Woman thinking

My pet mind – part 2 Who’s the observer?

In Insight and Experience, Places, Travel and Retreats by LivingNowLeave a Comment

In case you’ve not read my previous story (published in LivingNow, Jan–Feb 2008), or if you have read and enjoyed it, I shall briefly summarise the sequence of events that led to the teaching contained in it, and impact it had on me.

In 1981, I arrived in Taipei and moved into a small backpacker hostel near the centre of town. During my stay there, a combination of sheer serendipity and an innate curiosity led me to encounter a very unusual man, who lived in the apartment next door to the hostel. The first time I met Tang he invited me to visit his mountain temple, an offer I happily accepted.

This isolated temple was just the sort of place I’d been praying for, in order to continue my contemplative lifestyle. As it turned out, the temple was badly in need of a caretaker. The superstitious Chinese would never hold up a hand to live alone under such isolated conditions, where ghosts most likely abound. So I got the job and enjoyed it for the next five years.

One of the most important aspects of my long retreat was the relationship that developed with Tang, because he was a man of great wisdom. He never called himself my ‘master’ or even ‘teacher’, but simply my ‘guardian.’ As time and events unfolded, I realised that ‘guardian’ referred to the responsibility he shouldered of overseeing my spiritual growth.

Every week or two, Tang and his inner circle of followers would arrive at the temple to stay the weekend, and on these visits Tang would always make time for me. The first such occasion was during the time of the autumn festival. On this occasion, he took me to a small secret clearing in the bamboo thickets surrounding the temple, where he gave me his first teaching, on the training of the mind.

Tang had quickly noticed that I relished the duty of looking after the temple dogs, with whom I had a great affinity. So, in his first pointers on mind training, he shrewdly based his advice on the metaphor of training dogs. In my journal, I summarised these pointers as taming the dogs of mind. Tang’s opening suggestion was that “Dogs should not be kept on leashes unless they are out of control. There’s no reason to restrain the natural curiosity of the mind, but if one becomes infatuated by fantasy, it’s necessary to put the mind on the leash of practice.” So far, so good. My ego felt safe. Nothing particularly challenging there. I’d heard it many times before. However, I was utterly unprepared for Tang’s conclusive bombshell: “Since most people live in fantasy most of the time, we have to begin with the practice of restraining the mind, only to redirect it to what is Real.” He paused to let me write in my journal. Then he paused a bit longer to make sure his words had sunk in, then continued, “You can know what is Real because it never changes… it is permanent. It is already, always Real. Fantasies are continually arising and vanishing. Thoughts are the root of fantasy. Thoughts, by their very nature, are all impermanent.”

After Tang and his retinue went back to Taipei, I began to study the pointers he had given me, so that I could begin to put them into practice. It was in the meditation that the ‘rubber hit the road,’ and I gradually understood the profound practicality of his teaching.

Tang’s last statement was a powerful call to action. It was unavoidable. There was just no way my cringeing ego could get around it. For the next two weeks I wished I’d never heard those words, “You can know what’s real, because it never changes, whereas ‘fantasies are continually arising and vanishing.” These statements became a declaration of stupidity, an affront to my rational faculties. How on earth could everything observable, including my own thoughts, be labelled with the infernal title ‘fantasy!’ I became so confused, so infuriated that I would jump up in the middle of my meditation, casting off all attempts at self-inquiry like a crumpled piece of trash. I’d rush through the open temple doors and into the hiddenness of the nearby bamboo grove.

The problem was not only the futile recognition of just how fantasy-filled my mind was, but the complementary challenge of this never-changing non-thing, the Real. My thinking mind could not grapple with such an impossible paradox. I began to abhor my meditation practice. For so long this ‘sitting quietly doing nothing’ had served me beautifully, imbuing the daily round with peace and tranquillity. Now the mind raged like Niagara Falls. I was on the precipice. I began to abandon all efforts to understand anything. One morning, having returned to the bamboo thicket once again, I unexpectedly found myself in the little clearing where Tang had first taken me. This was the place where he revealed how to tame the dogs of mind. Recognising the place, I became so frustrated that I threw myself on the ground, with the begrudging self-accusation ‘Drama King!’ Then something changed. I began to laugh out loud at my whole shabby state of being. I continued to laugh, with more and more gusto, as I turned over onto my back. Tears streamed down my cheeks until I couldn’t laugh any longer. I felt a deep relaxation filling my whole body and mind. For some time I remained in an empty, spacious state of mind.

Suddenly, out of that horizonless sea of stillness, I heard a voice: “Open your eyes.” Without question, I complied. The brightness of the sun suddenly irradiated every corner of consciousness. I was instantly taken back to that day when Tang triggered the inner sun of One-ness, shining even more brightly than the solar orb of nature. Upon that remembering, I returned to the experience of energy rushing up my spine to open portals within my brain, exposing Reality without limit. I realised that ‘reality’ is just a word, a reference for That which is beyond words. Out of this stateless state, Tang’s voice emerged once again. His tone was matter-of-fact: “When you are in the process of throttling the mind’s habit of needless thinking, you must do so gently. All dogs may be subdued by loving-kindness.”

I remained there on the grass for a while longer, just breathing, allowing the mind to float pleasantly in the sky of thoughtlessness. Suddenly I opened my eyes wide, the sun once again pouring in. It was getting late … the dogs must be ravenous. I gathered myself, stood up, and briefly bowed to the little clearing, expressing gratitude to the guardian nature spirits, then made haste back down to the temple.

The path led to the back of the temple, then around the side to the front. When I rounded the corner to the front of the temple I saw something I did not expect. The three temple dogs lounged in the sun, the front doors of the temple were flung wide open, and plumes of fragrant incense billowed out across the spacious patio where Tang’s car rested in the shade.

I went to look inside the temple. Tang’s back was to me. He was making his last offering to the effigy of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. Then, placing the three sticks in the sand bowl, he abruptly turned and walked over to me, his eyes cast down, his face sombre. My stomach quivered with expectancy. As he stopped in front of me, his eyes lifted to meet mine. His eyebrows lifted and his expression shifted to one of amusement.

“I’ve fed the dogs”, Tang said in a reassuring tone. “Your dogs are hungry too!” His eyes sparkled forth under the mysterious half-closed lids. His smile widened. “Come, let’s sit on the patio where it’s warm.” Rubbing his hands together in the chill of the autumn morning, he went to his car to fetch a small knapsack. I knew what the contents were likely to be. We settled at a small table overlooking the vast Pacific, far below. He withdrew his familiar flask from the bag, placed two small cups on the table, and carefully filled them with fragrant Oolong tea. Tang took a sip, gazing off toward the horizon, uttering a soft ‘mmm’ of appreciation. I too felt a gathering mood of contentment as sun and tea warmed me. Yet in my belly some apprehension lingered. From my pocket I fetched my journal and pen, preparing to record Tang’s advice.

Without averting his gaze from the ocean, Tang began to speak. “In these days since I’ve been away, you have had a taste of suffering. When the tail of thoughts wags the dog of inner self, there’s no refuge for the busy mind, caught in the web of illusion.” He paused, then turned to face me, smiling. “There is no need to regret such mistakes! Remember that all dogs of thought may be subdued by loving-kindness. It is only natural for thoughts to stray into the realms of fantasy. It is unnatural to scold yourself too severely for these wanderings. But, you are a Shiou Tao Ren (one who cultivates the path of tao/truth). You cannot let yourself sink into apathy. The only way forward is the Right Insight, rightly applied.”

Tang paused while I caught up with my journalling. He poured another cup of tea and once again sipped it in silence. As I finished writing, he began to breathe more deeply, making a curious little sound in his throat. Without intending to, I too began to breathe deeper and deeper, until my eyelids became tired and gradually shut. I now noticed that I could hear the sound in Tang’s throat at the very centre of my brain… then, after a while, it vanished. My eyes opened. I was looking out toward the horizon … the same horizon as Tang’s, the same perception.

The voice of an inner intention arose within my mind: The wall, the view, portals of perception now fully open. With those words, a magnificent kaleidoscope of sensation gradually appeared in my field of awareness: rise and fall of the belly as the breathing came and went, panorama of the skin rubbing against the clothes, weight of the feet on the ground, sounds of the breeze as if whistling through my brain, along with the chorus of birdsong all around. Deeper, within the cells and neurons, much more subtle sensations, impossible to describe, yet all this happening in perfect harmony, in every moment, with absolutely no effort.

From the midst of this feast of perception, the voice of the intention quietly beckoned me, more persistent this time: The wall, the view, fully open the portals of perception. For the first time I saw that the view, streaming into consciousness, had altered… the point of perception was higher, and my feet were standing above… yes, upon the wall, with 200 metres of sheer, naked cliff face just below. A great peace descended upon me as my sense of being expanded out to saturate the surroundings. The inner and outer perceptions fused as a vast, harmonious presence. Consciousness expanded on out, releasing itself into a universal acceptance of All That Is. The senses were One – complete in every part, with every breath. Indeed, every breath was It… that One.

Gradually I became aware of a warmth in the centre of my back. There was a knowing that it was Tang’s reassuring touch. It became more and more firm. Slowly, slowly the hand pushed forward, softly, gently, encouraging. And then, still gentle but more firm than ever, that pushing, reassuring, releasing … the senses completely exhilarated, soaring out into the vast horizon, far above the cliff face, the mountains, far beyond any body or any separate self. All that remained was the awesome Is-ness. That moment easily stretched out beyond any concept of eternity.

A small babbling sound appeared. Gradually the word ‘tea’ surfaced into awareness. At that, the sense of the present effortlessly emerged. There was Tang’s hand and wrist, pouring the last cup of tea. When the last drop fell he looked up at me, and, as our eyes connected, I knew that there was, in reality, no ‘Tang’ any more than there was a separate ‘Mas’. I knew that in every successive moment there is only a universal continuum, surfacing as an aspect of consciousness, seeming to relate and exchange with other apparent aspects. It was all perfect. No adjustments needed … nor even possible!

Tang slowly turned to gaze out toward the horizon once again. There was a hand reaching out toward a journal once again. Hey! That’s my hand—my journal! I laughed out loud. Meanwhile, Tang sipped quietly, pausing as I settled down. Then he turned to me with a big smile. He spoke slowly and evenly. “Yes, there’s nothing to do but smile, smile, smile. Once you know, there’s nothing more to do.” He paused, smiling widely. “Now you know… just let go. The appearance of life as it is, with all the deceptive thoughts and emotions … this is all at One with what we might call the continuum of reality. Now you know that all apparent saboteurs, as well as positive and loving intentions, are only momentary wrinkles of reality, arising and vanishing, moment by moment. Your freedom—your smile—is in fact just about letting go of your illusion that somewhere there is a separate entity called ‘Mas’ who wishes to control, to separate the good from the bad, the desirable from the undesirable. That is the meaning of let go. You must die to the illusion before you can be born into eternal life.”

As Tang finished that sentence, and I finished writing it, I dropped my pen on the ground, hardly noticing. I felt absolutely amazed and liberated by the simplicity of these words. And, yes, I noticed an involuntary smile on my lips … what more was there to do? Tang quietly produced a tea towel, carefully wiped and packed up his flask and cups. We then sat for an indeterminate time—perhaps an eternity or two—gazing out to the horizon.

The first sensation to coax me back to the everyday portal of reality was a damp nose on my hand. It was Rufus, the big lovable, shaggy dog. “Time for lunch”, Tang commented wryly. He gave me a long, loving glance and I knew that our time together had come to an end. We silently rose, clasping hands in front of the chest, bowing the head in reverence for All That Is, then Tang collected his knapsack, turned and walked to his car. He opened the door, stowed the knapsack, then turned back to me and delivered his final lesson: “Mas! Remember who’s breathing!” He stepped into the driver’s seat, turned the car around, and with a wave, a smile, and a toot of the horn, he started down the mountain, leaving only an ochre cloud of dust, and the grace of yet another precious awakener – a ‘smile’ to keep my heart warm as the cold, perfect winter descended.

After feeding the dogs, I retreated to my tiny room and sat at my little desk. This sparse space would never be the same again… nor would ‘I.’ After a while, I began to feel inspired. I pulled out my journal and entered notes of the things that occurred to me during that remarkable morning with Tang. Over the next two weeks, I began to meditate in an entirely different way — the way of receptivity. It is a way of self-inquiry through simply noticing the power of focussed perception, shorn of effort. The receptive is inherently effortless. This simple inquiry has been extremely useful for me and for those with whom I’ve shared it down the years. Now, concluding this article, I share it with you, below. Remember, this is not one more thing to do, but lots to undo! Whatever your results, may it leave you with a smile… and another…

  1. Make yourself a bit of quiet time, then become aware of your breath, noticing which part of your body expands with each inhalation and contracts on the exhale. It could be the chest or the belly, or a combination of the two. You may notice that the small expansion/contraction causes a subtle sensation on parts of the skin rubbing against the clothes, or sheets if you’re in bed. Simultaneously, be aware of these two linked sensations for as long as you wish. It is suggested that you sustain this simultaneous awareness for at least five minutes, and then begin your enquiry.
  2. Continue to be aware of breathing as a background to your enquiry. Consider: How many times a day do you even notice the breath? You don’t need to notice it in order to continue to breathe, which is vital. Without breath, an average person will perish in a matter of minutes. And yet this effortless function, the breath cycle, continues to function perfectly at around 25,000 times a day. How many times a day do you even notice it?
  3. Now relax the breath even more. Relax any thoughts of the breath that might occur. Suggest to yourself that you can relax the spaces between those thoughts. Just let go … Then continue with the inquiry: Allow your mind to accept and receive the fact that your breath is your friend. It is an intelligent, energetic friend who keeps the body and mind alive. To survive you need its friendship, but for it to continue with its function, the breath doesn’t depend on your patronage, or your attention.
  4. Finally, let the following questions rise into awareness like a bubble, slowly surfacing, then bursting: “Who’s breathing?” “Is it correct to say I’m breathing?” Is it true to say instead, “There is breathing”?

Sincerely repeat this short inquiry as many times as you need to. Suddenly, or perhaps more gradually, your beliefs around who you are – and are not – will begin to shift. I’ll leave the extent of that shifting up to you. Meanwhile … let there be smiling!


Mas Rogers passed away in Melbourne on 3/1/2011. His gentle nature will be remembered by all his friends and workshop participants and his contribution to the holistic niche is substantial.

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