The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, part 1
The Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10) is a central text in early Buddhism, and one which contains a whole host of powerful insight practices that can bring us to a radical shift in the way we see the world. So over the next couple of months, interleaved with the on-going series of Zen-themed articles on the Gateless Barrier, we'll take a look at this fascinating text and see what it has to offer.
Skippable section mainly for people who are into suttas
Strictly speaking there are two Satipatthana Suttas - Middle-Length Discourse 10, mentioned above, and its slightly larger cousin the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, Long Discourse 22. The only difference between the two, however, is that DN22 contains a detailed exposition of the Four Noble Truths which is absent in MN10. Otherwise, the texts are identical.
I'll be using Bhikkhu Analayo's translation for these articles, even though I linked to Thanissaro's translation above, and I've tweaked the language for gender neutrality, because the original discourse is framed as if addressed to a group of monks, but of course there's no reason at all why these practices can't be explored by anyone at all.
What's the text all about, then? (If you skipped the previous bit, start here)
The 'sati' part of Satipatthana is the Pali language word which is most commonly translated as 'mindfulness' nowadays. The word literally means something like 'remembering', and can be interpreted in myriad ways. For our purposes, we'll take it to mean something like 'paying careful attention to an aspect of our present moment experience'.
The 'patthana' part is usually translated as 'foundations' or 'establishments'. There's a whole area of scholarly debate here, but to keep things simple, we can simply take it to mean something like 'various ways to practise mindfulness'.
The Satipatthana Sutta is an anthology of practices - and boy, there are a lot of practices in the version we're going to look at! Actually, there are many different versions of the text which can be found in the canons of different Buddhist traditions, and by comparing them we can get a sense of which might have been the 'original' practices and which might have been added later by Buddhist practitioners who'd thought up even more interesting ways to practise mindfulness and decided to wedge them into this text so they were all collected together in one place.
Honestly, though, I'd suggest not getting too hung up on which are the 'original' practices and which were 'added later'. As we'll see, there are multiple ways to interpret the instructions for each of the practices, and for my money a better question than 'Yes, but which is the right one?' is 'OK, which of these possible interpretations leads to useful insight practices?' Unless you're determined to be precious about only practising the earliest of early Buddhism (and good luck with that - I look forward to seeing your PhD thesis), it's much more effective just to jump in and start trying things out to see what happens.
So what we're going to find is a whole range of practices, arranged into four categories (you'll sometimes hear this text called 'the four foundations of mindfulness' even though the word 'four' doesn't appear in the title). There are enough practices that we'll need several articles to get through them all - so enough preamble, let's get started!
The opening of the discourse
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Kuru country at a town of the Kurus named Kammāsadhamma.
Early Buddhism was an oral tradition, and so discourses begin 'Thus have I heard' - because the monk or nun reciting the discourse had literally learnt it by hearing it from someone else.
Often, the discourse will then say where and when the talk was given. Sometimes this is useful information. The Buddha would typically give deeper teachings to a monastic audience than to a group of householders, for example. In this case, the audience is monastic, so we can infer that we're getting the good stuff.
There he addressed the monks thus: 'Monks.' 'Venerable sir,' they replied. The Blessed One said this:
'Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of Nibbāna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhānas.'
The phrase 'this is the direct path' has been the subject of much debate. The Pali words literally mean 'one going path', and the commentaries offer no fewer than five explanations:
Personally, I'm not a really big fan of sectarianism. That attitude was easier to pull off in the days when you only had access to the spiritual teacher in your valley and only had his or her word for it, but in the age of the internet it's a bold person who can claim with a straight face that their particular style of practice is the only valid route up the mountain. Good people (and not-so-good ones!) show up in every tradition throughout history - nobody has a monopoly on wisdom.
In any case, what's being offered here is a path that will lead us to such positive outcomes as overcoming sorrow, lamentation and discontent, and achieving the inner peace of Nibbana - basically, a path to awakening. You have to walk the path yourself - nobody else can walk it for you - but if you're willing to put in the hours, you'll get the results. Can't say fairer than that.
The four satipatthanas
The discourse continues:
What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings [one] abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
So we have four ways to practise mindfulness:
So that's the table of contents, if you will - the four buckets into which all of the subsequent practices will be sorted.
For the remainder of today's article, we'll look at the first three practices in the 'body' section, and then in future articles we'll explore the rest.
Anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to the body abide contemplating the body? Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, [one] sits down; having folded [one’s] legs crosswise, set [one's] body erect, and established mindfulness in front of [oneself], mindful [one] breathes in, mindful [one] breathes out.
We start with some general instructions for how to set up a meditation practice. First, we find a suitable place for practice - somewhere that you're unlikely to be disturbed by someone wanting to talk to you. Maybe you don't live near a forest or an empty hut, but nevertheless it's extremely valuable to have some kind of space for practice, and an agreement with the beings (human and animal) who share that space with you that you'll be left alone for the duration of the practice.
Once you have your place, the Buddha recommends sitting down cross-legged and holding the body erect. What you do with your legs is actually not so important - the main thing is that the hips should be higher than the knees, to enable the core of the body to relax. Sitting in a chair is fine if you find that easier than sitting on the floor.
It is helpful to have an upright spine, however. Holding the body in an upright, aligned posture helps to keep us awake and alert during the practice, and once the postural muscles have strengthened sufficiently to allow us to sit without back support, it can actually become a comfortable and relaxed way to be. That said, if you have trouble with back pain, do what you gotta do. The key is to find a posture which balances comfort and relaxation with alertness. If you can do that, you're good to go.
Once your posture is set up, establish your mindfulness - that is, become clearly aware of what's going on right here and now. Bring your attention to your breathing, and feel what happens as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
Where should you focus on the breathing? It depends what you're trying to do, and to a certain extent personal taste comes into it as well. If you're interested in samadhi, stabilising and focusing the mind, my teacher Leigh would always recommend using a small area of focus, such as the sensations of breath at the nostrils. If you're interested in insight - and we'll talk more about this shortly - then wherever the breath sensations are clear to you will be fine as a starting point. It's worth experimenting and finding out what happens if you focus in different places - but don't jump around during a single meditation session, just pick a place and stay there, then try somewhere else next time. Jumping from place to place can be an outlet for the mind's boredom and an excuse not to settle down and focus, and thus ultimately counterproductive.
The discourse continues:
Breathing in long, [one] knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, [one] knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, [one] knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, [one] knows ‘I breathe out short.’ [One] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,’ [one] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ [One] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,’ [one] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.’
So now we get some more specific instructions for the kind of relationship we should have with the breath. Experienced readers may notice the similarity with another famous meditation discourse of the Buddha's, the Anapanasati Sutta (MN118, the discourse on mindfulness of the in-breath and out-breath). The instructions here represent the first four of sixteen steps given in that discourse.
First, it's clear that we're supposed to notice the details of the breath, not just the mere fact of 'in-breath, out-breath'. We're invited to recognise when our breath is long, when it's short. (The 'long' and 'short' here may be a reference to the way the breath tends to start out a little deeper, and then gradually become shallower as the mind becomes settled. That might be the opposite way round to what you'd expect if you have the idea that 'meditation' means 'breathing deeply', but if you meditate for a while and simply watch your breath without manipulating it in any way, you can see it for yourself.)
What about 'experiencing the whole body'? Some teachers argue that this means we should be aware of the breath throughout the whole body, while the traditional commentaries interpret it as 'the whole body of the breath', i.e. noticing every part of the breath rather than just touching in with it from time to time.
And what about 'calming the bodily formation'? My teacher Leigh takes this to mean that one simply holds the intention of allowing the body to settle while continuing to focus on the breathing, rather than breathing in a particular way in order to cause the body to become relaxed.
Finally, we have a simile, which underscores the attitude one should take toward the breath:
Just as a skilled turner or [their] apprentice, when making a long turn, knows ‘I make a long turn,’ or when making a short turn knows ‘I make a short turn’ so too, breathing in long, [one] knows ‘I breathe in long,’ … [continue as above].
When a woodworker is carving something, it's very important to pay attention to what's being done. If you carve a long turn when a short one is required, the piece is ruined! So a diligent artisan will pay close attention to the details of the work at hand, sensitive to the changes, following along carefully rather than allowing the mind to wander freely. That's how we should follow the breathing in this practice.
So those are the instructions for mindfulness of breathing as found in the Satipatthana Sutta (as I mentioned, there are more instructions in the Anapanasati Sutta). But we're not quite done yet! After every practice in the Satipatthana Sutta, there's a section known as the 'refrain', kind of like the chorus in a song. It goes as follows:
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally, or [one] abides contemplating the body externally, or [one] abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or [one] abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or [one] abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.
That is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
We have three important points here.
Opinion is divided as to what the Buddha meant by this. Fortunately, both interpretations give us interesting and helpful practices, so you can try both and see which you prefer.
One interpretation is that 'internally' means 'your breathing', and 'externally' means 'the breathing of others'. If you've ever been in a meditation hall and there's that one person with the loudest breath in the world - well, that's your chance to practise mindfulness of breathing externally. How nice!
Another interpretation is that 'internally' means 'internal to me' while 'externally' means 'external to me'. In this case, we might regard the 'internal' aspect of breathing as the physical sensations felt in the body (which are not available to other people), while the 'external' aspect is the sound of the breathing and perhaps the visible movements of the body. So you can pay attention to the physical sensations of your breath, the sound of your breath, or both.
In my recent article on insight contemplation, I mentioned the Three Characteristics, three aspects of reality which are commonly suggested as topics for insight practice. One of the three is anicca, impermanence or inconstancy. (We'll discuss the other two, dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (essencelessness) in future articles in this series,)
So here we have an explicit instruction to investigate impermanence. This is seen as a critical insight in early Buddhism - so much so that one of the standard ways in the Pali canon to describe someone attaining stream entry, the first stage of awakening, is to say that so-and-so saw for themselves that 'Whatever is subject to arising is subject to passing.'
We should check this out! Here are some ways to explore the theme of impermanence while working with the breath:
There's a balance to be struck here. If we bring too much effort to our practice, the mind will become tight and unpleasant, easily distracted and skittish. But if we don't apply enough effort, the mind will be lax, dull and lazy, not seeing what's going on with sufficient clarity to make any headway. So we need to find the sweet spot in the middle - enough focus to stay on topic, but enough relaxation to keep things light and open rather than unpleasantly contracted.
Generally speaking, you'll probably oscillate between the two extremes - and to make matters worse, it's something of a moving target, because as the mind settles it becomes capable of greater subtlety, which means you need a gentler and gentler touch over time. I go into all this in some detail in my article on the Elephant Path, so check that out if you want to know more.
The intention of samadhi vs the intention of insight
At this point it's worth taking a step back. I said at the start of the article that the practices in the Satipatthana Sutta are for insight, but you may well have encountered meditations on the breath being used for concentration/samadhi. What's going on?
Simply put, the breath is just an object. We can use pretty much any object for meditation - the breath, the body, a candle flame, a mantra, a visualisation, you name it. What makes the difference is how we work with that object.
For samadhi, we're interested in settling and stabilising the mind. As we work with the breath, we thus focus on the continuity of the breathing. The breath is like a wave, coming and going, but we have a sense that the breathing process continues from moment to moment, whether we're breathing in or out, or whether we're in a gap between breaths. That sense of continuity gives us a kind of stability on which the mind can rest, allowing it to settle and become stable. If we take an interest in the sensations that make up the breathing, it's as a kind of 'texture' that makes the breathing a more interesting subject for the mind to rest on, rather than because we're particularly interested in dismantling the breath into its component parts.
By comparison, for insight into impermanence, we're actually going in the opposite direction. We're concerned with the coming-and-going nature of the breath sensations, not the continuity of breathing. Our practice is likely to deconstruct rather than stabilise the sensations, ultimately disintegrating subjective experience rather than unifying it. We focus on the parts rather than the whole, and the parts of the parts, and so on, all the way down to whatever we find at the deepest level of experience.
It can be interesting to try both approaches in a single meditation period. For the first half of the time, focus on samadhi - settling the mind, stabilising and calming, emphasising continuity. Then for the second half, focus on insight - exploring arising and passing, deconstructing the breath. Notice the effects that both modes of practice have, and what you notice in each case.
Finally, it's worth saying that the division between samadhi and insight isn't absolute by any means - insights may arise during 'samadhi' practice and the mind may become stable and focused during 'insight' practice. Generally speaking, though, you tend to get what you aim for in this practice, so it's helpful to be clear about what you're trying to do.
Two more practices
To close out this article, we'll also look at the next two practices in the 'body' section. Both of these are 'off-cushion' practices, i.e. something to be explored when you're not in formal meditation.
Here's the first, mindfulness of postures:
Again, monks, when walking, [one] knows ‘I am walking’; when standing, [one] knows ‘I am standing’; when sitting, [one] knows ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, [one] knows ‘I am lying down’; or [one] knows accordingly however [one’s] body is disposed.
This is a (seemingly!) simple mindfulness practice. Basically, notice when your posture changes - when you go from sitting to standing, from standing to walking, from walking to standing, and so on.
Mindfulness off the cushion is hugely important, and can be under-emphasised in systems where meditation is highly valued. If we're mindful on the cushion but mindless off the cushion, all the concentration, calmness and stability we build up in our meditation will dissipate rapidly, and we will tend to lose our presence of mind. If you find yourself wondering why the benefits of your meditation practice don't seem to be translating to your daily life, this is the number one place to look.
An exercise like mindfulness of postures can be a great one to keep the continuity of practice going on retreat. It's a bit more difficult in daily life, however, where we often have a lot of different things to do. Which brings us to the third (and, for today, final) practice in the 'body' section, mindfulness of activities:
Again, monks, when going forward and returning [one] acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking away [one] acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending [one’s] limbs [one] acts clearly knowing; when wearing [one’s] robes and carrying [one’s] outer robe and bowl [one] acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting [one] acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating [one] acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent [one] acts clearly knowing.
Taken literally, this is epic-level daily-life mindfulness - it's an invitation to maintain continuous awareness throughout all of your activities, from dawn 'til dusk.
This is perhaps best seen as an aspiration. Of course, if you can be mindful of everything all day long, don't let me stop you. But particularly when you're new to the practice, it's an unachievably high bar.
It's best to start out small - perhaps commit to being mindful when you brush your teeth, bringing your full attention to the present moment, feeling the sensations of the toothbrush in your hand, tasting the toothpaste, hearing the running water and so on. Focus initially on establishing the habit of bringing mindfulness to teeth-brushing, and let yourself off the hook the rest of the time. Then, once you have a foot in the door, start building on it. Perhaps you could add being mindful as you get dressed, or as you wash the dishes (or load the dishwasher), or as you walk down the road. Little by little, increase the duration and number of moments of mindfulness throughout the day, until over time they begin to string together, and mindfulness becomes more and more your natural state of being.
And in the meantime, keep your formal meditation practice going as well! It isn't one or the other - both support each other. So why not give mindfulness of breathing a try right now, and then once you're done, go and make a cup of tea or coffee as mindfully as you can. Good luck!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.