Notes from the beach
Some of you may have heard that I am currently spending three months on an island in the North Sea. The house I am staying is the last one in the road, behind it only dunes and the ocean. There are no cars on this island. Either you walk, cycle or ride a horse. From my house it only takes a few minutes to a beautiful white sandy beach. Whenever I am there, sitting in the sand by the ocean, something good happens. My body relaxes, my mind calms down and it is as if my spirit wakes up and comes forward. I can literally feel it moving. In a paradoxical sense, the ocean is both humbling and reassuring for me. When I look at the endless horizon, watching the waves breaking and feel the cold wind creeping under my clothes, I feel small in a positive sense, safe, held by and part of something larger than myself. A sense of belonging on this Earth. The whole drama of life is seen in a different light: the urgency of things that need to be done, the unfulfilled desires and the endless worries, it all comes to a stop, at least for a while. There is that feeling of coming home to something fundamental, like one‘s roots.
The first time I came to this island I was three years old and for many years my family would come back during the summer holidays. The shop where my parents used to buy us cartoons is still there – and it still has that marvellous smell of books and newspapers.
The importance of aloneness
Now I am back here, 5o odd years later, and in some sense it feels like nothing has changed. Still the same presence and awareness, the same sense of immediacy of being here, the same ‘I‘. From another perspective change is obvious: my body has aged, my personality has evolved and the overall atmosphere inside me, the internal climate, feels much more benevolent, friendlier, brighter, warmer. Most days it is a joy to be inside my own skin as much of that biting loneliness and self-disparagement has been worked through and released. I am ever so glad and grateful that I can be alone and feel comfortable just being myself.
I often thought that how we feel when we are alone gives us a good reading on our relationship with ourselves. When our senses get a break from the relentless impact of impressions and we pause our never-ending digital interaction with the outside world, we begin to feel ourselves and digest our experiences. I believe that such moments of quiet aloneness are more needed than ever. It is alarming to hear from scientists that today we have as many sense impressions to process in a month as people who lived two hundred years ago experienced in a whole life-time.
The confrontation with silence
Meditation offers such quiet aloneness and pausing where we can digest and process all our experiences. Observing the breath and moving our attention through the body we can connect with peace and ease. Meditation can teach us to be with challenging emotions and mind states as we cultivate the inner witness that does not judge or compare but nevertheless is in direct contact with experience. We learn to be with ourselves in a loving and honest way and science has clearly proven its healing effects on mind, body and spirit. However, meditation is also confronting us in powerful ways and I feel it is important to acknowledge these as well. It does not only bring healing awareness and presence to our life, meditation also questions all our views and assumptions that we hold, whether we like it or not. Very fundamental assumptions about who and what we are and about the way we view the world around us. My teacher often said that meditation does not give answers to your questions but questions your answers. Seeing our carefully chosen answers dissolve in front of our eyes can be disorienting.
No ground to stand on
The space that opens up in meditation can, in often subtle and unconscious ways, be disconcerting because it can feel like we no longer have a solid ground to stand on. I believe that is why many people, despite their best intentions, struggle to maintain their daily meditation practice and always find something else to do, like cleaning the house one more time or making another unimportant phone call – instead of sitting down and facing the silence (and often chaos) within.
Many meditators try to stop their excessive thinking and seek silence but at the same time unconsciously make sure that the thinking process continues. After all, it is the conceptual mind that keeps our familiar world intact and reassures us that we are who we think we are. Even being a so-called ‘ bad‘ person seems preferable to facing the possibility that we might not be anybody at all. It was an eye-opening experience for me when during one of my first retreats my mind suddenly stopped and I was thrown into complete silence. I had spent so much effort trying to get there but I could only bear this for a few moments before my scared ego pulled itself out of it. It desperately wanted to get back into the driver‘s seat. In the silence I ceased to exist, at least in the way I was used to.
Discipline with devotion
We begin to realise how challenging and confronting silence can be to us. So how do we meet this challenge? Maintaining a daily meditation practice is not simply a question of discipline and will power. In my experience it is helpful to keep returning to why we are drawn to being in silence in the first place. What deep longing of our spirit expresses itself by meditating? This way we connect with our love of truth and with the quality of devotion. My teacher‘s teacher, coming from a very strict tradition, used to say: ‘If you want to meditate, meditate. If you don‘t want to meditate, meditate!‘ A gentle Indian teacher of mine once told me: ‘Never meditate unless you want to meditate.‘ In my view they both speak of something true and helpful and I could always appreciate this seeming contradiction.
Receiving our experience
We are not in control of anything, least of all what arises in our consciousness. Feelings arise and dissolve all by themselves, despite our never-ending attempts to manipulate and direct them. Thoughts appear, seemingly out of nowhere – and dissolve like ‘writing on water‘. Bodily functions like breathing and digesting happen without any deliberate effort or intention from us. In other words: we are not the author of our experience but its recipient. The simplest meditation instruction, to allow our experience to be as it is and not control it in any way, turns out to be the hardest one to follow because it is completely against our instinct. Our nervous system is wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure and comfort. Loss of control, on the other hand, triggers in us a strong sense of being threatened.
The power of allowing
Nevertheless, not interfering with what arises in our consciousness is a very direct and powerful path where deeply held contractions and distortions in body and mind get a chance to unravel and integrate. Meditation is actually less about doing and more about receiving and allowing. But since we spend so much of our life chasing peak experiences and securing our comfort it is hard to understand that it really does not matter at all what we experience in meditation. Any experience can lead us into silence and depth provided we leave it alone and don‘t meddle with it. The inner attitude of simply being with our experience and do nothing with it is in itself an expression of silence and peace. It connects us with the states we may be seeking. The attempt to manipulate or hold onto our experience on the other hand, is an expression of conflict and fear and thus keeps our attention trapped.
However, we also need to find the right distance to our experience. Watching it from the safe distance is a useful skill to develop but it won‘t get us very far. When anger arises in us we need to be close enough to connect with it and feel it as fully as we can but at the same time taking care to not get overwhelmed and possessed by it. This usually takes some fine tuning of our attention.
The love of truth
Obviously meditation is a formal practice with a clear structure and certain guidelines that need to be considered. However, we should not overemphasize its technical aspect or we may miss the essence of it. Meditation is an expression of the love of truth that is inherent to us all. Turning our attention to the space within and resting it there is natural. Nobody needs to teach us how to sit under a tree and listen to the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves, we do it effortlessly and joyfully, In the same way nobody needs to tell us how to love another person since loving is not a matter of technique but an expression of our true nature. So is meditation.
Sitting in the sand dunes looking at the ocean sometimes there comes to me that sense of wonderment, before my mind looks for words to describe my experience. Words are useful in many aspects of our life but they can never capture the immensity of our existence. The Sufi poet Rumi once said: ‘Out beyond any ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I‘ll meet you there.‘
Meditation is inviting us into this sacred field where the mind cannot reach.