In Part 4 of this series on the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” I am continuing my commentary on the meditation practice called mindfulness of the body, which is the first of the practices from the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” As noted in earlier parts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study this Buddhist approach to meditation. While the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the English translation of the name of a Buddhist Sutta; the “Satipatthana Sutta,” the basic practice can be adapted to your current beliefs whether you are one who believes in God, one who does not, or one who is not sure what to believe.
Before proceeding with more standard reflections on Theravada Buddhist teaching with regards to mindfulness of the body, there is an important cautionary note to be offered.
One section of practice from the Satipatthana Sutta which comments about mindfulness of the body is entitled, “The Reflections on the Repulsiveness of the Body.” This passage reflects one very troubling aspect of Theravadan Buddhism that is also commonly present in teachings on Christian Contemplative Prayer as well. Regrettably, as many Buddhists and Christians and others seek to tame the sexual drives of the body, they often do this by depicting the body in ways that can be described as very unhealthy.
For example: from an interview with Achaan Jumnien: “If lust is a problem, use the contemplation of the repulsiveness of the body until you can see its true nature more clearly, unhindered by desires.”
(Quote from: Living Dharma Jack Kornfield Shambhala Publications Boston 1996 Page 277)
For another example: from an interview with Taungpulu Sayadaw:
“On contemplation on the thirty-two constituent parts of this…body, it will be realized there is nothing worth protecting, no desire that is satisfying, no lasting self that is to be found in this impersonal collection we call body and mind. Indeed, it will be seen as loathsome personified, absolutely unclean and undesireable.”
(Quote from: Living Dharma Jack Kornfield Shambhala Publications Boston 1996 Page 191)
Buddhist monasteries founded in a celibate lifestyle have endured in one form or another for 2500 years, often under very oppressive social conditions. So, this extremely negative and life-negating view of the human body has at least served to help people establish and maintain their mindfulness and celibacy, but one wonders at what personal and societal costs? To balance the above citations, it is also important to add that some modern Buddhist commentators have presented more moderate and healthier views in their public talks on the subject of the body and the sexual drives. Still, unhealthy and life-negating views such as the ones above are present throughout much of the Theravada Suttas and commentaries. They are also very, very common in the literature of other spiritual cultures as well.
By suggesting these Suttas and related commentaries as being well worth sustained study, I want to also strongly emphasize the importance of keeping an eye out for such negative comments. It is important to read these comments to see what they are revealing about some of the shadow drives and life-negating underbelly of some forms of Buddhist monastic culture. It is important to be aware when one is reading any spiritual literature to see whether the writer has a healthy view of the human body and sexuality or an unhealthy view.
If one wishes to live a celibate lifestyle, then hopefully there are better ways to establish and maintain a healthy celibacy rather than viewing the body as loathsome and repulsive. In fact, as I wrote in the “Simple Path of Holiness” in the Chapter “Freedom and Intimacy Part 2,” I believe there are healthier ways to establish a celibate life-style. And, in that chapter, I presented specific practices regarding my thoughts on how one can do this. I will return again to these considerations later on in the discussions of the “Contemplation of Mental Objects,” which is the fourth section of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. For now it is enough to know that the arising of sexual desire, is an example of one of the mental objects considered. So too is the general subject of how to prevent unwanted sexual urges, or any other unwanted desire, from arising.
For those who have chosen to live a sexually active lifestyle, it is important to examine one’s views of their own body and sexual drives and to make choices regarding sexual partners and practices that are healthy and life-affirming.
Being fully aware of what a particular passage of spiritual literature is saying about the body and sexuality is another excellent way to cultivate mindfulness and insight. Such observations will allow you to see and to study some hidden aspects of a spiritual culture that are usually glossed over by their apologists.
Being fully aware of one’s own views of the sexual attractiveness of their body and their confidence or lack thereof as to whether they are a skillful satisfying sexual partner is another excellent way to cultivate mindfulness and self-awareness. Examining the nature and origin of all one’s sexual desires, fantasies, and practices, those one acts upon, and those one does not wish to let others know they have, this practice of mindfulness of the body and mind is also more than a little instructive. But, further discussions of these ways to practice mindful awareness of the feelings that arise regarding the sensations of the body can also be deferred to later posts in this series.
For now it is enough to note that Freud was wrong about many of his comments on human sexuality. But he was right about how uniquely instructive it is to examine carefully and to speak openly with a trusted mentor about the feelings and perspectives one has about their body, their sexual drives, and their level of sexual confidence. No other single introspection will tell you more about the base structures of your psyche and self-esteem than this one. As you learn more about how you view your body and your sexuality this will help you learn how to make healthy choices with regards to a celibate or sexually active lifestyle.
However, as noted, for now I think it makes sense to keep going with a presentation of the basics of observing the sensations of the body which is, again, the first of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.”