Three levels of practice, three levels of awakening
Meditation practice can work on three levels - mind, heart and body. Different people will be drawn to different approaches; you’ll find that you get on much better with some techniques than others. In addition, sometimes working on one level can help to get past an inner block or difficulty that practices on another level haven’t been able to resolve - for example, a deep-seated anxiety that no amount of mental training has been able to shift might be resolved by doing some work with the body.
So let’s take a look at the three levels of practice and see what each might offer us!
The mind is an incredibly powerful resource if we can learn to harness it. It can also be a huge source of problems!
We can use meditation to train the mind in a couple of helpful ways:
- Focus. Many meditation practices use an object (sometimes called an ‘anchor’) to train the mind to focus. For example, we might pay attention to the breath, to a candle flame, or to a visualisation. Each time we notice that the mind has wandered away, we bring the attention gently back to the anchor. Over time, our attention becomes clearer, sharper and less unruly, and our minds become calmer and quieter.
- Insight. By looking closely at our moment-to-moment experience, we begin to see how the mind actually works - the endless loops of habitual thinking, the deep-seated patterns of behaviour which drive more of our actions than we might like. Over time we see deeper and deeper into the mind, and ultimately we come to discover who we really are, beyond all the ideas and stories we carry around. We come to see ourselves not as a solid, separate thing in a world of things, but as a fluid process in a world of processes. This shift of perspective, called kensho in Zen, brings great freedom and joy into our lives.
We awaken at the level of the mind when we bring stillness and clarity to our minds and see what’s really going on - we find new ways of relating to our experience which bring profound freedom from stress, anxiety and suffering.
Life is ultimately all about relationships; we exist in relation to our friends, families, co-workers and neighbours, and the quality of our lives can be measured in the quality of those relationships.
With this in mind, we can use meditation to open our hearts and connect with beautiful qualities of warmth and peace that are innate to our being but all too often buried under a lifetime of conditioning and pain.
Within ourselves, we find an inner reservoir of kindness and love, which is simply the natural expression of an open heart. When that open-hearted quality encounters suffering, it takes on the form of compassion - the earnest wish that the suffering be relieved. When an open heart encounters joy, it resonates in delight, whether that joy is found in ourselves or in another. And as we learn to settle into the experience of an open heart, we find the unshakeable peace of equanimity, a kind of inner stability from which we can view the comings and goings of the world without getting sucked into its drama against our will.
Through heart practices, we learn to extend these qualities toward the people around us, and also to ourselves - either or both of these can sadly be difficult at first, but with time and gentle practice the heart will respond. Initially it may be easier to feel or express these qualities toward some people (such as close friends) and harder towards others (the more difficult people in our lives, perhaps), but as the heart practices develop we find that a shift takes place - a breaking down of barriers, where we move beyond the mind’s categorisations of self and other, good and bad, friend and foe - and these beautiful qualities of the heart radiate out in all directions, equally and impartially. This radiant heart will inevitably enrich our lives and our relationships, as its warmth touches every person we encounter.
The third dimension of meditation practice is the physical body. Perhaps you’re already a physical person - an athlete, a dancer, an artisan - or perhaps you work at a computer all day long, but either way your body is the instrument through which you experience the world and express your innermost thoughts, intentions and desires.
The body, heart and mind are intimately connected. If we experience a lot of anxiety, that will tend to show up in the body as patterns of tension, stiffness and discomfort. And as we work with the body, we can often find strong memories or emotions bubbling up to the surface. Gently opening and aligning the body will often cause the release of mental or emotional blockages which are difficult to approach on the level of the mind or the heart.
Beyond the purely physical, we can also work with the body’s energetic system. There are many different traditions and practices for working with energy, such as kundalini yoga, qigong, or the energetic practices found in Rinzai Zen. These practices give us a way to connect with our bodies at the subtlest levels, to explore what’s going on inside us and work with areas of tension and blockage.
Body-based approaches also provide us with a bridge between meditation practices for the mind and heart, which are often carried out in stillness, and the rest of our lives, which are often filled with movement and activity. Bringing mindful attention and an open heart to a physical practice such as yoga, tai chi or running is a very powerful way of integrating all aspects of our spiritual lives, and allowing the benefits that we experience in formal meditation to infuse our daily lives and activities.
Bringing it together
Ultimately we must explore and integrate all three levels - mind, heart, and body. All three are connected: you might well find that experiencing kensho allows your heart to open naturally; that working with self-compassion helps to soften and relax tension in the body; or that aligning and opening the body naturally brings your mind to rest and allows you to see much more clearly than before. Or you might find that these are three separate paths of exploration, each of which will bring different discoveries and rewards - each bringing openings on different levels. Either way, however, awakening is most powerful when it unites wisdom and compassion in a fully embodied way.
So don’t be a one-dimensional practitioner! What might you be leaving out? What approaches could you explore to find new openings in your practice?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!