by Stephan Bielfeldt
Autumn had arrived, and it brought with it a cold and biting wind that cut right through me as I walked through the little park. The grass was wet and I felt a chill, even though I was wearing warm boots and an insulated jacket. This feeling of discomfort lingered a while, and when all of a sudden I heard the geese far overhead. A moment later a big flock of geese came into view. There must have been a hundred of them. They were being carried along by strong winds and kept breaking into constantly changing V-shapes of about twenty birds each. They were constantly talking to one another, the lead bird honking first and the others answering his call, as though they were saying „ We’re still here, we’re keeping up! And I thought, ‘What a show they’re putting on!’. They were flying with a purpose, these birds, making their way south, fleeing the cold and lack of food up here in the north. They were so strong and determined, and at the same time vulnerable and so sweet I was very moved, and really felt I was one with these birds that were so full of life! At the same time, I felt a strong feeling of joy, and for a moment I too was part of the flock flying south.
Someone in the group asked: “This longing we have for some kind of spiritual nourishment, a coming home, an opening up of the heart. . . Is this just a longing, or is there really someplace within where we can experience true fulfillment, that is one and whole and where there is no separation from others, a place where the desire to be other than we are is quiescent, where all our conflicts are resolved? Is there such a thing as a place that is sacred, holy even, because we become whole when we are there? Or is it just a place we long for, and we find ourselves longing for this place, we feel apart, unfulfilled, incomplete, always trying to get there but never reaching our goal. Can we get there? If so, how?”.
Instead of answering right off, let us take a look at the question. Where exactly do we find ourselves? What kind of world do we live in? Let’s look at this together to see how we perceive the world, and how our understanding of the world constantly changes over time, but also for us personally as we get older. The world we live in today, and that we accept as true has become endlessly bigger and ever more infinite. Science has given us many answers about who we are and where we are, but science has not united us in brotherly love, has it? Quite the contrary: finding ourselves adrift in infinite space give us a feeling of being utterly insignificant. Our sun finds itself on the edge of a galaxy, one of millions, an average star in a spiral galaxy made up of hundreds of millions of stars. It will burn for billions of years until it is completely consumed and then go dark. Our little planet Earth circles the sun, and down here on Earth our little circumscribed lives play out. This great expanse of space and time is immeasurably vast. We now know that the universe came into being about 13 ½ billion years ago in what we call The Big Bang. We live in the midst of an explosion, in an immense vastness of space that is expanding outwards ever faster, so fast that the light of The Big Bang has still not travelled all the way across. Even our biggest telescopes are unable to bring the most distant reaches of the universe into view, because in theory, only the objects the light from which has already reached us may be seen. When astronomers turn their mightiest telescopes, like the Hubble, onto areas of what appears to be empty space, to the naked eye and even in smaller instruments, and collect the light long-enough, countless thousands of galaxies, Milky Ways like ours, swim into view, billions of light years away. Our sister galaxy we can see with binoculars, right here in our little park, if you stand out on the grass. The Andromeda Galaxy is two and a half million light years away, just a fuzzy speck in the night sky, quite unremarkable, but it is an island universe containing hundreds of millions of stars. We look out from our Milky Way, made up of hundreds of million so stars, at an even bigger Milky Way. Endless space and time, because the light we get from the Andromeda galaxy left there two and half million years ago. It looks like all this has nothing at all to do with our little lives down here on Earth. How can we feel at one with such an immense universe? Can this possibly be a place where we feel at home? Perhaps there is a feeling of belonging but it is not deep enough. Let us look at this together. But what does this sense of belonging look like? We all live in a body, or are a body, as far as we can see. What we do know is that this body is a marvel. It is made up of countless cells, the endless and complex renewal of which is hard for us to grasp. There are hundreds of billions of cells just in the brain, that is a little galaxy all in itself. Every year thousands upon thousands of scientific articles are published in scientific journals that deal with neuro-science, but only a fraction of them will add to our understanding of how the brain actually works. Whether science has ever established how our thoughts, feelings and actions come into being, is most questionable. It would appear that our understanding of these matters remains superficial. Even scientists of repute often have differing opinions about what they do not know or understand.
Do the answers of science bring us a feeling of belonging or of Oneness? Many scientists on the contrary experience fear in the presence of that which can neither be known or understood. What they can communicate though is their astonishment and awe before the complexity and immensity of the universe. And they teach us also that it is presumptuous to say, “I am the master of this body”, as though one could be in command of that which one can neither control or nor even in the most rudimentary way, understand.
But how can we find something to grasp onto? Where can we find Oneness, where can we abide and be loved? Can religious belief give us the answers? Whatever our religious beliefs may be, there is much division of opinion. For some, belief is made up of rules and for living and sacred words and sacred texts, which are accepted as absolute truth. For others, it consists of reaching an understanding of our own existence which cannot be explained in a logical manner. Etymologically, „religio“ means „respect“, but also „mindful“. It points to finding a link to the Divine, a link we may have had at one time and then lost. Is such a thing possible? Can we find a path to the Divine through belief? If logic can’t help, then what can? Sometimes I think of Taoism, in which the concept of ”Tao“ describes the mystery that is the ground of all existence. Anything that can be said about the Tao is not the absolute Tao. The true Tao lies beyond being and not-being. It is ungraspable, mysterious, and is neither being nor not-being. It belongs neither to things that exist nor to things that do not exist. Our thinking mind throws up its hands and can go no further. So what does all of this mean? Our thinking mind stumbles and comes to a halt. It can go no further. And this is perhaps the most important lesson to come out of these mysterious philosophies, namely that thought, and all ideas of self and of understanding of the self, have their limits, and there comes a time when they can go no further. They come to a stop and can no longer explain anything at all. The thinking mind works just fine in our everyday life, but when it comes to delving into the sacred and exploring the nature of the universe, it is condemned to failure.
And so we come back to our original question: what sustains us? Is there such a thing as a place that is whole and sacred, a place of Oneness, beyond thought and all imagining?
With this we come to the notion of enlightenment, which occupies a central role in Buddhism. And what is enlightenment? Does enlightenment meant that we have reached our goal? Are the fires of our longing extinguished? When we imagine what enlightenment is like, we summon up beautiful pictures of it. The burden of care is lifted off our shoulders and we earn fundamental understanding. We are in control, and endless joy and endless energy wells up from within. That’s the way it is described in many a book on Buddhism. And so our sense of longing has found something new to long for: Enlightenment, something that in one fell swoop explains how this amazing world works. Can we see that these imaginings are just mental constructs? Everything I have said thus far comes from the thinking mind. I have used many words to describe, to give examples and to create images. But what is the real thing? What is it that lies beyond word and description? If it exists, then it is beyond words and descriptions, and we are trying to reach a goal, is it not so? We live in expectation: we expect to get something from a wise man, or through strenuous effort, or by the grace of God. Working hard at my meditation comes from the idea that I can attain something through strenuous effort.
Every image we create gives us a burst of energy and makes us feel good, for a while. This is how ideas and concepts work. After a while the idea or the concept has lost its appeal and not given us anything, so and we start looking for something new.
We are always on the lookout for something that will satisfy our sense of longing. When we find that we have no real kinship or link with other people who are engaged in spiritual work, then we turn to family and friends, or to husband and wife. But we come to see that, when they cannot provide us with this feeling of Oneness, then neither can anyone else. Relationships based on conditions and requirements on both sides often lead to conflict. Having different opinions and expectations and defending different positions often makes us feel separated from others. When there is disagreement, we become suspicious of others and take it for granted that they have their own agendas, so we go back to our own personal, selfish pursuits. You go your way and I go mine. It’s important to look out for yourself because no one else will. Sometimes you have to toot your own horn, no one will do it for you! It’s important to look out for yourself because warm feelings of love and of Oneness always arise from within. They come from the heart. Also, we treat others the same way we treat ourselves. When we don’t like ourselves, when we are hard on ourselves and put ourselves down and have low self- esteem, then we carry these feelings over to others. How can we have a feeling of harmony and oneness with others? We have a driving need, an urge, to belong. We want to have relationships in which we feel loved and understood and in which we can abide. But this only comes about when a feeling of connectedness and the ability to love are already present.
And we still don’t have an answer to our question: is there something that is truly holy, our true home? Is there really and truly a sacred place or way of being wherein we are indeed holy and complete, and there is nothing lacking?
Everything I have said thus far has pointed to limits and limitations. Perhaps my words have made it clear that all of our efforts to find Oneness, through others or through science, philosophy or religion gets us nowhere, other than to point to where we must look.
Can we find it within? The question then becomes: Who are we? What is the self? Yesterday we were saying that the self is a collection of ideas, images and identities. This cannot be the source of the sacred, this construct of the self with which we identify and which is separate from everything else. This is the very opposite of Oneness and the source of all disunity. But what is the true self? Is there something behind the self-construct? If we truly want to find out, we must be still and listen to the confusion within. This is what we are doing here in retreat: listening, becoming aware. Is it possible not to hold onto whatever manifests, but just look and see what comes up, from one moment to the next? Can we just see if we can quiet down and become still? Can this inner world of mental noise of thought and images, always front and center, always obscuring the awareness of this moment – can we somehow change course and veer away from it, so that we find ourselves grounded in silence and stillness? A state of stillness in which thoughts appear and disappear, like ripples on the surface of a pool, in which images and feelings, are like cat’s paws on the water. Impulses do not become actions, rather they are seen and then dissipate: we remain quiet and still and there is simply awareness, no need for an identity. We behold what is, from one moment to the next. Everything takes place in this stillness. We are beholding that which is there. But who is it that is looking? Is there someone looking? When there is stillness, then the observer is just a ripple on the surface of the water; it comes and goes. What I used to identify with is now seen to be just a sequence of thoughts and feelings that change from one moment to the next, they come and go. When stillness is there, then everything becomes imbued with this quiet, living energy.
The concepts and imaginings that cause us so much fear and worry, the fear that we may soon die or become an invalid or that something or another will happen to us- can we see that these fears are made up of thoughts and feelings that come and go in the Great Silence, that they are not our identity and that they are not going to gobble us up? Is such a thing possible? We do not know what death is. We only know what life is, from the very moment of birth on. We know what death is only because we see it happening to others, never having experienced it ourselves.
So many ideas, concepts, and images. We see ourselves as a doddering old man or woman in a wheelchair in an old-age home, ringing the bell and no one comes. Such images come and go. There are all these fears and worries we have about the future and about what will become of us. Is it possible for us not to be overwhelmed by all of this? By which I mean, is it possible for our awareness not to be completely overwhelmed and filled up with all these fear sand imaginings? Can they occur and leave the waters undisturbed? There is then a state of Stillness-in-Being and the possibility to see the endless parade of thought and image for what it is: just an endless show, an ever-changing display of thoughts, feelings and images.
Can we become more still here in retreat? When it is clear that all this worrying about oneself, about not being loved or accepted, can be seen for what it really is: just a stream of images and feelings here in the body? When we are in the moment, then our awareness can flourish. We recognize the feelings or image for what it is, but there is a difference: it subsides and fades away.
So who are we? Do we have to BE something? As long as we are trying to reach a goal, as long as there is this longing to find the sacred and the holy, then there is separation. When there is true stillness and we recognize our longing for what it is, as a feeling or an emotion, then there is clarity, there is awareness, and we are there.
The German mystic Johannes Tauler speaks of how to go about this work a number of times in his writings, and I should like to put what he says into my own words: if you want to know God, then you must make room for Him. This is a radical notion, an inner revolution. He means that all these ideas and feeling and images and emotions that make up the self, have to be quiescent, so that there is space, room for the sacred to enter in.
Does all of this make any sense to you? What is there, when we are not anything at all, when this underlying Stillness is there and everything that occurs is just a flowing energy, like waves on the surface of the water that come and go, and the waters are not disturbed? When the Stillness deepens, identity is absent, there is no self, no one there at all, and with this, no one seeking anything at all.
I just thought of something the Buddha is supposed to have said. To paraphrase, he said that he had achieved nothing from complete and full enlightenment, and that indeed this is what constitutes full enlightenment. Is it possible not to be anything or to try get anything? Is it possible to be no one, and just be with this amazing energy grounded in stillness and silence? One moment we want something or don’t want something, and then the wanting just goes away. . . But when no one is there, there are no needs or desires, nothing is lacking, so there is no sense of longing. Is this the place where we feel one and complete, where there is just this amazing flow of energy, in Stillness, a flowing of moments, from one to the next, and time does not exist? Can we also not look at what we want or at what we get, but rather do just the opposite, and try to see what there is that we don’t need, or how much we can do without? Can we become less that what we are here in meditation?
When this quiet, deep energy and stillness, in which everything takes place, is there in the foreground, then care and worry and needs suddenly disappear. We cannot say what enlightenment is or is not, or whether we have experienced a Unio Mystico – a Mystical Union – or not, because we are on longer there. This Stillness is beyond all concepts. A description of it is a desire to possess it, to hold onto it, which brings us right back to thinking and rationalizing. We are speaking of a place that cannot be reached through someone, through a person, like me. We enter into this inconceivable all-encompassing Awareness and Stillness where nothing is lacking. We are lost in it. Are we afraid of getting lost? We are inclined to hold fast onto our sense of self, which is a cage, but there is no need to be frightened, for there is no danger when it becomes truly still, even if it feels like dying.
So what is it like right now? Is there still a fear of losing oneself? Can the fear be seen as a cats’s paw on the still surface of a pool, as something transitory, that comes into being and then dissipates, when we abide in Stillness?
Look for yourself! Is that not also enlightenment? In the simple Present there is nothing to attain, nothing is missing.
Awareness is enough.