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This question is in context of practicing mindfulness in one's day-to-day activities (e.g. walking, talking, washing dishes etc.), where one is supposed to be "aware of" / "observe" / "be mindful of" these activities.

But how does one be "mindful" during thinking, since the very act of "observing" thinking would interrupt the thought process? And, say, if the thought process is about solving a specific problem, the very act of "being aware of /observing" the thoughts would result in one being unable to effectively solve that problem - when compared to not observing/ not being mindful about those thoughts. Or, be unable to solve it all.

The same question for when reading something very interesting, or studying, where one is fully engrossed? Wouldn't being mindful about these activities interrupt the reading/study?

New to mindfulness here. Apologies if the question sounds foolish, or irrelevant due to my misunderstanding of mindfulness.

Thanks in advance.

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A.K. It's not a foolish question at all, I think it's something everyone spends sometime trying to understand when they first start learning meditation and mindfulness.

Mindfulness is being present. If you're sitting you know you're sitting, if you're standing you know you're standing. If you are washing dishes you are only washing dishes, you are not thinking about the what happened at work, about the bills, or about any problems you may have had with your spouse or friend. Eventually with enough practice you can stay present while sleeping though I make no claims on being able to do this.

This can extend to studying, shopping, for groceries, driving, etc. I meditate most days while driving into work, as I'm completely mindful of what I'm doing and undistracted, I'm probably the safest driver on the road. As an "intellectual worker", I stay mindful and undistracted with the work I do. I think many people do this and do not understand they are being mindful. Mindfulness is not "non-thinking" though it can be as being present doesn't require thinking, it's being completely present with and aware of what you are doing. Decisions can be part of the process but should be void of I or my, rather the appropriateness of the decision to completing the task in the physical world is the factor of action.

A suggestion is that you don't draw a distinction between being mindful in meditation and when you get up from the mat, try to find things to extend your mindfulness to as the day goes on, pick simple things at first like taking a shower, going to the bathroom, driving, and start working on extending it through the entire day. You will find things like basic planning and paying bills will take care of themself to a large extent. You won't forget your social security number or to pay the bills..no worries. It is also a process that takes years -> decades, etc to fully develop but it is well worth the effort.

Addendum: I realized I hadn't addressed part of your question. About being mindful with "engrossing" or something or really interesting. This is probably the unpopular part of the answer but truth is just what it is. For monastics, entertainment is not allowed. The reason for this isn't that it's evil, but because by design it "hooks you", creating desire (i.e. Dukka - suffering). There is no problem with experience happiness or suffering - but mindfulness is to help you not cling to good things "engrossing" and desire (Dukka - suffering) push away bad things. If you are fairly well down the path you may be able to do this quite easily without suffering, but most of us aren't. So if you want to know how "engrossing" things cause suffering, imagine being denied to watch the next season of "Game of Thrones" if you are a fan. This is a gross example, there are much more subtle forms of suffering also, things that re-enforce I and my. So though some could be mindful watching "Game of Thrones" without desire/attachment/suffering, it's really tough for most of us.

2nd Addendum: I believe there are two different issues that are being mixed, one is thinking or concentration, the other is actively encouraging suffering. When you are mindful, you are not bored as you are present and observing, and as noted taking action (decisions and thinking) such as braking and not hit the stopped car in front of you when driving. Working on a really hard problem is not much different than washing dishes and deciding to wipe more or not, except that it's more likely to be iterative. If you are really mindful, it's not necessarily more focused as you can be really focused on simple tasks as well as difficult problems. Working difficult problems does not encourage I or my (dukka - suffering), unless of course you scold or complement yourself on how stupid or smart you are.

The case of entertainment again is something designed to make you unmindful, to rouse desire and emotions (dukka), if they didn't then shows like the "Out of Focus Pages of the Telephone Book" would be very popular. The "designed to make you unmindful" part again doesn't make it evil - it's just with Buddhism the long game is rejiggering your mind, taking advantage of neuroplasticity to break life long habits that lead to suffering. If you meditate alot, you will find watching something like GoT will make it really difficult to meditate for sometime afterwards. You find that avoiding things like this make you a more contented person. I know that if you watched GoT in a completely mindful way, it would be like having a teflon mind, nothing would stick, but you would also not get the "high" (or "low") from it, you would not feel jubilation when the bad guy gets killed or depression when the good guy gets killed - you would just be observing and noting. Renunciation is a process, you don't do it in a day, it happens naturally while developing your practice. It turns out not to be a sacrifice or hardship when you really understand on a deeper level more than an intellectual level within yourself that you're really gaining peace by doing so. In the mean time go and enjoy GoT and note how if it disturbs your mind and do not take my word for it. If you find this is true as you develop a practice (meditation,etc), it will make you naturally draw back from watching other programs of this sort in the future.

3rd Addendum: From your last comment, I'll try my best to answer but I admit I am working somewhat out of my pay grade so take it as as a potentially flawed answer. The purpose of meditation is as a vehicle to enlightenment which is the end of suffering by extinguishing the ego. It is the ego that causes suffering, not consciousness and not emotions. With or without the ego emotions are still with us, it's just without the ego there is no suffering because the emotions are experienced without clinging and aversion. You can be happy, but as it passes since everything is temporary, you don't try to hold on to it or make it last longer, and when you're unhappy, you're not pushing this away. Without an ego there is no one to suffer. So an enlightened person can laugh and cry and is not an emotionless robot. The difference is that there is no clinging or aversion.

An enlightened person may not detached from life at all, or may detach completely. Though the next comment may cause some ire of others, I believe it to be true. Many persons who very likely were enlightened have done things that people thought were unenlightened. Examples are Suziki Roshi crying when his wife died, he mourned for a few days and some criticized him for it asking how could he be enlightened and do such a thing. He later commented that he mindfully observed his mourning. I've gone to a lecture with the Dalai Lama and he is very engaged, he often tells funny stories and jokes. Some of the best dharma talks I've heard could almost have been standup comedy routines. Metta meditation intentionally works to create compassion and raise positive emotions as does Tonglen meditation. Probably more controversial would be Trungpa Rimpoche who drank, smoked, and was a womanizer, he never tried to hide any of this. You'd have to study his life and his work and try to figure out if you think he was authentic or not. I do personally. It's thought that this was at least in part to confound the minds of his followers as to what an enlightened being was and break their wrong preconceived notions. When you read his writings and look at his accomplishments they were authentic and significant. It would be tough to have much more of a less (apparently) detached life than his.

Monks are students, just like the lay Buddhist, it's just they've pledged their life exclusively to the path. If they actually become a fully realized being, there are no longer bound by restrictions as those restrictions were only there to help them become a fully realized being.

I hope I answered you're question rather than creating more confusion.

I hope this helps..

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  • Thank you for a detailed answer. Did help clear some of my understanding of mindfulness. So, would you say, mindfulness is not really applicable to activities where one does need to be attached to. e.g. as I have mentioned above - thinking hard to solve a problem. Or, for entertainment such as watching GoT, as you have mentioned above. Both of these are applicable for most of us.
    – A.K
    Sep 1 '16 at 20:12
  • Some interesting comments in your addendums. It seems to me (I could be wrong) that if one is an mindfulness practitioner in the most "ideal sense", one does not experience or, "get affected by" the conventional pleasures (GoT, drinking, reading etc.) or pain (death, hurtful sentiments etc.) of regular life? Because one is completely detached from life - which is intentional and is supposed to be the "goal" of a Buddhist monk practicing mindfulness? And that, the pleasures a monk experiences are ones that come from meditation & mindfulness - which are a "still mind" devoid of any "ripples"?
    – A.K
    Sep 2 '16 at 8:16
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'Mindfulness' ('sati') is not 'observing' ('anupassi'). This common idea is a misunderstanding.

'Mindfulness' ('sati') is 'remembering' or 'keeping in mind'.

For example, in formal meditation/concentration development, at the most crude level of practise, 'mindfulness' does not mean 'observation' but 'remembering' to be observant (rather than being distracted). At a more profound level, 'mindfulness' in meditation means to 'keep the mind' in a state of 'not-attachment' (the 'observing' happens automatically because the mind is automatically conscious).

Therefore, in your daily life, you practise Buddhist mindfulness by remembering to practise Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action & Right Livelihood.

What is the right speech...? Abstaining from lying, from divisive tale-bearing, from abusive speech & from idle chatter.

One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong speech & for entering right speech: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort & right mindfulness — run & circle around right speech.

Maha-Cattarisaka Sutta

~~

What is sammasati (right mindfulness)? Sati means to bear in mind or bring to mind. Sati is the state of recollecting, the state of remembering, the state of non-fading, the state of non-forgetting. Sati means the sati that is a Spiritual Faculty, the sati that is a Spiritual Power, Sammasati, the Sati that is an Enlightenment Factor, that which is a Path Factor and that which is related to the Path. This is what is called sammasati.

Vbh.105, 286

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A very interesting question that you asked. When you are fully engrossed in something, the time stops, as you are in oneness with it. The following describes such a moment:

“We cannot be aware of these most precious moments when they are actually happening - such as when trying to finish something late at night over a table with a group of friends, cigarette stuck to lower lip, eyes tired, earnest concentration. It is the time we are most right, most just, most sad, and most hilarious” (Christopher Alexander)

Satipattana or Establishment of mindfulness, which is the only way to Nibbana, is not this kind of absorption. Here to be mindful means observing self in the very act of doing things, in a detached way. Here establishment means bringing mindfulness or sati to the mind - the mental object being mindfulness or sati. Here we have to be aware of the body, and what we are doing. Gradually as the practice develops we will be aware or mindful all the time. This is the only sure way to keep the mental defilements at bay, and the mind will then never get strongly attached or does not become ill with aversion.

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I think it's a good question, since I have asked me the same some time ago.

Wouldn't being mindful about these activities interrupt the reading/study?

Yes, it does. It 's practically speaking impossible to do both things at the same time. What you can do is intentionally interrupt your activity. Like when you're reading a book, you can stop reading for a short moment and notice your body sensations or your posture and then continue reading after a few seconds. For studying a very useful technique is to do short meditation sessions in between (like 30min studying, then 5min meditation, repeat .... ). It's very useful because brings your mind back to reality and prevents it from getting lost in all those concepts. Also if you feel stressed during studying, you can stop and use that feeling of discomfort as your meditation object.

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In Buddhism, the word "mindfulness" ("sati") does not mean "to observe". In the Pali language, the word that means "to observe", often mistaken for "sati", is "anupassi".

In Buddhism, the word "mindfulness" ("sati") means "to remember" or "to keep in mind".

When practising "Right Mindfulness", what is remembered or kept in mind is the factors & practise of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Therefore, when you solve a problem with mindfulness, it means to solve a problem remembering to use Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action & Right Livelihood.

For example, if you have a problem with your friend or at work, you remember to discuss your problem with Right Speech and with Right Thought, such as not getting angry.

When you view or define the problem, you view or define the problem according to Right View, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

Yes, the question certainly sounds foolish or irrelevant due to a misunderstanding of mindfulness but this foolish misunderstanding is extremely common and expected due to the foolish misunderstood ways mindfulness is taught in the world by so-called Buddhists, including by monks. How long this foolish misunderstanding of mindfulness by so-called Buddhist Zombies will persist in the world is unknown but it appears certainly not diminishing.

The Pali scriptures define mindfulness as follows:

And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering (saritā) & able to call to mind (anussaritā) even things that were done & said long ago.

Indriya-vibhanga Sutta

Whenever, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu... recollects (anussarati) the Dhamma (Teaching) and thinks it over, on that occasion the enlightenment factor of mindfulness is aroused by the bhikkhu; on that occasion the bhikkhu develops the enlightenment factor of mindfulness; on that occasion the enlightenment factor of mindfulness comes to fulfilment by development in the bhikkhu.

SN 46.3

One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness.

One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one's right mindfulness.

One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one's right mindfulness.

One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one's right mindfulness.

One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter & remain in right livelihood: This is one's right mindfulness.

Maha-cattarisaka Sutta


attha katamaṁ satindriyaṁ? Yā sati anussati paṭissati sati saraṇatā dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā sati satindriyaṁ satibalaṁ sammāsati— idaṁ vuccati “satindriyaṁ”.

What is sammasati? Sati means to bear in mind or bring to mind. Sati is the state of recollecting, the state of remembering, the state of non-fading, the state of non-forgetting. Sati means the sati that is a Spiritual Faculty, the sati that is a Spiritual Power, Sammasati, the Sati that is an Enlightenment Factor, that which is a Path Factor and that which is related to the Path. This is what is called sammasati."

Vibhanga 105.286

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  • Aren't there various dhamma to be mindful of, including as you say the Noble Eightfold Path, the Dhamma, and ethical behaviour (and the Triple Gem)? Isn't there also doctrine about being mindful of the body, like in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) or Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119) -- and don't you suppose that might be a (doctrinal and practical) basis for what people refer to when they talk about "mindfulness" of or during some activity?
    – ChrisW
    Jun 28 at 3:57
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I'm no expert but what you ask might not be feasible.

When I'm "thinking about how to solve a problem" -- I work as a software developer; and the conventional wisdom among programmers is that to be effective or "in the zone" you become immersed in the problem/subject/activity ... and the less you're distracted by anything else, e.g. by thoughts of other topics, or bodily sensations (including other people talking around you), or any "self-awareness" unrelated to the problem at hand, the better. The time for considering whether that activity is ethical might be before you embark on it -- because during it all you want to be aware of is the problem[s], the goal, and potential solutions.

Perhaps this is just me, or perhaps some similar state-of-mind might happen (and be sought as being desirable) during any slightly complicated or dangerous activity -- driving a car or riding a bicycle, performing surgery or carpentry, etc.

Such intense or focussed awareness isn't just a matter of thinking more about the subject, it's also a matter of think less about any distractions irrelevant to the problem (and it takes time to become immersed at the start of a session, for cessation of mental activity unrelated to the problem; that immersion includes putting aside some notions of self -- including "I don't like this problem" and "it's too difficult for me" -- and is I think part of the skill or habit which a student or practitioner or expert develops, that learned ability is as well as the necessary body of knowledge).

As such you have the problem you raised -- that being "mindful" would interrupt the activity.

I think that when I'm working I'm mindful of the current problem[s] and the goal -- and potential solutions (to the problems) come to mind -- and then as long as I'm aware of the viable solution, I keep that in mind as I act to implement it. The subject (details of what I'm thinking about) changes -- as new solutions come to mind; as I encounter problems with implementing a specific solution; as solutions are completed and I move to a next phase (e.g. testing or another problem) -- or if I lose my concentration, if somebody talks to me, or if I need to sleep, or whatever it is.

This mode of thinking is all very well, it's practical; and if you're careful it's ideally harmless too and beneficial in a mundane or "householder" way.

There's another but related mode of thinking, when the problem exists but when a solution isn't obvious. There's a description of that -- I like the description -- in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which the Author's Note says, "should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice"):

Well, those were the commonest setbacks I can think of: out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems. But although setbacks are the commonest gumption traps they’re only the external cause of gumption loss. Time now to consider some of the internal gumption traps that operate at the same time.

As the course description of gumptionology indicated, this internal part of the field can be broken down into three main types of internal gumption traps: those that block affective understanding, called "value traps"; those that block cognitive understanding, called "truth traps"; and those that block psychomotor behavior, called "muscle traps." The value traps are by far the largest and the most dangerous group.

Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values. In motorcycle maintenance, you must rediscover what you do as you go. Rigid values make this impossible.

The typical situation is that the motorcycle doesn’t work. The facts are there but you don’t see them. You’re looking right at them, but they don’t yet have enough value. This is what Phædrus was talking about. Quality, value, creates the subjects and objects of the world. The facts do not exist until value has created them. If your values are rigid you can’t really learn new facts.

This often shows up in premature diagnosis, when you’re sure you know what the trouble is, and then when it isn’t, you’re stuck. Then you’ve got to find some new clues, but before you can find them you’ve got to clear your head of old opinions. If you’re plagued with value rigidity you can fail to see the real answer even when it’s staring you right in the face because you can’t see the new answer’s importance.

The birth of a new fact is always a wonderful thing to experience. It’s dualistically called a "discovery" because of the presumption that it has an existence independent of anyone’s awareness of it. When it comes along, it always has, at first, a low value. Then, depending on the value-looseness of the observer and the potential quality of the fact, its value increases, either slowly or rapidly, or the value wanes and the fact disappears.

The overwhelming majority of facts, the sights and sounds that are around us every second and the relationships among them and everything in our memory...these have no Quality, in fact have a negative quality. If they were all present at once our consciousness would be so jammed with meaningless data we couldn’t think or act. So we preselect on the basis of Quality, or, to put it Phædrus’ way, the track of Quality preselects what data we’re going to be conscious of, and it makes this selection in such a way as to best harmonize what we are with what we are becoming.

What you have to do, if you get caught in this gumption trap of value rigidity, is slow down...you’re going to have to slow down anyway whether you want to or not...but slow down deliberately and go over ground that you’ve been over before to see if the things you thought were important were really important and to—well—just stare at the machine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just live with it for a while. Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long, as sure as you live, you’ll get a little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you’re interested in it. That’s the way the world keeps on happening. Be interested in it.

At first try to understand this new fact not so much in terms of your big problem as for its own sake. That problem may not be as big as you think it is. And that fact may not be as small as you think it is. It may not be the fact you want but at least you should be very sure of that before you send the fact away. Often before you send it away you will discover it has friends who are right next to it and are watching to see what your response is. Among the friends may be the exact fact you are looking for.

After a while you may find that the nibbles you get are more interesting than your original purpose of fixing the machine. When that happens you’ve reached a kind of point of arrival. Then you’re no longer strictly a motorcycle mechanic, you’re also a motorcycle scientist, and you’ve completely conquered the gumption trap of value rigidity.

I find it an amusing description of how solutions (or "facts") sometimes come to mind.

It can sometimes happen that you're "barking up the wrong tree", maybe too focussed on a unworkable solution, or maybe you've forgotten something important -- in that case, putting your tools down, and going for a walk, and not thinking about the problem for a while provides an opportunity -- a mind that's not too busy or too focussed in a wrong direction -- for a potentially helpful solution to "pop up" or arise.

Then there's "mindfulness" as it's taught in Buddhism. One of the classic summaries is here: Anussati — The Recollections. I'm not sure how meaningful they are, I suspect they act partly as a summary of everything you've learned about and learned from Buddhism -- which, I assume, varies from person to person. Still I find that it i.e. Buddhism is a good "solution" to a lot of the "problems" of life. Maybe it won't fix your "motorcycle", maybe it will help peace of mind as you work to repair it, or to "let go" of it, and to "value" it correctly.

Another thing is that a lot of what we work with, the world we live is, is a "fabrication" -- Can anyone explain Sanskara / Sankara indepth?

To some extent, that's apparently normal and there's no avoiding it, and so the question is about the quality of it (like whether it's ethical), and one's reaction (like whether one tries to attach to it) -- see for example the Dhammapada:

  1. All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, 'dukkha' (suffering etc.) follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofprint of the ox that draws the cart.
  2. All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness (sukha) follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.

I think of the kind of "applied" thought, that I described at the start of this above, is like a kind of vehicle -- it's a means of getting from A to B, from a problem to a finished solution. But if you do have a vehicle like that, you might not want to be driving it all the time -- spending your whole life, pushing the engine on a highway -- even if only because it's not sustainable, you ought to slow down sometimes (when the going gets difficult), maybe cool down or empty your mind to make it receptive (like a muscle needs periods of food and rest in order to work) etc. I'm told it's also useful to understand something of a relationship between mind and body -- like what does "feeling anxious" mean, exactly, what is "peace", what is "impermanence"?

Anyway, for whatever reason, one of the types of meditation people teach or practice is "mindfulness" -- "mindfulness of breathing" for example, "mindfulness of the body", and so on.

I'm not sure those can be practiced at the same time as mundane problem solving. Maybe yes during "physical" activity, maybe less so during some sustained/applied mental activity -- or maybe other people can and it's just my inability. But I think there's a reason why people set aside time -- dedicate some time to "meditating" -- or go on a "retreat", for a week-end or ten days -- or become like monks, that might be so that they can concentrate on the practice literally full-time.

I'm not sure but maybe the practice is intended as an antidote to -- deliberately, as a way to interfere with -- the kind of immersion with mundane worries and concepts which may normally occupy a mind. There's also a suggestion that, when you're not preoccupied with mental activity, then all that remains to be aware of is the physical -- so trying to be aware (or mindful) of the physical is a way to, as this answer puts it, to "work within the framework of the target state". And it's a respite from perpetually driving the mental engine.

Maybe it's also good to be mindful of the body "occasionally" during mundane activity. The breath becoming "short" for example might be a symptom of the mind becoming too tight -- and correcting that might improve the mind's interaction with the activity.

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