Creating Habits of Wellbeing: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

May is Mental Health Month. And, I believe that mental health is a product of a holistic approach to our well-being that includes taking care of your body, your heart (emotions), and your mind (thoughts). In the Buddhist tradition, this can be understood through the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Mindfulness of the Body, Mindfulness of Feelings, Mindfulness of Mind, and Mindfulness of the Dhammas.

Bhante Gunarantana in his book The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English, explains this teaching from the classic text known as the Satipatthana Sutta in a way that is accessible to everyone. The book is a beautiful presentation of the teachings. Here is a brief synopsis to get you started with short exercises you can practice today. The aim of all of the teachings is the end of suffering through deepening our mindfulness.

Mindfulness of the Body

While this foundation might sound like the easiest, and therefore not as powerful, when Ananda (the Buddha’s personal attendant) asked “What kind of meditation do you practice, venerable sir?” the Buddha answered, “Mindfulness of breathing.” Mindfulness of the breath can be practiced by simply taking a few minutes each day to be aware of the breath moving into and out of the body. When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath. How much easier can it get? right?!

Mindfulness of the Four Postures –sitting, standing, walking, and lying down–can help us have seamless awareness throughout the day. If you can keep a light awareness on the body and the positions that it is in, you will constantly have access to information about what the body needs throughout the day. Do you need to rest, eat, drink, walk, or stretch?

Clear Comprehension — When we act on the information that we receive through mindfulness of the body in a way that reduces suffering, then we are practicing with clear comprehension. For instance, mindfulness of eating would fall under this category. Are you aware of what you are eating, how it is tasting, how full you are getting as you eat, and noticing when is a good time to stop eating so that the body is nourished but not overly full?

Mindfulness of Feelings

In my book Savor Every Bite, I explain that feelings (in this foundational teaching) are experienced as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant (sometimes called neutral). If something is experienced as pleasant, you tend to want more of it (called wanting). If something is experienced as unpleasant, you want it to go away (called aversion). If something is experienced as neutral, you tend to be confused (called delusion).

An exploration of models of addiction explains how pleasant and unpleasant lead to craving and subsequent behaviors like overeating. When you get temporary relief by acting on a food craving, it sets you up to do it again, even if the ultimate result is unpleasant (such as overeating, feeling sick, or spending too much money). Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of what is happening, create some space in which to evaluate the outcome of the different choices you could make, then choose your next that aligns with compassionate care for yourself.

To practice with this foundation, notice when you are experiencing the three different feelings states. See if you can bring full awareness to the feelings without trying to change them. Where do you notice them in your body? What happens to the feelings over time? Watch as each feeling arises, peaks, and passes away. Instead of reacting, label them as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neutral.” Feel the relief and empowerment that arises at not being pushed and pulled around by your experiences and passing feelings.

Mindfulness of Mind

This foundation teaches us that whatever thoughts we cultivate frequently will become a mental habit. Mic drop! Please read that sentence over a few times and comprehend what it means for your wellbeing. For instance, if you tend to worry a lot and think about what might go wrong in the future, that will become your mental habit. So, when you sit in meditation, that is what you will notice. Whatever you have spent a lot of time thinking about will appear in your meditation practice. That is why meditation practice is so powerful. It teaches us what we have been doing with our minds.

To practice, be aware of the thoughts that arise in your mind and let them go. See them as clouds passing across the sky of your awareness. Particularly if the thoughts are filled with some form of greed, hatred, delusion, or other harmful states, let go of your grasp of them by understanding that they are just conditioned and they are not “true.” Most thoughts (about 98%) aren’t facts, even the ones that tell you they are. You can even go further and replace the harmful thoughts with thoughts of lovingkindness and compassion.

Mindfulness of the Dhammas

There are many aspects to this foundation, so I will simply focus on the hindrances. The five hindrances describe mental and emotional states that can overwhelm and confuse us. They can be examined during meditation or during the normal course of your day. These include desire (wanting), anger or aversion (not wanting), sleepiness, restlessness or worry, and doubt.

To practice with these, here are the antidotes. When wanting arises, practice gratitude. Remind yourself of all of the blessings in your life on a regular basis. When anger or aversion arises, practice lovingkindness. Frequently offer yourself these phrases: May I be safe, May I be peaceful, May I be healthy, May I live with joy and ease. When sleepiness arises, try taking a short nap, standing up and stretching, taking a short walk, or eating food that gives you energy. When restless or worry arises, make deep breathing your first responder. Focusing on breathing will help you relax and your mind can settle down. When doubt arises, question it. Work on making small decisions and taking small steps when you can. Celebrate small victories over doubt.

Through the development and practice with The Four Foundations, you will notice a greater lightness of being–in your body, heart, and mind. For meditations to help you, don’t forget to go to my multimedia page and check out my book Savor Every Bite.