Mindfulness is central in the teachings of the Buddha. It is an important mental factor in many areas of practice. However, we may confuse mindfulness/sati with attention in our practice. We focus on an object to the exclusion of everything else, and it seems like we are “being mindful”. Unfortunately, this can feel tight and uncomfortable.
But, the analogies that the Buddha used shows that sati is more than attention. Sati is like a guard at the gate of the city who has a broad view of what is happening. “Just as a royal frontier fortress has a gatekeeper—wise, experienced, intelligent—to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within, and to ward off those without; in the same way, a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering & recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity.” — AN 7:63
In the eightfold path, the Buddha separates mindfulness/sati and collectedness/samadhi. Attention is much closer to collectedness than it is to mindfulness. Modern neuroscientists also tell us that there are 2 parts of the brain which primarily affect our ability to pay attention and be aware. And it is possible for these brain areas to start working together, and allow awareness to become predominant. When this happens, it is clear that attention does not need to be the primary way in which we experience our world.
We can have a big, expansive view as we do when watching a sunset. If we practice opening our way of knowing our experience, we can train that part of our brain to become more predominant. This directly increases our mindfulness. And we can enjoy doing it! So, let go of efforting and trying to hold onto attention, and just notice when it arises naturally in a broad field of awareness. Just as easily as when the guard at the gate looks at one person in a broad field of view.