In Anālayo Bhikkhu’s book Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation, he recommends developing continuous mindfulness of our whole bodies as the platform from which we can cultivate profound wisdom and liberation. That word “continuous” might strike fear into our hearts if we misunderstand it as effortful in the normal sense. We could instead set our intention to be mindful of the whole body without interruption, knowing that success will elude us, but returning regularly to the intention.
From the viewpoint of early Buddhist thought, a key factor in whatever we do is volition or intention. But our volition operates within a wider network of causes and conditions. It can influence things, but it cannot control them completely. (Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation P.19)
What are some of the things we can do to bring mindfulness to whole-body awareness? One of the first recommended techniques is simply to note how the body is disposed, RIGHT NOW.
When walking one knows: “I am walking”; or when standing, one knows: “I am standing”; or when sitting, one knows, “I am sitting”; or when lying down, one knows: “I am lying down”; or, however the body is disposed, one knows it accordingly. (MN 10, translated by Anālayo Bhikkhu)
This practice may seem too insignificant to merit our attention, but we are invited to try it. Something as natural as being aware of whether we’re sitting or standing can, in some sense, describe our whole world. We rarely notice how our bodies are positioned; however, through intention, when we recall awareness to our bodies in this way, a powerful training in mindfulness is accomplished.
Proprioception is defined as “perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body.” This is a kind of perception that doesn’t rely on our sight or hearing, but is a set of sensations that allows us to place ourselves in space. We know whether we’re inside or outside; we can tell without looking if our limbs are cramped or extended. We can notice when the intention to change position arises, and then notice when we actually move. Whatever position we’re in is a true fact, regardless of how short-lived, and cultivating this awareness can result in a feeling of being grounded.
This “groundedness” is both physical and mental, and can be sustained while doing many activities, but it takes training. “The natural tendency of the mind is either to focus or to ignore. Proprioceptive awareness can be employed to cultivate a middle path between these two extremes.” (p.13) We might first try to do simple tasks while maintaining proprioceptive awareness, like washing the dishes or walking the dog. Gradually we can add more and more complex tasks while remaining grounded in the body.
A force of will can never bring about this type of whole-body awareness; only a gradual, persistent re-setting of our intention will be rewarded. One benefit of this practice is that it can be done in any setting and is perfect for situations where we might otherwise be bored. We can always inquire into the positioning and sensations of the body.