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Body scan meditation has origins in Tibetan Buddhism; primarily the technique of observing the breath. This developed into bringing awareness to the body as a whole, scanning part by part with one’s awareness, similar to the practice of observing the breath. Body scan meditation has become a widely practised and accessible form of meditation that brings deeper awareness to the moment to moment experience of thoughts, feelings and sensations.

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is a form of meditation which originated over 2500 years ago in India. Beginning with observing the breath, the technique extends to a body scan meditation which directs one’s attentional awareness over the entire body, part by part. Vipassana retreats are held all over the world, beginning with a ten day meditation retreat where a vow of silence is also taken.

As well as ancient traditions following this form of meditation, there is long standing research into the benefits. In modern day society there is a growing reconnection to the technique as people are needing and searching for more meaning, peace and calmer moments in hectic, overstimulated, high stress environments. Meditation has become a lot more accessible over the recent decades as the value and benefits to health and well-being are acknowledged and encouraged.

In addition to deepening one’s spiritual experience in meditation, the technique offers health benefits such as lowered stress levels, less anxiety, overcoming chronic pain, addiction and building emotional resilience. There are a great number of benefits for almost all ailments of modern day living as the understanding of neuroscience, neurobiology and a holistic approach to health, well-being and lifestyle provides a supportive and enhanced quality of life. The body scan meditation is indeed an advantageous practice to cultivate mindfulness and improve overall health and well-being.

Body scan meditation explained

Thought to originate in the days of Gotama Buddha, the practice of Vipassana became known as the technique to end all suffering and live an enlightened life. The principle practice of observing the breath is to cultivate a moment to moment awareness of the breath bringing oneself into full presence. Once in the present, an observation of the relationship between the body and mind becomes integrated into one, rather than a separate experience, as we are conditioned to have.

Vipassana is a practice of self observation and through this one transforms oneself. Indeed, dedication and persistence is required as all sorts of aches, pains and suffering will arise during the journey. Employing a holistic technique, the integration of the mind, noted for existing as a separate entity in our daily experience, the aim is to integrate the mind’s impurities through the awareness of body sensations that arise simultaneously, albeit usually unnoticed on the conscious level.

Once the awareness of the breath has been practised, the body scan is introduced to progress further in the technique and consequent beneficial outcomes. The body scan involves bringing your awareness to each and every part of the body, whilst observing sensations that arise and pass away there. The nature of sensations, like the mind, is training the conditioned mind to experience impermanence; sensations arise and pass and nothing remains the same, ever.

The root of all suffering is said to begin in the mind.  Through clearing impurities of the mind, the technique enables many ailments that have roots and contributing factors to dis-ease, pain, illness that are physical, mental and emotional in nature. Furthermore, by experiencing oneself in the present, with no attachment to the past or future the experience of liberation can be cultivated over time, with an equanimous, non-attached, mind.

Detaching from attachment

Equanimity is one of the pillars of Buddhism that upholds the practice of remaining neutral to whatever is arising; happiness, sadness, pain, anger, jealousy, boredom. The moment we become reactive, an impurity is created and this directly impacts the person’s experience, which is viewed at the core as a form of suffering. The attachment to experiences, people, objects, material of past and future keep us framed in a state of wanting (desire) or repulsion (rejection).

At the heart of Buddhist meditation techniques, Vipassana included, is the cultivation of loving kindness. When Vipassana was brought to Western cultures in the 1970s by the late S.N Goenka, he taught this technique that resulted in many centres offering retreats with the aim of eradicating suffering and cultivating more love and compassion. The practice enables the experiencer to be fully present, free from attachment and thus in liberation.

“According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.

People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices.”

― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Benefits of body scan meditation

Body scan techniques begin the practice of bringing parts of the body into conscious awareness so as to neutralise thoughts, feelings or sensations attached to the experience. Without reacting with either a craving (desire) or rejection a greater sense of calm comes into the experience, more presence and ultimately greater freedom. Body scans therefore help relax the body and the mind enabling the person to experience life without suffering.

Body scan meditations have been studied in various fields of neuroscience, neurobiology and psychology and findings show the person undergoes relaxed states, reporting being able to release stress and tension and thus feeling happier and calmer. Although the technique focuses on the integration of the body and mind, there are additional energetic layers of emotional and spiritual as well. Connecting deeper with one’s internal experience allows for past emotional pain to be released, as well as cultivating a deeper connection to yourself.

The focus of scanning the body allows for those specific parts to release tension that we are usually unaware of which contributes to aches, pains and tension. Energetically releasing emotional pain enables one to become more practised in emotional regulation as well as being more in tune with one’s physical and emotional states as they change. Additionally with focused attention one can reach deeper states of meditation thus gaining greater benefit from the practice.

Benefits of body scan meditation:

  • Release stress
  • Release tension in the body (physically, emotionally)
  • Greater emotional and physical regulation
  • Greater self awareness
  • Greater self love and compassion
  • Neuroplasticity of the brain (greater integration of the body and mind)
  • Being more in tune with your body, mind and spirit
  • Overcome negative thought patterns, self image and building self esteem

Obstacles that can come up in meditation

Distraction tends to be the biggest obstacle for meditation practice in general. This is a normal part of the experience. Rest assured, there is no ‘right way’ to meditate and if you lose concentration, your mind wanders, this is perfectly normal and to be expected. The very nature of the mind is to wander, anything else wouldn’t require the training and practise needed to change your relationship with your mind.

Being with discomfort as aches, pains, emotions, thoughts arise during body scans. Again, this is normal and to be expected as the mind and body are working together to remove impurities that manifest as these ailments and uncomfortable moments.

Emotional fluctuations – Feeling lost, angry, sad, as well as ecstatic, at peace and everything in between! The experience of being with what is, fully present in the moment, is a core part of meditation philosophy and practice. This includes being with difficult or challenging thoughts that can trigger emotional responses, as with sensations. The aim of the practice however is to neutralise emotions, therefore becoming less reactive and experiencing more stable emotional states and ability to self regulate better.

Chasing ‘peak experiences’ – wanting to recreate and experience moments of bliss, deep inner peace or stillness, heightened states of awareness seemingly not attainable in normal waking consciousness and anything else that was enlightening, liberating and felt good in some way!

Wanting to stop meditating! – The mind creates thoughts that interrupt your focus and start to offer anything else but to continue meditating, especially when feeling frustrated, tired or generally fed up. A normal part of the process and something to be expected to happen, thereby creating less of a surprise of judgement if/when it may!

Continuing to bring mindfulness into daily life

Meditation is undoubtedly useful and supportive in cultivating greater emotional stability, physical, mental and spiritual well-being. A self guided and accessible practice that can build emotional resilience, compassion and deepen internal and external connections to self and others. Furthermore, reducing stress and levels of tension that manifest in all areas of our lives whilst building on cognitive skills such as enhanced focus and attention, greater clarity and overall sense of well-being.

Whilst Vipassana is an excellent form of meditation, you may be drawn to other forms of meditation and wish to try out different approaches or methods. Beginning with preparing a meditation space, considering the environment, conditions and what you need to set yourself up for successful practice is also a consideration. There are tips and guides here to get started with learning more about building a meditation practice.

If you would like to read in more depth about the workings of the subconscious mind and how this relates to meditation, there are articles providing more information. Additionally you may wish to try practicing mindfulness exercises for accessing the subconscious mind, which supports meditation and other mindfulness based practices.

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