Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Gotama said that the direct way to overcome suffering is to practice the four foundations of mindfulness. That is, we need to be deeply aware of how things are in order to change ourselves.

This page describes, in some detail, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which are part of Right Mindfulness. The meditations are grouped under:

  1.  Mindfulness of the Body,
  2.  Mindfulness of Feeling,
  3.  Mindfulness of State of Mind and
  4.  Mindfulness of Phenomenon.

Mindfulness of the Body includes several meditations using the body as the subject. Mindfulness of Feeling uses feeling as the subject of insight. Mindfulness of the State of the Mind, uses mind states as the subject. And Mindfulness of Phenomenon uses the Five Hindrances and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, etc, as subjects.

(A) Mindfulness of the Body (kayanupassana)

Mindfulness of Breathing (anapanasati)

Mindfulness of breathing is often a starting point in meditation, although it is a kind of meditation used throughout life. Gotama used it as such and practiced it on the night of his death. There are four basic steps.

1 Concentrating on the breath

In practicing this meditation in the traditional way, you breathe naturally through the nostrils, keeping your attention on the sensation of the breath between the nostrils and upper lip. You make no attempt to control the breath, merely feel the sensation of the air. Being wholly aware of the breath, you are in the present moment, not in the past or future, nor mentally carried away.

In other forms of Buddhism, the attention is placed elsewhere, perhaps on the stomach as it rises and falls.

2 Long and Short

You notice whether the breath is deep or short, observing the breath as it comes in and comes out.

As you develop mindfulness, you can be aware of the breath in all its stages from the beginning of the inhalation, through to the beginning of exhalation through to exhalation and the start of the process again.

"Breathing in a long breath, he knows, "I am breathing in a long breath"; breathing out a long breath, he knows, "I am breathing out a long breath"; breathing in a short breath, he knows, "I am breathing in a short breath"; breathing out a short breath, he knows, "I am breathing out a short breath." ? MN 10

3 Clearly Perceiving the Whole (Body) Breath

The third step is called clearly perceiving the whole breath or body, when you perceive yourself (as a body) breathing.

"... Clearly perceiving the entire (breath) body, I shall breathe in" ... "Clearly perceiving the entire (breath) body, I shall breathe out": thus he trains himself."  ? MN 10

How to do this

Just as a skilled turner or his apprentice, when making a long turn, discerns, 'I am making a long turn,' or when making a short turn discerns, 'I am making a short turn'.  ? MN 10

A skilled turner wouldn't think the words "I am making a long turn" (whatever that means), he would just know. His apprentice might think the words to begin with to train his mind. Similarly in meditation.

4 Calming the Body Function

The fourth step is Calming the Body Function. Progressively, you quieten the breath until it becomes extremely fine and subtle, so the gentle breathing calms the body.

"Calming the activity of the (breath) body, I shall breathe in," ... "Calming the activity of the (breath) body, I shall breathe out," in this way he trains himself."  ? MN 10

5 Other Meditations

Practitioners are mindful of the body. At first their own body, and later they practice being mindful of the breath in others, or aware of their breathing and that of others.

They are aware of the arising and passing away of the body.

6 Not-self

"A body is there, but no living being, no individual, no person (male or female), no self, and nothing that belongs to a self."

The meditator does not forget that phenomenon do not have a self. Mindfully viewing the present moment, there is no self or "my" in what is happening." That is, "A deep breath arises", but not "I breathed in deep". Or "My breathing is deep".

(B) Mindfulness of Postures (iriyapatha)

In practising this, one is aware of the four basic postures:

  1. walking,
  2. standing,
  3. sitting and
  4. lying down.

"When walking, the monk knows, 'I am walking.' When standing, he knows, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he knows, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he knows, 'I am lying down.' Or whatever position he is in, that is how he knows it."

When in any of these postures, you are aware of your body and the posture. And when changing from one posture to another, you are aware of the body, both internally and externally.

(C) Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension (satisampajanna)

This is meditation in everyday life. Whatever you do, do it with clear comprehension. Going and coming, looking ahead and looking aside, bending and stretching, dressing, eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, falling asleep, waking up, speaking, remaining silent. The unwise think of something else when they are doing things. The wise are in the present moment with comprehension.

In practice, he comprehends what he is doing when, for example:

Clear comprehension is:

  1. What is the purpose of what I am doing? Does it accord with Buddhist principles?
  2. Is this the best way for me to attain this purpose?
  3. Am I being mindful of what I am doing? And
  4. Am I this process (what I am doing)? Is it mine?

With practice, we might give up the use of mental verbalising and simply know.

(D) Meditation on the Unattractiveness of the Body (kayagatasati and asubha)

The Buddhist is aware of the body, not superficially, nor in terms of a few impressions. He or she is deeply aware of the body.

Using visualisation, the body is mentally dissected into components and these are examined one by one.

The body consists of thirty two parts: head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, stomach contents, excrement, brain, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, snot, spittle, synovial fluid, and urine.  MN 10

The Buddhist meditates on these parts of the body.

Just as if a bag contained various grains wheat, barley,  sesame seeds, rice, etc. A man who opens it, should reflect on its contents: 'This is wheat; this is barley; this is sesame; this is rice, etc.'

In the same way, you reflect on this body covered by the skin and full of manifold items. You think: 'In this body is (are): hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of the stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tears, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine.' MN 10

He or she thinks none of these is me or mine.

(E) Analysis into Elements (dhatuvavatthana)

This analytical meditation views the body impersonally as composed of the Four Great Elements earth, water, fire, and air, which stand for matter: solidity, fluidity, heat, and vibration.

  1. The Earth element of the body are the organs, tissues, and bones.
  2. The Water element is the bodily fluids
  3. The Fire element is the body's temperature
  4. The Air element is the respiratory process.

When seeing the body as the four elements, you may see it not as a self, but essentially the same as other elements and those in the body are in constant change.

None of these is a self or mine.

(F) Cemetery Exercises (sivathika)

The purpose of this meditation is to understand that the body is impermanent and will not last. In this meditation, you gain a clear image that your body is the same as a disintegrating corpse. And that it, too, will end the same. Monks practice by meditating on pictures of decaying corpses or on an actual corpse.

2 Mindfulness of Feeling (vedananupassana)

Feeling is the inner sensation of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It is always present in mental events. It arises due to contact and is of six kinds. Each kind is related to one of the six senses:

  1. sight,
  2. hearing,
  3. touch,
  4. taste,
  5. smell and
  6. mind.

Pleasant feelings give rise to the defilement attractions: greed, lust, etc, and we cling to the object. Painful feelings give rise the aversions: hate, fear, etc. Neutral feelings, because they seem unimportant, lead to delusion. However, this link between feelings and defilements is not inevitable. It can be broken. When the link is broken, pain, pleasure and neutral feelings no longer lead to hate, craving or delusion. Feelings stir up defilements only when mindfulness is absent, when it isn't noticed (normal thinking).

When you make feeling an object of observation, it becomes a way to increase wisdom.

At first, when meditating on feelings, you merely notice whether it is pleasurable, painful or neutral.

Later, you notice one feeling and then another and you begin to be aware of feeling itself, apart from its qualities. Then you notice that feeling itself is actually a succession of events, which are empty of anything. Each event is present only momentarily, dissolving as soon as it arises. They are, therefore, impermanent. In this way, the three unwholesome roots are overcome, and there is no greed, aversion or delusion.

In practice, when experiencing a pleasant feeling, you understand: 'I experience a pleasant feeling'; when experiencing a painful feeling, you understand: 'I experience a painful feeling'; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling, you understand: 'I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling'. MN 10

Worldly and Spiritual Feelings

If he or she experiences, say a pleasant feeling, he notes whether it is an internal feeling, a worldly feeling or a spiritual feeling, and understand: "I experience a pleasant internal/ worldly or spiritual feeling". Similarly with unpleasant and neither pleasant nor unpleasant feelings.

The 'Feeling' in Feelings

We contemplate feeling in feelings externally, or feeling in feelings internally and externally. We contemplate the origination-things in feelings, or we contemplate dissolution-things in feelings, or we contemplate origination-and-dissolution-things in feelings. Or our mindfulness is established with the thought: 'Feeling exists,' to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance and we live independent and cling to nothing in the world. MN 10

3 Mindfulness of the State of Mind (cittanupassana)

In Buddhism, the mind is not considered as permanent, but, like feeling, it is a sequence of mental states. Each of these consists of consciousness, feeling, perception, volition, the emotions, etc. There are sixteen states of mind to be noticed. They are (grouped as opposites):

  1. the mind with lust, greed (Saragam cittam), the mind without lust (Vitaragam cittam),
  2. the mind with aversion; grief, resentment, hate and doubt (Sodosam cittam), the mind without aversion (Vitadosam cittam),
  3. the mind with ignorance (Samoham cittam), the mind without ignorance (Vitamoham cittam),
  4. the sunken mind; sloth and torpor (Sankhittam cittam), the distracted mind; agitation (Vikkhittam cittam),
  5. the developed mind; conscious of the ethereal (Mahaggatam cittam), the undeveloped mind; conscious of the sensual (Amahaggatam cittam),
  6. the unsurpassable (Anuttaram cittam) mind, the surpassable mind (Sauttaram cittam),
  7. the quiet mind (absorption) (Samahitam cittam), the unquiet mind (Asamahitam cittam),
  8. the freed mind (temporarily removed defilements) (Vimuttam cittam), the unfreed mind (Avimuttam cittam).

The meditator starts by noticing the first three groups, noticing whether the mind is associated with the unwholesome roots or not. When a state of mind is present, it is observed as a mere state of mind. That is without involving I or mine. It is not involved with a self or owned by a self.

The state is simply noted, and allowed to pass without clinging to the desired ones or resenting the undesired ones.

After sufficient practice, the mind is then seen as a sequence of mental states, impermanent and without self.

4 Mindfulness of Phenomena (dhammanupassana)

The hindrances are: 

  1. sensual desire,
  2. ill will,
  3. dullness and drowsiness,
  4. restlessness and worry, and
  5. doubt.

Whenever one of the hindrances arises, its presence should be noted; then, when it fades away, that should be noted too. To keep the hindrances under control, you need to  understand how they arise, how they can be removed, and how they can be prevented from arising in the future.

When any of the seven factors of enlightenment arise, they are dealt with as below. But first, the list:

  1. mindfulness,
  2. investigation,
  3. energy,
  4. rapture,
  5. tranquillity,
  6. concentration, and
  7. equanimity.

When any one of these factors arises, you should note it. Then, after noting its presence, discover how it arises and how it can be matured. At first, they are weak, but with consistent cultivation they grow strong. Mindfulness starts the this process. When it becomes well-established, it arouses investigation, the probing quality of intelligence. Investigation in turn calls forth energy; energy gives rise to rapture; rapture leads to tranquillity; tranquillity to one-pointed concentration. And, finally, concentration leads to equanimity.

Mindfulness starts off the process leading to enlightenment, and remains throughout, ensuring that the mind is clear, knowing and balanced.