Mindfulness In Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana – Structuring

“It is all empty back there.”

Extracts from Chapter Eight:

This is not the easiest skill in the world to learn. We have spent our entire life developing mental habits that are really quite contrary to the ideal of uninterrupted mindfulness. Extricating ourselves from those habits requires a bit of strategy. As we said earlier, our minds are like cups of muddy water. The object of meditation is to clarify this sludge so that we can see what is going on in there. The best way to do that is just let it sit. Give it enough time and it will settle down. You wind up with clear water. In meditation, we set aside a specific time for this clarifying process.

The best way to clarify the mental fluid is to just let it settle all by itself. Don’t add any energy to the situation. Just mindfully watch the mud swirl, without any involvement in the process. Then, when it settles at last, it will stay settled. We exert energy in meditation, but not force. Our only effort is gently, patient mindfulness.

When it comes to sitting, the description of Buddhism as the Middle Way applies. Don’t overdo it. Don’t underdo it. This doesn’t mean you just sit whenever the whim strikes you. It means you set up a practice schedule and keep to it with a gently, patient tenacity. Setting up a schedule acts as an encouragement. If, however, you find that your schedule has ceased to be an encouragement and become a burden, then something is wrong. Meditation is not a duty, nor an obligation.

First thing in the morning is a great time to meditate. Your mind is fresh then, before you’ve gotten yourself buried in responsibilities. Morning meditation is a fine way to start the day. It tunes you up and gets you ready to deal with things efficiently.

Vipassana meditation is not a form of asceticism. Self-mortification is not the goal. We are trying to cultivate mindfulness, not pain.

Don’t look at the clock until you think the whole meditation period has passed. Actually, you don’t need to consult the clock at all, at least not every time you meditate. In general, you should be sitting for as long as you want to sit. There is no magic length of time. It is best, though, to set yourself a minimum length of time. If you haven’t predetermined a minimum, you’ll find yourself prone to short sessions.

‘Discipline’ is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling you that you’re wrong. But self-discipline is different. It’s the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over you. It’s all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It is all empty back there.

There is another word for ‘self-discipline’. It is ‘Patience’.

Mindfulness In Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana – What to do with your mind

“You will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy.”

Extracts from Chapter Seven:

Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens to be present in the mind? In fact there are meditations of that nature. They are sometimes referred to as unstructured meditation and they are quite difficult. The mind is tricky. Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that we mean we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain. One thought leads to another which leads to another, and another, and another, and so on. Fifteen minutes later we suddenly wake up and realize we spent that whole time stuck in a daydream or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or whatever.

There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, apparently with no gap between them.

Concentration is our microscope for viewing subtle internal states. We use the focus of attention to achieve one-pointedness of mind with calm and constantly applied attention. Without a fixed reference point you get lost, overcome by the ceaseless waves of change flowing round and round within the mind.

Breathing is a present-time process. By that we mean it is always occurring in the here-and-now. We don’t normally live in the present, of course. We spend most of our time caught up in memories of the past or leaping ahead to the future, full of worries and plans. The breath has none of that ‘other-timeness’. When we truly observe the breath, we are automatically placed in the present.

Make no attempt to control the breath. This is not a breathing exercise of the sort done in Yoga. Focus on the natural and spontaneous movement of the breath. Don’t try to regulate it or emphasize it in any way. Most beginners have some trouble in this area.

Just let the breath move naturally, as if you were asleep. Let go and allow the process to go along at its own rhythm.

Observe the breath closely. Really study it. You find enormous variations and constant cycle of repeated patterns. It is like a symphony. Don’t observe just the bare outline of the breath. There is more to see here than just an in-breath and an out-breath.

Your mind will wander off constantly, darting around like a drunken bumblebee and zooming off on wild tangents. Try not to worry. The monkey-minded phenomenon is well known. It is something that every advanced meditator has had to deal with.

Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday.

You begin to experience a state of great calm in which you enjoy complete freedom from those things we call psychic irritants. No greed, lust, envy, jealousy or hatred. Agitation goes away. Fear flees. These are beautiful, clear, blissful states of mind. They are temporary, and they will end when meditation ends. Yet even these brief experiences will change your life.

There is a definite goal. But there is no timetable. What you are doing is digging your way deeper and deeper through the layers of illusion toward realization of the supreme truth of existence. The process itself is fascinating and fulfilling. It can be enjoyed for its own sake. There is no need to rush.

Don’t set goals for yourself that are too high to reach. Be gentle with yourself.



Mindfulness In Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana – How to sit

Extracts from Chapter Six:

The practice of meditation has been going on for several thousand years. That is quite a bit of time for experimentation, and the procedure has been very, very thoroughly refined. Buddhist practice has always recognized that the mind and body are tightly linked and that each influences the other. Thus there are certain recommended physical practices which will greatly assist you to master your skill. And these practices should be followed. Keep in mind, however, that these postures are practice aids. Don’t confuse the two. Meditation does not mean sitting in the lotus position.

The most essential thing is to sit with your back straight. The spine should be erect with the spinal vertebrae like a stack of coins, one on top of the other. Your head should be held in line with the rest of the spine. All of this is done in a relaxed manner. No Stiffness. You are not a wooden soldier, and there is no drill sergeant. There should be no muscular tension involved in keeping the back straight. Sit light and easy. … This is going to require a bit of experimentation on your part. We generally sit in tight, guarded postures when we are walking or talking and in sprawling postures when we are relaxing. Neither of those will do. But they are cultural habits and they can be re-learned.

Don’t tighten your neck muscles. Relax your arms. Your diaphragm is held relaxed, expanded to maximum fullness. Don’t let tension build up in the stomach area. Your chin is up. Your eyes can be open or closed. If you keep them open, fix them on the tip of your nose or in the middle distance straight in front. You are not looking at anything. You are just putting your eyes in some arbitrary direction where there is nothing in particular to see, so that you can forget about vision. Don’t strain. Don’t stiffen and don’t be rigid. Relax; let the body be natural and supple. Let it hang from the erect spine like a rag doll.

You want to achieve a state of complete physical stillness, yet you don’t want to fall asleep. Recall the analogy of the muddy water. You want to promote a totally settled state of the body which will engender a corresponding mental settling. There must also be a state of physical alertness which can induce the kind of mental clarity you seek. So experiment. Your body is a tool for creating desired mental states. Use it judiciously.