Inviting Presence

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Am I my Body?

“The basic organization of nature is the process of living and not the categories about living.” – Eugene Gendlin, Sitting with Gene at his Leading Edge (Audio, Focusing Resources).

Toward the end of a series of conversations called ‘Sitting with Gene at his Leading Edge,’ Eugene Gendlin recounted a story about a boy in a Thinking at the Edge Class, who at the end of the class asked the teacher: “Well… am I my body, or do I have a body?”

Note that, for the child, neither proposition feels like it satisfactorily settles the matter; and that, for him to put the question that way, there’s already a bodily knowing working in him. Gendlin said that, if he had been there, he ideally would have said: “Good for you! You already know that those are both wrong. You already know that you don’t just have a body, like you have a chair. And you also know that you aren’t your body.

It is more important that a child recognize their bodily knowing than to come up with the answer immediately or to accept someone else’s ready-for-the-occasion answer. A skilled teacher wants the child to sense/feel/be aware of – the spot in him where he can think forward with and from that bodily knowing; where he can reflect from his living, because: “The basic organization of nature is the process of living and not the categories about living.”

There is a boy – a living event. We know him, as an ‘other’ ‘over there’; but that’s our cognition. It’s not him. He intuitively knows himself from the inside, as a quite specific here – and, if we look closely, our sense of him as the ‘other, there’ is also a ‘here’ experience of great intricacy.

In an unarticulated way, which has been ongoing since he was born (and which was there in the womb), he knows that he is alive. And, now, that living event – the individual – says, ‘I,’ and ponders what he is. (But, he’s not a ‘what‘; not a thing.)

So, how does confusion arise, such that we think we are this content, or that content – body or some ‘thing’ else? Gendlin goes on to give a model for thinking about the ‘I’ process. He gives a way of thinking about how we experience our ‘I.’ I’ll quote that hereafter Iin the next instalment of this long response), but before that, I’ll give my own understanding of how the confusion has arisen in us humans, this confusion of ‘I-dentity’ (Wolinsky, 1999).

Before I do, though, I’d like to introduce, here, another perspective on the child’s question. It reminds me of a passage in the Buddhist Sutta Nipata, a conversation between a yogi and the Buddha, which I summarize this way: The yogi asks, “Where do the great elements of existence cease?” And, the Buddha says, “The question is not rightly put. It’s better to ask: ‘Where do they have no footing?’” (See:

So, why did the Buddha change the yogi’s question? Because the initial question begs the issue. That is, the unexamined premise in the question shapes or limits the inquiry. With the question as originally put, we’ll end up having to answer on the same level. That won’t free up the process. The Buddha’s formulation, there, can take you to the experience.

In the case of our child, above, can you see that to say, “Am I my body, or do I have a body?” will keep him on the same level as the old concepts, and so maintain the cycle of confusion? Unbeknown to himself (of course), his question applies previously tried opinions – those in the common stock of his culture. (In particular, the old trap of mistaking concepts – our categories of thought – for living process.) This way lacks experiential precision.

So, Gendlin, if he had been there, would send him back to his body, back to the vague feeling in the middle of him, where the question arises, back to the matrix of his living in situations. (Children have this capacity.) There, he’ll find the ‘felt sense’ of the whole matter – a ‘direct referent’ symbolizing the matter, preconceptually. He’ll find there a ‘this‘ about the whole matter. It’s vague because it’s bodily felt and it’s a leading edge; and yet, it’s precise, because it’s how the whole matrix of life lives that particular question forward in him, in this class, at this moment. Gendlin calls this Implicit Precision.

Mindfulness of the Body with Breathing

Mindfulness of breathing is a way to include the body in meditation, and it’s also as a way to ground ourselves bodily, moment to moment, during daily activities. Anālayo, in his book – Satipaṭṭhāna: the Direct Path to Realisation  (p.125)- writes:

In ancient times, and still today, mindfulness of breathing might well be the most widely used method of body contemplation. The Buddha himself frequently engaged in mindfulness of breathing, which he called a “noble” and “divine” way of practice. According to his own statement, even his awakening took place based on mindfulness of breathing.

To obtain a sense of the importance of mindfulness of the body, we only have to consider that attention to the presence of the body is a foundational ‘step’ in the following practices:

  • awareness and investigation of the five ‘sentient processes’ (my translation of ‘khandhas’); 
  • the four establishments of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna); 
  • and the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ meditation practiced by the Buddha (ānāpānasati);
  • and, related to the first point: in general in the teachings (not only in the first foundation of mindfulness), mindfulness of the body is important in the contemplation of the earth-element, as well.

The body also figures in what the Buddha called ‘the All’; ‘that is, in the six’ channels that he said comprise the whole of our lived world (which, by the way, we moderns can expand. I write elsewhere of seven.). This is an experiential thing. The ‘bodily sense’ in this context is often translated (perhaps correctly, in a strict translation) as ‘touch,’ but this is often an inadequate term to describe the fine and intricate body-senses which are available as objects of our mindfulness. Just consider, for instance, the existence of (what we now call) proprioception; and of kinaesthesia; and also of the ‘felt sense’ (Gendlin). The importance of the body as the early or first steps in the above practices is that founding our awareness in our ‘physical’ presence gives us yogis a steady basis for the realisation of progressively subtler states of awareness; and it allows integration of these subtle, spacious states with our daily activity. So, moving ever deeper into subtle phenomena – such as the feelings, mind-states and the dynamics of suffering & liberation – does not mean abandoning the body after its initial role.
Anālayo points to one way the awareness of breathing is integrated. He points out that during the sixteen steps of Meditation on the Breathing Body [of ānāpānasati], all bodily or mental phenomena coming coming into attention:

are experienced against the background of the ever-changing rhythm of in- and out-breaths, which provides a constant reminder of impermanence. (Anālayo, p.134)

In other words, as we progressively encounter subtler phenomena in ourselves, we continue to check in with the breath and body; we transcend and include the body, embodying our realisation.

Meditating with the Body

Kāyasakkhī Sutta (The ‘Realising Through the Body’ Sutta)
Anguttara Nikāya, 9.43

Translated from the Pāli by Christopher J. Ash.

Questioner: “‘Realising the truth through the body,’ it is said. As described by the flourishing one, how is one realising truth though the body?”

Respondent: “Where, Friend, there is a practitioner, unattached to sensuality, unattached to non-skilful mental processes, who enters and abides in the first jhāna – where there is bliss and pleasure arising from being unattached, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation – when she abides thus, in touch with her body in whatever way is possible, in this way, one is described by the flourishing one as one realising through the body, though provisionally.

“And so, with the allaying of directed thoughts and evaluations, she enters and abides in the second jhāna… the third jhāna… the fourth jhāna… the dimension of immeasurable space… the dimension of immeasurable consciousness… the dimension of no-thingness… and the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception – when she abides thus, in touch with her body in whatever way is possible, in this way, one is described by the flourishing one as one realising through the body, though provisionally.

“And so, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, she enters and remains in the cessation of perception and feeling. Then, seeing with discernment, her mental fermentations go to their total end, and she abides thus, in touch with her body in whatever way is possible. It is to this extent that one is described by the flourishing one as one realising through the body definitively.”

(See accesstoinsight for another translation.)

The Deathless

Translated from the Anguttara Nikaya; from the Book of the Ones, by Christopher McLean

“Practitioners, one does not enjoy the deathless who doesn’t enjoy mindfulness directed to the body. One enjoys the deathless who enjoys mindfulness directed to the body. The deathless has been enjoyed, by those who have enjoyed mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one has fallen away from the deathless who has fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t fallen away from the deathless who hasn’t fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One has neglected the deathless who has neglected mindfulness directed to the body. One is bent on the deathless who is bent on mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one is heedless about the deathless who is heedless about mindfulness directed to the body. One is heedful of the deathless who is heedful of mindfulness directed to the body. One has forgotten the deathless who has forgotten mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t forgotten the deathless who hasn’t forgotten mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up the deathless who hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body. One has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up the deathless who has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised mindfulness directed to the body. One has recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who has recognized, fully comprehended and realised mindfulness directed to the body.”

Ways of Seeing the Body

Elsewhere I said, to a group I’m in, something like: “What is clear from the experience of mindfulness, from this practice of immediacy, is that the lived body is not the body of science, nor the medical body; that it has gradations from (what might be called) course experience to very subtle. And instead of being a mere ‘housing’ for an owner, it has level upon level of intelligence of its own. Perhaps if humanity listened more attentively to the body’s wisdom, we might find a way forward in a way that respects nature, and doesn’t dominate it. Anyhow, at the very least, you and I can contribute by finding our way into belonging on the earth, by attuning to our bodies.” (I thought I’d share. I’m organizing my sites and blogs, and there’ll be some cross-posting.

From the Samyutta Nikaya

iv.360; p.1372 of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

At Savatthi. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Listen to that…

“And what, bhikkhus, is the unconditioned? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the unconditioned.

“”And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

“Thus, bhikkhus, I have taught you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Whatever should be done, bhikkhus, by a compassionate teacher out of compassion for his disciples, desiring their welfare, that I have done for you. These are the feet of trees, bhikkhus, these are empty huts. Meditate, bhikkhus, do not be negligent, lest you regret it later. This is our instruction to you.”

Knowing Nibbāna Directly

Just looking back at that verse from the Udana, translated by F.L.Wooward, to put it in a more modern idiom:

With mindfulness of the body present,
restrained in her sixfold sense contact,
the seeker continuously collected
can know nibbāna herself.
– Ud.III.iv

I appreciate the poise in this discipline. Here it reminds me of one of my favourite short suttas, called ‘Crossing over the Flood’ (SN 1.1), where the Buddha says he: “…crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

“When I pushed forward, I was whirled about. When I stayed in place, I sank. And so I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

The whole sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu can be found at:

Contemplating the Great Primary Elements (Mahābhūta)

Continuing with the translation of MN 119, the ‘Mindfulness of Body (Kāyagatāsati) Sutta.’ The Buddha instructs his disciples (i.e., those undertaking the discipline)…

“Again, seekers, a seeker contemplates this very body – however it is placed and whatever its posture – in respect of the four primary elements: ‘In this body, there is the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’

Just as, Seekers, a skilled butcher or their apprenctice, having killed a cow, might sit at the crossroads with the dissected portions, a seeker contemplates this very body – however it is placed and whatever its posture, she reviews it [in terms of] the four primary elements: ‘In this body, there is the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’

“As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about mundane life are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a practitioner develops mindfulness of the body.”


The Four Great Elements of the Body.
Note that in this analysis, at present, we are just looking at the elements as found in the body. It is possible to find correlates of these elements in ‘the mind,’ but that is not our subject here.

Text: “atthi imasmiṃ kāye pathavīdhātu āpodhātu tejodhātu vāyodhātū.” “There are in this body, earth-element (pathavīdhātu), water-element (āpodhātu), fire-element (tejodhātu), air [or wind]-element (vāyodhātū).’

The practitioner inspects the body and discovers it in these qualities, which, for a beginning, we can define thus: earth = the solid, resistant, or hard element of the body; water = fluidity, wetness; fire = temperature (varying levels of warmth and cold); and air = movement or mobility.

It’s interesting that none of these stays the same from moment to moment – they are always alive and interactive, lighting up from moment to moment. It can also be easily observed, in these experiential reveiws which we do of the body during the day, that the hardness element varies according to one’s posture, one’s environment, and level of consciousness of one’s body. It can also be discovered, that when we have one element, we have the others.

Exploring the breath is particularly interesting from the movement point of view. How do you know you are breathing? Much of it (besided the sensations in the nostrils and nasal passages) is due to movement in the body. Also, temperature can be explored in the difference between the in-breath and out-breath. How do you know a particular breath is either an in-breath or an out-breath? If one’s perception is subtle enough, it’s likely a combination of all of the elements. Explore it. (Just note, if you are a beginner, it can be a little scary letting your breath breathe itself. But begin to learn how that can happen, just the same.)

The idea of these ‘elements’ isn’t to provide a scientific model for material events, but to encourage directly seeing what one is actually sensing. The word ‘body’ presents an entity that is much more than a thing – it is a subtle and complex set of perceptual events. If it wasn’t for sensations of this order of subtelty, how would one know there is a ‘body,’ for designating so. ‘Body’ is an aggregation of events – this body is conditions.

So, a personal note – during the night I was intimately contemplating my body, in terms of the elements, and I began to wonder, given my fibromyalgia (which was keeping me awake), then, where does pain fit in with this schema? Then I realised that it isn’t meant to – ‘pain’ is a word which designates something which is not a primary element of the body.

This can be seen by the fact that when you go 100% into pain, it changes. This isn’t the same for the four elements – go 100% into them, and (near enough, considering the space element may arise) they remain what they are: solid or soft, wet or dry, warm or cool, and moving or still. Pain, on the other hand, can even occasionally dissolve upon complete acceptance.

This contemplation makes possible the discernment of the difference between the fundamental presentation of the body, and the presentations that we call ‘mental.’ Once one’s inner poise (samādhi) is steady enough, discerning the basics of the body makes possible the discovery, on their own ground, of the kinds of experience that we designate as ‘mind’; and it becomes possible to see the inter-relation of these experiential dimensions.

What’s the purpose of all this? Freedom. It is even possible, once we are ‘inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected’, and when we are familiar with bodily and mental phenomena, to call into question whether there are even such ‘things’ as ‘moments’ to justify such phrases as ‘from moment to moment’ – and so, to become unbound.

May all being enjoy exploring the four great elements!

Mindfulness of body well-fixed

What a tough time I’ve been having in this body of mine, lately. The Fibromyalgia has been intense, but last night was so interesting – exploring the (Buddhist) elements and then asking “Exactly what is pain?” Going into the pain with that question revealed new dimensions of interdepdendence. A deep bow to my spiritual ancestors.

Here’s another text (Ud.III.iv), from Woodward’s translation of the Udana, in its now-quaint English:

Thus have I heard: On a certain occasionthe Exalted One was staying near Sāvatthi… in Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. And on that occasion the venerable Moggallāna the Great was seated not far from the Exalted One in cross-legged posture, holding his body upright, having mindfulness concerned with body well established within himself. And the exalted one saw the venerable Moggallāna the Great doing so, and at that time, seeing the meaning of it, gave utterance to this verse of uplift:

If mindfulness of body be well fixed,
The monk restrained in the six spheres of sense,
Ever composed, could his Nibbāna know.

Inside a Cell, Inside a Body

Further reflections on the practice of acquainting ourselves with the (you might say) unaesthetic aspects of the human body, the inside bits:

Some Buddhists occasionally have the depressed/depressing “the-body-is-a-sordid-pit” kind of approach.

On the other hand, when you’ve got a spare eight minutes for contemplation (which I hope you do often have), take a look at this video, which gives us taste of the respect and wonder that can be awakened by modern knowledge of the body:

[The ‘giant body’ referred to in the video subject entry is to the powerful visualisation used in Tarthang Tulku’s book, ‘Time, Space, Knowledge’ (1977).]

Recently, I watched Dr. Gunther von Hagens dissecting some bodies, on a 2-dvd set called ‘Anatomy for Beginners.’ I did that as a part of my getting real about our biological fragility, our mortality, and about the messy bits of the human body. It was a mind-blower. I recommend it (if you have a strong stomach). It confronted me with the certainty of death, while educating me in regard to the body. You’ll find that there are some youtube videos on his work, online.

He’s the same man who invented the controversial process of plasticising bodies for educational purposes. With sevral members of Tortoise Mountain sangha, I saw his exhibition of bodies, in Sydney, and it was a very valuable experience for my mindfulness practice – both ‘mindfulness of the body’ and ‘mindfulness of death.’ I was also struck with the compassion and kindness of the people who donate their body to science, for the education of others.
For a soft introduciton, see:

These are modern ways that we can do the kind of contemplations that open graveyards made possible in the time of the Buddha. Again, I think it’s important that you remember that these contemplations will have a deep impact, and so they need to be balanced with the positivity of love, compassion and appreciative discernment. I was surprised how affected I was by viewing ‘Anatomy for Beginnners.’

Outside my window right now: Eucalypts: shadows against the mist. The call of the whip-bird.

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