Starting with Basics — A Good Old Fashioned Body Scan

Whether you’re an experienced meditator or a newbie, the body scan is an essential practice, simultaneously straightforward and profound. 

That sounds abstract, but for me, it’s very concrete: for example, if I’m feeling anger and I sit down to meditate, I’ll usually find that, once my thoughts quiet down a bit, my body is sending me a strong and generally painful sensation, typically from my shoulders or neck (that’s just me — it’ll probably be different for you). I perceive this pain to be one way to understand what the cause of my anger is: I’m trying to suppress an underlying physical pain, but that pain is mutating into emotional angst, which expresses itself as anger.

Ultimately, Buddhist philosophy teaches us, truly suppressing something we’re feeling is impossible, and if we try, we generally end up making a bigger mess of things than if we were simply able to be present with the initial source of pain.

But that alone presents a pretty bleak view of this pain I’m feeling, right? Either I try to be present with it now, which sucks, or I suppress it and get angry and end up causing more suffering in my life and probably the lives of others. 

The antidote, to paraphrase Tara Brach, teacher and author of Radical Acceptance, is to give our body loving attention. The pain we feel from various parts of our bodies is akin to a part of ourselves asking for some love. Imagine if you were that neck or shoulder or knee or other source of pain, and the brain either ignored you or spent all it’s time actively wishing you would go away. That would suck, right? And in response, you might start shouting at the brain— sending strong signals of pain — just because you were hurting and wanted some attention.
I admit, this sounds a bit out there. I mean, I just spent that last paragraph role playing the possible internal monologue (can it even be called that?) of a body part. But it’s an exercise that helps me shift my perspective away from trying to block out or push away how my body is feeling.

For me, giving my body loving attention is a real source of healing. In the same way, one frame for a body scan practice is to not only investigate what sensations and feelings are arising from our body, but to also have a quality of kindness to the attention we’re giving to our body. That’s what we’re doing with today’s meditation. You can find it here: 

NOTE: This meditation comes with two strong caveats: First, nothing in this meditation or blog post in any way implies that pain isn’t real and doesn’t occasionally need medical treatment. Sometimes, we gotta see a doc, and don’t let any of my or your kooky internal experiences steer you from that course when it’s needed. Second, anger and other emotions can have roots in the body, but that’s absolutely not a reason to ignore the real w0rld causes of our emotions. To take just a random example, if you’re angry at someone because you think they’re mistreating you, paying attention to what’s happening in the body can be a way of gaining more clarity of your experience of the situation — but we also need to address and rectify what’s going on with the other person. Anger in particular is an emotion that can point us towards our own truth, particularly about injustice, and using an exploration of the body as a means to avoid dealing with the causes and conditions that create the anger is *not* the point of meditation.