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My Friend Godwin
by Dr Ranil Abeyasinghe
(Head of the Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka)
My friendship with Godwin went back to late 1970s. I had arrived in Kandy as a junior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya. Godwin was the librarian at D.S.Sennanayake Library then. One day I met this serene looking tall man. My departmental colleague introduced him as a person interested in psychiatry and meditation. I was interested in psychiatry then but not in meditation. But I was developing an interest in Zen Buddhism. I was tired of all those Hindu rituals that were creeping into Theravada Buddhism even then. I was then a brash young doctor who wanted to see scientific proof in everything, meditation included.
Moreover, I liked to form first impressions or judgments about people I met. I judged people differently depending on what they were doing. I judged my colleagues by their competence and politicians by their commitment to a political cause. Humaneness did not figure prominently in the way I judged people then. Competence was all that mattered to me. Godwin was one person, I could not thus judge. He baffled my analytical and judging brain. He was calm and did not say much. But he made me feel comfortable and at ease in his presence as no one has ever done before. For the first time, instead of judging a man, I allowed what his presence and what he did to me to influence my relationship. Such was the beginning of my long and beautiful friendship with Godwin.
We had many meetings and many a discussion on meditation and psychiatry. In those days, I was not a believer in the benefits of meditation. In the early 1980s I was running my own clinic for neurotic patients. Looking back, I was trying out then known Western techniques of behaviour therapy and relaxation. Western psychiatry was only beginning to come to term with neurosis then. Some patients seemed to benefit and some clearly did not. Neither Western psychiatry nor I had any solution to many of these difficult cases in those days. These patients would attend my clinic for a few weeks and when they realised they were not getting better they would stop attending. That was how things happened in the early 1980s.
When I discussed my dilemma with Godwin over dinner one day, he offered to try meditation with some of them. I arranged for him to see my patients in my clinic on a regular basis. Those of my patients who did not improve dropped out. His clients seemed at least to attend regularly! It was then that the idea occurred to us that we should conduct a clinical trial to see if meditation was effective. We were about to start this but I was sent away to Britain for my post graduate training. Godwin continued to help patients with meditation. We never found out scientifically if meditation helped our patients.
I recall one particular instance in London. He wrote to me to say that he was coming to Britain to take part in a meditation workshop. I offered to pick him up from the airport and put him up in my London house. He was clearly joyous at seeing me. So was I. It was his first visit to Britain. Wishing to give him the 'sights', I took him home via a 'scenic' route that gave him the sights such as Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. I noticed that he was not looking around! When I asked him why, his answer was simply that "No I am listening to you"!! He was not moved by the usual 'sights'.
Later after my return to Sri Lanka, he would often spend nights in my house. It was the routine that whenever he came down from the meditation centre to Kandy he would spend the last night in my house. We had to prepare special meals because he did not eat meats. I once offered him a glass of wine, which he accepted. He accepted it without any comments and with his usual equanimity. He maintained the conversation with the glass of wine in his hand. My interest in and knowledge of Zen Buddhism was improving then. He reminded me of the Zen master who took the beautiful woman who was cowering in fear of crossing a marsh on his shoulder and dropped the woman on the other side. His disciples continued to talk about this 'bad' deed for a week. When confronted by the students, the Zen master said "I carried her on my shoulders but dropped her on the other side, but you are still carrying her on your shoulders!"
In the last 5-6 years of his life he was clearly too busy with meditation matters and he had a large clientele to help out. I, too, was too busy with my university life and patient care. His regular weekly visits to my house stopped. We met only rarely. It was then that I heard he was sick. I heard that he was very sick indeed. One day he made a rare visit and asked me if I would make a presentation on rebirth at an international symposium on rebirth. I was aghast. Here was my friend asking me to make a presentation on a phenomenon that I did not believe in. I had rejected the concept of rebirth while learning about evolution as a school boy! My zoology master had shown us that evolution and rebirth were concepts that were totally incompatible.
Godwin knew very well that I was a non believer. But Godwin was my friend, and I knew that he did not have long to live. This could be his last request or even his last visit to my house. I explained to him that I, a non believer, should not go out there, where true believing researchers were presenting their research findings to an audience of true believers. It could cause a riot, I explained to Godwin. I recall his answer. "If there is a riot, so be it. You should say what you have to say. I expect that from you." I could not say "No" in the face of such firm insistence. I did cause a 'riot' at this symposium with my presentation! No one in the audience was pleased. The presentation was followed by a stream of verbal abuse by the true believing researchers and the audience! I was called all sorts of names! Only Godwin was pleased!!
I listed these instances to illustrate the most striking qualities that impressed me during our long standing friendship. He had a serene sense of presence that would put any man or woman at ease. I have not found this quality in anyone before or after Godwin. It would have been the first thing that you felt too. It was Godwin's humaneness that struck me on the first day I met him. His total humanity made him listen to me rather than look at Buckingham palace in London. To his humane nature, listening to his friend that he met after so many years was more important. And his accepting a glass of wine told me about non-judgmental nature. He did not judge me, nor the glass of wine, even though he clearly did not enjoy drinking wine. His fierce intellectual independence was the last I saw in getting me to cause a riot in that symposium on rebirth.
His faith in meditation has been amply validated. What the two of us could not do, due to my departure and subsequent work pressure, has been done by others. Today three forms of psychological therapies based on meditation exist. One is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy developed by the Cambridge based group of clinical psychologists. This form of cognitive therapy uses Vipassana based awareness of one's immediate environment and thoughts to deal with negative thoughts associated with depression. This type of therapy has been scientifically validated and proven to be effective in preventing relapses in depression.
The other form of psychological therapy that is again derived from Vipassana meditation is Dialectic Behaviour Therapy for helping a certain category of people with disturbed personalities. The third form of cognitive therapy is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. One of the authors of this therapy, Steven Hayes, called these therapies the third wave of behaviour therapy. I have attended several seminars on some of these new forms of therapies and I was struck by the extent of the use of Vipassana meditation in those therapies. I had to gently remind the speakers that they should acknowledge their indebtedness to vipassana meditation. I could only pay my tribute silently to Godwin at those times. Knowing Godwin, he would have silently approved this borrowing from vipassana meditation for the good of many in the West.
Godwin's calm exterior belied a sharp intellect. He did not have blind faith in meditation nor did he consider it a panacea the way others have made therapies such as hypnosis panacea in our society. Godwin would have been pleased with these developments in psychotherapy. I still believe that neither did he have that total faith in rebirth. He was very curious about the research done on that front but was not a total believer. That must be the reason why he brought me at the risk of causing a riot. Maybe he hoped that would turn, in time, into an intellectual riot!
I have often wondered where to fit Godwin in a saintly hierarchy. Once my friend, Dr. Rodrigo, said that Godwin would have at least achieved Sowan. Unlike some of those bogus Buddhists, who claimed they have achieved a higher state, he never claimed it. But then due to my interest and reading on Zen Buddhism, I have convinced myself that he was the Zen master who had achieved satori.
My friend Godwin, you may have left us physically, but your sweet soul still hovers over us and stirs us for ever. My friend, I no longer judge others by their competence alone! Humanness figures prominently in the way I form impressions about people. It was you who showed me, in your own way that humanness matters above all. It is my fervent hope that your humanness will be a shining example to our people in Sri Lanka in these troubled times.
Dr Ranil Abeyasinghe,
Department of Psychiatry,
University of Peradeniya