By MELVIN ESCOBAR
Melvin Escobar on how the four foundations of mindfulness ease the suffering of anxiety.
The Satipatthana Sutra is said to be the Buddha’s original mindfulness manual. In this sutra, the Buddha breaks the practice down into four contemplations that are known as the four foundations of mindfulness. Let’s look at how we can use these four practices to help us mindfully approach, versus avoid, the dukkha of anxiety.
1. CONTEMPLATION OF BODY
To help understand anxiety, notice the physical phenomena you experience via your senses. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Are you able to connect to your breath? If not, that’s okay. Find another neutral body part to anchor your attention to.
Notice how your body is holding tension. Practice consciously relaxing these tensions, noting what happens to the anxiety.
2. CONTEMPLATION OF FEELING
Observing the quality of anxiety via feeling tones is another helpful tool. Start by classifying the feeling tones associated with anxiety as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Usually anxiety feels unpleasant—it bombards us with future-focused, what-if thoughts. But anxiety can also manifest as a pleasant feeling when we’re working under pressure, using anxious energy to get things done. Do you ever notice the neutral feeling tone of nonanxiety? By identifying different feeling tones, you become aware of what’s activating your anxiety.
3. CONTEMPLATION OF MIND
The mind is how we make sense of what our senses tell us about the world and ourselves. Practicing mindfulness helps us notice how thoughts are complicit in creating anxiety. The stories the anxious mind makes up create feedback loops, amplifying the anxiety.
Notice how thoughts add more fuel to the fire of anxiety. Cultivating spaciousness around these aspects of mind can interrupt even the most deep-seated patterns that overwhelm us and lead to overidentification with anxiety.
4. CONTEMPLATION OF THE DHAMMAS
Here the word dhammas refers to five categories of mental phenomena that bring together many of the things the Buddha taught. These are: the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six sense spheres, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths.
Anxiety is listed specifically as one of the five hindrances (it’s usually translated as “restlessness and worry”). Understanding how mental phenomena like anxiety are reproduced helps liberate us from the dukkha they engender, including anxiety.
We can use these four foundations to make our experiences of anxiety part of our practice, developing trust in the benefits of approaching rather than avoiding it.
Keywords; anxiety, mindfulness, contemplation