What does this word somatic mean and how does it relate to meditation?
Somatic meditation means ‘of the body’ in contrast to ‘of the mind’ or the psyche. The soma points us to the raw material of the human body rather than the mind. For several years now I’ve been moving towards a style of meditation that is more and more body-based.
When I first started out meditating back in 2000, I had a very cerebral idea of what it was and my practice was centred around saying a mantra in my head over and over to ‘aerate’ the screeching cacophony of voices in my mind. Subsequent practice, for many years, still concentrated on a mental activity. At the most, I would use the body to condition or change the thinking and feeling mind. The body was a helper but not the main event.
Since I’ve been working with Reggie Ray and his sangha, I’ve come to realise that meditation that stays in the thinking mind has very limited impact. And it’s very hard work since you are trying to work with slippery thoughts from the platform of slippery thinking. It all gets very knotted, very quickly.
So how does somatic meditation work?
Working with the body as the foundation of meditation makes everything much more real and palpable. As soon as I started working with Meditating with the Body (Reggie’s foundational course) I suddenly felt that a whole landscape of experience was open to me. Instead of fighting myself in my head, I was able to expand myself through the body. The sense of space was immediate.
And this is the basic idea behind practising with the soma. We cannot work with the thinking mind from the platform of the thinking mind. We have to go down into the space of the body to get some perspective on the craziness of our thinking. When we rest in our awareness of the body, then the mad-making machinations of the psychological sphere are less and less believable.
Following all the various practices over time, our ‘sense of being’ shifts from being identified with our thoughts to being identified with our bodies.
But my body hurts…
One of the foundational ideas of somatic meditation is that we are not sticking our head in the mental sand any longer.
Very often when starting this work, students find they’re feeling a lot more than previously. They feel the aches and pains of their body more and they start feeling strong emotions. They can have memories from childhood bubble up. They feel more alive, but they also feel more, period.
This is not a mis-step. Somatic meditation puts us in touch with the real quality of being a human. Being alive means we feel things. Lots of things. But the difference is that when we feel things in the body, even negative things, they are safe and contained and actually full of information. When we think about our aches and pains then it’s an endlessly proliferating hall of mirrors and comments and judgements. Thinking about our pain makes it 10x more painful. Resting in the real experience of the body often brings a sense of wonder and release.
What are the benefits?
If you stick with the somatic path, then the whole experience of meditation opens up. Instead of being a painful struggle with our chattering mind and distracted attention, it can be a treasure hunt into wider and deeper dimensions of your Being.
If you can get over the shock of actually feeling things from within, rather than thinking about them, then your world opens up and your have a lot more sanity than before. Being trapped in the mind is the hallmark of insanity. But you can feel more sane when you constantly pollinate the thinking mind with information from the body.
Where does this practice come from?
Ultimately, somatic practices stretch back to the flowering of yogic practices in India 2-3,000 BC. Reggie draws a great deal on the practices of Tibetan Buddhist Yoga which draw from that wellspring. These ‘tantric’ traditions see the body as the gateway to enlightenment and working with the energies of the body helps meditators drop their obsession with their egos.
Of course, most meditation practices have some body scan or body-awareness element. But there is a unique strand in Buddhist practice which places the soma in the centre of our experience.
How can I learn?
You can learn directly from Reggie through the Dharma Ocean website but my work with Mindsprings over the last 10 years has led me to an appreciation of somatic practice that is tempered by my work as a therapist, my studies in interpersonal neuroscience, and through many retreats as a personal practitioner and as a facilitator.
Mindsprings weekends like the one at Spa Road in May are friendly, jargon-free introductions. The courses attract complete beginners but also people who’ve been practicing meditation for some time and feel that they’ve hit a dead end with their practice.