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Toni Packer stands in a cloistered walkway at the edge of a courtyard, watching raindrops fall on a purple blossom. It’s the post-breakfast break at her annual nine-day New Year’s retreat in California. Toni walks a little way, then stops again to look up at the sky. She listens intently to the hissing, gurgling rain.
A lively, white-haired woman who is now 70 years old, Toni Packer is a former Zen teacher who left the traditional aspects of Zen behind to pursue her passion for what she calls “the work of this moment.”
Her approach is as unembellished and ordinary as you can get. On her retreats there are no rituals or ceremonies, and nothing is required except silence. Toni talks about listening openly to whatever is here, without resistance or effort. Rather than relying on a traditional method, she prefers to start from scratch, on the spot. She has no system, no road map, no answers. Every moment is new.
On Toni’s retreats, there is a daily schedule of timed sittings in the morning and evening (interspersed with short walking periods), and an untimed sitting period in the afternoon. But all activities and sittings are optional; you can spend the entire retreat sitting in the courtyard, walking in the hills, or lying in bed. No particular posture is regarded as better than any other. Some people even bring big, comfortable armchairs into the sitting room.
Toni gives a daily talk, and people can meet with her individually or in groups throughout the retreat. She invites us to bring up anything we want, or simply to sit quietly together listening to birds or rain. When she gives talks, Toni speaks out of stillness. She’s listening as she talks, and the listening silence is the essence of the talk. The birds, the wind, the rain, the words, the listening together is one whole happening. An immediacy permeates every word. What she points to is simple: hearing traffic or birds, seeing thoughts as thoughts, feeling the breathing, listening to it all without knowing what it is.
This open being is not something to be practiced methodically. Toni points out that it takes no effort to hear the sounds in the room; it’s all here. There’s no “me” (and no problem) until thought comes in and says: “Am I doing it right? Is this ‘awareness?’ Am I enlightened?” Suddenly the spaciousness is gonethe mind is occupied with a story and the emotions it generates.
Calling into Question
Toni Packer grew up in Hitler’s Germany, the daughter of two scientists. Her mother was Jewish, but her father’s prestigious scientific career spared the family from the Holocaustjust barely. At the end of the war, they discovered that their names had been added to the death list.
In Toni’s early years, she saw how crowds could be persuaded to endorse and carry out unbelievable horrors when stirred by a charismatic, confident leader and by the promise of salvation and security. Toni often speaks of how we so desperately want an authority, someone to protect us. She is adamant in her refusal to provide an illusion of protective, omniscient authority to those who work with her. She calls into question our longing for ideal people and magical solutions, and continually challenges people to test out everything she says. Her teaching is “something to be considered, questioned, wondered about, taken further.”
Toni’s family emigrated to Switzerland after the war, where Toni met and married a young American exchange student, Kyle Packer. After they returned to the States, the Packers adopted a baby, and in the late ’60s she and Kyle discovered the Zen Center in Rochester, New York, where Toni was soon teaching.
But Toni found herself increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional and dogmatic aspects of formal Zen practice, which seemed to her to get in the way of open listening. She came upon the writings of J. Krishnamurti at that time, and his questions and insights helped to clarify her need to work in a simple, open way.
In 1981, Toni left Rochester Zen Center along with a group of students who were working with her, and they founded the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Toni wanted to be close to nature, so the group purchased several hundred acres of country land and built a retreat center. The first retreats in rural Springwater were held in 1985, and in time the name was changed to Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry & Retreats.
The Center, spare and without fanfare of any kind, reflects Toni’s simplicity and spaciousness. Located in a subtly beautiful landscape in northwestern New York, Springwater Center is a place where people come to be quiet, to listen and look together, to enjoy the weather, the wildlife, the community, and to simply be. Silent retreats are held throughout the year, and people come from all over the world to attend them.
A small resident staff lives at the Center year-round. Toni now spends half the year at Springwater and the other half traveling and offering retreats in California and Europe.
What Are We Defending?
I’ve been working with Toni for the past decade. We first met at her California retreat in 1988, and since then I’ve gone back and forth between Springwater, where I was on staff, and my home in California.
As the retreat begins, it feels so good to unfold and relax into the silence. I see more clearly than ever how I have always searched for some big and final experience. I see how much resistance there is to simply being here. The mind is always so busy imagining what would be better that it rarely dares to stop its frantic search for something else.
I see how much I want to be loved; I feel a deep ache of loneliness. And then, when I turn to it, there is nothing there but thoughts, and the sounds of wind and water. A solitary orange plops down from the tree, landing in wet black earth and glistening leaves. Clouds blow past.
On a nine-day silent retreat, people go through an amazing succession of moods, emotions, and experiences, many of them quite disillusioning. We begin to see vividly how thought generates images of ourselves and other people that seem totally real, and how easily we can be hurt or offended. Someone in a group meeting reports feeling enraged when the person next to him in the meditation room, whom he had already been picturing for three days now as an “aggressive person,” moved her blanket over a few inches into what he perceived to be “his” territory.
It is in our relationships with one another, Toni says, that our buttons get pushed most easily and that we come up against the sense of “me” and “my territory” and “my way” being violated or thwarted. Relationships provide tremendous opportunities to look into what is at the root of all this hurt and conflict that human beings experience. Toni invites us to notice how things close down when we think we know a person, place, or activity.
What is it we are defending? Toni asks. For me, it seems as if my very life is somehow threatened when someone questions or seems to be defying “my way.” When I look into it, I see that it isn’t so much the particular opinion or way of doing things that I’m fighting for, it’s that sense of “me.”
Toni asks us to look and see if this “me” is really here. “There’s no need to think about myself in known ways,” Toni says. “No need to know about myself, to know how I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I am. No need to know or hold on to anything. There’s nothing to be afraid of in not being anything.”
Toni suggests that we listen to the stories we’re telling ourselves and each other, and notice how a single thought can generate feelings of depression, elation, anxiety, or bliss. She stresses the importance of fully seeing (and seeing through) the messy, unwanted material that we tend to regard as garbage (anger, fear, desire, confusion, uncertainty), and to look at it without judgment.
“This is immense work,” Toni says, “to sit with all the garbage without giving up.” We’re not here to “get enlightened,” to “end suffering,” to “annihilate the ego,” or to “awaken forever,” but rather to explore, listen, discover what’s here and what here is. Not once and for all, but this moment. And this moment. And this moment.
Toni says this work isn’t about getting rid of the garbage, or the sense of me, or the controlling behavior. Rather, this work is to see it all, to behold the awesome power of these habitual reflexive tendencies, and to discover that in this moment, in open listening, the reflexive habit doesn’t have to continue.
This listening awareness is intelligence; it takes care of everything. We don’t have to do it. In fact, “we” don’t exist (as some entity apart from the whole) except in thought.
But to actually see that no “me” exists separate from everything else, this is freedom. It’s subtle and arduous work, and yet so simple. Simple and immense.
I once asked Toni if she’d ever had one of those big awakenings where life turns inside out and all identification with the body-mind ceases. “I can’t say I had it,” she replied. “It’s this moment, right now.”
Springwater Center, 7179 Mill St., Springwater, NY 14560; (716) 669-2141;
Joan Tollifson is the author of Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life (Bell Tower, 1996). Her Web site is www.wenet.net/~joant/wakeup.