Postings from My Facebook Page #6
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the sixth collection of posts from my Facebook page (4/22/14 - 9/20/14). 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:
Words can so easily be misunderstood. When the Zen koan tells us that “Ordinary mind is the way,” or when I speak of Ultimate Reality and enlightenment being nothing other than "our most ordinary present moment experiencing," or when we hear that, “This is it, right here, right now,” what is being pointed to is not our habitual entrancement in delusional thinking—but it can easily be misunderstood that way. And when radical teachings say that even delusional thinking is itself nothing other than the One Reality, or when someone says that there is a “spaciousness that does not know right or wrong,” those can be helpful pointers at the right moment, freeing us from a particular dualistic thought pattern and the hopeless quest for an imaginary ideal, or it can become a facile new belief system that we use to close down, turn away and slumber on.
When people hear teachers say, “Do nothing, stop the search, allow everything to be as it is,” that can also be completely misunderstood. These pointers are all talking about right now, this very moment. They are pointing to a shift in attitude and focus, a shift that can only happen on the razor’s edge of this instant, a shift from resistance and seeking to open presence and allowing, from thought to awareness, from judgment to curiosity. These pointers are not suggesting that in the next moment we should give up our meditation practice, stop going to the gym, quit our job, or avoid doing anything to improve the world around us, nor are they suggesting that we should just sit down on the couch sluggishly drinking beer and belching for the rest of our lives while staring blankly at the television. None of that is what is being suggested, although there may be a few misguided or half-baked pseudo-nondualists who actually do think sitting on the couch all day drinking beer and watching TV is the enlightened life. But that’s certainly not what any truly nondual teachers are talking about, and it’s definitely not what I’m talking about. (And that’s not to say that sitting on the couch, watching TV, or drinking beer are “unspiritual” and must be banished either).
But until we really grok for ourselves, in our own direct experience and in our bones (so to speak), what all these pointers I mentioned above are pointing to, they will be (mis)heard mentally as mere concepts. And that’s the huge challenge anyone faces in trying to communicate nonduality. You can talk about presence and awareness and allowing everything to be as it is until the cows come home, but until the person you’re talking to recognizes in their own immediate, direct experience what you’re talking about, it’s just words. When that recognition happens, no more words are needed and no doubt remains (at least not in that moment of recognition and presence).
It makes all the difference where the words are coming from and where they land, whether they come from and are received in awareness, or whether they come from and are heard only by the analytical, thinking mind. The same exact words can evoke and transmit the deepest truth when they come from awareness and are received in awareness, and they can be nothing but blather and hot air when they come only from thought or when they are received merely as new bits of conceptual information. The juice, the aliveness, the real enlightenment (the truth) is in the listening presence, the awareness, not in the mental formulations.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should throw language and thought and our ability to reason out the window. Certainly, there is a place for reading and writing and thinking and reasoning, and there is genuine value in clarifying and deepening our understanding through conversation and dialog and intelligent thinking. But if our thinking is not grounded in awareness, it turns into mental noise. And the heart of any real dialog is the listening—listening not only to the other person but also to our own reactions and impulses.
As far as I’m concerned, thinking and dialoging about nonduality and spirituality are helpful only when that investigation is rooted in aware presence and direct experience, in other words, when it is an adjunct to an engaged practice of some kind (and by practice I don’t necessarily mean anything formal or traditional). When thinking becomes mental noise, and when conversation is nothing more than a mental or philosophical debate with people arguing over ideas and citing supposedly authoritative texts rather than relying on actual firsthand inquiry and insight, then in my opinion this all becomes a way to avoid rather than further awakening. This is a tendency I’m always watching for in myself because it’s easy to get caught up in these mental debates and spins (internally and externally). In any moment of thinking or talking, am I just caught up in a swirl of words and ideas (and maybe defending my turf or my self image), or is this an exploration rooted in open listening presence? Great question to live with.
And in the midst of talking and thinking, I also find it so helpful to stay in touch as much as possible with the whole body. In other words, not going entirely upstairs into the head and getting completely lost in mental abstractions and virtual realities, but remaining rooted in presence and grounded in embodiment—feeling the breathing, awaring sensations throughout the body, being sensitive to all the subtle somatic movements (tensing and relaxing, pulling back and leaning forward, closing down and opening up), feeling the powerful energies that can arise, noticing the ways we numb out or freeze up—consciously BEING the whole ever-changing, body-mind-world-happening of this moment. There is an immense wisdom in the body and in aware presence that is deeper than thought and analysis. Rooted in somatic embodiment and spacious awareness, we can think and talk together without being lost in mental arguments and abstractions. That kind of mental noise gets very tiring because it is so superficial. But when we are truly listening and fully present, something else entirely is going on, something much deeper than the words.
Listening with the whole bodymind, the whole universe is listening and speaking, and we begin to hear ever more deeply, not at the level of concepts, but in the depths of our being. This kind of open listening and embodied presence is not always easy, and for some people with certain kinds of trauma in their past, it may seem next to impossible. I often notice that I have gone upstairs into the head, leaving the body behind, that I am engrossed in useless thinking, out of touch with presence. But even to recognize this is a wonderful thing. It is the first step in waking up and coming home. So we don’t need to compare ourselves to others or beat ourselves up for not being perfect. We’re human, and our conditioning is a powerful force of nature. Sometimes that conditioning overwhelms our interest in, and our commitment to, being fully present and awake. If we are striving to be present and awake “all the time,” or expecting that to happen, we are lost in delusion. The universe is not static, and awakening is a never-ending exploration and discovery, not a final achievement or something we finish doing. We are not static either, for we are an activity of the whole universe. Life naturally pulsates between the inseparable polarities of light and dark, enlightenment and delusion, and none of it is really personal in the way it seems. It’s one whole happening, like the fireflies lighting up the dark fields on summer nights that Toni Packer talked about:
“Here we all are together—one complete movement of wholeness. Now moments of bright insight like fireflies lighting up a dark field on a warm summer night. Fireflies aren’t lit all the time. Do they wonder, ‘Why aren’t we lit all the time?’ They are what they are, and they don’t seem to find fault. They just light up in darkness; and whenever it happens the whole field sparkles luminously. What a wondrous way of being—for at least one moment not to find fault with anything! Not because it’s a splendid idea, but because there is nothing to find fault with! There’s only what is. And that’s completely unbroken, without possibility of lack. Every one of us inevitably contributes to this unbroken, pulsating wholeness, whether we’re temporarily good or bad, ignorant or wise, selfish or selfless, violent or gentle, beautiful or ugly personalities. All of us together, as we are, are an ever throbbing, ever changing, never gaining, never losing creative whole, floating in spaciousness that does not know right or wrong.” (Toni Packer, from The Wonder of Presence)
In simple experiencing, there is no division into seer, seeing and seen. The present moment is an undivided happening. There is infinite variation and diversity, but not separation. Everything is one flowing whole from which nothing stands apart. This is not a philosophy to believe in but something to see and discover directly for oneself. Right now, hearing the traffic or the wind or the song of a bird, where in actual direct experience is the boundary between “the sound” and “the hearing” and “the one who is hearing”? Doesn’t it take thought to conjure all of that up? Isn’t the actual experience simply whooosh, whooosh, whooosh or cheep cheep cheep—utterly immediate, right here, with no division, no separation, no gap?
Words and concepts break this wholeness up into imaginary parts (“the traffic,” “the sound,” “my ears,” “my brain,” “me”), and soon we are hypnotized by this conceptual picture of solid, separate, disconnected things. We focus most of our attention on that conceptual map-world and overlook the living reality of ever-changing hearing, seeing, sensing, perceiving, awaring, moving, breathing, being. This living reality Here / Now is seamless and unbound, never apart from us, always most intimate. It is actually inescapable and totally obvious, but by focusing mainly on the conceptual map, we consistently overlook our actual experience in favor of our ideas about it, and in the process, we become increasingly rigid, fixated, limited, frozen, confused and out of touch with our own life force and our own deepest truth. It is from this suffering and delusion that all genuine spiritual practices, along with many other practices such as somatic awareness work, endeavor to awaken us.
Awakening is not about getting the right map, the right ideology, the right mental understanding, the right set of concepts. It’s the direct discovery and embodiment here and now of the undivided wholeness of being. This is not something to think about or grasp. It’s not something we need to go out and search for. It’s our True Nature, Here / Now—this energetic, sensory, somatic, perceiving, awaring, present-ness that is open, spacious, alive and awake. Waking up to the felt-sense of this vibrant presence, this immediacy, the absence of apparent separation, the recognition of boundlessness, isn’t something mystical or exotic or foreign to us. It’s our most basic and ordinary reality, the groundless ground of being.
Lost in the map-world of conceptualization, we identify our own intrinsic sense of aware presence and beingness with a mental image and a story. We imagine ourselves shrinking down into this separate, encapsulated fragment that thought and imagination have conjured up. We come to believe that "I" (this knowingness of being present, this awareness Here / Now) is not the boundless and all-inclusive field of actual experiencing (which is fluid, vibrant, ever-changing, inconceivable and alive), but rather, that “I” am a solid and separate fragment in a fragmented and frozen world. We lose touch with the larger context, the flowing universe from which we are inseparable, the invisible awareness that beholds it all, the undivided energy that is one whole happening. It seems instead that “I” am an independent thing, a fragment among fragments, cut off from the whole, struggling to survive. We imagine “me” encapsulated inside “my body” looking out at “the world.” Instantly, we feel separate, incomplete, lost, vulnerable, uncertain, afraid. Death becomes a terrifying and mysterious event. We wonder what will happen to “me.” The imaginary drama (the story of my life) seems very real, and we seem to be trapped within that story. This is our human suffering.
But when we look (with awareness, not with thought) for this "me," we find nothing but ever-changing, fluid sensations, memories, thoughts, stories, mental images. Finding nothing solid, we may begin to recognize that we ARE this undivided awaring, experiencing presence that has no borders or seams. There is diversity and variation here, but no actual separation. Nor is there actual continuity or existence of any single form (except conceptually, as an idea). I’m not saying there is nothing here in some nihilistic sense, but in reality, nothing ever actually forms into any solid, persisting, separate “thing.” Rather, everything is thorough-going flux, continuous change, interdependent with and made up of everything else, and nothing ever appears outside of present moment awareness. The world of apparently persisting and separate, observer-independent objects existing “out there” somewhere is a kind of mirage. It seems to be the case until we look more closely.
Of course, the functional sense of self and the ability to distinguish one thing from another appears as needed. We answer to our name, we know how to cut a carrot without cutting our finger, we don’t step in front of a bus or mistake ourselves for our computer or our dog. But the imaginary “self” at the center of our story, the one who seems to be separate from and “in” the world, that conceptual self and that apparent boundary-line between subject and object, self and world, dissolves whenever we look closely because it is only a mirage.
Don’t take any of this on belief. Then it’s just more baggage. What liberates us is to look and listen and see for ourselves. This is the value of meditation and other forms of nonconceptual inquiry such as somatic awareness work (Feldenkrais, Continuum, etc). And when I speak of meditation, I’m not talking about sitting cross-legged with incense burning, visualizing deities, saying mantras or labeling thoughts. I’m not opposed to any of that if it interests you. But what I’m talking about is simple awareness. Open attention. Bare being. Being present, here and now. Being just this moment.
In my opinion, it is very helpful to make time and space in our busy lives to simply be, to do nothing at all, to be awake to the present moment. It could be 10 minutes at the beginning and/or end of each day. It could be on the bus ride to work, or in the waiting room before a medical appointment. It could be a few minutes between clients or in the park on our lunch break. It could be on an airplane, or alone in our living room. Instead of picking up a device or a magazine or a book or turning to the computer or the TV or making a phone call, consider doing nothing at all. In our society today, this is a radical act!
For one moment, is it possible to really notice where we actually are…the sights, sounds, smells…the sensations in the body…the breathing…the shapes and colors around us? Is it possible to behold all of this without labeling it, judging it, or trying to get something out of it? Thoughts (including labels and judgments) will pop up, but they don’t need to be followed or believed, nor do we need to go to war with them and try to suppress them. They too are a movement of this undivided life energy. But instead of getting caught up in the plotline of these mental movies and virtual realities, see if it is possible whenever thinking is noticed to simply return to nonconceptual pure sensation—hearing, seeing, breathing, sensing, perceiving, awaring—just this, as it is. The sound of traffic, the cheep of a bird, the clouds in the sky, the sunlight on a piece of trash in the gutter. How is it to simply be, to be just this moment, exactly as it is?
And when suffering shows up, when there is anxiety or depression, addiction or compulsion, anger or despair, is it possible to meet this happening directly? Instead of running away or resisting it, instead of thinking about it and analyzing it and trying to figure out what it means and how to get rid of it, can we open completely to the bare actuality of it? And by the bare actuality, I mean the sensations, the energetic vibration and movement in the body, the felt-experience, without the story or the labels.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should never think, watch TV, read a book, play with our hand held device, use a map, or entertain a mental fantasy ever again. But in our culture, it seems that we have developed a deep fear of doing nothing, being silent, going nowhere. We are addicted to thinking and to high-speed stimulation. We tend to leave our bodies behind and live in our heads. We keep going faster and faster, downloading more and more information. Simply BEING right here where we actually are without words is a radical act. To slow down and be still, to take a moment to watch the clouds and feel the spring breeze, to drop down into the body—into the sea of ever-changing sensations—to consciously breathe and to feel the whole universe breathing, these are radical acts. There is a great joy in simply being, being present, if only for moments at a time—not knowing what this whole happening is, not knowing what will happen next or what “should” happen. Not lost in thought or absorbed in a virtual reality in the imagination. But right here, on the spot, present and awake.
And when the so-called darkness comes, when we feel restless, irritated, full of dread, unhappy or upset, can we meet this arising in the same way we see the clouds and hear the birds, as an impersonal happening? Something to be curious about, to explore, to allow…giving it all the space it needs to reveal and undo itself. We may discover that at the core of the worst pain or the darkest suffering there is an amazing surprise. We may find there is nothing solid there at all, only this awake presence, this unconditional love, this vibrant aliveness, this pure intelligence. We could call it God or the Holy Reality, but maybe it's better not to call it anything at all. It speaks for itself.
Responding to my last post, someone wrote that when he drops into simply being present, at first what he finds “seems to be flat and ordinary. There is breathing, there are noises. So what?” And then he describes that when he stays with it, there is often a sudden shift: “thinking stops and everything becomes deep and interesting.” He comments that there seem to be “two radically different modes of experiencing the now,” the flat and boring one and the deep and interesting one, and then he describes being in the flat place trying to get to the deep place. He notices that this shift from flatness to depth happens by itself, not by trying to make it happen, and he describes this shift as being at once “radical and subtle.” These are wonderful observations, and I wanted to comment further on all of this.
The present moment seems flat and ordinary when we’re experiencing it through the smog of mental ideas, thoughts and stories about it. When we’re not really seeing what’s in front of us deeply and openly, then it can indeed seem very boring. Breathing, traffic noises…and the mind asking, “So what? Been there, done that. What does this do for me? Who cares?” Boredom is an interesting experience to explore. What does it feel like in the body? What thoughts accompany or trigger it? And what is under that superficial, all-purpose label we call boredom? Is it restlessness, anxiety, fear, sorrow, disappointment, regret, unease? I’m not talking about merely coming up with more labels, but rather, exploring and feeling this thing called boredom nonconceptually, somatically, as sensation and energy in the body. It may turn out to be much less boring than we thought!
If we look at our kitchen table through the smog of conceptualization, we don’t really see it at all. We see an image on a map. Thought tells us that it’s just our same old kitchen table. We think we’ve seen it before. Thought tells us that it’s something ordinary, mundane, unimportant, meaningless, and therefore uninteresting and boring. What can our kitchen table do for us aside from holding up the plates during meals? Not much, we think. If we’re steeped in a certain variety of eastern religion, thought may even tell us that our kitchen table is nothing but an illusion, that it’s only the phenomenal manifestation, that it’s not the real deal. But when we really look at our kitchen table with the eyes of a very little child or with the eyes of an artist or with open and awakened eyes, we see something we’ve never seen before, something that is new in every moment. We see light and color and shape and gesture, a happening that no words can contain. We may even see something extraordinary and marvelous.
Of course, “extraordinary and marvelous” are dangerous words, because we may hear that and immediately begin evaluating whether our present experience is “extraordinary and marvelous,” and then we’re immediately lost in another conceptual spin. From that conceptual place, chances are, our present experience will fall short of seeming extraordinary and marvelous, and then we’ll begin wondering what we’re doing wrong. And of course, when we get caught up in trying to see something marvelous all the time, it is a losing endeavor guaranteed to end in disappointment. Evaluating and judging our experience, taking it personally, seeking a better experience, clinging to the good stuff when we find it, resisting what we don’t like—this is our human suffering in a nutshell.
To some degree, of course, chasing pleasure and fleeing pain is a natural survival instinct, part of our animal nature, and it serves an intelligent purpose. But in humans, it gets carried off into some very bizarre places that have nothing to do with intelligence or actual survival. No other animal smokes or drinks itself to death or goes broke sitting in front of a slot machine. Humans are susceptible to unique forms of suffering due to our complex brains and our subsequent ability to think and self-reflect in ways other animals cannot. So in a way, what we are doing in all of this meditation and awakening work is learning how to function more intelligently with these complex brains.
As this person noted, the shift from boring to marvelous, from flatness to depth, happens by itself. We cannot make it happen. All we can do is get out of the way and allow it. We do that by being aware of all the ways we obstruct it—seeing those obstructions for what they are as they arise. Trying to make this shift or this seeing happen is one of the ways we obstruct it. And we can’t make ourselves stop trying. We can’t force these habits of obstruction to go away through an act of will, on command. But in the light of awareness, by allowing them and seeing them clearly and feeling them as pure sensation and energy, these conditioned habits lose their power, their allure, their credibility, their ability to hook us. So all we can do is start where we are in this very moment, by being aware of the trying, or being aware of the boredom. Simply see it, feel how it feels, see the accompanying thoughts as thoughts, give it space and allow it all to be as it is.
And can this happen without seeking a result? Is it possible to approach unwanted or uncomfortable states of mind such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, seeking, resisting, and so on with open curiosity, interest and wonder, in the same way we might approach a beautiful flower or the face of our beloved? Can we explore these uncomfortable states and conditioned habits of the bodymind with love and without expectation or judgment? And if expectation or judgment arises, if we notice that we’re doing all this for a result, can we simply start right here with that? Notice that desire for a result, that expectation. See it. Feel it. Be aware of it. Allow it to be. Don’t try to get rid of it, because trying not to try just adds more trying (more seeking and resisting) to the mix.
And that’s the golden key right there to the subtle and radical shift from flatness to depth, from samsara to nirvana, from delusion to enlightenment. What actually invites this shift is very counter-intuitive. Instead of an infinite regression of trying not to try, what actually works is to simply allow the trying to be as it is. See it, feel it, be awake to it. Give it all the space it needs. Be curious about it. Embrace it. And needless to say, if we’re doing all that in a goal-oriented way, in order to make the trying go away and achieve a result, then we’re not really allowing it to be as it is. It requires complete surrender to what is, complete acceptance, complete effortless presence. The thinking mind tells us this is dangerous, that if we do this, the bad stuff will never end. But in fact, counter-intuitively, quite the opposite is true.
That shift to complete openness without an agenda happens instantly when it happens, but it may take considerable time to get to that point when the grasping, goal-oriented, seeking mind finally relaxes and lets go. And even when that shift finally does happen, the habit may return a moment later. Certain habitual patterns may take decades to completely unwind and dissolve, and some may persist over an entire lifetime. We can’t force this kind of transformation, this kind of undoing. But when we really understand that none of it is personal, that all of it is a happening of life, then we are willing to give it however much time and space it needs. It’s not about me anymore. And we can enjoy the journey in all its various twists and turns.
So are we willing to be bored? Is there a willingness to meet what seems to be the same old habit, or the same old kitchen table, or the same old depression anew in this moment, to see it freshly with open eyes, with love and curiosity? In fact, in the dance of existence, there is endless variation: cloudy days, sunny days, warm days, cold days, sickness, health, happy, sad, and so on. Grey and flat is an experience that we all have sometimes. Every moment isn’t going to be a moment of extraordinary bliss and magnificence. But the more we look and feel deeply and closely and openly into what at first seems grey and boring, or painful and bleak, the more we discover the jewel at the core of every experience.
The jewel is the awaring presence, not the object being seen. That’s why we can be bored and disappointed while gazing at the Swiss Alps and ecstatic and blissed out over a crumpled cigarette package in the gutter. The beauty is in the quality of the seeing, the awareness, the presence, not in the object being seen.
A single thought pops up unbidden out of conditioned habit: “Oh no, it’s raining again,” or “Is this all there is?” or “So what?” If that thought isn’t instantly seen for what it is, then we’re no longer awake and present. And before we know it, we’re lost in a whole story about how, “Nothing works, everything is hopeless, life is a mess, I’m a loser, I’m doomed, there’s no way out, it’s another miserable day,” and so on, accompanied by queasy feelings in the gut, an ache in the chest, a lump in the throat, an over-powering feeling of exhaustion, a feeling of stuckness. And then more thoughts, more stories, more disturbing sensations, more emotions—an endless feedback loop of emotion-thought that spirals into more and more despair or discouragement or irritation or whatever it is. And next thing we know, we light a cigarette, start a fight with our wife, drop a bomb on our neighbors, drink ourselves to death, shoot ourselves in the foot, or whatever it is we do. This is our human suffering and we can see it playing out at every level from the personal to the global.
So how do we meet this sinking feeling in the gut, this overwhelming exhaustion, this frightening sense of anxiety, uneasiness, disappointment, depression? Do we go to war with it? Do we try desperately to find the bliss in it? Do we rush to the liquor cabinet or light up a cigarette or grab for a spiritual book? Or maybe, just maybe, does it occur to us to turn toward it and actually meet it with open minds, open hearts, open eyes, open arms…and to see what it really and truly is. That is waking up. Not once and for all, not forever after, but moment to moment, now. And it’s not about perfection. Sometimes we don’t wake up, sometimes the old conditioning overpowers the ability to open, sometimes delusion happens. No one is beyond this. But the amazing thing is, we can always start anew right where we are, right here, right now.
Is there a self? Yes and no. Clearly there is something here we call Joan Tollifson (or Joe Smith or Ramana Maharshi or George Bush or Lady Gaga). To deny this would be foolish. Each person is a unique expression of life, and there is a certain pattern of organizational integrity that persists, such that we can distinguish Ramana Maharshi from Lady Gaga or recognize someone on the street whom we haven’t seen for years.
And yet, if we try to get hold of exactly what Joan Tollifson (or anyone else) is, we will find nothing solid, nothing we can pin down. The bodymind is continuous flux and change. Nothing holds still. On every level from the subatomic to the cellular to the mental and emotional, there is constant change. In the Buddhist understanding, impermanence is so complete and thorough-going that no THING ever actually forms to even BE impermanent. That's what they mean by emptiness. Everything is empty of solidity and full of everything else.
I often compare a person to a city. We can’t deny there is something we call Chicago, but what exactly is it? Is it the geographical location, the buildings, the people, the laws, the culture? The geographical location is a line on a map that doesn’t have any actual existence on the earth itself—in the soil, or in the air, or on the sandy beach where Lake Michigan meets the land in ever-changing tides. The buildings change over time. The people come and go. The laws change. The culture changes. Each visitor to the city and each person who lives there has a different experience of Chicago, and my experience of Chicago is not the same from one day (or one moment) to the next. Not to mention how each individual dog, bird, firefly and squirrel may experience the city!
So where in all of that is Chicago? What exactly IS the city of Chicago? We can’t deny that there is something called Chicago, a place we can fly to or live in, a place that has a very unique flavor and personality that is unlike San Francisco or Amsterdam or Bombay or anyplace else…and yet, we can’t get hold of exactly what it is either.
Likewise, we can’t deny the reality of each unique person, but we can’t pin down exactly what that person is either. We can neither deny nor locate the self. The self is more like a process than a thing. It is a movement of energy, thoughts, sensations, actions, inseparable from the world around it. Inseparable but not indistinguishable. We can distinguish Joan Tollifson from the chair she is sitting on or the room she is in, and yet if we look closely for the border or boundary between Joan and the room or the world around her, we find no actual boundary. We can neither deny nor assert the self.
We can question and see through many of the images we have about ourselves, the stories, the ideas, the things we defend. We can recognize that we are not actually a solid entity encapsulated inside a separate body looking out at an alien world, that we are actually the whole universe. And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny that we are a particular human being. Not one, not two.
When we are caught up in the thought-sense of being “me,” mesmerized and entranced by the captivating stories with “me” at their center, we feel separate—a fragment struggling to survive in a world of fragments. When that thought-sense of “me” dissolves, there is no longer any sense of separation or fragmentation. We are the whole universe, and everything is one interconnected, interdependent, co-arising, nondual whole in which nothing is fixed and everything is contingent.
Awake presence isn’t a sense of detachment, but rather, a sense of complete wholeness and absence of division. It is, as they say in Zen, most intimate. There may be an intermediate stage where we first begin to gain some perspective on what the “me” actually is, where we begin to see the stories as stories and the thoughts as thoughts, and where we are increasingly able to question their reality. We are no longer completely lost in the story, totally hypnotized by the plotline and identified as the separate “me.” And initially, that may feel like a kind of detachment, a way of standing back and getting some distance, some perspective—seeing a bigger picture. We have become the observer, the awareness beholding it all. But in that, there is still a sense of separation or duality, a sense of being the observer and not the observed.
As awakening unfolds, that boundary between inside and outside, between subject and object, dissolves and there is no one left over to be identified as one or the other. There is simply being this moment, just as it is.
But as I was trying to express in my last post, this doesn’t mean we lose all sense of individuality or all sense of identity as a particular bodymind organism. It’s not about no longer having a personality or a sense of humor or any political views or preferences or any neurotic quirks. It’s not about no longer being attached in any way to our loved ones or being in a constant state of feeling spacious vastness 24/7.
I was recently struck by something Barry Magid, a psychoanalyst and Zen teacher in NYC, says in his book Nothing Is Hidden: “Biologists have suggested that the most fundamental requirement of a living organism is the creation of a boundary…Anything that we consider to be alive must, at the most basic level, be engaged in maintaining this basic organizational integrity. When we go on to speak of the inseparability of any organism from its ecological surround, we must not lose sight of the other side of the equation in which separation is as necessary as integration for life to exist.” How true!
As in the famous Zen saying, “Before I took up Zen, there were mountains and valleys, and then after I began practicing Zen, there were no mountains and valleys, and with enlightenment, there were mountains and valleys again.” The Ultimate Truth includes BOTH absolute and relative perspectives. Mountains and valleys are one undivided event (absolute truth) AND we can discern the difference between them (relative truth). Not one, not two.
Most people—those who have no interest in Zen or nonduality—see only the relative world of apparent differences. They are lost in the false picture of separate fragments battling it out in a fragmented world. But often in the course of nondual awakening, as we see through the illusory nature of this fragmentation, we then get stuck on the other side of the equation, fixated in the absolute, insisting that there are no mountains and valleys. We cling to that absolute view to the exclusion of the relative truth, refusing to acknowledge that mountains are mountains and valleys are valleys. We insist that we are not a person, that nothing exists, that Hitler and Buddha are equally valid expressions of liberation with no fundamental difference between them, that we have no preferences, that nothing is happening here, that there is nothing to do and nowhere to go, that we have lost all sense of being a separate individual. We think this is the Ultimate Truth, but in reality, we are only halfway there. True liberation recognizes differences, but without becoming lost in that initial false view of fragmentation, dualism and disconnection. It sees that mountains and valleys are one whole undivided event AND that we can discern a difference between them.
In other words, we have woken up from the false sense of being a separate, encapsulated entity, AND we still answer to our name and have a functional sense of boundaries and identity as this particular bodymind organism enabling us to slice up a carrot without slicing off a finger and so on. We don’t step in front of a speeding bus because “all is one” or refuse to call an ambulance for an injured friend because “there is no one to get hurt and no one to get help.”
True nonduality doesn’t get stuck in ideas or stuck on either side of a conceptual divide. As Zen Master Dogen put it, Zen (or nonduality) is about “leaping clear of the many and the one.” This leap beyond fixation is a realization that recognizes BOTH the world of Oneness (wholeness, unicity, seamlessness, totality) AND the world of multiplicity and relativity (not to be confused with the false dualistic picture of separate fragments battling it out in a fragmented world).
This kind of complete nondual understanding is a way of being that is open, fluid, spontaneous and playful, able to acknowledge and dance with different facets of reality. It recognizes both the relative reality of a person and the absolute unreality of a separate or persisting self. It sees the reality of both personal responsibility and the absence of free will. It acknowledges both difference and sameness, both impermanence and continuity, both relative and absolute. It knows that what we seek is Here / Now, that nothing can bring us any closer to Here / Now than we always already are, and yet, it doesn’t deny an unfolding process over time of cultivating, inviting, clarifying, realizing and embodying this ever-present Truth.
Our dualistic mind always thinks these opposite polarities are at war with one another, that one is “more true” than the other, that “the superior one” must defeat and triumph over “the inferior one.” But true nondualism is the recognition that both polarities work together and are actually one whole event, that they only exist relative to each other, and that reality itself cannot be captured in any conceptual formulation or ideology. When we look at our actual direct experience, this is all quite obvious. But when we’re lost in the conceptual overlay, THINKING about reality instead of directly experiencing it, then everything seems very black and white and solid and fixed, and therefore confusing and problematic, because we’re lost in abstractions, trying to live in a map.
Being just this moment is very simple, very ordinary, effortlessly present. It may take years of searching and practicing (and not practicing and not searching) to finally realize exactly what this means. And even then, we forget. Dualistic thinking muddies the water and off we go in search of the answers to the imaginary problems. And of course, many other factors contribute to overcast or stormy weather besides just thinking—genetics, neurochemistry, hormones, brain injuries, diseases, adverse conditioning, and so on all play a part—so simplicity isn’t about being simplistic.
Over time (and always only now), we begin to SEE this clouding-over happening as it happens, we begin to wake up more and more quickly from the entrancement and the confusion and SEE where Truth actually resides, and we begin to take the shifting tides of light and dark less and less personally, recognizing it all as a larger impersonal or transpersonal process. It is no longer about “my enlightenment” or “my delusion,” but rather, it is one undivided but ever-changing, ever-evolving, infinitely-varied unfolding, in which we can find both unity and difference, oneness and multiplicity, all happening together without a shred of conflict or dualism, all of it most intimate. It’s not “out there” anywhere. It’s right here. That’s not a goal, but a description of the actuality Here / Now.
Where do our thoughts, abilities, interests, opinions, preferences and actions come from? We can THINK about this question and posit possible answers such as the brain, consciousness, God, or whatever. (And we might ask, where do those answers come from? And where does the brain come from?)
But as I often suggest, there is a totally different way to approach these questions, not by thinking about them, but by looking directly with awareness. Look to see if you can find the source of your next thought, your next impulse. What is it that is thinking? Is there a thinker behind the thoughts? Do you find anybody back there authoring your thoughts?
Looking where these questions point, you may feel as if you are falling into vast emptiness, drawing a blank, finding nothing at all. This no-thing-ness (appearing as everything) is the Truth, although the thinking mind will usually find this not-knowing unsettling and unsatisfactory, and the habit will be to start thinking again (“What exactly are they talking about? Is this it? Have I got it? What is it? I don’t think I have it yet,” etc.).
So once again, where do these thoughts come from? Are “you” doing them? Or does thinking happen by itself the same way sensations happen? We can THINK that thoughts and sensations come from the brain and the nervous system or from an infinite web of causes and conditions leading back to the Big Bang, and we can THINK that these are all separate, observer-independent “things” that exist “out there” somewhere, “things” that can be pulled apart from one another (the brain, the nervous system, the Big Bang, consciousness). But without thinking about it, in our actual direct experience, do we find any source from which thoughts and sensations come? Do they come from somewhere else? Or do they simply show up, unbidden, right here?
How do decisions and choices happen? Is there a chooser or a doer or an author behind all the conflicting thoughts and impulses that we call “making a choice” or “reaching a decision”? Again, these are questions to explore directly, by being curious, by looking and listening and giving careful attention to the reality itself as it unfolds. Rather than thinking about such questions or looking in books to see what various authorities have said, what really liberates us is to look and see for ourselves.
How is it, right now? We’re deeply habituated to “see” what we THINK is going on by seeing everything through the filter of preconceived ideas, in which case we’re not really seeing directly at all. We’re thinking. We’re looking at the map, not the actual territory it describes. Waking up is about relaxing into the territory, trusting this living reality that we are. So all these questions are not really calling for answers, which are only thoughts, but rather, these questions all invite a kind of opening up, a letting go into thoughtless awareness, presence, wakefulness, simple being—the inconceivable vastness, the answerlessness—that needs no answer.
This letting go is a surrendering of our usual result-oriented approach, a relaxing of the grasping mind that wants answers and solutions, an effortless awaring that does not rely or depend on thought—seeing directly, allowing everything to be just as it is, being curious about what’s showing up. This is effortless because this open awareness is already here, already allowing everything to be as it is—this spacious awakeness is what Here / Now IS, our own True Nature, the natural (default) state, the groundless ground of being. You can't find it; you can only be it.
When we say, “I am here,” what do we mean by “I”? If we mean the person, then what exactly IS this person who was born on a certain date, who went to college, who has this job and this partner and these children and this personality and so on? If we look closely with awareness, we find that the person (the bodymind) is a movement of ever-changing thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories, stories and mental images—nothing solid or immutable. We can’t actually locate or pin down exactly what any person is, where it begins or ends, nor can we find any actual boundary between the person and everything that is supposedly not the person. (See my recent post on 5/8/14 for more on all that). We can’t negate or deny the person because clearly there is something here we call Joan Tollifson or Joe Smith, but we can’t actually get hold of exactly what it is either.
Beyond the thought-sense of being a person, we might eventually notice that what we truly mean by “I” is actually upstream from the person, unbound and uncontained by any image or any aspect of the person. What we truly experience as I is the aware presence that beholds the person but is not limited to the person or encapsulated inside any bodymind. Awareness is boundless and seamless. It is that within which the body-mind-world and the whole universe appear and disappear. Awareness has no location, no gender, no age, no size, no shape, no color, no form. It is not an object that can be separated out from everything it beholds, nor can any boundary be found where awareness ends and the things the appear within it begin. Awareness is not some-thing “out there” somewhere; it is most intimate. Awareness is the emptiness of all form, the knowingness of being present, the essence of Here / Now, the beingness (the energy) that is all there is, the light by which everything appears, the totality from which nothing stands apart, the Ultimate Subject that remains after everything perceivable and conceivable has disappeared. Awareness is by nature free. It could also be described as unconditional love or pure intelligence.
Awakening is a word that points to the discovery that we are boundless awareness. We are not encapsulated inside a bodymind, separate from the world, steering ourselves through life as we had come to believe. Awakening is the realization that everything is an undivided and seamless whole from which nothing stands apart, the discovery that the “me” we thought was calling the shots is actually nothing more than a neurological sensation, an intermittent mental image, a mirage or a hologram. This awakening may happen suddenly or gradually, dramatically or imperceptibly. If we imagine that it is happening “to me,” or that, “I no longer have a self,” or that “I am an awakened one,” these are simply thoughts (secretions of the brain, energetic firings, images in consciousness) temporarily reincarnating the illusory self.
So when we speak of awakening, are we talking about some kind of detached and aloof witnessing, the loss of all sense of individuality, some rarified samadhi state in which our entire personality melts away forever, where we tune out the apparent world and experience nothing but vast empty space continuously forever after? Is that what it means to be awake? Or is awareness and awakeness inseparable from the traffic sounds, the bird cheeps, the sensations of anxiety, the words on this Facebook page, the whole happening of this moment?
I would suggest that awareness IS wholeness, that it is nondual, that it includes EVERYTHING, that it is not limited to (or separate from) any particular experience or any particular state of consciousness. Awakening doesn’t mean no longer being a person or no longer having a personality or being detached and no longer caring about anything that happens. It is actually quite the opposite. It allows the personality to express itself more freely and intelligently, without the burden of taking it personally, and at the same time, it reveals and embodies a bigger context, that spaciousness or unicity or vast freedom within which everything occurs. Awareness is another word for unconditional love, for true devotion. It doesn’t reject or deny the world—the actual world, but it sees through the false world that is nothing but a conceptual creation. It sees the light everywhere; it dissolves delusion.
Response to a comment on this post: When words point to seemingly tangible objects such as chairs, tables, pencils or elephants, it’s clear what we’re talking about. The only illusion to which the label contributes is that the “thing” in question seems to have more solidity, more independence, and more of an inherent reality than it really has. But at least in the realm of everyday relative reality, we all share a pretty common understanding of what we mean by a chair and what we mean by an elephant. When words refer to more intangible and subjective realities such as love, goodness, beauty, awareness, presence, consciousness, emptiness, or the Tao, there is a much greater possibility of misunderstanding each other. There is something fundamentally ungraspable, inconceivable and intangible about the reality to which words such as awareness, presence, love, or the Tao are pointing, something that defies formulaic definition. And yet, being aware and being present are undeniable and obvious realities, just as love is self-evident and needs no proof and no explanation. What is being pointed to in this post is either self-evident or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, or more accurately, if it doesn’t seem to be, then thinking about it and trying to nail down the concepts won’t help matters. At best, it may clear up a misunderstanding, and that can certainly be useful. But we can't understand or be touched by a poem by trying to analyze it scientifically. Either the arrow hits the target in the moment or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, no fault and no blame. The truth is not in any of the formulations.
What IS awareness or this present happening? Can any word or concept truly capture or explain ANY of this? And what does it even mean to ask what something “is”?
What is the source of the power to open and close my hand, or to type and read and understand these words? Is it the brain? The nervous system? The whole universe? Is it me? Or other than me? Is it inside or outside? Is it self-power or other-power? We may notice that none of these answers really seems to fully capture the living reality, and yet the actual ability to open and close our hand or to read and understand these words is simple, obvious, and undeniably present. Only when we try to put this happening (or any other happening) into thought-based concepts and formulations does it seem to get confusing and paradoxical. Then suddenly we’re caught in a debate over free will vs. determinism, choice vs. choicelessness, power vs. powerlessness, self vs. other.
Thought seeks the right answer, but the living reality defies formulaic categories and simplistic or reductionist explanations. The living reality is nondual, ungraspable and truly inconceivable. It is utterly undeniable and obvious, never absent, right here every moment, but at the same time impossible to pin down. We can neither find it nor lose it, for we don’t exist as anything apart from this living reality. THIS (Here / Now) cannot be boxed up into dead concepts or frozen into solid “things” that hold still. The map is never the territory it describes, only a useful guide for navigation. Although, paradoxically, mapping is an activity of life, and in that larger sense, the map—as a map—is also the actuality of life (the territory itself), but it is not the territory it abstracts, describes and represents. Life cannot be re-presented. It doesn’t hold still and there is no way to stand outside of it.
The word water can lead us to water, it can evoke and describe water, but it is not water. Water itself is inconceivable. We can explain its chemical make-up, describe its behavior or its appearance, but none of that is the actuality of water itself. Using words (scientifically, poetically, descriptively, evocatively, devotionally, playfully) is a wonder-full activity of life, and no one is suggesting words could or should be banished. But awakening is a waking up from our attempt to live in the map-world of concepts and mental formulations. It doesn’t mean we stop thinking or that we don’t use words or maps anymore or that we can’t still love and appreciate the gift of language. It simply means we know the limitations of thought and the ways language can hypnotize us into false ideas and imaginary bondage.
Awakening points not to an acquisition, but to a letting go, a way of being that is open, spacious and free—not free to do whatever we want, but free to be as we are. This is not the attainment of something foreign and exotic, but rather, a recognition and embodiment of what is always already Here / Now, the natural state, the groundless ground, the heart of every moment. Awakening is nothing personal, but it fully embraces the person. It has no problem with being human—foibles, warts, defects and all. It recognizes that what we truly are is not limited to the person or encapsulated inside the person, but it doesn’t deny or reject the person either. It doesn’t reject the world in all its messy imperfection. On the contrary, awakening loves the world and sees only God everywhere—not as some idea or belief, but as a direct experience. And most importantly, awakening is not something that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. It is always only NOW.
When we investigate right now, we may find that awakeness is right here, that it is actually impossible to deny. We cannot leave Here / Now. And when we think or feel that we are trapped in the darkness of anger, fear, loneliness, depression or some other form of self-concern, we might pause and notice whether we can detect the fact that we are actually PRETENDING to be upset. Are we, in fact, HOLDING ON to the darkness and the STORY that we are not awake, that we are hopeless losers, that we are angry, depressed, lost, trapped, and so on? We may discover, if we are really honest, that it is effortless in this instant Here / Now to let go, to relax, to allow ourselves to BE this totally new moment and to realize that everything is okay just as it is. Try it out, you might be surprised!
Of course, the mind will resist: No, that’s not possible…my problems are very real…the world’s suffering is very real...I can’t just let it go or I would have done that. And relatively speaking, that may all be very true. I’m not denying the power of neurochemistry and genetics, the complexity of human problems, or the realities of poverty, war and social injustice. I’m not saying we should ignore or deny all of these things. I’m talking about what the mind is doing with these situations right here, right now, in this very instant. I’m inviting a kind of open exploration, in the moment, without knowing what we’ll find.
What is actually stopping us from being fully awake, fully liberated, right now, on the spot? How do we know we’re not awake, not liberated? Who is it that is not awake? Is anyone actually bound?
Sometimes people THINK that thought is all there is. But breathing (not the word or the idea but the actuality itself) is not a thought. The sound of traffic (the hearing itself) is not a thought. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling are all nonconceptual ways of knowing and being that are not intellectual or thought-based. There are many ways of knowing other than through thought and intellect. For example, we know that we are here without having to think about it. Any IDEA of WHAT we are is a thought. But this aware presence (not the word or the idea but the actuality itself) is undeniable. We don’t need a mirror or anyone else to confirm being here now. It is self-evident. Much of what we know instinctually or intuitively, we know at a level that operates well below or prior to conscious thought or even perception. Awareness is aware of thinking, but is not itself a thought-form or an intellectual process. Awareness is upstream from thought. The intellect has its usefulness, but it can only provide abstract maps of what is actually here.
Awareness or presence is as close as we can come to knowing the unknowable, which is what we are. What we are at the core remains even when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears, as in deep sleep or at the moment of death. This ultimate reality is too close and too all-inclusive to ever be seen, and yet there is nothing we can see or touch that is not it. We cannot know it in our usual ways of knowing, we can only BE it. And actually, we cannot NOT be it. It is the Ultimate Subject, what Here / Now truly IS. What appears here is already the past by the time it appears, and it is long gone by the time we think about it. The true present is timeless, spaceless, and unknowable. And yet, intuitively, in a manner that defies thinking or even perceiving and sensing, we know this Ultimate Reality. It is our home ground, “most intimate” as they say in Zen. But as soon as we try to see it, or grasp it, or think about it, or understand it, or have some experience of it, we are turning it into something “out there,” an object (this but not that, this experience but not that experience). And Ultimate Reality is not something; it is EVERYTHING, and if we look closely into any apparent thing, we find no-thing-ness, ever-changing groundlessness, emptiness. Every perceivable or conceivable "thing" (or experience) is empty of any enduring, inherent (observer-independent) reality outside consciousness Here / Now. To see this is to realize that nothing is bound or in need of liberation. There is nothing separate here to die or to be born.
By SEEKING ultimate reality or liberation, we overlook the fact that it is already here, even in the midst of contraction and tension. Instead of straining the mind and trying to “get it,” simply relax and give open attention to the bare actuality of right now. Listen to the traffic, the birds, the wind. Feel the breathing and all the sensations throughout the body. See the colors, shapes, movements and textures. Smell the fragrances and the odors, pleasant and unpleasant. If there is contraction or tension, simply allow it to be as it is, and maybe go right into it with awareness (not with thought) and see if there is anything solid in what thought was calling contraction or tension or anger or depression. You may find that all there really is, is vibration, energy, ever-changing sensations. In the simplicity of what is, there is nothing to grasp, nothing to attain, nothing to become, nothing that needs to be eliminated. There is simply being this moment, exactly as it is, and this is effortlessly occurring all by itself. The Holy Reality is right here. This is it. Always fresh, always new.
And then just SEE how thought pops up and instantly re-creates the APPARENT problem: “This can’t be it,” “Ramana realized more than this,” “I still feel tense, so I’m not there yet,” and so on. SEE how these thoughts instantly reincarnate the imaginary self who seems to have them and to which they seem to refer. Look for this “me” and see if it can actually be located or found. And notice that these thoughts are themselves just energy. They pop up and dissolve. They have no substance. And the momentary virtual reality they create in the imagination is itself only another expression of the infinite and ever-present Holy Reality that is all there is.
These words are only a map, a pointer. The living reality isn’t in the map, and this isn’t about believing something that can then be doubted. This is about the immediacy that is right here, right now, impossible to doubt.
Many nondual teachings (my own included at times) talk about presence, inquiry, paying attention, allowing everything to be as it is, resting as awareness, or “being in the now” almost as if these were activities that we could choose (or fail) to do. In fact, these words point not so much to something we do, or to a particular state that we can attain or lose, but rather, they point to a recognition of the natural state, the ever-present (all-inclusive) ground of being, the One Self, this eternal and ever-changing Here / Now that is always fully present and actually inescapable. It might be noticed right now that this awake presence is already allowing everything to be as it is. We don't have to "do" this. But at first, upon hearing these “instructions” (or invitations) to notice what is already the case, we tend to approach all of this as a kind of “doing”—something we must accomplish. We go at “being in the now” in a very goal-oriented way, as a kind of self-improvement project, seeking results, evaluating our apparent success or failure, comparing ourselves to others, and so on. We think of “being here now” as something that “I” am doing, an accomplishment that reflects how advanced (or un-advanced) “I” am on the spiritual ladder of success.
And then at some point, this whole effort to get somewhere drops away, maybe just for a moment, and we have a taste of unbound presence, free from the story of me. It seems as if this spaciousness is a new state of consciousness that we have somehow acquired, and we immediately want more and more of it (except when we don’t). We try desperately to remember how we got to this apparently exotic destination, hoping to repeat whatever trick seemed to bring this shift about. We don’t notice that unbound presence is always right here, for our attention has gone instead to the mental overlay, including the story of “me” swinging back and forth between “getting it” and “losing it.” Our desperate search for what has never really been lost creates the very mirage of separation that we are seeking to escape—a vicious circle from which there seems at first to be no way out. Like quicksand, the more we struggle, the deeper we sink. And like chasing our tail on a treadmill, the faster we run, the faster our goal seems to recede from reach.
Counter-intuitively, the liberation we are seeking is in stopping the struggle and giving up the chase. And paradoxically, that begins with ACCEPTING the struggle and the chase, not needing them to be any different from how they are—simply giving them loving attention without expecting a result—allowing them to be just as they are. And maybe noticing that they are already being allowed to be as they are by life itself!
Gradually, as we relax into simply being aware and being just this moment, however it is, we begin to notice the bigger context in which all of this is occurring. We recognize that the awareness beholding it all is already free, already unbound and unlimited, already whole and complete. We realize that awareness or presence is our True Nature, and that it cannot actually be defiled. We begin to see that this “me” at the center of our story is nothing more than an ever-changing and intermittent collection of sensations, thoughts, memories and mental images, and that ALL experiences are impermanent. We notice that there is no boundary between “awareness” and everything that awareness reveals and beholds, that everything is one whole undivided happening.
This seamless, boundless, all-inclusive, living reality Here / Now can neither be lost nor attained, for it is all there is. Even thought, fantasy, beliefs, conceptual mapping, imagination, seeking, resistance, struggle, contraction, delusion and samsara are nothing other than this undivided living reality. We realize that there is no way to lose the True Nature that is all there is, or to step outside of Here / Now, or to ever be anything other than the One without a second. Over time (and always only now), this realization undermines and dissolves the story that there is a “me” apart from this living reality alternately getting it and then losing it. We see that everything perceivable and conceivable (the whole story of our life and the history of the world) is empty of any inherent reality, that everything is impermanent, that this impermanence is so thorough-going and complete that no-thing ever even forms to be impermanent, and we realize that this emptiness or impermanence or fluidity is actually what makes life so alive, so joyous and free.
Awake to the undivided wholeness of life, we may still enjoy sitting quietly, reading a nondual book, going on a silent meditation retreat or attending a satsang, but we are no longer searching for some kind of personal acquisition or future attainment. We are simply enjoying the present moment, the presence that is endlessly unfolding and revealing and discovering itself. We no longer believe that meditation or satsang is spiritual and that watching TV or changing a dirty diaper isn’t, or that there is any such thing as a distraction from spiritual life or from presence. We see that everything is sacred, everything is alive, everything is our own Self, the One and Only, Here / Now. The concern with whether “I” am “being here now” “all the time”, or how often “I” am “lost in thought” falls away. None of what appears is personal and none of it has any inherent or enduring reality. Nothing needs to be done or not done. The Holy Reality is always already fully present, realizing and unfolding itself.
Someone asked me at one of my recent events in California, how do I know all this? I assured her that she knew this too, because what is being pointed to here is actually what everyone knows (although maybe not everyone has noticed). My talks and books and postings here on FB are not about some mysterious or esoteric metaphysical knowledge or some exotic state of consciousness that only an anointed few can realize. I’m always pointing to what is very simple—so immediate and obvious that it can be easily overlooked in our search for something extraordinary and spectacular.
Ask yourself, what do you know beyond all doubt? What requires no belief?
The only thing I find completely impossible to doubt is being here now and this present happening. That’s it. Not those words or concepts, and not any interpretation of what all this is, but simply the living reality of this present moment.
You know you are here. You don’t need any proof to confirm this. You don’t need any outside authority to tell you. You don’t need a mirror. You KNOW that you (this most basic sense of being present and aware) is here. WHAT this presence is can be doubted. Your name and your story are something you learned, and those can be forgotten or doubted, as can the notion that you are a mind encapsulated inside a body, which has also been learned. You can doubt whether you are male or female, whether you are a character in a dream or a brain in a vat. But you cannot doubt the simple reality of being here, being present, being aware. I’m not talking about some CONCEPT of “awareness” or “presence”—all IDEAS can all be doubted—but rather, the knowingness of being present that is utterly impossible to doubt or deny.
You also know beyond a shadow of doubt that something is undeniably appearing Here / Now. You can doubt WHAT this appearance is, but THAT it is, is undeniable. Seeing-hearing-breathing-sensing —the bare suchness of this present experiencing—THIS is impossible to doubt. You can doubt any INTERPRETATIONS of what this appearance is—a dream, a material reality, a bunch of atoms and molecules, an hallucination—that can all be doubted. But you cannot doubt the bare sensory experiencing that we call wind in leaves, the cry of a bird, the taste of tea, the sound of traffic, the red of the fire truck streaking past. You can doubt the words but not the bare actuality to which they point.
Nonduality isn’t a philosophy or a belief system. It’s a pointer to the living reality of Here / Now. The caw-caw-caw of the crow, the green of the leaves, the fragrance of the flowers, the knowingness of being here, this listening-awaring-presence beholding it all. THIS is the Holy Reality, the nondual absolute. And the more deeply we open to this living reality and to the simplicity of being just this moment, the more we find that the truly extraordinary is right here in the most seemingly ordinary moment. The pathless-path that interests me is an open exploration of this living reality, not a collection of dogmas or beliefs ABOUT it. It's being awake NOW, not yesterday or tomorrow or forever-after.
Response to a question in the comment section after this post about whether there can be a 'non-dualistic' response to the 'bad news' of someone you love getting cancer:
I’d say we’re in dangerous territory (the territory where religion so easily goes astray) when we start to think that there is any correct (or incorrect) “non-dualistic response” to any given situation. It’s easy to get ideas about what a “nondual response” might be—that we would feel no grief, no anger, no loss, no upset. There are many famous old stories of a Zen Master wailing in grief at the grave of his wife or telling his students that he doesn’t want to die, stories that are intended to dispel just such ideas. One contemporary Zen teacher said that “enlightenment does not mean dying a good death; enlightenment is not needing to die a good death.” For me, nonduality or the pathless-path of being liberated on the spot is about being awake in this moment, being aware and present without knowing what “should” happen or what is or isn’t possible, seeing through our expectations and preconceived ideas, being sensitive to what is showing up in the whole situation (in the other person and perhaps more importantly in ourselves), without expectations of perfection. Not taking life personally doesn’t mean being detached and aloof and not feeling the full range of human emotions when someone we love has cancer. It means recognizing that ALL of this (the cancer, the reactions to it in ourself and the other) are a happening of life and not a personal doing.
I talked in my previous post about what we know beyond all doubt: aware presence and this ever-changing present appearance. If we look closely, we can see that those are not two separate things, but one seamless, undivided, living reality that has been broken up only conceptually by those words. There is no actual boundary between awareness and what it beholds, or between “inside of me” and “outside of me.” Don’t take that (or anything else) on faith as a belief, but check it out for yourself. That kind of direct, firsthand exploration is very different from trying to understand all this intellectually or believing what different authority figures tell us. Only this direct discovery truly liberates us, and it liberates us not once-and-for-all, but only now. It dissolves the belief that there is anyone in need of being liberated, and it shows us the way through suffering.
We can THINK of a boundary between “inside of me” and “outside of me” (e.g. “my skin”) and we can IMAGINE some boundary (e.g. some mental image of our body with it’s seemingly clear boundary-lines), but if we give careful, open attention to the actual place where inside supposedly turns into outside, or if we feel into where the body meets the chair, or if we close our eyes and sense our body as pure sensory experiencing, do we really find any solid dividing lines in our actual experience? Or do we find ever-changing, unbound, sensations and vibrations unfolding as one whole seamless event?
And doesn’t the thought of “my skin,” or the image of “my body,” or the sensation of “body meeting chair” all appear Here / Now, along with—and inseparable from— everything else that is appearing Here / Now (the chairs and tables, the other people, the images on the TV, the words on this FB post, the sounds of traffic)? Isn’t it all one seamless moving picture, magnificently diverse but indivisible? Isn’t ALL of it appearing IN this vast field of awareness that I’m calling Here / Now, and isn’t that just another name for the true “I” to which we all refer when we say I AM? Isn’t this aware presence most intimate, utterly immediate, and all-inclusive?
Instead of believing there is or isn’t a self, or trying to get rid of the self, or insisting that “I” can’t get rid of “my” self, what happens if we simply look for “the self” or “the ego” or “me” or “I” or “the thinker of my thoughts” or “the doer of my deeds” or “the witness who is watching it all” and see what we actually find? Do we actually find any separate “thing” out there or in here that is thinking and doing and witnessing all of this? Where exactly is this self when we look closely for it? Is it anything other than ever-changing thoughts, sensations, mental images, memories? Where are the boundaries between self and not-self, do they actually exist, can they actually be found?
Instead of BELIEVING in free will or the absence of free will, open exploration means that we look for ourselves, not by thinking about this question philosophically or analytically, but instead, paying attention as so-called decisions and choices unfold, watching closely as they happen, seeing for ourselves how a choice or a decision actually occurs. We may find a succession of conflicting thoughts arguing this way and that, and if we look for the source of these thoughts, do we find anyone back there authoring them or deciding to think them, or do they simply appear unbidden out of nowhere? Do we know what our next thought will be? We may notice bodily sensations that accompany the thoughts, urges and impulses, pushes and pulls—but again, is anyone doing all of this or is it happening by itself? And the decisive moment, that moment when we finally KNOW what to do—where does that certainty come from? Can we manufacture it? Can we will it into existence? Or does it come by itself in its own time?
Instead of trying to figure out the meaning of life or the purpose of existence, can we question what we mean by meaning and purpose? We might look and see what meaning or purpose we find in this moment right now, and whether any is actually needed. Doesn’t the notion of purpose or meaning depend on the story of a self existing in time?
We might explore directly whether we can actually find the past or the future or even the present. Can we notice that whatever time of day or night it is, it always shows up Now, and that whatever location is appearing, it always appears Here? Memories of the past happen Now; thoughts of elsewhere arise Here. Do we ever actually leave this timeless, placeless Here / Now? Is eternity endless duration in time, or is it this timeless presence Here / Now?
Instead of believing in heaven or reincarnation or nothing at all after death, we might investigate so-called birth and death in this moment. We might look closely at what is born and what dies and whether any-thing persists over time. We might look and sense and feel into what it is that is at the root of our deep concern over survival—what is it that we fear will die? Again, this isn’t an intellectual inquiry, but a meditative inquiry—it’s about looking directly with the light of awareness, listening openly, not knowing what will be revealed.
We might also notice how every night in deep sleep, the world disappears and we disappear with it. All our problems vanish and the one who cares about disappearing or not disappearing is gone as well. There is no more fear of death. Even the first bare SENSE of being present and aware is gone. We might wonder, what remains?
Intuitively, we know that “something” is still here. And yet any answer we come up with about what that is, or any experience we think might be it, is absent in deep sleep. Whatever remains in deep sleep (or after death?) is nothing perceivable or conceivable. Can we rest for a moment in the absolute openness and transparency of that unknowable source, that ultimate subjectivity, without trying to figure it out or grasp it?
We long to know what this source, or this all-inclusive wholeness, or this fundamental energy is that is being and doing everything, but we cannot find it as an object that we can single out or grasp, for the eye cannot see itself. And yet we see nothing else wherever we look, and we know this energy intimately as our very being, as the nature of every experience, the unbound immediacy and the vast spaciousness of Here / Now, the freedom of not grasping and not knowing, the openness that has space for everything to be as it is, the peace of deep sleep in which nothing perceivable or conceivable remains, the peace that is right here at the heart of this awaring presence.
Experience is always changing—it is never the same from one instant to the next—and yet there is “something” that is the same in every experience. What is that? We might say it is the present-ness of it, the here-ness or now-ness of it, the thusness or suchness of it, the beingness of it. This beingness or presence is not a “thing” that we can grasp—in a very real sense it is no-thing perceivable or conceivable—and yet it is our most intimate reality. It is the no-thing-ness of everything, the emptiness of all apparent form, the aliveness of this moment, the freedom that is our True Nature.
Opening to this vastness Here / Now, sensing it energetically as pure sensation, exploring it directly by paying attention—this is very different from thinking ABOUT it. This is BEING this moment—dissolving into the territory itself, not studying the map. It’s energetic, not mental. Seeing, hearing, sensing, perceiving—this is alive and moving. It’s not the dead abstraction of thoughts, concepts, ideas, conclusions, formulas or answers.
The thinking mind is uncomfortable with this kind of non-conceptual, direct exploration and being because it doesn’t yield the kind of answers that thought likes to grab onto—it doesn’t give us a map with solid lines delineating one apparently solid thing from another or a formula for what to do next. Instead, this kind of awareness-based exploration opens us to an unpredictable and ever-changing energetic unfolding that cannot be conceptualized, controlled or grasped. Instead of frozen abstract ideas, we are in a world of vibration and flux, stillness and presence, sensation and energy. Over time (and always only now), we learn to trust this living reality that we are and this unfolding revelation of our True Nature. This awake presence is actually far more trustworthy than any thoughts or beliefs.
This can all easily slip over into philosophy or metaphysics because thought naturally begins to translate whatever is discovered into ideas and concepts. It reifies, freezes, solidifies and divides what is actually fluid, unformed and undivided. It creates maps, abstract representations of life, narratives and stories. It labels, defines and categorizes. That’s its job. Thought makes sense out of bare sensation and knowledge out of the unknowable. It’s not bad or wrong that thought does this, and in relative functioning, it can be very helpful, even essential.
But the problem is that we lose sight of the difference between the map created by thought and the actual territory it seeks to represent. Fresh insight can easily turn into deadening dogma, and the basic insecurity and vulnerability of the bodymind sets us up to grasp at the false security and false comfort of fundamentalism. The problem of fundamentalism is not limited to Christians or Muslims; it can show up in radical nondualists as well. But beliefs never really satisfy us because they are always shadowed by doubt. When we try to live in a map-world of frozen certainties, before long we’re lost in confusion, filled with doubt and driven by a sense of needing to know something that we cannot grasp. We rush from one authority to the next seeking the answer that we imagine will finally dispel our doubt.
Waking up is not about finding the answers or having that kind of frozen certainty. It’s about stepping out of this mental world, being open to the aliveness of this moment, letting go of everything that can be doubted and seeing what remains. That alone is trustworthy, that alone dispels our doubt and confusion. Coming back to the simplicity of being just this moment. Being present Here / Now. Being open, holding on to nothing at all.
That doesn’t mean we no longer think or use maps or form concepts. But can we be aware of abstraction and conceptualization as it happens? Can we discern the difference between the concept “water” and the actuality of water, or between the concept of “awareness” and the actuality to which it points? Can we see how easily we begin to mistake the map for the territory? And can we return again and again (now and now and now) to the territory itself?
The territory is actually impossible to re-present or understand, isn’t it? We can understand it relatively in practical ways. But in the ultimate sense, we don’t really know what anything is or why it’s here or what’s going on…and we may be surprised to discover that we don’t need to know, that not knowing is very alive, very free, very open.
All our confusion and uncertainty is about the map. Reality itself is never confusing. This is a big clue. Whenever there is confusion and doubt, we can be sure that we are lost in thought. So confusion is a kind of dharma bell, an invitation to wake up, to come back to the simplicity of being just this moment. Give up trying to understand or formulate or grasp this present happening and simply allow it to be. And that allowing may begin with allowing the grasping and trying to be as it is—simply giving it loving attention, not trying to get rid of it, not judging it, not needing this moment to be ANY different from exactly how it is.
How is it? We may find that it is no particular way at all, for it is always changing. When we look closely at any apparent “thing” (a thought, a sensation, an emotion, a person, a table, a chair, our sense of self, the experience of grasping), the more closely we look, the more we find only flux and change, energy and empty (aware) space—no-thing at all and EVERYTHING, just as it is.
So the more we explore this present reality, the more we discover for ourselves the ever-present wholeness, the seamlessness, the fluidity, the impermanence, the brightness, the sparkle, the aliveness, the immediacy of Here / Now. We find for ourselves where love is, where joy is, where freedom is, where peace is—not by having ideas and beliefs, but through our own direct experience. Just as we discover how to swim or how to ride a bicycle, we find out for ourselves how to let go, how to allow everything to be as it is, how to open to being just this moment. We find out that we’re not in control of how this awakening and discovery unfolds, that it all happens at its own pace, and that it cannot be forced. And we discover that whether this surrender happens or not in any given moment is not personal, that there’s no “me” doing it, that this isn’t about doing something perfectly or getting somewhere or becoming somebody special, that nothing is ever really broken or out of place, that there is no “me” to be enlightened or not enlightened.
I’ve found that there is no end to this discovery and this awakening. We often seem to learn the same basic lessons over again in ever-deeper or ever-more-subtle ways, but in truth, we never step into the same river twice and we are never the same person from one instant to the next. Everything changes, every moment is fresh and new. And this discovery, this awakening is always new and always now.
And if you think you’re not getting it, just notice how that very thought instantly creates the mirage of you and something else to get. This is the thought-created virtual reality where there appears to be separation and dualism, where consciousness seems to shrink down and identify itself as a separate thing encapsulated in a separate body, and this “me” always seems to be lacking something—as the Rolling Stones wisely put it many years ago, this false “I” can’t get no satisfaction. This is our human suffering and it’s a very compelling movie. But notice that right now this is only a movie. Notice that this thought that “I don’t get it” is simply a little burst of energy that gives rise to this amazing virtual reality show in the imagination of “you” searching for “it.” Notice that this show has no actual reality—that it’s a kind of hypnotic dream.
Is it possible to wake up from this dream—not someday, not once-and-for-all, but right now? Can you hear the traffic, the wind, the song of the birds, the barking dog? Can you taste the tea you’re drinking and feel the heat from the cup on your hands? Can you sense the breathing? Can it be seen that “inside” and “outside” are simply ideas dividing up what is actually indivisible and seamless? Can it be seen that “you” as thought imagines you is also an idea, a thought, a mental image, a virtual reality? What are you in reality in this moment of listening-breathing-awaring-se nsing presence? Where are the boundaries between you and everything else? What is there to get? What is missing? What needs to be different?
What exactly IS nonduality? People sometimes ask me this. In a nutshell, nonduality is nothing more or less than the smell of rain, the caw-caw-caw of the crow, the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of traffic, the sound of the airplane passing overhead, the taste of coffee, the red of the fire engine, the sensations of a tooth ache, the wave-like movements of breathing, the dog leaping to catch a ball, the homeless person begging for money by the freeway, the listening-awaring-presence being and beholding it all: Here / Now, just as it is, ever-changing, ever-present, magnificently diverse but without separation. Nonduality is not a philosophy or a belief, but rather, the living reality that is impossible to doubt or deny or understand. We can never grasp it or pin it down. It eludes all attempts at formulation, and yet here it always is, unavoidably present and most intimate.
Nonduality points to a sense of wholeness and non-separation, a recognition that everything is one seamless happening, that everything belongs, that opposite polarities arise together and are not actually in conflict with each other. Nonduality sees no conflict between oneness and multiplicity, or between relative and absolute, or between individuality and the unbound wholeness that includes everything. It doesn’t fixate on one side of any conceptual divide or stick to any partial or limited view. It is all-inclusive, dialectical, fluid, always open to new discoveries.
There is undeniably something here that we call a person, and yet when we look closely and carefully, we find no separate self with an independent free will, no thinker behind the thoughts, no doer behind the deeds, no actor apart from the action, no seer apart from the seeing, no creator outside of the creation. “Subject and object” or “self and other” are different words for one undivided happening, one seamless event. At the same time, true nonduality has no need to deny the relative reality of me and you. We can discern the difference between the mountain and the valley, or between me and you, and there is undeniably a relative and functional sense of being a particular person that doesn’t disappear with nondual awakening. In Zen, they speak of “leaping clear of the many and the one,” or “Not one, not two.” Nonduality is the freedom of non-grasping, non-fixating, groundlessness. No-thing stays the same. Here / Now is at once ever-present and ever-changing.
In Zen, they say that before we encounter these teachings, there are mountains and valleys. This is the ordinary dualistic view. After we take up the practice of Zen, it is said that there are no mountains and no valleys. This is realizing the absolute oneness of everything. But Zen doesn’t stop there. With enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys again. We can discern the differences between them and function within the world of relativity, but we’re not back in the ordinary dualistic view either, for we have awakened to the bigger context, the unity of all apparent diversity and the interdependence of all apparent opposites. Both views (relative and absolute) now co-exist and function together, neither to the exclusion of the other.
It could be said that consciousness IS the dividing up of wholeness (or unbroken energy) into apparently different things—emptiness appearing as form. With the arising of consciousness, there is the first basic sense (or sensation) of duality: subject and object, self and other, here and there, now and then, this and that, up and down, light and dark, me and you. Although consciousness instantly brings forth that primary kind of diversity and differentiation, we might notice that bare perception by itself, prior to thought, is still essentially whole—there is variation and differentiation in pure perceiving or pure sensing, but there is no actual separation or conflict. Everything is arising together as one flowing, interdependent, seamless whole.
Conflict, separation and independent “things” that persist over time are conceptual IDEAS that emerge only with thought. Thinking gives rise to this virtual reality that we call dualism. In dualism, rather than seeing opposite polarities as one whole happening, we get the idea that they are actually separate forces, and we begin to think that up should (and could) actually triumph over down. We come to believe that we are all independent agents moving forward in linear time with free will. Consciousness becomes totally identified with the idea of being a separate self encapsulated in a separate bodymind. We lose sight of the bigger context, the seamless and boundless wholeness of being, our True Nature.
Presence-awareness (the Ultimate Subject, the living reality Here / Now) is inherently nondual and whole. It is here prior to consciousness, during consciousness, and after everything perceivable and conceivable disappears. It is aware of consciousness and it is what remains in deep sleep. Presence-awareness includes both oneness and multiplicity. It is the openness that is so open that it allows contraction, resistance and closing down—the harmony that includes dissonance. It has been called the Self, God, the Tao, the One without a second, the Holy Reality, the True Self, no self, emptiness, no-thing-ness, unicity, Totality.
In the dualistic view of life, we see ourselves as separate individuals fighting to win the game. We imagine that we can control the universe, rather than seeing ourselves as an activity of the universe. We search for meaning and purpose and then scare ourselves with imaginary specters of meaninglessness and purposelessness.
In nondual understanding, we see that good and evil arise together as one inseparable whole, that neither can exist without the other. We may still be moved by life to practice medicine, to repair cars, to remodel houses, or to work toward reducing carbon emissions and saving the environment, but we know that all such actions are the actions of life itself, and that ultimately, there is no final solution to life’s problems, no finish line to our efforts. Eventually, regardless of how well we practice medicine, every one of our patients will die; and no matter how skillful we are at repairing cars, eventually every one of them will turn to dust; and no matter how hard we work to slow climate change or prevent environmental devastation, eventually, the human species and planet earth and our entire solar system will be gone. Nothing is permanent or unchanging, and while this sounds scary from the perspective of the imaginary separate self, it is actually wonderful news. It is what makes life so alive. It is the heart of liberation. Intuitively, we already know this. We care for our children even though we know they will grow old and die because we know that this living reality that we are doesn’t begin with us or end with our children. We know that nothing is really separate or lost.
From the nondual perspective (the perspective of wholeness), we see that all our human activity (from pollution to meditation) is no less natural, no less an expression of the universe, than the activity of volcanoes, tides, hurricanes, earthquakes, predators, tsunamis, sunshine, and everything else in this vast happening. We are no longer in conflict with how it is. That doesn’t mean we lose the ability to discern relative errors, or that we are no longer moved to fix problems or work toward what we regard as positive changes of various kinds. But we’re doing all this in a significantly different way now, not fixated on results or imagining that we know what’s best for the universe. Instead, we’re enjoying the dance itself. We know that our concerns, our interests, our urges and motivations, the work we do and the outcomes of it are not in our hands, and we know that ultimately all is well, even when it seems broken and lost. We know that thought is limited and that it cannot possibly comprehend the whole, so the effort to grasp and pin down reality falls away. We realize that the eye cannot see itself, that totality cannot stand outside of itself, that the Ultimate Subject can never be an object. We recognize that the dance of life needs no added meaning or purpose beyond the dancing itself.
This awakening is not a personal achievement. There is no enduring person who stays the same from one instant to the next. No wave is separate from the ocean. Having awakened to this nondual realization in one moment, consciousness can be caught up again in the movie-world of thought in another moment, entranced and mesmerized by the story of being a separate and encapsulated individual—feeling angry, upset, hurt, defensive, anxious, or anything else that humans feel. Taking that personally as “my failure” can only arise from the perspective of the fictitious self. In the absence of this mirage-like self-image, there is no secondary story about how “I” lost it or how “I” screwed up. We recognize that nothing is personal and that even this mesmerization and imagination is an activity of the whole universe, part of the dance. There is no “me” being caught up or set free. There is simply the One Mind dancing: being entranced and waking up. It is all a form of play, an infinite Self-discovery and Self-realization, a journey from Here to Here in which absolutely nothing is accomplished and nothing is ever really lost.
Realizing this doesn’t lead to some nihilistic feeling that life is meaningless or that everyday reality should be ignored because it is “just an illusion.” On the contrary, this nondual realization is unconditional love. The more we realize the jewel of Here / Now, and the more we see that the bodymind and the story of “me” is only a tiny part of what we truly are, the less seriously we take our personal and global dramas, and the freer we are to break out of the imaginary boxes that seem to bind us. Far from being detached or uncaring, this openness is total intimacy, unconditional love, complete abandon, unhindered responsiveness or response-ability. Not “my” response-ability, but life itself leaping free from it’s own imaginary chains.
And if thought is now saying, “I’m not very loving or able to leap, so I still have a long ways to go before I get this,” can it be seen that this is another story, a train of thought that instantly reincarnates the imaginary self and the goal-driven journey through time? Is that self real? Can it actually be found? Is there anywhere to leap to or anywhere to leap from? Who would leap? What is not already here, fully complete? Who is not enlightened? Find this one and the imaginary problem is solved. (And please note: it isn’t solved by believing the opposite story that, “I’m enlightened now, I’ve arrived, I’ve got it.”) Liberation is letting go, even of the need to let go. When everything that can be doubted falls away, what remains is nonduality. Try to formulate what that is and you immediately go astray. And yet, life moves us to speak. Words pour forth like the cheeping of the birds and the roaring of the traffic, and the heart of what is being said is in the energy and the love and the listening presence.
Of course, there are as many versions of what the word nonduality means as there are versions of Buddhism or Zen or Advaita or Christianity. To my mind, nonduality is a kind of umbrella term that covers a broad range of teachings including Buddhism, Advaita, Taoism, Sufism, mystical Christianity, and many expressions that are not associated with any religious tradition. To others, the word nonduality may mean something much more narrow. But ultimately, it all points to Here / Now, being just this moment, the simplicity of what is. That’s where the aliveness is.
I use many words as pointers: Here / Now, presence, awareness, thusness, the Ultimate Subject, emptiness, the True Self….for one moment, let them all go. Come back to the utter simplicity of what is here right now before the words. Hearing, seeing, breathing, sensing, awaring. Just this. Relax into allowing everything to be exactly as it is. That might mean relaxing into being tense or agitated or upset, without fighting against that agitation or judging it or taking it personally or trying to change it in any way, but simply experiencing it as it is. This re-turning to simplicity is being liberated on the spot, discovering the spaciousness and the freedom that is here even in the midst of apparent disturbance.
It’s important to notice that we don’t make this discovery by searching for spaciousness and freedom somewhere else, or by trying really hard to bring them about, or by trying to push away whatever seems to be an obstacle. Paradoxically and counter-intuitively, this discovery happens only by completely accepting and relaxing into what is, even if that appears to be bondage and limitation. Acceptance IS the spaciousness and the freedom and the unconditional love that we long for, and it is the very nature of awareness and presence.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we ought to try to maintain some continuous state of wordless presence. That would be absurd. Words and stories are part of the texture of human life. Yes, they can cause great suffering, but they can also be immensely liberating. It all depends on where they are coming from, how they are received, what they are telling us, and whether we can discern the difference between the words and what they point to or describe.
Words, thoughts, concepts, stories and imagination often get a bad rap in nondual teachings, as does any sense of being a person and any kind of practice-effort. But as I see it, the problem at the root of our human suffering is not the words or thoughts themselves, nor is it the undeniable experience of being a unique body-mind-personality in relationship with other conscious beings, nor is it the genuine aspiration and (effortless) effort to see through delusion and be awake here and now.
The problem is when we become hypnotized by ideas, when we mistake the map for the territory, when we think and feel that the body-mind-person is all that we are, when we believe that we actually are a separate entity encapsulated inside a bag of skin, when the effort we make toward liberation is mis-directed toward some future personal attainment, when we believe in the reality of stories that create the illusion of separation, limitation and bondage where none actually exists (e.g. “I’ve ruined my whole life,” or “This isn’t it”), when we believe in stories of enlightenment as a permanent personal achievement that we (or others) possess, or when we oppose how life actually is in this moment.
In the Buddhist Heart Sutra, they say that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In Buddhism, emptiness is not something other than form, and form is not something other than emptiness. We have different words like “form” and “emptiness” in order to communicate or draw attention to different aspects of this living reality, but the reality itself is undivided and seamless. In Advaita, it is often pointed out that awareness is not separate from what it beholds, and that presence-awareness, this intelligence-energy, the groundless ground of Here / Now, is no-thing that can be grasped. All apparently separate “things” that seem to persist through time are conceptual creations, as are any apparent boundaries between them.
Experientially, if I go deeply into any thought, emotion, or sensation, I find nothing solid, only a kind of energy, no-thing at all. If I look deeply, I see that everything is made up of everything it is not, and that it is empty of any persisting self-identity. Experientially, it can be seen directly that nothing dies because no-thing ever really forms or “exists” (stands outside of anything else). Nothing ever appears outside of consciousness, so in a very real (experiential) sense, everything we see, hear, touch, taste, smell and think IS consciousness, and yet if we try to find “consciousness” as some particular thing, there is no-thing there. To see all of this is to realize emptiness. But that doesn’t mean that denying relative reality or dismissing all apparent form as “just an illusion” is therefore the truth. That kind of denial has often been referred to as the mistake of being stuck in emptiness or fixated in the absolute. It is half the truth, not the whole truth.
To take an example, I can see that in a very real sense, "my mother" was an abstract idea, the reality of which was ever-changing energy, an appearance in consciousness, empty of any solidity or permanence. No-thing has actually died or been lost. The presence-awareness, the energy that was my mother is right here now. But on the other hand, my mother was a very vivid living reality, and that unique and precious being was an unrepeatable event that has in one sense definitely disappeared. I cannot talk or laugh with her, or touch her or be touched by her ever again. I can't deny either side of that equation, the reality of my mother and of her death, and the unreality of my mother and her death. To deny the loss of a loved one or the experience of being a person is as off the mark as being totally caught up in the illusion of a separate self. The awakened life dances right here in that interplay of form and emptiness—this emptiness/form present moment that is eternal and yet ever-changing, “not one, not two,” impossible to pin down in any formulation but equally impossible to actually avoid. Living from this nondual realization is not about insisting over and over that there is no self and no death and no problem and nowhere to go. It is about being open and awake to how it is in this moment, not grasping any conceptual framework, not landing on some fixed answer.
As soon as we assert or insist that there is no person here or that there is a person, that we have free choice or that there is no choice, that effort is necessary or that it is unnecessary, we have landed on one side of a polarity. We’re clinging to half the truth. We’re in the realm of dogma and fundamentalism, closing down rather than opening up. And if we try to maintain some “empty” state of consciousness, or get rid of delusion once-and-for-all, or “be here now” “all the time,” then we are caught in dualism, fighting against reality, chasing after imaginary windmills.
Nonduality is about not landing anywhere, not clinging to any particular view. It is about being grounded in groundlessness, which means being grounded in letting go of everything, being open. And it doesn’t mean we are in some state of continuous bliss, immune from the difficulties and challenges of life. These will always show up in one way or another. But instead of being seen as obstacles or distractions or shameful proofs that we are miserable failures, these apparent difficulties become more and more interesting and less and less personal. More and more, we find ourselves meeting them with open curiosity and love instead of with resistance, disgust or hatred. Our judgments and certainties begin to fall away, and we can see our delusions and compulsions as gates rather than as obstacles. We find that we can’t really say anymore exactly where delusion ends and enlightenment begins. There is no separation. What I’m talking about here is not an ideology or a belief, but rather, a felt-experience (somatic, kinesthetic, energetic, nonconceptual, awareness-based, alive). It’s not a thought or an idea or an intellectual formulation that we cling to for security and comfort and then begin to doubt. It is the presence-awareness, the living reality, that cannot be doubted.
There are many ways of conceptualizing this living reality and many different ways of pointing to the pathless path of liberation. Many people love to debate which map is most accurate, and many will insist that only one map is correct and useful and that every other map is false and will land you in a ditch. Advaita talks about the immutable Self, the eternity of timeless presence (Here / Now), the presence-awareness that is the same in every experience, the seamlessness and unbroken unicity of being, the illusory nature of all appearances. Buddhism talks about thorough-going impermanence and flux, emptiness, no-thing-ness, interdependent origination, and finding enlightenment right in the middle of everyday life. Christianity talks about love and how God is love. These different maps may all seem very different, even contradictory at the level of thought, but I find in my own experience that different maps of the same living reality can be useful in different ways and in different moments. Each one seems to awaken a different aspect of being or dissolve and see through a different kind of delusion.
What matters is always the territory—the living reality, not waging war over the maps. So if we find ourselves caught up in intellectual confusion or argumentation, desperately trying to “get it,” scanning one map and then another in search of the right answer, maybe we can stop right now and give up the search and the argument. Maybe we can simply be here, breathing, listening to the traffic and the birds. Maybe we can drop out of the thinking mind for one moment and simply feel all the waves of sensation and energy in the body without trying to understand any of it. In the actuality of the living reality, what argument or confusion remains?
And even if what we find right now is contraction or numbness or tension or restlessness or compulsive behavior or unsettling emotions, maybe we can simply allow that to be as it is and experience it fully without needing to change it in any way. As bare sensation, is it actually a problem? Is it possible to relax right now into the simplicity of what is, however it is, not knowing anything, not needing to know? True liberation is only now. It’s not in the next moment after conditions are different. That is the single biggest key to the gateless gate.
And in my experience, the penny doesn't just drop once. It is a never-ending dropping, this dance of delusion and enlightenment, and even the apparent delusion never really falls short of perfection. And by the way, there’s a reason they call it the “gateless gate” instead of either “the gate” or “no-gate.” The gateless gate points to that “not one, not two” wholeness (or emptiness) of true nonduality. Truly, there is nothing to get and nowhere to go, and no one to be deluded or to get enlightened, and yet…there is undeniably a shift or a process (an unfolding, a dropping, a seeing, an awakening, a dissolving, an undoing, a clarifying, a surrendering, a relaxing) that happens seemingly over time but always only now, a shiftless shift in which delusion falls away and the heart opens and nothing is in the way.
What brings us to the religious or spiritual life (including a passion for nonduality)?
Most of us initially take up religion or spirituality because we are suffering and we want to find out if there is a way to be free of suffering. Many of us are also motivated by compassion and the desire to relieve the suffering of others. We may also find ourselves engaged in religion or spirituality as a form of devotion or celebration that expresses the deep joy of being alive, even in the midst of suffering.
This deep joy can include everything from the ecstatic joy of the whirling dervish or Hindu bhajans, to the more somber but still celebratory joy of the Catholic mass, which is perhaps not entirely unlike the joy that comes in the alchemy of singing or hearing the blues, when suffering and misery are transmuted into song and beauty and both coexist in the same music, like the crucifixion turning into the resurrection. Religion often includes music, chanting, ritual, dancing, painting and other forms of artistic expression. There is a spirit of deep play in religion. Of course, that playfulness often begins to feel quite dead and deadening the more it becomes part of a repressive or rigid tradition that cannot be questioned. But true spirituality always includes devotion. Devotion isn’t necessarily to a guru or to any particular idea of God, and it may not take any of the usual forms. It can be devotion to the present moment, devotion to presence-awareness, devotion to the sound of rain. Devotion is the opening of the Heart and the realization and expression of overflowing joy.
In some way, all religion and spirituality is about coming together and uncovering our True Nature, finding the way through suffering, discovering the wholeness and the freedom that is Here / Now, opening the Heart, living in wonder and awe, bringing forth love, celebrating the mystery of being alive. I’ve used phrases like “Being Just This Moment” or “The Simplicity of What Is” or “Being Awake Now” to describe my own events and what it all means to me.
It’s a fertile question for all of us to reflect on every now and then—what are we doing here? In satsangs and nonduality meetings and Zen practice and meditation and on this Facebook page, what are we doing? What are we up to?
Are we exchanging intellectual ideas? Are we seeking something? Are we hoping to get rid of something? Are we practicing something? And if we’re practicing, what is it we are practicing? What do we mean by practice? Is practice a rehearsal for a future performance, or a form of athletic training, or a rote activity, or is it something else altogether? What is it that we’re up to?
I’ve always resonated with the words of an Anglican solitary who calls herself Maggie Ross. She described her vocation as “nonresult-oriented,” and said that it had to do with “going to the heart of the world’s sin and pain” and “creating possibility.” I also resonate deeply with the Zen notion that practice is about being just this moment, letting go of our judgments and agendas, not expecting results, not grasping, not being caught in ideas, not going to war with what is. And I resonate greatly with the spirit of satsang, which for me is about surrendering to the Heart, dissolving the sense of separation and solidity and melting into the spaciousness of love that is unbound and open.
My first Zen teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, said that his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, walked up to him one day and said, “Just being alive is enough.” After mentioning that in a recent interview, Mel said: “That has always been a touchstone for me. To keep the practice as simple as possible and not add things to it and not try to expand it in some way. To take the simplest practice and let it mature.” I like that a lot. I’ve always been drawn to simplicity. My sense has always been that the heart of religion and spirituality boils down to something very simple and immediate, that the true jewel is right here in this moment. We don’t need to go to India or Japan or quit our job and live in a monastery or an ashram. Nothing needs to be any different from exactly how it is. We don’t need a quieter location or quieter bodymind than the one that is here now.
But so often, we want to escape from what this moment offers. So instead of simply being awake to it and experiencing it and being it, we do any number of things to get away. And we tend to look upon the present moment as just a stepping stone to the next moment. We’re habitually very focused on the (always imaginary) destination and not the actuality of where we are. Our attention goes to ideas of future achievement, improvement, acquisition and attainment, always with the imaginary “me” in the center of the story. We’re aiming at something imaginary and ignoring the only place where true enlightenment ever is, which is Here / Now. When we’re not really awake to it, the present moment seems very ordinary and unspectacular. There’s no “me” in it, no grand meaning, no larger purpose, no story. It’s just the sounds of traffic, the feeling of heat or cold, the pressure of a headache. Who wants that? We want enlightenment! And so, again and again, we overlook the real enlightenment Here / Now and search for the faux version somewhere else.
Enlightenment (or liberation, or love, or freedom, or happiness, or peace) is here and now, at the very core of present experiencing, in the presence itself. It’s not somewhere else. It’s here in the sound of traffic and the fumes of the city bus. It’s the listening presence, the stillness at the heart of everything, the energy that is showing up as sounds and smells, chairs and tables, oceans and stars and human brains. To truly be in touch with this, to simply BE this, is the end of suffering, not forever-after, but now. This alive presence is true compassion, unconditional love. It sees no other; it knows no separation. Aware presence gives rise to intelligent action and is the greatest gift we can offer to ourselves and the world. Being awake Here / Now brings forth overflowing joy, the desire to sing and dance, to write books, to cook meals, to pay our income tax, to balance our checkbook, to vacuum the floor, to say hello to the check-out clerk, to notice the clouds in the sky and the light on the side of a building, to be curious about what troubles us, to go to the heart of our suffering, to take the next breath and to let it go, to dissolve again and again into the utter simplicity of the Heart.
How simple can this be? A dear friend of mine who died suddenly some years ago asked that question shortly before she died. How simple can this be? It’s a wonderful question to live with. And it’s a wonderful way to live—to come back to the simplicity of what is, not once-and-for-all or forever-after (those are stories), but right now.
I’ve had several emails in the last week about world events and especially the events in Israel/Palestine, a conflict that has been raging for my entire lifetime. The carnage in Gaza and the whole treatment of the Palestinian people is heartbreaking, and of course, it is also heartbreaking that innocent Israelis are killed and that the Jewish people went through the Holocaust and have faced (and continue to face) many other horrific injustices. It is heartbreaking when any people are stereotyped and vilified and subjected to genocide. It is heartbreaking when human beings fall into fundamentalism. However disproportionate the losses in the current fighting may be (the last time I checked, some 1,600 Palestinians, mostly civilians, had been killed and over 8,000 injured vs. 61 Israeli soldiers and 3 Israeli civilians killed and a number of others injured), terrible losses have been suffered on both sides. As in most conflicts and differences of opinion, both sides feel that they are the true victim, that they are the ones being treated poorly, that the media is favoring the other side. Both sides feel under attack. Both sides fear extermination. Both sides have good reasons for these fears.
We can find the roots of this conflict in our own psyches, all of us...the fear of being exterminated, the ways we seek security by becoming tough and aggressive, the endless blame games and cycles of retribution and vengeance, the sense of “us and them,” feeling like the victim, feeling misunderstood. The Israelis dropping bombs and building walls and creating check-points and blockades to get rid of this perceived threat, and on the other side, the stone throwers or the rocket launchers or the suicide bombers blowing themselves and others up in outrage and frustration over the long years of injustice and cruelty...both sides are inside each of us. It is our human war. So much unbelievable pain and suffering, so much wanton destruction.
The question for me is how we meet it. How we meet the evening News, and how we meet all of this in ourselves. Do we meet it with anger? With despair? It's easy to go to those places, and sometimes I do. But I know that what feels true and wholesome and healing is to meet these unfoldings with love. Love doesn't turn away. It doesn't blame or hate. It is the open heart, willing to be completely broken, willing to be annihilated. And from that place of complete openness and non-resistance, intelligent action (or non-action) can arise. Love is the real nonduality, not some facile philosophy that makes us feel good because “All is One” and “Everything is perfect.” Love sees the pain and the sorrow, the fear and the hatred. It doesn’t need to call it perfect or imperfect. It sees that this is how it is right now...bombs are falling, children are hurting in unimaginable ways…this is something the universe is doing, something that conditioned human beings are doing in our fear and ignorance. Love doesn't try to avoid the pain or explain it away. It bears witness. It sees clearly. It beholds it all. It allows it to be fully felt. Love is another word for awareness, for presence, for the Open Heart.
I don’t know if this situation will find any genuine resolution in my lifetime—it may not—but my contribution, tiny as it may be, is to work with the roots of this war in my own mind…to put down my own weapons and risk annihilation, to give myself to Love. Not once-and-for-all, but again and again. I often fail. And because I often fail, I understand why the Israelis and the Palestinians often fail. I understand that this is a long and difficult process, this waking up from the trance of separation.
At the same time, in any moment of letting go, surrender is effortless. It is the easiest thing in the world. And it is immediate. It takes no time at all. It is both immensely difficult and incredibly easy. Part of why it seems so difficult is that the mind has a way of reincarnating the past again and again. We think that our so-called enemies are the same people they were a year ago or a day ago or a moment ago. We fail to see that the universe is new in every instant, that nothing stays the same, that there is infinite possibility. Thought tends to get stuck in old narratives, old grooves, old ideologies, and we can’t seem to break free. We can’t make ourselves stop fighting because that’s just another kind of warfare. Surrender is the end of resistance, the end of war. If you’re visiting this Facebook page, chances are you have tasted the possibility of surrender and waking up.
Waking up isn’t about becoming a special enlightened somebody. It’s about being awake right now. And forgiving ourselves (and our so-called enemies) when we fail to wake up, when the pull of the old conditioning is too strong, as it often is for human beings. Waking up is about love. It’s about openness. It’s about allowing the world to be as it is. And paradoxically and counter-intuitively, that allowing gives the world (and each of us) the space to change. Love is the ground from which something truly new emerges.
A final word: We all know that this situation in Palestine/Israel is inflammatory and that many people have strong opinions. So if you wish to comment here, please respect the fact that this Facebook page is not the place for political polemics or hate-speech. And if you’re tempted to post some comment about how all of this is just an illusion and has no place on a page about nonduality, please don’t bother. Go and sit with a child who has lost both arms and both parents and tell that child that he or she is an illusion. Find out what that really means. As the Vedas say: The world is an illusion, only God is real, God is the world.
Is it possible right now to pause the thoughts and mental movies that so often occupy us, and bring our full attention to the bare actuality of the present moment—to hear the birds or the traffic or the airplane flying overhead without labeling or judging or seeking anything better—to feel the breathing, to see the colors and shapes and movements that are happening? And when thoughts pop up or we find ourselves engaged in a thought-story, is it possible to simply see that, to be aware of it, without judgment, and to gently open our attention again to the simplicity of bare sensing and awaring, allowing everything to be just as it is? For right now, for this moment, is that possible?
Does the thinking mind immediately want to give an answer to this question, come to a conclusion, set down a dogma? Yes it is possible; no it isn’t. Can that impulse to provide an answer be seen and then allowed to drop away? Is it possible to actually not know, to simply be open—not forever-after but right now?
I often hear questions that go something like this: “If everything is just happening by itself, and there’s no self, then who is going to pause the thinking mind or allow everything to be as it is—and if it’s All One, then what difference does it make if I’m angry or loving, and what choice do I have? Isn’t it all just a compulsory happening of nature and a fleeting appearance in Consciousness?”
Can it be seen right now that these are mental questions, that they come from thought? What I invite instead is a direct exploration with awareness. Look and see for yourself, watch as life happens, see how it actually is. Is it possible to bring attention to the bare happening of this moment? What’s your experience, do you feel a significant difference between the experience of anger and the experience of love, or are they the same? What’s the same in them and what’s different?
When I find myself swept up in anger and hatred, I can FEEL and SEE that this is a form of suffering and that it is in some way untrue—not meaning it isn't a real experience, but meaning that it is rooted in some kind of misunderstanding or illusion. It is reactive. (And to be clear, I’m not talking here about the kind of primal emotion that all animals have—that adrenalin-rush of fear when we see an approaching tiger—but rather the whole psychological-somatic complex of emotion-thought that adult humans get caught up in that involves storyline, identity and the sense of self). Anger and hatred of that kind spring from the belief in separation and fragmentation. Whereas when I feel genuine love, it feels free and open—unbound. Love feels like it comes from truth (wholeness) and it seems to bring forth wholesome actions as opposed to the kinds of suffering-inducing actions that spring from the so-called negative emotions. There is a felt difference, an observable difference, an obvious difference. (Mountains and valleys are one undivided event AND we can discern the difference between them).
In my last post (ostensibly about Israel/Palestine), I was inviting a kind of open inquiry and a discovery (a direct seeing or awaring) that all the players in this conflict exist in our own psyches (the fear of annihilation, the feeling of being unjustly attacked, the desire for vengeance, the anger, the hatred, the terror on all sides). I was inviting a kind of open awareness that allows whatever is arising (whether “over there” in Gaza or right here in our own bodymind) to be here in this moment without resistance, without judgment, without looking for a solution—simply beholding it with awareness—allowing it to be as it is, feeling it, experiencing it, sensing it, tasting it. And I was suggesting that out of that open awareness and presence, intelligent (loving) action arises naturally.
In my experience, awareness is what liberates. And I'm not speaking here of some grandiose Big Bang Final Permanent Liberation, but simply ordinary moments of waking up from the trance of emotion-thought-belief. Two of our most common and deep-seated beliefs are “this isn’t it” and “I’m not enough,” and these two beliefs set in motion the story of me on my way to somewhere better. And that’s how we often think of the spiritual journey—as a kind of self-improvement or self-purification process in which we will hopefully rid ourselves of all our terrible shortcomings and turn ourselves into an Enlightened Somebody at last. And, of course, this turns out to be a very disappointing and disillusioning project. And finally we begin to get it that true liberation is not about vanquishing our human confusion and imperfection, but actually, it’s about finding out how to love the world and ourselves just as we are. Idealism, perfectionism and dualistic expectations (fantasies of up without down and light without dark) turn out to be a big trap. Hypnotized by such hopeful fantasies, we endlessly postpone liberation and overlook the Holy Reality. Waking up (liberation) has to do with finding perfection in imperfection and discovering nirvana in samsara. That’s very different from banishing or purging imperfection and samsara.
If you have ever experienced this shift from the entanglement in emotion-thought to the open spaciousness and aliveness of aware presence and love, then you know what I am pointing to. It's a direct experience, not an idea. It is a shift from caught-up-ness in thought and mental ideation to the openness of awareness and bare sensation, from identity as the encapsulated separate self to unidentified boundlessness, from fragmentation to wholeness, from tightness to spaciousness, from the push-and-pull and stuckness of resistance and seeking to the freedom and ease of simply being this moment. It isn’t something that happens once-and-for-all or forever-after, but only now.
Is this shift a choice or an act of grace (or both or neither)? Once again, does the thinking mind immediately want to grasp an answer, come to a conclusion, set down a dogma and then identify with and defend that dogma? Or is it possible to actually not know, to be open?
If we observe closely, we can see how everything emerges by itself—our next thought, our next impulse, our next action—and we can see that we do not choose what sources of information we find trustworthy, or what people we find sexually attractive, or what emotions and thoughts arise in us. We can see that even the ability to bring our attention to the present moment, to stop the thinking mind, to open our heart, to allow everything to be as it is—happens by itself. It cannot be done on command by force of will.
But if we make this absence of control into an ideology (“there is no free will”), it begins to be a way of shutting down and blocking ourselves. For example, if we go to a Feldenkrais class and the teacher tells us to bring attention to our left leg, and the thought arises that, “I have no control over where my attention goes,” this thought is a conceptualization of actual reality (a map of the territory). That map has some truth to it, but it isn’t serving us very well at that moment because chances are we CAN bring our attention to our left leg.
Of course, we can’t really explain how we do that movement of attention, and if we search for the one who is doing it, we find no little entity inside of us pulling the levers. We find no thinker behind our thoughts who is back there somewhere authoring them. But at the same time, there is an undeniable ability right here to raise our arm or move our attention or think about how to solve a problem. This ability is part of how nature (or the universe) is functioning.
These abilities may not always be present, and such abilities (or inabilities) are never the creation of an autonomous separate self, for there is no such thing. But at the same time, they don’t come from some external force outside of us or apart from us either, for no such separation or duality actually exists. We ARE this present functioning.
Choice and choicelessness, grace and response-ability are all maps of reality, conceptual overlays, descriptions, pointers, teaching tools. No map is the reality it depicts. It is always only an abstract representation. All of these maps can be useful, and all of them can create problems. When we assume free will, it tends to empower us and that can be useful (maybe that is exactly why this neurological sensation of agency has evolved in mammals). On the other hand, the belief in free will and individual autonomy easily gives rise to blame, shame, guilt and vengeance when everyone fails to behave in the ways we think we all should. When we assume there is no choice and no free will, it frees us from guilt and blame, which can be immensely liberating and relieving and a source of great compassion. But it may also disempower us and become a kind of excuse for irresponsibility and indulgence, which is perhaps not so helpful. If we adopt ANY map as an ideology that we mistake for truth itself, it leads to a closed mind and blocks genuine openness, possibility, availability and true not-knowing. The truth is not in any conceptual formulation.
This is why I find that the deepest truth is often best expressed in an open question. An open question is not a question to answer with a formula or a dogma or a conclusion, but a question to live with, moment to moment. The answer in one moment may be different in another moment.
The shift I’m talking about from entrancement to simple awakeness is not something we “do.” It’s actually more of a not-doing than a doing. It is the absence or the relaxation of that very impulse to fix and control and manage what is. It’s kind of like an Aikido move, as opposed to a karate punch, and you can’t really say exactly how this not-doing happens. And clearly, sometimes the habitual doing doesn’t stop and the not-doing doesn’t happen. Sometimes the force of habit and old conditioning is too strong.
The key that opens the gateless gate is to start right where we are, to drop every agenda, and to allow EVERYTHING, even the stuckness and the resistance and the judgment and the trying and the frustration—the whole mess, just as it is in this moment. And the trick is, if we’re doing that for a result, that’s not total acceptance and openness. It has to be complete. So it’s a kind of koan, discovering that ability to relax and let go, to open, to not do anything, to include everything.
It’s true that there’s no self who can make that happen, but you might begin to sense that there is something just slightly fishy about holding on tightly to the belief that "you" are completely powerless to do (or stop doing) anything, because there is an immense power Here / Now. That power isn’t the separate self or the thinking mind (the fictitious “me”), but something much bigger and much more inclusive, and You are That. There is no separation.
This surrender or relaxation can be pointed to, it can be invited, but to be a living reality, it must be directly discovered for oneself. And the more this possibility is accessed, the more available it seems to become.
As a conditioned bodymind organism, as far as I can tell, we are a compulsory happening of nature. But there is more here than a conditioned bodymind organism. There is awareness, and I would venture to suggest that awareness is unconditioned, unbound and impersonal. I say that not because I read it in a book and I believe it, but because that is my own immediate, direct sense of how it is. I would say that awareness is intelligence itself, that it is another word for unconditional love. Again, that’s my experience. And curiously, when we look closely at the bodymind organism with the light of awareness, we find nothing solid or continuous. We find ever-changing vibrations, sensations, energy, movement, space, consciousness—ultimately no-thing at all, or in another sense EVERYTHING (the whole universe). There is no boundary between awareness and what awareness beholds. Even ideas of conditioning and cause and effect are themselves conceptual overlays, as is the notion that everything is an unknowable and compulsory happening of nature. This is why liberation is often said to be about not grasping, not clinging, not holding to fixed views. “Leaping clear of the many and the one,” in Dogen’s words. Not landing anywhere. Being open, available, present, awake.
I personally have grown tired of versions of nonduality that feel overly simplistic and stuck in one particular map. The aliveness of this moment is so much more subtle and fresh and dynamic than any formulation or any permanent state. It doesn’t hold still. It doesn’t belong to anyone.
The Holy Reality is right here in the chirp of the bird and the whoosh of the traffic, in the busy office and the chaos of family life, in the destroyed buildings and the wounded people of Gaza, in the leaders of Israel and Hamas, in the ache of depression and the struggle with addiction—the Holy Reality is always what is most immediate, most intimate. But try to say what exactly that is, and you immediately fall into error. No map can re-present the territory. And before you can blink, life itself has already moved on. Everything is new. This is the paradox of trying to speak about such things at all. You have to keep erasing everything that comes out of your mouth. And yet, the universe is speaking. The universe is seeing and hearing and breathing and awaring and thinking and writing and table-ing and chair-ing and treeing and flowering and clouding and clearing and evolving and vanishing. The universe is waking up. And while the universe is not some kind of entity that can stand outside of itself and control or plan how to evolve, at the same time, there is a vast intelligence at work that is everywhere on display. Everything functions together in the most amazing way. And our human body-mind-world with all its capacities and possibilities, and all it’s difficulties and horrors, is part of this functioning. There is an aliveness right here in this unbound presence, a possibility for love, a fresh start that is always available.
What do we mean when we say that we know what something is? Or that we cannot know what anything is? It seems that the word "know" is used in different ways. In one sense of the word, we certainly do "know" (or experience directly) this present sensing-perceiving-awaring-bre athing-happening as an undeniable felt reality. But when we speak of knowing what this happening "is," instantly we are in the discriminating split mind, the world of conceptual reification and abstraction. There’s the reality itself and then there’s some idea of “what it is.”
Relatively speaking (or functionally speaking), we can "know" (i.e. cognize and understand) that this thing I'm sitting on is a chair and that it is made out of metal and fabric. But that is a different kind of knowing from direct sensing-perceiving-awaring. The knowledge that “this is a chair” is no longer immediate and impossible to doubt in the way that bare sensing-perceiving-awaring is. The knowledge that “this is a chair” was learned. I learned where to draw the boundary lines that separate the chair from everything else. I learned that all objects that fit into a certain abstract category with a particular function and a particular set of characteristics were called chairs. I learned about metal and fabric and wood and all the different “things” that go into constructing a chair. A baby doesn’t look at this shape-color smorgasbord and see “a chair.” The baby doesn’t think that what it sees is “out there” somewhere or that it is “not-me.” The baby experiences pure, nondual sensing-perceiving-awaring-bei ng, without the overlay of thought.
We could also say this chair is an appearance in consciousness, that it is (in that sense) made out of consciousness. That’s why some teachings would say that everything perceivable or conceivable is mind-stuff. It’s all consciousness. And on close inspection (either with open attention and the light of awareness or through the science of physics), the so-called “material” out of which everything seems to be made turns out to be unlocatable and interdependent thorough-going flux, all of it mostly empty space.
To completely deny that this is a chair I'm sitting on would be foolish, but when we look closely and carefully, we see that there is really no-thing here, nothing solid or continuous or separate from everything else. That no-thing-ness is not to be confused with some kind of nihilistic void or some homogeneous and undifferentiated mush, for in fact, there is an utterly undeniable and infinitely varied display of colors, shapes, gestures, sounds, textures, sensations and thoughts. This nondual reality is all-inclusive, so it includes the whole process of learning and conceptualizing, abstracting and map-making and story-telling—the whole human adventure. It’s just that no-thing that we perceive has any inherent, observer-independent, objective or persisting reality “out there” somewhere. We can’t really separate the seer from the seen—that’s a conceptual illusion. And likewise, the sense of a “me” that seems to be “in here” somewhere also has no inherent reality. It is a kind of mirage-like appearance created by ever-changing sensations, thoughts, memories, stories and mental images. It serves a certain functional purpose, and to deny that “I am Joan” is as absurd as denying that “this is a chair.”
But look closely, and there is no chair and no self. Our suffering comes not from the functional or creative use of words and maps and concepts, but rather from our tendency to mistake these conditioned perceptions and conceptual ideas for a solid objective reality. When we do that, we can’t understand how “other people” seem to see “the world” so differently from how we see it, since we “know” (i.e. believe) that what we see is how it “really is”! And in a sense, that’s absolutely true. There’s no denying the reality of our experience as experience. It’s just that we’re not all looking at some single objective reality “out there.” And whatever we see, it doesn’t hold still and there’s always a bigger picture, the infinite jewels of Indra’s Net, each a reflection of all the others, with no-thing ever forming into anything independent or persisting.
Liberation doesn’t require us to insist that we are not a person and that there is no such thing as a chair—that would be rather silly. It simply invites us to realize the ephemeral, tentative, impermanent and nondual nature of all apparent subjects and objects. It invites us to see BOTH differentiation AND the seamlessness and boundlessness of this diverse but inseparable reality, the undivided wholeness of multiplicity and the infinite variation of unicity. It invites us to discover how no-thing can ever really be grasped, even though being here now is absolutely undeniable and completely obvious.
There’s truly nowhere to go outside of Here / Now and nothing to get other than just this, the undeniable and ungraspable reality of this moment. And if it seems otherwise, we can simply look and see if the problem (or the lack) that we think we have and the one who seems to have it are actually real in the way we think they are, and if any of it is anything other than this undeniable aliveness that is all there is.
Instead of a grueling search for some imaginary perfection or some final enlightenment, we are free to play and to be just this moment and to enjoy the simplicity of what is: the sound of the air-conditioner, the smell of coffee, a memory of yesterday…clipping a toenail, imagining what to cook for lunch, reading a good book, watching a movie, visiting a friend, going to work, balancing our checkbook…the clouds drifting across the sky, the crowded city streets out the window of the bus, the crickets doing their bhajans, the news from Iraq or Missouri on the TV, the responses to that news arising in the bodymind, the sensations, the thoughts, the sound of the telephone ringing…this ever-changing movie of waking life vanishing into the absolute darkness of deep sleep and reappearing. Who or what is not enough?
I’d like to feel okay with myself, at peace with whatever shows up…I’d like to have confidence in myself and in life, not be second-guessing and doubting myself…I’d like my heart to be totally open, undefended, not holding back, not hesitating, not closing things off…I’d like to be of service to the world in some way…I’d like to feel useful…I’d like to be fully present and satisfied with the present moment and not compulsively seeking something else or feeing like I’m not enough…I’d like to feel settled and grounded and at ease in my own skin.
Do these longings sound familiar to you? Do you find yourself wondering, how can I attain this ease of being that I’ve heard about and perhaps at times experienced directly—the so-called awakened, liberated or enlightened state? Does the question arise, what can I do to get from this imperfect and unsatisfying mess here to that more desirable condition that I know is out there? And I know because I’ve heard or read about it, or because I see it in someone else, or because I remember experiencing it in the past, or because I can imagine it being here in the future. Does this sound familiar?
Counter-intuitively, enlightenment or freedom is never “out there” somewhere, and as long as we think it is, we are overlooking the actuality itself. As they say in Buddhism, if you meet the Buddha on the road (i.e., as something you think is outside of you), you must kill it. The direct path to complete liberation is to be awake Here / Now and to notice what we actually ARE doing and what actually IS happening (rather than what we think might, could or should be happening instead).
So we might notice how thought has put together this whole story of lack and hope that began this post and how this story instantly reincarnates the apparently separate somebody who appears to presently lack certain qualities (confidence, a sense of okay-ness, an open heart, and so on). We might notice how the story creates the illusion of a future time and the hope that this imagined somebody (“me”) might one day acquire these desired qualities, abide in them permanently, and finally be okay. In a nutshell, our most common story boils down to this: “This isn’t it, but something else would be.” That right there is the basic recipe for suffering and confusion.
We might also notice that this story is not only a mental creation in the mind, but that it’s also a felt-sense in the body. It comes with certain sensations and postures, ways of holding the body, ways of breathing or suppressing breathing, ways of moving or not moving, ways of tightening up, maybe feeling heavy, frozen or numb, maybe some seemingly unbearable sensation in the gut or the chest or the throat. Some of these bodily feelings might be described as stuckness, restlessness, unease, longing or terror—but for right now, is it possible to drop all the labels and just tune into the bare sensory experiencing itself purely as sensation? Feel these ever-changing sensations, experience them, explore them, give them all the space they need and allow them to reveal themselves fully. Be present and awake to this whole happening (the thoughts, the stories, the bodily sensations) without trying to change any of it in any way.
The direct path, if we can call it a path, is always right now, right here. It doesn’t go someplace else, and it takes no time. It is immediate and timeless, instantaneous; going nowhere, being Now / Here. If it takes time or is going somewhere else, it is off the mark. Noticing the thoughts of elsewhere and elsewhen is a golden key to being liberated on the spot. Liberation never about getting somewhere else; it’s always a matter of re-turning our attention to what is actually present (the sounds of traffic, the felt-sense of breathing, the sensations in the body) and to the presence Here / Now, the awareness beholding it all.
The story of lack and the promise of future hope always centers around this fictitious “me” that we think is at the center of our lives. But when we turn our attention to the bare sensations of this moment—without the labels, without judgment, without trying to make any of it go away or change in any way—what happens to that “me” at the center of the story? Without the mental narrative and the storyline, is this me-character still around? If it seems like it is, then what exactly is it? Is this “me” anything other than sensations, thoughts, stories, mental images and memories? And what is beholding all of this? These are not questions to answer, but an invitation to explore, to look and listen.
We might find that the one who seems to lack something is simply a process of thoughts, stories, images and sensations appearing in the vastness of unbound awareness, a kind of mirage that comes and goes. We might find that our actual true nature is boundless awareness or undivided presence, the entirety of what is, lacking nothing…and that NONE of it is personal in the way we thought it was. We might discover firsthand that we’re not encapsulated inside a body, but rather, that the body is appearing Here / Now in this unbound presence-awareness along with everything else, all of it one whole happening. We might find that the open heart is already here, already open, and that the confidence and the okay-ness and the groundedness we long for are not “out there” somewhere in the future or in someone else, but right here in the aliveness of presence. We might notice that there is no actual boundary between this unbound aware presence and what appears, and that every appearance is nothing other than this presence.
If all this is heard intellectually or conceptually, if the thinking mind is trying to grasp all this and understand it and figure it out, is it possible right now to relax that grasping movement and simply relax or fall into the open space of not knowing, the spaciousness of simply being? Liberation isn’t about figuring it all out; it’s about letting go of that controlling impulse that wants to grasp and pin down and formulate everything. That has its place in practical matters, but it only gets in the way when we start trying to figure out the meaning of life or the nature of presence.
In letting go of the impulse to figure it all out and relaxing into the simplicity of presence, we might find that there is nothing that needs to be figured out, that the unconditional love of presence-awareness is big enough to include and allow everything and to hold it all with tenderness and care. We might find that perfection is right here, in the very heart of what seemed like imperfection.
We might also see that in this manifestation, there is no such thing as up without down or light without dark, and that pain and sorrow are part of life. We won’t ever find a life of only sunshine and bliss. That’s a fantasy. And for some bodyminds, the inner weather is stormier than for other bodyminds because of different conditions: different genetics, different neurochemistry, different hormones, different past events, different sensitivities, different nervous systems, and so on. It is pointless to compare oneself with anyone else. We can only be who we are in every sense—in the absolute sense and in the relative sense. We are the wholeness of being, unbound awareness, bare presence, the now-ness of Now, the here-ness of Here, the nondual absolute…and we are also a unique and ever-changing expression of this wholeness—a particular person (a unique waving of the ocean)—and in both ways, relative and absolute, we can never be anything other than exactly what we are. There is no way out of what is.
So just notice how thought gets caught up in going over past mistakes and telling the story of what’s missing, how it creates hopeful future scenarios, how it imagines that God or Buddha or liberation is “out there” somewhere. And when that mental movie is noticed, see if it is possible to turn the attention instead to the bare sensations of this moment, without judgment or effort to change it. It really is that simple. But it’s not something that happens once and then we’ve crossed the magic finish line and arrived forever after. It’s always about right now.
If we’re feeling discouraged and upset because the story or the sense of separation or some unwanted compulsive behavior keeps coming back—that is a new mental movie. Can it be seen for what it is? Thought habitually reincarnates the mirage-like idea of me and the story of success and failure, getting it and losing it. Thought takes whatever it thinks is happening personally as “my situation, my identity.” Thought creates the concept of time and imagines permanence as endless duration. It turns the simplicity of presence into a new kind of self-improvement project and then evaluates how well “I” am “doing” at “being present,” how “I” compare to others, whether “I” am getting anywhere, and so on. We begin to think of “being here now” as some endless drudgery akin to constantly scrubbing the floor in order to make it pure—scrubbing and scrubbing. But trying to “be in the now” “all the time” is already lost in conceptual delusion! And luckily, this delusion and the one who seems to have it is all only a thought-creation. We can simply notice that the problem is imaginary. No one has “wasted their entire life” scrubbing an imaginary floor—that’s just another thought-story, another mental movie. It’s always about starting where we are, right now. That’s the key. And right now, everything is fresh and new.
And we might notice that awareness (or the Now) is always present. It is the ground of every experience, the light by which everything appears, the presence (or energy) that everything is. The focus of our attention is always changing, moving from object to object, but the awaring presence is like the screen (or the light) in every scene of the movie or the water in every wave. The kind of open attention to the nonconceptual actuality of this moment that this post is pointing to (feeling sensations in the body, hearing the traffic, seeing the thoughts as thoughts, relaxing into simple presence, “being here now” in that sense) will of course come and go, just like “being in the zone” in athletics is never a permanent condition. So it’s not about achieving some permanent state, or never thinking or watching television or daydreaming ever again, or constantly monitoring ourselves for any lapses in mindful presence. That’s a nightmare! But whenever we stop and check, we can discover that presence-awareness is right here, that our true nature IS this unbound aware-presence (which includes but does not deny the person), and that there is the possibility of simply being awake to the bare actuality of Here / Now, just as it is. And the deeper into that we go, the more we realize directly the spaciousness and fluidity of what is.
The kind of open attention to presence and to this bodymind moment that I am pointing to invites us naturally...sometimes in moments of relative happiness as a form of deep enjoyment, and sometimes in moments of suffering as a way of discovering a way through the darkness. But if we start looking for results and evaluating our progress and beating ourselves up for lapsing or failing, we are back in the same old movie that IS our human suffering. And that happens from time to time! So once again, if that happens, we begin where we are. Not by fighting this movie, not by trying to escape from it, not by resisting it or judging it or taking it personally as one more sign of what a hopeless failure I am…but by allowing it to be as it is and getting interested in this happening, being curious and open—meeting it all with the unconditional love of awareness.
Yes, perhaps we can say that there is some vigilance and willingness and perseverance involved in paying attention and opening to presence, but it is the effortless effort of going nowhere. It is a letting go, a relaxing, a dissolving, a surrendering. And if we do find ourselves tensing up and trying to get somewhere or figure it all out, or trying not to try, or judging ourselves for being unable to stop trying, is it possible simply to be aware of this whole happening in the bodymind…to see it, feel it and allow it to reveal itself completely? At the core of everything, there is no-thing at all, simply the aliveness of undivided energy, presence, awareness, beingness—to which all these words are only pointers. And in that, no problem remains.
Commenting on my last post, someone wrote, “Right now it's raining, pitter patter on my balcony, grey clouds, just a little bit of sunshine, now it's gone, the faint taste of coffee in my mouth…that's reality. Is it really that simple?”
Yes! Here / Now is simple, obvious, unavoidable and present. It isn’t something we have to get, it isn’t “out there” anywhere, we don’t need to search for it, and we can’t attain it because it is already fully present. But I want to be very clear that the beauty, the freedom, the love, the wonder, the aliveness, the enlightenment isn’t dependent upon the apparent forms (the sound of rain, the taste of coffee, the grey clouds). It’s not separate from those forms, or other than those forms, but the beauty, the love, the freedom is the awaring presence being and beholding those forms. That’s actually the true nature of every apparent form; it’s what we truly are and what everything is. And very importantly, I’m not speaking here of a concept or a belief. I’m pointing to a felt-experience.
You and I are always seeing different movies, different forms, different points of view, but the awaring presence is unbound and undivided. Like the ocean that is equally present in every wave, this aware presence is equally present and available everywhere and everywhen, regardless of the particular forms this moment is taking. When we are fully present, fully awake, there is beauty in a crumpled cigarette package in the gutter, and there is freedom right in the midst of imprisonment and limitation. When we are fully present, fully awake, that presence is unconditional love. When we are fully present with the pitter patter of the rain and the taste of coffee, that is enlightenment right there. There is nothing more than this. And “this” is nothing solid or separate or “out there.” It is the immediacy of being.
And if thought pops up and says, “This can’t be it…this isn’t enough...there has to be more than this,” just seeing that thought for what it is (a conditioned story, a blip of energy) is itself the awakening from the dream-state. That awakening is an impersonal event (so any after-thought that “I am awake” is just another story reincarnating the false sense of separation and encapsulation). Waking up can only happen now, not yesterday or tomorrow or forever after. Liberation really is very simple. It’s so simple and effortless and immediate that it is easily overlooked. We are conditioned, habituated and even addicted to compulsive thinking and seeking and telling ourselves the story that something is lacking. But Here / Now, nothing is lacking. This can be discovered directly in any moment. Thought cannot touch this aliveness, this presence that we are.
Response to a comment: Nothing is lacking doesn’t mean you might not have lost an arm, or a loved one, or that you might not be terminally ill and in pain. But in being fully present with this very moment, pain is experienced entirely differently than when we are thinking about it, caught up in stories about it, resisting it and/or trying to get away from it. And I’m not saying not to take an aspirin or get palliative care. I’m pointing to something much more immediate. The same is true with grief, depression, anxiety, heartbreak, whatever the situation. Certain experiences may hurt, but when resistance falls away and we are completely present and open to the actuality of Here / Now, something shifts in an amazing way. This is not something to believe or disbelieve, but something to test out and discover. I'm missing an arm, but without thinking about it, is anything missing? Who says Joan should have two arms instead of one? Where is this missing arm, can you find it?
When there is simply being this moment, without thinking about how it is, or what’s wrong with it, or what’s wrong with me—but simply being here as this listening, seeing, breathing, sensing, vibrating, pulsating presence (the sounds of traffic, the light dancing on the leaves, sensations in the belly or the chest, the barking of a dog)—not seeking anything, not resisting anything—simply being here—when there is that kind of simplicity and presence, there is a kind of open spaciousness, a sense of fluidity or lightness—an ease of being. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go, nothing to become, nothing wrong. Whatever happens is simply a happening of life, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. There is no me at the center of everything. There is simply this wonderfully diverse and vibrant happening, just as it is. This simple awake presence is the natural state, the groundless ground of being. It isn't some mysterious, exotic, foreign state that we must strive for and seek to attain someday in the future. It is Here / Now. It is what Here / Now IS.
We often get the idea that this kind of nondual presence is a special experience that comes and goes, but if we look closely, we may begin to notice that what actually comes and goes are thoughts and concepts—labels, judgments, explanations, evaluations, attempts to grasp and formulate and understand, and the idea of “me,” the apparently separate self who is supposed to be managing my life and getting somewhere. This separate self is by definition incomplete and lacking, a fragment in a fragmented world, struggling to survive. But is this fragment what we truly are? Does this seemingly separate and persisting fragment actually even exist in the way we think it does? And is that how the world really is—a collection of separate fragments? Or is that a conceptualization of the world created by thought, a kind of map or abstraction that isn’t how reality (in our immediate present experiencing) really is?
In the sounds of traffic and wind and bird songs, in the flow of breathing and ever-changing bodily sensations, in the colors and shapes and movements showing up Here / Now, is there any actual separation? Is there “me” and “not me”? Or is it all one whole undivided, boundless, unbound happening? Yes, there is diversity and variation—different colors, shapes, textures—and yes, there is a functional ability to differentiate between near and far and between me and you—but isn’t it all showing up right here as one whole unbroken movie, one seamless event?
By paying attention, we can notice how the apparently separate and seemingly encapsulated self reincarnates again and again. It may begin with a single thought suddenly zipping through the mind: “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m all alone,” or “I should be earning more money,” or “I’m a loser,” or “I ruined my whole life,” or “I really messed that up,” or “I was totally present this morning, but now I’ve lost it,” or “I don’t get what teachers mean by ‘unconditional love’ or ‘spaciousness,’ so I’m obviously not quite there yet.” Instantly, this little burst of energy that we call “a thought” reincarnates the “me”—the separate self—and the story of what I lack. We’ve shrunk down in our imagination from the unbound vastness of Here / Now (presence, awareness, this whole undivided happening) to this fictitious mental idea of being a fragment in a fragmented world. And this thought is accompanied by neurochemistry and sensations in the body—perhaps a feeling of heaviness or queasiness or anxiety, a sense of everything suddenly being dense, opaque, impenetrable, murky—a feeling of stuckness or restlessness, unease or depression, exhaustion or despair. And these feelings seem to provide further evidence that something is wrong, that there’s a problem here.
The thoughts, the neurochemistry, the bodily sensations, the emotions are a kind of chicken and egg affair in the sense that we can’t always say with certainty which of them comes first. It seems to me that it can happen in different sequences at different times, and perhaps sometimes simultaneously. But whatever first sets it in motion, “selfing” becomes a snowballing event in which thoughts generate sensations which generate more unhappy, me-centered thoughts and stories that in turn generate more sensations. It only takes a few seconds to go from open spacious ease of being to a full-blown sense of being an isolated and deficient individual lacking something (love, enlightenment, success, health, whatever the story says is missing).
It’s quite amazing when we begin to see firsthand how all of this actually happens—it really is like the magic of movies. The thought-story and its accompanying embodiment captures the attention and presto! Consciousness is hypnotized, entranced and mesmerized by this virtual reality, instantly incarnating an apparently fragmented and divided world and a narrative that seems entirely believable and real. And it’s all about me. And this “me” seems very solid, dense and undeniably who I am.
All of this can be further compounded and solidified by acting FROM this delusion, trying to escape the ensuing suffering in ways that only make it worse (e.g. compulsively thinking about our problems or trying to figure out the nature of reality by thinking about it, over-consuming alcohol or drugs, engaging in addictive sex, over-working, over-eating, biting our nails, pulling out our hair, desperately reading spiritual books, seeking enlightenment “out there” somewhere, and so on). Pretty soon, we really do seem to be someone with a big problem.
And often one of the biggest surprises on the spiritual path is the discovery that we are actually very attached to and identified with our problems. They confirm the familiar sense of being me and the familiar narrative in which we have learned to locate ourselves. They may be negative, but they make us special and definable. We may be a failure, but least we’re not nothing at all. These problems may hurt, but the pain is familiar, and it feels safer than free-falling through groundlessness. (Of course, groundlessness only seems unsafe when we believe that we are a separate fragment rather than the groundlessness itself). We can spend decades caught up in endlessly trying to solve these imaginary problems and fix ourselves according to some future ideal that is always just out of reach, like the mirage lake in the desert sands that recedes the more we advance on it.
But amazingly enough, in a split-second the whole movie and the me at the center of it can vanish into thin air because it actually has no solidity, no real continuity, no actual substance. Sometimes this evaporation happens because something outside the movie-story suddenly intrudes and breaks the trance—the phone rings, our child runs into the room, the dog nuzzles up to us, the cat jumps into our lap, there is a clap of thunder outside and a magnificent downpour begins, a beautiful bird lands outside the window, and suddenly our attention shifts out of the story and back to the actual immediacy of Here / Now. Or it might happen because we’ve been on some kind of spiritual path or we’ve been reading this FB page and we’ve heard about the possibility of just stopping and being still in the midst of what seems unbearable, and maybe we’ve actually tasted this freedom once or twice or perhaps many times, and so it occurs to us to stop thinking and seeking and resisting, to let go of every agenda, and instead to simply give our full attention to the immediacy of the moment: the sensations in the body, the breathing, the sounds of traffic, the smell of rain or exhaust fumes, the barking of a dog. And as soon as that happens, the dream is over.
Of course, it can come back. And it usually does come back many times. From the larger perspective, there is no end to delusion and waking up. And that’s okay. This isn’t about perfection and “me” finally crossing the Cosmic Finish-Line, getting my Enlightenment Certificate and being totally okay at last (“been there, done that”). That’s the story again, the story of “me” that never ends well.
So when grasping and resistance and entrancement happen, can it all be seen for what it is, an impersonal happening like the weather? Is it possible to stop thinking about it and to simply turn our attention back to the direct experiencing of this moment? This can happen in the midst of typing these words or having a business meeting or navigating the grocery store with our kids or driving down the freeway—it doesn’t require a meditation retreat or a quiet place in nature to be the simplicity of this moment, just as it is. If we stop and check, we can see for ourselves that this seamless happening and this awaring presence is always present. It is the ground of every experience, or more accurately, the groundlessness, the total freedom, the no-thing-ness, the unbroken wholeness. We don’t need to get to a better experience. The solution to the imaginary problem is always immediate, right where we are: Here / Now. Being just this moment, allowing everything to be as it is.
And let’s be very clear—that allowing or opening or "being just this moment" points to an all-inclusive immediacy that doesn’t in any way negate going to a therapist, fixing our car, leaving an abusive relationship, recovering from an addiction, solving a problem or working for social change.
Enlightenment is a word-concept that points to what is most natural and immediate. There are several ways to avoid enlightenment. We can avoid it by seeking it somewhere else, by chasing special experiences (or chasing any experience other than the one that is actually showing up Here / Now), by looking for some final Finish-Line event, by thinking of enlightenment as a personal achievement that someone either has or doesn’t have, or by trying to “get it” by thinking about all this conceptually and attempting to mentally figure it all out.
If we’re lucky, we begin to notice that none of these strategies actually works. What truly liberates us, opens the heart, satisfies our deepest longing, and removes all doubt is simple presence, here and now.
What do I mean by simple presence? I mean the felt-sense of being present and aware, the aliveness of being just this moment—hearing, seeing, sensing, breathing—the sounds of traffic, the feel of cool air on the skin, sensations in the belly and the toes and the whole body, the barking of a dog, light dancing on green leaves, the aroma and taste of coffee—this whole ever-changing happening and the spacious awareness beholding it all—seamless, boundless, unbound, utterly immediate—the hereness of here; the nowness of now; the simplicity of what is.
How do we get this or how do we do this? We don’t need to get or do anything. It’s more like we see through and relax the effort we’re making to avoid this! This aware presence is what we are. It is what Here / Now IS. So this immediacy, this awaring presence, is not something we need to seek. All we need to do is relax or open into the felt-sense of simply BEING present and aware. In other words, dropping out of (or seeing through) the virtual reality created by thinking (the stories of past and future, the labels and judgments, the mental effort to figure everything out), and dropping into (or waking up to) the nonconceptual sensory reality of this moment. We stop trying to “get it” (in the future, or in some other experience, or as some mental understanding), and instead, we simply BE right here where we actually are, allowing whatever is happening to be just as it is.
Thoughts may still arise, but can we discern the difference between thinking and awaring, and between an idea and a sensation? Can we notice when we are getting lost in stories, or when we are clinging to beliefs or identifying with something or mistaking the content of thoughts for reality itself? Even in the midst of thinking, we may find that it is possible to remain in touch with simple presence (i.e., aware of bodily sensations such as breathing or the sounds of traffic, consciously present and awake to Here / Now)—not “all the time” or “forever after,” but whenever this re-turning to presence invites us. And when the thought-stories do capture the attention, that’s okay—it happens. Eventually, there is a natural waking up, and with that, the possibility of shifting attention from the virtual reality of thoughts back to the felt-sense of presence and the simplicity of what is in this moment.
We might also notice that there’s often a certain aspect of our personality, a certain inner voice (we might call it the spiritual superego) that seems to model itself on some combination of a stern parent, a rabid dog, an over-zealous military commander, and a harsh and unforgiving judge. This Inner Task Master translates everything it hears into commands and imperatives, hearing even the gentlest invitation, question or possibility as a shouted order: “Do it! Make that shift! Pay attention! Don’t lapse! You should be doing a better job of this! You just failed again! Snap out of it! Shape up!” This Inner Task Master barks orders at us and then passes severe judgment on the imaginary self for not following these commands well enough. In the view of this Task Master, the imaginary self is never good enough. This Task Master is an old, deeply conditioned, habitual pattern of thinking that has been learned and practiced. We don’t have to destroy this old habit or go to war with it, but simply behold it with awareness, see it for what it is, and it will dissolve naturally (not necessarily forever after, but in any moment of clear seeing and open awaring).
And let’s be clear that we’re not trying to banish the use of thought and language. Words are functional, they serve a purpose, they're useful and often beautiful and evocative, and we need them in daily life, but they are always in some way arbitrary abstractions. If we spoke German or French or Japanese rather than English, the word-sound-symbol for a truck or a tree or a house would be different. If we were a newborn baby, we would not yet have learned how to see trucks (or trees, or houses). We wouldn’t yet have learned how to draw the dividing lines and extract "a truck" from the seamless movie of presently appearing colors and shapes and movements. We had to learn that certain shapes with a certain function that behaved in a certain way were called trucks. So we can use the label, it's useful to have, but we don't mistake the word "truck" for the reality of that fluid and ever-changing sensory experiencing of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and/or driving a so-called truck. We know that the word "water" is not water, that the label is not the thing it describes, that the map is not the territory. The word is a symbol, an abstraction, a reification, a categorization. Reality itself is fluid, ever-changing, undivided, seamless and unbound. We never step into the same river twice, and the one who steps is never the same person from one instant to the next either. Nothing is really separate from everything else—the person stepping and the river stepped into are one flowing event. There is only flux (or we could say, seamless wholeness), one undivided being. When this groundlessness is realized (made real in our own experience), there is no suffering. There may be pain, but there is no resistance to it, no “self” apart from “the pain” to be destroyed by it. It is all one whole happening.
But because we live these days so much in our heads, in the virtual reality of thoughts and concepts, where everything is divided up and categorized and frozen into “things” that apparently hold still and stay the same over time, it is very helpful to come back throughout the day—even for just a few seconds at a time—to the undivided fluidity, aliveness and immediacy of the sensory realm. Simply pause the thinking mind and tune into the sounds of traffic or birds or wind, feel the bodily sensations, experience the breathing—be awake to the felt-sense of presence and to the simple fact of being aware, not as an idea, but as an undeniable, immediate, experiential reality.
And again, not to make any of this into a heavy-handed task that we're doing in order to get somewhere or have some big breakthrough, but to approach it gently, when it invites us, as an exploration, the way a child explores the world or the way a lover explores the beloved, with open curiosity and wonder and love. And if we notice that Inner Task Master is back on the scene and that we ARE doing it in a heavy-handed way or maybe beating ourselves up for not doing it perfectly enough, is it possible simply to notice that goal-oriented efforting and those judgmental thoughts, to notice how all of that feels in the body, to be aware of that whole movement of trying and feeling not good enough?
The key to waking up is always to start where we actually are. So if we’re tense and restless and agitated, then we simply allow that to be exactly as it is. We fully experience being tense, restless and agitated without trying to change it or make it go away. Without the labels, what is this experience actually like? Where do we feel it in the body? Are there thoughts and stories that go with the sensations? Can we see the stories as stories, without getting drawn into their content and without believing them? Can we feel the sensations without judging them or labeling them or trying to change them?
If we’re doing all that so that the tension or the agitation will go away, that’s another subtle layer of goal-oriented resistance, seeking and control—so if that happens, simply start there, noticing that agenda, noticing how it feels to resist and seek, feeling it in the body, allowing it to be just as it is…and at the same time, hearing the birds or the traffic and feeling the breathing—being this whole undivided happening, just as it is.
Whatever shows up is an aspect of this one whole all-inclusive happening, obviously, otherwise it wouldn't be here. If it's here, it's included. Even thinking and labeling and straining to "get it" are all part of this happening. But maybe we can begin to discover what is functional and what only brings suffering. Maybe we can see for ourselves how we get confused and create dissatisfaction by mistaking our mental maps for the reality they represent. As the writer J. Matthews so beautifully says, we confuse ourselves by "abandoning what we actually see, hear, and feel (which is always dissolving, always falling apart) in favor of concepts, which hold together nicely, but which are mere conventions." Waking up is about learning to discern the difference between the map and the territory. I say that over and over and it seems so obvious, but it’s very easy to get confused in this way. Maps are useful, but if we mistake them for the reality they describe (and we do, over and over), there is suffering.
We suffer over imaginary conceptual problems such as, "Will I still be here after I die?" This problem only exists in thought and only makes sense from the perspective of the imaginary separate fragment who fears coming to an end. The apparently finite “I” in this sentence cannot be located as anything other than this all-inclusive and infinite presence, and any time “after Now” (or “after I die”) is entirely imaginary. So what are we talking about? Our psychological fear of death and all our questions about whether the mirage-like self will still be here after we die are flat-earth questions, like worrying about falling off the edge of the flat earth—they are concerns based on ignoring reality and paying attention to false conceptual pictures. When we come back to simple presence, such questions do not arise. They make no sense. We are simply Here / Now.
As I said at the beginning of this post, enlightenment is a word-concept that points to what is most natural and immediate. It’s not something exotic that we attain. It’s our True Nature. We simply see more and more clearly how we avoid it, how we ignore and overlook it, how we turn away from it, how we cover it up, and we discover the possibility of relaxing into this vastness, this open presence, this simple being that is always Here / Now.
Is there any point in spiritual practices, for example, meditation? It depends on what we mean by meditation and how we are approaching it. To me, meditation simply means being present and aware, awake in this moment. That can happen anywhere—on a meditation cushion, at the kitchen table, on a bus, at work, in prison, in a hospital bed, in nature or downtown on a busy city street. It simply means consciously tuning into this simple awakeness or presence throughout the day whenever it invites us, even just for a few seconds or a few minutes. Dropping into the sensory reality of this moment—the sounds of traffic, the stillness of nature, the sensations in the body, the breathing—awake to the listening presence beholding it all. Meditation may also mean deliberately making time and space every day to be still and do nothing other than simply being here. It may help to sit in a way that feels open, relaxed, upright and grounded, but no particular posture is essential or required. Meditation can happen while lying down or walking; it can happen sitting in a recliner or a lawn chair. It is simply about present moment awareness.
Eventually we recognize that awareness or presence is the ground or the substance of every experience, the light by which it all appears, even those experiences we think of as distractions. In that sense, presence-awareness is ever-present. Meditation allows us to discover directly that all separation is notional, that in reality, everything is an undivided, seamless, boundless, unbound whole from which nothing stands apart. This is an essential realization, one that dissolves the belief in a separate “me” who is alternately “getting it” and then “losing it,” a deficient self who might one day, with enough practice, become complete.
But sometimes people get stuck on the experience of oneness, and they grasp that absolute truth as a new belief system. As soon as that happens, it is no longer a living realization. It is simply another idea, another concept. Clinging to this conceptual map, people who call themselves nondualists rush around insisting ad nauseam that there is no person, no problem, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and so on. They denounce all forms of practice as unnecessary and insist that meditation is inherently dualistic and will only reinforce the central illusion of a separate self. They can become quite dogmatic in their assertion of this absolute truth. You can’t have a simple conversation or explore or dialog openly with such folks because they are completely fixated on this one way of seeing everything. They’re stuck in the absolute, stuck in emptiness, fixated on one side of a conceptual divide. It’s a subtle new form of dualism.
I’d like to share two responses to this kind of ideological confusion that I’ve come across and found clarifying. The first is from Eckhart Tolle. He writes:
“Nobody can tell you who you are. It would just be another concept, so it would not change you. Who you are requires no belief. In fact, every belief is an obstacle. It does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world. It remains the unmanifested which is, of course, your true home. You are like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential.”
The second response to being stuck in the absolute is from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. He talks about how meditation is an unfolding path of realizing the ever-present wholeness that can never be gained or lost. As a way of explaining this apparent paradox of a pathless path to reach the placeless place where you always already are, Kabat-Zinn points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already fully present, but that at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same. Similarly, through meditation, we develop a depth of realization, sensitivity, clarity, freedom and awareness that may otherwise be only unrealized potential.
Kabat-Zinn writes that: “Meditation is a way of being, not a technique… Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well…More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love…a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection…Awareness itself is the teacher, the student, and the lesson…Resting in awareness in any moment involves giving ourselves over to all our senses, in touch with inner and outer landscapes as one seamless whole." Beautifully put!
And here is Adyashanti: "There is more reality and sacredness in a blade of grass than in all our thoughts and ideas about reality. When we perceive from an undivided consciousness, we will find the sacred in every expression of life...in our teacup, in the breeze, in the brushing of our teeth, in each and every moment of living and dying. Therefore we must leave the entire collection of conditioned thought behind and let ourselves be led by the inner thread of silence into the unknown, beyond where all paths end, to that place where we go innocently or not at all—not once but continually."
Awakening is not something we do once and then we’re done. Awakening is NOW. It is a lifelong (moment to moment) waking up. It isn’t about landing somewhere (in some permanent state of bliss, or in some map, or some belief, or some conceptual model, or some mental understanding). It’s about being awake to the (ever-changing, ever-present) living reality of this moment. We don’t do meditation; meditation does us. We surrender to presence; we don’t “do” presence. This isn’t about “me” getting somewhere, improving myself, and becoming a perfect somebody at long last. This is about waking up from that whole fiction and realizing what is unbound and undivided. Meditation (being present) is an act of love. Love doesn’t expect perfection or berate us for falling short of impossible ideals. Love is compassion, tenderness, mercy, intelligence. It understands the power of old habits and conditioning, the power of chemistry and genetics and compulsion, the many forces of nature. It doesn’t expect results of any kind, and certainly not instant or permanent results. Love is simply present and awake with no expectations, allowing everything to be as it is, allowing life to unfold and experience and heal itself in its own time.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2014--
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