What I mean by contemplation is a kind of enquiry that draws meaning out of things, seeing things the way they really are, rather than adding meaning, whether in terms of our personal feelings or ideals. We can all at times value art, philosophy or poetry but what potential do these things really have to lastingly change our lives? I would suggest that when used for truly deep contemplation they can transform us completely. Perhaps some would agree that such contemplation is transformative but even within contemplative circles how well is this process of transformation understood?
The Buddha gives us a model for understanding both the nature and method of contemplation and explains the process of transformation, what it is and how it works. Then, of course the Buddha has a particular goal in mind. Yet we do not have to be seeking the same goal to enquire in the same way. All we do is meditate to make the mind peaceful and take another look at life with a calmer, emptier mind in order to really take it in rather than imposing all our ideas on the world. As we do this then we can see what we are doing and the result for ourselves. The mind can become happier and calmer still. We can then also compare what we see with what the Buddha describes having seen or not, as we wish.
Then how we understand and express the results of our contemplation can become very important. Mastering all this can then help not only ourselves but also others. Contemplation can lead us all in a happy direction or it is possible for it to become another source of ideals or feelings that do not make us feel happy or free. It is then the further art of aesthetics, becoming aware of how we are looking, opening up to and appreciating things in different ways that can be developed to guide us. This art is more implicit than explicit in the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha simply paints a beautiful picture of the spiritual life. A sense of beauty that is based on truth and frees us rather than binds us. The presence of the Buddha and his disciples undoubtedly added to this. In the present day we may need to paint another kind of picture to inspire the mind.
Perception is the primary force in the mind. To gain control over this and take it in a good direction is what can take us to peace and liberation. The Western spiritual tradition is very rich in its creative art and intellectual expression. These skills seem to be a strength in the Western mind. I believe that the Buddha’s teaching can help us harness these skills into a genuine spiritual vehicle. Otherwise, as history shows us, these powerful skills can also be destructive.
The method used in teaching Dhamma is for the listener to meditate and to empty the mind so that the teacher's words can enter fully. The teaching can then have an immediate impact on the listener, taking their mind deeper. If we recognise this as the method then when this direct effect is not happening we will be wondering why. We can be comparing our experience with that of the speaker in order to understand their message in a more indirect, analytical way.
We can be thinking, for example,
"This teacher is emphasising concentration. This is difficult for me right now. I will try to remember his advice when I go out into the country at the weekend."
As meditators we can realise that it is possible to consciously place thoughts anywhere within our field of awareness. We tend to do this unconsciously in the way we think. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes not - in psychology there is a growing literature on 'cognitive metaphors' that function like this. Events in the future are not literally ahead of us but if we imagine them there this makes sense so it is a useful way of thinking that orients us clearly. As meditators we can see more subtle implications of the perceived position or movement of mind states. For example there is a real sense in which more refined states of mind are higher, raising the mind in space is purifying because we are drawing it away from its attachment to its material ground.
Discovering these mental dynamics gives us all kinds of new ways to work with our minds.
Also revealed is the true relationship between the mind and the body.
Bringing heaven forever down to earth
Everything we experience, although it has its origin in the world, is in our mind. All our experience is subjective. The Dhamma concerns this subjective experience. The world of suffering (saṃsāra) and the world of ultimate happiness (Nibbāna) are essentially not places but states of mind. Which one of these we experience depends on the relationship between the mind and the world. The truth of the Dhamma is that which makes our subjective world perfect in every sense, which makes it free of suffering through creating the proper relationship of our minds to the world.
This relationship is one in which the mind first of all finds its way to heaven on earth. We do not have to go somewhere else or wait until we die to experience heaven. We can find heaven in the blissfully empty mind (samādhi). Samādhi is the natural result of having the kind of virtue that lets go of our own desire. For it is just desire that fills our minds with all the things of the world. This heaven will not just be ours either. Our virtue will bring a little bit of heaven to anyone we come into contact with. Imagine a whole world that kept moral precepts, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, drink or drugs. This is making the world into a kind of heavenly abode, albeit an impermanent heaven.
This is very different from thinking of heaven or a higher happiness as somewhere else. This can lead to a negative judgement and desire to get away from the world or a restlessness. In this respect it can really help us to reflect that ultimately, whether we want to go to heaven or not, there isn't anywhere completely separate to go. There isn't anywhere that is not somehow connected to this impermanent world because everything within this universe is interconnected in a causal web. The stable emptiness of the mind that can become our refuge, right here and now, is as far as we can go. Even this emptiness is connected to all the objects within it. This emptiness, this empty mind, has to realise the proper relationship of detachment to the things of the world in order to remain empty - it has to be an emptiness we let go into not one we reach for, not some kind of spaced-out state.
Finding this detachment, this light touch on life, is a matter of seeing clearly, with the wisdom that can help us let go. Yet we also need a quality of compassion or appreciation that helps us to stay with the world and not try to go somewhere else. This balance exists within the mind, in the material world and in the relationship between the mind and the world which, coming all together, I often compare to a kind of spiritual aesthetics that can appreciate the sense of a harmonious relationship between form and space - spiritual art or architecture can evoke this sense. Furthermore through this we may form a picture of our spiritual qualities in the world to sustain a unified experience – samādhi as like the sun, wisdom like the sky...
Ultimately, the relationship of detachment can become permanent, natural. This state of detachment is enlightenment, Nibbāna. This too we can realise before we die, through the wisdom that helps us let go. Nibbāna is the emptiness we let go into, it is the result of letting go of our attachment. Then, when we die, we can remain in this state after death. This is our 'original mind', the mind's most natural, stable state. It is the state that the mind abided in before it was born into the world of saṃsāra and returns to when saṃsāra ceases. Therefore no effort is required to sustain this once it is fully realised.
This is bringing heaven firmly and forever down to earth.
Given an expanded psychology there is no reason for mysticism of any kind.
All the phenomena associated with the spiritual path can be explained in terms of a greater, expanded view of the mind. This includes rebirth and the existence of other realms. All this can be seen as phenomena of the mind because ultimately everything we experience is experienced within the mind.
All we experience is the knowing of information or meaning. This is all there has ever been to our experience and is all there will ever be. This whole realm of information is formed in parallel with that of being. This is not some kind of inert phenomena. Truth can be as formative as matter or energy. It is just as alive if not more so than being.
Although we may even use the terms of mysticism in order to evoke the special or unique qualities of spiritual realms we need not create any mystical 'beings'. This is as long as we understand that some phenomena exist just within the mind that have a completely independent existence from our own psychological processes. This is to give these things in one sense the status of beings in that they are as much a being as anything else that seems to be so. Yet we recognise that everything ultimately only seems to 'be' anything. This is a crucial point. Liberation of mind comes from realising that there is no need to be or become anything in order to survive. In fact we had better not become anything if we want to survive. Everything that is born, dies.
Let me now give an example of a different view of a mystical phenomena: A person comes to a monastery to make an offering in memory of a deceased relative believing that this will assist their relative in some way. We can think of this as helping a spirit in mystical terms or we can reframe in terms of the mind. To make an offering is to do something positive in memory of someone. We add something positive to the memory which in psychological terms is that deceased relative within the mind. In terms of an expanded psychology we could understand the deceased person's spirit to be associated with this memory - the truth that the person really represents has its source in their 'spirit' and its influence also elsewhere. The surviving relative may be in touch just with a memory or with something closer to this source. Either way the act of offering is valid, having benefit for both parties.
If we see the Buddha’s spirit in the same way as that of this deceased relative we see His 'spirit' as having enormous influence in the world. His Dhamma as a universal truth which lies in everything.
So what might an expanded psychology look like overall? Conventional psychology concerns the realm of form. What we need to add to this is the phenomena and dynamic associated with the empty mind or space of the mind. Also the different kind of forms that can arise within the mind when this emptiness is complete or pure. If the mind is truly empty it is no longer creating or fabricating based on the data of the senses so what arises is a more direct experience of form, a pure perception free of conceptual bias.
To conclude this expanded psychology is not, I would emphasise, some kind of secularism. This is is different understanding of what spirituality really is. It is a view of spirituality that still has magic but demystifies this. Greater understanding is then greater power to the mind.
So I hope these reflections can help those people who cannot believe in mystical phenomena to find a new understanding of them that does not require belief. For those who already hold these beliefs maybe this can help them understand more clearly the true nature of what it is they believe in.
Truth as essence
If we see the mind as consisting of information the essence of the mind is truth or meaning (Dhamma). Then, if we say that 'awareness' arises out of information and 'knowing' arises out of truth, we are aiming to raise all our awareness to the level of knowing.
Ultimately this brings the mind into a different relationship with the world, to a unified experience. The truth and its knower are one and the same in the case of the highest Dhamma. In other words, "he who sees the Dhamma sees the Buddha."
In all other cases the truth and its knowing are separate in some way. This is because the result of this ultimate knowing is for the mind to let go and enter into emptiness, ultimately into Nibbāna (in the coming together is the letting go). Then the essence of the mind is Nibbāna. So there is only conditions in the mind there is no longer a mind within those conditions.
In fact Buddha, Dhamma and Nibbāna are all the same:
We see the Dhamma, let go and Nibbāna is the result. So the Buddha and Nibbāna are in this sense the same. They are both the result of having seen the Dhamma.
The Buddha and the Dhamma are the same in the sense that the Dhamma is the impermanence of everything; the Buddha is time itself.
Yet we have to be careful that we take the right emptiness to be Nibbāna. There is more than one kind of emptiness. Even the emptiness of the unenlightened mind (the citta) goes unaffected from life to life, the suffering arising and ceasing within it. Only the enlightened mind is free of suffering, it does not arise - this is cessation (nirodha).
This is liberation through truth not just a leap into space. So the search for liberation is one of truth not just samādhi. We consequently need to stay in the realm of truth or meaning to realise the truth and not drift into the realm of being anything. It is space within this realm of truth that is liberation.
Hence 'being space' is close to liberation. Very deceptively close and yet suffering can arise within all spaces but one, the space of Nibbāna.
But have we come up with a view of the deathless reliant on perception and therefore bound to the senses the same as any other consciousness? No. The mind relies on perception to enter Nibbāna but does not rely on perception to stay there because it has rediscovered its original nature. The mind has not gone anywhere. The mind is in the world but not of the world, there is union and transcendence together.
Realising the essential knowing nature of the mind is to get back to its original source, the original mind, there before we are born and there after we die. This is a mind that can come in and out of existence having an independent source. We can discover this through the experience of samādhi. The mind beyond the senses in samādhi is like the mind before it comes into the world. The state of samādhi can still be there when the phenomena of the senses reappear as an open, spacious, pure mind or heart free of the hindrances. Unless this samādhi is completely pure, however, it will deteriorate as the mind enters fully back into the world.
So there is only one kind of samādhi related to wisdom or knowing which remains pure and we realise we have discovered the original mind.
In Zen they search for this through repeated enquiry "what was my face before I was born". In Theravada we see this original mind as simply the result of letting go of everything. Letting go occurs through knowing so the mind that lets go of everything is the mind that has knowing established as a natural state, as its essence. We ultimately even let go of all sense of a "one who knows" or a centre to this knowing.
One way in which we can try to keep our mindfulness or our samādhi without the wisdom of letting go is through passivity. We do not enter in to the world at all, it is not just our heart that does not. This is flawed. Our minds will just get dragged back in to the world or the world will flood back into the mind through all that we are failing to do. What is required for the heart to remain pure is detachment within activity. This is the challenge or training that true spiritual life presents us with.
So in this way we can see through samādhi all the dynamics of the mind and heart. We do not need to speculate as to the nature of the transcendent mind.
Then if we have faith we can open to the possibility that this mind goes beyond death. Many great arahants have tried to show this to us. They have had relics of their bones kept after their cremation and then these have multiplied or grown showing that they have not really departed.
The illuminated mind
We practice meditation first of all to bring more attention to our thought process and to our feelings. In particular to help us to clarify how we really feel about things. In the longer term through the practise of meditation we can come to see the mind in a different way. Our inner light goes on and we can see objects within our mind in the same way as we see them in the real world. We see our imagination projected onto the world of the senses. When we are withdrawn from the senses our imagination is clear and bright. In this way we are then completely clear.
St. John of the Cross, if I understand correctly, described the spiritual life as one of this kind of illumination being followed by 'purgation'. First of all we see our minds and heart very clearly, then we go through the process of purifying the mind. This way of operating is very much applicable to the tendency of the western spiritual quest to be, on balance, thought out rather than purely devotional in character. Rather than, in Asia, having faith in a path of virtue to purify the mind the westerner needs to be able to see moral cause and effect operating to really get the sense of knowing what they are doing and why (I am reminded of a discussion I had with the great Luang Por Pannavado who said to me that before he could really concentrate on his practice he had to understand what he was doing and why). The advantage is that this then gives the practitioner the ability to work with the mind as well as actions of body and speech in the process of purification. This, it seems, makes the process for the Westerner slower but more thorough. The process of purgation also, as the word suggests, is one of an amount of inner turmoil. We can be battling with our minds early on in the path. It can be more practical to get a hold of outward moral action to begin with. Yet there is a noble quality to this battle and it pays off in the longer term.
If I understand “The dark night of the soul” by St. John of the Cross then the only pitfall we have to try to avoid is becoming attached to the process of understanding, to the intellect, as an end in and of itself. Often this is a matter of clearly delineating the intellectual domain with regard to subjective and objective sources of information and with regard to conventional and ultimate truth. This is clarified by addressing the mind and body together, the mind-body problem.
The mind-body problem
As spiritual practitioners I do not think that we need to argue with the view that the mind is dependent on the brain. We just need to see that the information or truth contained there still has, to a large degree at least, a life of its own. The 'extended mind' theories perhaps show us how this life extends into the world, is not separate from the world - so our mind in informational terms is not just in our head, a perception that it is useful to dispel.
But actually, objectively speaking, it is still very difficult to solve the mind-body problem. Subjectively it can be solved, the mind-body problem does not have to be a problem. It is not so difficult to enter into a subjective experience that is not too heavily influenced by an objective view. Meditation can help us here. Taking the mind beyond thought takes us beyond many of our objective views toward the raw subjective experience.
Yet to survive we will always need to deduce an amount of objective information in our experience. This is a confusing situation for us as human beings. It is hard to perceive life clearly the way it really is objectively and to avoid this getting mixed up with the subjective aspect. There are bound to be blind spots and biases. Accepting this fact is the only solution we need to this problem. If we can realise that the conventional truths of our life in the world are merely an attempt to sort out the information that is coming to us from different sources we can settle with a functional understanding on the conventional level. We can help each other as human beings to come to a common agreement but we need to recognise this agreement for what it is, just an agreement. It is only if we take conventional judgements as in some way ultimately true that we then blind ourselves to ultimate truth or fix ourselves in a particular conventional view.
In terms of what we really know we need to keep this to simple universal truths to be able to be confident and to really see in the way we think. The Buddha gives us such truths that furthermore, very significantly, cut through our very desire to analyse the world. Less desire also means less bias in the discrimination that remains necessary.
The principle truth the Buddha points out is that of impermanence. Very significantly the truth of impermanence covers the phenomenon of the mind as well as the body. So there is no need to discriminate in our experience what is real or not real, objective or subjective, in order to be able to see the truth of impermanence.
Pointing out the impermanent nature of conditions and our inability as human beings to find any real security or control furthermore takes our intention elsewhere. In the search for enlightenment we do not need to analyse the world beyond the basic, functional understanding we need to survive. We are looking instead for a more stable basis for the world of truth.
The truth of impermanence may be simple but to perceive the world in this way is still not easy, its scary. We need to find some kind of faith, courage or sense of a refuge to get past this fear and be able to calmly observe. It is in fact this calm and peace that is our first refuge. It is this calm that we then develop further, through the wisdom that sees impermanence, to become our ultimate refuge.
Looking for truth in the right place
Most people these days look for the truth or the Dhamma on the computer. In the best case some of what they find will redirect their attention to looking for the real thing (I try in what I present to engage both head and heart) but to be honest most people I meet just get hooked on the computer presentation and it just goes to their heads. Even in terms of more personal guidance a lot of people listen to guided meditation following the advise of a stranger rather than someone who knows them or by relying on and hence developing their own wisdom. If I had grown up as a meditator in the computer age I can think I would have been the same.
The computer can feel comfortable, safe and we can feel we have the advise of the experts. I understand too how convenient the computer is for people with little time. The real Dhamma, however, is part of nature. It is real, not an idea. It is to be found in nature and from our spiritual friends. It is found when we can find help to get past our own peculiar obstacles and biases, our personal insecurities. It is not by trying to avoid these. It is found when we realise the uncertainties of life, not comfort or safety. We are looking for a natural response, from ourselves and from others to each other and to the world around us, not an intellectual understanding. Then, if we can learn to see the Dhamma like this, it can always be with us.
The only people I have ever met who have such deep, genuine Dhamma in their hearts are people who have had the courage to really face themselves and the truths of life in a natural, peaceful, loving setting. The whole purpose of having monasteries is to make this real Dhamma available. It is what, over many centuries, they have been designed for. All are welcome.
Buddhism and Science
In terms of a philosophy of science and information theory that has parallels with the Buddha's teaching I have not found anything that it is more potentially valuable than the work of the late Gregory Bateson. I believe that his work can place spiritual truth in its proper place within our world view. A place in which religion and science can come together and enhance each other. Here are a number of quotes from 'Angels fear: towards an epistemology of the sacred', Bateson's final book which I hope speak for themselves:
In terms of the nature of consciousness:
“We subtract or repress our awareness that perception is active and repress our awareness that action is passive. This it is to be conscious.”
Or in terms of a wider definition of consciousness:
“Consciousness is the way subsystems are hooked into a larger whole.”
In terms of what we can really know:
Apart from Creatura (the world of information - including the entire biological and social realms in which information is embodied in material form and subject to laws of causality)
nothing can be known, apart from Pleroma (the material world) there is nothing there to know.
In terms of how we describe things:
Pleroma and Creatura should have different languages to avoid “the errors of fundamentalism, scientism and misplaced concreteness.” we have “developed our language to fit Pleroma and tend to distort.”
And in terms of the place of religion:
“Religion is the sacred, integrated fabric of mental processes that envelop our lives...without such metaphors for meditation, as correctives for the errors of human language and recent science, it seems that we have the capacity to be wrong in rather creative ways – so wrong that this world we cannot understand may become one in which we cannot live.”
Such metaphors include “the deliberate search for revelation in contradiction and direct attacks on purposiveness and the sense of time.”
“Of all metaphors the most central and salient is the self.”
“The conceptual separation of mind and matter is a by-product of an 'insufficient holism'- the old religious beliefs are wearing thin and we are groping for a new.”
Many of the Buddha's teachings could furthermore be considered 'tautological':
“A tautology is a series of propositions the links between which cannot be doubted. The truth of the propositions is not claimed.”
In dependent origination, for example, the link between birth and death as inevitably following one to the other is the central message. If we try to go deeper then we can begin to question the propositions but in my mind we then be missing the point.
Buddhism and psychiatry - Embodiment and psychopathology
Just as we can discover clear body awareness to be a source of sanity in the mind a distortion of our body image can be an indication or possible cause of psychopathology. I will preset a series of quotes from the psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs1 (in plain text) with comment from my understanding of the Buddhist point of view (in italics):
“it is mainly through our embodied interaction with the world that the brain matures and develops into a relational organ...it is only as part of embodied interactions that the patterns of brain activity can serve as carrier processes of conscious experience. In this way it is the living body that unites mind and brain.”
“the phenomenology of the lived body is able to overcome dualistic concepts of the mind as an inner realm of representations that mirror the outside world. Instead, by the mediation of the lived body the individual is in constant relationship to the world..”
In the teaching of dependent origination the Buddha similarly points at the fact that our states of mind are dependent on the body and its interaction with the world. There is a very strong emphasis in the teaching of mindfulness on the first foundation, the body. It is from here that we observe the process of mental causation and become able to transform the mind from its very root. To overcome dualistic concepts of the mind is to overcome a dualistic experience of the world and discover the happiness that comes from a unified, non-dual experience. Phenomenology is, perhaps, the branch of philosophy closest to the Buddha's teaching and most compatible with the practise of mindfulness.
..”the body has a double or ambiguous experiential status: both as a 'lived body' implicit in one's ongoing experience, and as an explicit, physical or objective body (image). An ongoing oscillation between these two bodily modes constitutes a fluid and hardly noticed foundation of all experiencing.”
Both experiences of the body can become disordered: in the 'lived body' schizophrenia is extreme disembodiment, depression extreme hyper-embodiment, anorexia an example of disordered body image and a more acute dissociation from bodily experience is found in post-traumatic and dissociative conditions - embodied concepts of mental illness should describe (phenomenologically) these disorders of being in the world and investigate the circular interactions of mind, brain, organism and the environment that maintain these.
Similarly in the practice of mindfulness of the body we can see how the perceived relationship between the mind and the body is the underlying cause of our states of mind with sanity lying in a light touch, not hyper-embodied nor disembodied. My understanding is that conversely sanity and further than this, spiritual development, is to form a clear body image and carry this into activity, then the body image maintains the health of the 'living body' experience and is a source of wisdom and compassion in the mind.
Perhaps we can conclude with a quote from the famous psychiatrist R.D.Laing pointing at how spirituality represents the ultimate sanity:
“True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the 'inner' archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.2”
To me this is a very accurate and inspiring view of the potential of spiritual practice and yet how many of us could accept that the most powerful inner archetype in the mind is the simple, humble old body!
And what about the practice of body contemplation, what is really like, how does it feel?
The contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body in order to cool our desire is an unappealing practice to most people. Only if someone gets seriously hooked on the experience of mindfulness are they likely to want to find a way out of the desire that keeps pulling their minds into the future. Many will still be put off thinking that this contemplation is too negative. Yet this contemplation is not unpleasant or negative is practised correctly. Most of us will only need to see the minor defects in order to calm the mind. The result can be more love rather than less, albeit a love of a different, more stable, enduring character. The best description I have found of the result of this practice comes from 'One Way Street' by Walter Benjamin:
“A lover will not only cling to the 'defects' in the loved one, not only to a woman's quirks and failings; facial lines and liver spots, worn clothes and a wonky gait will bind him far more inexorably, far more endurably than any beauty. One learned that long ago. And why? If the theory is true that feeling does not lodge in the head, that we feel a window, a cloud or a tree not in our brain but in the place where we see them, when we look at our loved one we are like wise outside ourselves. But in this case painfully stretched and tugged. Our feelings churn and swerve like a flock of birds blinded in the woman's bright presence. And as birds seek shelter in the tree's leafy hiding places, feelings too take refuge in dark wrinkles, graceless movements and the secret blemish on the loved one's body, where they duck down, safe and sound. And no passer-by will guess that it is here, precisely here, in the short-coming, in the less than perfect, that the admirer's burst of love, swift as an arrow, hits home.”
Although this practice is common place in Buddhism to see the process explained like this as something beautiful and natural helps to inspire and raise the practice above the level of a mere technique. This then allows us to take our body contemplation deeper still, liberation can be found by replacing the real body with an image. The following quote from the Bible brings over the spiritual quality of such a practice:
Jesus said to them:
When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below
and when you make the male and the female into a single one,
so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female,
when you make eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand,
and a foot in the place of a foot, and an image in place of an image,
then you shall enter the Kingdom
The Gospel according to Thomas
Finding passages like this in the scripture of another spiritual tradition is also inspiring, pointing at the universality of this teaching and its applicability within different religious beliefs.
1 Fuchs,T and Schlimme, J.E. Embodiment and Psychopathology: a phenomenological perspective. Current opinions in psychiatry.2009.22:570-575
2 R.D.Laing - The Politics of experience
Let us consider what the Buddha meant by Right Samadhi, the seventh factor of the eightfold path. There are two kinds of jhana 'mundane' or ‘supramundane'. Supramundane jhana has a ‘knowingness’ to it, this is the meditation that leads one to directly to enlightenment. All four supramundane jhanas are clearly described as bodily experiences. The mind contemplating the body, calming the mind while examining the real, material body, arrives at different levels of detachment in which the pure mind emerges, the body does not disappear. The process of detachment is a blissful one; this is the joy and rapture of the supramundane jhana.
So the pleasure of supramundane jhana is not merely the enjoyment of physical feeling but the enjoyment of release. This is important, this means that supramundane jhana does not go in the same direction as the pleasures of the senses, it is not merely refined sense pleasure, it goes in the opposite direction and is closely related to the practices of celibacy (brahmacari) and body contemplation.
This contrasts with mundane jhana, the experience where the body disappears. Certain psychic abilities or visions can be associated with these states. The mundane states represent a refined source of sense pleasure. Mundane jhana can be converted to supramundane through meditation on the body.
Meditation on the body
The practical advice we come out with is simple, to take the body into our concentration with us as much as possible by strengthening our awareness of it in the sitting posture; also by alternating sitting and walking practices, in traditional Thai style.
In terms of theory: the body has two existences, one in the mind and one in the world. The root of suffering lies precisely in this duality of existence. Letting go of attachment to the physical body is the only way to overcome it.
The practice is to enhance the image of the body in the mind in order to let go of, or rather to chill out of, the material, physical body. A mental image is formed which is free of the material elements, only feeling remains. This is a unified, non-dual experience of life, everything we experience is now in the mind. So it is the solidity of the body that divides us from Union.
Letting go of is achieved through wise attention. The body is seen as in the mind rather than the mind in the body. The body image comes into the mind it is not created by it, it is not imagined. This is not 'getting into our body' or trying to get out of it - we get stuck either way - but letting go of our attachment to it. Note also that the mind enters the physical body through the force of either desire or rejection (so suicide is no escape).
Wise attention is bare attention of the body not a view, opinion or evaluation. Holding to any view will ultimately fail to capture the truth. In particular it will become unbalanced with respect to wisdom and compassion. Truly neutral attention to the reality of the body will generate these two qualities in perfect balance.
Also notice that this teaching is not anti-feeling. The pursuit of sensuality is not skilful because it creates attachment to the body not because there is something wrong with the pursuit of pleasure. The ultimate in pleasant feeling is the feeling of the mind detaching from the body, its ecstasy!
Creative reflection on the body
We can also usefully reflect on the body to help us to see it in a skilful way. When we are meditating on the body, where we are staying with the realities of our own body, going deeper and deeper into that experience, beginning the same over and over. This can be very calming or very boring depending on our character and our meditative ability. In contrast reflection on the body can be very creative, fun, and yet it can still help us to develop a more fluid perception of the body.
As we begin our reflection we can realise that our perceptions of the human body are capricious and unstable. This is reflected in our depictions of it. In the modern age these images have proliferated into every medium and context - embellished, powdered, painted, magnified, and denigrated even mutilated. Distorted or accurately represented.
In some cases an artist or sculptor is trying to add a depiction of the mind to that of the body. Or to depict the subjective experience of the body rather than the objective form. The depiction of mind and body in the same image like this has a kind of truth to it. The contents of our minds are I a very deep way, shaped by the body, they are the result of the mind and body holding each other - how it is held determining the inner form in a sense.
On one hand when the body or person is seen as a mere object of sensual desire the pleasure of the form can be a projection of the mind into past or future feeling; the form is designed to generate this kind of feeling, it is provocative. Then on the other hand we can also see in art the depiction of thought in one way or another. There can be the desire to harmonize the material world in all its complexity with pure forms distilled by the mind, every form containing the idea of a perfect model. As a thinker who draws on a personal vision to perpetuate a fixed model that seeks to reconcile the organic with the geometric. In this way images of the body can become stylized and symbolic. Or in scientific thought we define the average man not the ideal and types of man. On the contrary, disavowing the norm or the ideal or recognizing the suffering of the body opens the way to caricature, the grotesque or monstrous.
So the body in these ways can be a depiction of thought, individual or collectively reflecting a societal norm. When we enjoy or criticize the body we implicitly accept the ideals, thoughts or feelings without question.
Or the body may be inscribed within a world of a mystical, perfected reality, as an embodiment of the soul, the mind or heart in a sense now dominant or even transcendent. This can be to escape the power of the body to push the mind around altogether, to find freedom for the mind from being conditioned by the body.
Reflecting on all these different kinds of images can help us to understand how fluid the outer body image can be. We can also learn to picture the subjective experience of our body and realise how our inner body image changes in relation to outer form. We can find that we can even have more than one image inside, one that is a picture, one a feeling or formed by feeling. We can see what it is like to bring these images together - bringing a clear image together with the felt image can actually become a well-spring of deep empathy. In this way we get get in touch with very deep and powerful forces in the mind that we may already recognise but do not fully understand or have any influence over. We can think it inevitable that certain depictions of the body will have an effect, whether we like it or not, and yet this is not the case. Through mindfulness we can gain control over our perceptions and look to take them in whatever direction we wish. We can even choose to paint a picture or make a sculpture ourselves to share our perception.
The sculpture of Anthony Gormley is very interesting in this respect from a spiritual point of view. He is a long-term practitioner of vippasana meditation, paying particular attention to the body. We can see how his depictions of the body have changed over his career from being very solid to the point of looking rather stiff or rigid to being light and ethereal, like some kind of glorious energy field. Such is the potential for transforming how our body appears to us and consequently how it feels.