The Buddha taught that cultivating awareness of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness leads towards freedom and awakening.
The Foundations refer to four different areas of human experience: the body, feeling tone (sensations that are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), emotions (known as “mental factors”), and mental objects (the core teachings of the Buddha).
As the First Foundation, the body offers us the most accessible opportunities for practicing mindfulness: we can note the breath, sensations in various body parts, changes in posture, bodily functions such as eating and urinating, and the physical process of laughing, crying and dying.
Our bodies constantly express our life force through variations in breath, temperature, pressure, and vibration. When we connect directly to any one of these aspects with bare attention, we can let go of associated preferences and stories.
Mindfulness of breathing is the starting point for connecting to the First Foundation. The Buddha taught his disciples to set aside all the worries and unfinished business of daily life to breathe in and out mindfully, knowing when the breath is short or long, and when it is deep or superficial.
No matter where you are or what activity you are doing, you can pause and reconnect with the sensation of your breath. Over time, it becomes a true refuge and a home base.
Along with mindful breathing, we can practice mindfulness of the body’s postures and sensations.
When I’m crouching down to pet my dog Marisol, I can sense my knees bending and my torso leaning forward. I can connect with the sensation of my hand touching her soft fur, the sight of her shiny black nose, and the smell of her body, either freshly bathed–or in need of a bath! As I bend and stretch, I can use my posture as a way to connect with myself in the present moment.
In the Buddha’s view, we embody four elements of the universe: earth, fire, water and air.
We experience the earthy hardness of our boney structure, the fire of fever or a blush, the fluidity of blood running through our veins, and the airy quality of breath or intestinal gasses.
With mindfulness, we notice these elements reflected around us—when we touch the ground, light a candle, sip tea, or sense a breeze touching the skin.
The First Foundation of Mindfulness helps us not to miss these simple moments that enhance our lives. With practice, we connect with inner and outer physical sensations as they arise. The challenge is not to become attached to the body that is receiving these sensations.
To weaken identification with the physical body as “me” or “mine”, the Buddha taught cemetery meditations. His disciples visualized their own death process, passing through illness, weakness, loss of consciousness, physical disintegration, burial or cremation, and finally dissolution into dust or ashes. Cemetery meditations are still practiced in Buddhist monasteries around the world.
When I let go of attachment to the idea of “my” body’s permanence, I feel free.
Jack Kornfield tells a story about a young man whose leg was amputated at the hip to eradicate bone cancer. In a rage after the surgery, the patient drew a vase with a deep black crack as a symbol of his broken body. His doctor kept the picture and, during a follow-up visit three years later, asked him to finish the picture. This time the artist used a yellow crayon to indicate where light was streaming through the crack in the vase. The light of well-being and inner connection can shine through when we accept the body without the limits of ownership, free from judgment and societal conditioning about what is considered attractive.
The Second Foundation of Mindfulness refers to pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling tones that arise when one of our senses has contact with an object. In Buddhist philosophy, there are six sense doors: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind.
When we practice meditation, we make an effort to guard the sense doors so that pleasant feelings don’t lead to attachment and craving, unpleasant feelings don’t solidify into aversion, and neutral feelings don’t evolve into dullness, boredom, and delusion.
We all have a tendency to try to control or manipulate unpleasant and pleasant sensations. Consider how often we raise or lower heat or air conditioning to suit our preferences. Even with dual control heated blankets, couples can end up dueling about what the ideal temperature is!
The following scenario may seem familiar: While meditating, I notice a dull pain in my shoulder. Unconsciously, I tighten my body in resistance, and a story line begins in my mind: “Maybe I’ve inherited my mother’s arthritis. Or I might have injured myself in yoga class. Perhaps I’ll need an expensive MRI exam to find out if I’ve torn a tendon. Sometimes rehabilitation therapy doesn’t work, and I might have to have shoulder surgery. I remember when I had surgery on my other shoulder and how long it took to recover….”
At any point in this melodrama, I can catch myself wasting time and energy on fantasies and worries. With mindfulness, I can liberate myself by noting simply, “unpleasant, unpleasant” and returning to the sensation of the breath.
We tend to ignore what we consider “neutral.” One of Mark’s friends is a photographer who is exhibiting pictures of such things as banana leaves, piles of broken glass, and paint spattered on boxcars. Sally draws attention to design and color that most people miss.
We spend so much time waiting for excitement to begin.
In any moment we can wake up and notice the miracle of even being able to perceive what is unfolding.
The Third Foundation of Mindfulness refers to what the Buddha called the 52 mental factors or qualities of the mind. In this world of emotions, skillful mental factors such as faith, generosity, and equanimity co-exist with unskillful factors such as greed, delusion and restlessness.
Although it’s tempting to repress unskillful mental factors when they arise, we can practice recognizing the truth of whatever experience is emerging: “Ah, restlessness, it’s you again.” Eventually, we can relate to restlessness and other mental factors as familiar friends, without judging them as unacceptable.
The Third Foundation is intimately connected to the First and the Second Foundations of Mindfulness. For example, as I observe restlessness, I might note associated body sensations such as shallow breath, an accelerating pulse, and tingling in my hands or feet. Any of these sensations may be perceived as pleasant or unpleasant.
Under the lens of mindfulness, restlessness often dissolves, and other emotions such as grief may surface. Noting “grieving,” I might notice heat in my face, pressure on my chest, and tearing in my eyes. Once I’ve explored grief intimately, it too may dissipate, and I can return to the sensation of breathing.
The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness includes mental objects or the central Dharma teachings. You may recall some of the Buddha’s lists: the 5 hindrances (craving, ill will, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt); the 5 aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness); the 6 sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind); the 7 factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation, effort, rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity); and the 4 Noble Truths (suffering, the origins of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to cessation).
The Buddha taught how useful it is to investigate our experiences according to these various categories. I’ll give you an example:
An elderly neighbor across the street sold her home, and the new owner hired a heavy-duty bulldozer to destroy her house, garage, and garden. During this deafening process, piles of debris replaced the line of bushes we’d been enjoying as our view, and clouds of dust covered us whenever we ventured outside. I felt irritated and full of ill will, wondering “Why didn’t this new neighbor consult with us before wreaking havoc on our street?” As dump trucks hauled away rubble, I became curious about what will be built on the empty lot. Another surge of aversion hit as I braced myself for months of living next to a construction site.
Then I remembered the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness and paused to examine the contents of my mind with bare attention. Identifying “ill will,” I explored the conditions underlying this hindrance. I realized that I was resisting inevitable changes in our neighborhood; I wanted our view to remain tranquil and leafy. I remembered that before Mark and I moved into our townhouse, we hired a work crew to redo the stucco on the façade, a dirty, noisy procedure that must have bothered the neighbors living on either side of us. This newcomer’s actions were merely a larger scale version of our own actions.
By reflecting upon Dharma teachings about impermanence and forgiveness, I sensed ill will diminishing, and my clenched jaw and fists relaxed. That’s not to say that I won’t go through other cycles of aversion during unpleasant circumstances, but it does mean that I have skillful means to recognize the reality of my inner states and to alleviate unnecessary suffering.
Take a moment to consider how you can use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to note the truth in body, feeling tone, emotions, and concepts.