Postings from My Facebook Page #2
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the second collection of posts from my Facebook page (4/25/13 through 7/23/13). My actual Facebook page includes many other things not included here, such as quotes from my books, links to videos, the latest information on any of my upcoming events and books, quotes from other people (sometimes with commentary), occasional responses to other people’s comments to my posts, book recommendations, and so on. Because the writings below were first written on Facebook, where italics are not an option, CAPS are used instead to emphasize certain words.
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
An illusion or a mirage cannot have any real power. It can only APPEAR to have power. As the imaginary separate fragment, the mirage-like executive-self who is supposedly the author of my thoughts, the maker of my choices and the doer of my deeds, I have no power at all, for this “I” has no actual reality. Watch closely and carefully, and you may discover that every thought, every urge, every desire, every intention, every interest, every ability, and every action happens with no one in command. You don’t know what your next thought will be, or your next urge, or your next impulse.
We have the IDEA, the belief, that we are the thinker who is authoring our thoughts, the decider who is making our decisions, the executive who is at the helm steering our bodymind through life, choosing which way to go. This is what we’ve learned, what we’ve been taught to believe, what the society around us endlessly asserts and affirms, and by adulthood, this idea is so deeply ingrained and so ubiquitous that it SEEMS like our actual experience. But can this executive, this author, this choice-maker actually be found? Does it really exist? If you watch closely, you may find that there is no thinker behind the thoughts. Experientially, each thought simply appears out of nowhere. And when we look for the source, we find no one back there authoring it. Thought is arising out of the whole universe as a function of consciousness. The phantom author is nothing but another thought, a mental image, an idea, a concept, a fictional character in a fictional story.
Let’s say the thought arises, “I want another piece of cake.” That thought immediately materializes (in the imagination) the mirage-like “I” who wants the cake. Then another thought arises, “You shouldn’t eat anymore cake, it’s bad for your health.” This thought seems to confirm the reality of the mirage-like self who wants cake but knows better. Then another thought, “One piece of cake won’t make the difference between life and death.” Then another thought, “That’s the addictive voice talking—you know it’s a slippery slope—every piece you eat makes a difference.” Then another thought, “Who cares? I’m tired of being a good girl. I just want some cake.” Then another thought, “You’ll get fat and die of heart disease. Is that what you want?” As this succession of thoughts unfold, it seems as if “I” am talking to “myself,” as if different parts of “me” are having a debate, a struggle for control of “me.” Sometimes the “real me” seems to be the voice of restraint (the good girl), and at other times “the real me” seems to be the one who wants to indulge (the bad girl).
But look closely, and you’ll see that ALL these thoughts arise unbidden. There is no actual author behind any of these thoughts who is deciding to think them or making them appear. The “good girl” is a mental image as is the “bad girl.” And no one is in control of whether we end up eating another piece of cake or resisting the temptation. Whichever happens is the happening of the entire universe, and it happens the way it does because everything in the entire universe is the way it is. But typically, thought will pop up and take personal credit or blame either way, accompanied by either guilt or pride. And that thought claiming responsibility also happens automatically, compulsively, unbidden. No one is deciding to think it. Like every other thought, it happens as a movement of the entire universe.
If we imagine that we actually ARE this separate self encapsulated inside the body trying to steer our ship on a successful course through life, then this absence of control sounds very scary and disturbing, as if “I” am nothing but a helpless robot! But is this phantom executive, this separate self, really here in the first place to be either in or out of control? Or could this fear of being a robot be just another flat-earth problem, another example of living in terror over what might happen if I fall off the (nonexistent) edge of the earth? If we imagine ourselves as a vulnerable separate fragment hurling down the rushing rapids amidst the sharp rocks, we will feel terror. If we recognize ourselves as the whole event (water, rocks, movement, awareness beholding it all – all one whole, undivided happening), there will be a natural ease of being in the realization that no separate thing is ever formed in the first place. Death is an imaginary problem like the edge of the flat earth or the boogeyman.
Am I saying we “shouldn’t” feel terror, or that we “shouldn’t” try to eat in a healthy way or recover from addictions and break free of unhealthy compulsions? No, I’m not saying ANY of that. The illusion of separation and the subsequent terror it triggers are all part of this undivided happening—it’s not personal; it’s a happening of the One Mind—and when we’re in pain, it’s natural to want relief—it’s part of our human nature to identify and solve problems, to explore and extend ourselves in various ways. So if we are moved to go on a diet or take up yoga or work out at a gym or join NASA and plan a trip to Mars—that’s all part of the happening of life. I’m not in ANY way saying we “shouldn’t” do these things. What I’m saying is that we have no choice in the way we think we do about whether these things happen or what outcomes they bring. Whether the urge and the interest arises to do one of these things, whether the means to do so are available—the money, the time, the resources, the physical health and stamina, the necessary mental and emotional stability and intelligence—whether the ability is there to follow through, and then what outcomes show up—ALL of this is the result of infinite causes and conditions going back to the Big Bang and including every microscopic and astronomical event in the entire universe. There is no central executive apart from this boundlessness running the show—no God up in heaven and no “me” encapsulated inside the body.
Everything is one whole undivided happening, from the Big Bang to the urge for a piece of cake. When this is recognized, there is still discernment and the ability to differentiate and make distinctions, but the dualistic notion that “I” am in control of these abilities or that “I” can stand apart from the flow of life and “decide” to have only one side of the coin without the other is absent. There is variety and diversity in reality, but not any actual separation or any independent part with an autonomous free will.
So whether we are a yoga master or a heroin addict, none of it is personal or meaningful in the way we think it is—it’s not personally (or divinely) caused; there is no separate God and no separate self behind it all. It’s ALL God, we could say. There is only this all-inclusive dance of life, the seamless totality from which nothing stands apart. From the perspective of the totality, I am the Whole Show—the heroin addict and the yoga master, the tall tree and the short tree, the stormy sea and the calm sea, the Tsarnaev brothers and the legless bombing victims—and ALL of it is one whole, undivided happening—appearing and disappearing (forming and unforming) like clouds or smoke or waving movements of the ocean. Some of what shows up may be relatively more or less desirable from our human perspective, but ALL of it is an activity of the Whole.
Some New Age teachers say we choose everything. If we get cancer, it’s because we chose to get cancer. Other teachers say we don’t always choose the CIRCUMSTANCES of our life (like whether we get cancer), but they insist that we can always choose how we RESPOND to those circumstances. And then some teachers say that we have only one choice, and that is whether to pay attention here and now, whether to wake up from the trance of thoughts and stories and be fully present in the Now.
I would say, there is no choice about ANY of this and nobody to have such a choice, but there is APPARENT choice as part of how life is functioning. But rather than believing one view or another, I would suggest watching closely and carefully as apparent choices and decisions unfold, whether it is the little ones like getting up from a chair you’ve been sitting in for awhile, or the big ones like getting married or taking a new job. Watch what happens as you “decide” whether to take the new job, or as you struggle with whether to have another piece of cake or not. I’m not saying to THINK about this and try to figure it out with reason and logic, but rather, to actually WATCH with awareness as it unfolds. See if you can find the source of your thoughts, or the source of your impulses, or the source of your actions, or if you can catch the decisive moment or say how it happens, or if you can pin down what prompts your attention to move from one place to another. See if you can find anyone in control.
You may discover there is nothing to grasp. As they say, the eye cannot see itself, the fire cannot burn itself, the sword cannot cut itself. It takes a subtle thought to divide what is indivisible and conjure up the mirage-like separate self—the thinker, the doer, the chooser, the author of my life—the one who is in or out of control. Control always implies separation, as does choice.
When the seamlessness of being is realized, suffering ends. This is freedom—not the freedom to do whatever we want, but rather, the freedom to be exactly as we are.
But when we believe there is a choice about ANY of these things, then we are forever striving to improve ourselves and the world, and anyone who “makes the choice” to blow up a marathon, or to be addicted to heroin, or to be lost in misery-provoking stories, or to be clinically depressed, or to have a borderline personality disorder and murder their ex-boyfriend, or to not “be here now,” is obviously either an irresponsible idiot or an evil scum who has only themselves to blame. This view naturally generates the desire for punishment, retribution and vengeance. When we see how it really is, we don’t have to condone the marathon bombing or the addictive behavior, and we may still be moved by life to heal wounds and seek solutions to problems, but we have a natural compassion for all of it being exactly the way it is.
Duality only exists within (and relative to) the boundaries of some objective “thing.” And yet any apparent “thing”—any apparently independent, persisting, substantial form—is always a conceptual abstraction because in reality there is only undivided, seamless flux. No-thing ever actually forms in the way we think it does, as an independent or persisting object. The very notion of “my body” or “the chair” or “this Facebook post” is a kind of mental idea, in which perception and conceptualization isolate, reify, abstract, and draw boundaries around notional “parts” of what is actually ever-changing, undivided flux. Once the mind has created an apparently separate and enduring form and drawn a boundary-line around it, then we have duality. But this duality is always imaginary.
The distinctions we make between up and down, or good and bad, are always relative. The ceiling of my living room is “up” relative to the floor, and “down” relative to the sky. But there is no absolute up or absolute down. In outer space, with no reference points, there is no meaningful difference between up or down. Astronauts sleep standing up, which is the same as lying down.
Once thought has created an abstract object such as “the earth,” then within the frame of that abstraction, the north pole is “above” and the south pole is “below.” But this is only a mental construction, a convention. From outer space, there is no “up side” of the earth, and there are no solid boundary-lines dividing “the earth” up into different nations. Clouds swirl, water churns, volcanoes erupt, lava flows, the earth quakes, mountains rise and fall. The earth is actually in constant flux, but much of this flux happens so slowly that we don’t see it.
But whenever we look closely at any apparent thing, we find only movement forming and unforming and informing itself. Everything is made up of everything else. These words would not be unfolding right now without my grandparents and your grandparents and their grandparents and the sun and the soil and the entire ecosystem that kept all of them alive and the Big Bang out of which that ecosystem emerged. This entire happening is one continuous, indivisible stream. And although it is nothing but thorough-going flux, everything is always occurring Here / Now in this ever-present awaring-presence that could be described as no-thing appearing as everything—a seamless totality that is at once ever-present and ever-changing.
Permanence and impermanence, stillness and motion, changing and unchanging lose their meaning when there is no reference point. It is one whole indescribable THUSNESS. Consciousness, we could say, IS the dividing up of the indivisible and the making visible of the invisible, and thought is an aspect of consciousness that further divides, reifies, abstracts, and solidifies. Thought is like a map-maker—it labels, classifies, evaluates, strategizes and provides running commentary—all of this a happening without a thinker authoring any of it. The creation of this virtual reality that we mistake for an objective reality “out there” is itself an activity of true reality!
It is functionally useful to be able to identify the earth as a separate object, and knowing how to distinguish the north pole from the south pole is not only functional but also fairly harmless. But when we get into distinguishing good from evil, or enlightenment from delusion, or my country from your country, or me from everything that is not-me, we run into many more problems (greed, hate, delusion, war, genocide, conflict of every kind, ecological destruction, etc). Because of the way the mind works, we are conditioned to create separation. We create an imaginary division, fixate on one side of that imaginary divide, identify with that side, and then defend it as if our very life were at stake. We can see this tendency in politics and religion, in our global and personal conflicts, and we can even see it in the world of nonduality where we have battles over free will vs. free choice, or practice vs. no practice, or traditional vs. neo, or sudden vs. gradual…battles that can be every bit as contentious at times as the battles over hot button social and political issues.
Sometimes people get the idea that nonduality is about no longer having any opinions or views—being completely neutral about everything—not caring anymore what happens, being without preferences, having no sense at all that one thing is any better than another. But to me, that sounds more like dissociation than nonduality. I would say that being awake to the nondual nature of reality is about seeing the bigger picture, but that bigger picture is not the OPPOSITE of relative reality. That would be another false divide. Rather, that bigger picture INCLUDES relative reality, so that seeing the bigger picture is not about clinging to the absolute or denying the relative. Being awake to nondual reality is an openness to seeing freshly, rather than fixating and identifying and putting on blinders—but it doesn’t mean we don’t still have preferences and opinions and views. It’s more like realizing that our views as a person are conditioned aspects of relative reality, and as such, they are always only a part of the whole picture. The awareness beholding it all is unconditioned and free—it has no preferences, no point of view, no opposite. Awareness is unconditional love, beholding and accepting everything as it is. And yet, there is no actual boundary between some “thing” called “awareness” and some other “thing” called “everything that appears in awareness.” In reality, it is one nondual happening without borders or seams.
We fear death or the ending of the universe, and yet, in deep sleep every night, all these words, labels, categories and concerns disappear. The universe disappears. The one who is trying to sort this all out disappears. Even any SENSE of being aware and present disappears, as does any sense of being absent. This absolute disappearance is a huge relief and a source of refreshment. What remains when the universe is no more is Here / Now. It is sometimes called darkness, and sometimes it is called light. But really, it includes and transcends all pairs of opposites. It is showing up right now as the reading of these words and as the silence that remains when all the words are gone. Try to grasp this unboundedness (find it, see it, attain it, possess it, understand it) and there is nothing to grasp.
And yet, here is this undeniable hearing-seeing-sensing-breathi ng-awaring-thinking-being—the sounds of traffic, the chirp of a bird, the gurgling stomach, the breeze coming through the window, the tap tap tap of the computer keys, the listening silence beholding it all—one whole undivided but magnificently diverse event that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. Not grasping is freedom.
Recently, I’ve been moving, and the entire unfolding has taken many months in which there has been a fair amount of uncertainty, upset, chaos, disruption and uprootedness. In the final phase, there has been a lot of physical work, heavy lifting, inhaling massive quantities of dust, going through old things that trigger memories and sometimes heartache, and the stress of pulling together and remembering and coordinating all the different threads that are involved in a change of location these days. As I get older, to my amusement, I find myself nostalgically recalling the “good old days” when life was simple and uncomplicated. Nowadays, dealing with certain gigantic corporations and institutions has become ever-more like being lost in a Kafka novel from which there is no escape. You call your service provider and an automated voice answers offering you a menu of choices that doesn’t seem to include your problem. The automated voice asks you questions and then you spend hours on hold being assaulted with loud, irritating music and endlessly repeating loops of advertisements. You finally get a real person and after talking with them for an hour, you think the problem has been solved. But no. The next day, it shows up again. You spend more hours on the phone and think you’ve definitely resolved it this time, only to find that it is even more screwed up the next day than it was before.
At one point in the final stages of packing up, my back went out, so I was in considerable pain, and based on past experience, I knew that if it got any worse, I would soon be virtually unable to move or do anything for days, much less lift heavy boxes and crawl around cleaning hard-to-reach corners. What would I do if that happened!? I felt helpless, as if I were drowning and fighting to keep my head above water. Then I turned on the News and heard that a five-year-old boy had shot and killed his two-year-old sister with a gun—and it was HIS gun—a gun that was actually designed for, and marketed to, five-year-old children! Yes, really—a real gun with real ammunition specially designed for five-year-olds. I’m not making this up. And the gun enthusiasts in this country were on TV saying they see NO PROBLEM with marketing real guns to five-year-olds. What!!?? Just when you think things can’t get any more absurd, they do! The story that I was living in a Totally Fucked Up Country Full of Real Assholes began to roll.
Then my main phone service, which is a landline, suddenly disappeared entirely, just at the moment when movers and all sorts of people were trying to reach me, so that anyone calling me got a message that my number had been disconnected with no forwarding number. I found myself stuck in yet another Kafkaesque nightmare trying to resolve this using my cell phone (which I rarely use), and suddenly, during one of these long and absurd calls on my cellphone, I went over the edge. I began hyperventilating. I felt panic and distress. I actually put the phone down at one point and screamed, “NO!!!!!”
I felt helpless and out of control, like the universe was defying and annihilating me, ruining my well-made plans, upsetting my well-crafted apple cart, behaving in ways that were absurdly irrational and unjust, and my response to all of that was not some all-embracing deep acceptance and surrender. No, my response was a loud scream: NO!!!!!!!!!
Immediately after this episode, I felt rather ashamed of myself for being such a spoiled and tightly-wound control freak who expects the world to go my way, a crazy lady who screams and hyperventilates, and obviously a person totally unqualified to write books and hold meetings on awareness and nonduality. After all, my life is not very stressful at all compared to so many other lives. I’m not a single working mother with 4 children and a stressful day-job on top of that. I’m not living in a war zone. I’m not in prison. I didn’t just have both my legs blown off by a bomb or acid thrown in my face by a jealous husband. I’m not homeless or thousands of dollars in debt. I’m not the president of the United States dealing with a constant barrage of complicated national and international problems any one of which could potentially trigger a global war and wipe out all life on earth. No, my life is actually amazingly comfortable and stress-free. And yet, stress is relative, and faced with a certain level of upset, I flipped out and actually screamed NO!
Of course, blaming and hating and berating myself for being such a miserable failure is only another version of screaming NO to how life actually is—or, in this case, how it actually WAS—because already the entire universe has shifted. Is it possible in the wake of such an event to let the past go and begin anew Here / Now? Is it possible to meet the imperfections in myself and in the world with tenderness, compassion and love? Is it possible that this willingness to begin anew, to be present Here / Now, and to meet what arises with an open heart IS the pathless path AND the destination?
Maybe it was sheer coincidence or maybe it was another life lesson, but just when I finally felt my whole being totally surrender to the situation, when I felt all traces of upset and attempted control drain away, that's when the problem with my phone was suddenly fixed. Of course, “I” didn’t engineer this surrender; it was the dissolution of that whole sense of separation and encapsulation. There is no “how to” that can “make” this happen on command. And yet, we do begin to discover how suffering is happening, where the contraction is, and in that discovery, we can allow our grip to relax. We discover how to let go, how to BE the spaciousness that allows everything to reveal and dissolve itself naturally.
It’s very helpful to see clearly that everything is a choiceless happening, to understand that an infinite web of causes and conditions make this and every other bodymind respond as they do in every moment. It’s helpful to know that certain people have different degrees of impulse control and that there are all kinds of mood disorders and psycho-physical conditions that effect our ability (or lack of ability) to calm down and behave rationally in any given moment. (Believe me, I can really relate to those folks in Silver Linings Playbook!). It’s very helpful to know that I am the way I am and you are the way you are because the whole universe is the way it is. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have a desire to do better.
Quite naturally, there is a desire to heal what is broken, to clarify what is confused, to wake up from a nightmare, to find ways to handle stress without hurting myself or others. That desire is itself an activity of the whole universe. At its best, this isn’t an ego-based desire to make “me” perfect and to never fail again, but rather an urge to embody love and not aversion, to explore and open and discover and cultivate the response-ability Here / Now that allows surrender and letting go to happen, the surrender that dissolves the false contraction into “me” and all the anxiety and outrage that follows from that—not once-and-for-all, but now.
When this beautiful and natural aspiration for awakening gets hijacked by the thought-story-sense of being a separate person fighting to survive, it focuses on the past and the future instead of on Here / Now. In this egoic mode, we beat ourselves up for past failures and strive like a hamster on a wheel for future perfection, and of course, that only intensifies the root problem. So this aspiration to wake up only works when it is transpersonal and solely about right here, right now. And when it isn’t that way—when the thought-story-sense of “me” gets into the picture and muddies things up—it doesn’t help to take that personally either or to fight against it, but rather, to simply see it clearly for what it is, without judgment or resistance, and in that all-embracing seeing, in the light of awareness, the problem dissolves by itself.
So we might live with this question: Is it possible in THIS moment of stress and upset to relax the powerful, conditioned impulse to grasp and resist and control, to wake up from the imaginary sense of being helplessly screwed by an unjust and hostile universe? I say imaginary because only a separate fragment can be in or out of control, or screwed by a separate universe, and no such fragment actually exists.
Of course, in some moments, it seems that it isn’t possible to relax. We all have a breaking point, and we all have different abilities to handle stress, and sometimes for all of us, old habits override our better intentions. But eventually, every contraction lets go. Nothing lasts. So this surrender that spiritual teachings point to isn’t about “me” winning and never screwing up again, but rather, it’s about a willingness Here / Now to be with life as it is. It is actually a willingness to totally lose, to be annihilated, extinguished, undone completely. And it includes the willingness to fail, to be imperfect…and the willingness for the world to be imperfect. It doesn’t really matter how we compare to anybody else or to some imaginary ideal. It’s all one whole happening, and awareness beholds the entire show with tenderness and unconditional love, allowing it all to unfold and heal and clarify itself.
We love to imagine that spiritual teachers have arrived at some final state of perfection and that we are still just a fucked up mess. But every spiritual teacher, however deeply realized and awake they may be, is a human being. The kind of perfection we like to imagine doesn’t exist. Waking up (enlightenment, liberation) is very real. But it is only realized (made real) Here / Now, not yesterday or tomorrow or forever-after. We’re all a fucked up mess to one degree or another, and we’re all the One Self, the transpersonal reality, the unconditional love beholding it all.
There is a debate going on these days about whether consciousness is a function of the brain or whether the brain is an appearance in consciousness. It takes a sophisticated degree of abstract thought to even come up with this problem, for in simple present awareness Here / Now, this problem does not exist. But as someone recently pointed out in a comment to one of my posts, words like “consciousness” get used and understood in many different ways, and no one really “knows” what consciousness is, or at least, not in the way that science knows things. On the other hand, consciousness is the most obvious and unavoidable reality there is, the ever-present ground of every experience, something all of us know intimately and with doubtless certainty. It is what we are; it is what everything is. But “it” cannot be measured or seen or found as a “thing” apart from what it reveals. And the relationship of consciousness to the brain and the nervous system is only beginning to be explored scientifically.
Scientists and religious people all have many different theories about what consciousness is, and what comes first, the brain or consciousness. Theories and beliefs can always be doubted, and they change as our understanding changes. But the bare actuality of present moment seeing-hearing-sensing-breathing-awaring-being is not a theory or a belief. Being here, aware and present, is beyond doubt. It needs no proof. We can doubt whether this present happening is a computer-generated brain experience or whether it is the One Self imagining the brain, but where are these doubts and theories occurring? What is aware of all this? If we try to answer that question with any kind of “something” (a word or a concept), that answer can be doubted. But the experiencing itself, the self-evident knowingness of being here now, the bare being of this present happening, the awaring of all this—that we cannot doubt. We can doubt whether the object we see is a real lake or a mirage, but we cannot doubt the seeing and the bare shimmering shape being seen, the simple suchness or thusness of it.
Zen teacher and former science writer Steve Hagen makes a wonderful point in his book Buddhism Is Not What You Think (a book I can’t recommend highly enough). He points out that we usually think of religion as being about belief, and we usually think of science as being about facts and real knowledge. But actually, he says, it is (or should be) the other way around. Science deals in conceptual abstractions and depends upon belief—it postulates theories then tests them out in objective ways, always remaining open to the possibility of new discoveries overturning what was previously believed. Religion, on the other hand—at its truest and best, in its original sense—is (or should) always be about direct knowing and being. When religion veers away from this direct immediacy and becomes a matter of belief, that is when religion becomes dangerous. Then we have holy wars, fundamentalism, backward ideologies, oppressive hierarchies and all the things so evident in our world today. When religion becomes a matter of belief, those beliefs tend to solidify into “revealed” dogma that cannot be questioned, whereas science has the tools and the methodology to work with belief in a useful way—always holding it as a tentative approximation to be questioned and tested.
Of course, many people have no sense of what “direct knowing and being” might be. When they hear something like, “listen with the heart and not with the thinking mind,” they are baffled. Actually, they DO know what direct knowing is—it is their most intimate reality—but they haven’t noticed it yet because it is too obvious and simple, and the thinking mind so easily takes center stage and captures the attention. So instead of simply noticing what is right here—what we cannot not be—we fall into trying to figure all this out mentally. This distinction between what is conceptual and the living reality Here / Now is really the whole key to spiritual awakening. Waking up is the ending of that mental scramble. It is seeing the conceptual map-world for what it is and waking up to the undeniable aliveness and immediacy Here / Now, the vast and boundless freedom of awareness and presence.
These words, like all words, are only pointers and can be used in various different ways to mean different things. We can debate the words. But the reality to which I am pointing is unmistakable, self-evident and undeniable. And to be clear, seeing the map-world for what it is doesn’t mean never thinking or conceptualizing. It simply means not mistaking the map for the territory, not trying to use thinking for what thought cannot touch, and knowing where the aliveness is.
Scientific knowledge deals with the conditioned world of cause and effect, the world that can be measured and analyzed. Scientific knowing tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Whereas the kind of direct knowing that is at the heart of all true religion or spirituality is the undeniable experiencing of water—drinking it, swimming in it—knowing it directly. This direct knowing is nondual. There is no separation in this knowing between subject and object. The chemical make-up of water can be questioned and doubted, but the direct experience of wetness cannot be doubted. It is self-evident. It doesn’t need to be figured out.
Science and religion are two equally valid but very different ways of knowing. They each have their place. Sometimes in spiritual circles we also hear about “not knowing,” and that doesn’t mean ignorance, but points rather to a way of being that is open, spacious and free—not grasping, not trying to understand with the thinking mind what cannot be understood with thought—opening up to the vastness Here / Now that is beyond the reach of conceptual knowledge. This vastness is unconditioned and undivided. In it, there is no cause and no effect. As an idea, this is meaningless babble. But when the reality itself is tasted, no doubt remains.
We all know the experience of being conscious—it is what Here / Now IS. The reality of consciousness is self-evident, simple, obvious, immediate. There is also an awareness of being conscious, a knowingness of it, an intuition of the boundlessness that remains even in deep sleep when all sense of conscious presence is gone, that which is aware of being aware, that which includes everything and depends on nothing, the wholeness that has no opposite. We all know this in the deepest sense, whether we THINK we know it or not. However we talk about all of this, and whatever words we use to describe and point to it, the bare actuality of this bottomless awareness is our most basic reality. And as we begin to knowingly sense and open to this boundlessness, we find that this aware presence is itself love, joy, peace, freedom, enlightenment. This awakeness and immediacy is the territory of true religion. (And in talking about religion in this post, I’m using the word in this pure and original sense, not in the way we commonly think of religion as a collection of institutions, traditions, beliefs, rituals, dogmas, and the like. So if the word religion is totally unpalatable to you, feel free to substitute a word you can live with: spirituality, nonduality, Zen, Advaita, whatever you like).
Love, joy, peace and freedom are undeniable realities, although we might be hard-pressed to explain these self-evident and vivid actualities in words—and even if we could find words to describe them, the words would never be the thing itself. Experiencing, embodying and BEING love, joy, peace and freedom is what true religion is all about. Science is a totally different ballgame. Science might study what parts of the brain light up when we feel love, or how the capacity for love relates to evolutionary survival, or what neurochemistry is involved when people seem unable to experience love. Science looks at what changes in the brain when we are meditating. Science deals in theories and explanations. It measures the distance from the earth to the moon and enables us to design the technology that gets us to the moon. And of course, science exposes many religious beliefs as the pure fabricated nonsense that they are (at least, if those beliefs are taken literally as scientific facts).
If we try to approach religion with logic and reason and the scientific method, we will kill the very heart and spirit of it and miss the point entirely. Likewise, if we try to approach science without logic and reason and the scientific method, it will go completely astray, although I suspect that many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs actually originate in a state of open presence or “not knowing.” Science can study the brain waves of meditators, and that may have its usefulness, but that isn’t the same as actually sitting down and meditating. Religion is like a dance or a kiss. You don’t analyze it or measure it or try to explain it. You LIVE it. Religion and science both have their place. We don’t need to abandon or denigrate either of them. But when we mix them up, we get into trouble.
Religion reveals the seamlessness that is undivided and nondual, not as an idea or a concept, but as a living reality. Thought divides this seamless unicity up into different, apparently separate pieces, thus creating what I often call the map-world or what is often referred to as relative reality. The ability to divide and discern differences is functionally necessary, and we can’t ignore relative reality or dispense with maps, but religion helps us to recognize their tentative and dream-like nature. Religion points us to another place altogether: the placeless place Here / Now, our True Self.
In the map-world, thought divides “the brain” from “consciousness,” just as it divides “the chicken” from “the egg,” and then it takes the imaginary objects it has just created and the separation between them as real, and it wonders which imaginary object came first. Long arguments follow. This is where intelligent meditation can be so valuable. Because, although it sounds obvious that the map is not the territory; in fact, these conceptualizations that we habitually mistake for reality are so deeply conditioned and ubiquitous and subtle that it isn’t easy at first to recognize them for what they are. At first glance, the virtual reality created by thinking SEEMS like reality itself. We easily mistake the map (the conceptual abstraction, the divided world of separate pieces) for the territory it describes (the seamlessness of direct experiencing, Here / Now). We focus all our attention on the map and overlook or ignore the territory itself, and when we do that, we get lost in imaginary problems. We imagine that we’re really going to figure out which comes first, the chicken or the egg, as if we could have one without the other.
Of course, it’s worth noting that we never find anything outside of consciousness. We can IMAGINE something outside of consciousness, but that imagining can only show up IN consciousness. No brain has ever been found outside of consciousness, and if we cut open the brain, we won’t find this room we’re sitting in, or this Facebook page, or this apparent world. But instead of drawing any conclusions from this observation, perhaps we can remain in the open space of not knowing. In that space, no conclusions are needed.
There’s no mystery in the experiencing of consciousness Here / Now, but once we leave the immediacy of this direct experience and begin wandering in the map-world trying to figure out what consciousness “is,” we quickly find confusion, uncertainty and doubt. Thought creates the imaginary problem and then runs madly on the hamster wheel trying to solve it. Awakening is about stopping the chase and opening to what is Here / Now in a new way.
Each of us must discover the all-pervading nature of awareness and the simplicity and immediacy of being for ourselves. But what’s so important to realize is that we’re not talking about a mental idea here, a belief, a new philosophy, or a scientific theory that can be proven or disproven. We’re talking about the living reality Here / Now. And whatever we say about this obvious and undeniable reality, whatever words we use, the verbalization is not the thing itself and can never capture the actuality. The word kiss cannot begin to express or contain the reality of a kiss. All the word can do is point. Words are maps, descriptions, sign posts, pointers. The true heart of religion (awakening, enlightenment, liberation) is in the kissing itself.
There is a place for science and philosophy and metaphysics. There is a place for logic and reason and skeptical thought. There is a place for the scientific investigation of the brain and consciousness, and that investigation will be an endless unfolding with ever-new discoveries. I love reading about brain science and evolutionary biology and quantum physics and things like that. But what is being pointed to here is something else entirely. You can’t grasp nonduality or true religion with the thinking mind.
But if you listen with the heart and look directly with the eye of awareness, you may discover the ever-present, ever-fresh, ever-changing, aliveness Here / Now. Just don’t get hung up on the words. Everyone uses them a bit differently. If they hit the target, great. If they don’t, let them go. What matters is the living reality to which they point. That’s where the juice is.
So right now, if you find yourself thinking about all of this, that’s okay. But the invitation here is to let the thinking go, to drop out of the conceptual mind—and instead, listen to the wind rustling the leaves, the traffic sounds on the freeway, the song of a bird—feel the breathing, the sensations, the energy—and sense this vast listening presence beholding it all.
“Just as one’s dream in sleep exists nowhere but in the mind (both as cause and effect) so does the universe exist only in the mind of infinite Consciousness.”
--Ramesh S. Balsekar
“Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object, or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?”
We assume that there is an objective, observer-independent world “out there” that we are born into, a world that we are looking out at and trying to manipulate. Hypnotized by this picture of reality, we can’t understand how other people, especially those on the opposite side of hot button issues, can fail to see what seems to us so utterly obvious and completely beyond question: the world as we see it. How can people actually believe, for example, that it’s okay to design and market real guns with real ammunition to five-year-old children (as one company in the USA is actually doing, and as numerous gun enthusiasts in this country are defending as perfectly okay)? It’s as if these people aren’t seeing the same “reality” that I’m seeing, and indeed, obviously they’re not! What if there actually is no substantial, objective, observer-independent world “out there” apart from consciousness?
When teachings point out that this world is an illusion or a dream, they don’t mean that there’s nothing here. They mean that what’s here is not what we think it is—it’s not a single, solid, observer-independent, objective reality “out there” apart from the seeing of it. The dualistic separation between subject and object is the most basic illusion. In reality (in our actual, immediate, direct experience), the world isn’t “out there.” It is right here. There is no separation. No real boundary can actually be found where “awareness” turns into “the content of awareness,” or where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me.” We can THINK of such a boundary or IMAGINE one, but in actual direct experience, it cannot be found, for it doesn’t actually exist. Any such boundary is purely conceptual. Thought divides present experiencing up notionally into “the seer” (whether that seer is imagined to be “me” or “impersonal awareness”) and “the seen” (everything imagined to be “not me” or “not awareness”). But our actual direct experience is always the seamlessness of seeing-awaring-being, where no form holds still (or forms) as a separate or enduring “thing” apart from everything else. And if you think you don’t see this, I would suggest that you are paying attention to your thoughts and the virtual reality they create while simultaneously overlooking or ignoring your actual, immediate, direct, nonconceptual, present moment experiencing here and now.
When consciousness becomes hypnotized by the sense of separation and encapsulation and all the rest of the virtual reality created by thought, we believe ourselves to be a separate fragment fighting to survive and succeed, always terrified that we might lose control or make a mistake and fail, always running from death in all its many forms. But the problem is entirely imaginary. When we discover that the world is round, we haven’t found the way to save ourselves from falling off the edge, we’ve simply realized that the problem (the apparent danger of falling off the edge) never existed in the first place.
It’s relatively easy to “get” nonduality intellectually, and that’s helpful. But what truly liberates us is not an acquisition or an attainment. It’s not an intellectual belief or a new philosophy or a special experience. It is simply the absence Here / Now of grasping and seeking. It is the absence (or transparency) of the apparent separation and encapsulation that never actually existed in the first place. The problem was always imaginary. Liberation is the absence (or transparency) of the story that we are somebody in particular, located here but not there, separate and bounded. What remains in the absence of this story and this mental grasping is the simplicity of what is, just as it is—Here / Now—ever-present and ever-changing. And remember, Here / Now does not mean “forever after” or “never again” or “maybe tomorrow” or “once last year.” It means Here / Now.
In the utter simplicity of Here / Now, there is no me and there is no problem. There is no division, no separation. But if you’re hearing this intellectually with the mind, it is meaningless. The mind will instantly produce an argument. When we listen with the intellect, we are in the realm of ideas and concepts, and soon we become entangled in confusion and lost in doubt. Of course, I’m not disparaging the intellect or the value of logical thinking and rational discernment, all of which certainly has its place. But what’s being pointed to here cannot be reached by reasoning or analysis. In fact, it cannot be reached at all for it is always already fully present. This is it. This present aliveness, this knowingness of being here now, this unbound awareness, this seeing-hearing-breathing-sensing -awaring-being that has no beginning and no end.
Try to grasp it, and it seems to slip through your fingers. But stop and notice that it is effortlessly always right here, unavoidable and obvious. You cannot leave Here / Now. Thoughts of past, present and future can only appear Here / Now. You ARE Here / Now.
“This is the one and only race you will win by going absolutely nowhere!”
I had a question recently from someone who wanted to know if I was overlooking the space of awareness in favor of the experiences that come and go within it. He had read one of my books, and I seemed to be saying that all there is, is the sound of traffic or the taste of coffee or whatever might be happening right now. Was I overlooking THAT which is AWARE of all these passing experiences?
I would say, what is ALIVE in the sound of the traffic or the taste of coffee IS the awaring of it. That IS the present-ness or suchness of it. There is no separation, no boundary between subject and object (between awareness and what it reveals)—those apparently separate "things" only exist as notional ideas. Reality is seamless, nondual.
Many teachings (including my own at times) emphasize the recognition of awareness—the listening presence, the spaciousness, the SEEING (or the nonconceptual knowingness) that is upstream from thinking, the unconditioned freedom that is the groundless ground of all that appears. That recognition is a very important discovery on the pathless path from here to here. And many teachings (including my own at times) also emphasize the recognition that this awaring presence is actually what I AM—that I am not a separate self encapsulated inside a separate bodymind, but rather, I AM this aware presence that is boundless, bottomless, ownerless, timeless, placeless and all-inclusive. Many teachings (my own included at times) also emphasize "being aware" or "being here Now,” fully present, paying attention, waking up from the entrancement in thought-stories and being awake to the bare actuality of Here / Now. Other teachings (my own included) also point out that in a deeper sense, there is actually no way NOT to be Here / Now, for Here / Now is all there is.
Some teachings (which I find off-the-mark) advise people to ignore or dismiss the entire phenomenal manifestation as nothing but a worthless illusion. These teachings insist that we are not the body, and we are not a person. But as I see it, waking up is not about ignoring or discounting relative reality, being “stuck in the absolute,” or fixating on one side of any imaginary divide. In some sense, we ARE a person, and we ARE the body. What could be more obvious?! It’s just that this isn’t ALL we are, and “the body” and “the person” are actually only notional abstractions of what is really nothing but seamless movement and change, inseparable from everything else. In reality, there is nothing separate to “be” one thing and not another. The problem (our human suffering) has to do with thinking we are ONLY the body and that we are a separate fragment, encapsulated and apart. Our suffering is mistaking the story and the map-world of concepts and beliefs for reality. But bare sensation and direct perception (the ACTUALITY of the phenomenal manifestation) is no problem at all. EVERYTHING is included in what we ARE and WHAT IS. Unicity is not the OPPOSITE of diversity or particularity. Unicity is nondual, all-inclusive, not one, not two.
But any teaching we put into words is only a map, an abstraction of reality, a sign-post. And when people hear these teachings conceptually and try to make sense of them on that level, with the thinking mind, and then try to live in the map or satisfy their hunger by endlessly reading the menu or the recipe, then we have confusion and apparent contradiction between one sign-post and another. But no map is ever the territory it describes, and no menu or recipe is the meal. And EVERY map has its potential pitfalls—ways it can be misunderstood. A particular map may be useful in freeing us from one misconception, and then we need yet another map to free us from the new misconception that has just been created by the first map! And so, what I’ve noticed is that we each seem to find the pointer (the map, the recipe) that we need in every moment, but it's not like any one of these is the One True Map, for there is no such thing.
One of the common pitfalls in teachings that emphasize identifying ourselves only with awareness and not with the content of awareness is that this can easily create a new duality in the imagination that isn't actually there in reality. The separation between "awareness" and "the experiences that come and go within it" is purely conceptual, like the boundary-line on a map between one county and the next. If you actually pay attention to your direct, immediate experience, you won't find any actual place where awareness ends and the computer screen begins, or where "inside of you" turns into "outside of you." So to dissolve this final false duality, some teachings (my own included) emphasize the seamlessness of everything, the absence of separation, the unicity from which nothing stands apart.
And above all else, I emphasize non-grasping or groundlessness. Not fixating. The mind always wants the "right" formulation, the right model, the right map, somewhere to stand, something to get hold of and hang onto, something to believe in. It wants to figure things out, get some perfect model of how life works and what it all means. But true freedom is in letting go of all that. The aliveness, the juice, is not in the map, but in the territory itself, the actuality of Here / Now, what I often call this living-seeing-hearing-breathing- awaring-being that has no beginning and no end, no inside and no outside. But again, these words are only pointers.
Any confusion is always conceptual. It’s only there in the map, not in reality itself. The actuality of this present happening is never confusing. Before those words, before we THINK about this present happening and mentally divide it up into notional parts and label all the imaginary parts and then think some more about how they relate to each other—before all of that thinking, the bare simplicity and immediacy of This-Here-Now is not confusing in any way whatsoever. It simply IS.
And instead of THINKING about all of this and getting more and more confused, I recommend listening to the wind or the traffic or the birds….seeing the shapes and colors and movements….feeling the sensations, the breathing….being ALIVE as this ever-changing, ever-present Here / Now, just as it is.
Once, while on a flight to Boston, the person seated next to me—after eliciting the fact that I was going to Boston to give a workshop—asked me what the workshop was about. I said to him, “I don’t know.” I wasn’t being clever. When asked what my workshop was about, my actual experience in that moment was that no answer presented itself. There I was, fully present and aware, but without any IDEA about what I was going to be doing in Boston. NOTHING came to mind!
Whatever it is that I write and talk about, it seems to have something to do with falling into a profound kind of not-knowing, where you realize that you know absolutely nothing at all, and that ANYTHING you can say about life is subject to doubt. At the same time, what I write and talk about also involves a kind of noticing or awakening to that which is absolutely impossible to doubt. This that is beyond doubt is nothing mysterious or mystical. It is not something “spiritual” as opposed to “material.” It is not esoteric or elusive in any way. In fact, it is utterly obvious, entirely unavoidable, and fully present right here, right now. It is this present happening—this seeing-hearing-awaring-thinking-moving-being, Here / Now, THIS that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same —before we put it into words and think about it and try to explain and interpret it.
This present happening—the simplicity of What Is—is not a belief system or a philosophy. It’s not a practice either, for it has no method and no goal, no beginning and no end, no purpose and no outcome. And while there is no way to ever know, in our usual way of knowing, “what” this happening “is” (whatever that means!), at the same time, there is absolutely no way NOT to know it in the sense of direct knowing—by which I mean this innate and undeniable KNOWINGNESS of being present and aware, being Here / Now, seeing-hearing-sensing-experiencing-being the bare actuality of this present happening.
I probably told my seatmate on the airplane in one way or another that my workshop was about being awake to life as it is, seeing through the imaginary problem that we think is binding us and recognizing the boundless freedom that is Here / Now. And I probably told the participants in my workshop that waking up or being present is not something that happens once-and-for-all, that it’s not an event in the past or the future, but that it is always only NOW.
HERE / NOW (this placeless place of timeless presence, the boundless and seamless immediacy of being) is not SOMETHING as opposed to something else. It’s not a particular experience, or understanding, or state of consciousness that can be perceived, or described, or differentiated from other experiences. It is not the result of a cause. It is the nondual absolute, the unicity that has no opposite and no other. And the freedom that I’m speaking about is not the freedom to be as we want to be, but rather, the freedom to be as we are, the freedom that is unbound by limitation. This freedom is the willingness to be in hell and even the willingness to be unwilling.
There is no path or practice that can bring this freedom about for it is always already fully present and fully realized. It is what IS. The pathless path (the direct path) is about dissolving the illusion that this is not the case, seeing through the story that “this isn’t it,” waking up from the belief that there is SOMEONE apart from unicity who is either awake or not awake, getting it or not getting it.
Perhaps my seatmate on the airplane or one of the participants in my workshop asked me if all this had anything to do with meditation. The word “meditation” is a loaded one, easily misconstrued because it is used to describe so many different and varied activities. Some nondual teachers insist that meditation is dualistic, unnecessary, even counter-productive, but I’m guessing that what they mean by meditation may not be what I mean by true meditation. As I see it, true meditation is nothing more or less than what could be called resting in awareness or bare being, being present, being aware, being consciously in the Now, paying attention in an open and undirected way, being awake, allowing everything to be as it is, not grasping.
And so-called formal (i.e., deliberate, intentional) meditation is really nothing more or less than a kind of simplified space where we stop all our usual outward activity (all the talking and doing). By slowing things down and stripping away all the things that typically demand our attention, energy can gather Here / Now in bare presence and awareness. There can be a wakefulness (a relaxed, open, alert, spacious, free attention) to the non-conceptual happening of this moment (the sounds of traffic or wind rustling the leaves, the ever-changing sensations in the body, the sounds and smells of rain, the movement of breathing, the chirping of a bird…the spacious, listening presence beholding it all). In this simplified space, we can also begin to see more clearly the workings of thought and all the inner busyness that typically occupies so much of our attention (the virtual reality created by thinking and imagining, the inner striving and efforting, the judging and story-telling), and we can begin to SEE THROUGH this conceptual overlay and the mirage-like “me” who seems to be at the center of it…the main character in “The Story of My Life” (or “The Story of My Awakening,” or “The Story of Me Not Being awake”).
True meditation can happen on the city bus while riding to work, or in a waiting room before a medical appointment. It can happen while stuck in a traffic jam, or while sitting quietly at home in an armchair. It can happen on an airplane or on a park bench. It can happen while walking through nature or while walking through the city. It can happen in your kitchen or in a prison cell, in a hospital bed or at the office. It can happen with eyes open or closed, in the lotus position or stretched out in a recliner, in solitude or in the midst of a crowd. It can happen in deliberate, formal meditation, or it can happen spontaneously and unexpectedly while drinking a cup of coffee.
Instead of trying to get somewhere, or attain something, or get rid of something, true meditation invites us to simply stop and notice how it actually IS, right here, right now. And right away, we can notice that Here / Now isn’t any particular way at all, for everything is changing. This kind of meditation is not about trying to achieve some particular state of consciousness and then stay in it forever—that very notion is delusion. It is about the freedom to BE the ever-changing flow of Here / Now, the freedom that allows EVERYTHING to be as it is—even resistance, contraction, ignorance and delusion. It is the recognition that NONE of this is personal and that ALL of it is one seamless whole in which the light and dark are interdependent and cannot be pulled apart.
There is no up without down. Up/down only exist relative to one another, within the context of some particular conceptual containment. Without a reference point, without imaginary boundaries, without a conceptual context, there is no up or down. Experiences come and go. Some experiences FEEL enlightened, some experiences FEEL deluded. Some experiences FEEL open and free, some experiences FEEL contracted and bound. But ALL experiences appear HERE / NOW. And just as the many different waves in the ocean (the placid ones and the stormy ones, the big ones and the little ones) are all equally the one ocean with no real separation between one wave and another, so all these endlessly different experiences are equally THIS, the unnamable unicity that has no opposite—call it emptiness, presence, beingness, energy, consciousness, the Self, no-thing, everything, or whatever word you like best—the word is only a pointer.
And the one who takes credit or blame for all these different experiences, the one who imagines that these experiences all mean something “about me,” that someone is a mirage-like phantom, a mental image, a thought-generated character in a story. No such separate and independent “me” can ever actually be found in the happening of this moment. Yes, there is a functional sense of self that operates as needed—a functional sense of location, boundaries, agency, will and intention—but look closely at this bodymind and all you find is ever-changing movement with no actual boundaries. That sense of independent agency and free will, of being encapsulated and separate, ALL of that is an illusion, a kind of mirage. To some degree it is a necessary illusion that allows us to function, but unless we SEE directly that this illusion has no actual reality, there will be suffering. For in reality, there is no enduring SOMEBODY to be awake or not awake, enlightened or not enlightened. There is no owner, no author, no doer, no chooser, no decider, no experiencer, no thinker, no witness. There is only this ever-changing, seeing-hearing-sensing-thinkin g-awaring-doing-being….one whole undivided happening that includes EVERYTHING. We can call it thorough-going flux, or we can call it the ever-present Here / Now. We can say it is no-thing or everything. We can describe it as emptiness or fullness. But whatever we call it, no word or description can capture it.
The whooshing of traffic, the tweet-tweet-tweet of a bird, the faint sounds of a television in another room…the fragrance of flowers, the smell of exhaust fumes…queasiness in the belly, an ache in the shoulder…thoughts playing and replaying past events, anticipating future events, planning, judging, evaluating, story-telling…actions happening (an urge arising, the arm reaching out, the legs pushing up, the head turning…cooking dinner, reading a book, checking email, going to work, driving the car, talking on the phone)…and beholding it all, permeating it all, the listening silence, the spaciousness, the awake presence, the aliveness, the energy that is completely free.
Ultimately, if we take up true meditation, the boundary-line between “meditation” and “the rest of our lives” dissolves. We discover that this aliveness, this energy, this unbound awareness is actually what Here / Now IS, the ever-present groundless-ground that is at once ungraspable and unavoidable.
Consciously resting in bare being brings you out of the complicated mental realm of thoughts and ideas, into the simplicity and immediacy of nonconceptual, direct sensing and awaring. It gives you a direct, felt-experience of fluidity, impermanence and spaciousness. You discover firsthand that there is no gap, no distance between you and this present happening, that nothing is really “out there,” that everything is right here, utterly immediate and inseparable—most intimate, as they say in Zen. And when thoughts pop up, as it is their nature to do, true meditation simply notices that they ARE thoughts. It simply SEES how thought can instantly create a virtual reality in the imagination, a whole movie story with “me” at the center of it. Clear seeing discerns the difference between the kind of thinking that is functional, creative, or merely harmless (like mental chewing-gum), on the one hand, and the kind of thought that generates suffering and illusion—thoughts that are obsessive, addictive and false—thoughts like, “I’m a worthless idiot who has ruined my whole life” or “I’m the most enlightened person on the planet” or “I need this shot of whiskey and I deserve it” or “If I just think about nonduality a little bit more, I know I’ll be enlightened.” When possible, true meditation effortlessly lets this kind of thinking go and relaxes back into bare sensation and open awareness.
Of course, sometimes the pull of obsessive thought is very strong, very compelling. And meditation isn’t about fighting thoughts, or trying to kill them, or forcing ourselves not to think, or imagining (i.e. THINKING) that “someday I will be completely free of thoughts.” Rather, it is simply being AWARE of that enormous pull, the attraction and allure of thought—the fear of letting it go, the promises it holds out, the addictive and compulsive quality of it, the way it hypnotizes and mesmerizes us, what is pleasurable about it and what is painful. Meditation is SEEING all of that. In that seeing, we discover firsthand how suffering is created and sustained, how the illusion of separation comes about, how we are tricked again and again by our thinking. What dissolves our suffering and disempowers this habitual entrancement is not thought-generated effort and manipulation. It is simple awareness.
Awareness accepts everything just as it is. Awareness does not judge or compare. It has no goals or agendas. It wants nothing. It has space for everything. Awareness simply allows everything to be. And amazingly enough, as counterintuitive as it may seem, total acceptance is often the most reliable way to bring about positive transformation, even though, paradoxically, it has no intention of doing that. Our usual approach—resisting and TRYING to MAKE things change—typically strengthens the habits we are trying to get rid of, because that efforting and resisting and seeking is itself part of the same habitual movement, rooted in the illusion of dualism. Awareness is outside the loop of habit. Awareness is already free, unconditioned, nondual, whole. And awareness is ALWAYS ALREADY allowing everything to be as it is—have you noticed? Awareness is unbound, uncontained. It has no owner. “You” don’t have to “do” this acceptance. It is the very NATURE of awareness to accept and include. Everything IS allowed to be as it is—obviously! It IS as it is!
So, can you notice the difference between awareness and thinking, between sensing and conceptualizing, between the ACTUALITY of this moment and the thoughts and ideas ABOUT it (the labels, explanations and judgments, the analysis, the stories)? Can you SEE that ALL the stories that thought tells are imaginary, even the ones that are relatively “true stories”? Can you see that thoughts are not the objective reports on reality they claim to be? Can you also see that EVERYTHING is one seamless energy, INCLUDING thinking and story-telling—that there is no place where “awareness” ends and “the content of awareness” begins, that the boundary-lines created by the words are notional?
When I invite any kind of meditative exploration in my meetings now, I'm pointing to a way of being that is open and effortless, a way of being that is non-methodical and without any goal. But that doesn't mean just sinking mindlessly into non-stop daydreams or wallowing in obsessive thoughts and stories, although that will happen from time to time, but perhaps when it does, and when it is noticed, there can be an effortless relaxing back into the bare simplicity of traffic sounds, the sensations of breathing, the shapes and colors of the leaves fluttering in the wind.
And if there is depression or anxiety or restlessness or tension of some kind, is it possible to allow it to be as it is, to stop fighting it and judging it and wanting it to be different, and instead, to simply feel the sensations, to fully enter into these sensations with awareness, to allow them to unfold and dissolve, and to SEE the thought-stories that are operating, and to question whether these thoughts are really true?
In this way, we are simply BEING the awareness and the presence that we ARE. We don’t need to TRY to identify ourself as awareness or strain to “look and see what is aware of being aware” or anything else that takes effort and imagination. All of that begins to feel much too complicated. As does any kind of deliberate, methodical mindfulness practice that we have to keep remembering to “do”. Instead, we simply relax into BEING aware, BEING present, BEING Here / Now, being what we already effortlessly ARE—this present moment, just as it is. And we don’t make this into some big new TASK that we are trying to do perfectly “all the time.” It’s a much more natural unfolding, happening by itself. So it doesn’t mean we won’t have moments of useless or obsessive thought, moments of upset, moments of addictive acting out, moments of daydreaming. It doesn’t mean not watching television or never gossiping again or always feeling spiritual (whatever we think that might mean). It doesn’t mean we turn into some idealized Perfect Being that our imagination has conjured up. It means that we are comfortable with being imperfect and human, with life as it is. We may still be moved to sit down and deliberately meditate…or go into a recovery program or see a therapist or take up yoga or join a gym. But we’re not doing these things with the expectation of becoming perfect. We’re simply doing what life moves us to do, whether that is joining a gym or eating a hamburger and watching a crime drama on TV. It’s all allowed to be as it is.
This nondual being is absolutely effortless, absolutely simple, totally easy. And if it seems otherwise, you can be sure thought is in the picture, imagining “you” and “what’s wrong with right now” and “the way it should be” and “the finish-line,” and then running around the treadmill, chasing the imaginary carrot and trying very hard to get from here to there. And the joke is, even this funny spinning tail-chase is itself only an insubstantial, momentary, dream-like appearance belonging to no one. Nothing is really being harmed, just as no one is really being saved. Already the entire universe has been born anew. Nothing stays the same. THIS is a whole new moment.
Imagine the incredible folly of giving a workshop or writing a book about THAT! As one Zen Master, with characteristic humor and clarity, apparently wrote on his deathbed, “For 40 years I've been selling water by the bank of a river. Ho! Ho! My labors have been wholly without merit."
It’s easy to misunderstand any words, and what is being pointed to in nonduality (or Buddhism or Advaita) is so subtle that it is hard to convey in words. It often seems to take years before there is that first real light bulb moment of recognition. In a way, the difficulty in realizing this lies in how effortless it is, how simple, how obvious. The mind just can’t believe it! And searching for some fantasy version of liberation “out there” somewhere in the future can be an entertaining way to keep the illusory sense of “me” alive—me starring in the epic movie-story of Me On My Great Journey to Enlightenment, and me on the edge of my seat watching it! Will I make it or not? So much suspense, so many thrills and chills! And the fantasy version of enlightenment is never dull or painful, so much more attractive than the real version.
Sometimes when I talk about how there is nowhere to go and this is it—Here / Now, as it is, people think I’m saying that all there is, is the STORY we have about what’s going on, the IDEAS we have about it, even some CONCEPT of what Here / Now might be. The mind says, “The sound of traffic…the taste of coffee…the tweet of a bird…my bank account at zero…that’s all there is?” It sounds dreadfully disappointing, utterly meaningless and trivial—because that’s all a STORY. The actual nondual (undivided) hearing of traffic (the simple whooosh, whoooosh, whooosh), before words divide it up into “the listener” and “the sound being heard,” before it gets labeled “just traffic sounds,” before a story runs through the mind asserting that the sound of traffic is meaningless, trivial, unpleasant, unspiritual, depressing, unenlightened and mundane…before all the thoughts about my bank account and my financial failures and what all that means about me….before thought begins dredging up and comparing what different nondual teachers have said about “the phenomenal manifestation” being an illusion or how “being in the now” is dualistic and stupid…BEFORE all that, the simple whooosh, whoooosh, whoooshing (which is inseparable from the awaring or the beholding of that whoooshing)—THAT is what is being pointed to. And THAT is not disappointing, trivial, meaningless, dualistic or depressing in any way whatsoever!
I heard from someone recently who that that there seem to be two versions of nonduality. (Right away, this “problem” is kind of funny, isn’t it?) One version, this person says, is the teaching he hears from Darryl Bailey and from me, that “this is it.” The other version, he says, is what Mooji teaches, where there is something watching the changing events, the Unchanging Seer, Awareness Itself, and where it seems like we somehow have to realize or become or identify as that Ultimate Subject that is unstained by anything that appears. (Regular visitors to this page know that I hear and respond to different versions of this same question quite a lot.)
I told this person that I can't speak for either Mooji or Darryl, but that I don't think Mooji intends to leave people with the IDEA that there is some giant THING separate from Here / Now that is “out there” somewhere witnessing it all. As I hear him, Mooji is simply popping the bubble of separation, the false sense of being encapsulated inside a bodymind, by pointing to a bigger context, something so immediate and so complete that it cannot be grasped. So when we look to see what is aware of being aware, when we turn toward this seeing to find it, the imaginary bubble pops—and it leaves us right here, right now....but free of the story, free of any sense of being separate. Nothing we can conceive or perceive is that all-inclusive Totality because THAT is all there is. We ARE this Ultimate Reality, only without THINKING of ourselves as that, and without any sense of division between subject and object, because those are only notional ideas. Darryl, as I hear him, is doing the same thing in a different way, by emphasizing the seamlessness and the flux that is so thorough-going that no-thing ever forms to be separate or even to be impermanent. Mooji's is the Advaita way of popping the imaginary bubble, while Darryl's way is more rooted in Buddhism....but what matters is waking up to the living reality Here / Now, popping that imaginary bubble of separation, NOT the maps by which we describe or point to this realization. I always say, if the map helps, use it. If it just brings mental confusion, put it aside.
This isn’t about getting the right concept or the right map. Every map is just a map! This isn’t about “getting” anything. It isn’t about going anywhere or becoming something or attaining anything. It’s the absence of all that. There isn’t really even any actual bubble to pop! This is not about holding on, getting a grip, or finding a place to stand (the right map, the right understanding, the right belief system, the right experience). Liberation is about groundlessness, letting go, dissolving, free-falling, surrendering, relaxing, opening, not grasping, not fixating, not knowing. Going nowhere, or put different, BEING now/here, where we always already are.
Being here free of the stories, the interpretations, the ideas (positive and negative). So that what remains is very simple.
If the mind is right now trying to get what that might be, or constructing an argument about why this isn’t it, or looking for a method to achieve this, or comparing what is being said to some other teaching, simply SEE these mental movements. Notice how it FEELS to think these thoughts. Is it possible, right now, to let them go?
And then, what remains?
That’s not a question looking for an answer. It’s a question inviting all answers to dissolve.
Truth (nonduality, Ultimate Reality, supreme enlightenment) is utterly simple. It is right here. You are it. This is it. It is all there is. It is this seeing-hearing-breathing-sensi ng-awaring-thinking-being, just as it is—one vast energy, uncontained, authorless, ownerless, seamless, boundless, timeless, placeless, without beginning or end, with no inside or outside. This vastness is showing up as trees and birds and cars and airplanes and clouds and cluster bombs and dogs and cats and zebras and rocks and planets and galaxies and also as the absolute emptiness of deep sleep. It is everything and everything is nothing other than it, and yet it is no-thing in particular that can be separated out and grasped as an object. It is never not here, and it is always already fully realized.
So-called awakening or enlightenment is not about going somewhere new and exotic, crossing some imaginary finish-line, or attaining something that isn’t fully present Here / Now. It is simply recognizing that the problem that seems to be binding us is imaginary, like worrying about what will happen to us if we fall off the edge of the flat earth. And above all, seeing through the root problem, the one at the center of the story who seems to be bound or free, the mirage-like separate self who seems to be unenlightened and seeking liberation. This self seems very real until we look closely and discover that it cannot actually be found, that it is nothing more than ever-changing thoughts, mental images, sensations, feelings, memories and stories creating a kind of mirage that we have learned to think of as “me,” the one who is supposedly inside my body, presumably authoring my thoughts, making my decisions, and steering “me” through life.
Because of the way consciousness gets hypnotized by thoughts and by the mental tendency to divide and reify and grasp, we think that this self is real, that something is missing, that we are apart from the enlightenment that we seek, that this is not it, that we must find something we don’t have, that we must figure all this out and have some experience we’re not presently having and become different from how we are. We must get somewhere. This whole virtual reality created by thought and imagination and sensation has been compared to dreaming while in the waking state. And part of the dream-story is that we are a separate somebody who is trapped in a dream, trying to wake up, or perhaps somebody who is sometimes awake and then sometimes lost in the dream-world again, somebody who is trying to be permanently awake. But this search to wake up from the dream is itself part of the dream.
We are trying to solve an imaginary problem. Our search for enlightenment is like a mirage chasing a mirage. The virtual reality created by thought and imagination and sensation is simply another shape appearing Here / Now, happening to no one. No one is actually trapped inside it, and thus, no one breaks free of it. Freedom is already here, but it is not the freedom we imagine. It is not the freedom for “me” to be as I want to be and to do what I want to do. It is not “me” free from the dream-state. It is the freedom that recognizes that there is no other, no inside or outside, the freedom that has no problem with apparent limitation.
This is not something to figure out and think about and eventually “get.” It is simply recognizing what is right here, right now. Not by thinking ABOUT it, not by looking FOR it, but by relaxing into the utter simplicity of what is, just as it is.
How do we do that? There’s no way to put the pathless path through the gateless gate into words anymore than you can tell someone how to swim or how to ride a bicycle or how to fall asleep at night. This letting go is something we can only discover, and in the case of waking up, it isn’t so much a doing as an absence of doing. And we’re not discovering anything new and exotic. We’re simply noticing that what we are seeking is already fully present, that nothing needs to be done, that the obstacles have all been imaginary, that there is no gate and no one to pass through it.
On a friend’s recommendation, I recently read a book that I really enjoyed called The Power of an Open Question by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. Elizabeth is a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, and the book is subtitled The Buddha’s Path to Freedom, but you don’t need to be a Buddhist to appreciate it. Elizabeth ends the book with a chapter on faith, a word I don’t often use. She says: “Ordinarily, when we think of faith, we think of having faith in some thing.” But what the Buddha pointed to was emptiness, or what Elizabeth calls “boundarylessness,” and as she says, if you really understand what that is, it isn’t a thing that you can objectify and then have faith in, or at least not in the usual sense of that word. So she tells us what faith means to her: “Faith is the mind of an open question. And when we ask an open question, we don’t get some kind of static answer. We don’t arrive at a final destination or reach a definite conclusion we can hold to and say, ‘That’s it!’ Faith is an experience, a way of being in life, that comes from a mind that does not reach conclusions about the world of things.” And as Elizabeth points out, if you live out of this openness, “you will encounter an unwavering certitude. This certitude is the wellspring of confidence, intelligence, and creativity, and it will sustain you.”
If you’ve tasted this, you know exactly what she means. This open listening is the jewel beyond all price. Simply being present, aware, awake, Here / Now. Not knowing what this is. Not turning away. Not grasping. Simply being awake. Letting all the answers, all the conclusions, all the explanations, all the labels go. Opening into this boundlessness, this aliveness, this spaciousness that is the very nature of Here / Now. THAT alone is what brings deep certitude. Beliefs can always be doubted, but this open listening is not a matter of belief. And this certitude is not the false certainty of having a formula or an answer or a conclusion that we think is right. It is something entirely different, a way of being that we grow to trust or have faith in.
This awake presence is something each of us must find for ourselves—if we are interested, if this resonates in any way. And we don’t find it “out there” in the future somewhere else. We discover it Here / Now. Not by thinking about all of this and straining to “get it,” but by relaxing the grip of thought and dropping into the listening presence Here / Now. And we don’t do this once-and-for-all. It is always about NOW.
The thinking mind may say, “I don’t get it,” or “What does she mean?” or “I don’t think so-and-so would agree with that,” or “My teacher has this kind of presence all the time, but for me, this is next to impossible,” or “All that ‘be-here-now’ stuff is just another fleeting dualistic experience and I’m looking for the ultimate, ever-present, nondual blablabla,” or whatever the thinking mind churns out. Can it be seen that these are all thoughts? Is it possible to hear them for what they are (conditioned thoughts) and let them go? And then to simply listen to the traffic, feel the breathing, hear the bird singing, sense the body, and notice the spaciousness of this listening presence, the aliveness, the subtlety and the energy of it, the boundlessness? And if thought pops up again and says, “What good is that? It always disappears. The mechanism of habit is so strong. And besides, distraction is as much the One Self as presence, so it doesn’t even matter. Blablabla,” can ALL that thought be heard and allowed to pass through without getting entangled in the virtual reality it instantly creates? And once again, the bird singing…the listening space….this vast open boundaryless placeless place Here / Now…just this….no division anywhere.
This post is excerpted from my next book-in-progress:
I recently attended a dinner party where one of the guests seemed to “push my buttons” throughout the evening. I could feel my hackles rising again and again. This all happened on a very subtle level. On the surface, it was all an apparently friendly discussion—no one was screaming or shouting or throwing things, there was no visible animosity—we weren’t even having an argument in any obvious sense. But under the surface, throughout the evening, I found myself at times feeling defensive and slightly angry—and under that, hurt and afraid—although it took another day to get in touch with the fear. It felt to me like this person was often mocking my concerns, dismissing and discounting what I considered important, opposing some of my most cherished opinions. Again, this was all very subtle. It was happening in a very quiet, under-the-surface sort of way. If I hadn’t had years of meditation (watching the mind, sensing the body, being aware of all my reactions and stories), I might not even have consciously noticed that I was in any way upset, and I might never have been able to detect the hurt and fear at the bottom of it all.
That night I woke up in the middle of the night feeling angry and disturbed. The next morning, I was agitated and off-balance. I knew this was an opportunity to explore and investigate some blockage, a chance to open and surrender. And I could feel both my devotion to that process and also my resistance to it. Part of me wanted to see through the illusion and surrender and open and wake up, and another part of me wanted to hold on tightly and withdraw into woundedness and anger, self-righteousness and self-pity. (And by the way, it took decades of inner work before I ever noticed that I felt even the slightest trace of self-pity. I loathe self-pity, and it was definitely not part of my self-image to EVER feel it, much less to REVEL in it! But alas, I do sometimes find myself reveling in self-pity. Poor me.)
Decades ago, before years of meditation had worn down my certainty and opened my eyes to the powers of delusion and self-deception, I might have assumed that any upset I felt was entirely the result of the other person being a jerk. They were wrong, I was right, so naturally, I was upset. Wasn’t that just obvious? Of course, in some deep way, we all know that nothing is solid, that our own views are very slippery, and because of that fundamental uncertainty, deep down, we all have a suspicion and a fear that we might actually be wrong…that our whole construction might be nothing at all…and at the bottom-line, that we might be wiped out and annihilated, erased by the universe, as indeed we are in every new moment. We may not be consciously aware of this fear, as I wasn’t that night, but if we listen very carefully with the whole bodymind, we may begin to detect it underneath the anger and the defensiveness on the surface. This kind of discovery is part of what true meditation is all about, and it can be anything but blissful at times. The Tibetan teacher Anam Thubten once compared meditation to opening the septic tank of a very large city.
I used to wonder why two of my teachers, Toni Packer and Joko Beck, focused so much attention on seeing this kind of stuff. I used to tell Toni she should focus more on the positive side of things—the boundlessness, the unconditioned awareness, the absolute freedom Here / Now. Why we were slogging around in the septic tank when we could be blissed out on spacious emptiness? Recently, I’m appreciating more deeply why Toni and Joko both taught in the way they did.
Anyway, the next morning, after the dinner party and my middle-of-the-night anger, I sat down and began to explore my upset. What was it that felt vulnerable, threatened, put down, contradicted? What was it that was getting upset? What was I defending? Eckhart Tolle once said that if you’re defending yourself, you’re defending an illusion. But it doesn’t seem to do much to simply tell oneself, “I’m defending an illusion. There is no self. I am pure awareness. Everything is perfect as it is. It’s all unicity. Let’s get back to the boundlessness and the bliss.” Chances are, if the me-system has been triggered (what Eckhart Tolle sometimes calls the pain-body), the bodymind will still be contracted in some way, and you’ll still be feeling angry, hurt, afraid or upset, although you might manage to momentarily push it down and paper it over with some kind of comforting spiritual ideology or some kind of spiritual high. But ultimately, belief is always shadowed by doubt and those drug-like spiritual highs always wear off. True freedom is something else entirely.
There is so much confusion around notions of “no self” or “you are not your body” or “the world is an illusion.” We hear that there is no thinker, no listener, no author, no doer, no body, no world, and we imagine some mysterious disappearance in which we lose all sense of identity as this bodymind, all our personality traits disappear, all our neurosis is gone forever, the world disappears, and we dissolve into some permanent state of disembodied formlessness and perpetual bliss. And when this doesn’t seem to happen, thought says: “I’m not getting this. I still feel like me.” This thought instantly re-affirms the apparent reality of “me,” and of a second “me” who is trying to get rid of the first “me,” and the accompanying story that “I” could become an enlightened somebody if only I could finally be nobody! Oh, the humor of it all!
There IS an apparent person here, and to deny this is ridiculous. But look closely, and what at first appeared solid and discrete turns out to be a fluid, wave-like happening with no real boundaries between “it” and “everything else.” The so-called self is nothing but energy, sensations, thoughts, feelings, mental images and stories. There is a functional SENSE of self—a SENSATION (as one neurologist calls it) of identity, location, boundaries, agency or causation—that appears as needed in order to function in the play of life. We know how to cut the carrot without cutting our finger. We can distinguish between our wife and the mailman. We don’t step in front of a speeding bus. But in many moments of any ordinary day, there is no thought-story-sensation of “me.” There is simply seeing-hearing-sensing-breathi ng-awaring-being (with no phantom seer-listener-author-doer in the picture). But we overlook these gaps in the me-story or the me-sensation.
There are also certain patterns of thought, mood and behavior—certain patterns of weather and terrain—the result of infinite causes and conditions, nature and nurture—that we call the personality. Just as we might describe one wave in the ocean as larger or stronger or more violent than another wave, each person has a unique blend of certain persisting tendencies such as being extroverted or introverted, adventurous or careful, funny or humorless, perfectionistic or easy-going, soft-spoken or exuberant. But just as there is no real separation between one wave and another, and just as no wave is ever actually a separate, persisting form that holds still and stays the same over time, likewise, there is never really any separate, persisting bodymind that is the same from one instant to the next, and no personality that is set in stone. Words and concepts create the mirage-like illusion of enduring forms (“body,” “mind,” “personality,” “person,” “self,” “world,” “awareness”). We need these word-concepts to function and communicate, and the conceptual world CAN be an enjoyable dance when we hold it lightly, but can we notice that in reality, no such “things” (no solid, independent, continuous, discrete entities) actually exist? As Zen teacher Steve Hagen puts it: “We’re like whirlpools and music, hurricanes and icicles. Once formed—that is, conceived—we’re seemingly particular things, yet in each moment, all is fresh and new.”
The so-called bodymind or individual person is nothing but movement from the subatomic level to the cellular to the organic to the psychological, and this movement is undivided and inseparable from the apparent environment and all the so-called “others” around it. The apparent boundaries are notional and porous. The bodymindworld is one undivided and ever-changing event inseparable from the awaring of it. No “thing” (no person, no object, no event, no situation) exists “out there” somewhere, independently of the observing, and there is no such THING as “awareness” standing back and beholding an apparently “material world.” There is simply this undivided and inconceivable happening that thought can never grasp.
It is in this sense that everything is said to be dream-like or without inherent reality. No-thing ever actually forms (or solidifies) in the way we THINK it does, and nothing exists independently of everything else that it supposedly is not. Thus, there is really no self, no body, no mind, no world, no awareness. But this DOESN’T mean there is “just nothing” in some nihilistic sense or that everything is “just an illusion” and should therefore be ignored. It simply means that there is never really a separate self in the way we think there is, so there is no actual self that needs to be dropped, and there is no self to drop itself. There is simply the seeing through of an illusion, not once-at-for-all in some Big Bang enlightenment extravaganza, but now and now and now, whenever we find ourselves feeling defensive, hurt, irritated, anxious, greedy, fearful or depressed.
In any such moment, there is an invitation—if the interest arises—to simply look and see, what is it that is feeling threatened or defensive, hurt or afraid, angry or irritated, insulted or put down? What is it that we are defending and protecting and worrying about and trying to improve? Is it the physical body? Is it our actual life? Or is it some IMAGE of ourself, some IDEA of what I am or should be? In addition to all the somatic sensations that make up anger, fear, hurt, depression or anxiety, is there also a story at the center of these experiences, and who is the central character in that story? Is that character real, and is that all that I am? What is beholding this character? Am I encapsulated inside that character, or is that character appearing inside me (this field of awareness)?
When I say “look and see,” I’m not talking about a mental process where we THINK about this and then regurgitate whatever we believe to be the correct answer to these questions. I mean really looking and listening, dropping down into the world of pure sensation and energy, feeling into and exploring the bodily sensations, feeling the contractions and the tightenings, going into the very core of these sensations with awareness, seeing the thoughts, seeing the stories, awaring the whole thing…beholding it all, allowing the whole thing to reveal itself completely.
As this limited sense of self is seen through, as the boundaries become more and more transparent and obviously insubstantial, as the contractions and defenses and tightenings in the body relax and open, the mirage evaporates, and what emerges ever-more clearly is the unbound awareness, the vastness, the seamless unicity, the emptiness, the groundlessness that is our true nature. And as we explore and feel into this groundlessness, we find that it is by nature very spacious and luminous, free and open, accepting everything, rejecting nothing. We could say that unconditional love is another name for this open, unbound awareness. And this awareness is not separate from what it beholds or reveals. It is all one whole movement without borders or seams.
And not to expect that the false or dysfunctional sense of self is (or should be) gone for good, or that it can never reappear. It may reappear. It probably will. In my experience, it definitely still shows up. But who cares whether it shows up again or how often that happens? I don’t mean by that question to dismiss the pain and suffering that this me-identity and this illusion of separation can generate. Nor do I mean to suggest that we should simply ignore all this. In my case, when it showed up at the dinner party recently, it was an invitation to explore, to look deeply, to open and surrender. But if there had been a secondary story on top of all that about how “I shouldn’t still experience this stuff after all these years on the pathless path,” and “This means I’m a real loser who doesn’t deserve to live another day,” THAT would have been just another story (a story about the story) to see through. Because the one who worries about this, the one who takes it personally, the one who wants to be the Permanently Enlightened One and never have to deal with this “me” ever again, that one is the same old mirage-like false self wanting to be a winner and terrified of being a loser. So it is in that sense that I ask, not dismissively but very sincerely, who cares? Who is it that needs or expects to be perfect or better than others? This is something to truly investigate, not once and for all, but whenever this false self shows up.
The separate self is a mirage-like illusion. Partly a survival function that sometimes runs amok, this sense of being an encapsulated and separate somebody is a deeply engrained, socially-reinforced, habitual, conditioned weather-pattern that virtually all human beings tend to develop. It’s not bad. It’s not personal. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just something that’s happening. When it is not seen for what it is, when it is running the show, it causes a lot of mischief, a lot of pain and suffering. But when we actually look at it, it turns out to be only a mirage created by a bunch of thoughts and sensations, and a mirage has no real power to make choices or generate suffering. The real power is in awareness, what Eckhart Tolle calls the power of NOW, the power of presence. And that power is not “mine” to control if by “mine” we mean the thinking mind. And yet, I AM that aware presence. That unbound awareness Here / Now is what every apparent “I” truly IS.
This unbound aware presence expresses itself in infinite ways. Being awake doesn’t mean denying the apparent person or ending up as a disembodied formless blob with no personality and no boundaries in a functional sense. But rather, that SENSE of functional bodily identity, location, boundaries and agency now functions freely, without hindrance, and the personality is free to be more authentic, more truly itself. The “should’s” and “if only’s” melt away. There is genuine embodiment but not the false thought-sense-story of encapsulation and separation.
And as I stress over and over, waking up from the trance of delusion and discovering true freedom happens NOW, not once-and-for-all, not forever, not yesterday, not someday, not tomorrow, but always only NOW.
If we investigate the sense of self, the sense of me, we find stories, images, thoughts and sensations, but no solid, discrete entity. And if we turn toward the awaring presence that is beholding all of this, there is no-thing there. There is simply this present happening Here / Now that has no boundaries or seams, no beginning or end, no inside or outside.
So this sense of “me” boils down to the impersonal (or transpersonal, unencapsulated, unbound) sense of being present, being aware, being Here / Now. And yet, we might notice that every night in deep sleep, even this first SENSE of impersonal presence or awareness disappears along with the entire movie of waking life and the one who watches and cares about that movie. ALL of this is gone. We can imagine that death is exactly like falling asleep—everything perceivable and conceivable disappears and no one is left over to miss it!
But then the thought may arise, “Yes, but…with deep sleep, we wake up again, whereas with death, maybe we don’t ever wake up again.” And that thought sounds scary, as if we would still be there, knowing that we’re not waking up—like being buried alive, unable to turn the TV back on and find out what happens next in The Story of My Life! In our fear that there might be “NOTHING” after death (eeeekkk!), we come up with all sorts of IDEAS about what survives death, typically imagining some kind of individual soul or discrete unit of consciousness that leaves the body and goes to heaven or reincarnates in a new body. But what exactly is it that would reincarnate intact? Can we find this soul, this separate unit of consciousness that we think of as “me”? If there never has been a separate, independent, persisting bodymind in the first place, what is there to reincarnate, and what is there to die?
We all have the deep intuition that something remains both in deep sleep and in death, that there is not “just nothing.” In fact, it is only when we identify as a separate, persisting fragment (a separate, independent bodymind) or even as this SENSE of aware presence, that we worry about any of this coming to a permanent end. When we recognize the emptiness of everything (the boundlessness, the seamlessness, the undivided wholeness, the nondualism), the fear of death no longer makes sense, for we no longer imagine ourselves as a separate fragment or even as this SENSE of being present. That presence is an aspect of what we are, an aspect of the totality, but even that comes and goes.
And curiously, the “nothing” that we imagine when we fear that there might be “just nothing” after death is not nothing at all—it is actually SOMETHING (some terrifying image of bleak voidness, that imaginary horror of being buried alive or being cast adrift alone in the cold blackness of outer space, or maybe an endlessly blank screen with no movie playing). True nothing would be not only the absence of presence, but also the complete absence of any sense of absence, and that is actually what we experience (or more precisely, don’t experience) every night in deep sleep. There is no way to experience the total absence of experience, for any experience of it would be just that, an experience. In fact, true nothing is not scary and dreadful and bleak—it is completely refreshing and rejuvenating. And if we look closely, we see that nothing is actually at the very heart of everything! Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. They are not two.
Holding on to anything (a belief, an idea, a point of view, an experience, a body, a mind, a self-image, even a sense of presence) is always painful, and letting go is deeply relieving, even though the THOUGHT of letting go might have sounded scary beforehand. We begin to notice that what truly nourishes us is not “getting a grip” by having a new story or a new belief system or a more sophisticated philosophy or “the right answer,” but rather, liberation is in the willingness to let all of this go, to abide in emptiness (or groundlessness). Not grasping, not fixating, not holding on—but instead, dissolving into this bottomless presence/absence, freefalling, dying into the nothingness/everythingness of Here / Now, just as it is.
We begin to appreciate the whole show—seeing that the other is myself, that everything is the way it is because the whole universe is the way it is, that everything changes, that nothing is fixed, knowing that this whole manifestation is without enduring form or substance. Discovering the freedom that is free in the midst of limitation, the liberation that meets hatred with love and cruelty with compassion. The liberation that sees no other. The liberation that sees the perfection in imperfection, the open heart that is willing to die again and again into the discovery that there is no-thing to die. And the good news is that this is not something “I” must achieve, but rather the reality Here / Now, showing up as this very moment, just as it is, always already fully realized.
Happy Gay Pride Day! Although we don’t celebrate Gay Pride at the end of June where I live, in many cities like NYC and San Francisco, the last Sunday in June is the day, and no doubt the celebrations will be especially festive this year after the recent victory at the US Supreme Court. Although the court didn’t go as far as many of us had hoped, it certainly took a major step forward in the struggle for equal rights. As a lesbian in my 60’s who came out back in the Dark Ages before Stonewall—back when being lesbian or gay was still officially considered a mental illness, was still viewed as a sin by most religious people, and was often illegal—this is something I never imagined I’d live to see. Back in those days, being openly lesbian or gay could easily lead to losing your job, losing custody rights to your children, being shunned by your community and possibly being killed. They fired gay teachers for being gay and took children away from their lesbian mothers. Gay men were routinely beat up for being gay. Several gay men I knew were brutally murdered. Relationships had to be kept secret and happened without the countless social, psychological and financial benefits of legal and societal recognition, benefits that straight couples took for granted. The gay world was a kind of underground society happening mostly in bars (a shout out here to Maud’s Study). We’ve come a long way since then. There is still a long way to go here in the US and around the world before LGBT people are truly regarded as fully human and afforded equal treatment, but the changes in recent years have been stunning.
I remember being in NYC giving a workshop after my first book came out—it must have been in June of 1997—and I was staying with two friends, a straight couple younger than myself, and I stepped out onto their balcony one night and remarked that the Statue of Liberty looked lavender. Oh yes, they told me very matter-of-factly, the city always does that for Gay Pride. My eyes filled with tears. I could never have imagined I would ever live to see such a thing. I have teared up many times in recent days watching Edie Windsor, the wonderful, feisty, 84-year-old lesbian who challenged the Defense of Marriage Act, celebrating her victory, and the two couples who were the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case getting married—the lesbian couple being married by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris and the two men being married by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And Rachel Maddow, the openly lesbian TV host and political commentator, covering the second wedding live on her show. What a day! MANY things I never thought I’d live to see.
Of course, in the same week that the Supreme Court ruled favorably on gay marriage, they also gutted the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action. The Voting Rights decision will undoubtedly bring many more right-wing, anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-environmental, pro-corporate types into elected office. It is a blow not only to people of color, but to all of us in the 99%, including the LGBT community and women. We’ve all come a long way—we have an African-American president, an out-lesbian elected to the US Senate—but racism is not dead and neither is sexism or heterosexism. In too many ways, the situation in the United States seems to be heading in a very disturbing direction. More people are living below the poverty line, the wealthiest 1% have more power than ever, women’s reproductive rights are being systematically stripped away, the gun lobby seems to win every battle, backward immigration policies continue to destroy families, and those who seem bent upon keeping “illegals aliens” out of “our country” seem to forget that a large chunk of what is now the southwestern United States was once Mexico before we stole it from them, and that our founding fathers were themselves illegal aliens on Native American land. And so, on many fronts, the struggle continues.
I’m grateful for the larger view that I have gotten in part from meditation and nonduality—the recognition of a bigger context in which the entire universe and everything that happens in it is like a flash of lightning or a drop of dew—ephemeral and fleeting—a momentary display in consciousness without any inherent, observer-independent, objective reality—a fluid dance in which the light and the dark are inseparable aspects of One Whole. I’m also grateful for the realization that there are no separate, independent agents with free will choosing to do terrible things, that all of us are the expression of one reality, like a net of jewels in which each is only a reflection of all the others (to quote Ramesh Balsekar’s beautiful take on Indra’s Net). I’m grateful for the practice of paying attention—noticing my own knee-jerk reactions, my judgments, my sense of being right, the self-images I protect and defend—exploring the roots of my anger and hatred, my urge to survive as this form, my fear of annihilation—the ways this mind divides the world up, which groups and individuals I identify with, which ones I view as enemies or as threats to my survival. I’m very grateful for all of this—the perspective and practice of nonduality and awareness, impermanence and non-clinging—and all of this is what I try to pass on and share in my books and meetings, on my website and my Facebook page.
For the most part, I don’t talk politics in these public spheres where my work is primarily about nonduality, awareness, and meditative inquiry into the nature of reality. Political discussions so easily become polarized and heated. Things seem to solidify and get rigid and divided. We forget how fluid everything actually is. And although most people who are attracted to Buddhism and Advaita and nonduality seem to be generally progressive in their political leanings, there are some people in these worlds and some who read this page who are on the other side politically, and I don’t want to alienate or argue with these people. There are also those annoying (to me) spiritual people who insist that anything political is a diversion from true enlightenment, that the whole manifestation is an illusion, best ignored. Children being sold into prostitution? Genocide in Africa? Female genital mutilation? Drone attacks killing innocent families? Factory farms torturing animals? Deforestation and climate change? More dead Palestinians? No problem…it’s all an illusion. Navigating these politically charged waters is treacherous ground, and I’ve noticed that I can be short-tempered in this sphere. Better to steer clear. So, usually, I do.
But every now and then, I find myself addressing these things, or at least reminding us that they exist…meaning they are as real as these words, and as real as the pain of a headache or a broken bone or a pinched nerve that you or I might feel. And although much of my work is about breaking down or questioning our attachment to various identities, I do try to come out publically every now and again, just because I think it’s important to the struggle. So, Happy Gay Pride from this very-soon-to-be-65-year-old, gender-queer, slightly-bisexual, mostly-lesbian, definitely LGBTQ human being who cares deeply about this dusty world. What an amazing dance it all is! Rainbow light and love to all and may all beings be happy and free from suffering. (Oh, I can hear the Advaita police coming….)
Is it possible to love ourselves, to love all of ourselves, to love even our flaws (our addictions, our compulsions, our quick temper, our various failures and disappointments)? Is it possible to love this broken and imperfect world, to “love our enemies” as Jesus said, to love the murderers, the rapists, the child molesters, the school shooters, the perpetrators of genocide, the factory farmers, the polluters, the Ponzi schemers, the thieves, the deceivers? Is it possible to love someone who viciously murders your child, your elderly grandmother, or your beloved dog? Could this be the real heart of the spiritual path, this journey from the separative contraction of anger, hatred, resistance and opposition to the spaciousness and open heart of unconditional love? Could this be what enlightenment and liberation and waking up are really all about?
I’m certainly nowhere near being able to love all of the things I mentioned, and I’m definitely not always as kind or as big-hearted as I would like to be, but I feel this shift from being contracted, closed-down, tight, separate, self-centered, in resistance or opposition to what is “other,” fighting to survive as “me”—to being truly open and awake and fully embodying the interdependence, seamlessness, boundlessness and fluidity of life is really at the core of what all this nondual, spiritual and religious stuff is all about. It is what actually matters. It is where the rubber meets the road, as they say. It’s easy on the pathless path from Here to Here to get side-tracked into philosophical speculation, experience-mongering, the search for pain-relief, and even into dogma and fundamentalism in all its many forms (some of them very subtle, so don’t assume that’s something that applies only to rabid Christian and Islamic fundamentalists or Orthodox Jews). What really matters to us? What do we really care about? What do we really want?
I recently saw several very moving interviews with Sister Helen Prejean, a very wonderful and feisty Catholic nun who is the author of the book "Dead Man Walking" that became a great movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. (I’ll link to these interviews below). In one of the interviews, Sister Helen appeared with a man named Bill Pelke, a former steel-worker from Indiana whose grandmother was brutally stabbed to death over 30 times by a teenage girl, now in her 40's, who just got out of prison, and whom this man ended up forgiving and working to help release.
I've always been fascinated by people who make that journey that Sister Helen speaks about from being torn apart with pain and full of rage and the desire for revenge to love and forgiveness. When I imagine how I'd feel if someone had stabbed my grandmother or my mother or my father or my beloved dog or anyone else dear to my heart over 30 times in such an incredibly cruel and heartless way, I wonder if I could ever make that journey. I hope I could because I know that hatred and vengeance kills the one who feels it and poisons everything around them, but honestly, I don’t know if I could. Two people I’ve known have been murdered, but they weren’t close friends, one I barely knew, and even then I felt anger and hate for those who killed them.
But I do get ever-clearer as the years roll by that the spiritual path that interests me is not about turning away from the mess and the imperfection and the horror and trying to replace it with something that feels better. That impulse still arises, but I can see that it is really no different from what I used to do with alcohol and drugs. I wanted to drown my sorrows, numb my pain, lose my inhibitions, silence my thoughts, get high, and basically feel better. The only trouble was, it didn’t really work. And it’s surprisingly easy to try to use various versions of nonduality, religion or spirituality in exactly the same way. I catch myself doing it all the time. It begins with a very subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) turning away from how it is Here / Now.
Sometimes it seems like I cannot bear the suffering in this world or the feelings I am feeling in my own body or the stories that are running in my head. I see the earth being raped and abused, the environment being destroyed. I see all the terrible ways human beings hurt one another, all the acts of cruelty and abuse on every imaginable scale. Stories sometimes feel believable even when I know they are only stories. And sometimes, it all seems like too much. I turn away. I feel that I cannot bear to look, to open, to feel. I suspect this is a very common human experience, recognized or not.
There is a Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman, who leads “Bearing Witness” retreats every year at Auschwitz. An Anglican solitary monastic named Maggie Ross speaks of her vocation as going to the heart of the world’s sin and pain. Recently, a friend told me that he is coming to see the deepest awareness as seeing the full truth of reality, as it is. As a practice, my friend is noticing how he turns away in both large and subtle ways through-out the day, and whenever he recognizes that movement of closing down and turning away, if possible, he opens instead to what he is avoiding, “bearing witness” as fully as he can. And so I began noticing the same thing. I’m not just speaking here at the level of thought and storyline, although that’s part of it, but the real heart of the matter is deeper than that, in the body, at the level of energy and sensation.
I’m feeling how easy it is to shut down in the face of what I don’t like and go into bitterness, despair, self-pity, self-righteousness, irritation, rage, or some kind of closed-down version of transcendence that isn't really transcendence at all but something more akin to alcoholism where I reach for a comforting idea or ideology.
Toni Packer always pointed to simply being present with whatever was showing up without trying to change it, fix it, analyze it, label it, explain it, or get rid of it—just fully seeing it, feeling it, listening to it, awaring it—beholding it without judgment. Listening to the thoughts and stories (hearing them without getting lost IN them), feeling the tightenings and contractions in the body, feeling the ways we close down, pull away, curl inward, shut down. Feeling the sensations of grief and sorrow, fear and anger, resistance and longing in the body—in the belly, in the chest, in the whole bodymind. Noticing how we hold our breath or tighten our jaw or pull up our shoulders. Beholding the whole thing, not from a detached distance, but intimately, without separation or division. Not turning away from any of it.
As I see it, this is what Jesus did on the cross, whether in reality or only metaphorically doesn’t really matter. He was facing the greatest imaginable darkness: betrayal, ridicule, crucifixion, torture, a slow and agonizing death. He cried out, why had God forsaken him, and then he relaxed into “thy will be done” and “forgive them for they know not what they do.” And that surrender and death of the separate self opens into the resurrection, not literally but spiritually, in the heart. This is a movement we all face when we encounter anything we don’t like, whether that is a hurtful remark, a feeling of being misunderstood or not seen, a piece of legislation, some manifestation of prejudice and hatred, or outright violence and abuse. We have the possibility in those situations of turning away and avoiding (or mirroring) what has hurt us, or we have that other possibility, the path of Christ, the path of Buddha, the path that Sister Helen and Bill Pelke and Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King and so many others walk and have walked, the path of opening the heart, the path of love. And that path boils down to simply being fully present. The appropriate action (or non-action) follows from that simple aware-presence. Awareness IS the intelligence that acts.
Is there a choice about whether we turn away or open up? Instead of asserting that there is or there isn’t, maybe this is a question to live with, to explore ever more deeply, not knowing what may be discovered.
To actually see, moment to moment, whether it is possible to not turn away from the discomfort or the horror, to not paper it over with a comforting philosophy about how “it’s all one” or “everything is perfect as it is,” but instead, to fully allow the pain to be as it is, to feel the sorrow, the grief—to be broken open by it, to not defend against it. Of course, I’m not talking about being a doormat or allowing ourselves to be abused or having no boundaries in a healthy psychological sense. I’m talking about something deeper. Letting the heart be broken open. Not getting stuck in anger, hatred, fear, aversion, resistance, detachment, numbness, or false comfort. Not grasping for pain relief in the form of spiritual opiates. Not closing down or turning away. Allowing it all to move through, to open and open again, to BE this open space that has room for everything, that includes everything.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t take an aspirin, get palliative care, have a morphine drip, or take our mind off pain at times by watching entertaining TV shows or going to a good movie or having a glass of wine (if we’re not prone to alcoholism, that is). It’s more about developing a sensitivity to when those diversions are helpful or merely harmless, on the one hand, and when they become addictive or actually make us feel worse, on the other. And what I’m talking about isn’t about self-torture or donning a metaphorical hair shirt and forcing ourselves to suffer for the sake of suffering. Sometimes pain relief is totally appropriate, and sometimes turning away may be all we can do to protect ourselves from what we are not yet ready to handle in a constructive way. And that’s fine. That’s a manifestation of intelligence in action, to know our own limits, to not push too hard or force ourselves or hurt ourselves, to not expect the idealistic or personal perfection of “me always being open to everything.” Because that is just an idea, an ideal we can never reach, and to expect that is only another form of self-torture.
Some time back, I mentioned Pema Chodron’s wonderful book "Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change," and how one section of the book is called “Committing to Embrace the World Just as It Is.” In the final chapter in that section, 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 traditionally a place where meditators went and sat to face the impermanence of life. Maybe each of us has our own modern versions of sitting in the charnel ground. For me, it might be watching the News or a documentary on a disturbing situation, or even the commercial that comes on TV periodically for the SPCA (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). For a long time, I thought I could not bear to watch this commercial and whenever it came on, I would turn away. It shows pictures of visibly abused cats and dogs with incredibly sad and wounded looks in their eyes, urging us to help them. Recently, I decided to see if I could open to it. And so, when it came on the other night, I watched. I let the heart open and break. And surprisingly, it was okay. I survived. In some way, completely seeing it was less painful than turning away had been.
This I know—there is a tremendous power and liberation and freedom in the unconditional love that beholds it all, openly, with full-on awareness, recognizing that at this moment, Here / Now, this is how it is, that everything belongs. Everything is the way it is because the universe is the way it is. Nothing is separate. There is space here for everything. And although nothing matters in the way we often think it does, in fact, everything matters completely—every momentary drop of dew, every moving wave in the ocean. It may seem that there is no connection between the world at large and the ways I respond in the privacy of my own living room to a commercial on TV for the SPCA. But we’re not separate. It’s one ocean in which everything causes and effects everything else. A leaf falling in New Jersey has an impact in China. It’s one whole movement without borders or seams. But it’s easy to SAY such things. It’s something else to truly realize that (to make it real, to embody it, to actualize it) when your grandmother has just been murdered or when someone has just insulted you. That is the challenge and the possibility of waking up.
This is the interview with Sister Helen and Bill Pelke, the man who grandmother was murdered: http://www.democracynow.org/ 2013/6/19/ sister_helen_prejean_bill_pelke _on
And this is an additional interview just with Sister Helen:
http://www.democracynow.org/ blog/2013/6/19/ dead_man_walking_extended_inter view_with_sister_helen_prejean _on_her_decades_of_death_penal ty_activism
Both interviews very highly recommended. And I highly recommend "Dead Man Walking" -- book and movie. The book is much more in-depth.
“You can’t be totally aware if you are choosing.”
That is a wonderful koan-like statement to live with, allowing it to unfold and reveal the truth to which it points. We may discover that choosing involves thinking. It involves an imaginary future. It involves a dualistic divide between what is and our idea or ideal of how it “should” or “could” be. It involves the mirage-like thought-sense-image of “me,” the chooser, and the story that “I” could make the wrong choice and screw up my life.
When all that thinking drops away, when that sense of standing back and acting upon ourselves (and trying to control ourselves) falls away, when there is simply complete attention to the bare, unvarnished actuality of what is, just as it is, what happens?
Attention or awareness is not thought. It is not analysis. Nor is it a detached observer standing apart from what is observed. Rather, it is the undivided immediacy in which there is no separation, the nonconceptual awareness that Krishnamurti describes as attention “without a center, without frontiers, where the known doesn’t interfere.” It is nonjudgmental, open, free, unconditioned, unbound presence-awareness. It has no intention, no goal, no direction. It seeks no outcome and resists nothing.
When the apparent problem that seems to demand a choice or a solution is given this kind of complete and open attention, what happens?
Like all koans, this is not a question looking for an answer in the usual sense. It is not a problem to think about or to solve with the intellect. It is not about coming up with ideas, beliefs or information. It is an invitation to look and see, a question to live with, to explore directly in action. The thinking mind habitually wants to tackle koans (and all other apparent problems) by thinking about them (or maybe these days by googling them and trying to find the “correct” answer). But koans reveal their secrets only when the thinking mind relaxes its grip and falls silent. Then the koan works on us rather than the other way around. What would it mean to be completely present with an apparent problem, to give it total, nonjudgmental attention—not tomorrow or yesterday or forever, but right now?
This is the path of true meditation, which has nothing to do with sitting on a special cushion in the lotus position for an hour. This pathless path of simple awareness is about everyday life. It is a way of living, a way of being that has to do with discovering the gateless gate, now and now and now.
We often mishear what someone is saying, putting a spin on it from our own past conditioning that changes the meaning slightly or completely. A common example of this is how many people often report that J. Krishnamurti advocated that “we should always be in thoughtless awareness.” Along these lines, a questioner once complained to Krishnamurti that he (the questioner) was “finding it impossible to be aware all the time,” having apparently imagined that this was what K was asking him to do. Another version of this question would be a concern about not being able to “be present” or to “be here now” all the time. This is K’s reply:
“Please, there is no being aware all the time—that is a dreadful idea. It is a nightmare, this terrible desire for continuity. Just be aware for one minute, for one second, and in that one second of awareness you can see the whole universe…We see things in a flash, in a single moment; but having seen something, we want to capture, to hold it, give it continuity. That is not being aware at all. When you say, ‘I must be aware all the time,’ you have made a problem of it, and then you should really find out why you want to be aware all the time—see the greed it implies, the desire to acquire. And to say, ‘Well, I am aware all the time,’ means nothing.”
Toni Packer once said, in response to some version of this same question, that the magical fireflies that filled the fields of Springwater on summer nights had no problem with their little lights blinking on and off. How silly it would be if they were worried about not being on all the time!
We’re always looking for the continuity, the forever-after, the unchanging permanence, the unending experience, the permanently enlightened person—and many teachings (my own included at times) may seem to offer us something to take hold of that is unchanging: God, the immutable Self, Consciousness, the Absolute, primordial awareness, whatever it might be. But true freedom is in the letting go, not needing to take hold of anything, for anything we can grasp and take hold of is not the wholeness we seek. I’m not saying there is no wholeness, only that it cannot be grasped or objectified.
Someone responded to my last post, which was a quote from Krishnamurti about choice and awareness, by saying, “We are always 100% aware, awareness is simply all there is.” The person had seemingly missed the point of the post, which was about choosing being an operation of conceptual thought that cannot co-exist with total awareness. As I discuss in my book “Nothing to Grasp,” the word awareness is used in many different ways. Sometimes that word is used to point to the groundless-ground, the ever-present seamlessness that I often call Here / Now. It is in this sense of the word that we might say that awareness is ever-present, that it never comes and goes, or that “awareness is simply all there is.”
But Krishnamurti was using the word in a different sense, one that we often hear in meditation circles or somatic awareness work, where it refers to the sensitivity, the intelligence, the knowing or seeing that is upstream from thought, what we might call the light of attention. This is what we mean when we say that we are aware (or unaware) of our thoughts, or aware of the sensations in our leg, or when we speak of paying attention or being attentive (or inattentive) or becoming more aware. In this latter sense of the word, when our attention is absorbed in a mental thought-story about elsewhere and elsewhen and “me” and so on, then we are not fully aware of the actuality of presence or the living reality of the present moment—we are lost in a dream. There is a palpable experiential difference between being aware and not being aware in this sense, a difference that might well be described as the difference between suffering and the gateless gate of freedom.
In the first sense of the word, the present moment (Here / Now) is all there is, and we can never leave it or lose it. In that sense, awareness is always present even if our attention is focused on a mental story. It is the light in which that story appears and the very fabric of the story itself at its deepest core. But in the other sense, when we talk about “being in the Now” or “not being in the Now” or “being aware” or “not being aware,” we are talking about being (or not being) fully awake to that undivided reality that is prior to thought. Yes, we can say that this undivided reality is still here even when we are oblivious to it, but as Nisargadatta was fond of pointing out, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.”
Although these may seem like two very different ways of using the same words (awareness, presence, the Now), they’re not actually incompatible. They are simply different angles on the same thing. When we are “being here now,” we dissolve into the ever-present groundless-ground of aware-presence, and even after the direct realization that this groundlessness can never actually be lost, we can still discern the difference experientially between “being here Now” (awake to groundlessness) and being “lost in thought” (imagining a world of separation, fragmentation and solidity). It is the difference between attention and inattention, awareness and unawareness, being awake and dreaming, heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara. We can realize that samsara is nirvana, and at the same time, we can discern a difference. Not one, not two. So, we just need to understand how a word such as “awareness” or “the now” or “presence” is being used in a particular context. Then we don’t mix up the relative and the absolute or end up having debates over semantic misunderstandings and different usages. This takes a kind of open listening to each other so that we don’t instantly react with knee-jerk assertions and denials (as most of us tend to do at times) when certain things are said that don’t immediately seem to jibe with our own view of things.
Krishnamurti seemed to use “attention” and “awareness” rather interchangeably much of the time. In responding to the questioner I cited above, K (and the questioner) were clearly using the word awareness to mean being attentive, being present, seeing through and waking up from the entrancement in thought, “being in the Now.” To my ear, the word “attention” has a more focused and concentrated feel, while the word “awareness” has a more wide-open, spacious, unbound quality. That openness is the very nature of Here / Now, the very nature of awareness, and it is certainly the heart of K’s message: “a state of attention without a center, without frontiers, where the known doesn’t interfere.”
That ungraspable and unconditioned openness is where the real aliveness is. Liberation is realized not in grasping all this with the intellect and holding onto “awareness” as an idea or a belief, but rather, in the living reality of BEING Here / Now, being awake, embodying that openness fully with the whole bodymind. Then it is truly obvious and fully realized (made real) that there are no boundaries, that nothing is separate or solid, and that—experientially—awareness is all there is. But to take that up as a metaphysical belief is only another obstruction, another false foothold. The difference can be very subtle, but immense.
I had a question from someone the other day that went something like this: “Why are all the sensations I feel experienced from the standpoint of ‘my’ body? If this body is not mine anymore than a flower is mine, why are there no sensations experienced from the standpoint of a flower, or a dog, or any other perceived object?”
I hear this question frequently in one form or another. It comes from a common misunderstanding of certain Eastern teachings that say "you are not your body" and "there is no self." In fact, each of us IS a particular bodymind...but that's not ALL we are, and our consciousness is not encapsulated inside that bodymind, and that bodymind is actually a process of continuous change inseparable from the entire universe...but there IS a functional sense of identity with the bodymind that is necessary for survival. We know how to cut a carrot without cutting our finger and whose mouth to put the food in. That functional sense of identity, location and boundaries appears intermittently as needed and won't go away entirely unless we have a brain injury or a severe neurological disorder. But as we go deeply into the experience of simple present moment awareness, we may find that we cannot locate an actual place where "inside of me" turns into "outside of me," or where "I" end and "the chair" begins. We can imagine a boundary between inside and outside, and we can feel a mass of sensations where our body meets the chair...but can we actually find a real, definitive boundary-line in direct experience? Is “my body” a solid, discrete, continuous thing—as we tend to think—or is it fluid, ever-changing and utterly interdependent with and made up of everything it apparently is not? The point of all this is not for me to forget that I am Joan or to imagine that I am a flower…but simply to see that everything is one whole undivided happening, that the waves are not really separate from the ocean or from each other...to discover and embody the spaciousness, the fluidity, the openness and the love that arises in the absence of imagined separation…to know that I am life itself, waving...and in that sense, I am everything and no-thing and nothing is personal....but I am also Joan, and I can differentiate between myself and the flower...and that very ability to discern differences, along with the sense of location and individuality, is itself all part of this one, undivided happening, this amazing dance that is seamless and boundless but magnificently varied and diverse. Waking up isn’t about being disembodied and dissociated. It isn’t about renouncing the body and experiencing everything as a formless blob and no longer being able to distinguish between a flower and a person. It is about total aliveness and true nondualism, which includes multiplicity and individuality.
The pathless path from Here to Here is about waking up now to the wonder of presence and the power of awareness. It is about discovering how to shift from the dream of suffering into the living reality of freedom and love. It's about discovering firsthand how that shift comes about, what works and what doesn’t work, where the power and the ability to realize freedom actually IS. This power doesn’t come from the independent, individual self, which is a mirage-like fiction, a creation of smoke and mirrors. It comes from the True Self. And it isn’t realized by goal-oriented effort and intentionality, but counter-intuitively, by the absence of all that—by the complete acceptance of what is—by being aware and allowing everything to be just as it is, without judging or labeling or trying to correct it—but instead, simply beholding it with interest, curiosity and love. This aware presence is the intelligence of life itself, the wholeness of being, the spaciousness, emptiness or seamlessness that has been called the Self, God, the Tao, Buddha Nature, or the Now. This is our true nature.
The true “I” is the same “I” for everyone—it is the presence in the present moment, the unbound awareness beholding the ever-changing scenery and the ever-unfolding drama, the still point whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere, the seamlessness from which nothing stands apart and within which no-thing ever actually forms as a discrete, separate, persisting entity. This boundless awareness accepts everything. It includes all polarities and all sides of everything.
When our life is about defending, protecting and advancing the little me, the character in the story of my life, it is always a losing struggle. There may be temporary victories, but in the end, death wins. Consider Jesus on the cross—he has been betrayed, misunderstood, falsely accused, convicted, tortured, mocked, nailed to a cross and hung up to die. It couldn’t get much worse than that. But he discovers, and surrenders to, and IS a bigger reality, a reality that is untouched by the death of the bodymind, a reality that has room for everything—a reality that is not hurt by the betrayals and the mockery and the misunderstanding—a reality that understands where all of that hurtful behavior comes from and therefore meets it with love and forgiveness—a reality that cannot be killed.
When we look at someone else, or at ourselves in a mirror, we see an image that is created by some dance of light moving through the eyes and the brain to produce this picture in which there seem to be solid, separate things that persist through time, but what is the very fabric of this picture? What is the screen upon which, and within which, it all appears? Is it not Mind or Consciousness? Is that not the substance, the ground of everything? And although it seems that there are separate things, do they not all appear together as one whole picture, one unified field, one seamless Here / Now?
Am I the image that I see in the mirror? Am I the story that unfolds in the mind, or the character at the center of that story? Am I the images I have of myself, the roles that I play? Am I limited to or encapsulated inside this body? Is this body even a solid thing as the word “body” seems to suggest and as it appears to be in the mirror, or is the body an ever-changing, permeable dance that is inseparable from the whole universe? If I go deeply into the body with awareness, into any sensation, do I find solidity or do I find vibration and empty space, all of it inseparable from the awaring of it? Is my life merely about protecting and defending this self-image that I think of as “me,” or is it about opening to the bigger reality?
Of course, this ever-changing bodymind is an aspect of the totality, as is every role the true I is playing in the multiple movies of waking life—so yes, we take care of the body, we do what makes sense to protect and defend ourselves on that level. But do we hold all this lightly, as a form of play, or do we really believe we ARE nothing but this imaginary chess piece in the game of life that we must advance and defend and keep in the game at all costs? Do we really imagine we can (or should or must) win this game?
What is the deepest truth? Is it a belief, an idea, a formulation, a mental understanding, an algebraic equation, a final answer, a blissful experience? Is it the survival or permanence of some form (my body, my mind, my family, my nation, my subculture, my views, my enlightenment experience)? Or is it this ungraspable but unavoidable presence, this spaciousness, this aliveness, this wakefulness that is the very nature of Here / Now, this awareness that beholds and includes it all?
A Chance for Meditation in Action (this is a long post and may not be of interest to all): Many here in America and apparently around the world have been following the George Zimmerman murder trial. For those who haven’t, Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida over a year ago. At first, it seemed to be just another story like those we hear on the news every day in this nation of gun violence. But the case quickly became an emotional and political lightning rod on a variety of issues from race to gun control to the controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws, and much of the reaction ever since has been polarized and emotionally charged. The whole event has offered a fascinating window into how different people can see the same evidence, hear the same facts, listen to the same witnesses, and come to completely different conclusions about what “really” happened. We like to think there is a solid, unchanging, objective reality “out there” that we are all seeing, and we all have a built-in sense that our view of this reality is the correct one. Many of us like to imagine that we are completely beyond racism, sexism, or any other forms of bias, but psychological studies repeatedly show otherwise. We are all conditioned by our past experiences and by the social context in which we grow up and live. If we grow up in a neighborhood where the police keep us safe and help us out when we are in trouble, our view of their reliability and trustworthiness is different than if we grow up in a neighborhood where the police are the ones who beat us up, put us in jail and kill us.
In the wake of this national trauma, many interesting, valuable and eye-opening conversations about race and racial profiling are unfolding amongst friends and in the media. This is heartening even though it is sometimes messy. My own koan, as I engage with all this, is to wonder whether it is possible to have these conversations about race and other hot-button issues in ways that allow for all our different perspectives? Can I remain open to changing my mind, to seeing things anew?
To me, that is meditation in action. Can we listen openly to those who disagree with us? Can we see how we hold tightly to our opinions, how our positions solidify and fixate, how we identify with and defend them, how we feel right and righteous? How quickly do we categorize or judge someone else? Can we see how we identify with certain people and not with others? Can we see how our own life experience has shaped our views and how others might be shaped differently? Can we detect our own racism, or conversely, our dislike and judgment of those we consider racist? Can we see our own bias against different groups, even groups we ourselves may be part of? Can there be awareness as anger and hatred or guilt and blame arise? Can we see how we make certain people or groups “other”? Can we question the desire for retribution and vengeance (often euphemistically called “justice”)? How does conflict and injustice end? How does someone end up being a vicious racist? Do they choose that? What might be most likely to change their mind and open their heart—being met with hatred or with love? Can we find love and spaciousness in the midst of all this turbulence and pain? Is spirituality, peace or nonduality about ignoring all of this messy human reality, or is true peace and true love and true liberation about not turning away, opening ourselves ever more deeply?
When terrible things happen as a result of human behavior, our habitual tendency is to look for who to blame and then seek punishment and retribution. We tend to overlook the infinite causes and conditions that bring about each of our impulses and actions in every moment, and instead we assume that everyone operates from free will. We have a tendency to identify with certain people or groups, and to regard other people and groups as threatening or suspect. This tendency may be rooted in our biology, which doesn’t mean we can’t move beyond it, but it does help to explain why it happens whether we want it to or not. We bring our life history, as well as the history of groups we belong to, to every incident we encounter. And if that history includes trauma, we bring that. We don’t do all that deliberately, and often not even consciously. It happens.
I sense that for many black people, pain that has been bottled up for generations in the face of the systemic racism (in the judicial system and elsewhere in America) that continues to exist and that is still unseen and unacknowledged by many white people, has poured out in this case. Maybe that history actually applies to this situation in many ways, and maybe in some ways it really doesn't. Few real life situations are as clear-cut as we would like. I know with issues involving women, gay people, or people with disabilities—all groups that I have a personal connection with—I sometimes inadvertently bring past trauma to a present situation where it doesn’t actually apply, imagining discrimination, profiling or limitation where none actually exists.
I’m not suggesting that black people are simply “imagining” racism in this case. Far from it. But some black leaders and commentators, people I highly respect, have compared what happened to Trayvon Martin to what happened to Emmett Till, and many progressive people of all races are petitioning the federal government to re-prosecute Zimmerman for committing a hate crime. To me (and perhaps this is my bias as a white person), George Zimmerman does not come across as an overt or vicious racist like those who tortured and killed Emmett Till. I haven’t seen convincing evidence that George Zimmerman deliberately or maliciously set out to gun down a black child. I didn’t sit through the entire trial, but to me, from what I’ve seen, he comes across more as an over-zealous neighborhood watch captain, genuinely concerned for his community, always on the alert for suspicious characters who might be up to no good. He thought Trayvon looked suspicious, perhaps in part because of race although Zimmerman denies that, but quite possibly that was a factor. Trayvon in turn thought he was being stalked by a dangerous stranger (“a creepy ass cracka,” “a pervert” or “a rapist” in the words of his friend Rachel who was on the phone with him that night). So we have two people who both think the other is up to no good meeting each other on a dark and rainy night, and one of them has a loaded gun—a set-up for disaster. The two of them end up in a physical fight, on the ground together, and at some point, Zimmerman shoots Trayvon. He claims he did it in self-defense, fearing for his life at the time. Zimmerman had a bloodied nose and multiple head injuries when the police arrived moments later; Trayvon had a fatal gunshot wound and apparently no other injuries.
Would Zimmerman have found a white guy in a hoodie behaving in the same way that Trayvon was behaving equally suspicious? Would the police and the prosecutors have treated a black neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed an Hispanic teenager in the same way they treated Zimmerman? We don't know. We can make assumptions based on statistics or past behavior, but we really don’t know for sure. Should Zimmerman’s action be equated with that of the vicious racists who tortured and killed Emmett Till? Is it a hate crime? Should Zimmerman have been found guilty of murder and sent to prison for the remainder of his life, or was he legitimately in fear of death or great bodily harm that night as he claims?
Early reports were that Zimmerman had immediately identified Trayvon as black and that Zimmerman had mumbled something about “fucking coons” on the 911 call. Later, it turned out he had only identified the person in question as probably being black after being asked by the 911 operator what race the person was, and audio enhancements of the 911 call seemed to show that he had not used the word coons after all, although some suggested the tapes might have been altered. And if we’ve learned anything from this trial, it’s that certain words can have multiple meanings depending on who is using them and in what context. When Zimmerman told a TV interviewer before the trial that he wouldn’t do anything differently that night if he could do it over, could that have been what his lawyers told Zimmerman to say in response to such a question so as not to incriminate himself or provide fodder for the prosecution, or does he really believe he made no mistakes? And when he said it was all God’s will in that same interview, did he mean that in the horrible way some have heard it, or was he perhaps expressing what his priest had told him by way helping him to live with what had happened? I don’t know, but I have noticed over the years how easily we take things people say out of context, how their words get ever so slightly but significantly revised, and how easily we can misunderstand others, especially when we have already made up our mind that they are evil or racist or stupid or whatever we think.
In my opinion, no civilians should be carrying guns. I find it very sad that a teenager was shot and killed on his way home from the store. I think Zimmerman did make a number of very serious and regrettable mistakes that night. I abhor the long and continuing history of racial profiling and racial injustice in America. I think it is an atrocity that under our legal system, Zimmerman gets his gun back and that his lawyers claim this is the best assurance of his safety. But in spite of all that, I would still say that based on the evidence I’ve seen (and I have not had access to all the evidence, nor have I seen all the media reports, nor did I watch the entire trial), but from what I have seen, in my opinion, George Zimmerman was not guilty of murder under the law as I understand it. There was reasonable doubt. I may be wrong, and clearly, many—including some of my dearest friends—see it very differently.
But don’t we all in some sense profile other people every day, and perhaps more obviously at night, as we assess who might be a threat and who probably is not? We base these pre-conscious assessments on multiple factors from our past conditioning, factors that include a mix of age, gender, manner of dress, hairstyle, posture, gestures, behavior…and yes, race. Are we sometimes wrong (or racist, or sexist, or ageist) in our assessments? Yes. Undoubtedly. Was race a factor in this case? Very likely, to some degree, it was. When victims are white, perpetrators are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and given long prison sentences than if the victims are black. And if the perpetrators are black, all the more so. If a black man had shot a white boy, chances are statistically much greater that man would be in prison now. But does that make Zimmerman guilty? Should he be the one to pay for centuries of racist injustice? Do two wrongs make a right? Can we really know for sure what was in his heart that night or what exactly happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin? Rather than punishing and blaming Zimmerman, might it not be more helpful for all of us to endeavor to be more aware of our own subtle, covert, perhaps unconscious prejudices and identifications? And if we are moved to take social or political action in response to this case, can we perhaps consider working to pass effective gun control laws or to further expose and undo racism, rather than trying to further destroy George Zimmerman?
George Zimmerman is in hiding, fearful for his life, getting hate mail and death threats. Will sending him off to prison really help? I'd like to see the focus of all the pain and outrage shift from retribution and punishment to the work of opening our hearts and learning to love BOTH Trayvon Martin AND George Zimmerman and ALL of who we are…learning to listen….learning to really see “the other,” and discover that they are not other.
I found this article by columnist Charles M. Blow to be an excellent, eloquent statement of the larger context that is behind and that permeates this case from the perspective of a black man in America: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/ opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/ columnists/charles_m_blow/ index.html -- click on the article called “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin”
And here is the response to hatred, ignorance and violence that I aspire to but usually fall very short of: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/12/ world/united-nations-malala/ index.html?hpt=hp_c4 -- Malala, the young girl who was shot in the face by the Taliban, says that she doesn't want revenge against them, even though they have threatened to hunt her down again and end her life. "Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone," she said. "Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child. I want education for the sons and the daughters of all the extremists, especially the Taliban…I don't even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him….This is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother…This is what my soul is telling me. Be peaceful and love everyone."
Finally, I’d like to quote Ramesh Balsekar’s beautiful rendition of Indra’s Net: “The universe is uncaused, like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end.”
As I write this post, I am hearing gunshots. My neighbor likes to hunt, I’ve been told.
I’m sure many of my readers will see the Zimmerman case differently from how I do, and my own views of it will likely continue to evolve and may be quite different in a month. As a white person, I know that I can only imagine what it might be like to be a young black man or the mother of one fearing for his life. Given the emotional charge surrounding the verdict, I am posting these reflections with some trepidation. I don’t want to incite political arguments and debates or virulent rhetoric. But I did want to say something about this because my sense is that true spirituality is not separate from the happenings in this messy world, and this seems to be an important moment in America right now regarding race and violence, and perhaps an opportunity to explore many other questions as well.
—excerpts from comments I posted after the original post: I had an email from someone thanking me for the post and commenting on how much gets stirred up by the media. I feel the corporate media is always a mixed bag—they’ve done some really great coverage that contributes to making us aware of injustices and problems and hearing different sides, but they also do tend to hype and stir things up, and real suffering in people’s lives gets turned into mass entertainment used to enhance ratings and sell products. At first I was quite disturbed by the often polarized and contentious tone in much of the coverage, but I've come to feel that the exposure and having all these conversations on TV and in the media about this case and all the issues it raises, even if it gets polarized and messy, is probably all part of the healing that needs to happen, not just around this one case, but around racism....and everything else. Our human mess. And of course there are countless cases like Trayvon's that happen all the time and that receive no public attention. But for whatever mix of reasons, certain cases like this one do capture the public eye.
I really admire and appreciate how President Obama dealt with this issue today. He acknowledged the on-going history of racial profiling that black men in particular experience as well as the racist injustices in the application of the legal system, all of which—he pointed out—informs how people in the African-American community experience the Trayvon Martin case. The President managed to convey all of this in his usual measured, reasonable, dignified and nuanced way, and he suggested some real and constructive solutions, such as questioning the Stand Your Ground laws and finding ways to “bolster and reinforce our African American boys.”
Dr. Cornel West, professor at Union Theological Seminary, wasn’t as favorably impressed with O’s response as I was. Dr. West said, “President Obama is a global George Zimmerman, because he tries to rationalize the killing of innocent children, 221 so far, in the name of self-defense in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen…[he’s] got a $2 million bounty on Sister Assata Shakur...So you begin to see the hypocrisy....” I agree with much of Cornel West’s perspective, and I'm very glad we have radical, progressive voices such as his in the Dance of Life. But I’ve also grown to appreciate the complexities and nuances of the world, the way things are never quite as black and white or as simple as we think, the ways that people in power are constrained and limited, the ways we all form opinions and conclusions without knowing all the facts, and the ways The Dance Itself is so much bigger than any of us and our limited perspectives. Obama has his part to play, West has his, Zimmerman has his, the Martin family has theirs, and I have mine…no two are alike and at times, they all seem to clash and conflict. But the apparent clash and conflict is in perfect harmony at a deeper level. Perhaps enlightenment might be described as the ability to play our particular part to the fullest while not losing sight of the larger context.
I’ve had a couple questions and comments recently that all had something to do with permanence and impermanence. I’ll address two of them here.
One person asked about a statement I made in my book Painting the Sidewalk with Water, on p.110: "The only 'thing' (and it isn't a thing) that I've found to be truly trustworthy is Here / Now, this alive presence that cannot be denied or lost." The person wonders how this trustworthy presence isn’t lost in deep sleep or death.
Another person, commenting on my speculation that Buddhism and Advaita could be pointing to the same thing in different ways, indicates that they are not exactly the same, and seems to suggest that the Buddhist perspective is closer to the truth: “There is a difference between substantialist nondual [presumably meaning Advaita’s immutable Self] and insight into emptiness [presumably meaning Buddhist emptiness, impermanence and no-self], a difference between subsuming everything into an underlying consciousness that beholds and is inseparable from form, and seeing that there is just transience without anything to subsume to—in seeing just the seen no seer or seeing is just transience without a subject to be inseparable from it.”
This person also suggests that we can apply the same investigation to any notion of “the one awareness beholding all" that I often apply to “the body,” and that in doing so, we will find that there is no such thing—that all there is, is the undivided and ever-changing dance. Yes!
Let’s look at that quote from Painting the Sidewalk. I’m responding to a questioner who asks, “Don’t we need faith and trust and hope?”
And I say: “What is truly trustworthy? The only ‘thing’ (and it isn’t a thing) that I’ve found to be truly trustworthy is Here / Now, this alive presence that cannot be denied or lost. My experience with trust in anything else – trust in some deity, some ideology, some belief, some authority figure, some theory, some system – that kind of trust is ultimately disappointing and unsatisfying. Any of these things may be relatively trustworthy up to a point, but none of them are absolutely trustworthy.”
When I say Here / Now can never be lost, I am pointing to the fact that it is never absent. It’s not “over there” somewhere. It’s not missing. It’s always right here. But it’s not a “thing” that you can objectify and grasp. It’s not space as opposed to content. We could say it is the seamlessness (or emptiness) that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. Or we could describe it as the awaring presence that is all there is.
Is there actually any such place as “after death,” or is that only an idea? Can we find an actual boundary between birth and death, between one moment and the next? Can we find the one who is supposedly born and who supposedly dies? Can we take hold of a wave in the ocean?
And what remains in deep sleep other than Here / Now—the timeless, spaceless, seamless, boundless, formless eternity that has no beginning and no end? But don’t try to grasp that or take it on as a belief or an idea—then it’s just more baggage. What remains in deep sleep and death is no more graspable than what is here now.
What is it? Whatever answer appears, drop it and see what remains.
It’s very easy in this nondual world to find ourselves drawn into the realm of thought, whereas what I find trustworthy, interesting and alive is this present happening, this awaring-seeing-listening-breat hing suchness, the living reality of this moment, before we call it anything, before we think about whether it is permanent or impermanent or still here after death or in deep sleep. THIS that I am pointing to right now is not conceptual. It is not an idea or a belief or a philosophy. Only when we start THINKING about this and trying to describe or point to it, does it seemingly become confusing and perplexing. We enter the world of words and ideas, where we so easily miss the moon and become absorbed in the pointing finger instead, meaning that we become hypnotized and entranced by the mental map-world of ideas and concepts.
There are many different sign posts and maps of the journey from Here to Here. It’s easy and fascinating (and sometimes worthwhile) to get caught up in comparing and contrasting sign posts and maps. I don’t deny there are real differences and that some maps are undoubtedly clearer and more accurate and less prone to misleading us than others. Some maps give us more to hold onto, while others leave nothing to grasp. But ultimately, the map is not the territory, and what matters is the territory. Words such as “awareness” and “the Now” get used in different ways. We hear about “the One Self” and “no self,” about “the unchanging” and “impermanence,” and we too often try to either reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable descriptions, or decide which is superior, by THINKING about all of it.
One person describes this living reality as the One Immutable Self, another calls it Consciousness, another calls it Here / Now, another calls it unform or formlessness, another simply sits in silence, while yet another says it is no-thing at all, that everything is empty of self (or substance), that there is only impermanence, and that this impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even be impermanent, so that in fact there is no impermanence...leaving some to wonder if immutability and impermanence could be one and the same…while someone else throws up their hands, laughs uproariously, and declares that it’s all horseshit! Are these folks all pointing to the same living reality or are they all just pointing to different concepts, different ways of mapping (abstracting, re-presenting, conceptualizing, describing, pointing to) that living reality? And already by speaking of it, “the living reality” is becoming something substantial that we can believe in, so drop that too!
Round and around the thinking mind can swirl. Personally, I find that many different maps can be helpful at different moments. If you look at my recommended book list, you’ll find a huge diversity of pointers. Sometimes one map will free us from the mistaken idea that another map left us with, and sometimes years later we circle back to the teacher or teaching that we started off with and hear it in a whole new way. The map that leads one person to awakening may lead another to confusion and despair. Some maps relentlessly pull every rug out from under us, leaving us with nothing to grasp. Other maps open the heart. Some maps help us to work with old habits, addictions, compulsions, troubling emotions…while other maps point us to the absolute perfection of everything just as it is. Ultimately, the living reality is beyond the maps.
The point of all this as far as I’m concerned is not to pin down the perfect map, but rather, to wake up. To be alive in the dance of this moment, to see through and be free of false dualities and imaginary problems. We can’t find enlightenment by thinking.
Enlightenment is only ever right here, right now. THIS is ever-present and ever-changing and as the great sage once said, the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao…and then he went on speaking. Even the activity of mapping is itself an aspect of the unbound, seamless territory, and that territory, the living reality, has no substance…and yet, here it is, as vivid and undeniable as the red of the fire engine, the hardness of the desk, the cool liquidity of the water passing down the throat, the exquisite song of a bird. This amazing dance is at once indestructible and utterly fleeting. Try to capture it in words, and it slips through your fingers. And yet...
I used to compare myself to others in the spiritual world, wondering if I was as enlightened or as awake or as free as they were, and often I felt inferior. Propelled by this sense of lack, I was constantly seeking, striving, looking for some magical finish-line after which nothing would ever be the same. I think many people are hoping for some grand, final breakthrough after which all their troubles will be gone, they will always be feeling happy, they will always behave in wise and compassionate ways, and they will be approved and well-liked by everyone at last. That sounds crazy when we spell it out, but quite often, some version of that really is what we’re seeking, and some teachers and teachings hold out the promise that such a permanently unblemished state of affairs is actually attainable.
It has been suggested and claimed that in some people, the entire me-system (all traces of the thought-sense of separation, encapsulation and agency—the whole circuitry of the mirage-like false self) has been totally, completely, permanently and thoroughly blown out on every level where it exists (ideational, psychological, emotional, somatic, energetic). This entire pattern of thoughts, sensations, ideas, stories and images never returns. It is permanently gone. Finished. Annihilated. Dead. I tend to be very skeptical of such claims, and the whole notion of a “permanently enlightened person” seems specious, for it is rooted in the very illusion that it is claiming has been erased. But maybe in some cases this really does happen, perhaps in much the same way that being completely and permanently free of an addiction or a compulsion or a particular thought-habit can happen for some individuals (although I wonder how anyone can ever be absolutely certain that some habitual pattern will never show up again)—but I won’t rule out the possibility. Certainly, there are people who appear to be very deeply grounded in presence and who seem to be mostly free of the me-system. But the people I love and respect who might be described that way don’t deny that they can still have moments of caught-up-ness in self-centered reactions, they don’t hold out any kind of permanent state of selfless perfection for the self as a goal, they always emphasize Now rather than some future attainment, and they relentlessly point out that there is no one to be enlightened (or not enlightened).
So even if the complete and permanent annihilation of the false self does happen to a few rare individuals, so what? To pine for something that may have happened to others but not to me is a manifestation of the very me-system that “I” am wanting to be done with forever. That story of lack and the search for a solution only reinforces the illusion that there is a separate and enduring “me” who needs to have “my” me-system permanently dissolved, along with the accompanying illusion that there is a linear expanse of time over which this absence must then endure. Whenever there is awakeness to the bare actuality of Here / Now—the simplicity of what is, I notice that there is no such “me” and no such “duration in time”—the whole notion of a final awakening or a permanently enlightened me simply doesn’t arise. Here / Now, in the simple happening of this moment, the problem and the search for a solution both evaporate into thin air.
Thankfully, I’m no longer seeking that imaginary finish-line. The whole idea of such an absolute dividing line and of somebody to cross it has melted away. And it takes thought (and delusion) to come up with the thought-story that it has melted away “for me.” And, in fact, nothing real has disappeared, for the false self is never REALLY here. It is always a creation of smoke and mirrors, but the suffering it generates is very real in the sense that it hurts. In my own experience, while what I’m calling the me-system is often completely absent, it can certainly still show up, sometimes in ways I consider functional, healthy and necessary for survival (knowing whose mail to open and how to cut a carrot without cutting myself) and sometimes in ways I consider dysfunctional and unhelpful (getting defensive, feeling hurt or put down, worrying about the future, becoming obsessively engulfed in some story, thinking I haven’t done enough with my life, and so forth). But there is no owner of these appearances, even if it APPEARS that there is.
And whatever is showing up here in any given moment is how it is in that moment. That’s the way this Joan character, this bodymind, this appearance is being manifested right now. And the true “I,” the unbound aware presence, is not limited to that character or that bodymind that appears and disappears in the mirror or in the imagination. The true “I” is the One behind all the masks, the One appearing as many, the whole show, the seamlessness that includes the darkness and the light, the awakeness and the delusion. Recognizing this, there is no longer the belief that “I” (as the phantom character) can or should be permanently in some state of unending perfection—other than the perfection of everything just as it is. It’s not that there is no interest here anymore in waking up from entrancement or in exploring, learning, opening and deepening in ever-new ways—because there is—but it’s no longer coming from a sense that there is a finish-line to cross, or that “I” have to turn into somebody else to finally be okay, or that enlightenment is “out there” somewhere. That obsession with how the Joan character compares to other characters is gone. And I realize I don’t really know what life is like for any apparent “other”—it may or may not be as unblemished as I imagine—and I can only know and work with how it is Here / Now.
If there is depression or heart ache or anxiety or restlessness or defensiveness or irritation Here / Now, then that’s how it is Here / Now. That’s how the universe IS at this moment. I find that realization very comforting, very relaxing, very down to earth, very relieving. And although what shows up may at times be painful or unpleasant, it is immensely liberating to know that it is no more personal than a thunderstorm or a cloudy day. Like the outer weather, the inner weather is the result of infinite causes and conditions. And even if the mirage-like me-system reappears on occasion and the rope is momentarily mistaken for a snake, this, too, is a happening of the whole universe (even if it SEEMS like “my” personal screw-up in that moment). In reality, EVERYTHING is simply another momentary and impersonal shape that Here / Now is taking.
In a comment on my last post, someone asks about love: should it be encouraged, sought after in any way?
There are many kinds of love. For me, true love (unconditional love) is another word for awareness, the unconditioned wholeness or unicity from which nothing stands apart—the groundlessness of Here / Now, the heart of everything, the no-thing-ness, the absolute freedom. Unconditional love is the total acceptance that is the very nature of Here / Now (in contrast to some spiritual practice where “I” try to accept things).
To SEEK unicity (or love) is to overlook it. Maybe the recognition or realization of love can be encouraged—maybe that is what is happening here right now—but once we have the idea that “Love needs to be encouraged” or that “I am encouraging love,” something goes slightly (or hugely) amiss. Here are some reflections on love:
“Our appearance, direction, and actions simply happen. This realization is freedom…This is a complete opening to the unformed, the undirected, the uncontrolled, the unexpected, and the unpredictable. This openness is often called love. In this, you are not a body; you are not a mind; there is only love. This love is not some cold, intellectual understanding; it’s an openness of heart. This love is not an aching, desire-filled attachment to a person, a possession, an idea, a cause, a career, a practice, or an understanding. This love is not some romantic myth of everyone embracing and singing the same song. Instead, it’s a truly sensitive vulnerability to what is. Ideas only go so far. At some point, the heart may open to the totally indefinable, unpredictable, and often unwanted movement that life is. Love is that openness of heart.” – Darryl Bailey
“Life is vast, unknowable movement of wholeness with no one separate from it and nothing outside of it. ‘Inside’ and ‘outside’ are thought-created divisions. Wisdom, love, and compassion are not the invention of thought, nor are they products or the properties of anyone. They operate mysteriously, without cause and conflict, when ‘self’-thoughts are illuminated freely. At the time of inattention, thought is busily at work in its narrow, conditioned space: wanting, fearing, inventing, grasping, hoping, striving, judging, condemning, or accepting. Undivided awareness illumines the whole thing. Illumination is the end of the sense of separation. Will inattention take over again? Thought wants to predict everything, to make sure and be secure for all time. But time itself is a creation of thought…What is, is without self. It is unknowable, unthinkable, indivisible.” –Toni Packer
“Love is the ability to see every circumstance and every being as perfect just as they are...It is the total acceptance of all things.” – Anam Thubten
“Love says: ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says: ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two my life flows." – Nisargadatta Maharaj
The weather patterns in any particular geographic location are the way they are for a multitude of reasons, and just as some places on earth are more prone to cloudy or stormy weather than others, some bodymind organisms are more prone to stormy or overcast weather than others. It may have to do with genetic make-up, neurochemistry, hormones, the condition of the brain, it may be the result of trauma or childhood abuse, it may be that some organisms are more delicate by design, but for whatever combination of reasons, people have differing degrees of sensitivity and resilience, differing degrees of impulse control, and different levels of susceptibility or predisposition toward depression, anxiety, anger, sadness, restlessness, addiction, obsessiveness, and so on.
Some people by their very nature seem to always see the glass half full, while others by nature seem to see it half empty—both tendencies (the adventurous risk-taker focused on positive outcomes and the careful planner always scanning for what could go wrong) serve different but equally important evolutionary survival functions. You can try to make the risk-taker more careful or the careful planner more care-free—or turn the pessimist into an optimist, but chances are, these natural tendencies will re-assert themselves sooner or later.
If you grow up in a family of drug addicts in an inner-city housing project or in a war-zone, you’ll have a very different experience and view of the world than someone who grows up in a loving family in a peaceful, affluent suburb. If you grow up poor, black, female and lesbian, your experience of the world will be entirely different than if you grow up rich, white, male and heterosexual. If you are sexually, emotionally and/or physically abused as a child, you’ll have different experiences as an adult than someone who hasn’t suffered that kind of early trauma.
Every person is a completely unique expression of this vast universe. No two are exactly alike, not even identical twins raised by the same parents. No two movies of waking life are exactly the same. Each of us is seeing and acting in a different movie, “like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end,” to quote Ramesh Balsekar’s description of Indra’s Net. No one is dealt exactly the same hand as anyone else. And you can only play the hand you’ve actually been dealt. You can’t play anyone else’s hand. And most importantly, there is no “you” apart from the hand or the playing. You ARE the play of life. And EVERYTHING is included in this play, the things we like and the things we don’t.
So if there is depression or heartache or anxiety or restlessness or regret or despair Here / Now, then that’s how it is Here / Now. We don’t regard a thunderstorm or a cloudy day as unenlightened or neurotic. We don’t think that “the weather” has failed or not tried hard enough to be sunny and clear. It is simply how it is. But we do tend to take the inner weather personally—in other words, we believe we are authoring it and that it means something about us. We compare our weather to the weather in other locations and to ideals we have acquired about how the weather “should” or “could” be, if only…
So if your weather is stormy (or if it’s clear and sunny), don’t take it personally. There is no “you” behind the weather who is either a success or a failure, a winner or a hopeless case. In the next instant, the whole universe begins anew. Only in thought does there seem to be continuity and separate things that persist over time (e.g. “me” and “you” and “my neurosis” and “somebody else’s enlightenment”).
What if we stopped trying to be different and instead relaxed into being exactly how we actually ARE…not the STORY of how we are (“I’m a loser, I’m a hopeless case, I’m a trauma survivor who will never be able to experience awakening because I’m too closed down, I’m someone who ruined my life and missed the boat, I’m an addictive personality who will always be prone to severe depression, I’m a terrible mother, I’m someone who failed to realize my full potential…” etc.), not those stories, but rather, the simple bare actuality of this moment, however it is, even if it is tense and contracted. Without those pejorative labels (“tense,” “contracted,” “failure,” “neurosis,’ etc.), without the stories, without THINKING about it, it’s all simply energy, sensation and vibration—even the thoughts and stories are energy, sensation and vibration—and NONE of it has any added meaning. It simply is as it is, and any STORY about how it is, is just that, a story.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful relief to recognize that nothing could actually be any other way right now than exactly how it is, that THIS is how the universe IS, that everything belongs? And already, it has completely changed! Can you feel the freedom in knowing that there is no “you” who “should” be doing a better job? How wonderful to see that enlightenment is not a special attainment that only a special few can reach, but rather that enlightenment is the natural state, the groundlessness that is always already fully present. Rather than something we lack and need to attain, it is what we always already ARE.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2013--
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