Mindfulness (mental element 30, Mi)
Mindfulness is so intricately associated with meditation that it is difficult to understand it clearly without actually meditating.
Simply stated, mindfulness means being aware or present, or having presence of mind as in awareness. Mindfulness is having awareness of the phenomenon of body, mind, or consciousness occurring at the present moment. It is the opposite of unawareness, forgetfulness, confusion, instability, wandering or drifting away in thoughts, or being carried away by thought. It should not be confused with worldly-minded attentiveness or the ability to focus.
There are various levels of mindfulness, ranging from bare attention to full awareness. Bare attention means simply paying attention to something. Awareness means established mindfulness, which is not just being attentive, perceptive, reflective, or contemplative. It is a combination of all those qualities and many more. Altogether these qualities of mindfulness result in the arising of wisdom about an experience. Established mindfulness can be defined as minding an experience in its totality.
In order to arouse, develop, and establish in mindfulness, it is necessary to practice the contemplation of all phenomena related to body-mind-consciousness. It is necessary to observe and contemplate upon everything that we experience: our breath, posture, body parts, feelings, moods, emotions, thoughts, states of consciousness, mental objects, laws of nature, realities of existence, and so on. Meditators especially need to consider these attributes of established mindfulness whenever it is being mulled over.
When a meditator says he is mindful of his breath, he should mean that he is paying attention to his breath, observing it as it moves, reflecting upon its movement, contemplating its changing and impersonal nature, and then becoming aware of it as a bodily phenomenon that is impermanent and impersonal.
Similarly, when a meditator says he is mindful about a feeling, he should mean that he is paying attention to the feeling, observing it as it changes, reflecting upon or perceiving its quality (as painful or pleasant, joy or sorrow), contemplating its changing and impersonal nature, and then becoming aware of it as a mental phenomenon that is impermanent and impersonal.
Likewise, when a meditator says he is mindful about greed, he should mean that he is paying attention to his state of consciousness, observing it as it comes and goes, reflecting upon its unwholesome quality (greediness), contemplating its changing and impersonal nature, and then becoming aware of it as a phenomenon of unwholesome consciousness that is impermanent and impersonal.
When a meditator says he is mindful about craving, he should mean that he is paying attention to the presence of craving in consciousness. He should mean that he is observing, reflecting, and contemplating upon its impermanent and impersonal nature, and also upon how it was aroused, how it can be overcome, and how it may not arise in the future. Thereby he becomes aware of the totality of the nature of craving as an unwholesome, impermanent, and impersonal mental formation.
In this way, a meditator should become mindful of everything that is experienced.
Mindfulness, in a way, arises out of the memory of real nature of our existence. It is like remembering who we really are and becoming aware of ourselves. Having understood that, one should not confuse mindfulness with memory. Mindfulness is the mental phenomenon that facilitates the functioning of memory. It awakens memory. Without mindfulness, memory cannot function properly. To this extent, mindfulness and memory are related.
A memory can be wholesome or unwholesome. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is inherently wholesome by its own nature. Its ethical quality is intrinsically good under any circumstances. It always arises with a bunch of other wholesome mental elements. In fact, mindfulness is present in every single wholesome consciousness that arises in our embodiment. It is not limited to spiritual or meditative/absorptive consciousness.
Mindfulness is the foundation of a wholesome mind. Therefore, the practice of mindfulness is meant for developing a wholesome mind and not just awakening the memory. It is meant for making us aware of our true nature.
Now, let us discuss how mindfulness makes us aware of ourselves. First of all, we must understand that mindfulness has to be developed to its full capacity, meaning it has to grow from bare attention to awareness. Table below, “The Stages of Development of Mindfulness Using the Breath as a Meditation Subject,” illustrates how this can happen in the case of becoming mindful of the breath during a single meditation experience. While it is possible for any meditator to get to stage 5, most novices do not experience the full development of mindfulness without ardent and consistent practice.
At stage 3 and beyond, there is seeing, wakefulness, vision, and understanding. Here, mindfulness cannot occur without wise attention. The mindfulness faculty “sees” and the wise attention faculty “knows.”
Because of mindfulness, a meditator sees the arising and passing away of the breath, and because of wise attention a meditator understands that the arising and passing away of the breath is the nature of impermanence. Seeing and knowing are like spiritual feet, without which walking on the path to self-knowledge is not possible.
Concentration vs. Mindfulness
Mindfulness and concentration are different phenomena, even though they are closely related and we use them to denote an activity as a meditation. The following table illustrates a few subtle differences that should help avoid confusion.
If mindfulness were a telescope, concentration would be a microscope. Just as we need telescope and microscope to explore the totality of the material world, we need mindfulness and concentration to explore the totality of the mental world.
It is important to understand that mindfulness and concentration are both necessary for an effective meditation to take place. They play equally important roles. The key is to utilize their uniqueness (as clarified in table 13.2) whenever and wherever necessary. Then meditation practices result in total mental development.
I personally feel that concentration is much harder to practice than mindfulness. Concentration is an active and exclusive meditation, requiring some effort in focusing (activity) and in eliminating distractions (exclusivity). Mindfulness is often effortless because it is inclusive of everything. It only requires being mindful of whatever is happening at the present moment. Notwithstanding, if you are feeling restless and agitated, you should practice concentration meditation, such as focusing on your breath or a mantra. When you are not able to remain present mentally due to rolling thoughts and become negligent, you should practice mindfulness meditation, such as passively observing the arising and passing away of thoughts.
In any meditation, both concentration and mindfulness should be functional. However, one of the two elements should play a dominating role depending upon your mental condition and skill as a meditator. In any case, use mindfulness and concentration to support each other.
Mindfulness and concentration complement each other. But which one is more important for attaining perfect intelligence? In my opinion, mindfulness is more important because it actually begins and guarantees perfection. Concentration alone cannot do that.
Mindfulness: The Foundation for Developing
Mental Powers and Eradicating Mental Weaknesses
When mindfulness is established through ardent and diligent practice, it gives rise to a sense of mental mastery. We begin to feel we are in control of the mind. We begin to feel we know our own mind. This sense of mental mastery awakens the mind to its own ultimate potential. We start realizing what our minds can do. We start thinking about extraordinary things. We no longer fall prey to mundane aspects of our existence. Instead, we start pursuing flawlessness, aptness, righteousness, excellence, greatness, and so on. In this way, mindfulness wakes up the mind to attain perfection, meaning, it makes the mind prone to perfection.
Established mindfulness guarantees mental perfection just as entering a river guarantees a one-way journey towards the ocean, the river’s final destination. The spiritual path is like a river moving towards the ocean of perfect intelligence. Any spiritual path begun with mindfulness is destined to culminate there. In this sense, established mindfulness is the number one mental power.
Established mindfulness as a mental power assists in awakening six other mental powers: thoughtfulness, vigor, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. Mindfulness is the cause and foundation for their arising and development. The spiritual journey does not culminate into perfect intelligence unless mindfulness is combined with these six mental powers.
Mindfulness also serves as the cause and foundation for the removal of seven mental weaknesses (greed, superstition, suspicion, sloth and torpor, restlessness, worry, and hatred) that hinder the development of mental powers. Let us see how this happens.
Due to its ability to safeguard and restrain the senses, mindfulness naturally leads to the removal of sensual desires (greed). This frees the mind for investigating and discriminating what is wholesome and what is not, what is good and what is not, what is real and what is not, what is the law of nature and what is not. This gives rise to thoughtfulness. As the practice of mindfulness matures, the mind develops mental clarity, understanding, faith, and commitment, which leads to the eradication of false beliefs, wrong views, skeptical doubt (superstition and suspicion) about the practice being undertaken and about the supremacy of the laws of nature.
As thoughtfulness matures, it couples with mindfulness about the received benefits and gives rise to vigor. This is required for diligence and the continuation of spiritual practice. Vigor coupled with mental clarity, understanding, faith, and commitment eventually leads to the removal of mental sluggishness, dullness, unwieldiness, and mental sickness (sloth and torpor). Absence of sloth and torpor helps combine vigor with mindfulness and rapture arises. The natural outcome of rapture is concentration, balanced effort, contentment, physical comfort, and so on, which eventually result in peacefulness and coolness: tranquility.
When tranquility matures, it leads to refinement of conduct and deeper knowledge of reality. All these conditions eventually lead to the removal of mental agitation, turmoil, remorse, and regrets (restlessness and worry). Tranquility always leads to improved concentration and contemplation because it makes the mind happier, and frees it from subtle distraction and aversion. When higher levels of concentration develop due to tranquility and when they are coupled with mindfulness, equanimity— the ultimate mental power—arises.
Mindfulness not only is a powerful spiritual practice, it also is a universal mental remedy. Many mundane mental problems can be solved effectively by its practice. For example, forgetfulness, emotional vulnerability, and addiction to food, drinks, and intoxicants, and high or low self-esteem, among other problems can all be cured by the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness also serves to balance various mental faculties. If mindfulness is present, faith and vigor do not result in extremism. If mindfulness is present, concentration does not result in idleness or boredom.
Mindfulness is an anchor for spiritual seekers. It becomes their best refuge, island resort, and last home! It protects and restrains the mind and exerts the mind whenever and wherever necessary. It develops the mind wholesomely so that it becomes independent of and unattached to anything in the world. When mindfulness is present, there is no need to search for a safe haven. It itself is the place to rest safely and peacefully.