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«Mindfulness In Plain English By Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Preface In my experience I found that the most effective way to express something in order ...»

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If you ever sawed wood you already know the trick. As a carpenter, you don't stand there watching the saw blade going up and down. You will get dizzy. You fix your attention on the spot where the teeth of the blade dig into the wood. It is the only way you can saw a straight line. As a meditator, you focus your attention on that single spot of sensation inside the nose. From this vantage point, you watch the entire movement of breath with clear and collected attention. Make no attempt to control the breath. This is not a breathing exercise of the sort done in Yoga. Focus on the natural and spontaneous movement of the breath. Don't try to regulate it or emphasize it in any way. Most beginners have some trouble in this area. In order to help themselves focus on the sensation, they unconsciously accentuate their breathing. The results is a forced and unnatural effort that actually inhibits concentration rather than helping it. Don't increase the depth of your breath or its sound. This latter point is especially important in group meditation. Loud breathing can be a real annoyance to those around you. Just let the breath move naturally, as if you were asleep. Let go and allow the process to go along at its own rhythm.

This sounds easy, but it is trickier than you think. Do not be discouraged if you find your own will getting in the way. Just use that as an opportunity to observe the nature of conscious intention. Watch the delicate interrelation between the breath, the impulse to control the breath and the impulse to cease controlling the breath. You may find it frustrating for a while, but it is highly profitable as a learning experience, and it is a passing phase. Eventually, the breathing process will move along under its own steam.

And you will feel no impulse to manipulate it. At this point you will have learned a major lesson about your own compulsive need to control the universe.

Breathing, which seems so mundane and uninteresting at first glance, is actually an enormously complex and fascinating procedure. It is full of delicate variations, if you look. There is inhalation and exhalation, long breath and short breath, deep breath, shallow breath, smooth breath and ragged breath. These categories combine with one another in subtle and intricate ways. Observe the breath closely. Really study it. You find enormous variations and a constant cycle of repeated patterns. It is like a symphony.

Don't observe just the bare outline of the breath. There is more to see here than just an inbreath and an out-breath. 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.

The depth and speed of your breathing changes according to your emotional state, the thought that flows through your mind and the sounds you hear. Study these phenomena.

You will find them fascinating.

This does not mean, however, that you should be sitting there having little conversations with yourself inside your head: "There is a short ragged breath and there is a deep long one. I wonder what's next?" No, that is not Vipassana. That is thinking. You will find this sort of thing happening, especially in the beginning. This too is a passing phase. Simply note the phenomenon and return your attention toward the observation of the sensation of breath. Mental distractions will happen again. But return your attention to your breath again, and again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes until it does not happen anymore.

When you first begin this procedure, expect to face some difficulties. Your mind will wander off constantly, darting around like a drunken bumblebee and zooming off on wild tangents. Try not to worry. The monkey-minded phenomenon is well known. It is something that every advanced meditator has had to deal with. They have pushed through it one way or another, and so can you. When it happens, just note the fact that you have been thinking, day-dreaming, worrying, or whatever. Gently, but firmly, without getting upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return to the simple physical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again.

Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation. So don't let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.

In the wordless observation of the breath, there are two states to be avoided: thinking and sinking. The thinking mind manifests most clearly as the monkey-mind phenomenon we have just been discussing. The sinking mind is almost the reverse. As a general term, sinking mind denotes any dimming of awareness. At its best, it is sort of a mental vacuum in which there is no thought, no observation of the breath, no awareness of anything. It is a gap, a formless mental gray area rather like a dreamless sleep. Sinking mind is a void.





Avoid it.

Vipassana meditation is an active function. Concentration is a strong, energetic attention to one single item. Awareness is a bright clean alertness. Samahdhi and Sati -- these are the two faculties we wish to cultivate. And sinking mind contains neither. At its worst, it will put you to sleep. Even at its best it will simply waste your time.

When you find you have fallen into a state of sinking mind, just note the fact and return your attention to the sensation of breathing. Observe the tactile sensation of the in-breath.

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. Simply continue the process--breathe in and breathe out. Watch what happens. As your concentration deepens you will have less and less trouble with monkey-mind. Your breathing will slow down and you will track it more and more clearly, with fewer and fewer interruptions. You begin to experience a state of great calm in which you enjoy complete freedom from those things we call psychic irritants. No greed, lust, envy, jealousy or hatred. Agitation goes away. Fear flees. These are beautiful, clear, blissful states of mind. They are temporary, and they will end when meditation ends. Yet even these brief experiences will change your life. This is not liberation, but these are stepping stones on the path that leads in that direction. Do not, however, expect instant bliss. Even these stepping stones take time and effort and patience.

The meditation experience is not a competition. There is a definite goal. But there is no timetable. What you are doing is digging your way deeper and deeper through the layers of illusion toward realization of the supreme truth of existence. The process itself is fascinating and fulfilling. It can be enjoyed for its own sake. There is no need to rush.

At the end of a well-done meditation session you will feel a delightful freshness of mind.

It is peaceful, buoyant, and joyous energy which you can then apply to the problems of daily living. This in itself is reward enough. The purpose of meditation is not to deal with problems, however, and problem-solving ability is a fringe benefit and should be regarded as such. If you place too much emphasis on the problem-solving aspect, you will find your attention turning to those problems during the session, sidetracking concentration. Don't think about your problems during your practice. Push them aside very gently.

Take a break from all that worrying and planning. 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.

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. At the beginning of an inhalation, make the resolve to follow the breath just for the period of that one inhalation.

Even this is not so easy, but at least it can be done. Then, at the start of the exhalation, resolve to follow the breath just for that one exhalation, all the way through. You will still fail repeatedly, but keep at it.

Every time you stumble, start over. Take it one breath at a time. This is the level of the game where you can actually win. Stick at it -- fresh resolve with every breath cycle, tiny units of time. Observe each breath with care and precision, taking it one split second on top of another, with fresh resolve piled one on top of the other. In this way, continuous and unbroken awareness will eventually result.

Mindfulness of breathing is a present-time awareness. When you are doing it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring in the present. You don't look back and you don't look forward. You forget about the last breath, and you don't anticipate the next one.

When the inhalation is just beginning, you don't look ahead to the end of that inhalation.

You don't skip forward to the exhalation which is to follow. You stay right there with what is actually taking place. The inhalation is beginning, and that's what you pay attention to; that and nothing else.

This meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness in the present time. This is an incredibly high goal, and not to be reached all at once. It takes practice, so we start small. We start by becoming totally aware of one small unit of time, just one single inhalation. And, when you succeed, you are on your way to a whole new experience of life.

–  –  –

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 gentle, 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



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