Dharma Wheel symbol Buddha and Bill
The Dharma &
The Twelve Steps
gold pyramid in gold circle

Right Mindfulness &

Right Concentration

Walking Toward Serenity

"When I was tired and couldn't concentrate, I used to fall back on an affirmation toward life that took the form of simple walking and deep breathing. I sometimes told myself that I couldn't do even this—that I was too weak. But I learned that this was the point at which I could not give in without becoming still more depressed.

"So I would set myself a small stint. I would determine to walk a quarter of a mile. And I would concentrate by counting my breathing—say, six steps to each slow inhalation and four to each exhalation. Having done the quarter-mile, I found that I could go on, maybe a half-mile more. Then another half-mile, and maybe another.

"This was encouraging. The false sense of physical weakness would leave me (this feeling being characteristic of depressions). The walking and especially the breathing were powerful affirmations toward life and living and away from failure and death. The counting represented a minimum discipline in concentration, to get some rest from the wear and tear of fear and guilt."

—Bill W., As Bill Sees It (c. 1967), p. 92.
"The Arhat [enlightened person] dwells in mindfulness; he does not need a home. Like a goose flying away from a pond, he leaves behind place after place."
—Dhammapada 7.21a
"Cultivating the factors of Enlightenment with the pure mind of meditation, you will stop grasping. Taking no delight in attachment, and destroying all defilements, full of light, you wi1l completely pass beyond the suffering of this world."
—Dhammapada 6.141b

Right Mindfulness is traditionally listed as the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Concentration is the eighth. Right Intention is the second. But each element of the Noble Eightfold Path is meant to be practiced in conjunction with all of the other seven elements. It is not like there are eight steps to be practiced in a sequence, beginning with the first and ending with the last. In the practice of Buddhist meditation, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration blend together.

Here is a combination of online English dictionary definitions for "mindful":2

mindful adjective 1 : bearing in mind, having in mind : aware; keeping aware; heedful; attentive (to); careful (of) 2 : inclined to be aware — mindfully adverbmindfulness noun.

Thus, in plain English, the term mindfulness can have such meanings as: "a state of awareness," "a maintained state of awareness," "a state of heedfulness," "a state of attentiveness (to)," and "a state of carefulness."

But what is mindfulness in the context of Buddhist teachings and practice?

The oldest Buddhist scriptures are written in either Pali or Sanskrit. In the Pali language, the word for "mindfulness" most often used in the context of the Noble Eightfold Path is sati; "right mindfulness" is samma-sati. In Sanskrit, this "mindfulness" is smriti; "right mindfulness" is samyak-smriti.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, says:3

"Right Mindfulness (samyak smriti) is at the heart of the Buddha's teachings...When right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the seven other elements of the Eightfold Path are also present. When we are mindful, our thinking is Right Thinking, our speech is Right Speech, and so on. Right Mindfulness is the energy that brings us back to the present moment. To cultivate mindfulness in ourselves is to cultivate the Buddha within, to cultivate the Holy Spirit."

John Kabat-Zinn writes in his book Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life:4

"Mindfulness has been called the heart of Buddhist meditation. Fundamentally, mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation."

For more elaboration of mindfulness in the context of Buddhism, see the webpage Wildmind - Buddhist meditation—"What is mindfulness?".

Note that in this description of mindfullness by Wildmind, mindfulness involves awareness, purpose (intention) and focus (concentration).

The last two paragraphs in the webpage connect with the Four Noble Truths in the context of the causes of suffering and the alleviation of suffering by their removal:

"Left to itself the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer.

"By purposefully directing our awareness away from such thoughts and towards some 'anchor' we decrease their effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow."

Buddhist meditation is the way to cultivate mindfulness. It also leads to wisdom and freedom from ego-centered delusions. According to the oldest Buddhist scriptures, the historical Buddha attained complete enlightenment after meditating for 49 days.

The best way to learn Buddhist meditation is from a skilled instructor of Buddhist meditation who you can be with in person for this. But if there is no such person available for you, you can, for free, learn how to do simple breathing meditation from the website Wild Mind Buddhist Meditation. This basic form of Buddhist meditation is the primary form in all the Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

My first hands-on exposure to the practice of mindfulness in Buddhism occurred when I came to the San Francisco Zen Center from the Midwest in the summer of 1969 to practice Zen Buddhism under the tutelage of Zen master Suzuki Roshi. I was twenty-one years old at the time. The basic training for mindfulness was in the practice of meditation. But Roshi taught his students to carry this mindfulness into their daily lives.

The kind of Buddhist meditation that we were doing is often called in English "Zen meditation." The Japanese term is zazen. But basically it is the most fundamental form of Buddhist meditation. In Sanskrit, it is called shamatha. The way Suzuki Roshi taught us, we sit cross-legged on a cushion (or in a chair, if necessary due to one's physical condition, or lack of a cushion, etc.) with the back straight. Our attention is centered on our breathing, being aware of breathing in and of breathing out. That is the ideal anyway. But what happens—at least until one has had lots of daily practice doing this—is that we find that we have become distracted. The thing to do then is to simply return our mental focus to our breathing. We should not think of the time we were being distracted as being totally wasted. We also practiced walking meditation in which we walked slowly while counting our breaths. This was usually done for five minutes between two periods of sitting meditation that lasted for twenty minutes each (if I remember correctly).

What is most significant in this practice is that, when we do realize that we have become distracted, we do return to being mindful of our breathing—instead of continuing to daydream or worry or whatever. We are cultivating mindfulness. When we do realize that we have become lost in a dream, we do not let ourselves fall back into it right away.

Right Mindfulness applies to all aspects of our daily life as well as to meditation.

Ringu Tulku, in his book Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha, writes:5

"Right effort and right mindfulness are needed to cultivate all the other branches of the Noble Eightfold Path. Frequently, we do not use our energy in the right way. Often, we are willing to make a great effort for things that are not worthwhile at all, but not for things that would be beneficial for us. Right effort, therefore, means to control our actions and direct our energy in the right way.

"Once the right course of action is understood, mindfulness is needed to apply this understanding correctly. The degree to which we can do something meaningful depends on the degree to which we are mindful. As long as we are not mindful, we will fall into our habits and just follow our usual ways. To avoid this, we have to bring ourselves back to the present and try to remind ourselves constantly of the best thing to do. By bringing our mind back to the present moment, we prevent it from being scattered. This is the main issue of practice. Toward this aim, effort is needed, since we are not used to doing positive or beneficial things. For this reason, we will not always like it and will not always find it easy. We will often prefer to idle away our time, just walking around or spending the day gambling and drinking.

"To counteract our habits, it is therefore necessary to exert a certain amount of effort. We set our mindfulness and awareness against them. Doing this again and again, we will carry the practice of Dharma into our daily lives. There is no special technique to apply. It is simply done through mindfulness and effort. How much we practice in this way depends entirely on ourselves. As has been said earlier, we ourselves are the practice. There is no other practice apart from ourselves, and practice is not assigned to a special time. The whole day is practice. We constantly face all kinds of difficulties and emotions. Whenever we manage to be mindful in dealing with these, we practice. In this way we can turn each aspect of everyday life into practice."

In his book Zen Keys, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:6

"I remember a short conversation between the Buddha and a philosopher of his time.

"'I have heard that Buddhism is a doctrine of enlightenment. What is your method? What do you practice every day?'

"'We walk, we eat, we wash ourselves, we sit down . . .'

"'What is so special about that? Everyone walks, eats, washes, sits down . . .'

"'Sir, when we walk, we are aware that we are walking; when we eat, we are aware that we are eating. . . . When others walk, eat, wash, or sit down, they are generally not aware of what they are doing.'"

"In Buddhism, mindfulness is the key. Mindfulness is the energy that sheds light on all things and all activities, producing the power of concentration, bringing forth deep insight and awakening. Mindfulness is at the base of all Buddhist practice.

"To shed light on all things? This is the point of departure. If I live without mindfulness, in forgetfulness, I am, as Albert Camus says in his novel The Stranger, living 'like a dead person.' The ancient Zen masters used to say 'If we live in forgetfulness, we die in a dream.' How many among us live 'like a dead person'! The first thing we have to do is to return to life, to wake up and be mindful of each thing we do. Are we aware when we are eating, drinking, sitting in meditation? Or are we wasting our time, living in forgetfulness?"

But we should be gentle with ourselves in cultivating mindfulness in everyday life just as we should be in cultivating mindfulness in meditation.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a book containing transcripts of talks given by the late Suzuki Roshi to a group of his American Zen students. In one of these talks, Roshi says:7

"In our scriptures (Samyuktagama Sutra, volume 33), it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver's will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

"When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. This is, I think, is the usual understanding of this story, and of Zen. You may think that when you sit in zazen you will find out whether you are one of the best horses or one of the worst ones. Here, however, there is a . misunderstanding of Zen. If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.

"When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best one."


1aTranslation from dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), Dhammapada: Translation of Dharma Verses with the Tibetan Text (c. 1985), p. 48. See also Narada Thera (translator, editor), The Dhammapada: Pali Text and Translation with Stories in Brief and Notes, 4th Edition (1993), p. 85.

1b dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 47. See also Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 82.

2See "mindful—definition and more from Merriam-Webster", "mindful—definition from the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Encyclopedia", "mindful—definition from yourdictionary.com".

3Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (c. 1998), p. 64.

4Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (c. 1994), p. 4. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. is the first person in history to fruitfully bring meditation into the American medical community. He is the founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine.

5Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (2010), pp. 43-44.

6Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (1995), pp. 25-26.

7Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970), pp. 34-35.


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