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The Four Pillars of Mindfulness

Some of the most beautiful benefits of meditation are that it makes your heart more supple, transforms your emotions, and opens the door to heightened self-awareness. Once you have been able to see directly as an experience that most thoughts, emotions, and behavior that manifest in life are not about you, they are merely happening to you and are impermanent—you learn to live lightly.

How does a practice like meditation help diffuse intense emotions like sadness, anger, or guilt?
The answer lies in understanding the four foundations of mindfulness from the ancient text of Satipatthana Sutta that codified Buddha’s elaborate instructions on meditation, the practice, the goal, and the way.

The four foundational principles are mentioned in the text in a particular order, going from mindfulness of the grossest levels of existence to the more subtle and deeper levels, according to mindworks.org. “As we go deeper, we become aware of our inner world, our thoughts, and feelings. At the deepest levels of meditation, conceptualization ends, as does the sense of separation between subject and object.”  Such as moving from mindfulness of the body and breath to becoming mindful of the mind, thoughts, feelings, and dhamma or truth.

Once, we have come through the four stages, we are able to separate ourselves from all that is temporary, release ourselves from misery, and become eternal witnesses.

There is sound logic behind crafting the inward journey in this order. If you were to study and observe your emotions directly, without going gently in the proper order, you might end up triggering thoughts and memories that bring up more difficult emotions. And so, instead of being aware of the emotion and letting it pass, you are likely to get more embroiled in it.

Going step-by-step through each foundation, or pillar, is like unveiling layers of awareness that take us to the realization of the four noble truths shared by Lord Buddha.

Body Mindfulness

The first pillar is mindfulness of the physical self. Give attention to each part of the body, not just a cursory observation but an immersive scan of your physical self from within. As Buddha said, “contemplate the body in the body…to know the body as it really is.”

Also, observe the movement of the breath going into the body as well as leaving it. Keep observing the breath while engaging in any action, whether it be eating or drinking, meditating, or walking. This also involves observing ever so minutely the temporary nature of this body—with various organs and tissues continuously in a state of decay and renewal.

If you are someone who is dealing with sadness, depression, or anxiety, mindfulness of the body is an important way to reign in these patterns since much of the body functions without voluntary involvement.

Awareness of the breath is an effortless way to center the mind, which cannot be contained through thought alone. Spiritual master and Art of Living Founder Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar shares a very important spiritual truth in this regard. He points to how our breath is interlinked with our emotions. Each emotion is linked with a particular pattern of breath, with a specific pace, intensity, and warmth. We can turn this in our favor and manage emotions better through breathwork.

“Often when I’m struggling with sadness, the interaction of negative thoughts with low physical energy and dullness blossoms into depression as the blend of thoughts and sensations creates a kind of all-encompassing state, a mental and physical cloud that seems impermeable. By focusing on the body, I take myself out of the thought realm—there are no words in my body—and break this negative cycle,” says Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps.

If I trust in the power of mindfulness, then I don’t have to “solve” the emotion. I also need acceptance and forgiveness of myself so that I’m not judging my own feelings. –Kevin Griffin

Mindfulness of Feelings

The second foundation is mindfulness of feelings or vedana. More subtle than the breath and body are feelings. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Once you begin with observing them, you realize two things—feelings are temporary, and secondly, how you react to them decides how much sway they have on your psyche and well-being.

For example, getting too attached to a pleasurable feeling can lead to disappointment or sadness because no feeling or cause of a feeling is going to stick forever. Similarly, you make it stay longer when you are averse to a feeling because it is unpleasant. Trying to curb or suppress these feelings creates more problems and can even lead to physical or psychosomatic illnesses.

Mindfulness of feelings allows us to witness them without necessarily attaching too much importance or running away from them. We find that the demons of our feelings do not last, nor did they have anything to do with us. They came by some karmic trigger, fulfilled their purpose, and then left the body and mind.

Mindfulness of Mind

The third pillar is mindfulness of our states of mind. When you sit down for meditation, you may observe that the mind is all over or there may be too many thoughts. Sometimes it may be agitated and restless, or a single thought may show up repeatedly in various ways.

Nevertheless, observing your mental state as part of mindfulness is important after going through the first two stages. By observing the body, breath, and feelings, you will find the mind is already calmer and more settled as the cause of thoughts has been addressed by becoming mindful in the first two steps. Through observation, you will find that you are separate from mental states that are constantly changing.

For so long you have associated your identity with your thoughts but they are not you! So you can stop judging yourself for them. You’ll find that this mind that seems so adamant—as if it had any solidity to it, as if it controlled every waking hour of life—does not have an existence of its own. With mindfulness, ironically, the state of “no mind” is reached.

Mindfulness of Dharma

At its core, dharma goes beyond a limited religious concept. In some, it stands for righteous path, in others, it stands for truth, norms, principles, teachings, or even phenomena.

In connection with Buddhism, it relates to all of Buddha’s teachings that are studied or observed as spiritual truths or laws. For example, through careful self-observation, the practitioner realizes that there is misery in life—there is a cause for it, and there is a way to end it.

Every cause of misery in life, be it events and emotions or thoughts triggered by the events, the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant, our bodily existence itself—all of it is finite. Knowing the temporary nature of the mind, emotions, and thought impulses adds tremendous depth to your practice, bringing faith, acceptance, and confidence into it.

All four foundations bring about the realization that you create the world with your mind through perception, experience, and assignment of meaning.


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