Mindfulness Defined

In recent years, the world has been awash in a flood of books, articles, teachings, and courses that promote two theories about the practice of mindfulness (sati). The first theory is that the Buddha employed the term mindfulness to mean bare attention: a state of pure receptivity—nonreactive, nonjudging, noninterfering—toward physical and mental phenomena as they make contact with the six senses (counting the mind as the sixth). The second theory is that the cultivation of bare attention can, on its own, bring about the goal of Buddhist practice: freedom from suffering and stress. Even in non-Buddhist circles, these theories have become the standard interpretation of what mindfulness is and how it’s best developed.

Viewed in the light of the Buddha’s teachings in the Pāli Canon, though, these two theories are seriously misleading. At best, they present a small part of the path as the whole of the practice; at worst, they discredit many of the skills you need on the path and misrepresent what it actually means to taste awakening.

The practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path. As he described the term, right mindfulness (sammā-sati) is not bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind—and keeping in mind—instructions and intentions that apply to your present actions. Its role is to draw on right view about the nature of suffering and its end, and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path—such as right resolve, right speech, right action, and right livelihood—to give rise to right concentration (MN 117). Then it builds on right concentration to bring about total release.

In the following passage, the Buddha defines sati as the ability to remember, at the same time illustrating its function in meditation practice with the four satipaṭṭhānas, or establishings of mindfulness:

“And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. [And here begins the satipaṭṭhāna formula:] He remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, and mindful—putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves… the mind in and of itself… mental qualities in and of themselves—ardent, alert, and mindful—putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.” — SN 48:10

The most extensive discussion of the satipaṭṭhānas (DN 22) starts with instructions to be ever mindful of the breath. But, as the satipaṭṭhāna formula shows, mindfulness isn’t the only quality you need to bring to the breath. You must also be alert and ardent.

The Pāli word for alertness, sampajañña, is another term that’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean comprehending or being choicelessly aware of the present, as it’s sometimes defined. Examples in the Canon shows that sampajañña means being aware of what you’re doing, as you’re doing it, in the activities of the body and mind. After all, if you’re going to gain insight into how you’re causing suffering, your awareness of the present has to be focused on what you’re actually doing. If you’re just mindful of lessons from the past or broadly receptive to everything happening in the present, you won’t see cause and effect in action. This is why mindfulness always has to be paired with alertness as you meditate.

Ardency—ātappa—means being intent on what you’re doing, trying your best to do it skillfully. This doesn’t mean that you have to keep straining and sweating all the time, just that you’re persistent in developing skillful habits and abandoning unskillful ones. That, in fact, is the role of right effort, the factor in the path that immediately precedes right mindfulness. Mindfulness fosters that effort by remembering what’s skillful and not, and recalling your need to keep trying to be skillful.

Mindfulness, alertness, and ardency get their guidance from what the Buddha called yoniso manasikāra, appropriate attention. Notice: That’s appropriate attention, not bare attention. No act of attention is ever bare. The Buddha discovered that the way you attend to sensory contact is determined by your views about what’s important: the questions you bring to each experience, the problems you want to solve. If there were no problems in life, you could open yourself up choicelessly to whatever came along. But the fact is there is a big problem smack dab in the middle of everything you do: the suffering that comes from misunderstanding what suffering is, how it’s caused, and how it can be ended. This is why the Buddha doesn’t tell you to view each moment with a beginner’s eyes. You’ve got to give priority to the problem of suffering, and keep an informed understanding of the problem and its correct solution always in mind.

Otherwise inappropriate attention will get in the way, focusing on questions like “Who am I?” “Do I have a self?”—questions that deal in terms of being and identity. Those questions, the Buddha said, lead you into a thicket of views and leave you stuck on the thorns (MN 2). The questions that lead to freedom focus on comprehending suffering, letting go of the cause of suffering, and developing the path to the end of suffering. Your desire for answers to these questions is what makes you alert to your actions—your thoughts, words, and deeds—and ardent to perform them skillfully.

Mindfulness, then, is what keeps the perspective of appropriate attention in mind. Modern psychological research has shown that attention comes in discrete moments. You can be attentive to something for only a very short period of time and then you have to remind yourself, moment after moment, to return to it if you want to keep on being attentive. In other words, continuous attention—the type that can see connections between cause and effect over time—has to be stitched together from short intervals. This is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of your attention and the purpose of your attention in mind.

This is why an accurate understanding of mindfulness and its role on the path is not just a nitpicking matter for scholars to argue over. It has a genuine impact on how you practice. If you can’t identify the differences among the qualities you bring to your meditation, they glom together, making it hard for real insight to arise.

For example, one popular definition of mindfulness is that it is awakening, and that each moment of mindfulness is a momentary taste of awakening. But mindfulness is conditioned and nibbāna is not. Mistaking one of the factors on the path to awakening for awakening itself is like reaching the middle of a road and then falling asleep right there. You never get to the end of the road, and in the meantime you’ll get run over by aging, illness, and death.

Other contemporary definitions of mindfulness may avoid the mistake of confusing mindfulness with awakening, but they still confuse it with qualities that sometimes are and sometimes aren’t useful on the path. For instance, mindfulness is sometimes portrayed as affectionate attention or compassionate attention, but affection and compassion are not synonymous with mindfulness. They’re separate things. If you bring them to your meditation, understand that they’re acting in addition to mindfulness, because skill in meditation requires seeing when qualities like compassion are helpful and when they’re not. As the Buddha says—and as most of us have experienced in our own lives—affection can sometimes be a cause for suffering, so you have to watch out.

Mindfulness has also been equated with appreciating the moment for all the little pleasures it can offer: the taste of a raisin, the feel of a cup of tea in your hands. In the Buddha’s vocabulary, this appreciation is called contentment. Contentment is useful when you’re experiencing physical hardship, but it’s not always useful in the area of the mind. In fact, the Buddha once said that the secret to his awakening was that he didn’t allow himself to rest content with whatever attainment he had reached (AN 2:5). He kept reaching for something higher until there was nowhere higher to reach. So contentment has to know its time and place. Mindfulness, if it’s not confused with contentment, can help keep that fact in mind.

Other popular definitions describe mindfulness as a type of non-reactivity or total acceptance. If you look for these terms in the Buddha’s vocabulary, the closest you’ll find are equanimity and patience. Equanimity means putting aside your preferences and accepting what you can’t change. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don’t resolve as quickly as you want them to. But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not simply to accept them but also to observe and understand them. Once you’ve clearly seen that a particular quality, such as aversion or lust, is harmful for the mind, it doesn’t pay to keep developing patience or equanimity around it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.

Mindfulness, after all, is part of a larger path mapped out by appropriate attention. You have to keep remembering to bring the larger map to bear on everything you do. For instance, you try to keep the breath in mind because you see that concentration, as a factor of the path, is something you need to develop, and mindfulness of the breath is a good way to do it. The breath is also a good standpoint from which you can directly observe what’s happening in the mind, to see which mental qualities are giving good results and which ones aren’t.

Meditation employs lots of mental qualities, and you have to be clear about what they are, where they’re separate, and what each one of them can do. That way, when things are out of balance, you can identify what’s missing and can foster whatever is needed to make up the lack. If you’re feeling flustered and irritated, try to bring in a little gentleness and contentment. When you’re lazy, rev up your sense of the dangers of being unskillful and complacent. It’s not just a matter of piling on more and more mindfulness. You’ve got to add other qualities as well. First you’re mindful enough to stitch things together, to keep the basic issues of your meditation in mind and to observe things over time. Then you try to be alert to see whatever else your ardency should stir into the pot.

This process is a lot like cooking. When you don’t like the taste of the soup you’re making, you’re not stuck with the single option of adding more and more salt. You can add onion, garlic, oregano—whatever you sense is needed. Remember that you’ve got a whole spice shelf to work with, and that the spices should be clearly labeled. If they’re all labeled “salt,” you won’t know which “salt” to use.

And remember that your cooking has a purpose. Right mindfulness is supposed to lead to right concentration. We’re often told that mindfulness and concentration are two separate forms of meditation, or even two separate paths to awakening, but the Buddha never made a clear division between the two. In his teachings, mindfulness and concentration are interwoven: mindfulness shades into concentration; concentration, in turn, forms the basis for even better mindfulness. The four establishings of mindfulness are also the themes of concentration, and the highest level of concentration is where mindfulness becomes pure.

As Ajaan Lee, my teacher’s teacher, once noted, mindfulness combined with ardency turns into the concentration factor called vitakka, or directed thought, where you keep your thoughts consistently focused on one object, such as the breath. Alertness combined with ardency turns into another concentration factor: vicāra, or evaluation. In this case, you evaluate what’s going on with the breath. Is it comfortable? If it is, stick with it. If it’s not, what can you do to make it more comfortable? Try making it a little bit longer, a little bit shorter, deeper, shallower, faster, slower. See what happens. When you’ve found a way of breathing that nourishes a sense of fullness and refreshment, you can spread that fullness throughout the body. Learn how to relate to the breath in a way that nourishes a good energy flow throughout the body. When your sense of the body is refreshed, the mind can easily settle down in the present.

You may have picked up the idea that you should never fiddle with the breath, that you should just take it as it comes. Yet meditation isn’t a passive process of being nonjudgmentally present with whatever arises and not adjusting it at all. Mindfulness keeps reminding you to stick with the breath in the present, but it also reminds you that there’s a path to develop for good results in the future, and that adjusting the breath to help settle the mind is a skillful part of that path.

This is why evaluation—judging the best way to maximize the pleasure of the breath—is essential to the practice. In other words, you don’t abandon your powers of judgment as you develop mindfulness. Rather, you train them to be less judgmental and more judicious, so that they yield tangible results.

When the breath becomes really full and refreshing throughout the body, you can drop the evaluation and simply be one with the breath. This sense of oneness is also sometimes called mindfulness, in a literal sense: mind-fullness, a sense of oneness pervading the entire range of your awareness. You’re at one with whatever you focus on, at one with whatever you do. There’s no separate “you” at all. This is a type of mindfulness that’s easy to confuse with awakening because it can seem so liberating, but in the Buddha’s vocabulary it’s neither mindfulness nor awakening. He calls it by a technical name: cetaso ekodibhāva, unification of awareness. In the nine levels of concentration attainments, this is a factor that’s present from the second level, the second jhāna, up to the sixth, the infinitude of consciousness. It’s abandoned on the seventh level, when the mind needs to drop the oneness to reach the dimension of nothingness. So oneness isn’t even the ultimate in concentration, much less awakening.

Which means that there’s still more work for your mindfulness, alertness, and ardency to do. Mindfulness reminds you that no matter how wonderful this sense of oneness is, you still haven’t solved the problem of suffering. Alertness tries to focus on what the mind is still doing in that state of oneness—what subterranean choices you’re making to keep that sense of oneness going and what subtle levels of stress those choices are causing—while ardency tries to find a way to drop even those subtle choices to be rid of that stress.

So even this sense of oneness is a means to a higher end. You bring the mind to a solid state of oneness in order to drop your habitual ways of dividing up experience into me vs. not-me, but you don’t stop there. You then take that oneness and keep subjecting it to all the factors of the path. That’s when the activities underlying the oneness become clearly distinct. Ajaan Lee uses the image of ore in a rock. Staying with the sense of oneness is like resting content with the knowledge that there’s tin, silver, and gold in your rock: if that’s all you do, you’ll never get any use from those metals. But if you heat the rock to their different melting points, they’ll separate out on their own. Only then will you benefit from them.

Liberating insight comes from testing and experimenting. This is how we learn about the world to begin with. If we weren’t active creatures, we’d have no understanding of the world at all. Things would pass by, pass by, and we wouldn’t know how they were connected because we’d have no way of influencing them to see which effects came from changing which causes. It’s because we act in the world that we can understand it.

The same holds true with the mind. You can’t just sit there hoping that a single mental quality—mindfulness, acceptance, contentment, oneness—will do all the work. If you want to learn about the potentials of the mind, you have to be willing to play with sensations in the body, with qualities in the mind. That’s when you come to understand cause and effect.

But apprehending cause and effect requires all your powers of intelligence. This doesn’t mean book intelligence. It means your ability to notice what you’re doing, to read the results of what you’ve done, and to figure out ingenious ways of doing things that cause less and less suffering and stress: call it street smarts for the noble path. Mindfulness allows you to see these connections because it keeps reminding you to stay with these issues, to stay with the causes until you see their effects. But mindfulness alone can’t do all the work. You can’t improve the soup simply by dumping more pepper into it. You add other ingredients, as they’re needed.

This is why it’s best not to load the word mindfulness with too many meanings or to assign it too many functions. Otherwise, you can’t clearly discern when a quality like contentment is useful and when it’s not, when you need to bring things to oneness and when you need to take things apart.

So keep the spices on your shelf clearly labeled, and learn through practice which spice is good for which purpose. Only then can you develop your full potential as a cook.