Striving

Adapted from a talk given on Day 1 of the February 2006 retreat. Transcribed and edited by John Francis with further editing by Toni Packer.

A few days ago, I read an article whose author maintained that human beings, with few exceptions, are seekers — that seeking is the prime movement in human beings. What is it that we are seeking? Are we trying to feel secure? Are we seeking happiness, companionship, presence (like “here-ness” or “now-ness”), peace, harmony, a long life? You name it! Isn’t it mostly a product of the thinking brain, put together from memory of past experiences and the desire to experience them again? Are we seeking the summum bonum, the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to us? We may not have experienced it yet, but fantasy provides plenty of examples of what it would be like, and how tireless striving could bring it about.

With the word striving, Goethe’s celebrated drama Faust comes to mind — a play in two volumes dealing in great detail with the life of Faust, a restless, ever discontented seeker in the Middle Ages. In the first part of the tragedy, Faust makes a pact with the devil Mephistopheles. If Mephisto can present Faust with just one moment of total bliss of which Faust can plead, “Do remain with me, thou art so beautiful!” Then he would put Faust in chains and carry his immortal soul away. And this very thing actually happens at the end of the second volume. After myriad experiences throughout his life that have left the aged Faust hopelessly malcontented, he now finds himself next to the vast ocean of a low country (maybe the Netherlands). Here he envisions an industrious, hardworking people creating a prosperous existence by transforming the restless sea into fertile land, filling the edge of the oceanside with earth and surrounding it with levees to provide ever more productive living space. It will be a land, Faust fantasizes, where free people, though surrounded by constant danger, will spend their daily lives fighting valiantly for their freedom. Gripped by the ecstasy of this vision, Faust exclaims: “Seeing ever new living space created by human beings for human beings, I declare this the supreme moment of my life!”

Even though the anticipated moment hasn’t actually arrived yet, Faust is totally satisfied with this fantasy, to which he gives vivid expression. The instant Mephisto hears Faust declare this the “supreme moment” of his life — “Stay with me, oh moment, in your unsurpassable beauty!” — he appears and snatches away his soul. But he hadn’t counted on the angels, who, sweeping down from heaven, retrieve Faust’s immortal soul, and, much to Mephisto’s chagrin declare that whoever zealously aspires is worthy of redemption. With that said they carry Faust’s immortal soul to heaven.

I don’t know how this strikes people who, after years of admonishment in talks, books and dialogues, find their restlessness clearly coming into awareness. Can this moving from one thing to another in ceaseless striving begin to let up? Not that anything is promised as a reward for this awaring. You have to see for yourself whether becoming aware of our ceaseless inner and outer movements to strive, to gain, and to attain will actually reveal the immovable stillness of nirvana (literally meaning something like mmovable). Can there unfold an acute listening to our physical and mental movements of striving to get someplace?

For Zen students, this place is the state of enlightenment that one has read about and maybe has had brief glimpses of — and then wanting that again, wanting to attain enlightenment forever. Although most Zen texts do not just say “become enlightened,” but warn at the same time: “What you are running after and forever reaching for is not it!” But we have to discover that for ourselves — not just hear or read about it! So, does it take an effort to inwardly listen to this whole fabulous movement of striving?

First of all we have to clearly see: Are we engaged in striving for something? I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t find something that they are striving for — peace and quiet, harmony, absence of conflict, enlightenment. We all strive to attain, even though a Buddhist sutra says “Attainment too is emptiness.” It’s a wonderful sutra in which one thing after another is systematically negated. There’s nothing left in the end because — “Attainment too is emptiness.” There’s nothing to get — nothing — all is totally insubstantial. Attainment is unattainable. So what is this bodymind constantly engaged in seeking?

Can we first look inwardly to see whether there is such an engagement? You may immediately say, “I’m not engaged in striving, I’ve come here for years and I have learned not to engage in striving.” But, that answer comes much too quickly. It takes careful, conscientious, honest looking. And if there is this inward attending, inward listening, we will encounter many movements towards something or away from something. And to be very careful to let listening stand completely on its own — not listening for something, looking at something, or attending to something. Is it possible to drop these prepositions, and just listen — without even a listener? No preposition, no listener. Just the movement of this whole moment coming into awareness all by itself. And then wondering, “What is it that this bodymind is seeking?” “I thought I was done with that, that I was no longer a seeker, but here she says, ‘Look carefully, closely, see whether you can still detect some striving.’ So let me see, am I seeking something?”

Can we throw out all of our previous ideas of attainment and watch freshly whether there is something we wish to attain, today, this instant? Listening from moment-to-moment, without knowing ahead of time. If you know something ahead of time, like Faust anticipating gaining land from the sea, that wouldn’t count! That is already living in the realm of fantasy, and we’re trying to see whether we can live actually, this moment, concretely, not in fantasy. Can this anticipating, wanting, or striving toward attainment come into awareness by itself? I can’t speak for you, but is it possible for each one of us to turn awareness inward?

Awareness does not really know inward and outward — whatever is going on this instant simply appears. And what is going on? I am not saying that what is going on is wanting to attain. Maybe you are already sick and tired of hearing about it. Maybe what you would like most is to have this talk over with and get to the pea soup lunch! So, what is it that occupies the bodymind this instant? And, in fully observing what is going on here this instant — is there a noticeable slowing down? Awaring the franticness often results in slowing down. It is a seeming paradox. And the more slowing down of thoughts, the clearer the vision. In hecticness there is very little that can be seen clearly. But as soon as everything slows down, we see in much more subtle detail what is happening. Not what we want to see — let’s be very careful because there is great power in our desire to shape things — hectic wanting can produce mirages — but what’s here, actually. If we urgently need to see clearly, then there is a good likelihood that we will.

So, how slowly can the mind and body proceed? One could say, as slowly as though it was standing still or being arrested. The word “arrested” has the word “rest” in it. Can we just rest for one moment — a moment of awaring, listening, inward looking? Not looking for something, because in that “for” there’s already disturbance. Just find out what’s here, what is happening. And you don’t know what is happening, you don’t know. You’ll be surprised. Do you want to be surprised? Is that wanting creeping in again? Let it “creep out” again! We don’t need to imagine anything because everything will present itself fully. Wholly. Wholly with a “w” in front, means completely. That is wonderful, the similarity of the two words “wholly” and “holy”, because what is complete is also holy without a “w.” Meaning not exactly of this world, which is so fragmented, so cut up into pieces. And in quiet listening, attending — can it all come together again this moment, with no “me” standing outside? Is there a “me” standing outside of this whole experiment here? “Me” doing it, “me” looking, “me” striving? Or is there just what is going on — the viewing, the awaring, and that which is in awareness, without any division?

Do I hear you say “I don’t know what no division means?” You don’t have to know it. Actually it is unknowable. The moment you know it, there’s a knower and what she knows and the thing is cut in two. Thoughts arising, awaring — is there someone who has thoughts, or are there just thoughts arising and diminishing, ceasing, and then new thoughts? That there is a thinker is just another thought, isn’t it? Look at it. If you say “I can’t look at it, I don’t know how to do it,” you don’t have to. There is no “I” that has to achieve, to get results. There is only this moment of thinking, “I don’t know how to do it” and the effects of that thought. Interestingly enough, the more we think “I can’t do it,” the more this becomes self-fulfilling truth — we really can’t do it! In other words, there is uncertainty and wobbliness, where otherwise there could be just steadiness of acting. So, you don’t have to know how — just listen, look, and attend. Nobody has ever taught us that and no one needs to. It comes very naturally when the mind is open and quietly wondering — what is this? [long pause]

The wind rattling, heart beating, breathing, a voice heard talking, and then silence again. . .