Buddhism · Meditation

What is the real meaning of Mindfulness?

“Mindfulness of Breathing, monks, cultivated and regularly practiced, is of great fruit and great benefit. Mindfulness of Breathing, cultivated and regularly practiced, brings to Perfection the four Foundations of Mindfulness. The four Foundations of Mindfulness, cultivated and regularly practiced, bring the seven Factors of Enlightenment to perfection; the seven Factors of Enlightenment, cultivated and regularly practiced, bring wisdom and deliverance to perfection.” – Anapanasati Sutra

After my little rant about the latest mindfulness craze I thought it would be a good idea to restore some context to the subject. So I hit the books to find out more, and remind myself what I’m supposed to be doing when I sit and watch my breath.

In the dictionary, the word mindfulness is defined as the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” But it can also refer to various practices in different traditions that are designed to improve your quality of attention or awareness. The way the word is used in modern mindfulness practices usually refers to paying attention in the moment without judging, but as we’ll see, there may be more to it that.

Buddha statue meditating
Pay attention!

What the Buddha Taught

The word mindfulness originates from a translation of the Pali word sati which means ‘awareness’. It comes from the Theravada tradition which is thought to be the closest to what the Buddha originally taught. The Anapanasati sutra teaches how to watch the breath, and that leads to the perfection of the Foundation of Mindfulness, found in the Satipatthana sutra.

Buddha used the terms sati and sampajanna in his instructions for vipassana (insight meditation) and samatha (tranquillity meditation), as well as the terms manasikara, appamada, and atappa, which are all necessary components to the practice of mindfulness. Here’s a handy table with translations for these words:

Pali term English translation
anapanasati mindfulness of breathing
appamada heedfulness/vigilance/conscious awareness
atappa ardency
manasikara attention/bare attention
samatha calm/tranquillity
sampajanna clear comprehension
sati awareness/mindfulness/recollection
satipatthana foundation of mindfulness
vipassana insight/introspection

To make things even more confusing, many of these words are often translated roughly as ‘mindfulness’, but used in context they refer to different aspects of our conscious experience and what is needed to bring the mind under control.

If we return to the definition of modern mindfulness practice as “present-centred non-judgemental attention” (Shinzen Young), the word that seems to fit that description is manasikara, or bare attention. Manasikara is the moment of just noticing something before you name it and start telling stories and conceptualising it. The word sati, on the other hand, means recollection or non-forgetfulness, as well as awareness or mindfulness, so it includes remembering the past as well as staying in the present moment. But mindfulness isn’t bare attention:

“The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, so mindfulness applied to the breath, for instance, involves continuous, unwavering attention to the respiration. Mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention (manasikara), but nowhere do traditional Buddhist sources equate mindfulness with such attention.” – B. Alan Wallace

Buddhism is big on cultivating positive or ‘wholesome’ mental states – that’s the purpose of meditation: to accentuate the positive and, you could say, disincentivise the negative or ‘unwholesome’ states. The problem with bare attention (manasikara) is that it’s an ethically neutral mental state. It’s not going to do you any harm, but it’s not going to do much good either. It’s kind of blank and this can lead to unwanted side effects. Keeping the mind present and blank and non-judgemental might help to quieten things down, but this detachment can lead to emotional flatness and a loss of joy. (This is one of the dangers of meditation, which we’ll look at in the next post.)

So to get the most out of your mindfulness practice you need to cultivate active awareness and for that you need other techniques beside bare attention. You might include loving kindness, compassion, and equanimity practices, for example. As B. Alan Wallace points out, you simply can’t do mindfulness using bare attention on its own:

“Some of the exercises in satipatthana, such as contemplating the anatomical parts of the body, can’t possibly be done with bare attention – for example, as satipatthana is used in the practice of mentally scanning bodily sensations. In all cases, mindfulness as it is cultivated in spiritual practice is applied with discerning intelligence, often viewing phenomena within the contexts of Buddhist categories such as the five aggregates. This is evident in the Buddha’s primary discourse on satipatthana, which goes far beyond bare attention.” – B. Alan Wallace

The Satipatthana sutra relates to the four applications of mindfulness: body, feelings, thoughts, and dharmas, and reminds us that mindfulness is usually practiced within the context of the eightfold path with the intention of achieving liberation from suffering as identified in the four noble truths.

Mindfulness isn’t just about being present and paying attention to what’s happening. It’s also about remembering the sacred texts, as in sati: to recollect, to bear in mind. It’s about looking deeper and inquiring into the nature of what it is that you’re noticing, and remembering the dharma so you can apply it to your experience.

So mindfulness doesn’t mean being ‘choicelessly aware’ of the moment. In order to label what you notice and encourage wholesome states over unwholesome ones, you must choose where you put your attention. It’s not a passive process. The idea is to recognise the nature of the mind and understand how you cause yourself suffering. Manasikara is actually yoniso manasikara, which means ‘appropriate attention’ not bare attention. So your intentions and the context in which you meditate will make a difference to the outcome.

Before you can learn to concentrate and focus the mind, you have to calm the mind down. One of the main techniques for calming the mind is watching the breath, as found in the Anapanasati sutra. Samatha means ‘tranquillity’ or ‘calm’ and includes practices that bring about samadhi, a single-pointed concentration or absorption state, and calms the mind. Samatha (pronounced “shamata”) is the main method for cultivating mindfulness, and vipassana is the practice of applying that mindfulness and the wisdom gained from the practice.

Vipassana is part of the Therevada tradition, and is sometimes known as Insight meditation. Insight doesn’t just refer to introspection, such as watching the breath or doing body scans, it also means insight into the true nature of the mind and reality. And you won’t achieve that insight if you’re using bare attention to look at things blankly without the context of the dharma teachings.

In the end, sampajanna might be a better word to describe mindfulness than satipatthana. Sampajanna means ‘clear comprehension’ or ‘full awareness’, and B. Alan Wallace defines it as ‘to know together with’ – in other words, to know what you’re doing as you’re doing it.

“And further, monks, a monk knows when he is going “I am going”; he knows when he is standing “I am standing”; he knows when he is sitting “I am sitting”; he knows when he is lying down “I am lying down”; or just as his body is disposed so he knows it.” – Satipatthana Sutra

This might all look like semantics and hair-splitting, but if you don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish, how will you know if you’re making progress? Context is king and can have a profound effect on results.

Mindfulness and meditation are now being sold as a panacea for almost every conceivable problem, with people expecting universally positive results. But there can be hidden dangers, especially if you don’t fully understand what you’re getting yourself into. Next time we’ll have a look at some of these consequences.

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8 thoughts on “What is the real meaning of Mindfulness?

  1. Very insightful and thoroughly researched. It would be good also to hear about your own direct personal experience of mindfulness, too. I think this would be of great value to your readers. I very much sympathize with your concern over the watered down nature of the mindfulness craze. My personal feeling is that I should express gratitude for the fact that people are at least becoming more broadly aware of this very important concept in whatever they are capable of conceiving it. If they get it off the back of a cereal box, from a two-bit pop psyche guru, I don’t think that would hurt either. Surely it would be better than nothing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Lee. I know what you mean about any exposure to the teachings being a good thing, in a way – at least it’s something. And maybe it will be enough to get them interested in digging a little deeper.

      As to my own experiences – well, most of the time I practice mindfulness whenever I remember to pay attention. Sometimes that’s quite a lot of time, sometimes I forget completely – but then there are consequences and I get cranky, and then I remember to practice. I mention my experiences with meditation on and off through the posts on this blog, but I don’t know about writing one post specifically about that and only that. Might be a bit dull. Mostly meditation is just sitting and breathing – there isn’t much more I can say.

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  2. Sadly, as I discovered when I bought a Pali-English dictionary, translations lose a lot in the – err – translation. Of course you can’t find original Buddhist sources that equate manasikara with mindfulness. Original Buddhist sources don’t contain the word ‘mindfulness’.

    Mindfulness is obviously an activity, while insight, calm, comprehension, etc are outcomes. That should offer some insight(?) into how inadequate all of these translations are.

    The truth of the matter is that like so many other attempts to translate precise technical terms between languages that don’t map onto each other you just ain’t gonna get there by throwing more words at it. At least with, say, German psychological terms, there is considerable cultural overlap to help out those who aren’t native German speakers. I don’t care how adept at text torturing B. Alan Wallace is, I don’t believe he (or anyone else) knows enough about the cultural context from which original Buddhism arises to be able to pin down the original Pali (or archaic Prakrit).

    The only hope you’ve got is to practice (a lot), check out the results, then retrofit your best guess about the outcomes to the techniques that seemed to lead to them. And when you do that the words aren’t very important anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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