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Insight meditation is explicitly designed to expose (and explode!) our habitual self-images, challenging them directly, experientially, and fundamentally, even, for example, in the very basic practice of giving mindful attention to one’s breathing body.

At first we have the impression that the body is an object—these three cubic feet (as songwriter Rufus Wainwright says) of bone and flesh—in which we place our meditative attention. This body has a shape, a gender, an age. These are my hands, these are my feet—this is my breath. But as our sensitivity grows, this sense of the body softens. The hard edges of the body stand out less. Attending to the sensations of bodily life directly, moment by moment, we don’t find hands and feet or even inside and outside. We cannot really find where our folded legs end and the cushion—the world—begins. Our self-image idea will tell us, but our direct experience neither knows nor cares. Instead it settles into an intimacy with experience where body and world meet. Where sensation dances. Where we no longer mark where the sound of birdsong ends and the hearing of it begins. The body feels fluid and alive. Sensitive. Intimate with all experience. Truly sentient.

Try this: While you are here reading, tense your arms and legs and belly. Hold it a few moments and notice the density in your sensations. Feel how solid and real the boundary between inner and outer seems, and how strong the sense of being a self is.

And now . . . relax. Let go of that tension—allow your muscles to soften, breathe out, and notice how the sense of boundary also relaxes. Feel how the sense of self becomes more diffuse, the edges less defined.

This is just the gross layer of muscular relaxation. Most people are carrying all kinds of other tension patterns of which they are not even aware, as they are so habitually ingrained. Meditation teaches us to settle more and more deeply into our direct bodily experience, where the body as object gives way to an ever-changing dynamic flow of sensation and vibration, a constant streaming of felt experience through awareness. Present within this fluid bodily dance, we notice subtle layers of tension, numbness, and resistance and in turn give them the opportunity to move, open up, and soften. Then, however deeply we go into a particular sensation, we find no center. And however much we sense outward through the layers of sensation, we find no edge.

This profoundly affects our sense of what the body is and of how to inhabit it. Even when the experience isn’t as tangible as described above, we begin to recognize the body as having neither edge nor center—as being a vast theater of experience, sensitive and responsive.

Becoming familiar with this dimension, we see how our psychological patterning informs our tension patterns, and these too begin to open up. We discover a natural ease that underpins physical existence, the more our physical defenses and imagined deficiencies get resolved.

In the process of the body opening up in this way, it is common to have various kinds of nonordinary bodily perceptions, especially during meditation practice. These can show up as extremes of temperature, density, or size. One might feel as if one’s body is expanding hugely—as if the room cannot contain your physical form. The impression can be so strong that you are tempted to open your eyes and check! It equally can happen in the other direction, feeling as if the body is shrinking . . . vanishing even. Changes in the density of sensation can make you feel as if the body is becoming extremely light. If you open your eyes at this moment, you may be disappointed to find you’re not actually levitating, though it can feel very much that way. Or the opposite can happen, in which the body feels incredibly dense, and the idea of moving even a finger seems like it would both take colossal effort and cause ripples throughout the universe.

It can feel as if your nervous system is reconfiguring itself, and in many ways that is exactly what is happening. Patterning that has been held rigidly, perhaps for decades, is starting to open up, and it is this energetic unwinding that causes the unusual perceptions, which can also include swaying or shaking, or occasional sudden spasms of movement.

These experiences are a natural part of an evolving capacity to inhabit this body more fully and freely. They are not particularly significant in themselves. Some find them exhilarating, exciting—others find them a little frightening and disorienting. What’s significant is the insight—knowing the body can appear in many different ways, so that the usual psychological identification with our various self-images as being “who I am” just seems more and more limited, narrow, false, and unnecessary.

Increasingly, our reliance on self-images thins out and can completely disappear. Notice I didn’t say the images themselves, but the reliance on them. You will still show up in the world as if you are this body, or as if it is yours, but it is no longer a source of seeming truth for the sense of who I am. You might go to the doctor for a pain in your arm, but even while explaining it and rolling up your sleeve to be examined, a freer relationship is clear to you. There is a close, caring relationship to this physicality, but without ownership and identification. 

Ultimately, all our self-images are partial at best—caricatures of how we imagine and describe ourselves, distorted in the hall of mirrors of the self describing the self to the self. We investigate these self-images in order to understand them and see through them, for that which you become familiar with no longer fools you—that which you see through becomes transparent.

Adapted from Awake Where You Are by Martin Aylward, Wisdom Publications, November 2021

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