Lesson 3

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

During sitting and walking concentration does not come by itself, nor can it be enforced. But it can be developed. By either energetically deciding to stay on the principal topic of meditation, or by using less effort but more patience, every time gently returning to the basis topic. To make this task easier we have learnt to switch: paying attention to the most prominent ‘visitor’ that disturbs the meditation.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness form a ‘model’ to streamline this switching in our meditation. 1. Sensory input, also called ‘body‘. This is input from the five physical sense: body, eye, ear, nose and tongue. The basis exercises belong to this foundation. If there is a loud sound we can call this as ‘hearing’. A distracting odour as ‘smelling’. Etcetera. 2. Feelings. This denotes the appreciation that arises immediately after receiving input; it can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. 3. Mind: 3a Thinking, conceptualizing. It consists of the stream of ideas that one has as effect of the input. Some people call it ‘rational thinking’; but it is more an automatized non-stop train of thoughts, sometimes adequate for daily life sometimes not. 3b. Mind-states.  These are related to emotions, but there are differences. First of all, emotions are better described as coalitions between mind-states and reactions. Secondly, there are mind-states that are not usually classified as being related to an emotion, like being concentrated or restless, like being alert, or sleepy. Mind-states act like ‘mental sunglasses’ colouring the consciousness in a particular way. The mind-state of happiness colours everything that comes to us in a positive way; that of aversion in a negative way. 4. Conditionings, also called ‘mind-objects‘. Depending on the input, feeling, thinking, and mind-state one reacts in a certain way. Among other things, these reactions may range over unwholesome, childish, creative, compassionate, and wholesome actions. The five hindrances, when they disturb us, are called this way, because they influence meditation, by breaking down our discipline. The five hindrances also are related to five mind-states with the same name. When for example aversion is seen mindfully as aversion, without reacting to it in the usual way, then it is aversion as mind-state and one meditates well by observing it. But if it is aversion with impatience wishing it to be over, then it is a mind-object/conditioning.

There is an increasing level of being involved with the phenomenal input. It starts with contact with our senses in the form of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching; thinking is seen also as such sensory input (but this time not from the physical senses, but from the mind-sense). If possible we remain with it mindfully. If this is not possible, then feeling may become prominent and one names or notes it mindfully, that is with equanimity, applying it both to unpleasant and pleasant feelings. If one is able to remain mindfully with the feeling one does so for a few moments, and then one goes back to the basis exercise. If one cannot become or remain mindful at the feeling, it gets transformed to a mind-state. Again we have a chance to mindful, before it gets worse. If one succeeds in doing this, one remains a few moments with the mind-state, and then one returns to the basis exercise. It may be necessary, from time to time to go back with mindful attention to the mind-state. If one cannot observe mindfully the mind-state, and from time to time that may and will happen, then it is transformed into a conditioning. These tend to last for a longer time. But one should not remain in them. One goes back to naming and one says, for example, ‘aversion, aversion’, or just simply ‘knowing, knowing’ (that the aversion is there). This already softens the aversion, as now the focus is on knowing aversion, not being aversion. And then after a while, even if the conditioning is not yet over, one purposefully goes back to the basis exercise, e.g. raising-falling, using powerful naming in order to stay away from the aversive conditioning. One may have to alternate: ‘raising-falling’, ‘knowing’, ‘raising-falling’, ‘knowing’, etcetera. After some time the aversion will fade away and one remains with the basis exercise, possibly now using naming, in more pleasant circumstances. This now creates a sense of urgency, to remain carefully with the mindful breathing, as it is definitely more peaceful than the work needed to domesticate a negative conditioning.

If the conditioning comes with positive feeling, also then one is advised to do the same, for example naming or noting ‘desire, desire’, and then ‘knowing, knowing’,  returning to a forceful ‘raising-falling’, and finally softening it. The reason is that an unacknowledged pleasurable conditioning, may turn to its opposite, in case the situation changes. And our goal is to become ‘unconditioned’.

It is important to understand the difference between input-feeling-state-conditioning. Let us start with a pleasant or beautiful object. As soon as we have observed it, pleasant feeling arises. There is a difference in the seeing of beauty and the resulting pleasant feeling. Mindfulness has to be fast to see this. Then there is a difference between the pleasant feeling and the possible desire to continue this experience. In the latter case we want to ‘have’ the pleasant feeling, and usually also the object causing it. Finally, there may be impulses and actions in us to actually obtain the object. For example, we may see a beautiful object in a shop window, we may get pleasant feeling, we may get a desire to have it, and finally we may walk in the shop to buy it. At each point in the chain it is possible that strong concentrated mindfulness prevents one to go to the next level of involvement.  The same applies to unpleasant things, like pain in our body when we sit. First it is just a physical awareness; then this may turn into an uncomfortable feeling; then we may get aversion, wanting it to be absent; finally we may move our body to escape the pain.

In our meditation we may try to prolong the time we are with pain in an equanimous way. But only if we don’t do harm to our body. Before starting to meditate, one may make the wish, it can actually help, to be for some longer time in the peaceful mind-state of the right mindfulness.