by Richard Witteman
There is a wonderful line by the 9th-century Chinese Zen teacher Huang Po, which is often read by Toni on the last day of retreat: “Your sole concern should be, as thought succeeds thought, to avoid clinging to any of them.” For several months this phrase has been with me, and is very present as I begin writing.
It is early morning here in my office, and very quiet among the trees. The air is still, with light clouds dispersing the dappled sunlight. The wood stove is making metallic sounds, as it warms to the fire, and there is the slight-est hint of smoke in the air. There is sunlight and silence, pausing, waiting.
As things quiet down, I notice that in my body, just below the surface there is an undercurrent, a feeling of quiet agitation. It has a humming quality, a kind of background music with a tone of worry. Pausing for a moment and being with this, a subtle stream of thought is seen: words and impressions, emotions, sensations, and muscle tensions. All of these are here together, different dimensions of one whole. There is a quality of pushing and pulling, an inclination towards winding up, with muscles in the back, neck and shoulders tightening slightly and creeping upward.
This hum has a familiar feeling, a murmuring which I might not notice without being quiet and patient. These emotional tones are like the temperature of the air — they come to feel natural, and if not seen can influence everything I do. The beauty of silent inquiry is that the thinking is being seen and experienced, the emotions are revealing themselves as part of a larger whole. In my body, the felt sense moves from being tight and con-stricted, to a larger perspective of seeing and being — which includes feelings of tension. And in the seeing, the shoulders begin to relax.
Being with these tensions, I think of our larger world and how much worry is being felt and talked about. It seems that no matter which way we turn, there is another stressful story. They hardly have to be named, we know them so well. The profound implications of global warming and environmental degradation are just a couple of the things on the list.
These fears seem to have a different quality than the ones we normally feel. The issues seem large and overwhelming, as major global events happen which are beyond our control. The implications are so wide-spread that there is no safe haven, nowhere to hide, no future that seems at all certain. It is easy to be drawn towards worry and apprehension.
Taking a breath and being quiet with all of this, I think of Huang Po: “as thought succeeds thought.” Amidst these ever changing emotions, these words point towards being with my immediate experience at its most basic level: thought succeeding thought. To see that this is how it is. This is the nature of worry itself.
It is thought succeeding thought.
Huang Po’s words point towards slowing down, pausing and being still, experiencing the nature of thinking in this living moment, exactly as it is. Being with thought succeeding thought not as a theory, but as intimate experience. Each of us experiencing this for ourselves, in our own bodies — in muscle tensions, sensations, feelings, emotions. In word and story, vision and imagination. Taking the time to really be here with our direct, moment-to-moment experience of thought succeeding thought, in all its dimensions.
Over time and with patience, we come to know these movements thoroughly and intimately, recognizing thought succeeding thought within our various moods and mind states. Coming to know this as part of everyday physical experience, as integral to living as eating and breathing. In this recognition, it is possible to explore the second part of Huang Po’s wonderful phrase: avoid clinging to any of them.
These simple words are inviting us to let go of the activity which dominates our lives. Letting go of clinging and identifying with thoughts is like jumping off a cliff and having the faith you can fly. Letting go of identifying with thoughts is to dissolve our definitions of the world and of ourselves, it is to relinquish everything in which we believe we have found security and stability.
Not clinging to any of them. This means disengaging from them all. Not getting caught up in any line of thinking. Treating all thoughts alike, including our most cherished ones and those most fearful.
Our deepest beliefs and convictions, our habits and compulsions, our dreams and loves. Moment by moment, one thought at a time, letting each one go. Letting thought be what it is, without seeking truth or identity within the thinking. No picking and choosing, treating all of them the same. The dramatic passions, the ancient hurts, the desire to be loved. All of this is thought succeeding thought.
And there are no practices which can describe how to do this relinquishing. It is something for each of us to discover, moment by moment, in constantly varying circumstances and with all kinds of emotions and mind states. There is a patience to it, often happening amidst fear. A kind of dying. Being present, with thought succeeding thought, and letting go. The trying, the fearing, right in midstream, in body and mind and feeling, releasing all of it. Letting the bottom drop out.
Not pursuing any of them is a real leap of faith. All of our conditioning tells us not to do it. There are a lot of good arguments against it: How will I function and survive in this demanding world? What about values? It sounds cold and chaotic, irresponsible, even nihilistic. And how will responsibilities be met which require planning and reasoning?
The beauty of inquiry is that each of us can find out for ourselves. Looking into the nature of thinking, we discover our own direct experience of not clinging. We can see how things are when we don’t pursue any of these lines of thought. We find out if we can function, see what happens as we go about our daily life of fulfilling responsibilities.
Huang Po’s words point us towards discovering for ourselves what is larger than thought. In not clinging to any of them, we give ourselves over to that which is beyond time and place. In interrupting the continu-ity of thought succeeding thought by letting go in mid-sentence, the imaginary world of known defini-tions is broken open. In this gap in continuity, the whole construction of identity collapses. It is the clinging and identifying with thought succeeding thought that makes the illusion seem solid, that keeps us in the squirrel cage, running on our wheel and chasing phantoms. By interrupting the continuity of the clinging, the illusion is shattered.
In not identifying with thoughts, there is freedom to rest in the open space of unfathomable presence. Seeing thought stories for what they are and letting them go, the joy of being becomes known. There really is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Simply abiding here, in the heart, within all these comings and goings, amidst this marvelous play of light and shadow that is so dear. Resting here and discovering that life still happens, even without my efforts. In presence, there is a feel for the wholeness of situations, a sense of where to go and what to do. Actions arise as needed, bills get paid, things get accomplished. There is the old Zen phrase, “All day, doing nothing, everything gets done.”
And resting in presence, there is the possibility of embracing our larger political and economic world as well, with all its sweeping changes. When our well-being feels threatened by what is happening and stories of fear arise, to be with the thoughts and emotions as they move in us, feeling all of it, without getting caught up in the stories themselves.
Feeling the power of the changes, letting the uncertainty of the situation dissolve the tight hold on imagined security. Staying here, in the heart of wholeness, feeling and experiencing directly, finding ways of working with each situation and caring for one another. Abiding here, in this love that cannot be named, as all manner of currents of emotion and feeling swim about. With nothing to hold on to, simply letting go into not clinging to any of them.
A line from the story of the Buddha in his long night of awakening comes to mind: “Oh, housebuilder, you have now been discovered! You shall build this house no longer. All your rafters have been broken, your ridgepole shattered.”
There comes a moment — even in the middle of an elaborate belief or turbulent emotion — when we realize, “Oh, this is just thought, and I don’t have to go there! There is nothing sacred, solid, absolute, or necessary about any of this. My life does not depend on believing in this thought. There is no obligation to take this up. No matter how real or imposing or frightening this seems, it is just thought succeeding thought. None of this has to be taken seriously — there is no gun to my head. All of this, in mid-sentence, in mid-emotion, can just be let go!”