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Conversations with Godwin

5: Problems in Meditation


Jyoti: I thought tonight we could look at something which sometimes puts people off meditation, which is the danger of developing self-centredness - I think a lot of people have a healthy instinct that tells them that introspection can be misapplied and become very narcissistic. The other side of the coin is, of course, that without self-knowledge we cannot develop true love and compassion - it's only when we see ourselves clearly and realise our need for forgiveness that we are prepared to forgive others for their shortcomings also.

Godwin: This is an interesting area to explore, and I have thought about this carefully over the years. There can be a danger in meditation, especially when trying to develop awareness, where, without knowing it, one may become very preoccupied and concerned with oneself, and then have utter disregard for all the people around you. This may result in an individual becoming deeply introspective in an unhealthy way.

So I suggest to people therefore two things: One is I always try to encourage people to focus their attention on things outside of themselves, developing their relationship with nature, for instance. With that focus one can then develop a good balance between intro - and extra-spection. The second thing is that I encourage people to relate to the people around them, to build up sensitivity and concern, to care for one another, to have compassion for one another, and to relate together as spiritual friends.

In this way one learns, in a meditation situation, how to relate to people around you, rather than to escape from them or simply avoid them. Withdrawing from people sometimes stems from the fact that people can hurt you, so rather than working with that situation, one finds that the easy thing to do is to escape from it.

There is an instance in a Buddhist text where a particular monk wanted to live in seclusion but the Buddha advised him against it, but still he insisted and so eventually off he went. His retreat wasn't very successful, and he returned to the Buddha who then recommended five guidelines, one of which is to have spiritual friends around you.

Jyoti: In certain traditions you are not supposed to become a hermit until you have proved yourself able to live in a monastery. Community life can provide a stable, social framework within which you can come to understand yourself better. When you are at some level of perfection, it is then allowed that you can withdraw and live the life of a hermit, but not until that is accomplished first.

There is a story of one of the Christian desert fathers which is instructive in this regard. One of his resident pupils got angry when somebody said something deprecating to him, and the monk blamed the other for provoking him to anger. But the teacher said no, his anger had been there all the time, and the word had only served to bring it out into the open: the pupil was not free of defilement as he thought, it was just lying dormant.

Now this seems to be a very real problem, and I've personally seen it happen with a number of people, they withdraw from the world for a certain amount of time, and they've developed a certain sense of peace - but it's really very conditional, and sometimes amounts to little more than self-deception, and when they get back to the 'real' world they find that there is no real peace in them, and there they are getting angry and upset with everything just as they were before.

Godwin: The phrase I use is to say that the monsters are sleeping! The trouble is that you don't realise that they are only sleeping. So I try to encourage meditators not to put their monsters to sleep, but to work with them, and to understand them, to make friends with them.

This is related to what is really meant by meditation, and what we are really trying to achieve. If you feel drawn by concentration techniques for instance it may be because that will serve to put your monsters to sleep for a certain time, and that gives you a sense of peace. Now initially this may be necessary in order to develop some calm and inner tranquillity, but eventually we need to develop some liberating insight.

Jyoti: I've been thinking a lot about these three things: sila (moral virtue), samatha (calm and tranquillity), and panna (wisdom and insight), and it seems to me that each of these three help to develop the other. The more wisdom you have, the more moral you become: the more tranquil the mind, the greater the wisdom: the more moral or virtuous you are, the more tranquillity there is, and so on.

Godwin: That's certainly true, but in practical terms when you are introducing someone to meditation for the first time you have to get them to develop some sense of tranquillity first, later insight will start arising quite naturally; and when the mind is open for insight, concentration can arise quite naturally also.

However, sometimes I meet people who are so fixed on concentration that they cannot let go of that control, so that when one introduces them to awareness they can't handle it. So to be really making progress one needs to be able to do both, and that way they can certainly complement each other.

Concentration by itself can be a form of self-security. It can also strengthen the ego. This is why in the Dhamma choiceless awareness is always related to compassion. There is a beautiful word that is used: boundless compassion - it means having no religious boundaries, no racial boundaries, and so on, then your sense of separateness disappears, and you have a feeling of oneness, then there is real compassion, no differences between oneself and the other.

So now I will say something about the development of loving-kindness. With loving-kindness one begins by trying to feel friendly towards oneself. Why do we beat ourselves? Why do we dislike ourselves? One reason is that we have a model of what we are, and what we should become. But in loving-kindness we learn to feel really friendly, gentle, and kindly towards ourselves.

An important aspect of this is just learning to accept ourselves as we are. It doesn't mean that we will continue as we are without making progress, but first we must make friends with the situation. In loving-kindness we say: OK I'm still human, still imperfect, that's fine. Let me accept it and see what happens when we have learned to accept ourselves.