WHAT IS AWARENESS?
by Stephan Bielfeldt, translated by Robert Watson
Retreat Talk, Schlagsuelsdorf. Day 1, October 2015
(Just as the talk is beginning, cranes can be heard calling.)
Cranes! The birds are starting to go south!
So how do you listen to the birds? This morning, that is exactly what we will be talking about: “Listening, becoming aware”. Can we look with fresh eyes at what is taking place within, when we say we hear the birds singing? Are we simply listening to the birds, or are there thoughts getting in the way? Do desires and expectations take the place of listening? Voices that say: “How free the birds are. If only we could fly off with them.” Are the thoughts running through your mind louder than the sound of the birds? Do the thoughts drown out the birds? Is the head so full up with thoughts that the calling of the cranes can only be heard when someone calls your attention to it?
Can we in this very moment look with innocent eyes at what has taken place and at what is happening right now? When I speak of thoughts drowning out the sound of the cranes, maybe you hear: “It should not be this way!” But that is not what I mean. Is it possible to look openly at everything that comes up, as it is happening? What is taking place at this very moment, within and without? Is there a silence in which the calling of the cranes is taking place, or are thoughts flowing through the mind, thoughts that give rise to feelings? Are there things you’re worried about? Do pleasant or unpleasant memories come up one after the other?
Can we, in this very moment, listen together and simply wake up to what is there? Not to what we are wishing for, but simply to what is there now? Is there interest in doing this? What is there, now? What is there, from one moment to the next? We can each of us do this work for ourselves.
So let us try listening together. There are bodily sensations. How the body quiets down as it sits on the chair or cushion, how our legs feel. Can you feel that? When we are reminded, then awareness of our bodily sensations is suddenly there, is it not so? In this moment, there are bodily sensations. You can feel your hands and shoulders; maybe they’re tense, and when you become aware of this tension, then maybe some of it goes away. Maybe not. That’s simply what is there, and this is OK, just as it is. The breathing is there, the breathing is always there. We breathe in and out, we don’t have to do anything. This is truly amazing: we can simply become aware of the breathing. Not, “I am breathing”, just the breath.
It becomes, “I am breathing”, only when we make a practice out of it, by observing or controlling the breath, maybe by breathing more deeply and bringing it down into the belly, but this is controlling your breathing, something that is taking place because you are doing it. It is quite different when there is just the discovering of the breath: just breathing, the breath is there, no one present, no one doing anything. Breathing, bodily sensations, and what we see before us and what we hear – the little bit of sunlight coming through the window, birds chirping.
Is this taking place in silence, or is there hardly any awareness of the body at all in the midst of all the thinking? What are the thoughts going through your mind right now? They can be loud and at the same time unconscious.
Do we see our thoughts as thoughts, from moment to moment? Do we usually think about a given subject consciously? This doesn’t happen very often. Most thoughts come up unconsciously, at least until you take notice of them. A lot of the time, there will unfold a whole tableau of memories, and thoughts expressed in words and the feelings that come with them. The feelings are mostly not as strong as those felt when the actual experience took place, but the whole process takes up so much space that it feels like there is no room left for any awareness of what is happening. The awareness that you are sitting someplace and re-living these memories is not there. But, in a moment of awareness, you can suddenly realize that these are all memories and not reality. In reality, we are sitting right here and are having thoughts and remembering memories and experiencing feelings. Usually, our feelings and thoughts fill us up so completely that we are unaware of being right here. This would appear to be because we are already filled up with thinking and remembering and feeling. There is no room left for awareness.
Can you practice being aware?
Actually, we always want to be fully aware. Usually you see yourself as someone who thinks and acts with awareness, but when you start to meditate, you see that often this is not true. Can one learn how to be aware? Is it something you can practice? Maybe we first ask ourselves if awareness is even necessary. People subscribe to the notion that it is a good thing to want to always live in the here and now. Is this even possible? Awareness doesn’t seem to just happen all by itself all that often. And so we may ask ourselves: “Do we need awareness, and how long does it have to last?”.
The biological sciences teach us that the body likes to be economical in the use of energy, and that many activities do not require full awareness or the use of the whole brain. Repetitive actions become automatic, and only part of the brain is required. Learned actions and activities need less effort, which means we can function well in our everyday lives. Driving a car is a good example. When we learn how to switch gears and use the clutch automatically, these actions seem to take place all by themselves. Breathing, walking, even reading and talking can simply become automatic. And we say to ourselves: “Great. I can use my brain for something else.” But even remembering and thinking can take place automatically, as we have just seen. In our everyday lives, we only become aware of this automatic thinking when we are caught up in our own woes, when our thoughts go around and around in a closed loop, and when the same old memories come back to torture us. Then we ask ourselves why in the world it’s like this.
Let’s stay with the example of driving a car for a moment. When a dangerous situation presents itself, like another car pulling out directly in front of us, then awareness is there at once. In a flash, an amazing energy is there for us to use. The whole situation is clearly seen and we stop our day-dreaming. There is just the strong, clear light of reality. We experience our actions free of thought, in the here and now, at the wheel of our car, when danger presents itself. But the moment the danger is past, we’re back on auto-pilot. What can we learn from this example? There is a moment of awareness, and we are fully awake and present when something unexpected takes place, and automatic behavior is not enough.
If we want to truly understand ourselves, and know who we really are, from moment to moment, then this awareness is necessary. All of our abilities must come into play, even if there is no danger forcing us to become aware. In order for there to be understanding, we must clearly see what is taking place within us and around us, from one moment to the next, even if this requires a great deal of energy. Of course I am not speaking here of exertion; it doesn’t come from exertion, but rather from great spiritual energy.
When there is awareness of the body, we often sit up straight. We are suddenly interested in what is here right now, in what is taking place right now: we are open to everything around us. We do not know what is happening, but we are ready for anything. In our learned ways of seeing things, on the other hand, everything is already known and stored away in memory; we just start up the program and let it run. With awareness, everything is new. This very moment is new. It has never before existed and will never again come into being. Old, learned programs would not be possible without the present moment, because part of what we experience will be held onto as memories, in the moment, and put away in the huge storehouse of memory. These experiences then become part of the content of memory, and can be called upon unconsciously: we are ready to act automatically, without thinking. Anything which is new and goes against this automatic way of behaving opens up for us the possibility of knowing, of true change from moment to moment, through understanding. Understanding is not the same as learning. It happens spontaneously and always in the here and now.
And so we have week-long meditation retreats: to open ourselves to what is here and now, to become aware from moment to moment. What is beautiful about it is that you don’t have to do anything – it happens all by itself. This you can observe firsthand. Even when you are lost in thought and suddenly wake up, for just a moment, and see that you are sitting in the meditation hall. Please look for yourselves: is it not so, that such a moment of waking up always takes place on its own?
But we are conditioned. We think we have to work hard to make something happen. We think we have to practice, that we need a step-by-step program for there to be change. We were brought up his way. In school we had courses to take and subjects to master – a lot of hard work. And even when our school days are long behind us, still, in almost all our daily activities, there is always something to learn, to practice and store away.
So is awareness something we can practice, to use the word in its usual meaning? You can practice concentration, for example, concentrating on your body or on your breathing. You then focus on something and block out the rest. You can train yourself to focus your attention. We need to be able do this: someone who doesn’t know how to concentrate cannot undertake complex tasks requiring a sustained mental effort. When one is engaged in spiritual work especially, it can often almost completely fill up our consciousness. There is no room left for the present moment. Work takes up so much space in the body-mind that you would not be able to master it, if everything else that makes up the moment were present. Concentration shuts out the present moment. You get lost in your work and then suddenly wake up in front of your computer screen and your back is all tense and stiff.
So how is awareness different? Is it also a kind of concentration? How can we find out? Can we ask ourselves this question right now, without trying to find an answer, but simply listen?
Concentration means that something is excluded. It means: “This, and nothing else!” But with awareness there is an opening, which means that choosing and excluding are in abeyance. We are not trying to see something special, but just open ourselves up to what is there from one moment to the next.
Does this lead to overload? Is it already too much? It often feels like that, when thoughts are racing through the mind and refuse to quiet down. Then come the accompanying emotions and feelings that are stirred up time and again by the endless flow of thought, and we feel unable to keep all of this in awareness. It feels like too much is there, for us to get into our little space of awareness. We don’t feel open but over-loaded. There is confusion rather than clarity. If that is awareness, we want no part of it. So what should we do?
There is nothing to do. We simply start with whatever is there right now, be it confusion, resistance, overload, whatever presents itself.
Is it possible, in the course of a seven-day retreat, for thoughts and feelings to quiet down, so that healing silence and clarity may appear? An important part of this process consists of simplifying our surroundings. In retreat, we cut back on the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We meditate here together, in silence. When we go for walks, we keep the silence. Talking, TV, radios, cell phones – we are awash in sound every day of our lives. We turn the machines off, insofar as possible. We just let them be. But how can we do this with our over-active minds?
When you are used to the mind chugging along at full blast and churning out thoughts, it does not stop just because we want it to. Suddenly we realize that we are going against Nature itself: there is stillness in Nature, but not within. The inner hubbub of thought disturbs and drowns out the silence of Nature.
There are different meditation practices that seek to cut thoughts off, or at the very least to quiet them down. Anyone who has found that his practice works would of course like to use it here in retreat. Even though I myself sometimes focus on the breathing to quiet down thinking, I don’t recommend spending too much time doing this, because every practice brings with it additional activity. Is it possible for us to look here and now at what takes place within when we engage in such a practice?
Not only is there no awareness, but we are trying to accomplish something through willpower. We exercise control and check regularly to see if we are staying with the breathing and if we are doing it right. This just adds to the existing flow of thought. For example, we hope that there will be fewer thoughts because of our practice, and that the endless, automatic flow of thought will finally diminish. So the practice has complicated things instead of helping bring about inner silence. But look at this for yourself, and decide what is helpful and what is not.
It’s wonderful when you pay attention to the body and things just quiet down. You work at your practice and perhaps find yourself in a quieter state of mind. When this body-mind quiets down somewhat, whether all by itself or through a spiritual practice, is it possible to go deeper in this state of attentiveness, without trying to bring things into focus, without trying to choose, and just listen?
Something opens up, a space of awareness in which everything is taking place but you are not doing anything. There is nothing to exclude, neither thoughts nor feelings. To understand what is taking place within, from moment to moment, needs a choiceless awareness. When there is too much going on, we are overwhelmed, but when the body-mind quiets down, there is room for everything. Then you can see what is taking place from moment to moment, and see at once what gets you worked up or angry. We observe the anger as it arises. Is this possible?
In awareness, events are not just taking place automatically, like in the daydreams we lose ourselves in so much of the time. Instead, we see the thoughts, images and imaginings as they arise. They come up even as we sit here and meditate!
You can consciously experience emotions as feelings that come up in the moment, and see the effect they have on the body. We don’t get stuck in anger: we become aware that anger is there. Can you see the difference? This is what I mean when I say, that, in awareness, there is a direct seeing and knowing. Something is experienced and learned.
Nothing theoretical from our experience is stored away in memory. Instead, the body-mind itself learns from what is seen directly, from one moment to the next. It is wonderful to behold just what is there – no need to evaluate or to put thing in order, no need to do anything at all. Anything you do with the content of this inner show just adds to it and complicates matters further. Can you just be passive for a moment and not act or do anything? Not making something out of what is taking place brings with it simplicity, clarity and transparency.
Always wanting to know, to act, to evaluate, is a deeply ingrained habit. Often, it is a reflex and we first become aware of it when we are right in the middle of it. When we are judging and acting, in that very moment, is it possible to see what is actually taking place? Can you see your own desires? Imagining how things should be, and the feeling of conflict in the gut because things are not going your way- can you feel that, just look and see it, right now? Can you not give in to the desire to act, but just see without knowing, which means seeing without thinking about it? This is true awareness, in which everything reveals itself just as it is, in the moment.
In a moment of true seeing, one is astonished to realize that we always want things to be other than they are. Only rarely does this comparison between things as they are with things as we would like them to be, take place. As though you could change the world by sheer force of thinking… But, in our everyday state of awareness, we are so filled up with thinking that it seems impossible to look at what is going on within, even for a moment.
True awareness is thus possible when it arises from not-knowing, not-doing, not-acting; where everything that arise or occurs can be seen.
It isn’t a bad thing, when we drift back, when we unconsciously relapse. Maybe the awareness will return all on its own. Right here and now, we can see that it happens like that. We get lost in our thoughts and memories, in the inner show. We don’t know how this happens, and then suddenly, there is another moment of awareness. It is an awakening. I didn’t do this, because I was lost in my thoughts and images. There was no one doing anything, only a story running along on its own, unconsciously, with no connection to the here and now. And then it happens, spontaneously, no transition, with no recognizable cause. I’m back, and I can see that the whole running narration was just me, remembering, just memories.
Is it not wonderful how this waking up always comes back? Waking up and spontaneous awareness are one and the same. Without glossing over anything, there unfolds a direct seeing of what is taking place from one moment to the next, here and now. This waking up is given to us over and over again, like a gift.
But often as not, we don’t find it astonishing and wondrous, but trivial or even a bother. For a brief moment, perhaps we feel unwell. Maybe we’re not happy with what’s there, in the moment, and just move on to the next story. Thinking about the moment has crept in, followed by not feeling quite right, and all this pulls us away from the here and now.
Is it possible to understand that awareness does not fit into the categories of “pleasant” or “unpleasant”, and that it merely throws light upon what is happening at that very moment, as it unfolds? Is it possible to acknowledge this moment of waking up when it occurs? Can we just let it be, and embrace the wonder of it, even when it feels unpleasant? Just “I’m there again”, and simply be in the here and now.
When you find yourself becoming judgemental, simply see the judgemental thoughts arising and not let yourself get caught up in them. See how the memories and the old stored up knowledge is pulling you in this direction and not fall in to the trap. Stay in the moment, which is always born anew. Stay with the calling of the cranes (the calling of the cranes can be heard again).
To ask a question in a meditative manner
But what to do when you are carried away by an especially clear and important memory? Most of the time you don’t choose what to remember. The ebb and flow of memory brings with it images and thoughts, which are accompanied by feelings of joy, fear, or anger.
So what do you do when the story takes over? Do we have to repeatedly and unconsciously get caught up in this closed loop of thoughts and feelings that take up all the space, so that the cycle just carries on, without awareness? Do we really have to get caught up in this cycle of discontent that doesn’t lead anywhere?
What is it about these memories that make them take up so much space? Is this a helpful question to ask, one that can bring us out of the discontent and into the light? To ask a question in a meditative manner, as I understand it, means that the question is born of genuine interest and always comes out of the present moment. And so we ask ourselves why these old stories get us so worked up, and what on earth they have to do with the here and now?
Most of the time these webs of thought and feeling are so tenuous and unfocussed that it is hard even to formulate a question. I used to simply ask myself: “What is important for me, in my life, right now?”
When you ask a question that comes out of meditation, it is important not to seek an answer to the question. Is it then possible to stay with a question about a story that really bothers you, that cuts to the bone, in stillness and in silence?
That means nothing to fret over and no answer to be found. Can you just listen in silence, in the light of the question, rather than grasp for an answer in thought? Is it then possible to stay with a question in the here and now, in stillness and silence, and not getting entangled in a story about answers?
Thoughts and feelings that are part of the question can just dissolve. One mustn’t strive to find an answer; it is enough to just ask the question and then let the silence and stillness do their work. Is there something taking place because of the question? Let it open like a flower and remain in the silence and stillness!
Sometimes, when you sit quietly with the question in this manner and do the serious work of meditation, instead of a concrete answer coming up, there is peace and clarity. I have seen this for myself. The body quiets down and the confusion dissipates.
When we’re busy with something, we’re used to getting lost in our question-answer story. A lot of the time we’re unconsciously stuck back in the past. We become unaware that we are no longer the person we were back then and that we are here, in a safe place, meditating.
When childhood memories are involved, it makes a huge difference as to whether you become so lost in these old feelings and thoughts that you don’t know where you are anymore, or actually see, here and now, that all this old stuff is just memories, just images and feelings.
The most vital part of asking a question in meditation consists of remaining in the here and now, and looking to see just what it is in these old memories that still holds us in its grip. A situation that was perhaps threatening in your childhood may be something quite different now. We are grown-ups now and can stand on our own two feet, and this can throw new light on the old memories – the light of here and now.
When you ask yourself what is really important, right now, can you perhaps pick up on the doubts that are part of the question, and scrutinize the underlying hopes and desires? Can you do this? Are you really present in the moment? Can you see how some old need from the past that doesn’t mean anything anymore just takes over?
In asking a meditative question, can we see what old, hidden stories still hold sway over us? Feelings of fear and inadequacy often have their roots in the distant past. Even so, they still torment us. When you clearly see this happening, the old feelings can just drop away on their own. Always, when some old story rises to the surface and is clearly seen, these old habits and programs are swept away, and you are made free. You don’t have to carry all this old stuff around with you. And the amazing thing is that nothing more has to be done, when something has been seen and understood. Things fall into place all by themselves. There is clarity, and feelings can quiet down.
True inner stillness, the kind we look for in retreat, comes about when all the pressing questions and problems lurking just under the surface are seen, and seen through. The noise within recedes, and we are free: there is just the beauty of the sunlight, the leaves moving in the wind, all that is just present, there, before us. The calling of the cranes passes freely through us, nothing comes in between. Everything is alive and intense like never before. It is truly wonderful.
It is the world undivided that we were always seeking. It was always there. We just didn’t see it.
Every moment is new, even when you’re lost in thought. But you can always count on another moment of awakening, and with it another chance to be aware and to understand what is taking place from one moment to the next – not what you want or would like there to be, but just what is.