Opening Talk October 2013 Retreat at Schlagsülsdorf
An opening talk is given at the beginning of a seven-day retreat, to mark the beginning of the silence. The talk is for everyone, but especially for people who are taking part in a seven-day silent retreat for the first time.
There are not many places where we can come together as a group and just sit quietly and listen to the rain, as we are doing this morning. It’s so simple, to be here in the moment. There is just the sound of the raindrops on the window panes, your breathing, the sensations in your body, nothing special, just being with what is there in the moment.
So what is there so special about a week of meditation? Is it just coming together as a group in a friendly space, where everything is taken care of and you don’t have to worry about anything? Maybe you’ll find something to worry about anyway. We’re so used to it. Worrisome thoughts often come up, whether they mean anything or not. Here, in retreat, it’s possible to catch them and quickly see that they are not necessary.
Everything here is taken care of. We have plenty of food, you have your room where you can go to rest. We are with a group of people who have come together to seek out the quiet and the stillness. People move about quietly, so as not to disturb. Yes, such a gathering is quite special. It isn’t the same as withdrawing into a cell to spend time in silent meditation. Here we can experience both being alone and being with others; we are in community, and at the same time quite alone.
We create this free and open space together. Everyone brings something to it. It starts with how we close doors. Can we close doors carefully, with awareness, knowing that the slamming of a door can startle others? People become aware of this careful way of moving about. It catches on.
And how do we come together with others when we eat breakfast together? Are we attentive to those around us? When attentiveness is present, there unfolds a strong feeling of community and togetherness. You can feel the freedom and the absence of disturbances. There is just the sound of cutlery on plates and cups being put down, chewing, the taste of food and drink. People have told me many times that food never tastes better than in retreat. Proper food tastes really good when you give it the attention it deserves. But, how do we ask for something on the table that is out of reach, without talking? We simply point to what we want and some one hands it to us. This works beautifully, when we all just pay attention.
A week of silent meditation is an invitation to look and think things through you never perhaps had the time to think through before. Or maybe you can just be with what is there. A week such as this serves to create a spiritual space. Coming together in stillness and silence helps bring about awareness, and in this awareness, our inner and outer shows and displays can be seen.
And why is it relatively easy to come together in this place in a meditative frame of mind? You see people about you in the stillness and silence, and this alone makes it easier for us to come together in harmony. When thoughts come up and pull us in one direction or another, such as, “Now I’ve got to put up with this again!”, or, “I still haven’t done such or such…”, then you just have to look around you. The quiet demeanor of the other retreatants tells us that all this fuss is unnecessary, and so it becomes possible for us all to quiet down, no need to do anything special.
But becoming absolutely quiet is not the purpose of a week of silent meditation. There is no such goal. When you feel a strong inner disturbance, you want to see what is going on, and not bring about an artificial state of quietness. In a retreat, we have the time and space to look at what is going on inside, to listen and look at all the inner noise, at the thoughts that excite or oppress. There is no one to show you the way, and no one to deter you from doing this work. You have the time to just do what has to be done, at any given moment.
Everything is optional. You don’t have to sit every round, you can go for a walk or rest when you feel tired. You don’t have to set a record for sitting. It is much more important to understand what it is right to do in the moment, as each moment unfolds. Maybe it isn’t the right time to sit. Maybe your back hurts and it would be better to have a lie down. It is so interesting, at this moment of making up your mind to sit or not to sit, to look at all the thoughts that come up. Maybe your inner voice is saying: “No, I want to sit! Why am I feeling so weak? Other people are sitting in complete silence and it’s only the first day and here I am already having back problems.”
Is it possible to simply observe how conflicting thoughts flow through the mind? Do we have to be pulled to and fro with these thoughts, or can we look and listen, but without identifying with them? The state of not identifying with thoughts is present when you are in contact with the here and now and can see that the thoughts are just thoughts. When we do not identify with the thoughts, an intelligence is at work that gives us the power not to believe in the contents of the thoughts. It happens all by itself, and you can see how it happens. It is amazing how this state of not being identified with your own thoughts arises out of an awareness of the whole situation, with its many voices and thoughts. All the thoughts that pull at you, that make you angry or distressed, come into awareness. When there is awareness, and you behold with amazement the conflicting thoughts and feelings tugging at you, often, things quiet down, and you suddenly see that the right thing to do is to just be quiet. Seeing is doing, and there is no more conflict.
What I have just described looking at conflicting thoughts is meditation. When there is the necessary freedom from thought attachment, then there is awareness of what is happening from moment to moment. Meditation means being in the moment.
Now you don’t have to sit on a cushion to do this. You can meditate as you walk, even as you run. Being aware of everything around you is more important than posture. By this I mean all that is there in the present moment bodily sensations, feelings, and emotions, as they come up. Maybe your knee hurts, or maybe you feel the pressure to achieve something, and then feel angry because you can’t quiet down. There is an endless stream of thoughts overlaid by a colorful palette of feelings, which shift and change with our ever changing thoughts.
There is no need to achieve anything here. Nothing is right or wrong, nothing is forbidden. There are no taboos. In a week of quiet meditation, the inner and outer shows are free to unfold. When other people become part of the show, then we must be careful not to disturb one another. There are no set rituals or exercises, and the twenty-five minute rounds, which start and end with the bell, are there for you to use. I won’t be disappointed if you drop a round or two. One of the things we offer is a daily talk, which takes place at eleven o’clock every morning. Why a talk? It isn’t to teach theory or to convince you of anything. I just want to share with you ideas and subjects which are important to me in my meditation work. Maybe they will encourage you or touch on something that is important to you, too. You can simply listen and look, there is no need to accept or reject. Just see if something resonates with you. Of course I’m happy to see people listening, but if you prefer to stay quiet and not come to a talk, I won’t be angry.
So it is with everything in the retreat, including the group meetings in the afternoon. It’s wonderful to share with others. To look at a question which is of interest to others is also a kind of meditative communication which we encourage. There are no subjects given for discussion. Amazingly, they come up all by themselves. The group meetings work well when we speak one at a time and when we all listen attentively to the person who is talking. Speaking and listening carefully give us the chance to stay with a question and to go into it deeply. Being attentive also means that it is easier for us to find our way back to a question we have not finished with, when another matter comes up in the midst of our discussion. Light can be thrown onto a question, as we all sit together in silence. Sometimes we reach an understanding and come to an agreement together, as a group, which someone alone might not be able to do. You get the feeling that a subject has been looked into all by itself. Listening quietly is as important as the words being spoken. Meditation can take place when you are really with it, when you are aware of what you are saying and of the weight you give your words.
I speak with people privately as well. Sometimes subjects come up which are not a good fit for a group discussion, because they are personal or of a special nature. I like it when you have something to share with me, when we can go into a question together. It is a beautiful thing when two people come together in this way. There is more energy available when we work on a question by ourselves, and it allows us to see more clearly and from a different point of view. Also, we are less caught up in our self-centered and habitual ways of thinking. We can become aware of thought patterns, and something new can come out of this. So come to a private meeting and see for your self. I’m not here as a teacher and I’m not here to convince you of anything: there is neither teacher nor student. Everything is open. We look together and we share. So when you have a question to bring up, come to a meeting with me. There are no taboos and no subject is off limits. When you bring up a subject, we can see how it goes. There are no subjects we have to discuss and you don’t have to have a question ready when you come into a private meeting. You can come to a meeting without having anything special to say; we’ll just see what comes up, no problem. Will we find something to say to each other? Many a time people have come in to see me and we just sit there quietly together. It’s a good time to meditate together. There are no goals to be met and nothing is expected of you. Simply put, there are no expectations. But I am keenly interested in you and in what you bring to a meeting. Perhaps I have aroused your curiosity. You are all most welcome to come and talk with me.
With respect to sitting here in the meditation hall, I have one more thing to say: choose a posture which allows you to sit without pain. There is no correct posture or correct way to sit. It is more important to find a posture that works for you. It is helpful to keep your back straight when sitting for longer periods of time. Try it and see. There is no one position which suits everyone, and of course you can change posture if you are in pain. Get comfortable. It’s perfectly fine to use a cushion on your chair or to keep your feet warm with a blanket when it gets chilly. We’re not trying to be ascetics here. It’s good when you can sit attentively and without pain. No postures are forbidden. Some people feel better with their back against the wall. This is not being impolite. It’s perfectly OK.
Mostly, in the course of the week, we keep our eyes down and don’t look at one another. If this is your first retreat, you might think people are being unfriendly. You might think: “ Nobody is looking at me here. Are they all depressed or what? ”. But it’s perfectly all right to do this. We don’t always have to look at one another and make sure through eye contact that we please one another. Nor do we have to say hello or goodbye. We can just be here, without making eye contact or greeting one another. When someone doesn’t look at you, it doesn’t mean that he or she is being impolite. Not looking at you is not the same as being scornful. We can all be here together in this quiet and peaceful place without making eye contact. You’ll notice something special taking place: you are free just to be yourself, which is most important during a week of silent meditation. So if you go out for a walk and someone walks right by you with his head down and without making eye contact, don’t take it the wrong way. It doesn’t mean that the other person is grouchy or grumpy. These are the kind of thoughts that come up in such a situation. Is it possible to be with other people without looking around or making eye contact? It means that we are giving one another space and freedom. Try it and see. It is a way of being in community and at the same time enjoying solitude.
In the course of this week of silent retreat, all of the active and passive aspects of meditation can be experienced. The way of meditation is to be aware and present in the moment. We are not speaking of content, but of this wide awake interest, of inner astonishment, when we ask: “What is this Here and Now?” It can be present with or without thoughts, as you speak or remain silent, as you walk or as you sit quietly. There is just the sound of the rain, a sound that is there in all simplicity, no need to say what it is. There is listening, and spaciousness, and freedom.