Knowing Our Own Minds: Mindfulness (7)

For a philosophy that systematically raises doubts about the reality of the individual soul, it is surprising that so much Buddhist literature consists of accounts of meetings between a teacher and a student. The Pali Nikayas are filled with thousands of pages of conversations between the Buddha and various disciples, kings, or Brahmin visitors; and the classical Zen koan is an encounter of two people, in which one of them suddenly “sees” or doesn’t see. We, the readers of these, are encountering the encounter, meeting the meeting of minds.

When two minds “meet,” the first thing that happens before anything is said is that one has to get the measure of the other: who am I dealing with, what kind of person, what kind of intelligence? This also applies to competitive tournaments — chess, fencing, wrestling, pingpong — where you find yourself facing someone you have never met before: you don’t have much time to figure out who you are dealing with and how you are going to beat him. The gauging of the other mind has to happen very quickly, and it demands powers of accurate intuition. Even if you are acquainted with the other person, you still don’t know how they are today; something big might have happened since yesterday. This is of course true with every interaction.  In conversations, if neither interlocutor is good at guessing the state of the other person’s mind, the two of them are likely to talk at cross-purposes and fail to “meet” in any fruitful way. This is most true of teaching situations. A good teacher has to have a developed intuition for “where” her student is, and this “where” is not determined only by tests that give numerical scores for knowledge and skills. The more important conditions for learning have to do with disposition, attitude, and character: how distracted or agitated is the student today, is there anything else weighing on his mind, can he concentrate fully or think clearly, did he get enough sleep, is he hungry, is he angry, is he having girlfriend problems or serious issues in his home life, has he developed sufficient strength of character to pull himself together for today’s lesson, and so on? Such issues are significant conditions for learning or not learning, and if the teacher ignores them or has no capacity to notice them, very little learning will occur. Unfortunately, many educational systems today reduce success or failure to quantifiable results, and are completely ignorant of the more mportant, unquantifiable dimensions of the teacher’s art.

A skillful teacher therefore has to be minutely aware of the students’ “state of mind,” for want of a better phrase. In the Pali Discourses of the Buddha, my phrase “state of mind” translates citta, which is also rendered in different translations as “mind” or “consciousness.” Just as teaching requires mindfulness of citta, so does self-cultivation — which is the primary form of learning for adults, who should be mature enough to steer themselves. But we can only steer ourselves if we know “where” we are. Thus, an adult who decides to develop the characteristics of warrior nobility cannot simply decide to have integrity, courage, justice, wisdom, and invincible fighting skills. Each one of these is developed through baby steps, and before we embark on a program of training we first have to know where to begin and exactly how far away we are from our goals. For the same reasons, once we have begun, we need to be able to evaluate where we are at every step.

This is why the third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta is contemplating consciousness [citta] in consciousness. 

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?

In martial arts training, lapses in attention and malfunctions in thinking are manifested physically, making it easy for the opponent or the sensei to administer a sharp corrective. In meditation, we are mostly on our own, and when we are attempting to find our way through the confusion of our own thoughts and emotions — many of which are only dimly glimpsed — we need to be able to take our own measure. The Buddha, in the formulaic style favored by his Pali editors, gives us a checklist of things to examine, which I take to be not prescriptive but suggestive, leaving us free to modify it appropriately for our own needs:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the state of consciousness become great, as the state become great; the state of consciousness not become great, as the state not become great; the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher; the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher; the quieted state of consciousness, as the quieted state; the state of consciousness not quieted, as the state not quieted; the freed state of consciousness as freed; and the unfreed state of consciousness, as unfreed.”

These are the kinds of consideration undertaken by any good teacher regarding her students — because there is no point giving them assignments that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared to do. What is particularly moving in texts like the Satipatthana is that we are expected to be able to do this ourselves. Indeed, no one else can do it for us.  At almost every stage of the training, the student is asked to self-reflect and to review. If there is the will to progress, the capacity to evaluate and investigate can always be refined. Because our “state of mind” determines what we are capable of doing at any given time, we need to be aware, as we practice, of our current state of mind and how it might be changing. As with bodily phenomena and feelings, we notice that different states arise and then subside; they never stay the same, and they can be affected through training. It is a little bit like sailing a boat on a vast, dark ocean: we cannot necessarily change the ocean at any given time, but we can become minutely aware of winds and waters, and learn to navigate with skill to our destination.

This ideal is very difficult to achieve, because the citta are subtler, more pervasive objects of contemplation that either body or feelings. If you remember a time when you spent hours trying to reason with someone consumed with anger, you will also remember feeling frustrated and hopeless because your interlocutor was so submerged in anger that there was no way he could hear anything else: calm reasoning was futile. The problem with citta is that we identify with our mind-states, we believe them, we see through them. This is why some translators render citta as “consciousness”: our citta is nothing less than how we see things at any moment, and consciousness is always manifest in the form of some citta. We never find pure consciousness without citta, just as we never find it without body or without feelings. Thus, your angry interlocutor had consciousness with anger, and you had a dismayed state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, to use the Buddha’s formula. At the time of your argument, you couldn’t realize that your angry  interlocutor was equally frustrated with your inability to see the full justice of his fury. Citta is of the nature of passion, in that we are largely passive to it — and when we are deep in it, it is very hard to see it objectively. We tend to see it as ourselves. This is why when we are challenged in our citta, we tend to get angry or defensive — because it is we who are being attacked. To be mindful of our own citta, as a skilled teacher is mindful of the citta of her student, is to have attained a very high order of mindfulness. At this point the philosophical dualist would still say, Is the consciousness of citta the same kind of thing as citta, or is it not necessarily transcendent to it? The Buddha would reply, Can you point to it independently of the citta it is conscious of? The observing consciousness is still citta, still conditioned — and it will change, conditioned by its next set of determinants.

The contemplation of citta reaches very deeply into the question of who we are. Now, when we get the Buddha’s reflective refrain — which by this time we know by heart — we hear some new nsights:

“Thus he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness externally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in consciousness. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Consciousness exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

States of mind have originations and dissolutions. Like corporeal sensations and the vedanas, nothing stays still from one moment to another; only the practice of careful, focused contemplation will teach us to be sensitive to even the minutest flickerings of change. Consciousness exists: this is how it is, there is no other way for consciousness to be, no place to go that is permanent. The Buddha’s matter-of-fact approach is especially valuable in this kind of meditation, for we are prone to take its objects personally and become upset and resistant. For example, if we find in ourselves a citta of laziness and if we happen to be the kind of person who flees laziness at all cost, our immediate reaction will tend to be disgust with ourselves and the desire to change — which of course is another citta, so we would be automatically flying from one state to another. The Buddha tells us just to contemplate, not to struggle; let it be, find it interesting, and let it pass — because it will pass. We contemplate not for the sake of fixing ourselves or to make ourselves perfect, but to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance. Knowing that the citta are as fleeting and insubstantial as bodily motions and feelings — insubstantial in the sense that there is no unchanging substance underlying them to give them fixity and soliditythe bhikkhu does not cling to them as still points in a turning world.

One practical benefit to this way of engaging with states of mind is that in accepting the various states as they our in our own beings, we become generally more relaxed and understanding when they manifest themselves in other people: the perceived stupidity and obstinacy of the other party is no more identified with them as our wisdom and righteousness are identified with us. Thus the advanced practitioner lives, contemplating citta in citta, internally and externally.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:


Learning from Feelings: Mindfulness (6)

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings…

Are you the same as your body? After a period of time cultivating focused awareness of breathing, postures, movements, and decay, it is tempting to conclude that we are not the same as our bodies — and that the witnessing consciousness stands above and outside of the ceaseless flux of embodied life. The contemplations of the body in the body are perfectly compatible with philosophies that view the essential self as bodiless — as the impersonal intellect, or as the individual soul, or as Spirit opposed to Matter, or as the universal Self or Atman that forms the eternal substratum to the changing world. For all such philosophies, the contemplation of the body in the body would be a highly effective way to wean us from identifying with the body and instead teach us to identify with the unchanging part of ourselves. But are we only twofold — an eternal something inhabiting a changing, material body? Certainly the eternal something cannot be found apart from body, but is the part of us that is not body simply an eternal soul, or are there aspects and gradations to it? In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha goes from body to feelings:

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating feeling in feelings? (Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Before going on, I should point put that the English word feelings misses the mark. The word translated is vedana, which is not “feelings” as in “emotions.” The latter tends to come in a complex package that is made up of both affect and thought. In fact, all emotions come from thought on some level and cannot be separated from it — for instance, anger is usually an emotion that issues from some perception of injustice, and love is inextricably tied to the good and the beautiful. When we hate someone, it is because we think they are bad; and when we despise or admire someone, our feelings flow from conscious evaluation. With the emotions, we cannot contemplate feelings in feelings, stripped away from other aspects of mental life.

The Buddha — in his penetrating observation of everything that goes on inside a person — noticed that there is one level in our experience that usually goes unnoticed and undiscussed. We have six sense faculties that are made to sense six kinds of things. (For Buddhists as for Hindus, the sixth sense is the mind, which is both the internal sense organ and also the sense that brings together the perceptions of the other senses, as when we realize that the orange object sensed by our eyes, the sweet but tart object, sensed by our taste, and the spherical object sensed by our touch, are in fact aspects of one thing, namely an orange.) When we sense something, there is a perception, but there is always simultaneously a feeling tone to that perception. To take an analogy: a cook makes a dish for the king, gives it a taste-test, and finds it acceptable; the king tastes it and also enjoys it. Both cook and king might have the same taste-perception of the dish, but their reactions on tasting are what the Buddha is calling vedana or “feelings.” Clearly, the vedana and the taste-perception are not separable, but they are distinct. If the cook makes the identical dish every day, after a week the king might have the same taste-perception of this dish, but the feeling may have turned to dislike. Thus, while feeling and perception come together, the specific feeling is not intrinsic to the perception. Another strange fact regarding vedana is that with any given sense perception we usually cannot help feeling what we feel, and what we feel can often surprise us.

The observation that there is such a dimension to experience as vedana is both original and profoundly important in the Buddha’s path out of suffering. Feelings lead to craving, and craving leads to attachment — and once we are attached, we are committed to suffering. To reiterate an example from a previous essay: I am handed a bowl of ice-cream of a flavor new to me, I taste it (sense perception), I like it (feeling), I want more (craving), I want a second bowl (more craving), and I need to find out where I can buy it so that it is either always in my fridge or permanently available to me (attachment). In attachment we attempt to guarantee the object for ourselves, and the money we pay for the ice-cream goes towards securing the future production of it as well as the means of delivery — in other words, we make the world that guarantees us this ice-cream. Once we get to this point we are committed, shackled, and any disturbance of this security makes us unhappy. The same sequence of feeling-craving-attachment can be experienced in all our commitments: reading, career, friendship, romance, religions, philosophies. I experienced this, I liked it, I wanted more, I tried to secure it. In the suttas on craving, the Buddha asks us to notice that the chain starts with the link from feeling to craving, but that craving is not intrinsic to feeling: it is possible to be perfectly content with one taste of ice-cream, and indeed to enjoy it more that way. But the problem is that usually tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment all seem to happen simultaneously, “naturally,” in one thought. I can’t help liking this new ice-cream, but liking it then “naturally” seems to mean that I must have it always. In mindfulness meditation, we slow down the apparently natural process and notice that tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment are each discrete. We can’t stop ourselves from perceiving, and we can’t stop the immediate feeling-reaction to the perception, but we can see that there is a chasm between feeling and craving.

This is why the contemplation of feelings in feeling is so important: if we are to work on craving and attachment, we have to be attentive to the level of vedana all the time. The actual exercise of contemplating feelings in feeling in the Satipatthana is relatively short, less than a page, but it is an extremely rich and demanding exercise. The exercises on body are much more extensive and varied, because they are training-wheels, as it were. Mindfulness of breathing and movements, while good practices in themselves, also enable us to cultivate powers of observation, sensitivity, and stamina with relatively obvious objects — whereas feelings and thoughts are more volatile and elusive. If you can’t do the exercise on breathing, the one on feelings will be way out of your reach. In what follows, the Buddha works with only three categories of vedana — pleasant, unpleasant, and not-sure — and with two levels of them, to do with gross physical sensation and mental or imaginative sensation:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu when experiencing a pleasant feeling, understands: ‘I experience a pleasant feeling’; when experiencing a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant worldly feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.’

At first these categories seem too simple to be true, as if we were labeling each vedana with a crude emoticon. But the Buddha’s project here is to simplify, to pare the vedanas down to the barest and most undeniable characteristic of like, don’t like, and not sure. More sophisticated  emotional overtones, such as “fascinating” and “sad,” are harder to nail down because they have so many shadings and jagged edges, and because they change so quickly and, indeed, wobble. The category of neither-pleasant-nor-painful is particularly interesting, because often it exists because of the other two: if you tend to like and dislike passionately, the extremes will create a neutral middle-ground that we mostly experience as “uninteresting” or “boring.” The phenomenon of a “boring life” is the artifact of an excessive attachment to what we “like” and “dislike,” an attachment that somehow sprang from the initial feelings of liking and disliking. When we pay attention to those feelings as they arise, watch them in their courses, and notice that they do actually diminish, we will be much less prone to just letting them turn to cravings.

We all know that the more we observe, the more we find there is to observe. When we started on mindfulness of breathing, it didn’t seem that there would be much to it, but as we become more perceptive, we start to find the act of breathing, in the whole body, infinitely interesting. The objects of sense perception are overwhelming in their multitude. As I sit here, if I pause my writing, I can notice all six of my senses going at one moment or another, and each distinct sense perception is accompanied by a vedana. There are hundreds in a minute. It is an athletic feat to keep up with them all, and the effect of even short bursts of contemplating feelings can be like a deafening, blinding bombardment of stimuli both from inside and outside. In one of the Buddha’s similes, we are compared to a flayed cow standing in a field, exposed to millions of stinging insects and the assaults of weather. In this exercise, we realize vividly how much there is going on in our experience all the time, and how easily we latch onto things and feverishly shun other things. In this buzzing jungle of feelings, attachments — especially as attractions and aversions — form rapidly and then take on lives of their own that grow into monsters that consume us. But here we nip the attachments in the bud by just watching the feelings and letting them be: they arise, grow, dwindle, and vanish, equal in status, none of them getting preferential treatment, and none of them outcast. We do not know where they come from, why they came, or where they go to: we are not the authors of them.

The Buddha then gives the reflective refrain:

“Thus he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in feelings. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Feeling exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

Having chewed on this paragraph after each of the exercises in contemplating body, we start to hear things more clearly. The bhikkhu lives contemplating in this way: it is not merely an exercise. And with feelings, we can become acutely aware of origination and dissolution, as well as both together. Nothing stays still. It is in the nature of feeling to be this way; indeed, there is no other way for feeling to be! When we want to secure unending access to the marvelous ice-cream, what we are trying to do is to repeat the pleasure of the first taste — to repeat it forever. But this is not in the nature of feelings, for no two spoonfuls of the ice-cream will result in the same feeling: if we attempt to repeat, we will be disappointed — and in our intense expectation of a repeat, we will block ourselves from experiencing something new. Yet “feeling exists”: there is no way, if we have sense perception, that it will not exist. We acknowledge it, and remember to heed the warning not to get carried away by our experience in meditation to make more of the ephemerality of feeling than it really is — for instance, not to elevate it into an aesthetic in which we strain to develop a sentimental, nostalgic relationship to the moment, as with much classical Japanese literature. We practice mindfulness “to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance,” and certainly not for the pleasant feelings it might cause in us.

If we want to believe that the experiencing consciousness is separate from and transcends the world of the body, we can — with the Cartesians — think of sense-perception and vedanas as being essentially of the body, because they are both in and of the kingdom of flux. But vedanas are interesting and problematic, because they shade into volitions and commitments; and, since there indubitably exist feelings of pleasure and pain towards mental objects of perception — ideas, thoughts, images, dreams — the vedanas have to be considered an aspect of the very consciousness that is experiencing the objects of the six senses. Even the least worldly person has vedana towards geometry, a Bach partita, the idea of God, the mystery of death. It is much harder, after undertaking the contemplation of feelings in feeling, to take refuge in the thought that “I” am the unchanging, untouched, witnessing consciousness standing aloof from the mutable world of matter.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Death like the Sun: Mindfulness (5)

“I would like to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather — and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” The old joke is funny because it is true: most people would prefer not to experience their death and would rather sleep through it, while those who have no choice but to meet it with open eyes go to it screaming with desperate resistance. Yet of the few things that we can have certainty about — besides the facts that you and I are breathing right now, and have bodies — nothing is more certain than that we will die and that we don’t know how we will die. If we want to make any sense of our lives, we must surely look first to the things we can be certain about, and see what meaning we can draw from them. Strangely, even though after birth, death may be the most important event of our lives, we try our utmost to avoid it and also to avoid thinking about it. Most people do not experience their deaths, and even if they are conscious or in clear enough mind at the time, they are dragged terrified into it and are in no state to be intelligently receptive. Few people get to know death, says La Rochefoucauld. We seldom suffer it from resolution, but from stupidity and habit; and most men die because they cannot help dying. (Maxims, 23). If we do not die quietly in in our sleep, a heart attack or violent accident might also prevent us from the unpleasant witnessing of our own death; or else we die secure in the comfort of a myth of an afterlife in which we do not really die. La Rochefoucauld describes this kind of comfort as being like the blindfold that prisoners wear before execution. In expiring with our eyes closed or turned away, we miss an essential, even climactic moment — like turning our faces away from a race when the runners are in the last stretch because we can’t bear to see it end. 

   Broodings on death thread through every literate tradition. Most philosophers and poets acknowledge that we cannot develop into full human beings if we are constantly running away from death. When Socrates in the Phaedo said that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” what he meant was that in the practice of philosophy we learn to separate our intelligent soul from the unknowable, changing body — but this too strikes me as one of those blindfolds, hiding the mortality of our most cherished part. In an essay actually called “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” Montaigne rails against our attempts to ignore death:

The goal of our career is death. It is the necessary object of our aim. If it frightens us, how is it possible to go a step forward without feverishness? The remedy of the common herd is not to think about it. But from what brutish stupidity can come so gross a blindness! (The Complete Works, tr. Frame, 2003, p.69)

…there is no man so decrepit that as long as he sees Methuselah ahead of him, he does not think he has another twenty years left in his body. Furthermore, poor fool that you are, who has assured you the term of your life? You are building on the tales of doctors. Look rather at facts and experience. By the ordinary run of things, you have been living a long time now by extraordinary favor. You have passed the accustomed limits of life…(71)

Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects…It is uncertain here death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint. There is nothing evil in life for the man who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not an evil. (72)

We cannot be free if we are afraid of death — practically, because we lock ourselves into strenuous efforts to obtain and guarantee our safety; and philosophically, because terror of death will cause us to espouse views that give us comfort. Montaigne describes his own daily practice to “rob it of its strangeness,” which involves remembering all the endlessly surprising ways in which death has arrived and imagining how it might come to him at any moment:

How many ways has death to surprise us!…Who would ever have thought that a duke of Britanny would be stifled to death by a crowd, as that duke was at the entrance of Pope Clement, my neighbor, into Lyons? Haven’t you seen one of our kings killed at play? And did not one of his ancestors die from the charge of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, takes every precaution –in vain: he gets himself killed by a sort of roof, the shell of a tortoise dropped by a flying eagle. Another dies from a grape seed; an emperor from the scratch of a comb, while combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus through stumbling against his threshold, and Aufidius through bumping against the door of the council chamber on his way in; and between women’s thighs, Cornelius Gallus the praetor, Tigillanus, captain of the watch at Rome, Ludovico, son of Guido de Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua — and still worse, the Platonic philosopher Speusippus, and one of our Popes. Poor Bebius, a judge, in the act of granting a week’s postponement to a litigant, has a seizure, his own term of living having expired; and Caius Julius, a doctor, is anointing the eyes of a patient, when along comes death and closes his. And, if I must bring myself into this, a brother of mine, Captain Saint-Martin, twenty-three years old, who had already given pretty good proof of his valor, while playing tennis was struck by a ball a little above the right ear, with no sign of contusion or wound. He did not sit down or rest, but five or six hours later he died of an apoplexy that this blow gave him. With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat? (71)

Through such musings we can become “intimate” with death, and such intimacy makes us more open to embracing the great philosophical consolations in which our deaths present themselves as good and attractive:

Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world…Death is the condition of your creation, it is a part of you; you are fleeing from your own selves. This being of yours that you enjoy is equally divided between death and life. The first day of your birth leads you toward death as toward life..(78)

   Montaigne’s contemplations of death can be read as a kind of Mindfulness practice, in which we engage in focused meditation on our extinction and remember what we are. Yet what he is really doing is riffing on the idea of dying, through a multitude of examples and speculations. I begin this essay with Montaigne because his form of meditation is so strikingly different from the Buddha’s approach in the Satipatthana Sutta. There, in the section on contemplating the body in the body, we are given nine exercises for contemplating a dead body, representing nine phases in decomposition. Montaigne would regard these exercises as a cogent and powerful method to “rid death of its strangeness,” but what we notice on first reading of the Satipatthana is that the dead person is considered solely as body, with attention given only to the physical process of decay. In contrast, Montaigne’s consideration of death included all aspects of the person at once, without differentiation. I will quote all nine exercises together:

1. “And further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body dead, one, two, or three days: swollen, blue and festering, thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
2. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees, whilst it is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, a body that had been thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
3. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body, thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
4.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
5. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mind, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’

6. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions — a bone of the hand, a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull, each in a different place — he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
7.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones, white in color like a conch, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body;’
8. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
9. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.'”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

We are asked to look, to see, to pay attention to decay, disintegration, and dispersal as phases in an inevitable process. This is all the more necessary in a society such as ours, where we are systematically shielded from dying and death, and where natural decay is concealed from us by the funeral industry. In a culture that fetishizes youth and depends for its continuation on the feeding of infinite collective appetite, we do not get to see decay; we barely even get to see people bent over in advanced age. The closest most of us get to decay is roadkill, but we never stop to look because by definition we are on the road speeding by the kill. Perhaps we should stop to look, since it will be one of our few opportunities to witness decay for ourselves. With modern scientific instruments, we can also see that putrefaction is a wonderfully complex and ordered process, with laws and patterns. Even with our naked eyes it is possible to watch the corpse becoming billions of beings, many of which came from it anyway and lived as part of it. We witness how the body is not one thing, and its multifarious motion in death reflects also its manifoldness in life — and how determined by conditions each phase is! There are not really even phases, only a continuous process until the body has returned to its elements, which in turn partake in other processes that might result in new bodies. Daily observation of these transformations eventually wears away our squeamishness in the face of decay, making us capable of living with death and disintegration as they go on all around us.

   That is one part of the meditation. The other part is the refrain, ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’ My body is the same as this corpse and has not managed to transcend the conditions of dying and decay. Notice that the Buddha does not say “I am of the same nature as this body”: he is not reducing the whole human being to its physical processes, and is focusing here only on the body. The refrain has to be more than a mere verbal acknowledgment; when we say it and mean it, what we are expressing is a growing acquaintance with the natural processes as we are experiencing them right now in this body that grows old and will die. In my 50s, I can know in every aspect of the body that the processes of dying and decay are happening in me, albeit less dramatically than in the corpse, and it is all an integral aspect of being alive in flux. Without this same flux I would never have been born and would never have grown to maturity: nothing would have happened. Even though these thoughts are going beyond contemplating the body in the body, they flow naturally from recognizing myself in the corpse before me and are a consequence of remembering what I am. At the end of each of these exercises the Buddha repeats the encouragement to reflect in a rounded way on what we have discovered through observation:

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

The regular undertaking of this exercise changes us, making us more open and attuned to the vibrant, perilous buzz of the organic world around us and in us — and no longer afraid of it all. Our mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists’:  this is what it is for body to be body, there is no other way for body to be and consequently no way for any of us to escape from this condition. However, the simple recognition that this is how things are can easily be elevated into a grand, dark theory of life. Therefore we are mindful to the extent necessary for knowledge and remembrance, and should catch ourselves sliding into morbidity, transcendentalism, or any view that would replace and cover up the raw experience. This is why the Buddha calls for contemplating a corpse — not contemplating death or dying. A corpse is an observable fact, and our identification with it is grounded in experience — whereas “death” and “dying” are conceptions from the point of view of a consciousness that is clinging to the supposed opposite of these conceptions. Without an attachment to “life,” death is not an opposite that has to be neutralized; instead, there is only a process of transformation, moment by moment. 

    La Rochefoucauld remarks cryptically, Neither the sun nor death can be looked at fixedly (Maxims, 26). Just as we cannot stare directly at the sun without squinting or getting blinded, so we cannot take a direct look at death. In the corpse contemplations the bhikkhu doesn’t even try to look at “death” or “dying,” focusing instead only on the body and eliminating from the picture the rest of the being that is conceived as dying. The effect is not any theory about death, but the removal of an obstruction to experiencing the entire process that is meant by the word “death.” 
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

The Exercise of Gratitude: Thanksgiving with Marcus Aurelius

Before we begin any significant and difficult project, we “clear the decks” of lingering messes from the past. In the kitchen, we empty out sinks and dishwasher, vacate and wipe down the countertops and chopping boards, clean all the pots and cooking utensils in readiness, and arrange the raw foodstuffs so that they may be easily reached at the appropriate time. Before meditation or any session dedicated to serious reflection, we should also “clear the decks,” but — in our haste to get to more interesting suff — we often forget to. At moments of leisure, when our minds are not chained to a specific task, which of us does not find that all too quickly and all too often the mental space is filled with a stream of internal grumbling, about people and situations that have turned out unsatisfactory, or about our disappointments with ourselves? Each of us has characteristic cycles of internal grumbling that keep playing out over the years, and when I watch how even small children complain incessantly I can’t help wondering if the bedrock of our personalities might consist solely of grumbling.

This is why it is good to precede meditation sessions with a ritual of gratitude and well-wishing. By doing so, we preempt or undermine the intrusive grumbling tendency by tuning our minds to a more benevolent note, making it less likely that our meditation will be invaded by old discontent that insists on being heard. The same applies to writing or to any creative activity, in which we might not want the inertia of past resentments to trespass on present work; or to martial arts practice, in which the bow at the beginning of class establishes a boundary between ordinary life and present training, and defuses latent anger that might taint and destabilize the training in dangerous techniques. The same thing is valuable also at the dining table, where often unresolved family conflicts can ruin a potentially wonderful meal; here, a simple and sincere giving of thanks at the start of the meal can “reset” the heart and prevent old hostilities from erupting. The daily habit of marking this boundary has the additional ethical benefit of training a certain freedom and mastery over our emotions, such that we are not contiually being pushed by emotional inertia.

At the beginning of many books it is customary to have a short page of “acknowledgments.” For most writers the giving of credit where credit is due can be an extremely pleasurable formality. One of the world’s greatest books of advice and consolation, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (written around 167 CE), begins with an entire chapter of very specific thanksgiving. Readers usually skim or skip this chapter in order to arrive more quickly at the “thoughts” that make the meat of the book, perhaps because we don’t know the people he mentions and are eager to get to the paragraphs that more directly concern us. But for Marcus, his opening chapter is no mere page of Acknowledgments; it is the essential gateway to the whole book, acknowledgments elevated to the status of an exercise in gratitude. When read slowly, with an attempt to imagine the person who is being thanked and the qualities that are being praised, it is impossible not to be moved by the dignity of a mind that can so calmly and methodically summarize a life in terms of thanks owed. The feel of this chapter is valedictory, the thoughts of a human being intensely aware of the proximity of death and needing to pay homage to the sources of good in his life. Indeed, it is said that Marcus wrote this in the midst of a difficult military campaign against Germanic tribes near the Danube (as commemorated in the recent Ridley Scott film Gladiator). I quote here this beautiful chapter in full, because it is a remarkable gift to be able to hear the lifelike voice of an actual human being from two thousand years ago — and one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever seen — reflecting with gratitude on his own life.

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. 
From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. 

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. 

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. 

From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander. 

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline. 

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection. 

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. 

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly venerated by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation. 

From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion. 

From Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection. 

From Alexander the Platonic, not frequently nor without necessity to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relation to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations. 

From Catulus, not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason, but to try to restore him to his usual disposition; and to be ready to speak well of teachers, as it is reported of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to love my children truly. 

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. 

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. 

In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys; and he considered himself no more than any other citizen; and he released his friends from all obligation to sup with him or to attend him of necessity when he went abroad, and those who had failed to accompany him, by reason of any urgent circumstances, always found him the same. I observed too his habit of careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation, and his persistency, and that he never stopped his investigation through being satisfied with appearances which first present themselves; and that his disposition was to keep his friends, and not to be soon tired of them, nor yet to be extravagant in his affection; and to be satisfied on all occasions, and cheerful; and to foresee things a long way off, and to provide for the smallest without display; and to check immediately popular applause and all flattery; and to be ever watchful over the things which were necessary for the administration of the empire, and to be a good manager of the expenditure, and patiently to endure the blame which he got for such conduct; and he was neither superstitious with respect to the gods, nor did he court men by gifts or by trying to please them, or by flattering the populace; but he showed sobriety in all things and firmness, and never any mean thoughts or action, nor love of novelty. And the things which conduce in any way to the commodity of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without arrogance and without excusing himself; so that when he had them, he enjoyed them without affectation, and when he had them not, he did not want them. No one could ever say of him that he was either a sophist or a home-bred flippant slave or a pedant; but every one acknowledged him to be a man ripe, perfect, above flattery, able to manage his own and other men’s affairs. Besides this, he honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them. He was also easy in conversation, and he made himself agreeable without any offensive affectation. He took a reasonable care of his body’s health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician’s art or of medicine or external applications. He was most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts; and he always acted conformably to the institutions of his country, without showing any affectation of doing so. Further, he was not fond of change nor unsteady, but he loved to stay in the same places, and to employ himself about the same things; and after his paroxysms of headache he came immediately fresh and vigorous to his usual occupations. His secrets were not but very few and very rare, and these only about public matters; and he showed prudence and economy in the exhibition of the public spectacles and the construction of public buildings, his donations to the people, and in such things, for he was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s acts. He did not take the bath at unseasonable hours; he was not fond of building houses, nor curious about what he ate, nor about the texture and colour of his clothes, nor about the beauty of his slaves. His dress came from Lorium, his villa on the coast, and from Lanuvium generally. We know how he behaved to the toll-collector at Tusculum who asked his pardon; and such was all his behaviour. There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, nor, as one may say, anything carried to the sweating point; but he examined all things severally, as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently. And that might be applied to him which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus. 

To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offence against any of them, though I had a disposition which, if opportunity had offered, might have led me to do something of this kind; but, through their favour, there never was such a concurrence of circumstances as put me to the trial. Further, I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather’s concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season, but even deferred the time; that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought, or more remiss in action, with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler. I thank the gods for giving me such a brother, who was able by his moral character to rouse me to vigilance over myself, and who, at the same time, pleased me by his respect and affection; that my children have not been stupid nor deformed in body; that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if I had seen that I was making progress in them; that I made haste to place those who brought me up in the station of honour, which they seemed to desire, without putting them off with hope of my doing it some time after, because they were then still young; that I knew Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; that I received clear and frequent impressions about living according to nature, and what kind of a life that is, so that, so far as depended on the gods, and their gifts, and help, and inspirations, nothing hindered me from forthwith living according to nature, though I still fall short of it through my own fault, and through not observing the admonitions of the gods, and, I may almost say, their direct instructions; that my body has held out so long in such a kind of life; that I never touched either Benedicta or Theodotus, and that, after having fallen into amatory passions, I was cured; and, though I was often out of humour with Rusticus, I never did anything of which I had occasion to repent; that, though it was my mother’s fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that, whenever I wished to help any man in his need, or on any other occasion, I was never told that I had not the means of doing it; and that to myself the same necessity never happened, to receive anything from another; that I have such a wife, so obedient, and so affectionate, and so simple; that I had abundance of good masters for my children; and that remedies have been shown to me by dreams, both others, and against bloodspitting and giddiness…; and that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of appearances in the heavens; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. 

It is rare to have such a vivid self-portrait from an ancient who was both thinker and leader. Doubtless in this list there arevone or two thorny people whose thorniness is only hinted at, and if we studied Marcus’ life we might discover some interesting omissions, such as the Emperor Hadrian. Thinking about particular instances in our own experience of powerful men “thanking” benefactors, we might also wonder if the expression of gratitude in this case might in fact be a way of asserting political dominance by putting strong influences gently in their places. As Nietzsche points out, gratitude can be ambivalent and is often closely relatd to vengeance:

The reason why the powerful man is grateful is this: his benefactor, through the benefit he confers, has mistaken and intruded into the sphere of the powerful man; now the latter, in return, penetrates into the sphere of the benefactor by the act of gratitude. It is a milder form of revenge. Without the satisfaction of gratitude, the powerful man would have shown himself powerless, and would have been reckoned as such ever after. Therefore every society of the good, which originally meant  the powerful, places gratitude amongst the first duties. Swift propounded the maxim that men were grateful in the same proportion as they were revengeful.

(Human All Too Human, 1878, Section 44)
However, Marcus’ expressions of gratitude do not strike me as fueled by the desire to assert power: he seems clear-sighted in the recognition of his own failings, and he appears to attribute everything he likes about himself to the work and characters of other people. No human being is self-created; we become what we become partly through our own choices, but mostly from all those personalities that have guided us, inspired us, and held us unrelentingly to high standards of behavior. Even the most powerful man in the known world is confessing in these pages that he did not do it by himself, and that the sum of his character and achievements is indebted to other people: he can name them and specify the debts. The first chapter of the Meditations is thus a remarkable exercise in Mindfulness or Remembrance, and without it the rest of the book would feel like a series of speculations, questions, and assertions, without substantial grounding in a personality that has been cultivated by many hands.

Now if we read this chapter and think that it is about the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, we will have entirely missed the point. The exercise in gratitude is for us to do, as a kind of threshold or entry-way to self-knowledge; perhaps it is the only one. If you were to sit for an hour and write the Acknowledgments to your own life, who would you thank, and for what?

The Meditations, translated by George Long, can be found here:

Deliberate Disenchantment: Mindfulness (4)

(陳俐瑾 / 林志純 / 楊淳如, from China Fashion Week, Fall 2010, Shih Chien University)

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,” as in William James’ words: 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 a doctor or a dentist, even though we know rationally that the visit is a good thing, and hence too our disproportionate demoralization on hearing even slightly bad news. As we get older, the fear and dismay persist, 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, the 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 hurt 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; or if we fall and find that there is a bone sticking out of our leg, or if we cannot hold our feces. 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 defending from laughter? 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 know how to dispel 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 his 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 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 — and 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:

Finding Our Bodies: Mindfulness (3)

If we are not breathing, we are dead — a fact so obvious as to be hardly worth saying. But because it is true, the observation of breathing can be the primary discipline in the cultivation of attentiveness: it is available to us at no cost, and can be experienced at any time and place with our whole bodies. But our bodies are also accessible to observation anywhere, anytime. At every moment we find ourselves in some physical position; even our motions of transition between different positions are themselves positions, although continuous and less easily defined. The second exercise in the Satipatthana Sutta is therefore the turning of attention to bodily positions and movements, called the iriyapatha or “ways of movement.” You will see this word translated often as “postures” or “deportments,” but the former has connotations of stasis and Yoga asanas, and the latter is an archaic term that can also include “bearing.” The classical reference points for the iriyapatha are standing, sitting, lying down, and walking:

“And further, O bhikkhus, when he is going, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I am going’; when he is standing, he understands: ‘I am standing’; when he is sitting, he understands: ‘I am sitting’; when he is lying down, he understands: ‘I am lying down’; or just as his body is disposed so he understands it.” (tr.Soma Thera, 1998)

The last clause of this encompasses any positioning of the body: sprawling, leaning, running, jumping, swimming — the entire astonishing spectrum of motions and positions that our bodies undergo in the course of the day. In this long sentence the verb “understands” occurs five times — but what exactly can the Buddha mean by it?

On first reading, it appears that we are being asked to be aware of what our bodies are doing and to register the awareness with a simple thought. This itself is instructive, because we are capable of passing through the day mostly unconscious of the lay of our bodies, since we are usually focused on something else; our bodies exist just below the conscious threshold, as vehicles for our mental preoccupations. To divide our bodily dispositions into the four categories of standing, sitting, lying down, and walking is clearly too crude to express much of what we do — for instance, I know that I sit in at least eight different ways, and have several rhythms for walking, most of which have no name. If the practice is to attach a label to each of my body positions and then move on to the next one, it will be nothing more than a practice of replacing experiences with words and then skimming over a thin surface of words — which might be attractive to a person eager to transcend physical experience by attenuating its vividness. Not only does this feel like an unsatisfying strategy of avoidance, but it goes against the direct experience that we were brought to by mindful breathing.

What might it be to “understand” standing, for example? In the Chinese art of Qigong there is a set of meditative exercises consisting wholly of standing in various positions. The simplest possible version of this is just to stand naturally, feet shoulder width apart, hands hanging by your side, without moving, breathing in a relaxed way.

If you have never done this, you will find that simply standing still for fifteen minutes is very difficult; after about three minutes, for no special reason, you will be fighting the urge to shift. Focusing on breathing then becomes a helpful distraction that temporarily calms the agitation; counting breaths gives us something productive to “do” and might even provide us with a “goal.” Such attempts at diversion remove us from the boredom of the raw experience, but sooner or later we become bored with breathing or counting and have to return to our bodies. At that point we might experience strain: tension in back and shoulders from habitual poor posture, achy knees and feet, fatigue. If we keep standing through our discomfort, and try to pay attention to the physical sensations in joints and muscles, we also notice how they change over time and never stay the same. They are also all interconnected through the whole body, and tension in the face might be related to stiffness in the feet and calves. Standing for an hour makes us extremely aware of the whole body; indeed, it is a very difficult feat to accomplish if the anatomy is not perfectly aligned and both body and mind as relaxed as possible. At first, a cultivation of this kind is quite strenuous, but only because we are not used to deliberate engagement with the body. Dancers, actors, musicians, martial artists, and gymnasts are used to it, and develop formidable strength and stamina through detailed, methodical movement. The rest of us, preoccupied with activities that take us away from our bodies, have to struggle more, but with practice it becomes easier. If we begin to “understand” standing, we will naturally start to perceive all our other movements more lucidly and vividly. No two steps will be alike, each pushup will be new, and each moment incomparable.

One practical effect of bringing such focused attention to our bodies is greater delight and satisfaction in living, as we learn to notice minute transitional motions, and gain in balance, stability, and proprioception. For physical health it is essential, because if we are wholly unaware and outside of our own bodies we will injure ourselves no matter what we are doing, especially sitting. Yet much of our environment is constructed so that we can ignore our bodies: office chairs shaped in such a way that our backs automatically take care of ourselves, shoes with soles so padded that we don’t have to feel the hard ground, weightlifting machines on which we only have to sit and push without engaging most of the body. A world constructed like this makes it easy for us to lose ourselves in our own entertaining cloud-pictures.

The section ends with the same refrain that ended the meditation on breathing:

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things, in the body. Or indeed his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.” Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”

Which of us has not experienced the shock, in seeing video of ourselves standing or walking, of finding that what we do is utterly different from what we had inagined ourselves doing? We think that our posture has improved, and that we have been working hard to feel a vertical and well-held backbone, but according to the incontrovertible evidence of film, there we are with the same old unappealing and unhealthy slouch. On receiving this shock, we may have extra incentive to bridge the chasm between our internal and external apprehensions of ourselves. But again, the text warns us against over-engaging and becoming compulsive about contemplation: we do it to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance. 

The Satipatthana then passes immediately into a short meditation that gives a different articulation of embodied awareness:

“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, in going forwards (and) in going backwards, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in looking straight on (and) in looking away from the front, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in wearing the shoulder-cloak, the (other two) robes (and) the bowl, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in regard to what is eaten, drunk, chewed and savored, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in defecating and in urinating, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in walking, in standing (in a place), in sitting (in some position), in sleeping, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, is a person practicing clear comprehension.”

What is “clear comprehension”? — or, in another translation, “full awareness”? We seem to have expanded from “contemplating the body in the body” to contemplating it in relation to everything around it, both spatially and causally. Thus, for example, in defecating, we have trained  to become acutely aware of the bodily positioning — which includes the precise adjustments of seating, in coordination with the delicate interior pressures that give rise to bowel movement and that are vary sometimes hugely from day to day, expressing fluctuations in our entire physical health. But this is only partial mindfulness: now we also have to remember the full context of our action — the need to maintain detailed cleanliness of the space, the careful placement of paper, soap and towel for the next person, the conserving of water in view of where its source and scarcity, the knowledge of where the waste is going, scrupulousness in the selection of toilet paper and of other requisites for the sake of doing least harm to the world and to other people. Merely to pay attention to the body and give no thought to its position in the web of relations and consequences would not be truly mindful, but rather a kind of self-absorption pretending to be mindful. With regard to mindfulness in the toilet, we have all seen that it can take a decade or more for a young human being to master most of the details, but even as rational adults most people live as if flushing their poop down the white ceramic hole somehow magically makes it all disappear or become someone else’s problem. It takes sustained and persistent effort to achieve “clear comprehension” of our embodied activity, but such effort is what it takes to get closer to our own existence and live it, not just float vaguely above it.

However, in my thinking about breathing and bodily activity, have I succumbed to he seduction of giving meditation some kind of goal or reward? — health, happiness, the discovery of truth, a richer life…In finding that an increased sensitivity to what is happening leads to a more interesting and vivid relationship to my own physical existence, have I sublimated the discomfort of meditation into a species of excited fascination? I am very aware that I have understated the acute discomfort of meditation, which is felt within the first few minutes of attempted practice: we hit a wall that we push against with all our might, and that wall is boredom. The contemplating of breathing and of bodily movement is profoundly boring; when undertaken wholeheartedly, it does not move us to any higher realm but remains with itself. Ultimately, breathing is breathing, defecating defecating, and that is all — no more and no less. This does not change over years of practice, and no matter how many moments of significant discovery and delight I have experienced, I always return to “Enough. I can’t do it any more today,” or my mind quietly wanders off by itself because it cannot bear the tedium. We have to bring it gently back to its yawning abyss of ennui and let it dwell there, because — beyond all the radiant pleasures and understandings — the real work of mindful meditation is to take us out of our dreams and face ourselves for once.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

The Underrated Wonder of Breathing: Mindfulness (2)

The heart of the Buddha’s Pali discourses is the Satipatthana or Mindfulness Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is presented as the “one” way to freedom from suffering. Those encountering it for the first time are often surprised to find that such an influential text — central to Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen — makes no arguments and offers no vision of the ultimate nature of reality, but instead consists of twenty-one exercises for focused contemplation. These exercises have been subjected to hundreds of thousands of pages of often conflicting commentary, and some of them have become the central practice for entire Buddhist groups. In this essay and the ones to come, I intend to read the Satipatthana Sutta in a spirit of humble, naïve inquiry, hoping to show that even for a newcomer to these practices  the Buddha’s words do indeed make sense in light of ordinary human experience — and they also shed light on our experience. I make no claims to having a comprehensive overview of the path, and am content here to dwell on the handful of exercises that seem rich and powerful to me. 

1. Breathing

The Daoist sage Zhuangzi gives us this dismally concise summation of a normal human life:

We sleep and our spirits converge; we awake and our bodies open outward. We give, we receive, we act, we construct: all day long we apply our minds to struggles against one thing or another – struggles unadorned or struggles concealed, but in either case tightly packed one after another without gap. The small fears leave us nervous and depleted; the large fears leave us stunned and blank. Shooting forth like an arrow from a bowstring: such is our presumption when we arbitrate right and wrong. Holding fast as if to sworn oaths: such is our defense of our victories. Worn away as if by autumn and winter: such is our daily dwindling, drowning us in our own activities, unable to turn back. Held fast as if bound by cords, we continue along the same ruts. The mind is left on the verge of death, and nothing can restore its vitality. 

(Zhuangzi, Essential Writings, tr. Ziporyn, 2009, pp.9-10)

Our lives are constructed on a foundation of internal and external insecurities. Because this foundation is always shaking, made up as it is of changing realities and mental projections, the structure we put on it is also shifting, unstable, subject to a constant process of frenzied construction and repair. How can we save ourselves from drowning in this frenzy?

   For a reader accustomed to philosophical traditions that begin from the premise that the body is a dark, unknowable, painful thing that hinders light and knowledge and must be transcended if we are to attain the higher realms of Truth and Goodness, the Buddha’s opening recommendation has to be startling: a practitioner has to start by “contemplating the body in the body.”

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating the body in the body?
“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down, bends in his legs crosswise on his lap, keeps his body erect, and arouses mindfulness in the object of meditation, namely, the breath which is in front of him.”
(tr.Soma Thera, 1998)

The very first step is to remove ourselves from the realm of our frantic activity, finding some place where we will not be interrupted, and sit. The foot of a tree is a wonderful place for this because from a tree we can learn, by osmosis, to be still. It is not that a tree is inactive; there is infinite life in its bark and foliage, infinite movement in the air and light playing about the leaves and in the fluids coursing through the veins, and unimaginable power in every cell and in the coordination of the cells to keep such a huge thing upright for so long in all the buffetings of weather. Yet the tree lives, bursting to fullness with all this energy, and has no need to bustle around achieving tasks. Sitting by this tree, we can draw strength and focus from it as we arouse mindfulness or sati. We bring our attention to bear on our first object of meditation: breath. 

“Mindful, he breathes in, and mindful, he breathes out. He, thinking, ‘I breathe in long,’ he understands when he is breathing in long; or thinking, ‘I breathe out long,’ he understands when he is breathing out long; or thinking, ‘I breathe in short,’ he understands when he is breathing in short; or thinking, ‘I breathe out short,’ he understands when he is breathing out short.”

This seems at first ridiculously simple and tedious, and a person reading it for the first time might nod politely and pass on, because this is too easy and obvious; or might try it for a few minutes and then move to something more interesting. If we do react in this way, we will have missed the point completely. What the Buddha is offering here is the antidote to our toxic frenzy. We are submerged, asphyxiated, in the high dramas and cyclical intensities of the fabrication that we take to be our lives. Because we have lost ourselves in a fog where we can no longer differentiate fantasy from reality, the only way to obtain clarity is to find something we are certain about. One such thing is the fact that we will die, and the Buddha will invite us to chew on this soon; but another is the undeniable fact that as I am writing and as you are reading, we are both breathing. Not only is breathing happening, but we are capable of experiencing it, of bringing our attention to bear on it.

   This is so obvious that we should be shocked that we need a teacher to point it out to us, but it is testimony to the genius of the Buddha that the first exercise on the path involves breathing: something we are all doing anyway, whether we want to or not, and therefore a universal phenomenon that we have access to and contemplate — anyone, anywhere, anytime. Again, this is blindingly obvious — but a wise person is not afraid of the obvious, especially if it is telling us what we need to listen to but so far have failed to hear. The practice can start now; in the case of breathing, we need nothing extra and have no excuse to procrastinate. 

   For a student coming to this from another religion, the Buddha’s matter-of-fact way of talking about breathing is also striking: he is only discussing breathing, and not turning the breath into something high-flown and spiritual, such as prana. The Buddha makes no cosmic claims in these exercises, and if we undertake this exercise thinking that in breathing we are uniting with the transcendent breath of the world-spirit, we will have again missed the point. He is asking us to locate ourselves in the earthy and mundane, not to glorify ourselves. This is why he specifies contemplating the body in the body: not the divine principle in the body, or the body in the divine principle, or the body mixed up with feelings and thoughts, or the body as an idea (“mechanical”/”organic”) — simply the body, in itself. Moreover, what the bhikkhu does is to observe the breath as it is; he doesn’t seek to slow it down or to influence it in any way, with the aim of creating a different emotional state. In the paragraph just quoted, the qualifiers are “long” and “short,” but there could be other qualifiers –for instance, steady or unsteady, forceful or weak, full or thin, different at the end than at the beginning, and so on. The more we practice this, the more we notice — and our breathing becomes high definition breathing, rather than the haphazard low resolution affair it used to be. The key is that we are sitting and engaging; it is not about doing anything, but about seeing accurately what is there in front of us, beyond the mediating ideas we may have of it. Some have described mindfulness as “bare attention,” where “bare” means stripped of extraneous accessories and adornments, naked, pure.

   When we consciously experience breathing in this naked way, one of the first things to dissolve is the conception of breathing as respiration, as mere inhalation and exhalation of air by nose, mouth, and lungs. The air is experienced just beyond the nose, and we become aware of the coolness around the nostrils, the motion of the nostrils, our hairs, the distinctive feel of the air as it moves to the back of the nose, and so on — until, the intercostal muscles and ribcage expanding, we can feel the drawing down of the diaphragm as the entire torso breathes. With the exhale, it is easier to feel the whole body participating, as it relaxes in the toes, fingers, and face. It is not possible to describe fully what we discover when we engage our breathing with single-minded attention, and as we become more skilled and more sustained in our attending, we can see that every single breath is unique:

“Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself.
   “Just as a clever turner or a turner’s apprentice, turning long, understands: ‘I turn long;’ or turning short, understands: ‘I turn short’; just so, indeed, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, when he breathes in long, understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or, when he breathes out long, understands: ‘I breathe out long’; or, when he breathes in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or when he breathes out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Calming the activity of the body I shall breathe in.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Calming the activity of the body I shall breathe out.’

Thus breathing becomes an art, something to practice and become good at. The image of the skilled turner is evocative: imagine a turner on an ancient lathe, holding it steady with both feet while his hands turn the wood, the entire body alert and concentrated at an insubstantial edge — there, where the wood meets the blade. The true craftsman respects and follows the nature of the wood, bringing out its internal potential without forcing anything; and the action of turning is fluid, continuous, unhesitating. A stranger to wood and to woodworking would be quite blind to the fine distinctions in grain and shape that the turner can perceive with his whole body; skilled turning is not an act of mere manual production, but a creative and cognitive coming together of body and spirit. This is what breathing can become when we engage with it. We discover too that all sense of agency has been lost. The true artist is the first to tell you that he didn’t do anything; whatever it was happened through him, and he himself doesn’t understand what happened but could see it happening. Breathing is obviously an autonomic function; as long as we are alive it happens, we were not there when it started and will not be there when it ends, but in the meantime we can ride the breath like the swimmer in Zhuangzi who is at home in the fiercest rivers because he is not afraid of following the undertows wherever they take him. As with any skill, the better you get at it, the more enjoyable and satisfying it becomes — and the remarkable gift given in this one page on breathing is that an action that is so ordinary, so barely noticeable, yet going on in us all the time, can become a source of pleasure and joy.

   The first exercise of the Satipatthana concludes with a passage that gets repeated throughout the sutta with regard to other exercises as well. 

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or indeed his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world. Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”

This is an invitation to reflect and examine, to hold what we have experienced and rotate it in our mind’s eye slowly, carefully, so that we understand it three-dimensionally and from various angles: the interior experience, its manifestation externally and objectively, the relation of those two, how a breath begins and continues and ends, or how there isn’t really a beginning and end because “breathing” is not a thing but a confluence of a myriad things in reciprocal activity. I am a being who breathes at this moment, in this place, having among my conditions a body that can take in air and a universe that has the air I can take in; and both this body and this universe abide in an infinity of conditions, all in action so that this, just this, can happen. Thus sati is really remembrance, a recollection of what we actually are, and it is only through this deliberate exercise of focused attention that we will begin to remember our own lives. 

   However, the paragraph ends with a sober caution: it is easy to get carried away from this experience and to lose ourselves in theories and speculations that arise from the thoughts we will inevitably generate from the exercise. Instead, we reflect to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and no matter how excited we become at our own discoveries, there is no need to impress, no need to spread the word, no neediness at all: he lives independent and clings to naught in the world

A note on the drawing above (from “The Woodturner’s Workshop,”

The image…is taken from a book published in 1881 (Hand or Simple Turning – Principles and Practice by John Holtzapffel) portrays an Indian turner. The author states that “He commences by digging two holes in the ground at a distance suitable for the length of the work, and in these fixes two short wooden posts, securing them as firmly as he can by ramming earth and driving in wedges and stones around them. The centres, scarcely more then round nails or spikes, are driven through the posts at about eight inches from the ground, and a wooden rod for the support of the tools, is either nailed to the posts or tied to them by a piece of coir or coconut rope. The bar if long is additionally supported … by one or two vertical sticks driven into the ground. During most of his mechanical operations the Indian workman is seated on the ground … The boy, who gives motion to the work, sits or kneels on the other side of it holding the ends of cord wrapped around it in his hands, pulling them alternately …”. Notice that in this instance the turner is using his toes to steady the tool on the rest.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: