Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mindfulness of the Body

Last night, I had the good fortune of attending Gil's second talk on Mindfulness of the Body, part of his  series on the Satipatthana Sutta on The Foundations of Mindfulness. I came out enthralled. Here are my notes from Gil's talk, along with the original text - all quotes from Bhikkhu Boddhi's translation of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha:
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating the body as a body? 
Mindfulness of the body in and of itself, without the filter of identification, comparative thinking, judgements, interpretations. Letting go of the stress of thinking. Keeping it very simple. 
Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; 
Going to a place where things are simple and where we are supported in our process. A quiet place.
having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect and established mindfulness in front of him, 
Making the choice to plant myself in this place here and now. Taking the time to remind myself, 'I am here'. We are putting aside our life as usually lived, to instead examine life now. Maybe we use a ritual, as is done in zen - rocking back and forth, and side to side, finding our center, before sitting perfectly still.
ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. 
Breath is always happening and has a rhythm. By following the breath, it is easier to let go of thoughts. This process takes time, and cannot be achieved right away. We find that we can be present more and more as we keep on returning to the breath.
Breathing in long, he understands: 'I breathe in long'; or breathing out long, he understands: 'I breathe out long.' Breathing in short, he understands: 'I breathe in short'; or breathing out short, he understands: 'I breathe out short.' 
We are not just following the breath. We pay attention to its characteristics and its sensations. We train the mind to see what's there. For this we have to be relaxed.  
He trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body'; he trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.' 
We feel the changes in the whole body as the breath moves in and out. Or a particular spot in the body.
He trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation'; he trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.'
A bodily formation is that which is formed/created  experience in our body, and is conditioned by what the mind does. As for instance, a tightening up of the body as a result of desiring something. We don't just feel the tension to know it, but also to relax it, particularly as we breathe out. Some tensions can be relaxed, others can take a long time. At the very least, we can soften around the tension. It is easier to pay attention to the physical tension connected with thoughts, and to relax it, than to try to let go of the thoughts. Unless we relax the body, it is hard to let go of the tension in the mind. (feedback loop of some kind). This is why we need to meditate in a place that feels safe.

Sitting this morning, on my usual seat, in the quietness of my home office, I made sure to establish my intent to dwell in the present moment. And I practiced following the breath, returning to it every time the mind wandered off. And I felt the minute changes in my whole body, the expansion and the deflation with each going in and out of breath. And I became very aware of the familiar tightness in the midst of the stomach. A long held tension, that I could only hope to appease. Sending my attention to other parts of the body as well. The feet, the hands, the spine, . . . relaxed. Feeling what it's like to be at ease. Thoughts relaxing as well.

Acknowledging this latter point as wisdom, inherited from Ruth during my retreat with her last year:
'I went to her [Ruth Denison] wondering what to do about familiar experience of irritation and tightness in the throat and the stomach. In the past, I had followed other teachers' instructions to linger on the unpleasantness, and it had not worked. Ruth had a different take. "Don't focus on it. The energy is blocked there. Turn your attention to your hands instead, and feel them. Slowly move them up and down. Do you notice any change? What do you feel? Now open and close them. Feeling anything? Then now, rest your hands on your lap, and feel." So simple.
Now, will you join me? Mindfulness of the body, as a gateway to inner freedom . . .


  1. Very helpful post. I am sitting with a Vipassana group here on Salt Spring and so relate to these instructions very much.

    I have to listen to Gil's talks. Your description makes them sound very enticing. He will do a 5 day retreat here in July which I hope to attend.

    Yes, a relaxed body! A rare business as we see when we start to tune in. I do find myself being aware more often in daily life.

  2. Deep bow, Marguerite


  3. "Making the choice to plant myself in this place here and now. Taking the time to remind myself, 'I am here'. We are putting aside our life as usually lived, to instead examine life now."

    Wow Marguerite, I really like this phrasing, "I choose to plant myself in this place here and now" is a mantra I will sit with this evening. I'm looking forward to listening to this dharma talk of Gil's with my husband. This is something we do at night sometimes after the house quiets down and the kids go to bed...he is such a gifted teacher.

  4. Carole, Laura, yes, Gil is a very gifted teacher, indeed. And I am very grateful for his teachings. I am also glad that so many can access his talks through the web . . .

    Also, if that is of interest to you, please know that you can ask Gil a question through the IMC Community site and he will answer in his next recorded Q&A session. I am the one who collects the questions and then get to ask him for the rest of the community:


    Laura, what a wonderful way to share the evening with your husband! I bring mine to Gil's talks on Monday nights :)

  5. Ever tried the free 10-day retreats of vipassana from SN Goenka? http://www.dhamma.org
    Even as a non-Buddhist I certainly did. And I feel it matches your interest on Satipatthana, Theravada and attention to the body.

  6. I know about SN Goenka and his style of retreat. Better yet for me has been retreating with Ruth Denison, one of U Ba Khin's other senior students. If interested, you may research the many posts I wrote about her in this blog, including many on her teachings about the body.

    I am glad the Goenka style worked for you! So many different styles of teaching, and one for every student . . .

  7. Your blog is wonderful, thanks for doing it! I also have benefited from Gil's teachings.

    Question: Your reply above from last year, along with the absence of Dhamma Mahavana and the two other California centers from your Meditation Center list on the main page, suggest to me that you might have reservations about giving full recognition to SN Goenka's style of retreat. May I ask why?

    In my experience, many people benefit greatly from these non-sectarian retreat experiences. In addition, the three California retreat centers are places for serious Dhamma work, with some retreats lasting 30 days. It seems strange to me that at least one of the California centers is not on your list, and that the SN Goenka approach has received cursory treatment on your excellent blog, as if you are stepping around the topic.

    No criticism intended, just curious. Thanks!

  8. Still curious for any response, Marguerite. I do not know how to interpret your lack of response, or what message (if any) you are trying to send. Thank you.

  9. Sorry for that! I usually keep my responses to most recent posts.

    I am glad you have found the Goenka retreats useful for your practice. I do not pretend to include all resources on this website, only the ones I feel personally drawn to. I also tend to not engage in debates around matters of preference on the various schools. Last, I also see my point of view as just that, a point of view that makes room for many others . . . :) not to be clung to as anything else.

  10. Thanks. I wish more people who discussed the Dhamma on the Internet shared your approach. If you ever feel drawn to a Goenka-style retreat, I would like to hear your perspective on it.

  11. Thank you. I wish you well in your continued practice.

    With metta,