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Mindfulness (Culadasa)

To understand what mindfulness is, we first need to recognize that we

normally experience two different modes of “knowing”. I like to use the

words “awareness” and “attention” to distinguish between these two. In

attention, consciousness is focused. In awareness, on the other hand,

consciousness is more distributed. Both of these modes of knowing are often

simultaneously present to some greater or lesser degree. Even while our

attention is focused on one thing, we are aware of many other things – our

bodies, thoughts and feelings, the environment, the processes that led us to

be where we are, doing what we are doing, and events ongoing around us.

Consciousness that is more broadly distributed in the form of awareness

provides the background and the context for whatever consciousness in the

form of attention happens to be focused on.

Attention isolates some small part of our subjective reality from the rest.

That part is instantly identified, labeled, categorized, and evaluated. The

object(s) of attention are processed by the mind, conceptualized and

interpreted on the basis of past knowledge and experience. In the experience

of attention, there is always a very definite subject-object duality.

Sometimes the interpretation of the objects of attention is highly subjective

in that it mostly emphasizes their relevance to the ‘self’, and the object is

perceived very egocentrically. Although a common feature of attention,

subjectivity is not an essential feature of it. There are times when attention is

more objective, and subject-object duality takes the form of a distinct

separation and independence of the knower from the known.

Awareness, on the other hand, provides a more global and holistic

perspective. Rather than isolating and identifying individual objects,

awareness has more to do with the relationships of objects to each other and

to the whole. There is very minimal processing of the contents of awareness,

and they tend to be perceived more ‘as they are in themselves’. Specific

objects often ‘pop out’ of awareness to become objects of attention, and

attention often browses the contents of awareness in search of something

relevant or important to focus on.

“Mindfulness” is a rather unfortunate translation into English of the Pali

word sati. What sati refers to is an optimal interaction between, and even a

merging together of attention and awareness. As used in the Suttas, sati

implies a condition of being more fully conscious, alert, and aware than is

normally the case. “Mindfulness” has more the connotation of attentiveness

or of remembering to pay attention, which fails to capture the full meaning

and importance of sati. A more appropriate translation would be “powerfully

conscious awareness” or “fully conscious awareness’, both of which are

rather cumbersome phrases, or perhaps “mindful awareness”, if one keeps in

mind the distinction I have made between awareness and attention.

As a result of the optimal interaction between attention and awareness that

sati is really describing:

− the distributed consciousness of awareness has more of the

power usually found only in the focused consciousness of


− awareness is not so completely robbed of its conscious power

whenever attention is focused on something;

− there is a more appropriate selection of objects for the focused

consciousness of attention due to the greater power of

consciousness of awareness, and so attention is more

effectively utilized;

− attention exhibits more objectivity, more of the ‘seeing things

as they are’ quality of awareness, and so there is greater clarity,

less projection, and less subjective interpretation of whatever

attention investigates.

When we “lose mindfulness”, sati has failed because consciousness is

excessively focused on the current object of attention, and the conscious

power of awareness consequently fades. Even worse, when the attention is

constantly shifting its focus from one object to another, genuine awareness

disappears to be replaced by a stream of highly subjective impressions and

projections left behind by fleeting moments of attention. When this happens

to a samurai swordsman, he loses his head. When this happens to any of the

rest of us, we lose our way in life, doing and saying the wrong things and

getting caught up in suffering and delusion. Likewise, when the conscious

power of awareness (sati) is inadequate or absent, attention tends to be

focused on inappropriate objects. Those things that it would be to our

greatest benefit to observe and investigate are instead disregarded.

When mindfulness is well developed, experience is richer, fuller, more

satisfying and less personal. This is because attention now plays an

appropriate role within the larger context of a broad and powerful

awareness. We are more fully present, happier and more at ease, not so

easily caught up in the mind’s stories and melodramas. More importantly,

because of an enhanced conscious awareness of the whole, and of

relationships within the whole, Insight arises. Due to greater objectivity,

clarity, and ‘seeing things as they are’, Insight arises. And because the

investigative powers of attention are more appropriately and effectively

utilized, Insight arises.

Sati is quite commonly spoken of in combination with sampajañña, often

translated as “clear comprehension” or “clear knowing”. The Suttas make it

clear that sati has to be integrated with sampajañña, and it is only when

these two work together as sati-sampajañña that “right mindfulness” can

fulfill its purpose in bringing about Insight and Awakening. The easiest way

to understand sati-sampajañña is as “introspective awareness. When one has

sati-sampajañña, one has direct and immediate knowledge of what one is

doing, the cause or purpose behind what one is doing, and the

appropriateness of what one is doing. With introspective awareness, one

comes to have a direct and immediate knowledge of what is occurring in the

mind, the causes and potential purposes behind what is occurring in the

mind, and the appropriateness of what is occurring in terms of ones own

values, intentions, and objectives.

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