Postings from My Facebook Page #11
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the eleventh collection of posts from my Facebook page (11/3/15 - 2/16/16). 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:
What happens when we feel a deep wave of something we don’t like—maybe sadness or anxiety, depression or despair, loneliness or a vague sense of doom? Does the thinking mind immediately get to work telling a story—what this feeling means about me, what a lost cause I am, or what this feeling means about life, that life is scary or dangerous or disappointing or untrustworthy or whatever, or what I should do about this apparent problem, and so on? Do we begin immediately thinking and story-telling and problem-solving (or more accurately, problem-constructing)? Do we start trying to get away from this unwanted feeling? Turning on the TV, picking up a book, checking our email, lighting a cigarette, eating ice cream, getting busy on our iPhone, running through various spiritual beliefs in our head…anything other than simply being just this moment, exactly as it is, however it is right now. We want happiness, peace, freedom, joy, enlightenment, awakening…and we think to ourselves, “This can’t be it.”
What happens if, instead of resisting this unwanted feeling or running from it or thinking about it or chasing after something we imagine would be better, we simply allow the unwanted feeling or experience to be here, just as it is? What is it actually like? I’m not suggesting we think about that question and try to come up with some conceptual answer, but rather, what happens if we’re simply present and aware, allowing the present feeling to be as it is, exploring it directly with open attention, experiencing it as pure sensation, pure energy—without a storyline, without assigning any meaning to the sensations, without labeling any of it—but simply experiencing this whole event that we’ve been calling sadness or anxiety or depression or despair or loneliness without calling it anything?
We may notice that in doing this, our sense of identity has shifted effortlessly from the character in the story (who has a reason, in the story, to be sad or anxious or depressed or lonely) to the awareness beholding the whole happening. Is this awareness that is beholding it all sad or anxious or depressed or lonely? Is awareness trapped or bound or lacking in any way? Is this awaring presence limited or defective or broken? We may notice that the whole happening that we were calling sadness or anxiety or depression or despair is not a solid thing at all—that it is actually moving, vibrating, changing, evaporating, appearing, disappearing—and that at the center of any sensation, if we go deeply into it with awareness, there is no-thing there at all—only empty space, pure presence, pure aliveness—infinite potential.
Of course, the danger in saying what I just said is that the mind may start deliberately trying to “do” this allowing with a kind of subtle expectation that this allowing should result in all the things I just described: a shift in identity, a discovery of emptiness or pure presence or infinite potential, the disappearance of the disturbing feelings, and so on. And when we have that kind of expectation or agenda in mind, then we’re not really allowing the present situation to be as it is—we’re not simply letting it be and exploring it with open curiosity—instead, we’re looking for a result, which is a form of resistance and seeking. And when we’re looking for a result, that often has a way of preventing that desired result from happening. As we often note, by seeking enlightenment, we overlook it Here / Now. So if what I described in the previous paragraph doesn’t seem to be your experience, that’s totally okay. It’s not a sign that you’re a loser or that you “don’t get it.” There’s no right or wrong result here. Simply allow your experience to be just as it is—not trying to make it be any different than exactly how it is, however that is. Let go of trying to escape or fix or improve or evaluate the situation. Be willing for that uncomfortable feeling to go on forever (it won’t, but that willingness is a wonderful surrender and a discovery that nothing needs to be different). Let go of the stories and the labels and the meanings offering up by thought. Simply be totally present with the raw experiencing itself, the bare happening of this moment. And see how that is, without expecting anything.
This is a lifelong, present-moment adventure, and each of us has a unique journey. Give up trying to be like someone else or trying to replicate someone else’s awakening. Instead, turn your full attention to Here / Now, to THIS that cannot be doubted, the actuality of THIS present experiencing and THIS awaring presence—the living reality of THIS moment, however it is. Whatever shows up here—whether it is depression or bliss, calmness or agitation, dull or bright, pleasant or unpleasant—whatever shape this present moment takes, whatever coloring it has, THIS (right here, right now, just as it is) is the gateless gate. The secret of liberation (in every moment) is to not turn away, but instead, to accept the invitation. To surrender. To open. To be just this moment, without separation, without standing back, without resisting. The separation is never really there, of course—it’s always an imagination. We are never really lost or in the situations we believe we are in.
In fact, “my life situation” or “the world situation” is always an abstract mental construction, an imagination, involving memory and thought and conceptualization and storyline…as is the “me” who seems to be “in” the situation. We discover this for ourselves by shifting our attention from the story (“me” and “the situation”) to the bare actuality of this moment (sensing, perceiving, awaring, being). In that direct experiencing—that awaring presence—we find no separation, no division, no conflict, no problem. Instead, there is fluidity, spaciousness, aliveness, openness, present-ness—and yes, surprise of surprises, we may even find that there is freedom, joy, love, happiness, peace right here at the very heart of this present moment. Everything we’ve been seeking “out there” turns out to be the very nature of Here / Now. And everything that appears Here / Now is the gateless gate to that discovery.
I had an email from a spiritual friend recently in which this person talked about the seemingly relentless problems of compulsive thinking and being bi-polar and having insomnia and feeling far away from “all those enlightened people who found bliss and could stay in the now for long times.” I’d like to share an edited version of my reply:
I can relate to your anguish. I, too, experience unhelpful, obsessive thoughts that sometimes captivate the attention and seem believable, even when part of me knows they are only conditioned thoughts. Thoughts have an amazing ability sometimes to hypnotize and mesmerize the whole organism. I’m not bi-polar, but I have experienced depression and anxiety (and sometimes still do), and as I think you know, I have a form of OCD called dermatophagia (a fingerbiting compulsion that involves biting and ripping off skin, not mere nail biting) that still takes me over sometimes. I am not in a state of perpetual bliss by any means. So…I understand the anguish and the problem you describe.
Once, when I was living in Chicago, I think it was around 2007, several years after my mother had died, I was experiencing some fairly debilitating depression in which the simplest activities of daily life seemed overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever find the energy or the strength to leave Chicago and return to the West Coast. My doctor suggested I try Zoloft, an anti-depressant. So I did. It was amazing! Those debilitating, depressing, overwhelming thoughts basically stopped arising—they were just gone!—and if they did arise at all, it was totally easy to see them as thoughts and brush them off—they had absolutely no sticking power, no Velcro-ability, no grab any more. I felt great! I had enormous energy. It was like I was free at last, as if a giant weight had been removed from my shoulders. I had to go off the Zoloft in a fairly short time because of serious, uncommon side-effects, and I have never tried an anti-depressant again. But it showed me in a very visceral way just how much of our experience is entirely the result of neurochemistry. And yet, we are conditioned to think that we are or should be in control, and that if we’re depressed or anxious or whatever, it must mean we’re not enlightened enough, or we’re not “being here now” enough, or we’re not meditating enough, or we’re not trying hard enough, or whatever. It’s a huge relief to realize how impersonal it all is.
Thinking is one of our greatest gifts as a species—it has put us at the top of the food chain and gotten us to the moon—but it is also without a doubt our single biggest obstacle as a species, because it is so very easy to mistake the map created by thinking for the actual living reality. Hence, we humans come to really think and believe and even feel that we separate fragments, encapsulated inside separate bodies, looking out at an alien world—and from there, we get the stories of lack, the search for completion, and all our personal and global conflicts. So discerning the difference between creative or functional thinking and debilitating, obsessive-type thinking is crucial. And in seeing through the latter as it arises, it begins to lose its power, its grip, its believability. But sometimes we don't see through it, or even if we do, sometimes it doesn’t let go—it still has a grip on us. And you’re right, it’s easier for some people to see it and be free of it than for others—because of different genetics, different neurochemistry, different life conditioning, different degrees of trauma, and so on. We can only do our best. But when we realize how impersonal it is, we can at least wake up from the idea that we “should” (or could) be doing better. We each are as we are in every moment because the whole universe is the way it is.
There are many things that can be helpful with various problems of the bodymind, as I’m sure you know—many forms of psychotherapy, dietary changes, alternative healing modalities, psychiatric medications, somatic awareness work, meditation…art and being in nature and having good friends…and there is spiritual awakening. None of these things is a cure-all in my experience, but all of these things (and others) may be helpful. I’ve been seeing a therapist myself for the past few years to explore and work on some of my own issues. Some problems may vanish completely at some point, others may lessen in severity and frequency over time, and some may continue unabated for a whole lifetime. We don’t get to decide which it is. All we can do is be present right now—be awake in this moment—as best we can, when we can.
And in my experience, it is very helpful to recognize what is always already whole and complete and unbroken—what is never damaged or lost or lacking in any way. I’m speaking of the boundless awareness beholding it all, and the seamless unicity of this awaring presence and present experiencing—the wholeness of life, just as it is. Being awake as this unbroken wholeness doesn’t mean we deny the relative problems that we have as human beings, or that we ignore them, but we recognize that in a larger sense, they are not problems in the way we think—they are simply movements of life, movements of energy, dream-like appearances in consciousness. The labels and the stories and the thoughts about them make them seem solid and enduring and substantial, but when we look closely at these movements of energy, we see they are no-thing at all in reality. So we can work on them in whatever ways life moves us to work on them, but we can do that from a ground of wholeness and in a bigger context. (Of course, that isn’t always possible, but the more we access this bigger context, the more available it seems to be). This undamaged wholeness is what Dorothy Hunt was pointing to in her piece that I just shared on FB about the misconceptions we have about the shoreless ocean.
And these labels we use, like "bi-polar" or “OCD" or “alcoholism" or “depression" or “anxiety"…these labels are functionally useful in describing certain patterns of behavior or certain experiences, but can we also be aware of how they can actually create and shape reality, how they can make things seem more solid or more pathological than they actually are? And to see that these labels and these disorders are not who we really are. They’re simply words describing conditioned patterns of energy, impersonal happenings of the whole universe. These patterns don’t mean anything…they have no great significance…they don’t define us…they are simply an aspect of this ever-changing whirlpool or wave that we call “Frank” or “Mary” or “Joan.” What is beholding all of this? What is aware of these patterns? What IS this whole happening?
I can see that many teachers (and non-teachers) out there today are freer of these kinds of neurotic patterns than I am. And sometimes that leads me to think that I should stop doing what I do. I should stop teaching (i.e., stop giving talks, holding meetings, writing books, appearing at the SAND Conference, etc). Because clearly, I’m a big mess. Who on earth would want to hear the dharma from someone like me? But I can also see that there is real clarity and presence here—not all the time, but some of the time. And there is a deep knowingness here of being that Shoreless Ocean. And I can see that perhaps I have something unique and valuable to offer in part because I do still struggle with these things like OCD and depression and because I know what that’s like. So I see—there is awakeness here, there is deep insight, there is genuine realization—and there is also fingerbiting and various human difficulties that are not completely resolved and maybe never will be. That’s how it is. That’s the Joan Show. And for now, I forge on.
Sometimes there is great happiness, great joy here. I love the world…I love people…I love animals…I love being alive. I have wonderful friends and a beautiful place to live. So far, I always seem to have enough income to put food on the table and a roof over my head and to live a reasonably comfortable life. I am privileged to talk with amazing people all over the world, people like yourself. And then sometimes, being alive feels very painful and hard. I have fatigue, the body is getting old, the digestive system doesn’t always work so well, I’m living far away from many of my closest friends, I don’t have a partner, I have no siblings and no children, my mother and father are dead, sometimes I feel lonely or lost. But if I stop and check in any moment, I notice that right now, I’m perfectly okay. Everything is fine, even if I have a headache or heartburn or an arthritic foot or a feeling of sadness. Without thought, without memory, without the stories, there is no problem. It all just is as it is. And in the next moment, it’s all different. The weather (inside and outside) is constantly changing.
So I don’t know if this is a helpful response or a depressing one…but it’s the response that came out. I can tell you this—I’m glad you’re here, in my life. Even though we have never met in person, I feel we are kindred spirits, that we have much in common, and that we are in some way deeply connected. Your being here gives me strength. We’re all in this together. We humans often tend to overlook how important we are…to each other, to the groups and communities we’re part of, and to the whole universe. But each of us really matters. Totally.
I think it is the middle of the night, or the wee hours of the morning, in your world…I hope you are sleeping soundly…and if not, I hope you are enjoying being awake in the wee hours…the hours when cloistered monks and nuns are up praying and singing, doing something that seems so totally useless in our utilitarian world, and yet it gives me great joy to know that they are here right now, even in the darkest hour, singing and praying….
In my post on Nov 8, responding to someone who felt far from continuous bliss, I talked about not being in a state of continuous bliss myself—and I spoke of conditioned patterns of this bodymind organism such as depression and compulsive behaviors that still arise. That word bliss has generated quite a bit of misunderstanding and false expectation in the spiritual world, which is why I rarely (if ever) use it. Maybe the closest I ever came to using something like it was the word “ecstasy” that I put in the subtitle of my second book: “Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is.” What did I mean by that subtitle? I was not in any way pointing to a continuous experience of ecstasy, but rather to the ecstatic nature of this whole dance, the living reality of this moment, consciousness itself, the whole universe, this dancing emptiness.
The other day, I opened Nisargadatta’s I Am That at ransom and landed on a passage where Nisargadatta is responding to a questioner who complains that bliss only shows up in occasional flashes. Nisargadatta responds: “The undisturbed state of being is bliss; the disturbed state is what appears as the world. In non-duality there is bliss; in duality – experience. What comes and goes is experience with its duality of pain and pleasure. Bliss is not to be known. One is always bliss, but never blissful. Bliss is not an attribute.” (from Chpt 27, “The Beginningless Begins Forever”)
Nisargadatta is using bliss the way I used the word ecstasy in my book subtitle. And just as I did, he is making a crucial distinction between what we think of as blissful experiences, which are by nature impermanent, and bliss as the very nature of unbroken wholeness or the Self prior to consciousness (prior to experiencing)—in deep sleep and as the unmanifested Absolute. As Nisargadatta points out, experiencing by its very nature is in duality. In experiencing, there will always be a fluctuation between pain and pleasure and between all the other polarities. There is no such thing as a perpetual experience of non-stop ecstasy or unending bliss. Nisargadatta was a smoker—he was apparently addicted to smoking. He died of a painful throat cancer. He had a temper. He yelled at people sometimes. Life is not always blissful. Human beings are (in that sense) imperfect.
When we can see these conditioned patterns of the bodymind in the same impersonal way that we see fluctuations in weather and all the diverse happenings in nature, we can relax and stop trying desperately to fix ourselves at that level. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do whatever life moves us to do to address a problem such as depression or addiction—that’s all part of how life moves, and there is a natural desire to find a way beyond what hurts. There’s no problem with any of that as long as we’re not overlaying it with some storyline about turning the “imperfect me” into the “perfect me,” or imagining that fixing the bodymind will resolve the root of our suffering. And, of course, seeing these conditioned patterns of the bodymind in the same impersonal way that we see fluctuations in weather also doesn’t mean that we should engage in some kind of spiritual by-passing or use this absolute perspective as a rationalization for why it supposedly doesn’t matter if we’re kicking our dog, beating our wife, seducing our students, or drinking ourselves into oblivion. It’s always important not to get stuck in the absolute and deny the relative, and not to mix up different levels of reality—such confusion always comes from thought and not from the actuality of awake presence.
When we take our human problems such as depression or addiction personally—when we think we are the author of them, and when we give them personal meaning—then we suffer in unnecessary ways. When a conditioned thought arises, a thought such as, “I’m not good enough,” we can very easily mistake this for an objective report on reality. That thought arises unbidden out of an infinite web of causes and conditions, and it instantly creates (in imagination) the mirage-like “me” who is supposedly both the thinker of the thought and the one to whom it refers—the one who is not good enough. Instantly, there is the mirage-like virtual reality of encapsulation, fragmentation, separation and dualism. “I’m not good enough” is an unhappy thought, a disconcerting thought, and the whole body hums along with that storyline, producing what David Bohm aptly called neurochemical smog—a powerful wave of sensation and emotion that snowballs into more thoughts, more sensations and more emotions—a downward spiral that can leave us depressed and unable to act. The whole situation can seem very real, very believable, very convincing. A thought like that, which flashes through the mind for a split second, can hypnotize us and shape our entire life.
And as I pointed out in my post on November 8, certain conditions of the bodymind (genetics, neurochemistry, enzymes, hormones, brain injuries, trauma, etc) can make such thoughts much more likely to arise and much more difficult to see through. It’s a chicken and egg kind of situation, and just as the weather in some locations is stormier or more overcast than in other locations, so the weather in some bodyminds is stormier and more overcast than in other bodyminds. There’s nothing personal about it. In the language of Eckhart Tolle, some people have a stronger pain-body to contend with than others—not because some people are bad, but because of infinite causes and conditions that make this moment just as it is.
As I said in that same post, I can’t say that those kinds of negative thoughts never hook me or seem believable anymore, or that I never get swept up in or hypnotized by that kind of neurochemical smog, but eventually—if not instantly—there is a waking up. Such thoughts can be recognized for what they are and questioned. And upon examination, it can be seen that the one to whom they refer does not actually exist in the way they suggest. And when attention turns to the bare experiencing itself (sensing and perceiving rather than thinking and story-telling), the problem loses its solidity. The spacious openness of this awaring presence that is beholding it all gradually replaces the fragmented thought-sense of “me” and “my problem.”
And that is what I see as the (never-ending, always Now) awakening journey: seeing the false as false…seeing delusion as delusion when it arises…waking up from the virtual reality created by thought…re-turning to the intimacy and immediacy of direct experiencing and the spaciousness of open aware presence…not once-and-for-all, but Now. And it doesn’t really matter whether a particular pattern of thinking or behaving arises a million more times or whether it never comes back again. Awareness is the unconditional love that has space for everything.
Here / Now (Awake Awareness) is the default state, not a new acquisition that can be gained or lost. What comes and goes are the ever-changing experiences that show up Here / Now—including the (passing) experiences we call mania or depression or smoking or fingerbiting or apparently being a separate person who seems to be a big mess or a total success. And whenever all of this seems personal and real and problematic and believable, that is our invitation to stop, look and listen. To question our thoughts and our beliefs. To wake up.
The evening began with watching CNN and MSNBC live coverage of the attacks in France, coming just a day after a close friend and I agreed in a Face Time talk that dark times are coming (from climate change, from predatory global corporate capitalism, from all these wars and WMDs, from our crazy gun culture in America and our broken political system, from all the hate-filled xenophobic anti-gay racist right-wing movements that I can feel growing around us worldwide from ISIS to today’s Republican Party, and from a post-modern world that is somehow unanchored spiritually and in some fundamental way deeply lost)….and we spoke, my friend and I, of the importance of being able to find (and share) the light in the darkness and the joy and possibility even in the midst of despair and heartbreaking difficulty.
Finally, I turned off the TV and picked up the book I’ve been reading lately—a book called Love Unbroken: from Addiction to Redemption by Susan Thesenga and her daughter Pamela Thesenga. Susan gave me a copy at the SAND Conference, and I was almost to the end. So tonight I read the last part of it. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Pamela goes through ten years of heavy drug addiction (heroin, meth, homelessness, living on the streets) and failed recovery attempts. That she survives at all is a miracle. Susan goes through an amazing journey of her own as she witnesses all this, tries to help her daughter, realizes her own powerlessness to save Pam, and lets go finally into unconditional love and acceptance. Along the way, both Susan and Pam are profoundly changed by their encounter with the Santo Daime church and the healing use of ayahuasca, which seems to play a vital role in Pam’s recovery. They try many different treatment approaches, and what seems most healing for Pam are those approaches that start with seeing and reinforcing the wholeness in the person, recognizing that which is unbroken, rather than starting with an emphasis on the disease. This is a deeply moving and transformative book on so many levels…it’s about awakening, it’s about unconditional love, and it’s about addiction and recovery—and unlike so many books on addiction, it isn’t pushing any one recovery model. Instead, Susan Thesenga observes that different people may need different approaches, and this is one story, but it is a story that offers some truly valuable insights into this whole topic of addiction. And beyond addiction, this book offers a powerful transmission about life itself and how we move through trauma and difficulty to find redemption. I recommend it highly.
After finishing the book, I sit down to email Susan, which I do, and then when I send that, the San Francisco Zen Center email newsletter pops into my in-box, and I open it. I really love how they describe their practice in the opening paragraph: “San Francisco Zen Center is a place of refuge for all spiritual seekers, regardless of your level of practice. But this place of refuge is not a shutting off or hiding away; instead it is the encouragement to get closer to everything—to look more carefully at our world, so that we can be a better part of it. For, as Dogen Zenji explained, ‘Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.’”
May we all find the light in the darkness, and may we all look more closely and more carefully at every amazing moment that is given—the light and the dark—and discover that intimacy with all things in which there is no separation and no other.
Someone wrote me this question: “I often hear the phrase in nondual circles that everything is perfect just as it is. In the light of yesterday's tragedy in France, how do we make sense of that?”
This non-dual understanding about the perfection of what is arises out of and points to the unbroken wholeness that is never damaged or destroyed even if the whole universe blows up. It points to the way everything goes together, the light and the dark, in a way that is incomprehensible to the thinking mind but that can be realized by the awakened heart. It points to the insubstantiality (the impermanence, the fluidity, the emptiness, the interdependent nature) of everything we think is happening, and the way we don’t really know what anything is. This unbroken wholeness includes everything, and so on a relative level, there is most definitely pain and suffering and injustice and all the rest of the apparent brokenness and imperfection that see all around us. If "everything is perfect just as it is" is taken on as a new belief (rather than a genuine realization), and if that belief is used to look away from all of this that disturbs us, or to numb out the pain, or to provide false comfort, that is simply delusion.
Susan (and Pam) Thesenga’s book Love Unbroken that I mention in my last post is a wonderful concrete example of this discovery of perfection in apparent imperfection. The pain and suffering that this mother and daughter go through over the course of Pam’s drug addiction (and other problems she struggled with as well such as bi-polar disorder) is very real and gut-wrenching and certainly not something to be glossed over or denied. And yet, as the story unfolds, we can see how it all has a perfection to it, and not just because it has a happy ending in which Pam recovers from her addictions and seems to be on the path to a new and wholesome life—but more importantly, because Susan really has to surrender in the course of the book to the opposite possibility as well—she has to find grace even in the midst of hell. I think most of us have had experiences that on one level look like suffering or misfortune, and yet these very experiences prove to be the gateways to liberation or compassion or a deeper aliveness. Somehow, in real life, we just can’t separate the light and the dark.
As Zen Master Dogen says in the passage cited in my last post, “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” And as the folks at SFZC said in the quote from their newsletter I shared, Zen practice (or non-duality) is “not a shutting off or hiding away; instead it is the encouragement to get closer to everything—to look more carefully at our world.” When we open completely, when we allow this moment to be as it is, when we don’t pull back or imagine that we are separate from either the victims or the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, when we truly surrender to our lack of control and to the universe being as it is in this moment, then something shifts. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain or heartbreak or that we don’t take intelligent action. In fact, from that clear and open-hearted place of unbroken wholeness, we’re much more likely to take action that is intelligent and creative and compassionate, as opposed to when we react from fragmented thinking and conditioned habit.
Ultimately, we have to recognize that good and evil, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow go together. We’ll never have a one-sided coin. There will never be a permanent, perpetually sunny, always blissful, problem-free, totally good, utopia on earth. That is a pipe dream and a misunderstanding of the nature of consciousness. So these difficulties that seem to be escalating—severe weather, terrorist attacks, mass shootings by psychopaths, refugees streaming across borders, xenophobia and right-wing madness and so on, all give us an opportunity to look deeply into the nature of reality. Can we forgive the universe (and ourselves) for being imperfect? Can we awaken to the perfection in the imperfection? Can we recognize the unconditional love, the awaring presence, that is always already allowing it all to be exactly as it is, including our own reactions? Can we see that no one is doing any of this, that all of it is a happening of the whole universe, that independent agency or authorship is a fundamental delusion that doesn't hold up when we look closely? Can we see the terrorist attacks in the same way we see a hurricane, a forest fire, a tidal wave or an earthquake—as an impersonal act of nature, the result of infinite causes and conditions over which no one has any control? Can we see our own actions and reactions in the same way, as a happening of life itself? Can we see that the form of every moment is like a snowflake in a fire—instantly gone? What remains when the whole universe is no more? Is that threatened or damaged or broken in any way?
Again, this isn't said to deny or gloss over the very real pain and suffering that human beings are experiencing at this very moment in Paris and all over the world. But it may be a key to ending an argument with reality that only compounds our human misery.
What is clarity or liberation or awakening really about? We might say it boils down to having a deep sense of the unbroken wholeness of life and the fluidity and emptiness (non-solidity and seamlessness) of experiencing, a felt-sense of one’s True Nature as boundless, formless and all-inclusive (everything and no-thing). We might say it is about seeing through limiting beliefs and the false sense of separation and fragmentation and the deeply-rooted thought-sense that we are looking out at an observer-independent objective reality “out there” somewhere. We might say clarity or liberation or awakening is about opening the heart-mind, being fully present and awake in this moment, having a sense of the infinite potential that is beyond anything perceivable or conceivable. We might say it is a noticing of how everything happens by itself, how the separate individual author-doer is an imagination. One thing is certain: clarity, liberation or awakening is Now and only Now—absolutely immediate and most intimate.
People come to (or dissolve into) this clarity, liberation or awakening in a multitude of ways, and it unfolds and deepens in a multitude of ways. There are no set rules, no set formulas, no spiritual cookbooks that can promise predictable results.
If the mind is telling you right now that you don’t get it, or if the mind is trying to “get it,” notice how it feels in the body to try. Notice the tightness, the contraction, the sense of being a separate somebody trying to get something outside of you. Notice the story that there is something missing and something to get and someone who lacks something. Notice how this story feels in the body. Notice the awareness that is aware of all of this, the awake space in which everything, including the trying and the story of lack, is appearing.
There is awareness here right now, isn’t there? You’re aware of these words you are reading. There is awareness of this present happening, whatever it is. If you stop and check in any moment, including a moment of contraction or upset, you’ll find this aware presence is always right here. And if you close your eyes right now and don’t refer to memory, who or what are you?
There is a knowingness of being present, being aware, being here now…isn’t there? It’s undeniable. But without referring to memory and without thinking about it, does this awaring presence have a shape or a form or a name or a gender or a race or an age or a boundary of any kind? Can you find an inside or an outside to it?
Experiences come and go…but what is the same in every experience? What is the very nature of experiencing? Isn’t it all appearing in and made up of this awaring presence? Doesn’t everything appear and disappear Here / Now in this awake space? Can you find any boundary between awareness and what appears, a place where one begins and the other ends? Isn’t it all one whole seamless happening?
In deep sleep, no experiences remain…and the one who cares about figuring this all out vanishes completely as well. Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains in deep sleep. What remains in deep sleep cannot be grasped as an object. People give it different names, but the names are only pointers. Whether it is called pure consciousness or primordial awareness or the Self or emptiness or infinite potential or the groundless ground of being, it is Here / Now in this very instant of waking life as well. It is the source from which everything is arising, second by second, and into which everything is always dissolving. This Ultimate Reality has been compared to the screen that is equally present (and equally visible) in and as every scene in the movie, or to the water that is equally present as every wave. It is all there is, and all there is, is it. But “it” is not really an “it” at all. Words can only take us so far.
So instead of thinking about all this stuff and trying to grasp it with the seeking mind, I’d recommend relaxing your attention and letting yourself simply be the living reality of this moment: the sound of traffic, the song of a bird, the sensations in the body, the breathing, the colors and shapes and movements that are appearing, the smell of coffee, the taste of tea, the sound of the bus rumbling by, the awaring presence being and beholding it all...this whole happening, just as it is.
Simply BE this awaring presence that you always already are, BE this present happening that you cannot not be, just as it is, without trying to figure it all out. And if that conditioned habit of “figuring it all out, and trying to get it” arises, simply be aware of that whole movement of the bodymind. Notice how it feels in the body to try. See if it works, see if it brings satisfaction. And notice that trying not to try, or trying to get rid of this habitual movement by fighting it only gives it credibility and importance. Resisting it actually strengthens it. So instead, simply allow the trying to be here along with the traffic sounds and the breathing and everything else. Check and see, is awareness still here? Obviously, it is! Trying is just a momentary shape that Reality is taking, a momentary appearance—it’s not personal, it has no meaning, it’s not a sign of personal failure, it’s nothing more than a conditioned movement of thoughts and sensations. Notice that the screen is equally present whether the image on it is spacious and expansive or tight and contracted. Notice that the screen is never burned by the fire in the movie, just as awareness (or wholeness) is never broken or harmed by any appearance.
Enjoy life—go to work, go to the movies, watch TV if you enjoy it, fall in love, have children (or not), pay your taxes, live your life—but come back to this simple presence and “being just this moment” throughout the day whenever it invites you. Even just for a few minutes or a few seconds—while riding the bus to work, or on an airplane, or between clients, or in a waiting room before an appointment, or while walking, or washing the dishes, or after you turn off the TV and before you move on to the next task. Just take a few seconds to simply be. And in addition, maybe set aside some dedicated time every day to do nothing except being present—even just 10 or 15 minutes every morning or evening—undisturbed time when you can simply be present and not do anything else. You don’t need to be motionless in the lotus position with your eyes closed. You can be sitting in an armchair or lying on the floor. Your eyes can be open or closed. But simply be here. Explore, taste, enjoy this simple presence….see what reveals itself.
Otherwise, you’re up in your head trying to figure this all out by thinking, trying to grasp it conceptually, trying to have some special experience or get rid of the experience you’re actually having, all of which doesn’t work. All that does is create and reinforce the false sense of separation and lack. So instead, wake up to the actuality of this living reality, right now, just as it is. Without the stories, without the labels, without doing or not doing anything to it, what is it?
That question isn’t asking for an answer. It’s simply an invitation to open the heart-mind and BE what you cannot not be. It’s an invitation to be awake…to be curious and full of wonder…to be fully present Here / Now….to be in love (or devotion) to (and as) the Holy Reality…to discover the One Self and its infinite faces…your infinite faces…right here in the simplicity of what is.
When you walk into many Christian churches, you’ll see a life-size statue of Jesus being crucified hanging right over the altar. Jesus, God in the flesh, is nailed to a cross, dripping blood, wearing a crown of thorns—dying a slow and excruciatingly painful death.
In Buddhism, the first of the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught is duhkka, a Sanskrit word that has been variously translated as suffering, dissatisfaction, or a wheel that is out of kilter. We want what we don’t have, and we don’t want what we’ve got. We can imagine all the pleasant or painful things that might happen to us, and we can remember all the ways we have been disappointed and hurt and all the things we think we’ve done wrong. We suffer not only over the immediate pain of a headache, but also over the fear that it might get worse and become unbearable, or that it might be the first sign of a fatal brain tumor…and even when we don’t actually have a headache, we can suffer from the fear that we might get one later in the day. We live in a world of stories and concepts, a map-world where we spend much of our lives fighting against mental phantasms, chasing after dreams and mirages, and trying to improve, defend and preserve a self that doesn’t even exist.
Is this a dismal, pessimistic, depressing, despairing view of life? Are Christianity and Buddhism basically just telling us that life sucks? We might think so if we don’t look more deeply. Actually, both religions (at their best and truest) are offering us a path through the difficulties and challenges of the human condition, a path of liberation and awakening.
As I see it, the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection is a powerful pointer to exactly that. We don’t need to worry about whether or not Jesus really existed, or whether he was literally the only son of some imaginary God with a long white beard who lives up in Heaven—and we certainly don’t need to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead and ascended into the sky. What is powerful about this story is what it tells us about the nature of life and the way through suffering, not its historical accuracy.
The story of the crucifixion and Buddha’s First Noble Truth are both telling us something about the very nature of embodied life, something every one of us knows, although we may be doing our best to ignore it. Life manifests in polaric opposites, and neither pole exists without the other. Consciousness IS the dividing up of unicity into apparent multiplicity—emptiness manifesting as form. Experiencing inevitably contains a mixture of both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Even as a newborn baby, even if we have the very best of parents and the most advantageous of circumstances, even then there will be times when our cries are not immediately answered or understood, times when our parents cannot cure what ails us. And as we go through life, we cannot avoid some degree of physical pain—and in many cases, we must endure extreme physical pain—and it’s not in our power to decide how much we get. We cannot avoid emotional pain either—loved ones die or leave us, things happen that are cruel and unjust, many things don’t turn out the way we plan. Our bodies and minds are vulnerable to the ravages of disease, old age and injuries of all kinds. In a sense, from the very moment we are conceived, we are nailed to the cross. There is no way out of this predicament, no escape.
But we try to escape. Like Jesus, our first reaction is to feel abandoned and separate: “God, why have you forsaken me?” Feeling lost and separate and abandoned, thinking we have a problem, we try many escape routes: compulsive thinking, drugs, alcohol, sex, romance, over-working, shopping, more thinking, and so on. Even religion and spirituality can be (mis)used as escapes. But ultimately, we find there is no escape from the human condition. We are nailed to this cross whether we like it or not. And if we’re lucky, we surrender, as Jesus did: “Thy will be done” and “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And that surrender, that letting go, is the doorway (the gateless gate) to the resurrection, the awakening.
We turn into our suffering instead of running away. That doesn’t mean we become a doormat and stay in an abusive situation, or that we don’t seek medical help for an illness or an injury, or that we can’t take action to address some kind of social or economic injustice or some global problem such as climate change. This turning toward or surrendering is pointing to something much more immediate, out of which intelligent action can arise. Surrendering is opening fully to this moment, just as it is. This moment already IS as it is, like it or not. So can we be fully awake Here / Now, fully present? Can we see, and see thorough, our stories of blame and guilt, abandonment and vengeance, self-pity and regret? Can we feel the pure energy of our emotional weather—anger, sorrow, grief, fear, whatever it is—without the labels, as pure sensation in the body, without pulling away and without overlaying it with a story or an interpretation or an analysis? Can we go to the very core of this pain and to the very heart of this awaring presence that we are? Can we wake up?
We very much want to be in control. Our fears of aging and dying are often at bottom fears of losing control. What if we can’t even control the circumstances of our dying? What if we don’t get the deathbed experience we want? What if the people we want to be there aren’t there? What if people we don’t want there are there instead? What if we can’t talk anymore or tell anyone what we want? What if the room is too hot or too cold? What if we are subjected to music we don’t like, or television programs we hate, or the voice of some public figure droning on and on expressing views that we totally disagree with and abhor? What if we are in horrible pain? What if we are uncontrollably screaming and writhing—not meeting death with the kind of calm equanimity we had imagined ourselves having? What if our self-image is shattered into a million pieces? What if the nurse caring for us is abusive or negligent or even just distracted? What if we’re buried alive in the rubble after an earthquake, or alone and terrified in a war zone, or cold and hungry in a refugee camp? What if we’re being tortured? Jesus certainly didn’t get to choose his deathbed. And apparently Buddha didn’t either—if I remember correctly, they say that he died of food poisoning or some illness involving stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.
So how do we meet these moments—whether big or small—when life isn’t going the way we want? That’s what spiritual practice is all about. It’s about what happens when we feel irritated or angry or abandoned or misunderstood or criticized or defensive or hurt…what happens when the room is too hot or too cold and we’re not in control of it… what happens when our neighbor turns up their stereo or turns on their chain-saw or their leaf-blower right at the moment when we sit down to meditate…what happens when our boss makes demands that feel unreasonable…what happens when our partner sees life differently from how we see it…what happens when our child turns into a crack addict or dies…what happens when we see a world that can’t seem to do what we believe needs to be done to address a looming problem such as climate change….what happens when people drop bombs on us or on those we love….or when the stomach flu or the crucifixion comes our way? How do we respond?
What is this life all about? How can we find liberation in the midst of this uncertainty and sorrow, right in the middle of the crucifixion? This is the question that spiritual practice addresses. And of course, it addresses it in many different ways. Some forms of religion are just new forms of escape—the opium of the masses. They offer belief systems and false comfort. But at its most profound, religion or spirituality offers something else entirely. It offers a path. It may be a direct path or a pathless path, but it is still a path. It takes a kind of dedication, a kind of sincerity and honesty, a kind of courage, a kind of faith, a kind of earnestness, a kind of vigilance. It requires dedicated time and energy. It isn’t always easy or pleasant or blissful. It’s a commitment, like a marriage.
That doesn’t mean it takes grueling effort and exertion of will-power, as in trying really, really hard to accomplish something—it’s more of a surrendering, a letting go—not doing anything extra, relaxing some fundamental clench or contraction of the heart-mind in which we pull back from life by resisting what is or seeking something else. Waking up is not a goal-oriented effort in which we strive to attain something that we presently lack or to arrive someplace other than where we are—but rather, it’s a waking up to right here, right now, just as it is.
And when I say “just as it is,” I don’t mean “just as I think it is.” This is a crucial distinction, and waking up has everything to do with clarifying exactly this distinction.
Response to a comment:
Yes, it’s all grace. We can’t manufacture dedication, sincerity, courage, faith, earnestness, commitment, vigilance or any of the other qualities I mentioned any more than we can “decide” to be a Bach or an Einstein or a world-class athlete. But I’d be careful about how easily we form these ideas and stories about ourselves such as, “I was never particularly good at making commitments or keeping them.” Even if these stories seem relatively true, if we look more closely, they don’t hold up in any way. And yet, they can shape our lives. To wake up is to question and see through these stories.
Response to another comment:
First, I would say that there is no problem with preferences—the problem comes with attachment to our preferences or identification with them. Then we suffer. Desire and fear are part of our biology—we desire what keeps us alive and fear what threatens our survival. This is all a natural part of how life functions. But there is a whole realm of psychological fear and desire that has nothing to do with our actual survival, and yet often, we can’t tell the difference. We desire things that will kill us, and we run away in terror from what will set us free. There’s nothing wrong with wanting good health, or wanting an iPad, or a college degree, or a soulmate to share our life with, or our favorite food, or a good cup of coffee…the problem comes when we feel we must have these things in order to be happy. And no matter how much good fortune we have, we cannot escape the opposite polarity also showing up.
For most of us, what starts our spiritual search and keeps us going is a longing to be free of suffering and perhaps a taste or a glimpse of the freedom that is possible that draws us on. Nothing wrong with any of that. But as long as we are seeking something “out there” that we believe we lack, we will overlook the jewel that is Here / Now. So at some point, the search needs to end in the realization that what we have been seeking is right here.
When the thinking mind is silent, when we are fully awake in this moment, there is naturally love, joy, compassion, peace, well-being (even in the midst of a crucifixion). We might say that what we call evil is rooted in a false view of reality. It comes from ignore-ance or unawareness—not seeing clearly. It is a malfunction of some kind, in the same way that physical disease is a kind of malfunction or breakdown. In that sense, we might say that goodness and health is the natural state, the default state, the original state. But when we look deeply, we see that health and illness cannot really be pulled apart, that they don’t really exist independently of each other, that they are both conceptual ideas, not the living reality. It is the conceptual map that confuses us, not the living actuality.
Finally, I would say that there is a health that exists right in the midst of dying of cancer; a peace that exists right in the midst of war; a joy that can be found right at the very heart of sorrow; an openness that is so open that it includes contraction.
Response to another question from same person again:
Well, as I said before, when the thinking mind is silent, when we are fully awake in this moment, there is naturally love, joy, compassion, peace and well-being. This was said not from an ideological place—as an idea I believe in—but experientially, as something that has been directly discovered. Our True Nature—the very nature of awareness—is love and wholeness. Again, this isn’t an idea to believe or not believe. It’s a felt-reality that can be come upon directly…we can feel the difference between the mind of anger-defensiveness-conflict-fragmentation-etc. and the mind of love and wholeness. We can feel which one is true and which one is illusory.
And yes, as I tried to express, there is a natural desire for what feels good and enhances our survival—there is a natural impulse to heal illness, to repair damage, to fix what is broken, to expand our capacities, to improve in various ways, to evolve. It’s part of our nature, part of the way the universe moves.
I wouldn’t agree that a happy person has no need for religion. The religious impulse can also arise from gratitude and celebration and wonder—from over-flowing joy and love. It doesn’t only arise from suffering and our desire to not suffer—although that is most often where it begins.
If we are surrendering to avoid suffering, or using the pathless path as a set of tools or a strategy to get somewhere else, we are not really surrendering. As an idea at the level of conceptual thought, this may make no sense to the thinking mind. But experientially, there is a HUGE and palpable difference between “surrender” with an agenda (which is actually a subtle form of seeking and resisting and not surrender at all) and genuine surrender. I don’t think when Jesus said, “Thy will be done,” he was doing it as a strategy for pain-relief or self-improvement or to get himself to the resurrection or to make himself more spiritually-correct so that God would be favorably impressed and his image would be enhanced. (Of course, this is a metaphor).
One of the great spiritual inquiries is the question, “Who am I?” Often, people misunderstand this as either a question to think about intellectually or else a mantra to repeat silently to themselves over and over. It’s actually an invitation to immediately and directly discover something that is very simple and obvious but often overlooked.
As an experiment, try closing your eyes. And then, without referring to memory, ask yourself, “Who or what am I?” Feel into this question, don’t think about it or go searching through your mental rolodex of spiritual answers.
If you don’t refer to memory, if you don’t think about the answer, right now, who or what are you?
Are you not this undeniable awaring presence? Right now, if you don’t refer to memory, does this aware presence have a shape or a gender, an age or a history? Does it have any boundaries or limits? Can you find a boundary of any kind that divides this awaring presence into an inside or an outside? Can you find any place where it is not—any place where it ends? Doesn’t everything—including your body, the mind and the world—appear within this awaring presence? Isn’t this aware presence at once boundless and most intimate? Isn’t this unbound, unencapsulated, limitless, all-pervading awaring presence what we all ultimately refer to when we use the word I? (Again, don’t think your way through this, but actually look and see for yourself).
Of course, we’ve been taught and we’ve learned to think of “I” as a separate person encapsulated in a separate body, somebody with a name and an age, a gender and a history…a character in a story, an image in the mirror, a person born into an external world, a world that supposedly exists outside of consciousness. But can that separate person actually be found, and is there really an observer-independent objective reality that exists outside of consciousness? Do we ever actually experience anything outside of consciousness? What is beholding all of this? If we don’t refer to memory, if we don’t think about it, isn’t what we truly are this vast awake space of Here / Now, in which the person and the bodymind and the world and the entire universe appear?
And what exactly IS the body, the mind and the world? When you look closely, can you get hold of anything substantial or persisting? Isn’t “the body” an ever-changing process inseparable from its environment? Isn’t your experience of “the body” made up of ever-changing sensations (somatic sensations, tactile sensations, visual and auditory sensations, etc.)? Where is your childhood? Where is the experience of body, mind or world that was here an hour ago, or even just a split second ago? There may be a memory trace of an hour ago that can appear Here / Now, and there might be a video recording of yesterday that could be played Here / Now, but the living actuality of yesterday or an hour ago is totally gone, isn’t it? What was it? It seemed very solid and substantial as it was happening, but now it has completely vanished! Where did it go? How real was it? Maybe the reality of it was actually the awaring presence in which it appeared and out of which it was made, rather than the dream-like content.
Another one of the great spiritual inquiries is the question, “What is it?” This koan-like question can be asked in reference to anything that is seen, heard, felt or conceptualized. What is it? Of course, this question isn’t asking for a label (such as “water”) or a scientific explanation (such as “a liquid composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen bonded together”). This question is inviting something much more immediate—the living reality itself and not any kind of map or description.
The more closely you actually look at any apparent form (a chair, a person, a thought, a feeling), the more you discover that there is actually no-thing there—that no solid, persisting, independent “thing” actually exists in the way we think it does. Yes, you still see the chair across the room, it doesn’t vanish into thin air, but you realize that you have been conditioned to draw the boundary-lines around it in the way that you do, and that you have been conditioned to think of this form that the boundary-lines delineate as a chair—and you realize that in reality, the boundaries are fluid and the object doesn’t actually stay the same—the chair is changing and disintegrating right now, even if this is happening too slowly for us to see, and it appears differently in different lighting, at different times of day, or from different angles. The thinking mind assumes it is “the same chair,” but in actual experiencing, it isn’t. You discover that all appearances are changing—that no form persists—that we truly never step into the same river twice, nor is our foot ever the same foot from one moment to the next—and we never experience anything outside of consciousness, and the chair is actually an appearance made up of consciousness.
The more closely we look at present experiencing, and the more we look for the experiencer of that experiencing or the source of it, the less we seem to find. Everything we find, upon close inspection, seems to dissolve into no-thing-ness. And yet, this no-thing-ness is not some vacant dead void. It is this utterly undeniable vivid reality of present experiencing and the vibrant aliveness of this awaring presence that we know beyond all doubt. This present experiencing and this awaring presence are, in fact, all we know with absolute, doubtless certainty—I Am and This Is. We can doubt our interpretations of what “I Am” and what “This Is,” but we can’t doubt the actuality itself—the direct knowing or being is undeniable. And although the words appear to divide this unbroken wholeness of present experiencing and awaring presence into two components, where exactly is the dividing line between the awaring presence (I Am) and present experiencing (This Is)? Can you actually find a place, a boundary, where awareness ends and the things appearing within awareness begin? Isn’t it one seamless whole, one undivided happening—one infinite, ever-present, ever-changing Self-realization?
People have called this unbroken wholeness by many different names: emptiness, primordial awareness, the Heart, the Ultimate Subject, the Self, Here / Now (this timeless, spaceless, dimensionless, infinite eternity), Unconditional Love, God, intelligence-energy, the Shoreless Ocean, the One Bright Pearl—many beautiful and evocative names for this all-inclusive, non-objective, groundless ground or infinite potential that is unfindable, unlocatable, ungraspable, inconceivable and yet totally obvious and unavoidable, for it is all there is.
Nothing stands apart from this. There is no separation from this. We cannot attain this because we ARE this. There is ONLY this. Words fail here, because “this” is not an object—some-thing in particular that we can point out and see and grasp, this but not that. Rather, THIS is the all-inclusive no-thing-ness or emptiness of everything: empty of enduring form, empty of any inherent (observer-independent) reality outside of this awaring presence, empty of self, empty of separate existence.
Beyond all relative appearances, this unbroken wholeness is unconditioned, unborn, undying and absolute—it depends on nothing. And although it cannot be seen as an object, at the same time, this unbroken wholeness is visible everywhere as everything. It is showing up as autumn leaves and traffic sounds and noisy neighbors and barking dogs and can-openers and cups of coffee and clouds and trees and super-highways and microbes and quarks and thoughts and memories and galaxies and mass extinctions. It can neither be grasped nor avoided. It is unattainable because it can never be lost. It is here right now as this undeniable awaring presence and this undeniable present experiencing—boundless, seamless, without limits or measure. This unbroken wholeness, devoid of content (devoid of anything perceivable or conceivable) is what remains in deep sleep and after death, and it is the source and substance of every appearance (everything perceivable and conceivable).
Knowing ourselves as this all-inclusive, awaring presence—being just this moment, exactly as it is—we see only the Beloved everywhere, most intimate. Spirituality ceases to be a tedious search for what we imagine is lacking and becomes instead a celebration, a devotional love affair with what is, a recognition of ourSelf everywhere. There is infinite variety and diversity, but no separation, no independent existence—everything is the One Reality, endlessly revealing and discovering Itself. This unbroken wholeness includes relative reality and apparent multiplicity. It includes our humanness—the image seen in the mirror, the unique expression and flavor of this particular whirlpool, this particular wave in the ocean, and the whole story of our life, and the functional sense of being a particular person with boundaries that shows up as needed. It includes all of this, but it is not limited to this apparent bodymind. It knows itself as the bigger context in which all of this appears, and it recognizes the insubstantiality and dream-like nature of this appearance.
There is nothing actually mysterious or hard to get about any of this, although it may seem so if we are trying to “get it” intellectually or “have it” as a particular experience. But on the contrary, what is being pointed to here is totally obvious, totally unavoidable, totally present Here / Now…it cannot ever actually be lost or hidden. It is right here in this very moment of boredom or uncertainty or despair or unease or obsessive thinking… right here in this present flash of color, this sound, this wave of sadness or joy, these small black shapes we call letters and words instantly unfolding into meaning in consciousness, this writing/reading presence discovering and realizing itself. This that we seek is not somewhere else because there is nowhere else. And this one who seems to lack something is only a momentary mirage-like appearance showing up in this vast awaring presence that we all truly are. This appearance is not other than this awaring presence. It is not actually an obstacle or a problem that needs to be overcome. It is a mirage! The problems we think we have may have an apparent reality within the movie of waking life, but if we look closely, we will find that they do not exist or persist. The world and our whole life is like a dream. We as the separate self are a part of that dream as are all our apparent struggles and difficulties.
And if you find yourself thinking otherwise, simply notice how we unenlighten and delude and confuse ourselves with thinking. Notice how we reify and give solidity to what is actually ever-changing formlessness, how we take it personally and give it meaning and overlay interpretations on the bare happening of this living reality. SEE how delusion happens, how we pretend to be an unenlightened fragment in search of enlightenment. Notice how we fight to hold onto this belief in our separate existence and our story of lack if it is questioned, how we defend its reality, how we resist letting it go.
What do we fear will happen if we let go? That’s a very interesting question to explore, to live with, to feel into. Don’t look for the answers others have provided, but really feel into your own experience of it.
And if the mind gets all tangled up in thinking about it, maybe it’s possible to just stop, look and listen…to come back or wake up to the bare actuality of this moment—to stop resisting what is here or seeking something different, to shift attention from the thoughts and stories and mental confusion to the living reality of traffic sounds, sensations in the body, breathing…and the awaring presence, the aliveness of this moment. Maybe it’s possible, for moments at a time, to be just this moment, exactly as it is. (Actually, it’s impossible to ever not be just this moment!).
Can we notice the openness of Here / Now, the openness that we always already are, that we cannot not be, the openness that has space for everything, even the tightest contraction—the openness that is always already allowing everything to be just as it is, even the apparent resistance?
Notice that this awaring presence is equally present in every shape that experience takes, like the ocean that is equally present in every wave, or the screen that is equally visible in every different scene of the movie. Notice that the Holy Reality is Here / Now, that there is nowhere else. Notice the thought that “this can’t be it” or that “I don’t get it” whenever it shows up and question that thought. Notice that thoughts are a happening of life itself, a flashing pulsation of energy, little mental telegrams, gone as quickly as they arrive, and that even the thoughts are nothing but this unbroken wholeness appearing as thinking.
Waking up is about being what we cannot not be, what we always already are—being this awake presence and this present experiencing—being this vast space of Here / Now—being this whole happening. And when it seems that we have lost this or that we don’t get it, check and see—are we here? Is awareness really gone? Who (or what) is this imaginary one who would lose (or gain) it? And who is beholding this whole drama? Who are you, really?
Drop all the answers and fall into the aliveness and immediacy of JUST THIS.
Are we each trapped in our own airtight, singular mind as solipsism would suggest, or are all of us and our multiple mind-movies (our dreams within dreams) appearances in and of the One Mind outside of which nothing exists?
Each snowflake is unique and unrepeatable and yet indivisible from the whole universe. Just as there are many waves on the ocean and many different movies that play on one screen, there are many different minds at play within the One Mind. Each of us is seeing and acting in a completely unique movie of waking life. This is quite obvious—other people see things differently than we do, sometimes in unbelievably different ways. Even our closest and most like-minded friends don’t seem to agree with us about everything. Sometimes when we go to the cinema and watch a movie with a close friend and then talk about it afterwards, it seems as if we’ve each seen two entirely different shows. And indeed, we have!
But we have the persistent, deeply-conditioned, deeply-rooted illusion that we are each separate individuals looking out through the windows of our senses at the very same observer-independent, external reality. We firmly believe that there is one actual, objective movie that both of us have seen—one inherently existing external reality. And therefore, when you see that reality differently from how I see it, there is something deeply disturbing about it. How can you not see what is so obvious to me! It threatens my whole sense of reality—the very ground upon which I seem to be standing. It undermines my certainty in some fundamental way. Have you noticed this? At first glance, this seems terrifying and profoundly upsetting.
But is there actually a single, objective, observer-independent, external reality that remains the same regardless of whether it is being observed or by whom? Is that really how the world is? This is a fundamental question to investigate, to wonder about. Are there actually separate people who exist independently of each other? Is my mind different from your mind? In what ways is it different, and in what way is it the same?
The ocean is one undivided happening, but each wave is a unique and different event. All waves are equally made of water and the water moves freely between one wave and the next—there is no actual, clear-cut, definitive, solid boundary where one wave ends and the next one begins. In a similar way, each person is a unique waving in the ocean of being, and each individual mind has a completely unique point of view—a completely unique set of causes and conditions that filter how it perceives and conceives and experiences, just as each waving of the ocean moves in a different way because of different causes and conditions. No two of us are ever seeing exactly the same movie, and yet all seeing is the same seeing, the same fundamental consciousness, the same awaring presence, the same primordial awareness beholding itself from infinite points of view.
Like the jewels in Indra’s Net, each mind is a reflection of all the others. In the beautiful words of Ramesh Balsekar, the universe is “like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end.” We could also use the analogy of a hologram, in which every apparent part—however small—contains the whole. The great Zen Master Dogen realized this back in the 13th Century, long before anyone knew about holograms or modern physics, when he said, “The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water...Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.”
Our minds are as porous as our skins, and we absorb thoughts and ideas from our society and from all the so-called others around us all the time. We are conditioned in many similar ways, we breathe the same air, we are made of the same star dust and the same subatomic particles. Our minds are unique in their particular filtering system, their particular point of view in any given moment, but they are never actually separate or walled in. They are more like holograms or that net of jewels—an interdependent, inseparable, indivisible happening in which each is empty of any inherent self-existence and filled to the brim with everything it supposedly is not. We are different but not separate; unique but not independent.
Each mind is different in the same way each body and each fingerprint and each snowflake is different, and yet, it is all one whole happening. The differences are on the surface, while in the depth, it is one consciousness seeing all the movies, one universe doing every different microscopic or intergalactic dance, one ocean waving as every apparently different wave, one dreamer having many different dreams. We could even say that the very notion that there is a universe and a solar system and a planet called earth and all these different people on that planet with different minds—this whole notion is itself an appearance in and of the One Mind, the all-pervading One Consciousness, the groundless ground, the awaring presence, the eternal Here / Now from which nothing stands apart. When we look closely and deeply, how solid is any “thing” that appears?
We can become very confused trying to work all this out in our heads through thinking about it. Is the moon made of "physical matter" or is it "pure consciousness"? Did NASA's trips to the moon happen "out there" in some “actual outer space,” or were they "only appearances" in and of consciousness? Round and round the thinking mind goes trying to figure this out. And yet, what is the difference between “actual outer space” and “appearances in consciousness”? Couldn't these simply be different ways of conceptualizing, labeling, and thinking about the bare happening itself? And is the "bare happening" of what we call "the moon" or “the moon landing” the same “thing” if you are an astronaut standing on the moon, or a mission control person watching from a screen on the ground, or an astronomer looking through a telescope, or a child reading about it all in the pages of a history book? Is there really any single, solid, enduring, fixed "thing" called "the moon" or "the moon landing," or do we merely think that there is? To quote Zen Master Dogen again, “Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object, or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?” We THINK the universe is made up of separate, persisting things, but is that really true? How real is any-thing? We might say that the moon is every bit as real as we are right now...but exactly how real is that? What is real about "you" in this moment? This is a wonderful question to explore meditatively, by looking deeply and directly. You may find that what is real about you is the same as what is real about the moon.
It can be helpful to understand all of this intellectually at the level of philosophy and reasoning, and it’s certainly more helpful to have this unified and fluid view of life than it is to have a view that imagines ourselves as totally separate individuals in a fragmented, alien universe. But at the level of philosophy, it remains a belief, and belief is always shadowed by doubt. And in fact, none of these descriptions are the living reality they describe—the map is never the territory, and the menu is never the meal. The map is simply an abstract representation, a helpful guide, a sign-post, a pointer. The menu only describes the meal—it cannot provide real nourishment. What really liberates us is exploring and dissolving into the territory itself, eating the meal, waking up to the living reality Here / Now, BEING just this moment.
How to do that? Whenever it invites you, shift attention from thoughts and concepts to the living reality of sensing and perceiving. Be awake to the awaring presence Here / Now and to this present happening, just as it is. Feel deeply into the core of a single sensation. Look deeply at any object. Look back with awareness at what is looking and see what you find (if anything). Contemplate the question, who (or what) am I? Without referring to memory, without thinking about the answer, without referring to your rolodex of dead ideas, who are you right now? Feel into the source of each breath, each heartbeat, each thought, each urge that arises. Watch how decisions and choices actually unfold—see if you can find a decider in control. Don’t look for answers to all of these questions (words, labels, explanations, concepts), but rather, fall into the open space of wondering—not knowing—simply BEING awake and present. Being Here / Now, being in wonderment (or devotion) to this very moment, just as it is. You don’t really need any “how to” instructions. It’s simply a matter of noticing what is already present and not needing any of it to be different than exactly how it is.
Any-thing that we can think of—a person, a city, a piece of furniture, a body of water, a tree, an animal, a rock, a mountain range, a feeling, a thought—is an ungraspable, changing event—a verb rather than a noun. It has no actual, solid boundaries—only apparent, provisional, conceptual ones. In reality, every apparent “thing” is fluid, porous, impermanent and ever-changing. Every “thing” is interdependent with—and made up of—everything it is not. Our experience of any-thing is an event in consciousness made up of changing sensations, perceptions, thoughts, memories and mental images.
When any of these apparent “things” ceases to exist, what is it that has disappeared? How real, how solid was the now-absent form? And in what way is it still present as whatever is appearing right here, right now? When we die, what dies? What remains?
I would say that when a person dies, a certain pattern of energy dissipates and dissolves, as when a whirlpool or a wave collapses back into the body of water out of which it emerged, or when a river returns to the sea. The shape of that wave or that whirlpool or that river was consistent enough in some way to be a recognizable form that we could name, but that form was actually nothing but continuous change inseparable from its environment. There was never any clear or solid boundary where the wave or the whirlpool began or ended. The water itself was undivided, seamless, whole. And when the river merges into the sea, no separate river remains, and yet nothing has been lost.
After death, the body decomposes, nourishing and being eaten by other life forms, and gradually it disappears altogether. If cremated, it turns to ash and that ash is gradually absorbed back into the earth. Even if a body is embalmed and put into a casket, eventually it will all disintegrate, as will the mountain ranges that seem so solid and enduring. Eventually the sun will explode or flare out. No-thing is permanent, not even our planet or our solar system or this universe. When a person dies, the pattern of energy that we call the body disintegrates and dissolves, and likewise, the pattern of energy that we call the mind (the particular habit-patterns of thinking and perceiving created by the unique causes and conditions of each particular life—the individual stories, memories, ideas and beliefs) also dissolves. In fact, the conditioned mind dissolves many times in an ordinary day in the sometimes unnoticed gaps between thoughts. Everything we think of as “Joan Tollifson” or “John Doe” or “Sue Smith” is actually insubstantial and eventually evaporates completely like a mist. No-thing remains.
So is there nothing that survives death? Is death the end? The end of what exactly? What exactly is it that dies? What is it that was born? Can we actually find this form that is supposedly vanishing? In Buddhism, it is said that the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence, because the flux is so thorough-going and complete that no separate and enduring “thing” ever actually forms to even BE impermanent. The unbroken wholeness, the seamless unicity, the boundless flow is never born and never dies. This groundlessness or emptiness (empty of enduring or separate existence) is our True Nature. It includes everything and is bound by no-thing. It is the unborn, unconditioned, undying, living reality that we are and that everything is. And when we are awake to this, the fear of death is gone.
Death is actually moment by moment. No-thing ever really persists or exists (stands apart from the whole) except conceptually as an idea (and to some degree as an unexamined, conditioned perception colored by thought). But because we identify the unbound awaring presence that we actually are with a particular bodymind, and because we think this bodymind is a separate fragment in a fragmented world, we fear the loss of “me” (the separate self) — or, if we’ve bought into some religious idea of the afterlife, perhaps we fear the continuation of “me” in hell or in some less fortunate reincarnation. Or maybe we fear that “me” will be dead but somehow still alive—buried alive, as it were—unable to get back to the soap opera of “my life” to find out what happens next! But can we find this “me” even now? Is it anything other than an ever-changing flow of thoughts, mental images, memories, perceptions, sensations?
What is aware of all this? Is that awaring presence bound in any way? Is it limited? Does it have an age or a gender or a shape or a size? Does this unfindable Ultimate Subject ever die? Is it ever born? Isn’t this our deepest reality, most intimate and utterly impossible to doubt?
This awaring presence includes and transcends the wave-like activities we call “Joan Tollifson” or “John Doe” or “Sue Smith” or “planet earth” or “the city of Chicago”.
When we look closely, we can’t really find a beginning or an ending to this event we call “Joan Tollifson.” The beginning seems to go back to the Big Bang and the ending of any form seems to expand outward forever like the ripples in a pond.
We can’t deny that there is something we call “Joan Tollifson” or “my kitchen table” or “planet earth” or “the city of Chicago.” It would be absurd to deny that any of these things exist in any way whatsoever. But when we look closely, we discover that no-thing is as solid or as enduring as we thought. What seems to persist is actually the IDEA of “Joan Tollifson” or “my kitchen table” or “planet earth” or “the city of Chicago.” But when we turn our attention from the abstract concept to the living reality itself (the bare actuality of sensing, perceiving, experiencing), we find that all of these apparently persisting forms are actually ever-changing, always new, and inseparable from the consciousness in which they appear. They are made up of consciousness. Everything turns out to be an impermanent, fluid, changing, momentary, dream-like event that cannot be grasped or pinned down.
This “body” is actually porous, permeable and inseparable from everything it supposedly is not—inhaling, exhaling, feeding, excreting, talking, listening, acting, being acted upon—a ceaseless dance of microscopic, macroscopic and subatomic events. The “mind” is a similarly impermanent, fluid, changing process that is actually porous, permeable and inseparable from all the other minds that it supposedly is not (see my post from Dec 2 for more on that). So where exactly in all of this interdependent, porous, changing fluidity is this solid-sounding, apparently-persisting entity called Joan Tollifson? And what is aware of all this? What is beholding Joan and the entire universe? Is that awareness encapsulated or limited or bound in any way? Is it dependent on this form?
What exactly is the city of Chicago? Is it the people? The land? The buildings? The culture? The weather? The more closely we look, the less we seem able to pin down. Planes take off and land, people come and go from the city—some are born, others die, visitors come and go, residents move away and others arrive, buildings come and go, city laws and ordinances change over the years, trees sprout up and others die or are chopped down, bird migrations pass through. On one side, Chicago is bordered by Lake Michigan—but where exactly does the city end and the lake begin? The tide comes in and goes out, the land dissolves into water. In stormy weather, the waves have been known to crash in over Lakeshore Drive—where exactly is the boundary-line? And where exactly is the boundary between Chicago and neighboring Evanston? There is a legal line marked by a sign, but in the earth itself, in the soil, or in the air, there is no discernable boundary at all. And if you don’t see the sign, you won’t notice any immediate difference as you cross over that conceptual boundary-line. In reality, Chicago and Evanston are one, seamless, undivided event. Only on the map does Chicago look like a clearly defined entity with solid boundaries. In actuality, it is something much more fluid and porous and mutable—undeniable, but impossible to grasp.
And just as each person has a unique personality, each city on earth has a unique personality as well. Chicago has a flavor that is quite distinct from the flavor of San Francisco or New Orleans or Cairo or Stockholm or Bombay or Islamabad. And yet, what exactly is that flavor, that personality? Again, we can’t ever pin it down.
Every resident of the city and every visitor has a completely unique experience of what they call “Chicago.” One neighborhood of Chicago can be quite different from another. When I last lived in Chicago, the neighborhood where I lived was Hispanic in one direction, Pakistani and Indian in another, Orthodox Jewish in yet another. Walking around in my neighborhood, you’d see men and women in Orthodox Jewish attire, you’d see women in full burqas and saris, you’d hear different languages being spoken. In my apartment building, we had people from all over the world—we had Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Catholic nuns, people from Africa, Mexico, Cuba, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, India. Many decades earlier, when my mother spent part of her childhood in this “same” neighborhood, it was very different. Different ethnic groups lived there, different buildings were there, different cars, different music was playing. Where in all of this diversity and change is “the same neighborhood” or “the city of Chicago”? Will the real Chicago please stand up!
Likewise, everyone who meets “Joan Tollifson,” meets a completely unique person. Everyone sees Joan differently. And the Joan you encounter in the morning may be someone else entirely later in the afternoon. And Joan’s Joan is yet another version, also very mutable from one moment to the next. Which is the real Joan or the real Chicago?
I’ve always been amazed by the fact that we can see the back of someone’s head, someone we haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years, and yet instantly we can recognize them. There is a certain pattern of energy, like a wave or a whirlpool, that we recognize, something that seems to persist from childhood into old age. And yet, on close inspection, the shape of that wave or that whirlpool is continually changing and there is no clear boundary where it begins or ends. The water that makes it up is circulating and moving freely beyond the boundaries. The old person is clearly not the child, and yet, some pattern continues, even though in reality, even that pattern is not solid or unchanging. But because of this patterning and our ability to think and conceptualize and draw abstract mental maps, “the person” seems very real and solid and persisting and clearly delineated—and in a certain sense, they are. When someone dies, we can’t deny the loss. And yet, what exactly has died?
We identify with the idea of being some-thing or some-one in particular. And while that thought-sense of being a particular person is part of this whole happening and part of how life is functioning, if we look more closely, we find out that we are much more (and much less) than this imaginary person living in some imaginary city going through some dream-like drama that we call “my life” or “current events.” On close inspection, all of that loses its solidity. We can’t ignore this apparent relative reality, but we can wake up from the trance of mistaking our mental maps for the living reality itself, the trance of believing we are a separate fragment in a fragmented world that exists “out there” in some objective way, the trance of separation and encapsulation.
There is something here right now that includes all of this but that isn’t bound by it. Something that is at peace even if the whole world blows up. Something that is unborn, undying, unconditioned. Something that doesn’t depend on any particular events or outcomes in order to be okay and complete. Something that is subtler than space and yet more real than anything that appears. Something that is actually not some-thing at all. I’m not talking about anything mysterious or foreign. I’m talking about the very heart of this timeless presence that is Here / Now, the awareness of this presence, and the Unnamable that remains when even this first sense of being present and aware disappears, as it does every night in deep sleep. What remains? This is the essential nature of Here / Now, what is at the core of every sensation and every experience—this is what we might call unconditional love, uncaused joy, real beauty, true peace, primordial awareness, God.
To be awake to this is to be free from the fear of death. Being this, abiding as this, is perhaps the best gift we can offer, the best way to bring peace and love and compassion into this dream-like troubled world. The words are never quite right, but they point to what is beyond words and at the heart of every word. May we all find that peace, that joy, that love that is right here at no distance at all. May we be what we truly are.
All morning I’ve been listening to the delicious sounds of falling rain and occasionally the horn of the passing freight train in the distance. I’ve been watching rain running down the windows and feeling movements of energy in the body. Such simple pleasures on a quiet winter morning. In this simplicity, questions of purpose and meaning or attainment and lack do not arise. There is simply the effortless enjoyment of being.
I check my email. A friend reports mild depression. Another is thinking and reasoning about whether there is anything outside of consciousness, trying to find the logical formulation that will end all illusion and put to rest all doubt. Another is upset about Donald Trump. In another moment, any of these concerns could be my own. We humans can get very caught up in and hypnotized by the content of our minds—a kind of mesmerizing virtual reality, whether it is the drama of our personal lives or the world drama, or whether it is the compulsive effort to grasp the nature of reality conceptually, or to have some particular experience other than the one we are actually having right now. Around and around we can go on our various hamster wheels. And then amazingly, sometimes we can wake up.
So on this darkest day of the year (here in the Northern Hemisphere), it’s a great time to wonder, what really matters? I find that arguing over philosophy and conceptual formulations is less interesting to me than the possibility of waking up in this moment from the dream of separation, the story of me in whatever form it is arising (me who has been insulted, me who lacks something, me who deserves more, me who has ruined my life, me who seeks enlightenment, me who fears death, etc).
I’m not really that interested in philosophy and coming up with some logical understanding of the nature of reality—the One True Conceptual Formulation, as it were. I don’t think there really is any such thing. ANY logical, conceptual formulation can be doubted! I’m much more interested in direct experiencing and being awake in this moment and how that presence and wakefulness changes our lives and frees us from suffering.
Mental maps of reality are useful to a point—but for many of us with hyperactive minds, they easily become our biggest obstacle. Because in fact we cannot formulate the truth—we cannot grasp the living reality of life itself with concepts. We can use concepts and formulations and words as descriptions and pointers, but as Ramana once said, you use one thorn to remove another thorn, then you throw both thorns away. You use the raft to cross the river and reach the other shore, but then you don’t carry the raft with you. You use the map to find your way, but you don’t mistake it for reality or try to live in it. You read the menu, but you don’t eat it or expect it to nourish you.
Any verbal formulation can always be proven wrong because no concept can contain reality itself. The word water is not water. The words take us to the place where there are no words—the direct experiencing of this moment. The sounds of rain, the sensations in the body, the awaring presence that is beyond doubt. I’m always inviting a direct, meditative, awareness-based exploration…not some thought-based, airtight logical analysis. We can use the thinking mind, of course, and we can use words like “consciousness” and “awareness” and “awaring presence” to point to this living reality Here / Now, but finally, what remains when we let all the words go?
People express or point to waking up in many different ways, with different maps and different formulations. Words get used in different ways. Map-lines get drawn in different places. And it’s so easy to get caught up in dissecting and comparing the maps and trying to find the perfect formulation—arguing over words and concepts.
But what feels valuable to me is the loosening up of the rigid picture of reality created by deeply conditioned thoughts and concepts…questioning our beliefs...dropping the word "depression" and opening up to the actual reality itself in this moment, finding out if it is really unbearable...recognizing that we are more than our personalities…seeing that life is more fluid than we habitually think it is…realizing that every moment is a new beginning if we’re awake and present (rather than hypnotized by the story of the past). This direct seeing, this awake presence is what liberates us from old patterns and fixed views and from our human suffering—and that’s really what interests me—not coming up with some perfect formulation of reality. ANY formulation, any thought, any belief, any concept can be doubted. But there is something right here that is impossible to doubt…something that requires no belief…and when we’re tuned into that, things shift in amazing ways. We see with fresh eyes. There is love and beauty and joy.
Happy Winter Solstice!
Why when we have tasted the joy of simple awake presence do we continue to spend so much of our time lost in useless or obsessive thought? Someone asked me this after reading my last post. Why do we do this?
Maybe much of the time these thoughts are what we might call trivial, mindless, gum-chewing type thoughts…kind of like having the TV on as background noise, maybe so we don’t feel too empty…a way of avoiding certain feelings, a kind of comfort food that maybe isn’t very nourishing but that nonetheless feels compelling. And then maybe sometimes the thoughts are outright forms of suffering—stories of failure or blame, worry, depression, anxiety, going over and over the ways we’ve been hurt or treated unfairly or all the things we’ve done wrong, fretting over what will happen next, thinking about how angry we are about something, or maybe trying desperately to figure out the universe and think our way to enlightenment.
So why, even after we have tasted the joy and the transformative power of simple awake presence, do we continue to engage in these various forms of compulsive or addictive thinking so much of the time?
How will we approach this question? We can think and reason about it, speculating and theorizing and coming up with possible explanations. But that’s just more thinking, more mental noise, more second-hand information. So is there another way?
Maybe, if this question really interests us—and I think this is actually one of our most fundamental human questions, why we “choose” to suffer or numb-out even when we know there is another possibility—maybe instead of thinking about it, we can actually watch and SEE how and why we do this, how this choice actually happens. And in this investigation, is it possible to temporarily suspend all our ideas and beliefs about whether or not there IS any freedom of choice? Can we be open to not knowing, to being surprised?
What is attractive about these various kinds of compulsive thinking? Does it feel soothing in some way? Does is relieve some discomfort? Are we afraid of what we might feel if we weren’t thinking? Do certain kinds of thoughts promise something? Is this compulsive thinking just an old habit, a deep rut into which the brain easily falls, a pattern with an old momentum to it, a wheel that keeps on spinning? What is uncomfortable about simply being Here / Now as the open awaring presence that we are? Who would we be without all our thoughts about what is going on, without the story of me and my life and the world, without all our mental conundrums and abstract formulations, without all the mental noise dulling our sensitivities?
Instead of answering these questions or coming to conclusions, is it possible to really not know—to wonder—to stop, look and listen (not once-and-for-all, but right now, in THIS moment)—to be genuinely curious and open to discovering something new and unexpected—to live with these questions—to explore openly? I’m not talking here about thinking about these questions, but rather, looking and listening with awareness—giving this whole movement of thought our complete and open attention.
And I’m not suggesting that we try to “do” this “all the time,” or that we “shouldn’t” think in any of the ways mentioned above, or that compulsive thinking is “bad” or “wrong” or “unenlightened”—all such ideas are just more thinking, more mental noise. The fact is, most of us DO think in these ways. It happens. And maybe some of it even serves some brain function that we don’t yet know much about. So can we simply give this happening open attention without judging it or pathologizing it or resisting it or justifying it or condemning it or trying to get rid of it? Can we simply be aware of it, awake to this habitual mental noise, interested in it? And by interested, I don’t mean mesmerized by the content of it—I mean aware of the whole happening.
Can we discern the difference between useful, functional, creative, imaginative thinking and the kind of thinking that brings suffering or dulls our sensitivity? Can we see the way thought reincarnates the mirage-like separate self? Can we be aware of all the beliefs and ideas and judgments that pass through the mind, and all the stories about me and my life—aware that they all ARE thought-created virtual realities and not the living actuality of this moment?
Can we see how thinking often seems to overshadow or drown out the spaciousness of open awareness by dimming the felt-sense of presence and narrowing our attention into a hazy mental world? Can we notice how attention moves from the open spaciousness of presence to the narrow fixation of thought? And can we notice that our effort to control this movement of attention is actually part of the narrow fixation?
Is awareness ever actually gone or damaged? Any time we stop and check, we find that awareness is still here. We are still here, present and aware. It is always Now. We are always Here. This timeless, placeless awaring presence is bigger than “me and my story.” Awareness beholds the thought-sense of being a separate self encapsulated in a separate body. Awareness beholds the appearance of distance and time. Awareness beholds all the thinking. Awareness beholds everything. There is space Here / Now in this vast awareness for everything to be just as it is—have you noticed?
Can we tune into this open spaciousness that is the very nature of awareness and the very substance of our being? Can we feel the fluidity of pure energy, the absence of any fixed forms, the flow of sensation, the aliveness of presence? Can we notice the love and joy and peace that is naturally Here / Now when we stop seeking it elsewhere or resisting the present moment?
There’s no need to become obsessed with purifying the mind—trying to rid it of all thoughts or keeping score of how many thoughts are still showing up or how empty our mind seems to be in comparison to someone else’s. That is all just more of the same self-centered dreaming. Instead, can we simply be interested in discovering how all this is working—and maybe for moments at a time, thinking stops and we are simply here, awake and aware. We don’t need to cling to that or try desperately to stay in some state of thoughtless awareness. That clinging and trying is thought again, identified as “me”—the separate self—seeking an advantage, trying to get somewhere, wanting to be pure. Instead, perhaps we can simply notice that this exploration—this interest in waking up—this movement of awakening and clarifying is happening by itself. Waking up is happening naturally and spontaneously.
And at any moment of waking up, the universe is born anew. And then can we notice how thought pops up and reincarnates “me” and “my situation” and “my problems”—how open possibility narrows down into the familiar and the expected? Can we notice how seductive and alluring these thoughts can be, how we don’t want to let them go, how easily we get hypnotized by them? Can we notice how thought moves away from simple beingness into this virtual reality of its own making and how it feels in the whole bodymind as this shifts? The noticing IS the waking up. And it’s not a DOING that can be forced through will-power and effort. It’s actually more about relaxing (or seeing through) that whole improvement-oriented movement to get somewhere and become somebody, and instead simply BEING right here, as no-one and no-thing at all!
In this vastness, functional and creative thinking happens, and sometimes mindless or dysfunctional thinking happens…sometimes the flower of the heartmind opens and sometimes it closes….action happens, sometimes from a place of awake awareness and wholeness, and sometimes from a reactive place hypnotized by thoughts of self and other…and ALL of this is the unfolding unicity that includes everything, the light and the dark, the enlightenment and the delusion, the awakening and the entrancement in the dream. We ARE this unicity, this unfolding presence, this vast emptiness, this awakening universe, this amazing dance without a dancer.
And whenever it seems otherwise—whenever it seems that we are somebody with a problem in need of a cure—that’s our new invitation to stop, look and listen. To be still. To pay attention. To wonder. To not know. To SEE how it actually IS right now, without formulating it or grasping it or trying to hold onto it. And perhaps, to simply BE open—or to put it differently, to recognize the openness that Here / Now (the True Self) always already IS.
This morning is clear and bright, not a cloud in the sky. I watched the morning light spread slowly and quietly over the landscape. Some days this whole valley where I live fills with freezing mist and the mountains around me are completely invisible—even the nearby trees disappear into the whiteness of the fog. And then gradually, the mist dissolves and the landscape reappears. Snow storms and rain storms blow through, clouds pass across the sky, changing shape as they go. And sometimes, like this morning, the whole sky is clear.
The inner weather is much the same—endlessly changing weather systems, sometimes cloudy and sometimes crystal clear. All of it one whole undivided, inseparable happening without any solid borders or seams: cloudy and clear, inside and outside.
In every instant, the universe is born anew. When we’re awake, we notice this. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is a wonderful time to appreciate the newness of every moment—to notice what happens when we leave the known (the past) behind and are simply Here / Now, awake and present—not needing any handles (any conceptual formulations or explanations), not needing to know who or what we are or what this is, not needing any purpose or meaning, but simply being present, being this moment, just as it is.
Of course, I’m not talking about losing our functional memory or permanently erasing all knowledge of history—that all has its usefulness—but can we be awake to when this is useful and when it is simply a burden? Can we question our stories and beliefs? Can we hold them lightly? Can we notice how the “same old me” with “my same old problems” reincarnates through thinking and story-telling, how “the same old world” is seemingly recreated again and again? Can we wonder if this needs to continue? Can we simply be present with the raw energies in the body, whatever they are, and with the pure sensory aliveness of what is, right now? Can we notice how different this living reality is from all the ideas and concepts about it?
I’m on retreat for a few days, so I won’t be responding to comments for awhile, but you’re welcome to leave them. And I wish all of you a very happy New Year.
Someone asked if I think we can train or cultivate or facilitate awakening. My reply:
Yes, of course! But this is a very tricky question because if we are engaging in some practice with the goal in mind of awakening at some point in the future, then by that very set-up, we are overlooking the awakeness that is right here, right now. By seeking it, we seem to miss it. So the pathless path through the gateless gate always has something to do with stopping the search and being fully present right here on the spot.
Of course, stopping the search can be misinterpreted to mean not doing any more meditation, not reading any more nondual books, not going to hear any more teachers, etc. But stopping the search is pointing to our immediate state of mind right now, regardless of what we are doing or not doing. In other words, are we doing something in a result-oriented way, focusing on a future outcome, or are we simply doing it with no agenda and no expectations? I often give the example of the paintings I did on the sidewalk with water when I was a child. My mother would give me a pail of water and a paintbrush, and I would happily paint on the cement. It never mattered that my paintings would quickly evaporate and disappear. I wasn’t worrying about selling them, or whether a prestigious museum would want them for their collection, or whether the critics would praise them. I was simply enjoying the act of painting—the movements of my arm and body, the darkening cement, the shapes and gestures. In the world of athletics, they call this “being in the zone.” Of course, we can’t make ourselves stop searching—and to try to do so is simply more seeking—seeking not to seek, trying not to try. So if seeking a result or evaluating our performance is happening, can we simply be aware of that? Can we give up the search to stop seeking and simply feel what it’s like to seek (or to try, or to evaluate ourselves), allowing whatever is showing up to be as it is?
Allowing everything to be as it is doesn’t mean that if we have a flat tire, we leave the tire flat forever because we’re “allowing it to be as it is,” or that we simply “allow” injustice to continue unchallenged, or that we don’t seek medical attention for a heart attack. Allowing or surrendering points rather to the immediacy of this very moment. Out of allowing everything to be as it is, intelligent action arises. Terms such as the pathless path and the gateless gate are used because waking up can’t really be pinned down in any one-sided way (as either a path or no path, a gate or no gate). There is a path, but it goes nowhere (aka, Now/Here). There is a shift, but nothing really happens, and what is revealed was never not here. But at the same time, being awake to it is the difference between samsara and nirvana. To the mind, this all seems absurdly paradoxical. But when experienced directly, it is utterly simple. It is the simplicity of being just this moment, being Here / Now—what is, as it is. Just this. Nothing more, nothing less.
Once again, the mind can easily misunderstand. Expressions such as, “There as nothing to attain,” or “Nothing happens,” or “Just this, exactly as it is,” or “There is no enlightenment,” don’t mean that there is no difference (in any given moment) between being hypnotized by delusion and being free of it. Such expressions aren’t meant to suggest that Jack-the-Ripper was just as awake as Ramana Maharshi, or that you might as well wallow in self-pity and shoot heroin for the rest of your life because nothing matters anyway. And pointers such as “Here / Now,” or “the present moment,” or “this-here-now” are not pointing to your story or your thoughts or your beliefs about your current situation or your present life circumstances. These expressions are pointing to the ever-present, all-inclusive, non-conceptual, immediacy of this unbound awaring presence and this present experiencing—this seeing-hearing-sensing-breathing-awaring-being from which nothing stands apart. Enlightenment is Here / Now—and it is never truly absent, but it may be unrecognized or ignored or in some sense unrealized.
So it’s not that there is nothing to do, but rather, the one we think of as the author and doer of our actions doesn’t really exist. There is no central agent—no self in the way think there is—who is authoring our thoughts, making our decisions and controlling our actions. We mistake thoughts, images and sensations for an independent self with agency. But thought cannot simply “decide” to stop searching for awakening, nor can it “decide” whether or not to practice or not practice. Thought has no such power. As long as we apparently “don’t get it,” as long as we think and feel there is something to get that we presently lack, that search for awakening will most likely continue. And that search may take the form of meditating or it may take the form of renouncing meditation. The universe moves as it moves.
If we’re lucky, eventually we begin to notice that the whole search is rooted in thought and centered around “me,” the separate self. Our attention begins to turn from this storyline and the central character to the boundless and ownerless actuality of Here / Now, without trying to grasp it in any way. We begin to notice that “unenlightened me” and “my search” and “the goal” only exist as thought-forms or mental images, and we stop identifying the mirage-like “me” as what we truly are. We begin to realize that all experiences are transitory—and so we stop trying to attain or hold onto special expanded states of consciousness or push away undesirable or contracted states. We no longer imagine that we must stop thinking or leave behind all sense of being a particular human being. We stop trying to “get” something. There is a waking up from the trance of separate identity (and from the need to abolish it) and a relaxation into the living reality Here / Now, without the thought-sense of standing apart from this reality and somehow trying to grasp or attain it.
Enlightenment isn’t the acquisition of something new (as in a fabulous new experience or a wonderful new mental understanding); it is simply the seeing through and the falling away of the imaginary problem. The search and the illusory self at the center of it dissolve. And even if the search or the mirage of separation and encapsulation reappear now and then, as it most likely will, who cares? The one who would care, the one who would take such an event personally as “my” fall from grace, that one is the illusory “me” again—nothing more than a thought-form. So, more and more, such occurrences are seen for what they are—impersonal, passing appearances in and of boundless consciousness. There is no concern anymore with being an enlightened one. The bodymind person shows up as needed in the play of life, mirages and delusions come and go in the dynamic flow of ever-changing experiences, and all of it is simply allowed to be as it is—an ownerless happening with no inherent meaning. And it’s not “me” who allows it to be as it is—everything is already allowed to be just as it is by life itself—have you noticed?
Who can say exactly how all that happens? Cause and effect is a kind of notional overlay that we impose on top of the living reality. In practical, relative, everyday life, cause and effect makes perfect sense and informs how we function. If I put the car in drive and step on the gas, it will cause the car to move forward. Cause and effect—very straightforward. But when we get into things like awakening, obviously it’s not quite that neat. Many people meditate for 50 years and continue to insist that they just “don’t get it.” Other people seem to awaken out of the blue with no preparation whatsoever and without ever even hearing about such a thing as awakening or enlightenment. So there is clearly no formula that will work in the same reliable and predictable way that putting the car into drive and stepping on the gas works.
My sense has always been that we find the path we need—the perfect path for us. It’s called our life. For each of us, it is different—utterly unique. No two are identical. Some people stay with one teacher and one tradition and blossom within it, others explore multiple teachers and traditions and maybe eventually venture beyond all known approaches. Some people are drawn to strict discipline and others to spacious freedom. Some people are drawn to devotional teachings, some to a more scientific and rational approach. Some of us resonate with one kind of personality in a teacher and others of us are drawn to a very different kind of personality. There is no formula. There is no “right way” or “only way” in this endeavor. Sometimes being with a guru or a teacher who betrays your trust or disappoints you in some major way is an essential part of your journey. Being hooked for awhile by a false teaching may be exactly what you need to discover the truth. There is truly no formula, no single path.
Many things that aren’t officially considered part of “the spiritual path” have been vital to my own path and insights into the nature of reality—my experiences with addiction, compulsion and depression, for example. Our whole life—every moment—is the teacher, the path, the guru, the Way. There is no other way. The apparent obstacle is the gateless gate in thin disguise.
Every teacher tends to pass on what was helpful to them. In my own experience, many things (besides addiction, compulsion and depression) have been helpful—intelligent meditation, great teachers, wonderful books and videos, retreats, satsangs, particular lines of inquiry. Will those things be helpful to everyone else? No. My books and meetings and Facebook posts will tend to attract the people for whom the things I’m offering will resonate and be helpful. People who don’t resonate with what I’m offering will go elsewhere. We all find our way, just as the birds find their way home from their long migrations. As someone said, we each have a built-in GPS, and part of what we’re doing on this pathless path is learning to recognize and trust that guidance system.
Ultimately, wherever we go, we’re always Here, and however long it seemingly takes to arrive Here (where we always already are), it only happens Now (in the timeless present). The significance of that begins to dawn on us. It really does boil down to right here, right now, this very moment. And we’re already Here. Here / Now is what we are, and all there is. And when we wake up to Here / Now, everything is fresh and new. The problem and the one who seems to have it vanish into thin air—not forever after, but Now.
Does it help in realizing this to sit quietly, to watch the workings of the mind, to tune into sensory experiencing, to watch closely as decisions unfold to see if any chooser can actually be found….? Yes, in my experience, all of that does help. But if I’m doing all that in the hopes of someday awakening, I’m lost in a dream. Will all of that help me to see the dream as a dream? Maybe.
However we say it, it’s never quite right. But being here now—being aware, being present, being this present happening—is obvious, simple, effortless and undeniable. And then just notice how the thinking mind begins overlaying this simple beingness with stories and evaluations, how thought conjures up problems and creates the mirage-like “me” at the center of those stories and problems—how thought seems to split and divide everything, starting with the imaginary division between “me” and “everything else,” or between subject and object. Is this division actually real? Seeing the false as false is the gateless gate to Truth. The Truth can never be formulated or conceptualized or grasped as an object. It isn’t any particular experience or state of mind. If you think it is, that’s not it. And yet it is right here, self-evident, plain as day, and to think otherwise is to be like that proverbial fish swimming around desperately searching for water.
Response to a question:
Yes, Here / Now is paradoxically the eye of the needle or the razor’s edge…and at the very same time, it is the all-inclusive boundlessness from which nothing stands apart. Infinitely narrow and infinitely broad. And yes, everything (the path included) is no-thing at all, not meaning there is nothing here, but meaning that it has no persisting form, no inherent reality, no independent existence—no self. You ask, is “now” or “here” even here? In the end, even emptiness is empty—there is nothing to grasp. What freedom! Nothing is here as some “thing” in the way we think. An image I’ve always loved that conveys this so beautifully is in the story of the Zen student who hangs out one evening with his teacher, and finally it is late at night and time for the student to go home, and he steps out into the darkness and the teacher hands him a candle to light his way, and the moment the student takes hold of it, the teacher blows it out.
It is often said that Consciousness alone is; that all there is, is Consciousness—that everything we perceive is an appearance in and of Consciousness, and that Consciousness is dreaming billions of simultaneously arising dreams, each a reflection of all the others, like the jewels in Indra’s Net. This whole manifestation, the entire universe, EVERYTHING perceivable and conceivable is nothing other than Consciousness.
If we hear all this at the level of the thinking-conceptualizing mind, then we register it as a philosophical idea that we either believe or don’t believe—a view of reality that we argue for or against. But is there another way to hear these word-pointers, another way to listen and wonder and explore what is being said? Is it possible to feel into all of this in a deeper way, at a level that is subtler than words or thoughts—using the words as invitations, but not sticking to the words—going instead to where they point, dissolving into that formless aliveness that is most intimate?
We may hear from some teachings that Ultimate Reality is prior even to Consciousness, that Consciousness is a kind of fever that comes over Ultimate Reality, much in the same way that the drama of a movie comes over the empty screen. The empty screen may be called Pure Consciousness, Primordial Awareness, the True Self, the Ultimate Subject, Ultimate Reality, Totality, emptiness, God, or simply Here / Now. It is the dimensionless and objectless source from which, and within which, the movies of waking and dreaming life arise and subside. It is that which is the same in every different experience and every different movie.
Again, if we hear this at the level of the thinking-conceptualizing mind, we are left speculating about whether such a “thing” as “Primordial Awareness” or “The True Self” or “Ultimate Reality” actually exists. It sounds like a metaphysical theory—maybe true, maybe false—something to believe or disbelieve. But perhaps what such words are pointing to is not a “thing” that exists in the way that a table or a chair exists. Perhaps we cannot verify what such words are pointing to by thinking or employing reason and logic. Perhaps “Ultimate Reality” or “Primordial Awareness” are fancy names for what is closer than our breath, more immediate than thought and more subtle than any-thing perceivable or conceivable. If we are trying to “get it,” we never will—it is prior to any “thing” (any understanding, any experience, any state of consciousness) that we can grasp.
Some people tend to look upon the universe and everything that appears as some kind of energy or subatomic process, a fluid unicity empty of any substantial or persisting form, with consciousness as one aspect of that emptiness or no-thing-ness. Some would say that consciousness is the dividing up of formless unicity into apparent multiplicity and form, very much like that feverish drama that comes over the movie screen and seems to color and divide and replace the screen with a multitude of characters and situations.
Some think of Consciousness as observing the world, while others say that Consciousness is indeed creating the world. In the words of the great Advaita sage Nisargadatta Maharaj: “Consciousness itself is the greatest painter. The entire world is a picture.” Or as Zen Master Dogen put it, “Neither the dharma world nor empty space is anything other than the painting of a picture.” I remember once hearing or reading Surya Das, the American Dzogchen teacher, saying that the point of all those visualization practices they do in Tibetan Buddhism is to realize in the end that you are visualizing everything.
All we know for sure—beyond any doubt—is our own immediate, direct experiencing. And when I say “our own experiencing,” I mean the bare, immediate, just-as-it-is thusness or suchness of present moment experiencing—not any interpretations, conceptualizations or descriptions of it after the fact. We cannot doubt being here—being present and aware—and we cannot doubt this present experiencing, just as it is. Our scientific discoveries and our spiritual insights and realizations are all happenings in this awaring presence (or Consciousness, or Mind) that is what Here / Now IS. We cannot experience anything outside of this awaring presence. We can think or imagine that something we experience exists outside of consciousness—but we can never verify that because any verification (or doubt) is a happening in consciousness. And nothing can appear without consciousness being here, any more than a movie can appear without a screen.
We can easily see that the content of experience is always changing, and that the interpretations of experience are all subject to being doubted and questioned, including all our scientific conclusions and all our spiritual beliefs and metaphysical ideas. We can see that not all scientists agree on what everything is or how it works, and that over time, many theories are proven wrong. Likewise, not all spiritual folks seem to have the same realizations or experiences or the same ideas about how everything works and what it is. And we can never know what anyone else’s experience is actually like. All we know for sure is our own direct experiencing Here / Now.
No two individuals perceive or conceptualize in a completely identical way. So each individual is seeing a completely unique movie of waking life, a unique world. This is really quite obvious, although we have a deeply conditioned belief (and felt-sense) that we are looking out at an objective “outside world” that exists independently of our seeing of it, and we have a deep conviction that we are seeing that external reality correctly, as it actually is—and therefore, when others appear to see it quite differently, it is often deeply upsetting. Our sense of certainty is threatened—the very ground beneath our feet—and we often feel as if our very survival is at stake as we fight for “our view” of how life “really” is.
Certainly, if anything is actually “out there” independent of consciousness, it is not the world we see in front of us. This ever-changing appearance that we see and hear and sense is some kind of virtual reality created by sensory organs, chemistry, a nervous system and a brain. What we perceive and how we perceive is conditioned by our biology—no two people perceive an identical world—and a human, a dog and an ant perceive very different worlds.
And on top of bare perception, there is conceptualization—the ways we think about the world, the ways we sort and label it, the ways we draw the dividing lines, the meaning we give to what shows up, how we interpret our bare perceptions. These conceptualizations become so deeply conditioned, so habitual, so ubiquitous, so socially-reinforced, that we easily lose sight of the fact that we are conceptualizing. In many ways, our conceptualizations shape our perceptions. We mistake the map for the territory without realizing we are doing so.
Thought and language are always dividing up, labeling and categorizing whatever-this-is Here / Now – and then trying to figure out the relationships between all the separate parts that thinking has just created: Which comes first, we wonder, the chicken or the egg? Does the egg cause the chicken, or does the chicken cause the egg? Is matter an appearance in and of Consciousness, or is consciousness an emergent property of matter? Does the falling tree make a sound if no one is there to hear it? Is a fetus or an embryo a human being? Is a zygote a human being? Is a sperm or an ovum a human being? How about a stem cell? Does the imaginary central agent have free will or not? These are the kinds of imaginary problems that thought conjures up. And then we fight wars over our different ways of drawing the imaginary lines.
Can we see that the boundaries are imaginary—that there is no actual place where an organism begins or ends—that there is no egg without a chicken, and no chicken without an egg? Can we see that form is actually empty of any inherent or persisting form and that emptiness is right here as apparent form?
Even if we accept that this whole appearance is a virtual reality created by sensory organs, chemistry, a nervous system and a brain—where exactly is this happening? If we cut open the brain, we won’t find this present scene (the room we’re in, the furniture, the other people). So where exactly IS this present appearance? What is the very substance of Here / Now?
We never actually leave Here / Now, but the mirage of separation, self, time and distance that is created by dualistic thinking frequently seems to overshadow and obscure the seamless and boundless unicity and emptiness of Here / Now. Thoughts and mental movies occupy our attention in much the same way that the movie in the theater seemingly overshadows the empty screen and captures our attention. We are in fact always seeing the screen in every scene of the movie, but our attention is mesmerized by the content and drama of the movie. We become completely caught up in that drama, identified with certain characters, hypnotized by the storyline and by our emotional responses to it. We laugh and cry and scream as these dramas unfold. We lose sight of the fact that we never leave Here / Now—that we haven’t actually gone anywhere. And just as the fire in the movie never burns up the screen, the dramas in our lives cannot damage awareness or Ultimate Reality (our True Nature)—even if the whole solar system blows up.
And of course, unlike a movie screen, Here / Now (Primordial Awareness, Ultimate Reality) is dimensionless, timeless, limitless, boundless and without any beginning or end—it is not an object in time and space that can be perceived and distinguished from other objects. Here / Now is the immediacy, the aliveness, the present-ness, the groundlessness that is most intimate—the all-inclusive unicity from which nothing is left out and the emptiness (or no-thing-ness) of everything.
Practices such as meditation and self-inquiry may help us to notice the fictional nature of the movie, and they may help to reveal that the main character (“me”) is a kind of mirage that appears intermittently on the screen. In sitting quietly—without all our usual distractions and occupations—we may realize that we are actually not an entity encapsulated inside a body, that we are not limited to being a bodymind organism or a character in a movie-drama, that all of that is a kind of appearance that comes and goes, and that we are actually the context within which it happens and the whole show.
We are the awaring presence in which the whole universe (including the sense of separation) appears. Here / Now is another name for the true “I” to which we all refer. And if we look and listen openly, we may see and experience directly that there is no boundary between awareness and content (or between subject and object, emptiness and form, inside and outside, self and other, knowing and being). We are, in fact, the whole show, everything and no-thing, all of it one whole undivided happening.
As we wake up from our entrancement in our own mental movies, it’s so helpful to remember that “Consciousness” and “awareness” and “energy” and “the universe” and “mind” and “matter” are all abstract word-concepts. They point to something that is not a concept or an idea, but the word “water” is not water. Reality itself is undivided and inconceivable. We can never grasp it with any of these concepts—nor can we ever avoid it, no matter how lost and separate we appear to be in the movie.
So can we wake up more and more to how easily we mistake concepts for reality and then get lost in arguments over which map is right? The territory (the living reality) is what we are—it is what is. Without words, without concepts, without referring to memory or imagination, confusion evaporates and there is simply the caw-caw-caw of the crows and the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the traffic and the fragrance of the rose and the red of the fire engine and this awaring presence beholding it all—one seamless happening, dissolving second by second, never the same way twice, and yet always Here / Now.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that thinking and conceptualizing must be banished, or that we should never think about the past or the future, or that we can’t or shouldn’t enjoy movies. All such happenings are part of this living reality. Nothing needs to be banished. But when we recognize thought for what it is, we are no longer hypnotized and bound by it. When we see how unreliable and protean memory is, we no longer give it the same absolute credibility. When we recognize that the world we see is literally our own creation and our own self, we no longer treat it as some objective “thing” that is “out there” apart from us. When we recognize that we are always Here / Now, we don’t live our whole life lost in a daydream fantasy about a future that never arrives.
Of course, we can still learn from history, make intelligent plans, take action in the world, enjoy stories, and think in creative and functional ways. None of that has to be a problem. But we can begin to discern the difference between creative or functional thinking and obsessive or addictive thinking, and between stories that enlighten and enliven us and stories that only generate suffering. We can begin to notice when we are daydreaming in a harmless or maybe even a creative way, as opposed to when we are spending most of our time lost in fantasies about a future that never comes as a way of avoiding what actually is. These are the kinds of discernments that intelligent meditation will reveal. And there’s no finish-line in this—it is an ever-more subtle, ever-new discovery. And for some people, it may happen without ever meditating in any formal or traditional way. But in one way or another, such discoveries depend on the power of awareness.
And here I am using the word awareness to mean the light of attention. I am pointing to open listening, clear seeing—direct knowing—awake presence. We use words such as awareness and consciousness in different ways, so it is always helpful to understand how a word is being used in any particular moment. In another moment, maybe earlier in this same post, I may have used the word awareness in a somewhat different way, as the Ultimate Subject (the ever-present screen of Here / Now). So again, the words are always only pointers. What’s true is the living reality Here / Now. The map is only a frozen abstraction of this very fluid living reality. Mapping and abstracting are part of the living reality, but the abstract representations they create are not the same as what they are re-presenting. The maps are useful, but when we mistake them for reality itself, we suffer. That’s how we get confused, over and over. We mistake thought-concepts for reality. We get into an argument over words instead of simply SEEING what is being pointed out.
So in my experience, to come back, now and now, to the bare simplicity and immediacy of this-here-now is an invaluable undertaking: breathing, hearing, seeing, sensing, awaring—just this, as it is, before thought labels it and divides it up and tries to figure out what part of it causes what other part. Labeling and conceptualizing will still happen—that’s part of how we function—we can’t eliminate these functions and we wouldn’t want to (then we’d have dementia)—but what matters is seeing thoughts and concepts and labels for what they are (abstractions and maps), and not being seduced by our thoughts into chasing after mirages, battling with phantasms, believing in magic fairy dust, or swallowing (or dispensing) spiritual Kool-Aid or spiritual opium. And when we notice that we have been seduced or deluded in these ways (and we all are from time to time), can we simply see that and wake up and come back to our actual direct experiencing and knowing Here / Now, without immediately falling into a new story of “how I screwed up” or “what a hopeless loser I am”? And rather than taking on anything as a belief, can we look and listen and see for ourselves?
Religion and spirituality (including the non-dual versions) are about liberation in some form (enlightenment, awakening, realization, freedom from bondage, salvation, whatever word-concept we use). The direct path is always pointing out that freedom is already here. Awakeness, Unicity, Ultimate Reality is already fully present. And what makes that so tricky is that we think it can’t actually be true, so we go looking for some-thing we think is missing (an understanding, an experience, whatever it is), and thus we seemingly overlook what is most obvious and never not here.
On top of that, we tend to conceptualize and reify and cling to some-thing that we think gives us security (whether that’s called God or Primordial Awareness or Buddha Nature or the Self). But in my experience, the deepest truth is in letting go of all these beautiful word-concepts—using them like a map or a sign-post to point us to direct experience—and then letting the maps go and being here right now without knowing what this is.
That may sound scary, but it just might turn out to be exhilarating, as in the koan I shared recently:
A student asked Dasui, “It is clear that the fire at the end of the kalpa will completely destroy the universe. I'm still not clear whether there's something that won't be destroyed.”
Dasui said, “It will be destroyed.”
“It will follow along with everything else?”
“It will follow along with everything else,” said Dasui.
—Blue Cliff Record, Case 29
Can you feel the freedom in that? Maybe right now, if only for one instant, we can drop all these words that have just unfolded in Consciousness and simply be here in this very moment without grasping anything.
And if the mind asks, “What’s the point?” or “What will that do for me?” or “How long will that last?” or “How can I know for sure?”– can those thoughts be seen as simply conditioned thoughts, secretions of the brain, passing through? Can we feel the joy of being here without a purpose, not seeking a result, going nowhere, not needing to be (or not be) anything at all, having absolutely nothing to grasp?
Waking up is moment to moment—Now—not yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all. It is simply a matter of relaxing into this boundless awaring presence Here / Now that we all refer to when we say “I.” Melting into unbound awareness is the easiest, simplest, most effortless thing in the world. We already ARE this unbound awareness and this present happening, just as it is.
What takes effort is the avoidance of this—searching for it, pretending to be a separate self, trying to improve myself and get somewhere and become somebody and do it right, having a purpose—resisting what is and seeking something else—all of that takes effort. Being “me” takes effort, being the main character in the dramatic and never entirely satisfactory “story of my life.” But being here as the unbound, undivided, seeing-hearing-breathing-sensing-awaring-experiencing-presence that we are—being just this moment, exactly as it is—that is utterly natural and effortless.
If it feels difficult, that’s a clue that we’re trying to “do” something—we have some result in mind, some ideal or fantasy or memory of how it should be. Is it possible to notice how this trying feels in the body on the level of pure sensation? Can we simply feel the cramp, the contraction, the tightness, the unease as bare sensation or pure energy? Can we allow all these sensations to be just as they are, without trying to escape from them—experiencing them fully, exploring them openly with child-like curiosity and wonder? Can we perhaps also notice what is noticing all this—the awareness beholding it all—the vast space in which it is all occurring, the ever-present Here / Now? Can we notice that none of these sensations or thoughts are personal, that all of it is an impersonal weather system moving through, a conditioned happening of nature—and that in this vast awaring presence, there is always space for everything to be just as it is, even the moments of contraction and seeking and resisting? Nothing needs to be different. Nothing is personal. Nothing is separate from everything else. Nothing could be other than exactly how it is.
We already ARE this space-like awaring presence and this present happening, so we don’t need to “do” anything in order to be Here / Now. This presence and this present experiencing is what we cannot not be. It is always already happening, effortlessly—just notice that this is so. Hearing is happening all by itself, seeing is happening, breathing is happening…interests and urges arise by themselves…thoughts pop up and dissolve…actions happen…words come out of the mouth…the heart beats, the toenails grow, the neurons fire…all of it happening effortlessly by itself, including the intermittent thought-sense-image of “me” as a separate person apparently authoring “my” thoughts and making “my” decisions. ALL of it happening impersonally, by itself, along with the rain and the wind and the clouds and the birdsong and the city traffic and the stars and the planets.
It is all dream-like in the sense that the more closely we investigate any of it, the less substantial it seems to be. Go deeply into any sensation and what do we find? Vibration, movement, tingling, buzzing—appearing, disappearing, changing shape—there is literally no-thing to grasp. Everything is changing and dissolving second by second, and yet it all appears Here /Now, inseparable from this awaring presence. And if we turn our attention back to the source, if we look for that awaring presence—the Ultimate Subject—the True “I”—the dreamer of the dream—what do we find? No-thing at all! And EVERYTHING! One whole undivided happening.
In the end, all the books and videos and satsangs and meditation retreats…all the fancy words and phrases…all the pointers and signposts…they all come down to this moment, right now—being awake, right now. Recognizing the awakeness that is already here, and seeing through the thought that “this isn’t it” or that “I am not here yet” (which is a pretty funny thought). Relaxing into this boundless awaring presence Here / Now that we always already are. Hearing the traffic…breathing….feeling the breeze on the skin….just this. So simple. So effortless. So immediate. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to become.
And then just SEE how the mind starts up the mental commentary, the evaluations and comparisons, the searching, the story of how I’m doing. Enlightenment is nothing more than seeing delusion as delusion, seeing the false as false, waking up from the hypnotic entrancement in the virtual reality created by thinking—and relaxing into the simplicity of what is—not once-and-for-all, but right now. Unbound awaring presence and present experiencing, unfolding effortlessly by itself.
I get frequent questions about personal power and free will. I’ve gotten several recently, so I’ll take the subject up again.
Rather than approaching this question theoretically or philosophically, I always recommend that people look directly and see for themselves how things happen. What I’m suggesting is an awareness-based inquiry in the midst of daily life. Watch closely as choices and decisions unfold—simple ones like whether to get up after you’ve been sitting down for awhile, and big ones like whether to take a job or buy a house. Watch closely—really pay attention. With the big decisions, listen to the back and forth thoughts arguing for and against. Notice the urge and the over-powering compulsion that may arise to consult friends or to flip coins, and notice whether you accept the coin-flipping results or whether you keep flipping, and see if that is a choice or more like a compulsory movement over which you feel powerless. Feel the urgency, the anxiety, the pressure, the pushes and pulls this way and that—feel all of this in the body as pure energy or sensation. Watch the whole process. See if you can find a thinker of the thoughts, or if you can locate (in your actual direct experience) the source of the various urges and impulses that arise, or if you can find a “chooser” who is in control of this process. See if you can catch how the decisive moment finally happens—the moment when your choice is clear and the decision is made—are you in control of this decisive moment or does it happen suddenly, by itself, out of the blue? By looking and listening and watching all of this in action, the understanding of how life works becomes your own discovery and not a belief system or a philosophy.
What I noticed by doing this kind of inquiry over many years is that everything happens by itself—including every urge, every impulse, every thought, every opinion, every action, every word I type or speak, every movement of this bodymind. At the same time, there is the undeniable experience of being able to “do” things—it would be absurd to deny the ability right here to initiate opening and closing my hand, or shifting my attention from the computer screen to my left foot, or “deciding” which movie to see tonight, or researching the health benefits of various foods and then making changes in what I eat. There is a power right here that acts. But what is that power? When I look closely, I find that I cannot explain how exactly I initiate or do any of these things, nor can I find anyone in control of the initial impulse or urge to do them. The sense of agency that we have turns out to be a kind of optical illusion or mirage—part of how the organism functions, but on close inspection, it doesn’t really hold up. The “me” who is supposedly choosing and doing everything doesn’t exist in the way we think it does. And when this is realized, it is an enormous relief.
We are immediately free from blame, guilt and shame—from the desire to punish and avenge—and from layers upon layers of self-hatred, disappointment and feelings of inadequacy, imperfection or failure. We realize that no one can just “decide” to stop an addiction or to “be a nicer person” in the way that we think one can. Life doesn’t actually work that way. Thought is not the operative power, and no thinker apart from the Totality can actually be found.
But at the same time, we have all experienced that there is an apparent ability (when there is) to learn and practice and develop a new skill, to train at a sport, to recover from an addiction, to make positive changes in the dynamics of a relationship, to fight for civil rights or an end to oppressive institutions such as slavery, and so on. If we just sat on the couch “doing nothing,” insisting that “there is no free will” and waiting for some greater power to do all this, we’d be waiting forever. The universe acts through all of us and through the illusion of agency. And yet, if we think we are actually authoring or initiating or doing any of this as an independent self, or that we can do whatever we want at will, or that we can choose what we want in any given moment, we will be disappointed and frustrated again and again—trying to control the uncontrollable.
Life itself is not confusing until we start thinking about it (and of course, “we” don’t start thinking—the thinker it another thought, a mental image, a conceptual idea). But without thought, life is not perplexing. Opening and closing my hand is not confusing until I begin to think about whether or not “I” am choosing to do it and whether or not “I” have free will. Then suddenly we get very confused. But what exactly is this “I” that we imagine to be in or out of control? Can we start by locating this apparent author-chooser-actor-observer that we think is inside the head somewhere, directing our lives and calling the shots? And can we begin to discern the difference between the ways we think about life and the living reality itself?
Choice and choicelessness are conceptual maps of a living reality that cannot really be boxed up in any dualistic, binary way. If you say you are in charge of your life, you ignore the observable fact that every urge, every thought, every interest, every reaction happens by itself and that no actual agent-author-self-in-charge can ever be located. If you say you are not in charge, you ignore the obvious fact that there is an ability Here / Now to open and close your hand, to direct your attention, to learn new skills, to think creatively, to reason, and perhaps even to compose symphonies or write novels. There is response-ability (the ability to respond) Here / Now….but it doesn’t belong to the false self, which is nothing more than a mental image, an idea. It belongs to something else. What is that? And don’t just slap down a word from the rolodex of authoritative answers, but look and see.
Either way of framing this question of free will (choice or no choice) is a conceptual abstraction, and in the living reality itself, you can’t really say choice or no choice. Are you breathing or being breathed? Is your hand opening by itself or are you opening it? You can’t really say. (Well, you can say, but anything you say is not the truth). It all hinges on who or what we think the chooser is. If we think there is a little soul-like entity called “me” inside our head sitting at a giant control panel calling the shots, and if we think that little homunculus is authoring our thoughts, and that our thoughts have the power to direct our actions, we are deluded. We have not investigated closely.
But if we land in the opposite position—if we assert that we have no control, who or what are we talking about exactly? Who has no control? What has no choice? And if you are not opening and closing your hand, then who or what is doing it? Is there a doer apart from the action? Maybe the whole thought and language construction of subject-verb-object is only a conceptual abstraction—maybe in reality, there is no actor apart from the action, and no cause apart from the effect. Maybe all the nouns are really more like verbs. Maybe no-thing actually exists (i.e., stands apart from everything else and persists over time). Maybe there is only seamless, boundless, indivisible flux—otherwise known as this-here-now.
Some teachers emphasize the power to choose, the response-ability that is Here / Now. If they are insightful nondual teachers, they know full well that this power is not the illusory separate self. Other teachers emphasize our complete powerlessness—the way everything is happening by itself. And yet, these radical nondual teachers who emphasize powerlessness live very functional lives—they are not sitting passively on the couch “doing nothing” and waiting for some greater force to move them around like pieces on a chessboard. So I would suggest that both teachings (choice and choicelessness) are pedagogical tools—neither is the Truth. Both can be effective. And misunderstood, both can have unintended pitfalls (guilt and blame on one side, and false disempowerment on the other). We will each go with the pedagogical tool, the teacher and the teaching that resonates most deeply with what we need to realize at this moment—there is no choice in the matter (only the appearance of a choice).
If you’re raising a child or training an Olympic athlete, you will probably (at least much of the time) utilize the pedagogical tool of choice. But if you understand that everything is a happening of the whole universe—that there is no individual chooser who can move in a direction other than the direction life itself is moving, then you will perhaps have more compassion when your child throws a tantrum in the supermarket for the umpteenth time, or your star athlete fails miserably during the Olympic trials, or when you lose your temper and scream at one of them. You will know that in that moment, life could not have been otherwise—that infinite causes and conditions bring forth the weather of each moment—and that everything is one whole happening from which nothing can ever be pulled apart.
Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche Anam Thubten emphasizes the power that is Here / Now: “Nothing is holding us back from awakening,” he writes. “We are the one who imprisons and we are the one who liberates. When we accept that responsibility we have finally gained spiritual maturity.”
My good friend Darryl Bailey goes in a seemingly opposite direction, emphasizing the impossibility of influencing or controlling our lives or the world through individual choice or will-power: “Our appearance, direction, and actions simply happen. This realization is freedom," Darryl writes. But notice that he also says, “This would be a doctrine of determinism if we existed as something separate from the movement of the universe, something being pushed around by it. But we’re not separate from it; we are this movement." By focusing on the choiceless nature of everything, and by refusing to offer any path or anything to do, Darryl brings the mind to a complete stop in its relentless search for self-improvement and attainment: "Spiritual liberation frees you from the misery-inducing fantasy of perfecting yourself," he writes. "In this moment, I am what I am; you are what you are; we’re both the dance of the cosmos. Liberation isn’t the act of breaking free of this. Liberation is knowing it can’t be otherwise." When that is really grokked, it is immensely liberating!
Advaita sage Wayne Liquorman does an excellent job of showing that ALL thoughts, impulses, interests, intentions, actions, successes and failures are impersonal happenings, and that whatever happens could not be otherwise than exactly how it is. He also 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: “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.”
Martial Arts Master and Zen Roshi Vernon Kitabu Turner says something very similar: “Enlightenment is first of all coming to understand that there is no self in the conventional sense...and it's in the process of letting go of that notion that one experiences what one truly is in the universal sense. That's when enlightenment comes—when you realize that you are not in control. And because of that, you are very much in control.”
The great Advaita sage Nisargadatta Maharaj said this: “The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite; besides it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.”
And here is Mumon’s Comment in the famous Zen koan “Hyakujo’s Fox” from The Gateless Gate:
“Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.”
And finally, there is this beautiful statement from Eckhart Tolle: “Choice implies consciousness—a high degree of consciousness. Without it, you have no choice. Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns, the moment you become present. Until you reach that point, you are unconscious, spiritually speaking. This means you are compelled to think, feel, and act in certain ways according to the conditioning of your mind….Presence is the key. The Now is the key.”
Can we choose to disidentify with the mind, to turn away from mental noise, to be fully present in the Now, to see through delusion, to shift our attention from the map-world of abstract thought to the living reality Here / Now? In my experience, if you say yes, you are overlooking the immense power of habit and conditioning, the force of nature, and the unreality of the individual self that we think we are. On the other hand, if you say no, you are overlooking the infinite potential, the freedom, the response-ability that is Here / Now—what the Advaita sage Robert Adams called “the power that knows the way.” And as Robert pointed out, Here / Now (what we truly are) IS that power. Yes or No – both are a grievous error. Nonduality points beyond fixation—not one, not two—just this, as it is. How is it? We can’t say!
So don’t get stuck in any fixed position or any conceptual map. Use the maps but don’t mistake them for the living reality. Don’t cling to one-sided views. Many different maps can be helpful at different moments in our lives. We don’t need to make one right and the other wrong. Choice or choicelessness? Free will or determinism? Empowerment or powerlessness? Which is the Truth? I won’t say!
Perhaps this pathless path of being liberated on the spot is about discovering firsthand both our total powerlessness (as the imaginary separate fragment) and the source of true power (in the wholeness of Here / Now). Perhaps liberation has nothing to do with some perfect formulation or some final conclusion. Perhaps waking up is a never-ending (always now) discovery. And perhaps no words can ever capture the living reality.
Does meditation—by which I simply mean doing nothing, being present and aware, seeing how it is Here / Now, not trying to change anything or get a result—does meditation help in the realization of unicity and in finding freedom from suffering, or does it only reinforce the imaginary problem? Many radical nondualists insist that the latter is the case. Tony Parsons (not to be confused with Toni Packer) even considers awareness part of the problem, not the key to seeing through the problem.
In my journey, it seemed that meditation was very helpful, although I would never say it was causative of anything or that it is essential for everyone. And thankfully, the meditation to which I was exposed was mostly a very open kind—not the methodical version that aims to cultivate concentration or the result-oriented kind that aims to calm the mind, achieve a peaceful state or reduce stress. Over time, I found that the boundary between “meditation” and “everyday life” melted away so that there was only meditation—by which I don’t mean that there is a constant state of mindful awareness or thought-free presence—but simply that it becomes obvious that everything happens Here / Now as an expression of the unicity that has no opposite and from which nothing stands apart. On the pathless path from Here to Here, radical nonduality can be very helpful in seeing through some of the pitfalls or misunderstandings that are common in meditation or awareness-based practices—such as trying to “be here now” all the time or taking different states of mind personally and trying to stabilize forever in the “positive” states—pathologizing “distraction” and working to maintain “presence.”
My own path has gone from Zen to Toni Packer to Advaita to radical nonduality and back around to Toni Packer and Zen in a new way and then around to Advaita and radical nonduality in yet another new way and around again to Zen and round and round, over and over, until the labels flew off and they all blended together into one indivisible whole. I don’t seem to land in any particular form of non-duality, or any particular approach or non-approach for very long. And at some point on my journey, I stopped trying to settle on any one “right way.” Each version of non-duality seems to provide an antidote to the shadow side of the others. And one of the most important qualities in this on-going exploration is a willingness to let go of the ground beneath our feet again and again—along with curiosity and openness to new discoveries, knowing that this-here-now is endlessly full of surprises.
Radical nonduality starts and ends with the insistence that the original problem or dilemma is imaginary (as is the one who supposedly suffers from it) and therefore anything curative we do is only reinforcing the belief that we are someone who lacks something. And at a certain point on the pathless path, this kind of absolute nondual message (whether it comes from radical nonduality or from Zen or from Advaita) is exactly the right medicine—although of course radical nondualists would never agree to their message being called medicinal, since the belief in a problem and the need for a cure is exactly what it undermines. Radical nonduality is always a description and never a prescription.
I have a great appreciation and fondness for those uncompromising contemporary radical non-dualists like Darryl Bailey and Sailor Bob Adamson and Nathan Gill and Leo Hartong and Tony Parsons and Wayne Liquorman and Ramesh Balsekar and Karl Renz who hammer home the final truth and refuse to offer anything to do to solve the imaginary problem. But for some reason, I can’t seem to be that uncompromising—or at least, not for very long. I can’t seem to dismiss or negate the transformative power of awareness and a certain kind of learning and discovery that can occur through activities such as meditation and inquiry. But that doesn’t mean that I regard meditation and inquiry as indispensible or causative.
I’m reminded of the famous old Zen story of the two poems in the contest to determine who would inherit the lineage—the poem from the monk who was expected to win about polishing the dusty mirror so that it will reflect reality more clearly, and the winning poem by the illiterate renegade kitchen worker who became the Sixth Patriarch of Zen saying there was no mirror and no place for dust to alight. (Charlotte) Joko Beck, one of my Zen teachers, used to say that actually both poems were true, and she often described Zen practice as polishing the mirror so that eventually you would realize that there is in fact no mirror and no place for dust to alight. And indeed, Zen Masters like Huang Po and Hui-neng (the Sixth Patriarch of Zen) who uttered radical nondual words also practiced meditation. Joko’s pet peeve, she often said, was teachings that gave out the final truth too quickly—I suppose because those radical expressions can so easily be misunderstood and then used in spurious ways by the thinking mind.
I’m not so concerned about that potential misuse as she was and as I once was—because every path (or non-path) has its pitfalls and ways it can be misunderstood. And in my experience, we seem to find exactly the medicine or the antidote we need in each moment—and if we take the wrong medicine, that too is the right medicine, even if it kills us—because ultimately, no-thing is born and no-thing dies.
So enjoy whatever arises in your dream—whether it is strict Zen practice or radical nonduality or this Facebook post. You can always trust that everything is as it is and that what will be, will be. And if you think that you exist apart from this happening, or that you have a choice in how it moves, look carefully and see if this is really true.
What is the “me”? What makes up or gives rise to the sense of separation, encapsulation, independent agency and authorship of our impulses, intentions, thoughts and actions?
Is this “me” a thought, a mental image, a sensation, a deeply conditioned belief, a contracted form of energy in the body, all of these, none of these…what is it?
Rather than turning to what various authorities have said, can we actually attend to our own direct experience and see for ourselves? Actually watch and see—when does the “me” or the sense of being separate appear and what is it made out of? Is it always here or does it come and go?
What is doing the watching (or the awaring)? Is there a doer apart from the activity, a “me” doing the looking and listening? Is this investigation and observation happening automatically by itself, or is there a “me” in control of it?
Where exactly is the boundary-line between “me” and “not me” (or between inside and outside, or between subject and object, or between awareness and content, or between mind and body and world)—can such a dividing-line actually be located in direct experiencing, or is that boundary a mental idea?
Don’t rush to provide answers—but instead, really watch. Look closely and carefully. See what reveals itself.
There’s a famous old Zen story—it comes in many variations—but basically, it goes something like this: “Before I took up Zen, there were mountains and valleys. After I began the practice of Zen, there were no mountains and no valleys. In enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys.”
What is difference between the “pre-Zen” (or ordinary) perspective and the enlightened perspective?
Most people in this world are completely hypnotized and entranced by the dualistic illusion—the thought-sense that subject and object are separate, that each of us is a separate self looking out at a fragmented world. That is the ordinary view of mountains and valleys as separate “things” that are “out there” separate from “me.”
Some of us find our way to Zen or Advaita or other forms of nonduality, and after paying close attention to actual present moment experiencing—and discerning the difference between that and the map-world created by conceptual thinking—there is a discovery that mountains and valleys are one continuous and seamless process, that these two only exist relative to each other, and that the reality of every appearance, whether it is a mountain or a valley, is the unbound awaring presence beholding it all.
Many who take up nondual forms of spirituality get stuck for awhile in that middle stage where there are no mountains and no valleys, thinking this is the final truth. This mistake is often called getting stuck in the absolute or getting stuck in emptiness—no self, no choice, no path, no thing exists, nothing to do—everything is a seamless whole happening by itself. And of course, that’s absolutely true. But if we leave out the other side of the coin—relative reality and the undeniable experience of multiplicity and individuality—we’ve only realized half the truth. This is why the great Zen Master Dogen said: “The Buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one.” Enlightenment includes both relative and absolute and doesn’t leave out either one.
As I said in my book Nothing to Grasp:
“Just as all waves are the undivided movement of one ocean, everything in the universe is a seamless and boundless unicity. Mountains and valleys are one flowing event that cannot be pulled apart. Sages have called this the One Self or the One Mind. This all-inclusive and undivided unicity is all there is, and all there is, is this. Seeing through the illusion of separation is an essential realization on the pathless path of liberation. At the same time, it is obvious to anyone that apples are not oranges and that mountains are not valleys. Thus, the truth is said to be not one, not two.
“Our ordinary, dualistic perspective is that there is somebody (‘me’) who is ‘in here’ looking out at a separate, independent, objective world that is ‘out there.’ This external world seems to be full of countless separate objects and millions of people, each of whom is presumed to be an independent entity with free will.
“If we take up meditation, or if we read books on nonduality, or if we simply begin to look more closely, we discover that there is no actual boundary between ‘in here’ and ‘out there,’ that everything is one inseparable whole, that there is no ‘me.’ We begin to notice what is the same in every different experience. We realize there are no mountains and no valleys, no self and no other-than-self.
“But if we cling to oneness and deny multiplicity, if we become attached to emptiness, this is still dualistic, for we are sticking to one side of an imaginary divide.”
--from my book Nothing to Grasp, pp 63-64.
And here is Zen teacher Steve Hagen, one of the clearest teachers around today, talking about unity and multiplicity:
“Often people who have had ecstatic and mystical experiences of Oneness or Unity confuse this view with enlightenment.
“In the first view we find multiplicity or relativity; in the second, Oneness or Totality. Which view is correct?
“In Zen we understand that to take hold of either view is to miss the mark. Although both views are indispensible, neither offers an accurate picture of Reality….
“The problem with these views is that they strike us as mutually exclusive. This is because, when we take hold of either one, we’re caught up in conceptual thought. We’re ignoring the immediate, direct experience of this moment, which includes both views at once. Clearly we experience multiplicity, and just as clearly, if we look carefully, we experience unity….
“Unless we see both at once, we’ll not understand consciousness. This is because consciousness itself is the dividing up of what is otherwise a seamless Whole.”
--that was from Steve's excellent book Buddhism Is Not What You Think.
So in the final stage of this little Zen story that I started out with, when there are mountains and valleys again, it is both no mountains and no valleys and mountains and valleys. There is a deep knowing (not merely an intellectual understanding, but an undoubtable experiencing and realizing) of the seamless, boundless no-thing-ness of everything—the unicity that is all there is—and at the same time, there is a full appreciation for the uniqueness of each person and each apparent object—an appreciation of the distinct and undeniable orange-ness of an orange and the utterly perfect apple-ness of an apple—a full appreciation for the unfathomable sorrow and horror of war at the same time as there is a deep knowing that Ultimate Reality is never damaged or destroyed. We don’t paper over the pain in life with non-dual platitudes, nor do we get lost in the drama. We don’t deny our humanness, nor do we imagine that we are encapsulated inside a body looking out at a separate world. We recognize boundlessness, but we respect relative boundaries. There is an appreciation for both the wholeness of this moving picture and for its variety and diversity. Nothing is left out or ignored. This is true non-duality, as I see it.
The pathless path from Here to Here is about transformation. It is about seeing through our imaginary bondage and waking up Here / Now. Is it actually a path? Is there anything to do? Is nirvana any different from samsara? Are there mountains and valleys (self and not-self, good and evil, enlightenment and delusion) or not? As I expressed in my last post, getting stuck on yes or no is a form of delusion.
When we feel like a separate fragment, we shrink back in fear. We contract. Everything seems frightening, threatening, dangerous. We fear death. We fear loss of control. We fear things going in the “wrong” direction—the direction that would obliterate “me” and everything “I” identify with and love. We feel brittle and endangered and defensive. And so, we lash out at others, or we beat ourselves up, or we hide, or we seek.
We seek relief from this tight, fearful, contracted experience through alcohol, drugs, sex, romance, adventure, endless thinking, mindless TV programs, stronger and stronger cups of coffee, more and more compulsive activity, and finally, through the spiritual search for salvation. And in all of these, after momentary relief and pleasure, we are back on the wheel—endlessly frustrated, disappointed and hung-over.
If we’re lucky, maybe eventually in a moment of grace we stop. We stop running from the imaginary tiger that seems always to be chasing us (the unsettling feeling, the disturbing mood, the unpleasant sensation, the scary thought), and we turn to face it. We dive into the very center of our unease. We welcome it. We allow it to be as it is. We get curious about what it actually is—not the kind of intellectual curiosity that wants to think about it and analyze it and come up with answers and explanations—but the kind of curiosity that wants to touch and taste and explore directly. The kind of curiosity we see in babies and in lovers.
And surprisingly, counter-intuitively, in totally opening up to the living reality Here / Now—in dropping all resistance—there is suddenly no more separation—no “me” and “it.” The imaginary boundary melts away. We dissolve into unbroken Totality. And this Totality turns out to be completely empty—not meaning that it is some desolate, nihilistic void, but rather, that no-thing is solid or permanent or persisting or separate from everything else—nothing is “out there” anymore. Everything is fluid and ungraspable—like light. And it is all right here, most intimate—one inseparable whole that is no-thing at all.
When we watch great athletes, like for example those Olympic figure skaters who leap and twirl and spin on the ice in the most unbelievable ways, it seems almost unbelievable what they can do with their bodies—and they make it look effortless. If you’ve ever been engaged in a sport or a martial art, or if you play music or dance or make love, you know from your own firsthand experience that to skate like that, you have to abandon yourself completely. You have to totally let go and surrender to Totality. It requires a willingness to be annihilated—a willingness to die—a willingness that we might also call faith or trust. Not faith or trust in something outside of us, but faith or trust in the unbroken wholeness, the emptiness, the deathless unborn that is right here, most intimate.
If you’ve ever crossed a rushing stream by jumping from one stone to the next, you know that if you hesitate and over-think it, if you worry about slipping and falling and getting hurt, then you’re a million times more likely to slip and fall. To make it across successfully, you have to give yourself over to the universe, letting go, trusting that your bodymind will naturally find the next stone. You have to throw yourself into the darkness of not-knowing and trust completely in emptiness. If you try to grasp onto solidity, you fall.
In sports, they call that kind of abandon and presence and non-separation “being in the zone,” and of course, in a sport (or in the arts), it requires more than just letting go on the spot—it also requires intense and rigorous training, discipline and practice. And I would suggest that this is equally true in the journey of awakening, the timeless journey from Here to Here.
Often in the nondual world, we emphasize that it takes no work at all—that this is it—that we are already Buddha—that enlightenment is the natural state, the very nature of Here / Now – and that’s absolutely true. But that’s one side of the coin. The other side of the same coin is that it does take a certain amount of hard work, commitment and vigilance to realize (to make real) that effortlessness, that natural ease of being, that non-separation that is always already the case. The emptiness or wholeness is never not here, but that living reality can be overshadowed by the thought-sense of separation, solidity and fragmentation. Human beings can get very confused and lost in suffering—at least apparently. And so we have meditation, teachers, teachings, satsangs, retreats, and even radical nondualists who hold meetings to tell us there is nothing to do and no one to do it.
Paradoxically, the nature of the work we need to do is a kind of not-doing that might be described as effortless presence or letting go. This effortless effort can only happen Now. And that is the single most important key to waking up—that it’s always about right here, right now. As soon as we think it’s about something that happened before, or something that might happen next, we’re in delusion.
When we are fully present Here / Now, there is a natural falling away of the mental tendency to over-think everything, to second-guess ourselves, to worry about what might go wrong, to evaluate how well we’re doing, to judge ourselves, to try to control what is uncontrollable, to seek. And of course, that full-on present awareness, that relaxing into presence, that total letting go, doesn’t always happen! No one is always in the zone. Sometimes we do get tangled up in thought. Sometimes, even the greatest athlete, or the most gifted musician, or the most enlightened sage will stumble and fall. It happens.
And when it happens, that’s an opportunity to start right where we are—in the muck. Instead of getting lost in a story about how we failed, how we’re not good enough, what an unworthy loser we are—instead of all that, can we simply be awake in the muck? When we’re fully awake in the muck, amazingly enough, it is no longer muck. That’s the amazing alchemical power of awareness and presence. Apparent problems dissolve into thin air along with the one who seemingly had them. We find that the muck is emptiness itself!
Of course, physical pain may still be here, and there might still be grief or sadness, and there might still be challenging situations (bankruptcy, a terminal diagnosis, a wayward child, a tornado, red wine spilled on our new white sofa, no half-and-half for our morning coffee, a terrorist attack, a flight delay, lost luggage, a traffic jam, whatever it might be—big or small). All of that can still arise—but without the mental commentary and the stories about it and the thought-sense of “me” at the center of it, in the light of awareness and in the aliveness of presence, it isn’t a problem in the same way. It’s just what is—and without a storyline, it’s simply ever-changing sensations, some of them pleasant, some of them unpleasant—a passing appearance. We are tuned into the deeper reality at the heart of every apparent passing form—the emptiness, the awaring presence, the aliveness of being. And as that living reality, we respond appropriately and intelligently to the situation at hand. We move in harmony with the universe, even as we seek to correct a problem or stop an injustice. We’re not at war with the universe.
The words are never quite right. They can always be picked apart and compared to other words and thought about and argued over and so on. What matters here, what actually liberates us and transforms our lives, is the living of all this, the actualizing of it, the living realization (making it real, embodying it, knowing it firsthand, being awake in this moment). There are many modes of exploration or practice that can help to make all this real. I find it very helpful to take time every day, and throughout the day, to pause—to sit quietly doing nothing—being fully awake to the living reality Here / Now. I also enjoy standing up or lying down and moving the body in unstructured ways, listening for how the body wants to move next, following the inner guidance system—a kind of dance without a dancer. And I love retreats—at home or elsewhere—where dedicated time and space is set aside for retreating from all our usual distractions and preoccupations and instead deeply entering the living reality Here / Now.
Reading books, listening to talks, working with teachers, going on retreats—all these things can be helpful. We each find the path that works for us—there is no one right way. But the main thing I want to get across is that liberation doesn’t happen by thinking about all of this. It doesn’t happen just by reading books or Facebook posts either. That’s all fine, but it takes more than that. It takes a willingness to put all that down for awhile and simply be here, fully present. It takes a willingness to explore this living reality directly, firsthand, especially when the waters get rough and it seems like we are face-down in the muck. Those are especially precious opportunities. Find out what it means to open the heartmind, to be still, to allow everything to be as it is…to explore the textures and shapes of this moment the way a baby or a lover explores, not knowing what will be revealed, not needing to formulate it into words or concepts.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2015, 2016--
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