2022-02-08 Satipaṭṭhāna (26) New Orientation to Body
3:51PM Feb 8, 2022
We are exploring the fourth exercise of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Perhaps some of you who were settling in to the previous sequence might feel like we are taking a little detour. Because now we are using parts of our mind that are not usually associated with mindfulness practice, such as imagination, reflection, and consideration of our body parts.
I think it is worthwhile to point out that the contemplation of body parts is a time-honored practice in the Buddhist tradition. For many of novice monastics, this is the first practice they are given. It is meant to set the stage and create a foundation for developing practice further. This practice can change the mental ecology in a certain way that may make it easier to settle the mind when we get back into focusing in the more classic way of doing mindfulness practice.
For one thing, it is used to cultivate concentration. Some people will memorize the list of 31 – or 32, if the brain is added. Then, once you have memorized it, just keep reciting it. Some people practice doing it both forward and backward – memorizing it starting with head hair and ending with urine. You go in that direction, and then you do it backwards – from urine to head hair. This requires focus and attention to stay on it and keep it at a regular pace, so that it is very hard to think about other things and wander off. To keep doing it over and over again, like a mantra.
Doing it over and over again requires alertness and a certain kind of effort. Over time, the distracted mind might quiet down and settle. We gather together and focus the mind. Then we can stop focusing on reciting the parts of the body, and now just focus on the practice itself – because we are stable or steady. So it is a way of building concentration.
Another thing it does is to shift our orientation towards our body. We may have an unhelpful orientation to the body, focusing on our body image. Some people are caught up in body image and spend a tremendous amount of time fixing their body image – making it just right. Body image is often involved with a lot of comparative thinking. This is painful. It causes a lot of suffering when we get involved in the world of comparative thinking – how I am compared to others.
Concentration is one way to shift out of that mode. But we can also begin developing different ways of understanding and perceiving the body. To see the body not as a unified whole, which sometimes lends itself to abstract concepts – but to look at the parts of the body individually so that each one stands out by itself.
The analogy given here for this specific way of seeing the body and parts is that of a bag. A bag of skin that contains a lot of rice and beans. Here is the description:
"Just as if a person with good eyesight were to look into a sack with an opening at each end filled with various kinds of seeds, such as fine rice, paddy rice, mung beans, garbanzo beans, sesame seeds, and husk rice. One would recognize: this is fine rice; this is paddy rice; these are mung beans; these are garbanzo beans; these are sesame seeds. So a practitioner reviews, visualizes, imagines this very body upward from the soles of the feet and downward from the hair of the head, covered with skin, and full of various kinds of unclean things. 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."
So one reviews oneself the same way. When I imagine this bag full of seeds and beans in different colors, I can see each one clearly for what it is, and can see the difference between them. They are not the same. They are all different and distinct. I imagine these seeds as being quite beautiful. Fresh, dried new seeds are so beautiful to see. I admire them. There can be a positive association with how we view the body, even though it is housed in the idea of seeing it as being unclean or impure. But we are shifting our orientation to the parts of the body, and feeling differently about them.
So to go through and memorize the 31 parts, and then to use it as a body scan, and simply go through it over and over again. It is not just like a chant that you do. But rather, it is a guided meditation you give yourself. You go steadily through the body, feeling the different parts, or imagining the different parts. This practice can certainly break up the hegemony of our old body image and the challenging ideas of the body we have been holding – and move us to new ways of experiencing the body.
This new way can be much more compassionate and freeing. It also begins awakening our capacity to feel the body, to be in the body. This is one of the great functions of this exercise – to start feeling more connected to our body, so that it becomes easier and easier to practice breathing with the whole body, sensing the whole body.
The more you can feel your whole body, then, as the meditation practice continues to develop, the body becomes a better receptor or repository for some of the good feelings that develop through meditation – relaxation, joy, delight – the pleasures that come as we settle into the practice. The practice can build on that foundation of well-being that has been spreading through the body. This makes it easier to stay grounded and present.
So these are some of the functions of this exercise. A last function is for people who have a lot of sexual lust – sexual imagination of partners and all the creative things that human bodies can do with each other. Sometimes the 32 parts of the body is given as a way to break out of the way of viewing bodies that is required for sexual lust.
Maybe you do not feel like this is very interesting or valuable to do. But for people who are trying to meditate – especially when doing a lot of meditation – and who find themselves repeatedly pulled into the world of sexual fantasy and sexual desires, this is one of the antidotes. This practice can be being less frustrating than continually working against one's sexual ideas, feelings, and desires. Remember that this practice is often given to the new monks and nuns. Young men and women who may have more orientation around this than older people sometimes do.
This is a practice of concentration – developing contact with the body, awakening the body, and finding more freedom through a new connection to the body. We will spend one more day on this tomorrow, and then we will move on to the next exercise. I hope that the contact we have here will give you some appreciation for this practice – and also some sense of how it can be beneficial and be a resource – a way of practicing at times when it would be useful.
So: 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.
May you enjoy your body today. May you be connected to your body, curious about your body, and more familiar with your body. Thank you.