By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Within the last century, Western science and physics have made a startling discovery. We are part of the world we view. The very process of our observation changes the things we observe. As an example, an electron is an extremely tiny item. It cannot be viewed without instrumentation, and that apparatus dictates what the observer will see. If you look at an electron in one way, it appears to be a particle, a hard little ball that bounces around in nice straight paths. When you view it another way, an electron appears to be a wave form, with nothing solid about it. It glows and wiggles all over the place. An electron is an event more than a thing. And the observer participates in that event by the very process of his or her observation. There is no way to avoid this interaction.
Eastern science has recognized this basic principle for a very long time. The mind is a set of events, and the observer participates in those events every time he or she looks inward. Meditation is participatory observation. What you are looking at responds to the process of looking. What you are looking at is you, and what you see depends on how you look. Thus the process of meditation is extremely delicate, and the result depends absolutely on the state of mind of the meditator. The following attitudes are essential to success in practice. Most of them have been presented before. But we bring them together again here as a series of rules for application.
1. Don’t expect anything. Just sit back and see what happens. Treat the whole thing as an experiment. Take an active interest in the test itself. But don’t get distracted by your expectations about results. For that matter, don’t be anxious for any result whatsoever. Let the meditation move along at its own speed and in its own direction. Let the meditation teach you what it wants you to learn. Meditative awareness seeks to see reality exactly as it is. Whether that corresponds to our expectations or not, it requires a temporary suspension of all our preconceptions and ideas. We must store away our images, opinions and interpretations someplace out of the way for the duration. Otherwise we will stumble over them.
2. Don’t strain: Don’t force anything or make grand exaggerated efforts. Meditation is not aggressive. There is no violent striving. Just let your effort be relaxed and steady.
3. Don’t rush: There is no hurry, so take you time. Settle yourself on a cushion and sit as though you have a whole day. Anything really valuable takes time to develop. Patience, patience, patience.
4. Don’t cling to anything and don’t reject anything: Let come what comes and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is. If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is fine, too. Look on all of it as equal and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it all mindfully.
5. Let go: Learn to flow with all the changes that come up. Loosen up and relax.
6. Accept everything that arises: Accept your feelings, even the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences, even the ones you hate. Don’t condemn yourself for having human flaws and failings. Learn to see all the phenomena in the mind as being perfectly natural and understandable. Try to exercise a disinterested acceptance at all times and with respect to everything you experience.
7. Be gentle with yourself: Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.
8. Investigate yourself: Question everything. Take nothing for granted. Don’t believe anything because it sounds wise and pious and some holy men said it. See for yourself. That does not mean that you should be cynical, impudent or irreverent. It means you should be empirical. Subject all statements to the actual test of your experience and let the results be your guide to truth. Insight meditation evolves out of an inner longing to wake up to what is real and to gain liberating insight to the true structure of existence. The entire practice hinges upon this desire to be awake to the truth. Without it, the practice is superficial.
9. View all problems as challenges: Look upon negatives that arise as opportunities to learn and to grow. Don’t run from them, condemn yourself or bear your burden in saintly silence. You have a problem? Great. More grist for the mill. Rejoice, dive in and investigate.
10. Don’t ponder: You don’t need to figure everything out. Discursive thinking won’t free you from the trap. In mediation, the mind is purified naturally by mindfulness, by wordless bare attention. Habitual deliberation is not necessary to eliminate those things that are keeping you in bondage. All that is necessary is a clear, non-conceptual perception of what they are and how they work. That alone is sufficient to dissolve them. Concepts and reasoning just get in the way. Don’t think. See.
11. Don’t dwell upon contrasts: Differences do exist between people, but dwelling upon then is a dangerous process. Unless carefully handled, it leads directly to egotism. Ordinary human thinking is full of greed, jealousy and pride. A man seeing another man on the street may immediately think, “He is better looking than I am.” The instant result is envy or shame. A girl seeing another girl may think, “I am prettier than she is.” The instant result is pride. This sort of comparison is a mental habit, and it leads directly to ill feeling of one sort or another: greed, envy, pride, jealousy, hatred. It is an unskillful mental state, but we do it all the time. We compare our looks with others, our success, our accomplishments, our wealth, possessions, or I.Q. and all these lead to the same place—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.
The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between self and others, the meditator trains himself to notice similarities. He centers his attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move him closer to others. Thus his comparison, if any, leads to feelings of kinship rather than feelings of estrangement.
Breathing is a universal process. All vertebrates breathe in essentially the same manner. All living things exchange gasses with their environment in some way or other. This is one of the reasons that breathing is chosen as the focus of meditation. the meditator is advised to explore the process of his own breathing as a vehicle for realizing his own inherent connectedness with the rest of life. This does not mean that we shut our eyes to all the differences around us. Differences exist. It means simply that we de-emphasize contrasts and emphasize the universal factors. The recommended procedure is as follows:
When the meditator perceives any sensory object, he is not to dwell upon it in the ordinary egotistical way. He should rather examine the very process of perception itself. He should watch the feelings that arise and the mental activities that follow. He should note the changes that occur in his own consciousness as a result. In watching all these phenomena, the meditator must be aware of the universality of what he is seeing. That initial perception will spark pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feelings. That is a universal phenomenon. It occurs in the mind of others just as it does in his, and he should see that clearly. Following these feelings various reactions may arise. He may feel greed, lust, or jealousy. He may feel fear, worry, restlessness or boredom. These reactions are universal. He simple notes them and then generalizes. He should realize that these reactions are normal human responses and can arise in anybody.
The practice of this style of comparison may feel forced and artificial at first, but it is no less natural than what we ordinarily do. It is merely unfamiliar. With practice, this habit pattern replaces our normal habit of egoistic comparing and feels far more natural in the long run. We become very understanding people as a result. we no longer get upset by the failings of others. We progress toward harmony with all life.
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.