[Summary: meditators are taught to watch the breathing – this comes from the teaching on ‘mindfulness of body’ which covers more than just breathing. A look at the variations on this method]
It is a common image these days of meditators walking slowly back and forth. We call it ‘mindfulness of body’, a practice continually used in Buddhism. As a tool it has the keenly psychodynamic quality of tying the mind to present moment awareness. If you want to learn about the body and mind – you have to observe it.
Although mindfulness of body (kaya nusati) appears at many points and in many texts the most famous sutta from which this slow walking practise is devolved is the ‘Foundations of Mindfulness‘ sutta. Here, six kinds of implementation of mindfulness of body are outlined, only two of which incorporate walking meditation directly:
- Mindfulness of breathing
- The Four Postures – sitting, standing, walking, lying down
- Awareness of movement – flexing limbs, ectending limbs, wearing robes, carrying the bowl, eating, drinking etc… for all these movements one is continually aware. This is the clause from which walking meditation is devolved.
- Foulness of the 32 bodily parts – hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, blood pus, flesh, sinews …
- Four Elements – reflection on the body as comprising the earth, water, fire and air elements
- Nine Kinds of Charnel Ground Reflections – reflection of the body in varying stages of decomposition.
For each of these there is the phrase:
In this way he abides contemplating the body as body internally, externally or both. He contemplates the body in its arising factors, or vanishing factors, or both.
Then finally there is an interesting clause at the end of this stanza:
Or else mindfulness that ‘there is body’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness.
The section is rounded off with the description:
And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.
Many of these clauses are designed to reduce lust and craving centred around the body. The perception is generated and maintained until it becomes a habit of the mind, a perception that can be called upon at any time to eliminate lust and craving that have arisen in the mind. An interesting practise, and a hard sell in this era when people go to such extremes to generate and enjoy lust and craving. Daily, millions, if not billions, of people receive email spam selling Viagra – because most everyone is more interested in enjoying lust and craving than letting it go.
Mindfulness of Body then, has the aspect of anchoring the mind and awareness in the present moment. It has the aspect of reducing lust and craving centred on the body – including carnal lust, or greed for food. And it has the aspect of insight, into the nature of the body and its relationship to the mind.
Mostly meditators these days are taught mindfulness of body by using the breathing, and by mindfulness of movement, such as walking. The reflection on the four elements is somewhat more unusual and does not seem to mean much to us in this era. Is it not relevant to our situation? Is it something that had meaning to ancient India in a way we are familiar of? Is it safe or right to ignore aspects of a sutta, while practising other aspects to a highly developed level?
In the next blog, David Holmes looks at some of the ways reflection on the four elements was used in practice.