This article was adapted from Sharon Salzberg’s new online course “The Whole Path.” Sharon’s curriculum covers each aspect of the Buddha’s eightfold path as she explores the role of mindfulness and meditation within the broader context of our spiritual journey. Classes begin March 23. Learn more at learn.tricycle.org.
Often, the ways we define mindfulness can be misleading. Definitions like “a quality of awareness that accepts things the way that they are” or “being aware without judging what is” are not incorrect, but they can imply passivity or complacency. But mindfulness is a dynamic relationship with what is. It doesn’t mean you never take action. It doesn’t mean you never do anything.
When I was first practicing in India, I was living in Bodhgaya, which is the town where they say the descendant of the tree that the Buddha sat under when he became enlightened is. (That tree is right in the center of town, and it’s an extraordinary place.) We were staying outside of town in the Burmese vihara, or temple. And every once in a while, when we were walking from the Burmese temple into the center of town, we’d come upon an elephant that a wealthy landowner kept as a mark of his status. I remember so many times, people would ask one of my teachers, “Say I’m walking mindfully down the road, and I see the elephant coming toward me. Do I just mindfully notice that the elephant is coming toward me? Or do I get out of the way?” And he would say, “I would get out of the way!”
Recently, I was teaching a meditation session that began with the instruction to listen to a sound. I’d gotten just that far—listen to sound—when somebody raised his hand and asked, “What if I hear the smoke alarm? Should I sit here mindfully knowing that the smoke alarm is going off? Or should I get up?” And I said, “I’d get up!” And I thought, Oh, this is like a new version of the elephant.
I understand the question. When we talk about accepting things the way they are without judging, we don’t mean without intelligence, discernment, or recognition of what it is. Mindfulness means not being driven by old habits or old fears that make us shut down. We have all kinds of conditioning that prevent us from getting closer to what’s actually happening. With mindfulness, we have the ability to gently let go of those projections so that they don’t intrude on our full experience.
My favorite definition of mindfulness used to come from a  New York Times article about one of the first pilot-school mindfulness programs being introduced to a classroom in Oakland, California. They asked a fifth-grader what mindfulness is, and he said that it means “not hitting someone in the mouth.” That is a great definition of mindfulness, because it implies, first of all, being in touch with oneself—knowing you’re starting to feel angry when the feeling is just beginning, rather than after you’ve hit someone in the mouth (or, say, after you’ve sent that email). It also implies—and this is crucial—a balanced relationship to that anger. Life can be very frustrating, and if you get subsumed, overwhelmed, or defined by anger, then you’re likely to hit a lot of people in the mouth. On the other hand, if you hate what you’re feeling, are ashamed of it, or try to push it away, then you’re going to get tighter and tighter, until you explode.
Mindfulness is that place in the middle, where we are neither consumed by nor reject what is going on. We have the ability to be fully present such that we’re interested in what’s going on, but we’re not forming judgments or dashing off into proliferation of thoughts. By being with what is, we can create a space where creativity arises, where other options arise. Maybe you think, I hit someone in the mouth last week. That didn’t work out well. Let me try something else. You’re not being passive. Rather, when you’re not driven by old habits, a world of possibility opens up. Mindfulness creates this sense of space based on the balanced —not indifferent and not inert, but balanced—relationship we develop with all kinds of experiences.
We can say that mindfulness, maybe in its most popular form, is a way we can inhabit our lives. We can be present with our experience. Instead of multitasking, we unitask. The myth of multitasking is that we’ll get more done. Whereas studies show that we’re not getting more done, and we’re not doing things all that well. So every now and then we unitask. If we’re drinking a cup of tea, we actually drink the cup of tea: We feel the warmth of the cup. We smell the tea. We taste the tea. We’re not also checking our email while on a conference call and reading the crawl on a muted TV.
When we don’t just drink the tea, our experience is not very fulfilling. We’re not usually trained to look at the role that our quality of our attention plays in our fulfillment. When the tea isn’t satisfying, we tend to blame the tea. We say, “I should really go to that tea emporium and buy some loose tea and a strainer, and I should make the perfect cup of tea.” Even if you do make the perfect cup of tea but you don’t taste it, it still will not be very satisfying.
The poet Robert Frost said, “life is an interminable chain of longing.” But why? Because we’re not really present. We’re caught in addictive spirals, needing more stimulation because we’re not really alive. The Buddha said that one who is mindful or heedful is on the path to the deathless, whereas one who is mindless or heedless is as if dead already.
Inhabiting our lives, and the healing effect of this quality of mind, is not a small matter. But, classically, mindfulness is actually designed for the development of insight or wisdom. It’s not just about inhabiting our lives; it’s also about understanding our lives. We can see for ourselves what it feels like when we actually care about someone else’s situation.
When I was in India, my teachers used a compound for mindfulness: sati-sampajanna, combining sati, which means mindfulness, with the word sampajanna, which means clear comprehension. So when they would use the word mindfulness, it implied an ability to discern what causes suffering—what has the nature of limitation and hurtfulness, and what has the nature of expansion and caring—and to understand our lives: Who are we really? How alone are we? What can we count on that won’t change? Where do we find safety? Is love weak? Is vengefulness strong? We don’t have to clutter our minds with a lot of questions. Rather, the keenness of our attention will guide us through this terrain.
This is mindfulness in its most precious and valuable sense, as the engine for wisdom. It’s important to inhabit our lives, to be more fully present, and to relish experience as it is so that we aren’t just waiting for something more stimulating to happen. But most important, I would say, is the ability to look at things honestly, without so much of an agenda, and to have the sense of openness that allows us to continually discover the underlying truths of our lives.
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