PZI Teacher Archives

Living in the Moment


Allison Atwill talks about the experience of relying on the moment we’re in to make itself. Summer Sesshin, July 2013.

Dharma Talk by Allison Atwill
July 2013 Retreat

Allison Atwill:

Good morning. This morning I wanted to talk a little bit about the experience of relying on the moment that we’re in to make itself, beginning to rely on not our own will and our own plans and our own efforts or skills or lack of skills, but to begin to – what it feels like to step into the moment without anything in our hands, and to trust that life will rise up to meet us.

When I was thinking about giving this talk, I would go through periods of – I noticed I was trying to plan, and I would feel afraid. My body would start to tense and I would start to think about driving back to Santa Barbara before the talk [laughter] – a sudden emergency down south.

And also this morning, Denise, when we were doing the movement, I was really noticing it then, that when I was just moving that was such a pleasure and so exciting and a sense of discovery and ease. But I noticed there were moments too, that suddenly I would be afraid, I would feel self-conscious and I would notice I was thinking: oh is this interesting, this movement? I would get all stiff and tied into… I was unhappy. I got interested in that sense of fear, that fear is a really one of the primary experiences, and motivation, of what we do to prevent ourselves. It’s kind of the source of where much that grabbing for certainty comes from.

We so much want to protect ourselves and we’re so afraid of – I don’t really know what – but, that experience of stepping into – the koan came to me:

What is this?

What is this?

Stepping into this. There’s nothing there. I don’t feel anything there with the this. There’s just spaciousness, and nothing’s solid, so there’s a part of the mind that’s afraid that is always searching for something solid.

Walking the Plank

A few days ago I went to Sausalito, the harbor there, for the first time, and when you go to the harbor, there’s a concrete walkway that I was walking along, and then there’s a plankway, kind of like walking the plank, and it’s got these little ridges and you go down it and it’s very steep, and then there’s a series of like a floating walk in between the boats where all the boats are, and then there’s this walkway that you walk to get to the slips, and as I stepped on it, I noticed that it moved, that it wasn’t solid like the concrete was. I was moving, the walkway was moving, the water was moving, everything was unstable, and that was kind of exciting and fun. But it was a different kind of attention that it required, that I needed to be on the walkway moving with everything, otherwise I could you know, fall in the dirty harbor water, which I did not want to do.

So the mind will start reaching… when I feel afraid, the things that I reach for are things to in some way protect myself so I don’t experience that fear. One thing that we do is we try to keep the things we don’t want to experience out, away from us in some way we’ll be safe, so that we get security systems, we have codes, we have guards walking around us, the windows are all locked, and in some way to wall off part of life so that it can’t get in. The thing that we’re afraid of, that we don’t want to tolerate in ourselves, we don’t want to experience some thing we imagine we won’t be able to be with in some way. So we try to keep it out.

The problem with that strategy is – I mean, there’s a number of problems, but one is that every fragment of the universe contains the whole universe. So if you try to wall it out with a security system, you’re in here, but everything else is in here with you [laughter] so you can’t… you’ll notice that too in meditation when you’re sitting. You’ll be sitting there and you’re in a room and it’s calm, there’s all these people here. Nothing’s really happening. So in some way you could say you’ve created this very serene and safe, where all the problematic people in your life are, or all your predicaments are not with you right now – that they’ll just show up anyway, without asking you. So there’s that.

Then the other thing is, when we try to wall out part of life in that way, we start, instead of having a zone of safety, we end up having a prison, where we can’t get out and nothing can get in. There’s nothing that can sustain us. All the wildlife can’t get in – all the birds and deer and the leaves and the light moving across things – all that is kept out as well, so we start feeling kind of bereft or lonely or unsustained by life, because we’re holding it off in some way.

So the experience of Zen is this dissolving of the boundaries. It’s a continual laying down of my guarding, and the guarding is physical as well as with the mind, with my stories. I’ve been really aware of this recently, because I had my first rolfing session before I came here, and I was absolutely stunned by the guarding that was held in my body that I wasn’t even aware of.

So as you’re sitting in meditation, if you bring your attention to your body, that’s a really interesting way to go into your experience, because your body, first of all, it’s here, it’s in the present moment, so already that’s good. You’re here when you bring your attention to your body. And also your body is very much like you’re dreaming. You can’t sensor it. It has its own life. It doesn’t ask you whether you approve of its tightening or its clenching – it just happens. You’ll notice your heart is racing. So right there those are entryway points, just like your dreams are, ways that your life is calling to you to come and claim it, saying here’s a gate, here’s a gate. So I’m very interested in that dissolving of the boundaries between me and the world, so that one flows seamlessly into the other. I’m going to read you a poem. This is by Charles Simic. It speaks to this a bit.

The Bird

A bird calls me from an apple tree in the midst of sleep.
Calls me from the pink twig of daylight from the top of a shadow with roots that grow each night closer to my heart from the steeple of a white cloud I give her my sleep.
She dyes it red. I give her my breath. She turns it into rustling leaves.
In the throat of that unknown bird, there’s a vow of my name.
She calls me from the talons of the morning star, she calls me from the nest of the morning mist.
That chirp like a burning candle on a windy threshold.
Bird, shaped like the insides of a yawning mouth.
Now your voice touches me even more tenderly, tracing its hushed trajectory at five in the morning, when the sky turns cold and lucent, like the water in which they baptized a small child.
I started on the thread of the bird’s whistle, naked, climbing like smoke.
The earth grew smaller underneath.
My bare feet touched chill coming from the north.
Later I fell in a field of nettles and dreamt I had the eyes of that bird, watching from the heights how the roads meet and part once again.

[punctuation/line breaks unknown]

So I loved this morning when you were talking about the eyes and we had these eyes. I had already decided to read the poem, so I thought it was kind of a blessing on that. So that talks a little bit about that way when we’re in life, we’re not outside judging our experience: did I do the exercise right? Do the people around me approve? Do I approve of this? That way we step out of life. But when we step into life there’s this sense that we are each other. We are the light moving across the floor, and how tremendously intimate and nourishing that experience is, and that we can rely on the whole situation that we’re in to make itself.


So I’m going to tell you a couple of stories about this experience of communion and some of the ways we might get in the way of that experience. A couple months ago I went to our local library and I got a whole stack of books and CDs to listen to at home, and I put them in my room, this big stack, and I went through them slowly, and about a week ago I took out one of the – I was thinking about giving the talk and different ideas were coming to mind. I was doing the dishes and I took out one of the sets of CDs and it was called “The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics and Witches in the Western Tradition.” I thought that was a very promising title. [laughter] There were eighteen CDs. [laughter] I took out the first one, I put it in, and it was a Professor Ruiz who begins with this story. He says I want to begin with a personal story, and he himself, he says was not a religious person, he had no religious feeling whatsoever, he was a scholar and an academic.

Professor Ruiz on Top of the Mountain

He is Spanish, and he was working in Spain doing research and he was at some archives in a very old Cathedral that were cold and dusty and the conditions were somewhat unpleasant and he was there for months and months and months doing this research. Finally he finishes his work and he decides he’s going to go take a vacation and meet some friends in northern Spain in this area called Galicia, which has Celtic history, a long Celtic history and Celtic ruins there. So his two friends decide to take him on a day trip driving up to the Atlantic Coast, and they want to show him some ruins at a site called Santa Tecla, old Celtic ruins. They take this long, gorgeous drive along the coast and there are these hills rising up from this sea, and he – they get to the site and they get to the parking lot, and it’s starting to rain. And his friends say, they refuse to get out of the car because it’s raining, and they insist that he, Professor Ruiz, goes up the mountain to the top to see these ruins; it’s really worthwhile.

So he does. He gets out, he walks to the top of the mountain, and he sees all the green hills of Galicia and this ancient, sacred Celtic site where he’s sitting. The rain is localized, so he’s getting wet, but he can see that it’s out to the distance where the sun is now setting, and he notices it’s extraordinarily quiet. There isn’t anyone around and he’s suddenly overtaken by this profound sense of peace and wellbeing and communion with everything. And he feels this desire to simply leap off the mountain into the void, into the emptiness, he says on the tape. Not because I wanted to commit suicide, but because I felt so at one with the world I wanted to leap into it.

So this experience happens to him, he walks back down to the car to his friends, and he doesn’t say anything. They drive back to the town, he goes back to Princeton where he finishes his Ph.D., and a year later he comes back to Spain again to visit his two friends. He collects the same two friends and he takes them back to the sacred site again up at Santa Tecla, and he makes them stay in the car [laughter] while he walks up again to the sacred site and waits. And nothing happens. And he said he was depressed to no end.

So that’s one way we [laughter] hold off life, is we have this marvelous experience and we somehow try to recreate it by getting the conditions just right, just the way they were the last time I had this experience, and we do that in large ways and small ways all the time, instead of stepping into the unknown. And one thing I think – there’s something about all of those experiences of communion is that there’s an element that they’re involuntary. They’re outside of our will. They’re always outside of our will. That somehow we have to let go of our own, all of our control, every bit of it, before life offers itself and we can step fully into it.

Deshan Meets the Tea Lady

So I want to tell you now another story. This is an old, ancient Chinese story in the Zen tradition about a teacher named Deshan, and he became a monk at a young age. He was very exceptionally bright, and an excellent scholar, and he studied a text called the Diamond Sutra, and he became so expert at it that people would ask him from miles around to come and lecture on this particular sutra.

One day he heard about this heretical sect called Zen that was in the south of China, that taught that you could enter directly into reality without scriptures, without relying on scriptures. He decided that he would take it on himself to go and stamp out this heretical sect. So he packs up all of his commentaries and all of his scholarly papers in this big crate, and he hauls them on a boat down the Yangtze River and travels hundreds of miles south. He comes to this tea shop where, he’s been traveling for a long time and he’s tired and hungry, and he wants to stop and get some refreshments.

So he goes into the tea shop and he meets the tea lady. The tea ladies are really famous in the Zen tradition for kind of tweaking people’s noses, these kind of secret Zen masters who show up here and there. Some of the witches, like the witches, mystics and heretics. So Deshan comes in. The tea lady sees him, and I think she already knows that he’s got this air of self-importance, so she calls him “venerable monk,” which I found a bit suspicious when I read that. And he said he would like some refreshments, and she says: What you got there in the cart? And he says: I have commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. I am the King of the Diamond Sutra.

Well, she says, you’re the King of the Diamond Sutra. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll ask you a question on the Diamond Sutra, and if you can answer it, I’ll give you free refreshments, but if you can’t answer it, I’ll throw you out, no refreshments. He said, well anything on the Diamond Sutra, I can answer. I’m the King of the Diamond Sutra. She said: Well, thus I have heard. In the Diamond Sutra it says past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, future mind cannot be grasped. Which mind do you intend to refresh? And he can’t say anything. He’s just stunned. And he says, well, is there a Zen master around here? [laughter] She says: well, up the road a bit there’s one. It’s called Dragon Lake.

So he hauls his cart up with him to this monastery and he knocks on the gate and he says I’m looking for Dragon Lake. Someone comes to the gate and says well you have found the Dragon Lake – Deshan says I don’t see any Dragon Lake around and the teacher says you have found the Dragon Lake, and he brings him into his interview room. They talk late into the night. The teacher could feel that Deshan was disturbed in some way, so here there’s some cracks in his certainty, so that’s a really promising moment, when things are starting to fall apart, when you can’t hold onto… all of the things that you know how to do to make yourself feel important or safe are starting to crumble.

So he brings him into his room and they talk late into the night, and then eventually the teacher says: well it’s getting late, why don’t you go to bed. And Deshan pulls back the curtain, but there’s no moon, it’s pitch black, he can’t see anything, so he comes back and he says, “It’s dark.” And the teacher lights a paper candle, and he’s just about to hand it to him when he “whoo!” blows it out. And Deshan has a sudden awakening, and he falls at the teacher’s feet and he bows down and he says: I will never now doubt the words of the great Zen masters. [laughter] The classic Zen statement. And the teacher says: what do you see that you bow like that? And he says: I will never doubt.

And in the morning the teacher is giving a talk like this to his students and Deshan is in the audience and he says something to him. He says something to the group. He says: Among the monks here there is a fellow whose fangs are like swords and whose mouth is like a bowl of blood. (That counts as a compliment in Zen.) You may strike him with a stick and he’ll not turn his head. Someday in the future he’ll establish his way on a steep and lofty peak. Then Deshan does something interesting. He takes all of his papers, all the commentaries he’s worked years and years on. He takes them into the courtyard of the monastery and he just torches them. He sets fire to them and burns them up, and leaves, and he just has that one night with his teacher.

So that moment of letting go of the things that we worked so hard to protect ourselves, all of the ways that we criticized others or criticized ourselves, or find fault out there or find fault out here, or try to gather up all kinds of skills or excellent meditation or pass all these koans, so now – all of those are just ways of holding off the world and really not trusting the world, and not trusting ourselves, and not trusting the situation that we’re in, but every moment is already creating itself, creating itself and creating itself. That maybe we don’t have to work quite so hard, that in fact all of our efforts are actually what are preventing us from experiencing our lives, and they’re a kind of barrier and a way that life can’t get to us, and is trying to get to us. And the pain that we experience is just life telling it us where it is we’re holding it off. So if you are experiencing some pain or have experienced or will, not that it will happen to you, but it might, that that is the place, that’s the gate, that’s the entryway into a sense of fearlessness and intimacy with your own mind.

Two Questions

So I want to do a little exercise now, a writing exercise, so go ahead and get a piece of paper.

There are two questions I’m going to have you feel your way into and see what rises up. You can either answer both questions, if both feel alive and interesting, or you can just choose one, whichever seems most alive.

The first one is:

You’re Deshan, and what’s in the cart? What’s in your cart that you’re carting around?

And the other question is:

You are Professor Ruiz. You’re in Spain. What are the conditions that you think you need for happiness?

What are those conditions that you think need to be in your life that aren’t there now, that you’re working so hard to create, that if you had them, if you could just get them right, then you would be enlightened?