‘Mindfulness’ is an interesting word for most of us.
We think it is something that we have to try to do. Actually, it is just a natural way of being receptive. When we are driving a car we have to be mindful, unless we are drunk or in a terrible state. We don’t think: ‘I’ve got to try to be mindful.’ we simply are mindful.
It is apparent, while driving a car, that we have a dangerous machine under our control, and if we are not mindful, we could easily do all kinds of damage to ourselves and others.
Just that sense of self-preservation, therefore, that respect for life and not wanting to hurt others, makes us mindful. We don’t have to practise mindfulness while driving a car.
As for monastic life, if we think of mindfulness as something we must practise, then we form an opinion about it: Mindfulness is something we have to develop. If we are mindful, however, we become aware of our whole way of thinking: ‘I’ve got to be more mindful; I must develop mindfulness in order to get out of the deathbound state and become an enlightened person.’ That is when we are aware of the forces, the intentions and habits that are affecting us at this moment.
If I am thinking right now, ‘I’ve got to be mindful!’ and I am being mindful, then I can see that I have this idea of being mindful. That is mindfulness! If I just follow the view that I’ve got to be mindful, I can be quite heedless.
One example of this is when I was at Wat Pah Pong. I would go on almsround to Bahn Gor, which is a three kilometer walk. One day it looked like it was going to rain and we thought it advisable to take our umbrellas. I, therefore, took my umbrella and started off. But then it didn’t rain and so we put our umbrellas outside the village because we wouldn’t have to take them into the village. I said to myself, ‘You must be mindful, Sumedho, and when you come back from your almsround, you must remember your umbrella; remember where it is so that you can take it back to the monastery.’ So I went on almsround being very mindful of each step, got back to the monastery, and then realised I’d forgotten my umbrella!
During the almsround, I had concentrated on every step and was probably very composed, but I was not terribly mindful about other things. In other words, if one concentrates on walking in a certain way, for example, then one is not necessarily being mindful.
We need to take into our minds the way it is, what it all implies, and the things that are involved in it. It does not mean just to have an idea that one has to be mindful of each step while walking on an almsround, as a kind of fixed view of mindfulness. Because that can be merely concentration.
Mindfulness allows us to really notice the way it is, where we are, the time and the place.
A talk given by Ajahn Sumedho at Wat Pah Nanachat in May 1989, taken from: Nothing is more Joyless than Selfishness, transcribed by Gavesako Bhikkhu. © The Sangha, Wat Pah Nanachat.
Click here for more Buddhist teachings by Ajahn Sumedho.