Postings from My Facebook Page #5
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the fifth collection of posts from my Facebook page (2/5/14 - 4/19/14). 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:
What is the difference between self-improvement and genuine transformation? As a friend recently asked me, how does one take an honest inventory and look deeply at what hangs us up and prevents us from seeing the true nature of ourselves and reality without turning it into another self-centered, deficient-me story?
It does seem that anything (practice or non-practice) can be turned into fuel for the separate self to perpetuate itself. Intentional practices (meditation, vows, even the intention not to do any practices!) can lend themselves to this quite readily, especially in the mind of the beginner who still believes in the possibility of perfection and who still approaches all this in a very goal-oriented way, aimed at self-improvement. Vows and precepts can easily become like New Year's resolutions, made to be broken, and then we feel bad about ourselves for having failed. And even the barest of practices, misunderstood, can become a kind of goal-oriented effort to get somewhere better than Here / Now (including trying very hard to “be here now” in the next moment). As we mature in a practice, or at least in an intelligent practice, we begin to discover that it isn’t really about improving things or getting somewhere, but it can take years to really understand that. However many times we hear it, we just can’t see it until we do.
There is certainly a place for taking inventory (as they say in 12-Step programs), noticing things that are harmful or painful to ourselves and/or others, and doing whatever we can to change them. There is a place for aspiration and intention, for prayers and vows, for recovery programs, therapy, social justice work, meditation retreats, and healing work of all kinds. There is a place for seeing how we do our suffering and for discovering the possibility of a different way of being.
But we don’t ever reach the ideal perfection we can imagine. So any true aspiration must be balanced by the realization that life is in charge, not me. We must discover the willingness to allow life to unfold at its own pace, in its own way…the willingness to fail again and again…without taking that personally and turning it into a story of lack or self-hatred. I think of the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki saying, "The life of a Zen Master is one continuous mistake." Or Zen teacher Elihu Genmyo Smith, "Mistake after mistake is the perfect way." Or Thich Nhat Hanh, “No mud, No lotus.”
In Zen, there are a bunch of precepts (Not killing, not stealing, telling the truth, not using intoxicants, not speaking of the faults of others, the usual stuff). In the beginning, people tend to see them as rules or commandments, but they are actually intended more as ways of practicing and reflecting on life. It is impossible not to break the precepts. Just by being alive, we break them. Not killing, the first precept, is broken every time we eat, every time we take a step, every time we wipe our forehead, every time we inhale. Life feeds on life. Not misusing intoxicants and not intoxicating others—that just gets subtler and subtler—from the grosser levels of substance abuse to the subtlest layers of intoxicating ourselves and others with self-images, false promises, spiritual experiences, and so on. When a student expresses the feeling that she can never live up to the precepts, Elihu says, “Notice the belief, the expectation that precepts are about your living up to them.” And he asks, “What is it that we think is not the Attained Way? What is it that we think is not Buddha? What is it we think is I? What is it we think is not-I?”
Self-improvement is all about me. It is rooted in a sense of lack, and in a fear of death that it strives to banish by frantically bettering myself. If I just exercise enough, eat the right foods and meditate enough, I can somehow avoid suffering and vanquish death. That, of course, is delusion. Genuine transformation, on the other hand, emerges from wholeness. It is rooted in unconditional love, surrender to God (a power greater than the thinking mind—the power of Now, awareness, life itself). It has a fundamental trust or faith in the universe, in the way it is (the Tao). From this perspective, I’m not exercising with the desperate expectation that I will avoid suffering and death as a result, but rather, because it is what the universe wants to do. I’m doing it for the pure joy of doing it, without expectation.
Self-improvement is focused on the future, while genuine transformation is focused Here / Now. Self-improvement is rejecting what is and chasing after an ideal, while genuine transformation always begins with completely accepting what is, as it is. It has no ideals, no set goals, no fixed ideas about what “should” happen next, but is rather open and available to the unfolding of life and to the discovery of something new and unexpected. Self-improvement is rigid, driven by beliefs and expectations, while genuine transformation is flexible, willing to question everything. Self-improvement relies on personal will while genuine transformation relies on God (a power greater than the thinking mind—the power of Now, awareness, life itself).
There are no rules for where self-improvement ends and genuine transformation begins, but we can become more and more sensitive to where we are coming from when we envision or work toward a change in ourselves or in the world. We can begin to feel the difference between self-improvement and genuine transformation.
Sometimes nondualists get the mistaken idea that they aren’t supposed to have goals or preferences of any kind, that they shouldn’t want anything to change. But it’s quite natural to want a wound to heal…to want an addiction to end…to want to find a way to work constructively with the conflict in a marriage rather than letting that conflict destroy the relationship…to want to bring an end to racism, sexism, heterosexism, animal cruelty, and other forms of injustice in society…to want to improve our skills in a sport or a foreign language or a musical instrument…to want to help someone who is suffering. And it’s quite useful to be able to see when we are lying (to ourselves or others), when we are seeking approval or attention, when we are out of integrity, when we are making a mistake. Of course, we are never out of integrity in the absolute sense, and in that larger sense, every mistake is perfect, but in the relative world of everyday life, the ability to identify mistakes and correct them is vital to our survival as individuals and as a species. It’s part of how life is functioning. Perfection isn’t a matter of not making any mistakes. It’s about the ability to learn from them, to keep going, to surrender and open ever more deeply, to give ourselves away.
So nonduality doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate or pray or take vows. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to the gym and exercise. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go into therapy. It simply points to how all these activities come from life itself, not from the phantom self, and how our ideas of success and failure are just that, ideas. We're not really going anywhere in the way we think. We're waking up to where we are: Here / Now.
As someone who writes books, holds meetings and works with people, I don’t think of myself as a teacher. Yes, I put “writer and teacher” on my tax forms, and I’ll use the word teacher in practical ways, but beyond that, it’s not a word I like to use in reference to what I do. Being an English teacher was one thing, but being a spiritual teacher sounds way too elevated, too special, too pretentious, too divisive and dualistic. I don’t regard the people I work with as my students. I think of myself as a fellow-traveler on the pathless path. As a human being, I have the same struggles anyone else has, and I’ve always done my best to disclose those struggles with honesty.
I’m no longer searching for enlightenment—I know where it is, right here, right now, belonging to no one—and I’ve learned how to work with my human struggles, how to meet them, although I don’t always succeed in meeting them in that enlightened and open-hearted way. But I’m no longer seeking or expecting perfection on that level.
As unbound awareness or the all-inclusive, undivided happening of this moment, I AM the whole universe. I AM Hitler and Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jack the Ripper, Ramana Maharshi and Oral Roberts. I am everything and everyone and no-thing at all. I am the One-without-a-second, primordial awareness, the Self, the unborn, deathless, nondual absolute.
In either case, whether as imperfect and limited Joan or as the utterly perfect, limitless, and seamless totality of being, I am no different from anyone else, except in the sense that, as a person, everyone is a unique and unrepeatable expression of life. When I meet with people, I meet them as awareness, as presence, and as Joan. I’m not in control of what happens in a meeting. I do my best to be present, to surrender, to allow what is, to be awake. Sometimes I fail. Having lived and been around many teachers up close, I know I’m not alone in my imperfections. I may be more honest than some about divulging my human frailties, but I’m not alone in having them. Yes, there are undoubtedly teachers who are freer from delusion and from conditioned patterns of the bodymind than I am, but no one is perfect.
We long for a teacher or a guru who is without blemish, completely enlightened in every moment. Maybe such people exist. I don’t know. But I suspect they don’t. And even if they do, I don’t really care. It’s not my business. My business is to be awake Here / Now, in this moment. Nothing more, nothing less.
Whether we call that a choice or a happening of life is not really that important. Neither verbal formulation, neither conceptual map can capture the ungraspable actuality of life itself. Discovering the possibility of waking up now, dissolving into that vastness and living in presence is what matters. At least, that’s what matters here. It obviously doesn’t interest or matter to everyone. Some people are more interested in making money, winning the Super Bowl, finding the ideal mate, day dreaming their way through life, getting high on drugs, having exotic mystical experiences, feeding the hungry, saving the whales, or whatever else. And that’s fine. We’re all part of the dance. I’m not trying to convert anyone or suggest that your interests should conform to mine.
I’ve been interested my whole life in how change happens. There are moments when a tipping point is reached and the chain of conditioning suddenly breaks—a great scientist breaks out of a long-held assumption about the nature of reality, an explorer discovers a new world, a leader such as Martin Luther King breaks out of social conditioning and widely-held beliefs about the inevitability of certain social structures and the supposedly insurmountable powers holding them in place, a spiritual teacher breaks with tradition and dogma, an addict wakes up from the hypnotic trance of addiction, a woman leaves an abusive relationship, a Black man is elected president of the United States, gay marriage is legalized. Or on a much smaller scale, in many moments in each of our lives, anger dissolves into love, or compulsion disappears completely in the light of awareness…not forever after, but in any moment of being fully present and awake.
There is a presence, an emptiness, a fullness—we can call it awareness or energy—that is the ground of everything and at the core of everything—unconditioned and free. It’s not a concept or something to think about and believe in. It’s something to taste directly, to embody fully, to be. It is the deathless unborn, nondual wholeness, the aliveness of this moment, the living reality of Here / Now. We could even call it God. It doesn’t matter what we call it. It is at once completely ordinary and totally extraordinary.
My prayer: May I live in devotion to that, in service to that, in the wonder of that, as that. This prayer comes out of life and offers itself to life.
Is awareness something detached, aloof, beyond it all? Should our identity shift from the sense of being a person to being awareness? And are we supposed to “be here now” all the time? Notions such as these seem to be floating around, so I wanted to talk about them.
Having some detachment from our thoughts and stories—no longer being completely mesmerized and entranced by them—being aware that there is a bigger context within which they come and go, is all very important to waking up from the dream-state. Realizing that awareness is not encapsulated inside “me,” but that, in fact, the thoughts, sensations and images that make up the sense of “me” all appear within awareness—that is a very liberating realization, a shift from a false sense of encapsulation and separation to a felt-sense of boundlessness and seamlessness. Discovering the wonder of presence, the healing and transformative power of awareness, the beauty and richness of being fully present in this moment, is a vital discovery.
But then we often seem to get this notion that awareness is something detached and separate. And if there is still a subtle sense of identity as a separate somebody, we will still be trying to give that somebody an advantage: “I am awareness, I’m not a person,” we insist. Or, “I am not my anger, I’m the awareness beholding my anger.” These ideas or pointers may be helpful stepping-stones out of the dream-state. But in that conceptual picture, awareness is seen as one thing, the content of awareness as something else, and then there is this third element, this phantom “I” who needs to identify as one and not the other. For sure, realizing that I’m more than my bodymind and my emotions is an important step, but too often, people seem to get stuck in these sorts of dualistic ideas and maps rather than waking up to the living immediacy of Here / Now.
Another source of confusion centers around what it means to “be here now” or to “be present.” In our search for personal perfection and advantage, we may take up meditation and “being here now” in a very goal-oriented, self-improvement oriented sort of way [see my post on Feb 5th for more on this]. With this achievement-oriented approach, we soon come to think of “being present” as a somewhat onerous task that we have to do “all the time” in order to “be good” and “get somewhere.” But that is not the true meaning of meditation or being in the Now.
The ability to discern the difference between sensing and thinking, between my story and the bare happening of this moment, is vitally important to liberation, as is recognizing the ground that is equally present in every scene of the movie, as is waking up to the present moment. But if we get stuck in trying to “be here now” and “identify as awareness” as a new task designed to make “me” into a winner, sooner or later, we will grow frustrated with endlessly falling short. Sooner or later, we tend to rebel against what feels like hopeless and never-ending drudgery, and we may then conclude that spirituality is just a bunch of bullshit. Many people at this stage throw the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps latching onto a philosophy that says “Everything just is as it is,” and “There’s nothing I can do about it,” and “That’s that…I give up.”
Now, if we REALLY give up, all the way, 100%, that’s wonderful! But usually when we say “I give up,” what we mean is that we are closing down, pulling back and sinking into some kind of fatalistic resignation. This is not true surrender or real awakening, which is a vulnerable aliveness and an open sensitivity, but rather, this resignation is a kind of hardening. This kind of philosophical stance sounds true, and it can masquerade for enlightenment, but it isn’t really very enlightened at all.
Awareness is actually another word for energy—it’s not something separate that is “out there” beholding everything from a distance. It’s the no-thing-ness of everything, the energy of everything, the formlessness and fluidity of everything, the interbeing of everything. Being and beholding are not two. Sometimes I like to use the verb form—awaring—which makes it seem less like a solid and separate thing. And there is no “I” who is identified as awareness or misidentified as a person—that is the root delusion.
And finally, being present is not some grueling task, the opposite of relaxing and having fun, although it’s easy to understand how people get this idea. Many of us have been exposed to very concentrated and focused forms of mindfulness meditation where you focus on the breath and maybe label thoughts as they arise, returning to the breath as soon as you catch yourself thinking. This type of practice obviously does require a certain focused effort, although even then, it should be a relaxed effort, not a tense and grueling one. The idea with this kind of practice is to discover a balance between effort and effortlessness, alertness and relaxation…very much like an athlete at the top of their game.
But it’s easy to misunderstand this, given our habitual tendency to hear everything—whether it is presented or intended in this way or not—as an injunction to perform some goal-oriented task correctly and perfectly so that we can be perpetually at the top of our game and win the spiritual Olympic gold medal. Given this habitual way of thinking, it’s not hard to see how we get the idea that meditation is supposed to be the successful maintenance of a totally calm, silent, thought-free state of mind. (I’m sure some schools of meditation even have this as their stated goal.) Sadly, many people give up on meditation fairly quickly, thinking it just isn’t for them, because they can’t do this. But nobody can do this! It’s not the point. In reality, we don’t always feel blissful and calm, and thoughts do keep popping up. Often we don’t even notice we’re lost in thought until we’re way down the road with some train of thought. If we believe we “should” be able to control our thoughts, then we judge this kind of “lapse” as a sure sign of personal failure. It was a “bad” meditation session, we think. “I failed.”
But actually, true meditation, as I mean it, is the discovery that we’re not in control. True meditation has no goal and no ideas about success or failure. And while we might habitually tend to think that certain meditation sessions are “good” (because there is minimal thinking and lots of presence) and others “poor” (because we were agitated and lost in one thought-train after another), this kind of evaluation is actually missing the point entirely. There is no one in the center of this to fail or succeed, and whatever shows up is simply the weather of this moment, always dissolving into something else. Meditation is a kind of open inquiry into how it is in this moment, allowing ourselves to fully awaken to the reality Here / Now—feeling sensations, hearing sounds, seeing thoughts, allowing it all to be as it is, without trying to change or manipulate it in any way. We’re not resisting anything or trying to achieve anything. In some schools of Zen, the only instruction you may get in the beginning is to just sit down and see what happens.
Some of my meditation teachers did suggest practices such as following or counting the breath and/or labeling thoughts in the beginning as a way of developing concentration. But my main teacher, Toni Packer, dispensed with all of that. She simply encouraged a kind of open awareness that had no particular focus. Hearing the wind in the trees, feeling the breathing, seeing thoughts at a glance, exploring what was at the root of an upset feeling or whether there was any author of our thoughts or maker of our decisions. This kind of meditation wasn’t about concentrating on the breath, but it wasn’t simply daydreaming, thinking or spacing-out either, although those things would happen off and on. And when they did, we might notice whether the eventual waking up from these thoughts and fantasies was initiated by a “me” or whether it simply happened by itself.
You could say that there was a very gentle kind of intention to return to the bare sensing of this moment whenever it was noticed that we were thinking, fantasizing or daydreaming. But it was not some grueling task that you were expected to do perfectly or some state you were expected to maintain “all the time.” The emphasis was on an open presence—allowing everything to be as it is, seeing it clearly, sensing it in the body, seeing thoughts as thoughts, being aware—all in a very relaxed and spacious way.
And while we were encouraged not to see meditation as something apart from daily life, that didn’t mean we were supposed to vigorously maintain a state of mindful attention “all the time.” It didn’t mean we should never space-out or daydream or watch TV. There’s a place for all those things. Spacing-out and daydreaming play a part in both creativity and relaxation. These things only become problematic if we’re spacing-out most of the time, lost in perpetual daydreams about elsewhere and elsewhen, never really seeing where we actually are, oblivious to the habitual patterns of thought and behavior that are generating our suffering and hurting those around us. But true meditation is not a war. It’s not resisting anything or trying to get anywhere. It has no expectations, no judgments, no ideals. And if any of these things do arise, it is about simply seeing them, noticing them.
This kind of bare presence might feel unfamiliar and difficult in the beginning—because we’re addicted to compulsive thinking and these days to so many other forms of distraction and busyness (internet, email, smart phones, televisions, social media, and so on, all keeping us constantly engaged, highly stimulated and forever processing information). So there may be a brief (or prolonged) withdrawal that we experience whenever we stop all this and allow ourselves to simply BE, much like the uncomfortable feelings that can arise when we give up the addiction to a substance. But as being present becomes more natural, we find that it is deeply relaxing, spacious and nurturing. It is the key to finding the way through suffering, and it is the key to love, happiness, joy, peace and true freedom.
But paradoxically and counter-intuitively, the way out of suffering is to totally allow it to be as it is, and the way to discover love, happiness, joy, peace and freedom is to stop seeking them anywhere else. (Of course, that doesn't mean not taking action to get help, but it refers to the way we meet suffering or discover freedom in the moment). So if we are meditating with the goal of getting rid of suffering or attaining freedom, this is simply our old, habitual way of functioning, and it doesn’t work. True meditation isn’t resisting or seeking anything. It SEES those habitual movements of thought when they show up and allows them to pass through. The emphasis in true meditation is always on Here / Now, not on always or forever.
We relax, dissolve and open into being just this moment, sensing the wholeness and the formlessness (the unstuckness, the fluidity, the seamlessness and spaciousness, the aliveness) of this ever-changing energy that is moving, and yet always present Here / Now as this boundless, timeless, spaceless present moment. We ARE this awaring presence, this undivided, seamless happening. No gap, no separation. Simply this. Warm sunlight on the skin, the taste of tea, the song of a bird, the arising and passing away of a thought, a tingling sensation in the body, a flash of anger, a wave of sadness, the sound of a television, a cloud passing through the blue sky, the rise and fall of breathing—all of it one, undivided happening without borders or seams—ever-changing, ever-present.
There is much debate these days about free will, whether or not it exists. In observing the arising of thoughts and actions very closely for many years, I find that everything happens by itself, including the intermittent neurological sensation or belief that “I” am an independent agent authoring my thoughts and choosing my actions. But I’ve also seen that as soon as we try to fit reality into a conceptual model (choice or no choice, self or no self), we instantly go astray. No concept can capture life.
Most people cling to the illusion of free will and feel that not having it would be very threatening. This is because they still think there is somebody here, independent of the whole universe, to have or not have free will—somebody who is either a free agent or a puppet. And who wants to be a puppet or a robot? But this image of “somebody” being moved around like a puppet by some larger force is actually a complete misunderstanding of the nonexistence of free will. There is nothing separate to be moved around by something else; there is simply an undivided event.
People imagine that without free will, they would simply collapse on the couch and become some kind of inert and passive vegetable incapable of doing anything to better themselves or improve the world. Or perhaps they would start randomly running out and wantonly killing and raping people. Not being in control is one of our deepest fears. And yet when we truly melt into the undivided and all-inclusive happening that we are, when the sense of separation and control dissolves, it is actually a very freeing and joyous experience. It doesn’t mean passivity, nor does it mean that we will “lose control” in the ways we often imagine and fear.
In fact, when we see through the illusion of free will, we still continue to want what life moves us to want. We’re still interested in what life moves us to be interested in. We still have all the opinions, preferences and abilities that life gives us, and we still make apparent choices and take action of all kinds. We may even be moved to engage in activities that refine our ability to make better choices, activities such as therapy, meditation, athletic training, business coaching, recovery programs, higher education, and so on. But we realize that NONE of this is coming from some independent self with independent volition. Rather, it is ALL the activity of life itself, a movement of the whole universe. We can only want what life moves us to want. Our desires, tastes, abilities, interests, talents, opportunities, preferences, thoughts and actions come from the whole.
When the illusion of free will dissolves, what falls away is guilt and blame, along with hatred and the desire for vengeance. Instead, there is a natural compassion for ourselves and others when we fail to behave in the ways we think we should. This doesn’t mean we can’t recognize mistakes, correct errors, feel remorse, or regret the ways we have hurt people. It doesn’t mean we can’t go into therapy, take up meditation, or join a movement to promote social and economic justice. But we recognize that our actions and everyone else’s actions are the actions of life itself. We can still put serial killers and child molesters in prison, but we don’t do it out of hatred or to punish them. We recognize that their actions came out of infinite causes and conditions and could not, in that moment, have been otherwise.
When I was young, my father—an atheist and a determinist with an interest in physics—told me that free will was an illusion. He explained that every action, from the biggest to the smallest, was the result of everything else in the entire universe and that nothing could be other than exactly how it is. He told me that everything is energy or subatomic particles and waves, that there is no real separation between a table and the floor it is on, or between me and the trees in the backyard. It is all one seamless happening, one indivisible dance. Everything he said instantly made complete sense to me.
Many years later, in meditation, I watched how decisions happen, from the big ones to the little ones. I saw that I couldn’t find anyone in control, nor could I say how the decisive moment arrived, nor could I make it happen any sooner than it did. I observed that I didn’t choose my political views, or my tastes in art and music, or what sources of news and information I trusted and what ones I didn’t trust. I saw that there was no way I could simply “decide” to trust the sources of news that I don’t trust, or to have a different political view from the one I have, or to have different sexual preferences or different tastes in food. I saw again and again that in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t control my fingerbiting compulsion or my feelings or what thoughts popped into my head. I could see that even the “decision” or the “choice” to shift attention to the present moment or to “surrender” and “allow everything to be as it is” came from a source that was prior to thought and will. There was no “me” calling the shots. Still, I had no choice but to play the game and continue to apparently make choices: Would I go to London or not? Would I have a hamburger or a salad? These apparent choices create the sense that “I” must figure it out and make the right decision. If I make the “wrong” decision, I could screw up my whole life. That’s how we think. But in looking closely as these decisions unfolded, I could see that these choices were all happening choicelessly. And then after the fact, thought posing as me claimed responsibility: “I chose the hamburger.” And that thought also simply happened by itself.
One neuroscientist recently suggested that a neurological sensation gives rise to the illusion of agency and free will. This same neuroscientist suggested that this sensation may be stronger in some individuals than in others, perhaps explaining why my father’s description of the universe instantly made complete sense to me, even as a child, whereas my mother said she never really got what he was talking about—it made no sense to her. Over many years of talking about all this at my meetings, I’ve noticed that some people can easily see that free will is an illusion, while others can seemingly never really grok it, even though they are highly intelligent and may have meditated and explored the nature of reality for decades.
Some nondual teachers feel that seeing through the illusion of free will is the most important and liberating realization one can have. Perhaps for them, it was the quintessential realization that triggered awakening. Hence, they hammer away at this single point uncompromisingly and unrelentingly. I tend to have a somewhat different approach. Like my teacher Toni Packer, I certainly see through the illusion of free will, and I do encourage people to discover the absence of free will and the illusory nature of the separate self, but I also have the sense that it can sometimes be helpful to speak in ways that seem to suggest there is a choice. In my way of seeing things (which I did not choose and cannot control), there is room for many different approaches to awakening, and there is no single right way. I appreciate those uncompromising nondualists who hammer away relentlessly at the absence of free will and individual authorship, and I also appreciate teachers who talk about “being here now” and “paying attention” and “allowing everything to be as it is,” all of which sound a lot like choices.
Even when you see through the illusion of individual agency, it may still be useful as a pedagogical or therapeutic approach, or as a training or coaching tool, to speak of making choices or making our best effort. If you’re coaching an athlete, teaching school or raising children, naturally (and choicelessly) you will almost certainly speak in this way. But again, ALL of this is the activity of the whole universe. And if you truly understand that, you will have compassion when your athlete stumbles or your child misbehaves. You may still punish the child in some way to reinforce an important lesson, but you won’t punish them in a spirit of vindictive anger and hatred. That kind of anger comes from assuming the child could have made a better choice in that moment, but instead willfully and freely “decided” to go against everything you had told them to do or not do. You may help your child, or your student, or your client in therapy, or the athlete you are training, or the business person you are coaching, to examine how and why bad choices were made and to see other possibilities, and that seeing may or may not happen, but ALL of this is the movement of life.
Seeing through the illusion of free will will not lead you to suddenly start shooting people in shopping malls. Chances are, if you’re reading this Facebook post, you probably couldn’t open fire on strangers in a shopping mall even if you tried. You can’t willfully “decide” to do something like this if it goes against your nature, any more than you can “decide” not to do this if the desire and the urgency and the force of nature compelling you in this direction overpowers whatever resistance to the idea you may have. Nothing really changes when the belief in free will dissolves except that you have infinitely more compassion both for yourself when you fall short of your intentions and also for those unfortunate people who are compelled by their nature and conditioning to be school shooters, child molesters, murderers or meth addicts.
So is everything completely determined? Is everything that happens to us predestined? Is the film already in the can, as they say? I wouldn’t say so. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We don’t really know how the universe works. There is a direct experience that in full-on awareness and presence, the chain of conditioning breaks and something new enters the picture. I often say that awareness is unconditioned, and that in awareness, there is infinite potential, infinite possibility. But that newness is not brought about by (conditioned) personal will. It’s the absence of that. Awareness allows everything to be as it is. It is the absence of resistance and seeking, the absence of judgment, the absence of trying to get somewhere, the absence of self, the absence of control.
Awareness has no agenda, no goals, no ideals for what “should” be, no preconceived ideas. So there is a freedom, we could say, but it’s not individual free will. It’s not the freedom to do what I want, or even the freedom to decide what I will want. It is the freedom of the whole to unfold and evolve and play in ever new ways. And that unfoldment is always a surprise. Only in the world of thought and ideation does it seem like “the same old situation,” “my same old neurosis,” “your same old problem,” “this same old job,” “my same old husband,” or “the same old me.” In awareness, every moment is fresh and new. This moment has never been here before, and already it has vanished completely. Endless surprises! Moment to moment, the universe born anew.
In Zen they say, “controlled or not controlled—both are a grievous error.” You can’t pin down reality in a formula. Right now, can you choose to open and close your hand? It would be absurd to say no and to sit there waiting for some divine force to open and close your hand for you. And yet, when you look closely, you can’t say how “you” perform this action, or from where the thought-impulse-urge that initiates it arises. This opening and closing couldn’t happen without the whole universe (muscles, nerves, brain, sunlight, air, your parents, their parents, the food that sustained them, etc etc etc). We could say that because the whole universe is the way it is, your hand opens and closes exactly how and when it does. Controlled or not controlled? Both are a grievous error.
Beware of conceptual maps (free will, no free will). They have their usefulness, as maps. But they are not the territory they describe. They are an abstract representation, a model, a frozen picture of a reality that is fluid, thorough-going impermanence. Life is not frozen or abstract. Life is immediate, vital, pulsating, alive, ungraspable and inconceivable. It is right here, right now.
Living in presence, being just this moment, there is a natural falling away of the mental tendency to over-think everything, to second-guess ourselves, to worry about what might go wrong, to try to control what is not controllable. I often give the example of crossing a rushing stream by jumping from one stone to the next. If you hesitate and think about it, if you try to figure out where to put your foot, if you worry about breaking a hip, you’ll probably lose your balance and fall. You have to give yourself over to the universe, letting go, trusting that your bodymind will naturally find the next stone. That sense of letting go and throwing yourself into life, or “being in the zone” as they say in sports, is neither controlled nor uncontrolled. It is without separation, without thought, without hesitation. And of course, that surrendering doesn’t always happen! Sometimes we do get tangled up in thought. And then, being just this moment is simply being tangled up in thought! Nothing personal. Sometimes, even the greatest athlete or the most enlightened sage will miss the next stone (metaphorically speaking) and fall into the stream. It happens. But it is ALL a seamless happening of life. No separation. No gap. Even the apparent mistakes are perfectly in order in the larger sense.
So make the best choices you can, and know that everything you choose is the only possible at that moment. You cannot go wrong. Which doesn’t mean there’s no room for noticing and correcting mistakes, changing course or making improvements. But none of this is the result of independent, individual volition. Still, you have no choice but to play the game.
Is the next moment already predetermined? Is the script already written? Don’t pick up a belief in yes or no, but live in the freedom of not knowing, open to fresh discoveries. (If you can!). And remember, there is no next moment. There is always only THIS moment. HERE is where the only true freedom is.
Counter-intuitively, discovering the illusory nature of free will is amazingly liberating. At the same time, there is a vast freedom that can only be realized Here / Now. We are never actually bound in the ways we think we are. Our apparent bondage exists (or seems to exist) only in the story (our conceptualized life situation), and it can only exist in the imaginary past or the imaginary future. Here / Now, there is no one to be bound. This is not a philosophy or a belief but something that can be discovered directly.
I often say that everything (in the world of appearances and apparent forms) is the result of infinite causes and conditions, that everything in the universe is the cause and the effect of everything else, that everything is made up of and defined by everything it apparently is not. But even our ideas about cause and effect, conditioning, interdependent arising, nature and nurture, and so on are all conceptual abstractions (maps, models) designed to help us make sense of the world. On a certain relative level, they serve us well: If I drink this bottle of poison, it will cause me to die. That’s functionally useful to know, and on a practical level, within the movie of waking life, it would be stupid to deny it.
But from the absolute perspective, the idea that someone died because they drank a bottle of poison is actually a tremendous over-simplification and abstraction of something that was never more solid than cloud formations shifting shape in the sky. Thought arrives at this assertion of cause and effect by first isolating, dividing up and freezing into parts what is actually a seamless, fluid, ever-changing, ungraspable, inconceivable and impermanent happening, and then by assuming that “the world” it has just created has an inherent (observer-independent, persisting, objective) reality “out there” somewhere. Look closely, and there is no “someone” that persists from one instant to the next. There is no clear-cut boundary between life and death, no “thing” that dies, no time, no past, no future, and no single, isolated cause or effect of anything else. Only in thought and conceptualization can the universe be frozen and pulled apart in this way. The awareness being and beholding it all is uncaused, unconditioned, undivided and unbound.
Perhaps this is why Nisargadatta 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.” And, “The heart of things is at peace.”
How to realize this freedom and peace directly? By going to the heart of things, which is the very heart of Here / Now, the core of your own being, the bare actuality of this moment. This isn’t a distant destination, but rather, the placeless place where you always already are. You cannot step outside of this indivisible, nondual whole to see it as an object, and all such attempts will end in frustration. All you can do is stop trying to grasp or attain what is already right here. In other words, not chasing anything, not resisting anything, not trying to figure it all out. Simply allowing everything to be as it is. Being just this moment. Bringing your full attention to the bare actuality of Here / Now. Being aware of awareness (not as an object, but as your True Nature, that which is most intimate and all-inclusive).
When I speak of awareness, I don’t mean something separate that can be isolated out, and when I speak of the bare actuality of Here / Now, I don’t mean the content of your thoughts, i.e. the ideas and stories about what you think is going on in your life or in the world. I mean something much closer, much more immediate: nonconceptual being, direct perception, pure sensation, awaring presence, energy—the simple aliveness of this moment—the spaciousness of the listening presence being and beholding it all—one seamless and inconceivable happening from which nothing stands apart (except apparently, in the realm of thought, and the separation is always only imaginary).
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s great. This isn’t about ideas. It’s about what is most obvious. You may be overlooking this nondual presence, but it has actually never been absent. To recognize it, you might close your eyes and simply listen to the sounds around you (the traffic, the wind, the birds, the refrigerator hum)…feel your breathing…feel whatever sensations are showing up in your body (heat, cold, pressure, vibration, tingling, tightness, pain, energy, whatever is there). Don’t try to make anything special happen, don’t look for some amazing result, don’t try to get rid of anything, but simply give your full attention to this nonconceptual present happening, just as it is. Thoughts will pop up from time to time, and whenever you notice you’re thinking or daydreaming, simply let it go and return to the immediacy of nonconceptual sensing and perceiving—bare presence.
Eventually, you might try opening your eyes. As the visual world appears, continue to give attention to the sounds and bodily sensations of this moment, but now also include the colors and shapes that are showing up. Is it possible to enjoy the visual world as a pure feast of color, shape, texture and gesture, in much the same way you might enjoy an abstract painting or a modern dance? For most human beings, our sense of sight is the one we most rely on to identify objects, locate ourselves, find our way and make sense of the world. As a result, it may be harder to sense the visual world as pure sensation than it is to do this with sounds or bodily sensations.
Awakening to the visual world and seeing the multiplicity of apparently separate objects seems to immediately bring forth the sense of separation, the thought-sense that “I” am in here and everything I see is “out there,” that what I see is a multitude of separate objects, and that "I" am one of those objects. At lightning speed, conditioned perception plugs right into thinking and conceptualizing. We thus easily overlook the territory itself—what is actually seen directly—and fixate our attention on the map (the conceptual abstraction that has formed in the blink of an eye). It happens so quickly and ubiquitously and is so socially reinforced that it takes a subtle attention to really discern the different between map and territory.
So it may not be easy at first to see without knowing, but if you can, relax into this open seeing—you’re not looking for anything or trying see something special or make something happening—but simply allow yourself to enjoy the shapes and colors around you without labeling it or trying to make sense of it, simply enjoying the colors, shapes, textures, movements and gestures as abstract forms. Think of it as useless enjoyment, not as a spiritual task.
Of course, labels may still pop up, and you’ll still recognize a chair as a chair—that’s no problem. But don’t hold onto that. Rather, allow yourself to enjoy the chair as a visual shape, color, texture and gesture, inseparable from the table beside it and the rug beneath it. Take in the visual world in a purely sensual way, without any added meaning or purpose.
Notice that although there are many different forms showing up, they all appear together as one whole painting, one undivided movie, one unified picture. Awareness is the unifying factor, the wholeness—like the screen in every scene of the movie, or the mirror in every reflection, or the ocean in every wave. Awareness is another word for Here / Now. But “Here / Now” or “awareness” is not some-THING apart from everything else. Words create apparently separate things, so be aware of this tendency to make something out of no-thing-ness. True freedom is in the no-thing-ness, the openness, the non-clinging, and not in any imaginary THING that we grab onto for comfort or security. Those “things” always disappear, disappoint, or prove doubtful.
As you sense the visual world, continue to also be aware of sounds and bodily sensations, so that everything is one whole undivided happening—the breathing, the traffic sounds, the green leaves, the smell of flowers, the hum of the refrigerator, the sensations in the hands and the belly and the chest, the whole ever-changing event. Notice that although it is ever-changing, it is always happening Now. And whatever location appears, it is always appearing Here in this placeless place of presence (the invisible screen of awareness). Everything is happening in you, in awareness. Everything is you. No gap, no separation, no division. Just this.
Without making it into a big new task that you are trying to do “perfectly” or “all the time,” simply return to this bare experiencing whenever it invites you. The next time you’re riding on a bus or a train or sitting in a waiting room, if the interest arises, see what happens when you simply sit there, empty-handed, without reading or writing, without talking on the phone or looking at your hand-held device or your tablet, without doing anything. Just seeing, listening, breathing, sensing, awaring, being. Simply this. Thus suchness of this moment, as they say in Zen. Nothing more, nothing less.
Here / Now is always here. It is the still point that is both the core and the ground of everything. It is our True Nature. Some call it God or the Heart. Others call it Primordial Awareness, the Self, the Ultimate Subject. It is what remains in deep sleep when all sense of presence and absence is gone. It is the source and substance of all that appears. It can never be attained or grasped as an object. And yet it is all-pervasive and can never be lost. Thus it is often compared to the ocean that is equally present in every wave, the screen that is equally visible in every scene of the movie, the mirror that is the true nature of every reflection. But all comparisons fall short in the end. Because our True Nature is not a “thing” that can be separated out as an object in the way a movie screen or a mirror or an ocean can be. It’s nothing you can grasp, and yet it is all there is. Finally you realize it is present even when you are thinking and talking and daydreaming, that it is the no-thing-ness (the emptiness, the fluidity, the seamlessness, the spaciousness, the impermanence, the energy) of everything.
How do we realize this? By noticing that this question presumes that it is not already fully realized. This question assumes there is someone apart from this realization who needs to somehow “get it.” But can you ever leave Here / Now? Can you be anything other than this moment, exactly as it is? How far do you need to go to arrive at yourself? If you close your eyes and look with awareness, not with thought, can you find an actual place in your direct experience where “inside of you” ends and “outside of you” begins? Is there really a boundary? Could it be that the “I” we all refer to beyond name and form is the very same I, the same awareness? And is this “I” something apart, or is it the very nature of everything?
Experiences come and go. Exotic experiences and mundane experiences. States of consciousness come and go, expanded ones and contracted ones. Feelings come and go, feelings of vastness and feelings of encapsulation and separation, pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings. These all come and go. The space or present-ness in which they happen—Here / Now, the groundless ground—is ever-present. And this groundlessness or spaciousness is not separate from the forms that appear. It is the very nature of form. Go deeply into any apparent form, either with science or with meditation, and you’ll find no-thing at all—vast emptiness, thorough-going impermanence, groundlessness.
That may SOUND scary to the mind, but what’s scary is not the actuality itself, but rather, some idea that the mind is conjuring up. Thought is referencing some idea of “nothing” as a scary, nihilistic, meaningless, void-like vacuum. But that’s not the no-thing-ness or the emptiness or the impermanence to which this is pointing. This no-thing-ness is the aliveness, the energy, the freedom, the joy, the absolute stillness and the infinite potential of Here / Now. This impermanence is so complete that no-thing ever forms (or persists) to even BE impermanent. There is only aliveness, energy, stillness.
The mind wants to think about all of this, try to get it, or maybe argue with it, but what is being pointed to is upstream from thought and argument. It is deeper than all of that, bigger than all of that, more subtle than all that. It is no-thing at all. And yet this no-thing is not "nothing" in the usual dismissive sense, and it is also not anything mystical or metaphysical or mysterious. It is the sound of car tires on wet pavement, the cheep-cheep of the bird, the smell of incense, the red of the fire engine, the twinkling stars in the night sky and the listening-awaring-presence beholding it all.
I am convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that there is no-thing (no separate or persisting thing) here to die. Yes, relatively speaking, a baby called Joan was born many decades ago and will one day die. I suspect that dying will be like falling into deep sleep or going under anesthesia. Everything will disappear including any sense that I have disappeared. As in deep sleep (and unlike our fearful fantasies of being buried alive), no one will be left over to miss what has disappeared.
Does that mean I think death is the end, that we live and then die and that’s it? No, not really. The energy or pure consciousness that IS this body and this universe doesn't die and won't die when Joan disappears. What I truly am will not die, and it was never not here. As they say in Zen, it is my face before my parents were born.
I compare the fear of death to the fear our ancestors had of stepping off the edge of the earth. It's a flat-earth problem, a fear based on a misconception, the misconception in the case of death being that I am a separate mind (or soul) encapsulated in a separate body. When we believe this misconception, our deepest fear is that this “me” will come to an end. But when we look more closely, either with science or meditation, we cannot actually find this “me” as anything in particular. We also cannot pin down an exact moment where somebody begins or ends. Time-of-birth and time-of-death are like dividing lines on a map. Reality is seamless.
I suspect that many people's interest in reincarnation or near-death experiences comes from the intuitive sense that consciousness is not encapsulated in a body and that death is not the end of what we truly are. And that’s great. But from the awakened perspective, it’s clear that the belief in reincarnation and the fascination with NDEs is in some way still driven by a dualistic view—dividing the brain from consciousness, mind from matter, existence from non-existence—and by the belief in a separate self and the deep urge to survive as this form, this present experience.
And yet, this present experience is always changing. What is it that I treasure most deeply in this present moment? Is it the sense of being Joan (the patterns of thought and behavior, the particular sensations, memories, narratives and emotions that form this personality)? Or is it something much deeper, much more subtle, much vaster, much freer? Does the sense of being Joan survive death, or will that vanish completely, as it does in deep sleep, with no one leftover to miss it? My guess is that it will vanish completely.
Buddhism often compares individual consciousness with a stream. When the stream flows into the ocean, no stream remains as anything intact. There is only ocean. Vedanta compares the individual consciousness to a wave on the ocean. The wave is never really separate, but is simply an activity of the ocean, and when it subsides in calm waters or crashes on the beach, there is nothing separate there to reincarnate or go off to some heaven. The ocean simply keeps on waving, forming and unforming, seamlessly.
The true "I" to which we all refer is beyond name and form. It is not the personality. It is deeper and vaster and freer than anything perceivable or conceivable. It is deathless and all-inclusive, without beginning or end. It is the Ocean, not any single wave, for “a wave” is only an abstract idea, a freezing and carving up of reality. In reality, there is no clear boundary where one wave begins and another ends. Another word for the Ocean in this case is Consciousness, Primordial Awareness, or the Self. This energy shows up one moment as a chair, one moment as a fish, one moment as a mother's face, one moment a long dark tunnel, one moment a bright light, one moment a cloudscape at sunset, one moment a traffic jam, one moment falling snow, one moment the unseeable darkness and stillness of deep sleep (the deepest part of the ocean). All of it, all these different waves or forms, are one Ocean, one Consciousness, one intelligence, one energy experiencing itself in endless variations. In reality, there is no border between life and death, or between existence and non-existence. It is one seamless happening.
Much is made of near-death experiences, but NDEs are just that, experiences that happen to people who are near death. Their heart and their breathing may have temporarily stopped, they may briefly have been medically brain dead, but they came back. I suspect that these near death experiences are what happens in the moments right before they “died” or as they were coming back to life. They are experiences in consciousness. They resemble dreams, visions or hallucinations. Christians see Jesus, Hindus see Krishna. I don't doubt the reality of these experiences as experiences, but as far as I can see, they are no indication of what awaits us "after death." They may offer some peace and solace, but there is a much deeper peace and solace available right here, right now, at the heart of every moment.
For some people, NDEs and out-of-body experiences are ways to “prove” that consciousness is not dependent on the brain, that consciousness survives death. But this is once again rooted in a kind of dualistic thinking, dividing mind from matter, the brain from consciousness, existence from non-existence, and then trying to decide which comes first, the chicken or the egg. But the universe can’t be pulled apart that way. These pairs arise together as one whole happening. That doesn’t mean that consciousness is “in” the brain, or that consciousness is merely some kind of materialistic brain-creation, or that the brain comes first, but rather, all of these words refer to one energy, one undivided happening. Our thoughts about cause and effect, and what comes before and after, are just that—thoughts, conceptual abstractions, maps of a territory that is actually ungraspable, indivisible and inconceivable, a territory that needs no proof.
Does “my consciousness” survive death? The question itself is misconceived, just like asking what will happen to me if I fall off the edge of the flat earth. In fact, “my consciousness” was never really separate and never really had an owner. The “me” who seemingly owns “my consciousness” is a mirage created by thoughts, memories, images, stories and sensations. “The body” is another conceptual abstraction of what is actuality ever-changing energy and movement, inseparable from and interdependent with everything it supposedly is not. Consciousness was never really encapsulated inside of “my body.” If anything, it was the other way around—“me” and “my body” were intermittent, ever-changing, momentary appearances in consciousness, fluid wavings of the ocean. No wave is separate from the ocean—it is an activity of the ocean, and the ocean simply keeps waving, just as life keeps peopling. Everything is endlessly dying and being born, but just as there is no solid “thing” that reincarnates from one wave to another, there is no “me” to go from one lifetime to another. This “me” is an idea. Living without it is called liberation.
From the awakened perspective, fascination with NDEs, past lives and visions of the afterlife is like being fascinated with elves and Santa Claus. Losing our present experience and dying to everything we know may be a scary thought. But actually, it is an immense relief. It is the refreshment of deep sleep. And it can happen right now in the waking state. Not by physically dying, not by falling asleep, not by forgetting your name or going into some rarified samadhi state. But simply by relaxing into bare being. Noticing that there is really nothing here to die in the first place.
There is an immense freedom Here / Now, at the heart of the present moment, in the open space of unbound awareness. Freedom but not free will. Free will seems rooted in the mistaken notion that thought (which is identified as "me") is in the driver's seat and can "choose" which road to take. When we observe carefully, we see that the so-called choice unfolds choicelessly. Interests, desires, thoughts and actions arise by themselves. In any moment when we are awake as unbound aware presence, there seems to be no question of making a choice or free will. Action simply flows. And it seems to flow from a place of wholeness and intelligence rather than from conditioned habit and old ruts as it does in the absence of this kind of aware presence, when attention is caught up in obsessive, self-centered thought (and by self-centered, I mean revolving around or rooted in the fictitious separate self). The whole question of free will only seems to arise from delusion (imagined separation, identification as "me"). Neither the notion of having a choice or not having a choice really captures reality as it is. Thought can never capture reality. It can only offer maps. But we can begin to discover directly for ourselves where true freedom resides. This is a discovery we make not by thinking about it, but by letting go into it, dissolving into that absolute absence of control that is freedom itself.
Lent has begun in the Christian liturgical calendar, commemorating the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Lent is a season of repentance and atonement. My favorite definition of repentance is from the Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating, who said that to repent is “to change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.”
Where are we looking for happiness? I get many emails from people trying to sort all this nonduality stuff out mentally, trying to reconcile different pointers, trying to think their way to enlightenment (and presumably, to happiness). Compulsive thinking and looking for love (or truth, or happiness) in all the wrong places is familiar territory to most of us. So I’d like to share a response I sent off to one of these email queries recently:
The main thing I would say is that you can't figure all this out by thinking about it, analyzing it, and either picking apart or trying to reconcile different pointers. All of that is the thinking mind on its hamster wheel chasing its own tail round and round.
What is being pointed to by all the many different maps and sign posts is the living reality Here / Now. My suggestion would be, at least for awhile (a few weeks? a month?), put all the books aside and simply explore life directly for yourself. Not by thinking and reasoning about it, but by relaxing into the simplicity of Here / Now: breathing-sensing-awaring-being. ..just this...the bare energy, presence and suchness of your own being (which is not separate from the whole universe). Listen to the traffic, the wind, the rain...hang out with your baby (the best guru you could hope to find)...watch the snow falling and spring blossoms emerging...close your eyes and explore whether you can find an actual boundary where inside of you turns into outside of you...observe closely how thoughts and actions arise, how so-called choices unfold...sense the body, all the subtle ways it contracts and expands, wordlessly...feel these ever-changing sensations, exploring them nonverbally with awareness....spend time in silence, sitting quietly, doing nothing...walk in nature, leave your Smartphone behind...this is what I would suggest. Being just this moment, nothing more and nothing less.
Of course, the habit of thinking will assert itself again and again. It is an old habit, deeply engrained, that it has been practiced and reinforced for many years. It will feel very compelling and promising, this urge to think, and it may seem safer to think than to simply be here, aware and present, without words or explanations. But is it possible, if only for moments at a time, to simply notice this compelling urge to think...to feel it in the body....to feel the restlessness, the unease, the fear, the longing, whatever is there...to be with all of this nonverbally, without trying to escape, without trying to get the right explanation or the winning answer? Find out! (Of course this doesn’t mean giving up functional thinking or trying to abolish all thoughts, but see if it’s possible to recognize when the thinking mind is on the hamster wheel, obsessively churning over imaginary problems, and find out if it is possible to stop, to shift from thought to awareness, from analysis to presence, from grasping to opening and letting go).
What you are seeking is not in a book. You won't find it in an email. It's in your own heart, your own being. It's Here / Now. Listening....being....reading these words…breathing…beholding it all…
I’m not saying never to read a book or listen to another teacher. Books and teachers and Facebook posts and even email exchanges can be helpful sometimes. But can we sense the difference between reading compulsively as part of a desperate effort to grasp things mentally, and reading openly, spaciously…listening with the whole bodymind…as an act of love? These two modes feel completely different in the body. Are we searching the internet or the bookshelves or Facebook with the desperation of a drug addict seeking to escape some present discomfort and find some momentary future ecstasy? Or are we reading in the same open and spacious way that we might listen to the rain, appreciating and enjoying all the wet gurgling plunking rushing tapping sounds, not needing it to mean anything or do something for us, simply allowing it all to wash through us, with no division between the rain and the listening presence?
We’re no longer trying to figure everything out, looking for answers and seeking happiness “out there” somewhere. We know where happiness is.
In my last post, I mentioned that one spiritual teacher defined repentance as changing the direction in which we are looking for happiness. That could also be described as turning around and looking back toward that which is doing the looking. Instead of looking “out there” for God (or happiness, or truth, or love, or freedom), we turn our gaze around and look back to the very source of the looking. Of course, this is like the eye trying to see itself, the sword trying to cut itself, or the fire trying to burn itself, so whenever we do this, there is an immediate collapse of the apparent divide between subject and object, a melting away of the apparent separation between inside and outside, a dissolving of all apparent boundaries, and a realization that what is looking through “our” eyes is none other than God. Whether we call it Awareness or Presence or God or the Self or emptiness, it is the undivided energy or aliveness Here / Now, this ever-changing present experiencing. Without thought dividing it up and freezing it into apparently separate parts, there is no subject and no object, no seer and no seen. There is only nondual seeing. And this alive presence is endlessly (which means presently) realizing itself as this entire manifestation, this incredible dance of form. THIS is the Holy Reality.
This dance includes absolutely everything. It includes not only the “good stuff,” but all the difficulties, problems, apparent obstructions, pain and suffering as well. Nothing is left out. The light and the dark arise together and cannot be pulled apart. The perfection we are seeking is right here. The thinking mind can’t quite believe that this could be true. We have a deep belief that something needs to be fixed, achieved or eliminated BEFORE we can truly be awake and free and happy. But what if that’s not true?
Sometimes when we hear these invitations to turn around and look toward the source of awareness, or to look and see “Who am I?”, we get stuck trying to see the source (the seer, the ultimate subject, the awaring presence, God) as an object. We turn our gaze around 360 degrees and look backward toward the looking, but somehow we’re still looking “out there” for some-THING. We still believe there’s SOMETHING to find and something that has to happen other than what is happening. But when there is that instant apperception or recognition of the impossibility of seeing the seeing, when we realize that not finding anything in particular is the freedom we’ve been looking for, when we realize that all experiences are transitory, when we stop LOOKING for SOMETHING and relax instead into BEING just this moment, then there is no more “out there” or “in here,” no more separation between nothing and everything. We realize that we ARE what we were looking for. Here / Now IS the Holy Reality, and it is not other than this present experiencing that is most intimate and from which nothing stands apart. This is it. No division. No gap.
Still, thought continues to operate, and by nature, it operates in dualities. It abstracts and reifies. Conditioned perception also divides (and simultaneously unifies) everything. So the APPARENT gap, the APPARENT division continue to show up. Multiplicity and relative separation appear in this dance, as does the functional sense of being a particular individual in the play of life. But when we lose sight of the bigger picture, when thought misidentifies the SENSE of unbound presence with the IDEA of an encapsulated separate self, then quite naturally, we feel vulnerable and conflicted, struggling to survive. In some sense, this is part of our biology, our animal nature, although with human beings it gets carried over into psychological realms as well. We worry about the future and regret the past. We feel abandoned, betrayed, misunderstood, anxious. We get angry or defensive, we chase after pleasant experiences, we run from pain and suffering, and we become addicted to a multitude of escapes that only sink us deeper in the quicksand. This is the human experience. Consciousness loves stories, it loves to build sand castles and then smash them. It loves drama and excitement. This is the nature of mind, the nature of the ride.
But we often get the idea in spirituality that all of this is some kind of pathology that we have to fix, that our job is to squash the thinking mind once and for all, and reduce our emotional life to a flatline, and erase any sense of separation or multiplicity, so that we can exist as pure nondual awareness forever after, perpetually blissed out, always calm and loving. But what if we already ARE pure nondual awareness? What if the play of the mind is not really a problem? What if liberation is simply seeing this play clearly and being at the very heart of it, rather than vanquishing it forever?
Many religious and spiritual traditions have perpetuated the idea that awakening means renouncing the body, denying the world of the senses, and becoming some kind of formless nothingness—as if the entire experience of life is somehow a huge mistake from which we need to turn away. But I would suggest that awakening is the realization that EVERYTHING is the Holy Reality, realizing itself as you and me and every passing form—the whole dance. So the challenge of awakening is not to deny the senses and our personhood or to become some kind of nameless, formless nothingness devoid of personality, but rather, to fully be who we are—not only in the sense of being the Absolute No-thing-ness, but also in the sense of fully and whole-heartedly embracing and being this particular individual, this unique human expression. And by that, I mean not what society has told us that we “should” be, but who we truly feel and know that we are in our heart.
That might mean having the courage to speak up and say things we have always been too afraid to say. It might be the courage to come out as gay or transgender after decades of denying it. It might mean having the courage to dress the way we feel called to dress, not the way we think we “should” dress. It might mean finally having the courage to stand up for a cause we care deeply about. It might be the courage to take singing lessons, or to make a movie, or to have a child, or to not have a child. It is about bringing forth what is within us, being true to our own heart, following our bliss (as Joseph Campbell and my mother used to say), allowing our light to shine unobstructed, being comfortable in our own skin, allowing ourselves to truly be as we are. This is not always easy and can be the work of a lifetime. And it’s probably never completely finished. So it’s not about achieving perfection as we imagine it, but rather, embracing the living reality as it is—which always includes the defects and the unfinished business as part of the true perfection and wholeness.
We often hear about “no self” and “identifying as awareness and not as the bodymind” and that “who we truly are is beyond gender and personality,” and we get the mistaken idea that none of the things I mentioned above (gender identity, style of dress, creative expression, doing what we love, etc.) are important—they’re all just trivial, dream-stuff. We shouldn’t care about such things if we really want to get to the ultimate spiritual realization. There are certain strands of nondual teaching that strongly suggest that anything in the phenomenal manifestation is to be discarded and ignored. But isn’t this a false divide, another form of dualistic thinking? Genuine expression and identity becomes erroneously conflated with the kind of egoic self-identity that actually IS problematic. We throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I would say that to dance our unique dance and let our light shine unabashed is not other than God realizing and expressing itself through this dance of form. Formlessness (or emptiness, or no-thing-ness) isn’t something “out there” apart from, or other than, form, like some giant container or some big empty space. Emptiness is the very NATURE of form. Emptiness is the non-solidity, the thorough-going impermanence, the interdependence of everything. There is no form other than emptiness, and no emptiness outside of form.
To appreciate the world of the senses, to be awake to this present experiencing, is to be filled with wonder and gratitude. Direct experience is non-dual. But instead of encouraging us to open more fully to the aliveness of every moment, to BE this amazing dance, to dance our dance whole-heartedly, religion too often seems to encourage us to close down and turn away. We try to achieve some imaginary nothingness. Or we try to be constantly mindful and behave in idealized ways. We want to purify ourselves. We cultivate peace and quiet to such an extreme that we can no longer tolerate noise or disruption. Pretty soon we are looking upon everything that happens as a distraction. The neighbor’s lawn mower, the barking dog down the street, the screaming children in the other room, the unwanted smells from the kitchen of the nearby restaurant, the demands of our job, our own restless thoughts and desires, our wife and children—these all begin to seem like obstacles that are keeping us away from God. We imagine that living in a monastery would be totally different (until we live in one and discover it isn’t). We take up sleeping on a bed of nails, wearing a hair shirt or whipping ourselves—if not literally, then metaphorically—in an effort to purify ourselves. I think many of us do exactly this in various ways much of the time. And we mistakenly think that this kind of activity is what repentance means.
So I would suggest that true spirituality is not about denying the body or denying our identity as a particular person. It’s not about suppressing our unique personality and our beautiful individuality. It’s not about covering our eyes and ears, ignoring our senses, tuning out, or trying to escape the world. It’s not about transcending the messiness and imperfection of life and reaching some zoned out state of perpetual bliss. It’s rather about realizing that ALL of this is God, and that what we truly are includes but is not confined to any particular form. We are not encapsulated inside or limited to a body, but we are the body and the whole universe! No body is separate from the whole rest of the universe. We’re not against form, but we realize that no form is really solid or persisting. And with this realization, we are free to play in form, to dance our unique dance whole-heartedly, embracing everything that shows up as part of ourselves and part of the dance—the lawn mower, the barking dog, the screaming baby, the kitchen smells, our job, our thoughts and desires, our depression and anxiety, global events, even wars and mass shootings—the whole show! Not that we like all of this, not that some of it isn’t terribly painful, not that we may not be moved to work toward changing some of it, but it is all allowed to be here in this embrace of love. We see only God everywhere. We recognize that the defects and the unfinished business are part of how it all works, part of the perfection and the wholeness.
Even periodically imagining ourselves as a lost fragment adrift in an alien universe is no longer a problem that “I” must fix in order to get enlightened or be okay. It is simply a happening of the moment, part of the human dance, a scene in the movie of waking life, something to notice and question and see through. Enlightenment and delusion arise together. So even the delusion is beautiful—this momentary sense of separation, this anxiety in the body, this wave of despair that calls us home. Nothing needs to be other than how it is. Instead of grabbing for a belief that will give us security, instead of trying to push away our insecurities, we learn to rest in the doubtless certainty that remains when every belief falls away and when we embrace our worst fears instead of pushing them away.
Enlightenment is nothing more than re-turning home in this moment, being fully present, being just this moment. It is not some permanent experience that will prevent us from ever again having doubts, or getting caught up in old emotional patterns, or behaving in less than perfect ways. These things happen to human beings, and they happen to some more than others because of the ten million causes and conditions of nature and nurture. But in any moment, true repentance is possible. To change the direction in which we are looking for happiness, to turn around and realize that we ARE what we are looking for, and that when we stop searching for God “out there” or trying to purify Here / Now, that we already are Home. This is it. True spirituality always points to the living reality of this very moment, being awake to the sacredness that is Here / Now, even in the apparent defects. I’m talking about what is simplest and most intimate, this immediacy of hearing-seeing-sensing-awaring-b eing, this undivided, ever-changing, ever-present Here / Now that is all there is.
And whatever form it takes, however troubling it seems, you might ask yourself, what if it's not a problem?
Nonduality or awakening isn’t theoretical. It’s not mystical. It isn’t something to figure out. It isn’t a peak experience or a special experience other than the one you are having right now. It’s never in the future or the past. It’s not an attainment. It’s being just this moment, the utter simplicity of what is.
Waking up from the trance of thoughts, concepts and beliefs, what remains is the freedom in which no solid or continuous thing forms, the realization that nothing is separate from anything else, that everything contains and is made of everything else, that all of it is a seamless and dynamic happening from which nothing stands apart. Liberation is the falling away of all resistance to what is, waking up to the boundlessness, the spaciousness, the aliveness that is Here / Now. This awakening is not something that happens once-and-for-all or forever-after, nor is it something that happened in the past or that might happen in the future. It is always only right now.
Ultimately, liberation is all about love. Awareness or presence (being just this moment) is unconditional love. Loving the world and loving ourselves. Loving our apparent enemies as well as our friends. Loving those parts of the world and of ourselves that seem terrible and unacceptable to us, the deep wounds—our anger, reactivity, neediness, shame, depression, failures, selfishness, greed, defensiveness, addictions, fears, attempts to control everything.
Usually, these are the places in ourselves and in the world that we habitually want to escape or condemn. But these are the places that most need our love, not our hatred, judgment or condemnation. Of course, that doesn’t mean condoning harmful behavior or not trying to change what is hurtful or unjust, but we don’t transform ourselves or the world by hating, condemning, shaming, blaming or ignoring, but rather by loving. Love is another word for awareness—complete, nonjudgmental attention without a motive, attention in which there is no separation between seer and seen. Instead of running from what we dislike, we turn toward it and embrace it. Awareness accepts everything as it is, seeing it clearly, beholding it without judgment. Awareness has no agenda, and yet it is only in awareness (or love) that true transformation can happen. In the light of awareness, something genuinely fresh and new can enter the picture. This is the source of all true creativity and all intelligent action.
No one can tell us how to love or how to let go of our resistance. It doesn’t work to deny or fight against our resistance or to pretend that we feel loving when we don’t. What works is to start right where we are, right here, right now—to stop running away, to stop chasing a better condition, and instead to simply be completely present with how it actually is right now, however it is. This doesn’t mean getting lost in the STORY of how we THINK it is, but rather, being completely open to, and totally intimate with, the taste and texture of this very moment, the bare sensations, the energy itself. How is it? Not to answer with a label or an explanation, but to actually taste it, feel it, experience it, allow it to fully reveal itself. This is closer than any story or any explanation. And at the core of every sensation, beholding it all, is the listening stillness, the awaring presence in which there is space for everything to be as it is. Here, there is no division between seer and seen, there is only seeing. One whole undivided happening. This is both a description of the ever-present, ever-changing fundamental reality that we are, and it is also a kind of path or practice: BEING just this moment, without expecting a cure, without looking for a result. This bare being is a radical act. It is true love, true compassion, true healing. And it can only occur now.
Actually, there’s no way to avoid being just this moment or to avoid being Here / Now. This is all there is. We already ARE the awakeness, the Open Heart, the love, the joy, the peace that we seek. It isn’t “out there” somewhere else. It’s right here. But we can THINK our way into imaginary separation and fragmentation. So waking up is simply being just this moment, and then SEEING how we move away from the simplicity of what is, how thought creates imaginary problems, how it creates the mirage-like owner who seems to have these problems, how consciousness gets lost in the story of “this isn’t it” and “I’m not there yet.” SEEING all of this is the beginning of true transformation, seeing it as it happens, now…and now…and now. We can’t fight these old, conditioned patterns of thought. We can’t MAKE them go away or WILL them out of existence. But they can be seen, and we may find that they dissolve quite naturally in the light of awareness.
And not to expect that they will never come back, that one day we will finally “arrive” and cross some mythical finish-line after which these troubling patterns of mind and body will be gone forever. This very idea is thought again, imagining future results, imagining a better me, wanting to escape the present, chasing after some imaginary ideal, wanting to have the light without the dark. Awakening is waking up from these kinds of thoughts, seeing them for the delusion that they are. Waking up can only happen now. It’s always about now. Forever-after is a dream. And in wakefulness, no one is leftover to claim this as “my awakening.”
In fact, no one is doing this waking up. It is happening by itself, as is everything we do to cultivate and encourage it (meditation, satsangs, nondual books, reading this Facebook post). It is all the happening of life, and the apparent darkness, the apparent mistakes, the apparent failures are all part of the dance. Awakening is that recognition—the unconditional love that sees only the Holy Reality everywhere. This is it.
I recently had an email asking, “Does being ‘deeply spiritual’ mean being curious, intrigued, questioning your own existence, your thoughts, the existence of life in the Universe, the nature of time and so on? If so, what is the divide between spiritual and scientific?”
I'd say yes to the first question. And for sure, having the curiosity, the open mind, the discernment and the rigor of a scientist is very helpful on the pathless path. Questioning everything, testing it out, not settling for what cannot be verified. But scientific verification and spiritual verification are different in nature. Which gets to the second question.
I would say that science and spirituality are different ways of exploring or engaging with life. Both are valuable and both have their place. As aspects of one seamless happening, they are not divided or separate, but at the same time, we can discern differences between them.
Science stands outside of something and tries to understand or explain it objectively. Of course, this objectivity is imperfect. In recent years, science has noticed that the very act of observing effects what is being observed. We can never step outside of the consciousness within which everything is appearing. But within this limitation, science comes as close to objectivity as it is humanly possible to get. And although scientific integrity can be compromised at times by the profit motive or the desire for personal success, the scientific method is better equipped than anything else in the human toolbox to prevent such abuses and to bring them to light when they do occur. So although science is imperfect and subject to human error, it comes as close to unbiased objectivity as humans can get. It relies on open observation, creative insights, rational thought, and factual evidence and testing that can be replicated and verified.
Spirituality or religion, on the other hand, might be described as absolute subjectivity. And while some amount of objective observing and reasoning is involved in intelligent spirituality, at its heart, spirituality is about the immediacy of direct experiencing. It is about seeing and knowing directly, embodying or BEING or being awake to the nondual reality Here / Now. And it has to do with more than clear seeing. It also has something to do with the heart, with love and compassion, with a kind of energetic openness of heart-body-mind. Spirituality is messier, more alive, harder to pin down, impossible to capture in abstract formulas or equations.
Let’s take an example. Let’s consider a kiss. Science would stand back and study the mechanics of the kiss—the chemistry, the physiology, the biology, the physics, the evolutionary development of kissing. It would test out various hypotheses and come up with theories and explanations as to why we kiss, what chemical reactions are triggered, what biological purposes kissing serves, and so on. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the direct experiencing of kissing—the actuality itself, which can never be analyzed or explained or observed from the outside, but only enjoyed and experienced subjectively. Every kiss is unique. It is not some kind of rational experiment that can be replicated or formulated, but rather, it is a passionate happening that can only be lived. It is a movement of the whole bodymind and the heart, an expression of love and desire, something that cannot be measured or quantified. Kissing someone is not about standing back and observing, but rather, dissolving into the event completely, melting away any sense of separation. Both approaches to kissing have their place—the scientific study and the total nondual engagement—but they are quite different.
One of the most enlightening discussions of science and religion is in Steve Hagen's book Buddhism Is Not What You Think, a book which I very highly recommend to everyone. In a chapter called “We’ve Got It All Backward,” Steve turns upside down our usual idea that religion is about beliefs while science is about reality. He suggests that it should be exactly the opposite. Science, he says, needs belief to function and has the tools to use beliefs constructively—i.e., it constructs conceptualized models of the world, theorizes, posits a hypothesis, tests it out, and is always open to questioning and changing whatever conclusions are reached. Whereas when religion is about belief, we get fundamentalism and dogmatism. Science currently believes that the earth rotates around the sun, but if tomorrow some new evidence comes to light that suggests a very different picture of what is going on, science will examine the evidence in an objective manner and potentially change what it believes. Whereas religion too often claims that its beliefs have been handed down from God, are infallible, and cannot be questioned or revised.
Steve suggests (and I agree completely) that true religion (or true spirituality) should concern itself primarily with that which is here prior to any beliefs, that which cannot be doubted—immediate, direct knowing or being—not the interpretive, abstract, conceptual maps that explain or analyze it. The territory of true religion is upstream from the abstractions of thought, or deeper than thought, however you want to say it. Religion, we could say, is about the Ultimate Subject and/or the nondual subjectivity of direct experiencing, whereas science is an objective study of the phenomenal world. Religion is about the nondual Whole, the indivisible BEING of this present moment, while science breaks things up conceptually and examines them by standing back.
In Buddhism, more than any other religion I have ever encountered, the approach is one of deconstruction. Nagarjuna, one of the greatest Buddhist teachers, shows how every way we conceive of reality fails to hold up under close scrutiny, but he never offers us the correct way of conceptualizing reality because there is no correct way. Reality cannot be boxed up and contained in any abstract concept or representation. The map is never the territory it represents. Maps can be helpful, but only if we hold them lightly, seeing them as tentative approximations rather than as infallible divine revelations.
Of course, this is very frustrating to the grasping mind. We desperately want the One True Map so that we can hold onto it for dear life. But that’s not real freedom. Real freedom is in the realization that we don’t need to hold on to anything, and that in fact we can’t hold on to anything. There is nothing solid to hold onto and we are not separate from whatever we try to grasp—we cannot stand outside of consciousness or separate ourselves from Here / Now. We are not a cork being swept helplessly down a rushing stream, but rather, we are the streaming itself—and there is ONLY streaming, and in that realization, there is nothing to fear. And even that description is just a map. It won’t hold up under close scrutiny because the map is only a representation. It is the direct experience that liberates, not the map.
And the direct experience is nothing exotic or mystical. It is this moment right now, this very experiencing Here / Now that is utterly immediate and unavoidable. As they say in Zen, ordinary mind is the way.
The interpretations and explanations of WHAT this is Here / Now can always be questioned and doubted. And there can be different maps of the territory. Advaita offers one map (the immutable Self) and Buddhism offers a different map (impermanence, thorough-going flux and no-self), but both maps are simply different ways of representing the same actuality. If we cling to the map, we can argue over which is right, Buddhism or Advaita, but if we dissolve into the territory itself, there is no argument.
Consciousness is seeing from infinite points of view, and no two people are ever seeing exactly the same movie, the same content. None of what is seen has any observer-independent, inherent, objective reality “out there” somewhere. The content, the storyline, the conceptual abstraction, the illusion of a separate self and an objective reality “out there” apart from me are what is referred to in nondual spiritual teachings as dream-like. And that conceptual abstraction includes even this notion that there are billions of separate individuals each seeing their own unique movie of waking life. The apparently continuous forms and apparent dividing lines between them are always only an appearance, a creation of smoke and mirrors (aka neurological sensations, thoughts and ideas). The bare energetic happening is undivided and seamless—it is one seeing, one being (regardless of content or appearance). Even to say “one” is saying too much. Simply notice that the bare actuality of being Here / Now is unavoidable, inescapable and beyond doubt. And yet, try to grasp WHAT this is, and you immediately fall into doubt and confusion. It cannot be grasped, formulated or explained.
Of course, science offers us many valuable insights into the nature of relative reality. Without the insights of science, we could not have traveled to the moon, built the internet, or found a cure for smallpox. And relatively speaking, we can explain many things through science. But religion is about something else—it is about the bigger context and the most intimate reality, which are one and the same. Religion is about Here / Now. It is not an objective study of Here / Now, but a direct knowing and being of Here / Now. Religion is being just this moment.
Of course, many religions are about something else entirely. They are about beliefs, philosophies, cosmologies, dogmas, ethics, moral codes, superstitions, rituals, traditions, and so on. These are dualistic answers to our desire for certainty and security. And it is the fundamentalist version of this kind of religion that passionate atheists fight against. It is easy to make fun of some of these childish versions of religions that still hold wide appeal in our world today, and many of these fundamentalist forms of religion are obviously very dangerous as well. But I suspect that hidden away somewhere at the heart of every great religion is the simple truth of presence, awareness, love, beingness, non-separation, nonduality.
Science is itself an expression of this infinite energy that no word or concept can capture. So ultimately, there is no division between science and spirituality. We can draw distinctions for purposes of discussion and clarification, and if we mix the functions of science and religion up, it can cause problems for us, but ultimately, there is only one whole undivided happening from which nothing stands apart. And even that description is only a map. So if we try to hold onto it, turn it into infallible gospel, defend it, proselytize it—or if we mistake it for Reality Itself and try to live inside it, we will suffer. Freedom is in using the map as a tool to point us in the right direction (which is always no direction at all, but Here / Now), and then letting the map go and BEING just this moment, exactly as it is. This is very easy, because it is what we cannot not be. So it is simply a matter of seeing through the belief that “this isn’t it,” and relaxing into the simplicity of what is.
Someone asked me recently if I consider myself a radical nondualist and what I mean by radical nonduality.
Labels and categories have a functional utility in telegraphing certain information, but it’s always important to remember that these categories are only conceptual and that reality itself is not something that can be boxed up. One of the dangers in labels is that we may each be using the same label to mean slightly different things.
I began using the term radical nonduality some years ago to refer to something very specific, and now I see others using this term in quite different ways than I do, so probably many of us came up with it simultaneously to refer to different things. Just as Buddhism means many different things to different people and has many different branches, so it is now with radical nonduality.
The word radical means to go to the root. It indicates something that goes directly to the heart of the matter, rather than spending time with the secondary leaves and branches. It suggests something fundamental, stripped down, uncompromising, unconventional, nontraditional, thorough, complete, direct, even extreme. Given that understanding of the word radical, it could obviously refer to a very broad group of teachings.
But when I began using the term radical nonduality a decade or more ago, I was referring to a specific style of contemporary nondual expression that uncompromisingly puts forth ONLY the absolute truth. This kind of teaching is a DESCRIPTION of reality, never a prescription for how to realize the truth, because the absolute truth is that “this is it” and there is no way to get any closer to reality than you always already are. This kind of uncompromisingly absolute expression relentlessly undermines the root illusion of separate things and independent agency. It emphasizes the undivided unicity in which there is no independent self to have any kind of free will or to become enlightened. Tony Parsons, Nathan Gill, Darryl Bailey, Leo Hartong, Karl Renz, Sailor Bob Adamson and Gilbert Schultz would be examples of this kind of uncompromising, absolute, radical nondual expression as I meant the term.
Others seem to use the term radical nonduality much more broadly to refer to many contemporary satsang teachers, Advaita teachers, Zen teachers, and so on. This broader group might include Adyashanti, Gangaji, Mooji, Jon Bernie, Steve Hagen, Anam Thubten, Rupert Spira, Krishnamurti, Toni Packer, Buddha and Jesus. I would fully agree that this broader group can all be considered equally (or perhaps even more) radical (to the root) than the group I mentioned before, depending on how one understands the root. And it’s not that one way of using this term is correct and the other incorrect, but rather, if we’re having a conversation or trying to communicate something, we simply need to clarify how we are each using the term so that we can avoid misunderstandings.
The nondual realization that everything is one whole undivided happening with no one in control is found at the heart of Buddhism, Advaita and Taoism. But in Buddhism, for example, this absolute truth is always balanced with a more relative and practical perspective that includes the recognition of relative reality (the world of multiplicity and apparently separate people) and the offering of a path. At a bare minimum, that path would include meditation and inquiry, but it might also include being part of a community, work, service, rituals, ceremonies, vows, precepts, ethical guidelines, working with a teacher, long retreats, and so on. In other words, in Buddhism, there is BOTH a description of reality, which may be very radical and absolute, AND there is also a prescriptive path for how to wake up from or see through our confusion and delusion, and there is an acknowledgement of relative reality and a sense of not clinging to (or fixating on, or being stuck in) either the relative or the absolute perspective. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. Not one, not two.
In the absolute sense, we can never not be the One Reality, but in the more relative sense, there can be enlightenment or delusion in any given moment. And so, there are practices and paths. These can even include what is often called a direct or pathless path, in which case it is stripped down to the bare minimum, but there is still some emphasis (however subtle) given to a kind of doing or non-doing in the moment (allowing everything to be as it is, letting go, stopping, bringing attention to the present moment, resting in awareness, questioning thoughts, not seeking or resisting anything, surrendering, being in the Now, not doing anything, and so on). Teachers who exemplify this kind of direct or pathless path might include Eckhart Tolle, Toni Packer, Rupert Spira, Adyashanti, Mooji, Gangaji, Francis Lucille, Krishnamurti, Papaji and Jean Klein.
At a certain point in my journey, I found the uncompromisingly absolute nondual teachings, the ones I called radical nonduality, especially liberating. I had been trying very hard to "do it right" and improve myself and cross the finish-line once and for all and become permanently enlightened, and these teachings emphasized the perfection of what is, just as it is. There was nothing to attain. There was simply this, just as it is. It was a huge relief. It felt very freeing to realize that everything that happened was the activity of life itself and not my personal doing. This kind of radical nonduality also popped me out of feeling stuck in, or attached to, certain forms, such as assuming that silence or physical stillness was a requirement for presence. When I went on a retreat with Tony Parsons where there were no rules, and where some people were meditating in silence and others were laughing and playing ping pong, the boundary between what was spiritual and what wasn’t spiritual collapsed. Having a cup of coffee or watching TV was every bit as nondual as sitting in meditation. Again, what a relief! Something within me relaxed. And while ALL of this is actually there in satsang teachings and Zen and many other teachings, it is often overshadowed by the emphasis on practices and attainments, and thus it was from these radical nondual teachers that it finally really hit the mark here. There was no wiggle room to move away from exactly this, right here, right now—being just this moment.
For a brief period of time during the years when I was living in Chicago, I was a dedicated radical nondualist, or at least, I tried to be. I thought this kind of message was the most advanced, most radical thing going, and I definitely wanted to be in the most radical or advanced group possible. But as hard as I tried not to, I found that I still valued meditation, that I still felt that there was something to do (or not do), and that neither the notion of having a choice or not having a choice really captured reality as it is. I also noticed that wanting to be in the most advanced group was another form of egoic delusion. I found myself going back to Springwater (the center founded by Toni Packer where I had once been on staff) for retreats, exploring Buddhism again, and listening again to satsang teachers who offered a blend of absolute and relative perspectives together, not fixating on either side. I realized that what I experienced as truly radical (truly the heart of the matter, the core, the root) was presence, awareness, unconditional love, awakeness Here / Now—and it seemed to me like some people in what I called the radical nondual scene were perhaps caught up in a new ideology without really being present or awake at all. In other words, it sometimes seemed that radical nonduality was (inadvertently) more about closing down (having an answer) than opening up (living in wonder and not-knowing).
Today I would no longer identify myself as a radical nondualist as I use the term, although I wouldn’t say I’m not a radical nondualist in this sense either. I still feel an immense affinity with and appreciation for the best radical nondual expressions, and many of my own expressions on any given day (or in any given FB post, or any particular chapter of a book) may fit quite well into this mode. But for me, it feels more genuine and liberating to include both relative and absolute views and to focus not only on the absolute understanding that “this is it,” but also to talk about the liberating power of awareness, the importance of questioning beliefs and seeing through thoughts, and the possibility of waking up to the immediacy of this present sensory, energetic reality before thought divides it up. To insist that none of this has any value or that there is no one who can do it feels to me like being stuck on one side of a conceptual divide, fixated on a particular map, clinging to half the truth. Yes, I can see how offering any kind of path, however direct and pathless it may be, might feed into the unhelpful notion that “this isn’t it” and that there is somebody who is, or who should be, in control and doing a better job. But such is the paradox of trying to convey any of this in words. Every map you pick up has the potential to mislead.
It’s totally clear here that there is no one at the helm, and yet it is also clear that there is a possibility to wake up, to open the heart, to bring awareness to the darkness in our lives. This happens not on command through individual will, but as a happening of life itself. This possibility is in one sense always available, and in another sense, not always available. There is no “me” (no separate agency) that can do it, but on the other hand, THIS that acts is not other than the presence-awareness that is right here, most intimate: the One without a second, Here / Now. Thus, I try to find a balance between offering something that can be done and acknowledging that sometimes we can't do it. There are many teachers who emphasize ONLY "You can do it!" (on the one side) or ONLY "You are totally powerless" (on the other side), and each of these apparently opposite sides might argue that my middle way dilutes the power of their pure and uncompromising message, and that criticism surely has some truth. But to me, this middle way feels more in alignment with the way reality actually is. And having said that, I also have a very strong sense that there is no single right way, and that we all find the approaches and perspectives we need, which may change over time.
Ultimately, I think every true expression of nonduality, whether it is Tony Parsons or Toni Packer, Darryl Bailey or Gangaji, Eckhart Tolle or Sailor Bob, is trying (perhaps not always successfully) to go beyond all IDEAS of free will or no free will. I doubt that any of them are trying to reinforce the illusory separate self, or that any are intending to suggest that we are a leaf blown about by the wind. They are all pointing to the indivisible reality in which there are no such separate elements as leaf and wind acting upon each other, but rather, one seamless undivided happening that can only be broken up conceptually, and then only apparently. In other words, we are leaf and wind and everything else, and none of it is really broken up into separate parts that cause and effect each other. Put another way, we are not like a cork being swept down a rushing stream (as we often imagine when we hear talk of no free will), but rather, there is only streaming. There is simply energy, or consciousness, or life…one whole functioning…and that functioning includes the activity of apparently making choices.
Some expressions put a tremendous emphasis on our powerlessness, helplessness and controllessness as apparent individuals (or I might say, as thought claiming to be "me," or as the neurological sensation of agency giving rise to the mirage-like appearance of an author). Other expressions emphasize the possibility of making a choice. Either way, our desires, impulses, interests, inclinations, preferences, abilities, thoughts and actions are all included in the streaming wholeness that is neither self-power (in the individual sense) nor other-power (in the sense of something external to us that is pushing us around). It is choiceless and yet there is the sense of making choices, and pointing out the absence of free will does not in any way negate my going into a recovery program or seeing a therapist or working toward marriage equality or encouraging people to meditate or anything else that this apparent person called Joan may be moved to do.
It seems to me, experientially, that freedom arises whenever there is complete awareness (total presence in the Now unclouded by thought, and complete acceptance of what is). I notice that I cannot "make" this kind of total awareness happen on command. And what I notice about this kind of aware presence is that it has no agenda, no will, no goal. Action may arise from it, but this action is not anything I could or would call free will, for will is based in conditioned thought. I might say, open awareness is freedom without a "me" or a will. This is precisely what the radical expressions at their best invite us to wake up to, this energetic sense of boundlessness. And even beyond that, to see that even the SENSE of separation and contraction is not other than this streaming wholeness, the ocean waving, unicity appearing as contraction.
I feel that relative truth has its place and should not be dismissed, ignored or discarded. For example, relatively speaking, Martin Luther King had a huge impact on racism in America. In the absolute sense, there is no such thing as MLK apart from everything else in the universe, and racism and the civil rights movement and MLK are one whole undivided event that cannot be broken apart into causes and effects, and all of it is a dream-like happening in consciousness. But relatively speaking, I'm not going to tell some budding new 10-year-old MLK that he is no one, that he can't do anything to influence the world, and that the world is only a dream anyway. That would be mixing up relative and absolute. At the same time, I recognize that no one can decide to be anything other than what they are, so if this budding 10-year-old turns out to be a homeless drunk or a serial killer instead of a hero who transforms society, I won’t be lost in the delusion that he “could” or “should” have done better.
To me, it still feels valuable to offer a certain kind of pathless path (bringing attention to the present moment, shifting from thinking to sensing, allowing everything to be as it is, sitting quietly, various forms of inquiry and exploration, etc). I offer these suggestions to people only with the caveat that we cannot do any of these things on command or at will, that they are happenings of life itself, and that sometimes the power of habit and old conditioning (or brain chemistry or genetics or whatever it is) is stronger than our interest in being here now. I also try to offer these suggestions side-by-side with the absolute truth that there is no way not to be here now (the message I call radical nonduality). I can appreciate why some radical nondualists feel that I am making dualistic compromises that may give people false hope of gaining control, but I feel based on my own experience that it may actually have the opposite effect. I also know that most radical nondual teachers would never say don't meditate. They would simply point out that my interest in meditation, and my seeing things the way I do, is all a happening of life and not an individual choice, and on that, I fully agree with them. I appreciate their uncompromising stance because it leaves no wiggle room for people. Whereas, my way of expressing nonduality does offer more wiggle room. But I think it may also help to disarm the mind to recognize that relative truth has its place rather than simply hammering home the absolute truth in every situation.
Ultimately, all true teachers will tell you that whatever they say is not the Truth. Reality is beyond our comprehension and can never be conceptually boxed up. As the great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna so clearly demonstrated, no way of conceptualizing this holds up under close scrutiny, and no map is ever the territory it describes. On the other hand, as the great Zen Master Dogen said centuries ago, the moon and the pointing finger are a single reality. Whatever you say, it’s never quite right, and yet as Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi said, you have to say something. And so, life babbles on….the wet gurgling splashing trickling sound of rainwater, the sound of waves crashing on the shore, the cheeping of birds, the roaring of traffic, the wailing of a siren, the cry of a baby, the clanging of machinery, the gusting wind, and these little black shapes pouring out onto a Facebook page and instantly forming into meaning in the very imaginative One Mind that is nowhere to be found. Showing up one moment as Eckhart Tolle, another moment as Tony Parsons, another moment as a tree, another as a fish, another as a Beethoven sonata. Try to grasp what this is, and it is like trying to grasp a handful of water or air, smoke or music. And yet, try to escape, and there is nowhere to go that is not Here / Now. What is not the root? What is not radical nonduality?
I had an interesting run-in with a pro-gun rally here in town recently. But before I tell you about that, I’d like to share something by Zen teacher John Tarrant, author of the wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros (which I very highly recommend). What I love about John is the way he seems to find the wonder and the love and the possibility in everything, including the things we usually think are shameful mistakes, erroneous detours, distractions, or flaws in our character (everything from the drunken one-night stand that gave us AIDS to the endless interruptions of our busy lives), and he does this by actually deeply seeing and entering everything with his heart open and inviting us to do the same. What follows is from a piece he wrote about politics. This isn’t engaged Buddhism or liberation theology, nor is it the complete transcendence and dismissal of the political that we often find in Advaita and other forms of nondual spirituality—it is something else altogether, quite earthy and alive. (You’ll find a link at the end to John’s whole article). So here’s Zen teacher John Tarrant on politics:
“We can ignore partisanship to some extent, we can try to avoid it, we can hide ourselves in peaceful places and call ourselves pure if we dare, but that’s not as interesting, or even as kind, as the world of delusion within which politics has its being….
“Politics belongs in the general realm of imperfection, heartless indifference, self-deception, desperate hope, strategic interest, and congenial affection we call civilization. That’s where anyone who is interested in the fate of others hangs out. Also, if you indulge in politics, certain personal implications accompany you; you don’t get away without being transformed by the material you are working with.
“To consider politics is to open yourself–your mind and body, your naked and unoffending skin, your naive hopefulness, and your joy in human company–to a tsunami of lies, humbug, drivel, false promises, masquerade, hypocritical piety, prejudice, greed, murder, and fattening food. To consider politics is to dive into this Hokusai wave of inauthenticity and to say, ‘Hmmm, this seems like a situation I can work with.’….
“The spiritual benefit of engagement in politics comes from going into rather than away from imperfection. And if you are diving right into the heart of delusion, naturally this means into the heart of your own delusion…Down there in the heart of delusion you look like a demon too, just like the rest of us. You’ll have to adapt your fashion sense to having horns and fangs…in order to bring about any sort of transformation you have to work with what is actually the case, rather than what you might have wished for or pretended–in the world, in others, in yourself….
“Another general observation was that if I meditated for a couple of hours every day, I was less crazed by the injustice, madness, and lost hopes around me….meditation is the true rebellion against human limitation. It’s for you and it is also for the universe; it brings joy and willingness to embrace life; it’s nobody’s business but yours, and it steadies you in whatever action you might take.”
--from John Tarrant’s wonderful article “Return To The World: Politics and The Art Of The Impossible,” which you can read in its entirety at Tarrantworks, and you can learn more about John at Pacific Zen Institute.
My story about my encounter with the gun rally and “diving right into the heart of delusion” will follow in a few days, whenever I get around to writing it up and posting it.
So here’s the story I promised. I went to the park one morning recently for a hike. It was a beautiful spring morning and my heart was open and bursting with love. As I walked along the path, I could see there was a large gathering of people in the picnic area ahead of me. I thought it might be a church group or something like that. But as I got closer, I noticed they were all packing guns, some had rifles slung over their shoulders, and there were flags associated with right-wing groups planted in the ground ("Don't tread on me," etc).
Ashland has recently been trying to pass some kind of modest gun control ordinance, so I immediately realized this was a few local gun enthusiasts and mostly a bunch of folks from the more right-wing areas around Ashland gathering here in protest. They were hanging out in a picnic area, smoking cigarettes (which are prohibited in the park), with guns in full view. It felt violent and provocative, an assault on the quiet beauty of the morning (or on my romantic view of nature as beauty without the violence).
I had arrived at the park in a very loving and open-hearted mood, but upon seeing the gun enthusiasts, I was instantly triggered, filled with rage and hatred. The gun-owners seemed in that moment to symbolize everything in America I hate, everything that feels threatening to me (not just the absurd proliferation of guns and gun-related violence, but the whole anti-gay, anti-reproductive rights, anti-government, Tea Party, fundamentalist, racist, war-mongering, right-wing agenda). I almost grabbed their "Don't tread on me" flag and stomped on it, but I restrained myself. I did, however, use my umbrella as a fake gun and pantomimed shooting it at them as I walked by angrily saying, “Bang bang! Let’s kill people! Let’s kill some more children!” Luckily, I did not end up dead or on the local NBC nightly news coverage of the event.
Years ago, when I was a wild drunk, I used to fly into dangerous rages. Although my anger has quieted considerably over the decades, I still have a temper that can flare up, and on occasion, I still find myself uncontrollably saying things that are hurtful, insulting, provocative or mean-spirited. The pro-gun rally was a beautiful mirroring of this primal rage and the underlying vulnerability, woundedness and fear—each side feeling that something we care deeply about is being threatened. Here were all these people with guns (the ultimate symbol of rage, violence, self-protection, and underneath it, surely a profound and perhaps unfaced vulnerability), and here I was, filled with rage at them and at the universe for thwarting and ruining my morning, emitting a giant “NO!” to life being the way it is, wielding my imaginary and verbal guns, and underneath the rage, my own vulnerability, woundedness and fear. It was as if the universe were holding up a giant mirror (as the universe loves to do), and saying, “Look! This is you! This is life!”
24 hours later, I was back in the park, walking in a light rain, back to the open heart and the wonderment over tiny raindrops on new green leaves. The gun rally had vanished from the park and the anger had vanished from my mind. I reflected on the ever-changing face of reality: peaceful and lovable one moment, raging and hateful the next.
What changed? Well, for one thing, life changes all the time by itself. Moods pass, clouds gather and disperse, the sun rises and sets. It happens naturally and effortlessly. This is a good thing to notice. But I also found that my rage was a kind of doorway, an opportunity to look deeply, to explore what felt threatened, what I was defending, and to feel into the core of that anger and the vulnerability and despair underneath it. We avoid these painful places in every way we can, and yet whenever we actually stop and open to them, we usually find it quite illuminating and liberating.
I looked deeply into the mirror of my own violence, the primal urge to defend myself, the ways this survival instinct gets distorted in human beings by our ideologies, concepts, beliefs and images of ourselves and “others.” I felt my own aversion to the constraints and limitations inherent in form (“Don’t tread on me”) – the vulnerability to pain, disappointment, opposition, defeat, humiliation, things not going the way I want them to and think they should.
I realized that I can’t really know how the universe “should” be, and that when I hold the belief that these people shouldn’t be here, I am in bondage. I suffer. Without that belief, I am free. I am even free to advocate gun control without becoming a rabid dog and shooting myself in the foot. Opposition and resistance tends to strengthen opposition and resistance, whereas open listening and unconditional love tends to invite new insights and change. How do we open our hearts? There is no recipe, no formula. We can’t “make” anger disappear or love happen. But we can feel how hatred twists us up inside, how it constricts and hurts us. We can bring it into the light of awareness.
If I took time to get to know any one of these gun-carrying people, I would find a complex living being with his or her own joys and sorrows, and I would almost certainly love that being, even if we had different ideas about gun laws. And of course, I might discover that they’re not all ignorant, anti-gay, anti-abortion, racist, Tea Party, fundamentalist, right-wing ideologues—and even if they do hold some of these views, I would see that this is the result of infinite causes and conditions, an outcome of their particular mix of nature and nurture, and I would recognize that they can change, that nothing is set in stone. By seeing them in a rigid way, I help to solidify the very things in them that I find abhorrent, whereas if I see the love and the goodness in them, that simple aware presence and openness may help to provide the space for something new to arise.
I also notice how easy it is to hate my own anger, to hate myself, to pathologize and berate the way I am (the way the universe is) in this moment, to be ashamed of it. This is different from simply noticing that this rage is painful and that it generates resistance and opposition. Hating it, being ashamed of it, taking it personally as “my” failure, trying to get rid of it, demonizing it—this is all part of the same violence. In fact, this wrathful part of me (and this wrathful part of the world) needs love and compassion and acceptance, not condemnation or shaming. This love and acceptance doesn’t mean condoning harmful behavior, but we don’t get beyond hatred by hating it and going to war with it. And at the root of all the things we think are wrong with ourselves and the world, we may find an unexpected jewel: the mud that nurtures the lotus, the grit that creates the pearl, the crucifixion that opens into the resurrection. In fact, there is something in my rage and my crazy behavior that feels life-affirming and free. It is a powerful energy, a force of nature that doesn’t care what anyone thinks of me. It’s not all bad. It may even serve a purpose. Sometimes love doesn’t show up in soft-spoken, vegetarian forms. It may show up as Kali with her necklace of skulls or Jesus nailed to a cross.
Healing is on-going, lifelong, present moment work, and a huge part of healing is the willingness to be broken, to be imperfect, to have flaws, to suffer at times—the willingness to be in hell—without taking it personally as a sign of failure or diminishment. We are so violent at times with ourselves—demanding perfection, pushing ourselves ruthlessly, judging and condemning the way we are, feeling shame, inadequacy and unworthiness. Self-loathing and self-hatred are pervasive in our culture. Perhaps what we all need most is to be loved, and to love ourselves, just as we are...warts and all. Perhaps that is the beginning of true healing, true transformation. What if all the things we think are problems are not really problems, or not in the ways we think? (And if that last sentence elicits an angry reaction, an immediate argument, a defensive opposition, can that be seen and looked into and questioned? What is at the root of that upset? Not to come up with some pat answer, but to actually look and see).
I can imagine some of my readers may be thinking, “Why do you care about guns at all? What difference does it make since it’s all a dream-like appearance in consciousness? How can someone with your level of realization get upset and angry about things like this?” (Someone put those very questions to me recently over a different political issue).
Ultimately, in the absolute sense, whether we have more mass shootings and more gun fatalities in America is another blip in the Cosmic Dance, the dance in which everything is a perfect expression of the undivided whole and where nothing, in this moment, could be other than how it is. But that perfection includes my aversion to the notion that everyone should be free to carry guns, and relatively speaking, it is my nature to care. And while no political system or set of laws is ever perfect, some are perhaps relatively more life-affirming and less harmful than others. One can hold absolute and relative views together, neither to the exclusion of the other. As I see it, awakening is not about being detached and not caring anymore or no longer having opinions. And as John Tarrant so beautifully said in his piece that I shared in my previous post, “The spiritual benefit of engagement in politics comes from going into rather than away from imperfection. And if you are diving right into the heart of delusion, naturally this means into the heart of your own delusion.” Perhaps not a bad place to be.
Of course I aspire (not always successfully) to care deeply without falling into anger, hatred, defensiveness, dogmatism, or violence in some form. For me, questioning the belief that everyone should agree with me and see life the same way I do is an on-going meditative practice, as is going to the root of the upset when that agreement doesn't happen and anger rises up. The pathless path of awakening on the spot is about bringing awareness to those places inside that feel tight, constricted, defended, hurt, afraid—those places at the root of violent behavior, those places where the heart is closed. I’ve found again and again that awareness transmutes the powerful energy of anger and rage into love and compassion.
But as my story illustrates, I fail many times. Still, the aspiration here is to bring the light of awareness to the darkness, to open the heart, to melt the rigid places, to love the universe as it is in this moment—gun enthusiasts and wrathful Joan included. This doesn’t mean not having my own views and perhaps at times making the case strongly for what I believe is right or taking actions of some kind, sometimes maybe even in a strong and forceful way. This balance of discerning problems and resisting injustice while simultaneously accepting and loving what is—this is a lifelong, present moment practice, and it’s not about being perfect. Mistakes happen. We fall out of balance. But without the grit, there is no pearl…without the mud, no lotus….without the crucifixion, no resurrection…without the dark, no light. Maybe the messiness, the apparent imperfection, the upset and rage and hurt is all an essential part of the dance. Essential or not, it’s here.
I know some of my readers have different political views from mine, different views on gun control, differences of opinion on all sorts of things. I don’t see awakening as wiping out these differences, or turning us all into vegetables with no preferences or opinions or concerns of any kind. Hopefully, over time, we learn to listen to each other more openly, to have compassion for each other, and perhaps most challenging of all, to have compassion for ourselves when we fall short of our ideals and aspirations.
Some people expect spiritual teachers to be flawless. This expectation is rooted in the mythology of permanently enlightened people and in our desire for some kind of benevolent and perfect parental authority figure who can feed us, awaken us, and tell us what to do. But the reality is, no one can walk the path for us, and no one knows what we should do. And certainly we have myriad examples of spiritual teachers falling short of our childish and hopeful ideals. We’ve seen deeply realized and greatly revered teachers and gurus getting angry, yelling at devotees, being unfaithful to their wives, sleeping with students, having AIDS and engaging in unprotected sex, being addicted to drugs or alcohol, falling over drunk during their talks, mishandling money, getting dementia and disinheriting people—the list of failures goes on and on. Jesus got angry and overturned tables, even doubted God’s love on the cross. One highly esteemed and popular 20th Century guru molested young girls on a special table and sent out hit men to track down wayward devotees. Of course, there are a rare few in this business who actually do seem to be almost without blemish. But it’s easy to look good on stage while giving satsang. Many teachers who look perfect on the surface are hiding and denying their blemishes, pretending their defects don’t exist. I try to be honest about my human foibles. I think it may help in demystifying the awakening process to do so. Of course, I’m not sanctioning hurtful behavior, but the reality is, we all hurt those we love at times, and teachers are no exception. I found that the disillusionment of discovering the humanity and the imperfection in my own teachers was an important (indeed vital) part of the teaching.
We can begin to appreciate that we’re all human, we’re all in the same boat. And we’re each dealt a different and unique hand of cards. Some have more childhood trauma than others, some are born with better genes or less problematic neurochemistry, some have more sensitive nervous systems, some have harsher circumstances. There are infinite reasons why one person struggles with alcoholism and depression and another person does not, or why one person can stop smoking effortlessly, while another spends their whole life struggling to break free from this self-destructive habit.
In the case of teachers, there is a middle ground between demonizing and shaming our humanity, on the one hand, and on the other, trying to claim it’s all crazy wisdom as any number of gurus have done in the past. (You know, my drunkenness and sexual exploits and outbursts of anger are all for your benefit—that old story). But at the root of every apparent evil, there is a profound truth waiting to be discovered and recognized and brought forth as the pure love it really is. We can each discover this for ourselves, within ourselves. We could call it the work of this moment.
Sometimes it takes years before a certain dark corner of our being is ready to be exposed and fully met. Some conditioned patterns fall away quickly, others persist for a lifetime. Nature moves at its own pace, often slowly, sometimes suddenly, and we’re not in control. None of it is personal. It’s one whole happening—the gun enthusiasts, the mass shooters, the enraged author of spiritual books pointing her umbrella and yelling “Bang bang!” at the gun enthusiasts—one seamless event, one undivided awakening.
Can we give it space to reveal and transform itself? Can we find the love and the humor and the wonder and the light even in what seems to be darkness and imperfection? What allows and encourages genuine transformation to happen and what solidifies things as they are (or as we think they are)?
To be in form is to suffer, as the Buddha wisely observed centuries ago. We can go into dissociated or transcendental states, we can experience ourselves as formless and boundless consciousness or pure awareness, we can experience many beautiful moments of profound love, joy and beauty, but as long as there is a body and a mind here, there is the potential and the inevitability of suffering. In any moment, we can experience excruciating pain. Our house can collapse, our bones can crumble, our brain can run amok, our resources can disappear, our loved ones can be taken from us. We can be trapped, enslaved, exploited, raped, falsely accused, imprisoned, tortured. Unlike other animals, we have the ability to remember history and to imagine the worst up ahead. Thus, we can be tortured psychologically as well as physically. And no matter how much love and approval we receive, we can all be pretty certain that there are people somewhere on the planet who disapprove of us and who would like to stone us to death, gas us, or chop us up with machetes if given the chance.
Our modern civilization masks the reality of our animal vulnerability as much as possible, but being in form is inherently dangerous and at times terrifying, whether we are consciously aware of that terror or ignoring and denying it. I’m not trying to be dark and grim and pessimistic here, but simply acknowledging that this human ride, as wonderful and ecstatic and delightful as it is at times, is also scary and dangerous and ultimately fatal—and although there is nothing solid or real here to die in the bigger sense, the pain still hurts. Being nailed to a cross just isn’t any fun even if you are the Son of God. It’s no wonder people want guns for protection. And it’s no wonder people snap and use them to express frustration and outrage. If we look, we can find the weapons manufacturer, the gun owner, the school shooter, and the outraged gun control advocate within our own psyches. We all contain the whole universe.
I don’t expect peace on earth. But I also know that there is a tremendous potential in awareness, and that in this very moment, the universe is born anew. I don’t know what is possible or impossible. I can only start right here, right now, with this moment, just as it actually is. Sometimes it’s not pretty, or at least, it doesn’t seem pretty at first glance. But when met fully, even what appears to be the ugliest and most imperfect moment can prove strangely redemptive.
“Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience…Presence is the awareness that is intrinsic to our nature. It is immediate and embodied, perceived through our senses.”
--Tara Brach, from her book True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart
This is a beautiful description of presence: the felt sense of wakefulness, openness and tenderness. I especially appreciate the inclusion of tenderness. Presence is very different from an ideology or a philosophy or a collection of concepts based on things we’ve heard teachers say or things we’ve read in books. Presence is not based in thought, ideation or belief. It is embodied, sensed, felt, directly known and tasted—not as something outside of us, but as our own most intimate and intrinsic nature. It is the flavor of aware being.
When we’re caught up in the mental realm of ideas, our experience of body-mind-world feels very different than when we are open, aware and present. Tenderness, spaciousness, and openness are qualities of presence. There is a sense of freedom and well-being. Entrancement in the mental world of ideology, intellect and belief has a harder edge. It feels tighter, more defended or armored in some way. These different qualities may escape our notice in the rush of daily life if we are not really paying attention. But as we give open attention to our moment to moment experience, we become more sensitive to these often subtle qualities of experience. We can begin to notice where we are coming from in any moment—whether we are caught up in mental ideas, beliefs and second-hand information or whether we are actually HERE, on the spot, fully awake, fully alive.
Striving to “always be present” or berating ourselves for “not being present often enough” are more layers of the self-centered story about “me” and “my progress or failure, my hopeful or hopeless future.” Can we see such thoughts if they arise and let them go? In presence, there is no past or future, no “me” who is succeeding or failing. Presence is timeless, Here / Now. It is the soft sound of wind rustling the leaves, the fragrance of wisteria blossoms coming through the open window, light sparkling on new green leaves, the beautiful vulnerability we sense in another person, the listening stillness being and beholding it all. This aware presence is the unconditional love, the tenderness, the open heart that is most true, most intimate—most radical.
If we hear all these words with the thinking mind, there will always be uncertainty and doubt about what is “most true and most radical.” We may argue about it or compare these words to other words and other accumulated information. But when we hear all this with the open heart, in awareness, no argument or uncertainty remains. In simple presence, there is no division, no separation, no problem to solve, nothing to doubt.
And remember, as Tara says so clearly, “Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture.” It’s right here. Utterly simple, utterly ordinary (and yet completely extraordinary!). If we’re telling ourselves that presence is something we’ve never experienced, if we’re looking for it and trying to get it, that very story and search is exactly how we are overlooking and avoiding it right now. The more clearly we see how we avoid being fully present, and the more we relax and open into the simplicity of being just this moment, the more accessible this open presence seems to become. We begin to trust this groundless ground. And even though we still (apparently) get lost at times, we know where our True Home is.
True awakening involves love, faith and surrender. Love is a natural by-product of aware presence, and we could say that awareness is another word for unconditional love. Surrender is another word for being here now, allowing everything to be as it is, not trying to manipulate or change the present moment. It is letting go of our desire for control and relaxing into the arms of God (to put it in religious language). And that just means relaxing into presence, into awareness. Faith as I’m using it here is a kind of trust in presence or awareness. When we let go of our usual strategies for control and surrender ourselves to presence, we are no longer in the familiar realm of thoughts and mental understanding. There is nothing to grasp. We don’t know where this will lead. To the rational mind, it can seem downright absurd to “do nothing” or to “allow everything to be as it is” or to simply “be here now.” It is completely counter-intuitive that this non-doing, this surrender, could be the key to enlightenment, awakening, liberation, and genuine transformation. But as we experience this shift firsthand for ourselves again and again, our faith in this begins to deepen. This is not faith in something outside of us, but faith in our own True Nature.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2014--
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