Practicing with the body – the first “Foundation” of mindfulness

At a recent Sunday Sangha, in response to one of your questions, I spoke about how to cultivate stability and continuity in awareness throughout the day.

I referenced the root text on the practice of mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta also known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness which describes in very clear language how to practice with all of life.

As practitioners, it may be useful to familiarize yourself with this text so that you have a sense of the scope and tenor of the practice in its most pared-down presentation. You can read the source text ‘The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha’ (PDF version here) You will need to scroll down to find discourse #10 on page 145.

We modern-day teachers are continuously adapting and refining this methodology to make it more accessible and effective in terms of application in our culture and context and we keep looking for new and skillful ways to language the teaching to be truer to the spirit of the teaching than the exact wording of the text. This is subject to interpretation of course but it is additionally important because you will read the text in translation.

A main theme in the talk was using the body as a support for awareness, the body is the first “Foundation” of mindfulness.

Your body is a great support for awareness because it is always present and fairly stable and tangible. Everything you experience, which includes all of the “foundations”, is happening in the present, but the body is more stable experientially than your thoughts, feelings, and emotions and for that reason is a useful primary anchor, foundation or support for awareness as you move through the day.

We use the breathing body as an anchor in sitting meditation which helps you establish some stability and not be pulled away by every sound, thought, or sensation that comes along. From this place of stability, with the breathing body as an ongoing support, we then breathe with and open up to the ongoing flow of experience it is unfolds in the vast space of awareness.

As you move about during the day, you can apply the practice as outlined in the sections on the “Four Postures”, and “Full Awareness” in the body section of the Sutta.

A more full-body awareness will most likely be a better anchor or support than the breathing when you are moving around and engaged in activities. When you are present in (or with) the body, you are more likely to also be present with whatever else is arising.

In the text, as it is translated, the word “knowing” is used as in, “When standing one knows, ‘I am standing’”, “When sitting one knows, ‘I am sitting’”. This “knowing” does not mean conceptual knowing. It is not the same as thinking, “Oh, I am standing”. It is the direct apprehension of the experience of standing here and now. This wordless apprehension is what is meant by the word “knowing”.

It is ok to have words arise but don’t let them obscure or take the place of the direct experience of standing, sitting, walking, talking, remaining silent, seeing, hearing, etc.

Being fully present in whatever you are doing is a simple and a powerful way to cultivate continuity.

We could update the list of activities to include washing dishes, standing in a long line outside a grocery store, trying to get your kids to listen to their teacher in a Zoom classroom, rushing to get to your work meeting when it is only in the other room, etc. When rushing can you “know”, “I am rushing”. Can you be fully present with this experience? Can you “know” it directly, immediately here and now? And can you let it be as it is?

The other foundations of mindfulness are equally important but to get a solid start we can emphasize the first foundation, the body. This is the first foundation because it is the most stable, the most tangible, and the easiest to connect with.

The key point is that these aspects of experience, the body, pleasant, unpleasant and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling tones that come with every experience, mind states (which includes emotions), and really anything that can be experienced in awareness, becomes foundations for mindfulness and supports for your meditation. They become the support for presence (when included) rather than the things that catch you up or take you out of awareness.

In this way, we can practice with what is here and now and gradually transform our relationship to all of life.