The term mindfulness is being thrown around a lot these days. But what does it mean, really?

This increased interest in awareness training is a positive development, but a problem emerges when the term gets equivocated and used with different meanings in different contexts. It presents the risk of watering down a very rich tradition – and hence the potential it has to offer. So in this Frame we will take a look at the true meaning of mindfulness (Sati).

To start with, I invite you to take a “beginner’s mind”. This means letting go of any preconceived ideas and understandings – whether positive or negative – and to explore mindfulness with freshness and curiosity as if you never heard the term before. One way to invite this attitude is to go back to the root of the term: Sati (from the Pali language), because most of us don’t have as strong associations and connotations with that word as we have with the English translations mindfulness or awareness. What I find interesting is that sati can also be translated as “remembering”. This points to the fact that we already know what mindfulness is. We all know what it feels like to be fully aware in the present moment, with a quality of openness and acceptance of what is here. That nothing needs to be fixed. That now is enough, and that we are deeply involved in it. This state of presence is familiar to us whether we call it mindfulness or something else.

“Sati is remembering what it is like to be in the being mode… It refers to a set of psychotechnologies that bring about awakening.”

– John Vervaeke (paraphrased)

A complete view

So in a sense, Sati is the remembrance of what it is like to be in that state of awareness. And whenever we do remember – as a visceral, felt sense – we are experiencing mindfulness directly. This is a natural human capacity that can be cultivated through practice.

At this point, we are already seeing how mindfulness can refer to a state of being as well as an activity or a practice. Let’s clarify this dual meaning by taking a look at three aspects of mindfulness:

1) First, mindfulness as a state of being. A state of awareness in which we inhabit and attend deeply to how we experience our inner and outer worlds in the present moment. This can be seen as the “what” of mindfulness.

2) The second aspect has to do with intention. This intention comes from seeing clearly what is most important in our lives. We could say it’s an intention to remember what it is like to inhabit this state of being. We set an intention to return to this state, to abide in it, and to start integrating it. Through this intention, we turn the state into a trait – a phrase used in neuroscience (supported by the phenomena of neuroplasticity). Put simply, intention and practice makes it easier to remember to be mindful.

3) The third aspect has to do with the attitudes of Sati. This can be described as the “how”. We attend to the present moment with the qualities of openness and kindness. We develop deep curiosity and interest in what we are experiencing. By embodying these qualities we learn to befriend what is showing up in our lives without judgement, enabling us to hold even difficult experiences with compassion.

A human capacity that can be trained

These three aspects relate closely to Shauna Shapiro’s IAA model of mindfulness, where she talks about intention, attention and attitude as independent factors occurring simultaneously. One way to sum up is to say that:

Mindfulness is a state of awareness that arises when we attend intentionally to our experience in the present moment – both what is happening inside us, and in our environment – with and attitude of openness, curiosity and kindness.

I hope that by putting these three aspects together, you get a more complete view of what mindfulness is. There is a lot to go into but, fundamentally, we are talking about an inherent human capacity that can be cultivated and trained.

Although this capacity does not belong to any religion or tradition, the practice of Sati is part of a teaching framework that goes all the way back to the Buddha. In this context, mindfulness can be seen as part of a path that is designed to nurture this innate capacity of awake awareness. It is designed to lead us to freedom and help us live more conscious and intentional lives.

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A video version of this frame

Sati to awaken from the meaning crisis