Willa Blythe Baker on her new book, “The Wakeful Body”
When Willa Blythe Baker first started meditating, she spent many years on the pillow trying to wake up. When she first retired at the age of 15, she sat waiting with the feeling that at any moment she would miraculously wake up and transcend the present moment. It wasn’t until Baker encountered Yogic Buddhism in Nepal many years later that she realized that the path was not at all about transcendence or awakening. On the contrary, the teachings invited him to “wake up downTo explore the wisdom of his experience embodied in the present.
In his new book The awakened body: somatic mindfulness as a path to freedom, Baker addresses the problem of body-mind dualism and invites readers to connect with the body’s natural wisdom as a path to enlightenment. (You can read a teaching from the book here in the last issue of Tricycle.)
Tricycle recently spoke with Baker about the book-writing process, somatic circumvention, her pandemic practice, and why she runs wilderness retreats.
What prompted you to write this book on the body? My meditation practice took me on a path away from the body, then back home to the body. When I first encountered Buddhism, I encountered the word disturbs a lot. There was so much talk about the mind and the nature of the mind. As Westerners, I think we have an unconscious tendency to elevate the mind above the body. It probably stems from this long history of Cartesian dualism, so we think the body and mind are somehow separate. The contemplative traditions of the East teach that body and mind have never been separated – they are in fact an inseparable whole.
I had somehow assumed that the mind was something separate, and maybe even better than the body. But slowly, as I practiced meditation over the years, I began to see that in reality the body is the key to a deep, stable, deep, and joyful meditation practice. I wanted to share the mind of the body’s potential with other meditation practitioners.
Did you discover anything new about your relationship with your body through the process of writing this book? I started the book because I already knew that I am in the happiest place of practice when I am in my body. There is something about being embodied that brings out the happiness of my practice and the happiness of my life. So actually writing the book was that process of sitting down every day and asking my body to write the book. It was then that I found my best place to write, when I demand my body to express itself through the keys of the typewriter. “What does my body have to say? That was the question I sat down with, and I learned that the body can write. He has unexpected wisdom to share in the present moment. If I ask my body what it has to convey, it always deploys another layer of insight.
“What does my body have to say? That was the question I sat down with, and I learned that the body can write.
In the book, you discuss your study abroad in Nepal and this shift from living in a body of self-denigrating concepts to realizing that your body is part of a larger whole. Can you tell me more about how this trip to Nepal transformed your relationship with your body? I encountered a strongly interdependent community of human beings in Nepal. Generations would all live in a single family complex: grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins. There was this feeling of a deeply connected community where the family lives closely with a lot of support for each other. And there was something about this support network that helped my body relax. I felt myself letting go of the idea that my body was mine. I started to feel that my body is part of an interdependent web, and this web is beautiful and has a life of its own.
Being in this social environment, anchored in a community, gave me the feeling that I was part of a community body. And there was dignity and beauty and support in it. This community body allowed these self-denigrating, very egocentric concepts to dissolve. There was much less sense of individual self in this community and much more sense of self. we.
I also didn’t have media exposure where I was staying, and that impacted me too. There were no radios, televisions, or newspapers that I could read. In the West, we are bombarded with images of the ideal body in the media and advertisements, but that did not exist at all there, at least at the time. I was able to free myself from the Western construction of the ideal body.
Do you have any meditation practices for someone who is struggling with a negative relationship with their body? For someone who is struggling with their beliefs about their body, or with their body image, or with disparaging concepts about the body, the most immediate way to get away from them is to simply descend from headspace. , from the space of reflection, towards rooting. of the sensitive body. It means let go idea what your body is and how you actually feel your current body. Sometimes the mind flies into the past, into the future, or it clings to concepts of who and what we think we are. Closing your eyes and feeling the grounding in your body can be a way to discover that there is something else that has nothing to do with our thoughts about the body. There is a living and breathing miracle there, and we can float down to the base of the body to help anchor our fickle minds.
And if you experience chronic pain or some discomfort in the body, you can always contact this rooting as a place of refuge. Even when we feel discomfort, say in a knee or in our stomach, we may find that the rooting is still there.
You introduce the term somatic bypass in the book. Can you explain what it is? Somatic bypass is that tendency to numb what is happening from the neck down. Somatic bypass occurs when we neglect the awareness of what is happening in the present moment and in the body. This can be applied to our experience as meditators. We can often live in our heads as we develop a mindfulness practice, and we begin to conceptualize all dimensions of that practice. We cling to ideas of peace or the nature of the mind, or we think we become more compassionate by having loving thoughts. We can do all of this without actually going down and checking out the experience of the body. What is the bodily experience of peace? Compassionate?
When we begin to include the body in our meditation practice, we find that all of these words – peace, freedom, mindfulness, compassion, ease – have embodied expression. And until we experience and become intimate with these bodily expressions, our practice of meditation will remain conceptual. If we bypass the body and go straight to what we consider to be mental states, then we are missing out on all the richness of a meditation practice.
Stepping away from the book now, has your practice changed at all during the pandemic? Yes. The pandemic has been such a reminder of what we practice for: to become more resilient. The difficulty brings us closer to the practice. For me, the pandemic has turned me to my sources of refuge, and that has helped me land on what my resources are, like a loving connection. The loving connection is not only a support for our spiritual practice, but it is a spiritual practice. It is the practice of friendship and connection. So the pandemic has helped me begin to honor my relationships with family and friends as a deep spiritual commitment and practice in and of themselves.
Another refuge was the present moment. I think what happened during the pandemic for a lot of people, and certainly what happened for me, was this collective trauma of waking up anxious. Especially at the start of the pandemic, there would be a feeling of waking up and not knowing – not knowing if we are safe. This collective anguish that we experienced individually, but also collectively, reminded me of the refuge of the present moment and of being able to rest in ignorance. The pandemic has taught me to be comfortable with uncertainty. It also taught me that nature is such a deep resource. When everything else seemed crazy, I took long walks in the woods. The woods would remind me that they too express resilience and beauty and provide refuge.
The difficulty brings us closer to the practice.
Can you tell me more about your recent decision to omit “lama” from your title? I still use the title in my own sangha, so I haven’t stopped using it altogether. But I stopped using it outside of the context of my own immediate sangha because it seems to me that a title can elicit projections, perhaps of spiritual fulfillment or maturity. I don’t know if these projections help a lot. I am just a human being. But within my own sangha, where the context is clear and I’m in the role of a Buddhist teacher, I don’t think it’s harmful that the title is present. Yet I only ask people in my sangha to call me Lama Willa if they move. If it seems useful or helpful for someone to use this title out of respect or love, then that sounds okay. But other than that, I don’t know if it’s useful.
I want to end by asking about the Natural Dharma Fellowship retirement, “Listening to liberation: hearing the wisdom of nature“, which you and Lama Liz Monsoon recently led. What are the benefits of a retreat in the great outdoors? The desert is a natural teacher of Dharma. From the time of the Buddha until now, practitioners all over the world have looked at the wilderness. I love guiding wilderness retreats as there is no effort to meditate in these wilderness areas. They are a place of freedom. The vastness of the wilderness puts us in touch with our own innate savagery, with our own inner nature which is also wild and spontaneous. In some ways, what we really invoke on the meditation cushion is our true nature or our natural state. When we are in a wild space, we don’t have to try to evoke our own inner nature. It just comes alive.
I will also add that we need sources of resilience in a time of eco-anxiety, and the wilderness is such a source of resilience. Being in nature allows us to connect to the planet as sentient beings, and the more we can relate to wild spaces, the more we will defend their health and well-being. I see wilderness practice as a form of activism that changes us. By being on the outside, we change on the inside. This change can be a support to act in favor of the planet. It is a great motivation for me to animate these retreats.