In Part 5 of this series on “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” I am continuing my commentary on the meditation practice called mindfulness of the body, which is the first of the practices from the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” As noted in earlier parts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study this Buddhist approach to meditation. While the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the English translation of the name of a Buddhist Sutta; the “Satipatthana Sutta,” the basic practice can be adapted to your current beliefs whether you are one who believes in God, one who does not, or one who is not sure what to believe.
Please read the earlier posts of this series, at least the previous 1-2 posts, if you wish to see the general themes and practices offered so far.
There is another aspect of mindfulness of the body that is outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta. This aspect is described this way: “He abides contemplating arising phenomena in the body, contemplating vanishing phenomena in the body.”
(Quote from: The Long Discourses of the Buddha Translated by Maruice Walshe Wisdom Publications Boston 2012 Page 339)
In other words, the practitioner is aware of the changing sensations of the body as those sensations arise and as they pass away. This is done during formal meditation practice, and to the extent that common sense and circumstances allow, during the active hours of the day as well.
A good example is the arising of the sensations of hunger around the middle of the day when it is time to eat, or at any other time you notice the pangs of hunger arising. Once you sit down to eat the food, the sensation of hunger goes away for a while. Instead, another sensation will arise such as the feeling of “being full,” or being satisfied or dissastisfied with your meal, or the feeling of having “eaten too much.” After a while these sensations of being full or being bloated will also pass away as the food is digested. At some point the sense of needing to urinate or defecate will arise and new sensations will arise from the sensations that which are triggered from the expelling of fluids or waste from the body, and those feelings will pass away when you are done, and other sensations of relief or lightness will arise. Before too long the feelings of thirst or hunger will again develop and the cycle will repeat itself.
Another good example is during meditation when many experience the arising of an itch on the cheek or nose that becomes a surprisingly strong sensation. If you are able, simply observe the itch without scratching it until at some point you notice the sensation has gone, either because it just faded away, or the mind got hijacked by some distraction which caused the sensation of the itch, or at least the awareness of the sensation of the itch to fade from the screen of consciousness. In this way you can observe the entire cycle of one set of sensations with a detached mind, without having the need to intervene in the unpleasant sensation. Simple practices of this kind, when reasonably possible, will noticeably increase your discipline and mindfulness. But, if the sensation is truly unbearable, then scratch the itch and return to stillness,noticing the various sensations of the scratching and the sensations of coming back to stillness.
It is a most instructive practice to begin to notice the changes in the sensations of the breath and the other sensations of the body as they arise, expand, have impact, fade in intensity and then disappear completely from awareness. This is a good introduction into noticing the impermanence, or transitory nature of all phenomena. This is a central practice of Buddhist meditation: to notice that the sensations of the body, the feelings of the mind, the thoughts of the mind, and the general tone of consciousness of mind, are all in constant transition. The transition may be very slow, as in the case of an old ache in the shoulder or neck that you have had for years, or it may be very fast such as the changing sensations of drinking or eating or exercising.
But beginning to notice that the sensations of the body, the feelings of the mind, the thoughts of the mind, and the general tone of consciousness or state of mind, are all changing all the time is one of the practices needed to cultivate insight. The practice of observing the changes in body sensations, emotional feelings, thoughts, and the general tone of consciousness is a foundational practice of the Satipatthana Sutta of the Theravada Buddhists.
I may disagree with central conclusions that Theravada Buddhists develop from this study of the impermanence of all phenomena. But I can tell you the basic practice of observing these changes will noticeably strengthen your ability to be in the moment and to develop the most skillful responses to the choices that need to be made moment by moment. This basic practice of noticing the arising and passing of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and general tone of consciousness will greatly strengthen the stamina and the depth of penetrating insight of your mindfulness.
You can engage this practice as a prelude to Insight Practice and/or Concentration practice. You will begin to be able to peer into the foundations of the mind and the self. Perhaps you will agree with the conclusions the Theravada Buddhists have developed from these observations, perhaps not. But I guarantee you will be further along in your efforts to see the causes of suffering and to cultivate ever more creative ways to diminish suffering.
After discussing the basic practices of observing the body, feelings, state of mind, and thoughts in the next several installments of this series, I will return to the role that the study of the impermanence of phenomena plays in Theravada Buddhist meditation.
Peace and All the Best,