Each of the factors of the Buddha’s 8-fold path is preceded by the word “right”; right view, right intention, right speech, etc. The English word could be misleading; we might think that right only means not-wrong, but there is more to it. In each case, the word right implies that the actions, words and thoughts involved lead one towards the realization of freedom, in the direction of the end of suffering. So, for example, a swindler might be mindful in choosing targets, but this cannot be right mindfulness.
Mindfulness is right insofar as it leads toward realizing the cessation of suffering.
How does one develop right mindfulness? The primary canonical source is MN10 in the Middle Length Discourses. To deepen our ability to be mindful in all situations, four objects or frameworks for contemplation are outlined: the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas or phenomena. In each case, we are exhorted (Ven. Analayo’s translation):
- to be diligent (appamāda),
- to clearly know (sampajañña),
- to be mindful (sati), and
- to be free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
These four instructions form a sort of preparation for planting our attention firmly on what is occurring right now (and now, and now) in (1) our bodies, (2) our preferences (feelings), (3) our mind states, and (4) five lists of other factors (dhammas).
These preparatory attitudes are often overlooked, but can undermine all our efforts if we don’t address them.
Being diligent in our practice simply means not being careless, not doing things by rote, but fully engaging when we meditate or otherwise focus our (wholesomely-intended) attention. We might remember our purpose at the start of a sitting period to bring this diligence to mind.
Clearly knowing means understanding, to the best of our ability, what we are doing and why. Mindfulness is not a magical activity that will make all our problems disappear, it’s a training that takes patience and can result in greater and greater degrees of freedom from clinging and suffering.
It does seem a bit circular to say that mindfulness needs to be established before developing mindfulness, but let’s think of it here as simple alertness, attentiveness.
The last instruction is the trickiest. If we were entirely free from desires and discontent with regard to the world, we’d be fully awakened beings already! So we can take this to mean “relative to our normal, distracted state”. We (temporarily) turn our attention away from worldly things — our jobs, relationships, hopes and fears, and especially our likes and dislikes; we make a decision to set aside our ordinary mind-chatter. This is not easily done, but it becomes easier if we can be satisfied with a slightly deeper calm than our usual state allows. And, importantly, our ability to intentionally set aside worldly concerns improves with practice.