This is a very brief description of what is meant by mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. If you want a full presentation there are many wonderful works of popular scholarship on this topic, several of which I list at the end of this piece. Also Google is an endless source of a more complete reference list.
In recent years people have awakened to the rich traditions of Buddhism. There are many flavors available to us in this country and it can be confusing for anyone new to this spiritual path. They all began with the Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, born in what is now Nepal, nearly twenty-six hundred years ago. The teaching spread widely and, depending on the culture where it was taken up, it adopted different flavors and emphases. But they all share the basic teachings of interdependence, impermanence and emptiness. They all hold out the promise of insight into and freedom from suffering.
Now Mindfulness is an essential element of Buddhist practice – presence of mind. It has been taken up by modern medical and psychological approaches to healing and there is now much research available on its efficacy in wholeness and healing. But really in our ordinary lives, being aware, being present IS our life. There is nothing exotic about this. We are naturally aware, but don’t always appreciate the freedom and spaciousness in just being present. There is a simplicity to mindfulness. We just notice and engage what is unfolding right now.
The Satipatthana Sutra, The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness lays out the teaching in fine detail and can be taken up as a guide in mindfulness meditation. It’s helpful to recognize that mindfulness is always a possibility, but mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are not the same thing. Mindfulness meditation is an intentional and minutely specific practice. We begin in stillness in a seated position, but can also practice it while walking, standing or lying down. This silent, set-apart meditation practice has an impact on our ability to be fully engaged, then, when we are in the midst of the din and distraction of our ordinary activities. So, if we are mindful, we are paying attention, even when we are moving quickly and talking and listening. That is different from Mindfulness Meditation, which is deliberate and nothing else is going on but that.
So, if you are doing mindfulness meditation while walking, just the upright posture fills your awareness – the most intimate, inmost physicalities of lifting the foot, bringing it forward, placing it, shifting weight, etc. In mindfulness of breathing, as the Buddha sets out, you are aware when breathing in, that you are breathing in; when breathing out, you are aware of breathing out. The attention is not bopping around in thought, but rather flowing with breath. . . in, breath . . . out.
Once we have engaged this formal practice, we see that there is never a moment when it is not possible to be aware and notice the object of our awareness – what fills our awareness. When we forget, we can simply come back and allow full presence in the moment, in the breath, in the step as our refuge.
More detailed treatments can be found in:
- Upasika Kee Nanayon, Pure and Simple
- Venerable U Silananda, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
- Thanissaro Bikkhu, Right Mindfulness
- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English