The Fourth Foundation, "mindfulness of the dharmas," provides the context of bringing mindfulness to specific mental qualities, and analyzing experience into categories that constitute core aspects of the Buddha’s dharma (or teaching). These classifications are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but are frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation to whatever experiences arise while practicing.
The dharmas listed in the Satipaṭṭhâna Sutta are the five hindrances, five aggregates, six sense-spheres, seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. While one can contemplate these dharmas while practicing asanas, I find that for most practitioners, it’s too easy to fall into abstraction or intellectualization unless they already have a mature mindfulness practice.
More accessible is following the teaching of the Ânâpânasati Sutta where contemplation of the dharmas takes the form of bringing mindfulness to the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Contemplation of impermanence is a dharma gate opening to the understanding of the interdependent, conditioned, and selfless nature of all that exists.
Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence. From day to day, the body feels and moves differently each time we come to practice. We know things change, yet we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so! This is avidyâ, “not-seeing” as a kind of denial. But ignoring or denying the truth of impermanence perpetuates suffering and misery, and opening to the reality of change liberates that energy.
We practice looking into the impermanent nature of all the earlier objects of meditation, starting with the breath. No two breaths are the same. Even within one inhalation, there is constant movement and change. There is no “thing” that is actually the breath that can be grasped and held onto. Every sensation we experience, no matter whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is impermanent, as is every emotion, thought, or perception. Changeless life is a sterile concept, yet without mindfulness so many of us live as if such a life were possible!
In Genjo Koan, Zen Master Dogen writes, “If you examine myriad things with a confused bodymind, you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.” If “self” is understood as an entity that is autonomous, independent, and persistent over time, then insight into impermanence leads inevitably to the clear view that all things lack such an unchanging self. Even the consciousness of self that we take such pains to protect and bolster is not an autonomous, independent, persistent thing or entity; it is a process that is in constant flux, conditioned by everything else that is in constant change. This insight into “nonself’ (anatta) is what is meant by the term “emptiness” (shûnyatâ). Emptiness means that we, and all phenomena, are empty of an atomistic, independent, autonomous, separately existing, enduring self.
Because we are empty of any such self, we are intimately entwined with everything else. Even this language doesn't capture it because it sounds like I may still be talking of entities interdependently exiting with others, but there are no "entities." This is the Buddha’s unique contribution to the yoga tradition: "dependent co-origination."
The Buddha said that when we enter through the door of impermanence, we touch nirvana, here and now. Nirvanâ, meaning “extinction,” is the extinction of our mistaken notions and ideas about reality that leads to reifying identities. The grasping and aversion, our greed, anger and delusion that arise from such reification are extinguished. Also extinguished is our attachment and bondage to concepts such as birth and death, existent and non-existent, increasing and decreasing, pure and impure.
A taste of this can happen in the time it takes to work with one asana. Maintaining Warrior Two, unpleasant sensations may arise in our shoulders. These sensations lead to aversion, and grasping after relief. We identify with the unpleasant sensations and think, “My shoulders are killing me.” Thoughts arise about the teacher having us hold the posture “too long,” never seeing that “too long” is a relative concept. Clinging to that belief creates a sense of self; the more we cling the more the sense of self grows constricting.
Shifting our attention to the impermanent nature of experience, we see that there is no-thing personal about any of it. There is just sensation and the sensation is ever-changing. It is all a dependent co-originated process, and through practice we see that the same is true for all feelings, mental formations and consciousness.
With this insight comes nirodha (containment). This is the third noble truth of the Buddha, often used as a synonym for nirvanâ and also Patanjali’s definition of yoga. Practicing asana, we may notice many opportunities to contain our reactivity. We may experience a pleasant sensation and the arising of a mental formation. With mindfulness, we see attachment, and based upon an awareness of impermanence, and the containment of our reactivity the attachment fades away. We then may see a more skillful way to respond to the situation. This is a small, but potentially profound taste of liberation.
Finally comes letting go. But there is also the insight that it is not you that lets go. Throughout practice, there was still that final vestige of self-consciousness that could take credit for the insight into impermanence, and cessation. The final thing to let go is the idea of a separately enduring self. The irony is that this is a letting go of what was never there!
Letting go means to see through all that keeps us (falsely) separated from reality as it is. The supposed boundary between “self” and “other” is seen as not real. Enlightenment and liberation comes not in turning away from our human condition, but within it, and as its fulfillment.
“To practice the Buddha way is to investigate the self. To investigate the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be intimate with the myriad things. When intimate with the myriad things, your bodymind as well as the bodyminds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
Dogen Zengi, Genjo Koan