Where Do Thoughts Come From? What is Dying?

More excerpts from a question and answer session with Toni Packer at the Buddhism in America conference in Boston in January, 1997.

Questioner: I have a fundamental question about all the thoughts that fill us. It certainly takes sitting to allow you to watch your thoughts. It’s incredible to me, the thoughts that arise. And I have a basic question: What is the wellspring that produces all these thoughts?

Toni: Why do you want to know? [Laughter]

Questioner: That actually was going to be my second question: Does it even matter too much, or should I just sort of accept it? It is whatever it is, but it’s quite extraordinary.

Toni: Where does all this stuff come from?

Questioner: In miraculous ways there is a natural curiosity — from whence does this come?

Toni: Do thoughts come from memory? Let’s examine it directly. Can you think right now of the house in which you live? The memory of your house generates thoughts and images about it, doesn’t it? Since I don’t have any memory of your house, no images of it are generated in my mind.

Now — where is this memory located? Is it all located in our individual brains, or are there memories elsewhere — somewhere out in “space,” in the “air?” There are all kinds of ideas about that, even a scientific theory proposing that memories could be fields — non-local memory fields beyond individual brains. The burgeoning spread of computer skills among people of all walks of life may indicate the existence of non-local memory fields facilitating such learning. A vast storage-field of collective memories may be manifesting in individual brains.

Now you could say: OK that’s all fine, but where does memory come from? It comes from experiences, but where do experiences come from? Where does everything come from? If such questioning persists and won’t leave you in peace, can you sit with it without knowing the answer? As long as you know something and want to know more, the mind keeps spinning in an interesting, theory-creating way. But to sit quietly with all the remembrances, thoughts, and feelings, unable to fathom where they come from; to behold the urge to speculate about it, and yet not enter into it, just opening up to simple not-knowing — there is a moment of the emptiness of not-knowing anything, letting be what is without any interference. In this moment there is no before and after, no from-here-to-there nor in-between. Whatever is happening is complete presence without time or borders.

Then suddenly thinking: “Oh, I have got it!” or, “Have I really got it?”

Where did that come from?

A moment ago there was stillness, and now there is a thought about myself. Does it come into clear view or remain hazy? Either the thought has taken over, filling the mind with a network of ideas, or, in seeing-listening, it subsides, leaving simple awareness, presence.

Thinking about this, will you now say that thoughts come out of awareness — out of presence? I would leave hands off any conceptualization. Just watch it. Thoughts arising. We can’t even say they are arising… They’re here! There was no attention catching their first arising. Or was there?

You wanted to know where thoughts come from. Do they come out of wanting something? Wanting to know? Wanting to change? Wanting enlightenment? Wanting? Where does wanting come from? Can we sit quietly, listening inwardly without knowing?

New Questioner: I’m not sure how to ask this, so I’ll just say what’s coming up. My dad died recently. I was very close to him. There was a moment a few days before he died at sunset in bed at home and we were talking. Our eyes met, and in that glimpse, selfing fell away. He wasn’t he, and I wasn’t I, something transcended. Then we went right back in. It was like this moment, and, ah, it was very powerful, when I think of it. There was peace — like a gift, one of his parting gifts I felt. And uh, then he died. I watched his coffin being lowered into the ground, and my mind got numb…

And so I’m not sure what my question is, but just that someone you’ve known for forty-one years doesn’t exist on the planet anymore in the form you knew him. It feels like the biggest ever. I don’t know if I even have a question or just let it pop out and see what comes from you about that.

Toni: Right now, this very moment of looking-listening together, where is your father?

Questioner: It seems like a pile of memories, and thoughts and sensations.

Toni: Yes, yes, and then there’s the moment when there was no selfing. At that moment, was he even your father?

Questioner: No.

Toni: Is this is what he is right now — this present moment without “father” or “daughter?” Simple being.

[Pause]

But does this immediately become a comforting thought, something to hold onto again?

So what was he really? The one you remember being close to for forty-one years — many, many different memory images over many years — or the one dying, the one in the lowered casket? Before he was born, what was your father?

[Pause]

See, we get overpowered by thoughts and feelings that evolve out of a sad or a happy story. That’s really the biggest tearjerker, isn’t it? I am not making fun of your situation.

On the last day of retreat, I read old and contemporary masters, and poems. There is one by Mary Oliver called Boston University Hospital. Does anybody know that? It’s a beautiful poem. A couple of times when I read it, I choked up. My husband is ill, and that poem just made me choke. It’s about a dear friend recovering right next to where someone else has died. I haven’t read it recently, because I don’t want to choke up reading a poem. Without that poem, where are the tears? I am not saying tears are unnecessary or shouldn’t come up — just to listen silently and to wonder about it all.

A lot of upset with the death of somebody very close to us is linked to fear about one’s own living and dying, isn’t it? How will I live on without him? I miss him terribly. How will I die when my time comes? Will it be a painful, drawn-out death? I will no longer be here to see the morning sun rise over the hills — all this thinking, imagining and remembering, with painful emotions stirring.

In silent listening, inwardly, there can be a wondrous illumination of the conditioned, reactive bodymind. It gets more and more transparent with sustained awareness. And yet one easily gets entangled in what reveals itself — the desires, the fears, all the emotional-physiological states connected with memory and anticipation. All of it has such an amazingly powerful attraction, seriously masquerading for the real thing. Entanglement in what presents itself is instant movement away from simple luminous presence, like entering a dark playhouse with its enchanting lights.

Right at this moment, can we see our life-story permeated with awareness? Beholding it quietly in the midst of breathing and throbbing.

[Pause]

It’s not necessary to continue with the involvement in story and emotion, no matter how strongly and convincingly the body vibrates with memories. Can there be a simple shift from story-entanglement to open listening, this moment?

In this there is no fear of passing away. Coming and going is happening in vast emptiness without limitation, without time. It’s the ego-playhouses that produce all the shows of love and hatred, fun and horror, pain and pleasure, in artificial light. Fathers, husbands, mothers, babies — coming and going, coming and going, coming and going — timeless presence. Love without fear.