What makes the Buddha’s practice so special? This is what one Brahman in ancient India wanted to know when he asked the Buddha what he and his monks did all day. “All these men and women from all castes are leaving their homes, shaving their heads, relinquishing their possessions, surviving on alms food, and sleeping in the forests for you. Why? Tell me, what are you teaching them? What are they gaining in return for their sacrifice?”
The Buddha’s answer was underwhelming: “We sit. We stand up. We walk. We lay down.” “That’s it?” shot back the Brahman probably perplexed and disappointed. “What’s so special about that? I do those things all day long and no one is calling me the World Honored One.” The Buddha might have been testing the Brahman, probing the fertility of his mind for ripening insight. The Brahman failed, so the Buddha offered him a hint. “But, when we sit, stand, walk, or lay down we know that we are sitting, standing, walking, or laying down.” We know. Still not quite bursting with profundity. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brahman remained unconvinced of the Buddha’s insight.
The Buddha was trying to provoke in the Brahman an understanding of the nature of the body through the practice of mindfulness of the postures of the body. It was not just some glib teaching he offered to a smart aleck intellectual. Mindfulness of posture is also taught in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the Buddha’s most complete exposition on meditation and what he calls the direct path to liberation. Mindfulness of posture, therefore, should be a central component in every meditator’s practice.
Posture is the living manifestation of the body in the here and now. As such, attending to it with mindfulness can be a practitioner’s gateway into the present moment. It can sweep away the fog of the past and future and bring the mind to a direct encounter with life as it is right now. We notice slumping, slouching, stretching, extending, and leaning, and we notice the feeling tones that accompany these various postures. This awareness awakens curiosity and investigation into mind states and habitual tendencies. Mindfulness of posture can also bring peace and healing to the body by infusing its movements with grace and ease. When the mind continually dwells with the body, its movements become deliberate and measured. There is no wasted energy, and charged up states can be released by allowing the body to flow smoothly as it moves about.
In my years of practice, I’ve found mindfulness of posture to be a skillful means for training the mind in concentration and dwelling in the present moment. It has been a key practice for bringing mindfulness into daily life – the majority of which is not spent on the cushion. Sitting in meditation is, however, a specific posture mentioned by the Buddha as one to bring mindfulness to. And yet, as a formal meditation subject, I never considered it as anything more than a preliminary exercise to establish mindfulness and concentration before launching into what I considered deeper contemplations. That is until this afternoon, when I sat down for meditation, brought mindfulness to my posture, and my body disappeared.
It literally disappeared. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Here’s what happened. I tend to structure my sitting practice on the 16 methods of mindful breathing. So, after focusing my attention on my breath and observing it naturally become deeper and slower, I expand my attention to embrace my body. Its posture is typically the first aspect of the body I contemplate – as I mentioned, to establish mindfulness and concentration. “Breathing in, aware of the body. Breathing out, aware of sitting.” Great, now I know what is going on. But, do I really? As I was sitting aware of sitting, the question suddenly came to mind: “Wait. What does it mean to be aware of sitting?” When I am aware of sitting, what exactly am I aware of. What is it within awareness that tells me I’m sitting? How do I know that I’m sitting? I searched everywhere for the source of this knowledge and couldn’t find it. There was no sitting anywhere I looked. I couldn’t even find the body. All I could find were sensations – just a fuzzy constellation of sensations arising and fluctuating and ceasing within this formless space I call awareness.
I could no longer feel the shape of my body. The sitting disappeared and with it the sitter. This is not some mystical experience of an alternate reality. It is a direct encounter with things as they are. What is really happening in this present moment? Look and you will see all that is happening is simply sense impressions arising and ceasing within consciousness. Nothing is stable. Nothing is solid. Nothing is self. And yet, we tend to spend most of our time walking around identified with our bodies, feelings, perceptions, moods, and consciousness. This is ignorance according to the Buddha and is the source of all our discontent.
If we can pay close enough attention to the present moment and allow labels like “sitting”, “my body”, “the sitter” to fall away, we will have a direct encounter with reality. Consciousness is freed from identification with the body and mind so that it becomes spacious and able to receive all that arises and let go of all that ceases. There is nothing left to obtain and nothing left to reject. All that remains is peace.
Mahayana Buddhism radically claims that there are 84,000 dharma doors, pathways to liberation. Many modern spiritual seekers cite this statement to suggest that all teachings are equal in leading their practitioners to liberation. What it actually means is that any one of the Buddha’s teachings, if practiced with right view and right effort, can result in realization – even teachings as simple as mindfulness of posture. We should not be like that Brahman who, because of his own attachment to the mystical and metaphysical speculations of his tradition, overlook the significance of the simple and practical methods offered by the Buddha. Our practice should be one that brings us back to the present moment and encounter reality directly to see what is there and what isn’t.
So, come back to your senses. Let go of all assumptions about who and what you are, where you are and what you’re doing. Look deeply into the here and now and see if you can find your seat.