When I first came across the notion of attention and sensation, I thought I understood all there was to know about sensation. Sensation to me meant being able to “feel” my arm or be aware of my beating heart when I was about to walk out on stage. I knew it as pain in my throat when I was sick or a tight muscle after too much exercise.
To feel my body seemed just so…obvious. Not until I immersed myself in the ways of zen, awareness, self observation and then self mastery did I begin to understand the importance it would have on my life. I basically learned that sensation used as an awareness tool is the foundation for self knowledge and freedom.
Like everyone else, I lived my life from the head up. I also suffered from prolonged sexual abuse, so it was hard for me to be in my body most of the time. Not only did I learn to leave my body in most intimate situations, I basically wasn’t there most of the time to check in on my physical needs and basic self care. I could run my body into the ground with hard work, cigarettes, coffee and stress. Let’s not mention all the alcohol and drugs that inundated my system.
I was not in my body to experience any emotional pain. I learned to block out feeling in the most mysterious ways. I often thought I am “above” that, more evolved, and so completely stuffed the emotion. I found ways to dissociate from my body.
To be in my body meant that I had to start to feel, but even after meditating in a zen dojo for 6 years, I was simply stilling the mind.
I could see a massive improvement in my daily life in regard to reactions and fear, but I still had all of the ramifications of living out of my body.
Studying the Fourth Way would open my eyes to a new world; one in which I learned that to have moments of expanded awareness often was the key to opening my heart. Expanded awareness is a loaded experience and now I teach it in courses, on retreats and in meditation groups. It allowed me to experience all of me in a unified whole package. From that perspective, everything changed. In fact, I realized there was nothing to change and everything to see and accept.
I was taught that sensation is the first tool of awareness to master. It was not just so I could be in my body (although that is what it did), but it was to learn to divide my attention. It was not just for getting grounded (although that is what it did), but to experience what was me and what was not me. It was not just to take me out of my thinking (although that is just what it did), but to integrate the three brains, moving, feeling and thinking as a unified field from which to observe myself.
It is rarely taught in this way.
When I ask my students to begin to practice sensation, they usually notice their aches and pains more. They notice what their bodies need. They start to notice more tension. These are all positive steps toward using sensation, but it does not yet entail the use of sensation as a tool to expand their awareness.
They notice their attention being pulled to different physical phenomenon when they are in a negative state, racing heart, tight throat, upset stomach, but many of us notice that anyway under those circumstances. That is when the physical is so loud that we can’t help but experience it.
Once the practice is underway, something magical starts to happen. When we start to use attention to maintain sensation in the body while we do other things, our awareness expands beyond what we could have known without it. With the body there and our awareness of it and other things too, we are given the chance to see so much more.
We can take in impressions from the outside at the same time as taking in impressions on the inside. Our intentional awareness of sensation gets easier and easier the more we try to do it. It is our preparation for self acceptance and healing trauma.
You might wonder how I just made that leap.
If we are able to maintain this expanded awareness, we are prepared to see our age old habits that have literally been set in us over many many years. Our habits range from leaving our bodies, to overriding self harm, to nefarious distraction games we play with ourselves. They are made of stock emotional reactions and identification with what is right and wrong, good and bad. These habits are limitless and we don’t think they are habits. We think we are aware.
That is the scary part.
I thought I had so much knowledge about my own trauma and my own suffering, but to see it in this new way is to instantly heal. I saw how attached I was to my suffering. It took a lot of practice to maintain sensation and experience the things I had been avoiding feeling and seeing most of my life. When I started seeing it from this new perspective without judging it, I could stay there. I could ride the wave of pain or shame and begin to understand it in my body, my feeling and my mind all at once.
Doing this not so simple practice lead me to see that from which I hid most of my life. I was prepared when the shit hit the fan, when all the gremlins came running out in gangs within me, ready to tear me apart at the seams. I could start to watch myself seek love one more time from a place where it was unavailable. I could fight the urge to say yes when I really wanted to say no. I was equipped with a resource I had never had before and I could begin to see all of the automatic functioning that I had previously assumed was conscious.
An accumulation of presence began to pool within me. I gained strength where I had none before. I began to gather bits of me that were scattered all over the place. It all started with this practice of sensation to expand my awareness.
When I have sensation, I am present.
When I am present, I can watch within.
When I can watch within, I can accept.
When I accept, I heal.
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