This is a transcript of a lecture I gave on 21 July 2018 at the Australian Meditation Conference in Melbourne.
This talk is an analysis of just one word. Sati is the Buddha’s word for ordinary, everyday attention. Sati is also translated by our more complicated and all-embracing modern word ‘mindfulness’. In this talk, I’ll go back to the source, and explain how the Buddha used the concept.
The Buddha’s text on the training of attention is called The Satipatthana Sutta, and it is still the best explanation of mindfulness available to us. It contains 13 groups of exercises for observing the body, emotions, states of mind and thought in the pursuit of Enlightenment. Because these exercises are so practical and non-mystical, they can easily be extracted from their monastic context, and adapted to our quite different 21st Century purposes.
The modern mindfulness movement and 10-day Vipassana retreats draw their authority from the Satipatthana Sutta. Unfortunately, almost no one reads it nowadays. The common translation is in Victorian English that is almost indecipherable to non-experts. As a result, modern mindfulness owes more to the Zen practice know as ‘Just Sitting’ and knows little about the Buddha’s more sophisticated approach.
So who was the Buddha? He lived 2600 years ago in Northern India. He was enormously successful in his long lifetime. He ordained thousands of monks and nuns. We also have around 3000 of his sermons, some of which are very long. We have more words attributed to the Buddha than are found in the entire Christian Bible. The Buddha was also a systematic and logical thinker. He loved to work synoptically through lists, so his teaching all cross-reference beautifully. We have no excuse for not knowing what the Buddha taught.
This immense body of work is called ‘The Pali Canon’ after the language in which it was written down. The most important Pali word in regard to meditation is sati. Sati correlates almost perfectly with our English word ‘attention’. It means being able to focus continuously on one thing without getting distracted. In addition, Sati is strongly associated with another Pali word, sampajjana, which means ‘clear understanding’ or ‘good judgment’. So Sati can be glossed as ‘the conscious perception and evaluation of something.’
Sati also corresponds well to our ordinary usage of the word ‘mindful’. To be mindful means to focus more carefully on what we are doing to avoid mistakes or improve our performance. Just like attention itself, ‘being mindful’ is selective – focusing on one thing at the expense of everything else – and goal-directed. Paying attention is the first part of the perception-action cycle of the nervous system: we see something, we evaluate what we see, and we act accordingly.
So how important is the training of attention? It is usually regarded as the first of the so-called ‘Executive Functions’ of a mature adult. It is the basis of self-control, memory, any kind of learning, everyday good judgement and planning. It is also essential for what Aristotle called eudaimonia: a satisfying, well-directed life. The Buddha would have agreed with all of this. He said, and I quote:
‘The four-stage training of attention is the only way to Enlightenment’.
The first translator of the Pali Canon was a Victorian administrator in Ceylon called T.W. Rhys Davids. It took him, his brilliant wife Caroline, and his team of translators from 1881 to 1925 to complete this colossal task.
Of those 3000 sermons, the most important one relating to meditation is The Satipatthana Sutta. (I’ll refer to this text just as the Sutta from now on). If a Western Buddhist knows any of the original texts, it is likely to be the Sutta. It is the Buddha’s own do-it-yourself, step-by-step guide to awakening.
Unfortunately, Rhys Davids chose not to use the obvious word ‘attention’ to translate ‘sati’. To the disgust of many scholars since, he invented a new English word, or possibly revived an archaic usage. This is the word we know as ‘mindfulness’. He turned the adjective ‘mindful’ into a noun. The adjective ‘mindful’ has been in the English language since the 14th Century. However it seems that the word ‘mindfulness’ as a noun starts with Rhys Davids.
It seems like a harmless invention. There is no doubt that Rhys Davids saw ‘mindfulness’ as being equivalent to ‘attention’, but with a higher sense of spiritual aspiration. Unfortunately, this means we now think of mindfulness not as attention per se, but as somehow being fused with Buddhist morality and meditation. Mindfulness became a conglomerate word: a kind of attention that includes compassion and the cultivation of tranquility.
But this was not how the Buddha saw it. He knew, as is obvious, that attention can be used for good or bad purposes. An army sniper has to be calm and focused in order to kill efficiently. The Buddha called this ‘wrong’ mindfulness (miccha-sati), but it was still mindfulness, still attention. The Buddha’s language was very sophisticated. He had other words available to describe compassion and tranquility. He didn’t need to use sati as an umbrella term.
There is another problem. Because of its Buddhist associations, it is easy to think of mindfulness as being an ideal meditative state of mind. This conception goes back to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who can rightly be regarded as the founder of modern mindfulness. Many of us would not be in this hall today if it wasn’t for his ground-breaking work. He has contributed indirectly to many of our careers. I certainly owe him a coffee or two, so thank you Jon.
Since the 1950s, 10-day Burmese-style Vipassana retreats become popular amongst Westerners. These derived directly from The Sutta, and were often called Mindfulness retreats. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn developed an 8-week therapeutic program out of the Vipassana format. So it was natural for him to call it Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR.
When he tried to explain mindfulness, however, he made a bold move. He is a Zen practitioner, and Zen is vehemently, philosophically hostile to most other Buddhist schools. That is its calling card. Zen sees itself as a special teaching transmitted from mind-to-mind, ‘outside the scriptures’, including the Pali Canon. So instead of explaining mindfulness as simple attention, Kabat-Zinn used this word as a vehicle for the most important Zen concept instead.
He used the word ‘mindfulness’ as a secular stand-in term for Sunyata, or ‘Emptiness’. This is the ideal state of mind that you try to achieve in a Zen meditation. In this state, the body and mind become very still and quiet. The mind remains alert to passing thoughts and sensation, but engages with nothing. It is ‘empty’ of elaborative thought. This state is often described somewhat extravagantly as pure awareness, or ‘bare attention’, or ‘just watching’ or as a consciousness that transcends the individual, but that is a spiritual interpretation. I think it goes beyond the evidence. Nonetheless this excellent state of mind is a common experience for good meditators. In early Buddhism, it is called not sati but passaddhi. We can translate this as ‘body-mind stillness.’
Kabat-Zinn’s definitions of mindfulness are cumbersome, but his adjectives have stuck in the modern understanding. He basically sees mindfulness as ‘a state of open, non-judgmental acceptance’ that you cultivate in meditation. This is a good working description of ‘Emptiness’ or Sunyata, but it has no obvious connection to sati. Thirty years ago, the word ‘mindfulness’ was hardly used at all, so no-one bothered that Kabat-Zinn gave it a Zen spin. In the decades since, through viral repetition, Kabat-Zinn’s description became the norm. He gave the word a vitality and a currency it had lacked before, but in the process, changed its meaning.
So let’s go back to The Satipatthana Sutta. Sati means attention, or mindfulness. Patthana means foundation or training discipline and Sutta means text or sermon. So the Sutta is usually translated as ‘The Foundations of Mindfulness’. Since it is in four parts, it is also translated as ‘The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.’
I first came across this text in 1975. I was a self-taught meditator, but the Sutta blew me away. It clarified what I was groping towards in my own practice, and mapped out possibilities that I’d never imagined. I was so impressed that I translated the Sutta from Rhys Davids’ Victorian English into my English, and memorised it. It has been the foundations of my meditation practice ever since. I have lived with it for forty three years.
Over the next decade I spent 18 months doing retreats in the Vipassana, Tibetan, Zen and Yoga traditions. In 1987, I opened the Perth Meditation Centre in Western Australia. I was dead lucky. There was a huge gap in the marketplace for a non-religious meditation teacher, and I was soon teaching 1000 people a year. The Sutta was my teacher’s manual throughout, and it helped me avoid many pitfalls.
For example, we usually assume that to meditate we have to sit still with eyes closed for several minutes at least. The Buddha said that this is just the first stage of the first of the four foundations of attention. To get stuck here, as many people do, is like being a musician who practices the scales without ever playing the music.
The Buddha did not identify “mindfulness” with a formal sit-down meditation. He saw it as a quality of discriminating attention that should be cultivated all day long, in any activity. He still recommended formal meditation, of course, but he suggested that we also do it equally well while walking, standing, and lying down. Over my years of teaching, I developed a repertoire of what I call “spot meditations” based on this versatile approach. The Sutta was the inspiration for what became the 42 exercises in my 2005 book, The 5-Minute Meditator.
Teaching meditation became my full-time career, and I’ve written seven books on the subject, but I never had any appetite for Buddhism itself. I don’t believe in karma and reincarnation, and I don’t believe that life is suffering. Nor do I believe that we attain happiness through emotional detachment and physical withdrawal from the world. Those are articles of faith in early Buddhism. So I told my students that the techniques I taught them came from the Buddha, but that I am not a Buddhist. I dislike Buddhism both as a philosophy and a religion. It clashes with too many of my Western liberal values and my natural appetites.
Throughout those years, I watched as mindfulness became more popular and thought, ‘This doesn’t look anything like what the Buddha was talking about.’ Since there is no dispute that the Sutta is the source of mindfulness, I assumed that someone more committed to Buddhism than me would eventually bring out a modern translation and commentary on the Sutta, but it never happened. I felt sorry for the Buddha. He had worked so hard to develop a lucid, systematic presentation of his teaching, but one was listening to him. I finally decided to publish my own translation and commentary, partly out of gratitude. I like to acknowledge my ancestors. This book was published in NY last year as The Foundations of Mindfulness. You can get my book from the usual sources and you can read my translation on my website.
Let me give you a quick and crude outline of the Sutta. It is in four parts, the so-called ‘four foundations’. These are mindfulness of the body, the emotions, states of mind and thought. The Buddha addressed this sermon to a group of solitary, itinerant holy men in a market town north of present-day Delhi. This is how the Sutta starts:
“When the Buddha was in the land of the Kurus, he told the monks: The systematic four-stage training of attention is the only way to overcome suffering, to purify the mind, to enter the true path and attain Enlightenment. What are these four? The monk lives intently contemplating his body, clearly understanding and mindful of it, having abandoned all desire and aversion toward the world. Likewise he lives examining his emotions, his states of mind, and his thought. He lives alone, reliant on no one, attached to nothing in the world.”
How does the monk focus on his body? He goes to the foot of a tree and establishes his attention on the breath in front of himself. He focuses on the breath; he calms the breath. He focuses on the body (as in a body-scan); he calms the body. He controls his mind and fills his body with bliss.
The monk is seeking a state of perfect internal harmony: the optimal level of arousal, muscle tone and attention for sitting upright. This is a homeostatic norm that most meditators of all traditions naturally gravitate towards. This state of body-mind stillness or passaddhi is extremely satisfying when you get there. The Buddha described it as one of the highest of all possible pleasures, and so, remarkably, did the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
The monk then does a walking meditation to and fro in front of his tree. What is he doing? Focusing on the breath. Calming the breath. Focusing on the body. Calming the body. Filling the body with bliss and controlling his mind.
At lunchtime, he does an informal walking meditation to the nearby village. The informal practices were regarded as superior to the formal ones, and walking meditations were particularly important. It was said that sitting meditation leads to tranquility, but that walking contributes more to insight.
The monk stands outside the grandest house in town. When lunch, the main meal of the day is ready, a servant will bring him food. While waiting, he does a standing meditation: calming his breath and his body and controlling his mind. The Buddha said, “If you behave like this, people will assume you are a good monk. They will give you lots of food, and you will be a credit to me.”
The monk returns to his tree, does an eating meditation and then a lying down meditation. Those were the four formal postures: sitting, walking, standing and lying down. The Buddha then tells the monk to train in them all informally, and in the activities in between, such as getting dressed and going to the toilet. The monk is seeking a state of dynamic balance, energy economy and physical flow throughout the day. His mind is becoming embedded in his body.
The second part of the Sutta is called ‘Mindfulness of Emotion’. In fact what we call emotion is spread over the second and third foundations. The second foundation is one small but crucial practice. It is about consciously isolating the valences of our perceptions.
The Buddha recognized that nearly everything that we notice, be it a thought, sensation, emotion, or action, comes with a positive or negative emotional charge. We either like or dislike the object to some degree, however small. As the Buddha said, we find it “pleasant” or “unpleasant.” Psychologists also call this the “feeling tone” or “affective tone” or the valence of a perception.
A valence is also an evaluation. It tells us how important something seems to be. This like-dislike response is an automatic, miniature judgment based on the memory of similar past experiences. All day long the valences of our perceptions steer us toward what is good and away from what is bad. The Buddha wants us to be fully conscious of this rapid, continuous activity, so we can retrain our instinctive responses to the world. This is an immensely valuable practice, and I’m sorry I can’t explain it further here.
The third foundation is ‘Mindfulness of States of Mind’. There are five bad states, and seven good ones. The five bad states of mind, the so-called ‘Hindrances’ on the path, are what we would call emotions: desire, anger, anxiety, lethargy and despair.
So a monk might recognise that he is angry, or lustful or sad. He takes control by objectifying that emotion with the use of language. As the text says: “When his mind is caught in Desire, the monk knows: ‘This is Desire.’ When his mind is free of Desire, he knows: ‘This is the mind free of Desire.’ He carefully observes how desire arises and passes away, and what causes it to do so. He learns how to extinguish desire when it arises, and how to prevent it arising in the future.”
This cool, analytic stance, by the way, is not the same as being ‘nonjudgmental and accepting’. The Buddha saw Desire and Anger as being extremely bad, the source of all misery and suffering in the world, and his teaching was designed to extinguish them completely.
Conversely, the monk is striving to cultivate the seven good meditative qualities of mind. The first is mindfulness itself, moment-to-moment self-observation. The second is Dhamma-vicaya, an intense desire to understand the nature of experience. Without this, a monk can stagnate in self-indulgent tranquility. The third is physical bliss, piti. A monk has to experience a lot of mental joy, physical pleasure and actual dopamine hits if he is going to persevere in this lengthy undertaking. The fourth is viriya, the uncomplaining determination that pushes through obstacles.
The three later states are more what we think of as meditation. Passaddhi is the body-mind stillness I mentioned before. The penultimate state is absorption or ecstasy, and the last is equanimity.
The final crowning part of the Sutta, the fourth foundation, is called Mindfulness of Thought. Nowadays we are usually encouraged to ignore thoughts in the pursuit of mental stillness. In contrast, the Buddha here asks the monk to investigate sophisticated ideas such as the Four Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Existence, the chain of interdependent origination and so on. This is nothing like watching thoughts gently pass by.
We all know the problem of useless overthinking, but the Buddha’s approach is more meditative and controlled. The old Christian term for this is ‘contemplation’. A similar modern term is ‘embodied cognition’. This is an actual meditation practice where you effectively split your attention 50-50 between the sensations of your body and the investigation of an idea.
So a monk might contemplate an idea such as ‘Life is Suffering’. He can run with that thought, but he can also stop it when he becomes too agitated. He can then break that thought down into its parts. The valence or emotional charge will tell him how important the issue seems to be. The underlying emotion will tell him why. He can also think laterally. By holding that thought still but present, his mind will automatically recruit associated memories which help put the issue into context. Throughout all this, he is waiting for moments of breakthrough insight.
Let me give you an example. I did a seven-month retreat in 1984, and one of my questions was: Shall I become a monk? Each day, I would think a little about it and then break it down into its parts: valence, emotions, associated ideas and memories, and then let them all return, slightly more processed, into the black box of my mind. I found it quite disconcerting to see how much my thoughts and feelings about the issue varied over the course of a day. Finally, it was as if all the votes had come in. I was doing a walking meditation about 200 yards from my hut, and I was stopped dead in my tracks. I knew at that moment that I would never, never, never become a monk! That option dropped off my mental list forever. That is an insight. That is the quality of strong, convincing thought that the Sutta is designed to cultivate.
I will now explain how the traditional commentators have analysed Sati. My sources are:
- Buddhaghosa’s The Path of Purification (This monumental 4th Century commentary was translated in 1991);
- Soma Thera’s 1949 book, The Way of Mindfulness;
- Nyanaponika Thera’s 1962 book, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation;
- Sayadaw U Pandita’s 1992 book, In this Very Life;
- Analayo’s 2004 book, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization;
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s 2008 article, “Mindfulness Defined”; and
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, the editor of the most authoritative translation of the texts.
There are two good ways to determine the meaning of a word. One is etymology and the other is usage. In general, usage should trump etymology. It is obvious from its usage in the Sutta that Sati corresponds very well to the English word “attention.” Sati is also intimately linked to words that mean good judgement (sampajjana), goal-directed effort (atapi), and memory. This cluster of functions matches what we understand from cognitive psychology. Attention, judgment, memory, and purpose all work together as the key executive skills of any rational adult.
The German monk Nyanaponika said: “Mindfulness is not a mystical state. It is on the contrary something quite simple and common. Under the term ‘attention’ it is one of the cardinal functions of consciousness without which there cannot be perception of any object at all.”
Mindfulness is commonly described as sustained attention. The American monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, “Continuous attention is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of your attention and the purpose of your attention in mind.” The Burmese monk U Pandita said, “The function of mindfulness is to keep the object always in view, neither forgetting it nor allowing it to disappear.” Soma Thera says, “When one is strongly mindful of an object, one plants one’s consciousness deep into it, like a post sunk into the ground.’
Buddhaghosa describes mindfulness as “seeing the object face to face.” U Pandita glosses this as “walking straight towards someone who is walking towards you.” The Buddha uses a similar full-frontal metaphor in the Sutta: ‘The monk focuses on the breath in front of himself.’ In our Western tradition, the French philosopher René Descartes likewise described meditation as holding a “clear and distinct idea” on what he thought of as “the stage of the mind.” Because this mental space is invariably imagined as being in front of the body, it implies a sense of objectivity and clarity of vision.
This feeling of holding something vividly in the spotlight is quite unmistakable once you get it. It is as if something has “clicked” into place. At the same time, the body often feels remarkably still, light and unified. That distinct feeling of lucid perception always had a similar physical/mental quality for me, no matter how big or small, durable or fleeting a particular mental object might be. This feeling of accurate perception and judgment, and the certainty it gave me, was perhaps the most valuable discovery I made on my long retreat.
To summarize, to be mindful is to pay attention to something, to hold it in mind, to hold it “in front of you,” and even “to hold it down.” The Pali texts use words like “grasp,” “apprehend,” “lock on to,” and “penetrate into” for sati.
Clear Understanding and Good Judgement. In the Pali Canon, the word sati is frequently combined with the term sampajjana into the phrase sati-sampajjana. The word sampajjana literally means the “accurate understanding” of something. In practice it means “evaluation” or “good judgment,” since this is its purpose. This phrase occurs as a refrain throughout the Sutta.
The Pali texts contain many metaphors for sati which imply judgment and discrimination. Sati is the guard at the city gate who decides who can enter and who can’t. Sati is the skillful charioteer who can steer attention and control the passions. Soma Thera says sati acts like “the Chief Adviser of a King, who is instrumental in distinguishing the good from the bad.”
Attention is never disinterested. Whenever we pay attention to anything we do so in order to consciously or implicitly evaluate it prior to a response. This evaluation or judgement is sampajjana. At an absolute minimum we have to decide “Is this useful or useless? Is this worth giving more attention to or not?” We have to make these judgment calls hundreds of times a day. Everything that grabs our attention demands a yes-or-no response. Where our attention goes, our actions invariably follow, for good or bad.
Sampajjana also means“ seeing the essence” of something. It has connotations of brightness and alertness (that is, full consciousness). It implies accuracy in judgment. For the monk, sampajjana meant recognizing what was good and bad, useful or useless, in even the smallest matters, so he could control his actions and achieve his goals. Analayo points out that sampajjana “can range from basic forms of knowing to deep discriminative understanding.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi said that he and Nyanaponika were in full agreement that sati and sampajjana are both necessary for “right mindfulness”. The functional unity of sati and sampajjana, perception and judgement, is always taken for granted by commentators. In fact, sati is frequently described as the judging faculty itself.
Nyanaponika describes sati as the “stop, look and see clearly” function that precedes intelligent action. He goes on to say, “Mind has to choose, to decide and to judge. It is one of the aims of the practice of Satipatthana that Clear Comprehension, sampajjana, should gradually become the regulative force of all our activities, bodily, verbal and mental.”
Let’s summarize where we are up to. Sati means sustained attention. Sampajjana means evaluation or judgment based on an accurate understanding of the object. The word sati, just like the English word “attention,” always implies an evaluative purpose, but sati-sampajjana spells it out unequivocally. Sati-sampajjana thus means “to hold an object in mind in order to accurately evaluate it prior to a response.”
Memory. It is obvious from its usage that sati correlates almost perfectly to our English word “attention.” Nonetheless, its etymological root is actually “memory” which has confused many modern writers. Let me try to unravel this.
Firstly, sati refers to what cognitive psychologists call “working memory.” If we can hold an object in mind for long enough, we will be able to recall it later as a resource. This is essential for any kind of learning or training, and the Sutta is nothing if not a discipline for character training.
Secondly, sati means remembering our good and bad experiences in order to learn from them. It was regarded as essential for moral training.
Thirdly, sati means memory in the sense of “keeping in mind” one’s goals and intentions. This is a very ordinary cognitive skill. It involves remembering what you are doing so that you don’t get sidetracked en route. It also means keeping our long term goals in mind against the temptation for more immediate gratification. This function of sati correlates with the Christian practice of ‘recollection’ or remembrance. In other words, sati intimately involved important issues relating to the past and future, and did not narrowly confine itself to present moment sensory experience.
Purposeful Effort. There is another aspect of sati that is definitely lacking from the modern understanding. A monk is aspiring to total Enlightenment, which takes enormous effort. As a result, sati is frequently linked with words that mean “intense, ardent, persistent.”
The Burmese monk U Pandita says, “‘Mindfulness’ has come to be the accepted translation of sati into English. However, this word has a kind of passive connotation that can be misleading. ‘Mindfulness’ must be dynamic and confrontative. I teach that mindfulness should leap forward onto the object, covering it completely, penetrating into it.’”
This approach may seem extreme, but you can see his point. The Pali word atapi means the capacity for intense mental effort in pursuit of a goal. With atapi, a goal is always implied, or its energy would be destructive.
When we combine perception, judgement, memory and effort into a training discipline, we have vipassana, a term that literally means “repeated deep seeing.” Vipassana is sometimes translated as “penetrating insight,” which suggests the kind of purposeful drive that is reflected in U Pandita’s comments.
Mindful versus Mindless. The Buddha understood sati as discriminating self-observation for the purpose of awakening. The Satipatthana method cultivates the mental skills of attention, good judgement and goal directed effort. The immediate purpose of sati is to make good decisions in all matters, big or small. The ultimate purpose is to develop a mind capable of productive, intuitive, embodied thought in the pursuit of a better life.
So how did mindfulness come to be viewed as “a state of open, nonjudgmental acceptance”? Today’s writers are likely to describe it as savoring the present, tasting the raisin, firmly resisting the lure of thought and action. As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “You are already everything you may hope to attain, so no effort of the will is necessary. . . . You are already it.”
Although this is nothing like satipatthana, we do find it throughout Buddhism, almost from the beginning. These are the so-called “tranquility” or “no-thought” or samadhi practices based almost entirely on sitting. Despite their intellectual poverty, their practitioners typically regard them as being the very quintessence of the Buddha’s teaching. In contrast, many scholars, monks, and the Buddha himself have criticized the excessive emphasis on tranquillity practices as being more mindless than mindful, more narcotic rather than enlightening. And I agree. I know from my time-wasting youth, that the pursuit of tranquility can easily become addictive and escapist.
Nowadays, meditation is commonly promoted as a way of escaping the tyranny of runaway thought. In fact, many mindfulness writers go further. They seem to regard thinking itself as a kind of pathology to be avoided at all costs. They certainly have nothing good to say about it. Here are examples from some important authorities.
Fulton and Siegel: “Mindfulness meditation is distinguished from other (psychotherapeutic) traditions by its near total abandonment of thinking. When we are hijacked by discursive thinking about the past or future, we have left the domain of mindfulness.”
Mark Williams and Danny Penman say, “Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognize memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. They are like propaganda. They are not real. They are not you.”
Paul Fulton says: “By learning to see thoughts as events with no special reality, we come to appreciate our mind’s incessant tendency to build imaginary scenarios that we inhabit as if they are real.”
Kabat-Zinn grudgingly admits: “Our thoughts may have a degree of relevance and accuracy at times, but often they are at least somewhat distorted by our self-centered and self-serving inclinations.’
Mindfulness writers like to appear serene and dispassionate, but you can feel the almost religious invective behind the adjectives they use to describe thinking. In these few quotes above, they describe thoughts as discursive, unreal, biased, hijacked, transient, propaganda, deceptive, distorted, self-centered, imaginary, incessant and trivial. The total absence of any positive descriptors for thought is telling. I assume these writers, since they are writers, do know the value of thinking, but they obviously regard it as antagonistic to the mindful state itself. They apparently feel that thinking should only occur before or after being mindful, but never during it.
These writers seem to be taking their inspiration from Zen. The thirteenth-century Zen philosopher Dogen is the most articulate exponent of this ‘no-thinking’ approach. Dogen invented the practice called Shikantaza, which literally translates as “Just Sitting”. In a compact text called “Fukanzazengi”, Dogen explained how to do Just Sitting: “Sit firmly. Think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? By not thinking! This is the very essence of zazen. Everyone who has ever awakened has done so through Just Sitting. Why would you want to do anything else.” Dogen also says: “Cease from practice based on intellectual understanding. Non-thinking must become the eye through which you observe the world.”
Dogen is also a strong advocate of being non-judgmental. He says: “Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, all gauging of thoughts and views.” Dogen repeats this point about abandoning all judgment hundreds of times in his voluminous writings. (His other most accessible text is called Bendowa, if you want to look him up). This idea that peace of mind depends on the extinction of thought and critical judgement has a long pedigree in Buddhism. We also find it in other religions where it is commonly linked to ideas such as blind faith, trust in authorities and unquestioning obedience. However this is not the approach of the Satipatthana Sutta.
Nowadays, nearly everyone I meet assumes that mindfulness is a tranquility or relaxation practice. It is regarded as ‘time out’, a way of calming the body, suspending judgement and taking a break from thought before resuming your normal day. (It also means focusing on the sensory present when not actually meditating.)
Because modern mindfulness is largely a tranquility practice, it also makes it remarkably limited. It is quite possible to attain a stage of ‘open, non-judgmental acceptance’ when we are meditating, but we can’t maintain that zone of non-judging, not thinking and not-doing when we get off the cushion. At some point we have to move into the constant flow of discriminating actions and thoughts that make up daily life. If the modern formulation of mindfulness is taken literally, we would actually have stop being ‘mindful’ to make any decision at all.
Fortunately, modern mindfulness is a broad church. It is both a strength and a weakness that the field is so thick with contradictions. It frustrates people like myself who love clarity of language and argument, but it also means that multiple approaches are possible.
So what could we take from the Buddha’s view of mindfulness?
Firstly, for the Buddha, mindfulness is neither a meditation exercise nor an ideal state of mind. It is the ordinary cognitive function of attention (sati) and good judgement (sampajjana) that operates within us all day long. It is worth recognising and training it.
Secondly, while sitting meditation is an important foundation, we should also be able to calm the body and mind while walking, standing and lying down.
Thirdly, we should be able to consciously and verbally evaluate our body sensations, valences, emotions and states of mind as part of meditation practice.
Fourthly, the immediate purpose of sati is to make good judgements in all matters, big or small, throughout the day.
Finally, the ultimate purpose of mindfulness is good thinking. It is to develop a mind capable of productive, intuitive, embodied, contemplative thought in the pursuit of a better life.
And where does mindfulness as ‘a state of open, nonjudgmental acceptance’ fit into this model? Although this concept derives from the Zen idea of ‘Emptiness’ or Sunyata, it still applies reasonably well to the deep trance states attainable through sitting meditation. In particular, it corresponds to passaddhi, or ‘body-mind stillness’ that is the fifth of the seven ‘Factors of Enlightenment’ in the Sutta.