When thinking of ourselves, we generally have a pretty clear picture of who we are, our likes and dislikes, our strengths and weaknesses. What if we were to view and examine various aspects of ourselves and tease apart our various facets—our body, our heart, and our mind? Would this influence how we see ourselves?
In contemporary spiritual vernacular, there’s a way of talking about our various components, as in something being “beneficial for body, heart and mind” or of “bringing your mind and heart together.” This helps us see how common it is for us to separate our ‘parts’ and learn about the benefits of not separating them.
In the Buddhist tradition, the teachings on the Four Foundations of mindfulness lead us to closer examination of these same components—sensations (body), feeling tone (heart), and thoughts (mind)—one at a time. This meticulous investigation can lead to seeing each of our aspects and how one doesn’t need to influence or change the other. For example, when the body is in pain, the mind doesn’t have to be as well.
I had a Tibetan teacher tell a group of us that if we could keep our mind clear and unburdened when we had the flu, for instance, we were good practitioners. I took this teaching to heart and tried it when I was in chronic pain. After some time of practice, I was able to feel the unpleasant sensations of my physical body without being emotional about it or having negative thoughts about the pain. This was a major breakthrough for me, and subsequently a skill that I teach countless others who find themselves in physical pain.
The same idea can apply to the heart or mind not having to influence the body. Often without noticing, a mood like sadness, especially if it is lasting for a while, can take up residence in the body. For instance, we might manifest the sadness in the belly, unconsciously tightening it whenever we’re sad or upset. If we do this over and over with time, it can become a condition in the body like chronic belly problems.
However, with awareness of this crossover tendency of influence, we can stop new habits before they begin and we can reduce the affects of old patterns by not allowing them to go unnoticed and unchanged.
Another benefit of this type of examination is not being tied to taking everything so personally. For instance, we certainly identify and relate to our body, but we aren’t just a physical body. By widening our perspective of our various facets, we can appreciate that we have our body and we have a body. Because it’s our body, we can take care of it and even be grateful for it—that’s bringing in heartfelt appreciation and clear mental perception. At the same time, we can experience the body as a body. Then we don’t have to identify with it or blame ourselves for its ailments or aging factors. So it’s our body, and just a body—neither is fully true without the other. The same goes for thoughts and emotions. We think and we feel, but we are not each thought or emotion; thoughts and emotions need not be a problem to the body. I’ll write more about this next month.
To have direct experience of this, the next time you practice a period of formal mindfulness, consider focusing on sensations. Notice sensations three ways, as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Then in informal, during-the-day mindfulness practice, notice the same whenever you can. Stay in touch with your body and notice sensations.
Eventually you will be aware of what thoughts and feelings might immediately follow a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensation. You’ll see the volition unfold – an unpleasant sensation for instance, may bring about negative thoughts, or sadness. Neutral sensations might allow for a distance from the physical body—a laissez-faire approach that will last until there is something pleasant or unpleasant to pay attention to.
This closer look and more vigilant attention facilitate a fuller understanding of phenomena (sensation) and the mental or emotional configurations that can automatically and many times unconsciously proliferate and take root. Eventually, we begin to see things as they are (noticing an unpleasant sensation, for instance) without having to add on thoughts, feelings, or any personal (see Second Arrow post LINK) perception about it.
We can unite our aspects, so as to be sensitive to the relationships between body, mind, and heart. And we can tease our aspects apart so that there is autonomy between mind, body, and heart when need be.