It seems unlikely Charles Dickens knew anything about the buddhist practise of ‘sati‘ when he wrote a Christmas Carol in 1843. It was still a few years before the term was translated into English as ‘mindfulness’ by victorian Pali scholar Rhys Davids. Surprisingly though, Dickens may have unwittingly defined mindfulness in a way that is often missed in contemporary western teachings.
Whenever sati is mentioned in the buddha’s teachings it is understood as a quality of remembrance or recollection. Too often today mindfulness gets either misunderstood as a form of concentration or at best a sort of broadening of present moment awareness. There is no harm in developing either of these qualities; they are skills of the mind that are worth fostering, however, in not getting to grips with the proper practise of sati we loose what is at the very heart of the buddha’s teachings. As the scholar Rupert Gethin explains…
‘…[sati] should be understood as what allows awareness of the full range and extent of dhammas (reality); sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value…presumably what this means is that sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to “remember” that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure.’
So what can we learn from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that throws some light on what mindfulness actually is and clarifies its activating principle?
In the story told by the author, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is forced by a number of supernatural entities to contemplate his past actions, his present circumstances and the future results of his present and past actions. Scrooge is asked to employ the human faculty of recollection/remembrance not just of the past and present but of what might come. By having this process illustrated to him, he is able to see the reality of the conditions in which his present circumstances have arisen. We see also how, through a continuation of this mindset, much woe and misery will befall him and those around him if he continues on his current path. It’s a simple moral tale but it uses the principle of mindfulness, as a reflective condition of awareness, as its core component; that is, to show how certain intentions and actions can accumulate in effect over the years and create much suffering. What we see represented in the story as spectres or ghosts are really agents of Scrooges’ own conscience forcing him to be mindful of his actions or ‘karma‘. Crucially though, this karma is dictated by his view of the world and this is what needs to change through the process of insight which mindfulness gives him.
So the story shows us that sati can work not only within the traditional meditative approach i.e as part of a sitting practise, but also as a more general contemplative aid applied to our lives so we do not allow the habits of mind and body to lead us down unskillful and destructive paths.
What is also of prime importance to both the story of Scrooge and the message of the Buddha is how the employment of sati opens the heart to compassion. When we see how our actions play out, when we bring our awareness to past, present and future in this mindful way we can start to see the negative and positive effects of our thoughts and actions and start to transform our lives. This goes far beyond the simplistic reading of mindfulness as a ‘be here now’ method and one of the reasons mindfulness champion, John Kabat Zinn has called it the revolution of our age…