During my first year as a monk, when I was staying at a monastery near Bangkok, we received an invitation from the children of a man in the last stages of liver cancer, asking for some monks to visit their father in the hospital, as he wanted to make merit and hear the dhamma one last time before he died. Five of us went the next morning, and the senior monk in the group chatted with the man for quite a while to put his mind at ease and help him prepare for his coming death. Now was the time, the monk said, for him to put aside all concern for his body and to focus instead on the state of his mind so that it wouldn’t be overcome by pain as his body fell apart.

Suddenly the man blurted out that the worst part of the cancer wasn’t the pain. It was the embarrassment. All his life he had prided himself on staying fit and trim while his friends had gotten fat and paunchy, but now his belly was so horribly bloated from the cancer that he couldn’t bear to look at it or to imagine what other people might think, seeing him like this. No matter how much the senior monk tried to reassure him that it was nothing to be ashamed of—that this was part of the body’s normal nature beyond anyone’s control—the man wouldn’t let go of the conviction that his body had betrayed him and was now an embarrassment in the eyes of the world.

All through the conversation I couldn’t help thinking that the man would have suffered a lot less if he had taken some of the time he had devoted to looking fit and spent it on contemplating the unattractiveness of the body instead. I myself had never felt much enthusiasm for this particular meditation theme—I preferred focusing on the breath, and would contemplate the parts of the body more out of a sense of duty than anything else. But now I saw that the Buddha’s teaching on body contemplation was really an act of kindness, one of the many effective and essential tools he left behind to help alleviate the sufferings of the world.

On the way back to the monastery, I also realized, to my chagrin, that I had been complacent about my attitude toward my own body. Despite my contemplation of my liver, intestines, and everything else under my skin, I still took pride in the fact that I had kept fit when other people my age were getting a little flabby. Although I had consciously resisted the unrealistic standards for looking good fostered by the media, I had felt a little moral superiority about staying in good shape. But now I had to admit that even my “reasonable” amount of pride was dangerous: I, too, was setting myself up for a fall. Eating and exercising to be healthy may generally be a good policy, but a concern for looking healthy can be unhealthy for the mind.

Most of us in the West, of course, don’t see it that way. Because the modern obsession with impossibly perfect body images has taught so many people to hate their bodies to a pathological degree, we’ve come to identify all positive body images as psychologically healthy, and all negative body images as psychologically sick. When we learn of the Buddha’s recommendations for contemplating the body, we see them as aggravating rather than solving the problem. What we need, we think, is a way of meditating that develops positive images of the body as a beautiful and sacred vehicle for expressing compassion and love.

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