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Mindfulness (3): Finding Our Bodies

If we are not breathing, we are dead — a fact so obvious as to be hardly worth saying. But because it is true, the observation of breathing can be the primary discipline in the cultivation of attentiveness: it is available to us at no cost, and can be experienced at any time and place with our whole bodies. But our bodies are also susceptible to observation anywhere, anytime. At every moment we find ourselves in some physical position; even our motions of transition between different positions are themselves positions, although continuous and less easily defined. The second exercise in the Satipatthana Sutta is therefore the turning of attention to bodily positions and movements, called the iriyapatha or “ways of movement.” You will see this word translated often as “postures” or “deportments,” but the former has connotations of stasis and Yoga asanas, and the latter is an archaic term that can also include “bearing.” The classical reference points for the iriyapatha are standing, sitting, lying down, and walking:

“And further, O bhikkhus, when he is going, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I am going’; when he is standing, he understands: ‘I am standing’; when he is sitting, he understands: ‘I am sitting’; when he is lying down, he understands: ‘I am lying down’; or just as his body is disposed so he understands it.” (tr.Soma Thera, 1998)

The last clause of this encompasses any positioning of the body: sprawling, leaning, running, jumping, swimming — the entire astonishing spectrum of motions and positions that our bodies undergo in the course of the day. In this long sentence the verb “understands” occurs five times — but what exactly can the Buddha mean by it?

On first reading, it appears that we are being asked to be aware of what our bodies are doing and to register the awareness with a simple thought. This itself is instructive, because we are capable of passing through the day mostly unconscious of the lay of our bodies, since we are usually focused on something else; our bodies exist just below the conscious threshold, as vehicles for our mental preoccupations. To divide our bodily dispositions into the four categories of standing, sitting, lying down, and walking is clearly too crude to express much of what we do — for instance, I know that I sit in at least eight different ways, and have several rhythms for walking, most of which have no name. If the practice is to attach a label to each of my body positions and then move on to the next one, it will be nothing more than a practice of replacing experiences with words and then skating over a thin surface of words — which might be attractive to a person eager to transcend physical experience by attenuating its intensity. Not only does this feel like an unsatisfying strategy of avoidance, but it goes against the mandate for direct experience that we were given in the exercise of mindful breathing.

What might it be to “understand” standing, for example? In the Chinese art of Qigong there is a set of meditative exercises consisting wholly of standing in various positions. The simplest possible version of this is just to stand naturally, feet shoulder width apart, hands hanging by your side, without moving, breathing in a relaxed way.

If you have never done this, you will find that simply standing still for fifteen minutes is very difficult; after about three minutes, for no special reason, you will be fighting the urge to shift. Focusing on breathing then becomes a helpful distraction that temporarily calms the agitation; counting breaths gives us something productive to “do” and might even provide us with a “goal.” Such attempts at diversion remove us from the boredom of the raw experience, but sooner or later we become bored with breathing or counting and have to return to our bodies. At that point we might experience strain: tension in back and shoulders from habitual poor posture, achy knees and feet, fatigue, and resistance to standing still. Nothing is more strenuous than not moving. If we keep standing through our discomfort, and try to pay attention to the physical sensations in joints and muscles, we also notice how they change over time and never stay the same. They are also all interconnected through the whole body, and tension in the face might be related to stiffness in the feet and calves. Standing for an hour makes us extremely aware of every inch of body; indeed, it is a very difficult feat to accomplish if the anatomy is not perfectly aligned and both body and mind as relaxed as possible. At first, a cultivation of this kind is quite difficult, but only because we are not used to deliberate engagement with the body. Dancers, actors, musicians, martial artists, and gymnasts are habituated to it, and develop formidable strength and stamina through detailed, methodical movement. The rest of us, preoccupied with activities that take us away from our bodies, have to struggle more, but with practice it becomes easier. If we begin to “understand” standing, we will naturally start to perceive all our other movements more lucidly and vividly. No two steps will be alike, each pushup will be new, and each moment incomparable.

One practical effect of bringing such focused attention to our bodies is greater delight and satisfaction in living, as we learn to notice minute transitional motions, and gain in balance, stability, and proprioception. For physical health it is essential, because if we are wholly unaware and outside of our own bodies we will injure ourselves no matter what we are doing, especially sitting. Yet much of our environment is constructed so that we can ignore our bodies: office chairs shaped in such a way that our backs automatically take care of ourselves, shoes with soles so padded that we don’t have to feel the hard ground, weightlifting machines on which we only have to sit and push without engaging most of the body. A world constructed like this makes it easy for us to lose ourselves in our own entertaining cloud-pictures.

The section ends with the same refrain that ended the meditation on breathing:

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things, in the body. Or indeed his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.” Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”

Which of us has not experienced the shock, in seeing video of ourselves standing or walking, of finding that what we do is utterly different from what we had imagined ourselves doing? We think that our posture has improved, and that we have been working hard to feel a vertical and well-held backbone, but according to the incontrovertible evidence of film, there we are with the same old unappealing and insalubrious slouch. On receiving this shock, we may have extra incentive to bridge the chasm between our internal and external apprehensions of ourselves. But again, the text warns us against over-engaging and becoming compulsive about contemplation: we do it to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance.

The Satipatthana then passes immediately into a short meditation that gives a different articulation of embodied awareness:

“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, in going forwards (and) in going backwards, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in looking straight on (and) in looking away from the front, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in wearing the shoulder-cloak, the (other two) robes (and) the bowl, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in regard to what is eaten, drunk, chewed and savored, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in defecating and in urinating, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in walking, in standing (in a place), in sitting (in some position), in sleeping, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, is a person practicing clear comprehension.”

What is “clear comprehension”? — or, in another translation, “full awareness”? We seem to have expanded from “contemplating the body in the body” to contemplating it in relation to everything around it, both spatially and causally. Thus, for example, in defecating, we have trained to become acutely aware of the bodily positioning — which includes the precise adjustments of seating, in coordination with the delicate interior pressures that give rise to bowel movement and that are vary sometimes hugely from day to day, expressing fluctuations in our entire physical health. But this is only partial mindfulness: now we also have to remember the full context of our action — the need to maintain detailed cleanliness of the space, the careful placement of paper, soap and towel for the next person, the conserving of water in view of where its source and scarcity, the knowledge of where the waste is going, scrupulousness in the selection of toilet paper and of other requisites for the sake of doing least harm to the world and to other people. Merely to pay attention to the body and give no thought to its position in the web of relations and consequences would not be truly mindful, but rather a kind of self-absorption that mimics mindfulness. With regard to mindfulness in the toilet, we have all seen that it can take a decade or more for a young human being to master most of the details, but even as rational adults most people live as if flushing their poop down the white ceramic hole somehow magically makes it all disappear or become someone else’s problem. It takes sustained and persistent effort to achieve “clear comprehension” of our embodied activity, but such effort is what it takes to get closer to our own existence and live it, not just float vaguely above it.

However, in my thinking about breathing and bodily activity, have I succumbed to he seduction of giving meditation some kind of goal or reward? — health, happiness, the discovery of truth, a richer life…In finding that an increased sensitivity to what is happening leads to a more interesting and vivid relationship to my own physical existence, have I sublimated the discomfort of meditation into a species of excited fascination? I am very aware that I have understated the acute discomfort of meditation, which is felt within the first few minutes of attempted practice: we hit a wall that we push against with all our might, and that wall is boredom. The contemplating of breathing and of bodily movement is profoundly boring; when undertaken wholeheartedly, it does not move us to any higher realm but remains with itself. Ultimately, breathing is breathing, defecating defecating, and that is all — no more and no less. This does not change over years of practice, and no matter how many moments of significant discovery and delight I have experienced, I always return eventually to “Enough. I can’t do it any more today,” or my mind quietly wanders off by itself because it cannot bear the tedium. We have to bring it gently back to its yawning abyss of ennui and let it dwell there, because — beyond all the radiant pleasures and understandings — the real work of mindful meditation is to take us out of our dreams and face ourselves for once.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: