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Mindfulness in Plain English

Written by: Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Published: November 1, 1996


In "Mindfulness in Plain English," Bhante Henepola Gunaratana invites readers into the world of mindfulness meditation with an approach that is both profound and accessible. He begins by dispelling myths that often surround meditation — it is neither a quick fix for life's problems nor an esoteric ritual shrouded in mystery. Gunaratana defines mindfulness as the simple and direct practice of moment-to-moment observation of the mind, with a focus on cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding through a gentle but disciplined effort.

The book outlines the benefits of meditation, including enhanced concentration, emotional positivity, and a calmness that permeates all aspects of one's life. Gunaratana emphasizes that these benefits are the byproducts of the practice, not the primary goal. The true purpose of meditation, he asserts, is to understand the nature of suffering, its origin, cessation, and the path that leads to its cessation — echoing the core teachings of Buddhism.

Gunaratana carefully guides readers through the fundamentals of starting a meditation practice. He covers the practicalities of choosing a quiet space, setting a regular schedule, and finding a comfortable posture. He also discusses the centrality of mindfulness of breath — anapanasati — which serves as a tool to tether the mind to the present moment and cultivate awareness. Attention to the breath is presented as a means to steady the mind and build the concentration necessary for deeper insight.

Throughout the book, Gunaratana addresses common challenges faced by meditators. He offers solutions for dealing with difficulties such as restlessness, drowsiness, and doubt, underscoring the importance of patience and perseverance. The author stresses that mindfulness is not about achieving a state of blissful tranquility but rather about facing the full spectrum of human experience with openness and equanimity.

Gunaratana delves into the concept of 'Mindfulness in Everyday Life,' advocating for the extension of mindfulness beyond the meditation cushion into daily activities. He suggests that every action — eating, walking, speaking, listening — can be done with mindfulness, transforming mundane activities into opportunities for practice and growth.

The later chapters of the book explore the deeper philosophical underpinnings of mindfulness, drawing from Buddhist principles to discuss the nature of reality, the interplay of perception and sensation, and the cultivation of wisdom. Gunaratana presents mindfulness as a lifelong journey towards self-discovery and liberation, encouraging a practice that is both diligent and imbued with loving-kindness.

Final Thoughts

"Mindfulness in Plain English" is a testament to Bhante Henepola Gunaratana's expertise and his skill as a teacher. The book serves as a vital companion for anyone on the path of meditation, offering the insights and instructions necessary for a meaningful practice. It stands as an invitation to embrace mindfulness as a way of being, leading to a life of greater clarity, compassion, and peace.

10 Big Ideas

1. Think Strategically

Approach every decision by considering not only your own actions but also the potential reactions of others involved.

2. Understand Nash Equilibrium

Recognize situations where changing your strategy doesn't provide a benefit if others keep theirs unchanged, aiming for decisions that balance mutual best responses.

3. Embrace Mixed Strategies

Incorporate randomness into your actions to remain unpredictable and prevent opponents from taking advantage of a set pattern.

4. Analyze Sequential Games

When actions are sequential, look ahead and reason back. Anticipate the moves of others and plan your strategy accordingly.

5. Master Simultaneous Games

In games where players act at the same time, prepare for every possible move your opponents might make and decide on the best response.

6. Leverage Information Asymmetry

Use any informational advantage you have wisely, and be aware of the information you reveal through your actions and signals.

7. Signal Effectively

Send credible signals to influence the actions of others, and watch for signals that might inform you of their intentions.

8. Commit Wisely

Understand the power of commitment and how binding yourself to a course of action can shape the strategies of others.

9. Negotiate with Insight

Apply game theory principles in negotiations to find agreements that are beneficial for all parties involved.

10. Foster Trust and Build Coalitions

Recognize the value of cooperation and trust in competitive environments, and know when forming alliances can lead to better outcomes.

5 Exercises

1: Mindful Observation

Objective: To cultivate present-moment awareness by observing everyday objects with full attention.

  • Select an ordinary object from your surroundings, like a cup or a plant.
  • Spend five minutes observing the object, noticing its color, shape, texture, and any other attributes.
  • If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the object, practicing non-judgmental observation.
2: Sensory Mindfulness

Objective: To enhance awareness of the present moment through the senses.

  • Choose a sense to focus on, such as taste during a meal or touch while holding an item.
  • Engage fully with the sensory experience, noting the nuances and details.
  • Practice this exercise with each sense throughout the day to heighten sensory awareness.
3: Breath Focus

Objective: To develop concentration and calmness by focusing on the breath.

  • Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes.
  • Take slow, deep breaths and pay attention to the sensation of air moving in and out of your nostrils.
  • Do this for five minutes, using the breath as an anchor to the present whenever the mind wanders.
4: Walking Meditation

Objective: To practice mindfulness in motion and integrate awareness into physical activity.

  • Go for a walk at a relaxed pace, ideally in a quiet space.
  • Focus on the sensation of your feet touching the ground with each step.
  • When you notice your mind drifting to other thoughts, gently return your focus to the act of walking.
5: Mindful Listening

Objective: To improve the quality of interpersonal communication and relationships through active listening.

  • In conversations, make a conscious effort to listen attentively without formulating a response while the other person is speaking.
  • Notice the tone, emotion, and pauses in the speaker’s delivery, and respond thoughtfully.
  • After the conversation, reflect on what you learned and how the practice of mindful listening affected the interaction.

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