Mindfulness, simply put, is paying attention on purpose. We can pay attention to anything, which means there is no activity, no experience, no encounter to which we can’t bring a mindful approach. You can try it right now—try to pay attention to this moment, as you’re reading this. What do you notice? There are the words on the screen, of course, and the screen itself. There is sound (for me, traffic and wind outside), the feeling of my hands rested on a keyboard, my feet on the ground, the sensation of being not quite warm enough; there’s a short shopping list I haven’t written down yet taking up some space in my brain, never quite out of view; and there’s a feeling—not quite stress, but not ease, either—around knowing how much I really should get done by the end of the day. I can pay attention to the moment that contains all of this, or I can turn my attention to any one part of it. It’s endless.
One doesn’t need to be Buddhist—or have any contact with Buddhism at all—to practice mindfulness. But if it’s something that interests you and you want to take it deeper, Buddhist teachings are the place to look. Perhaps the most famous single teaching on mindfulness is on what are called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of dharmas.
Mindfulness of body—to “dwell contemplating the body in the body…with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is”—is what most of us might associate with the popular idea of doing something “mindfully.” Mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful cooking—all of these involve an attention to action. But traditionally, mindfulness of body goes even beyond that to this question of knowing “the body as it really is.” That means, in part, understanding the body the way we understand everything in Buddhism: that it’s impermanent, that it’s subject to causes and conditions, and importantly, that it’s not me, not mine.
How do you feel right now? For a lot of us, the answer might be something vague like “I don’t know,” or “Normal, I guess.” How we feel is how we feel, and how we feel is just who we are—or that’s how it feels. Mindfulness of feeling, if we take it up as a practice, is a way of looking more closely at what it means to feel. That process gives us a clearer sense of how we feel, but more important, it reveals (as with the body) that whatever I’m feeling in this moment is just a feeling, not who I am, not who I have to be in the next moment. When you’re sad or angry, just to be able to remind yourself, in the middle of that feeling, that it will pass—and to believe it—is a powerful tool.
Mindfulness of mind is noticing how our minds work; it’s looking closely at how thoughts come into being. Most of what we “believe” is just a habit. When we see ice cream, our brain goes to whatever reaction is most deeply ingrained—in this case, probably wanting. It’s unexamined and automatic. Unfortunately, we do the same when we see people of another race, when we see men or women, when we see certain symbols indicating things like political parties—we have an instant, preprogrammed response, one that shuts down not only an open mind but also any understanding of why we’re reacting in that way in the first place. Mindfulness of mind is a pause button, a process of learning to see our reactivity and interrogate it. Needless to say, it’s hard—in part because, more than with body, feelings, and dhammas, we may not want to see how our minds work.
Last, we have mindfulness of dharmas (in Pali, dhammas). Most of the time, “dharma” means something like “the truth” or “the teachings”; that’s what we hear when someone says, “According to the dharma…” In this case, though, “dharma” just means a thing. A noun: a person, place, thing, or idea. So your hand is a dharma, one that contains a multitude of other dharmas (fingers, blood cells, etc.) and is part of other dharmas (your arm, your body, this moment). That dream you had last night is a dharma; so is that taste in your mouth from the last thing you ate. Paying attention to dharmas is the same as with all the rest, in that we notice they are impermanent, they are conditioned by other factors, they are not separate from us. Essentially, we are looking at this dharma (whatever it is) through the lens of the dharma. Every single thing, every atom and every cloud and every memory, is pointing to the truth of how things are, because that’s how that thing is.
Of course, we don’t need to break it down like this; we don’t need to decide, in this moment, to be mindful of this or that. We can just open our eyes a little wider, listen a little more closely, feel a little more deeply. What are you encountering right now, in front of you or inside your mind? Whatever it is, it’s point to the truth of all of it. Pay attention.
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.