The term mindfulness is used to translate a number of words found in Buddhist texts and is rich with connotations. The chief word it translates is sati (in Pāli; smrti in Sanskrit). Sati is related to the verb sarati to remember. As well as being translated as mindfulness, sati is often translated as awareness. So the basic meaning of mindfulness in Buddhism is awareness with the sense of remembering, recollecting or coming back to oneself and one’s experience. This awareness has a warm and friendly quality. It’s like the sort of attention a friend you haven’t seen for some time might give you, with their curiosity to know how you are and what has been happening to you, and a friend who is happy to hear you out without rushing to jump in with their own judgements and biases about your experience. Sati is often linked with another word, sampajāna, which means clearly knowing, sometimes translated as clear comprehension of purpose. Sampajāna implies knowing what we are about, what our purpose is. For example, cycling and being aware of the body sensations of the legs pedalling, of the touch of the air on our face and the sights around us are all sati. Knowing where you are going and therefore which road to take at the traffic lights is sampajāna. Walking in the park and paying attention to the colour of autumn leaves is sati. Reflecting that you too are impermanent and that you want to make the most of this brief life is sampajāna.
Sometimes we recognize that we’ve not been very mindful. We walk into a room and can’t remember what we came into the room for. Or we are returning home from work and had intended to stop off at the supermarket on the way home, but before we realize it we have passed the turning and are continuing on our normal route home. We have been running on automatic pilot. Being able to operate without too much conscious awareness is, of course, immensely helpful. First learning to drive a car, it’s clunky and difficult to co-ordinate all the actions. Later we can change gear, accelerate or brake, negotiate the traffic, all while having a conversation with a passenger. Although automatic pilot is helpful for operating our lives, it also has a deadening effect. Our activities become routine and dull. We miss the detail and perhaps some of the beauty of our experience.
Mindfulness brings our attention onto what is actually happening moment by moment (sati) as well as keeping us in contact with our larger purpose (sampajāna). It is like turning up the brightness level in our lives, so that we are more in contact with the immediate freshness and richness of our experience. A tree is no longer merely a tree, but a whole intricate universe of beauty.
When the Buddha went forth, he set out to find answers to existential questions. Through awakening he found complete liberation of mind. If we too wish to follow in his footsteps and find freedom, the starting point has to be awareness of our mind. This is the work of mindfulness. We need to develop a more and more subtle awareness of ourselves, so that we are able to make choices about how we work with our minds and respond to our lives.
~Dr Paramabandhu Groves