is the English translation of the Pali word Sati. Sati
is an activity. What exactly is that? There can be no precise
answer, at least not in words. Words are devised by the symbolic
levels of the mind and they describe those realities with which
symbolic thinking deals. Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is
not shackled to logic. Nevertheless, Mindfulness can be experienced
-- rather easily -- and it can be described, as long as you
keep in mind that the words are only fingers pointing at the
moon. They are not the thing itself. The actual experience lies
beyond the words and above the symbols. Mindfulness could be
describes in completely different terms than will be used here
and each description could still be correct.
is a subtle process that you are using at this very moment.
The fact that this process lies above and beyond words does
not make it unreal--quite the reverse. Mindfulness is the reality
which gives rise to words--the words that follow are simply
pale shadows of reality. So, it is important to understand that
everything that follows here is analogy. It is not going to
make perfect sense. It will always remain beyond verbal logic.
But you can experience it. The meditation technique called Vipassana
(insight) that was introduced by the Buddha about twenty-five
centuries ago is a set of mental activities specifically aimed
at experiencing a state of uninterrupted Mindfulness.
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 stage of Mindfulness. Ordinarily,
this stage is very short. It is that flashing split second just
as you focus your eyes on the thing, just as you focus your
mind on the thing, just before you objectify it, clamp down
on it mentally and segregate it from the rest of existence.
It takes place just before you start thinking about it--before
your mind says, "Oh, it's a dog." That flowing, soft-focused
moment of pure awareness is Mindfulness. In that brief flashing
mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing. You experience
a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked
with the rest of reality, not separate from it. Mindfulness
is very much like what you see with your peripheral vision as
opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision. Yet this
moment of soft, unfocused, awareness contains a very deep sort
of knowing that is lost as soon as you focus your mind and objectify
the object into a thing. In the process of ordinary perception,
the Mindfulness step is so fleeting as to be unobservable. We
have developed the habit of squandering our attention on all
the remaining steps, focusing on the perception, recognizing
the perception, labeling it, and most of all, getting involved
in a long string of symbolic thought about it. That original
moment of Mindfulness is rapidly passed over. It is the purpose
of the above mentioned Vipassana (or insight) meditation to
train us to prolong that moment of awareness.
this Mindfulness is prolonged by using proper techniques, you
find that this experience is profound and it changes your entire
view of the universe. This state of perception has to be learned,
however, and it takes regular practice. Once you learn the technique,
you will find that Mindfulness has many interesting aspects.
Characteristics of Mindfulness
is mirror-thought. It reflects only what is presently happening
and in exactly the way it is happening. There are no biases.
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 is surprised by nothing.
One simply takes a balanced interest in things exactly as they
are in their natural states. One does not decide and does not
judge. One just observes. Please note that when we say "One
does not decide and does not judge," what we mean is that
the meditator observes experiences very much like a scientist
observing an object under the microscope without any preconceived
notions, only to see the object exactly as it is. In the same
way the meditator notices impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and
is psychologically impossible for us to objectively observe
what is going on within us if we do not at the same time accept
the occurrence of our various states of mind. This is especially
true with unpleasant states of mind. In order to observe our
own fear, we must accept the fact that we are afraid. We can't
examine our own depression without accepting it fully. The same
is true for irritation and agitation, frustration and all those
other uncomfortable emotional states. You can't examine something
fully if you are busy reflecting its existence. Whatever experience
we may be having, Mindfulness just accepts it. It is simply
another of life's occurrences, just another thing to be aware
of. No pride, no shame, nothing personal at stake--what is there,
is an impartial watchfulness. It does not take sides. It does
not get hung up in what is perceived. It just perceives. Mindfulness
does not get infatuated with the good mental states. It does
not try to sidestep the bad mental states. There is no clinging
to the pleasant, no fleeing from the unpleasant. Mindfulness
sees all experiences as equal, all thoughts as equal, all feelings
as equal. Nothing is suppressed. Nothing is repressed. Mindfulness
does not play favorites.
is nonconceptual awareness. Another English term for Sati
is 'bare attention'. It is not thinking. It does not get involved
with thought or concepts. It does not get hung up on ideas or
opinions or memories. It just looks. Mindfulness registers experiences,
but it does not compare them. It does not label them or categorize
them. It just observes everything as if it was occurring for
the first time. It is not analysis which is based on reflection
and memory. It is, rather, the direct and immediate experiencing
of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought. It
comes before thought in the perceptual process.
is present time awareness. It takes place in the here and now.
It is the observance of what is happening right now, in the
present moment. It stays forever in the present, surging perpetually
on the crest of the ongoing wave of passing time. If you are
remembering your second-grade teacher, that is memory. When
you then become aware that you are remembering your second-grade
teacher, that is mindfulness. If you then conceptualize the
process and say to yourself, "Oh, I am remembering",
that is thinking.
is non-egoistic alertness. It takes place without reference
to self. With Mindfulness one sees all phenomena without references
to concepts like 'me', 'my' or 'mine'. For example, suppose
there is pain in your left leg. Ordinary consciousness would
say, "I have a pain." Using Mindfulness, one would
simply note the sensation as a sensation. One would not tack
on that extra concept 'I'. Mindfulness stops one from adding
anything to perception, or subtracting anything from it. One
does not enhance anything. One does not emphasize anything.
One just observes exactly what is there--without distortion.
is goal-less awareness. In Mindfulness, one does not strain
for results. One does not try to accomplish anything. When one
is mindful, one experiences reality in the present moment in
whatever form it takes. There is nothing to be achieved. There
is only observation.
is awareness of change. It is observing the passing flow of
experience. It is watching things as they are changing. it is
seeing the birth, growth, and maturity of all phenomena. It
is watching phenomena decay and die. Mindfulness is watching
things moment by moment, continuously. It is observing all phenomena--physical,
mental or emotional--whatever is presently taking place in the
mind. One just sits back and watches the show. Mindfulness is
the observance of the basic nature of each passing phenomenon.
It is watching the thing arising and passing away. It is seeing
how that thing makes us feel and how we react to it. It is observing
how it affects others. In Mindfulness, one is an unbiased observer
whose sole job is to keep track of the constantly passing show
of the universe within. Please note that last point.
In Mindfulness, one watches the universe within. The meditator
who is developing Mindfulness is not concerned with the external
universe. It is there, but in meditation, one's field of study
is one's own experience, one's thoughts, one's feelings, and
one's perceptions. In meditation, one is one's own laboratory.
The universe within has an enormous fund of information containing
the reflection of the external world and much more. An examination
of this material leads to total freedom.
is participatory observation. The meditator is both participant
and observer at one and the same time. If one watches one's
emotions or physical sensations, one is feeling them at that
very same moment. Mindfulness is not an intellectual awareness.
It is just awareness. The mirror-thought metaphor breaks down
here. Mindfulness is objective, but it is not cold or unfeeling.
It is the wakeful experience of life, an alert participation
in the ongoing process of living.
is an extremely difficult concept to define in words -- not
because it is complex, but because it is too simple and open.
The same problem crops up in every area of human experience.
The most basic concept is always the most difficult to pin down.
Look at a dictionary and you will see a clear example. Long
words generally have concise definitions, but for short basic
words like 'the' and 'is', definitions can be a page long. And
in physics, the most difficult functions to describe are the
most basic--those that deal with the most fundamental realities
of quantum mechanics. Mindfulness is a pre-symbolic function.
You can play with word symbols all day long and you will never
pin it down completely. We can never fully express what it is.
However, we can say what it does.
are three fundamental activities of Mindfulness. We can use
these activities as functional definitions of the term: (a)
Mindfulness reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing;
(b) it sees things as they really are; and (c) it sees the deep
nature of all phenomena. Let's examine these definitions in
Mindfulness reminds you of what you are supposed to be doing
. In meditation, you put your attention on one item. When your
mind wanders from this focus, it is Mindfulness that reminds
you that your mind is wandering and what you are supposed to
be doing. It is Mindfulness that brings your mind back to the
object of meditation. All of this occurs instantaneously and
without internal dialogue. Mindfulness is not thinking. Repeated
practice in meditation establishes this function as a mental
habit which then carries over into the rest of your life. A
serious meditator pays bare attention to occurrences all the
time, day in, day out, whether formally sitting in meditation
or not. This is a very lofty ideal towards which those who meditate
may be working for a period of years or even decades. Our habit
of getting stuck in thought is years old, and that habit will
hang on in the most tenacious manner. The only way out is to
be equally persistent in the cultivation of constant Mindfulness.
When Mindfulness is present, you will notice when you become
stuck in your thought patterns. It is that very noticing which
allows you to back out of the thought process and free yourself
from it. Mindfulness then returns your attention to its proper
focus. If you are meditating at that moment, then your focus
will be the formal object of meditation. If your are not in
formal meditation, it will be just a pure application of bare
attention itself, just a pure noticing of whatever comes up
without getting involved--"Ah, this comes up...and now
this, and now this... and now this".
is at one and the same time both bare attention itself and the
function of reminding us to pay bare attention if we have ceased
to do so. Bare attention is noticing. It re- establishes itself
simply by noticing that it has not been present. As soon as
you are noticing that you have not been noticing, then by definition
you are noticing and then you are back again to paying bare
creates its own distinct feeling in consciousness. It has a
flavor--a light, clear, energetic flavor. Conscious thought
is heavy by comparison, ponderous and picky. But here again,
these are just words. Your own practice will show you the difference.
Then you will probably come up with your own words and the words
used here will become superfluous. Remember, practice is the
Mindfulness sees things as they really are. Mindfulness
adds nothing to perception and it subtracts nothing. It distorts
nothing. It is bare attention and just looks at whatever comes
up. Conscious thought pastes things over our experience, loads
us down with concepts and ideas, immerses us in a churning vortex
of plans and worries, fears and fantasies. When mindful, you
don't play that game. You just notice exactly what arises in
the mind, then you notice the next thing. "Ah, this...and
this...and now this." It is really very simple.
Mindfulness sees the true nature of all phenomena. Mindfulness
and only Mindfulness can perceive the three prime characteristics
that Buddhism teaches are the deepest truths of existence. In
Pali these three are called Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha
(unsatisfactoriness), and Anatta (selflessness--the absence
of a permanent, unchanging, entity that we call Soul or Self).
These truths are not present in Buddhist teaching as dogmas
demanding blind faith. The Buddhists feel that these truths
are universal and self-evident to anyone who cares to investigate
in a proper way. Mindfulness is the method of investigation.
Mindfulness alone has the power to reveal the deepest level
of reality available to human observation. At this level of
inspection, one sees the following: (a) all conditioned things
are inherently transitory; (b) every worldly thing is, in the
end, unsatisfying; and (c) there are really no entities that
are unchanging or permanent, only processes.
works like and electron microscope. That is, it operates on
so fine a level that one can actually see directly those realities
which are at best theoretical constructs to the conscious thought
process. Mindfulness actually sees the impermanent character
of every perception. It sees the transitory and passing nature
of everything that is perceived. It also sees the inherently
unsatisfactory nature of all conditioned things. It sees that
there is no sense grabbing onto any of these passing shows.
Peace and happiness cannot be found that way. And finally, Mindfulness
sees the inherent selflessness of all phenomena. It sees the
way that we have arbitrarily selected a certain bundle of perceptions,
chopped them off from the rest of the surging flow of experience
and then conceptualized them as separate, enduring, entities.
Mindfulness actually sees these things. It does not think about
them, it sees them directly.
it is fully developed, Mindfulness sees these three attributes
of existence directly, instantaneously, and without the intervening
medium of conscious thought. In fact, even the attributes which
we just covered are inherently unified. They don't really exist
as separate items. They are purely the result of our struggle
to take this fundamentally simple process called Mindfulness
and express it in the cumbersome and inadequate thought symbols
of the conscious level. Mindfulness is a process, but it does
not take place in steps. It is a holistic process that occurs
as a unit: you notice your own lack of Mindfulness; and that
noticing itself is a result of Mindfulness; and Mindfulness
is bare attention; and bare attention is noticing things exactly
as they are without distortion; and the way they are is impermanent
(Anicca) , unsatisfactory (Dukkha), and selfless
(Anatta). It all takes place in the space of a few mind-moments.
This does not mean, however, that you will instantly attain
liberation (freedom from all human weaknesses) as a result of
your first moment of Mindfulness. Learning to integrate this
material into your conscious life is another whole process.
And learning to prolong this state of Mindfulness is still another.
They are joyous processes, however, and they are well worth
(Sati) and Insight (Vipassana) Meditation
is the center of Vipassana Meditation and the key to the whole
process. It is both the goal of this meditation and the means
to that end. You reach Mindfulness by being ever more mindful.
One other Pali word that is translated into English as Mindfulness
is Appamada , which means non-negligence or an absence
of madness. One who attends constantly to what is really going
on in one's mind achieves the state of ultimate sanity.
Pali term Sati also bears the connotation of remembering.
It is not memory in the sense of ideas and pictures from the
past, but rather clear, direct, wordless knowing of what is
and what is not, of what is correct and what is incorrect, of
what we are doing and how we should go about it. Mindfulness
reminds the meditator to apply his attention to the proper object
at the proper time and to exert precisely the amount of energy
needed to do the job. When this energy is properly applied,
the meditator stays constantly in a state of calm and alertness.
As long as this condition is maintained, those mind-states call
"hindrances" or "psychic irritants" cannot
arise--there is no greed, no hatred, no lust or laziness. But
we all are human and we do err. Most of us err repeatedly. Despite
honest effort, the meditator lets his Mindfulness slip now and
then and he finds himself stuck in some regrettable, but normal,
human failure. It is Mindfulness that notices that change. And
it is Mindfulness that reminds him to apply the energy required
to pull himself out. These slips happen over and over, but their
frequency decreases with practice. Once Mindfulness has pushed
these mental defilements aside, more wholesome states of mind
can take their place. Hatred makes way for loving kindness,
lust is replaced by detachment. It is Mindfulness which notices
this change, too, and which reminds the Vipassana meditator
to maintain that extra little mental sharpness needed to keep
these more desirable states of mind. Mindfulness makes possible
the growth of wisdom and compassion. Without Mindfulness they
cannot develop to full maturity.
buried in the mind, there lies a mental mechanism which accepts
what the mind perceives as beautiful and pleasant experiences
and rejects those experiences which are perceived as ugly and
painful. This mechanism gives rise to those states of mind which
we are training ourselves to avoid--things like greed, lust,
hatred, aversion, and jealousy. We choose to avoid these hindrances,
not because they are evil in the normal sense of the word, but
because they are compulsive; because they take the mind over
and capture the attention completely; because they keep going
round and round in tight little circles of thought; and because
they seal us off from living reality.
hindrances cannot arise when Mindfulness is present. Mindfulness
is attention to present time reality, and therefore, directly
antithetical to the dazed state of mind which characterizes
impediments. As meditators, it is only when we let our Mindfulness
slip that the deep mechanisms of our mind take over -- grasping,
clinging and rejecting. Then resistance emerges and obscures
our awareness. We do not notice that the change is taking place
-- we are too busy with a thought of revenge, or greed, whatever
it may be. While an untrained person will continue in this state
indefinitely, a trained meditator will soon realize what is
happening. It is Mindfulness that notices the change. It is
Mindfulness that remembers the training received and that focuses
our attention so that the confusion fades away. And it is Mindfulness
that then attempts to maintain itself indefinitely so that the
resistance cannot arise again. Thus, Mindfulness is the specific
antidote for hindrances. It is both the cure and the preventive
developed Mindfulness is a state of total non-attachment and
utter absence of clinging to anything in the world. If we can
maintain this state, no other means or device is needed to keep
ourselves free of obstructions, to achieve liberation from our
human weaknesses. Mindfulness is non-superficial awareness.
It sees things deeply, down below the level of concepts and
opinions. This sort of deep observation leads to total certainty,
and complete absence of confusion. It manifests itself primarily
as a constant and unwavering attention which never flags and
never turns away.
pure and unstained investigative awareness not only holds mental
hindrances at bay, it lays bare their very mechanism and destroys
them. Mindfulness neutralizes defilements in the mind. The result
is a mind which remains unstained and invulnerable, completely
unaffected by the ups and downs of life.