In Part three of this series on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I am continuing my commentary on 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 or become a Buddhist to study this 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.
Mindfulness, or being “in the moment” are such widely used terms in both popular and educated progressivist culture, they have become almost cliche. What is important is how little time most of us spend actually being grounded in the present moment. Many people who are beginners, and even those with fairly significant familiarity with meditation, often allow their mind to drift into the future with anxiety and uncertainty, or to the past with resentments or regrets. I am not saying a person should not think of the future or the past when it is enjoyable, beneficial, or necessary to do so. What I am saying is that when one decides to think of the future or the past that they make a conscious choice to do so, and not because their mind has wandered or “jumped” into the future or the past. What I am also saying is that when a person decides they want to stay in the present moment, moment-by-moment, for extended periods of time that they have the skill, focus, and discipine to do so.
Developing the skill, focus,and discipline, to stay in the present moment for extended periods of time is a key point of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” Learning to observe the breath and body, as well as the emotions, thoughts, and general state of consciousness in greater and greater detail are like calisthenics for the mind. It will become easier to stay in the moment without wandering off. This works the same way for the mind as it does when after steady running exercise you can run two miles a day fairly easily when before you used to only be able to manage a few hundred yards. Another key part of this process is to engage this work of observation and “gazing” at the moment with more compassion, and with a gentler tone to your compassionate gaze.
In fact if one were to chart the progression from one stage of mindfulness to progressively deeper stages of mindfulness, peace and insight these advances in practice would correspond directly to progressively more tender tones of compassion and acceptance.
So it is not just the intentness of mindful watching, but the lightness and tenderness of the tone of the watching and the compassionate element of the watching that is important.
Learning to do this with less impatience and less harsh judgement of one’s self and others are equally important parts of this work.
You will begin to see there is much more happening in each moment than you were aware of. Having a wider circle of awareness is the simplest way to define the expression “expanding consciousness.” You are simply noticing a wider range of sensations, emotions, and thoughts in any particular moment than you did before. You are broadening the circle of phenomena that you are consiously noticing. You are becoming more awake.
If the focus of your meditation is on the breath as it passes in and out of the nostrils you will begin to see there are many more micromoments of sensation throughout the cycle of each breath at the tip or entry to the nostrils. This is especially noticeable as your breath slows and becomes refined. The inbreath is long and slow, the point at the top of the inbreath, before you begin to exhale, also has many fine micro-sensations as does the long slope of the outbreath. At the bottom of the outbreath, the pause before the next in- breath may become, over time, longer were there is very little in the way of sensation. In these moments, with so little going on, it can be harder to maintain one’s awareness without some thought or desire jumping in and “hijacking” the mind. But if you can hang in there and maintain your awareness during this pause, your mindfulness will become that much more established.
This is just as true if you are observing the rising and falling of a single point in the abdomen if the abdomen is your focus of awareness of the breath.
If you are having a hard time staying with the breath in just one of these places, then allow your awareness to monitor the different sensations in both the nostrils, and the abdomen, and the chest until you are able to stay with the breath. Having multiple points of awareness of sensations caused by the breath will allow the mind to calm and center on the breath and the moment. As this happens you can proceed to narrow your range of awareness to just two points of the breath, and then to one.
If you favor the body scan, as compared with just observing the breath, then you can move your awareness randomly from hand to knee, to breath, to buttocks. to legs, to chin, to ear etc. Or you can do a more systematic study of every joint of every finger on each hand and other micro-studies of various parts of the body. The first key is do this mindfully without the mind drifting into recollections of what happened last week at work, or what you need to do next month etc. The second key is to begint to notice how many sensations of the body there are that you did not previously notice.
The beauty of practicing mindful awareness of the breath and the body is that you can do these exercises in both formal sitting meditation and, just as naturally, in the active moments of your life. It is the seamless way this practice can carry over from the meditation session to the active hours of one’s life that is a primary benefit of this overall approach.
Another way to practice awareness of the body is to notice if your posture is upright or perhaps a bit slouched, or maybe even quite slouched. You can dedicate 5-10 minutes of sitting practice just to improving the quality of your posture, or you can make the entire session about maintaining a posture that is upright but not rigid.
When you get up from the cushion you can monitor the sensations of the body and your posture as you stand up and move on to whatever is the next task you have.
As you go through the day, what is important is not to strain to try to observe every sensation as you move your body or breath. Rather the goal is to develop a level of awareness of the breath and the body in the present moment. You can observe the sensations of the body and the breath while at work, while taking a shower, while cooking food, while having intimate relations, while grocery shopping or in the midst of any other activity. There is no need to try to have some profound meditation experience during the times of formal sitting practice or during the active moments of your life, unless some profound experience naturally arises. Rather the goal is to have an innocent curiosity about what is happening now and to develop the abiliy to stay in the “now” for longer and longer periods of time without the mind being hijacked by some thought or desire.
Like the young boy in the movie the Karate Kid, you may be wondering, “Is there any point at all to this tedious ‘painting of the fence?’ ”
Yes, there is great and profound benefit to doing this most basic of exercises with more and more clear awareness and attention to detail and with more compassion and less judgement. Steady consistent practice will strenghten the stamina and quality of alert focus of the mind. Over time you will see more and more subtle ways to care for your body and to preserve health or respond to sickness. Over time you will learn more ways to clear your mind so you can see and respond to whatever is happening more skillfully.
You will become ready for more subtle and important ways to practice both Insight meditation and deeper concentration exercises.
In the next installment I will present other aspects of practice from the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness with regards to observing tne mindfulness of breathing and awareness of the body. The first of which is to begin to notice the impermanence of the sensations of the breath and the body and what lessons can be learned from seeing the arising and passing of all sensations.