The Body As Object Of Mindful Observation
Mindfully seeing or witnessing with the inner-eye is integral to the embodied practices that have emerged in the subcontinent over the last 2,500 years.
The Buddha revolutionises the idea of spiritual practice by proposing “mindful seeing” as a mode of enlightenment. After six long years of arduous self-mortifying practices, he realises that: 1) Depriving or arresting movement of the body does not in fact arrest the compulsive flux of the mind; and 2) Spiritual experience is a pleasant one, imbued with sukha and priti. He proposes vipassana, a method of observing involuntary movements on the screen of the mind, but in a manner that is “special” – detached, unengaged, and non-judgemental, as though witnessing from one-removed.
Drawing heavily from the Buddhist canon, Patanjali, a few centuries later, offers the model of abhyasa with vaira- gya – literally meaning, “practice with detachment” – in the Yoga Sutras. The aim is to disable compulsive turnings of the mind so the “inner-seer” may regain its original and autonomous condition within, unperturbed, unengaged and uncoloured by fluctuating tendencies of the mind. And to this purpose he includes within his model the practice of pranayama, the tempering plus observing of the breath as though it was that of another, seeing from the position of a pari-drishtau.
It may interest practitioners of (hatha) yoga asana, intensely preoccupied with the body, to be introduced to another model proposed by a Kashmir Shaiva text of the 8th century CE, the Shiva Sutras, in which Vasugupta offers the body, shariram,as the object for detached-spectating, or drishyam.
The “body” here does not imply the body alone but encompasses all phenomena, the objective, perceptible world, that constitutes “our” vishwa. Swami Lakshmanjoo says, there are “two ways in which this sutra is to be translated. One, this whole objective world is his own self and two, his own body is an object.”
While the object of observation shifts from the mind, to breath, and finally to the body in the Buddhist, Patanjali, and Tantra traditions respectively, the idea of detached seeing has remained common and integral to all three. All three objects are categorically material and belong to the phenomenological, perceptible world. All require a practice of cultivating a finely discerning sensitivity in order to open up a breathing space between the perceived object and the perceiving subject, even if they are maybe essentially the same! Yoga, by definition, is the practice of reigning in or disabling the projective tendencies of perception, resulting in, as the Shiva Sutras say, vishwa samhara, or the destruction of our “perceived” universes.
Somatic practice includes yoga and dance, inspired by both the Yoga Sutras as well as the subsequent Shaiva model of sensitively facilitating and witnessing the body as it mindfully negotiates the external forces of density, gravity, buoyancy, fluidity, airiness, space and time, with the aim to let the body exercise and reveal its sensory intentions, subtle forces and directional pulls within the present moment.
Somatic practice is of both gently observing as well as moving authentically from the inside; it does not subscribe to the more popular “purity” model of being self-correctional and perfectionist in pursuit of an external ideal, even if spiritual. It is the practice of first stationing “self-will” within the physical body, and then moving autonomously from “within” with sensory clarity, awareness, respect. This in turn is a result of the subtle, self-accepting, pleasant and sonorous capacities of the inner-eye.