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Open Listening: Awareness without a Method

My first published book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, is in large part an account of my relationship with my teacher and friend Toni Packer and my years on staff at Springwater Center, the meditation retreat center she founded. Toni was a former Zen teacher who left the rituals, traditions, dogmas and hierarchies of Zen behind in order to work in a very simple and direct way, free of method or tradition. Toni's approach was one of open awareness.

Toni had a beautiful way of formulating everything as a question. She recognized that we can’t just will our way out of addictive, compulsive, destructive and painful behaviors. She saw clearly that there was no executive running the show, and that the force of habit and old conditioning would often over-power the desire and the intention to respond in a new and different way to certain (psychological and/or physiological) triggers. Instead of asserting that we can choose to do whatever we want, or issuing commands telling us to “Pay attention!” or to “Choose freedom!” as many teachers do, Toni would formulate everything as a question, a gentle invitation, a possibility: “Is it possible to give complete, open, nonjudgmental attention to this feeling of depression (or anxiety, or smoking, or over-eating, or whatever the 'problem' was) as it is occurring?” she might ask. That’s very different from telling someone what they “should” or “must” do.

Toni was also very aware of the secondary layer of thought that takes everything personally and evaluates how well (or how poorly) “I” am doing. Addressing our desire to be permanently attentive and awake “all the time,” she talked about the fireflies that would fill the fields of Springwater on summer nights with their magical blinking lights—and how silly it would be to imagine a firefly wanting to be “on” all the time. She knew that the light and the dark are interwoven, but she was always careful not to turn that or anything else that she observed into a belief or a dogma. She avoided discussions of abstract philosophy and metaphysics, and instead always pointed back to the aliveness and the immediacy of Here / Now, the living reality of this moment, the awaring presence and the direct discovery of how it is.

When it came to paying attention, or ending an addiction, or not yelling at your children, or eating healthy food, Toni Packer saw that this wasn’t a simple matter of just “deciding” what to do and then doing it through some act of will-power. She recognized that in one moment there could be the heartfelt desire to stop smoking, and in another moment, there could be the overwhelming desire to smoke, and that no one was in control of which desire arose or had more energy and won out in any given moment. She saw that “I can choose” and “I have no choice” are both thoughts. Neither one is really true. They are both mental maps or conceptual formulations, but the Truth is a living reality that must be discovered directly, not yesterday or tomorrow, but Here / Now. It is ever-new, always fresh and uncharted, and it cannot be boxed up into a concept, a formula or a method.

The first selection from Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life that I've included here is about the first time I spoke to Toni about the fingerbiting compulsion that I’d struggled with since childhood. The approach Toni takes to this "problem" could be applied to any other addiction, compulsion or habit, or to "problematic" conditions such as depression or anxiety. Here's the excerpt:

The next morning when I meet with Toni I speak to her about this horrible addiction. It may sound trivial, but I bite the flesh, not the nails, often drawing blood, and I can get so mesmerized by it that I cannot bring myself to stop. I am thus virtually paralyzed, often for hours at a time, chewing on my hand, unable to stop, unable to do anything else, my entire body in a spasm of tension. The whole experience feels both numbing and torturous, and inevitably fills me with self-hatred and shame. I’ve tried every imaginable cure and nothing has worked.

Toni listens, and suggests not trying to get rid of it! Simply be with it, she suggests. What is it? How does it feel? What are the thoughts, including the desire to stop, the belief that I can’t, the judgments of myself. Experience the sensations in my jaw, my fingers, my shoulder, my stomach, hear the sounds in the room. Just listen, to the whole thing, without judgment.

“Can all of this be allowed to reveal itself?” Toni asks. “You can’t impose improvements,” she says. “With will power comes resistance. Check it out for yourself.”

How exactly did “I” stop drinking, doing drugs, or smoking cigarettes? There were numerous attempts that failed, and then there was success. How did that happen? What shifted? Is there a person here, a “me”, who is capable of deciding to stop an addictive pattern? And, if so, why doesn’t it always work? Why do some people succeed and others fail? Why is it that someone like me, who has successfully let go of many addictive behaviors, is still biting my fingers? Why don’t I stop? What brings a person to the point of stopping?

Habit has two parts, Toni says. There is the habit itself (finger biting, smoking, drinking, whatever), and there is the observer who wants to stop, who is also a habit. And there is the conflict, the battle between the desire to indulge, which is an escape from what is, and the desire to stop, which is also a movement away from what is.

Toni suggests that the only real solution lies in complete awareness. In such awareness there is…no intention, no judgment, no conflict, no separation from the problem, no self to be improved or fixed, no direction. It is open, relaxed seeing.

“Can we look carefully at this ‘me’ that seems to be the power behind making decisions, really go into it, trace this chooser, this doer, all the way to the root?” Toni asks me.

When we do that together, all we find is thoughts. Conflicting thoughts: “I want to bite,” “I want to stop.” It feels like a battle between “me-the observer” and “me-the addict.” But both of these “me’s” are images constructed by thought and imagination. What’s actually going on is just an alternating, conflicting series of thoughts. No one is “doing” them; they’re happening.

“I have to bite,” “I can’t stop,” “I should stop,” “I’m addicted,” “I’m an addict,” “I’m a terrible person,” “How can I stop?” “If I just get this one loose end, then I’ll be satiated,” “It would be unbearable to feel what I would feel if I stopped,” “I’m stuck, this is hopeless,” “It’s been going on for a long time,” “It’s out of control,” “I’ll never get free,” “I should be able to control myself,” “This is sick,” “I want to be healthy.”

“These are all thoughts,” Toni says. “Do you see that?”

“But some of them are true,” I reply.

“Are they?” she asks with electric intensity, her eyes closed, her hands suspended in midair, listening.

“Well, I am addicted. It is out of control,” I insist.

“Thought seems to be just reporting the facts, objectively: ‘I’m addicted, this is out of control.’ But are these really facts? Or are they ideas? These are very powerful thoughts, and every thought produces neurochemical reactions in the body.”

Whichever position has more energy in that moment wins out, Toni suggests, and then there is either the thought, “I’m good because I had the will power to stop,” or “I’m a failure because I didn’t have enough will power to stop.” Thought creates “me” who has “done” one thing or the other, and is “successful” or “unsuccessful” as a result. And then more thoughts about me quickly follow: “I’m on my way to enlightenment” or “I’m a hopeless case on my way to total doom.” Either of these thought-trains will generate a tremendous response in the body, either good feelings or terrible feelings, elation or depression.

“Do you see how all these powerful thoughts and the feelings they produce in the body all revolve around the idea and image of ‘me’?” Toni asks. “Do you see how it’s all thinking?”

There is rain falling outside the meeting room, trickling down the window.

I see that in this work there is no attempt whatsoever to pass judgment on what is, cut it off, control it, discipline it, change it. There is simply attention. Attention which is gone as soon as it is sought after or named. It comes and goes. There is nothing to do. But be diligent about doing nothing, Zen master Huang Po advises in one of the passages Toni reads to us on the last day of every retreat.

Rain turns to snow and back to rain again. The air is cold and smells of wet leaves, moisture and mulch, the last wild apples. Sweet and pungent. The trees are bare and there is a thin skin of ice on the surface of the pond at dawn.

--from pp 71-74 of Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, published in 1996.

This next short passage conveys one of the most subtle and important lessons I ever learned from Toni Packer. The distinction that Toni is drawing here between direct seeing (Here / Now) and thinking about what has been seen in the past is so essential and yet so easily missed by all of us. Here it is:

I told Toni that I was in despair because I saw these habits, future-thinking and finger-biting, but they just kept coming back. Year after year after year after year.

“Here's where you have to be really discerning,” Toni replied. “When you say that you see them, is it really seeing, or is it thinking? Thinking about how long they've persisted, how it's never going to end, how it's hopeless, wanting to know how to fix it. That isn't seeing. That's thinking.”

This work (or life itself) is so simple! Yet we resist and resist it. We keep looking for imaginary solutions.

-- from pp. 230-231, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life

Of course, Toni doesn't mean we shouldn't try to solve problems, but she's pointing to the erroneous way we typically tend to go about it. We think and think and think about our problems—analyzing them, naming them, thinking about how long they’ve persisted and how hopeless the situation is, imagining future cures that might work—instead of right now doing the only thing that really works, which is to be fully present Here / Now with the bare actuality of this moment, just as it is. The solution is never in the future. Waking up can only happen now. The healing, the transformation is in the awareness, the listening presence, the openness that wants nothing. It's not even really a doing in the usual sense of that word, but simply being present, being open and curious and interested in how it is right now, not looking for results, not doing anything to resist what's here or to chase after something else, not thinking about it all, but simply allowing whatever is showing up to reveal itself in awareness. Awareness is unconditional love, intelligence itself—it changes everything in the most amazing ways, beyond anything thought could conjure up.

Here are a few more excerpts from Bare-Bones Meditation:

"All the questions that arise, if I trace them back, arise from thought. Thought conjures up imaginary problems and then tries to solve them. It is all a form of postponement. The truth is exactly now.  Immediate. Simple.

“'There's nothing to get to the bottom of,' Toni said. 'Just one bottomless moment.'"

--from pp 222-223, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life

“We search for gurus, for ideal states, for enlightenment, a better life, a more perfect self. We analyze, we think, we strain to finally, totally ‘get it,’ to know the answer, to do the right thing. And in the end—in sleep, or death, or waking up—it all dissolves into silence.” 

--from p 238, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life

-- excerpts from Bare-Bones Meditation, copyright Joan Tollifson, Random House 1996 --

-- Other writing copyright Joan Tollifson 2013 --

The excerpts from Bare-Bones Meditation are copyrighted material from a published book, please treat it accordingly. As for the rest, you are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post the whole article or a long excerpt anywhere else, please ask permission first, give appropriate copyright credit to Joan, and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

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