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.