Mindfulness in Plain Englishby Henepola Gunaratana
Mindfulness in Plain English is an incredibly helpful introduction to mindfulness itself, and the meditation practice effective in developing it. The book is highly accessible for the beginning meditator, yet the wisdom within is fruitful for even the advanced meditator. No previous knowledge is necessary for reading this book.
What is meditation?
“Your progress to liberation is measured in hours on the cushion.”
Meditation takes a lot of time, energy, and determination. So why embark on this new journey and discipline when you could just kick back and turn on the TV? Turns out most people aren’t satisfied by the life that’s been presented to them, the life characterized by entertainment, careers, bills, cars, savings accounts, and all the other various roles, stories, and structures we live within.
It seems today that there is more “pleasure” offered to us than ever before, and yet the satisfaction these pleasures deliver is superficial. Meanwhile, mental health issues, crime, and overall lack of fulfillment seem to be at an all-time high.
We all have a sense that there is another side to life, a deeper and more profound experience to be had, and yet it eludes us.
Meditation offers this type of personal transformation through a purification of the mind. There are many different styles of meditation, but this book presents the vipassana system of meditation, which is called mindfulness meditation. The aim of mindfulness is to cultivate intense awareness through which you can view your thoughts, feelings, behavior, and life itself with calmness and detachment, leading to insight.
Awareness is the ultimate goal, even though you will experience other benefits such as relaxation, blissful feelings, and concentration.
The obsessive nature of thought causes us to be on a constant roller coaster of clinging to and rejecting our mental constructions made up of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We are constantly controlled by these mental constructs while we ignore most sensory stimuli, and we fail to perceive life in simple purity. Mindfulness allows us to slowly rewrite our habitual responses and programming to these mental constructs.
For instance, that dog barking in the distance could simply be a dog barking. We can detach from our typical response of frustration and the thought, “Wow… there’s that dog again! Why can’t they bring their dog in or train that animal to shut up.”
Mindfulness offers freedom. The benefits of meditation will be experienced very quickly, but the cumulative benefits over hours and years of consistent practice lead to liberation. The path to liberation is simply time spent on the meditation cushion. Meditation is a delicate process. It is best to approach without any expectations of what we think we should experience.
We want to avoid the whole striving and clinging cycle, so enter into meditation to simply observe. Don’t rush the process. Allow the experience of meditation to develop and flow on its own. Whatever arises in a given session, accept it. Investigate with mindful attention phenomena that arise. Problems such as wandering thoughts or pain from sitting ought to be observed with simple mindful attention as well.
Actions to take
The Practice of Mindfulness Meditation
“Mindfulness is our emergency kit, readily available at any time. ”
The best way to develop mindfulness is by focusing on your breathing in your meditation sessions. As you focus on your breath, bodily sensations will inevitably arise, such as discomfort in your back or legs. Mindfully observe these sensations, detaching from the mental formations that arise with the sensation, like, “This is hurting my back. Maybe I should stop. This is too hard.” You may feel impatient or have feelings of lust, fear, anger, etc., arise. Just observe these emotions as they are, and return your focus to the breath.
If you are having too much difficulty keeping your mind from wandering, there are a few tactics you could employ to help the mind focus. The first is counting. For instance, as you inhale, count “one, one, one, one…” until your lungs are full, and on the exhale count “two, two, two, two” and so on until the mind focuses.
A second method to focus the mind is by connecting the inhale and the exhale by making a seamless transition without the pause in between, making a continuous breath. Focus your mind like a carpenter focusing his attention on the line he drew for a cut. In the same way, focus your mind straight on the point where your breath touches the rims of your nostrils.
As your practice develops, you will experience a lightness in your body and mind during your meditation. The breath will become extremely subtle in your nostrils. This subtle sensation will become the new object of focus and is the sign of concentration. Visual phenomena may arise with this sign, such as a star, and your intention at this stage will be to focus your mind on this sign. Keep your mind in the present moment awareness of this sign.
The interplay between the mind and body is important in your meditation. For this reason, there are certain recommended positions to meditate in. The positions create stability, stillness, and the ability to sit for a long time. Your back should be straight with your head in line with the spine, yet keep yourself relaxed and free from stiffness.
Keep the rest of your body relaxed. The goal will be to stay in the same position the entire session. Wear loose, soft, comfortable clothing. There are some traditional postures such as the Native American style, Burmese style, half lotus, and full lotus positions. You can sit in one of these positions on a cushion, or simply sit in a chair, but remain upright in an aroused and focused position. Keep your hands in your lap cupped with one resting on the other turned upward toward your navel.
Keep your mind focused on the breath, but note other physical and mental phenomena that arise moment by moment. You will get to the point where you can notice a thought instead of thinking a thought. Normal conscious thought has an obsessive nature to it. It is demanding and unfolds sequentially like a chain with no real gap in between. Meditation calms the thinking process and allows you to step back behind the process to simply observe it. The mind must be tamed. As distractions arise in the mind, simply return your focus to the breath at the point where it meets the nostrils. Do this again, and again, and again. If you start to reflect or worry about problems, notice that you have begun to do so, and return to the breath. Trust that you will be able to deal with these issues later. Meditation is your vacation from these worries.
Actions to take
Dealing with Problems
“Difficulties are an integral part of your practice. They aren’t something to be avoided; they are to be used.”
There are many difficulties that may arise within a session of meditation. Rather than seeing these as roadblocks, we can view them as opportunities that will help us develop mindfulness and experience its benefits in our everyday life. Dealing with these issues will better equip us to deal with the challenges we experience on a day-to-day basis.
Physical pain is a very common difficulty in meditation. You will likely experience pain or stiffness in the back and legs. Your legs may even fall asleep (this is not to be a cause of concern). Know that your body will adjust and this will be less and less of an issue. Keep your spine straight and the rest of your body relaxed. If the pain of sitting is causing distraction, make it the object of your meditation.
Avoid the rejection response of allowing the mind to follow the thought, “This hurts!” Simply observe the pure sensation of the pain. Notice its ebb and flow. You will begin learning to detach from the pain and dismantle its control over your mental and emotional state. In addition to observing the physical sensation of pain, apply mindful observation to the mental and emotional desire to reject the pain. Attempt to locate this mental/emotional resistance, and apply mindful awareness to it.
There are many unique sensations that can arise in meditation, such as tingling, itchiness, or a floating feeling. Watch these sensations mindfully as they arise and pass away. Don’t get caught up in them. There will be times when you become very drowsy. Investigate this feeling and how it affects your thought, mood, and bodily feelings. It may be that you just need a nap due to a night of poor sleep, or you just ate a large meal.
If you need a nap, that is fine. Give your body what it needs, then meditate after. Otherwise, if you find the urge to sleep nearly irresistible, you can take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can, and repeat. This may generate some alertness, at which point you can return to breathing normally.
Dealing with distractions is an essential part of your practice. The key to this is strengthening your concentration, which will happen as you maintain consistency with your practice. You will begin to tame the wandering mind. There are a number of tactics to recenter the mind on the breath.
One technique is to notice that you have lost your attention and then gauge the amount of time you have been off-focus. For instance, “I got distracted when I started thinking about the car about a minute ago.” You will get to the point when you can do this without subvocalizing it.
In doing this, the distraction becomes an object for rapid mindful inspection, then you return to the breath. Taking a few deep breaths will also help you regain focus. You can also try counting your breaths, or subvocalizing “in'' with the inhale, and “out” with the exhale. Employ these tactics until you feel you are focused once again.
Some thought patterns are highly obsessive in nature. These may include sexual desires, greed, worry, ambition, and the like. Buddhist thinkers would regard these as unskillful thoughts, or thoughts that lead you away from the goal of liberation. Skillful thoughts, on the other hand, lead toward generosity, compassion, and wisdom. If unskillful thoughts are persistent in your meditation, seek to replace them with skillful thoughts and their connected feelings, like when you do a loving friendliness meditation.
If this does not work, dive deep into examining the thoughts and emotional responses causing you trouble. Ponder how it makes you feel and how it affects your life, happiness, and relationships. The goal is to generate the same kind of disgust that you would have if you were forced to walk around the carcass of a dead animal hanging around your neck. Then, seek to generate the opposite, skillful, emotion in its place.
Remember your purpose in each session, and at times you may need to recall it within a session. Strengthen your intent, and refocus on the breath. You will begin to get to the place where you notice mental states at the moment they arrive, like a bubble coming up from the unconscious mind. Pain will become something that is simply an event, a sensation, free from the concepts that we attach to it causing aversion, stress, and worry. It will become just another flow of energy within the body.
When we bring the “I” into meditation, we allow pain to be something that has control over us. That’s when we start attaching concepts and essentially say, “This is happening to me. Poor me.” Apply mindful observation to this idea of “I” or “me.” Many similar conceptualizations will creep into our meditation. The more we are able to recognize them and apply mindful observation to them, the less power they will hold over us. Remember, every time you apply mindfulness to these distractions, you build the muscle of mindfulness and grow in your practice.
Actions to take
Mindfulness for Your Everyday Life
“The most important moment in meditation is the instant you leave the cushion.”
Moments of pure awareness are rare in our normal conscious experience. Our mind is always conceptualizing almost everything that enters our conscious awareness. We hear a sound in the distance and think, “Oh, there’s that dog. Always barking.” We hear a ding and a sensation rises initiating an impulse that causes us to check our phone. “I wonder who texted me.” We rarely experience a thing simply as it is. Mindfulness is hearing that ding, noticing the sensation rise (the desire to check the phone), and simply observing the entire phenomena.
Pure awareness is what we are developing. It is nonjudgmental and impartial. It does not label things as “good” or “bad” or by any other sort of label or conception. It’s taking the “I” out of thoughts like, “I have bad pain in my leg.” It’s also taking the “pain” out of the experience as well, and simply observing the sensation without labeling.
Mindfulness simply observes the ever-changing present-moment experience. Mindfulness acts like a mirror. A mirror does not judge, it does not label, and it makes no delusions. It reflects what is exactly as it is.
As you go through your daily life, mindfulness will keep you aware of what is going on in your body and mind. If you notice your mind wandering to anxious thoughts and your physiology producing the accompanying bodily sensations, you will notice you have drifted into this state, observe it mindfully, and allow it to pass.
Mindfulness does not resist such experiences, but observes them. Similarly, it does not cling to pleasant experiences. Your conscious experience will become clearer, lighter, and more energetic, free from the heavy, ponderous nature of normal thought patterns. Mindfulness will remind you to keep your focus on the right things at the right time, with the right kind of energy. It will keep “psychic irritants” such as worry or greed from dominating your state.
Mindfulness reveals the true nature of all experiences. It teaches three deep truths. The first is impermanence, that everything we experience is by nature transitory. It comes and it goes. No need, therefore, to be constantly clinging and rejecting. The second is the unsatisfactoriness of all worldly things. We can have very pleasant experiences, but they too pass away as part of the ebb and flow of life. We learn not to cling to such experiences. The third is selflessness, which teaches that there is no permanent and unchanging entity that we typically call “self”.
Concentration is how we develop mindfulness, but the two are not the same. Concentration, or one-pointedness of mind, involves forcing the mind to remain at a singular point of attention. Mindfulness is the noticing that happens when thoughts, feelings, and distractions arise. While concentration is exclusive to the object of focus, mindfulness is inclusive of all things coming into our perception. It notices them and investigates them with impartial observation. There is an interplay between the two and concentration is the tool to develop mindfulness. Put your effort into concentration in the beginning stage of your practice. Once you develop strong concentration, you can begin focusing more energy on mindfulness.
The ultimate goal of your seated meditation sessions is to bring the skills you develop into everyday life. Seated meditation is like practice, while life itself is the game. We apply the skills developed in practice to the game of life. We are seeking to transform our entire experience of life. We should not end a meditation session, then go about the rest of our day as normal. We should seek to live each moment of every day in a meditative state. It will allow us to handle the difficulties of life with a quiet peace and savor the entirety of the human experience.
The mental flexibility, emotional control, and peaceful demeanor will be well worth the effort you invest into this. Continue in this way, and you are on your way to attaining liberation and the experience of enlightenment. Mindfulness will destroy the hindrances of greed, anger, selfishness, and the like, and allow an incredible flow of compassion, joy, and peace to flow through. The entire experience of life will become lucid and beautiful, endlessly intriguing, like a dance that is full of life. You will become deeply aware of the interconnectedness of all things. You will see the futility of desire and break its hold on you that has kept you in an endless cycle of clinging and rejecting, and left you unsatisfied. The pains and losses in life will become simply part of the flow of experience, no longer sending you into a whirlpool of dejection.
You will see that the “you” is not what you thought. The physical body is not the true you. The mental phenomena and thoughts you experience are not the true you. You watch for the thinker behind the thinking, the feeler behind the feelings, but find no one there. The sense of self dissolves. The characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness will suddenly become explosively real, and your consciousness is permanently transformed. All craving ceases. The burden you have carried is lifted. Life becomes an effortless flow. There is no more resistance. Only peace. This is nibbana.