Buddha shakyamuni sculpture sitting in meditation.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: A Direct Path to Liberation

Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein examines a key teaching from the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness, which he called the direct path to liberation.

By Joseph Goldstein

Buddha Shakyamuni in meditation. Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura period, 8th century. Copper alloy. Courtesy LACMA.

The simple, although not always easy, practices of vipassana are all rooted in one important discourse of the Buddha: the Satipatthana Sutta. Satipatthana is often translated as “foundation of mindfulness,” but another, and perhaps more helpful, translation is “way of establishing mindfulness.” Traditionally, there are four: mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas. In terms of awareness of the different aspects of our experience, the slight shift in translation—from “foundation” to “way”—has important implications: it gives more emphasis to the process of awareness itself, rather than to the particular objects of our attention.

There is an element of the Satipatthana Sutta that stands out by virtue of the frequency of its repetition. It is a refrain that occurs thirteen different times in the discourse, following each of the specific meditation instructions pertaining to the four foundations of mindfulness.

In this way, in regard to the body [feelings, mind, dhammas] one abides contemplating the body [feelings, mind, dhammas] internally, or one abides contemplating [each] externally, or one abides contemplating [each] both internally and externally. One abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body [feelings, mind, dhammas]… the nature of passing away in [each]… or the nature of both arising and passing away in [each]. Mindfulness that “there is a body” [feelings, mind, dhammas] is established in one to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And one abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how in regard to the body [feelings, mind, dhammas] one abides contemplating [each].

Through the repetition of the refrain, the Buddha reminds us again and again of the essential aspects of the practice:

In the sutta, the refrain first appears after the instructions on the breath. For this reason, and for the sake of efficiency, the examples that follow focus on the body. As you read, however, bear in mind that the important and explicit elements of practice outlined in the refrain apply as well to all the aspects of our experience mentioned in the other three foundations of mindfulness: feelings, mind, and dhammas.

Internally and Externally

Contemplating the body internally seems obvious; it is mostly how we practice. It is the presentmoment awareness of what arises in the body. It might be the sensations of the breath or of different sensations arising throughout the body, such as heat or cold, tightness or pressure. But what does contemplating the body externally mean? There are some interesting aspects here that meditation practitioners don’t often make explicit.

Contemplating the body externally can mean being mindful of the bodily actions of others when they draw our attention. Instead of our usual tendency to judge or react when we see other people doing something, we can rest in the simple mindfulness of what the other person is doing. We can be mindful that they are walking or eating, without getting lost in our own thoughts of how fast or slow, mindful or careless they might be. An ironic and useless pattern that I’ve noticed on my own retreats is that my mind comments on someone not being mindful—or at least not appearing to be in my eyes—all the while being oblivious to the fact that in that very moment I’m doing exactly what it is I have a judgment about: namely, not being mindful! It usually doesn’t take me long to see the absurdity of this pattern and then just to smile at these habits of mind. It’s always helpful to have a sense of humor about one’s own mental foibles. By practicing this simple external mindfulness, we protect our own minds from the various defilements that might arise.

Although attending to the breath is mostly internal, the instruction to be mindful of the body externally could be particularly helpful on retreat when someone else’s breath may be loud and disturbing. At those times, being mindful of another’s breath—whether it is in or out, long or short—can actually be part of our own path to awakening.

Being mindful internally, externally, and both reminds us of the comprehensive nature of mindfulness practice—to be aware of whatever there is, whether it is within us or without. And, in the end, to go beyond this division altogether.

Being mindful of the body externally has another advantage. Have you noticed that when you’re mindful of someone else moving very carefully, without distraction, that you yourself become more concentrated? This is one reason the Buddha suggested that we associate with those who are mindful and concentrated: it’s contagious. In this way, our own practice becomes a real offering to our fellow practitioners.

The last part of this instruction is to contemplate both internally and externally. The German bhikkhu and scholar Analayo suggested that this is not just a simple repetition, but rather reflects a more profound understanding that we should contemplate experience without considering it to be part of one’s own experience or that of another, but just as an objective experience in itself. Being mindful internally, externally, and both reminds us of the comprehensive nature of mindfulness practice—to be aware of whatever there is, whether it is within us or without. And, in the end, to go beyond this division altogether.

Arising and Passing Away

The second part of the refrain tells us to abide contemplating the nature of arising, the nature of passing away, and the nature of both with each object of awareness. Ledi Sayadaw, one of the great Burmese meditation masters and scholars, said that not seeing arising and passing away is ignorance, while seeing all phenomena as impermanent is the doorway to all the stages of insight and awakening. The Buddha emphasized the importance of this in many different ways.

“Bhikkhus, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated, it eliminates all sensual lust, all lust for existence, it eliminates all ignorance, it uproots the conceit, ‘I am.’ ”

Better than one hundred years lived without seeing the arising and passing of things is one day lived seeing their arising and passing.

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal

What does this say about what we value and work for in our lives, and of the liberating effect of seeing directly—in the moment and for ourselves—the truth of change?

Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant for many years, was once recounting the wonderful qualities of the Buddha. The Buddha, referring to himself as the Tathagata (“one thus gone”), said in reply:

That being so, Ananda, remember this too as a wonderful and marvelous quality of the Tathagata. For the Tathagata, feelings are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear. Perceptions are known as they arise, are present, and disappear. Thoughts are known as they arise, are present, and disappear. Remember this too, Ananda, as a wonderful and marvelous quality of the Tathagata.

The Middle Length Discourses 123:22, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi

Understanding deeply the truth of impermanence—not as a concept, but in direct experience—opens the doorway to ever-deepening insight. In the Buddha’s first teaching on selflessness to the group of five ascetics, he goes through each of the five aggregates—material elements, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness—pointing out the impermanence of each and how that which is impermanent is inherently unreliable and unsatisfying. And that which is unreliable and unsatisfying cannot truly be considered to be “I” or “mine.” In just hearing this teaching, all five ascetics became enlightened.

How does this happen? What is the liberating power of this teaching? When we see deeply that all that is subject to arising is also subject to cessation, that whatever arises will also pass away, the mind becomes disenchanted. Becoming disenchanted, one becomes dispassionate. And through dispassion, the mind is liberated.

It’s telling that in English, the words disenchanted, disillusioned, and dispassionate often have negative connotations. But looking more closely at their meaning reveals their connection to freedom. Becoming disenchanted means breaking the spell of enchantment, waking up into a fuller and greater reality. It is the happy ending of so many great myths and fairy tales. Disillusioned is not the same as being discouraged or disappointed. It is a reconnection with what is true, free of illusion. And dispassionate does not mean “indifferent” or “apathetic.” Rather, it is the mind of great openness and equanimity, free of grasping.

Contemplating Impermanence

A sustained contemplation of impermanence leads to a shift in the way we experience reality. We see through the illusions of stable existence, in both what is perceived and what is perceiving. It radically reshapes our understanding of ourselves and the world. How can we practice this contemplation?

We can be mindful of impermanence on many levels. Wisdom arises when we pay attention to impermanence in ways we may already know but often overlook. There are the very obvious changes in nature: climate change, daily weather patterns, evolution, and extinction of species. On the collective level, there are large-scale changes in society: the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures. On the personal level, people are born, and they die.

Walking through the woods in New England, we often come across miles of stone walls and old stone foundations, with trees now growing up through them. What stories took place here? What lives as vivid as our own? What is left? We see the changing experience of our relationships or work, and most intimately, of our bodies and minds.

Given all these examples of change that are before us all the time, it is striking that we often still find the changes in our lives surprising. Somehow we count on things staying a certain way, or at least, if they are going to change, changing to our liking.

When we pay careful attention, we see that everything is disappearing and new things are arising not only each day or hour but in every moment. When we leave our house, or simply walk from one room to another, can we notice this flow of changing experience—the flow of visual forms as we move, different sounds, changing sensations in the body, fleeting thoughts of images? What happens to each of these experiences? Do they last? The truth of their changing nature is so ordinary that we have mostly stopped noticing it at all.

Are we seeing new things arise even before the last one has ended? Are we seeing the endings more clearly and not seeing the moment of an object arising? Or do we see both the arising and passing away of objects equally?

As mindfulness and concentration get stronger, we more clearly and deeply see impermanence on microscopic levels. We see for ourselves that what appears solid and stable is really insubstantial and in constant flux. The perception of change becomes so rapid that in the very moment of noticing an object, it’s already disappearing. At this point, people sometimes feel that their mindfulness is weak because things are not lasting long enough for our attention to land on them. But this is simply a refinement of the perception of change. We really begin to see that, on one level, there’s nothing much there.

As a meditation exercise, particularly in sitting, it is sometimes helpful to notice what aspect of impermanence is most predominant. Are we seeing new things arise even before the last one has ended? Are we seeing the endings more clearly and not seeing the moment of an object arising? Or do we see both the arising and passing away of objects equally? It’s not that any one of these perspectives is the right one. In the course of our practice, sometimes it is one way, sometimes another. Noticing how we perceive change is simply another way to refine our attention.

In one discourse, the Buddha makes the distinction between the establishment of mindfulness, which is the simple awareness of what is present, and the development of the establishment of mindfulness. In this development stage, the awareness of impermanence becomes even more predominant than the object itself. It is the beginning of movement from mindfulness of content to mindfulness of process. It is this stage of satipatthana that leads to wisdom and awakening, because if any aspect of experience is still seen as permanent, then opening to the unconditioned, nibbana, is impossible.

This understanding is not limited to monks or nuns. Many laypeople, from the Buddha’s time up until the present, have experienced profound stages of enlightenment. The Buddha addresses this possibility in a conversation with the lay disciple Mahanama:

Here, Mahanama, a lay follower is wise, possessing wisdom directed to arising and passing away, which is noble, and penetrative, leading to the complete destruction of suffering. In that way a lay follower is accomplished in wisdom.

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha 55:37, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Bare Knowing and the Continuity of Mindfulness

The next line of the refrain says, “Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in one to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness.” As Analayo notes, bare knowledge here means observing objectively without getting lost in associations and reactions. It’s the simple and direct knowing of what’s present without making up stories about experience. This “seeing clearly” is, in fact, the meaning of the Pali word vipassana, usually translated as “insight meditation.”

We often miss the simplicity of bare knowledge because we look through it—or over it—for something special, or we look forward in expectation and miss what is right in front of us. There is a story of Mulla Nazruddin, a crazy-wisdom teaching figure in the Sufi tradition. It seems that the Mulla was engaged in trade between his home city and the neighboring country. The customs officials at the border suspected that he was smuggling something, but whenever they examined his saddlebags, they could never find anything of value. Finally, one day, a friend asked Mulla how he was becoming wealthy. He replied, “I’m smuggling donkeys.”

Sometimes we obscure the experience of bare knowing because we are conflating simple awareness with some unnoticed attachment or aversion to what is happening. This can happen when the various hindrances are strong or when there are subtler attachments to pleasant meditative states. In following the instructions of the refrain, we need to establish mindfulness to the extent necessary for this bare knowing of what’s arising and for its continuity moment to moment.

The Momentum of Mindfulness

The continuity of mindfulness spoken of in the sutta is established in two ways. First, it comes about through the momentum of previous moments of mindfulness. Whatever we repeatedly practice begins to arise more and more spontaneously; at this point, the mindfulness arises by itself. From the repeated effort to be mindful in the moment, there comes a time when the flow of mindfulness happens effortlessly for longer periods of time.

There is an early insight into the nature of the mind-body process that both comes from this continuity of mindfulness and also strengthens it: it is the understanding through one’s own experience that in every moment, knowing and its object arise simultaneously. There is the inbreath and the simultaneous knowing of it, the out-breath and the knowing of it. A visual object arises, and in that very moment there is the knowing of it. This is true of every aspect of our experience.

In meditation, as we go from painful sensations to pleasant ones, we see that the basic quality of knowing is not altered—it is simply aware of what is arising.

This insight is the first doorway into the understanding of selflessness, and in the stages of insight, it is called purification of view. We begin to see that everything that we call self is simply this pairwise progression of knowing and object, arising and passing moment after moment. And we also see that the knowing in each moment arises due to impersonal causes and not because there is some abiding “knower.” So we can say that knowing (consciousness) arises spontaneously when the appropriate causes and conditions are present. Going even deeper, we see that the knowing faculty is not altered or affected by what is known, and this realization has liberating consequences for both our meditation practice and our lives. In meditation, as we go from painful sensations to pleasant ones, we see that the basic quality of knowing is not altered—it is simply aware of what is arising. One example of the profound consequences of this understanding is the description of Henry David Thoreau’s last days. He died of tuberculosis at the early age of forty-four. In a biography of his life, his friends described his frame of mind.

Henry was never affected, never reached by [his illness]. …Very often I heard him tell his visitors that he enjoyed existence as well as ever. He remarked to me that there was as much comfort in perfect disease as in perfect health, the mind always conforming to the condition of the body. The thought of death, he said, could not begin to trouble him. …

During his long illness, I never heard a murmur escape him, or the slightest wish expressed to remain with us; his perfect contentment was truly wonderful….

Some of his more orthodox friends and relatives tried to prepare him for death, but with little satisfaction to themselves…. [W]hen his Aunt Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God, he answered, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”

The Days of Henry David Thoreau, by Walter Harding

We build this momentum of mindfulness very simply. We can start with some primary object of attention, such as mindfulness of the breath or the sitting posture. Using a particular object to focus and calm the mind is common to many spiritual traditions. St. Frances de Sales wrote, “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently. … And even if you did nothing in the whole of your hour but bring your heart back—though it went away every time you brought it back—your hour would be very well employed.”

When the mind has settled a bit, we can then begin paying attention to any other object that becomes more predominant. It might be sensations in the body, or sounds, or different thoughts and images arising in the mind. And as the mindfulness gains strength, we sometimes let go of the primary object altogether and practice a more choiceless awareness, simply being aware of whatever arises moment to moment. At this point, as the awareness becomes more panoramic, we move from emphasis on the content of the particular experience to its more general characteristics—namely, the impermanence, unreliability, and selfless of all that arises. All of this strengthens the continuity of mindfulness through mindfulness itself.


The second way we strengthen continuity is through the mental factor of perception. In the Abhidhamma, strong perception is one of the proximate causes for mindfulness to arise. Perception is the mental quality of recognition. It picks out the distinguishing marks of a particular object and then employs a concept—red or blue, man or woman—to store it in memory for future reference. For example, we hear a sound. Consciousness simply knows the sound; perception recognizes it, names it “a bird,” and then remembers this concept for the next time we hear that kind of sound. It’s not that the word bird will always come to mind when we hear the sound, but there will still be a preverbal recognition that the sound is the call of a bird.

All this raises an interesting question regarding the use of concepts in meditation practice and understanding. On the one hand, we want to establish mindfulness to the extent necessary for bare knowing, which somehow suggests a mind free from conceptual overlay. And on the other hand, the factor of perception, with its attendant concepts, is itself a proximate cause for mindfulness to arise.

The resolution of these apparently contradictory perspectives lies in our deeper understanding of perception. Perception is a common factor, which means that it is arising in every moment of consciousness. When perception is operative without strong mindfulness—the usual way an untrained mind navigates the world—then we know and remember only the surface appearance of things. In the moment of recognition, we give a name or a concept to what arises, and then our experiences become limited, obscured, or colored by those very concepts.

Perception can be in the service of greater mindfulness and awareness. Instead of concepts limiting our view of what’s arising, properly employed, they can frame the moment’s experience, enabling a deeper and more careful observation.

As an example of the limiting potential of perceptions, years ago a friend told me of an incident that happened with his six-year-old son, Kevin, in school. The teacher asked a very simple question:

“What color is an apple?” Different pupils answered “red,” “green,” or “golden.” But Kevin said “white.” A bit of an exchange took place, with the teacher trying to guide Kevin’s response to a correct answer. But Kevin was adamant, and finally, in some frustration, he said, “When you cut open any apple, it’s always white inside.”

Perception can be in the service of greater mindfulness and awareness. Instead of concepts limiting our view of what’s arising, properly employed, they can frame the moment’s experience, enabling a deeper and more careful observation. It is like putting a frame around a painting in order to see it more clearly. A Buddhist monk named Nanananda spoke of “rallying the concepts for the higher purpose of developing wisdom, whereby concepts themselves are transcended.”

Mental Noting

The notion of rallying concepts for developing wisdom underlies the purpose of the meditative technique of mental noting. This technique uses a word—or sometimes a short phrase—to acknowledge what is arising. The mental note or label—such as “in,” “out,” “in,” “out,” “thinking,” “heaviness,” “in,” “out,” “restlessness”—supports clear recognition (perception), which itself strengthens both mindfulness in the moment and the momentum of continuity. Or, as Ajahn Sumedho, one of the first Western disciples of Ajahn Chah, the great Thai master, expressed it: “The breath is like this”; “Pain is like this”; “Calm is like this.”

Noting can serve the practice in other ways as well. The very tone of the note in the mind can often illuminate unconscious attitudes. We may not be aware of impatience or frustration or delight as we experience different arising objects, but we may start to notice an agitated or enthusiastic tone of voice in the mind. Noting helps cut through our identification with experience, both when the hindrances are present and when our practice has become very subtle and refined.

Mental noting also gives us important feedback: Are we really present or not, in a continuous or sustained way? Are we practicing to make our sittings— or the day—genuinely seamless? Do we understand the difference between being casual and relaxed in our application of mindfulness? We shouldn’t confuse this strong intention to be aware with grimness. We can practice continuity of mindfulness with the grace of tai chi or a Japanese tea ceremony, simply taking care even with the small daily activities of our lives. This continuity is important because it builds the momentum of energy necessary to realize nibbana.

It’s important to realize that this tool of mental noting is simply a skillful means for helping us be mindful; it is not the essence of the practice itself, which is simply to be aware. There are many Buddhist traditions that do not use this technique. But it is worth experimenting with, even for short periods of time, to see whether it is indeed helpful for your practice or not. We should also understand its limitations. Noting is not used as an intellectual reflection and should be kept to a single, silent word. David Kalupahana, a renowned Buddhist scholar, wrote, “Concepts used for satipatthana are to be pursued only to the point where they produce knowledge, and not beyond, for conceptions carried beyond their limits can lead to substantialist metaphysics.” Taking concepts too far simply solidifies our view of reality, and we get boxed in by mental constructs of our own making.

As mindfulness gets stronger, we might become aware of too many things to label, with objects changing so quickly that there’s not even time to note. In this situation, we are noticing more than we note, and the labels themselves start to fall away. When awareness is well established and mindfulness is happening by itself—what we could call effortless effort—then we can simply rest in the continuity of bare knowing. Ryokan, a nineteenth-century Zen master, poet, and wandering monk, expressed it this way: “Know your mind just as it is.”

Abiding Independent

The last line of the Satipatthana refrain unifies the practice of meditation with its goal: “And one abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” This line encapsulates the entire path.

“Abiding independent” refers to the mind not being attached to any arising experience, either through craving or views. “Craving” or “desire” are the usual translations of the Pali word tanha. But tanha is also sometimes translated as “thirst,” and somehow this translation conveys the more embodied urgency of this powerful state of mind. It keeps us in a state of dependency both in our meditation practice and in our lives.

One of the great discoveries as we proceed along the path is that, on one level, birth and death, existence and nonexistence, self and other, are the great defining themes of our lives. And on another level, we come to understand that all experience is just a show of empty appearances. This understanding points to the other aspect of “abiding independent, not clinging to anything in the world”—that is, not being attached through views and, most fundamentally, the view of self.

In our normal mode of perception, when we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, or when we cognize things through the mind, there immediately arises a false sense of “I” and “mine”: “I’m seeing”; “I’m hearing.” Then we elaborate further: “I’m meditating,” with the corollaries “I’m a good (or bad) meditator” or “I’m a good (or bad) person.” We build a whole superstructure of self on top of momentary, changing conditions.

The Bahiya Sutta

In one short and liberating teaching, the Bahiya Sutta, or the Discourse to Bahiya, the Buddha pointed the way to freedom from this dependence through views of self. In the time of the Buddha, as the story goes, Bahiya was shipwrecked on the southern coast of India. He had lost everything, even his clothes, and so covered himself with the bark of trees. People who were passing by took him for a great ascetic and began to honor him as an arahant, a fully enlightened being. Bahiya soon came to believe it himself.

After some years of this, former companions who were now devas (celestial beings) appeared to him, saying that not only was he not an arahant, but he was not even on the path to becoming one. Bahiya, quite distressed by this news, but also very sincere in his aspirations, asked what he should do. The devas replied that there was a Buddha, a fully enlightened being, who lived in northern India and that Bahiya should seek him out.

Bahiya finally met the Buddha while the latter was going from house to house on alms rounds. Bahiya requested teachings right then and there. The Buddha replied that it was not an appropriate time and that Bahiya should come see him at the monastery. But Bahiya requested teachings a second and then a third time: “Lord, you may die. I may die. Please teach me now.” The Buddha, impressed with Bahiya’s sincerity and urgency, then spoke these words:

In the seen there is only the seen, in the heard, there is only the heard, in the sensed [smell, taste, and touch], there is only the sensed, in the cognized, there is only the cognized: This, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.

When, Bahiya, there is for you in the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed, in the cognized only the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no “you” in connection with all that.

When, Bahiya, there is no “you” in connection with that, there is no “you” there.

When, Bahiya, there is no “you” there, then, Bahiya, you are neither here nor there nor in between the two.

This, just this, is the end of suffering.

With this quality of bare knowing of whatever is seen, heard, felt, or cognized, we are not evaluating or proliferating different sense impressions. When we practice in this way, we live abiding independent, not clinging to anything in the world.

Excerpted from “Mindfulness” © 2013 by Joseph Goldstein. Reprinted with permission of Sounds True.

Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the resident guiding teachers. He is the author of several books, including One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.