The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Teaching is based on a talk that was given by the Buddha in the early days. It’s the foundation of what people call Mindfulness/Insight Meditation. The Four Foundations are considered the underlying principles that form the basis of meditation practice.
So, that’s what we’re going to explore here. We’re going to talk about what the Buddha said about Mindfulness and also how we can apply these teachings in our lives.
The thought behind all of this is that we aren’t mindful most of the time. We do very little consciously and often travel through life as if in a daydream. My favorite example of this is when I’m driving to work in the morning and by the time I get there I don’t really remember the trip. I’ve been on autopilot…which sounds very dangerous.
But if we train in mindfulness then we can shift away from that. We can learn how to be more aware in our lives. If we do that then we can meet the world in a more authentic way.
What’s so good about being aware?
Well, if we are more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, then we can have more insight into why we do the things we do. With awareness we can see which of our actions come from a good place that benefits ourselves and others and which of our actions come from a bad place. If we know the motivations behind the things we do, then we can make better choices. When we’re acting out of generosity, kindness, and wisdom then our actions are helpful to ourselves and others. When we’re acting out of greed, hatred, and delusion then our actions are harmful to ourselves and others. Mindfulness is what helps us know the difference.
When we’re mindful we can strengthen those good motivations and weaken the bad ones.
This path is fundamentally about suffering less. Mindfulness helps us realize and internalize the idea that these beneficial actions with good motivations lead us to contentment in our day to day life. They also help us progress on the path to Enlightenment. But we’re talking about baby steps here. At the same time, mindfulness can show us that actions that are motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion usually aren’t all that helpful to us.
If we have some mindful awareness then we can have space before we do or say something to ask ourselves, “Is this going to create problems?”
Mindfulness can also help us to notice the changes that are going on in our bodies and minds. Indeed, these changes are happening all the time, especially in our thoughts. We can easily get carried away and not notice the flow of our thoughts and feelings.
We often forget to pay attention because so many things are happening to distract us..I’m not talking about our environment, although that certainly can be distracting. I’m talking about all the things happening in our minds.
When we learn how to pay attention, we can gain a kind of clarity about our lives. We can shift our minds so that we can simply pay attention to the world as it is. There’s a kind of contentment there. In Pali, the Buddha’s language, the word for Mindfulness is Sati, which means “to remember”. We’re being mindful so we can remember the world and our place in it. So we can remember our true nature. So that we can understand that the only place we can find some sense of peace and freedom from suffering is right here, in this moment. Not in some other time or place. It’s with you right now.
Mindfulness is rooted in the earliest Buddhist teachings, what I call “First Turning Buddhism”. The Buddha declared to his students that they should train in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
“What four?” he was asked.
And the Buddha replied, “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings….in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind….in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas… in order to know dhammas as they really are.”
The practice of contemplating the four foundations: body, feelings, mind, and phenomena, is recommended for people at every stage of the spiritual path.
By telling us to practice mindfulness of the body, the Buddha is reminding us to see the body not a single solid thing, but as a collection of parts. We are a collection of organs and other body parts that come together to form a whole. We want to learn to see the body as the body, rather than as our self. Like all physical things the body comes into being, is around for a little while, and then is gone. Because of allt he struggles with injury, illness, aging, and death, the body is not a good source of lasting happiness. If mindfulness can help us see the body as temporary and unable to bring us contentment, then we can see the body as it really is.
By telling us to practice mindfulness of feelings, the Buddha is reminding us that, like the body, feelings can be divided. It’s usually said that there are three types of feelings; pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Each type is one feeling. At any given moment it’s said that we can only notice one type. We think of feelings in this way to help us cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of them. We want to see our feelings as “my feeling” rather than “me”. Language is powerful here. We say, “I am sad” instead of “I am experiencing sadness.” Why do we do that? Feelings are impermanent because they come and go, sometimes very quickly. Feelings don’t bring lasting happiness because there will always be unpleasant ones. In understanding this we can see feelings as they really are.
The same applies to mindfulness of mind. We talk about the mind as though it’s a single specific thing, but really it’s a collection too. Consciousness arises from our moment to moment awareness of the information that we are perceiving. The mind includes not only consciousness, but also memories and daydreams. It also includes our thought processes, the way one thought leads to another and another. Paying attention to the way thoughts arise and pass away can help us to be less attached to them. If we can be less attached to our thoughts, then we can see the mind as it really is.
By telling us to practice mindfulness of phenomena the Buddha is saying we should be mindful of the world outside of us too. This is where we come to understand that everything follows the same principles. Everything in reality arises, is around for a while, and then passes away. Simply understanding that the world is ephemeral helps us in our practice.
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