by Stephan Bielfeldt
Day 2, October 2013 Retreat, Schlagsülsdorf, Germany
Translated by Robert Watson
It was really a joy to walk along the road today, in the brilliant sunshine, down the little street which has practically no traffic. The rosehip berries and the red apples glistened in the sunlight. Listening to the crunch of my footsteps on the gravel, I walked along with a feeling of peace; there was no stress, but a feeling of One-ness, of not being separate from the Moment. A thought presented itself now and then, and went on its way, leaving no trace behind.
And how quickly such a moment of Oneness can be lost! A thought suddenly pops up: “I completely forgot to hand in a project to someone at work, before coming here for the retreat! “. At once there is separation; one is pulled backwards from the Moment. It’s almost as though there were a real threat right there in front of me. With this thought, there came a strong feeling of fear. Maybe the fear came first and then the thought about work. It happened so fast!
And then the thinking picked up speed: “That isn’t important right now. My friend at work can find out about the correspondence for himself. I can’t do anything now anyway.” Then the hard knot of tension that had manifested in the body fell away. The feeling of unrest and worry stayed with me for a while. It is amazing to observe this. In a couple of minutes it went away, and the feeling of One-ness and Non-separation returned.
Is it not astonishing how, when the outer world makes no demands upon us, things can happen within? The question presents itself: How do feelings work? What are feelings, and how do they interact with our thoughts? Can this be observed from moment to moment, right now, in this very moment, as we talk about it, or listen to a talk? Is it possible for one to linger a while in the stillness of self-observation? It is not a matter of looking at the words I choose, but rather of seeing if you can take part in this whole process with me, as it unfolds. It is all about direct experience and moment-to-moment awareness, and has nothing to do with believing: we speak here of personal, inner certainty.
What is a Feeling, Anyway?
So what is feeling all about? What is a feeling? Using a scientific approach has been of help to me, because our intellect seeks to understand that which we experience directly. Research has shown that our feelings are linked to a very old part of the brain known as the limbic system, and has been described as being a ring-shaped, discrete area of the brain. More recent research has questioned this way of seeing the limbic system, because there are just too many separate branches of the brain which are involved in feeling. A number of biologically ancient structures within the brain, like the amygdala, play an important role. Some of these structures are so old that it is believed they go back some three hundred million years, to the time when reptiles and amphibians were evolving. Just yesterday I rescued a little salamander out on the road. He was just sitting there like he was stunned. As I bent over to pick him up, he wanted to run away and stamped his little feet. It is pretty clear that this very simple creature was experiencing fear. Now, we may assume that salamanders do not think, but the age-old feeling of fear we can observe in ourselves, and fear can be present without thought.
One can observe many complex feelings in mammals. We have two cats at home, and never cease to be both fascinated and astonished at what happens when they can’t do what they want. Certain things they may not do, like jump up onto the kitchen table. When they want to jump up anyway, and then at the last minute don’t dare to, they excitedly scratch or lick somewhere, real fast. There are two feelings in conflict here, and we can literally see for ourselves how feelings play off against one another, how the cat’s pent-up energy becomes some kind of harmless behavior. I remember how once I bumped my head on the corner of a cupboard, and then hit it back. Then my knuckles hurt, and my head hurt too! What then is the purpose of these primitive feelings of anger and fear and of the energy that comes bundled up with them? Feelings like fear and anger have been with us for millions of years, so they must have something to do with survival.
Anger and fear evolved in order to protect us. Fear has a voice. It says:” This body has been threatened. This organism is in danger and something must be done. “Intense bodily activity comes with this assertion, and we either react with anger of aggression, or we get ready to flee. Once, as a student, I had to report to the teacher’s office. I stood there in front of the door and couldn’t even knock. I wanted to run away, when one of the teachers came up and led me away.
A third reaction we can have, one which can appear in our everyday lives, just like the other two feelings, is the feeling of sinking into the ground, of freezing and not being able to act. Instead of the accompanying sovereign need to act, nothing happens. This often makes for painful memories. For example, we might think: “At least you could have said something like—‘You can’t speak to me in that tone of voice!‘–but oh no, not you, You just stood there like an idiot and didn’t say a word.“
But is this reaction really dumb? Freezing like that may well have saved the life of a distant ancestor who came face to face with a bear. Since he stayed rooted to the spot, the bear saw no threat and went on his way. Had our ancestor not reacted in this manner, he may well have not survived and we wouldn’t be here to talk about it today. I might not have been here either if, as a child, I had not once froze in my tracks in the middle of the street. A car shot by me, missing me by inches, and came to a stop with squealing tires twenty feet away.
But there is a fourth ancient feeling that we often encounter in our everyday lives, namely the feeling of disgust, or loathing. This feeling came into being to protect us from eating the wrong foods, but in our hygienically clean modern world, other people who are loathsome in their behavior elicit this feeling of disgust.
What these ancient, deeply rooted feelings have in common is that they are triggered automatically. We must ‘suffer‘ them. These feelings are accompanied by intense physical activity, and we are quite literally thrown off balance. A cocktail of hormones pours into the blood, our pulse and blood pressure go up or down, the muscles tighten up, and there is an immediate feeling of being separate and apart.
When one sees the power and speed with which these feelings arise and just sweep over us how they completely invade our inner space, then it becomes clear why they have such control over our actions. We strive to be more peaceful and to have a better handle on our feelings, but if we are to be honest with ourselves, we must recognize how deeply rooted our emotions are, and how independent of our wills our emotional reactions are.
Maybe you say: “I meditate now; that should take care of any problems I may have with feelings. Situations in which I am governed by my feelings will not take place anymore.“ But is that what we really want? How many times would we have problems on the road if these ancient and lighting fast reactions did not take over? Anyone who drives a car knows how quickly a scary situation can arise, and how you have to brake at once to prevent an accident. The whole thing is over before you realize what has happened. Life-saving reactions come from the brain, before there is any awareness of what has taken place.
Thoughts Influence Feelings, Feelings Influence Thoughts
Do we really react to situations automatically, like frogs or lizards, or is there a difference? We differ from most animals in that our feelings interact with the cortex of the brain, where thoughts and images are created and where our whole store of knowledge is ready to spring into action. You can see for yourself that there is truly a close link between our thoughts and feelings. One doesn’t have to rely on scientists to see that it is so. A thought or a memory arises from feelings, independently of the will. Feelings even appear to be inseparable from our memories. Feelings are what give meaning to our memories, and conversely, from feelings memories arise. Our memory is a huge storehouse of associations. If feelings manifest in the body, then they summon up matching thoughts. If you feel indisposed and isolated, then memories of situations in which you experienced these same feelings will arise.
This process is so deeply imbedded within us that, more or less consciously, thoughts arise, using memory and thinking together, which try to explain why we feel the way we do. Such a process can become drawn out and very intense and form a kind of closed circuit of frenetic mental activity. Thoughts give rise to new and transient feelings of malaise, which are themselves tied up with other feelings, and along with this feeling of malaise there may be feelings of separation. Fear or anger come and go, and they give rise to yet more fleeting thoughts. This negative spiral of thought and feeling can so overwhelm us that we do not have the necessary space within to have any awareness of what is going on. This means that we are so overwhelmed, so filled up with thoughts and feelings, that we are not aware that we are sitting here in a quiet place, and that everything is taking place within. We are caught up and imprisoned in a web of thoughts and feelings, feelings and thoughts, a self-perpetuating cycle. And if there is enough physiological activity taking place, then we are everything but a person who is aware of his actions. We become lost in a world of illusions.
Is It Possible to Break the Cycle of Thoughts and Feelings?
How can we break out of this cycle? After all, everyone has observed that such situations do come to an end. Is it possible to install some kind of lever we could pull to bring the process to a halt, or does it happen all by itself? Is it possible to merely observe the whole process taking place, once it starts up? Can we bring these inner happenings into the Here and Now, so that we can see, in the Moment, what is really taking place? Or is the whole process just too overpowering? Is one so overwhelmed and filled up with feeling and thought that it is impossible to reveal what is going on in the body and mind?
At the beginning of such a transformation, there is always a moment of awareness. This is something which happens: there is no doer. But, happily, such spontaneous moments of awareness really happen quite often. See this for yourself! Awareness is given to us, and we underestimate how many such moments occur. This is because we don’t take these moments of awareness seriously, and for this reason do not store them away in the memory. If we spend a few moments in the Here and Now, then the devilish cycle is broken, nor do we have to do anything. The process has been interrupted, because we can then clearly see how it has taken place automatically and independently of our will. We may feel traces of the physical upheaval in our bodies and maybe we can also feel how it is ebbing away
Often, this awareness only lasts a brief moment, and the cycle of thinking and feeling starts up again. If there is no continuity of Awareness, then the thinking and feeling starts up again, unnoticed, until a new spark of Awareness breaks the movement. This unconscious process is not always as dramatic and over-whelming as I have described it here, and we most often find these emotional states perfectly normal, and if we do wake up to them, we see this as being unimportant. These states do not take up all the space within, and there remains enough inner space for us to realize what is happening. Why do we not remain in this state of awareness? There is often a kind of resistance to looking at what is happening, with awareness. For example, we would like to act on our anger. With anger there comes a certain desire to feed the whole process, to find even more reasons to explain why you have been ill-treated, or to find even more things that are not right in a given situation. And, with all the challenges and ups and downs that are part of our everyday lives, it seems as though stopping and being aware is not an appropriate way to for us to go about breaking away from this unconscious cycle of thought and feeling. Whether it is through lack of energy or will power, or being spiritually overwhelmed, these unconscious processes run on and on, and we find ourselves in a waking dream-state made up of thoughts and feelings, shallow at best, but often painful, that is punctuated by the occasional moment of waking up from it all. Maybe I am describing this too negatively, but everyone can now see for himself how much of his time he spends in this half-aware state. Ask yourself: Must we inevitably spend most of our time lost in these unconscious, unimportant inner processes, helplessly overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and feelings? Is it possible to be part of the River of Life, and to spend more time in the awareness of Here and Now?
What Does Silent Meditation Do?
Can silent meditation be of any use to us? When you spend time in silent meditation, you have the space you need in order to look into this whole matter. A spacious inner mind might also present itself, but this is always a gift. In the course of a week of meditation, when you devote whole days to looking with interest and attention at how we go from a dream state to clarity, back and forth, it is more likely for us to perceive a change taking place. The absence of outside stimulation makes us more sensitive. Our body quiets down and there is a sharpened inner awareness. Still, it is like a moment of grace when such a moment endures: I like to call this ‘ Presence ‘. Then, of a sudden, the going back and forth from awareness to absence of awareness comes to an end, for a while, and an underlying awareness makes itself felt in our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, all in the light of consciousness. The body is quiet but full of energy. It becomes an aware and sensitive instrument, and the roiling flood of thoughts and images that caused such turmoil becomes a mere trickle.
Becoming directly aware of the inner show, of how the half-conscious switching back and forth between thoughts and feelings takes place: this is the whole point of meditation. Becoming aware contains this movement. One doesn’t have to do anything. Thoughts about ‘doing something better ‘or‘ wanting something else are all part of the show. Out of separation come wholeness, and a dynamic one-ness with all that is. When this happens, one can see how the stream of automatic thoughts stutters and stalls as the machine comes to a stop.
Feelings are the Perceptions of an Active Body
Meditation does not alter your bodily state immediately, nor have I said that it will lead to a state of perfect bodily harmony. For example, if you remember a situation that triggers feelings of fear and then there is a moment of awareness, then perhaps you can see that you still feel bad, or even worse, that a dull feeling of discomfort has turned into a clearly perceived sharp sensation.. Not feeling quite right is a bodily sensation produced by chemicals which are released into the body. It is a chemical process. Adrenalin, cortisol and other hormones circulate in the blood and spread all through the body. So what is actually happening? Memories, perhaps of being humiliated, may summon up a potent mixture of fear and anger. These memories lead to the body releasing hormones which result in the bodily sensations. A feeling, then, is the perception of a bodily disturbance, of the body adapting.
Our primeval emotional make-up makes no distinction between a real and present danger, and the memory of a dangerous event which is far in the past. The intensity of the bodily reaction may well be different, but the quality of the reaction is the same and has the same effect: there is fear.
When the hormones are released, our primeval body reacts at once, summoning up more strength in order to fight, or getting the legs ready for flight. Energy is freed up within the body, which starts to metabolize sugar. Then digestion slows down and muscle groups tense up, which we experience as a queasy feeling in the stomach. This whole process is already beginning or is in full swing, when a moment of awareness manifests. We continue to perceive the feeling until the body has gotten all these processes underway, and, depending on the intensity of the feeling, this can last a long time. And we can go on feeling bad even after the unleashed memories, the cause of it all, have quieted down. There is no need to fret just because the body needs time to calm down and return to normal. Fortunately, most feelings are not that powerful, like when you are startled, for example, and the body returns to normal in seconds or minutes. But when there is real fear or raging anger, you can be overwhelmed. There can be a strong bodily reaction and it can be hours before we can quiet down. We love looking for ways in which we can quickly get rid of unpleasant feelings, and then we’re disappointed when not even a moment of awareness interrupting the process is enough to make the feelings go away. This is why it is good to know how the body works. Then we are not disappointed and we give the body the time it needs.
If external threats do indeed elicit powerful emotions, then all the greater our need to understand how the body works. Once I was out driving with a friend. Traffic was backed up on the highway and we couldn’t really see that the cars in front of us were stopped. My friend had good reflexes, but there was not enough room for the brakes to kick in and we were going to ram the car in front of us. She veered over onto the shoulder of the road where there were no cars and we came to a full stop. Nothing bad happened, but we were too shocked to say a single word. Then my friend started to cry. We both felt the enormous tension, which was dissipating little by little. I don’t know if I was aware of the passage of time, but we must have spent at least ten minutes on the side of the road before we got back under way. Crying is a typical reaction when extreme tension is broken. It was only long after this incident that I came to better understand some of the ways our body works. We have this wonderful ability to act with lightning speed, without thinking, in reacting to an emergency. This marvelous ability to act without thinking may well have saved our lives. I understood how important and how right it was for the body to react dramatically to a dangerous situation. It was also clear to me that the body needs more time to get back to normal after such an event. Even when our bodily reactions only give rise to thoughts and memories, it serves no purpose and can be even more confusing if we struggle against these feelings. You may feel frightened, angry or unwell, but these are states of the body which have their own meaning and which are needed for survival. Can you give the body the time it needs to come back into balance? Is this possible?
It is important to remain aware when the body is in all stirred up. Then, even if we have a moment of Presence in the here and now, and see at the outset what has stirred up the body, the body is still disturbed, and the brain produces thoughts to go with the sensations. This means that, when you don’t stay present and aware and do not try to see what is taking place, a whole new series of thoughts and feelings starts up. These thoughts elicit more reactions in the body, and the body is not at peace. Instead of our feelings slowly ebbing away, there comes a new wave of emotion. The boat rocks and takes on water. More memories arise and the waves come over the side. This can continue to happen long after the danger is past. “How could I not have seen the car in front? Wasn’t I looking? We almost wiped out! I’m a bad driver.“ These thoughts continue to be a source of disturbance: days after the danger is past, feelings still well up, unbidden.
A man was telling me once about his marital troubles and how the situation at home was escalating. He told me that at one point, for days at a time, he and his wife would not say a word to each other. They were both wounded so deeply, so caught up in their feelings, that communication was no longer possible. Must this happen, when no real danger is present? I don’t know. Maybe, sometimes, our emotions are so all-powerful that we are swamped, and no awareness is possible, no peace is possible, and all roads to Oneness are closed off. But even in situations where there is no way out and a relationship breaks down, it comes to an end sooner or later, and the couple make up or go their separate ways.
A central aspect of our age-old emotions such as fear, anger or disgust, is a deep feeling of separation. Closely bound up with our feelings is the clear perception of a small and separate being that feels threatened. We feel painfully apart, and it cannot be any other way. If we look at what these feelings are actually doing, namely making it clear to us who is being threatened (this very body), it becomes clear that such an insight is only possible through the clear perception of the organism itself. So we say things like: “I’m the one who has been hurt, not you; I am the one suffering, of this there is no doubt. You might be suffering too, but at the moment, I don’t really care. “
So we find ourselves coming back to what makes us different from reptiles and amphibians. With these animals, the defensive function of feelings only manifests when there is an actual physical danger present. But human beings are capable of complex social interaction. It is our cerebral cortex which makes this possible; it is almost absent in reptiles and amphibians. Our network of feelings has not been replaced by the cerebral cortex; it is fully operational and closely connected to this new part of the brain. So this is how our age-old system of defensive feelings comes into play, not only when there is a real physical danger present, but also when there are social ‘threats’. There are words which can deliver a blow like a club, but our rules of social engagement prevent us from coming to blows. In spite of this, our age-old brain reacts to a word or a thought as though it were an actual physical threat. When our boss says something negative or disparaging, we feel as though we are being threatened with a club, and his words elicit the same reaction in the body, which want to fight back, protect itself or flee. Can you observe this happening within you? If you can, is it possible to recognize and accept that this is our nature, without approval or disapproval entering into it? Now a social threat can be life-threatening: you can be kicked out of your profession or lose your job. There was a time when, if you were shut out of a group, it could indeed be life-threatening. Activating the thinking and feeling machine can also harm the body, especially in the presence of chronic stress. Long-term stress can ruin your health or even endanger your life, but an appropriate emotional response to a situation can also save your life.
Quiet Meditation in the Presence of Feelings and Thoughts
What has been said thus far about emotions has perhaps aroused within you the curiosity to carefully observe for yourself the complex interaction of thoughts and feelings within. This is what meditation is for. It is often hard in our busy everyday lives to find the spiritual space needed for awareness, but there is always the possibility that it will manifest when you sit in silent meditation. Old memories succeed one another, ceaselessly, but if you stay with it and observe what is happening in the head and in the gut, then it is possible to see directly how memory elicits feeling. This reaction is most often not overwhelming; you have spiritual elbow room. You can ask: “What is that? What’s happening? “. Is it possible for one to just look at what is taking place, in a state of Awareness, in the here and now? This means that everything takes place in the moment. Is it possible to be with the feelings that do come up, in the present moment? There are thoughts, but the coming and going of the breath also, and the bodily sensations which are there, right at that moment. Maybe the memory has given rise to fear and a feeling of separation, but with Awareness something astonishing takes place: the feeling of separation and of being apart again becomes Oneness. The whole process can be seen in the here and now. We are no longer this separate little organism that feels threatened; instead, there is once again a connection to the wholeness of things. There is more room; there is openness, and no one has made this happen. Out of something that happened to us, where we were stuck, and which still makes us suffer (but we are not aware of this), a memory appeared. We come back to the Here and Now and see the memory as just a memory, the thoughts as thoughts, and the feelings as bodily reactions caused by the memories. The transformation could hardly be more complete. The thought machine stalls, and the wild, unconscious swinging back and forth from thought to feeling, from feeling to thought, stops, and the mechanism just falls apart. And how does the body feel just then? You look: is there still a tightening in the chest, do we have a queasy stomach? If so, then you just stay with it. The endless stream of thought has been broken. The brain is quiet. But maybe there is still a vague feeling of separation and of tightness around the stomach. Is it possible to just be with all this?
Most of the time we would like things to be different—isn’t this true? These feelings should go away. But you can also understand that the body needs time, and that you are just there where you are. There is nothing to do, no need to do anything. The body can quiet down all by itself, if it is not fed with new thoughts.
And is it possible to simply observe what is happening when fear comes up, for example, without getting lost in the fear or wanting it to go away? Can there be a real and lively interest in staying with what is taking place, right now? With awareness, the feeling of fear is transformed: it’s like going home. When it becomes clear that we can always take leave of our endless thoughts and feelings and return to the here and now, then we can simply be quiet and look at what is taking place. Fear and anger become transparent and we are no longer tied into feeding emotion with thought. Instead of unconscious thinking, there is Awareness, and the body at last finds peace. There is no more swinging back and forth. Strong feelings are sensations which manifest and then change; this is their natural movement. They fade away. It is simply a matter of staying with what is happening – looking, hearing, feeling, is not doing anything. Is this possible? I am seeking to awaken your interest in this whole process. Usually, we don’t want to touch unpleasant feelings; we just want them to go away and we don’t have the patience to just observe them. You could think that it’s masochistic even, to say that I should be patient and come to terms my anger and fear, and that I have to put up with the whole thing! But that is not what is meant. It is a matter of being able to be just as you are, from one moment to the next, be there fear, or anger, or that beautiful, healing stillness which is Oneness. Being aware of what takes place anyway does not make us different: it just throws light on what is taking place and is itself Awareness—is transformation.
There would appear to be many different ways of feeling that one is separate and apart, but there is just one feeling of joy and Oneness. There is fear and anger, jealousy and disgust, envy and spite, and all the other words for our separation from others and from the world around us. But when these feelings release their grip, then we reach the very roots of our being. When nothing is disturbed, when we are really not threatened nor do we feel threatened, there is just One-ness and Open-ness, and the body is at peace. Not the absence of sound, not quiet in the sense that there are no outer sounds, but rather “the body is at peace, and the spirit also“. There can be a feeble trickle of thought, a little stream, but not a torrent of overwhelming feelings. But when we start thinking about how we come to this state of quiet and peace, and then say to ourselves: “I absolutely must reach this state of Freedom!”, then we are missing what is actually happening. We can no longer see what is going on within, in the moment, and the interest in Reality is absent.
We are dynamic, endlessly changing creatures. The purpose of meditation cannot be to always be stoical and completely calm and collected. That would mean an impoverishment of our capacity to feel. Life is a dynamic process. How meaningless it would be to try to smooth everything out, quite apart from the fact that this would be quite impossible to do. The loss of our emotions would be an illness, and would bring with it depression, not healing. It is in our nature to get all stirred up, and then things quiet down, or we are overcome with fear, and then it goes away. This is normal, healthy living. We would get sick if we were to be constantly frightened or angry, but when there is this dynamic to and fro, there is also a return to peace and quiet. This is the true picture of our dynamic daily living. It possesses a quality and intensity of life which I would not want to be without.
So what is it like now, in this very moment, after all we have just heard? What are our thoughts and feelings, in this very moment? How do they interact? Can we get away from these big ideas and intellectual concepts and simply observe the ever-changing mind, just letting it run on, and in this way learn how the whole thing works? Can you take all these goals and just throw them overboard?
Maybe then, in a moment of wild surmise, the longed-for peace and Oneness will just appear.