Listening without Ideas

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From Joan Tollifson’s Substack: Right Now, Just As It Is. Subscribe to receive Joan’s writings in your inbox

Toni Packer was my main teacher, and she was a rare wonder. She spoke from presence, and the essence of her talks was always that open listening presence from which they emerged. In this Substack, I’m going to share an excerpt from one of her books followed by more about her and some links to Springwater Center and the YouTube channel where you can find a treasure trove of Toni’s talks. Toni always encouraged us to look and listen for ourselves, to not believe anything without testing it out for ourselves. Rather than making assertions, she often asked questions, inviting us to explore and discover for ourselves—and she made it clear that anything she said could be questioned.

This is from a chapter called “What Is My Innnermost Core?” in Toni Packer’s book The Wonder of Presence:

Is this our true being—an alive presence, undivided, without effort or conflict? The words we use to describe this do not matter. Use the word that you find most meaningful and intimate. Sometimes we just say listening, breathing, chirping, raining, awaring. Simply being here is all! Not as a “somebody”—a successful meditator or a poor one, for all that is thought, continuously separating and dividing…

How quiet, how simple, can present listening be? Regardless of whether there is inner stillness or noisy agitation, can wholesome listening be quiet? Getting quieter and quieter means less and less resistance to what is here, fewer judgments, less opposition, less fighting. Quietness is letting everything appear in awareness as it is, whether it be fantasy, planning for the future, or worrying about the past, whether it is pain or pleasure, or an unexpected clearing of the mind…

Being here right now, is it all right not to know what I am all about—what I am, where I am going, how I am feeling? What am I without thinking about myself, without words and pictures, without identities? It is an indescribable relief to realize that I don’t have to know anything about myself, this moment of being here, quietly!

Whatever is going on is going on by itself. The brain functions according to its ongoing programs, recognizing, naming, associating, comparing, interpreting, reacting. There is no me doing it—it just happens. Can this become transparently clear in choiceless awareness?

Now there is just listening and wondering whether thinking about myself has to continue this moment of just being. No need to say that thinking about myself shouldn’t take place. When it’s going on, it’s going on, consciously or unconsciously. Right now, there is hearing the words and listening openly in between the words. Just the listening, stillness, now. Do we need to know what anything is?

The darkness of not knowing is prior to knowledge. It is being before knowing. Whatever is taking place habitually, can it simply come and go in nonjudging awareness?

It is an amazing discovery: the less we know, the fresher everything looks! When we think we know the flower we don’t really look at it—the mind is caught up in the false certainty that it knows daisies and therefore can’t behold the wonder of that little white-petaled flower with a bright yellow dot inside. The knowing brain just sees the image of a daisy…

As one tries to get to the innermost core of it all, it cannot be found. All one comes upon is a complex networking of ideas, images, and memories hooking into disturbing sensations and emotions that cry out in pain and anger and seek protection. Is there any innermost core beyond all this?

Again, can we start out by not knowing? Can we inquire out of the darkness of not knowing? Into the darkness of not knowing? Inquiring does not mean repeating a question. Questioning here means, “I truly don’t know. All I know is what I remember from the past, from reading, or from hearing what other people have said.” What is the innermost core of myself, right now?

Silent wondering is facing a question that cannot be answered. All that comes to the searching brain is what it already knows—ideas about a soul, concepts of the spark of god within me, belief in a divine essence, the atman, a Buddha in my belly, or whatever. Right now I don’t even know whether there is such a thing as “within,” or an “innermost core”—those too are seen to be concepts! Can there be quiet wondering, listening, bare of any ideas?

The space of listening without knowing is open, unoccupied, undivided by thought. There are birds twittering, a fan is humming, people are breathing, coughing—a palpitating energy not confined within the skin. No one is separate from all this, nothing needs to be shut out or shut in. No inside and no outside here! One vibrant aliveness without boundaries, an embrace of love.

—Toni Packer, from The Wonder of Presence and the Way of Meditative Inquiry, published by Shambhala, 2002

Toni was a Zen teacher who left the tradition behind to work in a simpler and more open way. Her overall approach, which she called “the work of this moment” or “meditative inquiry,” is about meeting whatever is here with non-judgmental curiosity, seeing through the thoughts and stories that so often run our lives, and coming upon “an inner/outer silence—stillness—spaciousness in which there is no sense of separation or limitation, outside or inside.” Toni saw the roles of “teacher” and “student” as a divisive hindrance to the freedom of open inquiry, and she always regarded herself as a friend and fellow-explorer. There is a delicate subtlety and a spaciousness in her work, combined with a relentless ability to slice through all forms of self-deception. 

Toni grew up half-Jewish in Germany during the rise and reign of Hitler. The city where she lived was bombed during the war, and the family was in constant danger of being sent to a concentration camp. Living in an atmosphere of war, persecution, uncertainty and atrocities pushed Toni into a deep questioning of life. 

After the war, she married an American and eventually took up Zen practice at the Rochester Zen Center. She would probably have been Philip Kapleau’s first dharma successor had she not begun to question the traditional aspects of Zen: the ritual, the hierarchy, the authority, the dogmas. As that was happening, she encountered J. Krishnamurti, attended many of his talks, and he validated, reinforced and further opened up what she had been coming to herself. She left the Zen Center in 1982, and with her students (or friends, as she preferred), founded what became Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats in rural, northwestern New York. 

I met her in the late 80s and was on staff at Springwater until the mid-90s. Toni and I remained in touch until her death in 2013 at the age of 86. My first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, published in 1996, is largely about being at Springwater and working with Toni.

There is a treasure trove of Toni’s talks, mostly audio only but some video, on the Springwater YouTube channel. You can hear some of her very early talks, still using Zen koans, and then I’d say the zenith of her teaching career was roughly from the second half of the 1980s through the very early 2000s. Her later talks are also beautiful and profound, but she spent the last decade plus of her life in physical decline, living with severe chronic pain and increasing loss of mobility, being on medications, and she was mostly bedridden for her final years. You can also find talks on the channel by the current Springwater teachers and also an interview I did with Toni and her life story in photos.

Springwater Center is alive and well with eight people who worked with Toni carrying on the work. It’s a marvelous place for silent retreats (the schedule is always optional, there is no method and no ritual, they have ample chairs nd even armchairs and recliners in addition to meditation cushions, and the approach is open and explorative). You can also go there and do a self-retreat or simply be a guest or a volunteer. Occasionally they have staff openings as well.

Toni wrote five books, all excellent, but of those, I especially recommend: The Wonder of Presence; The Light of Discovery (which includes a foreword by me and an interview I did with Toni); and The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing (her last book).

I very highly recommend Toni’s talks and books, and also Springwater Center and the teachers there who are carrying on her work (although like me, and like Toni, they prefer not to be called teachers, although they do use the t-word on the website). 

All for now. Love to you all….



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