In contemporary culture which overemphasizes the mind’s ability to accomplish and achieve, most students consider paying attention to the body for the purpose of “being” an unexplored strategy for stress reduction. In this dialogue Marty Schmidt and Sangeeta Bansal, both teachers of mindfulness practices, discuss the importance of the body in their teaching and how they lead their students towards greater body consciousness.
Marty: This year I re-organized my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” (SSS) course around the theme of wisdom. I went for a practical, low-bar, senior-friendly definition: wisdom is figuring out what you want to devote your professional time and energy to in the coming decades. I’ve had conversations with lots of alumni over the last year, and most struggle big time with this issue, so the idea is to bring this question to high school students at an earlier stage to get them thinking. And what I came up with, following Episcopalian priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault, is that wisdom in all spheres of life is a natural outcome of developing what she calls three-centered awareness, which integrates the intelligences of the body, mind, and heart (1). Our focus in this dialogue is how to teach about consciousness of the body in search of better self-understanding.
To kick this off, I’ll tell you about my starting point with three-centered awareness. If the ideal state of being awakened is employing a body-mind-heart attunement, then our essential problem is that most of the time we are living predominantly out of one center, which for my students is undoubtedly the mind. The body and heart have little currency in the educational sweepstakes that dominate their lives. As students progress through high school and become more “mindy” in their pursuit of competitive university acceptances, their own sense of body and heart energy is visibly drained. Living out of one center only is the Wisdom Tradition’s definition of sleep. Sorry to admit this as their teacher, but for some of my students being “asleep” is not just a spiritual metaphor!
This is the first year that I have structured my entire SSS curriculum around this body-mind-heart concept. Now finishing the second time through, I’m pleased to say that I think it’s working! It’s comprehensive in scope yet still flexible enough to incorporate new curricular materials and invite students into the conversation.
So, tell me about your work, Sangeeta. How do you teach about the body in your context?
Sangeeta: When I teach mindfulness, whether it is to 6th graders or MBA students, I always start with the body. Our body is an integral part of our mindfulness practice – and it sets the platform on which we rest our efforts. In the Satipatthana Sutta (2), the foundational Buddhist text from which all modern versions of mindfulness spring, the body is one of the four pillars that we bring our awareness to. The Buddha instructed his followers to “stay in your appropriate gocharas (“cow pastures”), otherwise the mind is easily seduced by Mara;” mindfulness of the body is the simplest and most direct way to overcome the onslaughts of Mara, which personifies our desires and temptations. Think of a Little Red Devil with horns sitting on your shoulder goading you towards the wrong path.
It comes as a surprise to many of my students that mindfulness practice views the body as much more the solution to our temptations rather than their instigator! The body is the first of the four pillars, so the Buddha’s unambiguous advice: stay in the body! This means becoming aware of bodily sensations, posture, gait, all five senses and, of course, the breath. These become the objects of one’s concentration and contemplation, helping to anchor the mind so wisdom can manifest itself.
Marty: Cynthia, and the Wisdom Tradition out of which she teaches, certainly agrees with the Buddha that the body is the starting point on the spiritual path (3). Cynthia explains that, contrary to common stereotypes, the father of Christian contemplation, St. Anthony, perceived the body as having “a natural aptitude for the divine life” (4), rather than as an impediment in need of harsh discipline.
So on day 1 of SSS this year I started with the body. After introducing the theme of wisdom, I gathered the class in a circle, turned the lights off, and said, “Let’s do a little thought experiment.” I then slowly read five words or phrases – SATs, GPA, final exams, college recommendation letters, and leaving home – and asked them to pause for 30 seconds after each word and note any bodily reactions. Students had very different responses: many felt a tightening in their gut, throat, or heart, eyes, or arm; others felt pain in the head or around the eyes; and one felt a compulsion to spit out a laugh, or maybe it was a cry. In our debrief, they all realized that there was a body-mind-heart connection that they had never paid attention to. We came around to the point that all of us have accumulated unresolved tensions that reside in our body. At the end of last semester numerous students reported that this simple exercise was a big wake-up call. While they took this little experiment as a scary realization, I turned it around and explained that this illustrates the intelligence of the body. Then we discussed what their bodies were trying to say to them. Finally, we watched the first half of a video, “What piece of advice would you give the 16-year old you?” A good number of the speakers referred to the importance of the body in the wisdom they had gained through life.
Sangeeta: Yes, the body-mind connection is certainly an overlooked area in the culture we live in. We kind of get it, but we forget. For example, we know our knees feel weak when we are scared to look down from a tall building, or our palms get sweaty before a public performance, or we feel our heart beat faster when we are excited. These are bodily reactions to mental events.
Further, we also know that to excel in anything, for example, an Olympic gold medal, physical fitness of the body is not enough. Nor is simply the mental desire or ambition to get that medal sufficient. It is a combination of mental and physical processes working in synchronicity and alignment towards a common goal, overseen by a passionate heart. Ajahn Sumedho, a Buddhist monk, remarked, “It is not enough to follow the heart, one has to train the heart.” When the messages from the body-mind-heart get garbled in the “noise” that exists in our internal and external environments, then we are unable to align these three prongs to get to our best outcomes. Adyashanti, a Christian zen monk, insists that we need to pay attention to the body, for it serves as the doorway to higher spiritual experiences (5).
If we pay attention, the body can tell us many things. When we feel constriction in the chest, or the breath becomes shallow and fast, or when we get a tightening of muscles or a clenching of the jaw, it is usually indicative of the mind being uncomfortable with the “trigger.” So the body is an Early Warning System for a mind-state that is arising. Only if we are aware of it, we can choose to work with the feeling and resolve it in some way. If we are not aware of it, we may lose that window of opportunity to change our course of action, and perhaps our life’s trajectory. The Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl explained, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Marty: The Frankl observation reminds me of an incident a couple of years ago when I entered into an unexpectedly intense discussion with my boss about an issue I cared deeply about and was quite emotionally-laden for both of us. As the conversation and tension ratcheted up, somehow my body acted as that Early Warning System, but most oddly, it seemed to then act of its own accord. I felt myself breathe deeply from the belly, and it seemed to give me that split-second of awareness to think clearly and with less emotion. The conversation remained tense and frank, but not the kind of falling out that can be disastrous between colleagues. But what struck me about the whole event was the sense that my gut breathed me back into a state of awareness rather than the mind as “command center” saying, “Breathe, breathe! You are in a state of stress.” What do you make of that?
Sangeeta: I think you “picked up” the signal from your body and acted on it, thereby mitigating an impending disaster. But sometimes we miss these signals, and it can have disastrous consequences – just as if you were driving on precipitously high mountain road, and you missed the sign that said “Sharp Curve Ahead.” In mindfulness training courses, we use a variety of breathing techniques to bring us out of mental ruts. I think the expression that “whatever you can breathe through, you can live through” is very true.
I’ll summarize three ways in which mindfulness training help helps bring awareness to the body, and allows us to use the body to enhance mental and spiritual experience. My students love these practices and benefit enormously.
Using the breath to stay present: One of the most beautiful characteristics of our breath is that it is always in the present moment. We can never take a future breath and store it, nor can we hold on to a breath in the past. By nature’s design the breath is always anchored in our moment-by-moment existence. When we allow our awareness to harness itself to the breath, we are essentially severing the mind’s tendency to dwell in the past or the future. Regrets of the past and worries about the future usually cloud our moments and keep us from living life fully. This way our breath can be a powerful ally in our efforts to shut down excessive thinking rumination and mental chatter.
Using our senses to savor life: The now famous raisin eating exercise is a multifaceted exercise that helps to take something small and usually inconspicuous, and elevate our experience of it. We bring our complete attention to the raisin, and using the sensory mechanisms in the body, we savor it like never before. We see it, smell it, hear it, touch it and taste it for ten minutes and think of nothing else. This serves as a reminder of how “mindlessly” we usually eat, distracted by conversation or technological gadgets. We lose the ability to enjoy and give gratitude for one of the most essential aspects of our existence – bodily sustenance and nourishment. This experiment also shows us a practical way to “escape the thinking mind” now and then by letting ourselves dwell on sensory experience rather than discursive thought.
Using the body to relax the mind: While much has been made of the body’s tendency to react to environmental stress (the fight, flight or freeze stress response), it is less commonly known that the body also has a relaxation response (6). Putting the body in relaxation response helps bring down the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and activates the secretion of the feel good hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. These are essential for the body’s self-repair and self-healing processes to kick in, which are held at bay when the body is in stress response. In order to switch from stress response to the relaxation response, we practice abdominal breathing. This activates the vagus nerve, which helps start the process of relaxation in the parasympathetic nervous system, and switches off the sympathetic nervous system related to stress in the body. This is often presented as scientific evidence that our mental commitment to change the breathing patterns can affect our mental and physical health.
With new information emerging from neuroscience, we are coming to better understand how the body and its functions optimize our living experience, especially its impact on our emotions and even our spiritual experiences (7). It’s all a concert of body, mind and heart – with no one aspect being the star. The beauty of the symphony lies in how well they are aligned and coordinated.
Marty: What could be more important than to bring about that kind of concerted wholeness in the lives of students who by all measures are being increasingly stressed and depressed? Most of the day they are sitting in chairs, listening and occasionally engaging their brains. But from a Wisdom perspective, they are primarily operating out of one center only, the definition of sleep!
One of the most effective activities I did this semester was a conscious walking activity. I explained to them that the whole Wisdom tradition is unanimous in exhorting us to stop living on autopilot and become aware of the present. So, I asked them during our class period, when the hallways were empty, to practice walking through the rest of their day’s classes mindfully. To practice conscious walking, I asked them to either walk sensing their feet, or by tuning into what they saw or heard. The goal of both strategies was to help them stop their interior monologue and be in the present moment. To begin, I had them lie on the floor as I played a 14-minute body scan exercise. Then I came around, tapped them on the shoulder one-by-one, and allowed them to exit the room. They returned about 15 minutes later, and I was quite surprised how something so simple could help them view their normal existence in such new ways.
Their homework was to continue this kind of conscious walking in their daily lives. Here’s how Zach responded: “Almost everyday after school I walk up the hill to my house, which is surrounded by beautiful green scenery and an array of different animals, but because I normally just have my earphones on and don’t pay attention to my surroundings, I never realized how truly beautiful this was. When I started walking consciously up the hill, I began to see how amazing the birds, trees and squirrels are, and it shocked me how I have completely taken this all for granted for the two and a half years I have lived there.” There’s the beauty of a concerted awareness that you were referring to, Sangeeta. It’s not difficult for students to get an enticing taste of three-centered awareness.
Sangeeta: That’s a lovely comment from Zach! Living a life where we can just “be” without always “doing” helps us to tap into that inner wisdom. It is often counter-intuitive to think that “sitting still” and being in the present moment without having an agenda could actually make us more productive, but that’s one of the key lessons in mindfulness. It reminds me of what the poet Jules Renard said, “If I had to live my life over, I’d ask that nothing be changed, but that my eyes be open wider.”
Marty: I’ve come to the same place! The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” So much of our agitation towards others and life in general comes from an existential fear of being with ourselves and facing our discontent. The 4th century Christian desert fathers described the restlessness and emptiness of life as the “noonday demon” that visits us when our busy lives slow down. Addressing this condition, one of the desert fathers, Evagrius, advised, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” Wait out the fear until a deeper, hidden wholeness emerges from within. Traditions across the world are in agreement that this is what meditations does. Is it really possible that something so seemingly simple as “sitting still” could in time bring forth a sense of calm and satisfaction? What a wonder!
Sangeeta, as we bring this to a close and you think about your work, what is the growth edge in your teaching?
Sangeeta: I’m really fascinated by the whole neuroplasticity thing, which suggests that the content and nature of our thoughts changes the structure and function of the brain – and this in turn changes our experience of the world around us. My students find this a challenging concept to believe, despite so much scientific evidence. They can see how the work they do with their hands can carve a block of wood into a beautiful statue, or turn a blank canvas into a brilliant piece of art; but they cannot see how repetitive thoughts carve out new grooves in the brain, changing their abilities and capabilities as human beings. This fact, known by sages and monks in all wisdom traditions, and explained in meticulous detail by the Buddha, serves as the bedrock of modern day contemplative neuroscience and secular mindfulness teachings that I bring to my classes. I’ll end with this quote from the Dhammapada, an ancient Buddhist text; “You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts you make your world.”
Let me throw it back to you, Marty. What’s captivated your thinking recently?
Marty: For me it’s the whole idea that coming into the body is the way to wisdom. I just don’t think I ever considered this possibility until a few years ago. I think that at some level I had really bought into the “spirit is good” and “flesh is bad” dualism. In fact, I remember the moment just last year when I had visceral recognition of bodily intelligence. Reading the brilliant interview with Philip Shepherd entitled, “Out of Our Heads,” I had a very strong sense of surging energy. Something in the article struck me as deeply true.
What both excites and challenges me is the bold claim made by Jorge Ferrer that
the body is the human dimension that can reveal the ultimate meaning of incarnated life. Being physical itself, the body stores within its depths the answer to the mystery of material existence . . . . The meaning of life is not something to be discerned and known intellectually by the mind, but to be felt in the depths of our flesh (8).
Underneath the quest for wisdom about their career, my students want to have some sense of the purpose of life. Is the meaning of life discernible to the individual once we ground ourselves in the body? Is it possible, as Helminski suggests metaphorically, that “we are knee deep in a river, searching for water?” (9) Could understanding something so seemingly abstract as our life purpose come from the concrete practice of sensing our bodily presence? Like the wonder of meditation, the intelligence of the body almost seems too good to be true. In the end, then, I keep asking: how much meaning can high school students experience? And on an experiential level, for my students and myself, what does it mean for me and my students to perceive meaning of life “in the depths of our flesh?”
I think for both of us, Sangeeta, this journey of teaching our students has been full of unexpected joys and enlivening challenges. Along with the ups and down, we seem to sense that the growth we have experienced will continue in its own time. Thanks, I really enjoyed the dialogue, Sangeeta. Wishing you peace in your teaching in NY!
Sangeeta: Agreed! It’s been a pleasure. Wishing you happiness in your continued service at HKIS.
(1) Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, 27-40.
(2) See Analayo’s Satipatthana for more detail.
(3) Cynthia describes Wisdom as “a precise and comprehensive science of spiritual transformation that has existed since the headwaters of the great world religions and is in fact their common ground” (Wisdom Way of Knowing, xvi, italics in original). The Wisdom Tradition, then, is our global interreligious heritage which teaches how to cultivate inner awakening.
(4) Cynthia Bourgeault, Desert Fathers and Mothers retreat in Auckland, New Zealand, May, 2015, Audio 6 at 12:45.
(5) Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation.
(6) Benson and Zipper, The Relaxation Response.
(7) Newberg and Waldman’s, How God Changes your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist.
(8) Ferrer, “What does it mean to live a fully embodied spiritual life?”, 4.
(9)Helminski, Living Presence, 25.
Adyashanti (2012). The way of liberation: A practical guide to spiritual enlightenment. Campbell, CA, USA: Open Gate Sangha.
Analayo (2004). Satipatthana: The direct path to self-realization. Birmingham, England: Windhorse.
Benson, H. & Zipper, M. (2000). The relaxation response. New York: HarperTorch.
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ferrer, J. (2008). “What does it mean to live a fully embodied spiritual life?” The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27, 1-11.
Helminski, K. (1992). Living presence: A Sufi way to mindfulness and the essential self. New York: Penguin/Tarcher.
McMahon, E.M. & Campbell, P.A. (2010). Rediscovering the lost body-connection within Christian spirituality: The missing link for experiencing yourself in the body of the whole Christ is a changing relationship to your own body. Minneapolis, MN: Tasora.
Newberg, A. & Waldman, M. (2009). How God changes your brain: Breakthrough findings from a leading neuroscientist.
Shepherd, Philip. “Out of our heads.” Sun Magazine, April, 2013, 1-10.
- “After a Breakup, an App to Help Run and Breathe,” by Olivia Gagan, NY Times, December 2, 2016.
About the Authors
Sangeeta Bansal, Ph.D., is a certified mindfulness teacher based in New York, dedicated to bringing self awareness to the community. She has taught mindfulness at several universities and schools in the New York area, including Princeton University, NYU Stern School of Business and Rye Country Day School.
Marty Schmidt teaches high school humanities and religion at Hong Kong International School; he also leads service-learning initiatives at the school. In 2010 he completed his Ed.D. in social conscience education.