Working with body sensations in meditation – can pain be bliss? Is turning towards sensations always helpful?

A Student writes

I often meditate on body awareness, I find it’s a gateway into more stability. I take any kind of body sensation and kind of melt with it, awareness flows into that area and it is a mandala of its own, like a world of sensations ever changing emerging and ebbing until quite naturally I see that I don’t know what it is. Even pain could turn (for a short while!) into something that is just an alive movement.

Lama Shenpen responds:

Yes it is interesting isn’t it?

What I find so sobering about pain or unpleasant feelings in the body is that I am convinced that the actual sensation is not a problem and is as you say an aliveness, sensitivity itself, even bliss itself.

Nonetheless my habitual mind insists that it has been going on for a period of time and is going to continue into the future and that same mind then decides that this is a major problem.

It is such strong habit of mind. I notice it going on in some shape or form most of the time.  It is obviously the point we really need to bring awareness to the fore as much as we can.  If we could let this habit go – the rest would be easy!

It is like the “voice of lordly judgement” as Rigdzin Shikpo [Lama Shenpen’s teacher] calls it – it decides this is suffering and I don’t want it and from then on the pain or unpleasant feeling becomes problematic.

It is my attachment to the idea (or prapancha*) that this sensation of pain or discomfort is intruding on me somehow:  I last over time, it lasts over time and the one is in opposition to the other.  Yet I can see so clearly that this is deluded thinking!

This really helps me to understand how difficult it is to escape samsara and that if we don’t want to keep suffering we better keep practising!

Student:

I am currently practicing body awareness as described above, but would you say that one way of meditating is more worthwhile than the other? I am sort of getting to the same point in the end…

Lama Shenpen:

I think, as you say, they come to the same in the end don’t they? When we allow sensations in the body to just be there and are aware of them we are actually not getting involved with them, but of course we could let them be a major distraction.

Rigdzin Shikpo talks about turning towards unpleasant feelings rather than trying to push them away and many people find this a very helpful instruction. This is true as long as it has the effect of helping us become more simple and let go of all the thoughts arising from trying to avoid feeling the sensation.

On the other hand if it leads us into a tendency to focus so much on the sensation that we end up feeling completely stuck with it, that has led us away from simplicity into a fixed way of thinking.

We need to keep a light touch that has an aliveness to it – a sense of moving towards simplicity and freedom.

In Mahamudra teachings the emphasis is always on how it’s a matter of keeping awareness of that spacious, empty nature and awareness of what is going on in our awareness together  – the two playing together all the time… inseparable.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

[*Prapancha – Skt. Refers both to mind’s action of creating and then grasping at concepts as well as the things (concepts) grasped at.]

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