When I first began practicing mindfulness in earnest in the 1980s, relatively few people had heard of it. Over the past 10 years or so though, awareness of mindfulness has grown. As of today, Googling “mindfulness” yields a staggering 1,020,000,000 results. These days, people practice mindfulness in places as disparate as yoga studios, meditation centers and corporate retreats. While the practice appears to be simple, it’s not easy. As anyone who’s ever attempted to practice knows, our minds are like a wild monkey, constantly leaping from one thought or sensation to the next. That’s why this ancient technology for awakening spells out 4 foundations of mindfulness, to help us get a handle on our unwieldy minds.
What Is Mindfulness?
If you ask pretty much anyone what mindfulness is, most would say that it’s “being in the moment.” This is true. We must be in the moment to be mindful. But there’s more to it than simply being in the moment. Mindfulness also includes knowing what’s actually happening in the moment. We can be in the moment but not really be aware of what we’re experiencing.
For example, back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, I was a fan of the Grateful Dead. I went to Dead shows whenever I could. It was sooooo much fun. When I was dancing to the Dead, I was totally absorbed in the moment, but I can’t say I was all that aware of what I was experiencing. So while I was in the moment, I wasn’t actually being mindful.
Mindfulness requires knowing what is happening in our experience. Knowing is key to developing wisdom. Mindfulness also requires that we are aware of our responses to what is happening. Are we clinging to pleasant sensations, hoping they won’t go away? Are we responding with aversion to unpleasant experiences? Awareness of our responses to present experience allows us to make choices about how we deal with the vicissitudes of our lives. This ultimately leads to the development of equanimity.
What Are the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness?
Whenever I teach a mindfulness class, one or more students invariably lament the fact that their minds seem even more jumbled and confused when they sit down to meditate. The key word here is “seem.” Our minds are no more out of control when we practice meditation than they are in the rest of our lives. What’s different is that we’re actually observing the normal state of our minds for the first time. That can be both daunting and humbling.
This is where the technology of the 4 foundations of mindfulness can be so helpful. The 4 foundations give us a framework with which to understand what is happening in each moment. The foundations help us connect with the quality of knowing. In this post, I’ll introduce the foundations. In subsequent posts I’ll delve into each foundation, and give you some ideas for how to practice with them.
The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness
- Mindfulness of the Body: This is really the foundation of the other three foundations. That’s because everything we can be aware of arises as a sensation in the body. This practice includes awareness of whatever is coming in through our senses.
- MIndfulness of Feeling Tone: In mindfulness practice, feeling tone is not the same as feelings or emotions. Mindfulness of feeling tone is awareness of whether what we are experiencing is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This provides a crucial link to understanding our responses to experience.
- Mindfulness of Mental States and Emotions: Our mental states and emotions color our perception of experience. So it is important to understand when they are present. Knowing what filters may be distorting our perception helps us see more clearly into our experience.
- Mindfulness of Dhammas: This foundation is quite vast. Joseph Goldstein’s book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, spends a whole lot of chapters explaining the many different aspects of this foundation. It includes mindfulness of the flow of experiences, as well as unpacking universal truths of our life experience.
A Work in Progress
After 35 years of practice, I’ve come to understand mindfulness as a work in progress. It’s a practice, not a performance. I’ve found it to be helpful to approach practice with a beginner’s mind. So as I describe the 4 foundations of mindfulness in this and future posts, I’ll remind myself, and you, the reader, that what I write reflects only my present understanding, which is likely incomplete. Still, I offer this exploration into the 4 foundations of mindfulness as a jumping-off point, a way to explore mindfulness and perhaps, to give you some tools to make sense of the practice. Happy exploring!