Practice Instructions: Working with Body Image; Examining Beauty

Our body is our vehicle. It is our vehicle for moving through this life. And it is our vehicle for awakening.

Through the body, the mind is able to be revealed in a more dense form. The denseness of the body allows us to see the movement and activity of mind more easily. Mind/consciousness is subtle, quick, ephemeral. The gift of the physical body is that the mind manifests in it in a way that we can keep up with. The body is like a transmitter. When thoughts happen, it feels like this. When emotions arise, it feels like this. We are able to "track" the felt sense of thoughts and emotions. This is critical in understanding our inner world, and therefore in finding deep freedoms.

Also, in the body, truth is revealed. The nature of all things is the same. Things arise and pass away. This is true of all mental activity, and of all physical activity. By simply witnessing the pure physical aspects of body (breath, temperature, movement, touch, hardness, softness, etc.) and their ever-changing nature, our being begins to understand that all things come and go, that all things are subject to impermanence, and that none of it needs to be clung to or identified with as "me/mine". That lessening of me/mine is the definition of increasing freedom.

But the body is not "us". The body, while intimately connected to us while in form, is simply going to decay and disintegrate. It's got nothing without consciousness. Remove consciousness and the body is going to flop down on the ground, uninhabited.

In our culture we have an odd paradox of both over-emphasizing and under-emphasizing the body. We overemphasize it in the ways that we prioritize our concern with its "image". And we under emphasize it in the sense that we don't honor it as a true partner in our happiness as a human being. We take care of it based on what we want to look like rather than based on what it is communicating to us. We don't respect it as the magical informant that it is.

Body image is one of those under acknowledged issues in our culture that we believe is an epidemic force of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and inability to fully inhabit our lives and selves. The pervasive, insidious messages that we are meant to achieve and maintain a certain youth and beauty are destructive. We haven't met anyone who is not touched by this. And it is related to our spiritual evolution. When we are heavily identified with our image, we are mistaking what is important.

As Drew Barrymore once said in response to how she takes care of her "beauty" - "I care a little, not a lot." This struck me as so healthy. Yes, I want to feel good in my body, yes I enjoy dressing up, yes I like to move my body. But, am I going to spend 50% of my life striving for an unattainable, unsustainable perfection? No. For what?

So, what is worth caring a lot about? It's worth caring a lot about what your body feels like. What you put in your body and how you move it is important! But, for most of us, we are making those decisions based on external messages, ideas, and expectations.

If you took all ideas and beliefs off the table, what is your body actually saying?

Don't act on uninvestigated ideas.

Are sugar, bread, coffee, late night snacks, big meals, dressing, french fries, cheese, etc. bad?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Is 30 minutes on the elliptical, or the marathon, or 6 days/week "working out", or lifting weights good? Maybe.

But, there is something deep inside you that has a sense of what will serve your physical well-being. Are you listening to it? Do you like running? If so, fantastic - you found your thing. If not, is there something else your body actually craves to do? A diet of sweets is bound to make any body feel terrible, but is skipping the cookie keeping off weight? This really depends on your awakeness and relationship to making those decisions.

Reclaiming Beauty

If we turn away from the pressure to look a certain way, we are turning toward true beauty! What would it be like to relate to our body as a revealer and participator of presence, wisdom, and awakening? What if we trusted that if we listened to our body we would feel better about ourselves?

What if we related to beauty as coming from the inside and only being reflected on the outside? As a culture, we would start valuing different things as beautiful. Countenance is referencing a physical appearance, but more comprehensively referencing our outward appearance being deeply influenced by an internal composure, presence, light, health and yes, beauty!

As we reduce the identification with our image, we allow for more of our power, creativity and expression. Some inquiries to try if they resonate:

  • Make a list of all your beliefs and ideas about what is good and bad for your body in terms of food and movement.

  • Ask yourself what your priorities are and what you believe leads to happiness.

  • Look for beauty. Look for it everywhere. Not just in people, but everywhere. What animate, inanimate, visual, auditory, things etc. makes your heart react with a sense of awe and appreciation? What does that tell you about what to focus on in terms of your own beauty?