Four Foundations of Mindfulness – The Buddha Dharma Series

Mindfulness is traditionally based on the four foundations and that is what I want to address here, but before I do that, I want to discuss an issue I have with the modern mindfulness movement. To be more specific, their definition of mindfulness. People who know me will tell you that I am not a traditionalist and my issue is not about secularism versus traditionalism, it is solely about their interpretation.

Mindfulness cannot be summed up in a single statement, it is too vast for that, yet that is what has happened. Their definition is:

Mindfulness is an awareness of what is happening in the present moment, brought about by purposefully paying attention in a non-judgemental way.

Mindfulness was never meant to be a standalone practice. It was part of the three basics of the path, namely ethics, awareness and wisdom. The above definition only covers one of these basics of the path; awareness. A thief breaking into your house, a solider on the battlefield about to kill someone and a person putting poison into someone’s food are all examples of being aware of what is happening in the present moment. All of them lack ethics and wisdom.

My next gripe concerns the part that reads, ‘Paying attention in a non-judgemental way.’ I wonder if that is even possible and I certainly think it is not beneficial. We make judgement calls all the time, from what we wear, what we eat, the job we do and so on. It is impossible to live without some form of judgement.

If I am harming someone and I bring myself back into the present moment and I don’t judge what I am doing, how am I going to change my behaviour?

If mindfulness is going to be affective it needs to cover all three aspects of the basics of the path and that is why I have devised a practice called AWARE. I feel this can be a bridge between traditional and secular mindfulness.

You bring yourself into the present moment by using a breathing exercise, focusing on your senses or bringing your awareness back to your body. Once you are in the here and now, you can start the AWARE practice.

AWARE stands for Attention, Why, Assess, Reality, Examine

A – bring your clear attention to what you are doing. Are you on autopilot? Are you being led by unconscious habits, behaviour or biases? This covers the awareness aspect of the three basics of the path.

W – ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing it. What is my motivation, what is my intention?’ This covers the wisdom aspect.

A – assess if your behaviour is beneficial. Is it ethical, is it helping me to be the person I want to be? Is it compassionate or hurtful to myself and others? This covers the ethics aspect.

R – is it based in reality? Or am I generalising, catastrophising or letting my imagination run wild? This covers the wisdom aspect.

E – examine a more mindful, beneficial and compassionate way to act. A way that is based in fact and not fantasy. A way that helps support me and others. This covers all three aspects.

I personally believe by adopting the AWARE practice once you have brought yourself back into the present moment, you will be able to make changes to your behaviour, you will be able to change and grow. That, I feel, is the whole purpose of mindfulness. So, now let’s look at the four foundations.

The four foundation practices of mindfulness are of being aware of our bodies, of our feelings, of our minds and of our mental states.

The purpose of these practices is to get to know ourselves better. It will help us understand what is working for us and what isn’t. This will allow us to change more effectively and positively.

Awareness of body   

The first practice is for the body. We need to be aware of our body and all the actions carried out by it. But we do not need to see it as ‘my’ body. If we think of it as ‘my’ body, it could lead to attachment and give us a false sense of identity. Reflect on the time and effort we spend on this body just to look good. Imagine how much money is spent each year on plastic surgery and beauty products. It would appear we are completely obsessed with our bodies. We might be mindful of how the body looks but very rarely spend time on observing the actions it carries out. 

There are many ways of contemplating the body, but a simple and effective one is doing a full body scan. You can find guided body scan meditations on my website.

In today’s world, we always seem to be running from pillar to post, so this meditation will help you get back in tune with the body and calm your mind at the same time. I am sure you will be surprised at how much tension you are carrying around with you and what different sensations you have in various parts of the body.

The full body scan is one of my favourite practices and I am always surprised at the sensations I am carrying around. Over the years I have noticed certain sensations correspond to different emotions and experiences. When I was young, I started to have asthma and I noticed that 10 to 15 minutes before an attack I would start to get an itching sensation under my chin. This gave me ample time to take my tablet and prevent the attack from taking hold. Many sensations in the body are there for a reason, but unfortunately, we have lost the art of reading our bodies and rely too much on our minds. This application of mindful awareness will bring you back in touch with your body. 

As we become more in touch with our bodies you may ask how can we integrate this awareness into our daily practice? Whatever you do with the body affects you and those around you. So, this is where a daily reflective practice will help you. Look back on the day and see what actions you have carried out with the body. The ones that are conducive to responsible living should be noted. This will ensure that, through repetition, they can become spontaneous. The ones that are not conducive to living responsibly should also be noted and a clear effort should be made to refrain from doing them again. It is through staying mindful of our bodily actions that we will be able to live responsibly.

Awareness of feelings

Another application for mindful awareness is feelings. Now, I am not talking about emotions here, many people get the two mixed up. Emotions are mental states whereas feelings arise when our senses coming into contact with something. There are three types of feelings, namely pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. One of these three are present during every moment of our experience. They may be strong or weak, but they are always present.

Here are some examples of how feelings occur. You may be walking down the street and you pass a good-looking person; this brings up pleasant feelings. As you walk further, a dog barks at you and unpleasant feelings arise. A bit later, you walk past a group of people you do not know, none of them are of interest to you, so you have a neutral feeling.

If we are not mindful and leave our feelings unchecked, pleasant feelings can lead to clinging desires, painful feelings to hatred and neutral feelings to apathy. When paying attention to feelings, the important thing is simply to notice them, become aware of them, without either clinging to them or pushing them away.

Here are two ways we can mindfully get in touch with our feelings. Firstly, during meditation, after you have spent some time watching your breath, notice what comes into your mind and observe what feeling is attached to that experience. Don’t try to change or judge the feeling, just become aware of it and then let it go on its way. Then do the same with the next object that comes into your mind. You can do this for as long as you like and then return back to your breathing awareness. This practice helps you notice how you feel and what’s going on with you. It also helps you to understand that a feeling is present in every experience you have.

As with your awareness of your body you can also review your feelings during your daily reflective practice. When you think of an incident that happened that day, check to see what feelings it invoked in you. Did it bring up pleasant, painful or neutral feelings? Don’t try to control the feelings, just be mindful of them.

Being watchful of our feelings helps us see what desires we are chasing when a pleasant feeling is present and what is being invoked by our unpleasant feelings. We can also learn to simply observe an experience, without getting all tangled up in it. This will help us to form neutral responses, instead of getting attached to pleasant feelings or repelled by unpleasant feelings.

Awareness of mind

The next area of focus is on our minds. We can apply mindful awareness to explore deep into our minds. If I am honest, this was always the most difficult for me to get my head around. How can the mind look at itself? The answer that came to me is that we look at the mind as though we are looking in a mirror. When we talk about the mind we tend to think of it as a single thing, but it is actually a sequence of instances that arise from moment to moment in response to the perceptions coming to us from the six senses – things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch and from internal mental states. The mind is a process and cannot exist alone. So, when we look at the mind, we are actually looking at the processing going on in the brain.

We rarely stop and spend time observing our minds. We just let thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams come and go unchecked. But our minds, if left unrestrained, can lead us into all kinds of situations. So, we practice simply observing our minds. We do not engage with what we see – we just allow it to arise and go. I understand that this is easier said than done, but with practice, patience and effort, it is achievable.

During your meditation or a daily reflective practice, observe your mind and see what state it is in: is it tired, lazy, angry, happy or disturbed? Note the state, but don’t try to change it. Ask yourself, “How is my mind at the moment?” “Is it full of desire, full of anger, or full of ignorance. Is it present in the moment or distracted?” We need to look at our mind in this way, and just see it as it is, not pass any judgement or think of it as ‘my mind’.

You can also focus your awareness on the way each thought arises, remains and then moves away. This helps us to stop blindly following one thought after another. We gain insight and understand that we are not our thoughts and we do not need to chase after each and every one. In fact, we cannot find any part of our mind to identify with, it is just a constantly changing process.

Once you have learned how to dispassionately watch your mind, whenever your mind is disturbed, you should firstly examine it and then, with calmness, act in a proper way – a way that is not going to harm yourself or others. Developing awareness of the mind will help us lead a life where we are not becoming disturbed or disturbing others. We come to know the mind as it really is – a process.

Awareness of mental states

The final application of mindfulness is concerning mental states. A mental state is an awareness of objects that come in contact with our senses, which occur on a moment to moment basis. As we bring awareness to these moments of consciousness, we begin to strengthen our ability to take mindfulness into our daily lives.

There are pleasurable mental states, such as happiness, compassion, empathy, contentment, and painful mental states, such as greed, apathy, anger, selfishness and so on.

We are not looking to oppose these mental states, but just become aware of them, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. There are several ways of letting the mental states go and here are the ones that have worked for me.

You can change the painful into a pleasurable, such as replacing greed with generosity or hatefulness with compassion. Thinking of the consequences of the painful mindset can be another way of letting go. If we understand that this mindset is leading us down a wrong path, we should not follow it. We could for example bring to mind the insight that all things that arise are impermanent, the painful mental factor is not going to last, so just let it go. All of these practices are not easy, but they are doable, it just takes effort.

Reflection

We should also look to reflect on mental factors and here is a suggested practice.

Sit comfortably and place your awareness on your breath.

When a mental state arises, and it will, if it is strong enough to disrupt your focus on the breath, rest your awareness in that new state, allowing yourself to be aware of what the state is, such as joyful mind or angry mind, fearful mind or contented mind, until it naturally subsides. If the mental state is strong, notice what it feels like in the body. Is there tightness, discomfort, pain? Where is it located?

Now look at the consequences of this mental state. Will it lead to a sense of peace in your life or lead to more difficulty?

If another mental state arises and is strong enough to hold your attention, continue to practice with it. If one doesn’t, then return to watching your breath until your meditation session has finished.

This brings us to the end of the four foundations of mindfulness. If we are going to be mindful and live a responsible life, we have to be fully aware of, but not tangled up in, our bodies, our feelings, our minds and our mental states. By being mindful, we will be able to take full responsibility for all of our actions. This will ensure that our minds become calmer and we spend more time in the present moment, not being tossed backwards and forwards from past to future. Being mindful means being conscious of every thought, feeling, emotion and action. Repeatedly during the day, take a few moments to bring mindful awareness to your breath, body sensations, mind, feelings and mental states. Then use the AWARE practice as this is a good way of helping yourself to settle down into the present moment and to expand your formal meditation practices into your everyday life.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

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Strength of Mind

This blog was taken from my latest book ‘Open Awareness, Open Mind’ find it on Amazon and Kindle.

I think it’s true to say that we become distracted very easily and find it hard to stay focused for any length of time. The mind lurches from one thing to another at a rapid speed, and then we wonder why our mind is not at peace. How can it be, it’s exhausted! So, learning how to stay focused on a single object, thought, emotion, feeling, body sensation or experience is going to cut down on distractions and help strengthen our minds.

One of the best ways to achieve single-pointed awareness is through meditation. To achieve the most from meditation you also need to like, or have a positive attitude, about the practice. It’s a long-term process. It isn’t enough to do a 10-day meditation course and think job done. That is just the starting point. If we want to live peaceful, purposeful and fruitful lives we need to develop a mind of resilience and mettle. Without fortitude of mind we will never achieve peace.

To have strength of mind, four mental qualities need to be developed. These are purpose, persistence, sensitivity and analysis.

What’s your purpose?

When I first started meditating many thoughts would pop into my head and start to hamper my meditation practice. I would suddenly start busying myself with non-essential work just to delay meditating. It was easy to lose interest because I wasn’t seeing any immediate results. I even started to lack confidence because I thought I wasn’t doing it right. This was all happening because I hadn’t set clear goals or purpose for my practice. I just sat down and started meditating because I heard it was good for me.

So, the starting point to strengthening your mind is to understand why you are doing the practice, what you would like to achieve and how you will know when you have achieved it. All of these will give you a sense of purpose.

If you wish to succeed in meditation it is important to like the process. We need to allow it to capture our imagination and then it will become easier to get absorbed in it. We cannot just go through the motions and hope it magically leads us to where we want to be. We must have a purpose, an objective.

When we go to the gym our objective is to become fitter. When we go on a diet the purpose is to lose weight. When we learn a musical instrument, we do so because we wish to play it proficiently. My point here is that whenever we start something we should always have an anticipated outcome that guides our planned actions.

Meditation is a practice and as with all other practices, we need to be aware of how much attention we are paying to it, how closely we observe what we are doing, how effective we are being and how much our personal wellbeing is improving. By looking at these points your practice is going to improve.

Once you have made all these points clear in your mind, you will have your purpose and will be ready to move onto the next point.

Can you persist?

Even though we may have a clear purpose to practice, without persistence, success will evade you. To simply have a purpose is not enough, we need to take action. Otherwise, our purpose becomes ineffective and intellectual.

Single-pointed awareness can only be gained through a force of effort and persistence. When these are applied diligently and in a balanced way, only then can our awareness become single-pointed. When I say balance, I mean not too forceful and not too lax. Consider how a guitar string needs to be tuned for it to give a perfect note. If it is too loose or too tight you will not strike the right sound. Our persistence in the same way needs to be tuned.

We have to be willing to put in effort, even though the results may not be noticed immediately. It is no good just to do a meditation practice when we feel like it. I understand that it is not easy to sit when we are tired, or to sit through pain or even sit for extra minutes, but if we don’t, we are not going to progress on the path.

It is inevitable that there are going to be times when you can’t be bothered to do the practice, or you are too busy or too tired. These are the times we really need to stick with it and push through any obstacles we may have created in our mind. This is a key point to remember, these obstacles are all created by your mind. You are the one stopping yourself from meditating.

Are you sensitive?

The next strength is sensitivity. We need to be sensitive about what we are trying to gain from the meditation, what effort we are putting in and what progress we are making.

We also need to be sensitive to what state our mind is in when we come to meditation. Sometimes our mind is overactive and at other times underactive. When this happens, you need to strengthen the mind before you focus on your object of meditation. If you are overactive, you can slow your breathing down. You can also ensure you are breathing from your abdominal region and not your chest. When you are underactive, you can speed your breath up a little. You could even do some light stretching exercises to wake yourself up, such as yoga, mindful movement or Tai Chi.

Try to be fully aware and engaged with what you are doing and what results you are getting. Understand that you are not looking for future achievements or looking back over past experiences, you are being sensitive to what is happening right now, right in this moment.

When we are breathing, we need to be sensitive to each breath. When we are sitting, we need to be sensitive to how it feels to sit. When we look at our minds as though we are looking in a mirror, we need to be sensitive to our mental state. We have to be watchful of every aspect of the meditation.

Going through the motions is just not going to cut it. You have to make the practice your practice, and we do that by having a purpose, putting in effort and being sensitive to what is happening during the meditation.

So, how sensitive are you to your practice? Look at these following points. Are you sensitive to the effort you are putting in? Sensitive to your state of mind before, during and after meditation? Sensitive to the quality of your breath or any other object of meditation? Sensitive to what hindrances are stopping you from meditating? Give these questions some thought.

Do you analyse?

Analysing is another key to strengthen the mind. We need to clearly examine our tendency to fall into bad habits and wrong practices. It also involves learning to work with an imperfect mind and balancing our mental faculties.

We need to analyse our meditation practice and not just sit there and hope for the best. If the mind is in no mood to focus on your object of meditation, don’t give up, investigate other topics your mind may wish to focus on. Try something different, like focusing on a candle flame, chanting or focus on body sensations.  Explore new possibilities. If your new approach works, continue with it. If you notice it is not really working, be willing to stop doing it and try a fresh approach.

I learned this the hard way. I was given a practice and I ploughed on for over a year, even though it simply wasn’t working. I foolishly believed that my teacher knew better. We need to understand that we are all different and there isn’t one practice that suits everyone. We must analyse our practices until we find one that works for us. Now, I am not encouraging you to flit from one practice to another. Once you find a practice that works, stick with it, but until you find one that works it is fine to experiment with different meditation styles. Remember, we are not looking for the most popular practice or a practice that proclaims it will lead you to enlightenment. We are looking for a practice that works for us. A practice that will calm our minds and make our lives less crazy.

So, this is how we can strengthen our minds through various meditation practices. I hope you have understood that more than anything else, it’s what you bring to the meditation that determines the results you’ll get. This places the responsibility and the power with you.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Mindfulness of Mind

This is about looking at the mind as though we are looking in a mirror. Just observing what goes on, but not trying to change anything. We have to look in a dispassionate way, and ask ourselves, ‘How is the mind at the moment?’ (more…)