Postings from My Facebook Page #1
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
For the benefit of those who are not on Facebook, I decided to publish my Facebook articles on my website as well. This is the first collection of these articles (12/17/12 through 4/20/13). This is not a duplicate of my Facebook page. There, in addition to new pieces of my own writing, I also post videos, photos, responses to other people’s comments to my posts, the latest information on any of my upcoming events and books, quotes from other people (sometimes with commentary), book recommendations, quotes from my books, reports from my travels, and so on. Because the writings below were first written on Facebook, where italics are not an option, CAPS are often used instead to emphasize certain words.
The posts here are arranged chronologically, with the oldest on top and the most recent on the bottom:
Sadly, we’ve had another mass shooting in the gun-crazy USA, where we seem to believe as a nation that violence is the best solution to violence, from our drone attacks overseas to our conviction that everyone should be able to possess assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines. Twenty little children are dead. I found myself feeling a number of different emotions when the news first broke, one of which was rage. My rage was focused on our government that refuses to stand up to the powerful gun lobby. It felt relieving in some way to be angry at someone, to blame someone, to feel righteous. It was a way to avoid feeling the deeper, more vulnerable emotions underneath the rage: fear, grief, a sense of powerlessness and of not wanting the world to be the way it is. But of course, the “benefits” of being angry are short-lived and very flimsy. It was instantly obvious that anger is painful, that it is hurtful to me and to the whole world, and that it is off the mark. Still, it carried on for awhile. There was an unwillingness or an inability at first to go deeper.
I found myself emailing friends, writing the president, calling my representatives in Congress, and finally sitting quietly, gradually opening myself to the feelings of fear and grief and powerlessness, feeling them, allowing them to be. I began asking a few “Byron Katie questions” and “doing the Work” on them silently: Can I really know…? And, how do I feel when I hold the belief that…? And what would it be like if I didn’t have the belief that….? The rage slowly gave way to sadness and finally to a kind of peace, not without sorrow, and not without a prayer for the families left behind to face what I can only imagine must be heart-wrenching pain. The phrase, “I surrender” kept coming up, not as an expression of defeat or hopelessness, but as a kind of centering prayer, a recognition that surrender is at the heart of letting go and falling into the Truth.
Do I blame the shooter? No. Not really. I know that no one would do this if they had any real sense of having a choice, and I know that the shooter’s rage is fundamentally no different from my own rage, and that only by the grace of God (otherwise known as the luck of the draw) has there been greater mental and emotional stability here, an ability to deal with rage in less destructive, less catastrophic ways than those to which the shooter felt irresistibly and compulsively drawn. For reasons having to do with my conditioning, I find it easier to have that kind of compassionate understanding for the shooter than to have it for those who love their guns and oppose any form of gun control. In Oregon, where I live, gun sales have gone off the charts since the massacre. More people are arming themselves with bigger and more powerful weapons. So what does it mean to surrender?
For me, it doesn’t mean not caring or not expressing my opinion. It has to do with discovering, in this moment, whether I feel that same sense that the gun-buyers feel of needing to be armed (not with a gun, in my case, but with opinions and beliefs, or with self-righteous rage, or with cynicism and despair), and discovering whether I, too, am seeing enemies and “others” who deserve to be wiped out (if only in my mind) in a fit of violent rage designed to take away my pain.
My prayer today is that we may all find the place of acceptance and love, the place of true compassion, the placeless place Here / Now where all of this can be here, as it is: the violence, the loss, the sorrow, the rage, the gut-wrenching pain and grief, the imperfections of our world and of each one of us – where it can all perhaps be transmuted by the fire of awareness into that deep welcoming and surrender that sees only God everywhere.
Is that possible?
That’s not a question to answer. It’s a question to live with.
12/29/12 (New Year’s Message):
Pema Chodron opens her book that I recommended (Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change) with one of my favorite quotes from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center: “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” How true!
Pema’s book is divided into three sections, centering around three commitments, the last of which is “Committing to Embrace the World Just as It Is.” The final chapter in that section is called “Awakening in the Charnel Ground.” Pema explains that in Tibet, when someone dies, the body is cut into pieces and taken to the charnel ground where jackals and vultures and other birds of prey come and feed upon the remains. The charnel ground was a place where meditators came to face the impermanence of life. Pema writes that, “The charnel ground has become a metaphor for life exactly as it is rather than how we would like it to be.” Jeff Foster’s book that I recommended, The Deepest Acceptance, is also very much about awakening in the charnel ground, although he never uses exactly those words.
Every morning, like many of you, I turn on my computer and see the headlines. A 23-year-old female medical student in India who was gang-raped and brutally beaten on a bus has died in the hospital from her injuries. In Los Angeles, a 67-year-old homeless woman was doused with accelerant and set on fire while she slept on a bench at a bus stop. Children are gunned down in a Connecticut classroom and many people around the United States buy more and more guns in response. There is on-going war in Syria and Afghanistan and Palestine, bombs falling on people’s homes, on old people, on children. Limbs blown off. People blinded and maimed. Children orphaned. US drone attacks kill more innocent children in Yemen.
There is suffering that doesn’t ever seem to appear in the headlines. In factory farms all across the nation, animals endure tortured lives in unimaginably horrific conditions of which most people are totally unaware. The earth itself is being raped and decimated by fracking, mountain top removal, oil spills, the catastrophic effects of climate change and rapidly accelerating human over-population, and no one seems to know how to stop the juggernaut.
Some lives are unbelievably difficult and painful, in war zones or torture chambers or at the hands of child sex-traffickers, and I cannot imagine how people survive some of the things they do. By contrast, my life is one of astonishing comfort and good fortune, but even in the best of circumstances it seems we humans are vulnerable to waves of seemingly unbearable emotion—thoughts and sensations that have driven many people to suicide, addiction or madness.
The pain and suffering on this earth is very real in one sense. It hurts. And I cannot whisk any of it away merely by believing that it is all the One Self or only a fleeting, dream-like appearance, as true as that may be. And yet, when I truly let go, when I truly fall in love with emptiness, when I am able to embrace the charnel ground and open my heart and find the deepest acceptance, when there is complete surrender and letting go of everything, then suddenly, there is a shift. I truly see and feel that nothing real can be destroyed, and that there is space Here / Now for everything to be as it is.
In my experience, this is not a shift that happens once and for all, but rather, again and again. Sometimes the pain feels overwhelming and this shift seems like a distant memory or a pipe dream. I fall into bitterness or cynicism. I harden and close down. I bite my fingers, get depressed or enraged, look for comfort in all the wrong places. But then, miracle of miracles, I wake up again, bondage gives way to freedom. This is not the freedom we imagine where pain is gone forever and the world has become a blissful utopia. It is the freedom of unconditional love that allows it all to be as it is, the love at the Heart of it all.
Along the way, I do what life moves me to do. I send money here and there, I write to the President or the Congress urging this or that change in policy. I sit quietly and behold the pain and the beauty. I pray. I write books, I give talks, I bite my fingers and bandage them up. I sit in silence watching the snow fall, listening to the song of a bird and delighting in the sudden patch of sunlight that spreads across the carpet on a winter morning.
Sometimes, let us never forget, the news is heart-warming and amazing. In my lifetime, I’ve seen enormous positive changes for women, for people of color, for LGBT people, for people with disabilities – changes I could never have imagined in my youth. I’ve seen a growing awareness of ecology and interdependence. And every day, unreported in the headlines, people are carrying out random acts of kindness and generosity, and life is waking up from the dream of separation and encapsulation. And in this moment, on the razor’s edge of Here / Now, I find that somehow everything is bearable, even the worst atrocities.
Being here both as awareness (the undivided Whole that accepts everything and needs nothing) and also as one human being with all these imperfections, disappointments and uncertainties, being here in (and as) this seamless and boundless conscious presence that includes this ever-changing bodymind and this crazy, wonderful, terrible country where I live and this planet and this solar system and this galaxy and this universe and this newfangled virtual reality called Facebook where friends from around the world show up, disembodied or maybe beyond the body’s apparent limits, to meet and greet and support one another on this never-ending journey from Here to Here….what is there to say?
Simply this: I am grateful to all of you who have appeared in this Waking Dream, who visit this page and read my books and come to my meetings. I am grateful for all my friends, and for all those people who tirelessly and against all the odds keep working for peace and justice and for a better world for all, and for all who sit in silence in the charnel ground. I am grateful for my apparent enemies as well, who reveal my own shadow parts, and who show me where I am still clinging to illusion.
Thank you all for being here and for being exactly who you are in every sense. I wish each and every one of us true peace, true freedom, unconditional love, uncaused joy and uncontrollable laughter in this New Year. And I wish for all of us that we may find the way in this one and only ever-present moment to embrace the world just as it is, to awaken in the charnel ground, to hold the pain and suffering without turning away, without growing bitter, without clinging to false comfort. May we all discover the deepest acceptance and learn to embody it and pass it on. And when we do turn away in anger, or bite our fingers or smoke cigarettes or say things we later regret, may we forgive ourselves and know that we are all doing our best, and that all of it is the dance of life.
The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements.” He said, “You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks to evil, good exists, and vice versa.” He knows this from his own life. He lived through the war in Vietnam. And he wrote a beautiful poem, “Call Me by My True Names,” that goes (in part) like this:
“Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow—
even today I still arrive.
“Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone….
“I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
“I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
“I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
“I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
“My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
“Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
“Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.”
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
Love to all and Happy New Year!
One fellow posted a response to my New Years message that I immediately wanted to comment on. He said, “All this stuff about a world full of suffering is just a cloud of thought-fantasy. There's just fingers typing on a Nokia phone while the bus sways. Nothing else.” I don’t know for sure where this person was coming from in saying that, and my response here is not directed toward that particular individual, but rather, I simply want to reflect a bit on a certain tendency that I sometimes see in radical nondualist circles, a tendency that I would characterize as a denial of suffering rather than a true awakening from it.
Yes, it is very helpful to SEE when we are suffering needlessly over thoughts, fantasies and memories, and it is wonderfully liberating to wake up from that “cloud of thought-fantasy” and come back to the immediate reality of fingers typing or rain falling or bus swaying or whatever it is. That is beautiful and true and wise.
But if we use this as a way of blocking out or denying our awareness of a bigger and more all-inclusive picture, then we are actually being insensitive and shut down. If we think that NOT SEEING (or DENYING) the suffering in the world is true enlightenment, then we have closed down instead of opening up. We are not awake; we are asleep.
I suspect that dismissing the pain and suffering in this world as “just a thought” is a kind of defense against that pain, a way of looking away. Instead of opening fully to the pain and going THROUGH it to discover the insubstantiality at the core, this is more about closing down and AVOIDING (or ignoring) the pain. It is a failure to recognize that we ARE the child in Syria who has been maimed in a bombing raid, and we ARE the detainee at Guantanamo being subjected to torture, and we are also the pilot dropping the bomb and the torturer at Guantanamo, as Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully expressed in his poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” We are the whole world and the whole universe. Everything is included in this moment, and the whole universe appears Here / Now as each one of us. Nothing is left out. As someone once put it, everything is empty of itself and full of everything else. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
I once heard someone ask an Advaita teacher whether or not the starving Africans are real. The Advaita teacher replied, “They’re as real as you are.” I thought that was a brilliant response. Instead of confirming or denying an abstract philosophical position, it invited a direct and living exploration Here / Now of what is real, not in some ideological sense, but right here, right now, in our own immediate, direct experience. How real is this Nokia phone or these fingers or this bus? How real is this headache, or this heartburn, or this backache, or this terminal cancer? How real is the pain of being homeless and sleeping on this street on this winter night here and now? How real is this wave of depression or anxiety or despair that is showing up right now? How real am I? Then we’re not talking about an abstract belief or about something “out there” happening to “someone else.” We’re looking deeply into our own present experience to see what is real right now.
And what do we mean by real? If we don’t go with any definition we’ve heard from any authority figure about what that word means, then what does it mean to me, in my own direct experience, for something to be real?
Teachings such as “it’s all an illusion” are very radical (to the root), but those words can mean very different things depending upon where we are coming from in saying them and what we mean by them. Correctly understood (seen directly and clearly and fully embodied), they point to the deepest truth and the most profound liberation. Falsely understood (or rather misunderstood, as half-baked conceptual beliefs and ideas), they can easily be either an opiate or a dangerous poison.
There is a huge difference between BELIEVING that “everything is an illusion” (and using that belief to confirm and solidify a narcissistic insensitivity to the pain of others and a lack of real insight into the absence of separation between them and me), on the one hand, and actually SEEING THROUGH that illusion Here / Now in a way that opens the heart and dissolves all the imaginary separation. It is a felt-difference. And I was trying to express precisely that difference in my New Years post.
Again, these reflections are not directed at the individual who wrote that comment, nor are they directed at any particular author or teacher of nonduality. They are simply reflections on a certain pervasive tendency in radical nonduality that can show up in any of us, a tendency that I think is off-the-mark. Of course, in the absolute sense, there is no way to miss the mark and everything is perfect as it is, and blablabla (we can all talk the talk). But again, where are we coming from when we say this? As my first Zen teacher put it, “You are perfect just as you are, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement.” Our capacity for discernment and change and envisioning improvement is also part of the dance. Not one, not two.
My intention in sharing these reflections is not to provoke a superficial war of words and concepts on Facebook. Rather, I would hope to maybe open up or invite an on-going inner questioning for all of us about how easily we can slip into beliefs, or follow outside authorities, or fall into new forms of fundamentalism in our efforts to avoid the uncertainty and pain of life.
Maybe this question interests you as it does me: How can we open ourselves to the pain and suffering of the world without drowning in it and without getting lost in anger or bitterness? Is there a middle way between turning away from the world (and being aware only of our Nokia phone), on the one hand, and getting lost in stories and endless virtual realities about an imaginary world in our heads on the other? (Oddly enough, our Nokia phone is actually a tool for seeing beyond the confines of the bus we are riding in, and as they famously say in Zen, “the moon and pointing finger are a single reality,” going beyond the realization that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon). So, how do we embrace the world just as it is, as Pema suggests? How do we “awaken in the charnel grounds” and see beyond every illusion of dualism and separation?
Mooji once said, “Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering. Remind the world it is beautiful and free.” That is a wonderful aspiration.
So, how do we hear the cries of the world while also reminding the world that it is beautiful and free? Is banishing all mention of suffering and talking only about happy, funny, positive things the only way to remind the world it is beautiful and free?
These are not questions to answer. These are questions to live with, to look deeply into. For me, these questions are the central koans of my life. We can’t truly answer them by grasping at abstract ideas or beliefs, but only by allowing these questions to unfold within us and reveal ever-deeper Truth and never-ending awakening. May we surrender to this Great Awakening Now! And may this wordy one finally shut up, eh?
Happy New Year! And now, back to my silent retreat. =;-)
Love to All.
There is much on-going and polarizing debate in nondual circles about whether or not there is free will (Is there any choice about what we do or how we respond in any given moment?) and whether or not spiritual practice is a vital necessity or an unnecessary hindrance for liberation. In my experience, these are very subtle questions, and we cannot solve them intellectually by thinking about them. Perhaps it is possible to begin by dropping all previous beliefs and conclusions about which view is “right.” As I often say, no map is the territory it represents. Maps are a frozen abstraction of something that is actually seamless, boundless, inconceivable and in constant flux. Maps are useful, but if we mistake them for the territory they represent, we get easily confused and we suffer greatly.
We grow up being told that we have free will. We have learned to think that there is somebody in control who chooses to think each of our thoughts and to take this or that action. But when we look closely (either with science or with our own direct awareness) for this thinker-chooser-decider-author-actor who is supposedly behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz pulling the levers, we don’t find anything or anyone back there. We find no-thing or everything, but we don’t find any actual “me”. We find that the separate, independent, encapsulated “self” is a mental construction, an idea, a concept, but never our actual direct experience prior to thoughts and stories. The separate self is a mirage-like creation of smoke and mirrors. But it’s a powerful illusion and it doesn’t lose its grip on our lives simply by seeing through it once, and certainly not by merely picking up an intellectual idea that there is “no self.” And that’s why meditation, inquiry and other practices are often so liberating. They don’t take us somewhere new and exotic, but rather, they expose the delusions that are preventing us from clearly seeing and being What We Truly Are Here / Now.
Is this a choice? Is it something we can do? Does it matter if we are awake or asleep? Yes and no. Nothing matters in the way we think it does, and yet, when we are suffering, it matters! There is an ability Here / Now to act, and yet, when we look for the source of that ability, we find no-thing and everything.
Some teachings encourage us to take responsibility, to discover how we are (perhaps unconsciously) making certain choices and doing our suffering, and to look and see if there is an ability Here / Now to do something different or to stop doing what is hurtful (not always or forever or once-and-for-all, but right now). These teachings recommend hands-on, direct, experiential ways of exploration and discovery – meditation, meditative inquiry, service work, whatever it might be. And if we look deeply, we cannot deny that there is an ability Here / Now to shift our attention from the mental world of stories and ideas to the nonconceptual immediacy of bare sensation – hearing, seeing, breathing, sensing, awaring, being – this aware presence that is undeniable and inescapable.
Other teachings encourage us to notice that everything is happening by itself including our thoughts, desires, intentions, preferences, abilities, urges, and even the movement or shifting of attention – all of it is happening automatically. These teachings often say that meditation is dualistic because it reinforces the notion that something is wrong and that there is someone who can do something to change it. They feel that what is most liberating is the discovery that all of life is a dance without a dancer, that there is no separation and no possibility of ever being anything other than the True Self, the One and Only, this that is all there ever is.
This realization can be especially liberating for those of us who struggle with addiction and compulsion and with the stormy weather of overwhelming emotions that defy control. We know firsthand that it isn’t always as easy as one might wish to “snap out of it” or “just say no” or “choose happiness.” We aspire and vow to do better, and then quite often, we fail.
We fail in part because the self we think is at the helm doesn’t really exist, and thoughts and actions don’t really unfold in quite the way we think they do.
In our actual experience, if we pay careful attention, we can see that the inner weather is very much like the outer weather. It shows up unbidden without being invited or engineered by any outside executive (such as God or me). We can see that the inner weather is the result of an infinite web of causes and conditions, in the same way that a hurricane or an earthquake or a sunny day is. No one is behind the curtain “deciding” to make things like anger, upset or addiction happen in the way we habitually think there is. These are all conditioned happenings of the entire universe that have no single cause. The weather (inner and outer) is the way it is in this moment because the whole universe is the way it is.
Any teaching that fails to take this into account, any teaching that assumes that anyone can and should be able to choose wisely, on command, at will, leads inevitably to guilt, shame, blame and stories of being a loser or a failure who can’t get it right. When teachers say that we can choose to be happy or free of addiction, or that we can choose to not get angry, or to not feel depressed, that we can “just say no,” and when they imply that if we fail at this, it is because we didn’t try hard enough, and when they hold up some ideal of perfection, that can be a very cruel and untrue message.
But on the other hand, if we then say there is no choice, that can invite a kind of fatalism, hopelessness and passivity that isn’t really on the mark either. Because in a sense, we (as the Totality of this Moment) do sometimes choose to act out in a habitual way. And we (as Conscious Presence) can learn to see and make other choices. This is why meditation, psychotherapy, awareness work of various kinds, recovery programs, and so on all have the potential to expose and undo old conditioning and reveal new possibilities.
What is truly helpful and truly liberating in my experience is not picking up a belief system or a philosophy. It is rather about seeing through all the beliefs and views we have, seeing thoughts as thoughts, seeing stories as stories, and waking up to the aliveness and vastness of bare being Here / Now – aware presence – this moment, just as it is, before we label it, classify it, analyze it, or fit it into a narrative. What is truly liberating is to look deeply Here / Now with awareness and find out if an actual boundary can be found between inside of me and outside of me. Finding out if it is possible to be still, to go into the heart of what upsets us rather than spinning stories about it. Not coming to any intellectual conclusion (yes it is possible, or no it isn’t), but simply being curious. Exploring. Looking and listening and being aware. Being fully present.
For babies and other animals, emotions seem to pass through quite quickly. But with older children and adult humans, it is a different story. We can be upset for decades over an insulting remark, a lover’s betrayal or a negative image of ourselves. Our complex abilities to remember and imagine and project and conceptualize get us into troubles no other animal faces. No other animal smokes and drinks itself to death because it believes it has failed at life.
Assuming there is no immediate and continuing context for it (such as being in a war zone under fire), if an emotion like anger or fear lingers for more than a few minutes, it is very likely that thought and story-telling are involved, and the stories inevitably center around some thought-sense of being a separate self who is being threatened or deprived in some way. There may even be some relative truth to the threat in certain cases. But what begins as an instinctual and functional animal survival mechanism carries over into a psychological realm where it no longer completely makes sense. It becomes less and less real and more and more dysfunctional.
Of course, this story-telling and this activity that we might call selfing happens as a result of infinite causes and conditions, and there is actually no self who is doing the selfing! And yet (as Life Itself) we may find that there is a way to undo this old conditioning, to wake up from the stories, to discover a boundless freedom, an openness that is at once utterly vulnerable and yet completely indestructible.
We may come upon the possibility of not moving away from the raw, uncomfortable emotional energy that habitually propels us towards an outburst of anger or an indulgence in addictive behavior. We may find that we can allow this moment to be just as it is, that we can be present with the fundamental sense of uncertainty and uneasiness that we often have, or with the ache of depression or the fire of anger. We can simply BE with it.
We discover that this disturbing or unsettling energy won’t kill us, and we find that if we simply stop fleeing from it and instead enter into it fully with awareness, that there is actually nothing of substance there. We begin to recognize HOW we (as Life Itself) are sometimes making the choice to run away from this disturbing and uncomfortable energy by biting our fingers or smoking a cigarette or taking a drink or eating a bowl of ice cream or masturbating to pornography or shooting heroin or exploding in anger or whatever it is we habitually do as a way of temporarily relieving and escaping from this disturbing energy or this sense of groundlessness and uncertainty that motives so much of our human activity.
We notice how these habitual activities offer immediate relief, but how in the long run, they seem to lead to more and more suffering. And we begin to discover that it is possible, at least sometimes, not to run away, but instead to be still and to completely accept and experience the disturbing energy, to feel it fully as bare sensation, as pure energy, without a storyline. Pema Chodron calls this the detox experience. And over time, we learn that we can survive the pain of detox, and that eventually, the disturbing energy unwinds itself and disappears. Over time, with luck, we train ourselves (or we could say, life trains itself) to meet unsettling energies and difficult or disturbing emotions, thoughts and circumstances in a new way.
But it is important to recognize that sometimes the old habitual impulse to run away will overpower the newer intention to stay with the uncomfortable energy. Sometimes the impulse to escape will have more energy behind it, more traction, more force. It will be stronger. It will win out sometimes. And there is no “me” at the controls who can make that not happen. The necessary action that liberates us is, in fact, the very opposite of control and will-power and force. It is a kind of surrender that begins with totally accepting what is, just as it is. And sometimes, this acceptance, this opening up, doesn’t happen. The force of habit is stronger. And if we take that personally as “my” failure, that belief only fuels the misery. So it is a delicate balance to offer the pathless path to liberation without reinforcing dualistic notions of a "me" (a separate somebody) at the controls who can and should "do" this correctly, and who is a miserable loser if it doesn't work out.
Many factors go into determining why, in any given moment, the strong habitual impulse to act out or run away may overpower the intention to stay with the raw energy of an uncomfortable emotion or the pain of detoxing from an old habit. Many traditional teachings have suggested that the sole cause of failure is spiritual or moral weakness, some lack of goodwill or absence of good intentions. But in recent years, science has found many other factors: genetics, neurochemistry, hormones, endocrine disorders, brain tumors, head injuries, seizure disorders, trauma, childhood conditioning, cultural conditioning – all sorts of factors that go into creating the weather patterns in a particular bodymind organism. For many reasons, some people have better impulse control than others, more or less stormy weather, more or less sensitivity to certain irritants, and a greater or lesser ability to endure the detox pain.
I’ll give you an example. Both my parents smoked cigarettes when I was a child. One morning, my mother came down the stairs, looked at all the dirty ashtrays, said to herself, “This is disgusting,” and never lit up another cigarette. My father, on the other hand, chain-smoked until he finally died of emphysema and heart disease several decades later. My father was a good man, a kind man, a brilliant man. He was a loving husband and father, he worked tirelessly to support his family, he cared deeply about those he loved. And yet, he was driven to smoke even to the point of death, while my mother was somehow able to stop effortlessly and never light up again. Clearly, this wasn’t because my mother was good and my father was evil, or because she cared about life and he didn’t, or because she was moral and he was immoral. The causes were much deeper and more complex than that.
I’ve shared in all my books that I have been able to stop drinking alcohol, doing drugs and smoking cigarettes, but that I have a fingerbiting compulsion that continues to flare up. I also still lose my temper sometimes. I still feel depressed sometimes. Eckhart Tolle apparently had a huge shift one night and was never the same again. But for most people, transformation doesn’t happen that way, as Eckhart would be the first to tell you. For most of us, you don’t just see through deluded thoughts once and then they’re gone forever. You don’t bring the light of attention and the power of acceptance and presence to some habitual pattern once and then it’s gone forever. You do it (or it happens) again and again, whenever that energy shows up, and sometimes you can’t do it (or sometimes it doesn’t happen). Sometimes the desire to escape overpowers the desire to open up. And so, when that happens, when we close down or blow up or fall into an old addictive pattern, instead of blaming and shaming ourselves, we learn over time to simply pay attention, to see how this happens, to notice the accompanying thoughts, the accompanying mood, to see how the whole thing works, how it all unfolds, how we (as life itself) do our suffering. And the more the light of awareness shines on this whole process, the more it loosens up and begins to dissolve.
But that doesn’t guarantee any particular outcome or any particular speed at which this transformation will happen. Certain energies and emotions may keep showing up for an entire lifetime, as may certain habitual patterns of escape. When we see that it is all a happening of the Whole Universe, we don’t need to take it personally. We don’t add blame and guilt and shame and the story of being a hopeless failure to the mix.
Only IN the story does it seem to matter how “I” compare to “somebody else,” and how much progress “I” have made. Liberation isn’t in the story. It is always only Here / Now. So when we slip into old habits, instead of beating ourselves up, we can simply start freshly, right now. The past is a story. The future is a story. “I” (as the character) is a fiction, a mirage. The True Self is everything and no-thing, boundless and seamless being. The True Self is already complete, already Whole.
And yet, there is a natural impulse in life to evolve, to heal, to find a way through difficulty, to surmount obstacles, to fix what is broken. This is how life moves, and nonduality doesn’t mean you can’t tell pleasure from pain or that you no longer want to fix what hurts.
Some people in the radical nondual world seem to have the mistaken idea that any kind of practice or any path toward improvement is automatically dualistic, but as I see it, nonduality points to the absence of separation and solidity, not to the denial of diversity or of the ability to act. Nonduality points to the True Source of action, but it doesn't imply that there is nothing to be done, nor does it mean that a true nondualist would be completely passive, sitting silently on the couch all day “doing nothing” and waiting to see what happened next. We are not just a passive or detached witness, we are life itself, moving and changing. We ARE the dance of life. Our capacity for discernment, our ability to act, and our interest in finding ways to relieve suffering (whether that means medicine, meditation, psychotherapy, addiction recovery programs, or social justice movements) are all aspects of nondual Unicity, just as the white blood cells battling an infection in the body are an aspect of the Whole. It’s all the dance, so dance!
Where we go astray is when we begin to imagine that there is a “me” in control of the dance, and when we think that “I” am improving “me” and making “me” into a Perfect Somebody who will triumph over death and survive forever as “me”, or when we imagine that good is eventually going to conquer and vanquish evil forever, rather than recognizing that good and evil (enlightenment and delusion) are inseparable aspects of one undivided happening.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, has a very deep nondual understanding. He says, "We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements....You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks to evil, good exists, and vice versa." That is a very deep understanding of nonduality. But he doesn’t pick up “it’s all one” as a new belief and use it to suggest that we should no longer have any interest in fixing a flat tire, healing a wound, educating our children, recovering from an addiction, finding a way out of depression, or solving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a way that will be just and positive for both sides. He simply recognizes that there is no end to the process, that the light and the dark are inseparable, and that it all unfolds Here / Now.
I find that my expression of nonduality moves in different ways at different moments. Sometimes it takes shape as the uncompromising perspective that there is nothing to do, no one to do it, and no way to understand or control what is going on here—what I call radical nonduality.
This absolute and radical (to the root) message has no purpose, no usefulness, no desired or intended outcome or goal, no missionary zeal to spread itself everywhere, and yet, in my experience, it is ultimately the most liberating and relieving realization there is. But it never INTENDS to liberate. It simply describes the inconceivable. It offers no prescriptions for how to improve the present situation, pointing instead to what needs no improvement to be what it is: the all-inclusive (seamless and boundless) Totality that is at once everything and no-thing at all. This radical perspective doesn’t seek to CURE suffering; it simply recognizes that suffering is an unavoidable aspect of this endless Self-realization.
(You’ll find examples of this uncompromising, radical perspective on my website in the “Outpourings” called “It’s Hopeless” or “Interview with Amigo,” and in many of the authors on my recommended book list: e.g., Darryl Bailey, Leo Hartong, Karl Renz, Nathan Gill, Gary Crowley, etc).
At other times, my expression of nonduality takes the far more commonplace and widely popular form of offering some kind of path or practice, albeit in my case a direct or pathless path. This offering of something to do seems, at least in my experience, to arise as a response to suffering or confusion, and it is more prescriptive and curative in nature, rooted in a desire to alleviate suffering and clear up confusion. My version of this prescriptive path is very minimalist and open and hopefully never has the feel of something anyone (much less everyone) “should” do (or even “can” do, by any act of free will). It is more like the expression of a possibility, an offering of something that has been helpful here, something that for many years was my primary focus and that I can’t seem to leave entirely behind.
This potentially helpful offering has to do with paying attention to life as it is, being fully present Here / Now. It is a shift from conceptualizing to immediate, direct perception (bare sensation, energy, presence) and a seeing through of the conceptual thoughts, stories and beliefs that seem to generate suffering and create confusion.
(You’ll find my version of this approach described on my website in the “Outpourings” called “Exploring What Is,” 'Resting in the Happening of This Moment," "What's It All About?" and "Open Listening," and you’ll find various versions of it in many of the authors on my recommended book list: e.g., Toni Packer, Eckhart Tolle, Jon Bernie, Pema Chodron, Gangaji, Ajhan Sumedho, Anam Thubten, Adyashanti, Charlotte Joko Beck, Byron Katie, Nirmala, Jeff Foster’s newest book, etc).
This “spiritual medicine” can take various forms—bare-bones meditation, meditative inquiry, embodied awareness work such as Feldenkrais, intelligent forms of psychotherapy, recovery programs, radical acceptance or surrender, resting in presence or “being here now” — but in every case, it boils down to the healing and clarifying power of awareness. It is all about shedding light on delusion and discovering the placeless place Here / Now where true peace, uncaused joy, real freedom and unconditional love are actually REALIZED—this awake presence that is at once obvious and yet completely inconceivable and ungraspable.
This nondual, direct, pathless path is about learning to meet suffering and confusion in a new way, cultivating an openness of Mind and Heart, relaxing into WHAT IS rather than resisting it or merely thinking about it. The path is pathless and direct because it is not about attaining something new and exotic, but rather, it is about waking up to what is already here—this inconceivable present happening that is completely obvious and actually inescapable.
In addition to resting in presence (or being fully present and aware), this approach also involves a kind of meditative inquiry into the nature of reality—exploring how we suffer, how we get confused, how we seemingly lose touch with our True Nature—looking with awareness to see if any real boundary can be found between inside of me and outside of me, watching to see how apparent decisions and choices unfold, entering into the bare sensations and pure energies at the core of emotions, exploring the nature of present experiencing. This is an exploration and discovery based on direct, immediate, firsthand seeing and being rather than on thoughts, beliefs and secondhand ideas.
My own version of this awareness work is devoid of many of the usual trappings and flourishes, and was perhaps best expressed by my teacher and friend Toni Packer: “No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that?” she asked. “Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?” Note that Toni presents this possibility as a question, an invitation—not as a command or an injunction or something we “should” or “must” do. She knows that sometimes this simple presence is possible and sometimes it isn’t.
This bare attention is probably the subtlest kind of practice—Toni didn’t even like the word “practice”; she called it “the work of this moment.” Eckhart Tolle calls it being in the Now and dissolving the pain-body (his term for old, habitual, conditioned forms of psychological and emotional suffering). But whatever we call it, this work or practice is about listening, attending, being present in a particular relaxed but alert way with the intention of being awake (not in a goal-oriented, idealistic or perfectionistic way) and seeing through stories and beliefs. It is a pathless path going only Now/Here, but nonetheless, because it can be formulated as something to do (or not do), it is still a kind of practice, a kind of very subtle intentional activity. It is, in some way, work.
Whereas in radical nonduality, there is no practice of any kind. There is no more “work of this moment” to be done. Of course, there is no DENIAL of any practice either, no insistence that one “shouldn’t” meditate or inquire or “be here now” if one is so inclined, but no practice is being put forward, no shift is being sought, no particular state of consciousness is being privileged or held up as closer to the Truth than any other. As Karl Renz says, “The next sip of coffee is not worth less than the highest experience of enlightenment…The highest experience doesn’t make you more, nor will the most trivial experience make you less.” Nothing is broken or lacking, nothing is in need of salvation, for everything is recognized to be already whole and complete just as it is.
Many of those offering practices fully understand and at times express the absolute perspective of radical nonduality, and they regard practice as a way to directly realize or fully embody and live from that radical understanding. Whereas many hardline radical nondualists would argue that the impulse to offer “a way” inevitably arises from and reinforces the notion that the absolute is not already fully realized and embodied here and now. By offering something to do and by suggesting that it is somehow possible NOT to “be here now,” or NOT to fully embody the nondual absolute, practices inevitably seem to perpetuate dualistic thinking along with the illusion of free will and personal control. Practice can easily reinforce the persistent sense (and belief) that “I” can choose to do good or evil, to help or hurt the world, to give my life to liberation or to delusion and bondage, to pay attention or not pay attention—and then the sense of frustration and failure when it doesn’t work. Offering ANY kind of solution to the imaginary problem not only confirms the apparent reality of the problem, but it can also postpone the final and most liberating letting go into the utter and complete helplessness and hopelessness where nothing and no one remains to be saved. And I see truth in both of these observations—on the one hand, I’ve experienced how practice can be helpful, and on the other, I’ve experienced how it can inadvertently reinforce illusion, increase suffering and postpone liberation. Nisargadatta sometimes referred to practices and ANY concern about what is happening in this movie of waking life as a sort of kindergarten venture. I’m not sure I’d be quite that dismissive, but there may be some truth to that.
Radical nonduality is not new. Zen Master Huang Po said centuries ago: “That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.”
Huang Po also said: “If you would only rid yourselves of the concepts of ordinary and Enlightened, you would find that there is no other Buddha than the Buddha in your own Mind. The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking. If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘Enlightened’, illusion will cease of itself.”
In other words, you can’t find the truth; you can only see through the illusion that this Here / Now isn’t it. Life is an inconceivable happening that can never be grasped with thought or with stories ABOUT it. There is no way to truly understand (or stand outside) this present happening. There is no way to know what this is apart from being it. We ARE this happening, and we can never step outside it to observe it. As someone said, the eye can never see itself, the fire can never burn itself. No separation is possible. There are various disciplines such as science or religion with which we try to understand life, but they can never re-present WHAT IS, for the living reality can never be captured in any abstract formulation. No map is ever the territory it describes. And yet even the activity of mapping is an aspect of the dance, a waving of the Ocean.
With the Ocean as a metaphor for Totality, we can easily see that every wave is equally the Ocean, and that no wave could possibly be wetter or closer to the Ocean or more truly the Ocean than any other wave. We can also see that the Ocean is never any one way in particular. It is ever-changing, thorough-going impermanence, empty of any persisting or independent form. It includes stormy seas and calm seas, towering waves and placid waveless waters. It can be life-giving and life-destroying, violent in one moment and peaceful in the next.
Every thought, every intention, every feeling, every action, every reaction is nothing other than a waving of the all-inclusive Ocean, and no wave is ever really separate from any other wave. It is one, whole, undivided Ocean. Nothing is personal in the way we think it is. The weather doesn’t have an owner or a controller apart from it who makes it happen the way it does.
Even bare perception is a conditioned appearance, and there is no evidence that anything objectively or inherently “real” lies outside this bare perceiving. In other words, there is no evidence that there is any kind of solid, substantial, objective reality (a “real world”) that is “out there,” a material reality that each of us is perceiving in a unique and different way, more or less accurately. Instead, it seems more likely that perception actually CREATES the apparent world (or worlds) along with the illusion that what is being perceived is “out there” apart from the perceiving subject. Formless consciousness, it seems, IS the apparent dividing up and manifesting of what is actually undivided and non-existent (i.e., empty of substance or enduring form). And, of course, even this is another story, another conceptual formulation of what can never be formulated. In the end, the deepest truth is not-knowing. (And even that is a story).
You are always Here / Now, and no actual boundary can ever be found between inside of you and outside of you. Here / Now is what “you” really IS. And any attempt to find a seer apart from the seeing turns up no-thing (or everything), but never something. No thinker apart from the thought, no actor apart from the action, no decider apart from the deciding, no doer apart from the doing can ever actually be found. There is simply an unbroken happening that has no actual borders or seams except those that are created by thought and language and conditioned perception, like the lines on a map. But upon close examination of the territory itself, these borders and seams turn out to be non-existent. And in a way, that’s what meditation and meditative inquiry ARE: a close examination of the territory itself, although once these activities become formalized as intentional practices with a desired result, they easily become something else.
Radical nonduality is often known for its sense of humor and for being irreverent, iconoclastic and playful, whereas meditative approaches are often rather serious and sober and tedious and even pretentious at times (although many meditation teachers also have a wonderful sense of humor). But when you believe you are going somewhere or accomplishing some great evolutionary leap or saving life on earth, you often have a sense of urgency and missionary zeal, whereas when you recognize that there is no way NOT to be what you are, you tend to be more relaxed and less intent on converting others.
Clearly there is no one single way that so-called insight or liberation or surrender comes about, and ultimately there is really nothing that “comes about.” The Perfect Way is simply life itself, exactly as it is. That may include Zen practice, or it may include no formal or deliberate practice of any kind. The Holy Reality includes EVERYTHING and depends on nothing. It is always already fully realized, and that realization is endless and always Here / Now.
The fascination or obsession with self-improvement or with attaining enlightenment falls away in the recognition that whatever can be improved is a mirage and whatever can be attained will be lost. That doesn’t mean we won’t still be moved by life to do things – to fix flat tires, water gardens, sign petitions calling for gun control, meditate every morning, do yoga, eat healthy food, educate our children, or whatever else life moves us to do, including the things we consider to be undesirable, unhealthy, unproductive, lazy, hurtful or evil. It just means there is no executive, no separate self deciding to do any of this, and whatever happens, it is all an ever-changing appearance Here / Now.
There is no actual choice, only the appearance of choice. As neuroscience has shown, by the time a thought such as “I need to make lunch” arises, the body is already in motion toward the kitchen. The thought that appears to initiate the action is actually a kind of after-thought. Thought is not really running the show as it appears to be; it is simply providing a running commentary after the fact or prior to the fact. And thought itself is an automatic happening. There is no one authoring or deciding what thought to think next, or what to want to think next. Thought happens. Action happens. Wants, intentions, desires and interests happen. Like the outer weather, the inner weather may be calm and clear, or it may be stormy and overcast, and in both cases, infinite causes and conditions make it as it is. The weather is the way it is in this moment because the universe is the way it is.
Happily, there is actually no way to fail at life, no way to ruin our life or not live up to our potential, or any of those things we’ve learned to scare and beat ourselves up with. The Ocean is equally present as the serial rapist, the child molester, the school shooter, the child being shot, the physician trying to save the shooter, the meditator, the yogi, the wealthy Wall Street banker, the Olympic athlete, and the homeless drunk lying in a pool or urine and vomit on the pavement. As Zen Master Dogen said, “No creature ever comes short of its own completeness. Wherever it stands, it does not fail to cover the ground.”
Each of these apparent bodymind organisms is a moving wave in the Ocean, sharing water with all the other waves, inseparable from all the others, always changing shape, never the same from one instant to the next, always moving on to something new, impossible to pin down or capture with any storyline or any label. The vomit on the sidewalk is as much the Holy Reality as the deepest Samadhi state. Both are a momentary appearance, a momentary in-forming of ever-changing formlessness. Our defects are every bit as sacred as our greatest achievements, and both are impersonal waves in One Ocean. There is no enlightened person, and no enlightenment apart from delusion. All of life is a compulsive, automatic happening, a dance without a dancer.
When this radical perspective is first encountered but not yet fully understood, when there is still the thought-sense of being somebody in charge trying to win the game, this radical perspective sounds utterly nihilistic and dreadful, like a cause for total despair. Total hopelessness? Complete lack of control? Helplessness? What could be worse! But fully understood, when that sense of being somebody in control collapses, this radical perspective is—in my experience—the most deeply liberating and freeing realization that can possibly arise. And it is immediately obvious that this realization is not “mine,” it didn’t happen “to me,” and it doesn’t make “me” into “An Awakened One.” It also doesn’t mean the end of pain and suffering, but rather, the total acceptance of pain and suffering, and even of the resistance to pain and suffering that may arise. NOTHING is left out. EVERYTHING is included. And “you” don’t need to DO acceptance, but rather, this acceptance is always already happening, by itself. Everything IS allowed to be here, obviously—it’s here!
This perspective in no way means you can’t meditate or work to protect the environment anymore. It simply means you no longer believe that “you” are in control of whether or not you are moved to do any of this, nor are “you” in control of the results or outcomes that seem to follow from your actions. And you no longer think that everyone else SHOULD do what you are doing. You understand that life moves each of us differently, and that we are all a genuine expression of the One Dance. You no longer believe you are getting anywhere other than Here / Now, where you always already are. You no longer believe that the world is progressing toward some Golden Utopia where evil and violence and cruelty and suffering will be banished forever. You’re simply eating what life is moving you to eat and doing what life is moving you to do. You may still want to put a serial rapist in prison, but you don’t believe that he “could” or “should” have behaved differently. You know what he did was the only possible thing he could do in that moment. You don’t LIKE it, but you understand that life includes many things you don’t like. And you understand that the light and the dark are completely interwoven and interdependent, that they are aspects of One Whole Happening that can never really be pulled apart, and that in the deepest sense, you have no way of understanding what that happening is.
You stop trying to figure everything out and “get it”—you relax into simply BEING the happening of this moment, just as it is, which is what you cannot not be. You no longer aspire to purify yourself of every defect and flaw, for you know that this is impossible and probably not even desirable. You no longer think with absolute certainty that you know what is best for the universe. You still have your opinions, but you hold them more lightly. There is a radical acceptance of everything being exactly as it is, including your efforts to change it. You relax into not-knowing, appreciating the wonder of it all, including all the moments of upset, defensiveness, irritation and hurt—all the moments of stormy weather, of being fooled anew by the mirage of separation, running after the imaginary lake in the desert sands or recoiling in terror from the rope momentarily mistaken for a snake. You’re not taking all of this personally anymore, and even if it does get taken personally on occasion, it is seen that even this taking-it-personally is also an impersonal happening! It’s all a wonderful, terrible, inconceivable Dance, without beginning or end. And you’re IT! And IT is all there is. And IT is utterly and completely it-less, for nothing ever forms as any persisting or separate THING apart from the whole. There is only undivided flux, impermanence, groundlessness, emptiness. What a HUGE relief!
And so she babbles on…..doing what life compels her to do…..tapping away at the computer keys, writing books, posting on Facebook, moving this way and then that way, watching the snow falling softly in giant white flakes through the air, loving the tiny birds that have gathered for a moment in the pine tree to feast, enjoying The Good Wife and Downton Abbey on TV, eating cereal, biting her fingers, trimming her toenails, growing old…..
Writing these words / reading these words – one mysterious and unfathomable movement, like the tide and the breath going in and then out again. Everything and then nothing. Just this.
Let’s consider a very common human experience. We are seemingly faced with an apparent decision, a decision that SEEMS big and important. It could be whether to end a long marriage and run off with the mailman. It could be whether to accept a job offer in another state. It could be whether to transition from one gender into another. Whatever the situation is, it seems that we are undecided and uncertain—that we are being pulled in two different directions, unsure about what to do. It can feel quite agonizing and gut-wrenching, especially if we don’t fully realize the impersonal nature of what is taking place and our complete lack of control.
If we observe this indecision closely, we discover it is made up of conflicting thoughts and impulses, all of which arise unbidden—one moment the thought arises to do “A” and then in the next moment the thought arises to do “B”. And then another thought arises claiming that “I” must decide, that “I” must make the “right” decision, that “I” might blow it and ruin everything. And with these crisscrossing, back-and-forth, multi-layered thought-stories, there is an accompanying tension in the body—a sense of urgency and contraction, a queasy stomach, a headache, an overall uneasiness—and this mix of sensations and thoughts are instantly categorized and labeled as “anxiety.” This categorizing and labeling happens automatically, compulsively, by itself. And then, because we have the idea that anxiety is something negative, neurotic and unenlightened, there is anxiety about the anxiety.
In response to this churning mix of thought and sensation, perhaps the jaw clenches, the foot moves nervously, fingernails are bitten, a handheld device is compulsively checked and re-checked for no real reason—and then there are more thoughts judging and evaluating these behaviors—a cascade of pejorative labels and judgments, storylines commenting upon storylines, always with the phantom “me” at the center of it all: “I” am indecisive and anxious, “I” am a neurotic mess, “I” shouldn’t be checking my email again, “I” should be able to make this decision quickly and effortlessly, “I” am obviously not enlightened yet because clearly Ramana Maharshi would never have gone through anything like this, and so on and on. Layers upon layers of stories about “me” and what this indecision means about me.
What we typically overlook is that ALL of these thoughts, impulses, sensations, behaviors and reactions happen automatically, by themselves, unbidden. They are ALL a compulsive happening of nature, exactly like the weather outside. Instead, the conditioned tendency—what we’ve been taught, and what we’ve learned all our lives—is to take all of this personally as something “I” am doing. We believe we are in control, that it is our choice how to deal with all of this.
But in response to this apparent indecision, we do whatever we do—there is no real choice, only the appearance of a choice. So maybe we try sitting quietly, seeing the thoughts as thoughts and feeling the feelings as pure sensation—and maybe we find that there is an ability in this moment to do this, and maybe we find that there isn’t. Or maybe we try some other technique or method that we have learned or heard about. Maybe we go to our therapist and look deeply into what the attraction to “A” is about and what the aversion to “B” is about. Maybe we flip coins or throw the I Ching or consult our favorite astrologer. Maybe we talk to our friends and get their opinions. We do whatever we are moved to do, and whatever we do in each moment, we cannot do otherwise. Our actions are the movement of life itself, inseparable from the Totality.
But because we have the illusion that we (as the imaginary separate individual, the character in the story, the thinking mind) are in control, that we are authoring all of this, and because we believe that we need to manage our lives and make them work and get somewhere and be successful and have a meaningful life and survive as this form, it FEELS like “I” have to make a big decision, and that it's very important that “I” get it right. It appears that if “I” get it wrong, “I” might ruin “my life,” which seems (if we don’t look too closely) like a terrifying prospect. We are afraid that we might end up having missed the boat, our life a meaningless failure, our one big chance at love or success or real happiness blown.
But if we observe, we may notice that in every moment the decision is already made. You're in the marriage until you aren't. You’re not taking the job offer until you are. And when there is ambivalence or confusion, then there is ambivalence or confusion, and ambivalence or confusion is simply a passing weather system made up of ever-changing thoughts, impulses, sensations and behaviors, all of it a compulsive happening of nature. We can't MAKE this kind of back-and-forth ambivalence go away. It has to play itself out in its own time. But it may be a wonderful opportunity to notice that no one is in control of what happens next and that none of it matters in the way we think it does—none of it is personal.
If we observe carefully, we may see that every thought happens by itself, as does every impulse, every urge, every interest, every action, every label, every judgment, every technique, every emotion, every story. And if we stop dreading and resisting and running away from the scary story that we have missed the boat or that our entire life is a meaningless failure, if instead we allow ourselves to totally fall into and embrace complete failure and utter meaninglessness, we may be very surprised to discover that we are laughing in delight and experiencing a huge sense of relief. Our worst fear turns out to be nothing! We’ve been running all our lives from an imaginary boogeyman who isn’t even there.
And of course, whether we are moved and able to do that “total embracing” is also a happening of life itself. Either way, embraced or resisted, the boogeyman is never really there, and the “I” that appears to be driving the car is always only a mirage. Still, that doesn’t mean you can take your hands off the wheel. Your hands, the wheel, the whole activity of driving is a happening of the whole universe and you ARE this happening. You still apparently have to decide whether to stay in the marriage or run off with the mailman. But if you observe closely, you will see that there is no decider, that it is all happening by itself. And with luck, you may discover that you cannot actually ruin your life because there is no such “thing” to ruin.
In one of my recent posts, I talked about the two directions in which my expression of nonduality seems to move, the radical and uncompromisingly absolute perspective on the one hand, and the offering of a possible pathless path on the other.
The pathless path to which I referred might variously be described as wordless attention, open awareness, direct seeing, or resting in presence along with a nonconceptual, direct exploration of the nature of reality and how suffering and confusion come about. This bare attention and exploration is a way of being that is at once relaxed and alert, an effortless effort in which there is an aspiration or an intention to be awake, but never in a willful, forced, goal-oriented, achievement-driven, idealistic or perfectionistic way. I mentioned that Toni Packer calls this nonconceptual, wordless attention and inquiry “the work of this moment,” and I commented in my earlier post that in radical nonduality, there is no more “work of this moment” to be done.
But this is where it gets very subtle. Because the pathless path of wordless attention is not really a doing as much as it is an undoing or a not doing. Toni Packer often speaks of it as not doing anything. Gangaji says that it “is not a path that leads you somewhere. It is the path that stops you in your tracks." The Catholic monk Brother David Steindl-Rast describes the apparent paradox of effortless effort in this way: “Discipline is not so much a matter of doing this or that, but of holding still. Not as if this would cost no effort. But the effort is all applied to the crucial task, the task of making no effort.” The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten explains that, “In the realm of true meditation there is no such thing as a meditator or meditation. There is nothing to be done…All we have to do is stop everything…When we stop trying to get somewhere and let go of all our inner exertions, surprisingly the ineffable truth reveals itself.”
In other words, “the work of this moment,” or the pathless path, is not about doing something in the usual sense. Rather, it is all about stopping, being still, and not doing anything to move toward something that is desired or away from anything that is feared, and instead being fully present right here in this placeless place of Here / Now that is instantaneous and eternal, the razor’s edge of present-ness that is at once infinitely narrow and infinitely boundless.
This practice (or non-practice) is about letting go, giving up, surrendering. It is a kind of relaxing and opening rather than an exertion. It is about not doing anything RIGHT NOW to move away from What Is. There are many things we habitually do in order to find temporary pleasure or pain relief—and I’m not talking here about the natural enjoyment of good food or making love or watching a great movie or getting intelligent palliative care, but rather, I’m talking about those habitual behaviors that may provide temporary satisfaction but that ultimately create confusion and suffering—e.g., thinking obsessively, overeating, drinking too much alcohol, smoking cigarettes, taking illegal drugs, addictive sex, checking and re-checking our handheld devices ad nauseum, addictively surfing the internet, desperately consuming spiritual books or chasing after gurus, getting caught up in various forms of fundamentalism, yelling and screaming, drinking too much coffee, biting our fingers, compulsively watching TV when we don't really want to, talking compulsively, whatever it might be. We can FEEL the difference between doing something in a way that is healthy and life-affirming (or harmless), on the one hand, and on the other, doing something in a way that is harmful to the organism, to the bodymind and to the Whole (behaviors that are addictive, excessive, escapist, or all about desperately searching for something in all the wrong places). The not-doing that is called surrender or “being here now” is about staying with the fundamental unease, restlessness or sense of uncertainty that habitually drives us toward all these addictive and compulsive behaviors. It is about not running away, and instead, opening to the bare energies and sensations of this unease, being fully present, right here, right now.
But it’s very important to get that we’re NOT talking about renouncing all our bad habits forever and never doing anything like that ever again and turning into some kind of Perfect Me. That is an idealistic, perfectionistic, self-serving idea that will inevitably lead to disappointment. Meditation is always ONLY about right now—this moment. And it's not about perfection.
And it's also not about being present in a forced, goal-oriented, achievement-driven, willful way where you TRY really, really hard and then beat yourself up whenever you apparently fail. The open awareness that is being pointed to is non-judgmental. It accepts everything. It doesn’t regard anything as a failure or a success. It is simply beholding it all, without judgment or evaluation, allowing it all to be just as it is. We could call it unconditional love.
Gangaji writes: “In any way that we HAVE to do something, whether the addiction is to drugs or alcohol, to shopping or to the internet, we rob of ourselves of the opportunity to actually discover what is underneath that—the fear, despair and hopelessness that are being denied, but most importantly, the total fulfillment that is under that. We spend lifetimes fighting this abyss and yet it is still here. The easier way is open to it completely...without moving. We all have the capacity to be in the ease of being.”
Of course, to say that “we all have this capacity” is one way of formulating this, a way that points to the power that is right here, the power of life itself to relax and open, what Eckhart Tolle calls “the power of Now.” This is what Anam Thubten points to when he says, “Nothing is holding us back from awakening...We are the one who imprisons and we are the one who liberates. When we accept that responsibility we have finally gained spiritual maturity.” But the “we” he refers to here is not the imaginary separate self that we think we are.
In radical nonduality, the formulation would instead emphasize the choicelessness of every moment, the absence of control, and the all-inclusive Totality that is equally present IN SPITE of whatever we do, but never BECAUSE of anything we do, the wholeness that we can never fall out of, and that we can never not be, because that is all there is, and all there is, is that. The radical nondual formulation would emphasize that the ability in any given moment to “stop everything” and “accept that response-ability” to which Anam Thubten refers is a happening of the whole universe, a result of infinite causes and conditions, and never an individual choice in the way we usually imagine.
But then, what is the whole universe if not Here / Now? And what am I (this awake presence), if not the whole universe? And where is the ability to respond if not right here? As Zen teacher Steve Hagen says, “Enlightenment is nothing more than this: to be fully present, to see the grasping nature of our own minds, and not to act out of that grasping. It's to see ourselves not as separate, not as lacking, not as in charge, not as weak and helpless.”
Any of the seemingly divergent ways of expressing and approaching nonduality are untrue if they are merely held as ideas or beliefs. But when fully realized, they are one and the same way, the Tao Itself. Which is why the ancient Zen Master Huang Po, whom I quoted in my earlier post, could talk radical nonduality while also being a practicing Buddhist monk, sitting silently in wordless attention every day for hours at a time. He knew that meditation was useless, and that was precisely why it was invaluable.
In one moment, we find ourselves drawn to the uncompromisingly absolute and radical expression, and in another moment, we are drawn to some version of the pathless path. Misunderstood or misused, either of these can be an apparent obstacle that seemingly holds us back or confuses us even more (although there is really no one to hold back or to be confused), but when the arrow hits the mark, either formulation can be a way of dissolving every imaginary obstacle and realizing the One Reality that is Here / Now. Either way, as Huang Po says, “That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside.” In the absolute sense, there are no mistakes. But relatively speaking, in any moment when that wholeness is not recognized or fully realized, when the story of separation and encapsulation is believed, there is suffering and confusion. That suffering and confusion is also the One Reality, but so is the invitation (from the Self to the Self) to wake up.
One way of teaching is to uncompromisingly “hold the line” on the absolute truth that everything is the One Reality, that there is no way out, and to relentlessly keep pointing to that all-inclusive truth. Another way of teaching is to undermine any place you try to land or set up camp including that absolute view. And what I’ve noticed is that we always find exactly the teaching we need in every moment.
What truly liberates is dissolving the misunderstanding (however that happens), not picking up any new understanding and planting a flag there. And most importantly, liberation can only happen now. It is never about yesterday or tomorrow or forever or once-and-for-all or once-upon-a-time. It is always only Here / Now. That is the single greatest key—that freedom is Here / Now, and that this is it, just as it is.
And if the mind pops up with some version of, “This can’t be it,” maybe it will be noticed that this is nothing more than an old, habitual thought-story-belief. Maybe the possibility or the aspiration or the interest will arise to stop, look and listen. To question that thought. To be still. To open completely to the unvarnished energetic and sensory aliveness of this ever-changing, ever-present, inconceivable and unavoidable Here / Now.
Even if, in this moment, you can’t stop biting your finger or puffing on the cigarette, even as this compulsive behavior is happening, wordless attention can arise. I remember Gangaji once saying to someone who was struggling with an addiction to smoking, “When you’re free to smoke, you’re free to stop.” That freedom is Here / Now.
Some teachings emphasize a kind of detachment from the messiness of ordinary human life, encouraging us to identify as boundless awareness and not as a person. I tend to prefer a different approach that sees the messiness of ordinary life as the Holy Reality, encouraging us to go ever-more deeply INTO the ordinary, so that we discover where enlightenment actually resides (not “out there” in some special state, but right here in THIS present moment). To my taste, this approach feels more real, more alive, and less likely to inadvertently feed into a kind of dualistic dissociation, denial or disengagement from life in which we pretend to be “beyond it all,” or where we go off in search of the exotic somewhere else.
Of course, by “going deeply into the ordinary,” I don’t mean being deeply lost in and entranced by all the stories and beliefs and conceptualized situations that we often THINK of as ordinary life. I mean being fully awake to the immediate, energetic, sensory aliveness and present-ness of Here / Now. I mean seeing through or waking up from the virtual reality created by thoughts and stories ABOUT ordinary life, including the illusory IDEA that we are an isolated separate self encapsulated inside an independent and separate bodymind. I mean beginning to notice our actual EXPERIENCE, which is undivided, unencapsulated, seamless, boundless and whole.
Going deeply into the ordinary can take different forms. It can be the attention to detail that you find in Zen – where sweeping the floor is a way of sweeping your mind, and where pouring tea or cooking rice or using the toilet is the most important and sacred activity in the universe, to be approached with the same loving care and attention that you would give to your dearest beloved. Going deeply into the ordinary can also be a nonconceptual exploration of presently appearing thoughts and sensations, so that suffering is transcended not by detaching from all of this and ignoring it, but rather by seeing through the thoughts and stories (with awareness, not with analysis) and by relaxing totally INTO the sensations and energies of this moment, and thus discovering directly that our suffering is actually no-thing at all.
Instead of working very hard to identify as awareness and not as me, this approach is simply about being fully alive as this present happening, this hearing-seeing-sensing-breathing-moving-thinking-awaring-being that has no boundaries and no seams, THIS that you actually cannot NOT be, this unnamable, ungraspable, inescapable and unavoidable present-ness that IS the entire universe and that INCLUDES the intermittent thought-sense-story of being a particular character in the movie of waking life. EVERYTHING is embraced and included Here / Now. Nothing is left out. There is no effort to be identified as one part of this happening and not as another part, or to push anything away, or to make something special happen. There is simply this present happening, just as it is. The sound of traffic, the cheep of a bird, an ache in the knee, the aroma of coffee, a passing thought, the taste of oatmeal. Sweeping the floor, changing a dirty diaper, phoning a friend, cooking lunch, driving to the office, watching TV – just this. Nothing more, nothing less. The Holy Reality is right here, hidden in plain sight, in the apparently ordinary.
A question was posed to me yesterday. The person wrote: “Joan, in your interview with Rick Archer, you said that sometimes you identify as a person when, for example, hurt or anger arise. You also said you've never met anyone for whom the identification with the person has dropped away ‘forever.’ Tony Parsons says that for ‘him,’ there is no longer any sense of a person, and that it's clear that in ‘his’ body-mind, no personal identification will arise again. He also says that ‘he’ experiences no localization of consciousness. Would you be interested in addressing these points of confusion?”
Here is my response:
However we try to express this, it never quite comes out right because no words can re-present the actuality of Here / Now. The truth is that there IS no separate, independent, persisting person who is angry or hurt or misidentified as a person or for whom the sense of being a person is not happening anymore. In reality, these are ALL impersonal experiences happening to no one. Unicity is all there is.
It is very hard to speak of nonduality and so-called enlightenment or awakening or liberation without inadvertently reinforcing the illusion of the separate self or the illusion that enlightenment is some kind of permanent experience or personal achievement extended over an infinite duration in time. I don’t remember what I said in that interview or what I was trying to express at that moment, and I can’t speak for Tony Parsons, but here’s what I can say now about the underlying issues.
I spent many years comparing one person’s account and description of enlightenment with anothers, and then comparing my experience to theirs, and thinking that there was some final breakthrough I still needed to have—some experiential state that needed to be constantly present, or some illusion that needed to fall away forever and never return. I imagined myself going back and forth between clarity (aka nirvana, expanded energy, pleasure, success, identification as boundless unicity) and confusion (aka samsara, contracted energy, suffering, failure, identification as Joan), trying to stabilize permanently in clarity and banish confusion once and for all.
Eventually, it became clear that this entire concern was all about the imaginary “me” and how “I” was doing in some mythical battle between what I viewed as irreconcilable polar opposites. It became clear that the whole problem I was trying to solve was imaginary, as was the “one” who was supposedly going back and forth. The polar opposites were recognized as inseparable aspects of one interrelated and interdependent whole that was inescapable and unavoidable. The concern with “my enlightenment” (or lack of it) fell away—in my case, not in some big, dramatic, explosive event, but gradually and imperceptibly (and always only Now).
I suspect that in that interview, I was trying to make the point that there is no enlightened person, and that there is no such thing as a perpetual EXPERIENCE of expansion and pleasure and clarity. All apparent form is nothing but continuous change, so it is only as a concept (a mental abstraction) that any form (such as a person or an experience) seems to exist and persist as a separate and enduring “thing.” Consciousness is not encapsulated inside some imaginary form; Consciousness IS form, and form is actually empty of form (impermanence is so thorough-going that nothing forms to BE impermanent). NOW is the only eternity there is, so “forever after” is always a story.
So-called enlightenment points to the falling away (or seeing through) of the illusion of separation and encapsulation, and the recognition of the all-inclusive and seamless Totality from which nothing stands apart. This recognition isn’t an experience that someone has. It isn’t something that happens TO the imaginary fragment. What seemingly falls away was never really there to begin with—it was an imaginary problem. Instead, we often imagine that liberation means that “I” will abide “forever” in some experiential state of consciousness called “nirvana,” from which “I” will never return. But liberation is actually the dissolution of that whole picture.
Liberation is the realization that Totality INCLUDES the mirage-like experience of apparent separation and encapsulation; nothing is excluded from the wholeness of being. Liberation is the total embrace of samsara and the willingness to be in hell forever. It is the discovery that Nirvana is Here / Now, and that samsara IS nirvana. It is the recognition that NO experience is actually personal, whether it is an experience of separation and contraction or an experience of expansion and unity. And by not being personal, I mean that no one brings it about and no one possesses it. There is no owner, no author, no experiencer apart from the experiencing. There is simply THIS – the undivided totality of being.
When there is anger or hurt appearing Here / Now (and I’m speaking here of psychological anger or hurt, attached to a story of some kind), when that is happening here, the story in question always seems predicated upon and tangled up with the mirage-like illusion of being a separate somebody who feels hurt or threatened. I’m guessing that’s what I meant if I said that sometimes I identify as a person when hurt or anger arise. But there isn’t really “somebody” who identifies as a person—and not because Joan Tollifson’s “somebody” has been successfully eliminated in some Enlightenment Triumph, but because there never IS a separate, independent, persisting self to begin with—it is ALWAYS only a mirage.
The appearance of contraction and separation NEVER means that there really IS a separate self to whom ANY of this is happening. And although the structure of language is always suggesting otherwise, it is never the case that a separate self called Joan is identifying as Joan, or that a separate self called Tony has permanently lost his false self. And whether some kind of passing emotional upset (or inner stormy weather) seems to happen more frequently for Joan Tollifson than it does for Tony Parsons is of no concern here. It’s not personal either way. ALL of the weather (inner and outer) is an appearance in and of the wholeness of being (Presence, Awareness, Consciousness, Here / Now, the Tao, the One Self, this undivided present happening, just as it is).
Enlightenment is not a special experience that happens “to somebody,” but rather, it is the discovery that the nondual absolute is equally present as EVERY experience, even the passing sense of being somebody. The nondual absolute, the wholeness of being, the One Self has no boundaries, no seams, no limits, and no other. It is all there is, and all there is, is this.
Tony still answers if you call his name, and I assume that he can still discern the difference between his finger and the carrot he is chopping up for lunch, so obviously he continues to have a functional sense of identity as a particular bodymind. Does he ever get irritated or defensive or miffed or anxious (as Joan does)—in other words, is there ever any kind of momentary entrancement in the mirage of separation, or is that entirely absent? What difference does it make either way?
For Consciousness Itself, there is no end to being tricked and mesmerized and fooled, again and again. Only from the vantage point of the character (the illusory self-image), does it seem to matter whether “I” still get fooled sometimes, or whether “I” get fooled more or less often than somebody else. ALL experiences come and go—experiences of expansion and experiences of contraction. Unicity (the nondual absolute) is not a particular experience (this but not that); it is EVERY experience. Even the APPARENT misunderstanding is nothing other than unicity appearing as misunderstanding.
To speak about this at all, we have to use words, and whatever we say, it ends up being easily misunderstood. Language is used casually, spoken off the cuff, maybe carelessly at times, and then it winds up being scrutinized—sentences are taken out of the larger context, taken literally, put under the microscope, compared to other sentences, sometimes misheard or misquoted—and soon, confusion abounds. Plus, this whole subject of enlightenment has been so greatly mystified, idealized and misunderstood over so many centuries that it is hard not to be confused.
What is actually being pointed to (I would say by both Tony Parsons and myself) is not some special achievement, but rather, the all-inclusive, ever-present, unavoidable and thus unattainable natural state Here / Now (the stateless state, the groundless ground, the One Reality) that is appearing as you and me and tables and chairs and Facebook posts and the whole movie of waking life. Unicity is never not here. It is never not attained. It is all there is. It is a never-ending Self-realization.
But don’t take on any of this as a new belief. Instead, look and see. In your actual direct experience right now, can you locate an actual boundary where “inside of you” turns into “outside of you” – where “subject” ends and “object” begins? Can you actually FIND any such boundary in direct perception? Is Here / Now (Consciousness Itself, this present experiencing) localized anywhere? Doesn’t it take thought to conjure up some IDEA like “it’s happening in my brain” or to form an image of some boundary line such as “my skin” between “in here” and “out there”? If we cut open your brain, will we find this presently appearing Facebook page or this room you are sitting in? Where IS all of this happening?
“No localization of consciousness” is not some strange mystical experience that “you” have never had and that Tony Parsons is having “all the time” and that Joan Tollifson is only having “some of the time.” That is how thought interprets what has been said by Tony and by Joan (and by many others trying to express the inexpressible). But you might notice right now that in your own direct present moment experiencing, this awaring presence Here / Now is unlocatable, ungraspable, and yet utterly unavoidable. This present happening is magnificently diverse and varied but also seamless and boundless. It is without division and empty of self. (And that doesn’t mean I forget my name or lose all sense of being Joan, or that defensiveness or feeling hurt might not arise here).
Here’s another bit from my book, Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality (p 57):
“We try to zero in on ‘unicity’ as an experience. And we feel very frustrated because we keep seeing chairs and tables and different people, and so we wonder, where’s the unicity, where’s the boundless emptiness? All we’re seeing is chairs and tables. Unicity shouldn’t look like this! Or maybe we think we’ve got it, but as you may have noticed, that thought leads almost instantly to the opposite thought, ‘Oh, no! I’ve lost it.’ Any EXPERIENCE that we identify as unicity will go. If it came, it will go. It may stay for a minute, for an hour, or for a decade. But it WILL go. And then suddenly there's a different experience, that pesky dualistic ‘me’ experience again. And then the thought, ‘I’ve lost unicity. I’ve fallen out of the Now. My spiritual ship has sunk!’ Very disappointing, very humiliating.
“The mind can get very confused trying to THINK its way through all this and figure it out, but what's here right now is utterly simple.”
And this is Tony Parsons, from his book All There Is (p 231):
“There is no such thing as an awakened person; that’s a contradiction in terms…So let’s say there is just being and ‘me’-ing…If those so-called enlightened people were honest, they would probably say to you that…there can still be a contraction into ‘me’-ing, but the final liberation is that anything is accepted and everything is accepted; nothing is denied. So both are now seen as one…There is being, but contraction can happen. It happens within the perception of the whole. Anything can happen because this is liberation…Liberation includes the total acceptance of all that is.”
Sounds to me like Tony and I are saying the same thing! For the record, I’ve always loved Tony, and as far as I know, the only significant difference in our expression is that he more consistently holds the line on uncompromising, absolute, radical nonduality, while I might be talking about meditation or quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in my next breath. I also find that some of the ways Tony describes awakening CAN dangle a carrot in front of his listeners—e.g. when he seems to be talking about permanent "energetic shifts" and final "pops" or making statements like the ones attributed to him in the question that began this post. But I’m sure that’s not his intention, to dangle a carrot. Somewhere or other, he puts it like this: "There's nowhere to go. There's no goal. There's no carrot. There's no prize. All there is is this. But the difference between there just being what's happening and the sense that it's happening to you is immeasurable."
Immeasurable and imaginary! Both!
How can we really experience the truth that everything is the Holy Reality, not merely as a belief or a comforting idea, but as a living reality? Isn’t this the aspiration behind true spiritual practice—to realize, to actualize, to embody and to live out of the openness and the aliveness and the freedom of unconditional love?
Of course, in the absolute sense, there is no way not to embody or experience the Holy Reality. Even the experience of apparently being lost and separate and confused is itself none other than the Holy Reality in thin disguise. And in the absolute sense, of course there is no path from Here to Here because you can’t ever be anyplace else, and wherever you go, here you are. “You” and “Here” are one undivided happening. And yet.
Maybe we can say something about how to get here from there (so to speak).
There’s an instruction in the Big Book of AA that I’ve always liked: “Abandon yourself to God.” Personally, I don’t think of GOD as some separate force, and certainly not as some patriarchal deity up in the heavens. For me, GOD is another word for Here / Now, the One Self, Aware Presence, the Holy Reality, the groundless ground, the Tao. GOD is another word for emptiness or the Open Heart. “Abandon yourself to God” is another way of saying “Be here now,” or “Let go, stop, give up the struggle, surrender,” or “Wake up—open your eyes, listen with your whole being—be awake to this moment.”
Abandoning yourself to God points to giving up control, letting go of resistance, and being completely open to the bare actuality of this moment, just as it is.
Whenever that happens, samsara reveals itself as nirvana, and—in that moment of wakefulness—it is very much a living and experiential reality that all there is, is GOD. The false sense of separation dissolves. This is not an extraordinary occurrence with lights flashing, but actually, a completely ordinary one.
No one can explain HOW to do that. There is no recipe or set of instructions to follow. It’s much closer than any kind of process could ever be. As with learning to swim or ride a bicycle, others can support us in making this discovery, but ultimately, no one can show or tell anyone else how to swim, or how to ride a bike, or how to surrender and be fully present here and now. Each one of us must feel into and discover the reality of this for ourselves. And for most us, we don’t just make this discovery once and then it’s done. We find our way into this letting go again and again (and always now).
We may be tempted at first to view waking up or surrendering as a new task that we are supposed to work very hard at doing correctly, whipping ourselves into shape in order to achieve some imagined perfection, monitoring ourselves to evaluate how we’re doing and how we compare to others. With this way of approaching it, we then find ourselves alternately elated by our apparent progress and then, in the next moment, frustrated and disappointed by our apparent failure. It feels very dualistic and very much all about “me” getting somewhere and becoming something other than what I am here and now. But what’s being pointed to is really more about letting go of that whole effort to “do it right” and improve and get somewhere. Instead, surrendering or waking up begins with totally and completely accepting Here / Now, just as it is. It is a falling away of the imaginary separation between samsara and nirvana, between success and failure, between me and God.
Of course, acceptance in this sense doesn’t mean not fixing a flat tire, or not getting a job, or resigning yourself to being a doormat, or staying in an abusive situation, or not going into an addiction recovery program if one is needed – it points to something much more immediate—the aliveness and immediacy of bare presence. And out of that aware and open presence, intelligent action follows naturally.
Whether the impulse and the interest and the ability to let go in this way is present and available in any given moment depends on infinite causes and conditions. Sometimes the power of addictive habit or the energy of compulsion overpowers the urge and the intention to be present and surrendered. So if “abandoning yourself to God” or “being here now” isn’t possible and doesn’t happen in this moment, that too is simply the happening of life, the way it is. Sometimes the reality of life is that action DOESN’T emerge from clarity and intelligence. Sometimes it emerges from confusion and delusion, but all of it (the clarity AND the confusion) is one whole seamless happening, and ALL of it is part of how Totality is functioning and how life is. So whatever happens, don’t take it personally!
Most importantly, abandoning yourself to God can only happen right here, right now. It’s never about repeating something from the past or getting somewhere in the future. It’s always only about right here, right now. Here / Now is the gateless gate, the magic key. And by Here / Now, I don’t mean the STORY of your present circumstances (who you are, where you are, what you lack, what you need, etc.)—that’s all much too late. I mean the groundlessness, the bare beingness, the immediacy of this instant, right now, before any story ABOUT it can arise.
So, if you can, here and now, let go of all thoughts and all the mental activity of analysis and story-telling and philosophizing and figuring things out—and instead, just for this moment, simply rest in the bare sensory happening here and now: the sounds of traffic, the sensations of breathing, other sensations in the body, the barking of a dog, whatever shows up. If you can, completely relax the bodymind—this nonconceptual presence is absolutely effortless and utterly simple. You don’t have to achieve it because it is always already present—it is the ground that is here underneath the mental overlay. So, you’re not trying to control the situation or make anything different happen, but rather, you’re simply allowing everything to be exactly as it is.
And if you’re tense and you can’t relax, then see if it is possible to be completely open to being tense—simply be aware of the tension—how it feels, what it’s like, where it is in the body, how it moves—without judging it or resisting it or trying to make it go away. Simply allow tension to be present and to be as totally tense as it is. To give an example, in my case, when I’m compulsively biting my fingers and I can’t stop, this surrender or abandonment is a shift from being caught up in a mental battle between the desire to bite and the desire to stop (accompanied by a very tense and conflicted bodily feeling of being pulled in opposite directions and torn apart), to instead letting go of the whole effort to stop and being completely and totally open to the experience of biting—being aware of the actual sensations—how it feels in the teeth, the jaw, the fingers, the neck, the shoulders, the belly—sensing the breathing, hearing the traffic sounds—and allowing ALL of it to be just as it is, not trying to stop the biting, not judging it, not resisting it—just being completely present to exactly how it is.
When this happens, no problem remains.
So right now, if you notice yourself thinking, if you can, let the thoughts go and return to the awareness of pure sensation and bare being. If the thoughts persist, then simply be aware of how seductive they are, how powerful the urge is to continue thinking. Notice the virtual reality that thought creates (the stories, the mental movies, and the “you” at the center of it all), and notice how all of this IS a mental construction, an act of imagination. Simply be AWARE of all this, see it as it is. Don’t go to war with anything that shows up. Awareness is where the power and the intelligence is. “You” don’t need to control everything and fix it. Awareness will take care of everything, but not always in the ways “you” would like.
Abandoning yourself to God is relaxing into the intelligence of life itself. It means letting go of all effort to control what’s happening, all intention to change, all resistance to what’s here now—and if you can’t let go, then simply being aware of the efforting and the resisting—and allowing ALL of it to be as it is. Surrender always begins right here, with allowing whatever is showing up here and now to be just as it is.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you no longer have intentions or goals of any kind in a larger or more general sense – you may still be intending to finish college, or intending to recover from an addiction, or intending to make your marriage work, or intending to get your work done by the upcoming deadline – and that’s all fine as long as you recognize that you are not really in control of what happens next – but this absence of intention that is being pointed to is much more immediate than these kinds of generalized plans—it’s about your state of mind in this very instant, right now.
Liberation always begins with being totally present Here / Now – without judgment, without resistance, without intention, without needing anything to be different in any way from exactly how it is. This complete acceptance or unconditional love is in fact the very NATURE of Here / Now, the groundless ground of awareness that is actually ever-present and always already allowing everything to be as it is (since obviously it always is as it is!), although it may sometimes SEEMINGLY be obscured by the mirage-like virtual reality of thoughts and stories that paint the picture of “me” needing to find “it” somewhere else “out there” in the future.
What liberates us is waking up to how it actually is here and now, and seeing through the mirage-like dream of how we THINK it is. There is no end to waking up. It is always Now.
So right now, is there Awakeness Here / Now? What would it be like to completely accept this moment, just as it is—to be fully awake to the bare reality of this moment, without judging it, without trying to improve it, without resisting it in any way?
That is true meditation. It’s a way of life. And it’s not about being perfect. It’s about relaxing into the effortless happening of this moment, just as it is.
It is a miraculous late winter, early spring morning here. It rained during the night, and there are jewels of light sparkling on the glistening black bare branches, light dancing on the pavement, and the first two blossoms on the flowering tree outside the kitchen window have begun to open in the night, the first revelation of the pink flowering to come, the first glimpse of spring. Every year that I’ve lived here in this apartment, my heart leaps with joy when the first blossoms appear on this tree. It is always the first.
Last November, while I was in London, this building where I live was unexpectedly sold, and I’ve just been told that I have to move, so I know now that this is my last spring here in this apartment, the last time I will see these blossoms outside these windows begin to open. Death (even in its minor forms, such as leaving a beloved place) wakes us up to the beauty and the precious wonder of everything. The beauty is in the vulnerability. Life is beautiful because it is dying, moment by moment.
Sometimes, of course, everything isn’t sparkling with light and leaping with joy, or at least, it doesn’t seem to be. Sometimes the Dance of Shiva is a dark dance. It is the ache of loneliness, the gut-wrenching sorrow of loss or disappointment, the weariness of age, the weight of depression or fatigue, the pain of illness or injury, the sorrow from endless news stories of war and crime. And in those moments, when we feel the pull of darkness and despair closing in around us, the habitual impulse is to seek a fix (a drug, a drink, something to consume, a piece of cake, a spiritual book, a comforting idea, the fantasy of a promising future). But instead of seeking a fix or trying to transcend the darkness, perhaps it is possible instead to fully experience the texture of this moment, just as it is, to be fully awake and to see: this is how it is, right here, right now – dropping out of the STORY about how it is into the bare actuality of present sensations—noticing how the body feels, noticing the shapes and colors and sounds, just as they are—fully experiencing the darkness of the darkness, the textures and shapes, the feel of exactly how it is.
Notice that I didn’t say, “You SHOULD drop out of the story and fully experience the sensations.” It's so easy for the mind to mishear what is actually being offered and turn it instead into a command or an injunction or something we "should" be able to do at will. The mind frequently tends to hear what is said in black and white (dualistic) terms, takes it all personally and then interprets it idealistically in a goal-oriented, achievement-oriented way. A teacher or a book asks, "Is it possible to see the thoughts as thoughts?" And the mind hears it as: "I SHOULD always see my thoughts as thoughts, and I should do this seeing correctly, and I should do it all the time, and I should never lapse." But that's not what was said!
I have gotten many emails over the years from people who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, various forms of addiction and compulsion, and from people who wonder what I think about taking about psychiatric medications or palliative care drugs at the end of life. Many people express frustration because they can’t “be here now” all the time (ho ho ho), and many seem to have the idea that spirituality is about banishing everything unpleasant and finding a state of perpetual pleasure and comfort—a task at which they seem to have failed miserably. To some degree, these are illusions we all slip into from time to time.
I try to address depression and addiction directly in all my books, and I try to write honestly about my own experiences with these things. I say in both of my last two books (Painting the Sidewalk and Nothing to Grasp) that many things that were previously considered to be purely spiritual, moral or psychological problems have now been shown to have many other causes: genetic, neurochemical, hormonal, brain tumors, trauma, head injuries, exposure to toxins, endocrine or liver disorders, etc., along with childhood conditioning and life experience – an infinite web of nature and nurture. I have often compared the inner weather to the outer weather to show that ALL weather (inner and outer) is the impersonal result of infinite causes and conditions. Everything is the way it is because the whole universe is the way it is, and this moment could not be different from exactly how it is. And yet, every moment is a new universe. We never step into the same river twice.
Sometimes the desire and the intention to "be here now" is over-powered by the forces of addiction, compulsion, brain chemistry or other weather systems. Intelligent meditation is simply an invitation (from life to life) to explore all of this by listening and looking and being aware of how it is here and now—and perhaps in that exploration, there is the discovery that suffering arises when the mirage-world created by thought is mistaken for reality. But how quickly the mind can turn this invitation and this discovery into a commandment: "Don't believe your thoughts, don't take them as an objective report on reality." There's a huge difference between expressing the possibility of that exploration and discovery, on the one hand, and issuing a commandment that, "You MUST and you SHOULD stop believing your thoughts," on the other.
That's why I say, waking up is somewhat like falling asleep in that you can't MAKE yourself fall asleep, and in fact, the more you worry about not being able to sleep, and the harder you TRY to fall asleep, the more sleep seems to elude you. You can't even MAKE yourself stop making an effort. But maybe that efforting can come into awareness and be seen clearly for what it is. When it is seen and allowed to be as it is, then the possibility of relaxing becomes available. The light of awareness is itself the great dissolver. But again, I'm NOT saying, "You should be aware." You (the imaginary thinker of your thoughts) can't control awareness, and awareness is not a tool that “you” can use to manipulate life. Awareness, by its very nature, has no motive, no intention—it is not seeking an outcome—it has no strategy. It simply beholds everything as it is. We could call it unconditional love. And in the light of unconditional love, it may eventually be obvious that EVERYTHING is included in What Is, even the stuff we don't like (the depression, the addiction, the suffering, the confusion). And if we’re lucky, we may discover—in THIS moment—that the suffering is only there in the story.
As I said in my book Painting the Sidewalk with Water, it’s wonderful that science has discovered biological causes and cures for things that were once believed to be purely spiritual, moral or psychological problems. I know there are some spiritual teachers who think no one should take psychiatric medications or get palliative care, and who believe that every problem can and should be resolved through meditation alone, and who think that enlightenment cures all problems. But I think this view is quite backward. Psychiatric medication can sometimes be a great help, and in some cases, these medications may be essential if one wants to lead any kind of sane and functional life or be in a state of mind where practicing meditation is even a possibility. I'm not advocating or pushing medication or any other therapies or practices, but neither am I opposing them. I've met many people who have gotten immense benefits from medication and from other forms of therapy as well. And in some cases I've seen, meditation alone can make the problem worse and not better.
I myself tried taking Zoloft once for depression, and it was wonderful for the depression—it totally eliminated it—all those sticky negative thoughts completely disappeared, the body was filled with energy, and I was able to easily accomplish things that had previously seemed overwhelming—it was a beautiful demonstration of how much of our psychological suffering is entirely the result of brain chemistry—but I got serious, uncommon side-effects and had to go off the drug. This was some years back, and I've never tried another anti-depressant. But I’m very glad these medications exist, and I’m glad we have palliative care as well. In Oregon where I live, assisted suicide is a legal option if one is dying from a painful disease. Everyone will do what life moves us to do in each moment (medication or no medication, palliative care or unmedicated pain, assisted suicide or natural death), but I’m glad ALL these options are increasingly available, and anyone who calls psychiatric medications or palliative care or assisted suicide “spiritually incorrect” has a very limited view of spirituality in my opinion.
While I would never advocate DENYING the reality of problems such as chronic depression, anxiety, addiction or compulsion, it's also worth exploring how they may to some degree be perpetuated and reinforced by telling the story over and over that, "I have a serious problem, and this is how I am." Can it be seen right now that this IS a story (regardless of how true it may or may not seem to be)? Instead of telling this story, and instead of replacing it with a positive story, MAYBE it is possible in this moment to have no story at all, to not know, to leave everything open, to neither deny nor assert. We don't know what the next moment may bring. And we truly don’t ever step into the same river twice. Every moment the universe begins anew.
I remember some years back reading a true story, it was in a book by John Kain called A Rare and Precious Thing: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Working with a Spiritual Teacher, in the chapter about Zen teacher Daido Loori. I may have the details slightly wrong, but basically, the gist of the story was that Daido was recalling how one day after he’d been practicing Zen for a few years, he told his teacher, Maezumi Roshi, that he (Daido) had transcended the fear of death – he had realized there was no one to die, or something along those lines. Whereupon Maezumi Roshi jumped up, leaped on top of Daido, wrestled him to the ground and began choking him to death.
This is the kind of stuff Zen teachers love to do, not always quite so dramatically, but wherever you try to land, a true teacher will pull the rug out from under you. The whole point of Zen isn’t about getting the right idea and having the answers and setting up camp somewhere. The whole point of Zen is how you step off the top of the hundred-foot pole right now. It’s about that leap into the unknowable – letting go, not grasping, being alive in THIS place HERE / NOW – which is inconceivable and already gone.
You may say there is no self and no death, but when the Zen Master jumps on top of you and begins choking you, something fights to survive. When the spring blossoms open, the heart leaps with joy. What is it that fights to survive? What is it that leaps with joy?
Any answer is too late.
I just got word that someone I knew took his own life recently, someone who had a very clear nondual understanding. Many years ago, I remember hearing of a Zen teacher who committed suicide. His students found him hanging. What a teaching! Many people imagine that “enlightenment” (whatever that might be) means you wouldn’t do something like that – you wouldn’t kill yourself, you wouldn’t be depressed, you wouldn’t have financial problems or health problems or personal problems or problems of any kind—you wouldn’t need Zoloft—and if you were terminally ill, you wouldn’t want the morphine—you’d want to be clear and alert and “fully present” at the moment of your death (presumably so that you could get a good start on a successful new incarnation of your self – ho ho ho).
In the world of meditation or “the Power of Now,” what people tend to mean when they talk about clarity or awakeness (or “enlightenment”) is being fully present here and now, awake to the nonconceptual, sensory reality of this moment, not entranced in stories and ideologies.
But in my experience, the most liberating realization of all is the recognition that there is no way NOT to be here now—that EVERYTHING is included in What Is, even the EXPERIENCE of confusion, or depression, or anxiety, or apparent encapsulation in a separate bodymind, or even the compulsion to take your own life or the life of someone else.
Unlike some radical nondualists, I do still talk at times about “being in the Now.” Maybe one day I’ll stop doing that entirely. I’ve mentioned in some of my writing that with my fingerbiting compulsion, whenever there is complete attention to the bare actuality of fingerbiting (i.e., the bare sensations without the storyline or the labels or the judgments), when there is total acceptance of it being just as it is, when there is no effort or desire or intention to change it, when there is complete awareness and total presence with the bare happening itself, the biting immediately stops. (It may start again a moment later, but in that moment of complete attention and total acceptance, it stops.) This experience is completely nonverbal and nonconceptual. It is concentrated but relaxed, alert but effortless, open and unbounded, free awareness. It is frequently called “being in the Now” because there is no story happening of past or future, no ideas about “me” and “my life” – just simple awake presence Here / Now. This kind of presence and attention to the present moment is what many schools of meditation aim to cultivate.
And this can indeed be helpful for dealing with addiction, depression, anxiety, stress, physical pain and other forms of suffering. And as I have often said, sitting quietly, doing nothing, tuning into the nonconceptual sensory reality that is so easily ignored in our busy world of information bombardment MAY help to directly reveal impermanence, interdependence, the absence of any real separation between inside and outside, the mirage-like nature of the self, and the ungraspable, inconceivable and unavoidable nature of reality. All of this CAN be very liberating—it certainly seemed so for me—and for a very long time, I associated this experience of presence with true awakening or real clarity, and I had the sense that enlightenment or final liberation would be the state of abiding permanently in that kind of presence—being “in the Now” all the time.
But of course, that kind of experiential "being in the Now" inevitably comes and goes. For some people, it is an easy state to access—for others, it is more elusive. Some bodyminds have more stormy weather than others. Some people naturally have more equanimity, greater calm, and a better ability to concentrate and relax and “be present” than other people. Some people are by nature more tightly wound, more hyperactive, buzzing with thoughts and impulses flying off in different directions, more easily “distracted” from what they are “supposed” to be concentrating on. Some people can happily sit quietly doing nothing for hours, while others can’t sit still and “do nothing” for more than a few seconds. And while training and practice may be able to alter our basic nature to some degree, it can never turn a turtle into a rabbit, a dandelion into a rose, or a shrub into a giant redwood tree.
Some of us are given the abilities, the aptitude, the inclinations, the interests, the drives, the urges, the concerns, and the circumstances that compel us to join or lead a movement for social justice or environmental protection. Others of us are given the abilities, the aptitude, the inclinations, the interests, the drives, the urges, the concerns, and the circumstances that compel us to take up a spiritual practice such as meditation—and some of us have the interest and the ability to persevere at this practice, while others quickly or eventually lose interest. Some of us are compelled toward radical nonduality, many of us are not. Each of us is an expression of nature, just as each tree, each animal, each flower, each rock, each cloud and each rainstorm is an expression of nature. Some trees are tall and straight, some are short and gnarled. Some buds open and blossom, others die before that ever happens. ALL of these varied forms and happenings are an expression of nature.
Nothing holds still. Every form is inseparable from everything around it, and each form is nothing but continuous change. Impermanence and flux are so thorough-going that no-thing actually forms as a solid, persisting, independent entity—except conceptually, as a mental idea. No-thing is actually separate, autonomous, or self-sufficient. Everything is one whole indivisible happening—seamless and boundless—ever-present and ever-changing.
At some point in my journey from Here to Here, it became clear that ALL states of consciousness ("being in the Now" AND being entranced by thoughts and stories) are equally included in What Is, and that ALL of them are passing experiences. All these different experiences are impersonal in the sense that they have no owner, no author, no subject—they are simply expressions of nature like the ever-changing movements of the outer weather. It was realized that biting my fingers is simply a compulsive happening of nature that is no more wrong or unenlightened or personally caused than a thunderstorm or a cloudy day or a gnarled up tree or any other expression of nature. It doesn’t MEAN anything “about me.”
That discovery or realization was a big relief. The NEED to get rid of this compulsion and all the ideas about what it meant about me fell away. The biting continues off and on when it does, but there is no judgment or evaluation of it, none of the previous conflict with it that used to be present. The interest and the inclination to pay total attention to it in any given moment (to “be in the Now” with it) may or may not arise, and it doesn’t matter either way. There is no longer any idea that “being here now” is the superior spiritual state and that “I” must make that happen.
It’s clear here that everything happens in the only way possible. Some people are compelled to do terrible things like child molesting and serial murder in the same way that I am still compelled to bite my fingers. Only by grace (aka luck) is my compulsion fingerbiting and not serial murder or molesting children. No one chooses to be a serial killer or a child molester, and although most of us find such behavior repugnant and disturbing, it is as much a part of nature as erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, plagues, and animals eating their young. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, or that we won’t put serial killers in prisons and do our best to keep child molesters away from children. But it does mean we may have compassion for these unfortunate people who are driven to do things that they themselves may find abhorrent, acts that make them social pariahs and outcasts. We don’t get to choose the part we play in the Cosmic Dance.
The most liberating realization is that ALL of it is What Is – the parts we like and the parts we don’t, the “being here now” and the “being lost in thoughts and stories,” the calm experiences and the turbulent ones, the moments of heaven and the moments of hell, the heroes and the villains and the ordinary folk in between.
And we really have no way of KNOWING what THIS (this presently appearing happening) is. We can only BE it. We ARE it. It is ALL there is. Our attempts to understand this happening, whether through physics or neuroscience or biology or philosophy or spirituality, are always limited. We can never stand outside this happening. Subject and object are not two. The observer is inseparable from the observed; they are one event. Any understanding we have is partial and always subject to doubt. But we cannot doubt BEING here. We cannot doubt this present happening, this aware beingness. We can doubt any explanations of it (that it is a dream, or a brain experience, or a bunch of atoms and molecules doing a subatomic dance), but we cannot doubt the bare ACTUALITY of the happening itself, the beingness of Here / Now – THIS, just as it is.
And we can notice that it is no way in particular, for it is ever-changing. Anything we try to grasp will vanish and disappear. Anything we THINK is permanent (including any IDEA or any EXPERIENCE or any subtle IMAGE of the One Self or Consciousness or Primordial Awareness or Emptiness) will vanish and slip through our fingers like water, air or smoke. And yet….
THIS is undeniable. You cannot NOT be as you are – this ever-unfolding, ever-present event that is always Here / Now. This event may show up as the mirage-like thought-sense of bring a separate-self encapsulated in a bodymind looking out at the world. It may show up as an experience of undivided wholeness. It may show up as the experience of “being here now,” or it may show up as molesting children, committing serial murders, planning a genocide, drinking yourself to death, committing suicide or biting your fingers. It may show up as a giant meteor hitting the earth and wiping out an entire continent, or it may show up as a gentle spring day. However it shows up, it is all one undivided happening without beginning or end.
Of course, this begs the question, what do we mean by realization or enlightenment? We thought at first that realization meant “being in the Now” and that enlightenment meant “being in the Now” all the time. From that perspective, it seemed like we were going back and forth between “getting it” and “losing it.” It seemed that “realization” meant something experiential, something “deeper” than merely understanding all of this conceptually or believing it as a philosophy. But then we realized there was no way NOT to be here now, and no one apart from Here / Now to be in or out of it. There is no separate “somebody” to be lost or found, realized or not realized, enlightened or unenlightened.
The whole spiritual adventure melted away. We were left with life, just as it is.
That doesn’t mean being left in a state of perpetual bliss or having a continuous EXPERIENCE of “being in the Now” (except in the sense that EVERY experience is one of being in the Now). It doesn’t mean we are always calm, decisive, spontaneous, relaxed, fearless, happy and filled with love. Some people by nature have more or less stormy weather than others, just as some places are by nature sunnier and others more overcast and cloudy. Realization simply means it is ALL recognized as What Is, even the absence of that recognition. It’s not a perpetual EXPERIENCE – but rather, the understanding that EVERY experience is one whole happening without an experiencer, even the experience of apparently being a separate experiencer. Nothing is left out. Nothing is not it. And there is no “it” to be found!
Like the edge of the earth that our ancestors feared they might fall off, the problem we’ve been trying to solve is imaginary. We are no longer seeking heaven without hell, or up without down. We don’t mind being the short tree instead of the tall tree because we know it’s all a play, and we’re the Whole Show. And this isn’t an EXPERIENCE or a special STATE of consciousness. It is JUST THIS, Here / Now, EXACTLY as it is!
How is it? It just moved! And yet, Here it is!
In recent posts [not all re-published here on my website], I’ve talked about suicide and depression and how these things can show up in all of us, even in the clearest and wisest teachers – of course, these tendencies may take different forms and show up to varying degrees in different individuals, but no one is without weather. Some people (teachers included) have more or less stormy or overcast weather than others, and many forces are at play in bringing this about (including biochemical and genetic factors that have nothing to do with spiritual clarity or awakening). Someone can be genuinely awake and have real insight, clarity and aware presence in one moment, and then be overwhelmed by depression or anxiety in another moment. The clearest and most honest teachers openly acknowledge this.
A tough, no-nonsense Zen teacher I studied with named (Charlotte) Joko Beck once said: “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” That sounded rather strange and dreadful when I first heard it. Wasn’t that the whole point of Zen practice, to improve and cure ourselves, to become better and better, to achieve enlightenment? Joko used to give enthusiastic talks on hopelessness and disappointment, and she often quoted a poem by Rilke (“The Man Watching”) that ends with these lines:
“Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.”
It’s taken many years to fully appreciate the truth that Joko was pointing to. My first Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, told me early on in my journey from Here to Here that “our suffering is believing there’s a way out.” But believe me, I kept looking for one! (And sometimes I still do). I think it was the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa who said that enlightenment is not final victory, but rather, final defeat.
That same poem by Rilke has these lines:
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
As things do by some immense storm,
We would become strong too, and not need names.”
Wayne Liquorman speaks of the pathless path from Here to Here as “the way of powerlessness,” and many spiritual teachings speak of surrender, giving up, or letting go—allowing ourselves to be crucified—“Thy will be done.” The defeat or surrender that is being pointed to is not about giving up in despair, for that is really still about holding on. It is something else entirely, something each of us must discover for ourselves. No one can give it to us or do it for us.
Someone asked me in an email the other day, after my post about the person who committed suicide, whether I would follow the Buddha's teachings or Eckhart Tolle’s teachings if either of them took their own lives. I replied that the important thing in both cases is the teaching, not the teacher—what matters is the Truth that the teacher is pointing to—the awakeness Here / Now, the aliveness, the awareness, the beingness, the presence—and that does not belong to the teacher, nor is it dependent on the teacher. As the Buddha said on his deathbed, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” No one else can save us. But we tend to fixate on the finger that is pointing to the moon, rather than on the moon, and then when that finger turns out to be flawed and broken, we look for a new promise of perfection, all the while overlooking the moon that is right here, right now. Finally, if we’re lucky, it dawns on us that the only perfection is right here in the very brokenness itself.
Speaking personally, I’ve always been drawn to teachers who openly acknowledge their humanness and the commonality (and persistence) of our human suffering and confusion. And I’ve always been more drawn to paths that emphasize the grit of ordinary life than those aiming to cultivate a detached or airy transcendence that leaves this world far behind. And I’ve always felt that claims of being a permanently awakened person were indicators of great delusion. So if I were still looking for a teacher, I would actually be MORE drawn to Alan Senauke [a Zen teacher whose article on his experiences with depression was cited in a previous post that is not included on this page] after reading his piece about depression than I would have been before reading it. I trust people more when they see and acknowledge the dark side.
Enlightenment—awakening—libera tion—many big words conjuring up many false and glittering ideas, many mirage-like dreams to chase after. But the Holy Reality is right here. It is not other than the sound of the cars passing in the street, the tweeting of the birds, the sunshine flooding in the window, the cigarette butt in the gutter, the ache of depression and grief, the sound of rain—the taste of this moment, just as it is.
Someone wrote in reference to some of my recent posts on suicide and depression and asked me to comment on this: “I am shocked that someone might take their life in this context, i.e. someone who really knows who they are. I thought that the point of the 'journey from here to here' is that it is, in the words of the Buddha: ‘The end of Suffering'. Also, if there is the realisation that there is no one here - who is here to suffer or take their life? Surely the knowledge is that the identity is with that which never changes rather than the ever changing emotions which, as you rightly point out, are always welcomed in every moment and understood as something which is allowed but fleeting…If I know that I am the ocean and not the wave, if I really know that there is no 'I' then surely I am stable in this knowledge?”
How quickly the I-illusion reasserts itself in ever-more subtle ways! :) Is there someone who knows that they are the Ocean and not the wave? Is there a continuous, unchanging, person (a frozen wave, separate from the ocean) who could be forever stable in some unchanging "knowledge"? Is there a finish-line somewhere that “someone” crosses, thereafter becoming permanently free from suffering? Is the Ocean free from suffering (free from waving and from stormy weather)? Is there a difference between having the IDEA (the belief, the concept) that “I am the Ocean,” on the one hand, and not being caught up in this moment in the belief that “I am the lost wave seeking the Ocean”, on the other?
Sometimes teachers speak from the vantage point of the Ocean, and from that all-inclusive perspective, they might say something like, “I am never lost.” But unless they are deluded, they don’t mean that there is a continuous, unchanging wave (or person) who is permanently established in some state of never being lost. They mean that the Ocean is never lost because it is all there is.
Time is a way of thinking and perceiving. The only actual reality is NOW. “Forever-after” or “always” are ideas. Any idea of “me” being permanently free from suffering is exactly that—an idea, a thought, a story. It rests upon the illusion of a continuous, unchanging person moving through time.
Of course, I’m not denying that, relatively speaking, some people are clearer, less confused, more awake, more grounded in presence than others. And I’m not denying that in some individuals, certain delusions or patterns of behavior may permanently disappear—the person may stop drinking excessively, or their depression may disappear and never return, or they may go from being totally caught up in obsessive thoughts and stories most of the time to being free from this entrancement most of the time. But we’re speaking relatively here. No continuous, unchanging “person” actually exists, and what disappears can always come back, even if it has been gone for a very long time. And sometimes what brings back a destructive pattern has nothing to do with a lack of spiritual clarity or an absence of paying attention.
That's why I try again and again to point out that different bodyminds have different weather systems, just as different cities do. Someone may have deep insight and often be very clear and present and awake and free, and yet still be bipolar or schizophrenic or prone to depression or alcohol abuse or whatever it is, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with spirituality (reasons such as neurochemistry, genetics, brain tumors, etc.). The changing weather of life is all part of the Dance, and from the perspective of the Ocean, someone might say, “I am always free and unbound.” But unless they are deluded, they don’t mean that they are always having an EXPERIENCE that feels free and unbound. They are speaking of the freedom and the boundlessness that includes EVERY experience, even the experience of bondage and limitation.
Hindu-based teachings tend to talk about withdrawing from the world of form and identifying as the THAT which never changes. I’m not overly fond of this pointer. I recognize that it may be helpful along the pathless path as a way of seeing beyond the illusion that one is a separate fragment (a wave divorced from the Ocean), but this way of going about it—in my experience—easily morphs into a new form of dualistic confusion. I find no actual split between impermanence and some unchanging background. I find only THIS, Here / Now, just as it is, ever-changing and ever-present, obvious but inconceivable and impossible to grasp.
I found this on the website of the Zen community where Susan Murphy teaches:
“Enlightenment is not a thing that is achieved but a continuing and unending process of opening in insight and deepening in wisdom. Zen practice encourages you into both gradual and sudden experiences in which old structures of thinking give way to a dimension of mind unlimited by concepts. Whether gradual, sudden, or both mixed together, waking up is a process of ripening into more and more subtle kinds of not-knowing, rather than an attainment of a special kind of state or knowledge. So meditation is the quite radical act of offering yourself completely to the unknown, of entrusting yourself to direct experience of the source of your being, rather than clinging to ideas or developing concepts about the nature of mind. Its true purpose is the deepening and rounding of character, which points to the fact that enlightenment experiences, however wonderful, are not an end in themselves but an ethical, spiritual undertaking: when you realize (literally ‘make real’) your true nature, intimacy with the other opens up in a new, rich light. The art of Zen practice, like any other artform, never stops asking you to see more deeply, wake up more comprehensively, act more genuinely, come alive in every corner of your being.”
--from the website of the Zen Open Circle in Australia.
I loved this piece for what it says about enlightenment and meditation (and you could substitute “awakened living” for meditation). Besides being the teacher at Zen Open Circle, Susan Murphy is also a filmmaker, a writer, a mother, and the author of an exquisite book called Upside-Down Zen that I very highly recommend. This book beautifully captures the marriage of play and rigor, commitment and letting go, boundless eternity and the bones and breath of each unique and embodied moment. And you don’t need to be into formal Zen to appreciate it. It speaks to anyone with an interest in waking up. And while Susan talks in ways that may seem quite different at times from how I talk about all of this, I greatly love her expression.
I know some of you might find it odd that I'm posting a piece that describes Zen practice (or enlightenment) as an “ethical undertaking” that involves the “rounding of character” (rounding being quite a beautiful way of putting it)....because I don’t usually talk about “character rounding” or ethics. Partly I don't because I think people are already obsessed with ideals of perfection and how they “should” be, and partly because I find ethical standards rather useless when they are imposed from the outside as a set of rules that we “should” be following in order to be “good” people. In my experience, when we are awake in this moment to the unbound aliveness Here / Now—when we are not lost in the trance of separation and encapsulation, defending the false self and seeking imaginary solutions to imaginary problems—when the wholeness of being and the seamless and fluid nature of reality is fully realized (made real, not one-and-for-all, but Here / Now)—then ethical behavior (basic kindness and concern for the whole) follows naturally. And as I hear it, that’s what this statement from the Zen Open Circle is saying. When we see clearly, there is naturally compassion and love. So I tend to think it makes much more sense to focus on waking up now and being aware of what I actually AM doing, rather than focusing on a bunch of abstract ideals for what I “should” be doing.
Some of this may also sound contradictory to things I’ve said elsewhere when pointing to the absolute truth that EVERYTHING is the Holy Reality, but it’s wise not to get stuck on one side of any imaginary dualistic divide. Also, it can’t be stressed enough that there is no person who is permanently in a state of enlightened clarity. The “person” is an activity of the whole, like a wave or a whirlpool—it doesn’t hold still and it is inseparable from the ocean or the river that is waving or whirling. There is no finish-line in awakening. Once we believe we have arrived, we solidify and grasp, and right away, we have something to defend and protect—a new image of ourselves as “The Awakened One.” The great Zen Master Dogen wisely said, “Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.” In other words, when you see the false as false, you are naturally awake; but when you imagine that “you” are realized or that realization is an achievement to be attained and possessed, then you are greatly deluded.
When we ask the question, Who Am I?—if we look directly rather than thinking about the question mentally and speculatively—what do we find?
People usually think we’re supposed to find SOMETHING, and they keep looking and looking for what it is they are supposed to see and wondering if they’ve got it yet.
But the question is designed to reveal that when we look back to see what is looking, we find nothing! Or, we could just as easily say, we find EVERYTHING! We find this presently appearing display of cats and dogs and chairs and tables and highways and farmlands. And we always find Here / Now. Wherever we look, wherever we go, whatever location shows up, whatever time of day it is, it is always Here / Now: this placeless place of presence, this timeless eternity that is the one and only present moment.
What we don’t find when we look directly to see what I am is “me” – that imaginary “somebody” who is supposedly encapsulated inside “my” body looking out. Instead, all we find are ever-changing thoughts, stories, mental images, and sensations that form a kind of mirage-like imaginary entity – the thinker of my thoughts, the doer of my deeds, the observer of my life. But as with any mirage, when we approach it, it vanishes.
When we look closely, we see that EVERYTHING is moving and changing. Even “the body” – when we investigate it, all we find experientially are ever-changing sensations and images, and scientifically, all we find are ever-changing processes (blood circulating, nerves firing, cells dividing, heart beating, lungs expanding and contracting) all in continuous exchange with the so-called (ever-changing) environment. And if we pay attention to actual experience rather than to our thoughts ABOUT our experience, we can see that nothing actually “comes in” from outside. Everything is simply right here, utterly immediate, inseparable from the awareness that is perceiving. We cannot find any actual place in direct experience where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me”. The apparent boundaries between self and not-self are like the lines on a map between one country and another.
Seeing this doesn’t mean we no longer have a functional sense of identity with a particular body, or a functional sense of location. I know whose mail to open, which name to respond to, how to cut a carrot without cutting myself. That’s all functional and necessary. And there are still labels and stories: As Joan, relatively speaking, I’m a certain age, a certain gender, a certain nationality—I have certain political leanings, certain tastes in cinema and music, certain personality traits that tend to recur. But there is also a bigger context, the awareness of all this and the seamless fabric within which it emerges. And there is the recognition that the stories and labels are all quite ephemeral and protean—they shape-shift.
And they all appear and disappear Here / Now. When we look backward to see what is looking, if we’re lucky, the imaginary bubble of encapsulation pops, and we’re left with an expanded sense of unbound impersonal aware presence or beingness. At first, this may seem like a wonderful new experience that comes and goes, and we may seem to keep getting it and then losing it again. But eventually it is noticed that this unbound awareness or boundless being is actually always here. It is what Here / Now IS.
We don’t notice this only because, much of the time, this impersonal unbound awareness or bare beingness is overlaid with the thought-story-sense of separation and encapsulation—a kind of mental fog that appears and disappears—and our attention is habitually absorbed in the virtual reality created by thoughts and stories (i.e., the fog). This fog may fall away dramatically in some cases, or it may dissipate gradually and imperceptibly, or usually some combination of both. And for most people (if not all people), it never goes away permanently. And even if it seems to be permanently gone, you never know when something that has disappeared might come back. Besides, there is no enduring “person” who permanently exists; there is only every-changing movement—a person is like a moving wave in the ocean—and the fog is just another aspect of the ocean. Which is why it is often said that a permanently enlightened person is a total oxymoron.
At first, it may seem that Here / Now (or awareness) is “something” apart from whatever is appearing. But is that actually true? Is Here / Now like a big empty space full of actual things? Is unbound awareness a subject apart from the experience (or the experiencing), an observer apart from the observed, a seer apart from the seen? Is awareness unchanging and untouched by everything it is registering? Can we find an actual place in our direct experience where awareness ends and that which appears within awareness begins? And what IS awareness? What IS Here / Now?
We may begin to notice that the seer and the seen are conceptual ideas (mental abstractions, imaginary objects), but that our actual experience is simply undivided seeing, undivided being. Seeing-hearing-sensing-moving- awaring-being—one whole seamless and boundless no-thing-ness that doesn't come and doesn't go and never stays the same. Here / Now is ever-present and ever-changing.
One way of expressing the ever-present aspect of that equation is to call it unchanging. Thus, Advaita speaks of the Immutable Self, that which never comes or goes. And if this Immutable Self is understood to be undivided and all-inclusive, no problem. But I’ve often seen how a subtle duality or imaginary split can remain between the IDEA of unchanging awareness, on the one hand, and everything else that is showing up IN awareness, on the other hand. And if a teaching tells us that we should identify AS awareness, or pay attention TO awareness, or not get caught up IN the content of awareness, then it’s easy to end up TRYING very hard to identify as awareness and not as a person, or trying to pay attention TO “awareness” and not to our spouse, or our dog, or our computer, or our job. Suddenly we’re living in a story about “me” being aware, or we’re trying to dissociate or transcend or ignore ordinary reality, and it’s easy to form a subtle mental image of “awareness” that we are trying to keep in mind “all the time.” All of this is a lot of work and mental effort and usually leads to frustration, disappointment and the story of being a failure. (Or in some cases to the story that “I am an Awakened One.”).
But look and see if you can find an actual boundary between this aware presence and everything that is showing up. There isn’t one! So I tend to like the Buddhist formulation that says form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Impermanence is so thorough-going that nothing actually forms to be impermanent. That way, ANYTHING we try to grasp is immediately taken away. But whether we call this undivided beingness (Here / Now) the Ultimate Ground (or the still point or the Immutable Self), or whether we call it groundlessness (or emptiness, or impermanence, or no-thing-ness), or whether we call it chicken noodle soup, we’re never pointing at an object that be grasped (although that’s what the thinking mind keeps imagining and wanting to get hold of). But really, all these different formulations are inviting the discovery of what remains when all concepts fall away. And what is that?
What is this? That question is a wonderful koan to live with—not to try to answer with some word or some metaphysical idea, but simply to live with that question: What is this? Ask it of everything: this chair, this table, this sensation, this thought, these words, these concepts, this Facebook page, this aware presence, consciousness, Here / Now—What is it?
There is no answer. Or, no answer is it. There is simply the openness of not-knowing and the vividness of this present happening before we think about it. (Of course, thinking is part of this happening as well and we’re not suggesting that anyone should try to abolish thought – but it’s only IN the virtual reality created by thought that we have apparent duality – so waking up always has something to do with seeing that thoughts are thoughts, and seeing that the stories they tell are never the truth – they may be relatively true, but the map is never the territory – it is only an abstract representation – although paradoxically, the activity of mapping is itself an aspect of the territory – and ultimately, nothing is left out of that all-inclusive and seamless Totality).
We might also notice that in deep sleep, there is no SENSE anymore of being aware or present. So even the sense of awareness or presence comes and goes. And in deep sleep, no one is leftover to miss this sense of being present and aware. What remains in deep sleep? Obviously, it is nothing conceivable or even perceivable, so any answer we give is not it. Anything we can picture or imagine or experience or think about is not it. And is “it” even an “it” – some discrete and continuous “thing” that is separate from the ever-changing textures of dreaming and waking life? Or would that be another imaginary division in what is actually undivided?
For most (if not all) human beings, the mirage-like bubble of apparent encapsulation and separation (the non-functional, egoic sense of being “me”) tends to return in moments of stress when our buttons are pushed. Whenever we get angry, defensive, irritated, hurt, emotionally fearful, we FEEL separate. One moment there is the spaciousness and freedom of boundless impersonal awareness and the next moment we seem to contract into “me” – this separate, enclosed fragment that is fighting to survive and that seemingly needs to be defended. And then there’s often a secondary story on top of that about “me” who has lost boundless awareness, “me” who failed and went back into the self-contraction, “me” who hopes to one day get rid of “me” forever and stabilize permanently in boundless awareness. Ah, the humor of it all!
At such moments, we can think or say that we’re never REALLY separate, and we can notice that any movie-story of separation is only another appearance Here / Now—another shape that Here / Now is momentarily taking—and that can be very relieving and helpful, to notice the bigger context – the awareness, the presence, the beingness that is all-inclusive and always here, regardless of what weather shows up.
This self-contraction may happen less frequently over time—and there may be a growing realization that even when it does happen, it is happening to no one – it is simply another impersonal appearance (like a chair, a cloud, or a sensation) showing up Here / Now. It is just weather, another shape that beingness is momentarily assuming. And eventually, it becomes obvious that I AM THAT—the unbound, unencapsulated, undivided wholeness that includes everything, even the EXPERIENCES of apparent separation and contraction and upset. That secondary layer of thought—thought commenting on thought—the layer that takes the self-contraction personally, judges it, and then evaluates whether “I” am enlightened or unenlightened, that layer gradually disappears. But the separate “I” doesn’t disappear, for it never existed in the first place.
And weather still happens. Some bodymind organisms are like California—sunny and mild almost all the time. Other bodymind organisms are more like Chicago—frequently overcast or stormy with extremes of heat and cold. However much clarity and deep realization there is for the stormy types, however much they are grounded in presence, their weather is never going to be like California. Nisargadatta (the great sage who smoked cigarettes during satsang and yelled at people) was not like Ramana (the gentle, beatific guy who rarely spoke). But it becomes obvious that none of this is personal, by which I mean there is no owner and no author behind it—it is all without self. It is simply weather. And weather is nothing but undivided movement.
We can get lost in metaphysical debates, trying to sort out the nature of reality and grasp the Truth once and for all. We can do mental acrobatics and draw a dividing line on our mental map and say that awareness is unchanging and that everything else (the content of awareness) comes and goes and changes. But maybe even that last dividing line can fall away, revealing the utter simplicity of THIS that is inconceivable and ungraspable, THIS that can neither be avoided nor attained. Nothing is left out of THIS and nothing stands apart, for THIS is all there is. What am I talking about? Here / Now. And already—it has moved! There is truly NOTHING to grasp. And yet there is this whole amazing movie of waking life! Nothing to grasp only sounds scary from the perspective of the imaginary separate fragment who is desperately trying to get a grip and hold on. But from the perspective of the whole, the problem is imaginary.
Noumenon, phenomenon, movement, stillness, consciousness, awareness, ever-changing, ever-present, unicity, duality, beingness, conditioned, unconditioned, emptiness, Self, no-self, immutable flux—so many words upon words pointing to simplicity itself.
Is it possible right now to let go of all the words, all the ideas—and for this moment, to give up the entire search—the effort to understand, to make sense, to grasp, to define, to clarify, to assert, to resist, to arrive, to do, to become, to get somewhere? Is it possible, right now, to simply be still, to simply be present?
Is it possible for one moment to relax all the mental efforting and to feel the aliveness, the presence, the openness, the simple beingness, the spaciousness of Here / Now?
This spaciousness includes the sounds of traffic, the tweeting of birds, the faint sounds of a television in another room, an ache in the shoulder, the sensations of breathing—nothing is left out of this listening silence, it is all one seamless happening, one listening-breathing-awaring-presence. Nothing needs to be other than exactly how it is. Nothing needs to be resisted, achieved, altered or corrected.
I’m not pointing to some special state of consciousness, something exotic and foreign that you have to work hard to find. I’m pointing to what is right here now—utterly obvious and completely unavoidable—this present happening, this aware presence, this beingness that you are and cannot not be.
This uncontained, unbound vastness is all-inclusive. Nothing is outside of Here / Now. Awareness or presence or beingness is not an idea or a concept. It is not something to be figured out and understood or considered philosophically. It is what remains in the absence of all such thoughts, ideas and concepts (although paradoxically it is equally present as thoughts, ideas and concepts). If any of this sounds paradoxical or bewildering, instead of trying to figure it out and think your way to clarity, is it possible—right now—to relax and surrender that whole movement of the thinking mind that wants to get a grip mentally and take hold of the truth conceptually? Is it possible to surrender into the freedom of not-knowing?
In fact, there is no way to ever know what THIS is in the usual way of knowing things, by standing outside (or under-standing). You cannot stand outside of what you are. You cannot get hold of emptiness. This aware presence or beingness is not something apart from everything else. It is not an object. It is not “over there” — it is right here, utterly immediate, all-inclusive, without borders or seams. It is all there is.
We can describe Here / Now in a variety of ways. We can mentally divide and reify, creating various different maps. No concept is ever anything but a map, a pointer, an expression, a description. We can describe THIS as immutable stillness or thorough-going flux, and we can argue over which it is. We can describe Here / Now as an infinite web of interdependent causes and conditions, a compulsory and seamless movement of nature, or we can describe it as free awareness or pure consciousness.
Some teachers are moved to evoke the power and encourage the possibility Here / Now of freely choosing happiness, while others are moved to point to the choiceless unicity that includes everything and that could not be otherwise than exactly how it is. Some teachers speak of freedom as the power to determine your own destiny, while others point to the freedom to be exactly as you are. Some encourage you to be here now, while others point out that there is no way not to be here now. But ALL of these are simply different pointers, different maps, different ways of conceptualizing and describing what is actually inconceivable and ungraspable.
The arrow that hits the mark for one person in one moment and pops some imaginary bubble of apparent bondage may miss the mark completely with another person in another moment and trigger nothing but resistance, confusion, old stories of lack or failure, mental disagreement and argumentation, philosophical analysis, or a sense of total frustration and despair. There is no one “right” pointer, no single true map that works all the time for everybody. What matters is not the map. What matters is whether the map wakes us up to the inconceivable and ungraspable territory itself, the utter simplicity of what is, just as it is.
So, is it possible, right now, to let go of all the words, all the ideas, all the different maps and pointers—and for one moment, to give up the entire search—the effort to understand, to make sense, to define, to argue, to achieve, to become, to get somewhere—and instead, to simply be present Here / Now, not knowing what anything is, not doing anything other than being here?
When all the words and concepts are left behind, what remains?
If you’re looking for the right answer—the correct word or concept—is it possible to let that mental effort go? And now, what remains?
On Toni Packer’s retreats, we had small group meetings every day with Toni, in which the format was open dialog—anyone could bring up anything, and anyone could respond. I remember being in one of these small groups one day when a young man began to speak about his depression. Being an avid wannabe-teacher at the time, I piped up and began telling him all about “being in the Now” and “paying attention to the thoughts, feelings and sensations” and “seeing through the storyline.” I wanted to cure him and I was sure I had The Answer.
Toni had a wonderful way of shooting down all such misguided attempts on my part. She turned to the young man and asked him if what I had said was helpful to him. He said it wasn’t. He said that when his depression took over and engulfed him, he felt completely overwhelmed and paralyzed by despair and negativity. Doing the things I was suggesting was not even an option.
At that point, another person in the group, a man who happened to be a psychiatrist, began speaking quite passionately. He said he knew exactly what the young man was describing because he himself—the psychiatrist—also suffered from severe depression. The psychiatrist told us that he took medication for depression, and that if he didn’t do this, he would not be able to function. He was quite angry at me for suggesting to the young man that it was just a matter of “seeing through the story” and “being in the Now,” as if anyone could just snap their fingers and do either of those things on command. Then another participant in this dialog group, an older woman, spoke up and said she was also on an anti-depressant, and that she felt the medication allowed her to emerge enough from the disempowering and overwhelming weight of depression so that she could begin to see through the story and bring her full attention to the present moment and relax into open awareness, as I was suggesting to the young man. In other words, she saw anti-depressants not as a magic happy pill that would solve all her problems, but as a stepping stone that allowed her to begin a deeper healing and self-discovery.
I’m not arguing for or against anti-depressants or other psychiatric medications. There are clearly many different and conflicting views on the efficacy and safety of these drugs, and as with any medication, there are almost always (if not always) side effects to weigh in the balance. The one time I tried an anti-depressant, I experienced very serious side effects and had to stop. It does seem to me that anti-depressants are over-prescribed and over-used in our society, as if just taking a pill will be the remedy for ordinary sadness or for the pain of living in a dysfunctional social and economic system, but certainly for many people, anti-depressants and other psychiatric medications appear to be very helpful and in some cases life-saving. Toni Packer was very supportive of these drugs. She never felt that people “should” be able to resolve everything through meditation or meditative inquiry alone, or that needing to take medication was a sign of spiritual weakness or failure. I had been quite opposed to psychiatric drugs when I first met Toni, but over time, my view changed.
Many people in the spiritual world have the idea that medication is unspiritual and that it shouldn’t be needed by people who are truly on a spiritual path. I consider that an unfortunate misunderstanding of spirituality that has prevented too many people from getting the help they need. When I briefly took an anti-depressant myself, I found it to be a wonderful demonstration of how much our moods and even our thoughts are brought on by neurochemistry. Simply by altering my serotonin levels, certain obsessive and negative trains of thought completely vanished—and problems with appetite, digestion and fatigue also disappeared—I had tremendous energy and a pervasive sense of well-being. The difference that little shift in neurochemistry made was amazing! (I wrote about that in an earlier post on 2/25/13). Again, I’m not arguing for or against anti-depressants. But after that group meeting on the Toni Packer retreat, I would never again assume that there was any one-size-fits-all cause or cure for complex human problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction, or that any of these problems could (or should) be fixed solely by “seeing through the story” and “being in the Now.”
I learned several other important lessons at that group meeting as well, some of which I’m still learning! I learned that the impulse to fix other people is always worth questioning. Not that we shouldn’t be helpful to others when we can be, but sometimes that urge to be helpful is more about alleviating our own discomfort with the unsatisfactory nature of life than it is about helping someone else. And sometimes it is about “being somebody” with the answer. Often, the greatest healing we can offer another person is to truly see that nothing is broken.
Over the years, many people have offered me different theories and possible cures for my fingerbiting compulsion. I’ve explored the models of OCD, PTSD, addiction, and self-injuring among others, and I’ve tried a variety of possible cures including meditation, several forms of psychotherapy, 12-Steps, prayer, bodywork, Feldenkrais, affirmations, prophylactic gloves, mouth guards, Zoloft, acupuncture, homeopathy, Chinese herbs, different diets and exercise programs. Above all else, I’ve explored the kind of nonjudgmental awareness that Toni Packer suggested (see the excerpt from Bare-Bones Meditation here). Has any of this helped? Yes, definitely. The compulsion has diminished in frequency and severity over the years, and there are longer periods when it falls away entirely. In any moment of complete, open, nonjudgmental awareness and attention—with no agenda and no intention or effort to stop—the biting always ends completely in that moment. But it may start up again a moment later. So, the compulsion is not permanently gone, and I’ve realized that it may keep showing up for as long as I’m alive. Understanding the choiceless and compulsory nature of life as a whole and the absence of an executive self at the helm has helped enormously to dissolve the sense of personal failure. I no longer feel shame over this compulsion, and I no longer NEED it to end. Yes, I’d love it to end permanently, but if it doesn’t, I’m okay with that. I no longer think it means I’m a failure. And that acceptance has brought great peace.
Among the many ideas I’ve come upon or that people have offered to me over the years regarding the possible origins of this compulsion—what set it in motion in the first place—the one that has resonated most deeply with me is the brilliant suggestion one friend made that there might be a kind of energetic or neurological circuit that two-handed people routinely close and complete by lacing together the fingers of both hands, or by bringing both hands together in prayer, or in the Asian-style gassho or namaste greeting, or in various yoga poses, or by forming the cosmic mudra in Zen. Perhaps, my friend suggested, my fingerbiting (pressing together teeth, hand and mouth) was an attempt—as a one-handed person—to achieve a similar kind of energetic or neurological closure or completion. This makes sense to me on a purely visceral level because sometimes I do experience a palpable somatic sensation as if a door were left open internally that should be closed—and by pressing together hand and mouth and biting, the disturbing sensation is at once eliminated.
Another friend suggested that this compulsion might have originated in reaction to the prenatal trauma of having one of my arms slowly strangled and amputated by an amniotic band toward the end of the time I was in my mother’s uterus, and that perhaps I might also have experienced phantom limb pain that I no longer remember. One therapist I worked with years ago was convinced the compulsion came from childhood sexual molestation, while another thought it might well be the psychological impact of growing up in the 1950’s as a lesbian with a missing arm and a sense of being in the wrong gender. One doctor told me it might be entirely the result of a neurochemical imbalance, while a homeopath insisted with absolute certainty that the cause was calcified gallstones blocking the bile ducts in my liver, apparently since childhood. One person suggested it was a natural reaction to being sensitive and awake in an insane world. Many other theories have been offered to me as well—everything from the spiritual fear of dissolution, to the psychological fear of fully experiencing certain emotions, to the need to act out being injured, to a genetic predisposition to OCD and teeth-grinding.
It could be any or all of these things, or something else altogether, and in the end, I’ve realized I will never know the etiology of this compulsion for sure. And thankfully, I no longer need to know. I still have a natural curiosity about this pattern, but no longer an urgency to figure this out and find the solution. I mention all of this about my fingerbiting compulsion because I think it illustrates the complexity and multiplicity of factors that may play into certain patterns of behavior or habitual states of mind and body, and it shows how many different models and explanations and potential cures are on offer for anything and everything that “goes wrong” in human life. In the end, the deepest truth is that we don’t really know why the universe is the way it is.
I’ve also noticed that this “horrible problem” (as I once viewed it) has brought me many insights I might not have had in any other way. And because I’ve written openly about it, I have heard from countless people around the world who experience similar or related addictions and compulsions. I’ve discovered that I am definitely not alone. It has helped me to understand how people less fortunate than myself might be compelled to commit serial rapes or murders in much the same way that I am compelled to bite my fingers, or how some people in the financial industry might become addicted to compulsive risk-taking or to running a Ponzi scheme, unable to stop themselves, or how countries can become addicted to oil and to the compulsion of waging war. If I can’t “just say no” and snap out of it at will, then I can understand how it is that others are in the same boat. I can understand from my own direct experience how George Bush is compelled to be George Bush, and Osama bin Laden is compelled to be Osama bin Laden, and Kim Jong-un is compelled to be Kim Jong-un, and Eckhart Tolle is compelled to be Eckhart Tolle, and Hitler is compelled to be Hitler, and Ramana is compelled to be Ramana—just as a cancer cell is compelled to be a cancer cell, and a parasite is compelled to be a parasite, and Chicago is compelled to be Chicago and not Bombay or San Francisco. So paradoxically, this “horrible problem” has not only brought pain and limitation, but it has also been a source of compassion, wisdom, humility, and deep insight into the nature of reality. Life is quite often like that I’ve noticed, the light and the dark are deeply intertwined.
Someone commented on the open dialog meeting format that I described at the Toni Packer retreat (a format where anyone can bring up anything and anyone can respond). The person who commented was imagining what that kind of meeting might be like and also wondering if I use this format in my meetings now. The structure and form of meetings is an interesting question, so that’s what I’m going to write about today.
First of all, Toni is quite ill now and is no longer teaching, but others are carrying on her work at Springwater Center (the place she founded), and they do continue to use this open dialog format in group meetings. People sit in a circle, and anyone can bring up anything, and anyone can respond. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this format. I went through a lot of meetings of this kind during my years with Toni Packer and on staff at Springwater. When I first started offering meetings myself back in 1997, I was ambivalent about whether to go with the open dialog model that I knew from my years at Springwater, or whether to go with the satsang model to which I was then being exposed. By the satsang model, I simply mean the typical format in the Advaita and nonduality world where attendees ask questions and “the teacher” alone responds. Usually, the teacher is sitting at the front of the room with everyone else facing them. And by teacher, I just mean the person holding the meeting, whether they call themselves a guru, a teacher, or a friend.
My own meetings seem to dance back and forth between these two different formats, often depending on the size of the group and the situation. The smaller the group, and the more it is made up of regulars who know each other and who are steeped in this perspective, the more likely it is to lean toward the open dialog format, at least to some degree. At my local meetings, for example, we typically sit in a circle and people feel free to address one another, although I don’t actively encourage participatory cross-talk in the way they do at Springwater, and I'm not a big fan of it most of the time. At a larger public event with newcomers and people who don’t all know each other, such as my events in London last Fall, I typically sit at the front of the room and the meeting will adhere strictly to the satsang format. I generally find the satsang format more enjoyable, and it seems to me to be a better vehicle for expressing what I am now expressing.
But since I don’t think of myself as a teacher in the traditional sense, and because I am always pointing to what is already fully present (unavoidable and thus unattainable), I do feel somewhat strange sitting at the front of a room answering questions, as if I am some wise guru, when obviously I am just another clueless bozo on the bus. On the other hand, I AM in fact functioning as a teacher when I hold meetings, and while there is nothing to attain, I do find that there is a misunderstanding that can fall away, and therefore, being in a setting where anyone can bring up anything and anyone can respond feels at times like a false democracy in which the misunderstanding is only being strengthened and nothing is being clarified.
The open format does break down the traditional, authoritarian, guru-model where one person supposedly has all the answers and everyone else is a seeker in need of help, and in many ways, that’s a very good thing. The ways in which the traditional model can become corrupt are well-known to us all. I suspect that we all have a deep longing in some primitive part of our psyche to find a divine parent figure who will love us unconditionally, tell us what to do, and give us the right answers. In pursuit of that, many of us have thrown ourselves at the feet of false gurus and swallowed the Kool-Aid in one form or another. Many of us have also noticed within ourselves the desire to BE an authority—to have the answers, to be the one in the know—so that we can finally be loved and respected and valued and empowered and useful. So the seductiveness and the dangers on both sides of the authoritarian model are fairly easy to see. And ultimately, the True Guru is never “out there.” Waking up always involves realizing that fact. All of which has led some people to declare that all teachers and teachings are totally useless and best avoided altogether.
But I’m very grateful for all the teachers who showed up in my life, and I’m grateful for all the different ways of undoing the misunderstanding, clearing up the confusion, and waking up from the trance of separation, encapsulation and personal authorship—everything from meditation retreats to books and meetings on radical nonduality. In the end, after crossing the river, we may leave the raft behind (or discard the thorn), but that doesn’t mean it had no value. And relatively speaking, not everyone is equally clear, equally free of delusion and confusion, equally grounded in presence, or equally awake and enlightened. In other words, although the teacher is always just another bozo on the bus—fallible, flawed and human—at the same time, not everyone is equally qualified to teach. Of course, there will always be enormous areas of disagreement over who IS qualified and how that is determined, and each of us will have our varying opinions on that. Each of us will be drawn to different teachers and teachings, and some people will be drawn to leaderless formats. And in the ultimate sense, there are no mistakes since ALL of this is an undivided happening without borders or seams. We all seem to find the way that works for us in every moment, and what we need or resonate with one day may not be what we need or resonate with on another day. The traditional satsang format and the open dialog format each have different strengths and weaknesses, and neither is inherently right or wrong.
I think Toni Packer was drawn to the open dialog format in large part because it affords the opportunity for a kind of meditation-in-action by creating a sort of middle ground between silent meditation and the complex, rapid verbal interactions and relationships of daily life. There is interaction and relationship in these meetings, but it is occurring in a slowed down, meditative context with like-minded people, so it is easier in that setting for there to be open attention, curiosity and meditative exploration, all of which can easily get lost in the chaos of work or family life. So when people have a certain degree of insight and awareness, this open dialog format provides wonderful opportunities to see your own mind in action. And unlike meditation, it’s not all happening silently in the isolation of your own head, but rather, out-loud and in relationship with others.
In dialog groups, you get to see yourself doing all kinds of things: arguing, defending, attacking, withdrawing, playing teacher, being passive-aggressive or manipulative or seductive or whatever you do, and then perhaps immediately judging and berating and hating yourself for being the way you are. You can also see yourself reacting to what others say and do—judging them, feeling superior or inferior, liking or disliking them, feeling threatened or intimidated or awed or ignored or misunderstood or put down or whatever you feel. If you’re awake and sensitive to what’s going on, this is illuminating and revelatory (and a crushing blow to any self-image you may have).
If I notice during a meeting that I’m feeling defensive, for example, Toni’s way of working would encourage me to ask myself, “What is it that feels threatened?” – and then to look into this question deeply as this defensiveness is happening, not by thinking about it and coming up with a conceptual answer, but by feeling into this defensiveness with the whole bodymind—listening openly to it, looking directly, giving this question complete, open attention—attention that is without judgment or intention, but simply awareness illuminating and revealing what is here. So you don’t just end up with a mental answer—a new idea, like “it’s the false self”—but rather, you actually discover this false self directly, you SEE what it is, what it is made out of, how it is a kind of mirage created by thoughts and sensations with no real substance—and in the seeing, it turns out to be nothing at all. It dissolves. Awareness is upstream from thinking—awareness SEES thoughts as thoughts. Approached in this way, open dialog is far more than just a superficial exchange of ideas—it is meditation in action, exposing the mirage-like false self to the light, seeing how we get hypnotized into the trance of apparent separation and duality, and waking up to the wholeness that includes everything.
But if people don’t understand and approach dialog in that kind of meditative way, the open format can become nothing more than a superficial exchange of ideas, theories, remedies and stories with lots of annoying cross-talk, abstract philosophizing, and wannabe-teachers having a field day showing off. Some people tell their story with no awareness that it is a story, while other people want to dismiss everything anybody else says as “just a story,” which is equally annoying. Some people want to offer helpful suggestions to solve whatever personal problem has been revealed by someone else. Some people want to play teacher—pontificating, delivering mini-talks and answering other people’s questions. Some like to argue with the teacher. Some people can’t shut up while others clam up and never say a word. And any group of this kind inevitably includes people who are coming to it from a variety of different perspectives, many of which have little or no relationship to the approach and the perspective that the group is actually organized around. So whenever someone brings up a problem or a question, you then get many different people trying to solve or answer it in completely different and often conflicting ways. As in the old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth, it often feels like you never get to the bottom of anything because anytime you make headway in one direction, someone else moves everything off in a totally opposite direction.
In short, open dialogs can be messy, annoying, frustrating, boring and disappointing. The Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten once said that “meditation is like opening the septic tank of a very large city,” and open dialog meetings are definitely like that—you have to sit through a lot of crap. And I’m not just talking about other people’s crap here. I’ve seen myself at one time or another doing pretty much EVERYTHING that I’ve been describing here. After a typical meeting of this kind at Springwater, it was sometimes hard to decide what upset me more – my own behavior or everyone else’s. It could all be quite humiliating and discouraging, very much like wading through sewage.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Chogyam Trungpa, another Buddhist teacher, put it, “Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult.” (He also described enlightenment as “the ultimate and final disappointment”). Conducted in the spirit with which Toni Packer approached it, open dialog is definitely one way of exposing and peeling off masks, and it can be hugely disappointing!
Going to a satsang or a nonduality meeting was pure bliss by comparison. You got to hear a clear expression of truth from the teacher and you didn’t have to listen to a bunch of other people spouting off or see yourself behaving like an ass. When questions were raised, they were dealt with in a clear and consistent way, not with a bunch of conflicting ideas and wildly different approaches, so you could actually get to the bottom of a question. Being at one of these events as a participant was like bathing in truth, bathing in the light. Wonderful, uplifting, clarifying, energizing! I totally loved it.
And later on, as the one in the teaching position, it was much simpler to work in the satsang format—you could listen to someone and speak to them without being interrupted and sidetracked by others—you didn’t have to put up with people playing teacher and answering other people’s questions in ways that felt completely off-the-mark to you. It was cleaner, clearer, simpler, less complicated.
And I find that I’m not really interested anymore in doing the kind of group meditative inquiry that they do at Springwater Center. That kind of intensive group dialog—looking and listening, shining the light of attention into all the dark corners of the self-system, peeling off the masks—this was of great interest for many years, and it certainly continues to be a primary focus of the work at Springwater. My sense is that I absorbed this kind of inquiry into my bones so deeply during those years with Toni that now it goes on naturally in this life—and I suppose it is in some way woven into everything I do including the books I write and the meetings I hold, but I’m no longer interested in “doing” it in a deliberate, intentional way as they do at Springwater, or making it the focus of my meetings. So given a choice, I’d pick satsang over open dialog any day.
So there you have it, my take on open dialog and satsang. But whatever kind of meeting you find yourself attending or holding, all of it is the Cosmic Dance and could not be other than exactly how it is. And however off-the-mark or troubling it might seem, often that’s exactly where you find the jewel—right in the middle of the sewage.
The obsession with personal success is a uniquely human problem that exists only in relation to the (imaginary) false self. If a flower bud is killed by an early frost before it can open and blossom, we don’t feel that the flower is a failure, that it has missed the boat, ruined its life, or failed to live up to its potential. If one tree is shorter than another, we don’t think that the shorter tree was lazy, that it didn’t try hard enough, that it was a worthless slacker. But if WE don’t open and blossom in whatever way we imagine that we should, then quite often we DO end up thinking that we have ruined our life, missed the boat, and failed to live up to our potential. We easily label ourselves (or others) a failure or a loser.
We each have different ideas about what constitutes success—it might be how much money we make, or whether we have a great partner and a happy relationship, or what career we have, or how high we climb in some particular hierarchy, or how much recognition we get, or how many children we have and how well they do according to our standards of success. If we fall short of our ideal, we tend to take it personally. We think we “could” and “should” have done better. And likewise, when we succeed in some way, we often take credit, imagining that we did this and that anyone else can do it too (and if they don’t, it’s because they chose to be a loser while we chose to be a winner).
In the spiritual world, enlightenment (awakening, liberation, whatever the favorite term is) becomes the ultimate carrot, the final measure of success, the prize we are seeking, the attainment that we imagine will finally make us happy, worthy, successful and okay at last. We are endlessly fascinated by those who claim to be enlightened. We want to hear their stories of final awakening, and we long to have what apparently happened to them happen to us. We are seeking something, but what exactly is it?
We are deeply convinced that the liberation we are seeking is something other than THIS, Here / Now. Our core beliefs and favorite stories are “This Isn’t It” and “I’m Not There Yet.” Of course, wherever we imagine “there” to be, that imaginary destination is like the mirage-lake in the desert sands—the more we chase after it, the farther it recedes into the distance.
We imagine liberation will be a kind of freedom where we can do whatever we want, where we will achieve mastery and control over our lives at last. We imagine this “enlightened state” will feel very good all the time, that it will be peaceful and blissful and joyous. But what if true freedom is the freedom to be exactly as we are? What if freedom is the total absence of the illusion of control? What if so-called enlightenment doesn’t always feel good? What if sometimes—maybe a lot of the time—it is pure hell? What if liberation is the willingness to be in hell? What if it is the freedom to be the bud that doesn’t open, or the tree that is shorter than all the others, or the bird that flies into the windowpane and breaks its neck? What if none of our apparent defects and shortcomings are actually a problem in the way we think they are? What if so-called enlightenment is simply the recognition that there are no one-sided coins and that this seamless totality includes absolutely EVERYTHING?
Being the bud that doesn’t open sounds horrible only from the perspective of the imaginary fragment who is intent on surviving as that form and getting somewhere other than Here / Now. Identified as that bud, the fate of that bud seems terribly important. But the bud is actually inseparable from the rest of the universe. It has no existence apart from everything else. Can we see that? Are we actually this one little fragment apart from the whole? What if there IS no separate and enduring form, but only seamless flux? What if everything that appears is nothing but Consciousness, the One Mind, the Self, the no-thing-ness appearing as everything, the One Without a Second, the all-inclusive Totality that has no opposite and no other? What if the short tree and the tall tree are one undivided event that includes the whole universe?
As the Totality, nothing is separate to control or be controlled, and there is no failure apart from success and visa versa. Notions of cause and effect, conceptual ideas of choice or choicelessness, free will or determinism all have no meaning Here / Now. These are all ways of thinking about how life works. They are abstract representations, maps. As such, they may have a certain relative truth and functional usefulness, but ultimately, they are meaningless. Here / Now is literally inconceivable. And yet, that doesn’t mean it is mysterious. In fact, it is totally obvious and unavoidable! Here it is!
THIS (and ONLY this) is enlightenment.
Notice what the mind does with that: Yes, but…What if…That can’t be right….This can't be it....
To awaken is to see through this virtual reality created by thoughts and concepts.
My post yesterday ("If you think you are not enlightened, find the one who is not enlightened and the imaginary problem is solved") was a kind of koan, a living inquiry. There are many meditative questions like this on offer in the spiritual world. My first Zen teacher told me that my natural koan is, What is it? He told me to live with that question, to ask it of everything. Obviously, he wasn’t sending me out in search of the correct answer, whether that answer might be “my computer,” or “pure energy,” or “emptiness,” or “the One Self,” or “Consciousness.” He wasn’t looking for a label or a concept—an answer of the kind we learn to supply to the teacher in school. He was inviting me to go on a journey, to live with this question for the rest of my life (in other words, now), to feel into it with the whole bodymind, and perhaps to realize what is beyond any answer or any formulation. He was inviting me to wake up from all the labels and stories, to wake up from all the answers, to dissolve into the reality of Here / Now, to be fully present and alive, to see directly.
Another Zen teacher I worked with asked me at the beginning of a long sesshin (or silent retreat), What do I really want? A very rich inquiry over many days and nights, peeling away layers of answers until I came to the simple truth.
There are many other questions of this kind: Who am I? Is there a choice right now in this moment? Am I free or bound? What is binding me? Is it real?
These are not questions looking for the correct answer. These are not questions to think about. These are questions to live with, to feel into, to explore with open awareness. This kind of exploration requires a willingness to not know, to leave the safety of words and explanations and answers behind, to fall into the living reality Here / Now.
What is it?
As I say in my book Nothing to Grasp, “‘No self’ is not some exotic, mystical experience that ‘you’ have never had.”
I go on to say: “As we grow up, the undeniable SENSE of being present and aware gets conflated with the IDEA of being a separate, individual person located inside a particular bodymind. What we actually EXPERIENCE every moment – boundless being – gets CONCEPTUALLY divided up into subject and object, self and other. The mirage-like separate ‘me,’ an imaginary object, gets mistaken for the Ultimate Subject (the unlocatable aware presence being and beholding it all).”
This is not something to adopt as a new belief. It is something to explore and discover directly, not once and for all, but again and again (now and now), whenever the illusion of separation and encapsulation as “me” appears.
Whenever we find ourselves thinking that “I’m not enlightened,” or “Maybe if I read this book, I’ll finally get enlightened”— we might begin to notice that these thoughts all revolve around “me” – the one who supposedly is or isn’t enlightened. Can we actually find this “me” who seems to be at the center of our lives? Is anything really there (other than unlocatable aware presence and boundless being)?
We might say, not finding anything is enlightenment, and importantly, not for the phantom who isn’t there! Because how quickly thought can spring up to take credit as the imaginary “me” for this discovery that there is no “me”—declaring that “I’m enlightened now!”—and then, a moment later, seeing the falsity of this, perhaps another thought, “Oh no! I had a thought about me being enlightened! That means I’m not enlightened.” But who is this one who is not enlightened? It’s quite a funny dance, this play of selfing.
In the absence of that mirage-like phantom, what remains? Traffic sounds, bird cheeps, sensations of breathing, shapes and colors dancing—this present happening, this awakeness, this undeniable aware beingness endlessly unfolding itself Here / Now. The thought-image-story of “me” appears here intermittently along with the furniture, the clouds, the trees, the cars, the sounds of traffic, the sensations of breathing, and all the other thoughts and mental movies appearing and disappearing, all one seamless and boundless happening without an owner or an author, always Here / Now. In that boundlessness, the word “enlightenment” dissolves into silence (and this silence includes all the sounds and all the words).
“Thus all the visible universe IS the Buddha…On seeing one thing, you see ALL…for there is nowhere at all which is devoid of the Way.”
"As you walk the spiritual path, it widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all."
The therapist with whom I sobered up from alcoholic drinking decades ago used the model of choice and responsibility—she said I had made an unconscious choice to destroy myself and that I could now make a conscious choice to do something different—and it seemed to work! I sobered up. I stopped drinking and taking drugs, I stopped smoking cigarettes, my whole life completely changed. But there was one compulsion I couldn’t seem to stop—fingerbiting (I’ve written extensively about this in recent posts and in my books). Furthermore, there were other things I couldn’t seem to control as well—for example, sometimes I could be highly self-disciplined, and then at other times, I couldn’t. Sometimes when the thought would arise to join a gym and work out every day, that would actually happen. And then at other times when that thought would arise, it wouldn’t happen. I found that sometimes I could stop myself before I lost my temper and said something hurtful to a loved one, and at other times, the hurtful remark just poured out. Sometimes when I would sink into depression, it seemed possible to give it the kind of open, nonjudgmental attention that my teachers all suggested, but at other times, this possibility didn’t arise at all, or if the thought of doing this did arise, the ability to relax into it seemed to be absent—the depression overwhelmed this new possibility.
So when teachers speak exclusively from the presumption of free will, I know how frustrating this can be, because I know what it’s like to fail, to be unable to control something that others say you “should” be able to control. And after many years of meditative observation, watching closely as choices and decisions unfolded, I discovered that I couldn’t find anyone in control of ANY of “my” choices, nor could I say how the decisive moment actually arrived when it did, or what flipped the switch from yes to no or visa versa. Furthermore, I couldn’t explain why I was moved and able to stop drinking while the person sitting beside me in the bar was not, or why I failed on my first several attempts to quit smoking cigarettes and then on the last attempt, the habit never returned—the desire and intention to stop seemed equally present on the first attempt, so what was different on the last attempt?
My father actually explained to me as a child that free will was an illusion, and his explanation—which had to do with the infinite and seamless chain of cause and effect—made complete sense to me back then. So the re-discovery or confirmation of this absence of free will through meditation and nonduality was never a big leap for me. And during my years with Toni Packer, as I watched the unfolding of apparent decisions, choices and actions, it became utterly clear that our apparent freedom to choose is only ever the apparent freedom to do whatever this bodymind is compelled (by all the infinite forces of nature and nurture) to want to do (or to “freely choose”) in this moment.
The commonly held illusion of free will (and the illusion of the somebody who has it) is reinforced whenever life moves in the direction we apparently chose. For a few very lucky people, this happens quite a lot. These people tend (perhaps understandably) to come to the conclusion that anyone can freely choose to go from rags to riches, or from addiction to recovery, or from sickness to health, or from depression to happiness, because—after all—they did it. They chose to lose weight, and they did. They chose to dedicate their lives to social service instead of to being serial child molesters, thieves, or compulsive gamblers. They choose to “take a time out” when they get very angry at their spouse instead of yelling at or beating that person. They choose to be productive, to lead good lives, to do the right thing. Or so it seems to them. And society at large confirms their conclusion.
But for those who are not so blessed, the illusion of free will and the widespread belief in it is a cruel joke and potentially a source of endless self-hatred, shame, guilt, blame, and a deep sense of being a miserable failure or a worthless bum who didn’t try hard enough, or who “made bad choices,” or in some cases—consider the child molester or the serial murderer—maybe even the very personification of evil.
So are we completely powerless? Yes and no.
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.
I discovered firsthand that there IS something that can be done, or that can happen—and neither the active nor the passive voice really captures how it arises or how it moves. It is an effortless effort that has been variously described as surrendering, stopping, resting in the natural state, being fully present in the Now, doing nothing, or allowing everything to be as it is. It is the absence of our usual goal-directed, intentional, willful activity. It is a letting go, an absence of grasping. This non-action or effortless effort cannot be brought about on command, and there are times when it does not seem to be available, or at least, it doesn’t happen. But in some sense, it is always a possibility because it is nothing more (or less) than waking up to what is always already fully here.
Thus, I would say that “I can choose” and “I have no choice” are both partially true and equally false. One formulation gives us a power we obviously do not actually have, while the other denies the ability that can only be found right here, right now to act. No words can capture the actuality of how life moves.
If we believe everyone has free will, it will be a set up for disappointment, frustration, false pride, guilt, blame and the desire for retribution. As the Advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman loves to say, if we had control over our lives, wouldn’t we all be doing a much better job of it? Wouldn’t we all be happy, healthy, rich, successful, enlightened and in love?
But then, if we pick up “I have no choice” as a belief or a dogma—without fully understanding that there is no independent, discrete, separate and substantial “I” to either have a choice or not have a choice, and without understanding that no map is ever the territory it describes—then that half-baked belief may disempower us or serve as a kind of excuse by which we avoid or deny the response-ability or power to act that is undeniably Here / Now. If I insist that I cannot raise my arm because there is no one to do it and no choice about whether or not it happens, so I’m just going to sit here and wait for grace (or the universe, or God, or some imaginary separate Source) to raise my arm for me, I’ll have a long wait—that would be a silly (and very dualistic) misunderstanding of what this “no choice / no self” pointer (or map) is trying to describe.
So the clearest expressions I’ve come across point to the place right in the middle, the placeless place that is inconceivable and ungraspable, the place that is not one, not two….not this, not that…the place that you cannot grasp because it doesn’t hold still.
Instead of asserting that there is or isn’t free will, maybe a wonderful koan to live with is: Is there a choice right now? Not to THINK about this question, not to regurgitate the answer we already believe is true, not to stick to one map or another, but to live with this question as a living koan, a living exploration….to not know in advance what the answer in THIS (completely new) moment will be, but to look and listen and see. So, for example, as you’re about to light the cigarette, or bite the finger, or reach for the second piece of cake, or say something hurtful to your friend, or sink into depression, this question might arise: In this moment, right now, is there a choice?
And then see. Be open to the unknown. There is no right or wrong answer, and the answer for one moment may not be the answer for the next moment. Is it possible to not turn whatever reveals itself into a fixed belief or a solid conclusion? It’s so easy to become dogmatic, to fixate, to grasp, to assert. But the truth is always in that wordless realm that cannot be pinned down or boxed up in any conceptual package.
I remember when I first began to hear the teachings of Zen and Vedanta, something about it resonated on a deep level—intuitively, I knew it was true—but at the same time, I found much of it quite mystifying. It took many years to actually discover and realize for myself what was being pointed to in all those pithy sayings and paradoxical teachings that I felt so drawn toward. The words are only sign posts, and in themselves, they can’t satisfy the deep hunger for liberation. We each have to walk the pathless path and discover for ourselves what it means to “be here now” or to “rest in the natural state,” or to “do nothing” or to “surrender” or to “open the heart” or to “accept everything just as it is,” or to realize that “there is only That.” It’s very easy to misunderstand these pointers when we hear them conceptually, at the level of the (dualistic) thinking mind. And if we end up trying to eat the menu instead of the meal itself, the result is confusion and dissatisfaction. We try and try to figure it all out mentally, but that never works because the liberating reality to which these expressions all point is nonconceptual and beyond the thinking mind.
It’s not that we have to get to some far away destination or acquire something we don’t already have. Here / Now is ever-present. It is what we ARE. It is all there is. By searching for it, we buy into the belief that it is not already fully present, and thus we overlook it (or so it seems). Here / Now (the Ultimate Truth) isn’t anything mysterious. It is completely obvious. As someone once said, it’s so clear, it’s easy to miss!
When you hear things like that, what happens in your mind? If you find that you’re immediately LOOKING for SOMETHING that is “so clear it’s easy to miss,” trying to see it or “get” it, by that very movement of the mind, you’re overlooking it, for this Ultimate Truth cannot be seen as an object in the way that a table, a window or a mirror can be seen. And yet, no apparent object is anything OTHER than Ultimate Truth. Wherever you look, here it is—the seer, the seeing, and that which is seen—and in reality, those are three different words for one whole, undivided happening.
In the beginning, we typically try to grasp all this as some kind of conceptual understanding, or else as some particular experience we keep trying to have, or some explosive breakthrough event we hope for and imagine. We strain and strain, trying to see it, trying to get it, trying to understand it, trying to experience it, trying to attain it. But the truth reveals itself in exactly the opposite direction, as we discover how to give up the search and relax the grasping mind, not once-and-for-all, but right now. We learn to recognize that frantic seeking movement for what it is, and we discover that it is possible to stop and be still, to not move away from this razor’s edge of Here / Now. We also begin to notice that there is actually no way out of Here / Now, that awareness is always present as the groundless ground of all that appears. We begin to see how thought solidifies and divides this present happening, painting an entire virtual reality in the mind, an imaginary world that always centers around “me.” We begin to notice that this “me” is nothing but ever-changing thoughts, stories, images, and sensations strung together to form a mirage-like entity that disappears into thin air whenever we look at it closely.
This doesn’t mean we strive to vanquish all traces of this imaginary self or to wipe out all thought—that would be impossible—but rather, we learn to see thoughts as thoughts, and we begin to recognize and see through the stories that can so easily hypnotize us, including the story of being an independent entity encapsulated inside a separate body. We learn to bring our attention back home to the (one, eternal, ever-present, ever-changing) present moment—the nonconceptual, nondual reality of sensations, energy, awareness, presence itself—bare being, seamless and fluid. We discover how to relax and open the heartmind, how to allow everything to be just as it is, how to rest in the natural state.
We can’t really say if this is a doing or a non-doing, or if it is a choice or a choiceless happening. That’s why we hear these paradoxical phrases like effortless effort and the gateless gate. Years ago, I remember hearing a talk by Adyashanti where he quoted something the great Olympic runner Carl Lewis had apparently said about running a race. As I remember it (and this is a paraphrase from distant memory), Carl Lewis said something like, “At some point in the race, I relax and go faster.” That expresses this effortless effort quite beautifully. This pathless path is at once alert and relaxed. It is the stillness that includes movement, the listening silence that includes thinking and talking, the peace that includes conflict and devastation.
As an example of how meditation (i.e. open awareness and paying attention on purpose) is both a path and at the same time pathless, Jon Kabat-Zinn points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature all feet are the same. But practice leads to refinement—a subtlety, a depth, a sensitivity, an agility—a way of being that is more nuanced and that has more possibilities. So as my first Zen teacher put it, “You are perfect just as you are, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement.” Not one, not two.
Thus, although there is nowhere to go and nothing to attain, at the same time, there may in fact be a path, something to do, a kind of learning (or unlearning) that happens (when it does). But this isn’t our usual kind of goal-oriented, willful, intentional activity, for it has to do with waking up Here / Now, being where we always already are, and relaxing into this present happening that is effortlessly showing up. And when we say “this is it,” that isn’t an expression of fatalistic resignation. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing other than dreary, boring, painful shit and that enlightenment (or clarity, or liberation, or freedom, or peace) is all a myth. Instead, it means that enlightenment is not “out there” somewhere, in the future. It can only be realized right now, right in the middle of so-called delusion.
Although everything is one seamless, all-inclusive, inseparable, undivided whole, at the same time, that wholeness includes the ability to discern differences. And so, although there is only One Mind, there are obviously different states of consciousness. And most basically, we could say that there are two states of consciousness, states which have been given various names. Traditionally, they are often called enlightenment and delusion, or heaven and hell. Eckhart Tolle talks about the pain-body and the Now. Anam Thubten speaks of conditioned consciousness and unconditioned primordial awareness. Buddhism talks about nirvana and samsara. We all experience the difference between open, spacious, aware presence, on the one hand, and being caught-up in some obsessive thought-pattern or emotional smog, lost in a virtual reality, doing things that are hurtful to ourselves and others, on the other hand.
Regarding this, Toni Packer once said: “Sooner or later we may discern the palpable difference between just being here as we are, openly attentive, and the state of entanglement in a web of fantasy about being somewhere else.” She then asked, “Can we directly experience this difference without a need to elevate or disparage either state? Every state of being speaks for itself.” And as Thich Nhat Hanh wisely said, “We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements....You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks to evil, good exists, and vice versa.”
So we don’t need to deny the differences between heaven and hell in order to realize the unicity that contains them both, nor do we need to condemn either side of the coin. And it is very important to note that there is no owner of either state of being. There is no enlightened person, and there is no unenlightened person. It is all the activity of One Mind. There’s no actual boundary between nirvana and samsara. In fact, they are not two separate things. So if we set out to banish samsara, we will never find nirvana, for nirvana is not someplace else. Nirvana is only available Here / Now. The shift between samsara and nirvana is all in the seeing, the beholding. Nirvana is that way of being that is all-inclusive and that sees only God everywhere, even in our worst mistakes and most dismal failures. Nirvana is unconditional love and complete acceptance. Whereas samsara is that way of being that thinks dualistically, that wants to banish samsara and have only up without down. Samsara seeks nirvana “out there,” somewhere else. Samsara is the story that “this isn’t it.”
We all know from our own experience that nirvana is not dependent on the outer circumstances. We can be sitting in a traffic jam in some hell-hole and experience nirvana, and we can be vacationing in paradise with the lover of our dreams and experience only samsara – it’s all in the mind. Recognizing that is the key to waking up. It is, I suspect, what Anam Thubten meant when he said that “Nothing is holding us back from awakening...We are the one who imprisons and we are the one who liberates. When we accept that responsibility we have finally gained spiritual maturity.” Because truly, who else IS there? Perhaps the pathless path is all about discovering and refining our response-ability as the One Self. And remember, failure is part of the dance.
I often talk about the end of self-improvement, but I don’t mean to suggest that we should all spend the rest of our lives denying our natural human inclinations to explore and refine and awaken ourselves in ever-deeper ways. I find that there is a difference between the kind of self-improvement that is all about me getting somewhere on a linear journey toward ever-better idealistic perfection (or the world moving toward some imagined future utopia) vs. the kind of aspiration, prayer or yearning that longs only to be fully awake here and now—not from a me-centered place, but from that placeless place of love and gratitude and awakeness. The latter aspiration seems to emerge from awake presence and the open heart rather than from idealistic fantasies and a sense of lack. It has a quality of spaciousness and tenderness, rather than the harsh perfectionistic drive to fix ourselves or the world that seems rooted in self-hatred and despair. This kind of genuine aspiration comes from the place of “Thy will be done” rather than “my will be done,” although ultimately both are aspects of one and the same Being.
On a practical level, such genuine aspiration may include practicing the piano, training for an athletic event, learning a foreign language, or practicing meditation. But in each of these activities, we do best when we are fully focused on Here / Now rather than being caught up in thoughts about whether or not we’re going to win a gold medal or attain enlightenment tomorrow. When a great athlete is “in the zone,” they are totally present Here / Now. They aren’t thinking about themselves or what they’re doing. They have completely surrendered and dissolved into this present happening, the energy-flow of life. No sense of separation remains. They are 100% in the moment and at one with the movement of the whole universe.
Of course, we’re never REALLY separate from the energy-flow of life or divided off in any way from the movement of the universe, nor are we ever really anyplace other than the present moment, which is why this isn’t about getting somewhere else—it’s about waking up Here / Now. But as I said in my previous post, we don’t need to deny the difference between fully REALIZING this (aka nirvana) and being lost in the trance of separation (aka samsara). BOTH samsara and nirvana AND the ability to discern the differences between them are ALL aspects of the all-inclusive emptiness that is everything and no-thing in particular. And upon careful investigation, none of this is personal—there is no owner and no author anywhere to be found. Ultimately, no words can ever capture or explain this obvious but ungraspable awake presence Here / Now bursting forth as birdsong and traffic roar and mobile devices and postings on Facebook and aspirations of every kind.
What do we mean when we say consciousness is playing all the parts? For me, this means that consciousness is the ground or substance of everything perceivable and conceivable—everything that appears Here / Now. Saying that consciousness is playing all the parts expresses the realization that this entire happening is a seamless, undivided unicity (One Mind) with no actual separation and no duality between the apparent pairs of opposites. What happens to you, happens to me in the deepest sense, and visa versa. We are not two.
But this absence of separation doesn’t mean that there is no variation, diversity, differentiation or discernment. It doesn’t mean that there is no difference between being kissed by your beloved and having a bomb dropped on your village. It isn’t about being detached, or always feeling peaceful, or no longer caring about what is happening in the movie of waking life. Waking life is LIKE a movie or a dream in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the pain doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean dismissing the physical and emotional pain of a little child who has lost his arms and legs and both his parents and all his siblings in a bombing attack as “just an illusion” to which we should give no attention, although the language of some Eastern teachings can easily suggest this.
When I see people hurt in ways that I know hurt deeply, I feel sorrow. The sorrow or heartache seems more acute when the damage is caused not by an act of nature (such as an earthquake, a hurricane or a flood) but rather by a deliberate and obviously misguided and senseless human act. Of course, humans are part of nature, and in that sense, our actions are as natural as hurricanes. But with our complex minds, we have the ability to become confused in ways no other animal does. And we also have the possibility of waking up from this confusion.
Sometimes, when I see how oblivious or misinformed people can be, when I see the environment being destroyed and animals being tortured on factory farms and villages being bombed and politicians so trapped in the system that they cannot even pass a tepid little law to require background checks on some of the people who want to purchase semi-automatic assault weapons in this gun-crazy country where I live, I feel frustration and anger and sometimes even despair. But I can look at my own life and understand how easy it is to be oblivious and how hard it is to break out of old patterns.
When I see the face of the teenager who apparently planted one of the bombs at the Boston marathon on Monday, I don’t feel hatred, anger or a desire for vengeance. I can easily imagine, from my own life experience, how he might have gotten to this place, how he might be angry at various injustices or perceived injustices or power imbalances, how he might be frustrated by the way certain things keep happening, how he might be deeply hurt, how he might be influenced by an older brother, how he might fall into some extreme ideology and become convinced that armed action was the only way to right the perceived wrongs and bring about what he believed was a better world. I see a young man on the verge of adulthood, apparently a young man with a great deal of potential, who apparently made a few very bad choices (so to speak) and will spend his life paying for them and maybe dying for them, a young man who is and will be widely despised. If and when his ideological entrancement falls away (assuming that was the motivation) and he wakes up to the reality of what he did, he will have to live with the pain of that as well. So I feel sorrow—for him, for those he hurt.
Because I understand that we do not choose what choices we are compelled to make, I find no one there to blame. But at the same time, what he did was horrific and sad.
Of course, it was all part of the dance of life, and many blessings will undoubtedly come out of the suffering, and it’s all a play of consciousness, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel sorrow. And in the face of other horrific events, I’ve had other emotions at times—anger, fear, righteous indignation—all kinds of stories and emotional weather have passed through, and many different responses have arisen at different moments.
There is a peace that comes with waking up from the stories and being present as awareness or unconditional love, recognizing the perfection in the imperfection, seeing and being the simplicity of what is, just as it is.
But it’s also easy to move from that open space of true peace into a new story, the nondual story. Religion (and I include nonduality here) can easily function as a drug, a form of comfort and false security, an answer to the uncertainty and vulnerability of life, a new overlay to block out the raw pain. It’s easy to use it that way. I can see myself doing it at times. True religion, as I see it, is about letting go of the security blankets and the answers. It is about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, sensitive, awake, open and present—undivided (mentally) from the control-less-ness and seamlessness of life.
Questioning our beliefs, recognizing the limitations of our own view, accepting how life is showing up in this moment, and having a deep sense of unconditional love for the whole show doesn’t mean that we no longer have any views or beliefs or that we can’t feel sorrow (or anger or a deep sense of peace or whatever we feel) when we see people being hurt. And whether the so-called “terrorist” is Bush or Bin Laden or Obama or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—we are always the One behind all the masks.
Someone on TV the other night asked how anyone could do something like this bombing—it seemed inconceivable to her how anyone could plant a bomb next to a child. It IS inconceivable to most of us, isn’t it? And yet, speaking as an American (as this woman also was), our government and our tax dollars are dropping bombs on people all the time. And all of us around the world who drive cars and heat our homes and use computers and go through rolls of toilet paper are participating in this global destruction. Because I recognized that hypocrisy and because I know the long history of US imperialism, back when 9/11 happened, I couldn’t feel the pain for quite a long time—I was too busy being angry at America and telling myself and everyone else that we were finally getting a dose of our own medicine. It took quite awhile before I dropped into the body and realized there was fear and pain and heartbreak. This time, when the marathon was bombed, I had a very different response. I did feel the pain. Not in a way that engendered hatred, anger or despair, but simply, I felt sorrow. I felt sorrow for the wounded, for their families, for the bomber, for the entire planet in which we are all caught up in so many circles of suffering because of our capacity to be swept away by conceptual abstractions, identities, stories and beliefs.
Yes, the light and the dark are both part of life, and we will never have some utopian Garden of Eden on earth in which all pain and suffering is forever gone. But at the same time, waking up is a possibility.
What heals this wound in Boston (and the wounds all over the planet and in each of our hearts)? Does vengeance and retribution (often euphemistically called “justice”) help to heal these wounds, or does it only enflame the underlying causes and perpetuate the vicious circle of suffering? Does false optimism, nondual platitudes, and the denial of feelings such as grief, fear or anger help? How about wallowing in grief, anger, fear, sorrow or pity—does that help? When is an emotion “healthy” and when does it become “wallowing”? What is true compassion? What is unconditional love? Is it pity? Is it denial or ignorance? Is it some facile belief that “it’s all good”? Or is it waking up and coming from what is unbroken and whole, the unconditioned aware presence Here / Now, the openness that has space for absolutely everything to be just as it is?
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2012, 2013--
The articles on this particular outpouring page are all posted on my Facebook page, where they originally appeared. They can be shared directly from my Facebook page with others on Facebook in the usual way. If you have a Facebook account, and you wish to share these writings on your Facebook page, please do so directly from my Facebook page to yours. If you don't use Facebook and you wish to share any of these postings on other blogs, please credit the author, mention that they were originally Facebook postings, and include links to both my Facebook page and this website with your re-posting. Thank you!
back to “outpourings“ menu