By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
At some time, every meditator encounters distractions during practice, and methods are needed to deal with them. Some elegant stratagems have been devised to get you back on the track more quickly than trying to push your way through by sheer force of will. Concentration and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. Each one complements the other. If either one is weak, the other will eventually be affected. Bad days are usually characterized by poor concentration. Your mind just keeps floating around. You need some method of reestablishing your concentration, even in the face of mental adversity. Luckily, you have it. In fact you can take your choice from a traditional array of practical maneuvers.
This first technique has been covered in an earlier chapter. A distraction has pulled you away from the breath, and you suddenly realize that you’ve been day-dreaming. The trick is to pull all the way out of whatever has captured you, to break its hold on you completely so you can go back to the breath with full attention. You do this by gauging the length of time that you were distracted. This is not a precise calculation. you don’t need a precise figure, just a rough estimate. You can figure it in minutes, or by idea significance. Just say to yourself, “Okay, I have been distracted for about two minutes” or “Since the dog started barking” or “Since I started thinking about money.” When you first start practicing this technique, you will do it by talking to yourself inside your head. Once the habit is well established, you can drop that, and the action becomes wordless and very quick. The whole idea, remember, is to pull out of the distraction and get back to the breath. You pull out of the thought by making it the object of inspection just long enough to glean from it a rough approximation of its duration. The interval itself is not important. Once you are free of the distraction, drop the whole thing and go back to the breath. Do not get hung up in the estimate.Maneuver 2
When your mind is wild and agitated, you can often re-establish mindfulness with a few quick deep breaths. Pull the air in strongly and let it out the same way. This increases the sensation inside the nostrils and makes it easier to focus. Make a strong act of will and apply some force to your attention. Concentration can be forced into growth, remember, so you will probably find your full attention settling nicely back on the breath.
Counting the breaths as they pass is a highly traditional procedure. Some schools of practice teach this activity as their primary tactic. Vipassana uses it as an auxiliary technique for re-establishing mindfulness and for strengthening concentration. As we discussed in Chapter 5, you can count breaths in a number of different ways. Remember to keep your attention on the breath. You will probably notice a change after you have done your counting. The breath slows down, or it becomes very light and refined. This is a physiological signal that concentration has become well-established. At this point, the breath is usually so light or so fast and gentle that you can’t clearly distinguish the inhalation from the exhalation. They seem to blend into each other. You can then count both of them as a single cycle. Continue your counting process, but only up to a count of five, covering the same five-breath sequence, then start over. When counting becomes a bother, go on to the next step. Drop the numbers and forget about the concepts of inhalation and exhalation. Just dive right in to the pure sensation of breathing. Inhalation blends into exhalation. One breath blends into the next in a never ending cycle of pure, smooth flow.
The In-Out Method
This is an alternative to counting, and it functions in much the same manner. Just direct your attention to the breath and mentally tag each cycle with the words “Inhalation... exhalation” or ‘In... out." Continue the process until you no longer need these concepts, and then throw them away.
Canceling One Thought With Another
Some thoughts just won’t go away. We humans are obsessional beings. It’s one of our biggest problems. We tend to lock onto things like sexual fantasies and worries and ambitions. We feed those though complexes over the years of time and give them plenty of exercise by playing with them in every spare moment. Then when we sit down to meditate, we order them to go away and leave us alone. It is scarcely surprising that they don’t obey. Persistent thoughts like these require a direct approach, a full-scale frontal attack.
Buddhist psychology has developed a distinct system of classification. Rather than dividing thoughts into classes like ‘good’ or ‘bad’, Buddhist thinkers prefer to regard them as ‘skillful’ versus ‘unskillful’. An unskillful thought is one connected with greed, hatred, or delusion. These are the thoughts that the mind most easily builds into obsessions. They are unskillful in the sense that they lead you away from the goal of Liberation. Skillful thoughts, on the other hand, are those connected with generosity, compassion, and wisdom. They are skillful in the sense that they may be used as specific remedies for unskillful thoughts, and thus can assist you toward Liberation.
You cannot condition Liberation. It is not a state built out of thoughts. Nor can you condition the personal qualities which Liberation produces. Thoughts of benevolence can produce a semblance of benevolence, but it’s not the real item. It will break down under pressure. Thoughts of compassion produce only superficial compassion. Therefore, these skillful thoughts will not, in themselves, free you from the trap. They are skillful only if applied as antidotes to the poison of unskillful thoughts. Thoughts of generosity can temporarily cancel greed. They kick it under the rug long enough for mindfulness to do its work unhindered. Then, when mindfulness has penetrated to the roots of the ego process, greed evaporates and true generosity arises.
This principle can be used on a day to day basis in your own meditation. If a particular sort of obsession is troubling you, you can cancel it out by generating its opposite. Here is an example: If you absolutely hate Charlie, and his scowling face keeps popping into your mind, try directing a stream of love and friendliness toward Charlie. You probably will get rid of the immediate mental image. Then you can get on with the job of meditation.
Sometimes this tactic alone doesn’t work. The obsession is simply too strong. In this case you’ve got to weaken its hold on you somewhat before you can successfully balance it out. Here is where guilt, one of man’s most misbegotten emotions, finally becomes of some use. Take a good strong look at the emotional response you are trying to get rid of. Actually ponder it. See how it makes you feel. Look at what it is doing to your life, your happiness, your health, and your relationships. Try to see how it makes you appear to others. Look at the way it is hindering your progress toward Liberation. The Pali scriptures urge you to do this very thoroughly indeed. They advise you to work up the same sense of disgust and humiliation that you would feel if you were forced to walk around with the carcass of a dead and decaying animal tied around your neck. Real loathing is what you are after. This step may end the problem all by itself. If it doesn’t, then balance out the lingering remainder of the obsession by once again generating its opposite emotion.
Thoughts of greed cover everything connected with desire, from outright avarice for material gain, all the way down to a subtle need to be respected as a moral person. Thoughts of hatred run the gamut from petty peevishness to murderous rage. Delusion covers everything from daydreaming through actual hallucinations. Generosity cancels greed. Benevolence and compassion cancel hatred. You can find a specific antidote for any troubling thought if you just think about it a while.
Recalling Your Purpose
There are times when things pop into your mind, apparently at random. Words, phrases, or whole sentences jump up out of the unconscious for no discernible reason. Objects appear. Pictures flash on and off. This is an unsettling experience. Your mind feels like a flag flapping in a stiff wind. It washes back and forth like waves in the ocean. At times like this it is often enough just to remember why you are there. You can say to yourself, “I’m not sitting here just to waste my time with these thoughts. I’m here to focus my mind on the breath, which is universal and common to all living beings”. Sometimes your mind will settle down, even before you complete this recitation. Other times you may have to repeat it several times before you refocus on the breath.
These techniques can be used singly, or in combinations. Properly employed, they constitute quite an effective arsenal for your battle against the monkey mind.
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.