Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mind Over Body

This past weekend was a long ordeal of one physical pain after the other. Flu-like symptoms from typhoid shot, layered upon flare-up of chronic lower back-ache, on top of new pain from heel spur. What to do, but give into tiredness, and resulting dullness from mind? I tried to meditate, first sitting, then lying down, but did not have the energy to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.

Now that I have regained happiness in the body, and alertness of mind, I can investigate further, so that I am better prepared the next time around. In his book, 'Living Dhamma', Ajahn Chah provides the guidance I am looking for. Here are some key excerpts:
We must be able to be at peace with the body, no matter what state it is in. The Buddha taught that we should ensure that it's only the body that is locked up in jail and not the mind be imprisoned along with it. Now as your body begins to run down and wear out with age, don't resist, but also don't let your mind deteriorate along with it. Keep the mind separate. Give energy to the mind by realizing the truth of the way things are. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the nature of the body, it can't be any other way. Having been born it gets old and sick and then it dies. This is a great truth that you are presently witnessing. Look at the body with wisdom and realize this.
. . . So the Buddha taught us to probe and examine the body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head, and then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating. The Buddha taught us to see that it doesn't belong to us. It's natural for the body to be this way, because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it? In fact there is nothing wrong with the way the body is. It's not the body that causes suffering, it's wrong thinking. When you see things in the wrong way, there's bound to be confusion.
It's like the water of a river. It naturally flows downhill, it never flows uphill. That's its nature. If a person was to go and stand on the river bank and want the water to flow back uphill, he would be foolish. Wherever he went his foolish thinking would allow him no peace of mind. He would suffer because of his wrong view, his thinking against the stream. If he had right view he would see that the water must inevitably flow downhill, and until he realized and accepted that fact he would be bewildered and frustrated.
The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body's become old and is meandering towards its death. Don't go wishing it were otherwise, it's not something you have the power to remedy. The Buddha told us to see the way things are and then let go of our clinging to them. Take this feeling of letting go as your refuge. Keep meditating even if you feel tired and exhausted. Let your mind be with the breath. Take a few deep breaths and then establish the attention on the breath, using the mantra word Bud-dho. Make this practice continual. The more exhausted you feel the more subtle and focused your concentration must be, so that you can cope with any painful sensations that arise. When you start to feel fatigued then bring all your thinking to a halt, let the mind gather itself together and then turn to knowing the breath. Just keep up the inner recitation, Bud-dho, Bud-dho.
. . . You can't do anything about the way the body is. You can beautify it a little, make it attractive and clean for a while, like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long, but when old age arrives, everybody's in the same boat. That's the way the body is, you can't make it any other way. What you can improve and beautify is the mind.
Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it's only nominally ours. It's home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There's this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it's not our real home, it's external to us. Sooner or later we'll have to give it up. it's not a place we can live in permanently because it doesn't truly belong to us, it belongs to the world. Our body is the same. We take it to be a self, to be "me" or "mine," but in fact it's not really so at all, it's another worldly home. Your body has followed its natural course from birth, until now it's old and sick, and you can't forbid it from doing that. That's the way it is. Wanting it to be any different would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be like a chicken. When you see that that's impossible — that a duck must be a duck and a chicken must be a chicken, and that the bodies have to get old and die — you will find courage and energy. However much you want the body to go on lasting, it won't do that. 
. . . Even if you don't let go, everything is starting to leave you anyway. Can you see that, how all the different parts of your body are trying to slip away? Take your hair; when you were young it was thick and black. Now it's falling out. It's leaving. Your eyes used to be good and strong but now they're weak, your sight is unclear. When your organs have had enough they leave, this isn't their home. When you were a child your teeth were healthy and firm, now they're wobbly, or you've got false ones. Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue — everything is trying to leave because this isn't their home. You can't make a permanent home in conditions, you can only stay for a short time and then you have to go. It's like a tenant watching over his tiny little house with failing eyes. His teeth aren't so good, his eyes aren't so good, his body's not so healthy, everything is leaving.
. . . So you needn't worry about anything because this isn't your real home, it's only a temporary shelter. Having come into this world you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that's still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? They aren't the same, are they? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. In this world there is nothing to rely on — it's an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasure and pain. There's no peace.
. . . When you see that there's nothing real or substantial you can rely on you'll feel wearied and disenchanted. Being disenchanted doesn't mean you are averse, the mind is clear. It sees that there's nothing to be done to remedy this state of affairs, it's just the way the world is. Knowing in this way you can let go of attachment, letting go with a mind that is neither happy nor sad, but at peace with conditions through seeing their changing nature with wisdom. Anicca vata sankhara — all conditions are impermanent.
To put it simply, impermanence is the Buddha. If we truly see an impermanent condition we'll see that it's permanent. It's permanent in the sense that its subjection to change is unchanging. This is the permanence that living beings possess. There is continual transformation, from childhood through to old age, and that very impermanence, that propensity to change, is permanent and fixed. If you look at it like this your heart will be at ease. It's not just you who has to go through this, it's everyone
I needed that shot of wisdom. The path is more clear now. While the body may be a lost cause, the mind is not. It is up to me to make peace with the reality of impermanent body, starting now with the contemplation of Ajahn Chah's teachings.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this....very deep and very wise. I have much work to do as I felt fear creeping in reading this. Fear of old age. Fear of death.

    On the other hand, it strengthens my resolve to keep practicing mindfulness. Maybe it would be better to state 'living mindfulness.' It's really a way of life and I think that's been my problem in the past. Reading about it and thinking I understood, but clearly I don't. It's a lifetime of work and constant practice will help us deal better with all of life's moments, good and bad (at least what we perceive as good and bad).

  2. Thanks Nate. Reading your comment reminds me how far there is sometimes from intellectual understanding and initial awakening to actual realization. I feel I am constantly circling the teachings, each time , coming out with greater insight, internalized at deeper level in my heart, body, and mind. Each new height spurred by more awareness of felt suffering . . .

  3. It's really interesting and this is the one aspect of Buddhist practice that niggles me; the separation of body and mind in this way. It is one of the reasons I left the group I sat with for 4 years.

    It is hard for me to articulate but I feel like we are body/mind and that there is so much information for us that is locked up in the body. I feel a deep need to work with the body, rather than overcome it.

    Perhaps I am misreading the Dharma. I don't disagree that the body ages and sickness is a reality I work with all the time but still there is something here that doesn't sit quite right with me. And yes to impermanence and the unreality of the little self, but still....

    Such an interesting conversation.

  4. That is an amazing passage of teachings! Thanks for sharing it. The timing was great for me. I have been in severe pain for three days, which isn't unusual because I have fibromyalgia, but when it is more intense, my life slows down and I can't do many of my normal activities. It is also a time when I can go inward more easily and I can feel the grasping and attachment I have to not wanting change in my life.

    When I was younger, I used to embrace (attach) myself to wanting change, now with children and getting older, I attach to not wanting change. It means the children will leave, it means I will get older and others I know, or I may die. I often watch these attachments I have, they are friends that visit regularly.

    Reading passage like the one in your post helps ease the contraction and I can snap back into a more detached position to watch the movie. Instead of standing in the middle of the road in heavy traffic trying to stop the movement of cars by putting my arms up, I can now sit along the side of the road and watch it go by.

    Thanks, and have a wonderful, peaceful day!

  5. Hmmm . . . yes, indeed. Love hearing your vantage point. I must say, I too had issues initially with that part of the Buddhist teachings that encourage meditation on the 'disgusting' aspects of the body. Now, I have come around and see it differently. In order to achieve the detachment that is necessary for inner peace, I understand the necessity of not being so enamored with body, or relationships with loved ones for that matter. As beautiful as birth, and body, and love are, they each carry within the seed of impermanence, and we need to carry that in our consciousness. Same with happy moments. It all boils down to impermanence, and also our (relative) lack of control over our body, our mind, our emotions, life in general - my understanding of no-self . . .

    This in no way diminishes the value of body and mind, or happy times. I am extremely grateful for all. The body is very wise, and so are the mind and heart.

    Both aspects need to be held in tension.

  6. Thank you Anne, for your sharing. I too suffer from playing favorites with what life brings. Learning to welcome all, regardless is a gradual process isn't it? Physical suffering is a great teacher, in that regard. The only way out of it, is in really, and I am glad that you and I both, and the other brother and sisters in this thread, have chosen that path. Oh! the joy . . .

  7. I consider my body to be like a car: a vehicle in which I ride towards my destination.

    I am the driver, I am not the car. We are not the same, nor am I attached to the car. When the car breaks down, I do not break down.

    The cost of owning a car is measured in money. The price of owning a body is measured in pain. A young car costs little money to maintain. A young body costs little pain. The older both get, the more it costs to maintain them.

    Eventually, a car's maintenance costs exceed the value of having it, so you let it go and get a new car. You don't miss the old car, you rejoice in the new one.

    Works the same way with bodies.

  8. Car, house, those are all great analogies for the body . . . Thank you. It really does help drive the point home! Now, from understanding, on to realization, slowly, step by step :)