issue 26 Winter/Spring 05
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Attuned to the body

Having freed up painful blocks through focused listening, Katherine Thanas Zen teacher highlights the power of awareness to release deeper energies.

A student once told me, 'Now I understand why it's so important to sit still and not move. When you move, you don't find out what you are moving away from. When you sit still, you can experience what you want to move away from.'

I thought that was pretty good. It sums up my personal practice of going to the body for answers when I do not understand what is arising in my life. It sounds obvious. When something arises physically, you would naturally go to the body to inquire about it. Yet I have found that most of us do not realise we must listen to our bodies. Long ago we turned off the voice of the body. The body obediently went silent as we agreed not to notice our emotional or sensing life. Although our bodies continue to hold in silence what was stuffed or repressed there, a time comes when the body finally needs to speak out - in its own voice - to catch our attention.

In my own experience, that speaking out has happened in practice through physical symptoms that could no longer be ignored. And the response that seems to work is to sit still, or lie down, and coax out what I have long excluded from awareness. This deep listening arises only through being still, with patience. It happens by bringing attention to the body without expectation, as one might attend a friend who is ill, as a kind of servant of the body.

I recently heard a long-time Buddhist teacher talk about her experiences of depression, terror and helplessness that arose from a family history of abuse. Through her practice she learnt to make space for those feelings. She discovered that depression is just depression, and that when we are afraid of our feelings we make them as powerful as demons. It's just depression, she said. If we let it in, inhale it, feel it and exhale it, it will naturally transform - like all phenomenal existence. The most important point is not to deny or avoid the experience.

From my Buddhist practice I know that liberation arises amid delusion. I don't remember where I saw this statement: 'The true aspects arrive before the deluded aspects have departed.' In the midst of confusion and pain, clarity arises.

Dharma practice happens in the body. Paying attention to the body creates space around and inside the knots of tension. What has become compacted through being pushed down begins to expand, to claim its own space. As this part of us finds room to grow, it begins to draw energy from around about it.

The deep attending to hard knots of holding is a powerfully compassionate act, a turning toward rejected parts of our being. As this newly compassionate observing occurs, the object of observation, our being, is transformed; so we move from denial to acceptance, from rejection to inclusion. This is the beginning of metta practice, loving-kindness for the self.

My first experience of working intimately with the body to hear its voice happened a few months into meditation practice, in 1967. Leading a rather confused life, seeking a graduate degree in painting (this would be my fourth college degree), I found myself in a graduate seminar where the painting style was quite different from the abstract expression I had learnt as an undergraduate. At the new school I felt quite isolated and had a hard time defending my choices. My whole experience of painting was thrown into question. Why was I painting this way? Why did it matter what these people thought? And why was I so vulnerable to their questions and critiques?

Assailed by these questions, one day a terrible headache and stomach ache seized me - I was ready for a deep meltdown. I just collapsed in bed to wait for the pain to pass. But it didn't. Finally I just let myself experience the headache and the pain in my gut completely. I let it all come into awareness. I can still remember watching the strong sensations going round and round, and following them mindfully. I had learnt to do this a few months earlier in sesshin. But there was a place inside where my awareness did not want to go. I realised I was avoiding the centre of the sensations. As soon as I became aware of that I slowly, gently moved my awareness to the centre of holding. Right away the energy began to break up and to circulate freely between stomach and head ... and a deep thought arose, as if from the bottom of my stomach-mind: 'I don't have to paint'. Painting, for me, had become the way to demonstrate my worthiness, lovableness, specialness. The activity was coming from a stuck place inside.

Even though I had already told myself I could stop painting any time, that message did not carry any conviction until I turned my awareness to the centre of the knot, and the voice came forth from the body-mind itself.

After that incident, I found the courage to paint from my own experience rather than following the styles around me. Before long my canvases became lighter and brighter, pink and orange instead of black. I began to paint female figures for the first time and recognised them as my sister and myself. I felt I was 'home', as if I had walked through a dark passage into an open field.

Although painting then came with more confidence, I was also deeply involved with meditation and community life at the Zen centre. Zazen filled an inner need that I had thought could be filled by painting. But it was not really a choice. Painting dropped off. My journey through art had brought me to what I now needed to do.

Many years later, during a retreat I was leading, I found myself in the novel situation of giving teachings and private interviews by day and feeling like I was dying of heart palpitations, sleeplessness, anxiety, and dizziness by night. During the day I functioned well; at night I could not sleep and the steady hammering of my heart terrified me. Even though I was enjoying the sesshin and felt quite comfortable in my role, the night music continued. After waiting night after night for the palpitations to subside, I finally realised I would have to go into them with a kind and open awareness, not wish them away. I did this at night, in bed, when the palpitations were strongest. I put my attention into my heart's pounding and said something like 'Welcome'.

When I stayed with this, a connection was gradually made with my abdomen. My breathing became heavy, and I started to cry. A 'voice' that seemed two or three years old, maybe even younger, gradually emerged. It was deeply hidden, almost incoherent. I had to listen carefully. It felt like a cry of grief and abandonment. I felt it as self-abandonment. Hearing its faint reach confirmed something I had known about myself but was unable to experience. I had a pattern of repressing my most vulnerable feelings. I seemed to have done it yet again.

For me, practising mindfulness of body in this way requires solitude. Sometimes the symptoms may arise in the zendo [meditation hall], but the painful descent to early voices and to attitudes held at two or three years old is accomplished amid such strong physical sensations that I can only do the work alone. Sometimes I lie down, maybe in the fetal position, maybe on my back. There is an intense effort to attend to physical symptoms, which may be disgusting or frightening, and to welcome them. To convert them from unwanted to welcome guests. To give them the attention that was not available in the past.

This deep listening takes sincere effort. Sometimes my stamina runs out. Sometimes the voice is so buried I despair of reaching it. As I write this I imagine I am digging a tunnel with my bare hands, not knowing how deep is the dirt I must dig through or whether my hands will be strong enough. It takes patience, stamina, willingness to find nothing; and to listen acutely with the ear of intuition, the ear of concentration. Is that Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, listening?

In my experience, recognition of aspects of ourself buried in the body is essential to the eventual release of emotional patterns that are no longer helpful.

From 'Being Bodies', edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, (c) 1997. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boston. www.shambhala.com