Do We Choose Our Thoughts?

When my attention is drawn to the thinking mind, I often am amazed anew that we spend our lives with an endless stream of thoughts swirling around us that we normally imagine originate somewhere inside our heads, and are almost always totally ignoring the fact that we have no idea what this stream of thought really is. We can say they are fleeting images of letters, words, or other physical objects. We can say they are alive, because they are manifested by our living presence. But these last two sentences are just more thoughts, and thoughts don’t tell us what anything actually is, including our selves. What is also quite amazing is that in spite of our ignorance, in spite of our ignoring that we don’t know what thought is, we continually attempt to grasp onto this thought stream and imagine that we can control our experience by continually attempting to control our thoughts.

So an interesting question for spiritual inquiry is to ask who or what chooses our thoughts? Our normal waking consciousness consists of seeing objects, hearing sounds, feeling sensations, and thinking thoughts. What is our actual experience of the thinker? Is the thinker the chooser? Can we find an actual entity, either inside or outside of our head that thinks our thoughts? If we’re willing to ask this question from a deep enough place to stay with our actual experience of a series of thoughts arising and disappearing, we realize the imagined entity we label the thinker is nothing more than another thought in a series of thoughts.

Try staying still for a few moments and notice the successive thoughts arising and dissolving. If you’ve been practicing contemplation for awhile, it’s probably easy to notice a gap between thoughts. Where is the actual chooser of the next thought in that gap between thoughts? The thought of being the chooser is simply another thought in the series of thoughts produced after you read the sentence, ‘where is the chooser in the gap between thoughts?’

If you have the experience like I just had, of having the thought ‘I’ve found the chooser’, the chooser thought just appears in retrospect as the next thought in the series. We are continually fooling ourselves when the chooser thought takes responsibility for being the initiator and enjoyer of our thoughts. Our actual experience of a succession of thoughts is that the chooser isn’t there in the gap between thoughts. The chooser is just a thought saying I was there choosing between thoughts, but the chooser thought only appears later as a subsequent thought. The thought of being the chooser isn’t choosing anything, it’s just the expression of the thought of being the chooser. It’s the clown that takes the bow, claiming responsibility for thinking and choosing the thoughts after the fact. The sense of being a separate self, being a separate entity, being a separate thinking person, is that chooser thought.

This type of discussion can be difficult to digest, and one big reason can be that it gives us a sense of being totally determined by some impersonal mechanical process. Some of you may have had the recent experience of changing a password or opening a new account online and presented with a task that starts with the phrase ‘I am not a robot’. We don’t like to think that we’re programmed and have no choice in our experience which of course includes the choice of our thoughts. So we’re uncomfortable with just the suggestion that our experiences might be predetermined in a mechanical conditioned process, and particularly uncomfortable with the notion that we don’t possess free will. So we sometimes have a feeling like our innate love of freedom is being curtailed and we feel rebellious.

Our feeling rebellious is an expression of our love for freedom. We love the idea of freedom because deep down we sense that our actual being is totally free. The idea of there being a controller or a container of self limiting us is just another thought. Our real being isn’t the result of any fixed, regulated, definable, or confined system; it is simply infinite ever present awareness freely expressing itself as our life. But the separate self idea doesn’t possess freedom; there is free will, there is no my free will. The truth of our actual being is the potential to realize infinite possibilities, including the realization of our true identity. Our true identity is the spiritual life force expressing the timeless joy of boundless freedom.

The Screen of Awareness

Yogananda once said: “Just like images on the screen of a motion picture, so is everything made of shadows and light. That’s what we are, light and shadows of the Lord, nothing more than that. There’s one purpose; to realize that the beam is you.” He means the light of awareness itself, that which is now looking out from our eyes, is our true identity. The particulars of our experience, sensations, thoughts, sights, and sounds, are mere reflections on this screen of awareness. They have no substance apart from this light of awareness, this screen of awareness itself.

To try and help clarify this, imagine if our attention was drawn to the screen you’re now reading from, we would experience the uncanny sensation of suddenly becoming aware of something the we simultaneously realize is so obvious as to require no mention. And yet at the moment when the screen is indicated, we seem to experience something new.

We have the strangely familiar experience of becoming aware of something which we were in fact already aware of. We become aware of being aware of the screen. The screen is not a new experience that is created by this indication. However, our awareness of the screen seems to be a new experience.

Now, what about our awareness itself, which we all share by the way, that is aware of the screen? Is it not always present behind and within every experience, just as the screen is present and within the words on this screen? And when our attention is drawn to it, do we not have the same strange feeling of having been made aware of something that we were in fact always aware of, but had not noticed? We become aware of awareness itself.

Is this awareness not the most intimate and obvious fact of our experience, essential to and yet independent of the particular qualities of each experience itself, in the same way that the screen is the most obvious fact of the words on it, essential to and independent of each word? Is this awareness itself not the support and the substance of every experience, in the same way that the screen is the support and substance of every word?

Does anything new need to be added to the screen in order for it to be seen? Does anything new need to be added to our current experience in order for us to become aware of the awareness that is its support and substance?

When we return to the words, having noticed the screen, do we lose sight of the screen? Do we not now see the two, the apparent two, simultaneously as one? And did we not always already experience them as one, without realizing it?

Likewise, having noticed the awareness behind and within each experience, do we lose sight of our awareness itself when we return the focus of our attention to the objective aspect of experience? Do we not now see the two, the apparent two, Awareness and its object, simultaneously as one? And has it not always been so?

Do the words themselves affect the screen? Does it matter to the screen what is said in the words? Does the content of each experience affect the awareness in which, and as which it is expressed? Every word on the screen is in fact only made of the substance of the screen itself. They only express the nature of the screen, although they may attempt to describe the stars.

Every experience only expresses Awareness or Consciousness, although experience itself is infinitely varied. Awareness or Consciousness is the open mystery expressing every experience.

It is so obvious that it isn’t noticed. It is so close that it cannot be known as an object, and yet is always known just by being itself, by being aware. It is so intimate that every experience, however tiny or vast, is utterly saturated and permeated with its presence.

It is so loving that all things possible to imagine are contained unconditionally within it.

It is so open that it receives all things into itself.

It is so spacious and unlimited that everything is contained within it.

It is so present that every single experience is vibrating with its substance.

There has never been anything other than THIS.


The source knows no distraction

Alan Watts said when we try to find the essence of mind, all we find are objects. When we try to find the essence of objects, all we find is mind. Searching for the essence of mind, we can only come up with ideas that we make into objects of mind, but they are not the mind itself. When we try to find the essence of the objects and notions we use to describe our ideas–including our idea of self–we cannot locate the essence of any of them. Any conceptual label we put onto objects cannot capture what is actually manifesting them.

As I gaze out my window at the trees in the forest, there is a sense of beauty and stillness. Does this sense originate and manifest in the trees or within what I label as my awareness, or is awareness itself manifesting both? Our concepts are produced by this mysterious awareness, the presence that we are, here and now. There is no real way to distinguish who or what produces concepts other than this very same awareness.

The same dilemma appears when we attempt to define concentration. Concentration presupposes not only an object of concentration, but an entity concentrating on an object. In contemplative practice when we try to concentrate, we may ask ‘who is concentrating’? What do we concentrate on? In long years of Zen training I was taught only to follow my breathing. Suzuki Roshi would tell us to follow our breathing until the awareness of our breathing disappeared. What he meant is to follow our breath until all self conscious effort disappears. Or to put it another way, while observing the breath, observe the effort that arises. Ask the question, “What is this effort, really?” If we try to find the essence of our effort, we only find concepts or ideas, what we think it is. Is my effort good enough? Should I be concentrating harder? Am I able to sustain an acceptable level of concentration? And further, what is an acceptable level of concentration?

I never lived up to my own expectations of how well I should be able to concentrate during meditation. Whether it was my breath or some other object like a koan or a concept such as the impermanence of all things, sooner or later my thinking mind would always find a way to do its own thing. My teachers were skillful in pointing out that to the degree I set up standards of concentration, I was creating an idea of myself as someone who potentially possesses special powers of concentration. At the same time, I naturally invented the idea of something external to myself that I needed to concentrate on. Buddha warned that if we conceive of the universal mind as an entity outside of ourselves, as some ideal, we should kill that concept.

So I was caught in an idealistic practice. Long hours of sitting on my cushion brought this idealism more and more clearly into focus, so I was able to see it exactly for what it was. Thus, self-consciousness can become an object of observation. In the process, we slowly learn to let it go. That which observes our effort is not bound by ideas of a separate observing self. Often this observing self is called the witness, the one who observes whatever arises in consciousness as it is–the one who observes consciousness changing into other forms. The witness is fully concentrated on witnessing. There is no effort . There is no intention to be concentrated. There is no idea of concentration, yet the concentration is complete and all-pervasive.

In this sense, concentration means allowing our awareness to move freely. Then we are free of the need to manipulate any object of awareness. The witness is benevolent. It does not judge. It allows our wandering mind to do whatever it damn well pleases. Implicit in this process is the invitation to join in the constant peaceful witnessing. Though we do not have to join per se, we are aware that the witness is there. In fact, to be present is to allow ourselves to join in the witnessing.

Yet it is unwise to make ceaseless witnessing into an object. The thought that we are already completely one with it is also just another idea. But when the effort to resist it stops, suddenly our undivided nature becomes obvious. Students sometimes say to me, “I’m trying to be in the here and now, but it’s difficult.” How wonderful that they begin to realize how difficult it is to try to be in the here and now. Trying to be in the here and now is like trying to see what is looking out from our own eyes. We cannot see what is looking out because we are the looking. In this context, when we know what we are, we are what we know. It is impossible not to be here and now. So when we exert ourselves and make an effort to concentrate in meditation, we disguise our resistance to the focus of awareness.

Awareness is the ever-present blue sky. We hide it with clouds, with rain, with our thoughts and ideas and efforts. How does one describe the sky? We can’t describe the pure focus of witnessing. The witness cannot be acquired or possessed. To witness means to accept the invitation to join in the free, wondrous, and spontaneous exercise of awareness.

I -Thou Relationship


You are loved, all beings are loved


Martin Buber mused at length about the I–Thou relationship in his existential writings. His thesis is that we define our existence by the way we engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with God. The I–Thou relationship is an inherent part of any spiritual path—though perhaps not by the same name, as it is an inherent part of being human and living our lives with other beings. In the context of spiritual practice, ‘I’ refers to the idea of a separate self, and ‘Thou’ refers to the infinite mystery of our source. Including both the personal and impersonal, Thou is a personal term.

In the Eastern traditions, the existence of an objectified God or Gods is ever in question, just as is our existence as separate entities. The question is inevitable in Eastern traditions: Is there really any I-Thou relationship between the creator and the created? If we can’t find an actual entity that is either one, if both are merely ideas and neither point to any substantial reality, do they exist?

I was recently reading a New York Times story about the current chaos in the White House. Also on the front page was a story about a Super Nova that astronomers were keeping track of. They estimated that at the peak of this explosion, it was radiating energy 100 million times more powerful than that continuously emitted by our sun. We can’t even begin to fathom the power of our own sun, burning 24/7 for billions of years. We all have some sense of how infinitesimal the transient events of our lives seem compared to the vastness of the cosmos. Our actual being is boundless and includes everything; what are we as separate from our inter being with all beings?

Any of our attempts to answer questions like this about the Mysterium Tremendum with our thinking minds only give rise to more questions. Each of us has the capacity to frame this type of question in a unique way so that we can actually live the spirit of the question in our unique lives. One way I relate to the mystery is to contemplate that the only thing we can know for sure is that we are. We are creatures programmed to make efforts, we make efforts to relate to other people, and are programmed to believe that we do have an I-Thou relationship with them. If we continuously and rigidly try to repress that programming to relate to others, we end up severely depressed. Depression means our energy is ‘pressed down’.

When we contemplate the boundless mystery of a higher power creating and dissolving us and all manifestations in the universe, we can easily realize that we are programmed just as deeply to relate to this power as an I-Thou relationship. If we try to repress this programming in our contemplative practice, trying to bravely face a purely impersonal higher power, we end up unconsciously depressing ourselves. We are then pressing down our energy of wanting to relate to our source with our full being, which includes our very powerful inherent drive to relate to a higher power.

Many people on the contemplative path have told me they feel a strong urge for having a devotional component to their practice, but are held back by the idea of relating to something outside of themselves. When we cling to this idea, we are solidifying and fixating on the idea of an I-Thou relationship; we get stuck in the confines of thinking God, or The Mystery can be located as an object of our thoughts. We repress the urge for devotional I-Thou practice to avoid getting stuck in our ideas about it. This is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

To make use of devotional contemplative practice with an I-Thou component doesn’t mean to cling to or fixate on the conceptual form of I-Thou. In contemplative practice the I-Thou relationship is the relational aspect of spirit; it is how our actual life force, our energy, relates to our idea of ourselves. This relational aspect includes the energy of thought, like it includes the energy of our heart beat and the energy of our lungs breathing. But in contemplative practice, this relational I-Thou relationship can be an awareness of and witnessing of the energy of thought, without clinging to it, without making any meaning out of it, any more than we do with our breath and heart beat.  If we pray with and offer all of our love as our contemplation, the actual felt energy of the mystery will love us back while dissolving our clinging to anything at all.

After using contemplative prayer over the years, I realized I am not really attached to the form, the I and the Thou are not felt as solid or substantial entities. They are only more ephemeral thoughts arising and passing away. This is a way of using the I-Thou relationship, and allowing it to dissolve our attachment to it.

Key for spiritual aspirants in the West is to use devotional practice in a way that is unconditioned by the more fundamentalist and solidified I-Thou relationships of our upbringing, such as “If you forsake God and worship other gods, God will turn upon you and destroy you.” The true I-Thou relationship in the contemplative traditions is a melting of the solid sense of I into intimacy with an unconditionally loving being who knows our hearts from the inside. More and more, we are able to touch that place inside that is love. Ram Dass says: “It is being in love, really being in it, being bathed by love until it saturates your being.”





The Two Truths Doctrine

Two Truths Doctrine

Our evolution as spiritual beings includes successfully living in both the relative and absolute worlds without losing touch with either

When we address the problem of good and evil in the world and relate it to spirituality, what levels of truth may apply, and to what situations? In Buddhism, we speak of the realm of the absolute or the ultimate, the realm where all phenomenal manifestations are intrinsically one. And we speak of the relative, the world of differentiation. Truth is one in the realm of the absolute; truth is relative in the realm of the relative. In the realm of the absolute, everything is completely one with the truth of awareness. Therefore everything manifests this one truth in all its fullness, utterly complete.

In the realm of the relative, the terms good and evil, truth and untruth, are used to help us decide right from wrong, vis a vis coping with the difficulties of life. If we are stuck in the relative world with no access to the ultimate, we are easily bound and confused by our own ideas about right and wrong. We can suffer at the mercy of the desire and fear of our ego. If the ego is left to choose right or wrong, it will always decide on the basis of desire and fear, acting on what it perceives to enhance its own welfare. Even limited access to the absolute allows us to see others as we see ourselves, to walk in another’s shoes. We can see some common ground, perhaps a glimpse of our oneness, and with any problem we can come up with a solution that works best for both parties.

In the realm of the absolute, attachments of the ego are no more important than rain falling from the sky. Both are expressions of the one absolute truth. If the rain stops falling and the stream dries up, that too is merely another manifestation of absolute truth. The same holds true when our brains stop working, our hearts stop and our bodies die. In the realm where all is one, none of these means any more or less than another. We try in secular society, a relative realm, to work for the good of the many, the common good. Those who are predominantly selfish in their actions and who harm others for their own benefit are considered evil.

To mistake the relative for the absolute may be deceptively simple, but it can have huge repercussions. For example, Charles Manson had a saying, “If everything is one, then nothing is wrong.” A more accurate way to say this would be, “Yes, everything is one–absolute realm–and some things are wrong–relative realm.” Both levels exist simultaneously. They arise together. We can hold both in our awareness, and avoid getting stuck in either. Manson was stuck in his fantasies about the absolute, and apparently unaware of his own pathology. This cut him off from any chance to harmonize with the relative world. Unaware of his own dark shadow, he had a maniacal and savage way of acting out his central delusion, that he had a right to destroy anything he disapproved of. One could say he was profoundly confused rather than blindly evil. In the absolute realm, Manson’s confusion in a way was divine confusion. Still it was confusion.

In the absolute realm there is no evil, and Charley is no exception. But in the relative world, he was the epitome of evil and needed to be in prison. Our evolution as spiritual beings includes learning to live on both of these levels at the same time without losing one or the other. As Ken Wilber says, we transcend the relative and include it, we don’t transcend and exclude it. Meditation practice develops our stability as the ground of being, the realm of the absolute. This grounding helps us act from our own perspective while remaining stable in the unlimited perspective of absolute truth. The rigid distinction between the two realms gradually evaporates, while our ability to distinguish between them increases. Our own perspectives are more and more in harmony with the experience of the oneness of all beings. From this higher ground we can clearly perceive the depth of the agonizing pain caused by the Hitlers and Mansons of our race. Thus we learn to use the loving energy of a higher level of universal compassion. We hold the higher and lower levels together, and in this way we act in harmony with both.

Deeper than Pleasure or Pain

The desire for truth is in a way a most peculiar desire, for nothing can satisfy it. For those of us who have earnestly embarked on the contemplative path for some time, we begin to realize that whatever we have imagined we have attained isn’t really our deepest desire. We are always hungering for more, and we see again and again, that what we really want isn’t tied to what we think about it. We’ve spent countless hours committing to watching our thoughts arise and pass away, committing to not harboring our thoughts. Eventually we realize that more and more, the energy of our thinking is like typing on a piece of paper without an ink ribbon; there’s no actual substance there to leave any impressions.  Our longings continue, but thought energy is simply part of the energy flow; it can’t define or confine our longing in any way.

An important insight that occurred for me is that desire is the memory of pleasure, and fear is the memory of pain. Feelings of desire and fear are also simply part of the energy flow; they can’t define or confine our longing in any way. Buddha poses a very important question for us to deeply penetrate when he stated: “Sensations by themselves don’t cause suffering no matter how intense they are, it’s our clinging to ideas about them that results in our suffering.” Deeper than feelings of pleasure or pain, is wanting to know what is true, wanting to know what actually is.

We simply don’t know what our deep longing for truth actually is, but we know that it is. This is a paradox for us because we have this deep conditioning inside us that makes us convinced that longing is longing for some thing. Nisargadatta says “The happiness you can think of or long for is not the true happiness.” True happiness as he means it doesn’t come and go, and isn’t moved, isn’t pushed around by whatever experiences are going on within or outside of us. It welcomes and absorbs the pure aliveness that is in every experience. It’s what is always here, and has always been here in every experience of our lives.

Because this true happiness is always here, we don’t need to try and grasp it. We actually can’t grasp it, it is always already totally saturating us. It isn’t going anywhere, it has never gone anywhere. The paradox of longing for that which we can’t grasp, that which is always here and now, is a double bind for our egos.

A double bind is a psychological predicament in which a person receives from a single source conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made. In this context of spiritual longing and surrender, whatever we try to do, whatever we long for, or try to move away from, is an inappropriate response. Our egos simply don’t have an appropriate response. But if we’re open to our emotional life, we know we are deeply moved to act while being guided by our thoughts and feelings.

So our longing that includes the deep surrender of attachment to our desires and fears, is a participatory surrender. We become willing to surrender to the life force moving us, our ego by itself has no appropriate response. When we deeply realize this, we see there is no need for us to give expression to our longing. Consciously not doing anything, is also an expression of our longing, but we no longer need to know it is our longing. This pure longing, undiluted by conscious thought or action will speedily take us to our goal of self realization, as we learn to open to the love and compassion finding us from within. Then we are more and more free to join the spirit of our true self expressing itself in the world of our daily life.


Yogananda was once asked how can we become more humble? He replied “humility comes from seeing God, not yourself as the Doer. When you see him acting through you, how can you be proud of anything you do? I could sit here all day singing my own praises: It would mean nothing to me.  I would know that I was giving praises only to God. Humility lies in the heart; it is not a ‘put-up job.  You must actually feel that everything you do is accomplished by Him alone, through you.”

Yogananda is saying that spirit alone, our actual life force, is the real doer of all of our actions. And it is also what actually gives and experiences all that we think we experience by ourselves as separate beings. He is stating Buddha’s teaching that there is no separate self in different words. If there is no separate self, no separate entity that we can find as our actual identity, then our idea of being the doer is just as illusory as our idea of being a separate self.

When we’re willing to engage our life with awareness of these deep questions of being a separate self, of being the doer, we begin to actually live these questions in our daily activity and experience. It is our living these questions that reveals the truth of Yogananda’s and Buddha’s teachings. There are no conceptual answers to life’s deepest questions.

For me, this inquiry revolves around trying to find the actual separate self that I think I am, trying to find this doer of my virtuous and harmful activity. There is no finding here. What is actually here and now is not what we think about it. It is actually free of what we think about it. Adyashanti said about these questions, “The not finding is the true finding!”

There is also no finding of any qualities that we can possess, good or bad, including humility. The wisdom of selfless behavior is not attached in any way to being humble, or self sacrificing. It is simply spontaneous straightforward action with the clear and blissful feeling and realization that the alive mystery of our being is the true doer, and is our true identity.

So how do we live this way? What I try to practice is to just offer all desires and fears to God, to the mystery of our being, to our inter-being with all beings.  This doesn’t mean to offer all of our experience to the Divine in a dualistic way. This offering means allowing all of our desires and fears to just be as they actually are, thus we learn to no longer abide in them or be attached to them. We’re learning to live in the essence of selfless humble behavior without clinging to our ideas about what this is.

Love for a New Year

From Rumi:



I want to dance here in this music,

not in spirit where there is no time.

I circle the sun like shadow.  My

head becomes my feet.  Covered with

existence, Pharaoh, annihilated, I

am Moses.  A pen between God-fingers.

a walkingstick dragon, my blind mind,

taps along its cane of thought.  Love

clings to no thought.  It waits with soul,

with me, weeping in this corner.  We’re

strangers here where we never hear

yes.  We must be from some other town.

Not being ready yet to welcome our lives unconditionally, let’s cultivate gratitude for the fiery love within that is already saying YES to it all.



Creation Delights in the Recognition of Itself


There is in the body a current of energy, affection and intelligence, which guides, maintains, and energizes the body. Discover that current, and flow with it unswervingly. Be aware of the spark of life that weaves the tissues of your body and stay with it. It is the only reality that the body has. It is like looking at a burning incense stick; you see the stick and the smoke first; when you notice the fiery point, you realize it has the power to consume mountains of sticks and fill the universe with smoke. Timelessly the Self actualizes itself, without exhausting its infinite possibilities. In the incense stick simile, the stick is the body, and the smoke is the mind. As long as the mind is busy with its contortions, it does not perceive its source.  When you welcome the supreme teacher, again and again, she comes and turns your attention to the spark within.