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Godwin Samararatne
Introduction to Meditation

Talks in Hong Kong - Day 1, 6th October 1997

Why We Should Meditate


Godwin: I'm happy to see some familiar faces, some old friends, and I'm also very happy to see so many new faces. What I propose to do now is to give a talk on why we should meditate and then we can have a discussion. After the discussion we can meditate for some time, and then we will end the session with chanting: Pali chanting and Chinese chanting.

So the question is, why should we meditate? What is the importance of meditation? Why is it emphasised so much in the Buddha's teaching? So these are some of the questions that I'm going to explore in my talk.

The word meditation translates the Pali word bhavana which means cultivating the mind, developing the mind, mental culture. So the whole emphasis is on the mind. When you read the Buddhist texts you are so amazed at the Buddha's profound and deep statements about the human mind. It is amazing that he should have made these statements 2,600 years ago. In fact, modern psychologists and psychotherapists are also deeply inspired by the Buddha's statements on the human mind.

Knowing, Shaping, & Freeing the Mind

The idea of meditation has been expressed by a writer in these terms: knowing the mind, shaping the mind, and freeing the mind. I would like to repeat the words: Meditation is knowing the mind, shaping the mind, and freeing the mind. So knowing the mind is understanding how the mind is working. If we do not know our mind we are really just like machines. Therefore it is extremely important to know and to understand how our minds work.

And when we know the mind, then we can shape the mind. Shaping the mind is developing mastery over the mind. If we do not develop mastery over the mind what happens is that we become a slave to our own mind. So when we become slaves to our mind then thoughts and emotions control us and that results in more and more suffering. Therefore it is very important to learn to shape the mind, and when you learn to shape the mind then you can achieve a mind that is free. So the importance of meditation is learning to achieve a mind that is free, a mind that is happy, a mind that is peaceful, a mind that has loving-kindness.

Achieving a Completely Healthy Mind

It is interesting to see the things we do to keep our body healthy. We feed our body, we keep the body clean, when the body becomes sick we go to the doctor and get medicine to cure the illnesses. We do so many things to keep the body healthy. An interesting question is: what do we do to keep our mind healthy? Have you given thought to this very important question? We have to be clear about what makes our mind sick, what makes our mind unhealthy. What are the symptoms of the human sicknesses of the mind? So meditation is learning about them and achieving a mind that is completely healthy.

We can consider some emotions as contributing to the illnesses of the human mind. I would like to mention some of these emotions, and I'm sure everyone here can relate to them: anxiety, stress, fear, insecurity, and sadness. I can draw up a long list, which I think we can all relate to. Sometimes we don't realise that they make our mind sick. If we do not know that they can create our sickness we can continue to have that sickness without finding a solution to it. In one of my talks I will be speaking about emotions and I will present to you how meditation helps us to work with emotions. When I speak about emotions I will be interested to hear from you what emotions really bother you in this country. So I will be presenting some practical ways of working with these unpleasant emotions and then finding a way to be free from these emotions.

Taste & Experience Buddhism

Another very important aspect of meditation is that meditation helps us to experience with full awareness things that arise. There are some who know very well what the Buddha taught, so they are very knowledgeable about Buddhism but they have not experienced directly anything from the Buddha's teaching because they have not meditated. They are like people who know all about meals but they have hardly tasted the food from the meals. So meditation helps us to taste; and when you have tasted it you achieve a kind of appetite for the freedom of the mind. When you taste it, you really see for yourself how we can free ourselves.

Become Completely Self-Reliant

Related to this is another point, that meditation helps us to become completely self-reliant. When you meditate you realise that you have to take responsibility for what is happening in your mind. Sometimes I define meditation in my own words as finding the medicine for the sickness we have created ourselves. So as we create the sickness ourselves we have to find the medicine. When you are sick, if you want to heal yourself you cannot tell others to take the medicine.

The Buddha emphasised this point very much: to be self-reliant, to rely on one's own efforts. The Buddha said: self-effort is the best effort. And when we develop self-effort, when we become self-reliant, then what happens is we learn to become completely self-confident about ourselves. When we have this self-confidence then when we see for ourselves that the medicine is helping then that gives us more confidence in the medicine and it also helps us to develop faith and confidence in the person who discovered the medicine.

So in my talk so far I have been telling you about some benefits and some aspects of meditation. And I have been trying to tell you about the importance of meditation. I have been trying to answer the question: why should we meditate? So now I would like to pause and then if there are any questions about what I have been saying we can discuss them. So please ask questions. When I teach meditation to children I tell them sometimes that meditation is asking questions and finding the answers ourselves. Asking questions like: Why do we get angry? How is stress created? So to raise such questions and then to find an answer - meditation can be seen as a process of trial and error. Therefore I would like you to ask some questions and then we might try to find the answers to them.

Questions and Answers

Retreatant: After we have done evening meditation and I go to bed, I find some vibration in my head, just like someone hitting my head. What is happening? Why does this happen?

Godwin: When we meditate many things happen in our mind and body, sometimes very unusual and strange things. But what is important, what we are learning in meditation, is that whatever is happening in our mind and body, just to know it is happening. And also learning to accept these things, learning not to react to them. There are different stages in meditation so you may be experiencing certain stages. Finding a reason may not necessarily be helpful but rather, as I often say, learn to make friends with these experiences, to see them as learning experiences and not to see them as problems and difficulties.

So what I would like to suggest is that whatever happens when you are meditating, though it can be an unpleasant experience sometimes, just to know it, that it's just a sensation and just to say okay to it, make friends with it, and then it will pass. So I would like you to continue to practice and maybe on Sunday when we have a day's programme we can see whether it will happen then or not.

Retreatant: I find your point on teaching children how to meditate very interesting. I want to learn something more about teaching children meditation. Firstly I want to ask: how do children accept the concept of meditation and how do they practice meditation? And the second question is: you just mentioned the way to learn meditation is to learn to ask questions and to answer them. When we ask ourselves questions, what are we going to do then?

Godwin: So the first question is about teaching meditation to children. It is very interesting that trying to teach meditation to children has enabled me to learn from them because they have very simple, uncomplicated minds. It is interesting for me to see the difference between trying to teach meditation to children and to adults. In a way, meditation can be seen as developing a child-like mind and learning to see things as if for the first time, learning to be curious about things and being very honest and genuine about ourselves. So I really enjoy being with children and trying to teach them meditation.

To answer your question, I never tell them that it is meditation. I ask them: now would you like to play with your breath? As you know, children love playing so I suggest: Let's play with our breath. So I tell them: Now please see this as a good game. The game is: Can you be aware of your breath from moment to moment? And sometimes I tell them to play hide-and-seek. Sometimes you are with the breath and sometimes you are not with the breath. So let us play the game for 10 to 15 minutes and see what happens. And it is so inspiring for me to see how completely still they sit during those 10 to 15 minutes, how they seem to be enjoying it, with very happy, smiling, friendly faces. When I see adults meditating, I see different expressions on their faces! And what inspires me most is when I ask them: Do you have any questions, do you have any problems, and do you have any difficulties? Most of the time they say: No! It's an interesting question to find out as adults what we have done to our minds. It's a very serious question that we should explore. In fact it is really connected to meditation, related to meditation.

So this was the first question and the second question was about - what was it?

Retreatant: After we have asked ourselves questions, what do we do?

Godwin: Good question. Take the case of Siddhattha who became the Buddha. Do you know the questions that came to his mind? Very simple questions: Why do people die? Why do people get old? Why do people become sick? Why do people become monks and nuns? So by finding an answer to these simple questions that he asked, he ended up by becoming the Buddha!

I will give another example: Newton, the scientist. Do you know the simple question that enabled him to discover a very profound scientific theory? Why do apples fall? Simple question, but it ended in his making a very profound, very important scientific discovery. Someone has said that a genius is one who still has the curiosity of a child. We all have this beautiful capacity as children, but as adults we have lost this questioning aspect in us. So in relation to meditation you can ask questions like: Why do I get angry? When you ask that question, and when you try to find an answer, what is the answer you discover? I would like to hear the answer from you.

Retreatant: My friend makes me angry.

Godwin: It's always the other person! So the point is my friend is not behaving in the way I want my friend to behave. So you see from this simple question you discover the problem is not with my friend but with me having an expectation of how my friend should be. So as I said earlier about meditation, then you learn to take responsibility for your anger, and you stop blaming others and start taking responsibility. And that's how a change, a transformation can take place in ourselves from the single question: why do I get angry? I'm happy you are asking questions, so I hope there will be more questions.

Retreatant: I am calm right now, but when my kids get poor marks in school I get angry although I love my children.

Godwin: I like such practical questions. I think all parents can relate to that question. I know certainly that this happens in Sri Lanka also. So how does meditation help in such a situation? One thing you said is that you are now feeling calm, so one point to remember is that we should not expect to be always calm. We can learn from a mind that is calm. We can also learn from a mind that is not calm. If you expect to be always calm, when you are not calm you suffer as a result, as happened in your case. You are angry with yourself. You are disappointed with yourself. You give yourself a minus. So I would suggest that in the situation that you described, when you get angry just know that you are angry. Tomorrow I will be speaking about something related to this: the importance of the practice of awareness or mindfulness - a very important aspect of meditation.

So the first suggestion I would like to offer is just to be aware of the anger, because if you are aware of the anger and just stay with the anger perhaps you will not express that anger in a violent way. Just being aware of the anger and not expressing it enables us to develop some sort of control, mastery over our anger. So this is the first point.

The second suggestion is that simply by being with the anger, after some time you may recover from it. And when you recover from that anger you can ask the question: Why did I get angry with my son? I love him so much, and here I am getting angry with him; perhaps I'm making him angry too. So when you explore this question you realise the problem is that you have an expectation of how your son should perform in class. These are reasonable expectations for parents to have, but it's another matter to find out how far that expectation is realistic. How far is my son capable of meeting my expectations? Shouldn't I find out from my son why he is not doing well in class? This is something very important, because with more and more meditation we learn to try to understand the other person's behaviour and try to see things from the perspective of the other person rather than to project our own expectations onto others.

So if you can talk to your son in a very friendly, gentle, understanding way: My dear son, what are the difficulties you have in class? This is something very important which the Buddha emphasised, to have a spiritual friendship with everyone that you relate to. It is very important for parents to have this kind of friendly relationship with children so that the child is in a position to talk to the parents honestly, in a friendly way, about the difficulties the child is having. I feel this is extremely important. I know in Sri Lanka some children are completely alone, there is no one that they can look to because they are afraid to talk honestly to their parents, they are afraid to talk about their difficulties to their teachers, so they are completely lost.

It is really sad when children are unable to confide when they are in difficult situations. So I would like to stress that it is very important in such situations to make a connection with the child and then try to understand what the child is going through, and this would be something very helpful and meaningful, rather than getting angry.

I think there is time for one more question.

Retreatant: We have thoughts, we have desires, and we have suffering. Is it true that by meditating you can stop having these thoughts, desires, and suffering?

Godwin: It's not so easy. It's interesting you mentioned thoughts. I feel that it is the most important area in the human mind because from the time we wake up to the time that we go to sleep, what happens? There are thoughts continuously going through our mind. I think everyone here can relate to that. Here while I'm talking you have your own thoughts going through your mind. I often raise this question: what are you thinking about from morning to night? Can anyone suggest an answer? What are we thinking about from morning to night, without ever stopping? So you see the importance of asking simple questions. What do we think about?

Retreatant: Most of the time we think of ourselves - I and mine - all the time.

Godwin: Absolutely right; even when we are thinking of others the thoughts are always related to ourselves. Isn't that interesting? And the next question is in relation to ourselves and others: What do we do with our thoughts? What we are doing is we make judgements. And the simple way I describe this is that we give plusses and we give minuses. When you remember some good thing you have done, you feel happy - big plus! When you remember some wrong things you have done, some mistake that you have done, some bad things you have done - big minus! And we do the same in relation to the others. The bad things, the wrong things the others have done, we give them minuses. Good things others have done, we give them plusses.

So isn't it interesting? From morning to night we become teachers giving plusses and minuses to ourselves? I know some people who live in a hell they have created, and in that hell only minuses exist. They have thoughts only about their mistakes, their shortcomings. And in relation to others we have similar thoughts, so by that we can create a hell; we can really feel sad and live in depression. So this is how we create our own suffering with our thoughts.

You will realise there is a connection between thoughts and emotions. An interesting question to find out is: what comes first, the thought or emotion? Have you discovered the answer? Do you see the importance of meditation? Anyway, I will be discussing these things as we go along.

Going back to the question, what we can do is what I will be talking about tomorrow - the importance of awareness. With awareness, just to observe the thoughts that are going through our mind and just to realise how we are using thoughts destructively, which creates suffering for ourselves and suffering for others. And also we can use thoughts creatively, which I will be talking about later on. And the question you asked about desires, there again we can see a relationship, a connection between thoughts and desires. As I said, this is the importance of meditation. This is why the Buddha made such important, very profound statements about how the mind is working, and through understanding that by using awareness you will see how we create our own suffering, our own problems. Through that realisation we can free ourselves from suffering and problems - this is what meditation is about. So we will be discussing these very important issues as we go along in the next few days.

Anyway I'm very happy that you asked some very good questions and now I would suggest you take a small break. You can go out, and come back when we ring the bell, and then we can meditate. So I suggest, please make an effort to be silent and also please make an effort to be mindful. Just to walk slowly and just to know what is happening when you are walking. And as we have discussed about thoughts, just to know what thoughts you are having in your mind, be alert, be attentive. So during the next 5 minutes please also let us learn just to watch, just to discover what is happening in our mind and body from moment to moment, and when you hear the gong please come back slowly and in silence. Thank you very much.

[Break] - [Guided meditation] - [Chanting]

Thank you very much for the beautiful chanting. So tomorrow's talk will be about the practice of mindfulness, and after the talk we will distribute a book which is based on the practice of mindfulness. So I would like to suggest that tomorrow during the day, please make an effort just to know what is happening in your mind and body from moment to moment as far as possible. Just try to know the thoughts that you will be having during the day tomorrow. And please see how we give plusses and minuses to ourselves and others, and see the connection between thoughts and emotions. I would also like to suggest that you make an effort to be friendly, to be gentle, to be kind towards your mind and body. If you practise these things what I will be presenting tomorrow will make sense in your own experience.

So once again I would like to thank you very much for asking questions and then responding to my suggestions. I'm looking forward very much to meeting you tomorrow also.

May you all be well, may you all be happy, may you all be peaceful, and may you be free of suffering. And when you go to sleep, may you sleep peacefully and wake up peacefully.