When I write or speak of mindfulness (“Sati” in Pali) I emphasize the connotation of remembering—not in the usual sense of a memory of ideas or images, but in the sense of a direct and wordless return to the experience of being here and now. You might even say that I have been in love with this particular facet of the jewel of mindfulness—yet there are more to love. Mindfulness is also direct, non-conceptual awareness or bare attention. This kind of attention is often compared to our peripheral vision, a soft, undemanding attention, as opposed to the dogged focus of our central attention. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental way of observing, an impartial watchfulness of the whole passing show within—no feeling or tangle of feelings, no matter how squirmy and scrambled, is excluded or dismissed or judged in any way.
At the same time, mindfulness is remembering. It is the gentle tug or the wordless call we feel to remember what we are supposed to be doing here—not just in meditation but on earth. Mindfulness calls us to stop missing our real time here, dreaming, web surfing, wandering lost in the maze of our favorite thought patterns. Mindfulness shows us that there are deeper truths to be seen–to be lived. There is the truth of our impermanence, and the haunting sense of incompleteness or unsatisfactoriness or anxious messiness that arises all the time.
Mindfulness is not an answer to this suffering in the sense of an intellectual formula. It is the light, clear, energy of awareness that allows us to see and participate in reality. The non-judgment and non-attachment that characterize it is not cold but warm and alive.
I recently learned that the root of “educate” is “educare,” which means to bring to wholeness. Mindfulness educates us in the root sense by showing us what gets in the way of wholeness. With practice, mindfulness shows us how to be with reality without grasping at what we perceive as pleasant or pushing away what we perceive as unpleasant.
One moment at a time, mindfulness frees us from misery of our endless longing by breaking the spell of thought. We can rest our minds in mindful awareness, which brings us to life. Mindfulness leads us out of the wasteland of fruitless worry to real compassion, which is responsiveness to life. I think it is comparable to what the Desert Fathers called the quickening of the spirit.
My new favorite Pali word which is translated into English as mindfulness is “Appamada.” This means non-negligence or absence of madness.