Body Scanning Meditation

Relax your body and mind through the practice of body scanning meditation.

  • Drawing on the Buddha’s teaching of the Satipatthana Sutta, Eric Harrison offers a guide on how to apply meditation to daily life.
    Cover courtesy of The Experiment, LLC
  • Just to notice a subtle tension or a disturbing mood or a repetitive thought invariably leads to a reappraisal and adjustment, whether we intend it or not.
    Photo courtesy of Getty Images/electravk

The Body Scan

[The monk] trains himself thinking: “Conscious of the whole body, I breathe in. Conscious of the whole body, I breathe out. Calming the whole body, I breathe in. Calming the whole body, I breathe out.” Satipatthana Sutta

Dozens of meditation practices are based on paying attention to the play of sensations within the body. Some call for systematically relaxing the muscles of the body from top to bottom. Some focus on subtle blocks and energy flows, as in yoga. In tai chi the focus is on moving the body in a fluid, harmonious way.

Despite their variety, these techniques all have a similar effect: they strengthen and harmonize the mental map of the body (the body schema, discussed in chapter 3). “Scanning” the body slowly — that is, undertaking a careful mental exploration of the sensations present in the body — brings mindfulness of hidden tensions, and this alleviates many of them within seconds. It is like gently combing the knots out of a tangle of long hair — and discovering with amazement how many knots there actually are.

A good way to structure a body scan meditation session is to scan slowly and systematically, three or four breaths in each place. For example, you could spend four breaths while mentally exploring the sensations in each of the following places: scalp and forehead; face; neck, throat, and shoulders; arms and hands; chest; diaphragm; belly; hips; legs and feet. That would keep you occupied for several minutes, and you could easily vary this format at will.

After a slow scan, you can scan more rapidly up and down to more generally integrate the body schema. Let your mind explore tensions, blocks, imbalances, and discomforts whenever it seems useful to do so. Conversely, you can amplify pleasant sensations by focusing on them. This can be very enjoyable and rewarding work with remarkable psychological and physical benefits. Although this may be hard for a novice to understand, some people spend hundreds of hours doing this.

Scanning in detail can so alter our perception that some people will feel that they are sensing their bodies “as they actually are” for the first time. They sense not just their usual body, more clearly, but a kind of body that is qualitatively different. They feel an “energy body” of fluid sensations rather than the usual lumpish flesh and bones. The state of mind that induces this effect is often called “just watching” or “bare attention,” but this is only half the truth.

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