Category Archives: First Foundation of Mindfulness

What Can We Learn From Water?

On a rare rainy day in these parts these days, we do a meditation on water. Coming in from the moist air we settle in to notice the dampness of our eyes, mouth and palms, as well as the fluids that flow within us.

The human body is 67% water, but how often do we ponder that as we go through our day, feeling very solid, not fluid at all? The Buddha taught this meditation in the First Foundation of Mindfulness. Why?

painting of water by Will Noble
Love Falls, Pacific Crest Trail,
watercolor by Will Noble

We tend to think of our skin as a barrier that demarcates the edge of who we believe ourselves to be. But this simple exercise of a water meditation allows us to understand the truth: Skin is permeable with millions of pores. We drink water, we pass water, we sweat (Okay, ‘glow’). We are an intrinsic part of the cycle of water and its interaction with other elements. Water evaporates on our skin just as it does on the ocean and the earth. All the water that evaporates become mist, fog and clouds that eventually returns to earth in the form of rain or snow, and then it flows in streams and rivers — not unlike the ‘streams’ and ‘rivers’ within us that carry our blood and other bodily fluids — to replenish the lakes and oceans of this watery blue planet.

The composition of seawater is the same as the composition of tears. Hmmm. Water within, water without. Truly there are no barriers, no borders. How does this affect how we relate to the world and to ourselves?

The Buddha encouraged his students to learn from contemplating the elements. What can we learn from noticing the nature of water?

One thing we might notice is that water carries whatever it is given. All boats float on the water, regardless of size, purpose or beauty. Can we learn from water to hold the world in this way, to hold whatever arises in our experience with a buoyancy of compassion?

There is a wonderful phrase that comes to mind that was so important to me when I found myself to be most particularly unacceptable, uniquely unqualified to inhabit this earth:

The ocean refuses no river.

The ocean refuses no river. If this phrase strikes a chord within you, say it over and over again until it sinks in that you are a natural expression of life and a valuable part of this community of beings. The ocean refuses no river.

I’ll end with a couple of poems of mine on the theme of our watery nature.

Listening to the Rain Meditation
I am cloud scudding gently floating free
Sky sponge absorbing rising mists
darkening deepening steely blue releasing…
I am rain dancing in the dust
hammering rooftops playing moist music
seaping into earth quenching dry roots
quivering dull leaves shining forests…
I am stream bounding forth
polishing rocks cavorting fish
transporting twigs, leaves, water skates…
I am waterfall in rapid descent
plunging down rock face, dissembling into pattern
pounding on pond drum, roaring through canyon…
I am lake, cupped in earth chalice
cool still reflecting tree cloud sky…
I am mighty river flowing gently
rushing rapids carving stone channel
rising, seeping, bursting levees
stretching flat fingers across flood plains…
I am tidal inlet
ebbing, flowing, receding
salty flood revealing silty marsh…
I am ocean, vast, replete, world within world,
Pounding waves, drawing boundaries
pulling tides, undertow…
I am deep spring, bubbling font of life
lacy network of unseen channels…
I am tear, swelling, cheekrolling,
burning salt hard sobbing deep cleansing letting go,
making room for laughter…
I am water.
Stephanie Noble
Wet January 1993

Creek Bed Meditation
Friday mornings at Spirit Rock, I walk the land.
I have chaperoned butterflies dancing,
sat with water skates playing in ponds,
listened to the earth symphony of birds, frogs, crickets
and water trickling in the creek.
Each week I note the subtle shifting of the seasons
as they seed, grow, ripen and fade before my eyes.
Winter-dampened fog-shrouded hills,
tree bark and boulders gilded with emerald moss,
bounding water gushing forth — all give way:
wet to dry, green to yellow, cold to hot.
Now in mid-summer, the morning air is dry and still,
the hills are golden, the frogs are quiet.
I enter the dappled shelter of a laurel grove,
and descend into the rocky creek bed.
Its deep banks rise around me,
swallowing me whole.
Night chill held in the rocks
along with the vague memory of water
rises to cool my skin.
Beneath my feet leaves crunch and crackle
in the hush of morning.
The shaggy yellowed tree moss
hangs loose and dusty.
Gnarled roots dangle over the dry creek, searching.
I duck under fallen logs
following the cavernous twists and turns
the underpinnings that shape
winter’s waterfalls and spring’s deep pools.
Not even a puddle remains.
It seems I am the only water here.
The air tingles with a dowsing awareness
of my wet presence in the midst of dry longing.
I feel the flow of myself as I move downstream.
Stephanie Noble
Summer 1997

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)

First Foundation of Mindfulness — Dealing with Death

Our class last Thursday was on the day between Halloween and El Día de Los Muertos, so how fortunate that we just happened to be at the place in our study of the First Foundation of Mindfulness where the Buddha asks us to look at death. To get us in the mood, I led a meditation on the skeleton rather than our typical body scan for developing concentration and releasing tension where we find it. Here’s the dharma talk:

Charnel Grounds
The Buddha encouraged spending time in charnel grounds. Charnel grounds? What’s that? A brand of coffee? No. Charnel grounds are areas, usually near river banks in India, where people with no family are cremated or left to decompose. The meditation practice is to sit near a decomposing corpse. (I have read that the historic charnel grounds that are on lists of tourist attractions have been cleaned up so would not provide the same experience.)

You won’t find this practice on offer at Spirit Rock or any meditation center in a western country where by law death is kept tidily under wraps, corpses whisked away, embalmed or cremated in ultra-private settings. So even if we have been present at the death of a loved one, or have attended an open-casket funeral, we have none of us in this culture sat among the decomposing remains of another human being.

If we spend time in nature, we do occasionally come upon a decomposing bird or small animal. Instead of turning away, we could spend some time in contemplation nearby.

But why on earth would we want to do this? Not for some maudlin fascination with death, but for acceptance of death as a natural part of the life cycle. The more squeamish we are about it, the more extreme our reaction to the very idea of it, the more likely we need some form of this practice as a way to come into balance. On the other hand, if you are already fascinated by death, are addicted to movies and books that glorify it in some way, then this practice might be a tempering, a reality check. Remember we are just sitting near the decomposing remains, not handling them. We are sitting and noticing our sensations, thoughts and emotions that are activated by this practice.

For a milder introduction to this contemplation, the next time you are about to toss a bouquet or dead-head a flower in the garden, pause and spend time with the wilting, browning, drying, crumpling state of the flower. Notice your feelings about the impulse to get rid of anything that is not in the ‘perfect bloom’ of life. Can you sit with it? Can you find beauty in it? What thoughts does sitting with it bring up? What emotions? I remember growing up being horrified to find something moldy in the refrigerator. My mom, the refrigerator keeper, would ask ‘Where do you think penicillin comes from?’ I would come back, ‘But Mom, this is a kitchen, not a pharmacy.’ Eeuuw!

Sometimes artists over the centuries have chosen to depict decay — dying flowers, rotting fruit or a well-placed skull — to remind us that all things are transient. Though Western artists, they hit on an Eastern concept and a universal truth. In Theravada Buddhist tradition, impermanence or anicca is one of the Three Marks or Characteristics. Insights arise through meditative practice that awaken us to the nature of impermanence. If we don’t understand the nature of impermanence, we cling in a way that causes suffering.

When we accept impermanence as a natural condition of life, then we are better able to stay present with what is, to value it in this moment, understanding its (and our) temporal nature. We are less likely to take our loved ones for granted, more likely to tell them we love them in this moment rather than putting it off for another day. We are more likely to pause to notice the beauty all around us.

Death and decay are not the only records of impermanence. In the time that I have added a mere wrinkle or two, my two granddaughters have doubled in size and exponentially grown in abilities! I understand the desire to ‘catch the moment’ and I admit I am writing long love letters to each of them in just such an attempt. But I am also simply treasuring this time, knowing it is fleeting. Their father, aunt, uncles and cousins — babies who transformed into adults before my eyes — the absolute proof of that? So not just death but life teaches us impermanence. The awareness of impermanence, the record of change and loss that each of us carries, is awakened in us as we age, creating natural wisdom in those willing to see, accept and even embrace the beauty of the cycles of life, including death and decay, that lead ultimately to rebirth.

We see that when we come into an awareness of impermanence, it is only grim and depressing if we are clinging to the way we want things to stay. It is our clinging and aversion that causes our suffering — the way we relate to experience rather than the experience itself. The only place to find joy in it is in the present moment. If we live each moment full of loving awareness, then time’s passage loses its bitter bite.

What comes up for you when we turn to a discussion of death as a natural part of the life cycle? As an extension of the exploration of our relationship with the body last week, we can add in our relationship to the realization that we and everyone we love will die. How does it feel when we acknowledge that? Notice any resistance or discomfort. Notice any split in the mind, that may say ‘Well of course!’ and the heart that may say, ‘Maybe’ or ‘Not me, not mine.’

We are not trying to change our minds about anything. We are just noticing the natural occurrences of human reactivity. Then we bring ourselves back to an awareness of this moment, through anchoring into the breath or other reliable physical sensation.


This weekend I gave a 40-minute presentation to a large group of non-meditating public speakers on ‘Mindfulness for Ease at the Podium.’ If you are interested in finding more ease in public speaking, check out this downloadable recap. It includes a brief video of me giving one of the experiential exercises I did for the presentation.

Contemplation of the Body – First Foundation of Mindfulness

We have talked about the breath and the postures. The next traditional meditation in the First Foundation of Mindfulness is a focus on the individual parts of the body, starting with hair on our head and the rest of the body and ultimately looking at the overall functioning of the body, the systems, how all the parts work together. We won’t be doing this in our class, but if interested you can check out this meditation practice on or look for a retreat on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

Why did the Buddha create this practice? What is the benefit? The Buddha offered practices that bring about awareness and balance. Awareness of the breath and sensation anchor us in the present moment. But what does awareness of body parts provide?

The Buddha’s students were primarily men, often young men, whose bodies were most likely a source of pride and pleasure, and full to the brim with testosterone. This made for an easily distractible mind. So the Buddha had them take a more dispassionate in-depth look at what makes up the human body, including parts they never thought about and some they only joked about such as the gas and liquids the body emits. We can imagine how a hormonally-charged group of young men — enamored of their own bodies’ prowess and easily brought to a mental state of lust by the sight of, say, a young woman walking by — could be brought into a more sober state of awareness through this practice. It brings the body into the realm of impersonal universal functionality. If sometimes these handed-down practices promote the ‘loathsomeness’ of the body, it is meant as a counterbalance to over-indulgence in bodily pleasures. The ultimate goal of the practice is to develop a more neutral relationship with the body, one that allows for moderation and balance.

The Buddha’s primary teaching was the Middle Way, tempering extremes of all kinds, so with any group of meditation practitioners, we look to the challenges of that particular group when sharing the teachings. As my students are a group of women, mostly postmenopausal, the Buddha most likely would have had a different prescription for us to help us find the Middle Way through the minefield of our relationship with the body.

Would a lengthy meditation on the parts of the body be useful to us? Maybe, but we in the 21st Century are probably much more aware of the various body parts from a workings perspective than the average person cerca 500 BC. Even if our understanding is not always accurate, we are exposed to and have access to an amazing amount of information. We even have access to a ringside seat at quasi-demonstrations of surgical procedures through medical television series, should we choose to watch them. And, though not all of us are interested in going to see it, there is that amazing and controversial exhibit of human anatomy, The Human Body Show, where preserved human bodies are skinned to reveal their inner workings.

In our group, we are of an age that we ourselves and/or close friends and family members have had surgical procedures and/or serious illnesses, so that when someone in our group shared her recent surgery, everyone in the circle seemed very knowledgeable, asked informed questions and knew others with a similar surgery. Of course this doesn’t mean we are qualified to perform surgery or diagnose an illness, but it does mean that human anatomy is not alien to us. If anything, we may be out of balance in focusing on the pathology — everything that can go wrong with this organ or that bone, tendon, muscle, etc. It is pretty standard in our techno-times for people to Google whatever symptom they have and discover a terrifying array of possible diseases. With exposure to information about micro-organisms that live within and without our bodies, we can develop germaphobia and get stuck in thought patterns regarding the body.

Clearly, our challenge today is a different one than the Buddha’s students had, and it’s not just the aches and pains. Through the same media that gives us sneak peeks into our innards, we also come up against fear-based identity issues. We are bombarded with the current ‘ideal body’ to strive for. Younger women have even more sense of need to take an already beautiful body and bring it into alignment with today’s extreme ideals, having pubic hairs removed or breasts augmented, among other currently common procedures. And young men today are far more likely to have procedures to make their bodies suit the current male ideal than their fathers and grandfathers were. We had a good laugh in our group imagining our husbands or fathers ever thinking that they needed to do anything other than shower and shave. But now it’s not just women who feel they must make their bodies objects of desire.

In the Buddha’s day there were certainly fashions and cosmetics. Women may have compared their looks to those of their sisters and friends, but they did not have images of anorexic models constantly streamed into their lives as we do. The inundation of this imagery, all geared to make us feel we are not enough as we are — not just in our body but in our lives — is incredibly intense today. Advertisers build their campaigns upon activating our fears. And it works!

So we are both more informed about the internal workings of our bodies and more traumatized in relationship to our bodies. If the Buddha were transported to this moment in time, what would he think of all this? He would most likely be astounded at the level of dissatisfaction with our bodies. Monks from Asia who come to the West today are amazed at our propensity for self-loathing and shame.

As a culture we in the West are perceived as incredibly materialistic. Why do we buy, buy, buy? To shore up our low self-esteem. Many of us live in an ‘if only’ state of mind. ‘If only I had plastic surgery.’ ‘If only I had those shoes.’ We fill the void within ourselves with stuff and self-improvements, and much of that stuff is to improve the impression we make on others. Heaven forbid they should see us as we are, because who we are is never enough. ‘If only I lost ten, twenty or thirty pounds,’ ‘if only I had the time or willpower to do the that butt lift program.’ Very few of us are completely satisfied with our bodies exactly as they are. And those that are may live in fear of losing that which they are so satisfied about.

Honestly I had thought by the time I had reached this ripe old age, I would have been able to let go a bit. I picture my beloved grandmother, all soft and round and wrinkled. She was perfect in my eyes! Did I really think that after a certain age the women of my generation would suddenly say, oh it’s time to start wearing calf-length silky dresses, sensible pumps, and not worry about our waistline? I am of a generation that strives for the perfect figure and probably always will. Bummer! But then maybe it is just my assumption that my grandmother wasn’t vain. I do remember when we shared a room on visits, we would race to see who could get dressed first, and I always won because she had to put on a girdle. She was born at a time when women still wore corsets with strings that had to be pulled, sometimes with someone’s foot on the butt to get traction. Good grief! She must have felt the girdle was easy breezy in comparison.

This is all an introduction to the opportunity to explore our own thoughts and feelings about our bodies. Questions we might ask explore:

  • What are your least favorite parts of your body? Do you ‘hate’ your hair, for example? Think of one and spend some time with it.
  • What is the basis of your dislikes and likes? Is a particular part painful, unreliable, troublesome, prone to disease, or just doesn’t meet the standards of attractiveness promoted in your culture?
  • Can you remember when this dislike started? Can you remember a scene or scenes from your earlier years when somehow it was suggested to you, either directly or indirectly, that this part of your body was not acceptable?

Think of a part of your body that you take pleasure and pride in.

  • Allow yourself to remember the ways in which it has provided you with good feelings.
  • Notice if these good feelings are due to this body part being reliable, pleasurable, healthy, or because it meets the standards of attractiveness in your culture.
  • Again, bring to mind any scenes from early years that might help to answer the question of why this body part gets such a positive review.

Now, add in the element of aging.

  • Has aging changed your feelings toward your favorite and least favorite body parts? Is a part that has been a source of reliability, pride or pleasure becoming less so? If so, explore how that has revealed itself, give yourself examples. Then notice your emotions as you think about this change. Perhaps you have come up with a phrase that you tell yourself to make this all okay, or you have ignored it. But right now allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to whatever emotions are stirred up.

We sit with what is. We acknowledge what is. We don’t pave over what is. If what is is painful, we hold this pain in an open loving embrace. We don’t push it away. Instead we open wider to make more space for all of what is there. Think of creating a spacious field of being present and you are hosting whatever thoughts and feelings arise and fall away, however strong they are, rather than being held hostage by them.

This is just an exercise. We just open and notice and acknowledge whatever arises. We let our own experience exist without judging it. If there is judgment, we compassionately notice the judgment. This is the exercise. This is the process of being fully present with the truth of our own experience.

How much energy do we expend on avoiding these feelings? If we can sit with them in a mindful open loving way, we may be surprised how they begin to relax, release, change, soften, and even sometimes disappear. Our avoidance holds them in a stasis! Our aversion constricts them in crystallized fear.

The Buddha taught that the source of our suffering is our attachment, aversion or delusion. The way we feel about our body, or any particular part of our body, is an excellent laboratory for working with these sources of suffering. If we can notice, if we can be present, if we can allow for this process to expose what we are doing with our habituated patterns of thinking, then we can lessen that sense of suffering.

Years ago I recognized that my relationship to my feet was a source of suffering for me. I hated them! They were ugly and painful. As a child, I had dry cracked feet that were the cause of much teasing from other children. I was always ashamed of them. I would hide them away as much as possible. Later I developed bunions that were painful and ugly. This compounded my dismay.

Then in a spiritually-based creativity class I took about 15 years ago, I focused on my feet, and created a mandala of photos of feet that I collaged from magazines. In the process I began to feel deep gratitude for my feet that have carried me everywhere. My mandala was ultimately a thank you note to my feet, the very feet that in my mind had been such a source of misery. That simple process of spending time with noticing feelings about my feet, transformed my relationship with them and activated a gratitude that has stayed with me all these years later.

If you have a body part that takes you to a place of shame or misery, give yourself some time to focus on this area. Maybe create a mandala or journal about your feelings. The key is to not come up with any solutions, not to force ‘positive’ emotions to replace the ‘negative’ ones, but to really be present with the feelings, to allow the process to work at its own pace and come to its own end, without the ‘should’ mind trying to make nice-nice. If you give it time, it will get to where it needs to be.

Coming to a balanced neutral state of mind in relationship to the body, where we are neither enamored, prideful nor ashamed — that is the purpose of this exercise. Next week we will expand our focus a bit and avail ourselves of more insights in our last body-focused exercises, as recommended by the Buddha.

Positions – First Foundation of Mindfulness

Last class we focused on the breath as the first aspect of the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This week we focus on the various positions we take for meditation. There are four positions the Buddha discussed: Sitting, walking, standing and lying down.

One of the simplest definitions of meditation we are given is ‘to sit and know you are sitting.’ This comes directly from the Satipattana, the Buddha’s instructions on direct path to realization.

As we begin our seated meditation practice, we close our eyes or lower our gaze and focus our awareness on the felt sense of the body. One of the first things we may notice is where our posture is not supportive. Odd isn’t it? Because just a few seconds before, with eyes open, settling in, we had thought our posture was perfectly comfortable. Whatever happened in those few seconds of transition is the crux of the practice. Just that quickly we went from the habitual nature of mind into awareness of the reality of this moment. We set the intention to notice what is the experience of this moment, beginning with the body, anchored in the senses.

Right away we see that we are not dealing with lofty concepts but immediate direct experience. Less than a minute into it and we already have an insight into the nature of mind with this demonstration of the difference between ordinary habitual patterned mind and this quality of noticing, of being fully conscious, present. This is awareness. This is mindfulness.

The challenge is to expand the foundation of mindfulness so that it’s not just a glimpse but the vantage point of our lives, what the Buddha called Wise View. At first it may feel a bit like dancing on the head of a pin, getting a brief glimpse of mindfulness and then losing it just that quickly. But with practice we develop the ability to stay present more and more of the time. The tiny head of that pin expands with dedicated practice into a more substantial platform of awareness. We feel more stable in our practice. With intention and practice being present is our default position. We can dance here and maintain our balance.

That moment of transition into sitting with a felt sense of the body in a seated posture may lead to physical adjustments to assure a posture that is supportive of a 30 – 40 minute sit. Those of my students who sit on my living room’s cushy white couch have access to firmer cushions to bring the spine erect and sometimes more support to bring the pelvis higher than the knees. Those who sit in chairs sometimes need a thin cushion under their feet. And those who sit on a bench or zafu make adjustments to suit their own bodies. The goal is to bring the spine erect, to let the sitz bones and the spine support the body completely so that the muscles can fully relax. I sometimes offer the image of a popsicle stick (spine) and the melting ice cream (muscles) as an aid to find position.

Why so much focus on posture?
One of my dear students flatly refused to have anything to do with this erect posture. She would lounge in the couch the way she would if she were coming over for a cozy chat over tea, which she is welcome to do any time. But during meditation we have an intention that is supported by a posture that is erect but relaxed, because the longer we sit, the more important it is that our position be sustainable. She would have none of that! She would recline way back in the corner of the couch, leaning to the side with her head back and her feet up on the ottoman. We had conversations about why this wasn’t a supportive posture, but I was not going to force the proper posture on her when she was so resistant.

I was reminded of a story my teacher Anna Douglas, one of the co-founders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, told about her own experience with sitting. Anna began her exploration of Buddhism in the Zen tradition, and in that tradition the specifications for sitting posture are very clearly delineated. She rebelled at these strict instructions. ‘Why do I have to hold my hands just so, or align this with that?’ She struggled and fought with the strictness of this posture, as my student would certainly have done had I been more forceful in my instruction. But Anna stayed with it, and eventually discovered for herself that the instructions for the posture were not arbitrary directives just to get students to conform. The postural directions are based on an understanding of how the body can be at ease while sitting in stillness.

Anna came home to the posture, and I trusted that my student would eventually discover for herself why the posture matters. And she did! Eventually, over the course of months, she began to sit up, began to discover for herself that an erect, balanced, supported posture matters, that although at first it sounds uncomfortable, actually it is the way to maintain comfort throughout the meditation. Her personal journey to the upright position was ultimately a much more rewarding one than if I had forced something onto her. We learn best from our own experience.

All my other students over the years have taken me at my word when I tell them an upright posture is beneficial. But it’s important always to remember that when sharing the wisdom of the dharma, including this second aspect of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, that the teacher offers guidance but the journey is uniquely our own.

Advanced practitioners will find their posture more readily with a sense of homecoming, but it is still important to bring the attention to the felt sense of the experience, to anchor in awareness of physical sensation. To sit and know we are sitting.

Most of the time in a class we do a sitting practice. On retreats we alternate sitting with walking practice. Walking practice is always available to us, and can be incorporated into some portion of our regular exercise routine to enrich it and bring our awareness into the present moment, anchored in physical sensation. If done before more vigorous exercise, that awareness can help to ensure we are fully present, making it a much richer experience, and a safer one for our bodies.

Again the primary instruction is to walk and know that we are walking. At first this will probably mean that we need to slow down considerably to sense into the movement, to feel the pressure of the foot as it touches the ground, the muscles in the leg as it raises up and sets down, noticing all aspects of physical sensation, internal and external.

This is all new to most of us. When we are walking we are usually either lost in thought or we are focused on our destination. Perhaps we notice things that happen within our field of vision — a person, a vehicle, a bird — usually moving things we are biologically compelled to notice to assess whether it is safe to proceed. Our senses might register things that are pleasant or unpleasant — a pretty dress, a piece of litter, a favorite song, a jackhammer, the scent of jasmine or the stench of sewer smell, or a pain in a joint.

But we rarely if ever walk in a way that fully engages our sensory awareness, so that we feel the air on our skin, feel all our muscles in concert, feel fully present in our movement without regard to our destination. This is the gift of walking meditation.

Over the years attending retreats at Spirit Rock, it seemed that walking meditation was under-appreciated. Some retreatants would do it in a dedicated way, but many would do it half-heartedly, then stop and relax in the sunshine. Some would use those periods to return to their rooms to rest or take a hike in the hills. All okay, but the walking practice did get short shrift. Over the past few years there has been a burgeoning respect and appreciation for walking meditation. One teacher, Larry Yang, has really taken it on as his personal challenge to inspire this communal awakening to the rich and wondrous awareness experience of walking meditation. Now on retreats, the courtyard and the upper walking hall are full to the brim for the full period of walking meditation. The retreat experience is not just about sitting, and then time off from sitting. The retreat is a replete experience, where all aspects are done with awareness.

Students in my class are always welcome to do walking practice in the garden, and sometimes we all go out and do formal walking practice there. On our daylong retreats we always include dedicated periods of walking practice.

If there is a problem with the sitting practice, such as back problems or a tendency to fall asleep, it is recommended that the meditator practice standing. Again the practice is to stand and know that we are standing. We sense into the experience of standing. The posture is erect, the knees not locked, the feet at a balanced distance apart, and the tailbone is tucked slightly, just to assure the back isn’t over-arched. It should feel supportive and natural, not contrived. The eyes rest in a downward gaze. Closed eyes might cause balance problems.

Standing practice can be done instead of sitting practice, or one can add the idea of a standing practice to whenever we happen to be standing in line or waiting.

I am doing a presentation to a large group of public speakers, encouraging them to sense into their feet on the ground when they find their mind wandering. It is part 40 minute presentation on ‘Mindfulness tips for ease at the podium’ at a Toastmasters District Conference. The dharma has value in all aspects of life!

Lying Down
Most of us will do our final meditations in a lying down posture. Practice now! This is a valuable posture and if it is practiced less in formal training, it is only because of the tendency to fall asleep and space considerations in a group setting. Those of you who practice yoga are familiar with the final pose, savasana or corpse pose, which is a resting pose after a whole session of activity. The lying down meditation is more focused than the yoga pose and is less about resting and more about sensing in and being present with this position.

If neither sitting nor standing is possible due to illness or physical limitations, lying down is an excellent practice. It is not a second class practice but an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s teachings. You have no doubt seen statues of the Buddha lying down. He wasn’t ‘lying down on the job!’ He was being fully present in another totally valid posture. I emphasize this because sometimes when we are ill we might feel we can’t meditate. Not true!
If you feel you might fall asleep in this posture, then raise your knees and have your feet planted firmly on the floor. Remind yourself that you are not here to sleep, reset your intention to be present, and if you get drowsy raise your arms and lower them in a slow steady rhythm.

If you are trying to go to sleep, then get as comfortable as possible and focus on the breath, the rhythmic rise and fall of the belly, allowing it to soften, soften, soften…ah.

These four positions — sitting, walking, standing, lying down — are all appropriate for the practice of meditation. When we can carry awareness ‘off the cushion’ then we are able to more effectively carry it into our lives. As we do this, we bring awareness into all our activities, all our postures. We are fully awake and alive in this body. This is fully inhabiting the experience of this gift of life. Further, being present with the body, we make wiser decisions. When we feel the muscles as we exercise, we work them but don’t overwork them. We respond to the body’s need to move rather than mentally overriding the body’s own systems for self-maintenance. We can see how this applies in all areas of loving awareness of the body. Where are we not in sync with the body? That’s where we are not in the present moment, anchored into the felt sense of being alive in a human body.

I remember one time having dinner with friends at a restaurant and I was returning to the table from the restroom along a long aisle between tables where other diners were enjoying their meal. Though there was nothing particularly momentous about that moment, for some reason I felt more in my body than usual. I was fully present with the sensations of my body moving through space. I was fully present with the light and shadow, the color and texture of all that I could see. I was fully present with the sounds of talk and laughter, of platters and kitchen sounds; I was fully present with the smell of the food. And I was fully present with the feel of my feet on the ground, my leg muscles, the feel of my clothing on my skin. I felt fully incorporated, fully sensate, fully one with the experience just as it was, without any sense of destination.That moment was even more delicious than the meal because I was more fully present to enjoy it! There are no ‘ordinary’ moments, just ones in which we aren’t fully present.

So that’s what I wish for each of us: That we may come home to awareness of being here in each moment.

Breath – The First Aspect of the First Foundation of Mindfulness

In Buddhist practice we begin where we are, with what is readily available in our current experience. As we begin to investigate the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) we start with the breath, that most fundamental of all experiences in our lives. Regardless of what our bodies look like or what condition they are in, if we are alive we have breath. Even if our breath is compromised, we are breathing. So the Buddha starts his investigation right here, at this point of consistent commonality.

We begin with the felt sense of our experience of breath. For many of us following the breath is regular our practice of meditation. But there are ways and ways to be present with the breath. As consistent a presence as it is, the breath does not always seem the same. Though the breath can change depth and rate, the different experiences we have are often due to the variations in how we attend to it from moment to moment. In this focus, let us be with the breath in a way that really honors it. Let’s attend it with our full attention and loving kindness.

Take a moment to sit with it now, very consciously, noticing the natural breath. What do you notice?

  • Where is the strongest sensation of breath in the body at this time?
    • In the nostrils?
    • The chest?
    • The belly?
  • Is there some part of the breath that the attention seems to focus on?
    • The inhale?
    • The exhale?
  • Or are you noticing more the overall arising and falling away of the breath?

Just noticing what draws you now.

As we spend time with the breath, we might wonder,

  • ‘Am I breathing the breath, or is the breath breathing me?’  

We could investigate where are the edges of this separate being I call ‘me’?

  • Is the breath inside of me ‘me’ while it’s there, and then no longer ‘me’ when it leaves through the nose or mouth?
  • Or is the existence of this shared air, this shared breath, an indication that there are no true edges where I stop and the air I sit in or walk through begins? We’ve noticed in meditation many times that with our eyes closed, our experience is simply sensation, the felt sense of being is much more spacious than what we identify as ‘me’ in the mirror.

Still with our attention on the breath, we can notice any variations in the quality of the breath or the quality of our attention.

  • Does the breath change?
  • Does it deepen or go shallow?

Just noticing, allowing the attention to be intrigued, without trying to change anything.

In our practice I often give the instruction:

  • to focus on the inhale if your energy is low, to feel the oxygenation of the blood enliven you; and
  • to focus on the exhale if the mind is racing, allowing the excess energy to be released on the breath.
  • to adjust the posture in such a way that the rib cage offers an open easy column for the breath to rise and fall
  • to focus on the lowest place in the body that you feel the breath, and if it is the belly to be aware of the breath as a billows to the flame of core energy in the area just below the belly button.

So we are used to ‘working with’ the breath. But it is not the breath we are changing, it is how we are relating to the natural breath.**

This is an important thing to notice, this development of the ability to pay attention rather than always trying to change some condition, because it is true throughout our life experience. We can see that it is not the thing itself but the way in which we are relating to it that makes all the difference.

For example, perhaps as we sit in the group meditating together, we hear another person’s breathing. How do we relate to that? We might notice irritation, feeling that the noise is disruptive to our experience, an intrusion into our lovely silence. We might feel concern as to why the person is breathing so loudly. We might have any number of thoughts or feelings that activate distracting stories within our minds. OR we could allow that external breath to be a point of focus. We could simply notice what is present in our experience. Whether it is our breath or the sound of another’s breathing, it is all breath, rising and falling away.

The focus on rising and falling away of experience is a rich and rewarding one. If it is pleasurable we might notice a desire for it to continue. If it is unpleasant we might notice a feeling of aversion and a desire for it to end, for conditions to change. We can notice how strong these desires are, how distressed we become, how we whisk our inner calm into a lather of unhappiness. Just noticing. In either case we can see the transient nature of experience.

As we recognize how our ability to attend the breath determines our experience, we might have an insight. We might see that what we bring to any experience — the intention we bring, the motivation we bring, the energy we bring, the attitude, any prior experiences, emotions and associative thoughts — all of this changes the experience of even those things that are consistent, like the breath. Isn’t this what we notice as we meditate? One sitting is very unlike another, but what really has changed?

Here’s a good example most of us can relate to: Think about a time when a sunrise or sunset really captured your attention. Then think about a time when you barely noticed an equally beautiful, equally dramatic solar event because your mind was busy with other things. You were hurrying to get somewhere, or you were in the middle of a conversation and the sun’s interaction with the earth and the clouds was just a backdrop to a more involving experience. Perhaps you were upset and weren’t in the mood to be grateful or appreciative. Nothing the sun could do could mollify you! It could dance across the sky on horseback doing cartwheels and you would turn away. Not now, Sun!

That’s how it is with the breath as well. This breath that is, let’s face it, our ticket to be here having any experiences at all, most of the time is completely ignored and taken for granted. This is not to scold us because we aren’t sufficiently appreciative of our breath. Not at all. But we can recognize as we focus on the breath that it is the most fundamental experiential laboratory for noticing the way in which we interact with the world. This ability to notice is a gift. If it triggers judgment, then we notice that as well.

This is what I love most about the Buddha’s teachings. We start where we are. We are not all caught up in fancy concepts of distant possibilities of what might be in some other realm. We are here, sitting and noticing our experience of the breath. And that small activity, unnoticeable to anyone around us, gives us great gifts.

It is humbling to realize how awareness eludes us most of the time, yet this is a human condition. One student described it so well. She said, ‘It’s always there, but I’m not always there.’ Or we could say, ‘It’s always here, but I’m not always here,” just to remind us to be here now.

Let us see it as a challenge to set our intention to be fully present, even understanding, accepting that we will fail… again and again and again. But as long as each time we fail our intention rises up and sets us on the course of noticing, of being curious, of paying attention, again and again, then we are doing well.

In meditation our mind may wander or get groggy. We forget where we are or what we are about. We are somewhere else, miles or years away, thinking, feeling, reacting to something that is not in our present physical experience. But the moment we become conscious, we can reset our intention without getting beaten down again by harsh judgment about our lack of consciousness. We simply get up, compassionately reset our intention to notice the rising and falling of our breath, and we are here. For however long we are able. Our practice is spacious enough for the moments of lostness to exist alongside the sweet reunions into consciousness, for the intention to survive intact and support us, again and again.

There is something so precious about the breath. Our awareness that it determines whether we have any experiences of all of course make it precious. But beyond that, the fact that this simple rhythmic usually quiet, barely noticeable event can so effectively ground us in the moment so that we can live fully. Such a small thing, this noticing the breath, yet every time we are able to do it the benefits of the practice bloom right there in this very moment.

So this first aspect of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, this breath, is like the very centerpoint of the spiral of life. It is a powerful place to put our awareness, the hidden treasure each of us carries within us that connects us to all else.

** There are however opportunities to purposely alter the breath as taught in many traditions such as Qigong, for example. These can be very powerful in calming the mind and self-healing. Our practice is about mindfulness, being present with what is, so we are not trying to change anything. Changes occur naturally just through our practice of loving awareness.