Right Mindfulness - An Overview

The term ‘mindfulness’ has become widely used in recent years. Generally, in current popular-culture, the word mindfulness is employed to mean ‘bringing full non-judgmental attention to an aspect of present-moment experience.’ This approach to the practice of mindfulness has been used to beneficial effects in many different areas of contemporary society. After practicing meditation based on this approach to mindfulness, patients suffering from a variety of medical problems experience improved health. Students perform better on tests and are more empathetic in relating with classmates. Workers in large corporations demonstrate increased productivity and report greater job satisfaction. Military sharpshooters are more accurate when they shoot guns.

In the Buddha’s teachings as we find them in the early Buddhist texts, the word ‘sati’ (mindfulness) describes a more complex cluster of qualities in the mind. One of the elements of this cluster is the fully present, non-judgmental awareness of popular-culture mindfulness. Some of the other features of right mindfulness include: the energetic application of the mind to its purpose (‘diligent,’ ‘ardent,’ ‘resolute,’ ‘alert’); an awareness of the purpose of the application of mindfulness in any given moment along with the capacity to discern whether or not a particular action will serve that purpose; and the ability to remember teachings and experiences which inform skillful choices both on and off-of-the cushion.

In the early Buddhist texts mindfulness plays a more active role than that of simply receiving experience as it arises. The following passage from The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, illustrates this active aspect of right mindfulness.

Just as a citadel has a gatekeeper who is astute, competent, and intelligent, who keeps strangers out and lets known people in, in the same way a noble disciple is mindful. They have utmost mindfulness and alertness, and can remember and recall what was said and done long ago. A noble disciple with mindfulness as their gatekeeper gives up the unskillful and develops the skillful, they give up the blameworthy and develop the blameless, and they keep themselves pure. 

Sujato, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, AN:7.67

Perhaps the most obvious difference between pop-culture mindfulness and right mindfulness as it was taught by the Buddha in the early Buddhist texts is the fact that right mindfulness develops in the context of the Noble Eightfold path as a whole. Mindfulness makes possible the development of all of the other path factors. And as each path factor develops, mindfulness becomes stronger. Following are a few examples of some of the processes by which mindfulness is employed and strengthened as we develop various aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.

When we practice breath meditation, mindfulness develops as we are able to notice more-and-more quickly when we have begun to attend to something other than the breath. It is this noticing which gives us the opportunity to return attention to the breath.

When we practice reflection on the precepts, mindfulness helps us to recall the ethical trainings as we go about our lives in the world. We become increasingly aware of the negative consequences that follow when we act in ways that contradict the precepts and of the positive conditions that develop (both within ourselves and in those around us) when we act in accord with the precepts.

When we bring mindfulness to observing and investigating the roots of our experiences of suffering and happiness, our understanding of the Four Noble Truths deepens and wisdom grows.

Right mindfulness develops when we engage in a range of practices (not just one practice).

The Four Establishments of Mindfulness are a group of practice frameworks taught in the early Buddhist texts for establishing mindfulness. These four frameworks focus on developing mindfulness in relationship to: the body; feelings; mind; and dhammas (categories of experience directly related to the Buddha’s teachings on how to develop the path). This set of contemplations and reflections is a cornerstone in the process of developing right mindfulness.

The four establishments of mindfulness define the seventh fold of the Noble Eightfold Path – right mindfulness. Here, working closely with right effort and right concentration, right mindfulness plays a key role in developing two key qualities of the mind – tranquility and insight.

Trainings in right mindfulness help the mind to become more tranquil by helping it to let go of the pushes and pulls of greed and aversion based in delusion. The mind tends less-and-less to grasp after a series of attractive objects or to oppose the people and things which it experiences as undesirable. Insight develops along with right mindfulness as the mind’s capacity to see things clearly grows. With the development of right mindfulness we understand with increasing clarity the impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self nature of our experiences.

As the qualities associated with tranquility and insight develop, the mind inclines more and more towards letting go of the roots of suffering: greed, hatred and delusion.