Revelling in isolation — lessons from Mars and India

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This state-sanctioned solitude that has been thrust upon us in the form of a lockdown can act as the perfect setting in which to sit down and retire into a deep observation of the nature of our being and reality.

Are you still in lockdown? How still?

Even today, exactly one year after my return to earth, my sense of wonder still carries a different quality. Three months of zero-gravity had changed my perspective on reality. When I was first standing on the surface of a lively rock again, a blue home which is miraculously drifting through the ever expanding emptiness of the universe, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that the sky was a second, gas-blue planet which hovered extremely close to earth. It felt heavy, unknown, beautiful and full of danger. This sensation lasted for two days and eventually subsided — the rest of the wonders remained: My utter disbelief of a fundamentally existing world-as-such, animated within its grandest thought and smallest atom by a growth and a creating power, displayed with blooming and withering, birth and decay, spirit and matter. Nothing of all that surrounds us is self-evident. No colours, no Erythrocytes, no well-sang elegies nor the eternal present.

The sober evidence of life is as wonder-like as the common blue of the sky, as ungraspable as the oceans tides and turns. Especially those things which seem the most familiar to us and most known, are, upon closer inspection, nothing but the first and last secrets of an ever revealing world.

Many years ago I spent the summer in a Zen Mediation Centre located in the cool hills of Tamil Nadu. Reading manically through their vast library, I especially fell in love with the Blue Cliff Record. Here, I came across some extraordinary stanzas which have accompanied me ever since, regardless of whether I went to Mars or to India:


Before attaining enlightenment,

mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers.

At the moment of enlightenment,

mountains are no longer mountains, nor are rivers rivers.

But after accomplishing enlightenment,

mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers.


In spring 2019, I took part in a NASA conducted study on zero gravity. During three months of isolation in a space research center, 11 other “terrestrial astonauts” and I spent two full months continuously lying in bed with our heads tilted six degrees lower than our feet. In eight weeks, we never once up got up. Everything, including eating, showering, drinking, “going” to the toilet, spinning on a centrifuge and numerous other experiments took place in this unnatural position. Our goal was Mars. In the very near future, private explorers such as Elon Musk´s SpaceX and government space programes will send men and women to the red planet. It will be the greatest adventure in the history of mankind. Our life in the simulated spaceship will contribute the necessary data to make this flight happen as soon as possible.

Besides all the physical and psychological challenges that such an extraordinary isolation experience entails, my hardest struggle was missing the “natural world”. My entire universe became white-walled, sterile, air-conditioned; it weakened me. After ten weeks, every cell in my body demanded colours and unfiltered air, the silence of forests and the ocean’s salt-drenched winds. In short: I missed the planetary life force without nothing is able to exist. I missed the home planet which, so far, had been the substratum of all the significant hours of my life.

Thus, while “isolated on Mars”, I literally dreamed of the life of isolation which I am living right now during lockdown in India, the carefree sky above my head, the shocking heat, an overpowering moon that silently rises through the starry nights. I craved the rampant display of the colours of a South Indian summer and its fermenting, incense-drenched air. Since it is too hot to sleep indoors, I have made my bedroom on the roof and spend my hours gazing at the eternity that stretches from horizon to horizon.

Even Mars, the size of a pin in the haystack of stars, shows itself in the night sky. Isolation deluxe — I could not ask for much more without expecting a loving God’s wrath. And yet, after four weeks of lockdown, I began to feel more constricted than during my absolute immobility on Mars, never leaving the groundhog day reality of my 2,5 m² bed. There is one aspect of the renewed isolation which troubles me the most — the restriction of fundamental human rights, mainly the freedom of movement and assembly.

I couldn’t even drive to Pondicherry, just a few kilometers away, for an emergency, let alone go back to Germany. The streets are sealed off, the police confiscates motorcycles and imposes heavy fines, not to mention the beating-sticks which swing casually from the policemen’s hips. I have been travelling around the planet continuously for twenty years. But for the first time I do not have the freedom to leave or, more importantly, to simply get lost.

I can hardly overstate the difference between now and the previous year. When I entered the Mars program, I voluntarily gave up my freedom. Not holding a ray of sunshine in my hands for three months, lying head down in bed, no alcohol or other stimulants, adhering to strict eating and sleeping guidelines, undergoing muscle atrophy, severe bone-mass reduction and the loss of my ability to stand on two legs? No problem, as long as it was my decision and as long I was willing to accept this unique challenge. But to be forced to give up your freedom and to follow ten anti-coronavirus measures, eight out of which are completely useless and ineffective? Even in times of apparent emergency and crisis, it is especially important to maintain a scepticism of those in power. We should never blindly surrender our civil liberties indefinetly to the state, politicans or the police, those whose motives are far too often the expansion of their own power rather than the health and safety of their people.


So, how, in this unprecedented situation, can we dismiss our basic fears and insecurities and move forward with a clear and trustful mind? Taking a closer look into all the circumstances which are beyond my control, I turn now to the same methods I used a year ago: Surrendering to each and every thing that I simply cannot change while embracing the responsibility for what I can change. The fundamentals of human existence. Isolation or not, there might be nothing as imortant and liberating as to learn how to surrender to one’s reality — the world as it is in each moment of now. Followers of the Buddha’s teachings call it “Sunshine Buddha and Moonlight Buddha”. So and so. This or That. Whether we are overpowered by light or by darkness, overrun by pleasant or unpleasant sensations, all of it finally succumbs to the one, unchanging law of the universe: Impermanence.

I spent my first two years in India and Sri Lanka almost exclusively in monasteries and meditation centres. Thousands of hours spent behind closed eyes and the study of Zen-literature and Hinduism did not make me wise by any stretch of the imagination but has, nonetheless, taught me an important lesson. Meditation isn’t much different from a lockdown experience: Without the chance to escape from your own self, you are more than ever (and exclusively) thrown back into the realms of the so-called self.

There is no longer any activity in which you can safely procrastinate and cling to your dearest convictions. For the theatre of the mind, there is simply no escape from its present condition. There is only the sense of being, or more precisely, the experience of that which seems to be. Thus, in radical existence with yourself, all focus is shifted towards that identity which we call the ego or the self. And even though we all acknowledge this persistent experience of “us” and “I”, we never bother to assure ourselves of its self-essence. How can you know, if you never even dare to find out, that you, beyond the mere unsubstantial sensation of being a self, even exist?

The first lesson of meditation practice is the most decisive. Luckily, we don’t need to be concerned with ceasing into an ultra-hovering state-of-the-mind which is called nirvana, not if the first realisation of our practice is already such a powerful insight, able to change the course of an entire life. Every student of meditation realises very soon that he or she isn’t the master of their own house. The person who you thought you were doesn’t fundamentally exist. It’s a revelation which descends with all the necessary panic and euphoria, a revelation which will sink to the bottom of your bones and into the deepest waters of your soul: I am not the sensations which I feel; I am not the thoughts which I am experiencing! Thoughts, memories, desires and feelings simply float through the mind, witnessed and observed. But witnessed by whom? By myself? By a never-changing self? Then who and what exactly is that witness, this ominous ego-subject which is juxtaposed to the incoming objects of the mind?


The world is of the greatest importance, a miraculous stage for the dance of life and spirit — and at the same time, null and void.


It is precisely the identification of the observer with the observations that the Buddha has not only exposed as an illusion but also highlighted as the first cause of suffering. Distancing yourself from the things observable by the mind (emotions, thoughts, memories, etc.), which float through consciousness like clouds through a bright blue sky, swiftly leads to the next exercise: to fully emerge oneself in this witness-consciousness, to sink into this state of mind which is not only the totality of the world but also neither one thing or the other. It is an eternal state of mind, a realm behind all forms of being and an existence which must remain nameless. It can’t be illustrated by a language whose nature is to deal with the ongoing phenomena of the material world. Words such as peace, love, God, divine or universal consciousness, Shiva, Brahman are all perfectly right and absolutely wrong.

In the Wumenguan, a collection of koans and their commentaries by great Zen masters, a wonderful verse can be found:

“He who speaks about wrong and right,

is a man of the wrong and right only.”


Emerging into a world in which language has no more words to speak, we have finally arrived. We are home. Perhaps even in the ego, which, as it turns out, can’t be traced or localised.

I spent three months in the Zen-Meditation centre. Once a day, the students could leave the meditation hall, walk down the stairs into the Master’s chamber and sit alone with him for precisely a minute. In the Zen tradition, pupils are given a personal koan, a paradoxical riddle that can only be “solved” if the pupil leaves the beaten paths of the ordinary and personalised patterns of the mind. I too got a koan, even though I didn’t really bother to solve it (maybe, I figured, this could be the secret behind the whole koan practice — to just not do it!). In any case, I enjoyed the daily escape from the often exhausting meditation sessions down to my Master’s room. We would usually simply sit in front of each other, in silence or grinning or I would tell him a story which had nothing to do with anything at all. After a minute he would ring his bell, we would bow to each other and I would stroll back into the hall. But one day I wanted to say and present something to him, even though I knew I had no answer at all. Not having an answer was probably not the right answer, but who could tell.

“Well?” he asked, smiling as I took my seat on the meditation-cushion in front of him. I started solving the koan. As soon as I was done, he burst out laughing. So powerful and contagious was his laugh that I couldn’t help but laugh with him, harder and harder and louder and louder, until I finally fell sideways from my pillow. Anyone who has ever, laughing hysterically, crumpled up in front of his spiritual master who himself is laughing so hard that he has to hold his stomach like a maniac, head covered in sweat, will tell you that if you have had that experience, it’s safe to say that you can forget that koans and all that Zen stuff even exists.

To this day, it remains one of the most cherished moments in my life. Our laughter kept on echoing through the entire facility. Over the next few days, everyone wanted to know exactly what had happened. My enlighenment-seeking colleagues assumed that we had broken all I-attachments and gone sailing through the deconstruction of our mental bonds like on a really enjoyable DMT-trip — and maybe we did! That day, I didn’t go back into the hall but walked, still chuckling, out of the front gate and into the surrounding forest. Just when I left the centre, I could hear my screaming master actually ringing his little bell. Bimeling-Bim! Bimeling-Bim!

That was it.

Our session was over.

These few minutes have taught me an important lesson. Don’t take anything in this fleeting world too seriously — especially not that which is referred to as enlightenment. Whoever speaks about wrong and right is a man of the wrong and right only. For years I have been battling with my judgements, desires and fears. Then I understood that judgement or desires aren’t necessarily the problem as much as the simple yet overwhelming identification with those sensations. I realised that I can judge and fool my own mind all day, as long as I know that all those judgements and thoughts aren’t anywhere close to what we could call “The Truth”. They are real, yes, but more importantly, they aren’t. It’s all a damn game! And as long as I remember this, I am free to experience everything and let it pass away with the same freedom. It really, ultimately, doesn’t matter. The world is of the greatest importance, a miraculous stage for the dance of life and spirit — and at the same time, null and void.

Nothing is permanent. The entire world is ephemeral, doomed, and yet gloriously present in its divine form, its manifested light and grace. Whether the rivers are rivers or not is pure dialectic. The current quarantine conditions are uncomfortable times that remind us of the unique fact of being alive. Alive with our joy, fear, revelations, kindness and sorrow. What a strange, wonderful time. When, if not in such extraordinary times, do we have the chance to assure ourselves of the extraordinary?

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