Mindfulness is the practice of giving full attention to what’s happening within and around you, without judging yourself or others. It’s both a key component of Buddhist teaching and a unifying thread throughout Buddhism itself, and helps foster concentration, focus, and objective thinking. On a deeper level, extensive mindfulness practice culminates in a gradual awakening to one’s true nature of pure awareness and happiness, and with this the liberation from suffering known as “nirvana.”

Buddhism identities four areas toward which mindfulness is directed through seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, sensing, thinking, or feeling:

The Body

  • Breath
  • Postures
  • Physical characteristics (including the body’s destiny of decay and death)

Feelings (physical sensations, emotions, thoughts)

  • Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral
  • Grounded in skillful (virtue, generosity, love) or unskillful (craving, aversion, delusion) mind states

Mind States (attitudes, perceptions, moods, which Buddhists also call “mental factors” or “mental formations”)

  • Grounded in skillful (virtue, generosity, love) or unskillful (craving, aversion, delusion) habits of thinking, speaking, and doing

Phenomena (all created things)

The 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path form the framework of the Buddha’s most essential teachings. The 4 Noble Truths are:

  1. Understanding suffering (“dukkha” in Sanskrit): The inherent dissatisfying nature of existence; all created things are impermanent, experience pain, and have no separate, enduring self.
  2. Understanding the causes of suffering: Ignorance, a fundamental darkness of not knowing things as they really are; ignorance manifests as craving, and craving’s three principal forms are greed, aversion, and delusion.
  3. Understanding the cessation of suffering: Liberation from suffering (“nirvana”), by forsaking craving and attaining wisdom; seeing things as they really are.
  4. Understanding the path that leads to the cessation of suffering: A three-fold (morality, concentration, and wisdom) practice of meditation and contemplation known as The Noble Eightfold Path, whose only requirements are to start and continue.

The Noble Eightfold Path:

  • Right View (Wisdom training): Beginning and culmination of ongoing practice; understanding the 4 Noble Truths, at first cognitively and, later, experientially.
  • Right Intentions (Wisdom training): Renunciation of ignorance, good will and harmlessness toward others
  • Right Speech, Action, Livlihood (Morality training, also called the “five precepts”):
    1. Reverence for Life: Eliminating all forms of violence against one’s self, other human beings, animals, and nature.
    2. True Happiness: Practicing gratitude and generosity and avoiding stealing from or exploiting others.
    3. True Love: Cherishing and celebrating others and practicing sexual virtue in romantic relationships.
    4. Deep Listening and Loving Speech: Practicing active listening and kind, helpful speech in order to facilitate equitable and peaceful relationships.
    5. Nourishment & Healing: Eating and drinking in a manner that avoids bringing toxins or diseases into the body, and consuming media of all forms in moderation.
  • Right Effort (Concentration training): Practice of exerting oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities.
  • Right Mindfulness (Concentration training): As described at the beginning of this post.
  • Right Concentration (Concentration training): Unbroken attentiveness to an object or objects.

Impermanence, Dissatisfaction, and Selflessness

Mindfulness looks through the lens of the impermanence of all created things. Everything is in flux, in a constant process of arising, changing, and passing away. Nothing created remains the same, not even for a second. Mindfulness observes this reality in a simple, minimalist, balanced manner called the “middle way.” The process of change matters more to the mindful eye than the content of what is changing.

Because all things are impermanent, they are also—as mindfulness observes—inherently dissatisfying, with suffering as the result of unskillfully insisting that they be permanent or change in a certain manner.

Furthermore, nothing lasts long enough to have a permanent state of being—including any of us having, or being, a permanent “self.” Selflessness is the condition of all created things. Clinging to this illusion of a permanent, separate identity also creates ongoing suffering.

Retraining the Mind

Mindfulness is no less than retraining one’s mind with the ultimate goal of awakening to the Nirvana that is already present. Deliberate mindfulness practice gradually transforms moment by moment reactions and choices, as one learns to understand and accept the impermanence, dissatisfaction, and selflessness of all conditioned existence.

This training does not lead to indifference or nihilism, but instead unveils the loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that characterize who we really are beneath the clutter of our dissatisfying habits.