That Which We Already Know: Mind and Body Are Not Two

From That Which We Already Know. This passage is from Chapter Nine of my forthcoming book:

It likely goes without saying that I was a quiet child, pulled as if by some magnetic attraction to places of solitude that weren’t always easy to find. You see, my father was then a young schoolteacher, with a family that was fast outgrowing our modest home. Compounding matters was the fact that entrance to my older sister’s bedroom required passage straight through mine. Thus, I had no quiet space inside that I could really call my own. I had to find it.

Cover Artwork

And that is how the Nursery became my refuge from the moment I was old enough to venture out beyond the garden gate. I could be alone there to enjoy the silence whenever I needed. Perhaps that’s another reason Mark Patrick’s tiny room was so appealing, sparse as a monk’s quarters though it was. Sure, his half brother was around for at least some of the time, but things must be different with a brother, I likely reasoned.

But this is not to say that I never had the opportunity to enjoy a little silence inside our home. Notwithstanding the tight quarters, I still managed from time to time to find a way to be alone. One such place of occasional refuge was in my parents’ bedroom during the day. No, we weren’t allowed to play there, but enjoying silence wasn’t play as far as I was concerned. Thus, I must have felt that I was within bounds whenever I slipped inside for the sole purpose of being alone.

My parents kept a clock radio on the shelf of their headboard. It was a 1950s model that they’d received as a wedding gift, with a pink plastic case that had ridges molded into it around the clock face and over the adjacent speaker. I’d lie on the bed facing it, with my elbows on the pillows and my chin resting on my forearms. I liked to run my fingernail across the plastic ridges covering the speaker. It sounded like a tiny plastic xylophone due to the varying lengths of the ridges over the circular opening.

Most of all, though, I liked to listen to the drone of the clock motor as the second hand traced out minute after minute after minute. It hummed steadily as the second hand fell past the one and the two, down toward the six. Errrrrrrrrrr … However, once the motor began lifting it from the six to the seven, it had to work a little harder. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr … With my eyes closed, I experienced the minutes as having a rhythm to them. The motor lifted the second hand and let it fall back down again. One minute. It lifted the hand and let it fall back down again. Two minutes. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr …, errrrrrrrrrr … Three minutes. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr …, errrrrrrrrrr … Four minutes. The motor lifted the hand and let it fall back down again. Five minutes.

I became fascinated with the workings of my body and the passage of time. My heartbeats came too quickly for me to measure, like the seconds slipping past, but my breath was much more easily quantified. It took thus and such time to go from inhalation to exhalation and back again. The longer I lay there, though, the deeper I settled into stillness and the more drawn out my breathing became. It was only natural that I eventually took to seeing how long I could hold my breath.

Now, anyone who tries to see how long they can hold their breath quickly realizes how it’s done. You breathe deeply and quickly for several breaths, culminating with one last big inhalation right before you commence. Something happens, though, as soon as you actually begin to hold your breath. Your awareness recedes from the outside world and begins to focus on the inner workings of the body. The beating of your heart slows. Your thoughts, too, begin to slow. You become aware of every gurgle in your belly and ringing in your ears. You notice the changing colors and flashes of light that play across your field of closed-eyed “vision.”

Like a stone sinking to the bottom of a lake, I went down, down, down …, there to settle on the bottom, immersed in glorious stillness. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr …, errrrrrrrrrr … The motor lifted the second hand and let it fall back down again. It strained and then relaxed. My heart pounded in my ears. It did its double thump, and then it relaxed. It double-thumped, and then it relaxed. My mind became the motor lifting the second hand and letting it fall back down again. My mind became my pounding heart, slow and solid. Ba-boom …, ba-boom …, ba-boom … And then, amid that deep and steady pounding, my mind became still—utterly and profoundly still.

It didn’t take much longer, though, for my mind to become the increasingly insistent urge to take another breath. First, it became the sensation of wanting to take a breath. Then, it became the sensation of needing to take a breath. Thereafter, it became the sensation of the effort required to refrain from taking a breath. Finally, it became that next breath—glorious, expansive, fresh, life-giving, rejuvenating.

Perhaps such recollections of spontaneous childhood meditations allowed me to quickly grasp the Zen teaching that body and mind are not two. They’re so inextricably linked as to make it impossible to speak deeply of one without consideration of the other. Thus, when I first learned that we become enlightened with the body, not with the mind, it made perfect sense to me. It corresponded with what I’d already experienced as a child—before letting it fall by the wayside forgotten, that is.

We all forget, it seems. By the time we reach adulthood, it’s all but second nature to think of body and mind as separate and distinct. Even one who is very much in tune with his body might think of it more as a beast of burden to be trained by the mind or a tool to be skillfully used by it. Leave it to children and Zen masters, and perhaps a very few others, to really understand the inextricable oneness of body and mind.

To be continued...

This post is a retelling of a childhood event.
It is meant to be illustrative of the non-duality of body and mind.
It is not meant to advocate any meditations that involve holding the breath.  

Copyright 2015 and 2022 by Mark Robert Frank


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