Mindfulness of “the body within the body” is the First Foundation of Mindfulness. This phrasing reminds us that we are not distant observers of the body, with awareness located in our heads observing our body as an object, but rather awareness permeates the whole body, like a sponge saturated with water.
The Buddha’s first instruction is to bring mindfulness to breathing. We’re encouraged to simply know an in-breath as an in-breath, an out-breath as an out-breath, free of all manipulation. We become intimately familiar with the experience of breathing, noticing the various and varying qualities such as deep or shallow, fast or slow, rough or smooth, even or uneven, long or short. As mindfulness is a friendly, non-judgmental, fully accepting kind of attention, we are already cultivating a transcendence of the pairs of opposites.
Take some time to establish a meditation practice with this simple exercise:
Sitting comfortably, eyes slightly open or closed, jaw relaxed with some space between upper and lower teeth, and the tongue relaxed, it's tip just lightly touching above the front teeth.
Take a few deep breaths, noticing where you experience the movement of the breath. Many people feel it as the rising and falling of the belly or chest; others feel it at the nostril and upper lip as the breath moves in and out. Once you note where you feel the breath's movement, just rest your attention there free from strain -- as a butterfly rests on a flower -- and let the breath be natural.
Every time you notice that the mind has wandered away from the breath, just bring it back. That's all there is to it. If you'd like, you can use the technique of "noting" where you mentally "whisper" to yourself: "Rising; Falling" if that's what you're feeling or "In; Out" if that's your experience.
Then, expanding our awareness to include the whole body including its posture, and movement, we deepen our sense of embodiment. The body and breath do not get lost in the future or the past, so if attention is fully absorbed in the body, there is a fully integrated sense of presence. The body and breath keep us anchored to now. Only when we become entangled and identified with thinking can we feel distant from life.
When practicing postures, we stay fully present through mindfulness of the breath. When noticing the mind leaning away from our experience of an asana, we can remember to come back to the breath. In this way, the breath becomes the sutra – the thread – upon which we weave our practice. We see for ourselves how the posture and movement of the body “conditions” the breath. The qualities of the breath are conditioned by whether we are in a forward bend, a backbend or a twist. While maintaining a posture, we will see a change in the breath. We can also see how the breath conditions the body, affecting both movement and posture. All this points to a core teaching of the Buddha: as all phenomena are conditioned, there is no real autonomous “thing” to speak of! We say “breath” or “posture” as if these were things separate from the flow of experience, but through this practice we see they are processes caused and conditioned, selfless and constantly changing.
Bringing attention to the parts of the body, we become cognizant of any reactivity to the various parts; which parts do we like; which parts do we dislike? We may feel revulsion contemplating our earwax, bowels or lymph and prefer to contemplate our hair or our eyes. Yet those eyes free from their sockets might provoke revulsion and fear; that hair clogged in our shower drain may seem disgusting. All reactivity is conditioned.
An exercise based upon the parts of the body has the practitioner systematically bringing attention to various parts of the body, giving equal attention to each part and noticing if there is any reactivity that arises as one does this exercise:
Hair on the head; Eyes; Nose; Ears; lips; teeth; arms; hands; torso; genitalia; legs; feet; brains; heart; lungs; liver; kidneys; bladder; skeleton; circulatory system; lymphatic system; muscles; fatty tissue; blood; mucus; urine; feces etc.
Another exercise on the First Foundation is the Contemplation on the Five Great Elements (earth, water, fire, air and space):
We bring attention to the solidity of the body; its composition of various elements such as carbon – the very same carbon that gives us coal and diamonds. The liquid element, manifesting as blood, interstitial fluid, and other bodily fluids, is not separate from the water flowing in our rivers and streams. Our bodies generate heat, and we subsist upon the solar energy captured in the vegetables and flesh of animals we consume. The air we breathe sustains our life, and all experience arises and passes away in space.
Through contemplating the elements of the body the yogi begins to understand that life is not isolated in her own body; that there is no “self” separate from the the elements. The First Mindfulness Training[i] of ahimsa or non-harming reminds us to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. As our bodies and our life cannot exist without these minerals, we begin to see that the distinction between organic and inorganic is ultimately conceptual – there is no real separation. In protecting the elements from degradation we protect ourselves. Before you “throw away” your garbage, ask yourself, “Where is away?”
The final practice of the First Foundation is contemplating the decomposition of the body, the existential truth that this body is of the nature to die. Looking deeply into the impermanent nature of the body, we are motivated not to take life for granted, not to lose our life in distraction and dispersion. For those ready for this practice, the effect of this meditation is liberating, understandable in light of all the effort we make, the tension and strain we create, in attempting to deny the only thing we know for certain – that we will die!