What is my Innermost Core?

The following article was adapted from a talk by Toni Packer on Day 5 of the April 1998 retreat.

Someone mentioned he used to work very hard at being aware and mindful — that it was an exhausting effort. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, undivided presence is dawning on its own without needing to be forced at all! Unexpectedly, whatever is happening is taking place in effortless awareness. Is this our true being — an alive presence, undivided, without effort or conflict?

The words we use to describe this do not matter. Use the word that you find most meaningful and intimate. Sometimes we just say, listening, breathing, chirping, raining, awaring. Simply being here is all! Not as a “somebody” — a successful meditator or a poor one, for all that is thought, continuously separating and dividing.

Can thoughts of being someone important, or unimportant, become transparent in awareness, thoughts about doing well or doing poorly? The brain is in the business of constantly creating or maintaining self-identities: “I am this which is good” or “I am that which is bad.” Along with these identities go ever changing energies throughout the body, depending upon how we happen to think about ourselves at this moment. Thinking I am good brings pleasant sensations, thinking I am bad causes turmoil. Can the immediate connection between self-judgments and physical sensations come into clear awareness? An automatic happening, without anybody doing it! We believe that “we” are in control, but where is the controller in these instant connections between thought and emotion?

How quiet, how simple, can present listening be? Regardless of whether there is inner stillness or noisy agitation, can wholesome listening become quiet? Getting quieter and quieter means less and less resistance to what is here, less judgmentalness, less opposition, less fight. Quietness is letting everything be as it is, whether it is awaring fantasy, planning for the future, or worrying about the past, whether it is pain or pleasure, or an unexpected clearing of the mind.

The powerful urge to know what is going on, and instantly reacting to that knowledge, judging it good or bad, are learned functions of the brain. We are talking about the mental activity to recognize and verbalize internally whatever is being experienced from moment to moment: Like saying to oneself, “I’m having an easy time,” “I’m having a terribly hard time,” or “I will never get it” and then reacting to these evaluations mentally and physically. From age-old habit we seem to feel at home in what we think is going on, instantly reacting to the ongoing storyline, whether it is accurate or not. We rarely doubt our words about ourselves. We know the words and are not used to questioning them.

Is it all right not to know? I mean right here in sitting together quietly. (I’m not talking about knowing how to cook dinner or what plants to pull in weeding the garden.) Is it all right to live for a moment without seeking for a description, an explanation, a comment? This body-mind is addicted to its explanations — they provide the pseudo-safety and security of the known.

Being here right now, is it all right not to know what I am all about — what I am, where I am going, how I am feeling? What am I without thinking about myself, without words and pictures, without identities? It is an indescribable relief to realize that I don’t have to know anything about myself, this moment of being here, quietly!

What is going on, is going on by itself. The brain functions according to its ongoing programs, recognizing, naming, associating, comparing, interpreting, reacting. There is no me doing it — it just happens. Can this become transparently clear in choiceless awareness?

Now there is just listening and wondering whether thinking about myself has to continue this moment of just being. No need to say thinking about myself shouldn’t take place. When it’s going on, it’s going on, consciously or unconsciously. Right now, there is hearing the words and listening openly in between the words. Just the listening, stillness, now. Do we need to know what anything is?

The darkness of not knowing is prior to knowledge. It is being before knowing. Whatever is taking place habitually, can it simply come and go in non-judging awareness?

It is an amazing discovery: the less we know, the fresher everything looks! When we think we know the flower we don’t really look at it — the mind is caught up in the false certainty that it knows daisies, and therefore can’t behold the wonder. It sees the image of daisies!

The other day I washed the oatmeal pot and, thinking it was clean, put it on the rack to dry. Later, picking it up again, I noticed dried oatmeal stuck on the side. Why hadn’t I seen it while washing the pot? I thought it was clean!

Let’s look some more into this whole matter of judgment. Someone said that when they first heard a talk about listening and looking without judging, there was a happy feeling that maybe there could be an altogether different way of being — a genuine release from constantly judging oneself and others. But, in coming to more talks and meetings, this person was beginning to experience increasing judgments of their judgments! Is there any way out? Let’s look at it freshly.

Let’s see if it is possible to behold judging without judging. Or, to behold judging of judging without further judgment. Right now as raindrops are splattering on leaves, roof and windows, can the listening and looking free itself of thinking complications? Allowing whatever is there to appear, to unfold, and disappear without any need to interfere. Judgment comes and goes, the judgment of judgment appears and disappears. No need to hold on to anything in the mind. Nothing stays forever, not even rocks. Rocks eroded by water end up as sand. And what is sand? A universe of particles moving in empty space!

At times if feels as though there is a solid rock wall inside, separating us from ourselves and from each other. We may think this is a true state of affairs, but nothing stays the same for even one single instant. Rock-like ideas about me and you and the world have a tenacious longevity, but of an instant their transparent emptiness can be seen. Emptiness means no one there to judge, nothing to grasp, nothing to reject.

So, can we just be quietly aware of this movement of judgment, the constant criticism of self and others, without any need to do anything about it — just being here spaciously with whatever is happening without needing to change or work at understanding it? Understanding comes entirely on its own.

Someone told me that, while sitting, the ever-critical state of mind suddenly dissolved. It was gone. What was left was utter amazement and relief. Without doing anything, fog dissipates.

One of the functions of my criticism of others is making “myself” feel important, someone who knows what is right. We crave the security of feeling superior, of being in the know. Even knowing that I am not as good as others can become an identity to be clung to, insisted upon. It all revolves around this me thing — me this and me that. In truth the me is no-thing other than thought, memory, and sensations which happen to have tremendous electro-chemical power within this mind-body, giving it the false impression of existing as a separate entity among other separate entities.

One question that often comes up is, Can we live our life in social relations without judgments? Aren’t there things that need to be judged right or wrong in order to live together in an orderly, sane manner? Aren’t cruelty, violence, destructiveness evil, demanding judgment and condemnation?

We are not talking here about the social conventio
ns of behavior that exist in any organized group of people with their standards, judgments of transgressions, and sanctions. Here I am interested in questioning what makes for transgressions rather than judging and condemning them out of a socially conditioned mind set.

I avoid the word “evil.” Labels instantly trigger deeply conditioned reactions like revulsion, or sanctimoniousness, or whatever, obscuring clarity about what is really happening. Rather than labeling and judging, can we understand deeply, thoroughly, what is going on within ourselves and in our relationships with each other? Can we grasp directly the whole process of violence and its inevitable consequences?

We may find that we can be so entranced by our ingrained ideas, so entrenched in our collective convictions about what is good and who is evil, that ideas like “Jews are a sub-human race,” “Muslims are terrorists,” “gays are neurotics,” easily turn into reactions of blind hatred and collective rage: the obsession to hurt, punish, or annihilate the “enemy.”

So — in thinking about someone’s “wrong-doing,” are we being in a judgmental mood, blindly, stubbornly identified with a position from which we condemn or accept? Or are we in an open, impartial space of wondering and examining what is going on in ourselves, and why someone would be doing what they are doing?

Abstaining from judging someone else’s violent action for a moment, we may discover a movement of animosity and violence in ourselves. Can we examine it thoroughly, not looking away, not needing to judge? In openly looking without any defensiveness, violence and animosity speak clearly for themselves, revealing their darkening quality, their divisiveness and destructiveness — their lack of love. So, in our relations with each other, do we need judgment and condemnation, or understanding and compassion?

This is the miracle of awareness: giving birth to intelligent and compassionate action. Awareness does not judge, condemn, or accept, because it has no me-ness to be defended or nurtured. In the wonder of clear seeing, me-ness is in abeyance leaving infinite room for love.

Someone asked, “Why does this me-ness, this self-centered feeling, arise when we realize that it causes such a painful sense of separation? How did it ever start in the first place?”

I don’t know how the “me” started in the first place – maybe there isn’t any “first place.” But all of us can watch me-ness as it is arising and running, again and again, and again. We can find out about it, if we are really deeply concerned. But our concerns wax and wane — the more gratifying the ways of ego, the less concern about it; with renewed suffering the interest may return.

We often talk about getting angry when our personal ways are thwarted by someone, getting vindictive at being criticized, or tormented when slighted by others. What is it that is being defended and protected? Can we ask this question freshly as hurt is felt anew and defensiveness springs into action? We ALL suffer from this, and yet it seems so difficult to remain attentive from beginning to end. Time and again we feel isolated, ignored, insulted, or rejected, and strangely justified in feeling that way. What gets hurt, what feels isolated and rejected?

Can we start with not knowing the answer? Not just say: “It is my ego that got hurt.” That’s talking from knowing, isn’t it? We know lots of psychological stuff about “the ego,” but what is actually happening while being criticized or being told off, needs to reveal itself directly as buttons get pushed. Can we examine this not for the purpose of getting rid of ego-hurt, but rather to witness ourselves in live action?

This means attending openly as we get upset, irritated, or anxious in retreat as well as in daily life. As one tries to get to the core that generates all the fears and anger, it cannot be found. All one comes upon is a complex networking of ideas, images, and memories hooking into disturbing sensations and emotions that cry out in pain and anger, and seek protection. Is there an innermost core beyond all this?

Again, can we start out by not knowing? Can we inquire out of the darkness of not-knowing? Into the darkness of not-knowing? Inquiring does not mean repeating a question. Questioning here means, “I truly don’t know. All I know is what I remember from the past, from reading, or from hearing what other people have said.” What is the innermost core of myself, right now?

Silent wondering is facing a question that cannot be answered. All that comes to the searching brain is what it already knows — ideas about a soul, concepts of the spark of god within me, belief in a divine essence, the atman, a Buddha in my belly, or whatever. Right now I don’t even know whether there is such a thing as “within,” or an “innermost core” – those too are seen to be concepts. Can there be quiet wondering, listening, bare of any ideas?

(Long pause)

The space of listening without knowing is open, unoccupied, undivided by thought. There are birds twittering, fans humming, people breathing, coughing — a palpitating energy not confined within the skin. No one separate from all this, nothing needing to be shut out or shut in. No inside and no outside here. One vibrant aliveness without boundaries, an embrace of love.