Alertness, not Mindfulness

Buckingham Palace Guard

Recently, a fellow blogger named Cocomino, posted an interesting article about how people make better decisions in a foreign language. The explanation behind the research is that:

Namely, people are less likely to fall into common cognitive traps when tested in a language other than their mother tongue.

Reading this reminded me of the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness or sati in the old Pali langauge. Mindfulness is a difficult word to understand in some ways. Buddhists use it a lot, but if you ask two Buddhists what it means, you might be different answers.

One of the best explanations of mindfulness by the Buddha is in a sutra called the Four Frames of Reference, or Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22 in the Pali Canon). In this sutra, the Buddha explains that when meditating you should pay attention to four aspects:

  1. Your body – what is it physically doing right now?
  2. Your sensations – what kinds of sensations are you feeling?
  3. Your thoughts – what kinds of thoughts are in your mind right now?
  4. Your personality – what kinds of feelings do you have right now?

But what is the point of this? It is to stay alert. It is to pull yourself back to reality when your mind wanders or is half-awake.

As the language article shows, peoples’ minds have two ways of thinking: the first one is quick and intuitive and usually works “good enough”. The second way is more cautious and careful. Peoples’ minds often choose the first way because it’s easier, but the Buddha encourages people to use the second way.

Speaking from experience, sometimes I catch myself feeling angry or ill-will towards others. Or, I catch myself thinking stupid or greedy thoughts sometimes. When this happens, the angry, greedy or silly thoughts are gone. No suppression or self-punishment, the thoughts lose their power because my mind is alert and back to reality for a moment.

So, to me, I think it’s helpful to replace the word mindfulness with alertness. When people say ‘alert’, the meaning is obvious. One should be cautious and alert towards what they are doing, feeling and thinking. It will help a person avoid ‘traps’ as the article explains.

Even in Japanese language this is true too I think. The word for mindfulness is nen (念) which is used in words like nenbutsu (念仏, ‘recalling the Buddha’) and so on. On the other hand, in everyday, modern Japanese is the term yōjin which means to keep an eye on, or be alert. For example, because fires are so dangers in Japan (housing is dense and lots of wood), you can see the term hi no yōjin (火の用心, “fire watch”) used or it is used in the example ano hito niwa yōjin shinasai (あの人には用心しなさい) which means “Keep an eye on that guy [watch out]”. In other words: be alert.

So, if you want to avoid common problems in your life, and have fewer regrets, be alert. Be alert to what you are doing, be alert to what you are thinking and be alert to how you feel.

As the Hossō (Yogacara) school explains, every thought or experience will “color” or “perfume” the mind and create a feedback-loop that, like ‘seeds’, grow into future thoughts and actions. If the mind is alert and awake, it can make better choices, and create more positive ‘seeds’ for the future.

Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “Alertness, not Mindfulness”

  1. Thank you for this excellent explanation of mindfulness. I was intrigued to read about the effect using a foreign language has on decision making, but it makes perfect sense!


  2. Thank you so much for your hard work on explaining Buddhism. I was doing my best to explain to my friends in Canada what Buddhism it when it is placed in the same buckets as all religions.


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