Mindfulness is an integral part of Buddhist meditation practice and mental development. The Buddha taught mindfulness more often than any other type of meditation practice, and spoke of of it with the highest praise. In the Buddha’s teaching, the practice of “sati” or “mindfulness” is called the most direct path to the purification of beings; to overcoming of sorrow, lamentation and despair; to becoming free from mental and physical suffering; to attaining the right path; and to realizing nirvana.
The question might arise, then, as to why the Buddha taught other types of meditation practice at all if mindfulness is really the best way. The answer is that the Buddha was able to see with perfect insight as to what every student needed to become enlightened, something ordinary meditation teachers are not able to do. As great as a Buddhist meditation teacher might be, they will never be able to perfectly assess the maturity of a meditator’s faculties in the way that the Buddha was able to do. There is a story in the commentaries that tells how even the Buddha’s chief disciple, Sariputta, once misjudged the attainment of an arahant disciple and continued to exhort him even after he had achieved the goal of the practice. It’s very difficult to know how far a meditator has progressed in their practice and what particular problems they will have to face; not just their present life has to be taken into account – one has to take into account all of the complexities that make up the individual over all of their wanderings in the ocean of samsara.
For example, in the Buddha’s time there was a monk named Culapanthaka, whose elder brother, an arahant, tried to teach him a basic meditation on the qualities of the Buddha, thinking it would be useful to calm his mind. Culapanthaka, however, was unable to memorize the mantra he was given, since in a past life he had once made fun of a monk who was unable to memorize the Buddha’s teaching. The result of his mean behaviour was that he was unable to memorize even the brief teaching given by his brother. As a result, his brother recommended him to disrobe and so he went to see the Buddha. The Buddha immediately understood the problem, as well as the solution. Looking back into the past, he saw that Culapanthaka had once been a king who had a profound experience of impermanence when wiping sweat off of his face with a clean cloth and seeing how it became soiled. In order to take advantage of this distant realization, he gave Culapanthaka a clean cloth and told him to go stand in the sun and rub it with his hand. That very morning, Culapanthaka became an Arahant.
Teaching meditation effectively is not a simple matter. A meditator’s state of mind can change many times through the course of their practice, as prevalent character traits make way for latent ones, which are in turn replaced by others. Meditation practice can be likened to peeling an onion; when you peel off one layer, you see there is an entirely new layer underneath. It is quite difficult to predict what will be of most benefit to a meditator at any given time. It is for this reason that even the Buddha placed greatest emphasis on the practice of mindfulness as a universally applicable meditation technique.
In Buddhism we hear often about the existence of different character types and how different meditation practices are suitable for different character types. For example, if a person is of a lustful temperament they should focus on the impurities of the body as a way to counteract their lust. By focusing on the parts of the body and seeing their true nature, a person who is very much addicted to sensuality will benefit by coming to see that the body is actually not attractive at all. If a person is of an angry or hateful temperament then they should practice loving-kindness for the same reason that it will counteract their negative emotions. A person of hating temperament should not, however, focus on the impurities of the body, since it will likely lead to further negativity; nor should a person of entirely lustful temperament focus on loving-kindness, at least towards objects of their desire, since it will easily give rise to further sexual attraction. There are many examples of this sort of suitability among character types in Buddhist meditation theory. In regards to mindfulness, however, there isn’t such a characterization – as the Buddha said, “satiñca khvāhaṃ, bhikkhave, sabbatthikaṃ vadāmi” – “mindfulness is always useful.” Not understanding this distinction can be a problem for people with a knowledge of the classification of character types discussed in Buddhist texts; they may say that mindfulness meditation just isn’t suitable for their character type. According to the Buddhist texts, however, the practice of mindfulness is outside of such a classification, since it deals with ultimate realities; it is not meant to adjust one’s particular addictions or aversions, nor is it a creation-based meditation where one focuses on a concept or entity. In mindfulness meditation, one focuses on what is truly real.
Even from a superficial study of the Buddha’s teaching, it’s clear that this is the sort of practice the Buddha had in mind even when not referring to meditation practice directly. What he taught most often by far was one form or another of the objects of mindfulness – what we call the four foundations or establishments of mindfulness. In some teachings he referred to them as the five aggregates; in others, the six senses; sometimes he referring to them simply as “body and mind”. In all such cases, the emphasis is clearly on being mindful of what is verifiable real in terms of phenomenological experience. The more one studies the Buddha’s teaching and commentarial texts, the more one comes to see that mindfulness of reality is by far the most commonly taught and widely applied form of meditation found in early Buddhism. For this reason, mindfulness is the most reliable method of practice a meditation teacher can prescribe in order to lead the majority of their students to the core of the Buddha’s teaching; whereas one need be careful prescribing other more subjective meditation practices and aware of the potential harm that can come from prescribing the wrong method for certain meditators, prescribing objective mindfulness of experiential reality presents no such danger. It has objective benefits for pretty much everyone who undertakes it and, if practised correctly, has the potential to lead all being out of their individual addictions and aversions without exception.
Once we accept the benefits of mindfulness as a meditation practice, we still need to answer the question “what exactly do we mean by mindfulness?” An answer is made difficult by the fact that “mindfulness” is a fairly poor translation for the quality of mind we are referring to. Most Buddhist teachers who are familiar with the old languages of India will tell you that it’s not really a proper translation. It is a good word – “mindfulness” refers to the sense of being alert and fully aware of the present reality, which is important in a meditation – but it doesn’t quite capture the actual activity of meditation practice. Meditation in Buddhism is considered a form of work. It’s something that you have to do – a practice that you have to undertake. For example, in transcendental meditation you have to develop concentration based on an object. All meditation is a form of mental development. The problem, therefore, with the word “mindfulness” is that it often leads the assumption that if you’re watching reality – just looking at it – then you will automatically come to see it clearly; that simply by being present – when you walk knowing that you walk, when you sit knowing that you sit, in the sense of being conscious of it – that this is enough for it to be considered meditation.
Some Buddhist meditation centres do indeed believe that it’s proper just to know what’s happening and not cultivate any special state of mind. While it seems plausible that some level of mindfulness can be aroused in this way, it is difficult to see how such simple observation differs from that of a non-meditator or even an ordinary animal. Though it may certainly be possible for a meditator to develop wholesome consciousnesses as a result of simply observing reality, it is equally possible that, without guidance or direction, they might equally come to develop unwholesome mind states. In order to be sure of developing in a wholly positive direction, a more active approach seems to be desired.
This distinction bears out in actual practice; by utilizing the mind’s natural ability to direct its attention – in this case purposefully cultivating a more clear and perfect understanding of the present moment, a far deeper understanding of the truth is obtained in a shorter time than if we simply let the mind go undirected. By simply watching, there is not the same focus and clarity of mind as when one actually works to develop it. This often seems counter-intuitive to people who may assume that meditation should be a relaxing or comfortable state in which one is able to rest, settling into the moment as a way of calming the mind. Though calming the mind is a valid meditation practice, even such calm requires development to achieve. If one doesn’t direct the mind towards purely tranquil states, unwholesomeness will quickly overpower the meditator’s mind, rendering the meditation practice worse than useless.
In order to gain true and lasting fruit from the practice, a great amount of work is required. We shouldn’t undertake meditation with a complacent attitude, thinking that we can just sit, letting our minds float around, and expect to gain real benefit. If you actually put effort into the practice, you will find that your mind is far more clear, your insight more powerful, and your concentration more stable than simply sitting and waiting for results to come. It is similar to working out the body; when you put out effort, pushing the limits of your present capabilities, whether the object be body or mind, it will become more and more powerful in proportion to the amount of effort put out.
Also, as with physical exercise, it is the effort itself, rather than the result, that is important in meditation practice. When one lift weights, one isn’t interested in the movement of the weights but rather the work itself. The weights return to their original position; the result is simply increased physical strength. Likewise, in meditation, walking back and forth and sitting still, watching the stomach rise and fall again and again, may cause people to think: “Well, that’s stupid! You’re not going to get anywhere just pacing back and forth or watching your stomach for hours on end.” Yet, as with lifting weights, at the end of the exercise you have indeed gained something – a verifiable increase in strength and fortitude of mind. So what we mean by meditation is the application of the mind to cultivate increased mental qualities such as clarity, stability, strength and insight.
In Buddhist meditation, the quality of mind that is most coveted is wisdom. Wisdom that understands objective reality is the key to becoming free from suffering, as the first noble truth of the Buddha tells us: “taṃ kho panidaṃ dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ pariññeyyaṃ” – “and that noble truth of suffering should indeed be fully understood.” For this reason, our practice of “mindfulness” must be based on the cultivation of objective understanding of suffering, which is summarized as being the five aggregates – which in turn are equivalent to the four foundations of mindfulness. Mindfulness in a meditative sense, therefore, is best understood as “the work that is done to cultivate objectivity in regards to the elements of experiential reality (i.e. the five aggregates or four foundations).”
The word “sati”, which we translate as mindfulness, actually has more to do with the word “remembrance” than “observation” or “awareness”. When someone can remember their past lives, they call that a kind of “sati”. When someone recollects the good qualities of the Buddha, this is also called “sati”. When you recall something to mind or are able to remember something, this is what is meant by “sati”. In insight meditation, which focuses solely on the present moment, the meaning is to recognize the experiences that arise in the present moment, reminding oneself of them when the mind would otherwise lose its grasp on the essential reality in favour of judgement, identification, and so on. It means remembering the ultimate reality, rather than getting lost in concepts and illusion.
This explanation is important, because it is precisely our failure to recognize experience for what it is that leads to all stress and suffering. When we see something, for example, we naturally either like or dislike it; when we hear, smell, taste, feel, or think, we likewise tend to become partial either for or against it. We’re always judging; even while reading this, you may find judgement going through your own mind; maybe you like what you read, maybe you disagree with it, maybe you find it boring and meaningless. One can assume that you are reading this book because you think it might be useful to you, but still there may be moments where suddenly your mind becomes bored, loses interest, and begins to think about something totally unrelated that is of more interest; maybe it begins to think of work you should be doing, or entertainment you could be enjoying, or so on. This is not something you can blame yourself for, it’s the nature of the untrained mind. The mind judges naturally – liking, disliking, reacting continuously. This is how karma is created, how our lives are formed, and how we become attached and addicted to things. This is how we come to suffer as we all do.
It’s interesting to read how some experts in Quantum Physics have come to the same conclusion in this regard, that the mind has a moment of interaction with every experience that can have real consequences in the physical realm. They say that quantum physics leaves a perfect space for the experiential mind to interpret the data and make decisions based on it. They say that with every experience there is a moment where the mind can intervene and collapse the quantum state from a smeared-out series of possibilities to a specific state, a decision. This is very close to the description of karma in Buddhism, and it’s very close to what is experienced in Buddhist meditation. It is quite impressive to see that what we realize in meditation is being explained in terms of modern Physics, where they can describe how it appears from the outside and we can verify it from within.
According to Buddhist theory, this intervention of the mind occurs at every moment; every time we experience an object, there is a mental interaction with the otherwise closed physical reality. Normally, the physical realm works according to internal laws of cause and effect; X causes Y causes Z and so on. When the mind intervenes, however, it’s able to change this, or to play a part in it at least. Though there is much debate amongst Physicists about whether this is so, it is quite clear from the point of view of a Buddhist meditator that we give rise to judgements and make decisions on a moment to moment basis. In the practice of mindfulness, we attempt to purify our mental state at the moment at which the intervention would occur, remembering it simply for what it is. When we see something, we attempt to see it clearly; we attempt to purify our awareness in that moment, so there is no greed, no anger and no delusion, just pure awareness of the object as it is.
We always hear in Buddhism about how one should stay in the present moment, not thinking about the future, not thinking about the past. This is not just a clever aphorism, it’s actually a meditation instruction; you should be meditating right now on what you experience in the present moment. It doesn’t do any good to think in terms of how many minutes, hours, days, or even years you practice meditation; in order to understand reality, you have to meditate just now. If you clearly see an experience as it is for a single moment, then that moment is meditation, and has no bearing on the next moment. Progress in meditation is dependent on stringing together moment after moment of clear awareness until the habits we have formed based on ignorance are replaced by new habits leading to clarity and insight.
At every moment of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling or thinking, we react according to our habitual programming; if we have conceived a liking for something in the past, our reaction will generally be to desire it; if we have conceived a disliking for something, we are more than likely reject it. This patterned behaviour occurs incessantly, so in order to combat addiction and aversion our meditation must be likewise incessant; it must be a moment to moment activity. This is the basis of the practice of mindfulness. As the stomach rises, we focus on it for that moment, then let it go when it is gone; as the stomach falls, we likewise recognize it for what it is and then forget about it. Our only work should be to affirm the nature of the object in the mind moment after moment, so that it reacts not out of ignorance but out of clear and pure awareness of the object as it is: seeing is seeing, hearing is hearing, smelling is smelling, tasting is tasting, feeling is feeling, thinking is thinking. This is what is meant by the practice of “sati” or “mindfulness – to remind ourselves of the object for what it is, so that there is no room for judgement or partiality of any kind.
The way we do this is by identifying the experience with a word, and using the word in much the same way as other meditation traditions use a mantra – reciting it to focus the mind, in this case on ultimate reality. A mantra is a common tool in meditation practice, used by practitioners before the Buddha began to teach; it’s just a word or phrase that is repeated internally to focus the mind. Mantra meditation as practised in other traditions, however, generally has nothing to do with the reality of mundane experience – one does not hear of spiritual practitioners in other traditions using mantras like “walking” or “pain”, since these are not generally considered valid objects of spiritual development outside of the Buddha’s teaching. Instead, it is common to hear of mantras like “God”, “Jesus”, or “Om” – even in Buddhist circles, it is common to hear people reciting the Buddha’s name as a mantra to calm the mind. Mantras of this latter sort tend to have great spiritual meaning for those who employ them and are meant to bring about special, super-mundane experiences for the practitioners. The idea of watching one’s stomach and saying “rising, falling, rising, falling” seems, therefore, rather mundane and uninspiring to most people. The truth, however, is that the results that come from focusing on the mundane are far more profound than focusing on an external object, since the latter can only bring calm and concentration, while the former can bring true and lasting wisdom and understanding about reality. By focusing on our own mundane experience, the reality of the body and the mind, we come to understand the whole of the universe, because we are observing the building blocks of reality – physical and mental experience – as opposed to that which is conceptual, like God, the soul, or the Buddha.
The Buddha himself affirmed the truth that the understanding of the whole universe is to be found within ourselves, when he said,
“imasmiṃyeva byāmamatte kaḷevare sasaññimhi samanake lokañca paññapemi lokasamudayañca lokanirodhañca lokanirodhagāminiñca paṭipadanti”
“Yet, in this mere fathom-long body, endowed with perceptions, endowed with mind, I declare to exist the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.”
— SN 2.26
He gave this teaching to an ascetic who had used his meditative attainments to try to find the end of the universe through astral travel. The Buddha told him that “gamanena na pattabbo lokassanto kudācanaṃ” – “the end of the world is never to be reached by going”. He explained that it is to be found rather by one who stays still and is internally composed (samitāvi), since true reality is based on personal experience, not impersonal space-time.
It is difficult to talk about reality without getting lost in philosophy or metaphysics unless one has taken the time to actually observe it first-hand. When our minds are focused on concepts and theories about external objects whose existence are only projections in the mind, there can be no end to our search for knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, when we focus on phenomenological experience, we will have little trouble coming to understand the nature of the entire universe in a relatively short time.
Anyone who takes the effort to observe their experience can verify the reality of the rise and fall of the stomach; that pain and pleasure are truly real; that thoughts, emotions, judgements and decision making truly do arise and cease in the mind. These observations are truly and objectively real – the problem is not that they are difficult observations to make; the problem is that we tend to miss the importance of mundane reality in our quest for spiritual development, preferring what is mystical, magical, exciting and enchanting. We think we know our own bodies and minds too well already, and tend to look at spiritual practice as an escape from the problems of mundane experience, rather than a solution to them. Just like people with low self-esteem who deck themselves out in fine clothes and makeup, pretending to be something that they’re not, spiritual seekers of this sort merely cover up what they don’t like, rather than making any real or lasting change from within.
This sort of spiritual superficiality is easy to understand, since mundane experience is disappointing on most counts – the objects of mundane experience are ephemeral and uncertain, unsatisfying and unpleasant, uncontrollable and often even unmanageable; the experience itself is fraught with partialities, judgements, identifications, fears, worries, stresses and other mental unpleasantness. The reason it is this way, however, is precisely because of our neglect, not the other way around. When one’s house is in a mess, avoiding the mess will not make it tidy. Similarly, by avoiding our mundane experiences, running away from our pain and suffering, we only make them worse through neglect. The teaching of the Buddha is not meant to help us find new and exciting experiences so that we don’t have to deal with mundane reality; it is meant to help us focus directly on that which is the cause of all of our problems – our own body and mind. Once we are able to purify and arrange our physical and mental experience, these very mundane experiences will give true and lasting meaning and benefit to our lives because they are real, not conceptual. Rather than needing always to run away from our homes, we will be like the person who has cleaned their house and is able to return to it in peace and happiness, free from the discomfort or stress of an unclean mind.
Our intention is therefore to pay direct attention to the mundane, purifying the entire psycho-physical system of who we are. That’s really what we are, a system; we have a physical component, working in terms of mechanical cause and effect, but we also have a mental component that is able to adjust and to alter the system. The practice of meditation is meant to adjust and alter our system of existence in such a way that it becomes harmonious and pure, free from defilement, free from evil, free from suffering. It is meant to allow us to function harmoniously as a system ourselves and within the system of the universe around us. Every time you remind yourself of the nature of an experience – whether it be an experience in the body, focusing on the movement of some part of the body, or an experience in the mind, be it a thought, an emotion or a decision – you are creating this harmony, purifying your habits and intentions and becoming free from the cause that bring suffering to yourself and those around you.
In order to accomplish this task, we have meditators begin by focusing on the stomach because it is the one movement that continues even when we’re otherwise still. If you put your hand on your stomach you’ll feel the rising and the falling motion almost all of the time. When it rises you should simply see it for what it is: “rising”. Just remind yourself in this way, stopping the mind that wants to judge, to like and dislike, get bored and upset, disappointed, and so on. When it falls, remind yourself: “falling”. Don’t say it out loud; just create the idea in your mind that “this is this”, as opposed to judging or analyzing it.
“Rising” and “falling” are concise explanations of what’s occurring at each moment. It doesn’t really matter what word you use, as long as it is an as-concise-as-possible understanding of what’s happening. When you feel pain in the body, you just focus on the pain and remind yourself that it’s pain. Normally pain is an object of aversion that we’d rather not focus on and would much rather escape from. When we say to ourselves again and again, “pain, pain, pain,” we change that. We change from reacting, our reactionary behaviour, to simply interacting – accepting, understanding, and being able to live with the reality in front of us. When we think of something, we remind ourselves, “thinking”, just knowing that we’re thinking.
It might seem a pointless exercise on the surface, but think about how often our thoughts destroy us; thoughts about what we’ve done in the past, bad things we’ve done or bad things others have done to us, worries about the future, fear of what may come, and so on. We are quite capable of destroying ourselves with our minds, creating great amounts of suffering for ourselves and others due simply to thoughts of past and future. When you say to yourself “thinking, thinking”, you see that it is just a thought, and that it disappears in an instant with no remainder. It doesn’t really hang over you like a curse or doom that you must carry around forever. It’s just a thought.
The Buddha’s teaching is sandiṭṭhiko – you see it for yourself, and can verify the truth of reality for yourself. One of the great reasons for wanting to teach mindfulness meditation to other people is because it is so simple and easy to practice, perfectly free from dogma or belief of any sort. When you see people suffering from things that could be completely cured with a simple explanation of how to be mindful, it feels too good to keep to yourself. The truth is that most of the problems in the world could be solved with just a few minutes of explanation on how to listen to and learn from oneself, if only people would care to try.
These days, many people contact me with what seem to be life-threatening problems of anxiety, depression, addiction, and so on. Often just one e-mail explaining these basic concepts in a way that relates to the problem they are facing, and the problems just end then and there. In some cases they have been taking drugs or prescription medication, seeing a therapist, etc.; in some cases they say they are ready to give up and take their own lives. Yet, with just a few well-directed words, they are given a new way of looking at the problem – seeing it not as a problem at all, but just as a series of momentary experiences that arise and cease without remainder. Through the practice of mindfulness, one can see the way out of suffering oneself and have no more doubt about the problem or the cause of suffering.
There’s no question that even those suffering from severe mental illness can overcome such conditions with meditation if they stick with it and receive encouragement and instruction from a teacher on how to perform this simple work of mindfulness. Certainly, there are cases that may not be curable in in this life; true chemical imbalances in the brain, schizophrenia, psychopathy, etc., may be beyond one’s ability to cure in this life simply through the power of the mind, but at the very least one can begin in time to leave this brain behind in favour of something more conducive to mental development in the next life.
Buddhism doesn’t postulate an end to experience at the moment of death. Since reality, according to Buddhism, is based on empirical experience rather than external postulation, it denies the belief in death at all, except in two senses: on a momentary level where we are born and die every moment, in an eternal flux of psycho-physical experience, and as a final extinguishing of suffering for one who is free from craving. Thus, we have an eternity to find answers to our problems, and no belief in heaven, hell, or extinction at death can excuse us from working to better ourselves as Buddhist meditators. Further, even in this life it can be observed that the brain is not a static entity; even the physical organs in the body can change in inexplicable ways and seemingly incurable diseases can be overcome by patience and perseverance in mental development.
Altogether, there are four “satipatthana”, which we translate generally as “the four foundations of mindfulness”; this isn’t a perfect translation, but that’s how they are known. The meaning is actually closer to “act of establishing recognition”; so there are four ways of establishing clear recognition of reality for what it is. There’s the body – the rising and the falling of the abdomen, for example, or the movements of the body; the feelings – pain, happiness, or calm; the thoughts – thinking about anything, and the dhammas, or the teachings of the Buddha, a miscellaneous category for everything that will arise over the course of one’s practice, starting with mental hindrances to one’s ability to see things clearly – liking, disliking, anger, fear, depression, boredom, laziness, drowsiness, distraction, worry, doubt, confusion, etc. Focusing on these emotional states is of great importance especially for a beginner meditator, since they will obstruct his or her progress, as they will be unable to focus on creating clear recognition due to their influence.
A beginner meditator’s mind is much like a baby; undisciplined, accustomed to getting its way all the time. When the mind is not content, it will naturally desire something to make it happy, and be displeased if it can’t get what it wants. Sitting still for long periods of time can be uncomfortable, even painful, and the beginner’s mind will generally react to this quite strongly. Even when nothing stressful arises in the meditation practice, the mind that is used to indulging in sensual pleasure will be dissatisfied with the observation of mundane experience. It will, out of habit, incline towards thoughts of sensual pleasure, disliking, and egotism, and be therefore unable to see ultimate reality as it is, set upon obtaining the objects of its desire, removing objects of displeasure, and conceiving self, other, better, worse, etc. in all things. This is the habitual nature of the untrained mind, which we tend to believe is hard-wired in the brain as cycles of craving, aversion, and identification.
The practice of meditation is not to reject even these negative, unwholesome mind states out-of-hand, but to first and foremost understand them. They may not truly be hard-wired, but they certainly can be pernicious, and are not to be denied by sheer force of will. Rather than trying to force our minds to reject them out-of-hand, we simply teach our minds to recognize the causal relationship between these states and our level of happiness and peace. If they are negative, they are objectively so, and it can only be out of ignorance that we cling to them. They more clearly we understand them for what they are, the less we will be inclined towards them, until it becomes impossible for our minds to give rise to them because we understand them to be of no benefit whatsoever.
When we remind ourselves of the reality of our experience and cease judging, we change the habitual cycle of the mind. We transform the mind’s programmed reactivity, its tendency to respond to experiences with immediate desire or aversion, into a new sort of interaction based on impartiality and acceptance, just by accepting things: “they are what they are.” When we are angry, we say to ourselves: “angry, angry…”. When we want something, “wanting, wanting…”. When we feel depressed, etc., “depressed, depressed…”, “stressed, stressed…”, “worried, worried…”, “confused, confused…”, “doubting, doubting…”, and so on.
This moment-to-moment clarifying of each individual experience has a corresponding moment-to-moment effect on the addiction cycles that occur in the brain, and thus a verifiable and profound impact on one’s life. This is the work that we undertake as Buddhist meditators; it is a very simple, rational and non-dogmatic method to create true and lasting understanding and clarity of mind; it is the work that all beings must undertake to become free from suffering. It the practice, in regards to which, we use the word “mindfulness”.
According to the Abhidhamma:
What is sati? Whatever remembrance follows after – re-remembrance, an act of remembrance, memorization, non-shifting, non-floating, non-forgetting, the faculty of remembrance, the power of remembrance, right remembrance – this is called satindrīya (the faculty of sati).
It is called “sati” because of the meaning of “remembrance” – this word gives the intrinsic nature of sati.
It is called “remembrance following after” because of the meaning to remember often or remember in the present. The condition of remembering is called the act of remembrance.
It is called memorization because of the meaning of being an ability to memorize those things one has seen or heard.
It is called “non-shifting, non-floating” because of the meaning of being fully set, plunged into its object.
It is called “non-forgetting” because of the meaning of not mistaking or forgetting about the things one has done, or the speech one has said, even though it may be long ago.
It is called a “faculty” because of the meaning that it is dominant in regards to the characteristic of appearance.
It is called “the power of remembrance” because of the meaning of not floundering in regards to its object and because it is not negligent.
It is called “right mindfulness” because of the meaning of being able to lead one out of suffering.
One should see sati as being like the supporting pillar of a dam, because it is firmly set in its object, and like a door-keeper because it guards the eye-faculty and so on.
The lakkhaṇādicatuka of sati-cetasika:
Characteristic: the ability to remember Function: not mistaking or forgetting Fruit: fixing on its object Proximate Cause: strong recollection or the four foundations of remembrance
yāni sotāni lokasmiṃ sati tesaṃ nivāraṇaṃ
Whatever streams in the world there be, remembrance ’tis that stops them all.
— The Buddha