1st Factor of Awakening; Mindfulness

May 13, 2013

Mindfulness is deliberate non-judgmental present moment bare attention; awareness, presence of mind, collecting one’s thoughts, tidying up the mind for the purpose of wise understanding and appropriate response. It is the first of the Factors of Awakening because it is the fertile ground out of which the factors of investigation, energy, joy, calm, concentration, and equanimity develop and grow.  There are three distinct functions of mindfulness; 1) to see things clearly, carefully and factually, 2) to balance the mind, and 3) to develop insight and wisdom through the clear comprehension and understanding of what is skillful and wholesome, and what is unskillful and unwholesome.
First a little background. The word mindfulness is the generally accepted translation of the Pali word Sati. It is also commonly translated as memory, remembering or recollecting. In his extensive commentary Satipatthana; the Direct Path to Realization, Analayo, the highly respected contemporary German scholar elaborates.
“…sati relates to the ability of calling to mind what has been done or said long ago. A closer examination of this definition, however, reveals that sati is not really defined as memory, but as that which facilitates and enables memory. What this definition of satipoints to is that, if sati is present, memory will be able to function well.”
Have you ever wandered around the house with increasing perplexity looking for your glasses or keys only to find that you’re wearing your glasses and the keys are in your pocket?  I have done both. When my mind is scattered, it spills over into my life. Simply stated, paying attention now makes information available later.
The Buddha’s instructions for contemplating the various Factors of Awakening are foundational and quite straightforward. You’ll likely recognize the pattern, as they are not different from his instructions for contemplating other aspects of mindfulness.
“If the mindfulness awakening factor is present in him, he knows ‘there is the mindfulness awakening factor in me;’ if the mindfulness awakening factor is not present in him, he knows ‘there is no mindfulness awakening factor in me.’”
Again the focus is to cultivate clear awareness in this moment, just the facts.  Knowing when the factor is present and knowing when the factor is not present. The brilliance of the Buddha’s instruction is that it does not require or ask for a judgment or opinion about whether or not any given factor is present, or what the quality of the factor may be. In fact, it is specifically not helpful to insert an opinion. Doing so leads to some level of reactivity, precisely what mindfulness is so adept at eliminating. This is a core aspect of mindfulness.
Here are a few poems from the Japanese Haiku master, Basho. They beautifully illustrate the point of simple unadorned awareness.
The old pond
A frog
Plop!
A green willow, 
Dripping down into the mud,
At low tide.  
Spring air —
Woven moon
And plum scent.

As mindfulness practice strengthens, a keen awareness of the body, the feelings, the thoughts and emotions, as well as an overall awareness of our experiences develops. The Buddha gave another incisive instruction for the cultivation of insight and wisdom into what is wholesome and skillful, and conversely, what is not wholesome or skillful. This instruction is a basic question that can be asked many times over: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”  I have found this to be a foundational, provocative and illuminating question. When I sit with this, it takes me out of the immediacy of the story I’m caught in or struggling with. It sets my compass straight and accesses my deepest wisdom. Try it next time you’re caught, confused, unsure or struggling. You may find it quite helpful.
Another poem…
Being Here
Transcending down into
the ground of things is akin
to sweeping the leaves that cover
a path. There will always be more
leaves. And the heart of the journey,
the heart of our own awakening, is
to discover for ourselves that the
leaves are not the ground, and that
sweeping them aside will reveal a
path, and finally, that to fully live,
we must take the path and
continually sweep it.

Mark Nepo