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Godwin Samararatne
Working with Meditation

Retreat in Hong Kong
Day 4, 16th October 1997

Emotions and Meditation


Godwin: It has been a learning experience for me listening to your problems regarding emotions. It is clear to me that emotions arise in connection with the way you relate to yourself, the way you relate to others, and the way you relate to your surroundings. So it shows relationship is a real challenge we have in life. Many persons presented problems relating to other people. So their problem was that they were concerned about what others were thinking of them. Especially fearing minuses. So the question arises: Why have we given such power to other people that our happiness and unhappiness is dependent on them? I would like to raise this as a question: Why have we given so much power to other people?

Retreatant: Otherwise it would be difficult to get on with each other.

Godwin: Anything else?


Retreatant: If one has no self-confidence, one does not know how to get hold of one's destiny.

Godwin: I think this seems to be an important reason. Because we lack self-confidence, because we don't practise what is necessary for this, we depend on other people for it. Another point that arose in my mind today was, at least among the people I have been speaking with in this regard, only women have been telling me that how they are relating to other people creates this sense of lack of self-confidence, fearing the judgement of others, fearing to make mistakes where others will blame them. Now a question that arose in my mind is that here in this country, is this most commonly experienced by women, or do men also have this problem but are they too shy to speak about it?

Retreatant: Men have more of this kind of problem. Men know how to find ways to let out their emotions: for example, they will go out to drink with friends and when they get a bit drunk, they will just say anything, then they just let out the emotions in this way or some other.

Godwin: I think everywhere in this world this is a real problem human beings have to face. I didn't know that with men one of the solutions they have found is drinking, but then it becomes a vicious circle: because of their drinking they are also given minuses and because of the minuses they drink, so one thing leads to the other. Let us see how meditation helps us to work with these problems, whether it is in men or women, it doesn't matter.

I feel this is why meditation of loving-kindness is so important, in the sense that you learn to be your own best friend and if you can really make that connection with yourself, actually feel it, then I think your dependency on what others think of you becomes less, because whatever you need from others you get it from yourself. You will become self-contained within yourself.

Another way meditation helps us to work with this situation is through understanding the nature of plusses and minuses. It is very interesting that human beings have this very strong conditioning to give plusses or to give minuses in any situation, but we never pause to question whether these plusses or minuses are valid, on what basis are we doing this. It is funny, we really become victims of this mechanism but we never inquire into the way these plusses and minuses operate, under what condition they arise, what is really creating them, what is contributing to them. So when we explore this question we realise that these are really related to thoughts, concepts, which have come due to various reasons from the society that you have been brought up into. Then you see them as part of your conditioning, you see them as a strong habit that we have got used to.

It is funny that this is how we use thoughts. Now as we all know, from the time that we wake up in the morning up to the time that we go to sleep there are continuous thoughts going through our mind which never stop. If you become aware, if you become mindful of the thoughts that go through your mind, then you'll realise that most of the time the way we use thoughts is in this habit of giving plusses and minuses. So when you see this clearly, then the power that we have given to them may become less.

Then you realise that sometimes it is just an innocent thought that comes: Maybe the other person doesn't like me; maybe the other person is giving me minuses; maybe the other person thinks that I'm silly or ridiculous, and so on. So if you are mindful you'll realise it is just a thought that you're having; who knows whether that thought corresponds to any reality? There is a strong imaginary aspect in our thoughts. This imaginary aspect and the reality are two different things. So with awareness, with mindfulness, exploring, investigating, this may become clear to us and this will help us to work with and handle such thoughts, and their power will become less.


Another very interesting aspect related to this is: with our thoughts, with our identifications, we all have images of who we are, the type of persons we are. Each person has a model, has an image of himself or herself. So I think what we are doing is that when other people accept our image then we feel comfortable with them, we feel at ease with them. And then we make it a point to always, or most of the time, impose this particular image on other people. Then we also have images of other people. A Western psychologist has said that when two people meet, there are six people. Can you work out how two people become six people?

Retreatant: There are two real people, and four imaginary people: who you think you are, and who you think the other person is; who the other person thinks he is, and who he thinks you are!

Godwin: Yes, exactly. It is a very interesting point for us to reflect on. Sometimes when there are conflicts actually it is the images that are in conflict, but what the people really are is another question. So with meditation, with awareness, you understand this process, that whenever there is a conflict, the conflict is the result of the image you have of the other person.

Take the case of anger. So in relation to behaviour from another person how do we get angry? Why do we get angry? We have an idea of how the other person should behave and when the other person's behaviour does not conform to the image we have we get angry. Then we have an image of our usual behaviour, and when our behaviour does not correspond to that image then we feel guilty, we get angry, we get disappointed, we get hurt because our behaviour does not correspond to the image we have formed of ourselves.

Seeing Things as they Really Are

A very interesting practice in everyday life is, whenever you suffer, whenever you are disappointed, whenever you are frustrated, at that moment can you see for yourself that the image which you have is now clashing with what is actually happening. This is why the Buddha emphasised learning to see things as they are. But what we are doing is, we want to see things the way they should be, as they must be according to our way, my way.

What we are doing is making demands about how we should behave, we are making demands about how others should behave, we are making demands about how life should be. If these demands are met life is okay, life is wonderful, it is beautiful. If these demands are not met there is suffering, frustration, disappointment, hurt; most of these emotions can arise as a result of that. So I would suggest that an enlightened human being goes through life without any images, and because of that he or she can never suffer.

Another aspect related to this is, if you can really understand the nature of life, then you realise it is not possible to form any conclusion about how life should be. In the Dhamma there is something very deep, which is to be open to the uncertainty of life. But we hold onto this idea of certainty because we assume things can be controlled. But when we think deeply we realise that in actual fact we have no control.

In cultures and in countries where things work perfectly, without any problems, this gives a kind of sense of security because everything is happening perfectly, no problems, everything is under control. Living in countries like India or Sri Lanka, you have to be open to uncertainties.

I will give a practical example which I experienced myself. When I was in Europe I was on a train and they made an announcement in the language of that country and people were very anxious, looking at their leaflets and there was lots of talk about it, lots of disappointment, so I asked them what the announcement was about. They said the train was going to be seven minutes late. In Sri Lanka, if there is a train at all you'll be very fortunate!

So this is a very good training. Most of the time unexpected things happen. You go to the bus stand and then they say: No bus today. You want to go by train, they say: Now there is no train, it is one hour late. I get the impression that these things don't happen here. Am I right? Everything is under control, and it gives a sense of security; then when something unexpected happens there is disappointment, suffering.

So that living in cultures like this naturally you tend to be conditioned to do things perfectly. You fear to make mistakes because no mistakes should happen! So with this idea of perfection, this is why you like other people to accept that you are perfect, this is why you fear maybe they are giving you minuses, because your model of perfection is affected by that. So this is why I often emphasise this being open to our humanness, open to our imperfections, so that when we become more and more open to our humanness, our imperfections, then if you are getting minuses from other people then you are not surprised. You realise, well, that's part of our conditioning. I'm still human, so it's okay.

Questions and Answers

I would like to pause now and I'm sure you might have some questions, or need some clarifications about this, so I think we will try to have a useful discussion about our emotions and how to really work with our emotions in the context of the practice.

So it is interesting, when it comes to asking questions you are afraid: Could this be a good question? Will people laugh at my question? Will they think I'm stupid? But here we are in a group of spiritual friends so we should try be open to anything, allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes: this is the beauty of a retreat like this. So I would like to hear some silly questions, and I will be happy to give some silly answers!

Retreatant: In Hong Kong we have a certain set of images to live by and we always do things in conformity with these images. For example, if we go to a cafe and order a certain type of Chinese tea but the waiter gives us another type, if we accept the wrong tea the important thing is whether we accept it with or without a grudge.

Godwin: That is certainly true. We can accept it because we want to conform to others, so we pretend it is okay and we accept it. But I think the real acceptance is: Can we really say okay to it, or perhaps not even saying okay, but just seeing it as it is?

Retreatant: My statement is: If I really accept it, the acceptance must either be with a grudge or with understanding, not simply out of conformity.

Godwin: So please, in everyday life what are the emotions that come up? We can discuss the ways and means how meditation can help us to cope with emotions in such daily situations.

Retreatant: I would like to give one example: in my office I always try to work to conform to what my clients expect me to do. It's not because I care how they judge me. Actually I don't care as long as I've done my job right, then I'm happy. But the reality is that if I don't do things in conformity with their expectations they will complain to me which results in spending a lot of time explaining the situation. So that gives me a lot of pressure. I know that it is all created by my mind and I can handle the situation if there should be any unjustified complaints, but the fact is that I try to avoid these troubles, so I try to do everything perfectly.

Godwin: Good point, a big plus to you. So what I would suggest is that what I'm saying doesn't mean that you should not act with responsibility. One thing we have to learn is how to act with responsibility but without the pressure. So you are doing your best but doing your best is done in a relaxed way, not with tension, not with stress. This is one thing we need to learn. And then when you do your best and still you have made a mistake, then you can be very clear and honest in your own mind: I did my best, but my best was not good enough for the other person, so what can I do? At least it makes your mind very clear, it makes your conscience very clear, so that it will not give rise to any inner conflicts.

So this is all we can try to do; and when we have tried, if it succeeds, it is good. If it fails, it is also good. And then in such a situation, if you have made a mistake and then some problem arises, what is also important for us to learn is that when a wound has been created, to heal that wound as quickly as possible rather than just hold onto the wound and suffer for your whole life because you have made some mistakes.

Anything else?

Retreatant: But in Hong Kong you may be fired by the boss. That is the source of the pressure.

Godwin: If you have done your best and if you're fired, still in your own mind you can be very clear about what has happened. So I feel it is very important in life to understand our limitations. This doesn't mean that we justify our limitations, but that it is a fact: I'm doing my very best but my very best does not correspond to what others think of as best, so what can I do? Actually, these are the real challenges we have in life: how to face them?

Another aspect of such situations - I don't know if what I'm going to say makes sense to you - some of these setbacks, some of these difficulties, some of these problems you have in such situations can later on prove to be a blessing. This is also very interesting.

I'm reminded of a Chinese tale that I would like to share with you; perhaps you already know the story. In a particular village there was a very wise old man and he had some beautiful horses. So one day one of the beautiful horses was missing, it had run away. So the whole village came to this man and said: Oh, how unfortunate it is that your best horse has run away. It seems you are very unlucky. Maybe in Buddhist terms we would say it is bad kamma, and so on. He said: No, it is merely that my horse has run away. What you are saying is an opinion, a judgement, about what has happened. My horse has run away, that's all, no need to give a minus about this.

Then after some days this horse came back with another beautiful horse. Then the same villagers came and said: Oh, you're very lucky, you're very fortunate, you lost one horse, now you have two horses. He said: Stop all this, I now have two horses, that is all, no need to give a plus.

This old man had a son, and the son was trying to train this new horse, and in training the new horse he fell from the horse and broke his leg. So his friends came and said: Bad kamma again. And then there was a war and so soldiers came to the village to take away all the young people in the village to fight in the war, only the old man's son was saved from this because of his broken leg!

This is a very good story to learn to see things just as they are, hopefully without plusses and without minuses. I suppose the wise old man did not have any image of what should happen and what shouldn't happen. Has anyone heard of this story? Everybody.

Retreatant: Everybody knows this story but nobody can practise like the old man.

Retreatant: But the story was not presented in the way that you did. The way you presented the story is very striking because you emphasised the point that there should not be any concepts. The fact is that he lost a horse, the fact is that he gained a horse, and no other judgement. But the traditional way of telling this story is about good luck and bad luck. When fortunate things happen you should not think it is really fortunate. When unfortunate things happen you should not think it is really unfortunate, you have to wait and see how it works out in the end. That is the traditional way of telling the story, so it is very materialistic because the traditional way of telling it is that in the end this old man gains. There's a reward.

Godwin: I think the aspect of this story I like is that he did not have any expectations of what should happen or what shouldn't happen. So no images. This is one point. The other point is, when there is a shift that takes place inside us, when there is understanding and realisation inside, anything can happen externally. This is the important thing. So we cannot control what is happening externally, but when there is a change inside then you will be able to handle whatever is happening externally. I think this is another aspect of the story.

Any other questions?

Retreatant: In Hong Kong society even though you can achieve 99% perfection, with the 1% you have committed as a mistake, people will grab hold of that 1% fault and go on and on against you. I fully understand the way you told us how to deal with these situations but I cannot say from the bottom of my heart whether I could do it.

Godwin: I think what you said does not apply only to Hong Kong society. For some reason everywhere in the world there seems to be too much emphasis, too much power given to the mistakes, to the negative things, and that the good things are taken for granted. This happens very often in relationships. You do good things, and with so many good things you make just one mistake and that one mistake becomes more important than all the good things that you have done. So people will be talking about that one mistake but not at all about the good things that have been done by that person.

So it brings up the interesting question: Why do human beings give so much power to the mistakes, to the negative things, and the positive things are taken for granted? I would like to hear from you whether you have any thoughts about this.

Retreatant: I can present a converse situation to what was said: some people never do anything right but somehow everything is forgiven when that person brings you a cup of tea!

Retreatant: I think sometimes people only think of the mistake and keep reminding you of it because of jealousy, so they want to magnify the mistake.

Godwin: Anything else? Any other possible explanations?

Retreatant: In my experience it all boils down to greed. It's because, for example, my client expects me to win a legal battle, because if I win the legal battle he will get what he wants. When I do not win the legal battle for him then he has many complaints because his mind is muddled by greed because he does not get what he wants. And the same applies to many other situations that I have seen. When a person has greed in his mind and does not get what he wants, even though I've done my best he won't listen.

Godwin: So as we realise that this is something common to ourselves, we should in our own life try to practise in a different way. One suggestion I would like to offer is that whenever we see someone doing something good, I think we should make it a point just to mention it, to appreciate it. For parents who bring up children this is a very common problem, that the parents tell the children only when they make a mistake. When they do something good, that is not mentioned! So a child is brought up with the idea: I'm always doing wrong.

When a similar discussion took place in a foreign country I was in, in the audience there was a teacher who had been counselling parents. She told us she gave an exercise to the parents. They were told to draw up a list of all the naughty things, bad things, the children would do. So without a problem they drew up a long list. Then the parents were told now please draw up a list of the good things your children are doing. It was very difficult for them to do that! They had to think very hard about what were the good things that the children were doing. Isn't that interesting?

And this also happens in relationships. Sometimes in Sri Lanka I have to counsel husbands and wives who have problems. It's a big joke amongst my friends. They say this man has no experience in married life and he is counselling married people! One complaint of the wives is that when the cooking is not so good the husband would be critical and make a big fuss about the food, but when the food is good they tell me that the husband practises noble silence!

There is a very interesting discussion in the Buddhist texts about spiritual friends. So what a real spiritual friend does is that when someone does something wrong he points it out in a very friendly way that you are doing something wrong; and when they do something good, when they do something right, he points out that you are doing something good, something right.

This is what we need to learn, not only to give power and energy to the minuses but also acknowledge the plusses. So I would suggest that we as meditators should try to cultivate this very important quality. And it is very important to see the good things in ourselves also. This tendency to see only the negative, only the minuses in ourselves is a very strong factor which can create a lot of emotion and suffering for us. So when we learn to see the more and more positive aspects in ourselves, then we will be able to see more and more positive aspects and plusses in others.

There are four qualities mentioned in the Dhamma. They are called Sublime States or Divine Abodes. The first one is loving-kindness, metta. The second one is karuna, which means compassion, when you see someone suffering you try to help that person. The third quality is very interesting, mudita: when other people are happy you rejoice in their happiness, and I would say that you can also rejoice in your own happiness. So this quality of mudita is something very important we need to cultivate. A meditation master has put this very clearly. He said that we have a tendency to see what is wrong in ourselves, but we never look for what is right in ourselves.

The society might have harmful, destructive values but we should try to cultivate these virtues, these values that might be contrary to what is happening in society. This is why in the Buddha's teaching meditation is compared to going upstream, that it is not easy; most people just flow with the stream. So living in a society where these negative things are prominent, where they are given power, it is not easy to do this, it is difficult, but this is where we have to make an effort. This is where the practice is important. This is why a group of spiritual friends is important, that at least we are as a group trying to practise these virtues, these qualities, though in the country, in the society, something else is happening.

Tomorrow's Practice

Anyway, something about tomorrow. Tomorrow I would like to suggest we might try to practise with our thoughts, to work on our thoughts. There is always a connection between thoughts and emotions. An interesting question to reflect on is: Can there be suffering without a thought? Can there be emotion without a thought? So I feel that in our practice we should really understand, penetrate, and work with our thoughts. As I said, from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep there is this continuous thinking going on in our mind.

So tomorrow I would like to suggest that we forget our friend the breath, and instead continuously observe our thoughts, and see the connection between thoughts and emotions; and then try to make discoveries about our thinking, especially concerning the area of giving plusses and minuses. So tomorrow if you catch yourself giving minuses, observe it, catch it as soon as possible.

When we were coming here to this centre there was a question mark in red, and I asked someone what that question mark meant. I was told that the question mark meant: just find out what you are thinking. So it is a very interesting exercise, that during the day we ask ourselves: Now what is the thought I am having? So whether we are here or whether we are outside, let us make an effort just to know, just to understand, just to explore, just to learn, just to discover about our thoughts, about our concepts. And then we can have a discussion about thoughts in the evening.

So now we can do some chanting.