This Material Frame...

Tuesday November 8, 2005


A couple of days ago I stumbled across the following passage in Stephen Batchelor’s excellent Living With the Devil:

Far from being just dumb, inert stuff, matter is wondrously, abundantly, profusely alive. The more we understand it, the less there appears any need for a divine spark or immaterial consciousness to animate it. To accept the wisdom of life’s scripture is to accept that we have sprung from the same stuff as carrots and ducks. The fingers that tap these words on a computer keyboard evolved from the fins of a long-forgotten fish, refined their skills through picking lice from fellow monkeys’ fur and chipping arrowheads from shards of flint… (p. 91)

I have already posted a couple of times on this blog on the subject of materialism (see _Hurrah For Materialism Parts 1 and 2 _), but the more I think about Buddhist practice, the more it seems to be rooted in a return to material realities.

Whether in the practice of meditation, returning from ephemeral mental constructs to the realities of this body, these sensations; or in the practice of ethics, giving a gift with these two hands, reaching out to help another with these arms; or even in the practice of wisdom, understanding this set of causes and conditions, here and now in the material world that we all share – matter, it seems, matters. And, as Batchelor reminds us, matter is not dull, uninteresting stuff that needs something else to animate it – the injection of some non-material mind, for example. It is endlessly rich, fluid, contingent, changing and fascinating.

Often, sitting in meditation, when I find myself getting caught up in proliferating thoughts, and when I bring the mind home to just this experience, here and now, I am struck by the miraculous richness of this present reality, compared with the pallor of the thoughts that had been distracting me. And on such occasions I remember that meditation is about the body as much as the mind. The Buddha spoke of mindfulness not as a fixation upon an image, but as an immersion within bodily realities.

And how is mindfulness immersed in the body developed, how is it pursued, so as to be of great fruit & great benefit?

“There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

“Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long. Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body… This is how a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body.”

Source:“Access to Insight”:

Despite texts like this, sometimes meditation is discussed as if it has little to do with the body, or as if it begins in the body but then, at deeper levels of absorption, it moves away from this bodily reality into a more purely mental realm; but this is not so. The various states of absorption – the jhanas – are described as bodily realities in this text. In the first jhana, the meditator “permeates… this very body with the rapture & pleasure born of withdrawal.” In the second, the meditator “permeates… this very body with the rapture & pleasure born of composure. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture & pleasure born of composure”. In the third the meditator “permeates… this very body with the pleasure divested of rapture”. And, finally, in the fourth the meditator “sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.”

It is here, that is to say, here in this material frame, here in this network of flesh and blood and bone, that the Buddhist path unfolds. Here, and nowhere else.

# · Nacho

So right indeed. Many folks think of meditation as primarily “mental.” That kind of practice would feel rather limited. The breath is amazingly physical and anchors us down in the body. The breath plays a wonderful mediating role, but our practice is an embodied one. I like Batchelor also, and agree with him, and you, although I recognize plenty of other slight dispositions to the word “materialism” that renders the concept too much in opposition to non-materialism. Thanks for the blog, and the post. : )

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