Though they do it in different ways, sages not infrequently talk about body practice. What are they talking about? Is it important?
The answer may shock you!
The reason it may shock you is that you may be one of the many people who are confused about the nature of a spiritual practice.
For example, many people think of Buddhism as a religion. Buddhists, on this view, are different from other people because they accept a distinctive creed or set of beliefs.
No, to be a Buddhist is to practice Buddhism. Except for the belief that doing so might be helpful, it is not necessary to believe anything to practice Buddhism.
Another way to say this is that being a Buddhist involves practicing physically. Another way to say this is that being a Buddhist means regularly doing a body practice.
No body practice, no buddhism.
That explains why sages often talk about body practice (though they don’t always use those words).
Being wise is not thinking in a certain way. It’s false that wisdom is a set of thoughts or beliefs. Wisdom is practiced.
John Daido Loori: “Taking responsibility for our life includes taking responsibility for our body . . . Body practice means realizing the Way with the body as well as with the mind.”
A concrete example may help. This example is a real one that’s based on the fact that it’s often easier to notice a flaw in someone else than it is to notice it in ourselves.
Years back into the last century I had a girlfriend who would visit me. She would often stride down the hall obviously focused so intently on where she was going that she would bang her heels on the floor.
It was impossible not to notice: my cottage is small and has only one hall. That was not the controlled, mindful tread of a sage.
I knew that she was very unhappy and spent a lot of time thinking about how to distract herself so she’d enjoy life more. The problem wasn’t that I felt superior to her. The problem was that I identified with her!
She walked that way because her goal-focused thoughts were separated from her body, her walking. Since separation is the root of suffering, it was obvious just from how she was walking that she was hurting.
How do you walk? Don’t you, too, often walk lost in thought?
Here’s the alternative: walk well. Each step can be a body practice or mini-meditation. Each step is a mini-meditation only if it is taken with awareness.
As you may understand, there is walking meditation as well as sitting meditation.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Being Peace, and this you may not understand, “The sitting and the walking must be extended to the non-walking, non-sitting moments of our day. That is the basic principle of meditation.”
The word ‘practice’ in the phrase ‘body practice’ is misleading. Usually we think of practicing in order to do better in the future.
The point of meditation, however, is to do better right now. After all, the present moment is the only moment we ever get to live.
The method of meditation is to focus on whatever we are doing right now. Each act becomes a mini-meditation. This avoids doing one thing while thinking about another.
Another way to talk about body practice is to talk about separating thinking from awareness [or Becoming from Being]. As long as we stay trapped in thinking (time, Becoming), we will seek the purpose or meaning of life elsewhere in time, usually, in the future.
Freeing ourselves from thinking (time, Becoming) is negating time. Once time is negated, the only place to find the purpose or meaning of life is in the present moment, in whatever we are doing right now.
Turning this around, finding the purpose or meaning of life in the present moment is negating thinking (time, Becoming). As Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth: “When you look upon what you do or where you are as the main purpose of your life, you negate time.”
So, for example, walking down a hall can be excellent body practice. The meaning of your life when you are walking down a hall is to be walking down that hall! The purpose of the walking is to get somewhere else, but that purpose is secondary.
To have an effective body practice is to treat everything you do as if it were intrinsically valuable and worthwhile instead of treating everything you do merely as a means to some other end.
The value and fullness of life is available here and now.
Where else could it be available? The past is a set of thoughts that, at best, are accurate rememberings, and the future is nothing but a set of thoughts that are mere imaginings.
The value of life does not come from thinking about it.
The value of life comes from life itself.
This is very good news: making each act a body practice is not only simple enough that everyone can do it, but it’s the only way really to enjoy life.