What is mindfulness? In the world of so-called “secular mindfulness,” the most common working definition is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” In that definition, it’s a kind of state of mind, a way of being in the present. In Zen, too, it’s a way of being present, but it’s more often framed as a way of doing something: how to sit, how to walk, how to drink a cup of tea. In that, there’s awareness, yes, and there’s intentionality, but there’s an emphasis on action, on mindfulness as a physical expression. They’re both talking about the same thing, just from different angles.
A more traditional angle is found in the Satipatthana Sutta, in which the Buddha lists “the four foundations of mindfulness”: mindfulness of body (kaya), of feelings (vedana), of mind (citta), and of dharmas (Pali, dhamma). In this teaching, mindfulness may manifest as all the things described above, but it is, above all other things, a kind of noticing.
First, the Buddha says to notice the body as the body. Not our judgments of it (healthy/weak, attractive/unattractive, etc.), not its utility (It can lift! It can walk!), but what it actually is, how it operates. This is an invitation to step back from identifying with the body and observe, in some ways, how it’s a machine made of many working parts. All those parts are interdependent, but they are also distinct from one another. In other words, your body is composite—it’s made of parts, and those parts are made of parts. Those parts strengthen and weaken and change over time; some may disappear (hair) or be removed altogether (appendix). It’s all you, but you aren’t quite it.
Noticing feelings as feelings is a similar process. I’ve read that “feelings,” in this context, is something like “automatic responses”—it’s how we feel about something before we process it intellectually. There’s a feeling you have about a baby bunny even before you remember “bunnies are cute” or “I like bunnies”; there’s also a way you respond to an oncoming swerving car that you feel before you can begin to articulate it. Notice that—notice how these things seem to arrive fully formed, how they operate without “your” input. Where do they come from? What new information makes them go away? As with the body, it isn’t about saying this is or isn’t you—it’s more like asking the question, “What am I?”
Next is the mind. This one is big—it includes all the feelings we can actually articulate (“My boss drives me crazy”), our memories, our fantasies, our regrets, our moods. And what we’re noticing is the same: that the mind, too, is composite, and not only that, but it’s also dependent on body and feelings (and vice versa). My attitude work is affected by the weather (body); I may have plenty of clear reasons why I like my neighbour, but he may also look a lot like a childhood friend I’ve all but forgotten. Even if I can’t see that, it’s part of the functioning of mind. So this thing that I think is me—my mind—is also a collection of parts, parts that express “me” but aren’t quite me. The Buddha said, notice that.
Last is dharmas—and dharmas are everything. Every piece of reality—everything we could call a noun—is a dharma. That includes every aspect of body, feelings, and mind, but it also includes the chair you’re sitting on, the air you’re breathing, the story on the news, the joke your grandfather used to tell. None of it is solid, none of it is dependable, and at the same time, all of it—every piece, and every piece of every piece—is also showing up in this moment, interacting with the rest, forming the moment you’re in and the “I” that you think you know. It isn’t you, but it’s also not quite not you. You’re part of something in motion, something amazing, and the number one thing that stops you from seeing it is the first part of the sentence, that lingering idea that there is a “you” as well as a “that.” That’s one part of the story; the one the Buddha asked us to notice is the other, the one where there’s just this.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.