Mindfulness: The Practice & Application

Mindfulness: The Practice & Application

A Skill of Mental Training

AuthorOliver Chang

Editor - Steven Christopher


Mindfulness is a skill of mental training and has nothing to do with thinking or any thought process. Vipassana or Insight Meditation centers around the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a serious subject in meditation.  What, then, is mindfulness, really?  In the ancient language of Pali, mindfulness is a translation of the term Sati, from the first historical teachings of the Buddha 2500 years ago. In modern society however, the word 'mindfulness' has become more of a Main Street slogan with very little meaning.  Regardless of this superficial popularity, it is important to understand that reading, listening, or talking about mindfulness isn't the same as actually practicing it. In fact, it is very difficult to understand its meaning unless it is practiced, studied, and put to use.



Oftentimes, we think of ourselves as being very mindful, when in fact, we don't have much mindfulness developed at all.  In truth, when mindfulness is actually developed, we begin to notice how often the mind wanders (in Monkey Mind Syndrome). So, most of us say that we are mindful, but without true practice we are only 'paying lip service' to something that we really don't understand.


The Definition - Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a wholesome mental state of the noting mind when at peace from the seclusion of hindrances.  In other words, if mindful, one has a peaceful mind to work on in meditation and in daily life activities as well.  At this state of mindfulness, one is aware of what is going on within, like a passing show on a stage.  Being totally in the present, therefore, is the basic, fundamental definition of mindfulness.  Specifically, clear awareness is the definition often given for the word 'mindfulness'.


Mindfulness is comprised of three salient features of wholesome mental states as follows:

1.  Clarity--This mindful state of consciousness (the noting mind) is like clear, pure water.  With clarity, all observed objects become vivid and clear in their deep, subtle natures.  The purified mental state of the noting mind relates to Awareness. The opposite states of clarity are delusion, dullness and confusion, which are compared to dark, cloudy skies.


         2.  Peacefulness-- A pure mind from the practice of mindfulness is peaceful, while agitation is the basis for greater suffering.  This salient feature of mental states denotes the nature of tranquility . The opposite of peacefulness is chaos, which supports unskillful mental states like aversion. If one can visualize concentrated mindfulness as a peaceful lake, one can experience a peaceful and blissful mind in prolonged stillness and tranquility.


3. Softness-- The third feature of a purified mind in a mindful state is soft as cotton wool, as fluid as water. The opposite state is tension and rigidity, as in one with mental toxins and hindrances. The soft characteristics of the mindful state also bring up sensitivity to the changing nature of observed objects.



The Practice - Mindfulness

Mindfulness, in terms of practice, is a skill of mental training used to sharpen awareness, from which tames the mind and brings it under command.  Most of the time our minds are not in the present moment and yet, the moments that matter to us are all situations in which our minds participate. We spend an inordinate amount of time lost in memories of the past and fantasies of the future.  Instead, it is much more productive and beneficial to focus on the Four-No Ground Rules, which serve as a guideline in the practice to develop the mental skill needed to strengthen the practice of mindfulness.  The Four-No Ground Rules are:


1. No Expectations - Just pay attention to what is happening exactly in the present moment. Don't go back to the past for that is only memory and you can't do anything about it. Also, don't focus on the future for that hasn't happened yet, and there is nothing you can do to about this either.


2. No Judgments - Treat all objects equally .Totally accept what is happening, whether good or bad. Just let it be, for the noting mind doesn't react to the object of awareness. Don't add fuel to the fire of defilements. The act of no judgment opens up the experience/perception of observing objects of meditation, bringing variety and the infinite possibilities of inner exploration. This is the right way to practice, ultimately leading to seeing the true nature of objects in the process of observation.


3. No Complaints- Complaint is aversion, and non-acceptance of what is happening in the present moment.  Avoiding pain?  Complaining about a neighbor’s meditation habits?  Craving for more good experiences and avoiding rejection are the culprits to developing Insight.


4. No Comparisons - Meditation is not a competition or race against others. Racing to see who can sit longer is an unskillful mental attitude.


Sayadaw U. Pandida defines Mindfulness as the power of observation. The process of mindfulness in practice follows these stages in ascending order:


Noting - Following - Observation


The power of mindfulness begins with an attentive noting of the object to arouse mindfulness and awareness. When one is more aware of what mindfulness is, the mindful state of the noting mind becomes a flow and has duration. The noting mind follows the object continuously, to distinguish the knowing of the noting mind and the object of meditation as two separate events. After that, one can try to ensure that Vipassana mindfulness is clear awareness, free from concepts, in which the noting mind becomes just like the diver who jumps into the water to observe the nature of the object as it is.


Mindfulness is a composed mental state of the noting mind by combining the power of observation with the power of concentration. More specifically, Insight Meditation centers around mindfulness in sitting, walking and daily activity. The practice of mindfulness brings up concentration simultaneously and naturally for concentrated mindfulness or right mindfulness. In Samattha meditation one also practices mindfulness to overcome hindrances, to gain fixed concentration or samadhi. The developed concentration with mindfulness is called Right Concentration or mindful concentration. In the end, concentrated mindfulness is identical to mindful concentration at the meditative state of the noting mind. It is a matter of priority whether to practice mindfulness first in Vipassana or to practice concentration first in Samattha.


Insight Meditation, or mindfulness meditation, centers around the practice of mindfulness, and it is all about watching/observing the object of awareness with the right mental attitude. How one looks dictates what one sees. The direct, real experience or perception from observing the object of meditation simply reflects the mental state of the observer.  Whatever you are aware of, be it physical activity or mental activity, that is the object of meditation. The practice of mindfulness is a skill of mental training used to observe the object of awareness with the right mental attitude. The mere process of observation involves three components.  They are:

-- the awareness of the noting mind arising first to know what is happening to the object of observation ;

-- the skill of mindfulness to observe the object of awareness with the right attitude;

-- coupled with the skill of concentration, penetration into the object of meditation to remove the veil of delusion.

When you can put all the above three components together and balance out each of them in practice, this is what is called the developed and balanced five mental faculties of consciousness. The power of observation in this wholesome state of the noting mind will expel the unwholesome state of five hindrances and penetrates into the veil of delusion, overcoming sorrow and lamentation, as stated in the doctrine of Satipatthana Sutra.


What are the three mental toxins, or the defilement of the five hindrances that stand in the way of insight/wisdom?

--Trying to create something, or looking for something to happen, is craving,

--Rejecting or not to accepting what is happening, is aversion,

--Not knowing what is happening, is delusion.


Only when the noting/observing mind has no craving, aversion or delusion, the meditating mind at peace will arise from the practice of the skill of mindfulness. If you are getting tired, something is wrong with the way you are practicing. That means you are not mindful during practice. In the moment you are aware of non mindfulness in meditation, then that is mindfulness itself. You have to double check to see what attitude you are meditating with.


Detachment -  

Detachment is letting go of attachments, not about letting go of your property and belongings. Detachment and mindfulness are two different levels in the skill of mental training. It is the highest skill of mental training in practicing mindfulness. To be totally in the present and mindful, one must practice detachment - to be free from bondage, which leads to freedom and independence.


To quote a Dharma talk about Detachment from Bhante Sujiva during a teacher training camp @ 2014 in Italy:

“Vipassana is all about experience, for there is no room for thinking in Vipassana. There are only good or bad experiences.  Generally, people always like to have more good experiences.  This is called craving.   Generally, people dislike and reject bad experiences.  This is known as aversion.  Yogis should learn how to treat all experiences equally, without judgment. The observing mind must hold steady, and not react to object of awareness.   To practice mindfulness means developing a peaceful mind, free from craving and aversion, building strong concentration to tame the agitated mind.”


Detachment in the practice of mindfulness is all about unlearning the mental habit of attachment.  The inherited habit attaches to craving for more good experiences, and to aversion for the rejection of bad experiences. The mental habit of attachment is rooted in delusion--not knowing what is happening in the present.  To unlearn these bad habits, one must empty out the half-filled bottle of polluted water, and completely refill it with fresh water.  Listen and communicate with mind and body signals.  Let the mind do its work naturally, and learn to use the power of nature.


Letting go of attachments, or detachment, is just the opposite of attachment. There is no craving or aversion.  Wisdom is the opposite of delusion/ignorance.  Just let it happen naturally and automatically.  Accept and let it be! In sitting meditation, merely watch and observe "what is happening” to the object in a "do nothing" mode. The observation process is so simple, but people make it too complicated.  There is an inherent tendency to craving.


Attachment -

It is the craving coming from the mind which reacts to the object of sensory stimulus; it is the mind wanting to make it happen.  Attachment is not only the hindrance of craving for more; it also includes the attachment to the aversion of mental toxins which rejects unpleasant feelings and what happens to the object.


Thinking, planning, and analyzing in the practice of mindfulness are all forms of attachment, and stand in the way of developing insight and wisdom.

Be careful, my friends!  Using the Dharma or thinking of Dharma to interpret/analyze ones practice, as well as the experience of insight, are forms of attachment.  They can lead one into the trappings of an agitated mind.  Personally, the author has learned this hard lesson, and paid the price for years until receiving a “wake up call” during a September, 2014 TMC retreat with renowned teacher, Sayadaw Thuzanna.


The method of the practice of scanning body sensations is an intentional purpose, to arouse body sensations so as to make them objects of meditation. In reality, this method of practice is also a form of attachment, for the mind makes these sensations happen intentionally. To advance to insight knowledge beyond concepts, one should abandon the scanning technique, just as one should abandon the practice of labeling to the objects of awareness.  Instead, practice detachment and let the sensation happen naturally, in order to see the reality of nature as it is.



In the same token, the practice of directing the flow of energy, or “Chi”, to a particular part of the body is also a form of attachment.  If this described attachment to craving and aversion adds fuel to the fire of defilement, then detachment should play the opposite role to extinguish the fire of defilement.


Attachment to the defilements of the three mental toxins of craving, aversion, and delusion can be overcome by:


Opposite  - Wholesome and unwholesome states of noting mind can't occur simultaneously. It must be one or the other. The unwholesome state of mind in the five hindrances can be overcome by developing the opposite, five mental faculties of consciousness (from the power of observation), or the power of concentration from cultivating the Five Jhana factors, respectively.


Pressing Stones on the Weeds - The weed of defilements can be suppressed while the noting mind is in a meditative state at peace.  This is like pressing a stepping stone on weeds for the period when the noting mind is in a meditative or Jhana state .However, the weeds will grow back after the stepping stone is removed.


Derooting the Weeds - Preventing or stopping thoughts is not the purpose of practicing Vipassna.  The purpose of Vipassana is to recognize and acknowledge thinking whenever it arises.  This is what yogis practice.  We as yogis are not supposed to reject the object of thinking, for that is aversion. Instead, we should observe mindfully how thinking arises and disappears in a process of activity. The defilement of thinking arises from the noting mind when it reacts to the object of awareness. All the above body and mind processes, or 5 aggregates of grasping, occurs with the six senses. As stated in Mahasi Sayadaw's Dharma talk to layman, "….whereas the defilements arise, this is the area to work hard on, and remove them." In other words, abiding mindfulness on guarding the six senses is the only way of practice to deroot the defilements.


The Application - Clear Comprehension

Clear comprehension is an English translation of the Pali word Sampajana, and equivalent to Clarity of consciousness, or Clear Awareness. This term is frequently seen in combination with the word 'mindfulness'. It simply means clear consciousness for any given activity in daily life, whether it be action, speech, or thoughts from our interactions with those around us. So basically, clear comprehension is an application of practicing mindfulness in daily life activities to remove sorrow and lamentation.

If the power of observation from the practice of mindfulness is strong enough to seclude the five hindrances from the noting mind, or able to hold the three mental toxins at bay, the mindful state of the noting mind will be at peace to work during meditation. At this meditative state of the noting mind, the skill of mindfulness in noting/observation will naturally extend the domain of awareness into daily activity, whether in action, speech, or thoughts. In these three deeds, daily activity is composed of Rupa, and Nama, or the five aggregates, to realize that "Dharma is a way of life".  This stage of insight knowledge is known as "Stability of Dharma knowledge". It is also called "clear comprehension" or "pre-stream-entering". These three terms are different wordings for one meaning, to develop insight knowledge at the level of the Act of Understanding.


There are four skills of clear comprehension that are acquired when one practices faithfully and mindfully. Let us briefly examine what these four skills of mindfulness meditation are.


  1. Clarity of Purpose (Right Intention) - If the skill of mindfulness is continuous, one will detect the intention in a thought of desire to push, prior to each tiny step of motion in walking meditation. It is the intention to walk, and the intention in a thought of desire that represents the motivation and will power from the act of the active aspect of the volition aggregate.  Just like a spark before the flame, it seems as if there is an inner voice that says "push, push", repeatedly right before a tiny motion of walking. One clearly discovers a relationship between the subject and object, the causes and effects in a conditioning process. Because of this, that is coming to be. This is the 2nd stage of insight knowledge in conditionality to be used as a criteria to determine whether mindfulness in the power of observation is continuous or not.


  1. Clarity of Suitability (Proper Action/Speech) - Proper Action/Speech, is a natural by-product of Wise Attention and Right Intention. Our inner mind is the forerunner. Our internal phenomena now become external realities in observing precepts of morality.  A second thought switches from ill will to good intention before any action best illustrates the skill of wise attention.  As we move through our daily activities in the world, our relationship changes with those around us.


3)   Clarity of Domain (to the objects of mindfulness) - Right concentration at this level of Clear Comprehension will expand the domain of the working area in meditation to every inch of the entire body from the one pointed object of mindful observation . The entire body at this mature stage of insight seems to become semi transparent in a tidal wave of free flow of energy.  Also, the domain of clear awareness will automatically extend to every single act of daily activities from mindfulness practice in sitting and walking postures.


4)  Clarity of understanding (Wisdom) - The Act of understanding in this level of clear comprehension allows one to observe every activity in daily life as the following sign of the reality of nature.


{Intention - Action - Awareness} - - - etc.


To give an example, with every single bending and stretching of the arm, the action of arm movement breaks up and falls apart, from one moment to the next moment. Not only that, in between each moment of body action, there is a moment of intention occuring prior to each moment of action.  Also, there is a moment of awareness in knowing what happened right after the moment of action. That is a real realization of the Dharma as a way of life! The impermanent nature of all things becomes apparent at this stage.  It breaks up from continuity into discontinuity, one by one, and from one moment to the next moment.  In the past, the impermanence was concealed by continuity, and is called permanence from delusion. This level of investigative insight into the sign of reality simply reflects the act of understanding in the aspects of daily activity.


A moment of duration is the smallest unit of time in Buddhism, and it is the course of running from arising and decay to disappearing for any given phenomenon. The conditioning in a given due order of process is just like a candle flame flickering in the air, and keeps passing on from process to process . Intention-action-knowing/awareness happens in a series of bundling Dharma phenomena, from one moment to the next moment and from a process of processes to the next processes. In the same token, the nature of No-Self becomes evident in practice of mindfulness to observe the process of action.


In the past, one perceives intention, action, and awareness as a lump sum, single event, due to the hindrance of delusion and ignorance. At the act of understanding in this level of clear comprehension, the experience/perception of daily activities goes beyond the ordinary sensory cognition to a total transformation of the landscape of life experience. The purpose of mindfulness meditation or Vipassana is nothing less than the radical and permanent transformation of our entire sensory and cognitive experience.  The insight knowledge at the stage of Stability of Dharma is simply meant to revolutionize the whole of our life experience.



Mindfulness is a skill of mental training in the practice of meditation , and its purpose is to sharpen the clarity of awareness.  This develops wisdom or insight knowledge. Applying skillful mindfulness into daily activities naturally brings the realization that "Dharma is a way of Life". This is exactly the way to practice the Dharma according to the Buddhas teaching, so as to resolve daily challenges and cultivate morality in good action and right speech.


In the past 15 years, mindfulness practice has moved into the mainstream of psychology, neuroscience, and medicine, as their positive effects on the mind, the brain, and the whole body are being studied. Scientific study of the practice mindfulness has successfully discovered that mental training is able to change brain function and its structure. Worldwide, more than 600 hospitals have set up mindfulness clinics to treat physical stress/pressure, mental tension and related illnesses. The basic skill of mental training in the practice of mindfulness has been introduced to the general public to reduce stress, pressure, and mental illness.


It is encouraging and important for practitioners and yogis to know that science is now validating time-honored mindfulness meditation and the power of observation.  During a Dharma talk given by a Burmese monk, Ven. Ashin Eindaka in 1 day retreat in Houston, he shared his personal experience of long ago while attending his first 49 day long retreat at the Mahasi Meditation Center of Rangoon, Burma. He had practiced faithfully and mindfully from the moment of waking up at 4 am to bed time at 10 pm continuously.  He just focused on action alone, whether in sitting, walking, or daily activity postures.  In the end, he couldn't stop sobbing from the joyful tasting of Dharma when he first experienced impermanence at every single bending and stretching of the arm during lunch. That is a real realization of the Dharma as a way of life!


2500 years ago, the Buddha taught that the foundation of mindfulness not only coincided with science, but also exceeded it. In the end, the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to learn how to use the power of nature by discovering the realty of nature as:


The reality of Nature

All things are not a thing (break apart in moment to next moment),

But merely a process of change/flow.


Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!