The contemporary mindfulness movement seems to sidestep the body; it appears as a technology of the mind, often in the service of psychotherapeutic protocols. The term “mindfulness” itself directs our attention rather unambiguously to the mind. However, there is a powerful sense in which the body is (and must be) the heart of mindfulness, even in its constant decay toward death. Failing to understand mindfulness as an embodied and bodily practice means failing to understand mindfulness at all.

Some of the nuances of this situation emerge from the simple fact that, in its current usage, “mindfulness” is a translation, which has developed a conceptual and methodological life of its own. Mindfulness approaches the simulacrum. In 1881, the (then) civil servant Thomas Rhys Davids first translated the Palī term sati as “mindfulness,” as he worked on contributions to Max Müller’s epic Sacred Books of the East. Even then this was not an uncontroversial translation of so important a term, which appears in Buddhism’s foundational Noble Eightfold Path. One concern is precisely that it appears to neglect the embodied force of alternative translations, like re-membering (bringing back to the body).

Today, other nuances of this situation emerge from the conflation of mindfulness with meditation, and meditation with concentrated introspection. That is, there is poor public awareness of relevant category differences and the distinctions between different forms of meditation. In other words, not all forms of meditation are intended to cultivate mindfulness, and not all mindfulness practices are forms of meditation. In particular, the focus of popular culture on samatha (single-pointed or concentrated) meditation and immersive jhāna (Zen) has encouraged the association of mindfulness with the “shedding” or “sloughing off” of the body.

However, unlike some other forms of meditation, mindfulness practices are intimately entwined with physicality, sensuousness, and the temporality of the body. Indeed, the Satipatthana Sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness), in which the Buddha elaborates a method for the destruction of suffering and the accomplishment of awakening, established the body as the first, foundational concern.1 The manner of approaching the body in the Satipatthana Sutta serves as the archetype for the contemplation of emotions, thoughts, and “mental events” (dhamma) that constitute the other foundations.

Like the vast majority of formal, contemporary mindfulness practices, the Satipatthana Sutta commences with a call to bring attention to the breath. It suggests that the practitioner might go out into the forest and sit cross-legged under a tree (presumably in the manner of the historical Buddha under the Bodhi tree), and there watch the breath, forming thoughts that echo the action of breathing itself—noticing the duration and depth of each breath, allowing the bodily sensations that accompany each breath to rise into awareness. At the same time, the sutta appears to invite the practitioner to make use of this focus of awareness to encourage a sense of physical calm into their body; awareness of breath and the sensations of physical calm tend together. For various reasons (associated with the therapeutic promotion of values such as nonstriving, acceptance, and nonjudgement), contemporary mindfulness protocols tend to sidestep this move toward deliberative bodily control.

The sutta proceeds to advocate the cultivation of awareness of the body’s deportment, recognizing the sensations that attend going as going, standing as standing, sitting as sitting, and so forth: “just as the body is disposed, so it is understood.” This flows into the promotion of the “clear comprehension” of all kinds of physical activities. It is here that we find the roots of a profusion of mindfulness practices, such as mindful walking, mindful eating, and mindful dialogue.

However, the section on clear comprehension also begins an important turn in the Satipatthana Sutta, which turns the practitioner away from beauty, calm, and elegance. Indeed, the turn is deliberately and explicitly toward the “repulsiveness of the body.” This is a turn that is almost uniformly ignored in contemporary mindfulness protocols, especially in clinical or therapeutic settings. The first clue arises from the account of activities to which clear comprehension should be applied; this not only includes walking, eating, and keeping silent, but also defecating and urinating. The Mindful Toilet.

The subsequent sections of the sutta, which emphasize reflection on the elemental, material qualities of the body (dhatu), have provided the roots of contemporary practices like the now-pervasive body scan, in which practitioners bring their attention to different parts of their body in turn in order to experience them as they are. However, the sutta’s clear emphasis is on the ostensible repulsiveness of the body. Rather than scanning cleanly through bones and muscles, the sutta calls on practitioners to reflect on the “manifold impurity from the soles up and from the top of the hair down,” also calling specific attention to the contents of the stomach, intestines, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, mucus, and urine. Such a practice would certainly be a twist on the largely sanitized contemporary body scan.

This focus on the repulsiveness of the body is only a stepping stone, guiding the practitioner toward the real goal of the sutta’s attention to the body: physical death and decay. Most contemporary practitioners of mindfulness as a mental health protocol will be unaware of the nine steps of the “cemetery contemplations” that serve as the capstone of the sutta’s attention to the body. These contemplations call on practitioners to witness a body as a corpse, cast into the charnel ground, in increasingly atrophied states of decay (ranging from being swollen and blue, through being eaten by crows and dogs, through reduction to a skeleton, all the way to the vanishing of crumbled bones), constantly reflecting that their “body too is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.”

In this way, the Satipatthana Sutta seeks to establish the body, the body’s mundane vulgarity, and the body’s inevitable transience as the centerpiece for the foundations of mindfulness. By constantly returning awareness to the body, practitioners come to understand the impermanence of all things, including themselves, and how to live accordingly. Attention to the body is the antidote to sentimentalism and idealism. Trust in the body is the basis of insight and remembering.

While there is considerable popular and scholarly debate about the extent to which contemporary mindfulness has sought to circumvent the ethical and religious content of sati (in order to enable its deployment as technology in healthcare protocols), there has been much less attention paid to its relative disembodiment, especially its eschewal of bodily atrophy and death. While various Buddhist (and other) practices encourage the contemplation of death and decay as basic to human health and wellbeing, contemporary mindfulness emerges as not only deracinated but also (quite literally) sterilized for a clinical environment.

  1. For convenience, quotations here are based on the classic Soma Tera translation(1941).