On the 8-fold path, right mindfulness is grouped with right effort and right concentration. Together they form the “samadhi” (or concentration/mental development) portion of the path. Although all of the path factors support and enable each other, these three have a particularly powerful chemistry when practiced together.
Right effort (abandoning the unwholesome, cultivating the wholesome) leads to mindfulness (a wise, contextualized knowing of experience), which in turn can lead to a profound internal stillness, right concentration.
There is no single definition of mindfulness, but it might be best to start with the most direct instruction the Buddha gave about how to develop mindfulness.
From the Satipatthana Sutta, MN 10 (Pali canon), translated by Ven. Analayo:
Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent with regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent with regard to the world. In regard to the mind he abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent with regard to the world. In regard to dharmas he abides contemplating dharmas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent with regard to the world.
This is the most compressed form of a considerably larger description of practices that (when put into practice) develop mindfulness as recommended by the Buddha. For us today, the word to focus on is “contemplating” – what does it mean in this context? It’s not thinking about or analyzing the body, feelings, etc.; it’s more like sensing or feeling our way into our experience.
We start with the body. Even when we move to other objects of contemplation or mindfulness, it’s good to keep track of what’s happening in the body. Our minds compulsively make up stories. Our bodies can tell us what’s actually happening, if we listen closely enough. A couple of ways to begin a mindfulness practice:
** Set an alarm for 10 minutes and decide to give this time over to an attempt at mindfulness. Sitting in an upright and relaxed posture, bring the attention entirely inside the body. Leaving aside the past and future, and any expectations of what should happen when we meditate, just tune in to physical sensations within the body. Discover those sensations (without inner commentary, if possible), feel the movements of energy, without any agenda. Continue trying to sink into this awareness until the alarm rings. The point is not to succeed in keeping one’s focus firmly on the body for ten minutes, but to make the attempt to attach our awareness to this location, repeatedly, adjusting as needed until the feeling of mediation becomes (at least a little more) natural.
** Many people find following the movements generated by breathing helpful. We can place the awareness on the in-breath and the out-breath, and on any pauses between the two. Each in-breath has a beginning, a middle and an end, and likewise each out-breath. We can track the “in” and “out”, or we can use a mantra like “Budd” on the in-breath and “ho” on the out-breath (“Buddho” means awake). Or, if we really have difficulty settling the mind, we can count our breaths, one (1) through ten (10), giving each out-breath a count, then starting over at one. If we lose track, no worries, we start over at one. In all of these cases, the object of meditation is the body, from within the body.
** It will be very helpful to set aside any thoughts of “am I doing it right?” and “other people can do this better than I can”. These are common traps that block mindfulness. If you notice them, turn the awareness back to the body and its immediate sensations.
More next time…
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 (the four jhanas)