Postings from My Facebook Page #3
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the third collection of posts from my Facebook page (7/25/13 through 11/21/13). 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:
When we speak of giving complete, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment, accepting what is and allowing it to be as it is, or when we say everything is perfect as it, this is sometimes misunderstood. No one is saying we shouldn’t identify problems (a flat tire, global warming, alcohol addiction, a broken bone), or that we shouldn’t imagine, seek out, or work to bring about constructive solutions—if we are so moved. ALL of that is part of this seamless and all-inclusive happening. The acceptance that is being pointed to is absolutely immediate—right here, right now, not a second or a minute from now—and the perfection of what is INCLUDES not only the problems but also the noticing of problems, the impulse to fix and heal things, and the actions that emerge from those impulses.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s actually deeply healing and transformative to simply attend to and fully accept the way things are right now in this moment (the tire is flat, the ice caps are melting, I was unable to resist having this 4th drink, my leg is in pain and I can’t walk). That doesn’t mean life won’t move us to seek a solution in the next moment. It means that right now, in this instant, we’re simply seeing and acknowledging the reality of how life actually IS. And when there is simply awareness—without thought, we can’t even say that “the tire is flat” or “the ice caps are melting,” because even that is an abstraction and a story—the bare actuality is prior to thought. It is pure sensation—energy—vibration—not those words, but the living actuality to which they point. That living actuality has no plotline, no central character, no past or future. And out of that simple awareness or nonjudgmental acceptance, intelligent action (or non-action) arises. We may change the tire, join a movement to stop climate change, go into a recovery program, or go to the hospital to have our broken leg attended to. (Or we might do something completely different—there is no single, correct “intelligent action”).
If we pay attention, we can perhaps notice the difference between the bare awaring of what is—simple, open, nonjudgmental attention—and the movement of thought (labeling, evaluating, judging, analyzing, story-telling). We’re not saying thought is bad or suggesting that we should strive to be entirely free of thinking—thought has its place—we’re simply noticing the difference between thinking and awaring. Awareness isn’t seeking a solution or passing judgment—it is simply AWARE. It accepts everything and resists nothing. It beholds everything equally. It has no agenda. It is nondual, meaning that in awareness, there is no separation between awareness and content—we have different words for purposes of communicating, but EXPERIENTIALLY (in awareness without thought), awareness/content is one whole, undivided, seamless happening. There is no separation.
Dualism is a creation of thought. It only exists notionally or conceptually. Thought divides, reifies, categorizes, compares, evaluates and strategizes. It creates the illusory (conceptual) division between “me” and “my problem.” (Or between subject and object, or awareness and content). If we’re “trying to be aware,” or “doing acceptance” or “being aware SO THAT THE PROBLEM WILL GO AWAY,” that’s not bare awareness, that’s the movement of thought, operating from an agenda. At the center of that agenda is the thought-sense of “me,” the one with a problem. Bare awareness is undivided, whole, empty of self. It simply SEES what is, without separation. There is no owner of awareness.
Awareness has an intelligence that thought does not have. Awareness is alive and unconditioned, whereas thought is mechanical and conditioned. When there is resistance to how life actually is, when we are caught up in idealistic notions of how it “should” and “should not” be, the actions that arise from those habitual patterns of thought tend to repeat the same old grooves again and again. (Of course, that too is all the happening of life itself and in that moment could not be otherwise). If we think about all this, it may get confusing, but if we rely on actual, direct experience—awareness rather than thought—everything clarifies itself.
Thought is a story-teller. It creates narratives. It comes up with stories and then forgets they are fictional. It tells stories like, "I’m a hopeless case because of my traumatic past, doomed to a life of addiction and depression, and I’ll never be able to have the spiritual experiences other people have because I’m too traumatized,” and we BELIEVE these stories that the mind has concocted out of thin air. They SEEM very believable—just the way the story and the characters in a movie seem real. We think there really IS a “me” who has been traumatized and who is now hopelessly doomed as a result. But the truth is, this “me” and the whole “story of my life” is a creation of smoke and mirrors. And it doesn’t really matter whether what appears Here / Now is expanded or contracted, tense or relaxed, bright or dull, pleasant or unpleasant. None of it is personal—it has no owner, no author—and ALL of it is the happening of life.
Taking the things in our lives that appear problematic personally, turning them into an identity and giving them meaning is a form of suffering, as is fighting them and trying to get rid of them. With my fingerbiting compulsion that still flares up, for example, I no longer believe this compulsion means something about me—that "I'm a spiritual failure" or “a real loser,” as I used to believe. I've come to genuinely accept that this compulsion may continue to show up periodically for the rest of my life, and I'm at peace with that possibility. It might end forever in the next instant. But it doesn’t matter either way. Yes, if it ended, that would be more pleasant for me, but life is not always pleasant. And I notice that when there is AWARENESS of fingerbiting—awareness without any overlay of thought, which could also be called total acceptance—that it isn’t even “fingerbiting” anymore. It is simply energy, movement, sensation—no-thing in particular. When the compulsion happens, it is a tense, unpleasant, contracted experience. But I no longer have some idea that “I” (this character) must be perpetually relaxed and open and blissful. The true I, which is Life Itself, has no problem with contraction, tension, depression, anxiety or dis-ease. It includes everything.
There's always only this ever-present, ever-changing Here / Now, however it is. And the more desire and push there is to have special or different or better experiences, or the more regret and hopelessness over not having them, the more likely they are to evade us...sort of like what happens when we try really hard to fall asleep while simultaneously thinking about all the ways a sleepless night will ruin our life. In the end, experiences are just experiences...whether it is an experience of contraction or an experience of expansion. And no experience is there all the time. Magnificent experiences pass away and really don’t mean anything.
I remember in the Feldenkrais training I did some years back, sometimes they would suggest bringing attention to some part of the body, and at first, I'd be completely unable to sense anything in that place...it was a total dead zone. But over time, with relaxed attention, I could begin to sense something there, however slight. Or they'd suggest a movement that at first seemed impossible but eventually became possible. And even if the dead zone remains dead and the movement never becomes possible, what difference does it make, really?
Some people report dramatic experiences of intense kundalini energy coursing through their bodies and shooting out the tops of their heads. For years, I was never really sure what they were talking about—it sounded like some important mark of a truly enlightened being that I obviously didn't have. Yes, I could feel a kind of energetic vibration or tingling in certain parts of the body if I paid attention, but nothing as remotely dramatic as what many people seemed to describe. And then once during a massage I was receiving, for a few minutes, I felt powerful rivers of energy gushing through my body. It was quite amazing. “Wow!” I said to the person working on me, "This is what people talk about!” And she said, "Yes, this is what it's all about—energy." It has never happened again, not ever. I remember Wayne Liquorman telling a similar story, describing how he was meditating once, and he felt this huge surge of energy come rushing up his spine and shoot out the top of his head....and he was like, Wow!!! Fantastic!!!....and the next day, he sits down in meditation excitedly waiting for a repeat performance, and it never happens again, not ever. Experiences are just experiences. They come and go and they don't really mean anything. But many people in the spiritual world become experience junkies, endlessly seeking spiritual highs or trying to recapture moments of peace, unity, ecstasy or expanded consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying such experiences when they happen, but chasing them is really no better than getting hooked on drugs or getting drunk. Whatever comes will always go away again. Experiences are by nature impermanent and fleeting.
People often tell me they’ve never had the experience of unboundedness that I seem to be describing. I’m guessing they ARE having this experience all the time, but they are simply overlooking it because it's so ordinary...nothing special. Waking up is really just about noticing the wholeness, the seamlessness, the fluidity that is often overlooked in favor of our more habitual focus of attention on some particular, discrete object—and our habitual focus on thought rather than on perception. And the noticing that I’m speaking about isn’t some spectacular psychedelic event in which we see or experience or grasp wholeness as an object—this but not that. It’s very simple, very ordinary. Seeing IS the wholeness—whatever the content or form it is taking. And that seeing (or awaring) is happening right now. It is the registering of this present happening, jut as it is. And the registering is not separate from the happening. It is one, nondual, seamless, all-inclusive whole.
Life can only appear in polarities, but the polar opposites (contraction and expansion, tension and relaxation, agony and bliss, light and dark, enlightenment and delusion, good and bad, birth and death) are not opposing forces in conflict with each other—a conflict in which one will eventually defeat the other, as we often tend to think—but rather, they are interrelated and interdependent aspects of one whole harmonious arising. Enlightenment is not about “me” being permanently expanded, relaxed and blissed out. It is the recognition that nothing is separate, that everything is included, that there is only THIS and that no “thing” (including “me”) has any actual substance. There is only impermanence, which sounds scary if we still think there are “things” that are impermanent. But this impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever even forms to be impermanent. Can you sense the freedom, the joy, the cosmic giggle? (If you can't, don't worry, it doesn't matter).
Every apparent person is an ever-changing dance inseparable from everything else in the universe. And no two dances are exactly alike. We each have a totally unique part to play in the Great Dance of Life. At times, our different roles seem to clash and conflict (those on the political left vs. those on the political right, the so-called 1% vs. the so-called 99%, investment bankers vs. spiritual renunciates, vegetarians vs. carnivores, Buddhists vs. Advaitans, radical feminists vs. religious fundamentalists, soldiers vs. pacifists). But the apparent clash and conflict is all in perfect, interdependent harmony at a deeper level. Liberation might be described as the ability to play our particular part—dance our unique dance—to the fullest while not losing sight of the larger context, the unicity that includes it all. Then we can express our opinions and do whatever life moves us to do, but without imagining that the whole drama (or the whole universe) is quite as serious (or as substantial and permanent) as it often seems to be, or that the forces of good should (or will) eventually triumph over the forces of evil. We see that no-thing is really happening in the way we think it is. We may still experience pain, illness, disability, loss, contraction, compulsion, depression or anxiety—but it no longer seems like a personal insult or a personal failing. It is simply the ever-changing texture of life—an inexplicable, unavoidable, ungraspable, indivisible, fluid happening.
We can really get ourselves tied up in knots trying to figure all this stuff out mentally—how this teaching compares to that teaching and which one is right and how the universe works and what it all means. And we can get swept away in stories about not being good enough, needing to improve. Whenever we notice that kind of mental activity happening, maybe it is possible to stop THINKING about all of this and instead simply allow ourselves to be fully aware of the present moment—the sounds of wind rustling leaves, whooshing traffic sounds, a horn honking, the cry of a bird, the scent of flowers, the smell of exhaust, the changing shapes and colors all around us, the sensations of breathing, all the different subtle tinglings and vibrations throughout the body. Can we simply be fully awake to the wonder and beauty of this present happening, just as it is, before it gets labeled, judged, analyzed and explained? Nothing that shows up needs to be resisted or regarded as a distraction: the sound of loud machinery, a barking dog that doesn’t stop yapping, too much heat, too much cold, an upset stomach, lots of busy thoughts, a fingerbiting compulsion that won’t let up….whatever it is, is it possible in this moment to simply let it all be exactly as it is?
And as thoughts arise (“This can’t be it, this is just traffic noise, there has to be more than this, what about ultimate reality and final enlightenment, I’ll never get it, I’m a hopeless case, this isn’t working, so-and-so said it was all about bla bla bla”), is it possible to SEE that these thoughts are merely thoughts—old, conditioned stories-beliefs-ideas that are not actually true? Can we listen to them in the same way we listen to the traffic sounds, as simply little bursts of energy that come and go? Is it possible to rest in the utter simplicity of what is, just as it is? Nothing needs to be attained, nothing needs to be pushed away, nothing needs to be different. Simply the texture of this moment, exactly the way it is, however it is…pleasant or unpleasant.
Even if we feel tense, agitated, restless or anxious, even if we are full of thoughts that seem as persistent as deer flies or mosquitoes, even if we are hyperventilating with anxiety or compulsively biting our fingers, what would it mean, right now, to allow ALL of that to simply be as it is? Instead of labeling and judging it, instead of condemning how it is, instead of resisting it and fighting against it and trying to stop it, instead of the endlessly looping stories about why it is the way it is and what it means and how it needs to go away and what we should do to get rid of it, is it possible to simply let it be, to experience it as bare sensation without a story?
Is it possible for a moment to drop all the ideas that this present happening is undesirable, unbearable, neurotic, screwed up, unenlightened, not okay, and to see this tension or this compulsive behavior or this depressed feeling or this queasy sensation or this restless energy with the same loving attention that we might give to a beautiful flower, a magnificent landscape, or the face of our beloved? Is it possible right now to not want anything to be different, to have no expectations, no agenda, no goal, no intention, no story, no past, no future?
Can we see that even tension, contraction, fingerbiting, and obsessive thinking about past and future are nothing more than a momentary wave-like movement of this one, undivided happening? Can we see that it is actually impossible to leave Here / Now or to avoid this present happening or to BE anything else, even if THIS momentarily takes the form of contraction, uncertainty, confusion or seeking? Can we see that EVERYTHING that appears is nothing but energy vibrating or waving in different ways, like the waves in the ocean, all of it a seamless and impersonal (ownerless, authorless) movement from which nothing stands apart? This hearing-seeing-breathing-sensing -thinking-awaring-being is without borders or seams. It is ungraspable and inconceivable, and yet utterly unavoidable and totally obvious.
It’s not a matter of thinking about this, and then grasping it with the intellect and holding onto it as a belief or a mental understanding. Nor is it about having some special, exotic experience other than the experience that is arising right now. It’s about relaxing into the utter simplicity of what is, however it is right now, allowing even the tension and the contraction and the regret and the resistance and the seeking to be just as it is.
And it’s about waking up to the wonder that is all around us: the sound of rain, a flock of birds in the sky, the shapes and colors of a crushed-up cigarette package in the gutter, clouds reflected in a puddle on the sidewalk (clouds blowing across the sidewalk), the scent of lilac, a rusted pipe, a hummingbird darting over the blossoms on a tree, the sounds of the washing machine, the smell of rain, the ache of grief, the delight of laughter…
THIS is God (the sacred, the Holy Reality, the Ultimate Truth, nirvana, the gateless gate, liberation, enlightenment). The Holy Reality is not someplace else. And just notice when thought pops up and insists that this can’t be it, that this isn’t enough, that there has to be more, that something is missing…SEE how the mind begins comparing and judging and evaluating and spinning a story about yesterday, tomorrow, and forever after…a story that always has “me” at the center of it. And recognize that even that story that plays momentarily in the theater of the imagination is itself nothing but the One Reality dancing the dance of Maya, ALL of it as fleeting and ephemeral as a momentary flash of lightning.
If we’re LOOKING for the Holy Reality or the Truth or unicity or God or enlightenment or liberation, we’re looking in the wrong direction. If we’re looking for SOMETHING (this but not that), whatever we find will be another object, another passing experience, another flash of lightning. Just as the eye cannot see itself, it is impossible to perceive or conceive the nondual Totality, for nothing stands outside of it, and yet, wherever we look, whatever we touch, whatever is heard, there is nothing that is not THIS, for this is all there is, and ALL of it is fully present Here / Now.
“How can ALL of it be present Here / Now?”—the mind may ask. “What about the other side of the world and all those millions of other people who are not appearing right here in my field of vision at this moment?” But if we look more deeply, we find that whatever appears can only appear Here / Now, and that every apparent form is made up of and contains everything it is not. Without EVERYTHING in the whole universe being as it is, without the sunlight and the soil and the vegetables and the rocks and the explosions in a distant galaxy, this sentence could not appear right now. ALL of that is here in this sentence. Each new moment in each unique movie of waking life is like one of those jewels in Indra’s Net, each a reflection of all the others. Everything is full of everything else, all of it one interdependent whole happening, and wherever we look, it is always THIS, the infinite and all-inclusive boundlessness.
But again, don’t get hung up in THINKING about this. Words like “THIS” and images like Indra’s Net are only descriptions or sign posts. If a pointer doesn’t immediately wake you up to Here / Now, let it go. Discard every belief and everything that can be doubted and see what remains. And if you’re LOOKING for what remains, once again, you’re overlooking what is right here, what cannot be found because it cannot be lost—the simplicity of what is, before thought arises and says, “I don’t get it,” or before it wonders, “Is this it?” “Have I got it yet?” The bare actuality of Here / Now is impossible to doubt.
Here / Now is completely indescribable and inconceivable—and yet, here it is, obvious and unavoidable: the undeniable appearance of these words, the sounds of the washing machine, the sensations of heat, the light coming in the window, the space in which it all happens, the awaring presence beholding it all, the breathing, the seamlessness, the ungraspable fluidity and emptiness—ALL of it one whole arising/dissolving.
And if all of these words seem confusing or incomprehensible, is it possible not to fall into trying to figure it out with thinking, or trying to have some special experience, or trying to “get it,” or trying to see Ultimate Reality as an object? Is it possible instead to simply relax into hearing the traffic sounds and feeling the breeze on the skin and seeing the way the light dances on the leaves? Just this. THIS is the miracle, the Holy Reality, the truth. You already ARE what is being sought. It is totally inescapable. It is all there is. And remember, EVERYTHING is included. So even if you can’t stop seeking, even if what shows up is depression, fingerbiting, physical pain, anxiety, or compulsive thinking, THIS too is the Holy Reality. There is no escape. We are never really lost, for there is no one to be lost or found. There is only life, as it is—beyond comprehension, beyond belief, and yet unavoidably present Here / Now.
I recently returned from a one-week silent retreat in California with Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher whom I greatly love. It was the first silent retreat I’d been on in at least 5 or 6 years, and it was an amazing, powerful, wonderful, heart-opening week. Anam has so much heart and a wonderful sense of humor and such tenderness, delight and nonjudgmental acceptance of our humanness. And although he’s one of the most luminous beings I’ve ever encountered, he’s very honest about his own humanness and imperfection, and he emphasizes that perfection can only be found in imperfection.
Several of my dearest friends were also on the retreat, and it so happened that my teacher Toni Packer went into active dying in New York just as this retreat began. There were a number of people on the retreat who knew Toni or who had been touched by her work, and four of us who had been very deeply involved with her and who had sat together on long retreats with her in years past. It seemed incredibly auspicious that we were all somehow brought together to be on retreat together again just as Toni was dying. I really felt like we were breathing with her. It was an amazing week of tears, laughter, deep joy, deep sadness, and great beauty.
I’d like to share two stories from my experience on the retreat.
The first is about one morning on the break after breakfast, when I was sitting up in this little area of trees and plants and green grass and green leaves where I often went in the morning. Everything sparkled there in the early morning sunlight…the grass and the leaves were still covered with dew then, and each dew drop was like a diamond. It was miraculous and amazing, the vibrant green grass and leaves with jewels of light sparkling everywhere. But on this particular morning, there had been a heavy morning fog, and the fog was just starting to lift when I got there.
I noticed that I was waiting for the fog to burn off and for the sun to break through so that everything would sparkle. The fog had started to burn off, and there was a kind of half-light from the sun breaking through, but the sunlight was not at full-throttle yet. I noticed I was waiting and wanting it to go full-throttle. There was a certain impatience and craving. I wanted the sparkle! It became a metaphor for the desire to be more enlightened, more awake, more open, more whatever. At first, when I noticed this desire, I tried to suppress it and “just be” with the half-light. But then it occurred to me (lightbulb moment!) that the path isn’t about not wanting the sunlight (or the enlightenment), but simply being AWARE of that wanting—so instead of trying to override it, I began to simply allow it to be as it was, and I watched it….SEEING what this desire was made up of, the whole pattern of it: the memory of previous mornings, the remembered sparkle, the remembered ecstasy I had felt, the joy…and along with seeing all of this, I was simply FEELING the desire, the longing, the impatient itch—feeling the energy of this wanting in the whole bodymind—the yearning, the dissatisfaction or disappointment with how it actually was right then—half-lit, “not as good.”
Enlightenment is not about never having these desires and dissatisfactions again. It’s simply about SEEING them as they arise, seeing delusion as delusion. Anam said that there is no end to the path, that enlightenment is not retirement, and that there may be enlightened people, but they only last for ten minutes. He also said enlightenment is not about being in LaLa Land or perpetual bliss. LaLa Land is being unaware, insensitive, seeing only bliss, ignoring pain.
The second story I’d like to share, is that at one point on the retreat, I had this fantasy about how I’d react if Anam did something like Kumare—the guy in that movie who masqueraded as an exotic Indian guru, gathered followers, and then revealed that he was just an ordinary guy from Brooklyn like all of them. I imagined Anam coming in dressed in bluejeans and a T-shirt with hair on his head, speaking with a Brooklyn accent instead of a Tibetan one, and telling us that all this Buddhist teaching had just been a movie and that he’s actually not from Tibet—he’s an ordinary guy from Brooklyn. How would I feel?
Instantly, I was reminded of a question I had once asked Toni Packer on a reteat after I had been wondering about my dependency on her. In fact, I put this exchange with Toni in my first book, BARE-BONES MEDITATION (on p 220). I told Toni I’d been wondering how I would react if she suddenly announced that she was leaving us and that this whole thing had been a total mistake. Toni asked me, “What’s the whole thing?”
That was great moment of awakening when Toni asked that question. I remember laughing. Because in that moment, I saw clearly that bondage is about grasping and that liberation is in letting go and that there is really nothing to grasp. But we keep trying to get hold of something. And THAT’S the problem—the mind keeps creating some-THING out of emptiness (i.e., out of impermanence, thorough-going flux, the fluid and ungraspable ocean of consciousness). To wake up is to SEE anything that forms in the mind as a delusion and to instantly let go into emptiness (or non-grasping). THAT alone (emptiness, non-grasping, groundlessness) is trustworthy, but as soon as it begins to form into a THING (an IDEA of emptiness or “the whole thing” or whatever), that’s not it!
Any IDEA that forms (awareness is always present, everything is consciousness, free will, no free will, whatever it is, however true it seems), liberation is in seeing it as delusion. Dissolving on the spot into emptiness. Not clinging to ANY experience—and if we find ourselves trying to keep or regain or attain something (like full-throttle sunlight, sparkle, or enlightenment), not trying to GET RID of this desire, but simply SEEING it—being AWARE of the delusion.
Seeing delusion as delusion is clarity. Thinking we are clear or trying to attain or hold onto a state of clarity is delusion. Awareness is seeing delusion as delusion.
The perfection can only be found in the imperfection. Nirvana can only be found in samsara. Imperfection is the grit that creates the pearl, the lotus growing in the mud, the interdependence of roses and compost that Thich Nhat Hanh talks about.
Not grasping, not resisting—allowing everything that starts to form to dissolve. Dissolving into emptiness, melting into love. This is liberation.
So those are my two stories. Another thing that happened to me on this retreat is that I reconnected more deeply with the sense of a path. It’s a pathless path, a direct path, and it’s BOTH sudden AND gradual. For a long time, I’ve emphasized that “this is it,” that “enlightenment is here now,” that “there is nowhere to go”….but I came home on this retreat to a renewed appreciation for a process that involves growth and evolution, an unending process of ever-deepening and ever-more subtle liberation. I don’t see these as mutually exclusive or opposite views, but more as different aspects of the same reality. And I also discovered something valuable in the desire and the aspiration to transform and liberate all beings. And maybe in the coming weeks and months I’ll say more about all of this. Meanwhile, I continue to breathe along with Toni (from a distance, and from no distance at all) as she approaches death, and I am reminded of a line from W.S. Merwin: “Now all my teachers are dead except silence.” But for now, at last word, as far as I know, Toni is still with us, still breathing…[note: Toni Packer died peacefully at the age of 86 on August 23, 2013, surrounded by some of her oldest and dearest friends].
Is there a path, a method, a practice or a technique that leads to freedom from suffering? In a sense, there are many paths and methods, and every one of them is an expression of life, just as the path of a river or a planet is an expression of life. It might be a highly structured path such as the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or The Work of Byron Katie, or it might be a traditional religious path such as Buddhism or Christianity. It might be a path that involves a multitude of techniques, practices and methods, or it might be the kind of bare-bones, pathless path that many of my teachers offered—a path of bringing open attention to the present moment, seeing thoughts as thoughts, waking up from delusion, being aware, discovering the spaciousness and undivided wholeness that is empty of self, seeing the tendency to grasp as it arises and dissolving back into emptiness.
I’m neither for nor against paths or practices. As I mentioned in a recent post, I attended a week-long silent meditation retreat this month for the first time in many years, and it renewed my appreciation for the potential benefits of sitting quietly in a sustained way on a regular basis, and because this was a Buddhist retreat, I even experimented with certain practices I would normally eschew, such as holding an aspiration or intention to transform and liberate oneself for the sake of all beings. (I seem to experiment with a variety of practices from time to time out of curiosity, to see how they act on me and what they bring forth, and I am often surprised to discover that they can have unexpected positive results. I’ve tried chanting, bowing, singing bhajans, doing tonglen, The Work of Byron Katie, the 12-Steps, and all kinds of things.) But in my life, all such methodical techniques tend to quickly fall away, because what seems to draw me more deeply than anything else is unstructured, open presence, and the simplicity of what is, just as it is. But that’s just me. I don’t conclude from this that everyone is or should be attracted to, or moved by, what attracts and moves me.
In my experience, any kind of practice or path you take up does you, you don’t do it. If you try to control awareness or presence or meditation or any other practice and use it to get certain results, it will be endlessly frustrating and disappointing. True meditation may in fact boil down to nothing more or less than resting in the ordinary, allowing everything to be as it is, and finally surrendering to the reality that there are no one-sided coins, that a pain-free life of perpetual sunshine and clarity is not an option, and that this is actually okay—that enlightenment is only ever found in the heart of darkness and delusion, and that death is what makes life so alive.
Although my teacher Toni Packer often said that she offered no path, no practice and no method, in fact, she did talk about paying attention, being aware, seeing through thoughts and stories, and waking up to the wonder of undivided and unencapsulated presence. She even suggested that over time, it was possible to become more and more stabilized in open, aware presence and less and less caught up in the entrancement of thought and the story of being me. But she NEVER suggested that we were going to cross a magical finish-line someday and arrive at a life that was entirely free from pain, delusion and the entanglement in thought. She knew that failure was part of the dance.
Anam Thubten, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose retreat I recently went on, also stressed that there is no end to delusion, that light and dark are part of the fabric of life, and that this path has nothing to do with perpetual bliss (or what he called LaLa Land), but is more like a deep soak in reality (as my first Zen teacher once described Zen sesshins).
Perhaps a danger in any kind of path, however apparently pathless and subtle and open it may be, is that—once it tends to solidify in the mind into something we can describe and something that we do with a certain degree of intentionality—it then seems to in some way reinforce the mirage of personal agency and hold out a promise that we can influence our lives for the better, that there is progress to be made and that we are on our way to someplace else. And relatively speaking, in a certain sense, this seems to be quite true.
In the case of the 12-Steps of AA, the desired result might be sustained sobriety, and surely there’s no problem with wanting to be free of an addiction. Without such a desire and intention, most alcoholics would probably never sober up. But if we imagine that we (as the thinking mind or the apparently separate self) have the power to bring that sobriety about, it can be a set-up for disappointment. As I’ve discovered with my fingerbiting compulsion, even after years of meditation, somatic awareness work, psychotherapy, silent retreats and satsangs—and even after successfully letting go of other addictions such as alcoholic drinking, cigarette smoking and recreational drugs, this one compulsion still happens. And many of my so-called character defects and imperfections remain as well—I can still fall into being depressed, worried, defensive, doubtful or any number of other deluded and painful states of mind.
We might wonder, is the true path about getting rid of such habits and delusions forever, or is that a misunderstanding of the path?
With spiritual or nondual paths, the goal is often enlightenment, and we usually have very strange fantasies of what that is. Perhaps enlightenment is really nothing more or less than recognizing delusion as delusion as it arises, and perhaps any idea that “I am enlightened” is a very big delusion. But we’ve heard many stories from apparently special people claiming to be enlightened, people who sit at the front of rooms looking beautiful or powerful and telling us about their awakenings, and we imagine ourselves being like them (or more accurately, like our fantasies of them). We picture ourselves permanently settled in a state of blissful clarity and perpetual ease, forever free of that pesky thought-sense of being “me” that causes so much suffering. We imagine that all sense of separation will be forever gone. We will be awash in oneness, no longer troubled by depression, anxiety, irritation, worry, doubt, compulsive desires, uncontrollable addictions or any other human problems. We will be invincible, untouchable, invulnerable, completely and permanently free from delusion and darkness. Some teachers actually promise this! And some of us are gullible enough to believe in and chase after such a fantasy, often for many years. And sometimes, even when we think we’re way beyond this, if we look closely, we find that this is exactly what we’re doing once again.
To the extent that we have any idea about trying to remain perpetually awake and aware and free of thoughts, we will be disappointed, for we will inevitably fall short and fail. When we try to cling to spacious experiences of bliss, they slip through our fingers leaving us back in contraction and despair. We have moments of boundless open awareness with no sense of separation or encapsulation, but next thing we know, we’re angry, hurt or defensive—experientially, once again, we seem to have contracted back down to being “me,” and even if we can see that in a bigger sense we are the awareness beholding it all, or that all of it is the movement of life, still—in that moment—we FEEL angry, separate, wounded or defensive—it hurts and it often becomes hurtful to others. And we imagine that one day, “I” will stabilize permanently on the enlightened side of this apparent polarity, no longer cursed with this back and forth movement between heaven and hell, clarity and confusion, self and no-self.
Can we see that this very desire to stabilize on the sunny side of the street is another manifestation of the me-story (me going back and forth, me hoping to one day stabilize on the “good” side, me wanting to be free of me)? Are these apparent polar opposites (heaven and hell, clarity and confusion) actually separate and in conflict? Can one side really win? Is a permanently sunny day actually attainable? Is there really a finish-line on the pathless path from Here to Here? And isn’t it only from the perspective of the fictional self that we are concerned about being permanently sunny?
True enlightenment might be nothing more or less than simply the recognition that life is as it is, and that no one is running the show. Moreover, if we look closely, the whole show (the world as we perceive and conceptualize it including all our spiritual adventures) is a kind of illusion, like a movie or a flip-book, in which there SEEM to be solid, persisting things (including “me”) bumping up against each other, causing and effecting and influencing each other in an intelligible narrative unfolding in time. And yet, as we look more closely, we find this whole movie to be a creation of smoke and mirrors. We notice how ephemeral everything is, how each moment is always vanishing into thin air, how it cannot be pinned down or grasped, how we can’t actually find anyone in control of our next thought, our next impulse or our next action.
That sounds scary if we’re trying desperately to get a grip and stay in control and make progress according to some fantasy-ideal, and if we’re expecting to reach a state of blemish-free perfection, then the reality of endless imperfection is a very depressing state of affairs. But in my experience, the most freeing realization is that there is nothing to grasp and no one to grasp it. There is only life, just as it is. How is it? There is no answer, for in the next instant, everything has moved! And yet, here it is—undeniable and vivid—one, whole seamless event with nothing separate to be in or out of control. No light apart from the darkness, and no darkness apart from the light.
I often find that whenever I begin to “practice” in a more dedicated or intentional way, that it initially feels good, but then the next thing I know, I’m in a very dark place. Wonderful retreats have often been followed by waves of darkness and old habits coming back with a vengeance. So I began to wonder recently, do formal practices (even those that are very subtle and non-methodical and simply about paying attention and being aware), do such practices inevitably hook us into a cycle of hope and despair by reinforcing the illusion of personal agency and the desire to get a certain result? Or is it that the mind habitually makes SOMETHING (a tool with a goal and the promise of control, mastery and positive results) out of what is really no-thing at all (non-intentional, open awareness and resting in the ordinary), and then passes judgment on how poorly it is working out? I'll leave that as an open question.
We don’t really get to choose what paths we walk down or how long we’re on them or whether at some point we turn onto a different path or head out into the uncharted wilderness—and in fact, in reality, we are not a separate something that is ON a path, nor is there really a difference between the path and the wilderness—it is all one, undivided flowing whole. We ARE the path, and the path is life itself—this moment, just as it is. NOTHING is left out. Whether we are moved to work the 12-Steps, do Byron Katie’s questions, sit in silent meditation, or simply “do nothing special,” we can only ever BE the movement of life. And perhaps, as part of that movement, there can be a noticing (a SEEING or awaring) of our expectations, our disappointments, our desires and fears…and of the various ways that THIS (the inconceivable happening of life) forms in the imagination into something apparently solid and substantial…and all the ways that the fictional self takes shape in the mind (the thoughts, stories, memories, mental images and sensations that give rise to this mirage of separation, encapsulation and agency)…and maybe in that seeing, there will be the discovery of what is unconditioned and indescribable. But try to grasp it, and nothing is there.
Perhaps we can live, if only for moments at a time, without holding on to anything—neither the denial of a path nor the assertion of one. Then it doesn’t really matter whether we are sitting in meditation, saying a prayer, working the 12-Steps, smoking a cigarette, watching TV, or making small talk with our neighbor. We are an ever-changing expression of life, this boundless river finding its way to the sea. And wherever we go, here we are.
I had an email today from someone who had read some of my recent posts and watched Rupert’s guided meditation that I shared in my post yesterday ["The Journey Into Presence" with Rupert Spira on Conscious TV with Eleonora Gilbert in 2011]. This person said that Rupert’s meditation helped while she was watching it, but then what? After that, the thoughts just took over again.
Another person I heard from questioned whether all stories are really fictional. That person gave an example of a story that seemed true to him: Yesterday he had a terrible headache, and it was so bad that he couldn't do the cleaning or the grocery shopping. He could see that this became a story in the telling of it, but he felt it was a true story, and surely as this headache was actually happening, it was real and not just a story.
What I loved in Rupert's exploration was that he began with the easiest situation (eyes closed, sitting quietly), then moved to opening the eyes, and ended with inviting the listener to continue this exploration endlessly (now, and now, and now).....not meaning that we should strive to maintain some special state of thoughtless awareness 24/7, which would be impossible, but simply that at any moment if we stop and check, we can notice that presence-awareness is still here, that everything is showing up Here / Now, that nothing ever happens outside of consciousness, that whatever appears IS consciousness. And he spoke so beautifully about ALLOWING our thoughts, not trying to stop them....and simply noticing that awareness is still present even when there are thoughts.
So in any moment that we SEEM to have lost awareness or fallen out of the present moment, simply stop and check. You’ll find that Here / Now is actually inescapable and that nothing can appear without awareness. Only IN the story does it SEEM to be otherwise.
And I'm not in any way disparaging stories. I love stories, or at least, I love the ones that wake us up and reveal things to us or entertain us in wonderful ways (e.g., good movies, novels, plays, TV shows, etc.)...not the ones that generate our suffering ("I've ruined my life, I'm a failure."). But stories are ALWAYS fictional, even those that SEEM completely true, such as this person’s example, "I had a terrible headache yesterday which lasted all day, and because of that, I couldn’t do the shopping or the cleaning."
By saying this is fictional, I'm not denying the relative reality of this experience. I’m not saying that the pain didn’t hurt, nor am I denying the fact that the cleaning and shopping did not get done. Rather, I'm simply pointing out that the actual EXPERIENCE itself was made up of ever-changing, ungraspable sensations and thoughts, a seamless happening that is actually indivisible from everything else in the universe.
But as soon as thought isolates, abstracts and freezes some part of this ever-changing totality and puts a label on it (e.g. "pain" or "headache"), it is already a step away. Suddenly this ever-changing, ungraspable movement is turned into SOMETHING apparently solid and separate, something we consider undesirable and problematic, a solid "thing." And this "thing" is said to have persisted (in the story) "all day"—which creates an illusion of time as a linear duration instead of recognizing the reality that everything always happens in the eternal (timeless) NOW. And of course, this thought also materializes the mirage of "me," the one who has this headache, the sufferer. And then thought adds a story of cause and effect ("Because of this headache, I was unable to clean and shop"), and although this story seems relatively true enough (and I'm not denying that relative truth), it is in reality a huge abstraction and over-simplification that presumes a whole worldview in which separate objects and events exist and cause other objects and events over time....a worldview in which we can isolate one apparently separate thing as the cause or the effect of another apparently separate thing.
But if we begin to explore the actual reality of this "headache" more closely, looking at it with the light of awareness, we can begin to SEE directly that NONE of this conceptualization really holds up.
We can also begin to notice how it acts on us when we tell this story the next day....and I'm not saying we shouldn't tell it, nor am I suggesting that we should replace it with a positive story as they try to do with affirmations and positive thinking....but instead, maybe just to begin to notice....by telling and re-telling certain habitual stories ("I'm a person with PTSD and attention deficit disorder," "I can never do what these teachers are suggesting," "I suffer from horrible headaches," "I'm a failure in life," "My relationships always end in disaster," etc.), however relatively true these stories may seem to be, what happens as we tell them? How does this telling and re-telling act on us? How do we feel as we do this?
We might even ask Byron Katie's wonderful questions about any such sentence that shows up in the mind (e.g., "I am a person with PTSD who can’t meditate."):
Can I really know this is true?
How do I feel when I believe this thought?
What would it feel like if I didn't believe this thought?
These are questions to ask meditatively...meaning they are questions to explore deeply by really feeling into them...not just firing off the mental answer that the mind believes is true. So this takes a certain courage or willingness to let go of things we are holding onto for dear life. The thinking mind (the imaginary self) will usually resist. And again, the point here isn't to DENY that we had a headache yesterday, or to never tell that story to anyone else....it's fine to tell a friend that we had a headache. But if we find ourselves over and over again telling the story of how much pain we have, we might just NOTICE that and get curious about it....even if the story is relatively true...we might look and see, how does this story act on me as I tell it again and again....no right or wrong answer here....it's an open exploration.
As we continue such explorations, our tightly held view of life begins to unravel in many ways. It doesn't mean we no longer have opinions or thoughts or headaches, or that we can't acknowledge a headache or tell a friend about it....but we begin to question our conceptualization of everything more and more, how we think about life. And the recognition of the difference between the conceptual and the actual gets ever-more subtle. We also begin to discover that WHATEVER shows up, whether it is a bunch of anxious thoughts or a headache or a spacious experience of emptiness and bliss, it all shows up Here / Now in this awareness that is beholding it all. And this awareness is never damaged....it resists nothing and clings to nothing....it allows everything to be as it is....and ALL of it (awareness and content) is one whole seamless happening, empty of solidity. Nothing that appears has any inherent objective reality, meaning it has no separate existence "out there" somewhere apart from consciousness...rather, it IS consciousness. And it is always NOW. And nothing stays the same. And although we can use language to describe and point, in reality, no words or concepts can ever capture this ever-changing present happening. We may find that although a headache is still painful, the suffering in life is almost entirely, if not entirely, in how we are thinking about it. The suffering is in the story, the conceptualization.
Of course, this isn't about getting rid of stories and never conceptualizing. It is simply about seeing, waking up.
And if thought pops up right now and says, "Yes, this may all be true for Joan, but I have a mental condition that makes it impossible to see all of this...." or “So what? What does all this do for me? I still have a horrible headache”….just SEE these thoughts and the stories they spin. And perhaps notice the light sparkling on the leaves…the sounds of wind in the trees…the cars rushing past…the song of a bird…the beauty of the sidewalk…the light on the side of a building…the utterly simple happening of this moment, just as it is. And maybe see that this happening even includes the thoughts and stories and mental concepts--ALL of it one undivided whole, empty of solidity, inexplicable and ungraspable, but obvious and unavoidable.
The key as always is in direct discovery (not belief)....waking up not "once and for all" or "forever after" or "always," but NOW. And if you think that you can't do this, you're right. But stop and check. Notice it is already so.
Someone asked if I had any thoughts I could share on dementia or Alzheimer’s. Well…I’ve seen it happen to family members, friends and teachers. And at age 65, I’m noticing that my own brain is not functioning quite as reliably as it once did. Dementia is an interesting phenomenon. I remember my aunt, who travelled widely during her life, saying to me once when she was very old, in reference to a distant country, “I can’t remember if I’ve actually been there or if I’ve just read about it.” On another occasion, shortly before she died, she told me one day that I reminded her of someone. As we visited together, she searched and searched her memory for who it was. Finally, at the very end of our visit, her face lit up. “I know who you remind me of!” she said, “You remind me of Joan!”
Dementia reveals quite clearly how much of our reality is a mutable construction put together by the brain and the nervous system, an ever-changing display in and of consciousness. People forget their own children, their lifelong partners, their own names, their histories, their problems, their accomplishments. Entire life stories dissolve into mist. This can be both liberating and painful. If you think your history and your accomplishments and all these other things define you, and if you’re trying to get a grip and stay in control and hold on, this disintegration is terrifying.
It can be very painful when your own mother doesn’t recognize you, and in response to hearing your name, says simply, “Never heard of him.” I remember author and journalist Russell Baker’s wonderful memoir, Growing Up, that ends (as I recall) with his mother, whom he adores, in the nursing home, not recognizing him. And when he tells her who he is, she responds with those very words, “Never heard of him,” or something to that effect. It’s kind of like the entire fiction created by consciousness is wiped away and all that remains is the present moment, perceived as something that has never been seen before, which—in reality—it is.
Of course, this doesn’t mean dementia is a bed of roses, or that it is in any way the equivalent of that “being here now” kind of awareness in the present moment that transcends or goes beyond thought and memory, but without losing the functional access to either. People with dementia have lost so much cognitive ability that they cannot function independently, and they can often become deeply terrified when they get lost in the building where they live or when they cannot find their husband (who has actually been dead for years, but whom they are fully convinced is just down the hall). People with dementia also sometimes get paranoid and confused, imagining scenarios and motives that do not in fact exist, and that can be very painful, not only for them, but for those who love them. When someone you love and adore, someone you are caring for whole-heartedly, suddenly thinks you have betrayed them in some terrible way that you haven’t and never would, it can be quite heartbreaking, even when you know it is only a malfunctioning in their brain over which they have no control.
Many of us have the idea that if dementia happens to us, we will self-terminate before it completely takes over. But this requires a certain ruthlessness that we may or may not have at the decisive moment, and it depends upon a delicacy of timing that can easily elude us. We want to linger for just one more day, and then next thing we know (or don’t know), the ability to self-terminate no longer exists. Dementia threatens the illusion of control more than perhaps anything else we can imagine and demands the ultimate surrender.
Dementia is a great pointer to how everything decays and falls away. The body grows old, and no matter how much we exercise and eat well, no matter how much Botox and plastic surgery we have or how much make-up and hair dye we pile on, in the end, if we live long enough, it all falls apart. The mind also falls apart. No matter how high our IQ, no matter how many doctoral degrees we earn, no matter how many books we’ve read or written, no matter how great our ability to concentrate or how excellent our memory, no matter how well we can meditate and “be here now” or how much present moment awareness and clarity we have or how enlightened we are, no matter how many brain-gym exercises and crossword puzzles we do, in the end, if we live long enough, it all falls apart.
This is terrifying if we think the bodymind is something substantial, and if we think that we are nothing more than this body or this mind, and if we think that we must survive forever as this imaginary form—I say imaginary because actually this apparent form (body and mind) never stays the same from one instant to the next and is dying and being born anew in every moment. It never actually EXISTS as a separate, persisting, independent THING in the way we imagine. It is all an ever-changing appearance. This sounds scary if we’re identified as this imaginary fragment that is disintegrating and losing control. But if we recognize the bigger picture—our true nature, the seamless wholeness that has no opposite and no other, the emptiness or no-thing-ness that is unborn and undying and always fully present Here / Now, then death and disintegration lose their sting. Just like when we discovered the world was round and the fear of falling off the edge instantly and completely disappeared.
Impermanence and death are great teachers. Very often the things we fear most—loss of control, helplessness, hopelessness, meaninglessness, impermanence, death, dependency—turn out to be the secret doorways that open into liberation and deep joy. We find that what we’ve been clinging to never existed in the first place, and the goal we’ve been seeking has never been absent. What a relief when our grip relaxes and we free-fall into the simplicity of what is—THIS that we can never not be!
But again, that doesn’t mean all is sunshine and roses. I think it’s safe to say that Toni Packer had both great clarity and great suffering in the final years and final weeks of her life, and certainly there was confusion at times. Jesus, on the cross, seems to have had both great clarity and great suffering as well, and perhaps that is why the cross has become such a powerful symbol of loss and liberation. The Buddha, Nisargadatta and Ramana all died of painful illnesses. One Zen teacher hung himself. Many great spiritual teachers who lived to old age have had dementia at the end whether it was acknowledged and talked about openly or not. So not to expect that the “liberation and deep joy” of which I spoke means perpetual happiness and unending bliss. This life is not like that. Being nailed to a cross just isn’t a whole lot of fun no matter however much enlightenment there is, and enlightenment really just boils down to the acceptance of what is, not some delusional self-mastery or perpetually pleasant state of mind. And with dementia, any lingering illusion that acceptance is something "we" do in order to feel better is completely shattered. What remains is the absolute acceptance that is always already the case: Everything IS (always) allowed to be exactly as it is.
There’s an excellent dramatic movie having to do with Alzheimer’s that I’d very highly recommend: Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her” with Julie Christie in the lead (2007). It is beautiful. Also, my next book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement, which is still in the works, will be about this whole adventure of growing old and disintegrating. Many people have asked me when it will be published, and the truth is, I don’t know. Hopefully in 2014, but I said that before about 2013, which is now almost over. (Years go by much faster as we age, it seems). All my autobiographical story-books (Bare-Bones Meditation, Awake in the Heartland, and now this one) have a life of their own that’s different from my other nondual books. The story-books are drawn from my life, and often it seems that something has to happen in life itself—something I can’t know or predict or imagine in advance—before they can come to a closure. This particular book feels long overdue in one sense, but of course, it is right on schedule in the truer sense. In any case, for those of you who are wondering about it, I very much hope it will be finished and released sometime in the coming year.
9/18/13—9/20/13 (originally posted in three parts):
Life can be scary, uncertain and painful. Living organisms are vulnerable in countless ways, and as human beings, we have an ability that other animals do not, to remember the past, to imagine possible future scenarios, and to learn about terrible things happening in faraway places. In the face of life’s uncertainty and pain, we naturally tend to look for, and grab onto, things that promise comfort and certainty. We are easily drawn to ideologies and beliefs that offer us a kind of security blanket, and the mind is quick to turn helpful pointers or momentary experiences and insights into absolute truths and then cling to them, and assert them, as dogmas. It’s easy to see this tendency “out there” in extreme versions of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism, but can we detect it in more subtle (and often not so subtle) forms in ourselves as well?
Let’s take a favorite example. Some teachers talk about "the freedom to choose," and others talk about how there is "no choice and no chooser,” and we forget that these conceptualizations and verbalizations are never more than descriptions or pedagogical tools—i.e., maps. Each of these apparently contradictory maps can potentially free us from a different kind of delusion. “You have a choice" invites the discovery that there is a power right here, right now—the power of awareness, the power to see delusion as delusion, the power to wake up, to recognize the freedom that is present beyond all ideas. In the words of Nisargadatta Maharaj: “The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite…it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.” The apparently opposite pointer, that "There is no choice," invites the discovery that thought and the imaginary self have no power at all—that when awareness is clouded over by thoughts and by what the physicist David Bohm beautifully called “neurochemical smog,” then you are (in the words of Eckhart Tolle) “compelled to think, feel, and act in certain ways according to the conditioning of your mind." Choice or no choice, “both are a grievous error” in the words of an old Zen koan. Truth cannot be put into ANY formulation. Trying to grasp this inexplicable happening Here / Now with a formula is like trying to hold onto smoke or water. And yet, that is what we do. We turn a tentative description or a momentary pedagogical tool (a map) into a dogma. We then identify with that dogma—it becomes a part of “me” and “my identity,” and soon we are defending it against those who have made the apparently opposite map into a dogma and an identity. And then we have Holy Wars (traditional Advaita vs. Neo-Advaita, Vipassana vs. Zen, radical nonduality vs. being here now, gradual vs. sudden, path vs. no-path, choice vs. no-choice, Advaita vs. Buddhism, etc).
So, can we be aware of how the mind wants to solidify and grasp, how it tends to divide everything up and then become terribly confused trying to figure out how all the imaginary pieces relate to each other? Can we see this as it happens and come back to what is simple and uncomplicated and obvious—this moment just as it is, the bare suchness of it?
Seeing through delusion and coming back (or waking up) to the simplicity of what is—this is at the heart of nondual awakening. This waking up can only happen NOW, and in that sense, it is always a direct and sudden awakening—always immediate, always complete. But at the same time, in a more relative sense, it can also be viewed as a progressive path—a path that is about cultivating sensitivity, openness, insight, resilience and perhaps we might even say faith—not faith in SOMETHING, but a kind of growing trust in groundlessness and non-grasping. This gradual unfolding is an evolutionary movement of life itself, in service to the whole, not a narcissistic, goal-oriented, self-improvement project designed to enhance the false self or provide narcotic comfort against the uncertainties of life.
As we give open, nonjudgmental attention to what is, we learn—with ever-more subtlety—to FEEL, to SENSE when the heart is open and when it is closed, when there is some kind of grasping or seeking happening, when we are defending something, when we are running away or going after false comfort, when we are caught up in the entrancement of thoughts, stories and beliefs. The path of awareness is about seeing delusion as delusion—not once-and-for-all, but Now—and this seeing, this listening, this awaring gets ever-more refined, ever-more subtle, ever-more discerning, ever-more sensitive. And because this is not a process that thought posing as the imaginary-self can control, it doesn’t always go the way we think it should. It involves failure, setback and disappointment. And so, the true nondual path is about learning to see WHATEVER shows up as the path, learning not to take the failures personally, learning to trust in the process itself, not seeking or demanding any particular result, being focused on the journey (what is) and not the desired outcome (what might be).
And although this can be conceptualized or described as a process of evolutionary unfoldment, it is first and foremost a discovery that the only place where freedom and enlightenment can ever be realized (made real) is at the epicenter of the present moment, in the absolute immediacy of Here / Now. There is great power, joy and freedom in empty (open, non-grasping) awareness and in being fully present in (and as) this placeless and timeless immediacy of bare being. This isn’t a power that the imaginary-me can acquire and control and use at will, but rather, it is a power that dissolves the mirage of encapsulation and separation; it is the unclouded, unobscured power of life itself. And it isn’t the kind of joy that always feels pleasant, or the version of freedom that is about doing whatever we want, but rather, it is the freedom to be as we are and the joy that can exist even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We could say that consciousness is discovering how to wake up from entanglement and entrancement in its own creations. The light of awareness is exposing delusion and revealing both the infinite possibilities and the extraordinary beauty in every seemingly ordinary moment.
Over time, we learn to trust in awareness, in simple presence, in being awake Here / Now, in not-grasping. Habitually, we tend to trust thinking instead—when we feel uncertain, afraid or trapped, we typically think and think and think. We believe this will work. No matter how many times it fails us, we keep trying it, convinced that eventually it will deliver. For most of us, our entire education was primarily about developing the intellect, and many of us end up actually believing (or THINKING) that nothing exists outside of thought. As Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” as if thinking were the ground of being!
Of course, thinking is a useful tool and a vital aspect of human life, and in certain matters, it works very well, so we’re not disparaging the intellect or trying to eliminate thought. The key here is to become aware of when it works and when it doesn’t—and to recognize how thought is dualistic and abstract, how it divides and reifies what is actually seamless flux—and to SEE what is here prior to thought (and also during and after thought)—and to discover the difference between awareness and thought, and between the bare happening Here / Now and our conceptualizations of it. When thinking runs the show, when it masquerades as the true self, when it tries to grasp what is ungraspable, then it creates suffering and delusion, and we can actually FEEL the difference between useful or creative thinking and the kind of thinking that is simply a form of suffering and delusion.
In the beginning, it feels tremendously counter-intuitive at moments of upset or confusion, or when we are searching for the truth, to let go of thinking, to let go of ALL our conceptual maps and footholds, to trust in awareness or bare presence instead, to dissolve into the ungraspable beingness Here / Now—the sounds of the traffic, the barking of a dog, the cool breeze, the breathing, the heart beating, the green leaves sparkling in the sunlight—the ungraspable, ever-changing, totally immediate, nonconceptual happening of this moment.
Thought often reasserts itself very quickly and announces that, “This is scary…where am I?...This isn’t getting me anywhere, you need to get back to work thinking about all this and making an effort or you might never get anywhere…this could lead to insanity…you need to get a grip here,” and as these thoughts gather momentum, the neurochemistry hums along, the body contracts and tightens, we feel fear, anxiety, restlessness—and before we know it, thought is racing around on its imaginary treadmill, once again chasing the carrot that is forever out of reach.
But amazingly enough, this caught-up-ness and the futility of the chase can be seen. Waking up from this entrancement happens. It doesn’t happen on command through will-power; and yet, it doesn’t feel entirely right to say that we (as this aware presence) can do nothing to bring it about, for there does seem to be an ability right here to let go—an ability that isn’t always available, but the more it happens, the more available it seems to become. There is a learning that happens, a noticing of this grasping activity and a discovery of how to unclench the grasping mind and relax into bare being. And this is really what the pathless path of awareness is all about—learning to SEE when thought is not serving us and developing the willingness and the ability to let go, to trust in something deeper than our thoughts, to dissolve into this aware presence or bare suchness that could also be called unconditional love or the Heart—to be utterly devoted to the simplicity and aliveness of Here / Now. And this devotion also means recognizing that this trust and this ability to relax may not always be present, that sometimes the clouds of delusion and old conditioning and neurochemical smog are too thick, and when that happens, not taking it personally or making it into a new story of failure and impossibility, but simply allowing the clouds and the smog to be as they are—beholding them with simple awareness (which is unconditional love). Eventually, the sun always comes out again.
As an exploration, see if you can FEEL what it feels like the next time you notice that there is mental grasping, seeking or reaching….when the mind is racing on its mental treadmill trying to get somewhere or make something happen, trying to understand, trying to formulate or conceptualize the nature of reality, trying to have a certain experience or get into a particular state, straining to see something, trying to “get it”—or the opposite, trying to get rid of something, trying to make something go away or stop happening, fighting against the neurochemical smog and the clouds, trying to MAKE the sun come out. Can you notice how it feels in the bodymind when this kind of grasping/seeking/resisting activity is happening? Can you FEEL the sense of urgency and desperation, the sense of dissatisfaction, the tightness, the unhappiness, the contraction, the efforting? Can you see the addictive and compulsive nature of this activity—the alluring promise it holds out, the way it hooks us, the insatiable need for more and more thinking, the promise that just one more minute of thinking will do the trick, the suffering of all that?
The next time you notice this kind of grasping/seeking/resisting, as an experiment, see if it is possible, if only for a moment, to release that effort completely, to let it go, to give up, to relax, to let yourself free-fall into complete clueless unknowing—to simply open yourself completely to the bare (seemingly meaningless) sensations of this moment, whatever they are—the sounds of traffic or birds or wind, the sensations in the body, the breathing, the utter simplicity of BEING present and aware. Can you notice how it feels in the bodymind when that letting go happens, when all the efforting relaxes, when the grasping releases and the belly softens and the mind unclenches and everything dissolves into spacious emptiness? What is that openness like? This question is not asking for a verbal answer, but rather, it is an invitation to feel this openness, to experience it, to taste it, to BE it—and not with the idea that you must be this way forever, not CLINGING to this openness or grasping it—but simply allowing yourself to be open and to feel the aliveness, the spaciousness, the fullness, the freedom of it.
And if it seems sometimes that letting go and relaxing into open, spacious awareness is not possible, this is often because either we are trying too hard in that moment to MAKE this surrender happen, and/or we’re caught up in a story that this kind of letting go is impossible for us. So instead of TRYING to relax or TRYING to make the trying stop, simply start where you are, and see if it is possible to completely allow the trying and the seeking and the tensing up to be just as it is. Forget about letting go and simply allow yourself to be completely present with grasping and seeking and efforting. And if you can, instead of following the thoughts and stories that accompany this movement of the bodymind, tune into the bodily sensations instead. Really FEEL what this is like to grasp and to seek and to resist, without judging it or trying to make it go away, without labeling it a problem. And if there is a story running about not being able to let go, can that story be seen as a story—however relatively true it seems? Is it possible for one moment to not know what is possible or not possible?
The more we can bring awareness to the sensory bodily experiencing of both grasping and letting go as they each happen in turn, this awaring acts on us in a way that “we” (as the thinking mind) cannot control or manage, and it changes us in much the same way that rushing water changes stone, slowly and imperceptibly. Which is why I like to say, true meditation (being aware, giving attention to bare actuality, seeing through delusion) does us, we don’t do it.
This kind of open attention is not goal-oriented. It’s not about results. It’s not about ideals of perfection or personal achievement. It’s not heavy-handed. It’s not about judging, evaluating, comparing, trying to get rid of one experience or trying to make another “better experience” last longer. It’s not about getting caught up in a story about “me” going back and forth, or “me” finally being permanently open and expanded, or “me” failing miserably. It’s simply allowing everything to be as it is, and noticing how it feels to grasp and seek, and how it feels to let go and relax. It’s about BEING awareness, BEING present—without adding anything extra (a label, an explanation, an evaluation, a conceptual overlay, an ideology, a belief system, a conclusion). And if those mental extras do pop up, as they may, can they be seen for what they are (old habits, delusions)? In the seeing, they dissolve quite naturally. What remains is indescribable and inconceivable.
Waking up isn’t about getting the right conceptual ideology or the right formulation. It’s not a philosophy or a belief system. It’s something alive, energetic, visceral and embodied—and the “body” I’m speaking of is the whole universe, consciousness itself, bare being, seamlessness, no-thing-ness, emptiness, fullness, unencapsulated boundlessness…and that INCLUDES the undeniable reality of also being a particular person, albeit an ever-changing person, inseparable from the whole. The suchness of life is ungraspable but actually unavoidable, inconceivable but utterly obvious, immediate and all-inclusive. The biggest key in waking up is the recognition that this aliveness is not “out there” somewhere. It’s Here / Now. By relaxing the search for it—which creates the idea that is somewhere else—by SEEING the cloud of thought that is misdirecting us for what it is, by seeing through the stories that “this can’t be it,” we allow these delusions to dissolve by themselves. As they dissolve, the miracle of this moment emerges into awareness, not as a particular object, but as the vividness of everything—the traffic sounds, the shapes and colors of the cars rushing past, the song of the bird, the cool breeze on the skin, the taste of coffee, the green mountains, the blue sky in a puddle of water on the sidewalk. We may even find this aliveness where we least expected it, in the midst of anger or fear or fingerbiting or depression—whenever we stop fighting these things and thinking ABOUT them and trying to fix them, and instead allow them to unfold in open awareness without hindrance or separation.
Someone asked what I think happens after death. Many of us have very different ideas about what happens after death, but nobody really knows since no one actually comes back from the dead (near death is not death, after all).
There seems to be a pervasive fear amongst human beings that “I” won’t continue, accompanied by the odd notion that “I” will still be here to know that “I” have come to an end—sort of like being buried alive, never able to turn the TV back on and see the next chapter in the exciting story of my life. On the flip side, many people who have had near-death experiences report with absolute certainty that there is a real heaven awaiting us after death, a place with beautiful trees and flowers, filled with light and love, where all our dead relatives—restored to their youthful luster—await our arrival. I don’t doubt the reality of such near-death experiences AS EXPERIENCES, but believing that there is such a place “out there” somewhere awaiting us is like believing there is something “out there” right now.
My sense is that the psychological fear of death or non-existence (as opposed to the instinctual fear that prompts us to flee from an attacking tiger) is based on misconceptions—I often compare it to the fear our ancestors had of falling off the edge of the earth. If you think the earth is a flat plain, this is a very reasonable fear. We assume there is “something” that dies. We believe there are solid, discrete, persisting “things” (lamps, tables, dogs, cats, people) that are impermanent, and we wonder if “I” will still be here after death—and by “I” we seem to mean at the very least conscious presence, and usually some sense of being me, this person that I think I am. If you believe this picture of solid, discrete, persisting “things” that die, and if you think of “me” or “my soul” as a separate thing, then the fear of death is quite reasonable.
Traditional religion and much New Age spirituality offer what I consider comforting mythologies (heaven, hell, reincarnation, angels, etc.) designed to assuage these fears. Although they are often taken literally, these myths may simply be ways of understanding and expressing the intuition we all have that there is no-thing here to end, that the deepest reality is eternal (a word which points to the timelessness of NOW, not the conceptual image of infinite duration). And of course, anything is possible in the world of dreams and delusions, even angels flying around and all our long-dead relatives restored to their youthful luster awaiting us in a pearly land of clouds where all is love and light. So if dreaming is your pleasure, then dream on. I have no objection to dreams and myths, and every experience is equally real as an experience. But to me, these notions, if taken literally, are based on a misunderstanding of what is Here / Now.
I notice that I have no fear of death (beyond the survival fear built into the organism to help us jump out of the way of attacking tigers). But I'm not a believer in any sort of afterlife or reincarnation in the way some people are, and I have no expectation of still being here as me after I die, and no worries about that either. It's not that I think there is "nothing" after death, but more that I find birth and death to be conceptual dividing lines in what is actually a beginningless and endless, boundless and seamless NOW. I don't believe in any individual soul or independent unit of consciousness that continues on, since I don't find any such thing here now. I feel no urgency to survive as this form, which is dying and being born anew moment-to-moment and which can never really be separated from everything else it supposedly is not. Everything contains everything and is nothing but thorough-going flux in which no “thing” ever forms to even be impermanent. In that sense, everyone I have loved who has died is still right here, but not as disembodied spirits floating around the room, or souls reincarnated in new bodies, or youthful versions of themselves waiting for me up in heaven (or down in hell).
I don’t even fear the dreaded "nothingness" of not being conscious and present anymore that some fear, for I notice that every night in deep sleep, all sense of being present and aware disappears and no one is left to care. I find this a source of deep rest and rejuvenation, not a terrifying nightmare. Why should death be any different?
Although I see nothing to fear in death, it’s possible that in the dying process, fear may arise…and that’s also nothing to fear, although there too, fear may arise. To paraphrase something Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi once said, Enlightenment is not about dying a good death (i.e., being fearless, calm, peaceful, etc.); enlightenment is not needing to die a good death. Enlightenment is the willingness to be present as whatever shows up, whether that is bliss or despair, calmness or terror.
More about my take on death can be found in this piece called Death and the Deathless on my website -- and I’ll have much more to say in my forthcoming book on death and growing old—which will hopefully be published in 2014.
I worked in a law office years ago, and we used to laugh when someone would come in to draw up a will “in case I die,” as if dying were a remote possibility rather than an absolute certainty. We all die, yet it’s a topic we often don’t like to think about or discuss. But as we get older, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the truth.
Along these lines, I had another death-related question recently, this one about whether I support assisted suicide or the right to die by choice. Yes, I do. Assuming it does not negatively impact dependents (such as children), I see no reason why a sane adult should not have the legal right to choose, in a carefully considered and rational way, to end their life for any reason that feels essential to them, whether or not they are terminally ill. And if people do wish to end their life, why force them to do it in a way that is painful and/or gruesome when it can be done painlessly and without recourse to slashed wrists or gunshots to the head? We do as much, after all, for our beloved pets. That doesn’t mean I want people to kill themselves just because they are depressed or having a bad day, or because they’ve just lost their legs in an accident and can’t yet imagine how they can live without them. But if I have terminal cancer, I might welcome the possibility of ending my life quickly rather than enduring a prolonged period of excruciating pain and expensive care.
Of course, there is the idea in some religions that God alone gets to pull the plug, which is why many religious fundamentalists oppose assisted suicide or the right to die by choice (although curiously, these same people often support war and the death penalty). There also seems to be a pervasive idea in many other religious and spiritual groups that it is somehow more spiritually advanced to refuse palliative care, to remain as conscious as possible and feel the pain of a disease like cancer fully, and to “die naturally” rather than terminating ourselves by choice (although we wouldn’t even survive to old age or with many kinds of illnesses and disabilities out in wild nature without medical intervention, so who decides what is “natural” and what isn’t?). In the very lovely video interview that I posted on September 25 with the two Buddhist priests who founded the NY Zen Center for Contemplative Care, they seemed to suggest at one point in the interview that wanting the right to end your own life was basically about wanting control (subtext failure to surrender?), and although I may have misunderstood them, I got the sense they thought it was in some way spiritually better to “make it through another day” rather than ending your own life. I’ve found ideas like these among any number of Buddhist and Advaitan teachers.
I see it quite differently from all these religious views. For me, there is no God apart from life itself. And while wanting the right to end one’s own life could be about control and lack of surrender in some cases, it might also be about compassionate choices, and it might be just another form of total surrender. And although I talk a great deal about fully experiencing and feeling whatever arises during our lives, I also completely support the possibility of palliative care, pain medication, and the right to die by choice. For me, there is no contradiction. In Oregon, where I live, we have that right, at least under some circumstances. You have to be terminally ill and close to the end, and you have to jump through many hoops first—you must make two oral requests and one written request, two physicians have to sign off on it, you are interviewed and questioned—all to be sure you’re not just having a bad day and needlessly committing suicide. It is a rigorous and careful process. There is an excellent movie about winning the right to die here that follows a number of people through this process. It’s called How to Die in Oregon (http:// www.howtodieinoregon.com/) and I very highly recommend it.
A dear friend of mine who died here in Oregon not too long ago signed up for this. She went through this rigorous process, and we were allowed to legally purchase the drugs that would kill her quickly and painlessly at the moment of her choosing. I fully supported her in whichever choice she ended up making. As it turned out, she never took the magic potion (as I called it). She kept saying how interesting it was the way everything was falling away…and she seemed to surrender into that process, eventually losing the ability to talk or to swallow, and in the end, dying “naturally,” just as the Zen priests in the Contemplative Care interview said happens with most people who sign up for the drug. But for as long as she could still swallow, she had the option—if the pain got too unbearable—she could choose to end it. She was very grateful for that choice, and had she taken the magic potion, in my eyes, it would simply have been a different form of surrender. And she did have great palliative care to the end.
Many of us would like the right to legally and humanely terminate ourselves if we were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—in order to spare ourselves, our loved ones, and the tax payers the long, arduous and expensive task of caring for us as we decline. But at present, even in states like Oregon that have right to die laws, that choice is not included. But how is this different, I wonder, from allowing somebody to decide whether they want surgery, chemotherapy, acupuncture and herbs, or no intervention at all? And why is being kept alive through medical intervention natural and ending your own life unnatural?
I’ve found myself speaking out on these issues more and more in recent years because there is a certain faction of the disability rights moment that continues to steadfastly oppose assisted suicide and the right to die by choice, and as a person with a disability, I want to make clear that this faction of the movement is not speaking for me or for everyone with a disability. I certainly understand why some people in the disability rights movement fear a potentially slippery slope here—I was born without a right hand and the doctor who delivered me offered my father the chance to smother me. I’m very glad my father didn’t do that. And I’ve had friends, acquaintances and co-workers over the years with disabilities far more severe than mine, all of whom were leading full and meaningful lives. So I’m definitely not talking about killing off all people with disabilities.
I’m also not talking about murdering grandma against her will as some people fear. I was deeply grateful for every moment I had with my beloved mother who died at the age of ninety-five, and I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent with many other friends and relatives at the end of their lives. Of course I would not want old people or people with serious illnesses or disabilities feeling obligated to commit suicide in order to “not be a burden” to anyone. But it seems to me that, as adults, we ought to have the legal right to decide whether or not to pull the plug on ourselves, and we ought to give each other the possibility of ending our lives in a humane way. And as a society in a world with limited resources, we should consider whether the goal of life is to live as long as we possibly can, in whatever condition, and to keep those we love alive—again, in whatever condition—for as long as possible. I love life, but to me, death is not the great boogeyman to be avoided at all costs; it is a natural part of life.
Who decides what is spiritually correct, or what is “God’s will,” or what is true surrender? If most of us saw death as a natural part of life, rather than as an enemy to resist at all costs, and if we understood the interdependent and seamless nature of life, I wonder if all this would still be such a difficult issue. I suspect not.
I’m one of those people whose end of life instructions call for no extraordinary measures. I don’t want to be kept alive with feeding tubes and ventilators or in a vegetative state. I’m glad I live in a state where the right to die by choice is an option under certain circumstances. You may see all of this very differently from how I do, and that’s fine—these are delicate and complex issues. And who knows what choices I would or will actually make if I get a painful terminal illness or a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. We don’t really know what we’ll do until we’re in the situation, and surely there isn’t just one correct response. I do know that, within reason, I’d like the freedom to find my own way with these decisions when they pertain to my own life, rather than being told what is morally right or wrong, or spiritually correct or incorrect, according to somebody else who sees life very differently and who isn’t walking in my shoes.
You’ll find links on my website (on the links page, right-hand column) to various organizations that support the right to die or that offer ways of doing it yourself if it is not legally available where you are. Obviously, in offering these links, I’m not encouraging suicide. But for many of us as we age, these are resources that we value and welcome, whether we end up using them or not. You’ll also find links to organizations and individuals that provide end of life care or that train people to provide such care. And please, check out that movie, How to Die in Oregon.
I was watching the fog burn off the other morning, slowly revealing the rolling landscape of green and early autumn colors—the face of the mountain. And I thought about how we want our own dense fog to burn off more quickly than it sometimes does. Nature usually moves very slowly. Sometimes it is quick, as when the tiger pounces or the lighting bolt strikes. But more often, it is very slow. And we are an expression of nature, sometimes experiencing sudden turns or dramatic breakthroughs, but more often living out the gradual unfoldment that appears to us as a few steps forward and a few steps back…the fog lifting and then returning. This is the way of things. There is darkness and light, pain and pleasure, happiness and sorrow, clarity and confusion, in a never-ending dance.
One of my teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, had this to say:
“Practice is not about having nice feelings, happy feelings. It's not about changing, or getting somewhere. That in itself is the basic fallacy. But observing this desire begins to clarify it. We begin to comprehend that our frantic desire to get better, to 'get somewhere,' is illusion itself, and the source of suffering.”
One of her successors, Zen teacher Elihu Genmyo Smith (www.prairiezen.org), puts it this way:
“You may want Zen practice to make you calmer, more relaxed, and more peaceful. But though these things may occur, they are not what practice is about. In fact, Zen practice is learning how to live in hell, the hell of suffering and the hell of creating suffering. Practice is experiencing life and responding to whatever arises in the midst of hellishness.”
And of course, where they both speak of Zen practice, you can substitute the wording that fits your situation and feels alive to you: spirituality, nonduality, the pathless path, the direct path, Advaita, Vipassana, waking up, satsang, or simply life itself.
I got a question after my last post that went something like this: “I resonate with what your post purports, but I don't understand why there are so many teachers and teachings that seem to promise just the opposite, uncaused joy, fulfillment, some state of something better than what is appearing now. It seems so different than what the gist of your posting is about. What is going on with many of these modern day teachings and teachers, are they just selling something or are they somehow offering a different view of the same no-thing, perhaps emphasizing the beatific aspects and leaving out the other side of the coin? I don't get it. I'd like to be clear about what is real and what is nonsense.”
Here is my reply (and be fore-warned, this is a very long post, not a short one, and it meanders around a number of issues that this question touched upon for me):
First off, the only way to be clear about what is real and what is nonsense is to wake up Here / Now. Then there is no confusion. Otherwise, we can easily get lost in analyzing, discussing and thinking about the pros and cons of different teachings and the legitimacy of different teachers. This is entertaining and distracting, and is often a favorite way in spiritual circles to stay in delusion, holding on to opinions and views, wanting certainty and the satisfaction of being right, wanting to be sure we are on the winning team and not the losing team—all keeping alive the dream-world that we think is reality.
Two of my teachers, Toni Packer and Joko Beck, broke new ground at the time by talking about how Zen practice (or “the work of this moment,” as Toni preferred to call it) related to ordinary, everyday life. They didn’t want people to get lost in abstract metaphysical ideas or to mistake wonderful, blissful experiences for real liberation. They were both very sharp, clear, honest, unseductive and unseducible teachers. You couldn’t bullshit them and they would never bullshit you. I was lucky to have them.
At one point, I complained to Toni that she focused too much attention on the problems in life (anger, fear, conflict, concern over self-image, feeling separate, etc.), all the things that obscured the groundless ground of peace, love, perfection and wholeness. At the time, I was newly enthusiastic about various satsang teachings, and I wanted Toni to talk more about the inherent perfection of what is, unconditional love, absolute freedom. But she saw dangers in doing that— how beautiful ideas can be like intoxicating drugs or security blankets, how we can so easily mistake the map for the territory and make something out of nothing, how we end up clinging to subtle new beliefs instead of actually letting go into true liberation. Zen teachers in general tend toward deconstruction and pulling every rug you try to stand on out from under you—telling you that if you find the Buddha, you should kill whatever Buddha you have found. Satsang teachers, on the other hand, are perhaps more prone to laying down gorgeous rugs—talking about love, oneness, bliss, peace—and then encouraging you to dissolve into the reality behind the rug. As Mooji put it: "Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering. Remind the world it is beautiful and free." Both approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages.
Those teachers like Joko and Toni who encourage us to be aware of the ways we get caught up in delusion and who remind us that life inevitably includes pain are not saying that life sucks and that enlightenment is just a pipe dream, so we might as well give up and get used to being miserable. They’re pointing to liberation, to the discovery of nirvana in the midst of samsara and enlightenment in the midst of delusion. Not once-and-for-all in some grand finish-line experience, but moment to moment, now and now. Those teachers who emphasize the light and seem to ignore the darkness are (at best) inviting exactly the same discovery.
Of course, some teachers, caught in delusion themselves, may indeed be selling something spurious and false. Any time teachers imply that they personally exist in a state of perpetual bliss, or when they make a big deal of their personal awakening story and it sounds as if they crossed some magical finish-line on a certain day and have never had a moment of delusion or suffering since, my bullshit detector lights up. Such people may completely believe their own story, and I can’t know what is true for them, but I do know that it takes a subtle attention and unflinching honesty at times to see the truth, and quite often for all of us, we don’t see things that are right in front of our face until we are ready to see them—until the conditions come together to make that possible.
Once we have declared ourselves enlightened, announced it to our friends, set up shop as a teacher, or put things into print that live forever on the internet, it becomes harder and harder to admit mistakes, disclose human failings, change our minds, or walk back exaggerated or false claims. The mind is very good at manufacturing things it expects or wants, and very good at denying what it doesn’t want to see. If we have put ourselves forward as an Awakened One whose suffering has completely and permanently ended, we may even come to depend on this image and the story behind it for our income and survival as well as for prestige and self-worth, all of which further motivates us not to see anything that might get in the way of this.
In this age of global communication, the marketplace is flooded every day with new arrivals, half-baked and ready to sell their promises. And many of them are very sincere and may even have some genuine insight to share. But it’s easy in that half-baked place to fall into the trap of hype and hyperbole, imitation and delusion, and to be convinced by our own fabrications and seduced by the good feelings of success. It’s a heady thing to be a guru. Hubris is an occupational hazard.
I started “teaching” (or whatever this is I do) much too soon in my opinion, or perhaps more accurately, I started out on somewhat the wrong footing (although of course in the absolute sense, there are no mistakes and everything happens in the only way possible). Yes, all my teachers at the time were encouraging me to hold meetings, and yes, I did have a lot of real insight and genuine clarity by then, and yes, the sense of being encapsulated in a separate bodymind had dissolved and there was an awareness of being the bigger context—although of course, however “awake” one is, in any moment when thought takes over and clouds the picture, the sense of being “me” can return and seem believable, as it often did back then (and as it often still does). I had just published my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, and I would have been fine at that stage facilitating a meditation group, even giving talks and responding to questions, if only I had truly seen myself as a peer in a group of friends, a somewhat seasoned student able to facilitate a process of shared inquiry and practice. But I had deep feelings (stories, beliefs, delusions) of unworthiness and failure, and I longed to “be somebody,” and because I was at that time moving more and more into the satsang world of supposedly awakened guru-like teachers, I wanted to be like these guru types. I knew this was a false ego trip and a form of delusion, so it was a kind of secret desire that I tried to suppress or deny while simultaneously fanning the flames. On the surface, in my meetings with people and in my writings, I was always very down-to-earth and honest about my human foibles, but underneath the surface, I very much wanted to be the authority figure, the awakened one, the one with the answers, the one in the know, the super-star at the front of the room—not just another bozo on the bus, all of us looking and listening together.
In reality, I was in no position at that time to be a real teacher in the best sense of the word (and perhaps I’m still not). But back then, I was quite unsettled—I was still seeking, still falling at the feet of new gurus, still looking for some magical finish-line, still hungry for the approval of my teachers, still unsure about what I was even teaching, torn between the different teachings and styles of teaching with which I was resonating. In short, I was half-baked. I doubted myself, and because I was clinging to a positive self-image and fighting a negative one, I naturally felt put down and bristled inwardly with indignation when others seemed to challenge my authority or when they failed to recognize me as the one in the know.
Luckily, I had teachers (Toni Packer and Joko Beck) who were not given to aggrandizing themselves or making false promises, and they always acknowledged that they still fell into delusion themselves, that there was no such thing as permanent, perpetual clarity or bliss (unless we’re talking about the ever-present Now that belongs to no one). On top of being blessed with these two teachers, I have also been blessed with intermittent stormy and cloudy inner weather (what Eckhart Tolle would call a heavy pain body—addiction, compulsion, depression, and so on), which has been a blessing in part because makes it impossible to deceive myself into thinking I have attained permanent bliss. I know people who are by nature very relaxed and mellow and easy going, and as I often say, these inherent tendencies toward sunshine or fog are weather conditions like those that make Chicago different from Los Angeles. For a person with a disposition that is naturally sunny and easy-going, or for someone who has a big sudden dramatic shift—if this person either has no teacher, or has a teacher who isn’t very clear or very discerning or very honest, it is easy to see how a false picture can unfold and gain momentum, then snowball and multiply like a pyramid scheme.
Some people do experience dramatic shifts and do seem to end up in a place where they are relatively quite free of compulsive habits of thought (e.g., Eckhart Tolle), while others seem to unfold in a more gradual way (like me). Some of us have more conditions of nature and nurture in our bodymind that give rise to cloudy, stormy, overcast, turbulent weather. No two people unfold and open in the same exact way, at the same exact speed. And ultimately, all stories of unfoldment are stories—imaginary fictions, as is the one at the center of those stories. The reality—what’s real—is Here / Now. And in this, there are no awakened ones or deluded ones. There is no past, no future, no me, no you. There is only THIS that is unnameable but that has been called love, peace, bliss, freedom, perfection—the natural state, the groundless ground.
But relatively speaking, in everyday life, no one is perfect. We want our teachers to be perfect, and we want ourselves to be perfect. We don’t want that pesky fog! But the fact is, we all have blemishes, imperfections, blind-spots. We all step into the cosmic doo-doo from time to time. We all fall down. No one is beyond error, beyond mistakes, beyond hubris and delusion. And there is no finish-line in reality. So I would advise not swallowing what anyone says without looking for oneself…however clear and awake that person seems to be. And always continue to question our own assumptions, our own conclusions—especially the things we are absolutely certain about, our most cherished ideas and beliefs. Be willing to look openly, freshly, to see something different, to change our minds.
The great Zen Master Dogen beautifully said, “Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.” In other words, enlightenment is nothing more than seeing delusion as delusion. To claim or believe that “I am enlightened and permanently beyond delusion” is delusion. The more clarity there is, the more subtle the layers of delusion that come to light. As they say in a Buddhist chant, delusions are inexhaustible. There is no end to delusion. And at the same time, it can end completely, right here, right now. (But notice I did not say, permanently—to paraphrase Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten, there may be enlightened people, but they only last ten minutes).
I can still bristle at times when “my authority” is challenged, and I can still be seduced by the image of myself as the one in the know or depressed by the story of being a failure. But at least now I can happily acknowledge that I’m just another bozo on the bus, and that most of the time, like the rest of humanity, I’m in delusion. I’m finding myself less and less interested in being the special one who sits at the front of the room doling out answers and feeling important, and instead, ever-more interested in a shared process of looking and listening and practicing together. In saying this, I’m not relinquishing my function at times as a teacher, nor am I suggesting that everyone is equally enlightened or equally awake, or that there is no place for teachers, or that everyone should have equal authority in every situation, or that sitting in a circle and having open “democratic” discussion groups is better than having a teacher at the front of the room giving talks and responding to questions, or that I will never again sit at the front of a room and give a talk. None of that is what I mean. But the teachers I trust most, those who have stood the test of time, are the ones who were most real. They admitted that they were often deluded and imperfect. They didn’t masquerade as permanently enlightened people, and they didn’t promise perpetual bliss.
This so-called teaching gig has been a learning experience for me—as it is, I think, for every teacher who is honest and genuinely interested in going deeper. It has been humbling and very revealing, and sometimes humiliating and not easy to see what I see in the mirror. I’ve often wanted to quit because I’m such a miserable failure and I’ve made so many mistakes. But then I remember Suzuki Roshi saying that the life of a Zen Master is one continuous mistake. I’m not saying I’m a Zen Master, just that this gives me the courage to keep walking, to keep making mistakes, to keep waking up to the fog.
What are we really looking for? What do we want? Where do we imagine we will find it?
For me, it really does boil down to being awake to this life, just as it is, right here, right now—this body-mind-world that I am. And that means living with the reality that sometimes—oftentimes—I am in delusion, believing in the mirage of self and other, trying to be somebody, thinking things shouldn’t be the way the are, looking for something “out there” to save me, pushing away the present experience, and even sometimes having the thought that “I should have realized everything I realize now when I was younger, back when I still had my whole life ahead of me, that would have been better, then I wouldn’t have screwed the whole thing up.” Ho Ho Ho.
Welcome to the human race, and more deeply, welcome to Life—this undivided, seamless, interdependent, boundless happening, this wonderful and sometimes terrifying dance where everyone is dancing perfectly—even those who are selling false promises, those who are stumbling in the doo-doo, those who are most deluded at this moment. In another instance, the music will change, and we will all find ourselves dancing a different step to a different tune…maybe falling on our face, maybe getting back up, maybe for one brief and beautiful moment dancing gracefully and being completely “in the zone”—and none of it is personal. (Or, if you prefer, ALL of it is personal).
There is the simplicity of what is, and then, thought comments and the neurochemistry hums along, and presto! —we have delusion— the mirage-like appearance that Eckhart Tolle calls our life situation, which is not what he means by the Now. This is an important, essential clarification. This is the difference between nirvana and samsara, heaven and hell, enlightenment and delusion. The latter (samsara, hell, delusion) is our life situation (conditioned perception, the stories we tell and believe, memories, mental images, thoughts and ideas, what I often call the movie of waking life) and the former (nirvana, heaven, enlightenment) is the Now (perhaps best left undefined and undescribed). Seeing clearly which is which is sometimes called the razor’s edge, the eye of the needle, or the gateless gate.
And in case you might be worried about falling off the razor’s edge—being misled or misleading others, or landing in the doo doo again, I’ll leave you with this little gem from Zen teacher John Tarrant (tarrantworks.com), author of the wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros:
“Oftentimes we go along with the unquestioned belief that there’s something wrong, and it’s probably wrong with us. Meditation practice can bring that out, too, with the thought that if I work hard enough, maybe I can finally get this right. But what if there’s not a problem? From the origin of the Universe there has been no mistake.”
That begs the question, if everything is already perfect, why do we bother with spiritual practice? Why meditate or go to satsang or read radical nondual books or whatever we do? In fact, this was precisely the burning question that drove Zen Master Dogen’s early search. Eventually he realized that practice is not something we do in order to BECOME enlightened, but rather, practice is the EXPRESSION of enlightenment. And so, we look and listen, explore and clarify—opening and dissolving, contracting and resisting, seeing delusion as delusion, waking up to the Holy Reality Here / Now. This is the activity of life itself. And eventually we begin to get it that the only place nirvana can ever be found is in samsara, just as the only place where enlightenment appears is in delusion. Heaven isn’t “out there” someplace. Form is emptiness and emptiness is not other than form. Or to paraphrase my first Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, “We’re always looking for diamonds in the mud, but the mud itself is pretty interesting. That’s what Zen practice is about. The mud.” Or as he said elsewhere, Zen practice is “a deep soak in reality.”
And when you really see the mud, that very seeing is love, peace, joy, freedom—this listening presence, open and awake, being everything, holding to nothing.
I’m just back from a week at Springwater Center, the retreat center in rural northwestern New York where I was once on staff, a week that centered around a memorial for Toni Packer, the founding teacher there, who died at the end of August at the age of 86. Toni was (and is) my main teacher and a dear friend.
The memorial itself was beautiful. Members of her family were there as well as many of us who had been her students (or friends, as she preferred to say) over the years. We all sat in silence, then heard a recorded talk by Toni from one of her retreats, after which anyone who felt so moved had a chance to speak, and finally we sang and ate together. Later in the day, some of her ashes were scattered on the land by family and friends.
In addition to celebrating, honoring and remembering Toni and her life, the gathering was a wonderful reunion with a great many dear friends whom I hadn’t seen in many years, and also with that land which I love so dearly. But above all else, the entire week was a meeting with Toni, hearing her freshly and anew, more deeply than ever—realizing all over again how truly marvelous and rare and profound she was, and yet how simple, how unpretentious, how open and ordinary in the best sense of that word. She was without doubt the clearest, most amazing teacher I ever encountered. As I tried to say at the memorial, she gave us nothing. And nothing is the greatest gift.
In her last book, The Silent Question (in the chapter called “Am I My Body?”), Toni said this:
“Try not to settle superficially for the words but ask what they really point to, so that we can understand each other more deeply. Don’t just accept what Toni is saying. Question it. We can question together. Then the one who says things is invited to look, and to speak out of that depth of looking…Remember that the main part of communicating is being here, not the words you have found. The words are secondary. The prime, essential thing is to be here. And does that communicate? Does it? Are we together with the birds, the fan, the body tensing or relaxing, the breath flowing?”
Along with encouraging me to hold meetings and write books, Toni always pointed to the importance of speaking and writing and living out of open listening presence, not out of ideas. “You’re good with words,” she said to me once, “but are you really here, really seeing? That’s the question!”
I continue to live with that question. It could be called my North Star. I have often lost sight of it and fallen short (as I eluded to in my previous post). I’ve gone down any number of false roads, and at times, some of my words have come out of ideas and assertions, and not out of living presence and open wondering. But luckily, as Wayne Coger (one of the people Toni asked to carry on her work at Springwater) put it, “We’re not hopelessly lost ever because there’s always this possibility of a fresh listening, a coming to.”
And I’ve noticed that, however far afield I wander, I always come back to Toni and Springwater and the bare simplicity and openness of the “seeing without knowing" that they embody. While many teachers give you something, however subtle, to hold onto, Toni Packer stripped all those things away. She pointed to the listening silence, the awaring presence, that is right here, right now. She invited us to see the ways in which we become confused, caught up in thoughts and ideas, and to wake up, now and now and now. The work of this moment, as she called it, is an ever-fresh inquiry and discovery without end.
That is the spirit that lives on at Springwater Center, where others are carrying on the work that Toni began, holding retreats and providing a space where people can look and listen, alone and together, in an atmosphere that is refreshingly open and free from religious tradition and dogma. It was such a deep joy to be there again, in such wonderful company, absorbing the invitation to be still and listen that pervades the place in every way.
Toni left behind a number of excellent books and recorded talks, all of which I very highly recommend, and you can find much more about her work and about Springwater Center here: http:// www.springwatercenter.org/. I also very highly recommend Springwater Center and all the new teachers who are carrying on her work there now (Wayne Coger, Sandra Gonzalez, Richard Witteman, and others). They offer great retreats, or you can go there outside of retreat times. If you want the real deal, without all the fancy trimmings and flashy diversions and seductive promises, this place offers what matters most like no place else I’ve ever been.
Thank you, dear Toni.
The fundamental question that arises naturally can take many forms: What is Truth? What is real? What is this? Who am I? These questions seem different on the surface, but in fact, they all point to the same placeless place Here / Now of open wondering without knowing.
For many of us, when we first hear a question of this kind, there is a brief instant of open listening and not knowing—the mind draws a blank and for a moment, we are simply BEING the wonder. And then, very quickly, our habit from years of schooling and beyond takes over, and we begin thinking and looking for an answer to these questions. In certain practical matters, such as finding out what bus to take or how to change the oil in our car, this kind of thinking and seeking out answers works very well. But with these deeper questions, it is a total dead-end—or more accurately, a kind of hamster wheel. But it may take us a long time to realize that.
Thought is very promising, very seductive, and it is habitual and deeply conditioned. In school, we were shamed, ridiculed or flunked if we failed to provide the answers. So when we hear these fundamental questions—or when they arise naturally, our deeply entrenched habit is to immediately begin THINKING about them, or perhaps to begin looking for what others whom we regard as spiritual authorities have said. We go from book to book, and we think and think, and then we regurgitate various dead answers that we have thought up or learned: “I am a middle-aged woman” or “I am pure awareness” or “Nothing is real” or “Everything is consciousness,” and so on. And with that answer, we feel like we’ve really nailed it. We’ve got it. We KNOW something. We HAVE it. Except that the next thing we know, we find ourselves filled with doubt and uncertainty. Maybe that wasn’t the right answer after all. Someone else seems to disagree. And back to the hamster wheel we go, searching for truth in all the wrong places.
In fact, these profoundly simple questions are an invitation to stop, look and listen—to stop racing around on the hamster wheel in search of answers, to let go of thinking and conceptualizing, to dissolve into that listening silence or open wondering that is spacious and immediate, boundless and seamless—this bare awakeness that is what Here / Now is. Can we rest in being this moment, just as it is (not forever, but right now)?
What is it like to let all the answers go, to rest in not knowing? What is it like to BE the open space of listening and wondering? What is it like to relax every effort to control this moment? What is it like to be here as nothing at all, to not do anything for or against, to simply BE?
I’m not talking about anything mysterious here. This nothing is not a scary void or a desolate vacuum, but rather, it is the sound of wind rustling the colored leaves, the sensations of tingling in the feet, the breathing in and out, the red and gold of the sparkling autumn trees, the sound of the washing machine, the crunch and the taste of an apple, the smell of bread baking in the oven. And not doing anything is not being passive or turning into a doormat. It is writing and reading these words, driving the car, taking the subway, cooking dinner, paying your taxes, reading a bedtime story to the kids. It is this moment, just as it is. And already, it has moved. And yet, it is always here, always now.
In a moment of anger or fear or depression, what is this? What is real? Who is angry or afraid or depressed? What is Truth? And then simply to listen, to attend, to be awake, to allow this completely new and unknown happening to reveal itself—without analyzing it or judging it or trying to get rid of it, without comparing it to past experiences, without straining for an answer or a solution, without trying to get somewhere else.
Maybe we don’t need to understand or explain or label or hold onto anything right now. Maybe it is possible to rest in the utter simplicity of being what we cannot not be—this moment, as it is, right now.
How is it?
Does the mind jump onto the hamster wheel and begin chasing after an answer to that question? Or does that question invite the deep silence of open looking and listening, giving attention, allowing everything to unfold and reveal itself, without any need to understand or explain or grasp it in any way?
For me, waking up is now. It’s not something that happened once-upon-a-time, and it’s not really something that happens to me. That’s all fantasy and delusion.
Of course, this mind can conjure up a story of my life…but it is always only a story, and the story is always being revised, tweaked, reframed, reinvented. Memories are notoriously protean. I love stories, but the ones I love are the ones that wake us up, not the ones that put us more deeply asleep.
It seems to me that personal enlightenment stories may put us to sleep more often than they wake us up. Too often such stories seem only to dangle a seductive carrot in front of others, encouraging people to seek or mimic what has been described and then either fall into the “I’m not enlightened” story or the “I am enlightened” story. Both are delusion. In the end, there are no permanently enlightened or unenlightened ones. We are all ever-changing expressions of one life, and nobody exists apart from this seamless flow to be any particular way “all the time.”
Speaking personally, I’ve never had one of those flashy experiences with kundalini rushing up my spine and fireworks shooting out the top of my head. There have been (and continue to be) moments of insight, ah-ha moments, moments of profound clarity, moments of deep relaxation and opening, moments of unobstructed and unbound aware presence, moments of ecstatic bliss, moments of being completely “in the zone,” moments of waking up from delusion, moments of dissolving into emptiness, moments of unconditional love. But there have also been (and continue to be) moments of feeling defensive, irritated, hurt, anxious, depressed, upset and generally reactive and contracted. For a long time, I thought the goal of spiritual practice (and the meaning of enlightenment) was about “me” being permanently established in those “positive” experiences and not having the “negative” ones anymore. Me being completely without any more me. It seemed that some people had crossed a magic finish-line and were permanently in such a state of perpetual clarity and bliss forever after, whereas I was one of those “flip-floppers,” flipping between enlightenment and delusion, between contracted experiences and expanded experiences, between nirvana and samsara—all the while longing to be permanently flipped into enlightenment. I wanted to be permanently happy, perpetually free of discomfort and problems, and secretly, I also wanted to be spiritually successful, one of the “enlightened ones” at the top of the spiritual pecking order, one of the spiritual winners.
It took a long time to realize that this was all delusion, that this was all about me, that there is no finish line in life and no permanent “person” to be permanently any particular way. All experiences are impermanent. They never actually form into any solid, continuous state of consciousness, and the little-me who seems to be having them is never anything more than an intermittent thought-sensation, part of the experience, a kind of mirage that appears and disappears. If we can speak of permanence at all, it applies only to the whole—the unbound, seamless Here / Now—and not to any person, experience, or condition. Does seeing all this make “me” an awakened one? Or is awakening the seeing through of that whole story? And does that seeing happen in the past or the future, or is it only alive and real right now? And if it is the latter, then why tell “my” awakening story?
What exactly does this story accomplish and what moves us to tell it? Are we getting off on being special? Are we promoting ourselves by dangling a carrot in front of others? Do we secretly consider ourselves superior to others, and perhaps deeper down, are we plagued by a fear that we are inferior? Does telling our awakening story help to awaken so-called others, or does it create separation and feed their story of lack?
Maybe telling our personal enlightenment story can be harmless or even useful and beneficial at times—I’m not saying we “shouldn’t” tell such stories. Certainly, the traditional literature is full of them, and some people tell me they find such stories inspirational and encouraging. But as I hear more and more of these stories being told, especially by people claiming to be “permanently awake” and talking about “after awakening” as if any such place actually exists, I wonder about it all.
As I see it, waking up is always only now. It is the direct meeting with whatever seems to be in the way, the seeing through of delusion, the open looking and listening, the aware presence, the coming in touch with and letting go into that spacious immediacy and aliveness that is at the heart of everything. And there is no end to this process. That uncovering and going to the root is a never-ending pathless-path from Here to Here, a present moment seeing and dissolving of ever-more subtle layers of delusion: the images of self and others, the beliefs and ideas, the identities we cling to—and also a discovery of all the energetic holdings in the body that are below the level of thought, the grasping or resisting that can be detected with awareness throughout the bodymind, allowing it all to reveal itself, to be felt, and to dissolve naturally—not once-and-for-all, but now and now and now—waking up to the groundless ground.
The most trustworthy teachers I’ve met acknowledge that they are in delusion much of the time and that being awake is nothing personal. Or to put it another way, as Zen teacher Elihu Genmyo Smith asks in his book Everything Is the Way:
“What is it that we think is not the Attained Way? What is it that we think is not Buddha? What is it we think is I? What is it we think is not-I?”
Who is it that we imagine is awake or not awake?
Words such as presence, awareness and consciousness get used in many different ways, sometimes even by the same author in the same book. So it helps not to get stuck on words, and to remember that words divide up what is actually seamless and whole. They are maps that can help to reveal reality, but they are not reality itself. I sometimes point out that in deep sleep, even the first bare SENSE of being present and aware disappears (the irrefutable knowingness of being here now, the impersonal I AM that is here before thought and conditioning add on “I am this or that”). Pointing out that disappearance isn’t meant to invalidate presence or awareness, but rather, to remind us not to try to grasp “presence” or “awareness” or “wholeness” as ideas…not to try (with thought) to make them into SOMETHING instead of recognizing them (with awareness) as the no-thing-ness, the emptiness, the aliveness, the fluidity, the groundlessness that they truly are.
Waking up isn’t about grasping things at the level of thoughts and ideas. It is a direct discovery, a direct insight, a living felt reality—relaxing or dissolving or opening into presence, into spacious awareness. But the thinking mind will often grab onto this pointer about what disappears in deep sleep in a merely intellectual way and then turn it into a kind of nihilistic ideology, a way of invalidating anything that is said about awareness or presence as if these are irrelevant, and then we completely miss what is being revealed. We get lost in a new conceptual dream instead, sometimes arguing with others who (we think) have a less advanced understanding of nonduality.
So can we be aware of what thought does with these various nondual pointers, and can we notice, from moment to moment, whether we are actually awake to the living reality Here / Now or whether we are lost in a thought-created conceptual dream? The living reality is what the map is actually pointing to and inviting us to discover—this ever-present, ever-changing Here / Now that is inconceivable and ungraspable but paradoxically completely secure and unavoidable.
There are many layers to what we might call the movie of waking life—the show that begins every morning when we wake up from sleep into this waking dream that we call the real world. And calling it a movie or a dream isn’t meant to suggest that everyday life should be dismissed or ignored, but simply that it’s not what we think it is. So in this post, I’m going to map out these layers in the movie of waking life, and thus seemingly divide them up into different things, but please remember that in reality, nothing is really separate from anything else. The dividing lines are always conceptual. There is variety and diversity in reality, but not separation. Everything is one seamless whole. And with that in mind, let’s look at the layers.
First, we might say there is pure awareness or bare presence. Some might say this is what remains in deep sleep, but because it is objectless in deep sleep, there is no SENSE of it, and no sense of separation from it. We simply ARE it. Nothing exists (or stands apart). It is the dark beyond the dark, the seeing that can never see itself. Others might say that impersonal awareness and presence (what is often called the I AM) is the first sense of separation, the first appearance. But these are simply different ways of mapping reality, different ways of drawing the lines. So again, don’t get stuck on the words. Any map is only a map. What matters is the territory, the reality itself.
Beyond awareness and presence, there is the layer that we might call pure sensation or bare perception. This layer is prior to thought. It is immediate and without storyline or narrative, and therefore it is much less dualistic than the world created by thought. Some might even say that perception and sensation are totally nondual. But even without thought, there is almost certainly some rudimentary, visceral sense of separation that must arise soon after birth (if not before), e.g. when we are hungry and crying and no one comes at first, or when we want something that is out of reach, or when something we enjoy is taken away. And of course, this layer of perceiving and sensing is conditioned by the perceiving mechanism—the brain, the sensory organs, the genetics, the neurochemistry, and all the life experiences that follow. The perceptions of a newborn baby are not the same as those of an adult. The adult has learned where to draw the lines on the map—how to “see” tables and chairs and dogs and cats—how to judge distances between one object and another, how to know what is “me” and “mine” and what is “not-me,” and so on. For the baby, everything is presumably one seamless, kaleidoscopic, swirling whole. People from tribal, hunter-gatherer societies who live relatively word-free and close to the land probably have a very different sensory and perceptual reality from 21st-century, high-tech, city-dwellers glued to their hand-held devices. Likewise, someone who has taken a large dose of LSD has a very different perceptual and sensory reality from someone who hasn’t taken that drug. But because this layer of bare perceiving and sensing is more nondual and less conditioned by ideology and belief than the world of thought, it is often used as a focus in meditation to bring us out of the thought-realm. I often point to this layer in exactly that way, calling attention to the red of the fire truck, the sound of the wind in the leaves, the cry of the crow, the smell of coffee, the sensations of breathing.
And then the next layer, the distinctly human layer, is the world created by thought and conceptualization—the world in which there are different nations, different ideologies, different laws, different religions, different languages, different ideas about right and wrong, different theories about the universe. This is the layer that adds all kinds of ideas onto the boundless and seamless I AM of aware-presence: I am Joan, I am a woman, I am 65 years old, I am an American, I write books, I’m against this and for that, I believe this and I don’t believe that, and on and on…all the thoughts and ideas and beliefs about myself, that I’m enlightened or unenlightened, successful or a failure, happy or unhappy, beautiful or ugly, intelligent or stupid. And with all of that thought comes the mirage-like thought-sense-story of being a separate entity encapsulated inside a bodymind looking out at an external world—struggling to survive, to get somewhere, to be somebody, to defend myself, to control my environment. This whole picture-story is the dream-world in which we live most of the time, the world created by thoughts and concepts.
Unless we have dementia or a serious brain injury, we aren’t going to get rid of this thought-world. We need much of it to function, and it too is part of how reality IS. It’s not inherently evil or bad; in fact, it’s what has put humans at the top of the food chain and allowed us to travel to the moon and invent the internet. We’re not knocking it! But we can begin to recognize that this world of thoughts also creates our human suffering. There can be pain at the level of pure sensation, but it takes thought to generate suffering. It takes thought to create the holocaust, or the genocide in Rwanda, or the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, or the ways we suffer from stories such as “I’m a failure, I’m not good enough, I’m all alone, I should have done a better job,” or “You ruined my life, you should have been a better mother or a better teacher or a better lover or a better friend.” The goal here is not to eliminate all thought or wipe out all our views and opinions, but rather, to see thought for what it is, to recognize the unreality, the subjective and tentative and imaginary nature of EVERYTHING thought creates—to see directly how it’s all made up, how the view depends on the conditioning of the viewer—and therefore to hold it all more lightly, to see that it isn’t as solid, or as fixed, or as certain, or as substantial as it seems to be. Our suffering is in the fixation, the certainty, the belief that it’s all true, and it’s in the IDENTIFICATION with our thoughts, our ideas, our beliefs, our way of seeing things—the fictional (thought-created) “me” at the center of it all, which is the root-thought, the root-concept—the first false division between subject and object, self and not-self.
And here is a very crucial point: Waking up isn’t about adopting a new thought-generated belief system or a new conceptual ideology about how “everything is unreal” and “it’s all one” and “there is no doer” and “everything is perfect,” and so on. It’s very easy to mistake the map for the territory, and to talk the talk once we get the hang of it. The mapping can get subtler and subtler, and we think it’s obvious that the map is not the territory, but it actually takes a very subtle discernment and clear awareness to SEE when we are caught up in a new map-world, a new thought-dream. Many books on nonduality are simply spinning a new map, something to think about and believe in and adopt as a philosophy because it makes sense to us intellectually. And ALL of us can at times fall into this. No one is immune. True nonduality is about waking up from the map-world. That doesn’t mean throwing away the maps, or no longer being able to think, or not having any opinions or ideas anymore, but it means SEEING (awaring) what is real and what is delusion, not once-and-for-all, not yesterday or someday, but NOW. Seeing (awaring) is always a present activity, not a past achievement or a future goal. Waking up is simply seeing delusion as it arises. Seeing how we get caught up in the thought-world, the map-world. Seeing how the mirage-like “me” gets reincarnated from moment to moment by thought, how identification happens, how we defend and resist and grasp and fixate and assert. This never-ending process of waking up is about questioning our defenses, our assertions, our certainties, our beliefs. And letting go, again and again (now and now), into the openness of aware presence, the emptiness, the wholeness, the aliveness, the fluidity of being. This is a life-long, moment-to-moment awakening. There is no end to it. It is always NOW.
And the miracle of aware presence, the miracle of NOW, is that no matter how screwed up or confused or lost we seem to get, we can always start fresh. Right here, right now, the universe is born anew. Can you sense the freedom?
Several comments and questions have come my way recently about whether teachers are different from students and whether we even need teachers. Are we all equal, or are some of us more awake or more enlightened than others?
First of all, who are we talking about? In any moment of looking and listening, free of thought, there is no one to be permanently one way or another way. When we meet each other in bare presence, there is no separation, no self, no other. There is teaching, but there is no teacher and nothing that is being taught. This is the deepest truth, the absolute truth—that there is no teacher and no student and no person separate from the universe.
But relatively speaking, functionally, we can still distinguish between you and me and the kitchen table. Everything and everyone is equal in the sense that it is all one whole undivided seamless and boundless happening in which everything contains everything else—no wave is wetter or closer to the ocean than any other wave. But relatively speaking, that doesn’t mean we can’t distinguish between a big wave and a little wave, a calm sea and a stormy one. These distinctions are relatively and functionally true, and to deny them would be absurd. Our mistake is when we solidify and freeze the waves into enduring “things,” separate them out from the whole ocean, and then IDENTIFY as the little wave or the big wave rather than recognizing that we are the whole ever-changing ocean and that there is no “me” anywhere to be found.
Speaking practically in everyday terms, isn’t it obvious that not everyone is equally qualified to teach or offer satsang? To take an extreme example, Ramana Maharshi was certainly more awake and more enlightened than Adolph Hitler. That’s just obvious! Which one would you want to hang out with? Of course, if we look deeply, we find that both Ramana and Hitler are aspects of one whole undivided happening, and that neither of them was a solid, persisting, unchanging, separate “thing” that could be clearly delineated and separated out from everything else in the universe. Like the different waves in the ocean, both Ramana and Hitler were equally the seamless ocean, but relatively speaking, they were as different as night and day. We go astray when we deny either side of this polarity: relative or absolute, difference or unity. BOTH together are what is true, not either side by itself.
And when I say that it’s obvious that not everyone is equally qualified to teach or offer satsang, I don’t mean that I buy into the notion of permanently enlightened gurus who come off as elevated spiritual authority figures supposedly beyond delusion or error, people who claim to be "closer to God or Truth" than the others in the room, people who claim to have all the answers and know how the universe works. But I also don’t buy into some false democracy where everyone is presumed to be equally awake, equally clear, equally insightful, equally free of delusion, or equally grounded in presence. It’s just obvious that this isn’t the case. Of course, anyone, even Hitler, may have moments of clarity, moments of real insight, moments of compassion and genuine love. And likewise, EVERY teacher has moments of delusion, moments of being caught up in a thought-story, moments of identification as the little self, moments of confusion or anxiety or worry or anger or irritation or whatever it might be. No one is beyond it all. So we can draw relative distinctions that allow us to function intelligently, but they serve us best when we remember that they are always tentative and flexible and never absolutely true or real.
When I was first on staff at Springwater Center, I remember noticing how we on the staff seemed to expect more of Toni (the teacher) than we did of ourselves. We held her to a higher standard. Joko Beck once compared the phenomenon of students putting teachers up on pedestals, and wanting the teachers to somehow enlighten us, to baby birds in the nest waiting for mama to come and put food in our mouths. In fact, the truth is, the pathless path—while effortless in the deepest sense—can at times be truly difficult work. It can involve going through some very dark and discouraging and messy places, and in the end, we can only walk the path and do the work ourselves. No one can do it for us.
So do we need teachers? Well, not always. Some people—Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle are two examples—seem to awaken without them. But for most people, and certainly this has been my experience, it helps to have some guidance and companionship. And what do I mean by guidance? I don’t mean someone who dispenses the correct answers, tells me what to do with my life, and considers themselves to be beyond error and delusion. I don’t mean someone who tells me (overtly or covertly) that they are the Enlightened One and that I’m not quite there yet. I mean someone who breaks down that whole storyline, someone who listens openly, someone who abides in presence, in awareness, in not knowing, in open wonder. And someone who is honest enough to admit that they don’t always come from that placeless place of clear awareness and presence, that sometimes they are deluded and caught up in old conditioning just like me.
A true teacher is someone who can point us toward Truth, even though we must discover it for ourselves. (And the Truth is non-clinging to any relative truth). A true teacher is someone who can question our false identities and beliefs, even though we must see through them ourselves. A true teacher is someone who can offer us a map, a question, an insight, or simply a listening presence that sparks a fire in us. They are a friend (not necessarily a personal friend, but a spiritual friend) who walks with us, looking and listening together, asking questions, probing, and in one way or another pulling everything out from under us that we try to grasp or stand on. They shed light. They help us to look and listen and see for ourselves. We see something in them that we want…something that we know is powerful and genuine. And they help us to realize that what we are seeing and responding to and looking for is not “out there” in them or anyone else, but right Here / Now in this unbound presence that has no owner, no inside, no outside. A good teacher is someone who shows us that ultimately we don’t need a teacher! As a friend of mine put it, “They're like training wheels. We think we need them until we look back and notice that they're sticking up in the air and we've been riding down the street on our own for the last 10 minutes.”
I don’t mean we reach a place where we think we know all there is to know. Quite the opposite. We realize that we don’t know anything. We are simply here. And life itself becomes the teacher. Every moment becomes the teacher. And we may even go to other human teachers from time to time, or read their books, or listen to their talks. Many of the best teachers continue to see other teachers. There is no end to learning (or unlearning). One of my teachers, Joko Beck, emphasized that the teacher is always a student, that there is no finish-line. But now if we’re going to other teachers, we’re no longer going to them with the false belief that they can save us, that they have the answers, or that they are fundamentally any different than us.
I’ve had many teachers. Toni Packer was my main teacher, but I also worked with Sojun Mel Weitsman, Joko Beck, Jean Klein, Gangaji, Steve Hagen, Anam Thubten…and I’ve been to satsangs, retreats or talks with many other teachers over the years (Francis Lucille, Adyashanti, Isaac Shapiro, Tony Parsons, Wayne Liquorman, Karl Renz, Byron Katie, Nirmala, Thich Nhat Hanah, Sailor Bob, Mooji, Ngeton, several other teachers at the SFZC, and possibly others I’m forgetting at this moment), and in some cases teachers I’ve never actually met have had a huge impact on me through their books or recorded talks (e.g., Nisargadatta, J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts). I’ve also been tremendously touched by the teachers at Springwater: Wayne, Sandra, Richard, Stew, and by a host of other Springwater friends. And I’m deeply grateful for every one of these teachers. Without them, I might never have discovered there was something beyond thought, or that the “me” who seems to be steering my life was an illusion. I might never have noticed the ways I get irritated or defensive or the ways I try to seduce and manipulate and control others, or the ways the whole bodymind contracts and grasps and resists, or all the ways I argue with reality and create suffering for myself and others in the process. I might never have seen that the story of my life is a story. I might still be searching for some future enlightenment if certain teachers hadn’t pointed me to right here, right now. So, yes, in my experience, there is definitely a place for teachers.
And each of my teachers was different. Most of my teachers came across as ordinary and down to earth, but a few of them operated with quite a bit of fanfare and pomp. Some called themselves friends and others called themselves gurus. Some were all about opening the heart, while others were all about clear insight. Some were very funny and wild and outrageous, others very serious and sober. Some recommended long periods of silent, cross-legged meditation, while others said nothing at all was needed. Sometimes I could hear something from one of them that I couldn’t hear from another just because it was a different personality delivering the same message. It was like many pieces of a puzzle or many doors that all ultimately opened into the same placeless place: Here / Now.
And having functioned as something of a teacher myself for 17 years now, even though I don’t use that word to describe myself (because it feels separative to me, instantly putting myself up and the other down), I can also report that it is a slippery business (as I discussed at some length in a recent post on 10/7/13). It’s easy to slip from intelligent functioning into an identity—an identity that must be continually propped up and defended, becoming somebody and assuaging the fear of being nobody. The imaginary “me” gets into the picture and muddles everything up. Along these lines, I still recall someone telling a story about a relatively new satsang teacher expressing her fear that “I can’t hold satsang,” and her teacher, whoever it was I can no longer remember, said to her, “That’s right, YOU can’t hold satsang; satsang is what happens when you are not in the way.” Satsang is simply another word for presence-awareness, Truth, Here / Now. You, as the separate self who seems to be giving satsang, are a delusion. And when a teacher is speaking out of this emptiness of no self, we can FEEL this. We can feel it with people like Eckhart Tolle and Toni Packer—they are totally present, and they are speaking out of that awake presence, not from thoughts and beliefs and old ideas. There’s no self in the way. And that’s actually the most important thing they convey, that listening presence, that emptiness or awakeness. The content of what they say is always secondary.
That doesn’t mean Eckhart Tolle or Toni Packer or Ramana Maharshi or whoever else we hold in high regard is (or was) completely free of delusion. But we might say they were (or are) AWARE of their delusion, and not lost in it or confused by it for very long. They were (or are) deeply rooted and grounded in aware presence, not lost in thought most of the time, and they didn’t (or don’t) believe all their thoughts. They’re not searching for enlightenment anymore in all the wrong places. They know it’s Here / Now, nowhere else.
I know that I’m in delusion much of the time. (I told one of my teachers that recently, someone I think of as being very enlightened, and he gleefully replied, “Oh yes, me too!” which was a wonderful relief!) On the human level, I have plenty of neurosis still operating. I bite my fingers, worry and feel anxious sometimes, get depressed. I still get caught up at times in thought-stories about me and the others and the world. I can still be argumentative, judgmental, irritable, defensive, fearful or hurt. And sometimes as a result of all this, I feel totally unqualified to work with people or hold meetings, but then I remember that working with people is not about being perfect. And somehow, life continues to move me to do this work, to show up, to be there, to do my best….to offer what I can. My deepest hope is that I can be here in service to what I hold most dear, which is presence-awareness, the Now, the aliveness of being, the open wonder of not knowing—that I can be a friend on the pathless path, and perhaps sometimes even a helpful guide—and the true guide always points to the guidance within, the awareness that is not mine or yours, but THAT in which we all appear and disappear, the groundless ground.
One of my teachers said to me once, when I was going on and on about how great Toni and Joko were (with the subtext being my own insufficiency), “Toni and Joko are certainly fine teachers, but just remember you are as big as they are.” I’m quite sure he didn’t mean that as an ego-boost. He was pointing right to the heart of the matter. It was, and is, a koan to live with. And I could turn to all of you who have some guru up on a pedestal, and say exactly the same thing to you. We are one whole being.
And as Toni once put it, “There is nothing to give and nothing to get.”
Someone asked me to say something about why I meditate. Some people meditate for a purpose—for stress reduction, anger management, physical and mental health, enhanced athletic or artistic performance, or whatever the reason might be. And that’s totally fine. Meditation can be very beneficial for all of those things. But what I would call true meditation is not a doing. It has no purpose, no goal, no use. It is simply being here now. Not being here now in order to achieve something or get somewhere or get rid of something or change something, but being here now with no agenda. Meditation is simply awareness. It allows everything to be just as it is, without chasing anything or pushing anything away. Meditation is a kind of open looking and listening rooted in a spirit of curiosity, interest and love. It can be done in an intentional way, which is how we usually think of meditation, as deliberately sitting down and meditating. In that case it is a kind of simplified space where we stop all the usual doing, the “sound and fury” of daily life—and we sit relatively still, without talking, turn off the TV and the stereo and the phone and all the various devices, put down the books and magazines, and simply BE, Here / Now, awake and present. We allow what we often overlook or avoid to come into the light of awareness. We see patterns of habitual, conditioned thought that we hadn’t seen before, and we discover the open, spacious aliveness of bare being.
Taking time out of our busy lives to do nothing is a wonderful refreshment, and doing this regularly or going on silent retreats is a wonderful way to deepen this refreshment and discovery. But true meditation can also happen spontaneously at any moment, and as we come to rest more and more in this simple awake presence, we find that the boundary between “meditation” and “the rest of my life” melts away. We find that awareness is what Here / Now IS. And we begin to recognize the stillness and the spaciousness and the freedom of meditation even in the midst of our busy lives, if only for moments at a time. And when we do get caught up in our stories and dramas, when we feel angry or defensive or anxious or restless, maybe we find that there is a new possibility—the possibility of not acting out the story or the emotion, and not resisting it or trying to squelch it either. Instead, we may find it is possible to allow it all to be just as it is without judgment or strategy, without grasping or resisting, but simply openly looking and listening, feeling whatever arises in the body as pure sensation, seeing the thoughts and stories without believing in them, beholding the whole show, allowing everything to reveal and undo itself in its own time. So if there’s tension, then we can simply be tense. We’re not fighting the tension and creating more tension by trying to get rid of it. Instead, meditation is all about allowing what is to be as it is. Awareness is the key, and awareness is always NOW.
Finally, I would say that we don’t do meditation, but rather, meditation does us. Thinking that “I” am doing meditation and having ideas about how it should go involves a fantasy of self-control. Whereas actually, meditation is a kind of surrender to that which is bigger than the imaginary self that we often think of as “me.” Meditation is a surrender to the True Self, the One Self, the emptiness of no-self. All of which is another way of saying it is a surrender to Presence, Awareness, or the Now. And that isn’t something other than us or outside of us. It is, as they in Zen, most intimate. It is our true nature.
Meditation is the art of waking up Here / Now, not yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all, but NOW. The imaginary self (which is really nothing more than ever-changing thoughts, images, memories and sensations) doesn’t control how this process moves or where it goes or how it unfolds. Meditation is a surrender to what is deeper and bigger than that illusory thought-sense of being in control. It is a letting go of all my ideas for what “should” happen next and simply being awake to what IS happening right now. Awareness is true intelligence. So when we act from aware presence (the Now), action happens without obstruction or confusion, without false ideas clouding the picture.
And a big part of this is not to expect perfection or get bogged down in despair or self-hatred when we do get caught up in habitual thoughts and stories, as we almost certainly will at times. Disappointment and expectation is the story of “me” again, wanting me to be perfect, comparing life as it is to ideals. Can we see that none of what shows up here is really personal, neither the clarity nor the confusion?
In simply being present with no goal or purpose, a space opens up where nothing is lacking. Stories that have seemed so real dissolve into silence and what remains is beyond words.
A dear friend of mine, Mike Stiler, an artist who is now offering retreats, talks and meetings in Maine and elsewhere, put it this way recently:
“The art of surrendering to simple awareness, the art of dying, if you will, is a life-long undertaking; of starting from scratch, moment to moment. As my teacher, the late, great, Toni Packer, used to say, 'No matter what, we can always start fresh.' As simple as it seems on the surface, this statement sums up the essence of all true religious practice. It requires loving devotion to the art of surrender. At its heart is awareness.”
Beautiful! Loving devotion to the art of surrender. Starting fresh in this moment.
Commenting on my last post, someone said, “I would particularly like to hear what your response is to dealing with strong emotion when it arises in the body during meditation and what to do with the mind, which is quick to label it sadness, anger etc.”
What happens when we do nothing at all? When we simply allow the emotion and the movement of the mind to be as it is? Our conditioned habit is thinking we must DO something. Emotions seem to demand action, and since we often pathologize them, we are quickly on the search for a cure or a fix. Because they seem powerful, potentially overwhelming and out of control, and because they are sometimes unpleasant, we often push them away and try to avoid them. But what is it that fears being overwhelmed or losing control? Can we wonder about that, not by thinking about it, but by looking deeply with the light of awareness?
Labeling may happen—it’s part of what the mind does—but we don’t need to mistake the label for the reality itself, and we can notice how a label can imply a whole judgment and storyline. For example, labels such as “depression” or “anger” may instantly suggest something negative and unenlightened, something that “shouldn’t” be happening. Labels also give us the false idea that we know what something is simply because we have a word for it. And not only do we think we know it, but we think that it’s the same “something” that we’ve experienced before, when in reality, we never do step into the same river twice. It’s never really the same anger, the same depression, the same fear, or the same sadness. So if the label pops up, can we simply let it come and go, and then open to a deeper exploration?
Can we experience the emotion as pure sensation? Can we feel it in the belly, the chest, the shoulders, the back, the throat, the jaw, the forehead, the heart—wherever in the body it shows up? Can we go deeply into these sensations and discover what is at the very heart of them? Is ANYTHING there at the core? And are these sensations solid and unchanging, or do they move and vibrate, coming and going, appearing and disappearing? How does it feel in the body to be angry or depressed or afraid? Where do we feel it? What is it like? Not to answer these questions, but to look and listen. To look and listen with open curiosity and wonder, without coming to conclusions.
Can we listen also to the thought-stories that accompany the sensations? “He shouldn’t have said that, nobody treats me like that, I’m a loser, what will happen to me?” Can we question whether these thoughts are really true? Can we see how it feels when we believe them, and can we feel into how it would be if we didn’t believe them? Can we notice how the mind re-plays things that have happened over and over like the reruns of an old soap opera: what he did to me, what I did wrong, what I should have done instead, what’s wrong with her, what they should do, how they hurt me, how unfair this is, and so on. Can we notice the habitual tendency to analyze all this, figure it out, think about it, always seeking a solution? Can we see that this compulsive and repetitive thinking is part of the show, and that it is a kind of hamster-wheel that fails to deliver what it promises? (Of course, sometimes a certain amount of thinking is helpful and functional and necessary, but if we’re sensitive, we can begin to sense when thought is useful and when it is merely obsessively spinning its wheels).
By allowing everything to be as it is, by simply being aware and present, we can begin to see that emotions arise and pass fairly quickly unless thought and memory get involved in stirring them up and keeping them going. When thought and memory re-play the old soap operas, and when we believe in the virtual realities they spin, then our suffering gets recreated over and over again. That’s how we can still be upset ten years later by “what she did to me” or “how I screwed up” long after the incident itself has passed away. We can’t make this inner television turn off with oppositional brute force—that just becomes a new soap opera, “Me Against My Virtual Reality”—but the more we see these virtual soap operas for what they are, the less compelling and believable it all is and the more it begins to fade naturally.
So, summing it all up—feeling emotion as pure somatic sensation without labels or storyline (and if labels and stories arise, seeing them for what they are and letting them go)…Seeing the thoughts and stories that go with our emotions and questioning the pictures they paint and the reality of what they tell us…Letting go (when we can) of the tendency to analyze all this mentally (and if we can’t let go, then just noticing how this analyzing feels in the body and whether it really satisfies us)…And can we also feel the breathing and hear the wind rustling the leaves or the traffic sounds in the street, the whole undivided happening of this moment?
Finally, can we be awake to the listening presence that is beholding it all? Is this listening presence, this awareness, disturbed in any way by what appears? Or is it like the mirror that is undisturbed by the reflections, allowing them to come and go, without resisting or clinging to any of them?
In our actual direct experience Here / Now, are we the conditioned character in the soap opera or the unbound, free awareness beholding it all? Does awareness have an owner? Or is any owner that can be imagined simply another appearance, another thought-image?
Without thought and memory and storyline, is there any reality to yesterday or an hour ago? Can we actually find yesterday in direct experience? Or is the universe new and fresh in this moment? Our salvation (enlightenment, liberation, awakening) is always NOW.
And, remember, this isn't about "me" being perfect. That's just another story, another ideal. Sometimes the power of old habit is stronger than the light of awareness. Sometimes we can’t sit still and be present with an over-powering emotion. Sometimes the thought-stories run wild and seem believable, and the energy in the body feels overwhelming, and we jump up and act out in one way or another. It happens. So when that happens, if it does, is it possible not to take it personally as “my failure”? Can we see through any added layer of stories that pops up, stories of having failed, stories of what we should have done instead, stories of having blown it? Can we question the “me” at the center of these stories and maybe see directly that this “me” is itself nothing but a thought-story, a bunch of memories and sensations, an old habit? And instead of going with that old habit, is it possible to start fresh, right where we are? Can we wake up to THIS present moment, right here, right now, just as it is? Can we drop the past and begin anew?
THAT is the wonderful possibility that is always available, that no matter how messed up things have apparently become, we can always start fresh, right now.
I'd like to add one more thing...Years ago, my Zen teacher Joko Beck pointed out that the organism can only handle so much at a time. Sometimes we may need to shut down and not feel something. We're not ready yet, we've had enough. So not to get the idea that we MUST feel every feeling fully or else we’ve failed. The bodymind has its own wisdom about how much it can take, and pushing ourselves past our limits is not always helpful. So to approach all of this gently, with kindness and compassion is important. Meditators can sometimes become harsh task-masters!
How easily we miss the wonder right here, caught up instead in the story of past-and-future-me. Sitting by the duck pond in the park yesterday, a mild late autumn day, colored leaves floating in the water, some brightly colored leaves (fire red, yellow, golden and orange) still clinging to trees that are slowly going bare, ducks swimming amidst the colored leaves and reflections of color, soft autumn air...and then from a bench nearby, I could hear a woman telling her companion that life in Ashland was okay, but she missed the big city. In another moment it could have been me telling this very same story or another just like it. But in this moment, hearing it spoken by someone else, seeing the amazing miracle that was being overlooked while attention was absorbed instead by this make-believe story, it struck me deeply how often we are lost in the story of past-and-future-me, the totally imaginary stories of where I’ve been, what I’ve accomplished or failed to accomplish, where I am now, where I’d prefer to be instead, where I could go next, what that would be like if I were somewhere else, and what I like and don’t like about this imaginary place where I think I am or this imaginary self that I think I am. As one of my teachers, Joko Beck, used to say, “Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering.”
Is it possible to notice this habit as it arises? Is it possible to be awake Here / Now?
Here / Now there is no awakened person, no "after awakening" or "before awakening," and there is no separate or special event called “awakening” either. There is simply ducks swimming amidst the colored leaves and the sound of a voice telling a story and the seeing of that story as a story. Just this.
This morning everything has changed so many times. At first, it was clear and the sun was shining on the face of the mountains. Then this mist or fog started gathering and spreading until everything everywhere was white and the mountains were invisible. Then the mist evaporated and vanished and now it is sunny and clear again.
In our inner world, the same changes happen: one moment clear, the next moment cloudy. And our habit is to take it all personally, as if it meant something about the imaginary “me” at the center of my story. One moment, “I” am the awakened one, the next moment “I” am the deluded one. And we don’t like that. We want perpetual clarity and permanent sunshine. We want to be a permanently awakened person, always free from mental smog, forever a winner in the Spiritual Olympics.
Some nondual teachings like to point out that the sky is never damaged by the clouds, just as the mirror is never stained by the reflections, and these teachings invite the discovery that awareness (Here / Now) is always present and always unconditioned and free. And this is a wonderful pointer. But if we’re not careful, attention gets lost in the map instead of dissolving into the territory to which the map is pointing. Thought solidifies and divides the map, and soon we have the idea of “me” over here, and some-THING called “awareness” over there, and this conditioned happening somewhere else, and “me” trying to extricate “myself” from the conditioned happening and identify myself as awareness and get rid of me once and for all—and this all too quickly becomes a grueling new task at which “me” is alternately thought to be succeeding or failing.
So perhaps we can wake up from this conceptual-imaginary-mental confusion and return to the utter simplicity of what is—the clouding and clearing all happening effortlessly by itself, all of it one whole seamless happening, inseparable from the awareness beholding it all. Who can say what it all is or how it works? Does it have an owner? Who can say what “should” happen next? Who does or does not have a choice about it?
11/19/13—11/21/13 (originally posted in three parts):
Why do we still get angry or give in to addictive cravings or operate out of preconscious biases even when we aspire not to do these things? Is it because we’re bad, evil people? Is it because we haven’t tried hard enough, or relaxed well enough, or meditated often enough, or gone to enough workshops and seminars? Is it because we willfully make bad choices? Is the wayward teenage daughter sinking into drug addiction, self-injury, multiple failed suicide attempts, petty crime, and other high-risk behavior a result of “bad choices,” or are her urges and behaviors as much a compulsive and uncontrollable act of nature as Typhoon Haiyan tearing apart the Philippines?
From the nondual perspective, life is one whole undivided happening, from the Big Bang to the lighting of a cigarette and the thinking of a thought. When this is recognized, there is a natural compassion for everything being as it is. We see that there is variety and diversity Here / Now, but not separation. We can discern the difference between the mountain and the valley, or between clarity and confusion, but we know they are one seamless, indivisible, ever-changing event without an owner. And we know that we are not separate from that event—we ARE this wholeness of being that can never actually be divided up. We are the child molester, the serial killer, the Zen Master, the beloved guru, the teenager addicted to drugs, the anguished mother unable to save her daughter. We are the pacifist and the soldier, the killer and the killed, the homeless drunk and the wealthy investment banker, Martin Luther King and Adolph Hitler. Nothing is really separate from anything else. Even the awareness beholding it all is not separate from what it beholds—it is not “out there” somewhere, detached and aloof. There is no safe haven, and the only way to get to the resurrection (i.e. nirvana or liberation) is through the crucifixion (i.e. samsara, the pain and suffering of everyday life). Liberation is in the shift from the closed heart of “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (the me-story, resisting what is) to the Open Heart of “Thy will be done” (the bigger picture, accepting what is).
Hearing that, we naturally wonder, how do I do that, how do I make that shift, how do “I” get “me” out of the me-story and into the Open Heart?
And this is where it gets very tricky because, although the longing for true liberation comes from our deepest being, thought immediately translates this longing into the me-story. So the very way in which that question is formulated presumes and brings into mirage-like existence the imaginary separate self. The formulation of that question assumes and reinforces the need to get rid of what’s here now and get somewhere else instead, and it creates the mirage of linear time in which to do this. Whereas true liberation and the shift we’re talking about is actually a seeing through of that whole story and a recognition of what is already right here: the vast space of unbound aware presence, the seamlessness of being. And the more we dissolve into this spaciousness Here / Now, the more clearly it is realized that this groundlessness is itself God, unconditional love, uncaused joy, true intelligence, the emptiness that makes everything possible, the Tao, the True Self, the One without a second. The shift from samsara to nirvana is nothing more or less than a shift from time to presence, from encapsulation to boundlessness, from thinking to awaring, from storyline and conceptualization to the immediacy and intimacy of bare sensing and perceiving. That doesn’t mean we don’t still think and enjoy stories and remember the past and imagine the future and have functional boundaries, but we are rooted in aware presence, Here / Now.
This shiftless-shift is more of a non-doing than a doing, and there is no way to explain “how to do it” in the same way that we can explain how to bake a cake. This shiftless-shift is something more akin to swimming or riding a bicycle in that we each have to feel our own way into it and discover it directly for ourselves. Someone else can often help us in this discovery, much the way a parent or teacher can help us to learn to ride a bike or swim, but ultimately, no one else can do it for us, and there is no set of instructions that will predictably bring it about. We can’t make it happen. It isn’t the result of forceful effort. In fact, quite the opposite. It is more of a relaxation and surrender, although that doesn’t mean sloth and torpor either! But it isn’t the effect of a cause. It simply IS, the natural state, the stateless state, the groundless ground, the ever-present, ever-changing, Here / Now.
Some nondualists would even say that we can’t do anything at all to bring this shift about, that any notion of choice is only an illusion, and that any shift we can experience or describe is simply a change in the scenery. But other nondual teachings and many forms of spirituality and psychotherapy would say this shift is the difference between heaven and hell, and they would emphasize our ability to choose and attempt to awaken the response-ability that is right here, right now (the power of awareness, not thought). Confronted with these two very different models and approaches, we may wonder, who has it right?
Can we see that this is an imaginary conceptual divide between two different teaching styles using two different maps? Both can be liberating at the right moment, and if misunderstood, both can lead to more suffering. The surrendering or dissolving or relaxing or undoing that can happen in any moment cannot be captured by either the active or the passive voice, by the concept of choice or the concept of a choiceless happening. If we get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide, we have limited ourselves to less than half the truth. So can we begin by not knowing what is possible, by letting go of all our ideas, beliefs and preconceived notions about choice and no choice?
Maybe we can begin by exploring firsthand our actual experience as decisions and choices happen. This is an exploration I invite everyone with an interest to undertake—not by thinking about it or believing what others have said on the subject, but by paying attention and really watching closely as choices and decisions unfold—seeing how it actually happens, seeing if any chooser can be found, seeing if you are in control of the decisive moment. Seeing is another word for awaring or attending, which is not the same as thinking. In paying careful attention to the actuality itself as it unfolds, we may discover firsthand that neither our ideas about being in control nor our ideas of helplessness really hold up in the light of awareness.
If we don’t look too closely, it certainly SEEMS that “we” can influence events, that we can “choose” to pay attention, or to “take a time out” when we feel anger rising, or that we can “decide” to stop smoking, overeating or thinking compulsively, and maybe even that we can shift from despair to joy by choice. This is the map of reality that society at large drums into our heads from childhood on—the story of personal responsibility, and it seems to be true, at least whenever our intentions and decisions match our subsequent actions, and we tend to overlook all the times this isn’t the case. When we fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we simply pick up the story of personal failure. Obviously, we didn’t try hard enough, or so we think.
But when we look more closely with awareness for the source of our intentions, urges, desires, choices, interests, thoughts and abilities—we may discover that we cannot find any central agent at the helm, nor can we locate any actual source from which all of this arises. Thoughts arise, and we THINK (after the fact) that they are “my” thoughts and that “I” am deliberately thinking them (which is another thought), but when we turn to look for this author or thinker (this “me” who is supposedly at the helm of “my life” composing my thoughts and choosing my course of action), we find nothing at all (or everything!). In our actual experience, thoughts, urges, interests and aversions all appear unbidden. Choices happen. Things shift. And “me” is an after-thought.
What we call intention, decision or choice is simply another involuntary, conditioned movement of life, every bit as out of our control as Typhoon Haiyan (and that includes all the ways we contribute to climate change and all the ways we organize and work to stop such harmful human behaviors). Even the so-called “choice” or “shift” from compulsive thinking to open awareness that some regard as our one and only true choice may already have happened by itself before we seem to choose it. Don’t take my word for that, but look closely and see for yourself. Waking up happens. “Deciding” to wake up also happens. And in awakeness, there is no “me” who is awake. That mirage-like phantom dissolves into thin air. It was never real except as a mirage, an appearance, a virtual reality created by thought and imagination, a neurological sensation, a grammatical convention, a mental image, a story.
But still, we do seem to make choices, and to pick up the belief that we are helpless automatons doesn’t really match our direct experience either. To take a simple example that I often use, opening and closing my hand clearly seems to be in my control. It is what we call a voluntary action because I can seemingly choose to do or not do this. It’s true that when I look closely, I cannot find the source of this action—I cannot locate where the desire or the urge or the intention to do this comes from, how the “choice” actually arises, nor can I begin to catalog or control the ten million conditions that make it possible (muscles, nerves, respiration, heartbeat, the evolution of the brain, the entire history of the universe from the Big Bang onward), nor can I explain how exactly “I” perform this action. Upon close inspection, it can be seen directly that there is no entity “deciding” to open my hand and then skillfully executing this action by some sort of deliberate conscious control. And yet at the same time, no one else can open my hand for me, and to deny “my” ability to do this would be absurd. There is undeniably a power right here—most intimate, closer than the breath—that initiates and performs this action. To say either that it is my doing or not my doing, a choice or not a choice, does not accurately or fully represent this happening. The actuality itself cannot be captured by either concept.
To take another example, consider your actual experience driving your car down the freeway in heavy traffic, making split-second decisions and corrections moment by moment—steering, braking, turning, accelerating, responding to all kinds of situations. If you tune into your actual felt-experience as this is happening (not your thoughts about it or how you conceptualize it, but the actual feeling of it), does it feel as if there is there someone apart from all these activities who is figuring out how to drive the car by thinking it all through, or is your actual felt-experience that “driver, car and driving” are one whole undivided happening in which everything is unfolding automatically or spontaneously as an activity of something much larger than “you” and much deeper than thought? If you are thinking of yourself as the driver and worrying about what to do next, as if “you” (the thinking mind) are actually in control of this event and have to figure out how to “do” it, you are probably not a very good driver! Your mind and the illusion of separation is in the way. Good driving requires a kind of surrender and trust in which you allow yourself and the car to be driven—you give yourself over to the event. But on the other hand, if you take your hands off the wheel and close your eyes because “everything is happening by itself,” that won’t work either! And if your teenager wants to start driving a car, you certainly won’t just give them the keys, look the other way, and tell them it is all a choiceless unfolding of the universe over which no one has any control!
Opening my hand, driving the car, shifting my attention—is it a choice or is it choiceless? Am I in control or am I helpless? Both conceptual models are partially true and equally false, and neither is the actuality itself. Opening and closing my hand, driving the car, shifting my attention from thoughts to bare sensations—there is nothing confusing about the actuality itself. The confusion, the apparent conflict, is always in the map or the model. The confusion is conceptual. And no concept can capture this living reality that is at once inconceivable and obvious, ungraspable and unavoidable.
So who or what is “deciding” whether to have the second piece of chocolate cake or not have it, and why does the ability to resist such temptation sometimes seem to be available and sometimes seem to be completely absent? And is there anything we can do to control or change our human behavior, to stop an addiction, to save our lost daughter from her downward spiral, to wake up and transform the world—or must we simply wait for grace to happen by itself? Or maybe, is there something fundamentally off-the-mark with the way thought has set up this question? Could this be a false dichotomy, an imaginary problem, a conceptual divide that makes no actual sense?
As I keep pointing out (because we can all so easily forget), any concept, description or view is an abstract representation or model created by thought, a map of the territory. The surrendering or dissolving or relaxing or undoing or not knowing that can happen in any moment does not originate in thought. It cannot be brought about on command. It isn’t initiated by the false-self, which is only a mirage, and a mirage has no power to do anything.
The dissolution of the thought-sense-story of encapsulation and separation happens by itself, although in a certain sense, it can be invited, allowed, encouraged or chosen. How to do that? By not doing anything at all. By allowing everything to be exactly as it is, not seeking or resisting anything, not judging or analyzing or strategizing, but simply resting as open awareness. Some teachings insist that this “choice” is always available and other teachings insist there is never a choice, only a choiceless happening with no one in control. Both teachings are maps. The map that says there is always a choice encourages us not to make excuses or believe in imaginary limitations. It encourages us to make this choice right now. And again, how do we do that? By letting go, by surrendering, by relaxing our grip, by allowing everything to be as it is. On the negative side, this map of “choice” may inadvertently set us up for guilt, shame, blame, retribution, self-hatred, vengeance, punishment and all the things that follow when we fail to let go and then believe we could have done better, or when others fail and we think they could have chosen to do better. On the other hand, the map that says there is no choice eliminates the basis of guilt and blame and encourages us to dissolve into the complete helplessness or absolute surrender that is actually the very same thing as letting go, relaxing our grip, and allowing everything to be as it is! It takes us to exactly the same placeless place as the other map: Here / Now. On the negative side, this “no choice” map may inadvertently discourage us from engaging in helpful activities such as meditation or inquiry, and it may encourage a kind of false passivity and lack of response-ability. Both maps can be helpful, and both maps can lead us astray. The truth is beyond all the maps.
As in learning how to swim or ride a bicycle, everyone must discover this aware presence Here / Now and this shift from thinking to awaring for ourselves. No concept of awareness is awareness, and no description of this shift is the shift itself. And no model of choice or choicelessness is the living reality.
When this surrendering or dissolving happens (or is allowed), there is the paradoxical realization that what we have been seeking is actually never not here. It is what we are. It is the very ground of each and every moment, the essential nature of Here / Now. We only SEEM to lose it by our entrancement in the story of separation and lack, and by the activity of seeking it “out there” while resisting what is showing up Here / Now, believing the story that “this can’t be it.” Whenever we try to seek or grasp any particular experience that we think is “it,” this grasping and seeking is always a losing endeavor.
And if you THINK that “you” are “getting it” and then “losing it,” you might notice that it takes thought, memory and imagination to conjure up this story, and that this story is all about the phantom character at the center of the story. Can this “you” actually be found? Is it real? What is it?
It might be noticed that however much everything changes, it always happens Here / Now. You can never step out of Here / Now, this timeless and placeless aware-presence being and beholding it all. And although no particular EXPERIENCE of this wholeness is permanent, the wholeness itself is beyond all ideas of permanence and impermanence. Here / Now is actually another word for YOU—the real you, the True Self, the seamless and boundless wholeness of being. This is what we all truly are. We’re not limited to, or encapsulated inside, the phantom character that we identify as “me.” That character appears Here / Now along with all the other phantom characters and the whole movie of waking life with its never-ending stories of getting it and losing it. And it’s not that we’re NOT a person (to deny that would be downright silly), but that person is only a tiny part of what we truly are. And when we actually explore that so-called “person” with the light of awareness rather than with conceptual thought, we find that “my body” and “my mind” and “my life” are ever-changing, vibrating, tingling, pulsating events, boundless and seamless, inseparable from the whole universe and from the awareness beholding it all. There is no solid, separate, independent, persisting, continuous “thing” anywhere to be found!
TRYING not to identify as the person, and TRYING to identify as “aware presence” takes a lot of mental work. It requires effort and maintenance. Noticing that kind of efforting is a wake-up bell. Seeking or clinging to any particular experience or trying to get all our ducks lined up conceptually in our head—all of that is just one more thought-based task in the Story of Me, rooted in and sustaining the illusion. Is it possible, right now, to let it go? When we stop trying to either hold on to the flow of life or push it away, we discover that we ARE this flowing wholeness. No separation is even possible. We relax into being what we have never not been, this effortless happening Here / Now that is all there is. Liberation, it turns out, is the natural state, not some new acquisition or some flashy experience that comes and goes or some grand attainment. But at the same time, don’t get the idea that there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, because that’s not quite right either. Delusion is not enlightenment, and Hitler was not awake. Once again, we can’t land on either side of an imaginary, conceptual divide. Everything is perfect as it is, AND there’s room here for improvement.
Resting in the ungraspable openness that allows everything to be as it is, is true freedom. It is not the freedom to have only the experiences we like, but the freedom to be just as we are. It is the freedom of “Thy will be done,” and the realization that I Am That. And if that sounds like merely a nice idea but not a living reality, then you might simply wonder, Who am I? or What is this? And remember, questions such as these are not about thinking them over and then providing answers, but rather, such questions are invitations to fall into the open wonder and not-knowing of the questioning itself. In the words of the Buddhist teacher Steven Batchelor, “The penetration of this mystery requires that one not foreclose it by substituting an answer, be it a metaphysical proposition or a religious belief. One has to learn how to suspend the habit of reaching for a word or phrase with which to fill the emptiness opened by the question.” Beautiful!
In his wonderful book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn gives a beautiful example of how we are already Home, and yet, there is always more to discover. He points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same. He writes that: “Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well…More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love…a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection…Awareness itself is the teacher, the student, and the lesson…Resting in awareness in any moment involves giving ourselves over to all our senses, in touch with inner and outer landscapes as one seamless whole." And this is not something we do once a day for an hour while sitting cross-legged on a cushion (although that may be part of it), but more importantly, it is a way of living, a way of being in every moment of ordinary life. And this way of being includes the wisdom to recognize that there is no “me” here who can willfully vanquish the gravitational pull of old conditioning and the tremendous force of habit. Failure happens, and it’s not personal, and as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “No mud, no lotus.” But by accepting what is as it is, by simply being aware of how it is, by not resisting it, something shifts by itself. That is the miracle of waking up, the gateless gate of liberation, and this miracle does not happen yesterday or tomorrow or forever after, but always only NOW. This is it. Just see what you are doing right now to deny or postpone this simple recognition of HERE / NOW.
Responding to a comment on this post: Anything we SAY (or THINK) about this undeniable actuality Here / Now is a conceptual abstraction, a model, a map. We get in trouble when we mistake any map for the actuality it represents. But the undivided wholeness that is being pointed to by the map is not just an idea or a concept. It is your actual experience here now, although you may be overlooking it. Yes, in a sense your dog is separate and you can pet him, and to deny that would be silly, but in a deeper sense, you and the dog and the petting and the carpet and the sound of traffic and your breathing and the dog’s breathing is all going on simultaneously as one whole seamless happening, all appearing Here / Now. When we try to “get” nonduality (or awareness, or consciousness, or unicity, or enlightenment, or love), it doesn’t work. The very effort creates the imaginary problem, the imaginary gap. True meditation is a nonconceptual way to see through the imaginary problem and notice the actuality of Here / Now, and reading a clear text, a text that deconstructs or erases itself, can also trigger that same seeing. And then the trick is not to grasp what is seen—not to try to maintain some particular experience—or maybe put differently, to simply be aware of that tendency as it arises and let it go. There is no need to cling to Here / Now, for it is actually impossible to leave it. And when we seem to leave it via thoughts and stories, it is always possible to wake up and start freshly, Here / Now.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2013--
The articles on this particular outpouring page are all posted on my Facebook page, where they originally appeared. They can be shared directly from my Facebook page with others on Facebook in the usual way. If you have a Facebook account, and you wish to share these writings on your Facebook page, please do so directly from my Facebook page to yours. If you don't use Facebook and you wish to share any of these postings on other blogs, please credit the author, mention that they were originally Facebook postings, and include links to both my Facebook page and this website with your re-posting. Thank you!
back to “outpourings“ menu