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Working with Meditation
Retreat in Hong Kong
Day 6, 18th October 1997
Meditation in Everyday Life
Godwin: We thought we would have a shorter sitting so that we can have a longer discussion, as it is the last discussion we will be having. So we will go over the techniques we have practised here. And with these techniques, if you have any difficulties please present them. Though there are different techniques the principles are the same. I present different techniques because people have different temperaments. So what I try to do is to relate to the meditators individually and find out what technique is more suitable for them.
Before we speak about the techniques we should be clear why we meditate: the purpose of meditation is to free ourselves from suffering. The Buddha often said: I teach the fact of suffering and the way out of suffering. So it is to really achieve a mind that is free and a heart that is boundless. And the techniques are rather simple but we complicate them because of the complicated minds we have. Human beings are very clever at complicating simple things! I often ask the question: What have human beings not complicated in life?
Meditation on Breathing
So one of the techniques we presented was focusing on the breathing. Any difficulty about this technique?
Retreatant: When I observe the breathing I find that my mind is not calm and the breathing is fast.
Godwin: So I will say something about this technique. For whatever question you have perhaps what I will say might cover it. The simple thing about this technique is that it is learning just to be aware. We try not only to learn about awareness in relation to breathing but to whatever is happening in our mind and body.
So it is very simple. If you are having thoughts you just know that thoughts are there. If the breathing goes fast you know now the breathing is fast. If you have unpleasant sensations in the body, you know there are unpleasant sensations in the body. So as I have been emphasising, the whole focus of the technique is just knowing what is happening from moment to moment. If your mind is calm, you know the mind is calm. If the mind is not calm, you know the mind is not calm.
If we are meditating to achieve a mind that is calm, then when calm comes we will hold onto the calm. This is how suffering is created. And so if there is calm there is also suffering. So what this meditation aims at is something very simple, knowing what is happening, and as I have been saying very often, just being friendly and saying okay to whatever is happening. And if you can meditate in this way, at the time you are meditating you are free from suffering.
And what is also important is to use the breath not only when we are sitting. This is why I have been saying, please make a connection with your breath. So in everyday life at different moments you can just come back to your breath. The breath is our friend, it will help us to experience the present moment, the here and the now. The idea is to sit and develop awareness, and then to use that awareness at other times. I would consider that to be more important than what is happening only when you are sitting, because it is in everyday life that suffering is created, problems are created, you have to face challenges.
Some meditators ask me: Am I doing it right? How do I know whether I am progressing in my practice? So I tell them the progress is not what is happening when you are sitting but how you relate it to everyday life. In Sri Lanka we have very rich people who are sometimes very unkind to their servants. So when they are learning meditation I tell them the way to know their progress is to see the way they are treating their servants at home. They are not very happy to hear such things!
So please realise our progress is in how we are relating in everyday life. It is a way of living. It is an art of living. It is a way of thinking. It is a matter of having a certain attitude towards life, like the story I related about the wise old Chinese man. So please see this clearly, please realise this. Perhaps after I go over the techniques I might go over with you that aspect of everyday living. Please don't associate meditation only with a particular posture, a particular time, a particular technique.
Another technique I presented was meditation on loving-kindness which I emphasise very much. And meditation on loving-kindness is related to all the techniques, because if you can learn to make friends with whatever is happening, in that moment there is freedom. The simple fact is that suffering comes when we resist something, whether in meditation or whether in everyday life. So loving-kindness, friendliness, gentleness, openness, allows us not to resist but just to flow with, just to be open to what is happening.
Anyway, any problems about meditation on loving-kindness? It's a funny question: Any problems about loving-kindness meditation!
Retreatant: Sometimes you may treat other people with loving-kindness, but other people may not treat you with loving-kindness, so what can we do about that?
Godwin: Very good question. This is what happens in everyday life. This is one of the greatest challenges we have in everyday life. People who are unfriendly to you, people who are unkind to you, people who are unreasonable towards you; they should be our gurus, they should be our masters, they should be our teachers. As one of my friends put it, they really present you with a mirror. So when you meet such people you should be really grateful for them because they are testing you.
The important thing is, not to be concerned about what they are doing but to watch what is happening in your own mind. This is why we have been emphasising so much the practice of awareness, just knowing what is happening. Then when you realise that the problem is what is happening here in your own mind and not what is happening out there people may behave in any way but there is no reaction to that.
And as I have been emphasising, this shows that we are all still human. According to the Buddha, until and unless we are enlightened we are all crazy. So we are living in a crazy world. The problem with us is that we are taking these crazy people too seriously! So the sane way to live in a crazy society is to realise this, to understand this and to have compassion towards the crazy people we have to be with. So this is how we can relate to such people - they should be our teachers. So I hope you meet more and more such masters, such teachers, such gurus in your life, because they are much better for you than this so-called teacher from Sri Lanka!
So any other questions about loving-kindness?
Retreatant: Sometimes I feel that someone has done something wrong, for example in the office I see people wasting paper, so I get a bit angry with them although I understand that they may be ignorant about this, but still the anger is there.
Godwin: It is interesting for me the example you gave. In Sri Lanka people get angry when others waste their food because food is such a precious, important thing. So it is interesting that you get angry when you see people wasting paper! So how does a meditator use such a situation?
One way of working with such a situation is to watch your own reactions to such a situation. Are you angry? Are you annoyed? Are you irritated? In what way are you reacting to that? Sometimes it is interesting to experiment with it. One day you go in and you see such people and you watch, now how long will the anger last: half an hour? one hour? Because of some paper? So you should look out for such people and see how you are reacting to such situations. Then that becomes a learning experience for you.
Now this doesn't mean that meditators are always passive, looking only at themselves. There are two very important words: reaction and response. Reaction is an emotional reaction to such a situation. Response is doing something meaningful, doing something creative without reacting emotionally. So you can have a kind of dialogue with such people in a very friendly, open way, trying to understand their behaviour. But it should be done in a very skilful way rather than speaking in a very angry way, in a judgmental way, as if you are thinking you are right and these people are wrong. Naturally there is a hostile reaction to that.
We should never be self-righteous in our life. When you see the mistakes of other people, without being self-righteous sometimes you can say: I may not have made that mistake, but I may be making worse mistakes, having wrong thoughts in my mind. Then when you see wrongdoings you relate to human frailties in an entirely different way.
So it is good to have a dialogue with such people and just get them to reflect on what is happening to them. This may work, this may not work. So if it works it's fine; and if it doesn't work, you should be able to see such human frailties and just understand that this is the way things are. So I would like to again emphasise the importance of getting the person to see what he or she is doing, to get that person to reflect as far as possible by asking questions, rather than imposing your opinion on other people.
And I would also like to suggest that in such situations, without being self-righteous, to honestly tell such persons: I'm sure I'm having shortcomings in me and I'm full of imperfections because I'm still not an enlightened person, but I'm curious to know what makes you do this? That can touch people very deeply rather than the self-righteous way.
Anything else about loving-kindness?
Retreatant: My question is related to the previous question and what has just been raised, this thing about not being self-righteous when you deal with a person who you think is not acting correctly. The problem is between my wife and me. I have tried the method you have just explained to us to make her understand where her shortcomings are, but the more friendly I am in dealing with the situation the more self-righteous she feels, so I'm getting nowhere with this.
Retreatant: He says he got more and more humble and his wife got more and more self-righteous, but I don't believe him!
Godwin: And I think I agree because I know his wife also!
Anyway I think I'm forced to relate my usual story about the cobra. I think most of you have heard this story. Has anyone not heard it?
The story is that there was a cobra who was practising loving-kindness meditation in a forest all by herself, and then an old woman came along and the old woman mistook the cobra for a rope. So as the cobra was practising loving-kindness, she allowed the woman to use her as a rope for the firewood she had collected. The old woman went home and this cobra escaped with lots of difficulties, lots of pain, lots of wounds, and so on.
She went to the meditation teacher and told the meditation teacher: See what happened. I was practising loving-kindness. I'm suffering as a result of the loving-kindness. And the teacher said: You have been practising idiotic compassion, not loving-kindness. You have to learn to hiss sometimes.
So sometimes we need to hiss, to assert ourselves, to be firm. But again be clear while you are being firm that your motive, what is inside, is really compassion. So the point I'm making is, loving-kindness doesn't mean that you are always passive, allowing others to exploit you. With wisdom you should know when to assert yourself and when to be gentle. And you should also allow your wife to be the cobra!
Another technique that we practised which is very important, I feel, is what is called objectless meditation. Once you are established in awareness and you are stable in your mind, then you are in a position to allow anything to arise, allow any thought to arise, allow any emotion to arise, especially emotions you don't like, any sensations to arise, and learn just to observe, just to be with whatever is happening in that spacious mind.
This is a very useful meditation in everyday life. In everyday life, in different situations just to know what thoughts you are having, just to know what emotions you are having, just to know what sensations you are having, seeing what they are and learning not to react to them, making them the objects of meditation, making them learning experiences. So in everyday life when you are having an emotion like anger, fear, stress, you learn to make that an object of meditation.
Meditation has different levels but to a great extent we should try to integrate it with everyday life. This is why we had one full day to work with emotions, and another full day to work with thoughts, because these are the two aspects, the two areas that we have to deal with in everyday life. So any question about this practice?
Retreatant: Regarding the objectless meditation, practically, how can we create a spacious mind in order to do such meditation?
Godwin: So using a technique like focusing on breathing we learn to develop awareness, we learn to develop a non-reactive mind, we learn to be open, and once you know that now you are fairly stable then you can open up to whatever is happening. And what is beautiful in this technique is that even when there are times when you don't have a spacious mind and when you are reacting, when you have some emotion, then that becomes an object of meditation, you learn about it, you investigate it. So if you are unable to do it at that time when it will not be very easy, at least later on you can reflect on what happened and can learn from it.
So our mistakes, our failures, they're used as our teachers, they're used for our spiritual growth. It is a very beautiful way to live. Usually when we make a mistake we give ourselves a big minus, we feel guilty, we suffer from anger, all different reactions. But in this way there is no need to have such reactions to our mistakes, instead you learn about what happened to you, so it develops self-knowledge and you feel grateful for these emotions and reactions that you have had.
I would like to emphasise this very much because I know in this culture there's lots of suffering as a result of our failures, our mistakes. So hereafter please don't suffer as a result of them, make them the object of meditation, make an effort to learn from them, because we can use them as a mirror showing us where we are. So please be very clear on this point. Then you come to a state that whether these unpleasant emotions are there or whether there are pleasant emotions it makes no difference. No big plus when pleasant experiences are there, and no big minus when unpleasant experiences are there. As the Buddha said: We learn to see things just as they are.
Any other questions about this technique?
Retreatant: You taught us not to fight with our thoughts in everyday life, and particularly during meditation we should not fight against all the sensations. During meditation I find after sitting for about half an hour my legs become so painful that I have to put all my attention on the pain and it's like putting up a fight with those sensations. And if I try to accept the sensations then all my attention is on how to accept those sensations and therefore I have no room to do any observation of the thoughts.
So I would like to know when I should make a decision to change my posture, because I do not want to change my posture too often in case I might have to go through the pain in order to improve the sitting. It confuses me because I have to make a decision sometimes and I do not know what decision I should make.
Godwin: A few points. One is that working with pain is a very useful experience in meditation. In everyday life when we experience physical pain, what do we do? We try to do something about it immediately, change the posture or whatever, and then get rid of the pain because it is unpleasant. So by doing this we never learn about pain, which is a most important part of the human condition. We don't know what types of pain we might have to experience in the future, so this is why I have been repeating so often, meditation is learning to be open to unpleasant experiences. Please don't see them as a disturbance or a distraction.
So this is one point. Nothing is more important than the pain itself, either thoughts or whatever else, because that is what you are experiencing. So feel grateful for the pain because you can learn about the pain in a meditative situation.
We have to avoid two extremes. One extreme is always saying Yes to the body. This is pampering the body. Is there lots of pampering of the body in this country? A good question to reflect on. The body says: I want it. We immediately go for it because it is all available here. So it is very important to learn to say No sometimes. Saying Yes always is pampering. Always saying No is being too hard on ourselves. So it is very important to have the correct balance, when to say Yes, when to say No.
So in relation to physical pain when you are meditating, if you immediately change the posture I would say that is pampering; and going through the pain, trying not to change the posture, grinding your teeth, enduring the pain, I would say that is the other extreme. So the middle way is learning, experimenting, exploring the pain, and then when it's unbearable change the posture, stand up: very simple.
Retreatant: I think it is rather difficult to know what is the point at which you have to be strict with yourself.
Godwin: Just play with it, just experiment with it, it's not as critical as you think. Don't be so serious about the practice. Yesterday you were speaking of people being like stones. This is the result if you are too serious. So this is why I'm emphasising lightness, joy, experimenting, playing with meditation.
I think this brings up another aspect of meditation which I would like to mention. I think again that this is related to this culture, that people are very goal-oriented, they want to achieve results. So it is very interesting, in everyday life you have goals to achieve, results to achieve, and you chase after goals even when you are meditating!
So naturally you go through the same stress, the same anxiety, the same tension, the same restlessness because you want to achieve some goals, some results. Buddha has something very interesting to say in this connection, he gave a simile. He said meditation is like being a gardener; so like a gardener you are enjoying planting the trees, vegetables and flowers, and the gardener is not bothered when the flowers will come, when the fruits will come but is enjoying what he is doing.
I have thought of a similar simile. The simile is trying to reach the top of a mountain which you are climbing. If you are concerned, you are pre-occupied by what you are going to see when you reach the top you'll miss the fun while climbing. So while you are climbing, what is happening to you, the falls, the adventures, the problems, those become the practice, and don't be concerned about what will be there when you have reached the top. What is happening now is the practice, and not what is going to happen later on. So it doesn't matter whether they are pleasant experiences or unpleasant experiences, see them as practice, that's the practice, not getting rid of them.
Any other question?
Retreatant: Your teaching is mainly divided into two areas, that is the technique of observing the breathing and the other is observing what is happening in our mind. Is there a suggestion that we should practise observing the breathing first and then observe what is happening in our mind, or the other way round? Which one should we do first?
Godwin: I would say it depends, but as I said earlier focusing on breathing helps you to develop awareness, a non-reactive mind, and once you develop these skills then you can practise objectless meditation. And I would like to make it clear that we should practise both of these techniques, continue to practise these two techniques independently because in a sense they complement each other.
Reflection as Meditation
I would also like to make it clear now that from what I have been saying so far you might have the impression that meditation is only practising techniques, but there is also a very important area which I presented on a few occasions here, learning to reflect, learning to contemplate. This is very important especially for our behaviour. To reflect in a very friendly, gentle way about the way we behave, the words that we use, and so on. So we can learn a great deal from this reflection in relation to the way we are behaving, the judgements we are making.
If we can develop this quality of reflection we can see the Dhamma in any experience in life; any experience can be a meditation. It can be a sickness, it can be some disappointment, it can be some frustration, it can be some happiness, it can be anything, but just learning to reflect, to contemplate, to understand, is very important.
So in this connection I would like to suggest a technique which you can practise in everyday life. In the evening after work when you go back home, I know everyone who goes home is tired, but please try to recover from that by maybe taking a shower or something similar, and then just for a few minutes take your mind back and reflect on how you spent the day.
From the time you woke up to the time of that reflection, just try to go over all the things. See now, how many times did I get angry during the day, what were the occasions when there was stress, were there situations when I lost control of my emotions? You are not doing this as if you were a judge, trying to beat yourself, but in a very friendly, gentle, understanding way, just going over what happened.
And what is more important is also to reflect on the times when such disturbances were not there. Reflect on the good things that you have done, the generous things you have done, the friendly things you have done, the nice words you have used. You should also include these. This is more important or at least equally important.
If you can be more open to these positive things you'll be surprised to know what a good person you are. So this type of reflection will enable us to know more about ourselves, to know about our behaviour in a very objective, clear way and when you do this a natural transformation will come in your behaviour without your trying to do anything.
Yoga and Meditation
I think another thing we learned is yoga. So please don't forget yoga in everyday life. You don't have to do one hour of yoga, but in the morning when you wake up just spend five minutes, ten minutes, doing some of these physical exercises, movements. It will really awaken you physically and mentally. In the evening when you go back home take a shower and do a few exercises, immediately there will be a recovery.
Please try to combine meditation with yoga because physically, it is one of the things I like to mention, it is very important to relax the body. I find that sometimes the way you meditate - I can see on your faces that you are not relaxed. As I said, it is too serious, too tense, you may be trying to achieve something. So when the body is relaxed the mind becomes relaxed, then both the mind and body are relaxed and you can meditate in a very relaxed, easy way.
And talking to some of the meditators here I find that they are mostly in their heads and not in their body so much. So it is very important to make a connection with the body, feel the body, learn to listen to our body, to come back to the body as often as possible.
Retreatant: The thing I observed when doing yoga is the question of ownership, this concept of the self, because I found the body acts very independently. It would not always do things the way I want. I want to do postures like the yoga teacher but I can't do it. It is not up to me, the body has its independence.
Godwin: It is a very good point to realise our limitations and then, as you rightly said, realise we have no control. If we are the masters, we can say: Do this, the body should behave like this - but we can't say that. So this why we have to learn to surrender to what is happening. This is why on one occasion I said we have to be open to uncertainty, because we have no control over what is happening in our mind and body and the environment and life.
Anything else? We can spend more time today as it is the last night.
Retreatant: I don't quite agree because even with the yoga teacher when he first started, it can't be that he could do all the postures he can do now, so you have to gradually learn with your body.
Godwin: That's true, but it doesn't mean that he can say: Now body, don't fall sick, don't die, please don't have white hair like Godwin's hair! Even the Buddha could not control completely what happened to his body. The Buddha's body became sick, the Buddha's body became old, the Buddha's body died. The only difference was that whatever happened in the body it caused no suffering for him because he was not identifying himself with it.
Retreatant: You told us that we should hear and see things when we go outside. I would like you to tell us more about how we see things.
Godwin: Normally when we see things our complete attention is not there. So what we can do, and this is what is sometimes very useful about nature, is that we can cultivate this way of looking at things by examining something very clearly, very closely, and at that time your whole attention, your whole awareness, is on that object that you are seeing.
So if we can learn to do this in relation to seeing our senses are really awakened. There's a freshness that arises, there is a lightness in your being. I think as children we had this quality, but maybe with our pre-occupations, with our anxieties, with our thoughts, they are there most of the time and we try to see things with such a mind, so we hardly notice things.
So when we develop this quality we can see small things, little things, much more clearly, so that these ordinary things can become extraordinary. In the Buddhist texts there are some very beautiful references to monks and nuns living in the forest and they describe very minutely what they hear, what they see.
So another word for this is to develop a kind of sensitivity in a positive sense to seeing things, hearing things, smelling things, feeling things, so your whole living is alive, is fresh, is new, is innocent. In the Dhammapada, a very important book in the Dhamma, it is said that if we do not cultivate this awareness, this alertness, we are like dead people. So we become alive with this quality.
I think that maybe you might have experienced this: before chanting, when we hear the sounds, how we can really make the sounds the object of meditation. If we can really hear them sharply, clearly, as if for the first time, then space is created in your mind only for the sounds; and the same quality of living can be present in whatever we do. When we are eating, we'll be really alive, we will be really conscious, really present when we are eating. So this is what I'm trying to emphasise.
Retreatant: Sometimes when we are meditating we have vibration or movement in the body? What should we do?
Godwin: Sometimes just allow the body to move. Sometimes you need to control it, to say: Now stop it. Sometimes to allow it, sometimes to control it, to stop it. The only thing is you should not react to it and say: This is a funny feeling, this is strange, am I doing it right? That is unnecessary. When we meditate so many things happen in our mind and body, but whatever happens, just learning to be aware, learning to say okay.
I would like to hear something about chanting. What is your experience with chanting?
Retreatant: I feel very irritated about the bell-ringing. It's very interesting sometimes when I concentrate on the chanting, it feels that the bell-ringing is very far away but sometimes, I don't know when, I am still not so aware of my mind, sometimes the bell-ringing really gets very irritating to my brain, like something hitting me. I don't like it.
Godwin: Many experiences have both a plus and a minus, and this is why we have to say now plus, now minus; now pleasant, now unpleasant - okay, this is life. So you see, chanting shows what life is. It doesn't go one way, it isn't all beautiful. You see how one can learn from anything. This is what I say, this is the way of life: pleasant things come, unpleasant things come. Can we be open to both?
I would like to share my thoughts about chanting. I love Chinese chanting. It really makes me - how shall I put it? - I feel I am really present. Sometimes without my knowledge, my body is moving: wonderful. And I like the bells because in Sri Lanka, we don't use bells, so it has some magic for me.
Retreatant: Actually the bell is a device to develop our awareness also, because the sound of the bell is very clear. Secondly, it vibrates slowly and reduces its volume to the end so your awareness can follow the bell from the time it is hit right to the end of it, when the sound finally vanishes.
Godwin: Very good point. Any questions?
Retreatant: I still have one question. Talking about awareness, I want to know: during meditation I have many, many imaginings. The imaginings keep coming. Is this one aspect of the nature of awareness?
Godwin: Can you give an example of what you mean by imaginings, one which makes you happy?
Retreatant: For example, when I look at the grass and I look at the small plants, when they move I feel like dancing with them, so it's a kind of imagining. I don't know whether it's thoughts or not.
Godwin: It doesn't matter, but if you can just dance, just dance and enjoy it, it doesn't matter what it is.
Retreatant: And even when I look at the clouds I see many, many things and so I want to know if imagination is a kind of thought?
Godwin: Find out for yourself. I mean, this is what I have been encouraging people to do. So when you imagine you can find out: Now am I thinking? What is happening? So tomorrow I would like you to experiment with it and come and share with me the discoveries you have made. This is what I have been trying to encourage.
The last few days are for you to make your own discoveries. And if you learn to make your own discoveries, as I said on one occasion, when you leave this place, you will continue to make discoveries about life, about anything.
One danger about imagination is that you may not be able to be clear what is imagined and what is reality. I know some people have breakdowns because they don't know how to distinguish what is imagined and what is real.
Retreatant: I told you about the grasshoppers last night. I don't know whether the grasshoppers are meditating or not but I imagine they are, and so this was very interesting.
Godwin: This is why I said the danger is that you might come to a stage where you don't know whether you are imagining or whether it is real, and that can cause serious problems. I mean, this is what is beautiful about the meditation techniques. There is nothing to imagine, it's something real, something objective, and then when there is unreality, imaginations, let them go, come back to the reality: sounds, it is something pleasant, everyone can hear, or sensations. When I meet people who have psychological problems, these are the techniques that I give them and for the first time they can distinguish between what is real and what is unreal.
So tomorrow we will be having a different schedule, as you know. There's a lot of working meditation we have to do, clearing up. And of course I know you have not been practising silence but tomorrow you are free to really speak out openly. But I would like to make this suggestion, it is very important to everyday life: when you speak, see how far you can be aware of your speech, because in everyday life this is an area where there's lots of problems, difficulties, suffering, when we use our speech incorrectly. So silence is important, right speech is important.
So please make an effort tomorrow. It will be a very good training for everyday life. When you are speaking tomorrow, just to know that you are speaking, and to observe the tone of your speech. When others are speaking, do you really listen attentively? Also tomorrow while you are working, as we have been trying to do here, see how far you can see work as a meditation and not something different from meditation. Then we will have a last session, a concluding discussion, so we might have some more time to speak about everyday life, or some aspects of meditation if there is a need for it.
I am very happy that you presented questions clarifying some problems and difficulties you have in meditation. So I hope you are very clear about the medicine now. Now the important thing is to make a commitment to use the medicine in everyday life. I would like to urge you to really make use of the medicine; the medicine can really work and help you. You will see the medicine helps us to work with the sickness that we create ourselves. And I would also like to suggest that while you use the medicine yourself, please make an effort to share the medicine with others. There's a lot of people suffering in this world. So it is very important for us while we take the medicine to share it with others.
Now we will do some chanting.