Postings from My Facebook Page #7
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the seventh collection of posts from my Facebook page (9/28/14 - 12/29/14). 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:
We often hear it said that the world is an illusion, you are not your body, nothing real can be destroyed, there is no self. Pointers of this kind are often misunderstood to mean that we should pretend to be nobody, and that we should ignore the body and the world and any apparent suffering that may be happening since all of it is “just an illusion.”
But what these teachings really point to is that the world as we THINK about it and conceptualize it is an illusion. The self as we think about and conceptualize it is an illusion. The body as we think about and conceptualize it is an illusion.
But there is undeniably something right here that is not a thought or a concept, and in fact, no thought, concept or label can ever capture the living reality of this moment. We can call this living reality traffic sounds or listening silence or the taste of tea or the felt-sense of presence or the knowingness of being aware or pure consciousness or the sensations of breathing, but before we apply ANY of those labels or think about it and divide it up and concretize it with words, there is the bare actuality itself, just as it is.
That bare actuality, Here / Now, is completely obvious and unavoidable, and at the same time impossible to grasp. It is right here, utterly immediate, most intimate, without the slightest separation. It is what we are. It is seamless, unbound, unencapsulated, boundless, ever-changing and without division. There is infinite variation and diversity, but Here / Now is ever-present.
There is a functional sense of identity with this body that arises as needed (we know which name to answer to and how to distinguish between our hand and the carrot we are chopping up), but when we look for the thinker of our thoughts or the maker of our choices, no entity is ever found. No one is inside this body looking out at a separate world. Any such idea is a mental picture, a thought-story, an imagination. Thought divides up this seamless, unbound wholeness into subject and object, self and other, inside and outside, mind and matter, but can we see that these are like the dividing lines on a map that have been conceptually superimposed on the living reality itself?
The seamless unicity prior to thought has been called energy, presence, primordial awareness, Consciousness, Here / Now, emptiness, the True Self and many other names. But what is being pointed to is prior to any name. That living reality INCLUDES the name—it includes thought and language and imagination and absolutely EVERYTHING—but it isn’t bound or divided up by words and concepts.
Every apparent “thing” that appears Here / Now (me, you, dogs, cats, chairs, tables, emotions, thoughts, sensations, ideas, enlightenment experiences, experiences of depression or anxiety) is empty of any inherent, observer-independent, objective existence “out there” somewhere separate from consciousness. The observing awareness and the thing being observed are one inseparable event. No actual boundary can be found where "awareness" turns into "content," or where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me.” If examined at the subatomic level or seen with speeded-up time-lapse photography, even things that appear to persist over time (tables, rocks, mountains, planets, and so on) are seen to be in continuous flux, inseparable from and entangled with everything else in the universe.
By paying close attention to the body, we find no body in the conceptual way we think about our body. And we find no self inside the body steering it through life. We simply find thoughts, sensations, mental images, mental movies, stories, memories, vibrations, urges, impulses, waves of energy, all appearing in the boundless space of Here / Now along with the carpet and the chairs and the trees and the images on the television screen. This is not no-body or no-self or nothing in the sense of some bleak nihilistic void or blankness. It is the living reality of this moment, full of color and smell and shape and sound. It’s simply not what we THOUGHT it was. It doesn’t hold still. It isn’t separate. It’s not “out there.”
If we stay on the level of thoughts and ideas, “the world” appears to be a collection of different nations, friends and enemies, my country and your country. But from up on the international space station, the earth is seen to be a seamless, fluid, undivided whole. There are no separate nations visible up there, no borders, no seams. And at the subatomic level, it is equally devoid of substance and solidity. Again, this is not nothing in a nihilistic sense, but simply not what we thought it was. And ALL of this (the space station, the whole earth, the subatomic waves and particles) is appearing in this vast space of aware presence as one whole happening.
As a new belief system or an intellectual idea, this is just more baggage. But as a direct discovery in this moment, it is liberation and unconditional love.
I had a question recently from someone (I’ll call him George) who said, “I know on one level that I am not the body. And I get that I am not the one acting. But then again the illusion is so strong that it sucks me right in and makes me forget. How do I break away from it completely?”
The one who wants to break away completely IS the illusion!
The traditional "You are not the body" pointer can be quite misleading. It's not that you are not the body. It's more accurate to say that you are not limited to the body or encapsulated inside the body. And "the body" is a conceptual label for a living reality that is actually moving and changing and inseparable from the rest of the universe. Language and thought fool us into thinking that the world is made up of separate fragments that endure over time, and that this person we think of as “me” is one of these fragments. We mistake the map (the conceptual world of thought and language) for the territory (the living reality Here / Now) and end up suffering as a result. Maps can be useful. The illusion (and the source of suffering) is mistaking the map for the territory and imagining ourselves as a separate object apart from the undivided wholeness that we then seek "out there" somewhere.
The traditional pointer of "no self" can also be misleading. When you refer to "I," what are you referring to?
Sometimes you are referring to the person called George. I would not say that this person is an illusion. I would say that the ways we think about and conceptualize the person are the illusion. But there is undeniably something here, a living reality, that we call George...yet when we start looking at this living reality more closely, we find that we cannot actually pin down exactly what "George" is, or where exactly he begins or ends. He is more like a whirlpool or a wave than a solid, enduring “thing.” Functionally, there is a sense of identification with the body that is essential for daily life. That shows up as needed and won't disappear permanently unless you have a head injury or a brain disorder. But all the ideas you have about George (that he is smart or stupid, handsome or ugly, lucky or unlucky, successful or a failure) are all maps, abstractions, stories. They may have some relative truth or usefulness in some cases, but ultimately, they are illusory make-believe. But they can seem very solid and real, just like a good (or bad) movie. So when we speak of the "I" or the self being an illusion, we are not saying there is no reality to George in any sense, but simply that he isn't who he (or anyone else) thinks he is. He isn’t a solid, separate thing.
Sometimes when you say "I," you may find you are pointing to something bigger (or closer, or more intimate) than George. You are referring to the impersonal sense of aware presence, the undeniable knowingness of being present and aware. And you may discover that this aware presence is unbound and unencapsulated, that it is here long before you learn to call yourself George or think of yourself as a separate person, that it is prior to all thoughts, that everything (including the sense of separation and the story of George) appears within it. This vast awareness is beholding (and being) the entire universe. Your body appears in this awareness along with your family, your co-workers, your neighborhood, the trees and cars, the furniture, the night sky, the stars, the distant galaxies, all your thoughts and images about yourself, every movie you've ever seen...it all appears within this impersonal and boundless aware presence, and as Nisargadatta says, I AM THAT. Our True Nature is that undivided wholeness of being, that unbound presence that includes everything. This is not some mysterious or exotic realization, but our most ordinary everyday experiential reality—the groundless ground that is ever-present in every experience—it's just that most people tend to overlook it because our attention is so habitually focused on the map-world of apparent fragments and divisions.
Nonduality and awakening isn’t about denying the body or the person. It’s about waking up to (or feeling into, or recognizing or realizing) that bigger context of unbound awareness and impersonal presence. And that’s only the beginning. Once you see that the person (and the body) isn't what you thought it was, it can actually be fun to be a person, knowing that you're not limited to that. And paradoxically, being awake to the body (as energy and sensation) is one of the best ways to awaken to that bigger context. Nonduality and awakening are about being BOTH a particular person (a unique expression) AND the unbound vastness. Actually, they are not two (until language and thought seemingly divide them up). Waking up isn’t about getting stuck in the absolute, denying relative reality or running around pretending to be nobody.
As a person, each of us has (or is) a unique viewpoint, a unique perspective, a unique expression, a unique movie of waking life. Like each snowflake and each fingerprint and each moment, no two waves on the ocean are the same, and yet all the waves are the movement of one ocean and no actual boundary exists between one wave and the next. None of us sees exactly the same world or the same movie of waking life as anyone else. On the level of individual differences, no other person on this planet completely agrees with us about everything. Science has even discovered that each side of our own brain experiences a unique reality. One neuroscientist described the brain as a team of rivals. At that level of differences, it’s easy to see how we end up in conflict with ourselves and with others, both in our personal lives and at the global level.
But presence-awareness is undivided and unbound. It has no owner, no point of view, no opinions for or against anything. It is a vast spacious aliveness that accepts and includes and IS everything. When we meet life from this open space of presence, as presence, from awareness, as awareness, we naturally have room for everything. Presence-awareness is another word for unconditional love. It is naturally intelligent and compassionate and bright. It includes our unique point of view, our personality and our particular opinions—it doesn’t negate them or wipe them out or force us to give them all up (as if we even could)—but it allows us to hold all of this more lightly, more fluidly, without identifying with our opinions and our characteristics or feeling as if our very survival depends upon getting others to agree with our particular point of view. We begin to appreciate the multi-faceted jewel that consciousness is, in which each of us is a reflection of all the others and everything is our own face reflected back at us. And from this aliveness Here / Now, we can freely offer and appreciate our own unique movement in this dance without a dancer that never begins and never ends.
After my last post, someone sent me this beautiful passage from Nisargadatta: "In reality there is only the source, dark in itself, making everything shine. Unperceived, it causes perception. Unfelt, it causes feeling. Unthinkable, it causes thought. Non-being, it gives birth to being. It is the immovable background of motion. Once you are there, you are at home everywhere."
We might ask, what is that dark source, that immovable background, to which Nisargadatta points? I would say, as he often did, that nothing perceivable or conceivable is it. Meaning that it cannot be grasped or nailed down; it is not an object; it is not "something" as opposed to something else. It is beyond all duality. “You” can’t be separated from “it,” so you can’t “get” it; you ARE it; there is ONLY it. And “it” is actually the it-less-ness of everything!
These words from Nisargadatta are a beautiful pointer to letting go of (or seeing through) concepts, giving up any place where the mind tries to land or any-thing it attempts to formulate or grasp, not referencing any particular experience (as opposed to any other) as the nondual reality. These words are a pointer to the wholeness, the seamlessness, the emptiness of reality (emptiness meaning empty of division and separation, empty of inherent, substantial, observer-independent existence).
But I’ve noticed that it is very easy for the mind to formulate some subtle mental idea or image of THAT (that immovable background, that dark source, that emptiness), to turn THAT into a new object, to make the absolute into another relative thing, and then to create a new imaginary duality between “nothing” and “everything.” This is what I often see happening in people who are trying very hard to “dis-identify with the body” and “be nobody” and “identify as awareness” (or as what is prior to awareness, if they prefer that pointer).
So I often ask, who is it that needs to identify as awareness or as the dark source prior to awareness? Find that one and the imaginary problem is solved. Words are always only signposts to the wordless reality that is beyond words. And that reality is not somewhere else. It is right here. What truly matters is the possibility of freedom and love in this moment, right here in the midst of everyday, ordinary life (which means realizing that the ordinary is actually extraordinary, and that the mundane is not what we thought it was). This is so much more alive than getting some conceptual understanding of "the nature of reality" (which will never be anything but a map, however accurate that map might be).
Words can get confusing in so many ways. In Zen, for example, the very same reality is sometimes called darkness and sometimes called light. Opposite words used with identical meaning! And different signposts can point to the same reality. For example, some nondual teachings talk about the immovable, immutable stillness (the One Self), while others point to complete impermanence and thorough-going flux (no-self, no-thing). Are these seemingly opposite and irreconcilable maps describing different realities or the same reality in different words?
Different people use the same words in different ways. For example, some use the word “consciousness” to mean thought, some use that same word to mean the undoubtable sense of being present and aware (I AM), some use it to mean the undivided boundless Totality (the source and substance of everything), some use it to mean the dividing up of seamless energy into the world of apparent multiplicity, some use it without knowing what they mean by it. We ALL use it because we heard it used by someone else—we weren’t born with this word on our lips. And if we were speaking a different language, we wouldn’t use this word at all. It’s only a sound or black shapes on a screen, pointing to something that is actually quite ungraspable (but equally undeniable)!
There are many different words, many different ways of using them, many different pointers, many maps, many signposts, many paths. But as I can’t say often enough, what truly matters is not the maps or the signposts, but the living reality itself.
Someone in the comment section on the last post said, “Why not just be, instead of speculating over all these man-made theories.” (Apparently he, too, was having trouble “just being” and felt an irresistible need to comment). But to clarify, I am never attempting to speculate about theories. What I say comes from my own direct observation and experience, not from theorizing, although of course in order to articulate it, I use thoughts and words, and those thoughts and words by their very nature translate, reify and abstract that living reality into a map. That map is always pointing back to the immediacy of that lived and felt reality (which could be called “just being”), but the map itself is only a pointer. It is never my intention to promote or encourage getting lost in thought about metaphysical theories. However, it seems that humans have a hard time “just being,” and so, we have all these words that try to point beyond getting misled by words, and sometimes our attention fixates on the finger (the word) and completely misses the moon (the living reality) to which that finger is pointing.
There are many different ways of pointing to waking up from delusion, opening the heart, melting into unconditional love, realizing our true nature, being free of imaginary constraints, being awake Here / Now. Some approaches emphasize seeing through thoughts, some emphasize feeling energy in the body as pure sensation, some emphasize zooming out (or back) to what is prior to consciousness and beyond everything perceivable and conceivable, some emphasize zooming in to the cypress tree in the garden (or in my version, the sound of traffic and the felt-sense of breathing), some talk about emptiness, some talk about presence, some talk about clarity, some talk about love, some speak of choicelessness and others speak of choice. Whatever map or pointer or path resonates and works for each of us in this moment is the right one for this moment—in the next moment, it may all change—but in every moment, what matters is the direct realization (or actualization) of the territory itself, the living reality, the felt-experience, whether we call it nothing or everything, awareness or consciousness, emptiness or source, light or darkness, unconditional love or the sound of traffic.
Am I saying all maps take us to the same place or that all teachers are saying exactly the same thing in different words? No. There are differences, often important differences. But the differences are all aspects of One Whole, different faces of one jewel. This awakening is a never-ending Self-realization that is always unfolding Now. Relatively speaking, we could say there are many different levels or stages of awakening, but such words inevitably seem to suggest a linear or vertical process of climbing steadily toward some ultimate and final pinnacle of achievement, whereas nothing could be farther from the truth. Relatively speaking, this process of awakening tends to circle and spiral and double-back on itself in unpredictable ways, and yet it is always Here / Now, and there is never any repetition. It is ever-fresh. And there is no end to it. It is always new. And every night in deep sleep, and actually moment by moment, all of this dissolves completely and nothing at all is happening, not even the first bare sense of awareness. But don’t stop there. In fact, you can’t!
The Big Bang is NOW. Here we are. So let’s don’t get lost in debating philosophy, arguing over maps, or having turf wars over who is the most nondual (ha-ha). Instead, let’s wake up! Smell the coffee, enjoy the breeze, feel the bliss, question our thoughts, fall in love with every moment, be surprised. What is this all about if not finding joy, love, freedom, ease of being right here, right now? And of course, that freedom begins with the willingness for this moment to be exactly as it is, the willingness to love everything just as it is. Paradoxically, love opens the door for everything to change. Or as Nisargadatta said (with one tiny revision), “Once you are here, you are at home everywhere."
Seeing thoughts as thoughts, being aware of them—questioning the pictures they paint, the stories they tell and the assertions they make, is an essential component of waking up. Most (if not all) of our suffering is the creation of thought. Of course, that doesn’t mean thought is “bad” or “the enemy” or that we should strive to stop thinking. Thought is a wonderful tool, but it can create enormous suffering and confusion if we don’t see clearly how it can hypnotize and mislead us. In the comments to my last post, someone asked for an article about how to inquire into thoughts, which was the inspiration for this post.
One of my first Zen teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, said, "All practice can be summed up as observing the mental process and experiencing present bodily sensations; no more and no less." I agree with Joko that seeing through thoughts is a huge part of waking up, but not the whole picture. As I see it, waking up involves some combination of seeing thoughts for what they are, and at the same time, dropping out of the thinking mind more and more into the sensory aliveness of this moment, feeling and being with energy in the body as bare sensation, being awake to the sounds and textures of pure experiencing, enjoying a felt-sense of presence itself, discovering (and being) the vast, spacious, open, unbound awareness beholding it all, and developing a growing willingness to be with uncomfortable or painful feelings without running away. Waking up also involves the heart opening in love, seeing through subtler and subtler forms of dualism and resistance, and recognizing that everything is already whole and complete just as it is. So, questioning our thinking and being aware of our thoughts is a hugely important part of waking up, but not the whole enchilada.
That said, there are many ways to go about this inquiry into thought, and some ways will resonate and work well for one person and not for another, so I will mention a number that I have encountered and used that you might try out.
The most obvious one I’d recommend is daily meditation, by which I simply mean taking time every day (10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, whatever works for you) to sit quietly and simply be. Listen to the traffic or the birds or the wind, feel the breeze on the skin, feel the breathing, feel sensations in the body, and be aware of thoughts as they bubble up and pass through. Notice the thoughts, notice how seductive and believable and addictive they can be, notice how they create little mental movies and virtual realities—simply observe the whole process, without judgment or resistance (and if judgment or resistance arises, observe that). Be aware of whatever shows up and allow it all to be just as it is. Without making time for this kind of intentional, quiet space in our lives, especially in the beginning, it’s hard to see thoughts at all. When you first take up meditation, it may seem that you are thinking more than ever before, but what’s actually happening is that you are simply becoming AWARE of how much thinking is going on. Awareness has its own action, and the seeing is already outside the drama created by thinking.
Labeling thoughts is one common meditation practice. For me, it wasn’t entirely helpful, but for many people it is. In many meditation practices, students are encouraged during meditation to label the thoughts that arise with a single descriptive label such as, “Judging,” or “Planning,” or even just “thinking.” Joko Beck encouraged us during meditation to label thoughts with a complete sentence always beginning with the phrase “Having a thought that…” So we might say, “Having a thought that the guy next to me is breathing too loudly,” or “Having a thought that the room is too cold,” or “Having a thought that I’ll never get this,” or “Having a thought that this practice is stupid,” or “Having a thought that I shouldn’t have done that.” This is a way of hearing the thoughts, clarifying what the thoughts are saying, and clarifying that they are thoughts and not necessarily reliable or objective reports on reality itself. There’s a big difference between “Bill is a jerk” and “Having the thought that Bill is a jerk.” The first version seems like a true fact, while the other is clearly just a passing thought.
I found Joko’s labeling practice helpful to some degree for the reasons I just said, but overall, it didn’t work well for me. Perhaps because I am a writer, perhaps because I tend to be a perfectionist, I became obsessed with trying to “write” (in my head) the perfect label for each thought. This effort to catch each thought and then create exactly the right descriptive label for it produced on-going tension in the bodymind and was ultimately not helpful. When I reported this to her, Joko encouraged me to drop the practice. But for many of her students, it seemed to work very well. We’re all different.
My main teacher, Toni Packer, talked about simply “seeing thoughts at a glance.” This worked much better for me. In fact, Toni never used the word practice at all, pointing instead to an effortless kind of open attention or awaring that included the breathing, the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the feeling of the cool breeze on the skin, the waves of emotion sweeping through the chest or the belly, and the thoughts as they came and went, all as one whole seamless happening. This kind of open, global awareness wasn’t about doing something or reaching a goal, but rather, not doing anything at all, simply being fully present Here / Now without moving toward or away from anything that showed up. This spacious (hands off) approach worked much better for me than labeling. But again, we’re all different.
Many years later, I encountered The Work of Byron Katie. I find this a very effective method for investigating and questioning our thoughts. If you’re not familiar with it, Katie has a website that explains it: www.thework.com. Basically, you write out all your thoughts about a particular issue or person that is upsetting you, and then once you get your thoughts down on paper where you can see them, you question them one by one. When you write down your thoughts, Katie encourages you to let it rip (i.e., be your most bitchy and spiritually incorrect self when you write out your thoughts, don’t hold back or censor yourself). So, for example, you might have thoughts such as: “My partner should be more helpful around the house.” Or: “My neighbor shouldn’t blast his stereo late at night.” Or you might think: “ISIS should stop beheading people. This is terrible. It’s wrong. It’s vicious and cruel and uncivilized.” Once you’ve written out your thoughts, you take each sentence and ask a series of questions: Can I really know that’s true? How does it feel to hold that belief? How would it feel if I didn’t hold that belief? And so on. And you ask these questions not just mentally in your head, but you really take some time and feel into the answers with your whole body—what it feels like to hold a certain belief, what it would feel like not to believe that, and so on. Some people misunderstand this to mean that by questioning our thoughts, Katie is suggesting it’s okay to behead people, or that you should be a doormat and do nothing if your partner isn’t doing her share of the work or if your neighbor is blasting his stereo every night. And that’s not what this is pointing to or leading to at all. But you have to discover that for yourself. I find Katie’s questions very helpful at times, especially if I’m stuck on being angry at someone or feeling self-righteous, outraged or upset about something. I highly recommend Katie’s Work, but again, it may not be helpful for everyone.
Recently, I’ve been exploring the Living Inquiries of Scott Kiloby. Scott’s work has to do with pulling apart (un-Velcro-ing, as he puts it) the different elements (thoughts, mental images, and bodily sensations) that go into creating our blockages and compulsions. These inquiries are a profound and effective way of deconstructing and undoing addictions, compulsions, depression, anxiety, stories about being unworthy or deficient, and so on. I find this work very powerful and recommend it very highly. You can learn more and see videos of the inquiries being done on Scott’s website: http://kiloby.com/.
So these are a few of the many avenues of exploration that I have tried in terms of investigating thoughts. There are many others. The common factor in all of them is awareness. In one way or another, we are bringing attention and the light of awareness to this aspect of our lives and seeing directly how thinking creates confusion, conflict and suffering. The awaring IS the undoing.
I often give the example of a thought-pattern that was very dominant in my life for a long time and how it came to light and eventually fell away. A version of that story appears on my website as part of an Outpouring titled “Exploring What Is: meditation and Inquiry.” Here’s the story:
I used to spend a huge amount of my waking life thinking about the future. I’d undoubtedly been doing this for years without even being aware of it, until one day, on my first all-day meditation retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center, I suddenly saw that every thought I was having was about the future—what I should do with the rest of my life, what I would do on the break that was coming up, where I would park the next day when I got to work—I was even fantasizing about attending my next one-day retreat! And suddenly, this whole pattern was seen. It was as if a light had been turned on in a previously darkened room. The habit didn't end permanently that day at the Zen Center, but once that light had been turned on, this habit of thinking about the future started to be seen more and more.
I’d be on the phone with a friend discussing what I should do in the future, or I’d be sitting at home imagining myself moving somewhere else or getting a new career or some other future scenario, and I’d suddenly notice that this was happening. I began to see what was alluring about this habit, and also how unsatisfying it was. I began to see that it was a form of suffering very much like any other kind of addiction.
It didn’t fall away forever in one instant never to return ever again, but every time it happened, it was seen more and more clearly. And then at some point, about a decade later, someone asked me what I was going to do after my mother died, when I would be free to leave Chicago, and I realized to my great surprise that I hadn’t been thinking about it! I realized that I wasn’t thinking about the future any more. Not that I never think about the future at all, but I don’t obsess and endlessly fantasize about it in the way that I did for so many years. The light of awareness had gradually dissolved this habitual pattern of thought.
And it’s important to notice that I wasn’t doing this paying attention in some heavy-handed, goal-driven way. It was simply happening by itself very naturally. If I had "decided" that day at the Zen Center that I was never going to think about the future ever again for the rest of my life, that would have been just another thought about the future! And it wouldn’t have worked. We can’t make ourselves not think about a pink elephant! What happened instead was simply a noticing of this habit. And gradually, that simple awareness dissolved the habit – it fell away. It didn’t fall away on demand, on my timetable, and it didn’t end permanently in some dramatic fireworks moment, but rather, it was eroded gradually, slowly, over time.
Aside from my own books and the various outpourings on my website, I would recommend any number of the other authors on my recommended book list for more about investigating thoughts: Toni Packer, Eckhart Tolle, Joko Beck, Scott Kiloby, Byron Katie, J. Krishnamurti, David Bohm (especially his excellent book, Thought As A System), Ezra Bayda, Cheri Huber, Ajahn Sumedho and Dan Harris all come to mind for starters.
“If people tried to convince you that the shapes in a cloud are a stable world, with beings and things, you would say it isn’t true, because those shapes are obviously fleeting. There is no form there. It only appears to be there. I’m pointing out that it’s the same with all of existence.”
“Impermanence (the relative) is total, complete, thoroughgoing, Absolute. It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.”
There is a split-second time-delay in perception, so that everything we see and hear is already gone by the time we perceive it, just like the stars from billions of years ago that we see in the night sky. The actual NOW is too close, too intimate, too immediate to be perceived or conceived. We ARE this NOW.
The living reality Here / Now is seamless, boundless, unbound, and truly inconceivable. We didn’t create it and we don’t control it. We have words and stories that describe and explain this inconceivable happening, and these words and stories arise unbidden from the same dark source (the same NOW) from which our breathing and our heart beat also arise. With these words, we call what we see “good” or “evil,” “loneliness” or “solitude,” “extroversion” or “introversion,” “health” or “disease,” “natural” or “unnatural,” “me” or “you,” “success” or “failure.” These words and the stories that go with them are as uncontrollable as the waves in the ocean—there is no author doing any of it.
These words and stories serve us in this relative dream—they are part of this infinite expression and how it functions. But it’s all a kind of dream-like play, like clouds in the sky or water waving. Our suffering is in believing that we really are a separate entity with control over our next thought, our next impulse, our next mood, our next emotion, our next preference, our next decision and our next action—a separate encapsulated entity born into a world that has an inherent, objective, observer-independent reality “out there” somewhere apart from us. This is the illusion. In reality, no-thing actually arises or passes away.
Seeing this will not eliminate this presently arising magnificent display of cars and flowers and highways and human beings, nor will it eliminate pain or difficult circumstances, nor will it end the apparent need to decide what shirt to put on today. It will not end heartbreak and grief and the whole range of human emotion. But it will put an end (here and now) to the suffering that comes from trying to grasp the clouds and set up our tent in a map.
The very desire to obliterate the sense of separation or the identification as “me” is itself creating the sense of separation. If we stop and check at any moment when this apparent separation or encapsulation shows up, we may discover that this sense of being something apart from the dynamic whole is nothing more than a mirage created by thoughts and sensations. It is always an imagination. And the one who wants to obliterate this imagination is the same imaginary mirage-like phantom. We are never really in the situation we imagine, and we are never really this “me” at the center of our favorite movie: “The Story of My Life.”
Don’t take that on faith as a new belief, but if it seems contrary to your experience, look and see what it is that you are referencing in order to draw the conclusion that you are a separate, encapsulated self inside a body—what thoughts, mental images, stories, beliefs and sensations are telling you that this is the case? Look closely at each of these thoughts, images and sensations and see if they actually are a separate self.
You might also notice that these thoughts, images and sensations are appearing Here / Now along with the chairs and tables and clouds and waterfalls and traffic noises and apparently other people, and that all of it is one whole moving picture, one seamless and boundless happening (one undivided sensing-perceiving-thinking-remembering-imagining-awaring-happening) with no one in the center of it and no one in control of it. And every night in deep sleep, the whole show and the one watching it (the observer, the judge, the apparent author, the main character, the one who cares about all of this) disappear completely. Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. The whole show turns out to be very much like a dream.
But as they say, the show must go on. Any effort to stop the show from appearing when it does, or to identify as awareness (or as the One Self) and not as a person, perpetuates the illusion of duality and separation. Any such effort reaffirms the mirage-like separate “me” who is apparently misidentifying as a person and who aspires to correctly identify as the One Self, the movie character who wants to escape from the movie (an effort which is, of course, another scene in the movie), the “me” who wants to eliminate the me-illusion and achieve enlightenment (for me!), bringing the movie to a happy ending without end.
But who is this one who identifies or misidentifies? And where is the boundary between awareness and the bodymind, or between unbound presence and the thought-sense of being bound, or between the One Self and the apparent person, or between the dream-like movie of waking life and the darkness prior to consciousness, the refreshing void of deep sleep? When a thought-sense of being someone encapsulated inside a body appears, is anyone actually encapsulated or bound? Can we find this one? Can we even find this body? What is “the body” when we look closely? Is it actually the solid, continuous, separate object that we conceptualize and picture and seem to see momentarily reflected in the mirror, or is the reality itself fluid, dynamic, ever-changing flux, inseparable from the so-called “environment” in which it apparently exists, all of it an appearance in (and of) boundless consciousness? Can we find last night’s dream or the world that existed a moment ago—how real was any of it?
In your actual experience, if you look closely, are you choosing your next thought, your next impulse, your next action? Is there someone who is creating the thought-sense-story-imagination of being somebody inside a body or is this, too, an impersonal happening? Is there someone who suffers from this imagination, someone who owns it, someone who is actually bound by it, someone who needs to make it go away, someone who could become an enlightened somebody if only they could make this sensation of separation permanently disappear? Or is all of that a kind of mental movie, a story, an imagination?
The hum of the refrigerator, the squawking of a bird, the cool breeze from the window caressing the skin, the breathing rising and falling, coming in and going out, the colors and shapes of the room, the sun emerging from behind the clouds, the room brightening, the pang of hunger, the whole happening of this moment. What is it? The very question creates the illusion of duality—as if this unexplainable and ungraspable happening is some-thing that “is” this or that, with “me” standing apart from “it” somehow needing to figure “it” out in order to save “me.” What is this undeniable present happening? Whatever answer the mind throws out is ultimately pure nonsense. “Consciousness” or “waking dream” or “subatomic dancing” or “pure energy” or “undivided happening” are all words, sounds, ideas. The living truth, the living reality, needs no explanation, no descriptive label, no added meaning or purpose. Here it is, just as it is. And it is no way in particular. There is nothing to grasp.
In this "journey" of spirituality or nonduality, we are often fighting against cartoon demons and chasing after cartoon fantasies and expectations. The cartoons get subtler and subtler, but they are still cartoons. Waking up is coming home to the simplicity and aliveness of what is, the living reality of this very moment, which is never the same way twice. I’ve always had a deep fondness for those teachings that are simplest, most direct, and most down to earth. This isn’t about getting lost in metaphysical speculation and abstract thought, or searching for something foreign and exotic, or becoming a disembodied spirit and leaving everyday life far behind. As I told someone the other day, I have always found listening to the traffic more enlightening than trying to "identify as awareness" or imagine that I am the One Self. In the sound of traffic or the light on the autumn leaves or in the direct experiencing of breathing, there is no separation and no idea of oneness either. Nothing is lacking and nothing needs to be attained.
What really matters? What do I most deeply want? These are wonderful questions to live with and explore. Many decades ago, a wonderful Zen teacher (the late Maurine Stuart) gave me that question, what do you really want, as a koan on a 7-day Zen sesshin (meditation retreat).
I spent many days obsessively thinking about the question, twisting and turning in mental anguish, trying to figure out what it was I really wanted (did I want to stay with Zen or go back to the nontraditional approach I had been pursuing, did I want to stay in California or move back to New York, did I want to live in a big city or in the country, and so on, round and round). What finally became crystal clear—in one of those magical moments of total clarity when the mind stops and the clouds part and you’re simply completely awake to the obvious—what finally became crystal clear is that what really matters, what I most deeply want, is to be awake now, to be fully present right here in this moment, where I am right now.
And today, decades later, if I had to give one single key to awakening, it would be that it’s all about now—not yesterday or tomorrow or forever after—but right now. Being awake now.
When there is awakeness right now, it doesn’t matter if I’m in the city or the country, if I’m working in an office or living at a Zen Center, if my bank account is big or small, if I’m partnered up or single. The joy, the love, the freedom is in the awakeness—the presence, the awareness, the aliveness—not in the particular circumstances or momentary forms that life is taking. ALL forms are beautiful! All forms are equally an expression of this aliveness, this seamless energy. And I’ve noticed that when there is awakeness Here / Now, intelligent action follows naturally, whereas when action comes from obsessive thought, that action is usually rooted in false ideas and tends to be habitual, conditioned, delusional, off-the-mark and ultimately unsatisfying.
We humans spend so much precious time and energy trying to escape this present moment, or more accurately, trying to escape our thought-created IDEAS about our present circumstances (a mental mirage which we often confuse with "the Now" or "the timeless present moment"). We THINK we want better weather, a nicer living situation, a different partner, more money, less fatigue, more sex, fewer wrinkles, a different job, more cooperative children, whatever it is we think will make us happy. But every job, every partner, every location, every living situation, every spiritual path has its up side and its down side. The weather is always changing, and nothing stays the same. Trying to find happiness in a passing form is inevitably disappointing. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the passing forms or that we shouldn’t try a different job, but if we think that any of this is what will truly, deeply satisfy the longing of the heart, we are always in for a disillusionment.
In nondual circles, instead of (or in addition to) getting tangled up in trying to figure out which town we want to live in, we can easily get lost in other equally useless mind-spinning obsessions, such as trying to get rid of the self, or trying to experience no-self, or trying to identify as awareness and not as me, or trying to figure out the universe (as in, is there free will or not? or, which comes first, mind or matter?), or comparing one teaching to another and trying to figure out which is more advanced, and so on.
So when we notice that thought is spinning its wheels in some familiar and habitual way, it’s helpful to remember that waking up is all about now. Now cannot be postponed by even one second. Now is much closer than any circumstances or any story or any thought. There is no me in Now. Now is immediate and absolute.
What really matters? What do I really want? If we start THINKING about these questions, we are missing the mark entirely. (And of course, missing the mark on occasion is all part of waking up and need not be taken personally when it happens). But the juice is in the awakeness, the listening presence, the energetic aliveness of being, the NOWness of now, the open wonder of not knowing—the simplicity of Here / Now. The words are never quite right and can always be argued with, but the Truth that sets us free is not conceptual.
In one sense, we can never not be here now. Here / Now is all there ever is. In that sense, presence is ever-present and inescapable. And it is in this sense that we often speak of awareness (or Consciousness or Mind) as the ground of being, the screen that is equally present in every scene of the movie, or the ocean that is equally present as every wave. Used in this way, words such as “presence,” “awareness,” “Consciousness,” or “Here / Now,” signify and point to what we cannot not be, what is always right here, always thus, always already the case, never absent.
But often we are caught up in the CONTENT of the mental movie, mesmerized by the storyline and by our identity as the main character, entranced by an abstract map-world of conceptual ideas that we mistake for reality itself. Lost in the dualistic abstractions of thought and the mirage-world of memory and imagination, we spend much of our lives fighting off phantoms, chasing after mirages, and terrified of falling off the imaginary edge of the flat earth. When this mental hypnosis happens, we feel separate, isolated, alone, insecure, deficient, incomplete. And we act out of these confused thoughts and feelings, creating further conflict and reinforcing the deep sense of unworthiness, lack and insecurity.
It may be true that Here / Now is all there ever is, that the separate self is an illusion, that nothing real ever dies, and so on, but in any moment when we don’t know this in our bones, in any moment when we are hypnotized by the dualistic virtual reality of thought and imagination, we suffer. This is the situation to which Nisargadatta pointed when he said, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.” Or as the Zen Master Seng-Ts’an put it in the Hsin-Hsin Ming, whenever attention is hypnotized by the delusions of thought, “Heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.” The difference between being entranced in dualistic thought and being awake to the nonconceptual living reality Here / Now is the difference between heaven and hell, between nirvana and samsara, between enlightenment and delusion. The same life circumstances are presenting themselves in each case, but the difference is in how we are meeting them and seeing them.
We can easily SAY that the screen is equally present in every scene of the movie, whether it is a scene of violence or a scene of beauty—that all is One—that there is no enlightenment, no delusion, no heaven, no hell, no self, no other—and all of that is the absolute truth. In any moment of enlightenment or being awake, this truth is directly realized as a living reality. But merely picking up this absolute truth as a conceptual belief is just more baggage to weigh us down—and when difficulties show up, belief is easily overshadowed by doubt. So when Nisargadatta talks about being a pauper with a gold begging bowl, or when the Hsin-Hsin Ming talks about heaven and earth being set infinitely apart, what they are pointing to is the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk, or between believing we are not a self and not believing we are a self (or for that matter, a no-self).
In response to our suffering and confusion, nondual spiritual teachings offer a path to liberation. Unlike the usual kind of path, this is a pathless path or a direct path. It is immediate rather than progressive. That doesn’t mean that we might not notice changes over time, or that our understanding might not go through different stages; it means that waking up is always NOW. This moment is the whole enchilada. We aren’t going anywhere or attaining anything that is “out there” somewhere. We are simply becoming aware of how we confuse ourselves, how we do our suffering, and we are waking up to the only place where liberation is ever found: right here, right now. It is in this sense that we speak of “being here now,” or “bringing attention to the present moment,” or “being aware,” or “cultivating awareness,” or “waking up to the felt-sense of presence.”
These kinds of expressions are all pointing to and inviting a direct and immediate knowing and being of the absolute truth, and this direct knowing is very different from some dead bit of conceptual knowledge that we read in a book and believe is true. Expressions such as “be here now” are pointing not to an idea or an intellectual understanding, but to an experiential reality, a felt-sense, an embodied and lived truth, a direct realization. This realization can only occur NOW. Awakening or enlightenment isn’t a finish-line that we cross at some point in time and then the journey is over and we have arrived. That’s just another mental storyline. In using expressions such as “be here now,” we’re pointing to seeing through the delusions of thought in this present moment, waking up from the trance of thought-created virtual reality—not yesterday or someday or forever, but right now—and being fully awake to the nonconceptual, nondual, energetic aliveness of this moment and living out of that realization and that presence Here / Now.
When you know first-hand what I’m talking about, then you know where liberation or truth is found. No matter how caught up and swept away in the mental movies you get, no matter how dark it may seem, you know the way home. You may not always be able to access it right away, but you know where it is and where it isn’t. You have discovered the key. If you don’t really know what I’m pointing to (or more accurately, if you think you don’t, if you’re still too lost in thought to notice your actual experience), then you will go on for however long you do trying to solve all this conceptually, and maybe you will cling tightly to a belief that “there’s no way not to be here now” and that any talk of “being present” is dualistic psycho-babble or kindergarten stuff not worthy of your attention. (I hear things like this). And I’m not here to argue with you if that’s what you believe and wish to assert.
I can only speak from my own experience. And from here, this distinction between what is conceptual and what is actual, between living reality and belief, is crucial. Words and thoughts are dualistic by nature. They divide and freeze reality into bits and pieces. Thoughts and words are useful tools, but they can also easily confuse us, especially when the same word is used in different ways, as is the case with words such as awareness, consciousness, presence or now. These words can mean one thing in one book or one paragraph and something else in the next book or the next paragraph. So it’s very helpful if we can develop an ability to listen openly and to hear the intended meaning, rather than getting stuck on any one fixed definition that we then apply mechanically and dogmatically. Otherwise, instead of freeing us, nondual teachings can all too easily become a new set of blinders and a new form of fundamentalism.
Liberation is never about picking up a new philosophy or a new set of beliefs. If anything, it is about seeing through all our beliefs and not clinging to any ideology. And liberation is more than seeing through our thoughts, although that is a huge and crucial piece of awakening. But liberation penetrates and involves the whole bodymind and the whole universe. It is sensory, energetic and embodied. It occurs both in conscious awareness and also below the level of conscious awareness, in the unfathomable darkness. It is a whole bodymind experience, and the bodymind is recognized to be the whole universe, boundless and seamless, without limit or division.
The job of any true spiritual (or nondual) teaching is to keep pulling the rug out from under any place we try to land and fixate, always pointing us home to the actuality and the utter simplicity of Here / Now, deconstructing the words and the maps and pointing to the fluid immediacy and the energetic aliveness of the living reality that is here prior to words and thoughts and maps. That living reality doesn’t exclude speaking, writing, reading, thinking, conceptualizing and mapping—but to be awake is to not be caught, hypnotized, entranced, misled or confused by the fixations, divisions and imaginary problems created by thought and language.
“Being here now” is the pathless path to the direct realization that our begging bowl is actually made of pure gold. Of course, along the way—at any moment on our spiritual journey when we are hypnotized by the story of “me” going back and forth between “being in the Now” and “being lost in thought,” when we are trying very hard to “be here now” “all the time,” it can be very helpful and very liberating to encounter a teaching that invites us to see that we are ALWAYS here now, that awareness is present even in the midst of delusion, that EVERYTHING (including BOTH clarity AND delusion) is one undivided, inseparable, seamless happening, and that none of it is personal. But it’s very easy to grab onto some IDEA of absolute truth as a new ideology, a new map, a new belief—and true liberation is not a belief or an idea. It’s a present moment surrendering (relaxing, dissolving, melting, opening) into THIS inexplicable, indescribable, ungraspable, living presence Here / Now that is beyond words. Anything else is just baggage and clutter, something to be dropped after it has served its purpose in pointing the way.
All the words in this FB post are sign posts. They are conceptual pointers, not the truth itself. But there is something right here, right now that is not conceptual. Notice that. Be awake to that. Dissolve into that. The breathing, the sounds of traffic, the felt-sense of being present and aware, the energy in the body. Not the words, but the living reality to which they point. And then notice what takes you away from this: the mental movies, the thoughts, the stories, the effort to understand it all, the idea of being “me,” the fear of nonexistence or deficiency, the resistance to (or fear of) certain sensations. SEE that the thoughts and mental movies have no actual substance and that when resistance and effort falls away, no sensation is unbearable or solid. Wake up to the simple, wordless presence, the open awareness, the bare happening of this moment. That’s really all there is to awakening and liberation. But remember, it’s not about yesterday or tomorrow or someday or forever or once-and-for-all. Waking up can only happen now. And now is never the same way twice. Like dying, waking up is a complete letting go. (And when I say a complete letting go, please note that “complete” and “permanent” are not the same thing, and that any idea of permanence as “something persisting over time” is a story). Now is the timeless eternity.
“Meditation is not escapism, or tuning anything out. Meditation is tuning in and facing our problems head-on.”
--Steve Hagen, head teacher at Dharma Field Zen Center and author of the wonderful and highly recommended books: Buddhism Plain and Simple, Buddhism Is Not What You Think, and Meditation Now or Never.
I use the word meditation rather cautiously because it is a word that gets used to mean many different things. It can mean concentration and visualization practices, relaxation or stress-reduction techniques, or even tuning out the world and getting into rarified trance and samadhi states. It can also mean counting your breath, labeling your thoughts, and a host of other techniques. But none of this is what I mean by mediation. I’m not against any of the above if you’re drawn to it, but the meditation I talk about is (in the words of Steve Hagen) simply about “awareness, openness, and direct experience of here and now."
Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it: “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."
Meditation is about dissolving into the bare actuality of this moment, being this moment just as it is, being fully awake Here / Now. Zen teachers often tell you that meditation is useless, because if we are using it to get a result, that isn’t the total openness that is being pointed to. In meditation, we welcome everything that shows up. It’s not about getting rid of all our thoughts and troubling emotions and being in a thought-free state of perpetual bliss. It’s about exploring what is really going on when we get angry or hurt or defensive or bored or lonely or disappointed or anxious or depressed. What is being threatened? What are we defending? What do we really want? It’s not about repressing these feelings, nor is it about acting them out. It’s about experiencing them completely. And that means moving out of our heads and into our bodies. And when you really go deeply into the body (as pure sensation and energy), that turns out to be a great way of discovering firsthand that there is no body in the way we think. Our body is the whole universe, and it’s nothing fixed or solid. It's unbounded energy and movement.
I find it immensely helpful to make time and space to meditate intentionally or deliberately at least once every day (I sit quietly for at least a few minutes, usually longer, at the beginning and end of every day), but ultimately, meditation is not just something we do for five minutes or an hour once or twice a day. Meditation is our whole lives, or put differently, meditation is now or never. If we want to wake up, we can only wake up now. It can’t be postponed.
There is a particular expression of nonduality in recent years that insists that meditation (or any spiritual practice) is not only unnecessary, but that it is actually an obstacle because it inevitably reinforces the sense of somebody with control who can attain something, along with the illusion that there is something to attain. I fully agree that this is a potential pitfall with meditation or any deliberate spiritual undertaking—and in fact, when people first take up meditation, it is usually from, and with, exactly this kind of self-improvement, ends-means mindset. But in my experience, true meditation actually undermines this kind of me-centered, goal-oriented mindset directly and experientially in a nonconceptual and energetic way. And I would point out that going to meetings with (or reading books by) radical nondualists who eschew the need for meditation can have exactly the same potential pitfall—it can come from and reinforce this very same end-gaining, self-improvement oriented, controlling mindset—and trying to undo this delusion solely through talking to people about how “there is no self” and “this is it” may not be nearly as effective as the direct and immediate nonconceptual discovery afforded by meditation.
So I write about and encourage meditation from time to time because I have found it important to come upon and have some devotion to this kind of nonconceptual, awareness-based inquiry, exploration and way of being. We don’t need to call it meditation (it may be better if we don’t), and it definitely doesn’t need to have any traditional bells and whistles (I personally prefer a completely open, unstructured, bare-bones version of meditation without any trappings at all), and it doesn’t even need to be a formal “practice” in any usual sense of that word. But I find that an engagement in some kind of nonconceptual, sensory, energetic awareness work (or play) is vital, especially for those of us who tend to live primarily in our heads in a virtual reality of ideas (as most modern-day humans do), easily mistaking the map for the territory without even being aware that this happening.
Of course, the radical and absolute message that “this is it” and “all is one” and “there is no self and no choice and no path” can be quite wonderful and liberating at the right moment. I actually have a certain fondness for this kind of uncompromising radical expression, and for several years, I was even espousing this kind of one-sided message myself. But after awhile, I began to realize that it wasn’t the whole truth and that it wasn’t always liberating people. So I’m not disparaging this version of nonduality but simply pointing out where it may fall short. And obviously there are different but equally serious pitfalls in traditional meditation and formal practices as well, so what always seems important to me is to be aware of (and not oblivious to) the particular pitfalls in whichever approach we take. Every approach has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s good to know what they are.
The biggest danger I see in uncompromising, absolutist nonduality is that people can easily miss the living reality to which these radical expressions are actually pointing and instead take them on conceptually as merely a new ideology or a philosophy. When that happens, these radical teachings become nothing more than a new set of blinders, and many people who take them up seem to become quite dogmatic and unable to see beyond the apparently airtight logic of their own circular conceptual spin. And that’s where I think this kind of radical message can actually be a huge disservice, and where some form of meditation and meditative inquiry can be so important.
Because when you engage in this kind of nonconceptual, energetic, sensory exploration, you realize directly and experientially the boundlessness, seamlessness and fluidity of everything, the absence of separation, the non-existence of the illusory self, the ways in which there is no choice and the way in which perhaps there is. You discover that there is no way out of this living reality and no way not to be here now, and at the same time, you know with absolute certainty the absolute importance of "being here now," and this apparent contradiction no longer seems paradoxical. None of this is ideology or belief or a bunch of concepts anymore; it’s your own firsthand discovery, your own immediate and living reality.
This is why I so strongly recommend taking time every day—in whatever ways work for you—to be in silence, to drop down out of the mental spin and into the somatic world of sensation and energy, to begin to actually HEAR the thought-loops and to recognize them AS thoughts and stories and not as objective reports on reality, to notice and question all beliefs, to see what happens when (in this moment) you let go of every belief, every map, every ideology, every mental handrail, everything you are holding onto, when you relax into the openness of simple awake presence. This doesn’t need to happen on a meditation cushion; it can happen on the train or the bus or at your desk at work. It doesn’t need to be a long time; it can be five to ten minutes or even five to ten seconds. The essential time is always NOW. Just take a moment to pause—to stop, look and listen—to be fully present—to wake up to the simple reality of this moment as a felt-experience (colors, shapes, gestures, sounds, fragrances, aromas, smells, tastes, textures, vibrations, waves of energy and sensation in the body, breathing, awareness, sense of presence). And not to do this in a result-oriented way with a goal in mind, but to do it as a child might, out of simple curiosity or for the pure wonderment of it. Or as a lover might, as a never-ending exploration of, and delight in, the Beloved. In this sort of open and free meditation, there is no meditator, no control, no goal, no beginning, no end, and no separation between lover and Beloved.
This very world Here / Now is where I find the Holy Reality. Not in some airy metaphysical attempt to identify myself as pure awareness…not in arguments over whether awareness is or isn’t always present…not in trying to figure out what never changes…not in asserting that "there's no problem with thinking" and "there's no difference between Buddha and Hitler" because "all is One"...not in hearing enlightenment stories and ranking people and comparing myself to others…but right here, right now, in the vivid aliveness of this moment: the symphony of traffic sounds, the marvelous grains of wood on my desk, the textures and shapes of a crumpled Kleenex, the morning light illuminating the column of white fog sliding through the valley, the aroma of coffee, the fascinating experience of boredom, the sudden wave of anxiety in the belly, the pain shooting through my hip, the single yellow leaf floating down from the tree. Is all of this mind or matter, awareness or content, one or many, self or other? If you are answering, you have already missed the mark, for in direct experience, no word or concept applies. And I notice that whenever I attend to this immediate living reality instead of to abstract metaphysical ideas or endless loops of obsessive thought, that everything opens up in a marvelous way. The secret of the universe isn’t “out there.” It isn’t behind or before or under or within anything. It’s not hidden. It’s right here. This very moment, just as it is.
When something comes up that we don’t like—it might be depression or anxiety or anger or frustration, it might be an unwanted habit, a compulsion or an addiction, it might be seeking when we’re trying not to seek, or trying not to try, or judging ourselves or others, or trying not to judge, it might be resistance or contraction or tension or obsessive thinking…whatever it is that we feel is shameful or problematic or just basically unwanted and unwelcome—when it arises, try saying these words to it: “Thank you for showing up, I love you, feel free to stay as long as you like.”
This may sound gimmicky or silly or dualistic or whatever you think, but I find that it works in the way some koans work, as a kind of verbalization that disrupts our habitual way of thinking and opens up a new possibility. Instead of resisting the unwanted feeling or mind-state, we are suddenly welcoming it, meeting it with complete acceptance and love, letting it be just as it is, giving it all the space it needs. And suddenly it no longer seems to be a (big, serious, shameful or terrible) problem anymore. This total welcoming is the nature of awareness—and it is the opposite of how thought goes after unwanted things by declaring war on them, which actually validates and strengthens them by confirming our belief that they are real and serious and must be eliminated.
I find that when I say these simple words (“Thank you for showing up, I love you, feel free to stay as long as you like”), the unwanted thing evaporates and dissolves. It’s like magic! Of course, if I say these words in order to get that result, that’s something else entirely. That’s not the spirit of these words nor the kind of total acceptance and welcoming which they invite. But even if that kind of result-oriented manipulation shows up, that too can be met in this same way. So if I notice I’m saying these words as a technique in order to make something unwanted go away, then I can simply welcome that controlling, result-oriented impulse: "Thank you for showing up, I love you, feel free to stay as long as you like." And if the mind says, “This whole thing is stupid, it’s a load of New Age crap, it doesn’t work,” then I can welcome those thoughts as well: “Thank you for showing up, I love you, feel free to stay as long as you like.”
I learned this wonderful practice from Scott Kiloby (I think his version might have started with, “Thank you for arising,” so I may have revised it a bit.) It reminded me when I first heard it of the popular Hawaiian Ho'oponopono prayer which some of you may have heard (“I Love You, I'm Sorry, Please Forgive Me, Thank You,” which you can say to anything that troubles or upsets you, including world events, taking responsibility for everything, welcoming and cleansing it). Whether these phrases that I learned from Scott are a variation on that Ho'oponopono practice or whether Scott made these up from scratch, I don’t know, but Scott’s version is the one that I’ve personally found most helpful. I’ve shared it with a number of people I meet with and they also seem to find it very helpful.
As most of you probably know, I tend not to be a big fan of methodical practices and techniques, and I always find the greatest blessing is in unadorned simple bare-bones awareness and presence. But I have found that certain methods, techniques and forms can be helpful at times as an adjunct to that: e.g., The Work of Byron Katie, or Scott Kiloby's wonderful Living Inquiries, or Zen koans—especially some of the modern ones, as well as the way of working with the old ones, that I’ve come upon through John Tarrant’s work and the Rachel Boughton blog that I shared awhile back, or bringing attention to the breathing and following the breath, or the practice of prayer and taking vows, or the 12-Steps of AA, or the Feldenkrais Method. All of these are ways of cultivating love and opening up awareness, ways of learning to turn toward what upsets us rather than pushing it away, ways of discovering wholeness directly and moving beyond the thought-sense of division.
I’m guessing a few nondual purists may be on my case after this post, but I hope maybe some of you will find this helpful. You might try it (if you feel so moved). And if it doesn’t resonate, by all means feel free to ignore it or let it go. It’s just a possibility.
Some people wonder how I can like the diverse group of authors that I include on my website's recommended book list. After all, the list includes Steve Hagen, Toni Packer, Darryl Bailey, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts, Wayne Liquorman, Rupert Spira, Tony Parsons, Thich Nhat Hanh, Karl Renz, Gangaji, Sailor Bob, Joko Beck, Ramesh Balsekar, Pema Chodron—people whose teachings seem downright contradictory. How can I possibly embrace and recommend them all?
As I see it, every expression that gets put into words is a map, a finger pointing at the moon. No map is ever the territory (the living reality) that it represents or describes. What matters is that living reality, not the sign-post or the map that points us here. I don’t mean in any way to deny the very real differences that exist between different maps, nor am I suggesting that every map will lead to precisely the same realization. But ultimately, all these different maps are pointing to this placeless place Here / Now. Ultimately, they are all pointing beyond the thought-sense of separation and encapsulation. They are all pointing to a recognition of wholeness and nonduality. They all recognize the fictional nature of the mirage-like character at the center of our life stories and the fact that no apparent “thing” has any solid, persisting, inherent, objective, observer-independent existence “out there” somewhere apart from consciousness. They all have something to do with relieving our human suffering and realizing our inherent freedom and perfection (even in the midst of apparent limitation and imperfection). And yes, they do all this in very different ways and with many differences of opinion over the nuances and details.
Some of these teachers say that the entire movie of waking life (including our whole spiritual journey) is all nothing but a dream-like illusion, while others appear to take the phenomenal manifestation (and spiritual practice) very seriously. Some insist that there is nothing to do other than exactly what is happening, while others offer some kind of apparent process, practice or method for waking up. Some seem to suggest that "you" have the power of choice, while others say there is no "you" and that everything is the result of infinite causes and conditions over which no one has any control whatsoever. Some say liberation is found in the realization of complete impermanence while others insist that it comes with the recognition of THAT which never changes. Some say enlightenment is a permanent realization while others say it comes and goes and still others insist that it only happens now. Some of these teachers are all about devotion and love and opening the heart, others focus on clear insight and seeing through thoughts and beliefs, some recommend a path of service to others, some say there is nothing to do and no one to do it. Some insist that you shouldn’t eat meat or watch violent TV shows while others say that drinking beer and watching TV is every bit as enlightened as meditating or attending satsangs. Some tell you to meditate with your eyes closed, others say your eyes should be open, and some claim that any deliberate or intentional meditation will only serve to reinforce the imaginary problem and the fictional character who apparently has it. So yes, undeniably, there are differences. But the differences are in the map.
And I find that different maps serve us at different moments. Sometimes we need a path of mindfulness, discipline and commitment. Sometimes we need to discover our complete powerlessness and give up all our efforts at self-improvement and relax into the absolute perfection of what is, just as it is. Sometimes we need to cultivate the ability to shift our attention from thoughts and stories to awareness and sensory presence, and other times we need to discover that no one is doing this shifting and that Ultimate Reality doesn’t depend on any shift or any circumstance—that it cannot ever be lost or found because it is all there is. Sometimes we need to focus on love and other times we need to focus on clarity and discernment.
Life seems to give us exactly what we need in each moment—the perfect teacher, the perfect teaching. Sometimes that teaching is a disappointment or a loss. Sometimes it is a moment of immense beauty and overwhelming gratitude. Sometimes it is a failure, maybe an addiction or a compulsion that we cannot seem to leave behind. Sometimes it is the challenges of intimate relationship or family or work. Sometimes it is being thrown into prison or handed a terminal diagnosis. Sometimes on the path of life we need Toni Packer and sometimes we need Tony Parsons. Sometimes Advaita is the pointer we need, sometimes Buddhism is the perfect map that sets us free, and sometimes radical nonduality is the key that unlocks the last imaginary lock on the gateless gate. What I’ve discovered is that we go astray if we turn ANY teaching into a dogma that we believe in and defend. Nondual fundamentalism is not all that different from Christian or Islamic fundamentalism—all are belief systems accompanied by a strong sense of superiority. The truth, the living reality, is not a belief system or a sense of superiority.
When I speak of waking up or awakening, I am speaking of NOW, not an event that happened yesterday or a continuous state that someone abides in forever after. Awakeness is timeless, which means it is NOW. We are waking up from the thought-generated (and bodily-held) delusion of separation, waking up from the stories about “me” and “the world” that we mistake for reality, waking up to the true nature of this moment. And when there is awakeness Here / Now, there is no thought-sense that “I” am awake. That kind of thought (“I am awake” or “I am not awake”) is delusion. When there is awakeness, we realize that enlightenment and delusion are two sides of a single coin that can never be pulled apart, and we see that each side contains the other. In that sense, we realize there is no coming and going and no one to “get it” or “lose it.”
Can we choose to wake up, to open our heart, to be free from delusion? I have danced for many decades with the rich koan of choice vs. choicelessness, free will or determinism, power and powerlessness. I've come to see both views as maps of reality that are each partly true, and that are both equally false if clung to dogmatically. Each map (choice or no choice, power or powerlessness) has something positive and true to offer, and each one has a way that it can be false and destructive if it is misused, misunderstood, misapplied or carried to an extreme. The “free will” map can lead to guilt, blame, shame, vengeance and all sorts of other problems when it is misused to prop up a false sense of agency and self, or to discount all the infinite causes and conditions that create this moment. And the "no choice" map can undermine genuine awakening by disempowering us in a false way if we misunderstand it to mean that we must eliminate the neurological sensation of agency that is part of how we function, or that we “shouldn’t” ever “do” anything deliberate, intentional or aimed at improvement of any kind—a misunderstanding akin to shooting ourselves in the foot before we even start walking. So the ultimate lesson here is that no map is ever the territory it represents. We always suffer when we try to live in a map-world. So can we use these maps of choice and no-choice wisely, without clinging to or rejecting either of them and without turning either one into a new belief system?
And what about enlightenment? Is there such a thing as an enlightened person? Practically speaking, we often say that someone is awake or enlightened or that some people are “more stabilized” in wakefulness and presence than others, and this may have some relative truth to it. But in fact, no one is ALWAYS awake. There is no solid or continuous person and no permanent state in which any such fictional entity can permanently abide. Relatively speaking, we can certainly say that Buddha and Ramana were awake and that Hitler and Jack the Ripper were deluded, and to deny that difference or to fall into some false equivalence would be absurd. But in the deeper sense, there is no solid, continuous entity called “Buddha” or “Hitler” (or “me” or “you” or “chair” or “table” or “earth” or “sun”). Every apparent “thing” is actually ever-changing, thorough-going flux, inseparable from and interdependent with the entire universe. Buddha and Hitler are like two waves of the same ever-moving ocean. A wave is not a solid “thing” that you can grasp or pin down, there is no real boundary between one wave and another, and no wave ever exists independently of every other wave and the whole ocean. Buddha undoubtedly had moments of delusion, and Hitler probably had moments of clarity and love. No one is just one way all the time. Still, in a practical sense, we can distinguish between enlightenment and delusion, and between Buddha and Hitler, and to deny this kind of discernment and differentiation would be foolish. The ultimate truth is never one-sided. It is perhaps best expressed as “not one, not two.”
What about teachings that insist that awareness (or the Ultimate Subject or the One Self) is always present and unchanging? Nondual teachings like to point out that the seamless and boundless ocean is equally present in every wave, and this is a wonderful realization as long as we don’t turn “the ocean” into a new kind of relative thing, a new mental concept—and that’s actually a very easy thing to do. That’s quite different from the recognition that the whole universe is present everywhere and everywhen. As Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully describes it, if we look deeply into a single sheet of paper, we will see that the paper could not be here without the trees from which the paper is made, and without the sunlight and the soil and the rain that nourished the trees, and without the lumberjack that cut down the trees, and the workers at the paper mill, and their parents and grandparents, and the food that sustained them, and the conditions that brought forth that food, and so on and on. Ultimately, the whole universe is here in a single sheet of paper, and in the same way, the whole universe shows up as you and me and this moment. We may also notice that consciousness is the ground of every experience, that we never experience anything outside of consciousness, that consciousness is the one “thing” we cannot doubt. But then we might wonder, what remains when consciousness disappears, as it certainly seems to do in deep sleep or under anesthesia or (presumably) at the moment of death?
We can never find an actual place where anything begins or ends. Darkness is present in light, and light is there in the darkness. We say that we began at birth or maybe at conception, but those are like the boundary-lines on a map—they are conceptual boundaries, not actual ones. On every level from the subatomic to the cellular to the chemical to the organic to the cognitive and emotional, a person is not the same from one moment to the next, and no person can survive without air, water, food, sunlight, companionship. In other words, nothing can be the way it is without the whole universe being the way it is. We don’t exist independently of everything else in the universe, and we are not a solid “thing” that persists over time. No such frozen and independent “things” can ever actually be found; they only exist as concepts. Reality is fluid and ever-changing. And if we simply make “the ocean” (or “the universe” or “awareness” or “consciousness”) into a new “thing” that we think is unchanging and permanent, and then turn that imaginary “thing” into a new kind of security blanket and hold onto some concept of unchanging permanence as a belief, then it seems to me we’re trying to find permanence (and the stability and freedom from death it promises) in all the wrong places. And when we pick up “oneness” as a new concept, it’s easy to run around equating Buddha and Hitler and denying that there is any need to wake up, but that doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it?
No words are ever quite right. All these words like awakening, liberation, realization and enlightenment get used in different ways by different people, and there are many different maps of the awakening journey, some of them quite complicated and some very simple, and one of these maps is the radical one that uncompromisingly insists that there is no awakening and no one to awaken and no journey and “this is it” and that’s that. But whatever we say, no words can ever capture the living reality Here / Now. Whenever we try to freeze and pin down this ever-changing living reality with words, apparent paradoxes abound. There is nothing to attain and nowhere to go and no one to become enlightened, and yet the difference between being awake and not being awake is the difference between heaven and hell. It all sounds very contradictory, but the confusion is always in the words and concepts, not in the living reality which is always simple and obvious and impossible to actually avoid.
So can we be sensitive to when we’re clinging to a particular map or fixating on one side of an imaginary divide? Can we listen openly to someone else even if the language they use to express all of this is totally different from the way we express it? Can we hear their intended meaning and not get stuck on rigid definitions? Can we be open to the possibility that there is always more to discover and more to learn or to unlearn? There is, in my experience, a great freedom in not knowing, in being open, in not grasping anything, even non-grasping.
I’ve had several questions lately that have to do with a confusion around the meaning of such concepts as no-self, no-doer, no choice, no separation, and non-dualism. One person wondered, for example, how she could reconcile the structure of the 12-Steps with nondualism. Another wondered how there could be grace if there was no one to be the receiver or recipient of it. Someone else seemed to fear that nondual realization would remove his love for his children and his enjoyment of family life. Another person felt that he would have to abandon his training to be a psychotherapist because he had realized that “psychotherapy is dualistic.” Someone else couldn’t imagine how anyone into nonduality would care about the environment or global politics since “all of that is a dualistic illusion.” And in a Buddhist magazine, a questioner wondered whether his/her desire for gender-reassignment surgery was compatible with the Buddhist understanding of no self and the emptiness of gender.
Seeing through the illusion of an independent self with free will steering the bodymind through life, realizing the absence of actual separation and the interdependent and seamless nature of everything, recognizing that nothing has any inherent, objective, observer-independent existence “out there” somewhere, knowing that no map is ever the territory it represents and that nothing we say is ever the truth—all of this doesn't in any way negate variety, diversity, apparent multiplicity and separation, the ability to differentiate between this and that, the neurological sensation of agency that is part of the functioning of this bodymind, or the desire and ability to bring about changes. It doesn’t wipe away your personality or turn you into a vegetable incapable of taking action.
It wouldn’t occur to us that training to be a physician who heals the body or getting treatment for pneumonia was dualistic, but somehow we think training to be a psychotherapist or working the 12-Steps would be. We wouldn’t consider martial arts training or going to the gym dualistic, but we imagine that anything we do to improve the functioning of the brain or to deal with a psychological problem might be. We wouldn’t refuse to call an ambulance if our partner gets hit by a bus because we have some idea that there's no bus and no one to get hit and no one to make the call and no choice about making it and no one to drive the ambulance and no one to save (even though in the deepest sense, all of that is true). But somehow we do manage to think that there is something inherently dualistic (and perhaps spiritually incorrect for anyone claiming to be a nondualist) about working the 12-Steps, meditating, going into therapy, being a therapist, working for social justice, wanting to change our gender, having opinions about world events and politics, loving our children more than we love other people’s children, or caring about whether our spouse dies of cancer. We somehow get the idea that nonduality means we should turn into somebody who has no personality, no preferences, no opinions, no emotions, no thoughts, no judgments, no beliefs, no sense of gender, no attachment to anything.
But nonduality doesn’t mean you forget your name and have no sense anymore of being a person or having boundaries in the conventional sense. Recognizing that everything is one whole undivided happening with no author at the controls (no God and no me) doesn’t mean you don’t still go to work, that decisions don’t still happen (apparently as a result of your making them), that you don’t still debate with yourself about what to prepare for dinner, or that you can't fix the flat tire on your car, and perhaps (if you are so moved) work the 12-Steps, meditate, take anti-depressants or see a therapist—it simply means that when you look deeply, you don’t find anyone apart from these various undertakings who is doing them or deciding to do them. You find that these unfoldings are all a happening of life, including the process of making decisions and choices. It all unfolds choicelessly and without anyone in control. The apparent controller (“me”) is added on by thought. It is a false claim. We think, “I decided to make lasagna. I could have made enchiladas instead.” Thought inserts the phantom doer, the phantom chooser, and the apparent alternate possibility. But looking more deeply, we see that every thought and impulse that led to lasagna rather than enchiladas was a happening of life itself, and that none of these thoughts, impulses or actions was produced by any phantom controller sitting inside our brain somewhere. In fact, one neuroscientist even called the brain a team of rivals.
Our abilities, interests, preferences, urges, desires, fears, capabilities, opinions, impulses and actions are the result of infinite causes and conditions—the whole universe is showing up in this moment as my desire (or compulsion) to type these words, to post this message on Facebook, and your interest (or compulsion) right now to read it and to have exactly the reaction to it that you are having. It may seem that you chose to look at my Facebook page, and that you could have chosen to take a walk instead, and that’s the conventional way in which we think about and describe what occurred. But on closer investigation, you find that the interest in this page and its subject matter, the impulse to look at it now, and the ability to do that (the functioning of your brain, nervous system, eyes, fingers, and so on—the evolutionary development of all those capacities, the invention of the computer and the internet and social media and all the conditions that supported all of that, and so on and on), is all part of an infinite and seamless tapestry that no one is controlling. And ALL of it is an appearance in and of consciousness.
When I speak of the living reality not being about beliefs or conceptual understanding, I don’t mean that we should therefore try to eliminate all beliefs and concepts. Seeing concepts, beliefs and thoughts for what they are, not mistaking them for what they aren’t, being open to questioning them and not sticking to them dogmatically—all of that is what nonduality points to—but concepts and beliefs can (and must) still be used in order to function. So, for example, I continue to believe in gravity and evolution and the basic principles of chemistry and biology. I believe that Barack Obama is currently the President of the United States and that he was born in Hawaii and not in Kenya. I believe that six people from three different countries are currently aboard the International Space Station circling the globe every ninety minutes or so. I believe that a red traffic light means stop. I believe that when I put the key into the ignition of my car, there’s an excellent chance that the engine will start. These are all relative, conventional, functional beliefs. I don’t mistake them for absolute truth or hold them with absolute certainty. I recognize them as useful maps and not the inconceivable territory they describe. But I don’t throw them all out the window or deny their relative reality.
In fact, I couldn’t just shed these beliefs on command even if I wanted to. We don’t get to choose what we want or what we believe. I notice, for example, that I have no choice about what sources of information seem trustworthy to me and what ones do not. I am not choosing my beliefs about evolution or President Obama or the space station, anymore than some right-wing Tea Party person is willfully choosing to believe that the world was created by God in six days or that President Obama is an Islamic infiltrator born in Kenya, or some conspiracy theorist is choosing to believe that the space station, like the moon landing, has been faked as part of a government plot. We trust the sources of information that we trust because of our conditioning, our education, the tendencies of our personality, and so on. If tomorrow I see evidence that seems credible to me indicating that the conspiracy theorist was correct, my beliefs might change.
When I look deeply, I notice that the only thing I can know with absolute certainty is being here now (i.e., the impersonal sense of aware presence and this present experiencing, prior to any interpretation of what it is). This alone is impossible to doubt. Everything else, to some degree, I take on faith, meaning that it relies on memory, imagination, and/or second-hand information. Still, that doesn’t mean I conclude that (relatively speaking, in everyday life) all beliefs are equally true or equally false. I still think President Obama was born in Hawaii and that those who insist he was born in Kenya are, in fact, wrong.
When I’m faced with a big decision, I often find my thoughts going back and forth, over and over the pros and cons. I frequently find myself flipping a coin, not just once, but often multiple times. Sometimes I find myself consulting friends. Sometimes I feel anxious, and there is a thought-sense that “I” must make the right choice or my life could be in some way seriously damaged. Because I notice all of this, I would never claim that the thought-sense of separation or personal authorship (or its momentary believability) has vanished permanently, completely and irrevocably in this bodymind. Maybe for some people this thought-sense does vanish permanently and completely, never to return (some people certainly make that claim). What I would say instead, at least in my case, is that there is a recognition that ALL of this is a happening of life: the obsessive or anxious thoughts, the sensations in the body, the flipping of coins, the consulting of friends, the arising of the final decision, and so on. No separate doer is doing ANY of it, even when there is momentarily a false sense that it’s “me” making this decision and needing to get it right. That, too, is recognized as a choiceless happening of life itself.
One contemporary Advaita teacher defines enlightenment as a permanent loss of any thought-sense of personal authorship. But this same teacher constantly reminds everyone that ANY of these varying descriptions of our experience and ALL the many different definitions of enlightenment are conceptual maps describing something that is ultimately inconceivable, drawing boundary lines that don’t actually exist around conceptual objects such as “a person” and “enlightenment” that don’t actually exist either. (And when I say they don’t exist, I don’t mean there is nothing here, but simply that it isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t divided up into independent frozen parts as thought would suggest.) And the whole concern with whether “I” am enlightened or whether this false sense of agency and self has disappeared permanently (for “me”) only arises from the vantage point of the apparent separate self. From the perspective of the whole, it makes no difference whether this sensation of agency shows up at times or not—it’s all part of the happening of life, and none of it personal.
To some degree, this neurological sensation of separation and agency is part of how the bodymind functions and won’t disappear completely unless we have a serious head injury. But there is a non-functional part of this thought-sense of encapsulation and agency that is purely psychological and that serves no real purpose other than generating tremendous suffering. This is the false self and the false sense of agency that nonduality speaks of seeing through. But seeing through this doesn’t mean you lose all sense of being a person who has to decide whether to make lasagna or enchiladas for dinner, or that you no longer care about being an alcoholic or have any interest in sobering up, or that you can’t work the 12-Steps (or turn the ignition switch on your car) because there is nobody to do that. It is simply the recognition that there is no “you” doing ANY of this. If you slip and have a drink, you won’t be consumed with guilt, and if you never slip again, you won’t be swollen with pride. You’ll know that what happened either way was, in that moment, the only possible. It’s not personal.
But that said, using the map of personal responsibility and choice may be useful and even unavoidable at times—e.g., if you’re trying to sober up, or if you’re training for the Olympics, or if you’re raising a child—and that too is a choiceless and impersonal happening. Nondual realization isn’t about figuring out how “you” should or must behave in order to be a good and successful nondualist. It’s about seeing that WHATEVER behavior or thoughts arise, it is ALL a choiceless happening with no one in control. The separate self with free will is always an illusion; it is never really here. So there is nothing real that needs to fall away, but simply the seeing through of an illusion. (And beware, that too is a map, a description, a pointer—NOT the truth!)
There’s nothing inherently dualistic about meditation or the 12-Steps, anymore than there is anything inherently dualistic about soccer-training or raising a child or running a marathon. Dualism is the thought-idea-belief that the polarities of life are absolute and in conflict with each other, that one side can and should and will triumph over the other. Non-dualism is simply the realization that all polarities are relative (the ceiling is up relative to the floor and down relative to the sky), that all polarities are inseparable and interdependent arisings (there is no up without down, and there are no one-sided coins), and that polarities are not in conflict but rather in harmony.
Enlightenment or liberation isn’t a matter of getting rid of all our bad habits and all our neurosis and turning into a saint and having no problems anymore and experiencing perpetual bliss, but it also doesn’t mean getting rid of any desire to change things or any efforts to do so. In fact, we CAN’T get rid of our naturally-arising desires and impulses! So nonduality is simply the recognition that ALL of this is the happening of life—the neurosis, the psychotherapy, the successes, the failures—and that no apparent form has any inherent or persisting reality, and that none of it is personal. It’s the end of fighting against what is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t go into a recovery program to sober up or work to save the environment. It’s pointing to something much more immediate: the total acceptance within which such undertakings occur. Being just this moment, right now, without division.
Ramana Maharshi said, “Those who have realized the Self, which is the ground of fate and free will, are free of them.”
When we speak of free will or its absence, we are speaking in terms of the relative world of separate things apparently causing and effecting each other. Both free will and determinism are maps, models, ways of describing a fluid and ungraspable living reality that is actually inconceivable (i.e., impossible to fit into any concept, any abstract and frozen thought-form).
In talking about this subject, it is vitally important to clarify and discern what it is that we mean by the “I” that is thought to be either fated or free. What is powerless, and where does true power reside, and what is the nature of that true power?
As we grow up, we come to think that we actually ARE the voice in our heads—the thought-stream—and we come to believe that we are somehow authoring our thoughts and in that way directing our lives. We even begin to THINK that there is nothing here outside of thought, that thinking is our most fundamental and primary reality. As Descartes famously said, "I think, therefore I am." More accurately, “I AM, therefore thinking happens.” And the “I” in that “I AM” is not the false-I that we conceive of as an enduring separate self supposedly encapsulated inside a body. That “I” is actually just another thought, a mental image that has been conflated with the undeniable sense of aware presence (being here now). The true “I” is the totality of being, the impersonal presence and boundless immediacy of Here / Now, the unbound awareness outside of which nothing exists. When Eckhart Tolle speaks of “the power of Now,” or when Robert Adams talks about “the power that knows the way,” it is to this that they are pointing.
This unbound awareness or presence is our True Nature, it is what we are, it is truly all there is. We are not something separate from this, not ever (except in our imagination). So this vastness is not something that the false self can possess and then use for its own thought-generated ends. In other words, contrary to what “Law of Attraction” teachings often lead people to believe, “you” (the imaginary self, which is just a bunch of conditioned thoughts) cannot harness this true power and then use it to make a million dollars, or get a new car, or find the woman of your dreams, or any other thought-constructed goal that you THINK you might be able to achieve simply by thinking the right thoughts. The self that we THINK is controlling our thoughts is a mirage produced by a combination of thoughts, stories, mental images and neurological sensations—and then we THINK that this phantom "me" is steering our bodymind through life.
One of the reasons I feel meditation is helpful is that recognizing thoughts as thoughts is not always that easy, and realizing that there is so much here other than thought—as obvious as that seems once it’s obvious—can be surprisingly elusive when the entire focus of attention is still on thought. Through meditation (i.e. making time and space to simply be here now) and meditative inquiry (exploring the present moment with awareness), we can begin to SEE directly that there is no “me” at the controls.
This is why I always encourage people who want to explore this question of free will to really watch very closely and carefully as choices and decisions are made, from the big ones like whether to take a trip or buy a house or get married, to the little ones like whether to turn on the TV or whether to stand up after you’ve been sitting down for while, and really watch closely as this decision unfolds. See if you can find anyone in control of your next thought or your next impulse or your next reaction, or if you can control when the decisive moment arrives after a period of indecision and wrestling with an apparent choice. We THINK in terms of an actor and an action, or a seer and something seen, a subject and an object—two separate things—but the reality (and our actual present experiencing, which we tend to ignore and overlook in favor of how we THINK it is) is always undivided—no separation, no division—there is simply seeing and acting and being. But again, SEEING it for yourself is what liberates, not reading it in a book of either neuroscience or nonduality, but actually discovering it directly.
You may discover that the lack of authorship extends beyond the inability to finish a task as quickly as you had hoped. It means that your desire to finish by a certain deadline, your anxiety about not having enough time, every anxious thought, the movement of your attention from one thing to another, your impulse or "decision" to pick up a particular book in any given moment is ALL happening without anyone in command.
The illusion of authorship is deeply imbedded in us—one neuroscientist referred to it as an illusion created by a neurological sensation—and this illusion of free will is continuously reinforced by parents and society telling us that we must make good choices, take responsibility for our actions, do our best, and so on. Our criminal justice system and global political relationships are all based on this assumption of free will. We believe that if someone molests a child or murders someone, it is because they freely chose to do this, and they could have made a different choice.
But when we look closely, we can see that no one is authoring our thoughts. They pop up unbidden. Even if we are carefully composing a letter or writing a speech, each word comes to us from we know not where, as does each editorial correction and revision we are moved to make. When the thought arises that, "I'm going to cook dinner," and the thought is followed by cooking dinner, it reinforces the belief in free will—personal authorship of thoughts and individual doership of actions. We then (choicelessly) think, "I decided to cook dinner and I did. I could have read a magazine instead, but I chose to cook dinner." This thought confirms and further solidifies the illusion. It takes a subtle attention to see through this. And, of course, we discount all the times we don't behave as we had decided we would—all the times when the thought-impulse to cook dinner is followed by a different, stronger impulse to read a magazine instead, and then that's what we do, we read the magazine.
When we really see this, it takes away both the burden of guilt for our apparent failures and the inflammatory blame and desire for punishment and vengeance that we so often direct at others (although all of that, too, happens choicelessly). We realize that we’re not in control of the circumstances that provoke what we call anxiety, nor do we control the thoughts and sensations that make up the anxiety, nor do we control our response to all this. Sometimes when we feel anxious, we can stop and focus on our breathing and our bodily sensations, we can see the thoughts as thoughts and be with the bodily sensations and allow it all to be as it is...we can relax into unbound awareness and presence. At other times, we can't seem to do any of this...we just keep thinking more anxious thoughts (including anxious thoughts about the anxiety!). Sometimes when we feel anxious, we have the urge and the ability to sit down and meditate, other times when we feel anxious, we have the thought and the urge to meditate but not the ability because the fear of sitting still and being completely present with the anxious feelings is stronger at that moment than the desire to meditate, and sometimes when we are overcome with anxiety, it doesn’t even occur to us to meditate.
Sometimes people say, if we want to do something, we can do it. If we want to meditate, we can meditate. If we want to stop drinking, we can stop. But when we look closely, we see that in one moment we want to stop drinking and in another moment we want a drink more than we want to stop. We don't get to decide what we want, or which impulse-desire-want-intention- urge-compulsion is stronger in any given moment.
When we truly see this, we have compassion for all those who are still drinking (or still raping children, or committing murders, or beheading people, or perpetuating genocides, or whatever it is). We may not like or agree with what these folks are doing, we may not continue to associate with them as long as they keep doing whatever it is, we may do whatever we can to stop them, and in some cases, we may put them in prison or take military action against them to keep other people safe, but we know that they are acting as they are because they have no choice. Their actions are an uncontrollable compulsion of nature, fundamentally no different from the tornado that rips through a town demolishing all the houses or the tsunami that kills thousands. What a change this understanding would make in how we treat prisoners or other countries when they don't behave as we'd like them to, or how we treat ourselves when we don't behave as we'd like. It doesn't mean we might not still lock people up to keep them off the streets, or that we might not sometimes need to use military force to stop a genocide, or that we might not put ourselves into a recovery program and do our very best to sober up, but in the light of this understanding, all such actions come from a very different place, a place of compassion rather than hatred.
And once again, we must be careful not to mistake any map for the territory, i.e. for the living reality of this moment. “Free will” and “no free will” are both maps. When people turn “no free will” into a belief or a dogma or a code of behavior, when they THINK that they can’t or shouldn’t go into a recovery program, or teach their children table manners, or try to fix a problem in their relationship because they have the IDEA that “there is no one to do it” and “it’s all happening by itself” and “there’s no choice,” they are leaving their own inconceivable capacities out of the Totality. (See my recent Nov 26 post for more on that).
Sometimes, the map of choice is a better model to use—if you’re trying to teach your children responsible behavior, for example, or if you’re training an athlete for an Olympic competition, you’re naturally going to talk to your children or the athlete you’re training about their ability to act in certain ways—you’re not going to tell them they have no choice—but ALL of that training and encouragement is also happening choicelessly. And if your athlete loses the race, or your child screams in the supermarket even after you’ve told them repeatedly that this is not socially acceptable behavior, you will naturally respond with greater compassion and understanding even as you discipline the child and coach the athlete to do better. And if you lose your temper and yell at your child, you will have more compassion for yourself as well!
There is “something” Here / Now that is not a thought or a product of thought, something that is not something in particular (this but not that), something that is not actually a “thing” in any sense of that word, something that we might describe as the all-inclusive nondual wholeness Here / Now that is not bound by cause and effect, the no-thing-ness (or everything-ness) that we can call by many names, but no name is THAT to which the words are pointing. Tentatively, we can call it God or presence or the Self (as Ramana did in the quote I started this post with), or emptiness (as the Buddhists might), or the unnamable, or the nameless, or the Now, or Totality, or primordial awareness, or unconditional love, or THAT which remains when everything perceivable and conceivable has disappeared, or THAT which everything perceivable and conceivable IS. And when we turn our attention to THAT—which might mean simply listening to the sounds of traffic or feeling the breathing or seeing the shapes and colors of the autumn leaves—something shifts and there is no one left to have free will or to not have it or to be concerned with this question.
Who turns the attention to THAT? We could say it is God or the Self or no-one or no-thing or everything or Totality, but the real answer is beyond all the words and all the ideas. It is THIS that Here / Now IS…this presence, this energy, this aliveness. No word can capture it; thought cannot grasp it. But the vibrant living reality is right here, simple and obvious, revealing itself to itself endlessly in this eternal present moment. And there is nothing that is not this.
Breathing happens whether we attend to it or not. But when we give our full attention to this simple and wondrous act of breathing, what happens? Try it and find out! I find that every time I do this, something profound and amazing reveals itself in the nourishing and boundless currency of breath.
Sensations happen whether we attend to them or not. But again, when we give our full attention to any single sensation, it unfolds and reveals a jewel. The feeling we are calling “anxiety” turns out to be a doorway into presence itself—even into delight and joy. Most of us are lucky enough to see trees and clouds and cups and chairs and doorknobs every day, but often we barely see them because we are lost in thought. When we really take the time (the timeless presence) to look deeply at any ordinary thing—a cup, a section of bark on a tree, the back of our hand, the clouds in the sky, a rusty pipe, a leaf, a dilapidated building—we find beauty and immensity. The beauty, the immensity, the awe, the wonder is in the presence, the listening-seeing-awaring silence.
Much of the time, we humans are sleep-walking through our lives, lost in thought, living in a kind of hypnotic trance, seeking but never finding, running from phantoms and chasing after mirages. We are like puppets jerked around by the strings of conditioned emotion-thought. Is there another possibility?
What do we really want? This is a vital question. I went into it in my post back on November 2. In my own experience, when we look deeply, when we get past all the more superficial desires that never really satisfy us, what we really want is to be truly alive, to be fully present and awake, to live in love with an open heart, to bring love and beauty into this world and not more misery and confusion. So to me, this is what the spiritual journey, the awakening journey, is all about. It’s not about an ideology or a mental understanding. It’s about the energetic aliveness and vitality of Here / Now, the heart of the matter, what matters most. It’s about living in devotion—not to some guru, but to this awake presence that we are.
Is waking up gradual or sudden? Easy or arduous? Does it take effort or is it effortless? Is there something to do or nothing to be done, a path or no path, choice or no choice? The answer to these questions is not either/or. Realization is always NOW—immediate and instantaneous, utterly simple and effortless. It is never in the past or the future, and we’re never attaining anything that is not already here. But we can also say that there is a lifelong, present moment, pathless path of turning back from the virtual realities of thought and opening fully to what is most obvious and impossible to doubt: the living reality Here / Now—and for most of us, that requires considerable courage, faith, vigilance, devotion, fidelity and perseverance. As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out in addressing this very question, you cannot attain your foot because it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same.
If we think in terms of time and future and someday and all the things we need to do to get somewhere and become something, we are missing this living reality and the gateless gate that is always only Here / Now. But if we think, “I’ve arrived, I’ve got it, I’m done,” we are closing the door on the ever-unfolding and boundless nature of presence. And if we say (or think), “There’s nothing to do, it’s all a choiceless happening, it’s all One, it makes no difference whether or not I’m lost in thought, getting drunk is every bit as liberating as any spiritual practice,” we are denying both the pain and reality of suffering and the possibility of genuine liberation. The truth is a delicate balance between effort and effortlessness, choice and choicelessness—a balance that doesn’t land or fixate on any one-sided extreme.
When we look deeply, we find that the only thing we can ever know with absolute certainty is being here now—the impersonal sense of aware presence and this present experiencing, prior to any interpretation of what it is. This alone is impossible to doubt. This groundless ground Here / Now is never actually absent. We can’t ever really be anywhere else. But our attention can be easily captivated by the world of emotion-thought. We can be sleepwalkers throwing away the precious gift that is always available right where we are.
When we give our full attention to being here now, to presence itself and to the bare actuality of present experiencing, prior to any interpretation of what it is, this is liberation, instant and immediate. We’re not arriving at a new place or gaining something that was previously lacking. We’re simply attending to and realizing our True Nature rather than being absorbed in and hypnotized by the virtual realities created by thought. And the transformation that happens through being present in this way is what Kabat-Zinn was comparing to the training of a dancer’s feet.
To me, this is the true meaning of devotion. Gangaji speaks of attending to presence as vigilance, and she clarifies that what she means by vigilance is not the super-ego monitoring and controlling our behavior, but something else altogether: “Vigilance comes from the word vigil, meaning to keep vigil. Keeping vigil is a form of worship…vigil at the flame of truth.” Rupert Spira puts it this way: “At the heart of experience there is a fire that burns all we know, that turns all things into itself. Offer everything to this fire.” Some might call this kind of vigilance the highest form of prayer. Attending to presence, being awake in this moment, keeping vigil at the flame of truth, offering everything to this fire, living in devotion to what matters most—this is not something we finish doing. It’s a way of being, Here / Now.
This that attends to the flame of truth is not the false self or the thinking mind. It is awareness, the True Self, the One Self, the no-self, unconditional love, the Totality attending to itself. As soon as thought conjures up the idea that “I” (the character in the story) am doing this vigilance, and that it will get me somewhere, and that “I” need to do it perfectly and be in a state of presence “all the time”—we are lost again in the virtual reality of thought and imagination and the story of “me,” the separate fragment ever in need of being fixed. Perfection of that kind is not going to happen. Waking up is not about expecting perfection and beating ourselves (and others) up for failing. It is the unconditional love that recognizes the grit as essential to the pearl. Thought, on the other hand, is always inserting the phantom “I” into the picture, passing judgments, and creating the story of past and future time. Thought tells the story that “I” am going back and forth between “successfully being here now” and “failing to be here now”—that I lack enlightenment but am trying very hard to achieve it, and that maybe someday “I” will be liberated. But the True Self, the true Here / Now, is never lost. It is the natural state, the ground of being. And as Ramana Maharshi so beautifully put it, “Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized.” That doesn’t mean picking up the opposite belief that, “I am realized,” or holding on to some pseudo-nondual idea that, “Everything is equally the One Self and I have no choice anyway, so I might as well just get drunk.”
Waking up is seeing the false as false, and what remains is the living reality. Waking up doesn’t happen once-and-for-all, but again and again (or more precisely, NOW). Enlightenment is not a finish-line we cross or a trophy we can put on our altar of selfhood to feel impressive and superior.
Toni Packer had this to say on the subject: “Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance. Without any sense of passing time. Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our experience mongering is a form of resistance in time. Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here, now. It’s the hum of the airplane. The fog. The wind blowing gently, the rain dripping, breathing, humming, pulsating, opening, closing, nothing at all…It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.”
Someone recently asked me this question: “There is an obvious difference between a living body and a dead body. The living body has something enlivening it that the dead body lacks. What do you suppose that is? What do you suppose happens to that ‘energy’ once the body dies?”
When the bubble pops, what happens to the space inside the bubble? What do we see and love most deeply when we look into the eyes of someone else? Are we inside the body looking out at the world, or are the body and the world both appearing inside this space of awareness? Why did Ramana say, as he was dying, that he wasn’t going anywhere? What happens to the flame when the candle is blown out? Could it be that “consciousness” and “matter” are two words for the same undivided energy?
Energy or consciousness is always changing shape, ever in flux, always moving—and yet, it is always Here / Now, ever-present. In the end, both "movement" and "stillness" lose their meaning for they depend on each other to be. Another word for “Here / Now” is primordial awareness. Everything appears in this vast space of awareness—the living body, the dead body, the trees, the clouds, the whole earth, the planets, the distant galaxies, the sunlight—all of it divided only by words. Even words such as “awareness” or “consciousness” or “energy” or "space" or “totality” must eventually be dropped. The confusion is always in the words, the thought-concepts, the mental ideas, the abstractions with which we try to grasp and understand and control everything. The living reality simply IS—inconceivable, ungraspable, unattainable because it is unavoidable—most intimate, as they say in Zen—this very presence right here, right now, this very beingness, this aliveness—just this.
What is this? This question isn’t asking for an answer in the form of a word-concept, but rather, it is a koan that invites the mind to give up, to relax, to open, to fall into the living wonder of being here now.
This morning, watching the white clouds slide across the face of the green mountains and through the valleys, feeling the breathing, energy gathering in silent presence, awake to the joys and sorrows of the world, nothing needed to be different than how it was, and yet nothing stayed the same for even an instant. In our daily lives, there is an amazing mixture of ever-changing sensations, moods, emotions, thoughts, experiences. The weather is sunny one moment, cloudy the next. Rain, wind, snow, sunlight, darkness. Happy, sad.
What I’m most deeply interested in, and what I’m always pointing to, is the living reality of this moment before we think about it, label it, categorize it, or tell a story about it. Of course I’m not saying we shouldn’t think or use labels or tell stories—that’s all part of this amazing happening, and all of that has its place. But can we question our thoughts and beliefs? Can we discern the difference between a subtle idea and this living presence, between thinking and awaring? Is it possible in this moment to open up to the unbound presence that is right here—our own true nature—and to be fully awake and present to the living reality that is here before we label it or think about it?
That awaring presence is boundless—it isn’t mine or yours, it has no limits. The particular content or shape of this moment (whether rain or shine, pain or pleasure, this or that) is always secondary to this open awaring presence in which it unfolds. When there is presence, there is a kind of delicate sensitivity and openness that beholds whatever is showing up without conclusions or judgments, without shutting anything out, without needing anything to be other than how it is.
This pathless path of awakening is about discovering in ever-more subtle ways how we hold on, how we create suffering, how we confuse ourselves—and finding out if it is possible—right now (always right now)—to allow the suffering and the confusion to dissolve, to relax our grip, to open. We may be surprised to find out how attached we can be at times to our suffering, how it becomes a kind of identity, a safe familiar. And so if it doesn’t seem possible right now to let go, then can we explore how it feels to hold on—what is that like? And what is at the very root of that impulse to resist and hold on? It’s not a matter of thinking about that question and then coming up with the right word or the right answer as we learned to do in school—but rather, it’s about truly listening and looking, feeling into it with the whole bodymind—awaring, sensing, wondering, exploring with curiosity and love. This kind of inner exploration is a very alive, delicate, fluid process. It is always fresh, always new—there is no end to it.
As I see it, this kind of presence IS love, unconditional love. It is true devotion—devotion to this moment, just as it is—and to what is at the very heart of this moment, at the very core of ourselves, at the heart of every appearance, every sensation, every emotion, every experience. Not turning away or distancing ourselves with ideas and explanations and theoretical assertions—we’re so habituated to go there—but instead, is it possible to simply be present to the sound of a bird, the cold morning air, the clouds passing through the sky, the hum of an airplane, the slight tightness in the belly, the sense of restlessness or unease in the body, the tingling on the skin, the arising and passing away of thoughts—the whole happening, just as it is? Is it possible to be completely intimate, not separate in any way—open, empty, full, undefended, without motive or judgment?
If you hear all this through the filter of thought, then it is just more words, more ideas, more concepts to agree or disagree with, to argue with or go searching for…but there is the possibility of a different kind of listening, not through the filter of thought. And it is to that possibility, that aliveness, that living presence that I am always pointing.
Response to a comment:
Trying to “get it” is a mental process rooted in the story that you are somebody who lacks something important (“enlightenment”) that you need to somehow “get.” This whole mental search for something “out there” that you lack (a mental understanding or a special experience or a permanent state of bliss or whatever it is) is what is in the way of noticing what is already present. But we can hear this over and over and it does no good—which is why I think basic, bare-bones meditation is so helpful. Then we can begin to get out of our heads, out of our stories, and we can awaken instead to the direct sensory experiencing of this moment and the awaring presence that we are—and it clarifies itself.
When you hear teachers saying “there is no self,” or “there is no person,” or “there is no spoon,” or “there is no moon,” it isn’t meant to deny the experience of these things, at least not when I say it, but rather to point out that no form (no person, no spoon, no moon) exists in some separate, independent, persisting, intrinsic way outside of consciousness as we tend to imagine. And impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even BE impermanent! These are not ideas to believe or disbelieve but discoveries that can happen by giving attention to direct experiencing—again, this is why meditation can be so helpful.
Yes, there is a functional, thought-sense of being a separate person—a neurological sensation—that doesn’t go away and that appears when needed. You can differentiate between yourself and your computer and you know which mouth to put the food in. And yes, each of us as a conditioned bodymind organism notices different things and sees the world in a unique way—but is the awareness, the presence, the beingness itself actually divided up or separate? Is it encapsulated or bound in any way? Again, these are not questions to think about, but things to explore directly. What is being pointed to as illusory is not the functional sense of location and boundaries, but rather, the whole thought-story of “me,” a mental construction that is so habitual that it often goes unnoticed that this “me” who seems to be at the center of “my life” is nothing but a kind of mirage made up of thoughts and mental images. Again, meditation can be so helpful in really SEEING this and not just thinking it might or might not be true.
While I still find myself at times caught up in a thought-story, I don’t have any doubt that presence is not a thought—nor is the bird cheep or the sound of traffic or the breathing. And the pathless path that I talk about is most definitely NOT a belief system. It is more like the seeing through of beliefs. You actually know (in the undeniable sense of that word) what I’m pointing to when I speak of presence and awareness and wholeness, but you perhaps aren’t noticing it because the attention is so absorbed in the thoughts and the conceptual world they create.
And finally, nonduality isn’t a denial of variety and diversity and relative separation (in the sense that I can walk away from my computer)—but it points to the seamless wholeness that is unbroken even when I walk away from my computer or drive to a different town. It’s all one whole movie, one whole happening—and wherever we go, it’s always Here / Now.
Response to another comment:
I'm never saying that stories are bad or that we shouldn't think or conceptualize or use words or tell stories! All of that is part of the happening of life. For heaven's sake, I'm a writer! I LOVE movies and plays and novels and great TV dramas like Breaking Bad! Two of my books have been largely in the form of stories--personal narrative or memoir--as is the one I'm working on now about aging and dying (and that one includes stories of my mother's death and Toni Packer's death and the death of my first lover)! Stories can be a way of seeing more deeply. They can be a way of sharing and understanding. When I point to bare presence, I'm never trying to suggest that we should try to remain in some wordless, thoughtless, silent state of presence all the time--that would be absurd and impossible.
Feeling sad when someone you love is leaving is perfectly natural. Grief is a natural part of being alive. So is talking and thinking and conceptualizing and telling stories. This isn't about trying not to have any feelings, or trying not to care about anything or anyone, or trying to do nothing but see the birds and hear the planes. It's wonderful to share stories with friends. It can even be fun to gossip sometimes. And it's wonderful to cry when we're sad. No problem!
But we can also SEE how a story and the telling of a story is affecting us, how we stir up emotions and solidify certain beliefs by telling certain stories over and over. We can see how we get sucked into stories and trains of thought, how we get mesmerized and entranced, and how that can sometimes cause immense suffering. (That's what I was pointing to in the subtitle of my first book: Waking Up from the Story of My Life--but I did it by telling the story!) We can become sensitive to whether a story is waking us up or sinking us deeper into delusion, and we can SEE that the story we tell about something that happened isn't the happening itself. But the story is a whole new happening! And that story is inseparable from this one, seamless, undivided happening that is Here / Now. I hope this helps to clarify.
There are many ways to fully arrive at this placeless place where we always already are. Some maps tell us that the way to arrive is to recognize the space in which everything is appearing, the boundless openness of Here / Now. Recognizing the spaciousness that is right here, opening to that, being that, we begin to see that nothing is as solid as we thought it was. Problems that seemed serious and heavy can vanish in an instant. We sense the dream-like nature of all our stories.
Some maps encourage us to discover that we are beyond everything perceivable and conceivable, prior even to that first undeniable sense of impersonal presence, prior to consciousness, which is the ground and substance of every perception, every sensation, every emotion and every thought. What would that be, prior to all of this?
When the mind tries to picture what is beyond all thoughts and perceptions, prior even to consciousness, there is nothing that it can take hold of, for anything it can think of or sense or imagine is by definition not it. Faced with the impossible, the mind goes dark. This darkness of not-knowing is deeper than all knowledge, deeper than all experience. The heart of what we are cannot be pictured or pinned down. It is inconceivable. Just as the eye cannot see itself and the sword cannot cut itself, this wholeness can never grasp itself. It is, as they say in Zen, most intimate. Most intimate and completely all-inclusive, without an opposite.
It includes everything and IS everything, but it is never limited to any particular thing. So in this approach of discovering what is prior to consciousness, we are forced back to what is most intimate—the darkness of not-knowing, the not-knowing that stops the mind. If we’re lucky, we are left with a deep intuitive grokking of the ungraspable and inconceivable no-thing-ness that everything is. And if we’re not so lucky, we’re left with a new concept and a subtle mental image—but that too can be seen, and seen through, and dissolved in the light of awareness.
That dissolving of every concept, even the most subtle, is important, because contrary to how the mind wants to conceptualize it, this nondual wholeness or no-thing-ness is not some giant container or some immense empty void “out there” somewhere beyond everything, but rather, it is what everything IS when we look closely enough. It is right here, closer than our breath. But whenever we try to see or experience or grasp it as anything in particular, there is no-thing to grasp. The mind goes dark. Everything is erased. And yet in that erasure, the whole universe bursts forth and everything is right here, just as it is—no separation, no division between subject and object. We are everything, and everything is no-thing, but no-thing is definitely not what the mind thinks of (and fears) as “nothing”!
Liberation, it turns out, is not about “getting it,” but rather, it is about letting go, not-grasping, not seeking for “something” anywhere else, not landing anywhere, not fixating. Liberation is being completely open, completely present, completely awake—right now. Awake even to those contracted and habitual movements of the bodymind that we call seeking and grasping—not resisting or denying them, but meeting them with an open heart, without labels, without judgment, without knowing what they are, without an agenda, without needing anything to be different from how it is.
Instead of pointing us to what is prior to consciousness, other maps encourage us to arrive at this placeless place where we always already are by going right into the very core of whatever appears. These maps suggest that we attend carefully to the breathing, or to the sound of the traffic, or to the sensations in the body…to washing the dishes or cooking a meal or sweeping the floor. In washing the dishes with total attention, there is no me anymore, there is simply warm water and soapy dishes and movements and sounds. Of course, there may be a thought of “me” and how mindfully I am washing the dishes and how this mindful dishwashing will benefit me, but such thoughts and mental images can be seen, and seen through, and dissolved in the light of awareness. And when we go deep into any sensation, at the very core, we find no-thing at all, and yet this no-thing is not a vacuum or a void, but a vibrant aliveness. Some call it intelligence-energy or God.
Some maps draw our attention to what is the same in every experience, whether that experience is contracted or expanded, pleasant or unpleasant, murky or clear. And when we look for what is the same, what do we find? The awaring presence, the unbound and seamless energy, the fluid field of consciousness itself, the boundless Here / Now where everything shows up, the silence at the core of every sound, the thusness or suchness of the eternal NOW—these are all words describing or pointing to what is found, but what matters is the living reality itself, which is not a concept or a word but a direct experiencing.
Instead of focusing on what is ever-present (or some might say unchanging), other maps encourage us to recognize that the only ground is actually groundlessness, that EVERYTHING is changing, that there is no boundary between sound and silence or between subject and object, that there is only this undivided seamlessness, this immediacy. These maps point to a dynamic fluidity where impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even BE impermanent. All concepts of stillness and motion dissolve. There is nothing beyond or outside this groundlessness. Everything is empty of any fixed or inherent existence.
Some maps are blank—they offer nothing at all, since there is nowhere to go and no one to make the journey. These maps refuse to offer any kind of path or any model of reality (although even that blankness and that refusal is itself a kind of model or map). But if we’re lucky, this blank offering may wake us up to the fact that we’re already here—that this is it. The destination is Here / Now.
When we study all the different maps with the conceptual mind and try to figure out what the destination or the path is by thinking about it, it all seems contradictory and paradoxical and mysterious and impossible to get. We compare one map to another and get very confused. We get snarled up in metaphysical speculation and philosophical debate. Or we hold tightly to one map and defend it as if our very life is at stake. When we approach our search for liberation with the thinking mind, there is endless dissatisfaction—the sense of lack and the ever-receding carrot of future attainment.
But when we come to this journey from Here to Here in an entirely different way, without thinking or striving or grasping, but with an openness that resists nothing, we may find that the confusion and the paradoxes melt away. We see that ever-changing groundlessness is really nothing other than the all-inclusive and ever-present Totality, the darkness of not-knowing, the awaring presence Here / Now, the no-thing-ness bursting forth as everything—the red of the fire engine streaking past, the tingling in the toes, the song of the bird, the taste of tea—the magnificent symphony of each moment. Ever-present, ever-changing. Ungraspable, undeniable, obvious, and yet easily overlooked.
In simple listening, we may find there is nothing missing and nothing to grasp and no one here to claim any of this. And we may discover that the destination has never been absent or “out there,” but always right here. We are it. And it is all there is. And “it” is actually it-less-ness, which turns out to be life, just as it is when we’re no longer hypnotized by stories and concepts.
But it only adds to our misery to pick up ANY of these maps as a new belief: “This is it. There’s nothing to get. Everything is perfect as it is. It’s all One. Everything is just an illusion—the important stuff is prior to consciousness.” This kind of belief is always shadowed by doubt: “How do we really know that? Maybe we’re just fooling ourselves. Maybe it’s not all one. Maybe there is nothing prior to consciousness. Maybe this is all bullshit. Maybe I really am a hopeless loser.”
What liberates us is when we leave the maps behind and dissolve into the territory itself, i.e., when we are actually awake here and now, when this aware presence is our lived reality and not a mental idea. And this isn’t an achievement or an acquisition or a permanent state that somebody has (even though in another sense, we can say that it is never lost and never not here). Liberation is more like the falling away or the transparency of all the thoughts and concepts that are confusing us, the dropping away of the habitual forms of escape and resistance and seeking, the unwinding of the energetic knots, the opening of the heart-mind, the relaxing and dissolving of the sense of separation and encapsulation.
This isn’t something that happens all at once or once-and-for all. It doesn’t require any kind of spectacular, explosive event. And it really isn’t an event at all. It is usually a very gradual and subtle unfolding with occasional peak moments and many moments of discouragement. And it is an unfolding that has no end. Most importantly, it’s always NOW—not yesterday or tomorrow or forever—not the story of “me” and how far I’ve gotten, and how far I still have to go, and what peaks I’ve experienced, and what valleys I’ve suffered through. It’s waking up from that whole story. So it’s not about “me” arriving at some permanent state called “liberation” and then staying there forever. That very idea is delusion. It is the falling away of that idea, the falling away of the whole story of me and time and somewhere to go. It is nothing more or less than fully arriving right here at this placeless place, this timeless now where we always already are….not someday or forever-after or once-and-for-all, but NOW.
It’s so simple. Just listen to the splashing sounds of the rain…the wind in the trees…the hum of the vacuum cleaner…the grinding, swishing sounds of the washing machine…the cheep of the bird. Pay attention to the beauty all around you—the rusted beer can, the discarded tire, the rotting wood, the clouds in the sky, the raindrops on a leaf, the pale winter light on the side of a building. Feel the breathing, the tingling in your hands…feel the whole body, feel the boundlessness of this present moment and of this listening, sensing, awaring presence. Feel the richness of life with all its heartbreak and all its joy. See the thoughts, the mental habits, and see them for what they are. Question the stories they tell, the assertions they make. Wake up to the living reality. Waking up cannot be postponed. It is literally now or never.
Often when we open fully to the living reality, without the filter of thought, without any of our habitual distractions, we feel fear. This energy and the power of it is what we have been running from all our lives—it is what we think is unbearable, what we imagine will annihilate us. There is a certain fire we need to pass through, and until we actually plunge into it, it looks very scary. So it’s easy to turn away. There are a million ways to distract ourselves, to numb out, to close down, to turn away. We can easily spend our precious lives lost in metaphysical confusion, chasing after endlessly alluring but always disappointing experiences, trying to transcend the world and the body and the self by leaving it all behind and disappearing into some mystical mist that never seems to be quite misty enough. Or, we can wake up. We can step right into that fire (not once-and-for-all, but now). And we can discover the transcendence that is right here in the very sound of the washing machine.
Happy Winter Solstice to all of you who visit my page in this amazing Facebook community! For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest day of the year, and the moment when the light begins to return—like the darkness before the dawn. What a beautiful metaphor for life and how it moves. And of course, for those of you in the southern hemisphere, it is (or more accurately, was yesterday) the summer solstice, the lightest day of the year and the moment when the darkness begins to return. The cycle of days and nights, seasons and tides, repeats day after day, year after year, and yet each winter, each spring, each day and each moment is completely new.
I’ve always loved the word satsang. To me, it is a word that evokes the Heart. As I see it, satsang is devotion to Presence, devotion to this moment, just as it is. It’s not just something we do on special occasions in the presence of some guru or for an hour every day in meditation, but rather, it is a way of being. We are the Guru, the Buddha, the whole universe waking up—there is no other. When there is presence Here / Now, we see beauty in what might ordinarily be considered ugly or disappointing. We begin to welcome the dark times as opportunities to open ever-deeper, to dissolve ever-more completely, to discover the light in the last place we ever expected to find it—nirvana right in the very heart of samsara. Practice might be described as not leaving satsang, even in the darkest times.
We could also say that practice is recognizing—in this very moment—that we never do leave satsang. The Holy Reality is always right here, waiting to be noticed. There is nothing else going on, not ever, not really. Even the mistakes, the false turns, the moments of delusion and confusion, the distraction and upset, the pain and suffering, the most horrific acts of cruelty and violence—all of it is the Holy Reality. And as an old Zen koan about the dark side of life puts it, “It is only for your benefit.” This is the koan of our lives, what Zen teacher Susan Murphy aptly describes as “the problem of reconciling the one continuous mistake we sometimes call 'life' with buddha nature, which is complete grace from the beginning."
It is a great joy to be in touch with all of you from so many different places on this marvelous blue ball spinning through space—all of us one whole listening presence, one seamless happening, one undivided awareness beholding and realizing itself from infinite points of view…beholding the blue ball and the blackness of outer space, beholding the winter and the summer…being it all, being just this moment...all of us Here / Now together in this placeless place from which the next breath originates.
Wishing you all Happy Holidays and all blessings in the New Year and in the ever-new NOW. Happy Solstice!
I had two quiet days in solitude over Christmas Eve and Christmas. I was going to have dinner with a couple of friends on Christmas Day, but they got sick, so the plan was cancelled. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed being with my friends, I was by no means heartbroken to be alone on Christmas. In fact, being alone on major holidays is something I actually relish. Big holidays tend to be very quiet days—there is little or no business as usual out in the world—and there is a palpable silence and quiet in the air. It’s a wonderful time for solitude.
We had a wild storm the first day, and I sat in my armchair for many hours watching it—huge wind gusts slamming the house, dark clouds of rain arriving and departing, things blowing through the air, a tree snapping in half, rain battering the windows, the mountains appearing and disappearing, clouds racing past. It was quite a show. When the rain stopped and the clouds lifted, the mountain sides that I see out my window were, for the first time this season, white with snow. I felt immense gratitude to simply be alive.
Many people are horrified by the possibility of spending a major holiday alone, or going for a solitary walk, or eating alone at a restaurant. For women especially, such things have often been either dangerous or a sign of social failure and stigma—and in some societies on earth, they still are. But for most of us reading this page, the only danger in being alone on a holiday, or in a restaurant, or on a walk in a reasonably safe location, is in our heads. It’s a story. We can be having a perfectly beautiful day and then a thought pops up and reminds us, “This is Christmas,” and then perhaps we are instantly flooded with ideas about what that means, how “Christmas” should look, what it used to be like when we were children or when we were married or when our children were still living at home or whatever the particular story is—and suddenly we are swamped in feelings of loneliness, sadness, shame and despair.
But all we need to do is open our eyes and notice where we actually are. “Christmas” is a label, a word with all sorts of different associations depending on our particular conditioning. For some, it is a day to go to a Chinese restaurant and then on to a movie. For others, it has no significance at all. For some, it is something to hate. For others, something to defend. For many, it means family—and for some of us, that is a happy prospect and for others it is a nightmare. And yet, that nightmare is also a story—a bunch of memories and judgments and expectations that often turn into a self-fulfilling prophecies. What if we don’t know what “Christmas” or “New Years” is or what it should be like? What if we’re simply open to how it actually is? What if we recognize that this particular moment has never been here before and will never be here again—that we actually can’t step into the same river twice, and that the one stepping is not the same person from one instant to the next?
I love to walk alone…I see more when I walk alone. I enjoy eating alone in a restaurant. I also love eating and walking with friends. But solitary walks and meals are lovely in a different way. And every year over New Years, I take three or four days to be on silent retreat by myself at home. The general idea, which I don’t always follow to the letter, but which I abide by more or less, is that I don’t hold meetings or visit with friends or talk on the phone, I don’t read or send email or Skype or peruse the internet, I don’t read novels or watch movies or TV (except for about half an hour on New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop in NYC on CNN with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin, listening to the wonderful medley of songs they play as the confetti falls and the crowds of freezing young people kiss and wave, all of which is a sentimental treat and a tradition that I love). Basically, for three or four days, I just sit quietly, watching the clouds in the sky and the hawks circling the mountains. I go for walks, maybe I read a bit in a Zen book or an Advaita book, but not much. If I write at all, it is by hand—not on my computer and not very much (although on one past New Year’s retreat, I posted on Facebook). So these are not hard and fast rules so much as general guidelines. I follow my heart—but basically, it’s a few days that I set aside where I disengage from my usual routine, from business as usual—where I let go of all the usual ways of entertaining or distracting myself in moments of emotional unease, where I take a break from the News and from the world of words—and simply be. It’s a meditation retreat.
Years ago, when I lived with a close friend, we used to take silent days sometimes. So this kind of silent time doesn’t necessarily require living alone, although it probably won’t be an option in the same way if you have young children. But depending on their age, they might even be interested in doing this. And if they’re not, then you might try paring down what you can in that context, being silent and un-busy except as needed for them—and then consciously be with them, regarding them and their world not as a distraction or an interruption, but as the Guru itself (which they are) coming to pull the rug out from any place where you try to land and find false comfort and certainty. Likewise, if you’re with family over the holidays and you’d rather not be, maybe it’s possible to see and be with a challenging family in a new way, maybe they too are the Guru—and while you can’t control them, is it possible for you to not be your same old habitual self expecting them to be their same old habitual selves? What if you don’t know who you are, or who they are, or what will happen next?
Anyway, I just wanted to encourage us all to enjoy the holidays we actually have, however they are, rather than wishing for some other version. It always boils down to being right here, right now.
In my experience, waking up is something that happens again and again. We often talk in nondual circles about how there is no doer and nothing to do, and there is a tendency in a certain genre of nondualism these days to reject any form of practice as not only unnecessary, but as a hindrance that reinforces the root illusion of a self with independent agency. I can only speak from my own experience here, but after a number of years in that “no-practice-needed” genre, I’ve come home to an appreciation for a lifelong (present moment) practice.
I use the word practice somewhat hesitantly as it may suggest something rote and repetitive, or perhaps a kind of training or rehearsal for a future performance, or something inevitably formal and tradition-bound—and none of that is what I mean to suggest. What I mean by practice is being this ever-new moment, being aware and present, having a kind of open curiosity that doesn’t already know the “correct” nondual answers, having a willingness to get lost in the darkness and be surprised. This practice can take many different forms, but at the heart of it is awareness and open presence.
Yes, in one sense, presence-awareness is ever-present, but quite often it is clouded over by the “Drama of Me” and all the various forms of human suffering. So in another sense, waking up requires a kind of effort (albeit an effortless effort) along with a certain degree of commitment, courage and perseverance. In a sense, it is a kind of training. We could say that the ability to wake up is a kind of muscle that we develop through practice, an ability to recognize delusion and to turn back again and again from the thought-generated, self-centered dream, the fantasies of a better moment and a better me—letting go of our resistance and our defensive, self-protective postures, relaxing into simple presence and taking the risk of opening our heart and allowing everything to be just as it is in this moment.
In one sense, this is the easiest and most effortless thing we can ever do. It is really more of a non-doing than a doing—surrendering, letting go, allowing the closed fist to relax and open—nothing could be simpler. But at the same time, getting to the place where there is the willingness to let go of everything we are holding onto for dear life, to drop our defenses, to open our heart, to not resist what feels threatening—this is often very difficult. It takes a kind of faith and trust in the power of awareness and presence because it is so utterly counter-intuitive. The mind tells us that entering and fully feeling the fire that we are avoiding will surely be the death of us.
Sometimes the ability to let go just doesn’t seem to be available. The hypnotic force of old habits and the siren-song of addiction (the illusory but alluring promises of whatever we think we need) are too strong and compelling at that moment. It is as if part of us wants to let go, and another part wants to hold on, and we can’t force the part that wants to hold on to let go. We have to begin with allowing and loving this self-protective, defensive aspect of the universe. We have to recognize that our usual way of muscling through with will-power and force doesn’t work here, that this is an entirely different kind of muscle—like the Olympic runner who spoke of relaxing and going faster.
How to do that? We simply turn our full attention to whatever is here now and allow it to be just as it is. And if that seems impossible, if there is resistance or seeking or trying not to try, then simply allow that, be aware of that. Is it possible to give the resistance or the seeking or the contraction the same kind of wonder-filled and devoted attention we might give to a beautiful painting, or to the face of our beloved, or our cat, or our child, or the ocean, or whatever we love most? Is it possible to be curious about it? Where is this resistance or this restlessness in the body? How does it feel? What happens to the sensations in the body if—instead of trying to ignore them—we go right into them with awareness? What is that like? What thoughts trigger and accompany this resistance and seeking? Can we begin to see and question the thoughts that tell us, “This isn’t it. It has to be different. I'm not there yet.”?
We can't make what we don’t like go away, but perhaps we can drop the judgments about it, the stories, the labels, and instead simply open to it and meet it with curiosity and wonder. Not once-and-for-all, but right now. Instead of thinking that the resistance or the seeking or the old habit is an enemy that must be vanquished, we might see what happens when we welcome it and become totally intimate with it. Instead of turning away from it, we turn toward it. Nothing needs to be different from exactly how it is right now for this to happen. We can always start exactly where we are. If there's trying or resisting or seeking or grasping, then we start with that—allowing that, being curious about that, being devoted to that—and we discover that right here in the thing we thought was our biggest problem, there is no problem at all.
Slowly, we come to realize the ultimate powerlessness of the thinking mind and the separate self it pretends to be. And simultaneously, we discover the power of awareness, the power of presence to reveal and dissolve and transform everything. We develop a kindness toward our human nature, a willingness to accept what feels at times like endless failure, an ability to forgive ourselves when we don’t let go, a willingness to begin anew in this moment now. And we begin to catch those habitual thoughts that tell us, "I'm still not there yet," or "I can't do this," or "This can't be it." We begin to see how these thoughts reincarnate the mirage-like “me” and the story of separation and lack. And we begin to realize that these are just conditioned thoughts and not accurate or trustworthy statements about the nature of reality—that the problems they describe are actually imaginary. Waking up is not a place we arrive at once-and-for-all. It’s a discovery we make, a possibility we come upon, a choice we make, again and again—and always only in the absolute immediacy of right now.
There is no end to the stormy weather in life, the difficulties and challenges. If we’re expecting to reach some problem-free state of perpetual bliss, we are in for endless disappointment. This isn’t about not having problems anymore. It’s about how we meet them. Loved ones die, fortunes come and go, and many of us will face the challenges of disability, illness, physical pain, depression, anxiety, addiction, rage, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, despair and many other common forms of human suffering in the course of a lifetime. This is where the rubber really meets the road. Philosophies and belief systems crumble. So, what is truly trustworthy? What do we really want? What is the deep longing of our heart? Does our life in this moment feel genuinely open and undefended and awake? And if not, how does that closed fist open up?
Sometimes, even after all these years, every fiber of my being wants to run away and close down, indulging in anger, despair, self-pity or compulsive behaviors instead of risking the open heart and the challenge of being fully present in the midst of the fire of this moment. But over the years, a growing willingness has been developing to start where I am, right in the middle of the anger or the despair or the self-pity or the compulsive activity—to really BE with this, to risk dropping my defenses and letting go of my accumulated knowledge, to open the heartmind and show up for how it is right now and see what happens…and to be kind to myself when I fail, to catch the stories of failure and doom before they spin their web.
So if you’re lost in the story that, “I’m enlightened now—I’m finished,” or if you’re lost in the far more popular story that, “I’m not quite there yet,” you might want to question these stories and the main character at the center of them. We’ll never be there. We’re here. That’s the miracle!
And the more deeply we attend to this moment, the more deeply we realize that Here / Now is boundless and unbound, seamless and all-inclusive, ownerless and most intimate, beginningless and without end. Happy New Now!
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2014--
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