The Pali word sati (smriti in Sanskrit) is commonly translated as “mindfulness,” which in English usually means simply to be aware, as when we say, “I am mindful that it is Tuesday.” It can also suggest a heightened awareness or care, as in “Be mindful not to break that plate.” This sense is familiar to social researchers, who notice that much of what we do is done habitually and without much conscious awareness, whereas studies show that it is more effective to do things mindfully than mindlessly.
The Buddhist use of mindfulness as a meditation practice includes both of these meanings but goes further to specify that the conscious awareness will also include an attitude of equanimity, one that neither favors nor opposes the object of which one is aware. When aware of a bodily sensation, for example, one does not “like” it if it is pleasant or “dislike” it if it is unpleasant. One is simply aware of the sensation, with heightened awareness, but without any trace of positive or negative desire.
It is this capacity to separate awareness from the common reflex of continual judging that can be transformative. Craving is the cause of suffering, says the second noble truth, and the cessation of craving brings about the cessation of suffering, according to the third. We can see the truth of this in our own experience, each and every moment.
When we see, touch, or think about something desirable, a yearning emerges that inclines us to grasp it and hold on tenaciously, or gives rise to anxiety that we will lose it. And when we experience something we don’t like or even hate, a strong impulse to avoid, ignore, assault, or destroy it comes up and shapes our reactions. In all these cases we experience a strong or subtle desire for wanting things to be different than they are. The Buddhist word for this is dukkha, which is familiar to us in the modern world as “stress.”
When practicing mindfulness, even directed toward something as ordinary as breathing, we enhance the part of the mind that is aware of the way things are while diminishing the part that is stressed because things are not the way we want them to be. It is healthy to heighten awareness, and even healthier to take a break from wanting.