The practice of “mindfulness” has become widely adopted in modern Western society as a method for reducing stress, managing pain and increasing effectiveness in dealing with work or with life in general. Deriving from various Buddhist meditation practices, mindfulness training entails quieting down our minds and watching our breath, our thoughts, emotions, feelings of happiness or sadness, physical sensations, and so on. Often, the training is presented in more general terms as watching the ever-changing present moment of the ever-changing objects of our minds.
Indian Buddhist Sources
The Theravada presentation of mindfulness (Pali: sati) is based on Upatissa’s Path of Liberation (Pali: Vimuttimagga) and Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification (Pali: Visuddhimagga). There, mindfulness is described as an integral facet of many assorted meditations. Within meditation, mindfulness has the characteristic feature of remembering or recollection, as in always remembering the breath or the fact of death. Its function is not to forget and it is manifested as guarding the mind from losing its object. In a sense, then, mindfulness is a type of “mental glue” that holds on to its object of focus without letting go. Once it is established on an object, mindfulness needs to be accompanied by discriminating awareness about some feature of that object, such as its impermanence.
Vasubandhu, representing the Hinayana Vaibhashika school in his Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmakosha), lists mindfulness (Skt. smrti) as one of the ten mental factors that accompany all moments of cognition. It accompanies them whether those cognitions are also accompanied by other constructive, destructive or only unspecified (ethically neutral) mental factors. Thus, mindfulness is present all the time, not only in the context of meditation.
In his Commentary to “Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge” (Skt. Abhidharmakosha-bhashya), Vasubandhu defines mindfulness as the mental factor of not letting go of or not forgetting its object, and thus it entails a coveting of its object or a noting of its object. Because of coveting or noting its object, mindfulness allows us to recollect that object later.
In his Mahayana Chittamatra text, Treatment of the Five Aggregates (Skt. Panchaskandha-prakarana), Vasubandhu presents mindfulness specifically in the context of recollecting an object. Thus he states there that mindfulness is the mental state of not letting go of a familiar object and noting it once more. In his commentary to this text, Sthiramati explains that “familiar object” means something that we have experienced before. Thus, recollecting an object can be within the context of meditation on the object or simply in everyday occurrences of remembering something.
Asanga, in his Chittamatra text, Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), presents mindfulness as one of the five ascertaining mental factors. As one of these five, mindfulness is a mental factor that occurs only in constructive cognitions and only in those constructive cognitions that apprehend their objects, in other words cognitions that cognize their objects accurately and decisively. Its object must be something constructive with which we are familiar; its aspect must be that it is focused on this object and does not forget or lose it; and its function is to prevent mental wandering.
In Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo), in the section on developing absorbed concentration (Skt. samadhi) and a stilled and settled state of mind (Skt. shamatha), the Tibetan master Tsongkhapa, elaborates on Asanga’s definition of mindfulness. He explains that mindfulness (Tib. dran-pa), in the context of shamatha meditation, has three characteristics:
- It focuses on an object that we are previously familiar with, not something unfamiliar. Thus its object is something that we have become certain about and may be either constructive, like the visualized image of a Buddha, or unspecified (ethically neutral), like the body.
- Its mental hold on the object is such that we do not forget about the object. “Not forgetting” does not just mean when someone asks us, we can remember what the instructions for the practice are or that our object of focus is like this or like that. It means as soon as we have tied our mind to the focal object, we immediately mentally hold it without the slightest distraction of mental wandering. If our attention wanders off even the slightest, we have lost our mindfulness. So after placing our attention on a focal object and generating the thought that I have tied my mind to this object like this, then with a state of mind that does not discursively (verbally) think anything new, cultivating a continuity of unbroken strength of this is the way to entrust ourselves to mindfulness. Entrusting ourselves to being mindful, then, is like entrusting ourselves to our doctor or to our spiritual teacher. We only entrust ourselves to a doctor or a spiritual teacher when we are confident that the person is fully qualified. Likewise, we only entrust ourselves to mindfulness, when our state of mind fulfills the qualifications for being in fact a state of mindfulness.
- Its function is to not let our mind get distracted to some other focal object. More fully, mindfulness prevents our attention from forgetting about or losing the object of focus; it holds our attention on this object with endurance; and it maintains continuity of familiarity with this object.
When practicing to attain a stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha, the object of focus in the meditation remains constant, for instance when focusing on a visualized Buddha. In mindfulness practice, however, as taught in modern Western society, the object is the ever-changing present moment of the ever-changing objects of our mental or physical cognition. This is more in line with the Theravada presentation of mindfulness, in terms of its object, and in accord with Vasubandhu’s Vaibhashika presentation that mindfulness accompanies all moments of cognition. The object, however, is not, as Vasubandhu and Asanga specify in their Chittamatra texts, something that we have previously become familiar with, such as the physical appearance of a Buddha. Rather, we try to focus on what we are experiencing in each moment – the physical sensation, the thought, the emotion, or the feeling. But, as Asanga qualifies, we focus on them with accuracy and decisiveness.
The state of mindfulness of the present moment that we try to develop is actually a blend of several mental factors specified in the Buddhist analysis of the mind. The main ones employed are mindfulness itself, alertness and caring concern (a caring attitude). In order to practice mindfulness more effectively, it is helpful to identify each of these factors so that if any are deficient in strength, we can adjust them.
Mindfulness itself, the so-called “mental glue,” needs to be accompanied by two further mental factors: distinguishing (recognition) and consideration (taking to mind).
“Distinguishing” (Tib. 'du-shes, Skt. samjna) focuses on the characteristic features of the various components that make up each moment of our experience. It singles these out from everything else. For instance, distinguishing singles out the physical sensation of pain from other physical sensations we are simultaneously experiencing, such as the temperature of the room we are in. Correct consideration takes the object accurately for what it is – pain is simply a physical sensation, nothing more and nothing less.
With mindfulness accompanied by distinguishing and correct consideration, we try to remain focused on the contents of the ever-changing present moment. We try to do that without losing the contents of the present moment as our object of focus by becoming distracted. Distraction often occurs because we are thinking about what we have experienced in prior moments or what we might experience in future moments. We then lose sight of the fact that these thoughts of the past or the future are merely what are occurring now. We stop distinguishing them as merely the content of our present moment of experience, and become absorbed instead into their “story-line.” Consequently, we have lost our object of focus due to distraction by these thoughts. If, however, we are successful in maintaining an undistracted state of mind, we have achieved stable mindfulness that does not forget about its object of focus. In this way, mindfulness functions as the mental glue to hold our attention on the ever-changing present moment of our experience.
In his commentary to Asanga’s Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes (Skt. Madhyantavibhaga), Sthiramati explains that as an aid for maintaining mindfulness, we need to remind ourselves from time to time of our object of focus. This means mentally saying a keyword so that we keep the hold of our mindfulness strong. This is in accord with Vasubandhu’s assertion that mindfulness entails making note of its object. Tsongkhapa elaborates on this point: “If you refute this, saying that this is discursive thinking and so don’t verbally remind yourself, it will be very difficult to develop strong mindfulness and alertness.”
Alertness (Tib. shes-bzhin, Skt. samprajanya) is the mental factor that monitors and checks the condition of mindfulness’s mental hold on the object of focus. It functions within the context of maintaining mindfulness on our object of focus – the contents of our present moment of experience. In a sense, then, alertness is a part of strong mindfulness. As Tsongkhapa points out, the stronger our mindfulness becomes, the more accustomed we become to remaining mindful without distraction. As a result, we become more sensitive to notice when we in fact become distracted. In this way, the stronger our mindfulness is, the stronger will be our alertness.
We should not think of alertness in dualistic terms as an independently existing watchman mind looking at a trainee mind that is totally separate from it. On the other hand, Tsongkhapa points out that we need to differentiate the two, mindfulness and alertness, carefully. He warns, “If you confuse and mix all these states of mind together and don’t make these distinctions, like many meditators in Tibet do nowadays, everything gets muddled and I doubt that they actually attain a state of absorbed concentration.”
Alertness does not merely note deviations in our mindfulness, but, it also, in a sense, triggers an internal “alarm system,” so that with restoring attention, we correct our focus and re-establish mindfulness. In order for alertness and restoring attention to perform their functions, however, we need to employ the third major component of mindfulness practice: caring concern.
Caring concern (Tib. bag-yod, Skt. apramada) is the mental factor that takes care and is careful about our state of mind. It safeguards our mind from leaning toward the destructive side and keeps it on the constructive, positive side. Thus, with caring concern, we take seriously our state of mind; we “care about” it. In this regard, caring concern is somewhat similar to the mental factor of coveting the object of focus that Vasubandhu describes as being part of mindfulness.
Vasubandhu makes the point that if we didn’t covet our object of focus in some specific moment, in other words if we didn’t hold it close, in a sense, as something worthy to remember, we would be unable to recall it. Caring concern, however, entails much more than coveting. It is not merely caring enough about an object of focus so that we can remember it. Rather, because of our caring concern, we are moved to use restoring attention to correct the mental hold of our mindfulness when alertness detects that it has become faulty. Without caring concern, we wouldn’t care that we have forgotten about our object of focus, the present moment, even if we notice that we have become distracted. Caring concern, then, is the basis for ethical self-discipline, with which we refrain from destructive behavior.
The Tibetan term for caring concern, “bag-yod, literally means to “have caution.” Its opposite is bag-med, to lack caution, to be careless. The original Sanskrit, however, that was translated into Tibetan as bag-yod is “apramada,” which means “not-pramada.” “Pramada” means drunk or mentally unstable, such that we neither care about what we say or do, nor take care about either of them. With caring concern, then, we are not like a drunk person. We are sober, reserved and responsible, and thus take care about our state of mind.
The practice of mindfulness, then, employs a complex network of mental factors, all focused on the ever-changing contents of our present moment of experience. In addition to the three main ones of mindfulness, alertness and caring concern, it also entails distinguishing, correct consideration, ethical self-discipline and, when needed, restoring attention. Thus, we need discriminating awareness to distinguish with certainty each of these factors. Discriminating awareness in the context of mindfulness meditation, then, is not restricted to focusing merely on some aspect of its object of focus, such as the impermanence of each moment of our experience. It focuses as well on the various aspects of our state of mind while we are meditating.
Tsongkhapa emphasizes, then, in his discussion of developing a stilled and settled state of shamatha, the need to rely on the authoritative texts of the great Indian Buddhist masters. He advises:
Don’t just place your hopes on pushing yourself hard with blind enthusiasm. As Aryashura wrote in Compendium of the Far-Reaching Attitudes (Skt. Paramitasamasa), "Using only enthusiasm, you will end up just getting exhausted. But if you cultivate yourself with the help of discriminating awareness, then you will accomplish great purposes.”