Postings from My Facebook Page #9
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the nineth collection of posts from my Facebook page (4/9/15 - 7/26/15). 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:
I heard recently from someone suffering from severe depression who reported having a deep awakening and then being surprised to find that the depression could still come back. I hear stories like this frequently, so I'd like to share part of my response.
There is ample evidence that human beings can have profound awakenings and be (at least some of the time) deeply realized and enlightened and still be subject to addictions, compulsions, outbursts of anger, defensiveness, fear, personality and mood disorders, neurosis of various kinds, even psychosis and criminal behavior. Some teachers have committed suicide. And the list of "enlightened sages" who have been active alcoholics, womanizers and sexual abusers, and so on is long indeed. Unfortunately, there is a popular myth that there is such a thing as a "permanently enlightened person," and that once someone has crossed this imaginary finish-line and become one of these special people, that person will be forever after in a state of blissful joy, showering unconditional love on the planet. This is a great fairytale, but that's all it is, a fairytale—a myth.
Depression and other psychiatric conditions often have roots in neurochemistry, genetics and/or various brain conditions that have nothing at all to do with spiritual realization or awakening. So in the same way that awakening will not cure Ebola, AIDS, cancer, epilepsy or quadriplegia, it may not uproot depression. It may help to some degree, and maybe in some cases and with some forms of depression, it may resolve it completely. But to imagine that this is a given in any and every case is to underestimate the complexity of the human organism. Human beings are complex systems, and reductionist ideas (or ideals) about how any one thing (like enlightenment) will resolve everything for everybody are simplistic fantasies. There are a number of teachers besides myself who have been honest enough to disclose that they still experience such things as depression and anxiety, and I'm sure there are many more who hide it.
Sadly, there is also often an idea in spiritual or nondual circles that one shouldn't need psychiatric medications or psychotherapy—that if you meditate enough, or if you're aware enough, or "in the Now" enough, or enlightened enough, that should take care of all mental and emotional problems. There are ideas floating around in the nondual subculture that therapy is some dualistic endeavor for those unenlightened folks who still think they have a self in need of a cure. But there are many, many varieties of therapy and many different therapists and psychiatrists with different approaches...and these days, there are many in these professions who are deeply involved in nondual forms of spirituality themselves (Buddhism, Advaita, meditation, etc.) and whose work is quite compatible with that. In Buddhism, there are a number of folks who are both Buddhist teachers and psychotherapists (Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, etc.).
There's a book I've included on the recommended book list on my website called Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist's Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross M.D. The author is an inpatient psychiatrist who writes about some very profound and often bizarre forms of human suffering, such as a woman who compulsively swallows razor blades, bed springs, broken light bulbs and nails, or people who amputate their own limbs, or mothers who murder their own children. For anyone who believes there is a single cause or a single cure for our human problems, this book might wake you up to the profound complexity and extremes of affliction. You'll come away with compassion for all of these people, and you'll be truly amazed at some of the things that go on in human life. As Simone Weil says in one of the epigraph quotes at the beginning of the book, to be aware of this suffering and vulnerability "is to experience non-being. It is the state of extreme and total humiliation which is also the condition for passing over into truth."
Response to a comment:
I have no idea why St Francis or Ramana Maharshi were the way they were, or why the great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj smoked cigarettes and yelled at people, or why Alan Watts was an active alcoholic at the same time that he obviously had deep insight and awakeness. All our explanations of reality are limited. The map is not the territory. Obviously, there are personality differences that show up even in newborn babies, and those differences bring forth different responses from the adult world, and thus different conditioning. From the moment of conception on, each of us is a completely unique mix of conditioning, both nature and nurture. I'm not in any way intending to deny the effects of spiritual practice, deep insight, or awakenings of various kinds. I'm only saying, it's not the whole story and it won't cure every apparent problem in human life.
Response to another comment:
Luckily perhaps, I never had one of those huge, dramatic, sudden Big Bang type awakenings that some people report where it seems as if life was one way before it happened and then totally different after--two distinct sides. For me, the process has been much more gradual and seamless. Even more accurately, I would say that waking up is always NOW. Sometimes there is delusion. It happens. In delusion, consciousness seems to contract down and identify itself as something separate and limited--the rope is mistaken for a snake. That delusion can show up as defensiveness, or anxiety over not having done enough with my life, or concern over my self-image, or in any number of other ways. And then, suddenly, instantaneously, there can be a waking up (in that sense, there IS a Big Bang, but it's NOW, not in the past, and it doesn't feel dramatic in any way). This awakeness sees through the delusion of separation and limitation and recognizes the bigger picture, the boundless wholeness that has no limits, a wholeness that even includes the delusion. In this awakeness, it is clear that no one owns either awakeness or delusion. But when there is delusion, it feels very personal (even if, intellectually, at that moment, I can still say that it isn't)...because taking it personally is the nature of delusion. When people take enlightenment personally ("I am enlightened"), that is delusion! And when people imagine "permanently enlightened people," that is big delusion! Of course, some will say this permanence simply points to the ever-present Here / Now that is equally present in both enlightenment and delusion, and that's fine if that's what they mean. Well...people describe all this differently, and no description is ever quite right. The map is never the territory. What matters is the living reality, and in this living reality, are you enlightened or deluded? Say anything one way or the other, and the Zen Master will hit you.
An interesting question came up in the comment section to my last post on "Ordinary Mind Is the Way" after someone said she heard the koan as "an invitation to look without thought at life." Coincidentally, I heard from someone else today who said, "I always detect a 'problem' with 'thinking' in non-duality circles, since I read Joko Beck, Eckhart Tolle, Jeff Foster and you, 'thinking' has become a problem for me. More than the average person I think a lot…So, is there a different way to look at thoughts and thinking in general?"
I've never intended to pathologize thinking or imagination, and I doubt that other teachers who point to and encourage a shift from thinking to awareness, presence, or mindfulness are intending to do this either. I do try to shed light on all the ways we humans create suffering by believing our thoughts and mistaking the map-world of concepts for the living reality of this moment. And in our modern culture where people are deluged with verbal information and often living largely in our heads, this can be an immensely liberating discovery and shift. But unfortunately, it can also leave us with the idea that thinking is bad, especially the kind of thinking that seems obsessive, useless, not-creative and not-functional. We get the idea that our goal is to eliminate all non-functional thinking (or maybe even to eliminate ALL thinking altogether!)—that we are somehow supposed to purify ourselves so that there is nothing going on here but thought-free awareness or pure sensory experiencing. And, of course, that's just another trap, an attempt to control what is uncontrollable, a set-up for failure and disappointment. Thought is part of what is, part of what the universe is doing.
I also think a lot and often in ways that could be called useless and obsessive. I'm no stranger to compulsive thinking, and I'm definitely not in some continuous state of "pure thoughtless awareness." Luckily, I stopped trying to be in any such state long ago. Yes, I do quite naturally find myself bringing attention to the simplicity of the moment at various times throughout the day, and yes, there are periods of thoughtless presence, and yes, I do meditate in the morning and before bed, but I'm not trying in any of these situations to control my mind or force it to do something that I think is "correct" anymore.
And as I tried to say in my recent FB post about depression (back on April 9), there are often neurochemical, genetic and other factors involved in the ways that our minds work— OCD, ADHD, head trauma, brain injuries, psychological trauma, and many other factors may all play a part in how we think. Some people have more mental activity than others, even after years of meditation and many deep and profound awakenings. Some people are more easily able to focus or concentrate in a sustained, single-pointed way than other people are. But that doesn't make the focused people better. It just makes them different. The lack of sustained, single-pointed focus may engender greater creativity, a fresher perspective, who knows?
It's wonderful that we can learn through therapy and meditation and other forms of awareness work to approach difficult states of consciousness in new ways, and that we can begin to unravel and defuse old patterns and wake up from some of our favorite forms of self-torture. It's wonderful that we can learn new ways of using our minds and our bodies. But as soon as we get the idea that we're going to take control and vanquish all our problems and imperfections, we are in for big disappointment. The thinking mind (posing as "me") is not running this universe. True liberation always begins with embracing what is, starting right where we are, and recognizing the light that is already here.
Response to a comment in which someone quotes Papaji saying thought is the last moment, not this moment:
Is this also a thought, also from the past? Does that make it less valuable? Does the activity we call thinking happen in the past or in the present? Are we thinking about an answer? Can that energetic pulsation we call "thinking" be separated from the energetic pulsation we call "sensing"? Are there clear and solid boundaries? Thoughts can be written down and remembered, but in the moment of reading and hearing, are they alive or dead, past or present? Where do we look for the answer? Is there an answer?
Once, back in the 1990’s, when I was talking with Joko Beck, one of my Zen teachers, about my fingerbiting compulsion, a form of OCD which has plagued me since childhood, Joko asked me, What would it say about you if you didn’t see this as a problem?
Her question was a kind of koan that shed light on and then called into question all the deeply embedded ideas I had (and still have at times) about being a good person, a successful person, a spiritual person, a person worthy of being alive…ideas about what qualifies or disqualifies a person to teach or write books on this subject…ideas about what it means to be liberated, awake or enlightened…ideas about what “should” and “should not” be happening in this moment, and what can and cannot be included in the Tao, the Way, or the Holy Reality. How and where do we divide acceptable from unacceptable, spiritual from unspiritual, worthy from unworthy, enlightenment from delusion, samsara from nirvana, me from you? Are compulsions (such as fingerbiting) and mood disorders (such as anxiety and depression) manifestations of moral or spiritual failure—are they an “ego disease” as many believe, or is there something else going on?
Someone in the comments to a recent post mentioned his “hidden ideal” that his thoughts, opinions and the sense of being a separate person should all disappear once-and-for-all, leaving only the “pure” (boundless, impersonal, nonconceptual) happening of this moment. Someone else expressed surprise that depression could return after awakening, and my response to that (on 4/9) was one of my most popular posts of all time, so the issue obviously hit a nerve for many people. I think many of us have ideas and ideals about how we want to be or think we should be. I’m not okay because….fill in the blank. This isn’t it. I shouldn’t be the way I am. The world shouldn’t be the way it is. You shouldn’t be the way you are. I’m not there yet, wherever I think “there” is. I’m not good enough or perfect enough. Something is missing, or I need to get rid of something. This shouldn’t be happening. This proves what an unenlightened loser I am.
We also have a tendency to idealize teachers and gurus, to put them up on pedestals and worship them. We like to imagine that there are spiritual super-heroes or divine parental figures who are all-powerful and beyond blemish, people who know all the answers and who have completely transcended human suffering and vanquished all uncertainty, people who never have a bad moment, people for whom all sense of being a “me” is totally and permanently gone, people who would never bite their fingers or get angry or feel anxious or depressed. We compare ourselves to Ramana Maharshi or the Dalai Lama or Buddha or Eckhart Tolle or whoever we think is deeply enlightened, and we tell ourselves that we have a long way to go, that we’ll never be like them, that enlightenment is a distant and probably unreachable goal. But curiously, if we listen to these people or others like them, they are telling us something quite different. They are telling us that enlightenment is right here and that it belongs to no one.
Eckhart Tolle says it’s Now, not later. Ramana tells us, “Realization is nothing to be gained anew....Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized.” Zen Master Dogen asks, “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where do you expect to find it?” Huang Po says, “That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.” Zen teacher Steve Hagen says, “Enlightenment is not something removed from you, a particular thing you have to get…You’re experiencing it right now, though you may be ignoring the experience.”
In one of my recent posts (4/11), I quoted Elihu Genmyo Smith, one of Joko Beck’s dharma heirs, saying: “Really there is no shell to break out of, and yet we create and seem to be in a shell. Being in this shell is being in hell, so we speak of breaking out of the shell. Of course, while we are in hell, living in hell is our practice. In fact, being present in hell is breaking out of hell.”
I recently posted (on 4/13) a Zen koan called Ordinary Mind is the Way. What does that mean that “Ordinary Mind is the Way”? And how (as the koan says) if we seek it, are we overlooking it? What is this Buddha-Nature which has been with us all along? When I first heard such statements decades ago, I thought, “That’s crazy! My mind is a total mess. My life is a disaster. This can’t possibly be the Way!” And while I may have wised up in many respects in the decades that followed, it’s amazing how persistent this idea can be. It just gets subtler and subtler.
After many years of meditation and absorption in nondual ways of understanding life, I came to see “Ordinary Mind” as Here / Now, this vast open space of awareness within which everything occurs—totally ordinary, ever-present, but so easily overlooked. And I also saw that awareness or presence (this timeless, placeless Here / Now) was inseparable from the boundless, impersonal, nonconceptual happening of this moment. And so, for a very long time, I saw Ordinary Mind as this ever-changing awaring/perceiving/sensing happening—prior to thought, prior to the conceptual abstractions that made it seem solid and divided up and “out there” somewhere, prior to taking it personally or imagining a “me” in the picture.
I felt that “The Way” could also include conceptualizing, thinking, story-telling and imagination as long as we weren’t getting lost in the self-centered dream or mistaking the maps for the territory. But I didn’t think “the Way” could include anxious or obsessive thoughts and worries, me-stories, day-dreams, mindless fantasies, compulsive fingerbiting, depression, addiction, or any of the other stuff which I viewed as “the problem” that was keeping me and others in delusion. That stuff I was still bent on trying to eliminate. I still thought there was a problem that needed fixing. And sometimes, I still do! As I’ve noticed, this is a very persistent tendency of mind.
Of course, if we seek this Ordinary Mind or if we think it is outside of us—in someone else, but not in us—then we immediately create an imaginary separation between “me” and “it.” By turning toward it, we turn away, for it is actually impossible to turn toward or away from Here / Now. Wherever we turn, here we are. It is always now. We don’t need to seek the present moment or turn toward it; we merely need to recognize it, open to it, relax (or dissolve) into it, and simply BE it. But even with this formulation, it gets tricky, because that still seems to suggest that it might be possible to not recognize it, or to not be resting in it, or to not be it—which, in one sense, certainly SEEMS to be true, but if we look more closely, is it true?
Joko’s question was radical. Could Ordinary Mind possibly be a pointer to the whole entire happening of this moment—obsessive thoughts, depression, fingerbiting and all? Instead of a pointer to the pure and empty space of awareness, or even to the nonconceptual happening prior to thought, could this be a pointer to the absolute undeniable suchness of this moment, just as it is? Could “The Way” be precisely THIS—this hearing-seeing-breathing-sensing-awaring-thinking-imagining-fingerbiting-TV-watching-internet-surfing-daydreaming-happy-depressed-calm-anxious ever-changing happening—THIS from which nothing stands apart—the whole enchilada of this moment, no separation, nothing left out, including the apparent mistakes and shortcomings and even the “divine hypnosis” of sometimes apparently being a separate somebody afraid of metaphorically falling off the edge of the flat earth? Could “The Way” actually be ALL of this, life as it is—not just the “good” stuff, or the “pure” stuff, or the “enlightened” stuff—but literally, actually, ALL of this?
I’m not answering yes or no! For me, this—like any koan—is a question to live with, to explore, to see what it shines light on and what reveals itself in that process. If ordinary mind is the way, what is this ordinary mind? How do we miss it by turning toward it or seeking it? And again, that’s a question to live with, to watch and see in any given moment how this turning away or seeking happens. What is it that we think isn’t The Way?
What does it mean that being present in hell is breaking out of hell? And what would it say about each of us if we didn’t think that anything about ourself or our life was a problem? What if we’re not doing it wrong, even if we’re feeling depressed or biting our fingers? What if the enlightenment that we think belongs only to our super-heroes is actually right here in this very moment? In the simplicity of just being here, present and aware, where is there any continuous or separate person who would be perpetually enlightened or unenlightened, worthy or unworthy?
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman: "As you walk the spiritual path, it widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all."
As John Tarrant's koan-story from my previous post suggests, true meditation or nondual living is like filling a sieve with water. This seems like an utterly impossible task as we try desperately to scoop water into the sieve. But the solution comes by throwing the sieve into the ocean—submerging it completely in the water, so there is no gap, no separation, and everything flows through. From then on, it is always filled with water, but it is never the same water from one moment to the next. Sea creatures and exotic vegetation may swim through as well.
In the beginning of our spiritual search, when we first take up meditation or begin seeking the truth, we're desperately scooping, trying to capture the living reality that seems so slippery and elusive, trying to "get it"—and yet, to our great frustration, anything we manage to scoop up inevitably slips away. Finally, we jump into the ocean (where we've actually always been) and let everything flow through.
As we hear this story, we may get a felt-sense for the difference between our dualistic habit of grasping and seeking after something that seems separate from us, and total immersion in the living reality Here / Now—being just this moment, without a gap. And we may also notice that this insight is given to us in the koan-story through words, story-telling and imagery. Instead of telling us about nonduality in a dry, explanatory way, the story SHOWS us nonduality in an imaginative way that requires our active participation.
While I often say that the map is not the territory—and my first book was subtitled "waking up from the story of my life"—at the same time, I never intend to disparage stories or words or the power of imagination. Life is made up of stories. We are story-tellers by nature. We live in a sea of words and images, myths and fairytales. To reject language, stories and images is to miss something vital about the very nature of reality.
Yes, it is essential in waking up to discern the difference between the map and the territory it describes—to understand and SEE how we can be seduced, confused, misled and hypnotized by words, thoughts and ideas—but mapping is a part of this living reality, something the universe is doing. And maps (as maps) are every bit as real as the territory they describe, just as movies are no less real than so-called "real life." So this pathless path of awakening is never about rejecting words or thinking that stories are "just stories." That said, hopefully, we may be able more and more to discern the difference between a story that wakes us up (such as the sieve koan might) and a story that deludes us (for example, "I'm a hopeless loser, nobody loves me, I've ruined my life.").
Movies, novels, plays, paintings, koans, fairytales, thoughts, concepts, dreams—these can all enlighten us, wake us up, open us up, make us aware of things we hadn't seen before. I'm a great lover of stories, and a great lover of this movie of waking life. So let's don't get the mistaken idea that thinking and imagination are things to be avoided and renounced. Instead, let's dive into the ocean and enjoy this amazing flowing adventure.
[I shared a video from NBC of a young transgender boy]
This video is an incredibly moving and wonderful story. I usually try to keep my postings on this FB page focused on nonduality, Zen, waking up and so on, but in the final analysis, Zen, nonduality and waking up is really about life, nothing left out. This little boy’s story could easily be my story if I had been born in this century rather than back in the 1940’s. I was just like Jacob. I don’t know if I’m transgender or gender-fluid or gender-queer or gender-neutral or gender-agnostic or what I am exactly, but I know that for as long as I can remember, I’ve never felt like a girl or a woman, and I’ve always felt in some way more male than female. I wish we didn’t divide children into pink and blue from the moment of birth, and I wish every child could be free to be who they truly are. Some may think that awakening or enlightenment or noduality means that you leave things such as personality, gender identity, sexual orientation, political concerns, preferences and tastes, and so on behind and dissolve into some kind of transcendent formless emptiness where you are nobody at all, with no preferences and no sense of identity in any way whatsoever, but that’s not my idea of being truly awake. For me, being awake is being authentic, genuine, true to who we really are in every way, both in the most unlimited and boundless sense of being everything and no-thing, and also in the most particular sense of fully being the utterly unique person that each of us is. So from my heart, hats off to Jacob and to his amazingly wonderful parents for being so awake to how life wants to express itself and for having the courage to answer the call and follow their hearts. I feel immense gratitude to them and to Kate Snow, NBC and MSNBC for bringing this beautiful story to light. Please enjoy!
Such wonderful positive responses to my last post. Thank you to everyone! Very heart-warming and deeply appreciated. I just read an email from a friend who was awake in the middle of the night on the other side of the world feeling a sense of aloneness. Only moments before opening her email, I had been in the living room, the sun had gone down and the hills were growing dark outside, and I too had suddenly felt this great wave of sadness and aloneness...and then I shut the curtains and turned on the lights and came in here to my office and opened this email from a friend whose words mirrored my own experiencing. Alone and not alone at all!
I heard a very moving talk recently that was given at a beautiful seminary graduation ceremony in NYC that another dear friend sent to me on DVD, a talk by a young man named Adam Bucko, originally from Poland, who works with homeless youth in NYC. He said that someone had asked him what his biggest challenge was in his ministry. The biggest challenge he faces, he said, is showing up at those times when grace doesn't seem to be present, when it seems to him that he has nothing to offer. His greatest challenge is showing up anyway, trusting that somehow God will show up too. He quoted (or paraphrased and maybe added to) Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and author, saying that the spiritual leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own broken and vulnerable self. I love that. I was very deeply moved—not just by the words, but by this man, Adam, who was on fire—God was moving through him.
To just be here...as we are...feeling what we feel…moments of sadness, that empty sense of being all alone in the world, everything seeming strange and foreign, and then in the next moment, ecstasy and joy, everything warm and familiar....all alone and then strangely connected by email to someone across the sea who is feeling just the same way.
I feel much love and gratitude for all of you, my friends in this mysterious virtual community—all of us here together, inseparable waves of the ocean, broken and vulnerable, whole and indestructible. May we all keep showing up.
[The following post was written after a young Black man in Baltimore was arrested and died after suffering a broken neck and other injuries while being transported to the police station, leading to days of mostly peaceful demonstrations but also some rioting in Baltimore.]
I've been asked to say something about what's happening in Baltimore and the injustice and suffering in the world. I don't know where to begin. Maybe silence and not knowing is a good place to begin. It's so easy to take sides and go to war in one way or another. We love to have someone or something "out there" to blame. And there's plenty of blame to go around.
Several centuries ago, oppressed and persecuted people from Europe came to America, where they wiped out most of the Native Americans, enslaved the Africans, shot the buffalo for sport, took over half of Mexico, and eventually created the world's most powerful global empire whose inhabitants sucked up much of the world's resources in no time at all. In a similar circuitous twist, Jewish people who had survived the horrors of the holocaust went over to Palestine, drove the Palestinians off their land into refugee camps and ghettos and created a Jewish state where the Palestinians are second-class citizens, often described with the very same hate words that the Nazis once used to describe the Jews. Likewise, idealistic socialists trying to create an egalitarian people's government have ended up exterminating hundreds of thousands of these same people in order to preserve and defend "the people." Followers of Jesus, the Jewish teacher who famously said, "Love your enemies as yourself," and "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," have incomprehensibly ended up persecuting Jews, burning witches, mounting crusades, shooting abortion doctors in the head in church, calling for vengeance and retribution, and amassing vast personal fortunes while others toil for minimum wage. Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Who is the real terrorist?
I can find all of these different groups within my own psyche, the oppressor and the oppressed, the terrorist and the terrified, and they so easily switch roles and morph into each other. I can find racism in myself, and sexism, and ageism, and heterosexism (even though I'm a member of several of those groups, and even though I am opposed to all of these forms of bigotry and injustice and have worked actively against them). There is an interesting psychological study where people are given something called an Implicit Association Test that measures split-second, automatic (pre-conscious) word associations. It finds, for example, that the vast majority of those taking the test are more likely to associate crime with Black people than with white people, and more likely to associate business skills with men rather than with women. And this applies not only to white people and men taking the test, but to Black people and women taking it as well. We all absorb many of the same cultural stereotypes and messages. The test shows that below the level of conscious thought and intention, we are all to some degree racist, sexist, heterosexist, ageist, and all the rest of it, even if we don't want to be. The conditioning is there and we all have it. Eventually, as society changes, the conditioning will change. It already is changing. People my age have more of this stuff than millennials. But let's be honest, we all profile people every day as we walk the streets or take a seat on the city bus and decide who poses a danger and who does not—based on a host of factors (age, race, gender, perceived sexual orientation, manner of dress, hairstyle, body language, behavior, perceived mental state, etc.), we make instant judgments. And if we're a police officer or a citizen armed with a gun, these judgments can be fatal.
One of the many moving things about Barack Hussein Obama being elected president, especially for those of us who grew up in the days of Jim Crow laws, was seeing the crowds that gathered – they were multi-ethnic, multi-racial, intergenerational, diverse gatherings that included gay and straight, Black and white, and everything in between. This was a huge transformation from the America I grew up in back in the 1950's where every president and almost every member of Congress was a white man, almost always a Christian, usually a Protestant. News anchormen, doctors, lawyers, judges – they were almost all white men. When I was born, Harry Truman was president – women, homosexuals, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists – were all outsiders, second-class citizens. When my mother was born, women didn't even have the right to vote in this country!
On TV shows when I was growing up, the lead characters were almost always white heterosexuals. Actors who were gay or Jewish disguised themselves as heterosexual and gentile, something that is blessedly slowly beginning to change. On TV shows now, you routinely see a cast that is racially mixed and more and more, you may even find a Black woman or man portrayed as an intelligent and heroic leading character in a TV series where race or gender is not even a focal or defining issue on the show. Gay characters show up with increasing regularity, several out-lesbians and gay men are now hosting talk shows and cable news programs, we even see transgender characters in positive roles. Things have changed. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism are not gone, but conditions have dramatically improved. Even Arabs and Muslims, who long before 9/11 were routinely portrayed as violent terrorists, are beginning to show up in a more positive light in the cultural mirrors, at least occasionally. We've even seen amputees competing on Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, and people with various disabilities showing up more frequently in movies and TV dramas.
We can't erase our conditioning with an act of conscious will, but we can certainly take steps in a helpful direction. My mother, for example, made a deliberate effort to befriend people of every race, social class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political persuasion, and by doing that, she opened her heart and mind and broke down the conditioning she had grown up with. And certainly the more society becomes integrated, and the more we see people of all different kinds in positions of authority and power and in every conceivable role in cultural mirrors such as television and movies, the more the old conditioning will disintegrate and be replaced by entirely new conditioning. But this doesn't happen overnight or in the snap of a finger.
Black people were slaves in this country not all that long ago. We have a long history since then of lynch mobs and segregation and police getting away with murder and the justice system treating different kinds of people differently and often unfairly. We have many people in prison who shouldn't be there. We've had an ill-conceived "War on Drugs" in this country and mass incarcerations rather than the kinds of economic and political changes that might actually transform things in a positive way. Too many young Black men are unemployed and angry for good reasons, and too many people of all races are working for wages that no one can live on (see Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent book Nickel and Dimed). Economic disparities are increasing, and for many people in this country, particularly people of color, life is very hard indeed. Many people carry the scars of old (and recent) traumas. And too often, we see each other through the filters of past experience.
In my radical youth, during the Vietnam war and the many upheavals of the 1960's, I viewed the police as the enemy—in my mind, they were upholding the capitalist, imperialist, racist system that I was against. I was one of those people facing the line of police at demonstrations, yelling in their faces. And I witnessed police violence firsthand. My mother worked for years in Chicago against police brutality, so I heard many stories about the worst that can happen.
But over time, I've become much more sympathetic to the police. Of course, I don't in any way support or condone police brutality or the use of excessive force, and I fully agree that "Black Lives Matter," but I've come to see that "Blue Lives Matter" too! The police have a dangerous and highly stressful job. Every day they put their lives on the line to serve and protect. They see the worst and most painful things in our society on a daily basis: murder, rape, child abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, kidnappings, assaults, hate crimes, robberies, arsons. They deal regularly with people who insult them, spit at them and sometimes try to kill them. And not surprisingly, sometimes the police do the wrong thing in response. They get angry. They get vindictive. They snap. It's not hard to understand how it can happen.
Sometimes the police don't live in the communities they are policing, and they aren't always sensitive to the issues these communities face. But even with sensitivity training and the best of intentions, police officers have the same internalized racism and sexism and heterosexism and so on that we all have. And sadly, some of them also have overt, intentional racism or sexism or anti-gay bias, and/or sadistic tendencies, and/or serious anger management issues—those are the "bad apples" who shouldn't be on the police force. But all of the people on the police force, even the best of them, are human beings, not angels. They have days like the rest of us when their home life is troubled or they're not feeling well, and they must make instantaneous judgments in scary, tense, life or death situations again and again. Mistakes happen. Emotions get the better of them.
And then we have the media, often with the best of motives, but too-often driven by the desire to secure top ratings and thus the tendency to sensationalize. And sadly, if demonstrations are peaceful and people don't riot or burn things down, too often the coverage goes away or is completely non-existent. And now we have social media as well, a global "telephone game" in which misunderstandings can spread like wildfire. And we seem to have widespread ignorance in this country about how the justice system is actually supposed to work when it works well (innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.). People want a guilty verdict before they've even heard all the evidence. Put all that together, and we have ill-informed people on all sides jumping to half-baked conclusions, condemning each other, demanding vengeance and punishment before we know all the facts about what went wrong. And to my eyes, vengeance and punishment rarely if ever bring the kinds of changes we so desperately want and need, for these are rooted in a fundamental lack of insight into how bad things happen, and a lack of compassion for the perceived other.
Although most of the recent demonstrations in Baltimore and elsewhere have been peaceful, not surprisingly, sometimes anger erupts and things turn violent. Filled with years of pent-up pain and frustration, the oppressed shoot themselves in the foot and burn down their own community. Sometimes, even though the demonstration is peaceful, the messages on the signs people carry are antagonistic. Violence can take many forms. I saw many people on the News condemn the police for being violent and then praise this Black mother for repeatedly hitting her teenage son in the head as she pulled him away from the rock-throwing demonstration. While her desire to keep her son away from the violence was understandable and admirable, her tactics were horrible! (And yet widely defended).
I think we've all done things of this nature in our own lives at one time or another—shooting ourselves in the foot, losing our tempers, roughing people up in some way or other (physically or emotionally), defending things when done by one group that we would instantly condemn if done by another group. It's all a very human thing when we feel cornered, hopeless, afraid and under attack. And we all feel that way at times.
But in spite of all the failings of all of us, one of the great advantages of getting older is that you get to see that over time, many things actually do change—not always as fast as we'd like, and not without backlashes and backslides, but things do change. Blacks, other people of color, women, LGBT people, people with disabilities—we've all come a very long way since I was born. It's a very different world. And yet, it will never be a utopia. There will always be pain and suffering—that's part of life.
Meanwhile, in Nepal, following the recent catastrophic earthquake, we have over 6,000 dead at last count and thousands more injured, dying and suffering in unimaginable ways. People are without food or shelter, sleeping in the rain, cold and hungry. Children have lost parents; parents have lost children. Many are in excruciating physical and emotional pain. Many have no idea how they will go on—they've lost everything. Some are still buried alive, wondering if they will be found.
Life hurts. Yes, it can be amazingly beautiful and joyous and full of delight. But it can also hurt like hell. And when you're a young, unemployed Black man in Baltimore with an unpromising future who gets arrested for no reason, or a woman in Nepal whose legs are crushed and who has just watched her children being buried alive, it is an insult to be told that this is "just a dream-like appearance," or that "no one is suffering," or that "everything is perfect."
So how do we meet this suffering, this injustice? How do we meet the anger, the hurt, the fear, the pain, the hatred, the prejudice, the violence in our own hearts?
My own sense is that human transformation is a complex and multi-faceted project. I have no idea if the human race will survive—certainly, at some point, like all life-forms, it will come to an end, but it seems to be in our nature to try our best to survive and to do what we can to ease the pain and to transform our suffering into beauty and love. Some of us will practice Zen, some will take up radical nonduality, some will march in the streets, some will join the police, some will fall into drug addiction and crime, some will run for elected office, some will raise children, some will go into therapy, some will become doctors, some will be artists—like those wonderful musicians who played classical music on the deck of the Titanic as it sank, and some will make an effortless effort to be fully present in this moment right now and to hold all of this in their heart without knowing what to do.
Meditation is not about always being calm, always feeling good and banishing everything troublesome. It's about being awake to how it is, right here, right now. And not with the expectation that "I" will be (or should be) in some particular state of thoughtless awareness or presence or mindfulness or whatever else "all the time." That's just more thinking, more delusion. The only time that matters, the only time that's real, is this moment, Here / Now. Being this moment is effortless and unavoidable. But we may notice that we're trying in some way to manage or control what's happening, that we're seeking some result...and if that's happening, can that simply be noticed without judging it or trying to get rid of it?
We waste much time seeking enlightenment. It's not that there is no enlightenment or liberation or awakening. It's just that it's not "out there," and it's not some permanent state that "a person" (which is actually flux and change, not a persisting entity) abides in forever after. No state of consciousness, no experience, no-thing is permanent. Enlightenment is a word that points (among other things) to the absence of this whole concern with me and how enlightened I am. That doesn't mean no longer caring about seeing through delusion and being awake right now, but rather, it is an absence of concern over whether "I" am enlightened or how "I" compare to others. That all becomes irrelevant and meaningless.
I spent many years waiting for some final pop, some ultimate breakthrough, which I imagined would mean a permanent shift in perception in which all my troubles would dissolve forever. And of course, we do have all kinds of experiences as we go along—experiences of spaciousness or relaxation or ease-of-being or boundlessness or non-separation or deep grokking of emptiness or whatever, and some people have flashier experiences than others (kundalini events, visions, etc.)—but like all experiences, none of them last. To my great relief, I'm not chasing experiences of this kind anymore. I'm no longer trying really hard to be aware, or to be present, or to shift my perception from encapsulation to boundlessness, or to identify as pure awareness, or to purify my mind and cleanse it of all useless thoughts, or to disappear into what is prior to consciousness, or to never be entranced by the false sense that I am the author of my actions, or anything else. I'm no longer seeking enlightenment.
For a long time, I assumed that awakening or enlightenment would mean a permanent experience of boundlessness and ease, that it would free me totally and forever-after from anxiety, depression, fingerbiting, uncertainty, doubt and all other troubles that I assumed were the result of delusional thinking, false identification, or some other "ego disease." And since all those things kept showing up, and since my life was still as messy and imperfect as ever, I assumed that I wasn't quite all the way there yet. As if there is a "there" to arrive at, or a permanent "me" to be permanently "there" (instead of here!).
One Zen teacher (Barry Magid) talks about seeing through our "curative fantasies," our longing for transcendence, perfection and imperviousness. Unfortunately, this kind of curative fantasy is what some nondual-type teachings seem to promise—some mythical state of permanent transcendence where we are no longer bothered by anything, no longer vulnerable, never upset, never mean-spirited—the end of "me" and all my problems—nothing remaining but pure, pristine, boundless consciousness, primordial awareness, unconditional love. Of course, these teachings may actually be pointing to what is always, already the case—and it may just be that the seeking-mind hears (or mishears them) them as promising a future state of personal perfection for "me."
If we're lucky, we realize that the perfection of the bodymind and the personality is not the goal. We realize that the freedom being pointed to in nondual teachings is not the freedom to do whatever we want, but rather, it is the freedom to be just as we are. It's not that our neurosis goes away, but rather, it simply ceases to have any meaning as some sort of personal obstacle that must be fixed or removed so that we can finally arrive at some imaginary future place. It becomes obvious that this whole story of "me" on a journey from delusion to enlightenment is a kind of mental movie, an imagination, and that we are not really this imaginary character at the center of the story. We are something much more vast, much more all-inclusive, much less solid or defined—something unbound and boundless—no-thing at all.
We find that we're no longer trying to have any special experience other than the experience that is showing up. Experiences no longer seem important. Yes, we still prefer a nice meal to being hit with a brick, but no experience defines who we are. There is a recognition that "a person" is nothing but flux and change, inseparable from the whole universe, like a wave in the ocean, with no beginning and end. Although waves can differ greatly in size and intensity, no wave is any closer to the ocean than any other, and ultimately they are all inseparable movements of one undivided ocean. As the ocean, nothing is lacking or in excess—there is no birth and no death—everything is Here / Now, one whole happening. And there is no finish-line Here / Now, and no one apart from Here / Now to cross, or fail to cross, any imaginary line.
For most (if not all) of us, no matter how deeply we experience boundlessness, non-separation and emptiness, we still continue to also have experiences of being separate, unique and different. It still seems at times that we are making choices and steering the ship. We still worry on occasion about taking a wrong turn, as if that were possible, and as if there is actually a choice. But if we're lucky, all of that no longer seems to be a problem. There is no extra story about how these experiences of separation or contraction or apparent authorship mean something about "me," how all of that proves that "I" am not "there" yet. There is no added story about how it should all be different. The whole concern with getting enlightened or being an "Enlightened One" disappears.
The teachers I trust most are honest about their humanness. I met with a Tibetan Rinpoche once who looked like pure consciousness—he was radiant. I thought he was way beyond me. I confessed to him that in spite of great clarity and awakening, I was still in delusion most of the time. His face lit up in a huge smile. "Yes, yes! Me too!" he said, "Isn't it wonderful?" (I think here of Dogen: "Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.")
We are already free. Only in the story of "me" and "my life" does it seem otherwise, and that is a never-ending story in which something always seems to be missing or not quite right. But if we drop the story, just for one instant, what remains?
If we're looking for the answer, if we're trying to figure it out or get hold of some special state of mind or have some particular experience—some decisive and final "pop"—then we are overlooking the simple truth, which is already fully present, requiring no effort to see or be. But even this overlooking can't really avoid the unavoidable. We are never really lost or in the bondage we imagine. Our imaginary problem and our imaginary journey is all a kind of movie—a very convincing, very entertaining movie. It starts playing every morning when we wake up from the dream-world of sleep. In an instant, we remember our story—the character we are pretending to be, our problems, our disappointments, our deficiencies, our unworthiness, our need for a cure, our hopes of one day arriving at the ultimate.
But every night in deep sleep, we forget all of this completely. We disappear along with all our problems. Even the phantom observer-experiencer is absent, the one who cares about getting enlightened or being unworthy, the one who wonders what will happen "to me" after "I" die. That one is absent, and no one remains to miss it. What a relief! And what a wonderful pointer to the freedom that is right here at the heart of this very moment, just as it is.
Two questions were asked recently: Could I say something about cause and effect, and does awakening cause or result in an increase in compassion, peace, equanimity, love, ease of being, etc.?
I wonder, where do these questions come from in the first place? Are they based in thought, in trying to figure out how this all works, trying to assemble the correct map? And what is behind our desire to grasp everything, to understand, to formulate, to pin it down, to “get it”? When is the mapping impulse functional and useful and when is it an attempt to grasp life in a way that it cannot be grasped, a search for security where it cannot be found? There are no rules here, but can we perhaps FEEL the difference, become sensitive to it as it happens?
How will we answer these questions about cause and effect and the effects of awakening? Will we turn to books and outside authorities, or to our rolodex of past knowledge and belief, or will we investigate directly and immediately by looking and listening…paying attention…finding out for ourselves?
We can experience directly that there is an immense felt-difference between open awake presence (being here now, resting in the simplicity of what is) and entrancement in the mental world of obsessive thoughts, beliefs and storylines (e.g. “I’m a loser, I’ve ruined my life, everyone hates me, I’ll never get it, you abandoned me,” etc.).
We can see for ourselves that radically different actions come from the clarity and unconditional love of open awake presence, and from the more defensive and reactive posture of habitual, me-centered thinking. We can see that there is an undeniable difference between someone like Hitler and someone like Buddha. We can see that the actions of someone like Hitler require a closed heart, a sustained absence of open awareness, and a very profound level of hypnotic entrancement in false beliefs. We can feel this difference in our own lives on a much smaller scale, for we all contain both possibilities, both tendencies, at different moments.
We can also experience for ourselves that certain substances and activities seem to invite open presence and enhance clarity and well-being, while others seem to invite obsessive thought and make depression and anxiety more likely. Thus, we may “decide” to meditate on a daily basis and to eat a healthy diet, or to refrain from watching violent action movies right before bedtime or drinking too much coffee.
Of course, we may also find that we don’t meditate even though we know that we usually feel better if we do, and that we drink coffee even though we know it will probably increase our anxiety-level. We find that the power of conditioned habit is strong and that we often have competing desires. We want less anxiety AND we want a cup of coffee, and there is no central agent in control of which impulse or desire wins out in this moment. Sometimes when we want to meditate, we do. But other times when we want to meditate, it feels too scary to simply sit down and do nothing, to just be here, feeling how we feel. So we watch a violent movie instead. (And please, I’m not saying coffee and violent movies are bad and meditation is good, that’s not the point at all—I’m simply talking about a natural sensitivity to how different things affect us and the ways in which we often have conflicting desires and pulls).
Changes certainly happen as this awakening process unfolds, but changes happen anyway, and in the course of the awakening journey, changes don't seem to happen in any reliably predictable or formulaic way that can be counted on to repeat itself in the same way with every individual or in each moment. In one moment, coffee may bring increased mental clarity and energy, and in another moment, it may bring increased anxiety and mental agitation (I’ve experienced both results from coffee). Likewise, for some people, meditation may bring about greater insight and increased calm, compassion and self-acceptance (as it seemingly has for me)...but for someone else, meditation may trigger a psychotic break (I've seen it happen more than once).
But to say that meditation caused someone's awakening (or their psychosis), or that awakening caused an increase in compassion, involves a tremendous over-simplification and abstraction of what is actually infinitely complex. We’ve isolated and picked out one event or one activity from the whole interdependent, co-arising universe and made it the sole cause of one other condition or happening. We’ve left out all the other things that also played a causal role in this being the way it was. In reality, in a very real sense, everything in the whole universe is the cause and the effect of everything else—it is one whole seamless happening. And I have no doubt at all that my years as a drunk and a drug user, or my fingerbiting compulsion, have been as causative of whatever awakening has occurred here, and of whatever compassion may manifest here, as meditation or living at a retreat center for 5 years.
Cause and effect is a conceptual overlay—a way in which we map out, organize and think about events. It requires imposing an imaginary grid on the ever-changing, seamless flow of reality, conceptually dividing it up into different parts, and then thinking that A causes B, or B comes before C, or D is the effect of C, or A is okay but F is not. This kind of map is functionally useful, and on a relative, practical level, it works well enough. We can say someone’s death was caused by the Ebola virus, which is helpful information, or that if I press down with my foot on the accelerator in my car, it will cause the car to go faster. Pressing on the accelerator is the cause; the car going faster is the effect. Practical, functional, useful.
The map of cause and effect isn’t usually a problem in practical matters of this sort, except when we get it wrong. For a long time, for example, people assumed that angry gods were the cause of disease or crop failures, and that sacrificing someone might cause things to improve. And it may be that in some instances, the car accelerates because of some internal malfunction even though I have my foot on the brake, or that the person who apparently died of Ebola actually had an undiagnosed brain tumor that killed them first. So our ideas about cause and effect relationships, even on the practical level, are (or should) always be open to question. But for the most part, these ideas work well enough in sorting out the nuts and bolts of daily life .
But in more amorphous areas of life such as “love” or "enlightenment" or "clarity," any simplistic conceptual map of “X causes Y” will almost certainly miss the mark. As I cannot point out often enough, a so-called “person” is not the same from one instant to the next, nor are they ever separate from the whole universe, and “enlightenment” is not a finish-line that “a person” crosses once-and-for-all. So talking about a permanently enlightened person is always a kind of oxymoron or delusion. And there is ample evidence that so-called “enlightenment” does not erase the personality, completely transform the bodymind, or automatically wipe out all our neurosis. Nisargadatta still smoked cigarettes and got angry. And some supposedly enlightened gurus have committed rape and all manner of creepy sexual abuse, some have been active alcoholics, some have demanded money from their followers and then used it in very questionable ways—the list of not-very-compassionate-or-loving acts committed by supposedly enlightened beings is long indeed. And while I would say that these beings were almost certainly not awake or enlightened at the moment they were committing rape, I would say they might well have been totally enlightened and awake at the moment they were smoking a cigarette. But where and how do we draw the lines? You may draw them differently from me, and in the end, the dividing lines are always conceptual. We’re arguing over different maps.
It’s helpful to notice how different substances and activities affect us. But if we’re seeking enlightenment in order to get a result, and if we have expectations of what the results will be, then we are actually overlooking the enlightenment that is Here / Now and setting ourselves up for endless disappointment. And if we make simplistic assumptions (e.g., “awakened people are always blissful and loving,” or “meditation is always good for you,” or “coffee is always bad,” or “anyone who still smokes cigarettes or gets depressed can’t possibly be enlightened,” or “for an enlightened guru like so-and-so, raping women and children was just a form of crazy wisdom that he did as an act of service,” etc.), then we are inevitably going to miss the mark in some way. Dogmatic fundamentalism is not enlightenment, nor is magical thinking.
So let’s return to where we started. Why do we care whether meditation leads to awakening, or whether awakening leads to compassion and bliss? Where are we coming from when these questions arise and seem important? And how will we answer such questions? Will we cling to past maps and mistake them for the living reality they tentatively describe? Or will we turn our attention to the present moment itself—the ungraspable living reality Here / Now—seeing for ourselves how it is, and not knowing what will come next?
There is a felt-difference, I find, between "having the answer" and being open in this moment to not knowing...listening, awaring, being here without grasping or fixating. It can be unsettling not to know, to have everything we get hold of dissolve and disappear. But it’s also very liberating and very alive! I would suggest that actually, that’s the whole point. Waking up isn’t about figuring it all out and having the right map and knowing the correct answers—it’s about letting all that false certainty go and dissolving into this moment of simply being here, open and awake.
“There is no final realization," Zen teacher Maurine Stuart once said. "In this no-knowing, wondering-on, openhearted condition of mind, we face directly whatever comes—good, bad, ugly, beautiful. We don’t push anything under the rug, we don’t buffer it with something; we experience it fully.”
Is practice necessary, unnecessary, or actually a liability? Yes! All three possibilities are true! I have found bare-bones meditation (the simple activity of sitting in silence, doing nothing, being just this moment, being present and awake to whatever arises) immensely illuminating and liberating. It has been the greatest gift and continues to reveal, clarify and bring forth the only thing I've found to be truly trustworthy: Here / Now—this awake, open, awaring presence and this present happening, just as it is. Truly understood, this kind of meditation is not a method for getting somewhere, but rather, it is a complete openness to what is—being just this moment—stopping that forward motion of searching for a future attainment and instead being liberated on the spot.
My main teacher Toni Packer struck a wonderful balance—she encouraged that kind of silent sitting, but without the rules and rigmarole of the traditional Zen Buddhism that she had left behind. At Springwater, the retreat center she founded where I was on staff for several years, we had about ten week-long silent retreats a year, and a few shorter ones, but no organized daily practice (you did that, if at all, on your own). On retreat, sittings were always optional. There was no sanctioned posture to be in—we even had armchairs and recliners as well as zafus and sitting-benches and balance-chairs and straight-back chairs. Some sittings were timed, some were untimed. It all felt open, not tight. There was no practice given—no counting the breath or labeling thoughts or working on a koan or saying a mantra—just being present. In fact, Toni never used the word "practice," which to her suggested something rote, methodical, formulaic, and goal-oriented. She never even talked about "mindfulness," which also felt like a more deliberate, intentional kind of practice. Toni was offering something much more open and unstructured.
She did talk to us about seeing how the mind worked, about being present to the sensory reality of the moment (the feelings in the body, the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the breathing), and about directly exploring questions such as, "What is this me that gets hurt or defensive?" or "Is there a choice?" – and not settling for second-hand answers from outside authorities. So in a way, there was a direction, but it was a very open direction. Toni never said, "Do this, don't do that." In fact, she would often say that the key was not to do anything at all. But clearly, in saying that, she wasn't pointing to a life of sloth and torpor or addictive indulgence and perpetual daydreaming, in which all discernment and energy goes out the window. Her own life had a passionate intensity and a tremendous energy. (By the way, as an aside, I very highly recommend Springwater Center...although Toni is no longer with us, it's still a very wonderful place to go on retreat, and there are some great people teaching there now in the same spirit that she was teaching).
In the satsang world and in other nondual teachings, many teachers encourage open, informal meditation, whether they call it that or not. Many of them have silent or semi-silent retreats, periods of silence before satsang, and so on. They encourage direct looking and listening—being still, being present. I'm thinking here of folks like Eckhart Tolle, Gangaji, Adyashanti, Jon Bernie, Rupert Spira, Nirmala, Francis Lucille, etc. Even some of the radical nondualists like Tony Parsons and Nathan Gill who make a point of saying no practice is needed often do an excellent job of pointing to the aliveness of this moment—and to being awake right here, right now—"just this." To their credit, they pull the rug out from under any notion of meditation as an achievement-oriented path of self-improvement. But unfortunately, many of these radical nondualists actively discourage any and all meditation, insisting that it inevitably reinforces the illusory separate self. Of course, meditation CAN do that when we are caught up in a goal-oriented practice aimed at self-improvement, but the meditation that interests me is about SEEING THROUGH all of that goal-oriented, self-centered stuff, not encouraging it—and it's about directly experiencing and BEING the seamlessness and boundlessness of this-here-now—discovering firsthand the living reality of "no self" and "no separation" and "nowhere to go" and "vast emptiness," rather than just believing in these as intellectual or philosophical concepts. Meditation is embodied and direct, unmediated and immediate, non-conceptual realization (making it real).
In offering only the absolute truth and nothing else, and in not offering any kind of nonconceptual, awareness-based exploration, radical nondual teachings that discourage meditation often inadvertently open the door to that "truth" being greatly misunderstood by the thinking mind when people are hearing it intellectually but not actually discovering it directly. So we can get some sad distortions with this kind of radical nondualism. But, there are equally sad distortions on the traditional side as well, distortions of a different kind, and in the end, it's all part of the dance. In the larger sense, it all corrects itself. I've found truth and illusion on both sides of the (to my mind, rather silly) debate in recent years between so-called "neo-Advaita" and "traditional Advaita."
I don't believe there is any one way that awakening happens, nor do I think that my path is the right path for everyone. But speaking personally, I very much encourage being in silence, doing nothing, being present and awake to whatever arises—being just this moment. I encourage it as something to intentionally make time and space for every day, and also as something to return to throughout the day whenever it invites us. The kind of open presence that I'm pointing to here is not some tight, heavy-handed, effortful, goal-oriented, perfectionistic, idealistic, mechanical, trying-hard-to-do-it-right sort of undertaking—but rather, a very open, relaxed, effortless way of being just as we are. Stopping the search and finding out how it actually IS, right here, right now.
This is not about trying to identify as awareness, or trying to get rid of the self, or trying to be calm, or trying to get into some higher state of consciousness, or trying to do anything. It isn't a concentration or mindfulness practice. It is simply being here—hearing the traffic and the birds, seeing the shapes and colors, feeling the bodily sensations, breathing—being present, being aware, being this whole undivided happening, just as it is.
Maybe what is showing up right now is boredom or restlessness or unhappiness of some kind. Instead of resisting it, thinking about it, analyzing it, telling stories about it, trying to manipulate or change or get rid of it, what happens if we simply stop and let it all be exactly as it is? How is it? What is this boredom or this restlessness or this unhappiness really like? If we drop the label and the story and the effort to escape from it, what is this unwanted feeling or state of mind really like? Where is it in the body? What does it feel like? What happens when we simply feel the sensations without resisting them or separating from them in any way? What if we go right into the very core of these sensations? Is there anything solid there? And can the thoughts that pop up be seen as thoughts and not followed or believed? Can we also hear the birds and the traffic?
In all these passing sounds and sensations and thoughts, is any of it actually solid or continuous, or is all of it ever-changing, impermanent, vanishing from moment to moment? Is anything the same in every different experience? Don't look for the answers to these questions in a book or an outside authority. See for yourself. If you're looking for results, or trying to "get it," or trying to have some special experience that you've heard about or maybe had before, is it possible to simply SEE all of that mental efforting and let it go? This isn't about having any special experience other than the one you are having right now. It's about the actual experiencing here and now, just as it is.
I begin and end all my public meetings with silence. And I personally take time every day to sit quietly, doing nothing. For me, this is incredibly grounding, heart-opening, relaxing and relieving. Even if the inner weather in this moment is stormy, I find that it's such a huge relief just to let it be—without fighting it or giving it meaning or trying to fix it—just simply experiencing it. Sometimes we THINK we're experiencing the storm because we feel terrible, but a large part of that terrible feeling is actually our resistance to the storm, our judgments of it, our thoughts ABOUT it, our fear of it, our efforts to avoid it. Actually BEING the storm, without distancing ourselves or fighting it, is something else altogether, something that each of us must discover for ourselves.
For me, that might mean biting my fingers without trying to stop, without judging it, without seeking a result of any kind—simply being this experience, just as it is. It might mean simply being this wave of depression or anxiety, or this uneasy feeling, or this tightness in the body, or whatever it might be—without running from it or telling stories about it or labeling it or needing it to be different. Whenever that total openness and that allowing and non-resisting happens, I always find that the problem was imaginary. (The circumstances might remain, but the whole thing no longer seems problematic).
Not everyone will be drawn to this—some will gravitate to a more structured and maybe even a goal-oriented version of practice, some will take up radical nonduality and eschew any form of practice, some will not be interested in any of this, and some will do something essentially very much the same as what I'm doing in other ways—maybe through art, or child-raising, or walking the Pacific Crest Trail alone, or doing other forms of awareness work. So while I offer this bare-bones meditation to people as a suggestion or a possibility, I am very careful not to turn it into a cause-and-effect prescription for spiritual attainment or success. Instead, I would encourage us all to question our ideas about what we are seeking and what we think is wrong with us, to question all our curative fantasies. Maybe the greatest truth is not "out there," but right here, at the very heart of Here / Now, in this awake presence that we are, and in this whole happening, just exactly as it is, all of it happening effortlessly by itself. How simple can this be?
I've shared this before, but I think it's worth sharing again. In his wonderful book Coming to Our Senses, as an example of how meditation is both a path and at the same time pathless, Jon Kabat-Zinn points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer "knows" something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same.
Kabat-Zinn also writes that: "Meditation is a way of being, not a technique… Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well…More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love…a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection…Awareness itself is the teacher, the student, and the lesson…Resting in awareness in any moment involves giving ourselves over to all our senses, in touch with inner and outer landscapes as one seamless whole." (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses) Beautiful!
It's one thing to hear talks or read about nonduality, and to understand pointers such as "no self" or "no separation" or "unbound seamlessness" intellectually, and that's certainly helpful…but to realize them (or make them real) in our actual living experience is where meditation (in some form) can be so vital. And by meditation, I don't mean we have to be in the lotus posture wearing robes, burning incense, counting our breath or doing any other kind of methodical practice. I simply mean being awake in this moment—which can happen on the city bus while riding to work just as well as on a meditation cushion at some country retreat center. And the realization (or making real) that I'm pointing to here isn't what we typically imagine at the outset. It isn't what we THINK we are seeking or chasing after. It's not "out there" somewhere, apart from this present moment. It's not some gigantic, explosive, big-bang experience in which our life totally changes into something completely different, or some exotic state of expanded consciousness like being on drugs, or some finish-line we cross, or some final and perfect understanding where "the penny drops" and the whole universe is clear forever after. It's nothing more or less than exactly this moment, right here, right now, just as it is.
But it's being AWAKE to this moment, not overlooking it by being completely absorbed in some me-centered fantasy about yesterday or tomorrow, or caught up in some thought-story about "my life" and what needs to happen—or what's missing, or how "this isn't it," or any other mental abstraction ABOUT life. Such thoughts and mental movies may arise during meditation (and in daily life), and they almost certainly will, but being awake is SEEING them for what they are—mental maps, virtual realities, abstractions, stories, imagination—and not mistaking them for reality itself. Being awake isn't about fighting the thoughts, or trying to eliminate them, or taking them personally as a sign of failure and then getting lost in more thoughts about the thoughts…it's not about judging them or trying to achieve some permanently thought-free state, but simply SEEING them when they arise for what they are. Then they lose their grip and their power. They dissolve naturally. They're simply a passing wave of energy, already vanished. A snowflake in a fire.
When we talk about waking up to how things really are in this moment, what's being pointed to is not the story about all the circumstances and situations and events, and it's not the labels or the explanations or the descriptions, but rather, it's the living immediacy that cannot be captured in words. And THIS is not a thing—it's nothing in particular—and yet it isn't anything other than this very traffic sound, this very bird cheep, this wave of breath, this taste of this apple. It's ever-changing, all-inclusive, boundless, seamless, streaming—utterly immediate, most intimate, without separation—right here, just this. When there is simple awakeness, when the thought-overlay is transparent or absent, then it's obvious that subject and object are one whole happening, empty of substance, without division.
Although it may seem otherwise, close investigation will reveal that any form is gone as soon as it appears—no "thing" actually persists or has any inherent, observer-independent existence. Even the mountains that look so solid are moving and changing and gradually crumbling—and no mountain has ever been found outside of consciousness. The seer is the seen, and there is actually only seeing, undivided and whole. When all of this is recognized directly, we realize the immense freedom that is right here. Not the freedom to do what we want, but the freedom of nothing binding us and no-one to be bound.
Contrary to what we often imagine, this recognition is very ordinary. It's not other than what is appearing right now. It's simply seeing this ordinary moment without the veil of thoughts and concepts ABOUT it. Waking up is simply BEING this moment, and not mistaking the map (which is useful, but always only representational) for the territory it describes.
And there is no end to this waking up. It is always NOW. And in some ways, it gets subtler and subtler, very much like the foot of that dancer becoming ever-more sensitive and awake to new possibilities. But we have to be very careful in saying that not to get caught again in ideas of progress and self-improvement, because that's all in the mental storyline again. And when we meditate (or live) in a goal-oriented way, we suffer. (Of course, we can have practical goals like getting a college degree, but even then, if we imagine that our happiness depends on achieving the goal, we suffer).
There is no "thing" (no "me") here progressing or improving—there is only streaming wholeness—alive, ever-changing, ever-present, right here, right now. The whoooshing sounds of traffic, the cheeping of the bird, the rise and fall of breathing, the sensations in the body—THIS Here / Now that is without beginning or end. The words can only point to the living actuality itself. The words are never quite right and can always be argued with, but there is something right here that cannot be argued about or doubted, something that requires no belief, something that is not a "thing" at all.
If in doubt, simply give full and open attention to THIS, without imagining that it needs to be any different from how it is...without resisting anything (not even resistance), simply start right here, right now...awake to the bare actuality of this moment, and see if any problem remains.
This present happening (the utter simplicity of hearing-breathing-seeing-sensing-awaring-being, before we conceptualize it in any way) is obvious, undeniable, unavoidable and thus unattainable. This happening is effortlessly occurring. It even includes the thinking, conceptualizing, imagining and efforting—nothing is left out. But when attention gets hypnotized and mesmerized by the CONTENT of thoughts and imagination, and when the conceptual map is mistaken for the living reality it describes, then suddenly it can SEEM as if this unbound presence has contracted down into an encapsulated separate entity, a fragment apart from the whole of life, looking out at a separate and fractured world. This “me” is forever trying to control, manipulate, understand and figure out this happening in order to survive and avoid pain, and it SEEMS as if “I” am separate from “the world and all the things in it.”
In certain practical ways, this on-going attempt to control, manipulate and understand the world makes perfect sense and works very well. We can fix a flat tire, run from an approaching predator, set a broken leg, send a spaceship to the moon. All of that is part of the functioning of life. But when we lose sight of the fact that it is all one whole happening, when we believe that subject and object exist as two separate “things” that can be pulled apart, when we approach life in a fractured and dualistic way, we end up suffering and causing harm. And when we imagine that we are somebody in search of enlightenment, and when we try very hard to “get it,” we are operating out of an entirely false premise.
The one who imagines itself unenlightened and lacking is a mirage-like creation made up of mental images, thoughts and sensations—an ever-changing happening that is actually inseparable from the movement of the whole universe. And the “enlightenment” that is being sought by this mirage is an idea or a memory, not the living reality to which the word enlightenment actually points. So this whole set-up is like a mirage chasing a mirage. Searching “out there” for what is most intimate, and trying to “get” what is completely ungraspable and empty of any persisting form, is like trying to hold onto smoke or water or clouds, or like the eye trying to see itself or the sword trying to cut itself or trying to lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. The unbound vastness (imagining itself as something separate and limited) is trying to grasp itself (imagining “unbound vastness” to be some limited object—some particular experience or state of mind other than the already fully present, all-inclusive boundlessness Here / Now from which nothing stands apart).
When this tail-chasing search for what has never been absent falls away, when there is simply this awake, aware presence, right here, right now, inseparable from this whole happening, then it becomes crystal clear that THIS is not an attainment or an acquisition or something exotic and special. Here / Now is the natural state, the undivided wholeness that is always already present, the groundless ground, the groundlessness, the unbound awareness appearing as everything, empty of self. Enlightenment is right here, belonging to no one. No one is ever apart from this timeless present moment (the only true eternity there ever is). We are not really separate from anything else. The person we think we are is a kind of imagination that comes and goes along with the sounds of traffic and the sensations of breathing. Of course, there is a functional sense of boundaries and self and agency and so on that shows up as needed, but all of this is the happening of life itself. We don’t exist apart from this happening. To realize this is enlightenment.
But no one is enlightened. And no one is not enlightened. Enlightenment is the seeing through of that whole dualistic idea, not once-and-for-all, but now.
In response to a comment on a recent post, I mentioned that I would probably try to end my own life if I were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I’ve expressed my support for legalizing assisted suicide on Facebook before, but someone asked me to say more about this, since in Buddhism (this person said) that would be forbidden.
I personally see no contradiction between the core insights of Buddhism (as I understand them) and assisted suicide, and many Buddhists do support compassionate choices in dying. But certainly there is a tendency among some in the Buddhist world (and in other spiritual traditions) to think that there is a spiritually correct way to live and a spiritually correct way to die, and that if you mess it up, you will go to hell or be reborn as a cockroach. In other words, there is somebody at the center of this happening (a “me”) who needs to “do it right” in order to insure a favorable after-life. This view of how the universe works often leads to an opposition to assisted suicide and palliative care.
There are some in the spiritual world, enthralled with the idea of mindfulness, who think that we should die without pain medication because we should be clear and present at The Big Moment, not drugged up. Many of these same people believe that we definitely shouldn't hasten the dying process because killing is always wrong. Opposition to assisted suicide or palliative care often goes along with a belief in reincarnation, the idea in popular Buddhism that a soul goes from one lifetime to another, and that we are reborn according to a kind of merit system. I would say that all of that flies in the face of what I understand to be Buddhism's most essential insights—that everything is a seamless happening in which impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing and no-one ever actually forms to even be impermanent—thus, no one is born, no one dies, dying is moment-to-monent, and there is no separate or enduring self to reincarnate and no such thing as reincarnation (unless by reincarnation we simply mean the ever-changing, unformed movement of life). Everything is a choiceless and interdependent happening, not some kind of individual merit-system where we have to “do it right.”
Some in the spiritual world would say that we should be willing to live with the darkness and confusion of dementia because if this is the hand God has dealt us, then we must endure it. Only God gets to decide when we die. We should let Mother Nature run its course and not interfere. After all, isn’t spirituality about total acceptance and surrender? But curiously, the same people who insist that pain medication and assisted suicide are unnatural or unspiritual rarely argue that we should refuse anesthesia when undergoing surgery or dental work—apparently it’s okay to want pain relief then—and such people seem to have no problem with the possibility of dying in their sleep some night—apparently not being fully awake and alert is not a problem then. Nor do these folks seem to oppose our reliance on modern medicine to prolong life or our use of human technology to do many other things—apparently human interference in “God’s work” is okay in all those instances.
We prolong our lives through human intervention (medicine, surgery, vaccines, public health measures), so why not end them through human intervention if that becomes the best option? The fact that we now survive and live for years with conditions that would previously have been fatal, and that we live long enough to even have dementia in the first place, wouldn’t happen without human intervention!
In nonduality, there is really no separation between what “God” or “nature” creates and what “humans” create, or between “God’s choices” and our (apparent) “choices.” It is all one undivided happening, and no separate “thing” can ever move in a way that the whole is not already moving. Surrender and acceptance doesn’t mean we should be utterly passive or that we can’t do everything in our power to relieve pain, heal illness, or correct problems and injustices. It points to letting go in this moment and to recognizing the limits of our power, which is never really “our” power to begin with, but actually always the power of life itself.
We provide compassionate euthanasia for our pets all the time as an act of mercy, so why not for ourselves? Of course I’m not suggesting that people should be given the means to kill themselves over the counter anytime they’re having a bad day, or that this should be a casual choice without reasonable safeguards against potential misuse, or that anyone should ever be forced or in any way pressured, coerced or even encouraged to end their life.
But when a mature adult makes a carefully considered decision for rational reasons, why should this be prohibited? People will find ways to kill themselves anyway. So why force them to do it in ways that are painful, messy and unreliable? Why not let us each decide for ourselves what level and kinds of pain and disability we feel willing and able to live with? What one person will find tolerable, another will find unbearable. We’re not all the same. And just because someone else has a religious belief that suicide is always wrong, why should everyone else in civil society be bound by their belief? Can’t we each, as mature adults, have different ideas and make different choices in this regard?
The biggest opposition to assisted suicide comes (as you might expect) from people with right-wing political views and from religious conservatives, but (sadly) much of it also comes from a number of disability rights activists who falsely assume that legalizing the right to die poses a danger to them and in some way undermines the value of their lives. Some people with disabilities fear that assisted suicide is a slippery slope and that if we legalize it in any form, soon we’ll be killing all disabled babies at birth, people will be bumping off their grandparents to get out of caring for them, and everyone in a wheelchair will feel obligated to kill themselves so as not to be a burden. Some people with disabilities hear in the right to die movement the old message that we disabled folks would be better off dead, that our lives are not worth living.
Speaking as an older person, and as someone born with a disability (whose father was offered the chance to smother me at birth as a result), and as someone who has had many friends over the years with severe disabilities as well as friends who have lived well with serious chronic pain and incapacitation, I understand from my own life experience where these fears come from. But I feel that in this case, these concerns are enormously exaggerated and actually quite paranoid and misinformed. In fact, the current laws that allow assisted suicide are all very carefully crafted with many safeguards, and broader laws of the kind I would like to see could (and I’m sure would) also be carefully crafted. No one behind these laws is arguing that anyone else “should” commit suicide, nor does having the right to choose death in certain situations in ANY way mean that elders or people with disabilities are worthless or better off dead. This is about choice, not coercion or devaluing the lives of elders and people with disabilities. I seriously doubt that right to die laws will result in mass exterminations of elders and people with disabilities, nor do I believe that most people would allow that to happen. That certainly hasn’t been the case here in Oregon, where we do have right to die under certain (very limited) conditions.
I question the idea that our goal as human beings should be to prolong life at all costs no matter what. To my mind, this kind of thinking comes from a fear of death and a misunderstanding of life. My mother, who loved life passionately, was a strong believer in the right to die. She had no desire to linger beyond the point where life was no longer enjoyable, and she said over and over in her final years that she was ready to go. She had no fear of death. Luckily, she died without a prolonged period of excruciating pain and incapacitation. But not everyone is so lucky.
I have no desire to spend a long time incapacitated and in excruciating pain before I die, and I don’t want to live with Alzheimer’s. I don’t want to end up in a nursing home. I’ve watched loved ones go through all of that, and I know it is no picnic. I saw my aunt being forced to eat in the nursing home when her body clearly wanted to stop eating so she could let go. I don’t have children or siblings or a partner to take care of me in my old age if I become debilitated, and most of my friends are my age or older. I wouldn’t want any of them to have to dedicate their remaining time and energy to caretaking me when recovery is not an option and the quality of my life is (in my view) miserable.
We spend an astronomical amount of money in this country on end-of-life care, often on extraordinary measures prolonging the end of life with feeding tubes and ventilators. In my case, I’d much rather have that money spent elsewhere—there are so many things it could be used for instead. I respect the right of others to have different priorities and to make different end of life choices than I would, and I’d like them to give me the same consideration and freedom. I don’t know what’s ahead for me—none of us do—and I don’t know what I’d do if I actually had dementia or severe brain damage or locked-in syndrome or a terminal diagnosis with a painful cancer. I know what I think I’d want, and I’ve drawn up my legal papers and left instructions accordingly. At the very least, I’d want the choice.
A friend of mine who died of cancer a few years back was very happy to be here in Oregon where right to die is legal. We got the drugs—and it wasn’t easy, by the way. Two doctors had to sign off, forms had to be filled out, people came to talk with my friend and her partner—it was a long process. My friend had to jump through many hoops to get those drugs. And she had the required prognosis here in Oregon of no more than 6 months to live—in fact, she had less than that. In the end, although she did use pain medications, she didn’t use the drugs to end her life. She kept saying it was so interesting how everything was falling away, and she ended up letting the dying process take its course. But she was very glad she had the choice.
The law here in Oregon, and I believe most of the current right to die laws in this country, wouldn’t give me the choice to legally end my life if I were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, because to qualify, you must have a terminal illness with a life expectancy of no more than 6 months. Alzheimer’s can drag on for a decade or more. By the time you would qualify, you’d no longer be capable of making the decision or jumping through the required hoops. So if that happens, I’ll still have to find a way to do it myself. Unless things change quickly enough. My hope is that eventually all responsible adults will have the freedom to choose, under whatever circumstances matter to us, within the limits of reasonable safeguards and responsible behavior, to end our lives in a painless, compassionate, medically safe way. That freedom and possibility would be a wonderful gift to give ourselves.
Dying is part of life. It is a natural part of how life functions. Things are recycled in nature. Nothing lasts forever—in fact, everything is constantly changing. Death is every moment. We now have some 7 billion people on the planet, a number that has nearly doubled in my lifetime. Trying to live forever as this particular form is a completely unrealistic and actually life-threatening goal—life-threatening to humanity and to life on earth. I love life, but I’m not afraid of death either. I know that life itself won’t end with my death. This particular life will end, although the ripples will go on infinitely, and this intelligence-energy—this boundless happening—this vastness will continue endlessly. New forms will arise, as they actually do moment by moment. The dance will go on. Joan will be gone, and “I” (this particular focal point of consciousness) won’t be around to miss being Joan. I’m quite confident that being dead is not like being buried alive, which is what people seem to imagine when they worry about no longer being here. My confidence about this stems in part from the fact that every night we experience this complete disappearance in deep sleep and find it refreshing and rejuvenating. When the bigger picture is clearly seen, death is not a scary or dreadful thought.
I hope that the legislation supporting the right to die that is currently moving through the state legislature in California will be successful. As with gay marriage, the tide is clearly going in this direction, slowly but surely. Meanwhile, every now and then, I’m moved by the universe to speak up and say that those disability groups who are siding with the religious right on this issue don’t speak for all of us with disabilities. Many elders and people with disabilities very much want compassionate dying to be legalized. And as a deeply religious person (in the truest sense of religion), I see no problem at all with ending my life at a time of my own choosing, if and when, in my judgment, that becomes the best option for myself and all concerned. Death is not a horrible thing. And if you feel differently, you are free to prolong your life in every way possible for as long as possible.
This may not be of interest to everyone, but since I posted something awhile back (on April 23, 2015) about my own explorations of gender including the possibility of transitioning into a man (which I've considered for some time), I feel moved now to add a bit more on the subject. I've come to the recognition that for myself, becoming a man is not the answer to this koan of gender that I've been living with all my life. If I'd had the choice to transition when I was five, as many children do now, I have absolutely no doubt I would have done it. But now I'm almost 70 years old and much water has passed under the bridge, including many years as a lesbian-feminist involved in the struggle for gender and LGBTQ equality and human rights.
For me now, what feels real is simply being Joan. I don't experience my name as female (although I know it is), but simply as me—this particular skin bag as they like to say in Zen (or as one modern Zen teacher put it, this particular whirlpool). Gender-fluid for sure, but without landing anywhere, and without avoiding the koan of being this particular body. And as the old Zen koan says, The true Joan has no rank. Everyone's "answer" to the koan of gender identity and expression is different, and I'm in no way suggesting that my answer is the correct conclusion for anyone else or that I might not even have a different answer tomorrow. As I hope I've made obvious, I fully support the transgender movement, and I'm very happy to see the whole issue being talked about and accepted more and more.
But it is also raising some interesting questions, not unlike those raised by the case now in the news of Spokane, Washington NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, who identifies and has passed as Black for many years, but who was apparently born white. If we can change gender, why not race?
The NY Times has been doing a wonderful series on transgender issues, and an excellent and thought-provoking article there by journalist, author, filmmaker and former professor of Women's Studies Elinor Burkett recently caught my attention. She highlights some of the ways the movement for transgender equality clashes with the concerns of the women's movement: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?ref=topics&_r=0 -- the article has caused quite a stir, with people weighing in on all sides.
The good thing in all of this public discussion is the growing recognition that race and gender are in many ways social constructions or states of mind, that they exist on a fluid continuum, and that it would be a wonderful thing if the culture allowed for a great deal more flexibility and inclusiveness in such matters, and if we got to a point where such differences mattered very little in terms of determining our career options, pay grade, fashion options, social possibilities, etc.
The more problematic aspect of all this is that race and gender also have some biological reality (differences in skin color, facial features, sexual organs, hormones and so on are not social constructions or states of mind) and there has never been complete agreement on exactly how much is biology and how much is social conditioning. In addition, there is a long history of social and political inequalities and imbalances based on race and gender. So when white people can suddenly (apparently) "become Black" and assume leadership in the black community or get a job teaching Black Studies, or when men can suddenly (apparently) "become women" and begin insisting that a showing of The Vagina Monologues must be cancelled because not all women have vaginas, it would seem that something is being turned on its head or that some essential reality is being overlooked or denied.
When transwomen seem to embody the very aspects of female social conditioning that I find most troubling, I do admit to feeling a certain discomfort at times. I fully support everyone's right to dress in the way they want, but I have no doubt that 6-inch heels are the Western equivalent of full burqas and Chinese foot binding—high heels cripple the foot and limit the wearer's ability to move, and clearly they are sexy because we are conditioned to see them that way, not because they are inherently erotic—and sadly, in 2015, we still live in a culture where for many women, they are not a choice—you must wear them if you want to succeed in your corporate career or get into the Cannes Film Festival. If they were truly a choice, that would be another matter altogether.
So I see truth on both sides of the arguments currently raging over all this. If people wish to dye their hair, have plastic surgery, pierce or tattoo their bodies, change their gender, or change their race to make their outward appearance more in line with their inner sense of themselves, or in order to express themselves more fully, then why not? Holding any of these things (race, gender, sexual preference, fashion standards, etc.) as sacrosanct and immutable is surely not the way forward. But at the same time, there is something inherently disturbing about erasing history and having a white person who identifies as Black leading an NAACP chapter, teaching African-American studies courses and playing a leadership role in the Black community, or a man who has transitioned into a woman trashing the concerns of feminism (feminism is under attack enough as it is!).
There is surely a balance to be found between the different sides in these debates, all of which contain elements of the truth. It reminds me to some degree of the old ideological wars I remember in the Women's Movement years ago between the anti-pornography feminists and the "sex positive" (pro-porn, pro-SM, lipstick lesbian) feminists. I saw truth (and error) on both sides and found the polarization regrettable, but maybe it was a necessary stage. I encourage all of us to listen openly to all sides, if we can, and not to get stuck in us-against-them ways of thinking.
Some nondual folks may say that all of this concern with gender and race and high heels and history and so on is all just meaningless and utterly irrelevant dream-stuff, and that is certainly the absolute truth. But I notice that however deeply that may be realized, there is still the relative reality of being Joan, this particular expression of Totality at this particular moment in history, and that neither side of these polarities (relative and absolute, difference and unity, boundlessness and particularity) can be denied or left out without falling into delusion. And so, I offer this.
My responses to some of the comments received:
I tend to think tribalism and gender roles have roots in biology (which I don't take to mean that any of it is inevitable or immutable, or that this therefore justifies racism and sexism, but simply that humans didn't just dream this stuff up out of thin air). It seems pretty clear, for example, that the majority of the little girls I grew up with were not imagining themselves as boys who would grow into men as I was. What makes the difference for some, I don't know, and I agree completely that there is undoubtedly a continuum and that if society didn't codify and enforce the binary idea, many others might be somewhere in the middle. Eventually it seems that some critical mass or tipping point is reached, and people begin to push the limits that have been created by whatever mix of nature and nurture--women get the vote, slavery is ended, gay marriage is legalized, transgenderism becomes more normalized. In the deepest sense, it all happens very naturally and effortlessly, even the apparent effort. But along the way, there are many debates about how best to undo conditioning and open up possibilities (such as those that surround this NY Times article or the white woman in the News who identifies as Black). And while we might wish for a society where race and gender don't matter, where they are seen for the insubstantial and fluid things they are, it remains true that on implicit association tests, most people (including Blacks) are more likely to associate crime with Black people than white people, and more people (including women) are more likely to associate business skills with men, so it seems we all have layers of often unconscious and unwanted biases.
Regarding “that fragment of grief for the five year old who might have been a happier boy” that you mention, this brings to mind one of my favorite prose poems by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer:
"It is always so early inside here, before the fork in the road, before the irrevocable decision. Thanks for this life! Still, I miss alternatives. All sketches want to become real.
“Far off over the water a motor stretches the summer night's horizon. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We don't really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. While the sun burns behind the islands."
Yes, all sketches long to become real. And somewhere, in my heart, there is a brother ship that took the other path. For me, as a child, I wanted to be a boy because I wanted to wear pants and climb trees and play with toy fire trucks instead of dolls, and I wanted to grow up and fall in love with a girl. I thought of myself as a boy and imagined myself growing up to be a man. When forced into dresses, I felt like I was in drag. But then the world changed as I came of age, and suddenly women could wear pants and become firemen, and I was a lesbian and a feminist, and so the urge to be a boy faded away. All of the transgender people I knew or heard about were transwomen. The possibility of becoming a man was not something I really saw. It was all very different back then. Plus, I have never felt the same absolute urgency to be out of this female body that most trans people express, nor am I convinced that for me, being on testosterone and having a more male body would be worth the money and pain. I've become clearer and clearer that in my case, gender-fluid, gender-queer or gender-agnostic is a much better description of how I feel. I don't really feel that I'm a woman, but otoh, I don't really feel like I'm a man either. I don't seem to fit neatly into either binary. I experience myself internally as more masculine than feminine, and that seems reflected in how I want to dress and present myself. Maybe I'll end up one day taking T and having surgery, I haven't ruled it out, but at my age, these are not as easy physically as when you're 25. And for now, gender-fluid feels like a good fit. My main focus, as always, is not much on gender and very much on other matters. But I'm deeply happy to see LGBTQ young people today growing up in a much more accepting world with many more possibilities and options. And I'm very grateful for all the great publicity this issue has gotten in recent years, and also for the critical questions that people such as Elinor Burkett raise.
I spent many years with a (beloved and wonderful) teacher who rigorously questioned and deconstructed every form of identity and group-identity...and that was a wonderful journey...but then I had to go beyond that in in some way and circle back again to what was unfinished. We seem to circle around again and again in a beautiful dance.
The ultimate truth can sometimes become a barrier to fully exploring and dealing with aspects of relative reality. "All is One" and "It's All a Dream,' so why bother about sexism or racism or other social injustices or getting a job or dealing with addictions or getting in touch with your sexual preference or your gender identity and expression or caring about the environment or anything else...it's all just a dream.
For me to even begin to explore the possibility of transitioning (and then to find my way beyond that), I had to first get past the old feminist belief and assertion that gender was purely a social construction and that surgery and hormones were a politically incorrect response...and then I had to get past years of spiritual work that focused on seeing through the self and all forms of identity and dissolving into the Self that is without gender. This bigger perspective always came very easily and naturally to me from early on. My difficulties were with the relative world, and I found that transcending it and leaving it behind didn't quite work out. I once had a very telling dream where I screamed at my teacher, "I get the absolute. It's the relative I don't understand."
So now I try to embrace the whole picture: the relative and the absolute, the human and the boundlessness that has no age, no gender, no name, no form. And as they say in Zen, enlightenment is "leaping clear of the many and the one," not getting stuck in the absolute.
I suspect many of us long for a world where such distinctions as race, gender or sexual orientation have about as much weight or significance as hair color or hair style does today. In other words, there would still be differences, and we’d enjoy the differences, but they wouldn’t be loaded with meaning or consequences. They wouldn’t mean you were a second-class person, or you get paid less, or you’re much more likely to end up in prison or dead at an early age. We’d be beyond all of that. Even the unconscious, deeply conditioned, implicit biases that we still carry deep inside us today that run counter to our conscious ideas would have faded away, replaced by new post-racial, gender-inclusive conditioning.
But how do we get there? What helps us move toward that future and what doesn’t? Too often, we think we know the answer to that. We’re convinced that the only way is our way. But obviously, we don’t really know how things happen, how the world unfolds as it does. What appears unhelpful may actually be an essential ingredient, just as conflicting approaches may both be part of the transformative and healing process, each playing a different but equally essential role. All of it may be needed: political activists with different and often conflicting strategies, spiritual folks who dissolve into the absolute, even curmudgeonly bigots and right-wing fanatics bemoaning the loss of white power, patriarchy and a world where you could clearly tell the doctors from the nurses. Apparently all of this is part of the mix, since ALL of this is showing up.
I turned on CNN for a few minutes last night and by chance landed on a rather heated conversation in progress between two women, one white and one Black, arguing about the case of Rachel Dolezal, the woman in the News lately who was born white but who now identifies as Black, and who has been playing a leadership role in the Black community as a Black person. The white woman, a psychologist who said her own family was multi-racial, talked of the “human race” and getting beyond race, and she compared Rachel to Caitlin Jenner, the new transgender incarnation of the former Bruce Jenner. The Black woman, on the other hand, insisted that Rachel Dolezal was not Black, that Rachel had not had “the Black experience,” and that we did not yet live in a post-racial society where we can just live as if race doesn’t matter when it obviously still does.
What was interesting to me as I watched them was that I could hear truth on both sides. I could identify with both of these women and with the seemingly opposite positions they were taking. I could see that the Black woman had suffered for being Black, and that in some way, she had taken on the historical suffering of “her people,” her tribe, her race—from the slave ships, through Jim Crow, on up to what has been called “the new Jim Crow” of today. I could see that in some way she was holding on to this suffering and this identity, for reasons that I could totally understand or at least empathize with from my own experience as a member of various oppressed, devalued, or discriminated against groups.
I remember the liberating empowerment of being in the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, and the disability rights movement back when these movements were just beginning (of course, there had been many earlier chapters of feminism, but I’m speaking of the movement that began in the Sixties). Aspects of myself over which I had felt stigmatized and not-okay were suddenly being celebrated and empowered. Shame was replaced with pride (in the best sense of that word). We were discovering our common experiences of being oppressed, devalued or shunned, and we were finding our collective strength to envision and fight for a better and more just world. We faced many hurdles, including the fact that many people didn’t understand our situation or what it was like to be a woman or a gay person or a person with a disability. Often such people felt threatened by us. At times, we faced mockery, belittlement, contempt, opposition, and sometimes even outright violence (and of course, these things still happen, even though much progress has been made). And Black people were going through (and had been going through) a similar process, rising from the horror of slavery through the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960’s and on into the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
So, I understand the genuine and healing empowerment of these identities, and I understand the (sometimes necessary) defenses that can form and the mind-set of being in a battle, which in a very real way, we are when we take on these struggles for social justice. I understand why having a former man speaking for women and defining what it means to be a woman, or a person born white speaking for Black people and defining what it means to be Black, is threatening and maybe not even a good idea. And yet, I’ve always had the deep intuition that inclusion and love is a better way to go than exclusion and animosity.
At what point do we stop identifying as this or that? At what point do we drop our guard, our defenses, our sense of being in a protracted battle? Is it safe to let Rachel Dolezal be a Black person if that’s how she sees herself? Is it okay for her to play a leading role in the Black community? Is it safe to let Caitlin Jenner be considered as much a woman as I am, able to speak for women with as much authority as any other woman has? If I can get beyond my initial outrage at the suggestion, could The Vagina Monologues actually be out of date in some ways? What makes a person a woman or Black or gay or straight? What are the defining markers? Where are the borders? Whatever these markers are, they are obviously getting ever-more blurred and hard to pin down. And that, I feel, is a beautiful development. The edges are blurring, the boundary-lines are dissolving, things are revealing their interdependent undivided seamless and fluid nature.
It is a beautiful thing to question our various identities—the groups, causes, places and things that we identify with and tend to defend. It is a beautiful thing to question what we are defending, what we see as “other” or as “not me” or as “not Buddha,” what we think cannot be included, what we think must be excluded. It is immensely liberating and enlivening to see through all identities and the illusory separate self at the center of them all and to realize the boundlessness and seamlessness of this living reality in which there is truly no solid or persisting form: no gender, no age, no body, no mind, no me, no you. It is beautiful to find our True Home, the ever-present Here / Now, THIS that includes everything and sticks to nothing, the placeless place where nothing is needed and nothing is in excess.
But at the same time, as I tried to express in my responses to several comments to my previous post, let’s be aware of the danger of turning this undivided boundlessness into an ideology that actually closes us down rather than opening us up. Once the mind turns the living reality of boundlessness into a mental idea or a theory or a belief that we cling to because we think it will save us, or if we begin imagining that boundlessness is a particular experience that we must maintain, then this all too easily becomes a barrier to fully living our lives. Suddenly, we have the idea that exploring and dealing with various aspects of relative reality is “unspiritual” or “unenlightened.” We think that because "All is One" and “everything is just a dream,” then Rachel Dolezal and Bruce Jenner must be unenlightened for caring what race or what gender they are, and that Black woman on TV who is insisting that Rachel Dolezal cannot be Black must be unenlightened as well, as must the author of that NY Times article. And why is Joan writing about all this messy, irrelevant stuff? Who would care? Why would it matter? After all, it's just a dream.
The dream-like nature of everything is a beautiful thing to realize. I spent many years questioning and deconstructing every form of identity and group-identity, seeing through the illusion of the separate, encapsulated self and dissolving into the boundless emptiness that is everything and no-thing. Opening into boundless presence and realizing the Self came easily to me from early on. My difficulties were much more with the relative world, the world of everyday life. As I mentioned in the comments to my last post, I dreamed once that I screamed at my teacher Toni Packer, "Toni, I get the absolute. It's the relative I don't understand."
Spiritual by-passing is a term that has been coined to describe how we can try to transcend our way out of the messiness of our lives. For me to even begin to explore the possibility of gender-transitioning (and then to find my way to an embrace of gender-fluidity and being “the True Joan of no rank”), I had to get past all the spiritual ideas I had taken on about how any concern with gender was nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in a dream. For those who have always felt at home in the biological gender in which they were born, it may be very difficult indeed to even imagine what a dissonance of this sort would feel like or how it could affect your life in myriad ways. But in my case, I know that territory intimately. And yes, I can easily melt into that placeless place Here / Now where there is no gender and no me and no problem. And that’s beautiful. And then, everyday life still happens.
For some people, a high-powered awakening experience or a dedicated meditation practice over many decades may be enough to resolve all their human problems. Perhaps the fewer problems they are dealing with to start with, the more likely this is. But for most of us, this is not the case. It certainly hasn’t been for me. Life goes on, our imperfections continue to show up, we make mistakes, we’re not saints, we’re not always blissed out, we don’t always meet the world with love and generosity. Our human life continues. Yes, we have a bigger context for it all, and yes, we may take it more lightly, at least some of the time. Some forms of spirituality really are about dropping out of the world, transcending it completely, leaving the world of politics and social concerns totally behind. But sometimes dissolving into the absolute and staying there isn’t the only thing we are called upon to do. Sometimes we are moved to act in the world in various ways, or we are moved to go into therapy or into a recovery program, or to develop a particular skill and use it. To my eye, it isn’t either/or. It’s both/and. We never really do leave the absolute. The absolute includes the relative, it just isn't bound by it.
So I try to embrace the whole picture: the relative and the absolute, this particular human whirlpool and the boundless whole that has no age, no gender, no name, no form. I resonate with Zen Master Dogen’s description of enlightenment as "leaping clear of the many and the one," not denying and not getting stuck in either the particular or the all-inclusive. They aren’t really separate realms, and when we think they are, that in itself is delusion.
Samsara is nirvana, and nirvana is samsara. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Not one, not two. The Ultimate Truth (the Self) is not other than this very moment, just as it is, including this gender-fluid person called Joan, just as she is, messiness and all. Ultimate Reality includes human beings doing what human beings do: making messes and cleaning them up, exploring and discovering, building sand castles and smooshing them again, finding our way from Here to Here.
This placeless place is at once ever-present and ever-changing. Separation from the whole is always imaginary, but sometimes it sure does feel real. And who ever said that movies aren’t real or important?
One of my teachers, Joko Beck, used the term “emotion-thought” to describe what often ails us. She linked the two together because thoughts and emotions are so closely interwoven, and especially the kinds of thoughts she was talking about—the thoughts we have when we feel hurt, abandoned, put down, misunderstood, angry, defensive, unworthy, lost, persecuted, etc.
When sitting quietly in an undisturbed place on a peaceful day, it may be quite easy to go to that absolute place of no self, no gender, no race, no world, no problem. (Of course, if you haven’t yet recognized this immediacy as your own True Nature, if you’re still searching for it “out there” somewhere, then it seems far away). But even if it has been recognized, it’s much more difficult to let go and relax into it when you’re at work on a bad day, or with your children when they’re upset or rebellious, or in the middle of a family drama, or when someone insults you or hurts those you love, or in any other life situation that pushes your oldest, deepest, most volatile buttons.
My heart was deeply pained by what happened in South Carolina this past week, when a young white man steeped in white supremacist ideology showed up at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, joined a bible study class there for an hour, and then stood up and opened fire on the very people who had welcomed him in. He killed nine people ranging in age from a 26 year old man to an 87 year old woman. The news was heart-wrenching, horrible, unfathomable.
Then last night on the News, I watched amazing footage of the family members of some of the victims addressing the shooter during his bond hearing. You could hear the raw pain in their voices, their vulnerability, but they all forgave him. They spoke of love and not hate. It was one of the most profoundly moving things I’ve ever witnessed.
It speaks to the power of a spiritual practice and the deep faith it nurtures. And when I use the word faith here, I’m not talking about belief in anything “out there,” but rather something much more fundamental and heartfelt that has to do with our internal ability to find the light in the darkness and love in the face of hate. In a previous post some time back, I mentioned hearing a talk given by Adam Bucko, a man who works with homeless youth in NYC, who said that his biggest challenge in his ministry is showing up at those times when grace doesn't seem to be present, when it seems to him that he has nothing to offer—showing up anyway, trusting that somehow God will show up too. That is what faith means to me.
In the case of the Charleston family members or Martin Luther King (one of my heroes, and someone who consistently met violence and hate with love), the spiritual practice is Christianity. But it could as easily be the Buddhist practice of someone like Thich Nhat Nanh, who met the horrors of the Vietnam war with love and non-violence, and who saw deeply into the heart of the sea pirate who raped the young girl at sea. Gangaji calls it vigilance. My teacher Toni Packer called it the work of this moment. It isn’t necessarily a formal or traditional practice or one involving a group or an institution, but it points to some kind of on-going dedication to the work of waking up—a commitment of sorts, a kind of vow or aspiration, a faith or trust that has to be nurtured and cultivated and (yes) practiced in some sense. Because when our buttons are pushed, either in small ways or in unimaginably huge ways, when powerful waves of emotion-thought sweep over us and the hypnotic dream-world those waves create seems totally real and believable, our lizard brain is triggered and the old reactive conditioning takes over very quickly. It isn’t always easy to let go and to find our way beyond that in those moments of difficulty. At such times, everything in our whole bodymind system wants to run with the anger, or the addiction, or the compulsion. We want to lash out, or escape, or kill ourselves, or kill someone else. And sometimes we do.
I've always had a quick and fiery temper that is easily activated when certain buttons are pushed, and even after all these years of inner work, I still find myself at times getting angry, reactive and spiteful in situations far less devastating than those faced by the survivors in Charleston, or by Martin Luther King, or by Thich Nhat Hanh. It happened to me just this week with a reader who emailed me. I thought he was saying that gay people are unnatural and don’t deserve marriage equality because it upsets the natural order of the cosmos. Having grown up in the 1950’s, and having come out as a lesbian back in the dark ages when homosexuality was still illegal and grounds for losing your job, when it was still officially considered a psychiatric disorder and still viewed by almost all organized religious groups as a sin, I have some deep pain and old wounds around this issue. So when I got this email, I felt hurt and angry. Impulse-control has never been one of my strong points, and I wasn’t able or willing at that moment to “take a time out” (even though the thought that this would be a good idea did occur to me). I lost faith in that moment. I surrendered to the waves of emotion-thought, not to the deeper reality that would require giving up my defenses and opening my heart. I shot back an email telling this gentleman quite bluntly what I thought. I wasn’t nice or gentle or soft-spoken or compassionate or inviting. Luckily, in a day or two, I was able to apologize, the person was able to forgive me, and we were able to clarify what had happened and meet in a space of love and openness. It turns out I had misunderstood him completely. So when I see that kind of ability to meet hate with love under such unimaginably difficult circumstances as those faced by the survivors in Charleston, I am always deeply moved and inspired to practice and to do better (I know “doing better” is not the usual nondual lingo, but perhaps you know what I mean).
Maybe for a few rare souls, this ability to wake up from the entrancement in emotion-thought and to meet hate with love comes naturally and effortlessly. But for most of us, and certainly in my experience, it does require some kind of on-going dedication to the work of waking up. It requires developing a willingness to be present with what we habitually want to escape, an ability to feel all the way to the bottom of our strong, deeply conditioned urges to attack and defend, to be right, to survive and vanquish what threatens to defeat us, to see through the stories of separation and otherness, to see the emptiness (the interdependency, the undividedness, the fluid nature) of ourselves and all things, to meet the pain and the violence in ourselves and in the world in a new way, to not be swept away by anger, discouragement, despair or hopelessness.
When Toni Packer called this “the work of this moment,” I often objected to the word “work.” I thought “play” might be a better choice. And there is certainly a danger (to which I was reacting back then) that what we see as “work” can become effort-driven, goal-oriented, perfectionistic, self-righteous, puritanical and humorless—which is, of course, not what Toni was suggesting or intending. But as I’ve come to realize, there is an equal danger of going off in the other direction, which is something I see happening in certain parts of the nondual subculture.
It’s very easy to fall into a subtle new belief system, to mistake the map for the territory, to adopt some facile, half-baked philosophy that “all is one” and “there’s no self” and “everything is a dream-like appearance” and then think that’s all there is to it. But in my experience, truly realizing this and embodying it is a lifelong (moment to moment) endeavor that takes work, and we often fail or fall short. We’re not perfect. So part of this faith and this practice is the ability to forgive ourselves and others when we fail, to love ourselves and others even in the midst of our brokenness and imperfection, and to recognize that it’s never too late to repent (in the true sense of that word), because the universe really does begin anew in each new moment and no-thing actually persists in the way we think.
Somewhere in the early 1980’s, I went from being a political activist in the lesbian-feminist movement, the disability rights movement, and the anti-imperialist radical left to being a Zen Buddhist and then a student of Toni Packer. I was afraid in the beginning of my Zen practice that I was abandoning the world and all the oppressed people that I cared so deeply about. When Toni questioned every form of identity, I feared that if I let go of my identity as a lesbian-feminist, for example, then I’d be back where I was before feminism and Gay Liberation—in the closet, killing myself with alcohol and drugs. I had to discover that this wasn’t actually true, and that I wasn’t really abandoning the world at all—I was entering into it more deeply than ever before, dissolving the boundaries. So from the very beginning, one of the on-going koans that has followed me along my entire spiritual path, showing up in ever-new incarnations, is finding the integration between that absolute open spaciousness that accepts everything and has no opinions for or against anything, and the caring I feel for the world (including the ability to discern what is hurtful and unjust and the desire to correct it). I’m not talking here about a philosophical integration—I can do that easily enough in my head. I’m talking about an embodied, lived integration—not just on pleasant, sunny days, but more importantly, when the ride gets rough as well.
I’m sure the people whose loved ones were so heartlessly gunned down in Charleston must have felt anger—at least one of them spoke of it at the hearing. And I’m sure Martin Luther King must have felt anger and hurt and fear at times. And I remember once hearing Thich Nhat Hanh describe how he had to work for days with his over-powering anger in a certain situation, how it didn’t just evaporate in an instant with the snap of a finger, so I know that he too experiences the power of emotion-thought and the pull of old reactive conditioning. These people that I admire have all felt the same hurt and anger and fear that I do, and they’ve come through it in much more extreme situations than any I’ve ever had to live through. They embody and live non-violence in a very profound way.
Apparently the shooter in Charleston told the police that he almost didn’t go through with his plan because the people in the church were so welcoming and kind to him. Love almost won him over. But then he remembered he hated them. The hypnotic trance of white supremacy and all the fears underneath it came back, and that brief moment of awakeness was lost. I wonder how it affected him hearing those people yesterday at his bond hearing forgiving him. I wonder if redemption will find him even now.
Ramana Maharshi once said (he may have been quoting the Vedas), “The Self alone is real; The world is not real; The Self is the world.” The Course in Miracles begins with a short summation of the Course: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.” How are we to understand such statements? I can’t speak for Ramana or TCIM, but I’ll share my take.
Each of us experiences a completely unique world, formed through the lens of our unique organism and its one-of-a-kind conditioning. Realizing this may at first make it seem that “I” am completely isolated and can find only relative truths. But that solipsistic sense of being isolated in our own airtight bubble, unable to see beyond it, doomed forever to nothing but a partial view of what we can never see accurately or wholly—that view is predicated on the assumption that we actually ARE a separate fragment in a divided world of separate parts, that there actually IS some inherent, objective, observer-independent reality “out there,” that subject and object are two separate things. When we identify as that separate fragment, when that encapsulated and isolated self seems to be our reality, our experience is inevitably one of alienation, lack, desire for completion and fear of death—with brief moments of happiness interspersed.
But in looking more closely, we may discover that we are not really separate from what we THINK of as “out there,” that in reality, the billions of unique beings are more like the jewels in Indra's Net, each of which is only a reflection of all the others. Or as the great Zen master Dogen put it in Genjokoan: "Although the light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water...Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky."
We may also discover directly that when we say "I", before our name and our self-image and any of our stories and ideas about who we are, the most fundamental sense to which that word refers is simply unbound aware presence, the undivided beingness prior to name and form, the knowingness of being present, the undoubtable Here / Now, the undeniable suchness of this present happening, the inconceivable and imperceptible vastness that is prior to even the first sense of conscious presence. In this deeper sense of who (or what) we are, we all refer to the same primordial awareness and aliveness when we say “I.” We are all the same I, the same Self, beholding ourSelf from different angles and in different disguises.
Everything perceivable and conceivable—me and you, your movie of waking life, my movie of waking life, my opinions and your opinions—appears Here / Now as one whole undivided happening, all of it this vast awaring emptiness that can never be grasped as an object. Some might call this boundless and seamless Totality God: I AM THAT I AM. Others might call it the Ultimate Subjectivity beholding and being everything, or the unseen Seeing, or intelligence-energy, or the Heart—showing up as everything. Still others might speak of it as thorough-going impermanence, in which no-thing has any fixed or persisting form. But what we call it is not what matters most, and “it” is not an “it” at all, but more accurately, the it-less-ness of everything! What liberates is discovering this vast freedom directly and opening into it, surrendering our tight, well-defended stronghold of self and dissolving or relaxing into our True Nature. In some sense, this is a kind of undoing that requires a certain vigilance and effortless effort, but in a deeper sense, it is simply a matter of noticing or recognizing what is already fully present and free.
The world that is an illusion is the world we THINK we are experiencing, usually without even realizing the role that conceptualization and imagination is playing—the world of apparently separate, solid objects that we think is “out there” as an objective and substantial reality. To imagine that world, we must overlook emptiness or wholeness, and we must identify as one of those conceptual objects (“me”), ignoring the awaring presence that is being and beholding “me” and every other apparent form.
This thought-sense that “I” am a separate and discrete unit of consciousness (a soul perhaps) encapsulated inside a separate and discrete body—a body that was born at a certain moment of time, that persists for a certain duration, and that will eventually at some point cease to exist—is the fundamental illusion. It is based not in our actual experiencing, which we tend to ignore, but rather, in how we THINK about that experiencing. Thought freezes and divides what is actually fluid and seamless. It ignores the space and focuses on the apparent objects. It mentally divides up seamless unicity—THIS that is as truly indivisible as the crest and trough of a wave—into seemingly irreconcilable parts. It takes personally and claims authorship of what is arising spontaneously. This illusion of the dualistic universe and the separate, encapsulated self at the control panel of “my” life is all a kind of mirage—it looks real, but when we turn to examine it more closely, nothing is there. It evaporates into thin air.
When we inquire deeply and look closely, we realize that whatever appears (including “me” and “this bodymind” and “the world”) has no fixed, persisting, observer-independent, inherent reality. We see directly that everything we perceive and think and conceive is empty of any independent or substantial existence, that everything is an undivided happening with no borders or seams, and that “I” am not separate from “it.” Subject and object are one. The boundary-line is imaginary. Seer-seeing-seen are purely conceptual divisions. “The world” is not “out there” and “I” am not “in here.” These are purely notional distinctions separating imaginary entities that only SEEM to exist and persist as enduring forms. One way of expressing this realization is to say that everything is empty of self, that the Ultimate Truth is groundlessness. Another way of expressing the same realization is to say that all there is, is the Self (the One-without-a-second).
And in the end, we see that even “the Self” or “emptiness” is empty, meaning that these terms do not refer to “something” that can be objectified or grasped. The Self or emptiness is not some giant “thing” that contains all the other smaller things. Rather, these words point to the no-thing-ness of everything, the openness, the fluidity, the energetic aliveness, the boundlessness, the undivided immediacy, the suchness, the This-Here-Now-ness that includes everything and sticks to nothing. Everything is dissolving second by second, and yet this groundlessness is indestructible and ever-present. Realizing this is freedom.
Awake to this, we see the same shapes and colors as before—the same apparent world, and we still think the same mundane thoughts about how “I need to feed the cat,” and we still function perfectly well in daily life (better actually)—but without believing in the illusion of being a separate, encapsulated unit of consciousness that must be always on guard against anything that might threaten us or wipe us out. Yes, we still look both ways before dashing across the street, but we don’t live in fear of death, for we realize there is truly no-thing to die. And there is no self to defend.
We see that the wholeness of being (the Self, emptiness, Totality, the Heart, primordial awareness, unicity, the groundless ground, God) never comes and goes. It has never been absent. It SEEMS to come and go in the beginning because we reference it as a particular experience, and of course, all experiences are transitory. Eventually we realize that awareness (emptiness, wholeness, the Self) is not an object—it is not a particular experience, this but not that. We begin to see that what comes and goes is not awareness or the Self, but rather the thought-sense of encapsulation and separation. Awareness doesn’t disappear; the me-mirage comes back. Awareness is still here, even during the appearance of the mirage, beholding this appearance. And this mirage is nothing other than the Self (which is all there is) appearing as this momentary sense of separation. However real this separation seems, whenever we look more closely, we find that the separation and the “me” are both empty—they have no actual reality. It is always only a mirage. And we recognize that the awareness beholding that mirage has never been damaged, just as the fire in the movie never burns the screen. The wholeness of being is always complete.
Of course, we need some degree of identity as a bodymind to function—we need to be able to discern the difference between our finger and the carrot we are cutting up, or between our body and the bus we are trying to board. We need to know whose name to respond to, whose mail to open. This functional sense of identity as a particular person arises intermittently as needed. And for most of us, the more dysfunctional sense of identity as “me” (the kind that gives rise to defensiveness, hurt feelings, fear of death, outbursts of self-righteous anger, and so on) also shows up periodically. But neither of these appearances ever destroys or damages the awareness in which it appears.
When we take these periodic flare-ups of the me-illusion personally, that in itself is more of the same illusion, for it is only from the perspective of the separate me that we give personal meaning to how often this illusion still happens “to me,” or how “I” compare to somebody else in this regard. From the perspective of the undivided Self, none of this has any actual persisting or inherent reality. No one owns any of it. It doesn’t mean anything. It SEEMS very real and important from the perspective of the fragment, but in fact, it’s only a dream-like appearance, gone as soon as it arrives. And the “me” in the dream is part of the dream.
"Nothing real can be threatened, nothing unreal exists" – this speaks to the deepest truth, but at the same time, it would be unfortunate if this were taken on as nothing more than an idea or a belief and then used to undermine a struggle for social justice or to ignore a genocide. The pathless path of awakening on the spot is not about denying or ignoring this human reality, but rather, seeing and acting in the world from a place that includes the whole Truth, relative and absolute.
So we return to where we began: “The Self alone is real; The world is not real; The Self is the world.” This so beautifully points to not ignoring or denying the relative world (which is, after all, our own Self), but at the same time, not ignoring the larger context and the deeper truth, and not getting mesmerized and entranced by false dramas—battling with phantoms and ghosts, defending mental images, struggling to control the uncontrollable. When we see the world from that tight, defended, fearful, angry, dualistic place of identification with the separate self, that is our human suffering. When we see the world from spaciousness, as ourSelf, that changes everything.
This is where Anam Thubten’s question from one of my recent posts (6/21/15) is so helpful: What holds us back from awakening to Ultimate Truth right now in this very moment? Are the apparent obstacles that the mind throws out real or are they mirages? Can we even find this one who is supposedly not awake? Who am I really? Can we find any beginning or any ending or any place where I am not? Is space itself (or awareness) in any way disturbed, damaged, broken or destroyed by anything in the movie of waking life? What is real in this very moment?
This all comes down to something very simple: being fully present and awake in this moment. This is at once arduous and easy. It is easy because we already ARE this aware presence—there is no distance to travel, nothing special or different we need to acquire, nothing that must be resisted or eliminated first. But for human beings with our complicated minds, being fully present and awake is arduous because attention so easily gets drawn in and hypnotized by the self-centered dream, the smoggy swirl of emotion-thought, the drama of “me” and “my problems,” the mirage-like virtual reality that the ancients called samsara or delusion. We ignore the simplicity of bare presence—that seems too threatening, too empty of plot and meaning, too empty of “me”—and we become entranced by the movie-drama centering around the fictitious self—me and the world (as I imagine it)—an operatic soap opera, a suspense-filled action thriller, a tear-jerker, a romance by turns.
As soon as attention becomes caught up and mesmerized by the thought-story of me, as soon as we identify as a separate and encapsulated fragment, the trouble begins. We feel alone, lost, lacking, unhappy, unfulfilled, unworthy, confused, restless, unsettled, assaulted by a world of things that we cannot control that threaten to annihilate us. We are overwhelmed by anger, fear and addictive desires. We feel misunderstood, not seen, not loved, abandoned, depressed, anxious, uncertain. This cloudy, smoggy mess is made up of thoughts, stories, memories, sensations, emotions. Neurochemistry, hormones, social conditioning, trauma, the condition of the brain—many things can contribute to this mass of suffering. And the drama that is created, the story, the me at the center of it all—while all totally imaginary—feels and seems very real, very believable. This suffering hurts.
And of course, because it hurts, we want to get out of it. But in some way, we’re also attached to it. It’s our story, our identity, who we think we are. It’s familiar. It’s ME! Maybe it’s the way we’ve learned to get attention, or maybe it’s how we hide from greater vulnerability and risk. It’s entertaining, dramatic. It fills the time. It’s a way of avoiding the heart-opening that we both long for and fear. And so, in some way, our suffering has become something we defend and cling to, often without realizing it. But secretly, we don’t want it to go. Or, we do and we don’t. We’re conflicted, torn, split. The dualistic mind is always torn.
And the habitual ways in which we try to get rid of our suffering only make it worse—fighting it, resisting it, thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to escape from it by drinking or smoking or turning on the TV or having sex or chasing a new lover or a new guru or eating too much or working compulsively or biting our fingers or pulling out our hair or watching pornography or reading one spiritual book after another. As with quicksand, the more we struggle and the more desperately we try to escape, the deeper we sink. Escape may provide temporary relief—a glass of wine, a good movie, a walk in nature will often shift our attention out of the painful thought-loops and the story of me and take us into another world. And that's fine. There’s nothing "wrong" with any of these activities and some of them may be quite wholesome and beneficial. But at some point, in the face of our most persistent imaginary tigers, we may want to go deeper. We may want to risk something that sounds totally counter-intuitive and even frightening.
It occurs to us to stop running away, to stop struggling, to stop all our frantic thinking and doing, to put down the iPad and the wine and turn off the TV (not forever, but in this moment, as a kind of experiment) and to simply BE—to be awake in this moment as the aware presence that we are—and to simply feel the texture of presence itself—to feel the sensations, the urge to get away, the energy…to SEE the thoughts and stories, without getting sucked into them or believing them…to listen to the whole thing without resistance, without judgment, without analysis, without trying to fix it, without wanting it to go away. To behold this whole mass of sensation tenderly, with compassion and love, and perhaps to explore it with our attention. And at the same time, hearing the traffic noise and the birdsong, feeling the breathing, seeing shapes and colors and movements—being awake to this whole ever-changing, seamless happening, inside and outside, no division, no separation. Being open. Not resisting anything—not even resisting resistance if it shows up. Simply seeing it, feeling it in the body, allowing it to reveal itself and dissolve in its own time, in its own way. This is true meditation, and it can happen anywhere in any moment it invites us.
Awareness is the magic solvent, the healing balm, the light that reveals and dispels the darkness. It is unconditioned, free from the past, open to the new. Awareness is unbound, all-inclusive. Like a mirror, it allows everything to show up and to disappear, without grasping or clinging to anything. Awareness is the most powerful force there is, and yet it is utterly gentle and without intention. Awareness is unconditional love.
If we are trying to USE awareness to get rid of the darkness, then we’re back in the realm of self-centered, result-oriented, future-directed thought—resisting and seeking, caught up in the imaginary dualistic division between “me in here” and “the darkness out there,” believing that the darkness must be vanquished in order to save me, and in that very belief, giving credibility and substance to both the darkness and the imaginary self. This is all thought. Awareness is what beholds and reveals all of this. Awareness has no agenda.
Awareness is not trying to eliminate or achieve anything. Awareness allows everything to be as it is, and paradoxically, in allowing everything to be as it is in this moment, awareness allows everything to change in the most intelligent and wholesome way. Awareness IS intelligence itself—not the intelligence we measure on IQ tests, but the intelligence that shows up as this whole amazing universe. Awareness is our True Nature, the ground of being, the Heart. It illuminates and sheds light. Illusions and delusions dissolve naturally in that light. And if action on our part is needed, the actions that spring from open awareness are quite different from the reactions that come out of contracted, dualistic thinking or the smog of emotion-thought.
So the pathless path of being liberated on the spot boils down to something very simple, something at once effortless and arduous. The arduousness is there only before the surrender happens, in the resistance to surrendering and the fear of opening up and letting go. But once that melting and relaxing and letting go into presence happens, it is effortless.
Then there’s simply the tweet-tweet of the bird, the whoosh-whoosh of the traffic, the sensations of heat or cold, the tingling in the hands or feet, the rise and fall of breathing, the morning light on a green leaf, the tiny insect crawling across the window pane—just this. There is no self in it, no me, no other, no inside, no outside, no problem. It is one, whole, undivided happening or aliveness—pulsating, vibrating, dynamic, ever-changing, and yet always perfectly in balance, perfectly complete. It is beyond all concepts.
Someone asked, “What if I go directly into the sensations of fear or the sensation of being a separate self as you have suggested, but the fear doesn’t dissolve, or the sense that I am a separate self is still here, seemingly still separate from what I am observing?”
Can we notice the difference between simply giving whatever is here total, relaxed, open attention, on the one hand, and doing that with the expectation that whatever is showing up should dissolve or go away?
Sometimes, when we turn to meet the imaginary tiger (fear or depression or whatever it is) in the way that I described in my last post, sometimes the sense of fear, or the sense of separation, or the sense of self doesn’t instantly dissolve. Instead of immediately getting lost in the story that, “This isn’t working,” or “I can’t do this,” or “I’ll never get it,” is it possible instead to explore this sensation of fear, or this sense of self, or whatever it is, with openness and curiosity and interest—simply feeling it and giving it our complete, loving, caring attention—not by thinking about it or analyzing it, but by awaring it? And again, not “doing this” in a heavy-handed, result-oriented way with the expectation of a giant breakthrough or a great revelation, but simply out of genuine curiosity and love—totally being present with the bare sensations and the pure energy, allowing it all to reveal itself in its own time. (And if there is an expectation of results, instead of trying to push that down, can we simply be with that in the same open way?)
If we were handed a precious gem, we might turn it over and over in our hand, looking at it from different angles, feeling it with our fingertips, holding it up to the light, perhaps touching it to our cheek. If we were a baby, we might even put it in our mouth. If we are looking at a beautiful work of art—we may take in the whole of it, and then we may spend time looking closely at different parts of it. We may step back and then move in closer. We allow our eyes to move over it, to explore it, to touch and feel and experience every aspect of it. In this same way, we can explore sensation in the body, whether it is the sensations we call fear, or the sensations we call depression, or the sensations we call “me,” the apparently separate self. We’re exploring these sensations the way we might explore the beautiful gem or the work of art—with open attention, with curiosity, with love. We’re not looking for a result or an outcome, we’re simply looking, touching, exploring, beholding, being.
We can’t necessarily see or understand the results of this kind of non-conceptual exploration in any graspable or definable way, but awareness is intelligence itself. And this simple act of open attention is shedding light on our delusions and undoing the knots inside of us in ways we cannot always grasp with our conscious mind. So don’t look for results or try to measure how well you’re doing. That very question (“How am I doing?”) is thought again, imagining itself to be a separate me on a journey of self-improvement. Instead, simply enjoy the looking, the exploring, the touching, the being. In that kind of exploration, as in making love, we may discover that the apparent boundary between the toucher and the touched, or the seer and the seen, or the lover and the Beloved, dissolves completely. This is true devotion.
If we bring our everyday, habitual mindset of rushing toward the future and chasing after an ever-receding goal-post to this act of devotion, it is no longer devotion. Devotion is timeless presence. It is not in a rush. It isn’t looking for a result. It isn’t counting and comparing and measuring and judging and strategizing. It is pure, unconditional love—uncaused joy. It sees beauty everywhere because the beauty is not in the object but in the seeing, the awaring presence, the Heart.
And if it seems like you’re not experiencing joy or love or beauty—if you feel stuck and miserable and confused—is it possible to simply give that sense of stuckness or misery or confusion your complete attention—to explore it as lovingly as you would a beautiful painting or a rare gem or the face of your beloved. Not by thinking about it, not by getting lost in the storylines that create it and keep it going, but by being with it as pure energy and sensation, in the body—with no division between seer and seen.
If it invites you, try it out.
I am sometimes asked how giving open attention to bodily sensations and listening to traffic sounds and birdsongs relates to nondual teachings that urge us to rest as awareness, or take our stand as awareness, or be that which is prior to consciousness. In other words, some teachings recommend what seems to be an opposite approach to what I am often describing. Such teachings urge us to be the space in which everything is happening, to fall into the emptiness beyond all concepts, to dissolve into the inconceivable and unnamable Absolute that remains when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears. In some cases, these teachings may even recommend ignoring the body-mind-world completely.
But I notice that awareness is not ignoring the body-mind-world. Awareness is always saying yes to everything. It is always allowing everything to be as it is. It never grasps anything, nor does it resist anything. Like the screen on which the movie appears, awareness accepts whatever appears and allows it to disappear again. The screen is completely intimate with and indivisible from the movie, and yet, the fire in the movie never burns the screen. Awareness is like that. It is complete intimacy and immediacy, unconditional love, absolute openness—and yet, it is indestructible. And just as the screen is equally present in a scene of violence or a scene of peace, in a close-up or a wide-angle view, awareness is equally present whether there is a thought-sense of being expanded and boundless or a thought-sense of being contracted and encapsulated. (Of course, it's important to remember that this comparison to a movie screen is only an analogy—unlike the screen, awareness is not an object that can be perceived.)
By simply listening to traffic sounds and bird cheeps, feeling the breathing, exploring bodily sensations, we ARE taking our stand as awareness. We are BEING the space in which everything appears, and we are realizing directly the emptiness (the impermanent, fluid, interdependent nature, the formlessness) of every apparent form. We are BEING this whole happening, just as it is. And in that open, awaring presence, that undivided being, there is no more thought-story of "me" taking "my stand" as awareness, or "me" being "the space." There is simply cheep-cheep-cheep, whooosh, whoosh—no inside, no outside—only this undivided listening-seeing-sensing-perceiving-awaring-aliveness. In this seamless, boundless, effortless presence there is no unenlightened one and no enlightened one, no self and no other.
To fixate or get stuck in either form or emptiness—to see them as two different things—is delusion. Awareness is like the ocean that is equally present as every wave. And as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully said, "A wave does not have to stop being a wave in order to be water." We don't have to stop being a person in order to realize that we are not limited to that or encapsulated inside the bodymind. By deeply exploring the bodymind, we see directly that "the person" (or "the bodymind") is not as solid, separate or continuous as these nouns would suggest.
Zooming out into the recognition of no-thing-ness, zooming in to embrace EVERYTHING, giving total devotion to THIS cup of tea or THIS act of sweeping the floor—these may all be doorways on the pathless path to being liberated on the spot. But once through the imaginary doorway (the gateless gate), no conflict remains. If we go deeply into the world of apparent form with awareness, we come to the same spacious openness, the same unbound emptiness, the same formlessness, the same awake presence, the same freedom that we come to if we take what initially seems to be the opposite approach and turn our attention instead to what is aware of awareness or prior to consciousness. Nisargadatta Maharaj put it beautifully: "Love says: 'I am everything.' Wisdom says: 'I am nothing.' Between the two my life flows." And elsewhere, he says that the no-thing-ness of pure witnessing "may seem to be an attitude of cold aloofness, but it is not really so. Once you are in it, you will find that you love what you see, whatever may be its nature. This choiceless love is the touchstone of awareness."
If you go to a Zen Center seeking enlightenment, you may be initially disappointed and frustrated to find that the instruction you are being given is all about cleaning the toilet, cooking lunch, sweeping the floor and serving tea. You may wonder, where's the enlightenment? But eventually you realize that it is right here in this moment of cleaning the toilet or pouring the tea. Enlightenment isn't some exotic mystical or metaphysical idea or experience, but simply the "ordinary mind" that is right here when we stop interfering with it and seeking it elsewhere.
Different pointers and different approaches have different strengths and different potential pitfalls, and each may be helpful (or unhelpful) at a different moment. So we don't need to make one approach wrong and another right. What matters is whether the arrow hits the mark in this moment right now. If we end up confused and muddled up in thought, the arrow has missed the mark. If we end up awake and present, it has hit the target. All we need to do is follow our heart and trust that we will find the pointers, the arrows, the teachings and the teachers that we need to find at the moment we need to find them—or they will find us.
Sometimes when we try to ignore the world of form and simply "be aware of awareness" or "be the space," we just end up feeling tense and frustrated, more divided than ever. We're struggling to do this impossible action in which the eye is trying to see the eye, or the seeing is trying to see the seeing, and in the process we're feeling ever-more contracted and hopeless, caught in the split of dualism. As long as we think there is some "thing" (an insight, an experience, a state) to be grasped, we will be frustrated, trapped in the drama of getting it and losing it, or not getting it at all—because, of course, the eye can't see itself, and awareness cannot be grasped as an object.
If we're lucky, the bubble of imaginary encapsulation and separation will eventually pop, and it will suddenly become obvious that awareness has never been absent and that the one who thinks that "I" need to "take a stand," or "identify," or somehow "be" awareness is only a mirage, a fiction. But sometimes that's not what happens. So if this pointer doesn't instantly hit the mark, this approach can perpetuate a subtle new dualism between form and emptiness, or between awareness and content. "Awareness" begins to seem like some-THING that is separate from "me" and "out there" somewhere, and "I" (the separate self) feel more solid and contracted and limited than ever before as "I" try harder and harder to take "my" stand in some place other that where I (the True Self) always already am.
In the process of this desperate effort, we often become a harsh task-master, barking commands and constantly reminding ourselves to "be the space" and not what appears in the space, struggling to "identify as awareness" rather than as a person, pushing away and trying to suppress our interest in worldly affairs, our love of movies or novels, our concerns about the environment, our sense of being a person—all of which we have decided is spiritually incorrect and not transcendent enough. We're resisting one aspect of our experience and chasing another, trying to control the whole bloody mess so that "I" (the separate self) will finally be enlightened, worthy and at peace.
I think many people have had that kind of experience with this approach. So that's an example of the arrow sometimes missing the mark. Awareness has been split off, objectified, reified and made into some imaginary "thing" that is OTHER than the trees, the sunlight, the barking dog, the flitting thoughts, the pulsing sensations, the computer screen, the ringing phone, the cat sleeping on the sofa—the wholeness of this moment, ever-changing and ever-present.
Another way the transcendent approach can run amuck is that sometimes people use it as a way to avoid life or deny relative reality—a kind of spiritual by-passing, dissociation or ignore-ance. Your partner asks why you're not doing your share of the housework, and you smile blissfully and say there is no one here to do anything and housework is only a dream, as you dissolve happily into the spacious experience you have identified in your mind as "primordial awareness." Or you talk glibly about "no self" and "no separation," and then get angry and defensive when you partner mentions the housework, and when she remarks that you seem defensive, you scream at her, "There's nobody here to defend!!!" You feel furious that she's not seeing how empty of self and enlightened you are. (And if your mind is trickier and slipperier and more passive-aggressive, then perhaps instead of screaming, you simply look gently at her and say those same words very softly, as if addressing a small child. And you tell yourself you're not angry, that you don't get angry anymore, that you are pure awareness.)
So those are a few of the dangers or potential pitfalls I've seen with the more transcendent approach. It can become a way of not seeing, a way of ignoring. But there are pitfalls in the other way as well. People can get caught up in a new task of endlessly trying to "mindfully pay attention" and "explore sensations" in a driven way, motivated by the desire for achievement and self-improvement, and rooted in a sense of unworthiness and lack. Instead of opening everything up, this becomes an obsessive, goal-oriented fixation that can narrow things done and reinforce the sense of the "me" who is doing all of this and trying to do it perfectly. Here we have the Zen student or the avid meditator who is actually cultivating the ego by doing everything mindfully and meditating perfectly. So being aware of the potential pitfalls with any approach, the ways it can be misunderstood and the ways the ego can co-opt it, is always helpful.
I actually love many different approaches—the Zen approach and the Advaita approach—the zooming-in approach and the zooming-out approach. In my writing and talking, you'll find elements of many different ways of seeing through delusion and realizing Truth. So we don't need to get stuck on thinking any one map is the only way for everyone or that we have to choose one and reject the others.
There is no "right way" for awakening to happen. And even to call it awakening or enlightenment is a set-up for turning what is actually very simple into something imagined by the mind to be exotic and unattainable. All these different pointers are pointing to what is right here, right now. And if that isn't 100% clear, then I'd suggest exploring whatever seems to be in the way and finding out directly how real this apparent obstacle is or isn't. Or, if you prefer, you can turn your attention to the space in which this obstacle appears and discover that there is a bigger context and that your True Nature is always already free. Either way, whether you zoom in or out, if you go all the way, you'll find the same spacious emptiness, the same freedom.
This emptiness is what every form is, what every sensation is—this awaring present-ness, this no-thing-ness, a movement of energy, stillness, aliveness, unbound vastness. Truth is beyond words and beyond belief, and if you seek it, you tend to overlook it. And yet, at the same time, the longing to be free—if you go deeply into the pure fire of that longing—may be the doorway to this placeless place where you always already are. Actually, the gateless gate is everywhere (and nowhere). However you get here, being here is what matters. And then you realize you haven't gone anywhere at all.
Are thought, imagination and memory things we should avoid? It sometimes feels that way when we listen to teachings about nonconceptual presence and awareness, or when we take up forms of meditation that encourage us to let go of thoughts and stories and turn our attention instead to bare sensations, pure perceiving, energy or presence itself.
Any path of awakening has something to do with waking up from the ways in which we create suffering. And how do we create suffering? By believing in and getting hypnotized by habitual thought-loops (e.g. "I'm a failure," "I'll never get it," "You ruined my life," "I can't stand this," etc.), by remembering (and telling stories about) "all the ways you hurt me," or "all the opportunities I missed," or "all the mistakes I made," or "all the mistakes you made," or by imagining all the terrible things that might happen to me—basically, by getting lost in past or future and mistaking the map for the territory, and sometimes a totally distorted map at that.
So the path of awakening has something to do with a process of learning to recognize the difference between the living reality and our thoughts about that reality, between what's actually happening and the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about it, between presence-awareness (the Now) and conceptualization, memory or imagination. And that's all well and good—crucial, in fact.
But let's don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Imagination, memory, and thought are wonderful capacities.
Without memory, we'd be forever reinventing the wheel and stepping into the same quicksand. We learn from our mistakes and from history, and that's important. If you've been around a person with advanced dementia, you know very well how crucial memory is for a functional life. If every time I run into Person Y, he hits me over the head—it's helpful to remember that and to perhaps be more cautious when I approach that person. But if I assume that because Person Y has always done that in the past, that therefore he always will do that in the future, or that anyone else named Y will necessarily behave in the same way, then I'm making a mistake. I'm no longer open to a new possibility. I'm no longer seeing the present moment clearly. We encounter situations of this kind all the time in our personal lives and globally (think Israel-Palestine, for example, or the ways we "see" or don't see someone we've decided is our enemy).
Our ability to think, to abstract, to conceptualize, to reason…this has gotten us to the moon and to the top of the food chain. We wouldn't have any of the wonders of our modern society without these capacities. Science, technology, medicine, law, journalism, literature, sophisticated forms of communication and organization—all rely on these abilities. Without thinking, I couldn't write this Facebook post and you couldn't read it. Obviously, thinking can also get us into hot water, and so the ability to discern the difference between the map (the thought or the concept) and the territory (the living reality that it describes), and between the useful or creative thought and the dysfunctional thought, is crucial. But thought itself is a wonderful tool. It is every bit as much the Holy Reality as rivers and trees and mountains.
Imagination is another amazing capacity of consciousness. Without imagination, there would be no music, no poetry, no novels, no theater, no movies, no opera. It is through these realms that humans share and experience many wonderful insights and heart-openings, great beauty, as well as simply the joy of entertainment. And without imagination, there would be no social progress. For example, without the ability to imagine a world without slavery, segregation and racism, there would have been no abolitionist movement and no civil rights movement in the United States. Without imagination, there would be no houses, no boats, no airplanes, no trips to the moon, no International Space Station, no environmental movement, no Facebook or Facetime, no computers or telephones or can-openers or solar energy panels.
Many spiritual paths utilize story-telling and mythology, and some actively encourage and work with the imagination—for example, Tibetan Buddhist visualization practices or Zen koan work. One Tibetan Buddhist teacher said that the point of visualization practice is to realize that we are visualizing (or imagining) everything. Indeed, it could be said that consciousness is imagining everything that happens, and that whatever appears is imagination. Law of Attraction teachings make use of this same principle, encouraging people to visualize what they want and to regard whatever appears as a reflection of their present state of consciousness. While that can be taken too far (blaming people with cancer, or people born into poverty, or rape victims, or people in war zones for "creating their own reality"), it can certainly be very liberating to notice how we do in many ways create our own reality. And imagining or envisioning ourselves being free and open and loving is certainly better than imagining ourselves as worthless failures stuck in a horrible world. Years ago, when I studied martial arts and we had to punch and kick through boards, I found that visualizing my punch going through the board made all the difference, and that when I (inadvertently) visualized the opposite, I'd get hurt. So clearly, imagination is a wonderful power and a source of creativity, illumination and evolution.
In contrast to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who spent hours sitting on the plains watching the clouds blow across the sky, we live in a fast-paced society that bombards us with words and thought-generated information along with constant, fast-moving auditory and visual stimulation. TV screens are everywhere, and everyone now carries their own portable screens. We are rarely disconnected, and every moment of silence is instantly filled with sound and input. Just sitting in a waiting room or on a bus without turning on our phone, without reading or writing or listening to music or knitting or doing anything at all, can be an amazing relief and a great discovery—but for many of us, this kind of non-doing can seem initially terrifying. Our whole accelerated bodymind is urging us on, straining at the bit, desperately looking for something to occupy our attention. And because of that, I'd say it's worth experimenting with simply being here, at least occasionally.
But that doesn't mean we should renounce our smart phones and our imagination, or that we should try to be a state of thought-free presence, doing nothing "all the time." That's just another fantasy, more noise. And while some meditation practices are indeed all about controlling the mind and developing concentration, the meditation that interests me is simply open awareness, beholding whatever shows up, being just this moment—devotion to what is. I find that much more interesting and liberating than trying to control and manage it all.
But that doesn't mean I just roll over passively in daily life and allow myself to be a doormat. It doesn't mean I don't try to change certain things. I do! Life moves in many ways, and realization is a never-ending discovery that includes everything. I love movies and plays and novels and TV and playing on my iPad. I love politics and gossip. I love the imagination. I love having memories of people I love who are no longer alive and of places I've been that touched me deeply. I love being able to think and conceptualize. None of this is in any way antithetical to being awake.
I also love doing nothing. I love sitting in silence. I love stillness. I love seeing through and waking up from the kinds of habitual stories and beliefs that limit me and that I had thought were true until I discovered they weren't. I love bare presence, open awareness, vast spaciousness. I love feeling the play of energy in the body and the aliveness of presence itself. In the end, the apparent differences are all facets of one, undivided reality. I love being Joan and I also love being impersonal boundless awareness. It's all included.
Non-duality doesn’t mean losing the ability (as life itself) to make distinctions and to act within the play of life. Seeing through the illusion of the separate self does not mean the absence of response-ability. If anything, it enhances the ability to respond. Seeing through the illusion of the separate self is a waking up to the True Self (unbound awareness, the Living Reality Here / Now), and thus it is a waking up of the ability or capacity to respond from a deeper, more holistic, more intelligent place, beyond the illusion of separation and fragmentation.
Until we open to it completely, we are oddly uncomfortable with what is, here and now, and our whole life seems to be about getting away from where we actually always are. What we’re trying to escape is rarely the actuality of this moment, but usually, it’s our thoughts and stories about it. The bare energies or sensations may seem unbearable, frightening or overwhelming, but it almost always (if not always) takes thought to create the sense that something is unbearable, scary or overwhelming—thoughts such as, “This will kill me,” “I can’t stand this,” What if it gets worse?” “What if I go crazy?” and so on. When we finally allow ourselves to fully open to and experience the actual sensations and energy with no resistance, there is nothing to fear and nothing to be overwhelmed.
In the face of darkness and despair, or for that matter, in the face of love and bliss, which we often seem to fear just as much, there are many familiar old grooves beckoning us into habitual loops of numbness, hyper-stimulation, restlessness, distraction, bitterness, cynicism, hopelessness, rage, depression, despair, self-pity, self-hatred, self-destruction, addiction, and so on. All of these habitual old grooves involve taking ourselves, our story, and our separate existence very seriously. And one of those old grooves is the idealistic desire for perfection—the notion that “I” should or must or will eventually purify myself of all such warts and defects. Someday, “I” (the separate self) will cross the finish line once and for all and be an Enlightened One. This fantasy is part of the addiction, part of the delusion.
Instead, is it possible to simply notice when we are avoiding something uncomfortable, when we are seeking or resisting? Is it possible to see when things seem to solidify in the mind, when we feel separate and lacking, when we shrink down into the sense of being a separate self, when we find ourselves growing defensive or chasing after things to fix us? We don’t need to banish all of these arisings or go to war with them. Simply being aware of the whole thing is enough, seeing it for what it is when it shows up, being curious about it—not by thinking about and analyzing it, but by giving it our whole-hearted attention. In this whole-hearted attention (or open awareness) there is no “me” and no “it” anymore. There is no separation, no story, no labels or judgments, no resistance, no intention, no goal. There is just this happening, exactly as it is.
This is what we’ve been running from, and yet, when we turn to meet it with open awareness, we find that it is nothing substantial at all. Without the labels (loneliness, fear, anger, hopelessness, sorrow, disappointment), without the judgments (bad, stupid, sign of failure, proof of unenlightenment), without the storylines, without trying to suppress it, without acting it out—what is it? That question is not calling for an answer. Rather, it’s an invitation to simply open to whatever is showing up as pure sensation, allowing it all the space it needs—feeling the bodily sensations and at the same time, hearing the wind in the leaves, the traffic sounds, the cheeping birds—all of it one whole undivided happening.
Whether we call this work or play or vigilance or practice, this pathless path of being liberated on the spot is about waking up from mind-generated suffering and discovering freedom, happiness and love right here in the heart of this moment as our most intimate reality. Waking up is not about getting the right idea or believing something. It’s not abstract. It’s very concrete, very real, very embodied. It’s about learning to trust what remains when we let go of everything – every belief, every idea, every philosophy, every explanation, every agenda, every effort.
People on a spiritual search are often chasing after experiences. It has been said that spiritual seekers are experience junkies. And along the way, many experiences do happen, and for some people, very dramatic ones (kundalini rushing up the spine, visions, shaking of the body, altered states of various kinds). Experiences, especially if they are pleasant or dramatic, can be very seductive. We want more of them, and we think they are significant. We think they mean something. Often, we spend a great deal of time trying to re-experience a past experience, or trying to achieve an experience that we have read about or heard someone else describe. This is always a disappointing quest because experiences by their very nature are impermanent. They come and go.
Sometimes we imagine that enlightenment (awakening, realization, liberation) would mean the sustained experiencing of a particular experience we’ve had—maybe an experience of spaciousness or openness or calm or high energy or freedom or profound presence or a deep sense of the undivided nature of reality—whatever it was. And we think enlightenment would mean having that experience permanently, “all the time.” That, of course, is folly. No experience is permanent. If it came, it will go. Even our most primary experience of being here now, the experience of presence, comes and goes every night with deep sleep.
We can’t experience what remains in deep sleep. Some people claim to have experienced deep sleep, but my hunch is that they were experiencing a dream about experiencing deep sleep. By definition, deep sleep is not an experience. We can’t experience what remains when everything perceivable and conceivable is gone. We ARE what remains in deep sleep, but no-thing can step outside of that non-dual unicity (aka totality, pure consciousness or primordial awareness) to experience it in the way we can experience ordinary phenomena. And yet, paradoxically, there is nothing OTHER than unicity, so in another sense, EVERY experience is that. But unicity is never confined to any particular experience—it is not this experience but not some other experience. Non-dual wholeness is not something in particular. It is everything, and even more accurately, it is the no-thing-ness (or emptiness) of everything.
Experience (perceiving, sensing, thinking, emoting) is by nature always broken out into apparent multiplicity, dualism and polarity. Every experience contains the potentiality of its opposite. We can’t have up without down or light without dark. We can only perceive a chair because it stands out from everything else that is not a chair. But this sort of dualism, which is the very nature of conscious experience, is not inherently problematic. Our suffering comes from thinking that the apparent multiplicity really is a bunch of separate objects and that the opposite sides of a polarity are actually separate, fixed, independent things that can be pulled apart, instead of seeing that the two sides are relative, mutable, and totally interdependent. Because we don’t see that, we imagine that evil can be vanquished once and for all, or that we will get to a place where there is no more delusion, no more darkness, no more ups and downs.
But no such place exists except as the place-less-ness Here / Now that includes all the ups and all the downs, the totality from which nothing stands apart, the one without a second, the unicity that has no opposite—and that is not an object that we can perceive or experience or take hold of and put on our altar. That is the no-thing-ness (or emptiness) of everything.
No polarity is fixed or absolute. It only exists in relationship. In other words, there is no such thing as absolute up or absolute down. The ceiling is up relative to the floor, but down relative to the sky. The ceiling is not absolutely any way in particular. It can only be relatively up or relatively down in relation to something else. There is no place that is always up. Likewise, we can never have a one-sided coin, nor can we ever find any exact place on the coin where heads turns into tails, nor do the two sides even exist without the frame or container of the coin. Everything perceivable or conceivable is relative, mutable, impermanent and totally interdependent with everything else. In Buddhist terms, everything is empty—empty of any inherent, persisting, absolute, independent existence—empty of self.
So if we’re looking for enlightenment in the realm of experiences—if we imagine that it is a particular experience or a particular state of mind that lasts forever—then we’re looking in the wrong place.
That’s why I put that quote up from Nisargadatta as my last post: “All experience is illusory, limited and temporal. Expect nothing from experience. Realisation by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences. Yet the new experiences, however interesting, are not more real than the old. Definitely realisation is not a new experience. It is the discovery of the timeless factor in every experience. It is awareness, which makes experience possible. Just like in all the colours light is the colourless factor, so in every experience awareness is present, yet it is not an experience."
That’s not to say that we should ignore, denigrate or avoid experience, or that experience is somehow bad or unspiritual. And in a conventional way, what we experience is quite real. But when we look more closely, we find that whatever we experience is empty of any fixed or essential nature. Awareness, “the timeless factor in every experience,” is not a separate thing. It is not an object or a particular experience. Awareness is right here now—showing up as a summer rainstorm, the taste of tea, green leaves dancing in the breeze, city traffic, neon lights, the pain of a headache, the dazzling excitement of a first kiss, the final out-breath of a dying parent.
When we recognize the emptiness and the meaninglessness of experience, life becomes playful and joyous. Everything lightens up. Nothing is fixed or solid. Everything is alive. This is freedom. It is the freedom that no longer needs or expects dramatic experiences or perpetual bliss or anything else other than exactly what is. It is the freedom that sees the Holy Reality everywhere, in everything. This seeing is awareness or unconditional love—not as an experience that the separate self has—but as the emptiness (the fluidity, the openness, the undivided wholeness) that we truly are.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2015--
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