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In Love and Struggle: Mindfulness of Bodies

This past Monday, I attended an incredible talk by Sebene Selassie, delivered at the people of color sitting group at New York Insight Meditation Center.  I was so touched and inspired by it, and so I thought I’d riff on it for this week’s blog post…


Sebene started her talk by highlighting the choice of the word “mindfulness” as the closest English translation of the Pali word sati. This word has exploded in American popular culture; we now speak of mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness at work, mindful relationships, mindful parenting, even mindful drinking.  And while the word “mind” is prominent in the term “mindfulness,” the Pali word also denotes remembering, recognition, consciousness, possession.  As always with moving from one language to another, some things are lost in translation.


It’s not outlandish to think that choice of the word mindfulness to represent sati might have something to do with our particular cultural valuation of heightened mental faculties.  After all, as Sebene pointed out, we regularly apply the terms “smart” and “intelligent” to brilliant mathematicians and skilled word slingers, but rarely to virtuosic dancers or prolific lovers.  What’s a little disconcerting to me is the fact that, in our dualistic western worldview where mind and body are placed at odds, mind has been traditionally associated with the masculine, the civilized, the rational, the moderate, the modern, the European, where body has come to stand in for the feminine, the uncivilized, the hysterical, the extreme, the primitive, and the “ethnic.”  What other cultural values might the “mind” in mindfulness signify?



In the Satipatthana (Four Foundations of Mindfulness) Sutta,the Buddha asked the monks tobegin with mindfulness of the “body in the body” (or, “the body in itself”) – which is to say, to be mindful of the lived and felt experience of “our” body that is present even in our conceptual understanding of “the” body.  Which is to say – what we translate as “mindfulness” cannot properly be understood as a purely mental activity.

For me, this is good news.  Because when my mind fails me – when I can’t think my way out of a sticky situation, because my thoughts themselves are sticky, smacking together a hardened ego that only separates me from my inherent goodness – when my mind fails me, I can still try going to my body, going to my heart.  Even though I grew up dancing, and have trained in various body practices for most of my life, I always feel like an amateur coming to my breath in my body, to my feelings in my body.  The experience is often surprising, and sometimes dull, sketchy, and imprecise.  Like an amateurish piece of art, my body is often more honest than I ever mean it to be. 


I experience compassion and empathy at body-level, and it is mindfulness of my own body that allows me to respect the mysterious innner world of other bodies.  Mindfulness of body has social implications, as well as personal ones.  So -- how is it that I inhabit my body in the world?  When I encounter conflict, do I experience my body as puffing up with air, or shrinking?  I am in love: do I melt?  Expand?  Become transparent?  Do I speak loudly and often to avoid disappearing in a group of people I want to impress?  When is it that I become hot?  How is it that I make myself cool?  Do I dare to eat a peach?


I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit…  Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather to all who can read it.  -- Martha Graham, Blood Memory


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"I don't think we can write on this topic often"

nice links, dennis. Ray's CD is great.
Anything else you or someome can recommend?

ethan and all idp people, thanks.

What if?

What if it turns out that there actually isn't any substantial difference (like we habitually think there is) between mind and body? What if they are not made of different stuff?

Would the scientific materialists be right in their assertion that mind is just an epiphenomenon of brain and body? Or would the mind-only Buddhists be right in their assertion that brain and body are just epiphenomena of mind?

Or could they both be right?

Sure, we experience body and mind differently -- but what if the perceived split between mind and body that we habitually experience is actually the fulcrum of our delusion as sentient beings?

That seems to be where the teachings on non-duality are pointing.


neither my mind nor my body can wrap itself around "epiphenomenon." big word.

ultimately mind and body are the same, and neither exists. relatively, loosening the constructs and not thinking of them as in opposition to one another is an interesting idea. I do think they're different ways to get to the same place, but maybe they are not so different after all.

for me to really understand something

it has to go through my body. even information -- to really get it, I need to write it down, to have it pass through the muscles of my arm and hand. I'm not sure if it always was that way or if it developed from spending most of my life working as a reporter. it's definitely there now.

when I first started mindfulness of body practice, I was pretty dismissive. at that point, I'd done yoga for years, I could isolate specific muscles, etc, but what I discovered was that while I knew the mechanics of my body, I had no clue how to tap into its intelligence.

I don't see the body as feminine and the mind as masculine, though. both, to me, are beyond those labels. it's hard to explain in words -- mind and body are just different ways to access energy and wisdom that is beyond gender or labels. that might be different from the cultural understanding, but this is an area where I'm really challenging myself to question and go beyond common perceptions.

and I'd say my mind is way messier than my body. my body's messes have pretty clear causes and conditions, even if they can't be controlled. my mind, though, goes in many directions at once.


An interesting article. I don't disagree with the main conclusion - body awareness is hugely important and beneficial, and is a practice rather than an intellectual exercise. I do Taiji for precisely this reason!

However sati is a cognitive term - it means to remember or keep in mind. That the content in the first foundation is the felt sense of the body is significant though, as you say. It is true that the early English translators were deeply concerned with the spirit of the European Enlightenment and eager to align Buddhism with rationalism. This did affect their choice of translations - as we see especially in 'Enlightenment'!

Re some of the comments.

Citta shifts it's meaning throughout the Pāli Canon and although it later settles on 'thought' it can be synonymous with other words for mind such as manas and viññāna. The translation as 'heart' seems bogus to this Pāli scholar. However 'thought' in Buddhist terminology includes the mental aspect of emotions.

The idea that emotional practices were once more prominent in the Buddhist tradition but somehow written out of the Pāli Canon seems based on the false assumption that we know what 'original' Buddhism was like. We don't. In fact the words mettābhāvanā never occur in the Pāli Canon but many texts praise dwelling in those 'brahma' (god-like?) states. The more plausible story is that they were not practices at all, but the results of standard practices (cf. MN7 for instance). The pursuit of positive emotions was towards pamojja or joy, and was achieved through morality - this is quite prominent in the Canon, but downplayed in the modern Theravāda which may be the source of this idea.


There is also a debate amongst some scholars (in the UK at least) about the Citta. Often translated as mind it includes events such as love and anger so I think that it is better glossed as heart/mind. So when I find mindself teaching mindfulness of breathing I like to stress that it may as well be called the heartfulness of breathing. This article resonated with this for me.

"heartfulness of breathing"

I like this. cool.

Cognitive Bias

Lovely to see this piece - thank you.

There's a huge cognitive bias in the way in which mindfulness is being promulgated, because the people who research stuff are very heady, and that's how they make sense of the world.

The same process is evident in the Pali canon, where emotion-based practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas) were downgraded as practices when the oral tradition was written down and in the commentarials. That's because the kind of people who want to write down and tabulate an oral tradition are the kind of people who make sense of the word primarily through the medium of ideas, and so don't really value body-based emotional experience.

The biographies of Tibetan teachers often show them as being expert scholars, who then have a spiritual crisis of some sort that forces them to recognise that they have to go beyond the intellect - Naropa being a classic example.

The important thing for us to remember is to avoid the temptation to swing to the pole of rejecting rational thought (as happens sometimes) - we need to be mindful of both the mind and the body, spirit and 'soul'.

Yes, yes, and yes

Thanks for this piece (and for using a photo of Kelis in it! -- "Relax, my love for you is like the mafia...")

More and more, I am drawn to bodily awareness as the meat (sorry, bad but fitting choice of words) of my practice.

Reggie Ray's work in this area -- available as his Meditating with the Body program -- has been influential. Also key was a long retreat I did last year with Pema Chodron on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in which we spent the most time on the first one, Mindfulness of Body.

Recently, I found a great article on Tricycle by Will Johnson that covers a lot of this same ground.

Also, here's a blog I wrote here at IDP on this topic, a few months back: You Are Not a Brain on a Stick (or Are You?)

I don't think we can write on this topic often enough. My sense is that it's an emerging area of practice that's going to become increasingly important for us disembodied, cerebral Western students. To paraphrase Reggie Ray, it's not just that you can attain enlightenment through the body -- there is actually no other way.

I went to elementary school w Kelis

I remember her being slightly less colorful. :)

out of control

Thanks Kate. I just returned from a ten day retreat with this on my mind. It seems to be the issue my mind can't crack. On retreat we were asked to contemplate the idea that we cannot control the body. I find that this causes me a lot of mental distress, fear and plain old exhaustion. WHY CAN'T I CONTROL IT?!

The body is messy. The mind is neat. The body is vulnerable. The mind can be controlled. I notice that this comes up when I reflect on my own body. But the mind and body both deteriorate and we don’t get to choose how and when or at what pace.

In my experience the body holds the things the mind isn’t ready to deal with. In that way, it is a container.

I think we practice the four foundations and think “OK I got the first one….now onto aversion….onward to thought…onward to phenomena! Here I go! Tearing it up!”, but mindfulness of body is the ground.  Kittisarro asked us last week “Can you imagine not having a body”. We were in silence and we all shook our heads no.

"On a rocket to

The Fourth Dimension

Total self awareness

The intention"

The mind isn't messy?

Sometimes I feel the reverse. The body feels more dependable and structured, the mind is the messy part, unruly and unknowable.

Interesting how this goes back and forth.


Oh for sure, mine is a messy mind. I didn't mean to imply otherwise. Its just -- it often THINKS it's neat, and it does a better job of convincing me and others of this than my body does!

a hot mess

Yes, completely. I think the mind is sometimes believed to be "neat", but it too is a hot mess!

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