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Right Mindfulness

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by Sangharakshita

... as mindfulness, sometimes it's translated as awareness. But the literal meaning of both words, the literal meaning of smrti as also of sati is simply memory or recollection. And the word has, as one can well imagine, several shades of meaning and these are not always very easy to disentangle. So I propose this evening to approach the whole question of the meaning, the connotation of this word mindfulness or smrti or sati rather indirectly. And I'm going to do this by taking an example not of mindfulness, not to begin with, but of unmindfulness from daily life. Then I propose to analyse this example, try to see what unmindfulness is - because we're more familiar with unmindfulness than with mindfulness - and then from unmindfulness try to arrive at some conception, in turn, of mindfulness.

Now let's start our example from daily life with something quite simple, something that we're all quite likely to be doing almost any day. Suppose we're writing a letter, just writing a letter to someone. It so happens, let us suppose, that we're writing about some rather urgent matter, the letter has to go off very quickly and we want to catch the next post, and it's imperative that we should do so, so we're very conscious of this and we're trying to get our letter done as quickly as possible to catch the post. So while we're engaged in this way what happens? As of course so often happens in modern life - I used not to have this sort of experience in Kalimpong in India but I've had it here, I'm sure most of you have it every day, if not every hour - the telephone rings, right in the midst of it all. So it's some friend of yours rung up about something or other, maybe important, maybe not important, maybe they were feeling lonely, they wanted a little chat so they rang you up and before you knew where you were you were engaged in quite a lengthy conversation - expense apparently was no object - and you found it quite interesting to go on chatting in this way, so maybe the conversation lasted let's say for half an hour - perhaps that's a modest sort of estimate, but eventually, the conversation completed, you put the phone down. Now you've talked about so many things with your friend on the phone you've forgotten all about your letter, this just doesn't enter your head at all. So you suddenly realise, you suddenly think you feel rather thirsty because you've been talking all that time, so you go or you wander into the kitchen and you put on the kettle, let us say, for a cup of tea. So you're just waiting there, waiting for the kettle to boil and while you're standing there waiting for the kettle to boil you hear a sound, a rather pleasant sound coming from next door, through the wall, you just listen, a rather pleasant sort of tune and you realise it's coming from the radio, so you think, `I might as well listen to that', so you nip into the next room, you switch on the radio, you start listening to this tune and it's quite pleasant, so you listen to that _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ tune, another one comes on, maybe another record or something like that, in this way a little more time passes and of course you've forgotten all about your boiling kettle, once again you've just forgotten. So while you're in the midst of this, I was going to say daze or trance-like state listening to these tunes, there's a knock on the door, someone has called to see you, so you're very glad to see them, you welcome them in, they come in, they sit down and have a chat. In course of time you offer them a cup of tea, they say, `Yes thank you very much.' You go into the kitchen, you find it's full of steam, you think, `Ah well, yes, I forgot I've already put the kettle on.' Then you think, `Oh I forgot about my letter too - it's too late, I've lost the post.' So this is what happens, this is an example of unmindfulness in daily life. I've said or I am saying unmindfulness in daily life but for the most part daily life consists of this sort of unmindfulness, we can all recognise ourselves, I hope, or perhaps I shouldn't hope, in this portrait, that this is how we live our lives, in this chaotic, unmindful fashion. We go through life just like this, most of the time at least.

Now let's analyse this situation a little. Let's try to understand in what the unmindfulness consists, and then we may be able to understand mindfulness just a little better. First of all of course there is this plain and simple fact of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is a very important element in unmindfulness. First of all we forget about the letter which we were writing when we're talking on the phone, and we forget about the kettle which was boiling for tea when we're listening to the radio. Now why do we forget so easily in this fashion? Why is it that we just lose sight of something we ought to be bearing in mind? And the reason is that we're so easily distracted. Our mind is very easily turned away or turned aside. Now I often give another example of this sort of thing; it often happens that I'm speaking - giving a lecture or giving a talk of one kind or another and everybody's paying close attention, a sort of pin-drop silence perhaps, but the door opens and someone comes in, and what happens? Half the heads swivel round just as though the people had been shot, they're as easily distracted as that. Sometimes it's a bluebottle buzzing on the window-pane. Sometimes you just happen to drop a sheet of your notes and all the eyes go down - they're very interested in your notes even though they can't read them. So all these things show, all these things indicate, how easily we are distracted and this is why we tend to forget in these affairs of everyday life. Now why is it that we're so easily distracted? How does this come about? We're easily distracted because our concentration is weak. If for instance you were really listening to what I said, if you were really concentrating upon it, an elephant can come in at that door and you wouldn't take any notice at all. But if one is not concentrated in this way then distraction very, very easily occurs. So we are distracted, we're liable to distraction just because concentration is so weak. We don't really concentrate wholeheartedly on what we are doing, we attend to what we are doing or what we are saying or what we are thinking about or what we are listening to usually in a very half-hearted way.

Now why is our concentration weak? We can ask this question also. And we can reply that our concentration is weak because there's no continuity of purpose. We've no, as it were, over-riding purpose, no over-mastering purpose, no purpose which remains unchanged in the midst of all the different things that we do. We just switch from one thing to another, from one purpose to another, from one wish to another, all the time. There's a very classical sort of description of a person in this kind of state, I remember, in one of Dryden's satires - some of you may remember this. And because there's no continuity of purpose, because we're not bent on one main thing all the time, there is therefore no real individuality. We are as it were a succession of different people, all of them rather abortive, not to say embryonic. There's no regular growth, there's no real development, there's no true evolution. So some of the main characteristics, at least, of unmindfulness should now be clear. Unmindfulness is a state of forgetfulness, it's a state of distraction, a state of poor concentration, of an absence of continuity of purpose - in other words a state of drift, and it's a state of no real individuality.

Mindfulness of course has just the opposite characteristics. Mindfulness is a state of recollection, it's a state of undistractedness, it's a state of concentration, of continuity and steadfastness of purpose, and of continually developing individuality. And all these things, the recollection, the undistractedness, the concentration, the continuity of purpose, the developing individuality, all these things are implied and conveyed and connoted by this term awareness and especially by, of course, Perfect Awareness. It's not of course that Perfect Awareness is fully or perfectly defined by these characteristics, by these attributes, but certainly they are enough to begin with, enough for us to be getting on with for the time being - they will suffice, they will serve to give us at least a general idea of what mindfulness is, of what awareness is, of what Perfect Awareness is.

Now let us turn to our main theme which is of course the levels of awareness. Traditionally these levels are arranged or ordered in various ways. But today I propose to discuss the levels of awareness under four principal headings. First of all - awareness of things. Secondly awareness of self. Thirdly awareness of others, awareness of people. And fourthly awareness of Reality or awareness of truth or awareness of the Ultimate. And by considering the levels of awareness under these four main headings we shall be able to obtain, I hope, a fairly comprehensive idea of the true nature of Perfect Awareness.

Now first of all awareness of things. When we say `things', what do we mean? We mean material things. We mean this cloth and this box and this table, and so on, material things. We mean our whole material environment, full of so many objects. We mean in short the whole realm of nature. Most of the time of course we're just vaguely conscious of the things around us, we've a sort of peripheral consciousness of the things around us, we're not really ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ aware of the things around us, not really aware of our environment, not really ...

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