The Four Functions of Mindfulness

by Joseph Goldstein

Translation of an instruction given by Joseph Goldstein at Forest Refuge of Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, April 14, 2004. Here to be listened to in audio.

Mindfulness is the English translation of the Pali word sati. It really has a central place in every Buddhist tradition. It is mindfulness or sati which makes any spiritual undertaking possible.
I like to read which I call an ‘ode to mindfulness’. In the Tibetan tradition often with the great lama’s, there are spontaneous Dharma songs which just arise in their minds. This was a spontaneous Dharma-song to mindfulness of … Rinpoche, one of the great Dochen-masters. He said:

‘Mindfulness is the root of Dharma, Mindfulness is the body of practice, Mindfulness is the fortress of the mind, Mindfulness is the aid to the wisdom of innate wakefulness, lack of Mindfulness will allow the negative forces to overcome you, without Mindfulness you will be swept away by laziness, lack of Mindfulness is the creator of evil deeds, without Mindfulness and presence of mind nothing can be accomplished, without Mindfulness you are a heartless zombie, a walking corpse. Dear Dharma friends, please be mindful. By the aspiration of the Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s, may all Dharma friends attain stable Mindfulness and ascend the throne of perfect awakening.’

That sums up the importance of this quality of mind.

Sati has several meanings and several functions, all of which are a key to the growth of wisdom.


On one level the word in Pali means remembering. It has to do with memory, and it refers particularly to the remembering of certain wholesome recollections. These are reflections on the Buddha, on the Dharma and the Sangha, on one’s own ethical conduct and generosity, recollecting the deva’s and one’s own past lives. These are the wholesome recollections, that Mindfulness or sati can help us with.

Although we may not be able to recollect our own past lives, perhaps maybe some of you can. But the other reflections can really serve a very useful purpose and a help for us in this long path of awakening.

When we reflect on the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, it arouses in us, or it can arouse in us, a strengthening quality of faith, which enlarges the context of our own particular struggles, the many ups and downs of our practice.

Remember that the efforts that we make in our practice are part of a much larger journey. We can get so caught, in the midst of struggle, with discomfort in the body, or difficulties in the mind, and we forget that it is part of a much larger process.

The Bodhisattva overcame the armies of Mara, forces like greed, desire and aversion, and restlessness and conceit and a number of others. His struggle was not different than our own. We are engaged in exactly the same process. So what does it mean to overcome these very powerful forces of seduction, the habits of seduction, that keep us narrow minded and close hearted? This is what we are engaged in. We are really engaged in this most noble endeavor of purifying the heart, of purifying the mind. It is a path that the Buddha discovered and many other beings over the years have accomplished. So reflecting on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha connects us to a long lineage of people.

This is a phrase that occurs many times in the sutta’s and it always arouses a tremendous joy in me when I contemplate it. It reminds us of all those many people over the years who have done what had to be done. And that is like the song of Enlightenment that nuns and monks and people completed the journey: ‘Done is what had to be done’. And I think: what a glorious moment that will be! And we can all proclaim that!

So in reflecting the use of mindfulness in this way, the reflection on the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, reminds us that this is possible for us also. Many people have walked this path as we are doing now.

There are also the reflections on our ethical conduct. This is not something we probably usually do very often. But if we take the time to actually acknowledge our commitment to sila – because we have all undertaken that in a very profound and substantial way – it strengthens our self confidence, it strengthens our self respect.

It is that understanding with ‘Yes, I can train the mind’, I can guard my actions. This is something I can do and am doing. But this reflection on sila sometimes gets mixed up with our very western habit of self judgment. There was one time when I was practicing in Burma with Sayadaw U Pandita. A dry spell in my practice for several weeks, the same day after day after day. And I was pushing it all along, but nothing was happening, nothing was changing that I could see clearly. And so Sayadaw in one interview said to me: ‘Joseph, you should contemplate your sila’. And he was suggesting that as a way of arousing energy and joy. But the first thought that came up in my mind was: ‘What did I do wrong?’ That was the first impulse in my mind. So we need to get past that habit of self judgment and realize that it IS a powerful reflection.

And even when there are lapses, because there ARE lapses in sila, major or minor, for all of us, it is our willingness to see the lapses and then to reconnect to the commitment that keeps our practice moving forward. And the Buddha talked of this, we read it often in the sutta’s, when people would come and acknowledge wrong doing, a wrong action. So these are the Buddha’s words: ‘It is growth in the Noble One’s discipline, when one sees one’s transgression as such, and makes amends in accordance with the Dharma, by undertaking restraint for the future.’

So it is a very liberal understanding of our training in morality. It is acknowledging that we can make this commitment, it gives a tremendous strength to us, there may well be lapses, and if we see it and understand and let that wisdom be the cause for restraint in the future, our journey or practice of development keeps unfolding.

So it is reflections on the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, reflections on one’s commitment to sila. The Buddha also spoke of sati as being a recollection of one’s liberality, of one’s generosity, and, if we are so inclined, on deva’s, heavenly beings. Because when we do this, we reflect on the generosity, it brings a very real quality of joy to us and lightness. The Buddha often began his discourses talking about generosity, and how that leads to rebirth in heavenly realms, leads to the happiness of that, as a way of delighting people’s minds. And then, when his listeners minds were open and soft and receptive, he treated them with the four Noble Truths.

So we need to prepare the mind to receive the deeper insights. I remember earlier on in my practice, when I was in India in Bodhgaya with Munindra-ji. He used to give these long raps about the deva realms. And I loved it! He was just talking of these beings with bodies of light and the heavenly musicians and the pleasure groves. And then he talked about Maitreya, the coming Buddha who is in Tusita heaven giving Dharma talks. And it really did delight my mind. Just being listening and being filled with a kind of lightness and joy. But there were some sceptics, especially among the westerners, so he would always add at the end of his rap, he would say: ‘You do not have to believe this. It is true, but you do not have to believe it.’

So in times of low energy, when you are going day after day in your practice, in times when there is low energy, in times when there is discouragement, this application of mindfulness, of all these different wise recollections, can be extremely helpful to us. Because we reconnect with something bigger than ourselves.

Presence of mind

Another meaning of sati. Not just this kind of remembering of the practice of these recollections, but one meaning that is really more continuously applied in our meditation practice and in our lives, it is sati as presence of mind or present moment awareness. It is the quality of wakefulness, of being awake in each moment. And it is really the opposite of absent mindedness, when we are lost, when we do not know what is going on. Sati or mindfulness in this regard is that quality of non interfering awareness or bare attention. And in this quality, this evenness of mind, there is not the avoidance of anything, there is not the suppression of anything, there is not the reaction to what is arising. And it is simply this openness of mind, the attentiveness, the presence of mind, and it is this quality of a detached receptivity, that allows for intuitive wisdom to arise. In this openness we can begin to see all of our experience in a phrase that Munindra-ji used countless times and which is just embedded in my consciousness and was a big help to me as I would be sitting. It is this quality of bare attention, of open awareness that allows us to see all experiences as empty phenomena rolling on. That is all that is happening, moment after moment: empty phenomena rolling on.

Even aside from our meditative practice this quality of bare attention is something we are all familiar with I think in a very mundane way and that is the experience we have when we are listening to music. Just picture: settling back, listening to your favorite music the mind is open, attentive, it is not trying to control anything, not trying to control what comes next, it is not reflecting on the notes that have just passed. We are just there, moment to moment, in the unfolding. And often I think the term listening is a very good description for this quality of bare attention.

I think most of you have heard that remark by Mother Teresa which I like so much. Somebody asked her what she says when she prays to God. And she said she doesn’t say anything, she just listens. And they asked what God says to her while she is listening. And she replied he doesn’t say anything, he just listens. And when you don’t understand it I can explain it to you. It is that sense of just the whole of the Dharma being revealed in this place of listening, of receptive awareness, of open awareness when we are not trying to control things or make things happen, but we are letting things being revealed.

This quality, this mental factor of sati, of mindfulness, of listening, has tremendous power. And there is a long list of its benefits. One of the benefits of sati is that it functions as a guardian of the sense doors. That is it restrains the mind from papanca, the Pali word for the proliferating tendency of mind, which we see so often. So guardian of the sense doors here doesn’t mean that we close the senses down. That is not the point. But rather that we are mindful of what it is that is arising. And the purpose of this guardianship of the sense doors is to avoid the proliferation of desires, of wanting, of discontent. We really abide more peacefully.

A place where I found this exceedingly helpful and very obvious to see the fruits of it is in seeing. We don’t generally talk much in the meditation instruction about practicing mindfulness of seeing. And yet the visual field is a predominant part of our experience. And so I think it is a very useful place to begin to practice mindfulness and practice this guardianship of the sense doors.

I had a very striking experience of this. The times when I had gone down to New York to teach, being in town. The sense of the visual input is so strong . . . and especially walking on Fifth Avenue and all these stores with all these great things in it. And if I was not mindful, I just watched my mind looking to all these things, proliferating in the possibilities of wanting. Very unrelaxed! And then when I would see what was happening and drop back into that place of mindfulness, just seeing, seeing. The whole system, the whole mind-body came to a place of relaxation. Everything was still there. I was not walking with my eyes closed. But the mindfulness at the eye door really brought a sense of peace.

On a retreat there is not quite that same level of intensity. But I have noticed when I am on a retreat that even going into the dining room at meal time, there is a little more activity, a little more buzzle, there is all that conditioning around food. Often when I go into the dining room my note would be seeing, seeing, seeing, seeing. So instead of the eye or the mind jumping out through the eye door, getting caught up in different kind of reactions … judgments and whatever, just rested in that place of ease.

Sometimes the proliferation of mind through the eye door can get quite ridiculous. Last year when I was on a retreat here my yogi job was cutting vegetables in the morning. And there were two of us. And the person I was paired with was quite an expert cook. So they were really good peelers and choppers and slicers, and I have very little experience. One day we got these egg plants to peel. And he had a knife and I had a peeler. And very unmindful, not noting seeing at all, I just got this into my head: ‘I’m gonna race him.’ And see whether you can peel an egg plant faster with a peeler or with a knife. And this totally engaged me, I was totally into this race over this egg plant. And I just had to smile of myself, I was totally in to it. It happened twice. Once I won, once I lost. If I could have just gone in, and noted seeing, seeing, and a little more watchful at the eye door it could have been a much more meditative period of time.

OK, so mindfulness as a guardian of the sense door. So we don’t get caught up in proliferation, we don’t get caught up in desires, big and small.


Mindfulness has another function. And that is it serves to balance all of the other factors. Because when we are mindful, we actually can begin to see what factors are in excess, what factors are deficient. If we are not mindful, we don’t know, and we can stay lost and in inbalance. This is one of the reasons in the five Spiritual Faculties why mindfulness is placed right in the middle. Faith and effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Mindfulness serves to balance faith and wisdom. When there is too much faith, we can get very dogmatic. When faith is not balanced with wisdom we can get quite dogmatic, it becomes like a blind belief. We get attached to our views. And faith also gets out of balance sometimes when the meditation practice is going quite well and we get overenthusiastic. The faith factor becomes so strong because there is a sense of oh yeah, I’m really getting some place now. And the whole stage of insight called sudho Nirvana, it is when the factors of enlightenment actually are getting quite strong. The mindfulness is strong, the concentration, the rapture, the energy. But if we are not really careful, then that faith, you know, out of the overenthusiasm overpowers the wisdom. And we just get caught there, we get stuck. And it is in that regard that Sayadaw U Pandita’s most basic question in meditation interviews is like the universal panacea. Because more often than anything else, regardless of what you’re going to report, he will say: ‘Did you note it?’ ‘I just had a great enlightenment experience!’ ‘Did you note it?’ ‘I’m filled with rapture!’ ‘Did you note it?’ Because it is that bringing back mindfulness to whatever there is, which brings us back to balance. We begin again to see the basic emptiness, selflessness of whatever it is, we begin to balance with wisdom.

On the other side wisdom sometimes gets too strong and not enough faith, when we have a genuine insight, a genuine level of realization, and then we can stay satisfied with that. Because at that time we are weak in the quality of faith that actually keeps us open to things beyond our current level of understanding, instead of laying plain to insight saying okay, this is it. It is a quality of faith which is not about in this context blind belief, that excess of faith, but it is that quality of openness to what we don’t yet know.

There is a Korean Zen master of the 12th or 11th century who said something very apt to this balance of faith and wisdom. He said: faith without wisdom increases ignorance. And to have an understanding but no faith, increases wrong view, because we get attached. So mindfulness is what keeps both of these in balance. Mindfulness keeps effort and concentration in balance and this you are very familiar with. You know when there is over efforting, too much energy, not enough concentration to hold it, it goes to restlessness. If there is too much concentration, the mind is very one pointed, but not enough energy, it goes to sinking mind. Just kind of fall into concentrated stupor. Without mindfulness we can easily stay lost in these states. So mindfulness is the guardian of the sense doors, keeps the mind from proliferating into desire and discontent, mindfulness balances the different factors.

Mindfulness also serves to guard the mind. Mindfulness exerts a controlling influence on the quality of our thoughts and our intentions. Because without mindfulness we simply are acting out all the habit patterns of our conditioning. What’s going on in the world? Most people have not cultivated mindfulness to an appreciable extent and so are just living out their lives acting out a whole range of conditioned tendencies. Some wholesome, a lot unwholesome. And we see the suffering that results from that.

Ajahn Sumedho has been capsulized this so well when he said that in our lives the point is not to follow our hearts, but to train our hearts. And that distinction I think is so valuable. There is such a cultural emphasis on follow your heart, as if everything in our heart is noble and pure and wonderful. But it doesn’t take much practice to realize that there is a lot going on in our hearts. Some is wholesome and skilful and some is not. So it is not a question of following our hearts, it is a question of training our hearts.

One sutta, which is called ‘Two kinds of thoughts’ the Buddha described two different ways, or two different aspects, of how mindfulness supervises the minds. Two different aspects of the supervising and guarding function. And these two aspects can help us understand the nuances of our own practice and how best to apply them at different times. I want to read a little bit from this sutta, because it is quite interesting, it points to two really different aspects of mindfulness.

Thus is the Buddha speaking: ‘Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, when I was still an unenlightened Bodhisattva, it occurred to me: ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill-will and thoughts of cruelty. And I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of goodwill and thoughts of compassion. As I abided thus, diligent, ardent and resolute, a thought of sensual desire arose in me. I understood thus: this thought of sensual desire has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others affliction and to the affliction of both. It obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties and leads away from Nibbana. (This is a key point here.) When I considered: this leads to my own affliction, it subsided in me. When I considered: this leads to others affliction, it subsided in me. When I considered: this leads to the affliction of both, it subsided in me. And when I considered: this obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties and leads away from Nibbana, it subsided in me. Whenever a thought of sensual desire arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.

And he goes on with another image:
Just as in the last month of the rainy season, in the Autumn, when the crops stick in, a cow herd will guard his cows by constantly tapping and poking them on this side and that, with a stick to check and hurt them. And why is that? Because he sees that he would be flocked in prison, fined or blamed, if he would let them stray into the crops. So too, I saw in unwholesome states danger, degradation and defilement, and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation, the aspect of cleansing.

So the point of this is the acknowledgment that with unwholesome states of mind, with unwholesome thoughts, we need a more actively engaged mindfulness. Because as the Buddha pointed out at a later point in the sutta: Whatever we frequently think and ponder upon, that will become the inclination of our minds. So it is not that these thoughts and mind states do not have any power. If we frequently were in a habit of thinking in a certain way, and we repeatedly think in that way, it inclines our mind, that is what is being practiced.

There is a biologist named Rupert Sheldrake. Quite a few years ago I read an article about his research. And he uses the phrase morphic resonance. And what he meant by that was his seeing that in nature it may take a very long time for a particular thing to arise, to happen. But once it does, it is much easier for it to happen again. The next time of its arising happens much more quickly. And that so resonated with my understanding of the law of karma and the conditioning in our mind. Every time we think something or act in a certain way it becomes that much easier for that same pattern to arise again. And this is what the Buddha is pointing out to us. So with these unwholesome states of mind we need a kind of be poking the cows and tapping them and keeping them away from the crops. We need to be actively engaged.

Mindfulness in this regard has the power to show us what kind of thoughts, what kind of mind states actually are arising. As you know, so many of our thoughts and feelings and moods go unnoticed. Not of course here in a retreat. But generally in our lives in the world and for people without training in mindfulness, all of this is going on, and unnoticed, we do not know what is being cultivated. So the Buddha is emphasizing, particularly with unwholesome states of mind, mindfulness illuminates what is wholesome and unwholesome and within the unwholesome we take a more active stance. And I really appreciated tremendously when he said: When I considered, about a particular unskillful state, when I considered this leads to my own affliction, to others affliction, to both, it leads away from Nibbana, that when he reflected as considered thus, the unwholesome state disappeared. So we can use mindfulness in this very active way.

With wholesome states of mind, mindfulness takes quite a different form. We do not need to be guarding the cows so closely. We do not need to be constantly poking them and jagging them to keep them away from the crops. And in fact with wholesome states of mind that kind of overguarding of the mind only leads to more disturbance. So mindfulness of wholesome states takes the form of a more detached observation. Really simple bare attention, not interfering.

And the Buddha gave this example in the sutta: ‘Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been brought inside the villages, a cow herd would guard his cows while staying out of the root of a tree … in the open. He needs only to be mindful that the cows are there. So too, there was need for me only to be mindful that the wholesome states were there, were present. So the one cow herd is very close to the cows, keeping them from the crops, and when the crops are in, the cow herd is resting under a tree, and is just aware: oh yeah, the cows are grazing. This is how we want to practice as we develop and strengthen the wholesome states of mind. So as we abide, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, we learn in our practice to find the appropriate balance between active and receptive, between doing and non doing.

This distinction also helps us understand how different of the Buddhist traditions speak of mindfulness. And it points again to further nuances in our understanding of mindfulness. Each tradition uses his own language, but they are all pointing to aspects of our experience. So one aspect of mindfulness is that of a cultivated state. We are really making an effort to be attentive. It is this kind of effort to be mindful that brings us back to the moment when we are lost, took over again. Another one of the great Dogen masters said there is one thing we always need: and that is the watchman named mindfulness, the guard who is on the lookout for when we are carried away in mindlessness. So in the Dogen tradition of Buddhism, this is called fabricated mindfulness. And in the Theravada tradition, in the Abhidhamma, it is called prompted, prompted consciousness. And in the Abhidhamma prompted consciousness refers to those mind states whether by reflection or by determination of where itself, we make a deliberate endeavor to generate. So prompted consciousness is just what it says: it is prompted by our intention, it is prompted by our effort.

There is another kind of mindfulness which is unprompted. When it is well cultivated, when we practiced repeatedly, so mindfulness becomes the inclination of our minds. When mindfulness is well practiced, it starts to arise spontaneously. There is no particular effort required at all. It is just happening, it is happening by itself. So there is prompted and unprompted.

There is a further discernment. And this can be very interesting to look at on a more subtle level. Even when mindfulness is happening by itself, it is spontaneous, it is unprompted, it is effortless, we can still discern whether there is the presence of an observer, the presence of a reference point of observation in that mindfulness. Whether there is a sense of someone being mindful or not. There is fabricated mindfulness, prompted and unprompted when it starts to rise spontaneously, and the last kind is spoken of in the Dogen tradition and it is called unfabricated mindfulness. And that is the innate wakefulness of the nature of mind. The nature of our mind is awareness. And it is called unfabricated, because in the Dogen tradition it is not something that needs to be created. It is already here. In the same way that the nature of a mirror is to reflect what comes in front of it. It is not some quality that needs to be created because it is in the very nature of the mirror to reflect. And so from this perspective unfabricated mindfulness is the innate wakefulness of the mind, this knowing capacity.

So all of these aspects of mindfulness work together in harmony. It is not that one is right and one is wrong. They are all describing different aspects of our experience. It is a very rare person who can abide uninterruptedly in unprompted or unfabricated mindfulness, without the support at times of appropriate effort. But as our efforts be obstrued, as we put in the effort, we cultivate the mindfulness, it begins to become unprompted, it is just flowing along spontaneously and by itself. We actually experience times in our practice of great ease, and at that time our work is to let go, is to surrender.

I was speaking today in an interview with someone. There was a time in my practice in Burma. I had been there for some months. And the mindfulness was very strong, it was unprompted, it was just going on by itself and there was a great degree of refinement of attention. I was noticing the most subtle aspects of the arising and passing of phenomena, microscopic particle level, and my mind was so engaged in looking deeper and deeper and seeing more and more. When I went in to an interview and Sayadaw reported this great experience I was having – this was after the time he told me to contemplate my sila – I went in and his only comment to this great report I was giving was: You are too attached to subtlety. I did not know when to stop. … things were going, it was unprompted, the mindfulness was there, that is when we need that more detached kind of awareness. We can trust the process at that point, we do not need to keep digging, which can be its own hindrance.


So I think it is helpful just to begin to understand and see how it relates in your own practice. And all of these various aspects of mindfulness: mindfulness as remembering, using the different reflections, on the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, on our ethical commitment to sila, on generosity, on deva’s or past lives, if one happens to remember them. So we use the reflections, we use mindfulness, to arouse faith, to arouse energy, to arouse a certain kind of joy.

We understand mindfulness as being this quality of presence of mind, present moment awareness, of bare attention, and begin to see all different ways that it functions in us and can function, whether it is the guardian of the sense doors. So begin to use it in that way and see for yourself how it functions to free the mind from proliferating desires.

To see how it balances the factors, to see how it is the guardian of the mind and how we can discern between skilful and unskillful thoughts and mind states, and applying a more active engagement with the unskilful states and a more receptive mode with the skilful states. Learning to relax back into this natural unfolding.

I like to close with a teaching from Ajahn Cha. He said that within itself, a mind is already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful these days, is because it follows moods. It becomes agitated, because moods deceive it. Sense impressions come and trick the mind into unhappiness, suffering, gladness and sorrow. But the mind’s true nature is none of these things. Gladness or sadness is not the mind but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows them. It forgets itself. And then we think that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever. But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful, really peaceful. So we must train the mind to know these sense impressions and not get lost in them. Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through.

Here are some lines of a poem by Mary Oliver:

The dream of my life is to lay down by a slow river,
And stare at the light in the trees.
To learn something by being nothing a little while,
But the rich length of attention.