Note: I plan to prepare and post on Kashin a detailed and practical summary of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. What follows is a summary of the book’s Introduction. Check back later for summaries of other chapters, each of which gives a clear and practical guide on how to live one step in the Eightfold Path.
Bhante Gunarata (“bhante” means “sir,” and is a term of respect for Theravada Buddhist monks), the abbot of the Bhavana Forest Monastery and Meditation Center in High View, West Virginia, has written a clear and useful guide to the fourth of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. According to Bhante Gunaratane (“BG”), anyone should follow the Eightfold Path who is tired of being unhappy and who seeks happiness not dependent upon conditions. “Even a little effort to incorporate [the steps of the Eightfold Path] will yield happiness. Strong effort will transform you and bring you the happiest and most exalted states achievable.”
As the title indicates, the focus of the book is on how to use the practice of mindfulness to follow each step of the Path. BG defines mindfulness in the introduction as a way of training yourself to become aware of things as they really are. Since the aim of the book, and the Eightfold Path, is happiness, it makes sense that BG, following the Buddha, describes in some depth what happiness is and is not.
At the lowest level, there is a happiness of clinging, which can also be thought of as a happiness of sensual pleasures or favorable conditions. Included are the happiness of food, possessions, conversation, skill in music or art, mental stimulation, and family life. The more we trust these things to bring us happiness, seek them, and try to hang on to them, the more we suffer. Our efforts will create painful mental agitation as conditions will inevitably change.
A much higher level of happiness is the happiness of renunciation. Above all, is it the happiness that comes from the practice of generosity, the wholesome opposite of clinging. When we let go of anger, desire, and attachment, we can experience this happiness.
The highest level of happiness comes with the experience of attaining stages of enlightenment. With each stage, the load we carry through life is lifted. Eventually, we can attain permanent freedom from all negative states of mind – uninterrupted, sublime happiness.
BG observes that the Buddha urged everyone to practice the Eightfold Path regardless of the level of happiness sought, since following the Path can help us attain all levels of happiness.
The trap of unhappiness, according to BG, is the endless cycle of cause and effect, attraction and aversion, which comes with seeking happiness in pleasurable worldly conditions. Practicing the Eightfold Path permits us to reverse the cycle, to focus on the emotional and mental causes of our negative behavior, and eliminate unhappiness at its source. Thus happiness can be achieved by rooting out clinging.
The Eightfold Path is a gradual path, since attempting to eliminate clinging through willpower alone will not work; and each step on the path builds upon and supports the others. “The process begins at any point, at any time. You start wherever you are and move forward, step by step. Each new wholesome change in behavior or understanding builds upon the last.” In other words, the Eightfold Path is a spiral. The steps are skillful understanding and thinking (collectively, wisdom), skillful speech, action, and livelihood (collectively, morality), and skillful effort, mindfulness, and concentration (collectively, concentration).
To get started on the Path, BG makes several recommendations. First, simplify your life. Cut out unnecessary activity and business. Cultivate the inclination to spend time each day in silence and solitude. Second, exercise self-restraint. Since practice develops from the outside in, external factors make a difference. For example, BG recommends keeping a tidy home; paying attention to your health by practicing yoga or taking long walks; and eating to live, rather than living to eat. Third, cultivate goodness. Practicing virtues such as patience and generosity is the beginning of spiritual awakening. Fourth, find a teacher and explore the teachings. Choose a teacher who lives an exemplary life, with whom you can develop a long-term relationship. Beware of teachers who charge high fees. Finally, read and discuss the Buddha’s teachings. All of these lifestyle changes will help you make mindfulness part of your daily life.
Mindfulness – also called “vipassana meditation” – is a unique method of cultivating moment-by-moment awareness of the true nature of everything experienced through the body and mind. Mindfulness is a skill that you will develop and use in following the Eightfold Path. To begin a practice of mindfulness, BG recommends taking several steps, which he elaborates on later in the book.
First, practice sitting meditation. Do this by sitting in a quiet place with spine erect (either in a full or half lotus position, or with one leg in front of the other (Burmese), or on a meditation bench or chair) and trying to be still. It is important not to change positions, because if you give in to the urge to do so you will find it harder to concentrate. Choose the length of your sitting beforehand. BG recommends twenty minutes for beginners. Close your eyes, focus on the object of meditation (such as the breath), and begin to experience the joy of meditation.
Second, learn how to deal with the pain that comes in meditation. BG assures the reader that pain is mostly due to lack of practice. Pain subsides the more you meditate, and this fact should spur you on to meditate more often. The most effective way to deal with pain is to watch it. “Be with the pain, merge with it. Experience it without thinking of it as my pain, my knee, my neck. Simply watch the pain closely and see what happens to it.” If the pain increases, keep watching it. You may become fearful, but keep watching. What you will find if you stay with the pain is that it will change to a neutral sensation. You will discover that even pain is impermanent.
You can do the same with psychological pain, such as pain from guilt or a traumatic memory. Don’t push it away. Instead, “[w]elcome it. Stay with it, even if some awful scenario plays out in your mind. Without getting lost in the story line, keep watching that psychological pain and see it eventually break up, just like physical pain.” When the breakthrough happens and the pain disappears, you may feel great relief. The pain may come back, but “once you have broken through a particular physical or psychological pain, that particular pain will never recur with the same intensity.”
BG also outlines other strategies for dealing with pain, such as comparing it to greater pain you or others have experienced, or ignoring it, or, if all else fails, moving slightly with great mindfulness.
BG asks and answers a question the reader may be asking: “I started this practice to get rid of my suffering. Why should I suffer more in sitting meditation?” BG’s advice is to remember that this kind of suffering is the kind that can lead to the end of all suffering. By dealing with pain, you gain confidence in your ability to withstand pain—not just the pain experience in meditation but also the pain experienced in the rest of you life. Just as you experience pain the first time you ride a horse or climb a mountain, you will also experience pain while practicing sitting meditation; but with practice, the pain of meditation subsides, just as the pain of horseback riding or mountain climbing decreases with practice.
Third, focus your mind. Since the breath is always present, and since it is not involved in emotion, reasoning or choice-making, focusing on the breath is a good way to cultivate a neutral state. Begin sitting meditation with thoughts of loving-friendliness, if necessary by using a method. One such method is to recite, either mentally or aloud, a text wishing happiness and peace for yourself, your teachers, relatives, friends, “indifferent persons” (those for whom you have no strong feelings), adversaries, and all beings. This practice will make it easier to gain concentration and help you overcome any resentment that may arise as you sit.
After settling into the meditation with thoughts of loving-kindness, take several deep breaths, paying attention to the expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen, the upper abdomen, and the chest. After taking these breaths, begin to breathe normally, focusing your attention on the sensation of the breath on the rims of your nostrils. As you breathe, pay mindful attention to the beginning (inhalation) and end (exhalation) of the breath, as well as to the middle (the brief pause in between inhalation and exhalation). The mind will wander, and each time it does bring it back to the breath.
Some meditation teachers recommend the practice of “labeling” distractions – e.g., “thinking, thinking, thinking” or “hearing, hearing, hearing.” BG recommends against this practice because it forces you to conceptualize events that have already passed. It is better to watch things as they happen. Mindfulness teaches direct awareness, without the intermediaries of concepts and words. In meditation, there is no need to express anything to anybody. Seeing is seeing, hearing is hearing, etc. This is enough.
BG recommends beginning and ending each day with meditation. He also recommends practicing meditation for one minute each hour during the day.