Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness – an introduction

In our meditation practice we notice physical sensation, emotions and thoughts as well as any insights that arise in the process. This is what we do. This is our practice. This practice the Buddha called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Knowing the name, seeing it written out, formalizes our understanding and appreciation.

The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness are:

  • awareness of the body, physical sensation
  • awareness of feeling tones
  • awareness of mental phenomena, thoughts, emotions
  • awareness of truths, insights, the Dharma

Those of you who are in my class can recognize that these four foundations are deeply ingrained in the way I give meditation instruction. But they are also very present in our dharma discussions, woven into them, intrinsic to them. So this is not new information but it is a new way of looking at them, a way that might help us see them more clearly.

I like the word ‘Foundations’ and the order in which they are listed. We develop awareness of the physical senses first because it is the most readily available and reliable way to bring ourselves into the present moment. With this first foundation we are learning how to notice in a skillful way. We are developing Wise View in relation to these sensations, and in relation to the body. Without this first foundation, we don’t have the practice in the skills that are needed to notice feelings, emotions or thoughts with Wise View. We get entangled with them, we drown in them, but we don’t see them clearly. As we practice each of these Foundations, we develop the ability to notice without getting entangled; or at least to see the entanglement with more spaciousness.

With these first three Foundations we are developing a strong practice in noticing, in seeing with loving awareness, and the Fourth Foundation quite naturally arises out of the first three.

Knowing that there are these Four Foundations of Mindfulness reminds us that if we are feeling overwhelmed we can revisit the First Foundation again, sensing into the body; and then work our way to the Second, noticing whatever feeling tone is present; then the Third, noticing the thoughts and emotions that are arising and passing away in our awareness; in order to allow the Dharma, the truth, an insight, an Aha!, a moment of clarity to be seen and understood, which is the Fourth of these Four Foundations.

Nice, huh? The Buddha knew how to fashion a conceptual construct to make things very clear. That’s what drew me to his teachings, and the desire to incorporate them into my own experience of meditation and its great gifts.

We will discuss more about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the following months. This was just a brief introduction of the overall concept.


Because we have several new students in the class, I took a moment to give my take on why I bow at the end of meditation and at the end of our class, and it opened into a lovely discussion as to why others do as well.

I bring it up because when I first attended Buddhist classes, I was a bit uncomfortable with the bowing. What did it mean? Was I bowing to a deity? What was the deal? Then someone said that when we bow, we are putting our head below our heart. I loved this explanation and it made it possible for me to bow at any time. Putting out heart below our head is such a simple way to bring some balance to our approach toward the world, to let the heart — our natural loving kindness — have its say. And what it expresses is gratitude. Gratitude to ourselves for taking this time for meditation when so much else in the world might seem much more enticing; gratitude for this moment, this life, these teaching.

There is also a quality of sealing whatever was received in the meditation. Pressing our hands together is sealing what has been received, setting it with intention, that it may stay present in our experience as we go throughout the day.

There is nothing about the bowing we do in our class that is in violation with any religion any student might practice. Our class is not religious in nature, and the practice of meditation and exploration of the dharma has been shown to enhance one’s appreciation and understanding of the student’s own religion. I have heard this many times and think it has much to do with learning how to be present to actually hear, see and appreciate the teachings of any world religion.

So bowing can be devotional, but for me, and the students in my class, it is a simple acknowledgement of gratitude, appreciation and intention.

Transitions, Loss and Discovery

We are in the few weeks between the ‘end of summer’ marked in the US by Labor Day and nature’s end of summer on the upcoming Autumnal Equinox. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s worthwhile to notice any feelings that arise out of this sense of an ending with the days growing shorter and the air cooling. Whenever we are in transition, it is particularly kind to give ourselves a little extra time and space to process our experience.

In Thursday’s class we had a discussion based on questions and comments within the sangha circle. At the end of class, I commended the circle for collectively creating a dharma discussion that was skillful in the ways I discussed previously in What Makes an Effective Sangha Discussion?

Though there’s no way to recapture all of what was shared, here are some of the areas we explored.

Noticing our Emotions
One student asked the difference between ‘noticing’ our emotions and ‘feeling’ our emotions. Although this could just be a matter of semantics and personal choice, for me the word ‘noticing’ — which is what I encourage my students to do — creates more spaciousness around the emotion to allow it to exist without our having to act upon it. We have the capacity to develop a spacious field of loving awareness where all manner of experiences arise and fall away. If we do get caught up the urgency of an emotion’s call to action, then some portion of our awareness is noticing this as well.

Our practice of noticing is not to develop a distant detached observer avoiding the experience of life. This is more likely to be a judgmental aspect of our personality rather than an access to Wise View (aka Right View, from of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.) We didn’t come into this life to sit on the sidelines and watch! In our practice we are developing the ability to be in the stream of life fully present and awake. There are many posts on this blog that address what being in the moment entails, and I encourage you to read in the archive of posts to find ones that have meaning for you and help to answer or at least explore what’s up for you at this time.

As an example of noticing an emotion, we explored anger a bit. We can ‘feel’ anger but then what? What is the next step? What are we to do with this feeling? With noticing, we look closer, activate curiosity, discover related physical sensation and associative images and memories. Noticing is an opportunity to use a strong emotion to learn something about ourselves, something that might have been hidden or ignored. It also allows us to see that emotions, thoughts and physical sensations are in a constant state of flux. This in turn helps us to see that they are not who we are. We can’t pin our identity on waves of activity that arise and fall away and are experienced by everyone, depending on the causes and conditions they experience.

This is an open-ended discussion and in no way discourages us from feeling our emotions!

Coping With Loss
One student shared the relatively recent loss of a loved one. We are a group of women of a certain age, and there is not one among us who has not lost someone we love. But even though loss is universal, all our experiences of loss are not the same, and that’s important for us all to remember.
In our mindfulness practice, we focus not on the experiences themselves, telling the story of the event again and again, but on how we in the present moment are reacting, responding or relating to them. Are we being present with the pain we notice, or are we compounding this pain with more suffering by grasping, clinging, pushing away or denying the experience? Can we create a spacious field of loving awareness in which to experience whatever arises? Can we hold it all in an open loving embrace, making room for the ebb and flow of our experience?

I shared an analogy that students have told me has been most helpful with loss or a traumatic event:

Imagine a mountain lake, beautiful and pristine. Then imagine out of the blue a large rock, maybe even a boulder, maybe even a meteor falling into the middle of the lake. This is the traumatic event — the death of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, the loss of a career, health or an ability, for example.

When the boulder falls, the point of entering the lake is chaos. The water is churned up, huge splashes, bubbles, waves — all is thrown out of balance. Everything is upside down and out of control. If we are practiced at being aware and noticing, what we notice is this sense of being overwhelmed by huge emotions. We may be too overwhelmed to notice. We may rage against the very practices that have supported us because they are insufficient to protect us from this sense of being overwhelmed. I remember in the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’ when Ram Dass suffered a stroke and was being wheeled into the hospital, he wondered what was the point of all his meditative practice if at this moment it wasn’t there to make everything okay. (I’m paraphrasing.) He who had a strong spiritual practice all his life lost it in that moment of great loss and anguish. In that moment of incredible pain and turmoil, there feels as if there is nothing to hold onto. So we let go. We experience the pain of it. We do the best we can. Maybe we get lost, but just as we come back to the present moment and our breath in meditation after our mind has wandered, we come back to that which supports us. For meditators, it is our practice, our access to a sense of spacious oneness.

To continue our analogy: In the following days, weeks, months and years after the event, what we notice is periods where life goes on relatively normally, and then periods where we feel thrust ‘back’ into the churning emotions. For many of us, especially after a good deal of time has passed, we may see this as ‘losing ground,’ as if we are supposed to be making some kind of linear progress away from being affected by this event.

But remember the lake, the boulder falling, and what is the naturally arising result? There are ripples. Long after the boulder has settled at the bottom of the lake, the water radiates from the point of impact outward in widening circles. So too with a traumatic event. The calm spaces between the ripples grow wider, and the ripples grow smaller, but they still exist, quite naturally.

Just so, it is quite natural for us to wake up one day and feel quite strongly the emotional ramifications of that event, however long ago it was. Yesterday we were fine and today perhaps our heart aches, as if the boulder is sitting on our chest. At these times it is most skillful to acknowledge that this is natural, no matter what anyone says, and to give ourselves whatever kindness we can, not to make the feelings disappear, but just to create enough spaciousness in our awareness to experience them, to allow for them.

This is an important lesson for all of us, whether the loss is our own or someone else’s. We can remember this image when a friend seems to be ‘slipping back’ into grief or depression. These feelings are amplified by misinterpreting them as failings to keep up the time-lined task of healing. At these times a true friend doesn’t say, ‘It’s been x amount of time. Get over it already!’ or words that sound like that to the person addressed, even when put in a nicer way. This brings us back to remembering that even though loss is universal, we each experience it in our own way, and no one else can tell us how we should be feeling.

Mindfulness Practices We Might Already Have
We also discussed if one doesn’t have a daily meditation practice and doesn’t feel there is time in the day to create one, how to take an existing activity and make it a mindfulness practice. Being more mindful — in the moment — as we walk, for example, instead of using it as a time to make a to do list or put buds in our ears to listen to someone elses words. Swimming also is a natural for mindfulness practice, so full of sensations to draw our attention. So that is something to consider if life just feels too full to add a meditation practice. I work with people one on one to help them develop space for daily practice in whatever form it takes. Contact me if that is something you would like to explore. But let me still put in a plug for at least some sitting practice!!

So that’s some of what we explored in our sangha discussion. If you weren’t there, I hope I’ve given you at least of taste of what you missed!

Accessing Inner Wisdom & Compassion

Following up on last week’s post about Jack Kornfield‘s description of being greeted by the Dalai Lama and one of my student’s sharing of her experience of being held by Amma, I want to emphasize that we do not have to track down the Dalai Lama or wait for Amma to come to town in order to feel completely loved and accepted for who we are.

We have within ourselves the capacity to hold ourselves in the deepest loving kindness and compassion so that we experience a sense of union and release. We have access to universal compassion, just as we have access to universal wisdom. It’s right here, ready and available to us, just waiting for us to take a pause — a pause to be held, to open, to listen, to be fully present.

In a recent retreat on Buddhist Psychology, Jack emphasized how available this universal wisdom is by leading us in an exercise where we encountered a ‘luminous being’ in whatever form that took for each of us. With the aid of this luminous being we were able to face a personal challenge in our lives. Just by closing our eyes and pausing with intention and open-hearted inquiry, we accessed infinite wisdom and compassion with good advice. (I believe this guided exercise is included in one of his recent books. I’m sorry I don’t know which one.)

This luminous being exercise reminded me of my experience many years ago when I was suffering from an extended illness and had lots of time to meditate. I found a luminous being of light in my meditation. She was dancing in a bubble of light, so joyfully I was entranced. She had close-cropped hair, wore white Chinese style pajamas and radiated pure joy. Because of this pure joy, so different from my experience at that difficult time of my life, it took me awhile to realize that she was me!

Over the course of many meditations during the months of my healing, I asked her questions and she had wise answers without agenda — no shoulds, musts or oughts — just a quiet clear message that helped me heal. I wrote down her words and when I shared some of them in meditation class at College of Marin, fellow students would say ‘It’s like she’s talking directly to me.’ Our teacher insisted that I publish her words in a book. I did, and that book is Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

Whenever I didn’t have a specific question to ask this wise inner voice, I would just say, ‘What do I need to know?’ And unless there was some other answer to a question I had left unasked, the answer she gave me was always this: ‘You need to know that I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.’

Well, that is a lot to know! Feeling the power of this statement, unbidden, rising up from the universe, holding me in its warm embrace, is a very heady experience. It is the experience we each are capable of having any time we simply sit quietly and allow ourselves to access this universal wisdom and loving kindness in whatever form it takes for us.

So although we can avail ourselves of very special experiences of being greeted by a human who is so in touch with this universal wisdom and love, we want to be careful not to assume that they have access and we do not. No such person would want that for us. With their luminosity they want to light the way to show us how to find it for ourselves. We may find it without imagining a luminous being, but that imagining may help us to see how readily available that universal wisdom and compassion is.

Sometimes we accept wisdom only from outside ourselves. That’s what this luminous being told me when I asked her about herself. She explained that I totally discounted anything I might have to say as worthless, so my subconscious created this seemingly separate being so that I could receive, as if from outside my own experience, the words I needed to hear in order to heal myself. 

It is not at all unusual to discount our own ability to be wise or access universal wisdom. It is for this very reason that we turn to exultant beings that radiate wisdom and compassion. So why did I not see Jesus or the Virgin of Guadalupe in my meditative vision? I guess this kind of work is done with what we have within our own experience. Even as a child I had glimpses of insight into the nature of oneness. I used to chant to myself ‘ God is in me and I am in God,’ over and over until a dizzying sense of the power of that statement overcame me and I understood how it was possible for all that is, God, to permeate all matter so that this essence was inside me, and I inside it. This ‘unified field theory’ at the age of four has informed my life, at least when I let it. 

I did forget for awhile, and that’s what had led to my illness. I had been so busy, so caught up in my job, raising kids and helping my ailing parents, I felt totally separate from myself, from the me that understood the nature of being. I had to come home to it again in a way that had meaning for me. In those days the only ‘retreat’ readily available to the general public was illness. It was a way to have time out to treat not just our physical well being but our spiritual well being as well. Now we are so fortunate to have places like Spirit Rock where we can take the time we need without having to get sick to take a time out from our busy lives.

When we realize that we have this capacity to access a feeling of being totally loved and unconditionally accepted, then we stop looking outside ourselves for validation. We begin to radiate that universal loving kindness to the world. We become conduits and amplifiers of this universal energy.

So how do we go about this? In Buddhist practice, sending metta is the tried and true means of accessing this inner loving kindness. This begins with sending metta to ourselves. Last week I shared an extra practice to do that I learned from Jack, and I hope that if you have trouble sending metta to yourself that you tried it and it helped. If you weren’t here you can read about it in the previous post.

Recently we’ve been noticing how we talk to ourselves. Are we name-calling? Are we denigrating ourselves? Are we being outright rude? The benefit of meditation practice is increased awareness that could be seen as adding a witness to our experience. We don’t become a bystander of our own lives, but we do begin to hear more clearly the words we use to accuse ourselves of something, among other things.

Meditation practice begins with anchoring in physical sensation, noticing what is occurring in this moment. Bringing body awareness into our exploration gives us way more information than just staying stuck in thought. We notice where we feel it, what tightens up, what feels agitated. In the past these sensations may have created an overall sense of discomfort that led us, without our even being aware of it, away from exploring any further. Opportunity lost!

The sensations that we notice in the body can tell us not just that this experience is painful. They can also activate images, memories and emotions that can further inform us about the source of some of the negative beliefs we hold that result in such rude self-talk.

Bring to mind something you have done recently, perhaps even today, that didn’t meet your standards of behavior or speech. Perhaps you misspoke, forgot something, were late somewhere, over-indulged or any number of other possible ways we tend to disappoint ourselves.
When you have something in mind, then just let yourself think about what you did in your normal way. Don’t miss this sanctioned chance to engage your mind in the past where it loves to linger! As you think about what you did or said notice what arises:

  • With the memory fully in mind, notice the thought-words you use to describe yourself as you focus on this memory of a recent behavior.
  • Notice any physical sensations that arise as you spend time with this memory of action and reaction…. Is there some place in the body that clinches up, tightens, clamps down? …Really spend some time noticing where this is happening and how far it radiates out into the field of sensation…. Don’t make any effort to ease the tightness as we do during meditation. Instead let the tension inform you….You may feel uncomfortable and want to release the tension or turn away from this exercise. But you can gently and kindly encourage yourself to stay with it. Imagine all of this happening in a very spacious, kind loving field that can hold it all safely.

  • What information does the tension carry? Allow any associative images, memories or emotions to arise, This is how the body communicates.
  • Acknowledge them as messengers and hold them with the same spacious loving kindness and curiosity.
  • If you are not feeling a naturally arising stream of information, ask a question: ‘Why am I so hard on myself?’ perhaps.
  • Allow any insight to arise.This might be the image or the voice of the original source of this rudeness — some mean thing a schoolmate, teacher or parent said to you as a child, for example. You trusted their judgment because you were young and vulnerable, ready to accept whatever anyone told you, hungry as you were — as we all are — for self-knowledge. But now we are adults, we have the capacity to see that the careless words of another person, regardless of their position, were more the result of their own fears and concerns, that these words were not aimed at us. We just happened to be in the way when that person was trying to cope with suffering the best way they knew how at that moment.
  • Hold the whole experience in loving kindness. Send metta to the person: May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace, wherever you are.
  • Send metta to the body using the breath to release any accumulated tension.
  • Send metta to yourself: May I be well, may I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
  • Allow a few minutes to transition from this experience into discussion or, if on your own, perhaps making notes about your experience and insights, if you wish.

How was that experience? If any insights came, you might consider making note of them. Throughout the week, be open to the possibility that more answers will come in different forms — a book leaps out at you, a friend says something particularly wise and needed, etc. We offer ourselves up what we need to know only when we have opened our ears and our hearts to listen.

Being Kind to Ourselves Is Not Selfish

“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves.” – Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Meditation is the practice of creating time and space to quietly listen in. Sensing in to our breath and other sensations that arise and fall away, as do all phenomena, we open to the possibility of insight. If we pair our intention to be present with the intention to be compassionate with ourselves as we proceed, then we create a safe way to explore ourselves and the world.

We may feel some resistance to this idea of studying ourselves, just as we do to sending loving kindness to ourselves. It is likely we have been raised to focus on the outer world and to ignore and control emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. This is meant to counter self-indulgence and self-devotion. The practice of Buddhist meditation and psychology is not meant to create a narcissistic cult within us. We begin where we are with our practice, and where we are is entrenched in the seemingly permanent situation of being embodied in a particular form, having a particular series of patterns of thoughts and emotions that we believe define us. So this is what we notice. This is what we study. We develop the ability to hold our inner experience in loving awareness.

If we skip this step, whatever focus we have on the outer world will be tight, rooted in the complex patterns of fear and ignorance we harbor. We leap to the defense of this set of patterns because we believe it is who we are, and we desperately do not want to disappear!  In this fortified, calcified state we will offer up with the best intentions what we think the world wants and needs from us. We will not understand why when we are doing the best we can, these efforts are so misunderstood or poorly received. We will then blame ourselves or blame the world, causing the complex patterns to get tighter, denser and more toxic. We may seek oblivion to blind us to these patterns in the form of overindulgence in alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, overeating and other temporary distractions that do blind us, but also bind us even tighter to the patterns we are trying to escape. We’ve all tried at least some unskillful means of escape and have found them to be lacking. This is why so many people come to Buddhist practice after exhausting all other avenues. They come to the wisdom of ‘no escape.’

In our practice we begin where we are: Here, in this body, in this mind. We set our intention to be present and kind. That’s all. When we do this, there is a quite natural unraveling of the knot of patterns that have stymied us in our attempts to satisfy our idea of how we should be in the world. (Expectation stops the process, so notice and release impatience for a faster pace or greater rate of return on time invested. Let go of comparing mind. Just set the intentions again and again.)

Over time – days, weeks, months, lifetimes — we may notice that we are increasingly able to be in the world with a sense of being fully present, feeling, at least at times, true and universal loving kindness, a connected sense of compassion and much more. As this happens, we see that our practice has not been selfish at all. We practice on ourselves first. We are clearing the way for full engagement in the world.

In recent weeks we have been focusing on metta (loving-kindness) practice. Buddhism provides phrases for sending loving-kindness, as we have discussed previously. We begin with sending metta to ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just given. For a helpful mental aid to remind ourselves why we do this, remember that the airlines direct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children. What use will we be to our children, or anyone, if we have passed out?

If sending metta to ourselves still feels too difficult, here is an additional instruction I just learned at Jack Kornfield’s daylong retreat on Buddhist Psychology:

Send metta to first one then another person in your life for whom you have unqualified affection, for whom you want all the best. Really spend some time with the feelings that sending this metta brings up for you. Notice the physical effects, the emotional tone, the way you hold these thoughts.
Then imagine these two people sending metta to you. You can draw on moments when they have exhibited loving kindness to you or have looked at you with heartfelt caring. Let yourself stay with this experience. Let yourself receive the metta.

You might try that practice and then notice how it feels in your body, how it feels in your emotions, and how it affects your thought processes. Perhaps it feels glorious. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t feel it or feel shut down by the process. Just notice what is present in your experience without trying to change anything.

Perhaps you can’t imagine two people who care about you. If so, then you might imagine being in the center of a circle of Buddhist monks with a lifetime of practice sending metta and seeing the Buddha nature in all beings. Imagine them all focused on sending metta to you.

Jack told us about his experience of meeting the Dalai Lama, how no matter how many people are waiting in line to meet him, he takes the time to look deeply in your eyes, holding your hand in both of his, until there is a deep connection, acknowledgement and understanding. So imagine the Dalai Lama sending you loving kindness! (He is doing so every day in any case, when he sends lovingkindness out to all beings!)

One of the students in my Thursday class said that ten years ago she was embraced by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings.) and had that same sense of being held until some deep connection and release was felt. We discussed that feeling of total acceptance, so different from our usual sense of striving to be liked, loved, respected or admired. The nature of loving-kindness is universal, all-encompassing.

No matter what you have done, no matter what a mess you have made of your life, you can receive loving kindness. If you have done terrible things, allowing metta into your heart will give you the courage (from coeur, French for heart) to ask forgiveness and to make amends. If it’s useful, imagine metta as warm flowing liquid dissolving the granules of anger and resentment that have been keeping you from allowing yourself to forgive those you blame for past or current conditions, that keep you from forgiving yourself.

Our practice is to notice as much as we can about our present experience and to be as kind as we are able toward ourselves and others. That’s it. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out. Whatever changes happen arise simply out of our practice. When a shift happens, it is from tight and fearful to open and loving. But we don’t force it. We don’t demand it. We don’t beat ourselves over the head until we are the ‘right’ way.

Our practice is to notice the arising and falling away of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Our practice is to be kind to ourselves and others to whatever degree we are able. Sending metta activates our ability to feel deeply connected with all beings. From that sense of deep connection, we naturally become more compassionate.