How to Practice Mindfulness of Mental States

Mindfulness of mental states is a key way to gain an understanding of the mind and opens the door to training the mind to let go of unpleasant mental states, but also to encourage more happiness. All the four frames of reference (mindfulness of body and bodily sensations, as well as mind and fabrications) are important to the goal to free your mind from stress. This meditation style looks at the latter two of them - mental states being both the mind activity like thoughts but also how it feels and acts. Its as fascinating as it is enlightening.


  1. Image titled Practice Mindfulness of Mental States Step 1
    Start at the beginning and spend a little time considering the meditation format. This is in order to get some familiarity with what is involved in order to set yourself some guidelines, boundaries or an idea of what your intention is. In a nutshell, the aim of the meditation is to become familiar with how the mind works as well as being able to identify everything that comes and goes. Once the practitioner is more clear in their mind what they are looking at, they can then investigate the merit of the mental state and whether it should be bulked up or valued (such as a sense of calmness, clarity, happiness or goodwill), or let go of (such as tension, a chattering mind, strong emotions or unhappy memories).
  2. Image titled Practice Mindfulness of Mental States Step 2
    Find a quiet peaceful place and relax into a meditation posture. The Do Mindful Meditation page looks at the four types, but any are suitable - sitting, standing, walking or lying down.

    Focus your attention on something, such as the breath or feelings in order to relax but also to build up the awareness & focus to be mindful. It's typically best for beginner practitioners to be aware of the small, basic and easy parts of the mind, body or breath, or anything that is most evident but is also relaxing to focus on. It may take some time before you are able to do this in day to day circumstances for the more subtle movements, however the more you practice and practice refining your focus it will get easier and quicker that you learn things.

    A beginner practitioner may find the experience is easier after practicing a meditation type such as compassion, equanimity or goodwill, as the mind already has a pleasant and peaceful state of mind to begin observing.
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    Turn your attention to the mind once you feel more relaxed and note specifically how it is feeling now. You can use any words in the mind you wish to be able to identify what's going on. There is a host of things you may focus on, such as:
    • Mental tension, or relaxed feelings, or being focused, or mentally tired.
    • Thought chains, random thoughts or stream of consciousness thinking.
    • Reactions to sounds, feelings and other disturbances.
    • Specific subject thoughts that the mind is solely interested in.
    • Emotions such feeling happy, bored, frustrated etc.
    • Desires, intentions, motivations or urges.

      The point about this section to observe mental phenomena only once the practitioner is more calm and relaxed is a beginner practitioner may flood themselves with awareness of more thoughts and feelings that they can cope with. At the same time, it reduces the likelihood of seeing many strong or unsettling emotions. Eventually the practitioner builds up experience to deal with more difficult cases, but only after there is some familiarity with the mind generally

      At this stage, avoid getting involved with the topic or theme, or judging and commenting on it and instead, study what is going on before you attempt to change it, just like learning the layout of the land before you go exploring it.
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    Take your time and let go of any events that cause you distress. An excellent analogy to consider is a security guard who lets hundred of people pass him every hour but doesn't stop them, but has to be aware for the gatecrashers or dangerous people whom he does stop. The aim of the game is to watch the mind over time, how it changes, how it acts, reacts and moves Avoid looking for too many details at this stage. There is actually nothing to stop you at all, but you might get information overload or your awareness just will wear out very quickly if you have not much experience in holding an object of focus for a long time (such as more than 10 minutes without distraction). Test your limits and work into expanding them by gently adding a little more awareness each time.
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    Continue to observe the mental states that arise in the mind. Move to the more subtle and diverse objects when you feel you are able to, or when they are more apparent. The practitioner often knows for themselves when it doesn't seem difficult anymore to be aware of the basics. At each stage, still endeavour not to get involved in the thoughts or feelings, but to simply be observant. If something arises that is very strong, then the option is to be aware of it and accept its presence, but still stay detached from it. Often strong emotions make a practitioner get lost in the thought chain, or causes them great unease, so staying detached keeps it in view like seeing a tiger in the bushes. Once you feel more able to deal with the thought, you can then let go of the thought, or turn your attention to investigating what it is. You can ask yourself "Can I live without this thought?" (or whatever it is that is causing you stress), in order to help letting go.
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    To develop the mind further, refine and expand the scope of what you are aware of in regards to day to day activities. Whenever you are in or outside of the meditation room, observe whatever mental states are associated to it. There are many examples such as: "I'm thinking about work and the mind feeling worn out" or "I'm driving, I'm late and feeling annoyed at that red light" or "the mind has put that thought down now and there is a feeling of relaxing". Continue to the next activity or change in the mind when you can do that and it seems straightforward and easy. Examine that the area where the traps are and how to avoid getting trapped by refraining from being drawn into, or distracted by the subject. The trap is when you have become involved and start wanting something to be, to happen, or oppositely not be, or not happen. You have to work harder to get awareness and that sense of detachment back if you get involved. This monitoring activity in itself is not the goal finished, it's only scratching the surface. Just like how a Doctor has identified a disease, the Doctor now has to prescribe a treatment. What essentially is required to do this is to start looking for how the mind is acting and reacting and letting go of all and any tension that arises and when it arises. Be kind to yourself and let go of the things that cause you distress. Take every chance to let go of tension and relax.
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    Keep practicing this until you can see the interaction parts easily. The point of this is simply to learn which things cause the mind stress and which causes the mind to relax.

    When you can note all mental activity, this is where you develop insight. Look for all the times you want something or want something to go away. Ask yourself "is wanting something making a problem?". See the Four Noble truths for more on this as these can be applied directly to the heart of the problem.
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    To develop the meditation further, keep looking for tension in the mind as a primary target, that way you can get to the heart of the matter. Ultimately it allows you to expand the scope of what you can identify as well as decide for yourself what is pleasant and unpleasant to experience so you can deal with them accordingly. By seeing how stress is caused, you no longer feel that you have to get involved, or that the chattering in the mind is really any benefit. It then becomes easy to just let it go. When you can both note all the things in the mind both in and out of meditation, as well as know what it does, practice wordless awareness. You can ask yourself "Can I do this without mental noting?" and just be aware without any other activities. Eventually the mind both recognises the things that cause stress and just lets go of them and relaxes because it has learnt that letting go is the way to release the stress. You can also see the benefit of mindfulness so you are happier to do it. Because while there isn't a way to bullet proof the mind from doing stressful things, mindfulness is only a way to primarily learn, then recognise and finally let go of what's there and avoid getting involved with future traps. Then, as the mind becomes thoroughly disenchanted with getting involved in stressful thoughts and feelings, you are free of them.


  • Keep doing it, if you can dedicate time to it its better, but that's not always easy. If you find you you feel more and more that some thoughts really aren't worth hanging on to, then you are heading in the right direction - just use that as a base to let them go.
  • The most important thing is to strike a balance and use patience. Its actually a lot like learning a new skill like how to cook or drive etc, the more interest and effort you apply to learn it, the quicker it gets and the more you will learn about it (see develop insight for this)


  • If you see anything that causes you distress talk about it with someone you trust, or preferably someone already experienced in mindfulness. All you will see is stuff that happens in day-to-day life anyway, but the distress may be because it might not have been what you wanted.

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Categories: Buddhist Meditation