Excerpted from the anthology Being Bodies (edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon). Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications.

Toni and Lenore are sitting in front of the fire in Lenore’s living room, two days before Toni’s annual nine-day retreat in California. It is the end of a rainy afternoon in late December. People will be arriving for dinner in a couple of hours, but right now there is time to continue a conversation started a year before, in which Toni had mentioned “two bodies — the conditioned and the unconditioned.” This year Toni is not so sure about these terms and suggests we look at them freshly, to see if they are a good description or not.

Lenore: What I understood last year was that the conditioned body is the one that corresponds to all our ideas and thoughts about ourselves, our expectations, our resistance, all the repetitive stuff that goes on because of past conditioning and present conditioning. Which we keep repeating and re-creating.

Toni: It keeps repeating and re-creating itself. Yes.

Lenore: In this conditioned body there is rigidity, holding, contraction…

Toni: Patterning. Yes.

Lenore: As contrasted to the unconditioned state, which would be fluid, open — open to change, to the present moment.

Toni: Open in awareness.

Lenore: Where does awareness reside?

Toni: I don’t know. I don’t know where it resides, but it isn’t separate from the body either. It permeates and contains everything and yet it is beyond everything. Language is problematic, the thing itself is very clear. It is the clarity, the wholeness of it all. And the sharpness of the senses, functioning as one whole perception.

Lenore: Let’s go back to two bodies…

Toni: Two bodies, a conditioned and an unconditioned, or a new and an old body I’ve sometimes called it.

Lenore: A new body… a place you arrive, as opposed to a place you’ve been?

Toni: No. It’s not something you have achieved. It is the real home, one’s true being. The other is distorted, with blocked functioning, self-enclosing thoughts and emotions.

Lenore: So these days do you prefer the terms the new body and old body?

Toni: No… these days I don’t hang on to words. None of them are as good as seeing, experiencing directly what is actually happening.

Lenore: We should just quit talking now! [Laughs] Still, I want to ask if we’re talking about actual structures — organs, muscles, bone — or are we merely talking about processes? I mean, is there a difference in the way that the structures function in the two bodies?

Toni: I’m quite sure that there is.

Lenore: How would you describe that?

Toni: You mean is there a difference in how the physical structures are functioning when there is presence right now? When there is clear awareness? If I stay completely with what is observed at this very moment, habitual tensions become transparent and smooth out.

Lenore: Yes, in fact that just happened to me! I first noticed a thought, and it had to do with the time. There’s something I have to do in about twenty minutes, to prepare for dinner, and in my belly I could feel this tightening. When I noticed it, it relented.

Toni: If it hadn’t been detected it would have continued. But let’s look further. Does a physical tension of stress, hurriedness, “I have no time” — the kind of physical tension that goes with those thoughts — does it keep on going without supporting thoughts?

Lenore: Perhaps habitual tensions create thoughts.

Toni: Yes, perhaps a physical tension creates the thought, there must be something to worry about.

Lenore: And we’re up in our heads again — with tension in our shoulders and our necks, we’re thinking, figuring things out, problem solving. It’s self-defensive and self-preservatory and it has a kind of “up-there-ness” to it. Which I guess would correspond to the conditioned body. Whereas residing in the lower body seems to allow things to slow down.

Toni: There’s a danger here, though, that I went through in Zen training, where we were deliberately trying, forcing, to put our energy into our lower belly. I called it the “elevator effect”: first the intention from the head to let the energy go down, then some sensation in the belly, then wondering up in the head how I’m doing. Up and down, down and up. And yet there is definitely something to this energy gathering low in the body that allows the head to be light, free, open, unencumbered. And therefore naturally intelligent.

Lenore: Could you amplify this?

Toni: Entering into silence, sitting quietly, allowing whatever is happening “inside” and “out” to reveal itself freely, meditatively, brings about a natural shift of energy from head, neck, and shoulders, to the foundation of this body-mind — an enlivening of the entire organism.

Lenore: Would you say that the new body or the unconditioned body would be one where there isn’t this kind of split (top from bottom) in the body? Is that what’s intelligent? That there’s a feedback loop, a conversation or collaboration going on?

Toni: Yes.

Lenore: I know that awareness is not just inside our skins. The organism is fully awake and perceiving reality and responding to it. Resting in it, part of a vaster awareness.

Toni: It is reality. One wholeness of functioning.

Lenore: Toni, would you articulate the two-bodies idea in a way that really feels accurate to you?

Toni: Can we say that the new body is no separate body? No-body? It is the best I can come up with. You said you know it is not just within our skin, but is there even a skin?

Lenore: Not without holes.

Toni: The more powerful the microscope or telescope, the more empty space reveals itself. That is not just an item of physics that we can know, but something very palpable.

Lenore: When the energy is high up, in the head, then there is absolute conviction that the skin is not only solid and separating us, but that it also requires defense.

Toni: Yes. And when the energy knots up high in the head, entangled in thoughts and images and proclamations imagined to be real, the whole body becomes mobilized or immobilized with emotionality. It cannot perceive that it is an integral part of everything else that’s going on around it. It feels encapsulated, enclosed, isolated. Thought has an uncanny ability to trigger physical processes that originally were not meant to react to thought. They evolved to react to real dangers or needs.

Lenore: Can you say some more about this?

Toni: When a deer in the meadow notices you approaching, it instantly stops grazing and looks at you motionlessly. The white tail, used to signal danger to other deer, twitches slightly now and then, ready to flash at any time. If you come too close or move too abruptly, up goes the tail like a torch and the animal bounds gracefully into the woods for cover. For us humans no presence of genuine physical danger is needed for the whole body to be flooded by waves of anxiety. All it takes is one scary thought, one fearful memory, one threatening image to trigger physical flight or fight or freeze reactions. Imagining we are alone and isolated, abandoned, causes immediate pain and sorrow. Deer most likely don’t ruminate about being separate creatures — it spares them a lifetime of mental grief!

It is clear that the body itself learns something about this amazing being-in-awareness. At Springwater, I usually go to our beautiful sitting hall in the morning, and in the freedom of sitting quietly, the seamless depth of it — the body is learning the organismic way of open being. It becomes natural. Awareness is here on its own. When any effort is made — the intention to be aware — there isn’t this ease of just being here.
That is the beauty of it: when there is the ease of simple being, which means no blockages, no enclosures, no separation, there is not even the possibility to make an effort. In the state that we’ve been calling the “new body,” there is no need for effort because the barking dog “outside” is right here, it is not separate. There is no effort “to be one with it” as we used to say in Zen. We’re already one whole movement in sound and silence.

Lenore: There’s no need to get from here to there.

Toni: No need to get from here to there because there is already here! This just needs to dawn fully! The aware body does not feel that anything is outside of it. Nothing is separate.

Lenore: As we’ve been talking, at moments that’s felt quite palpable.

Toni: Yes, just sitting here and talking together, feeling the inwardness, intensity, and depth, there is immense energy — not so much a physical body feeling, but palpitating, vibrating energy.

Lenore: A very alive energy… with no sense of where I begin or end particularly, just that alive moment.

Toni: The intelligence of awareness leaves that whole network of self-reference, I-centeredness alone — it needn’t be entered. All the energy gathers here right now. Body is energy. In the presence of this aware listening — voices, breathing, noises — there is no need for energy to travel into the “me” network. (Once the me-network is mobilized through inattention, the body contracts into its old habitual patterns.)

About twenty years ago, sitting in a zendo, trying to be a good meditator way into the night, I noticed clearly for the first time how every once in a while in the midst of quiet, unconcerned sitting, the brain would click in with the question: “Am I doing all right?” “Am I getting somewhere?” When the “am I doing it right?” tape became transparent, it was also clear that I don’t have to know how I am doing. Sitting quietly is not knowing. But first you have to recognize the tremendous desire to know. This is how we’re built, how we’ve evolved. It’s wonderful to see this powerful urge to know, to question it, and to realize that maybe I don’t have to know everything. Not knowing, the body is at ease. Not knowing doesn’t mean not hearing the words. The words arise but the brain isn’t concerned.

Lenore: In that state, it almost feels pointless to talk.

Toni: Yes!

Lenore: As I sit here and settle, following your words, letting go of self-preoccupation, the impulse, the fuel behind my questions seems to subside. The charge has gone out of them.

Toni: What is the charge behind the question?

Lenore: A couple of paradoxical things sort of gnaw at me and also excite me. But if I’m just being, the energy drains away.

Toni: Let’s articulate the paradoxes, because the brain wants to make order, wants to finish its business and does not want to carry a lot of things around. It wants to resolve conflict. What are the paradoxes?

Lenore: Well, there are times, usually when I’m sitting, that I experience a kind of quietness in which there isn’t any edge to me. The body exists and doesn’t exist. It’s filled with open spaces and holes, breath and energy moving in and out, or back and forth. The idea of inside and outside seems arbitrary. So one paradox I guess is the body and the no-body, both present in a sort of embodiedness that rests in a larger, undiscriminated whole.

Toni: Does it rest in it or is it that large, undiscriminated whole? Where does the arm end and the fingers begin?

Lenore: There — I started thinking again and I moved right back to self-concern!

Toni: So thinking creates the conditioned body. We know how certain ways of thinking either twist our faces and bodies or relax them. Our faces express our past thoughts and feelings, fears and desires. Our bodies grow and relax or contort according to how we think about ourselves and how others think about us. We embody what our parents thought about us. I see so many subtle changes in children growing up, the way they walk, the way the eyes look, the way the mouth and shoulders are held. Yet it is simple to let openness permeate this physical structure and let it dissolve.

Lenore: The physical structure dissolves?

Toni: The idea about it does. Without the idea about my body, it all feels quite different, more natural.

Lenore: Is there time for one more paradox? We’ve been talking about the openness of the body, but there is also the defensive structure of the body. This body that seems so obviously to be us — there’s me and you and them, all in our separate bodies, and then all the defensive operations come into play from perceiving “them” as separate.

Toni: The body hardens, stiffens, mobilizes for defense or aggression.

Lenore: Yes. Because the separate you can threaten the separate me.

Toni: Instinctive protective impulses stay alive because the organism loves to live — life loves to stay alive and propagate itself.

Lenore: Love? Can we talk about love, and how it is of the body and not of the body?

Toni: Love is intrinsic to the openness of being. The enclosed, imprisoned, is not loving, it can’t love, it is choking.

Lenore: But when you say the body loves to live… is that another kind of love?

Toni: Love is to live, love is to continue. Life loves to live, loves to continue and propagate itself, to create ever new forms. Are you asking how does that relate to the love that naturally lights up the human heart when self-concern is quiet? Do we need to first differentiate, and then relate again what the mind has separated, or can we behold it all in silent wonderment?