Disturbing questions about meditation and presence

D: I have so many questions I am not sure which one to ask or how to condense it into one question.

Something is bothering me and depressing me now that I have come to realize that in essence the only way to obtain enlightenment is to become aware of the present moment, the “Now”.

One has to leave the analytical mind and the ego and become aware of the “I” that is behind your thoughts. This “I” being the formless “Self”. This I thought one could do in formal meditation but now am told that this is not the case.

I used to read books by Dr Paul Brunton and other books on Spirituality. I used to be a member of the Rosicrucian Order. I was always searching for the Truth because I wanted to find something that would make me feel secure with Life.

I previously thought that the practice of formal meditation would help the meditator to achieve a certain degree of peace and security and that Life would flow more pleasantly. But now after having read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle I realised that formal meditation fails to arrive at the Self because in doing meditation, you are still aware of “yourself” and the “object” which is doing meditation as pointed out by Sri Ramana Maharshi.

When I first read the book “The Power of Now” I noticed Eckhart Tolle did not indicate any formal meditation technique to practice on. Now I am discovering this more and more. Not only Sri Ramana Maharshi, but also Jiddu Krishnamurti and Toni Parker all seem to advocate on training oneself to be aware of the present moment, to sense the “I” behind all your thoughts and action.

Okay fine. But this is going to be really hard for me. I have to admit that I was always lazy in doing my meditations but at least I had in the back of my mind the thought that if I did eventually do my meditation on a more constant daily basis I would get somewhere. Now, I find that I am being told this is no longer the case and I have been robbed of my psychological security blanket, if that makes any sense.

I was led to believe that in doing formal meditation it was to learn to still the mind, to cease the “chatter” of the mind so that one can open up to the “Higher Self” and tune in to its Holy promptings and feel protected, secure and at peace. Thereby as one becomes more adept in meditation one feels less troubled and knocked about by the vicissitudes of Life.

Now I discover I have to try to be just aware of the Present and the Self that is behind my everyday thoughts and actions. But just by being aware of this, is it really going to make all that much of a difference to me as a novice? Is that all there is to it as an exercise? Is this going to be enough to make an impact on me?

What I mean to say is, it is going to be hard for me to remember every time to observe my “Higher Self” the next time I am in an argument or going through some unpleasant emotion. Or if I suddenly have a bad accident – end up being paralyzed for example – then all I have to do is just accept the situation. Will I have enough mental and spiritual strength to accept it? Will I get the peace? Am I strong enough for it?

I was led to believe once that formal meditation would help, that it gave you the peace and mind strength. Now I’m told that it is useless.

Is there no form of meditation that I can now follow that would help me to be aware of the “I” and the Present Moment?

Just to be aware of the “I” behind my thoughts and that’s it? It is so vague this exercise or too simple that I feel that I would forget to use it throughout the day.

I’m sorry, I am not sure if I am making myself understood. I don’t even know why this is bothering me. Sometimes I wish I was the ignorant man on the street with all his illusions. At least he “thinks” that he will be happy one day. Whereas I am at a stage now where unfortunately I know the Truth in that I know Life is always going to have suffering and that depresses me.

Now I am robbed of the efficacy of formal meditation, because formal meditation is only temporary so I am led to understand.

So now what? What exactly do I do now to feel secure in Life? I know that one must accept the Present, but that is going to be extremely difficult to do when Life hits you hard. Easy to say but hard to do in practice.

Jay: I do understand what you’re talking about. I can definitely relate to it.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to touch on all of what you’ve brought up here. Let’s start with your comment “Something is bothering me and depressing me now that I have come to realize that in essence the only way to obtain enlightenment is to become aware of the present moment, the ‘Now’.”

I don’t exactly how you are experiencing this but I get the impression that there is perhaps a struggle set up in your mind between the idea of “enlightenment” and the idea of “becoming aware of Now.” Do you think it’s true that for you the idea of enlightenment has become a highly charged desire? And that the idea of becoming aware of the Now seems like a huge, almost impossibly focused effort that stands in the way of getting what you would like – enlightenment?

As I write this, the dynamic I just described seems almost obvious. How could these two ideas not be in conflict?

Let’s look behind the scenes a little bit at what the idea of enlightenment really represents for you. Actually, you will have to do this yourself, since I can’t read your mind. I remember a point, after a number of years of “working hard” in retreats, years of sort of banging my head against the wall of “practice” because I was told that’s what I was supposed to do, it suddenly struck me that I had no idea why I was doing this. I began to wonder at what my original motivation for doing meditative work was in the first place. I began looking back into my earlier life to see what had concerned me even before I ever heard of meditation – the things that I observed as a child and as a teenager that bothered me and upset me, my questions about my life and about how I saw others living.

What does enlightenment mean to you, anyway? Clearly you have images of what it is because those images motivate you strongly. Can you examine freshly what you believe you have been trying to do all these years of meditation? Can you question whether what has motivated you is valid or not? Examine it from scratch? The questions may come up taking different forms from how I’m putting them but do you get the sense of really looking at what has been moving you all these years?

Now let’s consider what it means to you to “become aware of the present moment, the Now.” Again, the mind certainly has imagery about this. You said that one “has to leave the analytical mind and the ego and become aware of the ‘I’ that is behind your thoughts.” Why do you say this?? There are a tremendous number of assumptions behind that statement. Please understand that I’m not trying to put you down for making the statement. On the contrary, I am wondering if that belief is part of what’s making you depressed. What an impossible task, to leave the analytical mind and to leave the ego.

Maybe I’m being a little too Zenny with that last statement but, really, honestly, what do you mean by “analytical mind”? Have you observed such a thing for yourself? I would say that if you have, you will have seen that it is not a problem. It is not something to get rid of or put aside. The same with “ego”. Everyone talks about this, especially in spiritual circles, but what do you really mean by it? Have you observed it carefully, patiently, lovingly, relentlessly, accurately, inquisitively? If it actually exists, it should be observable in this way.

You have described your understanding of what Krishnamurti and Toni Packer have advocated. I wonder if the image you have of what this work would be like, in theory, is part of what is causing anxiety. When you say “Is there no form of meditation that I can now follow that would help me to be aware of the “I” and the Present Moment? ” are you not crying out for something to hold onto mentally? Something to do, something to repeat, something to focus on, something to get better at? Have you tested it out to see if you really need something like that? Are you imaging that there is a purpose in being relatively aware of what is going on this moment?

I think your idea of being aware of the “I” every moment is too complicated. Did someone really say you have to do this? I have worked with Toni Packer for 30 years. I’ve never heard her say you have to do this. And even if someone said something like that, why do you think they know any better than you do, if you yourself have examined something very carefully and thoroughly? What do you even mean by the “I”? I’m not asking you for a theoretical description or explanation. I’m wondering if you have examined this carefully for yourself to see if there is any such thing that you have to worry about. Examined it to your own thorough satisfaction.

You said “Just to be aware of the “I” behind my thoughts and that’s it? It is so vague this exercise or too simple …” Let’s look at Awareness, Presence, Now, in a different, simpler way, forgetting about trying to find some “I” behind the thoughts. Sitting down, staying relatively still, comfortable, not struggling against the body, what is really here this moment? Listening, interested. Not listening “for” anything but just open to what is here. On first sitting down, the noise of the mind can be heard. And frequently consciousness is lost and there is daydreaming. And then rewaking from daydream, realizing that dreaming had been going on. All of this happens on its own – the falling asleep, the waking up.

Sitting here, this moment, the glare of the computer screen, the sound of fans, the feel of the chair, the words appearing on the screen as the mind expresses something through the medium of thought and language. Tiredness, interest. The dark night sky.

All of this is visible in a simple direct way that is not caused by anything I do. It is just visible when the mind is not creating too much noise. Trying to be aware of an I is the making of noise. Listening, perceiving, quietly is noise quieting down.

Most of what we do is the making of noise. Have you noticed this? In our lives, our relationships, our spirituality. The setting up of goals, practices, skills to secure our safety and avoid future pain. I’m not saying some of this may not be appropriate. It’s just that we have lost the subtlety to distinguish what is the making of noise and what is noiseless listening. And because of that, we fill our lives with exhausting noise and we die without ever having experienced even a moment of what we really are – out of fear of what might become of us and the restlessness that comes from this fear. Isn’t this true?

If there is any wise advice at all, it might be to, once in a while, forget the whole world of human troubles, of human wisdom and spiritual goals – and see if it is at all possible to be alive for a moment at a time, even just once before I die.

You mention wanting security. What is absolutely certain is that this brain with all of its exhausting plotting for its own safety and serenity, will end. I remember when my father died a year and a half ago, at age 91, part of the feelings that swept through me was the sense of how all of the things that we had all worried about for him – his ongoing health struggles, his concerns about his independence, financial worries, at the end even the ability to breath – all of this was gone! And it was clear what a burden it had been. Not that some of it might not have been necessary at the time. On his last night I looked at his face and noticed that it had a beautiful look to it, almost a youthfulness among the wrinkles. It may be that he had already dropped his concerns about all of these things and was able to be simply present for his last hours, with a joy and equanimity that most of us rarely experience.

Presence is not something to be practiced. It’s not a technique for accomplishing any mental skills. It is just a moment of how life really is. We all do have these moments, fleetingly, but our priorities are usually somewhere else. Too simple?

If you are really interested in Presence, do you have the opportunity to go to week long retreat someplace where the emphasis is simple presence? The Springwater Center, where Toni Packer is, is one of the few places I know of where this happens. I can recommend it wholeheartedly.

I may not have been too clear about a lot of what I’ve written, so please feel free to write back and ask for clarification or correct how I’ve interpreted your question.

D: First of all let me just say thank you for taking your time and energy just to read my “egotistical ranting” and to go out of your way to help me. I appreciate your service.

First of all I have for many years been interested in the meaning of Life when I was a teenager at university and I was always seeking for the Truth. From that I have read books on mysticism, spirituality and I even joined the Rosicrucian Order of which now I am no longer a member.

As a result of all this searching I have discovered that meditation was definitely one of the ways forward and the added practice of overall body exercise; such as just “feeling” the energy in your feet, legs, abdomen all the way up to the top of one’s head.

The trouble with mysticism and spirituality is that it is a subject that is so “airy-fairy” it is difficult to know who indeed knows the Truth and the “practical way” to meet Life’s challenges. There are a lot of spiritual teachers who profess to know the “Way” and a lot of them are false and on a ego trip and it is difficult at times to know who are genuine. There are a lot of false prophets out there.

I believe there is only one timeless spiritual TRUTH that is the essence of all religions. It is not derived from external sources, but from the one true Source within.

You wrote: “Maybe I’m being a little too Zenny with that last statement but, really, honestly, what do you mean by “analytical mind”? Have you observed such a thing for yourself?…What an impossible task, to leave the analytical mind and to leave the ego.”

I was surprised you asked that. What did you think meditation was for if not to still the mind, the analytical mind? What I was trying to convey here is that it is our analytical mind, our mind, the noise-making activity, which prevents us from experiencing the Being,the Now, the Unmanifested, the supreme Oneness of Being, in other words, God.

The purpose of meditation is to create a gap into the incessant stream of thought – a cessation of thinking. This is achieved by focusing on the breath or looking, in a state of intent alertness, at a flower, so that finally thoughts cease, there is no mental commentary, just the presence of Being. It is here that one experiences the consciousness of God, of Being.

This is what meditation is all about. The cessation of thinking, the cessation of using the analytical mind. It is only by surrendering the analytical mind, stilling the mind, stilling the thoughts, that one enters the “gap” of the Unconscious Being.

Thought is part of the realm of the manifested. Continuous mind activity keeps you imprisoned in the world of form and prevents you from becoming conscious of the formless and timeless God-essence in yourself and in all things and all creatures.

You are cut of from Being as long as your mind takes up all your attention. Your mind is your ego thoughts. Your ego creates attachments to things and people. The mind absorbs all your consciousness and transforms it into mind stuff. You cannot stop thinking.

The Unmanifested is present in this world as silence. Hence this is why it has been said that nothing in this world is so like God as silence. All you have to do is pay attention to it – the silence. Every sound is born out of silence, dies back into silence and is surrounded by silence.

During a conversation, become conscious of the gaps between words, the silent intervals between sentences. As you do that the dimension of stillness grows within you. You cannot pay attention to silence if you are not still within, if you have not cease the “chatter” in your mind, ceased the analytical mind from thinking, you cannot enter the Unmanifested.

The present moment holds the key to liberation and you cannot find the present moment as long as you are your mind. Thinking and consciousness are not synonymous. Thinking is a small aspect of consciousness. Thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness does not need thought.

Being is the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that is subject to birth and death. Being is not only beyond but is also inherent within every form of life as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. Meaning that it is accessible to you now as your own deepest self, your true nature.

But one cannot seek it by grasping for it mentally with your mind. Don’t try to understand it. When you are present, when you are fully present and intensly in the Now, Being can be felt, but it cannot ever be understood mentally. To regain awareness of Being and to remain in that state of “feeling-realization” is enlightenment.

Hence I disagree with you when you say that Presence is not something to be practiced. It takes practice to train the mind from focusing on the outer events of Time and turn it inwards and and focus it on the Now, the moment of timelessness. It takes practice to train the mind to end its ceasless “chatter”, to still the mind. As in the case of the monkey tied to the stake.

When I mentioned the “I” I meant it to be the Being, the Unmanifested, the Silence, the God within all living things and without. But all of us has the egoic self, the little “I”, the little “Self” that is attached to the world of thought and things and therefore trapped in the world of Time.

But there are moments in Life when man may have a glimpse of this bigger “I” and it lasts only for a few seconds. He captures this moment when he momentarily gazes upon a scene of tranquil beauty as in a sunset or looking out on the vastness of the ocean, and it is in a moment of a few seconds his mind stops thinking – the “chatter” of his mind has stopped. At this precise moment he is conscious of the stillnes, he is in the “gap” of no-thought. Here he experiences the stillness and peace, and senses the love and beauty of the Unmanfested Self. After a few seconds the mind resumes to think and creates the noise and the fleeting moment is forgotten. The trick here is to prolong that moment.

You wrote: “…but, really, honestly, what do you mean by “analytical mind”? Have you observed such a thing for yourself? I would say that if you have, you will have seen that it is not a problem. It is not something to get rid of or put aside. The same with “ego”. Everyone talks about this, especially in spiritual circles, but what do you really mean by it?”

That is what meditation is all about. Stilling the mind. You need to put aside the analytical mind to still it in order to transcend into that which is beyond thought. By stilling the mind, by the cessation of all thoughts, you become conscious without actually thinking, your thoughts cease to think. You are conscious of the Present moment as infinity, there is no time. As long as you are in a state of intense presence, you are free of thought. There is no ego. The moment your conscious attention sinks below a certain level, thought rushes in. The mental noise returns; the stillness is lost. You are back in time. Back to your thoughts and your ego.

You wrote, “Presence is not something to be practiced. It’s not a technique for accomplishing any mental skills. It is just a moment of how life really is. We all do have these moments, fleetingly, but our priorities are usually somewhere else.”

I don’t understand what you mean by presence is not to be practiced. If that is the case, why offer me to go to a week long retreat where the emphasis is simple presence? Is that not to practice it?

Why do people go on meditation courses? Why do people read books on spirituality and go to retreats and so on? They do this because they want to change for something better. To do this they need to change a habit of their egoic thinking to a new way of thinking. And this does take practice, to change a habit. If there was no practice involved we would all continue with the same old mind patterns that keep us trapped in Time and Suffering.

To achieve Presence you have to practice a new pattern of awareness which is to observe the silence behind thoughts and speech. You have to learn to free yourself from your mind, the “chatter box”, and connect yourself with the stillness within, that is free from Time and your egoic thoughts. You take the first step by listening to the voice in your head as often as you can. By this you are “watching the thinker”, listen to the voice in your head, be there as the witnessing presence. When you listen to that voice, listen to it impartially. Do not judge. do not judge or condemn what you hear, for doing so would mean that the same voice has come in again through the back door. You’ll soon realize: there is the voice, and here I am listening to it, watching it. This “I am” realization, this sense of your own presence, is not a thought, It arises from beyond the mind.

By doing this when you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in. As you listen to the thought, you feel a conscious presence – your deeper self – behind or underneath the thought. The thought loses its power over you and it quickly subsides, because you are no longer energizing the mind through identification with it.

When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental stream – gap of no-mind. Gradually this gap becomes longer. When these gaps occur, you feel a certain stillness and peace inside you. This is the beginning of the natural state of felt oneness with Being, which is usually obscured by the mind.

With practice, the sense of stillnes and peace will deepen and there will be a subtle emanation of joy arising from deep within. Hence there is practice involved here.

Once again Jay thanks for taking time out to read all of this. This is all beginning to remind me of my university days again – concentrating too much on philosophical discussions and not getting the work done.

All the best,

Jay: It’s good to hear back from you. I wish we could meet in person to look at these issues. That is a much better way to hear each other. A phone call would be an option. Not quite as direct as in person but better than this writing back and forth.

I appreciate what you are saying and the words that you use sound accurate. You have been able to explain very eloquently the whole process that you see as spiritual work, including how to begin it and what its fulfillment is. But you are still disturbed and unsatisfied, according to what you say.

If I understand you, you do experience what you are calling the setting aside of the analytical mind but you are not satisfied with it. You want more of it. You want it to last longer. You want to get to a point where it will last indefinitely. And since you have done what you think you were supposed to be doing to make this happen for a number of years and you are still not satisfied, you want something else you can do. And because that is not forthcoming – you’re not sure you can find anyone who really “knows” any better than you do – you are maybe a bit distraught wondering if you will ever get what you are longing for.

At the same time you are willing to defend vigorously your view of what spiritual work is, no?

I questioned your view with certain statements that to me have accuracy. Life itself is also questioning your view because despite your years of effort, you haven’t achieved the progress you hoped for. Maybe your view needs to be examined and questioned more carefully. It is founded on lots of assumptions.

If I do understand what you are describing, you have experienced a stillness that is not the same as the usual racket of the thinking brain. I don’t think it is yet clear to you what the nature of this stillness is and what it’s relationship is to thinking. If it were clear, you wouldn’t be troubled as you are. It would be good to examine this further very carefully – not by thinking about it but by having more opportunity to be in silence. This is the purpose of retreat.

I really can’t pretend to know your state of mind, but since we are talking with each other about these intimate things, I would say that what you describe reminds me of what in Zen is warned against as “dead void sitting”, a deep desire to stay in a certain kind of emptiness. I believe the Zen masters talked about it so much because it must have been a very common place for monks to end up and to get strongly stuck in.

This false emptiness is not One Mind. It is an emptiness that stands in contrast to a different state (“thinking”?). It is an emptiness that requires effort to maintain. In moments of that emptiness there may be no dissatisfaction but afterwards there is deep dissatisfaction with not being in that state and the mind projects a future possibility of being in that state all the time and calls it enlightenment. It is a state that depends on doing certain things – focusing on things or holding certain postures to maintain it. It is a neutral state that watches the world go by without being in it. I don’t know if this describes your own experience but it does match a lot of what you say.

You may say “but I know the peace and stillness is real” and I do agree with you. It is vastly different from how we mostly live. But it is not an end resting place and it is not yet the awakening of being. It is still the doer but just momentarily in abeyance – resting. In fact there may be tremendous defensiveness in this state – don’t interrupt my quietness, don’t question it. It’s my lifeline, my only security. It’s what makes me different – nobler, silenter – than normal people.

I would say there is no need to waste lifetimes trying to prove that if one can just practice holding this empty space enough, it will become permanent. You can try to prove it but from my experience it is thoroughly clear that it can never become permanent and it is not desirable for it to be permanent, no more than sleep should be permanent or sex should be permanent. This state has its place and time and then gives way to other states. To try to make this permanent could make one, I believe, deeply sick.

I wonder if you are able to hear your own deep concerns. You’ve expressed them clearly. A desire for more peace, more security, more respite from the ravages of the body/mind, along with a plan and hope for accomplishing this through effort, a joy when one is in a certain state and an dissatisfaction when one is not, along with a frustration and anxiety that it’s not happening even as years go by, or perhaps at times a reassurance that there is some progress. Isn’t it clear that all of this clouds how one see the world around one, the people around one? Isn’t it also clear that the whole burden of this effort will die along with one’s physical death? It can also die even when one is still alive, maybe for just an instant, and then the whole wide world is suddenly radiantly visible in 360 degrees.

Again, I don’t know what things are like for you but what you have described brings up a part of myself that I would want to make suggestions to. I would tell that part of myself to give up trying to make something happen. It’s exhausting and such effort is based on false assumptions. And in giving up what I’ve thought my spiritual life depended on all these years if I find myself distraught because I have no idea of what to do anymore, to not avoid that. To not try to fix it. On the doorstep of death how can we have any idea of what to do? It doesn’t apply and it’s not necessary. On the doorstep of death none of our plans for security, happiness, safety, apply. They all end. Why hang on to them now?

You asked why people go to retreat and you answered the question saying that it is in order to change something for the better? Is this the only way to live, to try to change things for the better? Isn’t there a simpler presence?

I better stop here. Do feel free to respond.

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