Tranquil Hearts Yoga

What are the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness?

foundation of mindfulness, rocks on sandy beach

The First Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness was first established as a practice by the Buddha. As the Buddha was living in Kammasadamma, he gave his discourse on the foundations of mindfulness called the Satipatthana Sutta, or “The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness.”

The Buddha was a human who saw through the causes of human suffering and the pathway out of it. Suffering, or dukkha, was seen as any discontent caused by the grasping and holding onto impermanent objects. The pathway he established begins with the contemplation of the four factors of human condition. This contemplation, also known as mindfulness, is the basis for eliminating suffering and achieving enlightenment.

The four foundations of mindfulness are:
  • Mindfulness of the Body,
  • Mindfulness of the Feelings,
  • Mindfulness of the Mind, and
  • Mindfulness of the Mental Objects

The goal of attaining enlightenment is not for every person, but I believe that acting mindfully eliminates suffering and leads individuals toward a happier life. The energy and actions that we put out are also what we get back from our world, so acting mindfully brings mindful returns.

Mindfulness of the Body

Mindfulness of the body begins with the breath. Our first and last actions in this life are to breathe, and we perform this action nonstop throughout. To me, that seems like something worth paying attention to. But often the breath becomes too much second nature. We don’t become better musicians by just singing in the shower, usually that is done mindlessly as an act of joy. That isn’t to say that we can’t improve by singing more, only that the improvement of a skill requires attention and focused repetition.

So it is with breathing. Mindfulness of the breath is based on attention and focused repetition. 

Take note of your breathing right now. 

Are you in-breaths short or long? Can you note to yourself that your breath is short or long? 

Can you follow a breath with your attention from the moment you begin an inhale to the moment you complete an exhale?

This is not just a sitting meditation, but sitting is a good place to start. As you practice mindfulness of the breath while sitting you can add the next practice of mindfulness of the body, that is being aware of the posture. Anytime you are sitting, you know that you are sitting. When you are standing, you know that you are standing. When you move from sitting to standing, or from standing to walking, you know that this is your state. 

A way to practice these two in every day life is mindful walking. You can breathe slowly and feel the breath coming in as you take a step, know that you are taking a step and a breath. Become familiar with each step, each breath as its own experience not to be compared with the past or the future. Practice placing yourself in the present moment with each breath and each step.

In being aware of actions that you are taking, awareness of the body is being cultivated. Whether breathing, standing, eating, drinking, chewing, falling asleep, waking up, washing, wearing clothes, you are aware. 

Why is contemplation of the body the first foundation of mindfulness?

Many practices of introspection begin with the gross and turn towards the subtle. In other words, the external towards the internal. 

The Satipatthana Sutta expresses in explicit terms what the body consists of, naming them based on the medical knowledge of the time. According to the Sutta, the body is made up of “hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine.” The body is to be seen with non-judgmental observation, the same way you would witness a dish is made up of specific ingredients that could be listed one at a time. Non-judgmental awareness works in the same way moving from external toward internal. Once you are aware of the most external parts of your self (the physical body), you begin to move towards the internal.

Mindfulness of the Feelings

Feelings in the context of this discourse are mindfully observed as pleasant, unpleasant, and neither painful nor pleasant. When a feeling comes up, such as an itch on the scalp one observes that an unpleasant feeling arrives, then you experience the unpleasant feeling. 

The practice here is not just being aware of when a feeling comes up, but being aware of four stages of each feeling. 

Noticing the start of a feeling, you know that a feeling is originating.

Noticing the presence of a feeling, you know that a feeling is present.

Noticing the retreat of a feeling, you know that a feeling is dissolving.

Noticing the absence of a feeling, you know that a feeling is absent.

By holding onto these observations, the mind becomes tempered to the present moment only. At any single moment in time, one of these four awareness states is present for any given experience. Take a look at each moment and notice what comes up in the mind. Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? How long does it last? When does it begin and end? 

You may wonder the difference between feelings and emotions. The signifier of “feeling” simply means that something can be felt. Emotions can be experienced as feelings, for example the emotion of nervous can be felt as butterflies in the stomach. An emotion cannot be felt, but the physical sensation is the feeling associated with an emotion. In this way we are not attaching judgments of good and bad onto the emotional mind, but rather noticing and observing feelings. When we get into the realm of good or bad emotions we are lead to attachment and aversion.

Attachment is the desire to hold onto something pleasant, aversion is the desire to avoid something unpleasant. The practice of observing the feelings helps us to practice experiencing things as they are. As you will see in the last foundation, attachment and aversion lead to experiencing suffering. The alternative path is detached observation. Something pleasant is being experienced, but it is not who you are. It is temporary, and it will come and go. We can see this in real time as we observe the start, presence, dissolution, and absence of each feeling.

Mindfulness of the Mind

The awareness that we have been giving to our breath and our feelings is not from the mind, but rather from the “self” otherwise we would not be able to observe the mind from within the mind. So the self, which is the fundamental root of awareness, is what will be observing the mind, which is a set of objects that exist in the form of thoughts. 

Awareness of mind is a process of observation that takes note of the thoughts that are occupying our head. At any one point you may be in a state of mind of distraction or boredom, and at another time focus and concentration. 

The mind is full of mental formations, which can be likened to noise which occurs like static in the mind. The noise cannot be eliminated, but within that static there are features which tell one story or another. These mental formations can be made into a list, but there is an inexhaustible list of formations which may make noise in the mind.  

During the practice of mindfulness meditation, the task is to observe each of these formations with detached observation. The typical story that each noise makes sounds like “I am angry” or “I am not afraid.” But as we have defined the mind as separate from the self, these statements are not valid. The more accurate way to observe these noises is “I am experiencing anger” or “I am in a state of fearlessness.” 

Don’t be discouraged if the mind is telling a lot of stories, that is the standard practice since we are social beings. We are constantly relating our experiences to others and not as frequently to ourselves. By training the mind, you can begin to separate the mind from the self, and not get carried away by believing the chatter.

Mindfulness of the Mental Objects

Bring back the Buddha’s teaching

The five groups mentioned in the sutta are: the five hindrances, the five aggregates (skandhas), the six pairs of sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths. Each of these are the deeper aspects of the truth that the Buddha taught, and deserve their own attention for each discipline. For now, I’ll just overview each of these groups.

The five hindrances are broken into pairs of dualities. Each pair represents presence and absence, and the practice of being mindful of each of these is in terms of knowing whether one is present or absent.

The five hindrances are:

  • Sense-desire, meaning the craving or absence of craving of sensory objects
  • Anger, and its absence
  • Sloth, and its absence
  • Agitation and remorse, and their absences
  • Doubt, and the absence of doubt.

The five aggregates of clinging, or skandhas, have to do with the states of mind that occur internally. What these five states are cannot easily be defined in one word, so here are some short reflections on each:

  • Material form, this is the awareness of physical objects that exist in front of us
  • Feeling, our interaction with objects that can be felt
  • Perception, the way we use the sense organs such as the eyes and ears to be aware of external and internal objects
  • Formations, these are 52 states of mind that color the thoughts such as shame, absence of jealousy, clarity, etc, and
  • Consciousness, or the internal sense of “I am” that enables our living.

Within perception, there are six internal and external sense bases which help us to engage with the worlds around us and within us. The six pairs of senses are as follows:

  • The ear and sounds
  • the nose and smells
  • the tongue and flavors
  • the body and tactual objects
  • the mind and mental objects
  • the link between internal objects and the mind, and between external objects of the mind

That last pair deserves some explanation. When we look, we may be aware of what colors we are seeing and are thus connecting the mind with external objects. When we see, we are aware of the way that our consciousness is integrating visual perceptions into our thinking mind.

Thus, one can be aware of living in tune with the external, living in tune with the internal, or living with awareness of both external and internal. 

The seven factors of enlightenment are not rules to live by, but rather like musical cues that let you know something is present. Imagine the mind like an orchestra: you can tell the difference between the sound of the string section and the clarinets, and the percussion and the brass. When all the sections play at once it is difficult to be aware of each individual section. This is the challenge of integrating the seven factors of enlightenment. 

The seven factors are these:

  • mindfulness
  • investigation of mental objects
  • energy
  • joy
  • tranquility
  • concentration
  • equanimity

When each of these is present, one observes “this enlightenment factor is within me” and when it is absent, one observes “this enlightenment factor is not in me.” When the factor of enlightenment is arising, one observes the entrance of its presence happening in real time. When it is dissolving, one observes evidence of its becoming absent.

The last of this final foundation of mindfulness are the Four Noble Truths. This teaching is the culmination of the Buddha’s message and it is as follows

  1. The noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; meeting with something displeasing is suffering; losing what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
  2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to suffering; craving for sensual pleasures, craving for being somewhere that you think is better, craving for avoiding being in an unpleasant place.
  3. The noble truth of the cessation of suffering: through practice, craving can be reduced to a non-existent state. The elimination of craving is what allows a state of non-suffering
  4. The noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: the way to eliminating suffering is the noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

In short the Buddha taught that in life suffering exists, there is a nameable origin of suffering, there is a state of life without suffering, and the pathway to eliminate suffering is through the practice of mindfulness in all of the above aspects of living.

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