Category Archives: body image

Mindfulness and the Mirror

With the moment to moment practice of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, noticing how thoughts and emotions pass through my experience, I find myself in a much kinder and healthier relationship with my body. I think of the Cat Stevens song ‘Miles to Nowhere’ when he sings, ‘Lord my body has been a good friend. But I won’t need it when I reach the end.’ It’s such a reminder of the impermanence of the body and also gives me a way to be kind to my body. It is indeed a good friend! It affords me to experience this life, all these sensations and interactions that would not be possible otherwise.

But this sense of friendliness to my body has not come easily, as any western woman understands completely. How much of my brain activity has been expended over these many years on the ‘flaws’ and ‘imperfections’? How long did I buy into the idea that to the degree that this body didn’t meet the ideal standard of the current culture, I had failed in some way? And to what degree are those ideas still embedded in my thoughts?

We had a rich discussion in class this week on our relationship to our bodies, and especially about continually coming to terms with the changes that occur as the body is affected by a combination of gravity, time, sun exposure, stress and health care. More and more the mirror belies the person we feel we are. My mother removed all the mirrors in her house except a small one on the back of the bathroom door, and she only used it to make sure nothing was stuck in her teeth. She had sailed for four years and her Anglo-Irish skin was so deeply wrinkled from sun exposure that she couldn’t handle the sight of herself! She was a lively vibrant woman, regardless of her wrinkles, but every time she got a glimpse of that ‘hag’ she was dragged down.

Have you ever had that feeling? You get a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and wonder who that is? Not you! Or have you ever been out in the evening having a wonderful time and then you excuse yourself to go to the lady’s room where the lights are harsh and you return to the party chastened by that cruel sight of yourself in the mirror? As a kindness to each other we should all make sure our bathroom lighting is soft enough to make any guest look as beautiful as she feels inside. Now that’s a good hostess!

The class seemed to be in agreement that the numbers we are awarded on our birthdays seem less and less a fit to our ideas of who we are. But why would a number match? As children the age number was a pretty predictable indicator of size and behavior of a majority of kids. But the bigger the number, the less predictable it is, because so much of how our bodies age has to do with how we treat them. My mother died at 73 of emphysema, the same age her mother died. They both smoked. My mother’s younger sister was convinced she would also die at 73, a family tradition. But she never smoked and she lives on in pretty good health and happier than ever at the age of 88 in a loving relationship with a much younger man.

This week my youngest granddaughters turn three and five, and the number is such a big deal. A friend of mine taught the older one the Barbara Streisand song ‘I’m five, I’m five, I’m a big girl now, I’m five!’ and she was thrilled to be such a big girl. But for us by now the thrill of the number is gone. The older we get the less that number means, and our attachment to it really doesn’t serve us. Let’s celebrate each birthday as the anniversary of our birth, with gratitude for the great gift of life. But let’s let go of the numbers game that is such an inaccurate a reflection of reality.

The practice of mindfulness can help us take care of our bodies in a way that supports health and strength. I’ll never forget when a doctor told me ‘as a kindness to your heart you could lose some weight.’ That was such a wonderful way to put it, and as a result I have lost a pound a month over the past eighteen months without any real effort except remembering to be kinder to my heart.

Being mindful we can notice when we are holding two contrary opinions. One student in class recognized that she was grateful for her body enabling her to experience life but at the same time unhappy with her aging body. Such skillful noticing! What contrary pairings do you notice about your body? Can you hold them up to the light of your awareness with compassion? Not making yourself wrong? Just noticing, and maybe marveling at the complexity of the human mind?

Wisdom from one student’s grandmother: ‘There are only two ages: alive and dead.’

Of course we all die, but our routes to that common destination are very different. My aunt’s belief that she would die at 73 is a good example of how we make assumptions based on what we have observed of other people’s experience. But we will have different experiences because we are in different bodies, and even if we have a similar experience we will experience it in our own unique way. If we’re raging about the unfairness of it, if we’re in denial, if we are doing everything we can to escape from it, we’ll no doubt suffer. But here we are practicing opening to whatever the present moment brings, and who knows? Maybe this practice will serve us well whatever we face in the future.

In the group there was also a collective nostalgia for the young girls we once were. But then there was a recognition that that little girl is still here, still part of who we are, still alive and well. And this reminded me of my recent intention to include all of who I am in everything I do. Leave no part of me out, not that little girl, not that young woman, and not the old woman yet to be. Her wisdom has often guided me at difficult turns, and I certainly don’t intend to deny her now that I see her appearing in the mirror.

When we are fully present, conscious of the fleeting precious gift that is this moment, we are less likely to think that having a ‘perfect’ body is going to make us more lovable. We can see how obsessing about supposed imperfections and spending time and money grasping at youth is a sure way to isolate ourselves. Through mindfulness we activate compassion, both for ourselves and others, creating true loving connection. And much more fun!

Contemplation of the Body – First Foundation of Mindfulness

We have talked about the breath and the postures. The next traditional meditation in the First Foundation of Mindfulness is a focus on the individual parts of the body, starting with hair on our head and the rest of the body and ultimately looking at the overall functioning of the body, the systems, how all the parts work together. We won’t be doing this in our class, but if interested you can check out this meditation practice on or look for a retreat on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

Why did the Buddha create this practice? What is the benefit? The Buddha offered practices that bring about awareness and balance. Awareness of the breath and sensation anchor us in the present moment. But what does awareness of body parts provide?

The Buddha’s students were primarily men, often young men, whose bodies were most likely a source of pride and pleasure, and full to the brim with testosterone. This made for an easily distractible mind. So the Buddha had them take a more dispassionate in-depth look at what makes up the human body, including parts they never thought about and some they only joked about such as the gas and liquids the body emits. We can imagine how a hormonally-charged group of young men — enamored of their own bodies’ prowess and easily brought to a mental state of lust by the sight of, say, a young woman walking by — could be brought into a more sober state of awareness through this practice. It brings the body into the realm of impersonal universal functionality. If sometimes these handed-down practices promote the ‘loathsomeness’ of the body, it is meant as a counterbalance to over-indulgence in bodily pleasures. The ultimate goal of the practice is to develop a more neutral relationship with the body, one that allows for moderation and balance.

The Buddha’s primary teaching was the Middle Way, tempering extremes of all kinds, so with any group of meditation practitioners, we look to the challenges of that particular group when sharing the teachings. As my students are a group of women, mostly postmenopausal, the Buddha most likely would have had a different prescription for us to help us find the Middle Way through the minefield of our relationship with the body.

Would a lengthy meditation on the parts of the body be useful to us? Maybe, but we in the 21st Century are probably much more aware of the various body parts from a workings perspective than the average person cerca 500 BC. Even if our understanding is not always accurate, we are exposed to and have access to an amazing amount of information. We even have access to a ringside seat at quasi-demonstrations of surgical procedures through medical television series, should we choose to watch them. And, though not all of us are interested in going to see it, there is that amazing and controversial exhibit of human anatomy, The Human Body Show, where preserved human bodies are skinned to reveal their inner workings.

In our group, we are of an age that we ourselves and/or close friends and family members have had surgical procedures and/or serious illnesses, so that when someone in our group shared her recent surgery, everyone in the circle seemed very knowledgeable, asked informed questions and knew others with a similar surgery. Of course this doesn’t mean we are qualified to perform surgery or diagnose an illness, but it does mean that human anatomy is not alien to us. If anything, we may be out of balance in focusing on the pathology — everything that can go wrong with this organ or that bone, tendon, muscle, etc. It is pretty standard in our techno-times for people to Google whatever symptom they have and discover a terrifying array of possible diseases. With exposure to information about micro-organisms that live within and without our bodies, we can develop germaphobia and get stuck in thought patterns regarding the body.

Clearly, our challenge today is a different one than the Buddha’s students had, and it’s not just the aches and pains. Through the same media that gives us sneak peeks into our innards, we also come up against fear-based identity issues. We are bombarded with the current ‘ideal body’ to strive for. Younger women have even more sense of need to take an already beautiful body and bring it into alignment with today’s extreme ideals, having pubic hairs removed or breasts augmented, among other currently common procedures. And young men today are far more likely to have procedures to make their bodies suit the current male ideal than their fathers and grandfathers were. We had a good laugh in our group imagining our husbands or fathers ever thinking that they needed to do anything other than shower and shave. But now it’s not just women who feel they must make their bodies objects of desire.

In the Buddha’s day there were certainly fashions and cosmetics. Women may have compared their looks to those of their sisters and friends, but they did not have images of anorexic models constantly streamed into their lives as we do. The inundation of this imagery, all geared to make us feel we are not enough as we are — not just in our body but in our lives — is incredibly intense today. Advertisers build their campaigns upon activating our fears. And it works!

So we are both more informed about the internal workings of our bodies and more traumatized in relationship to our bodies. If the Buddha were transported to this moment in time, what would he think of all this? He would most likely be astounded at the level of dissatisfaction with our bodies. Monks from Asia who come to the West today are amazed at our propensity for self-loathing and shame.

As a culture we in the West are perceived as incredibly materialistic. Why do we buy, buy, buy? To shore up our low self-esteem. Many of us live in an ‘if only’ state of mind. ‘If only I had plastic surgery.’ ‘If only I had those shoes.’ We fill the void within ourselves with stuff and self-improvements, and much of that stuff is to improve the impression we make on others. Heaven forbid they should see us as we are, because who we are is never enough. ‘If only I lost ten, twenty or thirty pounds,’ ‘if only I had the time or willpower to do the that butt lift program.’ Very few of us are completely satisfied with our bodies exactly as they are. And those that are may live in fear of losing that which they are so satisfied about.

Honestly I had thought by the time I had reached this ripe old age, I would have been able to let go a bit. I picture my beloved grandmother, all soft and round and wrinkled. She was perfect in my eyes! Did I really think that after a certain age the women of my generation would suddenly say, oh it’s time to start wearing calf-length silky dresses, sensible pumps, and not worry about our waistline? I am of a generation that strives for the perfect figure and probably always will. Bummer! But then maybe it is just my assumption that my grandmother wasn’t vain. I do remember when we shared a room on visits, we would race to see who could get dressed first, and I always won because she had to put on a girdle. She was born at a time when women still wore corsets with strings that had to be pulled, sometimes with someone’s foot on the butt to get traction. Good grief! She must have felt the girdle was easy breezy in comparison.

This is all an introduction to the opportunity to explore our own thoughts and feelings about our bodies. Questions we might ask explore:

  • What are your least favorite parts of your body? Do you ‘hate’ your hair, for example? Think of one and spend some time with it.
  • What is the basis of your dislikes and likes? Is a particular part painful, unreliable, troublesome, prone to disease, or just doesn’t meet the standards of attractiveness promoted in your culture?
  • Can you remember when this dislike started? Can you remember a scene or scenes from your earlier years when somehow it was suggested to you, either directly or indirectly, that this part of your body was not acceptable?

Think of a part of your body that you take pleasure and pride in.

  • Allow yourself to remember the ways in which it has provided you with good feelings.
  • Notice if these good feelings are due to this body part being reliable, pleasurable, healthy, or because it meets the standards of attractiveness in your culture.
  • Again, bring to mind any scenes from early years that might help to answer the question of why this body part gets such a positive review.

Now, add in the element of aging.

  • Has aging changed your feelings toward your favorite and least favorite body parts? Is a part that has been a source of reliability, pride or pleasure becoming less so? If so, explore how that has revealed itself, give yourself examples. Then notice your emotions as you think about this change. Perhaps you have come up with a phrase that you tell yourself to make this all okay, or you have ignored it. But right now allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to whatever emotions are stirred up.

We sit with what is. We acknowledge what is. We don’t pave over what is. If what is is painful, we hold this pain in an open loving embrace. We don’t push it away. Instead we open wider to make more space for all of what is there. Think of creating a spacious field of being present and you are hosting whatever thoughts and feelings arise and fall away, however strong they are, rather than being held hostage by them.

This is just an exercise. We just open and notice and acknowledge whatever arises. We let our own experience exist without judging it. If there is judgment, we compassionately notice the judgment. This is the exercise. This is the process of being fully present with the truth of our own experience.

How much energy do we expend on avoiding these feelings? If we can sit with them in a mindful open loving way, we may be surprised how they begin to relax, release, change, soften, and even sometimes disappear. Our avoidance holds them in a stasis! Our aversion constricts them in crystallized fear.

The Buddha taught that the source of our suffering is our attachment, aversion or delusion. The way we feel about our body, or any particular part of our body, is an excellent laboratory for working with these sources of suffering. If we can notice, if we can be present, if we can allow for this process to expose what we are doing with our habituated patterns of thinking, then we can lessen that sense of suffering.

Years ago I recognized that my relationship to my feet was a source of suffering for me. I hated them! They were ugly and painful. As a child, I had dry cracked feet that were the cause of much teasing from other children. I was always ashamed of them. I would hide them away as much as possible. Later I developed bunions that were painful and ugly. This compounded my dismay.

Then in a spiritually-based creativity class I took about 15 years ago, I focused on my feet, and created a mandala of photos of feet that I collaged from magazines. In the process I began to feel deep gratitude for my feet that have carried me everywhere. My mandala was ultimately a thank you note to my feet, the very feet that in my mind had been such a source of misery. That simple process of spending time with noticing feelings about my feet, transformed my relationship with them and activated a gratitude that has stayed with me all these years later.

If you have a body part that takes you to a place of shame or misery, give yourself some time to focus on this area. Maybe create a mandala or journal about your feelings. The key is to not come up with any solutions, not to force ‘positive’ emotions to replace the ‘negative’ ones, but to really be present with the feelings, to allow the process to work at its own pace and come to its own end, without the ‘should’ mind trying to make nice-nice. If you give it time, it will get to where it needs to be.

Coming to a balanced neutral state of mind in relationship to the body, where we are neither enamored, prideful nor ashamed — that is the purpose of this exercise. Next week we will expand our focus a bit and avail ourselves of more insights in our last body-focused exercises, as recommended by the Buddha.

Spacious Action

As we continue on our second exploration of the Eightfold Path together (see early 2009 posts for first exploration,) we are experimenting with inserting the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ before each of the eight aspects to see how it affects our understanding, fully understanding that this is just an exploration, not a rewriting of the traditional teachings.

What does spaciousness affect our understanding of right action? Is there a difference between right or wise action and spacious action?

For me ‘spacious action’ feels like there is time to act skillfully and from the source. There’s no need to hurry when we have the time to act in a way that honors our intention to be present and compassionate in all we do.

Spacious action arises out of the sense of interconnection with all that is, fully aware of the supportive nature of the web of being, giving us time to consider the rightness of our action, to be sure that it is kind, conscious, caring, timely and true.

Have you had the experience of walking fully embodied, fully sensing in to the sensation of foot meeting ground, arms swinging through air, the texture of clothes shifting on thighs, the sights, sounds and smells that we encounter as we walk? Our first instruction in meditation is to sense in to the body, to become aware of the breath and other sensations in order to be fully present in this moment. So likewise our first action would follow the same course, sensing in to the body and all its sensations, grounding ourselves in the full awareness of this present moment.

I remember having dinner one night at Il Fornaio and on the way back to the table from the restroom, I practiced being fully present, walking at a normal pace – not slowed down as I usually am in a walking meditation – and feeling fully ensconced in life in that moment. The destination existed in my consciousness as a slender thread of thought rather than a dominating goal. I was able to fully savor all aspects of that rich experience – walking in the soft light of a restaurant filled with people dining and talking and enjoying themselves, and feeling very much at one with the whole of the experience, with the whole of life.

This is spacious action, this being fully present in this moment. So fully in the moment that it is quite unlikely I would have bumped into anyone, causing a disruption or accident. It felt like a beautiful dance, as if I was awake to appreciate a particularly lovely sequence in an ongoing dream.

Let’s contrast this to my usual experience of returning from a restaurant restroom where my mind is already back at the table, and my body is hurrying to catch up, so eager am I to not miss any of the conversation. What poverty there is in an action that perceives only two points on the path – the bathroom to meet a physical need and the return to the table to meet a social need. The point of spacious action is to have a full awareness of the whole experience, not just the two end points.

Now if on the way back to the table, I got so caught up in the goings on that I lost sight of my final destination then that would be spacey action, not spacious action. Spacious action seeks a balance between our sensory ability to savor the moment and fulfilling whatever we set out to accomplish.

Any advanced practitioner of Tai Chi, Chi Gung or other ways of working with the body to align with the universal energy (called Chi or Qi in these traditions, but has many other names in other traditions,) would probably find Spacious Action to be a familiar way of being in the world. The instructor teaches the right way to do something, but until the action is aligned with that universal energy, arising out of a sense of connection, the student is only trying to replicate what he or she sees the teacher doing. At some point there may be a subtle shift into Spacious Action, and the teacher will recognize that the student ‘gets it.’ The student then tries to get it again, and may get caught in a struggle of over-efforting, but eventually is able to recognize that subtle shift, that releasing into a sense of being held and interconnected instead of an isolated bag of bones and muscles that must slog through the world on will power alone, doing battle against all comers.

Now of course it’s one thing to feel spacious while relaxed in a restaurant or engaged in doing Tai Chi, but what about in all those other more challenging situations that we find ourselves in on a daily basis? And what about when some extra challenge arrives in the form of a loss or a threat? Where’s our spacious action then?

This is why we have the practice, returning again and again to our intention to be present and compassionate. In this way our minds become spacious, our hearts become spacious and our lives, in turn, become more spacious.

In this and coming weeks we will explore what Spacious Action means in the various areas of our lives. We will share teaching stories that reveal the universal patterns of behavior that either cause suffering from a sense of isolation or joy from a sense of interconnection.

As we explore, we may begin to notice that it is always in relationship that actions take place. In relationship to our bodies, our families, our homes, our friends, our co-workers, the earth and all inhabitants of all species, our work, our play, and our way of being in the world. It is not our body, our family or anyone else that is the cause of our problems. It is how we relate to them, our habituated patterns of behavior, and often our tight fearful un-spacious action.

Spacious Action then is really Spacious Interaction, acknowledging that it is all in the relationships, the connections, and whether we feel connected, supported and supportive.

Because we begin meditation practice by sensing in to the body, it seemed appropriate to start our exploration with our relationship to our body and how we hold this aspect of our being in awareness. This is an area many of us struggle with. I do. I observe my struggle, am sometimes a bit bemused by it, but it is certainly an area where Spacious Action is often lacking in my life.

Why? Well, it shifts over time, but currently I’m noticing a dialog, sometimes an argument, between a voice that wants me to be as healthy and able-bodied as possible and a voice that waxes poetic about how grandmas get to be round, roly-poly and cozy, and certainly don’t have to deny themselves sweets or anything else wonderful. In fact they should be producing delicious baked goods for all their loved ones, even if it kills them!

Just being aware of the players in an inner dialog is enough to start a rich journey of noticing. So I won’t put on a little play here with my cast of characters. Instead I ask you to notice your own cast of characters. You can begin by identifying at least one major player in your life right now in the area of your body or your health. This might bring up issues about aging, the natural changes that happen to the body that bring up other issues perhaps. Just be noticing the voices and sort them out a bit.

Although I began doing inner dialogs on my own before I became a student of Buddhism, I was delighted to later discover that it is a time-honored Buddhist practice as well. It is a skillful way to recognize the variety of thoughts going on in our minds and to explore the sources and associative images that come forth in attitudes, beliefs and expressions that more often than not are harsh and abusive. I teach it in the way that I practice it, and that has been useful to me. I don’t know if it strays from traditional teachings, but I do know that it is a valuable and effective tool for self-discovery.

You may be saying ‘Wait a minute! What voices in my head?’ This practice is for meditators who have sufficient experience to recognize that their thoughts are not pure expressions of self, but more a river of mostly unconscious patterns that pass through our awareness, that could just as easily be anyone else’s thoughts. This is not to say that we do not have a certain amount of unique expression as these thoughts travel through the patterns of filters created by our inherited tendencies and acquired experiences. But through meditation and the development of mindfulness, we see with growing clarity that these thoughts do not define us.

This understanding liberates us to feel free to explore them and learn from them. We do not bar the doors or evict them, as that technique doesn’t work and has long term negative repercussions. Instead we bring our compassionate respectful attention to discover what it is that these inner aspects are afraid of and then we respectfully negotiate a reasonable way to address these fears without letting the aspect/voice dictate our actions.

So first we notice a thought going through our mind, some generally negative statement that we recognize as ongoing or recurring, a belief about ourselves or the world and our relationship to it. Recognizing the general tone and area of focus of this thought helps us to see it more clearly, and is further enhanced if we give it an affectionate descriptive nickname, so that we will recognize it each time it arises. I remember at one point having a full cast of characters, one named Lumpy because he was kind of a lump on a log, not wanting to do anything. Another was named Striver because he had such over-efforting exhausting ambition. And I’ve talked in the past about Slug, who hated exercise and just wanted to stay in bed because it was like a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy.

Hmmm, why are all these inner voices male? That’s something to explore for me.

Once we notice and name an aspect, we are ready to have a dialog. We can develop a set of questions to help us understand them better, and the first and foremost question to ask of any negatively charged voice within our thoughts is “What are you afraid of?” This question is not a challenge. It is not calling the aspect a scared-y-cat, which would just shut down any possibility of fruitful inner dialog. If this happens we need to pause and access our deepest most compassionate awareness to call forth and be respectful of the truth of each aspect’s fear-based view of the world.

It isn’t very helpful to have two fear-based aspects carrying on a dialog. Therefore, the dialog process is only useful once we have begun to experience Spacious Mindfulness. From that clarity, we can be skillful in our inquiry. If we are unable to access that compassionate clear inner voice, the one that has no agenda but to hold all life in an open embrace, then we will want to focus on our meditation practice and just practice noticing and simply questioning the veracity of our harsh judgments. ‘Is that true? How do I know that’s true?’

So I hope you will find time during the week, perhaps after meditation or after a walk in nature, to record an inner conversation with an aspect that has the strongest opinions about your body. Making a record in a journal or in whatever form is comfortable for you, helps to stay on track, making a distinction between a formal dialog and a meandering train of thought.

This working with our relationship to our bodies is probably one of the most personal areas we will be exploring, and we won’t be discussing our discoveries in next week’s class. This homework is for ourselves alone. Bring as much spaciousness to the inner exploration as possible.

In coming weeks we will be looking at different areas where spacious interaction would bring about joy rather than suffering.