Mindfuless of Body

First of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Shaolin Monk Pagoda Forest
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Right Mindfulness is part of the Eightfold Path, the foundation of Buddhist practice. It is also very trendy in the West. Psychologists are incorporating mindfulness into therapy. Self-help "experts" sell books and give seminars extolling the power of mindfulness to reduce stress and increase happiness.

But how do you "do" mindfulness, exactly? Many of the directions one finds in popular books and magazines tend to be simple and vague. The traditional Buddhist practice of mindfulness is more rigorous.

The historical Buddha taught that the practice of mindfulness has four foundations: Mindfulness of body (kayasati), of feelings or sensations (vedanasati), of mind or mental processes (cittasati), and of mental objects or qualities (dhammasati). This article will look at the first foundation, mindfulness of body.

Contemplate the Body as the Body

In the Satipatthana Sutta of the Pali Tipitika (Majjhima Nikaya 10), the historical Buddha taught his disciples to contemplate the body as or in the body. What does that mean?

Very simply, it means to regard the body as a physical form with no self attached to it. In other words, this is not my body, my legs, my feet, my head. There is just body. The Buddha said,

"Thus he [a monk] 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 factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: "The body exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body." [Nyanasatta Thera translation]

The last part of the teaching above is particularly important in Buddhism. This relates to the doctrine of anatta, which says there is no soul or self-essence inhabiting a body. See also "Sunyata, or Emptiness: The Perfection of Wisdom."

Be Mindful of Breathing

Mindfulness of breathing is important to mindfulness of body. If you have been instructed in any type of Buddhist meditation, you probably were told to focus on your breathing. This usually is the first "exercise" for training the mind.

In the Anapanasati Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 118), the Buddha gave detailed instruction for the many ways one can work with breath to develop mindfulness. We train the mind simply to follow the very natural process of breathing, letting ourselves merge into the sensation of breath in our lungs and throat. In this way we tame the "monkey mind" that swings from thought to thought, out of control.

Following breath, appreciate how the breath breathes itself. It's not something "we" are doing.

If you have a regular meditation practice, eventually you find yourself returning to the breath throughout the day. When you feel stress or anger arising, acknowledge it and come back to your breathing. It's very calming.

Body Practice

People who have begun a meditation practice often ask how they can carry over the focus of meditation into their daily activities. Mindfulness of body is key to doing this.

In the Zen tradition, people speak of "body practice." Body practice is a whole-body-and-mind practice; a physical action done with meditative focus.

This is how the martial arts came to be associated with Zen. Centuries ago, the monks of Shaolin Temple in China developed kung fu skills as a body practice. In Japan, archery and kendo -- training with swords -- also are connected to Zen.

However, body practice does not require sword training. Many things you do every day, including something as simple as washing dishes or making coffee, can be turned into body practice. Walking, running, singing, and gardening all make excellent body practices.

To make a physical activity into a body practice, just do that physical thing. If you are gardening, just garden. Nothing else exists but the soil, the plants, the smell of flowers, the sensation of sun on your back. This practice is not gardening while listening to music, or gardening while thinking about where you will go on vacation, or gardening while talking to another gardener. It is just gardening, in silence, with meditative attention. Body and mind are integrated; the body is not doing one thing while the mind is somewhere else.

In most Buddhist traditions part of the function of rituals is body practice. Bowing, chanting, lighting a candle with whole body-and-mind attention are a kind of training more than a kind of worship.

Mindfulness of body is closely related to mindfulness of sensation, which is the second of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.