Dharma Ocean Answers: What is Embodied Meditation?
Excerpted from Somatic Descent by Dr. Reggie Ray. Shambala Press, 2020. Dr. Reggie Ray is a Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, who has developed a unique system of practices and teachings called Meditating with the Body.
How do we make spiritual experience grounded, real, tangible, and actual in our lives and the world? How do we connect the immeasurable freedom and the intimate connectedness that we sometimes discover in meditation with the way we go through our mundane existence? Many of us are asking this question: How do I align my ordinary life with my meditative experience?
Unless we can find a way to bring our realization into our ordinary lives, all of our meditation is not going to mean very much, and it certainly isn't going to be helpful to others, And yet, this is the missing piece in much meditation as it is taught and practiced today.
Conventional approaches to meditation often follow a typical pattern. Let's say we sit down for a meditation session. Something has happened that has left us somewhat anxious and stirred up. We are looking to our practice as a way to calm ourselves down, find some distance from our vexing problem, get into a clear and peaceful space so we can carry on with our day. This is very understandable; no doubt all of us can identify.
But here the problem begins. We are approaching our practice with too much of an agenda-the agenda of getting ourselves into a particular emotional place. We are imposing our expectations and desires onto our experience before we have even sat down to practice. This may not sound like a bad thing, and in a way, it isn't. But it can end up placing severe limitations on what is able to happen. In fact, there is another approach, a far more somatic one, that can yield much more profound and transformative results, addressing not only our immediate problem but so much more.
When we approach meditation in the conventional, top-down way, we are imposing on our practice ideas, assumptions, and expectations that are based on memories of the past. They are not really about relating directly to what is going on right now. If we take these "spiritual" memories as the agenda and task of our meditation session, we will be subtly turning our back on the stark simplicity and immediacy of our present experience, even though that experience, ironically, is the only place and real answers, any lasting resolutions, can be found.
So instead, we send our ids off into a more ethereal direction, on a fishing expedition out into our disembodied mental space in search of the big fish of peach or clarity or whatever; sometimes, this expedition will even be seen as successful, the more disconnected we become from whatever painful thing is going on with us. At this point, we are sitting outside of ourselves, outside of our life, outside of the psychological unfolding that wants to happen in us. We are using our meditation to bypass our life journey and most of what we are. This is what John Welwood calls "spiritual bypassing." It may be a lot easier than sitting with our experience, within our human process, but spiritually it doesn't lead anywhere; it is a dead-end. More than that, at a certain point you can't do it anymore; and then the walls come crashing down.
Somatic Meditation: The Antidote for Spiritual Bypassing
In contrast, Somatic Descent invites us to journey downward, into the non-conceptual meditative consciousness of our body and, within that, to discover how to be in the world with its mundane distractions and challenges and, frankly, its pain. And it accomplishes this by leading us down in an unending journey of tipping into the body's meditative awareness in ever more subtle, refined, and aware ways. In Somatic Descent, we learn how to be fully present within our Soma-in other words, our body-not only its openness and sense of connection, but beyond that, its spontaneous intelligence and inspiration. In this book, I often use the terms "Soma," the Greek word for body, to remind us that in Somatic Descent we are not talking about the body in the conventional sense but to something different and more subtle-and yet entirely accessible to each of us.
There are a lot of important things opened up in our body when we meditate-important things about how to be most fully and genuinely in our lives-but many just cruise along in the high gear of our "practice," ignoring all the texture, energy, and eventfulness, along with the significance and meaning of what is happening somatically, moment by moment. We are not listening to what our body is continually saying. But, if we just cruise along in that way, we are missing the most important and potentially impactful part of meditation; we may be missing what many of us came to meditation for in the first place: to inhabit our lives fully, experience what it means to be human, and help other people and our suffering world.
About Dharma Ocean
Dharma Ocean is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students - of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.