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About Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana is the founding abbot of the Bhavana Society. Born in rural Sri Lanka, he has been a monk since age 12 and took full ordination at age 20 in 1947. He came to the United States in 1968. “Bhante G” (as he is fondly called by his students) has written a number of books, including the now-classic meditation manual Mindfulness In Plain English and its companion Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness. Bhante G regularly leads retreats on vipassana, mindfulness, metta (Loving-friendliness), concentration, and other topics both at the Bhavana Society and elsewhere.
Bhante Gunaratana is an internationally recognized author and meditation teacher. Prior to coming to the United States, he spent five years doing in missionary work with the Harijanas (Untouchables) of India and ten years in Malaysia. He has taught in a number of settings, including American University of Washington DC where he served as Buddhist chaplain and the Buddhist Vihara of Washington DC, where he served as president. Bhante G has a strong scholarly background and lifelong commitment to dhamma.
In 1985 Bhante G co-founded the Bhavana Society and became its abbot. He wanted to teach meditation in an environment allowing for longer retreats and intense practice free from the trappings of a city vihara. He continues to teach in the direct, compassionate style that characterizes his books and articles. Bhante G conveys a well-rounded approach to Buddhist Dhamma, touching on all aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. He emphasizes metta bhavana (the cultivation of loving-friendliness) as a basis for samma-samadhi, or right concentration. As a teacher, he is known for his emphasis both on samadhi and on metta as part of spiritual training.
In 1996, Bhante G received the title of Chief Sangha Nayaka Thera for North America. This acknowledged his status as highest-ranking monk of his sect in the United States and Canada. In 2003, his autobiography, Journey to Mindfulness, was published. In 2005, the Sri Henepola Gunaratana Scholarship Trust was founded under his guidance. This trust provides educations for poverty-stricken children in rural Sri Lanka.
Bhante G continues to write articles, lead retreats, and teach at the Bhavana Society and all over the world.
Summary of Mindfulness in Plain English
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #1: The Problem
There is a huge problem in society. We keep telling ourselves: “If only I had a bigger house. If only I had a nicer car. If only I had more money. If only I had a better wife. If only my kids weren’t so annoying.” In life. We are constantly chasing things, trying to get to the next level, to fix this pervading sense of tension that we have.
We numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol, TV shows and social media to escape the boredom that is life. And the issue is that we have put a huge emphasis in society towards education, flashy objects, towards the outer, exterior things, the superficial things that we can see whilst ignoring our inner worlds.
And it’s strange because we have all of these materialistic things and live in conditions that haven’t been improved and yet people’s happiness has been going down. Why is that? Our sense of control has been going down, addictions have been going up. Why is that? It’s because we haven’t tackled what’s most important.
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #2: The Illusion
Now the problem is we live in a self-created illusion. What’s an illusion? An illusion is something that’s not real. I think of a magic trick. When David Blaine or whoever your favorite magician does a trick, you know it’s flashy, it’s amazing, but at the end of the day, you know it’s not real. Now, the greatest illusion we play is actually on ourselves.
We can experience life through three modes: memories, thoughts, and mindfulness. Let’s say you have a vision in your mind of your second-grade teacher. That vision is a memory. It often plays out like a movie. Perhaps you can hear sounds or remember textures. When you become aware that it’s a memory or when you know that it’s a memory that’s you being mindful.
When you say, Oh, I’m having a memory. That voice in your head is a thought. So those are the three distinct differences.
Now, awareness is the truest of them all because it’s you actually responding to your senses of what’s happening on the outside world i.e. mindfulness.
But what we tend to do is stay stuck in our heads. We stay stuck in what people often call the monkey mind, which conceptualizes things. So imagine that a plate breaks in the room next to you. What do you do? Nine times out of ten the first thing you’re going to do that’s going to happen automatically is you’re going to envision a plate breaking. You’re probably going to picture who’s dropping the plate and make a judgment like, oh, this is bad. What’s happening there is you’ll get sapped out of the actual reality of the situation; the plate just falling down and breaking. You’re creating a mental image and that mental image is not real. It’s an illusion. It’s your brains go-to. It’s useful when it’s needed. When you’re doing an engineering problem, when you’re planning your week, it’s useful to conceptualize things and think ahead. But we are consistently conceptualizing and we are consistently creating stories in our minds that aren’t true.
And the biggest story that we create, the biggest illusion that we fabricate is the illusion of ourselves. I would talk about that a little bit later.
Because we walk through life, stuck in our thoughts, we miss out on a lot of life. 10% of our experiences are great experiences. You win some money, you get your first girlfriend, you go out on a holiday. We grasp onto these experiences, these experiences that we labeled as good. The other times of some of the experiences are bad. You get fired, you gain weight, you get dumped. These are bad experiences, and we try and keep away from those. The other 80% of experiences are just neutral. They don’t really affect us that much. They’re boring. And we tend to overlook them. So if you’re not careful, what tends to happen is you go throughout your life chasing the 10% high that you feel, running away from the other 10% of negative emotions, and 80% of the time you don’t really pay attention, you’re stuck in your thoughts, thinking about the good feelings and running away from bad ones.
So you actually miss out on life. You live in your mind, you live in your thoughts, and this is a sickness. It just doesn’t seem like a sickness because 99% of the population is running that way. But this is the primary route of suffering. This is the primary root of discomfort. The cause of 99% of your problems is the fact that you live in a self-created world. You are not in the here and now. You are not paying attention to your life. You are not really digging deeper. You’re stuck.
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #3: Meditation Myths
Now, the solution is Vipassana meditation, which is mindfulness meditation. But before getting to that, let’s talk about what meditation is not. Because a lot of people get caught up in a lot of misconceptions and myths.
Meditation is not otherworldly, right? It’s not religious. It’s not about fighting demons. It’s not about levitating. It’s not about becoming a psychic. Although some people would develop psychic abilities through meditation later on. It’s not about that. It’s not about relaxation. It’s not about pleasure. You know, they’ve shown studies that the human body can actually create similar chemicals such as DMT. So you can actually create your own high. But it’s not about creating your own high and being stuck in this blissful state. That’s not what meditation is about.
Vipassana meditation/mindfulness is about awareness. It’s about penetrating reality. It’s not dangerous. A lot of people fear meditation because when you’re sitting down alone and you’re meditating, some repressed memories or thoughts from years ago, could come up and cause some sort of trauma at their moment. But that’s not a dangerous, that’s all we want. We want to confront these things. So don’t use these excuses or use these. Let these myths derail you from meditation because there are a lot of perks that come from it.
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #4: The Solution – Vipassana Meditation
So what is Vipassana meditation?
It’s awareness training. It’s digging deeper into the roots of reality. It’s cleaning the lens. We see the world through a lens that’s foggy. It’s a little bit dirty. It’s cleaning that lens so that we can see things as they really are. Just as you go to the gym, just as you go to yoga, just as you go to work. You need to train your capacity for mindfulness.
It’s a tool. It’s something that you have to constantly work on to get the results. Each meditation, each session is kind of like a gym session. It’s just step-by-step adding a layer of strength to your mindfulness, to your ability to dig deeper into reality, into awareness, to be able to see things as they really are.
You are going to start having revelations as you meditate. Some might take you a week. Some might take you six months. Some might take you years. But you break down all these concepts that society has taught you, that you got from your parents, your friends growing up, from watching television and from maybe the music you listened to. You just unwind all those things, and just look at them one by one. You pick each up and look at it for what it is. And after some time, ultimately, after years and years of doing this, you will get to the point where even yourself, your identity, what we call the ego, this concept of self dissolves because ultimately, your concept of self is created too.
If I were to hit you with a baseball bat right now and really mess up your brain – I know it sounds horrific but bear with me – there’s a good chance you’ll be someone else. There is also accounts of people that wake up from a coma and have changed completely because their brains changed. Their memories have changed. Their sense of self has changed. Mindfulness is just a healthier way of doing that. Deconstructing the negative elements of your personality that you don’t need, that don’t help you, that cause your suffering, that caused you to have these insidious thoughts and just coming back to your truth, to your true self, which is awareness with mindfulness.
You no longer become a slave to urges, addictions, to automatic reactions that you can’t control. You start living your life with intent, with control, doing what you want to do because you want to do it, not because it satisfies this self-created ego.
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #5: The Practice – How to Meditate
This is actually quite simple. The way you meditate is you find a chair or somewhere can sit down; preferably on the ground with a cushion. You want to keep your spine neutral, not like a stick, but just naturally neutral good posture. You then want to close your eyes.
You see, when you keep your eyes open, there are lots of interesting things that can distract you, right? So you want to close your eyes.
With Vipassana meditation, we are focusing on the breath. That’s the focal point of the whole meditation because the mind needs something to focus on. Otherwise, it’s just going to get pulled to different directions.
You set the time that you want to meditate. I recommend maybe 15 minutes, 20 minutes. When you start, you sit down and all you do, all you want to focus on is your breath. You breathe as you would naturally. Your mind is going to focus on the inhalation, exhalation. Try to focus on a particular point on your nose, right at the entrance, and just focus on how it feels at that point.
When you inhale, when you exhale, inhale, exhale, and you just want to keep doing that; focusing on the inhalation and exhalation. What’s naturally going to happen or what you’re going to realize very quickly is that you are completely crazy, that you’re insane because this one simple thing; focusing on your inhalation, exhalation is going to prove to be incredibly difficult. Your mind is going to wander left to right. It’s going to think about memories that you had 20 years ago. It’s going to think about business plans. It’s going to think about the dessert that your grandmother made. It is going to think about one million different things and you’re going to try to tame it and bring it back.
Mindfulness is like training an elephant to be disciplined. Back in the day, to train a wild elephant, what they used to do is they’d tie the elephant’s leg to a post and for awhile the elephant will be really rowdy and moving and going crazy. Eventually, it will understand that it can’t escape and it’ll come down. And once it’s calmed down, that’s when people would train the elephant to do tricks.
The same thing happens with your mind. You just have to go through that process where it’s crazy, but the more you work on it, it’ll eventually calm down and be like water. The more you meditate, the more you stick at it, the more control you’re going to have over your mind. You’re not going to be swayed all over the place. Your concentration is going to increase. But more importantly, your mindfulness is going to increase. Concentration helps you focus on one thing, one task and get that done and put your attention to that. But mindfulness is awareness. It’s being able to pick up on the transient nature of life.
You’re going to notice that things are always moving. Thoughts are coming and going. Sounds are coming and going. Sensations in your body are coming and going. Life is pretty much just a flux of different things going on. When you’re truly mindful, nothing is ever going to be boring because there’s always something going on. It’s always different. There’s always something to learn. You’re penetrating deeper and deeper to reality itself and gaining more awareness. You know, living in a dream mode.
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #6: The Habit
Let’s talk about structuring a meditation practice and actually making it a habit.
You’ve got to do it consistently. So the best thing you could do to make a meditation habit is either doing it first thing in the morning or in the evening when you finish work and you’re just winding down.
I personally recommend you do it in the morning as your willpower is going to be at its highest and you set off your day right. So that’s the timing aspect of it.
Another thing you need to keep in mind is you need to do it somewhere where it’s quiet to begin with so that you can really concentrate. Don’t make things hard for yourself, and meditate at a construction site.
Also be consistent with where you meditate, because that’s going to train your brain to identify that place as the meditation place, and it’s just going to make it so much easier to instill the habit. So maybe if you meditate on the couch, always meditate on that couch. If you meditate on a cushion, continue doing that. Don’t mix it around too much in the beginning because you’re trying to create the habit. The more you show up, the better. Just focus on sitting, focus on the meditation. Don’t focus on getting it perfect.
You’re not going to get perfect. A lot of people get caught up in setting unrealistic goals for themselves. They think that just from one week of meditation, they’re going to have it perfect. Their mind should be clear, that they’ll be levitating, but that’s not the reality of it.
It’s a slow process. Anything worthwhile in life takes time. The more you do it, the better you’re going to get.
Mindfulness in Plain English Key idea #7: The Arena
Meditation is the practice. It’s not the actual event. In the same way that someone who plays basketball and needs to practice their three-pointers.
If you want to get real lasting changes, if you want to really take your life to the next level, you need to start incorporating mindfulness throughout your life. That means when you’re walking to work or catching a train, walk mindfully from your house to the train station. When you’re at work and you’re sitting down and typing, focus on your posture and make sure that your posture is upright. When you’re showering, focus on your breath. When you’re cleaning dishes, slow it down a bit and just feel the sensation on your fingers.
Mindfulness is literally just paying attention to what is; non-judgmentally. Just accepting it 100%. Putting that little criticism that we so often do aside. Don’t say this is good or bad. It’s not about labeling. It’s about seeing things as they come up. And being like, oh, there’s that.
Accept it and just move on. See something else. Even when you have something like an itch, and you want to scratch it, just let it be for a little bit and just feel the sensation. You can learn from just that sensation. As yourself, is the pain really as bad as it is, or is it the fact that I labeled it as pain?
You’ll think about scratching the itch. You’re creating a visual image of you scratching the area on your skin. There’s all these things that we do habitually that we never really pay attention to until we apply mindfulness to them. So the real arena is the real world. You need to be mindful of everything you do. And that’s how you’re going to see real differences in terms of your relationships with other people.
You’re not gonna get as angry as you perhaps in the past. You’re not going to get irritated when you’re more mindful, when you’re just paying attention. I understand most people don’t mindful, most people are living the illusion, but you can break out of that and live a better life through that.
Take every moment for what it is and see it for what it is. So that is why you should read mindfulness in plain English. I hope you really take this habit seriously and start meditating, becoming more mindful and piercing through the layers of reality.
“Deeply buried in the mind, there lies a mechanism that accepts what the mind experiences as beautiful and pleasant and rejects those experiences that are perceived as ugly and painful. This mechanism gives rise to those states of mind that we are training ourselves to avoid– things like greed, lust, hatred, aversion, and jealousy.”― Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy.”― Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“The irony of it is that real peace comes only when you stop chasing it—another Catch-22.”― Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change.”― Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings that you don’t really have or avoid feelings that you do have. If you are miserable you are miserable; that is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine that experience, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can’t trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom.”― Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is not.”― Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“Don’t set goals for yourself that are too high to reach. Be gentle with yourself. You are trying to follow your own breathing continuously and without a break. That sounds easy enough, so you will have a tendency at the outset to push yourself to be scrupulous and exacting. This is unrealistic. Take time in small units instead.”― Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
“The crucial thing is to be mindful of what is occurring, not to control what is occurring.”― Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English