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Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 6: Stillness
Godwin: This morning I thought Sri Lankan weather had come back! I threw away the coat I was wearing and I embraced the weather. I wanted to go for a walk, but I was expecting a meditator. Still I could enjoy the morning from my room. Then in the afternoon the sky became cloudy and it started raining unexpectedly. In the silence, German weather had come. How does one relate this to one’s practice? When the Sri Lankan weather is there, do we learn to see the beauty in the Sri Lankan weather? Can we be open to the Sri Lankan weather? And then can we do the same with the German weather? Can we see some beauty in the German weather as well? One can see beauty in the mist. One could listen to the sound of the raindrops. Sitting there in the late afternoon was a beautiful experience, where there was a complete stillness in the trees and the birds were not singing.
So being one with the German weather as well as being open to the Sri Lankan weather. You gave no plus to the Sri Lankan weather, and no minus to the German weather. They are there due to certain conditions and it is also due to certain conditions that they are passing away. So our practice is really awakening ourselves to this duality, to be one with the Sri Lankan weather, and to be one with the German weather. As Thich Nhat Hanh says: Feeling one with your sadness, feeling one with your joy - learning from joy, learning from sadness.
It is to see these things, to awaken our mind to this, that we are getting up in the morning and doing Yoga, practising silence, sitting for long hours with pain, having individual and outdoor meditation, listening to discussions. All these are tools to develop such an understanding, to awaken our mind to that state or condition. Is it not a very simple, practical model? Are we clear about our practice now? The real challenge is whether we can do the same in relation to what is happening within us as to what is happening outside us. In relation to what is happening within us, how can we be open and awake? As I have been saying so often: By learning to see things as they are. Whether the monsters are there or not, you learn from both conditions.
A Mirror-Like Mind
Now there is a very useful metaphor that is used in spiritual traditions to describe this practice, this perspective. It is called: having a mirror-like mind. Let us try to understand in practical terms from our own experience what it is like to have a mirror-like mind. In what way can we practise to have a mirrorlike mind? I have come across this metaphor in the Theravada tradition, in the Zen tradition, in the Tibetan tradition and in Taoism as well.
Now in the Buddhist tradition there are two aspects to meditation: one is called calm, tranquillity, and the other is Vipassana or developing insight and wisdom. In developing calmness and tranquillity, I would say that this is like polishing the dust off the mirror. This is what we do by practising with an object like breathing, where with the help of our friend the breath we learn to develop some calmness, some tranquillity, some space, clarity and awareness. And when the dust is not there the mirror reflects things just as they are.
I would like to share with you some aspects of a mirror-like mind for you to apply to your own experience and your own situation in life. A mirror reflects what is considered beautiful just as something that is beautiful. For example, a flower comes before a mirror and the mirror would reflect the flower just as it is. Something that we consider not so beautiful, or not so pleasant, say a spider, would be reflected just as a spider. No discrimination between the flower and the spider.
So you can see how we are trying to apply this in our meditation. When we have a pleasant experience, we are aware of the pleasant experience just as it is. When we have an unpleasant experience, or what we consider as an unpleasant experience, we reflect it as it is. That is why I have been reminding you many times, if there is a pleasant sensation, just know that there is a pleasant sensation. And if there is an unpleasant sensation, can we make friends with it? Can we relate to it without resisting it? Can we be really open to what we consider unpleasant sensations?
That is why I also suggested earlier that when the monsters are there, be open to them and make friends with them. And when they are not present, just know that they are not there. This is one aspect of the mirror-like mind, and this can be applied to all our life, and to all our experiences.
Thus the real challenge is while you may have very pleasant experiences when you are here, can you still be open to what you consider as unpleasant experiences when when you go back to your computers in everyday life? This is the challenge we have. How far can we learn from such experiences? Like learning from the German weather!
I will speak more about this as we go along, because many meditators have been telling me that over here it is very nice, wonderful and spacious. But going back is a problem. Monsters are more or less sleeping here in a retreat, but when we return to our normal lives, they wake up with a lot of power and energy. What do we do when that happens? I really wish I could create more monsters here for you meditators to practise with! And then I could tell you: Now here are the monsters, see. Can you make friends with them? Can you learn from them? Anyway, this is the first point about what we can describe as the mirror-like mind.
Another important aspect of the mirror-like mind is that nothing is retained. Things are reflected just as they are. Nothing is taken in. Now this touches on the greatest problem we have in everyday life. Especially when we have unpleasant experiences, we give them minuses and then we take them in. And we are very good in collecting and accumulating these unpleasant experiences. I meet very spiritual people, good people, but when I talk to them, they are very unhappy because they do not see the positive side. What they are seeing more and more are the minuses, the unpleasant experiences. This is why I have been emphasising that although it is alright to carry these wounds, let us try to heal them by learning to let go of them. Otherwise we are just holding onto whatever experiences we have been having. It is also interesting to reflect why we cling onto them, carrying the past as a burden in this way to inflict suffering on ourselves and on others.
This matter of carrying things as a burden is shown in a very well-known Zen story. Once there were two monks who were walking together when they met a beautiful girl standing beside a river. One of the monks carried the girl across when he realised that the girl was finding it difficult to cross the river, and left her on the other side. The following day, the other monk said: You know, you did something very wrong. You should be given a big minus because you carried that beautiful girl across the water. Don’t you know that monks cannot touch women? And the other monk said: I have left her behind on the other shore, but you are still carrying her!
This is what we are all doing. Our experiences, we cannot just put them down. We are really still carrying them. And I think as we are still human, it is natural that we carry them, it is natural that we hold onto them. But we should learn to look at them, to learn from them, for they can be extremely valuable experiences. So we should see what we can learn from them, and whether we can put them down. Can we heal the wounds that we are carrying? Otherwise, as I said, with these wounds you inflict suffering on yourself and perhaps on others too. So you have to make a choice. You have to be clear. How do I work with this? Can I learn not to inflict suffering on myself and on others by healing these wounds? This is the second aspect of the mirrorlike mind.
A third aspect which we can relate to in our everyday life is seeing how the mirror-like mind does not accept or reject things. It just allows, just being with whatever is happening without accepting and without rejecting.
So that is why I gave you an exercise to work with the reacting and the non-reacting mind. Again, as we are still human we have this tendency to accept, to reject, to like, to dislike, to give a plus or minus. It is natural that we like the Sri Lankan weather and not the German weather. But then we realise we have no control over the Sri Lankan weather or the German weather. So we cannot demand: I would like to have only Sri Lankan weather and not the German weather!
You are amused, but this is exactly what we do in life. Wanting things to be another way. My business should be working in this way. My girlfriend should be behaving in that way. I should be behaving in this way. Demanding things from ourselves, from others, from life, like how we demand Sri Lankan weather is what we do all the time. Demanding is one thing, but what is happening is another thing. Thus after demanding Sri Lankan weather in the morning, I have to work with the German weather in the afternoon!
Suppose I had identified with the Sri Lankan weather, I would be depressed by now: Oh, the Sri Lankan weather is gone. I would also be waiting in hope for the Sri Lankan weather to come: Oh, when will the weather be fine again? Can we not apply this to what happens in everyday life? Again, as I am human, it is natural that I am longing for Sri Lankan weather all the time so that I can throw this coat away. This shows the importance of reflection. I have to stop and reflect: Now is my demand reasonable? When I make this demand, am I being realistic? Is it possible? Can we always get what we demand?
With this kind of reflection, we realise the nature of our actions and of our demands. We need only to see this and to understand this. From such seeing and understanding, realisation can come. So I have to realise I cannot make demands. I have to see how far I can make friends with the German weather. How far can I see the beauty in the German weather? How far can I learn from the German weather? And how far can I make discoveries about the German weather? Then you realise that you can see certain things which you had not seen before because your depression has gone.
So do you realise that what we are doing with increased meditation is to create more space in our mind, to create greater clarity in our mind, so that we have more awareness and can see what we are doing? In this way, we will come to a state where we see the German weather as equally fine, nice and interesting. This is difficult, it is a challenge.
Need we go further? Is the message clear? I can speak more about the mirror-like mind, but is this necessary? Isn’t this clear enough to realise what you have to do? To understand that while you are here and experiencing Sri Lankan weather, you will have German weather when you go back. So please do not demand Sri Lankan weather then! That’s it! Any questions?
Questions concerning Stillness
Retreatant: How can I distinguish between being able to change things, and the point when I have to accept something as it is?
Godwin: Very good question! You should be clear what you can change and what cannot be changed. One area where change is possible is ourselves. Beginning from there, we can also see what can be changed outside. And to be realistic as far as possible as to what cannot be changed. We have a saying in this connection displayed at the Nilambe Meditation Centre: May I have the courage to change what can be changed, the patience to bear what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.
Retreatant: What was the conclusion of your experience of this morning?
Godwin: Aha, what is my conclusion on the Sri Lankan weather? Very good. You must ask questions of me also! As I said, this morning I was very happy taking off my coat and waiting to go for a walk. Even inside my room I was still enjoying the weather. With the same mood and state of mind, I enjoyed life as it was. I usually take a short rest after lunch. As I woke up, I saw rain when I looked out of the window. I realised I did not like the rain. So that was a very good opportunity for me to reflect on what had happened in the morning and what was happening then. It gave me an opportunity to practise what I preached. I realised the weather can be a wonderful teaching. That is why I started the evening discussion with this. I am very grateful to the German weather. Still I would like to have the Sri Lankan weather tomorrow to be honest! Any other questions?
Retreatant: How can I change without being under pressure?
Godwin: You are quite right to ask this. I have met many people who put pressure on themselves to change. When I meet them, I realise they are only putting pressure on, and not really changing themselves. I was telling one of the meditators that I have been meeting what I call casualties of meditation - people who pile the pressure on to change themselves because they see some problem in the mind or the body. But really they are quite okay. So the pressure to change arises in these people and straightaway some complication develops in the mind or the body. Sometimes I wonder if meditation is really helping these people, because non-meditators are much happier. I am really seriously thinking about this question, about what people are doing to themselves in the name of meditation.
I will give a simple example. Close to the Nilambe Meditation Centre there is a town called Kandy. In Kandy, noise, crowds and seeing nice food pose no problem for people who are not meditating. But when Nilambe meditators come to Kandy, they cannot relate to the noise, the crowds and they have a problem with ice-cream! So do you know what they do? They run back to the Centre! It is good for the Centre - but I thought seriously, What am I doing here? Am I producing meditators who are worse off than non-meditators?
This is why I emphasise so much about working with our monsters, about making friends as far as possible with them. Because, like here, Nilambe is an ideal place for the monsters to go to sleep. So I try not to allow that situation to arise. In a way, there are sometimes more challenges there than there are here. Especially when a group of Sri Lankans come. They cannot stop talking. I know some meditators hate it when they hear that a Sri Lankan group is coming. Suddenly they find two Sri Lankans sharing the room that they have been holding onto as their room. And I hope the newcomers would start snoring in the night. I see that as the practice.
Meditators have calm and pleasant experiences in Nilambe, but when they go to Kandy, all that is gone. This is why I do not encourage people to go into deep states of concentration. Buddhist monks come to the Centre for meditation and when they come, sometimes I encourage them to go into deep states of samadhi, because they can function in that situation with the type of life they lead. But for lay people like you who have relationships, who work with computers and live in big towns where you hear only telephones, trams, trucks, buses, and so on, it doesn’t work.
One can have deep experiences in Nilambe, but all of that is gone straightaway when one comes into such a situation as the above. But it is different if, while in Nilambe, you can really learn to work with emotions and monsters, then even when you are in big towns, you will not be taken by surprise when these things arise.
This is why I offer you many tools, and encourage you to use the tools here. When you learn to use the tools here, you can see how far you can apply them when you go back and these monsters come.
See, when I started to speak the question was not so relevant to what I am now saying, see how easily I can go on to other things! I have to be aware of my speech. Anyway, I was trying to respond to the point he made, about how we pressurise ourselves to change ourselves. This is why I have been emphasising as a first step to please accept yourself as you are, and not as you should be, or as you must be. This is extremely important. Otherwise, we want all the time to be different from what we are. And we would be pushing and pressurising ourselves all the time to be different. One person used the word ego, so we are trying to get rid of the ego. But in this process we are creating a bigger ego! This is why I am speaking about finding a way to practise without pressurising oneself. But please realise this does not mean giving in to these things.
As I was telling someone today, one has to find a spiritual life, a meditation practice, which suits the culture here. In the culture here, you have to pressurise yourself to do well in life. You have to pressurise yourself to succeed in this culture. And in this culture you are pressurised to act perfectly. The model of perfection is imposed on you by the culture here. So do you see the connection? When such people take to meditation, they want to be a perfect meditator. As I said, they then start pressurising themselves and making demands on themselves: I should be like this, I should be like that. And guilt becomes a great problem eventually for they start feeling guilty because they are not making any progress in the spiritual practice.
These poor meditators! They started by wanting to work on suffering. Now they are experiencing more suffering because of meditation! And with that. they start pressurising themselves more. I am really deeply touched when I meet such people because they are very sincere, genuine and highly motivated. I think this is something for us to reflect on.
Retreatant: How can I handle the tools without putting pressure on myself to find the right one each time?
Godwin: I like such questions. It shows the confused way I have been teaching! I would like to meet you individually, but still I will say some general things about the question. The first point is why do I offer so many tools? This is because I know there are different sorts of people and they are in different situations.
In a retreat like this there are complete newcomers and there are some who have been practising for many, many years. So this is why I really encourage people to see me personally, because what I try to do is to relate to people individually. And that is why I offer many techniques, and encourage you to experiment, to explore and to find out what is most helpful to you in the place you are at.
I would like to say something about this plus and minus business. In this culture I meet many people who are used to giving themselves minuses. That is why when I spoke about the loving-kindness meditation, I mentioned that you have to develop loving-kindness towards yourselves. You have to learn to see more and more plusses in yourself. It is extremely important, as I have often been saying, that we should learn to feel happy about what we are doing. We should feel grateful for what we are trying to do. With more and more plusses you really experience more joy, more lightness and so on. Once rid of the mechanism of giving minuses, you experience these plusses. You experience this joy, this lightness, this happiness and gratitude. Actually this state itself is wonderful.
But if you would like to go further you have to see that these positive experiences, that even these plusses are also anicca (impermanent). And they are also in a way empty. That is, they are empty of any owner, as I tried to indicate this morning. Then you go beyond plus and minus, and you realise that both are concepts. When you realise that, you can use them as concepts when you want to, but fully realising the nature of concepts.
But let us forget about this third level and let us be more concerned about the second, where we can have more loving-kindness, more friendliness, more gratitude, more joy, more lightness. That is good enough. But while you are experiencing them, I would also like you to work with unpleasant monsters, negative emotions, so that in everyday life you are really ready for them when they arise.
This is my general answer to your question, but still I would like to meet with you individually. I have been meeting people even outside interview times; if you would like to come, you can come during yoga, after breakfast, or after dinner. So even during yoga - I like you to do yoga, but if it is really important you can come and see me then. The only thing I would like to warn you about when you come is that it is possible there might be someone there already. It will be excellent for your practice! So I hope that happens.
Now I would like to say something about being a little more positive. There is a very positive effect in writing down everyday the good things which happen throughout the day. About this, I would like to make a brief comment. When I meet meditators in Nilambe, I do a very interesting exercise in this connection. I tell the meditators to draw up a list of all their positive qualities. It comes as a surprise to me that in most of these lists there are so many omissions. So when I know someone well I mention more positive things to that person, and sometimes this really shocks and surprises them. There have been instances where people have come with about five or six positive things on their list, and I have added about ten or twelve to it!
This is very interesting. It shows what a strong conditioning and habit we have to mostly see only our minuses. It is a most unfortunate aspect of the human condition. It is everywhere, and it is universal. In South Africa there was a teacher who teaches parents. And she told us that in one of the workshops for parents she asked them to draw up a list of all the bad things, wrong things, their children would do. Within a few minutes they could produce a long list! Then she asked: Now please draw up a list of the good things your children are doing. It was not easy for them. They had to think. They had to ask for ten more minutes to think about it!
Now if there are no more questions, we can do some chanting, and end today’s session with a loving-kindness meditation. The chanting is nice, it is improving every day.