Revisiting the Four Foundations of Mindfulness
by Dr. Paul Stevens
Over the last decade, there has been a renaissance in contemplative science and mind-body medicine, and especially in neurophenomenology — the weaving together of phenomenology (the study of subjective experience) with neuroscientific investigations of consciousness.
In no small part this has been due to the influence of Jon Kabat-Zin’s Buddhist influenced Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, and more recently a great upsurge in interest in the healing properties of embodiment, including movement based practices.
What I find most fascinating is that despite a vast historical distance, when modern neuroscience revisits Buddhist Dharma, there is little to differentiate the two approaches, a reflection of the incredible powers of observation that the ancients had into the mechanisms of the mind and the human condition. Both approaches emphasise the role of embodied compassionate mindfulness in achieving and maintaining states of happiness.
In today’s competitive world, having scientific evidence for consistent and observable effects — not just subjective change — significantly strengthens the validity of contemplative practices including mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s), something really important to acknowledge when it comes to how these approaches are researched, funded and implemented as health and wellness practices.
Buddhist Dharma prescribes a method for self-discovery utilising introspection, attention and awareness. With methodical practice, mindfulness can be developed as a state of consciousness to relieve suffering, accessing healing resources that are built into human sentience.
Mindfulness is a “fundamental inner nature, a non-ordinary awareness that contains all experience” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013), a state that is feeling, behaving and relating more skilfully, one of self-regulation. Mindfulness is inherently self-healing and resilient, properties essential for enduring health and happiness. A core ingredient to this is an embodied sense of acceptance, belonging or connectedness.
Dharma directs us to apply attention with certain qualities or skilful attitudes (such as acceptance and non-judgement, non-striving) within the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, as described in the classic text the Satipatthana Sutta. Attention to these foundations may either be focused or openly monitored.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are:
1. awareness of breath and body,
2. of feeling states — also called hedonic tone/core affect,
3. of the contents of mind-heart, primarily thoughts, and
4. arisings from the phenomenal mind: emotions, attributions and other concepts.
What does modern contemplative science have to say about the Four Foundations?
Resurgent scientific interest into the nature and relationships of consciousness, awareness and embodiment finds that the mind-body is an integrated multi-scale self-regulating complex system, regulated by the brain’s neural networks, with the ability to have oversight over many levels of function (e.g. integrating physiology to organ systems to feelings to behavioural outcomes).
Mindfulness is thus a function of adaptive neuropsychological self-regulation of the mind-body.
The recent identification of a core brain network coordinating interoception(the sensing of all body processes all the time, e.g. pain, tension) and allostasis (the regulation of the body/stress response/physiological arousal), in association with implicit memory and external sensory information is highly relevant.
The integration of all this information results in a basic feeling state, also called hedonic tone or core affect, with basic attributes of pleasant vs unpleasant, neutral/balance vs fatigue, calm vs agitated/restless, ease vs unease. These feeling states condition our whole world as volitions that precede every thought and action in ordinary awareness, the state of affective reality. (Feldman Barrett, 2017)
All subjective psychological states are constructed and influenced by this basic feeling state. We are constantly predicting and responding to real and perceived internal, environmental or social demands. Hedonic tone powerfully influences cognitive-behavioural constructions (e.g. subjective emotions, self-related thought, motivations).
Core affect is also shaped via ‘top-down’ network processes, particularly memories, the attributions we make, and by what we pay attention to. As George Lakoff notes “The mind is inherently embodied… thought is mostly unconscious.” (Lakoff, 1999) Thus a foundational principle of embodied cognition is for experiences of the body and experience through the body being necessary for awareness, where effective sensory processing is strongly linked to emotional well-being and a greater sense of connection.
Remarkably the Four Foundations are descriptions of mechanisms and methods that are very similar to how core neural networks self-regulate and create subjective embodied consciousness. Dan Seigel’s Wheel of Awareness is a useful modern interpretation for understanding the focusing of attention within the domains of awareness (arousal, action, affect, attribution) through the 5 classic senses: exteroception (e.g. attending to sound), interoception (body scan), movement-based sensing, interpersonal neuroception (social/relationships), and mental events (thoughts, emotional attributions) (Seigel, 2018).
Drawing on the first foundation, MBI practices enhance the stability of attention, the heart of adaptive self-regulation, using information from the sensing systems of the mind-body for direct sensory observation. Attention can be directed to the 5 classic senses, the breath, or the deeper sensing of body-based interoception and proprioception and even our social based sensing of others (e.g. the body scan, raisin eating or mindful movement practices).
Gravity, tension and their opposites can be very useful to notice. Within an attitude of acceptance the moment to moment sensory experience plays out, enabling the unconscious brain to more efficiently manage and let what is happening in the body to play out, rather than attempting to alter body sensation to fit expectations (predictions) of what should happen in the body, which might reinforce hyper-arousal and unease.
Regular daily practice of breath meditation and body scan are introduced early as foundational practices in MBI’s to help build focus, to highlight the direct and impermanent experiences of sensation and of feeling states (of arousal/stress) in the body (McCown, Reibel and Micozzi, 2010). The breath and body are always in the present, a living metronome for anchoring the mind in the present (being mode) and away from self-referential doing mode.
Breathing has always fascinated me from my first introductions to using it as a self-regulation tool in yoga many years ago. Breathing intrinsically sets the fundamental rhythm of brain function and is an interface/access between awareness and the non-conscious mind.
Breath meditation primarily benefits neural networks associated with body awareness, attention, and the integration of emotion and sensory processing, synchronising important interoceptive networks (cardiorespiratory resonance), influencing the immediate emotional/perceptual experience.
Mindful movement practices develop concentration within the somatic body in motion itself. Relational awareness through movement in part may reflect increases in resonance in a similar manner to mindful breathing. Fascia being the largest neurosensory system in the body provides vast amounts of interoceptive information to the brain,) where motor areas are adaptively intertwined with other functions including emotion and social empathy. Effects specific to movement-based meditations appear in brain networks involved in self-control, social cognition, and sensorimotor integration.
As noted above, that we see things not as they are but as we are, is because of the innate survival oriented neuropsychological mechanism of the human mind called affective reality. Affective reality is the unconscious lens of ‘ordinary’ awareness, a manifestation of a negatively biased system regulating allostasis to promote survival adaptation. Dharma suggests that suffering is therefore not experienced as a result of life’s vicissitudes, but arises from ignorance of affective reality itself. The second foundation relates to awareness of our basic feeling states, like the hum of the body in any moment, without the interpretive naming of emotions, one that like pure sensory experience can be attuned to and examined non-judgmentally. To examine basic feeling states without preference helps to break the conditioning inherent in affective reality. Typically we experience our core affect in the chest, abdomen or head areas.
Separating identity from thoughts is described by the third foundation. This is often not easy however, especially for those thoughts with a high emotional valence, as living through the experience of feelings is the default construct of the mind-body. Many of the negative effects of chronic psychosocial stress appear to result from humans being eminently capable of creating and yet being unable to resolve the harmful stress responses generated by unexamined interoceptive influenced self-related thought. Joseph Goldstein writes “we are deeply conditioned to identify with emotions and thought. When you are in the midst of them a strong sense of self, of “I,” usually comes with it.” (Goldstein, 1993).
The attention and emotional intensity (i.e. attentional salience) experienced and associated with a given thought determines the degree to which the thought is reinforced. By building on the skills of sensory and embodied awareness, mindful relationships to mental events (assertions, judgements) that are removed from direct embodied experience can create insight into the impermanent nature of self-concepts. Typically the practice of openly monitored awareness is prescribed in the fourth foundation to develop insight awareness. When we build interoceptive awareness we interdependently enhance metacognition, including the capacity of “knowing about knowing”, presence, non-reactivity, insight, or sense of agency.
The Four Foundations appear to work with the same brain networks that are involved in embodied self-regulation, networks co-regulating the awareness of the self and of relatedness, the stress response and the construction of emotion. Being able to focus on the process of awareness without getting caught up in the content of awareness by practising acceptance and equanimity, core components of compassion creates possibilities for re-perceiving. Re-perception reorients experience from distraction to focus (monitoring/attentional control), from effort to ease (hedonic tone), and from separateness to connection (non-identity).
Compassion is ingrained throughout Buddhist Dharma “invitations to practice non-judgment, friendliness and open curiosity all incorporating the potential (by direct experience) for seeing and feeling acceptance and compassion within that experience” (Feldman, 2011). Research into compassion itself is rapidly growing thanks to the work of Kristen Neff and others, again finding many positive benefits that reflect its preeminent status in traditional practices. Daniel Goleman writes “Compassion begins with accepting what’s happening without turning away”(Goleman, 2018).
Bringing compassion related skills into the practice of the Four Foundations has had a powerful effect on moving beyond recurring difficulties encountered in my own meditation practice. Observing the contrasting attitudes to self-compassion: self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification may be instructive during practice. Self-compassion is biologically linked to wellbeing and to prosocial attributes of empathy and a sense of belonging, certainly this is the place in my heart and mind where I’d rather reside.
Paul is a registered medical professional, naturopath and meditation teacher and has long been fascinated with mind-body techniques and self-development. He has been a student of yoga for over 25 years and has also studied and taught embodied neuroscience, mindfulness meditation, movement-based techniques and breathwork practices. He teaches as part of The Dream Haus team in Australia.
Joseph Goldstein. Insight Meditation 1993 Shambhala Publications
Daniel Goleman, Richard Davidson, The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body. 2018 Penguin Life
Christina Feldman, Willem Kuyken. Compassion in the Landscape of Suffering. 2011, Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 143–155
Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Pan Macmillan 2017
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, Random House, 2013
George Lakoff, Mark Johnson. Philosophy In The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books. 1999
McCown, Reibel and Micozzi. Teaching Mindfulness: a practical guide for clinicians and educators. Springer, 2010
Dan J. Seigel, Aware, The science and practice of presence 2018 Random House