The art of not knowing
Joan Tollifson, September 10th, 2023
There are many different kinds of meditation. In some sense, it’s best to not know what meditation is—to simply be still and find out!
For me, the word points to the simplicity of doing nothing other than being here, present and aware, which is effortlessly always already the case. But usually, the bare simplicity of aware presence is not noticed because attention is focused on thoughts, typically centered around the apparently separate, encapsulated “me” that we believe ourselves to be. Meditation invites something else to emerge into awareness, a different sense of what we are and what this whole happening is. Not a new idea about it, but a different experiential felt sense.
Meditation begins with being still and silent, fully present to what is. It’s not about manipulating or resisting what is, but simply being it. Seeing the habitual thoughts and the headlines, storylines and beliefs they assert without instantly believing and getting hypnotized by the content—and when that entrancement and caught-up-ness does happen, simply noticing that—letting it be and letting it go. Meditation is about discovering, realizing and resting as the open, spacious, boundless awareness beholding the whole show and the seamless presence at the heart of all experiencing.
Meditation is not knowing what meditation is. Open wondering,
listening with no agenda.
People will often say they can’t meditate, or they’re no good at meditation, or they’ve failed at meditation, by which they usually mean nothing spectacular has happened and/or they can’t stop thinking, as if not thinking and having some spectacular experience were the goal. People will report great difficulty with an imagined task, such as “trying to stay present without the constant intrusion of unwanted thoughts.”
But “trying to stay present without the constant intrusion of unwanted thoughts” is an impossible task. As has often been noted, what we resist, persists. Meditation is about relaxing all our efforts to be other than exactly how we are, and actually discovering how and what we are by not deliberately doing anything other than simply being here and seeing what reveals itself.
Awareness is what transforms and liberates, not will or effort.
Being here is simple. Feeling the breathing, the bodily sensations…hearing the bird singing or the traffic whooshing or the dog barking…feeling the breeze on the skin or the sensations of heat or cold. Simply being this one bottomless moment. Thinking will almost certainly happen as well.
But instead of trying to get rid of thoughts, or trying to stop thinking them, meditation is simply seeing them for what they are.
Yes, sometimes the attention will be caught in a mental movie or a train of thought, but eventually the attention will spontaneously wake up from that hypnotic trance all by itself. Thought may then pop back up with a judgement about what just happened and a whole new train of thought about how “I” shouldn’t have been thinking, and “I” must stop doing that from now on.
But who or what is this “I” who supposedly needs to stop thinking and who should be in control of all this? Isn’t that thinker-controller just another thought, a mental image, a bunch of sensations, an idea?
Thinking isn’t the enemy, so we don’t need to go to war with it. Thinking happens. What is it actually? Isn’t the bare actuality of it simply little bursts of energy, gone before they’ve even fully arrived? And isn’t it amazing how these little amorphous bursts can spin out whole movies, belief systems and identities?
Can thoughts be seen as thoughts and not as objective reports on reality or commandments that must be followed or believed? Can thinking be recognized as just another passing shape that presence sometimes takes?
Thinking may stop for periods of time, but it will always pop back up again. And that doesn’t need to be a problem. Just be aware of the whole happening. Awareness is what liberates, seeing the false as false, not the willful efforts of the little me to grasp what is true.
The “me” is only a powerless thought-image, a kind of mirage. And any spectacular experiences that show up will disappear—having amazing experiences is fundamentally no different from being lost in thought—it’s all just passing weather, impermanent kaleidoscopic shapes, impersonal appearances empty of substance.
Of course, meditation isn’t just sitting in silence once or twice a day. Meditation is really about our whole life, and ultimately there is no boundary between formal meditation and everyday life. But taking (timeless) time to sit quietly can be very helpful, revelatory, enjoyable and liberating in my experience. And it can happen informally throughout the day as well—on the bus, on a park bench, in a waiting room. Simply being here without pulling out our phone or picking up a magazine. What is learned by the whole body-mind in this kind of silent presence translates into all aspects of everyday life. We become more sensitive, more compassionate, more alive.
Of course, everyday life is more challenging than sitting alone in silence— we’re engaged with other people, there are stressful situations, our buttons get pushed, we have deadlines to meet and so on. But ALL of that is grist for the mill—seeing how we get triggered, how we get stressed out, how suffering and confusion get created and sustained—seeing the thoughts and storylines, feeling it all in the body, and perhaps increasingly, not needing to go with the old habitual reactions.
But the emphasis is always on what is, not on achieving some imagined future purification or perfection. As soon as the focus is on getting somewhere, acquiring something, or improving “me,” consciousness is caught up in another me-centered thought-story. Can that old habit be seen that for what it is whenever it shows up?
Presence-awareness is never really absent. We’re never really separate from, or other than, this seamless, boundless awaring presence that includes absolutely everything.
So-called awakening is very, very simple. It’s already right here. It’s nothing more or less than being here now, being this one bottomless moment.
And ultimately, we see that everything is this, that this includes everything— even needlessly checking our phone, being lost in thought, biting our fingers, getting drunk, feeling confused, fighting wars, getting angry, expanded experiences, contracted experiences—the whole dreamscape, which is never what we think it is. Meditation includes it all.
From Toni Packer:
Excerpted from the current Home page of my website: