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Living with Awareness
Retreat Talks in Fa Yim Kok, Lantau Island, Hong Kong
Day 1: 15th October 1998
1: Awareness and Effort
Godwin: I'm very happy to say that I'm impressed and inspired by the atmosphere here, seeing that this is the first day of the retreat. There's a beautiful feeling of peace when we are sitting here. And I can see that you are also making an effort to continue the practice of awareness when you leave the room. Usually when we eat there is much talk, but today there's been only a few words spoken, and that in relation to some practical matters. Being the first day this really surprises me, but also I'm very happy about it. So as you are making an effort to practise awareness, I will offer some suggestions on how you can sustain it.
The first is, as some of you are already doing, you can sustain awareness just by slowing down. As you know, when we move in a very fast vehicle we are not able to notice the things that are around us. If you want to see your surroundings very sharply, very clearly, then the vehicle has to go very slowly. So it's only when we can really slow down that we can see very sharply, very clearly, what is happening in our mind and body from moment to moment. In the same way, we can notice external things very sharply and clearly.
Related to this, one thing which we can discover with more and more awareness and slowing down is the intention that arises before doing something. We do things so quickly, so fast, that we hardly catch ourselves intending to do it. And with more and more observing the intention, you will realise that there is more and more awareness, so there is a connection between observing the intention and the practice of awareness.
And catching our intention has very important implications, so that we will not rush into things, especially in everyday life. Before we speak, if we can catch ourselves with whatever we were going to say, I think we will not hurt others and we will not be using our speech in an unwholesome or unskilful way.
In the same way before we act, if we can pause and try to see the intention why we want to do a particular thing, there again there can be a natural transformation in our action. On one occasion the Buddha was speaking to his son Rahula. The Buddha asked his son: What is the purpose of a mirror? And the little boy said the purpose of a mirror is to reflect. So the Buddha said that in the same way we should reflect about our speech and about our actions before doing them. But to exercise this reflection there has to be awareness and there has to be a pause.
Another aspect of observing the intention is that it can really enable us to discover our real motives for our actions. So in this way we can really understand ourselves, know who we are, the type of person we are. It will enable us to see the positive sides in ourselves and the negative sides also. It is very important to see both sides.
Present Moment Awareness
Another aspect of awareness is to experience the present moment. Though we are physically here, mentally we can be elsewhere. Even while listening to me, physically you are present but mentally you can be back in Hong Kong. So it's only if we experience the present moment with the help of awareness that mentally and physically we can be present, we can be really in the here and the now, that we can really experience the present moment fully and completely.
And then it is also important when there is not awareness just to know: Now I'm not in the present but I'm thinking about what has happened or what is going to happen. Normally these things happen unconsciously without our knowledge, and then in this process we don't realise how they can create suffering for us, how they can create certain emotions in our minds. So with this type of practice we can develop mastery over our mind. Usually thoughts control us, but with this type of practice we will be able to develop mastery over our minds.
Another aspect of awareness is that we can use awareness to explore, to investigate, to learn, to find out what we are experiencing. So if you are experiencing physical pain, you can use awareness to start exploring the nature of pain. In ordinary life when we experience pain we merely try to get rid of it because it is unpleasant, but by reacting to pain in this way we never learn about pain, a very important part of the human condition. So with awareness, with this investigating faculty, we can make discoveries by ourselves about so many aspects of our mind and body.
If you can really make discoveries, start finding out, learning while you are here, then in everyday life you can continue to do that. What is beautiful is that we can learn from anything, we can learn from anyone. But we should have this openness and humility to try to learn, to try to discover the truth. Then meditation becomes interesting, because as I said, anything can be a learning experience, anything can be your teacher.
Another important aspect of awareness is that it naturally brings about an ethical and moral way of living which is very important for the practice. So while you are here, if you have awareness, in what ways will there be a change in your behaviour? Small things, little things, like opening the door, shutting the door, you learn to do them slowly, with awareness, so as not to disturb others around you. You see how your awareness naturally brings about a change in your actions.
So when we are preparing the meal or trying to set the table, here again we will try to do it without disturbing others. This is very important in meditation: learning to develop a sense of care and sensitivity for the people around you. Human beings are becoming more and more insensitive in this regard. They want to do their own thing, disregarding the consequences it can have on other people.
Another very important aspect of awareness is that we learn to develop self-confidence because we learn that with awareness and with our own effort we can do a great deal about ourselves. We develop self-confidence and self-reliance. Then we take responsibility for our own actions. We take responsibility for what is happening to us without blaming others and without blaming the surroundings. You take full responsibility for your own actions, for your own thoughts, for your own ways. This is an aspect that the Buddha emphasised very much.
I studied in a Buddhist school in Kandy and in the school we had a motto which was written in Pali. It means: "Self-help is the best help". So in this regard awareness is the key to the practice. This is why the Buddha called it the only way.
Now I would like to say something about effort. Here there are two extremes that we need to avoid. One is trying too hard. The other is not trying at all. There are some very beautiful similes used in this connection in the texts. During the Buddha's time there was a monk who was trying very hard in walking meditation so that even the bottom of his feet were bleeding. When the Buddha spoke to him, the Buddha realised that he was a musician. He used to play a lute, which is a stringed instrument. So the Buddha asked him: Now when playing a musical instrument if the strings are too loose or too tight, the music will not be right. So the Buddha said that effort also should not be too loose and it should not be too tight. This is what is called right effort.
Another simile the Buddha gave is that when you want to catch a small bird, if you grasp the bird too tightly you might kill the bird in the process, and if you grasp it in too loose a way the bird might escape. So in this way right effort can also be called effortless effort.
Now what happens when you try too hard? Naturally there is tension. You might even get a headache, you might feel tired and you might feel restlessness and disappointment because you are trying too hard, and with a strong expectation. Practising in this way you can never achieve what you want, so then you feel bad, you give yourself a minus, you start hating yourself and so on.
And if you do not try at all, what happens? Then you might feel sleepy, drowsy, you might get into a dream-like state. So here again it is by learning, by experimenting, by finding out for yourself that you know whether you are trying too hard or not trying at all. And sometimes we need to exercise more effort, sometimes we need to relax effort. So one thing which will help us is that if we can have a meditative mind, then when we are not meditating awareness becomes natural, it becomes effortless.
Cultural Factors in Making Right Effort
It's interesting for me that over the years I have been discovering the cultural factors relating to these two areas. Usually when I meet Westerners I realise that they try too hard, so I tell them to relax and take it easy. And with Sri Lankans it is the opposite, they're too relaxed. So with the Sri Lankans I have to push them, some of them. I'm curious to know which category you fall into.
Retreatant: Most of us work too hard, but some of us not enough.
Godwin: So most of you try too hard. Maybe this can be a cultural factor because here in this culture I think you are pushed and you have to achieve. So when you live in a culture where generally speaking you have to try hard, the danger is that you try to do things perfectly and this can create tension. I think it is O.K. to try to do things perfectly, thoroughly, it's a good quality, but when that quality generates tension and self-hatred it is not very wholesome. And those who are not practising hard enough must realise that and exercise right effort.
Now I would like to say something about the timetable and touch on some aspects of the practice. So the meditation practice should start at 4.30 a.m. when we hear the bell because it's a nice opportunity to start watching your mind when you hear the bell. And then after you rise there might be some difficult situations to face, and here again if you can watch what is happening it'll be a very fine preparation for the sitting here.
Mediatation while Eating
Now I would like to say something about eating. How eating can be a meditation. So here as you know one important aspect of eating is again, trying to be present while eating. It's a very important aspect of our life but most of the time in everyday life we eat in such a mechanical way, we even don't know sometimes what we are eating.
Before we start to eat, I would like to suggest to spend a few minutes just feeling grateful for those who have prepared the meal. This is very much emphasised in traditional Buddhist countries. So you develop the important quality of feeling grateful.
And then what normally happens when we start to eat is that we have thoughts. So here if you have awareness it's like when you are doing sitting meditating, you catch the thoughts that are arising and then let go of them and come back to eating.
One thing we should make a special effort to do is to chew our food properly. If we can really consciously chew our food it will even help our digestion. And then also you'll realise that you don't need lots of food because you eat consciously and even a little food can fill you.
Another aspect to emphasise is tasting. At what point do we really taste our food? I would like you to experiment and discover for yourself at what point you really start tasting the food. Another is swallowing our food, to consciously swallow our food.
Another thing that happens when we eat our food is we like certain food and dislike other food, or we neither like nor dislike the food. But most of these reactions happen habitually. So at least to be aware, to be conscious of this as a strong habit.
Another thing about food is the quantity of food. The Buddha advised meditators to avoid two extremes. One extreme is eating too much; the other extreme is eating too little. So again following the middle way in relation to eating. So while eating, how can we discover this right quantity? Can anyone suggest an answer?
Retreatant: When eating we can observe the sensations. When the stomach is full, there is a particular sensation.
Godwin: Yes. So in other words we have to listen to our body when we are eating. So if we can listen to our body, or as you said, the sensations in our body, then we'll be able on our own to discover the right quantity of food. It is very helpful to develop a sensitive body.
Another interesting area to work with is that we make decisions while we are eating. Do you drink water, do you drink Ovaltine, or do you drink both? Do you eat one bowlful or do you eat two? So it's interesting if you can be aware of these decisions you are making. Again, if you can catch your intention it'll be very interesting. It shows that even with a simple act of eating, if we can do it with awareness we can learn a great deal from it. And for all this learning, for all these discoveries, the mind has to be silent.
And as I said, we can also practise loving-kindness when we are eating. It is learning to take into account the persons with whom you are eating. As far as possible, whenever you get an opportunity give a helping hand to someone who might need it. It is a very important quality that we can develop, and we can develop this quality in silence and even in relation to eating. So it's interesting that we can practise loving-kindness in little acts, small acts, not just with big acts of love; but even with these small things we'll be developing the qualities of our heart. Actually I'm sometimes touched by the attention that I get from so many people when I eat. I feel as if I am pampered. I feel as if I'm treated as a child. I like it sometimes. But we should also learn to have the same concern for others in small ways, in little ways.
About working meditation: I already said in my last talk that we can see working meditation as an act of loving-kindness. We can learn so many qualities by working. It's about giving and it's about being generous. You learn patience in working with others. And if you can see work as not something different from meditation, then it is a very useful way of integrating meditation with daily life.
Individual and Outdoor Meditation
I would like to say something about individual and outdoor meditation. One thing is that we hardly get an opportunity to spend some time alone with ourselves. So it's sometimes useful to spend some time completely alone with yourself, and see how you relate to yourself. Some people don't seem to enjoy their own company! They can't stand it for more than a few minutes. It shows that they don't find themselves interesting people, they are boring people. So it's very important to make a connection with yourself and in that situation to see whether you can relate to yourself as your best friend.
We have become so dependent on external things for our joy and happiness. I call them toys. Though we are grown up we have our toys, and without these toys we are completely lost. Sometimes our whole life is just changing one toy for another, like children, thinking that maybe this toy will give us pleasure and then finding that it doesn't give us pleasure at all, so that our whole life is spent changing one toy for another. I would like to suggest that meditation is learning to be your own toy, so that you can find yourself interesting and amusing. We can enjoy the dramas that go on in our own minds. We don't have to watch a television, we can amuse ourselves watching our own television in this way. We have so many channels! So this is one aspect of individual and outdoor meditation.
Another is about nature and learning to awaken our senses. Most of the time we use only one sense, that is thinking. According to Buddhist psychology this is the sixth sense, but we have other senses which we sometimes neglect. So we can awaken the sense of seeing by looking at things, looking at flowers, looking at little objects, looking at the sky, the clouds. In fact we can develop concentration in this way. I know some meditators who find it easier to concentrate in this way rather than concentrate on the breath, where they can have complete awareness of what they are seeing, and they are fully experiencing the present moment in that situation. And when we see something beautiful, what happens in our mind? Can anyone suggest what happens when you see beautiful mountains, beautiful flowers, beautiful birds?
Retreatant: We have joy.
Godwin: That's it exactly. In fact in the Buddhist texts there are many references to seeing something beautiful. On one occasion the Buddha was walking with Ananda, his attendant, and at some point he said: Look back, what beautiful scenery we are passing through! There is a section in the Pali texts where it describes how monks and nuns became enlightened, and in that section some of them describe how the beauty of nature was very inspiring, because most of these monks and nuns were living in forests. And sometimes, as we are living in towns, big towns, where we don't see nature very often, we are losing this sensitivity for appreciating something beautiful, for learning to relate to nature in this way.
Another way I would suggest that you can use individual and outdoor meditation is to meditate on your own. Here when we are meditating in a group, you don't have enough freedom to experiment on your own, to make your own discoveries. So when you are meditating on your own you have the freedom to discover, to find out, to learn, by yourself. I will also be encouraging meditators to reflect on certain themes during this time.
I would also like to meet meditators individually. I can see three meditators during one session, and three meditators later on, so I can meet about six meditators in one day. I would like to meet every one of you, I don't like the word interview, so just come and have a chat with me, a discussion about the practice.
So this is about the timetable. Now I would like to tell you what I might try to do during the next few days. I thought that each day we might try to emphasise one aspect of the practice. Not that you should forget it on the following day! But on one particular day to emphasise that meditation subject. So tomorrow, let's make awareness the main object of meditation. Whether we are here or whether we are outside we will make an effort to develop awareness tomorrow.
Maybe the next day we might try to use awareness to focus on one object at a time. The object can be the breathing when we are meditating. When we are eating, the object would be what we are eating. When we are walking and standing, the object is walking and standing. When we are in nature, we will use awareness to see some objects or hear things very sharply, with a very focused mind.
Another day we will have a whole day of loving-kindness. So during the day of loving-kindness we will try to heal our wounds, forgiving ourselves, forgiving others. We will try to practise more and more opening our hearts to ourselves and more and more opening our hearts to others.
And then maybe another day we will try to work with pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions, especially using tools to work with unpleasant emotions. Then maybe there can be a day for working with our thoughts, a very important aspect in our daily life, and in meditating here also.
Then we will have some days to really experience two very important insights, the importance of anicca: change, and the importance of anatta: no-self. And we can see how these different aspects of the practice are related.
Questions and Answers
Any questions about what has been said so far?
Retreatant: When you said there will be days where we will practise working with our thoughts, does that mean having no thoughts?
Godwin: No, it's mostly working with our thoughts. I will be emphasising that aspect. Sometimes when we work with our thoughts, just to see that there can be gaps, space, between two thoughts. Interesting practice. This doesn't mean that insights like impermanence or no-self may not arise even before that. So just be open to them every day but maybe on particular days we might focus on some of these important things.
Now we can do some chanting, S. chants the first section of the Dhammapada very well. So maybe tomorrow we might be able to give a translation of that poem because it has a very interesting verse about the importance of the mind. As it is a long chant, today we will try to just listen to it. It's very soothing and very nice just listening to it, using the chant to experience the present moment. And then slowly, slowly, everyone else can learn it also. It'll be nice if everyone can chant it together, it's beautiful.
Before we start to chant let us create some space in our mind for the sounds.
We can hear some drops of water.
The chanting of the insects.
Experiencing the present moment with the help of the sounds.
Sound of the wind.
Is it possible to hear sounds with fewer thoughts, or with no thoughts even for a few minutes?
[ Chanting ]
Let us see ourselves as our best friend. Try to really feel it, feel it in every part of your body, your whole being. And being your best friend, can you have trust and confidence in yourself?
Learning to open our heart to ourselves.
Let us now extend this feeling of friendliness to everyone in this room. See everyone in this room as spiritual friends, noble friends.
Can we feel grateful for this moment? That we can sit here peacefully with a group of friends around us.
May you sleep peacefully and wake up peacefully.
For those who would like to continue the practise here or to practise outside, you're most welcome to do so, and let us make an effort to make full use of our stay here. Thank you.