The Four Foundations Of Mindfulness

Dr. Chamlong Disayavanish
Department of 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:

1. Mindfulness of the body
2. Mindfulness of the feelings
3. Mindfulness of the mind
4. Mindfulness 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.

Mindfulness of the body
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 (2,3):

  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 the nose)”
    (1)  Breathing in and out long, he knows that the breathing is long.
    (2) Breathing in and out short, he knows that the breathing is short.
    (3) Reminding himself, I shall be mindful of breathing, he breathes in and out.
    (4) Reminding 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.
    (5) Reminding himself, “I shall be mindful of joy”, he breathes in and out.
    (6) Reminding himself, “I shall be mindful of happiness”, he breathes in and out.
    (7) Reminding himself, “I shall be mindful of the thought-elements, which sustains the condition of the mind”, he breathes in and out.
    (8) Reminding 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
    (9) I shall be mindful of the condition of the mind
    (10) I shall delight the mind
    (11) I shall concentrate the mind
    (12) I shall release the mind
    The above four are aspects of mindfulness  of the mind.
    (13) I shall contemplate impermanence.
    (14) I shall contemplate the abandonment of lust.
    (15) I shall contemplate the extinction of suffering.
    (16) I shall contemplate the giving up of defilements.
    The above four are aspects of mindfulness of the mental objects
  1. Posture: 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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 it.”

Mindfulness of the feelings
The 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)

Mindfulness of the mind
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 mind”

“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”


Benefits of the development of mindfulness

The 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 of enlightenment.(3)

Psychological aspects of the foundation of mindfulness

The 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, of hypnosis.

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 individual.(7)  When 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 realization humanism.(11)

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 characteristics.

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.


In 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


May all being be happy.


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  3. Walpola Rahula, “What The Buddha Taught” Second and Enlarged Edition, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1974.
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  13. Padmasiri De Silva, “Buddhist and Freudian Psychology”, Second Edition, Lake House Printers & Publishers Ltd., Colombo, 1978.
  14. Alexander, F.: “The Scope of Psychoanalysis : Buddhistic Training as an Artificial Catatonia”, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1961.
  15. Phra Acharn Thate Desaransi : “Meditation in Words,” Bangkok Printing Press, Bangkok, 1978.
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