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Godwin Samararatne
Working with Meditation

Retreat in Hong Kong
Day 5, 17th October 1997

Thoughts and Meditation


Godwin: I will touch on some aspects of how we can work with our thoughts in the context of meditation.

One thing we can discover is that our thoughts arise mechanically. They just pop up. Take what is happening now. You are listening to me but you are absorbed in the thoughts that are going through your mind. You don't want these thoughts to arise but they just pop up; and then we do something very interesting: some thoughts we allow just to arise and pass away, while others, we get hold of them, we identify ourselves with them. They can overwhelm us, they can control us. So this is one of the things that we can discover with awareness, that when thoughts arise, without getting hold of them, if you can just allow them to go away then there is no problem. This is one aspect for us to learn about and explore.

Another is the connection, the relationship, between thoughts and our state of mind. So as I said, when we get hold of our thoughts, when we identify ourselves with the thoughts, then our state of mind changes. That is why I have been suggesting that we learn not to react when thoughts come.


Another interesting area which we have been working with is the connection between thoughts and emotions. What comes first, thoughts or emotions?

(Everyone answered: Thoughts)

I hope that you really discovered it, that you really learnt it for yourselves.

So in other words, if you learn to handle thoughts, work with thoughts, you develop mastery over emotions. Another thing is that when you have an emotion it is only thoughts that make it bigger. They can really blow up the emotion you are having.


Another interesting aspect is how we create stories out of our thoughts and we don't realise that we create the stories but we become victims of the stories that we create ourselves. Sometimes the stories can even become films, movies in our own mind from what has happened in the past and about what is going to happen in the future. We are sometimes creating very destructive films, movies, and we are the director, we are the producer, we are the actor, and we are the victim, all in that drama. I will give an example of what such a story is and how the story can become a kind of reality at that moment.

This is a story from the Buddhist literature. So there was a young monk who wanted to give up his robes. He hadn't told his chief monk about his plans but one day the chief monk was having a headache, so he told this young monk to give him a massage, to rub some oil on his head. So while massaging his head the young monk was thinking: Now, maybe in a month or two I will be giving up my robes. And after I give up my robes, maybe I will find a job, and when I find a job I will get some money, and when I find enough money maybe I will find a girl and get married to this girl. But sometimes these wives can be impossible people and if my wife becomes difficult or impossible, I'll give her a good beating. And he beat the old monk on his head!

We are laughing, but this is what we also do with our thoughts. So it shows that these thoughts can be so compelling, and that they can create fantasies for us and we take the fantasy as real. So there is a connection, a relationship, between the stories and emotions. In the Dhamma there is a very interesting Pali word to describe this process which takes place in our mind: papanca. What it means is constructing, manufacturing, concocting, projecting, all these things we do with our thoughts, and it is said there is a direct relationship between concepts and suffering. This is how our suffering is created.

So this is why it is very important to learn to work with our thoughts, to understand the thoughts, to really understand the nature and construction of thoughts. As I said earlier, if we can learn to have a very spacious mind, allowing these thoughts and emotions to come and go, allowing sensations to arise and pass away, and we are in that spaciousness, not reacting to anything then at that moment there is freedom.

In the Tibetan tradition they use a very nice simile. They compare the mind to a spacious sky and the thoughts to clouds. The clouds do not affect the sky, the sky does not affect the clouds. So this shows that it is important to have that spaciousness, that spacious mind, allowing anything to arise and pass away.


Another aspect of thought is that we have a very strong conditioning to identify ourselves with them and say: These are my thoughts. I am thinking. Again without realising it, it is the thoughts that have created the thinker. This is why I have been suggesting on a few occasions just to see thoughts as thoughts without an owner, without the idea that these are my thoughts but just thoughts arising and passing away.

So it is funny how we have this idea of ownership. We start owning everything: thoughts, emotions, sensations, persons, possessions. And when we start owning things we don't like to let go of the things we own. This is why we find it difficult to let go of emotions because we think this is my anger, my fear, my anxiety, my sadness; so whatever we consider mine we don't want to let go. This is the deeper aspect of the Dhamma, to indicate to us actually there is no owner. There are just thoughts, there are just sensations, there are just emotions.

It is this sense of ownership which is creating our suffering. Nothing should happen to my mother - anything can happen to other people's mothers. Nothing should happen to my body, but other people's bodies - there's no problem whatsoever. And then in the same way we have this identification with possessions: my cup, it should stay with me; but other cups, there is no problem. We even draw the same distinction about animals. This is my cat; this is the neighbour's cat. So the neighbour's cat should not come and attack my cat. How can the neighbour's cat do that? So it is an interesting question to reflect on: what happens at the time of death to all the things we think we own? If we really own them we should be able to take them with us even after death, but we can't.

These are really very deep, profound aspects of the Buddha's teaching. To see the connection between our sense of ownership, with the sense of I and me, and how that is creating suffering. So these are some areas, some aspects that we can find out about for ourselves in the practice of meditation in everyday life.

In everyday life it is very important to use awareness, just to know what thoughts are going through your mind and how this is affecting you, how it is related to emotions. So if you can really practise this, be constantly aware of this, then very slowly there can be a shift in what is happening to you.

We often say we have certain worries, we have certain problems: what happens to that worry, what happens to that problem when your thoughts are with something else? The problem may not be solved but still at that moment it is not a source of suffering. If someone close to us is sick then whenever we think about that person, that is creating the suffering, that is creating the worry, but when our thoughts are with something else that person would still be having that illness but it is not a source of suffering for us. So it shows how thinking, thoughts, are really directly related to our suffering.

So I have presented certain aspects, certain areas, where we use thoughts destructively. Yesterday we had a discussion about images that arise in relationships, and again images are created by our concepts and our thoughts.

The Positive Use of Thoughts

But thoughts can also have a positive use, one can also use them creatively. How can we use them creatively? It is by using thought to reflect, to contemplate, to analyse. So this is a very important exercise, a very important meditation for us to develop, using thoughts to reflect. We should constantly reflect on our behaviour: How am I behaving? Is my behaviour creating suffering for myself, or creating suffering for others? Especially it is very important for us to see for ourselves how we create our own suffering. Then we realise that only we ourselves can bring about a change; then we take responsibility for our suffering and we can change that situation.

This brings up the Four Noble Truths the Buddha discovered. The First Noble Truth is the fact of suffering. How is suffering considered a Noble Truth? What is noble in suffering? What is your response?

Retreatant: Because if we do not understand suffering we would not practise.

Godwin: You can say that. It is noble because when we suffer then, as I said, we can reflect on what is causing the suffering. So when you suffer don't see it as something negative, see it as a Noble Truth.

But what is more important is the Second Noble Truth. It leads one to find out what is causing the suffering, or who is causing the suffering. Now this is a very difficult teaching for us to realise: that we are creating the suffering. It is very easy for us to hold others responsible for our suffering. Then we don't have to do anything about our suffering, the others have to do something about it. So if you can see the Second Noble Truth very clearly, the Third and the Fourth just follow from that.

Meditation as Medicine

Sometimes I define meditation as discovering the medicine for the sickness we have created ourselves. So during the last few days we have been discovering the medicine and I am very happy when looking at your faces that the medicine seems to be helping, seems to be working. Now what is important is to continue to take the medicine in everyday life. This is what we will be discussing tomorrow, being the last full day. Tomorrow I would like you to go over the medicine that we have been taking, the different techniques we have been practising, reflect on the different discussions we have been having. Before you leave you must be very clear about the medicine that you have to take.

Tomorrow we will have a discussion on how to integrate meditation with daily life. So reflect on all the problems, all the difficulties you may encounter or you are encountering in everyday life and then we will discuss how one can find the solution from the Buddha's teaching.

Now are there any questions about what I have been saying? Please ask questions, don't worry whether it is a good question, a bad question, a silly question, a profound question, just ask about what concerns you.

Questions and Answers

Retreatant: Talking about meditation, I want to know whether we meditators should act like stones? It seems that all the meditators behave like stones. To me, the feeling is like we are many stones. Because this morning when I was doing the standing meditation I just stood by the window and saw nature: it was so beautiful, the wind moving and nature dancing, and I thought: Can we do dancing meditation? It was so peaceful. So this is what I want to know.

Godwin: Was I also behaving like a stone?

Retreatant: Frankly, yes, but luckily you do laugh sometimes and you laugh very genuinely, so I don't think you are really like a stone most of the time.

Godwin: I have been emphasising the practice of loving-kindness, and the practice of loving-kindness is completely the opposite to being like a stone. It is really developing friendliness. This is what I always emphasise when I say: Can you feel that you are your own best friend? Can you really feel for the other people around you? But stones cannot feel anything, I'm afraid. You also described nature - I have been emphasising very much to make a connection with nature.

I am happy to say that there is a beautiful atmosphere here of people helping each other, being friendly with each other, especially the people working in the kitchen, so I don't get the impression that they are behaving like stones. I think what you are confusing is detachment with having no feelings. So here the whole emphasis is on feeling. I have been emphasising the experience of joy, lightness, friendliness; and I think the yoga teacher has been emphasising the importance of feeling the body. Perhaps he will tell you that some of you may be relating to your body as to a stone and not only in the yoga class, but that's a different matter! So I think you are confusing the non-reacting mind, the non-suffering mind with not feeling. I wanted to mention this on the last day.

I should also like to repeat that there is a beautiful atmosphere here, a group of spiritual friends interacting with each other. In fact one of the meditators told me this morning that when he came here he was having difficulties with experiencing feelings, but when people started smiling at him and showing friendliness, for the first time he experienced some feelings. That was very nice for me to hear from him.

Anything else?

Retreatant: Master, you have not answered my question. Can we do dancing meditation?

Godwin: Oh dancing, I did not hear the question correctly. During individual and outdoor meditation you are free to dance on your own; the only thing is do not force it, it should come naturally from your heart, otherwise the dance is not something real. It is just because you want to dance that you should dance. When there is joy, when there is lightness, when there is loving-kindness, I think whether you dance or whether you don't dance it does not matter, this is what is beautiful about it.

Anything else?

Retreatant: Can mind-power be as strong and firm as a stone?

Godwin: I wouldn't want to liken it to a stone. I would say that rather than seeing it as a stone it should be seen as something warm, it should be seen as something gentle, soft, tender. These are the spiritual qualities that come with the practice. So it is completely different from a stone which is something with no feelings. Something beautiful about human beings is that we have this ability to feel, and we should allow this feeling to arise, but then this feeling should be worked with, it has to be understood.


Retreatant: You said earlier that we should not create an image about ourselves. But when we practise meditation of loving-kindness we create an image of ourselves that we are full of loving-kindness, so are the two things contradictory?

Godwin: Very good question, very good question. So in a way we need to have images, even to have expectations. What is important for us to realise is in what ways we are using them destructively.

So that if we don't have these qualities in us, if instead of loving-kindness we have hatred, hatred towards ourselves, hatred towards others, then it is very important to bring about a shift within ourselves by learning to be our best friend, learning to be a friend to others. In this way it is no harm having an image: I want to be a person who is friendly and tries to practise. Or you can still practise without an image but just developing these qualities and allow your behaviour to emerge from that.

So one can really practise at two levels: if you like to have an image, you can have it, but otherwise you can just practise without an image and allow your behaviour to arise from whatever spiritual qualities you have developed. What is important is to see whether that image corresponds to reality. This is what we have to work with. Images create problems sometimes if the images are unrealistic. When you have an image of how things should be and then what happens in reality is another thing, this is how suffering is created. So there are different aspects to this question. I'm very happy that good questions are being asked. Very good.

Retreatant: When one becomes enlightened then do we have no more thoughts?

Godwin: I think there is nothing wrong with thoughts. This is what I have been trying to impress on you. What I have been trying to impress on you is how we use thoughts destructively. So this is what you have to see in everyday life: when we use thoughts destructively that is creating suffering. I also said how one can use thoughts creatively. So thoughts have a really very positive use. I would suggest an enlightened person would have thoughts but such a person will not use thoughts destructively.

There is a very interesting quotation by the Buddha himself in relation to his own thoughts: I would like to relate the details. One of his disciples told the Buddha: You have so many powers, you have so many miraculous powers. And the Buddha said: My greatest miracle is that when a thought arises, I know a thought has arisen; when a thought continues, I know that a thought continues when the thought disappears, I know the thought disappears.

This shows it is not the absence of thought which is important. I like that very much. So we can try to work on the third aspect: when a thought disappears. For someone to have that type of mind they have to have a very calm mind, an alert mind, just to know when a thought disappears.

So that's about the thoughts of an enlightened person. I think we should not worry too much about enlightened people!

Retreatant: Actually my question arose because when I watched a grasshopper for some time it was so still, it was so calm, it seems that it is the grasshopper who is in meditation. And I started to think: What is the difference between his meditation and my meditation? So this question arose about our thoughts.

Godwin: So you can think about the grasshopper and you can leave the enlightened person alone! I think we have enough problems with the unenlightened mind.

Anything else?

Understanding the Mind

Retreatant: Today during the meditation I tried to put more effort into observing the thoughts, and I discovered that when I put more effort into observation there were fewer passing thoughts. It's just like you said, when you invite emotions they do not come, when you invite thoughts they do not come also. It's very interesting.

Godwin: It's a very important discovery. When we don't want thoughts to arise they arise, and when we want thoughts to arise they don't arise. When we don't want emotions they arise and when we want emotions they don't arise. Why is the mind acting in opposition to us? This is a very important question to reflect on. Is this the nature of the mind? Or have we conditioned the mind in this way?

I think what it shows is that we cannot tell the mind: Have thoughts, have no thoughts. It doesn't work that way. It's like telling a child: Do this, don't do that. And the child likes to do what you don't want him to do. So this is why I emphasise friendliness such a lot. If you want to understand a child you have to be very friendly and see what the child wants, so in the same way if we want to understand our mind we cannot be telling the mind to do this and don't do that, but rather, with friendliness, try to understand it.

So when there's friendliness, when there's gentleness, when there's openness, then the mind may start co-operating with us. Otherwise we tell the mind to behave in one way and it is going the other way and we get angry about it. So it becomes a battle and becomes another big fight. Meditation for most people is a fight. Fighting the mind. I often tell meditators, you have enough battles in life, please do not make meditation another battle! So with friendliness we need to understand how our mind and body works, and then through that understanding, developing mastery is the next thing. When I spoke on loving-kindness I mentioned that one of the benefits is that when there is loving-kindness the mind becomes calm naturally.

Anything else?

Retreatant: Your teaching of loving-kindness is like teaching us to be a bodhisatta. I would like to practise this too but the difficulty is I cannot be a bodhisatta. For example, I go past a beggar in the street. I wish to give him $10, but then straight after thinking that I would only give him $5 because I need the other $5 for my lunch box. My question is how to be a bodhisatta?

Godwin: I am very happy that you are now 50% a bodhisatta! Because from $10 you give $5, so mathematically you are 50% a bodhisatta! So I'm sure very soon you will make the other 50%. The day will come and you will give the beggar the $10 and you will forget about lunch!

Retreatant: What about my lunch box?

Retreatant: Ven. Dhammika told us of an incident when he was walking along with you. You came upon a beggar and you gave him everything from your pocket and then you had no money left and you both had to walk a long way to where you needed to go. This is something we should learn from. Do you remember?

Godwin: No.

Retreatant: My thoughts are formed by words. I do not know whether the thoughts of others are also formed by words.

Godwin: It's a very interesting discovery you have made that thoughts are really words. Words and pictures, and they give rise to feelings. Let's take a couple of examples. Let us think of breakfast tomorrow. Let us close our eyes and see what happens to our mind when we think of breakfast tomorrow.

So we see bread, we see coffee, whatever is usually there we see. Actually these are pictures that come, and then with the pictures some feelings will come depending on our likes and our dislikes. So actually our thoughts come in the form of images, words and feelings. It sounds so simple. And then what happens to us is that with these things, these pictures, films, we create our suffering.

What is interesting is that with techniques like focusing on breathing, when there are no thoughts none of these things are present, pictures, words, but we are just dealing with the sensations. Words and pictures are always from the past. We can never see pictures and images which we have not experienced before. So only when they are absent can something new happen. This is the beauty of some of the meditation techniques that they help us to have no pictures and so on.

So this is what I have been encouraging you to do, to make your own discoveries about your thoughts, make your own discoveries about your emotions, make your own discoveries about how suffering is created. We are so fortunate to have this mind and body. Sometimes I tell meditators that we can be our own laboratories and we can make experiments, we can make discoveries, we can learn from them.

Without taking anything for granted our whole life becomes learning; and we should develop a taste for it, we should develop a curiosity for it, we should find this very interesting, entertaining, sometimes amusing. So then when you leave this place you can continue to discover, you can continue to learn, you can continue to find out. Then we have this openness that we can learn from anything, we can learn from anyone, not only from the so-called teachers, but life itself becomes the teacher, our mind and body become our teacher, and I think it is a beautiful way to live.

Yesterday we were talking about relationships. Just watching the dogs that come here reveals very interesting relationships. What have we learnt from just watching the three dogs that come here? Have you watched them? It is very interesting to see their relationships. Just like humans. Fascinating to watch.

Talking about dogs, I would like to share with you an experience I had on one of the retreats I gave in a foreign country. So on the last day I was having a talk with the meditators and one of them told the group that whatever she has learnt from me on the course she has already learnt from her dog. So I became curious about her dog. I told her, please tell something more about your dog, and she said: Well, you tell us to just live in the present and this is what my dog does; you tell us to feel grateful, and my dog is always grateful. And she went on to describe the behaviour of the dog and what happens in the retreat. Then I asked her: Is there no difference between your dog and me? She said, Yes, you talk a lot, but my dog can't talk at all! I like that story very much.

Anything else? Any question?

Wounds and Forgiveness

Retreatant: You taught us the practice of loving-kindness and how we should be friendly with ourselves and others and how we should reflect on wounds that we have and forgive others. But how do we know we are really being sincere in forgiving ourselves and in forgiving others?

Godwin: Very good question. I will give a practical example. Supposing you have a wound in relation to what you have done to another: guilt. So before healing the wound, whenever a thought came in relation to your action you would suffer from guilt. So the wound will be healed when the memory comes and on reflection there is no guilt. In the same way, someone has been very unfriendly and unkind to you and whenever the memory comes in relation to his or her action you feel hatred, you feel anger, you feel ill-will. So the wound is healed when the memory comes about that person but no hatred, no ill-will comes.

I'm happy you reminded us of wounds. Tomorrow is the last full day you have for healing wounds, so I would like to suggest you try to heal them and leave all the wounds here when you go from here.

Retreatant: About others wounds: for example, one of my male friends thinks I wounded him but this is not so, I did nothing wrong. How can I help him to get rid of the wound?

Godwin: So other people have wounds in relation to our behaviour. We might try to heal their wounds by trying to explain to them; or if you have really created the wound, say sorry to them, and then try to help them to heal their wound. You can always try. Sometimes we find it difficult, so they too may find it difficult to heal them. But what is important is for you not to suffer as a result of that, because what can you do about it? You have done your best, and then the other person doesn't want to heal that wound. So let us not create a wound in our own mind in relation to their wound.

Tomorrow's Practice

I would like to say something about what we should do tomorrow. So one thing I suggest, try to go over the different things we tried to do here in the last few days and if there are any doubts, any difficulties, please raise them in tomorrow's discussion or when we meet individually. And also please reflect on how you can integrate meditation in your everyday life and if there are any questions or problems in relation to that you can prepare the questions and present them in the discussion. So tomorrow's discussion will be related to that theme.

And the last suggestion is, I would like you to go over the different techniques we have practised and if you have any questions, any difficulties, you can present them also. So I won't be telling you what to do tomorrow: you are free to use whatever technique you like to practise and explore by yourself tomorrow. It is very important to learn to be your own teacher, learning to be a light unto yourself as the Buddha said.

So let's do some chanting.