The importance of body sensations

by the Vipassana Research Institute

Almost all religious masters have transmitted a set of articles of faith. What the Buddha taught, however, is an experimental system. If we want to learn to live a happy life, we need to transform ourselves radically, and for such a fundamental change, even the most sublime faith is not enough. We must experience the natural law, the Dhamma, directly within ourselves: then we will find it easy to live in accordance with this law.

 We have to realize personally our ephemeral and changeable nature, and understand that any attempt to manipulate it is not only futile, but creates suffering. Once this is understood, it becomes spontaneous to generate in us that detachment which allows us to remain serene in the midst of all the vicissitudes of life. The key to this direct perception is vedana; sensation, because it is through it that we truly come into contact with the world. Whenever contact occurs with one of the physical senses or the mind, a sensation occurs in the body. It is at this point that our misbehavior begins; therefore, it is at this point that we must rectify our actions. Instead of letting the sensation lead us to craving, we must make it arouse in us the wisdom that will free our minds from suffering.

In order to get there, however, we must clearly understand what a sensation is, and where we need to look for it. The Buddha classified it among the mental aggregates, along with consciousness (viññana), perception (sañña), and reaction (sankara).In defining it, however, he spoke of vedana, sensation, as not only a mental phenomenon, but also a physical one. It is the mind that feels, but what it feels is inseparable from the physical element. 

The physical sensation, instrument of liberation

The physical aspect of sensation is of particular importance to the meditator. If we observe only on a mental level, we are not aware of the sensation at the moment it manifests itself in the body; and, in the darkness of ignorance, we blindly react to it, intensifying it even more. Before we know it, that fleeting sensation has taken on the proportions of a consuming fire; it has become an emotion so strong that it boggles the mind. As a result, we find ourselves speaking and acting in wrong ways, which we later regret. If, on the other hand, we observe the feeling on a physical level and become aware of it as soon as it arises, we can prevent the reaction from taking place.

Our slavery arises from the fact that, out of ignorance, we react to the physical sensation and allow it to turn into a mental phenomenon that overwhelms reason. But if we learn to observe physical sensations, we can free ourselves from the bondage of reaction, and be free from suffering. By observing physical sensations, the meditator comes into contact with the deepest level of the mind, the unconscious, and can thus prevent reactions from forming there. Not only that: this observation is also the means to free and eliminate the contents of the unconscious, and to eradicate the old mental conditioning that has accumulated there.

Vedana samosarana sabbe dhamma.

All things that arise in the mind are accompanied by sensations.

Assuming the attitude of an impartial observer, the meditator causes deeply repressed emotions and complexes to emerge at the conscious level, manifesting as physical sensations; by placing himself as a witness to these sensations, without reacting to them, he allows the old complexes to dissolve. In this regard the Buddha expresses himself as follows:

The meditator, by practicing observing the transience of pleasurable physical sensations, the way in which they lose strength, fade away, and then cease, and also the way in which he detaches himself, thus frees himself from the internal conditioning that leads him to desire pleasurable sensations.
Similarly, when the meditator continues to observe his unpleasant physical sensations, and grasps their impermanent character, he frees himself from the conditioning which arouses in him repugnance to every unpleasant sensation.
Then, observing with constancy the neutral sensations manifesting in his body and realizing that, as they arise, they dissolve, the meditator eliminates the conditioning that made him ignore these neutral sensations and their characteristic of arising and passing away.
Therefore, by observing the sensations of his body, the meditator frees his mind from uncontrolled desire, from aversion, from ignorance, that is, from everything that makes it impure.

Observing physical sensations is the most direct way to experience the impermanence of ourselves. Anicca, the pali term for impermanence, should not be understood only in reference to what is outside of us, namely other people and the world around us.

We must realize that we too are transient phenomena, dissolving every moment. When we directly experience this fact, attachment and egoism become impossible, and we learn to live detached from our ego. The Buddha again describes this process thus:che ci dissolviamo ogni attimo. Quando si fa l'esperienza diretta di questo fatto, ecco che attaccamento ed egoismo diventano impossibili, e noi impariamo a vivere distaccati dal nostro io. Il Buddha descrive ancora così questo processo:

Different winds blow in the sky, they come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, laden with dust or without dust, cold or hot, rushing hurricanes or gentle breezes - many are the winds that blow.
Thus sensations arise in this body that are pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. When a meditator full of fervor, keeps his capacity for understanding firm, he, as a true sage, comes to understand all sensations. Once aware of the sensations, already in this life he is freed from all impurities. And after his death, having stabilized in Dhamma, precisely because he has penetrated all the truths concerning sensations, he reaches the indescribable stage beyond the conditioned world (nibbana).

The Buddha considered awareness of one's own bodily reality to be so important that he often called the introspection technique he taught: awareness directed at the body. Our own bodies are witnesses to truth. If we engage in the observation of physical sensations, as Vipassana meditation teaches, we can advance from a truth we know by hearsay to the direct experience of truth. And when we encounter truth face to face, it transforms us: then authentic faith is born in us, not based on blind belief, but on our own personal experience.

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