What Are the Four Foundations of Mindfulness?
Shifting our full attention to the mind itself with direct experience
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present with whatever arises, accept it without judgment, and allow it to pass. We typically practice mindfulness meditation by choosing a single point of focus, such as breath, and observing it while letting go of distractions if and when they arise.
While mindfulness meditation requires awareness, awareness meditation is a specific practice that develops insight by shifting our attention to the mind itself. This exercise, often practiced after we have developed some stability via a consistent mindfulness practice, takes us from intellectualization to a direct experience of how the mind truly functions.
There are many ways to describe the path from wholesale mindfulness of the body to the subtle awareness of reality’s true essence. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness is one.
Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness
Over 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha taught specific instructions on what to be aware of during meditation. This information simultaneously offers us a preview of what insights we might expect from a consistent meditation practice. The Four Foundations outline both the path and the goal of meditation.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness come from the Satipatthana Sutta, a well-known Buddhist text that offers detailed meditation instructions. The four are presented in sequence, and move from the gross level of our meditation experience down to the subtlest. For example, our practice begins with mindfulness of the body and breath, our material world. As we go deeper, we become aware of our inner world, our thoughts and feelings. At the deepest levels of meditation, conceptualization ends, as does the sense of separation between subject and object.
In the final stages of meditation, having experienced directly the true nature of each of the four foundations, there is the potential to become completely free from our pain and suffering, and experience complete spiritual realization of the way things are. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves . . .
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
The four foundations of mindfulness offer us a precise method of contemplating the layers of awareness. The result is that we see things, directly, much more closely to the way they really are: impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self-existent.
Mindfulness of the Body
The first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. The Buddha’s instructions tell us to “contemplate the body in the body…in order to know the body as it really is.” We may contemplate the body by observing the breath, meditating while walking, considering each part of the body as in body scan meditation, or contemplating the impermanence of the body.
By meditating on the body we come to understand that we are not merely our bodies. We realize the body is flawed and not permanent, and therefore cannot be a source of lasting happiness. For that, we should look elsewhere.
Mindfulness of Feelings
As we turn inward to mindfulness of feelings, we consider three main types; pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. By observing these three, we realize they are not in and of themselves right or wrong, good or bad. But how we react to them potentially causes great suffering. Pleasant feelings tend to stoke attachment, we want them to stay forever and inevitably get upset or disappointed when they don’t. Unpleasant feelings provoke aversion while neutral feelings may leave us apathetic, complacent or simply dull.
A deep awareness of the nature of feelings teaches us that we are not our feelings. Feelings arise, last for a while, then dissipate. It makes little sense to hitch our wellbeing to such fleeting phenomena. This type of mindfulness is also known as noting practice.
Mindfulness of Mind
As we turn further inward to observe the mind we become aware of its general state. During meditation, we notice if the mind is infused with desire, anger or delusion. We become aware of additional qualities, such as constricted or scattered, concentrated or not concentrated.
We take note of how thoughts and states of mind seemingly arise from nowhere, last for a while, then disappear once again. As we observe, we realize we are not our thoughts, nor are we our state of mind. As the true nature of our minds is revealed, what once seemed a solid, single, self-existent thing now appears more as playful energy. It makes little sense to attach our identity to this ever-changing mind.
Mindfulness of Dharma
Dharma is a Sanskrit word which translates to ‘dhamma’ in Pali. The word has many general meanings, including phenomena, norm or truth, and specifically it refers to the collection of the Buddha’s teachings, although its meaning goes much deeper than that. Dharma transcends any one religion or spirituality. Instead, it can be viewed as a reference to truth, to the universal laws of nature. Just as it is the dharma of water to be wet, it’s the dharma of a person overtaken by anger to be miserable. In this way, to be mindful of the dharma, is to be mindful that we ourselves are the cause of (and the solution to) our own suffering.
The fourth foundation of mindfulness integrates each of the previous stages and leads us to the realization that our world arises only in cooperation with our own mind. To create a new world, we simply need to change our minds.
How to Practice the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness
There are infinite ways to meditate upon the four foundations of mindfulness. This practice begins with mindfulness of the breath. As the mind stabilizes, awareness meditations can take you deeper into contemplation, leading to profound insight.