By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Everything up to this point has been theory. Now let’s dive into the actual practice. Just how do we go about this thing called meditation?
First of all, you need to establish a formal practice schedule, a specific period when you will do Vipassana meditation and nothing else. When you were a baby, you did not know how to walk. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to teach you that skill. They dragged you by the arms. They gave you lots of encouragement. Made you put one foot in front of the other until you could do it by yourself. Those periods of instruction constituted a formal practice in the art of walking.
In meditation, we follow the same basic procedure. We set aside a certain time, specifically devoted to developing this mental skill called mindfulness. We devote these times exclusively to that activity, and we structure our environment so there will be a minimum of distraction. 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. When viewed from the outside, it looks utterly useless. We sit there apparently as productive as a stone gargoyle. Inside, however, quite a bit is happening. The mental soup settles down, and we are left with a clarity of mind that prepares us to cope with the upcoming events of our lives.That does not mean that we have to do anything to force this settling. It is a natural process that happens by itself. The very act of sitting still being mindful causes this settling. In fact, any effort on our part to force this settling is counterproductive. That is repression, and it does not work. Try to force things out of the mind and you merely add energy to them You may succeed temporarily, but in the long run you will only have made them stronger. They will hide in the unconscious until you are not watching, then they will leap out and leave you helpless to fight them off.
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.
The meditation period is like a cross-section of your whole day. Everything that happens to you is stored away in the mind in some form, mental or emotional. During normal activity, you get so caught up in the press of events that the basic issues with which you are dealing are seldom thoroughly handled. They become buried in the unconscious, where they seethe and foam and fester. Then you wonder where all that tension came from. All of this material comes forth in one form or another during your meditation. You get a chance to look at it, see it for what it is, and let it go. We set up a formal meditation period in order to create a conducive environment for this release. We re- establish our mindfulness at regular intervals. We withdraw from those events which constantly stimulate the mind. We back out of all the activity that prods the emotions. We go off to a quiet place and we sit still, and it all comes bubbling out. Then it goes away. The net effect is like recharging a battery. Meditation recharges your mindfulness.
Where To Sit
Find yourself a quiet place, a secluded place, a place where you will be alone. It doesn’t have to be some ideal spot in the middle of a forest. That’s nearly impossible for most of us, but it should be a pace where you feel comfortable, and where you won’t be disturbed. It should also be a place where you won’t feel on display. You want all of your attention free for meditation, not wasted on worries about how you look to others. Try to pick a spot that is as quiet as possible. It doesn’t have to be a soundproof room, but there are certain noises that are highly distracting, and they should be avoided. Music and talking are about the worst. The mind tends to be sucked in by these sounds in an uncontrollable manner, and there goes your concentration.
There are certain traditional aids that you can employ to set the proper mood. A darkened room with a candle is nice. Incense is nice. A little bell to start and end your sessions is nice. These are paraphernalia, though. They provide encouragement to some people, but they are by no means essential to the practice.
You will probably find it helpful to sit in the same place each time. A special spot reserved for meditation and nothing else is an aid for most people. You soon come to associate that spot with the tranquility of deep concentration, and that association helps you to reach deep states more quickly. The main thing is to sit in a place that you feel is conductive to your own practice. That requires a bit of experimentation. Try several spots until you find one where you feel comfortable. You only need to find a place where you don’t feel self-conscious, and where you can meditate without undue distraction.
Many people find it helpful and supportive to sit with a group of other meditators. The discipline of regular practice is essential, and most people find it easier to sit regularly if they are bolstered by a commitment to a group sitting schedule. You’ve given your word, and you know you are expected. Thus the ‘I’m too busy’ syndrome is cleverly skirted. You may be able to locate a group of practicing meditators in your area. It doesn’t matter if they practice a different form of meditation, so long as it’s one of the silent forms. On the other hand, you also should try to be self-sufficient in your practice. Don’t rely on the presence of a group as your sole motivation to sit. Properly done, sitting is a pleasure. Use the group as an aid, not as a crutch.
When To Sit
The most important rule here is this: 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.
Meditation is psychological activity. You will be dealing with the raw stuff of feelings and emotions. Consequently, it is an activity which is very sensitive to the attitude with which you approach each session. What you expect is what you are most likely to get. Your practice will therefore go best when you are looking forward to sitting. If you sit down expecting grinding drudgery, that is probably what will occur. So set up a daily pattern that you can live with. Make it reasonable. Make it fit with the rest of your life. And if it starts to feel like you’re on an uphill treadmill toward liberation, then change something.
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. You cruise through the rest of the day just a bit more lightly. Be sure you are thoroughly awake, though. You won’t make much progress if you are sitting there nodding off, so get enough sleep. Wash your face, or shower before you begin. You may want to do a bit of exercise beforehand to get the circulation flowing. Do whatever you need to do in order to wake up fully, then sit down to meditate. Do not, however, let yourself get hung up in the day’s activities. It’s just too easy to forget to sit. Make meditation the first major thing you do in the morning.
The evening is another good time for practice. Your mind is full of all the mental rubbish that you have accumulated during the day, and it is great to get rid of the burden before you sleep. Your meditation will cleanse and rejuvenate your mind. Re- establish your mindfulness and your sleep will be real sleep. When you first start meditation, once a day is enough. If you feel like meditating more, that’s fine, but don’t overdo it. There’s a burn-out phenomenon we often see in new meditators. They dive right into the practice fifteen hours a day for a couple of weeks, and then the real world catches up with them. They decide that this meditation business just takes too much time. Too many sacrifices are required. They haven’t got time for all of this. Don’t fall into that trap. Don’t burn yourself out the first week. Make haste slowly. Make your effort consistent and steady. Give yourself time to incorporate the meditation practice into your life, and let your practice grow gradually and gently.
As your interest in meditation grows, you’ll find yourself making more room in your schedule for practice. It’s a spontaneous phenomenon, and it happens pretty much by itself—no force necessary.
Seasoned meditators manage three or four hours of practice a day. They live ordinary lives in the day-to-day world, and they still squeeze it all in. And they enjoy it. It comes naturally.
How Long To Sit
A similar rule applies here: Sit as long as you can, but don’t overdo. Most beginners start with twenty or thirty minutes. Initially, it’s difficult to sit longer than that with profit. The posture is unfamiliar to Westerners, and it takes a bit of time for the body to adjust. The mental skills are equally unfamiliar, and that adjustment takes time, too.
As you grow accustomed to procedure, you can extend your meditation little by little. We recommend that after a year or so of steady practice you should be sitting comfortable for an hour at a time.
Here is an important point, though: Vipassana meditation is not a form of asceticism. Self-mortification is not the goal. We are trying to cultivate mindfulness, not pain. Some pain is inevitable, especially in the legs. We will thoroughly cover pain, and how to handle it, in Chapter 10. There are special techniques and attitudes which you will learn for dealing with discomfort. The point to be made here is this: This is not a grim endurance contest. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. So don’t force yourself to sit with excruciating pain just to be able to say that you sat for an hour. That is a useless exercise in ego. And don’t overdo it in the beginning. Know your limitations, and don’t condemn yourself for not being able to sit forever, like a rock.
As meditation becomes more and more a part of your life, you can extend your sessions beyond an hour. As a general rule, just determine what is a comfortable length of time for you at this point in your life. Then sit five minutes longer than that. There is no hard and fast rule about length of time for sitting. Even if you have established a firm minimum, there may be days when it is physically impossible for you to sit that long. That doesn’t mean that you should just cancel the whole idea for that day. It’s crucial to sit regularly. Even ten minutes of meditation can be very beneficial.
Incidentally, you decide on the length of your session before you meditate. Don’t do it while you are meditating. It’s too easy to give in to restlessness that way, and restlessness is one of the main items that we want to learn to mindfully observe. So choose a realistic length of time, and then stick to it.
You can use a watch to time your sessions, but don’t peek at it every two minutes to see how you are doing. Your concentration will be completely lost, and agitation will set in. You’ll find your self hoping to get up before the session is over. That’s not meditation—that’s clock watching. 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. You’ll bolt every time something unpleasant comes up or whenever you feel restless. That’s not good. These experiences are some of the most profitable a meditator can face, but only if you sit through them. You’ve got to learn to observe them calmly and clearly. Look at them mindfully. When you’ve done that enough time, they lose their hold on you. You see them for what they are: just impulses, arising and passing away, just part of the passing show. Your life smoothes out beautifully as a consequence.
‘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 only one way to learn this lesson, though. The words on this page won’t do it. But look within and watch the stuff coming up—restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain— just watch it come up and don’t get involved. Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for ‘self-discipline’. It is ‘Patience’.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (b. 1927) is a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk. He is abbot of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, US.
By Henepola Gunaratana
M. Smith, an Amazon reviewer, writes:
“Mindfulness in Plain English is one the very best books written as an introduction to mindfulness and Buddhist meditation. It is far more than simply in introduction to meditation. It is a masterfully explained ‘how to’ handbook, a nuts and bolts kind of map, that walks you through how to meditate and deal with the many typical obstacles which virtually all people deal with as they begin and progress. What sets this book apart from other leading books in this category, is that Bhante Gunaratana is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, classicly trained and ordained in the form of practice he calls Vipassana, which places great emphasis on mindfulness. He explains, ‘Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta, a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself.’
“Bhante Gunaratana writes with a very engaging and relaxed style, which makes the book easy to follow and even humorous at times. He speaks with candor and right from the beginning he emphasizes that, ‘Meditation is not easy. It takes time and energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline.’ But, then he goes on to emphasize that meditation should be rejuvenating and liberating, and in fact, that most seasoned practitioners have a good sense of humor, because the practice creates a calmness and relaxed perspective about life. The author’s explanations about key concepts is stated in a fresh manner, for instance explaining that the word ‘suffering’ in Buddhism needs to be thoroughly understood to realize that in the original Pali language it does not just mean agony of the body, but that it also means a sense of dissatisfaction that is typical of what all people deal with on a daily basis. He also emphasizes that Vipassana, unlike some other Buddhist traditions, ranks mindfulness and awareness right up beside concentration as a means to liberation. Thus a great part of the focus of meditation is a combination of concentration and mindfulness.”
This page was published on April 14, 2001 and last revised on June 10, 2017.