Mindfulness and the Enigma of Life

Wednesday October 4, 2006

Dandelion Clock

A long time ago, when I first got involved in Buddhism, and when I first heard about mindfulness, it seemed to me that this was a good and useful thing. At the same time, mindfulness seemed to me to be a peculiarly boring idea. To sit and drink your tea and to be aware of the fact that you are drinking your tea, to wash the dishes (to use the usual example) and to really be aware of washing the dishes: this was not exactly an ideal that filled me with the fervent desire to practise. Of course, I recognised the problems with unmindfulness, from falling down holes in the ground (Thales, the first real Greek philosopher apparently – at least according to legend – fell down a well because he was looking up at the stars and unmindful of where he was putting his feet) to being run over by large trucks as you cross the road, to burning your toast as you pore over the newspaper in the morning. At the same time, however, mindfulness didn’t seem a tremendously interesting thing. Sometimes on retreat I stumbled across fellow practitioners who seemed to have perfected the art of mindfulness to a greater degree than I had, or who had about them a particular air that I took to be a sign of mindfulness; and as I watched them perform daily tasks with deliberate and what seemed to me to be excessive care, I felt as if I would burst with frustration. If that was how you had to live to live mindfully, I really wasn’t sure if I wanted any part of it.

These days, my sense of what mindfulness is has changed, and I no longer see mindfulness as boring, nor as necessarily being about how you wash the dishes (although it may be…). Perhaps the best way to explore the topic is to go back to the Pali term. Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali sati, a word that is often found as a part of the compound sati-sampajanna. Sati has the meaning of recognition, consciousness or memory, but it is etymologically linked with sarati, which according to my Pali dictionary means, in its primary sense, something like “to go, flow, run, move along”. If this is the case, one way of thinking about mindfulness – one that I suggest not because I know anything at all about Pali etymology, but because this is what it feels like – is that mindfulness or sati is a kind of recollection of the flow of life, a return to this unfolding of existence of which we are a part. My view of mindfulness now is not that it is a kind of extreme attention to where you are putting your feet, for example, but that it is a movement from the fixity of our mental schemes and ideas to a deeper appreciation of the various flows of our experience of the world. In his book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation Nyanaponika Thera gives “bare attention” as a translation of sati, and whilst this seems OK, it is a bit on the stark side for my tastes. Although in one sense this flow is “bare” (or perhaps it would be better to say that “these flows are bare”) – bare because we remove all of the layerings and coverings of mental commentary – the experience is not so much of a reduction of experience as an amplification. In sati, it seems, you live more than in everyday states of distraction.

If mindfulness was only a business of sati, however, I still don’t think I’d find it very interesting. It is when coupled with sampajanna that it becomes a whole load more intriguing. As a translation of sampajanna, Nyanaponika suggests “clear comprehension”, and once again this seems all right but still a bit too clinical. A few more suggestions for translations are given on the useful Access to Insight glossary page. The Pali is made up of sam, suggesting connection or union, and pajanati, meaning something like “to know, find out, come to know, understand, distinguish”. I tend to read sampajanna (and my apologies, you purists out there, for the absence of diacritics!) as meaning something along the lines of bringing understanding, discrimination and a kind of inquiry to the flow of experience. It is not just a matter, then, of only attentiveness to the flow of experience, but an active investigation of this flow. This is a kind of investigation that doesn’t aim at some kind of answer: I think of it more as an attentiveness to the way that we all too easily assume we know what is going on. When we catch these assumptions, it is possible to call them into question, to undermine our preconceptions about precisely what is happening.

It is here, with the coupling of sati and sampajanna, that mindfulness becomes interesting, even fascinating. I suspect that my former lack of enthusiasm was rooted in the belief that the flow of experience was somehow self-evident, that it was simply what is “given”. In sati, that is to say, I was not so much returning to the flow of experience as to the habitual ideas I had about what this flow was. The element of sampajanna mitigates against this, breaking up the soil so that light and air can get through. It now seems to me that when we really investigate what is going on, with both sati and sampajanna, that this business of existence is ever more profoundly strange. This is not to invoke otherworldly powers, mystical enchantments, or other metaphysical extravagances. After all, it seems to me that our everyday common-sense assumptions about ourselves and the world are themselves based upon ideas of otherworldly powers, mystical enchantments and other metaphysical extravagances, and it these very assumptions that obscure the genuine strangeness of experience and of our being here. Mindfulness, in laying these to one side, returns us to life’s enigma.

And what could be more fascinating than this?

# · Garnet David

Most excellent article. You have given me a deeper understanding of what mindfulness is, as well as helped me connect some of floating ideas I’ve had about the importance of “flow” in awareness.

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