Living a Short Distance From Our Body

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When I was young, my fondness for reading the great literature of our culture was not something I enthusiastically embrace. I found it tedious and unmanly, certainly not the most macho thing in the world to do. At the same time, it seemed like a good thing to do. Most of classmates were cute young girls. They were formidable, intimidating and challenging. The boredom of literature written by the too long dead would inevitably gave way to a rich fantasy life involving romantic music, tropical beaches and saving the world. I was magnificent in those fantasies. I would often regret that reality all too often got in the way of my erotic endeavors and thwart my goals.

Of all the things I now remember from those days, regrettably there isn’t all that much left to forget, I recall that one of my favorite lines from college freshman English literature is still etched in my mind. It is James Joyce’s novel The Dubliners and reads, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” Mr. Duffy was a one-dimensional bureaucrat who lives an unattractively plain, colorless life, like many of us. He represents the post-modern everyman: cut off from his feelings, defined by rules and protocols, and lacking purpose and meaningful connections.

Buddhist practice is often characterized as being completely rational and firmly implanted in “reality” (whatever that word might mean to you). The popular image is that it leaves no room for sensitivity. There are many people who self-identify as Buddhists of one sort or another that live in their heads finding the distance back to their bodies a long walk. In classes I’ll sometimes ask a student how far away he is from his feet. I often get an answer like “five and a half feet or so” as if his feet were not part of him. Then I usually point out the fact that his or her feet are part of them. If not trained this is the same student might later spout things like “there is no body” possibly meaning “there is nobody.” A subtle difference of language, a big difference of semantics. “Sure,” I’ll say, “tell that to a woman having a baby; a man who just lost his job or lover; or someone with cancer. I’m sure they’ll follow your logic immediately.”A Zen is a terrible thing to waste — or more correctly, “It is a terrible thing to waste a Zen.”

Apathy and lack of emotion is not the Buddhist way. Of the 7 types of devotees that find liberation, the first mentioned is the faith devotee, while the last is the wisdom devotee. All seven attain liberation through their respective approaches to reality as it is. A huge part of that reality is compassion, the desire to relieve humanity and other beings from their “suffering.” It takes a lot of emotional courage to not only feel but act compassionately/

It seems weird, at least to me, that the practice of the four sublime abodes — friendliness, joyful sympathy, compassion, and even equanimity, as described in the Suttas & Sutras — could be practiced without “feeling” i.e., emotion. Without emotion we become apathetic, and that is one of the hindrances that keep us from being awakened.

From a somatic point of view, living any distance from our bodies is dangerous and the consequences harmful, even deadly. Technological advances in the field of neuroscience adequately demonstrate that distancing ourselves from the immediacy of our body places not only our physical health at risk, but our emotional health as well. Being out of touch with our sensate life limits our capacity to learn and dramatically reduces the possibility of authentic and consequential relationships, which is one of the foundations of practice, called kalyāṇamittatā in the Canon.

Somatics is often defined as the “unity of feeling, acting, and spirituality,” and traditionally focuses on the individual’s physical and emotional health. Numerous forms of bodywork, movement therapies, and body oriented psychotherapies have emerged under the broad heading of somatics. It’s good work, it’s growing, and many are helped by it. It is a secular approach to keeping us in harmony with our body and our environment. May it continue. May it thrive.

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About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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