Book Review - kindfulness


I first heard of Ajahn Brahm and his book kindfulness at my local Buddhist center, the Kadampa Center, during one of the Buddhist classes that I was taking last year. I wrote down the name of the book because it was given a very strong recommendation by a few people, and decided to give it a read this week.

Ajahn Brahm is a British Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition who serves as the Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia. He also holds many other positions in various places around the world and has accomplished many hard-earned achievements. He is quite qualified to write a book on the topic of kindfulness, which seems to be a term that he created which focuses on generating relaxation in order to bring ease to the body, mind, and world and facilitate healing.

The first half of the book focuses on five simple stages to begin or deepen one's meditation practice. The first stage focuses on giving up the baggage of the past and future by showing no interest in your past or future experiences at all.

"Some people think that if they contemplate the past, they can somehow learn from it and solve their problems. But when we gaze at the past we invariably look through a distorted lens. Whatever we think it was like, in truth it was not quite like that at all! This is why people argue about what happened even a few moments ago."

"As for the future – the anticipations, fears, plans, and expectations – let that go too. The Buddha once said, 'Whatever you think the future will be, it will always be something different.' This future is known by the wise as uncertain, unknown, and unpredictable. It is often useless to anticipate the future, and in meditation it is always a great waste of time. You cannot know the future. It can be so strange, so weird, so completely beyond what you would expect."

The second stage involves developing present-moment awareness, which requires an ability to conjure silent awareness in the present moment. Brahm suggests that instead of being silently aware of every thought or feeling that arises, we should choose silent present-moment awareness of just one thing. He, along with many other teachers I have studied, advises starting with a silent present-moment awareness of the breath.

"When you are noting or making a comment about an experience that has just passed, you are not paying attention to the experience that has just arrived. You are dealing with old visitors and neglecting the new arrivals."

The above concept is contrary to meditation instructions that I have received from the Headspace meditation app, which advises practicing a technique called "noting" each thought and emotion that arises before letting it fade away. (As a side note, I actually no longer use Headspace—I found silent meditation [with a focus on silent present-moment awareness, of course!] to be much more productive for me than the guided meditation style. However, I would advise brand-new meditators to give Headspace a try, since it is more geared toward absolute beginners than intermediate and advanced meditators.)

The third stage of this meditation practice is a sustained attention on the breath. One common problem that comes up at this stage is a tendency for one to control the breathing, which makes the breathing uncomfortable. Brahm suggests taking a step back and imagine that the practitioner is just a passenger in a car looking through the window at their breath—they are not the driver, nor a backseat driver.

The fourth stage occurs when the practitioner's attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath. This degree of stillness can only emerge when one lets go of everything in the entire universe except for the experience of breathing silently.

The fifth stage is called "full sustained attention on the beautiful breath", and it often flows naturally and seamlessly from the previous stage. It is simply a matter of the mind recognizing the beautiful breath and rejoicing in it. This facilitates a deepening of contentment.

The second half of the book describes practices to develop kindful loving and letting be and working with obstacles to kindfulness. The first set of practices involves a type of compassion meditation that is sparked by generating kindfulness for a helpless, suffering being—Brahm uses the example of a struggling kitten—and then expanding that feeling to other beings until it is extended to all sentient beings. The passage on working with obstacles covers topics like restlessness, being kind to oneself, anger, and negative mind states. The following quote helped me understand my own proclivity to attach to anger in certain situations:

"There is an addictive and powerful pleasure associated with the expression of anger. And we don't want to let go of what we enjoy. However, there is also a danger in anger, a consequence that outweighs any pleasure. If we would keep in mind the danger, then we would be willing to let anger go."

The book closes with a summary of the previous chapters' advice and encouragement to continue practicing kindfulness for the benefit oneself and of all sentient beings.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure what to expect before reading it, but I found it to be one of the better dharma books that I have read in the past few years. The advice is easy to understand because of Brahm's clear, concise writing style. I would definitely recommend this book to others, regardless of their previous experience with meditation or the concept of mindfulness.

4/5 stars. 184 pages.