When Willa Blythe Baker first began meditating, she spent many years on the cushion trying to wake up. During her first retreat at the age of 15, she sat in anticipation with a sense that, at any moment, she would miraculously wake up and transcend the current moment. It wasn’t until Baker encountered yogic Buddhism in Nepal many years later that she realized the path was not about transcendence or waking up at all. Rather, the teachings invited her to “wake down,” to explore the wisdom of one’s embodied experience in the present.
In her new book The Wakeful Body: Somatic Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom, Baker addresses the problem of body-mind dualism and invites readers to connect with the natural wisdom of the body as a path to awakening. (You can read a teaching from the book here, in the most recent issue of Tricycle.)
Tricycle recently spoke with Baker about the process of writing the book, somatic bypassing, her pandemic practice, and why she leads wilderness retreats.
What led you to write this book on the body? My meditation practice has taken me on a trajectory away from the body and then back home to the body. When I first met Buddhism, I encountered the word mind a lot. There was so much talk about the mind and the nature of the mind. As Westerners, I think we have an unconscious bias towards elevating the mind above the body. This probably comes from this long history of Cartesian dualism, so we believe that somehow the body and the mind are separate. The contemplative traditions of the East teach that body and mind are not separate as long as we are alive—they are actually an inseparable whole. And even if the physical body is left behind at death, some dimensions of embodiment (consciousness and energy) continue.
I had kind of assumed that the mind was something separate from, and maybe even better than, the body. But slowly, as I practiced meditation more over the years, I began to see that actually, the body is the key to a deep, stable, profound, and joyful meditation practice. I wanted to share the spirit of the body’s potential with other meditation practitioners.
Did you discover anything new about your relationship with your body through the process of writing this book? I started the book because I knew already that I’m in the most joyful place of practice when I’m in my body. There’s something about being embodied that brings out the bliss of my practice and the bliss of my life. So actually writing the book was this process of sitting down every day and asking my body to write the book. That’s when I found my best writing place—when I asked my body to express itself through the typewriter keys. “What does my body have to say?” That was the question I would sit down with, and I learned that the body knows how to write. It has unexpected wisdom to share in the present moment. If I ask my body what it has to convey, it’s always unfolding another layer of insight.
“What does my body have to say?” That was the question I would sit down with, and I learned that the body knows how to write.
In the book, you discuss your time studying abroad in Nepal and this shift from living in a body of self-denigrating concepts to realizing your body was part of a larger whole. Can you tell me more about how this time in Nepal transformed your relationship with your body? I encountered a thickly interdependent community of human beings in Nepal. Generations would all be living within a single, family compound—grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There was this sense of a deeply connected community where family lives close together with a lot of support for one another. And there was something about that web of support that helped my body relax. I felt myself letting go of this idea that my body is just mine alone. I began to have this sense that my body is part of an interdependent web, and this web is beautiful and has its own life.
Being in that social environment, embedded in a community, gave me a sense that I was a part of a communal body. And there was dignity and beauty and support in that. This communal body allowed those self-denigrating concepts, which were very self-focused, to dissolve. There was much less of a sense of the individual self in that community and much more a sense of the we.
I also had no exposure to media where I was staying, and that had an impact on me as well. There were no radios, televisions, or newspapers that I could read. In the West, we are bombarded with imagery of the ideal body in media and advertisements, but that did not exist at all there—at least back then. I was able to be free of the Western construct of the ideal body.
Do you have any meditation practices for someone who is struggling with a negative relationship to their body? For someone who is struggling with their beliefs about their body, or with body image, or with denigrating concepts about the body, the most immediate way to move away from that is to simply drop down from the headspace, the thinking space, into the groundedness of the feeling body. That means letting go of the idea of what your body is and actually feeling your present body. Sometimes the mind is flying into the past, flying into the future, or it’s grasping onto concepts of who and what we think we are. Closing your eyes and feeling your body’s groundedness can be a way to discover that there’s something else there that has nothing to do with our thoughts about the body. There is a living, breathing miracle down there, and we can float down to the base of the body to help ground our flighty minds.
And if you are experiencing chronic pain or some discomfort in the body, you can still contact that groundedness as a place of refuge. Even when we’re feeling discomfort, say in a knee or in our stomach, we can discover that the groundedness is still there.
You introduce the term somatic bypass in the book. Can you explain what that is? Somatic bypass is this tendency to numb out what is happening from the neck down. Somatic bypass happens when we neglect awareness of what’s happening in the present moment and in the body. This can be applied to our experience as meditators. We can often live up in our heads when developing a mindfulness practice, and we start to conceptualize all the dimensions of that practice. We grasp onto ideas of peace or the nature of the mind, or we think we’re becoming more compassionate by having loving thoughts. We can do all of that without actually going down and checking in on the body’s experience. What is the body’s experience of peace? Of compassion?
When we start to include the body in our meditation practice, we discover that all of these words—peace, freedom, mindfulness, compassion, ease—have an embodied expression. And until we experience and become intimate with these bodily expressions, our practice of meditation will remain conceptual. If we bypass the body and just go straight to what we think of as mental states, then we miss the full richness of a meditation practice.
Shifting away from the book now, has your practice changed at all during the pandemic? Yes. The pandemic has been such a reminder of what we’ve been practicing for—to become more resilient. Difficulty helps bring us closer to practice. For me, the pandemic has turned me toward my sources of refuge, and it has helped me land on what my resources are, like loving connection. Loving connection is not only a support for our spiritual practice, but it is a spiritual practice. It is the practice of friendship and connection. So the pandemic helped me begin to honor my relationships with family and friends as a deep spiritual commitment and practice in and of itself.
Another refuge has been the present moment. I think what happened in the pandemic for many people, and certainly what happened for me, was this collective trauma of waking up anxious. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, there would be a sense of waking up and not knowing—having no idea whether we’re safe. This collective anxiety that we were living in individually, but also collectively, reminded me of the refuge of the present moment and being able to rest in not knowing. The pandemic helped teach me about being comfortable with uncertainty. It also taught me that nature is such a profound resource. When everything else seemed crazy, I would take long walks in the woods. The woods would remind me that they, too, are expressing resilience and beauty and providing refuge.
Difficulty helps bring us closer to practice.
Can you tell me more about your recent decision to omit “lama” from your title? I still use the title in my own sangha, so I haven’t stopped using it entirely. But I stopped using it outside of the context of my own immediate sangha because it seems to me that a title can elicit projections, perhaps of accomplishment or spiritual maturity. I don’t know that those projections help much. I’m just a human being. But within my own sangha, where the context is clear and I’m in the role of a Buddhist teacher, I don’t think it’s harmful for the title to be present. Still, I only ask people in my sangha to call me Lama Willa if they’re moved to. If it seems useful or helpful for someone to use that title out of an act of respect or feelings of love, then that seems okay. But outside of that, I don’t know that it’s useful.
I want to close by asking about the Natural Dharma Fellowship retreat, “Listening for Liberation: Hearing the Wisdom of the Wild,” that you and Lama Liz Monsoon recently led. What are the benefits of a wilderness retreat? The wilderness is a natural dharma teacher. From the time of the Buddha until now, practitioners throughout the world have been leaning on the wilderness. I love to guide retreats in wild spaces because there’s no effort to meditate in those wild spaces. They’re a place of freedom. The vastness of untamed spaces brings us into contact with our own innate wildness, with our own inner nature that is also untamed and spontaneous. In some ways, what we’re really invoking on the meditation cushion is our true nature or our natural state. When we’re in a wild space we don’t have to try for our own inner nature to be evoked. It just comes alive.
I’ll also add that we need sources of resilience in a time of eco-anxiety, and the wilderness is such a source of resilience. Being in the wild allows us to connect to the planet as sentient beings, and the more we can form a relationship with untamed spaces, the more we will advocate for their health and well-being. I see wilderness practice as a form of activism that changes us. By being outside we change within. That change can be a support for taking action on behalf of the planet. This is a big motivation for me to lead these retreats.
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