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Godwin Samararatne
5: Thinking

Hurnse Gaper, Hurwenen, Holland (21st July, 1998)

An interesting question to reflect upon is whether suffering can arise without a thought. Most of our problems are related to thoughts, the way we use our thoughts.

Thoughts often arise involuntarily, mechanically and habitually. What is happening, if we observe our thoughts, is that they just come up. They pop up just like that. They arise because of our habits and our conditioning. After they have arisen we get hold of them. A self-destructive person will give himself minuses, or remember the minuses that other people have given him, in a mechanical way. Someone with a self-destructive aspect may occasionally have a positive thought that comes up, but because of their habits they let it go, or just ignore it. But they hold on to their negative thoughts. It is really funny to see what we do with our thinking.

There is another thing we do with our thoughts: we create stories. We then give reality to the story that we have created, and even though the story is not real, we become a victim of the reality that we have created ourselves. This is really a destructive and dangerous mechanism. These stories can give rise to uncertainty, insecurity, anger, guilt, and so on. I think that all our so-called monsters can arise thanks to the stories we create. This is a clear example of how we create our own suffering without realising it.

This shows the importance of awareness. If you analyse the different meditation techniques, you'll see that most of them are an attempt to be with something factual. Maybe it's being with the breath, being with the sensations in the body, or being with the sounds that are around. It is an attempt to distinguish reality from unreality.

What is also interesting is that we can become so dogmatic about our beliefs. Yet most of our beliefs may be the result of such stories, the stories we have made up. When somebody comes and tells us that our stories are nonsense we become angry with that person. We don't like it when our reality is challenged. This is how we hold onto beliefs, this is how we become dogmatic. Unfortunately it is impossible for us to really communicate with each other when we hold on so strongly to our beliefs. After a while our made-up stories develop into a fantasy, a kind of a daydream that we are trapped in. You can ask yourself what is the difference between a dream at night and a daydream. Actually there is no difference: it is only when we wake up that we realise: "Ah, I was dreaming".

The wonderful thing about the breath is that it is something factual. It is something objective. You can't create a story out of it. You can't fantasise about the breath. It is a very clear situation where we can really draw the distinction.

I work with people who have psychological problems or psychiatric complications. Sometimes I use two techniques to help them to see what is real and what is unreal. One is focusing on the breath, and sometimes when people have difficulties with the breath, I use focusing on the sensations in the body. For this I use what is called the sweeping technique. Mentally you sweep the body from your head down to your feet and then up again. I get them to feel the body: the sensations and the movements in the body. Then when the fantasies or the paranoid thoughts come, I ask them just to let go of them and to come back and rest in the reality of the present moment. It is a very clear distinction.

Another aspect concerning thoughts is that when thoughts come we start judging them. You immediately give a minus to what you consider as a negative thought. By doing this you control and push away the thought. With the technique of just observing the thought you learn to be open to thoughts; you learn just to know that you are judging when you are judging. When by such observation the judgements become less strong, you start creating space for any thought to arise and for any thought to pass away. Then the power of thoughts becomes less.

In the Tibetan tradition they put it so well. They tell you to have a mind like the spacious sky and to let the thoughts be like clouds: the clouds do not affect the sky, the sky does not affect the clouds. In our practice we can try to be like this. Allow any thought to arise without judging it. I am putting it in a very simple way. I know judging is a very strong conditioning that we need to work with, but this is what the practice is: not reacting to thoughts when they come. In the same way that they come, they will go again when you are having this spacious abiding in a non-reactive mind.

This technique can be seen as developing a mind like a mirror, just reflecting things as they are. This simile, the mirror-like mind, I have come across in many spiritual traditions. When something that is considered beautiful comes before a mirror, it is reflected just as it is, and the same thing happens with something that is considered ugly. Applying this to our everyday lives, when a positive emotion comes we just allow that positive emotion to be there as it is. When joy is there, just be with the joy. And when monsters come, just reflect the monster as it is. Sadness, just the sadness; fear, just the fear. Just reflecting it as it is. No plus to the joy, no minus to the sadness, both simply reflected as they are.

In everyday life we may be able to do this. If you are reacting to your emotions, you can explore and investigate your reactions. It does not matter if you react. This is one aspect of what can be described as having a mirror- like mind.

Another aspect of a mirror-like mind is that it always functions in the present. A mirror cannot reflect something that is going to happen in the future; it cannot reflect something that has happened in the past. The question arises, is it possible always to be in the present in everyday life? So what does it mean to be in the present? We need to clarify this. Experiencing the present moment is like seeing the candle in front of you now, hearing the cough now, being aware of the breath and the sensations in the body now. But in everyday life we need to use the past and the future. This is a real challenge we have: how to use the past and the future, and still reflect them just as they are.

If you completely let go of your past you will not be able to go back to your homes: this shows that we need to use the past. If you don't think about the future, if you don't plan, you would not have been able to come here. When we think about the past, when we are recalling, and when we are anticipating the future, we are doing it now. We must realise that when we are thinking about the past, and when we are thinking about the future, we are always doing it in the present moment. The only thing is that we give a reality to the past it doesn't have. We don't realise it cannot be changed and we allow the past to create negative emotions and suffering for us. This is also how anxiety about the future can arise. The future has not come yet, but while in the present we think certain things will happen. In this simile of a mirror-like mind all this thinking about the future and about the past is happening now.

Another aspect of the mirror-like mind is that a mirror-like mind does not retain anything. What happens to us is that we identify ourselves with our experiences. We hold on to what has happened. This is how wounds are created and through our memory these wounds come up to affect us.

There is a very well known Zen story that shows very clearly the process of holding onto these experiences. Two Zen monks were walking together, and they came to a place where there was a stream. There was also a girl there who could not cross the stream by herself. One of the monks lifted up this girl and carried her across the stream. Then he placed her down and they continued on their walk.

The following day the other monk said: "You know, you should not have touched that girl, you should not have carried her across the stream. We are monks and we are not supposed to do that." Then the other monk responded: "I left her on the other shore, but you are still carrying her!" This is what we are doing, we are carrying things we should have put down, so it is very interesting for us to know what we are carrying.

We all have selective memories. If someone has a very strong self-destructive aspect he or she will be carrying only the minuses, only the failures. Only the wrong things others have done. It is natural, as we are human, that some of our past experiences have had a deep effect, so unlike the mirror we hold on to them and do not let them go.

We have to learn to let go of things that we are holding onto, that arise from our memories. When they arise from our memory we start judging them, especially by giving minuses, and then we push them away. In the technique of the mirror-like mind we are there with all these things, allowing anything we are holding onto in our memory to come up. We are just being a passive observer, allowing these things to come and allowing them to go. Things that arise can be in the form of emotions, they can be in the form of memories, they can even be sensations in the body. We don't realise what we carry in our body, but we carry all our past experiences in our body. Tensions and unpleasant sensations sometimes are related to repressed emotions. When pain and unpleasant sensations arise in the body, just like the mirror you learn to observe them, just to create space for them, just to make friends with them.

Yet another aspect of the mirror-like mind is that there is no difference between what is reflected in the mirror and the mirror itself: there is no duality. There is no thinker apart from the thoughts; there is no hearer apart from the hearing, there is only hearing. With this meditation technique you can have a glimpse of the fact that there is only the hearing, not the idea that 'I am hearing'; that there is only the thinking, and that there is no thinker apart from the thoughts that are arising and passing away; that there is only the feeling and that there is no-one feeling.

It is like an orchestra, with the sounds, the thoughts, the emotions, the sensations; but the difference is there is no conductor. It is the conductor, the controller, who directs, who wants, who judges. When the conductor is absent there is only the orchestra; there is only the thought, there is only the sound, there is only the feeling.

It sounds very simple, but this is what the model is, and this meditation technique I find is very powerful, it has a lot of very profound and deep aspects. What I like in it is that you can really practice it in your everyday life. With certain meditation techniques you have to close your eyes or you have to sit in a particular posture. For this meditation you don't have to close your eyes and you don't have to sit in a particular posture. In any situation it is just having the awareness to know what is happening in your body and mind.