MEDITATING WITH the body
What is somatic meditation, and how does it relate to other meditative techniques such as ‘mindfulness,’ which has become something of a buzz word in the wellness community today?
That’s actually a question almost everyone asks, and when we offer courses at various centers they’ll often place us in a category like the wellness section, which does in fact show how in today’s popular culture meditation is generally thought of as a mindfulness technique.
This of course isn’t necessarily a problem, and practices such as mindfulness can certainly be a great first step towards slowing down and tuning in to our awareness, while also providing positive health benefits like strengthening our immune system and down-regulating our sympathetic nervous system.
Yet it’s important to point out that when we approach meditation in this way we’re often looking to fulfill a specific agenda, such as becoming less stressed out, more focused, more efficient at work... so basically we’re using the practice as a tool to gain a greater sense of control over the current conditions of our lives.
Somatic meditation on the other hand invites us to let go of any preconceived ideas or expectations we may have about our practice or ourselves in any given moment, in order to allow our current state of being to be placed within the context and space of meditation, and not the other way around.
This isn’t about becoming some kind of fanatical meditator, but giving ourselves permission to open to the greater depth and fullness of who we are… shifting our focus away from the ‘heady’ agenda of our thinking mind creates the opportunity for us to drop down and come into contact with what we call the Soma—the inherent wakefulness and living intelligence that resides within and throughout our bodies.
This process involves a range of practices we refer to as ‘the bodywork,’ which often begin in a lying down posture, and utilize a variety of techniques such as working with the breath, visualization, and direct physical experience of certain key centers in the body, as well as the body as a whole.
These practices help us transition away from the common ‘top-down’ view of meditation to a more ‘bottom-up’ approach, in which the pre-conceived ideas we have of our bodies begin to fall away, and we discover that below the surface of our thinking mind there’s a wealth of sensory, emotional, and perceptual information that’s constantly being communicated to us.
So the body itself becomes the object of meditation…
Yes and we also begin to notice that awareness isn’t simply something we are directing towards the body, but is in fact a quality that’s already present within the body itself—meaning the experience of pure, unconditioned awareness that many forms of meditation seek to cultivate through various developmental stages and techniques (such as trying to quiet one’s thoughts, etc.) is discovered to be directly accessible to us whenever we come into contact with the body’s natural state.
The somatic practice of meditation then is not so much about striving to achieve some greater or ideal state, but learning to open more fully to the ever-present reality of our embodied condition, which we have simply become disconnected from.
Restoring this connection enables the process of meditation to become an ongoing journey of healing and discovery, one in which we find meaning, freedom, fullness, and fulfillment in even the most mundane aspects of our lives, and come into contact with a deep sense of satisfaction, peace, and being-at-home in the world.
the Culture of Disembodiment
Looking at the demands of the fast-paced technological world we’re living in, one could say it often has the tendency to frustrate and even discourage our ability to remain in this state of embodiment.
Our founder Reggie Ray often talks about disembodiment as being the state of modern human life, and that in today’s world thinking and the cognitive mind is extremely prioritized. This is of course why in many ways we’ve been so successful as a species, but as a result over hundreds of years our entire existence has become more and more thinking-focused, or what Reggie calls ‘left-brained dominant.’
Through focusing primarily on the development of our logical, linear, linguistic faculties, we’ve grown so strong in this part of ourselves that we’ve in many ways lost our connection to the more right-brained, somatic, embodied aspects of our experience and ourselves. Of course as we’ve said this dimension is still always there within us —as it always has been in every culture— but it’s become overshadowed by the modern thinking mind.
And it seems like everything from education to work to popular culture supports the assumption that this is simply the natural way of being, even though on a deeper level many of us actually feel something’s not quite right…
Yes and we’ve all developed our own particular bent or orientation towards the world based on how we’ve lived, how we’ve grown up… and so we’ve developed these blinders we have on our awareness, and each person’s are unique. These blinders keep us separate from certain aspects of ourselves —particularly from our bodies— and create limitations to experiencing the fullness of reality as it actually is.
The more our left and right-brain intelligences become disassociated in this way, the more we start to feel like we’re simply perching above the world, not fully present to experience anything in our lives that deeply. And needless to say our culture doesn’t particularly encourage us to feel and work through difficult emotions like shame, jealousy, sadness, depression or anger, so again we learn to separate out, and the more we cut off and keep these feelings at bay the more we have trouble embracing the full range of our lived experience.
Yet as we begin to reconnect with the richness and simplicity of our embodied state through the practice of somatic meditation, the world of conceptually abstracted experience simply doesn’t feel right or whole to us anymore; we realize we can’t go back to the way things were before, and begin to long for a way of life that’s rooted in the deeper and more complete way of being that we now know is possible.
This leads to our next topic of discussion—how does the practice of somatic meditation and the embodied state relate to art, culture, and the creative process?
Well the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa —Reggie Ray’s primary teacher and the central inspiration behind our lineage— was in fact a very skilled artist, working in the mediums of poetry, calligraphy, ikebana, photography, and design. As part of the wide array of teachings he developed, there was a body of work he referred to as Dharma Art.
Dharma roughly translates to ‘truth’ (in this case the living truth of the Buddhist teachings), and Trungpa used to say that through art we can truly learn about the nature of ourselves and our existence—so with Dharma Art we’re referring to a form of art that springs from the meditative state of mind. From here art can become a vehicle through which we can discover and appreciate our lives as they naturally are, without imposing any self-conscious sense of struggle or conflict, or the desire to prove or achieve anything.
And what I find interesting is that if you take the word art out and replace it with the body, you can see how interchangeable this process is with the practice of somatic meditation. I’ve actually always wondered if Reggie connected with Trungpa’s teachings on art and then brought them forward in his own way through working with the body… I’m not sure if he would agree there’s a direct link, but it certainly feels that way to me.
Trungpa practicing calligraphy and ikebana
Can you share more about your own experience exploring the relationship between meditation and art?
I was trained in several other traditions before I encountered somatic meditation —primarily Taoism and Chan Buddhism— and was also trained in the arts of calligraphy and photography. Yet I always found it difficult to bridge these two worlds until I encountered the somatic practices of this lineage. Now I have a completely different view of the art making process, which has allowed them to come together quite naturally.
What would you say are some of the key elements that have helped this occur?
Chogyam Trungpa defined meditation at times as responsiveness—meaning that if you’re resting in the meditative state, connected with your body and the wakefulness that’s at the center of your being, you become naturally and spontaneously responsive. And this ability to respond directly and openly to the present moment provides very fertile ground for genuine and impactful artistic expression.
Yet this approach alone can be very hit-or-miss unless you also develop another element, which is technical proficiency or skill in your craft. Cultivating the discipline of your art form through knowledge that’s been passed down from the ancestors of its tradition enables you to bring these two elements of craft and creative responsiveness together.
Katie Swatland, Portrait progress shot—from abstraction to form
But I’d like to say that as important as craft is, in my experience one thing I’ve noticed is that when learning an art form (especially in an institutionalized context) I’ve often found myself put in the opposite position—I was taught to focus on the technicalities of honing and developing the craft, without also learning how to connect with the deeper space of openness and spontaneity from which all art arises.
So once again over-emphasizing the task-oriented left-brain, rather than placing one’s somatic intelligence at the center of the educational and artistic process.
Yes and Trungpa referred to this way of making art as an activity of aggression, as where Dharma Art is the absence of aggression. Because when we’re overly pressured and constricted by the forms and technicalities of the art making process, we become disembodied and unable to connect with the meditative state. And trying to practice art under these conditions leads to a state of self-aggression.
This aggression can also be directed outward towards our viewer or audience: for example we may be holding on to a pre-conceived idea or agenda we’re looking to communicate to others —such as the need to prove how skilled or clever we are in our craft— and this becomes a sort of self-conscious, impositional activity that gets in the way of genuine artistic expression in that moment.
So all of the teaching and creating Trungpa did with art was intended to show how we can move away from these forms of aggression to an expression that is completely open, direct and honest, from the depths of who we are, without trying to impose anything on ourselves or anyone else.
As a pianist when I approach the stage I often feel the pressure of these expectations welling up inside me and the audience, and in these moments I always try to let go and remind myself to simply allow the music to be what it is, and to trust in that process…
That very much reminds me of the teachings in our lineage about confidence—developing basic fundamental confidence that in spite of that pressure you can be connected with what’s inside you, and allow it to unfold in a natural and spontaneous way. Then all the tools and crafts you’ve cultivated serve as a container that holds and shapes the art-making process, but you’re not holding on too tightly; you’re allowing it to ‘breathe.’
Understanding that it doesn’t have to involve an act of aggressive effort or control…
And that you also don’t have to struggle and compete with yourself or others. But of course we live in a world so full of form and structure that we’re almost always struggling and competing, and therefore have never really learned how to just let go and be with the experience of open space.
I think a good example of this is how many classically trained musicians are able to play music from a written score brilliantly, but if you take away the sheet music and ask them to play something from within themselves —from that place of openness— they’ll often freeze up and not know what to do.
That makes a lot of sense, because in order to go there you have to take a leap… and it’s a little scary for many of us to break free from our prisons of form, because that’s what we see and identify with most of the time, and so we’ve been conditioned to believe that that’s just how the world works.
In my experience this is a significant challenge that many people struggle with both in the arts and everyday life, and of course in relationship to our bodies, and our connection to the natural world as well.
The Dharma Ocean 'Blazing Mountain Retreat Center' in Crestone, Colorado
LIVING THE EMBODIED STATE
Which is why practices such as meditation can be so helpful and transformative. Can you share a little about how one might begin to explore this process through the courses offered at Dharma Ocean?
We have three foundational online courses designed to progressively deepen our connection and relationship with our bodies. The first course is called Awakening the Body, and no matter where you may be starting from —some might already be very connected to their bodies, others not so much— we learn to develop the faculty of interoception, which is the ability to track and feel what’s going on inside our bodies, enabling us to become increasingly aware of and receptive to everything that’s happening within us.
This initial stage can be very healing and life-affirming for people. They often connect with the practice very strongly, and may even have glimpses of deeper states of embodiment that will become more stable and available to them as they progress further along in their practice.
Generally most people find their experience becomes bigger, more vivid, more wild, more ‘everything,’ which can feel very liberating, but can also be a bit intimidating at first. As one begins to settle in and become more comfortable, they’ll often start to ask questions like ‘wow this is amazing, but how am I going to live my life now? How am I going to work, or make art, or interact with others when I’m out in the world, from this state?’
This is usually an indication that it’s time for the next stage, the Somatic Practice of Pure Awareness. Here we are introduced to the ever-present stillness and spaciousness of our own awareness, which allows us to find enough freedom within the forms and conditions of our experience to remain centered in ourselves, rather than being pulled in all sorts of different directions. By learning to rest in the pure, unchanging spaciousness of our awareness, we’re able to make room for even the most neurotic and challenging aspects of our experience, which also begin to soften, becoming more acceptable and workable.
And then the third stage is a response to the natural yearning that begins to develop in us to connect more deeply with others from the embodied state. It’s a two-part course titled The Boundless Heart and Connection, Communication and Love, dedicated to awakening our hearts through practices that help us connect with the boundless love and compassion that is inseparable from the basic nature of who we are. This enables us to more fully share and appreciate the beauty and sacredness that resides within ourselves, others, and the world around us.
The final stage we are now in the process of creating is called The Vajrayana, which really gets into the nitty gritty of how you bring the embodied state into all activities and aspects of your life. I really feel everything we’ve been talking about in regards to art is directly related to this, and so I see the practice of Dharma Art as being a perfect next step in the continuation of this process.
I also wanted to mention something I’ve found fascinating about teaching these online courses, which is how impactful they’ve been in building a strong sense of community among the people around the world who’ve participated in them.
I think because these practices help us to discover what it means to be deeply human, when they’re explored together a natural bond is formed between everyone involved… so simply through doing these very basic practices together, these online communities have become some of the most meaningful connections in people’s lives, which is a very interesting outcome.
And when you start to think about the implications of bringing these practices into more localized artistic and cultural settings, it’s very inspiring to imagine the potential ways they could help deepen people’s connections to each other, as well as enrich their experience of the arts.
Which as you said is a great —and perhaps even essential— next step towards bringing the embodied state into our daily lives. Because in addition to providing intentional spaces for people to come together and share in meaningful ways, it also creates an opportunity for the greater culture to experience a way of being that they may not otherwise know is even possible.
That’s certainly an important point, and is very much in line with Chögyam Trungpa’s original vision of how Dharma Art can serve to help bring a greater sense of sanity and beauty into this world.