Four dimensions of mindfulness
In Buddhism, there are several terms that are translated as mindfulness or are closely related to the concept of mindfulness, and each of them has a different flavor. It’s useful to get to know the different dimensions of mindfulness.
Sati most simply means “recollection”, both in the sense of memory (“I recollect that you said you wanted to meditate”) and in the sense of “having gathered together once more” (“I had to recollect myself after a busy day”).
Sati is the aspect of mindfulness that knows what is going on at any particular time. For example, when we’re aware of our posture, and that we’re in a certain mood, and that our mind is alert or dull, then this is sati. Sati is a state of watchfulness in which we’re paying attention to what’s going on right here and now. When we’re being mindful if this way we’re aware of the sensations of the body, of our feelings, and of our thoughts.
The opposite of sati is distraction (asati), which can involve the mind flitting from thought to thought without any internal monitoring. This is one of the most common forms of distractedness, and one that every meditator experiences. The mind goes wandering, and often it’s hard afterward to say where it’s been and what it’s been doing. Asati can also involve a fixation on one task — but a fixation that ignores our general experience. When we’re working hard on some project and find that our neck is tense, our shoulders are aching, and we’re in a bad mood, this is usually a sign that we’ve been focused in a rather driven and unmindful way on what we’ve been doing.
Usually when people talk about “being in the moment” they’re talking about sati.
Sati is knowing what is going on in our experience right now, and we need to know this in order to be able to make any meaningful changes. If you don’t know where you are, how can you get to where you want to go?
Sampajañña is the aspect of mindfulness that extends over a period of time. It includes an awareness of purpose (where we want to go), and an awareness of where we’ve already been. So you may sit down to meditate and be aware that you need to cultivate lovingkindness. When you do that you’re developing a sense of where you want to go. This is rather different from what people think of when they think of mindfulness as “being in the moment” and “letting go of the past and future.” Sampajañña allows us to mindfully think about the future. Having decided where we want to go, we then check in with ourselves from time to time during the meditation. This is employing sati to see what’s going on. Sampanañña compares where we are with where we want to go — in this case evaluating “am I making progress in cultivating lovingkindness?”
Sampajañña also looks backwards in time. When you’re recalling your day and thinking about how things went, it’s possible to do this in a mindful way. Rather than the mind simply getting lost in thoughts about the past we’re consciously and mindfully recalling events. We can remind ourselves of our successes and analyze our lapses. Again, this is very different from what a crude understanding of “being in the moment” might suggest. With sampajañña we can bring the past — mindfully — into the moment. We can be in the moment and thinking about the past.
Often in Buddhist texts, the terms sati and sampajañña are joined together into one compound term, sati-sampajañña, and it’s this compound term that’s often translated as “mindfulness”. Sampajañña is necessary so that we can periodically compare where we are going with where we want to be. Sampajañña is like the compass that gives us our bearings.
Dhamma-vicaya is the aspect of mindfulness that categorizes our experience in terms of some model or another. An important aspect of meditation is learning ways to categorize our distractions (the hindrances) as well as positive qualities that we can develop in meditation (the dhyana factors). Dhamma-vicaya is the act of comparing our inner experience to a mental map, so that we can navigate more effectively towards our goal.
The simplest kind of map you can have is something like a division of your emotional states into “positive” (those states that are constructive and helpful, like love, empathy, confidence) and “negative” (those that tend to be destructive, like hatred, addictive craving, cynicism).
This can be developed, however, into a much more sophisticated way to work with our mental states. There are, for example, traditional lists of “hindrances” that we can experience in meditation. These are distracted mental states that cause us suffering: states that include restlessness and anxiety, laziness and sleepiness, doubt, sensual craving, and ill will. Dhammavicaya can be a form of diagnosis, allowing us to evaluate more precisely what’s going on. There are also of course lists of positive mental states that arise in meditation, like the dhyana factors of initial thought, sustained thought, rapture, joy, and one-pointed concentration. Again Dhammavicaya can be indispensable in evaluating our current state.
Perhaps the simplest form of dhamma-vicaya is the insight meditation technique of “noting,” in which we internally “name” to ourselves the most prominent aspect of our experience. We might say “in, out” as we observe the breathing, or we might saying “throbbing” as we observe an area of pain.
To fully develop our dhamma-vicaya into an effective tool we need to have an effective inner map, which involves learning from study and from experience the different mental states that can arise, and also learnng to recognize these in our experience. If you don’t know what the five hindrances are or can’t recognize them when they arise, then you won’t be able to use them as a diagnostic tool, for example.
Appamada is mindfulness in the sense of watchfulness or vigilance. It’s mindfulness imbued with a sense of the importance of the task in hand. Some texts say that if you lose your mindfulness you should grab it up again like a soldier in the heat of battle who has dropped his sword. Another interesting analogy is that we should act as swiftly as someone who has discovered that his or her hat is on fire. Appamada is the dynamic aspect of mindfulness.
All of these aspects of mindfulness work together synergistically. To some extent we may have to develop them separately, but in order to develop one fully we have to develop the others.
It’s not always easy to separate out these different kinds of mindfulness, and that’s not really the point of my letting you know about them. If you’re aware of yourself and of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations, and at the same time you’re automatically aware of whether you’re in a hindrance or whether positive factors are present, and if you’re vigilantly coming back to awareness every time your experience wanders, then probably sati, sampajañña, dhamma-vicaya, and appamada are all present. There’s not much to be gained by trying to work out where one dimension of mindfulness ends and another starts. But if one of these is lacking then it’s important to be able to recognize that. If you’re aware of where you are but don’t have a sense of purpose, then it’s probably worthwhile cultivating sampajañña. If your mindfulness is bit vague then perhaps you need to start noting exactly what’s going on by naming it — am I in a hindrance and if so which one? Am I lacking some positive factor in my experience, and if so which one do I need to cultivate? If the mind is tending to go adrift a lot, then perhaps we need the vigilance of appamada.
Knowing about these four different dimensions of mindfulness can help make our practice much more effective. Sometimes when people have a crude understanding of what “being in the moment” means they assume that you must never have goals in meditation, not realizing that it’s the way you relate to your goals that’s important. And lacking the ability to name our mental states means that we can’t work with them effectively. Developing skill in meditation, and in inner work generally, requires a familiarity with of all of the dimensions of mindfulness.