DT-4 Foundations of Mindfulness in Practice

Tonight, we’ll examine how to deepen our dharma practice by paying attention to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: body, feeling tone, mind, and dharmas. I will be drawing on a talk by Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and priest at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon. To prepare for meditation sits, Jan recommends bringing awareness in turn to each foundation. Starting with the body, we can scan from head to toe, with caring attention to any areas of physical tightness and contraction. The simple process of sending breath to the jaw, neck, shoulders, belly or hands has a relaxing effect on those parts of the body that so often hold tension. At the end of the scan, we can imagine placing awareness in the feet, sensing the body being supported by the earth. 

Once the body feels settled and grounded, we turn to the second foundation of mindfulness: feeling tone. With mindful attention, it is possible to observe what feels pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in the moment… We might notice that if we don’t identify with emotions that they are empty except for body sensations and feeling tones. It is only when we add story lines about the past or future that emotions become charged with unnecessary drama. Beneath the feeling tones of the second foundation lies the intuitive wisdom of the heart. If we pause and bring awareness to the heart, often gratitude arises spontaneously for how steadily it pumps blood that keeps us alive.

*Jan suggests a brief exercise that helps to shift our awareness: Look at the back of your dominant hand. See minute details in its shape, color and texture, noting the skin, wrinkles, veins and bones, the length of fingers and nails, etc. Pay attention to any pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling tones. Flip your hand over to examine the palm with its unique characteristics. What feeling tones arise? Are you aware of any story lines? 

Then gaze with the vision of the heart at both sides of your hand, back and front. 

How does your experience change with heart-centered viewing?  

[Usually there’s a shift from judgmental, critical analysis of the “aging, wrinkled, discolored, arthritic hand” to gratitude and wonder about the multiple ways that our hand serves and touches us and others.]

From feeling tone, we move to the third foundation, the mind. At this point, we can imagine watching a big open screen of awareness to note the trajectory of any of the six senses, as they arise, move across the screen, and disappear. Without taking anything personally, we might imagine sitting at the origin of thoughts, sounds, visual images, tastes, smells, and touch points as they bubble up and blow away. There is no need to propagate thinking about any of these sense doors. 

The fourth foundation of mindfulness entails awareness of dharmas and states of mind—some wholesome and others unwholesome. With increased mindfulness of how mental states interrelate, the thinking function of mind quiets down and the awareness function opens up. For Jan, the change from conceptualizing mode to awareness mode is like turning off a news broadcast on a radio and noticing spacious silence.

In his book, Four Foundations in Plain English, Theravada teacher Bhante Gunaratana explains why awareness of these foundations enhances every stage of practice on the dharma path: 

The Buddha taught, “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated, one-pointed attention, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feelings 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 dharmas in dharmas…in order to know dharmas as they really are.”

Mindfulness of the body entails understanding that the body is not a solid unified form, but a collection of parts, including nails, teeth, skin, bones, lungs, etc. Traditionally, Buddhist monks divide the body into thirty-two parts and train themselves to be mindful of each. Now we know that the body is comprised of 60 trillion cells and that one trillion of those cells regenerate each day. In the body are 100 trillion bacteria, not within our control. This process helps practitioners to see “the body as body”—not as a body that is me or mine, but simply as a “selfless” physical form that comes into being, is present for a time and then passes away. Because it experiences injury, illness and death, the body is an unreliable source of lasting happiness. Bhante says, “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 helps us to see that feeling tones can be divided into three types—pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. At any given moment, we are able to notice only one type. When we are mindful of feelings in this way, we can develop a nonjudgmental awareness of what we are experiencing. We begin to see a particular feeling as one of many “selfless” feelings, instead of claiming them as me or mine. As we practice watching each emotion or sensation as it arises and passes away, we observe that all feelings are impermanent. Because pleasant feelings do not last and unpleasant ones are usually painful, we understand that attachment to feelings is unsatisfactory. Gradually, we learn to know “feelings as they really are.” 

Mindfulness of mind reveals that consciousness arises moment by moment in response to impressions from the senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—and from internal thoughts, including memories, plans, and fantasies. The mind does not exist in itself apart from particular mental responses to external or internal circumstances. When we note how sensory impressions and thoughts arise and pass away in the mind, without engaging or identifying with them, we are free from automatic, habitual chains of mental associations that so easily lead to attachment or aversion. We understand that we are not our thoughts and begin to know “mind as it really is.”  

Mindfulness of dharmas involves an investigation of mental phenomena. With inner observation, we notice when certain mental states are present or absent and which ones are wholesome and unwholesome. We see what happens when we relate to them in different ways. We learn to cultivate what’s wholesome and to loosen attachment to what’s unwholesome. 

For example, we can aim to develop the seven factors of awakening—mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, calm, concentration and equanimity. And we can make an effort to abandon the five hindrances—doubt, desire, aversion, restlessness and sleepiness. As we become more skillful at strengthening wholesome states and weeding out unwholesome ones, the mind grows clearer, brighter, and freer from suffering. 

Andy Olendzki, director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, describes how with growing mindfulness, the mental capacity gradually shifts from objects of attention to the process of being aware. The mind is a dynamic unfolding process, and each mental object is like a momentary static snapshot. When the mind is stuck on what arises, it becomes rigid and limited. With awareness, the mind learns to let go, moment by moment, and to stay open to the emerging flow. We can train the mind, in Andy’s words, “at a microcosmic mental level to step lightly in the field of phenomena, and to constantly explore the very cutting edge of experience.” 

Dogen taught, “Sit down in a quiet place and think of non-thinking.” His instructions sound so easy, but we know that we must tame the mind with a firm yet gentle hand. As if we were training a distractible puppy, we learn to return the mind repeatedly to the experience of the present moment. 

We can ask ourselves, “What am I missing now that I’m seeking in the past or the future?” Unless we are mindful, our meditation periods are full of planning for the future, rehashing the past, and fantasizing freely. The easiest way to return to the here and now is to connect with sensations of the body and the breath—the first foundation of mindfulness. The more we live in the present moment, the more we shift from relying on thinking to trusting the wisdom of the heart. Jan notices that elders who are mind-based tend to tell the same stories repeatedly to anyone who will listen, whereas elders who are heart-based often radiate kind energy to all around them. 

If we can let go of the tangled thoughts that hide our luminosity, we can be with our original nature. Referring to our luminous essence, Tibetan Buddhist teachers say, “It’s so obvious we can’t see it. It’s so simple we can’t believe it.” Familiarity with the four foundations of mindfulness helps us perceive more clearly how the dharma reveals itself constantly in our daily lives. Here’s an example:

This summer Mark and I hired some landscapers to rebuild the sagging patio behind our home. Just after they ripped up and removed the floorboards, a thunder-storm arrived. The rains lasted ten days, filling the backyard with a pool of muddy water and making it impossible for the workmen to make any progress. Our dog Amanda was despondent because her usual playground was unusable. 

During that time, whenever I looked out the kitchen window, I had a choice to focus on the soggy mess in the forefront or on a stone statue of the Buddha that stands at the far side of the back garden. If the mess claimed my attention, my jaw and belly clenched and my breath grew shallow, unpleasant feeling tones arose, my mind filled with catastrophic thoughts about possible flooding, and unwholesome mental states predominated, especially the hindrances of aversion and restlessness. When I focused on the serene image of the Buddha standing with his palms in prayer position, I remembered to breathe more fully and to sense my feet grounding. Relief of body tension was accompanied by some pleasant feeling tones. With fewer thoughts arising, my mind felt more spacious. Expanding my visual range, I could see both the muddy pool and the observing Buddha statue, a wholesome reminder of the truth of impermanence and my capacity for equanimity. 

Practicing with the four foundations of mindfulness can help us not only to weather stormy periods but also to appreciate times of ease. The workers returned to drain the pool and build a sturdy patio, where our dog plays as we eat breakfast outside. 

*Take a moment to reflect upon how you might apply the four foundations of mindfulness to a situation in your daily life.