As mindfulness in the West is picking up and taking off as a popular movement, I’m getting the feeling that many people are being introduced to it as a purely intellectual and mental practice. After all, the word “mind” is in mindfulness.
However, there are ways to achieve a state of mindfulness that don’t start with or focus primarily on your mind. Other approaches focus more on the body or integrating mental and physical training.
Education here in the U.S. is obviously very focused on training the mind. In my experience from kindergarten through high school, almost all the teachings were about training your mind in some way. There was one period of Physical Education a day, and it was taught separately from everything else rather than integrated into other courses.
Our energy and focus were all put into training our minds and learning things intellectually. Even feelings of assertiveness and confidence were trained to revolve around the mind.
Intellectual competence can certainly result in positive bodily effects like feeling relaxed. There’s definitely some truth to the assumption or belief that the body will follow the mind. When you focus your attention and energy on training your mind, bodily effects can follow.
That was by and large how I learned in school: to focus on my mind, with physical exercise and bodily training being treated as completely different disciplines.
A Different Perspective
However, I also feel fortunate to have learned through martial arts training that the mind can also follow the body. I’ve studied a few different martial arts and remember one lesson in particular during which one of my teachers was taking us through an exercise. He started to become frustrated with us because we weren’t conveying an assertive attitude. He felt like we were holding back or not really putting 100 percent of our energy and intention into each attack.
At one point, he said, “If you’re having trouble getting that assertive intention and 100 percent focus on the attack — that mental aspect of it — before you start, bend your front knee forward.”
My initial reaction was complete confusion. I thought, “How is bending my front knee forward going to cause me to feel more assertive?”
But then my teacher explained that when you engage in an attack with an assertive attitude, that attitude causes you to start the attack by bending your front knee in order to shift your weight forward. My teacher said, “If you put your body into a position that would follow from having an attitude of assertiveness, like bending your front knee forward, putting your body into this physical position can cause your mind to actually be in that state of mental assertiveness. The mind follows the body.”
I am still practicing this lesson, but I learned from it that teaching the mind directly isn’t the only way to train it. Another approach is to train the body and then let the mind follow the body’s lead.
Striking the Right Balance
In our culture, our body is often ignored and looked down upon. There’s a very strong overemphasis on the mental and intellectual to the detriment of the physical.
The martial arts that I have studied, which are sometimes called “external” martial arts, tend to elevate the body above the mind — at least in the early stages — and take an outside-to-inside approach to training the body and mind. The instructor teaches you to train your body and learn the physical techniques with the assumption that your mind will gradually be trained indirectly as a side effect. Then, as you start to become more physically proficient, the teacher shows you how to focus on training your mind more directly.
I only started practicing sitting mindfulness meditation after practicing martial arts for several decades. Although I found that both types of practices had much in common, it has been interesting for me to see that sitting meditation tends to take an inside-to-outside or “the body follows the mind” approach. The focus is primarily on paying attention to our internal experience while being physically still and then experiencing side effects on the body later.
To me, both perspectives feel very valuable. I train both the body and mind and find that both can influence each other.
I’m concerned that many people today are learning only one approach to mindfulness, which either de-emphasizes or completely forgoes any focus on training the body or assumes that if you train the mind, everything your body needs will follow later as a side effect. My message today is that — as with all things — balance is crucial, and if your exposure to mindfulness has only involved physical stillness, remember that the mind can follow the body too.