The Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

Norman Fischer on why mindfulness is not always “right.”

Norman Fischer30 March 2023

Mindfulness means to hold in mind. To be aware of something. To be present.

According to the Buddhist analysis of mind, we’re attentive, or mindful, all the time, or at least whenever we’re conscious. It takes mindfulness to drive a car, eat lunch, talk to someone, watch TV, get dressed, or cook breakfast. We need to be mindful when we do these things, otherwise we couldn’t accomplish them.

But a closer look will reveal that we aren’t that mindful. Our minds are always a bit divided, with extraneous thoughts flying here and there while we’re cracking the breakfast egg. Or, if not thoughts, maybe a kind of muffled blankness. We’re doing what we’re doing, yet we’re also somewhere else.

The Sanskrit and Pali words translated as mindfulness, smrti and sati, include the idea of memory. That is, remembering to keep attention steady and firm. So, mindfulness as an intentional practice involves remembering to be mindful—remembering to bring the mind back constantly to the object of awareness—back to the egg, the edge of the metal bowl against which you are cracking it, the sizzling frying pan. Frying an egg is quite an experience if you are all there for it.

Such intensification of mindfulness is an ordinary, everyday practice. When we’re doing something we’re especially interested in, when we truly apply ourselves to a particular task or skill, we set aside distraction and become more focused, more mindful. Bank robbers and race car drivers, pianists and surgeons, and really good chefs, are no doubt quite mindful.

Although what we call mindfulness practice does involve the cultivation of this kind of focus, it has another dimension. “Right” mindfulness is mindfulness developed specifically in the service of the goal of Buddhist practice: to end suffering.

Buddhism’s four noble truths begin with the recognition that because we’ll die and know we’ll die, and because we cannot control what happens, human life is unavoidably marked with suffering and anxiety. But that suffering, endemic as it is, can be ended. The purpose of the eightfold Buddhist path is to end suffering. Right mindfulness is mindfulness correctly directed toward this goal.

In the traditional ordering of the eightfold path, right mindfulness is listed seventh as part of the meditation triad—right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation. Mindfulness and meditation go together: meditation is mindfulness completely focused on a single object.

In his teachings, contemporary Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh lists mindfulness as the third element of the eightfold path because it’s so important that it ought to be practiced all the time, not only as a component of meditation.

In Zen practice we practice mindfulness while sitting, standing, walking, lying down—and while chopping wood and carrying water, as the saying goes. We practice paying attention all day long, not just when we’re doing zazen.

But how does this end suffering?

The Pali Sattipathana Sutta (the Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) lists four categories of mindfulness: mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind. It teaches that when you train yourself to pay close attention to the body, especially to the breath and the sensations, you naturally become aware of the deeper feelings, emotional states, and, eventually, the patterns of human suffering and liberation. Seeing these patterns clearly, you naturally let go of unwise habits and incorrect perspectives—the causes of your human suffering.

And all of this is said to proceed from mindfulness of the body, close attention to the body and the breath. For many modern people, that will seem counterintuitive. While most of us might think we identify with the body, it remains for us an object to be worried over, tinkered with, tuned, and fixed. We’re trained to think of the mind, not the body, as the site of self and to think of spiritual development as a mental process.

In contrast, the Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness assumes body and self to be nonseparate and considers neither to be fixed entities. It teaches “awareness of the body in the body.” That is, the sutra views the body not as a physical object we possess, but an ongoing experience that fully subsumes us. The sutra emphasizes that mindfulness of the body within the body should be practiced simply as presence, without evaluation or judgment.

We don’t need Buddhist teachings to show us how to pay attention. Lots of coaches and experts know how to teach that. But all ordinary instances of paying attention involve evaluation, desire, goal. We want to cook a good omelet, improve our skill at this or that, or make sure we’re savoring an experience to produce a good memory of it to enjoy later.

Right mindfulness involves no such goals or desires. It’s simply seeing—or, better, being—what is happening and paying attention, whether we like what’s happening or not. We don’t practice right mindfulness to know ourselves better or to become kinder or more peaceful people. We practice it for its own sake, in the faith that through the practice we’ll come to see how our mind and heart create suffering and happiness, and we’ll naturally choose happiness.

The concrete practice of mindfulness is simple. Whether you are sitting in meditation or getting up to take care of your life, the practice is the same. Pay attention to what’s happening. Your breath, your posture, the task at hand. When thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories, or ordinary dullness arise in your mind, notice them without worry, and return the mind gently to the breath, the body, the task. When you’re frustrated, angry, full of judgment and angst, notice this, feel what it’s like, and come back to the breath or the task.

After a while, the practice becomes automatic, a way of life. With mindfulness, it becomes hard to fool yourself with the conditioned habits you’ve acquired through a lifetime. You don’t get as caught up with them as you did before. A natural sense of gratitude and wisdom arises—a great tolerance and sympathy for oneself and others.

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.