The Burden of Bare Attention
One of the most striking features of mindfulness as taught in the modern world is how far it differs from the Canon’s teachings on right mindfulness. Instead of being a function of memory, it’s depicted primarily—in some cases, purely—as a function of attention to the present moment. Instead of being purposeful, it is without agenda. Instead of making choices, it is choiceless and without preferences.
In the words of two modern writers:
“Mindfulness is the quality of mind that notices what is present, without judgment, without interference.”
“Mindfulness is mirror-thought. It reflects only what is presently happening and in exactly the way it is happening. There are no biases.… Mindfulness is non-judgmental observation. It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism. With this ability, one sees things without condemnation or judgment.… One does not decide and does not judge. One just observes… [W]hat we mean is that the meditator observes experiences very much like a scientist observing an object under a microscope without any preconceived notions, only to see the object exactly as it is.… Mindfulness is non-conceptual awareness. Another English term for Sati is ‘bare attention.’… Mindfulness is present-time awareness.… It stays forever in the present, perpetually on the crest of the ongoing wave of passing time.… Mindfulness is non-egotistic alertness. It takes place without reference to self.”
From the discussion in the preceding three chapters, it would appear that these writers are not describing mindfulness as described in the discourses. Other modern writers have noted the discrepancy here and yet have maintained that it’s only apparent, that in actuality there’s no real discrepancy at all. To support their case, they explain the canonical definition in terms that bring it in line with the modern assertion that mindfulness is bare attention. Their explanations fall into two major camps.
One is that the Buddha, in defining the faculty of mindfulness in SN 48:10, didn’t actually define it as memory; he defined it as the mental state that allows memory to happen. In other words, attention lies in the background of the definition without actually being mentioned in it.
However, there are at least two problems with this explanation. One is that attention, in the Buddha’s account, plays a role in engendering all phenomena (AN 10:58); even the modern interpretation of mindfulness-as-bare-attention identifies attention as the factor providing the basis that allows all other mental factors to happen. So there would be no reason, in defining mindfulness as attention, to single out remembrance as something that mindfulness-as-bare-attention allows to happen. Attention allows all mental states to happen.
Second, it’s hard to understand how a purely passive state of mind would foster memory. Even a small amount of introspection shows that memory requires the active application of perception to the item to be remembered. If the Buddha’s definition of the faculty of mindfulness were meant to point to the faculty of receptive attention, it does a remarkably poor job of doing so.
The second explanation is that the Buddha, in trying to indicate a process new to his system of meditation—that of watchful attention or observation—couldn’t find an adequate word in the existing vocabulary of his day. So instead of inventing a new word, as he did in some other cases, he for some reason took the old word for “memory” and gave it a new meaning in practice, even though his formal definition didn’t adequately express the new meaning he was, in effect, giving to the term. Although in some cases he continued to use mindfulness to mean memory, it obviously has a different meaning in the case of the establishing of mindfulness. In the words of one writer, “To establish mindfulness isn’t setting out to remember something, but adopting a particular stance towards one’s own experience… a stance of observation or watchfulness towards one’s own experience” [emphasis in the original].
However, there are two problems with this explanation. The first is that Pāli had a perfectly adequate word for attention—manasikāra—and the Buddha continued to use it with this meaning. Pāli also had a good word for observation and watchfulness: sampajañña, which we have translated as alertness. So there was no need for the Buddha to create confusion by indicating attention or watchfulness with a word that normally meant memory.
The second problem with this explanation is that it’s by no means obvious that the establishing of mindfulness is divorced from the act of remembering something. As we have noted in the preceding chapters, you have to keep in mind the task of remaining focused on any of the four frames of reference in and of themselves. You have to remember to be alert—this is where the watchfulness comes in—and to subdue greed and distress with reference to the world. In other words, the establishing of mindfulness is clearly a process of bringing memory to bear on the present moment.
So there’s nothing in either the Buddha’s definition of mindfulness or his actual use of the term to indicate that he intended it to mean attention or watchfulness. As we will see in our discussion of DN 22 in Part Three, there is every reason to believe that he saw mindfulness as a function of memory and used the term consistently in that sense, whether talking about the establishing of mindfulness or discussing it in other contexts.
The question arises, though, as to whether the modern approach to mindfulness is actually an improvement on what the Buddha taught. If it gives a clearer or more cogent picture of the practice, if it expands the range of tools available to the meditator, leading more effectively to unbinding, then the discrepancies from the Canon don’t really matter. This is why it’s important to look at the modern interpretation in a little more detail.
One of the cardinal features of the modern theory of mindfulness is that it starts with a purely receptive, unbiased moment of awareness that naturally occurs in all cognition. This is what gives mindfulness its objectivity and authority as a guide to truth: its ability to see things as they really are. The practice of mindfulness then extends that moment of receptivity so that it can provide a more solid foundation for objective knowledge of events in the present.
In the words of one writer, “Right Mindfulness starts at the beginning. In employing the method of Bare Attention, it goes back to the seed state of things. Applied to the activity of mind this means: observation reverts to the very first phase of the process of perception when mind is in a purely receptive state, and when attention is restricted to a bare noticing of the object. That phase is of a very short and hardly perceptible duration, and, as we have said, it furnishes a superficial, incomplete and often faulty picture of the object.… It is the task of the next perceptual phase to correct and to supplement that first impression, but this is not always done. Often the first impression is taken for granted, and even new distortions, characteristic of the more complex mental functions of the second stage, are added.
“Here starts the work of Bare Attention, being a deliberate cultivation and strengthening of that first receptive state of mind, giving it a longer chance to fulfil its important task in the process of cognition. Bare Attention proves the thoroughness of its procedure by cleansing and preparing the ground carefully for all subsequent mental processes.”
According to another writer, “When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. That is a state of awareness. Ordinarily, this state is short-lived.… That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.… You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it.… It is the purpose of Vipassanā meditation to train us to prolong that moment of awareness.”
The picture of cognition offered in both of these statements is primarily passive: The mind’s first encounter with sense data is passive and receptive. In most cases, this state of pure receptivity is momentary and fleeting. The mind’s emotional reactions may then interfere, denying it the time needed to form a clear or accurate impression of the data presented to the senses. However, any inaccurate impression picked up in that moment is not due to any distortion in its receptivity. It’s simply not allowed enough time to form a complete picture of the data it receives. If that receptive moment is allowed enough time, it will pick up an accurate image of whatever is present. The deliberate practice of mindfulness simply lengthens the receptivity of that initial moment.
There are two main problems with this theory. To begin with, even if we were to accept the idea that such a pure, unadulterated moment of sensory receptivity actually exists, how can it be deliberately extended without turning it into something else? In other words, how can the motivation behind that act of extending that moment not color it and distort its pure objectivity? Won’t the addition of motivation or intention immediately change the mind from its purely receptive state? For instance, if the motivation is to be non-reactive, that immediately turns the ensuing mental state into one of equanimity. This is no longer attention pure and simple, but attention with an agenda. If, on the other hand the motivation is to appreciate sensory contact more fully—to savor the taste of a raisin or the act of drinking tea—that creates a different mental state entirely: either contentment with what little you have, or the bittersweet attachment of tasting the fullness of life’s small pleasures before having to let them go.
Now, both equanimity and contentment have their place in training the mind, but neither of them is mindfulness. And they have their limitations. As we have already noted, MN 101 states that equanimity may be enough to induce dispassion for some causes of stress, but not for all. And although an equanimous state of mind is more likely to see things clearly than an impassioned state (see Chapter Six), MN 106 points out that it’s possible to feel passion for the peace of equanimity, and so be blinded by it.
Similarly, although the Buddha in many of his discourses (e.g., AN 4:28) praised contentment with your physical surroundings, he also noted in AN 2:5 that lack of contentment with the skillful qualities in his mind was a crucial factor leading to his awakening. He had to be discontent with lower attainments to push his practice all the way to the higher attainment of total release. This means that, in the case both of equanimity and of contentment, there needs to be a separate mental function to remember to observe when these mental states are skillful and when they are not. Especially with contentment, the type of appreciation aimed at deriving as much intensity from sensory impressions as possible before they pass away can easily veer off the path into the extreme of sensual indulgence.
So there are practical drawbacks with the idea of trying to extend a moment of pure receptivity into equanimity or appreciation as an on-going state of mind. In either event, the simple fact of wanting to extend a moment of pure receptivity immediately distorts any objectivity that such a moment might entail.
The same problem applies even if the motivation for wanting to extend the initial moment of pure receptivity inherent in all sensory contact is to see things as they are, for that simply begs the question: for what purpose? Is the knowledge a goal in and of itself, or should something be done with it? In either case, there is a view behind the motivation, and a desire behind the view, both of which would color any awareness that would result from the effort to extend that initial moment.
But even if we were to grant the possibility that the motivation for wanting to extend the moment of pure receptivity inherent in all sensory contact could be relatively pure, we run into the second problem with any theory of this sort: the simple question of whether such a moment of pure receptivity as a common stage of sensation actually exists. As we noted in the preceding chapter, dependent co-arising gives a long list of factors that color awareness prior to sensory contact—both in the process of causing suffering and stress, and in the process of following the path. Many modern psychological studies give their own account of how the mind is primarily an active agent, driven by its own agendas in seeking out and creating the impression of sensory contacts that are not there, while being totally oblivious to those that are. A meditation method that assumes a moment of pure receptivity and focuses attention primarily on distortions that the mind creates after that moment, pushes into the dark all the most important factors prior to contact that lead to stress.
In addition to the problems presented by the modern theory of what mindfulness is, there are also the problems surrounding the modern theory of what it can do. Just as the Buddha cites a large number of functions that the practice of right mindfulness can accomplish, modern theorists give a similarly long list of functions that mindfulness, as a purely receptive state of mind, can perform. Among the items in the modern list: Mindfulness frees the mind from its preconceptions; it distinguishes the good from the bad; it keeps different wholesome states of mind in balance, working together in harmony; it reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing; it sees things as they really are, prior to concepts, as not separate from the mind; and it penetrates to the true nature of all phenomena as inconstant, stressful, and not-self.
Given the complex, active nature of right mindfulness as depicted by the Buddha, there is little difficulty in understanding how it could perform the list of functions he assigns to it. But in the case of the more passive nature of mindfulness as depicted in its modern definition, the question arises: How can a non-interfering, non-judgmental state of mind do all the functions assigned it by modern theorists, particularly when some of these functions seem to involve passing judgment? Modern theories offer two explanations.
The first is that the mere presence of non-judgmental receptivity creates a space that allows skillful qualities to develop and unskillful ones to fall away of their own accord. One writer adopts the Canon’s analogy of the gatekeeper to illustrate this principle, saying that “[J]ust as the presence of the gatekeeper prevents those not entitled from entering the town so too the presence of well-established sati prevents the arising of unwholesome associations and reactions at the sense doors.” In other words, the gatekeeper doesn’t have to be wise or experienced. He just has to sit there. The enemy, on seeing him, will know enough to stay away.
This explanation implies that the path factors of right effort and right concentration are unnecessary, and in some cases detrimental to the path, for their purposeful activity would interfere with the skillful effects of pure receptivity. This is one of the reasons why so much of the modern literature on mindfulness is devoted to making a clear distinction between mindfulness and concentration, and arguing that the four jhānas—the standard definition of right concentration—are not a necessary part of the path. Other modern accounts depict right effort and right mindfulness as two distinct paths.
However, the notion that the qualities of the mind, when simply observed, will naturally tend toward the skillful ignores the Buddha’s observation that the mind will feel dispassion for some causes of stress simply by observing them, but not for all. Many of the most tenacious causes require serious exertion and conscious fabrication.
Some theorists argue that the power of pure receptivity is in line with the Buddha’s understanding of mindfulness by citing this passage from DN 22:
“Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” — DN 22
This, the argument goes, is a synopsis of how mindfulness is to be practiced—just to the extent of knowledge and remembrance, allowing skillful and unskillful qualities to sort themselves out as they arise. However, as the “or” at the beginning of the passage suggests, this is simply one alternative way in which mindfulness can be practiced. As we will see in Chapter Eight, this passage follows on standard descriptions of two other, more basic alternatives: the establishings of mindfulness and the development of the establishings of mindfulness. As we have already noted in Chapter Two, those two stages involve conscious effort in developing and abandoning. Only when they have been completed is the mind ready for the equipoise described in this passage. So the argument based on interpreting this passage as a synopsis encompassing the entirety of mindfulness practice cannot stand.
At the same time, some theorists explain the power of pure receptivity by maintaining that as long as the mind doesn’t react to sensory data, no fabrications are created. In other words, non-reactivity is an unfabricated state—or, in the words of a popular modern teaching, “A moment of mindfulness is a moment of nibbāna.” This, however, misses the fact that non-reactivity—whether termed “mindfulness” or “equanimity”—is something willed through intention. To assume that either mindfulness or equanimity is unfabricated prevents the mind from seeing how it’s actually fabricating these qualities in the present moment. This would simply continue the sort of ignorance that lies at the root of suffering and stress. At the same time, this assumption erases any distinction between the path and the goal—a confusion that would effectively prevent any level of awakening from happening.
Other theorists, rather than trying to explain the multiple effects of bare attention, simply state that mindfulness is mysterious. Given that the purpose of insight is to penetrate the functioning of fabrication, this explanation offers no insight at all.
So none of the theories offered for the idea that pure receptivity, on its own, can perform the functions of the path provide a satisfactory explanation for why they should be adopted. Because their approach places severe limitations on the range of strategies that can be used to induce dispassion, there is no practical reason for adopting them, either.
The second explanation for how mindfulness—as a non-interfering, non-judgmental state of mind—can perform multiple functions on the path is that mindfulness itself does not perform these functions. Instead, it provides an objective basis of clear knowing on which the other factors of the path can perform their separate functions.
This explanation bears some resemblance to the canonical explanation of mindfulness, the difference being that it attributes to mindfulness a role similar to that allotted by the canonical explanation to alertness: knowing what’s going on in the mind, knowing what you’re doing, and allowing for other factors of the path to function effectively. However, this theory is still burdened with the two main difficulties we noted above concerning the idea of bare attention: first, the question of whether a non-interfering, non-judgmental mind state can still be regarded as non-interfering and non-judgmental in the presence of the interference and judgments needed for such path factors as right view, right effort, or right concentration; second, the question of whether such a purely receptive mind state actually exists.
Some theorists combine both these modern explanations, arriving at a strategy similar to the one described in MN 101: using non-reactive awareness to deal with some causes of stress, and more active factors to deal with others. For this reason, there would seem to be little practical difference between this combined theory and the canonical explanation. The only difference would appear to be semantic, simply a matter of moving the terms around.
But semantic issues can have practical consequences. If mindfulness is defined as alertness, there is no term in the satipaṭṭhāna formula to account for the role of memory in the practice. Even if we were to accept the modern contention that mindfulness training is aimed only at one dimension of time—the present—it’s hard to see how training in mindfulness would not need to encompass the other two dimensions of time as well: the future for motivation, and the past for guidance. Remembering what to do and why you’re doing it is an important part of sticking with any practice.
This point is illustrated, ironically, by a comment made by a teacher who holds to the definition of mindfulness as awareness of the present: that mindfulness is easy; it’s remembering to be mindful that’s hard. It would be strange if the Buddha did not account for one of the hardest parts of mindfulness practice in his instructions. To leave the role of memory unstated is to leave it unclear in the mind of the practitioner, driven underground where it becomes hidden from honest inquiry.
Perhaps it’s to compensate for this deficiency that some modern theorists go one step further to combine the modern explanations with the canonical explanation into a single theory. In one version of this combined theory, mindfulness functions both as memory and as bare awareness, although bare awareness as a broad, open state of mind is its overarching function: “As a mental quality, sati represents the deliberate cultivation and a qualitative improvement of the receptive awareness that characterizes the initial stages of the perceptual process. Important aspects of sati are bare and equanimous receptivity, combined with an alert, broad, and open state of mind.… Sati is not really defined as memory, but as that which facilitates and enables memory.… Based on the nuance of ‘breadth of mind’, sati can be understood to represent the ability to simultaneously maintain in one’s mind the various elements and facets of a particular situation. This can be applied to both the faculty of memory and to awareness of the present moment.”
This explanation, however, rather than clarifying the processes at work on the path, actually creates more confusion. It conflates within one word a set of functions that the Buddha allots to three: mindfulness, attention, and alertness. And it’s still burdened with the two main difficulties shared by all theories based on the idea of bare attention: first, the question of whether a purely receptive, non-interfering mind state can still be regarded as receptive and non-interfering if it’s functioning together with a more purposeful activity; second, the question of whether such a mind state actually exists.
In contrast, the canonical description, taken on its own terms, has the advantage of not being burdened by the conceptual difficulties of the modern definition of mindfulness. It doesn’t have to explain the possibility of purely receptive awareness. Instead of pointing attention away from the role of memory, desire, and fabrication in preconditioning sensory contact, it points straight at that role, allowing for greater insight. At the same time, it uses that role to a skillful end: employing memory, desire, and fabrication to put a genuine end to suffering and stress. Instead of encompassing many different functions under one word, it employs a precise, detailed vocabulary that aids in a precise command of the various factors that need to be combined and harmonized along the path.
More importantly, because it explains meditation in the same terms that the Canon uses to explain the process of dependent co-arising, and because this process is supposed to be discovered in the course of meditation, the canonical description is an aid to liberating insight. It shows how the activity of meditation itself provides examples of the mental activities that need to be understood to put an end to suffering and stress. This is surely one of the most basic requirements for any theory that sets out to clarify how meditation works.
But above all, the canonical description is fully in keeping with the Buddha’s stated focus for his teaching. Instead of trying to provide an objective description of all reality, he focused on only two things: stress and the ending of stress (SN 22:86). Instead of denying the purposeful nature of all experience—or searching for a purely passive awareness, receptive to scientific or objective Truth—he took up the purposeful nature of experience, already aimed at happiness, and harnessed it to the purpose of finding a true happiness, a true end to stress. The difference in these two approaches may be subtle, but it’s important. Mindfulness, as defined in the Canon, helps to accomplish the Buddha’s purpose not only by keeping it in mind, but also by remembering what to do and what not to do, and how to see things in order to actually bring that purpose about. At the same time, mindfulness as memory helps to keep in mind the standards by which the results of the practice are to be assessed in a truly reliable way.
These are some of the reasons—both conceptual and practical—why the modern explanations of mindfulness are actually inferior to the explanation given in the Canon, and why they should be put aside when looking at what the Canon has to say.