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The End of Suffering
Day 4: Stress and Meditation
(Friday, October 8th 1999)
I'd like to welcome each one of you. Stress has become a very challenging emotional state in the modern world. It's interesting that it is a phenomenon related mostly to this century. In some of the historic languages, there is not even a word for stress. In the language we speak in Sri Lanka there's no word for stress. And I am told that also in Chinese there is no clear word for stress. And even the English word stress has been used much more frequently in this century. So it will be interesting to find out what has happened in the modern age for stress to become such a problem.
The Reasons for Stress
I have reflected on this question and I'd like to share these reflections with you. I think one possible reason is that the modern world has become extremely competitive. I think in ancient days there was hardly any competition; it was a very simple way of living. So with the strong competition we have now, we have always to do better than others, and this can really give rise to a lot of stress.
I think another possible reason is that in modern times, time has become a very important factor, where doing things in time and then expecting certain things to happen at a particular time has also given rise to a lot of stress. So it's interesting that time is in a way a concept that we have created ourselves, and we have become victims of this concept that we have created.
In Sri Lanka still time is not such an important factor. If you have an appointment with someone at 9:00 in the morning, the person can come at 9:50 or 10:00 and it is no problem. The same thing can be said about the times of buses and trains. Rarely do they run on time. I can never forget one day when I was in Europe travelling by train an announcement was made. I did not understand the language, but I realized that people were looking at their watches and there was a lot of anxiety and stress in relation to the announcement. So I asked them what the announcement was about. And they told me the train was going to arrive five minutes late. In Sri Lanka, it's surprising even if the train is there in the first place! So this shows very clearly how we are relating to time in a way which is really creating stress and tension for us.
I have been enquiring why people in Hong Kong work so hard, because I thought it might be related to Confucian ethics or what has been emphasized by the ancient masters. And one of the reasons given to me is that it is due to the materialism that has become a very important part of the world today. So here again, there is a kind of vicious circle. Because materialism is such an important factor you want to make money, and then in order to earn money you have to work very hard. One thing leads to the other and again this is creating more stress.
I think another reason why there can be stress in our lives is because of the idea of doing things perfectly. We fear to make mistakes and this itself, the concern and preoccupation we have not to make any mistakes, can also create a lot of stress. And another factor perhaps related to this is, we have become very conscious of what others think of us. We have given such power to other people, and sometimes what others think of you can create your own happiness or unhappiness.
Sometimes I meet people who are always trying to please other people because, as I said, what others think of you has become extremely important, and this aspect of trying to please others can create a lot of tension and stress. So what has happened is that for different reasons which are related to the modern way of living, a lot of stress and tension has been created.
Perhaps another factor that comes to my mind is that with the advent of consumerism and materialism in the modern world, we have become extremely dependant on external things. Because of this dependency, again our happiness and our unhappiness are dependent on these external things. I like to see it as using toys. In the modern world, human beings have created a lot of toys to please themselves, to excite themselves, to get over their boredom and loneliness. So sometimes it's a case of changing one toy for another and still they cannot get any satisfaction. The reason is that they have something lacking in themselves, so that whatever happens to them, whatever they get, is not good enough, something different should happen. So most of the time, or even all the time, people are dissatisfied.
So I see meditation in a way as learning to be our own toy. So if we can learn to really enjoy our own company, if we can be really happy with ourselves, if we can be really contented with ourselves, this would be a way of becoming independent of external toys. And in this way, stress can be reduced a lot.
Working with Stress
Now let us consider how meditation can help us to work with stress when it arises. One thing is that stress sometimes arises because of the thought, I might make a mistake: what would others think of me? So in this case what happens initially is that a thought comes and it is just a thought, but then we give reality to that thought and we become victims of the thought. You see the importance of awareness in daily life? So when such a thought comes, if you have awareness you can catch yourself and realize it is just a thought and it is not reality. Stress is created when we give unnecessary reality to our habitual and obsessive way of thinking. This is one way of working with our stress.
Another way is that when stress is there, what actually happens within us? Is there a particular sensation that you feel which you can work into what is called stress? Or as I said, is it always related to a thought? So you can really explore this, investigate this, find out for yourself what it is that we call stress and what really happens to us when we experience stress. It's a very interesting exercise to be with the sensations, to be with whatever is happening in your mind and body, without the word stress; take away the word stress and just be with the actual experience, what is happening to you. So I'd like you to experiment with some of the tools, some of the suggestions that I am offering and find out for yourselves which ones will help you.
Another tool is trying to be aware of the breath. Because as we found out, sometimes our thoughts, sometimes the way we relate to sensations and so on, can really build up the stress that is arising. And it's interesting that mostly stress is created by thoughts about the past or especially about the future, anticipating anxiety, failure and so on. So if you can really be with the reality of breathing, because that is happening right now, then you realize that even in the few minutes you spend with the breath, there is a complete recovery from any emotion that you have been having.
Another point is, what is the opposite of feeling stressed? I would suggest it is when we can really relax with whatever is happening; if you can really learn to feel at ease with what is happening, that is the complete opposite of stress. So it shows that modern man, unless one is a meditator, has not discovered the way just to relax with oneself. So how can we learn to relax with ourselves? Here again, one way is that if you can really make a connection with your breath and as I sometimes like to say, if you see your breath as a friend, then no sooner do you become aware of the breath, just relax with the breath, then stress and tension can just drop away.
Another tool will be to watch how the stress arises and how the process, the mechanism continues. What normally happens is that we are resisting something, and this can really give rise to stress. So if you can, really be with the stress and tell yourself, as I often like to say, I feel uncomfortable with the stress or whatever I am experiencing but it is okay not to feel okay. If you can really do that then this continuity, this vicious circle, one condition giving rise to another condition, can be stopped and you are just being with whatever is happening.
Maybe one last point to explore or to discuss is that I know some meditators suffer from stress when they meditate. How does stress arise in relation to your practice? Here again, it is through your having strong expectations of what should happen or what should not happen when you're meditating.
Another cause is your wanting something different to happen from whatever is happening. So you are really resisting what is happening in meditation, especially resisting the distractions, the so-called distractions and disturbances, and sometimes we relate to them with stress. So it's interesting that how stress arises in everyday life and how stress arises in meditation, it is the same principle that is involved.
I'd like to pause at this stage and allow more time today for any questions because I feel that this is a very important subject, the subject of stress, because it is really harming, really destroying human beings in the modern world. Some doctors have even found that many illnesses are stress-related. So stress can make our body sick, it can make our mind sick and sometimes it can even make others sick as it can create suffering for other people. So if you have any practical questions relating to working with stress, please ask them now.
Retreatant: There are two questions. The first question is that in our daily life, while working in the office, very often we are involved in handling problems and therefore emotions arise. Is there any way that we can separate the emotion that arises from the actual action that we are doing, because in the office we have to work.
Godwin: So what you are asking is that while working in an office, how can one work without necessarily having emotions like stress and anxiety? So when we work in the office or when we work in general, what sometimes happen to us is that we think we might make mistakes, we fear to make mistakes. In a way it's a good thing, but one has to use it in a meaningful way, otherwise that can give rise to stress and tension. A suggestion I'd like to offer is that when we work in the office, when these unpleasant emotions arise we should learn not to be surprised. Why do I say this? Because we are still human, we are still not enlightened so we are bound to experience these emotions when we are working or even at other times.
Another thing which happens is that when we have an unpleasant emotion, we feel negative about ourselves; we give ourselves a big minus. I would like to suggest that rather than give ourselves a minus, we should learn to give ourselves a plus because as meditators, we are trying to make use of such a situation; we try to find out, now what can I learn from this? And then we should also, with awareness, find out while working in the office at what times and in what situations there have been no unpleasant emotions, when there has been no stress. This is a very, very important tool. And then if you cannot use these tools at the time when an emotion arises, at least when you go back home or later on, you can reflect on what happened.
Here again, in that type of reflection don't feel guilty, don't see yourself as a failure - this is very, very important - but rather try to learn about it: now what happened, at what time did these really unpleasant emotions come up? So we are trying to learn from it, we try to see it as a learning opportunity. You can see it as a gift that we are using meditation in such situations.
And the last suggestion is that we should develop self-confidence so that if these unpleasant emotions should come we can say, I know how to handle them, I have discovered the medicine. And then when they are not there, I will try to be aware that they are not there. So this can be also a very important tool.
Retreatant: There is a second question. That is, when we practice meditation, there are things which might come up from the subconscious level of the mind. How can I overcome problems arising from the subconscious level of the mind?
Godwin: Very good question. When we meditate, things from the unconscious mind come up because what we have done is that we have suppressed them, pushed some things away and not looked at them. So in meditation they are bound to arise sometimes.
Another thing is that when things from the unconscious arise, sometimes they may not be very pleasant. So we have to learn not to judge them, because it is by judging them that we control them and then when we control them, they are pushed away. Instead when they arise, if you can just observe them in a very friendly, non-judgmental way, then you create some space around them. Then what happens is that they come but you are not really reacting to them, ideally. Or even if unpleasant emotions come, you just let them be; then by doing that, we take away their power.
So the last point is that when they arise, one should be meditating at that time without an object like breathing, but as we did a few times, allowing any thought to arise, allowing any emotion to arise, allowing any sensation to arise. So allowing these things to arise, we just observe them.
Retreatant: I have some experience to share and I don't know whether it's right or wrong. My understanding is that in our lifetime we are bound to face many occasions when emotions and various kinds of unpleasant feelings would arise and we have to have the confidence to face all these adverse situations and learn from the circumstances right in front of us. So as a meditator the important thing is to learn from the circumstances confronting us rather than be afraid of these circumstances. To learn and to train ourselves is the most important thing.
I still have one puzzle: when I am unable to solve a particular problem, I am very puzzled what to do and then the negative feelings arise. What do you suggest, how might I handle this problem?
Godwin: So what I would suggest is that when our minds are confused, when we are puzzled, when we don't have clarity, trying to solve a problem at that moment may not be easy. Another point is that whenever we have a problem, it's a very interesting exercise to try to find out what is the model, what is the expectation, what is the image that I'm having which I am resisting now. So you realize that what you call a problem is, in a way, not the problem; but rather the problem is the idea, the image you have of how things should be different.
And maybe another suggestion is that sometimes it's also good to reflect very consciously: now this is the problem I have; now in what way can I find a solution, in what way can I respond to that problem, what I call a problem? Sometimes we have problems which cannot be solved. Take a practical example: sometimes in Sri Lanka a mother would come to me with a deformed child, or a mentally retarded child, and for such conditions there is no cure. So what can she do? It is very important to know what can be changed in our lives, and what cannot be changed in our lives. If something can be changed, you can try to reflect about it clearly, and if things cannot be changed, you have to accept that. We have to have the wisdom to see the difference very clearly, what can be changed and what cannot be changed.
One last point is that in life just as we can suffer as a result of any problem, we also have a choice not to suffer in relation to our problems; so we all have that choice.
Retreatant: It appears to me that there are two types of emotions, one type relating to our mind, the other relating to our body. And if it is related to our mind, it appears to be easier to handle, but if it is related to our body, then it appears to be more difficult to handle. Just to give an example: when we shout at our parents, we know that we should not shout at our parents; but when I am very angry, I cannot control myself and keep raising my voice. This is like our body controlling our mind, so what would you suggest we should do in this situation?
Godwin: In relation to the connection between the mind and the body in the case of emotions, it's a very interesting exercise when you have certain emotions to see whether you can feel the sensation related to that emotion. So you can learn just to be with the sensation in the body, just as a feeling and take away the word that you use for the emotion. We'll take a practical example: when you experience fear, sometimes you can feel a tension in the area of your stomach. So in such a situation, if you can just be with the sensation in the body without the word fear, as I said in relation to stress, then you will be relating to that emotion in an entirely different way.
But in relation to the problem you presented in regard to your mother, my suggestion is that when you have anger in relation to what your mother has been doing, what you can do is just to be with that anger or just to be with that resentment, and again be with the sensations in the body, observing, for example, how the breath is changing very rapidly when there is anger. So try to focus your attention not so much on the way you are relating to your mother but what is happening in your own mind and body at that time. Then your attention is not so much on your mother but on what is happening inside you. So if you can learn to do that in such a situation, then after some time you will realize that the anger has dropped away on its own, because you are not feeding the anger.
One last suggestion is that when you get angry with your mother or whoever it is, without saying anything just go in front of a mirror and see what is happening to your face. And that can also help you to recover from your anger because your attention is not so much on your mother but on what happens to your appearance when you get angry.
I am happy that some practical questions have been asked and hope the solutions that I offered will help you in working with the problems that you presented. And I am very happy that you are really grappling with these problems and finding a way out of them. You can be really happy that you are making a sincere effort to use the Dhamma in handling the problems you encounter. What is beautiful about the Buddha's teaching is that one can use the Dhamma in any situation, for any problem that one has to face in life.
Now we will take a short break and after that we will meditate.
So we will now learn to meditate in a very relaxed way.
Can you feel friendly and gentle towards your mind and body, just feeling comfortable, feeling at ease with your mind and body.
Let us just learn to be friendly with that.
If there's no stress, just know that there is no stress. And if there is any stress, just know that there is stress; learn to say okay to it.
Let us do some chanting now:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
Just feel the peace and the stillness in this room.
Thank you very much for coming, and when you go to your homes and sleep, may you sleep peacefully and wake up peacefully.