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Godwin Samararatne
Introduction to Meditation

Talks in Hong Kong - Day 6, 11th October 1997

Meditation and Emotions


Godwin: I would like to once again welcome you. The subject of today's talk is emotions. What may be described as unpleasant emotions which create our suffering. We can consider some such emotions: anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and feelings of guilt, jealousy. I think everyone here can relate to these emotions. I think no one here has not really experienced them. And I think everywhere in the world people go through these emotions that I mentioned.

It is actually these emotions which create our suffering, which create conflict in us. So it is very important to find out how meditation helps us to work with these emotions. So I hope to present some tools for you to work with them. Some of these tools you might have heard me mentioning before.

Be Open to Unpleasant Emotions

So what is the first tool? The first tool is very difficult in a way, as I have said a few times before: it is learning to be open to these unpleasant emotions. It is a very strong conditioning not to like them, to hate them, to dislike them and so on, because they are unpleasant when we experience them. So it is very important to learn to be open to them, to learn to be friendly towards them. We have to learn to do this gradually, gently, tenderly in our practice.

Learning About Emotions

The next tool is learning to explore, investigate, discover, and make an effort to learn about these emotions. Because we don't like them, because we hate them, we never make an effort to learn about them, to discover about them. We can learn a great deal about these emotions. One thing that we can learn is to see the connection between thoughts and emotions. So we see how emotions are created, and when we understand and see how emotions are created to a great extent we can work with them, handle them. And when we are prepared to learn about them, discover about them, then we learn to be open to them.

Invite Unpleasant Emotions

Another interesting tool related to this is that when we don't have these emotions we can invite them and allow them to come. It is very interesting that when we invite them they don't come. Because when we fear them, when we don't like them, we give them more power and more energy. So when we are open, when we invite them, the power and energy we have given is taken away. Maybe today when we are meditating we will invite the monsters that we don't like.

Absence of Unpleasant Emotions

Another very important tool is that when these unpleasant emotions are not there, to know that they are not there. When we don't like them what happens is we are afraid of them, and by being afraid of them, when they are absent we hardly know that they are absent. So by knowing when they are absent we learn to be more and more positive.

To give a practical example, when we have a toothache we really suffer from the toothache, but when we don't have a toothache do we ever say: Wow! I don't have a toothache today? Even when we don't have a toothache we think maybe it will come tomorrow! So it is too good to believe that the monsters can be absent. So I would like to emphasise this tool very much, that when these unpleasant emotions are not there just to know that they are not there. Maybe now you are not having these unpleasant emotions, so please know that they are not there now.

Unpleasant Emotions Don't Belong to Us

Another very deep tool is to realise that these emotions don't really belong to us. We have a sense of ownership even with these emotions. So when there is anger you think it is my anger. When there is fear you think it is my fear. As you know, what we think of as mine, what we think we own, we don't like to let go of.

This point is presented in the Dhamma in a very interesting way, which is learning to relate to these emotions as our visitors, as our guests. So we have to be a very friendly, good host and then we can really learn from the visitors who come. We should realise that these visitors come and they stay and they go away. So when they come we must say: Welcome, please come, it's nice to have you here, how long will you be staying? It will be interesting to see how long you are going to stay. And when they leave you say: Goodbye, you're welcome to come again. Isn't it a beautiful way of relating to our visitors? So there is a kind of playfulness, light-heartedness, joy, if you can relate to these emotions in this way.

Experience Emotions without Words

Maybe one more tool is that when we experience these emotions we have given them labels. Sometimes we are conditioned by the labels themselves. So a very interesting tool is when these emotions come, to relate to them, to experience them without the label. Take away the label and see what you are actually experiencing. So that by giving a label we relate to it from the past, but when we take away the label we are really experiencing it from moment-to-moment. We are really being present with the emotion.

Summary of Tools

So let me go over the tools that I presented. The first one is learning to be open to these unpleasant emotions. The next one is to make an effort to learn about them, to experiment about them. Another tool is that when they are not there, to invite them. Another is that when they are absent just to know that they are absent. Another is to relate to them without a sense of ownership, just to see them as visitors who come and go. And another is to take away the label and really see what actually you are experiencing.

Develop Self-confidence

Now what is important is that when you have discovered these tools and when you know that they work you develop a lot of self-confidence about handling these emotions. The biggest problem is that we don't have self-confidence, and when we don't have self-confidence in a way we are already defeated, we have already become victims. So when you have self-confidence then you become open to them, then you come to a stage where whether these emotions are there or not there makes no difference.

See Emotions Just as They Are

Now what happens is that when we have pleasant states of mind, pleasant emotions, we like them, we give them a big plus. And then we try to hold onto them, and when we cannot succeed then again there is suffering. And when there are unpleasant emotions, as I said, we don't like them, so we give them a minus. So can we relate to these states of mind without a plus, without a minus, just learning to see them just as they are?

Now if you have any questions please ask them, especially practical questions relating to the tools and maybe your own experience in working with them.

Questions and Answers

Retreatant: When there is an emotion which appears in the mind there is generally not much problem, we can deal with it with the tools that you have just told us about. However, if there are big wounds in our heart, when these wounds come out, when great emotions develop, then naturally we react to them and we become nervous and sad. So are there any other tools we can make use of in order to deal with this sort of big emotion as opposed to general emotions?

Godwin: Can you give an example of what you have in mind?

Retreatant: It could be wounds which hurt many years ago or many lifetimes ago. It's just like a rat being pricked by needles.

Godwin: Yes. When I spoke about loving-kindness yesterday I spent lot of time telling you how to heal these wounds. So I don't like to repeat that but just to remind you that when you have these wounds, if it is wounds in relation to what you have done to others it is just learning to forgive yourself, accepting your humanness, accepting your imperfections. And if it is wounds in relation to what others have done to you it is forgiving them by realising their humanness, their imperfections.

Anything else please?

Retreatant: Recently something happened to me and I watched my own emotions and it was very funny. It was like some very cold water running through my heart, and it was a very big disappointment at the time, but after observing that I revived quickly. And my question is whether it is true that emotions have more to do with the heart, and thoughts have more to do with the brain?

Godwin: I think it doesn't matter whether it's in the brain or the heart. These are theoretical questions. We have to be very simple. In using the tools we have to have a very simple, practical, direct approach. This is the beauty of the Buddha's teaching. I would like to repeat these words, it is very simple, very practical, and it is very direct.

Anything else please?

Retreatant: You said earlier that we should not give labels to emotions. So how do we observe the emotions?

Godwin: Very good, practical question. I like such questions. Suppose you are experiencing boredom. So you take away the word boredom and find out what you are actually experiencing. Is it a sensation that you are calling boredom? Is it a particular thought that you are considering as boredom? Is it a particular feeling which you have categorised as boredom? So when we can explore like this boredom can become very interesting.

Retreatant: Master, my question is: all human beings have many bad habits like gambling, womanising, drinking, smoking. How do we handle these bad habits?

Godwin: Very interesting list. Actually, one of the aspects of meditation is working with habits. What has happened to us is that we have become dependent on these habits. So what happens is that we respond to these habits in a very mechanical way. The urge comes and then we just give in to it. So one suggestion I would like to offer - again this is very important in the practice of awareness - is just to know when these habits arise, to be conscious of them, to be aware of them so at least we can work with the mechanical aspect of these habits.

The second suggestion I would like to offer is to see for yourself how it creates suffering for yourself and how it can create suffering for others; and ask yourself, does it give you joy, lightness and positive spiritual qualities?

The third suggestion is that when you are not experiencing these things, when you have not given in to these habits, just to see the difference when they are absent from your mind. Then you see in your own experience what it does to you when they are present and what it does to you when they are absent. So then they will naturally drop away on their own.

And as I said earlier, it is also very important to develop self-confidence: I know I have these habits but let me make a real effort to work with them. To make a real commitment, dedication, devotion to work with these habits can be something very useful.

And maybe the last suggestion is: it is helpful to associate with spiritual friends, noble friends. It is helpful to share your experiences with them and they can be also very supportive on the spiritual path you are following.

One last thought is: please don't feel guilty, don't feel bad, don't consider yourself as a sinner because you are doing these things. Don't see them as problems but see them as a challenge that you need to work with.

Retreatant: We shouldn't put labels to our emotions, but if I have anger and I put it down how am I supposed to observe it? If I do not have the emotion how can I observe it?

Godwin: Supposing we are working with anger. I think anger is a common emotion that we can all relate to. So then when we don't have anger, just to know: Ah, I don't have anger now. You can take your mind backwards and see that the whole of this morning I did not get angry. At the end of the day you might say: Oh, today, the whole day I was free of anger. You'll be surprised what a good person you have been and then you'll feel more and more positive about this.

Retreatant: With such emotions it's never too late to want revenge. Sometimes you can put it down and forgive but it arises again, so what can you do about it?

Godwin: Good question. Because again we can relate to such an experience. So I would like to offer some suggestions how to work with such situations. The first suggestion is: don't be surprised. This is the way with emotions, sometimes they don't come, and then sometimes they come. So when they come, please don't be surprised. When emotions go we come to the conclusion: now it is all over. So the problems is with our conclusion that they should not come again.

The second suggestion is when they arise to be aware of them and to use different tools but without giving yourself a minus. This is what is important.

But arising from that question I would like to emphasise something very important, which is that we should not, as I said, come to the conclusion that I will not be having these emotions again, but rather when they come see if you can feel grateful for them, see if you can see them as an opportunity, if you can learn from them. Then, as I said earlier, you come to a state where whether they come or whether they don't come makes no difference. So that is what we should try to aim at rather than reach this conclusion: now they are over.

According to the Buddhist teachings, these things completely stop only when we have become enlightened. So as I said yesterday, we are trying to be enlightened people even before we are enlightened! This brings up a point that I have been emphasising very much in my talks: learning to accept our humanness, learning to accept our imperfections. It is very important in our practice.

No more questions? Are all your questions and problems solved?

Retreatant: I want to know how to deal with sadness. Sometimes one just can't let it go because you can even feel it in dreams, particularly when relatives pass away.

Godwin: I don't want to go over the tools again. I would like to repeat that whether it is sadness, whether it is fear, whether it is anxiety, whether it is guilt, it is the same medicine. So about dreams, it shows that the sadness has become fairly deep that it even comes up in a dream. But please remember, please be open to the days when you don't dream about sadness. When the sadness is not there, just to be aware that the sadness is not there.

There might be two types of sadness. One type of sadness is in relation to a particular incident. There may be another type of sadness which is not related to an incident, but you just generally feel sadness. So if it is related to a particular incident, that incident should become an object of meditation. To see clearly that that incident has been created by your expectations of how things should have been.

And if it is just sadness that comes without a reason, what you might try to do is to feel the sensations in the body while you are experiencing the sadness, because with sadness sometimes our thoughts can make it worse. So if you can be with the sensations, this may be helpful.

Another tool, as I have been mentioning a few times, is to come back to your breath because it is happening now. It is interesting that all sadness is in relation to the past. Sadness is in relation to the past and anxiety is in relation to the future. So making a connection with your breath and learning to be in the present helps us to handle the past and the future. By doing that we learn to handle these emotions which are always related to the past and the future. And in conclusion I would like to again mention one of the tools that I referred to earlier: when sadness is not there try to invite sadness and you might find that it will not come.

Time for one last question.

Retreatant: Your advice is that we should not label emotions with words, and you have already told us that if there is no anger, just to know there is no anger. But when we say there is no anger we are putting words to describe a certain experience, so isn't that contradictory?

Godwin: Very good question. I like that question. So if you consider the tools, you'll see that sometimes we need to use words, sometimes we don't have to use words. This is why there are a variety of tools, so if one doesn't work you can experiment with the others. What is important is that you have to find out which tools are really helping you. So once you discover the tools that are helping you, you have to use them.

It's interesting that these tools are related to each person individually. We human beings have different conditionings, different personalities. This is why I have been trying to present tools which can cover all types of human beings. So the last point I want to make is that it is very important in the spiritual path, in meditation, for you to experiment, for you to find out for yourself. The Buddha emphasised this very much, to be self-reliant, to be your own teacher, to be a light to yourself.

So now let us take a short break and during the break I would like to suggest that you reflect on some of the tools that I have mentioned and then discover for yourself what emotions are bothering you. It is very important to learn to reflect on such themes. Reflection is thinking about a particular theme, and when you think about it, if other thoughts come you should learn to let go of them and come back to the theme that you are really reflecting on. So I would like you to do this. It doesn't matter whether you are walking or sitting or whatever you are doing, just to learn to develop this important meditation of reflecting. And when you hear the bell please come back.


Guided Meditation

So let us do a meditation relating to what we have been discussing. Those who have problems with unpleasant emotions, please allow them to arise now.

So if these emotions that we don't like arise, let us see how far we can make friends with them.

Let us see how far we can just allow them, just let them be. Just to relate to them as a visitor who has come.

And if you don't have any unpleasant emotions, just to know that you don't have any unpleasant emotions.

Can we learn to relate to them without giving them a minus?

Can you really say to yourself, it is okay not to feel okay?

Can you feel grateful that this emotion is there so that you can learn to work with it?

Can you now have the self-confidence that if these emotions come again you know how to work with them, you know how to handle them?

Now please open your eyes.

[End of meditation]

We can do some nice chanting now.

Actually chanting is also a very powerful tool to work with emotions, especially if you can be completely in the present while you are chanting. Please see for yourself how chanting will help you. It will help you to create space in your mind.