For many people, a significant part of self identity is based on the appearance of the body. I am pretty. I am fat. I am black. I’m a red-head. We tend to make judgements about ourselves and create an entire persona around a few physical characteristics. TV commercials and magazine ads would have us believe that we should only be made of beautiful elements: lustrous hair, big brown or blue eyes, sparkling white teeth, flawless skin, rippling abs. While these attributes are attractive, anyone who came down with the flu this winter can tell you the human body is not always so glamorous.
In the Kayagata-sati sutta, the Buddha advised regular reflection on the asubha, or non-beautiful elements of the body.
“Furthermore, the monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.'”
As a pediatrician, I come into contact with these non-beautiful elements on a regular basis. As soon as that diaper is removed, a newborn baby is guaranteed to pee. Boys in particular. Runny noses, drool, and ear wax make up a significant part of my day. To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, cute kids are made up of non-cute elements.
The Buddha’s instructions help us to let go of vanity and conceit with regard to the body. The body is made up of beautiful elements and non-beautiful elements: hair, eyes, and smiles, but also brain matter, saliva, and sweat. We’re less likely to become overly attached to external appearances when we consider that we’re all a bunch of walking leather bags full of bones, blood, and tissue.
The same sort of scrutiny can be applied to thoughts and emotions. They can be pleasant or unpleasant, kind, generous, mean-spirited, or hateful. Everyone has roughly an equal measure of each, but it is human nature to tend to strongly identify with the few thoughts or feelings we perceive as predominant.
If we suffer from depression or anxiety, or if we are easily angered, we give ourselves a label and become trapped in our own conditioning. Even before I had Sarah, before I faced the daily challenges of special needs parenting, I experienced periods of depression. It runs in my family and I assumed that it was an inevitable and immutable part of my genetic make up, like height or skin color. I now know that it is not an unchangeable trait and have successfully overcome the tendency.
Meditation helps us to realize that we are not defined by our thoughts and emotions any more than by our physical traits. If we are mindful of the entirety of our experience, we come to understand that there exists a complicated, ever-changing interplay of physical characteristics, thoughts, and feelings that weave together to create this amazing, dynamic human being we identify as self. This being changes from moment to moment. At times the beautiful elements predominate; we feel happy and look great. At other times we are overtaken by non-beautiful elements; we’re grumpy, depressed, or having a bad hair day. When we let only a few of these factors define us, we limit our capacity for growth and change.
Contemplating the asubha can be especially helpful for special needs parents. Parenting is hard. There’s a quote going around Facebook: “Behind every well adjusted child is a parent who thinks they’re doing it wrong.” Add a special needs child into the mix and the self doubt and judgment really begin to pile up. When Sarah is having a bad day emotionally and I lose my patience, I feel like I’ve failed the test. When I’m too tired at the end of the day to complete all my medical charts, I feel incompetent compared to my colleagues. The stress of raising a disabled child has taken a toll on my physical body as well. I tend to reach for food when under stress and now weigh more than my ego would prefer.
The challenge is to remember that I am more than my failures and chubby belly. With mindfulness, I can bring awareness to the times that I do respond to my children with loving attention. I can forgive myself for eating an extra cookie or three. I don’t have to identify with my short-comings any more than I would with my “…tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver…”.
Here’s a little experiment to help develop insight into the concept of non-identification: First, bring your attention to the upper right side of your abdomen, the area of your liver. Try to picture all of the chemical reactions taking place in your liver right at this very moment. If you ate recently, your liver is actively converting glucose into glycogen for energy storage. If you take medication or drink alcohol, the smooth endoplasmic reticulum in each liver cell is busy metabolizing those compounds . It’s all taking place without your knowledge or control, every second of every minute of your life. Now, try to identify with those chemical reactions. My liver is so awesome. I am a great metabolizer. My glycogen is better than that other guy’s glycogen. My smooth endoplasmic reticulum rocks! Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?
Try to recall the last time you were consumed by a strong emotion such as anger or anxiety. Think of the situation that triggered the emotion. Notice how just thinking of the trigger can recreate the emotion, sometimes as powerfully as if you were actually in the moment. Recall all the times you tried to control your mood or emotions and failed. Thoughts and emotions come up all by themselves. We have about as much control over them as we do our breath. You can hold your breath for a short time, but eventually the regulatory centers in the brain take over and breathing starts again. Similarly, thoughts and emotions can be held at bay for a short time, but, under the right circumstances, will re-emerge spontaneously, whether or not you want them to.
With practice, we can come to understand that identifying with thoughts and emotions is equally as absurd as basing our self-worth on our physical appearance or metabolic processes. Each of us has good moments and bad, happy feelings and angry thoughts, beautiful and non-beautiful elements. We don’t have to identify with or define ourselves by any of these. We will be brilliant one moment and a complete moron the next, and it’s ok. There is no test. Nothing to pass or fail. Just take each moment as it comes and do your best. Forgive yourself for your failures and celebrate your successes, but don’t take either personally.