Mindfulness in Plain English Summary by Henepola Gunaratana

July 23, 2020


What it's about?

Thoughts and instruction on Vipassana meditation, minus a lot of the woo-woo and explained clearly.

Patience is essential for any profound change, if you learn nothing else from meditation you will learn patience.

Meditation is essentially just sitting down, tossing out everything from your mind except for the awareness that you are sitting.

Meditation is a long game, the more hours you spend in meditation the greater your ability to calmly observe every impulse and intention, thought and emotion.

The mind is a cup of muddy water. The longer you keep a cup of muddy water still, the more the mud settles down and the water will be seen clearly.

Meditation is learning to live. To truly experience present moments fully.

To overcome ego, we must put aside greed, envy, pride, jealousy, or hatred. Not dwelling on the differences in people we can directly avoid these.

By thinking about others positively, even our enemies we can banish our ego and unlock our mind for mindfulness.

Try to start every session with universal loving friendliness recite “may x be well, happy and peaceful, may not harm come to them and they meet their success.”

There is no pleasure without some degree of pain as there is no pain without some amount of pleasure.

Avoiding unpleasantness is a very unkind thing to do to yourself.

Don’t avoid unpleasant feelings or make them into positive. Simply examine them and understand them and take the feelings apart piece by piece.

The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. The trap can’t trap you if it has been taken to pieces.

When you start you will catch the tail of the lion. This is when you realise the desire too late, as you practice you’ll pick up the distraction earlier before the chain of thought has increased.

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.

The difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought is that the thought passes away without the next logical thought in that chain starting.

If you are unhappy then you are unhappy, that is the reality. Confront that.

Drop your expectations of mindfulness and the results. Just focus on being mindful.

You will have problems in meditation. Everybody does. You can treat them as torments or as challenges to be overcome.

Distractions are the whole point of meditation and mindfulness. The key is to learn to deal with these things.

Notice thought or sensation as it arises. Notice the mental state of desire that accompanies it as a separate thing all together. Then notice the exact extent or degree of that desire.

When any mental state arises strongly enough to distract you from the object of meditation, switch your attention to the distraction briefly. Observe it, what is it? How strong is it? How long did it last? Then move back to the breath.

The present moment is changing so fast that a casual observer does not seem to notice its existence at all.


The purpose of meditation is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness.

When mindfulness is explained as “one does not decide and does not judge” it means in Plain English that the meditator observes experiences much like a scientist would observe an object under a microscope. They have no preconceived notions, they only see the object exactly as it is.

If you are remembering your second-grade teacher, that is memory. When you then become aware that you are remembering your second-grade teacher, that is mindfulness.

You can’t examine something fully if you are busy rejecting its existence.

Quote: Mindfulness and concentration work as a team; they must be balanced. But, they are distinctly different functions.

  • Concentration is a forced activity, it is developed by willpower.
  • Mindfulness is the sensitive one, it notices things.

First you develop concentration, you must tame your monkey mind and then you switch your energy to mindfulness.

If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness.

Keep your mindfulness on the breath until something pulls your attention away. When you notice that happening, don’t fight it. Allow your attention to drift over to the distraction, and keep it there until the distraction disappears. Then return to breathing.

Mindfulness is the antidote to giving into the compulsive ness of greed, lust, hatred, jealousy and aversion. We tend to avoid these feelings because they take the mind over and capture the attention completely. Allow mindfulness to be the antidote.

Mindfulness in everyday life

The most important moment in meditation is the instant you leave the cushion. When your practice session is over, you can jump up and drop the whole thing, or you can bring those skills with you into the rest of your activities

Meditation is awareness, and it must be applied to each and every activity of one’s life. This isn’t easy.

The ultimate goal of practice remains: to build one’s concentration and awareness to a level of strength that will remain unwavering even in the midst of the pressures of life in contemporary society.

Perform simple acts at very low speed — making an effort to pay full attention to every nuance of the act.

Sitting at the table drinking a cup of tea is one example. There is much to experience. View your posture, feel the handle of the cup between your fingers. Smell the aroma of the tea, notice the placement of the cup, the tea, your arm, the table etc. Watch the intention to raise your arm arise within your mind, feel your arm as it rises, feel the cup against your lip and liquid pouring into your mouth. Taste the tea, then watch the arising of the intention to lower your arm. The entire process is fascinating and beautiful, if you attend to it fully, paying detached attention to every sensation and to the flow of thought and emotion.

Just take this process slowly, start with your tea and let your abilities grow overtime.

Some Essential Attitudes for Successful Practice

Don’t strain. Meditation is not aggressive, it is not something to be forced. So don’t strain.

Don’t rush. Avoid thinking ‘oh shit I only have 20 minutes to meditate’ pretend as you’re sitting down that you have the whole day even if you have only 10 minutes.

Don’t expect anything. Treat it as an experiment, test yourself, try different things. Just don’t expect amazing results or profound experiences.

Accept everything that arises. Accept feelings, good or bad. Accept experiences even ones you hate. You’re human, you have flaws, don't dwell or condemn yourself.

Investigate yourself. Question everything. Don’t believe something just because someone told you to. See for yourself. Be empirical though and not cynical.

Instructions on How to Meditate

Determine how long you are going to meditate (beginners sit no longer than 20 minutes).

Once you sit, do not change the position again until the end of your predetermined session time.

Close your eyes and share your loving friendliness with everybody.

Take three deep breaths, then breathe normally, begin focusing your attention on the feeling of the breath flowing in and out (advanced - focus on the breath at the rims of the nostrils).

Notice the pause between inhalations, the beginning and the ending.

When focusing your attention on the breath ignore any thought, memory, smell, sound etc. focus your attention exclusively on the breath.

When distracted, mindfully bring it back to the breath.

Counting the breath may help. The purpose of counting is simply to focus the mind on the breath. Once your mind is focused on the breath, give up counting.

The mind will naturally go to sounds, thoughts, memories, emotions, tasks.

Focus our attention on these states one at a time.

As they fade return to the breath.

The mind becomes more insightful from the impartial and unbiased watching of these occurrences.

Meditation does not mean sitting in the lotus position. It is a mental skill. But these postures will help you to learn this skill, and they speed your progress and development.

Postures promote physical immobility, which is then reflected by an immobility of mind.

The meditator’s three main enemies are pain, muscular tension, and falling asleep.

Sit with your back straight. Head held in line with the rest of the spine. The rest of the body just hangs from it.

The most essential thing is to sit with your back straight. Your head should be held in line with the rest of the spine.

An erect posture is very important.

A position of arousal, and with it goes mental alertness. If you slouch, you are inviting drowsiness.

Wear loose and soft clothes.

Sit on a chair or a cushion.

List of ways you can sit in order of preference:

  1. Native American style. Your right foot is tucked under the left knee and left foot is tucked under your right knee.
  2. Burmese style. Both of your legs lie flat on the floor from knee to foot. They are parallel with one in front of the other.
  3. Half lotus. Both of your knees touch the floor. One leg and foot lie flat along the calf of the other leg.
  4. Full lotus. Both knees touch the floor, and your legs are crossed at the calf. Your left foot rests on the right thigh, and your right foot rests on the left thigh. Both soles turn upward.

In all these postures, your hands are cupped one on the other, and they rest on your lap with the palms turned upward. The hands lie just below the navel with the bend of each wrist pressed against the thigh. This arm position provides firm bracing for the upper body.

Your chin is up.

Relax; let the body be natural and supple. Let it hang from the erect spine like a rag doll.

You can use a chair instead (my preference due to poor flexibility - a work in progress). Pick one that has a level seat, a straight back, and no arms.

Your back does not lean against the back of the chair. Place you legs side by side, feet flat on the floor. Place both hands on your lap, cupped one upon the other.

Begin by focusing the attention on the breathing and then go on to note all other physical and mental phenomena that arise.

Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from.

Establish a formal practice schedule, a specific period when you will meditate. E.g. 8am on weekdays and 9am on weekends.

Find yourself a quiet place, a secluded place, a place where you will be alone. E.g. The bedroom.

It’s crucial to sit regularly. Even ten minutes of meditation can be very beneficial.

The meditation experience is not a competition. There is a definite goal. But there is no timetable. Meditation is not a duty or an obligation.

Use recitations as physiological cleansing devices, they project love and friendliness “May all living beings be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to them. 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.”

After a year or so of steady practice you should be sitting comfortably for an hour at a time.

Put most of your effort into one-pointedness at the beginning.

A couple of months down the track and you will have developed concentration power. Then you can start pumping your energy into mindfulness.

If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness.

Just take it slowly and let your abilities grow over time.