Updated: Sep 2, 2022
What Makes Mindfulness (Sati) Wise Mindfulness (Samma Sati)
Mindfulness on its own is not necessarily a wholesome (leading to happiness) mind state. It’s neither wholesome nor unwholesome. What makes mindfulness a wholesome mind state is what it is intending to be aware of. If we set the intention to keep the sensations of the breath in mind, or to remember to buy a card for a friend in need on the way home from work, then, in those instances, mindfulness is wholesome. Cultivating breath awareness and practicing generosity are both happy making. Yet, if we make an intention to remember when our friend brags so we can call them out in public, then mindfulness is unwholesome, because the intention for harm and ill will are conducive to suffering.
According to the teachings, what makes mindfulness part of the Noble Eightfold Path to awakening is the fact that the other seven path factors are present to some degree. So if one is intending to keep the breath in mind (be mindful of the breath), then concentration (one of the other path factors) will be cultivated making mindfulness in that instance wholesome and a factor of the Eightfold Path. Or, as a White person, if one is intending to keep in mind the tendency to use the word “we” to refer to all people and refrains from doing so, the intention to not harm through speech (one of the path factors of the Noble Eightfold Path) makes mindfulness wholesome.
Mindfulness as it exists in the Buddha’s teachings is not just about being present. We can intend to be present with all sorts of things, wholesome and unwholesome. It’s when mindfulness is connected to other wholesome mind states that it manifests its liberating potential. So, it’s not just about being present. Why do you want to be present and what do you want to be present with? These are the questions we want to keep in mind and are what will determine if mindfulness is wise or unwise in a given moment.