As modern conceptualisations of mindfulness evolve and expand and, occasionally, stretch to the point of near meaninglessness (mindful mushroom-picking, anyone?), revisiting first principles is a journey worth taking.
Early Buddhist psychology, from which major elements of contemporary theory and practice derive, offers a range of concise definitions and colourful similes to illuminate precisely what the mental quality of mindfulness is and what it does.
Here is a short summary of just one of the numerous categorisations of sati (the term for mindfulness in the Pali Canon). This list relates to the key characteristics of sati’s activity:
Monitoring: Mindfulness is understood to monitor, supervise and steer other mental qualities. It is described as a ‘watchful charioteer’. This simile highlights sati’s qualities of steering and supervision of other mental faculties together with its vigilant nature, which can note specific objects on a journey (inner or outer) whilst simultaneously maintaining a balanced and broad awareness that serves the smooth and successful passage of the journey as a whole.
Integrating: Mindfulness is a regulative, organising activity in meditation, which notes any lacks and deficiencies, brings in appropriate qualities and suitably applies them.
Stabilising: Mindfulness exerts a stabilising function in regard to sensory distraction, as described in the ‘simile of the post’, which likens six animals to the six sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. These sense organs can be restrained by the ‘strong post’ of sati, which exerts a stabilising function in regard to sensory distraction through its ability to tether the senses and 'keep them near'. In this way, mindfulness remains aloof and impartial, but also connected to what is happening at the sense doors.
Protecting: Mindfulness guards the mind by helping to prevent the arising of unwholesome states through its clear view of a situation, as highlighted in the ‘simile of the gatekeeper’ (more on that here). Such a protective role comes about through sati’s ability to exert a controlling influence on thoughts and intentions.
Applying ‘detached’ observation: Mindfulness is a calm and non-reactive type of attention, which ‘stands back’ to observe phenomena, rather than interfere with them. It helps one experience all feelings with a detached outlook. This offers a more objective stance towards one’s experience. It is sometimes referred to as ‘bare attention’, a key aspect of sati in that it both encourages sense-restraint and allows one to see things as they have come to be, unadulterated by habitual reactions and projections.