by Barbara Hoetsu O'Brien
Mindfulness is one of the most basic practices of Buddhism. It is part of the Eightfold Path and is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. And it's currently trendy. Many people with no particular interest in the rest of Buddhism have taken up mindfulness meditation, and some psychologists have adopted mindfulness techniques as a therapeutic practice.
Although it's associated with meditation, the Buddha taught his followers to practice mindfulness all the time. Mindfulness can help us perceive the illusory nature of things and break the bonds of self-clinging.
Mindfulness in the Buddhist sense goes beyond just paying attention to things. It is a pure awareness free of judgments and concepts and self-reference. Genuine mindfulness takes discipline, and the Buddha advised working with four foundations to train oneself to be mindful.
The four foundations are frames of reference, usually taken up one at a time. In this way, the student begins with a simple mindfulness of breath and progresses to mindfulness of everything. These four foundations are often taught in the context of meditation, but if your daily practice is chanting, that can work, too.
Mindfulness of Body
The first foundation is mindfulness of body. This is an awareness of the body as body—something experienced as breath and flesh and bone. It is not "my" body. It is not a form you are inhabiting. There is just body.
Most introductory mindfulness exercises focus on the breath. This is experiencing breath and being breath. It is not thinking about the breath or coming up with ideas about breath.
As the ability to maintain awareness gets stronger, the practitioner becomes aware of the whole body. In some schools of Buddhism, this exercise might include an awareness of aging and mortality.
Body awareness is taken into movement. Chanting and rituals are opportunities to be mindful of body as it moves, and in this way, we train ourselves to be mindful when we aren't meditating, too. In some schools of Buddhism nuns and monks have practiced martial arts as a way of bringing meditative focus into movement, but many day-to-day activities can be used as "body practice."
Mindfulness of Feelings
The second foundation is mindfulness of feelings, both bodily sensations and emotions. In meditation, one learns to just observe emotions and sensations come and go, without judgments and without identifying with them. In other words, it is not "my" feelings, and feelings do not define who you are. There are just feelings.
Sometimes this can be uncomfortable. What can come up might surprise us. Humans have an amazing capacity to ignore our own anxieties and anger and even pain, sometimes. But ignoring sensations we don't like is unhealthy. As we learn to observe and fully acknowledge our feelings, we also see how feelings dissipate.
Mindfulness of Mind
The third foundation is mindfulness of mind or consciousness. The "mind" in this foundation is called citta. This is a different mind from the one that thinks thoughts or makes judgments. Citta is more like consciousness or awareness.
Citta is sometimes translated "heart-mind," because it has an emotive quality. It is a consciousness or awareness that is not made up of ideas. However, neither is it the pure awareness that is the fifth skandha.
Another way of thinking of this foundation is "mindfulness of mental states." Like sensations or emotions, our states of mind come and go. Sometimes we are sleepy; sometimes we are restless. We learn to observe our mental states dispassionately, without judgment or opinion. As they come and go, we clearly understand how insubstantial they are.
Mindfulness of Dharma
The fourth foundation is mindfulness of dharma. Here we open ourselves to the whole world, or at least the world that we experience.
Dharma is a Sanskrit word that can be defined in many ways. You can think of it as "natural law" or "the way things are." Dharma can refer to the doctrines of the Buddha. And dharma can refer to phenomena as manifestations of reality.
This foundation is sometimes called "mindfulness of mental objects." That's because all of the myriad things around us exist for us as mental objects. They are what they are because that's how we recognize them.
In this foundation, we practice awareness of the inter-existence of all things. We are aware that they are temporary, without self-essence, and conditioned by everything else. This takes us to the doctrine of Dependent Origination which is the way everything inter-exists.