Foundations of Mindfulness

Photo by Masaaki Komori

Where did the concept of mindfulness come from? What are its origins? The Satipatthana Sutta, a Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness is the earliest known text (1st century BCE) giving full instructions on the systematic and methodical cultivation of mindfulness. A sutta is a discourse or authoritative communication on a particular subject. By following its instructions, concentration is strengthened and insight (or vipassana – understanding of the true nature of things) is generated. The mind is gradually trained for the purpose of freeing self and others from the cycle of suffering. The Satipatthana Sutta outlines four foundations of mindfulness – places to direct careful attention – which I will summarize here:

1. Mindfulness of Body

The first foundation of mindfulness is awareness of the body – physical sensations including the breath. We practice moment by moment observation of breathing, body movements and physical sensations, the body’s material qualities and its impermanence.

The posture we take during meditation fosters alertness and serves the mind-body connection. We discover that many body sensations arise from constructs of the mind and the mind is the root of much of physical discomfort. Over time we begin to become aware of ever subtler tensions in the body and learn to open to and soften them.

We can use the body sensation of breathing as an object of concentration as it is always with us, ever-present and uninterrupted, as long as we are living. Thoughts and other distractions come and go, but we can always return to the breath. In addition, focusing on the breath has a calming effect for many people (though not for everyone) and so it can be a useful starting place in learning to settle the mind.

We watch the breath, moment by moment, non-judgmentally and with curiosity, from the start of each inhale to the finish of each exhale and the spaces in-between. Without changing the breath in any way, we notice its qualities – its physical sensations of expanding and contracting, entering and exiting – its shifting rhythms and patterns, from breath to breath, day after day. Concentration is strengthened paving the way for deeper levels of meditation. With practice we develop greater insight into our habits and reactions which gives us space for responding with greater wisdom and reduces our suffering.

2. Mindfulness of Feelings

The second foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of feelings. In the practice of mindfulness, feelings are not the same as what we call emotions. Rather what is referred to as feelings includes three possible perceptions of inner or outer experience: 1) pleasant, 2) unpleasant, and 3) neutral. We practice awareness and observation of pleasant, neutral and unpleasant sensations as they arise, sustain, and pass away.

Each feeling tone can bring emotions – a pleasant feeling tone may be correlated with satisfaction, pleasure, desire, enjoyment, or comfort, an unpleasant feeling tone is often correlated with fear, irritation, frustration, anger, confusion, or sadness, and a neutral feeling tone might be correlated with boredom, restlessness, apathy, or emptiness.

We can have feelings about both external and internal experiences. External experiences are those which are perceived through the senses of touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. Inner experience is that which arises without the contact with the senses and includes things like thoughts, emotions, and spontaneously arising body sensations. Most of us are strongly conditioned to pay attention to the external world of people and things; however, the more connected we are to the inner world, the less dependent we are on outer circumstances over which we have little control.

The three feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral determine how we relate to both outer and inner experience. We are conditioned to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, so our behavior often consists of unexamined, impulsive reactions to these perceptions. We instinctively grasp at and cling to that which we perceive as pleasant, resist what we see as unpleasant, and ignore or discount the neutral – and we unconsciously make up elaborate stories to justify our actions. We can get locked into our habitual responses which can cause suffering for ourselves and others.

Fortunately we can learn to tune in to our relationship to feelings by watching our responses to inner and outer experience. This can be cultivated through meditation. With practice we become aware of habits, strategies, and urges in responding to what is perceived as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. We can then begin to ask some questions about our responses; “Are my responses useful? Is a response even necessary?” This may give us space to make wiser choices and have the flexibility to respond or not respond in a way that reduces suffering.

When we spend the majority of our time unconsciously clinging to desires and pleasurable experiences, we limit ourselves and we are not open to the entirety of reality. Meditation teacher, Gil Fronsdal, makes the analogy of mind as a fist versus an open hand. He describes some of the limited uses of a fist – fighting, clinging, resisting, bracing oneself, or holding on for dear life. But he says that chronically making a fist prevents the hand from functioning at its full capacity. He talks of the broader usefulness of an unclenched hand – softness for caring for self and others, openness for sensing the world and receiving, flexibility for adapting to different tasks, and letting go of that which is no longer useful.

The ability to tap into inner resources and remain open to whatever is here in a given moment allows us to live with greater freedom and ease no matter what the external circumstances may be.

3. Mindfulness of Mind 

The third foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of mind, consciousness or mental states, which includes emotions and thoughts, and involves awareness of the presence or absence of attachment and aversion, confusion and delusion. We begin to categorize the specific contents of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as well as the actions and consequences that follow. Awareness of the quality of mental states is integral to understanding what drives our behavior. When our actions are unexamined and unskillful, they are the primary cause of suffering for ourselves and others.

In meditation, when we notice that our attention is being drawn again and again by some external or internal stimulus, we can observe the mental states that arise. We may see that thoughts passing through the mind have a judging quality, that comparison is happening, or that the thoughts are constricted, or rapid, or intense. We may also notice that emotions accompany these thoughts and we can label them: longing is here, frustration, sadness etc. Finally, urges to action may arise and we can sit with these impulses (rather than acting upon them) in order to understand them better.

Over time we develop insight into the habit patterns and states of mind that lead to afflictive emotions and unskillful actions. For most of us the pattern, in a very simplified way, goes something like this: contact with internal or external stimuli leads to pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, which then lead to thoughts and emotions (mental states), which then lead to craving (either attachment or aversion), which ultimately leads to action.

When we are on automatic pilot and we act on these habit patterns, we are running blindly and suffering may result. The insight gained from mindfulness of mental states gives us space to make choices that decrease suffering for ourselves and others. We become more aware of, but less swept away by the activities of the mind.

Taking time for stillness and silence in which we can non-judgmentally observe thoughts and emotions also allows us to notice mental states that tend to accompany pleasant feelings. We see that when compassion, patience, gratitude, or generosity are the dominant state of mind, there is a pleasant feeling that arises. This motivates us to turn more and more toward these particular mind states, which is ultimately beneficial to ourselves and to others.

4. Mindfulness of Mental Objects

The fourth foundation is mindfulness of mental objects. When we become mindful of the interplay of mental phenomena, a deeper transformation may occur because we move beyond simple observation and begin to develop a new relationship with our experience. We practice awareness of how mental phenomena come to be, how they are sustained, and how they pass away. We learn to work with hinderances to practice, loosen our attachments to the of objects of clinging, cultivate skillful mind states, avoid the causes of suffering, and apply antidotes when they arise. Noticing how certain mental phenomena either cause or reduce suffering creates insight into the internal conditions that either a) move us further into pain or confusion or b) cultivate equanimity. This insight encourages us to lean into the states of mind that lead to greater happiness.

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