I like this title but since I started thinking about this article or essay I think it might be called sati vs mindfulness, perhaps, or a few other things. A lot of people might find it odd to use the world “vs.” when talking about meditation or spirituality, as if there should be no discernment around language, or comparison and contrast of ancient and modern wording. Maybe they are right! Let’s find out.
The value of meditation is well known, for ages, and now in scientific terms. I can have the brain of a 25 year old! Although that could be problematic in many ways, knowing my 25 year old self. But the benefits of meditation, sitting, walking, quiet time, breathing, yoga, mindfulness, all of these things are wonderful and can benefit those of us with privilege as well as those who have much less. Teaching meditation to men in prison for example, was a type of program I respected and I may get involved with more soon.
I was thinking about being super busy and somewhat ADD as I am and having a hard time with the idea of meditating every day. I have been sitting, Zazen, and variations on Buddhist meditation since high school off and on, with breaks, so over thirty years, but not every day. Even before I became a dad and then a single parent, and had a more intensive corporate sales job. The super crazy kind we all have, long hours, startupy, complex, Kafkaesque, maddening. Fun!
Plus side projects like writing and art. And climbing, running — it’s as if I was only partially committed to sitting, enlightenment, stress-reduction with meditation. Working out, prayer, these things help too, obviously. I struggled and failed to sit every day even when I was unemployed and childless. I have had powerful spiritual experiences regardless. And the original teachings of the Buddha, in Pali, are somewhat supportive of this.
Many of the stories about the Buddha’s teaching and the early monks point to a life completely dedicated to meditation, but often very short times actually meditating, before attaining full enlightenment. Many of these stories don’t really even mention the hours of sitting, just the monk hearing the teaching of the Buddha and then attaining enlightenment in that moment. There is the assumption that they did spend a lot of time sitting and walking before that moment, but not always.
Of course there has been a lot said since then about kensho and the experience of enlightenment which then becomes “nothing special” and you just carry on with normal daily life. No big deal. Sorry ego…going back to work now and also by the way keep sitting…
So for busy workers, parents, students, stay at home parents…busy people…what is the key? For me the strategy that has unfolded is odd and imperfect:
- Try to sit for 5–10 minutes in the morning, before work, getting kid to school. Harder when I am at my girlfriend’s house. But I can still have quiet moments of reading, sitting, on BART, etc. Doing some writing in my journal or daily planner. I use the stopwatch on my phone, to time myself and get a sense of accomplishment, a pat on the back for taking the time for myself.
- Try to sit for 20–50 minutes or so one or two evenings a week after kid goes to bed and maybe once on the weekend in the morning. The idea is to get the mental, spiritual benefits of meditation in the midst of my hubbub/chaos when I can. The long sittings are good.
But what about sati vs. mindfulness? The word Sati means the same thing, technically, in the Pali language of the Buddha. The earliest texts, the Suttas, before the Sanskrit and Tibetan texts. The Pali Canon, as it is known, uses the word Sati to refer to being present and aware of the breath and/or many other things, as the “direct path” to enlightenment. Not the only or best one. At least that is the translation in the Satipattana Sutta, usually translated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Sati is, in a sense, a sacred word.
But why consciously decide to say “Sati” instead of “Mindfulness”? Well the context is different…when I say Sati I think of the context of a practice that leads to nirvana or nibbana, complete enlightenment, not a way to destress or work with chronic pain which are truly great things and reasons to sit. But in Zen when we say “practice” or “sitting” or Zazen or Shikantaza, just sitting, we are talking about Sati, at least the combination of the physical posture and the way of focusing gently, being aware of the breath, feelings, body, death, and many other possible things we can turn our attention to. But Sati is not the physical posture, the posture precedes and supports sati, but is not much of a focus of the text of the Satipattana Sutta. Mainly that text focuses on the things we direct our sati to, our mind:
“Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of Nibbãna, namely, the four satipaììhãnas.”
There is nothing new or original in saying that calmness, reduction of anxiety and stress, etc. are a “byproduct” of true mindfulness practice. Sati is the word used in these ancient texts to refer to a mental practice, a way to use the mind to be aware of things like the breath, or death, decay, joy, etc. etc. either one at a time or in concert, as needed, in a way that leads to Nibbana. So the idea that mindfulness and meditation (the focus on posture, breathing, etc.) can be helpful to destress from our crazy busy lives is important. And in addition, to be open to the idea that enlightenment, whatever that really is, could also result from Sati at any moment, is something that this sutta and others talk about.
“What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.”
The breath is part of the body, in this text. So sati or mindfulness can also be called contemplation.
“[BREATHING] “And how, monks, does he in regard to the body abide contemplating the body? Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, he sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. “Breathing in long, he knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, he knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, he knows ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,’ he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,’ he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.’ “Just as a skilled turner or his apprentice, when making a long turn, knows ‘I make a long turn,’ or when making a short turn knows ‘I make a short turn’ so too, breathing in long, he knows ‘I breathe in long,’… (continue as above). [REFRAIN] “In this way, in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body internally, or he abides contemplating the body externally, or he abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. Or, he abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Or, mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. “That is how in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body. [POSTURES] “Again, monks, when walking, he knows ‘I am walking’; when standing, he knows ‘I am standing’; when sitting, he knows ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, he knows ‘I am lying down’; or he knows accordingly however his body is disposed. [REFRAIN] “In this way, in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. He abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body. [ACTIVITIES] “Again, monks, when going forward and returning he acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking away he acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending his limbs he acts clearly knowing; when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl he acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting he acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating he acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent he acts clearly knowing.”
This text and the analysis by Ven. Analayo are really excellent and fascinating examples of what is often called Vipassana and explained in many ways that to me sound very different from this translation. There is nothing here about keeping your eyes open or closed, for example. Open in case of snakes? That seems reasonable in that part of the world where Buddhism originated….
Does sitting to reduce stress and anxiety possibly lead to enlightenment anyway? Based on Alanyo’s commentary on this and other suttas it would seem so.