When considering the second of our essential questions – ‘How can we best handle the world’s unstable and uncertain nature?’ – we turn to the Buddha’s contemplative training known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This practice shows us how the mind and the world meet and how great the benefits are if that meeting is brought about in an ongoing, mindful way, fully attuned to the natural order and all its vagaries.
This teaching, described in two almost identical discourses (Majjhima Nikaya 10 [and here] & Digha Nikaya 22 [and here]) is commonly recognized as the most significant meditation instruction in the scriptures of the Theravada or the Southern School of Buddhism. Like the Great Elements, this formulation is divided into four sections, which can be summarized as:
Contemplation of the body (kāya-nupassanā)
Contemplation of sensation or feeling (vedanā-nupassanā)
Contemplation of the mind, including moods, thoughts, memories, mental imagery and intentions (cittā-nupassanā)
Contemplation of experience in terms of the natural order (dhammā-nupassanā)
According to Buddhist teachings, the world would not be known to us were it not for the agency of our own minds as we contact these four aspects, or ‘foundations’, through which the world is perceived, interpreted and understood. When the mind is fully awakened and attuned to the present moment, – when it is completely free from greed, hatred and delusion – then it is possible to know the world clearly and to respond to it in a harmonious way.
This mindful attunement results in a life of peace and freedom and a way of being that is a source of blessings for oneself and many others. Just as when a virtuoso musician plays a piece with all their heart and skill and attunes their playing perfectly to the rest of the group, the musicians delight in the rapture of the music and all those listening are transported too.
Unfortunately, those who have arrived at this kind of pitch-perfect attunement to life are very few. Most of us are continually distracted by loves and hates, habits and opinions, regrets about missed opportunities, and fears of future calamities. Or we simple wander through life whilst effectively half asleep. To continue the musical metaphor: We do not know our instruments so well; we are not following the beat and our minds keep wandering when we should be following the score.
Practising the Four Foundations of Mindfulness offers a way for us to improve our skills, help ourselves to wake up and be more attentive, and develop that precious quality of true attunement.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the book, For the Love of the World, (pdf) pp. 14-16.