Translated by Robert Watson
What is meditation? The word summons up a host of associations. When we hear the word, we see people from different cultures and backgrounds engaged in Christian contemplation, or Buddhist meditation, doing Zen, or perhaps following Tibetan traditions. So many images come up from what we’ve heard or from what people have said, depending also on what we do ourselves or what we have learned. Maybe I say “my meditation” because I’ve worked out my own style. Is it possible to get closer to what meditation is, beyond words, concepts, systems and schools of meditation? Is there some element or essence that is common to all schools of meditation? I don’t know if there is, but if it does exist, then we must be able to experience it in this very moment, right now. If you truly wish to find out what meditation is, then you must pay attention. There must be a listening. This listening, this paying attention with all the senses wide open – is not this opening up of the self the very mystery we seek to penetrate, beyond all practices and schools?
As we sit here together, in this quiet circle, just listening to the sounds around us, what is here? There is the sunlight streaming in through the windows onto the floorboards. Through the open window we can hear the chirping of a sparrow. But already that is saying too much: I said “floorboards” and “sparrow”, and these words are language and present mental concepts, do they not? How can I go about describing what I see and what I am aware of in the moment? That which is being described is there, but there are no concepts. And what is it that cannot be expressed when we don’t think it through or put it into words? Can we ask the question and wonder in stillness? What is there right in front of us, from one moment to the next, if we do not give it a name? And who are we when we are just aware? This is where concepts cannot help us. The simple awareness of what is there in the moment, beyond all concepts, is, I am convinced, the very essence of meditation.
There is no need to describe in words what you see and hear and feel. The moment is a gift. It is there, just as it is. In the stillness of awareness, it is possible to go deeper into the moment, to open up more, to understand more and become even more aware. Awareness is not a superficial thing. Some event stands out from the flow of all that is happening and arouses our interest, gets our attention. This happens in a fraction of a second, and at once we try to classify it, we try to do something with it, to make sense of it. We at once describe to ourselves what has happened in order to see if it is good or bad. This emotional reaction is built-in, and if you think about it for a moment, you will see that it is a deep-rooted habit. A kind of judging takes place – “Is this a threat, or can I cope”? The possibility of danger give rise to worry and fear, but when it’s something nice, the desire to possess, to acquire, is at once aroused, and with the desire to possess, images swim up, pictures and whole films, and often an inner monologue. All this happens on its own, not through an effort of will and in awareness it is seen at a glance.
It is really hard to simply become aware of our automatic reflexes and stay aware, in the present moment. The sheer number and multiplicity of inner happenings easily takes us away from looking and seeing and just becoming aware – instead, the brain falls into the well-worn rut of familiar programs: this is the tried and true way the body reacts to being overwhelmed with information. Often, we find ourselves looking at the moving picture show within, without noticing where we actually are. The here and now has given way to remembering, and these memories we take for reality. To wake up from this inner picture show and find ourselves once again in the here and now – this is the essential element in our meditation work. To be aware of what’s happening in the here and now, to see memories for what they are, one memory surging up after another – this is the work of meditation. There is no specific technique or practice to help you become aware, or to help bring awareness about. Awareness comes about on its own, always. There is a moment of awakening, the sudden awareness that you have stopped dreaming and see that, in reality, you are sitting there meditating. Awareness is our astonishment and amazement at what is unfolding right in front of our eyes, from one moment to the next. Do you have the interest to do this work? Do you feel that it is within your grasp?
To be honest, we often don’t want to be in touch with what is there, because the present moment is not always very pretty. Perhaps there is an inner discomfort, a stream of images and thoughts from yesterday at work that we would like to drop but just cannot. This all takes place in the moment and we can behold it with interest, but then resistance arises and then judgement: “No, I don’t want this, it should stop! I don’t want to fret and worry about a job waiting for me at work!”
Can we pause, in the very midst of all this wanting and not wanting? We don’t really make this happen, and that’s what is so lovely about it: it happens all on its own, unbidden. All of a sudden, we wake up: “I’m sitting here in the meditation hall, I’m not at work or in the situation I thought I was in.” Is it possible to stay in the here and now, whatever may come up? What is there here, in this very moment? The torrent of thoughts and images flowing through us with their attendant feelings and emotions ceases all on its own, and we find ourselves in the stillness of the meditation hall, sitting quietly together with others. We feel our bodily sensations, maybe a bit of excitement from what we’ve been thinking about. Can we just be present with the bodily sensations, with breathing in and breathing out? Breathing in and breathing out is always there, for as long as we live. Breathing is the anchor that keeps us in the moment. When we become aware of our breathing, we see at once that, a moment before, we were not aware – other sensations were there in its place. Being aware means just being with what is from one moment to the next. It does not exclude anything, not even the torrent of thought flowing through the mind. Do we have to bring thinking under control? Not at all. It means just being aware that the thoughts and feelings and images are just what they are, thoughts and feelings and images that arise, in the moment. Is this possible?
We can distinguish between two ways of thinking. Thoughts can arise on their own and run on automatically, like a film on a screen in our head. We are caught up in the dreaming, in the film that is always orchestrated by the feelings and emotions that feed the narration and just go on and on. We identify with this stream of thought, which means that we are unaware that the torrent of thought and feeling comes from within, and we often speak and act as though the inner film were real, and the body follows suit. The anger and anxiety that comes up is real, and in the moment. Since everything feels real and there is also a physical, bodily reaction, we identify with this inner narrative. We say: “This is what I am, right in this moment”, even when the story playing within is just memories from ten years before. But you may also be aware that you are thinking. Then there is a subtle inner difference: we become aware that these thoughts and feelings are running through our mind all on their own, in this very body, as I sit here quietly. But we are seldom aware in this manner and we stay trapped and caught up in our usual ruts of feelings and thoughts.
Awareness needs space. Most of the time we go through our everyday lives filled up to the brim with thoughts and feelings that take up all of the inner space, so that it looks like there is no room for the present moment. There is no room left to see that thoughts are just thoughts, and to be clearly aware that feelings are coursing through the body. We live in a state of unawareness. Our over-loaded body-mind switches to automatic, in order to cope with life, and this by and large is a useful function that helps us survive in situations where we feel overwhelmed.
Many schools of meditation try to control this flood of thought with various concentration practices and these practices have their place and can work – this must be said. But I must admit that I am not very good at using concentration to control my thoughts. One thing is clear: when thoughts and feelings so overwhelm us that we just can’t see what is taking place, then it can indeed be helpful to start out with a concentration practice.
I lead a meditation group that meets every Tuesday. Once, a man who had never meditated before joined us. After the rounds of meditation, he told me how it had gone. The three twenty-five minute rounds of meditation had stressed him out so much and caused him such unease that he automatically started to count. He counted slowly up to sixty, at which point he knew another five minutes had passed in the round. He repeated counting until he was saved by the bell. He told us that this had helped him get through the three rounds. I was astonished. Without any instruction, he had found a concentration practice all on his own. Counting in this manner, with awareness, helps one to focus and break the automatic flow of thought, at least for as long as one counts in an attentive manner, with awareness.
It is a good learning experience to give such practices a try for yourself, even if I don’t directly recommend it. It throws light on the matter, to ask oneself how a concentration practice, like counting or the recitation of a mantra, or focusing on your breathing or on a part of the body, can help us see the effects of such a practice on the body-mind. In speaking with people, I hear time and again how very difficult it is to even begin to become aware of what is taking place from one moment to the next. People often ask me if I can suggest a practice, if it would be easier to start sitting with a practice of some kind. Here, in retreat, you have the time to give it a try. There is no right or wrong when there is genuine interest in seeing and understanding.
My own experiments with concentration practices allowed me to see the usefulness and shortcomings of such practices. To concentrate means that we set ourselves a goal to which we cling with tenacity. If I have as my goal to carefully observe my breathing, an interesting duality presents itself: first there is me, and then there is the goal I am pursuing. I’m in control, for as long as I’m doing it right and I’m aware that I have a job to do. Am I following my breath, or have I already gone off on a tangent? Someone is in control and keeps an eye on things and is busy concentrating as best he can, and then, there is the concentration on the breathing, which is separate and apart. Following the breath is what we are supposed to be doing. But then images come up, and without wanting to, we lose our focus and find ourselves back where we started, lost in thought, and we think. . . “I wanted to stay with my breathing. . .”. Can you see the duality? Does there have to be someone there who has to be in control doing the concentrating, and judging whether or not we are doing it right? Is there not simply awareness of the breathing in the midst of everything that swims up into consciousness? Must there be someone who is aware, someone who keeps an eye on whether we are aware or not? Not at all, because when this “controller” steps in, and we are looking carefully, we might see that there is no one there doing the controlling but simply controlling thoughts that have arisen. See for yourself if this is so.
With concentration practices, we are for the most part unaware of the effort to control: we just don’t see that in truth there is no such entity like a controller. Our narrow focus has to widen, and if this happens concentration turns into awareness. The effort of concentration gives way to an effortless awareness that requires no doer or controller, and the breath flows in and out all on its own. People who like working with concentration practices and who have used them a lot, have told me that when it works, when the practice is going well, they experience what I have here called “a turn into awareness”. The controlling ceases.
Where are we really, when there is just moment-to-moment awareness? Where is the man called “Stephan”? Who is it that is being aware? Or is it that no one is there? My question means: is it possible to be aware, to be wholly present, without a state of duality that says – “I am someone experiencing awareness”? Can all that I perceive as my thought and feelings and goals simply become part of the undivided whole? Can we simply behold all this without identifying with it, without even giving any of it a name? In truth, we do not know who we really are. We have thoughts about who we are, or images and pictures of who we are, but in awareness these representations are seen for what they are, just representations, which means they can be questioned and looked into and seen for what they are – thoughts and images. This can only take place when we do not identify with them. Can we take a step back and clearly see that what we take to be the self and our personality is made up of thoughts and feelings? When we do not know who we are and just see with the inner eye, then we come closer to what we really are.
Meditation practices that use concentration are out there. They present the self as an actor on stage, but it’s entirely possible for the concentrating self to come into awareness. Then there remains just awareness and no one who is aware – no one doing anything, no one engaged in a meditation practice, which means there is no practice in the usual sense of the word. This is what I mean when I say that this kind of meditating, in which there is just awareness, is not really a practice.
In many schools of meditation, the word “mindfulness” is much used, and sometimes it’s given the same meaning as “awareness”, but for me the two words are not synonymous. In the word “mindfulness”, I always see the attentive observer, an “I”, someone who is there. What is there, what happens when the person being mindful becomes the very object of the mindfulness, when the person being mindful is seen to be just another image? What is it that is so carefully observing the mindful one? There’s no one there. Is it not so? Awareness can then throw light on he who is being mindful. Try this for yourself. Awareness can come into being, but it’s hard to put into words, because in awareness no one is present: the one who is aware dissolves in the light of awareness. A living awareness unfolds from one moment to the next, and at the same time no one is present – there is just the wordlessness of not knowing. Understanding comprises knowing and naming and judging, but simple awareness is a kind of knowing that cannot be communicated to another: it is simple and spontaneous and one with all that is taking place in the moment. When the creation of images comes to a complete standstill, there is neither big nor small, nor wide nor narrow.
Is it therefore possible for us, in the course of the week, perhaps when the merry-go-round of thought slows down, to bring this attentiveness and concentration and practice over into our work of insight, so that we are no longer hemmed in and focused? Is this possible? Do we have to be in control? Do we have to actively drop all thoughts? Do we have to strain and strive?
When there is effort, can we simply see it happening? Effort is in the body, and it can be felt in the tensing of the muscles. There is the feeling that a strong effort of will is necessary in order to stay on course and reach our goal. How about, when effort is seen as what it is instead of being used as a tool for intensely looking inward? How about, when bodily tension comes to consciousness, when we become aware of the strain and effort, when our striving to reach a goal comes into the light of awareness? Is there perhaps a new gateway opening for us?
Is it then possible to arrive at a deeper understanding of this astonishing living body-mind? Often, straining and striving just drop away when they come unto awareness. When we become aware of tensions in the body, stiffness in the shoulders for example, what exactly takes place? Almost at once we let our shoulders drop and relax. Maybe you have already experienced this, and felt them tighten up again after a short while. Usually this is when awareness has not lasted. After a fleeting glance at what is taking place, we find ourselves back in the state of duality and back to striving and controlling. We can get used to straining and striving, so that we’re hardly aware of it any more. But even a brief and momentary awareness of the straining and striving to reach a goal is not without meaning. When something has been seen, it’s like a seed, and it can happen again. The possibility of awareness is part of the make-up of this astounding body-mind, and the beauty of awakening is that it happens all on its own. Awakening is spontaneous and does not come about by effort of will, and it happens again and again. Can you observe all of this for yourself?
For example, as we are sitting here, old memories come up. We get lost in remembering, and then suddenly we wake up and see where we are and think: “I’m just sitting here, and those are just old memories, coming up, that’s all it is.”
Can we simply savor this moment of awareness and just appreciate it for what it is? Maybe we became aware of something that makes us uncomfortable. In spite of this, the moment of awareness offers us the possibility of staying aware for a while longer. We are waking up and we look around us. I cannot say it without duality as I have to use words. But this is just waking up. It does not consist of saying, “I’m waking up.” This moment of awareness quite literally reveals reality – not what I would like it to be, but what is really there. Can we simply see what is taking place and stay with it? That’s enough. What we see may not be very important, but the fact that we have been given a glance at reality, directly, is that not meaningful in itself? No one did this. We simply woke up. This is what is so marvelous about awareness.
Is it not enough to just be there and not do anything, but just stay with it, when a moment of awareness manifests? But what can we do when questions persist and our problems will not give us any peace? Does it help to look for answers when existential questions and our needs overwhelm us? “What’s going to happen to me when I get old? Is there anything after death?” – Questions like this can torture us. Can we just let these answer-less questions be? Can we simply concentrate on our breath and breathe them away? Maybe we can approach them in a meditative way, these existential questions, since our usual way of tackling them doesn’t work.
A question like, “Where is Luebeck?” is easy to answer: just walk up the hill and you can see the towers of Luebeck in the distance. We can even answer such a question without speaking, and just point to the towers of the town. But existential questions are different in nature, because they do not have concrete answers. We don’t know what it means to no longer “be”. All of our experiences are life experiences. Even death we only know through others, and “not being” lies completely outside our understanding. Are these questions therefore meaningless, as we often hear? Hearing this is of no use when the questions are of burning importance to us. How can we go about approaching these existential questions? Can we just be with them, in stillness and silence? Is it possible to leave them there in the silence, and just listen? When there is no answer, there is the space for something to reveal itself. It’s not a matter of engaging in discursive thought; it’s enough just to ask your question into the silence and let it be. You can ask without knowing the answer or probing any deeper: “What does it mean, to die?” – you can ask the question, and in stillness, open yourself to the silence. Let go of ideas and images, and your fears also. . . This perhaps is what we are really seeking: to go on existing, in perpetual contradiction to our longing for peace. We are full of contradictions. Can we let it all be, and allow the spectacle of thoughts and feelings to just fade away, without hoping for results? Inner clarity can simply mean that we suddenly understand why the question will not leave us in peace. I’ve already experienced how a question can just dissipate, leaving no answer, when all the fears and images connected with the question come into the light of the present moment and lose all meaning and thus breaking their hold over us.
Meditative inquiry is a way of silently questioning and listening and sometimes a hidden inner process is coming into awareness. Conventional thinking with questions and answers offers nothing new, and conventional answers are stored away in memory and summoned up at will. Asking a question in a meditative manner is on the contrary a creative process. Can we ask a question and consciously abstain from seeking an answer, and just listen to how this body-mind reacts, and see the thoughts and feelings and images that surge up into awareness? Can we observe the answers that come up without believing them and holding onto them? Can everything, including these feelings that come up here and now in the meditation hall, be looked at as for the first time, with that open inner space that leaves room for the chirping of the sparrows outside? (Sparrows are chirping outside.)
So how does it work? How can one just be with a question? And how can a whole question perhaps just cease, here in the stillness? This happens. See for yourself. At such a time, there are just the bodily sensations, the breathing, here and now, in the moment. What we see and hear is all there, present, from one moment to the next. There is nothing that has to be done, nothing that has to change. When the driving need to get something or to understand something has abated and we are at one with the moment, no me-person exists and there is nothing to be understood. Where is the question at such a moment? Where are the problems? Everything is as it is and we are just here in the stillness and awareness.
Are we here?