Postings from My Facebook Page #10
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the tenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (7/29/15 - 10/31/15). 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 had a question from someone who said there has been a clear seeing that there is no doer and no self, that life and apparent choices are happening by themselves. And then he asks, “How does life balance itself with ambition? Building a very successful career. Goals. Intentionally doing the work and striving.” This person works in a collaborative creative field and says that, on the one hand, he must “be a machine,” and yet “the work must be and is essentially open and egoless if it is to be pure, alive and real.” He says that the understanding of non-doership has greatly helped with not taking everything so personally, and he adds, “but the ambition, passion is to remain very vibrant and alive.” How to balance all that?
It’s so important to remember that these pointers such as “no doer, no author, no self, no choice” are conceptual pointers to a nonconceptual actuality. In other word, they are maps, not the territory (the living reality) itself. When we take these pointers on conceptually and start thinking about them as ideas, sooner or later there is confusion and paradox because no concept can capture or contain or re-present the living reality. So whenever we experience mental confusion, it’s a sign that we’re lost in thought. We’re lost in the map-world trying to figure things out conceptually. We may also notice that such questions are always rooted in the sense of being a separate self—they are always coming from the point of view of “me,” caught in some imaginary dilemma.
I’m not implying that the person asking this question has only an intellectual or conceptual understanding. We can explore these matters directly and see very clearly in one moment, and then be lost in thought and tangled up in concepts again a moment later. It happens to most (if not all) of us from time to time. The habit of imagining ourselves as an encapsulated, separate fragment and then trying to figure all this out by thinking is very strong. And as with any form of addiction, the addictive voice convinces us that “if I just think a little bit more,” “I” will figure this out, and then “I” will be free to relax and stop thinking. So can we be aware of these subtle traps as they arises?
Choice and no-choice are different maps. They both describe a living reality that cannot be captured in any abstract, dualistic concept. Each map is helpful in different ways, and each can be misleading in different ways. Finally, we can’t say there is choice, and we can’t say there is no choice.
But if we’re using the no-choice, no-author, no-doer map, I recommend immediate, direct experience and firsthand investigation. In other words, instead of thinking about it abstractly, look and see. Am I choosing to have this confusion or this question right now? Am I choosing to keep thinking about it or to let it go? How does the letting go happen if it does? Is anyone in control of when it happens? How do ambition and passion and goals happen? Do I choose to be passionate or ambitious, or open and egoless?
When we look closely, we see that it ALL happens by itself. And yet, that doesn’t mean that I just sit passively on the sofa waiting for life to happen, or that if my child is hit by a bus, I just stand there because “there is no one to be hurt and no one to do anything about it.” That would be a misunderstanding of the no-self, no-choice, no-author, no-doer map. It’s the kind of misunderstanding that arises when there is still a subtle sense of “me” in there (me trying not to be me), and then thinking about all of this abstractly and conceptually rather than looking directly.
When we look closely with awareness (or more accurately, when looking closely happens), doing still happens, but no doer is found apart from the doing. There is no “me” who is rushing to my child’s side and calling for an ambulance, no author who is initiating this action, no doer of these deeds. And when I’m planning my next career move, there is no thinker of those thoughts who is doing this planning. The thinker is itself a thought. The planning is simply happening, just as calling an ambulance is happening. Thought is always after the fact. It is never the operative factor that it claims to be. It claims to be “me,” the thinker, the author, the decider, the chooser, the actor, the doer, the controller, the operator. But look closely, and it is clear that thought happens by itself—it pops up unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere. Thinking happens. Planning happens. Indecision happens. Choosing happens. Action happens. And thought says, “I did it,” or “I must decide,” or “I decided,” or “I have to figure out how to balance choicelessness with ambition.” These thoughts are conditioned arisings that pop up spontaneously before or after the action they describe, and they create (in imagination only) the mirage of this phantom “me” who is supposedly in control and doing all of this through free will. But that’s not our actual experience if we pay very careful attention.
Even what appear to be self-chosen, intentional actions such as positive thinking, loving-kindness meditations, visualizations, making an effort, self-discipline and so on, are happening as an activity of the whole universe. From where did the urge and the interest and the intention to think positively come? Is anyone in control of whether positive thinking happens or not in any given moment? It SEEMS that “I” am in control, that “I” am choosing to think positively, so this takes a careful, subtle attention to really see this—and this is one area where meditation and meditative inquiry can be very helpful.
But when we THINK about all of this instead of looking directly as it happens, then it seems to become more confusing—but always only if we think about it. How can I balance the open, egoless, spontaneity needed for my creative work with the goal-oriented ambition, hard work and self-promotion that is part of getting the jobs? How can I work hard and be passionate if there’s no me to do that? If I have goals and plans, does that mean I’ve failed as a spontaneously-arising, non-authoring, non-doer, no-self? Can we see that these are mental dilemmas that only exist in thought? Ambition happens, intention arises, setting goals happens, self-promotion happens, working hard happens. The interest in non-doership happens. ALL of this happens by itself. There is no central agent (no me, no God) doing any of it. And yet, in another sense, there is Only Me, Only God—and I AM doing absolutely ALL of it. But this “I” is not the imaginary separate self (the thoughts that pretend to be in control). This “I” is the Totality, Consciousness, the life force, universal energy, the One without a second, the Self with a capital “S”. There is nothing else here.
The separate self is always an illusion. It is never really here. It is simply a bunch of thoughts, stories and sensations—a contacted energy—a mirage-like, hypnotic thought-sense of being separate and encapsulated—a particular dance that the Totality is doing from time to time. But it is ALL the One Self, the undivided wholeness of being, showing up as multiplicity and apparent separation and as the idea that “I” (the illusory separate self) must manage my life, get somewhere, be a success, achieve something, do the right thing, be a winner, cross the finish line, be approved of by the people who matter, etc. And then there is a new layer of that same dance, the spiritual story or the nondual story that “I” (the separate self) must get rid of myself, that “I” must get beyond this experience of being “me,” that “I” must refrain from making choices or having preferences or having goals or trying to get somewhere, because all of that is somehow holding “me” back from enlightenment. And then, the thinking mind wonders, “But if I don’t do anything, how will I get the job I want?” Round and round we go on the hamster wheel trying to figure that out.
But is the dilemma really there to begin with? Or is the whole conundrum an imaginary problem?
Realizing that everything is a choiceless happening is very freeing, and that choiceless happening includes the sense of having to make choices and the process of apparently making decisions and the meditative work of questioning our thoughts and seeing the nature of reality and learning how the mind tricks us—it’s ALL part of this choiceless happening. The delusion is that “I” (the separate self) am doing ANY of it. In the absence of that thought-sense of separation, planning still happens, but we no longer take it personally if the plan doesn’t work out. We know we’re not in control. We don’t feel devastated or ashamed or outraged if our goals are unmet or if “we” sometimes fail to act in the ways we think we should. It doesn’t even bother us anymore if the contracted sense of being “me” shows up from time to time—if we get defensive or hurt or frustrated. There’s no added story that this is a personal failure or a sure sign that “I” am not enlightened yet. We realize that it is ALL part of the dance. Even disappointment or feelings of separation or devastation (if they happen) are part of the dance as well. NONE of it is personal. It doesn’t mean anything about “me,” because there is no me—there never has been.
Now let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a functional sense of identity as a particular bodymind. I know I’m Joan in the movie of waking life. I don’t mistake myself for someone else or for a chair. And it also doesn’t mean there isn’t a personality. Like all human beings, Joan has a certain unique flavor, certain qualities and characteristics—and those don’t dissolve into the ethers. These characteristics and tendencies are realized to be more protean and less set in stone than might have been previously thought, but they still show up. They are conditioned patterns. Joan is a fluid but patterned movement, like a whirlpool or a wave—ungraspable but nevertheless undeniable. The whirlpool or the wave is not a problem. As Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully said, “A wave does not have to stop being a wave in order to be water.” The functional sense of identity is not a problem. The conventional (relative) reality of the bodymind and the person is not a problem. Going through the process of apparently making choices and decisions and setting goals and making plans is not a problem.
The suffering comes from that illusory sense that “I” am separate and in control, that what happens “to me” is personal (self-caused and full of meaning about “me”). Suffering is believing that I need to achieve my goal in order to be happy, that my happiness depends on a particular outcome, or that if I don’t get the job or the award, then I’m a worthless failure who has ruined my life. Suffering is imagining that this bodymind and this “me” have an absolute, fixed, persisting, independent, inherent reality—like a frozen wave broken off from the ocean—and that “I” (the phantom author/controller) am steering “myself” (this separate, frozen wave) through life. That is the illusion, that is the source of suffering. In reality, waving is simply something the whole ocean is doing, just as me-ing or Joan-ing or people-ing or thinking or planning or meditating or calling an ambulance or pursuing a job is something that Consciousness or undivided being is doing.
In his book The Way of Powerlessness, Advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman notes that when the false sense of individual authorship dissolves, when we recognize our personal powerlessness, suddenly a new kind of power flows in, an impersonal power. As Wayne puts it: “Once we know ourselves to be Ocean in the form of wave, we become free to be ourselves in a way we never dreamed possible. It is as if we had spent our life driving with the emergency brake on and suddenly it is off.”
So being awake isn’t about some kind of lifeless passivity or not having any passion or any feelings anymore, or being unable to function in the everyday world, or turning into some bland non-person with no personality and no preferences, or being totally perfect and cleansed of all human imperfection. Quite the opposite. It is about being fully alive. To cite another of my favorite gems from 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." EVERYTHING is included! Everything is the Holy Reality.
I received another question somewhat similar to the one that prompted my last long post on July 29, so this is obviously a common and persistent form of confusion. Here is the question: “It seems so clear sometimes that everything is happening, but ‘I’ is not doing anything except claiming what happens…Yet there is such a big desire to move ‘my life’ toward a more peaceful, aware, and joyful place…My wife thinks that if someone wants something badly enough, s/he can make a choice toward it. But where does the strong desire come from? Who can cultivate it?...I so want to be able to have the strong desire and make the choices! But I can't help notice that there's not really someone back there doing-choosing. Can I (or should I even try?!) to find some kind of personal empowerment? Or is it best just to keep my head in the lion's mouth?”
There seems to be an assumption in this question that any pursuit of “personal empowerment” is at odds with “keeping your head in the lion’s mouth,” which presumably means staying on the path to enlightenment. But what is actually meant by personal empowerment, and what do we imagine enlightenment to be, and are these two really at odds? And to whom does this whole concern arise?
We grow up learning to think and feel that “I” (an individual soul) am inside “the body” (a separate form) looking out at “the world” and steering “myself” through life. Many religions reinforce this belief, but Buddhism in particular questions and deconstructs it. Many contemporary neuroscientists have also deconstructed it. My main teacher Toni Packer invited us again and again to look for this “me,” to track it down and see if we could find it. She encouraged us to watch as choices and decisions unfolded to see if we could find the chooser or the decider.
And when the looking happened here, nothing was found. There was no entity pulling the levers, authoring the thoughts, making the choices. There was simply life happening. One undivided event without separation. It became abundantly clear that the phantom-me seemingly at the center of “my life” is a conceptual construction composed of thoughts, memories, stories and images that give rise intermittently to this mirage-like “self” who seems to be the author of my thoughts and the maker of my choices. Thought poses (before or after the fact) as “me” and takes credit or blame for whatever this mirage-like “me” has supposedly just done. But so far, at least as far as I know, no central executive has ever actually been found.
One neuroscientist speaks of the brain as “a team of rivals,” another speaks of the self and free will as “neurological sensations” rather than actual realities. We know that much of what moves us in any moment is below the level of conscious awareness. And when we look closely at what does appear in conscious awareness, we find no thinker authoring the thoughts and no decider making the decisions. All we ever find during the making of a choice are conflicting urges and conflicting thoughts, and finally, one side of the argument seems to win out decisively and the organism moves in that direction. And then thought says, “I decided.” But was anyone in control of when that decisive moment arrived? Was anyone choosing to think and feel all of those conflicting thoughts and urges that preceded it?
Does this mean that “I” am just a puppet on a string? No. It means that there is no separate self to be in or out of control. It means there is no separation between the ocean and the wave or between me and the universe. We can’t really say whether the universe is creating me or whether I am creating the universe. It is one whole movement from which nothing stands apart.
We may speak of either control or no-control (choice or no choice) in a relative, conventional, tentative way. Both are conceptual abstractions, a kind of map, and each of these apparently opposite maps may be helpful at the right moment. But if we start imagining that either control or no-control (choice or no choice) is absolutely true, or that we must choose between them or figure out which is correct in order to be successful, we have fallen into mental confusion centered around the imaginary self.
The realization that there is no self at the helm in the way we’ve thought there was doesn’t mean that we therefore can’t or shouldn’t meditate, or work hard, or visualize success, or pursue various goals, or apparently make choices….rather, it is the recognition that all these ideas about should or shouldn’t, choice or no choice, advantage or disadvantage are mental constructions before or after the fact. The living reality cannot be boxed up in this way. So when we’re caught up in this kind of mental confusion, it may be helpful to simply return our attention to breathing, hearing the traffic, feeling the sensations in the body—in other words, the direct, immediate, ever-changing, totally alive, undeniable experiencing of this moment.
We think that if we don’t figure it all out, we won’t know what to do. But gradually, a trust begins to develop that out of this kind of bare experiencing and aware presence, intelligent action arises.
One way or another, you will always do what life moves you to do because “you” are in no way separate from life. Like a wave in the ocean, you are a movement of the whole ocean, not a separate, independent part. The desire for positive transformation arises in you as a movement of the whole universe. Your wife’s perspective on this arises in her as a movement of the whole universe. Her urge to tell you about her perspective arises in her. Your desire to want something badly enough to be able to make the choices that will bring it about arises in you. Your exploration and discovery that the I-thought is not actually in the driver’s seat also happens out of the whole universe. And then suddenly thought has two conflicting maps: “Create your own reality and personal empowerment” vs. “Choiceless happening and no self.” Your wife is pushing one map, and you’re torn between the two maps, worried that you may make the wrong choice and either blow your chance for enlightenment or else blow your chance for personal transformation (and maybe also your marriage). It seems very important that “you” make the right choice. And yet you “know” that there is no you and no choice. So you feel very confused. Back and forth thought argues with itself, pulling you this way and then that. You can feel the tension of this in the whole body—it’s like being pulled apart. And just feeling it in the body may be much more helpful than continuing to think about it!
Can you see how thought is creating this whole imaginary high-stakes dilemma? Can you see how it’s all about “you,” the imaginary separate self? There is nothing confusing about this moment and present experiencing until we start to think about it, trying to fit it into our conceptual models and figure it all out. So can we begin to catch this problem-making as it happens? Can we SEE how this confusion gets created and how it snowballs? Can we wake up from this mental confusion and turn our attention back to the living reality of present experiencing? Not once-and-for-all, but again and again, now and now. We can only wake up (or be enlightened) right now.
There is nothing problematic about personal empowerment if what we mean by that is developing skills, functioning well and living a joyful life. If I had to say what this work that I seem to have dedicated my life to is all about (writing books, holding meetings, talking with people, writing these Facebook posts), I’d probably say it has to do with waking up from suffering, discovering how we do our suffering and finding out where true freedom and true happiness are actually found. I meditate every day, go to the gym, study Spanish, do my stretches, work on my next book. For the last year I’ve been seeing a wonderful Hakomi therapist to work on a number of issues in my life where I felt stuck, and that has been a very rich and illuminating process. Sometimes I go on retreats with other teachers. But I don’t think of any of this as “personal empowerment,” and if I did, that would likely be the beginning of trouble.
Because the trouble starts when we’re seeking personal empowerment as a way to strengthen our self-image, or when we’re motivated by the idea that we’re not okay as we are—when we believe that if only we could be different, then we’d finally be okay (happy, secure, free, loved, at peace)…or if we’re trying to survive as this form and keep “me” alive and young forever. All of that is delusion. If we are completely identified as this bodymind—if we feel separate from the ocean—and if we think we need to be different than we are in order to be happy or okay, that’s a set-up for misery. But that doesn’t mean we “shouldn’t” meditate or go to the gym or be in therapy or work the 12-Steps or try to deal effectively with climate change. Simply having a desire to improve certain functions, to expand certain capacities or to cultivate certain skills is not inherently problematic—in fact, it is quite natural. It is the organic movement of life itself, discovering and realizing itself.
There is nothing wrong with desire either. Desire is a natural part of life. Of course, it can get very confused and misdirected and out-of-whack in human beings with our complex brains—we can end up drinking ourselves to death or addicted to crack cocaine—problems which no other animal faces. And of course, whether we can realize our desires depends on many factors, such as whether we’re lucky enough to have the requisite physical and mental health, the necessary stability in our surroundings (the absence of a war or a catastrophic weather disaster), favorable circumstances (meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time), and so on. I very highly recommend a book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (it’s on my website recommended reading list) – a truly fascinating book about all the random factors that go into making someone a success.
Not everyone who trains diligently for the Olympics makes the team, and not everyone who makes the team wins a medal. Michelle Kwan was arguably one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. She won five world titles, but although she came close, she never realized her dream of winning an Olympic gold medal. She had talent, she trained hard, she wanted it, but it never happened. So if our happiness and self-worth depends on winning Olympic gold, there’s a very good chance that will be a set-up for disappointment, because for every gold medalist there are dozens and dozens who don’t win the gold, including some of the greatest skaters of all time like Michelle Kwan.
When the right conditions come together, skills can be learned, abilities can be cultivated, problems can be fixed. People can win Olympic gold medals. And people can recover from alcoholism, drug addiction and a host of other problems. Or at least, some people can. Others never do, no matter how hard they try. What causes some to succeed and others to fail? It’s easy to cast blame and shame and say that those who fail didn’t try hard enough, or they were weak-willed, or they didn’t really want it, but both science and meditative inquiry continue to reveal a host of factors over which no one has any control.
If you’re training to be an Olympic figure skater, obviously you can’t just lie down and wait for the universe to turn you into a gold medalist. You need to work hard and train diligently, and that work undoubtedly includes training your mind in various ways. You need a passion for skating and a certain natural talent. You also need good health, good luck and a good coach. If all these things come together in the right way, you have a shot at being a winner. But even then, you may not win. And not everyone has the discipline or the perseverance or the mental and physical abilities or the sheer luck needed to even come close to the top tier.
And if we look closely, we see that ALL of this is a happening of the whole universe. It’s not as if Michelle Kwan “decided” to have a passion for figure skating and Joan Tollifson “decided” to write books and hold meetings about nonduality and awareness and waking up. It all happened by itself! Just as this Facebook post is happening by itself. And the outcomes of these actions are not in the hands of any individual either.
If I start tying my happiness to how many likes I have on Facebook or how many gold medals I’ve won or how much money I’ve made or how successful my children are, my happiness (if I have any at all) will be built on sand. If I begin to think that “I” am only worthy of being alive if I can achieve my greatest dreams, I will be setting myself up for a lifetime of disappointment and feeling unworthy. Nothing wrong with having the dreams. But consider Martin Luther King. In his final speech, the day before he was assassinated, he said, “I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.” He knew his life work wasn’t about him personally being a success; it was about something much larger. He had his vision, his dream of a world without racism and segregation. But he also had that bigger picture. He knew that even if they killed his body, they couldn’t destroy his dream. He had faith, not in the sense of belief, but in the sense of a deep realization that what he truly was could not be harmed or destroyed.
When we truly see this, it doesn’t mean that we don’t still have preferences and desires (Martin Luther King obviously had a desire and a preference for a world without racism). It doesn’t mean that we don’t organize a movement for social change or go to the gym or train for the Olympics or see a therapist or be a therapist or write Facebook posts or whatever life moves us to do. But we have compassion for our failures and for the shortcomings of others. We’re not focused on our personal success, although again, that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to earn a college degree or get a certain job or win a gold medal. But our happiness doesn’t depend on winning.
When we know we’re the ocean, it doesn’t matter if the wave with our name on it is bigger or smaller than the other waves. We don’t worry about “what will happen to me” when that wave washes up onto the beach. We know that we’re all made of the same water and that we’re all an inseparable activity of the same ocean. We know that no wave ever stays the same from one instant to the next, and that no wave is ever for one moment separate from the ocean or lacking in water. We see the deeper reality, the bigger picture in which no separate “thing” exists.
As the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki famously said, “You’re perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.” How genuine transformation happens has been one of the central koans and main interests of my life, as has the willingness to be as I am—to be in some sense imperfect, incomplete and unresolved, and to see that this very person (warts and all) is already Buddha, already complete. These may seem like two diametrically opposed movements, but in fact, I have come to see that true healing and transformation begins with the complete acceptance of this moment and this world, just as it is. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, embracing imperfection, allowing everything to be as it is, loving what is—this is the gateless gate to a fresh start and to the realization of the complete perfection that is never not here. And from this open and fresh place, action comes forth. The universe begins anew. Choice or no choice? I won’t say!
The more we attend to the living reality of this moment (the aliveness of presence, the open space of awareness, and the ever-changing happening of this moment before thought labels, explains and evaluates it), the more we attend to this living reality, the more we begin to glimpse the emptiness of everything. And by emptiness, I mean fluidity, impermanence, insubstantiality, seamlessness, interdependence, wholeness. What’s really going on here is (we could say) some kind of inconceivable and ungraspable play of energy that consciousness divides up into different forms (the still seamless but infinitely varied moving picture of multiplicity and polarity that we see before us prior to thought). And then thought further divides, solidifies, reifies and freezes what is perceived and begins creating narratives about cause and effect, right and wrong, past and future.
Suddenly this vast emptiness, this ever-changing and ungraspable fluidity, is turned into a collection seemingly solid, fixed, often-conflicting “things” like “me” and “you” and “us” and “them” and “abortion” and “racism” and “gay marriage” and “The Middle East” — and next thing you know, we’re at war, internally and externally. We want the light to permanently defeat the dark, and we lose sight of the relativity and subjectivity of it all. Of course, conceptualizing and abstracting is part of how we function, so we can’t avoid this, but when we don’t see it for what it is, we get totally bamboozled by it. And then we can’t see each other or listen to each other or hear each other. We’ve already closed our minds to someone before they’ve even opened their mouth because we know they’re “anti-abortion” or “pro-choice” or “Republican” or “socialist” or “Black” or “white” or whatever boxed-category it is that we have decided is a threat to our very existence.
And on a relative level, there are certainly threats to every form that arises. Hitler really did exterminate millions of Jews. Black people really were enslaved for many years in the United States. Israel really has bombed Gaza and bulldozed Palestinian homes again and again. Al Qaeda really did attack the United States on September 11. The United States really did drop napalm on Viet Nam and two atomic bombs on Japan. Every day, people get murdered, raped, mugged, beaten, discriminated against, fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, killed by tornados and earthquakes. So yes, on the level of relative reality, the body is very vulnerable, and eventually it will be wiped out completely—it will dissolve back into the emptiness out of which it appeared.
We can’t ignore relative reality. But when we recognize the deeper reality—the emptiness, the undivided energy that has no persisting form, the fluidity, the thorough-going flux, the seamless wholeness, the interdependence and the insubstantiality of it all—then we recognize that nothing real is ever actually born or destroyed. We see that all the dramas that seem so serious and important have no actual substance or inherent existence. If this is merely an intellectual idea or a philosophical belief, it can easily lead to a kind of callousness or dismissal of relative reality and suffering as “just an illusion” to be ignored. But ignoring the world and turning away is ignorance, not enlightenment. When this realization of emptiness is deeply felt and intuited and grokked in the most complete, direct, immediate, intimate, non-intellectual, non-conceptual way, then it actually leads to compassion and compassionate action (or non-action). This is action that comes forth from a different place than the action (or reaction) that arises out of bamboozlement and mental confusion. This is intelligent action that comes from unconditional love, from awareness, from the open heart and the open mind. And if we’re sensitive to it, we can feel the difference in ourselves. We can feel where we’re coming from in different moments.
And that’s part of what intelligent meditation is all about—it’s about developing that sensitivity. It’s about realizing emptiness and being aware of when we are fixating and grasping—when we are being bamboozled, in other words, by our own thinking. Seeing this kind of confusion as it happens is the first step to being free from it. The awaring of it is actually already free of it. But more often than not, these old patterns have quite a grip and quite a powerful and seductive siren song that draws us in again and again. We don’t always want to let go. We enjoy being right, being oppositional, being separate, being better or worse than everyone else. And in arguments over hot-button issues, we often feel as if our very life is at stake, that if we let go in any way, we’ll be endangering ourselves or betraying those in need. Is this actually true? We need to find out. Maybe we’ll actually be better equipped to make our case if we’re doing it from love rather than from fear and anger.
Waking up from delusion and confusion is a process that takes time to unfold, although in another sense, it only happens right now. We can’t postpone waking up. But there’s no finish-line, no point at which we are done. As they say in Buddhism, “Delusions are inexhaustible.” Like weeds, delusion comes back again and again. But as the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wisely said, "For Zen students, a weed is a treasure." Our delusion, our places of confusion, the places where we get stuck and bamboozled and tangled up and lost—these are like koans, which is to say, they are doorways (gateless gates). They seem like obstacles or problems until something shifts in the way we are looking at them, and suddenly we find that the enlightenment we were seeking has been here all along.
Someone steeped in what I like to call radical (or maybe more accurately, absolutist) nonduality reports to me that she has been hit by a violent inner storm. She wonders what, if anything, she can do to relieve the suffering she feels and that she sees is spilling out onto others around her. Her husband of many years tells her that she has the power to choose and create her own reality—that her state of being is totally up to her. Her brother, who is also steeped in radical nonduality, tells her that there's absolutely nothing she can do, that the I that wants to do something is a symptom of the disease, and that anything she does will only strengthen the illusion. She feels like a leaf being helplessly blown around by the wind, but at the same time, she has this gnawing thought-sense that she must choose between these seemingly irreconcilable maps of reality. She feels stuck and torn apart. She doesn’t know what to do.
Radical (or absolutist) nondualists who say we can’t do anything are falling into error on one side, and those who say we can choose what we want and do whatever we put our minds to are falling into error on the other. Both seem to assume that there is somebody who either is or isn’t in control, a leaf that is either being blown passively around by the wind or else that has the power to actively steer and choose direction. As I’ve said in several recent posts, the confusion so many people feel over this only exists in the realm of thought and concepts—it is an abstract argument over mental maps and trying to figure out which one is true. The confusion is all in how we THINK about what is happening. But when you need groceries, you don’t sit around and wonder who will decide what to buy and who will steer the car and who will push the shopping cart if there is no self and so on….you just go do it. Who does it? We can’t say! Is it you? Is it other than you? What are you? What is not-you? Only when we THINK about all of this does it become confusing. Then it all gets abstracted into a conceptual paradox, and the tendency is to think and think and think to try and figure it out. And like quicksand, the more we think, the more we sink. Awareness clarifies; obsessive thought muddies it all up.
So is it possible to simply not know what we can or cannot do, or what is or isn’t possible in this moment right now? Maybe we don’t need to know. Maybe we can’t know. Maybe it is a living discovery, moment to moment, and not an answer to grasp.
We can think and philosophize about the nature of the universe, and metaphysical speculation can be fun. It can also be an enormously seductive side track that ends in misery. Ultimately, we don’t know how this universe works or why it’s here. So for me, this whole adventure (meditation, satsang, awake living, Zen, Advaita, nonduality, spirituality, whatever name we give it) isn’t about controlling life or figuring it all out, but rather, it’s about being awake right now. Not knowing what this is. Not grasping or fixating or solidifying. Being open. Being awake. Being this awake presence that we truly always are. And it’s about understanding how we suffer and how we create suffering. It’s about waking up from suffering and confusion. It’s about discovering the joy in life, the aliveness, the emptiness, the freedom. That’s what really matters. Not whether or not “Consciousness is all there is” or “There is free will” or “There is no free will” or any of that. Those are all abstract conceptual formulations created by thought. None of them are the Truth. They are only maps, pointers, descriptions. We won’t ever satisfy the deep hunger in the heart by eating a million different menus or arguing over which one best describes the meal.
Many who come to this page have seen through the fallacy of what most people in our culture believe, that we are independent agents, totally in control, authoring our thoughts, choosing our actions, steering our selves through life. Seeing through the illusory nature of that culturally-ubiquitous spin is very liberating indeed. But beware of going to the opposite extreme and fixating on the opposite position—totally disempowering yourself and tying yourself up in knots in an effort to achieve nondual correctness. As a wise teacher once said, don’t hang yourself in an Advaitic noose. Beware of nondual fundamentalism. It misses the mark just as completely as the opposite notion that we are all separate agents with free will.
We can think about all this until the cows come home, but the freedom, peace and joy that we long for are not going to be found in any mental formulation or any thought. Liberation is right here in the immediacy of this moment, the living reality of caw-caw-caw and whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, before we label it “crows calling” or “traffic sounds” or “consciousness” or any other label. And, of course, the labeling and conceptualizing and thinking and imagining are all part of this happening too, but when we get bamboozled and hypnotized by the CONTENT of our thoughts, when we mistake the map for the territory and the menu for the meal, we suffer.
So when we’re caught up in a mental-tug-of-war between different ideas, maybe we can simply be aware of how this tug-of-war feels in the body—where is it happening, what does it feel like? Instead of thinking about it or trying to get rid of it, maybe we can give it our complete, open attention. By giving attention to the bodily sensations rather than to the mental spin—and at the same time, hearing the caw-caw-caw and the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the world around us—we may discover that the imaginary problem melts away—that there is no separation between inside and outside—and that there is no one here who needs to figure this out.
I remember being totally tied up in knots about whether to write my first book. Why was I writing a book about my life story while I was living at a retreat center dedicated to seeing that there was no self? It seemed crazy. I was even awarded a writing grant and debated about whether to accept it! And then after I had written the book (in spite of myself), the same debate over whether to publish it! Finally it hit me that the whole dilemma was about what would best serve my self-image and "my" spiritual success at being nobody. I realized that you don't wake up by hiding in a corner and doing nothing in order to avoid doing it wrong, but by living fully and then seeing what arises (and seeing through the delusions that will inevitably pop up). Those delusions are precisely the gateways to deeper and deeper (ever-fresh) awakening.
I also remember the time when for many years I was seeking some final breakthrough, and after awhile, I knew this search was a form of delusion, but the seeking kept on happening. It just wouldn't let me go. It was torture. At some point, it really became clear that the whole search was about "me." "I" wanted to be an enlightened one! There was a seeing that got clearer and clearer that every thought about this (Am I there yet? Is this it? How do I compare to Ramana? Am I really enlightened? Oh no, obviously I'm not, etc.) was about "me." Eventually, that search just fell away, not in any dramatic big bang event, but more like a mist gradually being burned away by the sun, until one day I noticed it wasn't happening anymore.
That deep embarrassment many of us have over our own neurosis comes from the belief that we are in control. We are taking it personally. Of course, in a sense, we are doing it, but in some way, the doing is either unconscious or compulsive. Either way, we're not in control. It is a force of nature, the result of infinite causes and conditions. But if we turn that into a formula and adopt it as a belief ("I have no control and whatever I do is just happening") that isn't quite right either. By doing that, we're closing down the openness of awareness with a fixed conclusion, and we're ignoring our own response-ability right now in this moment as consciousness itself. So better to not know what is or isn't possible right now. This moment has never been here before!
It would be great if we could just snap our heels together and voila! Forever after, nothing but love, compassion, peace and joy flowing forth abundantly. But it just doesn't seem to work like that, at least not for 99.999% of humanity. Old habits die hard. Compulsions are very compelling, addictions very alluring. Conditioning is a strong force. Many factors are involved (genetics, neurochemistry, hormone balance, childhood and life conditioning, trauma, etc.). But the more we can simply be present and aware and awake in this moment, the more we can SEE this old conditioning as it happens…and that's really all enlightenment is…seeing through delusion. Not once and for all, but in this moment. Sometimes the force of habit overpowers our better intentions and we act badly. It happens. But we can SEE it. And we don't need to add on a new layer of delusion by taking it personally and beating ourselves up for failing. We just see it and start fresh. The universe begins anew in every moment.
It's really not about "me." It's all a movement of life.
Someone asked me to say something about relationships. She said that she is having trouble with her work relationships and that nothing she does seems to help. Another person wrote in recently asking if I could say something about intimate relationships—he reported feeling desperate and rejected when his partner (who he said provides affection, emotional support, reassurance, attention and love) needs time alone and seems to pull away. He could see that this desperation on his part was irrational, and he could understand his partner’s need to be alone, but still, these powerful feelings came up.
We all know these kinds of difficulties, don’t we? One of my teachers, Joko Beck, used to say that the best thing for Zen practice besides zazen and sesshins (meditation and meditation intensives) was an intimate relationship and a job in a busy office. Not because either would make us happy, but because they would push our buttons and allow us to see very clearly where we are holding on to delusions, where we are still stuck. Some of you may feel that talking about something as mundane and worldly as relationship issues is beneath your level of spiritual realization, but this is precisely the stuff that pulls us back into identification as a separate fragment and all the ensuing conflict and confusion. So rather than chasing after enlightenment experiences, which is the best way to avoid enlightenment, it can be much more effective and truly enlightening to pay attention to our everyday difficulties in relationship—not by analyzing them and thinking about them, but by giving them open attention. As Joko knew, these difficulties can be our gateless gates, our living koans, our doorways into awakening.
Relationships are not easy. Even our beloved partners and our dearest and most like-minded friends don’t seem to agree with us on everything, and when it comes to our so-called enemies or the people we are thrown together with in a busy office, they often don’t seem to agree with us on anything!
Not only do people have different political and religious views and different values and opinions, but we all have different nervous systems, different sensibilities, different conditioning, different expectations, different ideas of what is important, different ways of handling stress and conflict, different needs for solitude or social stimulation or sex or cuddling, and different ways of showing love or affection or concern.
I remember studying the Enneagram years ago (a system of personality types) and realizing that for one person, if you’re having an argument with them and you get right in their face and yell and scream and cry, that’s a sign that you care. They love that. But to another person, if you do that, it’s a sign that you are violent and invasive and disrespectful of their boundaries. A more reclusive and introverted person might react to an argument by needing time alone to cool off and sort out their feelings and clarify what they think. But to another personality type, if someone walks away during a disagreement, it’s taken as a sign of rejection and not caring.
Some people arrive at a large event fixated on getting a seat in the front row, close to the speaker, right in the heart of the action. Others arrive fixated on getting a seat in the back row, as much out of sight as possible, in a place from which they can safely observe the whole room. And still others arrive with no thought at all about getting a seat—they are completely fixated on recognizing other people, being recognized and exchanging greetings. Now if three friends arrive together, one from each of these types, imagine the subtle pushes and pulls and discomforts (and maybe even overt conflicts) that can arise over something seemingly as simple as finding seats at an event.
Some people weigh decisions carefully, considering all the possible outcomes. They consider the cost, they check the weather, they consider what might go wrong. Others charge ahead fearlessly without a second thought to any of this. My mother was the latter sort of person. She made decisions at lightning speed. At age 80, she signed up on the spur of the moment for a bicycle trip across Bali. She didn’t stop to weigh her finances, or to find out what types of bicycles these were, or how far and how fast the participants would ride every day, or how mountainous the terrain might be. She just thought that a bicycle trip across Bali sounded like great fun, and she signed up.
I’m the opposite type. I would have studied all the pros and cons and probably decided against the trip. And indeed, my mother found out upon arrival in Bali that she couldn’t ride the mountain bike, that the terrain was steep, that the others on the trip were super-fit 30-somethings who did long-distance cycling…but that didn’t dim my mother’s spirits. She rode the whole way in the rescue van and was apparently the life of the party.
My mother was the ultimate extrovert who wanted to talk to everyone and see the world, and my father was the ultimate introvert who cherished nothing more deeply than solitude and quiet. They could not have been more different as personalities, but they loved each other deeply, and they respected each other’s way of being, made a few compromises on each side, and lived happily together until my father’s death. Their ability to give each other space to be who they each were was a rarity. I was never that successful at intimate relationship.
But through meditation and meditative living, and through working with teachers like Toni Packer and Joko Beck, I began to pay attention to my own reactions in relationships of all kinds. I paid attention to what it was like when I felt defensive or angry or hurt—what muscles tightened up, how blood rushed up to the head, how my lip quivered or my face twitched or my breathing changed. And I paid attention to the thoughts—I saw the headlines in my mind, the assertions thought was making about me or the other person or life in general, the stories the thinking mind was spinning, and at the center of it all—“ME” (the root thought)—the one who was supposedly being victimized or hurt or slighted or not respected or not seen or not listened to or discounted or mistreated or whatever the story was. I became more and more aware of the whole drama—the mental story and the way it played out in the entire organism. And I watched my reactions as well—the things I said and did.
This was not always a pleasant process. I discovered that I was not always the great person I thought I was. I found that sometimes I was manipulative, seductive, passive-aggressive, dishonest, weaseling, hurtful, controlling, obsessive, oppositional, and even at times filled with self-pity! Clearly I had been doing this stuff long before I ever became aware of it, and if I hadn’t taken up meditation and been with such clear and insightful teachers, I might never have seen it. I might have gone to my grave believing that other people did stuff like this, but not me. I might even have been able to convince myself after a few great moments in meditation that I was a fully enlightened somebody for whom all sense of self, separateness and personal authorship had permanently and completely disappeared. But luckily, I can SEE that isn’t true!
In my experience, waking up is moment to moment, not once and for all. It is SEEING through delusion as it arises, again and again, now and now, here and here. Yes, some patterns of delusion may fall away permanently at some point, but others may not, and I don’t know anyone for whom no delusion ever arises. But we do begin to realize that all of it is an impersonal happening—the clearings and the clouding over—and we sense more and more deeply that we are the whole happening and the awaring presence beholding it all, and that the little-me who seems to be “getting it” and then “losing it” is nothing more than an idea, a mental image, a mirage. And gradually, even those moments of being identified with the mirage are no longer taken personally as “my failure, my lapse.” They are simply a happening of life, as are all the things “the others” are doing.
So, it is quite wonderful (and rare) to be aware of all that is getting triggered when our partner needs time alone, or seems to be ignoring us, or when they show affection for someone else. Or when our co-worker or our client frustrates or insults us or behaves in ways we think are wrong. Such feelings provide a wonderful opportunity to explore our expectations, our needs, our judgments….our sense of lack or emptiness or unworthiness...the fear of being abandoned or criticized or disliked…the craving for affection and approval and assurance of being loved...the jealousy or envy...whatever the mix is in any given moment for each one of us....and to explore all of this not by thinking about it, but by feeling into it...awaring it…sensing it throughout the body…and at the same time, seeing the thought-stories for the unreliable and conditioned patterns that they are.
What is it in us that can feel so deeply threatened when someone disagrees with us? What is it that craves approval and fears abandonment? Of course, to some degree, these reactions and feelings can be traced back to animal survival instincts rooted in our biology, but in human beings, they get carried over into a psychological realm that has little or nothing to do with our actual survival. So can we explore what it is in us that gets upset, defensive, hurt? Not to come up with the “correct” answer, but to really see and discover firsthand.
Open awareness is what helps more than anything else in relationship, being awake now, SEEING what we are doing and how we are reacting. The more all of our conditioning and reactivity comes into the light of awareness, the less we are driven by it. And when we do lash out or fall into delusion in some way, we can notice that this has happened and take appropriate action (apologizing or whatever is called for) without taking it personally and beating ourselves up for lapsing or falling short. We can SEE that our own reactions, and those of others, are the result of infinite causes and conditions, and that in reality, none of it is personal. We also realize that the universe begins anew in every moment, that our partner or our co-worker is not the same person from one moment to the next and neither are we—and we can begin to listen to them more openly, with fresh eyes and ears, not assuming we know who they are or what they’ll do. That open space of awareness is a space for something truly new and unconditioned to arise.
So basic awareness meditation and meditative living (paying attention, being present, listening openly to the other and to our own reactions) is the most helpful thing I’ve found for our difficulties in relationship. In addition to that, I found both the Enneagram and The Work of Byron Katie very helpful. I studied the Enneagram in a series of oral panels with Helen Palmer. Some people relate to it very superficially, as a way of typing themselves and others and putting everyone in boxes, but if you study it in depth, it actually offers a great deal of insight and a path beyond our fixations. It helped me to realize that not everyone is like me—that we can have very different ways of dealing with conflict or stress—which in turned helped me to allow others more space to be the way they are. The Enneagram also helped me to see my own patterns more clearly, and that seeing allowed them to loosen their grip. By SEEING how perfectionistic I was, for example, I became less driven by perfectionism and less judgmental of myself and others. And when someone else withdrew from an argument, or yelled in my face, I was better able to understand and not misread or misinterpret their actions. Byron Katie’s Work is another profound tool. Those questions, when asked and felt into deeply, can shed light and loosen our grip on our own expectations and ideas about how life and other people “should” be. And as we do those turnarounds in The Work, we often discover that what upsets us most “out there” is in some way our own shadow.
So those are a few things that can help with relationships. And of course, many other things can help too (psychotherapy, somatic work, psychiatric medications where needed, and so on). And in my experience, relationship (like waking up) is a lifelong challenge. I can certainly still feel defensive or miffed or hurt or irritated or angry or frustrated at times—and whenever those feelings arise, the mirage of being a separate me is operating. I even got mad at Siri on my iPad recently for being unable (or, as I irrationally felt, unwilling) to understand or answer my very simple question no matter how clearly I enunciated it. I found myself quite angrily telling Siri she was stupid and useless. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she replied in her robotic voice, which made me even angrier! And yet, at other times, I can listen to the most outrageous things, like Donald Trump being ever-more racist and sexist, without reacting emotionally at all. Why our buttons get pushed at one moment and not in another, or by one person and not another, is the result of infinite factors. But there can be a SEEING of upset when it happens. And if we don’t see it right away, sometimes we can see it after the fact. The seeing (the awaring) is what allows a change of course. Awareness is intelligence itself. It is another word for unconditional love. The more our conditioned patterns are brought into the light of awareness, the less power they have to run our lives.
And the more we see what’s going on in our own minds—the uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, urges, outbursts, etc.—the more understanding and compassion we have for others. We realize that they, too, are the product of conditioning (genetics, hormones, liver function, brain states, trauma, social conditions, etc.). We begin to see that we’re all doing the best we can. And we begin to get curious about why certain things trigger such deep reactions in us. What is at the root of our anger, our hurt, our fear, our defensiveness? Who or what is feeling threatened? What is this feeling of emptiness or lack or unworthiness really like? What is it like to feel on the spot, or to feel invisible and unseen? These are questions not to think about, but to feel into—to bring into awareness, to explore by looking and listening and sensing with the whole body. It’s not about finding answers so much as being curious, being awake, being open to what reveals itself from moment to moment.
I have often said that when we see what’s going on in our own minds through meditation, and when we see (through studying the Enneagram or something else of that nature) all the different ways that people can be programmed and formed and shaped, then we begin to realize how miraculous it is that humanity hasn’t blown itself up yet. And we begin to have great compassion for all the global events that are macrocosms of our own interpersonal dramas—the wars and injustices. We see that if we can’t control ourselves, then no one else can control this whole mess either. We can’t just “decide” to never get angry again, or to drop the separate self, or to have world peace. We have to see through our delusions again and again, whenever they show up—and we have to see through the root-delusion, the separate self, not once-and-for-all, but whenever it appears and feels believable.
And as I often remind everyone, some people have more stormy weather than others because of different nature and nurture, so comparing ourselves to others or to ideals in our head is useless. We can only be present with what shows up here in THIS life, right now. A big dose of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves and our shared human foibles is a great asset as well. It’s ALL an unfolding of life itself, an activity of the whole universe, a movement of Consciousness, a never-ending Self-realization and Self-discovery. So is it possible to enjoy the dance, stumbles and partner-switches and difficult partners and lonely moments and impossible moves and all?
Response to a comment:
I always find it very challenging to be accused of things I feel I didn't do. And in that regard, for whatever reason, I'm reminded of Byron Katie's approach to criticism. She says, agree with the criticism, however irrational or untrue it seems, and then find the place in yourself where it's true (perhaps not in exactly or literally the way the person delivering it intends it, but in some other way, maybe even metaphorically). Oddly enough, when I've played with this, it seems to de-fuse the power of the criticism. We stop resisting it or defending against it or taking it personally. And we do all contain the universe.
Response to another comment:
Sounds very challenging. I find it very difficult to be in any kind of conflict or negative energy field that seems unresolvable, especially in my home space. And yet, it happens sometimes. So there it is—an invitation to feel into that discomfort, that sense of being in an unresolved conflict, of being hated, of hating, of injustice and upset without a solution. Trying to tell ourselves it’s “just a story” or “only a bad movie” never seems to get to the bottom of it in my experience—that tends to be one belief battling with another belief, or one story trying to drown out another story. Instead, it seems to be more helpful to really shed light on our own story, to question it, and to feel into the whole upset in the body. Seeing or awaring the stories is very different from trying to tell ourselves that "it's just a story." We can't do the work for our neighbor or our enemy or husband or for anyone else. We can only do it in ourselves. (Of course that doesn't negate the need at times to take intelligent action, but action that comes from love and clarity is very different from re-action that comes from hatred and upset and a sense of "me" against something that is threatening "me," and I think we all can sense that difference).
When I look at the world at large, there are so many terrible unresolved conflicts, many of which I have strong feelings and opinions about. How does healing begin? Where do we find peace and love? There is a strong tendency to want to battle it out at the level of content and ideology—right and wrong—justice and injustice. And that has its place. But for those of us on the pathless path of awakening, there is always, I find, a deeper invitation.
Response to another comment:
There is a place for thinking. Thinking is part of how we function. When thinking emerges out of presence, out of awareness, it can very useful and often creative, imaginative and innovative. Without thinking, we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon or invented computers or written great literature or developed language. We wouldn’t be able to formulate or communicate complex ideas and insights. We need thinking to solve problems, to make plans, to evaluate things in functional ways. But much of our thinking is not functional or helpful at all.
In meditation, we quickly discover that the thinking mind is endlessly chattering away, and that many of our thoughts are repetitive, obsessive, habitual loops. We go over and over past events, we fantasize about a happy future somewhere else, we judge and evaluate ourselves and others in ways that only serve to generate suffering. Thought is a story-teller, and it tells stories about who we are and what is going on around us—stories that often serve to reinforce the sense of being a separate self in an alien world. Of course, some stories are beautiful and creative ways of seeing and sharing (good novels, movies, theater, etc are examples of that). But many of our habitual thought-stories are simply ways of creating and sustaining suffering (what they did to me, how I can pay them back, how I compare to the others, etc).
Thinking is also very often a kind of addiction, a way in which we escape uncomfortable feelings by thinking about the situations in which they arise, or thinking about other things—it’s a form of escape like getting drunk, a way in which we avoid the empty hole at the center of our lives—that fundamental sense of unease or restlessness or lack. Instead of really exploring what this empty hole is, instead of actually experiencing it and feeling it all the way to the bottom, we think and think and think (or drink and drink and drink). Addiction provides temporary relief, but in the long run, it makes the problem worse.
Some of our thinking is perhaps non-functional but harmless, kind of like chewing gum or humming as we work. So can we begin to discern when thinking is useful (or harmless) and when it is actually dysfunctional and addictive? This is one of the ways meditation can be very helpful.
And of course, we can’t “decide” to stop thinking in dysfunctional ways. That doesn’t work. There is no thinker in control of the thoughts. But we can become more and more aware of our thinking—what our habitual thought-loops and headlines are (“Nobody Loves Me,” “I’m the One Who Does All the Work,” “He ruined my life,” “You abandoned me,” “I’ll never get it,” “I’m a loser,” “I should have been chosen and not her,” etc). We can listen in and hear our thinking, be aware of it, and we can question it. Awareness is what changes things.
A dear friend of mine recalls asking Toni Packer, "Is there anything I can do to get more stable, more firmly grounded in presence?" And Toni replied, "The thing is, not to do anything at all." That reminds me of a line from David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic monk, talking about the essential discipline in the spiritual life: "Discipline is not so much a matter of doing this or that, but of holding still. Not as if this would cost no effort. But the effort is all applied to the crucial task, the task of making no effort."
What does it mean not to do anything at all, to make no effort, to be still? It doesn't mean vegetating passively on the couch, or rigidly maintaining some motionless meditation posture, or not changing the oil on your car, or staying in an abusive relationship, or sinking deeper into addiction, or not responding to whatever the presently arising situation is in an intelligent way. So what does it mean?
This is, in my opinion, the single greatest and most important discovery on the pathless path—and no one can make this discovery for us. Just as no one can explain to us how to swim or how to ride a bicycle, this effortless non-doing, or what Eckhart Tolle calls being present in the Now, is something we must each feel into and discover for ourselves. It's not an idea to believe in or not believe in; it's a way of being in this very moment. And it's not an acquisition or an attainment, but rather, the falling away or letting go of something extra—the resisting, the seeking, the efforting, the self-evaluating—all the ways we separate ourselves mentally from the immediacy of present experiencing, all the ways we contract into this thought-sense of being "me"—the separate self, alone in the universe.
Here is Toni Packer again: "No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?"
Counter-intuitively, this is the key to liberation. And most of the time, especially when the inner weather gets rough, this is the very last thing we want to do. We'll do just about anything not to be here in the storm, simply awake and open.
I had an email from my friend Peter recently about worry. He reports that worry is going on a lot for him—worrying about being able to pay the bills, worrying about medical issues, imagining bad outcomes, thinking about “what if this happens” and “what if that happens.” He says: “I know what 'the answer' from a non-dualistic point of view would be; 'you are always now, no need to worry about later, tomorrow or next year'. That is well-said, but in everyday reality it's a little bit more difficult. I see the worries in my head coming and going…maybe there's an opening, there's light shining through, just because I can detect them, like ants running under my door, coming in, coming out. I appreciate it if you would like to comment.”
I love the comparison between worried thoughts and ants running under the door, coming in and going out. That’s a beautiful simile, isn’t it?
Obviously, on the level of form, we are totally vulnerable. I live in an area that is overdue for a catastrophic earthquake that scientists predict will be the biggest national disaster in US history when it happens. With our highly evolved brains, we humans have the ability to anticipate such events and to imagine all the ways that they might play out for us—how we might be crushed and trapped and so on. And to a certain extent, this is a useful capacity. It allows us to make intelligent contingency plans. But it also sets us up for the possibility of going through an earthquake countless times in our imagination, with the whole body humming along each time—muscles tightening, nerves firing, adrenalin flowing—a powerful swirl of emotion-thought that we call anxiety or worry. So one of our greatest assets—our complex intelligence—can also be our greatest obstacle and the biggest source of our suffering. The Cascadia earthquake, even though it is overdue and expected to be catastrophic, may never happen in my lifetime—and even if it does happen, it won’t be the way I imagine. So if I’m obsessively going over and over endless horrible scenarios in my head of what might happen, that is useless suffering.
There’s no clear line where useful imagination ends and useless obsessing begins, but as we attend to all of this with care and curiosity, a sensitivity and a discernment develops. We can begin to feel when the scenario we are playing out in our head is a form of suffering. And the more clearly that is seen, the more it drops away and loses its grip.
I don’t subscribe to any nondual belief or ideology that says, “you are always now, no need to worry about later, tomorrow or next year.” Yes, it is always Now. And yes, the more we can be rooted in presence, the more intelligent our actions will be. But “being in the Now” or “being rooted in presence” doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future or feel concerned about certain things that are happening. The fact that we can look ahead and understand climate change, anticipate the repercussions and see how humans are contributing to it is the very thing that might save us and many other species from great misery and extinction. And because I know I live on an earthquake fault that is overdue to go off, and because I (and many other people) have the capacity to imagine what that might entail, we can all take reasonable precautions. I have a flashlight and a pair of shoes by my bed in case I have to find my out through broken glass in the dark. I keep a small supply of water and canned food on hand. I don’t hang heavy objects over my bed. These are reasonable precautions that people in earthquake zones can take. I don’t just assume, “There’s only Now,” so therefore I don’t need to give any thought at all to the earthquake danger, or to financial or retirement planning, or to figuring out my upcoming schedule, or to planning a trip, or to wondering how I might respond intelligently to climate change or racism or sexism or economic inequality or any of the other issues facing the world today.
But when all of that activity emerges from aware presence rather than from agitated, worried thought, the more intelligent my plans and actions are likely to be. And when I notice that I’m caught-up in useless worry or anxiety, that is an invitation to stop, look and listen. In fact, at the moment when I notice that I’m caught up, I’m already awake. And in that moment, there is no “I” who is awake. There is simply awake presence. That noticing, that waking up, happens by itself.
And then what?
Is there a strong temptation, a pull, at that moment of waking up to go back into the thought-trance, to continue with the worrying? If so, what makes that so tempting, so alluring? Is there something uncomfortable or scary about bare presence? Is worrying addictive in some way? Addictions promise us something, so what is worry promising us? Is worrying a form of false security? A way of avoiding something? These are questions to explore—not to think about or analyze, but to watch and see as it happens.
Maybe, at a moment of waking up and being aware of the racing thoughts and the disturbance in the body, maybe at such a moment there is an immediate compulsion to chase after some remembered or imagined peaceful or expansive state of mind and body that now seems to be absent. But, of course, such a chase is the surest way to overlook the only place where true peace and boundlessness is ever found: Here / Now, right at the very heart of disturbance and upset, if that is what is showing up. But we must discover this for ourselves. So if the chase happens, just notice how it feels to chase after peace and to resist disturbance—and see if it works.
Any moment of waking up from the entrancement in emotion-thought is a moment of choice (if we want to use that language), a moment when there is a possibility to notice what I’m doing and to wonder if it has to continue. Not beat myself up for having been caught up in worry, not scrambling to get rid of worry or to get back to some remembered peaceful experience, but instead, simply being fully present—awake—aware of what is happening—aware of the movements of thought, aware of the urges and churnings in the body, aware of the whole happening of this moment—and in awareness, there is no separation. There is no “me” being aware of “it.” There is simply one whole undivided happening.
Of course, I can’t make myself stop thinking—that doesn’t work. Suppression or resistance just adds fuel to the fire. Then all we have is one train of thought (“I should stop thinking, I must stop worrying”) battling with another train of thought (“What if I end up crushed under the house? What if no one hears me screaming? What if I can’t breathe?”). Instead, what is being pointed to here is being aware of the thoughts and allowing them to dissolve naturally…and if they continue for awhile, then simply being aware of them without totally buying into them—and at the same time, feeling the bodily sensations that go with the thoughts. Allowing the whole ever-changing weather event of this moment to unfold as it will—not seeking a way out, not resisting, not getting caught up in the stories. Being aware of the whole thing. Being present. Allowing it all to be just as it is.
And let’s be honest. Sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sometimes the force of habit or the pull of addiction is too strong. We get swept away in worried thinking. It happens. But again, waking up happens. And the key is always to start right here where we are—and not to immediately get lost in a new train of thought about “what a failure I am, I was lost in worry again, I’ll never be able to stop worrying, it’s hopeless, I’m a hopeless case, I’m a loser, all this ‘be here now’ stuff is just bullshit,” and so on and on. Instead, just right now—is it possible to simply be here, awake in this moment, just as it is?
Whatever happens in our minds is as much an impersonal weather event as the weather outside of us. We’ve learned enough about neurochemistry and the brain to know that some people are more prone to obsessive worrying than others. Some people worry almost constantly, others almost never. Just as some geographical locations are prone to cloudy, stormy weather, while other locations are prone to mild, sunny weather, some people are more prone to depression or anxiety or addiction or various personality and impulse-control disorders than others. The conditions in different bodymind organisms are different, just as the conditions in different geographical locations are different. So if our particular bodymind organism seems to be inclined toward anxiety and worry, can we see first of all that this is a kind of weather condition and not a personal failing? Then maybe we can avoid taking it personally as a sign of personal failure, or being worried about worry, or anxious about our anxiety. We are as we are in each moment because the whole universe is the way it is. Infinite causes and conditions come together to bring forth this present experiencing, however it is. None of it is really personal. And conditions are always changing, so we don’t need to assume that because we’ve always had a tendency to worry, therefore we always will. We don’t know. Is it possible not to know, to be open for the unexpected?
And when worry does show up, can we simply be awake to what is happening? Can we listen to the thoughts, the mental headlines, the stories? Can we see that they are simply conditioned secretions of the brain and not objective reports on reality to be believed and followed? And rather than getting entranced by the mental spin and caught up in the storylines and in obsessive thinking, can we drop out of the head and into the world of sensation—not forever after, but right now? Can we feel the sensations of anxiety in the body as pure sensation—without labeling it all, without any judgment that this is “spiritually not so good,” but simply feeling it as an interesting manifestation of nature? And at the same time, can we also hear the birds or the traffic and feel the breathing? Can we notice the open spaciousness of this listening-sensing-awaring presence beholding and being it all? Can we simply BE here as this present experiencing, just as it is, agitated or calm, restless or peaceful—not needing it to be any different?
The more this happens, the easier it seems to be to let the thought-trains stop and to abide in simple open awareness, at least for moments at a time. And this awareness is not something foreign to us that we have to search for and acquire—we’re simply recognizing and opening up to what is already here, the ever-present ground that we often ignore or overlook because our attention habitually goes to the thought-spin and the virtual reality of concepts and imagination.
Awareness is unconditional love. It allows everything to be as it is. The more we SEE our habitual patterns for what they are, the more able we are to disengage without getting swept away in the drama. And when we do get caught up and swept away, we don’t need to beat ourselves up. We just need to see it and let it go. Be awake now, in this moment. And if we can’t let go, then simply experience holding on—what is it like to hold on? How does it feel? Simply allow the bodymind to be as tense and contracted and agitated as it is, if that’s how it is right now, without trying to push it away or seek something better. What is this agitation actually like if we don’t label it or judge it or tell a story about it? Can we simply be interested in it—curious about it—really attending to it as we would to a beautiful flower?
Waking up really comes down to something incredibly simple. It may take years before we realize what it means to “not do anything,” to surrender, to simply be present. But once we know, then it’s a matter of coming back to this, again and again. We complicate the pathless path from Here to Here by trying to figure out how the universe works, by chasing after a permanent experience of bliss or some final enlightenment we think is “out there” somewhere, by worrying about being worried, by comparing ourselves to others, by judging and evaluating how we’re doing. But really, waking up just boils down to stopping that whole mental spin—and simply being present right now.
That’s the vigilance, the constancy, the not moving away, the no escape, the surrendering that Eckhart Tolle and Rupert Spira and Gangaji and David Steindl-Rast and Toni Packer and Steve Hagen have all been pointing to in the quotes I’ve shared recently. And what truly matters is not the messenger or the pointing finger—what truly matters is the living reality, the aware presence to which all these different words are pointing—the radiance that is the source and the fruit of self-observation, accepting your non-peace, surrendering, going deeply into the heart of experience, offering everything to that fire, keeping vigil at the flame, holding still, making no effort, coming back over and over, not moving away, completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now.
We can point to it in a million different ways with a million different words, but what really matters is discovering it for yourself and then taking it up as a way of being (and the words are never quite right, because we could just as easily say, it takes us up—there is no separation really between “us” and “it” until thought divides it up). So not to get stuck on the words, but rather, to open up to the living presence that is right here. Not once-and-for-all, but right now.
Someone recently emailed me about “extinguishing the person,” as if that were the goal here or the meaning of awakening. I don’t see this as being about “extinguishing the person.” The person is an expression of the whole universe, just as every tree and cloud and river and bird is an expression of the whole. None of it needs to be extinguished (although in fact, all of it is being extinguished second by second by second). So I’d say, rather than trying to eliminate the person, can we begin to see how fluid it all is, how impermanent and interdependent and seamless and undivided? Undivided seamlessness doesn’t mean an absence of variation and diversity and relative (functional) boundaries—it means nothing is really solid or independent or separate from everything else. No-thing has any inherent, objective, observer-independent existence “out there” somewhere in the way we commonly think it does.
Can it be recognized (not just intellectually, but in our own direct experience) that we are not limited to the bodymind or encapsulated inside this form that we see in the mirror? That doesn’t mean denying or ignoring or extinguishing this body. It means noticing that there is a bigger context, that what we are actually referring to when we say “I” (before our name, or any self-image, or any ideas of gender, age, vocation or personal history arise) is simply this undeniable sense of presence, this boundless awareness in which the body and the universe appear—this present experiencing—this whole ever-changing happening. We’re not limited to the body or encapsulated inside of it, and the body is not the solid, separate, independent “thing” we think it is. “The body” is a mental concept—a frozen idea. The actual living reality of what we call “the body” is ceaseless change and movement, energy, sensation, vibration, pulsation. It isn’t the same from one instant to the next, and it is inseparable from the environment out of which it emerges and into which it returns second by second. We could also say, the body is an ever-changing shape that consciousness is taking. It’s a fluid happening, not a solid thing.
So instead of trying to drop the self or extinguish the person, can we simply begin to question the deeply conditioned thought-sense that we have of being this little entity that is supposedly inside here somewhere authoring my thoughts, pulling the levers, steering the ship, making my decisions? Can we look closely and see that no such entity can actually be found? Can we question what it is that is getting hurt or feeling defensive when those reactions happen? What are we defending? What are we protecting? What is it that seems unworthy or that we think has failed at life? Is it the body? Or is it a mental image, a phantom, a character in a story, an imagination? Can we find the one who is not enlightened? (Or the one who thinks s/he is?) That’s what I mean by seeing through the notion of being a separate self. Discovering again and again that we are defending an image, or that we are trying to make a mirage into “somebody successful and worthy of being alive,” or that we are evaluating the progress of a phantom in a dream. And realizing directly that what we actually are is unlimited, unbound, beginningless and endless—i.e., Here / Now.
With that realization, the personality is still here, this absolutely unique expression of life…and the functional sense of identity with a particular body that allows us to answer to our name or to discern the difference between our fingers and the carrot we are cutting up, that is still here...this whole amazing event we call “Joan” or “Bill” or “cloud” or “tree” or “river” is all still happening. But without thought dividing it all up, there is no place where “I” begin or end…there is no division into seer-seeing-seen or subject/object or inside/outside. This can be discovered directly by simply paying attention to the actuality of this very moment.
Each tree, each person, each snowflake, each cloud, each leaf, each raindrop, each moment is unique and beautiful and unrepeatable…and always instantly changing into something new. And all of it is always right here, right now in this timeless, placeless, aware present-ness from which nothing stands apart. What a wonderful miracle!
Recently, the valley where I live in southern Oregon was filled with smoke and toxic air for weeks on end from the raging wildfires all over the western United States that get worse and worse every season as climate change accelerates. When the air here is smoky, my eyes burn, I cough a lot, I get more easily fatigued. Being cooped up indoors, going out only when I have to, keeping the windows closed all the time—after weeks of this, I begin to feel stir-crazy.
And one smoky day in late August, I started to feel depressed. I hadn’t felt depressed in a long time, but suddenly, there it was again. Everything felt overwhelming. Thoughts started cycling through about how I couldn’t go on, how I was a total fraud, a complete loser. I knew these were “just thoughts,” my familiar old demons, but at that moment, they felt very convincing and real. By that evening, I was feeling a deep, pervasive sadness. My heart was heavy. It felt as if I were weighed down and immersed in this thick gluey fog of negativity and hopelessness—total despair.
Luckily, I was able to let all of this be without running away and without trying to resolve it. I was simply present in the storm of emotion-thought, feeling the weight and the pull of it, but not being entirely sucked into the storyline and the drama either. It didn’t feel good. It was unpleasant and a little scary and…well…depressing. But I didn’t move away. I didn’t search for a way out. I just allowed it all to be exactly the way it was. And in this allowing, there was no “me” doing it—it was a surrendering that came out of life itself.
And the next morning, miracle of miracles, I felt totally fine. I was full of energy and had no sense anymore of unworthiness or inability. It had all evaporated during the night. It’s amazing how these dark clouds can seem so real and so serious when they overtake us, and then how completely they can disappear into thin air.
From the vantage point of feeling good, it’s always easy to see through the stories that plague us when we’re feeling anxious or worried or depressed. It’s easy then to see that “it’s just a story,” that everything changes, that a dark mood is “just weather,” that none of it is personal. But when we’re in the middle of a powerful storm of emotion-thought—a giant wave of depression or anxiety or loss or betrayal or whatever it might be—it’s very easy to be swept away and submerged in the darkness. Even if we try to tell ourselves these are “just thoughts” or “just stories” or “just sensations,” the words feel hollow and unbelievable. The stories seem real, and the feelings in the body seem unbearable. The storm is a powerful energetic field with its own special brew of neurochemicals and hormones and thoughts and sensations and whatever all is involved in stirring it up and keeping it going. And the force of habit driving our reactions to all of this is also very strong—resisting, escaping, seeking a way out in all the wrong places—this is our habitual tendency in these moments of darkness.
To just allow it all to be here, to not do anything, this can seem like the hardest thing in the world, the very last thing we want to do. Centuries of old conditioning are pulling us in a different direction—urging us to think or drink or turn on the TV or get out the pornography or the chocolate ice-cream or sink into hopeless despair or fly into a rage or whatever our particular escape mechanisms are—even desperately reading spiritual books one after another, like a starving person grabbing frantically for menus while ignoring the actual meal in front of them.
This work of “waking up now” takes a certain kind of faith and courage. By faith, I don’t mean belief. I mean a willingness to offer ourselves up to that fire at the heart of experience, a willingness to let it burn when it burns, and a trust in life itself, a faith in the inexplicable wholeness that is doing it all. Some might call this faith in God, but what I’m pointing to is not some external divine being “out there” somewhere, but rather, the living reality from which nothing stands apart and the fundamental goodness that we know so clearly when we know it. And when I say fundamental goodness, I’m not talking about the relative good that is the opposite of relative evil—I’m talking about the absolute goodness that embraces and includes both polarities, the emptiness of it all, and the recognition of the sacred that sees only God everywhere.
Life does get very hard sometimes, and more so on every level for some people than for others, and to deny this is to deny reality. We need only turn on the TV to see the refugees pouring out of Syria and elsewhere, getting such a rude reception and struggling to survive in heart-wrenching conditions, children dying. Most of us reading this post are not suffering that kind of horror right now. But as human beings, we don’t need to be in extreme situations to suffer greatly. Even if we are living in luxury, when the waves of emotion-thought are huge and strong and disturbing, it often gets very hard to find this courage and this faith that I’ve been talking about, this willingness to surrender, to let go of everything, to not do anything at all. We are, in such moments, very much like Jesus on the cross: “God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s how we feel.
At such times, I am reminded of a talk I heard once by Adam Bucko, a Christian who works with homeless youth in NYC. I mentioned it in a previous post once. In this talk, Adam said that the biggest challenge he faces 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, he said, is showing up anyway, trusting that somehow God will show up too. For me, that’s exactly the challenge of waking up and being awake, the challenge of meditative living—and this is the vigilance, the constancy, the not moving away, the no escape, the surrendering, the “being here now” that is the heart of the pathless path.
This pathless path isn’t about results. It’s not about fixing all our neurosis and being happy all the time. And it’s not about arriving at some final destination where the weather is always sunny. That’s a fantasy. As they say in Zen, “delusions are inexhaustible.” Or as Zen teacher Steve Hagen put it in the quote of his I shared recently, “Constancy is precisely about faltering, over and over, and coming back, over and over.” Stormy weather is not something we can vanquish. But over time, and always right now, we can learn how to be with it in a new way. A faith can develop that allows us to keep showing up, to surrender again and again to how it is, to simply be present with the storms when they come. Instead of fighting them or trying to run away from them, we begin to get interested in them. We begin to approach them in very much the same way that a baby approaches everything it encounters, or in the way that a lover explores the beloved, with wonder and curiosity and devotion…with love.
A number of days after my brief episode of depression, it rained, and the air cleared, the smoke was gone, the sky was blue, I could see the mountain ranges all around me again. And suddenly the air was cool, the leaves were starting to turn, the days were getting shorter—the first touch of autumn was in the air. And it was so beautiful—like that first spring day after a ruthless winter—I just wanted to fall down and kiss the ground! Clear fresh air, blue sky! What a gift! What a miracle! You really appreciate the simple things like that when they’ve been gone for awhile…very much the way you appreciate waking up in good spirits after a brief bout of depression.
It’s a good lesson—that everything is impermanent and ever-changing—the inner weather and the outer weather. True freedom, true peace is not dependent on pleasant weather. It is not an endlessly sunny day. Liberation is being just this moment, exactly as it is, with no division, no separation, no grasping, no resisting, no escape, no me and no it. And when it seems otherwise, that’s our invitation to stop, look and listen—to pay attention—to be curious—to see what’s happening, and to wonder if maybe we can simply be here without doing anything at all.
Many of us have searched in many places for a better reality than the one we have. But still, we don’t feel satisfied and fulfilled. Our life isn’t working out quite the way we imagined it might—we wish the colors were a little brighter, the sex a little hotter, the days a little sunnier, our job a little more fulfilling. As one person who has been going through a difficult experience said to me recently, “Waking up doesn't necessarily give you the experience (or fantasy) you want, it just shows you the fantasy for what it is among other revelations.” The same person went on to say, “It would be great if I could say that resting as awareness or something like that actually fulfilled me, made me whole, or maybe even caused the whole me-thing to dissipate, but unfortunately such is not the case to date. Right now there's a strong feeling of discouragement.” Or as another person once said to me, “There’s presence and awareness here, sure, but where’s the beef?”
I remember once telling Toni Packer that I was in despair because there was awareness of these habits of mine like future-thinking and fingerbiting, but in spite of that awareness, they just kept coming back, year after year after year after year.
“Here's where you have to be really discerning,” Toni replied. “When you say that there is awareness of them, is it really awareness, or is it thinking? Thinking about how long they've persisted, how it's never going to end, how it's hopeless, wanting to know how to fix it. That isn't awareness. That's thinking.”
She wasn’t implying that there hadn’t been any genuine awareness at all—but she was pointing out how easily we slide over into thinking without realizing it.
So when we say (or think) that “resting as awareness isn’t fulfilling,” is awareness what’s actually happening at that moment, or are we again lost in thought? Maybe a moment before, there actually was open awareness, but now there is THINKING about whether “I” have been made whole, whether “my” me has fallen away yet, whether this “resting as awareness” is fulfilling me. Can we sense the difference between open, free, boundless awareness and some idea of “me” doing something called “resting as awareness” so that “I” will feel good or be saved or be fulfilled? As soon as the thought arises that, “this isn’t fulfilling me,” it’s a clue that something else is taking place besides simply open awareness and the bare happening of this moment. There is a thought-commentary or a thought-overlay taking place, which instantly creates a kind of imaginary virtual reality in the imagination. These are thoughts and stories that all refer back to the separate self, the unhappy “me.” So it takes a subtle attention at times to see the difference between THINKING about resting as awareness and actually BEING awareness and the living reality of this moment—with no one doing that or standing outside of it and evaluating how fulfilling it is “for me.”
In open, free, boundless awareness, there is no division into self and not-self. It is only when thought paints the picture that we are a limited, separate self that we think about whether or not we are fulfilled. And what exactly is that “me” that doesn’t feel fulfilled? Can we actually find this “me” that seems to be at the center of “my” story, this me that “I” can’t seem to get rid of no matter what “I” do? Are there two of us here—I and me—one trying to defeat the other? Or are they both imposters, mirage-like creations of thought and imagination? When we look for this “me,” this self, what do we find? Ever-changing mental images, thoughts, memories, emotions, moods, stories, bodily sensations—all of which together somehow give rise to this thought-story-belief and this felt-sense that “I” am a separate unit of consciousness encapsulated inside a separate body—a fragment in a fragmented world, looking out from my separate enclosure, trying desperately to survive and succeed as “me.”
But what are we before we think about ourselves, before we remember our name and our story? Without words or thoughts, there is an undeniable knowingness of being present. There is awareness. And there is present experiencing (sensing, perceiving). All of this is here right now. And if we don’t think about it, if we simply turn to our direct present moment experiencing, is this open aware presence encapsulated or bound, limited or conditioned? Doesn’t it take thought, imagination and memory to conjure up “me,” the separate self? In open awareness, is anything lacking or in excess?
At a very early age, we have learned to identify this impersonal sense of aware presence (I Am) with a particular bodymind and a story (I am So-and-So, I am a man or a woman, I am Israeli or Palestinian, I am a Republican or a Democrat, I am a doctor or a dishwasher, I am a success or a failure, I am good at this and terrible at that, and so on). This vast aware presence has suddenly shrunk down into a thought-sense of being encapsulated and limited, separate and cut off from the whole—and simultaneously, the happening of this moment (the living reality of pure experiencing—colors, shapes, sounds, sensations) is projected “out there” as a seemingly separate, solid, observer-independent world. We then have the deeply conditioned belief that “I” (the separate self) am looking out at “it” (the external world), as if these are two separate things. It takes careful attention to see that this is all a construction of thought.
Of course, we can’t deny the person or the functional sense of identity and boundaries that arise as needed—that is part of this whole undivided happening. But we’re not limited to that person or trapped inside that bodymind looking out. And that bodymind doesn’t actually have the solidity, the continuity, the independence, the separateness, and the objective reality that we think it does. It is actually empty of all that, to use Buddhist terminology. It is much more fluid and permeable and ungraspable.
Pain (physical and emotional) is part of organic life. But most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction—our human suffering, if we look closely and trace it back, seems to be rooted in this deeply conditioned thought-sense of being a separate fragment apart from the whole, someone who is supposedly authoring my thoughts and making my choices, someone who is supposed to be steering “my life” toward a successful outcome, but who always seems to be coming up short. Can this separate “me” ever be truly happy or fulfilled? Or is that fragment by definition always incomplete, always lacking, always lonely and insecure?
We may be thinking right now that, “I know the self is the problem, but I can’t get rid of it!” Can we notice that these are all thoughts, and not our actual direct experiencing right now? “I can’t get rid of my self.” Whether true or false, this is a story—can we see that? Can we notice that this is one thought-construction (the author-controller-observer-knower) trying to vanquish another thought-construction (the uncontrollable me that keeps popping up)? It is me trying to get rid of me, so that me will finally be okay! This is like a dog chasing its tail in circles.
Instead of trying to get rid of the self, or worrying that it hasn’t dissolved yet, or arguing over whether or not there are people for whom it is totally gone, maybe instead we can get interested in actually turning our attention to this phantom operator and discovering what this apparent self actually is—seeing through the mirage, not once-and-for-all, but as it shows up. And if it seems very real, that’s okay—just keep looking and questioning and being interested—without desperately trying to reach any particular result or conclusion, because that desperation is itself a manifestation of the separate self trying to fix itself by eliminating itself. Instead, is it possible to simply have a kind of gentle, open curiosity: What is it that I’m calling “me”? Can I actually find the self? Who or what is doing this inquiry right now? Where do my thoughts come from? Is there actually a thinker authoring my thoughts? And instead of thinking about all these questions, look with awareness. Pay attention to direct experiencing rather than conceptualization. Begin to discern the difference between perceiving and thinking, and between awareness and thought. Explore. See what you find (and what you don’t find).
Maybe we can also be interested in the question, why aren’t we happy? Why do we feel unfulfilled? What’s missing? We can THINK about this question and come up with a list of what we lack and various explanations for our unhappiness, but it might be a wonderful thing for each of us to actually look directly with awareness and see. Are we happy right now? Pause for a moment and really check it out. Are you happy right now?
And if you’re not, what is the nature of this present unhappiness? What is it made up of? Thoughts? Sensations? Emotions? Stories? Beliefs? What does it feel like? Where is it in the body? What are the thoughts (the stories, the headlines, the assertions) that accompany it? If, for a moment, all such thoughts and stories are absent, if there is simply the bare happening of this moment (sounds of traffic, breathing, bodily sensations, the cheep-cheep-cheep of a bird, etc.), is the unhappiness still here? And if it is, where is it? If it is a feeling in the body, what happens if you simply open fully to the sensations themselves, without any labels or judgments, allowing them to be just as they are and exploring them with awareness? Do they stay the same? Are they unbearable? What is it like to simply let them be here, to feel them without turning away or wanting them to end and without telling a story about what they mean?
These are not inquiries to think about and then produce the “right” answers, nor are they explorations to rush through hurriedly in a few seconds. These are meditative inquiries to take time with, to live with, to really look and see. This is what true meditation and meditative living is all about. It is about exploring the nature of reality—seeing what’s really here.
On the level of form, we can see that everything disappears—nothing is permanent or reliable. Every person we love, every experience we have, every state of mind we’ve ever been in, every mood, every object…all of it is impermanent and empty of solidity or inherent existence. Lovers and spouses die or leave us…or they grow old…or we grow apart in important ways. Houses can be destroyed in an instant by fire, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, wars. Stars flame out of existence, as our sun will one day do. Life is by nature insecure and frightening from the perspective of a fragment trying to hold onto things.
When we think and feel that “I” am a solid and separate thing, and that “my life” is some actual “thing” that is supposed to “work out” in a certain way, we suffer. And when we think that everything that we love and everything that we fear are solid things, we suffer. But when we truly REALIZE the truth of impermanence—when we SEE the emptiness (the fluidity, the interdependence, the insubstantiality, the no-thing-ness) of everything (including “me” and “my body” and “my life” and “my unhappiness”), that is a very liberating discovery. We see that ALL of life is an undivided happening, an unbroken whole, in which no-thing is born and no-thing dies.
For most (if not all) of us, that it isn’t a discovery we make once-and-for-all, but again and again, now and now. It’s one thing to “get it” intellectually as an idea or a model that makes sense to us, and that’s helpful, but what truly liberates us is when we see it directly and absorb it into the very fabric of our being, when it is our lived reality beyond any doubt. I certainly can’t claim that this is my lived reality all the time, 24/7. Every time I feel defensive, or self-righteous, or angry, or my feelings get hurt, the me-illusion has shown up again. There is that feeling of separation, of insecurity. Maybe I can say I’m never totally hypnotized by this mirage anymore, but I can’t say it never shows up, and I can’t say it doesn’t sometimes seem very real and believable. What HAS fallen away is the sense that “I” need all this to stop happening so that “I” can finally be an Awakened One for whom the self-illusion is permanently gone. It is clear that any such desire for a “Permanently Awakened Me” is all about the false self and the illusory notion of “my life.”
And when delusion comes and the ride gets rough, even though I know now that the “solution” is not “out there” anywhere, the siren-song urging escape can be very powerful seductive at times: have a drink…grab for a spiritual book (read another menu instead of eating the meal)….think obsessively….go over all your mistakes…imagine where you could be instead of here…go shopping, buy something…whatever the pulls are for each one of us.
That whole cycle doesn’t end by thinking about it. It ends when it is seen clearly for what it is, and when the bare experiencing itself is allowed to be as it is, without resistance. But that doesn’t mean “I” am now permanently awake, permanently enlightened. That very notion is delusion again, re-creating the imaginary separate self and the notion of endless time in which “I” am permanently some particular way. Waking up is now, not forever after. And in wakefulness, there is no “I” who is awake.
It doesn’t matter how we compare to anyone else, whether delusion happens more or less frequently, or whether it lasts longer or dissipates more quickly for us than for someone else. We’re all doing the best we can in each moment with the hand we’ve been dealt. We may all have different versions of human suffering, but the essential elements are very common to us all. We’re all learning to be with this human weather in a new way. We’re learning to not confuse the map for the territory, to not get hypnotized by our thoughts and stories, to not run away from our feelings and bodily sensations, to not believe in the phantom thinker-author-controller that we think we are. We’re learning to be awake to this moment, however it is—happy or sad, blissful or painful. We’re waking up to impermanence, to emptiness, to the wholeness of being. We’re discovering the aware presence, the groundless ground that is the very nature of Here / Now, the very nature of what we are—not as a comforting ideology, but as a felt-reality. And this process of awakening is not always easy. It has some dark and scary moments. So it’s good to know we’re not alone with it. And we’re not in control of it. This is a happening of life. We could say, life is doing us, not the other way around, although there isn’t really a doer and anyone who is being done.
We often imagine that enlightenment or awakening will mean the end of pain and suffering forever—but it turns out, we may actually feel pain much more profoundly and be more aware of pain than ever before when awakeness is here because we are less defended, more open, more sensitive. We begin to notice and feel the pain of the whole world. And instead of becoming the perfect saint we were hoping to be—the Awakened One, the Radiant One—instead, we become ever more aware of our delusions and shortcomings—all the ways we are not awake. It can be quite disillusioning and disappointing. As the person who wrote the email wisely noted, “Waking up doesn't necessarily give you the experience (or fantasy) you want, it just shows you the fantasy for what it is.” Or as Zen Master Dogen put it centuries ago, "Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings." And as they say in Zen, “delusions are inexhaustible,” so there is a never-ending opportunity to wake up. Waking up is moment-to-moment, not once-and-for-all.
And this waking up, this enlightenment, doesn’t automatically eliminate the problems of the bodymind, nor does it turn us into a perfect being, secure from the ravages of life. When a loved one dies or leaves us, we feel grief. When we stub a toe, we feel pain. When we see the devastation of war or wildfires or hurricanes on the News, we feel sorrow for all the suffering beings. My teacher Toni Packer spent more than a decade in chronic pain and fatigue, progressively more disabled, eventually bedridden—being awake didn’t protect her from this, although I believe it helped her weather it. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t still hurt. Krishnamurti was apparently screaming in pain as he died of pancreatic cancer. And of course, there was Jesus…and as I’ve often said, being nailed to a cross is just no fun, no matter how enlightened you are—and even Jesus cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” in that dark hour. Katagiri Roshi once said that enlightenment isn’t about dying a good death (calm, peaceful, fully present, all of that); enlightenment is about not needing to die a good death. It is the freedom to scream or cry or take morphine or watch television on our deathbed—to be just as we are, in other words—no self-image to defend or protect.
I’ve noticed that there’s a sense in many of our lives in the developed world that we need to have it all. We need a beautiful partnership, hot sex, a satisfying career, successful children, good health, a beautiful house, a meaningful life, lots of money, perpetual pleasure, plenty of appreciation and respect and approval, and so on and on. But really, how many human beings on this planet have all of that? Many have none of that. And many who seem to have it all, if you scratch the surface, you’ll discover the handsome man and the beautiful woman haven’t had sex in years, and one of them is a secret alcoholic. The fact is, life is always a mixed bag—it contains ups and the downs, light and the dark, successes and failures. And not everyone is Mozart or Einstein or Ramana Maharshi. Most of us aren’t. Not everyone wins an Academy Award or a Nobel Prize. Most of us don’t. Not everyone meets the love of their life and lives happily ever after. Very few are so lucky. But does that have to be disappointing? Does it have to mean we failed or fell short, that our life was fundamentally unhappy and disappointing?
When we see a wave on the ocean that is smaller than another wave, do we think that the smaller wave failed at life, that it didn’t try hard enough, that it should have done better, that it is not worthy of existence? Or do we recognize that the size and force of each wave is a happening of nature—that an infinite web of causes and conditions produces each particular movement in the ocean—that there is no “self” inside the wave that can be blamed for being smaller? We know that in nature, some waves are smaller than others. We don’t give it added meaning. And it’s easy to see that all the waves—big or small—are equally water, equally ocean—and that there are no actual boundaries between the different waves—they are one whole waving movement. But when it comes to human life, we apply a very different kind of evaluation. We insert the imaginary self, the phantom operator, and we think we are truly separate and on our own, to be blamed for our failures and praised for our successes.
We also don’t wonder whether a wave that washes up on the beach is gone forever or whether it will reincarnate or go to heaven—we know that the ocean is still waving and that no wave is a separate “thing” that can be grasped and preserved and held onto—and that doesn’t seem to bother us with the waves. But when it’s our own death or a loved one, we easily lose sight of this unbroken wholeness, this undivided fluidity. We grasp at a wave and we suffer.
We’ve all heard about the glass that can be seen as half-full or half-empty. Seeing it as half-empty is samsara. Seeing it as half-full is nirvana. Same content in each glass, same situation, but two different ways of seeing it. In one case, you’re suffering—in the other, you’re grateful and happy. So, we can be upset or depressed that we’re not Ramana or Einstein or Mozart, or we can be grateful that we’ve had any taste at all of awakening or awareness or the mysteries of the universe or the joys of music. And we can realize that we are not actually limited to any particular form, that all forms are momentary and indivisible expressions of Reality, and that in the deepest sense, the whole universe is us, the big wave and the small one, Mozart and the drunken bum passed out on the sidewalk, the moments of enlightenment and the moments of delusion. It is one whole happening from which nothing stands apart.
Of course, this shift from half-empty to half-full, from samsara to nirvana, from delusion to enlightenment, from thinking we are a fragment to being knowingly the whole, from disappointment to gratitude—this shift isn’t quite as simple as clicking our heels together three times and “deciding” to be happy and grateful and enlightened. It’s natural to feel disappointment and grief sometimes—it’s part of life. And delusion seems to be part and parcel of how consciousness functions as well, and the hypnotic pull of it can be very strong at times. We know now that some of our psychological suffering is the result of brain chemistry (or brain trauma), some of it comes from childhood and life conditioning (often traumatic), some of it is rooted in genetics, some in hormone imbalances and other conditions in the body. Our emotional weather, like our physical health, is a complex stew that no one creates. We don’t all have equal resources or equal challenges, inwardly or outwardly. Just because one person can easily “decide” to keep functioning even though they feel depressed, doesn’t mean everyone has this ability or capacity at their fingertips in every moment. So can we be compassionate with ourselves (and others) when we can’t seem to snap out of a bad dream right away? And at the same time, can we question any story we’re holding onto about how we are a hopeless case, too damaged to wake up, totally broken, and so on…or any story that this depression or this addiction is impossible to get beyond?
We don’t know what is or isn’t possible. Language always creates false dichotomies, and our binary and dualistic habits of thought tempt us to grab on to one half of a polarity: choice or no choice, relative or absolute, self or no self—but perhaps the deepest truth includes the whole gestalt and can’t be pinned down by any formulation. Perhaps the present moment is already complete just as it is, warts and all, and yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t be moved to make changes. Here / Now is always effortlessly present, and present experiencing is ever-changing, always new. And maybe, if the interest arises, we can look and listen and see how we do our suffering...how the sense of being separate and encapsulated and lost is created and perpetuated. Maybe, for moments at a time, we can be here the way a baby is here, with wonderment and curiosity, with no self-image to enhance or protect or defend. And of course, we’re not actually sinking back into babyhood, which would be impossible and undesirable, but rather, we’re moving beyond a certain stage of adult development into a new way of being that is open and uncharted. At least, that’s as good a story as any other. And ultimately, we aren’t going anywhere. There is no end to this journey—this pathless path—from Here to Here.
As Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi put it: “We always think that nirvana is something very different from our own life. But we must really understand that nirvana is right here, right now.” This is it. You are it. Nothing is left out.
I heard from someone who reported being “in close contact” with presence much of the time, but said there was still the illusion that presence is not abiding. This person also reported that, “with the falling away of the personal,” his life is “barely functional.” I suspect many people can relate to one or both parts of this, so I thought I’d share an edited version of my response:
When you speak of the illusion that presence is not abiding, from what point of view are you speaking? Isn’t it only from the perspective of the imaginary separate self that this concern arises and that this seems to be the case? “I” (the separate self) seem to have "close contact” with presence in one moment, and then “I” seem to lose “it” in the next moment. Has presence-awareness actually gone anywhere, or have thoughts arisen and their content been believed? Don’t answer this question by thinking about it, but actually stop and check right now (and at any moment, in any situation) and see—isn’t presence-awareness right here? And then see how thought pops up and says, “This isn’t it, You’ve lost it, There has to be more than this, You’re not stabilized yet,” and so on. Enlightenment is nothing more than seeing through delusion as it arises. As Ramana Maharshi put it, “Realization is nothing to be gained anew....Realization consists of getting rid of [or seeing through] the false idea that one is not realized.”
Thought tells the story that “I” am not there yet, that “I” am alternately getting it and losing it. And this mirage-like separate self desperately wants to get rid of itself and “abide in presence” all the time so that “I” will finally be okay (happy, enlightened, free, complete, at peace, etc.).
So if it seems that presence is not always here, then I suggest investigating, what is it that you are calling presence? Is it a particular experience that you can describe and remember and compare to other experiences? If so, then it will come and go, as all experiences do by their very nature. The experiences that happen in deep meditation, on retreat or at a satsang, will be different from the experiences that happen at the office on a busy day, or at home with screaming children, or while watching a thriller on TV, or when lost in a daydream-fantasy. But something is the same in all these different experiences. They all happen Here / Now. They all appear in awareness. They are all empty of any solid, observer-independent, inherent reality. They are all movements of the same undivided energy, the same beingness, presence or consciousness.
True Presence (or emptiness) isn’t something we attain. It isn’t a particular experience. It is what remains when there is a seeing through of the separate self and all those stories that thought (claiming to be “I”) keeps asserting: “I’ve got it, I lost it, I need to get it back, I’m in contact with it, I’m abiding in it, I’m not abiding, I’m out of contact, I’m a loser, I think my self is totally dead, my self isn’t dead yet, I hope I can be permanently rid of the self someday,” etc. Actually, if you stop and check, you’ll discover that presence-awareness is here before, during and after all those thoughts. It is the ever-present groundless ground (the no-thing-ness) appearing as everything, even thoughts and mental images.
People seem to go through many different adventures on the pathless path of awakening, but all of these adventures are a kind of imaginary movie with “me” as the main character. Being barely functional for awhile is one of these adventures that some people in the dream-like movie of waking life report. We don’t really know why anything happens, and the meaning we give to various happenings is always an add-on by the thinking mind. Maybe a period of being barely functional is the form that the falling away of what is not needed takes in some people (Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle, Mooji and many others describe something like this in their process).
In others, a period of being barely functional may come from a misunderstanding about "extinguishing the person” that I addressed in my post on Sept 2nd—some mistaken idea that we need to completely obliterate the self and leave the body and all its concerns behind. This idea has been reinforced by centuries of spiritual people leaving their homes, renouncing family, sex, property and money, and sometimes sleeping on a bed of nails or flogging themselves for good measure. There can also be a misunderstanding that being awake is some kind of spaced-out, blissed-out, totally passive state of consciousness in which it is impossible to function in any normal way. But awakening is not an altered state—it is a recognition of the natural state, the stateless state, the ever-present ground. In this recognition of our True Nature, there is a relaxed alertness that is entirely capable of active exertion.
A period of being barely functional may also in some cases be the result of neurochemical and/or psychological problems such as depression that might be better addressed by psychotherapy or psychiatry. And a period of being barely functional may be some combination of all of these things, or none of these. In the end, we don’t really know why anything is the way it is. And certainly I don’t know what this is for you or what will happen next. But life has a way of working itself out one way or the other. We seem to find what we need. And our ideas of what is and isn’t functional are always worth questioning.
I can assure you that being awake does not in itself make us unable to function—in fact, it allows us to function in a much more genuine and creative way, free from imaginary obstacles, false expectations and self-centered delusions. As one teacher put it, it’s as if we’ve been driving all our life with the brakes on, and now they’re off. But don’t assume this is going to be a once-and-for-all kind of shift. I always caution against the Big-Bang, finish-line model of enlightenment or awakening where we imagine that all mistaken identification as the false self will end permanently in a giant flash of light, and we will thereafter be totally free, brakes permanently off forever after. That is rarely, if ever, the case. As I see it, waking up is always now—not yesterday or tomorrow or forever after. What we are waking up to is ever-present and never not here. It is not a personal attainment that we acquire or achieve, but rather, the falling away (or seeing through) of that false sense of encapsulation, ownership and authorship. But in the dream-like movie, it seems to be a process in time with forward and backward steps.
Old ways of functioning gradually (and sometimes suddenly) fall away, but they tend to come back again under stress. Typically, they appear and disappear. But presence-awareness is here regardless of what appears or disappears. And this reappearance of delusion only seems to be a problem from the perspective of the separate self. Presence-awareness is the ever-present ground that includes it all. And life naturally has different seasons and phases…in nature, it is natural for things to sprout and blossom and wither and die and lie fallow and then sprout again. But in human life, we tend to demand continual blossoming, and we have very little tolerance for dying or lying fallow or doing nothing. We associate any such thing with failure. But all of this is actually perfectly natural, even essential, to life. Presence-awareness is equally present in every season.
That which we truly are—whether we call it emptiness or the Self or Presence or Buddha Nature or Christ Consciousness or God or primordial awareness or energy or the Unnamable—that unbroken wholeness is never not here. It is what Here / Now IS. It is our True Nature, the groundlessness from which nothing stands apart. This cannot be lost or found. What can be lost or found are different experiences. But you cannot lose Here / Now. Being “functional” or “barely functional” or “totally dysfunctional” are labels the mind applies after the fact. They are judgments based on conditioned views about what is and isn’t functional. But if we look closer, these words don’t even make sense anymore. There is only this one whole undivided functioning that includes everything, even the apparent obstacles and dysfunctions. We are never really in the situation we imagine we are in, and we are never really the separate self that we imagine we are. We are never actually broken off from the whole. By trying to achieve enlightenment or stabilize in presence in the future, we overlook the presence that Here / Now is, and we hypnotize ourselves into the belief that we are a separate fragment, alternately getting it and then losing it. But truly, presence (or emptiness) is all there is. Everything is included.
Response to a comment:
The movie-like happening of waking life will always include an oscillation between pain and pleasure, contraction and expansion, happiness and sorrow—and the zoom lens of attention will by its very nature move out sometimes to the boundlessness of the big picture and then in sometimes for the more relative and personal view. Awareness has no problem with any of this—only the separate self views this oscillation and this zooming in and out as an irritation (or worse).
By paying attention to the self-contraction and our habits of suffering as they show up, the mechanics of it all get clearer and clearer, and that is a beautiful thing to be interested in and dedicated to—seeing through and waking up from delusion, or as one teacher puts it, keeping vigil at the flame of Truth. In my experience, there is no end to this vigilance and this seeing through of delusion.
The unnecessary and painful kind of self-referencing that we all know so well may happen less frequently over time, and it may pass more quickly, and we may be less hypnotized by the spell of it, but chances are, it will still show up as long as the bodymind is alive. But importantly, this is not just our own personal journey, but the journey of all humanity and of consciousness itself.
And if something looks like an unwanted fly in the ointment, that’s always a little dharma bell and an invitation to stop, look and listen. The apparent obstacles and the moments of delusion are the gates to awakening.
We can get ourselves really confused by reading lots of different menus and trying to figure out in our heads which meal will be “the highest and the best.” One teacher talks about being present in the Now, another says that “being in the Now” is kindergarten stuff, still in the dream-state. One teacher says, “Consciousness is all there is,” and another teacher compares consciousness to piss and says that Ultimate Reality is prior to consciousness. One teaching says everything is empty of self and that all there is, is thorough-going impermanence, seamless flux and no-thing-ness, while another teaching says there is only the Self—the One, unchanging, immutable Reality. Some say the Source is darkness, others say it is light. One teacher says attention is the path to awakening, another says attention is the problem that needs to dissolve. Who to believe?
Don’t believe anyone! Many teachers claim that their teaching is the most advanced, the most subtle, the most radical, or the most true. As the separate self, we very much want to be sure that “I” get it right and end up on the winning team, not the second-rate team. So we think and we think and we think, trying to figure out which menu is offering the most advanced meal, the one that will ensure that we become the Most Special and Most Enlightened no-self (ho ho ho).
If we’re lucky, we begin to notice that our confusion is conceptual, that it is all about different models of reality, different maps of the same territory, and that the whole concern with finding the right model and the right set of instructions is all about “me” and whether I’m going to get “there” or not. We begin to recognize that there is no there to get to. Here / Now is all there is, and Here / Now is always already present. We start to actually get interested in Here / Now, and as we explore it or relax into it, we find it isn’t at all the way we thought it was. It has an immense spaciousness about it, and a vibrant aliveness. It is boundless and has infinite depth.
We also begin to notice that many common spiritual words are used in totally different ways by different teachers (or even by the same teacher in different moments), not to mention all the things that can happen when someone’s words have been transcribed (often from poor quality audio tapes) or written down from memory (sometimes years later) and then translated and maybe even re-translated (I’ve seen my own words in one case translated into the exact opposite of what I meant). Who knows what Nisargadatta or Ramana or Buddha or Dogen actually said or meant! And then, all these words get thrown around quite freely: presence, awareness, consciousness, attention, nonduality, emptiness, enlightenment, awakening. They all point to a reality that is not a word or a concept, and that reality is what actually matters, not the word or the map, but it’s so easy to overlook that fact. It’s so easy to confuse the map and the territory, to mistake a conceptual abstraction for the living reality and to not even realize that we are doing that, that we are conceptualizing. But eventually, if we’re lucky, we begin to look deeper than the words, deeper than concepts—we begin to pay attention to our own immediate, direct experiencing and to this undeniable awaring presence and this ever-present Here / Now.
When we point to “being in the Now,” it is a pointer to recognizing the nature of Here / Now, the nature of this timeless aware presence that we are. Instead of paying attention to (and getting hypnotized by) the content of our thoughts, stories and beliefs, we shift our attention to the nonconceptual happening of the moment: sensing, perceiving and awaring. Thought labels, abstracts, evaluates, compares and contrasts—it draws boundary lines and gives rise to a conceptualized world of apparently solid, frozen, separate objects—a ubiquitous and socially-reinforced conceptual abstraction that we all too easily mistake for reality. But when attention shifts to nonconceptual sensing, perceiving and awaring, everything is fluid and immediate. Here / Now, the false sense of separation and encapsulation vanishes along with entanglement in the story, and we wake up to the unbound emptiness that we are and that everything is—the aliveness, the fluidity, the immediacy of presence-awareness.
If we then become attached to this as a particular experience that comes and goes (an expanded, relaxed, pleasant or blissful experience) and wanting that experience to be permanent, or if we make it into a new identity and claim it as a personal attainment (“I am awake” or “I am abiding in the Now”), the thought-story and the fictional self has taken over again. Can we see this when it happens? This is not cause for despair when it happens—it is an impersonal happening—only the separate self would find this depressing or insulting or disappointing. Awareness accepts and includes everything unconditionally. The one behind the whole effort to correctly engineer “the death of the self” or evaluate whether or not it has happened yet is none other than this phantom self always seeking an advantage for “me.”
Awareness, Presence, Truth cannot be grasped. It is not a particular experience. It is not an attainment. It is never not here, and yet it is beyond anything perceivable or conceivable, untouched by any relative changes within the story. This nondual absolute depends on nothing. It accepts everything. It is absolute openness. It is here in spite of whatever relative changes happen within the movie of waking life, not because of any changes. It is not the effect of a cause. It can’t be grasped, and yet it is most intimate and can never be lost. It is nothing in particular, and yet it is showing up as these words, as the sounds of traffic, as the rumbling in the stomach, as the awareness beholding it all. Even delusion is Truth appearing as delusion.
In awakeness, the person is still here, doing whatever it does. There is a functional sense of being a particular person that doesn’t disappear and that shows up as needed within the play of life. We don’t need to eradicate the person. The person is a beautiful expression of life. Relative and absolute function together. The zoom lens of attention will by its very nature move out sometimes to the boundlessness of the big picture, and at other times, it will zoom in for the more relative and personal view. Awareness has no problem with any of this movement from relative to absolute. Awareness contains it all. So again, we don’t need to eradicate the person or the personality or our human nature, nor do we need to deny or ignore relative reality. We just need to see what is illusory about the person and what isn’t. In awakeness, the person is no longer imagined to be a separate, independent operator inside a separate, solid, independent body that has an inherent, observer-independent reality apart from consciousness.
But let’s be very clear here—these are not ideas to figure out in the head. When we tune into the nonconceptual actuality Here / Now, when we are awake as boundless awareness, then all these different and seemingly conflicting expressions of nonduality (or at least, the ones that are on the mark) make sense. We see for ourselves what is meant by different words, or different ways of pointing, or different formulations. And we can sense when something may have been mistranslated or poorly expressed by even the greatest of sages.
One person I heard from recently who had concerns about killing the self, and who was uncertain about which seemingly conflicting teaching to believe, expressed a fear of contacting me because he thought maybe that would be a delaying tactic. He’d read in a book that ultimately, he had to let go and drown.
But what does that mean to let go and drown? As I see it, that is a pointer to Here / Now, not to some one-time Big-Bang experience where the entire self-system is blown away or wiped out forever. Most importantly, it points to what is called for every time we feel lost in the story, lost in emotion-thought, caught up in our conditioned compulsions—when it all feels hopeless and pointless, and the pull of despair is strong. In such moments, what does it mean to let go, to drown?
It doesn’t mean literally jumping in the lake and killing ourselves, and it doesn’t mean drowning in the story of despair or in addictive behaviors. It doesn’t mean we can’t be working with a teacher or reading a helpful book. But it’s pointing to something much more immediate—right now. It points to that surrender that I am always talking about—not doing anything to move away or to seek something better, relaxing the grasping of the bodymind (or simply being totally aware of the tension), being completely open to what is, fully awake in this moment, allowing everything to be as it is, not resisting or seeking, giving ourselves over completely to the crucifixion of the moment. And out of that total surrender—that crucifixion, the resurrection emerges, but not if we are surrendering with a motive (i.e., in order to get to the resurrection), because that isn’t surrender at all—that is just more seeking and resisting.
No one can tell us how to surrender—we must discover it for ourselves, much in the way we must discover for ourselves how to ride a bicycle or swim. No book, no instruction manual, no teacher can explain to us how to do these things—training wheels and floatation vests may help us get the hang of it, and teachers can offer supportive pointers or accompany us into the water, but they can’t do it for us. No one can explain how to ride a bicycle or how to swim or how to surrender in the same way someone can explain how to bake a cake or fix a flat tire. With swimming or bicycle riding or surrendering, there is no set recipe. You have to feel your own way into it. And suddenly, you know what it is.
But with surrendering, that’s not the end of it—because surrender is now, not forever. In most (if not all) cases, the conditioning and the delusion comes back. And sometimes, even when we know exactly what it means to surrender (or drown)—when we know exactly what needs to happen—still, it seems completely out of reach, utterly impossible to let go in this moment. The force of habit, the inner grip, has a momentum at times that over-powers our newly-found ability to let go. And let’s be clear, for all of us, it is a newly-found ability, even if we discovered it 50 or 60 years ago—on the evolutionary journey, it is a very new move, a very new possibility, one that humanity is just beginning to discover. Some of us are farther along with it than others, some haven’t discovered it at all, some aren’t even interested yet….but there’s nothing personal about where we are on some conceptual continuum. We’re all wavings of One Ocean—and the water itself is undivided and inseparable and equally present everywhere.
That water is consciousness or awareness. Or, if you prefer, you can call it emptiness or the Self. It depends on nothing. It is here before, during and after the experiencing that we call the movie-like happening of waking life…before, during and after the experiencing that we call dreaming…before, during and after the vanishing act that we call deep sleep, when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears. And this awaring presence is here before, during and after what we call birth and death—which are only artificial dividing lines on a map—the territory itself is without division. As the water, as awareness, there is no concern with how well “I” am doing or how “I” compare to “others”—that concern is solely the delusion of the separate self—the delusion of apparent separation and encapsulation, the false identification as “me,” trying to survive and be a successful me. So awakening is not about being a Perfect Me. It’s not about being on the winning team or finding The Most Advanced Menu. It’s about something much, much, much simpler and much more immediate.
Awareness is already Here / Now. It is already accepting everything. Nothing is ever really separate or outside of Here / Now. There is only this one, undivided living reality—a reality that even includes illusions and concepts and emotion-thoughts. None of this needs to be banished. It’s simply a matter of seeing it clearly for what it is, and relaxing into what is already 100% present. The words are never quite right. They can only point and invite and describe. But the map is never the territory. So use the map, but then put it aside. BE the living reality that you always already are. And that doesn’t take any effort. It’s more like seeing the efforts that are being made and letting them go. Relaxing. Abandoning ourselves completely to exactly what is, right now. Being just this moment. Fully, completely, without any gap.
And when that seems impossible, when the gap appears, when the force of habit seems to be over-powering and the thoughts are running wild, maybe being curious about the nature of that impossibility and that force of habit, seeing if that gap is really there. And if the habit is stronger than the curiosity in this moment, that’s okay too. It happens sometimes. And then, after delusion runs for awhile, eventually, once again, the sky clears—we wake up. And then, in that moment of waking up, can we let go of the past and be right here, not looking back and taking the delusion personally as “my failure” or “my setback”? The delusion is already gone. Now is the key. Everything begins anew right now.
I mentioned the zoom lens of attention in my last post. I got that image from Nirmala’s first book, Nothing Personal (a wonderful book). Nirmala talks in that book about how attention moves in and out like a zoom lens, and how the imaginary separate self is not in control of whether the lens of attention zooms in or out. One moment our attention can zoom out to total boundlessness—the absolute cosmic perspective, and the next moment, it can zoom in to focus on the fly that has just landed in our soup, or the column of figures that we are adding up while balancing our checkbook. We often mistakenly think that meditation and enlightenment are about keeping the lens always zoomed out and never zooming in again. But of course, that is an absurd and losing endeavor. Eventually we recognize that awareness is equally present whether the lens of attention is zoomed in or zoomed out—whether we are experiencing unbound, selfless awareness or whether we are experiencing being a person. We no longer cling to experiences of boundlessness or feel that we need to be in a quiet place with no “disturbances” in order to really meditate. We no longer believe that the leaf-blower or the noisy teenagers with their boom box next door are ruining our chances for enlightenment. (That doesn’t mean we no longer have preferences, but we don’t identify with them in the same way or overlay them with false meaning).
Commenting on my last post, someone mentioned living in a big noisy city. When I was working on the cover of my second book, Awake in the Heartland, I spent a very cold January morning wandering around downtown Chicago photographing things people would think were “not spiritual” – parking lots, run down city buildings, construction sites, trash cans, litter blowing down the street, the L-train in the Loop – because I wanted to show that ALL of this is spiritual. I wanted to challenge the idea reinforced by so many spiritual book covers that meditation or awakening is about flowers and trees and sunsets and ocean waves, but not about gritty urban realities. True meditation includes and allows everything—city noises, global catastrophes, crushing disappointments, acts of violence, even our own upset and resistance and seeking, our own depression and anger and anxiety—ALL of it is allowed to be as it is. Awareness is unconditional love. It is the light that dissolves delusion, not by hating it and fighting against it, and not by running away from it, but by completely embracing it and looking deeply into the very heart of it. That is true meditation. It even includes running away sometimes or being distracted. Nothing is left out. Everything is included.
In my journey, meditation (taking time to simply be) has felt transformative and revelatory. Of course, meditation is a word that gets used to mean many different things. As I mean it, meditation is simply being awake in this moment, and that wakefulness is the natural state, not some special state that we need to attain. Meditation as I mean it is not about trying to fix things or improve ourselves or get somewhere. It is about waking up to the living reality of this moment right now, recognizing the nature of this living reality Here / Now, and seeing through the thought-generated delusions that create our suffering, including our efforts to get somewhere and become someone.
Meditation is about “coming to our senses” and learning to experience the uncomfortable urges and feelings that often drive us to addictive and compulsive behaviors—discovering that we don’t need to escape, that everything passes naturally if we allow it. And when we do escape, meditation is about being curious about how we do that—and seeing for ourselves that sometimes old conditioning overpowers our ability or willingness to be present. Meditation is not intellectual. It’s not about thinking, or understanding the nature of reality conceptually, or getting the right answers, or figuring things out. It is not anti-intellectual either, and the goal is not to banish thinking or story-telling or conceptualizing, but rather, to see all that for what it is, and not to be bamboozled by misery-inducing thought-constructs such as the separate self and all our stories about that self.
Meditation is not about being calm or blissful or getting into some special samadhi state or keeping the zoom-lens of attention zoomed out to the boundless absolute at all times (see my Oct 1 post for more on that). Such things may happen, but they are not the goal, and they are always impermanent appearances. Meditation (as I use the word) boils down to simply being awake—no more, no less: seeing the thoughts and stories that arise, experiencing bodily sensations, hearing the traffic and the birds, breathing—being this moment, just as it is.
I’m not talking about concentration-practice or even mindfulness-practice as it is usually understood. What I’m pointing to is a quality of attention that is open and spacious and free—not a methodical practice such as counting your breath or repeating a mantra or trying diligently to keep your attention riveted on the tip of your nose. The kind of meditation I’m pointing to doesn’t require any particular sitting position or hand position, nor does it depend on having your eyes open or closed or half-open, nor does it necessitate remaining completely motionless. It doesn’t involve rituals or incense-burning or chanting. I’m not against ANY of the above-mentioned things if you enjoy them and feel drawn to them, but meditation as I mean it is simply a way of being what we truly are, and exploring whatever seems to get in the way.
I would never say that meditation in any formal sense is essential for everyone, but nonconceptual presence-awareness is an essential discovery, however it happens. And given our deeply conditioned belief (and accompanying felt-sense) of being a separate self in a world of “others,” and given our fast-paced society and the constant bombardment of thought-generated information from which we are rarely disconnected, it can be very hard, without meditation in some sense, to ever really drop out of the thinking mind, to see through the ubiquitous delusions of our conditioning, and to wake up to the living reality that we truly are. Without meditation, it is very hard to discern the difference between the map and the territory, as obvious as that difference may sound in the abstract.
I always hesitate to use the word practice in regard to meditation because I’m not talking about something mechanical or rote that we do to polish our skills or to prepare for a future event. I’m talking about simply being awake Here / Now. But it does help to set aside some dedicated time throughout the day to stop all our usual activities and to simply be present. And it does help to consciously bring this kind of awareness to the upsets that happen in our lives—those times when we feel overwhelmed by some powerful pattern of emotion-thought, when we are afraid or angry or defensive or jealous or frustrated or depressed or filled with self-pity or despair or whatever it might be. What’s going on in these moments? What is being threatened? Meditation is a kind of awareness-based inquiry, a way of being curious, of looking and listening and sensing.
The kind of awake presence that I’m pointing to is effortless, open, free, spacious awareness and natural wakefulness. It is our True Nature. But in my experience, at least with most people, to simply hear that this is our true nature isn’t enough to undo all of our deeply conditioned beliefs and free us from the undertow of delusion and suffering. In my experience, for most of us, practice in some form is needed, but when I use the word practice, please hear it in this most open sense.
Some nondual traditionalists (especially in organized Buddhism or Vedanta) insist that meditation practice (and often many other practices as well) are absolutely essential, while some contemporary radical nondualists assert that any kind of practice is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful, claiming that it inevitably reinforces the false self. My own sense is that these two extreme positions on opposite sides are both missing the mark by clinging to one side of a whole and ignoring the other half of the Truth. I find both extreme positions rather dogmatic and even oddly dualistic.
In my experience, intelligent meditation exposes and deconstructs the separate self, but of course, the thinking mind can (and usually will) co-opt anything we do to deconstruct it, so it is certainly possible for our meditation practice (or any other spiritual practice) to become one more achievement-oriented, self-improvement activity where we obsessively evaluate how well we’re doing and how awake we are in comparison to others and so forth. That, of course, is delusion—and any intelligent form of meditation will involve eventually seeing through all such tendencies. If we’re practicing in a goal-oriented way, we’re missing the point entirely. Because true practice is all about Here / Now. It is the total acceptance of what is, just as it is. It is the direct discovery of no self and no separation. (And of course, total acceptance doesn’t mean you can’t take intelligent action in the next moment—it doesn’t mean that you should stay in an abusive situation or “accept” injustice—it points rather to the immediacy of this moment and the awaring presence out of which truly intelligent action emerges).
If you look back to the ancient Zen Masters, you find that they hold both perspectives (path / no path) at once quite comfortably. Here, for example, is Huang Po: “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.” Sounds like radical nonduality, doesn’t it? And yet, Huang Po was a Zen monk who followed a strict discipline of meditation and meditative living.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR, does a wonderful job of reconciling these seemingly contradictory approaches in his book Coming to Our Senses. He writes that, “There are two apparently contradictory ways to think about meditation and what it is all about,” and he says that “both are equally true and important, and the tension between them creative and useful.” He says that one way of viewing meditation is as “a discipline that allows us to cultivate, refine, and deepen our capacity to pay attention and to dwell in present-moment awareness.” And then he goes on to describe the other way of viewing meditation: “It is not a doing. There is no going anywhere, nothing to practice, no beginning, middle, or end, no attainment, and nothing to attain. Rather, it is the direct realization and embodiment in this very moment of who you already are, outside of time and space and concepts of any kind, a resting in the very nature of your being, in what is sometimes called the natural state, original mind, pure awareness, no mind, or simply emptiness. You are already everything you may hope to attain…You are already it. It is already here. Here is already everywhere and now is already always…And there is no purpose to meditation…other than to be awake to what is actually so.”
Kabat-Zinn says: “These two ways of understanding what meditation is are complementary and paradoxical, just as are the wave and particle nature of matter at the quantum level and below. That means that neither is complete by itself. Alone, neither is completely true. Together, they both become true….[They] inform each other….For this reason, both descriptions are important to…keep in mind from the very beginning…That way, we are less likely to get caught on the horns of dualistic thinking, either striving too hard to attain what we already are, or claiming to already be what we have not in actuality tasted and realized and have no way of drawing on, even though technically speaking it may be true and we are already it.”
Kabat-Zinn gives a beautiful analogy of this dialectical relationship between the path and the pathless—I’ve mentioned it before in previous posts. He points out that we cannot attain our foot because we already have it. Our foot is already fully present. 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. As my first Zen teacher put it, “You’re perfect just the way you are, and there’s room for improvement.”
Addressing the question of why we need to practice if what we are seeking is already here, Kabat-Zinn writes: “The answer is that as long as the meaning of ‘everything you are seeking is already here’ is only a concept, it is only a concept, just another nice thought. Being merely a thought, it is extremely limited in its capacity for transforming you, for manifesting the truth the statement is pointing to, and ultimately changing the way you carry yourself and act in the world.”
The great Zen Master Dogen had this same burning question—it drove his search as a young monk. If everyone is already Buddha, then why do we need to practice? In Genjokoan he says, "No creature ever comes short of its own completeness." So why do we practice? His realization was that practice is not the means by which we attain enlightenment in the future, but rather, it is the expression of enlightenment here and now: "If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind." For Dogen, enlightenment is simply seeing through delusion: "Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings." And as he says, "When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point." That’s what true practice is all about. Being right here, right now—awake to what is.
For awhile, I was very taken with uncompromising, hardline, absolutist, radical nonduality. I insisted there was no practice, no self, no free will, no choice, nothing to do, nothing to attain—that everything is an uncontrollable happening, and that this is it—there is no way in or out. After many years of meditation, this radical perspective was very liberating. I remember going on a retreat with a radical nondualist where you could talk and joke and where some people were meditating while others were playing ping-pong, and ALL of that was regarded as every bit as much “it” as anything else—this was eye-opening for me, immensely freeing. It broke me out of a certain box I was stuck inside. It showed me that wakefulness doesn’t depend on meditation or being in silence. But after awhile, I began to see and experience how easily that radical message could become a new ideology, a new set of blinders that actually closed me down rather than opening me up. I came back to a renewed appreciation for some kind of dedicated practice in its simplest form. I began sitting again, but in a new way, with more openness and fewer ideas about what should or shouldn’t be happening inwardly or outwardly—and with no real boundary between “meditation” and “the rest of my life.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn goes on to say: “More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love, an inward gesture of benevolence and kindness toward ourselves and toward others, a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection, with all our shortcomings, our wounds, our attachments, our vexations, and our persistent habits of unawareness. It is a very brave gesture: to take one’s seat for a time and drop in on the present moment without adornment. In stopping, looking, and listening, in giving ourselves over to all our senses…in any moment, we are in that moment embodying what we hold most sacred in life…”
So I encourage direct exploration and simple being—taking time to drop out of the thought-world up in the head and allow our attention to come down into the body, into the senses and the world of direct experiencing: sensing, perceiving, awaring. I encourage taking time to allow our attention to open and expand and include everything—to realize our true nature as spacious awareness and formless presence, not as an idea, but as a felt reality. I encourage the direct discovery that open awareness doesn’t go away if the lens of attention zooms in to focus on some aspect of relative reality, or if attention gets absorbed for awhile in a movie, or if we are functioning as a person in daily life. I encourage developing an ability to discern the difference between concepts and the actuality of present experiencing, an ability to see through the beliefs and stories that seem to block us and create ignorance and delusion. To me, in my experience, this is a never-ending (always now) process, not a once-and-for-all explosion or a finish-line that we cross and then we’re done.
And it can happen in many different ways. You can meditate by sitting down cross-legged on a meditation cushion…you can lie down….you can relax in a recliner…you can simply be present and awake while drinking your morning coffee, or while riding on a bus or an airplane, or while sitting in a waiting room, or in a moment at work between clients. Meditation can be an hour, or ten minutes, or six seconds. Ultimately, it is your whole life, but even so, it is helpful to set aside dedicated times—I suggest morning and before bed at night, but whatever works for you—and it’s also helpful to return to this simple, open, awake presence (doing nothing, simply being) throughout the day whenever it invites us, maybe just for a few seconds or a few minutes. Eventually, there is the discovery that Here / Now is always here, that presence-awareness is timeless and eternal, deathless and unborn…and that whatever shows up Here / Now, whether it is clarity or delusion, contraction or expansion, tension or ease, agitation or calm, compassion or anger, distraction or concentration, boundlessness or particularity, it is all the One Reality. We are never really lost.
To me, at its core, practice simply means a kind of dedicated commitment to waking up, seeing through delusion, being present, and exploring the nature of reality in a direct way. That doesn’t mean being perfect. Delusion happens. Practice simply means being awake to delusion when it does happen, seeing it, getting interested in and curious about how it seduces and overtakes us, how it plays out for us, what forms it takes…and not taking it personally and getting lost in secondary stories about how we’ve failed or lapsed or ruined everything. Meditation (on the cushion or in everyday life) is always about starting fresh right now. Practice may include regular daily meditation, periodic retreats, attending satsangs or meetings with teachers, working with a teacher, reading books, listening to or watching recordings on-line, and/or being part of a sangha or spiritual community, but it may also happen in a much less formal way with none of the above-mentioned forms. There is no one right way.
And the good news is, you don’t have to move one inch from where you are right now to meditate. Nothing needs to be different from how it is. You don’t need to rush over to your meditation cushion. You don’t need to put out your cigarette, or stop biting your fingernails, or put the baby to bed first. What is being pointed to is right here, right now, right where you are—it is just this, exactly as it is. If you attend to this timeless Here / Now, you will find that it is no way in particular. It is constantly changing. And yet it is always present and immediate—most intimate, as they say in Zen. This ever-changing, ever-present living reality is the true “I” to which we all refer—the One Self, the Heart, primordial awareness, emptiness / fullness – the unbroken wholeness that is here before, during and after every name and form. Here / Now is a placeless place of openness and infinite possibility, a place of total freedom (even within relative limitation). And it’s always right here.
“We can't comprehend Reality with our intellects. We can't pull it into a static view of some thing. All our explanations are necessarily provisional. They're just rigid frames of what is actually motion and fluidity. In other words, if you can think of how Reality is, you can be sure that's how it isn't.” --Steve Hagen
“Once a monk asked Buddha whether there is an eternal self or not. He said that he would not answer such a question since it is irrelevant to spiritual liberation. For Buddha, grasping any concept is a distraction from living in the present.” --Anam Thubten
Someone asked me to comment on the fact that some teachers say there is only thorough-going flux and impermanence while others say that reality is that which doesn’t change. Who has it right? First of all, anything we say or put into words can only ever be a description, a pointer or a map. No verbal or conceptual formulation can capture the living reality. We desperately want the right formulation, but it doesn’t exist. It may be true that some maps are more accurate and some descriptions more evocative than others, but no map is ever the territory. Period. (I say that, but two seconds later, we’re back to seeking the correct map).
All the words we use (awareness, consciousness, enlightenment, awakening, mind, reality, truth, emptiness, presence, self, ego, etc.) are symbols or sign posts. They point to something that is not a concept, but they themselves are only pointers. The word water is not water. But at least with a word like water, it points to something tangible that can be easily shown to people and agreed upon. Whereas when we get to words like those I just mentioned (awareness, consciousness, presence, etc.), what they point to is intangible, and so the words may be understood and used differently by different people. As Steve Hagen put it in the quote I shared recently, “if you can think of how Reality is, you can be sure that's how it isn't.” Really let that sink in, don’t jump over it. It’s an absolutely critical point. And it’s why Buddha wouldn’t answer metaphysical questions—because, as Anam Thubten put it the quote I shared in my previous post, “grasping any concept is a distraction from living in the present.”
There are many different maps of the living reality, many different conceptual formulations. Buddhism uses the map of thorough-going flux and impermanence. Advaita uses the map of the One Self, the unchanging and immutable Reality. Are they pointing to the same thing or something totally different? Many will argue it both ways. But interestingly enough, in Buddhism, they say that the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence. Why? Because the flux is so complete and so total that no-thing ever actually forms or exists (stands apart from everything else) to be impermanent. So Buddhism isn’t saying that there are a bunch of separate things (chairs, tables, you, me, etc.) and they’re all impermanent. Buddhism is saying there is only un-form and that what appears to be solid, separate objects are not actually solid or separate at all. As Steve Hagen puts it: “Impermanence (the relative) is total, complete, thoroughgoing, Absolute. It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s ONLY flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s ONLY stream.” Or you could say, there’s only the Self, the One Reality.
I like and freely use both of these maps, the Advaita map and the Buddhist map. To my sensibilities, the Buddhist map is perhaps the more subtle of the two and the least likely to give us something to grasp, whereas the Advaita map can give us the idea that the unchanging One Self is some-thing in particular, something we can hang onto, a kind of subtle theism. The Advaita map (in my experience) is also more likely to set-up an apparent dualism between relative and absolute, and to encourage people to turn away from the messy relative world, including the body and human life, and to fixate solely on the absolute perspective (I am boundless awareness; I am not the body; I am not a person; the world is just an illusion; etc.). Of course, the greatest Advaita sages frequently point beyond these dualistic misunderstandings, but the Advaita formulation may make these mistakes easier to fall into. So if I had to choose, I’d probably go for Buddhism. But luckily, I don’t have to choose, and I actually resonate with both maps and find that they can be quite complementary. In many ways, they balance each other beautifully.
Instead of giving a talk, Toni Packer would read aloud from various writings on the last day of her retreats, and she would read from sources as diverse as Huang Po, J. Krishnamurti, Vimila Thakar, Nisargadatta, Ryokan, Rilke and Mary Oliver. These readings offered a wonderful kind of symphony, each voice hitting a slightly different note, all playing together in harmony. I find that I can relate to Eckhart Tolle talking about space consciousness and the objects in the space, and I can relate to Steve Hagen saying there are no objects and that all there is, is ever-changing emptiness. I can relate to the map that says consciousness is all there is; I can relate to the map that says consciousness IS the apparent dividing up of the indivisible; and I can relate to Nisargadatta saying the truth is prior to consciousness. I can relate to Eckhart talking about a felt-sense of spaciousness and presence, and to Nisargadatta saying it is beyond anything perceivable or conceivable. I can relate to teachings that talk about the transformative power of awareness and to teachings that say there is no such “thing” as awareness. I can relate to maps that talk about refining our ability to make choices, and to those that focus on recognizing our powerlessness and seeing how all our choices arise choicelessly from life itself. These may all seem contradictory and irreconcilable, but only if we are hearing them with the grasping mind, the thinking mind, the mind that seeks the correct formulation, the mind that is desperately trying to figure all this out mentally in our heads.
But when we really HEAR these different pointers and wake up to what they are actually pointing to, then there is no more confusion. What all of these different pointers are expressing becomes obvious. That’s not to say they are all pointing to exactly the same thing—they may be highlighting different aspects of the living reality, hitting different notes in the symphony, or they may be pointing to the same aspect in different ways. But in either case, when you really grok the truth behind the words, the confusion dissolves. Because the living reality itself is not confusing. Breathing is not confusing. Hearing the traffic is not confusing. Washing the dishes is not confusing. Being present and aware in this moment is not confusing, unless the mind starts trying to figure out what that means “to be present and aware in this moment”—then suddenly, we overlook the awaring presence and the present happening that is utterly obvious and undeniable and get tangled up in mental confusion. It always takes thought to get us confused: “Is the sound of traffic all there is? Isn’t that just an illusion? What about the unchanging reality? Am I the unchanging awareness beholding the traffic sound or is the awaring-sounding one whole undivided happening? Is awareness changing or unchanging? Does awareness even exist? So-and-so gave a talk and said there was no such thing. But then I went to a satsang where the teacher said I should take my stand as awareness. But then another teacher said I don’t exist, so how can I take my stand if I don’t exist? But I keep thinking I do exist. It seems like I do. How can I get rid of myself? Do I have a choice? This book said I create my own reality, but that other book said I am totally powerless…” Pretty soon, we have a big headache.
In the end, this isn’t about getting the right idea. It’s about being awake now. Being awake now is simple. That’s what makes it so seemingly elusive—it’s so obvious, so immediate, so unavoidable. The human mind loves abstraction and complexity—this ability to stand back and think in complex ways has put us at the top of the food chain, and it’s also led us to our current situation where we may very well end up destroying ourselves. The human mind has this amazing capacity to self-reflect, to think about “me” and how I’m doing, and in certain ways, that can be a very useful capacity. But ultimately, the “me” we’re reflecting on is nothing more than a mental image. We love stories—and again, stories can be useful and enlightening and entertaining and wonderful, but they can also lead us into endless wars, internally and externally, when we confuse our thoughts and stories and beliefs with the living reality. And because of all this conceptualizing and abstract thinking and self-reflecting and story-telling that we do, we humans can easily get very confused. We collect multiple menus and obsess over which is describing the One True Meal…we try to eat the menus, and we end up with indigestion. This is the fundamental problem that all these teachings are addressing in all their different ways. They’re all pointing to right here, right now—the simplicity of what is. Not as an idea to grasp, but as the living reality from which we are not separate.
The answer isn’t to eliminate conceptual thinking, self-reflection, or story-telling…those are all part of this living reality. The answer is to develop the ability to discern the difference between map and territory, between menu and meal, between life itself and our thoughts about it—to see when a story is waking us up and when it is driving us over a cliff—and not to get stuck in our heads, lost in concepts, oblivious to the living reality, trying to draw our nourishment from abstractions. There is another possibility. It doesn’t matter whether we call it awakening or liberation or enlightenment or waking up or blippity-bloop. In fact, calling it something always carries the danger of making it seem like some-thing that “I” might attain: “I am awake! I’ve achieved enlightenment! I’ve crossed the finish-line!” But words like awakening and enlightenment point to seeing through that whole idea, that whole narrative of “me” who is awake or not awake and that whole idea of a finish-line. The barrier is not really there. The gate is gateless. The Now is never not Here. Wake up!
Many teachers claim or promise or encourage the pursuit of a permanent, final liberation involving a permanent disappearance of the illusory separate self—a caterpillar turned permanently into a butterfly. I consider this is a very misleading kind of teaching. In my experience, liberation and the absence of the mirage-like separate self may be complete in any moment of wakefulness, but that doesn’t mean this wakefulness or absence of delusion is permanent, or that the self-system is forever dead and gone. But we love these kinds of mythical promises of perfection, and we love to believe in idealized super-heroes, so we chase the carrot and drink the Kool-Aid and then wonder why it isn’t working for us. And when we see evidence that our teachers are flawed human beings who make mistakes and go through rough patches and sometimes do terrible things, we feel disillusioned and look for a new hero.
I don’t know anyone who is present and awake and free of delusion 100% of the time. But it seems that at some point on our journey from Here to Here, we stop seeking this kind of perfection. We stop imagining a finish-line. And we find a kind of peace with the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the ebb and flow of life, just as it is. We’re no longer striving for perfection or constant bliss or the permanent absence of all delusion forever after. We’re simply awake in this moment, however it is. And when we’re not awake, when old conditioning takes over for awhile, we don’t take it personally. We don’t beat ourselves up about it. We don’t believe any story that “this means I’m a spiritual failure.” We come to recognize that being deluded or distracted or bamboozled or lost in a dream every now and then is all part of the Great Dance, and that the light and the dark are inseparable and interdependent. We can only be the expression that is expressing in each instant, however it is. So eventually, we develop a kind of trust in the whole process, not “my” process, but this unbroken wholeness—and not trust that it will all work out “the way I want it to” or “the way I think it should,” but trust in a much more intimate sense—trust in what is deeper than any outcome. And then we have compassion and maybe a sense of humor about all our foibles and the foibles of others. And we come to appreciate the darkness as well as the light.
How does conditioning end? And I’m talking here about the kind of conditioning that doesn’t serve us well, the kind that creates suffering, the kind rooted in delusion. Is there anything we can do to end these old patterns, to end suffering, to wake up, to break free?
It seems to me that this happening we call waking life (or consciousness) is an infinite display of interdependent conditioned patterns, some of them functional (like a whirlpool, a body, or a tree) and some of them not so functional (like addictions that destroy our lives, or a belief that we are not good enough that prevents us from doing things we love, or an old hatred that leads to never-ending war, or a thought-sense of being a separate and encapsulated fragment looking out at an alien world).
Is there something else going on here besides all these conditioned patterns, something that is not conditioned? In my experience, there is. I would call it awareness. Awareness is what beholds consciousness (the movie of waking life). Awareness has space for everything. Awareness is the open heart of unconditional love that accepts everything and resists nothing. Awareness sheds light. And in my experience, awareness is what allows something new to enter the picture. It allows action to emerge from an unconditioned place. Awareness is unconditioned and free, and awareness is the key to liberation.
I’m using words to say all this, and others (or even myself in a different piece of writing) may use these same words differently, so it’s vital to remember that the words are only pointers. So please don’t hear this as a bunch of concepts to think about logically and compare with other concepts. What I’m pointing to with a word like awareness is not a concept or an idea, but a nonconceptual, wordless, felt-reality that can be directly known or noticed right now. And that’s what matters, not the words. And the words are never quite right, so try not to get hung up on the words.
When we find ourselves caught in an old, destructive pattern, what happens when we give that pattern our full attention? Attention is the focal lens of awareness. And so, by full attention, I mean bathing the pattern in the light of awareness, in real time (or in timeless presence), as it happens—seeing the pattern clearly without resistance, without trying to get rid of it or change it—simply giving it our full attention. This is an open, nonjudgmental kind of attention. It is not evaluating or seeking a result. It happens in a spirit of curiosity, interest and wonderment, much in the same way a lover explores the beloved or a child explores the world.
So when I speak of giving the pattern full attention, I don’t mean sinking into the storylines that go with the pattern, and I don’t mean thinking about the pattern, analyzing it, labeling it or trying to figure it out. I mean giving it whole-hearted attention, listening to it, seeing it clearly. And when this happens, in my experience, the pattern loses its solidity (which is imaginary to begin with), and we begin to experience it simply as sensations, vibrations or energy—a movement without solid form and without meaning. And the deeper into the energy and the bare sensations we go with awareness, the more we find only empty space—no-thing at all—pure consciousness, we might say. But no label is it.
And as this discovery unfolds, we become more and more aware of awareness itself, not as an object, which it isn’t, and not as something apart from us, but as our own most intimate nature and the nature of everything, the no-thing-ness of everything. We wake up to the spaciousness, the aliveness, the vibrancy, the brightness, the unconditioned freedom, the possibility that is right here.
Someone asked me to comment on self-love and compassion for oneself from a non-dual perspective. In awareness, there is naturally love and compassion both for oneself as this particular human being with all its foibles, defects and challenges—and for all the other living beings as well. There is nothing other-than-me anymore. There is the direct seeing that we’re all doing the best we can—that our mistakes and sometimes terrible acts are the result of infinite causes and conditions—that everything that happens is a happening of the whole universe, a dance of consciousness that thought can never begin to truly comprehend—that none of it is personal or separate from everything else, and that none of it is actually as solid or as substantial as it seems. We realize that we all refer to the same unbound awareness when we say “I,” and that as human beings, we are all inseparable waves of the same ocean, interdependent movements in the same undivided happening. And we realize that no one is in control of this happening, and that no one stands apart from it.
In a comment to one of my recent posts, someone questioned whether there is any meaningful distinction between conditioned and unconditioned behavior, or between delusion and awakeness. If everything is just an appearance in consciousness, then clearly there is no essential difference between caring for a dog or kicking a dog. Several other people have spoken to me recently about how they feel there is a big difference between what they describe as “awakening within the dream” vs. “awakening from the dream.” One person suggested that waking up from a moment of anger or "being here now" is all a happening within the dream, and that real liberation involves seeing that this whole happening is only an appearance, and recognizing our real identity as the non-dual awareness that is prior to consciousness, prior to the dream. From this perspective, anything short of that is just adjusting the furnishings in a dream. But I feel there may be some intellectual confusion with all this.
Of course, there is a difference between someone who takes up mindfulness meditation as a way of dealing with chronic pain or panic attacks, in contrast to someone who is questioning the nature of reality or seeking a deeper and more all-encompassing kind of liberation. But the fact is that for most of us, our spiritual journey begins with a desire to end suffering (in whatever form), to improve ourselves, and/or to attain something (such as enlightenment) that we believe will give us an advantage or benefit us. For some of us, as we go along, this goal-oriented motivation and seeking will be questioned, as will the apparent self who seems to be at the center of it all. And maybe some who start out seeking nothing more than greater relaxation or relief from panic attacks may end up discovering non-dual awareness and the absence of a separate self.
After all, isn’t seeing through the dream of this apparently substantial reality exactly what we discover when we give full attention to the energies and sensations of a destructive pattern? Isn’t this non-dual awareness exactly what is realized and embodied by fully “being here now”? In the light of awareness, the delusion of being "me" (a separate fragment in a fragmented world) dissolves, and in awake presence, a different kind of action emerges, action that comes out of wholeness rather than out of imaginary fragmentation and division. And this wholeness or boundlessness or unconditional love or presence-awareness is a felt-reality, a lived reality, not just a nice idea or a belief or a philosophy. This awake presence is love itself, and in love, of course it matters whether you care for the dog or kick it! It’s not a theory anymore to think about and work out with logic, but rather, an obvious and immediate living reality—a living, breathing dog.
Now, if we cling to any particular experience of “being here now,” such as some expanded, blissful, spacious, transcendent state of consciousness, that will be ultimately disappointing, because experience is impermanent by nature, and sooner or later, a fly will land in our soup and our attention will zoom back in to mundane reality. And in such a situation, with a fly in our soup, the body may very well tense up in aversion or disgust, and we may find ourselves feeling disappointed or irritated or maybe even getting angry at the waiter or at the fly. We may think, “This shouldn’t have happened. A fly should not land in my soup. This is not the way the universe should be.” And then later on, maybe we get entranced in another story that says, “I shouldn’t have been upset over something so trivial…I was awake, I was being here now, but then I lost it, I got angry at a fly, I screwed up. I’m an unenlightened loser, a hopeless case.” And ALL of that is a movie.
And maybe, it occurs to us at some point to turn our attention around to see if we can find this “me” who supposedly had it and then lost it. And if that investigation happens, we may find that no such entity can actually be found. We may find that no “it” can be found either—no “thing” that we can pin down as “being here now” or “not being here now.” When we stop and check, we may notice that awareness is ever-present, that it is the very nature of Here / Now. And in realizing (or making real) all of this, we may discover that our irritation melts away. We may even find ourselves laughing. Once again, we’ve woken up from the dream.
We could say that consciousness or bare perceiving is the forming of unform, the breaking out of different colors, shapes, sounds and sensations from undivided unicity. And then thought further divides and solidifies the apparent forms—drawing boundaries, creating meaning, telling stories, labeling, classifying, comparing, evaluating, strategizing, ranking, mapping. All of this has its usefulness and its place, but too often, it goes wildly astray in human beings and serves only to create suffering.
Awareness is the seamless and boundless beholder of all this, the wholeness that includes everything. Awareness isn’t fighting against the intermittent sense of being a particular person dealing with a fly in the soup. Awareness simply sheds light. Awareness is intelligence itself—not the kind of intelligence we measure with IQ tests, but the kind of intelligence that holds the universe together and that we see functioning all around us in the flowers and the bees and the nervous system and the galaxies and the sub-atomic particle/waves all dancing together in perfect harmony. Awareness is both unifying and discerning. It can discern the difference between a movie that is enlightening us and a movie that is deluding us. It can see through beliefs and ideologies and discern when we are coming from direct experiencing and direct insight and when we are coming from a conceptual belief that seems logically true. Awareness can see when thought is grasping or clinging or confusing itself by chasing its own tail. In awareness, there is no confusion and nothing to grasp.
From our limited human perspective, we don’t know what “should” happen next. In any moment of awakening, there is an intuitive knowing that ultimate reality cannot be destroyed and that whatever happens, at the deepest level, all is well. But at the same time, when the heart is open and the eyes are open, there is an expanded sensitivity to the pain and sorrow in the world. The world is both real and unreal—the way we think it is, is unreal. But the way it is, is real. Wakefulness isn’t heartless dissociation; it is total intimacy, absolute love, clarity. When we really see the dog, we don’t kick it.
So can we be awake right here, right now? Hearing the traffic, listening to the song of a bird, enjoying the light on the leaves dancing in the breeze, feeling the breathing, tasting the coffee…discovering the amazing miracle that is right here….the amazing miracle that we are. We don’t need to think about this, we simply need to wake up to it. Not once and for all, but right now.
As the old Zen Master Huang Po says, “Here it is—right now. Start thinking about it and you miss it.”
Someone asked me what Nisargadatta was referring to when he said, "relinquish your habits and addictions." The person wondered if Nisargadatta meant the habit of thinking that we are the body and mind. And the person asked if remaining in the Self/I am-ness eventually dissolves the desires to smoke and spend money on things that aren't needed etc.? This is a revised and expanded version of my reply:
I haven't heard (or don't remember ever reading or hearing) this particular quote from Nisargadatta, so I don't know the context in which it was said, and even if I did, I can't speak for Maharaj as to what he meant by it in the moment when he said it. Since he was himself a smoker until his death from throat cancer, it seems unlikely he was referring to smoking or other habits of that sort, but I really don't know. And certainly our most deeply engrained and addictive habit is the belief that we are a separate fragment encapsulated inside a separate body looking out at a fragmented alien world that exists objectively "out there" somewhere independent of consciousness. So yes, perhaps he was referring to that bottom-line habit-pattern.
If you're asking me whether "remaining in the Self/I am-ness [will] eventually dissolve the desires to smoke and spend money on things that aren't needed," I would say first that there is only the Self—this One Whole Unbroken Boundless Totality—and this unbroken wholeness includes smoking and buying things. There is no "you" or "me" apart from this unbroken wholeness to remain in it or to get lost from it. Boundless, spacious, aware presence is actually the ground of every experience that arises, like the screen that is always present in every scene of the movie, or the water that is equally present in every wave. But this is certainly more obvious and easier to recognize when we are sitting in quiet meditation or attending a satsang than when we are, for example, having an upsetting and heated argument with someone. But when we check or look deeply, we can see that it applies equally even then. The ground of being is ever-present, and every experience is equally empty of any inherent, objective reality.
But that said, in my experience, in any moment when resistance and seeking dissolve and there is simply open, spacious awareness, in that moment of complete presence and acceptance, there is freedom from compulsion and addiction. But any such experience of "being here now" or "remaining in the Self/I am-ness"—as an experiential state—is not going to be permanent. Experiences, by the very nature, come and go. Here / Now (Aware Presence, the Self) is ever-present—like the screen in every scene of the movie or the water in every wave—but for most (if not all) of us, conditioned habit-patterns continue to show up and occupy the attention at times. So any experiential state that we might describe as "being here now" or "resting as awareness" or "remaining in the Self/I am-ness," in which all of those patterns may completely dissolve, is always going to be impermanent. But whether the present happening is "being here now" or "being lost in thoughts and compulsive behaviors," both are simply another scene in the movie of waking life, another appearance in this dream-like happening. What is prior to all such appearances and at the very core of all such appearances? What are all such appearances made out of? Where do they appear? What is beholding them?
I'm guessing that Nisargadatta wasn't concerned about smoking or not smoking…or curing the cancer he had and fighting for his life…or whether or not he was "resting in the I Am" or "being here now" in that experiential sense. He was clear beyond all doubt that all experiences are a dream-like appearance without any substance, and that there is only the boundless emptiness (or no-thing-ness) apart from which no-thing exists.
One of Nisargadatta's most profound statements was: "Wisdom is knowing I am nothing; Love is knowing I am everything; and between the two my life flows."
That, to me, is the awakening process in a nutshell. We begin by discovering that we are not who we thought we were—the separate self, encapsulated inside a separate body. We recognize our True Nature as the primordial awareness that is unfindable, unlocatable and ungraspable…the screen that is ever-present as every scene in the movie…the Ultimate Subject that can never be perceived or conceived….the water in every wave….the no-thing-ness or emptiness of everything. And then we come back and recognize that we are everything, including the bodymind—and that everything is our own Self, the Holy Reality, God, the Beloved…that nothing is left out…that there is, in the words of Zen Masters Xuansha and Dogen, only this One Bright Pearl. And this One Bright Pearl is showing up as dogs and cats, beaver dams and skyscrapers, hurricanes and torrid love affairs, thoughts and sensations, smoking and buying things, meditating and doing yoga and attending conferences and exchanging emails…all of it nothing other than this One Living Reality that is without borders or seams…having no beginning or end, no inside or outside. And when that is truly realized, when everyone and everything is seen as the Beloved, we don't want to harm anyone or anything. We are naturally compassionate. There is even compassion for our own harmful or compulsive patterns, realizing that they are not personal—that they, too, are a conditioned movement of the universe.
If we leave out either side of the equation, the absolute or the relative, the nothingness or the everythingness, we are experiencing only a partial truth. The nothingness without the everythingness is cold, detached, heartless and dissociated. It leaves out our humanness and the magnificent diversity and particularity of life. And the everything without the nothingness is delusion and ignorance—destructive, sticky, addictive, hypnotic, fearful, defensive—the world of separate selves in perpetual conflict, the world of lack and seeking. But when we have both sides of the gestalt at once, that is Truth: One Bright Pearl.
Loch Kelly has a lovely way of putting it in his new book, Shift into Freedom, which I haven't read in its entirety, but in a part I did read, he speaks of waking-up, waking-in, and waking-out as three stages of the awakening process: "Waking-up leads to freedom from the fear of death. Waking-in leads to freedom from the fear of life. And waking-out leads to freedom from the fear of love." Beautiful! As I hear it, that's very much akin to what Nisargadatta was pointing out when he said, "Wisdom is knowing I am nothing; Love is knowing I am everything."
In my experience, awakening is a never-ending (always Now) process. And it's so important to remember that the ways we map it out and describe it are only pointers to the fluid and ungraspable reality itself. So use the maps if they are helpful, and then let them go. In the end, what matters is not what Nisargadatta (or anyone else) said or what he (or they) meant, but rather, attending to your own direct experiencing right now and discovering the Truth for yourself.
And as always, being awake to this living reality is not about reasoning it out logically and believing in certain formulations…it is about knowing it directly, knowingly being it, living from (embodying, actualizing, manifesting, making real) this ever-fresh awakening...not yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all, but Now. And this is not my awakening or your awakening, but simply awakeness, our True Nature, awakening to itself.
Response to a Comment:
Well, why are you reading this FB page? Yes, there is only the One Reality and we already are what we seek—but with our human ability to think in complex, abstract ways and to “self-reflect,” we become deeply convinced and conditioned to believe and feel that we are a separate fragment, separate from the present moment, separate from the world, separate from awareness, etc. Hence, we have teachers, retreats, books, and FB pages like this one to remind us of what we already know in the depths of our being. What I notice is that it is all a happening of life, an expression of the whole universe—teachers, retreats, satsangs, books, etc.
But the question you raise was the burning question that drove the great Zen Master Dogen on his quest—if we already are Buddha, why do we need to practice? His realization was that practice was not the means to enlightenment but rather the expression of enlightenment. That’s not to say everyone needs a formal practice or a teacher. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Everyone’s path is unique.
There is a certain kind of absolutist nonduality that has been quite popular in recent years that likes to insist that meditation (or any other practice) only strengthens the false self, and that teachers and gurus just get in the way. But curiously, those who say this are holding meetings, writing books, and often inviting people to pay attention to the immediate reality of this moment (i.e., to meditate, but without calling it that). So, life is full of paradoxes that the thinking mind cannot contain. But the paradox—the dilemma—is purely an intellectual one. In simple experiencing, it doesn’t arise.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2015--
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