The Buddha is the first great empiricist: he never asks us just to believe anything he says, or to accept statements as true based on reason or inference alone. His Satipatthana Sutta is primarily a sequence of exercises for experiencing what makes us up. With breathing and our bodily movements, we feel and watch — but we are not given any conclusions about them. This is partly because the Buddha wants us to win back our own eyes and see for ourselves, and partly because the aim of the exercises is not to generate and amass propositions but to get us closer to our own existence — to see clearly what is there. In these exercises he can be called a “radical empiricist,” by William James’ standard : To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. (Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912) However, the next few exercises on “contemplating the body in the body” are not simply empirical in that imagination is called upon to aid experience.
Most of us take great care with our appearance; if we think we don’t, it is probably because over the decades the care we take has become second nature and we forget how much mental energy has gone into the cultivation of our clothing styles and of good hygiene habits. The investment is more than practical: if someone criticizes or mocks our physical appearance, most of us will be mortified or upset — and if our looks are praised, we will immediately find ourselves liking the praiser. We are also emotionally invested in our physical health — hence the trepidation we feel on going to the doctor or dentist for a checkup, even though we know rationally that learning the truth is a good thing, and hence too our disproportionate demoralization on hearing even slightly bad news about our bodily condition. As we get older, the fear and dismay intensify, while at the same time we know that it is increasingly reasonable to expect a diagnosis of serious illness. In all these cases, we live as if we cherish an image of our bodily selves that requires corroboration from others and that cannot bear to be disturbed. This self image, which we secretly love and enjoy tending to, looks out at us from the bathroom mirror, and from a mirror in our minds. Even in the case of people who claim to hate their own bodies, their disproportionate emotional vehemence still testifies to attachment to a self-image, which torments because it is loved. The daily unconscious hold of the idealized body-image generally comes to the surface at the shock of discovering that others do not see us as we see ourselves. When such shocks occur, we tend to be upset for a short while before the wound seals up again. It is our unconsciously coddled and caressed body-image that makes us oblivious to the fact that others see us as older or younger than we feel ourselves to be, to our terrible posture and awkward walk, to our distinctive smells, to the little tones and gestures that annoy or offend those closest to us. Obviously, armored as we are with an image of our bodies that we cannot see, it is very difficult for us to attain any true mindfulness of body. How do we break through the armor?
The Buddha recommends an exercise in systematic disenchantment, in which we dismantle this body that we are so fond of, and consider its constituent parts. It cannot be a purely empirical exercise, because we do not have direct perception of most of our interior organs, but we can combine what we perceive and what we know about, to make the composite body an object of contemplation:
“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tars, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.'”
(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)
It is easy to see how this reflection would be characterized as a cultivation of “revulsion,” but revulsion plays only a small part in the whole process. Most people are not revulsed by hair or skin, and the idea of their own teeth, sweat, and bones creates no perturbation. But it is not the idea of them that we are being asked to contemplate. When we see our own blood, many of us have to repress panic; there is panic too if we slip and fall and find that there is a bone sticking out of our leg, or if we are in a public place and cannot control our bowels. Things like bile, pus, and phlegm are fine if they stay where they are supposed to, under cover, but their obtrusion into our attention is distressing. When there is some kind of disruption in our bodies, we always become miserable at what we now have to attend to — because we expect everything to keep its place, so that the designated surface remains a surface, and what is meant to be under it stays concealed. The shattering of place, of surface, reveals to us our own components removed from their normal background. This exercise pulls everything out and turns it into a list, where each item comes under a general heading but no relationship between items is specified. We become this list of unrelated items, most of which we do not like to examine directly; someone else’s liver in a science museum is acceptable, but not our own liver in its dark red, rubbery splendor.
Doing this contemplation just once is an interesting, provoking exercise, but if we were to undertake this disintegration regularly, how would it affect the self-image? When we dress in the morning and check ourselves in the mirror, what would we see? — the same old Me, or a collection of parts to be tended? If someone were to joke about our appearance, would we be bothered any more, knowing as we do that there is no one thing to “appear” and to defend from mockery? A nose is a nose, a heart is a heart, and all of us have the same fluids. In this contemplation, we have demystified our bodies — contemplating “the body in the body,” as opposed to body as amplification of ego.
I had an analogous experience in a firearms training class. Before the class, if I were to find a Colt 45 lying on a table, I would approach it hesitatingly with beating heart, and pick it up with fear; during the class, I learned how to check to see if it was loaded, how to render it harmless, how it works, and how to take it apart; after the class, I could pick up any gun calmly as just another piece of machinery that could be harmful in ignorant hands. It is ignorance that fuels the mystique. The Buddha has given us a way to pick up the body, unload it, and dismantle it: we have one good strategy for dispelling the mystique.
He goes further, and asks us to learn to view our bodies dispassionately, with no more emotion than we would feel in opening a bag of rice: nothing here to love or hate.
“Just as if, O bhikkhus, there were a bag having two openings, full of grain differing in kind, namely, hill-paddy, paddy, green-gram, cow-pea, sesamum, rice; and a man with seeing eyes, having loosened it, should reflect thinking thus: ‘This is hill paddy; this is paddy, this is green-gram; this is cow-pea; this is sesamum; this is rice.’ In the same way, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed in by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of the stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tears, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.'”
The Buddha reinforces the lesson by following it up with another, slightly more abstract, disintegrative exercise. In this one we are asked to envision the body as broken down into its fundamental functions and characteristics, feeling no more about it than if we were to see all these “modes” laid out in front of us like meat at a butcher’s stall:
“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body according as it is placed or disposed, by way of the modes of materiality, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body the mode of solidity, the mode of cohesion, the mode of caloricity, and the mode of oscillation.'”
“O bhikkhus, in whatever manner, a clever cow-butcher or a cow-butcher’s apprentice, having slaughtered a cow and divided it by way of portions, should be sitting at the junction of a four-cross-road; in the same manner, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body, according as it is placed or disposed, by way of the modes of materiality, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body the mode of solidity, the mode of cohesion, the mode of caloricity, and the mode of oscillation.'”
He ends these sections with the usual exhortations to take a more rounded reflection of these aspects of the body, and also not to get carried away — contemplating only to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, no more and no less. This is an important caution, because the reader coming to this for the first time can easily mistake it for a reductive view of life — as indeed many Buddhists do, who assert to us with contempt that “the body is nothing but a sack full of fluids, etc.” You will hear this from Hindu holy men too. Yet the Buddha in these passages is neither giving us a view of life nor trying to express the essence of a body: he is offering a simple exercise, which anyone can do, that enables us to “contemplate the body in the body,” as distinct from its complex mystique.
In other suttas deliberate disenchantment is presented as a useful strategy to combat potential attachments. For example, when you feel yourself about to fall into an intense and dangerous infatuation with a person you are in two minds about, apply the meditation to your new object of attachment; at the same time, apply it to yourself, in case you were hoping that this person would find you extraordinarily attractive and special. The exercise is meant to get you to see “the other side” of things, the back side, and not the side that is a colorful display of ego to ego. We break down the human being into a list of all its parts, so that we are less likely to be magnetized by any one aspect. In applying the same meditation to someone you fear — for example, the intimidating boss or neighbor — the mystique evaporates on seeing the other body as exactly the same as yours in its physical constitution. On the level of body, there is nothing remarkable to love or to loathe.
An exercise like this gains power if, through frequent repetition, it becomes habitual — so that we do it naturally, in the moment, and not just retrospectively as an antivenin to attachments that have already arisen. Thus, when invited to a party, we are already lucid about our own physical limitations and are no longer susceptible to the erotic frisson of meeting new bodies; or, when in middle age we go for a medical checkup and are not in the least worried about nasty new discoveries but, on the contrary, scientifically interested in seeing the current state of our body for what it really is; or, when facing the imminent failure of some crucial body part, we are already content with the fact that the body is an agglomeration of parts that will not hold together forever. This is sanity with respect to the body. The alternative is a body mystified by ego and entangled in the ego’s crazy dramas.
If we succeed in separating the body from the realms of emotion and thought, and no longer see the body as the medium for expressing “who we are,” we will achieve a life of greater equanimity and clarity — but at what cost? For one thing, in the eradication of personal vanity and of attachment to corporeal beauty, we will have doused the fires of eros — but is that a madness we would want to live without?
Montaigne recounts the story of two ancient madmen who are cured of their ailments:
This man [Lycas], though otherwise of very regular conduct, living quietly and peacefully in his family, failing in no part of his duty toward his own and toward strangers, preserving himself very well from harm, by some alteration of his senses had stamped in his imagination this hallucination: he thought he was perpetually at the amphitheaters watching entertainments, spectacles, and the finest comedies in the world. After being cured of this peccant humor by the doctors, he nearly sued them to make them restore him to the pleasures of these fancies.
Alas, you have not saved me, friends, quoth he,
But murdered me, my pleasure snatched away,
And that delusion that made life so gay. (Horace)
His delusion was like that of Thrasylaus, son of Pythodorus, who tricked himself into believing that all the ships that put out of the port of Piraeus and came in there were working only in his service; he rejoiced in the good fortune of their voyages and welcomed them with joy. When his brother Crito had had him restored to his better senses, he regretted that state of mind in which he had lived full of joy and free from all trouble. It is what this old Greek verse says, that there is great advantage in not being so wise,
In heeding nothing lies the sweetest life. (Sophocles)
And Ecclesiastes: “In much wisdom is much grief; and he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.”
(“Apology for Raymond Sebond,” The Complete Works, tr.Frame, 2003, p.444)
In such cases the cure may be worse than the disease, and the victims of medicine are much better off mad — for nothing now can make commensurable the “intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.” (Simon Leys, “The Imitation of our Lord Don Quixote,” NYRB, June 11, 1998) This is why the various exercises for contemplating the body in the body should not be taken as an isolated or total practice — as some practitioners do, who contemplate breathing for eight hours a day over decades. The contemplation of the body in the body must be balanced with focused meditations on feelings and mental objects, so that we may also see clearly what the love of enchantment is, and what joy and grief really are. But feelings and thoughts are tricky, elusive, complicated; we needed to begin our practice with relatively simple objects of contemplation, such as breathing — and once we have trained our ability and stamina in sustained observation, we can move on to subtler contemplations.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: