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Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 5: Thoughts
Godwin: Hopefully you can relate this topic to your own experience. Why are thoughts so important in meditation? Can anyone suggest a reason?
Retreatant: Because they are connected to emotions.
Godwin: Any other reasons?
Retreatant: Because they are almost always there.
Godwin: Exactly. From the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep thought continues. And even when we go to sleep the dreams we have can be seen as a continuation of our thoughts. So this continuity of thoughts is what happens in everyday life. And what happens to you when you are meditating? Is there any difference?
Retreatant: Sometimes I succeed in abiding in the present moment, then emotions come up.
Godwin: In other words, in everyday life we are unable to live in the present, but
here when meditating we have moments where we can be in the present- that is the only difference. So you see how important it is to learn about thoughts, to make discoveries about them, because they are there most of the time.
Now one interesting discovery meditators make is that when they try to focus on breathing, the thoughts continue to come. The same thing happens as you are listening to me now. Do you want the thoughts you are having right now to come? What does this show about our thoughts?
Retreatant: They just come when they want to.
Godwin: They are just coming. They come mechanically, habitually, repetitively throughout the day; whether you are meditating or not there is no difference. This is a very interesting and important discovery, to realise that they just arise mechanically and habitually. And then what do we do? Do we allow them to just come and go?
Retreatant: Mostly we react in some way.
Godwin: Very, very important word - we react to the thoughts in some way. And this reaction is mostly about, as we have been saying, giving plusses and minuses to the thoughts. This is a very important experience for you, to realise what is happening when thoughts are coming and going.
And this process of reacting is how thoughts are related to emotions. One thing we could try to do is to see how far we can allow them to come and go on their way without reacting to them. If you can do that there is no need to stop thoughts, to get rid of them, or get angry with them. You will reach a stage in which whether there are thoughts or not makes no difference because the mind is not reacting.
Another interesting thing we do with these reactions is that we create stories. We construct, manufacture and create stories from what has happened in the past, or what is going to happen in the future, or even sometimes from hearing and seeing things in the present. Constructing, constructing.
And we are very creative, very creative indeed. Sometimes we can be very creative in a destructive way with our thoughts. So it is very important to know when we are using thoughts destructively, which we will be going into now, and how to use thoughts constructively. Can someone give an example of a story that we create?
Retreatant: I just sit there and eat and somebody sits down near me and makes a loud noise whilst eating, and there is the possibility I just hear, you know, or there is the possibility that I develop an aversion against him.
Godwin: Yes, we can create a story out of that. Someone is sitting next to us and the person is making a very unpleasant noise. Why is this person sitting next to me? And why is she making this noise? I have been eating now for 20 minutes, but she is continuing to make the same noise. I think she is doing this to agitate me!
We are laughing. But this is exactly what we do. A very good example, I can go on and on. Yesterday we spoke of monsters, emotions. In this story, you see how many monsters can come at the same time - with just this woman sitting there. We can have anger, and because of anger we can have guilt, and because of anger and guilt we can be confused, and because we are confused we can feel jealous when we look around and see other people sitting so calmly. You see how from this little noise, four or five monsters can come within a few minutes. Aren’t we funny? See how we can be so destructive with our thoughts!
The other day, a similar thing happened. Marcus was playing football, you remember? We could have made a huge story out of that.
Retreatant: I thought: now why has Marcus gone out to play football? I am sure Godwin has told him he can do this at meditation time so that we can observe our thoughts!
Godwin: So it was a short story! Suppose there was a meditator here who thinks that there are only meditators at the Centre. He didn’t see Marcus previously, and so he doesn’t know that there are children here. Imagine him hearing this unusual sound during meditation. What could this be?Very easily he can imagine so many strange things, have so many fantasies, imaginings arising from these sounds.
So you see how important awareness is, how important observing thoughts is. This is how we create our own suffering in everyday life. The stories that we create become so real. If you can see a story as a story, then of course there will be less arising of suffering or emotions; but when you take the story as something real, when you give reality and power to it, that is how emotions can come about, and that’s how suffering can arise.
You see the implications of some of the meditation techniques, like focusing on breathing, where we are taught to be just in the reality of the present moment, so that we understand and can see through the constructions that we make from our thoughts to thereby achieve an understanding, a realisation, an ability to distinguish what is real and unreal, and what are mental constructs.
I think in everyday life this is the real challenge we have. I’ll be speaking more about it on the last day, because we realise that in a sense there is no difference between what is happening here and what is happening in everyday life in relation to thoughts. I feel that what we can work with - more than states of calmness and clarity - what we can explore and investigate in everyday life is this very interesting and important area of thoughts and emotions, in terms of how they interact and how we use them to construct stories, and then how we become victims of the stories we have constructed ourselves.
Reacting to our Thoughts
This is one very important insight, discovery and exploration we can do in relation to our thoughts.
Another important discovery we can make is how to work with the thoughts we are having and our states of mind. What is more useful and meaningful in meditation is not so much to be concerned about the thoughts, but to work with our states of mind in relation to the thoughts that are coming and going.
In this connection there is a beautiful metaphor that is used in Tibetan Buddhism which I like very much. In the metaphor, the mind is compared to the spacious sky and the thoughts to clouds. That is very beautiful. In practical terms, it means you allow thoughts to come and go like the clouds and yet you remain in a non-reactive state with this spaciousness.
However, as we are still human, I am sure we will be reacting to some of them; even though it is nice to be human with some of the clouds, with some of the thoughts. As a reaction is when we use thoughts creatively, we can explore and investigate our reactions.
You will understand that these reactions are generally related to this very strong habit we have of making judgments, of giving plusses and minuses. We need to learn about the judgments we make, understanding that sometimes we need to use judgements functionally. However, understanding this process of giving plusses and minuses also opens up a very, very important area for us to explore regarding how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others.
Again what is interesting is we never question the plusses and minuses we give! Where do they come from? Who taught us to be our own teachers, giving ourselves marks and so on?
Retreatant: We ourselves, because we behave like we think we have to, or how we ought to behave.
Godwin: So first of all we got it from society; we got it from others.
Retreatant: Or from meditation.
Godwin: Very good. I will speak about that. Here again what we are doing most of the time is to use the plusses and minuses in a destructive way. It is a real test, a real challenge for us to use thoughts consructively and functionally, and to know the difference when we are using them in a very destructive way, creating suffering for ourselves and others.
Let’s take how meditators in a retreat use plusses and minuses in the context of meditation. Perhaps in one sitting your mind is calm, very clear and peaceful, and so you conclude: At last it is working! Maybe now I should go deeper into meditation. Maybe I should go to Sri Lanka or Burma to deepen and enhance my practice, and so on, and so forth.
But at the next sitting after lunch, feeling sleepy, drowsy and experiencing no calm because the person next to you is moving around, you give a big, big minus, thinking: I had a pleasant experience during this morning sitting, but I know in the long run these things don’t work for me. I have never succeeded in life! So you feel worthless, hopeless and useless, especially when you compare yourself with others. One identity arises in the morning, and another in the afternoon. So this is what happens to meditators in retreats. You see how important our thoughts are, how important our plusses and minuses are.
I am sure we are doing the same thing when we judge others in retreats. We first judge ourselves, and then we do the same with others. How do we judge others in a meditation retreat? Any experiences? Think about this - do we ever question our likes and dislikes, our plusses and minuses? The danger is we think they are always correct! Especially when we are judging other people, but even about ourselves, we are so certain, no question about it.
Exploring our Conclusions
Our conclusions? Is it easy to change our conclusions? Our assumptions? We become so fixed with them. And if someone questions them, we get another reaction. This came to me very clearly on one occasion; I just remember it now. I go to a so-called psychiatric clinic once a week when I am in Sri Lanka. It’s a big joke among my friends, they say: Godwin goes to a psychiatric clinic once a week, claiming to help the people there, but we don’t know who is helping whom!
In one of these clinics I met a young man, a law student with a very, very sharp, very intelligent, and very clear mind. He told me he had a problem with his spine. He said his spine was not correct, not straight, and that people could see it. And when people notice it, they talk about it and laugh at it. So it was really a serious problem for him. It really made him sad and depressed. Because of this problem, he doesn’t like to go out, he preferred to stay in his room.
I realised actually there was nothing wrong with his spine. The problem lies with his thoughts, his thinking, his beliefs, his conclusions. When I tried to tell him this, he dismissed it. Then it occurred to me to say: Alright, shall we take an x-ray? Yes, he said. Why not? So we took one, and when the x-ray came back, it showed the spine was quite normal. He looked at it and he said: Yes, but my problem did not show up on the x-ray!
At that moment, I thought: Who knows, some of the conclusions and assumptions I have, including some of the plusses and minuses that I give could all be just like this person?
So it was clear to me that we live in a private world of our own. We have constructed a private world from our experiences, from our plusses and minuses and so on, and we are living in that private world. This private world does not correspond to reality. Again from this private world we project our plusses, our minuses, our judgments, and we gather more and more experiences into our private world.
That is why there is no communication between people. How can there be any communication if everyone is living each in their private worlds? That day one of the retreatants said it very well: We are wearing coloured glasses.
So in meditation what we are trying to do is, at least in the first place, to acknowledge this, 103 understand this, and then to see how our private world, our subjective world, how the world we have created functions and operates. So you see the importance of being aware? Do you see the importance of being alert and awake about how our minds operate? And then slowly, gently, tenderly, as I have been emphasising very much, learning to see things as they really are from our own experiences.
I’ll be talking more about this meditation that we have been trying to do, where we allow thoughts, emotions, sensations to arise, and learn to see them just as they are, without a plus or minus, and to see the difference it makes to us.
Making Discoveries about our Thoughts
Another discovery we can make about our thoughts which I suggested today is to find out what really happens when there is a thought. What is our experience when there is thinking?
Retreatant: Sometimes I have the feeling that at the basis of one thought or all different thoughts there is a feeling, and this feeling has been repressed very often in our lives, and this is connected with our old wounds. And then this repressed feeling is an energy source for new thoughts.
Godwin: So we recycle thoughts. Recycling is okay when it refers to waste and so on, but recycling thoughts is not okay, because for every cycle the emotion gets bigger.
Retreatant: I think anxiety and sorrow are reasons for thoughts.
Godwin: I am a very simple man. I will give a few simple examples for you to realise what happens in our minds when there are thoughts. Let us think about the dinner we had. What happens to your mind when you are thinking about dinner?
Retreatant: I see an image.
Godwin: Exactly, we see pictures. If I close my eyes and think of the dinner, I see pictures of bread, I see pieces of cheese, I see some tea. So our thoughts are mostly pictures. If you want to be clearer, these are simple examples: you can think of breakfast. And what are you seeing? What is happening in your thinking of breakfast?
Retreatant: Like a commercial, I see a big cup of coffee.
Godwin: I would like you to make more such discoveries. There are some very interesting exercises to do. This is what I am encouraging you to do, to make your own discoveries. Forget what you have read, forget what you have heard. Just be simple and practical and find out. This can be so fascinating; if you can have the openness to learn, you can discover so much.
This is meditation. Not taking anything for granted. I mean, we should be grateful and think how fortunate we are that we have this fascinating experience. I call it the laboratory of mind and body. But it seems that though this mind and body are so close to us, they are in many ways so very far away.
So please, generate a fascination for this, find a taste for this, and develop a curiosity for this. Find this the most meaningful thing one can do in this life, to discover what is so close to us. Feel happy about this, feel grateful about this, and feel enthusiastic about this. Because it is fascinating, learning all the time about thoughts, about emotions, about perception, about so many things in this world of ours.
It is really a blessing that we have this fascinating mind - sometimes very complicated, very subtle, but always interesting and fascinating. The only thing is, you need to be very simple. This is very difficult. We are good at complicating very simple things. We had this when we were children. We were curious, always asking questions, but we have lost this curiosity. It is so beautiful when you talk with children, how clearly they speak, because they just speak from their heart, from their experience.
I’ll just share two experiences of mine regarding this. One was with a child who was about five or six years old. She was in Switzerland, I think, and she was telling me about swimming. I cannot swim, so I asked her: Can you teach me to swim? She said: It is very simple-lie on the water with courage. If I had asked a professor of swimming, he or she would have given me a one-hour lecture and I’d still be confused about what swimming is. This is the beauty of childlike simplicity. They speak from their heart, from their experience. By the way, then I asked her: What to do if I don’t have courage? Very innocently she said: Then you won’t be able to swim! Simple, isn’t it?
Another experience took place at a retreat like the one here. But it was a weekend retreat and like the sweet child we have here, there was a young girl. The mother said she had just come for one day and asked if her daughter could sit with us in meditation. So I said: It will be nice to have her with us. I gave this exercise of just listening to the sounds, and after that I had a discussion with them. Now what actually happened to you when you heard these sounds? There were about 25 to 30 people, and they all gave very lengthy, long-winded explanations. Some were even confused by the exercise. Some were not giving details of what happened but were asking me questions. And then when it came to this child, she used just one word: Floating. She was just floating with the sounds. Just being with the sounds. Immediately I said: Please, let us have a discussion on how we have complicated our minds. It was such a touching and moving experience for everyone present, when this little girl who had never meditated before used just one word, unlike all these other people.
So you see what I am doing? I started by talking about thoughts, and slowly, slowly I’m going on to different topics! Now let me pause and I am sure you will have questions. Please ask questions, especially in relation to everyday life. I am much more concerned about what happens in everyday life rather than what happens here. Especially working with thoughts.
Questions about Thoughts
Retreatant: How can I be in the present moment, and also find solutions for my problems?
Godwin: I think when you are a child there are not a lot of problems, so it is easy to be in the present moment. But when you are grown up you have serious problems. You must look after your family, pay your bills and so on. Then you think: How can I solve my problems? I don’t see the point, how can I be silent, how can I be in the present moment, and still find solutions to my problems?
It is a very useful question. It is interesting that when I said: Observe your thoughts. I never spoke about being in the present moment. Because thoughts are always about the past and the future, so the question of the present doesn’t arise. So in everyday life please forget about being in the present moment! What is important in everyday life is, as I said, that from morning till night there is a continuity of thoughts. So just find out, just learn about it. It has nothing to do with being in the present. Any other question?
Retreatant: I do not have a question but I would like to tell an experience. I wanted to do my ‘homework’, so I wanted to examine where my ideas come from. I found it takes a long time for a thought to come. A thought only came when I stopped trying to examine the process.
Godwin: A very interesting experience. I would like to say something, because it brings out a very important principle. What happens when we do not want thoughts to come and we are focusing on our breath? They come and come and come. And when we say, now let any thought come, they do not come! Why is the mind functioning in opposition to us? When a child is disobedient, we say he is obstinate. So why are our minds so very obstinate? That is a very important question to explore. The same thing happens with emotions - when we invite the monsters to come, they do not come.
I will offer a very simple explanation. This is why I have been saying: Make friends with the mind. You cannot tell the mind: Do this, don’t do that, like a child. This is what we are doing here in meditation. We come here, we sit in an unusual position and tell the mind: No thoughts, no sounds, no one should be moving, no one should cough. We want something different, something special from the mind. Then after meditation when we go out, our mind can do anything it wants! It understands meditation as coming here to sit and fight the battle, and afterwards we go out. That is why I say, after the bell is the best meditation! Because you are not doing anything special, you are just relaxed.
Oh, you have to be friendly, you have to be gentle. If you want to understand a child, you cannot do that by telling the child: Do this, do that. To understand the child you have to create space for her and watch her in a friendly way, then you will understand - this is what the child likes, this is what the child does not like. In the same way, you should behave like this with your thoughts. This is why I have been emphasising this friendliness, this gentleness, just finding out so much.
So thank you for sharing the experience. Any other questions?
Retreatant: I had a very similar experience once on a retreat: when I went for dinner, I was asked not to label food - of course, I did not succeed. What happened reminded me of a short story. There was a Jewish businessman, he went to his rabbi, and said: I am pretty rich but I could be a little bit richer. I have heard you are able to make gold. The rabbi said: Yes, I can. Oh, can’t you tell me how to make gold? The rabbi said: It is very easy, you need a big pot and you fill it with water and then you stir it on the fire for three hours and always think gold, gold, gold ... The man answered: Then after three hours I have gold? It sounds so easy. The rabbi replied: There is only one problem: you are not allowed to think of a green crocodile. The businessman went home, took a pot of water, stirred it on the fire. And the first thing he thinks is, I am not allowed to think of a green crocodile! That is what happens to me when I try not to label.
Godwin: There is a similar story from the Tibetan tradition. The teacher told the student: You know that to get rid of thoughts by trying is not possible. The student disagreed with the teacher. Then the teacher said: Alright, then go and do not think of monkeys. And you can imagine what happened. He was thinking of monkeys; not only thinking but he was also imagining monkeys, and eventually came the time when he imagined that the monkeys were chasing after him! So he went running to the teacher and said: Please, save me from the monkeys! See how a small thing, a story, a fantasy, can become so real.
I would like to say a word about the exercise I gave - listening to sounds. It shows how strongly conditioned we are by words. When we hear sounds, we feel compelled to recognise and label the sounds. And then by recognising the sounds we can create a big story. So it is a very interesting exercise to experiment with, to explore, to see what happens if you can just listen to sounds without the words, without the past associations, just the sounds.
When we see things, we give each thing a label too. It is a very, very strong habit that we have. Again experiment, just play with this. Take away the word and see things without the word. See whether there is a difference.
We do the same thing in attaching words to emotions and sensations. One of the tools I offered yesterday in working with emotions was taking away the word and just being with what you are actually experiencing. Please explore this for yourself. It is extremely difficult because we have such a strong conditioning.
Retreatant: I have another experience.
Godwin: Ah, very good.
Retreatant: There are a lot of books about positive thinking. Whenever I try to do that, something negative comes up!
Godwin: It is the same process. We have been so conditioned that it has become a habit to give ourselves minuses. It is so strong in us. So when we try to work with this and learn to give plusses, it is very, very difficult. This shows how strong our conditioning is. This shows how strong our addictions and our habits really are. So meditation is really about working with problems or habits or conditionings. To use computer language, it means to de-programme oneself.
Retreatant: I have a simple question: what is reality?
Godwin: At the moment, reality is just seeing, just hearing the sounds, just the breathing going on.
After answering that profound question about what reality is, we can do some chanting.