The Deeper Meaning of Mindfulness

At the root of the latest Buddhist buzzword lies a challenging path to enlightenment

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

One of the people who visited our Buddhist monastic community, Sravasti Abbey, kindly made signs for the other guests. At the tea counter she wrote, 'Please clean up spills. Thank you for your mindfulness.' A sign on a door said, 'Please close the door quietly. Thank you for your mindfulness.' I began to wonder what she meant by mindfulness. It seemed it had become another one of those Buddhist buzzwords, like karma, that many people use but few understand.

Then I read an article in which mindfulness was applied to eating an orange-paying attention to its sweetness and texture, the experience of eating it. In a discussion group, I heard the word used to describe the experience of watching one's grandchild play and appreciating those moments of joy.

While some of these examples are valid and beneficial uses of mindfulness practice, do they lead to enlightenment? Are they examples of mindfulness as understood in traditional Buddhist texts, where mindfulness is an essential component of the path to liberation?

Mindfulness is a comfortable word for Americans; renunciation is not. Renunciation conjures images of living in a damp cave and eating bland food, with no companions, iPod, or credit cards. In our consumer culture, renunciation is seen as a path to suffering. As the Buddha defined it, renunciation is a determination to be free from dukkha, the unsatisfactory conditions and suffering of cyclic existence. Renunciation is being determined to give up not happiness, but misery and its causes.

Because our minds are clouded by ignorance, we often don't have a clear understanding of dukkha and its causes. The remedy is to be mindful of how things actually are. In the Vipallasa Sutra, the Buddha described four basic ways we misconstrue our experience-known as the four distortions of mind because things are grasped in a way that is opposite to how they actually are.

Holding the Impermanent as Permanent

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