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.
Being mindful always improves some aspect of what we are focusing on. This is the biological purpose of attention, even if we don’t consciously target that outcome. 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. The act of sensing the body leads to highlighting what is “bad” and orienting us to what is “good.” Attention to the body helps us notice subtle deviations from the homeostatic optimums and instinctively reorient toward balance. This means that exploring the body in detail will integrate and balance it in ways that we can’t even imagine until we become proficient. This effect is continuous and subliminal throughout any good meditation practice, and the results are cumulative over time.
When being mindful of something induces a positive change, psychologists refer to this as being an automatic or “implicit” reappraisal rather than a conscious or “cognitive” one. Because the transformation is not a deliberate act, it may seem as if we’ve done nothing at all — as if we really were just noticing something in a state of nonjudgmental acceptance.
In fact we did do something: We chose to become mindful of that sensation in the first place. We focused on it for long enough for an implicit reappraisal and an adaptive response to occur. We probably wouldn’t continue with the “just watching” mode if that positive change didn’t occur. We always need a subtle sense of reward to continue with anything we do, even if we don’t consciously register it.
After ten to fifteen minutes a good meditator will usually feel that he or she has arrived at some degree of body-mind stillness (what the Sutta calls passaddhi). At this point the formal instructions can and usually do take second place to a deeper kind of guidance from within. Beginners are often apprehensive about getting the instructions right. They are afraid that if they tweak anything, the promised magic will fail. What will happen if they breathe through their mouth instead of their nose? Or if they accidentally touch their thumbs to the second fingers rather than the first? Thousands stop meditating altogether because they can’t afford the prescribed time span of twenty minutes or forty minutes or an hour, depending on where they got their first instructions.
The body schema is a fully integrated, real-time map of the state of the body. It is highly dynamic and rich with feedback mechanisms. That is to say: Relaxing the scalp will help relax the feet. Unlocking the jaw will reduce cortisol output. Noticing sadness will soften the face. Breathing out will lower blood pressure, and so on.
The body will naturally gravitate toward homeostatic set points if we let it. It never forgets what perfect health and well-being feel like. Buried in the depths it holds a detailed template of that goal. It compares where we are at in any moment against those foundational templates. The body knows where it needs to go. It continuously makes judgment calls: This feels bad. This feels good. If I do this, it feels better. We accelerate this process by being well focused and mindful of the sensations within us.
“Homeostasis” means having optimal tone in every muscle group, optimal functioning in every organ, optimal balance, and arousal, and so on. The process toward homeostasis is subtle but very dynamic, and it never stops. We can dimly sense this inner intelligence at work, even though most of it occurs out of sight.
The mind also has homeostatic ideals and will gravitate toward them when we let it. This process is mostly preconscious, but most people do have at least an instinct for what a healthy, balanced, well-functioning mind feels like. It is a memory, if nothing else. When we meditate, we can intuitively direct our attention in ways that feel compatible with these inner guidelines. If we are mindful of what we are doing, we will also be able to evaluate whether this inner play is truly useful or just another distraction or escape.
Body Scan Variations
People often achieve a good degree of body-mind stillness and wonder “Is this it? Is this all there is?” This is the time to let go of whatever we were led to expect, and follow our imagination instead.
The possibilities are limitless. We may feel an inclination to go deeply into one place; or to notice an arising emotion or memory trace; or to integrate an emerging image or color into the scanning; or to notice weird little bad sensations or peculiar new good ones; or to catch a visceral insight; or to realign ourselves in imaginal space; or to examine a mood; or to shift from one body-based practice to another; or to examine a problem through nonverbal feeling; or to just have fun with what we find. To playfully enjoy what feels worth doing, whether in meditation or not, has a very strong antidepressant effect. It may be the best antidepressant of all. Here is a list of body scan variations.
Scanning Down or Up
Scanning down from head to feet is a relaxing approach to the body scan. It works with the releasing effect of the out-breath, but it can make you sleepy. Scanning up, starting distantly with the feet and untangling sensations on up through the core of the body and into the head, is more energizing. It is more likely to keep you awake.
Scanning in Stages
It is useful to deliberately scan through the same stages repeatedly. This will train you to accurately target your attention. How you divide the body from top to bottom is up to you. You are likely to have more divisions if you scan slowly, and less if you scan quickly. You can also scan by visualizing what you understand of your anatomy.
To scan slowly, taking fifteen minutes or more from top to bottom, is good for beginners. We shouldn’t underestimate how long it takes to actually “see” what is happening deep in the body. It may take weeks before you can sense each place in any detail.
After a slow scan it is good to sweep in rapid and somewhat random fashion up and down the body. This leads to subtle changes that improve balance, open the body, and integrate the body schema. Fast scans are economical in terms of time invested, and you’re likely to do more of them once you get the knack. I do dozens of quick scans each day. Most of them are less than a minute long, and some consist of just a single sigh.
Scanning Only the Upper Body
The face, shoulders, and chest are psychosomatic areas. They tense up easily but also relax fairly quickly. Scanning just the upper body can be more satisfying than going all the way down to the feet. You get strong positive feedback from the upper body that what you are doing is working, and this encourages you to continue. This isn’t the case lower in the body. The buttocks and thighs, for example, will automatically relax if the upper body does, but the feedback signs are much less obvious. They therefore have a weaker confirmatory effect.
Counting and Affirmations
Props are often essential to keep yourself on track. You can always count three or four breaths silently to each stage, or repeat an affirmation while you breathe, as I described in chapter 3.
Focusing on the body is like illuminating it from within. It’s just a small step further to imagine gradually filling the body with light or a color or nectar or spiritual energy. The Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1686–1769) suggested imagining a ball of aromatic butter on your head gradually melting throughout your body. (Hakuin is also famous for the saying “Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness.”)
The Central Axis
When you become very still and calm (passaddhi), your mind may want to go deeper inside. When scanning it will tend to move up and down the “central axis” of the body. We usually feel this as being slightly in front of the spine. The central axis is not a genuine anatomical structure; it is a mental concept. It is how we imagine ourselves as being straight and balanced.
Along the central axis you will find places where your mind naturally wants to rest: the point behind the eyes; the center of the chest; the center of the hips, for example. Let your mind go to these places. In yoga these are called “chakras.” These are not anatomically real locations, but the feeling of being centered is very real. Don’t worry if your apparent chakras don’t exactly match the five or seven chakra models of the various yogic or Tibetan systems. The fact that these are not compatible with each other makes it obvious that they are not an absolute spiritual anatomy. They are just frameworks to hang your experience off. You don’t need to force your actual experience to conform to either of these.
Deep Point Focus
If your mind wants to go to any particular place, let it do so. It will be attracted in particular to the “negatives” — to whatever is painful, awkward, or out of balance. Focusing on those areas helps to correct them.
Searching for Pain
Home in on what feels bad and let the sensations there come to the surface. Mindfulness typically acts as a troubleshooter. Error detection is one of its major functions. We often have to become fully conscious of unnecessary tension or a runaway thought or a disturbing mood, and let it emerge fully in consciousness, in order to relax at all.
Use your breath as a probe for scanning your body — you can imagine “breathing through the body” or “breathing into” areas of pain or tension. This will help you create a sense of space and openness throughout the body, thereby inducing the so-called “breath body” experience.
Attention to the Positives
Because the lovely states of mind are more subtle than the negatives, they can easily be missed. When they do occur, make sure you notice them: deep stillness, inner silence, bliss, vision, sensory delight, mental clarity, and control. Don’t forget why you’re meditating: You do want to feel better. Keep the goal in mind and enjoy any unexpected rewards that come along.
Accepting the Body
Body scanning can be profoundly enjoyable. It still surprises me that physical bliss can coexist with the inevitable discomforts of having a human body. Some of my students even say that severe pain and illness are no obstacle and can even help. Because scanning is so therapeutic, however, people often try to force the process. This can lead to frustration: “I couldn’t make my shoulders relax no matter how hard I tried!”
The most helpful attitude is a loving and tolerant curiosity toward the body just as it is — that is, “nonjudgmental acceptance” (a term we’ll return to often throughout this book). Nonjudgmental acceptance is an excellent response toward things that we can’t immediately change. All we can do is pay attention to the body and gently explore. We usually can’t force it to feel exactly the way we would like. If we can feel comfortably at home in our less-than-perfect bodies, we stop fighting ourselves and automatically relax.
There can be hundreds of things that we don’t like about ourselves — sensations, thoughts, moods, and habits. In meditation, we meet them one by one as the minutes go by. Each one gives us a chance to let go a little more of our habitual negativities, to become more tolerant of negative affect. The minor physical discomforts are a good place to start. Learning to do this enhances our capacity for what psychologists call “distress tolerance” or “pain tolerance.”
The results can be truly amazing. Although body scanning illuminates our discomforts, it is also the royal road to bliss. We can feel every part of the body, and all the systems within it, orienting toward a state of health and balance. Beneath the discomforts, the body can feel tranquil, radiant, and alive.
Is It Working?
Some psychologists say that we should practice meditation without aiming for any particular outcome. “Just accept whatever happens, good or bad.” Such universal acceptance is a goal in itself, but I’m not sure that it’s a good one. This approach certainly wouldn’t make us any better at golf or mathematics. Learning any skill is rewarding, but it does take effort. We will only stick with it if it seems to be worthwhile. We know that most students of any subject need frequent positive feedback on their progress or they’re likely to get discouraged. This is exactly what happens to most people who attempt meditation. They fail to look for the benefits.
Meditation is about learning to relax rapidly, to focus better, and to manage thoughts and emotions more intelligently.
These are skills that we can readily improve if we know how to assess our progress. Let’s look at just the first of these: relaxing consciously. Beginners often doubt that focusing on their bodies will relax them. We usually get sleepy and less conscious as we relax, so we are rarely alert enough to notice how pleasant it feels. So how can we tell if we are succeeding or not?
The shift from the stress response to the relaxation response, from sympathetic arousal to parasympathetic recover, creates dramatic effects throughout the body. Several signs will indicate that this process is at work:
Muscle tension releases. We can easily feel the little muscles around the eyes, lips, and jaw soften. The shoulders drop. The loss of tone throughout the large muscles of the body induces a feeling of heaviness. As tension fades, the body loses its jumpy, ready-to-move quality. It starts to feel genuinely still.
Tingling, warmth, and pulsing arises. The relaxation response diverts the blood flow from the large fight-or-flight muscles to the skin and the digestive system. The skin often feels tingly and warm, and the pulse may become more prominent. Stress shuts down the digestive system, but relaxation wakes it up, sometimes with gurgling and mild nausea.
Physical discomforts emerge. Stress and cortisol mask our aches, pains, and fatigue. Relaxation brings them to the surface. Their presence can be regarded as good signs of progress. Focusing on the body naturally amplifies sensations, and the brain will always give priority to unpleasant signals over pleasant ones.
Arousal drops. We sense this most clearly in our breathing. We shift from tense, holding, rapid, upper-body breathing to soft, releasing, slower, lower-body breathing. When this happens we know that heart rate and blood pressure will also be returning to balance. We also get our first taste of stillness and silence in the gap between out-breath and in-breath.
You know you’re on the right track during any meditation if you feel heavy or light, soft, tingling, warm, tired, sore, still, or any combination of these sensations. In being “mindful of the body,” you may also feel your breathing soften, notice more saliva in your mouth, watering in the eyes, a gurgling stomach, a sense of inner space or flow.
Mentally you may still be a bit distracted or sleepy, or you may feel fully calm and controlled. Your bad mood may have utterly changed, or it may just have weakened. You are likely to feel more grounded and in tune with your emotional state. Ideally you feel a stronger sense of agency after a meditation. You are more able to choose where to direct your attention rather than being at the mercy of whatever arises.
When we meditate, our quality of focus naturally fluctuates according to inner and outer forces that we usually can’t see or control (biology, weather, stress, fatigue, cognitive overload, sickness, emotional cross-contamination, and so on). But still, we’re not helpless.
None of us can focus perfectly for long, but we can certainly get better with practice. It is simply a matter of being “mindful of your state of mind” and repeatedly checking. It starts with a simple question: “Am I focused or not? Am I paying attention to the body as I intended to do, or am I distracted by some thought?” If we become mindful that we’re not focused, it is easy to correct it. If we don’t recognize it, we’re as lost as a tennis player who endlessly repeats an error.
If we notice when our attention is good, we can amplify it. Just to recognize that “this is good focus” and to embed that feeling in memory is sufficient. It lays down a positive template for the future. As the Buddha said in the Sutta, “Recognize when a good state of mind is present and learn how to amplify it.”
Even acknowledging that your mind is hopelessly scattered is better than not recognizing it at all. To notice that something is wrong is the essential first step toward improvement, even if nothing happens immediately. The Buddha said that if you repeatedly recognize bad states of mind and store them in memory, you will eventually come to see what triggers them and what helps them fade.
Excerpted from The Foundations of Mindfulness: How to Cultivate Attention, Good Judgment, and Tranquility© Eric Harrison, 2015, 2017. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.