Often, when you are taught meditation, you learn what is called Shamatha, which means ‘making peaceful.’ The technique is based on paying attention to the breath at the tip of the nose; simply breathing in and breathing out and holding the attention on the physical sensation of the breath.
This technique of following the breath is actually one instance of a much more general category of practice—paying attention to the breath at the tip of the nose is to help ourselves be more present. And we are in fact, using the body to be more present because the breath is an aspect of our physical life. But you can also use other parts of the body to practice mindfulness.
Breathing into the perineum is a Shamatha technique—you are paying attention to the perineum, you’re holding your attention there, and you’re visualizing the breath coming in and out. When you do it fully, you can actually feel the coolness of the oxygenation that’s going on there.
You could say, “Well, does it really matter what I pay attention to?” It does matter. The basic principle is very important, which is working with some aspect of the body. Sometimes you can actually take something outside yourself to pay attention to, but the whole principle is extremely important. We have to learn how to come out of our thought process and pay attention to some physical aspect of our life. So that principle is very important, but it is also important what you’re paying attention to.
Watching the breath from the tip of the nose becomes a problem for people who tend to be disembodied. As Western people, we’re already in our head most of the time. When your object of mindfulness is also in your head, you can easily practice without being embodied at all — this is not helpful. Nothing really happens. However, if you do practice mindfulness of breathing, after you’ve done a certain amount of bodywork, it’s very fruitful—it’s an embodied practice. I teach my students to fully inhabit the body—what we call “somatic,” or body-based meditation. ‘Fully inhabits’ means that when we do meditation practice, there is a sense that the awareness pervades the body—that we are fully aware of our body; we’re present.
It’s not that somatic meditation replaces the Shamatha—it actually provides training within which we can do Shamatha in a fruitful way; the breath at the tip of the nose. If you tend to be a person whose energy rises, as it does with those who have a lot of the wind element, a lot of the space element, your attention is rising up all the time. Sometimes I give instruction to use the perineum as a permanent focus of Shamatha. When you sit down and do your 10 minutes of Shamatha, you’re actually breathing into the perineum during that 10 minutes. That can be very beneficial and very useful for some people, and it really changes their practice dramatically.
Some people’s attention tends to sink, or drop down. This is a tendency towards darkness and kind of going to sleep and being a little bit depressed—then the breath at the tip of the nose brings the energy up.
If you do watch the breath at the tip of the nose and you tend to find yourself becoming very discursive, that’s an indication that that’s maybe not the best technique as far as your basic meditation practice is concerned.
The spiritual journey is a process of developing trust in life, trust in everything that life is. Until we develop trust, we can’t relate to the unknown. All of us have this little arena of consciousness, this little protected world that we’re constantly trying to fortify of ‘me’ and ‘my life.’ We’re trying to do this in the midst of a huge world. And unfortunately, that little ‘me’ is starving to death spiritually. We need to open, but the things you can’t open, unless we develop some kind of trust.
This is where the body comes in and where it’s so important. In Somatic Meditation, we’re starting with our body, and developing a different kind of intelligence than the one that most of us here normally operate with.
It’s an intelligence of seeing, rather than thinking, and a feeling rather than conceptualizing. And through doing that, we begin to develop trust in the unknown, because truly, the body is the unknown. We may think we know our body, but we don’t. All of us have an image of what our body is, an idea, a concept, but that’s not our body.
When we approach the body through Somatic Meditation, we begin to see and sense the richness of darkness, the richness of what cannot be thought about, but what can be felt, the nourishing quality of what is in the body. And through working in that way we begin to appreciate something much more vast than the simple limited body that we have right here. Or maybe what we’ll discover that our body is actually unlimited, and that there are vistas and worlds that we’ve never imagined within.
To learn more about Somatic Meditation, please visit Dharmaocean.org.
About Dharma Ocean
Dharma Ocean is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.
Over the last 15 years, Dr. Reggie Ray, Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, has developed a unique system of practices and teachings called Meditating with the Body. This is an excerpt from a podcast on meditation and the particular role of the body in meditation. He also explores how, in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, the body is understood as the gateway through which the entire universe is discovered. To listen to the entire podcast, click here. To find a variety of audio listening guides to assist you on your spiritual journey, please visit www.dharmaocean.org/online-courses-3/.