For many weeks I have been writing about the first three practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. The title “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the most common translation of the Satipatthana Sutta, which is a core Sutta of the early Buddhist tradition. It is #22 of the “Long Discourses of the Buddha”.
As noted in earlier parts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study these Buddhist approaches to meditation. These basic practices can easily 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.
The first practice is mindfulness of sensations.
The second practice is mindfulness of three basic feeling tones: satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality. These three basci feeling tones of the second practice are considered from two different contexts.
The first context is feelings of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality that arise from sensory experiences or thoughts of people, places, and things. The second context is feelings of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutral feelings that arise from experiences and thoughts which arise from activities such as charitable acts, the deep peace of concentration, new insights, or successful efforts to outgrow old bad habits and dependencies.
The third practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is mindfulness of general states of mind. The most basic examples are when the mind is filled with restless aching hunger, irritation, aggression, or misguided ignorance. Other examples of states of mind to be on the look-out for are when the mind is calm, peaceful, and clear.
Still other examples of general states of mind to be noted are: when the mind is restless, easily distracted, sluggish, dull, in a low state of awareness, or generally in bondage. Finally, there are those states of mind when these unwholesome states are supplanted by their opposites when the mind is concentrated, bright, alert, clear, and free. As there are many degrees of concentration, clarity and freedom, being aware of the specific degree or level of concentration, clarity, and freedom is another good example of practicing the third part of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.
As always, it is wise to refer to the actual text (The Long Discourses of the Buddha- Wisdom Publications) for the original language and terms. Much of my writing is a general attempt to recast the language of long ago into language that modern people may more clearly recognize and relate to. But my efforts in this regard are still at an early stage and are not presented as though they were a systematic or comprehensive recasting.
What is important is to observe the various shades and nuances of these sensations, feelings, and general states of mind with as much openness and non-judgement as possible.
These efforts will give you some basic tools to use when sitting in meditation or moving about in the active hours of your day.
Look at your interior experience and begin to identify the component elements.
See how the different streams of sensory input from sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell weave together in different measure in different moments to create the sensory layer of your interior experience.
If you are in meditation with your eyes closed in a quiet chapel or natural setting, the primary experience will probably be the various sensations of breathing or the sensations that arise from sitting cross-legged or in a chair. If you are in the active hours of the day, there will generally be much more in the way of sight and sound in addition to touch. Or if you are eating, the sensations of taste and smell may be the more predominant mix of sense triggered experience arising in your mind.
But look carefully and see how differing mixes of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell arise in your mind as the stream of changing stimulus within and around you trigger one or more of these sensors.
Then look to see if your reaction to sensory input is one of “I like this”, or “I don’t like this”, or “I don’t have a strong reaction to this one way or the other.”
Then look carefully at the feeling layer in your mind whether that feeling is one of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality. Maybe the satisfaction is strong or mild. Maybe the feeling of dissatisfaction is very deep or only moderately intense. Maybe the feelings are a mixture of moderate satisfaction and moderate dissatisfaction as different feelings from different triggers arise and cloud, clog, or numb the mind.
Look to see the drives and urges that arise from feelings of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality.
Look to see the feelings of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality that arise from sensory or self-centered pursuits. See the urges and drives that are triggered by this category of feelings.
Look to see how different are the feelings of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality that arise from non-sensory or selfless experiences of charity, concentration, dedicated effort on the path, or breakthrough insight. See if there are any urges of grasping, or aversion, or ignorance that arise from this category of non-sensory or selfless feelings. See the different effects of these two categories of feelings.
Now look at the general state of the mind as you engage the third of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” which is, once again, mindful awareness of your general state of mind or tone of consciousness.
Is the mind filled with restless aching hunger, or calm enjoyment, irritation and anger? Or is the mind calm with a sense of patient awareness and acceptance even if some difficult situation has developed? Is the mind concentrated on the breath or mantra, or is the mind jumpy and prone to one distraction after another?
Is the general state of mind one of ease and lucidity or tension and bondage?
There is another important aspect to any and all of this work. That is to view any and all of these phenomena with “bare attention”. Bare attention is a Theravada term.
As Nyanaponika Thera describes it in “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation”, “bare attention is the clear and single minded awareness of what is actually happening to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception”. (The Heart of Buddhist Meditation Nyanaponika Thera Samuel Weiser Inc, York Me 1996)
The general idea of how to apply bare attention to the first three practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is to observe and note the bare facts of, and I recap:
What sensations are arising in the mind from one or more of the five senses?
What basic feeling-tone is arising from the sensations of the body and the thoughts that arise in the mind?
Is the experience of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality arising from sensory experiences or self-centered thoughts or actions? Or, is the experience of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or neutrality arising from non-sensory and selfless thoughts and actions?
In what ways are the feeling tones of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and neutrality that arise from sensory and self-centered thoughts or actions different from those that arise from non-sensory and selfless thoughts and actions?
What is the general state of mind or tone of consciousness? Is it narrow, hazy, cloudy, tense, numb, or filled with greed, anger, or ignorance? Or is the mind in one of the various stages of calm, tranquility, ease, openness, relaxation, concentration, or freedom?
Beginning to clearly delineate the various layers and streams of input that comprise your consciousness at any given moment is part of the overall effort to continue to strengthen the constancy and penetrating depth of mindfulness.
You will begin to see the mind is not a single ball of wax, but rather a composite of many different stands of phenomena woven from many different streams of sensation, feelings, thoughts, and drives. We can explore the implications and benefits of this in future posts.
For now it is enough to know you will be able to see the wholesome and the unwholesome states without launching into knee-jerk judgments about what should or should not be happening, and without judging whether you are a good or lousy meditator. Rather you will see the various aspects of your experience as they arise, spread, have effect, begin to fade and then, eventually, note that they are gone.
You will be able to note very generally: meditator….experience…arising….passing….creative….not creative…etc.
You will see the arising and passing of all these different mental phenomena in a detached and dispassionate manner. You will be able to resist getting dragged around by desire and anger. There will be no need to start a restless chase after pleasure. Neither will you need to suppress difficult or unwholesome experiences that do arise. You will be able to more patiently observe irritating situations without getting caught in your usual web of defensive or controlling reactions. You will be able to enjoy pleasant experiences without trying to cling to them, and without lamenting their loss, when they fade and pass.
The goal of this activity is not to render a person as some lifeless, inert, automaton.
The goal is to strengthen mindful awareness to the degree that the more complex work of the fourth practice of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, and other advanced practices become possible. All of these preparations, and more, are needed for the final climb to the summit of liberation.
During both formal meditation practice and in the active hours of life the goal is to develop a passive, non-reactive, noting of pleasureable and unpleasureable experiences and states of mind. Learning to observe one’s interior experience, and the actions and states of minds of others in a very open, non-judgmental manner is a very good skill and perspective to learn. It will be like you are an engineer of a run-a-way freight train who does not panic but who finds a way to calmly fix the broken emergency brake long before it would otherwise crash.
This does not mean a person does not make judgements. It means one can learn to suspend judgement until they have had a chance to think clearly. One can then formulate skillful and compassionate judgements when they are needed and to forego them when they are not.
Seeing any original stimulus and seeing the stages of perception and reactions that arise from any initial stimulus will allow you to create alternative reactions that serve your needs and the needs of others far more skillfully.
In short, this work will help you to not react the way you usually react when “someone pushes your buttons”. You will be able to see your buttons. You will be able to see if someone is pushing your buttons. But you will be able to decide what tapes get played after the buttons get pushed.
When it is time to pursue an important goal, or to respond to an irritating or angering situation, you will be able to do so in a far more alert and creative manner.
All of this work will prepare you for deeper experiences of concentration, compassion and insight. Next week I will touch on some other aspects of these first three practices before moving on to the 4th practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.
For now, all the best with your daily practice.
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Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness”
Host of MeditationPractice.com