The Body Scan Mediation is a foundational cornerstone to just about any beginning mindfulness training, including MBSR. It’s easy to approach the Body Scan Meditation as a relaxation exercise, but really, it’s a powerful training and has many benefits; done regularly for just 8 weeks it has been shown to reduce not only the subjective experience of stress, but also the biological markers of stress, such as cortisol levels.
On one level, we learn to manage what we pay attention to by placing, maintaining and moving the attention progressively through the body. As we gently, but persistently, invite the attention to stay with an area of the body, we develop our ability to choose where the attention goes. At this level we cultivate:
Focus and Attention: By consciously choosing to place the mind on an object, we build the capacity to choose and sustain focus. As we repeatedly practice bringing the mind back to the body when it wanders, we further develop and steady the attention. By practicing the Body Scan Meditation, we literally strengthen the “muscles” that make it easier to stay focused and on task.
Embodiment: As we spend more and more time placing our attention on the direct experience of sensations in the body, a whole new world of perception opens up. We begin to notice and learn to interpret the signals our body gives. This allows us to notice and interrupt automatic stress reactions quickly, and choose our responses more powerfully.
On another level, practicing the Body Scan Meditation supports our capacity to maintain awareness even when what we encounter in the body and mind isn't perfect, or pleasant. We are all well practiced at avoidance and distraction in reaction to difficult or painful sensations and emotions. This practice allows us to learn what might be available from more fully acknowledging, and perhaps even leaning into, the completeness and complexity of our experience. We begin to realize that even though our difficulties rarely listen to reason and there is sometimes nothing we can do to make them disappear, we can alleviate some of our suffering simply by ceasing to struggle and resist. Consistent practice cultivates:
Self Compassion: We strive and drive ourselves hard in so many areas of life, that it would be easy to bring that mindset to mindfulness training. But with the Body Scan Meditation, we practice being with whatever is so in the body without trying to change or fix it. When it wanders, we invite the mind back to the body with a gentle kindness – like leading a sweet puppy or young child back onto the path when she’s wandered. In this way, we learn to see and eventually drop, the negative voices that run so much of our day.
Being with Difficulty: As we spend more time with the body, we almost inevitably run up against something unpleasant. We notice pain, irritation, boredom, sadness, numbness, you name it. With practice, we begin to notice that we have a habitual way of dealing with discomfort, and it isn’t always helpful. Perhaps we avoid, fight, ruminate, punish or distract. With practice, we explore alternatives to struggling with difficulty and begin to discover for ourselves what is possible when we gently lean in with curiosity. We begin to distinguish between the actual pain and the suffering we add to the pain with our struggling. Eventually, we learn to let go of the struggle much more often and easily both during practice and, more importantly, in our ‘real’ life.
Appreciation: It’s just human nature to take things for granted. But just a little reflection reveals that it’s pretty darn amazing that we have a body and a mind to focus on it at all. As we spend time with the body, noticing what the mind does, a sense of awe and gratitude can arise quite naturally. As it does, we’re building our capacity to generate these qualities spontaneously in very ordinary moments in our every day life.
But reading about the Body Scan and agreeing that it sounds like a good idea – only practice, done regularly and consistently yields these powerful results. Give the Body Scan Meditation a try!