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Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana

I’ve always been interested in meditation. Having grown up in the Silicon Valley, I’ve found that the heart of the tech world has an ironic obsession with spirituality. While not busy mining the finest 1’s and 0’s from the Silicon Valley Mines, idols like Steve Jobs are/were well known for their obsession with spirituality.

About a year or two ago I began to read more about meditation and started integrating a basic form of deep breathing into my life. After backpacking around Southeast and East Asia for a few months this amateur interest gained steam. Theravada Buddhism is very popular in Southeast Asia, so during my month in Vietnam I had lots of exposure to it while visiting shrines or hanging out with natives. Zen Buddhism is more popular in East Asia, which matches my ethnicity (I’m half Chinese and half Japanese).

After reading around online and practicing the basics I found - r/meditation is a fantastic resource! I decided I wanted to dive deeper into the Theravada school of Buddhism. This was because it was more based on the scriptures and thus can be self-studied while Zen tends to need a mentor or teacher to guide you. Thus, I decided to read Mindfulness in Plain English, a well known and practical book on Theravada meditation.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana. These first four are actually ideas that I keep on hand and reread on a weekly basis.

Chapter 1: Meditation, Why Bother? pg 4

“The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant. Moment by moment life flows by and it is never the same. Perpetual alteration is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought springs up in your head and half a second later, it is gone. In comes another one, and that is gone too. A sound strikes your ears and then silence. Open your eyes and the world pours in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and they leave again. Friends go, relatives die. Your fortunes go up and they go down. Sometimes you win and just as often you lose. It is incessant: change, change, change. No two moments ever the same.”

“There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the universe. But human culture has taught us some odd responses to this endless flowing. We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow into one of three mental pigeon holes. It is good, or it is bad, or it is neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled ‘good’, then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, we fondle it, we hold it, we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience which caused that thought. Let us call this mental habit ‘grasping’.”

“Over on the other side of the mind lies the box labeled ‘bad’. When we perceive something ‘bad’, we try to push it away. We try to deny it, reject it, get rid of it any way we can. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces of ourselves. Let us call this mental habit ‘rejecting’. Between these two reactions lies the neutral box. Here we place the experiences which are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting and boring. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that we can ignore it and thus return our attention to where the action is, namely our endless round of desire and aversion. This category of experience gets robbed of its fair share of our attention. Let us call this mental habit ‘ignoring’. The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience. Than wondering why life tastes so flat. In the final analysis, it’s a system that does not work.”

Chapter 4: Attitude, pg 37 book, pg 28 (pdf version)

“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.”

Chapter 12: Dealing with Distractions II, pg 124, pg 78 (pdf Version)

“Like the breath, mental states have three stages: beginning, middle, and end. Often when you realize your concentration has drifted and you’ve been thinking awhile… it’s cause the mental state is near its end. You have to learn to find it at the beginning (as it rises out of your unconscious) and gently watch it through to its end.”

Chapter 12: Dealing with Distractions II, pg 128, Notes

“We are constantly conceptualizing, to solve our problems, to communicate. But with mindfulness you examine before conceptualization, and look at the pure nature of mental phenomena.”

“Conceptualization is an insidiously clever process. It creeps into you experience, and it simply takes over. When you hear a sound in meditation, pay bare attention to the experience of hearing. That and that only. What is really happening is so utterly simple that we can and do miss it altogether. Sound waves are striking the ear in a certain unique pattern. Those waves are being translated into electrical impulses within the brain and those impulses present a sound pattern to consciousness. That is all. No pictures. No mind movies. No concepts. No interior dialogues about the question. Just noise. Reality is elegantly simple and unadorned. When you hear a sound, be mindful of the process of hearing. Everything else is just added chatter. Drop it. The same rule applies to every sensation, every emotion, every experience you may have. Look closely at your own experience. Dig down through the layers of mental bric-a-brac and see what is really there. You will be amazed how simple it is, and how beautiful.”

And many more to follow below!

I have a friend who’s an actor LA, this quote reminded me of my conversations of him about method acting. As well as showing a practical application of mindfulness - that you can change who you are with it. Chapter 3: What Meditation is, pg 25

“Tantric… The self-concept or ego is nothing more than a set of reactions and mental images that are artificially pasted to the flowing process of pure awareness… The student is given a particular religious image to meditate upon, for example, one of the deities from the tantric pantheon…. She takes off her own identity and puts on another. During the process, she is able to watch the way in which the ego is constructed and put in place. She comes to recognize the arbitrary nature of all egos, including her own, and she escapes from bondage to the ego. She is left in a state where she may have an ego if she so chooses - either her own or whichever other she might wish - or she can make do without one.”

Chapter 3: What Meditation is, pg 25

“The object of Vipassana practice is to learn to see the truths of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of phenomena. We think we are doing this already, but that is an illusion. It comes from the fact that we are paying so little attention to the ongoing surge of our own life experiences that we might just as well be asleep. We are simply not paying enough attention to notice that we are not paying attention. It is another Catch-22.”

Chapter 4: Attitude, pg 35, pg 27 (pdf version)

“10. Don’t ponder: You don’t need to figure everything out. Discursive thinking won’t free you from the trap. In meditation, 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.”

Chapter 4: The Attitude, pg 37, pg 28 (pdf version)

“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.”

Chapter 5: The Practice, pg 40, pg 29 (pdf version)

“At that point, without trying to confuse the feeling with the mental formations, we should isolate the feeling as feeling and watch it mindfully. Feeling is one of the seven universal mental factors. The other six are contact, perception, mental formations, concentration, life force, and awareness.”

Chapter 5: The Practice, pg 48, pg 34 (pdf version)

“The fourth method is to take a long breath. When the lungs are full, mentally count "one” and breath out completely until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Then count mentally “two”. Take a long breath again and count “three” and breathe completely out as before. When the lungs are empty of fresh air, count mentally “four”. Count your breath in this manner up to ten. Then count backward from ten to one. Count again from one to ten and then ten to one."

Chapter 5: The Practice, Notes

Start with Empathy and loving kindness, Three deep breaths to concentrate, then tip of nostrils, then find your sign.

Chapter 10: Dealing With Problems, pg 93

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Pain and suffering are two different animals. If any of these tragedies strike you in your present mind, you will suffer. The habit patterns that presently control your mind, you will suffer. The habit patterns that presently control your mind will lock you into that suffering, and there will be no escape. A bit of time spent in learning alternatives to those habit patterns is time well invested. Most human beings spend all their energies devising ways to increase their pleasure and decrease their pain… but Buddhism does advise you to invest time and energy in learning to deal with unpleasantness, because some pain is unavoidable.”

Chapter 10: Dealing with Problems, Notes

Blissful feelings or sense of failure is actually drawing you away from mindfulness.

Chapter 11: Dealing with Distractions, pg 109

“Concentration and mindfulness go hand in hand. Each one complements the other. If either one is weak, the other one will eventually be affected. Bad days are usually characterized by poor concentration. Your mind just keeps floating around. You need a method of reestablishing your concentration, even in the face of mental adversity. Luckily, you have it. In fact, you can choose from an array of traditional practical maneuvers.”

Chapter 11: Dealing with Distractions, pg 111 Notes

Dealing With obsession, “Maneuver 5: Canceling One Thought with Another”. The idea that we’ve fed fantasies and worries and ambitions for years. We’ve built them into complexes that bombard your mind with persistent thoughts. To get these to lie down you requires a direct approach, a full-scale frontal attack…

Chapter 11: Dealing with Distractions, pg 113

“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.”

Chapter 12: Dealing with Distractions II, pg 116, pg 73 (pdf version)

“Temporarily meditate on distractions. Wordlessly answer these questions: what is it, how strong is it, how long does it last”

Chapter 12: Dealing with Distractions II, pg 129, pg 80 (pdf version)

“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.”

Chapter 14, Mindfulness vs Concentration, Notes

A distinction that I hadn’t realized: Mindfulness is more important overall, but concentration is what you have to focus on in the beginning. Or else monkey mind will overwhelm mindfulness with random chatter. Overall, mindfulness will lead to better concentration by making you aware that your concentration has slipped and allowing you to re-engage it.

The Power of Loving Friendliness: The Four Sublime States, pg 174 Notes

Loving Friendliness, Compassion, Appreciative Joy, and Equanimity

Uses the metaphor of having a child. Before the child is born, it’s already being cared for regardless of its actions. This is metta or loving friendliness. As the infant starts exploring the world, it will hurt itself sometimes, and the parents feel the same pain. This is compassion. When the child gets older and goes to school, it will have successes, and the parents will feel happiness for it. This is appreciative joy. Finally, when the child goes out on his own, the parents will practice equanimity: the appreciate that they have done all they could for the child but no longer steer the outcome of the child’s life

Appendix: the Context of the Tradition, Notes

Vipassana is “insight”, a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens

Samatha can be translated as “concentration” or “tranquility,” and is a state in which the mind is focused only on one item, brought to rest, and not allowed to wander"

This book focuses on Theravada Buddhism, common in South and Southeast Asia. The other main school is Mahaya Buddhism which is more common in East Asia, mainly the Zen school. A quick Google search shows that Theravada is better for my situation, although it doesn’t line up with my heritage. The reasons for this is that it is more based on scriptures so less based on teacher

As a disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of the introduction. It promises the solution to all lives problems and happiness - I feel like I’m being sold snake oil. It also mocks normal people and the way they live… for example, the quote below from page 8. Civilization is responsible for so much good and technology has raised our standard of living to a level that was unimaginable just a century ago. Chapter 1: Meditation, Why Bother? pg 7

“Wait a minute, though. Peace and happiness! Isn’t that what civilization is all about? We build skyscrapers and freeways. We have paid vacations, TV sets. We provide free hospitals and sick leaves, Social Security and welfare benefits. All of that is aimed at providing some measure of peace and happiness. Yet the rate of mental illness climbs steadily, and the crime rates rise faster. The streets are crawling with delinquents and unstable individuals. Stick your arms outside the safety of your own door and somebody is very likely to steal your watch! Something is not working. A happy man does not feel driven to kill. We like to think that our society is exploiting every area of human knowledge in order to achieve peace and happiness.”