An Inquiry into the Scope of Bare Attention
and the Principal Sources of its Strength

by Nyanaponika There

The Wheel Publication No. 121/122


Copyright 1968 Buddhist Publication Society

ISBN 955-24-000 2-3

First Printing 1968
Second Printing 1971
Third Printing 1976
Fourth Printing 1980
Fifth Printing (revised) 1986

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DharmaNet Edition 1994

This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.

DharmaNet International
P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951

Transcribed for DharmaNet by Maureen Riordan

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Four Sources of Power in Bare Attention
1. The Functions of "Tidying" and "Naming"
Tidying Up the Mental Household
2. The Non-coercive Procedure
Obstacles to Meditation
Three Countermeasures
3. Stopping and Slowing Down
Keeping Still
Slowing Down
Subliminal Influences
4. Directness of Vision
The Force of Habit
Associative Thought
The Sense of Urgency
The Road to Insight
Further Reading
About the BPS
Distribution Agreement

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Is mindfulness actually a power in its own right as claimed by the
title of this essay? Seen from the viewpoint of the ordinary
pursuits of life, it does not seem so. From that angle mindfulness,
or attention, has a rather modest place among many other seemingly
more important mental faculties serving the purpose of variegated
wish-fulfillment. Here, mindfulness means just "to watch one's
steps" so that one may not stumble or miss a chance in the pursuit
of one's aims. Only in the case of specific tasks and skills is
mindfulness sometimes cultivated more deliberately, but here too it
is still regarded as a subservient function, and its wider scope
and possibilities are not recognized.

Even if one turns to the Buddha's doctrine, taking only a surface
view of the various classifications and lists of mental factors in
which mindfulness appears, one may be inclined to regard this
faculty just as "one among many." Again one may get the impression
that it has a rather subordinate place and is easily surpassed in
significance by other faculties.

Mindfulness in fact has, if we may personify it, a rather
unassuming character. Compared with it, mental factors such as
devotion, energy, imagination, and intelligence, are certainly more
colorful personalities, making an immediate and strong impact on
people and situations. Their conquests are sometimes rapid and
vast, though often insecure. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is of
an unobtrusive nature. Its virtues shine inwardly, and in ordinary
life most of its merits are passed on to other mental faculties
which generally receive all the credit. One must know mindfulness
well and cultivate its acquaintance before one can appreciate its
value and its silent penetrative influence. Mindfulness walks
slowly and deliberately, and its daily task is of a rather humdrum
nature. Yet where it places its feet it cannot easily be dislodged,
and it acquires and bestows true mastery of the ground it covers.

Mental faculties of such a nature, like actual personalities of a
similar type, are often overlooked or underrated. In the case of
mindfulness, it required a genius like the Buddha to discover the
"hidden talent" in the modest garb, and to develop the vast
inherent power of that potent seed. It is, indeed, the mark of a
genius to perceive and to harness the power of the seemingly small.
Here, truly, it happens that "what is little becomes much." A
revaluation of values takes place. The standards of greatness and
smallness change. Through the master mind of the Buddha,
mindfulness is finally revealed as the Archimedean point where the
vast revolving mass of world suffering is levered out of its
twofold anchorage in ignorance and craving.

The Buddha spoke of the power of mindfulness in a very emphatic

"Mindfulness, I declare, is all-helpful" (Samyutta, 46:59).
"All things can be mastered by mindfulness" (Anguttara, 8:83).

Further, there is that solemn and weighty utterance opening and
concluding the Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on the Foundations
of Mindfulness:

"This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings,
for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the
destruction of pain and grief, for reaching the right path,
for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of

In ordinary life, if mindfulness, or attention, is directed to any
object, it is rarely sustained long enough for the purpose of
careful and factual observation. Generally it is followed
immediately by emotional reaction, discriminative thought,
reflection, or purposeful action. In a life and thought governed by
the Buddha's teaching too, mindfulness (//sati//) is mostly linked
with clear comprehension (//sampajanna//) of the right purpose or
suitability of an action, and other considerations. Thus again it
is not viewed in itself. But to tap the actual and potential
//power// of mindfulness it is necessary to understand and
deliberately cultivate it in its basic, unalloyed form, which we
shall call //bare attention//.

By bare attention we understand the clear and single-minded
awareness of what actually happens //to// us and //in// us, at the
successive moments of perception. It is called "bare" because it
attends to the bare facts of a perception without reacting to them
by deed, speech or mental comment. Ordinarily, that purely
receptive state of mind is, as we said, just a very brief phase of
the thought process of which one is often scarcely aware. But in
the methodical development of mindfulness aimed at the unfolding of
its latent powers, bare attention is sustained for as long a time
as one's strength of concentration permits. Bare attention then
becomes the key to the meditative practice of satipatthana, opening
the door to mind's mastery and final liberation.

Bare attention is developed in two ways: (1) as a methodical
meditative practice with selected objects; (2) as applied, as far
as practicable, to the normal events of the day, together with a
general attitude of mindfulness and clear comprehension. The
details of the practice have been described elsewhere, and need not
be repeated here.[1]

The primary purpose of this essay is to demonstrate and explain the
efficacy of this method, that is, to show the actual power of
mindfulness. Particularly in an age like ours, with its
superstitious worship of ceaseless external activity, there will be
those who ask: "How can such a passive attitude of mind as that of
bare attention possibly lead to the great results claimed for it?"
In reply, one may be inclined to suggest to the questioner not to
rely on the words of others, but to put these assertions of the
Buddha to the test of personal experience. But those who do not yet
know the Buddha's teaching well enough to accept it as a reliable
guide, may hesitate to take up, without good reasons, a practice
that just on account of its radical simplicity may appear strange
to them. In the following a number of such "good reasons" are
therefore proffered for the reader's scrutiny. They are also meant
as an introduction to the general spirit of satipatthana and as
pointers to its wide and significant perspectives. Furthermore, it
is hoped that he who has taken up the methodical training will
recognize in the following observations certain features of his own
practice, and be encouraged to cultivate them deliberately.

* * *


We shall now deal with four aspects of bare attention, which are
the mainsprings of the power of mindfulness. they are not the only
sources of its strength, but they are the principal ones to which
the efficacy of this method of mental development is due. These
four are:

1. The functions of "tidying-up" and "naming" exercised by
bare attention.
2. its non-violent, non-coercive procedure;
3. the capacity of stopping and slowing down;
4. the directness of vision bestowed by bare attention.

* * *


Tidying Up the Mental Household
If anyone whose mind is not harmonized and controlled through
methodical meditative training should take a close look at his own
everyday thoughts and activities, he will meet with a rather
disconcerting sight. Apart from the few main channels of his
purposeful thoughts and activities, he will everywhere be faced
with a tangled mass of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and casual
bodily movements showing a disorderliness and confusion which he
would certainly not tolerate in his living-room. Yet this is the
state of affairs that we take for granted within a considerable
portion of our waking life and our normal mental activity. Let us
now look at the details of that rather untidy picture.

First we meet a vast number of casual sense-impressions such as
sights and sounds, passing constantly through our mind. Most of
them remain vague and fragmentary; some are even based on faulty
perceptions and misjudgments. Carrying these inherent weaknesses,
they often form the untested basis for judgements and decisions on
a higher level of consciousness. True, all these casual sense
impressions need not and cannot be objects of focused attention. A
stone on the road that happens to meet our glance will have a claim
on our attention only if it obstructs our progress or is of
interest to us for some reason. Yet if we neglect these casual
impressions too often, we may stumble over many stones lying on our
road and also overlook many gems.

Besides the casual sense impressions, there are those more
significant and definite perceptions, thoughts, feelings and
volitions which have a closer connection with our purposeful life.
Here too, we find that a very high proportion of them are in a
state of utter confusion. Hundreds of cross-currents flash through
the mind, and everywhere there are "bits and ends" of unfinished
thoughts, stifled emotions and passing moods. Many meet a premature
death. Owing to their innately feeble nature, our lack of
concentration or suppression by new and stronger impressions, they
do not persist and develop. If we observe our own mind, we shall
notice how easily diverted our thoughts are, how often they behave
like undisciplined disputants constantly interrupting each other
and refusing to listen to the other side's arguments. Again, many
lines of thought remain rudimentary or are left untranslated into
will and action, because courage is lacking to accept their
practical, moral or intellectual consequences. If we continue to
examine more closely our average perceptions, thoughts or
judgements, we shall have to admit that many of them are
unreliable. They are just the products of habit, led by prejudices
of intellect or emotion, by our pet preferences or aversions, by
laziness or selfishness, by faulty or superficial observations.

Such a look into long-neglected quarters of the mind will come as
a wholesome shock to the observer. It will convince him of the
urgent need for methodical mental culture extending below the thin
surface layer of the mind to those vast twilight regions of
consciousness we have just visited. The observer will then become
aware that the relatively small sector of the mind that stands in
the intense light of purposeful will and thought is not a reliable
standard of the inner strength and lucidity of consciousness in its
totality. He will also see that the quality of individual
consciousness cannot be judged by a few optimal results of mental
activity achieved in brief, intermittent periods. The decisive
factor in determining the quality of consciousness is self-
understanding and self-control: whether that dim awareness
characteristic of our everyday mind and the uncontrolled portion of
everyday activity tends to increase or decrease.

It is the daily little negligence in thoughts, words and deeds
going on for many years of our life (and as the Buddha teaches, for
many existences), that is chiefly responsible for the untidiness
and confusion we find in our minds. This negligence creates the
trouble and allows it to continue. Thus the old Buddhist teachers
have said: "Negligence produces a lot of dirt. As in a house, so in
the mind, only a very little dirt collects in a day or two, but if
it goes on for many years, it will grow into a vast heap of

The dark, untidy corners of the mind are the hideouts of our most
dangerous enemies. From there they attack us unawares, and much too
often succeed in defeating us. That twilight world peopled by
frustrated desires and suppressed resentments, by vacillations,
whims, and many other shadowy figures, forms a background from
which upsurging passions--greed and lust, hatred and anger--may
derive powerful support. Besides, the obscure and obscuring nature
of that twilight region is the very element and mother-soil of the
third and strongest of the three roots of evil (//akusala mula//),
ignorance or delusion.

Attempts at eliminating the mind's main defilements--greed, hate
and delusion--must fail as long as these defilements find refuge
and support in the uncontrolled dim regions of the mind; as long as
the close and complex tissue of those half-articulate thoughts and
emotions forms the basic texture of mind into which just a few
golden strands of noble and lucid thought are woven. But how are we
to deal with that unwieldy, tangled mass? Usually we try to ignore
it and to rely on the counteracting energies of our surface mind.
But the only safe remedy is to face it--with mindfulness. Nothing
more difficult is needed than to acquire the habit of directing
bare attention to these rudimentary thoughts as often as possible.
The working principle here is the simple fact that two thoughts
cannot coexist at the same time: if the clear light of mindfulness
is present, there is no room for mental twilight. When sustained
mindfulness has secured a firm foothold, it will be a matter of
comparatively secondary importance how the mind will then deal with
those rudimentary thoughts, moods and emotions. One may just
dismiss them and replace them by purposeful thoughts; or one may
allow and even compel them to complete what they have to say. In
the latter case they will often reveal how poor and weak they
actually are, and it will then not be difficult to dispose of them
once they are forced into the open. This procedure of bare
attention is very simple and effective; the difficulty is only the
persistence in applying it.

Observing a complex thing means identifying its component parts,
singling out the separate strands forming that intricate tissue. If
this is applied to the complex currents of mental and practical
life, automatically a strong regulating influence will be
noticeable. As if ashamed in the presence of the calmly observing
eye, the course of thoughts will proceed in a less disorderly and
wayward manner; it will not be so easily diverted, and will
resemble more and more a well-regulated river.

During decades of the present life and throughout millennia of
previous lives traversing the round of existence, there has
steadily grown within each individual a closely knit system of
intellectual and emotional prejudices, of bodily and mental habits
that are no longer questioned as to their rightful position and
useful function in human life. Here again, the application of bare
attention loosens the hard soil of these often very ancient layers
of the human mind, preparing thus the ground for sowing the seed of
methodical mental training. Bare attention identifies and pursues
the single threads of that closely interwoven tissue of our habits.
It sorts out carefully the subsequent justifications of passionate
impulses and the pretended motives of our prejudices. Fearlessly it
questions old habits often grown meaningless. It uncovers their
roots, and thus helps abolish all that is seen to be harmful. In
brief, bare attention lays open the minute crevices in the
seemingly impenetrable structure of unquestioned mental processes.
Then the sword of wisdom wielded by the strong arm of constant
meditative practice will be able to penetrate these crevices, and
finally to break up that structure where required. If the inner
connection between the single parts of a seemingly compact whole
become intelligible, they then cease to be inaccessible.

When the facts and details of the mind's conditioned nature are
uncovered by meditative practice, there is an increased chance to
effect fundamental changes in the mind. In that way, not only those
hitherto unquestioned habits of the mind, its twilight regions and
its normal processes as well, but even those seemingly solid,
indisputable facts of the world of matter--all will become
"questionable" and lose much of their self-assurance. Many people
are so impressed and intimidated by that bland self-assurance of
assumed "solid facts," that they hesitate to take up any spiritual
training, doubting that it can effect anything worthwhile. The
application of bare attention to the task of tidying and regulating
the mind will bring perceptible results--results which will dispel
their doubts and encourage them to enter more fully a spiritual

The tidying or regulating function of bare attention, we should
note, is of fundamental importance for the "purification of beings"
mentioned by the Buddha as the first aim of satipatthana. This
phrase refers, of course, to the purification of their minds, and
here the very first step is to bring initial order into the
functioning of the mental processes. We have seen how this is done
by bare attention. In that sense, the commentary to the "Discourse
on the Foundation of Mindfulness" explains the words "for the
purification of beings" as follows:

"It is said: 'Mental taints defile beings; mental clarity
purifies them.' That mental clarity comes to be by this way of
mindfulness (//satipatthana magga//).

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