The phrase “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is an English translation of the “Satipatthana Sutta”. This is the 22nd Sutta from the “Long Discourses of the Buddha”. The translation I am working with is the one by Maurice Walshe which is published by Wisdom Publications. These are among the oldest Buddhist writings of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which in turn is the oldest form of Buddhism we have knowledge of. Tibetan and Zen Buddhism are much later variations of Theravada Buddhism.
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.
To recap for those whose may be just joining in, and for those who have been following along these past few months, the first three practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” are:
1) Mindfulness of Bodily Sensations which is defined as those phenomena that arise from the body’s sensory systems of sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste. This includes the observation of the bodily sensations arising from the breathing process which is one of the most common introductory practices of Buddhism.
2) Mindfulness of three basic feelings: satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and neutral or non-descript feelings. There is an important distinction made between whether these feelings are arising from experiences that arise from sensory experiences and self-centered thoughts or whether these feelings arise from non-sensory experiences and selfless thoughts, actions, insights, or advanced states of concentration.
3) Mindfulness of mind-states which refers to an awareness of the general quality of the mind state in any given moment. Is the mind riddled with aching hunger and excessive desire, or is the mind free from aching hunger and excessive desire? Is the mind filled with anger, resentment, harsh judgments, and thoughts of aggression? Or, is the mind free from anger, resentment, harsh judgments, and thoughts of aggression? Is the mind filled with self-centered preoccupations and self-images? Or is the mind in a more relaxed state of selflessness or emptiness? Is the mind hazy and sluggish or is the mind clear, alert, and energetically engaged? Is the mind distracted and jumpy or is the mind concentrated and able to stay with the object of attention without distraction?
There is not a lot of action called for in these first three practices. The first general goal is to find a middle ground. This middle ground is to have enough stability of mind where you are not swept into action if the mind is filled, for example, with excessive desire, fear, torpor, or anger yet neither are you repressing such feelings from arising. The second general goal is to examine the arising and passing of these experiences without judging whether we are a bad meditator, for example, if we are angry, or a good meditator if we are filled with thoughts of loving-kindness. The third general goal is to notice that these experiences are all in a state of change and transition whether that change and transition is quick or very slow. Noticing the impermanence of all phenomena is an essential part of all Theravada Buddhist practice.
It is like we are sitting on a high mountain perch watching a very broad valley below as the weather changes from sunny to cloudy, from dry clear days to days with passing rain showers. It is like we are watching the sky and clouds drift through the afternoon sky. It is like we are watching the seasons come and go. It is like we are allowing the weather and the seasons and all the changes of the daily weather and to be what they are, and to see what they are with “choiceless awareness”, as they come and go.
The goal is to cultivate passive, non-judgmental observations of the different streams of impressions coming in through the senses, the different feelings that arise from the sense impressions, and the various thoughts and general mind-states that arise from that which happens around us and within us.
When the mind is hazy, to do what we can to observe the haziness with as much energy and non-judgment as we can. When the mind is clear, to observe the clarity and focus for as long as it is present and to notice when it is supplanted by whatever thoughts arise next such as anger, irritation, restless desire, self-centered preoccupation, worry, and when these states in turn are supplanted by something else.
Seeing when the body is tense and when it is relaxed.
Seeing when feelings of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or those of a non-descript nature, arise and pass.
Neither chasing pleasant sense desires, nor trying to “get rid” of annoying or irritating feelings.
Neither chasing after pleasant spiritual states, nor trying to get rid of difficult states of either a sensory or non-sensory nature.
The effort that is needed, once again, is to find and maintain a certain degree of balance and stability. The work is to cultivate a state where one is not driven to act out on unwholesome thoughts and desires, but neither is one trying to repress or block them from arising. This state of passive and non-judgmental seeing is not one of weakness. Rather it arises from a strong and very open state of confidence where one is able to face the all that is within one’s self as the inner drives, desires, memories, feelings, and conflicts are allowed to surface into personal consciousness. Those who believe in God do this practice in faith that God will sustain them through this process. Those who are non-theists engage this practice in faith that the teachings of the dharma, and the support of the community, are sufficient for the tasks of the day.
The time for shaping and molding the interior states and patterns of behavior begins in the 4th practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. In this fourth practice one is working to ameliorate and disperse the underlying conditions that give rise to the unwholesome and unskillful states and choices. In this fourth practice one is also working, in the context of Right View and Right Effort to cultivate wholesome states and to make skillful choices.
And it is not as though one needs to perfect the passive, non-judgmental, beholding of experience before one transitions to the fourth practice. Rather it is enough to begin to really understand what “choiceless awareness” and “bare attention” really means. It is enough to really notice the arising and passing moment by moment throughout times of meditation and in the active hours of the various streams of sensation, feelings, thoughts, and mind-states. It is enough to notice the impermanence and transitory nature of all experiences and phenomena within us and around us. It is enough to notice which thoughts, actions, desires, and choices invariably lead to suffering and which invariably lead to liberation, however delayed the experiences of liberation may be.
It is enough to notice the mind is not a single, general entity, but rather a very intricate composite made of many streams of sensations, feelings, desires, memories, language, concepts, conflicts, core truths, and values.
It is enough to strengthen that part of the mind we call “The Watcher” so that we may see in ever greater detail, and ever greater depth, the changing streams of experience within us and around us of that which we refer to as “The Watched”.
As we engage the work of the fourth practice, we return again and again to any one of the first three practices. We return always glad to be a beginner, always glad to progress to deeper and deeper levels of skill and insight into the true nature of all that seems to come into existence and all that seems to pass from existence.
Please let me know what you think of any one of these blog entries. One of my goals with this work is to meet others who want to study these practices with ardent dedication. Another goal is to meet and compare notes with those who are already teaching or who aspire to a career in teaching the way of liberation.
Will Raymond Author of the Simple Path of Holiness 774-232-0884
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