Mindfulness, Alertness & Ardency: Your Three Musketeers


The word “mindfulness” is one that we hear quite often these days — and mostly in a positive light. We’ve come to accept that mindfulness is basically a good thing: that it can have a positive influence on our physical health; that it can promote emotional harmony and support mental clarity; that it can improve our efficiency and productivity; that it can boost athletic performance (into “the zone”); that it can enhance our aesthetic appreciation; and that it can set the stage for more fulfilling relationships.

All this sounds really great! And these claims — regarding the profound benefits of mindfulness — are rooted both in direct experience (of countless practitioners, across millennia) as well as in scientific evidence.

The Downside Of Popularity

The challenge that we now face, however, has to do with the downside of popularity. Now that the word “mindfulness” has entered into our western cultural lexicon — and is circulating freely, in all variety of linguistic contexts — its once-precise technical meaning has become blurred, at times almost beyond recognition. A quick Google-search of “mindfulness” yields a dozen or more different definitions of the word: many of which directly contradict one another.

So what’s the true meaning of “mindfulness”? This is an important question to ask — and to answer precisely — if we wish to skillfully wield this powerful tool, as a means of extricating ourselves from suffering; and paving the way to the most profound levels of contentment, insight and satisfaction.

Mindfulness Defined

Happily, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has provided a very clear and precise definition of mindfulness — of what it is and what it isn’t — in the essay Mindfulness Defined. It’s one worth reading several times, from start to finish, to clarify our understanding, and prepare for a genuinely fruitful engagement with the practice of mindfulness.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, “mindfulness” is the English translation of the Pali term sati — which in the context of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha meant simply to “keep in mind” or “the ability to remember.” So mindfulness of the breath, for instance, simply means to keep the breath in mind.

In and of itself, mindfulness has nothing to do with “being nonjudgmental” or “being accepting” or “being compassionate” or “being affectionate.” These are qualities — other aspects/functions of mind — that may or may not be combined with mindfulness. But the heart of mindfulness is simply what it sounds like: keeping something in mind, and remembering (again and again, moment by moment) to keep it in mind.

Alertness & Ardency

One quality that is always useful when establishing mindfulness is the quality of alertness, which (based upon his close reading of Buddhist scriptures) Thanissaro Bhikkhu defines as “being aware of what you’re doing in the movements of the body, the movements in the mind.” Alertness to what’s actually happening, here and now, in our body and mind, is what allows us to gain insight into the causes of suffering: It allows us to notice the mental, emotional and physical habits that are rooted in and perpetuate dualistic ignorance. Clearly noticing these habits is like a doctor making his/her diagnosis: a necessary step en route to prescribing a medicine to cure the disease.

Mindfulness and alertness are oftentimes combined with a third quality: ardency, which means:

… being intent on what you’re doing, trying your best to do it skillfully. This doesn’t mean that you have to keep straining and sweating all the time, just that you’re continuous in developing skillful habits and abandoning unskillful ones.

Appropriate Attention

These three qualities — mindfulness, alertness, and ardency — are brought into focus by a fourth quality, known as “appropriate attention.” The idea is that we keep our attention on what is truly important, which in the context of the Buddhist teachings is the question of how we create suffering; and how we can extricate ourselves from it. We keep our attention focused on this central issue: what are the causes and conditions of suffering (i.e. of dualistic ignorance); and what are the causes and conditions of freedom from this suffering?

What we know from modern psychological research is that attention comes in discrete moments. So it is mindfulness that keeps the perspective of appropriate attention “in mind,” again and again. Appropriate attention provides a focus for mindfulness; and mindfulness provides relative continuity to this field of attention — so it’s a relationship of mutual support.

The Three Musketeers — On The Greatest Adventure Of (& Beyond!) All Time

Mindfulness, alertness and ardency are like the Three Musketeers: good friends who come together to embark upon an adventure. Appropriate attention is the capacity to agree upon an itinerary: a specific route and destination.

When the agreed-upon destination of these Three Musketeers is liberation from suffering — aka spiritual awakening, or Enlightenment — then mindfulness has found its place in the grandest of all adventures!

And remember: ZenFriend is a great place to connect with like-minded comrades — others who share an interest for deep inquiry and effective practice.

Mindfully yours,


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