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Conversations with Godwin

3: Concept and Experience


Jyoti: I thought tonight we might talk about the relationship between language and experience - meaning 'language' in the broad sense, to include the conceptual model that one holds to, such things as one's religious beliefs and so on. I wanted to explore how language in this sense shapes one's experience, but also how one's experience shapes one's language.

A second thing we could talk about, related to the first, is the relationship between the past and the present. There have been two emphases on this: some hold that there is really only a present, and what you have in the present is simply an idea about the past. Others say that there is really only the past - meaning, I think, that the past is so dominant that it overruns and shapes all our present experience, and to such a degree that one can hardly be said to be having any present experience at all.

Godwin: First let me offer some comments on how the past conditions us, and how it operates in regard to our senses. We know how fast agitations arise and how these agitations give rise to our perceptions, and our perceptions to our conceptions. It is a very strong conditioning that we have, and always our past starts operating when our senses operate because it happens automatically. There is a tendency in us to immediately recognise things and give them names. Sometimes the names we give are there without our realising that this is just conventional language we are using - and we sometimes become victims of this process, this is how our likes, dislikes, prejudices, and preferences arise. With this process it all happens so fast that we fail to see how it functions and what it does to our minds - this is where meditation and awareness come in.

Jyoti: It can be a dismissive process can't it? Something arises and then you categorise it, immediately you have dealt with it, and it can be put away. A very similar process happens with regard to repression: something comes up, the superego will say 'this is not good' and it is all dealt with so quickly that you never get to know it, it's as though it doesn't really exist, it's simply put away in a little mental cupboard somewhere.

Godwin: So the question arises: Is it possible to see or hear without the past arising? Let's take a practical example - listening to sounds. If we try and listen without conceptualising, one thing that might happen is that we may be able to listen to all the sounds - otherwise what happens is that with recognition and naming there is selectivity taking place, and we exclude other sounds when we recognise a particular sound. If we can learn to listen without the past then this selective process will not be operating, and one should be able to hear all the sounds, consequently you and the sound may become one. This is a very important meditation experience that can be called a non-dual experience, where the subject/object dichotomy disappears, the boundaries come down and you have a completely ego-less experience. There is only the listening taking place, nothing else, and without the concept of a listener.

Let me now go on to another aspect of being in the present. How can one experientially understand being in the here and the now? What prevents us from being in the present are our thoughts, because all our thoughts are about the past or the future. So in a sense being in the present implies having no thoughts, because when thoughts arise it is our memory that arises. Even thoughts about the future are related to the past - from the past we project into the future. When we recall the past and anticipate the future we forget we are doing it in the present. Only the present moment is real, but we forget this fact, and the result is that we take our past, and what we might be thinking about the future very seriously.

So now the question arises: Is it possible to be in the present always? Surely we cannot function without the past - if we didn't have the past, we wouldn't be able to recognise people, and if we never thought about the future then most of us wouldn't have gathered here tonight. So the crucial question is really: How do we relate to the past and the future?

Most of the so-called negative emotions which create our suffering are the result of recalling and anticipating. For example, depression can arise in relation to the past - what we have done -and anxiety can arise in relation to the future - what we might do! This is what has to be understood. With more awareness, more calm, more mastery over our minds, then we are in a position to make use of the past and the future functionally, and that's it. Similarly with the future. The problem is not with the past or the future, but with how we relate to them. How we make use of them. Awareness allows us to have distance and not to get so involved with the past and the future.

There is another aspect in relation to our past and future which brings up the question of concepts and conceptual thought and how it is related to our suffering. As meditators we are aware when thoughts arise in our minds, but if we are not very sharp, clear, and alert, what happens? Very soon, without realising it, one can construct stories out of these thoughts.

I will give an example based on the experience of a meditator here: She was sitting in this hall and realised that there was a mosquito biting her, and she thought that the mosquito might give her malaria ... but then she realised if she gets malaria, she will probably have to be admitted to hospital ... but if she goes to hospital, it will mean that there is a delay in returning to her home country ... but if that happens she will have to inform her mother, and tell her all that has happened - you laugh, but this is exactly what we do if we let ourselves be carried away by our thoughts, and without realising it we become victims of the stores that we are creating - but one has to see this for oneself in one's meditation.

Is there really any difference between the dreams we see in the night and our dreams we see in the day? In both situations we take what is happening as real. Only with meditation, with awareness, and alertness, can one see this process and prevent ourselves from being carried away by these stories and fantasies. I would suggest that an enlightened person is one who lives without stories, without constructions, and is in that way completely free.

Jyoti: It's very difficult to become empty, it's very difficult to get thoughts out of one's mind, ifs very difficult not to pursue thoughts that arise.

Godwin: As we all know it's not easy to get rid of thoughts, because by trying to get rid of thoughts what happens? More thoughts come. Sometimes I give a guided meditation and I say to the meditators here: Now ... just let any thought arise ... and can you guess what happens when I say that? No thoughts come! This is a very important thing to explore: when we don't want thoughts to arise, they arise: and when we want them to arise, they don't arise! What is the reason for this? Why are our minds acting in opposition to us?

These thoughts show the importance of making friends with our minds and with our thoughts - but hating thoughts and trying to be rid of thoughts we generate more thoughts and then a kind of opposition arises.

In meditation what we should try to do is to develop friendliness, gentleness in relation to our minds. The whole emphasis in meditation should be on understanding ourselves, and to do that we must make friends with our thoughts. If we just allow thoughts to arise, just watch and observe them, it is fascinating. When I teach meditation to children I tell them that meditation is playing with our minds, we play and see what discoveries we can make.

One discovery we might make like this, is that our thoughts just arise in our minds arbitrarily, and that indicates that although we assume that this is 'my' mind, the mind has it's own way. It shows the extent to which we have no control over what is happening in our minds - isn't this a dangerous situation?

The same thing happens in our relationship with the world, we have an assumption that we are the masters, that we can control things - but just what exactly can we control? It is an illusion, and we have become victims of that illusion.

Jyoti: This is a very interesting point, isn't it? If you have, let us say, an argument with someone, then the reality of it is that that was a momentary experience. But when you come and sit in meditation - or even if you if don't sit in meditation - that incident runs over and over again in the mind. Now, it seems to me that one time, as the circumstance arose, someone hurt you, but then a thousand times more we hurt ourselves by re-presenting this incident, by not being able to let it go.

It's quite interesting to see how the incident is re-presented in thought, because you change it, you think next time you would answer them differently, you would get the upper hand, and so on and on, over and over again. It even affects the body, when the incident occurred there was a rush of adrenaline, and then when you think of the incident again there's another, albeit smaller, rush of adrenaline, and you land up agitated.

Godwin: Now this brings up another point: which comes first, the thought or the emotion? The thought does surely. This shows that if we really know how to handle thoughts, that's it - if thoughts just come and pass away, and we remain unaffected by them, what's the problem? The mind remains clear, neutral, calm. The next stage is that thoughts slow down, and there is space between thoughts.

As I said in relation to listening, you come to realise that there is only thinking, and no thinker behind the thought, there is no entity independent of the process, there is no centre. Like a mirror you are just reflecting whatever there is. No need to ask for anything, no need to control anything - just being. Your will is not operating - your will is the culprit!

All our suffering is because of our thoughts, and this is why I emphasise being aware of thoughts so much - not only when we are sitting, but all the time.