How do you define mindfulness (sati)?

I’ve been going back and forth (for years) trying to decide how to translate sati into Estonian according to my understanding developed by listening to monks and reading the suttas. Since I’m no expert in Pali, all of it has been fitered through English.

The dictionary definition of the english word mindfulness seems to be something like “the quality or state of being concious or aware of something” or “the ability to pay attention to something” and in some cases a separate spiritual definition is added by bringing in stuff like “the present moment”, “acknowledging and accepting”, “heightened and complete” etc.

While I know the original meaning of sati has roots in “memory” and “remembering” and it’s said in many suttas that mindfulness makes it easy to remember things heard long ago, I think the primary focus of sati is on (the continuity of) awareness, not remembering. Perhaps a bridge between the two could be built with the definition “remembering to be aware” (sounds too active) or “not neglegting awareness” (a bit more passive, but still has connotations of constantly doing something).

So long story short (as I’ve discovered again and again, I’m not too good at expressing complex thoughts in a foreign language…and sometimes even in my native language :stuck_out_tongue: ) I would define sati as “steadiness of awareness” or “continuity of awareness” or “the ability to maintain awareness”.

How do you define it and why?


I like thinking of sati as presence.

If you are present you know and see what is going on.

If you know and see, you can remember / recollect.

Hence, being present with your body, your feelings, your mind events (thoughts) and the qualities is what I understand to be the right sort of presence taught by the Buddha.


Excellent question and analysis, thanks for that. essentially there are two aspects to be borne in mind:

  1. memory
  2. sustained awareness

The latter is the basic term used in the satipatthana formula (anupassanā).

The best classical definition of sati that I know of comes from Asanga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya. (If you’re unfamiliar, Asanga was one of the great systematizers; his work, I suspect, inspired Buddhaghosa. While he is known as a Yogacarin Mahayanist, in fact most of his work is based on the Agamas. This text is a straightforward summary of central dhamma teachings.)

smṛti katamā / saṃsṛte vastuni cetasaḥ asaṃpramoṣo ’vikṣepakarmikā
What is mindfulness? It is the non-forgetting [or “not losing”] by the mind of the experienced percept. Its function is non-distraction.

This could be paraphrased something like:

Mindfulness is retaining in mind what you have previously experienced without losing it. Its function is to keep attention steady and focused.

This suggests that rather than “memory” as such—which is a more generalized cognitive function, or range of functions—we should think of mindfulness as “retention”.

In any case, what sati clearly does not mean is “paying attention to whatever comes up” which would be, rather, sampajañña. It means keeping attention in one place, most obviously, with the breath.

In the Indic traditions generally, sati is exactly parallel to dhāraṇa, from the root “to bear, to hold up”, which is used in both the sense of “retention” (especially of sacred texts) and “mindful awareness” (in meditation).


What of keeping ones attention centered in a given tetrad of satipatthana?

Well, meditation focuses on an aspect, right? You’re not meant to all all the body contemplations at once. You choose a framework, and keep attention focussed there.

And so, sampajañña is the better term to use with the practice of guarding the six sense gates & walking around town, as opposed to sati/mindfulness?

Yes, I think this is the original term; I discussed this in A History of Mindfulness. Notice that in the description of the practice—as opposed to the name of the practice—it only uses sampajañña.

I think this is among those things which bears emphasizing. In the gradual training it forms a precursor to mindfulness itself, but it often seems to me to be an overlooked facet of practice; people seem to see seated meditation as the beginning of contemplative practice, which seems inappropriate.


Let me be heretic and translate sati as ‘concentration’.

If I consistently bring up (remember) or go back to a specific experience so that the mind is full of its awareness - what else is it than concentration? Not taking the Visuddhimagga as canonical, but I like the following image a lot, Viss XVI, 98:

“[samma vāyāma, sati & samādhi] are like the three friends who enter the park together. The object is like the champak tree in full blossom. samādhi, which cannot of its own nature bring about absorption by unification on the object, is like the man who could not pick the flower by raising his arm. vāyāma is like the companion who bent down, giving his back to mount upon. sati is like the friend who stood by, giving his shoulder for support. Just as standing on the back of the one and supporting himself on the other’s shoulder he could pick as many flowers as he wanted, so too, when energy accomplishes its function of exerting and when sati accomplishes its function of preventing wobbling, with the help so obtained samādhi can bring about absorption by unification on the object.”


Not so heretical at all, I’m afraid!

I’d prefer to avoid using concentration, but it certainly fits sati much better than samādhi. Concentration is in fact used quite widely in yogic circles for dhāraṇa, which is identical with sati.

Bhante @sujato, could you talk some more about the difference between sati and sampajañña.

  1. Could you be challenged to give a one word translation of sampajañña?

  2. Would it be possible, and if so, what would be some real world examples of being asati sampajaññā or being sati asampajañña?

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This seems obviously incorrect since the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something is called “consciousness” (‘vinnana’).

‘Sati’ means to ‘keep in mind’ or ‘remember’. As you would know, in Buddhism, the mindfulness practised is ‘right mindfulness’ (which aligns itself with preventing & ending suffering) rather than ‘wrong mindfulness’.

I like MN 117 in how it describes how right mindfulness operates to keep right view, right thought, right speech, right action &/or right livelihood in mind.

Actually, it is not too active because the activity of mindfulness has the nature of being fast & constantly active, but in a very subtle supervisory way; thus has been called ‘the gatekeeper’.

I personally do not like the phrase “remembering to be aware” because consciousness is always aware (of something). It is either aware of the meditation object or aware of the television or whatever dominant sense object is in its field of awareness.

Thus, at least for me, in the context of meditation, right mindfulness remembers to act to prevent & remove the obstacles to meditative awareness rather than ‘remembers to be aware’ (since the mind is automatically aware/conscious by its very nature).

Some meditation teachers teach to be watchful. Other meditation teachers teach to simply ‘let go’ (since the mind is automatically watchful). The very effort & intention to be watchful can actually hinder the clarity, sensitivity & flow (malleability) of meditative awareness. What I am saying here is for some practitioners their practice of mindfulness in meditation is simply to keep the mind in a state of ‘letting-go’ (non-craving, non-judgment & non-attachment) rather than trying to keep the mind aware.

Whilst, in the context of meditation, mindfulness certainly ‘remembers to be aware’, sometimes mindfulness maintains conscious awareness via indirect means as I described (such as remembering to be without craving, i.e., letting go).

In conclusion, for me, mindfulness remembers to apply the Dhamma (in whatever context or situation that is appropriate & necessary).


Are mindfulness and what concentrates (‘collects itself’: samadhi) the same thing?

Based on Ajahn Brahm’s book, is it ‘sati’ the stops the ‘wobble’ of the 1st jhana or its it ‘samadhi’?

My response to this is to ask: “How can sati keep attention centred in a given tetrad of satipatthana when those very tetrads are impermanent? For example, if the in & breathing (1st tetrad) calms to the degree that rapture (2nd tetrad) becomes the dominant object, how can sati keep attention on the breathing (1st tetrad) ?”

I think all sati is capable of truly doing is not being attached to the impermanence of the tetrads, as follows:

…the monk on that occasion…is mindful — putting aside covetousness & distress with reference to the world. MN 118

I hope others comment on this as well…
To me at least sati is to repetitively go back or to uphold the same object or observation in the mind - in that sense it would be the non-wavering of what we call ‘concentration’.
samadhi is ‘to put together’ (formerly fragmented aspects of) the mind, to unify it, but in a sense that the mind gets a new quality that emerges out of the former practice of concentration.
I don’t know Ajahn Brahm’s description, but I’d say the wobbling could be of two qualities - the normal confusion of the daily mind, but probably more the vicara which would be a much clearer, distinct oscillation or movement of a mind that is already partly concentrated. From my understanding of the text samadhi would come up with / bring about the stop of vicara and thus constitute the 2nd jhana.

Well, two: situational awareness.

It’s possible, but i’m kind busy right now. maybe someone else can have a go at this one.

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To me this sounds like a way to develop/strengthen sati, not sati itself. Practice makes perfect and the more you do something, the more it starts to happen all by itself or naturally.

Of course what we really have to do to have a strong foundation for meditation, is to develop our morality. If we aren’t constantly drawn to thoughts like “I shouldn’t have done that”, “why did he do that”, “I should have done that”, “next time I’m gonna do it like that” etc, the mind tends to stay where it is. And also a certain amount of wisdom is required, so we aren’t constantly drawn to thoughts like “aah…that would be nice”, “it’s a pity that didn’t happen”, “maybe I should try that”, “next time I bet this will work” etc. And the more you meditate, the more wisdom you get and the better your morality, the better your meditation. So the Noble Eightfold Path really is a wonderful holistic strategy with all the factors supporting each-other.


sampajanna - (situational) awareness
sati - concentration
samadhi - composure


I can imagine concentrating on a video game and not being aware of my surroundings…

I can imagine being a passenger in a car, attentively watching the sights pass by while not concentrating on anything in particular, just letting the sights slide past my awareness. A child next to me yells out, and it comes and goes in awareness without any focus resting on it…



About sampajañña I get the feeling that it’s more about understanding the nature of your experience and the consequences of your actions, not a general awareness of your surroundings.

But sati and sampajañña seem to always go together in the suttas, so it’s pretty hard to separate one from the other. After checking through SN and AN using Bhikkhu Bodhi’s indexes, I found them sort of separated from each other only in SN 36.7 and SN 47.2:

Perhaps a better understanding of where sati and sampajañña together fit in the general scheme of things will help to narrow down their meanings. AN 8.81, it’s said:

And in AN 10.61, it’s said:

From this, it seems pretty clear that sati and sampajañña come into play way before we start doing the four focuses of mindfulness. They help us restrain our senses and actions so the mind becomes pure enough to really take off in formal meditation.


Personally I cannot make too much of sampajanna, even though I’d like to, simply because it doesn’t appear in many contexts or explanations in the suttas. it’s noteworthy i think that the examples we have for sati-sampajanna are strictly related to the body. we don’t have ‘clearly comprehending the birds on the tree and the flower in the vase’. it’s ‘coming and going, and chewing and swallowing’ etc.

literally ‘clear comprehension’ seems a solid translation, maybe even ‘full directed comprehension’. since it is directed, sati with its memorizing aspect would direct the comprehension, it seems sometimes in the suttas towards anicca.

if that is not far off then sampajanna would understand bodily movements (and processes) in their changing nature, concentrated and fixed by sati.

any other sutta-based ideas?