Mindfulness (sati) reveals to us the nature of reality, of our own mind and body in each moment of our experience. When we apprehend any aspect of our experience with mindfulness, we find that experience to be fleeting. Seeing the fleeting nature of all our experiences over a period of time, we become grounded in the wisdom or insight that we cannot rely on any experience whatsoever for lasting happiness. A fleeting experience cannot satisfy us on a basic level, hence on that level, every experience is ultimately unsatisfying. Moreover, we find that an experience has no separate existence; the things that arise are out of our control, and whatever arises cannot be separated from the conditions out of which it arises.
Mindfulness allows us to see these three aspects of reality: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. The last of these, the illusion of a separate self, can also be seen as interconnectedness, because nothing can be said to have its own self existence—it exists as a product of all other experiences before it. When the heart and mind really understand experientially that this is the nature of reality, then the craving and the holding on we bring to our experience, in search of security, cannot be maintained. Seeing this nature of reality, our clinging to experience naturally releases itself. Little by little, it just begins to vanish. This opens the door for our heart and mind to recognize the true nature of mind and body. We begin to see what we are.
The point of cultivating mindfulness is not about trying to see things in a certain way. We don’t need to try; if we keep paying attention, we can’t help but see the way things really are; we can’t hide from reality. When we meet with difficulties and go through painful times, it’s unsettling. But when we keep paying attention, clinging as a response stops making sense. We begin to open into the potential for a real ease in ourselves, an ease in our life that we normally would not even glimpse or imagine.
In the Pali texts, there is a wealth of information available on how to be mindful of each of the four foundations: body, feelings, mind and mind objects. This is the basic practice of “vipassanā.”
The point of mindfulness, of the body for instance, is to meet the body just as it manifests. We attend to the body as it is actually experienced within this moment, rather than through the ideas we have of it. When experiencing just the actual sensations of the body that may arise, without visualizing or thinking about them, we are meeting reality with full integrity.
Gradually we begin to get it: freedom is not about changing a particular experience of body or a particular experience of mind; rather it is about our relationship to whatever experience is arising. That’s why these different foundations are so important. It’s not that one is better than the other, or that we are trying to make a certain foundation—the feeling tone, for example—the pinnacle. It doesn’t matter what’s arising; it really doesn’t make any difference what experience comes into awareness.
Meditation is about cultivating a quality of gentle, compassionate yet intimate attention that can be fully present with whatever experience arises. See it come. Let it go; without getting attached, without needing to push it away, without believing on a very pre-thought level, this is who I am.
The difference comes from knowing “cellularly.” When we talk about impermanence, we all know cognitively that everything changes. But do we live from that? When we’re really confronted with change? With death? With disease? With something we love slipping away? With something we dislike coming in?
When we can really live, knowing at some level that everything comes and goes, and knowing that we can’t get lasting satisfaction, that it’s not what we want—then there is a great big peace and sigh of relief that comes with it.
That is what the four foundations of mindfulness can be, our gateway into any experience in any moment.
Mindfulness of Body
Let us say you are sitting, and a strong pain develops in your back. There is a real difference between a thought of “my back is killing me” and the actual experience. The thought seems very solid—impermanence doesn’t seem to have much to do with it—and it really feels like “me.” Through mindfulness, by bringing careful attention to the sensation, we become free of concept and in touch with the experience itself. First there might be burning, or there might be tightness. If we are attentive to what’s really happening, it’s hard to appropriate it as “my burn,” or “my tightness.” In fact, when we’re sitting there with our eyes closed, and really just being with sensations, where is “my back?”
Although the notion “my back” may be present as part of our thinking, what we actually experience is burning, throbbing or other kinds of raw sensation. In being present to these sensations, the sense of the unchanging solidity of our physical experience begins to break down. So I might begin with the thought “my back is killing me,” but when I explore it more fully, when I really go in there, all I find is throbbing and burning first, then tingling and then perhaps something else. I find that all of this is actually changing quite rapidly. In this way, mindfulness helps us to be with the body as we actually experience it, and we begin to see how much of what we do respond to as body is based on our idea of the body. We also see how unreliable that idea is in the light of the actual data received.
Mindfulness is very much about being in the middle of experience without identifying with it. We bring a quality of attention that is non-judging yet completely connected—participatory. We don’t add anything extra, but we’re right there. We participate fully in the mindfulness of body, feelings, mind, and mind objects, rather than studying them. I like Thich Nahl Hahn’s description of this, “this means that you live in the body in full awareness of it, and not just study it like a separate object.”
So the simple example of “my back hurts” actually reveals a lot. It’s not that the statement is untrue, yet in the moment the actual experience is simply the sensation of what’s happening. Whether that sensation is pleasant or unpleasant may spark a reaction in the mind. Once we move from what’s actually happening to the reactivity in the mind, we are dealing with a translation or an interpretation. The interpretation might be useful, but the direct view of truth is to know what’s what. There is the sensation. Calling it the third lumbar vertebra is an interpretation. Sensation and thought are two separate things; in the case of that moment’s back pain, sensation is what’s actually happening. So it’s only here that we can have true intimacy with our experience.
Mindfulness of Feelings
The Pali word for the second foundation of mindfulness is vedanā, usually translated as feeling. I like to think of it as “feeling tone.” It is a subtle mental experience which is present in every moment of experience. It is important to begin to notice it, because noticing feeling tone can be a great way to break a whole cycle of delusion and suffering.
The Buddha talked about our moment to moment sense experience in terms of the six faculties (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and the mind). The physical base for each of the faculties is an organ—for example, the ear—that works and is not impaired. Then there is another source of vibration, causing sound waves to travel through the air. There also has to be consciousness, and the coming together of all three of these is what creates a sense experience for us. So if there is a sound while you’re in a deep, deep sleep, there’s no consciousness of sound, and it will not register. But when those three come together—the sense object, sense door and consciousness (meaning a knowing of it)—that’s called contact.
In that moment of contact—moment of hearing a sound, or any other contact in our sense experience—what is experienced is either pleasant, or unpleasant or neutral. This isn’t particularly in our control at all; for example, a sound that might be unpleasant for me might be pleasant for you. It’s just how it arises for each person. It’s not good or bad; but it is very quick, and quite subtle.
We often don’t notice the pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutrality in each arising, and the habits of mind are such that if it’s pleasant, the mind is going to he inclined to want more. This can lead into a whole world of craving, and a lot of suffering. If the contact is unpleasant, just the reverse happens; it can lead to fear, to anger, all kinds of negative reactions. Neutrality can be hard to notice; there’s nothing too juicy about it. We tend to go to sleep, or get bored, or look for more stimulation in the face of neutral feeling tone.
To actually see that link—between pleasure or displeasure and the mind’s immediate response—is quite amazing; it is something we experience all the time, and yet we hardly ever see the link. This seeing is really mindfulness. You know the experience for what it is, without judging, without needing to change it. Take pleasant experience, for example; often we don’t notice the pleasant aspect; we get fairly seduced into craving and into wanting. But when we really look at it closely we find that when we are not mindful, all we are trying to do is have more pleasant experiences. How much of our activity is about trying to have more pleasant sensations arising? I would say, a vast amount of it.
In one of his discourses about feeling [S XXXVI.6], the Buddha talks about how helpful and how freeing it can be to see what happens when you’re aware of feelings as compared to when you’re not. He says that if an “untaught, worldly person,” i.e. someone who is still caught in confusion in their mind, experiences an unpleasant bodily feeling (a pain or anything unpleasant), he worries, he grieves, he gets upset, he resents it, he resists it, he gets angry about it. Thus he experiences two kinds of unpleasant feelings: an unpleasant bodily feeling and an unpleasant mental feeling. It’s as if someone threw a dart or an arrow at your body and that’s the unpleasant physical feeling. Then when you carry on and resist and get angry at it, it’s as if you’ve pierced yourself with a second dart: the unpleasant mental feeling.
In the case of someone who is awakened, sure, unpleasant feelings are going to arise—physical, mental, whatever—but the person recognizes “Oh, that’s just an unpleasant feeling” and doesn’t throw a second dart. And that’s a crucial difference. When you can just notice the feeling tone as “Oh, this is unpleasant,” and not get resistant or upset; or notice “this is pleasant,” and not get lost in how to create more; when you can just “be” with it as it is—there is an enormous freedom that comes with that, a real ease and happiness in life.
If we begin noticing how we stick the second dart in ourselves, we can open up into spacious awareness. Feelings are so fleeting; in being aware of their tone as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, we can’t help but see their impermanence. As soon as there’s something pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, it changes to something else. An unpleasant moment might seem like it’s going on forever, but if you really look, you’ll see it’s interspersed with a few pleasant moments, a neutral moment.
When we notice that, it becomes a lot harder to identify with this rapidly changing phenomenon and say, “This pleasant feeling is me.” Looking at it as “pleasant feeling” cuts away a lot of the interpretation; a lot of the sense of “me” and “my,” and the “holding on” and separation that “me” and “my” creates. Such seeing allows us to rest much more in the bare experience of feeling.
Mindfulness of Mind
The third foundation, citta, usually translated as “mind,” means consciousness of the state of consciousness. Consciousness, in its barest sense, is just a moment of knowing; knowing what’s happening—seeing, hearing, touching, thinking. Any moment of experience can be a moment of knowing; that’s consciousness. But when it arises together with a particular “mental factor” (we could call it “emotions” or “quality,” “state of mind and heart”) the mental factors color it. So when we talk of being mindful, being aware of consciousness, we’re talking basically of knowing a moment of consciousness and what’s coloring it. It’s knowing the mind with lust when the mind is colored by lust, and the mind free from lust when the mind is not colored by lust, and so on.
The Buddha doesn’t talk about hating the mind with lust, and loving the mind free from lust. You just notice how it is. The mind is contracted or the mind is spacious; the mind is clinging or the mind is free from clinging; the mind that’s full of ill will or the mind that’s free from ill will. Simply noticing this coloration of consciousness or absence of coloration is mindfulness of mind.
We might include in the awareness of consciousness the mindfulness of emotions. This awareness is extremely important; because when we’re not aware of the coloring of the emotion or the mental state that’s present in the moment, it can color our perception of reality almost as if we are wearing rose-colored glasses or dark glasses.
When we first fall in love everything is wonderful, and we’re so happy; we don’t recognize that the emotional state is coloring that moment of knowing and affecting how we perceive experience. It’s the same when we’re experiencing anger or deep grief. I know for myself that times when I’ve been in a period of deep grief it’s like a black hole; my friends can come in, they may be so happy, and it’s almost impossible to muster up a really genuine feeling of happiness for them. Sure we can get intellectual and say, “Oh, I’m so happy for you,” but our real experience at that moment is “Life is such a horror show” and that colors everything. So, the importance of being mindful is just to know what’s what—that there’s a moment of knowing, and in that moment the mind is colored by happiness or unhappiness, the mind is colored by anger, the mind is colored by grief.
When we stay with our attention to the quality of mind, it naturally begins to happen that our sense of identification, our sense of being that state of mind, begins to dissipate. I’m not speaking here of observing from a distance—we’re still fully participatory. So if anger is arising in the mind, it’s not as if “Oh, anger is arising but if I note it, it doesn’t affect me” [spoken with intentionally mechanical, dispassionate intonation]. With mindfulness we’re not fooling ourselves. We’re really feeling anger—in the body and in the mind, but we have the knowing that “It’s not who I am.” Because we pay attention to the state of consciousness, we see that it’s changing so rapidly.
We often say things like “I’ve been in a bad mood all day,” or “I’m tired” or “I’ve been depressed since yesterday morning.” But if you really pay attention, you know that though the state of mind might seem very solid, you begin to see that no state of mind lasts very long. It might come back, but that’s what the human condition is all about.
In our experience, there are times when conflicting emotions are voicing themselves very rapidly. For example, we might notice about five different states of consciousness coming in rapidly. Yet we often do not really notice because we grasp onto particular ones that we either identify with strongly, or that are stronger than the other and so grip our attention. We can also notice that none of them lasts very long. And this is the case not only with difficult mind states but also with beautiful mind states. It also applies to states of mind that are brought about through meditation: concentration, bliss, rapture, you name it.
We may not want to hear it, but the fact remains that any state of mind is transitory. Nothing hangs around. I notice in my own experience, even though I’m practicing noticing, whenever a strong emotion comes up a kind of unconscious appropriation takes place. Even though everything else passes, through this lens it seems as if this strong emotion is how it’s always going to be. It just feels so real. That’s why it’s so important to keep a continuity of mindfulness, so you can see when the emotion passes, so you can see the holes in it.