For a person who chooses to practice Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S. N. Goenka and teachers of his lineage, mindfulness is a central component of an integrated, well-rounded practice. Mindfulness is not utilized as an isolated entity, but as a guiding feature of a full meditation that leads to wisdom and growth on the path to liberation.
It is as if an outdoorsman were setting up his tent in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He must carefully loop every corner to a stake, and snugly rope every flap to a firmly embedded tent peg. The tent stands aloft and secure as an integrated whole. If one corner is loose, or one flap pendulous, the wind will play upon it, rattle and loosen it, and in the middle of the night the tent will begin to shimmy, flap wildly, and eventually collapse. The tent is useful if the outdoorsman understands and properly balances the interconnections of its parts. No single feature, no matter how tightly strung, can hold aloft a tent. Similarly, mindfulness strengthens a meditator who properly understands its connections to the other features of Vipassana, and who keeps them in balance.
It is as if an outdoorswoman were hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Only if she understands the nature of the trail—its mud, rocks, streams, and steep inclines—will she select the sturdy, water-repellent boots that the hike calls for. To avoid the blisters or frozen feet that drive so many hikers off the trail, she needs insight into what the long trek entails. Similarly, mindfulness without insight will not outfit a meditator for the long journey of wisdom.
Mindfulness has a specific meaning within the context of Vipassana meditation. It means awareness and understanding of the arising and passing nature of every sensation within us. This particular understanding of mindfulness will interconnect properly with the other practices that constitute the Path, like one part of a well-constructed tent, and will also allow long distance, lifelong progress, like well-chosen hiking boots.
Mindfulness as an aspect of Vipassana is different from focused attention on external objects or tasks. A criminal breaking into a first floor window is focused and intensely concentrated, highly aware of every slightest movement and gesture, but he is not practicing mindfulness. A sniper on a rooftop in a war torn city is alert, aware, intensely activated and keenly attentive, but his activity will not lead him forward on the path taught by the Buddha. Their attention lacks moral intention, self-awareness, and insight into nature’s fundamental laws.
Mindfulness for progress in Vipassana means attention directed inward towards sensations with the goal of understanding impermanence and cultivating an ethical and loving life. Mindful apprehension of sensations elevates into consciousness the basis of the previously unconsciously developed false sense of self. Our bodies and minds are constantly interacting. The mind is incessantly receiving myriad sensations from the body. When this interaction is unconscious, the result is the common human delusion that we inhabit, or consist of, an enduring entity, a self. Many of the sensations, which underlie this misperception, are subtle, and not easily available to our consciousness awareness without practice.
Mindfulness as the active engine of Vipassana is the effort to concentrate, to re-focus, to persevere, in establishing and re-establishing full awareness by the mind of bodily sensations, gross and subtle, with which it is constantly interacting, and through this conscious, mindful awareness, to realize that every sensation and the entire self is impermanent.
The realization of impermanence that derives from right mindfulness reveals that the self is a static concept imposed upon a dynamic rising and passing, vibrating and changing field of atoms and molecules. Through this practice, meditators can experience their own body and mind as part of the shifting flow of the material of the universe. Realizing there is no essence, no self in this on-flowing process, the meditator naturally cultivates detachment from the fantasy of self. As detachment arises, craving for and clinging to the self, diminishes. As right mindfulness on the sensation-based direct experience of impermanence and no-self grows, it is spontaneously accompanied by release from craving and from aversion for particular sensations. As objectivity replaces craving and aversion, a sense of freedom and harmony takes their place. The increasingly peaceful and accepting meditator naturally cultivates fewer negatives states, and finds himself generating love, compassion, and a desire to serve and spread this helpful liberation.
Mindfulness is the compass on the path from ignorance and reactivity towards the north pole of equanimity, generosity, and freedom. The compass itself is incomplete without guidance, effort, commitment, realization, insight, companions, practice, and experience—the whole path.