What are the Four Foundations of Mindfulness? And what is mindfulness? It never harms to go back to basics from time to time. Mindfulness, in my opinion, is the attempt to bring a fully inclusive awareness to what we are doing right now. From a certain point of view we are awareness. But, as Byron Katie says, ‘We can forget this occasionally: that is 99.99% of the time!’ And it’s true. It’s very easy for us humans, as Joyce puts it in The Dubliners to ‘live a short distance away from [our] bodies’. We are also apt to get lost in our feelings and emotions, and walk around identifying with a negative mental state for hours: ‘I am angry’ etc., instead of holding that state in our awareness and trying not to act from it. We also tend to get lost in our thoughts, some of us to the extent that we live in a sort of virtual disassociated world in our heads and walk through life on just enough auto-pilot to avoid traffic accidents!
This is where the Four Foundations come in. Through consistently bringing our awareness from the thought-world back into the body, we become ‘embodied’. There is actually much satisfaction and even pleasure to be gained from practicing the First Foundation. Sweeping a floor mindfully, for instance, can be a very pleasurable and sensuous experience: feeling the wood in your hands; the friction and release of the bristles on the floor as they make their sweeping motion; noticing the air on your skin; and the pressure and release on the soles of your feet as you walk along: all of this can be very pleasant by itself and will tend to bring the mind into the present moment, which normally means a reduction of agitated thoughts.
The Second Foundation is built on the first, and involves feelings and emotions. If we are not aware of our bodies, we are unlikely to really notice these. Emotions we probably know, but in a Buddhist sense ‘feelings’ refer to the hedonic tone of the moment: whether something is pleasant, painful or neutral. It is important to note this because generally, if something is pleasant we unconsciously crave more of it, and if something is unpleasant, we feel aversion to it. This is what sets off the emotional roller coaster of our responses to life and can actually limit us tremendously. For instance, if I had a bad experience of public speaking at school, when the next opportunity arises ten years later, the bad feelings that may co-arise will probably put me off trying again. To return to our discussion of setting up the tea space, if I have never enjoyed cleaning, the idea of sweeping the floor before I sit and sup will probably evoke a negative feeling. If I am unaware of this, then I won’t want to sweep or set out a beautiful Chaxi or take the trouble to pick a beautiful flower.
Conversely, if I am aware of this, I have a choice: I can stay within the narrow confines of my pain/pleasure limitations or become curious and… have a try! As I sweep, I may notice these unpleasant feelings strongly but now they do not take me over completely. So it is much less likely that I will fall into an unpleasant emotion, such as irritation, and become identified with it. Even more, as I bring awareness to bodily sensations, my experience might actually become pleasant. Either way, I am learning an important lesson in life: that I don’t have to be limited by whether something is pleasant or unpleasant. I am learning to do the thing anyway with curiosity. This is the cornerstone of any path of transformation.
The Third Foundation involves bringing awareness to our thoughts and our mental states, such as restlessness, calmness, sleepiness or alertness, focus and distraction, and so on. Just like the emotions of the Second Foundation, if we are unaware, we can get lost in each mental state that arises and become that energy. This leads to an exhausting life as we are tossed around like driftwood on the stormy sea of the latest prevailing reaction. So, if we are tired while we are sweeping or our mind is full of resistant thoughts, we notice and surrender to these as we sweep. It’s no reason to put the broom down. Besides, as the Fourth Foundation points out, everything is impermanent anyway. The chances are that the sleepiness and negativity will diminish perhaps as soon as the first bowl is
imbibed after the preparation is done.
In the Fourth Foundation, we are noticing and reflecting upon the Buddha’s teachings as we come into contact with the myriad experiences that the world offers us through our senses. We might notice for instance how we open ourselves up to suffering when we try to chase after pleasant experiences. It’s also normally obvious that we suffer when we resist what is. As Byron Katie says, ‘When I argue with Reality, I only lose 100% of the time!’ There’s lots more that could be said about this but that will suffice for now.
Article by Nick Dilks for Global Tea Hut. “Medi-TEA-tion” will continue next week.
Image courtesy of Global Tea Hut.