Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, 1992

Vipassana is a simple practice. It consists of experiencing your own life events directly, without preferences and without mental images pasted onto them. pp. 21

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Bhante Gunaratana, experienced meditator and Buddhist monk, describes the motivation for meditating, and provides some of the historical background in which meditation developed.  Then he gives instructions about how to do vipassana meditation (also called “mindfulness” or “insight” meditation).  He gives an overview of what it means to meditate in this tradition, and then describes the behaviors—both mental and physical—that will allow you to maintain a detached focus on your present-moment experience.       

The book lives up to its name: it describes the actual process of mindfulness practice in clear, easy-to-understand language.  The core of the book is a how-to guide to vipassana meditation, with small digressions from the nuts-and-bolts behaviors of meditation scattered throughout.

I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are last summer, which deals with greater levels of abstraction and more advanced techniques within meditation.  Its language is more sweeping and poetic.  I should have started here, but the contrast between different levels of thinking about meditation is interesting.

The book’s how-to approach is great, but, as the author discusses, meditating is more important and useful than reading about meditation.  Although the book strives to be concrete, many of the instructions may not make sense without some time spent meditating as a reference point.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal

Recommend to Others: Only with pre-existing interest

Reread Personally:  Maybe, read quotes below, more retreats, then other books


3 We get stuck in the “if only” syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy.

4The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience.

5It is a level of functioning in which the mind does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but it can be learned.

12 We are dealing exclusively with the vipassana system of meditation. [AKA insight meditation]

13 Vipassana, by definition, is the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness.

14 Meditation needs to be understood that same way—by doing it. It is not something that you can learn in abstract terms, or something to be talked about.

14 Learning to look at each second as if it were the first and only second in the universe is essential in vipassana meditation.

14 Some people may experience some intuitive understanding or memories from past lives; others do not.

15 There is a point in the meditator’s career where he or she may practice special exercises to develop psychic powers.

19 Meditation teaches you how to disentangle yourself from the thought process. It is the mental art of stepping out of your own way, and that’s a pretty useful skill in everyday life.

19 Vipassana is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find. It allows you to blow aside the illusions and free yourself from all the polite little lies you tell yourself all the time. What is there is there. You are who you are, and lying to yourself about your own weaknesses and motivations only binds you tighter to them.

25 The object of vipassana practice is to learn to see the truths of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of phenomena.

27 When you seek to know reality without illusion, complete with all its pain and danger, real freedom and security will be yours. This is not a doctrine we are trying to drill into you; it is an observable reality, something you can and should see for yourself.

29 You set up a collection of mental constructions—“me,” “the book,” “the building”—and you assumed that those were solid, real entities. You assumed that they would endure forever. They never do. But now you can tune into the constant change. You can learn to perceive your life as an ever-flowing movement.

30 We learn to watch the arising of thought and perception with a feeling of serene detachment. We learn to view our own reactions to stimuli with calmness and clarity.

34 Don’t expect anything.

34 Don’t strain.

34 Don’t rush.

34 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.

34 Accept your feelings, even the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences, even the ones you hate.

35 Be kind to yourself.

39 we strongly recommend that you start with focusing your undivided attention on your breathing to gain some degree of basic concentration.

44 Once you sit, do not change the position again until the end of the time you determined at the beginning.

46 begin focusing your attention on the rims of your nostrils. Simply notice the feeling of breath going in and out.

46 Do not verbalize or conceptualize anything. Simply notice the incoming and outgoing breath without saying, “I breathe in,” or “I breathe out.” When you focus your attention on the breath, ignore any thought, memory, sound, smell, taste, etc., and focus your attention exclusively on the breath, nothing else.

47 While breathing in, count “one, one, one, one…” until the lungs are full of fresh air. While breathing out count “two, two, two, two…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air.

49 After inhaling do not wait to notice the brief pause before exhaling but connect the inhaling with exhaling, so you can notice both inhaling and exhaling as one continuous breath.

52 notice whatever sensation arises in the body. When thought arises notice it, too. All you should notice in all these occurrences is the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of all your experiences

53 You will see the subtlety of impermanence and the subtlety of selflessness. This insight will show you the way to peace and happiness, and will give you the wisdom to handle your daily problems in life.

54 Here we see how even a small degree of desire for permanence in an impermanent situation causes pain or unhappiness. Since there is no self-entity to control this situation, we will become more disappointed. However, if we watch our breathing without desiring calmness and without resenting the tension arising from breathing in and out, and experience only the impermanence, the unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of our breath, our mind becomes peaceful and calm. The mind does not stay all the time with the feeling of breath. It goes to sounds, memories, emotions, perceptions, consciousness, and mental formations as well. When we experience these states, we should forget about the feeling of breath and immediately focus our attention on these states—one at a time, not all of them at one time. As they fade away, we let our mind return to the breath, which is the home base the mind can return to from quick or long journeys to various states of mind and body. We must remember that all these mental journeys are made within the mind itself. Every time the mind returns to the breath, it comes back with a deeper insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness. The mind becomes more insightful from the impartial and unbiased watching of these occurrences. The mind gains insight into the fact that this body, these feelings, the various states of consciousness and numerous mental formations are to be used only for the purpose of gaining deeper insight into the reality of this body-mind complex.

64 There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, with apparently no gap between them.

64 normal conscious thought is also greedy. It grabs all your attention and leaves none to notice its own effect. The difference between being aware of the thought and thinking the thought is very real. But it is extremely subtle and difficult to see. Concentration is one of the tools needed to be able to see this difference.

65 We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.

67 When we truly observe the breath, we are automatically placed in the present.

67 The first step in using the breath as an object of meditation is to find it. What you are looking for is the physical, tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils.

67 Once you have located your own breath point with clarity, don’t deviate from that spot. Use this single point in order to keep your attention fixed.

67 Make no attempt to control the breath.

68 Every breath has a beginning, middle, and end. Every inhalation goes through a process of birth, growth, and death, and every exhalation does the same.

69 You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not.

70 Feel the touch sensation of the out-breath. Breathe in, breathe out, and watch what happens. When you have been doing that for some time— perhaps weeks or months—you will begin to sense the touch as a physical object.

71 Let your meditation be a complete vacation. Trust yourself, trust your own ability to deal with these issues later, using the energy and freshness of mind that you built up during your meditation. Trust yourself this way and it will actually occur.

72 Mindfulness of breathing is a present-moment awareness. When you are doing it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring in the present.

74 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.

76 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 or an obligation.

79 decide on the length of your session before you meditate.

87 The most damaging psychic irritant arising in the mind, particularly at the time when the mind is quiet, is resentment. You may experience indignation remembering some incident that caused you psychological and physical pain.

92 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.

96 These students are conceiving mindfulness as something distinct from the experience of pain. It is not. Mindfulness never exists by itself. It always has some object, and one object is as good as another. Pain is a mental state. You can be mindful of pain just as you are mindful of breathing.

99 Try to resolve your immediate daily conflicts before meditation when you can.

100 If you are frantic and you can’t do a thing to stop it, just observe. It is all you. The result will be one more step forward in your journey of self-exploration. Above all, don’t get frustrated over the nonstop chatter of your mind.

100 Don’t assume that you know what breath is. Don’t take it for granted that you have already seen everything there is to see. If you do, you are conceptualizing the process. You are not observing its living reality. When you are clearly mindful of the breath or of anything else, it is never boring.

102 No matter what the source of your fear, mindfulness is the cure. Observe the fear exactly as it is. Don’t cling to it. Just watch it rising and growing. Study its effect. See how it makes you feel and how it affects your body. When you find yourself in the grip of horror fantasies, simply observe those mindfully. Watch the pictures as pictures. See memories as memories.

104 It should be pointed out that you learn about meditation only by meditating. You learn what meditation is all about and where it leads only through direct experience of the thing itself.

105 If you are discouraged over your perceived failure in meditation, that is especially easy to deal with. You feel you have failed in your practice. You have failed to be mindful. Simply become mindful of that sense of failure.

105 The instant that you realize that you have been unmindful, that realization itself is an act of mindfulness. So continue the process. Don’t get sidetracked by an emotional reaction.

109 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.”

110 When your mind is wild and agitated, you can often reestablish mindfulness with a few quick deep breaths.

111 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.

114 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.”

115 These distractions are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to deal with these things. Learning to notice them without being trapped in them. That’s what we are here for.

116 When any mental state arises strongly enough to distract you from the object of meditation, switch your attention to the distraction briefly. Make the distraction a temporary object of meditation.

116 The breath will always remain your primary focus. You switch your attention to the distraction only long enough to notice certain specific things about it. What is it? How strong is it? And how long does it last?

117 We must stop thinking the thought or feeling the feeling in order to view it as an object of inspection. This very process is an exercise in mindfulness, uninvolved, detached awareness. The hold of the distraction is thus broken, and mindfulness is back in control. At this point, mindfulness makes a smooth transition back to its primary focus, and we return to the breath.

118 Breathing. Breathing. Distracting thought arising. Frustration arising over the distracting thought. You condemn yourself for being distracted. You notice the self-condemnation. You return to the breathing. Breathing. Breathing.

118 Every bit of energy that you apply to that resistance goes into the thought complex and makes it all the stronger. So don’t try to force such thoughts out of your mind. It’s a battle you can never win. Just observe the distraction mindfully and it will eventually go away.

120 The purpose of meditation is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness.

124 Happiness, peace, inner contentment, sympathy, and compassion for all beings everywhere. These mental states are so sweet and so benevolent that you can scarcely bear to pry yourself loose from them. It makes you feel like a traitor to humanity. There is no need to feel this way. We are not advising you to reject these states of mind or to become heartless robots. We merely want you to see them for what they are. They are mental states. They come, and they go. They arise, and they pass away.

125 Let us use pain in the leg as an example. What is actually there is a pure, flowing sensation. It changes constantly, never the same from one moment to the next. It moves from one location to another, and its intensity surges up and down. Pain is not a thing. It is an event. There should be no concepts tacked on to it and none associated with it.

126 For most of us, we have earned high marks in school and in life for our ability to manipulate mental phenomena, or concepts, logically. Our careers, much of our success in everyday life, our happy relationships, we view as largely the result of our successful manipulation of concepts. In developing mindfulness, however, we temporarily suspend the conceptualization process and focus on the pure nature of mental phenomena. During meditation we are seeking to experience the mind at the preconceptual level.

126 When you introduce “I” into the process, you are building a conceptual gap between the reality and the awareness viewing that reality. Thoughts such as “me,” “my,” or “mine” have no place in direct awareness.

129 Realize that you have been off the track for such and such a length of time and go back to the breath. There is no need for any negative reaction at all. The very act of realizing that you have been off the track is an active awareness. It is an exercise of pure mindfulness all by itself.

129 The very fact that you have felt that wake-up sensation means that you have just improved your mindfulness power. That means you win. Move back to the breathing without regret. However, the regret is a conditioned reflex, and it may come along anyway—another mental habit.

132 It is the purpose of vipassana meditation to train us to prolong that moment of awareness.

133 Whatever experience we may be having, mindfulness just accepts it. It is simply another of life’s occurrences, just another thing to be aware of. No pride, no shame, nothing personal at stake—what is there is there.

143 Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray.

145 Mindfulness is not dependent on any such particular circumstance, physical or otherwise. It is a pure noticing factor. Thus it is free to notice whatever comes up—lust, hatred, or noise.

145 Really deep concentration can only take place under certain specific conditions.

147 Concentration is exclusive. It settles down on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive. It stands back from the focus of attention and watches with a broad focus, quick to notice any change that occurs.

149 put your effort on concentration at the beginning until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down a bit. After that, emphasize mindfulness. If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness. Overall, mindfulness is the one to emphasize.

159 A state of mindfulness is a state of mental readiness. The mind is not burdened with preoccupations or bound in worries. Whatever comes up can be dealt with instantly.

160 Sitting anxiously in the dentist’s office, meditate on your anxiety. Feeling irritated while standing in a line at the bank, meditate on irritation.

161 If your meditation isn’t helping you to cope with everyday conflicts and struggles, then it is shallow. If your day-to-day emotional reactions are not becoming clearer and easier to manage, then you are wasting your time.

180 Cultivate loving friendliness toward yourself first, with the intention of sharing your kind thoughts with others.

185 When we are angry with someone, we can ask ourselves, “Am I angry at the hair on that person’s head? Am I angry at his skin? His teeth? His brain? His heart? His sense of humor? His tenderness? His generosity? His smile?” When we take the time to consider all the many elements and processes that make up a person, our anger naturally softens.

194 Most systems of meditation emphasize the samatha component. The meditator focuses his or her mind on a certain item, such as a prayer, a chant, a candle flame, or a religious image,

195 The vipassana meditator uses concentration as a tool by which his or her awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that blocks the living light of reality.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


4 thoughts on “Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, 1992

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