Enhancing Sensory Clarity by Body Scanning

A diligent meditator should strive to achieve deep levels of concentration, sharp sensory clarity, and unwavering equanimity. I've previously discussed Jhana practice, which is an ideal way of enhancing concentration. I will address equanimity at a later time. In this post, I'd like to talk a little bit about how to improve sensory clarity. Sensory clarity is the degree of detail with which the meditator perceives the object of attention. The more details the meditator can perceive when attending to the object, the greater their sensory clarity. If the object of meditation is the breath, then increased sensory clarity entails being able to perceive the more and more subtle sensations that comprise the breath, such as temperature, pulsation, vibrations, tickling sensations, etc.

While there are many factors that can impact sensory clarity, a common cause of lack of sensory clarity is dullness. Dullness can be gross, as when the meditator is groggy or sleepy. But dullness can also be subtle. The focus of this post is dullness of the subtle kind. Since subtle dullness is, by definition, hard to perceive, it's difficult to identify it and even more difficult to weed it out. To further complicate things, we actually spend most of our lives in some state of dullness. Culadasa, the author of TMI, describes this kind of subtle dullness as "stable", because it is a kind of default dullness that does not typically progress to gross dullness. To say that we spend most of our waking lives in stable subtle dullness may sound like a strange claim initially, but it's true. If one pays attention to our normal waking state, we will easily recognize that we are only half here at any given moment. We are not fully present with the moment because we are only engaging with your senses the bare minimum that we need to get by. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If what's here is not a threat to our continued existence, then why use a lot of mental bandwidth to examine it? It would seem inefficient to do so. End result is that we spend most of our lives half-assing our investigation of the present moment, almost never fully engaging with it. That state is usually one of stable subtle dullness, where our mind is sharp enough to have a sense of what's going on, but not sharp enough to be completely engaged with the object of our attention.

This dull degree of mindfulness may be enough for us not to be eaten by a tiger, but it's not good enough for us to deeply investigate reality in the way that vipassana or insight practices require (these practices are mostly introduced in Stages 7-8-9 of TMI). For this reason, we want to increase our sensory clarity/mindfulness/concentration power as much as possible before we move on from concentration practices (e.g. mindfulness of breath) to insight practices (e.g. noting or open awareness meditation).

It is in that context that TMI suggests that the meditator sharpen sensory clarity by using a body scanning technique (this is introduced in Stage 5 of TMI). Given that stable subtle dullness is difficult to identify because it is our normal waking state of being, the body scan is suggested as an ideal way of identifying and weeding out stable subtle dullness. How? By comparing the degree of sensory clarity one has going in to the body scan with the degree of sensory clarity one has coming out of the body scan. If there was stable subtle dullness, then when one completes the body scan and returns attention to breathing sensations at the nostrils (or any other object of meditative attention), the breathing sensations should be way more clear. If so, that's a sign that there was stable subtle dullness before the scan but there is none or less after the scan.

Why does this work? Because by focusing one's attention on subtle sensations throughout the body, one trains one's the mind to pay attention to stimuli that are usually too subtle to notice in daily waking life. This has the end effect of increasing sensory clarity regarding bodily sensations compared to our relatively dull baseline. Then when we return to the breath, we are equipped with this increased sensory clarity which can then be put to good use to increase our mindfulness of breath and eventually achieve stable and exclusive attention on the meditative object and then progress to insight.

So this is why I think the body scanning technique suggested in TMI as a way of enhancing sensory clarity works. But what about actual practice tips? Here's several:

(1) You can, but need not, do a meticulous full body scan like the MBSR type body scan. This is fine, of course, but not necessary. Instead, if you are so inclined, do your body scan for however long you need to in order to increase sensory clarity. How do you know when is enough? Trial and error. Do a body scan and come back to your breath and compare sensory clarity pre and post body scan. If it increased significantly, then whatever body scan you did was appropriate and it's not necessary to do more. If you notice no change in sensory clarity of breath pre and post body scan, then you probably need a more thorough body scan. Eventually through trial and error you will find the right fit for you.

In terms of identifying bodily sensations during the body scan, I have suggestions that are similar to whole body breathing. Don't obsess over finding the subtlest of bodily sensations. Don't go chasing ghosts. If the very subtle sensations are there and you can notice them, great. If not, then that's ok too. Spend a reasonable amount of time exploring different parts of the body and simply note what you find. If it's just gross sensations that you find, that's ok. If they are more subtle, that's ok too. If you find sensations correlated to the breath, that's awesome. But if you find none, that's awesome too. If the only sensations you can find are those of clothing touching your skin or pressure points between your body and chair or cushion, that's ok too. As a meditation teacher at a retreat once told me, "do the best you can, and let that be enough".

(2) It is important to keep in mind that body scan suggested in TMI and here is merely a means to an end. Once you have used the body scan repeatedly to increase your sensory clarity post scan when compared to sensory clarity pre scan, you're good to go. Doesn't matter what sensations you found. What matters is that your sensory clarity has increased due to the scanning, because what we want is increased clarity, not expert proficiency body scanning. You can leave that to the Goenka folks, since that's their primary method of practice.

(3) Finally, when you notice that your sensory clarity has increased as much as you think it will with the body scanning, please give yourself permission to move on. If you're doing vipassana practice, this would be a good moment to shift from concentration to insight practices. If you're doing TMI style practice, then I suggest you progress to Stage 6 and see what happens. If you move on but then realize that you needed more sensory clarity, you can always go back to the body scanning technique. No need to get unnecessarily stuck (like I did!).

Hope that this is helpful and supportive of your practice.