The right way of knowing | Mindfulness of the body

We have already a complete article focused on the mindfulness of breathing, but here we would like to open up and explain how this mindfulness is carried throughout the day, and particularly in regard to bodily position and bodily movements. 

There is the basic explanation given throughout the suttas:

Again, a bhikkhu is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; who acts in full awareness when looking ahead and looking away; who acts in full awareness when flexing and extending his limbs; who acts in full awareness when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl; who acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting; who acts in full awareness when defecating and urinating; who acts in full awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent.

MN 10, translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Despite the apparent simplicity of this, there are several different interpretations about what this means and how one should apply it. What do we ‘know’ what are we aware of, in regard to these things? what does it mean to know, and what is the right way of being aware?

Most people’s way understanding this ends up one way or another in being aware of sensations on the body, which is not useful.

An athlete will be acutely aware of the sensations in his body as he trains. He knows very well that he is training, that he is bending and stretching his arms and legs when practicing push-ups. He has definitely awareness of the burning sensation in them, and his mind will not be likely to stray away from that. Is he practicing mindfulness of the body? 

When walking, there’s nothing special about being aware of the sensation in our calf muscle. Anyone can concentrate on this easily; any child. Any animal will be aware of the same thing, any animal is able to walk and be aware of the sensation of walking. Concentrating this awareness is just concentrating the same ordinary awareness that everyone has, on a particular object. 

So, before all else, we need to understand the nature of mindfulness, that this way of knowing and being aware, is not the same awareness that everybody automatically has. It is not through knowing something that you know and are aware of most of the time anyway, to a greater or lesser degree, that higher or sublime wisdom can arise. 

Let us try to see how to pay attention. 

Constantly the body is moving. Even now if you are sitting in a chair reading this, you are swallowing. You are blinking. You are stretching and bending some muscles, you’re not just sitting stock still like a rock. If your attention is focused on an object outside (such as this article) – you will not be aware of any of this, it’s going on without you knowing about it. For the most part, when people then want to practice mindfulness and awareness, they become aware of the sensations in their body. So if you try to be aware of blinking, you will know only the sensation of the lids of the eyes touching the skin; in the same way, being aware of ‘’turning the head’’ means to be aware of what you see when you turn the head, or to be aware of the sensation of the head turning. 

Yet in all this, we know nothing – nothing at all – about how the body is moving, about what is causing the movement. We know about every movement only after the movement has already been initiated and are entirely ignorant of how it is formed. When you go to open a door, your hand reaches out to turn the handle – are you aware, do you know before your hand reaches out that you are going to reach out and take the handle? Or do you know afterwards? When your hand moves to scratch your head, is it doing so automatically? Or do you know before? 

When we know only afterwards, we are still very much in ignorance. Being aware of bodily sensation can never give rise to wisdom, nor can we wear away kilesa in this way. Most of the time when we move and when we speak, it is already caused by desire and ignorance, big or small. Even turning our head without awareness is, first of all done automatically – in the cloud of not-knowing – already this is unwholesome. Secondly, if we turn out of curiosity to get a glimpse of something pleasant or entertaining, this is craving at work within us! But if we are only working to be mindful of the movement or sensation of turning our head, we will never see or know these things where they are born. We will be literally blind to them, or we will only see in hindsight – for example speaking something and then afterwards realising that it was said out of the desire to show off, or that it was not perfectly honest, and feeling regret.

 But if we know before moving, if we are mindful of the mind before turning the head, then this is the condition that allows us to choose with wisdom what we do, and to have no greed or craving in our mind when we act. 

Monks, this is how Nanda guards his six sense doors: If he should look to the east, he does so after knowing fully the intention in his mind, so that ‘’When I look east, bad and unwholesome states of desire and unhappiness will not flow into me.’’

When he looks to the west, to the north, to the south, and when he looks up or down, in the same way he does so after knowing fully the intention in his mind, so that ‘’When I look in this direction, bad and unwholesome states of desire and unhappiness will not flow into me.’’ 

This is how Nanda is deliberate and mindful. 

And this is how Nanda is attentive and wise: Nanda knows feeling as it arises, as it remains present and as it disappears; he knows memory/identification as it arises, as it remains present and as it disappears; he knows thinking as it arises, as it remains present and as it disappears. This is how Nanda is attentive and wise. 

AN 8.9

How to come to be aware of this in the right way? It’s not easy, not automatic (and it is not easy to make this well understood by way of an essay; that is why it is important to practice under a living guide who knows and can correct us and solve our doubts in the present.) The interpretations we make of how to know and how to practice will usually follow what we already know and already are familiar with. Therefore, for example, we think that mindfulness is the awareness of sensations – an awareness which we know already – or, perhaps, it involves talking to ourselves, repeating ‘pouring, pouring’ when we are pouring tea or ‘stepping right, stepping left’ when we are walking. We already know how to talk to ourselves about what we are doing, but this is not mindfulness! In fact, we are just adding another layer of noise to our mind, making it busy forming words to describe our experience, instead of directing it inward to watch itself and observe reality.

We can ask ourselves this simple question: can the body act by itself? Is it possible for the body to form movements without a mind? The body is made of organic matter; bones, flesh and blood, it knows nothing and can do nothing by itself. What makes it to move ? Exactly this is the place to try to be aware, right at the moment that the action is formed, which happens in the mind.

Movement in itself is not significant. A tree moves in the wind, a dead fish can be carried along by the current of the river. 

But what makes a fish go against the stream? 

We need to find this element, become aware at this point.

Sati, mindfulness, knows the mind. The function of mindfulness is to know the mind; in this case, how the mind directs the body. However, do not get confused: this practice we are talking about here is mindfulness of the nature of the body. It must still start with knowing the mind, because it is only this that will give us insight into the reality of the body’s nature. 

The relationship between body and mind is similar to the relationship between a puppet and its puppet master. All our lives, as an ordinary person, we are like a child watching a puppet show, totally absorbed in the story. We know only the puppet and we see only the superficial image of his character, getting carried away in his gains and losses, crying when he is hurt, and rejoicing when he does well. 

Mindfulness of the body is for learning to become an adult and see the puppet show for what it is. But how can we realise this? When watching a puppet show, as long as we concentrate only on the figure of the puppet, we cannot really understand its nature: we just see ‘’him’’. It is only when we turn back to look at the puppet master and watch how he directs this object made of fabric and wood, that we can separate the two and thus realise the nature of the puppet – as nothing but an object made of fabric and wood. 

In the same way, if we are not aware of the mind and how it relates to the body, we can’t know clearly the nature of the body, because we see everything as one. We say ‘’I went here or I went there, I ate this or I drank that,’ in this way, we make this body and mind into one entity, one ‘’I’’ and can therefore know nothing about either the body or the mind. That is why it is necessary to see the mind and be mindful here, in order to realise the nature of the body as it is: like the figure of the puppet, an object made of organic matter; flesh blood and bones, which is changing and degrading; (anicca), suffering in nature, (dukkha) and is entirely without anything worthy to be called ’mine’, ‘I’ or ’myself’ (anatta).

Other articles on similar subjects:

Following the breath is not mindfulness of breathing

The right understanding of sense restraint in the Buddha’s teaching

The taxi simile – what is right mindfulness?

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