The word ‘mindfulness’ as an indication for a meditation system found its entry in the west when John Kabat-Zinn started his program of ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979.
Since then, mindfulness has been used by therapists in the treatment of stress, pain, anxiety, etc. It has also found it’s way into companies and there are now many books that link mindfulness to daily activities such as cooking, flower arranging, walking, working, etc.
The mindfulness phenomenon has become big business. However, mindfulness has its origins in the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. There it has a very prominent place in the way that leads to liberation from suffering.
Modern ‘mindfulness’ is completely detached from this deep doctrine in order to make it more accessible for Western people.
For the record, there is nothing wrong with the use of mindfulness as therapy. However, when one begins with the Buddhist path to liberation through samatha meditation, ‘mindfulness’ takes on a different charge.
We start with the translation ‘mindfulness’. This is a translation of the Buddhist term sati.
I believe it is this aspect of sati that provides the connection between its two primary canonical meanings: as memory and as lucid awareness of present happenings. Sati makes the apprehended object stand forth vividly and distinctly before the mind. When the object being cognized pertains to the past-when it is apprehended as something that was formerly done, perceived, or spoken-its vivid presentation takes the form of memory. When the object is a bodily process like in-and-out breathing or the act of walking back and forth, or when it is a mental event like a feeling or thought, its vivid presentation takes the form of lucid awareness of the present.
In the Pali suttas, sati has still other roles in relation to meditation but these reinforce its characterization in terms of lucid awareness and vivid presentation. For example, the texts include as types of mindfulness recollection of the Buddha (buddhānussati), contemplation of the repulsiveness of the body (asubhasaññā), and mindfulness of death (maraṇasati); for each brings its objective domain vividly before the mind. The Mettā Sutta even refers to meditation on lovingkindness as a kind of mindfulness. In each of these cases, the object is a conceptual phenomenon-the qualities of the Buddha, the repulsiveness of the body, the inevitability of death, or lovable living beings-yet the mental pose that attends to them is designated mindfulness. What unites them, from the side of the subject, is the lucidity and vivacity of the act of awareness, and from the side of the object, its vivid presentation.
Sati is often divided into four Satipaṭṭhāna s, i.e. four foundations of conscious attention. These are four distinct areas on which attention can focus to develop sati. The four are body, sensation, awareness and dhamas.
We will not go further into these four here but refer to the excellent account of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta by Bhikkhu Analaya in his book Satipatthana, the Direct Path to Realization or our own tekst Mindfulness According to the Buddha.
The Role of Sati in the Development of Samādhi
Ahba teaches that sati cannot be seen separately from samādhi (concentration).
Sati should be practised as often as possible during the day. If you have weak sati you get low concentration, firm sati gives high concentration.
You should therefore always know your mind, knowing where it is, and during meditation keep the mind focused on the meditation object.
Sati is not the goal in itself but one of the factors of the process.
Many people tell us that the Buddha taught two different types of meditation — mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness meditation, they say, is the direct path, while concentration practice is the scenic route that you take at your own risk because it’s very easy to get caught there and you may never get out. But when you actually look at what the Buddha taught, he never separates these two practices. They are both parts of a single whole. Every time he explains mindfulness and its place in the path, he makes it clear that the purpose of mindfulness practice is to lead the mind into a state of Right Concentration — to get the mind to settle down and to find a place where it can really feel stable, at home, where it can look at things steadily and see them for what they are.
Sati, whether you translate it with mindfulness, lucid awareness or conscious attention is thus an important part of the entire Buddhist path of morality, concentration and wisdom that leads to the release from desire, complete liberation.
This text was previously published in Samatha Meditation: Foundation for Insight.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276