Chapters: Ten Zen Questions

Am I conscious now ?

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Ten Zen Questions

Am I conscious now?

Of course I am. Yes, I am conscious now.

Am I conscious now?

Of course I am. Yes, I am conscious now.

But something odd happened. When I asked myself the question it was as though I became conscious at that moment. Was I not conscious before? It felt as though I was waking up – coming to consciousness when I asked the question – because I asked the question.What is going on? (Calm down. Take it slowly.)

I can remember what was happening just before I asked the question, so it seems that someone must have been conscious. Was someone else conscious a moment before – as though the waking up is a change in who is conscious? It certainly didn’t feel as though it could have been me because I just woke up, but surely it wasn’t anyone else, for who else could there be in here?

Another possibility is that I wasn’t really conscious before I asked the question. This is deeply troubling. For I’ve never asked this question before. Surely I cannot have been unconscious, or semi-conscious, all my life, can I? Perhaps there are lots of things that make me conscious apart from asking this particular question. Even so, this is rather scary. It certainly seems as though I must spend a lot of my time unconscious, otherwise I could not have this definite sensation of coming awake when I ask “Am I conscious now?”.

Let me ask it again. Can I reproduce the awakening and look into it to see what it is really like?

Am I conscious now?

I practise it a lot, for weeks and months. I keep doing it. I keep asking “Am I conscious now?” To begin with the hardest part is remembering to ask. But I want to know. I want to understand what it means to be conscious. So I persevere. Little things remind me of the question – a look, a sound, a sudden emotion – any of them can propel me into asking. And then it happens again and again; it feels as though I am waking up. Yes, of course I am conscious now. Yes of course I am, but it seems as though I wasn’t a moment ago.

I know now, from all the many students who have trodden this path with me, that the hardest part is remembering to ask the question. Even though I feel driven to keep asking, there are often long gaps when I fail to do it. So I’ve tried various strategies, and my students have too.

Some tell me they put stickers all over their house: “Are you conscious?” on the front door; “Am I conscious now?” on the toaster; “Conscious?” on the kettle; “Are you sure you’re conscious now?” on the pillow. Others get into pairs so that they can keep reminding each other – “Are you conscious now?”. Some take to special times and places; they ask the question every time they go to the loo, or always ask the question when going to bed, or always remember when they have a drink or food. Sometimes these tricks work; sometimes they don’t.

I wonder why it’s so hard. It almost seems as though there is something conspiring to prevent us asking the question; some thickness in the way, some awful lethargy that makes it hard to face up to …. to what? To being fully aware, I suppose. The question propels becoming conscious and becoming open to everything around. Although it seems impossible, in good faith, to answer “No”, it is hard work to answer “Yes” “Yes, I am conscious now”, perhaps because it reminds me that most of the time I cannot have been. But it’s worth it. I persevere.

Am I conscious now? Yes.

As the years go by and I keep on asking the question, something changes. At first it is very jerky. Something reminds me to ask, and I ask. Suddenly I am awake. Here it goes again. Here I am, awake in this moment. Where was I before? Have I been in the dark so much? I am annoyed with myself – how could you be so dull, so fast asleep. Wake up! But I am already awake. I am asking the question. All this is uncomfortable.

Gradually the transition eases. Waking up becomes a little smoother. Indeed, each time is reminiscent of the last. It is almost as though being awake is always the same, or at least it has more in common with other moments of wakefulness than does the ordinary blurry, difficult-to-see, darkness. I keep on asking “Am I conscious now?”.

Something odd happens. A continuity begins to appear. Whereas at first the question was always isolated and almost a shock to attempt, now it comes more easily and I try to keep the question open once I’ve asked, and answered, it.

Is it possible to keep on asking the same question for a long time, I wonder. The logic is simple. Asking this question always gets the answer “Yes”. So if I keep on asking it I should remain conscious as long as the question is alive, shouldn’t I? I try, and as the years pass it becomes easier to keep the question open. No longer does a door quietly close, only to be wrenched open again in fury at having let it close unnoticed once again. Gradually, gradually it is possible to keep asking the question. The words aren’t really necessary any more. Rather, there just seems to be a questioning attitude, an openness of mind. Am I conscious now? Yes, I am, keep on that way, and now, and now, and gently now.

I am in my garden hut, wrapped in blankets. It’s mid-winter and very cold. I have sat for some time and the daylight is fading, and now I ask the familiar question.

Am I conscious now? Yes I am.

But did I say ‘now’? When is this now? The only way to find out is to look. So I look some more. But this proves not to be easy, even though the present moment has stabilised.

At first it seems that obviously there is a now. This is when everything is happening. What is happening? This. And then this. I had supposed there was some kind of sliding moment: the present moment, that glided along, making the difference between the things that have already happened and the things yet to come; a boundary between the future and the past. But somehow this just does not accord with reality. I have read, in the literature on ‘phenomenology’, that there is a now, a “just-past”, and an immediate future. But this does not accord with reality either. I keep steady and look.

There’s stuff all right. But is it happening now? I cannot see. It is blurry and indistinct. It is hard and painful to look. I cannot see. Every thing that happens seems somehow to be spread out over time. There goes a flock of birds passing across my view. I hear a siren in the distance, ambulance, police car, fire engine, something passing along a road far away. But it takes time to be what it is. I cannot find its now.

Years pass.

Am I conscious now? No I’m not.


I realise for the first time that I can answer “No”. What if this slippery, difficult, not quite being really here, is not being conscious, and I should have been answering “no” all along?

Is this the same as looking into the darkness?

Is there any light?

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What was I conscious of a moment ago?

Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Ten Zen Questions

If I become conscious only when I ask whether I am, then what about just before I asked?

I seem to remember what was happening a moment ago, but was I conscious of it at the time? Can I look back and find out what I was conscious of a moment before I asked?


This reminds me of a familiar enough experience. It goes like this. I am reading, or writing, or doing something else, when suddenly I notice that the clock is chiming. I have only just noticed it, yet it seems as though I have been hearing it all along because I can easily count backwards and know that it has sounded three times already. I go on counting. It strikes six.Was I conscious of the first strike? Apparently not; otherwise I wouldn’t have had that very odd sensation of suddenly becoming aware of the fourth strike and of recalling the previous three. But if I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, how come I can remember the sound so clearly in my mind’s ear?

What is going on? I decide to investigate.

I sit still, in my hut, and calm the mind. My plan is simple. I am going to wait until all is calm and then ask “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”.

I ask.

I am conscious of the wooden floor of my hut; I’ve been looking at it for a while. What else? I listen out. Of course – there is the sound of our cat purring by my side. I have been listening to her for a while now, or so it seems. I can remember that purring going back in time. I have been listening, haven’t I? Well, maybe. Yet when I suddenly thought of the purring it was as though it came into my consciousness right then, just as the clock’s chime had done. So – was I conscious of it a moment ago or not? Surely there must be an answer, mustn’t there?

I try again, still sitting here, my eyes resting on the floor; the damp garden spread out in front of me. I look back with an open mind, still here now but asking the question. What was I conscious of a moment ago?

What about my own body? I can feel my seat on the wooden stool. I can feel my hands held together in my lap. And there’s that slight ache in my left knee. That ache has been going on for a long time. I know it has. I can look back into the continuous dull, slight pain and feel that it has. And there’s more. With exasperated shock I recognise there’s a siren sounding – out there in the road. It’s loud and obvious. Why didn’t I realise it instantly? That noise has been going on for about three or four loud swoops – nah nah, nah nah. I was conscious of it then wasn’t I? Was I?

No. Or at least, I am not sure. It took me several tries at the question to hit upon that sound and when I did it was loud and obvious. But what if I hadn’t been searching? Would I have been conscious of the noise at the time and then forgotten it? Or would I never have become conscious of it at all? Would that vivid sound have disappeared without trace? It did seem vivid. It did feel as though I had been consciously listening to those three or four howls. Had I?

Was I conscious of the sound a moment ago, or not?

Surely there must be an answer, mustn’t there? I’m reminded of Dan Dennett’s challenging contrast between Orwellian and Stalinesque revisions.

According to Dennett, it’s natural to assume that there must be a true answer to the question “What was I conscious of at some particular time?”. So it must either be true that I was conscious of only the floor and my hands and the ache, or true that I was conscious of the siren  as well. We cannot imagine that there might be no right answer.                                          ….

This question is proving interesting, and difficult. I resolve to pursue it night and day. I have a go – asking myself from time to time, in the midst of ordinary life, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”.

As I get used to the exercise, the response settles down to a pattern. I usually find several things; several candidates for things I might have been conscious of a moment ago. Sounds are the easiest bet. They hang on. They take time. When I light upon them, they always seem to have been going on for some time, and it feels as though I have been conscious of them. There is the sound of the cars outside in the distance. There’s the ticking of the clock. There’s the beating of my own heart. And then – oh goodness me – how could I have ignored that. There’s my breath. Surely I have been watching my breath, haven’t I?

I have never practised watching the breath as a formal meditation practice, but the breath is always there. When I sit, it goes slowly in and out, settling down and becoming deep and slow. I know that. I have been watching it haven’t I? Yes? No? Have I? How come I don’t know?

Let’s get this clear. After many other threads of past awarenesses I lit upon the breath. More than any other experience, it seemed to have been going on and on. More than that, it seemed as though “I” had been watching this breath going in and out. So I must have been conscious of it. And yet I wasn’t. I mean, it took a deliberate act of casting around for things I might not have noticed, to find this one. I was concentrating on that patch of wall, wasn’t I? Was I watching the breath as well? They seem to have nothing to do with each other. It is as though I only brought them together by asking the question. I asked the question “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” and by way of answer these two disparate threads of experience came up. It seemed that I was conscious of both and yet the two seemed to have been completely separate – far apart.

Stop. Think. This is very odd. Do it all again. And again. And again. I find the same thing, many times. There are always more threads to be found out there; threads of what I seem to have been conscious of but which seem to have had nothing to do with each other. This is the oddest thing, although it seems rather obvious now: Whenever I ask the question “What am I conscious of now?” there is only one answer – this. But when I ask the question “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” there are several answers.


Perhaps it will help to take one and analyse it carefully.

I take that screech of the crow as it flew overhead. I heard it, yes, but what happened was this. I was sitting there, in my hut, watching the floor, feeling my breathing, aware of the row of plants beyond the door and of the damp stones between me and them, when suddenly I realised that I had just heard this almighty screech. A crow had swooped close overhead and cried out “EEEEEuchhhhhh”. It must have been half a second ago. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t aware of it instantly. It took some time to penetrate. And then ““EEEEEuchhhhhh”. I knew I’d heard it, but it was already past. So …..

Here is the difficulty. The sound happened, and then half a second later I became aware that it had already happened. So I naturally want to ask whether I was, or was not, conscious of the crow at the time it shrieked. No. At the time I wasn’t. I know that because the first thing I knew was having heard it. The screech was already just past and I remembered having heard it. Ah. So this was a memory – not the real thing. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time it really happened; I only became conscious of it by remembering it afterwards.

Is this right? If I am to pursue this line of inquiry I must be able to distinguish things I am really conscious of now from ones that I only remember being conscious of after they have passed. And I know this will not do. The harder I look, the less obviously I can tell the difference. The two seemed so obviously different at first, but now I’m no longer sure.

I must check. I try out a few more examples. I can cast my mind around and hear that rumble of a lorry going up the hill. Was I conscious of it before I looked for it? Ah – there’s an insect crawling on my arm. I can feel that it’s been progressing upwards from my right elbow for some time now. But was I actually conscious of it before I looked around for another example? Or not?

I like to fantasise that someone could look inside my brain and tell me the answer; that they could point some clever machine at my head and tell me definitely when the sound, or touch, or feel, reached my consciousness, but is there such a place? Certainly scientists could put electrodes on my scalp and watch the waves of activity dancing over different areas, or put me in a scanner and watch the neural activity as it surges in through the thalamus, to the sensory cortex and on to other areas of the brain. They could probably tell me a lot about what I was hearing and seeing and even thinking about, but they would not be able to say “Yes, this sound or thought was conscious, and this one was not.” Why not? Because they don’t know what to look for. All brain cells work in much the same way, and no one has yet found a special place where consciousness happens, or a special process uniquely correlated with conscious, as opposed to unconscious, events.

Will they ever? Many neuroscientists think so, and in hunting for the “neural correlates of consciousness” they are hoping to find it. That is, they are looking for a certain part of the brain, a particular process, or a special kind of brain cell whose activity reliably correlates with conscious as opposed to unconscious processes. This is something of a Holy Grail for consciousness studies. But if I don’t know which sights and sounds I was conscious of, and which I was not, then this whole line of scientific research must be entirely misguided.

I take stock. At any moment I can trace back various threads into the past. Each of them is something that I seem to have been conscious of for some time, and yet each of them seems only to have popped into my consciousness when I went searching for it by asking the question. I cannot say I was conscious of all of them because they seemed to come to light only when I looked for them. And each one seems, in looking back, to be quite disconnected from the others. I don’t want to say that different mes were conscious of them because I thought there was only one me. I don’t want to say that I was unconscious of them until I pulled them into my consciousness because then I have to distinguish conscious-now experiences from consciously remembered experiences, and that I cannot do. I am stuck.

Time to calm the mind again. Take a clear, calm, spacious mind, and look; settle in, calm down, become still and then pop the question “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”

I settle down. The myriad things appear and disappear. I pay attention to everything and nothing. I choose nothing above anything else; the mind gently alights on this and that, and lets go again. Nothing lasts. Things flow. Events come and go. Now.

What was I conscious of a moment ago?

I stop. I haven’t a clue. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But if I don’t know who does?

Something truly terrible is here. There is no past. I have absolutely no idea what went before this.

I’m too scared to look straight into the void. It is not a blackness, nor any perceptible absence of anything. It just isn’t.

Surely I dare. Yes I do. I will look. I will look in spite of the fear.

Yet the appearance of this void is fleeting. It came as an instant and was washed away by clinging onto some new present thing. I must look again. I get a sense of a layer or film or imperceptible boundary from which this present moment is continuously appearing, but I cannot grasp or see it clearly. Something out of nothing.

How can all this come out of nothing?

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Who is asking the question ?

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Ten Zen Questions

Who is asking the question? What does that mean? This makes no sense. Which question? This question of course. The who in the question. Help. Stop.I get the impression that if I could really hurl myself into this impossible question then …. then what? I don’t know. I’ll start again, calm down, and try an easier tack.


Who is asking the question? I am. I am sitting here looking at the wet flagstones outside my hut. Let me investigate this instead. Who is looking at the stone? This is easier. I can see the stone over there, flat and grey with ups and downs and puddles where the rain collects, and wet leaves stuck here and there. Now who is seeing all this? There is no escaping the flagstone. There it is. And there is no escaping the fact that I am looking from over here. There is perspective: a viewpoint. Were I to look from somewhere else it would look different. Were someone else looking from over there they would see it in a different way. From here it looks like this.  Right – so now I can draw a line between there and here. Over there is the flagstone. Over here is me. And who is this?I look. I turn the looking inwards, from pointing out there at the stone to pointing in here at what is looking at the stone. What? I find nothing. I cannot grasp it. I know there must be something here. It is me, isn’t it? But it seems to elude me every way I look. I try again, going back to a calm mind with a steady gaze. I ask again. Who is looking? Again I find nothing.

I get cross. Surely it must be possible to find out what is looking. I keep trying. The flagstone is there. The direction and perspective are there. Something must be at this end – looking. But still I cannot find it. And who is trying to find it? Is this seeker the same me as the one who is looking at the stone or … Something is wrong here. Try again. Settle down and watch.

The world arises. Here it is. The distant traffic thrums on. The rain is dripping from the roof on to the stones with a steady patter. The plants are there, and their reflection shimmers in the scrap of puddle. There are all the threads that seem to have been going on. There they are; trolling along as ever. Let them be. There is a stillness at the centre of all this stuff. Eventually the question pops up again. Who is asking the question?

I don’t know. I can’t tackle it. It is too difficult. I feel stupid and blind.

I’ll try another tack.

Here is all this world, all these threads, all this stuff. Who is watching them? This must be a sensible question, mustn’t it? After all, there are a lot of experiences right here and now, so there must be someone experiencing them, mustn’t there? That is how it seems. So all I have to do is to let the experiences be and then pop the question. Who is experiencing them? Perhaps this will be the same me as in the question “Who is asking the question?”. Then I’ll know.

I look. Here is all this stuff. It seems to be out there somewhere, and I seem to be in here looking out at it all. Let’s forget the sounds and stick with vision for a moment; I’ll try to work with that. Here I am sitting in here and looking out at the garden with its plants and trees and the garage roof and the distant buildings. Now, if they are out there, and I am in here, then there must be a boundary, or edge, or divide, between them and me. If I could just look for the edge I might then be able to flip from looking from the inside out, to looking from the outside in.

So where is this boundary between the world out there and me in here? I see a twist of hair, hanging between me and it. Is this the edge? Am I this side of the hair and the experiences the other? No. That’s silly. I must work harder and more carefully. Let’s start again at the flagstone. There it is. Now I want to work gradually inwards until I find the edge and then flip over from seeing the world out there to seeing the me in here. Right. Go.

There’s the stone with its puddles and dirt and leaves and reflections. Here, a little nearer, is the step and the wooden floor of my hut. It merges into the rug at my feet and that merges, oddly enough, into my own legs. I know these legs belong to my body, but I’m still looking at them from over here. So they are still outside of the me who’s looking. Carry on, carefully now. Coming a little closer and now a little vaguer, I glimpse my folded hands and the rough muddle of a woolly jumper around my neck. Getting close. Is this all? A hint of see-through edge of nose and that twist of hair. This must be it. What comes next after the edge and that hair? Here we go …

I have it! Here it is! Inwards from there is …… It’s the garden again. Damn. Here is the stone again, and the floor and the drips and the plants. I can go round and round, starting with the middle of the view out there, working in carefully towards myself in the centre, and there I find only the same old view, to start all over again. How did that happen? I was looking for the me that was looking and I found only the world.

It’s a familiar enough trick, but easily forgotten. Look for the viewing self and find only the view. I am, it seems, the world I see.

I remember the first time this happened to me, many years ago, walking with a group of Buddhists in the Mendip hills near my home. A friend started talking about Douglas Harding’s book On Having No Head and, surprised to learn that I’d never even heard of it, introduced me to the idea.

We were standing at the edge of a field, looking out across a wooded valley and over fields full of sheep to the hills beyond.

“Point at that hill,” he said “and concentrate on what you can see there”. I pointed and concentrated.

“Now come a little closer and point at your feet,” he said “and concentrate on what you see there”. I pointed and concentrated.

“Point at your tummy,” he said “and concentrate on what you see there”. I pointed and concentrated.

“Move up to your chest,” he said “and concentrate on what you see there”. I pointed and concentrated.

“Now point straight between your eyes.” he said. I pointed and

No. Scream. What? Eeeeeek. I found the finger pointing and …..

I had no head. There was my body all right, with its visible feet, legs, tummy, chest, and then what? Of course I know I have a head. I can touch it and see it in the mirror, but I’d never noticed that I can’t see it myself, directly; that all my life I’ve been walking around without a visible head. I laughed happily. On top of this headless body seemed to be the whole world of friends, and grass, and trees and hills. I’d lost my head and gained the world. I guess it’s always like that. How odd never to have noticed before.


But all that is long ago and I am evading the question again.

Who is asking the question? This is still too difficult. It is one step to see that the perceiving self is none other than the perceived world, but it is much harder to stare straight into this impossible, self-referential, daft question: Who is asking the question?

Asking. Asking? This is a kind of doing. Perhaps I can creep up on it through other kinds of action. After all, when I think about myself I think of myself as an actor; I am the one who acts; I am the one who decides to do things and then does them. When I am washing up then there is a me who is doing it. When I am working there is a me who is making the effort. Perhaps I can look into this me, and so find out who is asking the question.

It happens today that I am polishing a set of brass bells, from a tiny, tinkling hand bell to a large fire engine’s bell. I like to break the long day of meditation with a session of work: something physical that stirs up the muscles and keeps me awake. I would do some weeding or digging, but today it’s been pouring with rain all day, so I set to work on the bells instead. I pull out a wad of Brasso from its familiar tin, with its characteristic smell and horrible rough feel on my hands. I rub the wet stuff on. I scrub the brass steadily, up and down, up and down, up and down, firmly clutching the wad of dirty fibres. I see the arms in front of me, coming out of nowhere. Who is polishing the bells?

I think of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, and his famous poem. It’s one of my favourite Zen stories.

My shiny brass bell is all new and bright now. Is this the mind? Polished and bright? Who is polishing?

There are the arms all right. They move up and down, the brass appears and disappears. The threads of distant traffic go their way. The boiler hums in the background and the light is coming in through the window. I look upwards along the arms. I have this awful suspicion that I know what I will find. Indeed. The arms just fade out of sight at the top. There is nothing here. The arms are rubbing the brass and the arms come out of nothing at all. There is nowhere for the dust to alight.

Who is polishing? Who is asking “Who is polishing?”? It’s too difficult. I don’t know. Well?

“Who …. ?

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Where is this ?

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Ten Zen Questions

Where is this? Where is what?Well I have to start somewhere, so how about starting with what is right in front of me, here and now. It is winter in my hut, and right in front of me are three sprigs of bright yellow winter jasmine. My gaze is resting gently on them. There they are: yellow, bright, clear. Where is this yellow winter jasmine then?

Sit; look. I look steadily and calmly at the flowers.

What is wrong with the idea that the yellow flowers are right there, where they seem to be, about two feet in front of my face? Actually quite a lot, now I come to think of it. Philosophers have argued for centuries over the location of experiences – are they in the brain that creates them, in the outside world where they seem to be, or without any location at all, as Descartesbelieved? Psychologist, Max Velmans, builds his entire theory of ‘reflexive monism’ on this question, claiming that the contents of consciousness are not exclusively in the brain but also in the perceived physical world, but few believe he has escaped from dualism by this route.

There are lots of problems. I’ll work them through as I sit very still, with the flowers before me.

I realise I have made some kind of object out of the flowers, as though it is independent of my experience. But the question was “Where is this?” and “this” is my experience of the flowers. I am seeing them from over here, and from here they appear in a particular way. This petal overlaps that one, these stalks go in just that pleasing pattern across each other; that whole shape is just as it is. I know that if I moved they would appear differently. Someone else would see them from a different angle. The trouble is that I am imagining an abstract three dimensional space and putting these actual flowers into their position. There’s nothing wrong with that. If I wanted to measure them, or paint them, I could use that abstract construction to work out the coordinates of every point in the whole complicated bunch. But that abstraction would not be “this”. “This” is my experience of the flowers right now. And the question is “Where is this?”.

How about tackling the colour. That might be simpler. This wonderful bright, special, only-winter-jasmine-can-be-like-that, yellow is right here in front of me. Where is this?

Here is the yellow, bright and clear.

I take the two obvious answers. The first is that the yellow is out there, on the petals of the flower, right where it seems to be. This is a no hoper. I know that. Here is the problem. The colour yellow is not really in the flowers at all because it only appears to be yellow when a particular sort of visual system looks at it. If a bee flew over that flower now, for example, it would not perceive it as yellow like I do. Bees have visual systems quite unlike ours, with compound eyes made of lots of little eyes instead of just two big eyes with lenses. And although bees cannot see some of the red colours we can see, they can see far further into the ultraviolet than we can.  All this has evolved because many flowers use bees to pollinate them. Over millions of years, flowers attractive to bees were better pollinated and produced more offspring than dull ones; bees that could detect the colours better got more nectar from the flowers and so produced more offspring able to detect them. So the insects’ visual systems and the colours of flowers evolved together. There are probably guide marks on the petals that I cannot see and the bee can, because they are only visible in the ultraviolet. The yellow, then, is not out there where it seems to be, in the petals of my beautiful flower. It takes me, and my particular eyes, and my particular brain, as well as the flowers, to make this yellow.

Hmmmmm. Let’s try the other tack. The yellow is in my head.

I know something about that too, and it doesn’t help. When I look at a yellow flower the colour receptors in the back of my eye start firing with electrical bursts, and send signals along the optic nerve to my brain. Because the flower is yellow some nerve cells fire more than others, and this information is carried on to the visual areas at the back of the cortex. There, in areas called V1, V2, V4, and so on, there is more firing of certain groups of nerve cells and less of others. If I were looking at a purple flower, the proportions firing would be correspondingly reversed. So if neuroscientists could look inside my brain in enough detail, they would probably be able to tell which colour I was looking at.

But is this neural activity the yellow itself? How can it be?

I am stuck. That yellow. It is so ….. yellow. This is how it is, but “Where is this?”

It’s time for a break. I get up stiffly, wriggle my legs, pull on my waterproof top, and set off running round the garden; up and down the paths, up and down the steps to the garage, round and round the vegetable patch. I don’t look up, but watch the ground in front of me so as not to disturb the meditation. Blurs of grey stone, and green grass pass as I run.

I feel a smile forming, though whether of delight or despair I do not know. Colours are the quintessential philosopher’s qualia; those supposedly basic, private, indescribable, raw feels that make up all our experiences; the “what it’s like” of subjective experience; the awfulness of pain or the redness of red.

Philosopher Paul Churchland is sure that the redness of red simply is the patterns of firing within our brain… Dan Dennett rejects the entire concept of qualia, along with the “actual phenomenology”, the what it’s like now. There’s no such thing, he says. …

No such thing as what this is really like?

Well, is there? I slow down, the passing grass slows down. It’s green. What is this greenness of green? It’s like. Um.

Settle down again. I slowly, slowly light another incense stick, paying attention and moving with care. Calm the mind again and look. The rain is easing and the yellow flowers are where they were before.

There’s something very obvious here. I began by separating out those lovely yellow flowers from everything around. I lost “this” altogether. “This” is the whole thing; the whole experience; this.

All around is the hut and the garden beyond; and beyond that the city with its droning cars and distant sirens and thumping of some machine. All this comes and goes, waxes and wanes. The flowers are there in the midst of it all. So Where is this? I run through that now familiar route. My eyes rest gently on the flowers as I mentally traverse the space between them and me. There’s the step, there’s the floor, there are my knees – getting hazy now – there is the rug and my hands hardly perceptible – merging into …. what? Right where I thought I should be, here are the yellow flowers. Here they are again. And me? Only a nameless void, filled with the yellow flowers.

A petal drops.

It is night time in my hut. A candle sputters somewhere behind me. I look up. Most things I ignore when I’m meditating but I need to know that the candle isn’t going to burn the place down. I look up in front of me. I see the reflection of the candle in the window, sputtering a little, flickering back and forth. There are two of them; candles hanging in their glass globes. In the window I see their reflections, back and forth, one directly, another from behind, this one reflected twice in both the windows, the other three times, another (I lose track of which) five or ten times, reaching out in an ever diminishing flow. Where are they? Are they in front or behind? Do I see the candles? their reflections? an image in the glass? an image projected into the space beyond? Where is this?

I have no idea. The rows of lights pass right through me, or pass through what I once thought was me, or where I once thought I must be sitting. Where is this?

There are many things that happen all at once, or separately, or in their several threads. The rain spatters on the roof in a steady drum. Odd drips fall on to something loud, somehow separate from the rain. Oh – and there’s that perpetual traffic sound that someone seems to have been listening to all this while. And there are birds singing from time to time. All around is the space of the hut, and the matting clearly there in vision, and the cold of the damp air. Where is this?

Suddenly a plane bursts overhead …

My investigations haven’t got me very far. I settle down to watch and ask. Where is this? This? I realise I have no idea what I am talking about. For I omitted to ask the simplest question at the beginning. Which “this” am I supposed to be asking about? There’s “this”, and now there’s “this”. And there are all those threads, going on their ways and seeming to stretch backwards into some indeterminate past. Someone seems to have been listening to that oh so regular breathing – slow and steady, clouds of visible breath coming out of nowhere and disappearing again into the invisible air. Someone was hearing that occasional call of the blackbird in the tree, now, and again now. This bird or that? Breath in and out. Which is this? Where is this?

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How does thought arise?

Excerpt from Chapter 5 of Ten Zen Questions

(Note: the chapters vary a lot in length.
This is one of the longer ones so I have cut quite a bit from it. Cuts are marked as …)

This question is not one I set for myself, but one that took hold of me on a retreat at Maenllwyd in March 1993. The question itself was embedded in a series of questions, and these were embedded in a yet longer series of exercises. Though I struggled with them, I loved these questions, and returned to them on later formal retreats, on a solitary retreat at the Maenllwyd, and finally at home in the winter of 2007 in my shed in the garden. I describe here just the first (now fifteen years ago) of these attempts.

Called “Introducing Tantra to the Path”, this retreat was not one of John’s usual Western Zen or Chan retreats, but was intended for Zen practitioners to get a taste of a different approach, one derived from Tibetan Buddhism rather than Chinese or Japanese Buddhism. The five days of structured meditation were based on a notebook compiled by a Tibetan master and brought back from India by John himself some years before.  …

On the first day of our retreat, as we all sat round the hall on our cushions,  John told us this story, and entrusted us with a few photocopied pages from “Tipun’s notebook”. But we were not to read them yet. First we had to calm the mind.

The first day was horrible. At 5.30 a.m. someone banged together two pieces of wood, the usual rising signal at Maenllwyd, and we had to be dressed and outside within ten minutes. There, in the farmyard, in the dark, John led us in a few vigorous physical exercises, gave us some simple instructions for the day, and then sent us off for tea before the first long sit began.

It was cold, I was sleepy, and I did not like having to sit still for hours on end. As the sessions of calming the mind proceeded I wondered why on earth I had come. My mind drifted off into fantasy, wild speculations, and thoughts of how long it was until the next meal; I felt my head jolting as I dropped into microsleeps, and full blown hallucinations attacked me. Then I jerked myself awake, angry with myself for drifting off. Great meditation! But I got through it.

The next day was quite different. I grabbed every chance I could to sleep, even for a few minutes, and began to feel better. … It was later on this second day that John gave us the first of the questions. He read slowly from Tipun’s notebook.

To examine the basis of the mind abiding (in tranquillity) and the mind moving (with thought) it is necessary to look into the following questions:

When abiding in tranquillity what is the nature of such abiding?

What is the manner whereby it is maintained?

How does the movement of thought arise within tranquillity?

Is there an essential difference between abiding in tranquillity and moving in thought?

I had never done anything like this before. The questions were so strange. But I loved being given something concrete to do instead of the usual “Make your minds bright, 30 minutes” of John’s Zen instructions. So I set to work to observe the tranquillity and the moving in thought. The trouble was, there was a lot more of the latter than the former.

I persevered. Another hour long session went by. And another. Now I began to notice gaps. Is this the tranquillity between the thoughts? Am I abiding in it? If so, what is the nature of such abiding?

It seemed to mean sitting in a world full of sights and sounds that changed, and came and went, while nothing really moved. The idea of moving in thought then made sense. The tranquillity itself seemed to be maintained by attention to the birds singing, or to the floor in front of me, or to the silence between.

A phrase came to mind from a famous Zen story in which a man asked the Zen master Ikkyu to write down some words of great wisdom. Ikkyu wrote “attention”. Not satisfied, the man asked for more, so Ikkyu wrote “attention, attention”. Still not satisfied, he demanded more, and Ikkyu wrote “attention, attention, attention”.

This seemed, however, to be a rather special kind of attention; something like paying attention equally to everything without making any choices. As for the thoughts arising within tranquillity, that was a bit harder. They came all right but I could not see from where. So I sat and watched as thoughts came apparently out of nowhere, repetitive thoughts, thoughts set off by sounds around me, thoughts induced by people coughing or sneezing, irritating thoughts of the “aren’t I doing well?” kind followed by “No I’m not. Oh stop it! Pay attention!”. Still, for all my failures, this task made thoughts something to be observed rather than criticised, and I began to see thought as one aspect and abiding in tranquillity as another. So I had the answer! They are both the same.Someone tapped me on the shoulder. My turn. My heart beat faster. I stood up, bowed to the cushion, and slipped out of the meditation hall.

A traditional part of many Buddhist retreats is an interview with the Master; either a formal interview following set rules, or an informal one more like a normal conversation. I climbed the creaky stairs to the bedroom at the back of the house, stooped under the ornate curtain hanging over the door, and found John sitting directly ahead, facing an empty chair. I bowed, sat down in the empty chair, and blurted out how hard I’d been finding the retreat. He kindly suggested that my tales of tiredness and hallucination might contain a hint of self pity, and suggested how to combat them. Then I told him my answer to the question.

“Yes” he said “That is the classic Mahamudra answer. Still, there is a difference. Do you know what it is?” I didn’t. I said I’d try to think about what it was. “Not now” he said “I just thought you might have noticed”. I felt deflated. But I went back to work determined to find out.

That night I drifted into sleep very alert. Something observed something else falling asleep. Something heard the boards clapped together at half past five in the morning, and seemed to be still awake, though quite refreshed. I was quickly up and out into the rain.

All that day I stared into the moving mind and the tranquil mind and had no idea what the difference was, except that one was still and one was moving. Ah. But what is moving? That might help. I thought it might be the self. Of course. Yes. It’s the self that moves. I wanted to rush back to John and tell him proudly that I had an answer. But there were no interviews that day. I could put myself on the list for one the following day, but I felt embarrassed to be the first person to do so. So I set myself to exploring every change to see whether my hypothesis worked. And then somehow I got angry. I don’t know why, or how, but I seemed to be angry at everyone and everything; at people who made too much noise, at the stupid chanting and visualisations that we had to do between the sessions of meditation, at the cold, at John, at the lack of sleep, and at myself.

I was angry that I was angry, and angry that I couldn’t get on with the task. Everything seemed foggy and unreal. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be like this.

Curiously, it was one of the Tibetan visualisations that dispelled the anger. We had to visualise an extremely complicated series of actions involving becoming a creature with four arms; the arms representing emptiness, love, countless beings, and compassion.

I followed the instructions obediently, although I’d always thought these intricate Tibetan practices rather silly. Yet somehow this exercise undermined all the anger and swept it away. In Buddhism it is often stressed that compassion and insight must go together, and although I am writing here almost entirely about insight, this practice was one of many that showed me the importance of balance. It seems that anger can’t survive much compassion.

This clarity was soon gone, and I was back to worrying about that interview, my answer to the question, and what John would say. I had finally put my name on the list and was impatient for the time to come. But now John gave us a new question from the notebook. We had to inquire into whether the awareness that observes the states of abiding and moving is the same or different from the states themselves. This, he said (perhaps by way of encouragement), was preparation for seeing everything as having “one taste” and finally to step into “non-meditation”.

What? The idea of everything having one taste seemed abhorrent – even though he described it as “the refreshing taste of emptiness”. Differences and contrasts are what make life worth living. And what about non-meditation? If that’s the goal then why are we spending all these years learning to meditate?

The next day dawned bright and clear. We took one of the meditation sessions outside, looking out over the wide valley with its interminable heather and bleating sheep. A deep calm came over me. The time for my interview came and I found myself saying I did not need it any more. Everything seemed the same now. I realised that it wouldn’t have mattered whether John said I was right (in which case I’d have thought “good goody, clever me”) or wrong (in which case I’d have thought “Oh no, I’m a failure, stupid me”). His question had dissolved in the next question and was gone.

As I sat under a wind-stunted hawthorn tree, in my three shirts, two jumpers, two coats and a blanket, everything had the same taste and there was nothing to be done. The others were dotted around the hill. John was at the door of his room. The tiny cars moved silently far away down the valley, and the clouds drifted across the wide sky. When the bell rang I unwrapped my blanket and stumbled down the hill through the vivid rough grass, and back to the meditation hall.

I am back in my garden shed. It’s fourteen years since that first Mahamudra retreat; ten years since I last spent a week all alone at the farmhouse in the Welsh hills, working my way yet again through Tipun’s series of questions, reading just one or two each morning and then spending all day inquiring into them.

It’s January. It’s windy. It’s wet.

I lay the tattered old photocopy from all those years ago carefully in front of my cushion and read the familiar words.

Insight meditation is established through examining the root of (both) abiding and moving and then meditating within the experience of non-elaboration.

To examine the basis of the mind abiding (in tranquillity) and the mind moving (with thought) it is necessary to look into the following questions:

When abiding in tranquillity what is the nature of such abiding?

What is the manner whereby it is maintained?

How does the movement of thought arise within tranquillity?

Is there an essential difference between abiding in tranquillity and moving in thought?

I begin with the first question. “When abiding in tranquillity …” Ha. It’s all a trick. How many times have I thought that. The only point of these questions is to lure you into tranquillity. The answers don’t matter. But maybe that’s OK.

I sit. The wind blows. In a brief lull in the rain, the cat creeps in and sleeps for an hour next to me. It’s too windy for birds.

It’s the fourth day. I’ve been working hard these past three days, but today is not good. There was a terrible storm in the night. The banging and crashing woke me many times. I am tired and sleepy. I don’t know how a fog can be made of thoughts but it is. There seems to be no gap between them, no space into which to peek even to look for tranquillity.

I sit with it. I don’t get angry. I accept the irritation. Years ago I might have raged against my own mind, but now I know the fog will either clear or it will not. I want to work with the question but if I can’t, I can’t. I sit.

I take a break and run up and down the steps by the garage, a simple way of getting warm; ten times up and down, then round the apple trees and back to sitting again. Another session passes. I am outside again. This time I smash some wood for the fire and get hot with the exertion, damp leaves blowing past me in the fierce wind. I go back to the hut and slowly light some incense sticks.

It’s clear. There it is. Tranquillity. Where did that come from?

Keep steady, and ask “What is the nature of abiding?”

I sit for a while. It’s something like this, I think. The attention is steady – or at least it leans only slightly from this to that. Something – the space around me, the ground before my eyes – stays steady. Leaves are scudding past my door, getting stuck on the small puddles and then freeing themselves and scudding on again; the fence behind is crashing with sudden force as it flips against a tree. But if I think of them that way then the bare attention is lost. Once they become leaves and fence, attention is all gathered up into objects and the tranquillity is gone. So I stop asking and keep practising. I see and hear and feel but name nothing.

So it goes on. Stuff happens.

And how is tranquillity maintained? By paying attention. But this is not the kind of focussed attention that brings out details or applies concentration to one thing. In fact it is just the reverse. It is something like paying attention equally to everything.

… I take a few steadying breaths, and pay attention. It gets easier. It stabilises.

Ready? Yes. How do thoughts arise within tranquillity?

This seems too easy. Here I am sitting peacefully, alert, paying attention. Everything is steady and in balance. It’s easy and natural. Surely when a thought appears I will see it coming and I’ll be able to answer the question.

I go on sitting. Stuff happens, paying attention.

Oooops. What? To my astonishment I find I’m half way through a great long line of thought about how the bird table fell over in the wind and whether it would be better to pick it up now or leave it until the wind has died down in case …. Someone had been having all those thoughts and I didn’t notice! Who didn’t notice? The one who was supposed to be asking the question? Who’s she?

Oh dear. Stop and begin again. You know this happens. You know that thoughts do that. But I want to see where they come from, and how they arise in tranquillity. That train of thought was presumably provoked by the sound of a bird, or a gust of wind, but I was watching for it wasn’t I? How could I have failed to notice all those thoughts for so long?

I’m reminded of the parallel threads. There was someone sitting in tranquillity, waiting for a thought to come along so that she could see how it arose, but she didn’t see it. Meanwhile a great long complicated thought started up and suddenly the two collided. Oooops. Did the one asking the question carry on while another one had started thinking? Or did the thought think itself, or ?

I’m not supposed to be asking a thousand supplementary questions. Get back to work. How do thoughts arise in tranquillity?

As the day wears on the tranquillity stabilises. A headless body sits calmly in the garden shed. Stuff happens.

I sit down again, slowly, and pay attention. … It’s maddeningly difficult to do this after spending so long watching for thoughts to arise as though they were the enemy. I pick on a theme, set it going, and then try to watch. The odd thing is that when I do this I’m still paying open attention, and so nothing seems to move. I wonder how to let the mind move and examine its moving without holding it back. I seed some thoughts and let them loose, and watch, and hope to catch them out again after they’ve gone, and round and round. It reminds me of William James trying to catch hold of the flights between the perchings in the ‘bird’s life’ of the mind. At least I have something to do.

In experimenting this way I find there are two different kinds of thought. First there are those that happen right here, in the midst of tranquillity, like asking the question and watching for an answer. … Then there are those protracted streams of complicated thoughts that seem to catch me out. They move all right. But it’s more than that. It’s as though they start without me. They drag part of the mind away and then, since I’m so bad at catching them out, the mind seems split in two before I even notice.

In a flash of thought that seems to take no time at all I can see all this laid out as a theory about what is happening in the brain, with groups of neurons organising themselves in different places, their patterns arising and falling away, though with no experiencing self. But if I try to put it into words it seems fiercely complicated and the attempt is distracting. It doesn’t matter. I won’t forget the vivid wordless mental image summoned up. I can think about it later.

It’s my last break of today. So I take up the notes and read the same page over again. I read the now familiar questions slowly, letting the words well up within tranquillity. I come to the next line, which I have not read so far this week.

It then becomes important to examine whether the awareness that does the looking into these matters is separate from the abiding and moving states or whether it is the same.

There are three ways of investigating the experience of non-elaboration. This is done through inquiring into the reality of contrasts between (i) the three times of past, present and future, (ii)

I laugh. No. It’s too much. I haven’t even begun to think about time. How amazing this notebook is. That’s enough for today.

I settle down again on my stool and abide in tranquillity.

Or do I? There’s always some little movement isn’t there? Now slightly towards the bird song, just started up as the wind begins to ease; now slightly towards the gloss of rain on the flagstones in front my eyes; now just a tiny shift towards the feel of the cushion beneath me. What if my mind does not move at all? What if attention is completely steady, completely without elaboration? Is there anything at all left when nothing is leant towards, nothing away from. I look. It’s  ……

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There is no time. What is memory?

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Ten Zen Questions

(Due to be published in the magazine New Chan Forum 2009)

A week with a koan

One January, John Crook ran a new kind of retreat at Maenllwyd. The idea was for people to spend a whole week working on just one koan. It sounded ideal for me. So I signed up, arriving in the mountains along with twenty or so others, on a bitterly cold winter’s evening.

The first day, after the usual early rising and morning’s meditation, John read out a list of a dozen or so koans. Some were traditional Zen stories, one was a story of his own, and others were short questions. I liked some of the stories, and was reminded of them in the days to come, but one short koan stood out: “There is no time. What is memory?” It was an inscription John had seen on the arch of a Chinese temple on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. When he’d finished reading the list, he handed us copies with a list of instructions, and sent us off for a short walk, to read quietly by ourselves and choose one to be our companion for a whole week. I climbed the steep track on the other side of the stream and sat on a flat promontory looking out over the valley. As instructed, I studied them all carefully in case my decision had been too hasty, but no. This one was obviously for me.

The routine of the retreat got under way. We rose each day at 5 a.m. for energetic exercises in the frozen yard followed by a few words of encouragement and advice; then a quick cup of tea before the first meditation session of the day. Apart from meals, work periods, and a walk in the afternoon, the routine was mostly half hour meditation sessions broken by ten-minute breaks for slow walking in the yard, or exercises indoors. Our task was clear: to keep our chosen koan firmly in mind all the time and never let it go.

The first morning, when we’d all assembled under the bright stars of a frosty morning in the yard and dutifully copied John’s assorted jumps and stretches, he gave us some steadying words for the day: “Patience, Application, Persistence”.

I start work. The instruction sheet says that Western minds will first tackle the koan intellectually, but that this thinking will naturally wear itself out, so not to worry. Good. I don’t have to prevent myself from thinking. What I have is simple: – here a statement; there a question. I don’t need to rush. I have a whole week ahead. I decide to take the statement and sit with it in two different ways. First I’ll agree with it, and then later I’ll disagree with it.

I sit. I look. I look very hard. I sit and look at the carpet on the floor in front of me. But I haven’t had enough sleep. That’s the one thing I hate about these organised retreats. I start to hallucinate. The pattern of colours and squiggles on the carpet turns into big crabs that get up and crawl about over each other and make me blink and get cross. But I cannot see any time. OK then. The koan is right. There is no time. But if there is no time, what is memory?

I am out in the yard again, for slow walking meditation, looking down at the ground as I pace up and down. The frost has gone, and the mud and sheep droppings squelch under my feet. Of course there’s time. The clouds are pouring up straight into the sky from behind the hills, moving fast. You can’t have movement without time. The koan is wrong. There is time.

Hours of sitting pass. The crabs crawl and I blink to keep myself awake.

Hang on a minute. How can I tell the clouds have moved, or hear that noise as a cough, or see that John is walking? Because from one moment to the next I can remember what came before. Without memory they would be meaningless sights and sounds. And what is memory? Ha. This is a clever koan indeed. If I agree with it, then I become perplexed about memory – if I disagree with it I have to find out what time is. I begin to feel a curious respect for these seven simple words.

It’s evening and we all sit in deep silence around a flickering log fire, the smell of the smoke hanging heavy in the slowly warming house. The flames are moving all the time. So is there time in these flames? Is there a now? I could grasp a moment with a camera but there is no camera, only my eyes, and what they see keeps changing. I can’t grasp a moment from which to say that what has gone before is past and what is to come next is future.

I watch the tongues of red curling around the dried bark of a long-dead tree and try to imagine things from the flames’ point of view. Without memory they cannot have a past, a now, and a present. I get the creepiest feeling that the whole of the universe is like this. Flames, and pieces of wood, and rocks and fireplaces, and matches, and hills – none of them has time. I sit and listen to the crackling.

An ant is crawling from the pile of wood on the floor. Is there time for an ant? The ant is different from stones and hills and I wonder whether this is what it means to be a sentient being, but I don’t know. There is so much to investigate. A week seems nothing. But it’s late. I wash, clean my teeth, and slip into my sleeping bag, still holding my koan steadily in mind.

This is how far I got with my koan the first day.


The morning boards are sounding and I’m instantly awake. The words are right here. “There is no time. What is memory?”

This koan is like a magic converter that flips everything in its path into mindfulness; and it does so without a jerk. I might meander off into thoughts like, “I remember when I was here last summer when the  …”, but before I can get lost in reminiscence up come the words, “What is memory?” So instead of being cross with myself and coming back to the present with a jolt, the memory of last summer becomes food for the koan. Almost every arising thought is like this, so I am still working on the koan. Or perhaps the koan is working on me.

This morning, in the yard, where we all stood shivering or gazing dumbstruck at the beauty of night in the mountains, John gave his advice for the day: “Perfect practice” (ha!), “Persistence” (again), and “Let the koan do it”. It seems that it is.


It is the third day and we are each to have a formal interview in the library. We have been told to enter quietly, bow to a particular statue, sit down on the cushion facing John, and then, without him asking, explain how far we have got with our koan.

I have heard so many Zen stories of encounters between teachers and monks. They are always dramatic or insightful, and either teacher or pupil does something unexpected. At the end the monk is either chastised and told to keep practising, or  instantly becomes enlightened. Of course I want to become enlightened – to be hit with a stick and everything falls away and then …… stop it. I want John to approve of me, to think I’m clever, that I’m getting on really well with my koan. I know all this from many retreats. It’s just self-centred stuff that gets in the way. I know. I concentrate hard, waiting for my turn. There’s a tap on my shoulder. I get up, bow, and walk mindfully to the library.

I push the curtain aside, find the right statue and bow to it, sit on the empty cushion, pause, and then bang twice on the floor.

“What separates these two bangs?” I ask, as John sits perfectly still. “Time of course. So the koan is wrong. There is time. But we only see the time when we remember one bang from the other. From here you can begin to doubt all past things, and all future things too, because they are all built on memory. So all that’s left is “now”. You can’t doubt that – can you? But what is now? I am looking to see. That’s how far I have got with my koan.” I feel pleased with myself. I said it clearly and well.

John is impassive. “Fine”, he says.

“Aren’t you going to help me?” I ask.

He smiles and says “Continue.”

I walk back to my place in the hall.


If I can’t catch a “now” perhaps I can find what’s happening now; one might say “the contents of now”. I realise that this is the same concept as “the contents of consciousness” so familiar in neuroscience. Yes, this is my consciousness; it’s my “now”. I shall look into that.

I stare at the carpet crabs, and the unstable streaks of the wooden floor. I open my ears to the cracking of logs in the stove, to the shuffling of other people’s uncomfortable knees, and the clearing of their throats. I feel a slight pain in my calves but the more I look the less substantial the feelings seem. The longer I watch, the less like sounds and sights and feelings they are. Yet these are all the contents of “now”. What is this? What is this?

I am surprised to realise that this is the very same question that drives my life; that motivates my research, and has done for decades: “what is consciousness?”. This is all I want to do: to sit, quiet and steady, and ask this question. Surely I must be able to see if I look hard enough, mustn’t I? I must keep looking, all the time, meditating or not meditating.

This is a magic koan. It gobbles up everything in its path. Even repeating the words “There is no time” requires memory. It is a self-gobbling koan. I am looking to see what is left after everything is gobbled up.


It’s work period now, and I am to care for the twin-vault, urine-separating, composting toilets. I love them. I like the principle of dealing with waste without water, and the skilful job of tending them properly. I like working on my own in mindful silence, and getting the bathrooms sparkly clean. But the people drive me mad. They come and want to use the toilets during work time (why aren’t they doing their own jobs?), or even to speak to me (don’t they know what silence means?). But I persevere. I don’t look at people on retreats – not at all. I look at feet. It is a long habit inspired by Master Sheng Yen who told us, many years ago, not to make eye contact or any facial expression, just to bow in acknowledgement and gratitude to others. So I let the others be ghosts in shoes, and I mop the floor. Is this now?

Whether I try looking for the “now”, or ask what is in the “now”, I stumble into a kind of blindness or fog. It’s as though out of the corner of my eye I’m convinced that something’s there, but when I look straight at it I cannot see. Things somehow evaporate into insubstantiality whenever I am looking at them.

In one way this is encouraging. I remember Sheng Yen once telling us that we had to become blind and deaf, and I had no idea what he meant. Indeed, I hated the idea because I desperately wanted to see more clearly – not less. But if he advocates blindness, then maybe I’m getting somewhere.

But it’s horrible. I hate it! I keep staring into the blindness harder and harder. I don’t know how to proceed. Keep looking – can’t see. Keep looking – it runs away. Keep listening – can’t hear. Look. Look. Pay attention!

I remember that the koan is meant to be doing it, not me, and I relax a little. This helps. It even seems that I am the koan as I walk through the refectory and sit at my place at table. I am the koan as food is silently eaten. I am the koan as legs walk back across the yard. In some way that I don’t understand this seems to open up a little chink. The wretched carpet glows spaciously.

Something has changed. This is interesting (I allow myself a little academic speculation). Normally it seems as though I am conscious of some sounds or sights, and can switch my attention so that different ones come into consciousness. It’s as though there’s a me watching the things in a space called “my conscious mind”. I know this doesn’t correspond to anything inside the brain, and it implies an impossible inner space where a ghost in the machine observes its stream of private experiences. Yet it has always seemed that way.

Now it doesn’t. It seems as though everything I attend to has always been happening. There’s no jump when my attention shifts. Everything is just as it is, even as it changes. I reflect that maybe experiences simply don’t exist in time. There are brain processes going on but there is no me who experiences them, and no time at which they become conscious.  How slow I am, but now I see that directly.


Thank goodness for the afternoon walks. The hill behind the house is steep and I’m breathing hard by the time I reach the edge of the moor with its heath, and sheep, and far views of the Welsh mountains. I plod along narrow sheep tracks, through the rough stalks of heather, walking steadily, staying mindful, asking my question as I go. The heather and rocks pass through me as I walk. I don’t know who is walking, and I don’t know who’s moving, them or me.

Then I’m laughing and laughing and laughing. There are no “contents of consciousness”! Of course. It’s so obvious. Experiences are scraps; they’re not grounded; they are not in anything; they’re not centred anywhere, either in time or space. The world we think we see or hear – is always a memory. And what is memory? Ha ha!

I am grateful to this amazing koan; to this transforming, self-gobbling meme, to these circumstances here in mid-Wales, to my parents, and to this little sturdy, willing body for which I suddenly feel much affection. My downfall is yet to come.

It’s the second to last day and I am throwing myself even more fiercely into looking for the “now”. The “blindness” is intense, but it isn’t anything as tangible as blindness, making it all the more frustrating. I can’t find the “now”; I can’t see what anything is like, even though it’s right in front of me. So I feel as though I can’t see at all.

Why don’t I just stop trying? I stop trying and fall into a spaciousness and deep quiet. But I don’t rest there; I want to understand; I want to keep looking.

Standing in the yard, staring blindly out over the beautiful scenery, I get the most powerful impression that if someone taps me on the shoulder I will explode. I’m quivering, on the edge of something terrifying.

No one does.

Sheep go on bleating.

It’s my last interview and I’m so frustrated that I just shout at John, really loud. I want him to understand. He’s sitting calmly, and I’m frothing and screaming inside.

“You talk glibly,” I accuse him, “about the answer to ‘what is this?’ being ‘just this’, but there is no ‘this’, is there? I can’t see a ‘this’. Can you?”

He doesn’t tell me whether he can or not, and I want to know.

“I can see you”, he calmly replies.

I’m shouting back, “That’s not good enough” (because obviously in my frame of mind there could be no such simple thing as seeing someone).

“What’s this all about?” he asks, and I explain about Sheng Yen and the blindness, and there being no now, and no contents of now.

“Ah yes,” he says. “You’ve entered the Great Doubt”.

That great Zen phrase sums it up to perfection. It’s not just an intellectual, wordy doubt, but a doubt about every aspect of every experience. What is this? This? and This? I have no idea any more. I want him to tell me – to tell me how to look differently; how to see through to the world in a different way. He would not, or could not. Perhaps it is not like that. As I leave he tells me to take it a little more slowly.

A little more slowly!! When I’m bursting with …. well, with what? There’s nothing to do but follow his advice. I feel deflated. The passion and tension leak away. I go back to my place with tears drying on my face and get on with sitting.

My knees hurt. For the first time on this retreat, I feel pain in my knees. The meditation is more like it usually is on retreat: tedious, an effort, boring. I plod on.

“Stuff that” I think, after a welcome tea break. I’m not a Buddhist. I haven’t taken any vows. I’m not devoted to doing whatever real Buddhists would do in this situation. I want to find out about the mind, and this great effort of inquiry seems to work, so I’m going to do it again, whatever he says.

I start on a new tack. Do past and future look different? I call up examples of each and look at them one by one. For the past I remember years ago when I lived in Pear Tree Cottage, and the children were small. I see them playing in the garden. I can visualise the layout and see them running about. It has a certain feel to it: mind feel, imagination. OK, so now for some future. I think about when I’m going to leave Maenllwyd at the end of the week. I imagine getting in my car and turning carefully in the muddy yard. I imagine driving down the valley, opening and closing all those gates for the sheep. I can visualise the layout and see the twists and turns of the track. It has a certain feel to it: mind feel.

They’re all just the same stuff – memory stuff; imagination stuff. Past and future can be held in mind as equivalent. What then comes between them? The “now” is supposed to, of course, yet I have already realised that it cannot be found. There is no longer a past, a present, and a future, laid out in a line with me moving along in the middle. It simply isn’t like that any more. The question “What is memory?” turns out to be the same question as “What is this?”.

So what is all this stuff? How, and where, and when, is it arising?

It’s the last day of the retreat and I set to work again, looking into the whatever it is. I conjure up past things, and future things, and completely imaginary things, and present things. Although I can label them differently, and they vary in vividness and how much confidence I have in their details, they all seemed to be made of the same kind of stuff. It is somehow manifesting itself, but how? And where? And when? As I say goodbye to John I tell him that I have a new question, “When is this experience?”. He laughs.

Before driving away I walk up on to the rainy, windy hill, where everything is movement and change. I’m being mindful, but then I have a sudden thought. After so many years of practice, there is one thing I thought I could rely on; that I know what mindfulness is. It is being fully here in the present moment. But now I know that there is no such moment. So what is mindfulness? I know it’s different from not being mindful. But how?

So this is what I am left with at the end of this retreat. The one thing I really thought I had learned in all these years is overthrown.

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When are you ?

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Ten Zen Questions

It’s spring time. At least, at home the crocuses and daffodils are in flower, but spring has yet to arrive at Maenllwyd. The hillside looks bleak as I drive into the muddy yard and drag my case and sleeping bag into the house, to find my designated bed space and see what job I’ve been allocated for the week.

The others are arriving. I don’t like to talk but John insists we all sit round the fire and introduce ourselves before we go into silence. He tells us that the first thing is to arrive; to be here in the presence of the given, here and now. Over all these years this place has seeped into me. It feels as though it and I are part of the same arriving. I’m not separate from this old house, muddy yard, and the two great sycamore trees that I know so well. It’s odd to realise how much of oneself is not inside, but out there. I think of old people with failing memories who need their familiar places. Part of who they are remains in the walls, and tables, and steps that they see every day. So part of me is this house and this yard.I lay out my bed, my extra rugs, my few simple warm clothes, and get firmly back into the habit of not looking at anyone, and being mindful. Tonight a short sit and bed. Tomorrow the koan.

~  ————————————  ~

Day one, and my koan for the week is already proving more varied and interesting than it appeared at first sight. I chose it, sitting on a rock half way up the track, where there’s a view right down the valley. The words leapt out at me when John read out the list. I was worried that it was too close to my previous koan ‘There is no time. What is memory?”, and I might get bored, or learn nothing new. But leap it did, and I chose it. So here I sit, the first day, ready to begin asking “When are you?”.

It’s obviously about time and self, I think, but I’ll just feel my way around the question before I work out what to do next. Thoughts shift around. I’m still settling in. I’m trying to be mindful. And, ah. This question promotes mindfulness of itself. As I’m sitting here, and thoughts come up that drag me away from the mindful present, they are mostly of the “I wonder if …”, or “I remember when …”, “I want …” variety. In their self-centredness, they remind me of the question “When are you?” and I’m propelled back both to the present and to the question. So far so good. I can work with this.

There are three words. So how about tackling each in turn? (I faintly wonder whether I can really spend an entire week doing nothing but thinking about three words – and three very ordinary words at that!). But I’m being mindful. Don’t think about a whole week, it’ll only terrify you. Be here, now, and concentrate.

When? The whole of the first day I sit and watch the thoughts prompted by that simple first word: When? Memories arise. That holiday was years ago. Yes, but when? I realise I’m inventing a series of years and dates, and placing that holiday in position along it. I’m remembering what the builder said last Thursday, and visualising my diary with its whole structure of days and weeks, and the order in which things happen. Really the thought is happening now, isn’t it?

I see myself at home in the kitchen. When was that? Do I mean when did the event I am remembering actually happen? Surely not, because I cannot remember it precisely. Indeed it’s probably an amalgam of many such times when I’ve stood in the same kitchen, doing similar tasks. So it’s impossible to say when it was by objective time. So I must mean when is the memory happening? I would say that it’s happening now, except that now’s already slid past.

“When” is very confusing. I must just keep at it.

We sit. We walk in the yard. We carry out our jobs in silence, and eat our meals in the dusty refectory at the side of the house. I’m kitchen assistant. I carry the dishes mindfully, not looking up, placing them in front of people whose eyes I never meet. When?

~  ————————————  ~

It’s the second day. I’m settling into the place, into mindfulness, into really being here. The weather is fabulous: cold, frosty mornings when we’re up in the dark and out in the yard; clear, cold days with the palest blue sky and a watery sun.

I’m on my cushion. I’m going to move on. I’m going to tackle “are”.

I feel “you”, or self, threatening to intrude, but I will stick to “are”.

This seems a bit daft. What can I do with “are”? Are; am; to be. To be or not to be … of course, there’s a simpler meaning to this question, something like “When are you?” as opposed to “When are you not?”: something like “When do you exist?” as opposed to “When do you not exist?”. This is about being here and not being here; about being mindful and not being mindful; about when these different states happen. I can work with this.

Right now I am mindful. I am sitting here and concentrating. When is this? I try to flip back and forth between being here and not being here, but I can’t. Whenever I am working on this koan I seem to be present. There is someone here doing the asking and it is. This is a familiar one, I realise. It’s just like asking whether I’m conscious now. Whenever I ask the question the answer seems to be yes. Whenever I am asking, I am. I stare into it for a while. And another long time.

As the slow minutes tick by I get distracted into wondering when the bell will sound, how many more sessions it is before dinner, and thinking about a friend I should have rung last week. They are all self-related thoughts. So “I” was in them. Thinking about almost anything brings up a “me”. But I can see it’s all fiction. It’s all just thoughts whirling around an idea of me. Not yet. I’m not supposed to work on “you” yet. I’m still on “are”.

I start on a new tack. If I’m asking when I am and when I am not, then I’d better be able to look into both of them and ask when they begin and end, when they happen. But I can’t. Every time I try to see when I am not, I fail. I can’t see myself not being. Hmmmm.

OK. Let me try again. Can I somehow let go of myself and leap off into nothingness, so that I can know I wasn’t then, and then come back and know that I am again? It sounds worth trying. All I have to do is to cease being. I must throw myself into non-being. I must let go.

It flickers. For a moment I seem not to be; not to be anything at all, gone. But in a flash I’m back, asking the question. Did I really disappear? When was that? I laugh. I don’t know.

OK, try again, let go, reappear, and then ask when. I get this slippery sense that if only I had the courage, or the skill, or something …. then I’d be able to drop out of existence entirely and come back again, but it does not happen. Perhaps I am afraid that the me who comes back will not be the same one who disappeared. Indeed I know it will not.

There’s something very peculiar about this. I begin to sense that I and the koan are inextricably linked. But I don’t understand the feeling. I keep working. Are.

~  ————————————  ~

We are all to have interviews, and this time they are not with John but with one of his trainee teachers called Jake, with John sitting by. I await my turn. The tap on the shoulder comes. I walk mindfully into the library and sit down with the two of them.

Out it all comes. I burble on about what I’ve been doing, and throw in the odd joke about John, and we all laugh.

“Do you have any questions?” Jake asks.

I don’t. I feel rather stupid for not having any questions. I say “No” and just sit there.

“What is it like having no questions?” he says, and I’m stumped.

He repeats the question.

“It’s just getting on with it.” I reply, and am dismissed.

I’m all shaken up as I sit back on my cushion. I can think of so many much better things I should have said, and I can’t shake off thinking about them; such a pointless and stupid activity: wishing I’d done something different. I could have said, “Nothing. There’s nothing it’s ever like to be anything”. That seems to be the conclusion I’m coming to, but I wonder whether I really mean it. Since the science of consciousness is all about “What it’s like to be” something, then this claim would be rather serious! It makes me laugh. I wonder whether Jake realised how pertinent his question was.

I could have said, “Dead”.

I could have asked him all the questions I really want answers to, like, “ What is it that you know, and I don’t?” or even “When are you?”

It’s pathetic. Stop it! I take a deep breath and get to work again. Are.

~  ————————————  ~

It’s day three. Somewhere out there in the rest of the world it’s Sunday. Forget that. Come on now. See the wooden floor, hear the sheep and the crackling of the wood stove, pay attention! Today you are going to take up the third word, “you”.

I can already see that there are several branches to this one.  I begin to explore. I’m going to ask who I am, look at myself, and then throw in the “when?”.

This is fun. I have licence to think about myself. I remember when I was a little kid, with a big bandage on my arm from the operations I had on my hand. I see my parents’ house with its garden and garage and path. I imagine myself at home … but stop. When is all this? It’s both then and now, but I can’t pin either down. These are fictions. Horrible fictions. They aren’t real. They are just thoughts about a person bubbling up now, but what about now. Oh no. I can’t bear that one again. I’m not going hunting for a now that I know I won’t find. So when are you?

There is someone asking the question, isn’t there?

~  ————————————  ~

This morning, after exercises in the yard, John said that everyone will tackle their koan in their own way; as gloomy or fun; as science or philosophy, as poetry or pain; but whichever it is we must not forget to move on.

“Hold your koan” he said. This isn’t difficult. I am working hard and the koan does not leave me, at least not for long. I’m encouraged as we file into the hall to sit.

Every day we get up in the cold dark and the sun slowly rises during that first hour’s meditation. Today we emerge from the meditation hall into a brilliant world of bright sun gleaming off a dense white hoarfrost that falls away down the mountainside into a rippling valley fog. Tears well up. I stare. When is this?

But I’ve plenty to do. If there’s someone asking the question then I can ask when that person is, can’t I?

This is fun too. Sit down, ask the question; look into who’s asking and then ask, “when is this?” I was unprepared. It caught me unawares.

~  ————————————  ~

“When are you?” I’m the questioner asking the question. I turn back to ask the questioner “When are you?” and it’s the question asking me who’s asking the question and …..

It’s all gone wrong. The question is hovering right there in front of my face but I’m not sure whether I’m the question or the face. But anyway it’s not the face at all, it’s whatever lies behind the face. The question is staring into the space behind my face and is finding nothing but the question. It seems as though all my life there’s been a skin or a veil between the me inside here and the world I can see out there – not a real skin, obviously. Indeed I’ve no idea what I mean, but now it’s not there and I can sense something missing. The whole of my head is opened up. In fact there isn’t any head at all, or back to it. It’s as though I was looking in a mirror before, and now I’m not. There is no division. There is no back or front. No behind the mirror or in front of it, no inside or outside. The question is asking itself through me and I am ……

I don’t know, but I’m skilled enough to see that this is an opportunity, and I could blow it. Don’t panic. You know what to do now.  Remember the old Mahamudra teaching: to recognise and experience insight, and remain in the experience of non-elaboration. I don’t elaborate. The question keeps asking itself. The glass isn’t there. Everything is adrift but there’s something gloriously refreshing about it. John’s “refreshing taste of emptiness”?

~  ————————————  ~

I’m scared. The work goes on and sustains me, but if I reflect on it, as occasionally I do, in spite of the mindfulness, I can see that everything is falling apart.

~  ————————————  ~

It’s the last day and I’m back on my cushion; same floor, same fire, same bleating of the sheep – or are they different sheep? Different bleats? No matter. To any of them I am going to say “When are you?”

I begin. A bird shrieks out; a curlew I think. When are you? It’s obvious, and loud. The great sound was suddenly there; it lasted for a while (or I could later remember it as having lasted for a while); and then it was gone. I can perceive its temporal form, its sonic shape, but when was it?

The fire is still crackling, as it does. When is that? I notice it’s one of those backwards threads again; the crackling’s been going on for some time but this me wasn’t listening to it; I was busy with the curlew sound. Do I ask “When are you?” of that unlistened-to crackling as well? I reason that I am supposed to be asking the experiences themselves when they are, so if I wasn’t experiencing it at the time then it doesn’t count. So it began only when I noticed it. Yes, but when I noticed it I could already remember it having been going on, as though I, or someone, had been listening for a while. In that case I must ask when it was; but it was already a memory by the time I noticed it.

Stop it! Stop it! It’s all right to think but this is getting you nowhere. Look! Listen! Watch! And I do. And I see.

Each sound, or taste, or feel, or thought, has its own shape or form, its own way of being, but I can’t find any beginnings and ends. Just so long as I’m hearing or seeing it, then it is what it is; with this form in time and space. But they aren’t in time and space. It’s as though the notions of time and space arise within the things themselves and disappear when they disappear. It’s as though they persist only when I am conjuring them up – listening or watching for them – and when they stop existing I cannot say when or where they were.

There is no more mirror; no distinction between self and the world. There is just this stuff springing up out of no-place and no-time, with no continuous someone to whom it appears. So what is this stuff and where is it coming from? I peer into the nothingness out of which it all seems to be manifesting itself.

Everything is like this. Everything, and I have no idea where it comes from – even right here in my own mindful experience.

I look harder, as though straining to see into the cracks between the things will help. But as soon as I look I’m creating something, and it’s the uncreated I’m trying to look into. I conceive the notion that it’s time to leap into the source and disappear.

I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.

The koan is still there. And I realise with some relief that it’s probably not going away. If everything else falls apart the question will just go on asking itself. If I fall apart, the koan will still be there. I’m ready. I feel as though I’m on the edge of a cliff and ready to throw myself off. Or it’s tinier than that. It’s more like the top of a flagpole, or a wobbly stick that I’m stupidly clinging to the top of. Go on. Jump. Jump. Let go. You know you’re just a fiction. There’s nothing to lose. Go on.

But I cannot, or do not, or the whole idea was misguided. I am left, again, quivering at the edge, things happening in no place and no time, emerging out of nothing or something. I’m tired.

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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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