'Just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends...'
This week's article is the second in a series on the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on four ways of establishing mindfulness. Check out the first article in the series if you missed it, because it provides an introduction to the discourse and puts the practices contained therein into context.
In this article, we're going to dive straight in with the next practice in the first section - the parts of the body. (Those of you who are interested in which are the 'original' practices in the Satipatthana might like to know that today's practice is the only one in the first section to appear in all versions of this discourse, although the actual practice I'll be recommending is a little different to what's in the sutta.)
The parts of the body practice, as described in the discourse
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, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’
What's being presented here is an exercise in deconstruction. We may typically think of 'the body' as a 'thing', a single object which goes about the world doing things. Here, however, the Buddha is inviting us to consider the body as an assembly of parts. Actually, it's more accurate to say 'a system of parts' rather than 'an assembly of parts' - an assembly could imply something static, like a structure made out of Lego bricks, whereas a system has more of a processual quality to it.
And, indeed, the body has this quality of 'process'. Our nails and hair grow; when (if?) we clip them shorter, we don't typically look at the off-cuts in the bin and weep for the loss of part of ourselves. They'll only grow back and need cutting again anyway! As we continue to examine the body in this way, we can see more examples of the body's nature as a process, and we start to get a feel for the dynamic nature of the whole thing. And that's the gist of the practice - seeing the body in terms of its constituent parts, seeing the trees that make up the forest.
Of course, there's a simile
Followers of early Buddhism will be familiar with the many similes that the Buddha uses throughout the Pali canon to try to explain the Dharma in terms of everyday language for the time in which he lived. And this practice is no exception:
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 [someone] 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 [one] reviews this same body.... (continue as above).
OK, we have a bag - well, the body is a kind of skin-bag, right? It's a big collection of stuff enclosed with skin. 'Skin-bag' is perhaps not the most attractive metaphor for the body, but it'll do for these purposes.
So what's in the bag? All sorts of stuff! Hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet and white rice. And they're all mixed together. (Not a good storage system if you ask me.) But someone with good eyesight can look at this mixture of stuff and pick out the hill rice from the red and white rice, separate the beans from the peas and the millet, and so on and so forth. The point here is that at first sight the mixture in the bag appears as just one thing - 'the mixture' - with a bit of careful examination we can start to tease it apart into multiple constituent parts (hill rice, red rice and so on). In the same way, through careful examination of the body, we can come to relate to it in terms of its constituents, rather than as a monolithic entity.
Note also that the bag in the simile has an opening at both ends (again, I'm not convinced this is a good way to store rice). Bodies have quite a few openings! If you had a rice bag with a hole at both ends, rice would fall out of the bottom hole every time you picked it up, and need to be replenished through the top hole. In much the same way, our bodies expel various bits and bobs over the course of a day, and some of that needs to be replenished by inserting new things at the top. So although the simile perhaps isn't the best advice for the long-term storage of food, it describes the body pretty accurately.
The practice as written
The main drawback with the practice is actually highlighted in the simile - we don't actually want to open up our skin-bag to review its contents with our eyes! As a result, there's likely to be a certain amount of imagination involved when taking the inventory of the body - I don't know about you but I'm certainly not hyper-aware of my spleen. In fact, in general I'm only aware of the innermost bits of my body when something is going wrong with them.
Working with the list of body parts as given can make for an interesting contemplation practice. However, when doing insight meditation, it can be extremely helpful to work with what we can concretely experience with the five senses, rather than what we think or imagine might be going on. One of the foundations of Buddhism is the idea that we are fundamentally confused or deluded about what's going on in our experience, and so it can be very helpful to focus exclusively on what we can actually see, hear and feel for ourselves, temporarily stepping out of the world of thoughts, ideas and what we 'know' to be true about our experience in order to see what's actually there.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a modern variant of the practice, which is very much in line with the spirit of 'deconstructing the body', but which focuses more on what we can feel directly.
The body scan
The body scan seems to have been developed in Burma during the colonial period, as part of a nationalistic effort to revive Buddhism within the country. (Buddhist scholar Ven. Analayo argues that the Burmese creators of the body scan were actually drawing inspiration from the 'mindfulness of breathing' practice earlier in this discourse, but I think it's close enough in spirit that it makes a good 'parts of the body' practice too.) Subsequently, the body scan was picked up by Jon Kabat-Zinn and incorporated into his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, and as a result has found itself front and centre in many modern presentations of secular mindfulness. There's also a family resemblance with certain yoga nidra practices.
Bearing all this in mind, it's no surprise that there are many, many different versions of the body scan. At their core, though, they all revolve around bringing our attention to the physical sensations of the body, one area at a time, and gradually moving around the body until we've covered the whole thing. The most important part is that we should feel what's going on in the body - not think about the body, not imagine what might be going on, not visualise the body parts, but tap into the physical sensations present, whatever they might be. (Actually, in some parts of the body, we might not feel anything at all! That's fine. Generally speaking, the body will 'wake up' over time and you'll get more and more sensation, but your experience in the moment is whatever your experience is - there's no right or wrong level or type of sensation to find when doing the body scan.)
The major difference between all the different body scans is the route taken around the body. I was taught to start at the top of the head and spiral slowly down to the soles of the feet, scanning horizontal 'layers' of the body like an MRI scanner. I'm told that the Jon Kabat-Zinn version is similar, but starts at the feet and moves up to the head. My teacher Leigh's version starts at the top and works down but does the whole arm before moving on to the torso rather than jumping across horizontally. You may have learnt another version again.
Ultimately, the route doesn't matter. What matters is the continuity of awareness, and - at least if you're interested in developing samadhi - the speed at which you move. But we'll talk more about that in a moment - for now, we have the standard 'refrain', which appears after every practice in the Satipatthana Sutta.
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
As I said, this is the same thing we had last time, so the same considerations apply.
How should we interpret 'internally' and 'externally' here? We have a few options:
We also see again the explicit nod to the impermanence (anicca) practice. Body sensations come and go like everything else, so looking at the fine arisings and passings as you do the body scan is a good way to practice.
The body scan also makes for an excellent non-self (anatta) practice. When you bring your attention to your forearm, you're making the forearm the object - if you're the subject and your forearm is the object, then I guess the body ain't you. Repeat for the rest of the body parts, and sooner or later you can't help but find the identification with the body lessening. (At which point you may want to ask 'So what exactly is the 'subject' here anyway?)
And, of course, the body is also a good opportunity to contemplate unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). The body is often a source of unsatisfactory sensations, and even if it starts out feeling pretty good, if you continue to examine it for long enough that'll change.
What about samadhi?
In addition to using the body scan for insight, it also makes a good access concentration practice. The fact that you're moving around every few seconds makes the practice inherently more engaging than following the breath, so it can be easier to build up some sustained focus.
The main point to watch out for is that you do continue to stay with the sensations from moment to moment, rather than simply observing the sensations in an area of the body and then switching off. I think of this as the 'tick-list' approach to the body scan - 'Yep, still got a left shoulder. Now, what am I doing this evening? Oh, time for the left upper arm. Still there, good. Right, tonight I think I'll watch that new series on Netflix...'
The other key point is the speed of the practice. Doing a relatively swift body scan can be OK for insight, but will tend to be a little on the quick side to build up good concentration. My teacher Leigh Brasington recommends that you between 30 and 60 minutes on a body scan if you want to build up solid access concentration.
Some guided body scans, including one by Leigh Brasington
On my Audio page you'll find two shorter body scans - one is about 10 minutes long, the other 25. The 10-minute one is nice when you don't have much time, and can give you a feel for how the practice unfolds. The 25-minute version works well for insight, but is on the short side to be building up much concentration. If you're interested in concentration, my teacher Leigh Brasington has a 45-minute body scan on his website which is more suitable.
It's worth saying that you might not like it much the first time you do it. If that's the case, then you should do it a lot! The body scan can often bring us into contact with aspects of our bodies (including unpleasant memories that we've 'buried' on the physical level) that we would prefer not to confront, but it's usually extremely helpful to bring some awareness to that very material. The only exception is in the case where there's a history of severe trauma, in which case body-based practices should be approached carefully and in collaboration with a mental health professional who can provide appropriate support.
May your explorations of the body prove fruitful!
Postscript: Should you use an audio recording or self-guide?
This morning I got a question from a student about whether it's better to use an external guide (e.g. the audio recordings linked above), or to do it yourself. It's a good question; here's my answer.
Personally, I think it's better to learn to self-guide. It's a bit fiddly at first because there are lots of instructions and it can take a while to learn a route around the body, but in the long run learning to self-guide means that you aren't dependent on having the audio file handy. Self-guiding is also a little more challenging in terms of maintaining mindfulness because you don't have an external prompt tapping you on the shoulder every few seconds (although see caveat below).
In terms of the route, any route that encompasses the whole body will do - it doesn't have to be mine if you're already familiar with someone else's. I linked to my teacher Leigh's 45-minute version of the scan above, as well as my own 10- and 25-minute recordings; as mentioned, Leigh is interested in generating a reasonable level of samadhi (he finds the body scan good for developing access concentration) so it's understandable that he would want to take his time. For me, I was taught to teach the body scan in a Rinzai Zen context where the standard length of meditation is 25 minutes - which Leigh would regard as too short in general, because he sees 30 minutes as the bare minimum, and prefers an hour. And I run a lot of mindfulness sessions for beginners where 10-15 minutes is a more appropriate length of time.
Once you have a route, it's relatively easy to tailor how long it takes - I suggest that you don't just move faster from place to place, but rather divide the body into smaller or larger sections. For example, if you want to take more time, you can take the upper arm in four sections - the outside (the side facing away from the body), the front, the inside (next to the body), and the back. If you don't have so much time, you can simply gently scan the whole upper arm all at once. You can even tweak the size of the body regions you're using as you're going through, if you find that it's taking too long (or not long enough). I suggest that your route is symmetric, though - so if you did the left upper arm in four parts, do the right upper arm in four parts as well.
I mentioned a caveat in relation to the superiority of self-guiding. I used to be pretty hard-line about this, because I'd always found it vastly preferable to self-guide my own meditations. Generally speaking, guided meditations annoy me - I want to be getting stuck into the practice, so the guidance only serves to interrupt what I'm doing, and I don't like to be interrupted! But then toward the end of last year, when my Dad was very poorly, I found that my mind was so chaotic when I sat to meditate that there was no chance of being able to focus on anything without some kind of external support. During that period I took great comfort from working through Zen teacher Henry Shukman's series of koan practices on Sam Harris's Waking Up app - it was nice to have something new, but mainly I found it very supportive to have a kind, gentle voice in my ear throughout the sitting period. Since then I've been a lot more accepting of guided meditation - although I still think it's better to self-guide if the conditions allow for it.
I hope this helps!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!