Mindfulness is a translation of the word sati in the ancient Pali language of the early Buddhist texts. Sati means to remember to be aware or pay attention: it has an element of being present, and an element of returning or remembering. Before the translation to the English word mindfulness, the old-fashioned English word ‘recollection’ was used, which also suggests a movement of coming back to ourselves. Mindfulness has come to the western world along with the introduction of Buddhist spiritual and meditative practices over the last 50 years. It is a central practice of most Buddhist traditions, and indeed, in one form or another, the practice of being aware is part of all spiritual traditions. It is one of the techniques of spiritual training that has emerged from the monasteries of Burma and Thailand, and become packaged for westerners, much as yoga has arrived from its Hindu spiritual source.
In the early texts it is very clearly described: when you breathe in a long breath you know it is a long breath, when a short breath you know it is a short breath…. when stretching out the arm you know it, when turning, walking, sitting, eating you know it…and so on. You know sounds and tastes touch and smells. That is on the level of body. It gets subtler of course. When a thought arises you know that you are thinking and you know what kind of thought it is. You know when you are attracted or pulled towards something you like or pushed away from something you don’t like. You know the arising of intentions and will, of moods and states of mind. You know the inner emotional climate, subtle or gross forms of anger, joy, love and every other feeling. You know what it is like to be you at every moment. In other words you are fully present and aware at each moment.
This is no easy task, and it is usual to take it step by step, training the attention by regular practice or in intensive retreats. The training involves staying steady for longer and longer periods with some slice of our sensory impressions in the present moment. If, for example, the breath is used as the point of focus, the training is to stay with the breath, observing it fully, for as long as possible. After a period, the mind is distracted and goes off on its usual tracks. One lets the mind go, and returns to the breath. The contact of the foot with the ground while walking, of the body on the floor while lying, or the taste of the food while chewing, are all possible places to train our mindfulness. Gradually, mindfulness becomes established for longer and longer periods, and one becomes more sensitive, more able to notice things, and be present with whatever comes up. Continued practice can bring us to a deep spiritual transformation as life opens itself up to our penetrating attention.
But fortunately mindfulness is highly effective even in small doses. Preliminary exercises and training may start just with taking time to really experience the eating of an orange, or to fully catch the experience of just a few breaths. At this level it can help us come back to ourselves, feel at home with ourselves, engage more effectively with the ups and downs of daily life, and feel that we are living more fully. It works because it opens a window to the basic truth that we live our life only in the present moment. And in this present moment we experience a flow of ever-changing impressions and experiences. Getting closer to this truth we begin to feel fully and wonderfully alive. Much as we were when we were children, with every moment full of wonder and interest. And with that same innocence, if something is painful we can cry, but immediately afterwards we have moved on and the sun shines again.
Mindfulness works because it runs counter to the tendencies, which cause us stress, depression and suffering, and limit our engagement with the lived experience. The tendency is for our mind and ourselves to be completely and endlessly caught up by things we like or do not like. If we have a task, we are totally occupied with what we need to do, with its success or failure. If we have a pain, we completely absorbed with dealing with it and in being the victim of it. If we have emotional or relationship issues, they keep going round and round our minds and we may feel submerged or depressed. It is as if we are under an enchantment, and we forget the changing, dynamic and free nature of our real experience in the present moment. For example, we forget that we have a head unless we have a headache, forget that we breathe unless we have asthma, forget that we are standing on this earth when we are waiting impatiently in line at the bank, forget that we are touching a keyboard and creating words when we are under stress to reach a deadline, and so on. If we become intimate with our true experience, remarkable things can happen. For example if we begin to turn towards physical pain instead of away from it, and bring mindfulness to bear on it, we may find that it is not a solid and unpleasant block of pain, but rather a changing experience like any other, now strong, now weak, now urgent, now uninteresting, now here now there, now evident, and now vanished. In this way mindfulness training can help chronic pain patients to completely shift their attitude from sufferer to participator, and they find that the pain is far less of a problem. Mindfulness softens the scars of living, and brings them back into circulation.
In a deeper sense, there is no real problem in the present moment, even though we may have unpleasant as well as pleasant experiences, because we do not build up unpleasant experiences into a state of suffering. In this present moment things feel new, simple, meaningful, and direct. Each living moment opens itself to us anew in the full gaze of our attention. This is what makes life sacred. As the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was one of the pioneers of mindfulness in the West, said: “I must confess it takes me a little longer to do the dishes in mindfulness, but I live fully in every moment and I am happy. Each second of life is a miracle; the dishes themselves and the fact that I am washing them are miracles! Every conscious step we make a flower blooms under our feet.”