Category Archives: Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Wise Effort & the Elements

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is an excellent tool to investigate what’s up in your life at this moment. ‘Why does my neck hurt?’ ‘Why am I foraging in the refrigerator again?’ ‘Why am I so annoyed at my husband or a coworker?’


Whenever something is up with you, pause and give yourself some time to settle in, meditate, come into the moment and feel some sense of compassion for yourself. Then, when you are ready, see what aspect of the path is out of balance. Check in with your intention, your effort, your view. Note if you are being mindful, if you are doing regular concentration practices. See if what has you discomforted has to do with something you said, did or the way you are making your living or spending your money.


Once you have identified the aspect where you feel out of balance and unskillful, you can enrich your investigation by bringing in some other aspects of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. For example,if you realize that you are striving or slouching, then you look at Wise Effort. Instead of giving yourself a hard time about not exerting Wise Effort, simply look at the nature of your effort with a compassionate but clear-eyed examination. To make this a deeper and more meaningful investigation, you might want to include a look at the Elements.


Wise Effort & The Elements


Fire is naturally involved in any effort. Effort requires energy which is calories being burned. Effort requires mental energy and the electrical charges of our brains. Effort is helped by a passion of purpose which is fired by our Wise Intention. So you can see how fire would empower you to effort, but you need to be sure that this is balanced effort, that you are not on overdrive and powering through, or else you will burn out.


Water gives fluidity in your effort that makes what you do feel almost effortless. But if you are swimming upstream or against a current, then your over-efforting can exhaust you and you feel like you are drowning. Being aware of the water component helps to assess whether effort feels wise.


Earth lends strength to effort. You can draw from your earthy elemental nature and rely on it. But you can also beat yourself over the head with the metal pipe! Notice what is true for you.


Air is the breath that keeps you present, and it clears things so you can see whether your effort is skillful. Air is also the voice you give to your effort.Listen to how you speak about effort. If you hear ‘I will try or I am trying’ — that’s an opportunity to see where the wind resistance is, and how might you find the currents of air within you to glide with the natural ease of wise effort


Every aspect of the Eightfold Path can be enhanced by looking at the Elements. And every teaching in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness — the Five Aggregates, the Five Hindrances, etc. — can help to look at each aspect of the Eightfold Path with even greater clarity and understanding.
An ongoing exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, combined with daily meditation practice, a weekly meditation group for practice and discussion, and at least one retreat annually, will open you to all the joy that is possible in this, or any, moment.

Three Marks or Characteristics

Over the past many months of exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we have looked at the nature of impermanence. We’ve looked at physical form, the world around us and our own bodies, and we’ve seen that the only constant is change.

We’ve also come to understand that there is no separate self, that every time we think we can say ‘I am this’, when we investigate we see that we are not that. So there is no isolated fortress of self that we need to defend.

We have learned Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self). These are two of the three Marks or Characteristics that are key to understanding the nature of things. The third mark or characteristic is Dukkha, the quality of unsatisfactoriness that is part of this experience of being alive. Understanding that there is dukkha is the First Noble Truth.

Let’s look more closely at what the word actually means. It’s tricky because there is no perfect English translation. The word dukkha, when broken down into root parts literally means an ill-fitting axle hole. Now that would be very uncomfortable wouldn’t it, to be on a journey and at every turn of the wheel there’s a jolt from the wheel not being properly fitted?


Staying with that image, we can all think of at least a time in our lives when this was certainly how it felt. And if we look closely at the nature of things, we might recognize that quality of ongoing friction or the wheels of our lives being slightly out of balance. This is the quality of suffering the Buddha asks us to acknowledge.

For many of us when we hear the word ‘suffering’ we don’t think of ourselves. We look around at all we have, where we live, all our good fortune, and we feel we would be ungrateful to see suffering in our lives. We put suffering outside ourselves in those who are victims of all the natural and man-made disasters in the news, and certainly there is pain in the world and our compassion is called upon to acknowledge it and perhaps act on that acknowledgement with generosity of spirit, time and resources.

But the kind of suffering we are talking about here is a chronic human condition that most of us ignore. When we tie suffering only to a particular cause or condition, then as long as the conditions of our life are fine, then we are not suffering. If we and our loved ones are healthy and none of them has died recently, then we are fine. We are blind to the chronic suffering of ourselves and others, because we just look at the nice house, the shiny car, the successful career, the healthy body, etc. and conclude that we or they must be happy. But if we are really paying attention, we might notice that even when everything is fine we hope these conditions will continue and fear illness, turns of fortune, aging and death for ourselves and our loved ones. This wanting things to stay the same or wanting things to be different is dukkha, and it’s universal.


We may feel we have no right to such feelings, given all these favorable conditions, so we hide our fear, subsume our feelings in self-destructive behavior, and/or focus on the ‘positive.’ We may ignore the truth that gnaws inside us and we create a false persona. Constantly trying to sustain that false persona is one bumpy ride where we never feel completely at ease, isn’t it?

So the Buddha asks us to look at dukkha, that ill-fitting axle hole of life experience, and acknowledge it. That is the First Noble Truth.

Fortunately there are three more Noble Truths that disprove the rumor that Buddhism is a gloom and doom tradition. In fact, there is infinite joy in the Buddha’s teachings. But the joy is not conditioned on external causes. As we explored in the Awakening Factors in the previous post, this joy is a pervading quality that arises out of the practice of being fully present and compassionate with ourselves when we haven’t been present. We can experience a quiet balanced sense of joy and gratitude regardless of what we are going through in our lives, regardless of the bad news we’ve just received. This is not a training to be insensitive or uncaring. It’s a training in being spacious enough to hold all that comes in loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.

If you’ve been following along in our investigation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, you might notice that this quality of dukkha pretty much sums up what it’s like to live with the Hindrances and Aggregates we studied earlier. The Five Hindrances are: lust/craving, aversion, sloth & torpor, restlessness & worry, and doubt. The Five Aggregates — our body, our preferences, our knowledge or understanding of the world, our urges and intentions, and our consciousness —  get us into trouble when we believe them to be permanent, separate and under our control.

Not understanding annata (impermanence) and annica (no self) leaves us with the experience of dukkha (suffering). Conversely, as we come to understand the nature of annata and annica, then we develop the ability to be soften and even dissolve patterns of dukkha.

So we can see why the Buddha developed the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Through them we can see for ourselves the truth of impermanence and no self, and we are given the tools to release suffering that we create in our lives.

This is an ongoing practice, so do not despair if you feel you haven’t ‘got it’. Just keep practicing the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with yourself when you discover you haven’t been present at all. Remind yourself that in this moment of recognition you are present! That is cause for celebration not harsh judgment.

The Awakening Factors

The regular practice of meditation develops a refined quality of attention to the micro-events of the present moment experienced through the senses. Attuned to the moment, we might notice different types of very pleasant mental qualities that arise and fall away. These are called the Awakening Factors. Mindfulness is the first of the Awakening Factors, the one that makes it possible to experience the others. Anchored in physical sensation — the rise and fall of the breath, sound, sight, smell, texture, etc. — without getting caught up in inner commentary about them, we are mindful. In this state we are aware of all that is present in this moment, and only this moment. Once we are mindful, other Factors arise. We might be more aware of one than another, but in general they seem to arise in the following order: Investigation of the dhammas arises out of mindfulness, because as we closely attend the sensory experience, we develop a wholesome curiosity that leads to insights into the nature of experience and natural phenomena. Energy for this investigation arises. This is not the restlessness we talked about when discussing the Hindrances, but an attunement to the energy of the natural world, a sense of purpose and wholesome effort, that feels quite wonderful and leads to… Joy, not the singular pleasure from a specific condition or outcome, but a non-specific quality of rejoicing in being alive in this moment, sensing a connection with all being, which allows for the arising of… Tranquility.  Being so fully in the moment, sensing our connection, there is nothing to fear, so we are able to be calm and at peace, which leads to a great ability for… Concentration, the ability to stay with a single-pointed focus, fully supported by all the factors, resulting in… Equanimity, a way of being in the world in any given moment, aware of all that arises and falls away, and able to hold it all with spacious awareness and a quality of understanding the nature of things. Equanimity allows us to hold both difficult situations and happy events in the same open embrace at the same time. Having said there is an order can be interesting and may be useful, but it could also be confusing and disruptive. In practice, simply focus on your intention to be mindful. Anchor your awareness in physical sensation, preferably finding one that is dependable, like the breath, that you can stay with. At the same time, set the intention to be compassionate with yourself and whatever causes and conditions arise — people making noises, situations not being ‘perfect’, your own judgments about your practice or the behavior of others. If we practice in a dedicated way, the Awakening Factors reveal themselves. If we try to achieve them, if we say ‘Feel joy, damn it!’ then obviously we will feel anything but joy. We toss ourselves into one or more of the mental qualities of the Hindrances: doubt, worry, restlessness, anger, desire, sloth and torpor. When we find ourselves in one of these states, we simply reset our intention to be mindful, anchored in physical sensation, and the intention to be compassionate with ourselves. You might notice that some of these Awakening Factors are antidotes to Hindrances we studied earlier. For example, Energy is the opposite of Sloth & Torpor. Tranquility is the antidote to Restlessness & Worry. So if you notice your mind state in one of the Hindrances, it helps to remember that there are more wholesome states accessible through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the prescription to bring us out of unwholesome mind states and into these wholesome ones. We learn about these states so that we recognize them when they arise. Resting in them, we have a tangible confirmation that we are doing our mindfulness practice in a way that reaps benefits. Not feeling the reaping so much? Not to worry. If you are giving yourself time to be quiet and focus your awareness on the rising and falling of the breath, releasing tension that arises, letting go of harsh inner commentary, that is all that is necessary. Let it be enough. Notice when your thoughts get caught up in the ‘not-enoughness’, the longing for joy or inner peace, the doubting you’ll ever achieve such lofty mind states. These are the Hindrances at work, creating a tangle of misery that doesn’t serve you. When you see them, rejoice in noticing them. That is mindfulness at work! Continue to be mindful, anchored in physical sensation. Do this with compassionate wise effort. If these Awakening Factors seem like a pipe dream, you are looking at the fantasy you have in your mind of what it would be to be awakened. This is not the search for a mythical unicorn. It is a practical, methodical means of coming into the present moment, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to enjoy. The past and the present are thoughts in our heads — memories, regrets, nostalgia, fantasy, planning and fear. Don’t worry about awakening. Just sense in to this moment with compassion for all the ways your mind wants to distract itself. Focus on the senses — the breath rising and falling, for example. That is mindfulness. When you start noticing that there is no edge to the breath and see how the air is out there and in here until there doesn’t seem to be a dividing line, that is a form of investigating the dhammas. With it comes a sense of aliveness that is open yet purposeful. This is energy. When you sense that quality of edgelessness, of no separate self, from following the breath, joy arises. When you sense the boundless nature of this moment, fear falls away and there is an ease that creates tranquility, a quality of peace. In this open peaceful state, there is nothing to distract you from your concentration. You see with a remarkable clarity. And in this state, whatever events or conditions arise, you can hold them in an open and easeful way. This is equanimity. Daydreaming about when these states will be yours is a total waste of this precious moment right now revealing itself to you. If you feel tangled in a web of stories that can’t take you anywhere but away, again and again, from this very moment that offers everything, including the power to awaken you to joyous life, set the intention to be present, anchored in physical sensation. Set the paired intention to be compassionate with yourself when you realize that you haven’t been present. In the moment you realize you haven’t been present, you are present! Cause for celebration.

What’s Up with all the Buddha’s Lists?

All matter and all experience is conditioned, dependent on something else having happened or existed. Try to think of any object and imagine it existing in isolation. What is it made of? Where did the things it was made of come from? Who made it? Who transported it? Who packaged it? Who sold it? A tree relies on the sun, rain and soil. All the elements rely on one another. All affect one another. This is the nature of dependent co-arising. Our thoughts are conditioned as well, dependent on sensory experience, memory, and events in the past, the present or what we fear or hope might happen in the future. They arise and fall away just as physical matter arises and falls away, in a non-linear complex web of interwoven events. This is important to notice when we look at the dhammas, these lists that constitute The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Why so many lists? The hindrances, aggregates, sense spheres, etc. do not present themselves in list form when we experience them for ourselves, do they? No. We experience ‘worry’ as worry, not as an item on a list of the Five Hindrances. Each component of any of these Buddhist lists is also part of the web of dependent co-arising. Lists are not the way we experience life, but they do have their uses, don’t they? We organize information in this way to assure ourselves that we have addressed everything we need to remember. The many, MANY lists in the Buddha’s teachings, were memorized and handed down from generation to generation of monks in a purely oral tradition for the first 500 years after the Buddha’s death. We can see they did a good job of clear transmission, because even now, 2500 years later, we are still empowered to investigate and discover for ourselves the truth of the teachings. If the transmission had broken down, subverted by some leader’s thirst for power, turned into dead dogma, the teachings could not be verified in the experience of each meditator who dedicates him or herself to meditative practice. We don’t have to be Buddhists to have this experience. There is no one path that can claim the only way to wisdom or enlightenment. I came to the Buddha’s teachings after having already experienced for myself the power of meditation to heal and sense the unity of all being. So when I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center back in the mid-1990’s, it was like coming home. My first teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, read my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ You might wonder why, if I had already literally ‘written the book’ or at least a book, I set aside teaching and writing about what I had discovered in order to study and practice Buddhism for the next fifteen years. Simply this: I love the elegant structure of the way the Buddha’s teachings are organized. This structure offers the best possible chance for someone to awaken. And so I learn it. And so, once again, I share it. That said, I have to add that the compilation of all these lists seems a bit crazy-making. There are lists of Buddhist lists they can be helpful to give an overview of all the teachings. But it’s important for us all to remember that we are not asked to memorize the lists or to take them in all at once, even if it were possible to do so. As we go through the dhammas, we go at our own pace, taking in what we are able to understand, what we are able to see is true from our own experience, and we let the rest wait, rising like dough for us to knead at another time when we are ready. All this to say we are about to look at another list! It’s the last list before we look at the Four Noble Truths, which of course is a list of four and contains a list within it of the Eightfold Path.


The Seven Awakening Factors
For those of you who were on our recent retreat, just think of some of the mental qualities that you may have experienced during your meditative sitting, walking and simply being in nature. We practiced and experienced Mindfulness. That’s the first and foremost of the Awakening Factors, without which the others are unable to arise. In class, students responded quite naturally with several of the Awakening Factors on their own. This is the nature of the dharma. For those who are practicing meditation on a regular basis, the dharma reveals itself. Several students spoke of the quality of peacefulness, which is the same as the factor called Tranquility. They talked about a sense of opening, another way to describe Equanimity, the ability to create spaciousness to hold whatever arises with ease and balance. I reminded the students of some of the comments they made at the end of the retreat. One had spoken of experiencing a quality of aliveness. This is the Awakening Factor of Energy. Another student had spoken of noticing how three roses were in different states of bloom, and that one had been nibbled on and she was so glad there was enough to share. This is an example of the Awakening Factor called Investigation of the Dhammas. I remember noticing a student sitting by the waterfall, eyes closed, deep in Concentration on the sense of sound, and with a smile filling her whole face, in a state of pure Joy. So we come to this ‘list’ not as something foreign, but something wonderfully familiar. Everything in boldface is an awakening factor. Next week we will explore how these Awakening Factors work together to bring balance and, well, awakening! But for now it’s enough to know that all these lists may look daunting or boring from the outside, but when we begin to explore them, we are really coming home to the experience of our own practice.

Come Home to the Senses — Day Long Retreat

In the midst of a series of extremely cold windy days, the morning of our daylong retreat started with more of the same, but by the time the students arrived, the wind had quieted down, and by the end of the first sitting practice, the birds were singing, a sure sign of a calm day ahead.

We were able to spend much of that mild sunny day doing walking and sitting practice in the garden. Being able to practice outside isn’t just pleasant; it provides a bounty of nature’s dharma lessons. The Buddha and his students practiced almost exclusively out of doors, even though there were undoubtedly followers who would happily have provided regular shelter.

The retreat seemed to be timed perfectly since our last dharma talk had been about the Sense Spheres, and here we were with a full day to practice resting our awareness in the Sense Sphere portal.

We had lots of things to smell, touch, taste, hear and see. Indoors I provided mint and basil clipped from the garden and set out on the counter to sniff, along with a bottle of vanilla. A student brought roses we put on the table, and there were more roses in the garden as well as a bounty of flowers, birds, trees, leaves, vistas, including the mountain.

I encouraged them to do traditional walking meditations, but also to take time to use all the senses to experience the garden. So they reached out to touch, leaned in to smell, closed their eyes to listen. They became totally enmeshed in the life of the garden, noticing everything, and in that noticing the garden came more intensely to life. We noticed, among other things, how the bees buzzed with such joy in the trumpet vine flowers, the way the trees and the day lilies opened their arms wide to the sun, inspiring us to do the same. The way light danced in the long grasses, the happy song of the waterfall. The colors, the interplay of light and shadow. Yes, indeed, it is a ‘high’. But it is not induced by ingesting chemicals, but by pausing in our lives to simply be alive to our senses. And to sense ourselves as natural expressions of life as well.

Resting awareness at the sense portals, we have the choice to be present or to get lost in all the patterns of associative thoughts, emotions, memories, judgments that the senses might trigger. We always have that choice, wherever we are. The dharma shows us the map of where we are in any given moment, and gives us the way to come home to our senses, again and again.


Drawing of Buddha by Mary Wagstaff

The next day was Vesak, the Buddhist celebration of the life of the Buddha, so I had created cards featuring a drawing of the Buddha by friend, artist and wise surfer Mary Wagstaff. Each retreatant received a card to write their insights and gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings.


At the beginning of one meditation, I passed around a basket of shells and each person felt around and chose one to hold through the meditation, to rub the thumb against the rough or smooth surface when the mind wandered to bring them back to the present moment. Communing with the little shell in hand, the realization of oneness, of life formed of stardust, expressed in all its variations, but always kin, always the same at core. One student allowed the shell to take her to a sense of gentle lulling wave action in her meditation.


At one point we lounged around in the studio and listened in silence to Missa Luba. This African choir sing a Catholic mass in their own language with such beauty. It was a perfect choice because the glory of the mass and the earthy drum beats, reminded us that the spirit of being is in the very pulse of the earth and our own bodies. Our aliveness is an expression of that spiritual nature.


Towards the end, we came out of silence to share experiences in the garden communing with flowers, the view of the mountain, hummingbirds and the waterfall. Several reported momentary or extended periods of feeling one with everything.


To help the students develop their own meditation practice at home, I led a short visualization exercise: Imagine your home. Imagine the place where you meditate or where you could meditate. It’s a quiet private place, etc. etc. Now imagine a time of day when you do or could easily meditate, etc.


How do we find time in our busy lives for this kind of relaxed awareness practice?
First we recognize it as a priority. We see how when we meditate it benefits the things we say we care about most: our health, our family and friends, and a sense of natural aliveness, not alienated or isolated.


Then I used the same shells from the previous experience and took my bell bowl and began to fill it with all the tiny shells that represent all the little bits and pieces of life demands — emails, errands, obligations, hassles —  they rattle around making a lot of noise and there’s no room for the big shell, that thing we say is so important: the practice that enables us to be healthy and loving. When I dumped the little shells out and put the big ones in first, they made no sound except to ring the bell on contact. Then I poured the little ones in, and they all fit right in, nice and snug, settling into the open spaces the big shells had created. A good lesson for us all. It is so easy to fill our time with the little things, putting off the big thing that matters, the big thing that would make all the little things so much easier to manage.


So as I share this experience of a retreat with you, I hope there is inspiration to spend time resting your awareness at the sense portals when you take a walk or sit in nature. May you give yourself many opportunities to do so. May you establish a regular daily practice of meditation to develop a strong muscle of mindfulness. May you put that practice first so that all else will fall nicely into place in your life. And if the Buddha’s teachings have value for you, may you open to the gratitude for the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

It’s a Jungle In There! Coming into Healthy Relationship with Our Minds

Continuing with our focus on the Third Foundation of Mindfulness… 
Imagine ‘pleasant’ ‘unpleasant and ‘neutral’ as seeds scattered in the garden of our minds. If we leave them to their own devices, if we are not mindful of them, they root and grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions made up of desire, greed, aversion, hatred and delusion. We get entangled in the vines and feel trapped. We are so entwined we can’t see sky, can’t feel the ground beneath our feet, can’t imagine anything beyond this strangling-vine existence that we take to be who we are. We are lost deep in the jungle, and this is normal for most of us.

When we meditate, we develop the skill of mindfulness. This is a radiant quality that sheds light infinitely in all directions. This light allows us to use all our senses to become fully aware of this moment and our current experience. We can feel the earth beneath our feet, see the sky and feel the rain. In this state of awareness, we see the tangle for what it is — not us! Not who we are. Just a jungle of thought and emotion that now has more and more space between the trunks and vines so we can explore mindfully.

At this point, we might develop an aversion to the jungle. We might think meditation is our ticket outta-here. But that is just planting another ‘unpleasant’ seed that grows quickly into a tangle of aversion. 


So we look at those seeds more carefully. When we notice ‘unpleasant’ arising in our experience in response to some cause or condition, before it can turn into a full-blown angry rant that twists us so tight we cannot breath, we shed the light of awareness on it and the seed, exposed, dries out and dissolves. 

Next we notice ‘pleasant’ arising, and before it grows into a kudzu vine of craving more of this pleasant experience, we shine our full light of awareness on it. We find we can be with a sense of pleasant without being taken over by desire for more and more and more of it.

Shedding the full light of awareness is what the Buddha did as he sat under the Bodhi tree confronted again and again with all manner of ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ thoughts and emotions that could easily have gotten him entangled, and surely had in the past. But his purpose was clear: To stay mindful, to stay present, and to see the manifestations that taunted and tempted him for what they were. In this skillful way, he was able to see the causes of suffering.

When we are entangled in the jungle of thought and emotion, thinking ourselves kings or queens of this jungle, claiming it proudly as our own — while in reality we are as much its victim as a bug caught in a spider’s web — then we are suffering. We might not be aware that our entrapment and attachment to that entrapment is the cause of our suffering, but with mindfulness we see it clearly for what it is.

Now in this same garden of our existence there are also seeds that are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral that thrive in the full light of mindfulness, that root and grow in ways that are beneficial. There is the pleasantness of sitting and knowing we are sitting. If we can simply allow that pleasant seed to grow into a dedication to practice, it will bear the fruit of pure joy and wisdom. There is the unpleasantness of forgetting to do our meditation practice, and with the light of awareness it will grow to remind us that mindfulness requires dedication to practice. 


There is the pleasantness that comes with being kind and generous, and there is the unpleasantness that comes from having said or done something hurtful. Both of these seeds, when noticed, inform us in a way that we become more skillful in our words and actions, bring more joy into the world and into ourselves. 

There is the neutral of noticing all aspects of a situation, not ignoring things that might make us uncomfortable or don’t support our argument to which we may be very attached.

It is important not to embellish this jungle analogy with chores beyond what is prescribed by the Foundations of Mindfulness. Shedding compassionate radiant light is all we need to do. We do not need to weed, eradicate, dig or spray toxic chemicals in the jungle-like garden of our mind, and doing so would be counterproductive. We are not doing a makeover! Whatever changes happen arise naturally as a result of our paired intentions to be present in this moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we have not been present at all.

In class students said that this analogy helped them to visualize the way thoughts and emotions work. Does it help you? I’m always happy to read your comments or answer any questions. Just click on ‘comments & questions’ below.

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