The writings of Zen are full of apparent paradoxes: “the pathless path,” “the gateless gate,” and so forth. How can there be a pathless path? If it is pathless then it is not a path. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

This isn’t just nonsense. Such statements point to an experience that is not quite captured by either of the opposites.

“Meditation involves effort” “Meditation is effortless” Both of these statements are true. “Right effort” refers to the correct balance — the middle way.

An ancient meditation master said that “When the strings of a harp are too tight, they break. When they are too loose, there is no sound. When they are just right, neither too tight nor too loose, every note sounds in its proper tone.”

It could also be compared to spinning yarn from wool by hand — something that most of you are probably not familiar with — try it sometime! To keep the yarn from becoming too thick or too thin, one maintains a subtle tension, not too loose and not too tight.

In meditation we gradually discover a form of effort that does not involve strain or striving.


Tea is water, coffee is water, cola is water. It is possible to use filtration and other methods to separate the pure water from the flavoring ingredients.
However, even in the unseparated state, the water is still clearly present, providing the essential quality of wetness.

Once we have tasted the silence in meditation we can develop beliefs that “I must sit for 20 minutes before I begin to experience the silence” or “I must sit for 40 minutes before I begin to experience the silence.” While these beliefs reflect past experience, they can become limiting when deeply held.

The wetness of the water is inherently a part of cola. We may not like the fizz, the sugary flavor, and the effects of the caffeine. And we may want to filter those out, which will take some time. However, the essential quality of water is immediately present. Even with the fizz, and the sugar, and caffeine, and artificial coloring, we still are experiencing water. We don’t have to wait for a filtration process before we can experience the essential presence of the water.

Similarly, silence is an inherent part of our experiences. Even the most frenetic experiences, filled with fizz, buzz, and sugar, still take place in inherent silence. We don’t have to do anything to touch the silence. The silence is already there. It is a matter of not doing that which obscures the silence. Sometimes trying to get to the silence kicks up waves that obscure the silence that is already there. (This relates to last week’s discussion of “right effort” — the balance between doing and not-doing.)

We can use “silence”with two meanings: the silence that stands in opposition to noise, and the silence that is present within noise.

Think of music. Look at a piece of sheet music. Each note is separate. Each note arises out of silence and returns to silence. The notes are separated by silence. If the silence were not woven into the music, it would not be music.

Think of speech. When we are communicating with someone verbally there is silence between words. There is silence at the end of sentence. When we want to emphasize something we pause in meaningful silence. Speech is not possible without the silence woven into it.

What happens when we focus on the silence between the words? What happens when we focus on the silence between the thoughts? What happens when we focus on the silence within the sensations?

When we shift our concept, shift our view, does our experience of meditation change?

It can be good to sit for long periods of meditation. It can be good to sit for short periods of meditation. It can be good to notice the silence for an instant in the heat of the moment.

With your vision, focus on something close to you in the room. Now look past that and focus on something further away. Both have been there the whole time. It’s a matter of what we were focusing on.

As we get older our ability to effortlessly shift focus becomes impaired. We need bifocal lenses.

When we first start meditating, we use meditation as a kind of bifocal lens. But later our mind could become supple enough and flexible enough to effortlessly move between focusing on the foreground and focusing on the background.

The background is the meaningful silence, the unconditional yes, the limitless love.

July 12, 2009

What is. . .

Being present. . .

Without struggle. . .

Being present. . . to what is . . . without struggle

Meditation is about being present to what is, without struggle. Paradoxically, that sometimes may mean being present to the struggle. (How can that be? Seems illogical. . . It is a pointer. It is like a natural koan – something we cannot penetrate in advance with reasoning apparatus – something to be understood through life experience.)

In formal meditation and in daily life we may notice moments when we are just present, without struggle.

Sometimes our noticing this triggers a series of thoughts that takes us out of simple presence.

However, eventually we can become familiar with these moments of presence and allow them to be, for as long as they naturally last, without disrupting them and without trying to artificially prolong them (which is another way of disrupting them).

This natural presence is something that is intrinsic to our nature — a deep and fundamental part of our nature.

If we experience a moment of pure presence, in meditation or in daily life, we can be deeply grateful — our meditation was fruitful.

We do not spend most of our life being present and aware without struggle. It only occurs for moments. Over time, these moments can become longer, with familiarity.

It is hard for us to imagine how we could live a normal life maintaining simple presence. It is best no to try to imagine it, creating more fantasies, thoughts, and complications. Just trust the process.

It’s so easy to forget, and I have to remind myself time and time again, that meditation is a “process,” not a “state.” We can experience a “state” of concentration, absorption, clarity — and such states can last for several minutes, and seem somewhat stable. At some point our mind observes what’s going on and labels it: “This is a pleasant state. I hope this lasts awhile! What do I have to do to make it last? I want to come back here again!” If one thinks about it too much, the state may begin to disintegrate.

It is easy then to let one’s meditation become about pursuing this “state,” because it seems to feel very good, while it lasts.

This process of pleasurable states developing, and of then longing to recapture these states, and then of developing insight into this, seems to be part of the inner logic of the unfolding of a meditation practice.

“States” are good, because they are a demonstration that “something is happening,” and provide much of the initial motivation to practice. But all states are temporary, which is a good thing, LOL, because otherwise we could fall into a permanent state of unpleasant feeling!

The times when our meditation seems a bit more difficult are also good. Of course, sometimes there is a correctible reason for this — we haven’t been getting enough sleep, the room is very hot, we are sitting in an uncomfortable position. But other times, it is just in the nature of what is happening for us at that time. We’ve had a stressful day, something difficult is going on in our lives, we are coming down with a cold. . .

Even if it does not lead to a state of bliss, meditation at such times is fruitful because it gives us an opportunity to experiment with an alternate way of relating to our discomfort, our restlessness, our pain.

I recommend you read that sentence again.

Meditating in difficult circumstances is good, because difficult circumstances are bound to arise in our life. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can distract ourselves from them, but sometimes there is nowhere to run to and we have to just face them.

Meditation can help us practice in small ways for the larger difficulties that will arise.

The way to deal with difficulties in meditation is not to grit our teeth and bear them, but to look more closely at them and enter more deeply into them. Physical and emotional pain, when we look closely at it, is a series of sensations in the body and a series of thoughts. Generally we want to hold these at a distance. When we welcome these sensations and thoughts into our field of attention, look at them closely and without preconceptions, and enter into a more intimate relationship with them, we may find we can dance with them.

Sometimes they may transform. Sometimes they may disappear. Sometimes they may stay, but our relationship with them is different.

When a state of bliss arises, it is a good mediation. When a state of bliss does not arise, it is a good meditation. If you’ve had moments of awareness and awakeness, and moments of becoming intimate with your experience without preconceptions, you’ve had a good meditation.

When you feel you are trying too hard, and going nowhere, look into that. Who is trying? Trying to go where? In the end all that we have is this present moment. Not a story about the moment, but the bare reality of the moment. How deeply can we look into the moment. When we feel we are blocked can we look into that feeling of being blocked. Not taking for granted the story that there is a block, and someone that has to overcome that block, but looking freshly and innocently at what is going on in that moment?

It is exactly the same journey for all of us. Everything that I say here, I am saying for my own benefit. If you listen and hear something you can take away for yourself, please do so.