The Quality of Mindfulness


POSTCARD#440: Bangkok: [Editor’s note: In this section of the book Ajahn Brahm reminds us mindfulness is remembering, sati. We acquire that quality of mindfulness that can teach a part of the mind to remember basic instructions to be mindful of who is to be included and who is not included in your list of house guests. It means the observer doesn’t need to be the one who is mindful of everything. These parts of the mind, given the task of being mindful of a particular thing at a given time, can remember these, in the long term with, for example: “Now is the time to watch the present moment. Be in the present moment. Be in the present moment.”]

MINDFULNESS is one of the spiritual faculties (indriya) that create success in meditation. If it’s not fully understood and fully practiced, you can waste a lot of time in your meditation.

Setting Up the Gatekeeper

Mindfulness is not just being aware, being awake, or being fully conscious of what’s occurring around you. Mindfulness also guides the awareness to specific areas, remembers the instructions, and initiates a response. In a simile the Buddha used, mindfulness is like a person who guards a door or gate (AN VII,63).

Imagine that you are a wealthy person with a gatekeeper guarding your mansion. One evening, before going to the temple to practice meditation, you tell the gatekeeper to be mindful of burglars. When you return home, your loving-kindness suddenly vanishes when you find your house has been burgled. “Didn’t I tell you to be mindful!” you scream at the gatekeeper. “But I was mindful,” pleads the gatekeeper. “I gave attention to the burglars as they broke in, and I was clearly attentive as they walked out with your plasma-screen TV and state-of-the-art sound system. I mindfully watched them go in several times, and my mind did not wander as I observed them take all your antique furniture and priceless jewelry.”

Would you be happy with such an explanation of mindfulness? A wise gatekeeper knows that mindfulness is more than bare attention. A wise gatekeeper has to remember the instructions and perform them with diligence. If he sees a thief trying to break in, then he must stop the burglar or else call in the police.

In the same way, a wise meditator must do more than just give bare attention to whatever comes into and goes out of the mind. The wise meditator must remember the instructions and act on them with diligence. For instance, the Buddha gave an instruction about “right effort,” the sixth factor of the noble eightfold path. When wise meditators practicing mindfulness observe an unwholesome state trying to break in, they try to stop the defilement. And if the unwholesome state does slip in, they try to evict it. Unwholesome states such as sexual desire or anger are like burglars or sweet-talking con artists, who will rob you of your peace, wisdom, and happiness. There are, then, these two aspects of mindfulness: awareness and remembering the instructions.

In the Buddhist suttas, the same Pāli word sati is used for both awareness and memory. A person who has good mindfulness is also a person who has a good memory. If we pay full attention to what we are doing, this awareness creates an imprint in our mind. It becomes easy to remember. For example, suppose you come very close to having a serious car accident. Because of the danger, your mindfulness suddenly becomes extremely sharp. And because of the intensity of that mindfulness, you remember the event very clearly. When you go to sleep that night you might not be able to forget it. This shows the connection between awareness and memory. The more you are paying attention to what you’re doing, the better you remember it. Again, these two things go together, awareness and memory.

If we have gatekeepers who have developed awareness, they will pay attention to the instructions that they are given. If they give full attention to the instructions, they will be able to remember them and act on them diligently. So we should give ourselves clear instructions paying full attention; then we will remember what we are supposed to be doing. The teacher’s job is also to give clear instructions to help us in guiding the mind. When the training in meditation is methodical and each stage is well defined, then our gatekeepers have the clarity they need.

Instructing the Gatekeeper

At the beginning of the meditation, please remember that there’s a gatekeeper inside—something that can be aware of what’s happening and remember instructions. Tell that gatekeeper something like “Now is the time to be aware of the present moment.” Tell the gatekeeper this three times. If

you repeat something, you’re more likely to remember it. Maybe when you were at school and couldn’t spell a word, you had to write it out a hundred times. You never forget it after that, because when you repeat something it takes more effort, and mindfulness becomes stronger. What’s easy to do doesn’t require much mindfulness. So make it difficult for yourself by repeating instructions: “I will be aware of the present moment. I will be aware of the present moment. I will be aware of the present moment.”

With the gatekeeper, like any other servant or worker, you don’t have to keep giving the same instruction every second or two. Just give that instruction to the gatekeeper three times at the beginning, then let the gatekeeper get on with the task. Trust the gatekeeper to know its job.

Instruct your gatekeeper as you would instruct a taxi driver. You just say clearly where you want to go, then you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. You trust that the driver knows how to get there. But imagine what would happen if you kept telling the driver every few seconds, “Go slower…go faster…turn left here…now go into third gear… look in your mirror…keep to the right.” After driving a few hundred yards the taxi driver would throw you out. No wonder then, when meditators keep giving instructions to their gatekeeper every few seconds, their minds rebel and refuse to cooperate.

Let the mind get on with the job of being in the present moment. Don’t keep interfering with it. Give the mind clear instructions and then let go and watch. If you establish mindfulness in this way, you will find that your mind will do what it’s told. It will still make mistakes now and again, but the instructions that you’ve given will ensure that as soon as it starts to wander off into the past or the future, mindfulness will remember to return to the present moment. For you, the onlooker, it’s something that happens automatically. You just watch the gatekeeper do the work without giving any more instructions. This is knowing the mind and working with its nature.

I encourage you to play games with the mind to learn its capabilities. I was told on my first meditation retreat that there is no need to set the alarm for getting up in the morning. The teacher told us instead to say to ourselves

before going to bed, “I’m going to get up at five minutes to five.” It worked every morning. I didn’t need to keep looking at my clock to check if it was five to five yet, and when I woke up and looked at my clock it was five minutes to five, give or take a minute or two. It’s amazing how the mind works. I don’t know how it remembered, but it did. So try programming your mind: “Now is the time to watch the present moment. Be in the present moment. Be in the present moment.” That’s all you need to do. Then you can

let the mind do the work. It’s also important to clearly instruct the gatekeeper who is allowed in and who is not. It’s not enough just to have the guest list. If the gatekeeper hasn’t got a list of who’s forbidden, it could easily make mistakes.

This is continued next week, Saturday October 16th 2021

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