It sounds almost paradoxical, but maintaining a mindful state is heavily linked to the body as a whole. We’ve already discussed the direct association between the brain and mind fairly extensively in previous blogs, so there’s no need to cover that topic too deeply. Let’s just note that many psychological disorders are correlated with alterations in at least one of several physical brain processes. But the impact of the rest of the body is too often understated when studying the mind, despite its fairly obvious supporting role. We’ll explore some of the ways that we may benefit by gaining a better understanding of this relationship.
Though it is far from an exclusively negative influence on the practice of mindfulness, the body does introduce several factors that tend to complicate the process. To begin with, mental health is fundamentally tied to physical well-being. Simple things like aches or minor nutrient deficiencies can make it difficult to concentrate, while more serious conditions can totally impair your perspective (various induced forms of psychosis, blood infections, types of drug impairment, etc.). The experience of being physically unwell may also lead to a decline in mental health related to depression, anxiety and anger, especially if a disability is involved.
Be it due to diseases that directly impact the brain or as a side-effect of an unrelated condition, the mind is almost always influenced by the decline of physical health. This change is usually stressful to the experiencer because it is unfamiliar and often uncomfortable, presenting new challenges when trying to utilize mindfulness strategies that work in a “normal” state of mind. Even in conditions of perfect health, the simple act of physically sensing the world can easily distract us from being in the moment, mainly because it can so easily trigger memories of similar sensations.
Our experience of various sensations through the physical body can easily take our attention away from the moment if we lack focus, but the senses can actually be extremely valuable tools in the practice of mindful meditation. Breathing, for example, is a common focal point that acts as a beacon to keep attention on the present. Heartbeats work just as well, as do vocal expressions with specific cadences and rhythmic repetitions. Yoga implements this strategy through the sense of touch (includes internal physical sensations, like muscle movements).
When you separate the memory factor, which is necessary to experience the moment anyway, we can recognize the senses as being co-observers. The moment is commonly described as a non-physical experience when discussing mindfulness. This is necessary partially because of the time gap between our conscious experiences of the external world and the initial measurements taken by the senses. But if considered separate from our conscious perception, the senses may be thought of as having a unique and direct connection to the moment that would otherwise be unavailable. Put simply, we can use the acquisition of a sensation as a meditative focal point just as effectively as the experience.
There is more to being mindful than simply understanding the concepts, and living in the moment takes more than achieving a static state of mind. It is also a means to continuously enact positive changes in your day to day life. Many of these alterations will be psychological in nature, but the physical body is a necessary and effective tool for interacting with the external world, and it too can be guided by mindfulness.
A key skill of most professional athletes is the ability to maintain an extraordinary focus on the present. Whether they realize it or not, the technical perfections that give athletes faster reaction times, increased force generation and above-average situational intellect, would not be possible without a strong connection to the moment of each action. Practice of all sorts is essentially a way to sharpen the clarity of that moment.
An extreme example of the body-moment relationship can be found in experts that perform amazing physical feats. My favorite example is a practitioner of samurai swordsmanship whose precision and reaction time is so incredibly fast that it cannot possibly be a result of visual processing. He must either track objects through another sense, or has somehow trained his brain to skip much of the analysis in the visual system. Both possibilities would require a mastery of establishing a bodily connection to the moment.
Mind and Body without Paradox
Despite never-ending arguments about material composition (thanks again Descartes), there are many aspects of the mind and body that display considerable harmony. A good example is the functionality of each as a means to live within the moment. The body and mind have individual functions that help us both access and utilize our potential in the present, but also work together in ways that compliment, rather than contradict, each other. Both require consistent practice and a disciplined approach, like contemplative meditation for the mind and regular exercise for the body, and the two can be easily combined in most situations, as is the case in many forms of yoga.
Mindfulness is a concept that may be a bit misleading in name. Yes, the fundamental goal can be framed as the achievement of a state of mind that is embedded in the present, but the body is practically indivisible from mindfulness because it directly impacts our perspective in an immeasurable number of ways. We should not aim to discount the influence of the body. Instead, we need to become as intricately familiar with these physical processes as is possible, so that they can be useful in a number of capacities, such as in the identification of biases, as a focal point for meditative practices and as the primary tool through which we act upon the external world.