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The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Your Vipassana Guide


We will follow the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha’s fundamental teaching on meditation) as our Vipassana guide as we hone our awareness of the world around us. Common to all Buddhist traditions, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a systematic guide to practicing insight meditation in progressive stages, detailing the four areas of life to which mental awareness should be applied. Those four areas are mindfulness of body, feelings, mind, and phenomena or mental objects.

But, first: preparation! Shamata or calm abiding is a foundational practice that paves the way into Vipassana. Shamata builds concentration and stability which allows us to begin the further inquiries of our insight practice. Namchak teacher Khen Rinpoche tells us that a person could spend years honing concentration, so it’s best to move into Vipassana when you feel you have a stable Shamata practice. If this is all new to you, begin with our Shamata ecourse or find some guided Shamata meditations here.

Mindfulness of Body and Feelings

Once we are comfortable with Shamata, we dive into the waters of Vipassana. We start by exploring the first two foundations of mindfulness: body and feelings. The idea is to gain an awareness of our body and feelings as they are, rather than as we think they are. We often identify our own experiences and feelings as ultimate truth, rather than remaining curious to different realities.

Vipassana meditation includes mentally scanning your body to see what you find. Usually this begins with finding sensations in the body like an itch or discomfort. Then you move deeper into mentally exploring things like your muscles and skin and truly seeing if you can tell how they feel or what’s happening in specific parts.

This practice teaches the impermanence of our bodies and feelings as we discover that they aren’t solid things we can hold on to. Let’s say you are experiencing negative feelings about another person or yourself. If you practice Vipassana and scan your body and mind searching for those feelings as singularly existing things, most likely the thoughts will dissipate.

Through this practice we learn that whatever we are feeling is impermanent and not a solidly existing thing. If we believe right now that a negative feeling is real and don’t investigate it, then we will most likely experience suffering. For example, if we grasped onto a negative feeling about someone rather than investigating it, that would most likely cause us distress. However, if we investigate it and look for it as a solidly existing thing, we would find that it isn’t as real as we thought. The further our assumptions are from reality, the more we suffer. Through Vipassana we learn to see reality.

This realization of impermanence of our body and feelings leads us on the path of liberation or freedom from suffering. When we learn there’s truth beyond our assumptions, we suffer less.

We recommend that you begin your Vipassana journey with a teacher to help navigate the complexity of these methods.

Mindfulness of Mind? Yes, it’s a thing!

Mindfulness of Mind sounds like a funny phrase, doesn’t it? As we dive into the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we look at the third foundation, which is Mindfulness of Mind or Consciousness. Now we take it a step further and develop an awareness of our minds. Have you ever found yourself zoned out or being unaware of what’s going on in your mind? We can easily go through our actions of daily life without an awareness of our minds. This is where Vipassana meditation can help as we practice observing our mental states.

Let’s begin by clarifying what we mean by the word, “mind.” Our minds are non-physical forms that identify, react, label, and experience the world around us. You could also say that our minds hold our consciousness. Our minds can be peaceful, positive, and even tumultuous places depending on the mental states we hold. Our minds guide our actions, which ultimately guide the outcomes of our lives, so it’s important that we take the time to tune into our minds.

The first step is to look at our minds and see what’s happening there. Think of it as a mental weather forecast. The next step is to acknowledge the mental state we are in, paying special attention to avoid labeling that state of mind as bad or good. Once we see and accept our mental states while knowing they are temporary and not ultimate or eternal truths, their power over us dissipates.

We can experience countless mental states within a short period of time: contentment, greed, anger, joy, excitement, dissatisfaction, and more. It’s fascinating to watch the movies that play in our minds. Usually we see every genre all within a day. Through Vipassana meditation we gain awareness of these movies or mental states. Rather than zoning out or grasping on to them, we can learn to relax and observe our mental states, almost like we are watching a movie. And like movies, mental states change and eventually end. We understand that our mental state is not the state we will always be in, nor is it who we are. We can sit back and let the stories pass by, knowing that our current mental state will not define us forever.

Take some quiet time and observe your mind from the perspective of a person going to a movie. What mental states tend to find you? It’s okay and normal to find yourself in unpleasant mental states from time to time. It might be helpful to give yourself reminders that you’re not defined by your mental states. Repeat: “I am not my mental state, I am not my mental state, I am not my mental state…”

Through Vipassana and gaining awareness of our mental states, we can learn to be at ease in any mental state. This can lead us to being more present in our lives, interactions, and relationships. Who doesn’t want that?!


Mindfulness of Phenomena

We’ve covered the first three Foundations of Mindfulness: body, feelings, and mind. That leaves Mindfulness of Phenomena, the fourth and final Foundation of Mindfulness. The first three involve investigating within ourselves. Investigating phenomena asks us to shift our focus to the world around us.

The word “phenomena” makes us think of extraordinary or impressive people or supernatural events. In this context, phenomena refer to the observable occurrences or circumstances around us. They could be extraordinary, or they could be normal occurrences of daily life.

Fortunately, we don’t have to travel anywhere to start this Mindfulness of Phenomena exploration. We can begin by observing the world around us. For example, a sunset. A sunset occurs as the sun drops below the horizon as the Earth rotates. In other words, a sunset occurs under certain conditions and ends when the conditions change. Then it is dark with no evidence of the sunset. Thus, the sunset isn’t inherently existing on its own. If we mentally zoom out, we can see that this is the same for all phenomena around us—they occur under specific conditions.

If everything around us is occurring in a cause-and-effect process, there is nothing solidly existing to grasp. As we meditate on this impermanent existence of phenomena, our likes and dislike can slowly melt away.

What is mindfulness?

In the context of Vipassana, mindfulness is the integration of these four foundations. As we investigate each foundation and integrate them, we begin to see ourselves and the world as they are. This can be misinterpreted as non-existence of the self and the world around us, which may lead to insecurity about a meaningless existence. However, that is a mistaken view. We exist, and the world around us exists.

A better question is, “How am I existing in this moment?” or, “How is the world around me existing in this moment?” To find the answers, you can examine your body, mind, feelings, and surroundings. We can do so at the beginning of each day and from moment to moment throughout our days. This newfound awareness leads to our responding to the reality of situations around us, rather than reverting to our immediate reactions. We learn to respond rather than react.

The hope is to find comfort and freedom in knowing that these states of existence are impermanent. Rather than grasping them as absolute truths, we see them, accept them, and watch them pass as we would a sunset.

Mastering Vipassana through the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a lifelong journey. You can share your journey with others by attending a Namchak retreat.

Check out these upcoming opportunities to begin or expand your Vipassana journey.

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