Category Archives: Retreat

Is Time Running Out?

I imagine that, like me, you often are under the pressure of the feeling that there is not enough time for everything that needs to be done. This usually involves practical things – getting a window painted, getting the garden fixed up, making plans for a trip, making sure I don’t run out of household supplies, etc., etc.

But when I step back a bit and consider what I think of as “my life”, there is a different sort of feeling that time is running out for me. Do you know what I mean? It’s almost a feeling that life is slipping very quickly through my fingers. I don’t feel like this all the time. There are many moments that are full and joyful, not concerned with the future. But right now I’m bringing up this feeling that time is running out in order to enter into it a little and wonder about it.

Time is running out for us! What does this statement bring up for you?

One reason I’ve thought of this is that, as we get ready for our annual retreat, I’m in touch with people who have been talking with me about coming to retreat for five, ten, or more years, and have not been able to get to retreat during that time. Wow. Ten years. At the age of most of us, that’s a long time. A long time of feeling that I have plenty of time left to take care of things later. Plenty of time in the future to devote a handful of days to the inner things that so much need attention in me and to being at peace with the outer world, which usually seems so impossible.

It seems true to me that we do all have a very heavy backlog of unprocessed past experiences, difficulties, traumas, fears, longings. And around all of that there seems to be a powerful defense system that doesn’t really want any of these things to be touched. It’s as though we have learned to live in a world defined by these things. And a big part of the defense system, for me, is the thought that I have plenty of time to deal with issues in the future.

If time is running out, if time in fact has already run out, then the need for me to face the inner challenges, to meet them directly right now, to let them open up in me and reveal themselves – then that need is very clear and urgent and present. It needs to happen now. It can’t be put off. To me, these inner challenges, when they are put off till the future, become even heavier and more difficult. And the heavier our burden of unfinished business, the more difficult it is to mobilize ourselves to meet them directly and begin to heal. In other words the longer we put off healing, the harder it becomes to start the healing process.

Retreat is the time and setting where we help each other create a space where healing becomes easier. And the more healing happens, the easier it is for healing to continue.

The time leading up to retreat is the time for reflecting on how much I’ve been putting off till off to the future so much of my unfinished, internal stuff. It’s the time for summoning up the energy to set aside time for the healing process. Maybe this requires reaching out to others for help doing this. Maybe it means noticing the resistance to stepping out of one’s routine. We only have one retreat here a year. When thinking about going to retreat starts to feel anxiety-producing, it’s very easy to think of putting it off till next year. But maybe together we can try something different. Maybe we can talk together about what it takes to step into healing – despite all the fears and concerns and resistance. This is something that we do together.

If there were no future – if your time was to run out tomorrow – what would that bring up in you? Do you feel the huge amount of unfinished concerns, feelings, maybe blankness?  That’s the stuff that wants the time and space to open up and be heard and felt. And perhaps, finally, healed and finished, while we’re still alive and have the strength to heal.


Reflections on Near Death Experiences

I recently read an article about Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). The article took a scientific perspective and talked about studies that have evaluated the experiences of hundreds of people.

There are some common aspects of NDE’s. The most fundamental seems to be a sense of being in a place of deep peace and love. Often people feel that they are not “in” their body in the usual way – that they can see their body as though from the outside. Many people experience encountering certain entities or reliving experiences from their own past.

One thing that struck me was that people who had these NDE’s felt them to be very real – in fact more real in a way than ordinary life. For many their own life is transformed afterwards. The article didn’t describe exactly how, though it mentioned increased generosity – sometimes to an extreme – as one example.

When scientists try to describe NDE’s to these people as the result of hallucinations of a dying brain or anomalies caused by brain chemistry, the people tend to reject this as far too superficial for an experience that they found transformative, real, and perhaps healing.

This article brought several things to mind for me. One is the experience of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who had a stroke in which her left (analytic) hemisphere shut down. As a result, she experienced life exclusively through the right hemisphere for a while,  including a radical shift in identity and being. She didn’t feel that she had an individual identity but rather experienced life as one whole, undivided energy, whose main characteristic was love. As she began to retrain herself in left brain thinking, she realized that she was sacrificing some of this beauty of being in order to function in the world. In other words, the left brain thinking somehow covered up or diminished the experience of life as one loving whole.

The article also brought to mind religious conversion experiences, often brought about by a group of people focusing on one person and that person experiencing something larger and more full of love than their usual way of being.

Finally, the article brought to mind stories that I’ve heard or read of people having a spontaneous awakening, without significant meditation experience.

In all these cases the people involved find their experience to be at least as real as ordinary life, and often find it much more real. What do they mean by this?

Reflecting on my own various experiences, I would say that at certain times the filters through which we see life drop away. It may be clear in that moment that life is being seen, experienced, felt, lived, in a way in which something that has distorted our experience of life is gone. This is very different from a drug- or disease-induced state in which something – a chemical imbalance – has been added.

So just as in taking off a smudged pair of sunglasses, one intuitively knows that what is seen now is more real, less distorted by filters of thinking. It’s simpler, clearer, more spacious, more full of love, without division or conflict.

We’ve all had such moments when the usual filters have dropped away for an instant and life is vast, spacious, and complete. We probably had more of these as young children. But as the mind matures, the filters become more and more pervasive. Moments of them dropping away become rare. For many of us, we forget what we had once experienced or remember it in an idealized – and distorted – way, distorted because such moments can’t be represented in memory.

So when an adult experiences life for a moment or some extended moments and is reminded again of the wholeness and vastness of life, of the vast  love that is what we are, of the absence of need for worrying, they are radically transformed. Their life turns inside out. They see how much their life has been based on a fundamentally distorted perception of life.

Unfortunately, in all the cases that I was reminded of, the tendency is for this radical awakening to our undivided nature to fade. As Jill Taylor describes, the functioning of the brain in daily life once again starts to diminish and weaken the ability to live in undivided presence.

What does this tell me about meditative work? First, that these sometimes tiny openings that we may experience in long retreat are vital. They are very brief reminders of something radical. Something with life and death importance. They are tiny moments of waking up from the complacency and seeming safety of our views of life. I say views of life because a moment of intimacy with life is possible when life is not being lived through any views at all. Views have dropped away.

I can’t help but feel an urgency in the need to question this whole way of usual living, which at its core divides life into “me” and “other than me”. And the most powerful tool for questioning this is long retreat. After 5, 6 or 7 days in silence, stillness, dialogue, among other people doing the same work, there may be brief moments of waking up to undivided Presence. Such a moment makes it clear again, for a while, what is real.

If one continues with long retreat year after year, this waking up becomes deeper and more profound and we might say that there is then one more person who is not adding continually to the sorrow of the world.

For myself I feel that what is important is finding the interest and strength to see, feel, be with the dark patterns of enclosure and self-protection that come up so pervasively in us. In other words, the ability to be still – listening, wanting to be with – these reactive patterns as they come up. Not being afraid to come in touch with whatever comes up, no matter how much it  may shake my sense of security. This coming in touch is something still and stable. It’s different from being swept away in reactions.  But even if I am swept away, there is always a moment in which stillness can return and there can be intouchness.

So stillness in the face of the life-or-death feeling of needing to defend myself. Moment after moment. Then intelligence begins to dawn. And love. And compassion. In the midst of suffering.

Doing this work  of being with the craziness as though our life depends on seeing what’s going on (which it does), when a moment of dropping away happens and one finds that the world is one undivided life, there may not be the pull to return to what has been seen so clearly as unhelpful – the world of imagined division, imagined conflict, imagined endless effort to survive.

Giving Attention to That Which Most Needs Attention (revisited)

Recently I’ve been thinking of retreat as the opportunity to allow attention to light up that which most needs attention. Can we look into this a bit together right now?

What does this mean? What is it that needs attention? What first comes to mind for me are things like “I need to clean the kitchen,” “I should call my  mom,” “I’ve only got four hours left to finish painting today.”

The thought of these activities is already a little tiring and I’m looking forward to giving attention to the tired and sore body with some rest, relaxation, maybe some stretching, and some sleep.

Is this the total of what needs attention in our lives?

Maybe it’s the future that needs attention. Maybe I need to plan for a better future. As I write this, I realize that there are so many assumptions in me about what “better” would mean. It feels like I have two choices right now. I can assume that I really know what would make my life better and move forward with trying to work toward that or I can move inward and become a little clearer about what “better” might mean. I believe it’s this second direction that, for me, needs more attention.

This leads me back to considering what it is about my life that feels less than satisfactory, less than what it could be? What is it that feels like it wants to be better in the future?

Maybe you don’t want to go into these darker places. Maybe it’s wise for you not to. But let’s see if we can at least shine a little light honestly and openly and caringly together on this ball of difficult memories and draining patterns that all of us humans are subject to.

Isn’t there, under the surface that we try very valiantly to keep somewhat cheery for others, a sense of what we might call unfinished business? Perhaps this includes memories of habits of interactions with others that have been hurtful to all parties. Perhaps it includes concerns about getting old, becoming helpless and vulnerable, dying away. Perhaps it includes a sorrow for the painful way that humanity lives, how poorly humans treat each other, abuse of power, blindness to, and violation of,  the gentle needs of the natural world. Perhaps locked away inside somewhere is a sorrow for what one has gone through personally – the lack of love and connection that we almost took for granted would be our lot when we were young.

Do you have the sense that right here, just under the surface, is a great deal of unfinished business that may feel very personal? Do you have the feeling that at this moment this either gets light and air and space and attention or it continues to become harder, drier, older, more painful, more numb?

If this becomes very clear, there is really no choice but to find a way for the light of the world to have the chance to touch all of this. For most of us, daily life doesn’t offer enough support, despite our best and repeated efforts. So this is where the beauty of retreat comes in. Giving ourselves seven days to devote to the healing of this unfinished business. Coming together to support each other. Being in a beautiful quiet natural setting. Putting aside most of the activities that move us away from in-touchness.

In this setting healing cannot help but take place. It happens on its own. But the dialoguing that we do together, listening to each other, inquiring together bravely, gently, all of this brings even more energy to the healing process, because even in retreat there are very stuck patterns that may never open up without our coming together. What a miraculous thing to become each others’ support!

In a way it can be too painful in daily life to come  in touch with this ball of unfinished concerns, fears, anxieties, discomforts, hopes, passions, so they stay in the dark and become more difficult, more encrusted, adding a bit to our sorrow and the sorrow of the world.

And we tend to become a little bit more calloused, numb, in order to survive. Many people say something like, ” Of course I have issues and concerns but I don’t let them overwhelm me. I have faith that it will work out eventually and I’m patient.”

I suppose therapists might say this is a healthy coping strategy but to me I can’t help but feel sad. When I see how patterns in me cause pain to others and to myself, the need for shedding light on what is going on is immediate. It isn’t something that can be put off to the future. I’m thinking of a person I know who described having been a heavy smoker. At one point it was clear to her how harmful this was. She couldn’t force herself to stop by will power. But she also didn’t turn away from the issue. With a new intensity she observed in clear detail the entire process of beginning to crave, of rationalizing what she would do, of lighting and inhaling, of finishing the cigarette, and of all of the feelings going on the whole time. She burned with the need to face the painful pattern in each moment. This intense attention took the mystery out of the addictive pattern and it lost its power. Soon she was no longer smoking.

So maybe our question here is not just “what is it that most needs attention” but also “Isn’t the need for attention immediate. Isn’t this something that is not to be put off any further, that only becomes more painful the longer it is put off?”

Some people may read this and feel that there is no need to go “looking for trouble.” That they will deal with things when they come up. In fact they may feel that the greatest thing they’ve learned from meditation is to not get too riled up about things. I understand this and it definitely has its place. At the same time there are in each of us patterns of reaction that come up again and again. Just dropping a reaction when it comes up is wise in that moment but there is most likely something behind the reaction that has not yet come to light. We don’t necessarily need to go hunting for what that might be. We just need to give lots of opportunity for deeper layers of habit, conditioning, reaction, trauma, to emerge. Given enough opportunity, these things will start to move, come to the surface, open, and heal.

Taking this a little further, my feeling is that not only is there so much that needs attention now, but it also needs very deep, thorough-going attention. This kind of deep attention can be difficult for us to access in daily life. Deep attention shed on an issue can kick up painful feelings. Maybe this is why we become content with more superficial ways of trying to touch on our issues.

Periodically setting aside time to come together for seven days of retreat, then, is an amazing chance to allow deep, through-going attention to shed light into our deepest being in a way that doesn’t happen in our ordinary life. And yet so deeply needs to happen right now.


An Invitation to Retreat

Retreat is an invitation to listen. And to be heard. What do I mean by this? In the quiet space of retreat it makes sense that I can listen to what is happening inside and outside. But what does it mean that I can be heard?

This question is making me touch into my desire to be heard. To be understood. Isn’t that a strong desire in us? Maybe it’s become dulled or atrophied after years of not being heard, after giving up on the possibility. Maybe we’ve come to believe that it’s immature to want to be heard. That we should learn to be independent. Maybe we don’t even hear the need any more. But it seems to me to be fundamental part of who we are. We want to be heard, understood, seen, touched. We want to be visible to the world.

So maybe one aspect of being heard in retreat is that I hear myself freshly and more honestly, more vulnerably. In sitting quietly, moving quietly, not having to rile up the mind with busy activities and distractions, hearing myself happens on its own. It’s unavoidable!

It strikes me that I usually think of “being heard” in the context of being heard by someone else, but it does make sense that if someone else is to hear me, I need to be able to speak clearly about what I need and want. To do that I have to listen to myself.

But on another level perhaps the real reason that we long to be heard by someone is because that opens up a space for us to hear ourselves and for self-healing to being. If someone can really hear how hurt I was by their comments – if they really hear it without making excuses, if they can just hear it vulnerably and feel my hurt for themselves – then maybe I can be done with that incident. At the same time the incident may open up for me so that there is some insight into the nature of that hurt in the first place.

So what I’m longing for in both of us is really the space to hear and feel openly, vulnerably, deeply, without moving away from the difficult feelings. It makes sense, then, as I sit alone with others in retreat, that entering into this vulnerable listening, being, each moment, is the same as what I long for from others.

In retreat we do have time for interacting, for putting this listening to work together with others. We can do this in the group dialogue and in one-on-one meetings. That’s why we have these opportunities and they can be very healing.

There’s no question that opening up, being vulnerable, carries with it the possibility of pain. And the possibility of pain carries the probability of reacting, of shutting down, of wanting to escape. Just the thought of signing up for a retreat raises all of this, maybe subconsciously. Even after years of retreat I still get a dry mouth and anxiety as retreat begins. It’s no different than realizing that one’s partner – or any other person for that matter – can ever really be “safe”. We can learn to be a source of comfort and support for each other but there is always the possibility of something being triggered. That doesn’t mean we avoid relationships. Or does it? Maybe we do. But underneath there is, I believe, a longing for vulnerability and intimacy.

In a relationship for there to be the possibility of vulnerability together there has to be a mutual understanding of how we can hurt each other and a willingness to learn about this through vulnerable listening. Similarly, when you are invited to retreat, it’s important for you to know that the retreat setting, the people facilitating, want to support this process of mutual listening. Of making it as safe as possible for you to listen to yourself and as safe as possible to explore the hurts inside that want to and need to be heard.

When I invite you to retreat (on behalf of all of us) it’s because we need each other. We need to come together for a number of days to make it easier for us to listen, to heal, and to come alive in open vulnerability, together.

Just as in our relationships with our partners, there’s a sort of speed bump that we have to get over to start listening together. When I talk to people about coming to retreat, the first thing most people talk about is how impossible it would be to do that, to take time off, to step out of the routine, to be in a strange place, to spend the money. It’s not too different than our therapist suggesting that I talk about how I feel and suddenly I can feel that speed bump in my throat and think of a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t do that.

But then I start talking. Because I need to. Despite having to get over the bump, over the fear, And some how it works out, no matter what it brings up. And there is a feeling of greater honesty and greater openness.

With coming to retreat, people who really need to come find ways to deal with the practicalities. I can make suggestions for you if you need to work that through.

Retreat is the rare opportunity to pay attention to that in our lives that most deeply needs attention. Without an opportunity like this once in a while, a time or two a year or more, doesn’t something inside sort of wither?

Together we can make it easier to listen, be heard, heal, and come alive again.

Devoting Attention to What Most Needs Attention

What do we give attention to in our daily lives? This is a poignant question to raise and then watch and see. What am I concerned with as I move through the day, moment by moment? What are the concerns that I give attention to most in my life month after month, year after year, decade after decade? What is my energy most spent thinking about – trying to change, or trying to accept?

For any issue that usually grabs my attention, have I ever considered carefully what is behind my concern? What are the assumptions that I’m making, the things taken for granted? Have I looked carefully at whether my efforts are really leading to something beneficial?

At first, looking back over the last paragraph, this sounds like a difficult analytical thing to do. But that’s not how it works, at least for me, in my experience. For me the whole body/mind – filled with a seemingly infinite number of programmed assumptions, agendas, identities, reactions, wants, avoidances that can be triggered at any moment or that can be on hold, watching carefully for a moment in which it needs to start up again – needs to be given the space to reveal itself, to open. And this is something that is simple and direct and whole, not piecemeal.

One thing that our attention is often devoted to is the feeling – in the back of the mind as we move through the day – that despite the chaos, the old patterns, the physical feelings of conflict or inadequacy, the dryness, the underlying sense of isolation and desire for contact, we’ve got some kind of plan or hope that will change all of this. Does this function in you too? “Ok, things are bla bla bla but I’m going to do this, or such and such will happen some day.” And what is the function of that kind of thinking? Does it lead to real looking at what I’m doing this moment, and why, and in what context, and with whom or does it lead to a sort of complacency. “Don’t worry too much.”

A plan or a hope is always in the future. “Some day…” What is it that we are putting off by thinking “Some day. Not now because… but some day.”

I certainly understand the feeling that many people share that retreat is not so important because they are interested in change in their daily life. They may say that they know that retreat sheds some light but because daily life is their focus, they’ll just stick with that. But what am I devoting my attention to in what we’re calling daily life?

If we stop feeding our regular agendas, they will die away. Maybe just for a moment. In daily life, what am I feeding? I feel like it is very difficult to answer this question without stepping away from the whole daily life routine. Agendas, of course, scream “No! You can’t step out of this routine. I can’t step out of it. I have to do this, and this and this. I have to take care of this and this and this. I’m worried about this and this and this that I don’t know if I can handle.”

There is no point to fighting agendas because, like small children and like all of us, they have to be heard and addressed with love and intelligence. So it’s possible to address concerns about food in retreat, or sleeping accommodations, or taking time to go home and take care of pets. All our concerns can be addressed and worked out. I’m very confident of that. So then it’s possible to leave them behind and spend a week in an open, safe, lovely natural setting, where everything is taken care of and where we have the vast support of each other and the whole of life.

Such a week is a dramatic eye opener. For the first time we can start to see the difference between living in undivided affection and being wracked by unexamined agendas, unexamined selves. So it’s true that we have to get out of the “problem” to see clearly what is going on.

What all of our concerns don’t understand is that when they die away, when we stop feeding them, the whole world opens up and the root of a concern is healed in wholeness. So we kick and scream against leaving the world of our daily concerns. We have a million valid reasons. We have a plan for the future. But if that plan doesn’t involve stepping out, stepping back, giving a week to devote attention to what most needs attention, how can their be fresh seeing?

What is it that most needs attention? What is it, right here, under our noses, buried in the routines and hard held agendas of our lives? What is it that we most need to wake up to?

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.