By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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.
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 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.
When 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.
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 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.
It 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 there.
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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.
Mindfulness 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 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.
Mindfulness 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.
Three Fundamental Activities
There are three fundamental activities of Mindfulness. We can use these activities as functional definitions of the term: (1) Mindfulness reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing; (2) it sees things as they really are; and (3) it sees the deep nature of all phenomena. Let’s examine these definitions in greater detail.
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”.
Mindfulness 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 attention.
Mindfulness 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 thing.
Mindfulness sees things as they really are. It 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.
Mindfulness 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.
When 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 arbitrary. 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 inherently unsuitable 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 Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta (impermanent, unsatisfactory, and self-less). 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 the effort.
Mindfulness (Sati) and Insight (Vipassana) Meditation
Mindfulness 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.
The 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 are very human and we 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.
Deeply 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.
These 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 measure.
Fully 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.
This 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.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (b. 1927) is a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk. He is abbot of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, US.
By Henepola Gunaratana
M. Smith, an Amazon reviewer, writes:
“Mindfulness in Plain English is one the very best books written as an introduction to mindfulness and Buddhist meditation. It is far more than simply in introduction to meditation. It is a masterfully explained ‘how to’ handbook, a nuts and bolts kind of map, that walks you through how to meditate and deal with the many typical obstacles which virtually all people deal with as they begin and progress. What sets this book apart from other leading books in this category, is that Bhante Gunaratana is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, classicly trained and ordained in the form of practice he calls Vipassana, which places great emphasis on mindfulness. He explains, ‘Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta, a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself.’
“Bhante Gunaratana writes with a very engaging and relaxed style, which makes the book easy to follow and even humorous at times. He speaks with candor and right from the beginning he emphasizes that, ‘Meditation is not easy. It takes time and energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline.’ But, then he goes on to emphasize that meditation should be rejuvenating and liberating, and in fact, that most seasoned practitioners have a good sense of humor, because the practice creates a calmness and relaxed perspective about life. The author’s explanations about key concepts is stated in a fresh manner, for instance explaining that the word ‘suffering’ in Buddhism needs to be thoroughly understood to realize that in the original Pali language it does not just mean agony of the body, but that it also means a sense of dissatisfaction that is typical of what all people deal with on a daily basis. He also emphasizes that Vipassana, unlike some other Buddhist traditions, ranks mindfulness and awareness right up beside concentration as a means to liberation. Thus a great part of the focus of meditation is a combination of concentration and mindfulness.”
This page was published on April 14, 2001 and last revised on June 10, 2017.