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The four foundations of mindfulness

It's always nice to attempt to explain something, or kind of reimagine it so we think we understand it, so I'm going to take a sideways leap away from body mindfulness to look at the four foundations of mindfulness in brief - we're not going to address nitty gritty, just the broad details. This will help inform us (mainly me) on my journey through various stages of ectasy and despair on to somewhere a bit more satisying. The satipatthana suti is like the source code of meditation. It is a remarkable framework to refer back to and an astonishing achievement.

(Maps and guides are useful things and the satipatthana sutta is an amazingly compact guide to mindfulness practice. It's also fairly impenetrable to the uninitiated which is a good thing because it takes effort and patience to understand what is going on - it took me years.)

Enough preamble, on with the post.

There are four foundations of mindfulness: the body, vedana (the feeling of pleasant/unpleasant), the state of mind, and mind objects. They kind of lead from one to the next in increasing levels of complexity while constantly informing wisdom into the meditator.

It begins with the body:
 - the physicality of breathing.
 - establish bare attention and clear comprehension
 - awareness of its true nature (its functions).
 - the cultivation of dispassion towards it.
 - how the body is known in the mind.

This leads on to vedana:
 - pleasant / unpleasant sensations arising from the body .
 - pleasant / unpleasant sensations arising from the practice (other worldly).

[Pause. At this point, we know the body and feelings of pleasantness. These are fairly straightforward to understand. We might like to notice reactiivty in relation to these things and how we are led into the mind.]


This leads us into the third foundation - mind states - citta or consciousness or heart mind. I found this quite tricky as the mind knowing the mind is quite subtle and, in some way, the state of our mind is mostly transparent to us. Anyway:
 -  we get to know the atmosphere of the mind, the sense of its agitation or lack of.
 - we understand the state of mind, like the weather.
 - to make progress on this, we need to experience the range of mind states referred to in the sutta (over and over again).
 - this area of the mind I call the Beethoven mind - his music seems to capture moods quite well.

Now we know the general state of the mind but we have not seen into it's functioning. This is covered in the fourth foundation:
 - how the mind becomes distracted.
 - how the mind creates a sense of self.
 - the arising of consciousness from sensory experience.
 - the natural movement of the mind towards equanimity.
 - the ripening awareness of the three characteristics, dispassion and the path towards cessation
 - the culmination of wisdom in the four noble truths

The aim of this sutta is to leave nothing out. There is nothing we will ever know that is not covered here, which is quite remarkable when you think about it  - yes, even that thought is covered in the sutta.

Now, I realise that this is not for everyone so the take home message would be: you have a body, you experience pleasant stuff, you want more without knowing why, and then you realise that every moment you know is a perfect construction of the multi-faceted mind that is inextricably linked with everything. Job done.


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3 carrots, cut into chunks
4 sticks of celery, cut into chunks
1 clove of garlic, mashed
1 red onion, cut into chunks
1/2 a whole Chinese leaf, chopped up
some chilli sauce
olive oil
soy sauce of some kind
toasted sesame seeds (if you can be bothered)
a splash of water


1. Put a splash of oil in a saucepan or casserole dish.
2. Add the garlic, onion, carrots and celery
3. Turn the heat on, put the lid on
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5. Add all the other ingredients apart from the Chinese leaf and sesame seeds
6. Let the vegetables steam gently for 10-15 minutes in the pan …

A standard view of the Jhana states (what happens when we meditate)

Here is a diagram of the Jhana states as they are generally explained. The first row consists of the Jhanic factors (I have compressed the first two, applied and sustained thought, into one called "Settled mind" to make the diagram more consistent). The second row are the first four Jhanas, and the bottom row are the formless states of mind. (If you click the image, it gets bigger).

So then, how do we use this kind of information as we meditate. Well, I spent many years wondering about various experiences that occurred during meditation and only when I discovered this information was I able to get a sense of the whole map. This was helpful.

Generally, I like to use these states not as a list of achievable things but as a conceptual map of what is possible with the mind. As you meditate, it can be useful to incline the mind towards contentment and wide open space rather than simply counting 10 breaths. Even though the depth of the actualized Jhana states is tremendously profo…

A nice exercise in whole body awareness

It all starts with the body. Your body is your greatest asset.

Take a seat somewhere. Go inside your body and take a relaxing breath. Become aware of your body. Start at the feet and then expand from there. Sense your awareness of the body growing - become aware of the feet and legs; then feet, legs and torso; then feet, legs, torso, arms and hands. Have a sense of energy growing through the body.

Finally, as you breathe, hold your entire body in awareness - feet, legs, torso, arms, hands and head. Feel into a sense of openness and clarity. Notice any blockages in the flow of openness. Then enjoy three or more clear breaths. Nothing outside the present moment, you and your body.

During the day: try it standing up, or in everyday situations. Notice what undermines your attempts to do the practice.

Quick fix: attempt one full body breath before you begin your next task. Do it as often as you can.

How do I fix myself with mindfulness

This appears to be a common pattern. We do our mindfulness course expecting to be transformed, we feel a bit better on the course, a week after the course we find that nothing has changed. There's also the case of people who have been doing meditation for ages and yet they still feel as depressed and angry as they did when they started.

So then, what is going on?

The mind is a tricky beast. It is used to taking action and seeing immediate results. Mindfulness is more subtle than this. It is about seeing the relationship between body, feelings, mind and thoughts and how they come and go. There is no explicit result to be found, just an on going relationship with the thing that is us. However, the longer we observe ourselves the more likely we are to see wisdom arising. That is to say, we begin to see what is beneficial and what is harmful to us. We begin to take responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness - we are no longer simply victims of circumstance. We know what we nee…

Bare attention and clear comprehension

Here are two key cconcepts that you might like to immerse yourself in once you've been meditating for a while. It's a way of breaking down mindfulness a little bit and is onward leading.

Firstly, we might ask ourselves: what is mindfulness?

There are lots of mindfulness experts out there nowadays who could help with this but generally speaking it is: paying attention to something without effort. You could call this bare attention or choiceless awareness or open awareness. We hear a sound, a sound is heard - it takes no effort. It arises and passes away.

Bare attention is a skill that requires practice. The more we practice, the easier it becomes to stay with bare attention. If we do lots of body scans the mind will relax and this will happen naturally: we fall into a state of: in one ear and out of the other.

So, let's say we have been sitting in a state of bare attention for 10 minutes or so - it's pretty cool, relaxing, and we're grooving along quite nicely in …

What is mindfulness?

I like to have a crack at this every now and again because my appreciation of it seems to change as the years go by. This time I'll do it through a series of questions.

How do I know I'm being mindful?
The simplest way to do this is to label your experience as it happens. Keep it casual. Pay attention to what is going on and give it a label - sitting, seeing, thinking, feet, pressure, breathing. If you are able to label what is happening then you know what is happening. This knowing is mindfulness.
Is that it?
That's the beginning. Once you know what is going on you can begin to explore experience and what your mind is doing. This gives you some space around experience and this gap is where the freedom happens. This space separates out the details of your life from what you really are.
Why does it come and go?
The mind is a complex instrument that is rapidly switching between different modes of operation (for want of a better phrase). Mindfulness is not a mission critical thi…