We have to be clear in our minds about our priorities in life. What is the most important priority you have in life? And then you have to find out, if you have a list of priorities, where meditation fits in that list. If the commitment for meditation is amongst the first few priorities, ranking maybe first, second or third among those priorities, then that in itself will look after meditation. This is because if you know clearly your commitment to it, then you will never say: I do not have time for meditation.
Here what might be helpful is to find out whether you really like meditation, whether you find it interesting, whether you can develop a curiosity about it, and whether you have clearly developed a taste for it. Otherwise how can you have a commitment to meditation, be motivated towards it, if you find that it is such a big battle, very unpleasant and requiring a great effort when you are practising?
In a way we need to have images, even to have expectations. What is important for us to realise is in what ways we are using them destructively.
So that if we don’t have these qualities in us, if instead of loving-kindness we have hatred, hatred towards ourselves, hatred towards others, then it is very important to bring about a shift within ourselves by learning to be our best friend, learning to be a friend to others. In this way it is no harm having an image: I want to be a person who is friendly and tries to practise. Or you can still practise without an image but just developing these qualities and allow your behaviour to emerge from that.
So one can really practise at two levels: if you like to have an image, you can have it, but otherwise you can just practise without an image and allow your behaviour to arise from whatever spiritual qualities you have developed. What is important is to see whether that image corresponds to reality. This is what we have to work with. Images create problems sometimes if the images are unrealistic. When you have an image of how things should be and then what happens in reality is another thing, this is how suffering is created.
Thoughts can also have a positive use, one can use them creatively. How can we use them creatively? It is by using thought to reflect, to contemplate, to analyse. So this is a very important exercise, a very important meditation for us to develop, using thoughts to reflect. We should constantly reflect on our behaviour: How am I behaving? Is my behaviour creating suffering for myself, or creating suffering for others? Especially it is very important for us to see for ourselves how we create our own suffering. Then we realise that only we ourselves can bring about a change; then we take responsibility for our suffering and we can change that situation.
We often say we have certain worries, we have certain problems: what happens to that worry, what happens to that problem when your thoughts are with something else? The problem may not be solved but still at that moment it is not a source of suffering. If someone close to us is sick then whenever we think about that person, that is creating the suffering, that is creating the worry, but when our thoughts are with something else that person would still be having that illness but it is not a source of suffering for us. So it shows how thinking, thoughts, are really directly related to our suffering.
Another aspect of thought is that we have a very strong conditioning to identify ourselves with them and say: These are my thoughts. I am thinking. Again without realising it, it is the thoughts that have created the thinker. This is why I have been suggesting just to see thoughts as thoughts without an owner, without the idea that these are my thoughts but just thoughts arising and passing away.
It is funny how we have this idea of ownership. We start owning everything: thoughts, emotions, sensations, persons, possessions. And when we start owning things we don’t like to let go of the things we own. This is why we find it difficult to let go of emotions because we think this is my anger, my fear, my anxiety, my sadness; so whatever we consider mine we don’t want to let go. This is the deeper aspect of the Dhamma, to indicate to us actually there is no owner. There are just thoughts, there are just sensations, there are just emotions.
It is this sense of ownership which is creating our suffering. Nothing should happen to my mother – anything can happen to other people’s mothers. Nothing should happen to my body, but other people’s bodies – there’s no problem whatsoever. And then in the same way we have this identification with possessions: my cup, it should stay with me; but other cups, there is no problem. We even draw the same distinction about animals. This is my cat; this is the neighbour’s cat. So the neighbour’s cat should not come and attack my cat. How can the neighbour’s cat do that? So it is an interesting question to reflect on: what happens at the time of death to all the things we think we own? If we really own them we should be able to take them with us even after death, but we can’t.
These are really very deep, profound aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. To see the connection between our sense of ownership, with the sense of I and me, and how that is creating suffering. So these are some areas, some aspects that we can find out about for ourselves in the practice of meditation in everyday life.
If we can learn to have a very spacious mind, allowing these thoughts and emotions to come and go, allowing sensations to arise and pass away, and we are in that spaciousness, not reacting to anything then at that moment there is freedom.
In the Tibetan tradition they use a very nice simile. They compare the mind to a spacious sky and the thoughts to clouds. The clouds do not affect the sky, the sky does not affect the clouds. So this shows that it is important to have that spaciousness, that spacious mind, allowing anything to arise and pass away.
Another interesting aspect is how we create stories out of our thoughts and we don’t realise that we create the stories but we become victims of the stories that we create ourselves. Sometimes the stories can even become films, movies in our own mind from what has happened in the past and about what is going to happen in the future. We are sometimes creating very destructive films, movies, and we are the director, we are the producer, we are the actor, and we are the victim, all in that drama. I will give an example of what such a story is and how the story can become a kind of reality at that moment.
This is a story from the Buddhist literature. So there was a young monk who wanted to give up his robes. He hadn’t told his chief monk about his plans but one day the chief monk was having a headache, so he told this young monk to give him a massage, to rub some oil on his head. So while massaging his head the young monk was thinking: Now, maybe in a month or two I will be giving up my robes. And after I give up my robes, maybe I will find a job, and when I find a job I will get some money, and when I find enough money maybe I will find a girl and get married to this girl. But sometimes these wives can be impossible people and if my wife becomes difficult or impossible, I’ll give her a good beating. And he beat the old monk on his head!
We are laughing, but this is what we also do with our thoughts. So it shows that these thoughts can be so compelling, and that they can create fantasies for us and we take the fantasy as real. So there is a connection, a relationship, between the stories and emotions. In the Dhamma there is a very interesting Pali word to describe this process which takes place in our mind: papanca. What it means is constructing, manufacturing, concocting, projecting, all these things we do with our thoughts, and it is said there is a direct relationship between concepts and suffering. This is how our suffering is created.
Our thoughts arise mechanically. You don’t want these thoughts to arise but they just pop up; and then we do something very interesting: some thoughts we allow just to arise and pass away, while others, we get hold of them, we identify ourselves with them. They can overwhelm us, they can control us. So this is one of the things that we can discover with awareness, that when thoughts arise, without getting hold of them, if you can just allow them to go away then there is no problem. This is one aspect for us to learn about and explore.
Another is the connection, the relationship, between thoughts and our state of mind. When we get hold of our thoughts, when we identify ourselves with the thoughts, then our state of mind changes. That is why I have been suggesting that we learn not to react when thoughts come.
Another interesting area which we have been working with is the connection between thoughts and emotions. What comes first, thoughts or emotions?
f you learn to handle thoughts, work with thoughts, you develop mastery over emotions. Another thing is that when you have an emotion it is only thoughts that make it bigger. They can really blow up the emotion you are having.
I work with people who suffer from insomnia. It is interesting that in the teaching on loving-kindness the Buddha speaks of eleven benefits of meditation on loving-kindness and three of them are related to sleep. So with loving-kindness you sleep peacefully, you wake up peacefully, and you don’t have unpleasant dreams, nightmares and so on. So when I meet people who suffer from insomnia what I tell them is, before they fall asleep to try to practise loving-kindness, and I have found that this generally helps in working with insomnia.
When you wake up and you find that you have not had enough sleep and yet you really want to meditate, what can be attempted is not to do sitting meditation straight away, but maybe do walking meditation or yoga. This is the importance of yoga, some physical exercises where you try to wake up physically and mentally with such exercises.
And maybe another suggestion is to take a very cold shower. This will also help you to wake up physically and mentally. And then try to sit with your eyes open.
The Buddha said: Please do not accept anything just because it is said in the traditions. Please do not accept anything just because it is written down in the scriptures. Please do not accept anything just because it sounds logical and reasonable. This is the important point: Don’t even accept when a teacher says something. So please don’t just accept what I am saying also!
The Buddha said only when you see for yourself from your own experience what is creating suffering, what is creating happiness, that is the right way for you to practise. So the real teacher is your own experience. To see whether the medicine is working or whether the medicine is not working. So you have to see it for yourself. I am so amazed and I am so inspired by this very radical teaching of the Buddha.