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Godwin Samararatne
1: Awareness

Hurnse Gaper, Hurwenen, Holland (17th July, 1998)

In the Buddha's teaching awareness is very much emphasised. There is a text about meditation called the Satipatthana Sutta, which is a teaching about the development of mindfulness or awareness. The whole text is about the practice of awareness and the development of the Noble Eightfold Path, the path to free ourselves from suffering. Right mindfulness and right concentration play a very important part in the Noble Eightfold Path. This mindfulness or awareness is sometimes said to be the only way to achieve freedom.

Awareness helps us to recognise objects that come into our field of perception, and so with awareness we can see how perceptions arise in relation to the senses. In that process of interaction with the external world we see how perceptions give rise to concepts, and concepts give rise to our suffering and our problems. This is a very interesting process to watch.

When we see something, immediately our past associations arise, and from our past associations our likes, our dislikes, and our identifications arise: all our desires will arise, and our ego will arise, and similarly our prejudices and our biases arise. All these things arise, and this prevents us from seeing things just as they are, without distortion. This is a very important and interesting area to watch in relation to the working of perception.

Take food for example: it is very interesting to find out at what point we taste our food. In a way, it is when we first see the food; and then we start eating with all our past associations, with our likes and dislikes. Even before we start eating we have tasted our food mentally. This is an example of how perceptions give rise to concepts, or how our prejudices arise.

The same thing can happen in relation to hearing also. In Sri Lanka at the moment there is a lot of talk about bombs. When a Sri Lankan hears the sound of a cracker, immediately he or she can experience fear, associating that innocent sound with a bomb. Because of our senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and of course thinking) we create a world of our own. We distort things, and that prevents us from seeing things as they are.

We need awareness to really enjoy things. If we have awareness we can start enjoying even small things like a flower, a leaf, an ant, the sound of a bird drinking something. It can make such a difference if your awareness, your attention is there while you are seeing, tasting, hearing and so on. You might be able to see something as if for the first time. This is a beautiful quality one can develop with awareness. If you can see things as if for the first time you really become alive when that happens.

In one of the Buddhist texts, which is called the Dhammapada, there is a very interesting statement that says that if we don't have awareness we are like people who are dead. We can understand from this that awareness is the opposite of being dead; with this quality of awareness we become really alive, fresh and innocent.

For instance, we ordinarily see work as something that we are forced to do, but if you use awareness you can see work as an expression of loving-kindness. Then you learn to see work in an entirely different way, and rather than suffer as a result of the work we have to do we can really enjoy it.

When we are eating together, unless we are aware and present we don't feel the need to pass the butter or to help someone who needs something. It is only with awareness that we develop this kind of caring for people. To be present for other people, to forget yourself and to focus on others is related to loving-kindness. It only comes about when you are in the present moment, when you are aware of what is happening in any given situation.

Many things are happening in our mind and body. Only if we are aware do we realise what a lot of thoughts we have, what a lot of sensations we feel in our bodies. So many things are happening. Unless we are aware, unless we have space, it is as though we are living but we really don't know what is happening. We don't know what is happening externally and we don't know what is happening to ourselves internally.

The word that comes to my mind is that we are being mechanical. I think that with more and more mechanisation we are becoming more and more mechanical, machine-like, and automatic in the way we operate. Everything is functioning very well, but we do not know how it is functioning or why it is functioning.

Another aspect about being mechanical is that we don't have feelings, just as machines cannot feel. This is why I like to emphasise the need for sensitivity, to really be in touch with our feelings. Maybe we are losing the ability, the capacity to feel our bodies even, to be sensitive to them.

What we are suppressing, pushing away, denying, is most of the time something that we don't like, something that is unpleasant. When we push these things away we don't realise that we give them more power. And when they arise again, they will come in a much more powerful way.

In my opinion this is a very important aspect of awareness. It means that nothing is excluded, and this is very much related to meditation. We may think that meditation is only about having pleasant experiences, calm experiences, positive experiences. So we push away and don't experience the unpleasant and negative. This is why I often emphasise that meditation is also learning to work with physical pain, mental pain, and other unpleasant states. When these so-called negative experiences arise we should not give them a minus. We should not think of them as a disturbance or a distraction. Rather we should see it as a very good opportunity to work with them and to realise that we have these aspects in us. If we don't realise that we have them, how can we work with them or overcome them?

Sometimes I'm happy in a way that there are sounds coming from the kitchen while we are sitting in meditation. We really get an opportunity to work with the aversion that arises, with the reactions that arise, with the judgements that come up. We can then just acknowledge the fact that they are there.

Another important aspect of awareness is that it helps us to work with our behaviour. With awareness we can relate to others in a conscious way in certain situations. For example we can be aware of the noise we make with the opening and closing of a door. With all our actions we have to be aware and sensitive, so that we know how not to create a problem for someone else, how not to be a nuisance to others, and also how not to create any problems for ourselves. We will find that with increasing awareness our ethical behaviour, our moral behaviour, is regulated naturally. Indeed it is very important to learn and to reflect on our behaviour, our actions, especially in relationships. This kind of friendly reflection helps us to really understand ourselves, it leads to self-knowledge and self-understanding, and it helps create a kind of natural transformation in ourselves.

This reminds me of a Tibetan story. There once was a pious monk, a very good monk, who was living in a particular village. A very rich woman was living in that same area. She heard about this monk and she wanted to make a gift to him. She reflected a while on what she wanted to give and she decided to give him a beautiful golden bowl. So she ordered a golden bowl from the goldsmith of the village.

In this village there was also the local thief who heard that the rich woman had ordered this golden bowl for the monk. He waited till the bowl was ready and had been presented to the monk. Then the thief immediately went to the temple. The monk saw the robber coming into the temple and he went inside his room, took the bowl and threw it to the robber.

This robber happened to be a rather reflective and thoughtful thief, so he thought: "I waited all this time to steal this golden bowl and now this monk just throws it at me. I would like to undertsand more about this." So he went up to the monk and said:

"I don't understand your behaviour. Please tell me how are you able to let go of this beautiful golden bowl. I have been waiting for it all these days and I had a really strong desire for it. How can you do this?"

"Well", said the monk, "I am a meditator".

"Can I also learn to meditate?" the thief asked.

"Yes, you can", said the monk.

"And do I have to give up my profession?", asked the thief.

"No", the monk replied.

This troubled the thief even more and he said:

"I went to several spiritual teachers, they all said that I should stop my profession before I could take up a spiritual practice. You are the only one who says that I can combine the practice of meditation with my profession. Please tell me more about your meditation, I am very keen to practise". So the monk said:

"You have to be aware before you do something, be mindful when you do it, and be conscious of what you have done".

The thief thought this was very simple and began his practice. After some weeks he thought: "It is time for me to practise my profession". He went to a house and wanted to break into the house. But he thought of the monk's words that he should be mindful of what he was doing. Then for the first time he understood clearly his intended action, and, as the story goes, he could not proceed. Later he went to the monk and said that he wanted to give up his profession and that he wanted to take up meditation in a more serious way. So we can see from this story how mindfulness can lead to moral behaviour.

Another very important aspect of meditation is that we can investigate and explore any experience we have. If you develop this attitude, this perspective of finding out and exploring anything we meet, whatever the experience is, even very unpleasant experiences become an object of meditation. Then we can see the Dhamma in everything. I think this is a beautiful way to live: wanting to learn and to find out about whatever we meet.

This is the way to interact with emotions, and like this we can learn to really investigate the different aspects of our emotions. Take anger, for example: you ask the question: "Why do I become angry?" You just explore that issue and learn to reflect on it, and then you will see what is happening inside you, rather then what is happening outside of you. Or take fear: when fear arises you learn from fear by asking: "Why do I call this fear? What really happens when there is fear? What happens in my body when there is fear?" Learning, exploring, discovering - in this way any experience, any situation, any problem you have gives you the opportunity to ask the question: "What can I learn from this?"

These are some aspects of awareness that can help us in meditation and in our spiritual life.