Because the Pali word sati cannot be translated directly into English, and yet is an essential part of the Buddha’s instructions presented in the 8-fold path, we have to try to tease out a useful and helpful understanding of the word.
From The Buddhist Path to Awakening by Rupert M. L. Gethin:
“To sum up, it seems to me that there are basically four elements to the notion of sati in the literature: (i) sati remembers or does not lose what is before the mind; (ii) sati is, as it were, a natural ‘presence of mind’; it stands near and hence serves and guards the mind; (iii) sati ‘calls to mind’, that is, it remembers things in relationship to things and thus tends to know their value and widen the view; (iv) sati is thus closely related to wisdom; it naturally tends to seeing things as they truly are.”
It’s worth bringing each of these elements into focus. First, remembering to attend to what is before us and not be distracted by what we might prefer, is an essential ingredient of mindfulness. Often we carry our views and opinions around and measure our experience against them, so we end up critiquing rather than observing impartially.
Mindfulness can act as a servant/guardian to our our wandering thoughts. One often-used analogy is that mindfulness is like the guard at a city’s gate. It recognises citizens in good standing who should be granted free passage. It also notes when unwelcome invaders approach. Similarly, mindfulness can be an unflagging presence, assisting us in identifying which of our thoughts are worth dwelling on and which we should let pass by.
Sati also includes, by implication, some degree of sampajañña, clear comprehension. We remember things in relationship to other things. For example, we could recognize that certain behaviors are characteristic of certain people, and consequently we don’t expect them to behave in accordance with our wishes instead of their own natures.
Lastly, to see things as they truly are, clearly and without our personal views and desires at the center of all things, is a form of wisdom.
This is not a list of definitions that we need to be able to recite. The elements outlined here are offered to use as bases for reflection, to examine the workings of our own minds. The types of remembering encompassed by the Pali word sati, describe how right mindfulness works in practice, but they are only useful if we take them up and try them out.