The Journey Consists of a Single Step

July 26, 2009


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.

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