It’s amazing over the course of a retreat day how many different Alistairs show up on the cushion.
I was practising around 8 hours a day within 4 session and each time I padded across the garden to the Shrine room and sat down on my zafu, I was astonished how completely varied the constellation of mood, body, thoughts, attitude was each time I plonked myself down.
After a week of practising I was a little less caught up in the ‘duckweed’ of compulsive thinking, JCS humming and angry grumbling, but I could be startled by sudden changes in the inner weather: from one mood in the kitchen, a short walk across the lawn, and then boom! a complete loss of faith in Buddhism, or a black patch of doubt in my practice or a hysterical skittish run of childhood holiday memories.
What I came to trust and, indeed, long for was the moment shortly after this initial uprush of mental stuff when I consciously unhooked my awareness and let it float down the body into what the psychotherapist Mark Solms calls the ‘jellyfish within’.
The inner awareness of the body – sometimes called interoception – became my greatest friend. Whatever madness was ruling the airwaves up in the head, the steady rotation of the body sensation was intensely comforting. I might be feeling tired or achey, or full of food or hungry, but actually feeling into the texture of the body opened up a different dimension of experience. Akin, but not identical to the fourth time dimension, it’s a foundational experience that underpins and increasingly replaces the hectic pell-mell of the thinking mind with all its postures and certainties ,its absolute doubts and complete this or that.
Resting in the body is also the gateway to a growing sense of contentment that the thinking mind with all its prospective “Alistairs” never delivers.
This is the thing: there is always something to think about. There’s always an ego project, a potential Alistair to plan and protect. There’s always a problem to remember and then fret for hours about. The “thinking about the Alistair Project” is an infinite hall of mirrors. But hanging out with the jellyfish within simplifies the whole experience of being alive. It feels almost shamefully simple and enjoyable. It might not always be pleasant – I might be feeling pain or nausea or tension – but it feels workable. Concrete. Here.
This is, I realised, the crucial move towards embodiment that is happening all over the fields I’m interested in: embodied psychotherapy, Reggie’s teaching on somatic mediation, emergent research in embodied neuroscience. It’s as if the world is gradually realising that thinking is not enough.
It has certainly completed up-ended my understanding of meditation which used to be about setting up a more refined thinker which commented on the cruder thinking that filled my mind. In essence it was a subtle form of judgement and an exhausting project of self-improvement.
Dropping down into the body gives me a platform of ‘basic sanity’ within which awareness arises. It’s not ‘me’ noticing aspects of me – but it’s an awareness of the whole game of ‘me’ from the space of the body. It actually accesses an awareness that is beyond the body but it needs the gateway of the body to get there.
That experience of an awareness beyond thought is a basic tenet of myriad spiritual practices but it’s only these embodied techniques that have allowed me to actually access that dimension of experience and stay there for any amount of time. And retreat is definitely the time needed for these insights to sink in and sink down far enough to last through the year.