Creative awareness as meditative mindfulness

Sati is the Pali term that was translated as “mindfulness" by early Buddhist scholar T. W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922). This general term “mindfulness” has a broad range of meaning, though nowadays it has become understood as

“present-centered and non-judgmental” awareness. However, the Buddhist scholar Dreyfus (2013, p. 47) questions this definition:

Mindfulness is then not the present-centered non-judgmental awareness of an object but the paying close attention to an object, leading to the retention of the data so as to make sense of the information delivered by our cognitive apparatus. Thus, far from being limited to the present and to a mere refraining from passing judgment, mindfulness is a cognitive activity closely connected to memory, particularly to working memory, the ability to keep relevant information active so that it can be integrated within meaningful patterns and used for directed goal activities (Jha et al. 2010). By paying close attention, practitioners of mindfulness strengthen their cognitive control because they increase their ability to retain information and thus see their true significance rather than being carried away by their reactions.

The original meaning of sati was to remember. For example, one finds this quote in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha as translated by Bodhi (Bodhi and Nanamoli 1995, p. 463):

He has mindfulness; he possesses the highest mindfulness and skill; he recalls and recollects what was done long ago and spoken long ago.

This aspect of mindfulness is useful when trying to come back to the object of concentration and remember our intention to be aware of the breath. But sati is also seen as bringing a wider perspective and balance. In the Lohicca sutta found in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Bodhi 2000, pp. 1203-1204) it is said: “He dwells without having set up mindfulness of the body, with a limited mind . . . He dwells having set up mindfulness of the body, with a measureless mind.” As Analayo points out in his definition of sati in The Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (2007, p. 8): “It represents the ability to simultaneously maintain in one’s mind the various elements and facets of a particular situation.” In another text, mindfulness is compared to a watchful charioteer, who can survey the road and the surroundings from a higher position and at the same time holds the reins of his horses in a balanced manner.

Analayo (2007, p. 8) makes an interesting connection between sati and attention, one of the constituents of the mind, in his entry on sati in The Encyclopaedia of Buddhism:

Sati can be understood as a further development of this type of attention, thereby adding clarity and depth to the usually much too short fraction of time occupied by bare attention in the perceptual process.

Mindfulness therefore serves different functions. It is at the same time something to cultivate, the effect of that cultivation, and the tool used to cultivate it. To meditate we need to remember to focus on the object of meditation and also to look deeply into the experience. This enables us to be mindful and this allows us to be aware of what is happening in this moment. This in turn enables us to creatively engage with what is happening in the moment and to transform our relationship to it.

Thus mindfulness can be at different times recollected intention, presence of mind, or creative awareness. One of its functions is to make things that are arising truly conscious. Mindfulness has to be balanced—neither repression nor proliferation of sensation or experience. In a meditative context it is also being caring and careful in relation to experience. Finally, meditative mindfulness is based on ethical discernment. It helps us to be aware of actions, thoughts, and intentions and to answer such questions as: Is this wholesome or unwholesome? Is this beneficial for myself and others, or not? Does this bring pain or not? It is fundamentally about the causes and conditions of suffering.

Mindfulness thus enables us to become more attentive and alert, but also careful and caring. It also has a probing quality like a doctor delineating a wound, a simile used in early texts. Another simile is that of a ploughman, where mindfulness is compared to a ploughshare and a goad. The ploughshare reveals by digging and the goad serves to keep the cows in the proper direction to make a straight furrow. Moreover, the ploughman needs to use the right pressure on the plough so that it is not too heavy or too light.

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