Popular books on meditation, though, offer a lot of other definitions for mindfulness, a lot of other duties it’s supposed to fulfill—so many that the poor word gets totally stretched out of shape. In some cases, it even gets defined as Awakening, as in the phrase, “A moment of mindfulness is a moment of Awakening”—something the Buddha would never say, because mindfulness is conditioned and nirvana is not.
These are not just minor matters for nitpicking scholars to argue over. If you don’t see the differences among the qualities you’re bringing to your meditation, they glom together, making it hard for real insight to arise. If you decide that one of the factors on the path to Awakening is Awakening itself, it’s like reaching the middle of a road and then falling asleep right there. You never get to the end of the road, and in the meantime you’re bound to get run over by aging, illness, and death. So you need to get your directions straight, and that requires, among other things, knowing precisely what mindfulness is and what it’s not.
I’ve heard mindfulness defined as “affectionate attention” or “compassionate attention,” but affection and compassion aren’t the same as mindfulness. They’re separate things. If you bring them to your meditation, be clear about the fact that they’re acting in addition to mindfulness, because skill in meditation requires seeing when qualities like compassion are helpful and when they’re not. As the Buddha says, there are times when affection is a cause for suffering, so you have to watch out.
Sometimes mindfulness is defined as appreciating the moment for all the little pleasures it can offer: the taste of a raisin, the feel of a cup of tea in your hands. In the Buddha’s vocabulary, this appreciation is called contentment. Contentment is useful when you’re experiencing physical hardship, but it’s not always useful in the area of the mind. In fact the Buddha once said that the secret to his Awakening was that he didn’t allow himself to rest content with whatever attainment he had reached. He kept reaching for something higher until there was nowhere higher to reach. So contentment has to know its time and place. Mindfulness, if it’s not glommed together with contentment, can help keep that fact in mind.
Some teachers define mindfulness as “non-reactivity” or “radical acceptance.” If you look for these words in the Buddha’s vocabulary, the closest you’ll find are equanimity and patience. Equanimity means learning to put aside your preferences so that you can watch what’s actually there. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don’t resolve as quickly as you want them to. But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not just to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once you’ve clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can’t stay patient or equanimous about it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.