In Part 1 of this series I offered an overview of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” which is the 22nd Sutta from the Long Discourses of the Buddha. One does not need to be a Buddhist to benefit from this Sutta. The basic practices can easily be adapted to any form of belief whether one is a Christian, an atheist, a Muslim, a capitalist, a Jew or whether one is not sure what to believe.
In Part 2 of this series I will focus on the 1st of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” which is mindfulness of the body. Most introductions to Buddhist meditation focus in mindfulness of breathing, which is one aspect of the body. It is unfortunate that these general introductions do not explain that mindfulness of breathing is but one aspect of the mindfulness of the body, and that mindfulness of the body is only one of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” I believe, a more complete introduction of all four of the foundations, and grounding that introduction more clearly in the context of the 22nd Sutta so that people actually read this Sutta, would be helpful. I believe this is especially the case for those students who favor a comprehensive orientation when studying a particular form of meditation.
Mindfulness of the breath can be a bit too hard for many to follow because their mind is too active. Having a mantra they can repeat over and over again is helpful to them as the mantra or sacred phrase gives the language centers of the mind something to do. What is possible is to link the repetition of the mantra to the inbreath and the outbreath. After a few weeks or months (or years) when the mind begins to calm it is possible to drop the mantra as the mind will be disciplined and focused enough to focus on the wordless awareness of the breath. Or you can keep going with the mantra. Whatever decisions you make in this regard, it is very useful that you also be more and more aware of the finer aspects of the breath and the sensations in the body that arise and pass as you breathe in and out.
While it may seem to be picky, different Buddhist teachers focus on the breath as it enters the nostrils, or the breath in that point of the abdomen where you feel the rising and falling of the abdomen most clearly as you breath in and out.
Either point of focus is fine. Whether you use the breath alone or the breath with a mantra is also fine. The general idea is to pick one aspect of the breath as a narrow focus as one of the ways to cultivate a more moment-to-moment awareness of the body.
If the breath is short and fast, let it be short and fast. If the breath becomes slow and refined, let it be slow and refined. What is important is to just be as aware of the inbreath and the outbreath as you can be.
If you wish to progress a bit more quickly there is another trick you can use. When the mind wanders, which for most of us happens pretty often, take the time to notice if you tense up. See if you have any feeling that you have “screwed up” because you can’t do something as simple as follow the breath for a few minutes. If you have tensed up or judged yourself in any way, then offer yourself a gentle gift of compassion and non-judgement before you return to the breath. See if you can “let go” of the tension a bit more. If you can’t you can’t, but if you can be at least be open to learning how to “let go” that will be good enough.
One of the primary benefits of this practice is to observe how tense the body may be.
Another way to practice mindfulness of the body is to expand the circle of awareness from the breath to do what is called a “body scan.” With this scan of the body you are moving the attention to observe all the different sensations of the body you can feel. Whether you are sitting cross legged on a cushion of in a chair, turn your attention to every sensation of the hands and legs that you can. You can do this either in a random way of moving the awareness around the body, or you can systematically scan, in detail, every nook and cranny of the body beginining with the toes, all the way up the ankle, calf, knees, thigh, hips, fingers, hands, lower and upper arm, elbow, shoulders, spine lower and upper back, neck, jaw, face, eyes, ears, base of skull, and crown of head .
Whether you focus just on one point of the sensations of the breath in the nostrils, or scan every detail of the body you will be making progress. You will begin to see there is a lot more happening in the body than you were aware of. You will already, in a basic way, be expanding the circle of awareness and consciousness.
You will begin to see that the breath and the body are always with you. Whether in formal meditation practice or in general mindfulness during the work day, the breath and the body are always present. This awareness of the body will be a help to “remember to remember” to be in the moment you are living now. As simple as it may sound, as common a cliche as “being in the moment” has come to be, actually being disciplined to be in the moment more often and to be aware of what is happening in the moment will prove to be of enormous benefit. Over the course of this series, these benefits will be presented in greater and greater detail. Over the course of this series you will see that “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” will help you see more and more of what is happening in “real time.”
The awareness of the breath in particular, and the awareness of the body in general is a good place to begin.
I will offer more thoughts on the mindfulnes of the breath and the body in the next part of this series.
Suffice it to say that one general goal is to really see where the body is tense, and where the muscles are tight and sore. Observe these places and experience without judgement. It is enough to begin to see how amazingly intricate the “City of the Body,” is. Over time you will begin to see it is unbelievably intricate and subtle.
It is enough to patiently and compassionately see where you are tense and where you are calm. Over time you can learn to de-stress the body and the mind.
Where is there illness? Where is there health and well-being? These are other important aspects of the body to explore with greater acceptance, calm, and awareness as you seek to tend to the needs of the body more and more skillfully.