Say you smell the odor of a hamburger cooking. That's just a sensation. Quickly you have a reaction -- you're hungry and you like it; in fact you want one. Or you're a vegetarian and you're repulsed. Or things are fine the way you are and it doesn't make much of an impression.
The pure sensation is mindfulness of body.
The unpleasant-pleasant-neutral overlay is mindfulness of feeling tones.
And the thought about the sensation is mindfulness of mind.
Why does this matter?
These are the components of experience. This is how we interpret the world and how we respond to the world.
As with most of the Buddha’s teachings, the foundations form a logical progression.
We practice mindfulness of body to see what our experience is in this moment in a real, tangible way. Our form, our body, is what we experience as reality. We are with the sensations of what’s happening within the moment, rather than through ideas we have of it. When we are present with our body in this moment – without visualizing or interpreting or worrying – we are meeting reality with full integrity.
The experience of sensation usually is followed by a feeling tone, a subtle mental experience that’s present in every moment. It precedes conscious thought or emotion – no matter how much we think that emotional reaction just happens, the feeling tone comes first.
If it’s pleasant, we want more or we want it to stay as it is, and we manipulate experience or reality to try to make that possible. This leads to grasping and craving, which leads to suffering. Unpleasant and we run from it or push it away or push it down, or bring in something else, something we perceive as pleasant, to try to dislodge it. This gives rise to fear and anger and other negative reactions. Neutral and we look elsewhere – or go to sleep.
Seeing the link between attraction or aversion and the mind’s immediate response is liberating, the Buddha says. And liberation is the path to nirvana.
The Buddha says that an “untaught, worldly person” – most of us – who experiences an unpleasant body sensation, such as pain, worries about it, grieves, gets upset, gets resistant, gets angry. When we do that we actually experience two kinds of unpleasant feelings – the physical pain and the mental pain. In the Buddha’s example, the physical pain is like being struck by an arrow; then when you react with anger and resistance, it’s as if you’ve been struck by a second arrow: the unpleasant mental feeling.
An awakened being will still feel unpleasant sensations, but that person recognizes that it’s an unpleasant feeling and dodges the second arrow, the self-inflicted one of worry and anger and resistance. When you can just be with things as they are, there’s freedom and ease.
Or let’s say the original sensation is like a string around your wrist that’s gotten tangled and is too tight and becomes uncomfortable. When you stay with that discomfort, you notice it, you may notice it changes, and you may decide that the skillful action is to unwrap it or cut it off. But when you’re caught in your reaction, it’s like wrapping more string around your wrist so that it gets tighter and tighter and you panic or become paralyzed, unsure how to get out of the trap.
Which leads to the third foundation, mindfulness of mind, or consciousness of consciousness. In Buddhist terms, consciousness is the sixth sense; it is a moment of knowing – seeing, hearing, smelling. When consciousness arises with a particular mental factor, an emotion or quality, the mental factors color it. So in Mindfulness of Mind, we’re talking about knowing a moment of consciousness AND what’s coloring it.
The traditional teaching, taken from the Sattipattana Sutta, is about mindfulness of mind states. The Buddha outlines a bunch of specific ones.
A monk knows the consciousness with lust as with lust; the consciousness without lust as without lust; the consciousness with hate as with hate; the consciousness as without hate as without hate …
Through lust, hate, ignorance, the shrunken state of consciousness, the distracted state, the concentrated state, the freed state, and their opposites.