Friday, March 2, 2012

So, What IS "Mindfulness?"

Last night I had the pleasure of sharing an evening of discussion with psychoanalyst, Jeffrey Rubin at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Tucson. My “piece” was a summary of “mindfulness” as understood within the buddhist tradition and in particular how, with the mainstreaming of “mindfulness” in all sorts of psychological contexts, much of the subtlety of the concept is being lost. As several friends from the community there asked if I could provide copies of my notes, I thought I’d do one better and work them up into an essay. (My notes are – at best – little phrases and lists to jog my memory, written in a pocket-sized notepad!) So, here it is:

Research into “mindfulness” dates back at least 30 years or so, but it’s been only in the last decade or so that there has been a tremendous growth in interest, deeper research, application in various contexts (including therapies directed toward anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, eating disorders) and in marketing! It seems that many folk feel that if you can just slip the word “mindfulness” into whatever your packaging, you will guarantee greater acceptance of whatever it is you’re selling!

However, there’s a discrepancy between how mindfulness is described in the buddhist texts and how it is described by many contemporary buddhist teachers as well as in the psychological mainstreaming of mindfulness. Again and again, I read passages that describe mindfulness as “bare attention.” For instance, here’s how Sara Weber defines mindfulness in her essay, “An Analyst’s Surrender” from Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: “a cultivation of a moment-to-moment awareness of changing perceptions in a neutral, impartial way.” Carey Wong offers this succinct definition at the website: “Mindfulness is a type of meditation that essentially involves focusing on your mind on the present. To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts and actions in the present, without judging yourself.”

Note the common understanding that mindfulness embodies “present moment awareness,” and holding a “neutral, non-judging, impartial” attitude or perspective toward experience. Yet, this is not quite how mindfulness is taught in the earliest buddhist texts! In fact, this description more accurately fits the definition of another term, manasikara, which simply means “attention” or “mental engagement.” This would be the initial moments of bare cognizing before recognition, perception and conceptualization. This “bare attention” is actually considered a “neutral” mental factor, neither inherently wholesome or unwholesome.

The word that we generally translate as mindfulness in Pali is sati, which is a form of “recollection” and “non-forgetfulness” which includes: retrospective memory of the past; prospectively remembering to do something in the future; and a present-centered recollection as the unwavering attention to a present reality.  This kind of mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention, but nowhere in the basic texts do we find mindfulness (sati) equated with bare attention (manasikara).

Indeed, for “right mindfulness” to be present, sati requires the concomitant presence of “clear comprehension” (sampajanna) which is a form of introspective awareness that includes: precise knowing (a knowing of discrete moments of experiencing); complete knowing (seeing impermanence, the not-self nature of phenomena; the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of phenomena; liberation); and balanced knowing (the observation of all phenomena with sati). In the Satipatthana Sutta (a key text on the practice of sati), the three factors of recollection (sati), clear comprehension (sampajanna) and ardency (atappa) together make up “appropriate attention” or “wise reflection” (yoniso manasikara).

Sati is understood as a wholesome mental factor that clearly distinguishes between wholesome and unwholesome mental states and behaviors, and is used to then cultivate and support wholesome states and behaviors and to counteract and diminish unwholesome states and behaviors. Nothing “impartial” or “neutral” about that!

When buddhist meditation is reduced to “bare attention” – as it so often is by many contemporary teachers and by almost all in the psychological community – what often gets neglected are ethics (sila), and practices such as the immeasurables. While “bare attention” as a calm, non-reactive awareness plays a crucial part in samatha (calming or tranquility meditation), it can also lead to profoundly liberating insights – but generally only for those with a fairly developed practice and understanding. An often-repeated story from the sutras is when the buddha tells a student “In the hearing, let there just be the hearing; in the seeing, let there just be the seeing.” What is overlooked is that this particular student was already highly advanced. Such an instruction for a beginner would be meaningless and not at all helpful! As it is often said of meditation in general: simple but not easy. Nothing could be “simpler” than “just hearing” or “just seeing,” but the difficulty of doing so is tremendous!

The potential danger of “bare attention” is that by itself, while it can suppress unwholesome mental factors, it can also prevent wholesome factors from arising. Remember that sati includes remembering the pain that a past action caused (for yourself or another), and prospectively remembering that you do not want to repeat such an action in the future. Such recollection would be impossible with “bare attention!”

Also, the four immeasurables: friendliness (metta); compassion (karuna); joy (mudita) and equanimity (uppekha) which are seen as wholesome mental factors to cultivate (bhavana, the word most used to refer to “meditation” in the early texts) can only be practices with mindfulness, not “bare attention!”

So, in an integrated practice of buddhist meditation that would include samatha (calming) and vipassana (insight), samatha would be the primary method of developing sati (mindfulness); then one would move on to vipassana, applying sati and its discerning intelligence to each of the four foundations of mindfulness (body; feelings; mental formations; dharma).

Briefly, the recollection of the body begins with the breath; and goes on to include the whole body; the postures of the body; the activities of the body (and nothing gets left out including shitting and pissing); the parts of the body; the elements of the body; and finally, the ultimate reality of the body: it will be a corpse!

The recollection of feeling investigates the felt sense of experience, seeing how all experience is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, arising physically or psychologically and that such feelings lead to reaction if sati is not present.

The recollection of mental formations includes emotions, discursive thinking, perceptions, etc. And the recollections of dharma investigates and categorizes experience according to aspects of the teachings of the buddha, including the five hindrances, the seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. Alternatively, this can take the form of investigating the impermanent nature of all experience until the insight into not-self leads to “letting go” or “awakening.”

Again, its important to contemplate the fact that a sniper is practicing “bare attention” as he prepares for his kill. From the buddhist perspective, when mind is engaged in an act of harming, it is not even capable of sati (mindfulness). As the sniper waits and prepares, there will be heightened attention, vigilance, concentration and energy, but with an intention to cause harm, these factors are all under the sway of unwholesomeness. Free from its ethical matrix, mindfulness becomes “bare attention.”

For mindfulness to become “right mindfulness,” it requires the ethical and wisdom aspects, along with the meditation aspects of the eight-fold path. The eight limbs, divided into these three trainings (ethics, meditation, wisdom) are the yoga taught by the buddha.

Finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon the process behind the cultivation of mindfulness. It all begins with the arising of consciousness based upon the contact between a sense organ and a sense object. In buddhist thought (generally, there has been deviation from this understanding in some forms of buddhism such as much of vajrayana and zen) there is no “pure consciousness” that exists outside of causality. It always arises interdependently! And, there are six consciousness: one for each of the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting) and then mind consciousness.

This consciousness is understood as the mere cognizing of sense object by the sense organ. Then, supporting mental factors help to create meaning from this raw cognizing. For example, my tongue makes contact with chocolate and a feeling arises. I find it pleasant because of many factors, not least of which is my conditioned response to chocolate based upon previous experience.

Contact, feeling, perception, intention, attention are “universal mental factors” that arise in every moment of consciousness. Meditation doesn’t begin until we apply the initial application and sustained attention, supported by energy to keep us “focused.” Three ethically variable or neutral factors also are generally present while meditating: conviction or confidence; joy; the impulse to act. There are said to be “variable” because as you might imagine, these three factors can equally arise when doing something unwholesome!

But, with all these mental factors present, I may be meditating, but it won’t be “mindfulness meditation.” Sati is a wholesome mental factor which only arises under special conditions. It cannot arise in the presence of any unwholesome factors. If envy is present, for instance, there is no mindfulness. BUT, in the very next moment, there can be recollection (mindfulness/sati) of the previous moment that we can investigate. But only if we are well-trained and have developed this skill.

With mindfulness, the arising of eighteen other wholesome mental factors is said to arise including among them: equanimity; non-greed; non-hatred; self-respect; respect for others; tranquility; lightness; and malleability.

Finally, to the surprise of many when they hear this, mindfulness alone does not inevitably lead to liberating wisdom (panna). If mindfulness is not linked to the mental factor of insight, it will not in and of itself lead to any significant change in your understanding and behavior! This helps explain why so many long-term practitioners seem not to have the ‘breakthroughs’ that others may speak about. It’s also why even great teachers can so often fail to live up to their own teachings!

Real transformation comes from exposing and uprooting the deeply embedded tendency to project ownership onto experience; to take any phenomena as being “I,” “me” or “mine.” A key contribution to the larger yoga tradition is the buddha’s insight that meditative stabilization must be combined with the liberating discernment of the not-self nature of phenomena.

An old analogy has mindfulness being like the hand that takes a sheaf of grain in it’s grip and wisdom the hand that holds the scythe that cuts it down.

May all beings be free!


  1. Frank, Thank you for summarizing your presentation from last Thursday evening. As a psychotherapist I have been integrating various practices I have learned over the last thirty years from my exposure to the different Buddhist paths. My psychotherapy approach is not psycho-dynamic or psycho-analtic, however, I found your insight, information, and knowledge about how the term "mindfulness" is bantered about now-adays compared to its root meaning eye opening. I look forward to more dialogue with you and others in the community of this nature. I am not sure what psychotherapy can bring to a Buddhist practice, but I know that aspects of Buddhism enhance the work I do offer as a psychotherapist. Peace...Suzanne

  2. Hi,

    I hope I'm not intruding. My interest in this question - as well as in yoga/buddhism in general - comes from an entirely "western" philosophical perspective, and I'm sorry if this is out of place. But I would just like to throw in a question here: is it possible that this confusion/reduction that you are discussing might be linked with the role that moral guilt plays in our western religious/cultural traditions?

    In a sense, I would think the mental space one can create through neutrality, thus allowing us to distance ourselves from the moral pull of a culturally ingrained sense of guilt, is in and of itself a way to get to a wholesome ethical perspective. I'm not suggesting it is a sufficient condition, but it may be more than a necessary one. Once you are able to let go of this idea that you "must" be guilty of something, you create a new moral space that requires, in turn, a renewed ethical perspective in order to orient your behavior. In other words, practicing such neutrality would be the path of choice to keep you "on your ethical toes", as opposed to being glued in a guilt-based self-defensiveness that hinders all possibility of moral progress. Am I making any sense, here?

    Maybe I'm just not sure why snipers would really feel morally vindicated once they stopped believing that they were morally required to be snipers. Seeing what they did in a neutral way would then call for a more authentic justification, and only then would what you discuss here, about what is wholesome/unwholesome become relevant.

    Just a thought.

  3. Suzanne, thanks for your kind words. In a nutshell, I think something the western psychotherapeutic/psychoanalytic tradition can offer buddhism is the deep insight into unconscious (multiple and often cross-purpose) motivations. Buddhism has concepts that are similar to the western understanding of the unconscious, but did not investigate this area as fully as western psychology has.

    Yvan, thank you for your response and questioning. You are most certainly welcome here, and are NOT "intruding!"

    I think you may be onto something regarding the western conditioning that may lead to a sensitivity to anything that seems tinged with the sense of "moral guilt" that is certainly a major aspect of our western religious/cultural traditions.

    What I will say is that the discerning quality of sati is the discernment of what leads to suffering and what leads us away from suffering. "Guilt" is generally seen as an unwholesome mental factor as it leads to the leading cause of suffering (from the buddhist perspective) which is "self conceit." So, sati would discern this and lead to a turning away from guilt.

    "Remorse," however, is seen in a more positive light in that while "guilt" is about one's "self" with the onus all on one's culpability, "remorse" is a feeling about an action. With remorse, I am sorry I have caused suffering. This feeling of "being sorry" is unpleasant, so I am motivated to make amends and refrain from repeating such action in the future. This is all impossible with the neutrality of "bare attention," and requires the retrospective, prospective AND present-moment remembering of sati.

    I'm not sure I follow your reasoning and meaning in your final paragraph. The point I was making about the sniper is simply that he is using "bare attention," not "mindfulness" when preparing to make his shot. He is concentrated, energized, motivated, all with the PURPOSE of causing harm. Sati, as defined in the buddhist tradition, is always about the relief and prevention of harm.

    Thanks again!

  4. Hi again Frank, and thanks for your response.

    I think I'm coming from a point where I'm searching how to think about equanimity, really, as opposed to "indifference", maybe in a parallel way to how you distinguish mindfulness from bare attention. And this is why it is really the concept of neutrality that is capturing my attention.

    Neutrality requires a sort of switching off or suspension of moral judgment, but I suggest it may be richer than a state of attention that is "barely" indifferent at a moral level. The sniper example, in my reading, was also that of someone who does something with more than a purpose of just causing harm: he/she does it, more often than not, out of the belief that it is morally required, within the purview of his/her set of moral beliefs (say, attachment to country or clan).

    In this sense, I suggested that suspension of such moral judgment, by getting that person to break with the need for self-justification (brought about by one's sense of guilt) is truly a step in the right direction, as it allows for searching for more wholesome ways of behaving.

    In a way, I'd say my comment is not intended to question the distinction you make, so much as to suggest neutrality may itself be a positive development in attitude, in comparison to an ethics that one would be clinging to, out of a negative sense of guilt, or out of fear of being disloyal to one's community, for example.

    In our western setting, hence, and although I agree that it is not a sufficient end-point, it is still quite valuable to get to a point where you are able to question freely the moral options ahead. And I don't believe that you can do that when you're "hooked" on a rigid ethical code.

    Sorry if I'm being irrelevant. Maybe I just felt like taking a chance.

    I don't come often over here, but I do appreciate what you're offering. Thanks so much!

  5. I am happy to find this text about mindfulness. I have had the pleasure to guide people in courses in mindfulness for 1 1/2 year now (in total 8 courses with almost 180 participants). In my present courses I decided to start with metta meditation from the beginning in parallell with training pure awareness of the breath, body, sounds and thoughts. Reading this article make me happy as I now can trust my feeling that something was missing in my first classes. The example with the sniper is illustrative. In fact we had a similar discussion in the teachertraining I visit to become an Iyengaryogateacher. One of the participants in this teachertraining had worked in a prison with murderes. We discussed Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4 The Yoga of Wisdom. My collegaue had a similar discussion about these murderes and your discussion about the sniper. Something about bare actions without attachements. I was very upset and told her that you cannot kill another person if you really love yourself. This dimension is so important!
    I am living in Sweden. Do you have training courses to learn teaching mindfulness yoga? I am reading your book. Really like that you dig into the roots!

  6. Thank you for writing and for your kind and supportive words.

    Yes, the teaching of Krishna to Arjuna can be taken to very disastrous ends, but sadly this is not limited to Yoga. Japanese Zen "Masters" exhorted nationalistic propaganda to Japanese troops based upon a one-sided understanding from "the absolute," or "ultimate" understanding. For instance, it is taught that the ethical teachings have three aspects: literal, compassionate and ultimate.

    The literalist would be "never kill," which being impossible leads to terrible consequences. After all, boiling water for tea destroys countless organisms. The 'absolute' understanding sees that there are no such 'entities' as "beings," (all are empty) and thus there is 'no birth, no death.' BUT, while this is 'ultimately true,' it is ALSO true that there are tears and blood and cries, so the compassionate path is the one the bodhisattva takes. That means to always be aware of one's intentions. To revere all life, even when it may mean breaking the precepts to maintain the spirit of the precepts.

    As for trainings, I would LOVE to visit Sweden to offer a training. I actually have two students in Sweden who have discussed the possibility of bringing me to Sweden for a training, so who knows? As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "if the conditions come to be, then such an opportunity WILL occur. Meanwhile, I am happy that you are finding my book helpful. Please feel free to 'stay in touch!'

    poep sa

    1. Dear Frank,

      Thank you so much for your answer. Maybe one of the students is Lena Elmqvist? Yet I have not met her, but I know she has classes in Mindfulness Yoga in Sweden. I have had some e-mailconversations with her. And I am looking for the opportunity to visit her studio as I think she has been over to you learning from your long experience in Mindfulness Yoga.

      YES! Your book is helpful!


    2. Leif!

      I only just noticed this comment from you! Sorry for the delay in responding!

      The two teachers that have studied with me are:

      NiKki Boklund

      and Kim Löfqvist

      If you get to practice with either of them, please send my love!
      poep sa frank jude

  7. Dear Poep Sa,
    This blog post was highly informative and gives me much to think about. I would also like to thank the people who made comments.
    I do hear much about mindfulness but this clarifies the concept greatly!
    With Respect,
    PS> I like your "karuna notes!"

  8. Karuna,
    Thanks for writing. Anytime you wish to share some of those thoughts, feel free!
    Poep Sa

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