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The Gentle Way of Buddhist Meditation
Dhamma Talks by Godwin Samararatne
Hongkong, 1997

Day 2: 7th October 1997

Importance of awareness



I like to welcome you once again. Like yesterday, I'll be giving a talk and then after that, a discussion, then we'll be meditating and then ending with some chanting.

The subject of today's talk as you know is "The importance of the practice of mindfulness", which is something very 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 really deals with the practice of mindfulness. It is also very nice to see some of you meditating.

Absence of Mindfulness or Awareness: We Become Machines

Yesterday I suggested you make an effort to do some practice of mindfulness today, so that what I'm going to say will make some sense in your experience. If we do not practise mindfulness or awareness, what will happen to us is we become more and more like machines. We will be doing things mechanically, habitually, repetitively and automatically. I think in this modern world there are lots of technology and machines, so that I think in a way human beings are being more and more machine like, automatic. So by doing this we are forgetting the reality, the art of living. And what is very unfortunate is when human beings are becoming more and more like machines, they are also losing the importance of feelings. So when human beings don't feel the very important aspect of feelings in them, then they cannot feel love for oneself, they cannot feel love for others, they cannot feel warmth for oneself, warmth for others. Perhaps let me explain why there is such a lot of violence in the modern world. So we become more and more violent to ourselves and more and more violent towards others, all these are related in a way to the absence of awareness, to the absence of knowing what is 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". In a way it is funny to think that most of the time during the day we either live in the past about what has happened or we live in the future on what is going to happen. The past and the future are not real but 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 can be present here, you may even see me but mentally you can be completely elsewhere. So to be completely present, to know what I'm saying, you have to be here and now and being 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 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 in us, the quality of living becomes so different. Now please realize that being in the present doesn't mean that we don't have to use what we consider as the past and the future. Sometimes we have to plan about the future. If you did not plan about the future, you couldn't have been present here. And if you forget the past, you'll not be able to go back to your home. So again what is important for us to realize is that 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 anxiety in relation to the future. So here again with awareness, we need to understand how we use the past and the future consciously and deliberately, and then at other times being present in the here and now.

Use Awareness in Everyday Life

Related to that is something which I'm going to emphasize very much and I consider very important. It is to use awareness in everyday life. Even small things like brushing our teeth, combing our hair, drinking, eating. As I said earlier, we have been so used to doing these things 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 emphasize in our centre is: how to integrate daily life, how to integrate your ordinary life with meditation. Otherwise what happens is that life is one thing, meditation is another. So if you are really serious about the practice, as I said, meditation has to be a way of living. So when you read the text that we are distributing today and the text which mentions the practice of awareness, you'll see the Buddha 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 says even when we are in the toilet, be mindful, be aware, 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 see 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 do such a lot for the purpose of eating 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 very important aspect. If you can make an effort to consciously chew our food, you'll realize a difference when you are eating. So when you consider this, you'll realize that meditation is related to ordinary things, not extraordinary things, not special things. Some have the wrong idea that meditation is 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 simple, practical, ordinary things in life which we do consciously and then these ordinary things become extraordinary. If you can learn to do these ordinary things, then you'll realize that even for ordinary things you can do as if for the first time. Then you see others. Can you see them as if you are seeing for the first time? Can you relate to yourself as if you are relating to yourself as if for the first time without our past images, without our past judgments about ourselves and others? Can you see a tree or flowers or Buddha image as if for the first time? Please try that and you'll see 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 book. It is called "The Dhammapada". And in "The Dhammapada" 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 the same.

Explore & Investigate Unpleasant Experience

Another very important aspect of awareness is learning to explore, investigate with awareness our unpleasant experience. There is a beautiful simile which I like in one of the Buddhist texts. It compares the doctor who is a surgeon and is trying to operate. So the doctor has to find out where he has to operate, where the wound is. So to find out, he has to use an instrument. So once with this instrument he finds out what the problem is, then with the surgeon's knife, he cuts it off, he heals it, he cures it. So what the simile is saying is that with awareness we can find out, we can explore, we can investigate, we can discover and with wisdom, we can work with the problem that we discovered. So in everyday life, we have problems like anger, anxiety, fears, sadness, guilt, so all these things really create suffering for us. Like the surgeon's instrument, we can find out, we can learn, we can discover, we can explore, we can experiment with them. And then when you explore you'll realize that you are creating the problem, and then when you see that, you can use wisdom to free yourself from that. You can use wisdom to understand what is happening in our mind and body. So through this understanding, we can bring about a change or even working with them, investigating them, exploring them. That unpleasant experience itself becomes an object of meditation. So please realize that meditation is not always having pleasant, positive experiences. Actually unpleasant experiences do not create any problems for us unless we of course identify ourselves with them. But the real challenge we have is also 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 just experiencing pleasant positive experiences. I'll be giving a separate talk on emotions so when I speak on emotions I might try to relate, speaking 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 tools 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 questions, specially practical questions relating to your life.


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

Godwin: This is the beautiful thing, quality of awareness. So 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 then develop wisdom and then develop mastery over what is happening in our mind.

The question you want to know is who is observing the anger. This itself is a very important area to inquire. Thing 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 realize that there is no "who" apart from what you are experiencing. Then you'll realize 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 question on "who" helps us to realize that there is no owner but just conditions arising and conditions passing away. This is the deepest aspect of the Buddha's teaching.

Audience: When we see our own children doing something wrong we will 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 spouse. So is it correct to say that we should get angry with everything we see or what attitude should we take to handle the situation?

Godwin: Very good question. Because you realize 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. You have a very important realization. And the important realization is as I said earlier, people with whom we identify ourselves with, people whom we think we own, they should behave in one way, other people can behave in any other ways. 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 realize that we have this sense of ownership. This is mine. It belongs to me. And for what belong to me, only things expected by us should happen to them, for others, there is no problem. So the real practice again, the real deep practice is: can we see everything as far as possible without the 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 and on that day, we'll be distributing a very important book on loving kindness and in that book it is said that the best way, the most noble way is like a mother having affection to her only child. If we can relate to every one in this way, isn't that a beautiful way to live? There is a beautiful phrase in this connection: boundless compassion, compassion which has no boundary, which has no division. So 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 emphasize very much. As I said earlier, human beings now are losing these qualities of the heart. So it is very important for us to at least to know this and make an effort to open our hearts to ourselves, to open our hearts to others.

Audience: During my meditation sometimes I get a little confused. It seems that I'm watching my thoughts or my own mind and be aware of what I'm thinking. Now can you tell us is this the right direction: to 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 way to understand 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? But 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.

Audience: 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 my friend Peter has asked that question. A very 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 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 see 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 at least to feel grateful that I'm able to eat my breakfast. There are people in this world who do not have breakfast early in the morning. So to feel grateful. As you know, machines cannot feel grateful.

The third suggestion is, as I said earlier, please feel the difference, make an effort tomorrow when you eat your breakfast, take your time and try to 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 realize that when you chew your food slowly and consciously, you don't require much food, this is a very important discovery you might make.

Another very important point the Buddha had 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, listening to your emotions. So if you can eat your breakfast in this way, it's a wonderful beginning of the day and then during the day you can have this kind of awareness as far as possible, not the whole time, not to have moment to moment of awareness. But if you can have moment to moment awareness, it is excellent. Then during the day, as I have said, you'll be living not as machines but as human beings.

One last suggestion is 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 are conscious, when you are aware and the moments when you were like a machine. And just find out how many times you got angry and also find out the times when you are not angry, this is very important. So 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, you can do some walking 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 try to 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.


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

Feeling happy that you are trying to develop this quality of mindfulness, awareness, of being awake.

Try to feel that happiness in the area of your heart. 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 experiencing what it is to be in the present. So 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.

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

So 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 let go of them and then come back to the present moment.

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

Maybe you don't even hear any sound.

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

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

So firstly there'll be Pali chant and then there'll be Chinese chant.


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