Mindfulness in the Western world is perhaps best known in the terms of the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn as:
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Bodhipaksa of Wildmind presents a helpful breakdown of each part of this sentence after offering his own definition of “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”
Culadasa (John Yates, PhD), author of The Mind Illuminated, describes mindfulness in terms of “optimizing the interaction between attention and awareness.” He emphasizes awareness here to bring out the global or peripheral aspect of mindfulness; one is not only attending to a specified object such as the breath or a task, but also has an awareness of the world around them.
The meaning of sati can be also be understood by looking at a description of it found in the Pali Canon. The Buddha there describes the sati of a cowherd, who had to watch closely over his cows to keep them from straying into fields with ripe crops. Once those crops were harvested, the cowherd could relax, just ‘being mindful’ (sati karaṇīyaṃ) of his cows. The crops here represent thoughts of sensuality and the harvest represents the abandonment via renunciation of those thoughts. Mindfulness, in this case, is a kind of gentle presence of being based on prior effort and control. So Bodhipaksa’s definition reflects very closely this image from the early Buddhism while Kabat-Zinn’s might be seen as a more “modernized” definition aimed specifically to the contemporary Westerner. Bhikkhu Analayo suggests that the gentle presence (similar to a wide-angle camera lens) is characteristic to the Buddha’s particular use of the term sati.
Here, Bhikkhu Bodhi, the pre-eminent contemporary translator of early Buddhist texts, describes mindfulness (sati) specifically in relation to clear comprehension (sampajañña) as understood in early Buddhist teachings. He defines the role of sati as that which “keeps the object present before one’s attention” or “attentiveness” – retaining or preserving the object in mind. Sampajañña, he notes, has the function of assessment and evaluation.
So, common factors of Buddhist “mindfulness” seem to include attention/attentiveness and awareness, as well as an activity of being present. It is not a passive state. It is a quality based on cultivation, past effort, based in gentleness or – perhaps more geared toward modern readers – non-judgement.
Analayo, Bhikkhu (2006b). “Mindfulness in the Pali Nikayas.” Buddhist Thought in Applied Psychological Research, Nauriya, Drummond, et al (eds). Routledge. New York.