Dharma Ocean Foundation on Considering Your Body’s Mind

Adapted from The Awakening Body: Somatic Meditation for Discovering Our Deepest Life by Dr. Reggie Ray, available from Shambhala Publications.

Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Ray is the Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the somatic teachings of the Practicing Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He teaches in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. The author of many books, audio courses, and online series, Reggie’s work and teachings draw from his background as a Buddhist scholar and practitioner. With a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (1973), he was the first full-time faculty member and chair of the Buddhist Studies (later Religious Studies) Department at Naropa University. Over nearly four decades he grew the department and played various leadership roles at Naropa, developing with Trungpa Rinpoche many of the initiatives and projects that became part of Naropa’s unique identity as a Buddhist-inspired university. He began explicitly working with dharma students in 1995 and now devotes all of his time to transmitting the teachings of the Vajra dharma of his teacher.

Until quite recently, it has been the assumption in Western cultures that mind and body are two distinct and separate realities. This belief is, of course, inseparable from the presumption that spirituality is based in the mind and involves separating and distancing oneself from the body and all things earthly. Largely through the discoveries of neuroscience and neuropsychology, a consensus has emerged that this dualistic way of looking at mind and body is invalid. We now know that the body itself is intelligent and aware, down to the cellular level. So there is no body that is in some sense not equally and at the same time “mind.” And the mind, rather than being a separate entity, is intimately connected with, if not reducible to, the collective awareness of the neurological network of the body; so there is no mind that is not, at the same time, the body.

The scientific conversation about “body” and “mind” has been evolving in some very interesting directions. For example, consider the terms “left brain” and “right brain.” Since the mid-nineteenth century, anatomists have recognized that the two hemispheres of our brain operate quite differently and know things in two very distinct but complementary ways. These two hemispheres have been termed “the left brain” and “the right brain.”

Our left brain is typically described as housing “our conscious self” or our “ego mind”; it is often said to be characterized by “the three L’s”; it is linear, logical, and linguistic. It is the seat of discursive thought. As such, it is a more or less disembodied, autonomous, closed system, cycling and recycling already existing information that exists in its database in the form of memories, ideation, labeling, judgments, and conceptual abstractions of all sorts. It houses the function of language, both spoken and written. As the seat of our ego-consciousness, it carries out executive, managerial, and coping functions. Not surprisingly, the left brain is neurologically the most far removed from our body and its direct perceptual experience, a fact that can be seen both experientially and anatomically. The left brain is not an originator or source; it is a processor: it cannot feel, sense, or experience anything directly; and it is always connected to the right brain only by a few neurological pathways.

Our right brain, by contrast, is our “physical, emotional self.” It is deeply grounded in our body and is all about the direct, unmediated, nonconceptual experience. It beholds things within a field of infinite silence and space, without any judgment or evaluation, without any discursive processing whatsoever. It receives the experience of this moment in its totality, without any boundaries or filtering. It is like a mirror that simply reflects. The neuroscientist and stroke survivor Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the right brain “takes things as they are and acknowledges what is in the present.” Everything is there as in a collage and the interconnections of everything are seen. Lacking conceptual reference points, the right brain has no sense of past, present, or future: this moment is experienced as timeless.

Neuroscientists are also using some other roughly equivalent but more nuanced terms to refer to the same thing. They are doing so because, while the two modalities of knowing described above are relatively clear, locating them exclusively in the right and left hemispheres is problematic. In fact, these two ways of knowing, while primarily associated with the two hemispheres, actually involve a much more geographically diverse spread throughout the entire brain and beyond that, for the “right brain,” the entire neurological network of our body—to the point that even talking about a right “brain” may be questionable.

Thus some neuroscientists are now talking about two “functions,” rather than two hemispheric locales, of the two ways of knowing. One is the function of the conceptualizing, abstracting, executive, conscious ego-mind, which is primarily associated with the left hemisphere, and the other is the function of the holistic, nonconceptual awareness of the body, which is more closely associated with the right hemisphere but includes our entire subcortical neurological system.

Following this functional way of looking at the brain, neuroscientists are also speaking of “top-down” versus “bottom-up” knowing. “Bottom-up” functioning refers to the way in which direct, unmediated experience arises out of the unconscious domain of the body (“right brain”). “Top-down” refers to the conscious, ego mind’s function of conceptual processing of what arises from the body, whereby we select from our inventory of labels, abstractions, judgments, and preconceptions those most fitting to “knowing conceptually” and mapping a selection of the nonconceptual experience that is arriving at the boundary of consciousness (“left brain”).

Other neuroscientists are using terms (very interesting in the present context) that suggest the experience of these two levels or modes of knowing (rather than geography or function). I want to draw attention to that approach here because this distinction in the experiential quality is especially important for understanding the somatic journey. In particular, the terms they use for these ways of knowing are “exogenous” and “endogenous.” “Exogenous” means “arriving from outside,” and it points to “right-brain” or bottom-up knowing, and experience of utter unfamiliarity: we feel as if the information is arriving from outside of the domain of our familiar, conscious, ego world, coming as new and as yet unprocessed, undomesticated (by our ego). Exogenous refers to phenomena that arise naturally and spontaneously from the darkness and the unknown (i.e., subcortical and largely unconscious) regions of our body: feelings, sensations, intuitions, “felt-senses,” visceral impressions, somatic memories—arriving in our awareness in a direct, fresh, immediate, and naked way. Neuroscientists speak of “exogenous stimulae.”

By contrast, “endogenous” means “coming from the inside,” which refers to coming within the already existing and known database of the “left brain,” the self-conscious, self-referential ego. Endogenous thus points to what we recognize as familiar—experience mediated by and filtered through ideas, concepts, assumptions, judgments, conclusions that already exist in our consciousness, based on the past, through which we process our present experience in order to “know,” manage and control it. Endogenous involves the top-down application of the familiar so that we can label, conceptualize, and pin down the unfamiliar and—to the ego—potentially threatening and destabilizing influx of the unknown. Neuroscientists refer to “endogenous control.” An understanding of these two very different modalities of knowing is at the core of the somatic approach.

In our lineage, we discuss these two modes of knowing but, following a more somatic, experiential way of speaking, distinguish them as the “left brain,” on the one hand, and as the “Soma,” or body (rather than the “right-brain”), on the other. We prefer these terms because while the functions of the conscious, ego-mind are indeed primarily located in the left hemisphere, the functions typically associated with the “right-brain” as already suggested, are in fact distributed throughout the entire body: though largely unconscious in most of us, they occur through a vast network of somatically known and knowing experience and processing, of a system of awareness that includes aspects of the right cerebral hemisphere, the limbic system, the brain stem, the heart, the gut, the organs, the bones, the fascia, and, as mentioned, extending down to each cell in our body.

The discoveries of neuroscience, then, provide an important bridge for us to understand how the body is viewed in this lineage. Both neuroscience and somatic spirituality agree that the body (including the right brain) is the realm of direct experience. For both, the body receives and registers experience before we think about it, before we process it. The body thus knows experience in a pure and unmediated way. It sees things as they are, as if in a mirror, independent of the causal networks of past, present, and future. The body’s way of knowing is holistic; through extensive openness and a nearly infinite sensitivity, it reflects the totality of what is, and it knows the interconnection of everything.

But a critical distinction exists between the approach of neuroscience and the approach of Somatic Meditation. Neuroscience is based on what can be observed and proved in controlled experiments and therefore looks at the body from the outside. The approach of Somatic Meditation, by contrast, looks at the body from the inside, a process called “interoception” in neuropsychology. Science comes to its conclusions based on observation of the body as an external object, defined by identifiable causes and conditions; Somatic Meditation makes its journey by observing the body from the inside as a kind of ultimate, all-knowing subject and a limitless source of knowledge in the form of direct perception.

At the same time, the distinction is about the differences in the two approaches, not about the people who may employ them. For example, increasing numbers of modern therapists, scientists, and philosophers are not only fully cognizant of the interior, interoceptive perspective but are guided in their professional work at least partly by what they themselves have observed in their direct experience of their own bodies.

To cite just one example, the philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin, the creator of a therapeutic approach called “Focusing,” beautifully clarifies the nature and character of what is known through interoception, the viewing and experiencing of the body from the inside. Gendlin has developed the widely influential notion of “felt sense,” referring to what the body knows directly of itself, without the mediation of the thinking mind. For Gendlin, the felt sense, the ability to know one’s own interior, somatic experience, is the open sesame of successful psychotherapies.

About Dharma Ocean Foundation

Dharma Ocean Foundation is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.