What Needs Attention?

I have a friend who, when I asked him why he goes to so many retreats, replied “Because there is always something that needs attention and because of nothing at all.”

This struck me as a wonderful and true answer. There IS always something in us that needs attention, isn’t there? In fact it often feels like there is an overwhelming amount of “stuff” that needs attention.

How do we give attention to these things? It seems that our usual first attempt is to verbalize what’s going on. That’s a natural first step, although it has some limitations as well. What I “think” about what’s going on is often not very accurate. Sometimes the very act of identifying a “problem” actually reinforces it. Certainly, being able to verbalize an issue clearly is helpful but I’m just reporting what I’ve observed in myself. I need to take the verbalization with a grain of salt and I need to let go of it at some point.

A second step is to look for some help or insights outside of myself. This is also helpful, including reading books, talking with others, and getting professional guidance. I’ve found some really wonderful help this way.

Ultimately, there is another step that is different in that the first two involve what I know and what other people know. This “new” step involves moving beyond the limited realm of what is known and into the open space of being with the wholeness of what is happening inside and outside, beyond trying to know what is happening. In other words to really be with what is going on requires, in my experience, a letting go of that activity of the brain that tries to put new, fresh input into my existing knowledge. The key is that that activity of the brain lets up so that the brain can experience more fully and deeply what is right here. Knowing may happen or not happen but the brain can learn to relax away from the compulsive attempt to know so that the brain can operate in a new, direct sensing way.

In my experience deep healing of what needs attention comes most directly out of this unknowing, relaxed deep and still sensitivity.

This deep listening can operate in us even when we come together as a group for dialogue. In fact coming together – if we don’t wander to far away into trying to figure things out – can amplify this process of stillness and listening penetrating into the hidden areas that need attention. By habit we don’t usually talk and listening together in this way but we can learn to by coming together, if we give this process enough chance with each other.

So part of this shared healing process is making the effort to come together from time to time and learning – sometimes awkwardly – how to talk and listen together in a way that begins to penetrate into those areas that need attention. This is the purpose of our group activities in and out of retreat.

What about the “because of nothing at all?” This is a beautiful way of saying that healing, opening, growing together is a natural expression of life that just happens and takes care of itself if we give it a chance. We don’t have to struggle to do it. And while this healing and listening is happening for us in a group or alone, it is an expression of the wholeness of the world all around us at this very moment. Just as the sun sometimes pokes out from behind clouds, the heart sometimes open in joy or in pain, for its own sake. Not for some future goal. We can say that wholeness in a moment is exactly what heals and it happens for its own sake.


Consciousness versus Wholeness

QUESTION: Here is a separate question. I briefly saw the title of an article that suggested that science had proved that when we die our consciousness moves on to a different universe. Perhaps parallel. What do you think? What implications does such an idea have?

Jay: I’m not overly concerned about consciousness. I used to feel that’s what I was – my consciousness – and I didn’t want it to end.

But through careful observation and still listening it has become clear to me that consciousness is the smallest part of who I am. It has become clear that life is a living thing that is vast and does not depend on my – or anyone’s – consciousness.

Consciousness is a useful and sometimes beautiful expression of life but it comes and goes. Life itself – the wholeness of things – doesn’t come and go.

This is my experience, not a philosophy. Usually our experience feels very different than this. We usually feel very limited, isolated, and in danger of being changed or destroyed by life. We tend to live in our consciousness – our thoughts and story – because it seems safe.

Questioning this and beginning to look more carefully and listen more deeply is what meditative work is about. We do it because our usual way of living is very often unhappy, fearful, and isolated. We also do it because some people who have looked carefully confirm that in us that knows that the way we usually see things is not the way things really are.

But we have to do this exploration ourselves in order to discover the simple wholeness of life.

I know that’s not exactly what you were asking but it’s my honest response.


Questioner: To what degree does meditation make one aware of their physical health? I would like to gain knowledge on how to become stronger and avoid health problems. But it occurs to me that many health problems like strokes, seizures, and heart attacks hit people without obvious signs beforehand allowing the person to intervene.

Jay: To me meditation – taking quiet time to be in touch – by definition is an increase of sensitivity. But sensitivity certainly isn’t a magic bullet!

I can understand your concern about becoming a victim to some bodily state that happens so quickly that you can’t defend yourself. This seems to me to be a deep fact of life. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care for our health but at a certain point it seems true that things are going to happen to us that are out of our control. So one meditative concern of mine is how do I relate to that fact, that reality.

First of all, at this moment that I’m typing these letters, the concern that something out of control is likely to happen to me is a thought in my imagination. If someone asks me if that thought actually reflects reality, I’d say it most likely does. But at this moment if that thought grabs hold of the mind, the mind begins to wonder how to deal with these theoretical future events. And this is more imagination. And with the worrying, more discomfort right now.

The curiosity arises as to whether I can just not worry about it right now, since nothing bad is actually happening at the moment. Or even if there is something uncomfortable and out of control happening – maybe some pain in the back – relating to a real situation is very different, much simpler, than imagining relating to an imagined future difficulty.

Another aspect of this for me is coming in touch with the deep feeling of vulnerability that comes to me in realizing how easily the world can affect me beyond my ability to control things. That is a very deep feeling. Have you ever allowed yourself to really feel your vulnerability?

I don’t have much to say about other health problems you might face. There is so much reactivity and defensiveness programmed into our brain that it is often impossible to sort out what pain is caused by a medical situation and what is caused by our resistance to what’s going on. Meditation helps foster the sensitivity to distinguish this.

And meditation may help foster a direct experience that we are not just the body, that our actual existence is much vaster and that the sense of the body may fade away almost completely and we are still here. This is helpful to explore.

I hope this addresses your concerns a little. You’re welcome to write back with questions or comments.

What is the Problem?

If you are like me, you spend a lot of time considering the problems in your life and trying to creatively work with them. Sometimes the problems seem impossible to deal with. Sometimes they respond to some new approach.  Sometimes they come back in different forms. I’m sure this sounds familiar to most people.

Let’s consider for a moment what a problem even is. Maybe I’ve recently interacted with someone in a way that has been painful for both of us. There may be a sense that my interaction was not “skillful,” that I could have done better. And I may wonder about it, think about what happened. Maybe ideas pop up of what I could have said or done that would have worked better. This seems like a natural process.

At some point in this process I may feel like I’m done thinking about it. I don’t need to continue to drum up the memories and mentally review them. This is an interesting point. It feels to me like at this point there are still some questions that hang in the air, some feelings that still sit in the body. At this point it feels helpful to give these “silent” questions some attention and space. To feel into how the body is doing with all that has happened. To come in touch with who it is – right here – that has gone through all of this. This “who it is” contains not only the memories of the current experience but all of “Jay” – the whole organism with its laid-down memory traces in the nerves, muscles, guts, bones and the vast space in which this organism exists.

Perhaps in this space the current problem – the one that for the moment the mind is most worried about – may come up again. In other words the memory gets pushed up into conscious awareness, along with the anxiety surrounding it. As I consider this and write about it, the question arises What is the problem? Or maybe we can say Is there a problem, Is what’s happening right now a problem?

The memory has been broadcast into the conscious mind. There is a sense of urgency to change something that seems to have led to pain. But that’s not all there is right here. There is a spacious awareness of the environment, the sense of the body and mind as a whole phenomenon – ever dynamic, subtle, sensitive. There may be the sense of other people nearby. What happens to the energy if one goes into the “problem” – the memory, the strategizing? Can the energy stay with the wholeness? I find that it is possible, even though it may seem impossible. It is possible to stay with wholeness and yet have some insights about the “problem situation” arise, with maybe a little conscious help or maybe no conscious involvement at all.

When this happens, the problem doesn’t become overwhelming. It seems to disappear – perhaps to reemerge from time to time.

When this doesn’t happen – when all of the energy becomes narrowly focused on fixing something, it really feels like I’ve lost touch with what the problem is and the context in which this “problem” exists. I’ve lost touch with myself. I’ve lost touch with what other people are. I’ve lost touch of the humanness and of the aliveness of the situation and of life. And the actions that come out of this kind of problem solving, for me, may lack humanness. They may not address the wholeness of the situation.

In such narrow moments things may suddenly open up, along with the realization that I don’t really know what the “problem” is or even if there is a problem. And I enter into this not knowing, this wondering. This os forgetting of the problem and awakening to the precious wholeness in which all of life – with its beauty and its challenges – takes place.

The Heart of Life

It’s now the coldest, darkest time of year. The winter holidays are nearly past. For unknown reasons this is a time when the sorrow of losses, disappointments, unmet hopes comes more readily to mind and drapes itself on and in the body.

This year the hope for having a government moved by intelligence, caring, and community has been – for the near future – dashed. The prospect of being treated harshly, manipulatively, hangs over the heads of millions of us.

How do we relate to loss – the loss of loved ones, the loss of opportunities for goodness, the loss of a sense of security and safety? How do we relate to dashed hopes and looming difficult times?

I notice that the mind wants to find some words to comfort itself. To read something inspiring. To regain a sense of positiveness or happiness. But I wonder if it is necessary to interfere with the sorrow that may be going on right now in the body/mind. Is there some interest in entering deeply into the sense of loss or sorrow at those moments when it presents itself? To be very sensitively in touch without trying to move away. To let these feelings open up and do whatever they need to do, to reveal anything they may need to reveal? To not short circuit that process by moving away from it? To maybe find out something new and fresh about the energy that we call sorrow.

Right now, sitting here, feeling into disappointment, anxiety, sorrow, there is also the feel of cool air on the skin, a sense of groundedness in the body, the sound of water trickling in the fountain and fans moving, dim light of a cloudy day. In listening deeply and openly with the heart, the mind, the body – and all of the emotions that have arisen – isn’t this life one energy without borders, including everything? When the heart opens with all of its emotions and sensations, isn’t it the heart of all life?

Hate, Anger, and Politics

When I listen to hateful and angry right wing people expressing themselves, I have been hearing a huge backlog of unprocessed hurt, of bottled up feelings of being thwarted by others, by people who are more powerful, of being made to feel inferior, ignored, unheard. I hear anger at not being in control of one’s life.

I see the roots of all of these feelings in myself. I see myself getting angry because a business kept me waiting, because someone didn’t return my phone call promptly, because a room is too cold, because my head hurts or back hurts, because the store is out of a certain fruit. I feel myself putting up walls inside because a friend said something that made me defensive. I see myself taking offense. I see the mind adding this offense to its existing pile of offenses. I hear myself bringing this ball of past offenses, hurts, fears, up in the mind again and again. Using it to generate some energy in the tired body. Using it to build a well-defended life. Making a wall between myself and others and then being sad because the wall blocks out love and connection.

I’ve begun to see that when this happens in me, it is adding to the hate and anger that is spilling out throughout human society. I’ve begun to watch it and sense it more carefully because I can see that not doing so, not being in touch with these dynamics happening in me, surely leads to hurting others in small ways or in global ways, not to mention the damage that it does to me.

For some strange evolutionary or biological reason, it’s easy for us to feel our outrage and unquestioningly follow it up with action and yet it is much more difficult to really see these dynamics for what they essentially are: builders of walls of anger, hate, and isolation.

It’s not too hard to see what happens to any of us when our inner anger, hate, resentment is not clearly seen. I’ve seen myself lash out hurtfully at a person and have noticed that they are getting the brunt of my buried feelings from other situations that had little or nothing to do with them. They were a lightning rod for backed up anger. And if I were suddenly made president of the US, it is quite possible that I might lash out in the same way but with the tremendous power that office provides. What a horrifying thought!

Maybe it’s possible for people from different backgrounds to begin listening to each other so that the sense of not being heard can lessen and so that pent up feelings have a chance to come out. But what is clear to me is that virtually every single waking moment of my life, these forces are going on in me and need to be given careful attention and interest. This is full time work.

I remember at an early retreat that I went to with Toni Packer on maybe the sixth day, she was giving a small talk in the sitting room and said something to the effect that every one of us had had at least a moment or two of not adding to the sorrow of the world. I was taken aback! But I’ve been sitting here quietly, attentively, for days, hour after hour, I thought. How is that adding to the sorrow of the world?

I’m beginning to understand now what she was talking about. Watching carefully how this body responds to the physical environment – tensing, tightening, defending – and then seeing if it is possible to relax to the coldness or the pain or the worry. Then instead of hard walls there is a softer being with what is. How the body/mind responds to other people – wanting to get away, or to control the conversation so it feels more comfortable, or to convince them of something that’s important to me. And experimenting with the possibility of just hearing this person – who they are and what they feel a need to express.

Maybe you feel that you’re not as self-centered or defensive as I have found that I am. What seems to matter most is that these inner movements of the mind – probably very deeply programmed – become visible, noticeable – and that each of us begins to look for ourselves whether we are reinforcing, adding in the tiniest of ways to the trickle of hate, anger, fear, and isolation that is bursting out as a torrent in human beings and causing so much suffering. And wondering and watching on some level to see what the alternative is, to see how love does, for moments at a time, function through us if there is a burning interest to see how we are really living/thinking/feeling – not the ideal that I want to be loving and not hateful, not the image that I am trying to become a good person, but the reality of how the mind is really functioning, which much of the time is in trying to build walls of anger and hate.

To see all of this inner working clearly, as it really is, whether beautiful or ugly. This is a rare thing among us humans. When it happens, it feels like an expression of immense compassion and intelligence. It feels like a moment in which I am not adding to the sorrow of the world.

Psychology or Spirituality?

JW: You asked me to explain why I don’t want to come to dialogue groups. I am very religious as you know, but also very interested in spiritual practices, such as meditation, mindfulness and gratitude.  I am not particularly interested in solely dealing with relationship problems, because I believe that turning to our Source, our Creator, to God, is in reality the abiding solution to these and other problems.  What I’m trying to say is, I personally like you and your abilities as a facilitator, but I’m looking for the “divine spark,” that element in discourse and being which speaks of God.

Jay: Thanks for explaining. I have a better idea now of what you are talking about.

The issue of what is spiritual and what is merely psychological is one that I’ve looked at for a long time. My primary goal in dialogue is to work as directly spiritually as possible. This may not be evident all the time so I’ll try to explain a little how I see it.

First, what do I mean by spiritual? In the deepest sense, for me, a spiritual moment is a moment in which the feelings of separation have dropped away. Along with it, other things have usually dropped away as well, including a sense of being a physically limited body, of having problems that have to be solved, of antagonism or irritation with others, of the world being mechanical, dry, and empty. Such a moment, to me, feels infinitely expansive, timeless, not needing or lacking anything, full of simple beauty, in-touchness with the natural world, and radiant with affection, love, and wisdom.

All of these things that drop away are, in my observation, perceptions that come from how the brain tends to think about things. When the brain has become quiet, it isn’t making those interpretations. It is just participating in direct experience of this one, undivided world, which seems to carry with it love, affection, and wisdom.

So if we want to talk about the “truth” of spirituality, for me it is a moment or extended period in which this simple beauty of life is visible – not covered up by interpretations of the brain.

To put it in some other words, the brain has the habit of creating certain filters through which we interpret the world. For example, some of us are habitually suspicious of other people who treat us in certain ways. But this filter of the brain is not always activated. It can be “off line.”

From my experience I would say that there can be moments, sometimes extended, when the entire filtering process of the brain is not activated and instead of filtering, the brain is simply sensing, perceiving.

Of course most of us don’t live in that state most of the time. But if one has a strong sense of the importance of living without division and free of our painful interpretations, then one begins to wonder what’s happening the rest of the time. For me this means being very carefully in touch with WHATEVER state of mind is going on. In other words, most of the time our work is to let light shine on this filtering process – noticing it, feeling into what agendas are behind it, what keeps it going, what does it want, what happens if it drops.

I don’t think human beings generally are aware of these things or pay much attention to them. On the contrary, we firmly believe our interpretations about other people and our assumptions about who we are and what we need, even – or especially – about spirituality. But when one begins to examine these carefully and affectionately, the process of continually filtering life through blind assumptions begins to let up.  The more carefully we examine out filters, the more direct the process of them beginning to let up. And the more the filters begin to let up, the more frequently and groundedly they may drop away altogether for moments at a time.

In a moment when filters are not operating and we can see each other and the world clearly – with affection – it is possible to work together to shine light on these filters that we all have. This is the purpose of dialogue and of one-on-one meetings.

So if someone is angry at their boss and they bring it up in a dialogue, it may seem at first glance like a mundane, personal, psychological problem that doesn’t belong in a spiritual dialogue. But I have come to see it very differently. If the person just vents and other participants give suggestions for getting a better job or doing some breathing exercises to relax, then nothing much has really been revealed on a spiritual level.  But if we look together closely and try to open up the whole dynamic, we may both discover things about the filters of seeing people as “other” and of feeling threatened and needing to defend and the fear of not defending and the fear of the unknown.

When dialogue leads to a person coming in touch with these deep filters, then something begins to loosen up. In a moment of coming in touch, each of us is really letting go of filters for a microsecond and experiencing the profound spiritual power of listening to one’s inner workings without any defense or agenda. This is a moment of awakeness – the most profound experience – even though it is only for a fraction of a second.

If someone does not have much experience coming in touch with these inner motives and agendas, then doing this in a group dialogue may open up a flood of new energy and interest to watch oneself more closely. This movement of allowing the inner workings to become visible is exactly the function of One Mind. The whole universe supports this effort. And until a habit has been observed, carefully lived through, opened up, brought out into the light, it is very much an effort to live with it consciously. It takes a lot of energy. This is why we come together in a group to do this work together. It’s why we go off for seven days various times during the year to devote energy to this.

And the more this kind of work is done, the more frequently and deeply the moments of wholeness and love come to us and work through us.

When I first started participating in groups, I used to hear other people’s psychological problems and think “I’m beyond that. Why can’t this person live in the present right this moment and drop their problems?” But I began to discover that this was a very naive view on my part. First of all, I usually noticed later on that I DID have that problem. I just never had noticed it. Secondly, I began to realize that in the immediacy of a moment with someone else – sitting together in dialogue – this pattern that they were bringing up, this filter, WAS exactly what was here in this moment and we had a very precious opportunity to open up this filter together, for the benefit of both, or all, of us.

So for me if someone brings up a psychological or relationship issue in dialogue, it is far from mundane or superficial. It is a human being beginning to look into these hidden filters that operate automatically and blindly and cause so much pain and suffering in the world. It is the beginning of wisdom functioning and of wholeness blossoming. It is the most precious moment possible. It is all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas coming to us to shine light thoroughly on what a human being has started to become aware of.

I hope that gives you a perspective on what I see going on in dialogue.

If  you don’t relate to the kind of issues that people bring up in our groups, you’re welcome to meet with me just the two of us to explore what you see as spirituality. What I described above is only one way of working together.

Also, I’m experimenting with a first Thursday of the month event in which there will be some quiet sitting but no dialogue. After the sitting anyone can bring up an issue or question or explore something, but there will not be cross talk. I may respond, so it is sort of a one-on-one meeting time but with others present in the group but not responding.

JW: I believe I understand much of what you are saying, and am impressed with the depth of your insights and feelings.  The only major disconnect in our viewpoints is what can I say but “The God Factor.”  Those feelings of expansiveness, loving-kindness, evanescence and radiance emanate from God.  It is God speaking to our hearts, and that should be acknowledged.  “Love Me [God] that I may love thee.  If Thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee.”  (Baha’u’llah)

Jay: Toni Packer would sometimes be asked by people why she didn’t talk more about love or Love. Her response was that Love takes care of itself and manifests in us when we are willing to be open with ourselves. The more openness and vulnerability, the more Love can work through us.

She did in later years refer to Love a little more but my feeling is that it doesn’t always necessarily needed to be given a name or a personification (God). When we are really listening vulnerably to each other, then it is felt very strongly.

Now it may be that there are some things about the image or sense or identity with the sense of God that are important images for you. Most of us feel more comfortable with an image of a caring “being” rather than a non-personal sense such as Love. But my feeling is that that is something important to look at. How does that function in my life? I’m not saying it’s not a valuable thing for you – how could I know what’s valuable for you or not??? – but it may not be important for other people.  And yet the work of uncovering the fears, anxieties and defenses in each of us is something that we can all participate in and which – I’d say without fail – brings that “divine” love into action and can be felt by all.

I’m just thinking that if the concept of a God is important to you, from my experience I would want to suggest that you treat it as a question, an exploration, rather than a fixed something to take refuge in.

By question I don’t mean something to think about necessarily or to “doubt”. However, there are many questions that may come up naturally for you. The whole sense of a separate being outside of me may feel very helpful but many “masters” and teachers actually negate this, so you can question for yourself “What are they talking about? Why doesn’t the Buddha refer to any god? Why does Krishnamurti point to concepts of heavenly beings guiding us as a false hope?”

I’m not saying to believe Buddha or Krishnamurti or other teachers who don’t refer to a god. But on the other hand it’s hard to discount such people completely. So you have to look very carefully for yourself.

I don’t think it’s productive to consider whether or not there is a God but to question things such as if there is a God and it is everpresent, where is it right now that I’m not experiencing joy, love or divine presence? If I am essentially of God, how is it that I feel very separate, even from God?

If one wants to find out for oneself, then questioning, looking freshly and ever more deeply, happens naturally, I feel. If one makes every moment an opportunity to feel more deeply into what one feels God is, it will begin to unfold in a fresh way.

Our natural tendency is to take refuge in certain types of feelings and concepts and no matter how noble, taking refuge in feelings and concepts can lead, in my experience, away from looking directly into myself and my relationship with the world, with life, with God. Looking this very moment is a different energy than resting in certain feelings and beliefs. If this is clear, then it can become increasingly clear what I am, how I really live, and the vast loving space in which everything happens – without separateness.

I just wanted to share these thoughts. I personally am very wary of the sense of a being – no matter how lofty. In my experience the reality of what the Buddha and so many other people have experienced and talked about is a living that is not divided up into separate beings and objects – nothing more holy or more profane than anything else.

This may not be at all how you see it but sharing our experiences when there are stark differences in perspective is one wonderful way for all of us to look more freshly, more clearly, and more deeply into ourselves, which is where the fears that keep us from opening up reside.

I hope this comes to you in the spirit of affection, sharing, and interest in which I feel I’m writing it!