I’ve just put Chapter 6 up on my site. 

This tells the story of a koan retreat at Maenllwyd.  In January 2002 John Crook ran the first of what has now become one of his regular kinds of retreats – a koan retreat. On the first morning we were all given a list of several koans and hua-tous (stories) and were told to choose one to work on for the whole of a week. This was wonderful for me – as you have gathered I love working on difficult qustions and up there in the mountains seemed the perfect place to be doing it.

As usual with retreats things did not work out as I had expected. The intensity of practice, the other people around, the interviews with the “master” and all these things contribute to a very different kind of experience from working by myself at home. The emotional ups and downs are much tougher,  the insights can be dramatic, but the struggle is great and the pitfalls scary.

I look forward to your comments about this one.

If you’re interested in consciousness you might like to comment on what I thought I found out about it. Have you had simialr experiences? Do you think there is any validity to my claiming that I had really found out something about “the contents of cosnciousness”, or is introspection (for that’s all this is) forever doomed as a way of finding out general principles about the mind?

You might also like to comment on the interview. There are other interviews to come – some rather difficult, and I am always left wondering about them.

30 Responses to “”

  1. steveloir Says:

    You asked “what is mindfulness?” and answered “being fully here in the present moment”. But these are words. It is not about thinking “I am here in the present movement”, it is actually doing it. Words can sometimes point us in the right direction but they can also trap us. A word like “mindfulness” is really tricky. It has nothing to do with the concept of “mind” which is just another trap. Maybe you could say “paying attention”. I know you know this already from what you have written about paying attention to how it actually is. Being able to describe it in words is secondary. Perhaps you are able to formulate the whole thing into a conceptual whole, an assortment of bits that fit together into a beautiful logical structure. Sounds good. But even if you can do it, it still isn’t it. It is only words and concepts that just might point you/us in the right direction.

    But this is not meant as a criticism in any way. I am loving reading your words. And I am struggling along with you as I read them.

  2. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I completely agree – happy struggling!

  3. peeked Says:

    Hi Sue-

    I found chapter 6 both insightful and difficult. The difficulty arose at first because I could not understand how you became so confused about the present moment. Since I practice mindfulness in my daily activities, I persistently strive to remain in the now. I thought that I had a good working definition of “now”, so it puzzled me that you went through this experience where you lost your definition of “Now”, and even wound up asking in the end “When is this experience?”.
    I had to read the chapter through slowly a second time in order to begin to get it. My understanding of “now” before reading this chapter consisted of a gestalt. I understood it as a whole. But as I followed your thinking in breaking down the parts of time as 1) past (memory), 2) now, and 3) future (memory+imagination), I started to see that I could not precisely pin down the nature of “now”, as it has elements of both past and future in it.
    Compare the now to swimming. Say I want to understand precisely what swimming “is” in and of itself. In my imagination, I want to get rid of the past and future for the swimmer, to isolate the present activity. I’ll remove the water behind the swimmer (the past) and remove the water in front of the swimmer (the future). Then, I only have a narrow channel of water under the swimmer, which will go flat without the surrounding water to support it. Even though, in each now moment, the swimmer only experiences this small section of water, the swimmer needs both the “past” and “future” water to proceed. In the same way, without a past and future (which outside of mind, do they exist?) we have nothing to support our present moment.
    I like your comparison of the fire. From the fire’s point of view, it has neither a past nor a future. Or a rock’s point of view. But humans have a past and a future because of our thinking. Since reading this through a second time and starting to get it, my experience of “now” seems mushy. I can still grokk the present, the “now” as a gestalt, but I can’t define it as a precise “razors edge” moment between past and future. I have a mushy “now” now, with both past and future mixing in. It may seem odd to say that this gives me more clarity about the present moment, but I think that my “mushy now” more closely matches reality than my “razor’s edge” now.

    A part of the chapter that I still have difficulty understanding begins with “Something has changed”, and end in the next paragraph with “Everything is just as it is, even as it changes. I reflect that maybe experiences simply don’t exist in time. There are brain processes going on but there is no me who experiences them, and no time at which they become conscious. How slow I am, but now I see that directly”
    I guess I still can’t imagine experiencing that state directly (maybe one has to experience it and can’t imagine it), but it ties together two thing that I think arise together and depend on each other: self and time.
    Without time you can’t have a separate self sense, because the self sense arises or “swims” in time. The self sense appears to make “choices” and “decide” what to do next (future), based on memories of experiences (past) and the priorities that result from those memories. But does time even exist then, apart from our perception of it?

    Lastly I did want to comment on one of your interviews (the second one with John). I love this. You say:

    It’s my last interview and I’m so frustrated that I just shout at John, really loud. I want him to understand. He’s sitting calmly, and I’m frothing and screaming inside.

    “You talk glibly,” I accuse him, “about the answer to ‘what is this?’ being ‘just this’, but there is no ‘this’, is there? I can’t see a ‘this’. Can you?”

    He doesn’t tell me whether he can or not, and I want to know.

    “I can see you”, he calmly replies.

    Then Sue became enlightened.

    I added that last sentence, because to me it makes a perfect Zen story. You have read these stories, haven’t you? They always end with “Then the student became enlightened”. I see John’s simple remark as very instructive. He answered your very abstract or metaphysical dilemma with the “matter of fact” or concrete point of view, as Zen masters frequently do. He answered your question, really. He does see a “this”. He sees you. But you didn’t take it in.
    Then he tells you that you’ve entered the Great Doubt, and because of your frustration, and because you did not grokk his first comment, he gives you advice: “take it a little more slowly”.
    First tier: direct perception- “I can see you”
    Second tier: advice- “take it a little more slowly”.

    This makes sense to me. You did not respond to the balancing point of view of his direct perception, so he gave you practical advice. Then you say in the next section, “Stuff that”, and you rev up your mental engines for another run at getting answers by more thinking.
    I have mixed reactions to this part. My first reaction goes like this: Good for you! Stay with your own process and your own rhythm. You stay true to yourself, and it makes a more entertaining story also.
    My second reaction runs completely counter to this: You bailed out when the process became too much for you. Look, you followed instructions very intently up to this point. You avoided looking at people’s faces as a Zen teacher advised you once. You avoid talking with people. You pick a Koan and focus on it with great dedication. You clean the toilets mindfully and fastidiously.
    Then when your teacher advises you to do something that you really really don’t want to do, you say “Stuff that”, because “I’m not a Buddhist” etc, etc. I think you just made this excuse because you reached your bailout point. Everyone bails out at some point. You have a very high bail out point in my opinion. Think about those people who irritate you by talking at a silent retreat (“don’t they know what silence means?”). Imagine them saying “Stuff that!, I cant stand all this silence! I’ll talk if I want! I’m not a Buddhist.” See? They have already reached their bail out point. When it gets too difficult people bail out because they can’t contain the buildup of energy in this very intense process. They think it threatens to destroy them. But it really just threatens the illusion of separate self identity.

    Anyway thank you for posting this chapter on your blog and inviting responses. I feel a little guilty of doing some “Monday morning quarterbacking”, plus I have some reluctance to posting critical comments when I enjoy your work so much, and find it so instructive. I hope you don’t take offense.

    Kind regards,


  4. jacques79 Says:

    Peeked says: ““Something has changed”, and end in the next paragraph with “Everything is just as it is, even as it changes. I reflect that maybe experiences simply don’t exist in time.”

    – I very often have similar experieces while doing my tai chi. There is movement and yet there is no movement; there is change and yet there is no bloody change; there is time and yet there is no time.

    This is very astonishing experience – and yet very natural! The more you practice the more you are able to see that stillness right in the movement.

  5. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Thanks to Peeked for those rich and thoughtful comments.
    You’ve clearly understood pretty well most of what I was trying to say, but when it comes to the step you didn’t get – well I may not have entirely got whatever it was either. After all, this is only my attempt to describe what I went through. But I hope chapter 7 “When are you?” might help. I just reread it and think the bits on page 116 are appropriate.
    I loved your alternative ending to the interview – yes indeed. Wouldn’t that be lovely!
    I’m still thinking about those thresholds and the “stuff that”.

  6. jotiya Says:

    Hi !

    What is mindfulness?

    I think in the context of meditation it is simply the counterpart of concentration.
    You can either practice mindfulness or concentration.

    In mindfulness training we allow the mind to move around like it always does.
    The practice is to make a non-judgmental observation of whatever is going on in this moving mind.
    This noting creates some distance from the noted content of the mind.
    For example, make a note of the fact that there is anger and see how this is slightly different from mental cursing!
    This noting gradually calms the mind down. This is the same result we can get from concentration, by the way.

    Taken out of context, the question starts floating and becomes complicated.
    Maybe complicated questions must be the wrong ones?

    Just a fast response.
    I did not have time yet to read the long texts. But I will.

    Please forgive my strange use of the English language.
    And if my response sounds arrogant or something, please just laugh about me.


  7. jotiya Says:

    And if (in the context of mindfulness-training) you get puzzled about past present and future; getting to the bottom of it, is not the mindful thing to do; but instead to simply note, without adding judgment, that you are thinking very hard.

    That’s what I learned anyways.
    My Vipassana-teacher’s job was easy.
    I come up with dramatic stories and deep realizations.
    He just asks “so what did you note?’


  8. arianederoos Says:

    I am reading the book Ten Zen questions and I wonder is it going to be translated into Dutch? While reading the book, I notice that the same question pops up in my head: why would you(or anyone) want to know? why bother, does it make you happier? This question has been bothering me since I am trying to find answers to the big questions.It’s só easy to just let go and lead your life half asleep. And you, Susan, tell me through your book that it is very difficult, almost impossible, to find the answers, but why? It drives me mad sometimes, why is it so difficult, this just cannot be right!!! Are we humans too stupid to understand how our own brain and thoughts and all work? I also read your book Conversations on Consciousness, I found it very interesting,but also very difficult to understand sometimes..Hope you have time to reply, greetings from Holland, Ariane

  9. arianederoos Says:

    Dear Susan,
    I’ve just finished your book Ten Zen Questions, and read the comment of your Zenmaster. One of the things that attracts me to your work is that you are a woman. And I think I can follow your thoughts and observations more easily, because you have a female brain. Recently I read in the newspaper, that scientists discovered that a female brain works quite different from a man’s brain. So they had to do some enquiry’s about some medicins all over again on female test animals. Don’t you think that it is more logical for a woman to have a female Zen master? Are there any btw? Life for men is so much different than for women; from my point of view they have less ups and downs emotionally, their hormones work differenty and I am sure so do their braines. It is a bit hard to explain because I am used to express my thoughts in Dutch, but I hope you understand what I mean. That I could follow you very well in your last chapter and I don’t agree with all the critisism from “John”.I tried to talk to my husband about it and he said: Don’t worry so much, life is simpel. Perhaps he is right 🙂

  10. jotiya Says:

    Now I read the chapter: I admire your honesty and openness about what you were going through.

    Interesting koan: “There is no time. What is memory?”
    You may have heard the expression that the truth can not be captured in “the four statements”
    (1. It exists
    (2. It does not exist
    (3. It both exists and does not exist
    (4. It neither exists nor does not exist
    It is like that for time, memory, experience, and consciousness, whatever.
    So this koan too, simply can not be answered..

    Koan practice – in my humble opinion – is not designed to supply you with answers.
    What are answers anyway? You want a certificate? Who’s there to find answers? Who can fail? Who is John?
    The koan is designed to liberate you so drop it.
    I quote you:
    “I remember that the koan is meant to be doing it, not me, and I relax a little. This helps.”
    “Then I’m laughing and laughing and laughing.”
    “Why don’t I just stop trying? I stop trying and fall into a spaciousness and deep quiet.”
    These phrases show you relaxing into the koan and then they do what they are designed for.
    But maybe if a koan triggers your mind on philosophical questions, you better stop koan practice and just count your breath?

    In a retreat everything gets so intense doesn’t it?
    The senses seem like a camera with automatic diaphragm. When there is little input, they open up and become supersensitive.
    Not looking people in the face is smart for this reason. When your senses are wide open you see their emotion, and they hit you like a hammer.

    My babbling becomes intolerable now, even to myself, so here I stop.

  11. jacques79 Says:

    Life is simple untill you start thinking about it too much 🙂

  12. peeked Says:

    Hi Sue,
    I read ahead in chapter 7, especially studying page 116, and then going back over the section in chapter 6 I did not quite understand. I found it helpful in grasping what you mean about time. I see that you cannot pinpoint any experience in time, because of this “parallel processing” going on. I notice this “already there” quality when I attend to different sounds, sensations, and other spontaneous occurrences that “I” notice in the meditative state.
    So I have isolated more precisely where my understanding falters. When you say …”but there is no me who experiences them”. I still have trouble with that.

    You know, I may have even experienced a similar “no time, no me” state myself. Just last week, I spent some time building frames for a raised bed garden. I held the strong intention to do every step mindfully, which in my practice means mindfulness of breathing. But I experienced sequences of activity in which the work so absorbed all my attention that I forgot my breathing. I did not drift into daydreams or thoughts about anything, even thoughts about the work, so I can’t say I lost the thread of mindfulness. Some work happened, and I have memory of some work happening, but I have no memory of a conscious “I” taking any part in either doing or observing the doing. And I know intellectually that a little time passed, but I had no consciousness of time passing. Who did this work? Not the “I” that usually does things. Who observed it? Not the “I” that usually observes.
    If I adapt your chapter 2 question to “was I conscious during that activity”, I can’t answer “yes”, “no”, or even “I don’t know”. I would have to say something like “yes/no”. I need a word that means “yes/no” to come closest to answering that question. Why don’t we have a word like that?

  13. tenzenbookblog Says:

    It’s that yes/no that fascinates me. Nearly all theories of consciousness (Dennett excepted) assume that there must be an answer. But you have found that sometimes (maybe always?) there is not.
    Your experience of making the raised beds sounds more like “flow” – a term coined by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state which many artists find themselves in where they become the work and don’t seem to exist separately from it. This obviously has something in common with meditators losing the sense of self but I have been told by Zen teachers that it’s not quite the same thing.
    Incidentally, I’ve had a raised bed for the first time this year and I now see why people like them – amazing parsnips, carrots and mizuna!

  14. jacques79 Says:


    “You may have heard the expression that the truth can not be captured in “the four statements”
    (1. It exists
    (2. It does not exist
    (3. It both exists and does not exist
    (4. It neither exists nor does not exist”.

    Well, the problem I think is that people often confuses concept of non – dualness with the concepts of oneness (which seems to cut everything down to flatland). People sometimes image oneness as great open space and compare this with every – day world of discriminative mind and differentiation (what a stunning difference, isn’t it? :). But on the relative tier the first concept (non dualness) naturally explains the later – oneness. Basically, the first of them is just more practical and insightfull on the relative tier. So you can say that there are such a distinctions like:

    existing – not existing
    time – eternity
    up – down
    good – bad
    samsara – nirvana
    past – future
    mind – matter
    yes – no

    etc, etc 🙂 The point is that these are actually co-existing concepts about reality, which do not refer to the reality itself. If you can see them just as the concepts, you can realize their non-dualness. Once you can realize non-dualness you can realize oneness 🙂

  15. mandarama Says:

    Happy Birthday Sue – believe it or not I still have the date in my diary from when I came to a birthday party ages ago. I have some news – finally I my empirical meme paper is published in the Journal of BioEconomics. If you remember, which I doubt, we first met when you came to Cranfield School of Management years ago to give a talk within my multi-perspective course on knowledge. If you contact me (jill@bamboolearning.com) I can mail the meme paper to you. Its title is -An empirical investigation of organizational memetic variation. It took me 6 years of PhD and then 6 years of trying to publish it – with comments often revolving around it being too innovative.

    I have just bought the Zen book and would love to comment but need to read more first. The mail addresses I have for you are now bound to be out of date so communicating this way seemed the easiest.

    I hope you had a relaxing birthday.

    Jill (Shepherd)

  16. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Thanks for your birthday wishes – I’m having a wonderful day of writing my consciousness book and listening to the rain while the river is rising outside my window. I’ve ben reflecting not only on how old 58 is (!) but on how glad I am that I stumbled across Zen. Sometimes life seems so pointless – Zen helps me enjoy that it’s so.

  17. steveloir Says:

    Happy birthday Sue. I am just coming up to that wonderful age of 58, next month in fact. ’51 was a good year!
    I hope you will let us know when your new consciousness book is published. I really liked your “Consciousness: An Introduction”, very comprehensive and fun too. And then I found “The Grand Illusion” on your website which very clearly shows the real problems with “consciousness”. Great!
    Yes, life is pointless. Apart from knowing what you are, obviously!

  18. peeked Says:

    Thanks, Sue, for pointing out the distinction between the flow experience and losing the self in meditation. In Buddhist terms I thought they referred to Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” experience as Samadhi, but apparently it does not make the grade for Samadhi, in the reading I’ve done recently. I’ll have to look into all this some more, as I don’t see the differences myself.
    By the way, I have also only this year become a zealous raised bed gardening convert. My wife has wanted them for years, and I finally built one early this summer. Now I have four, and by the end of summer I’ll have seven built. I’ve probably gone overboard. We’ve never had a more productive garden. Not only do we appreciate the lush growth, but also lower maintenance/weeding needed. I wish I had done this 10 years ago.
    I had to look up mizuna. Now I have something else to try!

  19. Chris B. Says:

    >I can’t answer “yes”, “no”, or even “I don’t know”. I would have
    >to say something like “yes/no”. I need a word that means “yes/no”
    >to come closest to answering that question. Why don’t we have
    >a word like that?

    In Zen there is the word “mu”.

    Here is an article which is maybe relevant to your experience when you were building frames:


  20. peeked Says:

    Thanks for the link, Chris.

    Am I conscious now? Mu.

    Works for me.
    It also answers another great riddle.
    What does a Zen cow say?

  21. luisnunesalberto Says:


    Some fifteen years ago I meditate a lot about time and memory just on my own without any reference. What I found was that time don’t exist and every thing we are. every thing we know is memory. We live in an eternal now without any dimension mesurable, we enlarge it as much as possible bringing in all our memories.

    My english is not good enough for a long speech, I hope that is clear enough and I’ll try to answer to any doubt.

    Luis Nunes Alberto

  22. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I find this so interesting – and encouraging – that different people at different times with different motivations end up discovering the same (or very similar) things about the mind. But I am not sure about the “now”, even that seems to disappear and what remains then is even harder to talk about, but your description certainly rings bells for me.

  23. luisnunesalberto Says:

    After meditating on time I worked on memory, how do we memorize?, then the vision, how do we get the images, the diferent senses.The way we think the way we understand and learn.
    I found that our vision of the world is very limited, it’s the brain that sees that hear, the eyes or the ears just catch the variations of the light reflectied by objects or the variation of the sound vibrations, the brain convert the data in light image and sound image etc…
    The brain seem to be specially designed to detect patterns and to compare and classify.

    We see, we learn, we understand, we memorize, we comunicate only by comparing what we receive with our memorized data.
    ( This I have never seen anywhere)
    Dificult for me to explain clearly my ideas in few words. It take me a long time to write this.

    The third replicator: Virtuality

    Luis Nunes Alberto

  24. bensmythe Says:

    I just read Conversations on Consciousness. The sharp snap of your tongue whip on the answerers attempts at evasion was such a treat. When I saw your picture this mind made a fantastic story about how “Of course that’s Sue Blackmore. Look at her!”

    10 Zen Questions is fun. I enjoy working a question like a piece of gum until all the possible emotional/intellectual flavorings are chewed out of it, and it ends up as this indistinguishable goo that brings neither joy or sorrow, interest or disinterest. The blandness of the gum-question ends up tasting just like my teeth and I can’t remember why I started chewing.

    This question about time and memory reminded me of something that happened when I read your interview with Max Velmans. He said, (pg.235) “There never really was a split between the world as experienced around us and our experiences of it.”

    I immediately put the book down and devised a little memory experiment where I looked at my bookshelf for 30 seconds, closed my eyes, and tried to remember the order of a series of books. The amount of time it took me to actually get it right shocked me. This shock reverberated through the brain and shook ALL the memories up. If I cannot, with total concentrated effort, remember a simple arrangement of book titles and positions, how can I believe for one second that any memory I have is an accurate representation of What Actually Happened?

    It hit me that experience is experiencING. It is an activity. You are experiencing this comment and if you close your eyes and try to remember the first paragraph as it actually is, chances are slim you can get the wording right. I am closing my eyes, trying to remember it now and I have no idea what it says, and I wrote it! Ha!

    This is leading to an idea of memory causing interference in consciousness, which I am working out.

    I love that, “Am I conscious now?” lead you to a No. Ha! Who heard that answer?

    The crux of this “problem” of consciousness is:

    Something is here and it precedes even the organization of what it could be. That which could know it would be known by it, and thus be a quality of it that is being observed by it. Where this sentence unfolds as it moves across this page is as blank as the place where the sound of these words are emerging.

    As you mentioned with koans, the work of this exploration is to have the experiencing of the answer to these questions. It is not to devise a new conceptual model of an answer. Which is why, to a body-mind-personality, the questions are frustrating. “I” am trying to answer and “I” am the thing in the way.

    What I invite people to investigate is:

    What is the EXPERIENCE of the answer to the question, “Who am I?” When nothing happens…and even “nothing” is miles off, can this _________ be trusted?

    From a Buddhist perspective the point of the investigative effort is bring an end to suffering. If the experience of the answer to the question, “Who am I?” or “What is ‘I’?” is ___________, can it be ascertained if there is any suffering in this “emptiness”?

    All the questions come from ____________, and all the conceptual answers come from ____________, and all the thoughts come from ____________, and “I” comes from ____________. What is the experience of __________, and can it be trusted?

    I think this is the crux of exploring what is here. At some point, the __________ has to be seen to be absolutely trustable. That every sensation, feeling, thought, memory, fantasy, dream, seagull squawk, and dog burp arises out of, and returns to ___________.

    I really loved your book. It helped synthesize some experiencing I am having. What is so fun about all this research is we might see in our lifetime that the Buddha’s enlightenment was nothing more than discovering the ability to drop the “I” into the neural sea it crawled out of and trusting the ___________ that remained.

  25. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Trusting the ___________ . There’s the crux, and I know it’s easier said than done.

  26. bensmythe Says:

    Oh, definitely. It can’t be done. It is what is doing all of this. Thanks for your workin our world. It is inspiring.

  27. iiswhatiis Says:

    Dear Susan, I would love to get your opinion on a remarkable theory I have come across at the web-site: http://www.egodeath.com If you are not already familiar with the works of Michael Hoffman I strongly suggest you visit his web-site and familiarize yourself with his profoundly lucid and profoundly interesting theories. I won’t do justice trying to explain it here. I’m sure you will find it ‘food for thought’ at the very least. Looking forward to your response.

  28. iiswhatiis Says:

    Hi Susan, I just re-read my post… Here goes another attempt to try and ‘whet your whistle’. These are some of the major topics discussed on the web-site: The Entheogen Theory of Religion and Ego Death; Block Universe Determinism/Fatedness – Free-Will as illusory
    -Cognitive Science; cybernetic self control= Per ALan Watts – This Is It.
    -Zen Satori/short path, enlightenment. Ken Wilber
    Entheogens; allegorical encoding in relgion
    -the Mystic altered state; cognative instability

    Truly this man is of genius stature, once again I urge you to visit his web-site: you won’t be disappointed’!

  29. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Sorry not to have replied but please understand that I can’t go reading everything everyone suggests I should. I’d never do any work at all, let alone read all the books I want to read, let alone cope with the endless onslaught of email. Sorry – but I’m sure you understand.
    Hoffman’s theory is indeed interesting but there are many questions about the relationship between naturally occurring mystical experiences, those induced by drugs, and those induced by rituals and other methods – as well as questions about just what is changing in the brain – and as yet rather little serious research to find answers. I discuss some of these in my book “Consciousness: An Introduction” and indeed in other works of mine. Hoffman contributes some good ideas to all this but he is not the only person doing so. I hope this helps.

  30. iiswhatiis Says:

    Can’t wait to read it… Keep up the good work 🙂

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