Practicing Mindfulness in Every Moment

According to Buddhism every human being is born with two capacities. One capacity is positive and the other capacity is negative. In Buddhism we call the positive capacity “Buddha Nature”, and we call the negative capacity “Mara Nature”. (Mara is the personification of evil in Buddhism.)

Every human being has the potential to become a Buddha or a Mara. And every moment of the day we make a choice to move towards being a Buddha or being a Mara. If we open our mind to the simple beauty of life all around us, we cultivate our Buddha capacity. If we close our mind and turn away from the world we cultivate our Mara capacity. If we act to help other living beings we cultivate our Buddha capacity. If we act selfishly and without regard for others we cultivate our Mara capacity. If our actions are motivated by greed, hatred and ignorance then we become like Mara. If our actions are motivated by generosity, kindness or compassion, and by wisdom, then we become like the Buddha.

This is basic Buddhism. When we go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we commit ourselves to develop our Buddha capacity, and we commit ourselves to remove our Mara capacity.

But sometimes we think that if we meditate for 40 minutes every day, read the latest Buddhist book, and we perform regular Buddhist rituals, then we are doing enough to develop our Buddha capacity.

It’s very good if we have a regular meditation practice. But it’s not enough! Both inside meditation and outside meditation, in every moment of the day, we make a choice to move towards being a Buddha or being a Mara. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always making choices, and acting upon these choices. These choices and the actions that follow the choices are our karma. When we practice meditation and perform rituals then we create positive karma. We develop our Buddha capacity and reduce the influence of our Mara capacity.

Maybe for one hour of the day we create positive karma. But what about the other 23 hours of the day? If we are to develop our Buddha capacity then we must find a way to help ourselves to make the right choices, and to act upon those right choices. We must find a way to help ourselves to create positive karma in every moment of the day. To create positive karma in every moment of the day we must cultivate what we call in English “mindfulness”. In Estonian “mindfulness” is translated as “tähelepanelikkus”, “teadvustamine”, “meelespidamine”, “hoolivus”.

But what is “mindfulness”? To try to answer this question we need to go back in history to the earliest recorded words of the Buddha in the Pali Canon. In the Pali Canon we find that the Buddha used three different words to describe different aspects of mindfulness.

The first word is ‘sampajanna’. Sampajanna means ‘clarity of purpose’. In any given situation we know from moment to moment what our purpose is, and we know what we must do to succeed in fulfilling our purpose. The second word is ‘sati’. ‘Sati’ is our capacity to be aware. It is our ability to see and understand exactly what is happening from moment to moment. We remember to be aware. Because we remember to be aware we can see clearly what is happening both in the environment around us and in our own body and mind. This is ‘sati’.

So, if a person has developed a strong clarity of purpose (sampajanna) and has developed a strong capacity to be clearly aware (sati), does this mean that they are practicing mindfulness? By themselves sampajanna and sati are not enough to meet the Buddha’s definition of mindfulness. Something is missing. Let me give you an example.

A sniper hides in the grass, waiting to shoot his enemy. He is very clear on his purpose – it is to kill his enemy (sampajanna). And he is very aware of his surroundings. He watches for the smallest movement. He listens for the smallest sound. He is very aware of his own breathing and of the weight of the rifle that he is carefully holding (sati).

The sniper is practicing “wrong mindfulness”. The sniper lacks the third element of mindfulness – appamada. Appamada is awareness that clearly distinguishes between unethical and ethical intentions or mental states. It is appamada that tells us whether a mental state or an intention or an action will move us closer to being a Buddha or move us closer to being Mara. It is appamada that tells us what action will generate positive karma and what action will generate negative karma.

As a Buddhist I try to meditate every day. I chant the ethical precepts as part of Buddhist rituals. Very good! But I know it’s not enough. So I make a commitment. I decide that my purpose is to put the ethical precepts into practice in everyday life (sampajanna). Then at work there’s a difficult meeting. I start to feel angry. But because I have developed my capacity to be aware of what is happening around me and inside me I notice that anger has arisen in me (sati). I remember that my purpose is to put the Buddha’s ethical precepts into practice (sampajanna). I recognise that the anger that has arisen in me is a negative mental state, and I am aware that if I act angrily I will create negative karma (appamada).

Sati, sampajanna and appamada work together to give me the space in my mind to make a conscious choice. Do I let my anger take me over, or do I do something different?

I take my attention into my body and become aware of the tension and discomfort caused by the anger. I take my attention to my breathing and experience the tightness of the physical movement in my chest as I breathe in and out. I keep my attention with the breath. I bring a gentle and kind attention to my breathing.

And then the miracle of mindfulness happens. The breath calms. The body calms and relaxes. The mind calms. The anger dissolves back into the emptiness from where it came. And I look around me, allowing my mind and body to be filled with metta, an attitude of openness and kindness. When I speak, I speak not with anger but with an open and constructive engagement with those around me.

Instead of acting reactively I am acting creatively. Instead of being the prisoner of Mara I become a little more like the Buddha. Instead of making negative karma I make positive karma.

To be able to act with mindfulness in every moment requires regular practice. When we sit before the Buddha shrine and meditate we are training the mind to be mindful. But we can also take time to practice mindfulness during our everyday life. Here’s one particular method of practice. It’s called the three minute breathing space.

Step one: simply notice what’s going on right now in your mind. Notice any thoughts or emotions.

Step two: Bring your attention to your breathing. Notice the rise and fall of the chest or the belly with the breathing.

Step three: Expand awareness out into the body. Notice any physical sensations. Notice the contact between body and chair or cushion and mat. Notice the contact between clothes and body.

You can make a commitment to do this three minute breathing space three times a day. It’s best to establish three specific times a day when you will do the practice at home or at work or at college.

In this way you train the mind to be mindful. You lay the foundation for the full practice of sampajanna (clarity of purpose), sati (remembering to be aware), and appamada (discriminating between ethical and unethical mental states). In this way you train yourself to be a Buddha.

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
Tallinn, December 2009