Four Foundations Of Mindfulness
Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Thailand
Both the Digha and the Majjhima Nikayas give the
Buddha’s detailed account of a unique method of meditation, known as “Satipatthana”
or “the foundations of mindfulness” This discourse is the most important text on both Samadhi (concentration
meditation) and Vipassana (insight meditation) and is highly praised by the
Buddha. He said “This is the
only path (ekayanomaggo), O Bhikkhus, for the sake of the purity of sentient
beings, the deliverance from sorrow and lamentation, the extinction of pain
and grief, the attainment of the Noble Path, the realization of Nirvana, the
cessation of suffering-this is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness” (1)
The method embraces four subjects of mindfulness as follows:
of the body
of the feelings
of the mind
of the mental objects or thoughts.
To be fully conscious in all situations and conditions
of life is what the Buddha meant when he said that we should be mindful while
standing, walking, sitting or lying down and so on. But “fully conscious” does not mean to be conscious of only
one aspect or function of our body or our mind, but to be conscious with and
of our whole being, which includes body and mind and something that goes beyound
body and mind, namely that deeper reality at which the Buddha hinted in the
term “Dhamma” and which he realized in the state of Enlightenment.
The purpose of this contemplation
is to consider the body as being merely a body. It is not a person, not a
man or a woman, not anybody’s self. It is the result of a combination of various causes. Whenever its causes fall away it is bound
to dissolve. It belongs to nobody,
being under nobody’s wish or control.
There are six methods of contemplating on of the body
1. Breathing : According to the Mahasatipatthanasutta,
in the Mahavagga of the Dighanikaya, the following instructions were given
by the Buddha; “A Bhikkhu in this doctrine, staying in a forest, under the
shade of a tree and in a deserted dwelling, sits in a cross-legged posture
with his right hand over the left and right leg over the left, keeping his
body erect and establishing a state of mindfulness in front (at the tip of
(1) Breathing in and out long, he knows that
the breathing is long.
(2) Breathing in and out short, he knows that the breathing
himself, I shall be mindful of breathing, he breathes in and out.
himself, I shall calm down the breathing, which keeps the body alive, he breathes
in and out.
The above four are aspects of mindfulness
of the body.
himself, “I shall be mindful of joy,’ he breathes in and out.
himself, “I shall be mindful of happiness,’ he breathes in and out.
himself, “I shall be mindful of the thought-elements, which sustains the condition
of the mind,’ he breathes in and out.
himself, “I shall calm down the thought-elements, which sustains the conditions
of the mind,’ he breathes in and out.
The above four are aspects of mindfulness of the feelings
In the same manner, he reminds himself, while breathing
in and out, that
shall be mindful of the condition of the mind
shall delight the mind
shall concentrate the mind
shall release the mind
The above four are aspects of mindfulness
of the mind.
shall contemplate impermanence.
shall contemplate the abandonment of lust.
shall contemplate the extinction of suffering.
shall contemplate the giving up of defilements.
The above four are aspects of mindfulness of the mental
: In connection with this aspect an aspirant is taught to be always mindful
in each and every moment of the four postures of the body, “I am walking,
standing up, sitting and lying down” Or he knows just how his body is disposed.
3. Full Attention: This is the extension
of the second part, dealing in details with the application of full attention
either in going forward or backward; in looking straight on or looking away;
in bending or in stretching; in eating, drinking, chewing, tasting, urination
and having motion of the bowels etc.
4. Repulsiveness : The aspirant reflects
on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity, from
the sole up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: “There are
in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh,
sinews, bones, marrow, kindeys, heart, liver, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery,
stomach, fasces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva
nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine and the others”.
5. Material Elements : The aspirant reflects
on this very body, as it is and is constituted, by way of the material elements
: “There are in this body the element of earth, the element of water, the
element of fire, the element of wind.
6. Corpes : Just as the aspirant see
a body being dead one, two, or three days, swollen, blue and festering, thrown
on to the cemetery, so he applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily,
my own body, too, is of the same nature; such it will become and will no escape
Mindfulness of the Feelings
aspirant when he feels happiness or pain or a neutral feeling is aware of
it, thinking, “I feel happiness, or pain or neutral
feeling.” In like manner he is
aware of the feelings when he feels these three forms connected with sensual
objects or free from sensual objects.
So he abides contemplating the feelings internal or external or both.
He reflects on the arising of feelings, the cessation of feeling or both arising
and cessation. “There is feeling
(no individual who feels); his mindfulness is thus present, so far as is required
for realization and self-reflection.(3)
The third contemplation is of the mind, in its sixteen states. The aspirant knows whether the mind is
in a state of lust or free from lust, a state of hatred or free from harted,
a state of ignorance or free from ignorance or whether it is in a state of
torpor or distraction, with Jhana (absorption) or without Jhana, on the Kama
(sensuality) level or above the Kama level, concentrated or not concentrated,
released or not released. Thus
he dwells contemplating the states of mind.(3)
The significance of Meditation on Breathing. The most effective way
to become conscious of our whole being and to dwell in a state of perfect
concentration, equanimity, and intuition is, as we have seen, the meditation
on breathing (anapanasatibhavana). This
is the basis of all meditation, because it is through breathing that we are
able to come in contact with and connect all our physical and psychic faculties
with our conscious mind. Through breathing we achieve the synthesis of all our functions
and realize the dynamic and universal nature of life and the impossibility
of the idea of a separate and unchangeable egohood, as expressed in the Buddha’s
Anatta doctrine. Only on this
basis can the subsequent steps of the Satipatthana meditation have any meaning
and prevent its deterioration into a mere intellectual analysis and negation
of all positive aspects of human life.(4)
Unlike other subjects of meditation, Anapanasati as shown in the above
quoted discourse comprises both the Samadhi and Vipassana methods. They have been divided in the commentaries
into four parts, each containing four exercises. Part one, which includes the preliminary
course of training, consists of four exercises pertaining to the Kammatthana
practice, which are suitable for a beginner; while the other three comprise
his further development in the mehtod of Vipassana. The main object of the scheme being the
establishment of mindfulness, the essential preliminary to the attainment
of full knowledge, the four stages of Anapanasati embrace respectively the
four Foundations of Mindfulness: body, feelings, mind and mental objects(1,5)
The method of practising this meditation is exclusively Buddhist; it
is by no means identical with the method of quiet observation of normal flow
of respiration with natural and steady mindfulness.
As has been pointed out by Nyanaponika Thera(6), it is just
a quite bare observation of its normal flow, with a firm and steady, but easy
and “buoyant” attention, i.e. without strain or rigidity. The length or shortness of breathing is noticed but not deliberately
regulated. By regular practice,
however, a calming, equalizing and deepening of the breath will result quite
naturally. The tranquilization
and deepening of the breath rhythm will eventually lead to a tranquilization
and deepening of the entire life-system.
The Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, this concentration on mindfulness of breathing,
being cultivated and practised, tends to the peaceful, the sublime, the sweet
and happy one, it cause every evil thought to disappear and tranquilizes the
“Bhikkhus, I then used to spend most of my time in this practice of
mindfulness of breathing; and as I lived practising it, neither my body nor
my eyes were fatigued; as the result of it my mind was free from mental defilements”
of the development of mindfulness
Mahasatipatthanasutta concludes with the declaration that for anyone who should
continue the practice of these four foundations of mindfulness thus for seven
years, one of results may be expected : either Arhatship in this life, or
if the possibility of rebirth remains, the state of the Non-returner (Anagami).
But this period can be shortened, according to the skill of the individual
disciple, and become six years, five years and so forth to only seven days.
This system of meditation is thus shown to be “the one way” and forms
an independent course of training, sufficient in itself for the attainment
aspects of the foundation of mindfulness
practice of concentration (samadhi) and insight meditation (vipassana) has
both some similarities with and differences from the technique of psychoanalysis
and modern psychology. Psychologically
speaking, the mental training that leads to the extinction of suffering includes:
A. De-repression. The de-repression is the process in which there is an
attempt to make the unconscious conscious or, to put it in Freud’s words,
to transform Id into Ego.
Western psychologists postulate three levels of mind : the conscious,
the subconscious and the unconscious. At the conscious level there is awareness
of what one thinks, says or does. At the deeper subsconscious level, lie concealed all the impressions
and memories of thoughts which have left the conscious mind. Many of these impressions can be recalled
at will. The deepest level is
the unconscious, where also lie concealed past impressions and memories of
thought which passed through the conscious mind but they can never be recalled
at will. On their own they may sometimes reappear in the conscious mind.
They can, however, be drawn out by special methods such as free association,
There is abundant evidence that unconscious drives exercise a fundamental
influence upon behavior, feelings, decisions and interpersonal relationships. In pychopathological states, it is particularly
apparent that unconscious psychic forces are powerfully active in influencing
personality. Emotional forces of which the individual is unaware may be in
conflict and act in such a way as to determine his behavior, even thought
he knows nothing about them consciously.(7)
In Buddhist psychology these three levels of mind are considered under
two heads : Vithi vinnana and Bhavanga vinnana.
The conscious levels are recognized and referred to as Vithi vinnana.
The deepest levels is recognized and referred to as Bhavanga vinnana. They are not considered as two distinct and separate compartments.(8)
Even Western psychology admits that there are no well-defined boundaries
between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, since each merges into
the other. Bhavanga vinnana (citta) is the hidden
repository of all impressions and memories of thoughts that pass through the
Vithivinnana or conscious mind. All
experiences tendencies, the results of Karma are stored up there but from
there they sometimes can exert an influence over the conscious mind without
being aware of its source.
In fact, the Buddhist Bhavanaga vinnana is not identical with the unconscious
of Western psychology, although in very many respects they are similar. The former is wider in scope than the
latter. In Freud’s view, the unconscious is essentially the seat
of basic instinctual drives and irrationality.(9) In Jung’s thinking, the meaning seems to be almost reversed;
the unconscious is essentially the seat of the deepest sources of wisdom,
while the conscious is the intellectual part of the personality. (10)
In Freud’s concept, making the unconscious conscious had a limited
function, first of all because the unconscious was supposed to consist mainly
of the repressed, instinctual desires, as far as they are incompatible with
civilized life. He dealt with single instinctual desires
such as incestuous impulses, castration fear, penis envy, etc.; the awareness
of which was assumed to have been repressed in the history of a particular
we free ourselves from the limited concept of Freud’s unconscious and follow
the concept of the Buddhist unconscious, the de-repression or the transformation
of the unconscious into the conscious gains a wider and more profound meaning.
Making the unconscious conscious transforms the mere idea of the universality
of man into the living experience of this universality; it is the experiential
To become conscious of what is unconscious and thus to enlarge one’s
consciousness means to get in touch with realities, and in this sense with
truth intellectually and effectively.
To enlarge consciousness means to wake up, to lift a veil, to leave
the cave, to bring light into the darkness.
This process can finally lead to wisdom (panna), which is the “intuitive
knowledge” to penetrate into the true nature of things. This kind of wisdom has the function to
dispel the darkness of ignorance (avijja)
Through the practice of the foundation of mindfulness, the process
of depression will develop gradually.
The mind can penetrate each matrix of causal conditioning flowing together
into body, feeling, perception, disposition, and consciousness and can win
a clarification that frees one from clinging, craving, and unconscious control
systems, because there remains nothing to cling to Purification of mind, release
from bondage to unconscious motivations, from purely driven behavior is also
brought about by the process of de-repression and also intuitive perception
that results when the individual is freed from the fetters that hinder him
from encountering the truth.
B. De-conditioning. This process, closely related to the above
one, involves the knowledge and understanding that all things whatsoever do
no have the characteristics of beauty, permanence, happiness and persistent
ego. Because of ignorance (avijja) most people cannot see things as they really
are. They are immersed in the
flood of spasmodic joy and sorrow. They
do not as yet realize that life, that all the things that they become infatuated with, are ugly,
impermanent, unsatisfactory and not selves.
C. Re-learning. In fact, this process is inseparable from
the second; it consists of the knowledge and understanding that all things
whatsoever are endowed with the characteristics of ugliness (ausbha), impermanence
(anicca) suffering (dukkha) and non-ego (anatta)and one fully understands
the true nature of existence. Life
is in reality a disease as it is always accompanied by these four universal
The practice of meditation embraces the process of de-repression, de-conditioning
and re-learning. It is generally accepted that equanimity and one-pointedness
of mind, the necessary factors in integral process, are the essenceof concentration
(samadhi). Concentration only
temporarily eliminates the passions. Both morality (sila) and concentration
(samadhi) are the prerequisites for insight meditation (vipassana) which enables
one to see things as they really are. The four foundation of mindfulness are
a methodical exercise of insight meditation. It advocates the regular observation of physical body (kaya),
feelings (vedanas), mind (citta) and mental objects (dhammas), and the systematic
control of the mind and its concomitants, together with the gradual growth
of insight. Such practice is
indispensable and preliminary to the perfect spiritual development of wisdom
(panna). In other words, one
gradually learns to see the truth that every thing, including one’s body,
is subject to ugliness, impermanence, suffering and egolessness.
Some misunderstanding about meditation
Most psychoanalysts, including Freud, maintained
that the practice of meditation (both samadhi and vipassana) was a state of
regression to intrauterine experience; that is, a psychological return to
one’s prenatal life, when the fetus floated effortlessly in the timeless,
block silence of the amniotic fluid; a time free of frustration, through,
anxiety, sensory impressions or awareness of time-space relationship. Even
Nirvana was also considered as a severe form of such regression. Freud in
his “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (12) calls the death instinct the “nirvana
principle”, and associates this with the teaching of Buddha. Buddhistically speaking, Nirvana is not
annihilation. The Buddha made
a specific attempt to reject the charge that he preached a doctrine of annihilationism.
In fact, it is the desire for non-existence (vibhava tanha) rather
than the desire for nirvana that can be
compared with the death instinct.
Freud also considers the nirvana principle as a homeostasis principle,
maintaining that the ultimate idea is to maintain an equilibrium. There he brings the death instinct and the pleasure princeple
together, maintaining that the ultimate ideal of life is rest. But Nirvana is a positive ideal of emancipation
and does not fit in with a biological hypothersis of the order of the death
instinct. Nirvana is not an inorganic
state of rest, or of pure quiescence. Nirvana has been discribed in terms of perfect knowledge, intuition
and perfect health. It is the
culmination of one’s spiritual growth and development, and not merely the
annihilation of instincts.(13)
Another major proponent of this hypothesis was the well-known psychoanalyst,
Franz Alexander. He said, From
this our present psychoanalytical knowledge it is clear that Buddhist self-absorption
is a libidinal, narcissistic turning of the urge of knowing inward, a sort
of artificial schizophrenia with complete withdrawal of libidinal interest
from the outside worlds”(14)
Although this viewpoint is absolutely wrong, there is something noteworthy
of further consideration and clarification.
During meditation, the mind tends to drop into the unconscious (Bhavanga)
on and off and is able to maintain itself for a period of time. There may occur various mental images and perceptions.(15) This process is considered as a form of
psychological regression. In fact regression may occur in the nature of the
ego processes with the use of less mature defense mechanisms and the return
towards primary process of thinking.
The most common example would be the ego processes involved in normal
sleep. Here the usual waking cathexis of reality
must be given up, permitting the individual to return to a mere narcissistic
ego state with increasing withdrawal so that sleep may occur, and there is
a return toward primary process of thought as illustrated by the ego activity
in dreaming. Similar ego regression
occurs during day dreaming and fantasy, where cathexes of reality are loosened
in favor of more intrapsychic, and wish-fulfilling mental activity.(16)
However, the meditator who is endowed with sufficient degree of awareness
and mindfulness will be able to get rid of the mental images that may arise
though the process of ego regression.
His meditation practice will become stagnant unless he can overcome
these obstacles. A characteristic
of such types of ego regression is that they are generally temporary, and
are reversible when the total situation or circumstances demand it. On the contrary, the meditator who develops id regression during
his meditation practice, when faced with conflicts, frustrations or various forms of mental images,
may develop an acute and overt psychotic episode. With this there is a greater return to
primary process of thinking, with partial giving up to the secondary process
and increasing distrubances in reality testing, with subsequent disruption
in the adaptation to reality. The
reversibility and oscillation between regression and progression is not seen
as in normal and mature person with awareness and mindfulness ; thus some
meditators may develop psychotic or schizophrenia-like symptoms.
The practice of meditation sometimes can be considered as as form of
sensory deprivation since it involves a temporary withdrawal from external
stimuli without loss of conscioussness.
In fact, the basic form of insight meditation (vipassana), based on
the four foundations of mindfulness is concerned with the attempt to see what
really is. It is rather what
one might call “working meditation” or “extrovert meditation” where skilful means and wisdom must be combined like the two
wings of a bird. This is not
a question of trying to retreat from the world and society. Strictly speaking, without the external
world, the world of apparent phenomenon, meditation would be almost impossible
to practice, for the individual and the external world are not separate, but
merely coexist together.
this kind of meditaiton practice, the concept of “nowness’ play a very significant
role. One has to become aware
of the present moment through such means as mindfulness of the breathing.
No other practice is as well suited for application in everyday life
as the practice of mindfulness. It
is a practice than can promote mental health, and should be practised at all
times and in all the varied circumstances.
It is said that just as salt suits all kinds of food, so mindfulness
is fitting in all events. It
teaches us how “to be in the world and not yet of it”.
It is this self-training and the results thereof that will reduce,
if not yet remove, the impact on our mind of the polluting atmosphere of modern
society. Greater mindfulness
brings happiness. The extinction
of suffering can be attained only through this kind of practice of mindfulness
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