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Mindfulness, or an awareness of the present moment, is a relatively common concept today, but not so twenty years ago, when author Bhante Gunaratana first introduced this work. In Mindfulness in Plain English, Gunaratana’s focus is actually vispassana meditation, a Buddhist-based practice. Gunaratana strives to use basic language in his explanations, yet the concepts presented here are anything but simple. The open pages are particularly complex, with over twenty pages detailing what meditation is—and what is not, as well.
Sometimes Gunaratana is more philosophical, but in other instances, he is quite practical, providing useful advice to the reader. There is a chapter on ATTITUDE with suggestions ranging from “Don’t Cling” to “Let Go.” In the section on PRACTICE, Gunaratana addresses specific obstacles to meditation, such as what to do when the mind wanders. Similarly, the following chapter, WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR BODY, covers additional basic information, including what to wear and how to sit.
During the second half of this volume, Gunaratana more closely examines the meditation experience itself. He starts how to begin the meditation session, providing guidance on directing the thoughts. An entire chapter focuses on DEALING WITH PROBLEMS, covering such common impediments as physical pain, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, boredom, agitation, and discouragement. Over twenty pages concentrate on (no pun intended!) DEALING WITH DISTRACTIONS. In these chapters, the author provides maneuvers, or strategies, to re-focus the attention, such as taking deep breaths and counting breaths. Going deeper, Gunaratana explains how to manage the sensations which can arise during meditation, noting that even pleasant feelings can interfere with the purpose of achieving a still and serene mind.
In what seemed like odd sequencing (to me), it is only towards the end of this work that the author connects the “mindfulness” from the title to the discussion of vispassana (insight) meditation that has made up the main body of the book. He notes that although both mindfulness and concentration are important to meditation, the two processes differ from each other, with mindfulness directing the power of concentration. Gunaratana also talks about how meditation can impact daily life. On the one hand, he emphasizes the “radical,” life-changing nature of vispassana meditation, but on the other, he reviews small ways in which a meditation practice can increase one’s awareness in everyday situations. The final chapters, WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU and THE POWER OF LOVING FRIENDLINESS, make the case for a practice that changes one’s “whole view of self.”
For readers expecting an easy guide to meditation, this is not it. Gunaratana’s instructions may be plainly stated, but they are clearly meant for serious practitioners: he recommends starting a meditation practice at 20-30 minutes per day, likely a daunting proposition for most beginners. I would recommend Mindfulness in Plain English for those interested in delving more deeply into an existing meditation practice, but I would be more hesitant to suggest this book as a first exposure to mindfulness.
© 2015 Beth Cholette
Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.