Mindfulness – Origins and Concepts

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Mindfulness Basic Concepts and Origins

Mindfulness is a way of being aware. Mindful awareness is receptive and not exclusive. Sensations, thoughts, or feelings are simply
experienced for what they are. To be mindfully aware means, strangely, there can be an absence of mind’.

Here we’ll discuss some of the basic concepts of mindfulness and look at the origins of these concepts.

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.

(Kabat-Zinn 1994: 4)

In mindfulness, the meditator methodically faces the bare facts of his experience, seeing each event as though occurring for the first time.

(Goleman 1988: 20)

Basics Concepts of Mindfulness

What is it to be mindful? It is to pay attention in a particular way. Is it possible to say what way that is?

Some write from the standpoint of Buddhism and some from that of psychology. There is an emphasis on awareness being alive to what is immediately presented to it, at the expense of other kinds of experience, and on this being accepted without judgement. Beyond these points, there can be subtle but signi®cant differences between one conception of mindfulness’ and the next, with different facets of mindfulness being given more emphasis and priority over others by different commentators. So what quality might typify mindful awareness? In some definitions it is apparently directed, and focused by deliberate effort. (Jon Kabat-Zinn helpfully uses the word intentionality’ in this context.) At the same time, it has been characterised by others as a broad, inclusive and receptive awareness, in contrast to the restriction of attention that results from concentration (e.g. Speeth 1982; Goleman 1988). Does mindfulness have a particular object? Awareness of internal processes such as breathing, body sensations, thoughts and feelings has been essential to the various methods of teaching it, along with a varying emphasis on mindfulness of external objects apparent through vision and hearing.

Does mindful perception have a particular quality?

The qualities of acceptance and non-judgement are prominent in most accounts, as the definitions cited confirm. Is there an emotional tone to mindfulness? To some, it is absolutely neutral, with an experience of equanimity being emphasised: to others (including Thich Nhat Hanh), it is closely interlinked with particular positive emotions of love or kindness. For some commentators, a further key quality of mindfulness is its wordlessness: the immediacy of mindful awareness is a consequence of its being preconceptual and operating prior to experiences becoming labelled through thinking. This point is less than straightforward.

As N. Thera has pointed out, there are several examples in the Buddhist instructional texts of the deliberate naming of experience being used as a means of becoming mindful of them. Indeed, these techniques have been copied in some contemporary therapists’ methods for teaching their patients mindfulness skills’. Then there is the association of mindfulness with presentness: being mindful is to be alert to what is happening now to the exclusion of the past or the future. While this is seen as a key characteristic in many modern discussions, it has no real equivalent in the canonical Buddhist literature. Instead, the latter sometimes emphasises recollection as a key aspect of mindfulness. Therefore one does not have to go very far or very deep to see that there is much scope for divergence between conceptions of mindfulness. They may be describing different things, in which case a corrective analysis is overdue. Or they may be separately failing to capture something that, like the elephant being felt in different places by six blind men, is simply bigger and more varied than any of them have allowed for. Gunaratana, who provides what is apparently the most complex (and, as will be seen, traditional) of the de®nitions above, argues that Mindfulness is extremely difficult to define in words – not because it is complex, but because it is too simple and open’ (Gunaratana 1992: 154). He states that in any field, the most basic concepts are the hardest to pin down, precisely because they are the most fundamental, with everything else resting on them. This is why he has felt it better to try to say what mindfulness does rather than what it is, just as we might when trying to explain gravity. Unfortunately, this step does not necessarily resolve anything. Instead, it is likely to open up a related question of whether there is any characteristic understanding or knowledge to which mindfulness leads. The question is important and unavoidable. For instance, in North America, the terms insight meditation’ and mindfulness meditation’ can be used interchangeably, encouraging the presumption that mindfulness does affect understanding as well as perception. Whatever contemporary investigations may have to say about the contribution of mindfulness to insight, the connection is made in early Buddhist philosophy and is critical to an understanding of why the practice of mindfulness was valued. To understand mindfulness more fully, its Buddhist context needs to be acknowledged and, at least in its basics, understood.

Buddhist psychology and Mindfulness

Buddhism has given rise to an extraordinarily complex body of teachings as it has diversified over 2500 years. Despite many disagreements over particulars, awareness remains central to all of them. The account that follows will draw primarily on the earliest Buddhist teachings. The works of this Theravadan tradition not only have a clearer linkage to the sayings and practice of Buddhism’s founder, but also have been the most influential in modern adaptations of mindfulness’.

The main purpose in looking at the Buddhist context of mindfulness here will be to examine what it was expected to achieve. This is useful in making sense of its methods (as well as the lengths people were prepared to go to in developing it). It is also an important preparation for evaluating the uses to which it is being put now. Any attempt to discuss this literature needs to be accompanied by a strong health warning concerning the problems of translation. The divisions between units of meaning encoded in the ancient languages Pali or Sanskrit rarely coincide with those found in modern languages. Translation is far more difficult as a result. This is compounded by grammatical incompatibilities in which verbs convey radically different modes of action from their modern counterparts. The need for caution is well illustrated by the history of mindfulness’.

Mindfulness’ was introduced a century ago by the translator Rhys David when working on Pali texts for the Buddhist Text Society. He used it to translate the Pali term sati, for which common alternative translations areawareness’ or bare attention’. Sati itself has broader connotations, however. Some of these, such as the capacity to tidy the mind, are generally incorporated in mindfulness’. However, as might be expected from contemporary writers’ stress on the present’, the subsidiary meaning of sati as recollection of the past is usually not subsumed undermindfulness’. At the same time, other Pali terms, such as appamada, meaning ever present watchfulness or heedfulness in avoiding ill or doing good’ (Thera 1974: 180) ornon-negligence or absence of madness’ (Gunaratana 1992: 158), can also be translated as mindfulness’ in modern texts. It is, therefore, hard to claim complete authenticity or fidelity to the early texts on behalf of modern uses of mindfulness’.

Overall, Buddhist theory has the character of an elaborate and systematic psychology rather than a theology or cosmology. Unlike Western psychologies, its concepts are always intended to support practical teaching, never losing a concern with attainment of liberation from various states of spiritual captivity. It is generally available in two formats. In one, the collections of sutras (Sanskrit) or suttas (Pali), ideas are presented within reports of talks given by the Buddha or a disciple that had his approval. They may be elaborated in dialogue with the monks who are invariably present, their practical importance being underlined by parables and injunctions to act in particular ways. In the other format, that of the systematic psychology known as the Abbidhamma, ideas are systematised using a common vocabulary, and the relations between them coded. The result is a huge reference compendium that also provides a map of the abstract relations underlying the different segments of the system. There are therefore important differences in content and style, with the Abbidhamma also probably post-dating the Theravadan sutta collections by at least two centuries. Superficially, there are similarities with Greek writing of the time. The Buddha’s contemporary, Socrates, also wrote nothing himself, but it is probable his ideas and teaching style are captured in the earliest of Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates appears as a character. However, unlike Buddha (and Plato himself ), Socrates probably had no theoretical ideas that he felt he needed to impart in order to assist his students’ personal growth (cf. Mace 1999b). When, in the hands of Aristotle, Greek philosophy does become more systematic, it is after much additional theorising.

The suttas of the Buddhist canon are always unlike Socratic dialogues in being more clearly didactic and intended for rote learning. While it is relatively easy to trace at what point other minds have contributed to the systematisation of early Greek philosophy, an insistence on attributing all the subsequent rami®cations of Buddhist psychology to the Buddha himself has made it extremely hard to attribute ideas to other protagonists in ordinary historical terms. It is not necessary to examine the treatises providing exhaustive accounts of meditative practice to understand the core of Buddhist psychology. Manuals such as the Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa 1999) characteristically discern many potential levels and goals encountered in meditative practice, but do not necessarily explain why the progressions take the form that they do. For this, it is important to appreciate the most basic tenets of Buddhism and the Buddhist view of the mind.

The essence of Buddhist teaching, accepted by all schools whatever their other doctrinal disagreements, is expressed in the Four Noble Truths. These are that life brings suffering, that there are causes of this suffering, that suffering can end, and that there is a path by which it may be ended. It is in the elaboration of the last truth, in descriptions of how liberation might be attained, that mindfulness comes to the fore. The method of attaining liberation is set out in eight linked stages within the Noble Eightfold Path. These concern the attainment of morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom ( panna).

Among the eight, the three factors that make for concentration are right effort’, right awareness’ and right concentration’. Mindfulness is an essential ingredient of right awareness’ (often translated asright mindfulness’) and, as such, the foundation of the mental discipline necessary to achieve concentration and, subseqently, the right understanding' and right thought’ that make up wisdom. To appreciate how the Noble Eightfold Path leads to liberation, the ontology that underpins it must also be understood. In Buddhist thought, being has three essential characteristics, usually translated as unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukka), transcience (anicca) and absence of self (anatta). These qualities are interdependent, such that appreciation of the pervasiveness of one of them enhances appreciation of the others. In moving to the phenomenal world, the Buddha referred to ®ve distinct types of aggregates that comprise our experience of the world and ourselves, namely, material form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental proliferations (sankhara) and consciousness (vinaya). In accounting for the partiality of perception and its relationship to other functions such as thinking, Buddhist psychology intimately supports Buddhist practice. There is a series of stages by which, through the five aggregates, events give rise to knowing. Within early Buddhist literature, principal teachings have been presented for general consumption in the suttas as well as systematically in the Abbidhamma. The former are usually far more accessible, and can be turned to here to illustrate the key ideas.

The honeyball sutta

In the so-called honeyball sutta (a honeyball is a kind of sweet cake) (No. 18 of the Majjhima Nikaya or middle-length’ discourses (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995)), the Buddha is sitting in contemplation when a man approaches him aggressively and asks him what he proclaims. He is told the Buddha proclaims that one does not quarrel with anyone else, nor with the world’s gods or rulers, because perceptions no longer sustain the man who achieves detachment from sensual pleasure. Such a man is free from confusion, worry, or any kind of craving. His questioner frowns, says nothing and departs. The Buddha goes to his disciples and tells them about his encounter. They ask him how it could be that perceptions no longer sustain the man who lives free from sensual pleasure, confusion, worry and craving. The Buddha replies they should look to the source of the perceptions and ideas that are tinged by mental proliferations’. If one no longer finds anything to delight in or cling to there, then all tendencies to craving, aversion, illusion, doubt and other unwholesome states of mind will end completely. Once he has said this, the Buddha leaves.

The monks realise his answer was incomplete and berate themselves for not having pressed the Buddha to explain more fully how this comes about. They go to a saintly man whom the Buddha had entrusted to provide reliable explanations and ask him to help them. The man is astonished at the opportunity the monks have passed up to question the source himself, but eventually he agrees to try to satisfy them. He explains that when forms are present to the eye, eye consciousness arises. When form, eye and eye consciousness meet, contact follows. From contact comes feeling. From feeling, perception. From perception, ideas. Through thinking, ideas lead to mental proliferation. Then he utters a crucial sentence: With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perceptions and notions tinged by mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizable through the eye’ (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995: 203). This same circular sequence is then applied in turn to the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and flavours, the body and physical sensations, and the mind and mental objects. Each time, the manifestations of contact, feeling, perception and thinking are acknowledged in turn. Each time, the consequent tainting of perceptions and ideas by mental proliferation is mentioned (even if these proliferations are not manifest in themselves). The saintly man goes on to explain that, when there is no eye, no form and no eye consciousness, there can be no manifestation of contact. If there is no manifestation of contact, there can be no manifestation of feeling. If there is no manifestation of feeling, there can be no manifestation of perception. If there is no manifestation of perception, there can be no manifestation of thinking. If there is no manifestation of thinking, there is no manifestation of being that is beset by perceptions and notions tinged by mental proliferation.

He says this is his understanding of how, if one no longer finds anything to delight in or cling to, then all tendencies to craving, aversion, illusion, doubt and other unwholesome states of mind will end completely. The monks are relieved at what they hear. When they tell the Buddha of this explanation, they are told he would have explained it in the same way, enjoining them to remember what they have now heard. When one monk likens its reviving effect to coming upon a honeyball after being weakened by hunger and exhaustion, the Buddha suggests that they might remember the discourse in future as the honeyball discourse.

Although it has been truncated here, the sutta is full of the rhythm and repetition that was calculated to aid its memorisation. Its simple, five-step exposition of the aggregates is inseparable from the explanation of the benefits of disaggregating them by deliberate mental purification.

In the more systematic writings of the Abbidhamma, a more differentiated account of the same mental levels is presented. Although 17 stages of perception are described there (see Lancaster 2004: 110), for a helpful diagrammatic summary), these reduce in essentials to the stages of the honeyball sutta. In staying with this simple model, in which cognition is related to the five broad aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental proliferations and consciousness, some important qualifications must be added. One is that none of these translations are truly equivalent to the original terms. Two instances of how this can be practically significant will be mentioned.

The term used for feeling’ (vedana) applies across physical and mental feeling, referring only to a fundamental movement toward or away from any object that is independent of its recognition. Feeling therefore always has one of only three characteristics (attraction, repulsion or neutrality). And in the practical disciplines that are intended to end the cycle of mental formation outlined in the sutta, value will be placed on meeting each with the same equanimity when they are encountered. Despite this, influential proponents of American Buddhism have interpreted feeling’ here in a much more emotive way, using references to vedana in the suttas as an invitation to work through emotions of grief, sorrow and anger as part of a process ofhealing the heart’ (cf. Korn®eld 1993).

Conversely, vedana, like mental proliferation (sankhara), can sometimes, therefore, be translated by the term reaction’. However, the mental reactions of sankhara are balanced by the active part this tier of mental formation’ plays in determining experience, making its translation by (mental) formation’ or disposition’ preferable to the term reaction’. Sankhara refers not only to elaborative thoughts and memories that are immediately present to awareness, but also to habits of mind that, in becoming established and deepened through repetition, could be described as unconscious. Consciousness (vinaya) is subject itself to aggregation (and therefore conditioning and limitation) but has a unique ontological status in that it ultimately subsumes the other four aggregates.

The prime characteristic that all these aggregates share is that they are conditioned, being known because of this as the five aggregates of clinging’. In being conditioned, they contribute to suffering (dukka). There is an important equation of the whole concept of suffering beyond what is overtly painful, to what is limited. Human experience is only possible with the participation of all five kinds of aggregate. Their interplay usually serves both to restrict current experience and to condition experiences in the future.

The exposition of the aggregates in the honeyball sutta depended upon the Buddhist concept of the six senses. In addition to the five senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, the mind is regarded as a sixth sense organ. Although the repetitious references to each sensory system in turn can seem redundant, recognition of the independence of the systems ensures that separate attention is given to each kind of sensation, and also to the mind. The objects of the mind are mental contents such as thoughts. Experiences originating with the mind are as prone to conditioning as those arising through any other sense organ. Conditioning of the mind fosters the illusory appearance of permanence and self on which subjective psychological life is normally based, but which is antithetical to the Buddhist conception of reality as impermanent (anicca) and not organised around selves (anatta).

Several features of this Buddhist view of perception are at odds with Western assumptions. There will be no sensing I’ to which all perceptual pathways ultimately lead. Instead, the process of seeing is distinct from that of hearing, each sense modality being bound up with its own form of consciousness. Perception is not some linear process that tracks from some objective external entity to some stable, experiencing ego. Rather, the way elementary forms are linked to one another in the course of cognition depends on the mental formations through which they are filtered. It follows that perception that is not tainted, even prior to the conscious registration of sensations, is virtually impossible, as distortions render the experience partial at each stage. The Western dichotomy between active’ and passive’ mental processes is misleading here, as perception is indissolubly active and passive. The whole system invites comparison with the most thorough account of cognition to be found in Western philosophy, that of Immanuel Kant (Kant 2003). Kant had to invoke a priori mental structures to account for the apparent unity of perception. The Buddhist account maintains that such apparent unity is imposed rather than necessary, while the quality of perceptions will differ from one experiencer to another according to the shankaras or mental formations that uniquely condition their experience.

The foundations of mindfulness

Mindfulness was a prerequisite for the liberation sketched in the fourth Noble Truth, its perfection being a key component of the method the Buddha discovered and urged his disciples to follow. The three kinds of step within the Noble Eightfold Path were mentioned earlier. One set is in the form of moral preparations (right living, right action and right speech). Another set involves an apprehension of the world as it is (right view and right intention). The remaining set is distinct from the actions of the first or the understandings of the second, being particular forms of mental discipline (right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness). It is often taught that this set represents the means by which the moral preparations making up the first set come to be realised as the wisdom of right view and right intention. This teaching places the attainment of mindfulness in a pivotal position in the attainment of liberation. Along with the proper exercise of concentration and effort, right mindfulness would bring about the dissolution of the aggregates that is necessary for cognition to lose its fetters and for liberation to follow.

While influential, this account of progression from actions through mental purification to wisdom is not the only possible one. Rupert Gethin points out that the traditional enumeration of the eight steps does not follow this sequence and that some attempt to understand the world in terms of suffering is likely to need to precede striving for liberation, rather than the other way around (Gethin 1995: 84). Gethin argues against any sequential conception, suggesting that the Noble Eightfold Path requires concurrent progress on all fronts, and that complete success is as likely to be the product of liberation as its means. The practical importance of mindfulness’ is certainly underscored in the teachings that set out how it should be attained.

These are known as the four foundations (or establishings) of mindfulness. The sutta expounding them begins with the Buddha’s declaration, There is, monks, this one way to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realisation of Nibbana: that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness’ (Walshe 1995: 335). This has probably guaranteed that this sutta (thegreater discourse on the foundations of mindfulness’ or Mahasatipatthana Sutta) has been exceptionally popular, one translator, Maurice Walshe, observing, this is generally regarded as the most important sutta in the entire Pali canon’ (Walshe 1995: 588). It provides a good vehicle for investigating how the practice of mindfulness was taught in early Buddhism. Like the honeyball sutta, the Mahasatipatthana Sutta was very practical in its intent and design. The translation of patthana’ as foundations’ may suggest a theoretical work; as the alternative rendering ofestablishings’ suggests (VRI 1996), its subject is how the meditator can found or establish
mindfulness within himself or herself. The four foundations the Mahasatipatthana Sutta covers are contemplation (anupassana) of the body, contemplation of feelings, contemplation of the mind, and contemplation of mind objects. Of these four domains, the first and the last receive far more attention in the sutta than the other two. Exercises to develop contemplation of the body are described in a series of six sections: 1. on breathing; 2. on postures; 3. on clear comprehension; 4. on the repulsiveness of the body; 5. on the material elements; 6. nine graveyard contemplations. These are followed by short sections on the contemplation of feelings (vedana) and contemplation of mind (citta). The final section on contemplation of mental objects (dhamma) provides instruction on contemplating five key doctrines of Buddhist teaching: 1. the five hindrances; 2. the five aggregates of clinging; 3.
the six internal and external sense bases; 4. the seven factors of enlightenment; 5. the Four Noble Truths.

The sutta concludes with a promise that whoever practises these four foundations of mindfulness will achieve either highest knowledge’ (anna) here and now, or, if there is still the slightest clinging, at least the state of non-return. (The former is equivalent to full liberation. The state of non-return means there would be no more earthly reincarnations before a future liberation.)

What kind of exercises are contained in these passages?

The very first item under contemplation of the body, commonly translated as mindfulness of breathing’, does contain clear instructions for maintaining attention on the passage of the breath in a seated posture. The first step is to breathe in and breathe out with awareness’. The next step is to know that when a breath is long, it is long, and when it is short, it is short. The next is for the meditator to train himself to feel the whole body as he breathes in and out. This, it is said, leads to calming of the body and the breath. An analogy is introduced at this point between the knowing’ that is required of variation in the breath and the knowing that a wood turner has when making a long turn or a short turn. This applies also to the way the whole body is known. A new idea is introduced, that the meditator practise contemplation of the body internally, or externally, or both internally and externally’. This is followed by an exhortation to contemplate origination factors in the body, or dissolution factors, or both. In this way, the awareness, this is body’, is established, through knowledge and awareness.

This reference to contemplating things internally, or externally, or both internally and externally’ is quite puzzling. It is far from incidental, as it is repeated many times throughout the sutta, whenever a new practice is recommended. Modern teachers say relatively little about these phrases, suggesting that external contemplation involves awareness of the breathing of others while internal contemplation is awareness of the breathing of oneself (e.g. Silananda 2002: 24±5). However they might be interpreted, this aspect of this and all the other exercises in the sutta does not appear to be crucial, as it is omitted in alternative accounts such as the sutta on mindfulness of breathing (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995: 941±8); or the sutta on the mindfulness of the body (949±58) within the same collection.

Despite the reverence in which the Mahasatipatthana Sutta is held, there have been significant variations between actual practices, even in monastic traditions, and the guidance in this sutta. Considerable emphasis on anchoring practice in awareness of the body, in terms of attention to the breath and to the body itself in the course of meditation, contrasts with the neglect of the latercontemplations’ about the body. As the founder of an international school of vipassana meditation comments, regarding all of the contemplations on repulsiveness, the body and the graveyard contemplations: This is just a beginning for those not in a position to observe reality inside. Impurity keeps overpowering them. Once they can think properly, they are ®t to practice, either with respiration or directly with sensations’ (Goenka 1988: 48).

However, the sutta reiterates the point of each contemplation in its own way: Truly, this body of mine too is of the same nature, it will become like that and will not escape from it.’ Thus, at the beginning and the end of this long section, [the meditator] dwells contemplating origination-factors in the body, or he dwells contemplating dissolution-factors in the body, or he dwells contemplating both origination- and dissolution-factors in the body. Or his mindfulness that “there is a body” is established in him to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness. Independent he dwells, clinging to nothing in the world’ (Thera 1965: 118). As the appreciation of constant origination and dissolution, moment by moment, is usually regarded as an advanced attainment (being a direct insight into impermanence), these contemplations’ are likely to have an important primary function in the cultivation of mindfulness.

After the whole section on contemplation of the body’, the sutta on the foundations of mindfulness proceeds to the three remaining sections. Of these, the last section on contemplation of mind objects’ is particularly extensive, moving through a range of teachings that outline the landscape the meditator faces. Most of these, including the five aggregates, the six sense spheres, the Four Noble Truths (incorporating the Noble Eightfold Path) have been mentioned already. The remaining two, which have not been mentioned, complement one other. They are the five hindrances and the seven enlightenment factors. The five hindrances (of desire, ill-will, drowsiness, agitation and doubt) are factors that, from the outset, stand in the way of attempts to establish mindful awareness. The seven factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation of reality, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration and equanimity) are a longer list of the positive mental qualities that lead to liberation through insight. Mindfulness has a key position among them. Apart from being necessary for any of the others to develop, mindfulness is also seen as mediating between the three active factors (investigation, energy and rapture) and the three passive ones (concentration, tranquillity and equanimity). Its pre-eminent role is in maintaing a delicate and auspicious balance between the active and passive factors so that an optimal level of activity is maintained (Thera 1994: 89).

The various exercises appear to pose a fundamentally similar challenge: the objects in question need to be apprehended for what they are, as distinct experiences that arise and dissolve, impersonally and without attachment. This applies to the various aspects of the body, sensations, and mental states discussed through the sutta’s ®rst three sections. Its ®nal section, on mental objects, includes both negative contents (e.g. the ®ve hindrances) as well as positive ones (e.g. the enlightenment factors). Because these are seen as intrinsically destructive or promotive of progress to insight and liberation, an initial phase in which they are discerned in a similar way to objects in earlier sections gives way to one in which active attention is given to the circumstances in which they have arisen. In this way, the hindrances are expected to loosen their hold, while the enlightenment factors are strengthened as they are experienced. At its conclusion, after outlining the Four Noble Truths, the mental objects’ section has a very similar coda to its predecessors:

Or his mindfulness that there are mind-objects’ is established in him to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness. Independent he dwells, clinging to nothing in the world. Thus indeed, monks, a monk dwells practising mind-object contemplation on the mind-objects of the four Noble Truths.

(Thera 1965: 125)

On the face of it, this is an injunction to strengthen the capacity to practise bare attention by resisting the subtle attraction of what are ordinarily the most essential teachings, in order to purify awareness until there is a direct, non-conceptual insight into reality. However, in broadly compatible ways, Nyanaponika Thera (1994) and Amadeo Sole-Leris (1992) both suggest that this task alters when the mental object is a fundamental doctrine about reality. With the cosmology of the five aggregates, and the spiritual message of the Four Noble Truths, the task becomes one of relating every other experience directly to those frameworks. Accordingly, each experience needs to be categorised in terms of its aggregate, so that the meditator develops an instinctive facility with the basic divisions of reality. Each reaction or action would be experienced in the light of the Four Noble Truths as any remaining attachment to it is loosened and a continuing, subliminal appreciation of the universality of dukka, anicca and anatta is confirmed. The result is the direct understanding with direct awareness the sutta speaks of.

The sutta ends, in effect, with a return to its beginning. It proclaims that it does not matter how long, or how short, a time the meditator takes. If the four foundations are developed as has been described (so that the student is independent, no longer clinging to any of the things that have been contemplated), final knowledge is attained, here and now’. If, instead, there is a trace of clinging left, the student’s fate will be to become a non-returner.

The sutta is compact yet comprehensive. It does not exhaust the four foundations of mindfulness (there are more elaborate methods for achieving mindfulness of the body, for instance, requiring separate attention to all of its 39 constituents in Buddhist anatomy), but it provides both instruction and explanation. As with any pivotal text, there are many passages that have been subjected to minute examination and dispute. Some have already been indicated and there is little need to go further into the others here. However, one topic that is touched on in the sutta remains critical to an understanding of what mindfulness is and what it is not. This is the relationship of mindfulness to clear comprehension.

Mindfulness and clear comprehension

We have noted already how mindfulness’ can have connotations of recollection, in the sense of self-awareness as well as recall of past events. While the latter is something that is likely to accompany increasing immediacy of awareness, awareness of an entire situation or gestalt classically shades into what is termed clear comprehension’. This is commonly found alongside mindfulness. Indeed, in the sutta on the foundations of mindfulness,mindfulness’ is often being used to translate a compound word (satisampajanna) that (as in the joint references to knowledge and mindfulness in the translated Mahasatipatthana Sutta) refers to both at the same time. Nyanaponika Thera makes the distinction:

Mindfulness is mostly linked with clear comprehension of the right purpose or suitability of an action, and other considerations. Thus again it is not viewed in itself. But to tap the actual and potential power of mindfulness it is necessary to understand and deliberately cultivate it in its basic, unalloyed form, which we shall call bare attention. By bare attention we understand the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. It is called bare’ because it attends to the bare facts of a perception without reacting to them by deed, speech or mental comment.

(Thera 1994: 72-3)

In its turn,clear comprehension’ has four different referents, that is, comprehension of purpose; of appropriateness; of maintaining meditation; and of reality. This is clear from the sutta’s second section’s treatment of contemplation of the body’. A subsection of it deals specifically withclear comprehension of the body’. There, over and above the use of the body as an object for bare attention, deliberate attention is paid to body postures and movements and also to the routine acts of everyday living. Sole-Leris comments:

In addition to broadening the scope for mindfulness, this exercise introduces a further element, described as clear comprehension’. This is the complement, at the intellectual level, of the mindful observation at the perceptual level. When meditation is carried out as an exclusive occupation in a motionless posture, whether seated, standing or lying down, it is, in fact, possible to exercise pure perceptual mindfulness. This is also possible ± to all practical purposes ± in the course of a period of formal walking meditation. But this is no longer the case when more complex activities are concerned involving . . . elements of intention, judgment, decision making, etc. By devoting to these mental components the same kind of deliberate attention as was paid to the bare sense data in the exercises just described, a clear comprehension is developed of the purpose of every action, of the best way of achieving that purpose . . . and of the exact nature of each act.

(Sole-Leris 1992: 87)

Elsewhere, it seems the clear comprehension’ of reality is inseparable from bare attention. The original sutta refers repeatedly to sati-sampajanna’, while all four major translations of the sutta into English acknowledge the growth of understanding alongside awareness. An untitled sutta in a related collection is even clearer about the interdependence of these capacities. In theconnected discourses on the establishment of mindfulness’, the Buddha declares: Bhikkhus [monks], a bhikkhu should dwell mindful and clearly comprehending: this is our instruction to you’ (Bohdi 2000: 1628). This brief untitled sutta then leads to a summary of the four foundations of mindfulness (contemplating the body in the body, feelings in feelings, mind in mind, and (mental) phenomena in phenomena as before) followed by instructions on how and when clear comprehension is exercised. These dictate that a monk should act with clear comprehension when walking forward and back; when looking ahead and to the side; when stretching the limbs out and drawing them in; when wearing clothes and carrying his coat and bowl; when eating, drinking, chewing or tasting food; when at the toilet; when standing or sitting; when falling asleep or waking up; and when speaking or remaining silent. It ends with a reminder of the importance of clear comprehension as well as mindfulness (Bohdi 2000: 1628).

The ambiguity of mindfulness

This close interrelationship between mindfulness and clear comprehension goes some way to explaining the ambiguities of mindfulness. To understand some of the other associations, it may be practically important to recognise that, beyond the practices making up the foundations of mindfulness’, other techniques are very commonly learned at the same time by students of Theravadan Buddhism. These include exercises designed to promote the Brahmaviharas or perfections’, which develop higher, social feelings such as loving kindness, compassion and joy on others’ behalf. When practised together, the Brahmaviharas are recognised to strengthen the capacity for bare attention, and vice versa. As well as helping to explain the high valuation placed on mindfulness in Buddhist psychology, awareness of this background is useful in understanding how slightly different nuances become attached to the concept by different commentators and practitioners. Two recent examples of how teachers have made sense of the breadth of mindfulness by using traditional teachings can illustrate this. Morgan and Morgan (2005: 76) draw on the interrelationship between the seven factors of enlightenment and learning mindfulness in practice. There is a well-respected tradition of learning mindfulness by deliberate cultivation of the qualities of investigation, energy, rapture, concentration, tranquillity and equanimity. (In fact, this strategy is at the core of the next most commonly used instructional sutta on mindfulness, the Anapanasati Sutta (Nanamoli 1964)).Mindfulness’ can take on more or less of any of these factors because of their close association ± without it being any less mindful. In a method that is reminiscent of teachers who use the Anapanasati Sutta directly (e.g. Rosenberg 1998), Morgan and Morgan turn this to practical use by encouraging their students to cultivate actively each of these qualities in order to deepen their attention. An intriguing bid to harmonise different conceptions of mindfulness ± and to argue for one in which underlying motivation and the transpersonal affects of the perfections’ are emphasised – comes from Shauna Shapiro and colleagues (2006). In referring to Kabat-Zinn’s widely cited de®nition of mindfulness in terms of deliberation, attention and non-judgement, they propose that differences in the quality of mindfulness can be understood in terms of three axes, labelledintention’, attention' andattitude’. Each contributes to mindfulness, but the result as it is experienced by an individual, they suggest, depends upon the nature of the intention, attention and attitude. For this purpose, attention’ refers to paying attention, and how far this is continuous, selective, and precursive; attitude’ refers to how attention is paid. This can refer to qualities such as equanimity, curiosity or acceptance that inform the paying of attention. For Shapiro, who sees positive emotions such as compassion and loving kindness to be integral to mindfulness (she talks of heart-mindfulness), attitudes of warmth and friendliness are inseparable from it.Intention’ refers to the motivation leading to mindful practice and why it is undertaken. This understanding of intention is therefore different from either the sense of being deliberate in the way attention is paid, or from the Buddhist concept of right intention’, which, in embracing qualities such as desirelessness, friendliness or compassion, is actually closer to what Shapiro calls attitude’. Once this is understood, it appears that the aspects of intention, attention and attitude start to correspond to the traditional subdivisions of morality, meditation and wisdom within the Noble Eightfold Pat that were discussed earlier. In this discussion of the origins’ of mindfulness, it seemed appropriate to rely heavily on the early Buddhist texts from the Pali canon. This is not to imply that traditions that today continue to base themselves on these works enjoy a practical monopoly on mindful awareness. While other traditions have subsequently diverged considerably in their philosophies, they remain consistent with the basic ontology outlined here. Mindfulness is also key to other traditions’ day-to-day practices, even if this may not be stressed in their literature. The translator Maurice Walshe observes: Among the Mahayans schools of the Far East, it is chiefly the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen that are the closest to the spirit of Satipatthana’ (Walshe 1995: 588). Although they differ in their aims, theory and methods, Walshe maintains that the links between Ch’an, Zen and Satipatthana are close and strong, even if they are rarely noticed. In support of this contention, he cites three common factors: the direct confrontation with actuality (including one’s mind), the transcending of conceptual thought by direct observation and introspection; [and] the emphasis on the Here and Now’ (Walshe 1995: 589). The neuroscientist James Austin also comments on the closeness of Zen and vipassana, as they adopt similar methods for developing anonreactive, bare awareness open to anything’, where informal practice between sessions is just as important as formal sittings. Austin’s comments here are also helpful in starting to move beyond origins to other aspects of mindfulness:

Up to now, we have been describing how mindfulness meditation begins. But from here on it will evolve. Rarely does this point receive the emphasis it deserves. As it evolves, it proceeds in both external and internal dimensions along lines that are increasingly intuitive. So, on some brief occasions, paying bare attention will turn into an outflowing: a totally appreciative, sacramental approach to the wondrous commonplace events of the present moment. At other times, bare attention turns inward. Now, its functions expand to include introspection and self-analysis. Personal matters rise into it spontaneously to become grist for the mill of intuition. Indeed, it then resembles psychoanalysis in the way it observes the topics it submits to intensive introspection.

(Austin 1998: 127)

Attentive readers will notice how Austin here felicitously resolves the issue of internal' andexternal’ contemplation in terms of the perceived ¯ow of attention. He also brings us to the next two arenas of the present survey: science and psychotherapy.


Contemporary definitions of mindfulness recognise an immediate and receptive awareness, shorn of reactions and judgement. Early Buddhist literature identifes a form of awareness, prior to the elaboration of experience through habitual reactions, which is known as bare attention’ as well as mindfulness’. Mindfulness differs from the highly conditioned states of everyday awareness, but can be cultivated through practices that aim to recover its
unconditioned quality. Traditionally, these involve disciplined attention to the body (including breathing), felt reactions, patterns of the mind, and apprehension of the basic nature of reality in all experience. Development of mindfulness in this way is a precondition of liberation, although other factors are required to complete the mental purification that permits this direct, immediate and irreversible knowledge of reality that in Buddhism is the only alternative to suffering. In practice, mindfulness is cultivated alongside closely related capacities such as clear comprehension. While these have not always been clearly distinguished, the synergies between mindfulness and the positive mental capacities it is most closely associated with in Buddhist psychology underpin the commonest ambiguities found in descriptions of `mindfulness’.

Chris Mace