One of the biggest challenges in mindfulness is simply knowing how to stay mindful all the time. Thankfully, you can stay mindful using the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness.
You know what it’s like. You take your frequent twenty-minute breaks to practice mindfulness (read our guide to mindfulness exercises).
While you are meditating, you feel great. You have that clear consciousness, that inner peace and relaxation. And everything is groovy, right?
Then you stop meditating and honestly, how long does it take you to stop being mindful? For me, sometimes I can stay mindful all day. Other times something happens (like the neighbours shouting), I get a little frustrated, and I stop being mindful.
If only we could stay mindful all day, everything would feel that much better. So how do we do it?
There are many ways to stay mindful:
- Practice mindful habits
- Set mindful reminders
- Use these meditation apps
But for me, one of the best ways to stay mindful all the time is by practising the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness.
Use Buddha’s Four Foundations Of Mindfulness To Stay Mindful All The Time
When you meditate, you become mindful, but you may soon lose that mindfulness after your practise-session. To stay mindful all the time, you will want to learn about the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness.
There is an excellent passage in Bhante Gunaratana’s book The Four Foundations Of Mindfulness In Plain English [Amazon] (highly recommended reading, by the way). In it, Gunaratana is explaining why Buddhists should meditate on the four foundations of mindfulness.
Buddha said, “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings… in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind… in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas… in order to know dhammas as they really are.”
The four foundations of mindfulness are:
- Mindfulness of body (kaya)
- Mindfulness of feelings (vedana)
- Mindfulness of mind (cilla)
- And mindfulness of dhammas (dhammas)
Whether you are new to mindfulness or an ardent pro, it is recommended that you practice the four foundations of mindfulness to stay mindful all the time.
Staying Mindful All The Time With The Four Foundations
Usually, when we meditate, we will focus on one of the four foundations of mindfulness at a time. Usually, we will start with mindfulness of breath such as in Anapanasati meditation.
From the breath, we will progress towards becoming mindful of all things.
However, to stay mindful all the time, we should continually check-in with the four foundations, which are as follows.
The first of the mindfulness foundations Buddha taught is mindfulness of the body.
When we practise mindfulness of the body, we observe the sensations of the body as simply something of which we are aware. The body is not a part of us ourselves; it is simply an experience in the present moment. We usually achieve mindfulness of body by starting with breathing meditation techniques.
When we breathe mindfully, we simply observe what is happening with the breath, as though it were a thing separate from ourselves. This quite naturally leads us to become mindful of the body as a whole.
We may then expand this into a body scan meditation, a movement meditation or a mantra. I personally find it very beneficial to go from breathing meditations into movement meditations because it trains the mind to be mindful while active. You could try meditative yoga too.
Traditionally, Buddhists would take this further in the following ways:
- Meditating in different postures
- Practising clear comprehension (sampajañña)— this is Comprehension of Purpose (why are you doing something?), Comprehension of Suitability (is it correct to be doing this now), domain (can the present action be done as meditation practice), and Comprehension of Reality (impermanence, suffering, and not-self)
- Reflection on the reality of body—this is about seeing the body as a combination of different parts and elements
- Reflection of material elements: seeing the body as a combination of the elements of earth, water, motility and fire.
- Cemetery contemplation—these are meditations on the body after death that are done to shatter the illusion of immortality
Many times what stops us being mindful all the time is something happening in the body, or ideas thereof. Health concerns, for instance, can cause acute stress that may prevent us from being mindful for long times. Sensations in the body too, both pleasant and unpleasant, can drag us into mindlessness.
By practising mindfulness of the body, we detach from the body. We no longer see the body as part of the “self” but as a temporary thing that is separate to us. This helps us to detach from the body and reduces our reactivity to bodily sensations so that we are less likely to stop being mindful because of a physical experience.
Feelings (vedana) are the tactile sensations that we feel. These are different to “emotions”.
Feelings are identified as:
- Pleasant, neutral, unpleasant
- Bodily or mental
- Wordly or unwordly (worldly feelings include foods, sexual feelings and so on, where unwordly feelings are states of mind like grief and sadness).
One reason we struggle to remain mindful is because of feelings that drag us off course. If we feel pain, for instance, we might think “This pain is a bad thing that is happening to me.” And as such we identify the pain with the self, and so we cling to it.
We need to let go of feelings if we are to stay mindful all the time. To do this, we practice mindfulness of feelings.
When we are mindful of feelings, we dissociate from them and stop seeing them as part of us. Plus, when we watch feelings come and go, we learn that they are temporary, and this helps us to let go.
Mindfulness of mind (Citta) is about being mindful of our consciousness. This is distinguished from the mind that thinks and feels.
When we practice mindfulness of mind, we are mindful of the different mental states, which include emotions and sensations, feelings like drowsiness, and so on. When we observe these states of mind, we come to accept them and be unreactive to them.
If there is one thing we identify as the “self” it is the mind. Our thoughts and feelings are more “us” than anything else. For this reason, mental states are the leading cause of mindlessness.
How often have you found yourself thinking one bad thought after another? Have you ever felt as though you were drowning in your emotions, as though you just want all that mental noise to stop?
The best way to make it stop is by practising mindfulness of mind. By being consciously aware of our thoughts and emotions, we can dissociate from them and be less affected by them. This helps us to let thoughts subside and to return to mindfulness.
Mindfulness of Dharma is essentially mindfulness of the way things are. Here we become aware of impermanence, of selflessness, and of mental objects.
Traditionally, Buddhists would be mindful of the following:
- The Five Hindrances that lead us to stray (sense-desire, anger, sloth-and-torpor, worry and flurry, sceptical doubt).
- The Five Aggregates of Clinging
- The Six Eternal and Six Internal Sense-Bases
- The Seven Factors Of Enlightenment
- The Four Noble Truths
When we practice mindfulness of dharma, we learn to understand the processes of the mind, and this understanding can help us to accept the way things are. For instance, this very article is about staying mindful, which implies that we lose mindfulness. You might feel frustrated because you lose mindfulness. And that feeling of frustration is only going to make things worse. If, however, you accept that it is natural for mindfulness to come and go, if you stop thinking “this is my weakness, that I lose mindfulness”, if you simply accept it as a process, then you will be less affected. In this way, understanding the way things are and the processes of the mind can help us to let go and to be more mindful.
The Foundations Of Mindfulness are like the foundations of a house. When they are structurally sound, the house stays in place.
By using the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness, we can take greater control of the mind and can stay mindful for longer. And only then can we achieve enlightenment.