Mindfulness of the Body: Parts and Elements

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 57-68) 

“Again, monks, he 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.’ “Just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends full of many sorts of grain, such as hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet, and white rice, and a man with good eyes were to open it and review it thus: ‘This is hill rice, this is red rice, these are beans, these are peas, this is millet, this is white rice’; so too he reviews this same body”  Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 367-368). Sounds True.

What is our body?

Our body, as with everything material, is impermanent, unable to give lasting satisfaction and is of selfless nature.  It is easy to forget this; when we encounter other beings or see ourselves in the mirror, we are only looking at the external components:  head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, and skin.  We can truly realize the true nature of the body by reflecting on each part without distortion, knowing that they are neither beautiful, nor ugly but simply pieces of an ever-changing process.  In the sutra, 32 body parts are named for reflection on this.  We can examine the first five parts to explore the three characteristics in each of them.  Using mindful clear comprehension, we can see that each body part is always changing, is unable to provide lasting satisfaction and is not our “self.”

Head Hair

Starting with head hair, notice how this part is often perceived as an object of beauty.  Next, note its impermanence. Hair falls out, changes in texture, gathers dirt, grease, and odors.  Next, note its unsatisfactoriness as it doesn’t meet our expectations of always being beautiful and clean.  Next, note its selfless nature. We cannot ultimately control its fate.  As a result of these reflections, observe your attitude toward head hair.  Is it still beautiful or ugly?  Or is it just head hair?

Body Hair

With regard to body hair, notice how this part is often perceived as an object of beauty.  Next, note its impermanence. Body hair falls out, grows on our chin, gathers dirt, grease, and odors.  Next, note its unsatisfactoriness as it doesn’t meet our expectations of always being beautiful and clean.  Next, note its selfless nature. We cannot ultimately control its fate.  As a result of these reflections, observe your attitude toward body hair.  Is it still beautiful or ugly?  Or is it just body hair?

Nails

With regard to nails, notice how this part is often perceived as an object of beauty.  Next, note its impermanence.  Nails crack, grow longer, become discolored, can get infected with fungus.  Next, note its unsatisfactoriness as it doesn’t meet our expectations of always being beautiful and clean.  Next, note its selfless nature. We cannot ultimately control its fate.  As a result of these reflections, observe your attitude toward nails.  Are they still beautiful or ugly?  Or are they just nails?

Teeth

With regard to teeth, notice how this part is often perceived as an object of beauty.  Next, note its impermanence. Teeth become discolored, chipped, crooked, decayed, fall out.  Next, note their unsatisfactoriness as it doesn’t meet our expectations of always being beautiful and clean.  Next, note its selfless nature. We cannot ultimately control its fate.  As a result of these reflections, observe your attitude toward teeth.  Are they still beautiful or ugly?  Or are they just teeth?

Skin

With regard to skin, notice how this part is often perceived as an object of beauty.  Next, note its impermanence. Skin ages, cracks, wrinkles, bruises, becomes infected, can get cancer.  Next, note its unsatisfactoriness as it doesn’t meet our expectations of always being beautiful and clean.  Next, note its selfless nature. We cannot ultimately control its fate.  As a result of reflections, observe your attitude toward skin.  Is it still beautiful or ugly?  Or is it just skin?

Meditating on the 32 parts of the body

Meditating on the 32 parts of the body can be very beneficial to fully realize that all share the same three characteristics.  Bhante G. notes that sometimes it is possible to accelerate healing by focusing the mind on a certain body part.  He suggests meditation that requires strong mindfulness, concentration and visualization.  Here is a website you can use for visualization:  http://32parts.com/index.html

Some important points as you meditate:

  • Know that your intention is to regard all bodies and their part with balance mind of equanimity, not with lust or loathing.
  • Know that all parts are essential and useful.
  • How you long you meditate on each body part may vary; there is no set amount of time.
  • Remember that each of the body parts is impermanent, unable to give lasting satisfaction and is of selfless nature (“not mine, not I and not my self”).

Mindfulness of the body’s elements

In the Buddha’s time, the four elements were recognized as earth, water, heat and air.  Today we might know them as solid, liquid, plasma and gas.  Ultimately, as the body deteriorates, all that remains is in basic forms of the elements.   Each of these elements have specific sensations that we can note while meditating.  Each of these sensations or perceptions are just phenomena arising and falling away in our mind.  As with the body parts, they are impermanent, unable to give lasting satisfaction and is of selfless nature (“not mine not I and not my self”).

  • Earth (solid): hard, soft, visible, shape, expansion, contraction, size, color
  • Water (liquid): soft, moist, cleansing
  • Heat (plasma): warm, hot, burning, radiation
  • Air (gas): breezy, cold, cool, warm, hot, dry, gentle, harsh

The body is not our “self”

By meditating on and experiencing the body parts and elements, we come to know that they all share the same three characteristics of impermanence, inability to give lasting satisfaction and is of selfless nature.  Our body is not who we are.  Who we are is not subject to the three characteristics.

In another discourse, the Buddha summed it up:  “Bhikkhu, “I am” is a conceiving; “I am this” is a conceiving; “I shall be” is a conceiving; “I shall not be” is a conceiving; “I shall be possessed of form” is a conceiving; “I shall be formless” is a conceiving. … By overcoming all conceptions, bhikkhu, one is called a sage at peace. And the sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die; he is not shaken and is not agitated. For there is nothing present in him by which he might be born. Not being born, how could he age? Not aging, how could he die? Not dying, how could he be shaken? Not being shaken, why should he be agitated?” Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties Gunaratana MN 140,

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Off the cushion, notice your body and those of others. Can you see that the appearance is always changing and therefore unable to give lasting satisfaction and that it is not who we or they are?

Meditation

  • Meditate on the part of the body starting with the first five parts (head hair, body hair, nails, teeth and skin) using the reflections as noted above.
  • Meditate on all of the body parts as you will. Try focusing on any diseased parts and see if that makes a difference.

Next: Mindfulness of the Body: Death and Impermanence Previous: MIndfulness of the Body: Breath