The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

In these challenging times it is easy to forget the incredible blessings that we enjoy. The Buddha taught that this human birth is a most precious gift—and provides the possibility of realizing our true nature of immeasurable freedom.

Further, for those fortunate to have encountered the Buddha’s teachings, access to the Dharma provides a clear path from a life built around the illusion of a separate, limited self to a freedom that is not dependent on conditions—on the ups-and-downs of the stock market, the political cycle or our mood of the day.

As the Dharma has come to the West, we are further blessed—perhaps more than at any other time since the Buddha’s lifetime—with access to Buddhist teachings from all the major traditions— Theravada, Vajrayana/Tibetan, Zen and other Mahayana schools—as well as a cornucopia of literature of awakening, including thousands of talks and articles on the Internet.

Within this rich field of spiritual teachings two recent works—Venerable Analayo’s Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization* (1) and Joseph Goldstein’s fort-six dharma talks** (2) on the same discourse—have made the Buddha’s central teaching on meditation and mindfulness deeply alive and accessible to practitioners.

The Satipatthana Sutta—the Buddha’s discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—is his most comprehensive teaching on mindfulness as a direct path to liberation. In this discourse the Buddha provides four gateways through which to investigate our experience: 1) mindfulness of the body; 2) mindfulness of feelings; 3) mindfulness of the mind; and 4) mindfulness of our experience through the lens or framework of key Buddhist teachings. Investigating our experience just as it is through these gateways can take us from this moment’s experience to complete freedom from suffering.

A relatively common situation we might find ourselves in can illustrate how the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness can be used to understand and investigate our direct experience and find freedom through opening fully to how things are in this moment:

You’ve had a painful argument or disagreement with a friend, workmate or family member. You feel hurt, angry, sad, misunderstood. You are tense and irritable. You have thoughts and judgments about yourself and how you acted; and about the other person and what s/he said or did... “Why was s/he so mean? Why are people always so unkind? Nothing seems to be going right in my life...."

In another discourse (‘To Bahiya’) the Buddha taught, “In the seen there will just be the seen, in the heard just the heard, in the sensed just the sensed...” In opening to things as they are with this simplicity, we can ‘unpack’ our experiences so they don’t remain a ball of confused emotions, sensations, mind states, and proliferating thoughts.

In his teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha first illustrates how we can use mindfulness of the body as the gateway to open to our experience. In our example above, you can experience all that is arising in the body in response to the argument or conflict—tension in the belly, shortness of breath, heat in the face, tearing up around the eyes, for example—and allow each of the sensations to come and go and be known with an attitude of openness and friendliness. You can be aware of thoughts, emotions and mind states but the body remains the primary gateway through which to experience the impermanence (anicca, in the Pali language), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and selflessness (anatta) of your experience.

With the second foundation of mindfulness the gateway of investigation is feelings or the ‘feeling tone’ of our experience. The Buddha taught that all mental and physical experiences have a feeling tone— pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—and we can open to and investigate these as they arise and pass. In our example you might be aware of unpleasant bodily sensations (tension, contraction, heat, for example), unpleasant mental states (judgments, difficult thoughts), unpleasant emotions (anger, irritation, sadness), perhaps a neutral feeling arises or a pleasant one comes and goes. All can be experienced without grasping, resisting or judging, using the second foundation—mindfulness of feelings.

With the third foundation of mindfulness, we take emotions and mind states as the principal gateway of investigation—in our example, you can experience the anger, sadness, judgments, and difficult thoughts as they come and go, letting them arise and pass without resistance, allowing yourself a full internal experience, seeing how they come and go like a storm that is not ‘me’ or ‘mine’.

The fourth foundation of mindfulness—mindfulness of dhammas, or mindfulness of our experience through the framework of central dharma teachings (e.g. the five hindrances, the aggregates, or the Four Noble Truths)—invites us to examine our subjective experience using these core teachings as a gateway. In our example you might investigate your experience using the five hindrances—for example, opening to the obvious hindrance of aversion. How does aversion feel? Can I allow the feeling to arise and pass and know its impermanence, its unsatisfactoriness, and its selflessness (the three characteristics of existence)? Can I use a skillful means, such as cultivating thoughts of loving- kindness, as an antidote to the aversive states?

Or you might investigate your experience through the framework of the Four Noble Truths—is there suffering? What is the origin of this suffering? What are you identifying with or resisting that keeps you tied to suffering? Is there an end to this suffering through seeing its causes clearly and letting go? Are there skillful means to end this suffering through a willingness to be with your experience as it is?

As Ven. Analayo points out, this teaching of the Buddha allows mindfulness of any experience to become a direct path to realization of the end of suffering: “Each of them [the four foundations] leads to realization, like different gateways leading to the same city.” (p. 26) One’s subjective experience becomes the means for realizing the selflessness and emptiness of all phenomena and makes possible a radical letting go of clinging to anything as ‘I’ or ‘mine’.

With lucid scholarship Ven. Analayo explores the different meanings and understandings of the original terms the Buddha used in the Satipatthana Sutta—for example, what it means to practice mindfulness of the body, “diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world”; why he repeated thirteen times the “refrain” on the ways in which we should practice mindfulness in each of the four areas; and why Satipatthana is a “direct” path rather than the “only” path to realization. But Analayo’s study is never merely an academic treatise as he grounds his investigation deeply in the practice of meditation and experience in daily life.

In the series of dharma talks given at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Mass, between 2004 and 2009, Joseph Goldstein builds on Analayo’s study in exploring the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. With stories and humor, grounded in four decades of meditation practice and teaching, Joseph provides an extraordinarily deep and rich investigation of the Buddha’s core teaching on mindfulness—that while only a dozen pages long could occupy our practice for a lifetime, or many.

We are living in challenging times but also in a period where we have access to an unprecedented array of supports for our practice on- and off-the-cushion. Please join us in the coming months as we explore the Buddha’s core teachings of mindfulness in meditation and daily life.

 

1 Ven. Analayo, 2003, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization (Windhorse Publications)

2 Joseph Goldstein’s talks on the Satipatthana Sutta are available at www.dharmaseed.org (The first parts of this series are also available for purchase on CD and to download at www.Soundstrue.com.)

It is the mission of IMCW/The Insight Meditation Community of Washington is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

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