Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Excerpt from Lion’s Roar post “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

“Come, friends,” the Buddha answered.

“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.”

Mindfulness of Body

By asking us to practice mindfulness of the body, the Buddha is reminding us to see “the body in the body.” By these words he means that we should recognize that the body is not a solid unified thing, but rather a collection of parts. The nails, teeth, skin, bones, heart, lungs, and all other parts—each is actually a small “body” that is located in the larger entity that we call “the body.” Traditionally, the human body is divided into thirty-two parts, and we train ourselves to be mindful of each. Trying to be mindful of the entire body is like trying to grab a heap of oranges. If we grab the whole heap at once, perhaps we will end up with nothing!

Moreover, remembering that the body is composed of many parts helps us to see “the body as body”—not as my body or as myself, but simply as a physical form like all other physical forms. Like all forms, the body comes into being, remains present for a time, and then passes away. Since it experiences injury, illness, and death, the body is unsatisfactory as a source of lasting happiness. Since it is not myself, the body can also be called “selfless.” When mindfulness helps us to recognize that the body is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless, in the Buddha’s words, we “know the body as it really is.”

Mindfulness of Feelings

Similarly, by asking us to practice mindfulness of feelings, the Buddha is telling us to contemplate “the feeling in the feelings.” These words remind us that, like the body, feelings can be subdivided. Traditionally, there are only three types—pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings. Each type is one “feeling” in the mental awareness that we call “feelings.” At any given moment we are able to notice only one type. When a pleasant feeling is present, neither a painful feeling nor a neutral feeling is present. The same is true of an unpleasant or neutral feeling.

The mind alone cannot exist, only particular states of mind that appear depending on external or internal conditions. Paying attention to the way each thought arises, remains present, and passes away, we learn to stop the runaway train.

We regard feelings in this way to help us develop a simple nonjudgmental awareness of what we are experiencing—seeing a particular feeling as one of many feelings, rather than as my feeling or as part of me. As we watch each emotion or sensation as it arises, remains present, and passes away, we observe that any feeling is impermanent. Since a pleasant feeling does not last and an unpleasant feeling is often painful, we understand that feelings are unsatisfactory. Seeing a feeling as an emotion or sensation rather than as my feeling, we come to know that feelings are selfless. Recognizing these truths, we “know feelings as they really are.”

Mindfulness of Mind

The same process applies to mindfulness of mind. Although we talk about “the mind” as if it were a single thing, actually, mind or consciousness is a succession of particular instances of “mind in mind.” As mindfulness practice teaches us, consciousness arises from moment to moment on the basis of information coming to us from the senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—and from internal mental states, such as memories, imaginings, and daydreams. When we look at the mind, we are not looking at mere consciousness. The mind alone cannot exist, only particular states of mind that appear depending on external or internal conditions. Paying attention to the way each thought arises, remains present, and passes away, we learn to stop the runaway train of one unsatisfactory thought leading to another and another and another. We gain a bit of detachment and understand that we are not our thoughts. In the end, we come to know “mind as it really is.”

Mindfulness of Dhammas

By telling us to practice mindfulness of dhammas, or phenomena, the Buddha is not simply saying that we should be mindful of his teachings, though that is one meaning of the word “dhamma.” He is also reminding us that the dhamma that we contemplate is within us. The history of the world is full of truth seekers. The Buddha was one of them. Almost all sought the truth outside themselves. Before he attained enlightenment, the Buddha also searched outside of himself. He was looking for his maker, the cause of his existence, who he called the “builder of this house.” But he never found what he was looking for. Instead, he discovered that he himself was subject to birth, growth, decay, death, sickness, sorrow, lamentation, and defilement. When he looked outside himself, he saw that everyone else was suffering from these same problems. This recognition helped him to see that no one outside himself could free him from his suffering. So he began to search within. This inner seeking is known as “come and see.” Only when he began to search inside did he find the answer. Then he said:

Many a birth I wandered in samsara,
Seeking but not finding the builder of this house.
Sorrowful is it to be born again and again.
Oh! House builder thou art seen.
Thou shall not build house again.
All thy rafters are broken.
Thy ridgepole is shattered.
The mind has attained the unconditioned.

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Remembering Aspect of Mindfulness

Excerpt from Mind Relations post “Remembering: The Forgotten Aspect of Mindfulness” by Hans Reihling, PhD

“You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody’s keeping score or taking grades. You’re here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not “just watching.” It’s more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

How do you remember what really matters to you in each new moment? When my mind runs on automatic pilot I often get carried away by things that don’t matter at all. A retreat at the Metta Forest Monastery near Escondido made me aware of how mindfulness can be seen as purposefully letting go of what keeps me stuck and keeping in mind what makes me genuinely happy.

The teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also called Ajaan Geoff, emphasize the role of thinking, recalling, and memory in meditation. From this perspective, mindfulness is about active memory or calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that are helpful in attaining the goal of ending stress and suffering.

Alertness

Being aware of what is going on in the moment is important for the cultivation of mindfulness. It has a purpose. The Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism as taught by Ajaan Geoff suggested that alertness helps the meditator to notice what works and what doesn’t during meditation. He continuously asked all students to be very alert and vigilant in order to see what kind of mental and bodily state makes them feel good and what kind of state produces stress. I was told to be alert not merely for the sake of alertness but in order to notice what makes me feel more wholesome.

Ardency

The practice of brining back the attention to the breath or the body as an object of focus is an expression of ardency. Ardency is about making a commitment for training the mind and developing mindfulness. I came to see this attitude as a passion for making a difference, a desire for personal change and growth. Ideally ardency enables me to pull myself out of unskillful states based on my remembrance of skillful ones that made me feel wholesome in the past.

Discernment

Mindfulness as practice of remembering is inextricably tied to discernment. It is important to be aware of whether or not a particular state of body and mind is skillful or not. Thanissaro Bhikkhu asks questions such as: Is a particular thought “worthy” of your attention? Is it helpful to identify with it? What is it composed of? Why is it coming and why is it going? Is it in line with your intentions? If not, how can you take it apart? This does not mean that meditation is merely about arguing with oneself. In his opinion, mindfulness seems to be a means to an end, namely, the transition into more calm and peaceful states without conceptual thought.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s approach is straightforward. When we know that a particular state has been harmful in the past, we should keep it from arising or take away it’s energy by focusing on the breath. When skillful thoughts and bodily states come up, he recommends to attend to them for a few times until one lets them go, too. During the retreat he also emphasized continuously that each meditator has to discern for him or herself what actions are skillful or unskillful during meditation.

From this perspective meditation is not just about being in the moment. Remembering can keep me connected to the Buddhist teachings but also to my own knowledge about what works for me and what doesn’t. It also keeps me in touch with a broader vision of what I want in life. It is about choices and how to continuously shape my future based on what happened in the past.

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Cooking Our Potatoes

Excerpt from “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Anger is rooted in our lack of understanding of ourselves and of the causes, deep-seated as well as immediate, that brought about this unpleasant state of affairs.

Thanks to the illuminating light of awareness, after practicing mindful observation for a while, we begin to see the primary causes of our anger. Meditation helps us look deeply into things in order to see their nature.

If we look into our anger, we can see its roots, such as misunderstanding, clumsiness, injustice, resentment, or conditioning. These roots can be present in ourselves and in the person who played the principal role in precipitating our anger. We observe mindfully in order to be able to see and to understand. Seeing and understanding are the elements of liberation that bring about love and compassion.

The method of mindful observation in order to see and understand the roots of the anger is a method that has lasting effectiveness.

We cannot eat raw potatoes, but we don’t throw them away just because they are raw. We know we can cook them. So, we put them into a pot of water, put a lid on, and put the pot on the fire. The fire is mindfulness, the practice of breathing consciously and focusing on our anger. The lid symbolizes our concentration, because it prevents the heat from going out of the pot. When we are practicing breathing in and out, looking into our anger, we need some concentration in order for our practice to be strong. Therefore, we turn away from all distractions and focus on the problem. If we go out into nature, among the trees and flowers, the practice is easier.

As soon as we put the pot on the fire, a change occurs. The water begins to warm up. Ten minutes later, it boils, but we have to keep the fire going a while longer in order to cook our potatoes. As we practice being aware of our breathing and our anger, a transformation is already occurring. After half an hour, we lift the lid and smell something different. We know that we can eat our potatoes now. Anger has been transformed into another
kind of energy—understanding and compassion.

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Neither Same Nor Different

Excerpt from “Buddha Mind, Buddha Body” by Thich Nhat Hanh

sun and moon as oneBuddhist teaching guides us to look at things as neither the same nor different. This way of seeing things is something that can be experienced.

When our father was born he was very small. As he grew up, he became bigger and changed in many ways. He hasn’t been the same person throughout his life, but he’s not two persons either.

So looking into the reality; we see the truth of “neither the same nor different.”

You are his daughter and you ask the question “Am I one with my father, or am I a totally different person?” The teaching is clear, you are neither the same nor a different person from you father; you are a continuation.

So dualist thinking is misleading and can encourage a belief that good and evil are enemies and that good needs always to be fighting evil. This kind of theology causes a lot of suffering and destruction.

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Transforming Feelings

Excerpt from “How to Deal with Negative Emotions in 5 Mindful Steps” by Gavril Nikolaev

Step #1

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that the first step in dealing with negative emotions is to recognize them.

Anticipate the tide by observing the feeling arising in you and acknowledging that at this moment you’re angry, sad, resentful, anxious.

Seeing that you’re in the grip of a negative feeling is a powerful first step in the healing process.

The first step in dealing with feelings is to recognize each feeling as it arises. The agent that does this is mindfulness. In the case of fear, for example, you bring out your mindfulness, look at your fear, and recognize it as fear. You know that fear springs from yourself and that mindfulness also springs from yourself. They are both in you, not fighting, but one taking care of the other. — Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Step #2

Once you see the tide of negative emotions, the next step is not to turn away from it, but face it directly.

You might be frightened at first. The habitual response is either let the feeling control you or try to suppress it. Both are destructive and useless.

When you muster the courage to face the feeling directly, you’ll realize that it’s only the feeling.

It’s not you.

It is best not to say, “Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.” It is much more effective to say, “Hello, Fear. How are you today?” Then you can invite the two aspects of yourself, mindfulness and fear, to shake hands as friends and become one. Doing this may seem frightening, but because you know that you are more than just your fear, you need not be afraid. As long as mindfulness is there, it can chaperone your fear. (…) Although your mindfulness may not be very powerful in the beginning, if you nourish it, it will become stronger. — Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Step #3

Once you’ve merged with the feeling, try to be comfortable with it. Don’t let resistance take over and break the healing chain.

This is a perfect opportunity to practice mindful breathing. As you breathe in and out, you calm your mind and body.

You may also notice feeling taking refuge in the body and manifesting as tension in your chest, pounding sensation in your head, clenching fists and so on.

As you notice this tension, gently calm it with the power of awareness and gentleness.

You calm your feeling just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby. Feeling his mother’s tenderness, the baby will calm down and stop crying. The mother is your mindfulness, born from the depth of your consciousness, and it will tend the feeling of pain. A mother holding her baby is one with her baby. — Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Step #4

Now that you’re concentrated, calm and see your negative feeling, it’s time to let it go.

But how exactly can you do that?

This step might be difficult if you don’t practice meditation or just started your journey. But here’s how it works.

When you let the feeling be, you let it go. There is no resistance in you, only clear seeing, understanding, and even compassion for yourself and your feeling.

…you feel at ease, even in the midst of fear, and you know that your fear will not grow into something that will overwhelm you. When you know that you are capable of taking care of your fear, it is already reduced to the minimum, becoming softer and not so unpleasant. — Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Step #5

By letting negative feeling be and releasing it, you gain the ability to look deeply into what caused it.

You will discover that the root of negative feelings and unhappiness lies in your perceptions and certain beliefs that are deeply rooted in your subconsciousness.

Ask yourself why are you holding on to those beliefs and perceptions. Do you really need to control everything?

The answer will reveal itself to you once you ready.

This is a process similar to psychotherapy. Together with the patient, a therapist looks at the nature of the pain. Often, the therapist can uncover causes of suffering that stem from the way the patient looks at things, the beliefs he holds about himself, his culture, and the world. (…) The same is true when we use mindfulness to transform our feelings. After recognizing the feeling, becoming one with it, calming it down, and releasing it, we can look deeply into its causes, which are often based on inaccurate perceptions. As soon as we understand the causes and nature of our feelings, they begin to transform themselves. — Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

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Flower Insights

Excerpt from “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh

One day the Buddha held up a flower in front of an audience of 1,250 monks and nuns.  He did not say anything for quite a long time.  The audience was perfectly silent.  Everyone seemed to be thinking hard, trying to see the meaning behind the Buddha’s gesture.

Then, suddenly, the Buddha smiled.  He smiled because someone in the audience smiled at him and at the flower.  The name of that monk was Mahakashyapa.  He was the only person who smiled, and the Buddha smiled back and said, “I have a treasure of insight, and I have transmitted it to Mahakashyapa.”

That story has been discussed by many generations of Zen students, and people continue to look for its meaning.  To me the meaning is quite simple.  When someone holds up a flower and shows it to you, he wants you to see it.  If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.  The person who was not thinking, who was just himself, was able to encounter the flower in depth, and he smiled.

That is the problem of life.  If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.  When a child presents himself to you with his smile, if you are not really there—thinking about the future or the past, or preoccupied with other problems—then the child is not really there for you.  The technique of being alive is to go back to yourself in order for the child to appear like a marvelous reality.  Then you can see him smile and you can embrace him in your arms.

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Washing the Dishes

Excerpt from “At Home in the World: Stories and essential teachings from a monk’s life” by Thich Nhat Hanh

When I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the annual Rains retreat all the monks would come back to the monastery to practice together for three months, and sometimes we were only two novices who had to do all the cooking and wash all the dishes for well over one hundred monks.

There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a difficult chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then we had to heat up a big pot of water before we could do any scrubbing. Nowadays with liquid soap, special scrub pads, and even hot running water it is much easier to enjoy washing the dishes.

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant.

I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!

If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them. With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost. I will be constantly dragged into the future, miss out on life altogether, and never able to live in the present moment.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.

Washing the dishes

Is like bathing a baby Buddha.

The profane is the sacred.

Everyday mind is Buddha mind.

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