What is Mindfulness?

Hanh, T. N. (2012). Awakening of the heart: essential Buddhist Sutras and commentaries. Parallax Press.

Introduction to the Four Establishments of Mindfulness

We practice mindfulness in order to realize liberation, peace, and joy in our everyday lives. Liberation and happiness are linked to each other; if there is liberation, there is happiness, and greater liberation brings greater happiness. If there is liberation, peace and joy exist in the present moment. We don’t need to wait ten or fifteen years to realize them. They’re available as soon as we begin the practice. However modest these elements may be, they form the basis for greater liberation, peace, and joy in the future.

To practice meditation is to look deeply in order to see into the essence of things. With insight and understanding we can realize liberation, peace, and joy. Our anger, anxiety, and fear are the ropes that bind us to suffering. If we want to be liberated from them, we need to observe their nature, which is ignorance, the lack of clear understanding. When we misunderstand a friend, we may become angry at him, and because of that, we may suffer. But when we look deeply into what has happened, we can end the misunderstanding. When we understand the other person and his situation, our suffering will disappear and peace and joy will arise. The first step is awareness of the object, and the second step is looking deeply at the object to shed light on it. Therefore, mindfulness means awareness and it also means looking deeply.

The Pali word sati (Sanskrit: smrti) means “to stop,” and “to maintain awareness of the object.” The Pali word vipassana (Sanskrit: vipashyana ) means “to go deeply into that object to observe it.” While we are fully aware of and observing deeply an object, the boundary between the subject who observes and the object being observed gradually dissolves, and the subject and object become one. This is the essence of meditation. Only when we penetrate an object and become one with it can we understand. It is not enough to stand outside and observe an object. That’s why the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness reminds us to be aware of the body in the body, the feelings in the feelings, the mind in the mind, and the objects of mind in the objects of mind.

Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. There are four areas of mindfulness, four areas where mindfulness has to penetrate in order for us to be protected, for joy to be nourished, for pain to be transformed, and for insight to be obtained. These are called the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. These four establishments, or foundations, are body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind.

The First Establishment of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the body in the body. This means that when you bring mindfulness into your body, mindfulness becomes the body. Mindfulness is not an outside observer. Mindfulness becomes the body, and the body becomes mindfulness. When a mother embraces her child, the mother becomes her child, and the child becomes her mother. In true meditation, the subject and the object of meditation no longer exist as separate entities; that distinction is removed. When you generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace your breathing and your body, that is mindfulness of the body in the body. Mindfulness is not an outside observer, it is the body. The body becomes the object and the subject of mindfulness at the same time.

It’s like when nuclear scientists say that to understand an elementary particle and really enter into the world of the infinitely small, you have to become a participant and not an observer anymore. In India they use the example of a grain of salt that would like to know how salty the ocean is. How can a grain of salt come to know this? The only way is for it to jump into the ocean, and the understanding will be perfect; the separation between the object of understanding and the subject of understanding is no longer there. In our time, nuclear scientists have begun to see that. That is why they say that in order to really understand the world of the elementary particle, you have to stop being an observer, you have to become a participant.

The Second Establishment of Mindfulness is our feelings. The Third Establishment of Mindfulness is the mind, namely the mental formations. In the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha offered us four exercises of mindful breathing to take care of each of these fields of our mindfulness.

The Fourth Establishment of Mindfulness is the realm of perception. In the sutra it is spoken of as “the objects of mind,” and we can understand this as perception. The Buddha also proposed four exercises on mindful breathing for contemplation of the objects of the mind in the mind, so that we can penetrate, embrace, and look deeply into the objects of our perception. Doing so gives us the insight that will liberate us from our delusion and our suffering.

Mountains, rivers, birds, the blue sky, houses, streams, children, and animals—everything is the object of your perception. And we have four exercises of mindful breathing in order to help us inquire about the true nature of all these things, including ourselves. The body is also an object of the mind; feelings are also objects of our minds; and mental formations become objects of our minds. We can always inquire about the nature of our bodies, our feelings, or our minds, as well as our perceptions, and other things. If we look deeply at the body in the body, it becomes an object of the mind. When we are looking at feelings, then feelings are the objects of the mind. When we are observing the mind, the mind becomes the object of our minds. All the establishments of mindfulness are in fact objects of the mind.

A monk once asked me how the mind can be an object of the mind. I said if we take our two fingers and rub them together, then the body is in touch with the body. The mind is the same. When we look into our bodies, the body is the object of our minds. When we look into form, form is the object of our minds. When we look into mental formations, mental formations are the objects of our minds. So we see that the field of objects of the mind is very vast. But the division into four establishments is a convenient tool to help us learn how to practice mindfulness.