Too go along with Ajahn Jayasaro's explanation of mindfulness I also highly recommend reading this article by Bhante G which touches on the same subject in far more detail. It changed everything I thought I knew about mindfulness and the way I practice it.
You may have heard that you should be mindful all the time, whether you are at home or in the office, or on the bus or in your car or in somebody else’s car, etc. You may interpret this advice to mean that you should keep your mind focused all the time on your breath. While driving, if you simply keep your mind on the breath you probably will get into some problems, such as losing your attention to your driving or forgetting your driving and you may have an accidents.
Sometimes you may think “to be mindful all the time” means to pay attention only to what ever you are doing at that particular time. This, of course, is what any person who is serious enough in his/her work normally does. An artist, painter, writer, singer, composer, thinking, speaker, shooter, cook, etc. must pay attention to whatever they do at any time they are engaged in their work.
Not only human beings do this. You may have noticed cats paying total attention to their prey in order to catch them without disturbing their prey by making any mistakes. Tigers, lions and crocodiles pay total attention to what they are going to catch. You may have noticed cranes standing on one single spot for a long time to catch a fish. Sheep dogs pay total attention to the movements of sheep so they can run very quickly to direct the herd in the right direction. Unfortunately neither cat, crane, nor sheep dog can remove their greed, lust etc., or cultivate an iota of insight by merely paying total attention to their objects.
Paying attention to whatever you are doing at any time is not going to eliminate your greed, hatred, and ignorance. This, in fact, is exactly what you do in tranquillity meditation or concentration meditation. By paying attention to one thing at a time you cannot get rid of your psychic irritation. You may focus your mind on one single object for fifty years and still your psychic irritation will remain unchanged in your mind. One person may observe all the moral rules. Another may learn all the texts by heart. Someone else may gain concentration. Another may spend his/her entire life in solitude. All of them might think that they can experience supreme liberation from all psychic irritation, which no ordinary person can attain. But none of them can have that experience without destroying all the psychic irritation. Therefore in addition to all they practice they also must remove all their psychic impurities in order to experience the bliss of emancipation from all kinds of pain.
What is missing in focusing total attention to one single object all the time is wisdom. Your total attention should be coupled with wise attention. What is wise attention? It is attention accompanied by the three wholesome roots. What are the wholesome roots? They are generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. This means that when you pay attention to something always attempt to pay attention without greed, hatred or delusion, but with the thought of generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. These three are called wholesome roots; greed, hatred and delusion are called unwholesome roots. Don’t let your mind be affected by unwholesome roots when you pay attention to something. Let the thought of generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom dominate your mind while paying attention to anything.
When you pay attention to pots and pans as you wash, you may not need any loving-kindness, generosity or wisdom towards them. You are cultivating mindfulness not for pots and pans, but for living beings. You should pay attention to any thought regarding yourself, or any other living beings. Have mindful reflection while wearing your clothes, eating your food, drinking your water, talking to someone, listening to sound, seeing an object, and walking or driving.
When you pay total attention with wise consideration or mindful reflection, your greed, hatred and delusion fade away, because in your wise attention generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom are active. Your thoughts of generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom have the power of minimizing your greed, hatred and delusion while you are engaged in any activity. While paying attention to something, without wise consideration or wise attention, you may inadvertently develop greed, hatred and confusion. You may see an object, for instance. That object may happen to be attractive, beautiful or pleasing to your eyes or it may be unattractive. At that time if you do not have wise attention, you may then end up cultivating greed or resentment for the object or you may get utterly confused ideas about the object. Or you may think that the object is permanent instead of realizing that it is impermanent, satisfactory instead of unsatisfactory, or having a self instead of being selfless.
You may then ask how your generous thoughts can get rid of your greedy thoughts, because the greedy thoughts want to cling to the object, or grasp it. When you perceive the object with greed, your mind will cling to it and not open to any thought of letting go of greed. You may not want to take your eyes away from the object. In fact, at that time your mind temporarily becomes blind to any thought of generosity. Even if you wish to let go of the attachment to it you may do so with great reluctance. You may feel that you are generous. But your generosity is only to fulfill your greedy purpose, like gaining something in return, or gaining recognition or becoming famous by being generous. Greed has very strong super glue in it. At the very first contact with the desirable object the mind sticks fast to it. Letting go of that object is as painful as cutting off of a limb or some flesh of your body, and you cannot let go of that object from your mind.
This is where you really need your wise attention. This is where you must learn to see impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness in the object you are watching. Your wise consideration indicates that neither the object you perceive nor your feeling or sensation regarding the object remains the same even for two consecutive moments. You will not have the same sensation later on. You change, the object you perceive changes. With wise attention you will see that everything is impermanent. This knowledge of impermanence allows you to let go of your resentment. When you see with wisdom that everything that is unsatisfactory is impermanent, then you see the connection between unsatisfactoriness and greed. As you are attached to an impermanent object you will be disappointed with the change of the object that you are so attached to. When you have wise consideration you see that which is impermanent and unsatisfactory is without self.
Then you might think “Ah! Since this object is going to change, I must be quick and smart to take the advantage of this object right now and enjoy myself as quickly as possible before it disappears. Tomorrow it won’t be there”. Here you must remember haste makes waste. If you make a hasty decision and do something foolish, you will regret it later on. Sometimes you are attracted to a person, for instance, and grab hold of him/her without giving much consideration to him/her, and later on you will find many faults in that person. In any such hasty decision there is no mindfulness. You cannot beat the change nor can you stop it by making any foolish attempt.
When your mindfulness is well developed, then even in haste you make a right decision. The only thing that makes sense in rushing to beat impermanence is to step back and check your own mind and see whether or not you make the decision with wise consideration. When you are mindful you will know how to take the advantage of the current moment so that you will not regret it later on. Any mindful decision you make will make you happy and peaceful and never make you regret it later on.
Always remember that mindfulness is the state of mind full of generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom together with compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. Any time you pay attention to anything you must ask whether your mind is full of these factors. If not you are not mindful.
When you have generosity in the mind you will let go of any attractive sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought without any hesitation. You should certainly recognize them to be attractive in the conventional sense. Know that it is because of their attractiveness that people become attached to them and get involved in them. The deeper they get involved in them the deeper is their suffering. When you have loving-kindness in your mind you will not try to reject any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought if they happen to be unattractive. Mindfully perceive them with the thought of impermanence. When any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought appears to be identical with self, look at it as an unreal concept inculcated in your mind by conditioning through generations of wrong notions and look at it with wisdom.
Mindfulness is not carefulness. It is not smartness. Anybody can be careful and smart. A man walking on a wire three hundred feet above ground is careful. Remember those gymnasts performing all kinds of balancing feats. Numerous daredevils who climb very steep mountains, across rocks, slippery places, rivers, and so on are very careful. Many thieves are very smart and outwit the police. Many drug dealers, bank robbers, criminals are very smart. None of them can be considered to be mindful.
Mindfulness is that state of mind which reflects upon itself not to get caught in greed, hatred and ignorance, which cause suffering to yourself, to others or to both.
When we ask people not to cultivate resentment some people ask us how can you live without resentment? This is the miracle of mindfulness. When you practice mindfulness you can learn to do most difficult things easily. Not becoming resentful, lustful, or confused is very difficult. Through constant training in mindfulness you learn to live without resentment, lust or confusion. Moreover to be mindful is more difficult than to be unmindful, and you learn to do that more difficult one more easily than the easier one. For this reason the Buddha said:
Sukaram sadhuna sadhu - sadhu papena dukkaram
papam papena sukaram - papam ariyena dukkaram.
For the good to do what is good is easy
For the bad to do what is bad is easy
For the bad to do what is good is difficult
For the noble to do what is bad is difficult. (Udana 5.8)
This simply means that which is most difficult at the beginning becomes easy through constant practice.