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Postings from My Facebook Page #8

The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:

This is the eighth collection of posts from my Facebook page (1/3/15 - 3/30/15). 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:


Every night in deep sleep we return to the source, the darkness from which each breath and each heartbeat arises, and every morning we come forth again into this world that appears to be divided up into infinite separate parts, one of which we identify as me, the separate self, apparently cut off from the wholeness of being, struggling to survive intact.

From this position of apparent separation, we fear death and anything that resembles death—anything that threatens to overwhelm us, oppose us, defeat us or annihilate us. We are like the river terrified of returning to the sea, desperately wondering if the river will survive and still be there in the sea.

Of course, the river never really ends...it merges with and dissolves into the sea, it evaporates into the air and comes down as rainwater…it soaks into the earth and rises up as flowers…this life-force is endlessly re-forming…but once it reaches the sea, it doesn’t survive as “the river.” In fact, “the river” is nothing more than an abstract concept that makes what has always been ceaseless fluidity and movement seem like a solid thing. There never really was some enduring, continuous, independent form (“the river” or “me”) that could be lost in the sea. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing here in some nihilistic sense, but rather, it means that what any apparent form is, is not fragmented or static or separate from everything else. Nothing holds still or stays the same (except in the world of concepts).

So is the river still there after it dies in the sea? The question is rooted in a false idea of how things are, very much like our ancestors who worried about sailing off the edge of an earth they had misconceived as flat. And in spite of all our equally misconceived fears about death and the end of “my beingness” and “my consciousness” and “my movie of waking life” and ultimately, the end of “ME,” in spite of all these fears, every night, we return happily to the sea, the Great Darkness, the unknowable source from which we come and into which we dissolve moment by moment, breath by breath. No one remains in deep sleep to worry about the possibility of not waking up again! That phantom worrier has dissolved into the sea.

The more closely we attend to the actuality of the world (rather than to our thoughts and concepts about it), and the more closely we attend to the mirage-like separate self and to what it is exactly that we are afraid of losing, the more we realize directly that no solid boundaries can actually be found, that everything is made up of everything else, that this manifestation is one seamless interdependent whole, that it is ungraspable and ever-changing, and that we are this whole dream, this unbound awaring presence, this undivided vastness of being showing up as everything imaginable. We find the whole universe in our tea cup or in the door knob that we always took for granted. Everything is brimming with this aliveness, this vibrancy, this brightness of being.

If we’re not lost in the dreary story of “me and my problems,” “me and what I lack,” “me and my search for final enlightenment,” then we are free to appreciate and enjoy and praise this moment, however it is. We are free to play—not to dismiss life as “just a dream” that is best ignored or left behind—and not to take it too seriously in the wrong way either, as if it actually has some solid and enduring form that we can grasp and hold onto. In this freedom, we cherish life, we enter the dance with wonder and joy, but we no longer fear death or scare ourselves with funny stories about not being here anymore. Where would we go? Where do we begin and end? And when have we ever been able to hold on to one single moment, one single breath, one single heartbeat, one single instant of this ever-changing rivering? Isn’t this ephemeral freshness and lightness exactly what makes life so alive and so full of possibility?


Recently, there was quite a bit of on-going noise and disruption where I live that went on over many days and nights, often continuing well after midnight—and so my annual at-home New Year’s retreat was not quite as silent and idyllic as it might have been.

I remember years ago, on one particular Toni Packer retreat in California, how we heard multiple chain-saws going all the time because some big clearing project was underway next door to the retreat center we had rented. Chain-saws are not a particularly soothing sound to hear for hours on end. But it became an interesting exploration to see how much of the suffering over this was the actual physical impact on the nervous system and how much was the thoughts and stories about it that were added on: “I paid good money for this retreat, I didn’t pay to listen to chain-saws all day long…this shouldn’t be happening…how can I meditate with this going on?...this is ruining any hope of my getting enlightened on this retreat…how could they do this do us?...we should get our money back,” etc. Many of us noticed how thoughts such as these produced anger, frustration and suffering.

The thought-sense of being unjustly invaded and subjected to something unwanted, something out of our control, something we thought of as being “other than us” and “unacceptable” was actually much more upsetting than the sound itself. Yes, chain-saws make a sound that is neurologically unpleasant, and when a sound like that finally stops, the feeling of relief in the body is palpable. And there’s nothing wrong with doing what we can in life to alleviate pain or to avoid grating noises. But often there is no escape, and then we have an opportunity to explore the difference between pain and suffering. Pain hurts, and that’s part of life, but what I’m calling suffering is in how we are resisting the pain and thinking about it—that thought-story of a “me” who is being unjustly subjected to this pain and who is entitled to something better—all of that makes the pain infinitely worse.

Just before I began my annual at-home New Year's retreat this year, the one that was filled with loud noises, I watched a documentary called “When the Iron Bird Flies” about Tibetan Buddhism coming to the West. One of the many people featured in the movie is Fleet Maull, a Buddhist teacher who served a 14-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and then went on to found the Prison Mindfulness Institute. He talks in the movie about meditating in the noisy, crowded, chaotic world of a prison cell. I’ve corresponded over the years with several men who are doing a spiritual practice in prison and they describe an atmosphere of unbelievable noise, periodic violence, lack of privacy, lack of control—certainly not the ideal conditions most of us would imagine for deep inner work. And yet, prison is sometimes a place that wakes people up. Suddenly there is no exit, no escape, no place to hide.

So every time during my apparently less-than-ideal New Year's retreat when loud, abrasive noises were jarring my nerves or keeping me awake late at night, if I found myself falling into old reactive habits of mind (anger, self-pity, frustration, despair, whatever it might be), I remembered Fleet Maull in his prison cell. While there are many other examples of people practicing meditation and opening their hearts in the midst of adversity, this one was freshly imprinted and kept appearing. Immediately, when I thought of Fleet Maull, my story of being a victim of injustice dissolved and the upset disappeared along with it. I might still be unable to sleep, and the noises might still be unpleasant, but in that instant, the suffering was over.

I also remembered that Toni Packer retreat with the chain-saws, and then how Toni spent the last decade of her life in severe chronic pain with increasing lack of mobility. She was bedridden for her last few years, entirely dependent on others for her most basic needs. This is not the end to life most of us are hoping for, but it happens all the time, even to people like Toni who meditate and eat healthy food and exercise regularly and live in the country.

At the end of my New Year's retreat, I had a long and anguished email from a man who told the story of how unbearable personal suffering in the form of acute sensitivity to sounds had shattered everything he had thought he had accomplished on his spiritual journey and left him seeing the universe as a very cold, cruel, heartless place. I also heard from someone wondering how to be with psychological fear.

This is the great koan of our lives as I see it, how to meet the darkness and transmute the suffering in our lives and in the world into love. A koan is an apparent barrier that is actually a doorway, put to us in the form of a seemingly insoluble problem, a problem that no amount of thinking will ever resolve. Instead, a koan calls for a leap, a dive, a letting go, a risk—the risk (for starters) of being exactly who, and what, and where we are in this very moment.

Even when we think we are beyond this, in fact, we are often stuck in the story that “this isn’t it.” We are seeking some idyllic ideal of peaceful serenity, calm, silence, perfection of character, imperturbable bliss and perpetual equanimity. We want to be in control and have things the way we want them. Instead, life very kindly keeps throwing us curve balls and bringing us face to face with turbulence, upset, irritation, reactivity, noises internal and external, delusions, disappointments and endless mistakes. This just isn’t the perfect world or the perfect me that we keep hoping for, and try as we may, we can never seem to get either the world or ourselves totally fixed. Even when we do sometimes seem to have fixed things up, inevitably, the fix doesn’t last. Try as we may, we simply cannot control the universe.

What to do? Some people would say, just give up and get drunk and do your best to have fun and drown your sorrows. But many of us have tried that and found ourselves longing in the end for sobriety, tired of maintaining our self-protective façade. We long to risk being vulnerable, open, present and awake, unmasked. We find that actually feeling our pain and the world pain is a better and more liberating option than trying to drown it out. We forget this again and again, but again and again, we remember.

Some people claim to be beyond it all, permanently enlightened, totally done with delusion or upset, but I find such claims dubious at best. The most enlightened people I’ve met never talk this way. And I’ve come to really relish and appreciate the lifelong, moment to moment work of devoting myself to a process that has no finish-line and no final satisfaction, a process where every time I seem to find my balance, I know that I must let go and lose it again, a process where mistakes and delusions are endless.

This absence of a happy ending is frustrating if we want perpetual stasis, but exhilarating when we let that idea fall away. Then we begin to appreciate even the bad days, the difficult moments, the mistakes, the annoyances, the disappointments. And our heart may even open wide enough to embrace the whole suffering world—the wars, the torture chambers, the child sex traffickers, the factory farms, the environmental devastation, the whole catastrophe (as Zorba famously called it). This embrace isn’t some facile ideology that “it’s all just a dream” or a comforting belief that “everything is God’s will,” but rather, it is an embrace that fully includes the sorrow and the broken heart. And out of that vulnerability, that heart broken open, we discover the deepest truth—the basic goodness that is completely trustworthy and indestructible. This is not an idea or a belief, but our most intimate reality—the very nature of presence and awareness. And from this most intimate placeless place (Here / Now), this awake, aware presence, the aspiration naturally arises to live in this moment, as best we can, in a way that will not create more suffering.

The suffering of wars and genocides, torture chambers, child abuse, cruelty to animals, environmental devastation and the like arises from unawareness, from not seeing clearly, from being totally lost in a kind of hypnotic trance produced by habit and conditioning. And that’s equally true of the less extreme everyday suffering that comes from being subjected to conditions other than what we want. Instead of being lost in the story, there is another possibility, a possibly to wake up, to be aware, to be fully present in this moment without separation. This possibility (or response-ability) is something each of us must discover for ourselves, and once we’ve found the key to this gateless gate, and the more we access it, the more available it seems to become.

True peace, joy, freedom and love is not about having ideal conditions. It doesn’t require a quiet setting, a healthy body, a good mood, a peaceful world or external freedom. These things come and go. They are nice when we have them, but we can be sure they won’t last forever. This is why children can be such wonderful Zen Masters—they disrupt everything, push every button we have, and won’t ever let us settle for some faux version of peace and freedom or enlightenment. But even if we don’t have children, the universe provides endless Zen Masters in the form of loud or seemingly unbearable noises, friends who don’t behave as we want them to, chronic illnesses, traffic jams, flight delays, even being locked in a prison cell.

The great good news is that it IS possible to transform, to wake up, to find freedom right in this very moment, regardless of the circumstances. In one sense, such transformation (or evolution) is a long, slow, gradual process—a process that is never finished. In another sense, it only happens now, it takes no time at all, and it is utterly complete. The power to wake up is not in the thinking mind masquerading as “me.” It is in awareness, which is unbound and boundless. Awareness dissolves delusion and suffering not by resisting and attacking it, not by analyzing it, but rather by totally opening to it, allowing it all the space it needs, shining light on it, enlightening it, resisting nothing and being just this moment.


Many people are seeking some awakening experience or some final breakthrough after which all sense of separation and suffering will be gone forever. Quite often on such a search, people will experience moments of freedom where everything opens up and all problems fall away. It seems in such moments as if something new and desirable has been attained, but actually, this sense of spaciousness and freedom is simply the momentary falling away of what usually obscures the natural ground of open, aware presence. As soon as the thought-story of “me” resumes and once again captures the attention, this taste of freedom seems to disappear. It seems as if unbound awareness shrinks back down to the sense of being an encapsulated separate entity—this but not that.

The unbound vastness has not really been lost, but the focus of attention has gone to the virtual reality, the thought-generated storyline about what I lack and might one day attain—evaluating how well I’m doing, comparing myself to others—the whole drama of psychological desire and fear, seeking and resisting. We want that experience of freedom back, and we end up trying to recapture a past experience that is now a memory—trying to remember what we did to bring it about so that we can repeat it. We’re very sure that what we glimpsed then is gone now, that “this isn’t it,” that something has to change. We’re back on the treadmill of dissatisfaction, chasing the carrot that is forever just out of reach, ignoring what is most intimate and never not here. What to do?

I would suggest not getting hooked on trying to have any kind of special experience other than the experience that is happening right now. And if that seems like an impossible task, then simply being aware of how we do get hooked from time to time—really noticing how that works, how it happens.

Trying to have special experiences or get into special states is a great way to suffer. Instead, if it seems as if “this isn’t it,” we might first notice that this is a thought, that the story it tells may not be true, and we might begin to explore how this-here-now actually is if we don’t label or judge or resist whatever is showing up.

If there is dissatisfaction or efforting or restlessness or unease, can we simply feel the dissatisfaction, the trying, the restlessness, the fear, the longing, whatever it is as pure bodily sensation, without a story? Can we see the thoughts that accompany the sensations and question the veracity of the stories they tell? Can we also hear the traffic sounds, the birds singing, the refrigerator buzzing, the dog barking? Can we feel the breathing, the warm or cool breeze on the skin, the tingling of energy in the body? Can we see the shapes and colors all around us in the same way that we might behold a piece of fascinating abstract art—not trying to make sense of it, but simply enjoying the shapes and colors and the way it moves? Can we be open to this whole happening right now, just as it is?

All that any emotional state really is, is thoughts and sensations—and when we experience sensations in a purely sensory way, without the story, we notice that sensations are ever-changing movements of energy, whether it is traffic sounds or the colors in the room or the sensations we call fear or anger. These sensations don’t hold still, they’re not solid things, they don’t actually mean anything—they’re not personal (they’re not something “I” am doing that means something about “me”). And in listening openly, being just this moment, allowing it all to be exactly as it is—we are no longer absorbed in the story or mesmerized by the virtual reality created by thought. We are awake as unbound awareness, boundless presence—our true nature, our most intimate reality, the wholeness that includes everything, the emptiness that is empty of self and full of everything else.

And if that doesn’t seem to be what happens for you, don’t worry. Again, don’t get caught up in trying to have any particular experience other than the one you are actually having. Because as soon as we try to experience wholeness (or thoughtless awareness or fearlessness or bliss), we’re instantly chasing after a memory or an idea or an ideal of some kind, and we’re overlooking the living reality Here / Now. We’re trying to get what is naturally already here, and we’re trying to grasp or possess (as an object) what cannot be grasped or possessed because it is all-inclusive and nondual (it has no opposite and nothing stands apart from it).

What we are desperately searching for is the awaring presence that we are, the awakeness that shines out of every object and every form. But this aliveness is frequently covered over by the story that “I don’t have it yet.” As soon as a thought like that pops up, it instantly incarnates the imaginary “me” who supposedly doesn’t have the imaginary “it.” The good news is, the “me” and the “it” are both imaginary. It’s like watching a scary movie or a sad movie and getting emotionally swept up in that virtual reality. It's a form of cosmic entertainment.

The so-called glimpse is simply a moment when this story isn’t there, when the seeking and resisting drops away, and we’re simply here—not as “me,” but as this whole happening, just as it is.

But if we try to make that happen, or if we try to hold onto or get back to some experience of spaciousness and freedom that we remember from the past, that's the trap again—the old habit. As soon as thought turns a glimpse of freedom into the “it” that is imagined to be the object of our search, or as soon as thought personalizes such glimpses (“I’m awake now!”), or tries to hold onto any particular experience, that's the same old trap again. Part of being free is being willing to experience whatever shows up—not being caught in some desire to be done with anxiety or fear forever. When we stop pushing away what we think is in the way, and when we stop seeking what we imagine we need, then suddenly we are awake to what is. And that’s where the juice is—in the awakeness and the present-ness, not in the particular content that is showing up.

Eventually we find that we are no longer concerned with the content anymore. That absence of concern doesn’t mean being detached and aloof. It doesn’t mean we no longer have preferences, or that we ignore the content or are no longer aware of it, but rather, we’re no longer giving it meaning, taking it personally, or thinking it needs to be any different from how it is right now. We’re no longer concerned with feeling any particular way “all the time,” or with “never again” being caught up in contraction or resistance. We begin to appreciate that ALL of these different experiences are part of the dance, the undivided wholeness of being.

Maybe for some of you, thought is popping up right now and saying, “Is this the juice, right here? It doesn’t seem very juicy to me. I must not be getting it. I’m probably a hopeless case who will never get it.” This is an old, conditioned thought-habit, and if it’s not seen for what it is, immediately we’re back in the self-centered dream—once again, it’s all about me and what I lack. So can we begin to catch these habitual, me-centered thoughts as they arise? We don’t need to battle or banish them—just see them. Awareness is the great transformer, the great dissolver.

But a note of caution: awareness doesn’t transform or dissolve things on our thought-constructed timetable. In one sense, awakening is timeless, always NOW, complete in the moment. But in another sense, it may take time (decades sometimes) for old habits to completely wear out and stop coming back, and some old habits may never disappear permanently. But that only seems to matter from the perspective of “me” and my desire to be perfect according to some ideal. Otherwise, from the perspective of the whole, it’s all simply the activity of life itself, an impersonal happening of the universe, and in truth, we never do step into the same river twice, so that “old habit” is actually fresh and new every time it shows up. And we can only be where we actually are—so if restlessness or seeking or trying or resisting or anger or despair shows up, start right here with that. Don’t go to war with it, but instead, see if it is possible to meet it with curiosity and interest, with awareness—which is another word for unconditional love. We don't really "do" this as much as we get out of the way and recognize what is naturally already happening.

We may discover that anger or fear or boredom can be met with the same devotion that we have for our beloved. Truly, everything IS the Beloved in thin disguise. So being awake isn’t ever about dissociating and ignoring the world—in fact, in my experience, we fall more and more in love with the world. In this kind of open wonder, we sense the playfulness in everything—the joy of the dance in its entirety—with all its different movements, shapes and permutations.


The desire to change is part of how the whole universe is moving, and we are not separate, any of us, from each other and from the farthest reaches of the universe. The habitual thinking mind, caught in the story of "me," imagines change in a very idealistic, dualistic, goal-oriented, self-centered way (so-called "self-improvement"). This kind of self-improvement is all about control and hopeful future fantasies usually followed by hopelessness and despair. True transformation, on the other hand, comes from a radically different place. It emerges from a sense of wholeness and not from the thought-sense of fragmentation. It begins with the total acceptance of what is, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. It is focused on Here / Now, not some imaginary future. It allows life to move through me rather than trying to control it. This change of heart cannot be manufactured or brought about through will. It can only be allowed.

Sometimes falling into error is exactly what needs to happen. As I discover again and again, there is perfection in the very heart of imperfection. My addictions and compulsions have served me (and the universe) in many ways! And I have found that I cannot will them or my neurosis out of existence. At the same time, there is a deep longing to be free from what I know is hurtful to myself and others, a deep longing to bring forth what I know is within me. This longing is very human, I think. 

So, what to do? Maybe it is the wrong question. In Zen they say, "Not knowing is most intimate." Maybe we can trust ourselves and the universe, that whatever we are doing is exactly what we need to do, and that in a heartbeat, everything can change. 

Life includes many deep losses and disappointments, many so-called errors and mistakes. It can hurt like hell at times. But these losses, disappointments and mistakes are doorways that open to new possibilities, invitations to discover what has not been lost or damaged. Instead of seeing our life as a problem to solve or an error to correct, maybe we can open our hearts to a deeper possibility.

We're all in it together, this dance, all of us wonderfully human and at the same time boundless and vast. Nothing needs to be excluded or left out. This vastness has room for everything.


In the comments to a recent post earlier this month (1/8/15), in a thread that related to free will, someone suggested I might say more about shame, remorse, and evil. Is there such a thing as evil? Why do we want criminals to feel remorseful if they actually had no choice about what they did? Is shame a movement of the ego?

Relatively speaking, we can certainly discern a difference between acts of kindness and compassion and acts of cruelty and harm, and this polarity is often called good and evil. The original meaning of the word sin is apparently “to miss the mark,” and perhaps the word evil has equally innocent origins. If we understand the words evil and sin in this kind of simple way, they would not be objectionable to me, but both these words seem to have taken on a much more loaded meaning—suggesting that some things are fundamentally, inherently, abhorrently bad to the core. We hear talk of evil people, evil nations, evil deeds, and sinners who seem to have deliberately and maliciously chosen to be cruel and heartless. Because of those associations, I don’t use these words—they feel too loaded and don’t reflect my sense of how things are. I don’t see anyone as inherently good or evil.

As I see it, goodness is our basic nature. Some might say our basic nature is neutral—devoid of any relative qualities, that it is the wholeness that includes both good and evil, and I understand that way of expressing it. In another moment, I might say exactly that myself. But I also notice that whenever there is awakeness, open awareness and unobstructed presence, this aliveness has a quality of goodness or brightness, love and joy—and I notice that the action that comes from this kind of awake, aware presence is inherently intelligent and compassionate. Acts of cruelty and harm, on the other hand, seem to emerge from the delusion of separation and identification as “me” (the separate self). They are reactive, defensive or offensive in nature, and they never feel like the deepest truth.

Acts of cruelty and harm may also emerge from various kinds of physical, neurological, neurochemical or genetic malfunctions in which, for example, the ability to feel empathy is absent or the part of the brain involved in impulse control is somehow impaired. Early childhood and social conditioning obviously plays a big role as well, including abuse, trauma, and social injustice or oppression. There are severe and sometimes untreatable forms of mental illness the causes of which are not yet fully understood. In complex systems such as human beings, there are many ways things can break down or go wrong, many reasons why we might, on occasion, “miss the mark.”

And, of course, we also recognize in nonduality that our ideas about what is functional or dysfunctional, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, are in some sense relative points of view. In the larger sense, we don’t really know what anything is or why it’s here, and we can’t actually separate the so-called good stuff from the so-called bad stuff, as it is all interconnected and interdependent. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud, no lotus.”

When we understand all this, we no longer see psychopaths, sociopaths, serial killers, child molesters, meth addicts, perpetrators of genocide, rapists, mothers who murder their own children, or ourselves when we miss the mark as evil, sinful beings who deserve to be punished, shamed and perhaps even tortured or put to death. We know that in that moment when that deed was done, the capacity to do otherwise was either absent, unseen, unavailable, or over-powered by something else. In any moment when this is clearly realized, it is the end (in that moment) of guilt, blame, shaming ourselves and others, and the desire for vengeance, retribution or punishment. Instead, this understanding gives rise to compassion and empathy. But however deeply this unconditional love has been realized, we all tend at times to forget and to be swept back up in the old habitual dualistic ways of thinking and acting—so can we have compassion for that as well when it happens?

Sometimes people misunderstand this nondual perspective as condoning evil or creating a false equivalence between Buddha and Hitler. People fear that such an understanding will lead to wanton acts of violence or allowing murderers to run around killing as they wish, since after all, “there is no choice” and “everything is perfect as it is.” But that is really a misunderstanding. Nondualism doesn’t mean we can’t discern the difference between Buddha and Hitler, or that we won’t still have laws to keep society functioning smoothly along with consequences for those who break the law. It doesn’t mean we won’t still lock up dangerous people for the protection of everyone, or that we can’t still apologize and take responsibility when we miss the mark in some way. It doesn’t mean we “shouldn’t” meditate or work for social justice or care about the environment or do our best to stop an addiction or a genocide. And it most definitely doesn’t make us any more likely to fall into addiction or carry out a criminal act. If anything, it makes that much less likely. When we feel genuine unconditional love and compassion for ourselves and others, the likelihood that we will rush out and kill people or drink ourselves to death is greatly diminished.

So, why do we want criminals to feel remorseful if they actually had no choice about what they did? Perhaps remorse is the natural action of clarity and love. It seems to me that we can—as human beings—acknowledge mistakes and take responsibility while also recognizing that the mistakes cannot be pulled apart from the totality of life and that no one is doing any of it through an independent free will. In the larger sense, we can see that the mistakes are all part of a seamless completeness that is unfolding, discovering and realizing itself in ways we cannot comprehend. But isn’t it also obvious that part of this completeness is the ability to discern errors and correct them, to learn from past mistakes, to see more clearly and to become ever-more sensitive and response-able? In a sense, the more aware we are, and the more clearly we see, and the more open our heart is, the more choice and possibility we have. Conditioning and habit lose their grip and there is a greater ability to see things freshly and act in new ways.

We often hear that everything in waking life is a dream-like appearance in consciousness with no substantial reality, but it is important not to misunderstand such pointers. If someone assaults me, the physical and emotional pain I feel as it happens is all very real at that moment. The pain of the perpetrator that drives him or her to such an act is also very real as bare experience. And the physical and emotional scars in both of us that may last a lifetime are also very real as raw experience—the experiences we call PTSD are quite real as experiences—the terror is terrifying and the pain hurts. What is unreal or illusory is the way the mind solidifies, freezes and reifies this ever-moving, ever-changing seamlessness into apparently solid, separate “things” (“perpetrator,” “victim,” “good,” “evil,” etc.) and then creates a story with agency and blame and so on, and mis-identifies this knowingness that I AM with one of these mental creations (“me”) and then looks at the whole event from that limited, fragmentary perspective.

In simple awake presence Here / Now, there is no perpetrator, no victim, no yesterday, no story, no suffering, no separate or persisting thing. In open awareness, we can SEE that the assault and the PTSD is dream-LIKE in the sense that it all unfolds in consciousness (both when it happens and when it is re-played in memory) and that the event and those involved have no solid, inherent, intrinsic, persisting, observer-independent, objective existence “out there” somewhere. But that doesn’t mean the hurt was imaginary.

If I am angry at someone and say something hurtful, after I wake up from the trance of hurt, anger, fear, defensiveness and self-righteousness that fueled my hurtful remark, I naturally feel remorse and have a sense of having missed the mark. I can SEE that my action came from ignorance, from old conditioning, from delusion, from being unaware or insensitive or caught up in the illusion of a separate self—not from clarity, open awareness, presence, an open heart, or being awake to my True Nature. I can see that there is no author of my actions, that they are a happening of the entire universe that no one is engineering (not “me” and not some “God” who stands apart), and I can see that seamless unicity includes both the mistakes and the corrections, the sickness and the medicine, the so-called good and the so-called bad, that these are all inseparable polarities, and that many good things come from bad things and visa versa. But at the same time, I can still discern the relative difference in daily life between what is kind or unkind, hurtful or helpful, honest or dishonest, delusional or enlightened. Hence, I say to my friend, “I’m sorry I said what I did—it was deliberately hurtful—I was feeling defensive and hurt and I lashed out at you—I’m sorry.” In my experience, that kind of acknowledgement, apology and taking responsibility seems to be the natural response of aware presence or unconditional love. And also in my experience, that acknowledgement and apology is a letting go of my defenses, an opening, and it tends to allow that same opening to happen in the other person as well, thus inviting both of us to expand into that bigger presence that has no boundaries or limits. It comes from and allows for a change of heart.

If instead I simply gloss over this unkindness with the assertion that “it’s all just an appearance” and “there is no me and no problem,” then I would say that I’m hiding in the absolute in that moment. I’m using what is (in that moment) merely a conceptual belief about Oneness to evade real intimacy and truly BEING the wholeness (or emptiness) that I AM. (Oneness may be deeply seen and realized in another moment, but in that moment, it is nothing more than a mental idea being used to distance myself from true openness and the real absence of separation). And yes, that distancing is also a choiceless happening of the universe and the separation is never really there, but I’m always interested in where are we coming from in expressing these non-dual truths—not whether the concepts are logically true, but whether in the moment we think or say them they are arising out of true SEEING, awaring presence, the open heart, or whether they come from some kind of avoidance or self-justification.

So in answer to the original questions, we don’t need to shame ourselves or anyone else—shaming is indeed a movement of the false self—but there is most certainly a place for a human being to acknowledge a mistake and apologize for it, to recognize the harm that was done and the pain that was caused. I don’t think that kind of remorse in any way undermines the deeper understanding that can also be present—on the contrary, I think it is the embodiment and the truest expression of that deeper understanding. And for the ones we have hurt, such an expression of remorse and apology opens a door that otherwise may snap shut. It allows for a change of heart in all of us, victim and perpetrator alike.

The living reality Here / Now cannot be frozen and packaged into any conceptual framework. All concepts are maps—abstract representations or approximations of a living territory that doesn't hold still. Maps are a kind of tool intended to help us find our way, and different maps are helpful at different moments. Notions of free will and choicelessness are both conceptual abstractions of a living reality in which there is really no one apart from everything else to be in or out of control. These different maps offer different ways of seeing and working with the events in our lives. Sticking dogmatically to either side of a conceptual polarity such as responsibility or choicelessness is a mistake. Both maps can be useful, each contains a part of the truth. So instead of clinging to either one, maybe we can remain open to looking and listening freshly, not knowing what we may discover.


I was recently asked what I think about Law of Attraction teachings that encourage positive thinking and creating our own reality. How does that square with seeing through the illusion of an independent agent with free will?

Once again (we can never be reminded too many times), power and powerlessness, choice and responsibility, are all maps, ways of seeing the living reality. The living reality cannot be contained or truly re-presented in any map. Different maps are helpful at different moments and to different people.

Do we choose which maps attract us or seem true to us? Is there actually an independent entity apart from the whole to be in or out of control, influencing or not influencing events? Does anyone freely choose to practice positive thinking? Where does the attraction to this and the ability to do it come from? Does seeing the choicelessness of such an endeavor mean that it is useless, dualistic or wrong to do it? Who does it? Can we influence the world around us and in some ways shape our own lives? If we say no, how to explain the Civil Rights Movement or a college education or martial arts training or an addiction recovery program or a spiritual path? And yet, how do all these things happen? Do we simply "decide" to be Martin Luther King or to earn a black belt in karate or to be a homeless heroin addict?

I often invite people to really watch closely as choices and decisions unfold to see if they can find the source of their thoughts and impulses or of the decisive moment. This takes a subtle and careful attention, really watching with awareness, not thinking about it.

When we look closely, we can't really say there is free will...nor can we say there isn't. Are you free to open and close your hand at will? If you say yes, where does the urge, the impulse, the intention and the ability come from? How exactly do "you" do it? If you say no, if you claim to have no choice and think that you must wait passively for God or grace to sweep in and open and close your hand for you, you will be foolishly disempowering yourself. The living reality defies any kind of simplistic or dualistic assertions one way or the other. Clearly, we have the ability to open and close our hand "at will" (although we might get curious about what "will" is and where it originates)—but it would be absurd to deny that ability—and yet when we look closely, the impulse and the ability and the will to do this comes from the whole universe and not from thought masquerading as "me." In fact, I don't even know what my next thought or my next impulse will be, or what my response to my next impulse will be.

I am personally not drawn to Law of Attraction teachings or positive thinking. I'm not against them, but too much of my life experience and too much of what I observe in meditation contradicts it. I find that Law of Attraction ideology can easily set people up for frustration and disappointment when it doesn't work for them as well as it apparently does for those who teach it—when, in spite of their best efforts, people fail to create financial success or freedom from depression. I find that trying to wipe out "negative" thoughts by pushing them down and covering them over with "positive" thoughts is a kind of internal warfare. I also find it easy to slip into idealistic or perfectionistic ideas of how I should be and how the world should be, and I've noticed that the things we typically envision for ourselves in positive thinking are rather one-sided. We don't seem to want things like addiction, or the death of a loved one, or a sudden disability, or bankruptcy, or a war...and yet these are often the very things that open our hearts and minds and turn us around in new ways—the grit that creates the pearl, the mud in which the lotus blooms. But if we were truly creating our own reality, we might leave them all out.

So I find it much more helpful to allow whatever is showing up (restlessness, longing, anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, doubt, whatever it is) to be here rather than trying to paint over what feels uncomfortable with a smiley face. To me, that painting-over feels like a form of ignore-ance, resistance and control. Allowing what is and being aware of it doesn't mean wallowing in the storylines. It's a shift from resistance and judgment to open awaring, a shift that allows the positive to arise naturally by itself.

I find myself drawn to simply being aware of thoughts, seeing them for what they are, and if there are persistent negative thoughts, perhaps exploring them (and the bodily / energetic states that accompany them) in various ways (through being present with them, through meditative inquiry, through Zen koan work, through Byron Katie's questions or Scott Kiloby's Inquiries, through Hakomi or gestalt or various forms of therapy and bodywork—there are many, many ways). But basically, what I've found most helpful and profoundly liberating is allowing whatever is showing up in this moment to come to light and be fully seen and felt, without trying to fight or vanquish any of it. Am I choosing this interest and way of working?

All of our social conditioning tells us that we are each an independent self with free will steering "our" separate bodymind through the watercourse of life. If one does not look very closely, this seems to be true. One neuroscientist refers to agency and the separate self as neurological sensations. They are part of our functioning. And for those lucky people who seem to have little neurosis, excellent impulse-control, strong will-power and a naturally happy disposition, their life experience will seem to confirm free will much more than the life experiences of those of us who have serious addictions and compulsions, PTSD, strong anxiety and depression, etc. And even with an addiction, it can seem as if "I decided to quit and I did it" (ignoring all the times I decided to quit and then didn't, or all the other people who sincerely try to quit but then don't).

The idea that we can simply decide at will to be happy, addiction-free, successful and so on, is obviously very seductive and appealing. We long to be in control, and we want to be happy and successful. Teachings such as these will always attract more people, sell more books, have a bigger fan base and find more wide-spread agreement than teachings that point out the powerlessness of thought (posing as "me"—the individual author).

I sobered up from near-fatal alcoholism and also stopped doing drugs and smoking cigarettes in the early 1970's with a physician-therapist who used the model of choice. She used a combination of gestalt, transactional analysis and radical therapy, and this map of choice seemed to work with drinking and smoking and drugs. I stopped them all! But I couldn't stop the fingerbiting compulsion (a form of OCD) that I've had since childhood. That was the thing that forced me to take a deeper look and to recognize my ultimate powerlessness—and by "me" here, I mean the supposed author of my thoughts, which is itself a thought. That agent at the controls is a mental image, a neurological sensation, an idea, a thought—but not an actual reality. Don't take that on faith, but look closely and see for yourself.

After many years in the radical nonduality subculture, I found that people who are attracted to the "no chooser, no self, no free will" perspective, but who haven't fully and thoroughly realized it all the way to the bottom, can often take it on in a rather dogmatic way as a new belief. And then it actually disempowers them! They go around thinking they "shouldn't" meditate, or that "meditation is dualistic," or being completely unable to engage in any kind of shared exploration because all they can ever say is, "There's no one to do that." They seem caught in a closed-loop of their own circular conceptual logic. But who exactly is this "me" who either does or does not have free will? Who meditates? Who cooks dinner? Who teaches school? Who learns a new language? Who is response-able for anything? Is the source of "my" actions separate from this aware presence Here / Now? Is there some "other" force pulling the strings?

In a certain sense, all spiritual work is about helping us to break free of what seems to bind us. And maybe we can allow for the existence of multiple seemingly contradictory maps. I don't at all doubt that there is a substantial grain of truth in Law of Attraction and positive-thinking type teachings. I've played with these things in the past, and there is certainly something to it as a form of practice (although I would point out that whether one is moved to do this or able to do this, and whether it brings the desired results, is not really the result of thought, posing as "me"—and perhaps another danger in this approach is that it can fuel a self-righteous lack of compassion). But still, it may be very useful for some people—it was for my mother.

Maybe a really interesting question here is why we want to land on one answer or the other, why we find it hard to not know? Is it painful to see life differently from our friends and loved ones? Are we trying to find the "correct" answer and be on the winning team or simultaneously afraid of going wrong? Is it not okay to explore this question openly, without coming to any conclusion, trying things out and seeing what we find, not knowing what we will find, not landing in any fixed or final position, staying open to seeing something new? Maybe these are questions worth exploring.

Perhaps there is room in this great life-dream for both sides of this gestalt—power and powerlessness, choice and choicelessness. In fact, we experience both sides every day…just as we experience unity and multiplicity, boundlessness and boundaries, self and no-self, dependence and independence every day. To deny either side of these interdependent, relative polarities is to go astray, to be stuck on one half of a conceptual divide. The living reality is undivided and impossible to grasp. And yet, here it is. Utterly obvious and simple and unavoidably present. All we need to do is see how we confuse ourselves with our thoughts and concepts ABOUT this reality.

And who does that thinking or that seeing? Is there a seer apart from the seeing, a thinker behind the thoughts? Where do these words and this invitation to explore come from?

Conventionally, we say "Joan Tollifson" wrote this post. And we don't need to deny that—it has a functional reality. But as I sit here typing, I find it all happening by itself—the thoughts, the rapid movement of my finger (I type with one finger, very fast), the words appearing on the computer screen—I don't find anyone behind the thoughts, behind the words, behind the moving finger. That authorship or agency is an after-thought. "I did it."

But look to see what it is you refer to when you say "I"— is it the idea of "me" (the bodymind character, the person we see in the mirror with its story), or is that image and that story something that appears here, within this "I", along with the computer and the Facebook page and the glass of water and the sound of rain? Maybe "I" is another word for Here / Now. Maybe "I" is boundless and timeless and uncontained. Maybe we all refer to the same "I" if we look closely enough. Again, don't take that on faith, but look to see, what do I truly refer to when I say I? Ahh words, so confusing! Such a muddle! But THIS—the living reality—so simple!

Responding to comments:

Someone comments that positive thinking is about feeling better. He says that if you feel better you are likely to make more money or be more sucessful.

My response: I agree that there is a recognizable connection between a positive state of mind (happy, confident, enthusiastic, etc) and "successful" outcomes of many kinds (financial, health, relationships, career success, etc), although it may be worth noting that cause-and-effect is a conceptual overlay, a way of thinking about events by mentally dividing up a seamless whole into parts and then assigning causation to the part that came first. For me, TRYING to feel happy or confident at a moment when I actually feel sad and doubtful doesn't seem to get to the root of things and doesn't seem to lead to real happiness or real confidence.

The questioner says he would guide clients toward “focusing on the positive aspects of loved ones, thinking of themselves in positive terms, steering their expectations towards things working out for them,” and he says, “If you seek some kind of positive feeling-effect from your meditative endeavor then you are not so different from me.”

My response: I think most people first take up meditation with the idea of feeling better or getting somewhere, and some forms of meditation cater to and encourage that. But what I mean by meditation is not about seeking a positive feeling. It is about being just this moment, just as it is, however that is. My teacher Toni Packer expressed it beautifully: "No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?"

In this open presence, there is room for our loved ones to be both positive and negative (as we all are)...and there is no need anymore for a positive self-image to replace the old negative one. What are we with no image at all, not knowing how anything will work out, not needing any particular outcome?

The questioner asks: “Why do you want to be just this moment, just as it is? I cannot imagine the answer being anything other than, ‘for some kind of a sense of relief or for some kind of good feeling, like nearly unspeakable ecstasy for example.’ Otherwise I truly cannot fathom the motivation because how can there be motivation without seeking the good somehow?”

My response: What I'm speaking about is the falling away of any such motivation. This is very hard to put into words because unless one has discovered this directly, one will hear the words conceptually and form an idea. But I'm not pointing to the realm of ideas. I'm pointing to awareness, not as a concept, but as a living reality. And I'm pointing to the absolute immediacy of Here / Now. I'm not talking about not having practical goals and aspirations, nor am I talking about wallowing in suffering. But again, this open awareness must be discovered first-hand or it is just words to think and argue about.

As far as I can tell, approaches such as LOA and positive thinking emphasize thought and are an attempt to control or manipulate our thinking (with thinking) in order to get desired results, results that (as Jean Klein said in the quote from my previous post) are always based on the already known, the past. This is very different from SEEING (awaring) thoughts or questioning thoughts or simply being open and present. What I'm pointing to is awareness, not thinking.

I'm not disparaging thinking--it has its place, of course! But what I'm pointing to here is prior to thought, bigger than thought. I'm pointing to an open awareness, a presence that is without agenda or judgment. We could call it pure intelligence (but this is different from the intelligence we measure with IQ tests and graduate degrees). We could also call it unconditional love. Or not knowing (but this not knowing is not ignorance or oblivion, but total openness and wonder). It might also be described as devotion to the truth of what is.

Thought tells us that if we don't try to control and fix everything, bad things will surely happen. We will sink deeper into the muck and be lost forever. But maybe the interest arises to find out if this is actually true. What would happen in this very instant if we didn't try to escape or resist or get to someplace better? We may find that there is no "me" to sink and no "muck" to be sunk in, or at least, not in the way we had imagined.

This is what Nisargadatta was pointing to when he said, “If you need time to achieve something, it must be false.” He was inviting us to stop and BE, right here. He wasn't saying don't go to college, or don't develop a business plan, or don't seek help if you are drinking yourself to death. He was pointing to something much more immediate. THIS is the jewel.

You mentioned earlier that your approach would involve "steering expectations towards things working out." But I notice that things don't always work out the way we want, so this is a kind of wishful thinking or fantasy-life, rejecting what actually is. I also notice that what we want is based on the past, on the already known, on our ideas of what is best--ideas that are usually very one-sided and limited. I notice that sometimes the reality of what happens is better than what we wanted. I notice that this moment IS the way it is, not the way thought says it "should be" or "could be" or "might have been." That doesn't mean everything won't change and be entirely different in the next moment. But if we rely on thought to steer us toward thought-generated expectations, we may be operating entirely out of conditioned habit (while imagining that we are transcending it). We may be missing the bigger picture and blocking the possibility of something truly new and unexpected and unimaginable. What feels most alive to me is open awareness. We may find that "what is" is not at all what we thought! That doesn't mean we can't utilize thought and imagination and fantasy, or that they don't have their place. They do! And again, I'm not trying to talk you out of positive thinking if it works for you and brings the results you want and feels good. But you reached out to me, so I'm responding.


Addiction is a topic that all of us can relate to if we define it broadly enough. How do we decide or find out whether or not to keep indulging in something that feels in some ways very positive and desirable, but that we suspect (or know) might be a kind of escape or faux liberation that actually holds us back and maybe damages our health in the process? And how do we actually stop an addictive or compulsive behavior?

We have so many thoughts about these things...and our friends, family and society have many thoughts about it as well. But in my experience, what really clarifies it is awareness, not thought and analysis. Awareness is the operative principle in every recovery method I’ve encountered that works.

I’ve found that it’s not helpful to think about addiction in terms of good or bad, should or shouldn't. It's about finding out what is true for you, what you really want, what draws you to this substance or behavior, what you are avoiding or running from when you do this, what you are seeking, and what you get out of it—really SEEING (not thinking about) how it works and how it takes you over.

By simply giving any addiction our full attention each time it arises, we may begin to discover what is pleasurable and alluring about this habit, and how it is a form of suffering.


I feel an insect on my face in the night. I brush it off and turn on the light. I see it on the sheet and I grab a kleenex and squish it. Blood shows up on the kleenex. I spot another. So begins my adventure with bed bugs. I’ve learned that bed bugs are on the rise in North America (I don’t know about the rest of the world). I’d never had them before, but I’ve learned that we can pick them up anywhere—in movie theaters, airplanes, buses, waiting rooms, motels, hotels—frequent travelers (which I’m not) are the most susceptible, but anyone can pick them up pretty much anywhere (cleanliness is not a factor)—so there’s no shame in bed bugs, or at least there shouldn’t be, but it seems to be the kind of thing one hesitates to mention, as if it will mark you as dirty or unclean. As I write this, I can imagine people rushing to unlike my FB page.

So why am I telling you this? Maybe it is my version of Basho’s haiku:

“Fleas, lice
The horse pissing
Next to my pillow.”

This is one of many things I love about Zen. It’s down-to-earth, not afraid to get down in the muck, not lost in some airy transcendent fairytale, but right here in the messy grit and uncertainty of daily life, just as it is.

After hours of research on the internet and consultation with several friends, I decide to hire professionals to get rid of my tiny, tiny bedmates because this is one job I want done well. Bed bug removal is not cheap. And I’ve been doing my part, which involves loads and loads of laundry and vacuuming and phone calls trying to find the right professionals. The whole episode has brought up waves of vulnerability. Money is pouring out at an alarming rate (I live frugally on a modest income), and I feel my age—loads of heavy laundry and daily vacuuming is getting harder on this aging one-armed body, my back goes out ever-more readily in recent years, my feet are getting increasingly arthritic, I tire more easily.

Last Friday I waited all day for a pest control guy who never showed up and never called, and then the next morning another guy from a different company didn’t show up because the manager had accidentally scheduled my next-day appointment for March instead of February. Aaaaaarrrrrggghhhhh!!!! I found myself at that point losing faith, slipping into impatience, frustration, anger, self-righteousness, self-pity—that old familiar me-against-the-hostile-universe storyline. But then the guy came and he was wonderful and we have a plan of action.

Until the extermination process begins, every night I avoid going to bed as long as possible. Finally, when I really can’t stay up any longer, I climb in with all my tiny, tiny friends and ask them to please give me time to fall asleep before they start feeding. They drink my blood during the night. This is not a happy thought. But I’ve been happy to learn they don’t carry diseases (at least, none that we know about so far). And I don’t seem to itch from the bites. Small blessings. I think of Ramana, letting the insects chew on his legs and then later not wanting to harm the cancer cells that were killing him. But unlike Ramana, I do plan to wipe out my tiny bedmates.

In addition to bed bugs, the “check engine” light in my car went on recently and it seems my catalytic converter is failing. This is not a cheap part to replace. My old car has run up an astronomical amount in repair bills in the last few months (including an on-going battle against rodents under the hood who like to chew the hoses and wiring), and now there’s the bed bug removal and the new bed I’m getting because it is past time to replace the old one and this seemed like a good time to do it (after the bugs are gone, that is). Oh, and my computer is getting old. In short, things are breaking down around here left and right, including this bodymind.

At my age, you think about things like knee replacements, broken hips, strokes, dementia and other ways you might be less and less able to do the stuff you’re used to doing for yourself. At my age, when people talk about something that will happen in 15 or 20 years, you do the math and realize there’s a fairly good chance you may not be here then. You know that your time is running out. You feel vulnerable at times, more aware of how little control you have over all this falling apart and losing control (control which you never really had, but still, there are degrees). You notice you’re talking in the second-person. Maybe that seems easier.

Then there are the huge rainbows in the morning arching across the sky, the rushing creek surging along through the woods with an immense force, and the wonderful retreat I went on just before the bed bug adventure started. And the beautiful movie I saw the other night called Calvary. I saw it as a story about faith and how it survives the crucifixion of life (metaphorically speaking) and all the ways faith can be challenged, lost or abandoned (through cynicism, bitterness, violence, addiction, despair, loss and so on). The movie opens with a quote from St Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” The movie explores these twin possibilities that exist in each of us, and in our human institutions such as the Church, for good and evil, kindness and cruelty, violence and love, revenge and forgiveness. Although it is about a Catholic priest, the faith in question isn’t limited to faith in God, but (as I saw it) it is really about our faith in life, love, basic goodness, awareness, the power of presence or whatever God means to each of us, and the Church could be any human institution that aims to serve that faith but often falls short. (Faith, as I use it, is not a matter of belief; it is of the heart).

Sometimes life is bursting with goodness, everything glittering in the sunlight after the rain, rainbows arching over the valley…and then sometimes the darkness comes like a virus and seems to overtake us. In those times of darkness, a voice within may try to remind us of what we know so well—that the solution is close at hand, that all we need to do is stop running away, be still and open to this seemingly dark energy, that God is right here at the very core of this energy, in the awaring presence itself—but we can’t seem to let go or stop fighting. Our inner demon has taken over and is saying, “F—k all this spiritual crap, we’re all f--ked. Life sucks.” We feel despair, hopelessness, cynicism, bitterness. Addiction or compulsion starts running in one form or another, whether it be substances, behaviors or patterns of thought…old habits of mind and body…dark emotions….anger, self-pity, fear, rage….we twist and turn, chewing on ourselves and lashing out at the world, spewing venom, deliberately wrecking things…throwing our two-year old tantrum against the injustices of the universe.

And then, miracle of miracles, we wake up. Mysteriously, through grace, we wake up. We notice the small bird in the tree, the glistening branches wet with rainwater. We hear the barking dog next door, the hooting owl, the gurgling splashing sounds of rainwater. The breathing deepens, the belly relaxes, the heart opens, the mind clears…we feel immense love and gratitude. Suddenly, the bodymind seems energized by rising to meet all these new challenges—bed bugs, car repair, old age and death. We feel open-hearted, awake, ready for anything.

And so it goes, the ever-changing weather outside and inside, none of it really personal, all of it a happening of the universe, with no real boundary between inner and outer—all of it one whole, undivided, choiceless happening. Over time, we seem to develop more trust (more faith) in the process and in the wholeness of the dark and the light…and maybe with that faith and increasing experience, we give up the fight and wake up from our nightmares a little more quickly and a little more easily…we know where the light is found, that it is right here in the very center of this moment and nowhere else…but still, the darkness comes at times, and when it comes, it feels dark and bitter and hopeless. Such is the dance of life.

A few days ago, the pest control man came and did the main treatment for the removal of bed bugs. There will be follow-ups, and then there will be the removal and hauling away of the old bed and the delivery of the new bed. Next week, the catalytic converter will be replaced on my car. Later in the month, I’ll visit the dentist and then the eye doctor, neither visit covered by Medicare, and I’m pretty sure that eventually I’ll need a hearing aid, also not covered by Medicare. (For those of you under the age of 65 or in other countries who might imagine that Medicare is free medical care for seniors—no, you pay for it. It is relatively low-cost health insurance that, along with a supplemental plan, will cover most of your medical needs, but by no means all of them). And right now, in this moment, I notice that all is well, that I have everything I need, that it is a beautiful day and that I am deeply grateful to be alive.

So okay, folks, I realize this is an unusual post, meandering through the muddy realm of bed bugs, Medicare, financial worries, old age and car repair—seemingly mundane and maybe even unspeakable territory, rather like Basho’s poem:

Fleas, lice
The horse pissing
Next to my pillow…

Just this. Can we be with just this? The utter perfection of fleas and lice and stormy weather, the flaws and failings inherent in organic life, the upsets and moments of despair, the whole show…the thief who was saved and the one who wasn’t. The dark and the light, the never-ending journey from Here to Here, the ever-new Now, the ever-new awakening, the bed bugs drinking our blood. Just this very moment in all its splendor and difficulty. Do we imagine that enlightenment is something or somewhere else?


Recently, someone wrote in this question: “I know that enlightenment (or whatever we call it) is something very simple but it appears to have various facets, or even stages. For instance, after decades of sitting, I finally had some kind of opening 13 years ago that completely relaxed my mind for hours, and I found a total simplicity and presence beyond thinking and personality. It has been somewhat available since (apparently as a 'state' that pops up as something special in my 'normal' ego mode of being - I understand it is actually the other way around) and one of the main properties of it seems to be that it is nonconceptual - concepts don't appear in this state, or have no relevance, and the here and now and sense perceptions take the center stage. A friend wondered if something else is available to me as well - she called it the non-dual perspective in which subject/object aren't there any longer. This is clearly not the case for me, not even in a nonconceptual mode - even then, some observer seems to sit at the center, looking at the nonconceptual immediacy. I'd be interested what you make of these different perspectives. Are there stages at all - is the nondual perspective that I don't get yet something essential for seeing the whole picture - or is thinking about these things totally useless?”

My response: Yes, thinking about all these things is pretty useless. But maybe it’s possible to question the belief that “I don’t get the nondual perspective yet.” This is a thought, yes? Can it be seen how this thought instantly seems to bring into existence a “me” and a “nondual perspective” – two separate things – along with a story that “me” doesn’t get “it”? But without thought, do any of these things actually exist? Is this story really true? Yes, there is undeniably something happening here, but is it actually what thought says it is? Was this “me” actually here in the instant just before that thought conjured it up? Can it be seen that this “me” is a kind of mental mirage generated by some combination of thoughts, memories, sensations and mental images? This mirage comes and goes, taking a variety of different forms (the good me, the bad me, the competent me, the incompetent me)? How real is any of it?

All these big words like enlightenment, awakening and liberation get used in different ways and often lead us to expect something big and flashy—a permanent state of consciousness—and then we compare our experiences and our states of consciousness (past and present) to what we imagine or remember from the past, and we seem to come up short. It seems that either we don’t get it at all, or else we get it and then lose it. And although we’ve heard that “it” (whatever that is) is always here, that doesn’t seem to be our experience, because we keep referencing our imaginary ideal or a particular past experience and comparing that to the present experience, and so we always seem to fall short of what we think we’re seeking.

So maybe just for right now, we can drop all the fancy words and all our ideas and memories of past experiences and simply be present to this very moment, Here / Now, just as it is—not wanting it to be different, not trying to figure it out, not thinking about it or analyzing it, not waiting for some magical penny to drop, not judging it, but simply allowing our present experiencing to be just exactly as it is.

Thoughts may pop up—they probably will—and that’s perfectly okay. There’s no need to get rid of them or wipe them out, but maybe instead of focusing on the thoughts and getting totally swept up and mesmerized by the content of them, maybe is it possible instead to shift our attention to the nonconceptual, sensory happening of this moment. Hearing the traffic, the faint sound of a TV, a bird singing…feeling the breathing, feeling sensations in the body…seeing colors and shapes and movement—all of it arising as one whole undivided experiencing. There is variety and diversity in this immediacy—different sounds and colors and shapes, but it’s all happening as one seamless movie, one seamless moving picture, one undivided event—yes? We’re not trying to change our experience in any way or make sense of it, we’re not waiting for something special to happen—we’re simply being this moment, just as it is—effortlessly.

And then notice, is there really an observer sitting at the center of this present experiencing (or watching it from behind)? If it seems that there is, maybe we can explore that apparent observer and find out how real it is. What is it that we are calling the observer? Is it a mental image? A sensation somewhere in the body? A thought or an idea? A combination of all these things? Where exactly is this observer located, and what exactly is it made up of?

And what is aware of this observer? What is aware of all these mental images, thoughts and sensations? Can we find an actual boundary between awareness and the sensations, thoughts, images and experiences that appear in awareness? We have different words—there’s “the sensation” and “awareness,” but without the words, can we find an actual place (a real boundary) where awareness ends and the sensation begins? Don’t think about this question and try to reason out an answer logically, but actually look and see if any such boundary can really be found in your own direct present moment experience.

What happens if you look (with awareness, not by thinking about it) for the place where “inside of you” turns into “outside of you”? You can think of a boundary or picture a boundary, such as “my skin.” But try closing your eyes and without thinking, simply give open attention to actually finding or locating this supposed boundary between inside and outside. Can you find it? Does it actually exist? Or are inside and outside different words for one seamless continuum?

When you look back with awareness (not with thought) to see who or what is looking, do you find an actual looker back there? If you’re thinking about this, you might be imagining your body as you’ve seen it in the mirror, and you might say, “I’m the looker. Me. This bodymind organism. This pair of eyes right here in this head. This brain and nervous system. Me.” But where is the “me” in this complex living system that you’ve just described (brain, nervous system, chemistry, optic nerves, blood flow, cells, and so on)? And what is seeing this bodymind organism? When you look back to find what is aware of the bodymind, do you find anything? If you’re thinking about it, you may say, “It’s the observer,” or “It’s awareness or consciousness.” But those are all words. In your actual experience, can you find any observer? Can you find awareness or consciousness as an object apart from this present happening? Can you find any place in your direct experience right now where awareness or consciousness begins and ends? Can you find anything that is outside of awareness, anything that is not an appearance in and of consciousness?

These are not questions to ponder with thought. They are questions to explore through a kind of meditative inquiry—by looking, listening, awaring—seeing directly what is so. Not believing in second-hand ideas, but really finding out for ourselves firsthand.

We think in terms of the seer and the thing that is seen (the subject and the object). But these are thought-created conceptual divisions, aren’t they? They are like the lines on a map and the separate countries that these lines create. But in our actual nonconceptual present moment experiencing, is there any real boundary between seer and seen, or is there simply seeing? And then thought mentally (conceptually) dividing up the undivided seeing into two apparent halves: seer and seen?

It can be very subtle, discerning the difference between concept and actuality, between map and territory, between the virtual reality created by words and thoughts and the living reality of actual direct experiencing. Thought divides the seamlessness of the living reality into parts and then conjures up stories about one thing causing another thing, or one thing fighting another thing, or one thing trying to get another thing, or one thing lacking some other thing. This is the human drama that seems so real, so believable—the story of our lives. But how real is it when we look closely?

Of course, the thought-created map-world with all the imaginary boundary-lines and all the apparently separate forms serves a purpose—it is functionally useful. We don’t need to throw it out, and in fact, we can’t throw it out. It is all part of how life is functioning. But perhaps we can notice that a map is an abstraction and not the territory itself—perhaps we can discern the difference between the living reality Here / Now and our ideas and stories about it. Perhaps we can notice when stories are serving us or waking us up and when they are simply forms of suffering. A good movie, a novel, a play, a koan—these might be examples of stories that can wake us up. But a thought-story such as “I’ve ruined my whole life” is simply a form of suffering.

Perhaps we can also begin to notice that both the relative and the absolute are here in every ordinary moment—the world of apparent multiplicity and the seamless unicity that includes it all…the frozen map-world drawn by thought and the living reality of sensing and awaring that never holds still…the undeniable sense of being a particular person and the equally undeniable sense (once it has been noticed) of being boundless awareness…the relative reality of daily life and the absolute reality of utter and complete cluelessness and formlessness. Life includes the whole gestalt in every moment. Truth isn’t one-sided. Nothing is left out.

Yes, some moments seem to emphasize one side of this nondual whole more than the other. Meditation feels different from doing our taxes…sometimes the heart is open and we are filled with love and a sense of limitless possibility, and sometimes we feel tight, defensive, irritated and stuck…some days are sunny and some days are cloudy. But eventually we see that this ever-changing weather is not a problem. We stop giving it meaning, taking it personally, or trying to be in one state of consciousness permanently. We relax into being the ever-changing flow, which we always already are. Even the thought of being separate is nothing but the flowing wholeness showing up as apparent separation.

When we think about awakening, or about our own spiritual journey, thought is creating a kind of map—an abstract representation of what has happened based on memory and ideas of causation, sequencing and so on. And in this map-world, we might say there are stages or levels of awakening—and many such maps of the spiritual journey have been drawn. And these maps may have their uses. (They may also dangle a carrot in front of people and contribute to the stories of lack, which is why I’m not terribly keen on them). But can we see the difference right now between any map, however accurate it might be, and the actual living reality of this moment?

In this moment, are there any stages? Is there a me apart from this present happening or apart from this unbound awaring presence Here / Now? Can we see how it takes thinking to conjure up “me” and “my opening 13 years ago” and “the nondual perspective my friend described that I don’t get”? Can we see how easily the thinking mind begins wondering about what stage I’m at, and how much farther I have to go, and whether or not I will ever get to the finish-line and “see the whole picture”? Can we notice that this is all about “me” and that it’s all thinking?

We can’t ever see the nondual wholeness in the same way that we can see our car. Nondual wholeness is not a particular thing—it’s not an object. It isn’t separate from us. It isn’t “out there.” It has no limits. There is nowhere and nothing that is not it, but it is not limited to any particular thing. Trying to see it or get it or experience it as a particular experience is a losing battle. Eventually, we recognize that so-called enlightenment is not a particular experience that lasts forever—all experiences come and go—but that it is a recognition of the wholeness of every experience and the formlessness of every form. It is simply being awake to this moment, however it is.

There is no finish-line in the living reality Here / Now. There is no beginning and no end to awakening—it is always unfolding now. This seamless and boundless seeing-hearing-sensing-breathing-awaring-thinking-beingness is what we always already are. And within this, there arises (intermittently) the thought-sense of me (a particular somebody) and my story and the history of the world and the universe and so on. And that’s not a bad thing. Thinking, story-telling, conceptualizing, map-making, and being a unique individual are all part of this undivided happening. We don’t need to eliminate any of this—and we can’t! But maybe we can begin to notice how our suffering is generated when we mistake the map for the territory, or when we think “this isn’t it,” or when we try to hold onto one side of any apparent duality and wipe out the other side.

However confused we get, we never actually leave Here / Now, and there is nothing that is not the Holy Reality. But don’t take any of that as a belief. And if it seems otherwise in your experience, then investigate your experience—not by thinking about it, but by looking and listening—giving it your full attention—not in order to get a certain result, but in a totally open way, with curiosity and interest, not knowing what will be discovered.

Life is exploring, awakening, unfolding, evolving, expressing and realizing itself…it is ever-changing…and yet it never moves away from this immediacy Here / Now. And all the apparent objects (“you,” “me,” “the chair,” “thought,” “awareness,” “life,” “the subject,” “the object,” etc) are creations of thought. I’m not saying there’s nothing here. I’m saying the living reality isn’t divided up into separate, persisting parts and it doesn’t hold still. The living reality is thorough-going flux, and it’s always right here. This is it. The sounds of traffic, the barking dog, the smell of coffee, the taste of pancakes, the battle with bed bugs, the morning light on the spring blossoms, the wave of fear in the belly, the anxious thoughts, the uncertainty, the longing, the words unfolding on the screen, the awaring presence beholding it all—all of it one undivided happening. Just don’t imagine that Ultimate Reality or God or Truth is anyplace else or that it needs to look any different than this.


My last post began with a question that included something about whether there are stages of enlightenment. Dongshan’s Five Ranks is a famous Zen poem describing the stages of realization. Introducing these poems, Zen teacher John Tarrant said this:

“We’re always on a journey, together with everyone else who has ever come this way, and also individually—each step is unique. There are markers we notice, features we discover and recognize as we walk. There are teachings about the path through enlightenment, some observations that are universal and encouraging. It’s good to feel our companions all around us.

“These stages don’t always go in any particular order, and they appear many times in our lives. And we discover, over and over, that the thing we are looking for was there from the beginning. All the love, the peace, the time, the joy, was there before we even set off.”

Beautifully put! The translation that John uses of the fifth and final poem in the Five Ranks goes like this:

"Not deciding it is or isn't, do you have the courage to be at peace with this? Everyone wants to leave the endless changes, but when we finish bending and fitting our lives we come back to sit by the fire."

The courage to be at peace with not deciding, not knowing, not taking a position for or against. And after all our manipulations and strategies and attempts to fix ourselves and others, coming home to the relaxed ordinariness of sitting by the fire, being nobody, simply being. John gave a lovely talk on this poem that you can watch here.

I also highly recommend John’s wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, which I say more about on the recommended books page of my web site. I attended a retreat with John and friends earlier this year and found it quite extraordinary and unlike anything I’d ever done before, so I’m a big fan of his.


The other day I had a question from someone who was feeling a bit lost trying to reconcile his engagement in a variety of different paths including Zen, Advaita and Christianity. I’d like to share an expanded version of my response to that person as it may be relevant to many others as well:

Although we often feel lost and confused and think that we must be doing it wrong, perhaps we can notice that we're not really running things (that is to say, thought masquerading as "me" is never really in control), and perhaps we can trust that the universe is doing an okay job of unfolding itself as best it can.

I can relate to your involvement in seemingly irreconcilable paths as I also tend to resonate with many different expressions—Zen, Advaita, radical nonduality, even Christianity—I've always loved Jesus (whether or not he really existed), and I find a wonderful spirit of love and community in the best of Christianity, a path of the Heart—I've even briefly attended a few progressive Christian churches off and on over the years and did one solitary retreat at a Catholic monastery where I attended services and even took communion every day with the monks (I asked the monk in charge of guests if this was okay for me to do given that I am not a Catholic, and he told me that he couldn't officially say that this was okay for a non-Catholic, but he made it clear that it was all right as far as he was concerned as long as I truly believed it was the body and blood of Christ—and since I really do see that everything contains everything and that all is One, I told him I could go there—so with the monk’s unspoken blessing, I took communion every day and also sat zazen every evening with some of the monks).

For a long time it seemed as if I had to somehow choose between these different paths—but now it is clear that I love them all and that they have all given me something essential. I feel free to follow my heart wherever it takes me in the moment—whether that might be to a Christian church service, a Catholic monastery, a Zen sesshin, an Advaita satsang, the non-traditional and ritual-free way of Springwater, or whatever else. Wherever I go, I take what resonates and feels alive to me and leave the rest—and thankfully, I no longer feel compelled to try to bend and shape them all to my better ideas of how they each should be.

The truth is not about belief, and so I take all the dogmas and beliefs on offer with a big grain of salt, including those from Advaita, Buddhism and radical nonduality. I see ritual and ceremony as a form of deep play intended to wake us up in some way, and not as something to take too literally. (More on that later.) And although I feel deep respect and gratitude for all my teachers, I don't consider anyone an infallible authority, and I no longer buy into the mythology of permanently enlightened people—so I don't assume any of them knows better than I do what I should be doing or how the universe works. The more real and honest and down-to-earth a teacher is, and the more willing they are to acknowledge their humanity, the more I respect them. The best teachers never stop being students—exploring, not holding to fixed ideas, open to new discoveries.

Whenever we wake up from our thoughts and ideas and turn our attention back to the living reality Here / Now, we find that we can trust the universe, the Heart, our True Nature—however we wish to express it. Robert Adams called it “the power that knows the way.” And each of us is an utterly unique and unrepeatable expression of this boundless totality—so we don't need to look like anybody else, and our path doesn't need to be straight and narrow, nor does it need to make sense to the thinking mind, nor does it need to look like anybody else's path. Being apparently lost every now and then is all part of the fun.

You might wonder why someone associated with Toni Packer, Zen, Advaita and radical nonduality would want to take part in a Catholic Mass, but I find something quite evocative and rich about a communal sharing where we all ingest the body and blood of God incarnate, who offered himself completely for us and then rose to heaven after going through pain and suffering of the worst kind. I regard this story as at least partly, if not entirely, mythological and symbolic, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. In order for this story and this ritual to act on us in some deep way, we don’t need to believe that Jesus was literally the Son of God, or that he is our one and only savior who died to save us from our sins, or that this wine and bread would actually turn out to be human flesh and blood if examined in a laboratory. We can take it all in a much less literal way that is no less serious and no less true, but actually much more expansive and wonderful. Ritual, as I see it, is an art form of sorts, an art that allows deep truth to emerge and reveal itself. It acts on us in ways that we cannot completely understand or explain with the logical mind. 

Some of my friends are allergic to religion, but fortunately, I was not raised in any religion. My parents were open-minded atheist/agnostics who had a deep sense of the sacred, but who didn’t belong to any organized religion. My father didn’t believe in God at all—he preferred science. To my mother, God was another word for Love or energy—and in her old age, she did join a church, but she never bought into any of the dogmas and beliefs. For her, it was all about love, community, gratitude and social service. She couldn’t even see the hymnal, so she’d stand there with her hymnal open, pretending to read the words and passionately singing “blabeddyblablabla” to the tune of the hymn. She lived the real message of Jesus: radical love. As a child, I was fascinated by religion and even made up religious rituals during my nap-time. So it’s no surprise that my life took a religious direction, and I continue to find things that touch me in many different expressions. So I encourage all of us to follow our hearts even if the direction seems incomprehensible and strange, and even if some people look askance and call us dualistic or other nasty names.


What do we really want? That’s  a wonderful question to live with and to stay with all the way to the bottom. We may find that what we most deeply want is Here / Now, that it is our own True Nature, the suchness (the aliveness, the present-ness) of this very moment.

Awake to the living reality Here / Now, we may find that everything is perfectly okay exactly as it is in this moment—including the sense of lack, the ambivalence, the anxiety, the confusion, the wars, the injustices, the restlessness—the whole show. Not “perfectly okay” in the sense that the pain doesn’t hurt or that everything happening is morally acceptable to us…and not “perfectly okay” in the sense that we shouldn’t act to change some of it. Our natural desire to heal wounds, to correct injustices, to end wars, to wake up from addictive trances, to stop acts of harm and cruelty, to develop our abilities and talents—this is all part of this wholeness or absolute perfection. So when we say everything is perfectly okay, we mean that this moment is as it is—and however it is, there is something Here / Now that is at once utterly vulnerable and innocent and at the same time unbroken and indestructible.

What is that? We won’t find the answer by looking in a book or thinking about it. We’ll find it by simply being right here, right now—awake and open. We miss it by trying to see it and grasp it as if it were an object or a particular experience. By seeking it, we overlook it, for it is not “out there.” It is right here. It is all there is, and we are it, and “it” is no-thing and everything (i.e., it is no particular thing—this but not that—and it has no permanent form or “thing-ness”—it is the ever-changing, ever-present, boundless and seamless everything, or no-thing-ness, that has no beginning and no end for it is always only now).

We fear not being here anymore, and yet every night we happily dissolve into deep sleep. Every night, we leave behind this whole world and more importantly, we leave behind the one who cares about not being here anymore, the one who fears death. That false self totally disappears. Everything perceivable and conceivable vanishes completely. What remains?

If the thinking mind is searching through the Advaita or Buddhist files for the correct answer—some word or idea—it might be noticed that in deep sleep, all those words and ideas along with the one who seeks the right answer all vanish completely. What remains?

When (as I mentioned in my last post) movie critic Roger Ebert, in his last days alive, told his wife Chaz that this whole world was an elaborate hoax, what did he mean? And what did she mean when she said that Roger was going to “a vastness that you can't even imagine…a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once”?

I can’t, of course, speak for Roger or Chaz Ebert, and I can’t know what Roger experienced in his final days. But when we hear it said that this world is an elaborate hoax or an illusion, what exactly is illusory about it? Surely our present experiencing is undeniably real in the sense that we cannot doubt our own presence or these presently arising sensations (the bare actuality of colors, shapes, sounds, bodily sensations, and so on). But is the presence we cannot doubt encapsulated in a bodymind—is it a separate person (somebody who is inside looking out), or is that a kind of mirage-like thought-story-image that has been constructed and learned? And do the ever-changing sensations of this eternal present moment actually have any inherent, observer-independent, objective existence as the separate objects that we think are “out there” independent of consciousness (you, me, chairs, tables, planet earth, the solar system, different nations, current events, trees, lizards, birds, terrorists, Facebook posts)—are these things really “out there,” independent of this awaring presence, separate from consciousness? Do they actually have the solidity and the persisting existence or continuity that thought gives them? Or are they more like cloud formations, waves on the ocean, smoke curling through the air—i.e., ever-changing, seamless flux inseparable from everything else and from the awaring presence beholding it all? And what about all the stories and beliefs we have about what we see—all our ideas about what causes what, and who is to blame, and what should happen, and what did happen, and why we’re here, and where we’re going—how real are all these ideas and beliefs and stories? Are they any more (or less) real than a movie?

The wordless, deathless, unborn vastness is Here / Now. It is what Here / Now IS. It is not mysterious or elusive—it is totally obvious and inescapable. What is illusory is the way thought freezes and divides this seamless and boundless flux and then mistakes the map-world it has just created for reality itself…the way thinking creates the apparently separate “me” who seems to be encapsulated inside my skull, steering “my bodymind” through life…the way thought posits an objective, observer-independent reality “out there” somewhere that we are all looking out at through our separate eyes. All of that is illusory. But even an illusion, a mirage, a fantasy or a dream is real as an experience. That which is real in these imaginary things is not the content they posit but the consciousness out of which they arise, the awaring presence beholding them, the suchness or beingness or pure energy that they are—the water in every wave. 

The very nature of life is impermanence. We are each food and that which eats by turn. And when it really becomes clear that impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even be impermanent—when it is seen that there never has been an enduring “me” separate from the seamless flowing wholeness—when all this becomes clear, death loses its sting. We realize that every moment and every breath is a birth/death in which no-thing is born and no-thing dies. In wild nature, we see that predator and prey are aspects of one interdependent whole ecosystem, that everything is recycled, that everything contains everything else. Nothing is really separate, and no form endures for more than an instant. We each contain and express the whole universe, and the whole universe is an appearance in consciousness—consciousness IS the apparent dividing up of primordial energy into what we call “the universe and this world and everything it contains.”

As I get closer to the end of this particular lifetime, I notice that death begins to seem more welcome and less dreadful. Not that I’m longing to go yet, not that I don’t love life, not that I expect to die anytime soon, but honestly, going to sleep and vanishing doesn’t sound so bad. I do it happily every night! I’m reminded of a line from the movie The Life of David Gale: “We spend our whole lives trying to stop death. Eating, inventing, loving, praying, fighting, killing. But what do we really know about death? Just that nobody comes back. But there comes a point in life, a moment, when your mind outlives its desires….Maybe death is a gift.”

I’m not proposing mass suicide or denying the wonder of being alive, but maybe the beauty of life is intimately connected to its fragility, its temporariness, its impermanence. Maybe a plastic life of perpetual youth, permanent springtime and eternal existence as this one particular character wouldn’t really be all that much fun, all that deep, or all that exciting. The beauty of winter is different from the beauty of spring or summer. And trying to dress it up as what it isn’t too often ends up hiding the real beauty in a losing attempt to regain what has been lost forever—ignoring the beauty Here / Now and longing for the past. Every moment of every season is utterly new—it has never been here before and in the blink of an eye it is gone and will never be repeated again—but at the same time, there is a sense that the wholeness is never lost, that the ocean remains throughout all the waving and not waving and waves breaking on the shore.

As many of you know, my next book is an exploration of aging and dying. The book isn’t finished yet, and I’ve given up predicting when it will be done because too many of my predicted end-dates have come and gone, but eventually, God willing, it will be finished, at least as much as any book is ever finished—and I’ll let you all know when it’s available. Meanwhile, this bodymind keeps aging and getting ever-closer to the Great Disappearance. But I don’t fear death. Death is moment to moment, and it’s what makes life worth living. Death is only scary from the perspective of the imaginary separate self. From the perspective of wholeness, there is nothing to fear. That doesn’t mean I might not feel a sudden rush of fear and adrenalin if someone pointed a gun at my head or if the plane I was in started crashing…that’s an instinctual response of the bodymind, a survival mechanism. But there is no psychological fear here of death, no scary thoughts about how “I” won’t be here anymore. It is recognized that the “I” who would be scared of disappearing is an illusion, and that what I truly am is the deathless unborn, boundless eternity, absolute intimacy, everything and no-thing at all.


Awareness is a word, and it gets used in different ways. Because it is a noun, it suggests some-THING, but it's not really pointing to an object or a particular experience. What the word is pointing to is not a concept but an undeniable, nonconceptual reality that is here right now. Right now, awareness is here, beholding these words, this Facebook post and everything else that is showing up in this moment. 

Sometimes the word awareness is used to indicate the primordial ground of being (the Ultimate Subject, the water in every wave, the experiencing that is present as every different experience). Sometimes the word awareness is used more narrowly to indicate the light behind attention. In the first usage, we would say awareness is always present, but in the latter usage, we might speak of "becoming more aware" or "being unaware" or "cultivating awareness."  In both cases, as either the primordial ground of being or as the light behind attention, awareness is a nonconceptual knowingness that is direct, immediate and (as they say in Zen) most intimate. It might also be called unconditional love.

We could say that awareness is the light that is revealing this present moment. Awareness is prior to thought, upstream from thought—but it is not opposed to thought. It is here before thought, during thought, and after thought. Awareness is what sees and recognizes that a thought is a thought. Awareness is sometimes compared to the empty mirror within which every changing reflection appears, or the unchanging screen on which all the different scenes in a movie play out. When we watch a movie, we are always seeing the screen, but we don’t notice that fact because our attention is absorbed in the story and drama of the movie, all of which seems to obscure the screen (but in fact, never really hides it). These different analogies can all be helpful pointers, but remember that they are only maps.

If you’re feeling confused about awareness, you won't clarify all this by thinking about it. It's more about simply noticing the nature of your own immediate experiencing right now, noticing that there is something going on right now besides thinking. And also noticing that when you turn your attention around to find the “you” who is turning your attention around or thinking your thoughts, you find no-thing back there—instead, you encounter empty space, vastness—EVERYTHING—but not the “you” that thought and imagination have been insisting is back there (or in here), behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, experiencing and authoring and doing “your life.” This entity turns out to be a mental image, a thought-story, a neurological sensation—a kind of mirage—but whenever we turn to find it, it isn’t there.

All the words ("awareness" and "thinking" and "primordial ground of being") are only pointers or maps that bring our attention to various aspects or qualities of this living reality that is right here before the words. But if we focus only or primarily on the words—i.e., on the map and not the territory itself—if we try to clarify all this mainly by thinking, we end up very confused. The truth is simple, obvious and actually unavoidable. But our thoughts ABOUT the truth can get very complex, confusing and mystifying. If we’re confused, it’s a clue that thinking is overshadowing everything else. Is it possible instead to simply be here in this moment—hearing the traffic or the birdsong, feeling the breathing and the sensations in the body—simply BEING? In that simple aware presence, without thinking, is there any confusion? Is anything lacking?

If it seems as if there is something lacking, what is it that makes us say that? What are we referring to or referencing when we say that something is lacking? Is it a sensation? A subtle thought-story? What is it that we are calling “lack”? What does it feel like, this lacking? Where is it located in the body? Can we simply experience it, wordlessly, without the label, without judgment, without trying to get rid of it or make sense of it? What is it like to simply experience this moment, however it is, without resisting it or trying to manipulate it or wanting it to be different?

True meditation or awakening isn’t about being always calm and blissful and perpetually free of thoughts. It’s simply being awake Here / Now, awake to how it is in this moment—awake as this natural seeing-hearing-breathing-sensing-thinking-awaring presence that we effortlessly always already are. How simple can this be?

Thought tells us that we are an independent somebody and that we have a serious problem. Something is lacking or not quite right. There are many elaborate systems for dissolving this imaginary problem and enlightening this mirage-like self. There are many stories, books, scriptures, teachers, teachings…many methods and non-methods…meditation, no meditation…gurus and anti-gurus…and it can all seem very complicated and confusing. Who to believe? What to do?

You might just notice that whatever you are doing or thinking or hearing or seeing in this moment is happening by itself. Reading these words, responding in whatever ways you are responding, hearing the street traffic or the neighbor’s television, feeling the tingling in your toe or the ache in your shoulder….breathing, heart beating, blood circulating, thoughts popping up, feelings, movement…acting, speaking, listening, sleeping, waking, dreaming, imagining. Who or what is doing all of this? How is it all happening? You may notice a huge sense of relief in the realization that “you” are not managing all of this. “You” are not separate from all of this or in control of any of it. Even the so-called voluntary actions and well-considered decisions are all happening by themselves. “You” don’t know what your next thought, your next impulse, or your next response will be. “You” don’t exist as the separate, encapsulated self that thought and imagination have dreamed up out of thin air.

And it might be noticed that wherever you go, Here you always are as this unbound awaring presence and this undivided present happening (seeing-hearing-breathing-sensing-thinking-conceptualizing); and whatever time of day or night it is, and however old or young you seem to be, it is always this timeless and eternal Now. It might be noticed how simple and effortless Here / Now is—how it is always effortlessly present, just as it is. Even the apparent effort happens effortlessly. And even the intermittent self-concern and absorption in the story of “me” is an impersonal happening that no one owns, authors, initiates or controls…it is a happening of the whole universe, and it doesn’t mean anything about the fictitious “me” anymore than the weather means anything. It all simply is as it is.

And every night in deep sleep (and actually, moment to moment), it all disappears along with the phantom experiencer-author-doer-caretaker-observer. What remains? What remains in deep sleep is Here / Now. It can neither be grasped nor avoided. It is all there is, and all there is, is this. We can call it God or Consciousness or the Self or primordial Awareness or emptiness or no-thing-ness or blippity-bloop. No word is it. The words are only pointers, and the map is never the territory. If you think about all this, you fall into confusion. But even then, no one has fallen anywhere. It’s all a dream-like movie, gone in an instant.


“This would be a doctrine of determinism if we existed as something separate from the movement of the universe, something being pushed around by it. But we’re not separate from it; we are this movement….What is usually believed to be our conditioned personal behavior is actually the inexplicable wholeness of existence freely expressing itself.”

--Darryl Bailey

“What if you let go of every bit of control and every urge that you have, right down to the most infinitesimal urge to control anything, anywhere, including anything that may be happening in this moment? Imagine that you were able to completely and absolutely give up control on every level. If you were able to give up control absolutely, totally, and completely, then you would be a spiritually free being.”


Adya is inviting a kind of meditative discovery in which there is first a noticing of all the gross and subtle manifestations of control arising in the bodymind, including that most basic clench or grip in the gut or the heart that IS the self-contraction, that visceral pulling back into the felt-sense of separation and enclosure…and then he is inviting a kind of creative imagination or visualization that allows the bodymind to feel into what it would be like to live without this contraction, without this control. In other words, he is inviting a direct experiencing or living realization, in the moment, of what Darryl Bailey calls “the inexplicable wholeness of existence freely expressing itself.”

Of course, it could be said (and Darryl would surely point out) that even the grasping and controlling is all part of this inexplicable wholeness, and that’s true. Our attempts to grasp and control are not personal—meaning that they don’t originate in any kind of separate authorial agency (“the independent self”) and they don’t mean anything about that fictional “me” that doesn’t really exist in the way we think it does. And, of course, some of our grasping and controlling is a survival instinct that is quite functional and serves us well—it allows us to get food and shelter, create tools and languages, send people to the moon and so on—all of which is also a choiceless happening of the whole universe. But where this grasping and controlling becomes problematic is the way it tends to create or reinforce the dualistic sense of a divided universe in which there is the subject over here and the object over there (me against an alien world), and this very quickly morphs into our human suffering in all its myriad forms. We end up psychologically trying desperately to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, chasing after mirages in search of what has never really been absent, and trying to control what is utterly uncontrollable. It is this fundamental delusion that awakening wakes up from. (And to be clear, our ability to recognize delusion and write books about it and point the way to awakening is also a choiceless happening of the whole universe—as they say in Zen, “Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine.”).

So is it possible to be aware of this grasping and controlling impulse and activity as it arises? Can we feel it on subtler and subtler levels? We may long to release our grip, but we can’t force or control this letting go—any such attempt is simply more grasping and controlling. But in simply bringing the light of awareness to this grasping and controlling, allowing it to be as it is and meeting it with unconditional love, something may begin to release on its own. If we go deeply into the very core of this contraction with our awareness, we may find only empty space, nothing solid at all. Or if we turn our attention to what is aware of the contraction, we may again find spacious no-thing-ness. We may notice that only in the thoughts and stories does it seem to be “my” contraction that is messing up “my” spiritual progress.

And this is where it gets very hard to say whether there is something to do or nothing to do. Is this “bringing the light of awareness” or this “going deeply into the core” or this “turning our attention” something we do or something that happens entirely by grace? Can we choose to relax our grip and imagine the freedom that Adya was inviting us to feel into? From where exactly does the power to do all of this arise? No way of saying it is ever entirely right, and arguing over opposing positions won’t help. This is where each of us must make the discovery for ourselves, not by thinking and analyzing, not by defending our old positions, but by awaring and sensing and feeling into this directly. Who does that? How does it happen? Is it a choice? Find out! And beware of the closure of answers, especially conclusive, one-sided answers—rather, is it possible to simply let the questions act on us without grasping for results, without knowing what may be revealed?

Response to a reader concerned about personal responsibility:

What do we mean by responsibility? Response-ability. The ability to respond. Do we always have the ability to respond constructively? I have OCD, and my fingerbiting compulsion has taught me a great deal about this. Sometimes, when the urge to bite my fingers arises, I am able to simply sit quietly and feel the urge without acting on it. At other times, that ability is not there. I bite my fingers. We like to think, "I had a choice. I could have done better." But if I could have done better at that moment, why didn't I? If I could stop this compulsion at will, why wouldn't I?

I spent many years really watching very closely as decisions and choices happened, and what I found was that I couldn't find the decider or know when the decisive moment would come or how it happened. Similarly, when I looked to find the self that is supposedly authoring my thoughts and doing my deeds and making my choices, I didn't find anything solid or separate. I found the whole universe. When this is really clear, it gives rise to immense compassion for all beings, myself included. It doesn't mean I don't still do my best in life, or that I take my hands off the steering wheel, or that I don't apologize and try to repair the damage if I throw a rock through someone's window (to use the example given by another person who left a comment), nor does it mean that we won't still put serial killers in prison. But we won't do it vindictively anymore, with hatred and a desire to punish! And I will understand that at that moment when I threw the rock, the infinite causes and conditions of the whole universe expressed as rock thru window, and there was no "Joan" doing this except as an after-thought. But you either see this or you don't, and the belief in personal responsibility is very strong...and as one neuroscientist puts it, agency and choice are strong neurological sensations that allow us to function, so not easy to see through. It takes careful looking.

But as I try to say over and over and over, no map is ever the territory. Free will and choiceless happening or codependent arising are all maps. Sometimes I use one map, sometimes another...but the living reality can't be captured by any map. If you read my post from today, you'll hear a slightly different slant. I get tired of people who seem to get stuck or fixated on any one map, including those uncompromisingly absolute nondualists who just keep saying over and over "no self, no choice, no path," but if you read my books or my posts or my website, you'll find that's not what I've been saying, not ever! Yes, if you pick out one paragraph or one post or one chapter, maybe I am saying that--because it's true--it just isn't the whole truth--and if you bother to read the next post or the next chapter, you'll see that I don't just put out that absolutist line. And above all else, I always encourage people to look and listen and explore and see for themselves...rather than picking up beliefs.


In my experience, in any moment when there is complete, undivided, open, nonjudgmental awareness without wanting anything to be other than how it is, what initially seemed painful or unbearable suddenly dissolves or opens into something quite bearable and often beautiful. The problem disappears. We find the presence, the peace, the love, the joy, the beauty, the vastness that we have been seeking "out there" right here in the very heart of this present moment, even in the midst of what seemed unbearable. Counter-intuitively, once we stop resisting and judging and trying to transform whatever is showing up, in that moment when the desire and the search for transformation falls away, transformation happens! And I'm talking here about an immediate falling away or letting go that can only happen NOW in this very instant, an open acceptance of the moment that in no way precludes intelligent action to address a problem—in fact, this open acceptance or awaring presence is the true source from which intelligent action springs. If you've discovered this, you know what I mean.

If you’re imagining some exalted experience, the well-being and the presence and the openness to which I’m pointing is much more ordinary and natural. I’m not talking about an altered state of consciousness like an acid trip, or some exotic samadhi state that you might arrive at after a certain kind of meditation, or some once-in-a-lifetime mystical experience in which you are awe-struck and cannot function. I mean a simple open presence from which it is quite possible to function in daily life. We could call it being awake and fully present in the Now, awake as boundless presence-awareness itself—being just this moment without separation.

This is not about identifying with, searching for, or clinging to any particular experience, nor is it about trying to be in some special state (or trying to be "in the Now") all the time. That is always a trap. Nothing needs to be other than exactly how it is. But on the other hand, it's not as if there is no such thing as liberation or awakening or enlightenment or freedom. (Well, there is no such "thing" – but there is a vast difference between being lost in delusion and being awake.) This is why it's been called the gateless gate, as opposed to the gate or no gate at all—to express this paradoxical fact that we are indeed pointing to a change of heart, an opening, a shift, but it's not what the seeking mind imagines.

It is not some advanced understanding that one finally reaches, or some exotic experience that goes on forever, or some huge breakthrough after which the sun is perpetually shining...and it's not that we need to attain something outside of us that we lack, nor that we must get rid of anything that is showing up. Rather, it is simply a matter of seeing through the false beliefs—the conceptual confusion and delusion that makes us think and feel that we are separate—and giving up the resistance to what is and the search for something different (not giving this up forever after, but right now in this moment). It is a simple relaxing of the energetic contraction of the bodymind, a dissolving into the spacious unbound presence that is our True Nature, a waking up to the Holy Reality that is always right here, right now.

What is realized is what is always already here. The Now is always already here. What comes and goes is the cloud cover, the self-contraction that creates the mirage-like sense of being separate and enclosed, perpetually lacking and ever in search of a solution to the imaginary problem. Maybe for a rare few, at some point, whether suddenly or gradually, this cloud-cover goes away more or less permanently. For most of us, the clouds come and go for as long as the body is alive. But eventually, we stop taking this ever-changing weather personally and getting lost in the story of "me" who is "getting it" and then "losing it." We recognize that ALL the different weather events come and go in this eternal present moment that is spaceless and timeless, and that none of it is really a problem.

We realize that even the mental noise, the conceptual confusion and delusion, and the self-contraction are all part of this seamless and impersonal universal happening, and that it could not—in this moment—be other than exactly how it is. We realize that there are no one-sided coins, that polarities go together, that none of this is personal—and in that realization, the desperate search for "me" to cross some imaginary finish-line and be forever established on the sunny side of the street falls away. We're more willing to experience the cloudy weather when it shows up. It may even become interesting. And we begin to discover that in any moment when there is complete, undivided, open, nonjudgmental awareness without wanting anything to be other than how it is, what initially seemed painful or unbearable suddenly dissolves or opens into something quite bearable and often beautiful. We wake up to the Now, our True Nature, the natural state, the stateless state—the beauty of this present moment, just as it is. 

But it's very easy to take on that recognition that everything is one seamless impersonal happening as merely a new ideology, and then to get the IDEA that there is "nothing to do" and "nothing to get" in some false way (as a belief). This is why putting this into words is just plain impossible!  We are always erring in the direction of either suggesting that there is something we need to do to get somewhere other than where we are (which of course isn't quite right) or (on the other hand) suggesting that it makes no difference at all whether we are fully present or totally deluded, whether we are running a concentration camp or awake to the truth (which obviously isn't quite right either). Hence, the Middle Way…the gateless gate...the effortless effort. Buddha said he truly attained nothing at all from complete enlightenment...but did he mean that nothing changed?  Of course not!  In one sense, nothing changed—the birds were still singing, the rain still felt cold and wet, he still got hungry and ate dinner. But in another sense, he was seeing with fresh eyes. He was awake! And in a strange way, he probably realized that awakeness always had been awake, but that it had gone unnoticed because his attention had been elsewhere.

In my experience, there is no end to this realization and discovery...there is always more to see. But this lifelong (present moment) discovery and awakening is quite different from the kind of seeking that is rooted in end-gaining and in the false sense of separation and self. 

Someone asked me recently, "Is living this life in every moment free from interpretation and conceptualization really enough?" In my experience, we can't avoid interpreting and conceptualizing—that’s part of what human beings do. We CAN learn to discern the difference between the map and the territory, between the concept and the actuality. Does that mean that we will be clear and awake "in every moment"? I doubt it! But whenever there is that simple freedom and awakeness, the question "Is this enough?" does not arise. That question is thought again, caught up in the dualistic, self-centered dream, longing for what it imagines is missing. 

It all comes down to Here / Now. That's the single most important key.


Someone wrote me, “But the paradox is that one can't, by force of will, resist being taken on excursion by thoughts. We go meandering, meandering, meandering in thought until something outside our control suddenly wakes up and returns us straight into the hear and now. But what is it that does that ? There's a huge mystery there because it certainly isn't me - the one who was lost in thought. I'd say it's Grace - except I don't believe in Grace. But it definitely is something. Is this perhaps the key in some way?” 

My response:

Grace might just be a fancy (religious-sounding) word for how things happen, just as you describe. In other words, everything is a happening of the whole universe, a movement in consciousness, with no separate independent agent in control (not God and not me).

And if it’s not me and it’s not God, then who (or what) is it? Maybe the question is predicated on a false assumption—that there is an actor apart from the action. Is that actually true? Or is “the actor” a kind of mental image, a conceptual formulation, an abstract idea?  What happens to “the pedestrian” when she stops walking and sits down on the bus? What happens to “my lap” when I stand up? Is there “a seer” apart from the seeing? Can we actually separate the seer from the thing being seen? We think we can. We imagine that the seer of one moment is the same as the seer of the next moment, and that the seer could be seeing something else in this moment other than what is actually being seen…but is this true? Can seer and seen be pulled apart? Do they actually exist independently of each other?

Something is undeniably happening here, but once we start trying to conceptualize it, think about it, or talk about it, we’re in the frozen, abstract, representational world of maps and sign posts. These have their usefulness, their beauty, and their potential to awaken us, but the living reality cannot be grasped. Reality is an inconceivable (but obvious and unavoidable) happening, and “I” (whether that word refers to this unbound aware presence Here / Now, or this ever-changing body, or this river of thinking and imagining), “I” am not separate from this whole undivided happening that includes the whole universe. Nothing actually stands apart.

So am “I” doing this life or is this life being done to “me”? Are “my actions” choiceless happenings beyond my control or are they choices that originate right here in the very core of this aware presence that I AM, choices that the whole universe is making? Any formulation we pick up seems to miss some vital aspect of the whole truth, and any formulation seems to suggest that “I” am something apart from “my actions,” either passive or active, controlling or controlled—but neither side of these conceptual dualities can stand alone—there are no one-sided coins.

Words are wonderful—I’m a lover of words—but it is important to notice how they create boundaries and solid objects where none actually exist, and how they can easily create confusion when we get lost in that word-created virtual reality of separate, independent, persisting forms that seem to cause and effect one another like billiard balls.

But let’s also notice that words can point beyond words, and that even mapping is an aspect of what the territory is doing. So let’s don’t assume all thought is bad and should be snuffed out. Thought has its place—creative thinking, functional thinking, even daydreaming and fantasizing and meandering thoughts and memories can all have their place. Imagination can be a creative force. Sometimes when we sit down to meditate, we may find memories coming up, or thoughts making interesting connections, or wild imaginings, and some of this may actually be quite rich and valuable.

It’s very easy to turn mindfulness into a kind of fascist, perfectionistic, idealistic strategy whereby we get the idea that our task is to cleanse ourselves of defects and imperfections, and that our goal is never to think or fantasize or day-dream or remember or plan ever again. Or we get the idea that we’re always supposed to feel happy and joyous and loving, that every moment should seem miraculous and extraordinary, and if we ever feel or behave in less magnificent or less charitable ways, it means we’ve failed again. This is a set-up for disappointment! Likewise, words such as openness and spaciousness can evoke what they describe, or they can simply leave us thinking that if we have tension anywhere in the body or if we still have the sense of being a particular person, then somehow we’re doing it wrong. This is how thought works—it thinks dualistically in very black and white, binary (either/or) ways—so it’s helpful to remember that life itself is delightfully non-linear, non-dual, messy and impossible to pin down or control. And it’s helpful to hold all these different pointers and maps and words lightly and fluidly (spaciousness, openness, mindfulness, awareness, enlightenment, awakening, grace, the Holy Reality that is everywhere, and so on)—not to get bogged down in the words. And it’s also helpful to remember that we can’t have the light without the dark.  

Life isn’t something to figure out or attain. It’s a dance to be danced and enjoyed. And the more we are awake to the actuality of this moment, the more we find beauty and interest and aliveness in the places that initially seemed boring, unspectacular or wrong: bodily tension, rusted drain pipes, wandering thoughts, fatigue, anger, parking lots, strip malls, traffic jams, sleepless nights, cloudy days, trash in the gutter, waves of depression or anxiety, ambivalence, difficult conversations, loneliness. We regain the wonder of childhood, the beginner’s mind that Shunryu Suzuki said was at the heart of Zen. We start where we actually are, not where we think we should or could be instead. And we discover that the jewel is right here. Suzuki Roshi also said, “For Zen students, a weed is a treasure.” We begin to have a whole different outlook on delusion—not seeing it as an enemy or a sign of failure or something to vanquish, but as a treasure or a gate as yet unopened and undiscovered.


This morning the fog was lying thick on the greening hillsides outside my windows, and it struck me as being of a similar nature to the ambivalence I’ve been feeling about a particular decision that’s been rumbling around in me about some possible travel plans this summer. Just as the fog can’t be forced to lift, this decision can’t be forced or arrived at before it arrives. I can only be awake to the beauty of the fog and the perfection of ambivalence, each of which lifts only in its own time.

When I think about this decision, I feel myself pulled this way and that. Luckily, for the most part, I’m not thinking or obsessing about it (as would have been my overwhelming tendency in the past). But sometimes, I notice that the pros and cons are looping through my head once again, and sometimes I notice that they are playing in the background like some kind of faint and distant background noise.

This mental tug-of-war is an uncomfortable feeling—not only in the head, but in the gut and throughout the whole body as well. What’s uncomfortable, I notice, is not that I don’t yet know which decision the universe (showing up as Joan) will make. What’s uncomfortable is the thought-sense of a self at the center of it all, which I can feel as a clench in my gut—that fundamental self-contraction, the bottom-line fear of losing control and being annihilated. I notice that this contraction, this discomfort, this suffering only happens when, in any moment, it seems as if “I” must make this decision, and that I must make the “right” decision, and that if I don’t, I could ruin my life and perhaps screw up the whole universe as well. Suddenly I seem to stand apart from my own life, desperately trying to manage it—a heavy and impossible burden to carry.

The problem is not so much the thinking itself, which happens the same way breathing and digestion happen—automatically as a function of the body—and it’s not even the uncomfortable sensations in the gut as pure sensation. The suffering comes from believing these thoughts, mistaking them for objective and reliable reports on reality, and giving meaning and identity to the sensations—buying into the thought-sense of being someone apart from this happening who is (or should be) in control and who must figure it all out correctly in order to survive and prosper. This sense of agency and responsibility is, in the words of one neuroscientist, a neurological sensation that is part of how the organism functions. And there is, of course, some truth in this notion that the organism must figure out how to survive.

On the level of the animal body and its survival, the moves made this way or that can lead either to death or to a good meal. But the truth is, we never really know for sure where our next meal will come from, or when the predator that finally gets us will pounce, or whether the road we’ve “decided” to walk down today will contain the meal or the predator. And the “I” who seems to be making such decisions can never actually be located. Upon careful observation, this “decider” turns out to be a thought or a mental image claiming control over what is actually an automatic and holistic process, much of which happens at a level below conscious awareness, and all of which is inseparable from the entire universe. But it’s amazing how seductive and believable certain thoughts and sensations can be, even after years of meditation and therapy and awareness work of all kinds, even after we know better intellectually, and even after we’ve seen directly again and again that all of our mental worrying is a kind of habitual, dream-like fussing over a mirage (or as Nisargadatta would say, worry over the wedding plans of the child of a barren woman).

Someone recently asked me why awareness allows this kind of habitual, dysfunctional, dualistic, obsessive thinking that IS our human suffering to continue. Great question to explore. Not by thinking about some phantom "thing" (called "awareness") that has suddenly assumed (in our mind) the role of the creator God overseeing and managing his creation, and not by trying to figure out why God (by whatever name) would allow this...but rather, by looking and listening, paying attention, and seeing directly (Now and Now and Now) how the obsessive, delusional mind takes over.

How does it begin? What is the first movement? What lures our attention into these habitual thought-loops and attention-traps? What is compelling or attractive about them? What does this kind of thinking promise us? What are we avoiding when we're doing this? What feels scary about dropping out of this busy mind and resting in the reality of not-knowing?

Rather than being something to approach with analytical thinking, this kind of exploration is based in direct, present moment, seeing-listening-sensing-awaring. It is an immediate, non-conceptual exploration of how suffering happens. It’s about paying attention in this moment right now and seeing—how does consciousness get seduced, drawn in, hypnotized and entranced, compelled to keep running round and round on these familiar hamster wheels that seemingly take us nowhere? And is there a moment of choice, a different possibility, and can we learn to access that?

Beware of answering that last question too quickly or fixating permanently on any one side of an imaginary conceptual divide such as choice or no choice. And beware of approaching this exploration in a result-oriented way. As I hope my own life and example illustrates, this exploration is an ever-unfolding, lifelong (present moment) discovery in which we are always finding something new and previously unseen. It is not something we do once-and-for-all and then it’s done. And remember, some bodyminds have more stormy weather than others, just as some geographical locations have more stormy weather—it’s simply a matter of different conditions—nothing personal.

We could say, as a story, that the universe is exploring and unfolding and working itself out through an infinite process of evolutionary trial and error—involving exploding suns and dark matter and ice ages and each one of us and all of our particular mazes and forms of confusion—and this process takes as long as it takes. In fact, it may really be timeless, only now. Our ideas about how quickly it should all move toward some imaginary better outcome are just that—thoughts and ideas. Is there actually a finish-line, an end-result? Is the inner or outer fog actually a problem? The fog lifts when it lifts. A decision arrives when it arrives. An addiction falls away when it falls away. Not a moment before.

Some of us are programmed or conditioned by nature and nurture to be wild risk-takers. Others of us are programmed or conditioned to be more cautious, to scan for possible dangers, to consider all the options and all the things that might go wrong, to develop contingency plans. Some of us are risk-takers in some areas of life, and cautious conservatives in other areas. Obviously, both of these tendencies serve an important evolutionary survival function. Without the risk-takers, we would never have crawled up out of the sea or left our caves to explore the unknown places beyond the horizon. But without the cautious ones scanning for dangers, we would probably have been wiped out by predators long ago. Both tendencies are useful, and yet, carried to a psychological extreme, both can obviously give us problems. Thus, it can be helpful to understand our particular tendencies and how we can (to some degree, sometimes) learn to correct for them. But too often, we tend to pathologize and slap pejorative labels on the tendencies we don’t like—we speak of “irresponsible people who engage in high-risk behaviors” or “worriers” and “scaredy-cats” who are too “timid” to act. This doesn’t help much.

My mother was one of those wildly adventurous people who never think twice before leaping into the unknown. The minute she heard about a bicycle trip across Bali, for example, even though she was 80 years old at the time, she immediately signed up. It never occurred to her to find out how far they would ride each day, or how fast, or how mountainous the terrain might be, or what sort of bicycles they would be riding. As it turned out, she couldn’t even get her leg over the bar to mount the bicycle, and the terrain was so mountainous that she would never have gotten more than a few yards anyway, and the whole trip was made up of 20 and 30 year olds in prime condition. So, my mother rode in the rescue van the whole way, had a great time, and was apparently the life of the party. She never looked back.

I have the opposite tendency. I scan for danger, for everything that might go wrong. I consider the merits and demerits of all sides, weigh all the options. I check the available flights on different days, the weather forecast, the money in my bank account, the health of my body—I hem and haw. I never would have made it to Bali. This used to drive my mother nuts. She’d get quite irritated and snap at me, “Fish or cut bait! Poop or get off the pot! Just decide!” The more annoyed and insistent she was, and the more pressured I felt, the more indecisive and frozen I became. My mind would go completely blank and I would seem to be immobilized, unable to speak or think or do anything. I wasn’t trying to drive her nuts, and she wasn’t trying to make it harder for me to decide. But our different ways of operating were in conflict. This is a very common human problem. If you’ve studied the enneagram, for example, you’ve seen how different people can have completely different fixations, different fears, different ways of responding to conflict or stress, and completely different ways of interpreting certain behaviors from others. It’s no wonder human relationships can be so difficult.

So part of this waking up stuff has to do with becoming more aware of our own tendencies and those of others and maybe learning how we can sometimes modify or interrupt our own habitual patterns. But another equally important aspect of this waking up is making peace with the whole mess—recognizing that ALL of it (my behavior, the behavior of others, the things I love, the things that drive me nuts) is a happening of the whole universe, and that no one is at the helm (not me, not you, not God, not Zeus, not even some giant imaginary “thing” called “awareness” or “consciousness” or “the universe”).

The truth is, we don’t really know what “should” happen or whether something is “good” or “bad” in the long-run bigger-picture. We know our preferences, our opinions, how it looks to us. But that’s it. So in my own case, I’ve grown more accepting of my human foibles—the obsessive tendencies of this mind, the fingerbiting compulsion that can still show up, the tendency at times to worry, the occasional bouts of anxiety or depression, the indecision and ambivalence, the quick temper and moments of irritability, the things I blurt out sometimes that I wish I hadn’t said. I am more and more able to see all of this as part of the great dance. I grow more compassionate toward myself, and in the process, toward all the others—all of us waves in the great ocean of being—moving in ways that none of us are personally directing or able to control. That realization doesn’t mean not caring, and it doesn’t mean taking my hand off the steering wheel of my car while driving, or not being responsible, as best I can, but it recognizes that my response-ability comes from the whole universe and not from some phantom agent inside my head. I can only be who I am in this moment. And in fact, there is actually no single someone or something driving the car or steering my life or making my decisions.

Now the sun has come out, the fog has lifted, the window glass has warmed up, and for the third day in a row, the box elder bugs are having wild sex on the outside of my living room window, which is filled now with boxy pairs—a real erotic extravaganza right in front of my eyes. One lone bug searches for a mate without success. He (or she) crawls over a mating couple several times, hoping to get in on the action, but to no avail. I wonder if all the mating bugs are enjoying themselves, or if some are just faking it, maybe secretly wishing they were with someone else. Maybe some are engaged in illicit affairs, others in the unrepeatable delights of first love. Or maybe it is all purely mechanical with the box elders, without a hint of emotional passion or entanglement. Who knows what the life of a bug is like.

The fog is gone. And in my fascination with this magnificent display transpiring on my window, I have forgotten my unresolved decision. There is simply the blue sky, the white clouds, the mating box elders, the breathing, the first rumbles of hunger, the thoughts about lunch, the single finger flying now across the keyboard like some mad piano player whose music is silence.


Many great teachers from Zen Master Dogen to A. H. Almaas have recognized that practice is not the means by which we attain enlightenment, but rather, practice is the expression of enlightenment. Practice IS enlightenment. Here are some words about practice from Zen teacher John Tarrant that I liked a lot, and then after that, some words from me:

“A practice means being open to what is really going on. It changes our experience of the world, along with our idea of ourselves…Everything we need for a practice is present in the moment we are having now…But what is a practice, exactly? For a start, a practice is something you do. It’s not something you have to believe. You can’t be disqualified by ignorance, skepticism, gender, race, lack of talent, geography, or defensiveness. You’re deluded? Not to worry…cluelessness is probably an advantage, since it means you don’t have to get rid of things you are sure about but that aren’t true…No part of your life is too ignorant or too shameful for your practice to enter. You can let it into every corner. It’s not about improving yourself or making yourself wrong…

“Suffering is not an anomaly but a clue to freeing the mind. In this sense suffering is not accidental or a mistake, but an enormous beginning. It’s the gift that starts a great transformation in our point of view.”

--those are a few non-sequential excerpts from an excellent article by John Tarrant called “Hidden in Plain Sight.” You can read the whole article here. -- very highly recommended!

I was fortunate enough to attend a 7-day retreat with John and friends earlier this year, and it was quite an amazing and life-changing experience. I've wanted to meet John ever since I first read his wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros—a book I frequently re-read or dip into again and again (and one that I very highly recommend).

This was a Zen retreat, but it wasn’t like any Zen retreat I’d been on before.  John's work is koan-centered, but not in the traditional way. It's not about getting the "right" answer or "passing" koans, but rather using them as ways of exploring—living with them and seeing what they bring forth in you. In addition to koans, there was drumming, improvisational trumpet solos popping up in the middle of silent meditation, poetry, unexpected bits of theater. Meditation periods were optional, you could sit on chairs or cushions. There was no dogma, the atmosphere encouraged being true to oneself and exploring openly without conclusions. We were invited every morning to leave the meditation hall and go outside into the new day and wander about seeing what we might see.

Something opened up for me on this retreat about more deeply including and honoring the imagination and creativity and thinking and even delusion and deluded thinking—not just waking up from stories, but embracing stories as a vehicle for liberation—enjoying the play of life as it is in a whole new way. Zen in general, and John’s work in particular, isn’t about being detached or leaving the world behind and identifying as pure awareness in some ethereal or other-worldly way. Rather, this is about complete intimacy with every moment and what it offers. It is down-to-earth, at once embodied and unbound, right in the midst of ordinary life and ordinary mind, just as it is.

In his earlier book, The Light Inside the Dark, John writes: “The world’s vast imagination throws up rivers and pines, statues of beautiful men and women found among the ruins, war, people drinking mango sodas under umbrellas, ancient cities with narrow alleys, washing stretched high up in the sunshine between the balconies, shell holes in white walls, eucalyptus trees lying down on their elbows among termite mounds, red kangaroos, mathematics, and the quest for spiritual understanding. The mystery underneath us dreams, imagines, makes—and, in our humble and turbulent fashion, so do we imitate and praise it. The ancient Greek source of the word for poet means ‘maker’…But the imagination of the mystery itself makes us all up—flowers, stories, and tellers of stories…We do not cause the imagination or deserve it, yet it is intrinsically part of us and sustains us every day…it summons us from nowhere and returns us there when it is done. A brightness fell out of Heaven and we carry it everywhere in our breasts—each puddle holds the same moon, the Chinese poets said—each of us a vial of primal light. When we make, when we imagine, we serve that source...”

If you’re interested, you can find many of John’s talks and writings, as well as talks and writings by the other teachers at PZI, all of whom are quite wonderful, on the web site of the Pacific Zen Institute. Very highly recommended.


We hear that “this is it,” or that “this very heart and mind is Buddha,” or that “ordinary mind is the way,” and we think, that can’t be right. This can’t be it. We search for some final intellectual clarity or certainty, or some permanent experience of spaciousness and peace, or some idealized and purified version of ourselves in which all our human blemishes have at last been successfully removed. And every now and then, we think we’ve got it, but next thing we know, we’ve lost it. There is a pervasive idea that enlightenment or awakening or liberation is some one-time, finish-line event that will permanently wipe out all delusion and uncertainty, solve every psychological problem, and turn us into all-wise, all-knowing, infallible saints, blemish-free at last.

After much disappointment and disillusionment, we begin to see directly that the "me" who seems to be going back and forth between getting it and losing it is nothing substantial or abiding (as we had thought), but that this “me” is an intermittent process that is part of the ever-changing, passing display. The “me” we had thought was so solid and real is nothing more than a conceptual idea made up of thoughts, memories, mental images, sensations and stories that together give rise to a kind of mirage. When we look closely, we cannot locate any actual “me” who is thinking my thoughts or making my decisions or living my life. We can’t find any actual boundary where “me” begins and ends, or where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me.” Any boundary we think we’ve found, if examined closely, turns out to be permeable and fluid or not really there.  And there is something bigger than the bodymind that is seeing the bodymind, something that is beholding the mental images and the sensations and the apparent boundaries, and yet when we turn our gaze around to see what that “something” might be, there is no-thing there.

We begin to realize the emptiness of everything. Emptiness simply means that everything is empty of any inherent, objective, substantial, independent, persisting existence “out there” somewhere, outside of consciousness. There is only this seamless, boundless, beginningless, endless, streaming, flowing no-thing-ness in which everything is inseparable from everything else. This no-thing-ness is not “nothing” in some void-like sense, but rather, it is EVERYTHING without division: the sound of the airplane, the cry of the bird, the rumbling of the stomach, the breathing in and breathing out, the passing thoughts, the mental movies, the whole show and the awaring presence beholding it all.

And so in this way we begin to notice the bigger picture, the unicity that includes the whole show and the awaring of the show, the groundless ground, the groundlessness—the context in which that mirage of “me” and “the story of my life” comes and goes. We notice that awareness or presence or beingness (or as I often say, Here / Now) is the common factor in every experience—whether it is an experience of expansion or an experience of contraction, an experience of boundless spaciousness or an experience of encapsulation and limitation, a sunny day or a cloudy one. The present-ness of every experience, the suchness or thusness or IS-ness of it, the energetic aliveness or beingness is the same in calm weather or stormy weather. The awaring presence, the space of Here / Now within which everything appears, the eternal present, this ultimate subject is never not here. In deep sleep, everything perceivable and conceivable disappears completely along with the phantom observer, the one who cares about being enlightened or unenlightened. What remains? Any answer (any particular perceivable or conceivable thing) is not it. And yet intuitively, we know, something remains, even if the whole universe blows up and is no more. We miss it by trying to grasp it or see it—by trying to make some-thing (another object, another experience) out of no-thing-ness—but whatever the mind constructs or singles out or tries to hold onto, that is not it. And yet, there is nothing and nowhere that it is not.

Sometimes there is a tendency to draw an imaginary line between "awareness" and "everything that appears in awareness," and this may be useful initially, but eventually we see that this line isn't really there, that we cannot find any actual boundary between "awareness" and "what appears," or between "me" and "the world," or between "inside" and "outside," or between "subject" and "object," or between "seer" and "seen," or between “the self” and “the Self.” It is all one undivided happening. The boundary lines are always conceptual. The living reality never forms into solid, separate, persisting, independent things. It is one undivided whole. And yet, we can still differentiate between me and you, table and chair, mountain and valley, up and down, good and evil. As they say in Zen, reality is "Not one, not two,” and awakening is “leaping clear of the many and the one." Enlightenment is not being stuck in any view—not clinging to either the relative or the absolute—not building nests, as they say—not fixating anywhere—not grasping—not landing on one side of any imaginary divide.

Any "me" who claims to be in some permanently awakened state of consciousness is delusion, but in waking up, it is simply obvious that awakeness has always been here, that it was simply overlooked, and that it isn't something that "I" have (or could ever lose)!

The thinking mind will always pop up with another “yes, but…” or “what if…” and if we try to resolve this by thinking our way to clarity, we will be endlessly chasing the imaginary carrot around and around on the hamster wheel. But there is another possibility, another way of being. What is it?

Don’t answer that question. Live with it. Fall into the answer-less-ness of not-knowing, the open wonder of this ever-changing, ever-present Here / Now that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. Recognize yourself in everything that appears and as THAT which remains when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2015--

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