even allowing us to be present enough to surf the waves, savoring the experience of life as it is in this moment.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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