The “Direct path to realization”

Are you ready to become the scientist of your inner experience and find out what self-realization is all about? Then this series is for you!

Mindfulness is at the core of the Buddhist path of liberation. The most detailed description of this practice is found in the Satipatthana Sutta* (also known as “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” or simply “the direct path to realization”). Through this series of Frames, you will gain an understanding of the classic** teachings of mindfulness as well as practices to support you on the path.

Remembering our Being

Sati refers to an inherent human capacity that can be cultivated through practice. It means to be awake, aware and present with our moment-to-moment experience with a quality of kindness. In a way, it is about learning to befriend whatever shows up in our lives.

What is mindfulness?

Sati also means “to remember”. This is another aspect of of the practice of meditation – we keep an intention to remember this state of awakeness. Through this intention and the practice of mindfulness, we develop a “meta awareness” that enables us to become conscious of when our mind wanders or when we get caught in reactivity – and then remember to bring ourselves back to mindfulness.

Through this practice, we are invited to bring the quality of mindfulness to the entirety of our lives so that we can increasingly live from this remembrance of our innermost Being.

The 4 foundations of mindfulness

“The Direct path to realization” identifies four domains (or “foundations”) that make up the entire field of our human experience. These are the domains within which we practice mindfulness:

1. The body

The body is the starting point for the path of mindfulness because it is the substrate of our human experience. We do not exist separate from our bodies – we experience our lives through it. The body is always available as an anchor to which we can return and through which we can investigate the nature of reality.

In this foundation, we learn to bring mindfulness to the breath as a way to anchor our attention in the experience of being embodied. Through practice, we discover increasingly subtle expressions of the body and its interrelation with the mind.

2. Feeling tones

The second foundation of mindfulness is known as vedanā, or “feeling tones”. Vedanā refers to the quality of somatic sensations that arise in our moment to moment experience. Whenever we come into contact with sensory input (sound, sight, smell, touch, taste, thought), we experience a sensation in the body that has a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral quality. Unless we are mindful, we are largely driven by our reactions to these feeling tones. We act on impulses to escape discomfort, cling to pleasure and ignore neutral sensations.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we learn to observe vedanā without reacting. This is a key part of the practice, because vedanā is the key link in the chain of reactivity. Through mindfulness, we break the reactive pattern and gain more freedom. We learn to see how the reactive pattern of clinging, aversion and ignorance is the main cause of our suffering. We gain insight into the body-mind connection. Through these insights (vipassanā), we become able to be with discomfort without getting stuck in suffering and learn to find peace beyond the pleasure of sensory stimuli.

3. The mind

When we overlook vedanā, we are controlled by our reactions to pleasant and unpleasant sensations that occur moment by moment. Over time, these reactions conditions our mind and gives rise to unhelpful mind states. This is how the second foundations leads us to the third.

The third foundation is mindfulness of citta (“heart/mind”). When we start paying attention to mind states without getting caught up in them, we begin to see them as temporary states with certain causes and effects. Through the practice, we start deconditioning the causes of destructive states of mind and learn to cultivate qualities of mind that lead to liberation.

4. Dhammas

This foundation is perhaps better left untranslated, but for now we can call it “objects of mind”. This part of the teaching provides instructions for how to bring mindfulness to universal patterns of the mind. This may sound philosophical, but mindfulness of dhamma is a practical way to “transmute the doctrine into direct perception”*.

Through this foundation, we learn to bring mindfulness to our entire sensory experience and become aware of universal structures of the mind. Through investigation, we learn to identify and distinguish mental states that lead to suffering (“hindrances”) from ones leading to liberation (“factors of enlightenment”). By cultivating the “wholesome” states, this foundation leads us closer to realising the nature of Nirvana.

Seeing into the nature of reality

Through the practice of mindfulness, we gradually gain insight into each of the 4 domains. This is what vipassana refers to – it is about seeing deeply into the nature of reality. At the deepest level, we recognise what is known as “the three marks of existence” in each of the foundations. These marks refer to the universal characteristics that apply to all phenomena, namely their impermanent, selfless, and unsatisfactory nature.

Through the practice, we cultivate our inherent capacity for mindfulness, which leads toward insight and spiritual awakening. As we progress on the path, we also benefit from plenty of positive side effects from the practice as well – as supported and documented by the scientific findings from 5 decades of research:

The science of meditation

Nirvana as the fruition of the path

Nirvana refers to the state of being liberated from the shackles of a mistaken identity. Through the practice of mindfulness, we start seeing through the illusion of separation. This is likened to waking up from a dream – but instead we wake up from the identification with our illusory ego (or “small self”).

“We wake up from our normal sensation of being an isolated ego inside a bag of skin”.

Alan Watts

The path of mindfulness helps us see how this illusion lies at the core of our suffering. We see how this mistaken identification is what drives destructive behaviors and mind states like craving, reactivity, aversion, hatred, ignorance and delusion. Seeing this, we naturally being to let go. Not through effort, but as a spontaneously consequence of seeing clearly (vipassana). We let go, breathe out, blow out the causes for our suffering.

The path is the goal

Meditation can be seen as the formal practice by which we develop the faculties of mindfulness. But the practice extends beyond the cushion. We don’t have to wait until we have time to sit down and meditate or until the circumstances are perfect. We sometimes view life situations as obstacles to mindfulness:

“Once I have done this, solved that problem, have more time, feel relaxed – then I can be mindful”.

These are excuses and defences by the ego in order not to look too closely at our experience. We have to break the habit pattern of postponement – mindfulness happens now! We learn to embrace the fact that the circumstances in our lives will never be perfect. We shift away from seeing them as obstacles and instead learn to view them as part of the path. Through the path of mindfulness, we learn to work with whatever life throws at us.

“The obstacle is the path”

Zen proverb

Nothing is excluded from the practice

The 4 foundations of mindfulness provide means of bringing awareness and looking deeply into any human experience we ever have. The experience of being alive is the arena in which we practice mindfulness. What could be more interesting than that? 

What is wonderful about this path is how practical it is. It provides clarity on the effects (the purpose to awaken) as well as the cause (how to bring mindfulness into these 4 domains). The instructions start with the breath. It is the way in which we enter into the contemplation of the body. From there, the practice moves from the gross to increasingly subtle, throughout the 4 foundations.

Let’s dive in!

Are you ready to embark on the path of mindfulness?

Next step on the path:

Video version of this Frame:

* This discourse (sutta) should not be viewed as a religious holy text. It does not tell you what to believe, what you “should” experience or what liberation means for you. It simply provides you with the tools and shows the way – the rest is your own discovery. This is why it is known as the “direct path to realization“.

** The path is associated with the original teachings of the Buddha, known as Theravada or “the school of the elders”. This is the style that I am most familiar with in terms of practice (vipassanā = “insight”). I will also be adding aspects from Mahayana (Zen), Vajrayana (tantric style of Buddhism from Tibet) as well as modern wisdom.