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For example, if we wish to overcome the negative impact of emotions such as gluttony and greed, we have to understand how these emotions arise in our minds. One way of relating to gluttony might be to see fine food as a temptation. If we were to view things in this way, we could avoid even going past a nice restaurant in case it tempts us. However, instead of denying ourselves the opportunity to enjoy food, it would be more valuable to go to the restaurant and observe how we behave when we indulge in gluttony. If we become aware of how we are stuffing our face with food by being attentive to this, by becoming conscious of it, we will learn how to tame the mind.
Normally we think that there are only two options available to us. Taking the example of food again, we either want to get rid of our craving for good food altogether, or we continue to gorge ourselves with food and stack on the pounds. We might fast and try to avoid eating altogether, or we might eat so much that even after satiating ourselves, we do not want to let go and just continue to mindlessly consume things. We take this approach with many other things as well. All of our energy is put into accumulating what we desire and our motivation for doing so is not necessarily connected to what is being accumulated or the benefit that we may gain from it. It is an automatic, habituated response, as Buddhists would say; habitual patterns are set up so that we mindlessly indulge in these things.
We will learn nothing about greed, gluttony, lust, or the other conflicting emotions through this approach. Nor will we gain any great wisdom through the more punitive, ascetic methods. Our intention to get rid of our sins (if we are Christian) or conflicting emotions (if we are Buddhist) as quickly as possible is the result of avoiding any kind of intimate relationship with our experiences. If we are not willing to develop that kind of intimate relationship, we cannot grow.
Thomas Merton compiled a small book called The Wisdom of the Desert, which is his version of the Christian desert fathers' sayings. In the introduction, he says that many Christians have actually misunderstood what the desert fathers were doing in the desert. They assume that the desert fathers did not experience lustful thoughts, greed or any of the effects of the seven deadly sins. Merton says that this could not be further from the truth, arguing that the desert fathers “were in the desert keeping company with the deadly sins,” because they were more aware of their sins than we are. As I said before, when we indulge in sins or conflicting emotions we do so mindlessly, whereas being aware of these sins was part of spiritual training for the desert fathers. Rather than trying to get rid of the effects of those sins, the fathers were constantly working with them, and as a result, they became transformed.
The first part of learning how to transform ourselves then, is to be willing to deal with ourselves as we are, not as we want to be. We have to be willing to deal with whatever we experience with a sense of openness and intimacy. We should not be ashamed of the negativities that we have, nor try to suppress or repress them. Feeling shame only reinforces what we are already experiencing; it does not diminish the impact of those experiences. As modern psychology has pointed out, the repressed emotions do not go away; they just continue to operate below the normal conscious states.
Recognizing the Importance of the Body
The second part of transformation is to recognize, or reinstate, the importance of the body. To reiterate, the extreme ascetic perspective is that the body must be punished, because we feel the effects of the conflicting emotions or deadly sins through the body. However, when we learn to practice awareness and mindfulness in Buddhism, it is as much a physical as a mental act. Just the act of sitting in meditation means that we have to become the body. We have to appreciate the “incarnational” aspect of the body, instead of trying to dissociate our mental states from our physical states.
In its incarnation, the body is not just a bundle of flesh, bones, fluid and biochemical processes. Without the body we cannot do any kind of spiritual practice at all. We have to use the body to practice mindfulness and awareness—we have to pay attention to our physical posture and we have to pay attention to our breath. Sitting meditation is about learning how to be the body because the body is not something that we have; the body is something that we are. The body has to be seen as an integrated unit, where body and mind have become completely conjoined.
Learning how to become aware of physical states and processes is an extremely important part of Buddhist meditation. This includes observing how the body reacts to the conflicting emotions: How do you feel physically when you get angry? How do you feel physically when you are lustful? How do you feel physically when you are feeling jealous, when you feel love, when you are feeling joyous, when you are experiencing pleasure, when you are physically aroused, when the body is in a state of stasis? These are the things to be aware of, instead of learning how to dissociate ourselves more and more from the body through our spiritual quest. We have to remember to remember the body. We have objectified our body so that we use our body as if it were something that we own, like a toy, or a machine, or a car. That kind of attitude is totally non-spiritual, whereas learning to integrate with the body, to reconnect with or “remember” the body, is a spiritual exercise.
This kind of attention to the body is very different from how we normally view the body. Even when we are paying attention to our body through exercise and diet, we still regard it as something that is there to do our bidding. We go to the gym and if we do not get the results we want, we get angry with our body as if it were somebody else! By paying attention to the body with a sense of intimacy we see that it plays an important part in everything that we experience. This is not the body that we “own” and objectify, but the body of our lived experience. Everything that we experience is psychosomatic because the body is always involved, whenever we look through our eyes, whenever we hear through the ears, and in everything that we experience in terms of our feelings and sensations. We can see then, that paying attention to the body is an extremely important aspect of learning how to transform ourselves on the spiritual path.