Why did the Buddha create this practice? What is the benefit? The Buddha offered practices that bring about awareness and balance. Awareness of the breath and sensation anchor us in the present moment. But what does awareness of body parts provide?
The Buddha’s students were primarily men, often young men, whose bodies were most likely a source of pride and pleasure, and full to the brim with testosterone. This made for an easily distractible mind. So the Buddha had them take a more dispassionate in-depth look at what makes up the human body, including parts they never thought about and some they only joked about such as the gas and liquids the body emits. We can imagine how a hormonally-charged group of young men -- enamored of their own bodies’ prowess and easily brought to a mental state of lust by the sight of, say, a young woman walking by -- could be brought into a more sober state of awareness through this practice. It brings the body into the realm of impersonal universal functionality. If sometimes these handed-down practices promote the ‘loathsomeness’ of the body, it is meant as a counterbalance to over-indulgence in bodily pleasures. The ultimate goal of the practice is to develop a more neutral relationship with the body, one that allows for moderation and balance.
The Buddha’s primary teaching was the Middle Way, tempering extremes of all kinds, so with any group of meditation practitioners, we look to the challenges of that particular group when sharing the teachings. As my students are a group of women, mostly postmenopausal, the Buddha most likely would have had a different prescription for us to help us find the Middle Way through the minefield of our relationship with the body.
Would a lengthy meditation on the parts of the body be useful to us? Maybe, but we in the 21st Century are probably much more aware of the various body parts from a workings perspective than the average person cerca 500 BC. Even if our understanding is not always accurate, we are exposed to and have access to an amazing amount of information. We even have access to a ringside seat at quasi-demonstrations of surgical procedures through medical television series, should we choose to watch them. And, though not all of us are interested in going to see it, there is that amazing and controversial exhibit of human anatomy, The Human Body Show, where preserved human bodies are skinned to reveal their inner workings.
In our group, we are of an age that we ourselves and/or close friends and family members have had surgical procedures and/or serious illnesses, so that when someone in our group shared her recent surgery, everyone in the circle seemed very knowledgeable, asked informed questions and knew others with a similar surgery. Of course this doesn’t mean we are qualified to perform surgery or diagnose an illness, but it does mean that human anatomy is not alien to us. If anything, we may be out of balance in focusing on the pathology -- everything that can go wrong with this organ or that bone, tendon, muscle, etc. It is pretty standard in our techno-times for people to Google whatever symptom they have and discover a terrifying array of possible diseases. With exposure to information about micro-organisms that live within and without our bodies, we can develop germaphobia and get stuck in thought patterns regarding the body.
Clearly, our challenge today is a different one than the Buddha’s students had, and it’s not just the aches and pains. Through the same media that gives us sneak peeks into our innards, we also come up against fear-based identity issues. We are bombarded with the current ‘ideal body’ to strive for. Younger women have even more sense of need to take an already beautiful body and bring it into alignment with today’s extreme ideals, having pubic hairs removed or breasts augmented, among other currently common procedures. And young men today are far more likely to have procedures to make their bodies suit the current male ideal than their fathers and grandfathers were. We had a good laugh in our group imagining our husbands or fathers ever thinking that they needed to do anything other than shower and shave. But now it’s not just women who feel they must make their bodies objects of desire.
In the Buddha’s day there were certainly fashions and cosmetics. Women may have compared their looks to those of their sisters and friends, but they did not have images of anorexic models constantly streamed into their lives as we do. The inundation of this imagery, all geared to make us feel we are not enough as we are -- not just in our body but in our lives -- is incredibly intense today. Advertisers build their campaigns upon activating our fears. And it works!
So we are both more informed about the internal workings of our bodies and more traumatized in relationship to our bodies. If the Buddha were transported to this moment in time, what would he think of all this? He would most likely be astounded at the level of dissatisfaction with our bodies. Monks from Asia who come to the West today are amazed at our propensity for self-loathing and shame.
As a culture we in the West are perceived as incredibly materialistic. Why do we buy, buy, buy? To shore up our low self-esteem. Many of us live in an ‘if only’ state of mind. ‘If only I had plastic surgery.’ ‘If only I had those shoes.’ We fill the void within ourselves with stuff and self-improvements, and much of that stuff is to improve the impression we make on others. Heaven forbid they should see us as we are, because who we are is never enough. ‘If only I lost ten, twenty or thirty pounds,’ ‘if only I had the time or willpower to do the that butt lift program.’ Very few of us are completely satisfied with our bodies exactly as they are. And those that are may live in fear of losing that which they are so satisfied about.
Honestly I had thought by the time I had reached this ripe old age, I would have been able to let go a bit. I picture my beloved grandmother, all soft and round and wrinkled. She was perfect in my eyes! Did I really think that after a certain age the women of my generation would suddenly say, oh it’s time to start wearing calf-length silky dresses, sensible pumps, and not worry about our waistline? I am of a generation that strives for the perfect figure and probably always will. Bummer! But then maybe it is just my assumption that my grandmother wasn’t vain. I do remember when we shared a room on visits, we would race to see who could get dressed first, and I always won because she had to put on a girdle. She was born at a time when women still wore corsets with strings that had to be pulled, sometimes with someone’s foot on the butt to get traction. Good grief! She must have felt the girdle was easy breezy in comparison.
This is all an introduction to the opportunity to explore our own thoughts and feelings about our bodies. Questions we might ask explore:
- What are your least favorite parts of your body? Do you ‘hate’ your hair, for example? Think of one and spend some time with it.
- What is the basis of your dislikes and likes? Is a particular part painful, unreliable, troublesome, prone to disease, or just doesn’t meet the standards of attractiveness promoted in your culture?
- Can you remember when this dislike started? Can you remember a scene or scenes from your earlier years when somehow it was suggested to you, either directly or indirectly, that this part of your body was not acceptable?
Think of a part of your body that you take pleasure and pride in.
- Allow yourself to remember the ways in which it has provided you with good feelings.
- Notice if these good feelings are due to this body part being reliable, pleasurable, healthy, or because it meets the standards of attractiveness in your culture.
- Again, bring to mind any scenes from early years that might help to answer the question of why this body part gets such a positive review.
Now, add in the element of aging.
- Has aging changed your feelings toward your favorite and least favorite body parts? Is a part that has been a source of reliability, pride or pleasure becoming less so? If so, explore how that has revealed itself, give yourself examples. Then notice your emotions as you think about this change. Perhaps you have come up with a phrase that you tell yourself to make this all okay, or you have ignored it. But right now allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to whatever emotions are stirred up.
We sit with what is. We acknowledge what is. We don’t pave over what is. If what is is painful, we hold this pain in an open loving embrace. We don’t push it away. Instead we open wider to make more space for all of what is there. Think of creating a spacious field of being present and you are hosting whatever thoughts and feelings arise and fall away, however strong they are, rather than being held hostage by them.
This is just an exercise. We just open and notice and acknowledge whatever arises. We let our own experience exist without judging it. If there is judgment, we compassionately notice the judgment. This is the exercise. This is the process of being fully present with the truth of our own experience.
How much energy do we expend on avoiding these feelings? If we can sit with them in a mindful open loving way, we may be surprised how they begin to relax, release, change, soften, and even sometimes disappear. Our avoidance holds them in a stasis! Our aversion constricts them in crystallized fear.
The Buddha taught that the source of our suffering is our attachment, aversion or delusion. The way we feel about our body, or any particular part of our body, is an excellent laboratory for working with these sources of suffering. If we can notice, if we can be present, if we can allow for this process to expose what we are doing with our habituated patterns of thinking, then we can lessen that sense of suffering.
Years ago I recognized that my relationship to my feet was a source of suffering for me. I hated them! They were ugly and painful. As a child, I had dry cracked feet that were the cause of much teasing from other children. I was always ashamed of them. I would hide them away as much as possible. Later I developed bunions that were painful and ugly. This compounded my dismay.
Then in a spiritually-based creativity class I took about 15 years ago, I focused on my feet, and created a mandala of photos of feet that I collaged from magazines. In the process I began to feel deep gratitude for my feet that have carried me everywhere. My mandala was ultimately a thank you note to my feet, the very feet that in my mind had been such a source of misery. That simple process of spending time with noticing feelings about my feet, transformed my relationship with them and activated a gratitude that has stayed with me all these years later.
If you have a body part that takes you to a place of shame or misery, give yourself some time to focus on this area. Maybe create a mandala or journal about your feelings. The key is to not come up with any solutions, not to force ‘positive’ emotions to replace the ‘negative’ ones, but to really be present with the feelings, to allow the process to work at its own pace and come to its own end, without the ‘should’ mind trying to make nice-nice. If you give it time, it will get to where it needs to be.
Coming to a balanced neutral state of mind in relationship to the body, where we are neither enamored, prideful nor ashamed -- that is the purpose of this exercise. Next week we will expand our focus a bit and avail ourselves of more insights in our last body-focused exercises, as recommended by the Buddha.