Our practice is all about developing mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness/knowing. People may not realize that, to free oneself from suffering, there are actually two types of knowing or awareness that should be cultivated. It is possible that Buddhist scholars may object, saying that awareness is just awareness. I concede that what I am sharing with you may or may not agree with a scholarly interpretation of the suttas. But, it does reflect empirical experience, and is pragmatically useful for coming out of suffering. This is one of the characteristics of Mahasati teachings. While the practice is definitely rooted in the Thai Forest insight tradition, it was not developed based on scholarly study, but on the direct experience of emancipation. Its use of certain Buddhist terms can therefore sometimes be a little idiosyncratic.
The two types of awareness I am referring to are instantaneous knowing, and knowing in action. In the suttas, the Buddha frequently exhorts us to have satiand sampajañña. Many times this is translated into English as just one word – mindfulness. More accurate translations will render satias mindfulness, and sampajaññaas clear comprehension. Once, when asked about the difference between satiand sampajañña, Achan Da said that satiwas instantaneous awareness, and sampajaññawas awareness-in-action. These are different faculties.
Luangpor Teean said that one should develop awareness of all movement of the body and mind, even the beating of the heart. The body and mind are moving every single moment. The awareness that can capture this must be very quick, and non-conceptual. This knowing of every movement is instantaneous knowing – or bare-awareness. I sometimes think of this as similar to the functioning of a motion sensor. Motion sensors simply register any and all movement as it occurs. They don’t evaluate the movement or do anything with it. They don’t zero in on specific movements and analyze them, or privilege one movement over another. They just continuously register movements as they occur. The cultivation of this bare/instantaneous awareness is the foundation of our Mahasati meditation practice.
The other type of awareness, awareness-in-action, is a bit more conceptual in that it brings some understanding to the object of awareness, and helps shape a skilful response toward it. This is probably what most secular mindfulness practitioners mean when they use the term mindfulness. It is also nonjudgmental, and it is not thinking about experience, but it spans many moments of experience. It is the type of awareness one uses when one encounters a hindrance like anger, or frustration, for instance. One identifies the experience, steps out of proliferating thoughts related to it, and remains nonjudgmentally present with the experience, dis-identifying with it and creating some “space” around it until it naturally drops away.
Both of these types of awareness are needed. The instantaneous knowing is important because it is what eventually breaks through to the knowing of nibanna. But, it is profoundly useful all along the path. It is what helps alert the mind that there is something here to deal with. One of the challenges people experience in bringing mindfulness to difficult emotional experiences, like sadness, anger or anxiety, is that of remembering to actually do it. People often find themselves well down the road with something before they even consider mindfulness. The sooner one can bring one’s awareness-in-action online, the better. When the faculty for instantaneous knowing is well-developed, the mind catches itself much sooner, making it possible to actually use awareness-in-action. In this way, instantaneous awareness is a necessary foundation for both skilful living and awakening. Unfortunately, it tends to be the least developed. When practicing Mahasati meditation, one should use instantaneous awareness – the bare knowing that detects all movement of body and mind – as the ground that one repeatedly returns to. It supports awareness-in-action, and it is what is able to eventually break through to nibanna.