The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English - Selections
Twenty years after the Buddha attained enlightenment, a senior monk by the name of Ananda became his personal attendant. One day he asked the Buddha, “Venerable sir, if people ask me whether you are still practicing meditation, what shall I tell them?”
The Buddha replied that, yes, he was still meditating.
“What kind of meditation do you practice, venerable sir?” Ananda asked.
“Mindfulness of breathing,” the Buddha answered.
Meditation on the breath is the ideal way to get started with mindfulness training. Breathing is our most constantly repeated physical action. The mind can always return to the breath as an object of focus because it is always with us. We don’t need to be taught to breathe. nor do we need long experience with meditation to place our attention on the breath. The breath is also our life force. no organ in the body can function without the supply of oxygen we get from the cycle of breathing in and breathing out.
Moreover, breathing is not exclusive. Living beings differ in appearance and behavior. They eat various kinds of food. They sleep in many types of beds. But all living beings breathe. Breathing does not differentiate among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. Nor does it distinguish between rich and poor, capitalists and socialists, or conservatives and liberals, for that matter. When we focus on the breath, we become mindful of the universal nature of all beings.
Although we have been breathing our entire life, until we pay attention to the process, we do not know what is really happening. But when we focus the mind on the breath, we discover everything related to the breath. Training in this way is so essential to our peace of mind and spiritual progress that the Buddha recommends that everyone practice meditation on the breath.
Even the Buddha used mindfulness of breathing to achieve his goal. After his enlightenment, the Buddha described how he had previously practiced extreme self-discipline by manipulating his breath in arcane and special ways. But he discovered that he could not get rid of impurities by holding his breath or altering his breathing. So he gave up breath-control exercises and followed his own middle way.
In the gathering dusk, on the night he would attain enlightenment, the Buddha asked himself, “What subject of meditation should I practice?” Then he remembered. “Ah! When I was a child, I used the breath. Let me use the breath again.” So he focused his mind on the breath, just as it was. After long hours of unwavering mindfulness and deep concentration, everything became clear to him. The last of his negative mental habits disappeared, and he reached enlightenment—full and complete liberation from suffering.
The Buddha’s Instructions
In one of the most important suttas, the Buddha explains in detail how to practice mindfulness of breathing. He suggests that people go to a quiet place, such as a forest or a house with few noises—somewhere they have undisturbed solitude and can withdraw from everyday concerns. There, he says, begin by establishing mindfulness “in front.”
By these words he doesn’t mean that we should place our attention on what is in front of us in space. Rather, we focus on the present moment. We cannot live in the past, nor can we live in the future. Even when we remember something that happened in the past, we understand that this memory is occurring now. The only place and time truly available to us is right here and right now. For this reason, we establish mindfulness by paying attention to this very instance of breathing in and breathing out.
Having established the mind in the present moment, the Buddha continues, sit in a comfortable posture, with the body straight—upright but not uptight. I explain more fully about comfortable postures for sitting meditation in the next chapter. Then focus the mind on the breath, going in and going out, in and out.
Among other things, we become aware that sometimes the breath is long and sometimes short. These variations are natural. If we watch a baby sleeping, we observe that the baby breathes for a while in a regular rhythm. Then she takes a long breath. Then she goes back to her previous rhythm.
As the Buddha explains, when we breathe in long, we understand, “I breathe in long,” and when we breathe out long, we understand, “I breathe out long.” Breathing in short, we understand, “I breathe in short.” Breathing out short, we understand, “I breathe out short.” This advice can be misinterpreted to mean that we should force ourselves to take long inhaling breaths and long exhaling breaths, or short inhaling breaths and short exhaling breaths. But when we deliberately alter the duration, our breathing does not follow its natural rhythm. Soon, we get tired. Meditation on the breath is not a breathing exercise. We are simply using the breath as a point of focus to cultivate mindfulness.
As we discover, when we pay attention to its natural rhythm, the breath becomes calm. Simultaneously, the mind quiets down. It all happens naturally. Mindfulness itself makes the breath relax. Any force is counterproductive. Agitation or extra effort makes our breathing speed up. When this happens, we pay attention to the fast breathing and notice the agitation. Then we relax the mind, and the agitation disappears by itself.
We also notice that when we inhale and exhale with mindfulness, we experience the feeling of each breath. The sensations change as the breath changes. So we observe the changing breath and the changing sensations. We find, for instance, that sometimes the breath is shallow; other times it is deep. sometimes it is easy to breathe; other times, not so easy. We watch these variations.
Along with this, we notice another pattern of subtle feelings, a little bit of anxiety and relief of anxiety, pressure and release of pressure, for instance. Mindfulness helps us notice that when the lungs are full of air, we feel a slight pressure or tension in our lungs. as we breathe out, this tension is slowly released. But when there is no more air in our lungs, we experience a degree of anxiety because there is no air in our lungs. So we breathe in again, and this anxiety fades away. As it does, we experience a degree of pleasure but also the return of pressure.
Of course, we have to pay total attention to the cycle of breathing to notice these changes. We soon discover that there is no escape from them. We inhale and experience pleasure and then tension. We exhale and experience release but also anxiety. But even this pattern has much to teach us. When we experience tension, we remind ourselves not to be disappointed. When we experience pleasure, we remember not to attach to it.
So, as we breathe in and out, we strive to maintain equanimity, a balanced mind. We remind ourselves that our underlying preference for pleasant feelings often arises from desire, which can lead to greed for sensual pleasure. But when we crave pleasure, we always end up suffering, because like all impermanent things, pleasure eventually changes or disappears. We also remember that our underlying tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings often arises from resentment, which can lead to anger. We observe these tendencies, our greed and our anger, and then let them go, returning our attention to the breath.
We also pay attention to how we feel at the beginning, the middle, and the end of each in-breath and out-breath. This awareness of the entire breathing cycle is called mindfulness of the breath-body. While the mind is engaged with the breath-body, the mind and the breath are relaxed. When they are relaxed, the rest of our body is also relaxed. This is so because the breath is part of the body. paying attention to the breath-body is an aspect of being mindful of “the body in the body,” as the Buddha recommends. Mindfulness helps us see that the breath and the body are not completely separate.
We experience the relationship between breath and body when we notice the rising and falling of the abdomen during the breathing cycle, as some meditation teachers suggest. When we breathe in, the abdomen expands, and when we breathe out, it contracts. But actually, the movement of the abdomen is the second stage of the body’s rising and falling. The first stage occurs at the tip of the nose. inhaling is rising and exhaling is falling. With mindfulness, we notice in a microscopic way our body’s expansion or rising as we breathe in and contraction or falling as we breathe out.
While noticing these events, we also feel expansion, contraction, and other subtle movements in the entire body. These same motions occur in every material object. Even walls breathe! In summer, they expand; in winter, they contract. Astrophysicists tell us that the whole universe is actually expanding and contracting. To practice mindfulness of breathing, however, we need awareness only of the expansion and contraction in our own body.
Internal and External Elements
Another way we become aware of the relationship between the breath and the body is by noting that the breath is made up of four elements—earth, water, air, and heat. all material objects, including the body, are composed of these elements.
As we practice mindfulness of breathing, we recognize that it is the breath’s earth element—its form or shape—that gives rise to pressure, release, and other sensations of touch in the nose, lungs, and abdomen. Similarly, we notice that the breath is dry when its water element is low. When we are aware of moisture in the breath, its water element is high.
The function of the air element is motion and energy. We experience the movement of the breath because of its air element. The temperature of the breath is due to its heat element. heat fluctuates. When its heat element is high, we call the breath hot. When it goes down, we call the breath cold.
In addition to the four elements, the parts of the body—including the breath—are described as internal or external. The elements inside the body are internal; those outside are external. If we think about this distinction, it may occur to us that the breath that we have inhaled is internal. When we exhale, this internal breath mixes with the external air. Then the breath is external. We might also say that the internal body is inhaling, and the external body is exhaling.
In the Maha Rahulovada sutta, the Buddha explains the meaning of the words “internal” and “external” as they apply to the four elements of the body. In terms of the air element, he says, “Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is air … that is up-going winds, down-going winds, winds in limbs, in-breath and out-breath . . . this is called the internal air element.”
Moreover, the Buddha explains, “Both the internal air element and the external air element are simply air element.” This point is important because of our tendency to cling to things we perceive as belonging to us. But seen with “proper wisdom,” we recognize that even the air we inhale—the internal air—“is not mine, this i am not, and this is not my self. When one sees it thus as it actually is . . . one becomes disenchanted with the air element and makes the mind dispassionate toward the air element.”
Further, the Buddha continues, from time to time, the external air element is disturbed. It “sweeps away villages, towns, cities, districts, and countries,” as it does in a hurricane or tornado. At other times, such as during the last month of the hot season, people “seek wind by means of a fan or bellows, and even the stands of straw in the dripfringe of the thatch do not stir.”
These seasonal changes in the external air, which we have all experienced, demonstrate vividly that the air element, “great as it is, is seen to be impermanent, subject to destruction, disappearance, and change.” The same applies to the earth, water, and heat elements inside the body and outside the body. since this is so, the Buddha asks, “what of this body, which is clung to by craving and lasts but a while?” Our body, too, he reminds us, is composed of four elements, which are always being destroyed, disappearing, or changing. Therefore, he concludes, “There can be no considering that as I or mine or I am.”
Breath and the Aggregates
As we see from our discussion of the four elements of the breath, mindfulness of breathing is instructive in many important ways. If we follow the Buddha’s example and use the breath to examine our mind-body system as it is, we gain insight into a number of essential Dhamma points. As the Buddha explains, “all dhammas arise from attention.” among these, we gain firsthand knowledge of the five aggregates—form, feeling, perception, thought, and consciousness—the traditional constituents of the body and mind.
Let’s look briefly at the five aggregates as they apply to the breath. The breath-body and all other material objects including the physical body belong to the aggregate of form. We have already noted that we experience the touch of the breath at the nose, lungs, and abdomen because the breath has a kind of form or shape. From moment to moment, the form of the breath changes, as we can see when we focus our attention at the nose or abdomen.
The other four aggregates describe our mental experience. The aggregate of feeling refers to our sensations of the breath and the emotions we experience as a result. The anxiety we feel when we sense that our lungs are empty and our feeling of relief when we inhale belong to this aggregate. Next is the aggregate of perception. We can use the breath as an object of meditation only because our minds perceive it.
The aggregate of thought includes all other mental activities, including ideas, opinions, and decisions. The thought “this is the feeling of the breath” and the decision to pay attention to the breath belong to this aggregate. The last of the five, the aggregate of consciousness, is the basis of all mental experience. We become aware of changes in the other four aggregates because of the aggregate of consciousness. But consciousness, too, is changing as the form of the breath and our feelings, perceptions, and thoughts change.
In the sutta on mindfulness of breathing, the Buddha tells us: “Mindful of impermanence breathe in, mindful of impermanence breathe out; mindful of dispassion breathe in, mindful of dispassion breathe out; mindful of cessation breathe in, mindful of cessation breathe out; mindful of relinquishing breathe in, mindful of relinquishing breathe out.”
When we apply these words to the aggregates of the breath, we notice that all five consist of three very minor moments: the rising moment, the living or enduring moment, and the passing away moment. The same is true of all things that exist. This activity never stops. Such is the nature of impermanence. Forms, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and even consciousness itself don’t stick around. They cease without leaving a trace. Once they are gone, they are gone forever. New forms, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness always appear. Observing these changes teaches us detachment and makes it easier for us to relinquish the habit of clinging to any part of the body or mind.
Patience and Joy
Below I suggest a basic technique for getting started with mindfulness meditation on the breath. Take time to work with the practice. Try not to be impatient or rush ahead to experience something new. Allow things to unfold naturally.
People these days are good at making things happen very quickly. Computers, email, and mobile telephones are fast. Washers and dryers, instant breadmaking machines, and instant coffeemakers are timesavers. But too many people don’t have time to smile. They don’t have time to allow joy to develop the natural way.
One day, a man who wanted to take my picture asked me to relax and be natural. When his camera was ready, he said, “Bhante, smile.”
So I said to him, “First you ask me to be natural. Now you are asking me to smile. Do you want me to smile or be natural?”
When something is funny, smiling happens naturally. We also smile when our stress, tension, and fear disappear. Then our face becomes calm and peaceful, and we smile with our hearts without showing our teeth. That is the kind of smile the Buddha had all the time.
As we gain experience with mindfulness of breathing, we gradually overcome sleepiness, restlessness, and other obstacles to concentration. As our concentration deepens, we begin to smile with our hearts. It’s not hard to understand why this happens. as we have seen, the breath is part of the body. When we relax the breath, the body becomes relaxed. The breath is free from greed, hatred, delusion, and fear. When the mind joins with the breath, the mind temporarily becomes free from greed, hatred, delusion, and fear. Relaxing the breath, breathe in. Relaxing the breath, breathe out. Then joy arises naturally.
With every small step of meditation, you gain a small degree of insight. Do your practice with patience. Don’t rush. Let the insights unfold. Consider the analogy of an impatient hen who lays a few eggs. She wants to see chicks coming out of them quickly, so she turns them over very often to check. But she will never see chicks coming out of these eggs. Another hen lays a few eggs and sits on them patiently. When the eggs are properly hatched, the chicks break the eggshells with their little claws and bills. Then this mother hen sees good feathery results!
Key Points for Meditation on the Breath
▶ Go to a quiet place where you will be alone and not disturbed.
▶ Bring your attention to the present moment.
▶ Sit in a comfortable posture that allows your upper body to be straight and relaxed, upright but not uptight.
▶ Place your hands on the lap, palms upward, with the right hand on top of the left and the thumbs touching at the tips.
▶ Close your eyes or leave them half-open.
▶ Focus your attention on the breath, coming in and going out.
▶ To deepen your mindfulness, try counting:
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “one.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “two.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “three.”
Continue up to ten.
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “ten.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “nine.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “eight.”
Continue down to one.
▶ When you complete this round of counting, settle on your primary object—breath, feeling, thought, rising and falling, or consciousness. ▶ If restlessness, agitation, or doubt occurs, don’t intensify the distraction by following it. Instead, say to your self, “Let me think how I started. I started from my breath. It is not difficult to find my breath.” Breathe several times quickly and return your attention to the breath and its natural pace.
▶ If your mind wanders from its focus on the breath, don’t get upset. Simply noticing that you have been thinking, daydreaming, or worrying is a wonderful achievement! Gently but firmly return your attention to the breath. And then do it again the next time, and the next time, and the time after that.
▶ If you feel sleepy or dull, try focusing with slightly more effort on the touch sensations of the in-breath and out-breath. If stronger focus does not help, stand up and continue meditating in a standing posture for a few minutes or try walking meditation. You’ll find instructions for both postures in the next chapter.
▶ If you begin to feel pain, first try to address the situation as much as possible. loosen your clothing and check your posture to make sure that you are not slouching. Move to a posture that’s easier to maintain (as described in the next chapter). If these adjustments do not help, then work with the pain: try making the sensation of pain your object of meditation. Observe the sensation and watch how it changes over time.
▶ If questions arise, ask someone with more experience. Remind yourself that millions of people have used this practice to attain clarity and peace of mind.
▶ Keep practicing with patience.
How to cite this document:
© Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English (Wisdom Publications, 2012)
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