The Buddha left us comprehensive instructions on how to develop mindfulness, our all-purpose tool for improving things. The instructions are laid out in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN10), of which there are many translations. A particularly inspiring and useful new commentary called Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: A Practice Guide comes from Anālayo Bhikkhu, and I recommend this book to any serious practitioner.
One aspect of mindfulness is connected with memory, and the Buddha praised the ability to remember “what was said long ago”. But mindfulness and remembering are not the same thing. The connection is that when we are mindful of the present, we are attending to experience in a way that makes it easier to recall past events accurately.
Anālayo Bhikkhu points out that there is a significant difference in the way we attend to something we’ll need to recall later, and something we don’t have an anticipated need to remember. If we are travelling with someone who is showing us the way to get from here to there, and we know that the next time we’ll be doing the trip on our own, our mind is alert, registering landmarks, repeating instructions to ourselves, attending closely, asking questions. This type of attention is akin to mindfulness.
The Pali word most often translated into English as mindfulness is sati, and here’s something important Anālayo Bhikkhu has to say about it:
Another aspect of the early Buddhist conception of sati is that mindfulness is a mental quality that we have to bring into being. Mindfulness has to be established; it is not just a quality that is present anyway in any type of experience. This marks the difference between mindfulness and consciousness. Consciousness … is a continuously present process of knowing [which allows us to register experience]. … Whether we are mindful of a meditation object or caught up in a dream or fantasy, the flow of consciousness is always there. The same does not apply to mindfulness.
This is a point that is often overlooked or ignored. Mindfulness includes a clarity about the context of our experience, and there’s a vividness to engaged attention that keeps us planted in the here and now.
When we are not attending fully, we often experience events through a filter we’ve developed over time. We may be looking for ways in which we are being ignored, or treated unfairly, or noticed when we don’t want to be, or even that we’re being appreciated and admired. There tends to be a story about “me” that we reinforce with our observations. So of course, what stands out in our memories are the instances that confirm our ready-made attitudes. Mindfulness with clear comprehension can cut through this way of experiencing our lives.
Ven. Anālayo suggests that we can view sati as our good, supportive, pleasant-to-be-with friend, available whenever we turn towards her (female, as the word sati in Pali is feminine). We may not notice her company for periods, but she is always there for us to share our experience with.