Mindfulness is a vital part of practice. It’s one of the aspects of the Path that distinguishes Buddhism from Sikhism, Jainism, and Hinduism.
A lot of people do it wrong in the West. When I ask a lot of non-Buddhists what mindfulness is, they reply, “Just paying attention without judging anything.” That’s only part of what mindfulness is about.
Some of the confusion comes from the word mindfulness itself. It’s a poor translation of sati. Mindfulness makes it seem like we’re just being watchful and paying attention, but that’s only half of sati.
The other half involves remembering the teachings, pointers, former insights etc., and checking them against present experiences. Buddhist practice is a scavenger hunt; that’s one of the reasons why it’s so full of freaking lists.
Lists upon lists! Lists listing lists!
Lists are easier to memorize than willy-nilly prose, and it’s important to memorize some of them. That’s how we hold up the Dharma to our current experience to see if the two match. “All conditioned phenomena are impermanent,” isn’t a statement of fact; it’s a prompt to, “Come and see!”
So we cultivate a non-preferential watchfulness and observe the permanence or impermanence of things. Insight, in Buddhist terms, means having a direct, sometimes visceral, experience that verifies something we’ve learned.
The more thoroughly something is verified, the more influence the insight has on the things we think, do, and say. There’s no end point to insight, there’s no bottom to Dharma verification.
Enlightenment is a process, and even though all awakenings are one in some way,s there are various depths to it—just like the ocean. The ocean isn’t uniform. In some spots it might only be two inches deep; in others, it might be two fathoms. Even though they’re both technically part of the same ocean, you probably want to find yourself a submarine if you plan on heading into the twilight zone.
So, it’s important to not get stuck on an insight and think, “This is it! I’ve got it!” Nothing kills practice more than that. The most skillful thing to do, especially if you’re practicing without formal guidance, is to just consider it a lifelong journey. That’s because practice is synonymous with life.
You can even be mindful of everything in this post to see if it checks out or not. Sati has a whole bunch of different practical applications besides being enlightened. It can help us see other people clearer; it can fine tune our BS detector; it can help us spot patterns in our behavior.
I read a word in a scientific journal that I instantly fell in love with: remindfulness. To me, that’s an awesome translation of sati. I’m definitely going to try my best to increase its use.