At home through an app, at your yoga class or at work, mindfulness ‘without Buddhism‘ can be found everywhere these days. Usually it is taught as a form of meditation by people who have followed an appropriate teachers course. Sometimes there remains a vague notion where mindfulness originally comes from, sometimes the source is simply forgotten or is actively ignored.
For people who see mindfulness as a relaxation exercise, or practice mindfulness in therapy form, there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you are looking for real depth in your meditation, for wisdom and insight in regard to the workings of your own mind and the world, then you may be deceived by this view.
The mindfulness meditation techniques are essentially derived from the Buddhist sati (usually translated as ‘mindfulness’ but also as for example bare attention or conscious attention). Sati has slowly but surely been adopted and adapted while making its journey to the West, on the one hand this madie it more appealing to a wider audience, but on the other hand in doing so it has lost much of its foundation, the context and depth of the complete Buddhist practice.
The latter is not without consequences. By seeing mindfulness as a separate entity and removing the original framework in which it had its place, there is a limit to the practice. That is to say, at some point you can no longer reach a deeper level in your meditation. It is as if you want to build a house with only one wall, sooner or later you notice that you can’t put up a roof, let alone furnish and inhabit the house.
However, the problem is not only the lack of a foundation. There is a second side to modern mindfulness. Every now and then there are aspects of it that, from a Buddhist perspective, are not only limiting but even counterproductive.
For example, you sometimes read and hear how you can enjoy yourself more by mindfulness, for example by eating mindfully, getting a massage mindfully or walking mindfully. Mindfulness then becomes a kind of ‘carpe diem’, in the sense that it is supposed to help you mindfully get the most out of your life and the world.
That kind of ‘mindfulness’ sometimes even works explicitly by increasing pleasure and thus the underlying desire. This is at odds with the original meaning and purpose of sati as the Buddha taught it.
These inherent limitations of modern mindfulness become clearer and clearer the longer you work with it. It is therefore not strange if a mindfulness-teacher searches for other meditation systems, for example sati according to the Buddha, after practicing it for several years.
‘Mindfulness’ According to the Buddha
The sati of the Buddha is directed inwards. If you let a goat graze on a large yard it goes in all directions. If you tie the goat to a rope and the rope to a pole, the goat only grazes in a circle around the pole. The rope is like sati and the goat is like our mind. Sati keeps the mind to itself.
Sati is that which knows where the mind is, so that you do not get caught up in worldly worries. With sati you build less and less air castles, you are less absorbed with external and internal fickleness because you see it for what it is. In this way you slowly get rid of desire and the suffering that comes from it to an ever greater degree.
Sati is not passive relaxation but the watchdog of the mind that is always alert. The watchdog is constantly alert to what your mind, and by extension the body, is doing. It is therefore not strange that the practice of morality (sīla) in the form of the five precepts (pañca-sīla) is very close to sati, because a high degree of sīla requires a high degree of sati. And vice versa, a lack of sīla often stems from a lack of sati.
The Buddha taught four exercises to develop sati:
- Kāyānupassanā Satipaṭṭhāna – establishing mindfulness directed at the body. For example, the postures (including walking), breathing, material elements etc.
- Vedanānupassanā Satipaṭṭhāna – establishing mindfulness directed at feeling. That is, neutral, pleasant or unpleasant sensation (i.e. not what we call emotions)
- Cittānupassanā Satipaṭṭhāna – establishing mindfulness directed at the quality of the mind. For example, the mind is tainted by anger or not, full of desire or not, concentrated or not, loving or not, etc.
- Dhammānupassanā Satipaṭṭhāna – establishing mindfulness directed at mental states. For example, the mental hindrances, aggregates, factors of enlightenment etc.
Sati as Part of the Path
The Buddha often said that sati is very important, but when it comes to the development of the mind, he did not solely teach sati. His teaching starts with dāna (generosity), sīla (morality) and then bhāvanā (practice) including samatha meditation (concentration meditation) and then the development of vipassanā (insight). Sati is part of each of these parts, not something separate.
A nice way to see this is by looking at the bojjhaṅga (the seven factors of enlightenment) as an example. These are seven mental qualities that are essential on the Buddhist path. Only when they are balanced and developed to a very high level can you achieve complete liberation.
The seven factors are sati (mindfulness), dhammavicaya (investigation), viriya (energy), pīti (rapture), passaddhi (tranquility), samādhi (concentration) and upekkhā (equanimity).
Sati can be seen in two ways in this context. First, the development of sati is a condition for the development of dhammavicaya (investigation), and those two together are a condition for viriya (energy). These three factors in turn enable the attainment of high samādhi (concentration). This high concentration stands at the basis of the other three factors pīti (rapture), passaddhi (tranquility), and upekkhā (equanimity).
Secondly, sati is that which continuously monitors the power of the bojjhaṅga in the mind so that the balance is maintained between the activating aspects of dhammavicaya, viriya and pīti on the one hand and the calming powers of passaddhi, samādhi and upekkhā on the other hand. In this sense, sati is an important overarching quality, but not more or less important than the other factors.
The development and balance of all seven factors is important because it counteracts the mental hindrances that otherwise make true meditation impossible, and because it creates the conditions for understanding reality, the arising of wisdom. Each factor in itself has a specific role which is necessary for the eventual liberation of the mind.
Sati, Samatha and Vipassanā
When it comes to samatha meditation on buddho sati is essential. If you have little sati you can only get low concentration, if you have a lot of sati you can get high concentration, and wisdom can arise.
With sati you know whether the mind is with the meditation object or whether it has strayed to, for example, the grocery shopping that still needs to be done. Concentration in turn helps to develop the mental strength and sharpness to deepen sati much further, so that sati not only occasionally sees the rough aspects of the mind, but more and more mental moments, perhaps more than a million moments per second.
Perhaps the difference between sati and concentration is difficult to see. Sati is that aspect of the mind that knows what it is doing, samādhi is collecting and focusing the mind on an object, establishing the mind on nothing but the object so that the mind becomes calm and can see the true nature of phenomena.
As concentration becomes stronger and more independent, more emphasis is placed on the latter, which is vipassanā. Sati is then that which, supported by the steadiness and strength of concentration, can see the rise and fall of nāma-rūpa (mental processes and matter).
By seeing this in the countless moments that occur to us in a seemingly continuous stream, you become increasingly aware that everything is impermanent (anicca). You then know on an experiential level that desire is the cause of all suffering, because desire for, craving for and clinging to that which is impermanent, that is unsatisfactory (dukkha). You then see that there are only separate transient moments that are interdependent and conditioned. There is no self (anattā) that directs all this.
The more you see this, the more you let go, until you can completely let go and leave the conditioned reality behind you and perceive the unconditioned liberation Nibbāna (Nirvana).
Don’t Think Too Easy About Sati
There is a lot of talk about mindfulness. Sometimes it seems that mindfulness can be developed very quickly and easily become a part of daily life. Maybe this is actually true for modern mindfulness. For sati it certainly does not apply.
Talking about sati is easy, but actually practicing it day in and day out is very, very difficult. The Buddha once said that whoever would spend one day completely with sati would reach Nibbāna. If it were really that easy, we would all be enlightened by now.
The mistake that it is easy arises because what you can see in mental moments in the beginning is very, very limited. Before you know it, you think you are quite attentive simply because you do not perceive 99.99% of your mental moments consciously. That is of course a breeding ground for conceit, pride or misplaced arrogance. The cause of this is, as we described above, a lack of development of sati through concentration.
Speaking easy about mindfulness may also be a result of impatience and wanting too quickly. If you talk about it easily it seems as if you are fast. To nuance that a bit, take the following example.
The ancient scriptures give the example of the Reverend Tissa who constantly tried to keep his mind with his meditation object. In this way he tried to consistently know where his mind was. Whether it was during sitting concentration meditation, while walking on alms round, while eating or anything else. If he forgot his object while walking, he walked back to the point where he had last had it in his mind and continued again from there. In this way he practised day and night, day after day, and in no time he reached enlightenment.
‘In no time’, that is very fast, you might think. According to the great Commentaries this ‘in no time’ was actually 26 years. 26 years of continuous practicing mindfulness, energy, faith and concentration. Day in and day out, as a monk.
Don’t think about sati too easily. Don’t desire it too quickly. Avoid judging your own process with conceit. Do not be preoccupied with what can be achieved, with insight, with where you stand on the path. Just keep trying patiently. Every day, slowly but surely.