What is mindfulness meditation? Is it beneficial or harmful? Can I learn from it?
Mindfulness is a spiritual or psychological faculty, according to the teaching of Buddha, is of great importance in the path of enlightenment. It is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. “Correct” or “right” mindfulness is the seventh element of the noble eightfold path.
Enlightenment is a state of being in which greed, hatred and delusion have been overcome and abandoned, and are absent from the mind. Mindfulness, which, among other things, is an attentive awareness of the reality of things (especially of the present moment) is an antidote to delusion and is considered as such a ‘power’. This faculty becomes a power in particular when it is coupled with clear comprehension of whatever is taking place.
The Buddha advocated that one should establish mindfulness in one’s day-to-day life, maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of one’s body, feelings, mind, and dharma’s. The practice of mindfulness supports analysis resulting in the arising of wisdom. A key innovative teaching of Buddha was that meditative stabilization must be combined with liberating discernment.
The Satipatthana Sutta is an early text dealing with mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice, inherited from the Buddhist tradition, is being employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and in the prevention of relapse in depression and drug addiction.
Mindfulness is the state of being mindful. The English word mindful implies something slightly more than ‘mere’ or ‘bare’ awareness (i.e. consciousness). To be mindful implies the state of ‘taking care’, of being aware of the context in which present moment activity is taking place. In Buddhism the word sati connotes the act of recollection or remembering (the original etymological meaning of the word). However, this recollection or remembering is not of some memory or piece of information but rather a ‘coming to’ of the mind’s attention from a state of wandering or daydreaming back to present moment reality.
The Theravada tradition, defines sati as follows:
The word sati derives from a root meaning ‘to remember,’ but as a mental factor it signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present, rather than the
faculty of memory regarding the past. It has the characteristic of not wobbling, i.e. not floating away from the object. Its function is absence of confusion or non-forgetfulness. It is manifested as guardianship, or as the state of confronting an objective field. Its proximate cause is strong perception or the four foundations of mindfulness.
What is smṛti? It is not to let what one knows slip away from one’s mind. Its function is not to be distracted
The Buddhist term translated into English as “mindfulness” originates in the Pali term sati and in its Sanskrit counterpart smṛti. Translators rendered the Sanskrit word as trenpa in Tibetan and as nian in Chinese.
Sati is literally ‘memory’ but is used with reference to the constantly repeated phrase ‘mindful and thoughtful’; and means that activity of mind and constant presence of mind which is one of the duties most frequently inculcated on the good Buddhist. When practicing mindfulness, for instance by watching the breath, one must remember to maintain attention on the chosen object of awareness, “faithfully returning back to refocus on that object whenever the mind wanders away from it.” Thus, mindfulness means not only, “moment to moment awareness of present events,” but also, “remembering to be aware of something or to do something at a designated time in the future”. In fact, “the primary connotation of this Sanskrit term smrti (and its corresponding Pali term sati) is recollection”. There are those that point to the meaning of “sati” as “memory”.
The word derives from a verb, sarati, meaning “to remember,” and occasionally in Pali sati is still explained in a way that connects it with the idea of memory. But when it is used in relation to meditation practice, we have no word in English that precisely captures what it refers to. An early translator cleverly drew upon the word mindfulness, which is not even in my dictionary. This has served its role admirably, but it does not preserve the connection with memory, sometimes needed to make sense of a passage.
The word smṛti (transliterated variously as smriti, smRti, or sm’Rti) literally means “that which is remembered”, and refers both to “mindfulness” in Buddhism and “a category of metrical texts” in Hinduism, considered second in authority to the Sruti scriptures.
Buddhist scholars translated smṛti with the Chinese word nian “study; read aloud; think of; remember; remind”. Nian is commonly used in Modern Standard Chinese words such as guannian “concept; idea”, huainian cherish the memory of; think of”, nianshu “read; study”, and niantou, “thought; idea; intention”. Two specialized Buddhist terms are nanfo “chant the name of Buddha; pray to Buddha” and chant/recite sutras.
The Chinese character nian is composed of jin “now; this” and xin “heart; mind”. Nian means “reflect, think; to study, learn by heart, remember; recite, read – to have, presented to, the mind”. The Chinese character nian or nien is pronounced as Korean yeom or yŏmm.
A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms gives basic translations of nian: “Recollection, memory; to think on, reflect; repeat, intone; a thought; a moment.”
The Digital Diction of Buddhism gives more detailed translations of nian “mindfulness, memory”: Recollection. To recall, remember. That which is remembered. The function of remembering. The operation of the mind of not forgetting an object. Awareness, concentration. Mindfulness of the Buddha, as in Pure Land practice. In Abhidharma-kośa theory, one of the ten omnipresent factors; Settled recollection. To ascertain one’s thoughts; to think within one’s mind (without expressing in speech). To contemplate; meditative wisdom; Mind, consciousness; A thought; a thought-moment; an instant of thought. And Patience, forbearance.
Although sati/smrti is the primary term that is usually invoked by the word mindfulness in a Buddhist context, it has been asserted “in Buddhist discourse, there are three terms that together map the field of mindfulness . . .smṛti , samprajaña and apramada.” All three terms are sometimes (confusingly) translated as “mindfulness,” but they all have specific shades of meaning and the latter two properly mean “clear comprehension” and “vigilance,” respectively. In the Satipatthana Sutta, , sati and sampajañña are combined with atappa, or “ardency,” and the three together comprise yoniso manisikara, “appropriate attention” or “wise reflection.” It has also been held that in the proper practice of right mindfulness, sati has to be integrated with sampajañña, clear comprehension, and it is only when these two work together that right mindfulness can fulfill its intended purpose.”