Right Recollection: Beyond Mindfulness

Posted on: Fri, 01/13/2017 - 23:43 By: Tom Swiss

You may have heard people talking about "mindfulness". It's a big pop culture thing now -- I recently got some junk mail for a magazine about mindfulness. And it's big business, people are making money teaching corporate executives to pay attention to what they're doing, moment by moment.

The Pali word that gets translated as "mindfulness" is "sati"; in Sanskrit, it's "smrti". When Buddhism came to China they wrote it as 念, "nian"; in Japanese it's pronounced "nen". That kanji is composed of two pieces; the top half is "now", the bottom is "heart" or "heart-mind".

So we have this idea that our heart and mind should be in the present moment -- "now mind". We should be paying attention to what we're doing. As one teacher wrote,

Throughout the day you should also be aware of—and mentally note—all other activities, such as stretching, bending your arm, taking a spoon, putting on clothes, brushing your teeth, closing the door, opening the door, closing your eyelids, eating and so forth. All of these activities should be noted with careful awareness and a soft mental label. [Pandita, Sayadaw U. "How to Practice Vipassana Insight Meditation". Lion's Roar 2 Dec 2016]

That's not a bad thing. I could certainly do a better job of it myself.

But "mindfulness" in this sense is not enough.

Let's consider that example of opening the door. It's good to notice the body movements involved, the cool feel of the brass doorknob in your hand, the slight stick of the door against its frame. But while doing that, you must not forget that the dog is behind you, ready to run out into the street and lead you on a merry chase.

Or consider mindful eating, something that has almost become a cliche. It is certainly better to pay attention to each bite than to shovel food into your mouth so quickly you don't even notice that you've eaten -- and so you end up unsatisfied and eating again an hour later. But if you put a piece of cake in front of me, it might be better for me to recall that I'm trying to drop a few pounds, and that a sugar rush-and-crash makes me feel bad, than to eat that cake with full attention and mindful engagement.

But another way to translate sati is "recollection". Indeed the first books I read about Zen talked about "right recollection" as part of the Buddha's "Eightfold Path", and I was a little mystified when I started seeing references to "right mindfulness".

I like this translation, because inherent in the idea of recollection is the idea of forgetting, of wandering off the path. You know what the right thing to do is, but you don't do it. You get angry and yell at a loved one. You make a New Year's resolution and don't keep up on it. You know you're supposed to practice your kata, but you don't. Or maybe you get busy with other things and stop coming to class.

Then what?

Recall. Return. Come back. This is part of the practice! It is not a tightrope, where you fall off once and that's the end. It is a path through the woods, and you can wander off of it into thorn bushes and mudpits, but you can step back on to the path at any time.

That's another way to read that "now mind". Right now, you have the choice to step back onto the path. A minute ago, a week ago, ten years ago, you stepped off of it.

But right now, in this present moment you can remember that this isn't where you want to be, that there's a better way to be.

(For a more in-depth consideration of "right mindfulness" in Buddhism, I recommend this 2013 Dharma talk by Ven. Tashi Nyima at Awakening Heart.

Image by Nickolai Kashirin, CC BY 2.0

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