Postings from My Facebook Page #4
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the fourth collection of posts from my Facebook page (11/24/13 - 2/2/14). 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:
I had an email from someone recently who tells me he has been with several popular teachers who stress the notion of permanent enlightenment and who seem to suggest that they have reached a place beyond the gravitational pull of human conditioning, a place of unending awakeness—like a caterpillar that has permanently and irrevocably transformed into a butterfly. The email describes this person’s reaction to these teachings: “I feel sadness, disappointment. It seems that it is like being a caterpillar who has many tastes of butterfly-ness, a few quite pronounced, but discovers there is a powerful inner condition that keeps him primarily in slowly evolving caterpillar form.” Sound familiar?
I spent many years caught up in this story, feeling the same sadness, disappointment, frustration and sense of failure. On the one hand, there was often complete clarity and spacious, open, unbound presence. There was a seeing-through of the false self, and a realization that awareness is ever-present, that Here / Now is always here. There were deep and vivid glimpses of how it would be to embody and live from complete emptiness and openness, entirely free from all the heaviness and constriction of sticky thought-forms. I could taste the freedom. But then that would all be clouded over again by caught-up-ness in the story of Joan and all the things that went with that—depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, restlessness, defensiveness, anger, addictive and compulsive behaviors, and so on. Compared to those Golden Winners who told the Butterfly Story, I seemed to be a second-rate spiritual loser, a wannabe butterfly who just couldn’t make the grade.
At some point, I began to notice that this story was all about me. I also began to notice that it was a story. And I saw how that story instantly created the seemingly-real appearance of permanent things, conditions and states, a picture that didn’t match my observation of how life actually is. I began to see how this story plugged into old patterns of self-doubt and giving away my own authority—putting other people up on pedestals and then feeling that I was unworthy, insufficient, lacking and imperfect. I noticed that the teachers I trusted most deeply, the ones I considered most awake, did not tell the Butterfly Story. These trusted teachers were honest in acknowledging that they could still be swept up in delusion, and they emphasized Here / Now, the present moment, the ownerless awakeness that is not mine or yours or theirs to possess. They undermined self-centered stories of lack and the search for personal perfection rather than reinforcing it. Eventually, my belief in the Butterfly Story got thinner and thinner, the ability to see it as a story when it popped up increased along with the ability to let it go rather than following it, and its grip on me gradually fell away. Not because I turned into a permanent butterfly, but because I saw what a ridiculously seductive and deceptive story this is. That story IS a form of delusion and suffering. Teachings that reinforce the Butterfly Story have become one of my major pet peeves.
I’m not denying that some people are more stabilized in awake presence and less caught up in delusion than others, nor am I denying that some people have sudden, dramatic awakenings or that for some there seems to be a lasting shift in which they remain grounded in awake presence, more or less free from the gravitational pull of the dream state and never again lost for very long in delusion or confusion. One person who apparently had this kind of sudden and lasting shift is Eckhart Tolle. He seems very genuine and credible to me. I have no reason to doubt his story, and his awakeness is plain to see. But to his credit, he doesn’t say that this kind of awakening is typical or necessary or better than a more gradual awakening, and his whole teaching emphasizes Here / Now and constantly undermines the story of lack or the search for perfection. So it is possible to have a dramatic and lasting shift and not teach in a way that promotes and feeds the Butterfly Story in other people.
Because for most of us, transformation does not happen that dramatically or that permanently, all in one explosive moment. For most of us, it is a much more gradual process with occasional peaks and valleys and many plateaus and backslides, in which we seem to get it and then lose it again, often many times in the space of a single day or a single hour. Sometimes we are completely 100% awake, and sometimes we are caught up in the me-story. Does this fluctuation ever completely end? Is it totally absent even in people such as Eckhart Tolle? (I doubt it). And even if it seemed that this fluctuation was completely gone at some point, how could anyone know with certainty that it might not be back tomorrow? And most importantly, why do we care? Does it help to think (or obsess) about how we compare to others or to ideals of perfection, and to focus our attention on what we presently lack but might one day attain? Does that thought-pattern enlighten us or sink us deeper into delusion?
The Butterfly Story is one of the most popular versions of the me-story amongst spiritual folks, either the “I am a butterfly” story that some tell themselves or the “I am still just a miserable caterpillar” story that is more common. Another popular me-story is the “I got it, then I lost it” story. Can we see that these are stories? Can we see how they instantly reincarnate the mirage-like “me” and the mirage of linear time, the two core delusions? And to whom do these stories matter?
Isn’t it only from the perspective of the imaginary me that it seems terribly important how “I” compare to the others or to some ideal and whether “I” am a butterfly? From the perspective of the whole, everything is included and none of it is personal. It is all the movement of life, the unfolding of consciousness, a never-ending Self-realization that is not mine or yours. So when we find ourselves caught up in the Butterfly Story, can we perhaps notice that this is a virtual reality occurring in the imagination, a creation of smoke and mirrors (i.e., thoughts, images and sensations), a mental movie…and that it all centers around “me”? How real is this “me”?
And what is aware of this story? What is seeing all this? Can the seer (or the seeing) itself actually be seen? Are we really a caterpillar, encapsulated inside a separate bodymind, peering out at an alien universe, desperately trying to turn into a butterfly? Or is that just a movie that has captured the attention? Can you begin to see what a joke this is?
As people, we all have different weather conditions—different genes, different neurochemistry, different nervous systems, different personalities, different childhood experiences, and we’ve all been through different degrees of trauma. No two of us are exactly alike. We all encounter different experiences and face different challenges as we move through life. Some of us have what Eckhart Tolle would call a heavier pain-body. The inner weather is stormier, the gravitational pull of negative conditioning is stronger, the ability to rise above all this is weaker. These kinds of differences show up on brain scans as well—people struggling with addictions often have very different brain patterns from people who easily resist such temptations. These things are not personal. They are the results of nature and nurture, the infinite causes and conditions that bring forth each moment, just as it is.
Our suffering comes from identifying this self-image, this imaginary character at the center of the virtual reality called “The Story of My Life,” as what we are. In fact, this self-image is always changing (positive one moment, negative the next), and this bodymind person to which it refers is more of a process than a thing, and this process is completely interdependent with the whole universe—no person (no bodymind) can exist apart from the whole—life is actually one, seamless, undivided whole happening. The separations are notional like the lines on a map between different countries. The person is an activity of the whole universe, and each person contains the whole universe. This activity we call a person is only a small part of what we truly are. We are the wholeness of being that includes the person and the awareness beholding it all—the indivisible, all-inclusive, unborn, deathless unicity from which nothing stands apart.
But we forget. Attention gets swept up in the story of being little old me, the lost caterpillar. Or in some cases, we get swept up in the opposite story of being ME, the Enlightened Butterfly! Either way, this is delusion. Enlightenment is simply seeing delusion as delusion. Not once and for all, not yesterday, not someday, but NOW.
The wholeness of being, aware presence, Here / Now is never not here. Only IN the story do we SEEM to be somebody (a separate, persisting entity) who is “getting it” and then “losing it,” a caterpillar who hopes to one day be a butterfly. In awakeness, there is no owner of awakeness (or of delusion), and awakeness has no problem with caterpillars, pain-bodies, stormy weather systems, or moments of delusion. These are problematic only from the perspective of the me who takes it all personally as “my” success or failure, my identity. Awareness accepts it all, beholds it all, allows it all to be as it is, allows it to come and go. Awareness is not bound or encapsulated. It has no owner. It is the groundless ground, the no-thing-ness of everything, the freedom at the heart of every moment. It is what Here / Now IS.
I still experience depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, restlessness, defensiveness, anger, addictive and compulsive behaviors, and many moments of being caught up in the story of Joan. I am often lost in delusion. Many of the finest and most honest teachers will tell you exactly the same thing, because the more awakeness there is, the more clearly delusion is seen, and the more subtle the layers of delusion that come to light. “Delusions are inexhaustible,” as the Buddhist chant says. There is no end to delusion. And the good news is, delusion is not some terrible enemy. It is the mud that nurtures the lotus, the grit that creates the pearl. Our darkest struggles are often the greatest source of our love, compassion, humor and wisdom. Darkness and light, up and down are inseparable polarities in the dance of life, the wild ride with all its twists and turns that seems to be forever going somewhere but is actually always Here / Now.
What has changed in my experience is not that I no longer experience darkness, but that I’m no longer chasing after the myth of permanent enlightenment or bemoaning the fact that I’m still human. I’m not saying there is no enlightenment, only that it isn’t personal and it’s not a permanent attainment. There continues to be a natural interest here in seeing through delusion, clearing up what is confused, and waking up to the joy, love and freedom Here / Now. But it is a never-ending process, a never-ending Self-realization. And I know the answer is not “out there.” It’s right here. And I know beyond a doubt that it’s not about “me” crossing the finish-line and becoming perfect. That very idea is itself delusion.
Would I like to be as free from the gravitational pull of the dream state as people such as Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti seem to be? Happily, that question no longer seems relevant or meaningful. In one sense, yes, my greatest aspiration and deepest vow is to be awake. Not to be awake forever (for I recognize that as delusion), and not to be awake like somebody else—because each of us is a unique and perfect expression—but to be awake NOW. Am I sometimes making a choice, not yet fully conscious or avoidable, to sink back into delusion and compulsion instead? Yes, that would be one way to describe what happens here (and for many other people).
But I see that this pull into the dream state can only undo itself in its own time, and that what matters is this moment, not some mental fabrication about how I rank on the spiritual ladder of success (how I compare to Eckhart or Adya or Ramana or Jesus or anybody else). And who knows, maybe by not being a spiritual gold medalist, I am able to offer something to others that the gold medalists cannot offer. Because not every Olympic athlete wins a gold medal, no matter how hard they train or how dedicated they are, so if we see this as a race or a competition, and if what matters is winning the gold, it’s a set-up for failure and disappointment. But if we can enjoy the event itself and simply do our best, moment to moment, we actually have a better chance of “winning,” and when we don’t win, it’s perfectly okay. Recognizing my True Self as the larger event and the unbound awareness beholding it all, I am all the winners and all the losers and the Whole Show, and I am that which is here prior to the show and that which remains long after the show is finished—and so are you! And what is that? THIS: Here / Now.
So if the story of being a caterpillar longing to be a butterfly grabs you like a good movie and takes you for a wild ride through the darkness of despair and discouragement, maybe you will stop and wonder, is this movie for real? Am I really a caterpillar (or an athlete in the spiritual Olympics, or somebody on a long journey)? Am I really lost? Is anything really lacking Here / Now?
As Toni Packer once said: “Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance…Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here now. It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.”
I’m also reminded here of Kabir, who said of the Holy Reality at the heart of everything: “Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.” His focus was on the blessing of what had been given rather than on the sorrow of what was missing. He was seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty—living in gratitude for the extraordinary gift of even a brief glimpse rather than bemoaning the fact that it lasted “only” fifteen seconds. Kabir celebrated the dance in its entirety. He didn’t need to personally be a gold medalist in order to sing his ecstatic songs and live in service to what had been glimpsed.
Waking up doesn’t take time. Nothing is really in the way. The problems and obstacles are all imaginary. The Spiritual Olympic Games are imaginary. The caterpillar is imaginary and so is the butterfly. The “you” who seems to be one or the other is also imaginary. It is only a mental image, a passing thought, an old story. Instead of thinking about “me” and what “I” lack, what “I” don’t have, is it possible to wake up right now to the simple fact of being present, being aware, being Here / Now? THIS is where the juice is (the enlightenment, the Holy Reality, the light, the joy, the freedom).
We can’t grasp the light. We can only BE it. And we can SEE (and see through) what seems to get in the way. We can see the caterpillar story as it pops up, and we can question, is this story really true? Is the one at the center of this drama even real? That doesn’t mean we pick up the opposite story that “I am an enlightened butterfly.” It means discovering what is beyond all the stories, what is beholding the stories, what is present right here, right now, unstained by any story but not separate either…this awaring presence, this shining light, this radiant open heart, this undeniable awakeness that is right here, most intimate, and everywhere, inescapable, all-inclusive.
Sometimes we have brief glimpses, and sometimes more sustained experiences of the boundlessness, the seamlessness, the groundlessness, the emptiness, the fullness, the freedom, the wonder, the love, the absolute joy that is Here / Now. All problems are gone! There is no me anymore. Everything feels complete and perfect, just as it is. Everything shines and sparkles.
Then thought comes back in and immediately labels or categorizes this experience, calling it “an awakening” or “a glimpse” or whatever word it uses. Often we don’t notice how that very thought has mentally frozen and divided up the flow of life, creating the mirage of something-in-particular out of the open, free, undivided, no-thing-ness that was glimpsed. Thought then inserts this frozen “something” that it has just created into a narrative, a story about “me,” the one who had this glimpse, and the one who lost it. Thought reasons that “real enlightenment,” or “final enlightenment,” or “complete liberation” would mean extending or sustaining this experience for infinite duration—having a permanent EXPERIENCE of sparkle, or a permanent SENSE of being no-self.
So we try to grasp the experience—hold onto it and maintain it. And when it slips away, as it always does, we try to recapture it. We try to remember what we did to bring it about. If we were meditating when it happened, we meditate again with the expectation and the desire to repeat this remembered experience. If we were reading a nondual book when it happened, we read that same chapter over again, hoping to repeat what happened before. And as we eventually discover, this doesn’t work. In fact, it seems a bit like sinking into quicksand or running after a mirage lake in the desert sands—the harder we struggle to get out of the quicksand, the deeper into it we sink, and the faster we run after the mirage lake, the more it recedes into the distance.
Experiences come and go. By their very nature, they are impermanent. There is no permanent experience and no enduring state of consciousness. Seeking or grasping experiences is like pursuing a mirage or trying to grasp a handful of smoke or water. It is a losing endeavor. When we try to “get” truth or awareness or enlightenment or freedom, it doesn’t work. The very effort creates the imaginary problem, the imaginary gap, the thought-sense of being a separate fragment searching for something outside of us that is presumably lacking Here / Now. Likewise, if we try to EXPERIENCE Totality or nondual unicity or "the Ultimate Subject" or THAT which is “prior to consciousness” and “beyond experience,” it is like the eye trying to see the eye, or the sword trying to cut itself—an obvious impossibility. And yet, we try.
Eventually, it dawns on us (not as an idea, but as a direct discovery) that there is no need to search for what is already fully present, nor is there any need to have special experiences or to cling to any particular experience. We SEE that it is actually impossible to be anywhere other than Here / Now, and that EVERY experience is none other than the One and Only. Even when we SEEM to leave the present moment via thoughts and stories about past and future and elsewhere, that mental movie can only appear Here / Now, and that movie is none other than consciousness itself, and the one who seems to be lost in the storyline of the movie is only a mirage, a part of the movie, and in one instant, the entire drama can dissolve into thin air as awareness wakes up again to the immediacy of Here / Now, which is what we always already are. Here / Now is all there IS. It is the One-without-a-second, the true “I” to which we all refer when we say simply “I AM.” In bare presence or simple beingness, there is no separation, no gap—any separation is only an APPEARANCE that occurs IN the thought-created virtual reality (or unreality).
We begin to realize that those glimpses or experiences of boundlessness and freedom happen when the story of lack and all the effort to get somewhere or get rid of something momentarily falls away and we are simply Here / Now. The search for something better collapses, and there is a relaxing into the simplicity of what is. We wake up to the boundless no-thing-ness of everything, the absence of separation, the absence of self.
The experience of “losing it” happens whenever thought comes back in, reincarnates the false self (“me,” the phantom experiencer, the self-image), takes the experience personally as “my” experience, reifies and freezes it into “something,” and weaves it into the story of My Search for Enlightenment and How Well I’m Doing and How Far I’ve Gotten. Instantly with that train of thought, we are back in the virtual unreality, the imaginary drama of me and my journey and my progress or lack of progress.
Of course, the “me” who seems to be lost in the virtual reality is itself part of the virtual reality. And the very effort to repeat the expanded experience and get rid of the me-experience is exactly what prevents it from happening! And as we discover, trying not to try (as with trying not to think of a pink elephant) doesn’t work, so if we are TRYING to drop the self, or trying to get somewhere, or trying not to think, it doesn’t work. Instead, we have to begin where we actually are and simply allow the trying to be as it is. Simply SEEING the thought-stories that make up this efforting, FEELING how this trying feels in the body, ALLOWING it all to be just as it is. Paradoxically, in allowing it to be here, we are allowing it to dissolve. The light of awareness is the great solvent. Awareness is unconditional love—it doesn’t fight with what shows up, it doesn’t resist it, it doesn’t demand or seek any particular outcome, it doesn’t have a timetable. Awareness accepts everything, as it is, and allows it to unfold and reveal itself and dissolve in its own time, as it will if we simply allow that to happen naturally. But tapping our foot impatiently and bemoaning the fact that it isn’t happening fast enough is the movement of thought again, so when that happens, is it possible to simply SEE it and be aware of it? Nothing more, nothing less.
By nature, experience is an ever-changing flow, sometimes light and sometimes dark. Nothing can show up at all except in polarities and contrasts. Trying to have perpetual sunshine is a losing battle. True freedom is in allowing the whole show to be as it is. Of course, that doesn’t mean being a doormat, being irresponsible, or thinking we “shouldn’t” do anything such as going into a recovery program or working for social change. Allowing everything to be as it is doesn’t mean allowing our abusive spouse to keep beating us up, or allowing our friend to bleed to death in front of us, or continuing to drink ourselves into oblivion, or allowing cruelty or injustice to continue—it is pointing to something much more immediate—the complete acceptance of how life is showing up in this moment. Right now, it’s like this. And we can notice that it already IS allowed to be this way, obviously, since it IS this way! So this allowing isn’t something we have to “do,” but rather, something we recognize and relax into.
Being awake is not about having a permanent experience of happiness, for permanence is just another story about time. True eternity is nothing other than Here / Now, the ever-changing, ever-present One-without-a-second. So instead of chasing a permanently happy experience, true freedom is in allowing whatever experience shows up to be as it is, beholding it in the light of unconditional love, the light of awareness, meeting it with a tender and warm heart. And at the same time, being aware of our conditioned tendency to resist the unwanted experiences and to seek or grasp the desirable ones, being aware of this movement of the mind as it arises. We don’t need to fight this tendency or take it personally as a sign of “my” spiritual failure or try to banish it—that’s just more seeking and grasping and resisting. Simply to be aware of it is enough. Awareness sheds light. It reveals how we do our suffering, thus (in a manner of speaking) affording us a choice where none existed before.
Eventually, we’re not making a big deal out of glimpses or experiences anymore. We’re not seeking or grasping the expanded experiences or trying to make them happen. And we’re not fighting against the contracted experiences, the old habits, the darkness, trying to banish it forever. We’re not caught up (or not completely, or not for very long) in the story of being a failure or a loser, or the story of being anything at all. And if at times we are caught up, sooner or later, we see it. (Or more accurately, it is seen). The seeing IS the transformation. More and more, there is the recognition that all there is, is life itself, moment-to-moment, as it is, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes sparkling, sometimes dull. And when there is suffering, we may find that there is a natural movement to see what is going on, to clarify it, to wake up from the dream-state of virtual unreality, but not by fighting it and seeking something better. Instead, waking up is all about relaxing, allowing and awaring (beholding it all with unconditional love).
Over time, the boundary between meditation (or satsang) and “the rest of our life” seems to dissolve. Everything reveals itself as one flowing whole. Sometimes there are mental movies, sometimes there is caught-up-ness in the Story of Me, sometimes there is clarity and boundless freedom. More and more, there is a deep trust, a deep knowing, that ALL of it is One Dance, one whole happening, happening to no one. There is a growing ability to rest as that which is ungraspable and unattainable because we ARE it. And when that ability is not present, there is a growing willingness to be in hell (it happens sometimes!), knowing that this, too, is part of the Dance—a passing appearance. It is recognized that waking up is a never-ending Self-realization, a never-ending discovery in which there is always more to reveal and ever-more subtle layers of delusion to see through and release. And at the same time, it is clear that there is no farther to go, that this is it, that all there is, is Here / Now.
Anything we say about Here / Now or about awakening is never quite right because there is no “it” in reality – and no words or concepts can contain the it-less-ness (the undivided boundlessness, the groundlessness, the freedom, the nondual immediacy) of Here / Now. I’m not speaking of anything exotic or anything other than this ordinary moment, right now—this present experiencing, just as it is. Simply notice that nothing is solid, nothing stays the same, no-thing persists, nothing stands apart, there is no actual division. There is simply THIS that is at once ungraspable and unavoidable, inconceivable and obvious, ever-present and ever-changing, utterly immediate, most intimate, no-thing at all and everything, just as it is.
The word "I" can refer to the person, which is an undeniable aspect of the all-inclusive unicity that we truly are, and the same word (“I”) can also refer to the impersonal, boundless, I AM—the vast unbound Awareness or Consciousness, the seamless One-without-a-second that is all there is, the Ultimate Subject, no-thing-ness (or emptiness) appearing as EVERYTHING, the Self, Here / Now, THIS. So the word “I” can be used to mean BOTH "I am Joan" AND "I Am THAT." And THAT is not the opposite of Joan, but rather, THAT includes and transcends Joan. THAT is the bigger context, the underlying reality, the unbroken wholeness that is fully present everywhere and everywhen. THAT is both Joan and everything else as well.
What we think of as a person, while relatively real within the movie of waking life, is actually a concept or a mental image, a kind of abstraction. No person has any inherent, independent, continuous existence. In reality, if you look closely, you will discover that the bodymind is ever-changing movement, interdependent with and inseparable from the entire universe. It is an appearance in (and of) Consciousness. No self exists or shows up apart from everything that it supposedly is not, and like a hologram, every part includes the whole. The boundary between me and not-me is like the line on a map between New York and New Jersey. It is conceptual.
You can verify this experientially by closing your eyes and looking (meditatively, with awareness, not with thought) for the place where "inside of you" turns into "outside of you." Do you find any actual dividing-line, any actual place where “inside” ends and “outside” begins?
Likewise, is the computer or hand-held device or tablet upon which you are seeing these words inside you or outside you? Apparently, it is outside your body, and yet, it is inside this boundless field of awareness (Here / Now) that is beholding it all. And like your computer, your body is also an appearance inside this vast and boundless awareness. And you might notice that it takes thought to imagine that this awareness is encapsulated inside your body, whereas in actual direct experience, awareness (Here / Now) has no boundaries, no borders, no seams. It is everywhere and everywhen, all-inclusive. Your body is in it, not the other way around.
If you look backwards for the source of this unbound awareness (again, looking meditatively, not thinking or reasoning about it), if you turn your attention back to see who or what is aware, do you find anything there? Can you locate any actual seer apart from the seeing, an awarer apart from the awaring?
And if you look (with awareness, not with thought) can you find an actual boundary between awareness and what appears in awareness? Can you find an actual place where awareness ends and the computer screen or the sound of traffic begins? Without the words, ALL of it is a seamless happening—awareness and whatever appears—one undivided event. Inside and outside are relative terms, functionally useful and relatively meaningful, but ultimately, there is no inside and no outside. There is diversity here, but not separation.
The neurological sensation and the thought-story of being a particular bodymind, located here but not over there, is all part of how unicity is functioning. This appearance is not something OTHER than unicity that can or must be abolished. Without some functional sense of identity as the bodymind, the organism could not survive. But there is a bigger context. The bodymind appears in this vast Here / Now that also includes the trees, the computer, the furniture, the sound of traffic, and the whole universe—one, undivided, seamless happening.
When we imagine that we are encapsulated inside a separate bodymind, and when we imagine a fragmented world of separate things outside of us, then we are always searching for unity, searching for completion, searching for whatever we imagine is lacking. Trying to "get" unicity, or trying to have some special experience of no-self, or trying to see Totality as an object is like the eye trying to see itself or the sword trying to cut itself. It is impossible, and all such searching and grasping only intensifies the illusion that something is missing.
Instead, waking up is the discovery of a different possibility. Instead of seeking something else or trying to resist what is here, this new possibility is very radical (to the root) and counter-intuitive. Simply allow everything to be as it is, and be aware of this effort to get somewhere or attain something as it arises (not once-and-for-all, but Here / Now). Simply SEE this movement of the mind clearly (without judgment, without resistance). Feel how it feels in the body. (And if there IS judgment or resistance, see that…feel that). When illusion meets awareness, it is like ice meeting the sun—the illusion dissolves. It may not dissolve in one explosive and permanent collapse (it probably won’t), so be aware of any such expectation or desire, and see that as well. Awareness has no agenda, no goal, no expectation—that is all in the realm of thought, and usually has the mirage-like “me” at the center of it. Awareness allows everything and sticks to nothing.
In the light of awareness, the delusion of separation, encapsulation and fragmentation upon which all our grasping and seeking is predicated begins to dissolve and melt away. But expecting this to happen or wanting it to happen more quickly is all part of the thought-generated delusion, as is any tendency to turn this seeing into a new project that "I" must do to get somewhere. That “I” is simply a thought, a neurological sensation, a mental image, a mirage. The seeing (the awaring) happens naturally by itself, and seen or unseen, in reality, there is no one who can fall out of unicity or fail to be Here / Now. The “you” that seemingly lacks enlightenment and needs to achieve it is only a mirage, and that mirage is none other than unicity itself appearing as a mirage. Any apparent owner of this mirage-experience is part of the mirage. From the perspective of unicity, there is no problem with a mirage; it is only a passing appearance.
As a philosophy or a belief, any concept of “no-self” or “unicity” is just more baggage to acquire and carry and defend and worry about losing. We hold onto the baggage of concepts and beliefs hoping they will provide security and control. But what really liberates us is seeing through the illusion as it arises and letting go of all the concepts—falling into the darkness of not-knowing. I’m not talking about some grand experience or some special samadhi state, but rather, the simple, present moment falling away of the whole concern over what state we are in or what experience is showing up Here / Now. Relaxing, not grasping.
Beginning meditators often think that meditation is about getting rid of thoughts and calming the mind. They try very hard to achieve this “empty mind” or “no mind,” and they get quite frustrated at their lack of success. When thought does fall away at times, there is a tendency to think that this was a good and successful meditation. And when the mind is busy and agitated, the tendency is to think this was a bad meditation, a failure. Eventually, we realize that meditation is about allowing everything to be as it is…simply beholding it all. The one who is worried about being a success or a failure is seen to be a mirage, a mental image, a character in a story. In simple ordinary presence, no such entity exists. And when the mirage reappears, it is an impersonal happening, not a personal failure.
“You” don’t get enlightened; enlightenment is simply a word that points to the dissolution of the imaginary problem, not once-and-for-all, but Here / Now. The only real eternity is Now. No word can capture this present experiencing. And yet, it is undeniable that I AM and that THIS IS. There are many theories, beliefs and ideas—scientific, religious, metaphysical—about WHAT this phenomenal manifestation is and WHY it is happening. These can all be doubted, as can any ideas or beliefs about what I am. The only absolute and undeniable certainty is the knowingness that I AM and THIS IS—the bare fact of being here as aware presence and of something happening (or appearing)—THAT is undeniable. And it turns out, that’s enough!
And every night in deep sleep, the whole manifestation vanishes completely, even any SENSE of awareness or presence disappears. There is no one leftover to miss any of it. Everything perceivable and conceivable is gone completely. What remains?
Any answer that springs to mind, anything we think or say misses the mark, for what remains is nothing perceivable or conceivable. And yet, THAT is the very texture of Here / Now, the very ground of being, this groundlessness that we ARE but that we can never grasp, for Totality cannot grasp itself, and there is nothing solid to grasp. Unicity is nothing perceivable or conceivable, and at the same time, it is EVERYTHING perceivable and conceivable!
And if all these words just get the thinking mind racing on it’s imaginary treadmill, maybe it will occur to you to stop running. To let all the words go. To stop, look, and listen. To simply be. To hear the traffic, the wind, the silence of the falling snow. To see the beautiful bird on the branch and the bright yellow car in the street. To enjoy this cup of coffee or tea, the aroma and the taste and the warmth of it. To feel the breathing. To simply be alive, right here, right now. Just this. Nothing more, nothing less.
My last post ended with an invitation to simply be: “To hear the traffic, the wind, the silence of the falling snow. To see the beautiful bird on the branch and the bright yellow car in the street…To simply be alive, right here, right now.” I can hear someone reading this and then saying, okay, that sounds nice, but when I try to do that, my mind just races around like crazy and pretty soon I compulsively grab my phone and start checking for messages…and what about people in war zones, or what about when I’m in horrible pain or my kids are screaming in the supermarket or I’m suffering from severe depression…what then?
When we feel that fundamental sense of unease, restlessness, boredom, overwhelm, unhappiness or dissatisfaction that drives so much of our human behavior, is it possible to pause before turning on our phone, biting our fingers, lighting a cigarette, pouring another glass of wine, eating too much cake, mindlessly turning on the TV, desperately grabbing for a comforting spiritual book, or whatever our favorite compulsion happens to be? Is it possible to pause, even for just one minute, and fully meet these unpleasant and unwanted sensations with an open heart—to give this disturbance the same kind of nonjudgmental and loving attention that we would give to whoever or whatever we hold most dear? Instead of turning away, can we turn towards this unpleasant inner disturbance and open to it completely? What exactly is it?
That question invites a nonconceptual meditative inquiry rooted in curiosity and love, a way of being with something that is entirely different from analytically thinking about the situation and coming up with labels, stories and explanations. Instead, can we pause the thought-machine and drop down into the body, feeling this disturbing and uncomfortable mix of sensations and feelings non-verbally, without commentary, exploring it all with the light of awareness, and also hearing the accompanying thoughts and stories without believing in the veracity of the messages they deliver, seeing these thoughts as impersonal, conditioned outpourings, allowing the whole disturbance to unfold and reveal itself? Instead of pushing the unpleasant or frightening sensations away, can we open to them and perhaps go right into the very core of them with awareness? Can we give up the search for escape or improvement—not forever, but in this moment? Can we be still in the midst of the storm, fully awake to however it actually is Here / Now?
Sometimes we can’t do all that. Sometimes the force of habit and the urge to escape is too strong, and we find ourselves momentarily lost in the plotline an old movie, caught up in stories of failure, lack, unworthiness, shame, depression, anxiety, or perhaps numbing out or behaving in compulsive and sometimes destructive ways. For awhile, this behavior continues and this unhappy or fearful movie plays, and we are a captive audience, entranced by the drama, lost in the emotional upheaval or numbed out in some dissociated daze, hypnotically following the dictates of our conditioning. But eventually, every movie comes to an end. We wake up again to a bigger context. Is it possible at that moment of waking up to begin anew, to start fresh, without instantly getting lost in a new movie of guilt and regret over having been engulfed in the previous movie?
Again, sometimes it isn’t possible. Sometimes we do get caught up all over again. And again. And again. But the great miracle is that no mater how lost we have been, or for how long, or how many times, there is always the possibility of waking up and starting freshly right now.
And in a bigger sense, we are never really lost. So when the weather seems stormy or cloudy or hazy, and we fall into old and destructive patterns, is it possible to simply be aware of them as they unfold, to notice as best we can how they begin, how they seduce us, what they promise or give us, what stories they tell us, how they feel in the bodymind, how they effect those around us? And not doing all this in the spirit of judgmental self-criticism and berating ourselves, but in the spirit of recognizing that this too is how life is. This is part of the human situation, an aspect of how life moves. So can we give it space? Can we see it clearly? Can we not take it personally? The spiritual life isn’t about perfection or achieving some imaginary ideal or always feeling calm and peaceful. It’s about being awake to life as it actually is, not as we think is should or could be “if only.”
And the same approach applies to difficult situations such as our child having a temper tantrum at the supermarket, or even to horrific events such as wars, famines, genocides, rapes, murders, school shootings, child abuse, and so on. Can we meet the difficulties and the pain and the atrocities that occur in human life, however horrible they may be, with an open heart? Can we see the suffering of everyone involved including those who seem to be the perpetrators? Can we feel the immense sorrow that may arise in response to suffering without falling into cynicism, embitterment, despair or hopelessness, and without being swept up in rage, self-pity or destructive tendencies? Can we meet physical and emotional pain with curiosity, interest and love? Can we wake up from the thoughts and stories about it and give our attention to the bare actuality of it?
Sometimes we can’t do all that. And when we can’t, can we forgive ourselves for being imperfect? Can we see that our reactions are impersonal, conditioned weather events, as unavoidable at times and as much an expression of nature as a tornado or an earthquake? Can we recognize that the stormy weather is as integral to this happening as the calm weather, that there are no one-sided coins in existence and no pearls without the grit, that in some way, all the dissonance is in perfect harmony from a larger perspective? Can we allow the weather of this moment to be as it is, knowing that it is ever-changing, letting go of how it was a moment ago (or for the last thirty years), and starting anew Here / Now?
This is the challenge of a life dedicated to being awake. It is not always an easy challenge. Life presents us with everything from the “bourgeois suffering” of running out of half-and-half for our morning coffee to the profound suffering of having our only child gunned down in front of us. We never know what the next moment may be like.
I’m definitely no stranger to the dark places in life. I know depression, restlessness, despair, addiction and compulsion very well. For me, the awakened life is not about never having a bad day or never getting lost in delusion or compulsive behavior ever again, because as far as I can see, that’s a fantasy. For me, a life dedicated to being awake is about waking up now—not once-and-for-all, not perfectly forever-after, not yesterday or tomorrow or someday—but now. Being this moment, just as it is—discomfort, restlessness, unease and all. And sometimes that means being willing to be lost in confusion, or caught up in fingerbiting, or overwhelmed by despair. It is the willingness to be imperfect, the willingness to be this moment, just as it is, not as I would like it to be.
Waking up is not about having the right philosophy or holding on to some comforting idea that “Everything is perfect” or that “It’s all one,” or that “All there is, is Consciousness.” What really liberates us is coming back again and again to the realm of sensing and perceiving and awaring, rather than getting lost in thoughts and concepts—and seeing directly through the mirage of solidity, permanence, limitation and separation, seeing through the self-image that is at the center of our concern over whether "I" am enlightened or not, seeing delusion as delusion when it shows up, seeing through our ideas about perfection and imperfection. We can't find the truth, we can only see through what is false. What remains is truth, but it's best not to call it anything. It’s not far away; in fact, it’s right here, right now. We may be ignoring it, but we can’t ever truly avoid or escape from it. It simply requires a shift of attention, a relaxing of our ideological grip, a letting go, an opening of the heartmind, a dissolving or melting, not moving away.
What liberates us is to stop running on the mental treadmill chasing after the imaginary carrot or fleeing from the imaginary tiger, and instead simply being alive, right here, right now—waking up from the trance of self-concern. Discovering the listening silence at the heart of this moment, the vast space in which there is room for everything to be as it is. And from this, intelligent action follows.
And when we can’t seem to stop running on the treadmill, then maybe just see how it feels to chase the carrot or to flee the tiger. Can we give this habitual, conditioned activity our full attention, without fighting against it? Is it possible to simply be this moment of running on the treadmill, without judging it, without trying to correct it, without viewing it as a personal failure? Awareness is the great transformer. Awareness is another word for unconditional love, total acceptance.
This isn’t a mental process, which is why I value meditation so highly, although we don’t have to call it meditation and it doesn’t have to happen in any formal or traditional way. What I mean is making time and space to be still, to be silent, to listen openly, to drop out of the thinking mind and into the body and the senses and the naked experiencing of this moment. When we do that, we may discover directly that there is no body—that there is only this vast field of boundless emptiness: the red fire truck streaking past, the cry of a bird, smoke rising from a chimney, tingling sensations of cold on the face, the warmth of a fire, the dancing flames, a child’s voice—this vast ocean of no-thing-ness that is vibrant and rich and alive.
I recently had a difficult conversation with a close friend talking about our different ways of understanding and expressing nonduality. It felt almost like an argument, as if we were disagreeing, each trying in vain to get the other to see what we were seeing and trying to express. At the end of the conversation, this person said to me that no two people ever see life in exactly the same way.
On the level of conditioned being, this is certainly very true, even when the topic under discussion is nonduality! Each of us is utterly unique. No two of us have exactly the same conditioning or the same bodymind. No two of us are seeing and living in exactly the same movie. This absolute uniqueness can leave us feeling very alone. And when we try to resolve that sense of isolation and come together with others on the level of conditioned form—through concepts and ideas, in the realm of what is perceived and conceived—before long, we inevitably end up in conflict and disagreement, feeling frustrated and misunderstood.
So is there another way of meeting each other? Is there something “within” each of us (although truly, there is no inside or outside) that is not conditioned and separate, an openness perhaps that is untouched by ideology or viewpoint, a presence that is without gender or age, an unbound awareness in which there is no me and you, no point of view?
If we hear this as a philosophical question, we can debate it on that level. “Yes there is” vs. “No there isn’t.” Once again, we will be trying to meet on the level of concepts and ideas, trying to match what is perceived and conceived and believed here with what is perceived and conceived and believed there. Inevitably, although there may be brief moments of apparent agreement and unity, sooner or later, on this level, we will find ourselves in disagreement, missing each other like ships in the night. On the level of conditioned being, we will always tend toward misunderstanding and conflict.
But maybe we can hear this question and meet one another in an entirely different way—by stopping the verbal and ideological debate and dropping into something deeper. Instead of thinking and arguing our position and asserting our way of seeing things, maybe we can be still and not know. In relinquishing our grasp on thoughts and ideas, in letting go of the need to be understood and to convince, in simply being present as this unbound listening space, we may wake up to a much more subtle and unconditioned dimension of being—the awareness that is beholding everything. This undivided aware presence feels spacious, open, free and whole. This is not “my” awareness or “your” awareness. In this boundless awareness, there is no “me” anymore, no separation.
This aware presence is what we recognize and love in the beloved, the light that shines out of every pair of eyes, the One Self that is manifesting as everyone and everything. It is the now-ness (the present-ness) of Now, the here-ness (the immediacy) of Here, the (groundless) ground of being, our True Nature. I sometimes even call it God, but to many people, that word is too loaded with negative history and immediately suggests something dualistic. Whatever we call it, this aware presence is utterly impossible to accurately re-present in words. And it’s not any IDEA or any CONCEPT that we may have of presence or awareness. It’s a living reality, something palpable and undeniable once it is recognized.
This luminous awareness is right here now, whether we are recognizing it or not. And if we simply listen openly, without thought, we may discover it directly for ourselves, not by looking for it and straining to see it, but by relaxing and dissolving into it. It is not “something” that we can grasp or see or possess, for we (as the apparently separate individual) are appearing in it, not the other way around. It is the ungraspable no-thing-ness of everything, the vibrant aliveness of presence, the intelligence that is manifesting as the entire universe.
When we meet each other from this placeless place of open, aware presence, something shifts. There is no separation anymore. No me and you. Instead of arguing and defending, feeling tight and separate, we open into a bigger context where we can SEE our own defensiveness and desperation, and in the light of awareness, this contracted energy of resisting and asserting begins to melt and dissolve and relax its grip. Instead of arguing, we may become curious to really hear and understand what our friend is expressing, recognizing that we both have different sensibilities, different sensitivities, different insights, different ways of organizing and abstracting and expressing what is realized—knowing this doesn't mean one way is right and the other wrong. In the same way that the left eye and the right eye are two similar but different views that together make one whole seeing, so each of us on this earth is a unique point of view that all together make one whole consciousness. All views may not be equally correct in a relative sense, but that which is beholding it all is beyond right and wrong, correct and incorrect.
If we give all our attention to the content of this appearance and to our conditioned interpretations of that content, we will forever be in conflict with apparent others who see it differently, and we will always tend to feel alone, fragmented, frustrated and misunderstood. The left eye will be arguing with the right eye, each trying to convert the other, instead of recognizing that they are both a vital part of one whole seeing. But if we give attention to the seeing itself rather than fixating on what is being seen, if we allow ourselves to melt into this unbound listening presence, then we may come upon a spaciousness and a freedom that is undivided and unconditioned—not as an idea, but as a living reality.
This is the jewel that has been called the Heart or the Now. It is a spaciousness that has room for everything to be as it is, an openness, a groundlessness that sticks to nothing. This open awareness (Here / Now) is the only real solution (or dissolution) that I have ever found for what ails us as human beings—the conflicts, the misunderstandings, the storms of emotion-thought, the addictions and compulsions. In the light of awareness, they dissolve into thin air. What remains is love.
Of course, I don’t mean that being present and aware can by itself solve all relative problems. We will still need to change the flat tire, visit the dentist and weed the garden, and we may need many other forms of help to undo and dissolve our complex human problems—medicine of all kinds, psychotherapy, addiction recovery programs, somatic bodywork, political activism, social change work, and so on. But when these activities happen from this placeless place of aware presence, when they are rooted in the Now, it’s very different than when they are driven entirely by conditioned thought. Thought has its place—it’s not that we can or should banish it from our lives. But when thought is mistaken for reality, when the map is mistaken for the territory, when we try to live in the map and find nourishment in the menu instead of in the meal, it doesn’t work out very well.
In a sense, this open awareness is ever-present, but often it is over-shadowed or veiled by the compulsive and habitual focus on the level of form and content—our different ideas, thoughts and perceptions, the conditioned storms of emotion-thought, the whole immensely captivating movie of waking life with all its drama. Therefore, to help us awaken from this hypnotic entrancement in the movie, to lift the veils, we have spiritual practices and paths—everything from various forms of meditation to radical nondual books that tell us there is nowhere to go and nothing to do other than what is already happening perfectly by itself. These paths and practices (including the no-path, no-practice of radical nonduality) are all an expression of life itself. They are as natural as the white blood cells that mobilize to fight an infection in the body. And on the level of form, each of us has a completely unique path. No two are exactly alike. And no one person is ever the same from one moment to the next. At one moment in our life, Zen might be the perfect Way, at another moment Christianity might be just the vehicle we need, at yet another moment it might be radical nonduality that wakes us up and brings us home. It’s not that one path is right and the other wrong.
But at the heart of any true path (including the pathless paths) there is the ungraspable reality of life itself—the truth that can never be captured by words and concepts—the aliveness of Here / Now, the emptiness (or no-thing-ness) that is absolute freedom, the wholeness that is unconditional love—awareness, presence, God, whatever word we use.
So can we listen openly? What matters in the end is the listening presence and the non-abiding, the emptying, not the words or the sign posts or the maps, but the living, breathing, reality—the actuality of waking up, not-knowing, wondering, opening the heartmind, touching (being) the groundlessness of THIS, Here / Now—the freedom, the love, the unconditioned awareness—whether we call it presence or emptiness, the Self or no-self, no-thing-ness or God.
Starting this coming Sunday the 29th, I’ll be on the annual self-retreat at home that I do every year over New Years, where I take 3 or 4 days alone to be silent, off-line, off-the-phone, out-of-circulation, without TV or movies, reading and writing only minimally if at all, simply being alive, watching the clouds, listening to the birds, feeling the breathing, returning to what matters most. So I’ll take this opportunity now to wish you all happy holy-days and all blessings in the New Year!
May we all wake up to the holiness that is Here / Now, and may the New Year and the ever-new NOW awaken us all from the self-centered dream that is our human suffering. May we see clearly how we are doing this suffering, and in that seeing, find the freedom of a different possibility. May we dissolve into the unconditional love—the aware presence—the boundlessness that we truly are. And out of that wholeness and openness, may we each dance our own unique and perfect dance. This is my prayer for all of us in the New Year. Thank you all for being here, exactly as you are. Your presence supports and encourages me in so many ways, and I thank you all for showing up.
1/4/14 (this is just part of a short post reporting on my New Years retreat):
This morning I watched the fog blow in and out, in and out…erasing the mountains and then revealing them again. And now it is a beautiful, sparkling morning with sunshine lighting up the tree branches and the last few dried brown leaves still clinging there, and there is a brilliantly blue sky, but I see more fog in the distance, heading this way through the valley. A lot like life itself, eh?
Here / Now is the boundless awareness in which there is no division and nothing to grasp, the seamlessness that is beyond the words, the unconditional love of the Heart. Words can only take us so far. They can describe and point and evoke, but they can never capture or reproduce reality itself.
Here / Now is an ever-changing, ever-present, living reality. It can never be lost and thus it can never be found. It is mysterious only in the sense that we cannot pin it down, take hold of it or explain it, but not in the sense of it being exotic, elusive, far away or difficult to attain, for in fact, it is totally self-evident, immediate and unavoidable—most intimate and completely all-inclusive.
This luminous aliveness (awareness, presence, consciousness, beingness, God, intelligence-energy, the One Self, the Tao, emptiness, the Heart, whatever word we use to point to it) is not an object or a substance that we can grasp, see, or bottle up. But the actuality of this all-inclusive and boundless aware-presence is truly undeniable, although you may have convinced yourself (as a belief, a thought-story) that you don’t get it, or you may be avidly denying it verbally, but what you are denying is some concept. Because you cannot deny or doubt being here now. I don’t mean being here as a particular person—that can be doubted—but rather, being here as this aware presence, this nonconceptual and direct knowingness of being present, this naked experiencing (breathing-hearing-seeing-thin king-awaring) — THIS is beyond doubt. Even if you believe that it is all an illusion or a dream, the appearing of that dream or that illusion, the presence of it, the awaring of it cannot be negated.
Thought might say, so what? What does all that do for me? I’m still depressed, my bank account is still at zero, my arthritis is still getting worse, and the world is still a big mess. So what if Here / Now is ever-present?
Can we notice that this is a train of thought, a story, a mental movie that has grabbed our attention? The “Here / Now” in this train of thought is a concept, not the living reality to which the words are pointing. And when consciousness is absorbed in this particular train of thought and in the virtual reality that it unfolds in the imagination, then we think about all the things that are troubling us and all the things that are wrong in the world, and we think about how bad it all is, and our neurochemistry hums along creating queasy and uncomfortable sensations throughout the body, and we feel worse and worse, and then we think about what we can do to fix all these problems, and we think and think and think, and we feel worse and worse. And as Mark Twain once famously said (and I’m paraphrasing), I’ve been through lots of terrible things in my life and some of them actually happened.
Is there a different possibility? What happens when we drop the story and open to the naked experiencing of this moment, the bare sense of being present, the spaciousness of open awareness, the aliveness of Here / Now?
What’s liberating is not to THINK about this question or to regurgitate the answer we’ve read in a book, but to actually check it out directly, with awareness, and not just half-heartedly for two seconds and then move on quickly to the next bit of spiritual information that can be consumed, but rather, really relaxing deeply into this bare sense of being present, staying with it, allowing it to fully reveal itself.
It’s subtle, quiet, not flashy and spectacular, and there’s no “me” in it, no drama. And because of that, part of us doesn’t want to stay with it. We’re addicted to our self-centered dramas and also to a very speedy way of life full of fast-moving stimulation—electronic devices that allow us to “stay connected” 24/7 in a near constant stream of verbal input and output (externally or inside the head) along with flashy visual imagery and special effects coming at us from all sides. When we stop and allow ourselves to simply be present, it may be very uncomfortable at first. We may feel a restlessness, a sense of boredom, an uneasiness, even fear maybe, and we want to get away from these uncomfortable feelings, move on, get back to the familiar comfort of thinking and doing. But if we can allow that restlessness, boredom, uneasiness or fear to be here, simply allowing it to be just as it is, without resisting it and without going with it, experiencing it purely as somatic sensation rather than getting lost in the accompanying thought-stories, what happens?
Again, this is a question to explore directly, to feel our way into. It’s not an abstract idea to think about and debate.
Our tendency is to over-think all this nondual or spiritual stuff, trying to figure it all out conceptually, which is like chasing a carrot on a treadmill. Thinking our way to clarity and enlightenment is a very seductive promise, but it never delivers the goods, and the reality of it is frustrating and disappointing. The open space of awareness and the simplicity of presence can seem like nothing to the information-driven, thinking-mind that wants something solid to grasp. But this non-grasping, not-knowing, openness is what truly liberates us. Of course, there is a place for thought and for intellectual knowledge, but thought is a good servant, not a good master.
And if we’re not busy trying to “get it” with thought, we may be trying to have some spectacular special experience that will catapult us into some imagined enlightenment event, some kind of explosive psychedelic vision maybe, in which everything magically dissolves into pure light and all our problems are gone forever—we’ve crossed the finish-line at last! And we are endlessly frustrated because nothing like this happens, or if it does, it quickly disappears and we’re back in Kansas, where we still have to clean the toilet and take out the trash.
We also can’t seem to totally get rid of the rudimentary neurological sensation of being a separate body, the innate knowingness that I’m Joan and you’re Tom. And because of that, we’re convinced we’re not getting this “no self” thing, since we still know who we are in the movie of waking life. But this neurological sensation of being a particular body and the innate knowingness that I’m Joan and not somebody else is functionally necessary to the organism. Without it, we’d all be in deep doodoo, unable to get the food into our mouth or walk across the room or do much of anything at all. But that functional sense of location and identity with the apparent body is not the problem. It shows up intermittently as needed, allowing us to navigate the ordinary world of daily life. The problem at the root of our suffering is the thought-constructed, mirage-like, false-self (the apparent thinker behind the thoughts, the apparent doer behind the deeds, the “me” with its whole story about who it is). That false-self and the map-world of duality with this false-self at the center of endless imaginary dramas IS our suffering. This is what can fall away, not once-and-for-all, but now. Enlightenment is not yesterday or tomorrow or forever; it’s now.
And in any moment when we stop thinking and relax into open awareness and bare presence, we can notice that the neurological sensation of being this body, and the imaginary drama of the false-self, and the entire movie of waking life are all appearing and disappearing Here / Now in this bigger context, this vast field of boundless awareness that is beholding it all—and from this larger perspective of unbound awareness, there is no problem with any of this. It all comes and goes, but none of it is ever the whole story and none of it has any actual, solid, persisting or inherent reality. We’re not IN the story; we’re the awaring of the story.
And realizing this (i.e. making it real) is why I continue to feel that meditation is so invaluable. But by meditation, I don’t mean sitting in the lotus position with incense burning (although that’s fine if you want to do it that way). I simply mean giving nonconceptual attention to the bare actuality of Here / Now, being present without words. Being aware. SEEING (or awaring) the thoughts and stories, seeing them for the fictions they are, seeing through them. Exploring with awareness to see what’s at the root of emotion-thoughts such as anger, jealousy, defensiveness, anxiety, depression and all the conditions that keep the imaginary drama going—discovering directly what these events are made up of, what keeps them going, and what is at the center of them. Delusion cannot survive in the light of awareness. So, meditation is seeing through the delusions and dissolving or melting into the openness and spaciousness of presence-awareness itself. It is a shift from thinking to being, an opening of the Heart, paying attention to the present moment, being in the Now. Making time and space in daily life to just be, to be silent, to be fully present, without reading or writing or talking or thinking (although thoughts will continue to pop up, but not following them or deliberately entertaining them). In this way, we realize the freedom of the unconditioned directly. It’s not just an idea anymore or a philosophy, and it’s not something separate from relative, conditioned reality either.
When we give careful open attention (with awareness) to the body, we find no body at all—only ever-changing sensations, all appearing Here / Now in awareness, just as the sounds of the traffic and the morning sunshine are appearing here. When we look to see exactly where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me,” we can find no actual boundary-line in direct experience. The boundary is conceptual, imaginary. It’s a thought-idea, a mental image. If we look to see “Who am I?” or “Who sees?” or “Who is aware of awareness?” —or if we look back with the light of awareness to see where my thoughts or my actions are coming from, we find no little operator sitting at some interior control panel. In fact, we find nothing at all—vast emptiness, and at the same time, we find everything, this whole amazing dance of life, ungraspable but undeniable.
But maybe when we looked to see “Who am I?” and found nothing, maybe thought popped up and told us that we weren’t getting it. So maybe we kept looking and looking, trying to find SOMETHING. Or maybe when we looked deeply into that question, we had some brief sensation of blacking-out or free-falling, and the mind immediately latched onto that EXPERIENCE, thinking “That was IT!” And now we are desperately trying to make that experience happen again. These are common sidetracks that many of us fall into for awhile until we see through them and wear them out.
When we really believe that we are encapsulated inside this character in the movie, and that we really are lost and seeking enlightenment, then getting sidetracked for awhile seems like a serious misfortune, a real waste of time, a personal failure. But this whole story of “Me and My Journey toward Enlightenment” is ALL a mental movie, a virtual reality, consciousness lost in its own creation, hypnotized by its own imaginary dramas.
I’m not saying there is no enlightenment. But it’s not a personal achievement and it’s not a state that lasts forever. Enlightenment is the falling away of the thought-story-belief that I am a separate somebody encapsulated inside a body, and a waking up to unbound awareness Here / Now. It is a melting away of the apparent separation between awareness and content, between subject and object, between self and not-self. There is still diversity and discernment, but not the dualism that identifies with a separate fragment and that believes one polarity in the movie of waking life can or should permanently defeat the other. Enlightenment is not a special experience or a particular experience, but rather a dissolution into the nondual suchness of experiencing itself. It is a recognition of the seamlessness and the emptiness (the fluidity and non-substantiality) of all experience. It is not a past or future event. Enlightenment is only now. And in life, as in nature, there are no permanently sunny days. Enlightenment and delusion arise together. And this only sounds depressing from the perspective of that fictional self who takes the weather personally and thinks it has to get somewhere other than Here / Now and become a permanently enlightened somebody living in perpetual sunshine. But that is delusion. No person is permanently enlightened. Life includes both enlightenment and delusion, and no continuous, independent “person” actually exists to be permanently one way or another.
And from the perspective of the awareness beholding it all (the all-inclusive vastness of Here / Now, the ocean that is equally present as every wave), delusion is not a problem to be banished, but simply an imagination to see through. Our True Nature can never really be lost and thus can never be found or attained, for it is always already Here / Now. It is the water in every wave, equally present in both the sidetracks of delusion and the moments of great realization or enlightenment. Enlightenment realizes this ever-present wholeness, while delusion believes in the story of separation and lack. But that story is never really true. It’s only a movie, a dream-like appearance, a momentary hypnosis, an imaginary problem. From the perspective of enlightenment, it is a lovable imaginary problem, seen with compassion, humor, tenderness and unconditional love. From the perspective of delusion, it is a horrible personal tragedy that we resist and struggle against with frustration, guilt, blame, hatred, anger, and despair. Enlightenment dissolves delusion. Not forever and ever, but now. And remember, enlightenment is just a word—many people use it in different ways—so let’s hold it lightly and then let it go.
There are many maps and many different ways of arriving at (or noticing) the placeless place that we have never actually left because it is what we are and all there is. This Facebook post is one such map. But no one is really lost. No one has really fallen out of the wholeness of being. No separate, independent, continuous somebody (no wave separate from the ocean) actually exists. All of that is a fiction.
But merely adopting this as a new philosophy will not resolve the deep longing of the heart, for every belief is shadowed by doubt. What resolves that deep longing is being awake Here / Now, being just this moment, being the awareness, the presence, the aliveness, the suchness that is beyond doubt. This is not far away. It is right here, most intimate, all-inclusive.
The words “consciousness” and “awareness” get used in many different ways, and this is often a source of confusion. I’ve used both of these words in a variety of different ways at different moments, but for the most part, I use consciousness to point to the movies of waking and dreaming life, the world of perceiving and conceiving, sensing and thinking—experiencing and imagining. In that sense, we could say that consciousness IS the dividing up of the indivisible, the manifesting of unicity as apparent multiplicity, noumenon appearing as phenomenon.
We never experience anything outside of consciousness. We can THINK of a world outside of consciousness, but that thought and the imagination or apparent observation of any such world can only occur in consciousness, as consciousness. Consciousness is the ground of every experience, that which is the same in every experience, the screen on which the movie is playing, the mirror that is the same in every reflection, the one taste, the groundless ground. But unlike the movie screen or the mirror in these commonly used analogies, consciousness is not a separate object that can be pulled apart from the movie that plays on it or the reflections that appear within it. Consciousness IS the whole show, movie and screen as one whole undivided event. Sometimes it is compared to the ocean that is equally present as every wave, all of them nothing other than the ocean waving.
Awareness, as I use the word, is upstream from consciousness. It is the knowingness of being conscious, the consciousness of being conscious. It is the luminosity, the intelligence that reveals thoughts as thoughts, the light behind attention, and it is also what remains in deep sleep when everything perceivable and conceivable has disappeared, when the dividing up of everything has completely washed away, when the movie of waking life is no longer playing and no-thing remains, including any sense of being present or absent. What remains in deep sleep is nameless and inconceivable, but we could call it primordial awareness. Ramana might call it the Self, and some might call it God, but the words are not what matters here.
We could say that awareness is the Ultimate Subject, the all-inclusive unicity that transcends and includes everything. Awareness is another word for unconditional love, the love that accepts everything, just as it is. Awareness IS the wholeness, the completeness or perfection of everything, the emptiness, the seamlessness, the boundlessness, the unicity, the holiness. Awareness is the great solvent that dissolves every imaginary problem, the great transformer that transforms by accepting. Awareness is our True Nature, what Here / Now IS, and it is the key to liberation. Awareness—the actuality of it—is not a concept, although once we have a word for it, it can easily become a concept. And then we can argue about it, debate whether it exists, and so on. But the truth of it is the living reality, not the concept, and the living reality is beyond doubt and beyond belief.
Of course, people use the word awareness differently, so it’s always important to remember that the word is not the thing and the map is not the territory. What matters is the living reality, not the differing descriptions and sign posts. And when communicating with others, it always helps to clarify how we are each using the words, so that we are not misunderstanding each other and arguing over imagined or semantic differences.
My friend Darryl Bailey gave a talk once called “There Is No Awareness.” What did he mean by that? Perhaps he meant exactly what Toni Packer meant in this exchange with her that I recorded in my book Awake in the Heartland (on p 190). It begins with me talking to Toni, and then her reply:
“Studying Feldenkrais, along with reading more about the brain and neuroscience, makes me wonder if thought is as much the operative factor as I have been assuming it is. Feldenkrais assumes it is not. Obviously, thought has great compelling power when believed. But I’m increasingly discovering how much of life happens outside conscious awareness, and how thought may be more like after-thought than anything causative. I wonder now if insight into thought is as essential or as central to waking up as I have believed it to be. I’m also increasingly ‘aware’ of how many different ways the words ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ get used, perhaps because no one is really at all sure what they mean or what they are! They may turn out to be something like ‘ether’ in the old science!
“Toni responds: ‘Yes, yes, ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ are like the ether of old science—wonderful metaphor. In that case, all concepts are, aren’t they?’”
Toni wasn’t saying there isn’t any awareness. Her whole teaching, after all, was first and foremost about awareness! But her teaching was about the living reality of awareness, not some concept. Language divides things up, puts imaginary boundaries around them and gives them names. Words label, reify, abstract and categorize. They freeze what is fluid. All of this is functionally useful. But we often forget that all these categories and dividing lives and seemingly separate and enduring objects are like the lines on a map and the countries they create—they are conceptual abstractions, creations of thought, not what is actually found on the living earth itself. It is to this absence of separate and enduring forms, and to the unreality of all concepts, that both Toni and Darryl are pointing. Reality is seamless, boundless, and impossible to capture in the net of words and concepts. There is no substantial “thing” called awareness that can be found apart from everything that is supposedly not-awareness. There is no noumenon apart from phenomenon, no nirvana apart from samsara. Awareness is not “something” that we can see and grasp and bottle up and put on our altar. But that doesn’t mean there is no awareness!
It’s sometimes easy to confuse non-separation, nonduality and seamlessness with sameness or the absence of diversity. In reality, although everything is one seamless and undivided whole, that wholeness clearly includes variation and diversity. Thus, while there is never any actual separation, we can nonetheless find real differences between what I’m calling awareness, consciousness, and the multiplicity of things that appear in consciousness. We can’t deny the differences, nor the essential unity. Similarly, we can discern the difference between a chair and a table, or between me and you, but at the same time, they are one whole undivided happening in which apparent borders are permeable, nothing holds still, and everything is made up entirely of everything it apparently is not. As they say in Zen, reality is “not one, not two.” Realizing the undivided wholeness (the emptiness or seamlessness) of everything is vital for liberation, but we can’t deny the differences and variations either. This appearance or event that we call Joan is also undeniable—it’s just not the solid, substantial, independent, continuous “thing” that we THINK it is. But even a mirage or a dream is real as an appearance. So we don’t need to go around denying relative reality or insisting that we are not a person or not our body. That’s not quite the whole truth.
As I often say (or try to say), we can doubt any IDEAS about WHAT this undeniable happening or presence Here / Now is (whether it is a dream or physical matter, mind stuff or a brain creation, an illusion or a subatomic wavicle dance, a hologram or a mirage)—all of that can be argued about and doubted, but we cannot doubt the naked actuality of “just this breath, just this sound” (before those words reify and chop it up into apparently separate, discrete, persisting things). Our habit is to put most of our attention on the world of thoughts and concepts, the world of apparent division, multiplicity and thing-ness. We are very quick to slap labels on everything we encounter (people, ideas, forms of government, religions), sorting everything into categories, and then because we have a label and a category, we think that we know what something or someone is. Often we’re automatically against everything somebody says or proposes solely because we’ve labeled and categorized that person as a member of a group we don’t like, and therefore, we cannot listen openly to anything they say. We do all this so ubiquitously and unconsciously that discerning the difference between a belief and direct seeing, or between the map (a concept) and the territory it describes (perceiving, sensing, knowing directly) is not always as easy as it sounds.
When we attend to direct experiencing rather than to our ideas about it, as we do for example in meditation, what happens? Eventually, any belief in the thought-sense of an objective or inherent reality “out there” with any kind of solid, persisting, observer-independent existence melts away, as does any belief in a separate, encapsulated, observing presence “in here” beholding it all. What remains is “just this,” what Zen calls suchness or thusness—this utterly immediate, undivided, unbound happening that is inseparable from the listening silence awaring it all. This immediacy is at once both unified and diverse, singular and multifaceted—not one, not two. The bare actuality of this present moment is undeniable but ungraspable, for although it is always Here / Now, it is ever-changing. It requires no effort to “get it,” for it is inescapably thus.
The whole movie of waking life could be described as a passing show in which consciousness hypnotizes itself into believing that it is somebody IN the show—and not just one somebody, but all 7 billion apparent human beings all at once. And then, in the theater of time and space, consciousness argues with itself, falls in love with itself, goes to war with itself, and meets itself again and again in billions and trillions of ever-new disguises—as a serial killer or a child molester in one moment, as a saint or savior in the next. It shows up disguised as beauty queens and lepers, newborns and old folks, investment bankers and homeless drunks, on luxury liners and in concentration camps, in war zones and at retreat centers, in every imaginable situation, doing every imaginable thing—torturing itself, healing itself, marrying itself, divorcing itself, losing itself, finding itself, giving birth to itself, saying goodbye to itself…all of it consciousness playing in an endless array of movies within movies, each jewel in Indra’s Net a reflection of all the others, all of it the one seamless and undivided consciousness that IS the apparent dividing up of the indivisible.
And then with awareness, consciousness wakes up to itself—consciousness becomes aware of being conscious, seeing its own creations as mind stuff, recognizing thought as thought without being seduced by the content, being aware that its stories are stories, recognizing the dream as a dream. The dreaming becomes lucid. Awareness is the light that dispels the darkness of ignorance and inattention, the dream-world in which consciousness is hypnotized by its own creations. Awareness IS the wholeness, the realization of the seamless and the unbound nature of reality. Awareness is unconditioned. It is not the effect of a cause. It has no owner, no location, no boundaries. There is no “me” in awareness, no self and no other. This is not philosophy or belief I’m talking about, but a living reality that can be discovered directly. Awareness is open, spacious, nonjudgmental, all-inclusive. It is the solvent that dissolves all suffering and delusion.
It is, I believe, what Nisargadatta meant when he said, “The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite; besides it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.” He was pointing to the unconditioned, the totally free. It is also, I believe, what the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki was pointing to when he urged his students to keep their beginner’s mind—the mind that is child-like, open, curious, not knowing, empty (in the best sense), always ready to see something new. Awareness is the heart of what this is all about, this liberation or enlightenment, which is best not conceptualized as some grand final event that permanently transforms seekers into sages, but rather as the ordinary (but totally extraordinary) awakening that can only happen Here / Now, the wakefulness in which no seekers or sages remain. The sound of the traffic, the morning breeze, the cry of a bird, the taste of coffee…the awaring presence beholding it all…just this.
My responses on 1/12/13 to someone who commented on the post above with an excerpt from the chapter “Awareness and Consciousness” in Nisargadatta’s I Am That, along with something from Ken Wilber, as well as descriptions of this person's own experiences with samadhi states and the statement that for him, there is no more loneliness. My responses:
I find myself in complete alignment with almost everything Nisargadatta is saying here, the one exception being his apparent insistence several times during this exchange that in deep sleep, “I remain aware that I am unconscious.” It is hard to know, but I wonder if perhaps this is simply a poor translation of what I mean when I say that, “Awareness is what remains in deep sleep when everything perceivable and conceivable has disappeared,” by which I don’t mean that I am aware of being in deep sleep in the usual sense of that word.
Of course, Nisargadatta may be describing some experience that I have not had, some special kind of samadhi state, such as the one Ken Wilber seems to be describing in the other passage you share, when Wilber reports that, “I slept not at all during those eleven days; or rather, I was conscious for eleven days; or rather, I was conscious for eleven days and nights, even as the body and mind went through waking, dreaming and sleeping.” I obviously can’t know exactly what Wilber’s experience was. I have never had any experience that I would describe in that way, and in my way of using words, what Wilber is describing is not deep sleep, but various forms of waking and dreaming experience. Anything that can be described or experienced is by definition not the total absence of experience (including the first bare SENSE of being present and aware) which characterizes deep sleep. This is maybe like people who confuse near death experiences with experiencing death.
Wilber (and perhaps even Nisargadatta as well) may be describing some kind of special, out-of-the-ordinary, experience that I haven’t had. Decades ago, upon hearing such a report, I would have immediately wanted to have this experience myself, but now—thankfully—I no longer give any importance to these kinds of experiences (kundalini events, visions, lucid dreaming events, and so forth) that may arise during prolonged meditation (or when using certain drugs, or during episodes of psychosis, or in seizure disorders, or sometimes just out of the blue). They are simply experiences in the dream-like movie of waking or dreaming life. The awareness that remains in deep sleep, as I mean it anyway, is nothing perceivable or conceivable. It is not a special experience that one has for 11 days on a retreat. I clarify all this because people get so easily hooked on seeking special experiences, or giving importance to special experiences if they happen, or even using them to enhance some kind of spiritual self-image or as credentials making them an awakened somebody.
There are many experiences that human beings can have, and some people seem more prone to so-called mystical experiences or altered states of consciousness than others. I personally don't give importance to these kinds of special experiences, and find that they can easily become objects of fascination and identity. As I so often try to suggest, this unbound, unencapsulated, no-self experiencing that Wilber describes in the first paragraph of his that you cite (watching without a watcher, seeing without a seer) is actually everyone's most ordinary experiencing Here / Now, but it is overlooked because attention goes to the thought-created map-world (including the thought-created separate me) instead. My interest is in this moment here / Now, not special states. I had plenty of those back in my drug and alcohol daze.
What I mean by Here / Now is not a samadhi experience. It is this undeniable present happening, this aware presence, nothing special, simply this. What you call "fetch water, chop wood" and "the absence of seeking" sounds very much like what I describe as being just this moment, as it is...in my case, recognizing that sometimes it is a moment of busy-mind, and sometimes it is a moment of loneliness, and sometimes it is a moment of vast emptiness and pure awareness, but not needing any of it to be different from how it is—not seeking some kind of permanent state of perpetual bliss. At the same time, there is an interest here in clarifying confusion and waking up from suffering and delusion when they arise, but it is no longer experienced as a heavy-handed, result-oriented task, such as constantly trying to "be here now," or to bring the background into the foreground, or to identify as awareness, or anything like that. It is much simpler, much more effortless and natural.
I love Ramana’s quote that you share: "That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real." This is a beautiful pointer, although it is easy to misunderstand the meaning of the word real here, and to mis-hear it as a total dismissal or discounting of ordinary, relative reality. I can’t speak for Ramana of course, but my sense is that he was pointing to the thorough-going impermanence (or in Buddhist language, emptiness) of everything we ordinarily take to be real (ourselves, our loved ones, our houses and cars, our minds, our experiences, our planet). He was pointing to the total fluidity and utter lack of substance, and to the absence of any inherent, observer-independent, objective reality “out there” apart from consciousness. But I sometimes find people in certain spiritual circles confusing that deeply liberating realization with a kind of mental dismissal of ordinary life, as if one’s partner or one’s children or one’s job or the dog next door were all merely illusions and of no importance at all, and therefore all something best ignored. And that, in my view, is delusion.
For myself, there can still be loneliness, grief, depression, defensiveness, irritation, frustration, regret, sorrow, the whole range of human emotion. Maybe I don't stay caught up in the storm for as long anymore, maybe I never totally believe the stories anymore, maybe I know where to look and where not to look for freedom, but I still experience human suffering and delusion. There seems to be very little guilt or blame anymore, no more seeking for permanent enlightenment or for some final resolution, no chasing after experiences in the same way as before (although I certainly wouldn't say all desire and fear has vanished), but no fear of death—for there is a deep sense of being the limitless unborn that never dies—but at the same time, if someone pointed a gun at my head, I might very well tremble in fear. I wouldn't, however, feel like a spiritual failure as a result, as I once might have. Many changes over a lifetime…addictions come and gone…but certain basic personality traits and patterns seem to endure as this wave rises, crests and eventually dissolves back into the ocean. All of it a passing show, a momentary movement in this ever-present Here / Now.
On the level of form, life is fundamentally unperfectible. As one Buddhist teacher says, there is no spiritual retirement. Or as I often say, there is no finish-line. If we are walking the pathless path because we expect to reach a place of perpetual bliss and final resolution, we will be disappointed and disillusioned. On the other hand, if we think this is about either wallowing in, or justifying, the drama of our human suffering by asserting that it is incurable or inevitable (or only a dream, so it doesn’t even matter), that isn’t quite right either.
In Zen, we used to chant these seemingly rather paradoxical vows, vows that I have grown to appreciate more deeply over the years. There are a number of different translations, but the version I like best goes like this: “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them; Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them; Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them; the Awakened Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.” These vows acknowledge that there is no end-point, no finish-line, no final resolution—both the obstacles and the aspirations are presented as numberless (or infinite), inexhaustible, boundless, and unsurpassable. In the face of that, we could say, why bother with any kind of practice effort? But that would be like having a baby and saying why bother taking care of it since eventually it will die. And so, even though there is no finish-line, we vow to practice, to work with this human situation—to free the endless beings (the parts of ourselves and the so-called others) who are in bondage; to enter (with awareness) the various, unending practice-gates that life offers us (a disappointment, an addiction, a difficult supervisor, a wayward child, an insult); to end (or wake up from) the endless delusions that show up; to realize (make real) the Awakened Way that is never finished or completed. And, of course, this practice is always only about the present moment. It can only happen now.
In many satsang and radical nondual teachings, including some of my own writings and talks, the notion of any form of practice is dismissed, the word effort gets a very bad rap, and the emphasis is on recognizing that we are already perfectly expressed, just as we are, and that we are not the person we think we are, but that we are pure consciousness or seamless unicity, the One Self, emptiness, pure awareness, no-thing at all. And this is all true as far as it goes, but quite often in many areas of life, it seems that we go to an extreme in one direction, and then we go back in the other direction for awhile until we’ve gone too far that way, and then we go back the other way again, all in some kind of infinite self-correction—as in walking, where we lose our balance and regain it again and again. We go to the left politically, then to the right, then back to the left. We emphasize the relative, then the absolute. We talk about effort, then about effortlessness. We have summer, then winter. This is all a natural movement. But often we humans get stuck on one side of a conceptual divide, and in the spiritual world, we often get stuck in the absolute, and then if anyone mentions effort, practice, or vows, we pounce. On the other side of the spiritual world, if anyone suggests that practice is unnecessary or that no effort is needed, we react as if this is a dangerous heresy that must be rooted out. But the truth isn’t in any position that we can assert and defend.
In my experience, there IS some effort involved, but it is mainly an effortless kind of effort, a relaxing or surrendering. But that's not the whole story. It’s also the effort to sit quietly, to meditate, when I don’t feel like it but know it’s what I need at that moment. This is similar to the effort of going to the gym or getting out and taking a walk when I feel lazy and sluggish and would rather just vegetate. We can go too far in the direction of strident effort and discipline, and we can go too far in the direction of laxness. There is no one right balance. We each have to find our own balance from moment to moment, and it’s always changing.
I think of great athletes at the top of their game—they appear completely relaxed as they do things that seem to defy gravity. These feats require relinquishing any kind of control and surrendering or abandoning oneself whole-heartedly to some larger force. And yet to do this, athletes train diligently to develop and refine their control. So is it about control or surrender, effort or effortlessness? It’s both! And there is no end to their training. And however good they are, they still make mistakes. They still stumble and fall. They don’t always win the gold. There is no permanent perfection. This is the nature of life.
If we are obsessed with ideals of perfection or self-improvement, this will sound very pessimistic or disappointing. But maybe this imperfectability, this way that we are always losing our balance and finding it again, is what makes life worth living…maybe it is what makes life so alive.
The mind wants to wrap it all up in a neat package and be done with it. Thought creates ideals of perfection and permanence that can never actually exist. Being awake, being present, turning away from the seductive lures of the mind can only be realized or actualized now in this moment, and as humans, we don't always turn away. Sometimes we do bite the hook. It happens. It happens because of infinite causes and conditions. And I don't know anyone for whom being entranced in delusion never happens anymore. No one is infallible. But perhaps we become more accepting of our imperfections, not taking them personally, recognizing the great play of which we are all a part and the larger perfection that includes all the stumbles and falls, all the errors and all the corrections, the effort and the effortlessness.
Sometimes I get the message that talking about addiction, interpersonal conflict, or other forms of “psychological suffering” is not the highest form of nonduality, and that “real nonduality” concerns itself only with Ultimate Reality and enlightenment. One person recently suggested to me that any emphasis on being aware rather than being lost in thought amounts to holding a subtle preference for freedom over bondage, and since it’s all One and everything is fundamentally perfect from the beginning, why have any preferences at all? Doesn’t this preference for freedom over bondage ultimately contribute to our discontent and suffering?
This all gets to a place where I feel there is often great confusion in nonduality circles. First, what do we mean by perfection? Is it a mental concept we’ve picked up along the way, a comforting idea? Or is it the living reality of undivided awareness, Here / Now? Awareness—the actuality of it—is not a concept. Awareness IS the wholeness, the completeness or perfection of everything, the emptiness, the seamlessness, the boundlessness, the unicity, the freedom, the unconditional love, the holiness.
And what do we mean by Ultimate Reality or enlightenment? Where exactly do we expect to find these things, and what do we imagine them to be? Do we think Ultimate Reality or enlightenment will be some other-worldly, mystical state? Or do these words point to simple wakefulness and presence—unbound, clear awareness—right here in the messiness and imperfection of ordinary life? And if awareness is the natural state, the groundless ground, our ever-present True Nature, then what seemingly obscures the realization of this?
Isn’t it the smog of emotion-thought in which consciousness is hypnotized by the thought-sense of being separate and encapsulated inside a body, lost in suffering? It’s one thing to BELIEVE that all of this thinking and delusion is perfect, to believe that our delusion and confusion is nothing but the One Self, or to believe that all this suffering is just a dream, but merely believing all that isn’t real liberation. And while it may be easy to experience spacious open awareness when we are meditating quietly on a retreat or alone in the beauty of nature, what happens when we go to the office or come home to our family? Simply being told over and over that it’s all unicity, that everything is perfect, that our suffering is all an illusion, does little to clarify things. Which is why I find it helpful at times to shine the light of awareness on that complex of emotion-thought as it happens, to see what it is made up of, how it holds together, what gets it started and what keeps it going. The seeing (or awaring) that I’m talking about is in the present moment. It’s immediate and direct. It’s not some abstract theory based on what was seen in the past, and it’s not thinking about all this and analyzing it intellectually.
Whenever the smog of emotion-thought is SEEN clearly, the story loses its believability and its allure. The imaginary problem collapses along with the one at the center of all the imaginary dramas. And when all that false thinking and imagination dissolves, what remains is our True Nature (the natural state, as Nisargadatta called it). And I’m not talking here about a once-and-for-all, forever-after, finish-line event in which all delusion and confusion permanently vanishes, but rather, a present moment waking up that happens ever-freshly and always only NOW.
We don’t get rid of our suffering by simply believing that it’s an illusion. Nor do we find enlightenment or Ultimate Reality by thinking about these things as concepts or ideas and then trying to grasp it all mentally or have some special experience. What removes or dissolves delusion is awareness. And the absence of delusion IS enlightenment. Enlightenment is not forever-after, but now. And there is no “me” in enlightenment.
Awareness is not about self-improvement. Awareness is not judging or striving to become something—that is all in the realm of thought. In fact, awareness allows everything to be just as it is—this is the very nature of awareness, that it is always allowing everything to be as it is—and in the realization of that complete acceptance or allowing, something truly amazing happens, something that has nothing to do with THINKING that everything is perfect as it is.
I’ll give you an example that I’ve used many times before. As many of you know, I’ve had a fingerbiting compulsion since childhood. This compulsion has lessened greatly over the years, but occasionally, it still happens. You may not bite your fingers, but if you look closely, you may find a similar pattern in your own life in a different form (e.g. compulsive thinking, compulsive talking, compulsive checking of a handheld device, compulsive eating or smoking, compulsive outbursts of anger). In all of these compulsive behaviors, it’s as if we pinch ourselves to relieve some other form of discomfort until we’re in real pain from being pinched, and then we suffer because we’ve either forgotten that we’re pinching ourselves, or else we can’t make ourselves stop doing it because that very effort is like trying to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The very act of TRYING to stop turns out to be part of the pinching! What actually liberates us is when we stop trying (but that is easily misunderstood and doesn’t mean surrendering to the addiction or resigning ourselves to being lost in compulsion forever after). What frees us from the conditioned bondage of habit is awareness.
I can’t bite my fingers for more than a few seconds without being aware that it is happening. So in that sense, there is awareness present right from the start. But it is often an awareness that is clouded over by a sense of separation and conflict. There seems to be “me” trapped in “an unwanted compulsion,” and I feel torn between simultaneously wanting to stop biting, while at the same time wanting to keep doing it. This struggle between conflicting desires is actually much more tense and painful than the biting itself. The biting is a resistance to, or an escape from, certain energies, feelings, thoughts or sensations that seem unbearable, and then the urgent desire to stop biting is a resistance to the biting! BOTH wanting to bite and wanting to stop biting are about not accepting the actual present reality. This desire to escape from what is, in either form, is suffering.
And sometimes, miracle of miracles, in the midst of this painful struggle, there is an amazing shift into completely open, relaxed, unclouded, undivided, total awareness. This is a place of no escape and no agenda, a place of complete presence and no resistance of any kind. This shift isn’t something that happens by willpower on command, but is more akin to a surrendering, a letting go, a relaxing. If I try to engineer this kind of shift “so that the biting will go away,” that isn’t it at all. The complete openness I’m pointing to is the absence of any such agenda or effort to change things. Suddenly all resistance to how it is in this moment is completely gone. There is no division anymore—no “me” fighting with “my problem,” no struggling to break free. There is no more judgment, no more wanting to stop, no more thoughts or stories about this compulsion and what it means about me, or how I’d be happy if only it would go away, or how I need to get this one more loose end before I stop. ALL of that is gone. There are no more labels, no more strategies to fix this, no urge to change or improve or escape from anything. There is simply open, clear awareness, beholding this happening without division, without self-center, without separation. It is the same awareness as before, but something has dropped away, the cloudiness of emotion-thought is gone, and this aware presence feels full-on and entirely nondual—no gap, no division, no conflict, no resistance, no seeking, no effort to attain, no me at the center of it, no “problem” to solve. And in that complete surrender and total acceptance of fingerbiting exactly as it is, everything shifts.
First, the fingerbiting is no longer a problem. In the light of unclouded awareness, it is simply a happening of life, like a gnarled tree or the devastation wrought by a tornado. It has no added meaning. It actually becomes interesting and feels completely okay. Even the tension of it no longer seems tense because there is no resistance to this tension. The absolute perfection (or okayness) of this happening is realized (made real) experientially, not just believed as an idea. And in that complete and total acceptance, within one or two seconds, the biting ends. It doesn’t end forever after (at least not so far), but in that moment, it always stops completely. I would suggest that it falls away because in that placeless place of pure intelligence, in that light of clarity and absolute love, nothing that is rooted in illusion or delusion can survive. Fingerbiting may come back a minute later, but in that moment of clear awareness and total presence, the compulsion is completely gone.
The same can happen with an argument. I can be aware that I’m having an argument with someone while still being caught up in it. So there is awareness, but the awareness is clouded over by the entrancement in emotion-thought. And then suddenly there can be a total shift where all sense of division ends. The tightness and contraction of defending myself and my position relaxes. My attachment to (and even belief in) my point of view disappears into thin air. There is no me anymore who feels threatened or insulted or who needs to be defended. There is no need to win the argument or assert my view or have the other person agree with me. All of that vanishes! There is simply an open spaciousness beholding the whole thing. The whole storm of emotion-thought is gone and there is simply love. I’m sure everyone has experienced this—the moment when an argument ends, the whole momentum and seriousness of it collapses, and suddenly you are both laughing and smiling and making up. You may argue again in the future, but in that moment of total awareness, the argument is completely finished.
And in those moments, when there is that undivided awareness, the wholeness and perfection of everything is an actual reality, not a philosophy or a belief. And I would suggest that the perfection is not in the destructive behavior—such as the fingerbiting or the arguing (or in more serious situations, the wars, the genocides, the rapes, etc.), but rather, the perfection is in the awareness that beholds all of this with unconditional love and compassion. This is the difference between BELIEVING that all of it is perfect and actually BEING the awareness that IS the perfection, the completeness, the wholeness. I can BELIEVE that fingerbiting (or genocide, or yelling at my spouse, or child molesting) is perfect, that it’s all part of the seamless unicity that includes everything, or that all of it is only a dream-like appearance with no substance and no self. But to actually REALIZE all of this, to make it real, in the moment, Here / Now, is something else entirely.
Belief is a kind of self-protective armoring, wrapping myself in a comforting ideology so that I don’t have to fully experience the pain or the heartbreak, whereas direct realization (unclouded awareness) is a total opening of the heart, a complete vulnerability, a total sensitivity or awakeness—no protective barrier, no distance, no detachment, no separation. There is a felt difference, and we can become sensitive to that difference. We can begin to discern when we are coming from thought and belief and when we are grounded in awareness and presence. We can feel the difference. It is subtle but huge.
True meditation, the pathless path to which I and many others point, is not about self-improvement or chasing some ideal of personal perfection. It’s not about fixing all our problems and getting rid of all our neurosis and achieving some ideal. But it isn’t about picking up some belief system either and running around telling ourselves that everything is perfect just as it is, so therefore it really doesn’t matter if we kick our dog and beat our wife and scream at our kids and drink ourselves into oblivion every night. Yes, it does matter! Of course it matters!
But the way these misfortunes end, the way our suffering and all our compulsive and addictive behaviors end, is not by bullying ourselves or others, or trying to will these problems away—feeling guilty for our failures, shaming ourselves or blaming others, vowing to do better, chasing after ideals of a “better me” or “a better world.” As counter-intuitive as it may seem, these things end when we no longer need them to end. And so in some sense, it’s quite true that preferring clarity over delusion contributes to our discontent and suffering. But we don’t escape this trap by picking up the opposite belief that nothing matters and that everything is already perfect. Liberation is the dissolving of ALL belief. It is the shift from self-centered thought into open, unbound awareness, from thought-driven efforts at control to surrender and letting go.
And please remember that our delusions and compulsions rarely end forever in one dramatic flash of light. They end now. And in the next moment, the hypnotic entrancement of emotion-thought or compulsive behavior may take over again. Some addictions, compulsions and delusions may eventually fall away entirely, while others may continue to show up over a lifetime. It doesn’t really matter how long it takes to unwind something. And there is no final end to delusion in the larger sense, no end to the subtle ways that consciousness can be hypnotized by its own creations. Liberation is always about starting freshly where we actually are and being right here, right now. It’s not about some final perfection. It’s a never-ending awakening, always now.
And from that open, aware, placeless place of pure intelligence and unconditional love, it would be utterly impossible to commit rape, or torture, or carry out a genocide. You have to be lost in dualistic thought to do those things, just as it is impossible to bite my fingers in any moment when there is full and unclouded aware presence. However, it may be possible to meet such things as rape, torture, genocide or fingerbiting with that kind of spacious awareness and unconditional love...and when that happens, miracle of miracles, then there is compassionate understanding of how such things occur rather than hatred and a desire for vengeance and retribution...which doesn't mean we won't act to stop such things, but we'll act from an entirely different place and in a very different way. And from that place of clear awareness, would we ever say or feel that kicking our dog or raping a child is perfect? In my experience, there would be a natural sorrow and regret over this pain and suffering, which is different from guilt and blame. And at the same time, from that place of clear awareness, there would be compassion for the perpetrator, seeing his suffering as well, knowing he is blameless, and there would be an experiential knowingness that in the deepest sense—in awareness—all is well, beyond all the horrors that occur in the movie of waking life. I’ll give you an example.
In the summer before my mother died, I watched movies about the holocaust. I don’t know why I did this, it just started happening. Maybe I was interested in looking deeply at the worst imaginable suffering and discovering how we survive it. Not that my mother’s death was in any way comparable to the holocaust, but for me, it was a huge loss. So I watched all nine hours of the holocaust documentary Shoah. I watched Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, Bent, Nowhere in Africa, The Pianist, Paragraph 175. Watching those movies, looking deeply into the holocaust, I had no desire at all to say, “All is One, and everything is perfect, and nothing real is really being hurt, it’s all just a dream.” That kind of response just didn’t come up. At the same time, as I watched these horrors unfold, I didn’t feel the anger and outrage I might once have felt, the hatred toward the perpetrators, the bitterness and despair. I watched these movies with a kind of equanimity and peace that I could never have manufactured—it just happened by itself. There was a deep sorrow, yes, but not despair. There was no urge to put a spin of any kind on what I was seeing, as any such overlay was clearly about moving away from the actuality. I was simply completely present with it. The only way to truly be with something that huge and that unfathomable is silently, wordlessly, openly. And I learned that it is possible to come through the fire with an open heart. I saw that some who had survived these unimaginable horrors were filled with love and not with bitterness. That doesn’t mean I always come through every fire in my life with an open heart. It just means that I saw and tasted the possibility. And isn’t that what really matters? Not some metaphysical belief in perfection, but the realization of love and freedom Here / Now?
Enlightenment doesn’t mean having no preferences. It is the absence of attachment to our preferences and identification with them. But we may still prefer chocolate over vanilla. No problem with that unless we feel we MUST have chocolate or that we’re being personally insulted if someone else prefers vanilla. And I would say, there is a natural preference in the organism for pleasure over pain (that's part of our survival mechanism), and in all of us at the deepest level there is a preference for love over hate, for love is the natural state, the default state (pure awareness)—whereas hate is a reaction based on delusion, beliefs and some kind of false identity. We can feel the pain of being caught up in anger, hatred, addiction and compulsion. And it brings pain to those around us as well, and that can be easily seen. Naturally, we long to be free of this, not just for our own well-being, but for the well-being of all.
The absolute truth is that nothing is born, nothing dies, and nothing can be killed. But this absolute truth is only true when it is directly realized (made real) Here / Now. An ideology is not liberation, although it often masquerades for it. It’s easy to SAY that everything is one, interconnected, interdependent, co-arising whole in which the light and the dark go together, and it’s true enough as far as descriptions go, but the living reality of unconditional love is open, sensitive, vulnerable, alive. It is totally AWARE of the pain, not dulled to it. By contrast, belief systems feel kind of deadening, a way of comforting and de-sensitizing oneself, a kind of protective armor in which the quivering and vulnerable aliveness of life is paved over in favor of conceptual solidity and security. It’s a subtle but huge distinction.
And it’s the reason why the same words can be true when spoken from (and heard by) awake presence and false when spoken from (or heard by) dualistic thought. “I am God,” for example, can be totally false if we’re coming from megalomania when we say it, when the “I” refers to me—the separate self. Yet exactly the same words can be absolutely true if we’re fully awake at that moment, if the “I” is the universal “I AM” of boundless, impersonal awareness.
Allowing what is to be as it is means being totally open Here / Now—not resisting, judging or opposing anything that is showing up, whatever it is. But this is not to be confused with some kind of fatalistic resignation or some nihilistic philosophy, nor is it about being a doormat, staying in an abusive relationship, or allowing injustices to continue unchallenged. The allowing or accepting that is being pointed to here is simply about being fully aware in this moment of how it is, right now.
We have a deep fear that if we accept and allow the present moment to be just as it is, then whatever is showing up in this moment will continue forever. If we allow fingerbiting, for example, then fingerbiting will never end. The reality is quite the opposite. By totally accepting the present moment as it is, we actually give it space to transform. By providing what could be described as a field of love, we allow the natural intelligence of life to operate. By contrast, when we resist, judge and oppose the present moment, we are actually more likely to continue and perpetuate the same conditioned and habitual patterns of thinking and behaving.
Maybe we can see from our own experience how this applies to addictive or compulsive behavior or to fights with a loved one, but we might wonder, how does it apply to recognizing something in society that needs to be changed—racism, sexism, heterosexism, economic injustice, female genital mutilation, factory farming, cruelty to animals, environmental devastation, those kinds of things? Once again, acknowledging how it is, allowing it to be as it is in this moment, doesn’t mean liking it, agreeing with it, or being resigned to it. But does the most effective and lasting transformation come out of shaming, blaming, hating and even killing, or does it come out of nonviolence and unconditional love?
If you are being angry, mean-spirited or cruel, what is most likely to shift your inner state and your outward behavior—being met with anger, hostility, judgment and cruelty back at you, or being met with love and compassion? When we are seen and treated as jerks, we often behave as jerks, whereas when we are recognized as boundless awareness, we often wake up from our trance of separation and melt into the love that we truly are.
Revolutionaries often start out with the very best of intentions, wanting to create a more just and egalitarian society. But before long, they often end up killing and imprisoning people and fighting wars upon wars in order to accomplish this. They are unintentionally reenacting the old order in a new form. We’ve seen this over and over again in human history. Contrast this to someone like Martin Luther King Jr., who truly embodied the love he wanted to see. He didn’t hate white people, he didn’t act out of the anger and rage he must surely have felt at times, but instead, he acted from love. One can only imagine that in order to do that, there must have been a great deal of dedicated prayer and reflection. Martin Luther King was clearly rooted in a deep sense of God, which is just another word for what others might call our True Nature, the Now, awareness, presence, the Self, emptiness, the Tao or the Beloved. Martin Luther King wasn’t afraid of dying—or if he was, it was not the kind of fear that kept him from standing up for what he knew was right. It seems clear, if you listen to his last speech, that he was beyond the sense of being a limited self, afraid of his own ending, and instead, there was a deep trust in the larger process, the wholeness of life. He had seen the Promised Land, as he said, and he was not concerned with whether or not he personally made it there. He knew he was already there.
When the heart is open, the sorrow in this world that comes from our human confusion is heartbreaking, even at the same time that it can be embraced with love, and even as we may also have a deep realization of a bigger cosmic picture in which nothing solid is being harmed and the heart of things is fundamentally at peace. The perfection, the emptiness, the love is in the awareness, not in the apparent events. Awareness IS the peace—the indestructible, unconditioned, nondual absolute. The freedom is always in the seeing, the awaring. And the seeing is not mine or yours. It is not divided up into me and you, or into seer and seen. It is the living, breathing, reality of nonduality. It’s not a belief or a philosophy. It’s this present moment, this awaring presence, right here, right now.
Awakening is a choice in this moment to stop the search, to stop the resistance, to let go, to relax, to allow everything to be just as it is, to surrender and turn ourselves over to what Robert Adams called “the power that knows the way” (what I would call awareness or the Now, and what some might call God), to be fully present and awake to the bare actuality of this moment (hearing, seeing, breathing, sensing), to come home to Here / Now, our True Self—the Heart of what is.
I just called it a choice, but is it really a choice? Yes and no. Like falling asleep or relaxing a tight fist, it is not something we can accomplish by will-power on command through brute force. It is more of a surrendering, a letting go, a giving up—not doing anything at all, which doesn’t mean resignation, passivity, inertia or being a doormat. But it begins with completely accepting and allowing the present reality, the sleeplessness or the tightness of the fist, without fighting it or judging it or trying to get rid of it. And from that allowing awareness and presence, relaxation happens naturally. We allow our natural intelligence (“the power that knows the way”) to function. And as with learning to swim or ride a bicycle, no one can tell us how to do this not-doing. There is no instruction manual. We each have to feel our own way into it. But once this possibility has been discovered and the more it is accessed, the more available it seems to be—not on command, not through will, but by letting go and relaxing into being just this moment.
Sometimes that choice to let go and relax does not seem to be available. The compulsive force of old habits and conditioning is too strong. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the dance. Getting lost, being hypnotized by the waking dream state, falling into delusion and confusion—this is all actually a vital part of waking up, the grit that creates the pearl, the mud that nourishes the lotus. But the good news is, however lost we seem to be (and we are never REALLY lost!), we can always begin freshly, right where we are. The pathless path always begins now. It’s always about this present moment, this presence that we are, this awakeness. And this awakeness is not “out there.” It doesn’t require any particular conditions. It’s not mysterious or exotic or foreign to us. It’s right here. Simple. Ordinary. Immediate. When we stop and check, we see it has never been absent. It is “most intimate” as they say in Zen—our true nature, this awaring presence that is boundless and all-inclusive. Awakeness is simply hearing the traffic, seeing the thoughts as thoughts, and going to the heart of our human suffering and finding the way through, not once and for all, but now.
Who does all this? Who lets go? Who hears the traffic? Who reads and understands these words right now? Look and see! Who is looking? Do we find any “me” back there, any agent apart from the action, someone who is doing it? And if we do, what is aware of that? Eventually we realize that awareness cannot be seen as an object. There is no little me doing my life. And yet, we can’t say it is all being done by something outside of, or other than, this awake presence Here / Now that I AM. What else is there? So we begin to see that no conceptualization or formulation can capture reality, that pointing to the choice we have in this moment or pointing to the choiceless happening of this moment are simply two different teaching tools, two different sign posts, two different maps of the same actual territory. If we try to grasp all of this with thought, we end up confused, arguing over the maps. But our confusion is always conceptual. Reality itself is simple, obvious, unavoidably present. When we come home to the present moment, to simple presence or bare being, there is no me and no problem.
If we’re lost in stories and ideas about it, the present moment may seem very flat and unspectacular. But when awareness is clear and the heart is open, even the most ordinary moment is an extraordinary miracle. This living, breathing aliveness and awaring presence Here / Now is not a philosophy or an ideology. It’s not a belief system. It’s not some special, psychedelic, mystical experience that comes and goes. It is the ground of EVERY experience, from the most sublime to the most ordinary, and it is what remains when all belief and everything we can doubt falls away. We cannot grasp what that is with thought. And yet we KNOW it. We ARE it. It is what Here / Now IS.
So when we find ourselves lost in a mental movie, entranced by a story about me and my life and what’s wrong with me and the world and everyone else, is it possible to wake up, to come home? Is that choice available right now? Don’t answer yes or no. This isn’t about coming up with the correct ideology. Instead, really look and see. Don’t assume yesterday’s answer is the truth today. Find out if this choice is here right now, and if it seems that it isn’t, then is it possible to completely allow this compulsive pattern (the contraction, the resistance, the seeking) to be as it is, and perhaps to be curious about it—to listen openly, without judgment or agenda, to this whole pattern and see what it is, how it takes over, what sustains it, how it feels in the body? We may find that it is nothing at all!
And in this open listening presence, we may discover that what we were seeking is right here.
—from comments to this post and my replies:
Comment: Looking for the Source is about as futile as the cartoon looking for the animator.
My reply: Looking with thought is futile. But when we look with awareness, everything opens up. It’s not that we find “something” (some-THING) that we can see and grasp as an object, for that is all in the cartoon-world. It’s more like the collapse of apparent separation—finding nothing in particular, or finding EVERYTHING—the imaginary boundary between the thought-created subject and the thought-created object, or between seer and seen melts away—and there is just seeing. Not as a special experience that comes and goes, but as this very ordinary present moment Here / Now.
Comment: Often when doing a practice, my mind activity eventually fades out and I begin to be interested in the moment. This is a state that is very different from, and very simple compared to my every day state - most of my thinking stops and there is just feeling the body, seeing, hearing, and enjoying all of it quite a lot - it always feels like home, like being real.
But this eventually goes away every time, as soon as I forget about it because something catches my attention for long enough I think. Then afterwards I can't remember and I'm in my old self again.
It feels like subject and object haven't really fallen away for me. While in this state of presence, I couldn't even say if there is subject and object - it simply doesn't make sense then to think in these concepts. But afterwards my structure hasn't changed much. Not sure what to make of this but at least it no longer feels like a problem to lose this presence state because my trust has grown that it is doing its thing and will come back when it wants to.
My Reply: When you say that, “It feels like subject and object haven't really fallen away for me…my structure hasn't changed much,” you might notice that this is only a thought, and you might see how this thought immediately recreates the mirage-like “me” who seemingly hasn’t yet completely gone beyond the subject/object experience. This thought instantly creates a story with a central character and a narrative unfolding in time. It creates an imaginary goal, evaluates how close the imaginary character is to the imaginary goal, and concludes that he is “not quite there yet.” But really, there is no “there.” This goal is a fantasy, as is the one who hasn’t reached it yet. To catch these thoughts as they arise, to begin to see how they recreate the imaginary problem and the one who seemingly has it, is meditation in action. The only actual reality is Here / Now, everything unfolding exactly as it needs to in this moment. And as you say, “While in this state of presence, I couldn't even say if there is subject and object - it simply doesn't make sense then to think in these concepts.” I would suggest that it is not presence that comes and goes, but rather, the stories of “me,” the intermittent thought-sense of being somebody, and all the many different things that momentarily “catch our attention” – but ALL of it happens Here / Now, in presence.
At one of my recent meetings here in Ashland, someone expressed her conviction that there is an individual soul that migrates through different lifetimes. This person said that prior to each incarnation, the soul meets with a committee of advisors or guides and together they figure out which parents to pick and what life events to arrange as learning experiences. She didn’t mean this metaphorically, but quite literally. To her, this committee and the eternal separate soul are every bit as real as the breakfast dishes are to me. My take on all such things is that they are dream-like appearances (including the breakfast dishes). I don’t doubt their reality as experiences, but I don’t believe they have any inherent reality outside of consciousness. And from my perspective, the story of the eternal separate soul traveling through successive lifetimes reflects a fragmented, reified, dualistic view of life. My sense is that stories and visions of this kind arise from our fear of death and our desire to keep the phantom “me” alive eternally.
Popularized versions of Buddhism often include a belief in reincarnation, while most serious Buddhists I know would argue that such a belief flies in the face of the most essential insight that Buddhism offers—the realization of impermanence or emptiness, which is the realization that no separate or persisting things (including souls or selves) are anywhere to be found, and that no such dividing lines as “birth” or “death” actually exist in reality—they are only mental concepts. So what is it that would reincarnate from one moment to the next, much less from one lifetime to the next? Each group of Buddhists would claim that the historical Buddha was clearly on their side of this controversy. As you can probably guess, I favor the no-self version of Buddhism, but I don’t claim to know what the historical Buddha actually said, and I doubt anyone really does. I see reincarnation as a story for the masses, a primitive way of conceptualizing the intuitive understanding we all have that death isn’t the end because what we truly are is infinite. But it isn’t “me” that is infinite; “me” is a kind of mirage.
Along the same lines, when my mother died, I remember being somewhat stunned to discover how many educated people actually believed that she had literally gone to heaven, and that this was an actual place somewhere, and that in this place, my mother had been restored to her youthful self and was happily frolicking with my long-dead father, also restored to his youthful self. I was stunned, but I didn’t tell these people they were nuts. I realized they were trying to comfort me and in some cases themselves. As with reincarnation, I saw it as a primitive way of conceptualizing the intuitive understanding that there is no death.
Many people have been captivated by Dr. Eben Alexander’s best-selling account of his “journey to heaven” while supposedly brain dead in a coma. When I first read about this book in Newsweek, I had one of those uncharitable flare-ups of irritation at people’s astonishing gullibility for the ridiculous and at what looked to me like the exploitative dishonesty of a neurosurgeon selling his visions as scientific “proof” of heaven. Since then, I’ve heard that a number of neuroscientists, as well as the doctor who treated Eben in the ER, have apparently debunked important parts of his story, and many people have questioned his motives, pointing to an expensive malpractice lawsuit he was allegedly facing at the time. I don’t know the man personally, and I haven’t read his book. I don’t in any way doubt the possible reality of his experience as an experience (although a conveniently lucrative one), and for all I know, he may sincerely believe his own concoction. He may even have had a genuinely life-changing experience, a vision that has opened him up to a whole new way of seeing things (a recognition of unity, love, fundamental well-being, and the fact that we are more than our body and our brain). And if that’s true, I’m sincerely happy for him. But no one who has any understanding of science or the scientific method would suggest that his tale offers any kind of scientific proof that heaven actually exists.
Being immersed in the spiritual world as I am, it is not uncommon for me to run into people who are enamored with supposedly special experiences—mystical experiences, kundalini experiences, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, past-life experiences—and with the meaning they give to these experiences. Many spiritual people are experience-junkies—seeking ever-better experiences and endlessly fascinated by their own experiences and by the experiences of others. (“Experience-mongering,” Toni Packer called it). I had plenty of experiences with altered states back in my drug and alcohol daze, including many trips on a wide variety of psychedelic drugs, and at other times, I’ve had lucid dreams, an out-of-body experience during a car crash, and a variety of meditative experiences. In Zen, when you report this stuff, they hit you over the head—not necessarily literally, but let’s just say, they’re not impressed. They know this kind of stuff doesn’t mean anything. It’s another passing experience in the kaleidoscope of consciousness.
I’m bringing all these things up not to invite a discussion (or an argument) about reincarnation, heaven, Eben Alexander, the individual soul, or the importance of various religious experiences, but rather, as a way of introducing a much more interesting question, namely, what is real? And how do we know?
An old friend of mine tells me that she travels around the universe every night in a space ship with beings from another dimension. My friend takes dictation as these astral beings reveal to her what earthlings need to know in order to survive and prosper. To my friend, these nightly trips are not dreams, visions or imaginings. They are as real as my trips to New York or London. I have felt no urge to tell my friend that this is all in her imagination. I hear it as her experience, and my interest lies in what it means to her and what messages she has received, regardless of whether they come from inside her or outside of her—for in reality, there is no such distinction. Nevertheless, I do not see her trips in the space ship as real in quite the same way that my trips to New York or London were real. I suspect her trips are visions related to the brain tumors she has.
Speaking of brain tumors, there was a woman named Suzanne Segal who experienced the sudden dropping away of her self at a bus stop, followed by intense fear. She sought out many spiritual teachers, some of whom told her she was enlightened and some of whom (including Toni Packer) felt that this was something else. Suzanne wrote a book and began giving talks about the vastness of no self. Eventually it was discovered that she had a brain tumor, apparently in a part of the brain associated with spiritual experiences, and she died from it. A close friend of hers commented to me afterwards that perhaps one of the beautiful things about Suzanne’s story was that it left everyone not knowing how much of her experience was genuine awakening, how much was perhaps some kind of psychological dissociation (a possibility this friend told me Suzanne was exploring), and how much was a brain tumor. We want to nail it down, sort it out, but in Suzanne’s case, it seems to defy easy categorization. Perhaps this applies equally to my old friend in her nightly astral travels and even to Dr. Eben with his lucrative tale of going to heaven. Maybe the divisions we create between brain and mind, or between so-called physical reality and so-called spirit or consciousness, are not as real or as solid as we think. So again, how do we know what is real? Is it all real? Is none of it real?
What do we even mean by the word real? For a moment, please forget the ways you have heard this word defined in the past by others, and simply reflect on what it actually means to you to think or believe that something is real.
Each of us has a deep sense that our movie of waking life, our vision of reality (the world we see and our ideas about it), is true and correct and real. Intellectually, as postmodern 21st Century people, or as people immersed in nondualism, we might understand that our way of seeing things is conditional and perhaps not absolutely true, but in a much more visceral way, we take the world as we see it to be real.
We might notice how we feel when someone presents a completely different view that seemingly flies in the face of our own view—do we feel threatened? Uneasy? Defensive? Angry? Superior? Inferior? How does it feel to realize that not everyone sees the world as we do? Faced with this uncomfortable fact, it may seem that the ground beneath our feet is crumbling and that our entire sense of what’s going on here is being pulled out from under us. Do we rush in to reestablish solid (familiar) ground, to prove that our view is right? How do we react, inwardly and outwardly? This, I find, is a wonderful meditation, a living inquiry to engage in any time someone puts forth a view of reality (spiritual, political, psychological, scientific) that we think is completely wrong. I highly recommend it.
If we lined up an ant, a bat, a hummingbird, a dog, a cat, a human being with color blindness, a human being without color blindness, and a human being who had just taken a large dose of LSD or ayawaska, and then had them all look in the same direction, they would all see or sense quite different realities. Some people suggest that psychics, channelers, mystics and visionaries are simply attuned to additional, subtler, layers of reality than those commonly seen by ordinary humans, different frequencies of consciousness or different planes of existence. That sounds reasonable and certainly possible. But are all the various different human realities (the “normal” human experience, the experiences of the psychic, the psychotic, the human on LSD) all equally real? Are some more real than others? And how do we know?
What things that we think we know with certainty actually depend upon belief? Is there anything we “know” that requires no belief because it is completely beyond doubt? Can we tell the difference between a thought, a belief, an appearance, and a truth that is absolutely and completely impossible to negate, deny or doubt?
What I notice is that we can doubt all the things we think we know about reality. We can doubt whether the space ship my friend travels around in is made of physical stuff (nuts and bolts and metal) like the airplane that took me to London or whether it is pure mind stuff. We can also doubt whether nuts and bolts and metal and all other “physical stuff” are themselves anything other than mind stuff. We can doubt whether that committee meeting with the soul and its advisors prior to incarnation was as “real” as my meeting here in Ashland where it was brought up, and we can also wonder how real my meeting was, since after all, it has vanished into thin air! We can doubt or believe in the relative (or absolute) “reality” or “unreality” of the hallucinations of mental patients experiencing psychosis, or the things imagined to be real during a hypnotic trance or an epileptic aura, or the visions of mystics, channelers and psychics, or the explanations of the universe offered to us by physicists, biologists and neuroscientists, not all of whom agree with each other and whose views often change over time. We can doubt whether the things we remember from the past “really” happened or whether we imagined them. We can doubt whether we are awake right now or dreaming. We can doubt Eben Alexander’s motives for writing his book and whether or not he was actually brain dead at the moment when his other-worldly experiences happened.
But we can’t doubt being here now. The only undeniable certainty I’ve come upon is the innate knowingness of being present, being aware, being here. Not being here as “me” (someone with an age, a gender, a personality and a past history)—that can all be doubted—but being here as this aware presence and this utterly immediate present experiencing that we call seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, breathing, moving, thinking, remembering, imagining, awaring. We could also call it the sound of traffic, the cry of a bird, the red of the fire truck, the wail of the siren, the sensations of breathing—naked experiencing without an experiencer, before the words divide it up and label it. We can doubt all the ideas and beliefs we have about this happening—whether it is mind or matter, consciousness or a dance of subatomic particles, a brain experience or something outside the brain—that can all be doubted and debated and questioned. But what I’m calling bare being, aware presence or pure experiencing cannot be doubted or denied, and in fact, there would have to be some sort of aware presence to even entertain such a doubt or make such a denial!
We also can’t experience or verify anything outside of consciousness—my friend’s trips in the space ship, the committee meetings with the soul seen by the woman who attended my meeting, Suzanne Segal’s experience at the bus stop, Eben Alexander’s journey to heaven, my trip to London, the nuts and bolts of the airplane that took me there, the meeting here in Ashland where we talked about this, my dreams last night, this room where I sit now typing, the world as seen (or smelled) by the dog and sensed by the bat—is ALL consciousness. It is ALL mind stuff. Every experience we have is nothing but consciousness. We can THINK that there is a “real world” outside of consciousness, but this world “out there” can never be verified or found except as a thought or an idea or an appearance in consciousness. We can THINK that the plane that took me to London was “more real” than the spaceship in which my friend travels, or maybe from her perspective, that the spaceship is “just as real” as the airplane. We can doubt whether the world perceived by the psychiatrist is more or less real than the one imagined by her psychotic patient. But whatever we think or experience or perceive or believe, there is no way to get outside of consciousness. ALL of it is mind stuff.
Every experience is made of consciousness. That’s what it IS. And in every case, the only thing we can’t doubt or negate is the undeniable actuality of this experiencing itself, as an experience. What we can doubt is the interpretation of it—whether we think it is “all in the head” or something “out there” that has some inherent reality, something that we are perceiving with the brain and the senses more or less accurately.
EVERY experience is equally an expression or manifestation of consciousness, just as every wave is equally the ocean. In that sense, there is an equivalence to all experiences, all thoughts, all views of reality. All experiences are equally real as experiences.
But in what we call relative, consensual reality, the world perceived by the psychiatrist is considered “more real” than the so-called delusions of the psychotic patient. And within the context of relative functioning, that’s a useful distinction. Whether we believe psychics who travel around the universe in space ships are more akin to the psychiatrist or the mental patient will depend on our conditioning and our life experiences. Either conclusion can be doubted.
And actually, both the world perceived by the psychiatrist and the one perceived by the psychotic patient are interpretive overlays that can be doubted. The psychotic sees his dead father sitting in the chair across the room, the psychiatrist sees only an empty chair. In both cases, the experiencing (the seeing) is undeniable. But each considers their movie (the content of what is seen) to be “reality.” It happens so fast and so ubiquitously, that we don’t notice how the undeniable reality of bare experiencing has been transferred over and given to the particular content of that experiencing, and more importantly, to our interpretation and story about that content and—most importantly—to the sense that this content is not merely a present appearance in consciousness, but that it is an objective, enduring, inherently substantial, existing thing that is “out there,” independent of consciousness.
As soon as we think, “That’s my dead father in the chair,” or “That’s an empty chair,” or “He’s hallucinating,” we have moved past the undeniable raw experiencing, the visual sensations, the changing shapes arising together seamlessly with everything around them—not those descriptions, but the bare actuality to which they point. All of that is still there, but our attention has gone elsewhere—onto an abstract, conceptual, map-world of labels, ideas, and conclusions. It happens in the blink of an eye. We have slipped into the story, the virtual reality, the dream world, the movie of waking life. It’s no longer just meaningless shapes and colors. It’s a story. It means something. And your story and my story are never quite the same.
Please understand, I’m not saying stories, beliefs, thoughts, concepts and interpretations are “bad,” nor am I suggesting that we should try to prevent them from arising. Stories, beliefs, thoughts, concepts and interpretations—as well as the ability to discern the relative difference between imagination and so-called ordinary reality, are all part of the functioning of life, and none of these things are either inherently good or inherently bad. What I am suggesting is that it is possible to discern the difference between bare experiencing and the conceptual overlay that arises almost instantaneously, and that it is possible to question our story, to question our beliefs, and to wonder why we defend them so vigorously at times, as if our very life depended upon it.
That doesn’t mean we “should” (or could) give them all up. But our suffering and our confusion is always in the story, the conceptual overlay, the beliefs we mistake for reality. And perhaps the apparently separate, discrete, independent, persisting self (or soul) is our most cherished and problematic belief, and if we look closely, we may find that this “entity” is nothing more than ever-changing thoughts, stories, memories, images and neurological sensations that combine to create a kind of mirage-like character that we mistakenly conflate with the undeniable aware presence that is Here / Now. But if we relax into this aware presence, we may find it is magnificently unbound, formless, free and empty of everything we think it is. We may also discover that the character we have long-identified as our self, the one whose survival has been such a huge concern, along with every imaginable experience that character can have, all appears (intermittently) in this vast awareness, not the other way around.
What is undeniable and beyond doubt is this all-inclusive aware presence. We cannot doubt the bare experiencing of this moment, consciousness itself, the awareness of being present, the knowingness of being the ultimate subject behind and within all the appearances, the subject that is empty of everything we think it is. What is dream-like is our belief that the world we see IN the movie of waking life has some kind of inherent, objective, observer-independent reality “out there” somewhere, apart from the seeing—that our movie is “The Truth.” We become hypnotized or entranced by our movie, our story, our particular virtual reality, and we become identified with it. Our very survival seems to depend upon it being true and unquestioned. But whose survival is being threatened here? The body? The egoic identity? The imaginary self? The soul? Awareness? The indestructible One Self, the absolute, the all-inclusive Whole? What is it that feels threatened, that fears death?
Given how quickly this entrancement in and identification with the story happens, it’s easy to see how conflict arises. You believe in reincarnation and I don’t. You think Buddhism teaches reincarnation and I think Buddhism dispels any such delusion. You love Eben Alexander’s book and I think it’s a bit of a con game. You think my mother is in heaven, and I think there was nothing solid there in the first place—although I could say that in a manner of speaking, she lives on in my heart, or she appears in my dreams, or I have a sense of her presence at times. But do I think she’s in heaven with my father, or at a committee meeting with her soul advisors planning her next life, or reincarnated as a little baby somewhere? No, I don’t, except maybe in the sense that everything is endlessly reincarnated everywhere as everything else, for nothing was ever separate. You say you are taking dictation every night in a space ship that is circling the universe and I say this is some dream-like imagination produced by your brain, an imagination that seems real to you. I don’t deny the reality of your experience, as an experience, but I think my trip to London actually happened in a way your trips in the spaceship and Eben’s trip to heaven did not.
Until I pause for a moment and wonder, is there really any fundamental difference between my trip to London and my friend’s nightly trips around the universe or Eben’s trip to heaven? ALL of them are dream-like events, evaporating as soon as they appear.
And in that moment of not knowing, there is a letting go and a freedom. If we each stick to our story and our certainty and our beliefs, we will soon be at war, tight and defended. Instead, maybe we can listen in a new way, with the openness of not knowing, hearing what is true in every story, seeing what is real in every dream, appreciating the perfection of every being in the movie of waking life—even the possible charlatan looking to make a buck. And in this openness, miracle of miracles, there can be a waking up to what is beyond doubt here and now.
As soon as we try to grasp what that is conceptually, we end up back in the map-world, arguing over our different maps. But if we relax into awareness, there is nothing to grasp and no one to grasp it. Then we can meet each other in the Heart, as expressions of one life, One Self, one seamless and boundless totality, ever-changing and ever-present, with infinite points of view, each a reflection of all the others—unconditional love, loving itself everywhere, in every momentary forming. Here, we can still have our different points of view, our relative truths, our different ideas and concepts and beliefs about the world, but we hold them more lightly. We are more willing to question them. We may still think they are relatively true, but we don’t consider them to be absolutely true.
I can still think that the spaceship is imaginary, that the psychotic patient is hallucinating, that reincarnation is a myth, that Eben Alexander is confusing a brain experience with an actual physical reality “out there” somewhere (and profiting greatly from it). You can still think that souls migrate intact through different lifetimes, that there are committee meetings before each incarnation, that we choose our parents, and that Eben is an amazing guy who really did go to heaven. I don’t have to convert you to my view, and you don’t have to convert me to yours. Like the left eye and the right eye, we each see a different but somewhat overlapping view, and together we are one whole seeing, one whole Consciousness. That unbound and all-inclusive Consciousness, that awaring presence, that seeing and listening, the intelligence-energy itself, is what is real—not the particular, ever-changing appearances within it.
From this placeless place Here / Now, empty of everything we think and believe, we can truly listen to one another and appreciate one another, not needing to agree or disagree, but recognizing the light of awareness in each of us. The labels and the conceptualizations by which we describe this openness don’t really matter. What matters is the living reality, the love, the openness. Maybe that’s exactly what Eben found in heaven and what my old friend hears from the astral beings.
Ramana Mahashi beautifully said that, “The world is illusory. Brahman alone is real. The world is Brahman.” [Brahman being the Hindu word for the absolute, Ultimate Reality]. I’ve always loved this quote because it doesn’t negate or dismiss the world, and yet, it says that the world is in some sense illusory. The world as we conceive of it, the world of interpretations and stories, the world of beliefs, the world of separate fragments, the world “out there” apart from Consciousness—that world is illusory. That kind of substantial existence is illusory. There is nothing here but Consciousness, aka Ultimate Reality, the One appearing in infinite disguises. When we see everything as Ultimate Reality, that is unconditional love. What’s real is the awaring presence, the love—the content is always unreal, meaning that it has no inherent existence.
What is truly real Here / Now in this moment? What do I know with doubtless certainty? What remains when everything I can doubt has fallen away? How do I react when my view of reality is questioned or contradicted? What is it that I am defending when I defend my view of things? These are wonderful questions to live with, and like all good koans, they are not questions to answer with philosophy or belief, but rather, they are invitations to let go into a never-ending questioning that dismantles and dissolves our fixations, our certainties, our beliefs…leaving only the Open Heart.
—from a comment to this post and my reply:
Comment: I doubt the bare experiencing of this moment a lot of the time (assuming I even experience moments of Here/Now, maybe I just think that's what I'm experiencing at the time).
My Reply: I suspect that what you doubt is the content or the story of your present experiencing, not the bare actuality of seeing-hearing-breathing-awaring-being—THAT you actually cannot doubt. You can doubt whether what you saw was a man or a woman and whether that person was holding a cell phone or a banana, but you don’t doubt the bare seeing itself…the bare experiencing. And when you imply that Here / Now is something you only occasionally experience, I think you are taking “Here / Now” to mean some particular experience of mindful presence, yes? But that’s not actually what I mean. Have you ever actually left Here / Now? Your thoughts of past and future happen Here / Now, don’t they? Every experience and every doubt happens Here / Now, doesn't it? When the past was happening, it was happening Here / Now, wasn't it?
Some teachers say that Ultimate Reality has nothing to do with awareness, or they say it is “prior to consciousness” and has nothing to do with consciousness. What do they mean? In some cases, maybe they haven’t really noticed awareness yet, but in the best cases, my sense of such teachings is that they are pointing beyond getting stuck on some dualistic idea or some special experience of awareness, or getting stuck on some expanded form of identity that leaves the separate self intact, such as going from “I am Joan” to “I am awareness,” without really getting to the bottom of what that “I” in each sentence is and isn’t. There’s a famous koan in Zen that asks, What was your face before your parents were born? That question, if we really fall into it (as opposed to thinking about it), invites us to dissolve into an aliveness and a freedom that is beyond experience, feeling or thought.
Bare experiencing (pure sensation)—impersonal, unbound, ownerless, consciousness or aware presence (what some teachers call the I AM or the Now)—this immediacy Here / Now is in some sense the closest we can come experientially to nondual, absolute reality. Of course, we ARE nondual, absolute reality—there is nothing else going on—but experientially that’s not always clear to us. So when we first wake up from the stories, beliefs and conceptual abstractions that usually preoccupy human attention, and we discover or notice this unbound awaring presence, this seamless happening, this immediacy and absence of division that has actually always been here, it can be very exciting. There is no me in this seamless happening until thought pops up and says, “I’ve got it!” Instantly, the mirage of the separate self is reborn. Consciousness quickly gets re-hypnotized by the story of being a separate me obsessing over past and future and trying to make sense of “my life.” And part of that thought-created story is that awareness (or presence, or Here / Now) is something that comes and goes, something that “I” alternately attain and then lose. So we begin trying to make this shift happen, this shift from the contracted energy of thought to the expanded energy of open awareness, and our success or failure in any given moment seems personal. Eventually we may notice that it is actually this thought-sense-story of being a separate “me” that comes and goes, along with the thoughts of past and future, and all the experiences of contraction and expansion, and that all of it happens Here / Now. Presence, consciousness, bare experiencing, Here / Now remains (seamlessly) even in the midst of delusion, confusion, contraction and inner turmoil, and it is actually equally present in both clarity and confusion, expansion and contraction, for it is the ground of every experience, like the ocean in every wave and the mirror in every reflection.
But is it permanent? As something we can sense or experience, no. ALL experience, including this first, primary SENSE of awareness or presence or open spaciousness, vanishes every night in deep sleep and (we assume) at the moment of death. So this EXPERIENCE of aware presence is not always here. It, too, comes and goes. So then we might ask, what is beyond all experience, beyond even the I AM, beyond consciousness (the movies of waking and dreaming life, even the enlightenment movie), beyond everything perceivable and conceivable? Nisargadatta said, “The desire to be is the strongest of all desires and will go only on the realization of your true nature.” (Of course, we let ourselves dissolve into non-being every time we fall asleep, but we tend to overlook this). What remains in deep sleep and after death is our face before our parents were born, which is nothing we can grasp or experience, but we can dissolve (during waking life, while we’re alive) into that unconditioned aliveness that is beyond experience, feeling or thought—what Nisargadatta called our true nature.
I suspect we all have an intuitive apperception (to borrow Ramesh's word) that "something" remains in deep sleep and after death—although words fail here because it is clearly not some “thing” (this but not that). It is nothing perceivable or conceivable. It is not an experience or an idea. It is the undivided, ever-present Totality, the seamless and boundless unicity, the infinite intelligence-energy, the ultimate subject that can never be perceived as an object or experienced as an experience because nothing stands outside of it. When we stop looking for it and relax into simply being it, we realize it is all-pervasive.
Unfortunately, nondual spirituality has a tendency to get either very mental and complicated or else very fixated on chasing experiences and special states. People get very muddled up trying to "go beyond" consciousness and "reach" the nondual absolute or Ultimate Reality...as if this were a destination "out there" somewhere or a special state that we might eventually acquire. Thinking about it, trying to grasp it, trying to see or experience it, we seemingly separate ourselves from it, and we get more and more snarled up in concepts and entangled in conceptual confusion. We try to figure out Nisargadatta’s teaching intellectually. We compare one teacher to another. Maybe we read in Advaita books about Turiya, the 4th state, the stateless state that includes and transcends waking, dreaming and deep sleep, and we want to figure that out and attain it. We want to transcend mundane reality. Maybe we hear people describing various samadhi or near-death experiences they’ve had where they were supposedly awake in deep sleep or after death. And so we chase after ideas and experiences like a hamster on his wheel getting ever-more dissatisfied the faster we run.
It’s so important to see that Ultimate Reality, the unconditioned nondual absolute, isn’t “something” that is “out there” somewhere. It’s right here. It’s the emptiness, the thorough-going impermanence, the total subjectivity, the no-thing-ness, the seamlessness of this present experiencing with no self at the center of it. It’s not some mystery that we have to figure out or some riddle we need to solve. This is it. Right here, right now: the sound of the traffic, the red fire engine streaking past, the breathing, the cool breeze on the skin.
And although Ultimate Reality transcends even the I AM of impersonal presence, at the same time, the I AM and all perceiving and conceiving is nothing other than this Ultimate Reality. The nondual absolute can never be experienced, conceptualized, or grasped as an object in any way at all, and yet, there is nothing we can touch, taste, feel, see, hear or smell that is not it. It is most intimate, too close to see, impossible to be separate from. It is ever-present, unavoidable, fully and completely present everywhere and everywhen. It has been pointed to as the no-thing-ness or emptiness of everything, the uncontained boundlessness that has no limits, that which includes and transcends all opposites. And above all, “it” is not an it. There is no such “thing” as Ultimate Reality. There is simply this ungraspable happening, empty of all our ideas about it.
The apparent nothingness of death (if we drop the ideas of heaven and reincarnation) is only scary from the perspective of the illusory separate self that fears annihilation and that imagines that this present reality (the movie of waking life) is actually much more solid and substantial and inherently real (i.e., observer-independent) than it really is when investigated closely with either science or awareness. But when we recognize the emptiness (the thorough-going impermanence) of this present experiencing and the total absence of any self at the center of it, then there is nothing to fear in its cessation (which we go happily to every night in deep sleep). Death loses its sting because we see that nothing happens. The “I” who is worried about continuing has never existed in the first place. It is only a fleeting appearance. Just as no “I” is there in deep sleep to miss waking life, no “I” will be there after death to regret having died. It’s like the old fear of sailing off the edge of the flat earth—the problem of death is imaginary, based on a conceptual fallacy.
Someone who commented on my 1/26 post (the one about reincarnation, astral travel, and the exploration of what is real) thought I was suggesting that whatever is impermanent is unreal (a definition we often hear in Advaita), but I didn't actually say that. I don't think of the red of the fire engine streaking past (the immediate nondual experiencing of that before the words) as unreal. What I would call unreal are the almost instantaneous ideas about what has been seen—the abstract conceptualization of that momentary streaking—the labels, reifications, abstractions and stories that instantly create the illusion that what was seen was something “out there” with a solid, objective, separate, observer-independent, persisting reality. And even all of that abstraction, thought and ideation is real as a movement of consciousness, an informing of energy. But the apparent reality it creates in the mind is only an appearance, a dream-like fiction. A dream is real as a dream, but the world that appears in the dream does not exist “out there” somewhere independent of the dream. It isn’t still out there somewhere after we wake up. In the same way, the things that appear in the movie of waking life do not exist “out there” somewhere. They have no inherent, persisting reality. But the direct, momentary, raw experiencing is totally real. It just isn’t what we think it is. And when that becomes clear, we are no longer bound by the imaginary problems that thought creates, and above all, by the story of being a separate somebody—and in fact, we never were bound, for nothing ever actually stands apart to be bound or free, caused or uncaused.
And the I AM that we can experience (the undeniable sense of impersonal, ownerless, unbound presence, the certainty of being here now) is not permanent either. All SENSE of presence is absent in deep sleep, as is any sense of absence, as is the one who cares about all of this. It all disappears in deep sleep. And what is permanence anyway? Permanence is not endless time, as we think it is, but rather, timeless presence. The only actual eternity is this never-ending Here / Now, your face before your parents were born, equally present in waking life and in deep sleep. This emptiness is inconceivable and unseeable, and yet it right here now, the heart of everything.
Another person emailed me after that post on 1/26 and expressed a concern that I was being dismissive of all experiences as merely transitory, insignificant and irrelevant. I hadn’t meant to suggest anything of the kind. When I say the content of consciousness is unreal, I'm not trying to say that you and me and the trees in the backyard are unreal in the sense that they are absent or irrelevant or that they are "just illusions" that we should ignore or dismiss. But as soon as we say "you" and "me" and "the tree over there," we have moved into the conceptual overlay, the abstraction, the world of duality, the world of apparently separate and persisting things—a view that overlooks the interdependent, co-arising, seamless whole in favor of the imaginary separate parts, lending a permanence and an inherent (observer-independent) reality to mere ideas and abstractions. Reality itself is so much more alive, so much more vibrant than our ideas about it.
No self is scary when we think about it, but when the mirage of separation actually disappears, it is a huge relief. Ultimate Reality isn’t "something" that we must seek and obsess over and hope to one day find, for in fact, it has never been lost and it will never be found. It is what I mean when I use the term Here / Now, although some people mistakenly think I mean by that an experience of mindful presence or "being in the now." And that’s always the problem with words. They are abstract reifications of no-thing at all, so easily misunderstood.
To point out the red fire truck and the breathing and the awareness of being present, I must use words. The words seem to divide and concretize and reify separate “things.” But when we look deeply with either science or with meditation, we find that none of the forms that appear here have any inherent, independent, continuous, solid existence. Impermanence is so thorough-going that nothing forms to even be impermanent. There is truly no enduring or separate thing that we can grasp, and yet, this vivid reality, this bare experiencing is undeniable. Awareness (subject / inside) and everything perceivable and conceivable (object / outside) are two (conceptual) sides of the same (conceptual) coin, and in reality, there is no actual boundary between inside and outside (between subject and object, awareness and content). There is no actual place where one ends and the other begins, and there isn’t even really any such “thing” as awareness, nor any actual, substantial, observer-independent, inherent reality “out there,” nor any actual “coin” (any bounded container such as “consciousness” within which relative polarities can appear), for ALL of that is a conceptual abstraction, a map-creation. But the actuality of what I’m calling awareness or presence or experiencing is undeniable. It is nothing mystical or obtuse, but simply a recognition of what is most ordinary and obvious.
And when we are fully present or awake to the seamless reality of Here / Now, there is nothing more we need to search for, no “prior to consciousness” that we need to locate or acquire, for we recognize that the wholeness (the emptiness, the no-thing-ness) is right here. This is it. Ever-changing, ever-present, vibrantly alive. Not one, not two. Seamless, boundless, beginningless, endless, always Here / Now – just this.
If this entire post makes no sense to you and feels heady and gets the thinking mind spinning faster and faster on its hamster wheel, see if it is possible to stop running, to let the thoughts go, to come home to the simplicity of breathing, hearing, seeing, sensing…being just this moment, exactly as it is. It really is that simple. And all I’m ever really saying in this post or any other is bla bla bla bla bla. There’s literally nothing to understand.
And that’s one reason I like Zen—it’s earthy, grounded in the ordinary and the everyday, nothing special. Just this, right here, right now. And instead of thinking about what that means, Zen encourages us to simply wake up. We don’t need to think about what an apple tastes like—we just bite into it. Simple. Obvious. Indescribable.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2013, 2014--
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