In his bestselling mindfulness and meditation guide, Mindfulness in Plain English
(1991), Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Henepola Gunaratana lays out a how-to manual on the tenets of practicing Vipassana meditation in a very clear and easily understandable way for beginners. Vipassana, which derives from South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, translates to having insight and a clear awareness of what is happening as it is happening. Being in the moment is vital to practicing Vipassana meditation. This practical nuts-and-bolts guide offers beginners an easy approach to focusing on mindfulness and meditation as a means of improving one’s quality of life. Mindfulness in Plain English
has been hailed as the “bible of mindfulness” by Barry Boyce, editor of Mindful Magazine
; “pithy and practical” by Shambhala Sun
; “jargon-free” by USA Today
; and “among the very best” by Tricycle
Gunaratana asks, why meditate? He explains that meditation is not easy; it takes time, dedication, and perseverance. When practiced properly, meditation can purify the mind by ridding it of all negative thoughts and emotions, such as greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, etc. The idea of meditation is to go in as one person and come out a different person altogether, by making one aware of one’s own thoughts and actions, reflecting on them as much as possible, and remaining in the moment.
Gunaratana stresses the major misconceptions of meditation, emphasizing what meditation is not. Meditation is not just a mode of relaxation or state of entrancement; it is not dangerous or meant to turn a person into a “psychic superhuman.” Though meditation is a mysterious process that cannot be understood, it is anchored to a sense of morality that everyone can practice; it isn’t reserved only for holy people. Other misconceptions include meditation as a means of escaping reality, getting high, serving as an act of selfishness, being a short-term cure-all, and becoming lost in lofty thought while meditating.
Gunaratana outlines what meditation is. He starts by noting the Judeo-Christian template of prayer, and how it overlaps with but differs from contemplation. “Prayer is a direct address to some spiritual entity,” while “contemplation is a prolonged period of conscious thought about some specific topic.” When meditating during yoga, the goal is to focus the mind to concentrate solely on a single object. Concentration is a major value in the Buddhist tradition, but awareness has taken its place as the most important aspect of meditation. The state of Zen comes in two forms: one in the form of directly plugging into awareness by sheer force of will, the other, tricking the mind to focus on a riddle or puzzle to solve, forcing the mind to stay on the topic until it is fixed. In Tantric Buddhism, the object of concentration is to get rid of the ego image in one’s mind.
Gunaratana describes various attitudes that are essential to meditation practice. These include expecting little (“treat the whole thing as an experiment”), never straining or rushing, never clinging or rejecting anything, letting go, accepting everything that comes up, being gentle with oneself, investigating oneself, viewing all problems as challenges, never pondering or dwelling on the differences between people. The idea of meditation is to rid the mind of all words and ideas, focusing attention on one object.
In practicing meditation, the goal is to “reach the perfection of all the noble and wholesome qualities latent in our subconscious mind.” To sit for meditation, Gunaratana urges remaining in one place, never shifting position. One should sit motionless, close one’s eyes, and concentrate on breathing while ignoring any external thoughts. Methods for achieving this include counting, connecting one’s inhalations with exhalations, fixing the mind to the point of connection, focusing one’s mind as a carpenter focuses on a straight line, and making the mind a gatekeeper. By adhering to these rules to synchronize breathing with the mind, one will be able to remain in the present. Physically, one should keep one’s back upright, remain immobilized, and sit for long periods in order to combat pain, muscular soreness, and falling asleep. Mentally, one should empty one’s mind of problems, concentrating on breathing as “present-time awareness.”
In structuring one’s meditation, Gunaratana encourages showing love and kindness before one starts. By getting into the right mind frame and having a positive attitude before beginning, it will be easier to overcome problems and distractions while in the process of meditating. Meditating will be difficult, but embracing the pain and discomfort is part of the process. “You can be mindful of pain just as you’re mindful of breathing.” When distracted during meditation, one should shine a light on the distraction temporarily until one can focus back on breathing. By consciously shining a light on distractions, they will inevitably evaporate. One can embrace whatever thought arrives in one’s mind, using it as an opportunity to hone mindfulness. Like any other muscle, mindfulness becomes stronger the more mindful one actively becomes.
According to Gunaratana, “Mindfulness is an impartial watchfulness. It does not get hung up on what it perceives, it just perceives.” This is the underlying tenet of achieving mindfulness through Vipassana meditation. It is only through mindfulness that the three prime pillars of Buddhism can be achieved. These include anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction), and anatta (selflessness). In the end, Gunaratana differentiates between mindfulness and concentration. Concentration is a forced act of willpower, whereas mindfulness is a sensitive process of refining one’s sensibilities. Concentration relies on mindfulness to function optimally. “Mindfulness is cultivated by gently pulling oneself back to a state of awareness.”
Henepola Gunaratana was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of twelve at a small temple in a village in Sri Lanka. Since 1973, he has served as the Buddhist chaplain at The American University advising students interested in Buddhism and meditation.