Here we are with the second talk focusing on the Buddha's teachings – instructions on mindfulness practice.
It was a surprise many years ago when happily and eagerly I picked up the text (I had read it before) but I picked up the text and I really wanted to discover: "What did the Buddha actually have to say about mindfulness? What does he actually say about practicing mindfulness?" The Pali word is "sati." And I went through this text.
As I went through it, I was surprised and a little shocked on how little he actually says about mindfulness. The title of the text is the Four Foundations for Mindfulness. I thought for sure, there would be lots of references to this word, sati, "mindfulness." Surprisingly, there were very little. There is a little bit in the introduction about mindfulness – just a statement about it, "One is mindful, clearly aware, and ardent." Here, mindful is an adjective. It is not a noun, in the way it is used.
As I said yesterday morning, there is a section in the beginning. It says: "Going to a forest, the root of a tree, an empty building, sitting cross legged, body upright, and establishing mindfulness to the forefront." In the rest of this long text the word mindfulness does not appear until the very end again – a kind of a conclusion.
All the exercises, and all the instructions for what to do, do not use the word mindfulness. I was a bit surprised. I thought, "What does this mean?" As I started looking through the texts of the Buddha, there is nothing in his teachings that would be comparable to the English expression, "Be mindful." Like my mother might tell me, "Be mindful Gil," when I was growing up, where, mindful is used as a verb, as an activity that we would do – do mindfulness.
Whatever sati is – that is translated as mindfulness – it is not something that we do, but rather something that we establish. As I went through the different teachings of the Buddha, I saw that sati was associated with the verbs: to abide in, to establish, to cultivate. So if a farmer cultivates a plant, the farmer is not doing the growing. The farmer is creating the conditions where the plant can grow.
We abide in, dwell in something. I love the expression of abiding because for me that is a peaceful way of being just there, at home – where you are supposed to be. To abide in sati, in mindfulness, is to come to rest in it. I once used a photograph or a slide of a big whale floating peacefully in the ocean – an underwater photograph of this big whale – as abiding in sati, in awareness.
So sati is not associated with an activity of doing. It is more like a state of being aware. So how am I supposed to do it? What is the activity? If you look at this text that we are going to study over these next weeks, the actual activities, the practices that we do, are not practices. Maybe they could be called mindfulness practices in the sense that they are there to cultivate, to establish, to grow mindfulness, so we can abide in it.
In the instructions, the verbs of things that we are doing, the first thing that is talked about is to know – to know that one is breathing. To know one is breathing long when one is breathing a long breath, short when it is a short breath. Then later on, there are instructions to clearly recognize what is happening. This requires a bit of higher order mental activity – to recognize something. I will talk more about that later.
The text also talks about observing. Then it talks about something that has the word sati in it, but it is a compound called paṭissati. This is lucid awareness. So I would like to translate sati as "awareness" rather than "mindfulness."
This is partly because we have this mindfulness movement going through the modern world. The meanings and definitions of what mindfulness is these days, is very much influenced by how it is taught in that movement. There is nothing wrong with how it is taught, but they use the word mindfulness differently than how the Buddha uses it.
For the Buddha, the word sati is a state we can abide in, establish, cultivate, and grow. It is not an activity that we do. The activity we do is this knowing. We do not want to do a meditation practice that feels like a lot of work and makes us busy. The knowing is a wonderful, special quality – to know something.
It does not have to be so cognitive or so thoughtful, with a lot of thought involved. If I am sitting talking with a friend, and I am engaged and fully absorbed in the conversation – my attention is there for sure. Then I put my glasses down, and I continue talking. I get up to go to the bathroom, get some tea and come back. Then I say, "Where are my glasses?" I have no idea. Even though five minutes before, I put them down.
I put them down without clearly knowing I was putting them down, or clearly present for the experience of putting them down. The idea is to be present enough to let the experience register enough, so it can stay in our memory.
Before the Buddha, the word for sati had associations with memory. It is the kind of receptivity, attention that is required for us to remember something later – like where my glasses are. It is not like we are memorizing, which is an even higher order of mental activity. I like the expression: "We stop to know. We pause to know. We engage knowingly with what we are doing."
We are present for what we are doing. We do one thing at a time. We are really there present for it. In that presence, there is a heightened kind of knowing or recognition – a heighten attentiveness to the experience. As that heightened attention or knowing operates, it then supports the cultivation, the growing of awareness.
Awareness follows in the wake of the practice of knowing. It is meant to be a peaceful practice. It begins with just knowing the breathing. It is such a powerful practice – mindfulness of breathing. It is not suitable for everyone. It is fine to do other things. But it is a wonderful thing to acquire the ability to get focused and centered on the breathing – to concentrate on the breathing. To learn to gather the mind together – so that when we are with the experience of breathing, we are not scattered and distracted. We are just there with that, as if we are present to know it well.
It is the kind of attention we bring to something we have looked at for a long, long time. We have passed it by. We have been with it. Let me stop and look – to discover something new which we have never noticed before. It is not straining to know or discover but to just relax, glancing at it, looking at it, roaming around it. "Oh, look at that, I never noticed that before." It requires a kind of knowing that registers something more deeply – so we can remember it.
I am spending a lot of time now with my mother who has advanced dementia. We have wonderful exchanges back and forth. They are very clear in the moment, but her memory lasts probably 30 seconds. I will say something, and she will come back with a wonderful reply. And then I could ask, 10 seconds later, the same question and, she would come back with the same or different reply. She does not remember she said it.
For her nothing sticks. She has clarity, but the attentiveness is not all there. It needs a place to register or stay or stick. I do not really understand how dementia works. Whether I am accurate with this is not so important. I want to convey the idea of the specialness of knowing – to attend to – so we know it in a deeper way without it being a heavily cognitive, investigatory, questioning or a thought filled kind of exploration – just very simple.
As we know the breathing, we become more and more centered and present for just the breathing. We know it more clearly. The mind also gets quieter, more peaceful, and calmer.
The difference between concentration practice and mindfulness practice, is that in concentration practice, we are getting absorbed in the breathing. In mindfulness practice, if we are getting absorbed, we are getting absorbed in the knowing and the clarity of awareness that takes in the experience. We are more available in mindfulness to register the details, the fullness, the richness of an experience, and how it changes over time, than we often are if we just do concentration practice, where we are just trying to hold the mind still in a certain way, rather than letting the experience become richer in the knowing mind.
So sati is awareness. Tomorrow I will talk about how these exercises of knowing, recognition, and observation lead to heightened awareness. This path – this journey to heightened awareness is the trajectory – is the journey of
satipaṭṭhāna, the foundations for awareness.
In the meantime, maybe you will explore the nature of your awareness, of your attention, of your knowing – all these faculties of attentiveness we have. For today, especially notice your faculty of knowing, the simplest knowing – the kind of knowing that if you really let it register, you would remember where you put your glasses, where you put your keys. Just that simple.
So thank you, and I look forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow when you greet, those of you who are connected to the chat and would like to say good morning. I would love to see the greetings in your native language. For many of you English is your native language. But, from all the different places in the world – it has been lovely to have a gathering of the globe and through the languages.