Contemplating the nature of the body

Being equipped with tools and understanding about the first foundation of mindfulness, we are now ready to inquire deeply into the nature of the body.

Part 2: Coming back home to the body

Being with what is

As we bring mindfulness to the realm of the body we encounter a river of sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant. Through mindfulness, we are learning to rest in the midst of this somatic experience with “bare knowing” – a naked, direct perception of what is present without interpretations, stories or judgements.

What is happening in your body right now? What does “bare knowing” mean in this moment? Are you able to separate the somatic experience from the thoughts and ideas you have about it?

The miracle known as “the body

The body is keeping you alive moment by moment. With every breath, the lungs turn oxygen into life. With every heartbeat, nourishing blood is circulated throughout the body. In every moment, hormones and neurotransmitter regulate our physiology, emotions and behavior. Proteins and enzymes are secreted to facilitate digestion and accelerate vital chemical reactions. Cells constantly regenerate bones, tissues and organs. The immune system works to keep germs and pathogens from causing disease. Nerve endings in the skin turn electric vibrations into sensations. All of the sense organs collaborate to enable the experience of this present moment.

All of this is going on without effort. Take a moment to feel this.

Reflect on everything the body is doing beyond your conscious control. Can you bring a sense of trust, gratitude and appreciation to this process? Are you able to let go and relax into this trust?

A way of being in the world

The Buddha presented several practices and contemplations to help build this first foundation.

Mindfulness of the breath

It all starts with the breath. We have already gone into some depth about bringing mindfulness to the breath:

Part 1: The significance of the breath

Body postures

Being aware of the posture of the body is key to living a life of mindfulness. Traditionally, we learn to bring mindful awareness to the four main postures of moving, standing, sitting and lying down.

First of all, how are you holding your body in this moment? What happens as you bring your awareness to it? Does the body want to make adjustments?

Next, slowly and intentionally change the posture. Move your neck, arms, shoulders. Listen to how the body wants to move and bring mindfulness to each movement.

Finally, set an intention to be aware of the postures of the body as you move through the day.

Clear comprehension and the cultivation of skilful action

The contemplation of the body extends beyond the meditation cushion. We are invited to bring mindfulness to the body as we move through the day whether we are sitting, standing, walking, eating, talking, waiting for the bus, going to the bathroom. This continuity of practice is what enables mindfulness to become a way of being in the world.

When we rush and act from impulse, we are rarely aware of the motivation behind our actions. Mindful of the movements of the body enables us to reflect on the intention of what we are doing. We can begin to discern if an action will leads to more suffering or more freedom and happiness. In this way, mindfulness of the body is the root of cultivating wise, moral and skillful action – actions that are aligned with Śīla.

Śīla is one of three sections of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is a code of conduct that embraces a commitment to harmony with the motivation of non-violence and non-harming.

How often are you aware of the motivation behind your movements? How does stress affect the quality of your actions? What enables intentional action that is aligned with your higher Will?

The nature of the body

Next, we are invited to reflect on the reality of the physical body by contemplating its individual parts. This contemplation can free us from mental concepts and take us back to the quality of “bare knowing”. When we look at the body without the commentary of judgements, we weaken attachments and see more deeply into the nature of the body (see “the three marks of existence” below).

Reflect on the fact that your physical body is made up of hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, nerves, muscles, tendons, bones, marrow, organs, intestines, fat and fluids. What happens as you bring this reflection to mind?

Next, bring to mind someone you find attractive. Picture him or her in front of you and do the same reflection. What happens?

Elements of the body

Another instructions is to tune into how the 4 elements are experienced in the body.

Take a moment to settle into the body. Simply sit and let the body breathe.

☷ As you feel into the body, can you sense some solidity or stability? Any sensation of heaviness or stiffness? This is the earth element.

☵ Is there any experience of fluidity in the body? Perhaps a sense of flow or a quality of holding together. This is the water element.

☲ Can you feel the experience of temperatures? Heat, cold, digestive heat, sexual energy – these are all expressions of the fire element.

☴ Is there movement in the body? Perhaps expansion and contraction of the breath. Or some sense of lightness. This is how the air element manifests in the body.

Contemplating impermanence

Mindfulness teaches us to see into the true nature of experience. One such truth is change, which can be experienced most directly in the body. There are specific practices designed help bring home the insight of impermanence. Traditionally, practitioners spend time in charnel grounds where they can observe corpses decompose. From a western perspective, this may seem like a morbid thing to do because we are largely cut off from the dying process. The reality of death is almost taboo. And yet, it is a natural part of the cycle of life. We all share the same fate. Every body is subject to old age and death.

Coming to terms with this realisation can actually serve us while we are alive. Rather than taking this life for granted, we cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It can wake us up to the preciousness and impermanence of life.

Take a moment to reflect on the fact that every physical body is subject to birth, ageing, sickness and death. Your body is changing moment to moment. It is not the same as yesterday and will not be the same tomorrow.

Next, picture your body growing old. You may even imagine your own death, the breath leaving the physical body. You will not be in this body forever. But you are here now. Feel your body. Sense its aliveness.

Being interrelated

“In this way, in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body internally …externally … both internally and externally. He abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body.”

– Buddha

We are all interconnected. Modern science now knows about mirror neurons and the way our nervous systems communicate beyond words. But the nature of our interconnection is not merely a propositional one. By practicing the first foundation of mindfulness, wake up to the experience of being interconnected. We become aware not only of our own body (internal) or of the bodies of others (external) but also of how we influence each other (both internally and externally).

We are invited to bring attention to our actions, interactions and relations in our families, communities, and beyond. In today’s world we can easily see how this interconnection extends globally, to everybody. This further strengthens the motivation for being mindful of the body.

Emptiness and love – the two wings of mindfulness

The two wings of mindfulness

Through mindfulness, we are cultivating an attitude of gratitude, wonder and love. This loving awareness is one of the wings mindfulness, which brings an uncontrived joy and deep happiness beyond sensory pleasure. It is what allows us to hold suffering and difficult circumstances with compassion.

The other wing is that of wisdom and insight – of seeing deeply into the nature of phenomena. Specifically, we discover the “three marks of existence”. The first is the truth of impermanence, which can be experienced directly in the body. We see how everything in a constant flux, always changing. When we experience the truth of impermanence, it becomes clear that we cannot rely on temporary pleasures for lasting happiness – this is the second mark of existence. Pleasure is fine, but it cannot be relied upon to bring long-term satisfaction. The third mark of existence is realised when we see the empty, self-less nature of phenomena arising and passing in consciousness. There is no “self” to be found in this river of experience that we call “my body”. This insight leads to an experience of boundlessness and freedom. This is the realisation of emptiness.

Emptiness and love, two sides of the same coin. In this way, mindfulness of the body leads to liberation through the cultivation of wisdom and compassion.

This concludes the first foundation of mindfulness. The path continues with the second foundation; Vedana.

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