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Godwin Samararatne
Introduction to Meditation

Talks in Hong Kong - Day 2, 7th October 1997

The Importance of Awareness


Godwin: I would like to welcome you once again. Like yesterday, I'll be giving a talk and after that we'll have a discussion; then we'll be meditating, and we will end with some chanting.

The subject of today's talk, as you know, is the importance of the practice of mindfulness, which is something very important for the practice of meditation. I am very happy to see some of you reading the little booklet we are bringing out today on the Satipatthana Sutta which deals with the practice of mindfulness. It is also very nice to see some of you meditating.

Absence of Mindfulness or Awareness

Yesterday I suggested you make an effort to do some practice of mindfulness so that what I'm going to say will make some sense in your own experience. If we do not practise mindfulness or awareness what will happen to us is that we will become more and more like machines. We will be doing things mechanically, habitually, repetitively, automatically. In this modern world there is such a lot of technology and machines that I think human beings are becoming more and more machine-like, like automatons. By doing this we are forgetting the real art of living.

And what is very unfortunate is that while human beings are becoming more and more like machines they are also losing a sense of the importance of feelings. So when human beings don't experience the very important aspect of feelings in themselves then they cannot feel love for themselves, they cannot feel love for others, they cannot feel warmth for themselves, warmth for others. Perhaps that explains why there is such a lot of violence in the modern world. So we become more and more violent towards ourselves, and more and more violent towards others. All this is related to an absence of awareness, to not knowing what is happening in our mind and body. So this is the first point I want to make about the importance of mindfulness or awareness.

Experience the Present Moment

Another very important aspect of mindfulness is that it helps us to experience the present moment, the here and the now. It is funny to think that most of the time during the day we either live in the past, thinking about what has happened, or we live in the future, dwelling on what is going to happen. But the past and the future are not real - only the present is real. So it shows that human beings, because of their lack of awareness, are living in an unreal world which does not correspond to reality.

To make this clearer let me give an example of what is happening now. Physically you may be present here, you may even see me, but mentally you may be somewhere else completely. So to be completely present, to know what I'm saying, you have to be here and now, in the present. Otherwise, as I said, physically you'll be present but mentally you'll be elsewhere. A meditation master described his practice as: When I eat, I eat; when I walk, I walk; when I sleep, I sleep. The words sound very simple but it means that he was most of the time being present with what he was doing.

An interesting question arises: what did he mean when he said when he sleeps, he sleeps? One interpretation of this is that even when we are asleep, with the dreams that we see we are in a way half awake. So we don't really experience deep sleep. However, for most of us when we are awake during the day, what happens? We are half-asleep! This is what we call living! So if you really want to start living you have to develop this very important quality of being present, of being alert, of being awake. That is why the Buddha is called the Fully Awakened One. The whole practice of meditation and practice of mindfulness is a way of awakening our mind, awakening the Buddha-nature in us. And when we awaken the Buddha-nature within, the quality of living becomes so different.

Now please realise that being in the present doesn't mean that we don't have to use thoughts about the past and the future. Sometimes we have to plan about the future. If you did not plan about the future, you would not have come here. And if you forget the past you will not be able to go back to your home! So what is important for us is, through awareness, to see for ourselves how we are using the past and the future.

Psychologists say that sometimes depression and sadness are due to the way we are relating to the past, and that anxiety is due to the way we are relating to the future. So with awareness, we need to understand how to use the past and the future consciously and deliberately, and then at other times we need to be present in the here and now.

Use Awareness in Everyday Life

Related to that is something which I'm going to emphasise very much and I consider very important. It is to use awareness in everyday life. Even with small things like brushing our teeth, combing our hair, drinking and eating. As I said earlier, we have become so used to doing these things we are like machines. So if you can really learn to practise awareness, mindfulness, in everyday life then meditation becomes a way of life.

I live in a lay meditation centre in Sri Lanka. What we emphasise in our centre is how to integrate daily life, your ordinary life, with meditation. Otherwise what happens is that daily life is one thing, meditation is another. So if you are really serious about the practice meditation has to be a way of living. When you read the text that we are distributing today, the text which outlines the practice of awareness, you'll see that the Buddha is telling us to be mindful of most of the things that happen to us during the day.

You'll be surprised to read that the Buddha said that even when we are in the toilet, be mindful, be aware, and be conscious of what is happening in the toilet. I call this the toilet meditation! Sometimes when I visit some rich homes and when I go to their toilets I see lots of books, magazines and things like that in the toilet. So I would suggest that next time when you are in your toilet you'll experience such a difference if you can just be conscious, just be present while you are in the toilet.

Another very important aspect is eating. We work such a lot in order to eat, but do we really eat consciously? Is your awareness present while you are eating? Are you conscious of what you are tasting? Are you conscious of what you are chewing? Now chewing is a very important aspect. If you can make an effort to consciously chew your food you'll realise a difference when you are eating.

So when you consider all this you'll realise that meditation is related to ordinary things, not extraordinary things, not special things. Some people have the wrong idea that meditation is about having some special experience, some extraordinary experience. But when you consider some of the meditation techniques, they are ordinary things, simple things like being aware of the breath, being conscious of walking, being aware of eating. So meditation is doing the simple, practical, ordinary things in life consciously, and then these ordinary things become extraordinary. If you can learn to do these ordinary things with awareness, then you'll realise that even with ordinary things you can do them as if for the first time.

When you look at others can you see them as if you are seeing them for the first time? Can you relate to yourself as if you are relating to yourself for the first time, without past images, without past judgements about yourself and others? Can you see a tree or flower or Buddha image as if for the first time? Please try that and you'll find that the quality of seeing is so different, it becomes so alive, it becomes so fresh, it becomes so innocent.

There is a very important collection of sayings of the Buddha called The Dhammapada. In that book it is said that if you are not aware, if you are not mindful, if you are not awake, you are like people who are dead. So being like a dead person and being like a machine are much the same thing.

Explore Unpleasant Experiences

Another very important aspect of awareness is learning to explore, investigate with awareness our unpleasant experiences. There is a beautiful simile which I like in one of the Buddhist texts. It compares awareness to a surgeon who is about to operate. So the surgeon has to find out where to operate, where the wound is. To find that out, he has to investigate. So once he has investigated into what the problem is, then with the surgeon's knife he cuts it out, he heals it. So what the simile is saying is that with awareness we can find out, we can explore, we can investigate, we can discover the problem, and then with wisdom we can work with the problem that we have discovered.

In everyday life we have problems like anger, anxiety, fears, sadness, guilt - all of these things really create suffering for us. As with the surgeon's investigation, we can find out, we can learn, we can discover, we can explore, we can experiment with such problems. And then when you explore them you'll realise that you yourself are creating the problem. And when you see that you can use wisdom to free yourself from the problem. You can use wisdom to understand what is happening in your mind and body. Through this understanding you can bring about a change, or continue working with the problems, investigating them, exploring them. The unpleasant experience itself becomes an object of meditation.

So also please realise that meditation is not always about having pleasant, positive experiences. Actually unpleasant experiences do not create any problems for us unless we identify ourselves with them. The real challenge we have is learning how to work with these unpleasant experiences, how to work with physical pain, how to work with mental pain. This is much more important than simply experiencing pleasant, positive experiences.

I'll be giving a separate talk on emotions, so when I speak about them I might try to speak about emotions in this culture. What are the emotions that bother you? What are the emotions that create suffering for you? So I'll be presenting tools, presenting ways and means of working with these emotions using meditation.

I'm afraid I have to stop now. So I've touched on some important aspects of mindfulness and awareness. Like yesterday I would like to hear your questions, especially practical questions relating to your life.

Questions and Answers

Retreatant: When we notice an emotion arising, like anger, who exactly is observing this anger?

Godwin: This is the beautiful thing about this quality of awareness. With this quality of awareness we can know: Ah, now I am angry, and now I have fear, and now there is no fear. So this was the point I was trying to make. If you do not have awareness you don't know what is happening in your mind. And then by this knowing we can understand and develop wisdom and develop mastery over what is happening in our mind.

The question you want answered is about who is observing the anger. This itself is a very important area to inquire into. An inquiry like this can be a very powerful technique. When we are angry, when we have fear, when we have doubts, ask the question: who is experiencing this? And when you really inquire into it deeply you'll realise that there is no-one apart from what you are experiencing. Then you'll realise that these states of mind arise and pass away due to certain conditions; but we have a sense of ownership and say: this is my anger, my fear, my joy, my sadness. So this questioning: who? helps us to realise that there is no owner of the emotion, but just conditions arising and conditions passing away. This is the deepest aspect of the Buddha's teaching.

Retreatant: When we see our own children doing something wrong we get angry, but if we see other people's children doing something wrong we won't get angry, and the same applies to our wife or husband. So is it correct to say that we should get angry at everything wrong that we see, or what attitude should we take to handle the situation?

Godwin: Very good question. Because you realise that you are angry only when your child behaves in a particular way, or only when your wife behaves in a particular way, but others' children can behave in any way they like. You have had a very important realisation. And the important realisation is, as I said earlier, that the people with whom we identify ourselves, people whom we think we own, they should behave in one way and other people can behave in any other way. So we can even carry the point further. When your son becomes sick you become sad. When the neighbour's son becomes sick: no problem. When your mother dies, sadness. When your friend's mother dies, no problem. Aren't we funny?

So when you inquire into this: why am I doing this? - then you'll realise that you have this sense of ownership. This is mine, it belongs to me. And for what belongs to me only acceptable things should happen in regard to them; for others anything can happen, there is no problem! So the real practice, the really deep practice is: can we see everything as far as possible without a sense of ownership? Can we relate to suffering in whatever form it arises? It can be with your son, it can be with the neighbour's son, it can be with anyone. This is real loving-kindness.

I'll be speaking on loving-kindness later, and on that day we'll be distributing a very important book on loving-kindness. In that book it is said that the best way, the most noble way, is to be like a mother having affection towards her only child. If we can relate to everyone in this way, wouldn't that be a beautiful way to live? There is a beautiful phrase in this connection: boundless compassion, compassion which has no boundaries, which has no divisions.

Slowly, gently, gradually, this is what we have to develop, developing the qualities of the heart. I'll be speaking more about this when we are talking about loving-kindness, which is something I emphasise very much. As I said earlier, human beings now are losing these qualities of the heart. So it is very important for us to know this and make an effort to open our hearts to ourselves, to open our hearts to others.

Retreatant: During my meditation sometimes I get a little confused. It seems that I'm watching my thoughts or my own mind and am aware of what I'm thinking. Now can you tell us is this the right direction: should we watch with our mind what our mind is working on?

Godwin: As I said earlier, you can say it is mindfulness or awareness that helps us, or you can say it is the mind watching the mind; but what is important is not the particular way to understand it, but the practical watching, the practical observing, the practical mindfulness, that is more important than the theoretical question: is it the mind watching or is it the awareness watching? What is important is to develop this quality of alertness, of vigilance, of being awake, of knowing what is happening, this is what is important. So after the discussion we'll be trying to practise this.

Retreatant: You said earlier that we do things mechanically. I can observe that I am a machine, but I don't want to be a machine. For example, breakfast: I have the same breakfast every day and I know I'm like a machine. How can we not behave like a machine although we observe the fact that we are acting like a machine?

Godwin: I'm happy you have asked that question. It is a very important, practical question: how to start the day with breakfast? So I'll give some practical suggestions: how to relate to such a situation without being like a machine. I know with breakfast that you have very little time. But even with little time, please try tomorrow when you eat breakfast how far you can practise these things:

When you see the food on the table - it can be fruits, it can be bread, it can be anything - spend a few minutes just trying to see it as if for the first time. Look at the fruits and the bread very closely and note the different aspects of what you see at that time.

Another very beautiful practice in traditional Buddhist countries is before we eat to feel grateful for those who have prepared the meal, or to feel grateful that I'm able to eat my breakfast. There are people in this world who do not have any breakfast in the morning. So feel grateful. As you know, machines cannot feel grateful!

The third suggestion is please make an effort tomorrow when you eat your breakfast to take your time and consciously chew your food, eating very slowly and consciously. There is a saying among the Red Indian Americans that they drink their food, which means that they chew their food until it becomes liquid. And you'll realise that when you chew your food slowly and consciously you don't require so much food; this is a very important discovery you might make.

Another very important point the Buddha has told meditators about eating is to avoid two extremes. Do you know what the two extremes are? One extreme is eating too much, and the other extreme is eating too little. So how to know you are eating the right quantity? Very interesting question. How do we know it? By listening to the body while eating. If you are listening to music while you are eating, you'll not be able to listen to your stomach. I like this phrase very much: listening to your body, listening to yourself, listening to your thoughts, and listening to your emotions.

So if you can eat your breakfast in this way it's a wonderful beginning to the day, and then during the day you can have this kind of awareness as far as possible, maybe not the whole time, but to have moments of awareness. But if you can have moment-to-moment awareness, that is even more excellent. Then during the day, as I have said, you'll be living not as machines but as human beings.

One last suggestion is that at the end of the day it is a very good practice to take your mind backwards and find out how you spent the day. Find out the moments when you were conscious, when you were aware and the moments when you were like a machine. And just find out how many times you were angry, and also find out the times when you were not angry, this is very important. When you do this kind of reviewing sometimes you'll be surprised what a good person you have been. And this kind of reflection, this kind of reviewing can bring about a self-transformation in a very natural way because you learn to see more and more inwards rather than outwards.

So now we have to stop our discussion. Now what I would like to suggest is to take a small break and during this break you can go to the toilet, or you can do some walking or whatever, but as we did yesterday, and as we were discussing mindfulness, please find out in this break how far you can be conscious, how far you can be mindful of what is happening in your mind and body. To do this exercise you have to be completely silent. So with a silent mind, please make an effort to get an idea of what mindfulness is; and then when you come back I will give a guided meditation in the practice of mindfulness, so this would be a kind of preparation for the meditation. Thank you very much. I will ring the bell in a few minutes, then please come back. Continue to have this awareness, mindfulness.

Guided Meditation

To begin with, we try to feel happy. Feeling happy that you came here at 7:30 to listen to a talk and that now you are practising meditation. So let us spend some time now just feeling happy with ourselves, that we have this opportunity to learn to meditate.

Feeling happy that you are trying to develop this quality of mindfulness, awareness, of being awake. Let us now feel grateful that we have got this opportunity to meditate.

Feeling grateful is a very important spiritual quality that you may develop.

Can we feel grateful that we can sit completely still? And can you become conscious, aware that your body is sitting completely still, completely relaxed?

Let us now experience what it is to be in the present. Can you be with the peace and stillness in this room? Can you feel it now? Not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future but feeling the peace in this room now.

The past is gone, we cannot change the past. The future has yet to come. So let us experience the joy of the present moment.

If thoughts about the past and thoughts about the future arise in your mind, gently let go of them and come back to the present moment, the here and the now.

With awareness you are learning to let go of your thoughts, you are learning to control your thoughts, you are learning to develop mastery over your thoughts by learning to just let go of them, and then to come back to the present moment.

Just feeling, just knowing the stillness, the peace in this room.

Maybe it is so quiet you don't even hear any sounds.

Now please open your eyes consciously and mindfully. And as you change your posture, please do it slowly, consciously, and mindfully. Please do not think that the meditation is over.

Let us now do some chanting. The chanting can also be a meditation. Using the chant to experience the present moment. Also there will be some pauses between the chants: just feel the stillness, the space that the chanting creates in your mind.

So first there will be Pali chanting, and then there will be Chinese chanting.