Are you here now?

Christmas is over and the New Year begun. My book is off to the publishers and I’m at last able to do other things, including getting back to those Questions!

Chapter 8 asks “Are you here now?”.

I like this question a lot because at first sight – like “Am I conscious now?” – the answer seems as though it must be an emphatic “Yes”. And yet my meditation experiences led me far away from “Yes”. This is not just because I have spent so much time questioning the nature of consciousness that I no longer have any idea what the word means, but because the whole sense of a persisting self has taken so many knocks.

In this chapter I describe a retreat which was extremely painful in many ways and included an interview with John which left me quite disturbed. He didn’t seem to understand me at all, and I didn’t really understand why not, or why he reacted the way he did. I suppose I was expecting a certain kind of help from him and that is not what I got. The way I have written about it makes it seem much less dramatic than the interview described in Chapter 6 but it was just as disturbing.

John clearly thought so too. In the “Response of a Zen Master” which follows the rest of the book, he writes “The interview on  p. 132 was a disaster for both of us. I failed to show you a way beyond your intellectual fixation and you persisted in a partial viewpoint that was intellectually convincing to you.”

If you’ve read his response you might like to comment – for I still don’t know what to think about it all this time later.

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22 Responses to “Are you here now?”

  1. galimatia1 Says:

    I have not read his response. I am waiting for the text to arrive, but I have read your account on the website. In any event, I wanted to comment on the initial exercise (i.e., meditating upon the beaded necklace) because it calls to mind a passage from Bergson’s “Creative Evolution,” to which I always return. It’s in the first chapter, on p. 3 of my edition (ed. Mitchell, 1911):

    The apparent discontinuity
    of the psychical life is then due to our attention
    being fixed on it by a series of separate acts: actually
    there is only a gentle slope; but in following the
    broken line of our acts of attention, we think we
    perceive separate steps. True, our psychic life is full
    of the unforeseen. A thousand incidents arise, which
    seem to be cut off from those which precede them,
    and to be disconnected from those which follow.
    Discontinuous though they appear, however, in point
    of fact they stand out against the continuity of a
    background on which they are designed, and to
    which indeed they owe the intervals that separate
    them; they are the beats of the drum which break
    forth here and there in the symphony. Our attention
    fixes on them because they interest it more, but each
    of them is borne by the fluid mass of our whole
    psychical existence. Each is only the best
    illuminated point of a moving zone which comprises
    all that we feel or think or will–all, in short, that we
    are at any given moment. It is this entire zone which
    in reality makes up our state. Now, states thus
    defined cannot be regarded as distinct elements.
    They continue each other in an endless flow.

    But, as our attention has distinguished and separated
    them artificially, it is obliged next to reunite them by
    an artificial bond. It imagines, therefore, a formless
    ego, indifferent and unchangeable, on which it
    threads the psychic states which it has set up as
    independent entities. Instead of a flux of fleeting
    shades merging into each other, it perceives distinct
    and, so to speak, solid colors, set side by side like
    the beads of a necklace; it must perforce then
    suppose a thread, also itself solid, to hold the beads
    together. But if this colorless substratum is
    perpetually colored by that which covers it, it is for
    us, in its indeterminateness, as if it did not exist,
    since we only perceive what is colored, or, in other
    words, psychic states. As a matter of fact, this
    substratum has no reality; it is merely a symbol
    intended to recall unceasingly to our consciousness
    the artificial character of the process by which the
    attention places clean-cut states side by side, where
    actually there is a continuity which unfolds. If our
    existence were composed of separate states with an
    impassive ego to unite them, for us there would be
    no duration. For an ego which does not change does
    not endure, and a psychic state which remains the
    same so long as it is not replaced by the following
    state does not endure either. Vain, therefore, is the
    attempt to range such states beside each other on the
    ego supposed to sustain them: never can these solids
    strung upon a solid make up that duration which
    flows. What we actually obtain in this way is an
    artificial imitation of the internal life, a static
    equivalent which will lend itself better to the
    requirements of logic and language, just because we
    have eliminated from it the element of real time.
    But, as regards the psychical life unfolding beneath
    the symbols which conceal it, we readily perceive
    that time is just the stuff it is made of.

  2. tenzenbookblog Says:

    That’s wonderful I had not read it, although many years ago I studied Bergson’s ideas of time and the filters of the mind. Like many of these ideas about self, we may think we are discovering them for the first time only to realise that many have gone before us. I would love to know how Bergson would have developed these ideas if he had known what we know now about the neuroscience of attention, and how the brain allocates attentional resources.

  3. plasticpumpkin Says:

    Your post makes me think of a traditional Zen saying, of which this is a variation:

    “Before enlightenment, the master carried water and performed his chores.”
    “After enlightenment, the master carried water and performed his chores.”

    Congrats on getting your book out the door!

  4. peeked Says:

    Hi Sue-

    I want to comment on your interview. I see it as John’s attempt to make essentially the same point as he tried to make in the Chapter 6 interview. He tried to bring you out of an extraordinary state of consciousness back into re-cognizing the ordinary state. He tried to bring you out of no-self into self identity.
    I understand your resistance! You worked very hard to get to this state of no-self. If you can describe “goals” in Zen Buddhism, you could call the no-self state one of the central “goals” of Zen. So why should he try to get you out of that state when you wanted to enjoy the reward of all your hard work, as you got to do later in your drive home?
    I read John’s explanation in your book, and he makes it pretty clear to me when he talks about the unbalanced equation. In Zen, they don’t just want you to experience no-self exclusively, because staying only in no-self would imbalance you just as much as staying only in self identity. If John could help you to move fluidly between the polarities of no-self and self, then you might start to see the “third place”.
    “What is the third place?” He asks…
    I would consider myself very fortunate to have such a good Zen teacher as John living near me. He talks about self and no-self as two languages engaged in a game. Then he says that you became fixated in the second language, and he takes it as his failure to get you see the third way. He does not shift the responsibility to you at all, as I did in my critique of your Chapter 6 interview. These things indicate to me a very high degree of intelligence and integrity.
    I consider Shinzen Young as another teacher of this caliber. He has many Youtube videos available, and one speaks directly to this issue. I’ll give you the link below:

    In this video he talks about three thing he learned from his Zen Master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. The first thing involves how his teacher helped Shinzen drop his preference for the no-self state. I found it helpful for my understanding, and I found it just after I realized that I needed to let go of my own fixation on no-self.

    Think of this, Sue. How long did it take, after your drive home, immersed in no-self, no language, no thoughts, — until it all came back? I bet it did not take days or weeks! It does not take much to kick us back into ordinary self awareness and self talk. It could be a simple interaction with another human being. It could be your next task as a writer. It could be a strong emotion, such as fear, anger, or best of all- embarrassment. If you can see the self as a wave function instead of a thing, then the self waves can come and go along with the no-self waves, as energy waves, while you abide in the “third space”, which includes both.

    I now see my self sense , or fictional identity, as my “imaginary friend”. I don’t want to get rid of my imaginary friend, (he comes in handy sometimes), I just don’t want him to control my life.



  5. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Hi Peeked,
    I’m glad you can understand my resistance. I feel it still. I am torn between accepting on the one hand that obviously John is right about the balance and ability to move in both worlds, or as Dogen might say to swim on the surface of the ocean while walking with your feet on the bottom, and on the other, fighting back. Surely it’s easy to be in self mode. We do it all the time. It’s hard to drop the self – to let fall body and mind. I felt closer than I’d ever been. I felt that something might just snap and all that pathetic clinging to this ordinary self be let go. Surely one needs to be able to let go before being able to take up the threads again – to be in the other world before learning how to inhabit both? I could obviously have completely misunderstood the state I was in, or John could have over-estimated where I had got to. Either way the result was maddening for us both.

    It’s very helpful to have other people’s comments on this because I truly don’t understand what went on, and I’m not sure John does either.
    Happily I may soon be able to talk to him more about this. Unhappily he is not well. he has had a couple of falls and needs help with certain basic tasks, like fetching wood for fires and driving to go food shopping. So various people who have worked with him are taking it in turns to go and do a solitary retreat at his house, helping with these tasks when needed and otherwise keeping out of the way and practicing. I’m going for a week soon and look forward to having his guidance as well while I’m there. Doubtless we will get into some fiery arguments as we usually do!

    Thanks also for the clip. I watched it with much interest. Indeed I even watched part of it twice and missed the beginning of The Archers – and that is saying something! As you say, Shinzen talks very much to this point and I found it most helpful.


  6. peeked Says:

    Hi Sue,

    I hear you. The idea of dropping the self completely makes so much more sense to me, than what John suggests. Shinzen says in that video that “…yes there’s no-self, and then there’s full self, and those are both no-self experiences.”
    I can’t make rational or logical sense out of that. I would prefer that no-self meant no-self. Permanent deletion of self identity. You call your attachment to self “pathetic clinging”. An interesting choice of words, both harshly judgmental and true. Not just for you, but for humans in general. The word pathetic comes from Greek pathētikos- capable of feeling.
    To feel- to experience from the sense of self MEANS to suffer. Doesn’t it? To end suffering completely, why not end this illusory sense of self completely?
    I don’t know the answer to those questions. I could speculate, and I have, but I really think one needs to live it in order to understand it, if in fact one can understand it.

    Chuang Tsu says “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.”

    My sympathy goes to your teacher, John, for his current difficulties. On the other hand, he has the good fortune of support from students and friends, and what a great opportunity for you to do a practical mindfulness retreat by helping him at his house. I think for people who have done their work “on the cushion”, the cutting edge of mindfulness lies in the practical tasks of daily living; shopping, cleaning, etc. I think you will really benefit from your time in that practice and in his company. I very much look forward to reading your report on this experience.

    Best regards,

    PS- I had to look up the show “The Archers”. It sounds like fun. I don’t think we have a radio series that compares with that in the U.S.

  7. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I think that Shinzen meant that self is always empty of self nature whether the person is experiencing the self as non-existent or as fully present. I imagine that one can learn to live equally at home either way with insight into no-self. The problem in that interview was that I had not (quite?) lost the ordinary clinging to self (pathetic or otherwise!).
    I’ll let you know how it goes.

  8. galimatia1 Says:

    I’m confused. I’ve re-read both of your posts a few times now, and it seems to me as if the second post diminishes the importance of “the imaginary friend” to which you refer in the first. I don’t mean this as “justify your position!” imperative, but as a question motivated by confusion and interest because my current bias is something like this:

    Yes, I recognize that there is no “essential self,” and that to exist is to some degree to suffer delight and agony, but I don’t want to fully give up suffering. I suffer agony as signal of what my embodied self needs, and I bear delight as an affirmation of my embodied self. There’s a difference between suffering a burn so that I know to pull my hand from the stove as opposed to suffering over my suffering. My understanding, I very well may be misunderstanding, is that meditation ought to aim at the latter rather than the former. I think that no suffering is simply death or no-existence, and this is different from no-self. I want my pathos and my no-self, but not as an aspiration so much as a recognition (there are many moments in which, without even trying, I experience “my self” as “no self.” Then, when I try to experience myself as “no-self” this weird thing happens where reflecting on it becomes self-ing. This is also how I was reading the first few chapters (I am still at chapter 3), and then comparing Sue’s description of her process to my own process of beginning mindfulness meditation. I am total novice, investigator, experimenter, so please forgive me if I am intruding on a conversation prematurely.

    Do you know what I mean?

  9. galimatia1 Says:

    PS To clarify, I mean, that meditation can help overcome “suffering over suffering” even if it is limited in the degree to which it can eliminate suffering per se. I don’t think that eliminating suffering in itself would even be desirable (Peeked, is this what you were implying?). [I understand that eliminating suffering is an aim of some forms of Buddhism and respect those who aim for this, but it’s not an aim to which my self and no-self aspire].

  10. peeked Says:

    I just lately found this brilliant deconstruction of self by Shinzen
    that link takes you to part one of two parts.
    In it, he updates the Chariot metaphor of Zen Buddhism with with the much better CRT monitor metaphor, that he came up with. This shows self as an illusion based on three elements of sensory experience, thoughts (internal talk), and images, (shortened as feel, image, talk) congealing to form the illusion of self.

    The CRT metaphor will sound like the chariot metaphor to the coming generation. I still need to find a CRT monitor to check this illusion out.


    Thank you for your comments. In my second post I spoke from the “problem box” in the normal way we do in searching for common ground; empathizing with someone. In the first post I spoke from the “solution box” about my imaginary friend. I live from either box depending on the time of day, or outside of both boxes. I don’t mean to sound like an enigma, I just don’t have a consistent or stable world view. Sometimes my imaginary friend talks too much, and irritates me.
    So I don’t know if I can help clarify my posts for you, or if I will confuse you more. Some teachers make a distinction between pain and suffering. In that case, using your example, they would call burning your hand on the hot stove “Pain” and whatever thoughts of blame, victim mentality or any other negative “spin” that comes along with that pain as “Suffering”. Shinzen makes the point that your reaction can make the pain much worse by adding a layer of suffering. Equanimity, or non reactivity to the pain, can reduce suffering to a minimum, even to zero. He’s even made mathematical equations for this. I share this perspective and so I don’t think we can get rid of pain, but I do think we can get rid of suffering.
    We would still need to take instruction from our relationships and our environment. Without feedback we would get lost. I think you recognize that.

    By the way, at the risk of overdoing Shinzen references, I want to recommend one of my favorite talks by him. If you go to this link

    From the “Something’s Happening” show, part A.

    Scroll down to Jan 15, and look for Shinzen Young, “New Year, New Self”. Hit play for that program. I think it’s one of his older talks, but he does talk about the self sense and he also talks about how meditation/mindfulness can lead to a shift wherein instead of meditation happening within the context of your life, your life occurs within the context of meditation. He has a lot of useful insight for anyone who considers themselves a “novice”.


  11. fables1 Says:


    I am curious.
    Is Zen compatible with feminism?
    Are its memes gender free?
    How can I create an enduring meme which is not oppressive?


  12. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I guess few memes are really gender free but the historical Buddha had many female as well as male followers, and there is a long tradition of women teachers in Zen. Some Buddhists, such as Christmas Humphreys, were obviously sexist, many are not, but your question is too vague – it depends on what you count as Zen and what you mean by feminism.
    More important – I think Zen aims to go beyond memes. You could say that that is what many of the stories are about – pointing beyond anything that can be put into words.

  13. fables1 Says:

    Thank you for taking time to reply.

    Undoubtedly there are many women teachers and followers in all religions. But I have yet to find one that has been created by women for use by women which uses feminine stories and authority and generates enduring memes.

    What do you count as Zen and feminism?


  14. peeked Says:

    Hi Sue, Galimatia1,
    I sent a post Jan 31, but it still shows up when I sign on as “awaiting moderation”.
    Just wondering. Did you pass on that one, Sue?

  15. tenzenbookblog Says:

    So sorry. Must have slipped through the net. I’ve just got back from a week’s retreat with John Crook and have rather a lot of emails waiting!!!

  16. mogs10 Says:

    Not an expert on such things (but am/do ‘practic-er’ Zen) …. but it seems like path to ‘getting lost’ is to ‘look for an answer’ to the question “Are you here now?” – I got the impression that the object is to simply to wait and let the thoughts calm (hence the fact that there is no destination) – like John’s ‘let it come,let it be,let it go’ (have been having a good time with that one).
    My gut tells me that there is no answer because an ‘answer’ is not required and never was and never will be. Intrigued by Susan’s use of Zen in a scientific way – fits many parts of me, have to admit…like to balance my left and right brain (or it gets stroppy)

  17. deelockyer Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful and honest book, which I have just finished reading.
    I do have a sense that the questions that you are asking are not unlike asking if you can find a fixed point at the heart of a fire, or some point that has a constant temperature, or whether the fire has a defined and enduring colour or form. You then seem to suggest that because you can find no such points that the fire does not exist.

    I do wonder whether in the pursuit of mu you have lost the one hand. Perhaps that is the source of your perplexity?

  18. mihtraya Says:


    Sorry, but the answer is Yes – I am assuming you arrived home safely.

    PS Having difficulty finding the question for chapter 6 so I hope you don’t mind a comment here: Mindfulness is out of stream / lack of mindfulness is in stream.

  19. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I did indeed thanks, though from where you mean I do not know – from a long walk camping on Dartmoor this weekend, or my honeymoon cycling in France?
    And I’m also unsure as to what you mean about Chapter 6. The overt question is, if there is no time then what is memory? Remembering anything seems to mean bringing back events from the past that now happen in the present but …..

  20. jacques79 Says:

    Sue, peeked – thats funny discussion, you should start writing self-help books or something. 😉 But the more you speculate like this the farther away you are from the point, I seem.

    John – in my opinion – got to the point precisely, but I’d express that issue in different way: this is not clinging to no-self, this is clinging to self, to your intellectual views actually. Forgive my straightforwardness, please, this is just what strikes me down when I’m reading this. 😉

    Sue, you talk so much about similarites between Zen and science but sometimes I’ve strong impression that you confuse so called objective truths of science with zen’s “finger pointing at the moon”. In Zen there are no such a truths – there are just flexible tools designed to disarm the intellect. Intellect which trully can keep us away from ourselves.

    In fact Zen is not complementary to science, it’s the next step forward. Zen begins when intellect gives up.

    Thats what Suzuki writes about the problem with the intellect in “Zen Buddhism”:

    “How does Zen solve the problem of problems?
    In the first place, Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. The nature of one’s own beeing when apparently rages the struggle between the finite and the infinite is to be grasped by higher faculty than the intellect. For Zen says it is the latter that first made us raise the questions which it could not answer by itself, and therefore it is to be put aside for something higher and more enlightening. For the intellect has a peculiar disquieting quality n it. Though it raises questions enough
    to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. (…) Becouse it can point out the ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path. It is not final, it waits for something higher than itself for the solution of all the questions it will raise regardless of consequences. (…) When it comes to the questions of life itself we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so. We cannot suspend even for a moment our life-activity for philosophy to unravel its mysteries. Let the mysteries remains as they are, but live we must. The hungry cannot wait until a complete analysis of food is obtained and the nourishing value of each element is determined. For the dead the scientific knowledge of food will be of no use whatever. Zen therefore does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems.
    By personal experience it is meant to get at the fact at first hand and not through any intermediary, whatever this may be. Its favourite analogy is: to point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon; basket is welcome to carry our fish home, but when the fish are safely on the table why should we eternally bother ourselves with the basket? Here stands the fact, and let us grasp it with the naked hands lest it should slip away – this is what Zen proposes to do. As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and ourselves. Acording to Zen there is no struggle in the fact itself such as between the finite and the infinite, between the flash and the spirit, between the emptiness and the form. These are idle distinctions fictitiously designed by the intellect itself for its own interest. Those who take them too seriously or those who

  21. tenzenbookblog Says:


  22. juanitezpaz Says:

    Never not here. Words may come out of this, still every approach to this arises out of it already. Waves on the ocean, is the wave seperate from the ocean? At any given moment, is seperation possible? Conciousness moving through space, creating the illusion of time. Shiva says beautifully: As waves come with water and flames with fire so comes the cosmic essence with us.

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