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Meditation for Everyday Life
Day 3: Monsters
Godwin: I do not get the impression that monsters are really affecting you so much. Perhaps that is the difference when you are in everyday life and when you are in a meditation retreat. I think in everyday life when they come they can affect us very deeply. We can be really affected and overwhelmed by them. In Buddhist terms that means our suffering and conflict. But Buddhism and the Dhamma very clearly present a way out of this suffering. So I would like to present some tools based on the teachings: how to work with the monsters and how we can free ourselves of the effects they can have on us.
One thing which is not very easy to overcome is that we have a very strong conditioning not to like them, to really hate our monsters. The simple reason for this is that when we experience them, it is not so pleasant. So the first tool I would like to present is: how far can we open to them? How far can we have the openness to learn from them?
I think yesterday I talked a lot about the importance of feeling grateful. One day I was talking to a Buddhist Thai nun at the Centre and she said something very interesting to me. She said we should feel grateful when we are faced with difficult situations, problems, with these unpleasant emotions. So if we can really learn to do this: when they are there, to feel grateful that we have an opportunity to work with them and learn to free ourselves from them. This is the first tool I would like to present to you.
The second tool is that when we try to learn about them, when we try to investigate them, as it is said in the Dhamma, we can make some very interesting discoveries about them which we normally take for granted. One important discovery is to see the connection between our thoughts and these emotions.
An important question to reflect on in this connection is: can there be suffering without a thought? And related to that is: can there really be an emotion without a thought? That is why in meditation it is very important to learn to work with our thoughts: how we use thoughts destructively, how we use thoughts to create stories, stories about what has happened, and stories about what we think is going to happen; and how, although these stories are not real, still we give a reality to them and we suffer from them; how we become victims of the stories that we create ourselves. It is very important for us to see this clearly.
One of the stories that we create, a very subtle story, is this idea that there is an I or a me, an ego. And it's this idea that is really creating most of these emotions and sufferings. According to the Dhamma, you realise that it is with the sense of ownership that suffering arises: this is my anger, this is my fear, this is my anxiety, this is my sadness, this is my joy. So whatever you consider as mine, because you think that you possess them, you do not like to let go of them.
So what is very important for us to try sometimes is to see if we can relate to these states of mind without a sense of ownership. There is just anger, but it is not my anger. Realising the anger arises due to a reason, due to certain conditions, and due to certain conditions it pass away again. I will touch on this aspect as we go on, but just to have this tool: sometimes learning to let go of this sense of ownership, the sense that they really belong to us. It is really funny that we even start owning these monsters!
When I say this I am reminded of a very short Zen story. So a student went before a Zen master and he said: "I have a problem." The Zen master said, "What is your problem?" He said, "My problem is my anger." "So where is the anger now?" The student couldn't answer, so then the Zen master said "If it is your anger, you should be able to show it". This is a small story, but it has a very profound deep truth. If you have monsters: can you produce them now?
So this brings up another tool, which is: when these monsters are not there, just know that they are not there. I think this is a most important tool according to the Dhamma. Working with meditators over the years this is the most difficult tool for them to understand. Because that there are situations where there are no monsters is too good to believe.
It is really funny that we have given these monsters such power, such energy, that in the first place, we may not even know when they are not there; and even when someone points it out to you, it is too good to believe! So some meditators come and tell me: maybe they are not there, and maybe I am repressing them. Or: who knows? maybe they will come up again tomorrow.
It is one of the very simple points that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, that when there is a toothache we suffer, we are hurt by it. But when we do not have a toothache do we ever say: Wow, it's great, I do not have a toothache? So some other meditators tell me: even when the toothache is not there they think: maybe it will come soon, maybe it will come tomorrow. Aren't we really funny?
So here again the Dhamma says it so clearly: when greed, hatred and delusion are there, just to know that they are there. And when they are not there, to know that they are not there. It is a very simple, a very direct, a very practical teaching, which we can relate to in our everyday life.
In the Dhamma this is how it is presented: when greed, hatred and delusion are not there, do not like that, do not identify with that, do not grasp at that; and when they are there: do not dislike them. So no liking, and no disliking. I use my own terminology based on the Dhamma: no plus, no minus. No plus, no minus: learning to see them, just as they are.
Another Buddhist idea that is presented in relation to working with such unpleasant states of mind is to realise that they are changing, that they are not there all the time. They come and they go. The problem is with us: we see them as very solid, that they are really substantial. The idea is that the power we give them is taken away if we can see that they are changing. The monsters come and the monsters go away. There is no permanent state that they are always there, and only they are there. Just to remind yourself that they will change. It is a very important insight in such situations.
Related to this there is an idea in the Dhamma that I like very much, which is to see these monsters as our visitors. And the word visitor has a very deep meaning: that they do not belong to us. So if you can really see yourself as a host, and see these states of mind as visitors, as a very good host you are waiting for these visitors to come and then to go. And as it happened today to some of you: when you are waiting for the visitors to come, what happens? They do not come!
But if you are afraid of them, and if you do not want them to come - this is the interesting paradox - then they do come! So you are waiting with an alert mind, waiting for the visitors to come, and if they do not come there is no problem. And if they come, also there is no problem. As I said, you welcome them. And when they come, you learn more about the visitors. This is the Buddhist idea of investigating.
So you look at the visitor very closely. See the visitor very clearly and sharply. And see what really happens to you when the visitor is there. If you can relate to our visitors in this way, then the practice becomes very interesting. The we develop a curiosity. There is an element of fun. There is an element of enjoyment, so that you do not have to be very heavy, serious and intense. There is a beautiful joy and lightness that is very much encouraged in the Dhamma.
When I say this, I am reminded of a Buddhist story: during the Buddha's time a non-Buddhist who was not practising the Dhamma, visited a group of monks who were meditating. So when this visitor saw these monks he was very impressed: they were looking very happy, they were smiling, there was a beautiful lightness about them, they looked so relaxed. He was very impressed with them.
He went to the Buddha and asked him: What do you teach your disciples? I am very impressed with them. I think, if visitors would come here, they would also be impressed with you! So the Buddha said something very interesting, he said: my disciples do not worry about the past, which cannot be changed, which has gone. And they are not worried about the future, which is still to come. They enjoy the experience, the joy, of the present moment.
So now let us go over the tools that I mentioned one by one again. What was the first one that was mentioned? To be aware of the monsters when they are there. Yes, that is one very important tool. Another is to be happy when they come. Do be open to them, to see them as learning experiences, to ask the question: what can I learn from them? Feeling grateful that they are here.
So another that was mentioned was when they are not there just to know that they are not there. What else do you remember? They do not belong to us. Learning to slowly, slowly let go of our sense of ownership, relating to them in this way: they come and they go; they come and they go.
When we explore, when we investigate, we see the process, the mechanism, the conditions. And with that understanding we can have a very important tool. I am happy that you are remembering the tools. Still I would like to give you more tools.
Our Friend the Breath
One is using our friend the breath. So this is why I consider the breath as a friend. This is one of the very important functions of our friend. There are other functions, maybe I will mention them another day, but one very important function is that when there is an emotion, when there is a problem, just think of your friend the breath at that time. The friend enables you to have some space in your mind. Can anyone suggest the reason why when we think of our friend there is an immediate space, an immediate release that is created?
If you are with the breath there is no need for thought, because the breath is a sensation, just a feeling of the in-breath and the out-breath. So as there is a very close connection between thoughts and emotions, as soon as you are with the fact of this sensation there is a release. What we do when there is an emotion is that we really make it bigger by thinking about it, by having thoughts. So all that is immediately reduced, stopped, just by being with the breath, which is objective.
Another way of saying the same thing is - a wonderful aspect of our friend is - the friend is always in the present, and our friend is always reminding us to be in the present, to be like him. He is always in the present. What is important is: please make an effort to make a connection with your friend. Because if you make a connection with your friend, if you can really see the breath as your friend, the breath is always ready to remind you of reality, of the present moment, the reality of the here and the now.
And our friend also is always correct, always right. I do not think that we have another friend who is always right! This friend will always indicate to you when there is an emotion. How does the friend indicate to you that there is an emotion? It goes either more slowly or it goes quicker. So when there is a strong emotion like anger, fear, excitement, your friend shows you a signal, a red light, the coming up of certain things. As we say in Sri Lanka - coming colour - no good!
So if you have made a connection with your friend, the friend will warn you when you are getting angry, when you have fear, when you are getting excited. The friend will warn you by going very fast. When your mind is calm and when your mind is relaxed, when your mind is completely still, the friend again tells you very clearly. How does the friend tell you? He is also very calm.
Related to this is something that I am discovering now; how there is a very interesting connection between emotions and what is happening in your body. There is a very subtle mechanism in our body by which we have a way of carrying these emotions in certain places in our body. And the signal, the symptom, the sign, is that there is tension in such places. So some tensions - I would not say all tensions - but some tensions in the body are an indication that there is a repressed emotion somewhere. And sometimes we do something very interesting in relation to the tension in the body: immediately we try to associate it with an emotion.
To give a practical example: when there is fear, you have a particular sensation, a particular tension in your body, so one gets used to it, and whenever there is that tension in the body, one starts to associate it with fear. Sometimes I meet meditators and they tell me they have fear. I ask them: where do you experience that fear? They tell me they experience fear in the body. So I ask them: how can you experience fear in the body?
What exactly is happening to them is that they have this association of a particular tension with the fear. Then I tell them - it is sometimes very difficult, but it is a very interesting exercise - to separate the sensation from the fear. This association has become so fixed, it has become such a strong habit. So I go on working with them, and then they can have moments when there is just the sensation and they do not experience fear. And that can be a breakthrough, where they learn just to be with the sensation without the thoughts creating the emotion.
And then what is very important is that when you use these different tools - and that is why I give different tools, so you can start to experiment with them, sometimes one tool helps, sometimes another tool helps - whenever you try to use these tools and they work, then something very beautiful happens. That is you develop self-confidence.
And with this self-confidence you come to a state where you are not afraid, you need not be stressed by them, you need not control them. Let any monsters come, I know how to handle them. So I really hope and wish that everyone here, before you leave the retreat will gain that confidence: that when any monster comes in everyday life, you know how to handle them, you know how to work with them.
Another very important thing that happens is that with this self-confidence you come to a state where whether the monsters are there or whether they are not there makes no difference. Then you have a glimpse of what the Buddha said: you learn to see things just as they are. And this also helps us to transcend, go beyond, the positive and the negative, the plus and the minus polarity or duality.
Questions and Answers
So please ask any questions.
Retreatant: How can we live without thinking about the past and the future?
Godwin: I think this was something we talked about yesterday, I went into this question where I said that we need to sometimes plan and to think about the future. So what we need is to learn to use the past functionally and to use the future functionally, creatively, and not to create these stories where I am suffering as a result of the past and the future. And I also said on that occasion what is important to realise is: we think of the future and we think of the past, in the present. So if you can give more reality to the present then you realise that what we are thinking about the past is not real. So the power and the energy we have given to the past and the future drops away with this realisation. Anything else? Any other question?
Retreatant: How can we discover under what conditions our monsters arise?
Godwin: This is why I give you many tools. For one person, discovering the patterns may be helpful, for another the experience of impermanence can help. So I would like to say something more about these patterns that we were talking about.
It is very important to realise these things by investigating, exploring, learning. If you have this openness you discover patterns. Under the influence of what patterns do these monsters arise? Under what conditions do they arise?
Also it is important to discover when the monsters are not there what is exactly happening to you, what is exactly happening to the so-called patterns that you have discovered. It is equally important to know when they are not there: now, how is it that they are not there? What has happened to the patterns? Then you realise that the patterns have also changed.
Anything else? I am happy that such practical question are being raised, because this is actually your experience. I like such type of questions.
Retreatant: How can we be a good host when the monsters are not there?
Godwin: That is a very interesting question. So we want to practice the tools and when the monsters are not coming how can we use the tools? That becomes a problem! As I said, we are happy with the absence of the monsters but then how to use these tools?
So it is okay. If they do not come, they do not come. Just stay with that. I am sure you will get an opportunity to use the tools. They have done some research in America amongst the meditation masters. They included even some monks from Thailand and Burma, very highly advanced, spiritual monks, and they have asked about these emotions, these monsters. And these meditation masters said something very interesting: They did not say that they do not have these emotions. They come, but when they come they have learned how to recover from them very quickly.
So this is it. They are bound to come, they are bound to arise. But what we have to learn is, when they come: use the tools. This idea of the quick recovery is very well illustrated in a Buddhist text which gives different similes in relation to anger. One way of relating to anger is compared to letters written on stones: they never go away, they are with us all the time. Another type of anger is like letters written on sand: they may last for weeks, maybe months. And another type of anger is like letters written on water.
And I think of the anger of children; the emotions of children, generally speaking, are like the third category. They can cry, they can be angry, and a few minutes later they can smile and come back to your lap. It is an interesting question: why cannot we be like children? I think one possible explanation is: they do not have the image that they should not get angry. So, when we have an image that as meditators we should not get angry, then when we get angry we feel angry about the anger!
That is why I said this openness is very important. If anger comes, let it come. If anger does not come, it does not come. So staying with this openness is very important. That will help us to recover very quickly.
I must say these things sound very simple. But, one has to practice them. So anything else? Any other questions?
Retreatant: What is the difference between enjoying and indulging ourselves? For instance, when we are eating.
Godwin: Actually I use the word enjoy in the sense that if you can find these things interesting, if you can see them as an opportunity, if you can see it as a gift, then you relate to whatever emotion comes in an entirely different way, instead of giving it a minus, feeling guilty, feeling yourself to be a failure, and so on. This is the point I meant, I hope it is clear. This is not simply expressing the emotions when they come. That is what is meant by indulging.
Sometimes, before a meal starts, we are already imagining the taste of the food! That is why I told you to make an experiment to see at what point you really taste your food. Do you see the power of thoughts? If you really need to work with such practical situations, one tool is to think of the reality of the present moment. Here you are escaping into the future. So come back to the breath and stay with your friend for a few minutes, and then the kind of indulging you talked about with your thoughts stops. So this is one tool.
Another interesting tool is sometimes to allow the thoughts to arise and then watch your state of mind. So you have these thoughts going on, and then when you focus more attention on the state of mind rather than the thoughts themselves, you might even have a glimpse, a small realisation, that these thoughts of food are there, but you are not reacting to them.
And another tool is to tell yourself, this is just thoughts, this is just thinking, this is not the reality. This is why there is a meditation technique called just noting. So when they arise you just say: thoughts, thoughts; thinking, thinking. And when you say that, you get a distance from them rather than getting all involved with the contents of the thoughts.
Anything else? Any other question?
Retreatant: In what way should we behave like children, and what can we learn from them? Children are not very detached!
Godwin: So the example I gave about the child in relation to anger was to illustrate how soon they recover from the anger. Another aspect or another possibility, as I said, is that the child is able to recover from the anger so quickly, because the child, depending on the age, has no image, no model, that one should not get angry. And as I pointed out sometimes when we have an image that we should not get angry, then when we do get angry, there is a reaction to the anger.
So what we can learn from a child are these certain aspects. Then to realise how after all a child-like mine also has its limitations, but to learn something from it and then to go beyond that. To transcend is getting a distance, developing - the word you used was - detachment, which children do not have. That is what I mean by going beyond the child's example. Do you understand? You made the comment that the child is not detached. But what I am saying is about how one can use certain aspects of a child-like behaviour to recover, and then when one wants to be detached - as you say - one has to be a meditator. Anything else? I am happy that you are asking questions like that.
Retreatant: What should we do when we make mistakes owing to a lack of awareness? For example when we find we are being greedy - afterwards I feel so guilty!
Godwin: That is a very good and practical question, because I think again we will all relate to this. It is not only in relation to greed, it is possible that we might get angry, we might say something, we might hurt someone. So despite all our awareness, despite all our tools, supposing it has really happened, then what do we do? At that moment one could not have been aware. So either you were really indulging the emotion, or you made a big mistake. So then what does one do?
What I would suggest is, just to wait until you have recovered from that. And once you have recovered, once a little space is created, then you can look back on what has happened to you. And when that happens, as you quite rightly said, you feel guilty, you feel bad, you can feel hopeless, you can see yourself as a failure. But I would suggest all that is not necessary.
Yesterday I made the point in talking about loving-kindness that this is one of the most important things we have to learn: to relate to our own mistakes with loving-kindness. So when you reflect on that act the first thing is to do so without giving it a minus, and the other is not to be surprised. Then, without being surprised, without giving yourself a minus, like a very close friend you just find out what really happened to you, what really made you greedy, what were the things you wanted. Like a mother questioning her child in this way, you try to have that kind of very friendly, gentle, understanding dialogue with yourself. So if one can have a connection with our so-called wrong actions in this way, then they become opportunities, we can learn from them.
In this connection Thich Nhat Hanh said something beautiful: I see a compost-heap for rubbish which people just throw away. But this compost can be used for the growing of vegetables and flowers. And so our own compost, our failures, our shortcomings, if we can use them for our spiritual growth, that is a beautiful way of relating to our own compost. This is showing loving-kindness to our shortcomings, our monsters, our failures. Then we can learn to relate to the failures and the shortcomings of other people in the same way.
Next Day's Schedule
Tomorrow I thought I would speak about relationships, because that is another challenge in the human condition. And one of the meditators also made a request for me to speak about sexuality. I thought sexuality is not discussed in spiritual circles! But tomorrow I hope to try.
Then in tomorrow's meditation I would like to suggest to do a more reflective type of meditation. So reflect on the theme of relationships, and see for yourself, how in relationships monsters are created, how monsters are created in yourself, how monsters are created in others, to see the different monsters which arise in relation to your own situation. And then find out through that understanding, through that seeing, whether one can change your relationship to those monsters. So please make this the object of meditation tomorrow.
I hope what I am saying is clear. But maybe tomorrow in the morning I will again remind you of the importance of reflecting on your relationships, and seeing how you use them destructively; and to discover whether there is a way of uncovering something very creative in relationships.
One last point about relationships: the word relationship has a very broad sense. So when you hear the gong tomorrow at 6 o'clock in the morning to wake up: see what is the relationship you have to the sound of the gong! So you start the day with that relationship!