Lion's Roar

The Simple Presence of Attention

Three talks by Toni Packer, a resident teacher of Springwater Center, in Springwater, New York.

By Toni Packer

Three talks by Toni Packer, a resident teacher of Springwater Center, in Springwater, New York.

Finding a New Way to Listen

Before inquiring into a new way of listening, let me just share the joy of walking through the fields and woods on this extraordinary land. Just stepping out of the reception area, closing the door behind me, walking away from the overhang that shields one from the sun and rain, there isn’t any enclosure left—not even a body! All I am is the birds singing and fluttering, bare branches swaying in the breeze, the ground partly frozen yet melting, the pond covered with a thin layer of ice, and the blue hills, sky and wandering clouds within close reach. There is also a throbbing heart and the people walking on the path. Even those who are not here—aren’t we all together this one moment—beholding everything out of stillness?

It is the stillness of not being identified with me—the endless stories of the past and the various images that have represented me to myself and others. Identification with me is a living prison. In it we constantly want to be accepted, feel important, be listened to, be encouraged, supported and comforted in this separate life of ours. But now, here, in the fresh air under the open sky there is the freedom of not needing anything, not needing to be anything—just being this open listening space where people walk, crows caw and ice cracks underfoot.

Why do I feel that listening is so immensely important in living alone or together? It is because listening quietly, passionately, now, without expectation or effort, is the gateway to living in wholeness, without the separation of you and me.

This is our main question: Can we listen in a deep way in a moment of silence and stillness? Or is the mind preoccupied with the 10,000 worries of this world, of our life, of our family? Can we realize right now that a mind that is occupied with itself cannot listen freely? This is not said in judgment—it is a fact. It’s impossible for me to hear someone else while I’m worrying about myself. Birdcalls and the songs of the breeze do not exist when the mind is full of itself. This is within the experience of all of us. So, can the mind put its problems aside for one moment and listen freshly? This moment! Are we listening together? The caw of the crows, the quiet hum of a plane, a dog’s barking, or whatever sounds are alive where you are listening right now.

It is relatively easy to listen happily in nature—the leaves, grasses, flowers, trees, lakes and hills do not think and worry like we do, and therefore do not provoke thinking. Maybe for deer and birds there is some rudimentary thinking going on but that need not engage us in thought (unless we are avid birdwatchers or we worry about the plight of too many deer and too many hunters next season). Thought can make a problem out of everything, but most of us find the beauty of unselfconscious listening much easier to come upon in nature than among people.

Why is it so inordinately difficult to listen to each other? When I am present with the abundant energy of listening, I do not find it difficult to hear what you are saying. Instead of being busy with self-concern, the space is open to hearing, seeing, and understanding the meaning of your words. If I don’t understand, then there is the freedom to ask you for clarification.

Without this open space of presence—energy, the inner tapes of human conditioning press hard to be heard—they do not want to make way for listening to others. How can I possibly hear you when I am dying to say something myself? How can I take the time and care to understand you when I think that I am right and you are wrong? When I’m sure that I know better? When I sorely need attention and resent anyone else getting it?

Can I hear you when I have fixed images about how you have been in the past, how you have criticized or flattered me? Can I listen freely when I would like you to be different from the way you are? Do I have the patience to listen to you when I think I already know what you are going to say? Am I open to listening to you when I am judging you? Judgments and prejudices lie deeply hidden in the recesses of the mind and require curiosity and inner transparency in order to be discovered. Only what is discovered can end.

Do I really hear what you are saying when I take you to be holy, to be worshipped, adored and surrendered to? Will I expect every word you say to be infallible wisdom? Or the opposite: Can I hear what you are saying when I am convinced that you are stupid? Am I listening to you in the same way that I listen to someone else?

We can add more and more to this list, but the important thing is to start fundamentally questioning our listening. The point is not to ask, “How can I achieve pure listening?” but rather, “Where is my listening coming from this moment, in light of all these questions?” Is it hampered by different ideas and attitudes or does it arise from a moment of being truly present?

Many of us sincerely desire to become better listeners and may think that it will only happen once we are free of the me sometime in the future. This is an erroneous assumption. Even though the me circuit is deeply ingrained within brain and body, a genuine desire and interest to understand you allows energy to gather in listening attentively to what you are saying. This attentive listening may empty out the preoccupation with myself. Through listening to your words and truly wishing to understand what you mean to convey, I enter you—your question, your condition, the whole you.

When I’m not really interested in what you are saying, can I pause and listen within? Can I take a glance at what is going on inside? Is it resistance? Boredom? The passing by of words that are not really heard? When there is clear seeing, that in itself is a shift.

Listening purifies itself. It’s not that there is necessarily a new interest in what you are saying. I may prefer to dialogue deeply while you want to relate your story or get my attention. When listening comes out of wholeness, an appropriate response happens. That is the wisdom of listening.

Sometimes, when I’m talking in a meeting and a flock of crows flies by—caw, caw, caw, caw, caw—I raise my hand a bit and ask: “Do you hear that?” The person may shake her head—the listening space was filled up with other things. Are we here right now?

When you hear that question, what happens? Is it simply caw, caw, caw, or are you thinking, “Am I doing it right?” or, “What does she want me to say?” Hear those thoughts like you hear the wind in the trees. It’s the same listening. It’s different things—the sound of wind and trees and birds is different from the sound of thoughts—but it’s the same listening. One whole listening!

For marvelous unknown reasons, once in a while we are completely here. For a moment we hear, see and feel all one. Then the mind comes in to explain it, know it, compare it and store it. This is not an intentional process—it’s habit. No one is doing it. The naming, liking and disliking, wanting to keep something and fearing the loss of it—these are all ingrained mind processes rolling off on their own. If we get a glimpse of that, get a feel for what is purely habitual, then we will be much more tolerant and patient with the so-called others and with ourselves.

When I talk about listening, I don’t mean just listening with the ear. Listening here includes the totality of perception—all senses open and alive, and still much more than that. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind are receptive, open, not controlled. A Zen saying describes it as “hearing with one’s eyes and seeing with one’s ears.” It refers to this wholeness of perception. The wholeness of being!

Another Zen saying demands: “Hear the bell before it rings!” Ah, it doesn’t make any sense rationally, does it? But there is a moment when that bell is ringing before you know it! You may never know it! Your entire being is ringing! There’s no division in that—everything is ringing.

So can we learn more and more about ourselves, not by studying in order to increase our store of information, but through asking in wonderment what keeps us from hearing the bell before it rings?

Not Going Elsewhere in this Mind

This moment of being here, what does it mean? It means not resisting whatever is here: anxiety, discomfort, pain or disturbance. That’s much easier said than done. By not resisting I mean resistance melting away in the awareness of being here—not giving way to fantasy, rather seeing fantasy as fantasy, as a veil hiding what is here in utter simplicity. To see that! That’s not just saying, “Okay, all of this is just thoughts and fantasy.” This is more thinking and it doesn’t help, as we all have found out. It may even arouse anger because things have not changed in spite of all this work of being with them.

Have you ever experienced the difference between saying, “This is all thought,” and directly seeing the appearance of thoughts and their effects on the body? Please hold it for a moment; don’t just say “yes” or “no” and go on reading without stopping for a moment and wondering. Sitting quietly with energy gathering can be of immense help in detecting what is thought and what isn’t. It allows one to experience directly how a thought generates emotion—pleasure or pain, sorrow or fear, and the credence given to it all—without acting on it. We assume that thinking tells us the truth about ourselves and the world. In thinking without seeing, everything seems so real, so true; there’s no space here for questioning. Can there be seeing without thinking?

Wondering comes out of a moment of not going anywhere in thought, a moment of stopping—taking a deep breath and exhaling. It is a moment of not knowing where to go, because there is no place to go. It’s realizing that all of the places thought can go to are fantasy. In our daily predicament of pain, of work fatigue or boredom, there seems to be incessant thought activity, with its restlessness, dissatisfaction, lack of fulfillment and searching for something different. There is the strong desire to alleviate what we don’t like, to get rid of it. Can there be momentary freedom from our consuming restlessness? From thinking, “Where could I go next to be free?”

People frequently ask me, “Why is my mind and life so terribly restless?” I can’t answer this for you. Of course I can give answers, but we need to realize for ourselves that the nervous impulse to search for explanations and relief, and the impatient thrashing about to be free, is just more brain activity. Can there be a humble moment of being here without knowing? Can we let pain, discomfort and uncertainty be here without knowing?

When people come to Springwater they say, “Here it’s relatively easy to be with problems. But it isn’t easy at home, in the office, with the family or in a relationship.” Actually it isn’t difficult anywhere when it dawns what it truly means to be in this moment. It may be a moment of quietly listening to a spouse, to a partner or a boss, or carefully holding the steering wheel and letting the landscape go by, feeling the foot on the pedal, the touch of the upholstery and the different sounds of the motor. Or sitting at the desk, suddenly attending to the feel of the pen in the hand that is holding it, writing a check, experiencing the touch of the paper, the sound of the moving pen, the amazing appearance of ink patterns on the check, then tearing it off, the perforations giving way to the pull, one by one. Writing the check with loving attention is the only thing happening right now! There’s no need to slur over it, thinking of what else has to be done. There’s just full attention to what is happening right now. When this takes place it feels like a new discovery. Everything is taking care of itself. Not dutifully—it’s not a duty to work attentively, but rather turns out to be a delight when it happens without force. It’s freedom from the burden of the future.

Can you catch yourself as you’re speeding along? Listen to the sound of speeding? Constitutionally some of us are speedier than others. We are different characters and body types. But both speedy and slow body types are burdened with the thought of all that has to be done in the future. So as we find ourselves racing with thoughts and sensations of restlessness, can we become aware of it as it is happening and wonder whether it has to be that way?

You don’t know the answer, but the question is already a break in the current. See if it is possible to slow down in thinking, walking, arranging things, writing, talking to someone. This means simply watching the speedy body-mind—just watching it!—not saying, “I mustn’t speed, I must slow down, this is no good, Toni says so.” Just watch what you’re doing right now; watch it carefully, attentively, and witness the amazing slowing down in the simple presence of attention.

When we’re here together we affect each other. Somebody walking or doing things attentively affects us if we really see it. It is sort of contagious, as is the speeding. This doesn’t mean we have to do things in slow motion. Just see what happens when you become aware. How is it when there is close attention to the hands washing a dish under the running water, scratching off the egg that has caked on, soaking it some more and seeing it disappear in the dishpan, lifting it out, shaking the drops off and putting it on the drain rack, with attention? It’s wonderful, and it’s amazing to realize how little attention we usually give because we’re driven by thoughts about the past or future. This is not said blamefully. It’s the natural task of the brain to anticipate the future, to solve problems. The more problems we have, the busier the brain gets in trying to solve them. But right now it’s just giving attention to this moment of not going anywhere other than where we are, gently, not prescribing anything. Attention has everything in it to illuminate everything that’s here, like a moment of clouds parting and the light coming through—and what a different world it is! Different and yet the same.

Are we together on this? Are we looking at all this together? It’s easy to just follow words, but to look directly, that’s not so easy. I was reprimanded the other day by someone who said, “I don’t want you to teach me. I’ve tuned out the last ten minutes because I don’t want to be taught by you.” I don’t want to teach you either. I’m looking myself, because all of these things I have described are things I have observed in myself. I’m looking and conveying in words what is discovered. If we all begin to look then we’re not teaching each other, we’re exploring together, discovering alone and together the incredible presence of this moment of not going elsewhere in this mind.

A Quiet Space

Comments Toni Packer made to students following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11.

Someone asked for a few words of advice for dealing with the torrent of emotions and confusion that is coming up in the wake of the horrendous explosions that shook many of us to the roots.

If possible, can we find a quiet moment in a quiet space in the midst of all the noise, agitation and confusion, a quiet spot in the eye of sadness and grief, pain, anger, and rage, the urge for revenge, and the longing for security to end all suffering? Can we listen silently to the contractions of fear, anger and the throbbing of longing for safety?

Can we listen ever more silently to the constant, agitated reactions to what we are witnessing on television or, live, in front of our eyes, thinking frantically about what could have happened, should have happened or ought to happen in response to it all? Can moments of calm presence reveal the turmoil of thinking and emoting, staying with it all without being completely taken over by it?

Can we come back time and time again, with infinite patience, to what is actually taking place right now, this very moment—the sadness and grief paining heart and mind, fear knotting the stomach and guts, anger making the heart pound faster, driving the blood to the head, and also hear the sound of rain and motor noises around us, see the brightness and darkness of the room, the sky, the smell in the air? Can we come back not just to the reactions to all of this, but simply perceive sounds and sights and the feel of what is actually taking place?

This stillness has room for everything happening on this earth—the good and the evil, the wounding, the helping and the healing, the dying and living, the hating, the killing and the inexhaustible love that transcends it all in a way too marvelous to comprehend.

Toni Packer

Toni Packer began studing Zen in 1967 with Roshi Philip Kapleau at the Rochester Zen Center. In 1981, she founded the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry in Springwater, New York.