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The Foundations of Mindfulness - Part One

by Swati Desai July, 2016

Buddha Bhumisparsha mudra

Statue of Buddha holding Bhumisparsha mudra

Satipatthana Sutta[1] contains the most succinct description of Mindfulness, the meditation style and the accompanying philosophy currently enjoying widespread popularity in the Western world. In India, Guru Goenkaji’s Vipassana retreats based on teachings from Satipatthana Sutta have been flourishing for last thirty years. Vipassana is translated as “Insight” and satipatthana is translated as “Establishing Mindfulness”. The way to gain insight into the nature of life is by developing and practicing mindfulness as prescribed in Satipatthana Sutta.

What is so appealing about the wisdom contained in Satipatthana for the contemporary lifestyle? The following[2] is the initial paragraph of Satipatthana Sutta prescribing the practice of the four foundations of Mindfulness as a direct path for the purification of beings on the way to realization of nibbana (ultimate liberation).

“What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the feelings a monk abides contemplating the feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind a monk abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the dhammas a monk abides contemplating the dhammas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.”

To many, the description in this paragraph may appear obscure, dry, boring, or simplistic. However, it would not be exaggeration to say that this paragraph contains the psychology of wellbeing! This deceptively simplistic paragraph hides layers and layers of the “how to” advice on facing and overcoming the universal difficulties life poses for us. The Sutta goes on to clarify details of this practice in just about six standard size pages. In today’s language, Mindfulness in Satipatthana Sutta can be paraphrased as[3] : to diligently cultivate awareness of the present moment, simply observing, paying attention to facts and only facts and not getting caught in the judgments, with the intention of freeing ourselves from intense craving and intense aversion. This awareness is to be cultivated for the body, feelings, thoughts and mental patterns, and dhammas – which are the teachings on wholesome lifestyle leading to balanced and joyful existence. The details of dhamma include the basic tenets of Buddhism: four noble truths and the eightfold path.[4] It includes discussion on the “joyful” existence as well. But the way to get there is through Mindfulness – a special type of awareness.

What is it about this that has been corroborated by Western Science? Although the above description of Mindfulness sort of makes sense for balance and evenness of mind, how does it exactly give rise to “joy” or even “bliss”? What are the other details in Satipatthana Sutta and other related teachings that address the psychological processes or the functioning of the human mind? In order to address these questions, it is helpful to understand the historical events leading to how Mindfulness penetrated the Western psyche, and gained a huge following.

History of Mindfulness in the US

Although the Mindfulness is a foundational practice in all different schools of Buddhism, the form of Mindfulness Meditations as described in Satipatthana Sutta is attributed to Theravada Buddhism. Mindfulness and the Insight (vipassana) have become the central focus of the way Buddhism is practiced by American Western practitioners, as opposed to the ritual and chanting based practices in Asian Buddhist temples. The origins of Western Buddhism can be traced to the first Theravada retreat center called Insight Meditation Society founded in 1975 in Barre, Massachusetts. The three founders, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg, were American Buddhists who had returned back to the US after spending a few intense years in Asian and Indian monasteries. However, this in itself may have stayed at the level of myriad other Asian/Indian practices that have become part of American landscape. Three main movements happening in the late eighties and early nineties contributed to the explosive popularity of Mindfulness as a psychological tool for increasing mental and physical wellbeing.

First was the great interest in Buddhist ideas by Western scientific community for applying modern research methodology and testing in labs. Second was the secularization of Mindfulness as a tool for wellbeing. And the third was the explosion of methodological advances and new discoveries in Brain research.

The first can be attributed to his Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama opening up the field of Buddhist claims for psychological transformation to the world of scientific studies. He began having conferences with Western scientists, co-founded the Mind and Life Institute in 1987, and he showed willingness to reject Buddhist claims of centuries if the Science proves it wrong. The second event that pushed Mindfulness into the main stream was that in 1979, the MIT trained molecular biologist and meditator John Kabat-Zinn realized that the practice of Mindfulness did not need to have religion into it. Buddhism lends itself beautifully to secularization because the discourses do not have any mention of God. For example, Satipatthana Sutta does not have any ritual, religious imagery, or any discussion of a God image. He came up with the 8 week long program MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). He offered it to the group of patients with chronic pain issues in the University of Massachusetts Hospital and did scientific studies on it to see if it indeed reduced the stress. After a few successful studies, MBSR was being used in several hospital settings with patients dealing with high stress diagnosis. Stress is of such a big concern in today’s world that a non-invasive program such as MBSR became a very attractive option for medical as well as professional community. This allowed researchers to test MBSR and related programs to test in behavioral studies with control groups to check its efficacy in reducing mental health issues as well as enhancing mental abilities such as better cognitive capabilities.

vipassana mindfulness

Mindfulness as a Psychological Tool for Increased Wellbeing

Siddthartha Gautama searched for years the answer to the question of how to deal with the universal experience of pain and suffering and came up with his teachings. As His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama says,[5] “Since the primary motive underlying the Buddhist investigation of reality is the fundamental quest for overcoming suffering and perfecting the human condition, the primary orientation of the Buddhist investigative tradition has been toward understanding the human mind and its various functions. The assumption here is that by gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying propensities so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way of being can be found.”

When Buddha talks about “liberation” or “Realization of nibbana” as the ultimate goal of his way of leading life, on the practical level, it can be interpreted as the liberation from experiencing misery and moving more towards increased wellbeing. The main modality to internalize the Buddhist teachings on wellbeing is through Mindfulness.

There are a few different tracks in which the psychological processes in Mindfulness and the dhammas can be understood. 1) By looking more closely at the teachings of the Buddha and his followers from India and other Asian countries where Buddhism spread. 2) By looking at what the scientific research is pointing to. This also explains the promise of Mindfulness as a way to deal with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, although in its original form it was supposed to be a psychology of wellbeing not intended to address mental health issues. 3) The third way of understanding the use of Mindfulness as a psychological tool is to look at its implications for dealing with difficult emotions such as anger, shame, jealousy, addictions, and difficult to change mental patterns. The not-so-obvious aspect of this Sutta is that it is an amalgamation of foundational thinking from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Positive Psychology, and the Humanistic Psychology.

Track 1: Closer Look at Buddhist Teachings on Mindfulness

The following are the overlapping and intertwined stages in the journey towards liberation from the Theravada Buddhist teachings, not necessarily sequential but typically progressing in the way shown. This is derived from Analayao’s excellent scholarly analysis of Satipatthana Sutta[6] by taking only the aspects relevant for our contemporary understanding of Mindfulness, with the intention of not getting caught in the maze of interpretations.

Stage 1: Concentration (Samadhi)

Developing the ability to concentrate in the right way is advised as the prerequisite to achieving the later stages. Before practicing the meditations based on Satipatthana Suttas, often times, the meditator is asked to practice Anapanasati Sutta[7] which is to meditate to be mindful of the body sensations while breathing in and breathing out. Anapanasati is translated as “Mindfulness of the inhalation and exhalation”. The word Samadhi means Concentration or Meditation with absorption. In order to achieve the ability to be in the Samadhi state, the meditator keeps training the mind to come back to the experience of the breath once it is noticed that the mind has left the present moment in favor of other things. There are four types of absorptions (jhanas) prescribed for achieving the right (samma) type of concentration. Without getting into the details of jhanas, one can still understand that Samadhi is supposed to lead to Calmness. Budhha’s teachings often mention this type of breath awareness meditation as a core meditation for training our mind to concentrate with full absorption and with complete objectivity - simply observing the breath without deliberately changing it in any way. Our mind wanders around to the past or to the future, often times to regrets or worries. Although this wandering around may have been built in as an evolutionary survival tactic, this decreases our awareness of the privilege of having the present moment experience. In the process of this training, the meditator is also working on removing the five hindrances (explained in Stage 5) and purifying the ability to contemplate calmly and objectively.

Starting with anapanasati, other Mindfulness Meditations choose the object of focus as body sensation or a mental image, the effect of which is to train in concentration. In the contemporary language, such meditations are referred to as Focused Attention (FA) meditations. The modern Mindfulness movement has taken this Concentration training from FA meditations as a boon in itself for obvious reasons. Not only that the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder in children has multiplied by several factors, the digital devices have created its own inability to stay on the task. In the business world as well, the ability to focus on the task is valued, regardless of what is happening in the surrounding. Ironically, research shows that the ability to multitask gets better with eight week long once a week mindfulness training which includes breath and body awareness.[8] The ability to concentrate better is associated not only with focus but with better emotional regulation and less depressive thoughts.[9] What makes this type of meditation significant and attractive is the “calmness” that this Samadhi is supposed to achieve and the intended effect removing the five hindrances (see Stage 5 for the explanation of hindrances).

The criticism of the contemporary use of FA meditations is that Buddhism emphasizes the “right” type (samma) of concentration. This refers to developing concentration with the intention of ultimately allowing internalization of dhammas without falling for temptation to get into unwholesome life style. For example, if not done with the right intention, a thief could use the concentration training to do an excellent job of robbing a bank.

Stage 2: Calm (Samatha)

Deep concentration creates inner stability and integration[10] which is the calmness or samatha stage. Deep absorptions (jhanas – a deeper way to concentrate) create states of happiness and bliss and yet at the same time the intention is to remove clinging to even this joy. With that training, the samatha or calmness is supposed to be for removing passion – or intense craving. Samatha is prescribed as a platform necessary for further realization or liberation. Only through calm mind one can think rationally and one can see things “the way they are”. As the venerable Bhante Gunaratana[11] says, samatha is like serenity, “The practice of serenity meditation aims at developing a calm, concentrated, unified mind as a means of experiencing inner peace and as a basis for wisdom.” Just like Mindfulness of breath and body is used for reaching deep absorption leading to samatha, other objects are chosen is different Buddhist sects for developing the calmness. There are forty such objects chosen for concentration and calmness, ten of which are called kasina. These ten objects are objects such as earth, water, fire, air, and different colors. In the contemporary use of Buddhist style of meditation, environmentalist and peace activists have popularized meditating over these objects with the intention of respect and harmony with nature.

Stage 3: Mindfulness (Sati)

This is where Satipatthana Sutta plays the most crucial role in prescribing how to become mindful and why to become mindful. Between Concentration (samadhi) training and developing Insights (vipassana) is the skill the practitioner must have, Mindfulness. Look at the paragraph from Satipatthana copied in the beginning of this article. Sati or Mindfulness is to be cultivated diligently. The aim is to be “clearly knowing” the way things are. “Free from desires and discontent in regard to the world” is referring to the non-attachment, which in this context means removal of intense craving and intense aversion. For all practical purposes, the craving and aversion together create misery in our lives and keep us imprisoned into our own clinging. The way to cultivate non-attachment through Mindfulness is to objectively notice and internalize the Buddhist notion of Emptiness of objects. Sometimes Emptiness is misinterpreted as “nothingness” or nihilism. However, Emptiness is in fact is the realization that no object stands as a permanent and independent entity with a fixed identity. Emptiness can be beautifully explained as a combination of two most important laws from Buddha’s teachings: the Law of Impermanence and the Law of Interdependence[12].

The Law of Impermanence states that everything changes, including experience of breath, body sensations, feelings, thoughts, mental images, mental habits and values. As the meditator is diligently paying attention to these factors, s/he realizes that everything will pass. The Law of Interdependence becomes obvious when observing feelings and thoughts and they are not stand alone entities. In fact, one action gives rise to something else and this ripple effect will be experienced by the meditator depending on which sense sphere s/he is standing in at that time. Realizing Emptiness implies not to take our current moment experience so seriously and not to react to it impulsively. Realizing Emptiness is the foundation of developing non-attachment.

In Goenkaji’s Vipassana retreats based on the Burmese Theravada tradition, he teaches to sit through the uncomfortable body sensations without doing anything about it – without scratching when the skin itches. Similarly, when the meditator is feeling something, s/he learns to observe it with curiosity instead of immediately acting out. Just like the psychiatrist Victor Frankel said, there is a space between feeling and acting out. This space is where freedom lies. In Goenkaji’s retreats when one is sitting through the bodily discomfort without moving, the habits (samskaras) of reaction from several births are being redirected or removed. Breaking of Mental and Physical Habits – samskaras – is one of the goals of practicing satipatthana.

The goal of contemporary use of Mindfulness is a “limited” version of true liberation (nibbana) from all types of suffering as described in the Satipatthana. The goal is to reduce stress by understanding the Law of Impermanence and by changing the mental habits of viewing yourself and the world around you in a fixed stressful way. The goal is not to develop non-attachment to all cravings and aversions, but to become less judgmental, more tolerant, more flexible in solving problems, more objective, and to be able to observe disturbing event without getting immersed into the feelings. In fact, the word “non-attachment” may not even be mentioned in Mindfulness classes. Some practice Mindfulness in residential retreat setting while some may choose to do it at a light or moderate pace in a class. Regardless, a change in attitude seems to take place corroborated by the brain structure changes noticed in neurological studies. Research studies at Harvard Medical School have shown that just about eight weeks of practicing Mindfulness Meditations for 27 minutes a day changes the brain structure in a way that the anxiety is reduced, the cognition, memory, perspective taking, emotional regulation is improved.[13] The way Mindfulness is practiced can be divided into two categories.

There are a few concerns about casual householders practicing Mindfulness without realizing the full implications of internalizing non-attachment. Some may become stoic or disenchanted with lives’ pleasures. Some may escape into meditations when things get difficult to avoid critical thinking. These implications are possible if one does not consider the importance of dhammas in practicing Mindfulness. Dhammas not only add the joyful emotions to ones experiences but they also emphasize the value of wisdom to know when to accept things and when to undergo discomfort for the sake of resolving things.

Stage 4: Insight (Vipassana)

The typical progression through this path towards liberation can be described as follows. The practice of Samadhi will lead to samatha. This will create a good foundation for practicing Mindfulness as in Satipatthana Sutta. This will lead to vipassana or Insight into the nature of suffering and the liberation from suffering. Samatha and vipassana are supposed to be two balancing factors towards wisdom of non-attachment because they remove intense desire and ignorance respectively.

samadhi to vipassana graph

Figure 1

When a meditator is practicing satipatthana, s/he can employ two styles of meditations. First one is Focused Attention (FA) meditation by concentrating on a specific object such as body, feelings, mind, or dhammas. The second one is Open Monitoring (OM) meditation which does not focus on one object. The awareness is open and whichever one of the intended objects (Body, feeling, mind, dhammas) catches the attention gets full observation for some time. Then the meditator again notices where the attention is going and attends that object for some time. One can say that in the OM meditation, the meditator is becoming aware of the awareness itself. While FA meditation will train the meditator into mainly concentration and comprehension, OM meditation allows a restful state leading to flexible mindset which can result into creative problem solving. This type of meditation may directly result into psychological insights into one’s own psyche.

The contemporary use of Insight Meditation is less to do with true insight into Emptiness (as intended in Buddhist teachings), and more to do with psychological insights into oneself. For example, if a practitioner is experiencing an intense emotion or is trying to choose between careers, he would focus and comprehend his predicament first, and then observe the feelings and thoughts that are coming to him in the OM meditation style. While doing so, an insight about his/her own needs or the origin of his/her own needs may fall into his lap. Some insight into what and why he should make a specific choice may suddenly flash in front of his mind’s eyes. This type of insight is corroborated by research on creative problem solving in which after complete comprehension and analysis of a problem, the problem-solver is advised to let go of the analysis and engage into a restful activity. This restful phase is likely to result into a creative solution to the problem. In research studies performed to test creative problem solving and Mindfulness Meditations, OM meditators were shown to have increased creative problem solving ability.[14]

It is important to notice that sati and vipassana (Mindfulness and Insight) are supposed to produce wisdom. In the contemporary sense, wisdom can be defined as discernment or to know when to let go and when and how to fight.

Stage 5: Result of practicing the above stages is to remove hindrances on the path (Vineyya).

It is not a prerequisite to any of the above stage but is supposed to be happening with all stages of practice. The practitioner is diligently removing the hindrances or obstacles to his practice simultaneously and in that process s/he is purifying and perfecting the platform for wisdom and liberation. The hindrances can be summarized as CRASH: Craving, Restlessness-and-worry, Aversion, Sloth-and-torpor, and Hurry-for-results which can create doubts about the practice.

Stage 6: Creating ethical and wholesome lifestyle (Dhammas).

The contemplation of the dhammas[15] includes contemplating the four noble truths and the eightfold path. The eightfold path includes three groups of factors, two right morality factors (right speech, right livelihood), three right concentration factors (right effort, right awareness, right concentration), and two right wisdom factors (right view, and right thought). Contemplating and being Mindful of each factor can create joy by cultivating Loving Kindness compassion towards yourself and others. The morality factors are very crucial to take up as you start walking on this path because they create expectations or intentions of ethical behavior that does not harm others. Some modern Buddhist scholars such as Robert Thurman think of Buddhism as a practice in ethics.

The genius of Buddhist teachings is to balance non-attachment with bramhaviahars. Satipatthana Suttas generate samatha and vipassana, however, their focus is to remove negative experiences by creating the armor of non-attachment around the meditator. In addition, Buddhist teachings focus on creating positive experiences for an individual and for a group by promoting practicing four bramhaviharas: four sublime states namely Loving Kindness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Sympathetic Joy (mudita), and Equanimity (upekkha). Some aspects of this are discussed in the wisdom factors of the dhammas as well as other early Buddhist suttas[16] including in Satipatthana Sutta. The later discourse written in the fifth century CE by Buddhaghosa in Visuddhamagga Sutta describes bramhavihara practice specifically, as documented by Nanamoli in the translation “The Path of Purification”.[17]

It is not at all surprising that bramhavihara practices, referred to as ‘metta practices’ have exploded in the Western countries in recent years as the Positive Psychology and Happiness movement has gained such huge popularity. In fact, practitioners and researchers have been increasingly interested in researching positive and compassionate states of mind in order to create a more caring and unified world.[18] Bramhaviharas, in urging the practitioner to send loving kindness compassionate (metta and karuna) messages to even the people who are difficult in one’s life, create a happy intention. The sympathetic joy (mudita) proposes an antidote to jealousy and equanimity (upekkha) aims at evenness of mind based on compassion and integrity. Mindfulness and ‘metta practices’ go together and Mindfulness is a foundation for practicing metta in a balanced way. The practices of Gratitude, Altruism, Self-Compassion,[1]9 self-acceptance, Compassion-based Therapy[20] are all originated from different types of ‘metta practices’. In Tibetan Buddhism, as practiced by the His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Compassion-based view of the world’s problems is a norm.

The above are the ways in which Buddhist practices of Mindfulness and metta are being used, especially in the contemporary West, as psychological tool for wellbeing. One can say that Mindfulness offers a logical and fact-based approach to wellbeing and metta balances it by urging the practitioner to open up the heart and feel the goodness.

In the next parts, we will address the two other tracks by which the psychological processes in Mindfulness and the dhammas can be understood. Track two being the exploration of the most relevant scientific research and track three being description of the specific ways in which psychological predicaments such as difficult emotions are addressed in the Mindfulness philosophy. One can say that the popularity of Mindfulness and related practices has exploded because of its therapeutic value, on the individual level as well as on the level of increasingly diverse, complex, and chaotic world we live in.



[1] Satipatthana Sutta is Buddha’s discourse on how to establish the practice of Mindfulness. This is the 10th sutta (sutra) from the “Majjhima Nikaya”, or "Middle-length Discourses" of the Buddha which is the second of the five nikayas (collections) of the “Sutta Pitaka” (Basket of Sutras) from Pali canon.

[2] Analayo, “Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. (Birmingham: Windhorse Publications. 2004).

[3] Baer, R. A. “Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review”. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10: 125–143. (2003).

[4] Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening". (Boulder: Sounds True. 2013).

[5] “Science at the Crossroads” by Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. This article is based on a talk given by the Dalai Lama at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on November 12, 2005 in Washington DC.

[6] Analayo, “Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization” (Birmingham: Windhorse Publications. 2004).

[7] Rosenberg, L. “Breath By Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation”. (Boston: Shambala Publications. 2004).

[8] David M. Levy, Jacob O. Wobbrock, Alfred W. Kaszniak, and Marilyn Ostergren. “The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress information environment.” In Proceedings of Graphics Interface 2012 (GI '12). Canadian Information Processing Society, Toronto, Ont., Canada, Canada, 45-52. (2012).

[9] “The Power of Concentration”, By Maria Konnikovadec, Dec 15, 2012. New York Times.

[10] Analayo, “Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization”. (Birmingham: Windhorse Publications. 2004).

[11] Bhante Gunaratana, “Mindfulness in Plain English”. (Wisdom Publications. 2011).

[12] Epstein, M. “Thoughts Without a Thinker”. (Ney York: Basic Books. 1995. 2013).


[13] Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density”. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36–43. (2011).

[14] Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., & Hommel, B. “Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking”. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 116. (2012).

[15] Joseph Goldstein

[16] Nanamoli:

[17] Nanamoli:

[18] Loizzo, J. “Meditation research, past, present, and future: perspectives from the Nalanda contemplative science tradition”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307(1), 43–54. (2014).

[19] Neff, K. “Self Compassion: A Proven Power of Being Kind”. (New York: HarperCollins. 2011).

[20] Gilbert, P. “Compassion Focused Therapy”. (New York: Routledge. 2010).

Swati Desai

by Swati Desai

July, 2016

About Swati Desai

Born in India and trained as a computer programmer, Swati Desai came to Los Angeles and received her Ph.D. in Management from the Anderson School at UCLA in 1992. She worked and taught in the field of Computer Information Systems. After years of dabbling in Jungian Psychology and working as a paraprofessional counselor, she began her graduate work in Clinical Social Work and received MSW from UCLA and LCSW license to practice in California.

As a mental wellness practitioner, Swati passionately combines her heritage in Eastern wisdom and her training in Western research based analytical methods. She had been in private practice at Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine for over ten years where she used her background and intense training in Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation practice to help people deal with trauma, anxiety, and difficult emotions. She conducts meditation workshops, holds meditation groups, and uses mindfulness philosophy in individual sessions to allow people to experience the power of mindfulness meditations in going through difficult periods in life. In 2014 she founded 2Meditate, an App and website for creating a global group of mindfulness meditators who can meditate together any time they want, or choose individual meditations from the list in the voice of well-known meditation teachers. As part of 2meditate, she has been focusing on Mindfulness based presentations and teachings, online and in-person.

Swati blogs extensively for Huffington Post and Positively Positive, and wrote several columns for the Times of India. She has appeared on a TV show in India called “Good Life.” Her faith in “global citizenship” is reflected in her writing as well as her purposeful travels to India, China, Hong Kong, and Europe.

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