In a time of rapid change, the Western world is increasingly fascinated to know what the wisdom of the Far East can offer. Eastern wisdom is fascinating because it's not only a set of facts—not merely information for us to memorise, but rather age-old insights and tools for living well. It's first and foremost a way of life. This applies to any of the great traditions, whether Buddhist or Taoist.
Meditation occupies a privileged place in these traditions as the way to true insight into reality, rather than theory. Meditation involves the body at an intimate level, and in this particular time in history, many millions of people here in the West are beginning to see just how necessary some form of meditation is to keep ourselves centred, and to feel at one with our bodies.
Many of us spend so much time in our heads, whether it's in the office, on a smartphone, or just with working out what other people think about us and our appearance, that we can feel quite different from our bodies. The result is that the body becomes either a liability or something to be used as an object for social advancement. Both of these kinds of disassociation can lead to anxiety, depression and other forms of mental pain. In other words, many of us replace the experience of our body for ideas about it—that is, ideals about what it should look like. As someone with physical disabilities, having spent many years in wheelchairs and crutches, and always being reminded of my physical limitations, I know the experience very well.
But this is the general pattern of our culture: setting up images or ideas about life (whether it's success, happiness, or a relationship) that we ought to try to attain, then becoming disillusioned, cynical, and, at worst, self-loathing when we find those ideals can never be realised because our inevitable limitations.
Well, meditation is one very good way to come back in touch with reality and to feel comfortable with ourselves as our bodies. I want to emphasise that we're not using meditation to 'come back into' our bodies, as if we were outside of it to begin with. That's completely defeating the point of the art of meditation. Rather, meditation is our way of bringing back to our attention what we may have previously been ignoring: that we are bodies and that what we are and who we are involves the body, even if we might not realise it. Let's look at this.
You can read this because of the complex organs of your eyes. You can feel yourself resting comfortably on your chair because of the nerve endings of your skin. You can hear the birds outside, along with everything else, because of your ear drums. And you live because you breathe. None of those processes are controlled by our conscious attention. Even the very thoughts we think are possible because of a brain that grows and reproduces millions of cells without our thinking about it. Notice your breath. When you bring your attention to it, you suddenly feel that 'I am breathing', as we say 'I am talking' or 'I am walking'. But before that, we were still breathing, or we wouldn't be around to notice it!
What's happened is this: that you can now feel rather than intellectually 'see' or perceive that the distinction between what you do and what happens to you is arbitrary. Techniques such as using the breath, sounds, and thoughts, which I teach in Chinese and Japanese meditation, bring out these insights in a very vivid way. And along with the insight that what I do is what happens to me and what happens to me is what I do comes the following insight: that we are our bodies, and our body is the world.
You are the world. The wind blowing, the trees waving, the people on the street. And as Dogen said, 'the vast sky transparent throughout'.
Haoyu Yang 楊昊宇 (Anthony Haynes) is founder & director of Clear Water Academy 一清社, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has tutored the 'Atheism in Debate', 'Ethics & Society' and 'God in Philosophy' modules at the University of Edinburgh and is an experienced private philosophy tutor of students at masters and PhD level. He also provides meditation and philosophy classes for schools, having given classes at Firhill High School and Portobello High School, and is currently teaching The Way of Emptiness and The Way of Taoism seminars at Clear Water Academy 一清社. Haoyu's publications include 'Jacques Maritain’s Definition of Art’, New Blackfriars, (2015) and 'Jacques Maritain’s Ethics of Art’, New Blackfriars (2016).