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Retreats in English
ON THE MEANING OF LIFE
By Stephan Bielfeldt, translation by Robert Watson
From a talk given in retreat in Schlagsülsdorf, Day 5, 9 October 2013
What kind of world are we living in anyway? And what is our role in the world? Is the world so made that we can lead a full, meaningful life, or is our existence without any meaning whatsoever? We are all of us familiar with these and similar questions and doubts, but is it possible to come to grips with them right now, in this very moment? I am not proposing to find answers to these questions, but can we see together how they present themselves to us, and how such questions can be approached in a meditative fashion? By this I mean, can we remain in the Moment, and become aware of the words and images, and of the feelings that stem from them?
CAN SCIENCE GIVE US WHAT WE SEEK?
In the short space of only a few centuries, science has completely revolutionized our understanding of the world. Scientific explanations have become ever more complex, unbelievable and gigantic in scope. Most of us, in our daily lives, are unaware of all this new knowledge of the universe. People usually have a fuzzy and intuitive understanding of how the world works, based on our everyday lives and experiences. This understanding is made up of practical observations, of notions like “up“ and “down”, and it is always our own personal point of view. Heaven is above and the Earth beneath, and we are at the center of things.
This intuitive and direct way of seeing things is most evident in medieval Christian Europe. It is both descriptive and religious. God created Heaven above and Earth beneath, and also created Man, the crowning glory of all Creation. Heaven was reserved for God and Earth was given over to Man, for him to take possession of it. We are at the center of this world view: everything truly revolves around Man!
So what kind of intellectual understanding of this astonishing world we live in can we arrive at today?
A direct understanding of ourselves and of the world around us, one rooted in stillness, is given to us: we don’t have to do anything or explain anything at all. But we are not content to just experience that which is given to us. We want to be able to grasp it with our thinking minds, and understanding ourselves is not enough: we want to give it a face, we want to possess and master it.
Personally I am interested in biology and cosmology. Do these fields of science give us the explanations we seek? Cosmology uses the scientific method to find the answer to questions such as: “What is the nature of the Universe? How old is it? How did it come into being? What will become of it? “. And biology on the other hand, seeks to explain how life, and especially mankind, came into being, and what will become of us. All of these questions take us away from looking directly, and so in pre-scientific times man sought answers in the creation of myths, like in medieval Christian Europe. If we look at our world through the lenses of science and technology, then our realm of experience expands vastly. Tools such as spectroscopes, which measures background radiation in the cosmos, the Hubble Space Telescope and arrays of radio telescopes, present to us a world as wondrous as it is frightening. We are living in the midst of a great cosmic explosion, The Big Bang, and astronomical observation tells us it took place some 13.8 billion years ago. This original great cataclysm created time, space and matter, and is still taking place. The universe is still expanding and the process is even speeding up. A world view that was small and practically enclosed has given way in an unbelievably short space of time to one gigantic cosmos that became so inconceivably gigantic, so quickly, that the light given off in the explosion has not yet crossed the full distance. So astronomers cannot say how big the universe is. We can only say how big the visible universe is. Since nothing can go faster than the speed of light, we have no way of knowing how much bigger space may be, beyond that part of the cosmos which the light coming from the Big Bang has already crossed, and which we have been able to measure. At any rate, the universe will continue expanding beyond the 13.8 billion lightyear mark. An inconceivably vast distance, when you consider that our own sun is just a little more than eight light minutes distant ( about 150 million kilometers). Hot matter cooled, and those great gatherings of stars we call galaxies came into being. It is estimated that there are some hundred billion galaxies in the vast, visible universe.
One of these galaxies is our own Milky Way. Last night it was overcast and you couldn’t see much, but it was visible to the naked eye the night before. It was a wonderfully beautiful arch of diffuse light stretching from horizon to horizon, directly above, like a band of milky light, cloudy in appearance, but a cloud made up of stars and not drops of water. Astronomers tell us that the Milky Way is made up of several hundred billion stars, which is a mind-boggling figure, but our galaxy is no bigger than average, and apparently almost every galaxy contains just as many stars. Somewhere near what we call the Orion Arm of the galaxy there is a perfectly average star, our Sun, and the third planet from sun is the blue world we call Earth. There are now more than six billion people on Earth, and each and every of us sees himself at the center of things. We love and fight, form alliances and wage war, we build huts and skyscrapers, atomic power plants and wind mills. Men cultivate their gardens and lay waste the rain forest, study the seas or carelessly over fish the oceans just to make pet food.
If you study a single organism with machines that are like the extensions of the senses of biologists and researchers, like the electron microscope or an MRI scanner, which uses magnetic resonance tomography to observe the living brain at work, without harming it, then wonder upon wonder reveals itself to us. We humans are inconceivably complex. In a large brain such as ours, there are some hundred billion nerve cells. Is it mere coincidence that there are as many nerve cells in our brain as there are stars in a galaxy, or galaxies in the heavens? At any rate, these bundles of nerves and fields of neurons, the workings of which we do not fully understand, work together to keep our body chugging along, so that we can think and feel, and so that also, in this very moment, as we listen, we may become aware of this thinking, feeling, wonderful aware being that we are.
All of this is quite wonderful, is it not, and at the same time is it not frightening? Frightening because we have to recognize how very small we really are, and that we are not at all at the center of the cosmos. There are still people who hope that life is unique and exists only here on Earth. This point of view puts man right back in the center of things. But we must face up to the newest findings in astronomy: observing planets circling other stars shows that almost every star has its own attendant family of planets, and that countless Earth-like planets exist and go around their own home stars, within the habitable zone for life. There must be water on many of these worlds, and with it the possibility of life as we know it. Our biosphere is but one of many.
What is so frightening about all this wonderful new knowledge is that with it comes the realization that we understand less and less of ourselves and the world we live in. World views based on myth and religion have fallen to the side, put to rout by science, but science does not provide answers to the existential questions about where we come from and where we are going. We find ourselves standing before a great mountain of facts. The more we learn and the more we come to know, the more questions there are and the more astonishing the world becomes; we realize that our understanding of things is only piecemeal. We don’t even know how and why we are able to raise our little finger. Neurologists and scientists studying the brain can’t explain it either...
How not to look for meaning, when confronted with this confusing mass of knowledge? Why is there a world anyway? What is the meaning of a brief human life in this immense cosmos? I find my own life to be ever so short. Fifty-four years of existence on a planet that is already 4.6 billion years old, and which has harbored life for the past 3.5 billion years. When I look at myself, I see that my years of life are just a pile of memories. Time has flown by. Where is the meaning here?
How did we come into this world? We find ourselves here and straightway start to take ourselves seriously. And what becomes of us when we leave this world? What a great and mystifying puzzle! Death always means the death of others. We have not yet experienced our own death. Where is there meaning in all of this? Does life have a meaning, does death? We don’t put these questions to scientists, because they know full well they don’t have the answers.
CAN RELIGION GIVE US THE ANSWER?
For most of us, this questions brings to mind religious imagery. Are we re-born? Are we spiritual beings who evolve over several life times? Some people say they have memories of previous lives. People who have undergone reincarnation therapy have told me that they themselves are not entirely sure that the images that arise in the course of the therapy are indeed memories of previous lives. I have no such memories. I don’t want to exclude the possibility that we have lived before, but why should I believe it if I have no memories of previous lives? Of course, it is very tempting to be someone important and to be part of the big picture. This is why belief in reincarnation is so widespread. Such a belief is one way of giving meaning to life through mythology. If we are re-born, then maybe we can evolve and become transformed, until we reach our ultimate goal, which is release from rebirth once and for all. We will then have realized our life’s purpose. Can you feel the temptation of this way of thinking, and the positive energy coming from such simple explanations?
Christian imagery holds that we go to Heaven, or to Hell, where we must pay for our sins, and that we will one day rise from the grave. This way of seeing things was perhaps once not very popular with meditators; it is also simplistic and seeks to find meaning, is it not so? You may well believe, but the only way you can find out if it is true is after death. Behind this way of thinking there is also the search for meaning. We endure the suffering of this life in order to enter Paradise. The astonishing, unbelievable things that take place in the world- torture and murder, rape, war and destruction - must have some kind of meaning, or at the very least there must be a day of reckoning.
We do not want to have lived in vain. We so much want our lives to have meaning, and we want life to continue and never come to an end. We get frightened when we think that our life will maybe just come to a sudden end, that our life will just stop, and that our body will wear out, our brain rot and its entire contents be lost. “No”, a voice cries out within, “then living would be in vain. It cannot be that the light just goes out. There must be a cosmic consciousness in which our memories will have a place. “ In these various religious beliefs, the search for meaning drives us to find explanations which are comforting but without proof.
I personally have not found, in all these religious and philosophical or metaphysical explanations and representations, anything that has convinced me beyond a doubt that I could believe in them. What I have come to understand is that you can take life as it comes; you can live your life and accept its burdens, and experience life with all its contradictions, wonders and horrors, with all its unpredictability and inconceivability.
CAN THE QUESTION FALL SILENT?
Can we find meaning in life in the pages of a religious text, or work it out for ourselves, and then believe in what we have found, with all its attendant doubts; or is there something that is so convincing, so clear and direct, that we do not have to believe, but rather experience this truth for ourselves, beyond all doubt? Is there something complete in itself- which can manifest in our lives directly, and make all our questions fall silent? Is it possible to ask if life has meaning without seeking an answer? Can we ask the question in stillness, and look within? When there is stillness, thoughts and ideas, concepts and explanations are absent, and our feelings, desires and cravings are in abeyance. The desire to find meaning in life ceases.
And what are we when, for just a moment, we toss overboard all the ballast of concepts, ideas and desires? Are we simply nobody, without all our ideas about what our life should be and about what will become of us and what will happen to us after death? What is there, when this whole movement comes to a complete stop? Can we for just a moment become an observer and give up all this inner and outer turbulence? Maybe we don’t have to understand everything. Our brain is big and complex, but the universe is bigger still, and how can the lesser understand the greater? At the end of the day, we will not have an intellectual understanding of the universe, so why not just relinquish all explanations? Can our persistent desire to endure, our anguish, our fear of losing those we love - can all this just be still, so still that we become fully alive in the moment, and cease to be separate? It’s like the beginning of the universe, and we are There, beyond space and time, where everything is whole and undivided, and there is nothing lacking. The world does not become better or worse, no rewards or punishments are handed out. Everything is just as it is.
Is it alright for the thinking process to come to such a sudden halt? Is the world, just as it is, in this very moment, all right, so that nothing is lacking and we don’t see ourselves as being separate? And right away, a voice cries out within: “ No, the world is not in all right! Everything is incomprehensible and horrible. What happens to us all is so unfair. Catastrophes everywhere. The whole world could just fall apart tomorrow. Who is going to protect me from all this if I give up my identity and just do nothing and be nobody?“
But that’s not what I mean when I say things are OK. What I mean to say is this: Can one simply be aware of everything that is being given to us in the moment, and to persevere in this awareness, in stillness, without looking for an explanation, without making things prettier or worse than they are? Can one simply say: “ I don’t know if there is anything holy or sacred.” Can one immerse oneself into this Not-Knowing, into this Awareness-Without-Knowing, into this darkness, as the universe unfolds? Can one see and understand directly that all our thoughts, all of the many thoughts I have expressed here in these words, are just knowledge stored in the brain? So thoughts and images are just memories which are called back into awareness by associations they are bound up with, but are not different from ideas or representations. They change constantly, because our brain is constantly storing new impressions in our brain. When they rise into awareness, they are not new, but just images, thoughts and ideas that appear in the mind for a moment and then go away.
The mystery of Awareness in stillness, when it manifests, lies not in the negation of all things, but rather in the exact opposite: it embodies an astounding, indescribable aliveness and the total absence of separation. It is indescribable because the describing process is in abeyance, and there is absence of separation because there is no one there to feel apart. Experience this for yourself. Awareness in stillness is a gift, and it is given to everyone. I am convinced of this.
As this awareness grows stronger, our whole life changes. If we once believed that thoughts and feelings chased stillness away, then we learn that all things take place in stillness, breathing and bodily sensations also: everything is rooted in stillness. It may sound surprising to hear, but there is also room in the stillness for a quiet flow of thought and feeling.
Awareness in stillness manifests when, for at least a little space of time, all wanting, and seeking ceases. We feel whole when all ego activity comes to a stop and we touch the underlying stillness of all things.
Is this Awareness a rare occurrence that only arises in the stillness of retreat, or does it have meaning in our daily life? It is a good thing to spend a few days in stillness and quiet, when seeking to know Awareness, but it can also manifest in our daily lives, when we are not looking for it. We don’t notice it because it is not a spectacular occurrence. And in our daily contact with others, it is so very helpful when there is a moment of Awareness in stillness, because then we can truly hear what others are saying. Give it a try! The body summons up a lot of energy when we are striving to say something. Is it possible to be attentive, interested and still, and to listen from out of this stillness?
Our body is an amazingly sensitive instrument when we are quiet and aware. When we are not trying to get something or get rid of something, then our preferences and dislikes are not present, and there is just this Open-ness: without trying, we are in contact with all things, and we resonate with all things. Our bodies are equipped with all that is required for us to be understood by others, and for us to understand them. All we need for it to work is a mind not overwhelmed by inner noise.
Not that long ago researchers discovered nerve cells possessing amazing abilities. They are called mirror neurons, and that is just what they do: they act like mirrors. They are cells that respond to the emotions of other living creatures; they unleash in us the emotions playing out in another being. Not only do we see the sadness in others, we experience sadness ourselves in our own bodies. Not necessarily with the same intensity, but sadness in others unleashes sadness in us, and the same for joy or other feelings: we experience these same feelings directly within ourselves. It is nothing new to say that we have empathy for others, but not everyone realizes how deeply rooted within our own bodies these feelings of empathy are. Have you ever noticed, when you are in the flow of things and in harmony with yourself, how our actions impact upon other living creatures? This happens when Awareness in stillness is present and not too covered over with thinking and strong feeling. Then we see how others are getting along, and at the same time, we become effortlessly aware of how we are ourselves. This holistic way of seeing is often bound up with our actions; conflict is absent, and our actions are spontaneous because they flow from a feeling of what is right. There is not much thinking going on. A lot of unnecessary thinking can actually disturb the flow of things.
Love and empathy only reveal themselves when our ceaseless ego-activity stops, when the unbroken stream of thought, commenting, inner discussion, desire and dislike, is absent. When there is Awareness in stillness, then we are in harmony with others. There is a flow, and we go with the flow, we are carried along on the stream of life, which we do not understand, but we are part of it: we are not separate.
Let us not look for love out in the universe. Love is right here, within this astonishing being which is man. Love is possible right here, in our own little daily world of friends and acquaintances. This is a kind of love that has nothing at all to do with our desires, rather it is the expression of our natural one-ness with all things.
Much of the harm we inflict upon ourselves and others comes from the fact that we are filled up right to the brim with ideas and images, with desire and hope. We are over-flowing with what we want to become or with what we have already become, with defending our claims to the territory we have staked out for ourselves. We defend what we believe we are, and others may not intrude.
Is it possible to stay still and simply accept that the world is just too big and powerful for us to understand, and that we will never be able to understand this thing we call the ‘ self ‘? Our mind cannot do this.
Can our demands just drop away, can our desires, our endless yearning for explanations and understanding, just be quiet? If this happens, an open awareness appears, spontaneously and unbidden. In this openness and stillness we are no longer separate; we are whole and complete, which is our true nature. This state of alive-ness is dynamic and indescribable. It is our true nature and it is simply given to us. Here, there is nothing to understand or not understand, nothing at all to do; it is simply that which is. It can manifest in a silent meditation retreat or in our daily lives. The possibility of going back to this still point is always there. Just as the fog can lift, so can our over-full minds become clear like a cloudless sky. What is left is Awareness, Presence, and we are in contact with our true nature. We are just present with what is, and there is no need to understand anything. We are part of the flow of life, not apart from it, and there is no need to ask why or to look for meaning.