Unfolding the Satipatthana Sutta: The Body

The Satipatthana Sutta is a series of meditations prescribed by the Buddha for the ending of suffering. It is composed of 4 main areas of focus, often referred to as “foundations of mindfulness” but also more quaintly called the “proper pastures” for a practioner to focus his/her attention.

The first of the Satipatthanas, or pastures, is the body.  The second is feelings (defined as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings that arise dependent upon contact with sense experience). The third is the mind. The fourth is Dhammas, often translated as mental formations.. but I haven’t gotten that far in the practice yet and my suspicions are that this is more geared towards contemplation of the major teachings.

Working through the meditations, I’ve become interested in how they are unfolding. The issue of pacing has come up for me. How long should I stay with one meditation before moving to the next? Is it important to work through them in order or is it ok to skip around? Should I work with whatever facet of experience is presenting itself more clearly in the moment?  Is it really necessary to contemplate snot and puss? Really?

Interestingly, some insight came when I inadvertently listened to a talk out of order. The talks by Joseph Goldstein have long titles and they show up on my smartphone playlist with the numbers truncated, which causes some difficulty in getting to the exact spot where I left off with the talks. I ended up skipping the last section of the body meditations — the four elements. I discovered my mistake because I am also reading the Analayo text that the talks are based on, so I was expecting the elements meditation. I went back and listened to it and discovered that the progression of meditations is quite illuminating and pedagogically brilliant.

Beginning with the breathing, in a very simplified way–one is aware of long breaths and short breaths. At this stage, the meditator is even encouraged to reflect whether “I am breathing in long” or “I am breathing out long”; “I am breathing in short” or “I am breathing out short”. Breaking the breath into both parts makes the practice easier, but also brings additional concentration and steadiness. Using a phrase like “I am breathing…” seems also designed to make the meditation immediately accessible to a beginner. In the later stages, such self-referential language disappears. There is a brilliance to the way this all unfolds and this easily accessible, simple, yet powerful practice is just the beginning.

I won’t go into such detail on the remaining reflections on the body, but consider the way each reflection deepens our awareness and brings our impermanent, impersonal nature into greater and greater focus. Simple awareness of the breath becomes more subtle awareness of the breath and the whole body. Awareness of the body in the four main postures of sitting, lying, standing and walking is expanded to include the body in any posture. Like the simple breathing practice, this is very accessible with regards to the body itself. Awareness of posture becomes awareness of movements and motion and begins to consider the motivations and appropriateness of the movements– considerably more detailed and complex than the posture meditation, but similar. It is just more subtle. And this seems to be how it unfolds. Sometimes going to a more subtle practice illuminates the practice that precedes it. Attempt to be aware of each small movement and suddenly you find you’ve become very in tune with the postures of the body–or effortlessly aware of the breathing process. The meditations start to form a continuum, to weave a more complex and whole picture.

Not only do the different meditations lead you into deeper concentration, but they are also designed to combat specific hinderances. After contemplating the movements of the body, it is contemplated in it’s many parts. Contemplating body parts one by one is to focus on the unattractive aspects of the body which counters our typical tendency to treat the body as an object of lust and desire–focussing only on the attractive aspects. Visualizing internal body parts takes us beyond the skin into the world of organs and bones, blood, bile, sweat, fat and hairs. Not only combating our desires for physical forms, I found that it erases racial boundaries as well. These contemplations are all meant to be done “internally and externally”, meaning in ones own body and the bodies of others. Seeing people as a sack of internal organs, with blood gushing through veins and bones stacked upon each other is like seeing right through someone’s skin.. right past it. We are all composed of the same set of parts. Many lines get erased. I’m just like these others. This body is no different than that one. Identification and attachment loosens.

Beyond the body parts comes the contemplation of the elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. The qualities of these elements are within us and seeing them within the body–seeing the body as a collection of these elements and their properties further depersonalizes the body. We are a field of elements. Just like the play of nature or any other compounded thing–there are interdependent forces at play in constant flux.

And then comes the charnel ground!  Contemplation of the body in dissolution. Bones scattered. Back to dust. A direct contemplation of impermanence with regards to physical form. This contemplation may seem gruesome, but it is the truth. This is our fate of our body, just as it is the fate of all other bodies. There’s no room for lying to yourself about it. You look right at it. This concludes a pretty thorough examination of the body. The meditations build on each other and illuminate the truths of dukkha, impermanence and no-self within this very body of ours. And the contemplations of the body are just the FIRST step of four. The first foundation. The others will no doubt methodically deconstruct our delusions just as this first foundation deconstructed our physical form.

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