What is Mindfulness?

Tree, spring in Japan

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, and creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, succinctly defines mindfulness as:

Awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.

At its root, mindfulness or Sati, in the Pali (language of early Buddhism) definition, means ‘to remember’, ‘to recollect’.

This definition is misleading if taken at face value, since memories are vulnerable to distortion, and this is recognized both within and without Buddhist context. Remembrance, in fact, refers to the dhamma (Sanskrit: dharma), whereby the true nature of phenomena can be seen.

In his 1994 discourse, Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan, Robert Sharf, Professor of Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley, sums up mindfulness as an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value.

Even in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, the term sati retains a sense of “recollecting” or “bearing in mind.” Specifically, sati involves bearing in mind the virtuous dharmas so as to properly apprehend, from moment to moment, the true nature of phenomena.1

Sharf emphasizes mindfulness and its relationship to virtuous dhammas, implying non-virtuous dhamma exist but ‘apprehending’ these phenomenon is not part of mindfulness.

For example, you may notice a feeling of anxiety arising as you prepare a speech for your best friend’s wedding. Your mind keeps turning toward the last time you spoke in front of a sizeable audience and how you forgot your cue cards, fumbled your way through on memory alone, and ended up sheepishly making your way back to your seat to retrieve the cards. That mortifying silence still haunts you to this day.

You may be mindful of your fear and apprehension when recalling this experience, and this may lead to remembrance of other similarly mortifying experiences, and being mindful of that experience and tension and stress, and so on. This micro-mindfulness, without an overarching watchful eye, has the tendency to dig you deeper and deeper into a narrow and dark hole. Mindfulness entails more than simple observation. There is an element of discernment which keeps your mind from following an unwise path.

In ‘The Heart of Buddhist Meditation’, Nyanaponika Thera, Theravaden monk and renowned teacher and author, defines mindfulness as a mode of bare attention – clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. 2

Does bare attention preclude the discernment factor which Sharf so heavily emphasizes?
Is the bare attention definition predicated on a moment prior to registering a response or making a judgement, whereby we passively register raw – unfiltered and unprocessed – sensations?

Adelbert Ames Jr., an American scientist and pioneer in the study of optics, states in a journal entry dated August 4, 1941.

The visual impression is a sensation and is derived from past experience, i.e., it is the significance of past experience. From one aspect, past experience is more truly the source of the visual impression than the object. It would be nearer the truth to consider the significance of past experience as the source of impressions and the immediate situation as a catalytic agent which is responsible for the particular significances sensually experienced.3

Theravada Buddhist theory agrees with Ames.

In Theravāda abhidharma (as in Sarvāstivāda), cognition is “intentional” (in the Husserlian sense) insofar as consciousness and its object emerge codependently and are hence phenomenologically inextricable. That is to say, the objects of experience emerge not upon a preexistent tabula rasa, but rather within a cognitive matrix that includes affective and discursive dispositions occasioned by one’s past activity (karma).4

Does such a moment of raw recording of sensation exist? The discussion is best left to Plato, Aristotle and the Steven Pinkers of the world.

We do know for certain that when it comes to our thoughts, we tend to operate with a suspension of disbelief, yet mindfulness requires exactly the opposite.


1 Sharf, 1994; pg 942
Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan Robert Sharf 1994

2 Nyanaponika Thera; The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of mental training based on the Buddha’s way of mindfulness

3 Adelbert, 1960; The Morning Notes of Adelbert Ames, Jr.

4 Sharf, 1994; pg 933
Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan Robert Sharf, 1994