January 2005

Heather Clitheroe

scarlet woman of self-help

Only a Little Bit of Navel Gazing

I have to admit... there's something special about a book on meditation that tells you that it won't teach you how to "contemplate your navel or to chant secret syllables." Sounds good to me.

I'm not a very good navel-gazer. Sitting in the lotus position gives me cramps, and I'm prone to becoming one with boredom instead of the universe. But in the spirit of the new year, I thought I'd pick up the book and give it a try... again. I bought my copy years ago, from one of those stores that sells tarot cards and crystals guaranteed to rid your home of evil pestilence and ghastly smells from the great void of beyond. It was in my flighty undergraduate days, when meditation seemed like the obvious alternative to research papers on oral history and traditional knowledge. I ended up writing the papers and putting the book away. Lately, it's been living next to Harry Potter.

Mindfulness in Plain English is one of those books that you'll find yourself returning to, though. The language is simple and often blunt. No need to puzzle over cryptic statements and strange expressions. It's written as an instructional guide for beginners without going into the underlying structures and philosophies of Buddhism... an approach to a particular kind of meditation, and it's fairly accessible and straightforward.

Vipassana, we're told, is a "form of mental training that will teach you to experience the world in an entirely new way." The basic idea is that we live superficial lives, barely scratching the surface of experience and reality. We don't see the truth in life because we're caught up in subjective emotions and thoughts, and can't evaluate experience with an objective eye. We don't see with clarity, and because of that, we can't fully understand what we do see.

The goal, then, is to find a way to move around the "screen of thoughts and concepts" and search for insight. We're told that when we "seek to know the reality without illusion, complete with all its pain and danger," we will be free. Free to live a life that is all-aware and all-embracing of reality.

So the "free your mind" sounds a little Wachowski-esque. Noted. But it's important to remember that this kind of discourse was around long before Keanu learned Kung Fu... long enough that it's earned the right to be deep and mysterious.

Henepola Gunaratana spends four chapters introducing the concept of meditation before launching into instructions on how to actually do it. There's a bit of information on different styles of meditation, and the many myths of meditation -- there are no mind powers, he says, no psychic revelations, no levitating -- and why you'd even want to try it. Instead, he says, the goal of Vipassana meditation is "train ourselves to see reality exactly as it is, and we call this special mode of perception mindfulness."

With that in mind, I settled down to count my breaths and work on the exercises. I only gazed at my navel a little bit. The instructions are easy to follow, though I found myself wanting to break away from trying to concentrate on mindfulness to refer back to the book. Reading any meditation guide is probably something you do first, and then try it out second.

What I liked was that the book was laid out for a beginner. It starts with the easy basics... how to sit, what to think about, what to do if you get bored or tired. As you move through the chapters, there's more discussion on integrating mindfulness into everyday life. It was hard to wrap my head around the explanations, though I liked the way it was explained towards the end of the book: "Mindfulness is participatory observation. The meditator is both participant and observer at one and the same time. If one watches one's emotions of physical sensations, one is feeling them at that very same moment. Mindfulness is not an intellectual awareness. It is just awareness."

The relative strength of this book is its no-nonsense approach. If you're looking for guidelines on how to meditate, and you like the idea of mindfulness, this is the way to go. There's not a lot in the way of flowery prose, but you don't get the feeling of being lectured. As a beginner's book, it's very, very good... easy to read, pretty easy to understand, and easy to try. It's a gradual introduction to meditation, so you can try it out and not feel intimidated. The exercises are easy to understand, and you're given the impression that it's all suggestions on how to start, without it seeming like rules you have to follow. Gunaratana lays out what he'd like you to try, and gives some encouraging thoughts on what to do if it doesn't work, or if you're feeling confused. I didn't feel an idiot when I couldn't keep myself focused... the overall tone of the book seems to be one of gentle concern.

But it won't be for everybody. If you're not interested in Buddhism, you probably won't be too enthralled by it. It's obviously a book written from a pretty specific point of view, and there's no question that it's not a secular perspective. Gunaratana is a monk, after all. If you are interested in Buddhism, you'll find that the book doesn't give nearly as much depth or insight as you'd like. I found myself wanting to learn more about the basic tenets and practices, and I felt like there really wasn't any suggestion of where to go to find that information.

I also had the sense that this Vipassana meditation was something I'd spend years working at before I came anywhere close to achieving mindfulness. While this is a book for beginners, it's not the only book on meditation in general or Vipassana meditation in particular. This probably isn't a skill you can learn through books alone... to really do it properly, I'd imagine that you would want to try going the workshop and retreat route, and work with people with more skill and experience in meditation. Learning meditation from a book is probably akin to picking up Theoretical Nuclear Physics for People Who Have Trouble Figuring Out Aspect Ratio on the DVD Player. Chances are, you're gonna need a little help.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Wisdom Publications
ISBN 0861713214
224 Pages