How to (not) fail at Human Rights

Today is Blog Action Day 2013. There are thousands of ways to write about this year’s theme “Human Rights” – and today you will find an abundance of inspiring posts in the blogosphere, from legislation to activism, from personal experiences to new world visions.

I will take you on another journey (and shamelessly re-use ideas from my unpublished draft for last year’s Blog Action Day). My contribution is about mindsets and worldviews, in-groups and out-groups, and compassion. I want to complement all the other amazing contributions and ask: now that we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what do we need to actually walk the walk? How do we need to think and feel to turn this profound vision into universal reality?

My concern is this: Human Rights are meant to apply to every human being. Not your friends, not your neighbors, not your tribe, not your country – everyone. But as long as we differentiate between in- and out-groups, as long as we fail to show genuine compassion also for those dissidents and strangers and outcasts and so-called enemies, the whole concept just doesn’t fly. We will be doomed to stick with the struggle of activists against the lip-service of decision-makers. We will fervently complain about the scandalous news while ourselves turning a blind eye on the needs of next-door minorities we dislike.

I am not proud to say that I speak from experience. It is so easy to fall into this trap. Look, I already fail at Article 1:

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Do you see what I mean? Yes? Then let’s start from here. (We’re probably not arguing with the important rest anyway: discrimination, liberty, slavery, torture, detention, freedom of thought and speech and what not.)

So even with my best intentions, and “nod-nod yes of course we’re all equal”, I treat people quite differently, putting the ones into the shiny comfy “in-group box” and the others into the dirty let’s-ship-this-far-away “out-group box”. It seems quite natural to do so, especially since we learn mostly how to compete against each other, and not so much how to cooperate with each other. There’s a fascinating experiment with pre-school kids who can give stickers to groups of other kids: by default they give far more stickers to their friends and almost none to those whom they do not like. You think that’s proof? See, even the kids do that! It must be natural then. Well … not quite. I’ll come back to that later.

To act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood requires, as far as I can see, a heart-mind that does not discriminate between who is and who is not a brother or sister, disagreements and their settlements notwithstanding. The only way to realize this is to overcome the limitations of in-group/out-group thinking. This, in turn, can be accomplished by compassion.

In Buddhism the four brahmaviharas – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity – are defined as boundless states. The practitioner takes time to develop these inner qualities with regard to the entire universe and all beings within it. You don’t need Buddhism for this, nor Christianity, nor any form of spirituality. For the science lovers among us, the effects of compassion training can even be measured directly in the brain via fMRI scans! I’ve recently been to the Mind & Life Europe Symposium for Contemplative Studies where Tania Singer and her students presented many fascinating research projects and results on this subject.

As for the kids from my earlier example: after some compassion training (a few minutes each day for a couple of weeks) they gave about the same amount of stickers to everyone else, no matter whether they liked them or not. (And I say that’s our native mode.)

I fantasize about an xkcd-style t-shirt: “Compassion. It works, bitches.”
Yes, that would be something.

Here’s another take: worldviews. How about the integration of all possible scales and flavors of mindsets and worldviews? I’ll try to explain what I mean with this, why it matters, what we can do with it, and how we can do it – including compassion (big surprise).

Our worldviews can be as large and powerful as we want “us” to be. They become actualized and gain momentum by the actions we take as individuals. Therefore let’s start small: let us look inside ourselves first. We can think of the scope of our world-view in terms of where we draw the (artificial) line between “me/us” and “you/them”. These categories fluctuate and evolve from moment to moment, like a dance of viewpoints.

The smallest unit would be called “egocentric”. That’s classic “I versus you (all)” thinking, likely to be activated if you feel threatened, or during competition. Here you care for yourself, period.

Next come various flavors of “ethnocentric” – families, cliques, tribes, cultures and the like. Here we talk of in-groups versus out-groups, “us versus them”. We feel larger. The power of a group. Collaboration. Competition. War. With us or against us.

Take one step beyond and you will encompass all humans, all life on Earth. This mindset can be called “world-centric”, or if you expand it even further, “cosmo-centric”. We are all connected. We belong together. The planet becomes one large living entity: Gaia. Deep ecology. Systems theory. Caring economics. Now our interests shift towards global or universal cooperation. Here you have a link back to compassion and the brahmaviharas – these states of our heart-minds that do not discriminate between friend and foe, inherently boundless and unconditional.

This is the mindset that we need, in my humble opinion and experience, to truly grasp and realize Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I think these world-view ideas are described in greater detail in Ken Wilber’s work, and also somewhat reflected in “Spiral Dynamics“, but let’s not get too distracted here. I don’t know what exactly Ken Wilber and the “Integral” people propose, but I believe that it’s also about the cultivation of more integral mindsets, akin to the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion. The best way that I know to achieve this is meditation. I also find that traveling opens my heart-mind.

I’ll close this contribution with a quote from one of my earlier journals:

[…] It may not be accessible for one individual human being, just as the achievements of the hive may never be accessible by any single ant alone. But as we allow for a connection between our viewpoints, and as we develop the capacity to understand and integrate other viewpoints, we may reach such a state together.

And here a sense of ethics plays a role: will we use this capacity as in our past for “one group versus another”, I versus you, us versus them, … in the egocentric, ethnocentric or world-centric sense? I believe that we must get to world-centric at the very least, as follows indeed by the whole idea of a fully integrated world-view, which would otherwise be limited by our choice of inclusion and exclusion. The Gaia myth may be a valid and useful pointer to show the direction towards this sub-goal.

And then, again as a consequence of this very idea, we must take it further to a universe-centric world-view. In this way we may one day become the responsible creators of life, evolutionaries of consciousness, participants in a universal community of lifeforms, skilled solution-finders on a scale which exceeds our imagination of today and of generations to come.

Your comments will be warmly appreciated (and your critique will have me put these outlined principles to test :-)). In any case, thank you for reading all this!

Changing Arts, Changing Hearts

Some of you know it already. I am going to write a book about my journey. Last year, in September 2012, I knew that the one book worthwhile writing (assume you can write only one in your lifetime) would be about my experiences of that summer. The work craze, physical breakdown, fear of death, recuperation, realizations, life-changing experiences.

On my journey through California, three weeks in October 2012 which will become a major part of the book, I made up my mind to include those without whom I wouldn’t be there – I’d start every chapter with a phrase like:

“I wouldn’t be on this journey if it weren’t for [your name].”

Leaving the book-to-come for a while, and turning to the present: I wouldn’t be writing this blog entry if it weren’t for Ling and Amanda Palmer.

Ling is a former colleague, a soulmate and an inspiration to me. She used to work at CERN for over three years before taking her writing passion to become an editor at Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Doing so she admirably followed her bliss, and this is one way in which she inspires me. But she is also someone who makes me write. No, not with the whip and chain. ;-) Simply by the very occasional contact that we have, she is bringing the muses within me to life. I don’t know what is more surprising: the little that we see each other, or the fact that despite this scarcity I unhesitatingly call her my soulmate, without even worrying for a second whether she feels likewise. Sometimes you just know that you know someone, and I don’t mean detailed facts about one’s life.

Amanda Palmer is an artist, a game changer and also an inspiration to me. Kudos to my brother for bringing her to my attention some years ago by showing me some clips from her “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” video series. Her punk-cabaret / alt-rock style wasn’t getting me nearly as much as the fact that she had started to give away her music on a “pay what you want” basis. I loved the concept, often told others about it and occasionally checked her website.

Fast forward to July 2012, still amidst my work craze phase, a few days before my health came crashing down faster than I could possibly have spelled the word “testament” on a Thursday night. I learned about The Humble Bundle, an initiative that lets you choose how much to pay for a bundle of games (with a clever “beat the current average and unlock these bonus games” twist and sometimes later gratis additions to what you have already bought) or e-books, and also lets you decide who should get the money (arbitrarily split between charity, developers and initiators).

Ever since that time I occasionally buy a Humble Bundle even if I never play the games, simply because I find the idea so awesome. I see it as a donation, and I am surely not alone in this. Even better, I just realized that my Humble eBook Bundle, with its contents still untouched by my gaze, actually contains the graphic novel “Signal To Noise” written by Neil Gaiman – Amanda Palmer’s husband! Now that’s one for my reading list, and the keyword to return to the main storyline.

So let’s fast forward again to January 2013. By coincidence I check back on Amanda Palmer’s website, read her blog articles about bullying, admire the heartfelt comments exchanged amidst her community, and leave the tab open. (I have type IV tabberitis: I cannot close tabs of pages that I want to revisit at some time in the future, so their number grows as 2*pi*sqrt(days) until I lose them all in a browser crash or make a backup.)

A few days later Amanda writes this blog article about her invitation to TED. And she touches and inspires me, because – s/herinvitationtoTED/talksIdreamtogive/g – I know the feelings she describes, so I take action and send her an e-mail of epic proportions (unwise because she’s mostly twittering and tumbling and blogging, where she receives lots of fan love to read and respond to) and submit an abstract for a talk that is going to change the course of my life. Then I share my inspiration and Amanda’s blog entry with my family and tell them she is going to be a game changer of arts – not sure whether anyone save my brother actually understands my enthusiasm, but what the hey. And from that day onwards I keep my gaze on Amanda’s tweets and blogs and silently participate in her excitement about her upcoming talk. (Plus, her community unknowingly prevents me from becoming an alcoholic. But more on that later.)

Fast forward again to 27th February 2013. The TEDxCERN organizers have arranged a TED Live stream in the Main Auditorium at CERN. We see exactly the session with Amanda Palmer’s talk in it. I’m sitting through all other talks in nervous anticipation, then start floating in my seat as soon as it’s her turn to take the stage. As for how she performs, I let my raving review in her web forum speak – and I point to the simple fact that her talk now has officially the fastest-growing viewing numbers of any TED talk in history. In other words: the world starts talking about this. And it is due time.

But this is not just about the numbers, and here’s one reason why. By now, Ling and I have found out that we are both fans of AFP (short for “Amanda Fucking Palmer”, if you don’t know her already). So last Saturday I ask her whether she has seen the video of AFP’s talk, and I send her the link to my review. One day later Ling responds:

“YES OF COURSE i watched Amanda’s TED talk. :D I am so glad you brought that up because for days I have been dying to find someone to talk to about how wonderfully awesome it turned out to be. You know how she has been going on and on on twitter about her talk and me being me, just couldnt help to worry for her that the talk might fall short. But damn she NAILED it. Your review is SPOT ON (as you can see, i have caught on AFP’s affinity for ALL CAPS)! :D I loved how real she was, and how she kept her promise of involving the community that she has so painstakingly built in her talk. And yeah, the moment she uttered ‘Thank you’, i almost cried too.”

With that she makes my day, and my heart grows to world-emcompassing proportions, and I know I must write this blog article (done – WIN!), and just stop being shy, and write more, and share more, and dare more, to become fully alive.

So now you are witnessing me crawling out of my safety shell, but I’ll do it even if you’re not looking, because I simply must.

At last, once more back to Amanda Palmer’s TED talk (by the way did I mention that she recently gave a TED talk?). Fortunately she has created a lot of debate. Tons of people are profoundly inspired, and some are profoundly offended. The latter group insists, for instance, that less known artists can’t survive just by crowdfunding, or that she has made an ethical mistake in asking people to play with her on stage for free, even after her huge kickstarter success (she collected 12 times the money she had asked for). Ling put it well by saying that there is no “must” here (as in “thou shalt use kickstarter! thou shalt live only from donations! thou shalt have no other business models beside me! thou shalt starve while playing with AFP for free!”) – it’s just another option. This is diversity. All that Amanda is trying to tell us is that it is okay to ask without shame.

No, actually that is not all. I think beyond the layer of music industry / arts / kickstarter dwells another, much more powerful message. You probably feel it while watching her talk. You may also read it in the hundreds of comments. This is about connections, intimacy, trust, sharing, authenticity, vulnerability, daring greatly to ask and to receive and to give something in exchange. This is not just about changing arts – it is also about changing hearts.

I for one am happy and grateful for the change that is taking place within me and others. And as for that book I’m going to write – you can already tell what is coming now, right? – damn right, I’ll give it away for free as a free hug. (Donations will be gratefully accepted for sure.) Because you know, there is such a thing as a free hug. Contrary to popular belief, there is even free lunch. It’s just not common knowledge yet, but the time will come for sure.

Thank you Ling, Amanda, my family, friends, YOU (do we know each other yet?), and everyone else out there. :-)

The Art of Living

You’ve surely encountered the advice, “Live each day as if it were your last.”

Frankly, I’ve always found this instruction difficult to compute. The stress of choice under the looming sword of Damocles. The danger of carelessness. God/Fate/your-favorite-higher-power wiggling the almighty finger: you better do it right, or else!

Today I’ve read an alternative version in Mark Matousek‘s wonderful book “When you’re falling, dive – Lessons in the Art of Living”:

[I want to] live my life in such a way that I wouldn’t have to stop or change what I was doing – or being – if I was going to die tonight. (1)

Oh yes. Now it computes. :-)

And it’s worth taking time to reflect upon.

(1) quote by Jim Curtan

From Struggle To Juggle

We all struggle at some points in our lives, and some of us may wonder: “How can I turn the tide?” … or perhaps even:

“How can I get from being ‘my own greatest enemy’ towards ‘my own best friend’?”

I will simply share my own personal experience. Your mileage may vary – it almost certainly does! Yet perhaps you may find one or another detail inspiring for your individual solutions. There is only one way to find out. :-)

The Struggle

Four years ago I was going through a very difficult time, struggling with emotional pain and especially with myself. Today I realize better how deeply stuck I was back then – including that my self-esteem was completely trashed and that I was actually sabotaging myself in very subtle, yet oh so powerful ways. I will spare you the details, because each and every one of us faces their own personal Nemesis from time to time, so the actual content does not matter. Hermann Hesse puts it eloquently in the “Steppenwolf” – “… wie denn jeder Mensch die ihm zufallenden Leiden für die größten hält”. The experience of magnitude of any personal challenge is per definition relative. So what does matter?

  • First of all, there is always a way.

(Sounds corny, I know, but it has proved to be true over and over again. And if there was none, what would be the point in trying anyway? But this you never know. See it as your personal variation of Pascal’s wager.)

  • Secondly, there is only one person who can find it – and walk it.

(Thinking and talking about it will not do the real trick.)

The Puzzle

But what is the way, and where can you find it? Many possible answers: it’s within you, you are already on it, blah blah. That probably does not do the trick either. But everything is changing, and as far as solutions to challenges are concerned, there is a two-fold change involved: internal and external. They are mirroring each other. The change happens anyway, it cannot be otherwise, so the idea will be to give it some “beneficial” direction. Let’s assume we get ideas for that – pieces for our puzzle.

Here (just as everywhere) a doubt may be lurking around the corner. Can you really do “it”? Do you have what “it” takes? Will you ever learn “it”? Especially when you feel you have “failed” so often?

Two things have helped me there:

  1. For a movie scene you do as many “takes” as necessary … until it works.
    (trial -> error -> more trial -> success)
  2. Success is often a matter of “strategy” rather than “ability”.
    (choose a strategy that works for you, and you will succeed)

The Strategy

So we need a good strategy, which perhaps means input from external sources. And now we arrive at the vast marketplace of “good advice”, collected wisdom, mentors and friends, coaches and therapists, books and blogs, you name it. I was seeking answers in all those areas. My result:

  1. None of them helped.
  2. All of them contributed.

It’s much less of a contradiction as it seems. Even the best input does not walk you along the way. You walk, at your own pace. You’re not even “too slow” – seriously, who could judge that, and by what measure? (I spent a lot of energy on this one.)

You choose what you try, and you find out what works for you, and how it works for you – it will be a combination of many things. This is how everything contributes. Indeed it cannot be otherwise. Again, everything is changing, and we are already alive, so all it takes is to keep our senses open. Be an explorer if you like, or an adventurer, traveller, conquistador, a curious child. You are allowed to enjoy the ride!

What actually worked (and still works) for me?

I will go into detail next time. Just one main ingredient for now: juggling. And that’s where the title of this post comes from. :-)

Post Scriptum

It took me four years to write this post, and judging from today’s perspective, every single day was worth waiting. Thus I might wait another four years, but then it may never see the light of day; or I give birth to it now and review it in four years. May the latter choice prove better. And may you be happy at heart. :-)

Too Many Mind?

In the movie “The Last Samurai”, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) exclaims “Too many mind!” to Captain Algren (Tom Cruise). Sometimes I feel just like that.

The novelist Ödön von Horváth once said something like “I am actually quite different, but I rarely get down to it”. Sometimes I feel just like that, too.

Too Many Wolfi. My friends often ascribe some characteristic or habit to me as a part of “typical Wolfi”. However their visions of “typical Wolfi” are not necessarily congruent. Apart from some “common denominator”, it seems more like a collection of individually conditioned patterns to me. Conditioned by an interplay of “self” and “other”, of me and my environment (indeed they cannot be successfully separated, even the less in light of the “anatta” or “not-self” principle). I find myself adapting to my environment, switching my viewpoints and “modes of behaviour”, creating new patterns or following previously established ones: Wolfi1, Wolfi2, … Wolfin. (now what is Wolfi0 like?)

Modes of Wolfi. Some of these “modes” are matching “subpersonalities” of others within me, e.g. WolfiAndi (my current internal representation of Andi). This sometimes results in rather beneficial effects (e.g. better understanding). The downside of empathy arises for instance when the “subpersonalities” within me come into conflict with each other (or even with WolfiWolfi, my so-called “self”). How can I resolve such internal conflicts within myself (rather than trying to “solve” other people’s problems externally) without creating an overload? Besides, how can I reliably draw the line between fact and fiction?

Too Many Mind. I recently became aware of this at my birthday celebration. When many people come together, I cannot fit into all the previously established “modes of Wolfi” at the same time. This leads me to some sort of muddle-headed hyperactivity. I start jumping around mentally, verbally and physically. “How typical!”, my friends exclaim and delight in this intensified display of likeable confusion. Too many mind, indeed. :-)

Too Many Blame. However, I had set myself the goal of “maximum integrity”, so that I would address any internal conflict as soon as it arises – if the situation allows for it. Now in the course of this evening, I could not address everything as intended, and I blamed myself for this incapability, becoming more and more tense. I measured myself as if I were solely responsible for the well-being of others. And I blamed myself for not giving everyone an equal share of attention, knowing that I had more or less consciously chosen such an imbalance. Talk about how to not enjoy your own birthday celebration!

Many Kudos. Having said that, let me point out that I had a wonderful and highly enjoyable evening nonetheless. I thank you all for your company and look forward to our next encounter. :-)

The Mosquito Effect

Mosquito Drill. In September 2005 I attended a KaraNet party in Klagenfurt, not only along with many other users and dear friends, but also lots of mosquitoes. At one time Thomas decided to simply let the little blood-suckers do their feasting upon his hand, and I took some macro pictures.

A bit later some of us were sitting in the shade of a tree in a circle and philosophised to our heart’s content. When another thirsty mosquito tried to approach me, I slapped it but did not kill it. The creature fell to the ground, obviously hurt and suffering in whichever way a small insect is capable of suffering. My dilemma was enormous: should I kill that innocent living being to alleviate its pain? Or would it survive on its own? Is a mosquito of “lesser worth” than animals we hold dear, like cats or dogs? Are they not equal?

While I was pondering, the bruised mosquito disappeared between the blades of grass; a few minutes later another one sat down on my arm. I thought to myself, ‘this seems well-deserved – now I shall not raise my hand to interfere.’ The mosquito found a good spot and … drilled. It played havoc with my arm. For unknown reasons (maybe my attention was so intensely focused on the procedure, maybe feelings of remorse?) the sharp piercing sensation exceeded even the most intense pains delivered by dentist’s tools. I endured it, groaning, biting my teeth, and my friends probably thought I was crazy…

Fight or Flight. Recently, amidst a very interesting conversation with Thomas, a mosquito sat down right between his eyebrows. He noticed but did not react, and the creature sucked until it was sated enough to drop to the floor. I was quite impressed with his composure. – A bit later I felt a soft stinging on my left shoulder, turned my head and simply registered another mosquito.

Then, within the smallest fragment of a second, I panicked and slapped my shoulder, as though my life were in severe danger! Only a few seconds later I realised that my memories of the “painful experience” from Summer 2005 had just triggered a primal (and quite disproportioned) fight-flight reaction. Indeed not the most convincing display of mindfulness! But next time I shall hopefully intercept the process and carefully examine my delayed reaction. It would be a shame to not overcome this little mosquito trauma. :-)

LDR, LHC, Birthdays and Integrity

With ten drafts waiting to be finished and published, I would like to compose a news-posting in between. :-)

London. My beloved one has moved to London and will henceforth spend most of her time in the UK. I am very proud of her for taking up this challenge. There is of course the “LDR side-effect” for us to deal with, but with the experience from last summer I’d say that things look no less promising. And soon I will fly over for almost two weeks. Oh, sweet moment of reunion, how I love thee! :-)

Geneva. Now I want to finish my studies as swiftly as possible (Summer 2008). I also applied for the CERN Summer Student Programme 2007, and things look promising so far. If they decide in my favour, I will spend 12 weeks in Geneva from end-June until mid-September, meet scientists and students from all over the world, participate in research activities, and attend a lecture programme on particle physics. Unfortunately I will already be back in Austria when they start searching for the Higgs boson at the LHC in late 2007. :-)

Integrity. Upon realising the futility of my efforts to “save the world” by trying to find solutions for my environment, I eventually decided in February to aim for self-development in the first place (“you should be the change that you want to see in the world”Mahamta Gandhi). Thus I started to pursue particularly the concept of “integrity” (basically a congruency between thoughts, words and actions), and later discovered its relation to the Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta. Since that time I experienced a strong boost of confidence and managed to resolve many internal and external conflicts with relative ease. When this whole process is more stable, I might describe it here in detail.

Six Feet Under. My favourite series from HBO has already brought forth many eye-openers in the past. Another one struck me twice in the last two days (episodes 05×08 and 05×09). It seems like a mirror with a fist attached to it: the fist smashing right into my face to knock me awake, the mirror to reflect upon me things that I have to deal with in my own life. No happy endings, but a lot of food for thought and tears (as long as there are still so many things left to realise for me!). As for positive effects, I did not even think twice about radically changing my daily routine. No force applied, it came almost naturally, and many blind spots are dropping away. But let’s see how it goes in the future – two days do not have the same impact as weeks, months or years!

Birthday. My next birthday approaches, and like every year I have arranged a small celebration in one week, this time with purely organic and fairtrade food & drinks. Turning 28 is really not a big thing at all, but I enjoy bringing all my dear friends together for an inspiring and enjoyable evening. Hooray! :-)

Right Speech

I used to enjoy participating in discussions. Despite the knowledge that there are always many sides to a story, I still believed that my own subjective (and flawed!) viewpoints were somehow “more appropriate” and would lead to “better understanding”. Intending to be “objective”, I took sides, sometimes even fervently. Trying to make things right, I often made things worse.

Recently, however, my urge to take sides decreases. Beyond all belief systems and viewpoints I wish to discover relations and structures – something that remains “invariant” under any possible viewpoint, similar to mathematical and physical concepts (e.g. symmetry groups, isomorphisms, general covariance).

Still I can sense something “not quite right” about most of my utterances, including this posting right here and now. Whenever I speak or write, it seems to me that a subtle form of “tunnel vision” arises, like a growing “blind spot” that I cannot see. Indeed there is some benefit in remaining silent: you can listen better, and thus you might understand more.

As for my favourite “speech guideline”, Gotama Siddhattha mentions these five factors of Right Speech: a well-spoken statement is thus spoken …

– at the right time
– in truth
– affectionately
– beneficially
– with a mind of good-will

… all of which probably sounds “obvious”, yet it seems much easier said than done. The “right time” (or proper/appropriate time) cannot be enforced by will, it has to be recognized through “wisdom” (carefully developed on its own). As for “beneficial”, wishful thinking alone is not enough. The “mind of good-will” co-determines the long-term effects of any bodily, verbal or mental action.

One must be honest with oneself, though – to apply even the slightest trace of self-deception concerning any of these factors defeats their very purpose. Understanding becomes difficult without integrity, both for oneself and others.

Interestingly, the dichotomy “(un)endearing & (dis)agreeable to others” has no effect in light of these factors. You don’t necessarily have to say what others expect to hear. Just remain completely aware of it all. – Easy, huh? :-)

Puregg – Day 6 (2006-10-01)

Hiking. Before noon the whole group went hiking through the woods. It was quite interesting to experience this as a form of walking meditation. Whenever my mind went astray, I gently invited it for a cup of tea. After about 16 mental cups of tea we reached the peak and thoroughly enjoyed the view.

Words. Up there the group started talking again, yet no one appeared to have the urge to speak much. It seemed more like a gentle transition from silence to listening. On the way back I had a very delightful conversation with a nice woman from our group. Upon arrival we packed our belongings. During lunch Hannes sat next to me, and we spoke about sources of Theravada literature.

Farewell. Then it was time to say farewell, and I felt especially sad about leaving Pepi. She is such a wonderful woman full of kindness and wisdom, and somehow she reminds me of my grandmother. These few days in Puregg had been so priceless that I still do not know how to express my gratitude.

Journey. I shared most of the journey back to Graz with Klaus. Our train was completely overcrowded, so we had to squeeze into the tiny seats on the corridor. But this did not bother us in the slightest way – on the contrary, we shared a wonderful time and very insightful conversations. I can honestly call it the most enjoyable of all my train rides ever. For the last hour I even had a comfortable seat among some very nice passengers.

Lessons. So what have I learned in Puregg? – Practice. This word sums up everything. Yes, there were also intellectual discoveries. But for me the most valuable aspect was the practical application. The direct experience. The proper balance. The realisation of how practice feeds back into knowledge and understanding. Truly these few days have had a highly beneficial impact on my life; its full scope remains to be seen, depending on my future thoughts, words and actions, and the path that I choose with every single footstep.

Future. Clarity had arisen, and yet new confusion was already looming on the horizon. Until the present, in which I write these words, I have once again neglected this beneficial practice. But now I know how to pull myself out of the old patterns of delusion into which I so eagerly throw myself head over heels. Now I know the difference, and I have also realized that what I can do for others depends on what I allow myself to achieve within: a stable foundation, nurtured by constant practice, for the development of long-term happiness. :-)

Puregg – Day 5 (2006-09-30)

In Puregg we had a certain routine for meals. The person closest to the large cooking pot would put a portion of food into the bowls with a dipper and pass them around. We would not speak a single word, start eating together, wait for the last one to finish, and bow down before and after each meal.

Dippers. This morning it was my turn to wield the dipper, and of course I wanted to do everything right. After I had started, someone knocked a tea cup over, and her neighbour dried up the spilled liquids. My eyes and attention shifted from my task to that event. Pepi sat beside me, and with her sharp perception she immediately noticed my distraction. She said, “continue, don’t dream!”, and for a split second I felt quite embarrassed. In the next moment I was grateful for her precise teaching. My embarrassment could only come into existence through the concept of a vulnerable ego, based on an illusion about my “self”. And even if someone now thought of me as a day-dreamer, would that matter? Indeed not! The only important thing was to remain mindful and alert, and to do whatever I did in a proper and most beneficial way.

More dippers. During meditation I was in agony. I felt as though my back pain had long exceeded any levels of “valuable experience”, and that it was only distracting me from deeper insights. But noon arrived, and lunch, and the need for someone to wield the dipper: me again. Now I knew I just had to dish up one full scoop after the other. Such I did – and in the end there was almost nothing left for second portions. I had dished up too much! And there it was again, the embarrassment, the feeling of failure, over such a subtle thing, which nobody had even commented upon. Maybe no one had even thought about it, except for me! But that did not occur to me. I felt like such a loser.

Despair. After lunch we had a break, and I sat down under a tree. I felt desperate. Everything seemed to be going wrong: the dipper experiences, the back pain, my thoughts and emotions. My eyes were filled with tears. I wrote a few lines in my diary and then decided to meditate. After a few minutes I felt something tapping on my shoulder, opened my eyes, and saw a withered leaf that had fallen right between the thumbs and fingers of my hands. I thought of the anicca (inconstancy) principle and smiled. A bit later I spoke to Hannes about my recent difficulties, and he gave me valuable advice.

Agony. In the evening Hannes spoke to us about the five hindrances and other common meditation obstacles. Despite his advice and all my efforts of turning the meditation obstacle “back pain” into the meditation object, my pain increased towards unbearable levels. I did not want to give up and clenched my teeth together, until I felt like I would pass out right there and then. To keep my mind busy, I mentally recited a passage of the Maha-Rahulovada Sutta about the “mindfulness of breathing” technique, until I arrived at the words: “He trains himself, “I will breathe out tranquillizing the bodily fabrication.”

Relief. And there it was. Relief. Serenity. Peace. The pain had disappeared. I perceived nerve signals, and I could still locate the tension, but the suffering was gone. It was like a breakthrough. Now I could sit almost without effort. And it dawned to me that before too long I would remember this experience, and remind myself that I would no longer have to fear pain.