Mindfulness of Physical Characteristics

These are notes taken from Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness.  These are the first section from Chapter 10, Mindfulness of physical Characteristics.

We study the body to take us beyond the concept of “body” as “self.”
This chapter studies the body in

  • Anatomical parts
  • The elements
  • And the body’s nature of impermanence, to decay and then die.

What is the body, through contemplation of its anatomical parts.

Again, monks, one reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, enclosed by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus:
‘in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’

Why would the Buddha want to contemplate the parts of the body that are called in Pali, the asubha or the non-beautiful or unattractive aspects of the body?

This will diminish the strong conditioning of the mind towards lust and attachment to the body.
The body is just a collection of interrelated parts.
That which we often associate with the self – the body- is just an interdependent system of components.
So scientifically, we can allow for entropy of the different parts and systems – the thermodynamic law which says that all systems tend to disorder or to decline.
We are reminded of the impersonal and unreliable nature of the body.
Seeing clearly what the body really is:

  • Helps free us from pride and lust
  • Disparagement and fear

Personal Note:  When I was a dancer in my twenties and thirties, I studied experiential anatomy for dance and then I noticed how much it helped me with meditation, connecting through the felt sense of the body, all the different systems of the body.  This deeply increased my ability to stay with and feel my body, whether the sensations were aversive or blissful.  At first, I didn’t associate this body study with Buddhism and sometimes felt it was actually solidifying my attachment to the self.  So I was so happy when I actually found the anatomical studies in the sutras.  This Body/Mind Centering work I had been doing as a dancer required that I often spend months on feeling each system – bones, muscles, organs, breathing, nerves, etc. which I now had found in the classical teaching of Buddhism.  As I have matured as a practitioner, this subtle understanding of the systems of the body has increased my ability to enter the subtle energy body and to learn a deeper level of concentration on following the body sensations until the point where the body disappears.

At the same time, this section of the mindfulness sutra has also come under deep scrutiny because some of it implies a disgust with the body and what seems like, unintentionally strengthening an unwholesome disgust or aversion to our bodies.  Especially as a feminist, I found this hard to agree with.  It seems like the patriarchal religions of history had a need to put so-called earthly things down, like bodies, earth, women, children etc. so that they could “transcend” the very strong attachment all people have to our bodies as our “Self”.  We are strongly attached to life’s activities and often have an aversion to death.  These attachments and aversions need to be opened up before we can feel liberation.  Sometimes the contemplation of the non-beautiful qualities of the body can help liberate us from our lust and attachment to the body and its extension to the “self”.  I have learned to be less critical of this section as I contemplate the goal of freeing myself from attachment to the body and also to put this section in its historical context of ancient India and China.