The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English

This is actually the third book by Bhante  Gunaratana I’ve gobbled up, but perhaps the best was his first. For some reason I rebel against the highly structured format that he tries to hammer into you, with the 4 foundations of mindfulness (body, feelings, mind, dhamma) which include the 5 hindrances (desire, ill will, laziness, restlessness/worry, doubt), the 5 aggregates of clinging (material form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), 6 internal & external senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), 7 factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation of dhamma, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity), 4 noble truths (suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path that leads to cessation), and the noble 8-fold path (skillful understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Overwhelmed yet?

Most helpful to me as always are the sections on anger. Buddha abandoned thoughts of anger by thinking of compassion and loving friendliness/kindness. It’s useless to dwell on things in the past that you’ve done wrong, a waste of time and energy. Mindfulness “suffocates anger by taking away the fuel it needs to keep burning. When hate fills our minds, we should think: Hate makes me sick. My thinking is confused. A sick mind defeats the purpose of my meditation.”

How to deal with anger when it arises:

  • Practice mindfulness of breathing. Take a few deep breaths, counting up to ten then down to one.
  • Practice restraint. Stop talking if the conversation is leading to argument. During the pause, investigate what’s causing your heated words.
  • Replace the hatef by thinking kind thoughts.
  • Avoid angry people.
  • Make a commitment in the morning to be mindful about not getting angry.

He also cautions that every kind of ill will arises from the wish to be physically separated from something that causes discomfort or pain. The ill will & its causes are impermanent.

 

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

I probably should have more appreciation for this collection of teachings from Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the Zen Center down the street that I’m learning meditation from. But I’m not attached to them, preferring to focus on his statement that our understanding of Buddhism “should not be just gathering many pieces of information, seeking to gain knowledge. Instead, you should clear your mind.” I am sweeping away his teaching from my mind as I tidy it. Just sit. Just breathe. That is all there is.

This collection is a bit tedious, and I like Suzuki’s own reaction in 1970 to seeing the book for the first time: “Looks like a good book. But I didn’t write it.” It’s the summary and cleanup work of some of his disciples, putting pen to paper and smoothing out his English. Instead of reading it, I recommend meditating instead.

It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness

Sylvia Boorstein serves up a very snackable book about mindfulness and living a good life, along with her pal Atla’s recipe for marinated mushrooms (2/3 cup oil seems extreme for 1 lb of mushrooms, to be honest). Very conversational tone to the book, very readable. Her approach is to let you know that you don’t have to be a weirdo when you become a meditator and establish “equanimity.” Normal folks incorporate these basic rules into their lives and go on living, but are just happier and nicer people. You, too, can achieve this once you realize that the mind sets up various traps to enrage you or cause desire.

The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation

“Another book about meditation?” you groan. Yes, grasshopper. Only this one wasn’t nearly as good as Mindfulness in Plain English—clunkier, interspersed with tedious personal reflections by each of the authors, and much more concerned that I learn the 5 Hindrances, the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. Too structured!

The one tip I picked up was around turning your regular walking into a meditative practice by counting the steps. When you take the first step, that’s 1. On the next 2 steps, 1, 2. Next 3 steps are 1, 2, 3. Etc up to 10. Upon reaching 10, it’s 10 for the first step, 10, 9 for steps 1 & 2, etc.

Otherwise, there’s an extensive list of books for further reading that I’ll probably hit up. But this one is a waste of time and energy. It’s ok, I’m observing that negative thought from outside myself and watching my reaction. Om.

Mindfulness in Plain English

Living a few blocks from the Zen Center is decidedly a perk of life in San Francisco. I have zero excuses to prevent me from skipping down the street to join others in meditation training, which is where I discovered this book.

Tremendously useful as you are developing your own meditation practice, or refining an existing one. Gunaratana breaks down the monkey mind into its various parts; we categorize experiences as good/bad/neutral and either obsessively grasp for the good, obsessively reject the bad, or ignore the neutral. Most of life exists in that neutral zone, so start paying attention and enjoy it.

The book teaches insight meditation, cultivating mindfulness by using the tool of concentration. Real peace comes when you stop chasing it. Vipassana meditation shows you how to be detached as you watch your thoughts rise up, see yourself reacting without getting caught up in your reaction, escape the obsessive nature of thought, examine the process of perception.

As you sit and watch your breath, the book offers great tips on counting: when breathing in, “one, one, one, one…” and breathing out “two, two, two, two…” up to 10, repeat; count rapidly up to 10 with each inhale and exhale (this worked wonders for me, keeping my mind busy with numbers); joining inhale and exhale as one count, up to five then back to one. Pro-tip: if you’re sleepy, taking a deep breath and holding it will help warm your body up and banish sleepiness.

Something I’m in desperate need of: cultivating a feeling of “universal loving friendliness.” Start by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and condemnation, then work outward to direct a flow of good intention to your family, friends, enemies, and strangers. He recommends setting this intention before each meditation session (and continuing throughout the day, especially right before bed because it helps you “sleep well and to prevent nightmares. It also makes it easier to get up in the morning. And it makes you more friendly and open toward everybody, friend or foe, human or otherwise.”)

So whaddya do about all those distractions? Anyone who’s attempted to meditate knows how easily thoughts slip in and hijack you. He recommends asking about the distraction: what is it, how strong is it, how long does it last. This enables you to divorce yourself from the distraction, step back, view it objectively. You’ll note the distraction, note its qualities, then return to your breath.

Besides sitting mediation, there’s also walking meditation, and during longer retreats you switch between the two. Walking meditation is slow, hands either in front or in back or at sides (whatever’s most comfortable), breathe in lift heel of one foot, breathe out rest foot on toes, breath in lift foot, carry forward, breathe out foot down to floor, repeat.

To practice loving friendliness:

May my mind be filled with the thoughts of loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. May I be generous. May I be gentle. May I be relaxed. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy. May my heart become soft. May my words be pleasing to others. May my actions be kind.

May all that I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think help me to cultivate loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May all these experiences help me to cultivate thoughts of generosity and gentleness. May they all help me to relax. May they inspire friendly behavior. May these experiences be a source of peace and happiness. May they help me be free from fear, tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.

No matter where I go in the world, in any direction, may I greet people with happiness, peace, and friendliness. May I be protected in all directions from greed, anger, aversion, hatred, jealousy, and fear.