Category Archives: Pain and body

Where Does Peace Come From?

The reflection below was in response to a discussion on finding peace in the middle of non-peace. Some people referred to practices that they have used that they hope will bring more peace. The inquiry below examines and questions how this really works in us.

When I consider this careful, here’s what seems to happen for me. So something triggers me and I’m angry and defensive. That means my teeth are grinding, my stomach is tight, my back hurts, and I want to lash out at someone. My mind is going over options for doing that.

In this state practicing “peace” is impossible, really. I guess that means that the idea comes up of getting back to a state in which the body is relaxed and the world feels spacious. But at that point it’s an idea that is in complete conflict with what is actually going on.

If someone suggested I try to do that, I’d probably glare at them!!!

What IS real for me is that tight, painful, angry, hurtful state that is manifesting itself. No space at all. Just tight, gnashing teeth and guts. Something keeps me from acting out on the impulses, though. Something, somewhere out of my sight knows that the impulse that wants to act out leads to trouble. So there is the pain of this state, the emotional pain and the physical pain of it but it doesn’t go anywhere. It stays right here, burning, hurting.

Of course many times it doesn’t stay right here and I say something angry to someone.

But when it does stay right here, it is noticeable that there is a tremendous urge to get away from the pain and tightness. One channel for getting away is yelling at someone or hitting them. Another might be to channel that energy into punishing myself. And another big channel is to try to do some practice to become more peaceful in the future. A huge urge for someone to give me something to do that will get me out of this pain, even if it is lifetimes later!

So for me, no practices to become better for the future. Just not running away from the states of no-space, no-compassion, no-peace. Just not moving away from how this all manifests in the body, the thoughts, the feelings. No idea of how this will all come out in the near or distant future. Just burning right here with what has manifested in this body/mind, as it does through almost every other human being, with, for once, someone not moving away from it into a discharge of pain, which causes more pain, or a plan for getting away from the current pain.

In not running away, in burning right here in this place of no-space and no-peace, the sound of a bird might suddenly come through. Or the smile of a person. Or an insight into the suffering of the person I’m angry at. It becomes clear if such a moment happens that this tight, painful, suffering, burning state is not all there is. It is happening in vast space, whether that space is felt or not.



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.

A Different Mind and Body

For most of us there is usually some agenda operating in the psyche. By agenda I mean something like that there is a sense of something I need to do in order to protect something that is important to me. We are so used to operating from agendas that we don’t see them as such. And yet sometimes there’s the feeling that something is pushing me or bugging me, something that won’t quite let go. Or there is a noticing that the mind is going around and around in the same thoughts, exhausting itself but not quitting. There can also be the feeling of just being exhausted and wanting to give up but not knowing what it is that has been driving me or what I’m so disappointed in not being able to get.

Even in quiet moments of reading, watching a movie, “hanging out” there is much of the time the buzz of random agendas checking in, thoughts running unheard in the back of the mind while the consciousness is distracted. I’m also thinking of dialogue, in which we are hoping to shed light for each other but most of the time what we hear and say reflects unseen agendas, such as wanting to be accepted in the group, not wanting to sound stupid, wanting to reinforce a belief that there is some spiritual activity we can do to become better meditators, wanting to maintain a certain feeling of equanimity and not fall into confusion or anxiety, and so on and so on.

Very occassionally, perhaps very rarely, there is a giving up of all the agendas, a dying to them. This may happen in the presence of something overwhelmingly beautiful. It may also happen in dark despair when there is no hope left and hope dies away, and with it all agenda. As little children we fell into this state often, naturally, because dropping of the filters of agenda allows the beautiful world to be seen, felt, experienced, lived. So the person coming across something amazingly beautiful lets go of all the enclosing agendas and opens totally in order to drink in what is all around them. Similarly, the person in dark despair who finds all agenda, all hope, dropping away, suddenly finds that they are the whole world. When agenda is gone, everything is here but we have lost the ability to live this way. This latter happened to Eckhart Tolle. On the brink of suicide all agenda dropped away and he found himself amazingly and mysteriously alive and boundless.

We long for this faintly remembered existence of undivided aliveness and yet we deeply trust the concepts and assumptions of our agendas, which are numberless. And so through our agendas we try to find a way out of agenda. A person may believe deeply that personal hard work is the key to everything and so they apply this to spiritual work by working very hard at their meditation. Another person may believe that the most important thing is certain feelings of happiness and so they avoid all experiences that might diminish their feeling of calm or peace.

With careful listening and talking together and a great deal of time devoted to extended meditative time, we might begin to discover agendas in ourselves and not be fooled by them. Agendas are not “bad”. They just operate darkly so that there is no intelligence guiding when the agenda needs to function and when it is getting in the way.

When we become interested in discovering these agendas in ourselves, Presence is already operating. I have to take at least a small step back away from an agenda for it to become visible. In fact it is always Presence that is operating because there is nothing else. But one aspect of this undivided energy of life is the ability to create a sense of a divided inner world and this strange energy blocks out the direct experiencing of what we are. This “inner world” thinking makes the mind operate in a strange, enclosed mode such that the mind does not want to be seen. It wants to hide itself. Such a mind operates darkly, suspciously or naively, in a confused way, trying to impose patterns onto a world that has nothing to do with those patterns. Such a mind is opaque to insight, thick to anything new, largely unable to perceive the feelings of others correctly or sometimes even to understand that others have feelings. Of course things are not always as dark as this for us, fortunately. We often work at being loving, caring, understanding, intelligent. But interestingly this is usually experienced as effort, feeling as though love stands in opposition to something else.

At the same time, this kind of thinking affects the body and nervous system, making the body feel tight and conflicted, as though it were battling itself. It ties up the arms and legs, the gut, the eyes, so that we walk and talk and move in increasingly crippled ways as we get older. Eckhart Tolle refers to this as the pain body.

But in a moment when all agenda has let up its grip and the mind is dwelling in Presence, this strange, non-productive mind and body drop away as well, and there is a feeling of freedom and naturalness in the body and the mind operates with an all encompassing love and intelligence because it sees everything as not separate from what it is. This is effortless compassion and effortless intelligence. It is a different mind and a different body.

We can’t monitor whether or not we’re being agendaless. Monitoring is an agenda and requires the mind dividing itself into an evaluator and the evaluated. So it’s a relief to stop monitoring whether we’re in Presence. We can, though, become interested in noticing our agendas – how much fear we have around being seen in certain ways, how much anxiety we have about ourselves, how tight we become in trying to attain our professional goals or establish a safe-feeling environment, how little we’re able to hear the human difficulties expressed by people around us. Presence actually opens in us by surprise. When there is interest and I really feel that it is more important to get in touch with what a jerk I’ve been than to make myself look like I’ve got it together, then I’ve dropped agenda (protecting myself) in favor of simple Truth. That is effortless.

As agenda after agenda becomes exposed, it probably becomes easier and easier for concern about ourselves to die away so that this simple moment here – regardless of what is revealed in it – can shine. In such moments this different body and mind operate naturally, easily, effortlessly, in vast space, not belonging to anyone at all.

As always, these comments are meant to invite your response, disagreement, inquiry.

Awake in the World

I received an email today with the topic Awake in the World. The email was from a Buddhist magazine and it invited people to submit their perspective on what it means to be Awake in the World.

My first reaction was “What does this mean?”. Where does this question of what it means to be awake in the world come from? Who would ask this question and in what conditions? On the surface it is easy to relate to. It sounds like a wonderful goal to be more awake amidst the difficulties of life. But on this level, what kind of an answer would I be looking for? Most likely I would want advice. Someone wise should tell me how I can accomplish this goal. Or perhaps I would rummage through my store of experiences and give advice to others. On this level I would want someone to outline some steps, so I can make gradual progress, or I would want someone to show me how to practice the skills of being awake in the world. Or at the very least I would want someone to encourage me that it’s possible.

The kind of answer that I would want on this surface level does not seem deeply satisfying to me. Advice, encouragement, practicing skills, seem to only scratch the surface. They may have some immediate benefit but it is not long lasting. So I am asking again what is really beneath this question about how to be awake in the world. What would bring up such a concern in myself or in another person?

One thing that might bring up this concern would be if I reflect on my life and find it to be full of muddle, confusion, mistakes, misunderstandings, uncertainty, having my feelings hurt and hurting the feelings of others, and so on. Reflecting on this means that memory is activated, doesn’t it? Stored memory traces of our past experience are activated, woken up, and they reveal their content, which is full of sadness, pain, wanting, and more. Maybe there is some joy in the memory but memory seems to predominantly like to store unfinished business and seems preoccupied with what is difficult and painful.

So something activates this sorrow-self of memory. Is there an immediate reaction to do something about it? To resolve to live better in the future? To plan to be a “better” person, a more awake person? This seems to be part of the memory structure as well – to plan a way to avoid future pain by analyzing what caused pain in the past and by creatively planning a strategy to avoid that “cause” in the future. When the perceived source of pain is the memory structure itself, memory becomes extremely creative in figuring out plans for being “liberated.”

If this sorrow-self becomes activated and is felt throughout the whole being, is it not possible for it to simply express itself, with all of the bodily sensations and emotional sensations that are part of it, without the automatic process taking hold of escaping from it into lofty spiritual plans?

Sitting here, deep sorrow just barely under the surface, an experiential understanding of the difficulty of the human condition, the palpable feeling of sadness pressing down on the diaphragm, the hum of the refrigerator, warm air pressing on the eyelids, this itself is the world in its fullness. The world itself is awake in this moment. Sorrow is not separate from it, from the flow of blood, the movement of air, the stillness. To say “awake in the world” seems to divide this single, simple energy of presence into someone that wants to be prepared for difficult events versus the events themselves.

What is the world at this very moment? What is it that wants to be awake? Are these two separate questions? Just listening in open space. Does it matter at all what particular feelings, emotions, sensations, states of mind or body or environmental influences take place? Nothing left to evaluate whether there is awakeness or not. Nothing left to label anything as the world. Is it clear that the world of concern about the past and the future is a dream, a fog? That when this dream too opens to the wide world, there is just this moment, full and complete in itself. What is it this moment?

The Childlike Mind and the Aging Mind

Question: I assume the purpose of meditation is to gain a more clear perspective on the world and life? I noticed that when I think of people who meditate I normally think of older people. Never children. I am 31 and personally have found that meditation helps me unclutter my thoughts and gain a level of efficiency of thought that I haven’t had consistantly since I was a child. Do adults have the most to gain from meditation? Perhaps it is like an extra nights sleep everyday to help tolerate this whole aging thing and decline of brain functionality that comes with age?

Jay: Hi. I’m reading your interesting note. I’m trying to get a sense of what your main question may be. You are talking about noticing a difference between the child-like mind and the mind that has come to be your adult mind. Is that accurate?

So maybe let’s consider first what this adult mind is that seems more cluttered and less efficient, as you said, than the child-like mind. It’s certainly true that daily life as an adult usually requires a lot of high-powered mental activity that leaves the mind tired. Probably for most of us this mental activity is out of our control. In other words the demands on us come from our life situation, including work, and so we can’t just turn them off when the brain has had enough. As a result, humanity walks around with exhausted brains.

How does the brain recharge? For some people it may rarely recharge. Sleep offers a chance for recharging but an extremely overworked brain may not even have the ability to recharge through sleep any more. Vacations often are not particularly refreshing. Maybe some people have worked out ways to feel a little fresher after a vacation. Leisure time is often spent in activities that numb the brain – television, reading, etc., though I’m not putting those activities down per se – and often leave the mind even more overburdened.

The alternative is to sit quietly, without overbearing sensory input (music, voices, etc) and without consciously trying to do anything about the state of body and mind. This allows the entire body/mind (one undivided nervous system/organism)to “unwind”, to go through its own healing process – unimpeded by our usual efforts to control the activities of the mind and body. This is different from sleep in that, first of all, the body is upright and is receiving simple sensory information and secondly, the mind is awake. There is a kind of healing that happens in this quiet but alert sitting that does not necessarily happen in sleep.

Our poor minds probably have an almost bottomless need for this kind of quiet “unfolding” that heals the overworked nervous system. If enough time is allowed for this kind of sitting, the mind may become fresher than we are used to. It may take on a different quality that only a refreshed and energized nervous system can. Maybe this is what you are referring to with the uncluttered and efficient mind.

Is it inevitable that most of our life is spent in mental and physical exhaustion? We might start questioning this by looking at the external elements of our life – work and personal demands. Maybe there is a way to rearrange things so that there is more healing time. I personally get to three 7 day retreats every year and may try to increase that to more.

In many unseen ways, though, there is something in us that keeps us locked into mental exhaustion. No amount of external change can deal with that. It requires becoming aware of the internal scenery (do you get a sense of what I might mean by this?) with sensitivity, which requires a quiet and sensitive mind.

What keeps us locked into mental exhaustion? This is an important question that each of us needs to find out about for ourselves. In sitting quietly, the activity of the mind becomes noticeable – the kind of things that the mind is continually concerned about, that it does not want to let go of. Do you have a sense of this? Protecting myself in my work, my relationships, my health, my money. Trying to anticipate difficulties that may arise (by continually scanning the memory for dangerous situations) and trying to come up with strategies so that I will be prepared to avoid difficulty. Daydreaming about pleasant things that have happened (which is again the scanning of memory) and contemplating ways to get these pleasant experiences again. In all of this activity the mind is unable to simply hear and feel what is going on right now. And all of this activity keeps the mind working, struggling, burning calories and exhausting brain cells. Anyone can discover some hint of this in sitting still, though the mind may need to recharge a bit before this comes to light.

So the primary “purpose” or perhaps a better word would be “function” or “healing activity” of sitting still and attentive is that a quiet presence begins to take over and this quiet presence reveals the workings, the assumptions, the fears, the exhaustion, the longings of the body/mind, freshly – for the first time. And from this simple seeing of what is really going on but has not been noticed comes an intelligence that begins to transform how we exist.

I have seen people of 80 looking fresh as a daisy and young as a child after 7 day retreat. Much of the aging we experience is the heaviness of a mind that does not understand what it is doing and yet is compelled to struggle day and night.

Meditative work is utterly simple. To be touched by the world and to become visible to oneself, it is only necessary to let up on manipulating, controlling and changing what is going on right now, at this moment.

Maybe this is enough for now. I may not have understood your concerns and/or I may not have expressed my reflections very clearly, so please feel free to write back for clarification.

Question: Yeah I was concerned that even meditation, sleep, and low responsibilities in even an adult life might not keep the brain from wearing down and becoming unfocused and prone towards forgetfulness and missing the big picture as well as the obvious. Would you say meditation can keep the mind as young as a person wants it to be? I just finished reading the book, “OSHO Meditation” and looked that guy up to find that many found his works a little contraversial. I thought most of what he had to say made good sense, but what other common perspectives are there on meditation that are different from his? Is it true that meditation must be in the persuit of experiencing, but not thinking? I can’t be focusing on one simple problem in a passive way hoping an answer will rise? People don’t “meditate on a problem” do they?

Jay: You seem to be concerned with the aging of the mind. Like all things the various functions of the mind do wear down and eventually cease completely, unless you consider biological decomposition to be another function of the mind.

What is it that you do mean by mind? What aspect of mind are you concerned about wearing down? Memory? Clear thinking? Focus? You can really question and then observe silently if these functions are really what define the mind or if they might be superficial aspects of a mind that is deeper, stiller, simpler.

Another way to look at this is to observe very carefully how the mind functions, what exhausts it and what energizes it, not necessarily for the purpose of controlling because controlling is clearly one of the things that exhausts the mind.

And what about the fear of losing abilities, skills that seem important for living a quality life? What is the root of that fear? Is there any ability we have that is not subject to being diminished or destroyed at any moment? Does this mean we are doomed to constant fear?

I read just a little from Osho just now. He says “Don’t do anything – no repetition of mantra, no repetition of the name of god – just watch whatever the mind is doing. Don’t disturb it, don’t prevent it, don’t repress it; don’t do anything at all on your part. You just be a watcher, and the miracle of watching is meditation. As you watch, slowly mind becomes empty of thoughts; but you are not falling asleep, you are becoming more alert, more aware.”

You ask about other perspectives on meditation but Osho has summed it up simply and completely. What he says is not a perspective. It is listening, presence. It is the absence of perspective, the putting aside of our million perspectives. Interestingly, he talks about teachers who teach all sorts of techniques, strategies and perspectives: “Whatever Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and other people like him are doing is good, but they are calling something meditation which is not. That’s where they are leading people astray.”

The human mind is full of important, living questions that vitally need the light of silent attention to unfold and clarify. From what you write, you are touched by these questions. Ultimately, we each need to sit with these questions ourselves, though it can be good to talk together using words. You ask about the relationship of experiencing to thinking in meditative listening. Check this out yourself. Is it not true that when the brain is dominated by thinking, very little of what is going on is experienced, even though the thinking thinks it is a whole world unto itself. It can be easily noticed that in a moment when thinking goes silent, the world of sounds, sensation, spaciousness is revealed. It also becomes clear that there is no one, no controller, that can stop thoughts from dominating the mind. That is thought trying to stifle itself. And yet, there can arise from who knows where an interest to be with the direct experience of life. And then thought may quiet down !
on its own.

By meditating on a problem do you mean to sit down and consider what it is that is bothering me? Maybe reviewing it in the mind. Considering different aspects of it? Well, why not? I think this is helpful. But rather than having the mind go off into trying to solve a problem, can this return to listening? Listening for insight, for clarification – not in what is already known or remembered – that is old habit – but in the open space of not knowing. Just listening into this unknowable moment. Forgetting everything that is known and letting what is unknowable open up and reveal itself.

Does this address your concerns at all?

Question: I guess my question was more about the breaking down of the brain since persumable the “mind” is intangible and not very well known. I am concerned for my clarity of thought and focus and confident perspective of the world around me. Also I was asking if something like focusing on a problem as in “meditating on it” is outside the realm of “meditation” since it isn’t strickly observing and taking in the world. I don’t know if it would pass Osho’s definition anyway.

Jay: I understand your concern about clarity of thought, focus and a confident perspective of the world. I have always felt that those were my tools for being successful, for being able to make money, for being able to take care of things (including myself) for being a good friend to people, even for being able to have a good relationship. For a long time I felt that those qualities were the hallmark of meditative work.

I don’t feel that way now. Sometimes for me the mind is not clear but it doesn’t bother me. The part of the mind that functions clearly in me is often tired and overworked. Rather than trying to drum up the energy to force it into clarity, I am perfectly happy to leave it as it is. In fact in that state it is often easier to listen to others, to cooperate (since my clarity is not driving dictating what it thinks I should do) and I’m more relaxed physically. So far this has not prevented me from surviving financially or in any other way.

Often the memory part of the brain in me is tired. It takes a break and there is a long lag in coming up with the right word or in remembering someone’s name. It doesn’t bother me because it’s clear that the memory brain easily gets tired and it’s learning to take a rest when it needs it. When this happens, I feel more directly in touch, happier, more relaxed. I’m not happier because I can’t remember but because memory is not dominating the brain, a more nourishing part of the mind is waking up, a more child-like part.

I recently visited with Toni Packer, the woman who led the many retreats I attended over the years. She is now in her 80s and has a serious neuropathy that requires that she be in bed most of the time. Between the lack of activity and the painkillers for her neuropathy, her memory is very poor. In our conversation she would forget from one minute to the next what we were talking about and the conversation itself was very “wandering”. I called it a right brain conversation. Not linear or logical. But the conversation was very sweet and full of humanness. What most struck me about her was that from time to time she would respond directly to hearing something elsewhere in the house or outside. Her response was direct and immediate. It became clear that even with the mind very incapacitated, her nervous system, her cells, had learned over the years to stay in touch with direct experience. This did not require the mediation of a clear, focused perspective. After observing this, !
I lost my concern with what would happen to my clear, intelligent mind. And in any case what happens to my mind is mostly out of my control anyway. But the important thing is this ability for the entire system – body, mind, skin, nerves, cells, hairs – to relearn how to be in touch with what is happening right here, simply and directly. Sensorily and yet in stillness. This is where intelligence and compassion come from.

Meditation is simply the shedding of light on what is arising at this moment. A good question might be “Then what, if anything, is NOT meditation?” It can be observed that usually there is very little intouchness with what is going on. Usually the mind is almost completely absorbed in the world of thought, which has the feeling of being about the world but allows very little intouchness with what is here right now – including its own nature. Thought is blind to itself, to its own nature. But presence can perceive thought and can recognize what thought is and what its limits are. It may seem like a fine line but it can be observed and it is a critical difference.

So if there is a problem, usually the first reaction is to think about what I know about the problem. There is nothing wrong with that. It is intelligent. Intelligent thinking is more like what I described above as presence being able to see thought. I think good thinking has that quality, as opposed to obsessive thinking (why the hell did he do that to me and how can I get back at him, etc etc etc).

So problem solving may start with thinking. What do I know about this? But just like the tip of an iceberg, what I know about something is only the smallest part of the situation. The body and root of a problem lies in the unknown, the unknowable. This is the silence that is entered into in meditation. Sitting, listening, in touch, without knowing, beyond expectation.

The unknowable is unknowable so you don’t have to worry if you are “doing it” right to someone’s specifications. You don’t have to monitor whether you are doing it to your own specifications. Monitoring is a limited activity of knowing. It can drop away too, and with it drops the energy drain of monitoring. This is the beauty of letting go of what is known (not negating it but just acknowledging that it only goes so far) and just listening without knowing. Things reveal themselves as they are, freshly, for the first time, in a child-like way.

Retreat: Difficult States, How does insight happen, Are concentration and other techniques helpful

M: I recently attended a six day retreat. For four-and-a-half of the six days of the retreat, I was in hell. I was facing a personal dilemma and thought that retreat would be a good place to resolve it. Not! The stories and scenarios of the choices I faced could not be stopped from racing through my head. So basically I was sitting with a movie looping in my brain instead of concentrating my mind and actually meditating. With some loving first aid and a couple of discussions with the two dharma teachers, and some hand holding, I was able to get back to some kind of equanimity–mainly through what I guess you could call an insight: “Oh. Okay. So now I’m living in a hell realm. So this is what that is like. This is how things are for me right now.”

Accepting that let me unclench some and I actually enjoyed the rest of the retreat and it turned out I learned much about myself and about what hell realms are like. A productive retreat, in the end, but an experience I NEVER WANT TO GO THROUGH AGAIN!!! (Or anytime soon again, at any rate.)

Jay: I appreciated your report of the retreat, especially the difficult part. One thing I got out of it was that it doesn’t seem (to me, anyway) that meditative work is about concentrating the mind. There definitely is a quieting of the mind that can happen and maybe we can call that a kind of concentration in that the mind stays with what is here directly, instead of going off into thinking. But it doesn’t seem like that kind of quieting happens by an act of will. To me, what’s important is that the activity of the mind is visible, transparent, noticeable. In other words that when thoughts or emotional states do come up, they can be noticed directly, along with the sound of the wind and feel of the air.

The second thing that I got from your narrative is that it reminded me of a time in retreat some years ago when I found myself in a nightmarish state of mind. It was just hell – confusion, distress, anxiety, craziness. When I met with Toni Packer and told her about it, she listened quietly and then said something to the effect that a new part of the mind was opening up. Her comments conveyed a lot of compassion and maybe hope to me, even though I was still in that state.

Going back to sitting, the turmoil continued. There was no room for remembering helpful words of advice and even if I did remember, they didn’t change anything. Maybe, like you said, there was at least one layer of panic that was gone, since I trusted that she knew what she was talking about.

The nightmare continued for some unmeasured time. Then there was suddenly an instant in which the mind was just in a different place. A gap, quiet, still. The entire hellish state was gone. I don’t remember now exactly how it was but the feeling was as though there was a new space that I had never been in before and even though the mind didn’t stay in that place, there was a feeling something like “now I know there is something outside of this inner world of turmoil (which I had somehow felt was all there was) and I don’t know what it is but my life depends on finding out.”

I’m not sure that the specifics of how this felt to me are significant but the important thing was the coming across this gap in what had seemed like a solid mind-state, which had the assumption that there was no such thing as anything outside it. From that time on nothing could stop me from going to retreat as often as I could.

M: Thanks for your thoughtful post, Jay.

I think your and my experiences of sudden release from obsessive brain-wheel-spinning were likely similar. I called it unclenching. You called it an instant in which the mind was just in a different place. A gap, quiet, still.

Your comment about these things–letting go, concentration, even meditation itself– as NOT being acts of will may be right on target. Yet dharma talk after talk we hear “watch the tip of your nostrils,” or “when your mind wanders, bring it back…” That sure makes these sound like an act of will at many places!

I’ve just had the enjoyment of reading the first chapter of Ajahn Sumedho’s book Don’t Take Your Life Personally. He’s quite clear that we shouldn’t “try” to do anything in meditation except “just allowing things to be the way they are.”

He goes on, “Even if you are stressed out at this moment, let it be the way it is. Let whatever mental states you are in–even your compulsive tendencies, your obsessive tendencies–be what they are rather than seeing them as ‘there’s something wrong with me! There’s something I have to get rid of!’ Allow even the bad habits, the bad thoughts, tensions, pain, sadness, loneliness or whatever to be at this moment; allow the sense of letting go and let life be what it is.”

He refers to Ajahn Chah’s admonition to see meditation in terms of a holiday. (!)

So do we try all the “techniques” we’ve been taught in order to calm our mind when it is overwrought, or do we just let it be that way. Will “trying” to concentrate, or be still, follow the breath, do metta practice, or whatever, work better than just letting things be? I’m asking in terms of how to attain that unclenching or release of disquieted mind states–which feels so good when it happens–occur quicker, before we suffer so acutely for so long.

Any opinions?

Jay: I’m glad we’re looking at these things. I agree with you on your observation that dharma talks often sound like there is some specific thing that one should do when sitting. Not all teachers talk that way. Some have been really clear that meditation is not concentration or repetition or technique. I’m thinking of Toni Packer, Krishnamurti, Vimala Thakar, Eckhart Tolle. To me in sitting still it is the wholeness of life unfolding. Talking about this as someone concentrating on something for some future purpose feels like trying to put a tiger into a straight jacket!

For myself there is a strong habit of hearing what people say, especially people in a leadership position, as rules that I should apply. It seems to be a deeply ingrained pattern. The brain seems to like to have a set of tools so it will know what to do in future situations. But it’s pretty clear that this kind of thinking has pretty limited use. It’s great for remembering where a cheap gas station is or what to do if your brakes lock up. But as far as being simply in touch with life it gets in the way.

Maybe this just needs to be observed carefully again and again as “doing” and “wanting to know what to do” take hold. I think it’s accurate to say that self-conscious doing – concentrating on something, holding onto certain states of mind or emotion, etc. – implies that there is a reason in the mind for doing that, a goal, something that the mind believes will happen if that doing is done long enough and hard enough. A good question might be “Why the heck do I think I’m doing this?” Sometimes the first answer might be that this is what we’re “supposed” to do, that someone “wise” told me to do it.

Does any particular moment require a response? Would you agree that there is an aspect of the brain (maybe we can also call it a part of the story of “myself”) that wants to know what is going on and what to do? This means interpreting the raw, virgin flow of life in terms of what is known from the past, stored in the memory. It’s a terribly strong habit pattern but is it necessary all the time? Is it possible to be able to distinguish when it’s needed and when it’s not?

The wonderful thing about extended sitting in retreat is that we can forget completely about the need to “know” and enter into not knowing, come what may. Knowing is such a constricted (concentrated?) space and not knowing is so huge and alive. Maybe it’s obvious to say but it seems clear that most of what we we are, of what is going on at any moment, is far beyond what can be known and interpreted by the brain.

The amazing thing is that the thinking, knowing brain is itself part of this flow of raw life and can come to light in a simple way that sheds light and compassion on this particular aspect, which has been in darkness for most of humanity (including us) for so long.

You raised the good question of whether concentrating or letting go is the better way to let this flow of life happen. It can be experimented with. I’ve had trouble with “letting go” because for me it sometimes becomes another strategy. Sometimes what has been needed is embracing. So who knows?! Every moment seems to call for a fresh response, which may or may not come, but when it does, it comes from who knows where.

I’m sort of chuckling here as I remember sometimes feeling “what if there had never been any meditative traditions in all of human history and I had to find out about all of this for myself. What would I do??” Maybe in some ways that’s really our situation. Having no facts, strategies, traditional wisdom, tools, techniques, knowledge that can guide us moment to moment.

Some people might object that “not knowing” is sort a stupidity or depressed resignation to fate but that’s not the kind of not knowing that you and I are talking about. It’s more like if you were walking in the forest and suddenly realized you were completely disoriented and lost. In other words, not knowing where you were and how to get home. The whole nervous system might come suddenly alive and alert, ears perked, even the skin “listening”, wide awake in a still, motionless attentiveness. In this silent awakeness a butterfly might pass in front of your face and even the thought of finding out where you are might flutter away. This is the kind of not knowing we’re talking about – aliveness beyond the confines of knowledge.

Hmm. You asked about whether the “coming to” might happen more quickly so that we don’t suffer so much for so long. I was thinking about this and then suddenly wondered, where does the suffering come in? Raging thoughts, uncomfortable muscles and guts, churning of emotions. In such a situation is there someone at the center of it tallying up the amount of suffering, adding it to the pile of past suffering, projecting into the future how this suffering can be prevented, for oneself or for others? Or might all these sensations be experienced as they are without a judging? In a given moment of a difficult situation, it seems to be the fact that I don’t know how long the pain or difficulty will last and it is quite clear that thinking in those terms creates a huge amount of additional suffering.

And yet. It’s a fact that at a certain point even the most difficult states of mind may suddenly open up. How does it happen??? I think we can only say that it is really miraculous. There is no predictable cause and effect for the opening and wakening of the mind in any moment. I think this happens for us much more frequently than we recognize. When I’m gripped by some self-enclosed painful state, there is no awareness of that fact. I’m just pissed or whatever. But then suddenly there is the tiniest of shifts and there is awareness of being pissed and of the dynamics of it inside me. It doesn’t mean that it suddenly turns into a beautiful state of calm and equanimity. Something is processing, moving, changing in awareness but it has its own lifespan and the state of the body and mind may be less than calm or beautiful. Is it not true that the state of body and mind is not important? What matters is that the awareness that reveals these states.

My own personal response to how can there be “more” of this is to get to retreat regularly. For me, bringing light to the most difficult patterns that have been painful for me and the people who I’m close to has required the long, deep energy of retreat with other people. As you know, retreat is the opportunity to enter deeply and directly into the stillness of life, which becomes a fountain of healing for all of these difficult, blind patterns. I don’t know how there can be fundamental change in a person without lots of long retreat. Meditation without retreat seems almost like practicing the skills for being in a relationship without ever actually entering into one! Maybe that’s a little over the edge but it’s what came to mind 🙂 Another way to say this may be that when the energy of undivided presence is strong in a person, there is a natural desire to step away from the business of our usual life and to be in a physical space that is quiet and natural, to be in a situation that requires little knowing and to be with other people who are also moved to be here.

Well, I’m glad to have had a chance to consider these things. Any additions or corrections?

M: I think you posed a question that is way more profound than it first appears. I’m referring to: A good question might be “Why the heck do I think I’m doing this?”

You could spend a decade just contemplating who (or what) the “I” is that is thinking about why am “I” doing this. Same I or different I? We’re told that “there isn’t a separate self” in the big view of the non-conditioned world–but how many of us have glimpsed that. I’d say I have, but…oh…maybe for 10 minutes twice in the four years I’ve been practicing formally. (And one of those was while sitting during a hike in a stupendous canyon the day before my retreat in hell–fat lotta good it did me!)

This ties into your comment also that, “Every moment seems to call for a fresh response, which may or may not come, but when it does, it comes from who knows where.” I love what that opens up for me. Particularly “from who knows where.”

One thing I’m not clear on is what I’m taking for your dismissal–or lack of interest in–specifically concentration practice. The Tibetans call it Samatha. Our teachers, too, seem to make a distinction between concentration practice and Vipassana (insight) practice. Both are needed, our teachers admit, but most steer towards insight practice and leave concentration, which leads getting into teaching about the jhanas, hanging. But Samatha does require specific techniques that require acts of will, i.e. sticking with super glue to your meditation object, be it the breath, metta phrases, a kasina, a body part, a candle flame, mandala or whatever. At least to get started, and until you can just subtly lean towards the first four jahnas and fall into one. (From there I’m not clear on what–or who–brings you out of those states. But something must because they’re only a taste of the unconditioned. Kind of a sneak preview of what Nibbana might be like. But certainly not permanent.

Jay: When I raised the question “Why the heck do I think I’m doing this” I was specifically thinking about times when it is noticed that there is a self-conscious or willed effort going on, like when someone might notice that they have been concentrating on the breath or trying to apply certain strategies. Don’t we do those things because we believe that they will bring about a result? I’m not sure why else we would.

If I think a certain action will bring about a result, isn’t that based on how I responded to some experience in the past, which may or may not have been accurately observed in the first place. And the current situation may not be similar to the past one. It seems that there is a huge amount of unexamined assumptions in applying a strategy from the past to a present situation. I’m not talking about practical things, like what should I do if my car suddenly is making a loud noise. In those cases, relying on past information may be helpful and necessary (although often we are off the mark there too).

It may not be important to discover what I think I’m doing if I find myself applying a meditation technique, such as concentrating on something. It may be enough to realize that techniquing implies a lot of assumptions based on past information that is likely not very accurate or applicable. Or, I wonder, maybe concentrating, doing something, is just such a strong habit that it simply invents something to do just to keep busy. Perhaps the critical thing is to test out whether or not at that moment it is alright to drop the doing and just be in touch with what is going on without reacting to it. I think it can be noticed that when the doing drops, there is a sense of now being more in touch with the flow of life, so that if some response is needed (maybe the person needs to go to the bathroom or needs food or water) it is more likely that appropriate response will come up.

Maybe we can say that the “I” part of this is simply the whole body of memory that wants to react to what it imagines to be going on, whereas in fact this “me” reaction actually blocks the sensitivity of the organism to feel into what, if anything, might be needed at the moment. Rather than saying that there isn’t a separate self, maybe it’s more accurate to say that the sense of a separate, isolated self that controls its environment is a certain blind way that the mind operates,without understand its limitations. When this functioning – the whole body of memory reacting to what it imagines to be happening – is noticed in simple, non-personal awareness, awareness begins to shine light on this. It is awareness, not the memory mind/self, that carries intelligence and compassion.

If the struggling and writhing memory mind trying to accomplish its imagined goals is seen, this is the operation of undivided awareness.

Your comments about my lack of interest in concentration practice are interesting. It’s hard to know where you’re coming from in your comments but it sounds as if there may be an assumption that a state of total absorption is somehow helpful, a “foretaste” of enlightenment. I have heard this same assumption from many people, including meditation teachers, and I have also heard the assumption questioned. There must be a strong memory in our systems of beautiful moments of absorption in something – looking at a sunset, making love, watching the Three Stooges – and the memory wants to recreate this kind of state somehow.

I heard a Zen teacher question this. He said he had asked a number of other Zen teachers if total absorption in something (and this can mean an external thing like a movie, music, riding a bicycle, or internal things such as samadhi practices) was the same as the state that Zen aimed for. Most teachers said yes. But he questioned this. He pointed out that there is definitely a flow of energy through the body during concentration. But in concentrating on external or internal input, there may be a complete lack of sensitivity to what is going on right here. The mind is simply not paying attention – is not in touch – with anything except a narrow input. How can there be any sensitivity, wisdom, compassion, flexibility in that? In fact, I notice in myself that in moments of concentration I get really agitated and angry if I’m interrupted. In wide open presence there can’t be any interruption. Things arise. There is no conflict between what is here and what I want. So the sense of being interrupted or disturbed in my meditation is good red flag.

I wonder how much good it does simply to put this into words. The habit of concentrating – of creating an internal buzz – is so strong that it takes over time and time again regardless of our intentions when we sit down to meditate. But it can also be observed, noticed, experimented with when it is suddenly noticed. No need to say it’s good or bad. Certainly no need to assume that it leads to something. What could it lead to that is not here already in this moment!!!

Is it possible to become absorbed effortlessly in what is simply here this moment? To let what is here take over the body, the mind, to touch us completely? It is trying to all the time.

Beginner’s Mind – A Fresh Look at What Meditation Is

A: I am a 19 year old girl. I dont know much about yoga or meditation. I read somewhere about all its benefits and was wondering whether you could explain to me what it is and how to start? I just normally feel way too stressed and I have no quietness inside. Any advice would really be appreciated. I have recently recovered from anorexia but now I started binge eating. I just thought that a type of meditation might help me. How does one start? What do I need? And most importantly what do I do? I know these might be stupid questions, but I have no idea. Thanks.

Jay: It’s nice to hear from you. From what you wrote it sounds like you are a sensitive person and that you are aware of the internal noise, stress and junk that most of us have going on (though many people are too focused outwardly to notice it.)

There are many kinds of physical, mental and emotional exercises and systems of healing. Some of them might help you a lot but I would have no idea which ones! There are even systems of meditation exercises. But for me meditation is something different. To me the word meditation points to a thorough listening to what is going on right now, moment to moment, both inside myself and outside. This kind of listening can be called silent because in order to really listen, there has to be some stillness of the body and the mind.

What is the point of listening -inside and out – in this silent way? The fact is that there is so much going on inside us all the time that we never hear or experience. We don’t know ourselves! No wonder we are always ending up in painful situations. We usually don’t even know what we are or what we really need. So sitting still and listening starts to let the body, the mind, the feelings, the emotions all be heard. It’s like our whole being wants to speak to us but never gets the chance.

The strange thing about this silent listening is that at the very same time that it is allowing the inside being to be noticed, it also allows us to be touched by the simple environment around us – sounds of the fan, the warmth of the air on the skin, maybe even a sense of the spaciousness all around us.

Another strange thing about this silent listening is that even though what is “heard” in the listening may include sounds, sights, smells, feelings, emotions and memories, after a while listening mostly seems to consist of lots of unknowable space and openness. What we are used to listening to and what we usually feel is most important is the sounds, sights, memories, thoughts. But after meditating for a while (some minutes or some years) it is the vast, unknowable openness that seems to be most important, most supportive and most healing.

So the more silent listening there is, the more intelligently and compassionately we can take care of ourselves and at the same time the more connectedness we feel with the simple world that is all around us, including other living things.

I heard a Tibetan man give a talk about meditation recently. The Tibetan tradition is full of very complex meditation practices but this man was unusually simple. He said that all that is needed is Silence. That’s it. Some people asked him more about this and we clarified it a little to say that Silence is Listening. Listening requires silence and silence reveals what is here right now in its depth and fullness, each moment.

This is really the beginning and the end of meditative work. Just to discover this possibility of listening in an open space of not-knowing.

Probably the best way to start with this is to sit in a comfortable position – a chair or couch is ok. Lying down can make you fall asleep. The spine is like an antenna and seems to work best if it is upright and flexible.

Now, when you first sit down to try this, you might (or might not) notice physical restlessness. You might also notice a lot of resistance to just listening. You may also notice the strong buzz and pull of thoughts and emotions. There is no need to think that you should be getting rid of these things. That just makes more noise!! But you can just see if you can find some patience with it all and some interest and curiosity in what is going on. This silent listening is not always pleasant. In fact there is much difficult and challenging stuff that comes up in us at times, though silent listening also has the possibility of revealing a deep oneness with what is happening. This can happen unexpectedly at some moment.

There is much that comes up in starting to listen. It can be really helpful to have other people to talk with who have experience with listening, especially if they can keep it very simple and not become too involved in meditation theory or practices or ideas of what you should do. If you want to let me know what part of the country you are in, I might be able to recommend some people or centers.

As listening deepens, it’s possible that the things that bother us the most – our fears, addictions, and so on – start to come to light in a healing way. Actually at first they may come to light in a difficult way but then there somehow comes some insight and some healing – maybe not right away but with persistence in giving this listening a chance. And as these difficult things start to open up, there seems to be more ability to feel the intimate connection with everything inside us and around us.

I hope this address your question a little bit. Feel free to write back if you have more questions or as you try this and questions come up.