Over the last few months, I have tried to explore a gentle critique of one modern, popular definition of mindfulness. While formulating this critique (here, here, and here), I’ve been wrestling with an attempt to update the definition.
One of the issues I’m having is that, on it’s own, mindfulness is a fragmented piece of a larger process. If we look at the kind of meditation that the Buddha described in the suttas, we see that he uses the term bhavana for meditation. Bhavana commonly translates as “development.”
Meditation is a mental training that develops many aspects of attention — all of which are in service of freedom, peace and happiness.
And this developmental process is holistic. It’s not just one skill alone that leads to freedom. There are many factors that develop, support and reinforce each other along the path of realization. Mindfulness, itself, is one skill, among many, that supports this development.
In the Discourse on Four Ways to Establish Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta), the Buddha gives a sense of this holistic process. Here are his instructions for how to attend to our experience, emphasizing some of the different qualities of attention necessary for success:
“A meditator remains focused on the body in an of itself — ardent, alert, and mindful — putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.”
The American monk, Thanisarro Bhikkhu unpacks this teaching in his essay, The Agendas of Mindfulness:
Each of the terms in this formula is important. “Remaining focused” can also be translated as “keeping track.” This refers to the element of concentration in the practice, as you hold on to on particular theme or frame of reference amid the conflicting currents of experience. “Ardent” refers to the effort you put into the practice, trying to abandon unskillful states of mind and develop skillful ones in their stead, all the while trying to discern the difference between the two. “Alert” means clearly aware of what’s happening in the present. “Mindful” means being able to remember or recollect. Sometimes mindfulness is translated as non-reactive awareness, free from agendas, simply present with whatever arises, but the formula for the satipatthana doesn’t support that translation. Non-reactive awareness is actually part of equanimity, on of many qualities fostered in the course of satipatthana, but the ardency involved in satipatthana definitely has an agenda, a task to be done, while the role of mindfulness is to keep your task in mind.
It may surprise some of you to see mindfulness defined in such a circumscribed way: “being able to remember or recollect.” But in the satipatthana teaching, nested among other important qualities of mind (concentration, ardency, clarity), mindfulness serves the roll of “remembering to hold something in mind,” and is part of a much deeper holistic development.
My sense is that modern teachers, in their effort to secularize the practice, have absorbed these other qualities of attention into their operative definition of mindfulness. And that’s ok.
But I have found it very beneficial to consider the holistic dynamics at play between all the various factors of awakening. Perhaps you will, too!
Originally published on July 1, 2015