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Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.
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Why Meditate?

Many of us find life continuously unsatisfying. We can distract the nagging feeling for a time, but it inevitably comes back. We must have more. Things must be better. We get stuck in “if only” wishful thinking mode - “if only I had X, all my problems will be solved.”

There is no satisfying this impulse. You will never have enough. You equilibrate so quickly to your environment that nothing is ever satisfying enough. The only winning move is not to play.

Is there another way to live? You can control your mind to step outside the endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn not to stop wanting what you currently crave, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them.

Meditation is the path to this level of understanding and mental peace. It purifies the mind of “psychic irritants,” bringing you to a new state of tranquility and awareness. It makes you deeply aware of your own thoughts and actions.

What Meditation Is

Meditation involves concentration, like prayer and yogic meditation. But concentration is a means to an end - the ultimate goal is awareness, or mindfulness.

Awareness is the ability to listen to our own thoughts without being caught up in them.

  • So much of your thought is automatic that you cannot be said to have real control of your thinking. Up pops a stimulus (an attractive person, the smell of food, annoying party music) - and immediately you react with a feeling.
  • The first step to avoid this is to realize what you are doing as you are doing it, to stand back and quietly watch. You learn to scrutinize your own perceptual process with precision. You decouple the perception of a stimulus with the arising of thought.
  • With meditation, you examine the very process of perception. You watch the feelings that arise and the changes that occur in your own consciousness.

For much of your life, you have given in to your impulses out of habit. When you’re mindful you see through the “hollow shouting of your own impulses” and pierce their secret. Your urges yell at you, coaxing, beckoning, threatening, but you realize they have no power at all.

The Mindset of Meditating

Meditation is very sensitive to the mental attitude you bring to the activity. Here’s the right attitude to have while meditating.

Don’t expect anything. Sit back and see what happens. See it as an experiment. Let the meditation move along at its own speed and in its own direction. Throw away your preconceptions of what it should feel like and what it should achieve.

Don’t strain or rush. Counter-intuitively, the more you force things, the further you’ll be from your goal.

Accept everything that arises. Don’t condemn yourself for having feelings you wish you didn’t have. Accept them. This is the first step to removing yourself of them.

Don’t ponder. Thinking won’t free you from the trap. Meditation purifies the mind naturally by mindfulness, without using thoughts or words. Don’t think. See.

How to Start Meditating

Determine how long you are going to meditate. Beginners can start at 10-20 minutes. But do not worry about attaining any particular goal within a particular time period - this will just be distracting and counterproductive.

Sit in a comfortable pose. Do not change the position again until the time you determined at the beginning. Shifting positions...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Shortform Introduction

If you haven’t ever tried meditating, parts of this summary will sound hokey, too ethereal and wishy-washy. “Loving friendliness? Nonconceptual awareness? Hogwash!” You can redefine these terms in your own words in a way that’s satisfying to you.

You might be...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 1: Meditation: Why Bother?

Many of us find life continuously unsatisfying. We can distract the nagging feeling for a time, but it inevitably comes back. We must have more. Things must be better. We get stuck in “if only” wishful thinking mode - “if only I had X, all my problems will be solved.”

There is no satisfying this impulse. You will never have enough. You equilibrate so quickly to your environment that nothing is ever satisfying enough. The only winning move is not to play.

Popular media invokes the emotions of jealousy, suffering, stress, and anger. People who are at peace with themselves do not feel these feelings.

The culprit of dissatisfaction lies in categorization of experiences as good, bad, and neutral.

  • For good experiences, we hope to freeze time at that moment and keep it from escaping. When that fails, we keep chasing this high. But even in these moments, we feel the...

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Shortform Exercise: Examine Your Own Emotions

Think about where you feel unsatisfied.


Do you identify with the feeling that you find life continuously unsatisfying? What does that feel like? What do you feel you don’t have enough of?

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapters 2-3: What Meditation Is and Isn’t

Mindfulness in Plain English deals specifically with vipassana meditation (or insight meditation), with roots in Theravada Buddhism.

What Meditation Isn’t

There are other forms of meditation, and misconceptions about meditation, that this book is not dealing with:

  • Meditation is not just relaxation or euphoria. You can achieve a deep and blissful relaxation (eg through samatha meditation), but this is only temporary. The goal of vipassana is further: awareness.
  • Meditation is not going into a trance. In a trance, you lose control of yourself and are susceptible to control by another party. In deep concentration, you maintain control of yourself.
  • Meditation doesn’t let you have psychic powers.
  • Meditation is not selfish. It clears the mind of selfish intent and opens the path to compassion for others. In contrast, there are plenty of bad deeds done in the name of good that are actually ego-driven (the Spanish Inquisition).

Furthermore, meditation is not mindless, automatic, and predictable. It should be an experiment every time. If you reach a feeling of predictability in your practice, you have stagnated and gone off track. **Look at each...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 4: The Right Attitude

Meditation is very sensitive to the mental attitude you bring to the activity. Here’s the right attitude to have while meditating.

Don’t expect anything. Sit back and see what happens. See it as an experiment. Let the meditation move along at its own speed and in its own direction. Throw away your preconceptions of what it should feel like and what it should achieve.

Don’t strain or rush. Counter-intuitively, the more you force things, the further you’ll be from your...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 5: Starting Your Practice

Next, Mindfulness in Plain English introduces the starting steps to practicing meditation:

Determine how long you are going to meditate. Beginners can start at 10-20 minutes. But do not worry about attaining any particular goal within a particular time period - this will just be distracting and counterproductive.

Sit in a comfortable pose. Do not change the position again until the time you determined at the beginning. Shifting positions will avoid giving you a deep level of concentration.

Sit motionlessly and close your eyes.

Your mind is like a cup of muddy water. Keep it still, and the mud will settle down and the water will be seen clearly.

The mind must focus on a mental object that is present at every moment. The book recommends starting with focusing on your breath.

Take 3 deep breaths. Then breathe normally and effortlessly, focusing your attention on the rims of your nostrils where the air is flowing through.

  • Simply notice the feeling of breath going in and out. You may notice mindfully that there is a brief pause between inhaling and exhaling - but don’t obsess over this.

Do not verbalize or conceptualize anything. Simply...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 6: What to Do with Your Body

The author is clear to say that you should learn by doing, not by following dogmatic prescriptions. However, there are certain meditation practices that have been optimized over millennia, and they’re worth trying out.

The body position is meant to provide stability to remove distractions and create immobility of the mind.

Sit with your back straight. The spine should be erect, with the head in line with the spine. Be relaxed, not stiff. Have no muscular tension.

  • Straightness invites alertness. Slouching invites drowsiness.

Your clothing should be loose and soft. Don’t wear clothing so tight it restricts blood flow or nerve sensation. Take your shoes off.

You can...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 7: What to Do with Your Mind

The state you are aiming for is where you are aware of everything that is happening in the moment, observing your thoughts forming and disappearing without engaging in the thoughts.

This is different from thinking about all thoughts that come up, which is akin to daydreaming.

There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. The “texture” is different.

  • Being aware of a thought is light in texture, arising lightly as a bubble, and the thought passes without giving rise to the next thought in the chain.
  • Normal conscious thought is heavier in texture - “ponderous, commanding, compulsive.” It leads straight to the next thought in the chain.

The object is to use breathing as the focus of concentration. Your breath is the reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distractions, by definition, are deviations from a central focus. From this central focus of breathing, you then go on to note all physical and mental other phenomena that arise.

Why focus on breathing, and not any other thought or sensation? The author recommends breathing as the object of focus because:

  • It is portable, cheap, and freely available....

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 8: Structuring Your Meditation

Meditation requires continuous practice, and so it benefits from structure.

The environment: Sit in a quiet, secluded place where you won’t be disturbed. Don’t be on display or feel self-conscious. Avoid places with music or talking. Ideally sit in the same place each time.

When to Sit

Establish a formal practice schedule. Set aside a certain time.

  • Meditating in the morning is a...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 9: Set-up Exercises

It is tradition to begin meditation with a few recitations. They have a practical purpose for psychological cleansing and aren’t meant to be dogmatic rituals.

(Shortform note: similarly, there is a commonly accepted way to swim the breaststroke or hit a golf ball or do long division - meditation should be no different despite it being a mental rather than a physical activity.)

Try these out and if they don’t work for you, then discard them.

Recitation 1

“I am about to tread the very same path that has been walked by the Buddha and by his great and holy disciples. An indolent person cannot follow that path. May my energy prevail. May I succeed.”

This recitation is used to overcome the hesitation when facing the large task ahead of you. Your mind is a jumble, and overcoming that looks like climbing a massive wall. Knowing that others have struggled with the same issues and succeeded should imbue you with confidence.

Recitation 2

This wishes loving kindness on others.

“May ___ be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to ___....

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Shortform Exercise: Wishing Loving Kindness

Try the recitation to practice loving kindness to people you don’t usually wish it for.

The recitation: “May ___ be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to _. May they always meet with spiritual success. May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life. May they always rise above them with morality, integrity, forgiveness, compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom.”


Repeat this recitation multiple times (out loud or in your head), replacing the blanks with these in order: I | my parents | my teachers | my relatives | my friends | all indifferent persons | all unfriendly persons | all living beings. You can also picture specific people with whom you have problems.

How do you feel afterward? Do you sense any changes in someone you previously felt friction with?

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 10: Dealing with Problems

Sometimes your meditation will feel like hitting a brick wall. These are opportunities to develop your practice. Instead of running away, you confront the problem head-on, examining it to oblivion. If you can deal with issues that arise in meditation, it will carry over to the rest of your life.

Buddhist philosophy: “pain is inevitable. Suffering is not.” Bad things happen to everyone. How you deal with it and interpret it determines how you are affected emotionally by bad things.

For all problems that arise, the general approach is to observe it mindfully without getting engaged. Watch the problem form, peak, and dissipate. Notice its intensity and how it affects the body. The problem will naturally dissipate. And you will find that many of our day-to-day emotions are simply superficial mental states that have no control over you.

The common problems that arise:

Physical pain

  • Get rid of physical pain before meditating (eg medicine for a headache).
  • Wear loose clothing and relax your posture. Keep your arms and neck muscles relaxed.
  • If pain remains, make the pain the object of...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 11-12: Dealing with Distractions

It’s easier to concentrate in areas without distractions, hence why Buddhist monks go to meditation halls free of the other gender, noise, and daily concerns like food.

Example distractions are sounds, sensations, emotions, fantasy. Emotions include desire, aversion, self-condemnation, agitation, doubt.

For all distractions that arise, the general approach is to observe it mindfully without getting engaged. Watch the distraction form and dissipate. Notice its intensity and how it affects the body. Notice how long it lasts. Don’t help or hinder the thought. The distraction will naturally dissipate.

The ideal you’re going for is to experience each mental state fully, adding nothing to it nor missing a part of it. Example: with pain, there is a pure, flowing sensation. You don’t reject it, attach words to it, or think about it. You don’t picture a colored diagram of the leg with lightning bolts shooting at where it hurts. Instead, you simply become aware of it and watch it come and go.

Thoughts are often verbalized as “I have a pain in my leg.” You add the “I” to the experience, identifying with the pain. Leave “I” out of it - then pain is not painful, it’s simply a...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 13-14: What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is difficult to attach words to, as by nature it is presymbolic (it exists beyond the use of symbols to represent it). But the author tries to describe what characterizes mindfulness:

  • The feeling of pure non-conceptual awareness before you conceptualize the thing and turn it into conscious thought.
  • Nonjudgmental, without any preconceived notions.
    • It’s impossible to observe what’s going on if you don’t accept its occurrence. It’s important to accept your negative emotions without judgment to deal with them fully.
  • Present-moment: it takes place here and now. Thinking about the past or the future requires conscious thinking that is not mindfulness.
  • Non-egotistic: it does not refer to the self. No “I” or “me.” It merely observes what is there.
    • For example, “I have a pain” is distorting the sensation.
  • Aware of change.
    • It watches phenomena decay and die.
    • It watches how a sensation affects the...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 15: Meditation in Everyday Life

The ultimate goal is to be mindful in every waking moment outside of meditation. Meditation is merely practice for this ultimate goal, instilling new habits. What’s the point if you feel at peace during meditation but return to the real world with anger?

It’s essential to apply effort to connect meditation with the rest of your existence. Otherwise, the carryover will be slow and unreliable without dedicated effort. The below exercises allow you to practice little bits of mindfulness outside the sitting meditation. You go into a meditative state when doing everyday activities - walking, drinking tea, breathing, waiting - and develop mindfulness outside sitting meditation.

With time, you will pleasantly find that you’re meditating without thinking about it - driving down the freeway or brushing your teeth.

Walking Meditation

Sitting meditation is by nature still, but conscious life is all about motion. To translate mindfulness practices over into the conscious life, Bhante recommends practicing meditation while walking slowly.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a secluded place where you’ll be free from observation and be able to take 5-10 steps in a straight line. *...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Chapter 16: Benefits of Meditation

What tend to be the benefits of meditation?

Selflessness - many psychic irritants are centered around the ego: “I feel pain. I want more. She’s better than me.” There is a clear partition between you and the world. Through meditation, you necessarily let go of the ego as you observe your feelings come and go. You see greed, resentment, anger for what they are and what they do to you and others. **Eventually you internalize the damage of negative emotions, and you avoid it unconsciously, much like a child who is burned...

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Mindfulness in Plain English Summary Mindfulness in Plain English Guide Afterword: The Power of Loving Friendliness

Metta is loving friendliness. When you project it out to other people, you feel more at peace yourself. You become calm and peaceful, with your anger and resentment fading away. Your words and your deeds become warmer, and you live with others in harmony.

In contrast, wishing ill on others or acting immorally is poisoning yourself.

The Buddha defines four sublime states: loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. A good analogy for understanding this is the evolution of how a parent views her child:

  • Loving friendliness - in the beginning, there is pure love and caring for the child. It is limitless and unconditional.
  • Compassion - as the infant makes mistakes and feels pain, the parent feels pain as well. This is not pity, which distances people - compassion is the hope that the pain should stop and the child not suffer.
  • Appreciative Joy - as the child begins achieving things - making friends, earning awards - the parent is full of happiness, not of resentment or jealousy.
    • Note that we can celebrate all people’s achievement, even when their success exceeds our own.
  • Equanimity - as the child becomes an adult, the parent...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Meditation: Why Bother?
  • Exercise: Examine Your Own Emotions
  • Chapters 2-3: What Meditation Is and Isn’t
  • Chapter 4: The Right Attitude
  • Chapter 5: Starting Your Practice
  • Chapter 6: What to Do with Your Body
  • Chapter 7: What to Do with Your Mind
  • Chapter 8: Structuring Your Meditation
  • Chapter 9: Set-up Exercises
  • Exercise: Wishing Loving Kindness
  • Chapter 10: Dealing with Problems
  • Chapter 11-12: Dealing with Distractions
  • Chapter 13-14: What is Mindfulness?
  • Chapter 15: Meditation in Everyday Life
  • Chapter 16: Benefits of Meditation
  • Afterword: The Power of Loving Friendliness