To date, there is no agreed upon definition of mindfulness (sati or smrti in Pali).
Vipassana practitioners know it as mindfulness meditation. Theravadins know it as sati. Tibetan Buddhist practitioners know it as trenpa (dran pa). And psychologists interpret it as a single mental factor involving focus and concentration. But where did the word truly come from and what is its American meaning?
This debate over the concrete definition of mindfulness has bothered scholars for hundreds of years.
The word mindfulness has a plentitude of etymological origins, mostly residing in the realm of Theravada Buddhist canons, post-canonical commentary, and early Buddhist texts, and resonating out into psychological areas of study. Some scholars are comfortable with claiming that the Pali origins of the word are the correct origins. Others disagree and claim that mindfulness as a concrete word is more of a myth than an actual concept.
Because of the highly individualized interpretations of mindfulness and its appropriateness in so many different contexts and areas of study, the word continues to cause many etymologists, Buddhists, and scientists to scratch their heads.
The problem with our current and colloquial interpretations of mindfulness is that they are not comprehensive; they are mostly influenced by the Western Vipassana tradition.
While this tradition of mindfulness meditation does stem from traditional Buddhist schools and has true Asian roots, it has been changed and conflated with concentration meditation. In the Theravada canon, these two forms of meditation are mutually exclusive and separate, and there is no mention of mindfulness as a single mental factor in any concentration meditation instructions or teachings.
Though the word mindful shows up as early as the year 1200 in the English language, the word mindfulness in the sense we think of it today was not coined until 1881 by Pali scholar T. H. Rhys-Davis. And the word has taken off in a plethora of discourses and fields of study.
This debate may go on forever.
So I will propose a new definition of mindfulness…and it is a definition that encourages you to make your own definition.
One thing is certain in all definitions of mindfulness; mindfulness, in any interpretation, is a wholesome and beautiful thing. In any intention of doing things mindfully emerges something of beauty.
My favorite interpretation of mindfulness:
“Take the time to eat an orange in mindfulness. If you eat an orange in forgetfulness, caught in your anxiety and sorrow, the orange is not really there. But if you bring your mind and body together to produce true presence, you can see that the orange is a miracle. Peel the orange. Smell the fruit. See the orange blossoms in the orange, and the rain and the sun that have gone through the orange blossoms. The orange tree that has taken several months to bring this wonder to you. Put a section in your mouth, close your mouth mindfully, and with mindfulness feel the juice coming out of the orange.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
So, according to this definition, in anything we do, we must think only of that action. And in each action, we must strive to be beautiful and to offer a thing of beauty to the world and its people (nevermind the true definition of beauty! Ha!).
In making love, we think only of that lover and what we share with him or her. In exercising, we think only of becoming stronger, faster, healthier. In eating, we think only of the good the food is doing our bodies and with the energy from the food, we offer good and compassionate acts to the world. In picking a flower, we recognize its value and we do something good—something mindful—with it.
In our interactions with people every day, we recognize them for their beautiful virtues and positive qualities, and we appreciate them. In being thankful, considerate, and compassionate, we practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be your focus…the focus that is required to think about the implications of everything you do.
You tickle the universe when you think, because thinking takes energy.
So think good thoughts! Pray to the orange you had for a snack and thank it for allowing you to do something good later in the day! Go to a yoga class or go on a walk and be thankful that you have the energy and the body to do so. Let the sun shine on your face and consider all the things that allowed you to experience that moment; the universe had to form, the sun had to gather its heat, and the rays of light had to travel through layers of space and atmosphere to provide you with a lifetime of warmth and light.
Do something to invoke mindfulness on any level, to consider it in any definition form, and to [constantly!] interpret it in any and every way imaginable. I’ve been told that this is how we cultivate bodhicitta.
Promise yourself, says Thich Nhat Hanh, that you will enjoy every moment you were given to live.
Williams, Jacob Andrew. “What is Mindfulness? Buddhist and Contemporary Scientific Perspectives.” Order No. 1482332 Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, 2010. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Moment is Perfect, Shambhala Sun, May 2008.
Want 15 free additional reads weekly, just our best?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo credits: The Buddha photo: courtesy of the author; The Japanese White Eye eating an Orange: Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image, courtesy of user Chris 73.