Stopping & Seeing

adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, April 1st, 2003

The Chinese often used simple and ordinary Chinese words to translate Indic Buddhist terms. I find it particularly interesting that they translated the words for “concentration” and “insight” as “stopping” and “seeing.” As important as the words “concentration” and “insight” are in Buddhist practice, they can also be problematic. They suggest capacities that we develop over time, and so are not necessarily available or even relevant to the present moment. In trying to achieve concentration and insight as some future goal, we may even miss seeing the present clearly. Stopping and seeing, on the other hand, suggest something immediately possible in any situation, even the most mundane. They are activities with which we are all familiar. For example, that’s what we do when we come to a stop sign.

Stopping and seeing function together in a number of ways. In some circumstances we focus on stopping and in others we focus on seeing. We stop so that we can see clearly. We look so that we can better understand what we should stop doing. Stopping supports seeing and seeing supports stopping. If we can stop what we need to stop, great. But if we can’t stop, then we can look into what doesn’t stop.

All Buddhist practice entails some form of stopping. Restraint, suspension, relaxation, letting go, and surrender are all forms of stopping in the service of becoming free of our clinging. Freedom from clinging makes room in our psyche for spiritual growth. Initially this might mean simply stopping in our activities long enough to recognize what is actually happening. Be it a moment’s “breather,” a session of meditation, a retreat or even a vacation, we often need some pause in our daily routine to get a better perspective, to unwind, and to understand what further we can put to rest.

All Buddhist practice also includes seeing, though in some circumstances this translates to listening, sensing, and perhaps receiving. Clear seeing is the vehicle for insight, love, and the deepening of the spiritual life. Wise action requires the ability to see and understand.

The experience of stopping and being aware in the present moment can be exquisite: to be where we are, with nowhere else we need to go; to feel peaceful and fulfilled without any need to achieve a particular identity or recognition from others; to stop our attempts to get what we want and to feel instead complete, at ease, happy.

Formal meditation practice is an extended form of a sacred pause in which we voluntarily stop our usual daily activities. Seated in meditation, we can practice stopping or letting go of our usual train of thought. Our psyche can become calm. If we can’t let go of our preoccupations, then perhaps we can be content with looking into the nature of the preoccupied mind. Greater calm becomes a basis for seeing more clearly into the subtle and habitual ways in which the mind clings. As meditation deepens, we see ever deeper forms of attachment. We can then stop. Our attachments relax, and we can more easily let go of them.

I encourage you to develop a variety of ways of stopping and seeing throughout the day. Stopping for a red light, stop your internal preoccupations and notice what is happening with you. Pause before eating as a way of checking in with yourself. Wait a moment or two before speaking. Do a short meditation at the end of a workday. Sit quietly with yourself before going to sleep.

With time and practice, more and more often, stopping and seeing occur together. When we see clearly, seeing is the same as stopping and we can find rest in the midst of activity.