Toni Packer (1927 – August 23, 2013) was a teacher of “meditative inquiry”, and the founder of Springwater Center in New York, a non-denominational retreat center dedicated to forms of contemplative life derived from Toni’s spiritual influences, which included the teachings of nonduality and self-investigation found in Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and the talks and writings of J. Krishnamurti.
Toni Packer was born in Berlin, Germany in 1927. Her family was Lutheran in name only, as they endeavored not to divulge the fact that her mother was of Jewish descent. It was in her childhood, growing up amidst the turmoil of Nazi Germany, that Packer first developed mistrust for authority. The family eventually made a move to Switzerland, where she married her husband Kyle Packer in 1950. The pair moved to New York near the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Kyle came to earn a degree in psychology. Toni began reading the pioneering works about Zen Buddhism by Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau. It was the latter which had the greatest impact on her, and she soon joined the nearby Rochester Zen Center with her husband.
Throughout the 1970s she accepted minor teaching positions at Rochester, and in 1981 she ran the center for an extended period in Kapleau’s absence. During this time she instituted many changes in the practice there and discontinued wearing the rakusu that normally distinguishes teachers from students. Packer left the Center shortly after Kapleau’s return and ceased calling herself a Buddhist. Her eventual departure from Zen Buddhism was due in part to her growing scepticism toward the use of Japanese ritual in Zen as practised at the Rochester Zen center.
In 1981 she opened the Genesee Valley Zen Center, in Springwater, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, an hour south of Rochester. In 1986 the center relocated and changed its name, dropping the word Zen to become the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats in Springwater, New York. The Springwater Center is incorporated under New York State law as a religious institution.
Packer rejected labels for herself such as a teacher or authority, though some of the individuals she has asked to carry on her work do not. Her discursion of meditative inquiry was informed largely by her own vision, in addition to the influences noted above. Packer has been described as “…a Zen teacher minus the ‘Zen’ and minus the ‘teacher,'”, as her focus was not on herself, but the process of inquiry she recommended.
Her published writings include The Work of This Moment, The Light of Discovery, Seeing Without Knowing & What Is Meditative Inquiry?,The Wonder of Presence and the Way of Meditative Inquiry, and The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing.
In her book Bare Bones Meditation, Toni’s most well-known student, Joan Tollifson, provided an intimate account of studying with Toni Packer and especially of living and working at Toni’s rural retreat center in Springwater, New York. Toni encouraged Joan to abandon all answers and methods, to question all beliefs, and to explore the simplicity of present awareness.
In a 2007 article for Yoga Journal, entitled “The Work of This Moment”, Joan Tollifson described her experience with Toni Packer:
“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 gone, the mind is occupied with a story and the emotions it generates.
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.
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.'”
In a more recent article on Free Will, Joan says this about what she discovered while studying with Toni:
“During those years with Toni Packer, in addition to directly confirming the absence of free will or of a separate self, I was also discovering something else. While everything in the virtual reality we call “the world” appeared to be the result of infinite causes and conditions, I was discovering that in the absence of thoughts, stories and concepts, what remains is very fluid. And the open awareness beholding it all seemed to be unconditioned and absolutely free. I saw that the whole universe begins anew in every instant and that there is an undeniable power right here to act. But that power isn’t the separate self or the thinking mind, and it doesn’t work the way we commonly imagine that it does. Thus it also became clear that “I have no choice” is a story that doesn’t entirely hit the mark either. There is no “I” in control of this power to act, but at the same time, there is no separate source apart from this beingness Here / Now.”
A representative retreat talk/meditative inquiry by Toni Packer, this one from 1997, entitled “What Is This Me”, can be found online here, and it is well worth the time:
A website dedicated to Toni Packer’s work, along with links to a number of her written articles, can be found here:
Some quotes from Toni Packer:
“Awareness cannot be taught. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it.
It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed, in the light of understanding.
When the changing states of body-mind are simply left to themselves without any choice or judgment, a new quietness emerges by itself.
This new mind that is no-mind is free of duality—there is no doer in it and nothing to be done.”
“Being concentrated is not the same as being here, present, and clearly aware. We can practice concentration for years and become highly focused, even perform feats that seem miraculous. But does it help in understanding who we truly are, clearly, directly, beyond the shadow of a doubt? It is hard to put into words, but when this is clear, it is clear. It is not the product of concentration or imagination. I am not knocking concentration. It has its useful function in daily life, in arts, sciences, sports. In the kitchen, if I’m not concentrating, the food will burn. Acrobats need enormous concentration to stay on the high wire, and so do bookkeepers to avoid making mistakes.
It is possible to control the mind with practices like concentrating on the breath, a mantra, a mandala, a spot on the forehead or below the navel. This is concentrating by cutting off distractions. And what do we get in that process? Don’t we get a concentrator, either a good or bad one? The effort that comes from the thought of getting someplace or being something reinforces, in subtle ways, the sense of me. It reinforces the me as having to do something, being somebody, attaining something, or still lacking something. These are all ideas and images, deeply programmed and constantly reinforced in the human mind….
Here in the work of this moment we are not trying to mold ourselves to a preconceived path or “stages.” Teachings that postulate stages grab the thinking mind. We wonder what these stages are like, and trying to figure them out is an exercise in headaches. Of course the main interest is, “What stage am I in? How many more will I have to go through?”
Can we drop the idea of stages and not pick it up again, even though it is prevalent in many traditions? Can we see and feel that any such conceptualization is already a straightjacket? Thought is so powerful — thinking what I am now, what I will be next, judging myself about what I think I am and what I could be. The power of such thoughts cannot be overestimated. They prevent a presence, an awareness that defies all definition.
We may think that effort is the source of awareness, but in presently awaring this thinking, there is no effort. It’s just happening. Listen — rain is gently dropping on the roof, hitting the window panes, breath is flowing, crows are calling. We hear it clearly, don’t we? Any effort?”
“What is personal death?
Asking this question and pausing to look inward – isn’t personal death a concept? Isn’t there a thought-and-picture series going on in the brain? These scenes of personal ending take place solely in the imagination, and yet they trigger great mental ad physical distress – thinking of one’s cherished attachments an their sudden, irreversible termination.
Similarly, if there is ‘pain when I let some of the beauty of life in’ – isn’t this pain the result of thinking, ‘I won’t be here any longer to enjoy this beauty?’ Or, ‘No one will be around and no beauty left to be enjoyed if there is total nuclear devastation.’
Apart from the horrendous tragedy of human warfare – why is there this fear of ‘me’ not continuing? Is it because I don’t realize that all my fear and trembling is for an image? Because I really believe that this image is myself?
In the midst of this vast, unfathomable, ever-changing, dying, and renewing flow of life, the human brain is ceaselessly engaged in trying to fix for itself a state of permanency and certainty. Having the capacity to think and form pictures of ourselves, to remember them and become deeply attached to them, we take this world of pictures and ideas for real. We thoroughly believe in the reality of the picture story of our personal life. We are totally identified with it and want it to go on forever. The idea of “forever” is itself an invention of the human brain. Forever is a dream.
Questioning beyond all thoughts, images, memories, and beliefs, questioning profoundly into the utter darkness of not-knowing, the realization may suddenly dawn that one is nothing at all – nothing – that all one has been holding on to are pictures and dreams. Being nothing is being everything. It is wholeness. Compassion. It is the ending of separation, fear, and sorrow.
Is there pain when no one is there to hold on?
There is beauty where there is no “me”.”
“The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive–it has nothing to do with time. It happens on its own when a human being questions, wonders, inquires, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure, and pain. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”