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.