Buddhist Mindfulness and the Myth of Multi-Tasking…

Multi-tasking is a myth, aka ‘monkey mind’. Mindfulness is not a myth. Think one thought at the time. ‘Mindfulness’ is a difficult word to translate, and may or may not be the best translation of the Pali/Sanskrit word ‘sati,’ but that is the historical path of Buddhism, so that is the word with which we are left, and that is the task before us.

I think that the Christians have even borrowed the term now, and so it has taken on a life of its own. But what does it really mean? The term ‘sati’ originally meant something like simple ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness,’ small ‘c’, almost certainly, (as it still means in modern standard Thai).

But even more certain would be to simply posit it as the inverse of its negation, and so ‘mindfulness’ is simply the opposite of ‘mindlessness’ and put the onus of exposition upon its protagonists, since the word ‘sati’ worked just fine for millennia, and its simple translations are more than sufficient.

But the quest for religion is the quest for transcendence, if not magic, and if that means creating holy words with extraordinary definitions, then ‘mindfulness’ is one of those, in the modern post-New-Age reinvention of our spiritual necessities.

And if that seems tired and trite, then rest assured that the most traditional Buddhists are in on the game, too, they also anxious to liberate terminology from the ordinary humdrum of daily existence, add some hype, aka ‘wu-wu.’

And one of the easiest ways to do that is simply to redefine terms and double them up. So Sanskrit ‘mudita’ becomes not just ‘joy’ but ‘sympathetic joy.’ And ‘metta’ becomes not just ‘kindness’ but ‘loving-kindness.’ And the Asians do this, too, Thais long combining ‘metta’ and ‘karuna’ (compassion) into one comprehensive ‘mettakaruna.’ Likewise ‘sati’ and ‘panya’ (knowledge) can become ‘satipanya’ for extra emphasis and expansion.

So beyond all the back-stories and linguistic back-formations, what does the word ‘mindfulness’ now really mean in the Buddhist epistemological sense? As stated originally, probably the best interpretation is focused thinking, i.e. one thought at the time, since there truly is not the ability to hold two thoughts equally and simultaneously, but simply to switch between them constantly, so a trick in itself, but perhaps not conducive to a peaceful mind.

But I think that a better notion is to think in terms of non-linguistic thought altogether, what I call ‘proto-consciousness’ or ‘paleo-consciousness,’ in the sense that this was once normal, no doubt, before the advent of language some 50,000 years ago, almost simultaneous with the demise of our competitors homo Denisova and Floresiensus, and finally Neanderthalensis.

That is no coincidence, and no cause to celebrate. But that was then, and this is now. God knows that we are nothing if not a young species, and all should be forgiven. Bottom line: Cooperation is better than competition, community better than individualism. And mindfulness is more than a simple agreement of terms.