The Pali word for mindfulness is sati (Sanskrit: smrti). Although the term ‘mindfulness’ is the most popular rendition of sati, the word sati actually means ‘to remember’ (i.e., ‘to remember’ to be aware of the present moment). In fact, the term mindfulness doesn’t really capture the full intended meaning of sati. The main reason for this is because to be ‘mindful’ indicates that one should be ‘full of mind’. Being full of mind implies that there is a lot of mental activity and cognitive exertion. However, when we practice mindfulness, we’re not aiming to fill ourselves up with too much mind. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being.
Therefore, rather than endeavouring to remain mindful, perhaps the meditation practitioner should actually be trying to achieve a state of ‘mindlessness’. However, being ‘mindless’ equally doesn’t quite capture the essence of sati because rather than being without the mind, what we are attempting to achieve during sati practice is to be fully ‘with the mind’. Perhaps ‘mindwithness’ is therefore a better term to describe the practice of sati!
Nowadays, more and more people are becoming interested in the practice of mindfulness and people are beginning to make a living from teaching mindfulness. From one point of view, this could be a good thing. If people are truly living meditatively then it will certainly be beneficial for the individual as well as for society as a whole. However, from another point of view, trying too hard to ‘spread’ the teachings of mindfulness may actually contribute to the decline of the Buddhist teachings.
Let us give an example to explain what we mean by this. Recently, we were giving a series of talks about meditation and Buddhism in India. It just so happened that at one of the conference venues, a mindfulness and yoga retreat was also taking place. It was really easy to identify which people were involved in the retreat because, with the exception of just one or two participants, they all behaved in a similar way. The retreat participants would walk around the grounds with an air of superiority, with their hands cupped together and held in front of them, head half bent to the side, and with a ‘holier than thou’ smile permanently fixed across their faces. The only exception to this behaviour was when they thought they were out of public view and would slouch around or gossip about their fellow participants.
Mindfulness practice should enable us to become more familiar with the chaotic and unruly nature of the untamed mind. The idea is that we begin to appreciate just how much ego is involved in each and every one of our thoughts and perceptions. It’s when we begin to become aware of the extent to which ego has overwhelmed the mind that we can take steps to loosen ego’s hold. Effectively then, the practice that the abovementioned retreat participants were making was just for show. They were trying to be fashionable and keep-up with the latest spiritual trend. Indeed, for these people, rather than a means of spiritual development, their (so called) practice of ‘mindfulness’ was actually acting as an obstacle to spiritual growth. Their practice was reinforcing the ego rather than dismantling it.
So we should definitely try to be natural in our practice of mindfulness. We should try to be honest with ourselves and check to see whether we are the type of person who varies their practice depending on who might be looking. It is also useful for us to check whether we are straining too hard to be mindful. Indeed, rather than straining too hard, we should try to adopt a relaxed and spacious approach. Using your breath as an anchor if you like, try to expand your mindful awareness so that it encompasses the entire present moment. Try and make the ‘here and now’ your object of meditation. Whatever is happening right now – that becomes your practice. This includes external phenomena such as sounds and sights, as well as internal noumina such as thoughts and feelings. Effortlessly incorporate them all into your field of awareness – without any separation between you the observer and the object that you are observing. In other words, rather than trying to remain aware of the present moment, just try to simply be the present moment.
Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon