2022-01-17 Satipaṭṭhāna (10) Observing the Body Internally and Externally
3:51PM Jan 17, 2022
I want to continue with some discussion of the refrain that goes along with each of the 13 exercises in this practice of mindfulness.
The instructions, for the breath exercise that begins the sutta, describe knowing the breath, feeling the whole body as we breathe, and relaxing the constructed body, relaxing the tense body in a deep way. We go through the exercise and it is cyclic. Not only is the breath seen as a cycle (in the metaphor of the turner), but also it is a cycle or spiral. We know the breath. We experience the body. We relax the body. That allows us to have a deeper or different connection to knowing the breath, which allows us to feel the body in a deeper way, which allows even deeper relaxation.
That spiral, that cycle goes around and around. It is not like a linear path – just do one, next and next, and that is it. As this deepens, the breath becomes more an object of continuous attention – continuous contact with the breath. The breath gets more subtle, more quiet. The mind gets stronger, less distracted, and becomes more stable in the present moment. We are not so likely to wander off into thoughts.
At that point, the Buddha introduces the idea of observing. Observation, as I said last week, to watch or observe is not something to do when the mind is easily distracted, easily caught up in things. But when the mind is stable and still, there is a qualitatively different way of settling back and observing what is happening. Without interfering, judging, or reacting to anything. Just to watch. Just to be there for it.
Then the refrain says: "Observing internally, the body in terms of a body. Observing externally, the body in respect to a body." This language of "the body in the body," "body in terms of a body" is language of not adding a lot to the experience of the body. Not judging it or comparing it to anything else. Letting each experience of the body just be itself. Without a past and a future – without identifying with it – without me and mine – without having ideas of why it is the way it is, or that it needs to be different – without expectation. Just watching. Just feeling the experience of the body on its own terms, as it is, free of our associations.
The instructions are to do this internally and externally. I would propose that we do not really know what this means. Some people have said that it means that we are watching our own body and watching other people's bodies. We watch ourselves breathe, and we watch other people breathe. I do not find that a very satisfying idea. It might have its value here and there sometimes, but as something really profound, it does not strike me as that interesting here.
How I like to interpret this internal and external is in two different ways. One is that we are aware of the sensations that arise in the body that are purely internal, and we are aware of those sensations in the body that come from external sense contact – the temperature of the room, the contact of your body against the chair, the seat, or the floor. There might be sound that comes in or smells that come in. Maybe you feel the contact of your clothes against your body. Any external stimuli that stimulate the body can be considered external.
At some point the mind gets quieter, still, and able to stably observe what is there. The emphasis on focusing on the breath becomes lighter, more easy. The awareness opens up and is now able to take in experiences of the body in choiceless, open awareness – both those coming from external stimuli, and those arising from the inside.
Getting quieter, more concentrated, and in a certain way, having less preference or directedness of the mind on the breath. The attention might still be centered on the breath, but it is not directed to the breath. Whereas in the beginning, we are directing the attention to the breathing, trying to keep it there and stay there. But as the mind stops wandering away and feels stable in the present moment, then we start opening and relaxing. We become aware of the field of experience: the internal experiences that come and go in the body, and external experiences – events or things that are touching our senses.
There is a movement towards very relaxed awareness – observing that is not work. In the beginning, it might be a bit like work. Maybe it is like the potter who is making a pot. At first there is a lot of work when there is just a hunk of clay. Then their work gets more and more refined, and they make a nice, thin bowl. At some point, the potter just sits back and observes it. At first they had been so focused on the pot – and the mind became very still, quiet, and not distracted. There is a feeling of being unified, concentrated, and present. It is nice to sit there, both to observe the pot, and to feel the sensations inside – the goodness of these feelings of unification, collectedness, and being present.
With time, we can observe, and the observation can be wide. Sometimes it is called 360 degree observation. Not that you are trying to be aware of 360 degrees, but it feels as if you could. The attention is so open that from wherever sensation comes, we know it for itself. We know it in the simplicity of the sensation.
This is particularly fascinating to do when there is discomfort or pain in the body. To free the discomfort, the pain, from the associations, beliefs, expectations, and fears around it. And just feel the discomfort as sensation arising and passing.
If there is a loud sound outside – free from all the associations with a sound, like it means a neighbor is making a noise again – we just hear it as sound in the simplest possible way. This observing attention, just there, feeling, sensing, being with it.
This is one meaning, one way I interpret this internal and external. The text says: "This is how one observes the body in terms of the body, internally. And observes the body in terms of the body, externally." Tomorrow I will talk about another way in which it is understood. Understanding some of the different ways in which this might be understood is a support for the deepening of the practice. We go on now to the rest of the refrain. Some people will call this refrain part, the "insight part," where the insight begins to occur in doing mindfulness practice.
We are developing stability of mind, connectedness and collectedness around with the breathing, and relaxed unification, so that we can begin seeing, have the insight into our experience. One way that begins is with open awareness that can feel the sensations internally and externally, in a very relaxed, centered, quiet way – allowing the sensations to come and go and show themselves more and more simply.
Tomorrow, as I said, I will offer a different way of understanding this. Together these two ways of describing, I think, will help as we go into the next insight – the core insight of insight meditation, which is also there in the refrain.
May you become a craftsperson in the hands-on craft of mindfulness, with hands-on contact, sensing, feeling your breathing. Continue now with your breathing. At some point, we will switch to other exercises in satipaṭṭhāna.
I would encourage you in these days, while we are in the breathing exercise, to make breathing a subject of attention, and study it throughout the day as much as you can. Maybe you will have reminders to remind you to check in with your breathing. How is your breathing right now? Maybe in some situations in life, you can actually settle in and feel the rhythm of breathing as you breathe. The more you can develop your attention to breathing, the more, I think, you will appreciate the rest of this as it unfolds.