This page describes Right Mindfulness. It describes mindfulness, but conceptual proliferation describes in detail why we do not see things as they are. And the Four Pillars of Mindfulness are mentioned, but dealt with in greater detail on Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This page explains what mindfulness is, what it does (keeps the mind on the present), and mentions that mindfulness can lead to insight or to serenity. The English word 'mindful' means keeping something in mind and not forgetting it. It is staying aware of (paying close attention to) something.
An opposite of mindfulness, is the Pali word: vippavāsa. Vippavāsa is the absence of sati(mindfulness). One meaning of vippavāsa is, "Gone abroad", or "Away from home". When we aren't mindful, we aren't at home in the present. We have, in the mind, gone somewhere else. Perhaps to a happy land, or to an unhappy one, where we worry or experience fears, or experience angry and violent images. Perhaps we experience enjoying the company of Mara's daughters or sons. In any case, we aren't at home. Mindfulness is being home in the present of here and now.
In Buddhism (sati), mindfulness is the bringing or keeping something in(to) awareness. It is not, however, awareness. Mindfulness (sati) can be used to bring any mental quality to mind.
So if you are mindful (sati) of the breath, you keep the breath in mind, and put your attention, etc, on the breath.
In Satipatthana The Direct Path to Realization, Venerable Analayo says we need to distinguish clearly between a first stage of observation and a second stage of taking action. According to the Buddha this is an essential feature of his way of teaching. Only by calmly assessing a situation without immediately reacting enables us to undertake the appropriate action.
Thus, sati gets the information for a wise use of right effort, and will oversee the countermeasures by noting if these are too much or too little. That is, sati is primarily observation and not a remedy. (Even though sometimes mere observation may be enough to resolve the issue. If we observe, sati, without craving that the issue remains, or goes away, then the issue may go away on its own. We truly let it go.)
Venerable Analayo continues, saying that sati is uninvolved and detached. Sati makes things conscious, it does not try to eliminate sense experiences or mental experiences. It just silently observes, like a spectator at a play, just watching and not interfering. In mindfulness, you just remain impartial and aware. You do not react with likes or dislikes. Or evaluate the experience as good or bad. Such silent and non-reactive mindfulness is sometimes enough to remove a problem, so sati can have quite active consequences. But these consequences just happen, there is no effort or intention to produce them (although they might be pleasant). So sati can have active consequences, even though it is mainly detached observation. Sati makes experience deeper and clearer.
To gain awakening, we have to experience the ultimate truth of experience through meditation. Just knowing the theory isn't enough. We need to clearly and directly perceive (insight) what's going on. Normally, the truth is hidden behind a tangle of meanings, attitudes, emotions and so on. We penetrate this tangle by putting our mind (attention) on the object alone, and if necessary, putting aside the mental events. This putting is the process called mindfulness (sati). We put attention on the object. That is, we use mindfulness to perceive the object.
We use mindfulness to put our attention on what going on at the moment, so we can use this knowledge for insight. Insight means seeing something accurately. In other words, seeing it clearly, deeply and immediately. That is, we see something directly, with nothing (mental mist) in the way, and so we see it clearly.
When we practice insight, we see our experience as it really is. Our normal awareness is quite different from insight. In insight, we see what's there, un-distracted by mind-chatter, theories, desires, intentions and the like. That is, at first, bare awareness. Bare awareness is just awareness, without a background of mental movies and distortions. This bare awareness is open, quiet and alert. Like a cat watching a mouse (but without the harmful thoughts!). That is, we become detached and careful observers of what is going on now. And we see what is there clearly and deeply. When we turn our minds to something, we keep that as our focus.
So, if thoughts arise when we are experiencing insight, we might merely acknowledge them, and continue as detached observers. We might simply know or recognise what comes up without getting involved or carried away. We use mindfulness to do this. Insight is just remaining in the present moment, seeing clearly and directly like a scientist observing an experiment. This is may be the first stage. Sometimes, however we will move on to the second stage where we use judgment and discrimination (Sampajañña). We might even think extensively, searching for the origin of experiences, noting their rising and falling, and seeing the four noble truths (All of which is dhamma-vicaya). We use mindfulness to bring decision making and judgment to the situation, so we can choose what to do next (if necessary).
To clarify this, if an issue arises in meditation, we might use insight to observe it. But later, if we decide to use right effort, we might use mindfulness to bring recognition and decision making to it, so we can decide whether to ignore it, or apply a skill. If it's the fire bell, decide to give up meditation and run! Mindfulness brings appropriate mental factors to mind by directing awareness to them.
Gotama said that mindfulness (sati) is remembering. That is, bringing something to mind. For instance, mindfulness may bring awareness to something, and when we forget, it is used to bring awareness back. Experiencing something directly in the present moment is insight. Mindfulness brings attention and other mental factors to bear on the object, and it keeps them there, and brings them back when needed. It also monitors the situation.
Mindfulness undoes false ideas by bringing awareness to the experience as a detached observer would experience it. That is, without the hindrances.
We might use mindfulness to watch (listen to, etc) the arising, changing and disappearing of experiences, in the body, in feelings and in the mind. We do this by bringing awareness, perception, decision making and judgment to the matter. It is mindfulness (sati) that brings in the appropriate mental faculties.
Mindfulness is like a stone not a beach ball in a lake. The beach ball floats around on the surface and often drifts off somewhere, but the stone sinks to the bottom and stays there. That is, it gets to the bottom of things and keeps them in focus. Mindfulness brings attention into awareness so the object remains in mind. It is like the stone in the lake that remains at the bottom, and unlike the beach ball that floats off somewhere else. Mindfulness brings the attention into the present and keeps it on the object. When we are mindful, we put our attention (mind) on an object (in the mind, or outside) and keep it there. We do this silently when we seek insight.
Mindfulness can lead to serenity or insight, depending on how it is used. When it is used as concentration it can lead to the jhanas (deep one-pointed concentration) and serenity. In this deep concentration, mindfulness keeps the mind from straying, and helps uncover hindrances. When it is used to gain insight, mindfulness brings mental faculties to awareness to handle the delusions so the object can be viewed as it is. Mindfulness brings recognition and precision to evaluate what's going on so its 'real' characteristics are determined.
Gotama said that the only way to overcome suffering is to practice the four foundations of mindfulness. These are explained in some detail in the links below:
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are
Mindfulness of the Body includes several meditations using the body as the subject. Mindfulness of Feeling uses feeling as the object of insight. Mindfulness of the State of the Mind, uses mind states as the object. And Mindfulness of Phenomenon uses uses the Five Hindrances and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment as objects.