Discovering "IS" #1
is a two-segment excerpt from a dialogue recorded in
Berkeley on May 2, 2005. It raises several basic points that come up
repeatedly in our later, more sustained Dialogues, concerning the
central issue of contemplative practice and its relevance to both
ordinary life and science.}
Piet: I can report on my last 24 hours.
Steven: OK, good.
Piet: well, I've been getting more rest during the last few days.
Steven: now you're making me envious. Skip that part, don't tell me anymore.
Piet: so, I won't tell you that I even took a nap yesterday in the afternoon.
Steven: definitely not.
Piet: when I woke up this morning … so many things happened it’s hard to know where to start. One of the things which fell into my mind was an interesting saying by the Japanese writer Izutsu, who remarked that we usually talk about the color of the chair and the hardness or height of a chair, or the existence of a chair … but the presence or existence of a chair is very different than other attributes. He said it would be much more accurate to talk about the existence having a chair, rather than a chair having existence.
I was sort of chewing on that nice image, and at the same time, I continued trying to look for presence, or for the “is”, as you call it, or the Ch'an/Zen mirror nature you’ve taught. And somehow when I woke up this morning, it suddenly felt more natural to rest in that. And after seeing that for a while, I turned onto my side and fell asleep again. I don't do this so often when I wake up again in the morning, but this time I told myself to try it, rather than starting my astronomy work and other typical chores of the day. And spontaneously, I fell into one of these beginning Zen exercises of following the breath, and I noticed how they could be done on a much more subtle level … it felt like a very deep experience of letting the breathing do me rather than rather than my doing the breathing. It was like Izutsu's way, of having existence come first … and then having you, the chair, and me being aspects of it rather than the other way around.
So I could see how the “is” could be breathing. Also, it happened very spontaneously, rather than the body doing the breathing or the mind doing the breathing. Both body and mind were clearly late-comers, figures on the stage is part of the show, but not that central. And it was nice to stay with that for quite a while, and I then tried to keep that awareness while I was slowly starting to do other things. So yes, I can see how that goes in the direction of the things we've been talking about.
Steven: yes, this is a turning point in your practice. Usually people think about existence as attaching to “things.” If we see in a more fresh and direct way, we realize that something is involved which deserves a prior and primary status, it isn’t just a circumstance or condition or property applying to a particular “thing.” Several different issues are involved here and must be distinguished. This is why the contemplative traditions talk more about “presence” or “being”, something like that. “Existence,” on the other hand, is tied to a whole complex of notions like coming into existence, nonexistence, leaving existence—things that typically apply to secondary matters, phenomena and conditions about which one has attachments and preferences.
If someone continues to develop the sort of insight you’re describing, then those extraneous notions are increasingly filtered away or at least only applied where they are really appropriate, because what’s most important here is not a phenomenon or condition. Rather than seeing your present moment or situation in life as merely being a prelude to the next moment, a different situation, which you hope will constitute some kind of improvement or victory, the present is seen as already complete. In the context of contemplative practice, it is seen as already an instance of realization, rather than a prelude to it.
Piet: that's a nice way of putting it. That's how it feels, yes.
Steven: even confusion, or frustration, or discouragement about meeting this contemplative challenge, not feeling that one is getting it—all that is just another instance of “it.” This point is absolutely essential. It applies most to more advanced parts of the practice or exploration, though, because initially people want to run toward something, some objective that's different from what they seem to have at present, and it’s hard to change this tendency. So in that case, they're letting these … what you call “late-comers” dominate, and then they are essentially saying “I want different late-comers than the ones I've got now.”
The same applies to “spirituality” taken as the pursuit of nonstandard experiences. There too, people are grasping for something different from what they have now. This is a typical mistake, even if “something different” is indeed achieved. Ordinary levels of spiritual practice may involve novel insights or experiences, but in more advanced stages (which are really not somewhere/when else!) it becomes clear that you don't need a different experience … all that’s important is what I call the “full dimensionality” of any ordinary experience. What you’re saying shows that you're starting to see this.
Piet: but this is kind of a different experience, in the sense that when you're really at ease, and look at the curtain or wall, and see the beauty of it … on the one hand, it is just the same thing you're always looking at, and on the other hand, it’s completely different in some way. So it’s hard to know how to classify that. For instance, it doesn't classify easily into either “ordinary” or “non-ordinary” experience.
Steven: it doesn't. The situation is even more tricky because with our usual habits of narrow discrimination and grasping in place, an appreciation of what is actually present, the primacy or full dimensionality of presence, typically just triggers new “experiences” rather than staying within the original appreciative presence. There is a facet of what you and I are describing that is beyond an “experience” but that excites the ordinary structures—cognitive structures and sense of identity etc.—to parse, restate and own this as an experience in the more ordinary sense. So it gets co-opted into the ordinary picture, “an item ‘I’ see” … it actually does become merely an experience. At that point, one has basically lost the essential part of real presence.
In dream language, people typically go from a truly lucid dream to a more ordinary or partially-lucid dream. And in the early stages of our practice, there's nothing to prevent this, because it’s what we human beings usually do in every aspect of life. We take this prior, more direct presence, and turn it into a case of “I know x, or I know y, etc.” Since that’s business as usual, we go that route even with respect to something that's pointing beyond it. We see its difference as merely a difference inside the picture.
Piet: yes, in connection with that, I was struck again by how I have found these moments of resting in “what is.” Late in high school, and even many times before that, but it was late in high school that I first started reflecting on them … before that I would just enjoy them when they happened… but at the end of high school I started reflecting on them, and trying to make a connection between them and what I was beginning to read about in philosophy and spirituality in general. But I can also see how difficult it was then to know what to do with them … what to do is perhaps not the right way of putting it, how to place them or see them or allow them … how to treat them with the proper respect and allow them to occur as they want to occur.
If some form of teaching had been available then that really made this clear, I could imagine it might have been easier. On the other hand, I was lucky. There were all kinds of teachings around, and I did read a lot of books about this, and I could imagine that if I had met individuals who embodied this, probably my understanding of the books would have sped up quite a bit. Who knows … it’s hard to speculate about how these things really work. I've been very lucky as it is, given what I had available in those days. I think if I'd been born 10 years earlier, it would've been much more difficult. Because it was just at that time, around 1970 that because of popular fads, many more of these books became available.
Anyhow, I clearly remember my walking through an open landscape on a sunny day towards a hospital … a friend and classmate of mine who had some medical problem … I visited him in the hospital and so while I was walking through this open landscape, through these fields toward the hospital, there was a sense of deep silence, and time taking on a different quality and the world becoming still, in an unusual way, which was so vivid in striking that I still remember it very clearly, now, 35 years later. And there were other times, for instance sitting near a pond, reading a book about learning to play Go, and just enjoying the patterns of Go stones and enjoying the water in the ducks and leaves from the willow trees hanging over the water, and also falling into a different sense of time.
I guess in those days, if someone had pointed out that I was experiencing a different sense of time, it would have seemed very interesting, because I didn't interpret it that way. It just seemed like a very nice feeling, and sort of strange, because normally at that age you are told by everyone around you that you can get special experiences from drinking alcohol or listening to loud music or whatever, not by looking at the surface of the water. In fact, it’s clear to me that this was a much deeper experience than those other things, even though I could not place it at all then in any context I could think of.