Category Archives: Dr. John Sarno

First Foundation of Mindfulness – Review & a Few More Thoughts

We have completed our exploration of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, focusing in turn on the breath, postures, contemplation on the body, elements and death.

When you pour a concrete foundation, you want it to cure before you start adding more layers. Just so, I want to take the time to review and discuss the First Foundation of Mindfulness before we move on to the Second. If you missed any of the dharma talks within this section, then the links above can take you to where you need to go to ‘fill in the blanks.’

If you are just joining the discussion, you have a ready-made curriculum in the links above. Take your own time to do so in a way that is meaningful for you. You might set aside a period of time every day to read and reflect before or after meditation practice, for example. You can also visit the pages on the right column of the blog for more explanation and basic instruction.

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is one dharma lesson that could be a full life practice on its own. Sensing into physical sensation and knowing that we are sensing in to physical sensation. All that follows is rich and valuable, but only if we have laid this first foundation. You will see as we proceed how each one builds on the last.

What we have learned in this exploration is the basis of vipassana practice. We could go so far as to say that without this First Foundation, we don’t have a vipassana (insight) practice since that is where the original instruction for vipassana bhavana* comes from. So let’s make sure we understand it!

In our most recent class we had a discussion on anything from the previous talks on the First Foundation of Mindfulness that were still unclear, as well as any insights that came to the meditators from the explorations.

We focused a good deal of our discussion on the breath. In this tradition we do not change the breath but focus our awareness on the natural rising and falling of the breath. I had to repeat this several times during the class because even though the meditators practice in this way, most have knowledge of various other trainings, such as yoga or qigong where there are breath exercises that consciously alter the breath for a particular purpose. These are all fine but they are not recommended for the ongoing practice of insight meditation.

In this practice, we are not actively trying to change things to make everything right. Instead we are cultivating a way of being with things as they are. So it is how we relate to causes and conditions in our lives that is our focus. So the breath is as it is, and we cultivate our ability to attend it. This noticing may bring about change in the breath, but we are not actively working to change it. We are not finding fault with the breath for being ‘too shallow,’ a prevalent opinion in our culture. If we sit in an erect but relaxed position, we naturally open the column of the rib cage for the breath to breathe; if we notice and release whatever tension we find, and if we simply sit and know that we are sitting, the breath will be fine. Let the breath live unjudged! It certainly deserves it, as it gives us life and all. Just saying.

One of the meditators mentioned a particular breath practice she has found very calming where you inhale to the count of four, hold the breath for the count of seven, then release the breath to the count of eight. So I had her lead us in this and it was very interesting.

One meditator mentioned that she does a count to match her heart rate, so being led was difficult since our hearts don’t all beat at the same rate. This was a useful observation for any of us wanting to do some of these practices.

I mentioned a qigong instructor named Ken Cohen who provides a series of breath exercises. These various breath practices are perfectly fine and could be valuable. I only want to be clear that they are not a part of the basic practice of insight meditation.

A few minutes of breath practice before meditation could be useful in the process of establishing a personal practice. Without a teacher, a bell, a sangha, a class time, a setting that tells our busy mind ‘Now it’s time to meditate!’ we may need some amount of ritual to transition into our practice, especially at first.

Here is the guiding question to know whether such a practice, or any ritual, is beneficial: “Is this guiding me toward a mindfulness practice or is it potentially a hindrance to it?”

How could a ritual become a hindrance?  I promote what I call a ‘portable practice.’ The beauty of insight meditation is that you can do it anywhere at any time. There is nothing required but the intention to be present and the intention to be compassionate. When we add rituals or objects that we depend on to get us where we want to be, then we are creating conditions that could become hindrances. ‘If I don’t have my (fill in the blank: altar, breath practice, beads, spoken chant, etc.) then I can’t meditate.’ If we set up anything too elaborate, we undermine our ability to practice in say, the airport lounge. If we are dependent on causes and conditions, then we are not centered, grounded in our own experience.


So that was the review, but here are some things to consider that we didn’t cover in any of our previous explorations of the body as the First Foundation of Mindfulness.

The Body Google
Our body is a storehouse of information as well as the vessel in which we are able to function in this world. As we deepen in our ability to sense into the body, we also learn to listen to it in a way that was probably foreign to us.

If we have chronic pain or illness, this listening can help to alleviate physical suffering. With the enhanced awareness, we might notice the conditions around each occurrence. You don’t need advanced training for this, just a willingness to notice. 


For example, if your back ‘goes out’ you can ask what was happening in your life in the days leading up to it? What condition arose? This cause could be a difficult conversation that you had or are dreading having; a challenging deadline that lies ahead or that you failed to meet; a worry over the well being of a loved one; the loss of a job or fear about the future; guilt about the past; or any number of things that cause tension, stress and mental or emotional anguish that quite often will be experienced as physical pain. 

If we learn to listen to the body, then to ask questions of ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our minds, we can alleviate the pain! If this is an interesting area of exploration for you, I highly recommend the books of Dr. John Sarno, an orthopedic surgeon who began to see the mind-body connection quite clearly in his many patients and has an excellent prescription that is free, except for the price of his paperback book, and easy. Reader, it changed my life! If it can change someone else’s, I hope you will forgive me this bit of promotion. If you know someone who might benefit, speak up. I am ever grateful to my friend who told me about it.

The Aging Body
As we age, mindfulness becomes increasingly valuable to keep us going in health and happiness. We can care for the body best by being mindful of what we are doing with it, by being considerate of its needs and by paying attention where we are going so we don’t trip and fall. 


We can notice if we are being overly cautious or protective, as if the body is fragile. This makes for added tension that in turn is a setup for harming ourselves, getting into pain or avoiding activities that might be healthful. We can notice if we are driving the body too hard. We can notice if this driven quality comes from some fear-based emotion, and is therefore unskillful. We can notice when we have a sense of well being. We can appreciate it without clinging to it, wishing it could stay this way. That in turn causes more tension, and then we lose the sense of well being we have found.

While this is the end of our discussion of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, it is just the beginning of our own internal awareness of how to live mindfully in this human form so that we can best appreciate this fleeting gift of life.


* Vipassana bhavana is Pali for insight meditation. It is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, as taught in the the Buddha’s Sattipatthana Sutta (which is what we are currently studying.) The word vipassana is Pali. Passana means seeing or perceiving, and vi means ‘in a special way.’ Bhavana means mental cultivation.

The Dungeon of Difficult Emotions

We’ve seen how holding tight to our established identity creates contraction as we grasp and cling to that hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be. This contraction can also be an aversion to who we believe ourselves to be. We’ve talked about how when we let go of that contracted state by relaxing, releasing, letting go in a mindful way, we create the space to see things more clearly and compassionately, including our emotions.

The emotions themselves are free agents. None of us can claim emotions as our identity though we often try to do so. Emotions float through our present experience like the weather, as natural as fog, rain, snow, heat, clouds, storms and rainbows. Emotions simply exist. Understanding this frees us from believing that we are the emotions we experience or that the emotions reflect on us. We can simply notice them as they pass through our experience with compassionate curiosity.

We are certainly responsible for how we behave in response or reaction to the emotions we experience. We all have habituated ways of dealing with them. We may feel the helpless victim of emotions, letting them dictate our behavior. We may feel ashamed of certain emotions and shield them from sight, sometimes so effectively that we shield them from ourselves.

It’s very likely we were taught to put forth acceptable emotions and hide, deny or push down unacceptable ones. Our parents and teachers may have been uncomfortable with their own negative emotions, and so were unwilling to acknowledge ours. In my case if I said, “I feel (a particular emotion), I was told “Well, you shouldn’t.” At other times my fears were dismissed. “Don’t be silly,” was a phrase that came up a lot in my upbringing. I’m sure this or some variation on it was pretty much the norm for mid-twentieth century. But it leaves us as adults with a habit of suppressing these ‘unacceptable’ emotions. So how does that fit with the weather analogy, where all kinds of emotions simply pass through our experience? Well, it’s as if we’ve been corralling thunderbolts and locking them up in an airtight vacuum packed dungeon somewhere inside ourselves.

I remember when I first started meditating I had some fear that what I would find in this process of self-discovery would be that my true self, my true nature, would be hideous and unacceptable. There was this sense of bottled up toxicity that I was terrified of unlocking. Now I can recognize that I was not completely wrong, that there was indeed a bottled up toxicity within me, but it wasn’t my ‘true nature’ but simply the imprisoned storms of many years of habituated emotional suppression.

This process of pushing down or suppressing seems to successfully contain the emotion. It can no longer just pass through, but is locked up and it’s sitting in a cell deep in the dungeon of our subconscious, plotting revenge, digging tunnels and rattling the bars from time to time to remind us it is still there. We are all emotional jailers to some degree, and it’s not a role we really relish. Even if we get into the whole jangling keys, gun toting, star on our chest swagger of it, in truth there are so many other things we’d rather be doing than minding the jail that contains our suppressed emotions. And the perception of ourselves as toxic at the core, when we believe those suppressed emotions to be our true selves, is a great cause of suffering that affects us and those around us day in and day out.

When it comes to jailing emotions, anger is the easiest target to round up and toss in the clinker because it makes such a ruckus. We know if we don’t lock it up it will smash everything in its path. So anger is easy to spot and uncomfortable to be around — not an emotion we want to find in our personal experience. It doesn’t suit our sense of who we are, this anger, and its existence can make us angrier, so that we find we are the kind of jailer that roughs up the inmate on the way to tossing it in its cell. We are embarrassed by this anger, so we keep jailing it up every time we come across it and hope that nobody notices.

In our weather analogy anger is not the town trouble-maker but a thunder storm passing through. We would never think of locking up a thunderstorm. We know how to behave responsibly around it. What’s the difference between a real thunderstorm and anger? We think anger is a reflection on us, so we compound its intensity by fueling it with other emotions like shame. When we react to anger with fear of exposure and try to suppress it, we are compressing the anger into something densely toxic that begins to poison our life and the lives around us.

Suppression of emotion is a dangerous, even deadly game. It plays havoc on all aspects of our lives, including our physical health. These suppressed emotions feed on challenging situations, difficult personalities, scary events and high pressure deadlines, so that we may find ourselves addicted to disaster in our lives. We can get hooked on horrendous news, terrifying movies and drama in our own lives to feed those suppressed emotions.

Conversely we might feel unable to deal with any exposure to news, violence in movies or drama in our lives, feeling sapped by them, and afraid of their power to harm us. We see ourselves as weak and vulnerable, prone to illness.

The Buddha taught his followers to incline the mind toward what is wholesome, because that supports our ability to walk the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering. But he was not suggesting that we are somehow so weak and vulnerable that we can’t face any difficulty that comes along. We are to be present and notice its qualities and our reactions to it all with an open spaciousness of compassionate mind. Our fear of what is unwholesome throws us in its path, for unwholesomeness feeds on fear.

Addiction to or aversion of anything are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide valuable clues to our relationship with the emotional weather that has been passing through our lives. If we learned to suppress emotion as children, then we may feel we are betraying our parents or family by going down in the dungeon and unlocking the cells. But if our parents taught us how to suppress, it’s only because they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could with what they had available. They taught what they knew to be true from their perception of themselves and the world around them. As unskillful as it may have been, they did what they felt would best protect us in the world. And for their intention we can be grateful. But we don’t honor them by staying true to the false beliefs they thought at the time to be true.

When we finally go down into the dungeon, we find that the emotions we have needed to muster in order to keep the old ones jailed are more dangerous than the prisoner-emotions themselves. When we are able to look at them with an open spacious mind we can see that the prisoners are in fact weak and helpless. How can this be? Because when we are willing to look and be present with them, we have stopped fueling them with our fear. We have stopped empowering them. We see them clearly and recognize, as the Buddha recognized when repeatedly confronted by Mara the tempter as he sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention to awaken, that they are illusions created by the interaction of our fears, our aversions and our overwhelming desires, with the emotional weather that is part of the experience of being human.

Meditation provides us with a sense of dispassionate self-acceptance that makes it safe to visit the dungeon of our suppressed emotions. If we don’t feel it is safe, we can seek the help of a therapist to walk beside us as descend into the dungeon.

Why is it so important to visit these emotional prisoners? Doing so liberates not just them but us. As long as we are suppressing emotion, we are constricted in a way that inhibits our ability to love ourselves and others, to find a way to be joyful and useful, and to be healthy.

We hear about how meditation benefits physical health, and we can easily demonstrate the direct connection between the mind and the rest of the body by doing this simple experiment: Close your eyes and bring to mind something that upsets you, some person, situation, event, deadline, etc. that irks you, gets your goat, angers you, or scares you. Then when that thought is fixed in the mind, notice where in they body you have contracted. Check out the brow, the jaw, the temples, the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the hands, and the gut. Notice it, then let the thought go, and relax, release and shake out any accumulated tension.

If you noticed tension in any area of the body, then the mind-body connection is made perfectly clear. Here we were, perfectly comfortable, and then an emotionally charged thought is brought up, and our body contracts in some habituated way. If anyone ever doubts the truth of the mind-body connection, that’s the simplest way to demonstrate it.

If you didn’t notice it, try it some time when you are upset about something and really pay attention to sensations in the body.

Dr. John Sarno, orthopedic surgeon and author of a number of books about the mind-body connection, is an excellent resource to check out if you have any physical ailments, especially chronic ones or ones that the doctor can’t explain. Reading one of his books has made a great difference in the lives of many, including my own, I’m happy to say.

Just seeing the mind-body connection for ourselves and understanding some of how it works can free us of pain, whether we are meditators or not. But a Vipassana meditator trained to be present and compassionate with the arising and falling away of phenomena, including emotion and physical sensation, is more readily noticing what’s going on in both the body and the mind.

But being a meditator doesn’t make us clairvoyant. Like anyone else we can be blind to what’s right in front of us if some aspect of ourselves feels too threatened by it. As meditators when we do discover it, we have the training to deal with it in a way that is effective. Facing what scares us most is an important part of meditation practice.
Instead of feeling failure at such a discovery about ourselves and acquiescing to the urge to push our discovery down into a deeper dungeon, we are more likely to feel like investigators having found an important clue. We approach the discovery with curiosity and maybe even excitement. Aha! We feel we are at the beginning of a rich journey.

So this is the process, this making space and then noticing. If it feels self-indulgent, then it is probably a clue to habituated suppression. We discount and discard feelings that make us uncomfortable. We tell ourselves we’re being silly, that we should bucker up, grin and bear it, have a stiff upper lip, etc. But this is just our discomfort talking, our fear of what we’ll find if we visit the dungeon. But when we use our keys – our meditative tools of self-discovery – to liberate those suppressed emotions, we find we have liberated ourselves from suffering.

I ended this week’s class by reading an article I wrote many years ago, titled Emotions as Honored Guests. It was published in The Emotional Intelligence Newsletter, and I still on occasion get requests for its excerption or reproduction, so it clearly resonates with people. It is always available on openembracemeditations.com along with other downloads of useful information about meditation. Some of you may recognize similarities in concept between this piece and a poem by Rumi. I wrote it before I ever read Rumi so I was surprised, delighted and a little unsettled by discovering his poem. The coincidence shows that while each of us may draw our understanding from different wells, the wells tap into a deep river of universal wisdom. Our goal in meditation-based self-discovery is to keep dipping in the well.