If you have ever had even a brief look at mindfulness or any sort of meditation you will know that the goal is to control your mind. However, the exercises often seem to focus on the body – your breathing, what feelings are in your body and so on.
It’s a clear example of the close relationship between your body and your mind and how you might reach the mind through the body.
The goal is to train your mind to pay attention to the present moment. There’s more to mindfulness than that of course but it is a central aspect. So, it is reasonable to ask, why does so much of the practice of mindfulness seem to be about the body?
Your Body is the Center of Attention
Consider the types of exercises that are typically practiced in just about every form of meditation. You pay attention to breathing, what you hear, what you touch or taste, how you body feels as you walk and so on.
This is quite different from most form of mental training you will have encountered in a typical training environment. In those case, there is little attention to physical aspects of learning or practice beyond perhaps sitting comfortably.
After all, if you are concentrating on your body then you are not prioritising your mind. And if you are not prioritizing your mind then how can it be mental training?
Why This Apparent Contradiction?
There are a number of reasons for this apparent contradiction, but by far the most important is that your body is also always available to you to study. It is always close to your mind and it is always sending out signals that you can access.
You are always breathing. Doing so does not use up any of your concentration. It just happens. Indeed, it is stopping yourself from breathing that requires the effort and a level of concentration that is beyond the abilities of just about everyone for more than a few seconds.
The same can be said of many continuous involuntary functions within your body – your heart, your blood, your hearing and involuntary movements of your muscles and skin to name but a few.
You do not need to exercise any control over these functions beyond what happens all the time. They use up none of your conscious mental capacity. But you can perceive the physical sensations by engaging your conscious mind onto the sensations these involuntary activities create.
Because of this, the automatic functions of your body provide a gateway to the here and now.
This is why mindfulness guides often describe your body as an anchor that you can use to return yourself to the present. The activities and sensations are always present and are therefore always available to you to practice your ability to pay attention to the present.
Be clear. In mindfulness it does not matter precisely what is happening in your body. It is simply a focus for you to exercise attention. It’s a place on which you practice.
The Demands are Made of your Mind
This gives rise to a second important reason for the focus on the body. We usually expect that our body is at our disposal to follow the commands of our brain without really paying must attention to it.
It’s usually only if something goes wrong that we pay attention. Or if we want to improve it in some way. Because of this, attention to your body is often associated with expending energy and negative feelings.
But when you pay attention to your body in a mindfulness exercise or meditation you are approaching it in a very different way. You are addressing it in a spirit of curiosity but never being judgemental.
It is exploration: you are looking to see what you can find. You are not looking to see if your body is performing in a particular manner, as you might do if undertaking physical exercise.
You are giving attention to your body without placing any demands on it, or commenting on it. It’s your mind that is making all the effort.
Your body is a large part of what you are. Approaching your body in this positive accepting manner is a big step towards moving away from the self-critical mindset that permeates much of our thinking. You create a good feeling towards yourself.
Reaching the Mind Through the Body
The approach that is adopted in many practices can be summed up by the quote that ‘You body hears everything that your mind says’. The idea is often associated with ‘positive thinking’ approaches to well-being.
With mindfulness, this is effectively reversed. Mindfulness exercises mean that your mind starts to consciously experience your body.
Your aim is to be conscious aware of the signals your body is generating at this very moment. In this way you get to your mind through your body.