I would like to reflect on two key factors the Buddha urges practitioners to develop and maintain in order to reduce suffering and eventually realize what he referred to as the “Deathless.” Those factors are sati and sampajanna. My remarks may seem a bit technical in the beginning, but I will try to bring them back down to earth and hopefully help explain their relevance for you and your practice. Sati is traditionally translated as “mindfulness,” and sampajanna is usually translated as either “clear comprehension” or “full awareness.” In the early suttas, these two factors almost always occur together. In the Satipatthana Sutta, or “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” the Buddha repeatedly encourages one to dwell with sati–sampajanna, or mindfully and fully aware.
Here in the West, mindfulness has of course gotten a lot of attention, and has been defined as nonjudgmental awareness of present moment experience. A trouble with that definition (that I myself have also used for years) is that it doesn’t leave much room for sampajanna. If we say that mindfulness means present moment awareness, then why do we also need the factor of sampajanna or full awareness? It seems duplicative and confuses a lot of practitioners. And the other way sampajanna is translated – as clear comprehension or discernment – doesn’t seem like an English synonym to full awareness, which adds to the confusion. Furthermore, it is unclear how one goes about intentionally cultivating clear comprehension. For these reasons, many Western teachers seem to just gloss over sampajanna. I’ve heard some say that sampajanna is included in the Western idea of mindfulness. Still, it occurs over and over again in the suttas as a necessary factor that one should develop alongside mindfulness. So, I think to just lump it all together is to lose something the Buddha thought was important.
Over the years, I’ve heard many practitioners ask teachers to explain the difference between mindfulness (sati) and sampajanna. My teacher, Ajahn Da, has said that mindfulness is a way of knowing a specific object (sensation, thought, feeling, etc.) in a direct, nonconceptual, and nonjudgmental way (without wanting it to stay or go away). He said that sampajanna was awareness. When pressed further on that distinction, he brought up the image of driving in a snowstorm. When we are driving through a snowstorm, we are not fixating on anything, but have a very open and alert awareness that is able to register the constantly changing conditions, the snow blowing across the road, the changing traction beneath the tires. We are fully aware.
Alternatively, I once heard a recording of a talk given by another monk, whose name I can’t recall. Upon being asked to describe the difference between sati and sampajanna, he told a story of being in a monastery in Thailand at a time when a large number of other monks were also present. Prior to the midday meal, as is the monastic tradition, the monks formed a single file line with their alms bowls to walk through the nearby villages to receive food for the day’s meal. He said that on this occasion, a very large gap of maybe a hundred feet opened up ahead of one of the monks in line who was walking very slowly and deliberately, while the monks behind him were all bunched up. He offered this as an illustration of the difference between sati and sampajanna, saying this particular monk had sati – in that he was walking very mindfully – but he had no sampajanna. He was completely unaware of the large gap in front of him and of the fact that he was preventing the rest of the monks from getting their lunch.
I think that both of these depictions of sampajanna are useful in that they come at it from a slightly different angle. One thing that I like about the last example of the monk in line, is that it illustrates the importance of sampajanna, or full awareness, as a necessary balance to mindfulness. Clearly having sampajanna is very important in daily life. To be mindfully aware of your breath, body, thoughts or feelings, but oblivious to the world around you would be very unskillful and could potentially cause harm to other beings and/or your relationship to them. You would not be responsive to the needs that are arising around you, and probably your friends and family would find you pretty annoying.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the practitioner is urged to cultivate sati and sampajanna internally, or externally, or both internally and externally. To cultivate sati and sampajanna externally is to have mindfulness and full awareness of the world and beings around you. Clearly that monk in the alms line did not have sampajanna externally. He was oblivious to what was happening around him. But what does internal sampajanna look like?
This life we are experiencing consists in a continuous flow of physical and mental phenomena – everything is moving and changing, arising and passing away, moment after moment. Movements and sensations are coming and going in the body. Thoughts, feelings, emotions and perceptions are coming and going in the mind. Sampajanna is alert to all this. It is like the driver in the snowstorm alert to what’s happening in the body and mind from moment to moment. Whenever the mind averts to a specific object, like a feeling in the body, or a thought in the mind, it is sati or mindfulness that knows that object directly without greed or aversion and without any agenda or elaboration. However, because sati is being balanced by sampajanna, the object is released and one knows its passing away, returning to the awareness of the flux of phenomena in the body and mind. When driving in a snowstorm, we can’t fixate on anything. We might focus on something outside the car for a moment or two, but we must immediately return to that alert open awareness.
Seeing sampajanna as this more open and receptive awareness might also help us reconcile the alternative translation, clear comprehension. The broader, open awareness of sampajanna allows one to know one’s physical and mental phenomena in context. We are able to be cognizant of the coming and going of a phenomenon, and maybe the cause behind the phenomenon and the effect produced by it. In other words, we are capable of fully comprehending the phenomenon. To put it traditional language of the Dhamma, we can say that it is this combination of sati and sampajanna that allows us to know the three key characteristics of the phenomena in our body and mind – all phenomena are impermanent, all phenomena are unsatisfactory, and no phenomena belongs to or comprises a self. The full and real-time knowledge of these characteristics in the phenomena that is occurring in our own bodies and minds is what allows us to find peace by letting go.
So, in your insight meditation practice, please balance your sati with sampajanna. Don’t be like that monk in line. When an object comes into focus, know it with mindfulness, but don’t fixate on anything. Don’t become oblivious to everything else that is arising and passing away in the body and mind. Don’t just bury your head in one object like the breath or the body.
Of course, when practicing insight meditation, we make use of an anchor to help steady the mind a bit, and as something to return to when we lose ourselves. That anchor could be the feeling of the body moving in walking meditation or in Mahasati practice, or it could be the feeling of the breath, if we are practicing mindfulness of the breath. But we shouldn’t fixate on the anchor – just remain lightly aware of it while also being open to whatever else might be coming and going in the body and mind. Being fully aware, but not fixating on any phenomena is one way to describe non-suffering – seeing that all things are simply coming and going. Phenomena often need to be responded to, but we don’t need to get worked up about them. When you are practicing see if you can notice that dukkha thrives when there is either obliviousness or fixation, but has a hard time getting established when we are walking the middle way of sati-sampajanna.