The Simplicity of What Is
What is life all about? Does it mean anything? Where are we looking for happiness or liberation? Do we have free will? What is enlightenment and how can I get it? Can anything be done to free ourselves from depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, wars, holocausts, prejudices? What is spiritual (and what isn't)? What happens when we die?
The thinking mind wants to find answers to questions. When you're trying to find out which bus to take or how to build a house, this ability to find answers is a useful function. But the thinking mind doesn't know when to stop thinking or when thinking is useful and when it isn't. And so, as we grow up, we live more and more in a conceptual world trying to think our way to happiness. We lose touch with the immediacy and wonder we had as children.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to give me a pail of water and a paintbrush so that I could paint on the sidewalk. I'd paint these paintings on the sidewalk with water, and they would disappear in a matter of minutes, but that didn't matter because what I was enjoying was the sheer joy of doing it. It needed no reward, no praise, no permanence. It was complete in itself.
And then at another point in my life, I was an art student, and I can remember seriously questioning whether it was worth painting at all if I weren't Leonardo or Picasso, if I were less than perfect. That sense of playfulness and curiosity that children have so naturally, enjoying the simplicity of being, gets overshadowed by this attempt to make something out of me, to make "me" into a successful me.
Very often when we come to spirituality, even when it's supposedly all about waking up from this story of me, it morphs into its own new version of this same story, focused now on how successfully I'm waking up, how well I'm meditating, whether I'm enlightened or not. Oddly enough, this me that we're so concerned about may be nothing more than a kind of mirage or mental image, the central character in a movie story generated by thought and imagination accompanied by a changing cloud of sensations in the body, nothing substantial or persisting at all.
How can we find out? Is it possible to wake up from this mental mirage, this entrancement in thought? What is it that would wake up? Is it "me"? Or is it something else?
Again, the thinking mind looks immediately for answers. We seek out authorities and adopt their views. We cling to ideas and explanations, and seek bigger and better experiences.
Liberation is not about having the answers, or having some particular experience, or being in some special state of consciousness that lasts forever. Liberation has nothing to do with belief, but is rather the freedom from belief (recognizing belief, questioning beliefs, holding all functional beliefs tentatively, seeing through false beliefs, seeing clearly that no belief is absolutely true). Waking up does not happen in the past or the future, only Now. Here / Now is the only eternity that actually exists. Liberation or enlightenment is not something you find or acquire like a new car. It is not some dazzling or exotic experience like being permanently high on ecstasy or LSD. Liberation is seeing through or waking up from entrancement in the ubiquitous fabrications and mirages of conceptual thought, including the whole idea of being a separate someone who supposedly needs to be liberated. Liberation is being just this moment, recognizing the simplicity of what is and being awake to the undivided unicity that is ever-present and ever-changing. Liberation is the absence of the belief that "this isn't it," and the falling away of the search for enlightenment "out there" somewhere in the future. Liberation is realizing the emptiness (the fluidity, the interdependence, the relativity, the impermanence) of every apparent form and the unbound openness that is always Here / Now even in the midst of apparent contraction or resistance.
Ultimate Reality is right here in plain view. It is never hidden, it requires no belief, and it is utterly beyond all doubt. It is showing up as breakfast dishes, laundry, sunlight on leaves, the barking of a dog, sound of traffic or rain, the humming of the computer, the taste of tea, the shapes of these words, and the awareness being and beholding it all. And only when we describe all of this in words does it seem as if "awareness" is one thing and "the taste of tea" is something else. The non-conceptual actuality of this breathing-hearing-seeing-awaring-being is undivided, without center or periphery. No inside, no outside. No subject, no object. Simply this, just as it is.
And then perhaps a thought: "There must be more to life than this," or "What is the meaning of it all?" or "What about final enlightenment?" or "Isn't this all just the phenomenal manifestation, and isn't that an illusion?" Thought creates imaginary problems and tries to solve them. The complex human brain has an astonishing ability to conceptualize, imagine, remember, project, and think about things that have no actual reality. Yet even these thoughts are nothing but momentary dream-like shapes or appearances of the unbroken whole—little energetic telegrams, empty of substance.
Thought labels, categorizes, evaluates, and reifies the ever-changing perceptions that appear. Conceptual thought creates the hypnotic, mirage-like illusion of solid, persisting, independent things (including "me" and "you") -- the illusion of duality and separation. Thought imagines "me" as a separate character on a journey through time. It conjures up goals and stories of success and failure. It even creates the image of "me" as a serious spiritual person dedicated to getting rid of the "me." But without thinking, where is the "me"? What am I, really?
Is it possible that the peace and well-being we seek (that longing at the root of all our more superficial desires), cannot be found or satisfied by answers or attainments or experiences of any kind? Is it possible that the very search for it "out there" is precisely what prevents us from noticing that what we are seeking is the very essence of Here and Now?
And what is that?
It is nothing you can take hold of conceptually, and it's not any particular experience (as opposed to any other experience). It is the beingness, the present-ness, the knowingness, the IS-ness of this moment -- this that is undeniably present beyond all doubt, requiring no proof or belief, impossible to deny -- the common factor in every different experience, the suchness that is equally present before, during and after (and as) every thought, every contraction, every emotion, every sensation. The words (beingness, knowingness, IS-ness, presence, awareness, suchness, experiencing, consciousness) are only pointers. What they point to is nothing you can get hold of as an object. In fact, there really are no solid objects except as conceptual abstractions. This no-thing-ness (or undivided wholeness) is all there really is.
And this no-thing-ness is vibrantly alive, aware, conscious, awake, present. The grasping, searching and thinking may seem to destroy the wholeness of being or the spaciousness of presence-awareness, but can any experience really destroy awareness, or Here / Now, or beingness?
Consciousness, in the movies of both waking and dreaming life, has this amazing capacity to apparently divide the boundless and seamless actuality of pure intelligence-energy into time and space and an infinite multiplicity of forms and narratives. In the simplicity of bare perceiving and sensing (prior to thought and conceptualization), there is diversity and variation, but not separation or duality. In bare perceiving and sensing, there is simple polarity, in which opposites appear inseparably together, always relative to one another. Duality arises with conceptual thought, as we imagine that good and evil are absolutes that actually exist independently of one another, and when we believe that the light could eventually triumph over the dark. Conceptual thought further divides, reifies, and tells stories about conditioned perceptions, solidifying the abstract "things" it has (conceptually) created. This makes it seem that the world is made up of separate, independent fragments (including "me," the apparently separate self encapsulated inside "my body"), forms that seemingly endure and persist over time and that exist "out there" somewhere, independently of consciousness. These forms are not real, of course. They are conceptual abstractions that exist only in thought and imagination—and to some degree in conditioned perception (if we don’t look too closely). But if that mirage-like picture of reality isn't seen through, if it is believed and taken seriously, then the result is suffering and confusion. We spend our lives chasing after mirages, battling against phantasms, and trying to survive as a form that never really exists in the way we think it does. Zen, Advaita and other forms of non-duality are all about waking up from this entrancement and suffering. But it isn't "you" who wakes up and then becomes "an awakened person." The very notion that there is someone who needs to wake up from delusion is part of the delusion! The problem of bondage only exists in the thought-created movie world of imagination. The whole problem is a kind of mirage. What's real is never absent, and what seems to obscure it is never real.
If we turn our attention to bare perceiving and sensing, we can discover that everything is a fluid and seamless whole from which nothing actually stands apart. There is diversity and variation, but not separation. Everything shows up together as one whole picture (one whole moving picture), and we cannot find an actual boundary where inside (subject) turns into outside (world). Everything perceivable is an appearance in and of consciousness. We never actually experience anything outside of consciousness. Everything appears Here / Now in this field of conscious awareness. This can become obvious as our most immediate experience in every moment—an experience we are actually never not having, although we may seemingly be ignoring it. Awareness or presence (Here-Now-ness) is the constant factor in every experience.
No words (including these words) can ever capture the actuality of what is (the eternal Now; the infinite Here; the vivid suchness of experiencing; the immediacy or thusness of it). It can be talked about and pointed to in various different ways, but anything we say about actuality is never actuality itself. We may nod in agreement upon hearing that; nevertheless, we habitually tend to mistake the map for the territory, the concept for the actual. We then get into endless debates and confusion over imaginary dilemmas such as whether there is or isn't free will, or whether any kind of spiritual practice is worth doing or not, or whether the world is real and deserving of our attention or only a dream-like illusion that is best ignored, or which comes first--the brain or consciousness, the chicken or the egg. This mind-spinning goes in circles leading nowhere. Reality can't ever be captured in concepts (like free will or no free will, self or no self, this or that). Whatever you say is never quite right. No word or concept is ever complete enough. If you say that you can't learn to ride a bicycle because there's no you to do it, or no free will, you'll be foolishly disempowering yourself. And yet, if you look carefully at who or what is riding the bicycle or "choosing" to do so, you won't find anything or anybody, nor can you really explain how exactly "you" do this bicycle riding.
We can argue endlessly over who rides, and whether or not they can freely choose to do it, or whether instruction and training is necessary or only a hindrance, and we can discuss the mechanics of bicycles and bicycle riding, or tell stories about legendary riders of the past, but finally, no amount of description or prescription will tell you how to ride a bicycle or how it is to be riding one. Talking about it, reading about it, watching others do it, or debating about who does it best, is not the same as simply doing it. Of course, enlightenment isn't quite the same as riding a bicycle, but as in bicycle riding, it's the actuality that matters, the territory itself and not the map. Discussing enlightenment (or awakening, or liberation), thinking about it, imagining it, or seeking it as a future event are all map-events. But enlightenment is the territory itself, that which is Here / Now, ever-present and ever-changing. Of course, paradoxically, even the map (as a map) is also the territory, just as there is something real in every dream and in every illusion. What is it that is real? This reality is inescapable and unavoidable. It is absolutely simple and immediate and impossible to actually lose.
Right now, simply listen to the sounds that are occurring. Traffic sounds, honking horn, bird cheeping, lawn mower, snow blower, rain falling, wind, rustling leaves, dog barking, vacuum cleaner, children's voices, boom box, siren, train whistle, whatever it is. Listen to the sounds as pure sound, in the same way you might listen to music. If there is no sound at all where you are, listen to the silence. Feel the breathing, the sensations of the body, the heart beating, the rushes of energy, the tightness in the chest, whatever is felt. Feel all of this as pure sensation, without labels or judgments, without resistance, without trying to correct or improve or enhance it in any way. See all the colors and shapes and movements around you in the same way you might enjoy an abstract painting. Notice that everything is constantly changing, and yet, it all happens in this ever-present Here and Now. This timeless immediacy can't be pinned down, nor can it be avoided.
What is the whole thing?
Notice what happens when this question is asked. Does the thinking mind instantly kick in looking for the answer? Does thought begin searching the spiritual (or scientific, or psychological) files? "This is all Consciousness," we might think. Or, "This is pure awareness," or "This is brain activity," or "This is my living room," or "This is text on a web site," or "This is Intelligence Energy vibrating into different patterns," or "This is a dream," or "This is the phenomenal manifestation and I am pure noumenon."
Can it be seen right now that these are all thoughts? They are concepts, ideas, explanations, words, labels, beliefs. They may have their usefulness, and they may be relatively more or less accurate as pointers or maps, but notice right now that they are all words. They are not the actuality (the suchness) of ever-changing sounds, sensations, shapes and colors. They are descriptions or labels (as are all the words I just used). The word "awareness" is not awareness. Any idea of awareness or presence can be doubted or argued. But the actuality of awareness or presence is beyond doubt or belief. It needs no proof. The word "awareness" seems to make "awareness" into a separate thing, something other than sounds and colors. But the actuality of the present moment isn't really divided up into "awareness" and "content." It is one seamless immediacy, one whole happening. There is nothing beyond it or outside of it. It is undivided, uncontained, unbound.
For one moment, can all words, labels, concepts, ideas, and beliefs be allowed to fall away (not forever and ever, but right now)? If they are let go, then what remains?
Is the thinking mind looking for something that remains (an experience, a particular sensation, the right conceptual understanding, the absence of something, or whatever it might be)? Can that seeking activity be seen through and allowed to drop away? Can there be a simple resting in what actually remains -- this that is utterly inconceivable and yet totally obvious and impossible to avoid? Seeing, hearing, awaring, breathing -- simply this. Not the words, but the actuality. (And if the mind is now trying to banish words and thoughts in order to achieve some imagined non-conceptual purity, can that effort also be seen for what it is? Nothing needs to be banished, not even this effort! It's all one indivisible flowing whole -- this ever-changing appearance that always happens Here and Now).
Every moment is utterly new. Don't cling to the words. They're never quite right. Language is inherently dualistic. It requires subjects and objects, it reifies and divides, but in actuality, where are the boundary lines? Where does "inside" turn into "outside"? You can think of a conceptual answer, but looking directly with awareness, can you actually find such a place? Can you see that this boundary is purely conceptual, that it's not actually found in direct experience? Don't take this on belief, but right now, if you close your eyes and pay careful attention, can you actually find the place where "inside" of you ends and "outside" of you begins? Is the apparent border between "you" and "everything else" really there in your actual experience, or is it actually nothing more than an idea, a mental image, a river of ever-changing sensations, a story appearing in awareness? Can you find any limit to present awareness? You can think of a limit, but can you find it experientially right now?
What is being pointed to on this web site is not something you can formulate and take hold of and possess. Zen, Advaita, Dzogchen, Taoism, meditative inquiry, the power of now, presence-awareness, radical non-duality -- many names have been given to this aliveness. The danger in names is that they so easily solidify, codify, and deaden into dogma. Next thing we know, we have priests, scriptures, lineages, doctrines, holy wars, blogs - right ways and wrong ways. You may consider yourself a free-thinking, anti-authoritarian type, but this tendency toward dogmatism, fundamentalism, and authoritarianism can take subtler and subtler forms. It's easier to see it "out there" than it is to see it in oneself. Faced with uncertainty and insecurity, we want answers and reassurance. It's easy to slide into believing something, and then into identifying with those beliefs, and then into defending them to the death (literally or metaphorically). Belief is always shadowed by doubt. Let go of everything that can be doubted, and see what remains. What is beyond doubt takes no effort to maintain.
The ability to think in highly complex and abstract ways is one of our greatest gifts, but it is also a tremendous source of suffering. Reactions and behaviors that make perfect sense in the wild often become useless or destructive when they get carried over into the psychological realm. We react to an insulting remark in the same way we react to an attacking tiger, or we search for enlightenment "out there" in the same way we search for food and shelter, and we end up with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and global warfare. We could say that waking up is about seeing through illusion, discerning the difference between what is real and what is imagination. Awakening doesn't mean never thinking again or throwing out all the conceptual maps, but it does mean being able to see (in the present moment) the difference between the map and the territory, and this seeing gets ever more subtle and refined.
Thinking is not the enemy. In practical matters, thinking makes sense. It's a wonderful tool. But much, maybe most, of our thinking has nothing to do with practical matters. Instead, it's a kind of habitual spinning of our wheels, chasing mental phantoms, battling with ghosts, obsessing over dreams. This kind of thinking never really works or satisfies us in the way we want it to. If you pay careful attention to it, you'll begin to notice how painful it is, and yet also how compelling. It's very much like an addiction. In fact, we could say that this kind of thinking is our root addiction. You may also notice that all of these obsessive thoughts center around the fictional "me" in some way or other: evaluating "me," judging "me," trying to make "me" (or various groups with which I identify) happy, safe, powerful or enlightened. Waking up is not about bringing the story of me to a satisfying conclusion. It's about seeing through the story. It's about recognizing that the story appears and disappears within the boundless field of awareness. The story is ephemeral, insubstantial, intermittent, fleeting. Awakening doesn't mean you forget your name or your life history, or that you lose all sense of being a particular individual. It simply means recognizing that all of that is a momentary appearance in awareness, a kind of dream-like play.
In some spiritual circles, there is considerable preoccupation with having a big bang awakening, imagined to be some line in the sand that "you" cross, after which the mirage of encapsulation is forever, irrevocably ended, and after which "you" are a liberated sage at last! Among so-called seekers, there is often great fascination with teachers, sages, and gurus who have supposedly crossed that mythical line. Everyone wants to hear their story. And above all, we want to know how this same wonderful thing can happen to me! Is it possible to see that this is the same old story about me? There may be people (but only ever in the dream-like movie of waking life) who have had all kinds of amazing experiences, but enlightenment is the end of the one who cares about being enlightened or unenlightened. It is the realization that there is not, and there has never been a separate person to get enlightened. And however many times the mirage of encapsulation appears, it is always only a mirage. And it isn't "me" who wakes up from this mirage because "me" is the mirage! In fact, it isn't "me" who does anything.
As "you" are reading these words right now, little markings appearing on this page in various combinations are being seen and instantly translated into meaning. Is there someone doing this remarkable activity, overseeing all these elaborate optical and neurological processes, or is it all happening automatically on its own? We say, "I" am reading, "I" am seeing, "I" am hearing, "I" am thinking, "I" stopped smoking, "I" overate. But what exactly is that "I"? Do "you" really know (or control) what "your" next thought or "your" next action will be?
Right here, there is the ability to put attention on your left foot and wiggle your toes. But how does all that actually happen and what initiates it? Where do will and intention come from? Once the mind tries to capture this happening in words, it instantly creates the mirage of duality. Suddenly we are apparently lost in imaginary problems and conundrums: Do I have free will? If so, why do I do things I don't want to do? How can I change? What should I do? Can I do anything? Do I exist?
This is all thought. Whenever there is confusion and seeking, it's a clue that thought is busy chasing its own tail. Actuality is simple. The present moment is simple. Here, there is no confusion, no problem, no free will, no absence of free will. You are simply doing whatever you are doing. And actually, there is no "you" doing any of it. That "you" is an after-thought, a mental image, a grammatical convention, a reification of some energetic flow that is truly no-thing at all. In actuality, life is simply living itself through the appearance of "you" and "me." Truly seeing this eliminates all guilt and blame.
Given the "wrong" combination of genetics, neurochemistry, conditioning, provocation, and opportunity, what we consider horrible things can happen. "I" could be the perpetrator of such things, or "you" could. And while we would certainly want a serial killer or a child molester locked up for the protection of everyone; at the same time, if we look deeply, we can see that they are blameless. No one would commit atrocities if they really had a choice, if they were really free. Looking closely, it can be seen that if "I" were in "their" shoes (that is to say, if "I" had the same combination of genetics, neurochemistry, conditioning, provocation, and opportunity), then "I" would do exactly the same thing "they" did, because there is no "I" and no "them" apart from the "shoes" (the ten million conditions -- nature and nurture).
Does that mean that we should be totally passive or inert or maybe wildly licentious because, "It's all just happening," and "We have no choice"? No. It means that the "me" who could apparently choose to be this way or that way is a phantom, a mental image with no substance. Does that mean we are powerless, that nothing can be done?
Rather than slap down a conceptual answer (yes or no), is it possible to live with the question, to not know? Watch carefully as actions occur, as choices are made and decisions are reached - from the little ones like whether to get up from the chair, to the big ones like whether to get married or move across country - watch carefully. See if you can find the one in control. Can you make the decisive moment happen any sooner than it does, and how exactly does it happen? You may find that you can't find anyone at the helm or say how it is that "you" do the simplest things, like raising your arm or reading these words. On the other hand, you can't really say that you can't do things either, since there is clearly an ability right here to act. You simply can't get hold (conceptually) of exactly what that is or how it works. And the more awareness is brought to any particular activity, the more refined the activity and the awareness seem to become, and the more possibilities open up. But who brings awareness to an activity? Is there a choice involved? You may find that words and concepts simply can't contain the actuality.
Here, in non-conceptual actuality, is the natural response-ability and intelligence, the choiceless choice or effortless effort exerted by life itself: breathing, circulating blood, thinking, awareness of thinking, dreaming, waking up, appearing, disappearing -- one indivisible immediacy in which there is nothing separate to have or not have free will, to cause or be caused, to be born or to die, to be enlightened or unenlightened.
Thought seemingly divides this immediacy up. It imposes a grid on top of the seamlessness of reality and conceptually sorts it into little squares. Then it imagines that Square A causes Square B, or that Square B is the result of Square A, or that Square A has free will to choose between Square B and Square C, or that Square A comes before Square B in time and space. This is all imagination, a way of conceptualizing. The squares aren't really separate; the boundaries don't actually exist; they're only conceptual, as are the imagined relationships between the squares, including time and space. The squares are actually not related at all because they're not two. And this thinking process that imposes conceptual grids on wholeness is itself an aspect of the same wholeness, as is the awareness that sees through the imaginary grids. Everything is included in the Absolute. We could say that the Absolute includes the relative (the world of apparent grids), but isn't bound by it. Awakening doesn't mean ignoring, discounting or denying relative reality, but awakening sees through it. It recognizes the emptiness of everything. But in relative reality, the show goes on, and you (as an apparent character) play your part, apparently making choices and taking actions.
What we often think of or call choices are simply thoughts that arise unbidden that may or may not be followed by the result they appear to select. A thought such as "I am going to quit smoking" arises on its own out of the ten million conditions and may or may not be followed by the cessation of smoking because that thought has no power. The "I" to which it refers is a powerless mirage, an illusion. A mirage cannot choose to do (or not do) anything. From the perspective of this mirage-like imaginary fragment ("me"), this idea of having no choice and no free will sounds scary, as if "I" might then be a robot with no control. But this apparent dilemma vanishes into thin air with the realization that there is no "I" here in the first place to be either bound or free. Action happens, desires and intentions and aspirations happen, learning happens -- but it is all one whole undivided happening.
Habitual thought-patterns and conditioned existence actually are quite robotic and mechanical, but what about the awareness that is beholding all of this and illuminating it — is that awareness mechanical and conditioned? Is it bound in any way? If you look for awareness, you will never find anything, for it is not an object outside of the looking. It is the emptiness of every apparent form, the no-thing-ness, the wholeness, the boundlessness, the aliveness, the awakeness.
When you look for the knower or the knowing that knows that "I am here," or when you look for awareness or boundlessness, you find nothing that you can grasp, and yet, you find everything! You know that you (as presence-awareness) are here, and you know this with absolute doubtless certainty. Being here is beyond doubt. The presence Here / Now is undeniable.
No word can contain or describe what this awaring presence or present experiencing is. It has been called emptiness, boundlessness, the Unborn, the Absolute, the Tao, Pure Awareness, Oneness, zero, What Is, Buddha-Nature, the Self, Truth, Totality, the One Mind -- the words are only pointers. They point beyond conceptualization, to what is utterly obvious and impossible to overlook. They point to Here / Now, the One Eternal (timeless) Present.
And what is that?
Any attempt to grasp it ends in frustration. And yet, this immediacy of present experiencing is unavoidably right here. It is not something mystical or mysterious or obscure or transcendental that you lack or must work very hard to see. It is this direct experiencing right now. It is seemingly obscured by the very effort to pin it down, grasp it mentally, conceptualize it. In that grasping and the ensuing frustration, we feel confused and separate. That grasping, seeking movement of thought creates the mirage of "me," the phantom self that is always incomplete and seemingly needs to find something or become something or figure everything out. Waking up is simply relaxing that mental grasping. In the words of one Zen teacher, waking up is opening the hand of thought.
The content of Here / Now, or what is sometimes called the present moment or present experiencing, is ever-changing. And actually, because of the split-second time-delay in perception, the content is always of the past. But Now is not in the past. It is timeless. And Here is not located anywhere in particular. It is the placeless immediacy in which all locations appear. Here / Now is boundless, infinite, eternal, ever-present.
Boundlessness is actually omnipresent---it never really leaves us, even in the midst of grasping and seeking, for even the grasping and seeking is an activity of the same indivisible boundlessness, just as waves are an activity of the ocean. Boundlessness is the ever-present reality in spite of whatever form it appears to take, never because of any form it apparently takes. But whenever attention becomes absorbed in thoughts (mental movies, worries, obsessions), then it seems that boundlessness has been lost. It seems that "I" am a separate somebody struggling to regain "Oneness" or "awareness" or "the Now," as if that were some object apart from me that I need to find, grasp, understand, experience, merge with, identify with, or become. The mental mirage-world fills the screen and the story of separation and lack seems utterly real and convincing. And paradoxically, every attempt to get rid of the mirage only seems to confirm the imaginary problem and the one who seems to have the problem. Liberation is seeing that there is no need of a way out.
These thoughts, and the movies they unfold on the screen of awareness, are simply secretions of the brain, conditioned habit patterns, mental weather — there is nothing personal about them. There is no need to resist or vanquish them; simply see them for what they are. See that the "me" who appears trapped in the story is only a phantom. See how transparent it all is.
Seeing the mirage-world of thoughts and mental movies for what it is gets ever more subtle. Being down on yourself for "thinking too much" is just more thinking! There is no "you" doing the thinking or the seeing; that "you" is only another thought, another mental image. Liberation isn't about getting rid of anything; it's about seeing that the apparent obstacle has no reality and that the "me" who wants to stop thinking is just another mental image, another thought, another movie character in another story.
Boundlessness is unavoidable. It is right here in the smell of rain, the song of a bird, the whoosh of traffic, sensations. Totally alive. Ungraspable. No final result, no finish line, no Big Bang event, no you — just what is, as it is. No need for exotic experiences. Nothing to be eliminated or held on to, and nothing to be acquired or understood. Nothing excluded. Nothing singled out. Freedom is utterly simple and uncomplicated. If there is complication or confusion, it's a clue that thought is busy chasing its own tail. And even this tail-chase is nothing but boundlessness momentarily appearing as this ungraspable energetic movement we call tail-chasing, a passing impersonal event like the weather.
Although everything is seamless and without division and there is nothing other than Here-Now-being, entrancement in the story of separation is a different experience from open, spacious, aware presence—or what is often called "being here now," in the sense of no longer being caught up in thoughts. If we think of Buddha and Hitler as different waves on the indivisible ocean of being, both are equally inseparable movements of the ocean, both are equally water, but Buddha knows that and acts accordingly, while Hitler is acting from the delusion of being an independent wave, separate from the ocean, out to conquer or control the other waves. So, although we can never be anything other than undivided wholeness, consciousness can easily become confused and hypnotized by its own creations—lost in its own dream. And in the extremes of such entrancement, people torture and exterminate millions of other people because it seems like a good idea. Naturally, we want to wake up from such delusion on both the personal and global levels. But there's a very subtle catch here.
The effort to resist and fix what we think is wrong, either with ourselves or someone else or the world, is very often coming from the same dualistic delusion that is at the root of what it is trying to correct. As has often been pointed out, what we resist tends to persist, and trying to wake up is itself part of the suffering, part of the confusion. It doesn't work because it is rooted in the illusion of separation and future time, the same confusion that generates the suffering.
Suffering can only end here and now with the total acceptance of what is. Acceptance, or allowing everything to be as it is, can also be called awareness, unconditional love, or nondual presence. It is actually the very nature of awareness to include and accept everything. So this acceptance isn't some task we have to do. It is more like recognizing that everything is allowed to be as it is, obviously, because here it is! Everything is as it is, and in this moment, it could not be otherwise. But that doesn't mean it can't or won't change in the next moment. The acceptance being pointed to here doesn't mean liking everything or approving of it, and it doesn't mean not taking action to change things. But action that is grounded in nondual awareness or unconditional love is very different from action that arises out of dualistic resistance, judgement and contraction.
Taking action (or non-action) to relieve pain, heal injury, or correct injustice is something the universe is doing. It arises naturally. Ultimately, what is healed will be broken down again. All form is impermanent; it never even exists in the way we think it does. True freedom is recognizing the boundlessness that is unborn and undying, the boundlessness that is here regardless of relative circumstances and never because of relative circumstances.
If the movie begins playing in which "you" are trying to "get" this recognition, and feeling badly when it appears that "you" have failed, then simply notice that this is yet another movie, another dream-like appearance in consciousness, another story about the imaginary character. Boundlessness is already here. It can't be lost (or found). Awareness includes everything and sticks to nothing. Clouds appear. Contraction appears. Pain appears. Resistance and tension appear. Expansion and relaxation appear. Mental movies appear and disappear. Dreams come and go. Everything disappears in deep sleep and death and reappears again in waking life. It's all a boundless ebb and flow that includes absolutely everything, even contraction and distraction and resistance and the appearance of separation and encapsulation -- even so-called "evil." It all is.
Recognizing that everything is boundlessness doesn't mean losing the ability to differentiate between clarity and confusion, nor does it mean not flossing your teeth or not working to correct injustice if you are moved to do so. Unicity includes discernment and the ability to act. It includes the ability to notice errors and correct them. So awakening doesn't mean we have to sit back and do nothing about problems because we have the idea that everything is "okay" as it is. As my first Zen teacher told me: "You're perfect just as you are, and that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement." There's room for everything! But the true source of any action is the Totality, not the imaginary separate person. And whatever happens is a dream-like appearance. The last moment has already totally vanished into thin air! How real, how solid, how substantial was it?
There is no distance at all between samsara and nirvana. The illusion of distance is samsara, and nirvana is simply the realization that this distance, or separation, is imaginary. Liberation is not about "you" getting from samsara to nirvana. That is illusion. Liberation is the absence of that whole story of separation and lack.
But as a belief, all this is meaningless. Liberation isn't about picking up a new belief system or a new set of answers (for example, that, "All is One," or "There is nothing to attain," or, "Consciousness is all there is," or, "There is no free will," or, "Everything is perfect."). Liberation is the aliveness and immediacy beyond belief. Liberation is when all the answers, explanations and positions disappear, and what remains is the open mind of not knowing.
Thus it has been said, if you meet the Buddha, kill it. If you find the answer, drop it. Yesterday's answer is today's dead meat. Let it go. There is nothing real to hold onto. There is no enlightened person. There is only enlightened seeing, enlightened being, enlightened consciousness -- impersonal clarity. There is no unenlightened person either -- only confusion and entrancement, impersonal obscuration. All of this is like weather -- it comes and goes -- and all of it is an aspect of the undivided whole, inseparable from every other aspect: the confusion, the clarity, the desire to wake up, the impulse to clarify and heal, the various forms of meditative inquiry and exploration, the practices, the waking up from practices -- all of it is what is.
If you try to make sense of all this and adopt some fixed position or view, sooner or later, the ground you imagine yourself standing on will be swept away. Liberation is not a matter of pinning down the "right" answer or the "correct" position. Reality cannot be pinned down or put into a box. Does waking up take effort or is it effortless? Is there a choice or is it choiceless? Is the world real or unreal? Does what happens matter or not matter? Will I still be here after death or not? Such questions defy answers because they are all rooted in trying to describe the indescribable, and/or they are rooted in conceptual fallacies, like flat-earth questions (What will happen to me if I fall off the edge of the earth? You and the edge are both imaginary; the question is based on a misconception).
As soon as we have words like "Oneness" or "Emptiness" or "Awareness," the word instantly creates the mirage-sense of an object, a separate thing. But that object isn't real, it is conceptual, and it isn't what these words are pointing to. Boundlessness is inconceivable, and yet it is visible everywhere, as everything.
Boundlessness, Oneness, or Non-duality does not mean that a bunch of separate pieces are now joined together. It doesn't mean that everything is made of one primal substance. It means that everything is equally insubstantial, that there are no separate "things" to be joined, that there is no substance to get hold of anywhere. And yet, that doesn't mean there is nothing. No-thing-ness is not nothing! Emptiness simply means everything is empty of solidity and permanence and separation. Form and emptiness cannot be teased apart except in thought. Truth is not something mysterious you need to search for. It is just this — the computer screen, the shapes of these words, the roar of traffic, the gurgling stomach, the barking dog, your nose — just this. No-thing at all!
Ultimately, the universe is a fleeting dream, a bubble in a stream. Wipe your forehead and you've killed and maimed billions of micro-organisms. Horrible events and misfortunes are often the source of tremendous wisdom, insight, compassion, and awakening. Light and dark are two sides of the same coin, and there are no one-sided coins. Seeing this, there is more acceptance of life as it is. Enlightenment (or liberation, or awakening) is not about "you" getting to the sunny side of the street and staying there permanently. Enlightenment embraces the whole picture. Enlightenment doesn't mean dissociation or lack of caring, for it is the realization that everything is myself. The dividing lines are all imaginary. Enlightenment is unconditional love. Each drop of dew, each snowflake, each piece of trash in the gutter, each human being is unique and precious, and it's all one seamless being, marvelously diverse but utterly without separation. When we really see that, naturally, there is compassion for all beings including ourselves. And sometimes the greatest compassion does not look like what we usually think of as compassion.
Whatever appears – whether it is confusion, resistance, pain, pleasure, efforting, bliss, boredom, me-stories, judgments and preferences, clear skies or thunderstorms – all of it is one seamless whole that cannot be pulled apart.
If you find yourself looking for "the Whole" or trying to picture it, remember that boundlessness is nothing in particular. If you find yourself thinking that "awareness" is actually something (a Blank Screen, an Empty Container, or a Mirror), notice that these are all mental images, conceptual ideas, subtle imaginary objects. "Awareness" is a word that points to the seeing that is never divided into seer and seen. Are you trying to see what that is? Can you see the joke in trying to do that?
Boundlessness points to the formlessness of form. How solid is anything perceivable or conceivable (any form, any image, any idea, any memory, any sensation, any thought, any emotion, any event, any object, any experience)? Where is your childhood or yesterday or a minute ago or the last second? On close inspection, everything is dissolving second by second. The whole appearance of waking life is insubstantial and ungraspable. The mind keeps trying to get a grip. It wants answers, certainty, a place to stand. What is this Whole Thing? The mind wants to understand. Thought imagines that "you" can step back and take a look at yourself, at Totality. But no matter how hard it tries, the eye cannot see itself. You already are what you are seeking. You always have been. There is no possibility of separation. You can't not be what you are.
Experiences come and go. This is not about having a special experience, a big event, a final breakthrough, or a psychedelic vision of some kind. It is not about regaining any previous experience or achieving something you've read about or imagined. All of that is in the world of dream-like appearances.
Simply notice that everything (mental movies, dreams, perceptions, thoughts, waking life, mirages, the I-illusion, apparent duality, time and space, chairs, tables, expansion, contraction, meditation retreats, traffic jams, everything) is without substance or continuity. It all appears and disappears right here. Here is always here. It's always Now. Even memories of the past, fantasies about the future, and thoughts of elsewhere can only appear Here and Now. Awareness is present, whether it appears clear or "clouded" by thoughts. In deep sleep, the entire universe disappears. All words and ideas disappear. Even the sense of awareness or presence disappears. The whole quest for understanding and awakening disappears. You (as anything perceivable or conceivable) disappear. There is no "you" left to notice that "you" have disappeared! Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. Out of this vast emptiness, dreams arise, and then the movie of waking life. Wave after wave crashes on the shore, and the ocean remains. People-ing is something that the universe is doing, in the same way that the ocean is waving. What is born and what dies? Boundlessness cannot be captured by the mind. Something is happening here, but it can't be grasped by thought. And it doesn't need to be grasped or explained! You can't find boundless unicity because you are boundless unicity. There is nothing other than boundless unicity. You contain the whole universe and the whole universe is showing up as you.
Awakening is never about achieving something that isn't right here, right now.
Ordinary present awareness. The shape of these words, the hum of the computer, the sound of the traffic, the listening presence, the sensations that appear and disappear. Only thought divides it up and tries to figure it all out. And that very movement of thought is itself only energy and vibration, another appearance, mental weather. No-thing at all.
So what to do? Effort or no effort, practice or no practice? The question is like a cloud floating across the sky. Practices may appear or disappear, efforts may happen or cease happening. Either way, there is only this one present moment, just as it is. So-called meditation (in the truest sense) is not about going anywhere or achieving anything. It has nothing to do with special postures, techniques, results or experiences. It is simply effortless awareness, awake to what is. It is the direct discovery that there is no meditator and no possibility of stepping in or out of the boundlessness of Here and Now. When that is seen, the whole concept of "meditation" falls away. What remains is not a new belief system, but rather, everything, just as it is.
So, if you're feeling confused, trying to figure out whether or not you have free will, or whether or not you exist, or whether or not you should meditate or do nothing, or whether to believe this teacher or that teacher, simply wake up right now from these mental conundrums. Stop. Look. Listen. Hear the traffic, the birds, the wind. Feel the breathing. Nothing special. Simply the extraordinary miracle of what actually is.
All that (apparently) stands in the way is the story that this isn't it, that something more or less or different is needed. You can't make that story disappear because that very effort is part of the story, as is the "you" who longs to be free of the story. The stories and the illusion of encapsulation can only be seen for what they are, as they arise, here and now. If they are not seen through, then it may appear that "you" are lost or bound or in trouble. But is there really a "you" who is lost? Is the screen ever burned by the fire in the movie?
Words and concepts are complicated; reality is utterly simple. You can't eat the menu or live in the map, and these words are an invitation to see through all beliefs and ideas, even the very subtle ones from Advaita or Zen or this text. Truth is not in the future, but Now. Not hidden, but obvious and unavoidable. Not in concepts, but in actuality. When all that mental clutter of seeking and trying to figure everything out and trying to get somewhere is seen to be nothing at all (and nothing personal), when it is clear that you are beyond all appearances, and that all appearances are nothing but you, the One Mind, then there is no one left to awaken. This can be called liberation, but why call it anything?
---copyright Joan Tollifson 2011--
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