What REALLY is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is translated from the word 'sati', which literally means “memory”. It is the process of remembering to be attentive.
There is currently a debate going on within the realm of mindfulness between secularized (non-Buddhist) approaches and approaches rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Over the last decade, the popularity of mindfulness has grown to the extent that there are now numerous mindfulness meditation programs taking place in schools, companies and even in military institutions. However, many Buddhist scholars and practitioners feel that these programs have become so far removed from the Buddhist foundations which mindfulness is built upon, that the meditations done during them can no longer really even be called “mindfulness”.
There are numerous reasons why most mindfulness programs choose to take a secularized (non-Buddhist) approach towards mindfulness. One is that in order for it to be accepted in Western schools and institutions, it needs to be presented without religious connotations. Likewise, the benefits of mindfulness wanted to be presented in a scientific way: with an emphasis on its ability to improve its practitioners focus and attention regulation. However, what this has meant is that the wider benefits of mindfulness, such as its impact on compassion, connection and morality have often been left to one side.
Secularized mindfulness programs usually define mindfulness as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. This is definitely part of mindfulness practice but it is by no means the entirety of the practice. Thich Nhat Hanh (2012), a Buddhist monk who is widely accepted as a pioneer for bringing mindfulness to the West, argues that mindfulness is not just about being aware in the present moment, but rather it is a process of generating joy, happiness and meaningful connection with ourselves and those around us. The Dalia Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, also claims that mindfulness is often misunderstood as “bare attention”, but it is actually a process that should include “introspective awareness” in order to nurture and develop compassion. With numerous definitions of mindfulness being used, I think it is helpful to take a look back at how this word came to be.
"Mindfulness is not just about being aware in the present moment, but rather it is a process of generating joy, happiness and meaningful connection with ourselves and those around us."
“Mindfulness” was the word that an English-born Pali scholar used when he was translating the original Buddhist texts into English for the first time. The word he was translating was “sati”, which literally means “memory”: it is the process of remembering to be attentive. The opposite of “sati” (mindfulness) is forgetfulness. With forgetfulness, we forget to live in the present, we forget the lessons we’ve learned from the past, we forget our interconnected nature to all things, we forget to live a life full of compassion and kindness, we forget our purpose.
“Sati” is the type of memory that can be trained and cultivated. When we are living mindfully, we are not only living in the present but we are remembering who we truly are and living in accordance to the values that we hold; values that for Buddhists are defined by the principles of loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.
Mindfulness programs that focus purely on enhancing attention regulation abilities are doing a disservice to the potential that mindfulness practice holds. It is a practice that has the ability to cultivate so much more than just living in the present, for if done fully it can help us look deeply and remember who and what we truly are.
If you are interested in exploring the Buddhist foundations of mindfulness and how to practice mindfulness in a way that goes beyond increasing bare attention I recommend 3 books:
Breath, You Are Alive – by Thich Nhat Hanh is a great introduction to the 16 steps of Mindful Breathing
The Mindfulness of Breathing – by Bhikkhu Analayo who takes a deeper dive into the 16 steps of Mindful Breathing with some really interesting metaphors and approaches.
Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness – by Edo Shonin, William Van Gordon, and Nirbhay Singh. This is more of a series of academic papers exploring the differences between secular mindfulness and mindfulness with Buddhist foundations.