The Buddha's Guide to Mindfulness Practice


Mindfulness, at its roots an originally Buddhist meditation technique, has exploded in popularity over the past decade. What was once exclusively a practice for Buddhists has now become a phenomenon in the West.

And while this is truly amazing, unfortunately, it’s been spread mostly disconnected from it’s original roots, so the accompanying wisdom that should guide the practice is unknown to many actively practicing it today.

This was necessary for it to spread to a larger audience, but unfortunate because without its supporting wisdom, while still beautiful and powerful, the practice is only a shadow of its true self.

There are so many beautiful and truly profound ways to expand your mindfulness practice. I’m talking about simple things we can all pay attention to at really every moment of our daily lives, so they have the potential to serve as sources of even greater insight into ourselves, which can bring about greater peace and happiness.

The following 4 points are what’s called the Buddha's "4 Foundations of Mindfulness”. Our modern-day knowledge of this originates from the Satipatthana sutta or "The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness" (a sutta, or sutra, being a kind of Buddhist scripture).

The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness were said to have been laid down by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and serves as the quintessential guide to moment-to-moment mindfulness practice. These 4 establishments are the heart of most Buddhist meditation techniques.

Traditionally, the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness were each described as “mindfulness of [the thing] in [the thing]”, referring to the fact that we’re mindful of something while in the experience of the thing itself, but I’ve simplified the titles for ease of understanding.

Each of these points provides multiple unique opportunities for developing a deep and rich daily mindfulness practice which leads you towards greater peace, freedom, and happiness.

*A heads up:the 4 Establishments of Mindfulness are a deep and vast teaching. This post isn't intended to delve deeply into each point but rather give you a simple and straightforward explanation of each along with practical advice for practicing them in your day-to-day life.

1. Mindfulness of body, anatomy, and elements

Each of the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness flow in a very much step-by-step nature, and the Buddha’s “Mindfulness of the body in the body” is always the first stage.

Those of you familiar with mindfulness and Buddhist meditation techniques know the foundational practice is always mindfulness of breath. There’s also mindfulness of our steps in walking meditation, mindfulness of chewing in mindful eating, and so on.

Those are well-known examples of this first opportunity for mindfulness practice, which is really mindfulness of positions and movements, but it goes deeper than that.

More than just mindfulness of physical positions and movements, mindfulness of the body in the body is also mindfulness of our anatomy and the elements we're made up of.

Mindfulness of our anatomy includes mindfulness of the many intricacies of our body, including our internal organs and all the stuff we usually don’t like to talk about like saliva, skin, and urine.

It’s not a pretty topic, but the Buddha suggested we take the time to contemplate deeply on and be mindful of the body in its completeness to become more aware of its selfless, impermanent, and conditioned nature and begin the process of truly being able to let go.

Meditation: A simple meditation you can do for this is to go through each area of your body with mindfulness including your hair, skin, wrinkles even, heart, lungs, etc. and imagine yourself smiling at each area as you go.

The last area for practice is mindfulness of the “4 elements” in Indian spirituality: earth, fire, water, and air.

That might sound a bit cryptic, but there’s actually very concrete ways to practice here which are very nourishing:

  • Earth. This refers to mindfulness of the physical form of our body, which we largely already covered. Here, you could be mindful more so of the existence of your physical form standing or sitting rather than of a particular movement, though. Mindfulness of our internal organs or outer physical aspects of our body are examples of practice here.
  • Fire. This has to do with becoming mindful of heat in the body (or lack of). Being mindful of the general temperature of the body is a very simple practice which you can easily do anywhere.
  • Water. We’ve all heard the statistic: our bodies are made up of more than 57% water. That’s essentially what this element is about: mindfulness of body fluid. It might sound like an odd one, but there’s a number of occasions where this practice presents itself in a simple way.
  • Air. For each element, it’s important to be aware of how they play a part in making up the complete system that is our bodies, and that’s no different here. Air refers to the respiratory system and how air plays a direct part in our biology. This area is practiced simply through the foundational Buddhist meditation technique of mindful breathing.

Overall, it’s important to remember that we’re not mindful of these elements just because we can be. The purpose of being mindful of these elements is to notice the conditioned nature of the body.

That is, our body isn’t one single thing but made up of different elements which then give the appearance of one singular thing.

As usual with the Buddha’s teachings, he’s trying to get you to realize the selfless, conditioned, and impermanent nature of things so that you can let go and realize the "highest truth”. And this is one effective way to begin you on the path to doing just that.

2. Mindfulness of feelings

This is what the Buddha traditionally called “Mindfulness of feelings in feelings” and it’s perhaps easiest to understand as mindfulness of painful, pleasurable, and neutral feelings.

These painful, pleasurable, and neutral feelings are felt through the six sense organs of the eyes, ears, tongue, body, nose, and mind (in Buddhism the mind is considered the 6th sense).

This stage in mindfulness practice is very important because it directly deals with the "3 Unwholesome States of Mind" (or 3 poisons, as I talked about in 12 Pieces of Buddhist Wisdom That Will Transform Your Life) of greed, hatred, and delusion.

How does it involve them? Here's a simple breakdown:

  1. Pleasurable feelings lead to attachments such as greed and lust.
  2. Painful feelings lead to aversions such as hatred and fear.
  3. And neutral feelings lead to delusion because they often seem unimportant to us and are therefore ignored.

This is the biggest reason you refrain from acknowledging things in any way when practicing mindfulness.

To acknowledge in any way is to acknowledge something as painful, pleasurable, or neutral (in the case of our day-to-day lives, usually pleasurable or painful). And to do this is to potentially further confuse ourselves and perpetuate the chain of suffering we experience.

But don't misunderstand. It doesn't mean you can't experience joy while doing something, but it does mean that you need to be skillful to not attach yourself to any pleasurable feeling, otherwise that pleasure will then transform into suffering.

For a very concrete example, think of what it's like to fall in love.

What begins as pure joy without attachment quickly becomes something we feel we need, and when that person either leaves us or does something that doesn't align with the idea we have in our minds of who the person is we experience suffering.

But how do we actually deal with a situation like this? With mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the watchful eye which allows us to identify when we attach ourselves to pleasurable feelings, grow aversion to painful feelings, and which allows us to stop ignoring neutral feelings and truly begin observing everything with clarity to see reveal its true nature.

With mindfulness, it's possible to live in a way that you experience great peace and joy without attaching to or averting things. In fact, the greatest peace is experienced when we can be with a pleasurable feeling without attaching and openly accept painful feelings without growing aversion to them.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. But the effort is worth it. After all, isn't true peace and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones what life is all about?

3. Mindfulness of consciousness

Mindfulness of consciousness is traditionally called “Mindfulness of the mind in the mind”.

In Buddhism, it’s noted that there are 52 “mental formations”, mental formations being partly what we refer to as emotions and states of mind such as joy, fear, anger, frustration, excitement, and the like but it includes much more than just that.

It’s important to note that feelings are 1 of the 52 mental formations, but it’s separated and isolated as the second stage of mindfulness practice likely due to its unique practice method mentioned in the last point. This third stage of mindfulness practice includes all other 51 mental formations.

The mental formations have their own categories and a pretty vast teaching behind them, so they’re beyond the full scope of this article. But, for a list of all 52 mental formations (for use in day-to-day mindfulness practice) see here and a modified version by Thich Nhat Hanh here.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, going into detail on the 4 Establishments of Mindfulness could fill a book, so this post is simply intended to help you begin deepening your mindfulness practice in a few practical and "productive" ways, at which point you can delve further if you so choose.

A great place to start practicing mindfulness of consciousness is in noticing the coming and going of various emotions and states of mind such as joy, fear, anger, and even mindfulness itself.

By acknowledging "I am being mindful" when you're being mindful or "I am being mindless" when you catch yourself in a distracted or forgetful state of mind you're practicing mindfulness of consciousness.

4. Mindfulness of mental objects

This is traditionally called "Mindfulness of objects of mind in objects of mind". That might sound confusing, but objects of mind are really about our thoughts, ideas, and conceptions.

Here, it's important to understand what role perception plays in our life.

Think of your perception as a T.V. screen. There's something real and true being transmitted onto the screen, but it's not the image on the T.V. The image on the T.V. is an object of mind. It's simply an idea in our mind, or a thought, as opposed to the real thing.

Imagine a flower. When we perceive something like a flower it’s the image of that flower in our mind which is the object of mind.

That's not to say that the flower itself doesn't exist. It does, but we also create an image in our mind of that which we're experiencing.

That image, our perception (various thoughts, ideas, and concepts attached to that real thing), then has a way of "layering" itself over reality. And that almost always distorts- either positively or negatively, or both- our direct experience with the true flower.

That's the idea here. That is, to move beyond our perception to a place where we can see the true flower- beyond our distorting perception as well as identifying the actual thoughts, ideas, and concepts which distort our perception in the first place.

When we fall in love and become attached, we can clearly observe certain states such as greed, craving, or lust having arisen alongside that attachment. They're, in a way, the "quality" of our attachment. The way in which we're attaching.

In this example, it's the resulting effect of our attachment to this idea of the person. This is an example of the practice of mindfulness of the "5 Hindrances".

Noticing the 5 Hindrances, along with the 7 Factors of Awakening, are the core mindfulness practices within mindfulness of mental objects.

The 5 Hindrances are:

  1. Sensual desire (I feel this is better understood in English as lust)
  2. Ill will
  3. Dullness or drowsiness
  4. Restlessness and worry
  5. Doubt

The 5 Hindrances are things which can hold us back from realizing freedom and true happiness (to put it simply). These are things we want to do away with.

The 7 Factors of Awakening are:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Investigation (of mental objects)
  3. Energy
  4. Joy
  5. Tranquility
  6. Concentration
  7. Equanimity

The 7 Factors of Awakening are the main qualities which the Buddha says should be cultivated to attain awakening and true happiness. The first factor, mindfulness, is supposed to begin a sort of chain effect where each factor leads to the cultivation of the next factor.

I don't want to say too much about this stage as it's a rather deep area of mindfulness practice which you may or may not be ready for, but it's important to keep it in mind because it completes the full scope of mindfulness practice.

For now, it's best to understand that the way to practice with mindfulness of mental objects is to acknowledge when they arise, investigate how they arose, how the 5 Hindrances can be removed and prevented, and for the 7 Factors of Awakening how they can be grown and cultivated.

If this last point sounded a little difficult to follow, don't worry. If you dedicate yourself to the first 3 stages of mindfulness practice you'll gradually cultivate your mindfulness to the point of being able to notice things in a more subtle way, at which point mindfulness of mental objects will be easier to practice.

The Buddha's mindfulness practice

These are the 4 major areas of mindfulness practice originally established by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago.

When taken together, they include the totality of mindfulness practice and show how you can begin with something as simple as mindfulness of breath and expand to ever-deeper levels of oneself to cultivate greater peace, freedom, and happiness in everyday life.

Keep in mind that you don't ditch one point of mindfulness practice for another. There's a clear path from one establishment of mindfulness to the next, but each is practiced together, and often all at once. As you may have been able to tell, they have a good deal of overlap.

Take these 4 opportunities to be mindful in your everyday life and use them as a way to investigate yourself and discover important insights that can help you relieve suffering and realize true peace and happiness.

Further reading

For those looking to learn more, here are a few resources (the first being off-site):

  1. The Satipatthana sutta - Access to Insight
  2. How to Walk the Buddha's 8-Fold Path to True Peace and Happiness
  3. What is Mindfulness? A Guide to the Practice of Mindfulness