Before I taught scores of body scan meditations like the one above, I too had to learn it for the first time. And my first reaction was: no, thank you! This is what happened: The woman at the front of the room is saying that over the next eight weeks we would be “learning to reconnect to our bodies by doing a number of body scans.” Huh? Reconnect with my own body? Nuts to that, lady! Not that it’s any of your business, but my disconnected body and I like it that way. As far as I can tell, I mean, we haven’t spoken in years.
Then she tells us to lay down, saying we might want to put a pillow under our knees and maybe even cover ourselves with the nursery school blankets she handed us. The lights are dimmed and my inner child begins snoring. But the rest of me feels like a feral cat trapped in a dark alley looking for any way out.
The suspiciously calm-voiced lady relentlessly offers us something she calls, “silence” (it burns, it burns!). We are asked to notice any sensations we might be able to experience. A sensation? What the heck is a “sensation”? She says sensations are things we might notice in the body, (not liking this noticing the body, business! Please stop saying this!). She mentions a menu of sensation possibilities we might notice, like tingling, tightness, heat or coolness, buzzing or pulsing or itching, or numbness—even nausea. What the heck? No wonder I avoid connecting with my body! Need I explain the concept of numbing out? The very idea of having to notice my body enraged me. And even worse, I had no clue if I was doing it right and that enraged me even more.
Our honey-tongued guide seemed to be ignoring my inner pleas for her to stop, “Look lady … if I listened to my body, right now, I’d leap up and throttle you!”
Apparently I was supposed to notice this too. Argh!
During the first few “body scans” I mostly thought about lunch and how my butt compares to other butts anywhere on the planet. Every so often I would notice a sensation in my body. When I did, I immediately became alarmed or bored or my mind just wandered off to Taco Bell.
Only after being guided through many, many body scans did I seem to have a “Hold on, call coming through!” moment. Was that me experiencing itches, twitches, cramps, and screams and just watching as they softened and settled? Was I only imagining that I was increasingly able to be irritated without needing to find someone to blame…where’s the fun in that? Something was changing in my relationship to discomfort. I noticed that I could stay more present and tuned in, even if I didn’t like what I was feeling. Interesting.
Now, I notice that I am increasingly able to stay and examine sensations that show up in my body when I feel upset on its way. I can be with my stress-clenched butt, my indignant-jaw, my quaking belly.
That was a few years ago. Now, I notice that I am increasingly able to stay and examine sensations that show up in my body when I feel upset on its way. I can be with my stress-clenched butt, my indignant-jaw, my quaking belly. By practicing the body scan, I am learning to stay softly present to the United Colors of Stress as it tries to hole up in my body. More and more, I can notice what I feel without having to hold on to it. I can let it go and return to the present moment over and over. Damn, I’m good.
Body Scan Meditation
It is recommended you allow about 30 or 40 minutes to let yourself really investigate this practice. But if you don’t have that much time, utilize whatever time you have. You might want to lay down, but you can also do it sitting up, especially if that makes it easier for you to stay awake.
- Closing your eyes can be helpful to allow you to focus or, if you’d rather, you can always lower and half-close your eyes.
- Bring awareness to the body breathing in and out, noticing touch and pressure where it makes contact with the seat or floor. Throughout this practice, allow as much time as you need or want to experience and investigate each area of the body.
- When you’re ready (no rush), intentionally breathe in, and move your attention to whatever part of the body you want to investigate. You might choose to do a systematic body scan beginning at the head or feet. Or, you might choose to explore sensations randomly. Enjoy!
Sensations might include buzzing, or tingling, pressure, tightness or temperature, or anything else you notice. What if you don’t notice any strong sensations or things feel neutral? You can simply notice that, too. There are no right answers. Just tune in to what’s present, as best you can, without judgement. You’ll notice judgement puts a different spin on things.
The main point is being curious and open to what you are noticing, investigating the sensations as fully as possible, and then intentionally releasing the focus of attention before shifting to the next area to explore.
- At some point, you’ll notice Elvis and your attention have left the building. Yup. Great noticing! You’ll quickly discover that you can’t stop your attention from wandering. Sorry ’bout that. But over time you can train it to stay for longer periods: train it, not force it, there’s a difference. Each time your attention wanders, simply notice that this is happening, then gently and kindly (it’s really important that you don’t try to force anything) direct your attention back to exploring sensations in the body. Rinse and repeat until you’ve finished your entire body exploration.
And hey! Neuroscience tells us that noticing drifting attention, and gently returning our focus to wherever we’ve placed it, over and over, is how we create new pathways in the brain.
- At the end of this exploration of bodily sensations, spend a few moments to expand your attention to feeling your entire body breathing freely.
- Open your eyes if they have been closed. Move mindfully into this moment.
Regularly practicing the body scan can help you:
- Enhance your ability to bring your full attention to real-time experiences happening in the present moment—helpful when emotions or thoughts feel wild.
- Train to explore and be with pleasant and unpleasant sensations, learning to notice what happens when we simply hang in there and feel what’s going on in “body-land” without trying to fix or change anything.