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Our Posture Holds Our Intention

October 6, 2014
The posture of sadness

The posture of sadness

Imagine that you see a friend walking toward you from far away. You can tell by the way that your friend is walking that she is sad. What do you notice about the way she is walking? Maybe her head is down and her shoulders are slumped forward. Maybe her steps are slow and heavy.

We can often tell something about someone else’s mental state by their posture. We can tell if someone is happy or sad, nervous or confident by the way they hold their body. Mind and body are in constant communication. The body listens to the mind, and embodies what the mind is saying; posture is a reflection of mental state.

The posture of anger.

The posture of anger.

The communication between mind and body is not just one-way; our body also talks to our mind. Our posture also influences our mental state. Try this experiment: Think of something that makes you angry, and get in touch with the energy of anger. Let it express itself in your body; put yourself into the posture of anger. Notice what happens in your body. Maybe your neck will become tense and your shoulders will tighten. Maybe your eyes will narrow and your jaw will clench. Whatever manifests in your body as anger, go ahead and really let it express itself. Hold onto that posture – the posture of anger — and say, “I’m really, really angry with you!” How does that feel? Probably, the posture lends energy and force to your words. It feels natural to say angry words when you’re in the posture of anger.

Now put yourself into the posture of anger again. This time, hold onto the posture and say, “I love you!” How does that feel? Probably the words don’t feel sincere to you. It feels unnatural to say loving words when you’re in the posture of anger.

He's truly bored, and his posture is expressing boredom.

He’s truly bored, and his posture is expressing boredom.

You can try this again with the posture of boredom. Put yourself into a posture of boredom. What do you notice? Perhaps your shoulders slump and your head hangs down. Maybe your eyes roll up and you sigh with irritation. Hold onto the posture and say, “Oh god, this is so BORING!” That probably feels natural.

Then, hold onto the posture of boredom, and say, “Wow, this is really interesting!” Does it feel like what you’re saying is sincere? The posture of boredom supports indifference and irritation. The posture of boredom does not support delighted interest.

Our mind influences our body; when our mind is experiencing boredom, our body will naturally take on the posture of boredom. Our body influences our mind; when our body is expressing the posture of boredom, our mind will find it easier to experience boredom and less easy to experience delighted interest. This feedback loop between mind and body can create strong habits of mind and body. (These psychophysical patterns are called formations or samskaras in the classic Buddhist psychology of the abhidharma.) Those strong habitual patterns manifest easily in everyday life. We can become experts, for instance, at experiencing boredom mentally and expressing it physically. We can begin to manifest boredom effortlessly! Then we can have the pleasure of living in a tedious world in which almost nothing of interest ever occurs. Yay?

His posture is expressing boredom, but he's acting.

His posture is expressing boredom, but he’s acting.

Luckily, we have a choice. We can break unhelpful habits of mind and body, and learn to create new, more helpful habits. We can use our body to help us with this by working with our posture. When we find ourselves acting out a habit we’d like to break, we can notice our posture and change it. For instance, if we find ourselves going into the habit of anger, we can break the habit by noticing that we’re taking on the posture of anger and instead choosing to be in the posture of friendliness. Even if we don’t feel very friendly, we can still pretend. We can imitate the posture of someone who is friendly.

We can be like an actor. An actor doesn’t need to be experiencing an emotion in order to express that emotion physically. The actor can pretend – they can act as if they are feeling sad, even if they’re not really sad. They can imitate a sad person. We can also be like children at play, imitating someone else.  For instance a child may decide to imitate a king, and take on the strong, confident posture of a king. Or the child might imitate a monster and take on the scary posture of a monster.

Children learn by imitating

Children learn by imitating

In every day life, we may find that we imitate others unconsciously. We take on the posture of those around us without thinking about it. We must be careful about this, because we might take on posture that represent qualities that we don’t really wish to encourage. It is much more helpful to learn to imitate consciously.

Sitting down to meditate, our posture talks to us. It makes its own statement. You might say the posture itself is the meditation. – John Kabat Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

We can practice conscious imitation in our meditation. When we sit, we can imitate the posture of enlightened beings. Try this experiment: Imagine a person who is very alert and awake, and is also very relaxed. How would that person sit? Try to imitate the way an alert, awake, and relaxed person would sit in. Now, imagine that this person is also very kind-hearted and generous, and has a lively sense of humor. Add that into your imitation of how they sit. And now imagine that that person is powerful, and wise and patient. Imagine all of those attributes together, and imitate the way that person would sit.

Now, please realize that that person is you.

It’s true: you have all of those qualities. Some of the qualities might be covered over and hard to get in touch with, so it might be hard for your body to express them. This is why we practice imitation. We might be able to see those qualities in someone else more easily than we can see those qualities in ourselves. So we imitate the posture of someone else, someone who embodies those qualities. When we do this, our body holds our intention for us — our posture becomes our embodied aspiration. We aspire to connect to those qualities of enlightened mind, so we ask our body to take on the posture of those qualities. Then our body becomes an ally to our aspiration, a support for the cultivation of the qualities of enlightened mind.

When we take on the shape of awakening, it’s easier to cultivate awakening. When we take on the shape of generosity, it’s easier to cultivate generosity.

When we practice using our body in this way, then our body will be able to tell us when we’re losing touch with our aspiration. For instance, if we aspire to be awake and alert, and we find that our body is expressing the posture of boredom, we will probably find that our mind has become dull and bored.   Then, we can ask the body to express the posture of wakefulness again, and use that to support our mental wakefulness.

Through this kind of practice the body and mind grow closer in a mutually beneficial relationship. In the words of Trungpa Rinpoche, we synchronize body and mind; in particular, we synchronize our body and our intention.

 [This posture] is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature…These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. – Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

zazenDes1We start out by imitating the posture of enlightened beings, and expressing qualities that we might have a hard time feeling in ourselves. But through practice we contact those enlightened qualities within ourselves. Then our bodies begin to express naturally those qualities to which we aspire. We no longer need to imitate. Eventually, we will not sit like enlightened beings; we will sit as enlightened beings.

Practicing in this way is a great benefit to us and it’s also helpful to others. Others notice our posture and our affected by it. We can present others with the posture of anger, or the posture of loving-kindness. We can present them with the posture of boredom or the posture of interest. It is said that one of the greatest gifts we can give others is the gift of freedom from fear. Imagine that there is a child alone in a train station. The child is lost and afraid and looks around at all the people rushing by. Everybody seems too busy to help, and nobody looks friendly. Then the child sees you standing nearby. How are you standing?  What does your posture say to the small, frightened child? Imagine that your posture is relaxed and friendly. Imagine that you look open and willing to help. Imagine that the child comes and stands near you and relaxes and feels less frightened.

Comfort the lost child.

Comfort the lost child.

When your mind is lost and afraid, think of it as a small child. Put your body into a posture of friendliness and openness so that your frightened mind can come and stay near your body and be comforted.

Our posture can be a support to our own best aspirations. It can help ease our fearfulness and the fearfulness of those around us. In Buddhism it is said that it is very fortunate to be born a human. Please use your body humanely!

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