Contemplation of the Body

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • November 2013

The age-old themes of the body and contemplation of the body are again present for me. There is such a strong attachment to the body as self. I see this with my own experience and with so many of us here. There are those of us right now who are going in for physical exams, those with ongoing health problems, the issues with our friend Iris who is dealing with cancer, a number of people who need to see certain practitioners, doctors, and therapists for body issues, and six people going in for blood work tomorrow. We chanted the “Reflection on the Thirty-Two Parts of the Body” this morning. We do this reflection and examine the body because we are so strongly attached to it as either: who I am, something of which I am in possession of, or something over which I should have control. It forms a major part of who we think we are, and because of that strong attachment, when things go wrong we suffer greatly. That is why a large part of the practice is to try, over and over again, to alter the belief that the body is self or possessed by a self. If we can lessen that attachment over time, then little by little, when things go wrong, we do what we need to do to take care of the health of our bodies, but we don’t do it with a sense of strong attachment, identification, clinging, pain, sorrow, lamentation, or grief.

We can practice this on an intellectual level and that’s where it has to begin—bringing it in through the use of words and active reflection in a conceptual way. Yet how many of us let it reach a deep level, an emotional level, and possibly even further than that? Often, this level of deep understanding doesn’t become apparent until something very serious happens. During those times we may come to understand that we have been dealing with body reflection in a shallow way. All of a sudden, the talks we have heard, the reflections we have done, all of the many times we have chanted the “Thirty-Two Parts of the Body” or some other body reflection, do not come into play. Where are they now?

The attachment to the body is so strong that we have to repeatedly bring it into consciousness at a very deep level. We do this by accepting that these bodies of ours are not things over which we have any control. We reflect on the process of aging, sickness, and death, let it sink in and at the same time, we look carefully at what is happening around us. For a person who is dying of a catastrophic illness, the death process is not just something that’s out there, but something that is happening right inside that person’s body. It could be the proliferation of cancer cells reaching different parts of the body, obstructing tissues and airways, and spreading to the bones and the brain. I can recognize that all of that is something that could very likely happen to me. Or some other disease will happen in this very body, to these internal organs, to all the parts we’ve been talking about, visualizing, and reciting. Each part will come to an end. They will all at some point cease to function, either one by one or at the same time. These parts of the body are subject to dissolution, decay, and decomposition and will return to the elements: earth, air, water, and fire, nothing more than that. Yet it all seems so real, so personal, and so “me,” which is where the suffering comes in.

Bringing this reflection to heart is a significant part of daily meditation practice, both on the cushion and off. To do this we need to look around and bring this reflection into as deep a level of the consciousness as possible. This can seem like a monumental practice but it is possible. Over and over again we can gradually whittle away at the identification we have with the physical form and eventually gain insight into the impermanent and not-self nature of the body.