Getting Out of Your Head: Mindfulness is a Misnomer

Eartha Kitt modeling bodyfulness.

Eartha Kitt modeling bodyfulness.

Sati is the ancient Indian word that was translated as “mindfulness” during the Victorian era — the era that took complex Buddhist concepts and gave us riveting translations like “suffering,” “aggregates,” and “sympathetic joy.” Ugh!

Sati is at the center of the training we undertake to alleviate stress and cultivate well–being. But we put the word “mind” right up front giving the impresssion that all we need to do is focus on our thoughts and presto… joy!

In some ways, yes, mindfulness is a great translation for (part of) sati. It speaks to the attentional capacity we need to develop — especially because most of us are complete and utter scatterbrains, our thoughts and emotions constantly yank us around.  But, in fact, despite all the focus on neuroscience, it’s not only about our brains.

Sati is about training and increasing our capacity to be with our present moment experiences in a more easeful, non-reactive way. The body is the perfect place for that training. While the mind can (and does) pull us into the past or future, the body is only ever in the present moment. That’s why the breath and body are used as primary objects of meditation in so many traditions.

One connotation of sati is memory. Not in the sense of recalling information or having a memory of the past but of that act remembering. You know the feeling during meditation when your mind has been wandering and you come back into your body, your breath, the present moment? You’ve remembered “Oh, yeah, duh, I was meditating. That’s what I was doing.” That very precise moment of awareness is sati.  We are remembering to be fully in this moment. We feel our breath, our body, our existence.

Interestingly, to dismember means to pull the body apart piece by piece… Maybe we are re–membering. We are getting out of our heads, coming to our senses, cultivating an embodied awareness… putting our bodies back together breath by breath. 

Here’s how embodied awareness [translated here as mindfulness *sigh*] is described in the classical teachings:

There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening.  And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.
— Anguttara Nikaya I, 21
If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated.
— Majjhima Nikaya 36

It wasn’t until I started doing yoga in my early twenties that I began to (re)connect to my body (I, like many of us, lost this connection in adolescence).  I learned where I carry stress and tension in my body and where I could find and cultivate ease.  I began to understand that contraction and tension in the mind has an effect on our bodies, and also that our bodies effect our minds. BUT we can’t think our way to relaxation. We need to retrain our awareness to uncover and encourage ease and pleasure in the body.

For a few years now, my main meditation practice has been lying down. I don’t usually fall asleep when I meditate, so this is a good practice for me (although the Dalai Lama said sleep is the best meditation, so, there’s that). I encourage you to find an easy and easeful way to connect to your body in your practice, to practice re–membering, to practice bodyfulness.

Bea RueComment