THE FOUR ESTABLISHMENTS (FOUNDATIONS) OF MINDFULNESS

The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing

 

The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is divided into six sections. Section Two: the Sixteen Exercises is the heart of the sutra.  This section elaborates the sixteen methods of fully aware breathing in connection with the Four Establishments (Foundations) of Mindfulness.

 

Four Establishments (Foundations) of Mindfulness:

  • Form - The Body

  • Feelings

  • Mental Formations

  • Perceptions

 

The Sixteen Methods of Fully Aware Breathing in Connection with the Four Establishments (Foundations) of Mindfulness:

 

Form - The Body

 

1. Breathing in a long breath, I know that I am breathing in a long breath, breathing out a long breath, I know I’m breathing out a long breath

2. Breathing in a short breath, I know that I am breathing in a short breath, breathing out a short breath, I know I’m breathing out a short breath

3. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body, breathing out, I am aware of my whole body

4. Breathing in, I calm my whole body, breathing out, I calm my whole body

 

Feelings

 

5. Breathing in I feel joyful, breathing out I feel joyful

6. Breathing in I feel happy, breathing out, I feel happy

7. Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations, breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations

8. Breathing in, I calm my mental formations, breathing out, I calm my mental formations

 

Mental Formations

 

9.   Breathing in, I am aware of my mind, breathing out, I am aware of my mind

10. Breathing in, I make my mind happy, breathing out, I make my mind happy

11. Breathing in, I concentrate my mind, breathing out, I concentrate my mind

12. Breathing in, I liberate my mind, breathing out, I liberate my mind

 

Perceptions

 

13. Breathing in, I observe the impermanence of all dharmas, breathing out, I observe the impermanence of all dharmas

14. Breathing in, I observe the disappearance of desire, breathing out, I observe the disappearing of desire

15. Breathing in, I observe cessation, breathing out, I observe cessation

16. Breathing in, I observe letting go, breathing in, I observe letting go

 

Form - The Body

 

  1. Breathing in a long breath, I know that I am breathing in a long breath, breathing out a long breath, I know I’m breathing out a long breath    

  2. Breathing in a short breath, I know that I am breathing in a short breath, breathing out a short breath, I know I’m breathing out a short breath

  3. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body, breathing out, I am aware of my whole body

  4. Breathing in, I calm my whole body, breathing out, I calm my whole body

 

The first four exercises of fully aware breathing help us return to our body in order to look deeply at it and care for it. In our daily lives, it is important that we learn to create harmony and ease in our body and to reunite body and mind. The Buddha never taught us to mistreat or oppress our bodies.

 

In exercises one and two, the object of awareness is our breath itself. Our mind is the subject, and our breath is the object. Our breath might be short, long, heavy or light. Practicing awareness in this way, we see that our breathing affects our mind and our mind affects our breathing. Our mind and our breath become one. We also see that breathing is an aspect of the body and that awareness of our breathing is also awareness of the body.

 

In the third exercise, the breath is connected with our whole body, not just a part of it. Awareness of the breathing is, at the same time, awareness of our entire body. Our mind, our breath and our whole body are one. In the fourth breathing exercise, our body’s functions begin to calm down. Calming the breath is accompanied by calming the body and mind. Our mind, our breathing and our body are calmed down equally. In these four exercises, we can realize the oneness of body and mind. Breathing is an excellent tool for establishing calmness and evenness.

 

The Feelings

 

5. Breathing in I feel joyful, breathing out I feel joyful

6. Breathing in I feel happy, breathing out, I feel happy

7. Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations, breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations

8. Breathing in, I calm my mental formations, breathing out, I calm my mental formations

 

The second four exercises of fully aware breathing help us return to our feelings in order to develop joy and happiness and transform suffering. Our feelings are us. If we do not look after our feelings, who will do it for us? Every day we painful feelings and we need to learn how to look after them.  Our teachers and friends can help us to a certain extent, but we have to do the work.  Our body and are feelings are our territory, and we are the king or queen responsible for our territory. Practicing the fifth exercise, we touch pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings. As a result of conscious breathing and calming the body, joy, a pleasant feeling arises. In the sixth exercise, Joy is transformed into peace and happiness, and we are fully aware of it. The seventh and eighth exercises bring our attention to all feelings that arise, whether produced by the body or the mind. The mind’s functions include feelings and perceptions. When we are aware of every bodily and every mental action, we are aware of every feeling. The eighth exercise calms the body and mind and makes them peaceful. At this point, we can perfectly and completely unify body, mind, feelings and breath.

 

The Mind

 

9. Breathing in, I am aware of my mind, breathing out, I am aware of my mind

10. Breathing in, I make my mind happy, breathing out, I make my mind happy

11. Breathing in, I concentrate my mind, breathing out, I concentrate my mind

12. Breathing in, I liberate my mind, breathing out, I liberate my mind

 

The third exercise of fully aware breathing has to do with our mind, which means the activities of our mind. Mental formations are part of our territory, also. There are seeds buried deep in our sub-conscious mind that we do not touch often enough, seeds of love, understanding, compassion, joy, knowing right from wrong, the ability to listen to others, nonviolence, and the willingness to overcome ignorance, aversion and attachment. 

Through the practice of mindfulness, we learn to identify these traits in us and nurture them, with the help of teachers and spiritual friends, until we grow into beautiful flowers. When we survey our territory, we also find destructive traits, such as anger, despair, suspicion, pride and other mental formations that cause us suffering. Because we do not like to look at these negative traits, we do not want to come back to ourselves. But with the aid of the practice of mindful breathing, we learn to take full responsibility for restoring our territory and taking good care of it.

 

The tenth exercise makes our mind happy, because it is easier for the mind to become concentrated when it is in a peaceful, happy state than when it is filled with sorrow and anxiety. We are aware that we have the opportunity to practice meditation and that there is no moment more important than the present one. Calmly abiding in the present moment, immense joy arises each time we touch in ourselves the seeds of faith, compassion, goodness, equanimity, liberty, so on. These seeds are buried deep in our consciousness, and we need only to touch them and water them with conscious breathing for them to manifest. Using the mind to observe the mind, the eleventh exercise brings us to deep concentration. All mental formations that manifest in the present moment can become objects of our concentration. The twelfth exercise can release the mind to freedom, if it is still bound. Looking deeply at the nature of mental formations such as fear, anger, anxiety and so on brings about the understanding that will liberate us.

 

The Objects of the Mind

 

13. Breathing in, I observe the impermanence of all dharmas, breathing out, I observe the impermanence of all dharmas

14. Breathing in, I observe the disappearance of desire, breathing out, I observe the disappearing of desire

15. Breathing in, I observe cessation, breathing out, I observe cessation

16. Breathing in, I observe letting go, breathing in, I observe letting go

 

Mind cannot be separated from its object. Mind is consciousness, feeling, attachment, aversion and so on. Consciousness must always be conscious of something. Feeling is always feeling something. Loving and hating are always loving and hating something. This “something” is the object of the mind. Mind cannot arise if there is no object. Mind cannot exist if the object of the mind does not exist. The mind is, at one and the same time, the subject of consciousness and the object of consciousness. All physiological phenomena, such as breath, the nervous system and the sense organs; all psychological phenomena, such as feelings, thoughts and consciousness and all physical phenomena, such as the earth, water, grass, trees, mountains, and rivers are objects of the mind, and therefore all are mind.  All of these things can be called “dharmas.”

 

The thirteenth breathing exercise sheds light on the ever-changing, impermanent nature of all that exists- the physiological, the psychological and the physical. Breathing itself is also impermanent. The insight into impermanence is very important because it opens a way for us to see the interrelated, interconnected nature, as well as the selfless nature of all that exists.

Nothing has a separate, independent self. The fourteenth exercise allows us to recognize the true nature of our desire, to see that every dharma is already in the process of disintegrating, so that we are no longer possessed by the idea of holding onto any dharma as an object of desire and as a separate entity, even the physiological and psychological elements in ourselves. The fifteenth exercise allows us to arrive at the awareness of a great joy, the joy of emancipation and the cessation of illusion, by freeing us from the intention to grasp any notion. The sixteenth exercise illuminates for us what it is to let go of ourselves, to give up all the burdens of our ignorance and our grasping. To be able to let go is already to have arrived at liberation.

 

These sixteen exercises can be studied and practiced intelligently. Although the first four exercises help our concentration very much, and every time we practice it is helpful to do these, it is not always necessary to practice the sixteen exercises in sequence. For example, you might like to practice only the fourteenth exercise for several days or months.

Although these exercises are presented very simply, their effectiveness is immeasurable. Depending on our experience, we can enter them deeply or superficially. The Buddha did not intend to generate new theories or to confuse the minds of those new to the practice, so he used simple terms, like impermanence, disappearance of desire, cessation, and letting go. In fact, the deeper meaning of the term impermanence also includes the concepts of non-self, emptiness, interbeing, sign-lessness, and aimlessness. That is why it is so important to observe deeply that which lights our path and leads to emancipation.

The Four Establishments (Foundations) of Mindfulness

 

Everything that exists can be placed into one of the Four Establishments (Foundations) of Mindfulness – the body, the feelings, the mind and the objects of the mind. Another way of saying objects of the mind is all “dharmas,” which means “everything that is.” We practice the full awareness of the Four Establishments (Foundations) through conscious breathing.

The key to “observation meditation” is that the subject of observation and the object of the observation not be regarded as separate. When we observe something, we are that thing. Non-duality is the key word. “Observing the body in the body” means that in the process of observing, we do not stand outside of our own body as if we are an independent observer, but we identify ourselves one hundred percent with the object being observed. This is the only path that can lead us to the penetration and direct experience of reality. In “observation meditation,” the body and mind are one entity, and the subject and object of meditation are one entity also. There is no sword of discrimination that slices reality into many parts. The meditator is a fully engaged participant, not a separate observer.

“Observation meditation” is a lucid awareness of what is going on in the Four Establishments (Foundations): body, feelings, mind and all dharmas, “persevering, fully awake, clearly understanding his state, gone beyond all attachment and aversion to this life.” “Life” means all that exists. Stubbornly clinging to all that exists or resisting and rejecting it all both lack the lucidity of an awakened mind. To succeed in the work of observation, we must go beyond both attachment and aversion.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe, You Are Alive!

Practicing Insight Meditation