The Four Noble Truths theoretical framework is complemented by a meditative training system called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These foundations, referred to by The Buddha as ‘satipatthana,’ lay out the steps and processes for achieving and maintaining moment-by-moment mindfulness. Research has shown that anxiety and depression can be reduced by mindfulness.
The First Foundation
The Four Foundations training begins with the First Foundation: meditation that focuses attention on the body and the breath. When our attention wanders, we kindly and calmly draw it back to the object we have selected. Focusing attention narrowly and repeatedly while purposefully redirecting our awareness back to our chosen object eventually leads to a sense of relaxation and fundamental safety.
The Second Foundation
As our concentration develops, we proceed to the Second Foundation: meditation focused on physical sensations arising in the body in the present moment. We note if these sensations are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. By having an attitude of inquisitiveness, patience, and acceptance regardless of what we encounter, we learn to override our habitual reactive tendencies of clinging to what is pleasant, avoiding what is unpleasant, and becoming disinterested with what is neutral.
It’s a common misunderstanding that the goal of mindfulness is a kind of numbness or detachment. On the contrary, in the Second Foundation, during true mindfulness of sensations, we fully draw our attention to raw experiences of pain, pleasure, or indifference, and decondition our reactive response to each state. In this sense, mindfulness permits an even deeper, more intimate experience of feeling, freed from our conditioned reactions.
The Third Foundation
In the Third Foundation, we meditate on the nature of mind itself (a process known as mindfulness of mind). At this stage, we include thoughts and emotions in our meditation while working to maintain our unbiased objectivity. We adopt a witnessing consciousness, or what modern researchers now call ‘meta-cognitive awareness’ of mental states and contents. We notice our thoughts, memories, images, and emotions as they arise, without indulging or empowering them or needing to suppress or avoid them. In this Foundation, we learn to identify less with the contents of the mind and more with what has been called the nature or quality of mind itself.
Training to rest without reactions in this natural clarity of mind is considered an advanced meditative practice. The outcome of this practice is more than just relaxation and balanced sensitivity, but insight into the truth of impermanence and insubstantiality beyond our false projections. When we have achieved this depth and degree of wisdom, sometimes called profound insight (vipassana), we naturally adjust our actions towards ourselves and others to live in accordance with the principles of interdependence and universal compassion.
The Fourth Foundation
The Fourth Foundation of mindfulness is all-inclusive awareness. Here, our meditation includes all experiences in the present moment. We can lie, sit, stand, walk, and attend to the breath, sensations, and mental activities freshly and free of reactivity. We can then respond consciously and purposefully to our experience. We do this with the concentrative calm, balanced sensitivity, and discerning insight developed in the previous three foundations. This is the process of natural wakefulness in daily life, a practice some have called non-meditation because it is no longer formal training or doing, but rather a way of being.
As we become more aware through meditation, we are more able to engage in conscious self-redirection and self-healing. When the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are combined with the Four Noble Truths, we can see how awareness is used to recognize unconscious habits that perpetuate self-imposed suffering, and we learn how to choose more positive actions that will uncondition the mind, rewire the brain, and create sustainable well-being. It’s this process of cognitive awareness and self-examination that makes meditation such a powerful and effective clinical tool.
Miles Neale, Psy.D., is a NYC-based Buddhist psychotherapist, Assistant Director at Nalanda Institute, and Clinical Instructor at Weill Cornell Medical College. Integrating Western clinical approaches with Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, he empowers clients through insight-oriented talk therapy and meditative skills. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices, he conducts meditation research at Weill Cornell and shares expertise on the BBC World Service. Neale's mission is to foster well-being, altruism, and creativity, offering healing techniques based on neuroscience and health psychology.