Toni Packer is relentlessly simple and unseductive. She doesn’t look to the past for the answers. Her words come out of listening, now, in this moment.
Born in 1927, Toni Packer grew up in Nazi Germany, the daughter of two scientists. Her mother was Jewish, but because of her father’s prestigious career, the family was spared from the Holocaust. Growing up in the midst of war, Toni realized early on that no one could protect her, that life involved great suffering. The family immigrated to Switzerland after the war, where Toni met and married a young American exchange student, Kyle Packer. Toni and Kyle moved to the States in 1951 and settled near Buffalo, New York, where Kyle eventually became a school principal. In the late sixties, she and Kyle discovered the Zen Center in Rochester, New York.
Toni began attending sesshins (extended meditation retreats) with Roshi Philip Kapleau and soon became his disciple. She was asked by him to assume counseling and, later, teaching responsibilities. As time went on, Toni found herself beginning to question the tradition-bound aspects of Zen practice—the hierarchy, the authoritarian teacher-student relationship, the ceremonies, the dogmas—all of which seemed to her to get in the way of simple, effortless being. She wanted to work not from memory, not from tradition and the past, but rather in a way that was immediate, direct, simple, and open. Toni came upon the writings and talks of J. Krishnamurti, and his questioning and insight helped to illuminate what she was grappling with herself. In the early 1980s, when Toni was put in charge of the Rochester Zen Center, she realized she couldn’t continue to work in the traditional way.
In 1981, Toni left the Center along with a number of people who were working with her, and together they founded the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Toni had a strong feeling for the importance of working in the country, so several hundred acres of land were purchased an hour south of Rochester, and a retreat center was built from scratch.
Genesee Valley Zen Center was eventually renamed Springwater Center. The word Zen was dropped in describing the work, Toni no longer called herself a teacher, and the traditional Zen emphasis on posture and form fell away. All attempts to “practice” meditation are questioned at Springwater. What is at the root of all such practice and effort?
The work of this moment involves direct discovery of pure being in which there is no conflict, no sense of limitation or separation, no self. The work is also about uncovering everything that obscures the immediacy of being, namely our conditioning and mistaking the abstractions of thought for reality. Toni encourages people to listen openly, to discover the truth for themselves, to allow the wisdom and intelligence of life to unfold without trying to manipulate or force it. —Joan Tollifson
Questioner: As a psychotherapist working with people with moderately severe problems, I don’t think that working on the illusion of the existence of a “separate me” is what Buddhism calls “skillful means,” even though that might help resolve suffering. I myself have been working in Zen practice with the koan MU for ten years without a “solution.”
The people I work with are simply too distressed (as I myself have been) to put aside their worldly suffering in the hopes of seeing into the illusory nature of a “separate me” as the means of dealing with their frequently very intense suffering. The suffering is often so intense that putting it aside to pursue the central spiritual question is not possible. I still haven’t seen into the koan MU myself despite ten years of sincere effort.
For me psychotherapy has been necessary and helpful over and above (or beside) my spiritual practice. I’m trying to see what methods and insights from spiritual practice can be useful in a psychotherapy setting.
Toni: I fully agree that it isn’t skillful for a psychotherapist to work with a client on the illusion of a separate me. This would just be working with an idea. As long as separation is felt to be a reality, “no separation” remains an idea, a concept. The truth of what we really are, from moment to moment, can only be discovered in immediate insight. On an intellectual level old ideas can be changed for new ones, but insight has nothing to do with exchanging ideas.
Without calling it therapy or spiritual practice, we can explore our intense suffering together and alone, when there is a deeply felt interest in questioning thoroughly what is going on in ourselves and in our relationships with each other. Genuine interest generates its own energy to meet directly what is coming up mentally, emotionally, physically, by listening and feeling quietly in a new way. This may hold for any one of us regardless of our particular psychological problems in which we all participate to one degree or another. Disturbing emotional or behavioral symptoms do not necessarily prevent one from meditative work. And meditative work need not necessarily become an escape into stillness from the pain and turmoil of psychological problems. As long as we genuinely need to find out what it is that is troubling us deeply, we can be increasingly present with whatever is going on in this troubled body-mind from moment to moment.
So why make any assumptions about what is or isn’t possible for a particular person, including oneself? We really don’t know, do we? Classifying ourselves according to our neurotic or psychotic symptoms and their prognoses (which is our usual approach to mental illness) does not help in this process, does it? The most amazing and seemingly improbable things are possible for a human being with an urge to grapple with fear, pain and suffering without giving up, no matter how enormous the difficulty may appear to be. I don’t know why, but we are capable of delving directly into sickness and what is making us sick, without escaping—listening inwardly, quietly, without knowing. This listening-presence in itself renews the energy to carry on in unfathomable ways.
Direct insight into what is troubling us happens entirely on its own, without any “doing” on our part. It has no system, no strategy, no division. It is healing.
As for working on MU for ten years, does it really illumine much about the immense power of thought, memory, and imagination to create and maintain our sense of separation and suffering? Working on MU can actually be used to repress fear and pain and sorrow. At the same time it strengthens the thought and image of a separate self capable of becoming an enlightened one at a future time. It can hook into all our old patterns of striving to attain a desired reward, craving for success while experiencing failure. It hides rather than reveals the conditioning that is going on and has been going on in this human mind-body for thousands of years.
I can’t see any way of working together except with what comes up from moment to moment. Working with clients or friends seeking help, I would put the highest priority on listening and looking together openly, and, if the occasion arises, asking questions in a simple way, without knowing or searching for immediate answers or solutions—letting feelings, emotions, questions or comments arise and unfold in that quiet listening-space of not knowing. Isn’t the problem of our moment-to-moment living our central spiritual question?
This does not imply any pressure to work on a “spiritual question.” Our problems need not be labeled or categorized. And if the aspirations of a client result in guilt feelings about not being able to work on a “spiritual” level, these feelings themselves can become the focus of listening and questioning.
While in Zen training many years ago, my teacher asked me to counsel students on their personal problems. He believed, as had his teachers before him, that dealing with psychological problems did not belong in meetings between teacher and student. According to Zen tradition, these meetings are for spiritual practice only, not for bringing up personal things, no matter how urgent or upsetting they may be. I did not know how to “counsel” people, but found no help from any system. All that remained was listening carefully to what the person was saying, just watching what was happening in both of us without knowing ways, means, or solutions. It is entering empty-minded into what someone is conveying and what is coming up in oneself at the same time. This is difficult because the mind-body is addicted to its ingrained programs: thinking about solutions, trying to get rid of pain and suffering in oneself and others, wanting to be a successful helper and knower with all its satisfactions. But occasionally listening together without any conditioned interferences unfolds its own wondrous wisdom, expression, and compassion.
Again, I’m not advocating anything like “working on the illusion of the self.” That’s all idea. The very stress and worldly suffering you talk about bring us to serious questioning, and it is that very stress and suffering that needs to be allowed to manifest, unfold, be listened to, felt wholly, and inquired into in spacious stillness—alone and together.
What shall we call this amazing process of learning, with its spontaneous insights into the truth of what we really are?
“Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice” is taken from Toni Packer’s book, The Light of Discovery, published by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
Excerpts from a manuscript by Joan Tollifson
Toni says, “Don’t trust the thoughts. What’s real is the sunrise, the footsteps, the smell of the flowers. We have our moods, like the weather. There’s something much deeper available. Just to be here in this moment, without time. This is your whole life. This isn’t some sideline activity. This is it—just to feel and be with what is.”
Toni compares this work we’re doing to the aliveness of a baby exploring the world. She doesn’t call it practice, as they do in many schools of meditation, because to her that word automatically conveys ideas of effort and attainment—a self-improvement program, whereas awareness can never be objectified or made into a program. Toni seems almost to be suggesting pure wonderment, without concentration, but she seems enormously concentrated. Perhaps the key lies in the realm of intention. Babies focus or concentrate on what interests or pleases them. As soon as a new interest emerges or appears, their focus will shift. Concentration thus arises naturally. It is spontaneous, alive, always moving. It is free. There is no resistance or effort. It is not a direction imposed by thought, some agenda of prescribed or forced behavior. Most meditation practices, on the other hand, are created and sustained by thought, and seem to reinforce the image of a self—a meditator—who is “doing” meditation, and getting somewhere spiritually through such discipline and effort.
Toni talks of taking her grandson on a walk at twilight in Rochester on a winter evening, and how he sat down in a pool of light in the snow under a street lamp, just wanting to be there in that light. “Was he practicing something?” she asks.
I love the fresh air, nature, silence. Such a deep, pervasive, wondrous quiet. The relief of a life without datebooks and appointment calendars, without the constant interruptions of phone calls and activities, all the delicious sound and fury, in which my energy gets so easily dissipated and scattered. I like being in a place where social interactions occur spontaneously, organically, instead of being planned days or weeks or months in advance. Springwater offers a unique opportunity to be quiet in nature without a highly structured program being imposed on you in the process. It offers nothing, which is something increasingly hard to come upon in our culture. We are used to tremendous stimulation a speed, efficiency and purposefulness.
I’m appreciating the chance to work in a different way, a way that questions those layers upon layers of what can so easily become self-image and effort to get somewhere and become somebody. Of course, such questioning and seeing can presumably also occur in the midst of traditional Zen rigor, but Toni’s way seems to make it much more easily visible, interrupting the old patterns so completely as she does, calling them into question.
In the meeting room one night during the last retreat, I picked up a sea shell from the table and held it to my ear.
“It says nothing,” I reported and put it back on the table.
Toni picked it up, held it to her ear for a long time, her face open and full of wonder, like a child . . .
Looking for the extraordinary, we miss the (much more extraordinary) ordinary world.