Four Noble Truths Part 5

Right Mindfulness

The Four Establishments of Mindfulness


The next spoke in the noble eight fold path is right Mindfulness.  Mindfulness is awareness.  To be mindful is to be aware in the present moment of what is going on inside of yourself and in the world around you.  The mind has the habit of being lost in thoughts about the past or the future or to be caught up in an obsessive way about something in the present.  Right mindfulness is to train the mind so that it is in the habit of being in the present moment and aware of what is going on.  In the sutra entitled “The Four Establishments of Mindfulness” the Buddha gave extensive teachings on mindfulness.  I like to think of this sutra as providing both a map of what to be mindful of and specific practices to help us cultivate that mindfulness.  This sutra is quite substantial so I will not give an exhaustive commentary on it here but I will try and say enough so that a good understanding of right mindfulness can be gained. There are a number of practices offered in the section on the body.

As the title of the sutra suggests, there are four main areas that a practitioner should cultivate mindfulness of, namely:

Mindfulness of the body

Mindfulness of sensations

Mindfulness of mind

Mindfulness of the objects of mind.

These four areas are what it is possible for a human being to be mindful of.  In other words, when you are in the present moment, whatever it is that you are experiencing will be within one of these four areas.  When you are able to clearly recognize what you are experiencing in the present moment then it is much easier not to identify with it and react to it.  So this sutra is to help remove any blind spots that we might have based on our conditioning so that our innate awareness can manifest more fully.

Awareness of Breathing

The Buddha begins the section on mindfulness of the body with the practice of mindful breathing.  Awareness of breathing is probably the most fundamental meditation practice that the Buddha taught.  It serves as a foundation for all of the other practices.  It is in the core of the Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan meditation schools as well.  By being aware of the breath we can detach from our thinking and be in the present moment.  The breath is a neutral object to be aware of, it does not stimulate craving or aversion so by being aware of it we can cultivate an open and accepting awareness.  Once this awareness is established with the breath we can start to include more and more of our experience within our body and mind.

The following is a link to instructions on a specific awareness of breathing practice that I learned at  Japanese Zen monastery while I was in college.  I still use this practice regularly.

Awareness of breathing instructions

Awareness of the Body 

The next practice the Buddha gives in the sutra is awareness of the body.  Some commentators interpret this to mean the breath body and others interpret it to mean the physical body.  Thich Nhat Hanh took it to mean the physical body so that is the way I learned it and it matches my experience.  Basically when you become established in the awareness of your breathing your awareness will naturally spread more and more throughout your body.  It is just a natural by-product of being in the present moment.  So you are aware of your breathing and your body as one whole.  Another natural result of being aware of your body and breath is that they will relax.  Without trying to make it so your breath will become slower and deeper and your body will let go more and feel at ease.  You will still want to maintain a good posture but you will be more relaxed.  In fact the good posture along with the awareness of breathing is what helps you let go and relax more deeply.

Postures and Actions

Next the Buddha talks about awareness of the postures and actions of the body.  The practitioner should be aware his/her body while sitting, standing, walking or laying down.  In the monastery would there would be a session of walking meditation between two sessions of sitting meditation.  We would breathe in and make a step with our left foot and breathe out and make a step with our right foot.  We would walk around the meditation hall in a circle one or two times.  I would continue counting my breath as we did this.  Before we started walking and after we finished we would stand behind our meditation cushions for a few moments practicing awareness of standing.  Before lunch each day we would also practice walking meditation as a group outside going at a more normal pace but walking in silence and being aware of our breath and steps.  From time to time we would stop and look at a tree or a bird or a nice view.  By paying attention to your steps and your breath you can detach from your thinking in the same way that you did while sitting.  You can be more fully in the present moment and aware of the world around you.  So being aware of your posture, whatever it happens to be, is a good way to be in the present moment and not caught up in your thinking.  The Buddha goes on in the sutra to say that whatever action you are doing, be it eating, speaking, or even going to the restroom, you should be aware of your body.  So if you are at the bank waiting in line or you are doing your dishes or you are walking in the supermarket you can use that time as a time for practice just by coming back to your breath and being aware of your body.  By being aware of you posture you will also see how your posture can affect your mood and will naturally want to straighten up and let go of any tension.

Body Scan

In the next section of the sutra the Buddha gives a practice of going through each part of the body.  This is a practice that you can do during sitting meditation or while laying down.  Basically you become aware of your breathing and then go part by part from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.  The way Thich Nhat Hanh taught it you say silently to yourself “Breathing in I am aware of the top of my head, breathing out I smile to the top of my head.”  and then you move to the next part.  When I do this practice I just say “top of head, relax.”  I have also found it very useful to read a basic anatomy book to get an understanding of where the organs are and what their general function is so when I am saying “aware of spleen” for instance I know where to focus.  This practice is very good at relieving tension in the body and for getting in touch with areas that you might not be aware of for one reason or another.  In other words you might be desensitized to certain areas of your body and this practice will help open that area up.  If this practice interests you and you really want to get into it you can go to a 10 day “Vipassana” course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka where the practice of body scanning is done at a very deep level.

The Four Elements

In the next section of the sutra the Buddha talks about being aware of the four elements in the body.  Traditionally this means being aware of the sensations of heat and cold (fire), cohesion and fluidity (water), movement and stillness (air), and solidity and lightness (earth).  In other words you are using these ranges of possibility to fine tune your awareness of the sensations of your body.

We know our body is made up of the four elements and this practice is to help us directly experience that as true.  By being aware of the earth element within us as a direct experience we also become more aware of the earth element around us.  Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a guided meditation where you say silently to yourself “aware of the earth element within me I breath in, aware of the earth element within me I breathe out” etc… for the rest of the elements and then you do the same thing for the four elements outside of you.  When you do the fire element you can pay attention to the sensation of sunlight, when you do the earth element you can pay attention to what you are sitting on or a tree near you, when you do the water element you can be aware of the saliva in your mouth and the humidity in the air or sit by a river and look at the river.  So by doing this you realize more and more how your body is interdependent with the world around it.  The oxygen you breath in is coming from the plants around you and the plants are breathing in the carbon dioxide you breathe out.  When you are walking the bones in your body are made up of the the earth you are walking on.  This practice can help you be more deeply in touch with the world around you and at the same time let go of identifying with your body as a separate entity from the world around you.  We know these things intellectually but doing these practices helps us to actually experience it.

Visualizing the Decomposition of a Body

In this section of the sutra the Buddha gives a practice on visualizing a corpse left in a charnel ground to decompose on its own.  He describes nine stages of decay starting with the body being blue and bloated, then being eaten by animals, birds and insects, and gradually being reduced to bones and finally dust.  After each of the nine stages the practitioner is to remind him/herself that his/her body will inevitably go through the same process at some point.  This of course is a very grim thing to visualize and think about but the Buddha gave this practice to us out of compassion.  We are so identified with the body that its immanent decomposition can seem like a far off and unreal thing.  Our society has separated the reality of death from us to a large degree so we lose sight of the impermanence of the body and therefore lose sight of what it means to be alive.  This practice is a strong medicine to cure us of that.  Ideally it should leave one with a greater appreciation for life, a desire to make good use of his or her time, and ultimately help uproot the identification with the body.


At the end of each of these sections in the sutra, wether it is mindfulness of breathing, the body scan, the four elements, etc…, there is a common refrain where the Buddha gives some further points of reflection.  First he says we should be aware of the object in the object, so if the object happens to be the breath we should be aware of the breath in the breath.  I other words we should open fully to the experience and not separate ourselves from it in any way.  Then he says we can be aware of the object inside of ourselves, outside of ourselves, or both inside an outside of ourselves.  As I mentioned before for example we can be aware of the four elements within our body and outside of our body.  Another example would be awareness of our posture as well as the posture of others.  This may sound overly simplistic, why would we care about another person’s posture, but the point is to be aware of what is happening directly without the filter of our conceptual mind so this is encouraging us to practice that.  The next point of reflection is to contemplate the origination and dissolution factors of a given object.  So when we are aware of the body we can think of the food we have eaten today and try and be in touch with the experience of our body living on that food.  The same can be applied to the air we are breathing, the heat of the sun, and the water we have drunk.  The point here is to be in touch with the fact that this body is manifesting because of certain factors and if they are not there then this body will cease to manifest .  So we are directly experiencing that our body is a conditioned phenomenon.  I find this helps me to be more in touch with my body and the world around me and have more compassion for them while at the same time I feel more detached and less identified with my body and the world around me.

So this section on the body has a number of practices in them.  I see awareness of the breath, general awareness of the body, and awareness of  the postures and activities of the body to be fundamental and something I do all the time.  I see the other practices as powerful and useful and definitely worth trying and if you are drawn to one or two of them in particular you should go into them in depth.  I don’t think it is necessary to do all of them all of the time though as then you might be digging to many shallow wells and never hit water. I also highly recommend doing some form of yoga or tai chi as another way to increase your awareness of your body.  As the title of the sutra suggests, our mindfulness can become more and more established in the body to where it is something that is happening naturally and without effort.

In the next blog I will talk about the second establishment of mindfulness.

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