Wise Mindfulness (Sati) 1/3: Not What, But How



In these next few Minutes, I’ll be reflecting on, of all things, Mindfulness (Sati). Imagine that.

Sati is the seventh aspect of the eight-fold path. Many previous newsletters (now archived on my blog: have focused on Sati, particularly this one here.

But in this newsletter, I wanted to pick up on a theme mentioned in Jay Michaelson’s new book, Evolving Dharma.  The theme is simple: mindfulness is not so much about the what, but much more about the how. In other words, practice – really good practice – isn’t concerned with what is being mindfully noted as with how it is observed. It’s not the experience you’re having, but the attitude towards the experience.

I’m highlighting this theme because it’s a common refrain from students where they share their perception that their practice isn’t going well. Hell, it’s a common refrain in my practice: why isn’t my concentration better?, why am I not in a jhana?why am I not calmersteadier, more peaceful?, why am I so sleepy today?  And within all that, dear reader, you can see how I’m assessing my practice based on the content of what is happening.

But the practice truly begins to deepen when, as practitioners, we free ourselves from this unskillful approach and shift into reflecting on how we are seeing the what.

Consider this passage from the Venerable Analayo in his book Satipatthana (the required text in my advanced trainings):

“Uninvolved and detached receptivity as one of the crucial characteristics of sati forms an important aspect in the teachings of several modern meditation teachers and scholars. They emphasize that the purpose of sati is solely to make things conscious, not to eliminate them. Sati silently observes, like a spectator at a play, without in any way interfering. Some refer to this non-reactive feature of sati as ‘choiceless’ awareness. ‘Choiceless’ in the sense that with such awareness one remains impartially aware, without reacting with likes or dislikes. Satidoes not change experience, it deepens it.”

Points for practice:

  • At the beginning of a sitting or yoga practice, take some time to connect with pure sati: uninvolved, detached receptivity. Stay with that long enough to feel the visceral feeling of it.
  • Especially when seeming challenges present themselves in practice, be sure to receive them — emphasizing the how of receptive seeing.
  • Just remember, it’s not the what, but the how.


Originally published 0n October 24, 2013