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Retreats in English

How Can Awareness Flourish in One's Daily Life?

by Stephan Bielfeldt

Edited by Robert Watson


Westerners became interested in Oriental meditation at the end of 19 c. and since World War II many different meditation schools have become established in the West, as Americans and Europeans who had learned how to meditate in Asia brought their meditation practices back home. At first, almost everyone tried to stick to the original traditions and rituals, but with time, changes were introduced in order to adapt the work of meditation to our Western needs. Traditional Oriental meditation is derived from religious systems like Hinduism, different schools of Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism. Western students were taught meditation within these religious systems, and had to become familiar with the beliefs, concepts, rituals and customs, which were part and parcel of these religions. It was no easy matter to distinguish between the essence of meditative work and the cultural context. To this end, a number of Western teachers have simplified their teaching styles, dropping the rituals, in part or completely, and attempting also to free their students from the cult of religious authority and the strictures of monastic life. Toni Packer was one of those who changed her way of teaching most radically, in order to retain only that which was absolutely necessary for meditative work. Coming from very strict, traditional Japanese Zen, she created a completely new style of teaching by transforming the ancient Indian atma-vicara (“Who am I?” self-inquiry) into an open inquiry. The essential element of her teaching is the non-concentrative silent retreat. For periods from one to ten days, small groups of not more than forty people come together to meditate in silence. These retreats are intense but gentle, and almost all those who take part in them say they feel changed by the experience. People say they feel more in touch with themselves and others, and with the world around them, after such a retreat. Quiet meditation gives us the energy to see more clearly what is going on within ourselves and in the world around us. This new energy and clarity usually stays with us for some time, and then fades in the days and weeks following the retreat, and people often find that they are soon back in their usual ways of doing things. And so it is a very important matter for the retreatants to try to discover how this clarity and energy can be kept alive in everyday life, and to understand better why it does not endure in our everyday lives devoted to work and family.

What is there to explore, and how do we go about it?

Here we want to delve more deeply into this essential question: “Why meditate, when attention quickly fades and we return to our usual mind-state, to our unconscious programming, habitual reactions and ways of relating to others, to a mind divided and incomplete?” We shall discover together, from scratch, the essence of meditative work, with the purpose of trying to see what can be brought over from our meditation into our everyday life. Is it possible for there being no difference between acting in a retreat and in one's everyday life? This leads us to look into the typically human expectations of what, or how, our daily life should be, and into the question of whether meditative energy is something that can be found in sitting meditation and then introduced into one's daily life.This is an invitation to you, the reader, to explore these questions. Can you find the time to do it? And as you read these words, can you be attentive to what is going on within you, to your thoughts and feelings, while staying in the moment? If thoughts and feelings come up, just stop reading for a moment and stay with whatever comes up. Is it possible to read without falling into a mechanical and unconscious way of reading? Try it for yourself: see if you can meditate even as you are reading now.

Our expectations

People tend to have many expectations when they first begin to meditate. There is the idea that the purpose of silent meditation is to control the mind and put a stop to thinking, which is felt to be confusing and exhausting. It is a popular belief that some clever form of will training will give the “I” all control over thought and emotions. Doing this on a regular basis, at home or with a group, or in a retreat, is said to strengthen one's self-control, so that eventually one will be able to control thinking, or even stop thinking, at will. The notion that will power and self-discipline give one the ability to control the mind is very popular with many schools of concentrative meditation. It is clear that this type of meditation is seen as a tool, which we can use in our daily life to control all the internal processes, thoughts and feelings that disturb us throughout the day.There is another very common expectation people have when starting to meditate. One has read books containing vivid descriptions of states of ecstasy and enlightenment. Since feelings of incompleteness, insufficiency, unhappiness and disconnectedness are so common for most of us, the hope of acquiring a tool, which can give us bliss and fulfillment that does not go away, is very seductive. Several traditional meditation systems, for example in Rinzai Zen, force the students to work extremely hard, using the stick-and-carrot tactics, holding out the promise that, as a reward, one day they will attain total freedom and enlightenment. People frequently go through years of training and struggle in order to attain these two most desired things: control, and enlightenment. When such people begin to meditate in Toni Packer’s style, it comes as a great relief to them not to have to struggle, as they have done before.

Meditating with an open mind

To see that one has failed to control the mind and has not attained more happiness in life is a good time to start questioning the whole process. Is it possible to set focus and goal aside, and start from not knowing? To start from not knowing means not seeking anything: there is no discipline to follow, no goal to attain. We like to speak of meditative inquiry. Not knowing is a state available to us all. When we do not know what to do nor what will happen, there is a natural straightening of the back and unfocused listening and watching take place. This we call awareness. It is an open seeing, hearing, smelling and touching – non-judgmental experiencing of whatever comes up. Our attention is not directed towards anything, because there is neither goal nor direction. The mind is open, alert and unprepared, and therefore ready for the unpredictable. In awareness, everything that happens is perceived in a new and fresh way. All our bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions and everything that comes to us from our senses, can be seen, felt, and experienced freely. Since there is no focus on anything, there is no disturbance. In this state, we can learn how we function from moment to moment. It is not just a state of not thinking, as thoughts are consciously seen, nor is it daydreaming.

In this state of not knowing, open questions present themselves. Meditative inquiry, which is done with an open mind, is very different from the usual way our minds work. We spend most of our time talking to ourselves inside our heads. We ask a question and then we answer it. We remember the answers of other people, judge everything in terms of true or false, and seek to confirm our beliefs. In meditative inquiry it is different. A question is put openly, for example, “Do we need to control our thinking?” we do not start thinking and looking for an answer, rather we just listen to what comes up in the light of this question. What comes up might also be thoughts, images, feelings, but we do not interpret, judge, accept or deny. We just look and listen. There is no process of identification going on. Feelings, thoughts and experiences happen in an open mind that has no preferences. This means that a specific thought is of no greater importance than our breathing, or the movement of the leaves outside the window. Does a feeling of disbelief arise, as you read these lines? If so, let us pause for a moment. As we continue reading, can we simply enter into this state of openness? It means becoming aware of what is, being simply aware of what is here and now. There is the breathing, our posture as we sit, all that we see and hear, and our bodily sensations. It is the coherent oneness of being alive, of being here. This is unique and simple, and it stays as long as thought has not identified with something. Everything is seen as phenomena, which have neither owner nor purpose. It stays, as long as we do not seek an owner or a purpose. One can stay with it even when reading slowly, have you noticed? Please, experiment with this: What brings it about? What makes it stop? Usually, after a brief moment, we are back to identifying, and the simple open mind of just being here with everything that is, is gone. Only in a new moment of attentiveness and awareness can we find out, that we were already lost in a habitual and narrow mental state. This is again a moment of awareness. If we stay habitual and identified, we have no access to this open mind. Only in the simple state of awareness are we aware that awareness is. True meditation is exploring with an open mind. This requires a great deal of time and tremendous energy. Most people don't seem to find it any easier, from concentrating hard following a strict meditative discipline. Maybe it is even more difficult for some goal-oriented persons, because there is no given goal, no promised reward. In our little experiment we have seen how simple and natural it is just to stay in open awareness for a little while, but we have also experienced how quickly we can lose this state. Nevertheless, it can happen, even when reading. Is your mind now bringing up questions like: “Is he writing about real meditation? Have I understood correctly? Is that simple state of awareness all, that meditation is about?” Please, become aware of such thoughts, if they appear. It is a discovery to see how judging comes up and the identifying mind takes over. Observe how everything becomes difficult and problematical with a mind that seeks to identify.Are you interested in exploring further? To do this, it is helpful to start some regular meditation work. Take some time to meditate in a quiet place and try it out. Usually, we only decide to devote time to some activity when we have a sense of its usefulness. Asking the question: “Does it make sense to meditate regularly?” is already meditation. You can ask the question now and listen openly to what is coming up. Ask this question without having an answer. Your inquiry may deepen into questioning the whole process of seeking. Meditative inquiry always goes one step deeper than the usual ways of exploration. Where does the interest for this inquiry come from? Nobody knows. But if it is there and feels so natural - just set some time aside to explore it.

Is regular meditation helpful?

When we try to find a quiet place to meditate and set aside the time, we find it is not an easy thing to do. In our daily lives, almost every moment of the day, from getting up in the morning until we go to bed at night, is filled with activity. It is as though we just cannot find the time to sit down quietly and listen to what is going on at the moment. It helps finding a regular period in your daily schedule of between 20-30 minutes, in the morning or in the evening, which you reserve for that. Having a daily routine may help.It is also good to find friends who are interested in this meditative work and meet regularly for meditating together. This could be for several hours once a week or even just once a month. The fact that it is done together with others deepens the commitment to this work.When you meditate at home, it is not absolutely necessary to have a meditation room set up with mats and cushions. It’s enough to just sit down on a sofa or in a chair and tell the people around you that you do not want to be disturbed. Just try to sit attentively. For that it helps sitting with a straight back and in a stable posture. When you sit – is it possible to just explore the moment? Can you become aware of how the body feels? Just let all the sounds, emotions, and thoughts happen. There is no need to focus on whatever comes up, nor do you have to close your eyes. Don’t try to capture anything with your senses. Become aware of everything that is there without excluding anything. It is not like a discipline with a set goal. It is simple being with what is, without a purpose. It is the everyday possibility of finding out something new, something unexpected and not anticipated. It is not necessarily exciting or extraordinary, but it helps us better to understand how we function. You might feel drowsy or tired, or weak and unfocussed, but that is what is there at that moment. Whatever appears, what you see, is what is really going on at that instant. Of course, you will drift away from awareness into unconscious thinking or imagining, or find yourself judging how poorly you are doing or how little meaning this all has. But you can always come back to this moment of awareness. You'll see, it happens on its own. Suddenly, unwanted, you wake up and think: “Oh, I was completely caught up in my thoughts.” If this happens, you suddenly are aware that you are aware. Do nothing. Want nothing. Just stay with it. You are exploring an unknown land. Since you don’t know what this land is like, just observe. It is the continuous being with what is going on, including awareness of all your reactions to what is going on.Almost everyone who meditates finds out, that it is easier to meditate together with other people. We are social beings and we share our energies unconsciously and consciously. In a group where everybody is doing the same thing, it is easier for a participant to plug in the field of energy. Our resistances and excuses, which could be quite strong when meditating alone at home, are less strong in such a group. And you can share your experiences with other people after the meditation. Dialoguing with other people is a good way to intensify meditative work. But in doing this, it is very important that meditation takes place, as you speak. So, only one person should speak at a time and no one should interrupt. Everyone openly listening to what is being said is also meditation at work. At the same time, you watch what is going on - inside and outside. Awareness of our internal reactions to the words of others is of crucial importance. The verbal and nonverbal reactions of other people can be seen and observed, but without purpose. When speaking oneself it is the same. There is listening to one's own words, thoughts and feelings and an unfocussed awareness of the people around us. Is it possible to speak and at the same time be aware of everything that is going on around us? Or do we have to focus on the speaking? Don’t answer right off, that it is impossible. We have to explore for ourselves, directly, whether this works or not. Participating in a silent retreat is a further opportunity to intensify your meditation work. Retreats Toni Packer’s style consist of some elements of traditional Zen retreats, which have been proven to be helpful; the ritualistic elements, which didn’t survive the slow and cautious simplification process, were dropped. The core of a silent retreat is being silent. Even during meals there is no speaking. Talking only takes place during the optional one-hour group dialogue meetings or in private meetings with a teacher. The silence remains unbroken, day and night, for four, seven or ten days. Much of the noise from the outside world, aside from the sounds of nature and of human shuffling about, is cut off. There is no television or internet, no cell phones, none of the unconscious chatting and discussion, which we normally like to engage in from the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed. This gives the participants the chance to become aware of all this inner chatter and see more clearly our shifting feelings and sensations. Timed rounds of group meditation - with one round lasting 25 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of walking meditation - intensifies the meditation process, and the daily talk given by the teacher helps us look more deeply into our own meditation work. Private meetings with the teacher and the group dialogue give participants a chance to inquire together with others, to share experiences and further deepen one's awareness and understanding. Though many people report that they have more energy and clarity after a retreat, and that it has become easier for them to be aware and connected to this moment, they also report that this energy fades in the days or weeks following the retreat. Even though they are still part of a meditation group, go to sittings or sit regularly at home, they experience a rapid fading of the newly found energy and awareness. Questions comes up: “What part of a retreat experience can we keep alive in our everyday life?" and “Is it the state I find myself in at the end of a retreat, which I should try to carry over into my every day life?” Let us take a careful look into how our daily life is affected by our meditation. This means that in particular we have to look at the feeling of disappointment, which comes up when that energy and clarity dissipates after a retreat. Do we have expectations about what it should be like after a retreat? If we do, then there is a conflict between reality and what we want, and this contributes to the feeling of disappointment. Now we shall look at what happens in our daily lives.

Can meditation become part of our daily life?

I have already said that the core of meditation is to be fully aware of the here-and-now. Silence, and finding a quiet place to sit, can help us discover this awareness. Then what makes it so difficult to be in the here-and-now when we are with our family, or at work? Can we explore this carefully together, without knowing the answer, or the answers? Let us discover together the hindrances, as well as the false expectations we have, about what it means to be aware in our every day life.

Partner and family

Habits and automatic reactions come mostly from the endless repetition of everyday routines. Seeing the same people in the same situations, day in and day out, as it happens at home, is fertile ground for the creation of habits and automatic reactions. We may each of us look at his or her own life. Over the years, all of us find our own way of getting up, brushing our teeth and getting breakfast ready. Situations are repetitive. Even the subjects we discuss can stay the same over the years. We know exactly what buttons to push to make our partners angry, and our partners also know what our weak points are and how to push our buttons. Usually we don't think it is worth getting worked up, and we don’t want to waste our energies on bad feelings, negative reactions, quarrelling and not getting along. What happens, when we leave out any discussion of importance or unimportance of things, and, during our daily meditation at home, look at our awareness of all kinds of automatic behavior? This does not mean that we are to sit right down and meditate the moment we become aware of an automatic reaction. It is enough to stay where you are and look with awareness into what is going on directly at that moment, not in order to change anything, but just to learn about oneself and other human beings who all act out of habit.I remember getting up early on a work day, and suddenly finding myself doing a lot of heavy thinking, as I was brushing my teeth. In my imagination, I was already at work and stuck with a pile of work to do. I wasn't able to do this work, because I was still too tired and a feeling of despair created tension in my body. Seeing all this automatic thinking interrupted the thought process. It became clear to me that I need not work in the state of tiredness I felt at that moment. I remembered that I was usually much more awake later on, by the time I got to work. Only the conflict between my present tiredness and the need to be fully awake at work brought about this feeling of misery. I relaxed a bit, and the thought arose: “I do not have to work right now. I still have time to have a coffee and wake up”. This direct seeing of the situation in a moment of awareness stopped the whole program, which as I remember has been running on during many a miserable morning before.Can we also take the time to observe how we speak to the people we are closest to? Can we recognize and question our habitual ways of behaving and, instead of reacting with anger, look with wonder at the habitual ways our partner or our family members speak and act? What is important is not the content of what we see. Important is the fact that we see and become aware. We no longer identify with our words and actions when identification is replaced by open and innocent listening to all that is going on. How do we hear a statement like: “You always forget to take out the garbage!” Can there be real interest in looking at one’s own direct reaction to the feeling of opposition that comes up? There might be the impulse to respond harshly, and say: “Why me? Take it out yourself!” Can we look at all that is going on in such a situation and feel the hurt, that suddenly arises? What is this hurt? And especially: who is being hurt? Are we interested, or do we want to go on with our hurt and anger? It is really a challenge and it’s quite difficult to look and listen at such moments, the very instant they occur. But it is never too late, even when we miss the direct opportunity. Should attention come when we remember a situation, we can watch the whole thing replay itself in memory. There are always a few seconds free for us to wonder and listen to what is going on, even though the situation is being remembered. Direct insight stops a habitual reaction. See for yourself, if this is true. Don’t just take my word. And stopping a habitual reaction in one person might trigger a stop in the habitual reaction of another person. It is not wanting, that is needed to stop a habitual reaction. Direct insight at the moment when habitual reactions happen is enough to stop it. No doer is necessary. Explore for yourself and see, whether a moment of meditative awareness in your daily life can disarm a habitual action and thereby prevent all the unhappiness and misery usually rising out of it. Of course this is not something, that is done once and for all. As soon as the next program starts up, and awareness is absent, we are back to the old repetitive process. For a real change, our habits have to come into awareness again and again, until they gradually fade away.

At work

We can't usually find a quiet place to meditate at work, and we may not assume that our superiors even understand what meditation is all about. Is it nonetheless possible to bring meditation into the workplace? I have said that meditation is direct awareness of what is happening at this very moment, without judgment and without there being somebody who wants to get something: there is just the seeing of what is there. Can this happen at work? The answer is, neither a yes, nor a no. To find an answer, you have to continuously watch and observe the whole process as it unfolds, day by day. What's it like when you're on your way to work? I remember driving to work one morning. I was late and was afraid I would not get to work in time. Being stressed out I remember that I wanted to pass every car in front of me. I thought they were all going too slow. We came to some traffic lights, and when the car in front of me didn’t start to move, as soon as the light turned green, I got angry, and in midst of the anger, which had arisen, the scenery shifted. I don’t know who did it. Suddenly there was space, and I saw myself as a stressed-out man, angry and afraid of arriving late at work. What created this space? The identity of Stephan-the-sufferer was interrupted. Suddenly, this “me” was no more important, than the driver of the car in front of me or anything else around me. The stress and tension disappeared for a moment, and I was able to laugh at myself, as the silly driver who was so worried about not getting to work in time. There were shifts from awareness to identification and back to awareness again, several times. When the fear came up again, that I would be late for work, the space collapsed and the stress appeared again. And when the seeing came back, it went away. It was all so clear. When identifying was absent, the fear and stress melted away and only the agitated body needed time to calm down. When the "I" who was afraid of coming into work late came back, the stress and anger were there again. If we are interested, we can explore the astonishing action of awareness in a multitude of personal situations. And then we come to understand the meaning of serenity: it is a state of non-identifying awareness.Usually we are always focused on our problems, and fear and anger accompany this state. Only when awareness sheds its light do we see the bigger picture. The importance of the “me” melts away and fear and anger die down.Have we ever looked at our co-workers and bosses from a non-self-centered point of view? What is our work life like, if we observe it from moment to moment in a non-self-centered way? We may see a contradiction between the usual need to concentrate on our work and a state of open awareness of what is going on during work. Concentration is a process in which everything, which is not the focus of our concentration, is excluded. We all may have observed how, in composing a difficult text, we can become so absorbed, that only when finished do we “wake up” from our concentration and find ourselves back at work in the front of the computer. Do we recognize that this is the moment when awareness has returned? Just now there is such a moment. I look up from my writing, feel tension in my shoulders and look out the window. I can see snow on the trees and cars passing silently in the street - it is a moment of being fully alive. It is the wonder of being aware, the same wonder you might experience when you look up from concentrating on this text, now, and become aware of the present moment. Please, experiment with concentration and awareness, and ask yourself how the one turns into the other, and see how the state of wonder is only present when there is awareness. Our brain is not so designed, as to be capable of being fully concentrated on work, and at the same time maintain this open awareness of all that is, can you see that? There is no need to accept this statement. We can observe, whether it is so. But this does not mean that open awareness is not at all possible in the workplace. And how do we relate to others? It might again happen, that we have to concentrate on our work and discuss difficult problems, we become completely absorbed. But is it always like that? Observe how often parallel processes are going on in our minds. We are discussing a subject with someone, and at the same time we observe that we are having judgmental thoughts about our co-worker, meaning our concentration is reduced and simultaneously a process of additional thinking with several associated emotions is taking place. The moment of seeing this is a moment of awareness. It is a moment of true meditation in the midst of our workday. We would not normally call it meditation, because we still think that meditation is something that happens while sitting on a chair or a cushion. In our little example, something else is remarkable - at the moment of awareness, the seeing is the doing. The fact that, simultaneously, two processes happen, which are disturbing each other is seen, and this immediately changes the situation. You are free to switch to the personal level and discuss your personal issues with the other person, or you can decide to focus on the subject at hand and go on with your work. The moment of awareness offers you the possibility of stopping this unhealthy dual process. In awareness, we are really able to fully listen to a person whatever the subject, personal or factual. Can one see the importance of such little moments of awareness in our daily work life, and how they facilitate our social relationships with our co-workers and also improve the quality of our work? If you are really interested in what goes on in our minds, in a meditation room, at home or at work, there will be a daily learning of how you function, and moments of awareness will become more and more important, because you have experienced their potential.

How can meditative energy gather?

Now let us come back to the subject of meditative energy. It is often observed that, in a silent retreat or after a long period of silence, there is more energy for awareness. This is one reason for offering silent retreats. Brain specialists say that this state of awareness, though we feel it to be effortless, requires a great deal of mental energy, because almost every center of the brain is active and synchronized with all other centers to create this remarkable state. We cut back on energy-consuming activities, like talking and reacting to other people, watching all kinds of media, dealing with our endless daily concerns, and so there is more energy available to be fully aware in the present moment. This may explain why solitary silent meditation and, even more, spending several days in a silent group retreat, may allow energy to gather and lead to deeper awareness. Usually, we have not been taught in childhood how to be fully aware, quite on the contrary, we are drilled to follow stereotyped, socially accepted routines, but fortunately our bodies can learn, even when we get older, especially during periods of intense meditation. It might be a very slow process. Nonetheless, we have our whole lifetime to learn. This learning process, though not directly observable, happens at every moment of awareness. It means that this highly integrated state of awareness becomes better established and channeled in the nervous system itself. Will power and effort are not needed. They can only disturb the process. This amazing body-mind adapts to it on its own. Once the body has got used to entering more easily into states of awareness and presence, this state will appear more often in one's daily life, at home and at work. Especially in critical and challenging moments of our life, when energy and awareness are really needed, the body provides an amazing energy. The miracle is that, if a channel is established, the energy of fear or anger may transform into awareness. Even, if this happens only once in a while, it means a change in our whole life. Situations in which we create misery, pain and discomfort for ourselves and others come more and more into awareness, and the unhealthy programming is interrupted. There is no need to complain, that such moments happen only rarely, and that energy usually dissipates rapidly during our daily activities, without leading to awareness. Our complaints and unhappiness come mainly from the expectation we have, that we should reach some steady and permanent state of awareness, and that it should stay the same in all our life circumstances. But we are ever changing. Every life situation has its own energy, from weak to astonishingly powerful. If we simply observe with amazement all the rapid changes and different states we are in, our conflicts fade away. Every moment and every level of energy and clarity is fine, as long as we do not wish it to be different. If we do not fight against the factual and also refrain from trying to escape, we are already avoiding many of the energy-robbing processes of the ego-network that separate us from awareness and presence.


In this little tour of our daily life, your understanding of what meditation and awareness means may have shifted. The purpose of this text is just to arouse your interest in watching and observing the present moment wherever you are and regardless of the situation you find yourself in. Every moment of awareness means learning and understanding better how you and all human beings function. Through learning and exploration, your interest will grow. And if you look back, years later, you may well wonder at the changes in your life, changes you had never expected to see or even wanted to bring about.


I wish to thank Jacek Dobrowolski for his support to improve this text.