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June 3, 2023

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

The heart of Buddhist meditation is a quality of directed attention and investigation called sati, generally translated as “mindfulness.” The seventh limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right (or Wise) Mindfulness is a series of meditations exploring our experience of our bodies, feelings, and mental and emotional states. Though some aspects of mindfulness have become popular, with applications from therapeutic to educational settings, the Buddha’s original instructions reveal a depth and subtlety that have the power to truly transform our lives. The aim of mindfulness, like the path as a whole, is the complete ending of suffering, called nibbāna, and the attainment of liberation.

The source text for mindfulness is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, “The Foundations/Establishment of Mindfulness” (MN 10 and closely duplicated at DN 22). Perhaps the most important sutta in our lineage, the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness contains the core meditation sequence we follow on retreat and many of the major lists we reference in our practice. 

The discourse presents four areas of experience to be investigated in meditation and throughout daily life. Beginning with the claim that these four foundations of mindfulness are “the direct path” to liberation, the instructions begin with settling the body in meditation and invoking the qualities of ardency (or wholehearted energy), mindfulness, and full awareness/clear comprehension. Together, these three qualities provide the conditions for the development of concentration and the arising of insight.

The Pāli word we translate as “mindfulness” (sati) literally refers to memory. Mindfulness enables one to “remember and recall what was said and done long ago” (AN 10.17), which underlies the insight into impermanence. In practice it has aspects of recognition, with which we know what’s happening as it’s happening; recollection, when we bring something to mind; and discernment, which helps us identify experiences as wholesome or unwholesome. 

The Four Foundations

The word satipaṭṭhāna can be translated as “foundations” or “the establishment” of mindfulness. The four foundations are:

  1. Mindfulness of body (kāyā)
  2. Mindfulness of feelings (vedanā)
  3. Mindfulness of mind/heart (citta)
  4. Mindfulness of qualities (dhamma)

Within each of these foundations is a set of instructions for investigating particular aspects of experience. After each instruction, the sutta includes a “refrain,” instructing the practitioner to observe this aspect of experience “internally, externally, and both,” to see the experience as impermanent, or to simply be aware of it “to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness.” The refrain ends with the injunction to “meditate independent, not grasping at anything in the world.”

(All quotes in this section are from MN 10 unless otherwise indicated.)

Mindfulness of body (kāyā)

Mindfulness of the body includes six aspects:

  1. In and out breathing
  2. Postures: sitting, standing, walking, lying down
  3. Common daily actions
  4. The body as anatomical parts
  5. The body as the four elements: earth, water, fire, wind
  6. The body as a corpse in decay

The section on mindfulness of body begins with a set of basic instructions on breath meditation, postures, and maintaining mindfulness throughout one’s daily activities. The breath instructions include the first four steps of the full 16-step meditation on mindfulness of breathing, or ānāpāṇasati (presented in full at MN 118): knowing long and short breaths, experiencing the breath in the whole body, and calming the body and breath. 

Following the breath instructions, practitioners are instructed to be mindful of the body in four postures (sitting, standing, walking, and lying down), and throughout daily activities such as moving around, carrying things, eating, using the toilet, speaking, and keeping silent. 

The subsequent meditations—on anatomy, the elements, and a corpse in decay—expand the sense of mindfulness from awareness of present moment experience into intentional reflections on the nature of the body: from the unattractiveness of the body when thought of as separate parts, to the selflessness of the body when understood as being composed of the same elements as everything else, to the inevitable mortality and decay of the body. These reflections bring an aspect of insight and wisdom into our practice, deconstructing the habitual ways we view and identify with our bodies. 

Mindfulness of feelings (vedanā)

The second foundation of mindfulness brings our attention to feelings or “feeling tone” (vedanā), the root of our more complex emotions. Vedanā points to our instinctive judgment of every experience as either:

  1. Pleasant (sukha)
  2. Unpleasant (dukkha)
  3. Neutral, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant (adukkham-asukhaṁ)

Bringing mindfulness to feeling tone includes becoming aware of the initial reactions we have to our experiences, as well as to the habits and patterns that have formed over time into preferences, judgments, and aspects of personality. Mindfulness of vedanā reveals where we are holding on, resisting, fearing, or craving some experiences over others. Through seeing vedanā we cultivate letting go and equanimity.

Mindfulness of mind (citta)

The Pāli word citta refers to both heart and mind, the inner space of experiences we call emotions, cognition, and thought. The third foundation brings our attention to states of mind/heart that are important in our development of clarity and concentration. Being mindful of these states, as well as the energetic and emotional qualities in the fourth foundation, develops the fluency with energy and emotional charge begun with mindfulness of vedanā.

In this foundation, we note the presence or absence of the three poisons (greed, hate, and delusion), and a series of mind states that indicate where we are in our meditation or on the path, including whether the mind is concentrated or distracted, and free or not yet free. In practice, the third foundation can encompass mindfulness of emotions broadly, including complex states like desire, joy, grief, anger, and fear. Becoming aware of these strong energies in the body and heart can allow us to see the stories that fuel them, and in doing so support us to be free from them. 

Mindfulness of qualities (dhamma)

The fourth foundation directs attention to five lists of qualities (dhamma) that we work with in meditation and throughout the process of inner cultivation. The lists that comprise the fourth foundation are: 

  1. The five hindrances (nīvaraṇa)
    1. Sensual desire (kāmacchanda)
    2. Ill-will (byāpāda)
    3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
    4. Restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)
    5. Skeptical doubt (vicikicchā)
  2. The five aggregates (khandha)
    1. Form (rūpa)
    2. Feeling (vedanā)
    3. Perceptions (saññā)
    4. Formations (saṅkhārā)
    5. Consciousness (viññāna)
  3. The six sense-bases (āyatana)
    1. Eye (cakkhu)
    2. Ear (sota)
    3. Nose (ghāna)
    4. Tongue (jivha)
    5. Body (kāya)
    6. Mind (mana)
  4. The seven awakening factors (bojjhaṅga)
    1. Mindfulness (sati)
    2. Investigation (dhamma-vicaya)
    3. Energy (vīriya)
    4. Rapture (pīti)
    5. Tranquility (passaddhi)
    6. Concentration (samādhi)
    7. Equanimity (upekkhā)
  5. The Four Noble Truths (ariya-saccesu)
    1. Suffering (dukkha)
    2. The cause (samudaya) of suffering
    3. The cessation (nirodha) of suffering
    4. The path (paṭipadā or magga) to the end of suffering

The first and fourth lists are opposites: the hindrances are qualities that inhibit concentration and insight, while the awakening factors support concentration and insight. Practicing with these lists is part of “right effort”: bringing our attention to qualities to avoid and qualities to embrace. 

The second and third lists in the fourth foundation offer frameworks for cultivating insight. Both the aggregates (khandha) and sense-bases (āyatana) are frameworks for understanding experience as fluctuating phenomena arising and passing in impersonal, conditioned ways. We see how we cling to the aspects of experience laid out in the aggregates, or how sensory phenomena come and go independent of our desires or intentions. 

The final list in this foundation is the Four Noble Truths itself—the summary of the entire model of suffering, its cause, its end, and the path to the end of suffering. It is a fitting end to this overarching practice model that it closes with the signature teaching of the Buddha, with its promise of full release from suffering.

Mindfulness is the heart of our practice because without clearly knowing and understanding our experience in the body, along with the states of feeling and energy that drive our choices, freedom and peace of mind are impossible. Bringing mindfulness to our experience in the detailed way taught by the Buddha develops both concentration and insight, revealing the conditioned, impermanent, and selfless nature of ongoing experience. This, the sutta tells us, is the direct path for “the purification of beings, the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, the disappearance of pain and grief, the attainment of the true way, the realization of Nibbāna.” 

Talks & Meditations on the Four Foundations

Our talk selections this month explore the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

Sally Armstrong
Feb 5, 2023
The First Foundation of Mindfulness
Leslie Booker
Aug 27, 2022
Experiencing the Body as Elements
JD Doyle
Mar 6, 2023
Guided Instructions on the First Three Foundations
Oren Jay Sofer
Mar 6, 2015
Meeting the Heart and Mind
Tempel Smith
February 20, 2022
The 3rd and 4th Foundations of Mindfulness
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