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Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 1: Discoveries
Why is Meditation Interesting?
Godwin: Let us begin by reflecting on what is happening for each one of us at the start of this retreat. You find yourself surrounded by strangers, you are trying to find out what type of a teacher is here, and the first few days you normally feel tired. For those of you who have been working hard, when you come here and relax more fully it is natural that you feel tired. And then just imagine a newcomer here: he sees these meditators moving around like zombies, in silence, with hardly any expression on their faces!
I am sure there must be many more such problems, but today I would like to focus on something entirely different from all that. I am trying to do this for the first time in a retreat: I would like to discuss with you how we can find meditation interesting, how we can sometimes find it entertaining, a little amusing, how we can develop a taste for it, how we can develop a curiosity about meditation.
So let us see what happens. I will start and tell you how I find my thoughts interesting: with my thoughts sometimes I suddenly find myself back in Sri Lanka! It only takes a few seconds and I can visit any country in the world I like, and without a visa! Isn’t that interesting? Just watching this is fascinating. This is only one example. Are your thoughts like that? No?
Retreatant: I not only go to other countries but I am connected with so many people who are important to me, who are interesting, whom I like.
Godwin: Exactly. So even without the people being here we can meet them, and sometimes we have dialogues with them, sometimes arguments, and here we can even start a new argument. The argument was old but here you can start it again anew, thinking: I should have said that, too! Or if he or she says that, I could say this and he would be silenced!
So this is the way to find it amusing, this is the way to find it entertaining. So today what I said is just to watch what is happening. This is a big challenge.
Retreatant: I do not need to meditate for this, I do this all the time.
Godwin: You are an excellent meditator then! Today I am emphasising awareness, alertness, being awake, that is the difference. Another question, yes?
Retreatant: It seems to me the examples you have given so far sound more like daydreaming to me, and not what I understand meditation to be all about, which is that we are trying hard to get away from our thoughts, for the mind to settle for a second. I think the examples you are giving are not what I understood meditation to be about.
Godwin: I am not surprised to hear this. But if you are daydreaming, you can never be alert and awake. And if you are not alert and awake, you will not know what thoughts are arising. As I have said quite a few times: Can you be aware of each thought that arises? That needs a lot of space, a lot of clarity. If you are daydreaming you cannot do that.
In subsequent discussions I hope to speak about the stories that we construct, the daydreaming and fantasies, and to even explore questions such as: what is the difference between a daydream and a night-dream? Very interesting material.
Then there is another very fascinating thing we do especially with our thoughts. From the time that we wake up in the morning to the time that we go to sleep, generally speaking we have this continuous chattering going through our minds. Let us be honest – while you are listening to me you have your own inner chattering going on.
So an interesting question is: what are we thinking about from the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to sleep? What are the themes? You see the importance of observing thoughts? What are you thinking now?
Retreatant: I think I have no idea what I was thinking of!
Godwin: I am not surprised, that seems to be the reaction for most people here. Please consider this as a meditation, reflecting on the themes of our thoughts, the contents of our thoughts.
Retreatant: To me it often happens that I recognise these themes, they come again and again, so I realise that I am bored to observe them yet again, and I try to let go and come back to something else like the body or the sounds.
Godwin: The question I raised was very simple. It is the themes that we are discussing, not whether you are reacting to the thoughts with boredom, that is not the question I raised. I will give a helping hand and that might answer the question.
We can ask ourselves: About whom am I thinking? Most of the time we are thinking about ourselves, everything is related to us. Isn’t this very fascinating? Even when we are thinking about others, it is always related to ourselves. And then we do something more interesting. What do we do when we are thinking of ourselves and others?
Retreatant: We think how we would like others to be.
Godwin: Very good. Right, what else do we do?
Retreatant: We compare.
Godwin: We compare.
Retreatant: We have doubts about ourselves.
Retreatant: We think how things can be useful to me.
Godwin: Yes, right.
Retreatant: We emotionally make judgements about others.
Godwin: Wonderful, excellent. You put it so clearly. And the phrase that I use is: we give plusses, we give minuses. Please see it for yourself. Good things that you remember about yourself - plus. Good things you think of another person - plus for him. Bad things, wrong things you have done - minus. Wrong things, bad things others have done - minus.
The people I meet who suffer the most are those who give themselves minuses most of the time. Such people can create a hell for themselves, and in that hell only minuses exist. Minuses about ourselves, minuses about others, minuses about the world. When that happens we use a very common phrase, we say: I suffer from depression.
So you see the connection between plusses, minuses and emotions? Isn’t this interesting? Isn’t this fascinating? Shouldn’t we find it curious? Isn’t meditation something very worthwhile? Isn’t there an element of lightness in it? Isn’t this an adventure? Isn’t this the most beautiful adventure we can have, understanding, exploring, investigating, as I said this morning, the inner world?
Retreatant: It is a little difficult because when I am depressed or sad I take myself so seriously that I can’t get any distance to simply watch myself.
Godwin: This is why I suggest you do it before you are depressed, because then you can really understand this process, you can really see very clearly what we are all doing to ourselves. This is what is called Dhamma insight. With more and more such insights, with more and more discoveries, the chances of becoming depressed become less.
We will be having more discussions about this very interesting theme of emotions - about anxiety, fear, depression and guilt. And as I was saying just now, if you can really be alert and awake, observing what is happening, you will see what I am trying to communicate to you.
What else can be interesting for us in the context of meditation? What else can be an adventure for us? Yes?
Retreatant: Without thoughts I have no problems.
Godwin: So the question is how to get rid of thoughts! You will realise when I present the meditation of focusing on breathing how even when we try to concentrate on the breath more and more thoughts will come. So let us wait for that day before we delve deeper into our discussion about thoughts.
So what else? The question I raised was: what else in meditation can be interesting?
Retreatant: Sometimes when I have a problem I am able in the meditation to let go of the problem, then there comes some solution, some idea, how to solve this problem.
Godwin: Big plus for you! A big plus, a very important discovery, that we can take responsibility, we can find a solution by ourselves to a problem that we discover. Then you develop self-confidence. And you have a realisation, an insight that we create our own suffering, and if we realise we create our own suffering, then we can free ourselves from that suffering. And when we have that realisation, we will stop blaming others for our own suffering. One day we will be discussing the Four Noble Truths in relation to our experience.
So any other interesting things we can discover?
Retreatant: Here I am sometimes talking with my pain. When I am sitting for some time and I cannot sit any longer and I am having pain all over, I start to talk with the pain or with the part of the body that is affected, and I try to find out what it wants to tell me. And sometimes they tell me one thing and sometimes another, and then we try to get along with each other.
Godwin: Isn’t that amusing? Isn’t that fascinating, to have a dialogue with pain? The best dialogue I have heard so far was shared with me by a meditator. Sitting in a group like this she said: When pain came I told the pain: No-one in this world likes you, my dear pain. May I have compassion for you, my dear pain. The way she said it, it really touched everyone. Isn’t this wonderful? See the different aspects meditation can have.
Anything else? I am happy that you are sharing these experiences.
Retreatant: We can send light and loving kindness to other people.
Godwin: As I said earlier, I very much emphasise the practice of loving-kindness. Open your heart for this. Open your heart for yourself. Without meditation your heart is closed. So with more and more meditation of loving-kindness it opens up like a flower. And when the flower opens, other people can sense the fragrance of the flower. It becomes infectious. So we will be practising more and more loving-kindness this week. Opening your heart like a flower. You can be affected by that, others can be affected by that.
Aren't we fortunate that we are meditators? Shouldn't we feel grateful to the person who discovered this? Anything else, please?
Retreatant: For me meditation is also a kind of relaxation.
Godwin: This is very, very important: to learn to meditate in a very relaxed way. This relaxation can come, for one thing, when your body is relaxed. This is why the first thing we do here is bodywork in the morning. When the body is relaxed, generally speaking, the mind is relaxed also. Likewise when the mind is relaxed, the body can become relaxed.
It is interesting: why can’t we relax? What prevents us from relaxing? I would like to hear from you.
Retreatant: Our thoughts.
Retreatant: Something in me is in a hurry.
Godwin: Something in me is in a hurry - to become enlightened! Anything else that prevents us from relaxing?
Retreatant: I do not want something, or I want something.
Godwin: Ah, you put it so beautifully, we want something, we do not want something; liking, disliking; accepting, rejecting; plus, minus; minus, plus; how can we relax? Most of the time, from morning till night, this is what is happening. In meditation we want pleasant, calm, nice, peaceful states. So when they are not there, how can we be relaxed? And when they are there, how can we be relaxed because we do not want them to go away? Aren’t meditators funny?
For relaxation to be there in meditation, there has to be what is called right effort. But there is a better phrase: effortless effort. And this has to be something natural. This is why I have been emphasising that you should see no difference whether you are sitting here or whether you are outside.
I think most of the meditators are more relaxed outside. Normally I open my eyes and look at your faces when you are sitting. And when I see the same faces outside, you look more relaxed than when you are sitting. And when you are sitting, do you know when you become really relaxed? When you hear the bell! Sometimes our real meditation begins only after the bell. Why? Because the meditator is not there after the bell. Aren’t these things really fascinating?
Anything else? I am happy that you are sharing these experiences.
Retreatant: When we are relaxed we might discover something about ourselves we do not really want to know. So we find a way not to be relaxed!
Godwin: This is a very, very interesting point - that we do not like to see ourselves as we are. We are very clever, doing all this simply so as not to see ourselves as we are. And over the years I have realised that this is quite common among meditators. Why do I say this? Because as meditators we are given ideas, models and images of how we should be. So there is a conflict between what we are naturally, and what we should become. Therefore we do not want to look at what we are, it is not so pleasant.
All the time, we are so impatient to become enlightened in the future that we don’t really see what is happening at the moment. What meditators do most of the time is to push away things, to deny things, pretending they are not there. Isn’t this very interesting, what we are doing to ourselves? So if we do not have awareness, if we do not have clarity, how can we make these discoveries about ourselves?
And if we can be really honest, sincere and genuine in seeing what we are doing to ourselves, then slowly, gently, like a flower we can open up more and more. Then we can be open to any pleasant experience, we can be open to any unpleasant experience. Pleasant experience comes: just a pleasant experience, no plus. Unpleasant experience comes: we are open to it, there is no minus.
Retreatant: For me, it is interesting to see how thoughts and emotions just arise, without my influencing it.
Godwin: To put it in another way: we realise that we have no control. Today, I felt that during the day some of you were experiencing boredom. I felt that some of you were feeling very tired, I felt that some of you were feeling very restless, I felt some of you were feeling a little confused. So this is the meditation! As a Zen master said: There is no escape.
So without escaping from such feelings what we are doing is learning from them and discovering about them. Otherwise what happens in everyday life is that these moods, these emotions, they come and go, and we really do not know the mechanism of how they operate. We normally become passive victims of this process, or we try to escape from them. Does that work? But here in meditation we learn to confront these emotions, to be with them. Aren’t we meeting a real challenge in life?
So this is why meditators are called warriors. There are two types of warriors. One type is worriers! But there is another type of warrior where they have the courage, they have the confidence to be a warrior, and to work with these difficult emotions, to play with them. So this is what we will be doing during the next few days, practising to become more and more like warriors in the second sense of the word.
I am just reminded of something that happened in the meditation centre at Nilambe - it could never happen here. One evening we discussed the importance of being warriors. Then afterwards the meditators went to their rooms to sleep, and one of the women heard a big noise outside her room. She opened the door and she saw a huge buffalo outside. Naturally fear, anxiety, insecurity and panic came up. Fortunately she thought of the evening discussion we had had earlier, and so she asked herself: How can I be a warrior now? And she said that something amazing happened - it was so inspiring - how when she thought of being a warrior there was simply no problem. So meditation helps us to work with buffaloes! Shouldn’t we be happy that we are meditators?
Retreatant: Didn’t you say that this could never happen here?
Godwin: Am I wrong?
Retreatant: We never know.
Godwin: We never know. That is a very interesting phrase to remember. This is a sentence a real meditator will always tell himself or herself. We really do not know what is going to happen. Can you say what emotions you will have in the next three minutes? Can you say what sensations you might have in ten minutes time?
So this is a very, very important aspect in the Dhamma - to be open to uncertainty. Otherwise we have created a very secure world where we enjoy a false kind of security, where everything is controlled and we know what is going to happen.
But the real security is being open to insecurity, the real security is being open to uncertainty. So you see what a profound teaching is in the Dhamma. If you can really take this in you are open to any experience, whether internal or external. When we have a relationship do we know what will happen in two years, three years, six months even? What about death? Who knows? So here is really opening up, being open to the reality of what life is.
In a way, it is a very hard teaching. So in a sense it is for mature people. Shouldn’t we be happy that we are mature people? In the next few days, we will be really open to any uncertainty. Externally, rain or no rain: no problem. Internally, pain or no pain: no problem. Plusses and minuses coming and going, being open to it all.
We will try to arrange that one day when we go for breakfast, there is no breakfast! How would you relate to that situation? Something similar happens many times in everyday life. Ajahn Chah, one of the teachers that I really respect, a teacher from Thailand, was asked: What do you teach? Do you teach samadhi, calm, tranquillity; or do you teach vipassana, insight? With a very mischievous smile he said: I teach frustration! That is what he does with his monks, creating situations where something unexpected happens. And he tells them: Look at your mind, are you holding onto your suffering or can you let it go?
So the Dhamma is something very simple, very practical, very direct. The Buddha often said: I teach suffering and the way out of suffering. Therefore in any situation when we are suffering we have to see what we are doing, see how the suffering was caused, and then see if we can let go or if we hold onto it. This is a powerful teaching.
Isn’t meditation interesting? Isn’t spiritual life challenging? Anything else?
Retreatant: Yes, in meditation I sometimes discover that the body is not as I thought it to be. I mean the body parts are not in such a good shape as I thought. Or there is one sensation here and another sensation there and nothing in-between, and it is not so clear what is up or down, etc. So it doesn’t correspond to the image I have of my body.
Godwin: Exactly, exactly. It is the same thing with our mind, it is the same thing with other people, and it is the same thing with life also. Thus one can develop these insights just by sitting and by realising this. And that realisation we get in sitting - we have to apply it in everyday life. So you see how the so-called unpleasant experiences can be wonderful teachers. Please see them as teachers and not as disturbances and dissatisfactions.
Having said that, we will now end the discussion by chanting, and then after chanting we will meditate on loving-kindness.