The last three factors on the Buddha’s path work together to support the cultivation of wisdom. It’s true that all the steps on the path work interdependently, but these last three describe a complete meditation practice. Right effort sets us up with a nourishing, wholesome mind-state; right mindfulness is an active, alert placing of the attention, and right concentration is the foundation of a relaxed and open calm.
The word translated as mindfulness is sati in Pali, which doesn’t match well with any single English word. The root of sati is memory – both remembering to be present with our immediate experience, and remembering the object of our meditation (e.g., the breath, or the passing flow of experience).
It is impossible to describe the development of mindfulness briefly. A study could start with the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, MN10 (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html), or better yet, a book called Satipaṭṭhāna, the Direct Path to Realization by Analayo Bhikkhu. Another excellent introductory book is The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera.
But here is a taste:
The four foundations of mindfulness, or frameworks for investigation are:
1) Our bodies and the physical world;
2) Our hedonic response to experience, i.e., I like this, I don’t like this, or I don’t care/I don’t know.
3) Our mental states (positive and negative, gross and subtle, etc.)
4) Categories of experience as described by the Buddha (also called dhammas)
What are the four [establishments of mindfulness]? Here, bhikkhus, in regard to the body a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind he abides contemplating the mind, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
– Joseph Goldstein, from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (from MN10)
The contemplation referred to here is of a very special kind; it is not simply thinking and speculating about the four frameworks. “Free from desires and discontent in regard to the world” means that the mind is not leaning in a particular direction, that we are not grasping or pushing away anything, nor seeking a specific result. It’s as if we (temporarily at first) step outside of our preferences and expectations so we can notice very clearly the elements of our direct experience. While meditating silently, or while active in the world, we place our attention on one of the categories designated for developing mindfulness: the body, feelings, mental states, or dhammas. With no expectations and no agenda, we track our experience as closely and continuously as possible and see what we can discover.
The factors of the eight-fold path are:
1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration