Distinguishing Mindfulness and Awareness

The word mindfulness is so well known these days that to use it with anything other than the commonly accepted meaning, and be understood, presents quite a challenge. It is important to make this attempt though, as I hope will become clear in what follows…


There are two distinct experiences that are being referred to with these two words – mindfulness, and awareness, and if they get blended together, or used interchangeably, then we’re at risk of losing the meaning of this teaching, one that has been handed down to us through many generations.

In what follows, I would like to describe Mindfulness As Keeping Our Aim In Mind. Traditionally, the word sati has a broader range of meaning than simply awareness of an object or an experience. It is knowing our purpose. It is having a sense of context, the memory and knowledge of what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

If we are aiming to alleviate our own suffering, and put an end to it, and to help others in this world as much as we can, this function known as mindfulness – as recollection – is crucial. If we forget, or lose the sense of what we are aiming to do, and why, for a time at least, we stray from accomplishing our purpose. This is as true here as it would be if we were making a cake, or driving to some destination.

We can see how this word mindfulness, however, has been used to refer almost exclusively to another necessary function of the mind in practice – that of maintaining awareness.

Our mind, when untrained, moves from one object or experience to another, restless, dissatisfied, and superficial. The quality that counters this is collectedness – a gathering together of attention, and a continuity and clarity of awareness that can be developed. This is what is accomplished in both samatha and jhana meditation.

Since we can have a range of motivations when meditating, and experiences and teachings to guide us, our mindfulness as recollection of what we are doing and why we are doing it, in Sanskrit smriti, or in Pali sati, is essential. When we know what we are aiming to do, or where we are aiming to go, then any time we get off track, or lose the object, we know it immediately, intuitively, and return to the practice, or a fruitful way to proceed.

Mindfulness As Keeping Our Purpose In Mind

Perhaps you’ve had this experience too. On some days when I’m out and about, and there are lots of other people out also, I’ll think to myself. Who are all these people? and, Where are they going? We may be going in the same direction, but with a different purpose, and with very different goals in mind. At the end of the day also, most of us are going to end up in different places.

This analogy comes to mind when trying to understand some fundamental Buddhist terms that have come down to us. I’m trying here to get a sense here of how to use the teachings effectively.

Some words have different meanings, and if I’m not careful, they overlap and lose their effect.

Looking at the word ‘mindfulness’, for example, I can see it’s referring to being aware, always. Sometimes though here in the West so far this word has been used mean to just being aware of what we are doing in the present moment, and no more than that. There’s a fuller, more encompassing meaning though that has sometimes been communicated as recollection. We know what we are doing, and why we are doing it, as Lama Yeshe put it.

To return to the earlier analogy, this would be like going out to the store or to a particular market with a definite purpose, say, to buy some bread and then to return straight home. Our walking then is guided by that mindfulness, or by that recollection. If we forget what we are doing, or where we are going, even for just a short time, then it’s going to take us longer to accomplish our purpose. We may even return home empty handed, or not at all. This is forgetfulness, which is the opposite of mindfulness as retention, or recollection.

We can then see how this definition has many applications in Buddhist practice, or in spiritual practice.

Right mindfulness emerges only within the context of right view and right
intention – B. Alan Wallace

We begin with a motivation, whatever we are doing.

It may be that we have the motivation to make our own lives better, to have less stress, doubt and fear, or anxiety, and we see rightly that Dharma practice is a way to bring this about. If we remember this intention, we’ll carry this throughout a meditation session and with us into our daily lives. It’s not just something we do on the cushion. This is where memory, care and conscientiousness, come in, avoiding the elements throughout the day and night that oppose our overall purpose.

Mindfulness as recollection now is more than just the bare awareness of what is happening in the present moment, divorced from everything else. Rather, it has a sense of context, and a sense of purpose. Again, we know what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

We can also gain some certainty that liberation is possible, as it is taught in Buddhism and in other spiritual traditions. This completely changes how we feel about what we are doing, from within. Compared to before, we have a different, and far greater aim in mind.

I imagine someone making their way purposefully through a crowded market. They know clearly where they are going, and they skillfully navigate the challenges they meet, as they make their way. Without such a strong, clear sense of purpose, drawing on history when needed, they would wander, perhaps getting distracted by all the activity around them, and become lost.

In the same way, if we begin with a good motivation, to take better care of ourselves for example, or to become free from suffering, we may forget, and then the practice loses its effectiveness. This sense of purpose and the full understanding of how we can accomplish our aims needs to be kept in mind, clearly and continuously present. Without it, our progress can be delayed, indefinitely, just like the person who goes to a market, but then forgets for a time where they are, why they are there, or where they are going.

We can even see the great need in this world for more healthy and balanced people, free of greed and aggression and small mindedness, and set out with the aim to become liberated and as helpful as we can for others in this place and time. If we forget this, our motivation though, even for a short while, we may stop and entertain ourselves, or succumb to despair or to loneliness. With sati, mindfulness as recollection, this greater purpose than our own benefit alone though kept clearly in mind, this does not happen. It’s like we are going out for food, or going to get medicine for our precious loved ones.

Conscientiousness, patience, diligence, focus and finding meaning in all that we do then all follow quite naturally.

When it comes to particular meditation practices then also, we can see this same beautiful quality, of mindfulness as keeping our purpose in mind, at work.

For example, in meditation, when we are cultivating a clear and peaceful mind, one of the faults is called forgetfulness, losing the object, and its antidote is mindfulness, as recollection. This is knowing what we are doing, as we are sitting, or walking. The vivid sense of purpose is there throughout, non-verbally. It guides us. When we forget, this sense of what we are aiming to do is what brings us back to the object of awareness, whether it be the breath, or our posture, or steps, mantra, or visualization, or theme of meditation.

They say in this context, the function of mindfulness here is non forgetting, keeping the objet in mind.

When we meditate on the subject of death also, to increase our understanding of this truth, it is forgetting that is the opposite of keeping this in clear awareness. There is a great difference in the quality of our lives and practice when this mindfulness is present.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what only appear to be separate worlds. Sports, cooking shows, amoral, mind-less materialism in all its vulgar excesses all seem to be removed from one another and from the rest of our lives and this greater world. The truth of it though is that the feeling of being a world apart is an illusion, that has tragic consequences for us all. We ignore needs all around us, on account of this forgetting. Our values collectively are deluded – ignorantly selfish, and ultimately destructive of even our own ends.

Waking up to our lives here, and responding as well as we can to the human, animal, and environmental needs of this time, from wherever we are is all included in being mindful, and aware. We may deny it, or avoid it, but then, from a human perspective, such lives are immature, and smaller than they could be, and there is bound to be a lack of fulfillment, and conflict between us, as individuals, or as groups.

And so I offer this prayer:

May we all awaken,
care for ourselves
and for all of our precious family, with wisdom,
and find meaning,
and the fulfillment of our lives here on earth!