As we continue our exploration of the Buddha’s 8-fold path, we come next to Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration and Right Effort are necessarily considered together, because in practice they can’t be entirely separated from each other.
In truth, it is almost impossible to describe mindfulness. It’s a word that in English has come to mean (almost) all things to all people.
At the most basic level, mindfulness (sati) is remembering the present.
At a more useful level, sati-sampajañña means remembering the present with clear comprehension, that is, with a historical and contextual understanding of what is present.
In practice, this is similar to thinking (but it’s not) and to paying attention (but different), so it can be very hard to say when we’re being mindful in the way that the Buddha meant, and when we’re not.
In an academic journal, Ajahn Amaro gives this clarifying description of three types of mindfulness:
First, sati is the simple act of paying attention to an object or action. If this is taken to be the all and everything of mindfulness, this can lead to falling into a variety of errors. The practitioner can assume that they are following instructions and are using bare or nonjudgmental awareness, or seeing things with the attitude of nonduality, yet can in actuality be drifting into the extremes of either self-indulgence or passivity. The former of these errors can be summarized as the delusion that: “As long as I’m mindful, whatever I do is OK.” … The other extreme, of passivity, is the danger of becoming an abstracted or dissociated “watcher” of experience. … On its own, this rudimentary quality of sati can be called “mechanistic mindfulness.”
Second, sati-sampajañña means mindfulness and clear comprehension. It is also translated as mindfulness and full awareness or intuitive awareness. This term describes the psychological stance wherein the object or action is appreciated within its context of time, place, and situation. The precursors to the current experience and its possible consequences are included. This broadening and deepening of the view intrinsically include an appreciation of the practitioner’s attitudes and the impact that any actions they are involved in will have upon themselves and others. Sati-sampajañña, mindfulness and full awareness, thus naturally incorporates ethical concerns, these being influential according to the degree to which full attunement to the time, place, and situation is established, as well as the degree to which self-interest has been recognized as obstructive. …
Third, sati-paññā means mindfulness conjoined with wisdom and is regarded as the quality that leads to the full blossoming of human well-being. The term describes mindfulness [as] the psychological standpoint wherein all experience, inner or outer, is viewed as patterns of organic change arising and passing within consciousness…
— from A Wholistic Mindfulness by Ajahn Amaro, published online: 4 January 2015 copyright Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
Mindfulness, according to the Buddha, is not simply paying attention to what’s happening. It’s attending to the events and feelings around us, AND to the intended or potential consequences of our own actions and the actions of others. Supported by some level of calm, we can see a situation whole, and not just from the perspective of how we ourselves may be affected.
To be clear, mindfulness can be developed while we sit in meditation, and during the whole course of our days. More next time…