by Stephan Bielfedt
Day 3, October 2016 Retreat,Schlagsülsdorf, Germany
Translated by Robert Watson
When you are still, and thoughts and feelings have quieted down, what else is there, really? Maybe you are just going for a walk, and the stillness comes into awareness. Then there is just walking, the sound of your steps, your breathing, the lovely red berries on the bushes, the sun breaks through the clouds and disappears again, the cold wind caresses your face. There is just this awareness, and there are no questions. There is nothing to explain, nothing is required, everything is already there, in fullness and emptiness.
Often, the stillness is there for only a moment, and then the thoughts return, and memories follow, one after the other, pictures in the mind, and with the thinking come feelings, desires, needs, fears. Experiencing the silence gives rise to a question: what is this simple state of being in which the “ I “ is absent? Is there some separate being, an “ I “ that exists at all? What exactly is taking place?
In the course of a week-long meditation retreat, it is good to look within and spend time with these questions. Who is this person we call, “ I “, and who are you? What are other people? What are we, from one moment to the next? Can we find clear answers to these questions, or are the answers we find just imaginings? Not only does the question of who we come up time and again, but many thoughts of how we would like to be and what we would like to achieve in life also come up. We are ourselves at the center of most existential questions, and we ask these questions not only because we are interested, but also out of a feeling of distress. Who am I? Where did I come from? What will become of me?
Do we ask ourselves such questions in full awareness? Most of the time we do not. We may be aware that these questions and worries are already present, without consciously thinking about them. When they do swim up into our consciousness, it’s like a puzzling problem that we suddenly become aware of.
Is it possible for us to ask these existential questions here and now, in a meditative manner? This means that we are not actively looking for answers, rather we just ask the question and then carefully look at what comes up.
Let us together look into an existential question that just came into my mind: what are we humans, and what is it that makes us human? This spring I read an interesting article in a science magazine, Spektrum der Wissenschaft (the German version of Scientific American) about the development of mankind over the last fifty thousand years or so. I was amazed. Back then, we were just a small group of so-called modern men living in a corner of south-east Africa. About sixty thousand years ago, our ancestors increased greatly in numbers and, in an amazingly short period of time, spread out over the entire world. Other species of humans had appeared before us – the Neanderthals in western and northern Europe, and Denisova man in Asia; they had been around for tens of thousands of years already. Then our species came out of Africa and, in about thirty thousand years, settled the whole of Europe and Asia. Even the scientists researching this phenomna were stunned: How could this have taken place so quickly? And the settling of the Americas went even faster. About fourteen thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, when the sea-bottom was exposed and there was a land-bridge between Asia and North America, where there is now the Bering Strait, archeological findings tell us that it took perhaps only a thousand years for mankind to settle the whole of North and South America. Suddenly, in the archaeological record, we find traces of modern man, all the way from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. This sounds like a success story, but most success stories have a dark side. This wave of migration doomed the earlier species of man: about thirty thousand years ago, the Neanderthals died out in Europe, as did Denisova-man in Asia.
It is still not clear exactly what happened. Did modern man deprive them of their habitat, did climate change at the end of the last Ice Age wipe them out, or did both of these factors come into play? At any rate, we modern men, in an amazingly short period of time, took the whole of Eurasia for ourselves and then settled North and South America as well, which up until then had not been inhabited. At the same time, there was a major evolutionary break in the animal world: the so-called megafauna, the big animals that roamed freely throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas, died off. Climate change is suspected to be the cause, but there are clear signs that hunting by modern man also played a role.
So why am I talking about all this? What has this to do with the existential questions modern man is asking himself? In the article, the researchers said that modern man possesses two characteristics which explain how we were able to so quickly spread out over all the continents. An essential trait was the ability to create tools and technologies for the hunt. Man created the atlatl, a spear-thrower, which was a wooden socket into which the spear butt was placed, to make the throwing arm longer. With the spear- thrower, a spear could be thrown twice as far as without. This was the first tool made just for the hunting of big animals.
But the main assertion of the researchers dealt with modern man’s mental abilities. The development of certain social skills would apparently explain how we were able to spread out over the whole world with such astonishing speed. Around that time, we were already organised into groups clearly larger than the family unit. Men hunted in groups, and hunting in groups meant that we were more successful than the predators we were competing with. But there was also warlike aggression within these larger, organized groups. Within these early groups of modern humans, there was already a kind of solidarity that did not by and large exist in other species of early man, an altruism among members of the group which increased the chances of individual survival. There is evidence that groups had clearly defined borders defended through warfare. So stronger groups could conquer bigger territories, and less well-organized groups of other human species, or smaller and weaker groups of modern man, had to give way. Modern man, with his higher degree of cooperation, then spread out into still unoccupied territories and settled there. As soon as there was competition in a given territory because of the expansion of other groups of modern men, the weaker groups again had to retreat, and so modern man swiftly spread out into new lands. The other species of man were presumably under great pressure, nor were they as successful at settling new territories. However, the speed with which modern man was able to spread out into new territories was mainly the result of competition between groups of modern men.
It seems that our success as a species arises from two diametrically opposed abilities: the pronounced ability to live peacefully together within a group, and the ability to act with coordinated agressitivity towards external threats (like other groups of men), even going to war.
This throws light on the human character, but there is darkness as well as light within. In spite of this, can we find the courage to look within ourselves, to see if these two extremes are still there? Can we see that the two extremes are there, but also the possibility of coming together? To help one another, and feel a bond with others who are not part of the tight family circle? Most of us feel the deep and abiding need to belong to a group. When we belong to a group, we have an identity, and we are prepared to protect our group from outside threats, even if we have to be aggressive. If we have an identity, the world is split in two – there is me and there is the rest of the world, me and others.
As I was thinking about the article, it became clear to me that, what we discover within ourselves and cannot fully understand because there are so many contradictions, is part of our DNA: we owe our success as a species to our biology, to our genetic make-up. Animals are territorial by nature; they say: “ This is my turf“, and they defend it from others of their species. Birds say it in song: „ I’m building my nest here, don’t come too close. This is my hunting ground.“ The notion of territoriality existed among animals long before man showed up. But our ability to identify with a group, a territory, or a nation, appears to be uniquely human and, as we know, somewhat dangerous. All wars born of nationalism come from this “We“, from this nation that is more enlightened or more important than others, and that goes to war to increase in size at the expense of other nations. It is the identification with a group, with a nation, which unleashes this powerful energy that can be so destructive. Of course, this energy can be used to build as well as to destroy, but we only ever build for ourselves, never for others. This sense of belonging to a group is so much part of our make-up that it shapes our way of thinking and behaving.
Can we look at this more closely? Who are we, from the psychological point of view? Usually, when we ask ourselves this question, our life story comes up loud and clear. This is my story, the one I identify with: I come from such and such a place, this is where I was born, this is what I studied, these are my successes and failures, my life experiences, which I try to make sense out of as best I can. Our life stories are made up of memories and images, thought-pictures, and what is of special significance when we speak of the ego is this: it never presents itself simply as a fact. There is always identification: I am that. These are my moral concepts, my rights, my needs, what set me apart from others, my strengths and weaknesses, where I can’t keep up, where others out-perform me, my shortcomings. Is this the stuff our ego is made up of – an endless string of identities?
And then the ego extends outwards to include my family, my partner, my children, my future, maybe my company, my property and then, finally – my country. This means that while a bird, for example, limits itself to a little territory that it defends from others of its own species, in order to protect its food supply, we can extend our identities outwards, and there are no limits. Once we have established our identity and say, „“This is mine, this belongs to me“, we set about defending it. This is almost a reflex.
I can give you an example. Sometimes my name is mis-spelled. Almost every time this happens, I get get slightly angry. „“That’s the wrong spelling! My name is not written like that!“ Being quick to rise to anger shows that, to some degree, I still identify with my name.
Is it possible to directly observe these forms of identification, of which we have literally thousands? At least in the very moment when anger first shows itself? And is it possible to refrain from trying to explain it in words, and to work out why identifying is taking place? Seeing is enough, and the best place for it to happen is here, in the silence and stillness of retreat, when such moments arise in memory.
Can we also ask ourselves who was hurt, who was wounded, and who has to be defended? When we ask ourselves this question, in all earnestess, most often, no answer comes up, or we say to ourselves, “I was the one who was hurt, not somebody else. If I don’t assert myself, what will become of me?“
But is it necessary to assert yourself? Of course, there are times when you must. Our very existence can be threatened by words, as when others threaten our place in society, or perhaps even threaten to exclude us from our social group. There was a time when being excluded from our group was almost a death sentence. Strong feelings of self-assertion are part of our nature, but the important thing is to see and understand what is happening, when this nearly automatic reflex leads us astray.
So is it possible to look directly at the words that hurt us, from one moment to the next? Who, or what, was hurt? Do we react in an appropriate, in a reasonable manner?
I find myself remembering something that happened some years back. At the time, I had reached a point where I thought there were not many things left in my everyday life that could elicit feelings of being hurt. But then something happened, and this is perhaps as good a place as any to talk about it.
In my free time, I do Tae Kwon Do. This means that, like in Tai Chi, there is a series of carefully laid out movements you have to go through, but unlike Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do requires a great deal of bodily strength. After years of training, I took part in a competition to see how I measured up.
This is what it looks like: you go out into a marked-off area in a gym, with a score-keeper at each corner of the performance area. Each judge has cards with numbers on them, which they hold up at the end of the performance, like in figure-skating. You get into position, go through the movements, and then the judges hold up their cards with their marks. At the end of my performance, I looked at the marks and thought: “Oh oh, not so good. I got marked low.“ It wasn’t all that clear to me at the time, but I felt sort of sick to my stomach. And then I saw that another competitor who I thought was nowhere near my level had gotten better marks. My self-image took a beating. I thought that my performance was better and that I had been treated unfairly.
I think this is a pretty typical example of what we all go through at one time or another, but in my case, it took place in public. There were judges and spectators watching me, with a critical eye or wishing me well. You put yourself out there, do your best, and then feel under-appreciated. It doesn’t matter whether the scores were fair or not. It seems to me that the feeling of being hurt doesn’t really have much to do with the situation at hand.
So how do we handle this kind of hurt? Maybe you get stubborn and say: So be it. And then you train really hard with the hope of getting the recognition you deserve next time around. Often as not, we just chalk it up to experience and it becomes part of the long series of rejections and disappointments we have already experienced in life, and then we try to avoid such situations in the future. We concede defeat, and then most likely try to rationalize the whole thing, by way of explaining what really happened. We’re not guilty, someone else is. The judges were incompetent, or they were using an unfair marking system. We’re great rationalizers. In order to build ourselves up and be in the right, we interpret events in such a way as to put ourselves in the best possible light. Or we do the opposite, and use the incident to bring ourselves down. We say: You never were very good at Tae Kwon Do anyway, and you’re way too old to compete. Our mind is wonderfully, endlessly inventive at making sense of what happens to us. After a longish, mostly unconscious processing of what has happened, everything is made sense of and stored away in drawers as part of one’s life story. And then, when we ask ourselves who we are, these many, carefully constructed stories come to the surface and we have the feeling: that’s me.
But is this the truth? Do we weave our identities out of our life experiences, which we arrange in a certain sequence, to which we attribute value and worth, and which we indeed identify with? An illusion made up of images, a product of our imagination? Everything caught up in an endless, repetitive loop, with the accompanying emotions, and above all, with the need to assert oneself? To avoid future hurt, and with great intelligence, we build defensive walls around ourselves to shield us from situations that could cause us harm. We do not suffer bodily harm, but when the ego suffers, we react as though someone were trying to kill us. Being attacked in this sense usually means that, in our everyday life, someone uses words that harm our self-image: the ego suffers. Now I am not that saying being attacked with words cannot cause us harm, just because words are not actual knives. This is not what is meant. Slander or spiteful language can destroy a career and wreck relationships. You can’t say that’s harmless. But in spite of this, can we see how much we ourselves are part of what happens at such moments, and how simple a thing our identity is? What is being attacked is an idea, an image we have of ourselves. Is that all we are? Are we just a collection of ideas and images we identify with and defend? Is that what the ego is?
When we build up walls around ourselves to fend of attacks and stand up against others, our ability to show compassion or empathy is greatly hindered or outright stifled. Instead, we cultivate a feeling of separateness: this is what I am and these are my needs, and other people are quite separate from me. They can cause me harm and must be kept at a distance. I have to find ways to assert myself, I must defend myself from those around me.
The only attachments to others are within: these are my people, the people I care for, this is my group, my family, my sangha, these are the people I identify with.
We shut out other people, those we call “others“, and the people who belong to our circle, who are part of this bloated entity we call the ego, these people we hold close.
So what are we, really? When we delve into the ideas and images we have of ourselves, and carefully examine the mental projections and all that which makes up our identity, we do not find a solid center, a still point. We identity with one thing today and another tomorrow. Personally, I have never found anything firm and solid among all the things I identify with, nor any stable underpinnings for my life.
But I have discovered that all this identifying and defending and the worry and aggressiveness that arises from it can come to a halt, and that all of my self-images can drop away, at least for a while. The feelings of separate-ness that shut out other people and make me feel alone, they too can dissolve into the silence.
We don’t come to this awareness by perfecting the ego, by stopping up all the holes in our defences and making it impossible for others to hurt us. It can happen, when our defences fall and we accept that we can indeed be hurt by others. Suddenly, it becomes possible for us to function differently in our everyday lives. Without our trying to make it happen, our sense of separation from others disappears. Effortlessly, warm feelings of affection and connectedness with others replace the impulse to defend and protect. When our vulnerability and the need to defend give way, our best qualities shine forth. We suddenly have empathy for others, and there is room for understanding our fellow man.
Our bodies are like musical instruments that resonate effortlessly and in a perfectly natural way to the feelings of those around us. Nature has made us thus. There are mirror neurons in our brain. These are systems of cells that enable us to experience the emotions of others as if they were our own. I can see you’re sad, and I can feel your sadness physically, in my very body: your sadness is present in me. This kind of emotional resonance manifests when there is no overlay of strong feelings of separation. Without the possibility of understanding other people in this direct manner, through empathy and by literally experiencing the selfsame feelings as those around us, true understanding between men would just not be possible. Words can only go so far. This is especially clear when we communicate through the written word; emails and texting are fast and easy, and they often give rise to gross mis-understandings. This is just an exchange of thoughts. When we meet face to face, then there is a chance for direct understanding – there is body language we can pick up on. When there is openness and the possibility that we may be hurt, then there is a coming together, and this finely tuned instrument which is the body feels what the person in front of us is experiencing. Then, genuine affection, empathy and love have a chance to manifest. They arise unbidden.
There are these wonderful Buddhist meditation practices in which the practitioner evokes feelings of loving-kindness towards others, indeed, towards the whole world. But this can only happen when there is inner stillness, when the whole structure of the ego is clearly seen and understood, and quiescent. When the walls come down, empathy and feelings of affection towards others are naturally present.
So, can you just be “no one“? Is it possible for our great network of identities and stories of self to become still, all by itself? You cannot make it happen, it has to take place all by itself. It happens when the structure of the ego is clearly seen, through and through, when not even the smallest particle remains. All of a sudden, we don’t take ourselves so seriously, and perhaps even smile at this great assemblage of identities and stories about ourselves. The body quiets down. There is a feeling of connectedness, and our feelings of loneliness and suffering go away. We live in relationship to others, without wanting anything from them, indeed, without the need to get anything or be anything at all. Is there such a freedom, in which one doesn’t have to be anything special? See for yourself if this is possible.
Maybe, after such a moment of stillness in which we find we are no one at all, there comes the fear that we may not be able to survive such openness and vulnerability. Are we really being delivered helplessly into the hands of some dark power? There is intelligence in this seeing, in this sensitive openness to hurt. We are not just blindly delivering ourselves into the hands of our enemies. This doesn’t mean that you just sit back and take it when someone tears into you. When there is something which has to be done, this can be seen, and then our actions come from the clarity of seeing and not from the ego, purely and simply. Our built-up ego leads us to create barriers between ourselves and others, and to create defensive strategies to keep others at a distance and protect us. This is what isolates us from others, what makes us unhappy and disconnected, and not the clarity of insight which comes from direct understanding of what has to be done in the moment.
Sitting here in the hall, breathing quietly, seeing the sunlight, being aware of our bodily sensations and the people around us – who or what else more do we need? We don’t have to be anyone special. It is enough to simply be part of this amazing stream of life, to not feel apart from it, not wanting anything, nothing lacking.