The Vipassana Retreat

11. Investigating the Body’s Reality

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gautama Buddha’s disciples whose
mindfulness, both day and night,
is constantly immersed in the body.
– Dhp 299

We live in a world of concept and ideas, mostly enclosed within an autobiographical reality. Yet we have the potential to know Ultimate Reality and thereby be free. While we might be inclined to search for the nature of reality through the study of philosophy, true knowledge is acquired through the senses rather than through abstract reasoning. We tend to overlook the familiar, in the search for the unusual, as for instance, searching for meaning in literature while not realising the immediate experience of one’s own body reality.

The body, as matter or material properties (rupa), is the first of the Paramattha Dhammas or the Buddha’s Teachings on Ultimate Reality, together with consciousness (citta), mental properties (cetasika), and Nirvana; and therefore is a subject of Vipassana contemplation. This investigation starts by acquiring the ability to access the primary elements of the body, with the aim to expose the body’s true nature.

For many people one’s sense of the body is not so much the qualities we are actually experiencing such as sensations, temperature, heaviness, etc., but more its form and shape – the body image. You could hardly say this is a reality, rather it is imaging – a misreading that creates an illusion. While at the same time, most of us are unaware of the identification we make with the body, not to mention the more obvious identification with the internal narrative, our story, as well.

The Buddha lists the body as the first of the five aggregates or groups we cling to, that is, identify with as ‘me, myself’ – the other aggregates are: feeling, perception, mental constructions, and consciousness. The question then is: is it possible to have a direct experience of the body without automatically identifying with it?

It is not so easy to be free of this identification, as medical science has well documented in the ‘lost limb syndrome’, where a person who loses a limb, say in an accident, will act as if the lost limb is still there, even apparently feeling painful sensations in the missing limb. This illustrates that there is an unconscious identification with the body’s form and shape. That is, we have a deeply imprinted image in our mind’s eye – a phantom – of the shape and appearance of the body, not so much what is actually being experienced in the body.

How then to access the reality of the body and not automatically identify with it? One way to loosen this identification or attachment to the body is through the meditations in the body contemplations, as given in the Satipatthana Sutta, on the unpleasant or disgusting aspects of the body – which is rather like shock therapy! This is a rather drastic approach but it can be very effective if done under proper guidance. At least it helps to free one from the gross attachment anyway.

What we can explore here though is the deep investigation of body phenomena at its elemental level, that is, through what are termed the four primary elements of earth, air, fire and water, or the reality of the corresponding experiences of hardness and softness, movement and vibration, temperature and fluidity. Such an introspection of the body will expose just the elements in the body and thus the meditator momentarily loses the sense of the body’s boundaries, thereby loosening the identification with the body image, to eventually experience the body, with the other aggregates, as just rising and passing away (anicca).

In the sitting posture, the primary object is the tactile bodily process of motion, evident in the rising and falling movement of the abdomen. The ‘inner wind element’ is active in the body as motion, vibration and pressure, manifesting itself in the passage of air through the body (e.g. in breathing) and also in the movement of limbs and organs. It becomes perceptible as a tactile process – as an object of touch – through the pressure or pushing sensation caused by it. As the meditator tunes into this particular sensation or specific characteristics in the movement of the abdomen, it will then reveal or expose the three general characteristics, of change, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality.

Insight meditators, who focus on the body as their primary meditation object, need to have the same body consciousness – not necessarily the level of fitness, may I add – of an elite athlete in training. It is essential that the meditator’s body is open and relaxed so that he or she can sense into the subtle internal and external movements from a state of receptivity.

If on the other hand, the meditator’s body is tense and tight, the practice becomes a struggle and one is out of touch with the present moment awareness. So at the beginning of a sitting session, check to see if the body is relaxed and if at any time during the session you notice that the body has tensed, do a body scan, that is, scan the body part-by-part, relaxing each region as the awareness moves through the body, while softening into any tension or contraction you find. If the body is contracted so must be the mind. Be open and allowing, as the practice is about receptivity and openness, allowing a ‘tuning in’ to what actually is manifesting.

Do not interfere. Do not force or manipulate the movement of the abdomen in any way, just sense the natural movement. Beginners often assumed that they must stay focused on the abdomen’s movement all the time, and measure their success on whether they achieve this or not. Actually, within an hour’s sitting session, the abdomen movement might be discernible for short periods of time only. Other objects such as body sensations, mind states and thinking might become predominant, and these must be noted as secondary objects until they disappear.

While the meditator is focused on body phenomena, there are actually two things that one can be aware of: the object, and the ‘knowing of it’ or the ‘consciousness of it’. For example, there is one’s body sensations and the associated awareness that knows the sensations. This practice is known as ‘pairing’ and needs to be established from the very beginning of the practice. In this way, the meditator will come to appreciate that what is observing the phenomena is just the ‘knowing’ or the mind knowing the mind, and ‘not me or myself’. At least one comes to see one’s identification with the consciousness, which perhaps was not suspected at all before.

To have clarity that leads to insight, the meditator needs to be able to differentiate between mind and body. Normally, we have the sense that the mind and body are merged or we act as if the body leads. Yet the Buddha tells us in the first verse of the Dhammapada that: “Mind precedes all knowables, mind is their chief, mind-made are they”. Seeing the distinction between mind and body will create a ‘mental space’, which will help to free us from the gross identification with the phenomena, allowing one to witness the mind and body relationship as an impartial observer without identification.

Walking meditation can be the key to insighting into the body’s reality. When investigating movement in walking, the meditator needs to slow down and sense into the subtle movements as the component parts of the step that are experienced. Then what had appeared to be just one continuous movement is seen to be clearly defined stages. He or she will know that the lifting movement is the not the same as the pushing forward movement and the pushing forward movement is differentiated from the lifting or the placing movement. In this way, the illusion of continuity is seen through.

As the practice deepens, the meditators will experience subtler phenomena, such as the qualities of the essential body elements i.e. heaviness, lightness, heat, vibration, etc. By paying close attention to the stages of walking meditation, the four elements in their true essence are experienced, not as concepts, but as actual processes, as ultimate realities.

As the fluency of the practice increases, it will be realised that with every movement, there is also the concurrent knowing of the movement or the mind that knows the movement. There is the lifting movement and also the mind that is aware of the lifting. In the next movement, there is the pushing forward movement and also the mind that is aware of that movement. In addition, the meditator will realise that both the movement and the awareness of it arises and vanishes in that moment very quickly like a flash of lightning. The meditator will experience mind and matter (nama-rupa) arising and passing away from moment to moment.

Also the meditator has by now realised that a mental intention precedes every movement – that is, the mind leads the body. After the intention, movement occurs. So there arises an understanding of the conditionality of all these occurrences, that movements never arise by themselves without conditions: that there is a cause or condition for every movement and that the condition here is the mental intention preceding every movement.

When meditators comprehend mind and matter arising and disappearing at every moment then they will understand the impermanence nature of the body processes. That disappearing happens after arising is a characteristic by which we understand that something is impermanent. The next insight is unsatisfactoriness, which is seen because the constant arising and vanishing of phenomena undermines one sense of stability and therefore is stressful and unsatisfactory.

Then, after realising impermanence and the unsatisfactory nature of things, the meditator sees that he or she has no control over these things. That is, things are arising and passing away according to natural laws. A meditator at this level has therefore ‘insighted’ into the universal characteristics of all conditioned phenomena: change, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality.

What are the benefits of this? Such knowledge will ultimately free us from attachment and desire, which the Buddha indicated as the root cause of suffering. By experientially knowing the three universal characteristics through Vipassana meditation, desire or hankering in the mind is eventually overcome. This being deeply realised, attachment and craving will end and with it comes absolute peace and freedom from all conditioned things!