Exploring What Is: The Pathless Path of Meditation and Inquiry
(the second part of this is excerpted from Nothing to Grasp)
True Meditation: The Art of Going Nowhere
No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?
Practice is not about having nice feelings, happy feelings. It's not about changing, or getting somewhere. That in itself is the basic fallacy. But observing this desire begins to clarify it. We begin to comprehend that our frantic desire to get better, to 'get somewhere,' is illusion itself, and the source of suffering.
--Charlotte Joko Beck
Meditating is like inviting fire into our consciousness….In the realm of true meditation there is no such thing as a meditator or meditation. There is nothing to be done.
At the heart of experience there is a fire that burns all we know, that turns all things into itself. Offer everything to this fire.
Meditation is the quite radical act of offering yourself completely to the unknown, of entrusting yourself to direct experience of the source of your being, rather than clinging to ideas or developing concepts about the nature of mind.
--from the website of the Zen Open Circle in Australia (Susan Murphy)
Meditation is a way of being, not a technique…Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well…Awareness itself is the teacher, the student, and the lesson… Resting in awareness in any moment involves giving ourselves over to all our senses, in touch with inner and outer landscapes as one seamless whole…More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love.
One relaxes into an uncontrived, open spaciousness which is neither a state of self-conscious meditation nor an inattentive state of distraction.
Stay without ambition, without the least desire, exposed, vulnerable, unprotected, uncertain and alone, completely open to and welcoming life as it happens, without the selfish conviction that all must yield you pleasure or profit, material or so-called spiritual.
Discipline is not so much a matter of doing this or that, but of holding still. Not as if this world cost no effort. But the effort is all applied to the crucial task, the task of making no effort.
--David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B.
Meditation is resting as this unexplainable dynamic.
Meditation begins now, right here. It can't begin someplace else or at some other time….In meditation we return to where we already are – this shifting, changing ever-present now.
Meditation is not about manufacturing a state of mind that’s clear, calm or full of insight. It’s about interfering less and less with what is actually here.
Zazen [Zen meditation] is fundamentally a useless and pointless activity…Our life is already fine the way it is…our strong, habitual sense of self always demands that we get some good out of everything we do. We become exhausted by all this activity. But zazen is something different. If we don’t appreciate its fundamental uselessness which comes from the fundamental all-rightness of our life we will turn it into something acquisitive and busy, just like everything else we do.
Sitting here is without any purpose. Contemplate profoundly what it means: being without purpose.
Meditation works by itself. You don’t have to “do” anything.
As you walk the spiritual path, it widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all.
Instead of trying to get somewhere, or attain something, or get rid of something, what if we simply stop and notice how it is, right here, right now?
What if we don’t try to define how it is (label it, analyze it, explain it), but instead, what if we simply let it be as it is?
How is it?
That isn’t a question to answer. It isn’t calling for a label, a description or an explanation. It is rather an invitation to be awake in this moment – to stop, look and listen – to be fully present, fully alive, to discover what is revealed. And this revelation is without end.
The kind of spirituality that interests me is not about a belief system or a philosophy. It's about being awake Here / Now—seeing through the imaginary problem that we think is binding us and realizing the boundless freedom that is our ever-present True Nature. This realization is not something that happens once-and-for-all. It’s not an event in the past or the future. Awakening is always NOW.
When I talk about meditation, I’m not talking about some methodical practice where you repeat a mantra, visualize a deity, label your thoughts, or try very hard to keep your attention focused on the breath. I’m not opposed to those practices if they are of interest to you, but what I’m talking about is something much more open, a way of being that is without control or manipulation. I'm talking about being awake, being present in this moment (this ever-present Now) in an open way that is at once relaxed and alert—allowing everything to be as it is, not grasping or resisting anything, not trying to change anything—simply being.
Meditation is a kind of open inquiry into the living reality Here / Now—not opposing anything, not trying to achieve anything. There is no method in this approach, no set of instructions to follow. It is a pathless path, an open discovery, ever-fresh, ever-new. In Zen, the only instruction you may get in the beginning is to just sit down and see what happens.
Can you hear the bird singing, cheep-cheep-cheep? And the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the traffic? The sound of the airplane passing overhead? Can you feel the breathing and all the different sensations throughout the body? Can you see the thoughts that pop up, the headlines they deliver, the stories they tell, the conclusions they assert? Can you sense the spaciousness of the listening presence, the awareness, that you are? Is it possible right now to be awake to this whole undivided happening just as it is?
True meditation can happen on the city bus while riding to work or in a waiting room before an appointment. It can happen while stuck in a traffic jam or while sitting quietly at home in an armchair. It can happen on an airplane or on a park bench. It can happen while walking through nature or while walking through the city. It can happen in your kitchen or in a prison cell, in a hospital bed or at the office. It can happen with eyes open or closed, in the lotus position or stretched out in a recliner, in solitude or in the midst of a crowd. It can happen in formal meditation or it can happen spontaneously and unexpectedly while drinking a cup of coffee or sitting at a stop light. It can be a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours—it is outside of time. It is always Now.
Formal (i.e. deliberate, intentional) meditation, if you strip away all the whistles and bells that often get added on, is nothing more or less than a kind of simplified space where we stop all our usual activity (all the talking and doing) and simply be here. We put down the books and magazines, the smart phones and tablets, we turn off the TV and the computer and the music, and we sit quietly doing nothing. Simply being this awake presence, this present happening. By slowing things down and stripping away all that typically demands our attention, energy can gather Here / Now in bare presence and awareness. We begin to notice the ever-changing non-conceptual happening of this moment in ever more subtle ways—the sounds of traffic, the sensations in the body, the smell of rain, the breathing, the chirping of a bird. We may begin to actually feel the spaciousness and the fluidity of what's here before we think about it. And we may notice that every sound, every color and shape, every sensation, every thought, every breath appears Here / Now in this vast unbound space of awareness.
In the simplified space of meditation, we can also begin to see more clearly the workings of thought and all the inner mental busyness that typically occupies so much of our attention—the virtual reality created by thinking and imagining, the inner striving and efforting, the judging and comparing and evaluating, the story-telling, the replaying of past events, the anticipation of future events, the planning, the regretting, the shaming and blaming—and we can begin to see through this conceptual overlay and the mirage-like “me” who seems to be at the center of it. Our suffering is mistaking this conceptual overlay for reality and believing that we really are this phantom “me” who is supposedly inside my head somewhere, authoring my thoughts, making my choices and doing my actions. Liberation is seeing through this imaginary overlay, not once-and-for-all, but as it arises, now..and now.
I’ll give you an example of how this kind of habitual thought-pattern can come into awareness and eventually dissolve. I used to spend a huge amount of my waking life thinking about the future. I’d undoubtedly been doing this for years without even being aware of it, until one day, on my first all-day meditation retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center, I suddenly saw that every thought I was having was about the future—what I should do with the rest of my life, what I would do on the break that was coming up, where I would park the next day when I got to work—I was even fantasizing about attending my next one-day retreat! And suddenly, this whole pattern was seen. It was as if a light had been turned on in a previously darkened room. The habit didn't end permanently that day at the Zen Center, but once that light had been turned on, this habit of thinking about the future started to be seen more and more.
I’d be on the phone with a friend discussing what I should do in the future, or I’d be sitting at home imagining myself moving somewhere else or getting a new career or some other future scenario, and I’d suddenly notice that this was happening. I began to see what was alluring about this habit, and also how unsatisfying it was. I began to see that it was a form of suffering very much like any other kind of addiction.
It didn’t fall away forever in one instant never to return ever again, but every time it happened, it was seen more and more clearly. And then at some point, about a decade later, someone asked me what I was going to do after my mother died, when I would be free to leave Chicago, and I realized to my great surprise that I hadn’t been thinking about it! I realized that I wasn’t thinking about the future any more. Not that I never think about the future at all, but I don’t obsess and endlessly fantasize about it in the way that I did for so many years. The light of awareness had gradually dissolved this habitual pattern of thought.
So that’s an example from my own life of the kind of change that happens through simply paying attention and being aware, seeing the habitual patterns of thought. And it’s important to notice that I wasn’t doing this paying attention in some heavy-handed, goal-driven way. It was simply happening by itself very naturally.
If I had “decided” that day at the Zen Center that I was never going to think about the future ever again for the rest of my life, that would have been just another thought about the future! And it wouldn’t have worked. We can’t make ourselves not think about a pink elephant! What happened instead was simply a noticing of this habit. And gradually, that simple awareness dissolved the habit – it fell away. It didn’t fall away on demand, on my timetable, and it didn’t end permanently in some dramatic fireworks moment, but rather, it was eroded gradually, slowly, over time.
So when I speak of meditation as being in part about seeing the workings of thought, this is what I’m talking about. It’s about turning on the light and being present—paying attention—looking and listening—and allowing things to reveal themselves and to dissolve naturally in their own time in the light of awareness. And curiously, this is more of a "not doing anything" than it is "doing something."
Of course, the kind of open, aware presence I’ve been talking about isn’t limited to formal periods of meditation, and ultimately, if we take up true meditation, the boundary-line between “meditation” and “the rest of our lives” dissolves. Meditation is a way of life, and beyond that, it is actually the nature of life. We find that the light of awareness can be there even in the middle of a heated conversation or a busy moment at work or with the family. We begin to see in our daily life all the ways we are looking for approval, judging ourselves and others, feeling defensive, and so on. This isn’t always easy to see, and there may be a tendency to judge or shame ourselves. But can we see that such judgment and self-blame is only another layer in this same mental fabrication? This isn’t about being perfect, or being in control, or fixing everything, or figuring everything out, or achieving some ideal. It’s simply about being awake right now. Enlightenment is really nothing more than seeing through delusion.
Meditation is not a mental activity—it’s not about thinking and reasoning and trying to figure out the nature of life by employing logic. It’s not about rejecting thought either, but instead of being completely mesmerized by the content of our thoughts and by our conceptual maps, meditation is about dropping out of the conceptual realm and relaxing into the simplicity of sensory awareness—the whooshing of traffic, the song of a bird, the faint sound of a television in another room. Rain drops hanging on a green leaf, a cigarette butt in the gutter, clouds drifting across the blue sky. The fragrance of flowers, the smell of exhaust fumes from the city bus, the sweetness of rain-drenched air. Breathing, tightness in the chest, queasiness in the belly, an ache in the shoulder, a sensation of heat or cold. Meditation is also about discovering the listening silence, the spaciousness that permeates every sensation and every appearance, the openness that is the very nature of Here / Now.
Words and thoughts seem to divide this seamless happening into apparently separate, independent things, but without the words, there is simply undivided hearing-seeing-sensing-feeling-awaring-being. In bare perception, there is diversity and variety, but can you find any actual separation, any solid boundary-line between inside and outside of you, or between awareness and content? Isn't it all one whole happening?
Is it possible to simply be aware of how it is here and now, without looking upon anything that happens as a distraction or an interruption, without judging whatever shows up, without trying to change or modify it in any way? Instead of trying to grasp something or accomplish something or get somewhere, is it possible to completely relax and allow everything to be just as it is? And if you do find yourself resisting or judging or striving, is it possible to simply be aware of that—to see it happening, to notice how it feels in the body, to hear the thoughts without believing them?
Meditation brings you out of the mental realm of thought and into the nonconceptual realm of sensory awareness. It gives you a direct, felt-experience of fluidity, impermanence, spaciousness and wholeness. You discover firsthand that there is no gap, no distance, no separation between “you” and “this present happening,” that everything is immediate and most intimate, that there is no division between subject and object. “Seeing,” “seer,” and “the thing seen” are abstract mental concepts—but in giving open attention to this moment, you find that there is only undivided seeing, that seer-seeing-seen is one whole undivided happening.
And then when thoughts pop up, as they do, simply see if it is possible to recognize them as thoughts, to see how they create a virtual reality in the imagination, a whole movie story with “me” at the center of it. Can you see that this story is imaginary, that thoughts don't need to be followed or believed, that they are not the objective reports on reality they claim to be? Can you notice the difference between thinking and sensing or awaring, between bare perception and conceptualizing, between the actuality of this moment and the thoughts and ideas about it (the labels, the explanations, the judgments, the analysis, the stories)?
By giving open attention to the present moment, you may discover how the mirage of "me" and the story of "my life" are created by thought and imagination, how suffering is created and sustained, and how easily we get lost in the maze of our complex thinking and our vivid imagination. You may see how seductive and mesmerizing this virtual reality is, and at the same time, also how utterly unreal and insubstantial. You may find that there is a way of meeting pain or painful circumstances without suffering over them by simply allowing them to be here in this moment just as they are. And you may discover the exquisite beauty and perfection of everything, just exactly as it is.
To simply adopt the idea that "Everything is perfect as it is," or that "All is One," or that "There is no self," as a philosophy or a belief won't resolve the fundamental unease and longing that prompts the spiritual quest in the first place. Belief is always shadowed by doubt and tends to crumble when the waters get rough. And so, as long as delusion and suffering continue to show up, practice in some form will almost certainly continue to show up as well, whether it is the practice of drinking alcohol, the practice of compulsive shopping, the practice of meditation (formally or spontaneously), or the practice of going to hear nondual teachers who tell you there is no one to practice and nothing to do.
And so, even though it’s true that the kind of open meditation I’ve been describing can happen while walking or running or riding the city bus, it can actually be very helpful, especially in the beginning, to intentionally set aside dedicated time and space in your life to simply be here. And it is helpful, to whatever degree you can, to do this in a place and at a time where you are not likely to be interrupted by people and things demanding your attention. (And if a child or a dog or a doorbell that you can't responsibly ignore does "interrupt" you, see if that situation can be met with the same open awareness, so that whatever unfolds can be seen not as an interruption, but simply as the flow of the moment—and if you do find yourself thinking and feeling that your meditation has been ruined, question your ideas about success and failure and what makes something a distraction).
You might experiment with sitting quietly at the beginning of the day and again at the end of the day. It doesn’t need to be for a long time. Even just 5 minutes can make an amazing difference. You might even experiment with taking a whole day (or a whole week) to be in silence doing nothing. If you live with other people, they might even join you, or at least be supportive and allow you to do this even as they continue to talk and carry on as usual. Or there are many retreat centers now where you can go. And you might also take a few moments (10 minutes or even just ten seconds) to relax into silent presence throughout the day, whenever it invites you. Taking time to be quiet and do nothing allows what is often ignored or overlooked to come to light. My first Zen teacher called meditation "a deep soak in reality." But don't imagine that something in particular will come to light. This is not about trying to have any special experience or get rid of anything that shows up. It's simply being awake to what is, just as it is.
And when you make time and space in your life for meditation, it is very helpful not to approach this new activity in a goal-oriented, end-gaining, purposeful sort of way. Instead, see if it is possible to approach this nonverbal, nonconceptual exploration in the same way you might engage in dancing, or as a child absorbed in the joy of finger painting. In other words, instead of taking up meditation with the idea that it is going to benefit you in some way, see it as completely useless, without any purpose or meaning beyond this inconceivable and ungraspable present moment. And instead of evaluating and judging how you are doing at it, see if it is possible to simply allow it to be exactly the way it is. Of course, you may find that you are approaching meditation with a reward in mind, and that you are endlessly evaluating and judging your meditation as either "good" or "bad," and you may discover that any attempt to forcefully banish this end-gaining and evaluative mentality is simply another layer of the same thing. So if you do notice this happening, simply see it for what it is, allow it to be as it is, and eventually, it will dissolve by itself. Without the added story of "you" trying to get something out of "being here now" and evaluating how well "you" are doing at it, you may find that this ever-changing, ever-present Here / Now is vividly alive and infinitely rich, and that it needs no purpose or meaning beyond itself.
This kind of bare being is not dependent on posture, and you certainly don't need to be cross-legged in the lotus position to be fully present and aware, but because mind and body are not separate, in traditional meditation, they often put great emphasis on posture. Different traditions or schools of meditation will offer you different "correct" ways of sitting, different "correct" hand positions, and they may tell you that it is essential to keep your eyes closed, or open, or half-open. Some of this is quite silly and can bring about rigidity more than anything else. But it may, in fact, be helpful to sit in a way that feels stable, grounded, open and relaxed. Why?
Well, compare any statue of the seated Buddha to Rodin's sculpture of "The Thinker" and it is immediately obvious that the thinker is up in his head while the Buddha is awake and fully embodied in a very different way. Or as a simple experiment, slump over, hang your head, and say, "I'm really happy!" The posture doesn't really support that happy state of mind. Contrariwise, sit up straight, thrust your arms skyward, look up and say, "I'm really depressed." Again, the posture doesn't support the mind-state. Bodymind is one whole event, which is why, in Zen, they sometimes say that just taking the upright, cross-legged posture is itself enlightenment.
I'm not saying you need to sit cross-legged or bolt upright, but you might experiment with different ways of sitting—try sitting in a recliner or an armchair, try lying down, try sitting upright in a straight-back chair or cross-legged on a cushion—try different hand and eye positions (eyes open, eyes closed, eyes half-open and downcast, etc.)—and SEE how each posture affects your state of mind. There is no right way or wrong way, but it may be helpful to find a way of being embodied that supports being present and awake rather than blocking this openness or shutting down the flow of energy. And you may find that different ways of sitting bring forth different things. If you've been doing some kind of strict, formal meditation for years, you may find that it is immensely liberating to simply be present while sitting any old way in a comfortable chair, not trying to meditate correctly, not trying to do anything, but simply letting everything be as it is.
In my story, I went from formal Zen practice to being with Toni Packer, a former Zen teacher who left the tradition, hierarchy, rituals and ceremonies of Zen behind. I lived and worked at Toni Packer's retreat center for five years. We still had silent retreats where we sat in meditation for long periods of time, but the schedule was always optional, we could sit in armchairs and recliners as well as on meditation cushions, we could walk through the woods or take a nap whenever we felt like it, and there was no "practice" in the usual sense – no counting the breath or working on a koan – we were simply invited to be aware of whatever was actually happening, to feel the breathing and hear the sounds of the rain, and to investigate the sense of a separate "me" and see if it was real.
From there, I got involved in the Advaita satsang world and then with radical nonduality. Formal meditation fell away for awhile, which was very liberating at the time, and then it came back again in a new way. I revisited Zen and attended retreats with several different Zen teachers (Steve Hagen and John Tarrant) and a Tibetan Buddhist teacher (Anam Thubten). I re-discovered the open simplicity of Toni Packer’s way of working, and did many more retreats at Springwater. Formal meditation came and went, but through it all, I always enjoyed moments of simply being present and doing nothing. Over the course of many years, I was deeply moved by my encounters with spiritual friends like Jean Klein, Gangaji, Francis Lucille, Adyashanti, Issac Shapiro, Tony Parsons, Sailor Bob Adamson, Mooji, Wayne Liquorman, Karl Renz, Rupert Spira, Jon Bernie, Peter Brown, Darryl Bailey and others. There were many different ways of expressing nonduality and many different approaches to meditation (or not meditating) on offer, and for a long time, I was trying to figure out which one was the "the best" and "the highest" and "the truest." Eventually, I stopped trying to land in any one place. I came to see that we are drawn in different directions at different times in our life, and that there is no single "correct" way to meditate or not meditate and no one way to awaken. Each of us must discover our way from moment to moment. No one else knows what you need. Everyone’s path is different. The way unfolds in the only way possible, and the apparent mistakes are all part of it. Trust the universe and "follow your bliss" as my mother used to tell me. Actually, there is no choice. We are the movement of life, happening by itself, and sitting quietly, doing nothing is one way to discover this.
I no longer feel there is a division between meditation and living my life, but I do continue to enjoy sitting quietly and being silent whenever it invites me throughout the day. And sometimes, in the morning or before bed, I will even sit down cross-legged on my old meditation cushion, and I find that there is something beautiful in this upright posture—that in some palpable way, it is teaching the bodymind a certain kind of steadfastness, equanimity, self-reliance and groundedness. This upright posture seems to embody a perfect balance of effort and effortlessness, alertness and relaxation. Sometimes I sit for half an hour, sometimes just for a few minutes. Sometimes I make a point of doing it every night and every morning because there is something in the unbroken routine that feels important at times. At other times, I don't formally meditate at all.
Sometimes I just sit in my armchair and enjoy the openness, the spaciousness and the relaxed ease that this posture communicates to the bodymind. I enjoy being present without a method or a practice of any kind, hearing the rain and the wind and the traffic, seeing the thoughts as they arise and pass away, feeling the breathing, not having any particular focus or intention. Many different ways are beautiful and appropriate at different moments—upright on a cushion or laid back in an armchair...a disciplined daily practice or a totally spontaneous one. It doesn’t need to be either/or. I also find that meditation happens spontaneously while washing the dishes or while seated on an airplane or on a bench in the park. In the end, there is no boundary between "meditation" and "the rest of life."
And although I'm pointing to a way of being that is open and effortless and relaxed, it's not about sinking mindlessly into non-stop daydreams or wallowing in obsessive thoughts and stories. But then, on the other hand, it's not about not doing any of that either. Thoughts, stories and daydreams are part of the happening of life and are not inherently good or bad. Sometimes they may even serve a vital function. Is it possible to see whether they are a form of suffering in any given moment when they show up? And if it does feels like they are a form of suffering or avoidance, as with my obsessive thoughts about the future, you might see if it is possible to let them go and simply listen to the traffic and the birds and feel the breathing. But don't try to force that. This isn't about control or purification. And it isn’t about eliminating thought and imagination from our lives. Both thought and imagination are wonderful capacities, as is story-telling. But we can begin to see whether a particular story is waking us up and bringing us joy, or whether it is a form of suffering. And we can recognize that it is all happening in awareness.
Meditation definitely doesn't mean gritting your teeth, tensing up every fiber of your being, and trying really, really hard to be in some permanent state of self-conscious, mindful-presence “all the time,” and then beating yourself up for failing. It’s much more open than that, much freer, much more accepting of everything. And it is also about seeing that none of this is personal, that it's all like weather appearing in the dream-like movie of waking life. And yet, paradoxically, there may seem to be a certain discipline or vigilance involved, at least in the beginning. It’s not a stressful or goal-oriented kind of discipline. It's something else altogether that you have to discover for yourself, much in the same way you have to discover for yourself how to swim or ride a bicycle—no one can explain to you how to do these things—you have to feel your way into it. This effortless effort is sometimes described in Buddhist teachings as “resting in the natural state of mind.” Or we could call it resting in the simplicity of what is.
And what is the natural state of mind or the simplicity of what is? And what exactly does it mean to "rest" in this natural state? Again, this is something you must discover for yourself. No one can tell you, and no idea or concept is it. I could say that it is the absence of grasping, the absence of trying to do something or get somewhere, and that it is even the absence of trying not to try or grasping at non-grasping. But the words are only pointers. You have to discover this nondual simplicity, this ever-present Here / Now, for yourself.
Wakefulness might be compared to what athletes call being in the zone, where you are completely one with the activity and there is no longer the illusory separation or gap created by thought. But what is being pointed to in meditation is ultimately beyond any temporary experience such as "being in the zone," for all such experiences will come and go. Liberation is the freedom for life to be exactly as it is, not as it might be, could be or should be. There is no “you” separate from this moment who is going “somewhere else.” Here / Now is all there is, and it's already fully present. So being just this moment might be being-contraction, or being-confusion, or being-tense. Ultimately, meditation is the realization that the natural state is all there is, that there is no way not to be what you are. But don’t pick that up as a belief. Then it only becomes a hindrance. That's the beauty of meditation. It's not about belief. It's always about direct discovery.
Sometimes when you first take up meditation, it may seem that you are thinking more than ever before. More likely, you are simply more aware of compulsive thinking than ever before, and of course, trying not to think is a losing battle. So if this happens, simply be aware of thinking, and whenever possible, relax back into simple presence – hearing the sounds of traffic or bird songs, experiencing the sensations in the body, feeling the breathing, noticing the spacious openness of this boundless presence that includes everything and resists nothing.
When people first sit down in meditation or go on a silent retreat, with all their usual activities stripped away and nothing to do but be, it is not uncommon to go through a kind of withdrawal. Especially in our modern culture, we are accustomed (and even addicted) to constant, high-speed stimulation. When all of that is suddenly removed, disturbing feelings and sensations can show up, including that basic root sense of discontent, restlessness and unease that motivates so much of our human activity. But if you simply sit with the bare sensations of this discomfort and allow it to be just as it is, you may find that it is quite bearable and maybe even interesting. A natural curiosity may develop, an interest in exploring this basic unease, finding out what it is, not by thinking about it, labeling it or telling a story about it, but by going all the way to the bottom of it with awareness. You may discover that this unease doesn't stay the same and that at the core of it there is nothing at all.
It’s also not uncommon for people who take up meditation to begin noticing all kinds of disturbing things about themselves they hadn’t seen before, things that don't fit with our self-image or with who we want to be or think we should be. It takes courage to face these things honestly. You may notice yourself being manipulative, vengeful, passive-aggressive, self-pitying, self-absorbed, stingy, judgmental, self-righteous, pushy, fawning or whatever it might be, and when that happens, perhaps you will be able to see that all of this is like the weather outside—it is a conditioned, habitual, impersonal movement of the whole universe. There is no central agent (no God in the heavens and no you inside your head) in control of any of this—even our apparent choices arise by themselves. When this is truly realized, it brings forth compassion for oneself and for others in our human imperfection. Everything happens by itself as one whole undivided happening. Of course, if we turn that into a formula and adopt it as a belief (“I have no control, and whatever I do is just happening, so there's nothing to be done about any of it”) that isn’t quite right either. Any such assertion is closing down the openness of awareness with a fixed conclusion and ignoring the response-ability that is right here as life itself. So better to not know what is or isn’t possible right now. After all, this moment has never been here before!
Whatever shows up, pleasant or unpleasant, you may begin to notice that there is a bigger context, that you are the boundless awareness in which all of this appears. You may find that there is room in this vastness for all the apparent defects and imperfections of life to be exactly as they are. When we realize that we contain the whole universe, that we have the seeds of both Buddha and Hitler within us, that we are the whole show, then we begin to have a natural compassion for everyone and everything being exactly the way it is.
And if suffering arises – if you find yourself seemingly trapped in painful, compulsive behavior, if you are feeling depressed, anxious, angry or sad, if you are in physical pain or discomfort, if you are in an environment or a situation that you consider unpleasant or undesirable – you might see if it is possible to simply experience whatever unpleasant or unsettling sensations are showing up without trying to make any of it go away, without seeking a result from this exploration, without trying to understand the situation or analyze it or fix it, without judging it – but simply experiencing it just as it is.
You might notice how habitually thought wants to move away from the simplicity of this bare experiencing, how it creates the mirage-like sufferer and the idea of time (the endless replaying of past events, the dread of future misery, the hope of a future solution). Our habitual reaction to suffering is to resist the experiencing itself and instead think about the apparent problem – label it, construct stories about it, analyze it, assign blame, pass judgment, go over and over what happened, imagine positive and negative future scenarios, search for a fix: This is unbearable. What if it gets worse? This will kill me. Why is this happening to me? I can’t believe you did that to me. This is unfair. I’m such a jerk. I can’t do anything right. What if…? If only…. Maybe I should…
Is it possible to listen to all these thoughts in the same way you might listen to the sounds of wind and rain, as an impersonal happening of nature? Is it possible to let the thoughts go, to shift attention away from the stories and back to the bare actuality of this moment – the sensations in the body, the sounds of traffic, the sense of presence? What happens to the suffering when there is simply the nonconceptual experiencing itself without any mental overlay, without any resistance, without wanting any of it to go away or be different? You may discover that the suffering and the whole story of your life is not as solid as it seems to be and that it takes thought and imagination to keep suffering and misery going.
In simply being present to whatever arises without moving away, we learn that it is possible to be open to these unpleasant or scary experiences that we often think will kill us or not be survivable – pain, uneasiness, anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, fear. By simply being present without moving away, we discover that if we don't scratch an itch, eventually it goes away. Likewise, with pain, we find that by resisting it, by tensing up against it, by trying to escape it, the pain gets worse and seems overwhelming, whereas when we can completely open to it and relax into it, the pain is no longer overwhelming and may even become interesting. We discover, by observing it closely, that "pain" is not a solid thing, but rather, it is made up of ever-changing vibrations that come and go. Of course, sometimes we do run away or scratch the itch. It happens. It happens because of infinite causes and conditions and in that moment could not be otherwise. So this isn't about beating ourselves up when reality fails to measure up to our perfectionistic ideals. It is seeing through all of that.
In Zen, lots of attention is given to breathing, posture, how you clean the toilet, how you enter and exit the meditation hall, how you hold your rice bowl. To the newcomer who is avidly seeking enlightenment, this focus on the simplest details of ordinary existence seems completely beside the point and absurdly superficial and petty. But in fact, it is a way of pointing the student to this moment and undermining the habitual tendency to think about reality and get lost in abstractions and ideologies. It is a way of saying that enlightenment is now or never – it's not theoretical, philosophical, metaphysical or mystical – it's utterly simple – it's right here in this breath, this cup of coffee, this toilet bowl. So don't miss it by looking somewhere else. As my first Zen teacher said to me, form is not sacred, but form allows the sacred to emerge.
You begin to notice that every experience reveals the ever-present awakeness that is never not here, like the screen that allows every image in the movie to appear and that is visible as every scene of the movie regardless of whether it is a scene of violence or a scene of tenderness, or like the mirror that is equally present in and as every reflection, or like the water that is manifesting as every wave, that awakeness is ever-present in spite of what appears, never because of what appears. Just as every element in a dream belongs to the dreamer, in the same way, whatever appears in the movie of waking life is never anything other than You (the One-without-a-second) surprising Your-Self with ever-new disguises and ever-new facets of Your-Self.
When this is seen, you may still have opinions and take appropriate actions in the movie of waking life to do what seems best, but you are no longer acting from a place of false certainty or imaginary separation. You recognize that all the different characters in the play – the good guys and the bad guys – are yourself. Even when it all seems very serious, there is a recognition of the bigger context, a knowingness that all of it is a play without substance. So even as you act, there is a willingness to surrender, to allow everything to be as it is.
And if you notice yourself rejecting, resisting or judging what shows up, taking it all very seriously, arguing with the way life is, feeling irritated, upset or outraged, this can be a wonderful opportunity to question who or what is feeling threatened and what is at the root of this upset. You may find that at the bottom-line, it is always about the imaginary "me," and it always boils down to a fear of death, a fear of annihilation. Something seems threatening to "me" and my survival. These threats may be relatively real in some situations, but in a deeper sense, no-thing is ever actually happening in the way we think it is. Whatever appears, when investigated closely, is seen to be empty of enduring form or substance. We may discover there is no one to be hurt and nothing that can hurt us. Of course, that doesn't mean walking in front of a bus or not feeling physical or emotional pain anymore. It simply means that nothing sticks.
When people first take up meditation or any other spiritual practice, or when they first go to a meeting or pick up a book about radical nonduality, they usually imagine that this is about self-improvement and getting somewhere. The pathless path (the direct path, waking up) is actually all about seeing through such ideas. Ultimately, it is about seeing that there is no "self" here who is separate from the rest of the universe. There is no "me" who is going back and forth between clarity and confusion, between "getting it" and "losing it," between identification as boundless awareness and identification as the character. The boundary between "spirituality" and "the rest of life" doesn't really exist. What we are seeking is the boundless immediacy and aliveness of Here / Now, which is what we already are.
All states and experiences come and go. The nondual absolute is not an experience, nor is it a state that "the person" enters, permanently or temporarily. "The person" is a momentary appearance that comes and goes within nondual boundlessness.
Meditation, inquiry, satsang, and books about nonduality are all ways of exposing the imaginary nature of the apparent problem and waking us up to what is simplest and most obvious. Like the white blood cells that mobilize to fight off an infection in the body, these activities are a natural response to human confusion and suffering.
Liberation is loving what is – loving yourself, exactly as you are, loving the world, exactly as it is, loving life, warts and all. Again, that doesn’t mean you won’t take intelligent action (changing a flat tire, calling an ambulance, organizing a civil rights movement, whatever it might be). But even as we change a tire or organize a movement for social change, the path is always Here / Now. Everything we need is right here. And if it seems otherwise, that is our invitation to take up true meditation right now: to stop, look and listen. To wake up.
Inquiry: What is It?
The penetration of this mystery requires that one not foreclose it by substituting an answer, be it a metaphysical proposition or a religious belief. One has to learn how to suspend the habit of reaching for a word or phrase with which to fill the emptiness opened by the question.
-- Steven Batchelor
When we start inquiring into what is holding us back from realizing the truth, we come to the realization that there is really nothing there. There are no obstacles.
Self-inquiry directly leads to Self-realization by removing the obstacles which make you think that the Self is not already realized.
Who (or what) am I?
What is this right here, right now?
When everything perceivable and conceivable disappears, what remains?
What was your face before your parents were born?
To whom is all of this happening?
These questions are not asking for conceptual answers. The thinking mind is in the business of finding answers. That's its job. It's a survival function. And in a certain realm, it works beautifully. But when it comes to these ultimate questions, it doesn't work at all. Any answers we come up with are just dead words, dead ideas.
Grasping is one of our earliest and most primal survival reflexes. We grasp with our hands, with our gut, and with our minds. Our human conditioning reinforces the tendency to grasp for answers. In school, we are rewarded for having the right answers, and we feel stupid if we don't know. So, it may be very uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first to not reach for an answer.
The questions posed in nonconceptual, meditative inquiry are of a different nature than the questions posed to us in school. These meditative questions are not looking for answers, although we can easily supply answers with the thinking mind. If we've been around the spiritual scene for any time at all, we probably know all the "correct" answers to these questions. What am I? "Pure Consciousness," we might think. Or (if we haven't read very many spiritual books yet), we might say, "me," or give our name. Or (another "advanced" answer) we might say, "Nothing at all." Or, "empty space." Or, "The One Self." If we look at our computer and ask, What is it? We might say, "My computer," or we might be more sophisticated and say, "energy," or "consciousness," or "Oneness," or "emptiness." But notice right now that these are all words. Labels. They may be pointing to something that is not a word and not a concept. But the words themselves are not that to which they point.
It's relatively easy to learn the right answers, the right words – to talk the talk. But these questions are inviting something else entirely. They are inviting us to fall into the open space of not knowing, to "suspend the habit of reaching for a word or phrase with which to fill the emptiness opened by the question." These questions invite us to discover what can never really be put into words or concepts, although words can certainly be used to describe or point to it.
Inquiry can also mean living with a question that interests us. For example, Is there free will? Or, Who makes choices? Or, How does a decision actually happen?
Instead of looking to see what others have said about this subject and then giving the "correct" answer, whatever we think that might be, inquiry invites us to look and listen and see for ourselves. How do we make decisions? This is a wonderful question to explore by carefully and closely observing decision-making as it happens. So as we go about our daily activities, we might begin to actually watch, very closely, as choices happen. It could be little ones like whether to get up after you've been sitting down for awhile, or big ones like whether to get married or take a new job. Really watch closely and carefully as the process unfolds. Notice the back and forth thoughts that pop up by themselves making a case for this direction or that direction. See if you can catch the decisive moment when one side finally wins out and if you can find anyone in control of how that happens. See if you can find the "you" who seems to be authoring your thoughts. Can this thinker or decider at the helm actually be found? Investigate all of this not by thinking about it, but by giving it careful attention with awareness.
Are you in control of the thoughts that arise? Do you know what your next thought will be? Even if you seem to be "choosing" to think positive thoughts, from where does the urge and the intention and the ability to do this arise? Does it always work?
You may find that decisions happen, and that you cannot pin down exactly how they occur or what sets them in motion. We have stories about "free will" and "determinism," but in the end, these are only conceptual models. Like the pictures in the anatomy book, they can never capture the fluidity and the messiness of life itself.
This kind of meditative inquiry begins with letting all your answers and beliefs go, and not knowing what you'll find, always being open to the possibility of seeing something entirely new and unexpected.
Liberation isn't about finally getting the right answer or picking up a winning solution. It is about seeing through the imaginary problem (the misconception) at the root of our suffering and confusion. Any answer, any solution we pick up and stick to is a new problem. Inquiry dissolves all the answers.
Inquiry is also a way of questioning all our thoughts and beliefs. If thought pops up and says, "I've ruined my life," or "He shouldn't have done that," or "The country will be destroyed if she wins the election," no matter how convincing and reasonable these thoughts may seem, we might ask of any such thought: Can I absolutely know that this is true? How do I feel when this thought is believed? What would it feel like if this thought were not believed? Don't look for the answers by thinking, but rather, feel into these questions deeply with the whole body and mind. See what reveals itself. You may find that you cannot be completely certain of anything except being here now, and you may find that without your beliefs, you'd be totally happy and okay.
Unlike seeking, which is result-oriented and rooted in a sense of dissatisfaction and incompleteness, this kind of meditative inquiry is rooted in curiosity, interest and love. Much as a lover explores the beloved, this nondual, nonconceptual inquiry is an act of love and devotion. Much as a child explores the world with open curiosity and wonder, this kind of inquiry is a form of play and self-discovery. It is not something you finish doing. Seeking answers and experiences can fall away (if you're lucky). But inquiry is a life-long exploration and discovery that is never finished. It is a way of being. In fact, it is the very nature of life itself.
---copyright Joan Tollifson 2012, 2013----
The second part of this article (Inquiry: What Is It?) is taken directly from Joan's book Nothing to Grasp (NonDuality Press, 2012) and should not be re-posted elsewhere without permission from the publisher. The first part of this article (True Meditation: The Art of Going Nowhere) includes modified versions of material that appears in several of Joan's books. You are welcome to quote brief passages of either part as fair use with appropriate credit. If you wish to re-post longer sections of the first part on other sites or blogs, please ask permission, credit Joan and provide a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!
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