Category Archives: body

‘Who Am I?’

(The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a certain order for a reason. If you are reading this without having followed along previous posts in this section, please begin at the beginning with Introduction to Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

We have come to a place in the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that has been there all along, deeply embedded in everything we have looked at so far. And yet it can still come upon us as a surprise.

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that we call ‘I’ and ‘me?’

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer me when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

This is an experiential exercise for each of us to investigate for ourselves. The Buddha wasn’t interested in philosophical discussions about it, only that each of us has the opportunity to explore it and make our own discoveries.

This exploration of ‘body as self’ is the first of five ‘aggregates’ that the Buddha asks us to experience in our own way and own time. We will explore the other four in subsequent weeks. But for now let’s look more closely as this sense of self as being the body.

The body is impermanent. We know this, having lived with this body this long, having seen it grow, having seen it ill, having seen it recover, having seen it scar, and having seen it age. We know this because other bodies we have loved have also changed, and some of them have disappeared. This impermanence we know so well tells the lie of the body being a solid substantial self. 

The other aspect that tells the lie is the fact that we have so little control over any of this. Yes, we can gain or lose weight, we can dye our hair, have plastic surgery, we can do things to sustain our body or abuse it, but for the most part, for the most identifiable part, we have no control. Tall, short, square, round, dark, light — most characteristics of the body are simply as they are. If we accept our lack of control over them, we are less likely to suffer. Suffer? Yes, we suffer when we compare this body with others. We suffer when we get caught up in stories about who is to blame for things that are beyond our control. This is dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence that is caused, in part, by the believe that this body is who we are. If we can let go of the mistaken belief, then we are simply grateful for this vessel of experience, however it is shaped, colored or outfitted. It is not who we are, but it is a means to experience this fleeting gift of life.

So this body is not the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ As we explore the other four aggregates of feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness, we will have the opportunity to test whether any of these are who we are.

With dedicated meditation practice, we gain the naturally-arising insights that are called the three marks or characteristics. They are: annica (impermanence), dukkha (self-manufactured suffering) and anatta (no permanent separate self.) 


No one else can tell us ‘this is so.’ We have to discover it for ourselves at our own pace, in our own way. A teacher can spark a line of inquiry that leads to an insight, but the insight can’t be taught. It has to be experienced. (The Zen koan practice exists for this very reason. We don’t have koans in our tradition (Theravada, Vipassana or insight meditation,) but a teacher can seed a question that leads to a rich inner exploration.)

Anatta, no-self, may sound scary, but saying there is no self does not make us disappear. It is not a magic trick. It is a way to stop grabbing at straws of who we believe ourselves to be and clinging for dear life in the hopes that that straw belief will sustain us. It won’t. It is unreliable.

The need to name and claim a separate permanent identity just cuts us off from our deep sense of being connected with all that is, whether we choose scientific terms or see it as being an expression of the infinite that is God. In this state of deep understanding we can recognize that we have no identity we need to shore up. 

Thus liberated, we can recognize that we have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to fear. We can operate from pure joy, and offer up whatever we have to give with open generosity.

First Foundation of Mindfulness – Review & a Few More Thoughts

We have completed our exploration of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, focusing in turn on the breath, postures, contemplation on the body, elements and death.

When you pour a concrete foundation, you want it to cure before you start adding more layers. Just so, I want to take the time to review and discuss the First Foundation of Mindfulness before we move on to the Second. If you missed any of the dharma talks within this section, then the links above can take you to where you need to go to ‘fill in the blanks.’

If you are just joining the discussion, you have a ready-made curriculum in the links above. Take your own time to do so in a way that is meaningful for you. You might set aside a period of time every day to read and reflect before or after meditation practice, for example. You can also visit the pages on the right column of the blog for more explanation and basic instruction.

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is one dharma lesson that could be a full life practice on its own. Sensing into physical sensation and knowing that we are sensing in to physical sensation. All that follows is rich and valuable, but only if we have laid this first foundation. You will see as we proceed how each one builds on the last.

What we have learned in this exploration is the basis of vipassana practice. We could go so far as to say that without this First Foundation, we don’t have a vipassana (insight) practice since that is where the original instruction for vipassana bhavana* comes from. So let’s make sure we understand it!

In our most recent class we had a discussion on anything from the previous talks on the First Foundation of Mindfulness that were still unclear, as well as any insights that came to the meditators from the explorations.

We focused a good deal of our discussion on the breath. In this tradition we do not change the breath but focus our awareness on the natural rising and falling of the breath. I had to repeat this several times during the class because even though the meditators practice in this way, most have knowledge of various other trainings, such as yoga or qigong where there are breath exercises that consciously alter the breath for a particular purpose. These are all fine but they are not recommended for the ongoing practice of insight meditation.

In this practice, we are not actively trying to change things to make everything right. Instead we are cultivating a way of being with things as they are. So it is how we relate to causes and conditions in our lives that is our focus. So the breath is as it is, and we cultivate our ability to attend it. This noticing may bring about change in the breath, but we are not actively working to change it. We are not finding fault with the breath for being ‘too shallow,’ a prevalent opinion in our culture. If we sit in an erect but relaxed position, we naturally open the column of the rib cage for the breath to breathe; if we notice and release whatever tension we find, and if we simply sit and know that we are sitting, the breath will be fine. Let the breath live unjudged! It certainly deserves it, as it gives us life and all. Just saying.

One of the meditators mentioned a particular breath practice she has found very calming where you inhale to the count of four, hold the breath for the count of seven, then release the breath to the count of eight. So I had her lead us in this and it was very interesting.

One meditator mentioned that she does a count to match her heart rate, so being led was difficult since our hearts don’t all beat at the same rate. This was a useful observation for any of us wanting to do some of these practices.

I mentioned a qigong instructor named Ken Cohen who provides a series of breath exercises. These various breath practices are perfectly fine and could be valuable. I only want to be clear that they are not a part of the basic practice of insight meditation.

A few minutes of breath practice before meditation could be useful in the process of establishing a personal practice. Without a teacher, a bell, a sangha, a class time, a setting that tells our busy mind ‘Now it’s time to meditate!’ we may need some amount of ritual to transition into our practice, especially at first.

Here is the guiding question to know whether such a practice, or any ritual, is beneficial: “Is this guiding me toward a mindfulness practice or is it potentially a hindrance to it?”

How could a ritual become a hindrance?  I promote what I call a ‘portable practice.’ The beauty of insight meditation is that you can do it anywhere at any time. There is nothing required but the intention to be present and the intention to be compassionate. When we add rituals or objects that we depend on to get us where we want to be, then we are creating conditions that could become hindrances. ‘If I don’t have my (fill in the blank: altar, breath practice, beads, spoken chant, etc.) then I can’t meditate.’ If we set up anything too elaborate, we undermine our ability to practice in say, the airport lounge. If we are dependent on causes and conditions, then we are not centered, grounded in our own experience.


So that was the review, but here are some things to consider that we didn’t cover in any of our previous explorations of the body as the First Foundation of Mindfulness.

The Body Google
Our body is a storehouse of information as well as the vessel in which we are able to function in this world. As we deepen in our ability to sense into the body, we also learn to listen to it in a way that was probably foreign to us.

If we have chronic pain or illness, this listening can help to alleviate physical suffering. With the enhanced awareness, we might notice the conditions around each occurrence. You don’t need advanced training for this, just a willingness to notice. 


For example, if your back ‘goes out’ you can ask what was happening in your life in the days leading up to it? What condition arose? This cause could be a difficult conversation that you had or are dreading having; a challenging deadline that lies ahead or that you failed to meet; a worry over the well being of a loved one; the loss of a job or fear about the future; guilt about the past; or any number of things that cause tension, stress and mental or emotional anguish that quite often will be experienced as physical pain. 

If we learn to listen to the body, then to ask questions of ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our minds, we can alleviate the pain! If this is an interesting area of exploration for you, I highly recommend the books of Dr. John Sarno, an orthopedic surgeon who began to see the mind-body connection quite clearly in his many patients and has an excellent prescription that is free, except for the price of his paperback book, and easy. Reader, it changed my life! If it can change someone else’s, I hope you will forgive me this bit of promotion. If you know someone who might benefit, speak up. I am ever grateful to my friend who told me about it.

The Aging Body
As we age, mindfulness becomes increasingly valuable to keep us going in health and happiness. We can care for the body best by being mindful of what we are doing with it, by being considerate of its needs and by paying attention where we are going so we don’t trip and fall. 


We can notice if we are being overly cautious or protective, as if the body is fragile. This makes for added tension that in turn is a setup for harming ourselves, getting into pain or avoiding activities that might be healthful. We can notice if we are driving the body too hard. We can notice if this driven quality comes from some fear-based emotion, and is therefore unskillful. We can notice when we have a sense of well being. We can appreciate it without clinging to it, wishing it could stay this way. That in turn causes more tension, and then we lose the sense of well being we have found.

While this is the end of our discussion of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, it is just the beginning of our own internal awareness of how to live mindfully in this human form so that we can best appreciate this fleeting gift of life.


* Vipassana bhavana is Pali for insight meditation. It is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, as taught in the the Buddha’s Sattipatthana Sutta (which is what we are currently studying.) The word vipassana is Pali. Passana means seeing or perceiving, and vi means ‘in a special way.’ Bhavana means mental cultivation.

First Foundation of Mindfulness: Elements

The Buddha taught about the elements of the body: earth, air, fire and water. As we develop a sensory awareness of physical nature, we can enhance that awareness by noticing these four elements as they show themselves in our experience.

As we walk we can feel the earthy mass and weight of our body succumbing to the gravitational pull of the earth.

As we breathe we can feel the air nature of our body, how the largest proportion of our body is in fact oxygen (65%).So we can breathe  in that sense of aliveness and connection with the air around us.

We can experience the element of fire as we exert energy and burn calories, as we note the temperature of our body, both internally and on our skin. Our neurons fire an elaborate electrical system in our body. And our hormones have a potentially fiery component, creating a burning sense of urgency and passion.

We experience water in our being — saliva, sweat, a full bladder. Or we notice a lack of water in thirst or skin dryness. We take in liquids and emit them. We know we would not survive long without water. Dehydration is death. Water is life. We are liquid beings.

In focusing on the elemental nature of our body, the Buddha has added another effective way for us to sense into the body in order to be anchored in the present moment. Try noticing one or the other of the various elements as you go about your day. You will probably find yourself being present, grounded and able to see more clearly the reality of whatever is going on within you and around you.

But the focus on elements also has the potential to bring us home to an awareness of the body as an intrinsic part of all nature. Looking at the science of elements — not just the Buddha’s four overriding elements but the whole periodic table — we find that everything, including our body, is made up of all the same elements, but in varying amounts.* For example, while the core of the earth is iron and other heavy metals, the earth’s crust has many of the same elements as the human body.

In our group discussion one meditator mentioned the fact that everything is mostly space at a microscopic level, which creates an even greater sense of commonality. And then we talked about how if you are working with a photo on the computer and you zoom in very close to the edge of any object in the photo, the edge disappears. It makes you really question the reality of the edges that we take for granted! Am I really in a skin container? Skin is protective but also permeable. It is in a constant state of shedding and regenerating, so that it becomes a part of the atmosphere and the ground we walk on.

When we begin to look at the reality of our physical nature, we can let go of that self-imposed sense of separation, as if we are alien intruders in the natural world, an invasive species. Those of us who love nature may find it difficult to see the nature in ourselves or in others of our species. And those who accept the inherited culturally promoted idea that nature is just a pile of useful resources for human use are at an even greater disconnect from understanding the reality of not just inter-reliance but inter-being. We are all one!

This collective sense of alienation from others of our species and the rest of nature is the direct cause of the abuse of each other, other animals, plant life and the earth itself. So this meditation on the elements allows us to recognize that we are all family here. We can relax into a sense of unitive ease. We can be kind. We can be cooperative. We can take the needs of all beings into consideration. It is a very powerful meditation well worth incorporating into our practice and into our daily lives.

Still not feeling it? I have come up with a couple of analogies we can play with to help remind ourselves that we are all made up of the same stuff.

I always like cooking analogies so here’s one to consider:
Just as a fully stocked kitchen can provide an amazing variety of meals, we can think of the universe as a full pantry of elements where anything can happen. And it did! Here we all are — humans and millions of other species of animals, plants, and all manner of rocks, and then all the ‘man-made’ objects created out of combining the elements found in nature.

Another analogy:
Imagine a huge set of Lego blocks — the basic blocks, none of the fancy pre-fab stuff. Now imagine them infinitely smaller, so small we couldn’t even see them in the microscope. They are subatomic blocks.

Now imagine that we are all Lego constructions. I am a Lego woman, living in a Lego house with my Lego husband. We drive in our Lego car to the Lego store, take walks in the Lego forest, and enjoy the company of our Lego family and friends.

We could live our lives without thinking about our Lego nature, and most of us do. That’s why it throws us every time some Lego construct comes apart and gets repurposed as something else. We are shocked because we thought this version of Legoland, this version of ourselves, our family and friends and where we live, was permanent. We thought these were solid structures! They are not! They are all made up of subatomic building blocks of life!  

If we have some part of our awareness knowing this is Legoland, then we understand the nature of the universe we live in. We see that we are all one in the sense that we are all made of the exact same stuff — maybe you’ve got more blue Legos in your make-up and I’ve got more red, but we’re all Legos. Everything is Legos.

The fundamental building blocks of the universe come together and fall apart with regularity. The world is full of cycles and seasons. The only constant is change!

If we are distressed with how things fall apart, then we can take comfort in the unitive nature of it all — that we are not and never have been separate. That we have always been and will always exist, at least at the subatomic level, just not in this particular Lego shape. We are in and of the universe, we are stardust, we are expressions of the sun itself, the earth itself. We are never alone, no matter how isolated we may feel at any given moment.

So these experiential exercises we undertake — sensing into the physical nature of our being — are meant to help alleviate the suffering that we cause ourselves when we engage in erroneous thinking. When we believe in permanence, we suffer because we are shocked, maybe even horrified, when things fall apart. The erroneous thinking that we are each of us encapsulated and separate also causes us to suffer. The separation we perceive is just a conceptual convenience for making our way in the physical world. We are not separate! There is no separation!

These realizations that we come to are awakenings to the reality of life. This is insight meditation and the whole purpose is to foster our own insights into the nature of reality.
The Buddha encouraged his followers to find out the truth for themselves. He did not want people to simply accept what he said as truth and parrot it to others. This is a tradition that continually sends us back to ourselves, to our own experience to discover the truth. This is a truth that is based not in books but in our bodies, in our tuning in to our senses to access full awareness in this present moment.

So as you listen or read a dharma talk, don’t take it as the whole of an answer. Think of it like going to the safe deposit vault at the bank. The teller, just like the teacher, has one key. You have the other, the one that makes it possible for you to not just receive the dharma, but to experience it for yourself.

So what does your key look like? It consists of wise intention and wise effort in your meditation practice. The insights rise of their own accord when you give yourself the time, space and silence to experience them.

If in reading on you find this is not sitting right with you, just notice it. Maybe it’s not time for this. We each need to notice and honor our own cycles and rhythms. We need to be autodidactic in the way we learn, following the wisdom within. This is not a linear exploration but something much more organic.

So how does this sit with you? What does it bring up? Give yourself some time to practice sensing in. Then give yourself some time in silence to notice your thoughts and feelings. This is your exploration.


*Elements of the human body:
Oxygen (65%)
Carbon (18%)
Hydrogen (10%)
Nitrogen (3%)
Calcium (1.5%)
Phosphorus (1.0%)
Potassium (0.35%)
Sulfur (0.25%)
Sodium (0.15%)
Magnesium (0.05%)
Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt, Iron (0.70%)
Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine (trace amounts)