Third Foundation of Mindfulness – Awareness of Mental Phenomena

Last week we discussed the Second Foundation of Mindfulness and in class we practiced noting whether a current experience was ‘pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.’ The homework was to continue noting throughout the week, in meditation and in life. This noting is in addition to anchoring awareness in physical sensation. That is our foremost practice. All other practices within The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are done in conjunction with the First Foundation.

The practice of noting sets the stage for the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, the awareness of the arising and falling away of mental phenomena — thoughts and emotions.

It is surprising to me, looking through my translation of the original instruction for the Third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana, to see how short it is. For us in the modern era, the exploration of thoughts and emotions seems such a huge topic, almost insurmountably complex — as if all life is lived in the realm of thought and emotion. That is because we are steeped within the thoughts, so enmeshed in them that we can’t see them clearly. Yet we take all our cues for our speech and behavior from these thoughts and emotions that have us caught up in their tidal pull. 


What the Buddha taught is a practice that enables us to swim in the ocean of thoughts and emotions, fully aware of the nature of waves and tides. We can stop struggling, thrashing about, thinking we are drowning, and begin floating, enjoying ourselves and swim. Or surf!

My friend Mary Wagstaff, after years of dedicated study of Buddhism, at the age of 50 took up surfing. Being on the ocean gave her the insights that had been eluding her in her studies. Nature’s like that. So smart and instructive if only we would pay attention! Her years of practice and instruction taught her to pay that kind of attention. Mary’s still surfing and was featured in ‘O’ Magazine as an inspiration and illustration of ‘no limits.’

What we are learning in this Third Foundation is how to apply the skills we have developed in the first and second foundations to the way that thoughts and emotions arise, transform into other thoughts and emotions. To use another nature analogy, we watch them like we might watch clouds form and transform as they drift across the sky.

In this practice, the thoughts and emotions are simply phenomena for us to notice. We can see how the Second Foundation’s ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ experience transforms into a multiplicity of reaction thoughts and emotions right before our eyes. The unpleasant experience quickly turns to aversion, to a thought of how to change the scene or situation, that might then turn just as quickly into a judgment of ourselves for not being able to stick with the assignment, and then we launch into a reminder that we are supposed to be compassionate, and then maybe a story about how we don’t deserve compassion. And on and on. You know the drill!

Key to seeing clearly the constant unfolding of thoughts and emotions is quieting down. This is why an extended silent retreat is so valuable for developing this mindfulness practice. But we can give ourselves the gift of silence also in our daily lives. We can turn off the radio, television, cell phone, computer. We can give ourselves permission to be unplugged for a while so that we can plug into the universal wisdom that is right here and now, whenever we are ready to pay attention.

Through this awareness we are liberated from being strangled by the tangle of thoughts and emotions. We neither run from them, push them away or chase after them. We allow them to exist, noting the arc of their arising and falling away within the field of our awareness. (In this blog you will find many dharma talk posts on the subject of thoughts and emotions. If you would like to read more, you’ll see the links listed under ‘Labels’ when you scroll down in the column on the right.)

We are not our thoughts
As we unplug from the busy world and plug into universal wisdom of the here and now, we also come to understand that all these thoughts and feelings do not define us. Just as we notice the physical sensation of hot or cold without identifying it as who we are, we can notice the arising and falling away of thoughts and emotions without any sense that they define us.

They are just the universal ocean of thought and emotion. They are not who we are. They do not make us more or less special, unique, weird or despicable. This is a great relief for most of us! We take responsibility for our actions and speech, but our thoughts and  emotions, just like our dreams, are of a different nature. We are neither their masters nor their victims. When we notice them, we can take a much wider view and hold the whole process in an easeful way. By doing so the contents of our thoughts and emotions will settle down.

If you balk at the statement ‘We are not our thoughts,’ you are not alone. In any given meditation circle there might be one student brave enough to say, ‘Hey, that’s not my experience. I am my thoughts!’ That student is probably saying what at least some of the others are thinking as well.

There is nothing a teacher can say that will change their minds. This is an insight that arises out of the experience of meditation practice. But a teacher can give guidance to create conditions where such an insight might arise. So in response to that statement in our meditation circle, I led the group in my ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ letting go exercise. Several requested I send them a copy and wrote me back to say they found it helpful, so I include the link here.

Why does it matter whether we believe ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions or not?

First, if we believe ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions, we are too enmeshed in them to see the habituated patterns that keep us in bondage, where we are tossed about at the whim of our thoughts and emotions. A more liberated view comes only when we recognize that thoughts and emotions arise and fall away as part of a process — like breathing. The mind processes thoughts and emotions in the same way the lungs process air.

Second, if we think we are our beliefs, opinions, etc. then we can’t safely examine them or question them. We might find something too awful, too shameful. After all we are ‘stuck’ with ourselves for the course of this lifetime. Why would we want to find out that we are basically rotten at the core? This belief that we are our thoughts and emotions, that we are the accumulation of our experiences and personality traits, makes us rigid and fearful. We develop strong attachments to this idea of self because we carefully seal off our intrinsic awareness of our beingness at a deeper level, the way in which we are not separate from all of life in a sack of skin that is our sole dominion. We fill our lives with busy noisy goings-on, afraid that peace and quiet would open a door we would rather keep shut. But my students would not be attending class and you would not be reading this post, if some deeper sense of knowing wasn’t present. Trust in that inner wisdom.

If a sense of deep connection is difficult, practice metta, sending loving kindness. Remember that we have two paired intentions: to be present, anchored in sensation and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. They work together and create a balance. One fuels the other. So if you find yourself struggling with a concept, let go of the concept and send metta to all beings. To the cashier, to the careless driver, to the texting teen, to the man muttering to himself on the street corner, to the politician who blundered, to the person you love most in the world, to the person who represents all that is evil to you, to the earth itself and all its inhabitants. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.

Sending metta calms the heart and attunes us to the unitive nature of our being in a way that thinking cannot.

From this state of kindness and connection we can see that clinging to a sense of separate self means living in a disconnected way where we feel we have something to fear, something to hide and something to prove — that we are ‘good enough’ in whatever form that takes. When we live from that kind of motivation, our life is a misery. The lives of those around us are made more miserable as well. We live in a state of dysfunction, prickly or cloying, always working from some agenda that can never be met. This is what the Buddha called suffering. This is what he spent his lifetime developing practices to alleviate, including, and perhaps most especially the practices of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

When we sit or walk in silence, hearts and minds open, we offer a large container for the ocean of thoughts and emotions to show us its tides and wave patterns, and to eventually quiet down. Even if it doesn’t quiet down, it is seen with greater clarity.

So this is the practice, to give an attentive dispassionate awareness to thought and emotion, just as we do to physical sensation, just as we do to noticing the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experience. And by doing so, we come fully into the present moment.

The simplest instruction for meditation is to sit and know that you are sitting. The Third Foundation of Mindfulness is to recognize thoughts and emotions. To think and know that you are thinking. We can name the kind of thought or emotion that arises. Judging, planning, worrying, anger, longing, etc. This gives us an activity that short-circuits the story the mind wants to tell. The story gets started and as soon as we recognize it we can name it ‘planning’ (or whatever) and we are back in full awareness, anchored in physical sensation.

Add this technique into your meditation practice if you are ready to do so. Notice the tendency to judge the thought, to judge the wandering mind, and name it ‘judging.’

Here is a poem I wrote about the wandering mind that might help to bring more compassion to your own wanderer.


Prodigal Mind

When my mind
returns to the breath
there is such a sense
of homecoming
such a celebration of
this most perfect union

that I would not be surprised
if the invitations were sent out
the band hired
and the cake decorated

were there only enough time
before my wayward mind
sets off to wandering again.

– Stephanie Noble



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