Misreading Mindfulness: From Sensate Experience to Situational Awareness

In one of his recent posts the psychoanalyst and Buddhist practitioner Parlêtre highlights the importance of engagement with language and memory play in a program of ‘self’ transformation, in contrast to the singular emphasis placed on ‘pre-symbolic’ or sensate experience in the Pragmatic Dharma of Daniel Ingram (Parlêtre, 2019) — although I think we can apply this critique to Western Buddhism in general, despite the odd exception. Here, he points to what he refers to as Pragmatic Dharma’s “subjectivist priority” wherein central emphasis is given to the subjects experience of sensate impressions, a position which he claims is fundamentally problematic. As he puts it:

This seems to be a fundamental assumption of modern vipassana: that it is from our sensate experience that our whole world of experience is built up. It also seems to be a fundamental assumption of much of the modern neuroscience research into meditation. I would argue that it is a mistaken assumption.

(Parlêtre, 2019)

Parlêtre goes on to contrast this implicit assumption of Pragmatic Dharma, and Western Buddhism more broadly, with what he refers to as an ‘externalist, anti-subjectivist view’ (which has resonances to the ‘embodied cognition’ of Evan Thompson and company — see below) in which “an individual’s mental states mean what they do only in relation to a vast network of other thoughts and to certain relations between that individual and the external world” (Parlêtre, 2019). From an externalist, anti-subjectivist view:

Our minds aren’t solely ‘inside’ our brains and bodies and, as such, won’t be cleansed of emotional poisons through a physiological / energetic process of purification (at least not entirely). In fact, we won’t encounter significant parts of our minds at all unless we make use of reflection through language.

(Parlêtre, 2019)

Parlêtre’s comments here reminded me of a line of thinking I was engaged in recently, regarding the etymology of the term sati/smṛti/mindfulness in contemporary Western Buddhism. While I originally had this etymological insight, or at least the inkling of one, after reading the translators commentary to a chapter of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, I would later see my line of thinking reaffirmed in the writings of the meditation teacher Jason Siff (1), and most recently in an essay by the philosopher of mind Evan Thompson (Thompson, 2017), in which this shift in meaning is laid out in detail (2). As Thompson puts it:

“Mindfulness” has no single meaning or definition in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist modernists typically interpret “mindfulness” to mean “bare attention,” which they take to be direct awareness of sensations and thoughts as they occur, without making any judgments about them. Such “bare attention” is said to be “non-conceptual.” As a number of Buddhist scholars have noted, however, the Pāli or Sanskrit word translated as “mindfulness”— sati (Pāli) or smṛti (Sanskrit) — has the sense of continually “bearing in mind,”“remembering,” or “recollecting” something.

(Thompson, 2017)

Here we see the Western Buddhist reading of the term laid out in specific, as the Pali or Sanskrit terms holds distinct etymological associations to the act of remembering or recollection. As the translators Crosby and Skilton note in their introduction to The Guarding of Awareness chapter in The Bodhicaryāvatāra, not only does the term imply remembering or recollection, of one’s bodily, mental states, and feelings, but it also places specific emphasis on “a sense of an individual’s purpose” (Śāntideva, p. 31). On the other hand the Western Buddhist reading of the term comes to be almost exclusively focused on ‘non-conceptual awareness’ of ‘moment to moment sensory experience’ as an ends to itself, from which ethical action is automatically presumed to arise.

While Thompson refers to the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, the ur-text of all things mindfulness, to point to an emphasis on awareness of “mental states, and mental factors” as well as simply bodily sensations, we can look to a number of other classical textual sources (Thompson, 2017), to get a sense of what it is that we are being extolled to recollect, and relative to which sets of concerns (3). For example if in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta or the Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone, we see the Buddha placating his son, to mindfully reflect upon bodily, verbal, and mental actions, both before, during, and after each action to assess whether or not they may cause suffering for oneself of others:

Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.

(MN, 61)

Similarly in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra we see an emphasis on using mindfulness as a means to observe the mind, to guard it from the influence of the defilements, and ascertain what is to be done. In his typically verbose fashion he likens the mind to a rutting elephant, extolling us to keep careful watch over it less we dispel our accumulated merit:

1 One who wishes to guard his training must scrupulously guard his mind. It is impossible to guard one’s training without guarding the wandering mind.

2 Rutting elephants roaming wild do not cause as much devastation in this world as the roaming elephant, the mind, let free, creates in Avici and other hells.

3 But if the roaming elephant, the mind, is tethered on every side by the cord of mindfulness, every danger subsides, complete prosperity ensues.

(Śāntideva, p. 34)

Later in the chapter he goes on to refer to the analogy of making one’s way on the road, through surveying the landscape, in order to ensure that our actions are skillful:

37 In order to spot danger on the road and so forth, one may look to the four quarters for a moment. Standing at ease, one may look to the distance, looking behind only after turning right round.

38 One should go ahead or turn back only after looking forward or behind. Likewise, in all situations one should proceed only after ascertaining what is to be done.

(Śāntideva, p. 37)

In both texts the form of mindfulness being advocated clearly involves a great deal of discursive thinking, memory, and situational awareness, as opposed to simply the non-judgemental awareness of sensory experience, as is typically the case in the approach to mindfulness practices in Western Buddhism and the mindfulness movement. In each instance, the reader is being asked to reflect on various concepts of ethics, merit, and karma as the situation at hand and their own previous experience of related events and circumstances, in order to choose a skillful course of action. Conceived of in this sense, the practice of mindfulness, should be understood as operating within an expanded network of relations, both conceptual, social, and environmental, as per the externalist, anti-subjectivist position to which Parlêtre refers, or the embodied cognition of Thompson. As Thompson puts it, from the perspective of embodied cognition “being mindful consists in certain emotional and cognitive skills and putting those skills into play in the social world” (Thompson, 2017).

One of the ways that this tendency in Western Buddhism to valorise awareness of moment to moment sensate experience as an end in and of itself can be seen to manifest most explicitly is in the lack of a coherent ethical component (and for that matter a theory of the social) to its prevailing ‘image of practice’ (4). Here, the ethical component that was so central to most ‘traditional’ forms of Buddhism, seems to be de-emphasized or ignored relative to emphasis on seated meditation practice and/or mindfulness throughout daily activities. As figures like Ron Purser have discussed in detail (Purser, 2019), arguably it is in part, this lack of a coherent ethical framework and a theory of the social, that sees ‘secularised’ mindfulness, simply incorporated into the logic of neo-liberalism, and its emphasis on individual responsibility and total denial of structural inequality; a cure all for the existential ills of the late capitalist subject.

It strikes me as interesting here that in this particular rereading (or is it misreading, as much as I am a fan of Roland Barthes) of the notion of sati/smṛti we see some of the central issues with Western Buddhism at play, both in terms of its lack of a coherent ethical framework to guide practice, and its reductive approach to conceptual or discursive thought. One wonders where exactly this contemporary reading has arisen from? Here Thompson cites the influence of far East Asian Buddhisms with their non-dual approaches and emphasis on non-conceptuality (Thompson, 2017), while I also suspect that the influence of a naive/reductionist reading of phenomenological philosophy may also have something to do with it (5). Nevertheless, In response to this situation, it seems important that we work towards producing an ‘expanded’ image of mindfulness, and for that matter dharma practice at large, that includes ‘the whole person,’ as Thompson terms it, and their relationship to the broader, social, and environmental milieu that they inhabit. While such a project would obviously require various lines of intervention, two come to mind immediately which I will explore in subsequent posts. One, is working towards developing open-ended ethical frameworks for dharma practice that are able to speak to contemporary concerns (6), and the other is re-orientating how discursive thought, language, and the underlying concepts that are embodied in practice are understood within the context of Western Buddhism.


  1. See his book Unlearning Meditation (2010).
  2. Central to Thompson’s article is how this particular image of mindfulness, has framed cognitive sciences approach, through what he refers to as a ‘looping effect.’
  3. It is important to note that as Thompson discusses, that the traditional vs modern (or Western) dynamic here is problematic in that there is no single agreed upon definition of Mindfulness across traditional Buddhisms. I point to these texts, one from the Pali Canon one a well known Mahayana text, not so much to try and valorise a traditional image of Mindfulness practice, but rather to simply point to a contrasting view from the Buddhist canon that may be useful in constructing a working alternative to the typical Western Buddhist reading of the term.
  4. Here I borrow the term ‘image of practice’ from Glenn Wallis, who in turn appropriated it from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Given his prediclination for intellectual buggery I am sure Deleuze would be proud. See https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2019/04/08/trash-theory-preliminary-materials-for-an-image-of-practice-2/.
  5. This naive or reductionist reading of phenomenology, strikes me as one of the prevailing ideological narratives that underpin Western Buddhism discourse and rhetoric alongside those such of romanticism, instrumentalism, wellness culture, and otherwise as various authors have discussed.
  6. An endeavor that will, of course, require far more than is offered by traditional Buddhist sources and concepts on their own.

Reference List

Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Trans.). MN 61. Retrieved from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.061.than.html.

Parlêtre. (2019) Critique of Pragmatic Dharma #2. Retrieved from https://parletre.wordpress.com/2019/06/20/critique-of-pragmatic-dharma-2/.

Purser, R. (2019) McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Watkins Media Limited. (Forthcoming)

Śāntideva. (1995). Bodhicaryāvatāra (K. Crosby and A. Skilton Trans.) New York: Oxford University Press.

Siff, J. (2010). Unlearning Meditation. Boulder: Colorado.

Thompson, E. (2017). Looping Effects and the Cognitive Science of Mindfulness Meditation.” In D. L. McMahan and E. Braun, eds. Meditation, Buddhism, and Science, (pp. 47-61). New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://evanthompsondotme.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/looping-effects-and-the-cognitive-science-of-mindfulness-meditation.pdf.

Wallis, G. (2019). Image of Thought: Trash Theory #2. Retrieved from https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2019/04/08/trash-theory-preliminary-materials-for-an-image-of-practice-2/.