People frequently express dismay at experiencing endless streams of thought, even after sitting (in meditation) for many years: “Am I a hopeless case?” they ask. Or, “The mind is fairly quiet and spacious here at Springwater, but when I’m back home there is new entanglement again.” Or, “How can I do it better, be more disciplined? I really have no discipline whatsoever. I lack a foundation, not having had any formal training. Do I need to make more of an effort to get thoughts under control, to become more concentrated to arrive at silence and understanding?”
When I talk about presence being effortless, not brought about by concentration, people sometimes will retort that I had many years of formal Zen training, so how can I say that this did not help me become more focused in the present? Actually, this mind was able to concentrate before starting Zen training. Concentration was never a problem. But being concentrated is not the same as being here, present, and clearly aware. We can practice concentration for years and become highly focused, even perform feats that seem miraculous. But does it help in understanding who we truly are, clearly, directly, beyond the shadow of doubt? It is hard to put it into words, but when this is clear, it is clear. It is not the product of concentration or imagination. I am not knocking concentration. It has its useful function in daily life, in arts, sciences, sports. In the kitchen, if I’m not concentrated the food will burn. Acrobats need enormous concentration to stay on the high wire, and so do bookkeepers to avoid making mistakes.
It is possible to learn to control the mind with practices like concentrating on the breath, a mantra, a mandala, a spot on the forehead or below the navel. This is concentrating by cutting off distractions. And what do we get in that process? Don’t we get a concentrator, either a good or a bad one? The effort that comes from the thought of getting someplace or becoming something reinforces, in subtle ways, the sense of me. It reinforces the me as having to do something, being somebody, attaining something, or still lacking something. These are all ideas and images, deeply programmed and constantly reinforced in the human mind.
If anyone wishes to experiment with concentration, please do so. It is good training for the mind. But that training of the mind does not tell us what we are at this moment. What are we when there is no one doing anything, no one attaining anything, no place to go? There is no place to go. The whole foundation is already here in each one of us. It is the same in all of us. There is only one foundation, which is presence, wholeness, boundless love.
Can we come upon it?
It is always here. It has always been here. The concept of beginning and ending is time, produced by thought. Can we see right now that beginning and ending, getting someplace, being somebody, wanting to get the something I lack are all products of the imagination? As long as this isn’t clear, this bodymind remains tied up in knots. Can we see that thinking about tomorrow, or about what is planned for dinner tonight, is all conceptualization? We can think about food when there is actually no food in front of us. “Tonight” is a thought. “Dinner” is a thought. “The future,” in which I will be enlightened, is a thought. Can we see it instantly? Can we see that a thought is always away from this present moment where time does not exist? When the food is right in front of us, are we just eating, or are we thinking about wanting more?
What are we really? Is that our real interest here? To come upon our true being, without deception, without kidding ourselves? Maybe we aren’t interested in this. Some people have told me they have dropped the thought of getting enlightened, and all they are interested in now is being at ease, finding undisturbed quietness. They do not even want to be disturbed by a talk. A talk can be disturbing.
So our interests vary. And they may vary from one moment to the next. Here in this work of the moment we are not trying to mold ourselves to a preconceived path or “stages.” Teachings that postulate stages grab the thinking mind. We wonder what these stages are like, and trying to figure them out is an exercise in headaches. Of course, the main interest is, “What stage am I in? How many more will I have to go through?”
Can we drop the idea of stages and not pick it up again, even though it is prevalent in many traditions? Can we see and feel that any such conceptualization is already a straitjacket? Thought is so powerful-thinking what I am now, what I will be next, judging myself about what I think I am and what I could be. The power of such thoughts cannot be overestimated. They prevent a presence, an awareness that defies all definition.
We may think that effort is the source of awareness, but in presently awaring this thinking, there is no effort. It’s just happening. Listen-rain is gently dropping on the roof, hitting the window panes; breath is flowing, crows are calling. We hear it clearly, don’t we? Any effort?
Just because everything in this world seems to have a cause and an effect, there is a deeply lodged assumption that awareness too must have a cause, a deeper source. Is that so? Some people have found that doing a lot of sitting during a silent retreat results in greater awareness-the absence of self-consciousness and isolation. Do we conclude from this that long sitting causes awareness? When something as marvelous as openness, clarity, and lack of separation is palpably present, thought quickly tries to figure out what brought about this marvel, wondering: “What was I doing just before this happened? I must try to do that again.” The brain is conditioned to assume that what happened before is responsible for what is going on now, and that I must have something to do with it!
So where does effort come into the work of this moment? “Work” is a loaded word. In the conditioned mind, it is associated with effort, goal, training, and getting rewards. Let us use the word “work” ever so lightly, carefully, for this meditative “work” is not work in the conventional sense-that I have to make an effort to get someplace, attain something.
Over the years, I have wondered what it is about silent retreats that seems to facilitate the emergence of openness, presence, and a simplicity of being. But it remains impossible to pin down any precipitating cause. We all know that time spent in motionless silence does not necessarily lead to a quiet mind.
All I can say at this moment of looking is that pure awareness is the silence of all habitual efforts to get someplace. It is the absence of any sense of me-in-time. In the past, all kinds of efforts were made to learn to sit still over long periods of time, which undoubtedly played a part in learning to remain motionless in the midst of fear, pain, pleasure, and the restless desire to be somewhere else. Having the opportunity to sit quietly, over time, the bodymind is amazingly intelligent in learning new ways of being in the midst of the pushes and pulls of old habits. Habits are energies expended, but sitting quietly is energy gathering: awaring habits intelligently, letting them go without effort.
Some people ask if they should make more effort outside of retreat because they notice that two or three weeks after a retreat there is still some presence and spaciousness, but then the old compulsive patterns return. The mind then asks, “Could I make some special effort to keep that retreat awareness going in daily life?” We want to let the quietness and stillness savored in retreat flower in daily life. We want more quietness, less reactivity with people and situations. We want to do something to bring about more peacefulness and harmony. We ask ourselves how we can bring this about. We ask what effort can be undertaken, for it would be good not only for me but also for the world.
Do thoughts and desires for a better life for all of us take us away from the present moment-which may be rife with conflict and stress? Is it possible in the midst of the mess, the chaos, the suffering, to wake up and not immediately blame myself or others for being in it?
Rather than dreaming of a future world without chaos, can we be intimate with it as it is right now? Can we quiet down in the midst of the hurricane? There is a quiet spot at the center of each hurricane. It is called the eye. Can that eye be found right now?
Touching the eye may replace chaos with simple awareness, attention. Around the eye the debris may still be flying. Is that the challenge: finding the quiet eye of listening in the midst of chaos, beholding the whole thing even though it may not be pretty, blissful, or inspirational?
An anecdote comes to mind that I loved reading in the old Zen Center days. A monk named Wo Lun came to visit the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (who lived in China about twelve hundred years ago to present his understanding to the master). This was the exchange:
Wo Lun has skillful means
Enabling him to cut off all thoughts.
In the face of circumstances
His mind is not aroused,
And daily, monthly, wisdom grows.
To which Hui Neng replied:
Hui Neng has no skillful means,
He does not cut off all thoughts.
In the face of circumstances
His mind is often aroused.
So how can there be a growth of wisdom? 1
For Hui Neng, there is just effortless, unselfconscious being. No time. When effortless being does not manifest directly, the me inevitably makes efforts to make progress. Effortless being means no me pushing for something, be it a quiet mind, enlightenment, wisdom, or anything else. Can the effort-ing me expose itself as an unnecessary and mostly disturbing thought? This exposure is energy-not effort- energy gathering in, not succumbing to wanting to get someplace else, but exploring what is right here, right now; listening, being here, open, even though it may feel enclosed. Realize the choicelessness of being here, even though the imagination wants to project “videos” of better places. Being here is not making an effort to relax or to find undisturbed quietness. If there is tension and disturbance, that is what is here.
Actually, what is here? Not defining it, not knowing it-listening and attending in a new way that is not teachable, not learnable.
It happens on its own, gathering energy, knowing nothing of effort.
1From The Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch on the Pristine Orthodox Dharma (San Francisco: Buddha’s Universal Church, 1964), p. 113.
From The Wonder of Presence and the Way of Meditative Inquiry, by Toni Packer. Copyright © 2002 by Toni Packer. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. www.Shambhala.com