Interest in mindfulness has increased over recent years and now it’s quite easy to find a range of books devoted to the subject. On the one hand mindfulness seems quite simple, we can define it as presence or awareness in the moment but it’s also worthwhile to spend just a little time considering it in more depth.
Mindfulness is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Buddhist practice. Whilst the Buddha didn’t rule out other paths to enlightenment he emphasised mindfulness as the main path. But when we come across this term for the first time, while we can fairly quickly grasp the main idea we then face the question: mindfulness of what?
Mindfulness or being more present with what is, will benefit us in general but within the Buddhist tradition there are four parts to this practice; the four foundations of mindfulness. So for a Buddhist it’s not just about general mindfulness, it’s about mindfulness rightly directed. It’s great to be mindful and appreciative of the beautiful scenery when we’re out for a walk, but if we’re not mindful of what’s going on inside as well as what’s going on outside, then we’re not really seeing the full scope of this human experience.
There’s a point of balance to be reached, where we can be lightly aware of the body and the senses and also aware of the movements of feelings and thoughts as they arise. Being able to do this steadily might seem a long way off at first, or even after a while, but it’s another example of how practice can be simple but not easy. It’s a bit like climbing a mountain – simplest thing in the world: point yourself at the top and keep going till you can’t get any higher – simple, but not easy!
These four foundations of mindfulness then are mindfulness of the body (kaya), feelings (vedana), mind states (citta) and mind objects (dhamma). That might sound a bit formal and clunky but it’s really very natural when we try and put it into practice.
We habitually spend so much time in our heads, wrapped up in thoughts and stories that we’re often not very aware of what’s going on around us beyond the need to navigate our way along as we walk or drive. The world around us constantly changes but one thing we can always access is the body, it’s always here. Bringing attention to the breath or sensations in the body is a good way of tuning into the moment and tuning out of habitual thought patterns.
And why do we need to do this? Let’s be honest we don’t really need to have that conversation ten times over before we meet the person we’re going to see, or repeat it ten times with every possible variation once we’ve met them. If we carry on like this we’re literally missing our lives. We’re never here, always tuned into some story in thought, and all you have to do is look at the faces of people walking along the street to see how many of us are wrapped up in this most of the time.
The second foundation is about how we feel or react to what’s in the moment. Very simply it’s asking the question: when events happen are the received as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Now, we all know we have a lot more feelings and emotions than these three general ones, so why limit it? Well, it’s because life happens fast. If we need to be away from work for 4.30pm and someone comes in with an urgent job at 4.25pm, on one level, when they’re telling us, we’re receiving it on the level of information. But on another level we can have a strong reaction against it. There can be a lot of resistance there. Now if this isn’t noticed, if we don’t process it as it arises allowing it the space to be seen, what happens is these feelings and reactions build up and up till we get home so full up with all of the little hassles of the day we just want to switch off. So we turn on the TV or reach for a glass of wine and when we really can’t handle it we just want to crash out.
The third foundation of mindfulness is our mind state. Again in a busy life we don’t always have time to be fully present with all of the moods and tones that colour the way we see the world each day. This is more like having a quick check. Before we head outside we might put our head round the door and see what the weather’s doing. Is it warm of cold? Is it rainy or windy? We know we can’t change the weather but we can change how we dress for it, so we check. In the same way this foundation of mindfulness is about checking the mind weather. Are we feeling positive or a little low? Are we energised or feeling dull?
We’re not approaching this from a position of judging it or wanting to change it, we’re trying to see it so we can register consciously where we’re starting from. I use this as the first point of practice in my morning meditation – a quick check on the mind weather. I might not be able to control it, but if I can see it I’m less likely to be affected by it.
The fourth and last foundation of mindfulness is mind objects. This includes thoughts and feelings that arise. They may be fuelled or coloured by any or all of the previous three aspects of our experience, but however they arise this is about receiving them consciously.
It’s very tempting to believe we need to change our thoughts, to keep them positive and focused on only good things. But when we look at thought closely we start to see that the process of thought doesn’t really work like that. If thought was fully within our conscious control we would never have a negative thought again would we? When we sit to meditate we could ask thoughts to stop and they would obey. When we need to focus on a task we could commit our minds to it without distraction and they would remain steady and concentrated without wavering. If we had control.
So what can we do when negative mind states and mind objects arise? Well as counter-intuitive as it may seem, a good approach is to welcome them in. We don’t need to act them out but as they’ve arisen and they’re here in this moment anyway, welcome them in and show them some love. When we take this approach we generate more loving kindness. If we react with strong aversion we can start to resent and even become fearful of our thoughts. We’re generating more fear and resentment.
But a thought is just a thought. It’s not the object it describes. However it appears it’s not the thing itself so we don’t need to react to it as if it was. We can see and recognise it as a thought. And so whatever its nature we can be welcoming and loving towards it. When we create the space to see and to notice thoughts in this way, over time the nature of our thoughts changes. Because we’re not reinforcing them with belief and identification, negative thought patterns gradually start to change. They arise less frequently, while loving and positive thoughts increase.
We didn’t accomplish this through strong reactions or resolutions, it came about through mindful awareness, through noticing how we react and stepping back from that to see it clearly.
The four foundations of mindfulness take practice to become established. This is a practice of self-awareness and like anything, the more we do it, the more natural it becomes and easier we find it. It’s entirely practical and can be integrated into life however busy we may be. And even though the four aspects of minfulness outlined briefly above might seem very simple, this is in fact a very powerful tool and not to be underestimated.
To emphasis that point the Buddha said of it that: ‘Mindfulness is the path to the deathless.’ That’s a good one to go away and meditate on or perhaps practice until the answer becomes clear.