In his book, Nothing Holy About It, Tim Burkett lists the four foundations of mindfulness as:
Mindfulness of our body;
Mindfulness of our feelings;
Mindfulness of mental formations; and
Mindfulness of our environment.
These foundations listed by Burkett were originally presented in the Satipatthana Sutra of Buddhism, but I am not interested here in delving into the question of the correct translation and interpretation of this Sutra. I will work with the translation that Burkett provides and interpret these through my experiences with mindfulness.
Back on July 5, 2018, I posted an article titled “Mindfulness and Environment” that dealt with the fourth of these foundations.(1) Here I will deal with the first, and it is my plan to post on the second and third in the near future.
In his recent article posted here, James Jarret notes that “my actual experience of being a self, so far, has only ever occurred within the confines of my human body.”(2) This is certainly true for all of us. We live, however, in a culture that has long harbored the notion that this bodily existence is only part of the truth, that our being in a body is only a temporary thing, and our true destiny is a disembodied existence in some ethereal realm.
It seems to me that most people are rather unmindful of their bodies, which perhaps is a residue of this long-held belief. I think this is particularly true of males. We do, of course, pay a lot of attention to our bodies. Often rather vainly. And there is a large subculture rather obsessed with health and fitness. But paying attention to the body is not the same as being mindful of it.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that many people treat their body as a thing, rather than an integral part of their being. It is mindfulness of the body as an integral part of our being that makes it a “foundation of mindfulness.” There are a few different well established traditions of mindfulness of the body, but here I want to focus on one that is well known, and that I have considerable experience with – hatha yoga.
Brief background on modern yoga
Yoga is an ancient body of practices, but many aspects of the modern practice of yoga asanas, or postures, date back only to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Yoga Sutras, which dates back to roughly the 4th century of the modern era, asanas are the topic of only three of the 195 sutras. Ancient yoga was mainly about meditation, and the asanas were poses that helped the meditator to be comfortable and steady while practicing meditation.
Regardless of its history, modern hatha yoga, has developed into a comprehensive practice of bodily mindfulness. Not all types of yoga are equal as mindfulness practices, but discussions of which are best can get quite heated and I have no desire to venture into that here.
I was introduced to yoga more than 50 years ago. I did not have good resources for learning available to me at that time, and I mainly had to rely on books. This is not a good way to learn yoga. About 30 years ago, I was introduced to a teacher of the Iyengar method of yoga. She had learned her yoga directly from Iyengar in India and was also a college professor. I studied with her for the next 26 years, until Covid caused a break.
Iyengar Yoga puts a strong emphasis on doing each pose with the correct physical alignment, particularly of the spine. In this system, a pose done correctly is one done with correct alignment, regardless of what it looks like from the outside. For the beginning student, there is always the temptation to try to do a pose like its done in the photos, even if one has to strain a bit, or a lot, to do so. One of the early lessons of yoga is that we have this temptation to show off a bit, and that we need to be mindful of this temptation and resist it.
Another lesson is that we have to develop an internal sense of when our alignment is correct and when it is not. It is in this development of an internal sense that we really become mindful of the body. Going deeper into this internal sense of alignment, we begin to learn the poses from the inside out. There are poses that though I’ve done them for 30 years, I still can discover a subtle muscle movement that shows me how to do it better.
Iyengar emphasized that doing asanas properly is a form of meditation. He didn’t see the need to do meditation in any other way. While studying hatha yoga, I also practiced Zen meditation. Hatha yoga, for me, was a way to prepare for meditation and Zen was properly meditation. But I found that the two really complemented each other. Thanks to yoga, I could sit comfortably in meditation for hours, while thanks to Zen, I found it easier to be deeply mindful of the poses. Thanks to both yoga and Zen, I could do other forms of exercise, like jogging, in a meditative way. Now that I’m getting old, I mostly walk for exercise, but I always try to walk in a mindful way.
There are other systematic practices of bodily mindfulness – Tai Chi for one, and also various forms of dance, but I don’t have any experience with them, so I can’t write about them. And of course, one does not need a formal practice to become more mindful of what is happening within one’s body. One simply has to be more mindful of it.
There are, I will attest, significant benefits to becoming more mindful of one’s body as an integral part of one’s being. There are, of course, health benefits, but there are also spiritual benefits – mindfulness of the body provides a firm foundation for other forms of mindfulness. But I will make that connection in a future article.
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In the classical division of the world into the spiritual and the secular, the spiritual is symbolized by the vertical and the secular by the horizontal. (In the Christian symbolism of the crucifix, the place where the vertical and horizontal intersect is usually at the level of the heart, though occasionally at the head.)
Western spirituality, particularly as it has been influenced by the philosophy of Plato and Neoplatonism, has generally emphasized the upward direction of the vertical. The metaphor of ascent predominates. Such an ascent is an inward movement away from the multiplicity of our emotions, appetites and imagination and toward the disciplined unity of the spiritual will.
Some of the old myths, though, had a different view. In these myths, part of the hero’s journey was a descent in Hades. Homer’s Odyssey is a good example. I interpret these myths as saying that we have to be well grounded in the darker, deeper part of our being if we are to truly find stability in heights we might attain in a spiritual ascent. In other words, a downward aspect of the vertical is also a part of spirituality.
Mindfulness of our body is one aspect of this grounding of our self in something deeper. A tree, such as the one that we use as an icon for SNS, symbolizes such a grounding. We need solid roots in the earth if we are to be stable in the heights. A practice that helps us become more mindful of our body (and more compassionate towards it) is a practice that helps us develop such roots.
But bodily mindfulness is only a half it it. The other half is mindfulness of what Burkett translates as “feelings,” (but which I call soul) – the realm not only of feelings but also of appetites, dreams, desires, obsessions, etc. – the whole realm of multiplicity that swirls around inside of us. But that is an article for future days.
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