Pus, boogers, peepee, poopoo. Would you believe that there is a meditation practice based on contemplating these items? It isn’t for two-year-olds, it’s for adults. And it is intended to lead to peace of mind, not agitation, amusement and disgust. It’s one of the classic meditation practices of the Theravadan tradition, an orderly contemplation of the thirty-two parts of the body, starting with hair of the head and ending with urine.
If this sounds gruesome, consider that life is gruesome: no one survives. Our opinions and beliefs about life and death won’t offer us any special privileges. Worse yet, it’s the nature of all bodies not only to die, but to rot, crumble, shiver, itch, and to display various forms of ugliness. Yet the extra pain that all of us give ourselves over this entire situation seems, on reflection, unnecessary.
Buddhism offers a number of practices designed specifically to cut through our delusions about the body—charnel ground meditations, contemplations of death and loathsomeness. They are meant to undermine our normal relationship with our bodies. They ease the moment of death, and the moments before death. They don’t aim to ruin our happiness; instead, they expand the scope of love. If taken to heart, they exhaust the source of our greatest terrors.
The sheer volume of thoughts we devote to the body is dismaying. If we look closely at our moment-to-moment experiences, our thoughts, our wishes and feelings, we will see that we constantly strain for more pleasure and beauty. We feel that we should be immersed in a constant orgasm of satisfaction and attractiveness.
Meanwhile, our elderly and uncompromising tradition asks us to recognize the pain involved in carting our body around; to look directly at what goes into keeping the body together. As long as we’re healthy adults, we ignore it as much as we can, denying the amount of work it takes to keep it clean, fed and exercised; submitting without a second thought to the pressures to create for ourselves a super-bionic, pleasure-giving, pleasure-attracting, never-sick body. Then we’re trying to lift a heavy box and suddenly—Spang!— there’s a muscle spasm in the lower back and we fall to the floor wondering if we’ll ever walk again. Or, trying on jeans, in the ugly light of the changing room, we see ten pounds of clabber hanging off the backs of our thighs. Or, sitting in the car, waiting for a train to go by, suddenly a black amoeba crosses the lower corner of one eye. As the sky goes dark, a shaft of the pure terror of death bolts us to the driver’s seat.
And that dauntless, unstoppable little commentator that lies inside us utters a peep of shock. This fear that is so overwhelming: where was it stored? Up to a second ago we thought we knew all the cozy rooms of our body’s mansion; now we suddenly find ourselves alone and frightened, as if we were stranded on a high crag in a thunderstorm. Indeed, we may be passing into the dreaded kingdom of the ill, where we are no longer the persons we wanted to be, no longer able to become what we wanted to become, do what we wanted to do. We will be ruled by unwanted problems: pain and exhaustion, obsession and fear. We may feel that we have failed—failed to eat properly, failed to be tranquil enough—as if a life properly lived would never end.
The source of our terror is attachment: the feeling that our bodies are the most precious possessions we have. It is within this attachment and all of its associated assumptions that we live most unquestioningly. The body: what is it really? Do we actually possess it? Is it really precious and beautiful?
The good news is that even the bodies of Arnold Schwarzenneger and Cindy Crawford are transitory. Besides, they require eight hour workouts on top of genetic endowment. After meditating even a little on the thirty-two parts of the body, we have a different feeling about seeing Cindy Crawford’s bone structure—we see bones, not a cultural value.
In contemplations of the loathsome, we are asked to examine carefully all parts of the body, their actual qualities, and to ask ourselves whether we should value it the way we do. What is a human face? It is a piece of skin full of holes, “like an insect’s nest,” the Visuddhimagga says. The brain “… is the lumps of marrow bound inside the skull. [I]t is the colour of the flesh of a toadstool; …the colour of turned milk…” All of the body parts are visualized specifically, in detail. The twenty nail plates. The skeleton, with many bones. Imagine, as you walk along, the movements of your tiny toe bones inside your shoes; take a few minutes to remember the skull behind every face.
Do you feel horror, or a kind of relieved and interested recognition, or both? If it’s horror, is it to the same degree as your denial?
It’s crucial to the success of foulness practices not to get sidetracked by psychological defense systems. Remember that the small mind pursues an ostrich strategy, as if not thinking about bad things would cause them to disappear. Death and decay are the worst things, so all resources will be deployed to forget about them. One defense can be humor. You might feel highly amused by the solemnity of the creepy language in the classic meditation texts, imagining them being read in the voice of Lon Chaney. “Just as duckweed and green scum on the surface of the water divided when a stick . . . is dropped into the water and then spread together again, so too, at the time of eating and drinking, etc., when the food, drink, etc. fall into the stomach, the phlegm divides and then spreads together again . . .” (Visuddhimagga, Nanamoli, p. 280). UUUGGHH!!! you say. Those guys could really dish it out!!!
The mind defends itself, too, by fascination and curiosity. A friend who went to the morgue in Bangkok reported that she could feel her mind developing a sense of fascination to cover up her fear. Eventually, however, nausea overtook her and she tried to escape through the back door—only to find a courtyard full of rotting body parts and pools of blood swarming with flies.
Yet another defense can be pride in what we see as our spiritual progress through contemplating the repulsive. During one three-month course at the Insight Meditation Society, yogis were passing around photographs of three corpses. “Wow,” we said, peering at the bloated face of a young woman who had drowned. It was kind of scary, kind of fun, like a game at a slumber party. Most of all, we felt we had in our hands a special means to meditational success—not an image of what we would surely, one day, become.
It’s easy to dismiss and denigrate these loathsomeness practices. With yet one more line of defense we protest: Why not deny the truth as long as we can? Why dwell on the horrible side of life when, after all, we can put the same amount of energy into distracting ourselves and pursuing pleasure? Do we want to become inhuman beings who don’t care whether we live or die?
But we might just as well ask if the result of loathsomeness practice might be a profound and subtle, wild and fearless joy. Perhaps, through this practice, we will come to really love life without holding back from any part of it, including the infirmities and decay of sickness and old age. Perhaps we will even be able to develop a mind that laughs at death. Why not begin to free ourselves from attachment to the body, which is disappearing anyway? We don’t have to be so bound by these meat puppets that we drag around.