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Are you here now ?

Excerpt from Chapter 8 of Ten Zen Questions


For the first time in my life I decide to put aside two whole weeks for meditation practice. … John’s schedule includes another Mahamudra week, in December 2003. So, although I much prefer the simplicity and starkness of Zen or Chan retreats, I decide to go. I particularly want to tackle Tipun’s question ““What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquillity and the mind moving in thought?”, and I think it should be easier with the help and support of a formal retreat. I’ll spend a week on my own in my hut, and then go straight off to Wales. It should help if I’ve already spent a week in meditation.


The week at home is tough, and cold, but good practice. I set off on the three hour drive with plenty of enthusiasm, and arriving in the old familiar yard is a joy. Maenllwyd seems to welcome me into easy mindfulness, and I’m looking forward to the week. I must have forgotten what to expect.

The first day’s sitting is a horrible shock. I find the meditation tough and the routine irksome. Instead of the long series of half hour sits, with ten minute breaks, that I’m used to, there are hour-long sitting periods with either only slight pauses, or completely different activities in between, such as chanting, visualisations and other Tibetan rituals. So no bright walks around the yard; no exercises in the Chan hall to loosen up the limbs, and no slow deepening of the practice. On the one hand a full hour is too long for me to maintain concentration, and on the other the breaks are too full of activity and people. As usual, there are some people who don’t get into a deep silence, and even some who start chatting in the breaks. So by the time the next hour comes along I’m distracted. By the end of the first day I reflect that I’m doing far less meditation than I did last week, but finding it much harder. I want to go home.

To make it worse, I’m kitchen assistant again. I hate being kitchen assistant; chopping the vegetables and serving the food. You have to listen to instructions for the day’s food; you have to work with others who seem to want to chat over the chopping. It’s so hard to be mindful. The only bit I like is the washing up, alone with the water and the gradually cleaning pans. I like outdoor jobs, clearing sheep shit from the yard, pulling up stinging nettles behind the barn, or almost anything that gets me out doing physical work in the fresh air, away from the others. But we are not supposed to like our jobs. They are an opportunity to practise mindfulness in all circumstances; to accept all tasks with equanimity.

I hate being kitchen assistant.

Even worse is the lack of sleep. These days I no longer get the terrifying or revolting hallucinations that used to plague me many years ago – the scenes of rape, or cruelty, or torture, or decay that used to beset my sleepy mind; but I still slide off into sleep, with my eyes unable to rest quietly on the floor. This sleep deprivation seems pointless. It is as though there is a window of opportunity between sleep and over-excitement into which clear meditation falls. All last week I worked happily within a large open window, with plenty of scope either to try harder or to relax a little. Now, with so little sleep, the window is a faint crack, if there at all. I feel I’m wasting all this precious opportunity for practice by just fighting off sleep. I’ve come here to work with Tipun’s question “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquillity and the mind moving in thought?”, and so far I have met not a moment’s tranquillity.

I’m feeble and a failure. I imagine there must be some really good reason for sleep deprivation, and that I’m entirely fooling myself that there’s any value in the work I did last week, because real monks and serious Buddhists know that true insight comes from breaking down the mind in exhaustion. In this case I must try harder. But I can’t. I’m too tired. Then I reflect that I must be wrong, and I should have more confidence in what I’ve learned on my own. And so I go on, enduring the sleepiness, staggering through one hour after the next, accepting that I’m just a beginner and must plod on.

~  ————————————  ~

This morning in the yard, John said, “It is not meant to be a penance here at the Maenllwyd. Enjoy!” It is a penance. I’m not enjoying it.

But I’ve got a new job! Whoever was assigned to look after the loos apparently could not cope, and John knows that I can. So I am back to looking after the twin-vault, urine-separating, composting toilets, in solitude and silence; checking the pipes, washing the seats, mopping the floor and watching each square of the tiles come clean. …

~  ————————————  ~

Now we are all given copies of those old familiar pages from Tipun’s notebook, and I am longing to get into the questions, but I realise, with some surprise, that there is a lot else in these pages apart from the questions that so fascinated me, and John is clearly going to concentrate on other things entirely. This morning his daily talk is all about life as a string of beads.

The text explains that “Life appears to be an endless sequence of thoughts, feelings, happenings,” and suggests that we ask ourselves, “is it not so?” The next task is to look into the beads so that they begin to become transparent in order to see what was not previously observed – i.e. the string. This unobserved string is also described as “pure pristine cognition”.

Obediently, I ask myself “Is it not so?” and I suppose it is. This is how life normally appears; as an endless sequence. This is William James’s “stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” This is Antonio Damasio’s “movie in the brain”. This is the show in Dan Dennett’s “Cartesian theatre”. The difference between these thinkers is that for James and Damasio, the stream or movie is what a science of consciousness must explain. But for Dennett, this is all wrong, because neither the show nor the audience can be found in the brain and the brain is the only real place there is to look for them. I am firmly on Dennett’s side after all this practice, and presumably on Tipun’s. Yes, life starts out appearing as an endless sequence of thoughts, feelings, and happenings, but what is it really? A lot of beads? On a string?

I use my next hour’s meditation to look into the metaphor and conclude that it is not a good one. The beads are not lined up on a string at all because they are not happening one after the other, in one-dimensional time, to a single person. This was obvious to me all last week, when I was asking, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” I found whole streams of experience that seemed to have already been going on, for someone, before I noticed them – the birds singing in the garden, the builders hammering next door, the hum of the distant traffic on the Gloucester Road.

So I practise this again; this time with sheep, and fidgeting people, and the crackling of the fire. These threads don’t happen one after the other, but pop up all over the time and place, bringing with them their own sense of time and space, and their own observer. Seeing this, I let go of the notion of a central experiencing me and let the many streams arise and fall away, their observers coming and going with them. The question that naturally arises then is, where are they all coming from and going to? This becomes the inquiry.

So this is how it seems, not like a single string at all. Instead there is the whatever-it-is out of which all the multiple threads of experience come. I guess Tipun was asking us “Is it not so?” just to make us look.

Another hour comes and goes. I start seriously looking. I’m still sleepy; still struggling, but I have a go. Somehow, as I stare into where things are coming from, I seem to be pressed up against the world. This is the best way I can describe it. I know that I am not other than the experiences and so I throw myself into each one. Then in some peculiar way I seem to come up against them directly. It is as though “I” am following the contours of the world out there. I am right up against it all. This is very odd because it is not easy to see what it might mean to be pressed up against the contours of the evening fire flickering away against the dark grate, or the sudden call of the kite, or the chirruping of the blue tit outside the meditation hall. Nevertheless that is the best description I can give. And what is pressed up against all this? Emptiness of course. It is this space in which there is no existence, this whatever-it-is out of which everything comes which seems also to be me. There’s something mirror-like about it, and I can see why that analogy is used, but mirrors are flat and this is not. It is as though I am the contours of the world.

In a moment of speculation, I wonder whether this is anything to do with that strange Zen notion of “original face”… next day, we all have interviews. These are the informal sort, not a formal Zen interview with prescribed actions and inquiries. So John and I just sit comfortably and chat about how I got on last week, and how tough I’m finding it here. At the end I ask him “Is the string the same as the original face?”. He says yes, so I’m encouraged to carry on.

~  ————————————  ~

Things are getting better. I’m learning how to play the system and use every break to sleep. I manage to pack in three half-hour sleeps during the day, and I really do sleep; straight into that delicious, indescribable, falling feeling, and then awake from vivid multi-layered dreams, and back to work. I can even enjoy the rituals with their crazy visualisations of complicated deities, and their multiple aspects of wisdom, compassion and love. I am well aware that the insight or wisdom side of practice comes a lot more naturally to me than compassion, but I begin to see how they are related. We are told to think of compassion as “empathising with the sorrows of others” and love as “empathising with the joys of others”, and this really strikes me. Oddly enough, I put it into effect almost straight away.

We are performing an invocation (no I don’t believe there’s anything out there to invoke) which involves not only chanting, but a lot of bashing on drums and blowing of horns. John even has a Tibetan horn made from a human thigh bone which makes a ghastly mournful sound. One of the other women is given the cymbals to play and I’m jealous. I want to bash them and make that lovely noise myself. But I remember that idea of “empathising with the joys of others”, and suddenly I find I’m enjoying her obvious delight in what she’s doing. Just seeing it this way makes it easy.

By evening I’m at last calm enough to work on the question: comparing the abiding mind with the mind moving in thought. As usual, I begin by letting the mind settle enough to see the thoughts arising out of the stillness. I then ask how they differ, when suddenly I notice something terribly obvious…. of course – the thoughts are exactly like perceptions in this respect; they  are like the crackling of the fire, or the bleating of sheep. By the time you notice them they have already been going on for some time, and it feels as though someone has been thinking them. Who is this someone? Seeing it this way means that I can apply the same strategy with thoughts as I did all last week with perceptions. In fact it had occurred to me then, probably several times, to try to do just this with thoughts but I was unable, or perhaps unsure enough of its value, to persevere when everything seemed too quick and confusing. But now, with a slower mind, it’s obvious that this is the path to take. So I set to work.

The first step, taking my cue from the perceptions, is to see that I am the thoughts. I’m startled. I’m so startled that I just sit there in a startled state.

~  ————————————  ~

I remember the instruction to remain in non-elaboration, and so I just sit with this for a time without elaborating. What I have seen has the definite quality of insight. It occurs to me that this insight has arisen unbidden and I don’t know what it means. Therefore I must sit with it and see, which I do. This makes sense of the fact that Tipun’s text says “to recognise and experience insight” in that order, which had seemed odd before. I had assumed you had to experience it first and then recognise it. But no, it’s the other way around. The insight comes in a flash. Then you have to sit quietly with it and absorb the new view it provides. I sit in the experience of non-elaboration.

~  ————————————  ~

A bit later I begin to unravel just why the thought “I am the thoughts” seems so startling. I think of William James and his famous pronouncement that “thought is itself the thinker, and psychology need not look beyond”. I have read it, and written about it, countless times but must never have understood what he meant until now. It really is a radical move. It’s extraordinary that he realised this in the late nineteenth century, presumably with no help from meditation.

This idea, that there is no thinker other than the thoughts, is startlingly counter-intuitive. In all my years of practising meditation I have always imagined either that I am the thinker of the thoughts (and I must stop thinking), or that the thoughts are memes that come to me from outside (and I must ignore them). So I’ve always treated thoughts as a problem, or something to be dealt with. Now, instead of either fighting or watching them, I am simply to be them.  …

~  ————————————  ~

There is frost tonight, and a nearly full moon.

~  ————————————  ~

It’s the last full day and I can feel a cold coming on. So once again I’m finding it hard to sit.

In his morning talk John tells the story of the Dzogchen teacher, Patrul Rinpoche, who asked the monk, Nyoshul Lungtok, to lie down on the ground and look up at the sky with him. “Do you hear the dogs barking in the monastery?” asked the teacher, “Do you see the stars shining in the sky? Well that’s it!” and Lungtok was enlightened.

John explains this story, saying that the monk had to be right there “in the presence of the present moment”, and that this way he could discover the “awareness of awareness”. But to me the story suggests an utterly different interpretation. The examples of the dogs and stars are exactly the kind of thing that I have been calling the “backwards threads”. I am sure that that monk, lying there on the grass with the great sky above, would have had exactly this experience. That is, in the instant of having his attention drawn to the dogs, two things would happen simultaneously. One, he would feel as though he had only just become aware of the dogs barking, and two, he would realise that in some odd way he – or someone, or something - had actually been listening to the dogs for some time. He would be forced to wonder who was hearing them, thus losing his sense of a permanent self.

The ordinary way in which people describe such experiences revolves around a continuing self; something like this: Here “I” am paying attention to the sky and the feel of the grass on my back, when suddenly “my” attention shifts to the dogs barking; the barking was not previously “in my consciousness” but now it is. The fact that it seems to have been experienced all along is usually ignored, or else is accounted for by saying that some unconscious part of the brain was noticing it, but now it has come “into consciousness”. This interpretation requires two deeply troublesome ideas: first, the self who is conscious, and second, the idea that things can be either in or out of consciousness.

I have been trying to do without these. That’s why I explored the experience of the backwards threads again and again and again, both in meditation and in mindful activity. Eventually my practice comes down to this: notice the new thread and its observer, accept that this new experience is me and allow it to arise and pass away, let go of any previous threads with their observer, and so on. There can be several of these happening at once.

The difficult part, in my experience, is the letting go, but then it always is. This practice has a very odd quality about it. Self seems to dissolve into these multiple threads so that there is no longer any central self whose attention switches to one stream or another. So there is no longer a “string of beads”, or a “stream of consciousness”, or a “movie in the brain”, but experiences and experiencers that co-emerge all over the place and not to anyone in particular. It’s much more like Dennett’s “multiple drafts”.

It’s tempting to grab onto a central self who is in the middle of all this, but with practice it gets easier to ignore this powerful pull and just keep on letting go. The miraculous thing is that the physical body seems to carry on fine, while the experiencing selves just arise and fall away – with no one in charge.

… [more on interpreting the dogs story]


I write my name on the board to request an interview with John.

~  ————————————  ~

Perhaps I am too challenging or aggressive – but then I’m excited. I want to understand. I want to know about the monk and what the story really means. So I try to explain why I think John’s interpretation is wrong.

John listens attentively, and then gives his opinion: I am technically correct but I think too much and use too many words (and how many times have I been told that before!). He seems exasperated by my insistence that it is this way. So, by way of getting to the nub of the matter, he asks me this question.

“For example,” he says, “Are you, Sue, right now here in this room?”

Of course I give the truthful answer “No”. Of course I’m not. I haven’t been through all this only to end up still feeling as though I am some kind of conscious person sitting here at some location in time and space in this room now. It just isn’t like that any more. I am so used to noticing the threads and letting some self go into any of a few other selves and dropping them too and letting the whole thing flow as it will, that I cannot truthfully say “Yes”.

John says I must be. So I try to explain: I say that there is no “right now” unless I make one up, and the general answer has to be “no”. He keeps arguing and there seems to me no point in pushing it. I am clear in my own mind that I’m only telling the truth. So I stand up, bow, and walk to the door.

~  ————————————  ~

As my foot hits the first step he calls “Stay.”

I turn and go back. We talk the whole thing through more carefully, and agree to differ. He gives me a “red-flag” warning not to think too much, and I am sure this is good advice. I tell him I will follow his advice and keep working at the non-elaboration, as indeed I am doing. I must admit I am left perplexed.

I know that I think a lot and that this is frowned upon in traditional Zen. Yet it seems to me that this is just one way of going about the task, and a way that suits me. The real test is whether the view at the end of the process is clearer than the view at the start. I think it is – and John said it was “technically correct”. If it is, then the scaffolding used to get to it can safely be left behind. And surely it cannot matter whether it was an intellectual scaffolding or some other kind. Once it is left behind it won’t be needed again and it need not cloud the view.

This encounter stirs my mind up rather, but it settles again, and that evening I write in my diary, “everything simultaneously falling away as it is arising – coming up to meet me face to face but always meeting a different me, or maybe all just coming up out of ? … I’ll keep at it for the little while left.” And so I do.

~  ————————————  ~

On the drive home I discover something completely new. I decide to concentrate on my driving and to practise the trick I’ve been doing for so much of the last two weeks, of noticing and letting go the backwards threads; only this time they are the whine of the engine, the sound of the wind rushing past, and the sight of my arms emerging out of nowhere onto the steering wheel. The effect is that I am driving along in silence with everything arising all around and absolutely no thoughts.

I remember that a week ago I wondered whether it was really possible to have no thoughts. I decided that it might be but I couldn’t see how you could tell you were having no thoughts without having the thought “Am I thinking now?”. Now I am driving without thinking while simultaneously observing the not thinking. I call this “listening to the silence” although it doesn’t seem a perfect name: something like listening to the silent space out of which the threads come. This nowhere becomes gradually more and more obvious.

If anyone had asked me “Are you, Sue, right now here in this car?” I would have had to say “No”.


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Last updated: Monday, 02 January 2017 16:20