Deepen Your Practice: Awareness of the Mind/Mental Formations

Sister Le Nghiem, Eyes closed in Meditation

This month, we delve into the practice “Awareness of Mind” which is the third of four foundations of mindfulness laid out in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in the Pali Canon–the others being Awareness of Body, Awareness of Feelings, and Awareness of Objects of Mind.

According to Thay’s translation of the third foundation: 

“Practitioners must remain established in the observation of the mind in the mind, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life.”

“How does a practitioner remain established in the observation of the mind in the mind?

“When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’ When his mind is not desiring, he is aware, ‘My mind is not desiring.’ He is aware in the same way concerning a hating mind, a confused mind, a collected mind, a dispersed mind, an expansive mind, a narrow mind, the highest mind, and a concentrated and liberated mind.

“This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the mind in the mind, observation of the mind from within or from without, or observation of the mind both from within and from without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the mind or the process of dissolution in the mind or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, ‘There is mind here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught in any worldly consideration. This is how to practice observation of the mind in the mind.”

Deepen Your Practice Today

Try these exercises to practice Awareness of Mind and reduce your suffering. 

1.Awareness – Notice when your mind darts from one thing to another, carried away thinking about projects or caught in worry or anxiety. This is forgetfulness. Stop and observe it. The mind is like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, always set on the next ripe mango instead of enjoying the one in its own hand. Stop and enjoy whatever is going on in your body in the present moment and the monkey settles down.

2.Observation – Notice what emotion fills your mind, and learn to call it by its true name. For example, when you are angry, say to yourself: “This is anger.” Observe habits, body sensations, or internal or external stimuli that are feeding this anger. You may say, “I am aware my anger was touched by what that person said to me, and my mind was busy attending to so many things when they said it so I could not respond with stability.”   Read Thay’s Gathas to help you observe yourself throughout the ordinary actions of daily life: eating, drinking, walking, standing, lying down, and working. These gathas or small poems will help you observe and master your actions of body, speech, and mind.

3.Insight – Recognize how your mental formations may be distorting the situation. For example, “I am aware that my anger colors this situation, increasing my suffering.” Once your mind is able to identify what is happening, you will be able to see clearly your mental state and re-establish peace. Everything needs food to survive, including your anger. Shine the light of mindfulness on the anger so you can look deeply into its roots, and learn to cut off the source of nutriment. Stop the endless cycle of negative thinking by bringing your attention back to your body and your breath. You may like to go outside and practice walking meditation in a beatiful, natural space.

4.Freedom from suffering – Consider that the other person who said hurtful things may also be suffering. This gives rise to compassion—one of the most beautiful mental formations! With compassion, our anger calms down and we are free. 

This is how you practice to be mindful of your mind. Once you have become familiar with this practice, you may like to share it with your children so they can become mindful of their own minds. Even when they are very young, children can benefit.

Additional Resources 

Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 10:  Discourse on the Four Establishments of MindfulnessTranslated by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Dharma talk by Sr Tuệ Nghiêm: The Four Establishments Of Mindfulness

Children’s dharma talk by Br Chân Pháp Dung:The Four Establishments Of Mindfulness (One-eyed Fish

Podcast Episode, The Way Out is In (Episode #28) by Sr Lăng Nghiêm and Jo Confino: Understanding How Our Mind Works (Episode #28)

Attend Our Online Retreat

Join us from the comfort of your home sanctuary for Deer Park’s first International Online Retreat, March 20 – 24, 2024.

“At Home in the World” Retreat brings the mindfulness practices and the larger community of Deer Park Monastery straight into your home, turning your apartment or house into the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. Registration is now open.


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