The Body’s True Nature – 12-30-2019

Tonight’s Dharma talk examines what the Buddha called the First Foundation of Mindfulness—the body. At the beginning of a chapter called, “Understanding the True Nature of the Body,” Mark Coleman quotes Eduardo Galeano:

The Church says: the body is a sin.

Science says: The body is a machine.

Advertising says: The body is a business. 

The Body says: I am a fiesta.

With so many different messages, opinions, and judgments about the body, it is a challenge to be embodied comfortably. In mindfulness practice, we pay attention to physical sensations as a way to be present in the moment. As we investigate the true nature of our experience, we notice the impermanence of sensations. Parts of the body that usually appear solid are experienced as vibration, areas of coolness or warmth, and points of tightness and tension that dissolve and release. Sometimes physical boundaries seem to fade away and expand into vast space. The body may feel empty, light and transparent or heavily weighed down. Careful attention to this fluid process reveals that the physical form is not as fixed as we tend to think it is. 

On Friday my sister phoned to let me know that our mother had just died, after a long struggle with leukemia. Although I had thought I was prepared, my body responded with tears and shivering before my mind could process the news. My heart ached, my stomach churned, and my legs were weak, slow-moving, and uncoordinated. After the phone call, Mark and a close friend held me tightly until my sobbing subsided. Gradually, my body regained a sense of equilibrium, and I could begin to articulate feelings of grief. I am aware of how spontaneously the body absorbs and works through strong emotions if the rational mind does not interfere. 

Right now, reconnecting to the sensations of my feet and breath is essential, because my mind is full of memories of my mother and plans for her memorial service on January 4. Consciously sensing the ground beneath my feet helps orient and balance me in the present moment. As I go through the day, my body feels heavy and tired. I notice that calm, steady breaths are interrupted by deep sighs of sadness, releasing little by little the sorrow held in the body. I feel grateful for Dharma practice, which gives me tools for paying attention to the truth of what the body is expressing. 

Under the lens of mindfulness, we encounter the mystery of inhabiting a body whose processes are beyond our control. How can the same person who was small enough to emerge from a woman’s womb grow to be bigger than the birth mother? Aging, sickness and death visit uninvited. The question arises, “Who is in charge of the body?” Even a gymnast like Simone Biles who has trained her limbs to master spectacular feats does not understand the existential nature of embodiment. 

Although biologists can trace how an intention to move fingers releases electrical impulses that enable a hand to open or close and to do fine motor tasks such as playing piano, many of our movements seem to take place automatically and without volition.

A healthy body has a remarkable ability to heal itself. When you cut a finger, it bleeds until a scab forms to protect the wound and stop the flow of blood. Over the course of a few days, the scab shrinks and shrivels up, leaving the site of the injury smooth and clear. 

Wise physicians work with the body’s natural resilience. Years ago, I fell off my bicycle and smashed the small bones of my right eye socket. Half of my face looked as if it had collapsed. In the hospital, a female surgeon explained how she planned to repair my face by making incisions underneath the hairline and wiring broken pieces of bone back together around my eye. Her medical artwork was so skillful that my wounds are now undetectable.

Much of our organic process functions without conscious interventions. Coleman points out that our taste buds renew themselves every ten days to maintain their sensitivity. In cycles that last less than twenty weeks, a new liver supplants the old one. While the largest organ of the body, the skin, is fully replaced once a month, the stomach is renewed every three months. Even the skeleton, composed of more than two hundred bones, is completely rebuilt every seven years. Aside from the cornea, the eyes are one of the few body parts that do not renew themselves. 

If most of the body constantly replaces itself, I question if I am truly the same person I was a decade ago. I imagine that a self—my thinking mind and personality—is in control of the body, which actually functions on its own, aging and healing regardless of my thoughts, words or deeds. Although I refer to the body as “mine,” I don’t really own it.  Jack Kornfield jokes that we rent a physical form temporarily until it’s time to vacate it.

Mark Coleman refers to an old Sufi story about the crazy wisdom of a mythical guru named Mullah Nasruddin. When Nasruddin attempts to cash a check in a bank, the teller asks him for some form of identification. Rummaging through his pockets, Nasruddin pulls out a mirror, looks at his face, and announces, “Yes, that’s me!” Likewise, each of us tends to use a mirror to confirm our existence. And yet the body we see is not who we really are. 

While we have different physical shapes and forms, our essence is beyond definition, category or any other limited concept. What we call the body consists of physical processes and elements, which transform into new forms when we die. Coleman likens the body’s elements to water molecules bound together in the temporary, conditioned frozen form of an ice cube. 

He tells about Christopher Titmuss, one of his meditation teachers, accompanying a Thai monk named Por Long Bhut at the end of his life. Christopher recalls that the monk refused all medicine and painkillers for liver cancer. Although his body was deteriorating, his clarity of presence endured. 

Aware when death was near, Por Long Bhut announced, “Time has come” and invited Christopher to lie down beside him on a bamboo mat. The elderly monk whispered to him an account of how each sense was fading away one by one. 

In Christopher’s words, “Por Long Bhut whispered to me in Thai, ‘No seeing.’ Then he said a few minutes later, ‘No hearing.’ Por Long Bhut never reacted. He knew deep inner peace before, during, and after the diagnosis of cancer. Por Long Bhut’s depth of mindfulness and meditation, along with the clarity that he was not the body, helped him make his transition smooth from life to death. He was a liberated and untroubled human being.” Because he was not identified with his physical body, the Thai monk was free from its constraints as he died. 

His example inspires me to continue paying attention to the First Foundation of Mindfulness. 

*To loosen our identification with a physical self, let’s practice an adapted form of Mark Coleman’s guided meditation called “Exploring the Selfless Nature of the Body:” (pp. 73-74). 

Sit in a comfortable meditation posture and close your eyes, turning the attention inward. 

Open your awareness to hearing and become present to the ebb and flow of sounds around you. Notice how sounds are known quite effortlessly with mindfulness. 

Rest in that spacious awareness for a few moments, noting how individual sounds arise, each time accompanied by simple knowing. This process happens all by itself. 

Now include awareness of the body’s landscape. Notice that as physical sensations appear and disappear, these are also known naturally without any need to make an effort. 

You might sense the contact of your legs or buttocks with the chair or cushion. You may notice the temperature of the air or the touch of clothing on your skin. 

Pay attention to a variety of physical experiences for a few minutes. 

Note how these sensations come and go by themselves, and how easily they are sensed in awareness. 

In the same way, sense the breath, moving like a perennial inner tide of inhalations and exhalations. You don’t make the breath happen; it moves by itself, ceaselessly flowing, keeping the body alive. Notice any feelings or thoughts about this understanding of how bodily life simply maintains itself organically through many kinds of biological processes. Be aware of the breath breathing itself. 

Then shift attention to the heart as it beats, sensing the pulse in your veins.  Reflect on how the heart, like every other physical organ, operates according to its own nature, without any prompting from you. 

Sense how each organ of the body operates on its own, and how you are simply a witness to the process. Notice how this observation touches you and affects your relationship to your physical experience. Resolve to continue this observation in daily life, noticing how the body miraculously functions by itself, selflessly.