What Is Mindfulness?
What does it mean to be mindful of the breath? Something very simple: to keep the breath in mind. Keep remembering the breath each time you breathe in, each time you breathe out. The British scholar who coined the term “mindfulness” to translate the Pali word sati was probably influenced by the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others—in other words, to always keep their needs in mind. But even though the word “mindful” was probably drawn from a Christian context, the Buddha himself defined sati as the ability to remember, illustrating its function in meditation practice with the four satipatthanas, or establishings of mindfulness.
“And what is the faculty of sati? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. (And here begins the satipatthana formula:) He remains focused on the body in and of itself — ardent, alert, and mindful — putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves… the mind in and of itself… mental qualities in and of themselves — ardent, alert, and mindful — putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.”
— SN 48.10
The full discussion of the satipatthanas (DN 22) starts with instructions to be ever mindful of the breath. Directions such as “bring bare attention to the breath,” or “accept the breath,” or whatever else modern teachers tell us that mindfulness is supposed to do, are actually functions for other qualities in the mind. They’re not automatically a part of sati, but you should bring them along wherever they’re appropriate.
One quality that’s always appropriate in establishing mindfulness is being watchful or alert. The Pali word for alertness, sampajañña, is another term that’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean being choicelessly aware of the present, or comprehending the present. Examples in the Canon shows that sampajañña means being aware of what you’re doing in the movements of the body, the movements in the mind. After all, if you’re going to gain insight into how you’re causing suffering, your primary focus always has to be on what you’re actually doing. This is why mindfulness and alertness should always be paired as you meditate.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, they’re combined with a third quality, ardency. Ardency means being intent on what you’re doing, trying your best to do it skillfully. This doesn’t mean that you have to keep straining and sweating all the time, just that you’re continuous in developing skillful habits and abandoning unskillful ones. Remember, in the eight factors of the path to freedom, right mindfulness grows out of right effort. Right effort is the effort to be skillful. Mindfulness helps that effort along by reminding you to stick with it, so that you don’t let it drop.