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Meditating on Physical Sensation

August 9, 2012

When we meditate, we place our attention upon an object (called the object of meditation) and familiarize ourselves with that object.  When our attention wanders, we bring our attention back to that object.  We do this again and again, each time letting go of our opinions about that object, each time  trying to meet the object just as it is in this very moment.  In this way, we gradually drop our hopes and fears and we allow healing to take place between our mind and our object of meditation.  By extension, we can learn to heal our relationship with all of the objects that populate the world in which we live. (Yes, people are “objects” in this view.)

Many of us have a troubled relationship with our body. On one hand, we act as if our body was some sort of unimportant possession. We ignore it for long periods of time while we attend to “important” work (such as playing internet sudoku); we feed it poorly and exercise it infrequently; or we demand that it work harder than it is capable of. On the other hand, we sometimes act as if we were slaves of our body.  We coddle our bodies. At the first sign of physical discomfort we look for some sort of relief:  are you a little bit hot?  Turn up the air conditioner! Are you a little bit hungry? Look for a snack. This kind of  relationship with our body is based on mutual demands, not mutual respect: we demand that our body perform certain tasks regardless of its discomfort; our body demands comfort regardless of the tasks we wish to perform. It’s like a bad work situation, and we alternate who gets to play the unreasonable boss.

But we can heal the relationship of our mind and body.  Through the practice of meditation, we can simply spend time being with our body.  We can grow familiar with it and caring towards it. We can pay attention to it without asking it to do something, neither ignoring its requests nor immediately trying to fulfill its demands. We do this by taking the physical sensations of the body as our object of meditation.

Meditation Technique: Open Body Awareness

Here’s a meditation technique that takes physical sensations as the object of meditation.  Take your meditation posture and allow your mind to settle. Then open your awareness to the physical sensations of your body.  Whichever sensation arises, just be with it. Whether it’s painful or pleasant, just notice it. If the sensation is painful don’t try to make it go away.  If the sensation is pleasant don’t try to make it stay. Sensations often come with a story about their meaning (“That itch on my cheek means that there is an insect that will surely bore its way into my brain if I don’t deal with it right now.”)  Let go of the story and just experience the sensation.

Be patient and pay attention to whatever sensation arises. It’s not our goal to create a meditation in which we only experience pleasant sensations.  Rather it’s our goal to be able to rest with any sensation that arises.

Meditation Technique: Focused Body Scan

In a focused body scan, we use physical locations to add focus to our meditation.

You might find that at times you have difficulty with the technique of open body awareness.  You may need more focus. In this case, you can use the technique of focused body scan.  This technique uses physical points on the centerline of your body as a focus of attention. As before, take your meditation posture, and allow your mind to settle. Then place your attention on the crown of your head. Notice any physical sensations that you might feel in that area. Don’t expect some special sensation; just be aware of any sensation that you might feel.  Remember that the goal is not to experience the right sensation, but rather to learn to rest patiently and alertly with whatever sensation arises. If you don’t experience any sensation, wait patiently.  If your attention wanders away from the crown of your head, bring it back.  When you notice a sensation at the crown of your head, move your attention to your forehead.  Again, rest patiently and alertly until you’ve noticed sensations on your forehead.  Continue in this way, moving your attention to the part of your chest over your heart; to your solar plexus; to your genitals; and to the base of your spine. The diagram on the right shows the points of focus starting with the top circle (number 7) and descending in numerical order to the bottom circle (number 1). Readers who are familiar with yoga will recognize that these points of focus correspond to the chakras of that tradition.

When you meditate on physical sensation, you may find that at first there appear to be many more sensations than usual.  All sorts of itches and small pains arise and demand relief. Sensations, especially intense sensations, challenge our patience.  We feel that if we have an intense sensation we have to do something about it right away. But when you practice meditating on physical sensations, see if you can extend your patience a little bit: don’t do anything about the sensations.  Just pay attention to them.  Then you can learn to be both sensitive to your body and patient with your body.

Over time, as you pay attention to your body, it will begin to relax. Your mind can create knots in your body.  The sensitive and patient attention that you develop in meditation on physical sensation can allow those knots to loosen and dissolve.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Aron Sage permalink
    August 15, 2012 3:31 pm

    how does the alaya fit into the relationship between mind and body?

    • August 17, 2012 10:08 am

      This comment is in response to Aron’s question about the role of the alaya in the relationship of mind and body. I’ll take alaya to mean the “storehouse” consciousness. I prefer to think of it as a function of mind rather than as some sort of location. The alaya represents the mind’ s ability to retain information about objects and also to retain its habitual response to objects. The alaya is that function of mind that enables the mind to undergo training and karma (See the blog entry “Taming, Training and Karma”)

      In terms of the relationship between mind and body, the alaya represents the mind’s ability to perpetuate the habitual patterns of that relationship. But the alaya is neutral and open, so it also represents the ability of the mind to accept new patterns of relationship to the body and to let go of old patterns. (But because it’s a storehouse, it represents the fact that the old patterns will tend to persist for a while.)

      • Aron permalink
        August 17, 2012 10:46 am

        Since it is the storehouse consciousness, does this mean we are not only dealing with how our mind relates with our body now, but also how we have dealt with it in all our past lives? If so how does this work, when your past life was not a human? Does this function of mind retain information about objects from other lives? If so how can we touch into this stored information?

      • August 19, 2012 6:58 pm

        The “storehouse” function allow us to experience inheritance. If you believe in past lives, then yes, that inheritance also encompasses those past lives.If you don’t believe in past lives, you might believe in evolution. In that case, your behavioral inheritance comes from your evolutionary lineage, which would include non-human life forms.

        I think that when talking about this kind of issue, it’s important to understand how a given worldview supports practice. (If a worldview doesn’t support any kind of practice, then it’s really not a very helpful worldview.) The view of the alaya supports the idea of inherited behavioral patterns. It allows us to accept the arising of all sorts of thoughts, emotions, and reflexes into our experience, without having to uncover their history. Who knows how we inherited those things? Our job is to decide whether we want to perpetuate those patterns or to allow them to fade away.

        As for touching into all the stored behavioral patterns and information in the alaya is essentially learning to be in touch with your own unconscious. I would suggest that taking the mind itself as the object of meditation would be a good first step.

  2. December 7, 2013 7:26 pm

    What do I do when I feel a sensation in another part of the body that Im not focusing on. So for example I focus on the crown but feel something in my arm? Do I turn my attention the the arm sensation?

    • December 9, 2013 4:33 pm

      Hi Jill,

      When we’re meditating, we’re learning to be open to all of our experience, and also training in being able to make choices as to which aspect of our awareness we would like to put attention on. The purpose of the body scan meditation is to give the monkey mind something to rest on, and to allow us to sty there even though the monkey points out other, more interesting and important objects. But that said, we are still cultivating an open awareness that doesn’t cling to or reject any experience

      So if you’re meditating on physical sensation using a focused body scan and you begin to feel sensation elsewhere, that’s no problem. Just allow it to be there, and continue your scan. If the sensation grows and becomes more intense, then you could move your attention to it and see if there’s anything you need to do about it. Is there a small animal gnawing your arm? You can shoo it away, and then return to your scan. If there’s nothing you need to do but the sensation remains intense, you could choose to switch to that sensation as your object of meditation. When it subsides, you can return to your scan.


  1. Distinguishing Concepts From Physical Sensations « The Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation

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