Mindfulness is the English translation of the Pali word sati. Sati is an activity. What exactly is that? There can be no precise answer, at least not in words. Words are devised by the symbolic levels of the mind, and they describe those realities with which symbolic thinking deals. Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to logic. Nevertheless, mindfulness can be experienced and it can be described, as long as you keep in mind that the words are only fingers pointing at the moon. They are not the moon itself. The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols.


In the experience of mindfulness, the following characteristics would be noted:

1. Mindfulness is mirror-thought. It reflects only what is presently happening and in exactly the way it is happening. There are no biases.

2. Mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation. It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism. With this ability, one sees things without condemnation or judgment. However, it is psychologically impossible for us to objectively observe what is going on within us if we do not at the same time accept the occurrence of our various states of mind. This is especially true with unpleasant states of mind, like fear, depression, irritation, agitation, frustration. You can’t examine something fully if you are busy rejecting its existence. Whatever experience we may be having, mindfulness just accepts it.

3. Mindfulness is impartial watchfulness. It does not take sides. It does not get hung up in what is perceived. It just perceives. Mindfulness does not get infatuated with the good mental states. It does not try to sidestep the bad mental states. There is no clinging to the pleasant, no fleeing from the unpleasant. Mindfulness treats all experiences equally, all thoughts equally, all feelings equally. Nothing is suppressed. Nothing is repressed. Mindfulness does not play favourites.

4. Mindfulness is non-conceptual awareness (bare attention). It does not get involved with thought or concepts. It does not get hung up on ideas or opinions or memories.

5. Mindfulness is present-moment awareness. It takes place in the here and now. It is the observance of what is happening right now, in the present.

6. Mindfulness is non-egotistic alertness. It takes place without reference to self.

7. Mindfulness is awareness of change. It is observing the passing flow of experience. It is watching things as they are changing. It is seeing the birth, growth, and maturity of all phenomena.

8. Mindfulness is participatory observation. The mediator is both participant and observer at one and the same time.


In practicing midfulness, there are three fundamental activities, and we can also use these activities as its functional definitions:

1. mindfulness reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing,

2. it sees things as they really are, and

3. it sees the true nature of all phenomena. Mindfulness has the power to reveal the deepest level of reality available to human observation. At this level of inspection, one sees the following:

  • all conditioned things are inherently transitory (impermanence, anicca)
  • every worldly thing is, in the end, unsatisfying (unsatisfactoriness, dukkha)
  • there are really no entities that are unchanging or permanent, only processes (selflessness, anatta)

For most of us, we have earned high marks in school and in life for our ability to manipulate mental phenomena, or concepts, logically. Our careers, much of our success in everyday life, our happy relationships, we view as largely the result of our successful manipulation of concepts. In developing mindfulness, however, we temporarily suspend the conceptualisation process and focus on the pure nature of mental phenomena. The human mind seeks to conceptualise phenomena, and it has developed a host of clever ways to do so. Every simple sensation will trigger a burst of conceptual thinking if you give the mind its way. While during meditation we are seeking to experience the mind at the pre-conceptual level.

With a clear mind, people will aware of reflexive, emotional reactions that lead to bad decisions. Intentionally slowing down our thoughts, words, and movements allows us to penetrate far more deeply into them than we otherwise could. Paying detached attention to every sensation and to the flow of thought and emotion. When seeing the mechanisms of our own emotions and the operations of our passions, we can truly gauge the reliability of our reasoning and glimpse the difference between our true motives and that armour of pretence that we wear to fool ourselves and others.  As we achieves clear comprehension in the midst of life’s ordinary activities, we gain the ability to remain rational and peaceful while we throw the penetrating light of mindfulness into those irrational mental nooks and crannies. We will start to see the extent to which we are responsible for our own mental suffering. We will see our own miseries, fears, and tensions as self-generated. We will see the way we cause our own suffering, weakness, and limitations. And the more deeply we understand these mental processes, the less hold we have on them.

Mindfulness therefore works like an electron microscope. That is, it operates on so fine a level that one can actually directly perceive those realities that are at best theoretical constructs to the conscious thought process. Mindfulness actually sees the impermanent character of every perception. It sees the transitory and passing nature of everything that is perceived. It also sees the inherently unsatisfactory nature of all conditioned things. It sees that there is no point grabbing onto any of these passing shows; peace and happiness cannot found that way. And finally, mindfulness sees the inherent selflessness of all phenomena. It sees the way that we have arbitrarily selected a certain bundle of perceptions, chopped them off from the rest of the surging flow of experience, and then conceptualised them as separate, enduring entities.


Deeply buried in the mind, there lies a mechanism that accepts what the mind experiences as beautiful and pleasant and rejects those experiences that are perceivd as ugly and painful. This mechanism gives rise to those states of mind that we are training ourselves to be present in mindfulness to avoid – things like greed, lust, hatred, aversion, and jealousy. We choosed to avoid these hindrances, not because they are evil in the normal sense of word, but because they are compulsive; because they take the mind over and capture the attention completely; because they keep going round and round in tight little circles of thought; and because they seal us off from living reality.

These hindrances cannot arise when mindfulness is present. Mindfulness is attention to present-moment reality, and therefore, directly antithetical to the dazed state of mind that characterizes impediments. As meditators, it is only when we let our mindfulness slip that the deep mechanisms of our mind take over – grasping, clinging, and rejecting. Then resistance emerges and obscures our awareness. We do not notice that the change is taking place – we are too busy with a thought of revenge, or greed, whatever it may be. While an untrained person will continue in this state indefinitely, a trained meditator will soon realize what is happening.  It is mindfulness that notices the change.  It is mindfulness that remembers the training received and that focuses our attention so that the confusion fades away.  And it is miindfulness that then attempts to maintain itself indefinitely so that the resistance cannot arise again.  Thus, mindfulness is the specific antidote for hindrances.  It is both the cure and the preventive measure. Mindfulness neutralizes defilements in the mind. The result is a mind that remains unstained and invulnerable, completely undisturbed by the ups and downs of life.

Source: Mindfulness in Plain English byVen. Henepola Gunaratana

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