Buddhist practice is based on the study of conscious awareness. Every science and discipline has its own domain of study. Buddhist meditation is the study of consciousness. In particular, it is concerns itself with the pragmatics of consciousness. How does consciousness come to be dominated by clinging, anger, grief, fear, and anxiety, and how does it come to be free of these states – to be happy and peaceful? It is really the most important study there is because it is the study of our life itself. Our life consists in this conscious awareness that is happening from moment to moment, including this moment. Awareness is what defines sentient life. To study and care for that awareness is the most important thing we can do for ourselves.
When we reflect on this awareness that we have, one thing we see is that, broadly speaking, it tends to exist in one of two general states – it is either aware of some phenomenon here in the present moment, or it is embedded in some thought stream and is lost in the past, future, or some other place. Mental and emotional suffering is enabled by our propensity to lose our awareness in the thinking mind. We surrender to the thoughts that arise in our heads, and are led into those painful states – greed, anger, grief, fear, and anxiety. The thinking mind also prevents us from recognizing the real miracle of our life, which is this awareness that is happening in this very moment.
The first big task towards freedom from this suffering involves learning how to not surrender awareness over to thought. It’s not easy. We can’t just shut thought off. We need to think in order to live our lives as human beings. So we need to find a way for awareness to be in the presence of thought, without it becoming enmeshed with it.
A simile that comes to mind for me is that of a seesaw. Thought is sitting on one side of the seesaw, and awareness is like a ball that rolls along the top of the seesaw. If thought is the only one on the seesaw, the ball will always be in thought’s lap. Awareness will be lost in the lap of thought. If we try really hard, we might be able to pull the other side of the seesaw down so that the ball of awareness rolls out of thought’s lap. But, thought is a really heavy guy. He’s like the big bully of the schoolyard. It’s really hard to lift him. We need a counterweight on the other side of the seesaw. The counterweight that we prefer, in the Mahasati tradition, is the feeling of the movement of the body. When we notice the feeling of the movement of the body, the ball of awareness rolls out from the lap of thought and towards the center of the seesaw. This is where we want it to be. We want it to be in the center. We don’t want awareness to be lost in the body either. We don’t want to pull the other side down too much. We want awareness to be able to rest in between body and mind – being able to observe them both. We want awareness to be free and independent – able to stand on its own.
So meditation practice is really a balancing act – maintaining awareness of the feeling of the movement of the body as a counterweight to thought. Not concentrating on the body so much that thought is eliminated, but putting just enough awareness on the body to prevent us from rolling into the lap of thought, and losing ourselves there. When that does happen, as it will again and again, we just put a bit more weight on the other side of the seesaw.
So this is the point of the body movement. It is a counterweight to thought. We could, of course, also use the breath as a counterweight. But the rhythmic hand movement is a larger counterweight. Remember, thought is the big bully. We’ve been feeding him all our lives. It is easier to balance him with a larger counterweight like the movements we use in Mahasati practice. When we have a good counterweight, we don’t have to suppress thought. Thought can continue to happen, and we can use it when we want in order to live our lives, but our awareness is no longer identified with the thinking. It is in the center of the seesaw. Thought no longer has the same power over our happiness, and we can begin to see the deeper truths of our life.