Thus I Have Heard: The Foundations of Mindfulness

File May 31, 11 26 18 AMWhere did the concept of mindfulness come from? What are its origins? The Satipatthana Sutta, a Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness is the earliest known text (1st century BCE) giving full instructions on the systematic and methodical cultivation of mindfulness. A sutta is a discourse or authoritative communication on a particular subject. The Satipatthana Sutta begins, “Thus I have heard…” because it is the relating of the Buddha’s teachings by an elder.

By following its instructions, concentration is strengthened and insight (or vipassana – understanding of the true nature of things) is generated. The mind is gradually trained for the purpose of liberation; freedom from the cycle of suffering.

The Satipatthana Sutta outlines the four foundations of mindfulness “for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief”. Together they make up Right Mindfulness, the seventh limb of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. These foundations include mindfulness of body, feelings, mind, and mental objects. Foundations 1-3 ought to feel familiar to those who have taken mindfulness classes or participated in a structured mindfulness course such as MBSR or MBCT.

1. Mindfulness of Body

Moment by moment observation of the breath, body movements and physical sensations, its material qualities and its impermanence.

“…gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down, bends in his legs crosswise on his lap, keeps his body erect, and arouses mindfulness in the object of meditation, namely, the breath which is in front of him. Mindful, he breathes in, and mindful, he breathes out.”

2. Mindfulness of Feelings or Sensations

Awareness and observation of worldly and spiritual pleasant, neutral and unpleasant sensations.

“…he dwells perceiving again and again feelings as just feelings – not mine, not I, not self, but just phenomena… Being detached from craving and wrong views he dwells without clinging to anything in the world.”

3. Mindfulness of Mind or Consciousness 

Awareness of the workings of the mind and categorization of the specific contents of thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

“…he dwells perceiving again and again mind as just mind – not mine, not I, not self, but just a phenomenon…”

4. Mindfulness of Mental Objects

Awareness of “mental objects” or phenomena and specific Buddhist teachings such as hinderances to practice, objects of clinging, the senses bases and their fetters, factors of enlightenment, and the noble truths.

“…he is firmly mindful of the fact that only dhamas (phenomena, teachings) exist – not a soul, self, or I. That mindfulness is just for gaining insight (vipassana) and mindfulness progressively.”

By patiently and non-judmentally observing the workings of the body, feelings, mind, and mental objects, up close, moment by moment, we start to see them as they really are. In the end, we are advised that if we practice diligently and with devotion over a long period of time, we can achieve freedom from suffering in this lifetime. Finally, the sutta closes with a Pali word repeated three times by the Buddhist monks addressed in the text, which means “excellent”:

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

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