In this journey through the 13 exercises of the Buddha's discourse on the Foundations for Awareness / for Mindfulness, we have come now to the fourth exercise. This is mindfulness or a reflection on parts of the body.
All along, we have been doing mindfulness of the body – developing awareness that is embodied. We are mindful of ourselves in postures and mindful of us ourselves in specific activities we do. Now the focus is on bringing more specificity to mindfulness of the body by becoming aware, mindful, or focused on 31 different parts of the body.
The verb that is used for what we do in this activity is a rich word – with connotations that can mean to visualize, or to see in the mind's eye. It could also mean to review or reflect on something. This has a double meaning in English as well. The word "view" means to look, and "reflect" also has an association with seeing. We can see our reflection in the water or in a mirror.
Exactly how the mind is engaged in considering this depends on the person who does it. Some people have a strong ability to visualize and some do not. Some people have a strong ability to conceptualize what is being discussed without actually seeing it.
There have been times where I have done visualization practices and never felt I was particularly good at being able to visualize. It made a huge difference for me when I started 'imagining' that I was visualizing. Visualizing is itself a use of the imagination. But somehow when I imagined I was doing it, then I was able to kind of get into the event – get into the ideas that were being held in imagination.
For me, it was also a much lighter touch in the mind, because when I visualized I found myself working too much. But when I was imagining myself visualizing, there was no work in just imagining it. It was just more of an effortless place for me.
Exactly how the words reflect, review, imagine, and visualize should be interpreted is very individual. You are allowed to do that, because this practice is about what supports 'you' to develop clarity, stability, insight, and a certain freedom. We are seeing that the Satipaṭṭhāna uses a variety of different mental capacities all for the same purpose of developing lucid awareness. As we do this, we start learning these different capacities – and recognizing in which situation different capacities are useful.
Let us review some of the verbs that have been talked about so far. One is to know – to know we are breathing. Another is to experience – to feel the whole body. Then there is to relax or calm the bodily constructions. There is to know the different postures we are in. There is to have full awareness or full comprehension while we are doing activities. We have talked about in the refrain, the capacity to observe – to abide and observe. Now we are using a different mental capacity – a reflection on or visualization of something. Different people have different strengths and different capacities, but they are all about engaging the mind.
Now the 32 parts of the body – actually the text has 31. The later Buddhist traditions added the brain to the list and so there are 32. But in the early texts, it is only 31. This is a cherished practice for new monastics – at least cherished by some. Often in Thailand – I do not know about other countries – when a person is ordained as a monastic, this is the first practice they are given: to cultivate the practice on the 32 parts of the body.
This has a variety of different functions. One is that you are supposed to memorize the list, and be able to recite it with ease. There is something about the act of memorizing and then reciting things from memory that engages the mind in a very nice way – or hopefully in a nice way. There is something about the heightened attention that is needed to memorize something. This heightened presence begins to train or support the mind to have a heightened attention for breathing – for present moment experience.
There is an overlap between the kind of focus present moment attention needs for memorization, and the kind of focused attention we need to practice mindfulness in the present moment. By memorizing, we are learning something about a slightly activated or energized mind that does not have to be tense or stressed. It shows us something about how to be present that is not too lackadaisical, complacent, or lazy. There is clarity, intentness. When you memorize, there is intentness in what you are doing.
In memorizing the list – and for monastics there is a lot of memorization, especially as a new monastic. It is not just to memorize the texts so you can chant them, but it is also training the mind, building up the strength of the mind. The heightened capacity for lucid awareness supports mindfulness practice.
The 31 parts of the body engages the mind in a way that helps it get concentrated, and concentration is a very important part of mindfulness practice. Here, we started with mindfulness of the body, and now we are introducing something that for many people, supports them getting more concentrated. To take the 31 parts of the body meditation seriously to develop concentration, so that when we continue with the Satipaṭṭhāna, we are supported by this concentration.
The second thing that meditation on the 31 parts of the body does is to give us a different orientation for how to experience our body then what we commonly, unconsciously, or subconsciously carry around in our mind. Because of our culture, advertisements, popular society, family experiences, we often have a self-image of our body which is biased or partial. It is not the full picture of what goes on.
Not a few people have negative body self-images. They are troubled by their body, or they are overly focused on their body. Or they have positive views of their body. They are focused on making themselves beautiful and just right. Focusing on the body is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country – maybe around the world. This focus on the body causes a lot of suffering and stress – and this supports attachment, clinging, grasping, fears, or aversions. All kinds of things happen around how we view the body.
This practice now is breaking through that to offer a separate way of experiencing the body that is a little more concentrated. It has a different orientation or perspective on the body, which breaks up the solidity or authority of these old body images we are burdened with, and that get in the way of the mind settling deeply into an alternative way of being in the body – from the inside out.
The third aspect of this meditation on the 31 parts of the body is that they are said to be unclean. These parts of the body are unpure. The theory is that if we focus on the body in this way, it breaks down not just the body image we have, but our excessive attachment to the body. For people who are very attached to the body, seeing in it this way as unclean can break the attachment.
A lot of people in the West are very resistant to the idea of seeing the body as impure or unclean. And many who have seen the inside of a body say it seems quite beautiful. But imagine a person you cherish and love – imagine you find their hair, their pubic hair in your food, or their snot. You find their skin sloughed off in the stew they made or their fingernails are in the food.
I think for many people, the sense of body parts appearing in their stew is indeed repulsive. It is unclean. It is not quite right. You do not want to eat it, even though it is beautiful when it is on the other person. Something does not seem right about eating it if it is in the stew.
There is a perspective here that is not unhealthy – and which, if we are attached to the body, can help free us. It is using the imagination, if it is needed for this purpose.
The 31 parts of the body – I will give the list and then I will post it for you. You can copy and paste it if you want. I would encourage some of you to memorize the list. See if you can learn about the heightened attention that comes from memorization and is useful for mindfulness.
So: "In this body there is head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, oil, saliva, snot, fluid of the joints, and urine."
That is the list. So this is the topic for the next two, maybe three days. We will practice with it and explore it. Hopefully, rather than this being a distraction from mindfulness, you begin to appreciate the wealth, richness, and range of how the mind is engaged – and how this can support the direction of the mind becoming lucidly aware and present. The movement towards freedom.
For those of you who are inclined, memorize it. This kind of memorization supports concentration and also supports the practice of this exercise. So, thank you.