August 27, 2022

What Is Mindfulness and Why Is It Essential to Our Liberation?

In this dharma talk, given as part of a retreat called Stillness & Insight at the IMS Retreat Center, Resident Teacher Chas DiCapua explains what mindfulness is, why it’s essential to our liberation, and how we can grow and strengthen our mindfulness practice.


What is this thing—mindfulness—that we hear about everywhere these days?

Mindfulness is a mind state that arises and passes away due to conditions—just like everything else. Everything in this world has that characteristic. It’s called “dependently arisen.” The Pali word for mindfulness is sati which means “to remember.” Mindfulness is remembering where you want your attention to be or what you want to keep in mind.

A great place to get the sense of that is when you are meditating, and you wake up from being lost in the mind-made world. For example, you’re imagining that you are on the beach in Mexico, and then ‘pop’, you’re back in the meditation hall. In that moment mindfulness arises, and you remember your breath (or another anchor). The actual knowing of the breath, the feeling of the sensations of the breath—that’s not mindfulness. That’s awareness.

Mindfulness works with awareness. And it’s called sati sampajañña, that is, mindfulness and clear comprehension. We are clearly comprehending what it is that we are being aware of. But the mindfulness is the remembering what we want to be aware of. That’s the role that it plays. That’s its function.

Also, mindfulness helps to keep the attention in the present moment. Because we must be in the present moment to connect with what we’re remembering to be aware of. So, mindfulness plays an important part in present moment awareness.

All the teachings on this Noble Eightfold Path rest upon the assumption that one is present. That’s a foundation that’s always assumed to be there. Without mindfulness, there is no path, no practice, no liberation. That’s how crucial it is.

Why should we be mindful?

Mindfulness equals choice.

Without mindfulness and without being present and knowing what’s happening in our body and mind, knowing our own experience, the habit patterns of our heart and mind are going to be in the driver’s seat. Our habit patterns are going to be pulling the levers and switches, in terms of governing what we say, what we do, and even what we think. When we’re mindful, we have the choice of whether they’ll be in the driver’s seat or not.

Think of a train station. You’re waiting for the train, it pulls up, and it’s the hatred train and its destination is suffering. Without mindfulness, if we’re feeling ill will toward someone, but we’re not aware of it, then we walk on that train, the door shuts, and off we go. How far down the tracks do we get? It depends on when we wake up.

Another scenario is when we’re upset with someone and thinking about how we want to tell them off. It’s the anger train pulling up. But there’s mindfulness. And we become aware of what’s in our mind. “Oh, wow, there’s a lot of aversion in my mind.” I’m thinking about how upset I am with that person but now there’s a choice. Do I want to get on that train? Do I want to continue to feed this mind state? With mindfulness, it’s possible to think, “No, thank you. I’m not going to get on that train.” So, the door shuts, the train pulls off, and we’re left standing on the platform.

Here’s the good part. Sometimes, we get on that train. But when mindfulness becomes more habitual, even though we get on the train, we tend to get off earlier. So, instead of going nine stops towards suffering, maybe we only go six and then five. And we keep practicing until one day the train pulls up to the station, the doors open, and we don’t get on.

This is a process. It’s why it’s called dhamma practice. We don’t just suddenly choose what’s going to lead us to happiness. Our habit patterns are very strong. They’re entrenched in our heart and mind which is why we need to have some choice about which ones we want to cultivate, and which ones we want to let go of.

If we’re interested in transforming our suffering and freeing our hearts and minds from what afflicts them, then the cultivation of mindfulness is a must. Because it gives us that choice. When we are the fullness of who we are, when we’re mindfulness, we have choice. When we’re not that, we’re a bit more robotic, we’re not our full humanness. We’re governed by these things that are pulling the levers and switches.

How does mindfulness work?

When we’re aware of what’s wholesome in our mind, and we bring mindfulness to it, and there’s clear comprehension, or sampajañña, mindfulness remembers. With clear comprehension we know, “Oh, this is wholesome.” Now the choice part kicks in, and we think, “Oh, let’s develop this, let’s support this, this is good. This is for my well-being and the well-being of others.”

And when we become aware of what’s unwholesome, just the opposite, we think, “Oh, this is unwholesome. Don’t feed this. Let go of this.” Not out of aversion, not out of judgment, but because Vipassana meditation is being aware of our moment-to-moment experience with nonjudgmental attention or nonjudgmental awareness. We become aware of what’s in the heart and mind. There’s that choice. “This is unwholesome, so I’m going to let go of it. I’m not going to feed this.” Not because it’s bad or wrong or because we’re bad or wrong. That would be judgment. Judgment is in the realm of right and wrong, good and bad. Instead, we do it out of discernment through our experience of being present.

Here’s an example. We become aware of an unwholesome mind state, for example, desire. And we choose to let that go, but we’re going to let it go out of discernment that comes from being aware of desire when it’s been in our mind in the past. And knowing what that’s like, being close enough to it, staying with it enough to know what it’s like to have desire in the mind.

When there’s desire in the mind, our attention is preoccupied with the object of desire, for example, ice cream. Am I going to get vanilla? Am I going to get chocolate? It’s on the object. Rarely do we become aware of the desire as a mind state in the heart and mind and what that feels like or what that experience is. Instead, it’s almost always on the object of desire.

But as we train ourselves to be present with what’s occupying our hearts and minds, then we’re not so much with the object we’re dreaming about. With practice, we can label it desire in the mind and ask ourselves, “What’s that like?” Not the object, but the mind state. And we see, through our own experience, it’s agitating. It’s not calm or peaceful or easeful. There’s no contentment. And that’s not from me saying it or from us reading it as one of the teachings. It’s because we know it in our own experience. And then we start to have the discernment that desire is unwholesome. It is not for my well-being. And that’s where the letting go happens. Not because it’s wrong or bad, rather we let go of the hot coal because we feel it burning our hand. The engine of this whole process of letting go, becoming free, is mindfulness.

And mindfulness grows and strengthens organically. The more we’re mindful, the more it conditions mindfulness in the future.

When you’re meditating and you’re lost in the mind-made world and then mindfulness arises—why? Why did it arise? It arose because of the momentum, and it being conditioned by past moments of mindfulness. And by your intention to be mindful. It strengthens and grows very organically. As we become more mindful, it begets more mindfulness, and it keeps spiraling upwards.

There are other conditions that will support mindfulness to happen. Keeping the company of like-minded people who are practicing mindfulness. We all know that we are influenced by others, for good and bad. To be influenced by others who are practicing mindfulness, we need to hang out with people who are intending and trying to be mindful.

When you’re on retreat, and you see one of the other yogis walking, you can tell they’re walking mindfully, and we’re affected by that. It’s supportive of our practice. So, keeping the company of wise beings is important. In fact, the thing the Buddha said most often that will help support your practice is to keep the company of wise people. Put yourself in situations that are geared towards the cultivation of mindfulness, e.g., retreat. And then, read and listen to dharma teachings.

If I’m mindful, will everything be ok?

It’s easy to conclude from all this that if you’re mindful, then everything will be fine. And it’s sort of true on one level. But on another level, it’s not. Because we can only be mindful of what we’re conscious of. We can only want to remember what we know. So, if I don’t know X about myself, I can’t form the intention to remember X. It’s not possible. And this whole path is all about the ending of suffering. And there are all sorts of things in our lives that lead to suffering that we’re not aware of.

For example, our social conditioning. So, for me, as a White male, I’m not going to become aware of all the ways that I cause harm or could cause harm by sitting on the cushion. Why? Because it’s not conscious by nature. I could sit for a million years; it’s not going to happen. So, in areas like this, mindfulness is not enough, we need something more.

This is where we need other people who let us know where we might be doing this or that, as well as trainings, workshops, reading, or therapy to help us self-educate. It can be helpful to have other avenues for making things conscious, so that we can be mindful of what those things are.

As sentient beings, we have this built-in desire not to suffer and to want to be happy. And it’s great that we have this because it’s helpful. When we’re mindful—sati sampajañña—we become aware of what’s present and we’re able to be with it. Something within you knows, “That’s right. Let’s move towards that.” Once we’re clear about what’s bringing us happiness and what’s not bringing us happiness—when we’re mindful of that—then the rest happens on its own. It’s miraculous. And that’s what we’re going for.

To listen to the whole talk, click here.