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Movement Meditation

What is movement meditation? Simply, it is any type of meditation in which we are moving. "Movement meditation" (or "moving meditation") includes a wide range of techniques. Any movement can be performed as a meditation, if we apply mindfulness and a slow pace.

Movement meditation is ideal when we feel energetic. Some people are so vigorous or restless that they cannot use sitting meditation; thus, moving meditation is a productive alternative. In some monasteries and retreats, participants alternate between sitting meditation and moving meditation (usually walking meditation) in order to give the physical body some exercise and to release physical tension and stimulate blood circulation.

Our bodies can provide a "spiritual path." Most people accept the idea that the mind can be a tool for spiritual exploration; we use the mind in most types of meditation, and in our reading of religious literature. The emotions (particularly love) are another mode of spiritual inquiry; consider the devotional approach of some religions. The concept that the body, too, can provide an arena for spiritual exploration might seem ludicrous, particularly in cultures and religions where the body is considered to be the soul's "enemy," along with sexuality, the feminine principle, the physical world, and our humanness. However, some religious practices -- especially tantra -- view the body as a means by which we can study and express our psychological and spiritual nature. We can consider these ideas:

  1. The body lives in a world which is free from concepts, so our observance of it automatically takes us to the non-conceptual state which is sought by practitioners of sitting meditation.
  2. Because the body is a part of the physical world, movement meditation helps us to understand the nature and sanctity of this world.
  3. The body is neither more nor less "defiled" or "illusory" than our mind and emotions. On the contrary, it too has a connection to our soul.
  4. We can learn about the ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-interacting nature of life through the body, because the body is always in motion. (Even when we sit or sleep, there is action in the heartbeat, the breathing, and the small adjustments of muscles.)
  5. The slow movements create a calm mind, which is one of the goals of sitting meditation.

General guidelines for movement meditation.   

  1. Be attentive. We can be mindful of the motion of muscles, our contact with external surfaces (such as objects or the floor), the movement of energy within the body (and the interchange of that energy with the external world), our body's natural responses to stimuli (such as the rhythm of music), the spacial position of individual body parts (particularly the spine), sensations throughout the body (e.g., warmth, cold, pressure, pain, pleasure, etc.), our breathing (which can be allowed to occur in synch with our movements, or independent of them), or the state of stillness which exists in the heart of activity, or another aspect of our movements.
  2. Be aware of all parts of the body. In some types of movement meditation, we focus on a particular part; for example, a yoga posture might be loosening the leg muscles so we would naturally be attentive to those muscles. But during other sessions of movement meditation, we can direct our attention throughout our body, to notice the parts which we generally ignore; for example, we are all aware of our hands (because we use them almost constantly), but now we have an opportunity to regard other parts such as our individual toes, or our elbows, or the top of our head. While moving, we can shift our attention to every part, and appraise its state; for example, a part might be numb or even disliked, as in a belly which does not match the ideal which has been established by magazine centerfolds. When we locate these disowned parts, we can offer them our love and acceptance and an invitation to re-join the "family" of our body. As we do this, we might feel a warm vitalization of that part, and its re-integration into the general functioning of the body.
  3. Enter the world of the body. To an extent, the body is not "our" body; it is a living organism in its own right, with its own needs, its own pleasures, and its own "consciousness." (Consider the fact that the cells, in their organic world, know nothing about our day-to-day life.) Enter that world of bodily sensation, vitality, chemical processes, warmth, breathing, and moving (in contrast to our usual world of concepts). We can enter this world more easily if we do some of the techniques with our eyes closed (to block our sense of sight), or our hands over our ears (to block our sense of hearing).
  4. Let the body move in its own manner. Try this motion: lean to the left while keeping the body rigid and the muscles tight. Now return to the upright position. This time, simply think about leaning, and initiate the motion, but let the body move into the leaning position in its own way and at its own speed -- probably very slowly. When the body controls this movement, we might notice the following phenomena:
    • We feel many individual adjustments in the muscles and internal tissues as the body leans.
    • There are rhythms and brief pauses in the movement.
    • We feel a constant seeking of pleasure and comfort in each increment of the leaning.
    • There are changes in our breathing in response to the slight exertion and the repositioning of the lungs.
    • We feel the cooperation and feedback among the body parts as they coordinate their efforts in this engineering feat.
  5. Move slowly. Slowness allow us to perceive more of the individual motions within a larger motion; for example, if we quickly raise an arm straight up, we probably notice only the single upward movement -- but if we do it slowly, we perceive many separate events within the body. Try that now; take approximately 30 seconds to move an arm into the straight-up position. Be aware of the contractions of various muscles, and the adjustments in the joints as they adapt to the changing positions, and the constant physical balancing (through the shifts in weight and the muscular contractions in other parts of the body), and the heat which is generated in the muscles, and the gentle stretching of tissue to allow for the arm's movement. Movement meditation is usually done slowly; for example, walking meditation might be only slightly slower than our regular pace -- or we could spend an entire minute for each step.
  6. Focus on the motions themselves rather than any practical goal (e.g., walking to a specific destination).
  7. Have a sense of lightness. When the body makes its own movements, at its own pace, we experience lightness, effortlessness, gentleness, and softness. Allow the body's energy to uphold you and propel you easily; let it come to terms with gravity and then overcome it with natural vitality.

The techniques of movement meditation. While doing these individual techniques, we can use the guidelines -- particularly the idea of moving slowly, and being attentive. Other techniques are presented in chapters regarding specific types of movement meditation, e.g., walking meditation.

  1. For five minutes, make every movement in synch with your breathing. (Breathe at the natural rate or at a slow, controlled speed.)
  2. Put your palms against your chest. As you slowly inhale, let your arms extend outward in front of you; as you exhale, let your arms return to the chest. While doing this, feel that the energy of the breath is projecting the arms outward and bringing them back.
  3. From a sitting position, slowly stand up with a sense that the body is "lengthening" into the upright position. The neck extends upward, the back becomes longer, and gradually the entire body has lengthened into a standing position. Now walk forward, with that same sense of lengthening in the legs as you put each foot forward. Finally, sit down again in a lengthening motion.
  4. While standing or sitting, move the spine and the rest of the body in subtle motions while you seek "perfect posture" -- one which is thoroughly comfortable and relaxing for all parts of you. Scan your body for areas of discomfort and move to adjust their position, until your body comes to rest in its ideal posture.
  5. Starting with one toe, spend about twenty seconds at each joint in the body, and let it move back-and-forth slowly. Feel the sensations in that joint as vividly as possible.
  6. Move in a rhythm which is synchronized with your heartbeat.
  7. Experiment with different degrees of mental "supervision" in controlling your body's movements. We can find a new balance between the mind's willful control of the body, and the body's own preferences. For example, try this in the movement of raising your arm slowly straight up:
    • First, do it willfully, keeping the muscles tight.
    • Now raise the arm again -- but this time, let the arm stay relaxed, and be aware of the feedback (e.g., comfort or discomfort); respond to this feedback to move the arm in a more natural manner.
    • On your third time, simply "intend" that the arm should rise, and then -- while maintaining a gentle will -- let the arm slowly "float" upward; let the arm be creative and playful as the upper arm, forearm, hand, and fingers gradually find their way toward an upright position, while perhaps turning, twisting, and bending, like smoke rising on a delicate breeze. If allowed, the body turns every movement into a graceful dance -- but these subtle movements occur from the body's own expressiveness and sense of pleasure, not from a self-consciousness, mentally conceived artistry.
  8. Pretend that you are a monkey, free from the human concepts about your body and how it should move. While walking around, allow this "monkey" body to find its own manner of moving and gesturing. Be aware of the sensations in your body when they are not being analyzed by a "human." (You may do this same exercise as a different type of animal -- perhaps a lion or a dog.)
  9. We take for granted our ability to move our body. But now, while we very slowly open and close a fist, marvel at the ability of the mind to control the body. Our thoughts create motion. Many people are skeptical about the possibility of "mind over matter" or telekinesis (also called psychokinesis), but our mind performs this feat every time we move the matter of our body. Try to sense the link between the thoughts and the moving hand.
  10. Lie down. Now imagine that you have just been born into this body. It is all new to you -- the sensations, and the control over this physical form. What does the body feel like? Now start to crawl, as though you have never crawled previously. Now start to walk. How would you walk if this were your first time, and you had never seen anyone else do it?
  11. Move in the rhythm of a spoken mantra or a prayer (e.g., "The Lord's Prayer") or a memorized religious text (e.g., the 23rd Psalm). Allow the body to move in that rhythm, expressing the feelings which accompany the words. Variation: Let the body express a single concept, such as beauty, love, peacefulness, freedom, or spirit. Use all of your body, and the expressions on your face. Another variation: Express these ideas with only one single part of the body, e.g., your hands.
  12. While walking, be aware of the flexibility of your spine. Move as though the spine is a snake which bends and curves in every direction. Feel these snake-like wave-movements as they extend throughout the body. Notice the increase in energy in the spine and the rest of the body as you do this.
  13. Give a gentle massage to your feet (or another part of the body), being attentive to the movements of your hands and feet. And notice the pleasure which is created.
  14. Slowly walk around your home, touching the objects -- the chairs, the curtains, etc. While being observant of your movements, also notice the energy which passes from your hands into the objects. Experience this energy transfer as a part of the movement:
    • Feel the energy which causes the arm to extend outward.
    • Feel the energy traveling down your arm as you touch the object.
    • Feel the energy flowing into the object.
    • Feel some energy from the object flowing back into the hand.
  15. Lie on the floor. Now curl into a fetal position and hug yourself. Roll gently on the floor -- to the left and right -- while you continue to hug (with your hands moving into different positions). Feel love for yourself and your body. Notice the warm, relaxed sensations throughout the body.
  16. In a standing position, let your body express its sexuality. Through movement, communicate the body's sexual longing, joy, pleasure, assertiveness, etc. We experience the body's sexuality, not the mind's concept of it.
  17. Dance as though the world around you is your partner. As you move, respond to the objects in the room: twirl around with a chair, stroke the wall as you walk alongside it, embrace a curtain, dance with the air as though it were dense enough to embrace. Notice the sensations in your body, and the energy which passes between yourself and the objects.
  18. In a standing position, slowly move the pelvis in various motions -- left and right, front and back, circular clockwise or counterclockwise, or in a figure eight. Be aware of the sensations.
  19. Lie on the floor, on your back. Imagine that you are a flower which is responding to the early-morning sunlight. Very slowly, raise your arms as though they are being drawn upward by the sun. Then gradually move to a standing position, constantly being aware of the imagined sunlight and of the feelings which it creates in your body.
  20. In a standing position, become aware of gravity's influence on your body. During a period of a few minutes, allow it to draw you very slowly from this position to a reclining position as you calmly surrender your body's mass to the planet beneath you.
  21. Dervish dancing. When we were children, one of our first experiences with an "altered state" was to spin like a top until we became dizzy and fell to the ground. The Sufi Mevlevi Order (i.e., the "Whirling Dervishes") has institutionalized this activity into a style of group meditation; they are able to spin without becoming dizzy. (Before you begin whirling, place cushions around yourself to fall upon -- and be certain that your stomach is empty, to minimize nausea.) Start by extending your right arm upward (with palm directed toward the ceiling -- toward the sky), and your left arm downward (with palm directed toward the floor -- toward the earth); a different technique is to start with arms across your chest and then slowly extend them to the side while spinning (with the right palm upward and left palm downward). Slowly begin to turn in a circle -- most people turn counter-clockwise -- and keep your eyes open but not focused. While spinning, the Dervishes meditate upon spirit, and they chant a holy phrase (i.e., a "wazifa" or "zikr") such as "Allah Hu" or "There is no god but God"; we can use a different phrase or mantra. Feel that you are centered in the quiet, motionless core of an energy vortex (like in the middle of a hurricane). After 20 minutes, start to increase your speed. The Dervishes continue to spin for hours, but we can do it for a shorter period of time. Eventually, we might fall to the ground; if this occurs, lie there for ten minutes or more, relaxing and grounding your energy with the earth beneath you.
  22. Experience "time" in the way in which your body experiences it -- independent of clocks and calendars. Select a simple task to perform -- e.g., walking, or a household chore -- and allow your body to perform it at its own speed. Feel the body's sense of progression and flow, in contrast to the analytical function's stressful division of time into seconds and minutes.  
  23. Experience the body as an inherent part of the physical world. While our mind develops melodramas regarding status and insecurity and worry, the body is totally comfortable in its own world. The body is at ease in our house; it neither knows nor cares what our friends think of our remodeling. When we are in a crowd of people, it is looking at the other bodies with interest, not judgment or timidity. Feel this physical body interacting with the physical objects of its world -- and notice the directness and simplicity of this interplay. Move throughout the room as though the body were simply one more physical object within it (instead of being "your" body). See how it instinctively responds, through movement, with other physical objects.
  24. Cathartic dance. (If this exercise releases energy and emotions which are too intense, stop immediately.) For ten minutes, be totally wild. Jump, and roll, and twitch, and shake. Let your breath be erratic. Hit pillows. Allow your voice to scream and babble, if it wants to do so (and if you have privacy). Don't be self-conscious or disturbed by anything which you do; just express the chaos and repressions which we all carry beneath our polite persona. Use these actions to express something real which is within you; they aren't just random actions or an exhibition of your concept of "wildness." This is a catharsis of energy which we haven't been able to express, so it is likely to include both our "negative" emotions (e.g., anger) and some "positive" emotions (such as our longing for love). After this catharsis, walk around calmly, to gradually "put yourself back together." Then do a sitting meditation, if you want to quiet yourself even further. Catharsis is not a long-term solution to any problems; the energy which we are releasing would have been better spent in direct mediation with those problems -- but, because we don't always have the situations or skills with which we can fully express our energy, we might need to do some catharsis occasionally to release the remnants of that force.

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