Postings from My Facebook Page #12
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the twelveth collection of posts from my Facebook page (2/24/16 - 6/20/16). 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:
“Is this really liberation? Am I there yet? Is this it? Am I fooling myself? Am I fully awake and enlightened or is there something more that hasn’t happened yet for me?”
Can it been seen how these thoughts instantly make it seem like there is “me” and “it” and “something to get” and “something to lose” and linear time in which to gain “it”? Can it be noticed how the whole body hums along with these kinds of thoughts, producing sensations of unease and a contracted energy, all of which makes the content of the thoughts—the story the tell—all the more believable?
Awakeness is Here / Now. We don’t have to search for it, for it has never really been absent or hidden. What makes it apparently hard to recognize is that we keep looking for it “out there” as some particular thing—a particular experience (this experience but not that experience), maybe an explosive event of some kind or a sudden understanding that resolves every uncertainty and doubt. The totally obvious and ever-present living reality is apparently obscured by this swirl of thoughts and beliefs and the mirage-like entities and situations that these thoughts create in the imagination.
Here / Now—the living reality—is utterly simple and effortless and obvious. But the virtual reality super-imposed by thinking makes it seem that there is “me” standing apart from the living reality, “me” being swept along in the current, “me” trying to control the flow, “me” trying to merge with the flow, “me” who lacks something, “me” who needs to figure all this out, “me” who needs to get rid of the self, “me” trying to identify as awareness and not as “me.” And all of this is not just a mental process—the somatic-energetic contraction (the bodily sensations and feelings) and the thoughts are like chicken and egg—we can’t say which comes first—they go together, and together they create the mirage-like sense of separation and encapsulation, lack and attainment.
The idea forms that liberation or enlightenment is a kind of permanent condition or state that “somebody” enters and then never leaves. A person supposedly crosses a finish-line after which they are a permanently enlightened person. From then on, we imagine, this person never again experiences delusion or feels separate. Never again does this person mistake a rope for a snake. This person is permanently “in the zone,” permanently awake. We imagine that maybe enlightenment is something like being permanently high on LSD or ecstasy, or being in a perpetually good mood.
But who exactly is this person who is forever enlightened? Look closely at any person, including yourself, and you won’t find a solid, persisting, permanent thing that endures over time. You’ll find constant flux and movement, everything dissolving instant by instant, and everything we call “the person” entangled with and inseparable from everything we think is “not the person.” You are not the same person who started reading this post a minute ago. Everything has moved—your blood, your neurons, your cells, your thoughts, your sensations, and the whole universe from which you are never separate. “The person” is a conceptual abstraction, an idea, a concept. The living reality is never actually frozen and divided up that way. So who is there to cross an imaginary finish-line and to be permanently enlightened or “not quite there” yet?
And where exactly is this “there” that might one day be reached?
Words like enlightenment and liberation point not to a new attainment, a past experience, a future possibility, or a special state, but rather to the ever-present aliveness, the groundless ground of Here / Now, the natural state, the stateless state, that which is the same in every different experience—the awaring presence, the thusness or suchness or present-ness, the beingness, the immediacy, the aliveness. What comes and goes is the mirage-like thought-sense-story of separation, fragmentation, encapsulation and identity as “me.” And that mirage (or the dissolving of it) doesn't happen "to me" – that very notion is part of the mirage! And, in fact, that mirage is simply another movement of this undivided, seamless, boundless unicity that has no other. We are never really in the situation we imagine ourselves to be in—because the very notion of separate, persisting “selves” and persisting “situations” (not to mention the imaginary separation between them) is purely conceptual. Reality isn’t like that.
Enlightenment is Here / Now. To speak of “after enlightenment” is like talking about “after Now.” When is this imaginary “after Now”? And where exactly is it, if not Here?
It’s certainly true—relatively speaking—that for some apparent people in the dream-like movie of waking life, the dualistic mirage of separation, encapsulation and identity as “me” may appear less and less frequently, with less and less tenacity and believability. And when the mirage does appear, perhaps there is no added thought-sense that this arising is happening “to me,” or that it is “my” delusion, or that it means something “about me.” In other words, perhaps there is no secondary involvement or identification with this impersonal arising, no taking it personally or “taking delivery” of it, as Nisargadatta would say. And whatever shows up, mirages included, is recognized as just another appearance of the Totality.
And so, relatively speaking, we can say that some apparent people seem to be ever-more grounded or stabilized in simple presence, and that a certain level of despair, confusion and seeking has disappeared, in some cases, never to return. But we have to be very careful here, because some of the things we associate with being lost in the delusion of separation and encapsulation (e.g., anxiety, depression, addiction, obsessive thinking, and so on) may in fact be nothing more than imbalances in the neurochemistry, conditioned reactions to trauma or socio-economic conditions, damage to certain parts of the brain, genetic predispositions, or who knows what. Such turbulence in the bodymind may have little to do with so-called enlightenment or the lack thereof. Whether there is a strong neurological sensation of self, agency, will and intention may depend more on the condition of the brain and the neurology than on any sort of enlightenment or lack thereof, and the stickiness and believability of certain habitual thought patterns may be as much or more a function of serotonin levels and other biological factors than it is of any kind of insight or lack thereof.
And let’s don’t imagine that any (actually imaginary) “person” exists in some state of absolute perfection, totally and permanently free from delusion, incapable of error, completely free from all human messiness—that kind of idealistic belief in super-people promotes dishonesty and false authority—it encourages us all to put on blinders, ignore common sense, and swallow the Kool-Aid.
The truth is, no one is enlightened (or deluded) because no such separate entity exists, and no such “thing” as enlightenment or delusion exists. There is simply this-here-now, just as it is, and already it has changed. It is never the same way twice, and there is no “it” in it (except as a grammatical convention). It-less-ness is unbound and ownerless. There is no persisting or separate person here to be always one way or another, and there is no “forever” other than Now. We could say that waking up is simply seeing through the thought-story-belief that “this isn’t it,” not once-and-for-all, but right now. And when I speak of “seeing through,” I’m not speaking of intellectual clarity, but rather, awaring it in a whole body sense—awaring without separation—BEING this-here-now, this undivided living reality. Of course, the truth is, we can’t NOT be this-here-now. That’s all there is.
In enlightenment, even delusion and the thought-sense of separation and encapsulation is seen as empty and inseparable from enlightenment. And yet, we can still discern a difference between what we call enlightenment and what we call delusion. Referring back to my post of February 13 on the old Zen story of mountains and valleys, we could say that first there is the ordinary view of enlightenment and delusion as two separate states that people are in. Then as we look more closely, we find that there is no enlightenment and no delusion (there is only unicity, everything is empty, there is only Here / Now, and no persisting “people” exist to be in any particular state “all the time”). And then finally, with enlightenment, there is enlightenment and delusion again (distinguishable but now realized to be empty, inseparable, ungraspable and impersonal).
In a way, we’d do better to leave all these words behind—enlightenment, liberation, awakening, and so on because they cause so much confusion and misunderstanding and provoke so much distress and seeking. And yet, these words are thrown around, and so we try to clarify them. In the end, it’s like trying to grasp the wind. It can’t be done. Whatever words come out, they can never capture the living reality, and yet, they ARE the living reality, for there is nothing else here.
Still feeling unenlightened? To whom does this thought-feeling refer? It refers to the separate me, the mirage-character, does it not? Find this one who is not enlightened (or who is). Here’s a clue: there is no such thing to be found. Still wondering if “this is it” or if there is more to get? Where would this “more” ever be if it’s not Here / Now? Still thinking you might be fooling yourself? Let go of everything you can doubt—what remains? This that remains is the only certainty—and whatever word or words you use to describe this-here-now will never be it, just as the word water is not water.
Just notice how it is here now. Hear the traffic, feel the breeze, feel the ever-changing sensations throughout the body. Notice if thought pops up and says: “I’m awake! This is it!” And then maybe it pops up and says, “Can I really be sure that this is it? Is this really liberation? Have I got it?” And then maybe it pops up and says, “I lost it. How can I get it back?” And then maybe it pops up and says, “I see that I’m nobody, I don’t exist.” And then maybe it pops up and says, “So now what do I do?” And then maybe it pops up and says, “I still think Ramana was more enlightened than I am.” And then maybe it pops up and says, “I don’t know what’s true anymore—I think this whole nonduality and awakening thing has been a big load of crap.” And then maybe it pops up and says, “Quick—run to the bookcase—read I Am That again!” And then maybe it pops up and says, “I need to go back to the Zen Center.” And on and on and on and on. And ALL these thoughts create—in the imagination—the mirage of “me” and “it” and “Ramana” and “better” and “worse” and “getting it” and “losing it” and so on. But it’s all a mirage, a mental movie—and that’s the load of crap, that whole movie of “me getting it” and “me losing it” and “me compared to you”! And yet ALL of this is none other than unicity itself, the One Reality. Even the crap is included!
When there is a waking up from these kinds of thoughts (not once-and-for-all, but right now, as they arise), a waking up to the utter simplicity of Here / Now, suddenly the whole problem dissolves. There is no “me” anymore to be awake or not awake, enlightened or unenlightened, as good or not as good as Ramana. There is no more concern about whether this is liberation or not, and no more strategizing about what I need to do to fix myself, to get somewhere, to become somebody (or nobody). There is simply cheep-cheep-cheep and whoosh-whoosh-whoosh and sensations in the body and breathing and thoughts popping up and dissolving—the effortless happening of this moment, just as it is. Simple, obvious, effortless, never not here.
And when those me-centered thoughts and the mirage of separation and identity as “me” arise, ALL of this can be recognized (by no one) as simply a passing weather event, an impersonal happening, like the clouds in the sky. And if that recognition doesn’t happen right away, if the thoughts and mirages are momentarily taken personally—if there is involvement for awhile in some storyline, and identification as “me,” and all the emotional turbulence and drama that arises in the wake of that—that too is simply another passing movie that momentarily captures the attention and seems real. No one is damaged by it—it happens to no one—even if, IN the movie, it seems otherwise.
This isn’t something to think about or believe, but something to explore and discover. And it takes no effort. There is no distance to travel. You are already Here / Now. Not because “you” have arrived “here,” but because there is no separation between “you” and Here / Now. They are different words for one, undivided, seamless happening.
Different words point to different aspects of this-here-now (chairs, tables, thoughts, you, me, awareness, content of awareness), and this is useful for communication, but there’s no real boundary between self and not-self, or between subject and object, or between awareness and content, and ultimately the words are just sounds like cheep-cheep-cheep and whoosh-whoosh-whoosh describing “things” that never actually form or stay in place in the way we think they do. The living reality is beyond words, beyond belief, beyond any-thing the mind can grasp—and yet it includes words and thoughts and ideas and mental movies. Nothing is left out. And what I’m pointing to here is nothing mysterious or hidden. It’s just this—right here, right now, just as it is—these words, the sounds of traffic, the breathing, the trees, the galaxies—one whole happening.
Imagine that you have 5 pound weights strapped on all over your body, but you don’t know they’re there. You just know that the simplest activities seem to take enormous effort, that you are exhausted, that everything feels heavy and difficult and overwhelming. You sense that it is not like this for everyone else.
People who have never experienced depression don’t really understand it. They usually think it means you feel sad all the time or something like that, and you just need to be cheered up. But for me, depression manifests mainly as a feeling of being overwhelmed. I’ve never had really severe major depression—the kind where you can’t even get out of bed and you feel seriously suicidal. I’ve had what they technically classify as mild depression, but it doesn’t feel particularly mild when I’m in the grips of it.
The worst it ever got was probably in Chicago, several years after my mother died. Non-essential mail was piling up unopened in bags in my closet and going through it felt overwhelming. The thought of moving out of Chicago, as I had always imagined I would after Mom died, sounded totally overwhelming and impossible. How could I ever go through everything in my storage unit in the basement or pack up my apartment or figure out where to go? It seemed entirely impossible.
Even a simple task like opening a piece of mail or writing a check could feel too overwhelming to do, so I'd put it off for the next day, and it would pile up. There was a sense that I was going under, that I was drowning, that life was sweeping over me. I was having a hard time eating. I’d feel hungry, but I had a hard time cooking (it seemed too overwhelming), and then whatever I tried to eat seemed unappetizing once I started eating it. More and more of my once-favorite foods were nauseating me, and I'd gag trying to eat them, so I wasn't eating as well as I usually do.
None of this was happening in the more extreme way that it does for many people. I was eating at least two and usually three meals every day of reasonably healthy food. I wasn't living on corn chips and diet soda or starving myself or anything like that. I was getting up in the morning and making my bed. I was opening essential mail. My bills were all paid on time. My rent was paid. My emails were answered promptly. I was holding meetings. I was writing. I was keeping my apartment reasonably clean and tidy. I was seeing friends. I wasn’t suicidal. But it definitely felt as if life were sweeping over me, or as if I were walking around with heavy weights.
At some point, my doctor suggested I try Zoloft, an anti-depressant. I’d never taken an anti-depressant before. For many years, I was totally against anti-depressants. I felt they were being over-prescribed and over-used as a way to avoid difficult emotions that are part of life, and I thought that big-pharma was basically pushing them on the public in order to make a profit. I’d seen my schizophrenic aunt ravaged by psychiatric medications and shock therapy all through my childhood, so I was wary of psych meds in general and concerned about the side effects. And in addition, I had the belief common amongst many spiritual people that we “should” be able to rise above depression, anxiety, addiction and compulsion through meditation, insight, and being fully present and aware in every moment.
Toni Packer, my main teacher, was much more open to psychiatric medications, and during my years with her at Springwater, after talking to a number of people on retreats—including a psychiatrist—who all suffered from severe depression, and who all said they wouldn’t be able to function (or meditate) without anti-depressants, I had slowly begun to change my mind. So years later when my doctor suggested Zoloft, I agreed to try it.
It was amazing! Taking Zoloft was like having the weights removed. I felt full of energy. Nothing seemed overwhelming anymore. The kinds of thoughts that bog you down when you’re depressed or anxious were completely absent, and if one of those thoughts did pop up, it was instantly seen through, transparently absurd – it had no sticking power. I felt free and unbound, vibrant and alive.
Within a few days after the Zoloft took effect, I had totally gone through all the bags of mail in my closet, filed all my unfiled papers, taken care of all unfinished business. Moving out of Chicago no longer felt overwhelming and impossible (and, indeed, a few months later, I did it). I began eating really well. Food no longer nauseated me. My overall health improved. And I seemed able to make healthier choices—as if some inner (psychological or perhaps neurological) muscle that had been blocked was set free. I felt energized and alive. It was truly wonderful.
But then I began to experience serious neck and arm pain and then muscle weakness in one of my arms. It turns out this is an uncommon but reported side effect of Zoloft. I had to go off the drug. I wasn’t on it very long at all.
But amazingly enough, it jump-started me. A few months later, I moved to Oregon. The depression did not come back. In reflecting on how this “jump-starting” happened, I thought about how the process of change is described in Feldenkrais, a form of somatic awareness work I have studied. They say in Feldenkrais that through the Feldenkrais movement lessons, the body discovers new ways of moving, and once discovered or brought into awareness, these new ways become more and more available to us. In times of stress, the body may revert to the old constricted ways of moving, but the new possibility is there, and over time, it becomes more and more stabilized. That had always seemed to me like a good description of the awakening process as well, and now it seemed to me like a good description of what Zoloft had done—the anti-depressant had shown my bodymind and my nervous system a new way of functioning, and once that possibility had been discovered, brought into awareness and embodied, it became more and more readily available.
I can’t say I never got depressed again—this bodymind has a tendency toward depression and anxiety—but never again did it ever get that bad. And what I learned from my adventures with Zoloft has informed how I look at problems such as depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviors, addictions, and so on. What happened to me on Zoloft was a very visceral, firsthand, direct lesson in how powerful biology and chemistry can be. By simply changing my serotonin levels, certain thoughts no longer popped up, and on the rare occasions that they did pop up, they had no sticking power. This sudden and remarkable freedom from compulsive thought and from feelings of being overwhelmed had nothing to do with meditating, or “being here now,” or fully feeling the feelings, or seeing clearly that what the thoughts were telling me wasn’t true. It was simply a change in chemistry. And once that changed, life didn’t feel overwhelming anymore. Obsessive and disabling thoughts disappeared or lost all their believability. My appetite was better, so I was getting better nourishment. It was a life-changing shift.
Of course, I’m not saying that meditation and inquiry and psychotherapy and The Work of Byron Katie and all the other things I had done over the years had nothing at all to do with this shift—because I’m sure they all helped to prepare the ground, and I know they play a major role in not sinking back into depression—but clearly, the biggest shift came from a change in serotonin levels. And I’ve since heard stories from people who tell me their severe depression or anxiety was cured by changing a certain enzyme—so my point is simply that these human problems (depression, anxiety, addiction, etc.) are not entirely (or perhaps not even predominantly) psychological or spiritual in nature. Many factors play into our inner weather—genetics, neurochemistry, enzymes, hormones, brain injuries and abnormalities, trauma, childhood conditioning, socio-economic conditions, life experiences, and so on. And if we ignore all of that and think that meditation or awakening or “being here now” can cure everything, we are missing something.
I’ve never taken another anti-depressant, but I’m certainly open to trying one again if the depression ever gets that bad again. I’ve learned that many therapists now use anti-depressants very conservatively and sparingly and only as a last resort, prescribing as low a dose as possible for as short a time as possible—on the jump-starting principle that seemed to inadvertently work so well for me. Of course, some people may need to be on psych meds permanently, and that’s fine too when needed. There is nothing wrong with needing medication.
I no longer believe everything can (or should) always be resolved solely by meditation or insight or talk therapy alone. For some people, that may be true. And if you can avoid medication—given the side effects and the expense associated with it—it is certainly preferable—but not at the expense of being perpetually miserable or unable to function. In many cases, as I have discovered, before we have the energy and the will and the ability to engage in such things as meditation or inquiry in any sustained or effective way, a certain level of neurochemical smog and weight must be cleared away first. So if you need medication, please don’t think it is unspiritual or a sign of spiritual failure.
And if you have more depression or anxiety, or more addiction and compulsion, than somebody else, please don’t think this is any more personal than the fact that Seattle has more rainy and cloudy days than Tucson. It is simply a difference in weather caused by an infinite mix of nature and nurture—a difference in conditions and conditioning. None of this means anything about the imaginary self at the center of the story. It’s all simply weather.
I’m sharing this story because certain conditions have been stigmatized and personalized for too long, the cause too often attributed solely to lack of presence or insight or a failure to “be here now,” and the only acceptable cure thought to be spiritual or psychological work—anything other than medication. I continue to challenge that belief.
I also think it’s important for people to know that teachers can also suffer from depression, anxiety, various forms of addiction and compulsion, and many other mental disorders (PTSD, bi-polar, OCD, borderline personality, ADHD, etc.). Thankfully, more and more teachers are beginning to disclose these kinds of things and talk about them openly. And while depression may have ended for Eckhart Tolle in one dramatic, out-of-the-blue night of transformation, it doesn’t happen that way for everyone (as he would be the first to acknowledge). In fact, that kind of sudden, out-of-the-blue, and apparently permanent shift is quite rare. Who can say what triggered that shift in Eckhart, or how things change for any of us really? All we can work with is our own experiencing Here / Now, however it is. So instead of comparing ourselves to someone like Eckhart and then feeling that we are “not as good” or “less worthy,” can we simply be fully present right here? Can we be who we are (in every sense) instead of trying to be someone else? And if we experience persistent depression or anxiety or compulsive behaviors, or if we need help from medication, can we realize that there is no shame in that?
Is there anything to do? Do you need more experiences? Is there really any kind of shift or awakening? Is second-hand information enough to liberate us? What follows is taken from my responses to a few questions that were emailed to me recently:
In your analogy of the room that may or may not have a deadly snake in it, I would say that it is very important to actually enter the room yourself and find out if there is a snake there or not. Otherwise, you are relying on the authority of someone else or on belief, and both of those can (and eventually will) be doubted. But if you actually enter the room and find no snake, then your fear will be gone and you won’t have any doubts about it. It won’t be a belief or second-hand information—it will be your own direct experience.
We’re talking here in this analogy about turning to meet psychological fears. Really giving complete open attention to whatever we think is unbearable (physical pain, emotional pain, despair, loneliness, anger, fear, restlessness, boredom, craving, depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviors, whatever it is) — giving it our full attention, allowing it to be here without resisting it, without judging it, without moving away – experiencing it somatically, purely as energy or sensation, allowing it to unfold and move through and reveal itself fully. In the light of complete, open, nonjudgmental, non-result-oriented awareness, suddenly, it is no longer a deadly snake. But this must be discovered directly—not once and for all, but whenever these imaginary snakes show up. This analogy might also mean turning to see who is the thinker of our thoughts and the doer of our deeds—can we really find this imaginary author-chooser-decider-doer-self that we think is inside here somewhere steering the ship? It’s one thing to be told or to believe that there is “no self” and quite another to look for it and not find it.
Awakening or enlightenment or the direct (pathless) path is all about being liberated on the spot, Here / Now—not forever after, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but on the spot, right here, right now. And paradoxically, liberation is the end of the whole idea of liberation and of anyone in need of liberating! Liberation is the recognition of what is already fully present: the ever-changing fluidity of present experiencing and the unbroken wholeness of presence-awareness.
Liberation is not a matter of having special “experiences of oneness” or “experiences of nothingness.” Experiences come and go. Unicity (this infinitely varied but seamless and boundless, undivided wholeness) and no-thing-ness or emptiness (the reality that no solid, persisting things exist independently of the whole or endure over time) is what we actually find when we directly explore our immediate present moment experiencing—and I’m talking here about exploring it with awareness, not by thinking about it and trying to figure it out mentally. When we just think about it, all we end up with is a new idea, a new set of concepts and beliefs, a new map. And sure, a more accurate map is far better than a totally inaccurate map, no doubt about that, but neither of them is the territory they describe. And in the end, to switch metaphors again, you won’t satisfy your hunger by trying to eat the menu.
There is an undeniable sense of being present, being aware, being here now. This direct and immediate knowingness of being here now is impossible to doubt. But the notion that this awaring presence is located inside the head or that it has any particular location or any particular shape or color or age or gender or size is either a mental image and/or a conditioned thought-belief-concept. And yes, of course there is a functional sense of being a particular person with a particular location, age, gender, etc. that appears intermittently as needed. And yet, this “particular person" is always made up of some mix of mental images, visual images, memories, sensations, thoughts and ideas—that can be seen. And it can also be noticed that these visual images, memories, sensations, thoughts and so on are ever-changing—they never stay the same or form into any solid and persisting “thing” – and there is always a bigger context – the awaring presence being and beholding it all. Awareness is not limited or bound or damaged by anything that appears. It is the wholeness that includes the diversity. And it is right here, all-inclusive and most intimate.
My sense is that you are imagining and looking for some exotic experience that you have never had. But what is being pointed to is the simple, ordinary, everyday experiencing that is occurring right now: seeing-hearing-sensing-breathing-awaring-being. You may be apparently overlooking it if your attention is totally fixated on thoughts and on the appearance of multiplicity and fragmentation (chairs, tables, trees, clouds, cars, other people, etc). But can you also notice that all these diverse forms appear Here / Now together as one whole picture—one whole moving picture, we might say—just as all the different images and scenes in a movie appear as one whole movie? Isn’t it a fact that right now you are experiencing both diversity and unity? We are conditioned to focus on the differences rather than on the wholeness, so the diversity (or multiplicity) is perhaps seemingly more obvious. And yet, it’s all here as one whole happening, one whole picture, one whole awaring presence. There is something that is the same in every different experience—the knowingness or awaring of it, the suchness or present-ness or presence of it, the Here / Now-ness of it.
Yes, there can be spectacular spiritual experiences of unity or oneness in some very pure or heightened sense, but these kinds of experiences are always temporary, and whether they happen or not is utterly unimportant. In fact, they can often be a big distraction when they do happen—people end up thinking they are very significant and then forever after referencing them, chasing them, trying to get them back. You don’t need any special experience other than the one you are having right now. And you might notice, this present experiencing is ever-changing and yet always Here / Now.
When you look for yourself and find no one there, does that mean that “you” are now permanently enlightened? No. That “you” who would be “an enlightened one” has just vanished—it was never real in the first place—it was always a kind of mirage—and that mirage may reappear, but in any moment of looking and not finding, it is clear that there is no one to be enlightened or unenlightened. There are no permanently enlightened people because there is no solid, discrete, independent, separate “person” who persists over time. And so, each time an imaginary problem or a scary feeling or the sense of being a separate self appears, you look and see—is it real? Eventually, you may find that the imaginary problem or the imaginary self stops appearing. Or it may keep showing up for the duration of your life. As I suggested in my recent post on depression (Feb 29), the strength, frequency, believability and sticking-power of certain thought-patterns—and of the neurological sensations of separation or agency—can be affected by many things including neurochemistry, genetics, trauma, the condition of the brain, and the entirety of nature and nurture that makes up our unique conditioning and that creates our particular individual weather systems. In other words, it’s not personal. And it really doesn’t matter how many times the imaginary self or the imaginary problem shows up. Whenever it does, it is an invitation to look and see—is it real?
To communicate any of this, we use words. But what is being pointed to here in these words is not a thought or a concept. This utterly immediate hearing-seeing-breathing-sensing-experiencing-awaring-thinking-vibrating presence that is Here / Now is not a concept or an idea. Yes, I have to use words to point to it, but what I’m pointing to is not the words or the concept of this. I’m pointing to the bare actuality itself, the living reality.
What I’m talking about is nothing exotic. Awareness is actually very simple and obvious. You know there is awareness here. It is what Here / Now IS. It is this knowingness of being present. It is the light behind attention. It is never not here. What comes and goes are the thoughts, sensations, stories, and movies of waking and dreaming life.
Awareness is the common factor in every different experience—the here-ness, the now-ness, the present-ness, the thusness of every experience—whether it is a contracted experience of being lost in thought or an open and expanded experience of dissolving into boundlessness. Awareness is here in spite of anything that appears, never because of what appears. Awareness is like the water that is equally present in every wave, or the screen that is equally visible in every different scene of the movie. Here / Now is ever-present. Thoughts and moods and experiences and dramas and the neurological sensations of agency and choice all come and go like clouds in the sky, or like movies on the screen, or like waves in the ocean.
Instead of over-thinking all this and imagining that special experiences are needed, I would suggest that a more effective approach is to give attention to the living reality Here / Now: the sounds of traffic, the sensations in the body, the breathing, the chirping of a bird, and the thoughts popping up like little energetic telegrams. But instead of becoming absorbed in the content of the thoughts, is it possible to simply let them come and go, without fighting them or chasing them? And if chasing them and getting involved in the story does occur (as it almost certainly will), can you notice that this mental movie is happening to no one—that the “me” at the center of the story is a thought-form—and that this whole movie is appearing in this vast open space of awareness?
Yesterday I saw Michael Moore’s new movie, Where to Invade Next, in which Michael Moore sets out to “invade” other countries, not for oil, but for good ideas. This is a movie I wish everyone in the United States would see. I’ve been a huge fan of Michael Moore for years, but this just might be his best film of all. It is a brilliant social commentary, like all his films, but it is also magnificently uplifting and full of joy and humor and human possibility. It gives you hope (in the best sense) for human beings.
Now, I’m sure that some of you might wonder what all of the above has to do with what this FB page is all about. But let’s consider that this is a page about waking up from the thought-sense of separation and encapsulation and from a dualistic way of perceiving and being. It’s a page about the possibility of being liberated on the spot and living out of the realization of wholeness and nonduality. And that’s not just a shift that happens to you and makes your life feel better—in fact, it is the recognition that you are inseparable from everything you had thought was “not you.” And I think this movie actually has quite a lot to do with all of that.
Not in any overt way, of course—it’s not ostensibly a movie about Buddhism, Advaita or nonduality. But it so beautifully shows the difference between social systems that are organized around mutual well-being and enjoying life, and those that are organized around fear and desire, where everyone is out for number one, living a frantic and unsatisfying life focused on end-gaining and chasing (but never finding) happiness, with an emphasis on vengeance and punishment rather than on love and healing.
But rather than say more, I’d like to just let the movie speak for itself. I very much recommend it, and especially to everyone here in the USA. Please go see this movie.
Sometimes, there seems to be a problem to fix or a self to criticize or blame, and the whole body hums along with that belief and those thoughts, producing uncomfortable or uneasy sensations—a stormy, overcast, cloudy weather-system of emotions and moods, all swirling around the mirage-like “me” at the center of the storm.
Is it possible to simply be aware of this whole happening, without trying to fix it, or push it away, or analyze it or judge it? Just be present to the whole unfolding—the self-critical thoughts, the disturbing sensations in the body, the whole thing, just as it is.
When we give anything that shows up our complete, nonjudgmental, non-result-oriented, open attention, something shifts, doesn’t it? Of course, if we “do” this expecting or seeking a shift, then that’s not the kind of open attention of which I speak. But in simple open awaring presence, we may find that whatever this disturbance is, it’s not as solid as we thought…it’s changing and moving…it’s not personal...and it’s survivable…it won’t actually kill us…it passes away, as everything does…
And if judging or seeking or expecting a result is happening, then can we simply start with that—beholding that whole habitual movement of the bodymind—beholding it openly, spaciously, allowing it to be as it is, seeing it clearly—not trying to push it away or fix it, but simply awaring it, sensing it, fully experiencing how it is—how it feels in the body, what thoughts initiate and sustain it. The pathless path to being liberated on the spot always boils down to starting exactly where we are—with whatever is showing up.
Can we notice how quickly the mind divides and solidifies this flowing whole into apparently separate, substantial, persisting “things,” and how quickly it labels some of these things it has just created “flaws” or “failings”? Can we notice how often we expect some kind of idealized, blemish-free, perfection…how hard on ourselves we often are, beating ourselves up for being imperfect according to some impossible standard? Can we actually find this “me” who has apparently failed? We can find thoughts, mental images, sensations, memories…but where in all of that is “me”?
In the absolute sense, nothing is a mistake because everything is one whole undivided happening in which nothing could be other than how it is. None of it is personal. None of it means anything. It is all a flowing, impermanent movement of energy without borders or seams. There is no one apart from this flow to “go the wrong way” or “get lost” or “make a mistake.” This can be discovered in any moment of open, awake presence.
But at the same time, in a relative, conventional, functional sense, mistakes happen, and we do sometimes get lost or behave in destructive, mean-spirited, unskillful ways. Mistakes and false turns are part of life, part of how this universe moves and finds its way. And our ability to notice and (sometimes) correct these mistakes is also part of how life moves and finds its way.
Shunryu Suzuki summed up these mutual aspects of reality by saying, “You are perfect just as you are, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.” Everything is perfect, and we can identify and correct mistakes. Everything is a choiceless happening, and we have response-ability right now.
In many ways—through meditation or psychotherapy or somatic awareness work or various forms of artistic work, we develop a growing sensitivity to what feels whole or wholesome and what feels divisive or destructive. We develop a growing ability to discern the difference and to (sometimes) choose the wholesome move over the destructive one. This whole process of cultivating discernment and the ability to choose wisely is—we could say—an evolutionary unfolding of the whole universe.
Before you can fix a flat tire, you have to notice that it’s flat—and before you can change an unhealthy behavior, you have to realize that you’re doing it and that it’s painful. Seeing clearly is an essential first step. To forgive yourself, you have to see that this behavior is a choiceless, impersonal happening of life, the result of infinite causes and conditions. And to develop response-ability, you have to begin to see how it is a choice that you are making. Both sides of the gestalt are important.
It is part of the intelligence and functioning of life to notice that something isn’t working and to seek a solution, or to notice that something we did was hurtful and to learn from that. But beating ourselves up and berating ourselves for making a mistake, going over and over all our apparent failures and short-comings and expecting perfection—that is something else. That’s not helpful or functional—that kind of self-abuse and self-torture is part of the problem. So is it possible to see clearly that something we did was unskillful or hurtful and then move on, without needing to beat ourselves up over it, without turning it into an identity? The simple noticing is intelligence itself—but the beating ourselves up and demanding perfection is a me-centered trance.
When we’re dealing with a flat tire, all of this is pretty straight-forward. But when we’re dealing with one of our human problems such as addiction, compulsive behavior, depression, anxiety, and so on, it’s not quite as simple, and the search for a cure and our curative fantasies are often part and parcel of the problem, because our whole obsession with self-improvement and perfectionism is all about a “me” who doesn’t actually exist in the way we think. And the search for perfection “out there” somewhere always involves a rejection or overlooking of the perfection that is already here, the perfection that includes the apparent imperfection.
Many of our complex human problems need to be addressed in a variety of ways. But most immediately, is it possible to simply be aware of whatever is showing up right now? What is this without the labels, without the stories, without the conceptual overlay, without any thoughts about it at all? What happens if we simply allow this moment to be exactly as it is? Actually, we can notice that this allowing isn’t even something we need to do, because everything always already IS being allowed to be as it is—the very nature of awareness is that it accepts everything equally and unconditionally. Awareness is like a mirror in that way. It resists nothing and clings to nothing. It accepts everything. Everything IS as it is—have you noticed?
And then thought provides a running commentary—what this is, what’s wrong with it, why it “should” or “could” be different, who’s to blame, and so on—and that too is part of this whole happening—sometimes intelligent and functional, sometimes habitual and dysfunctional. Awareness is always beholding it all, even the upsets and the stormy weather, with complete equanimity.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we always FEEL a sense of equanimity or that we always behave in calm or balanced ways. But remember, the key to being liberated on the spot always boils down to starting exactly where we are—with whatever is showing up.
So can we be with whatever is appearing Here / Now without instantly trying to fix it or push it away or immediately get to something better? Can we simply be awake to whatever is showing up—feeling the sensations, seeing the thoughts, awaring the whole thing, without knowing what it is or what “should" happen next? Out of this open, spacious, aware presence, intelligent and creative action (or non-action) can emerge. Without this kind of awareness and awakeness, action emerges from conditioned habit, from the past, from old ruts.
Awareness is what allows something genuinely new and creative to enter the picture. Awareness is the solvent that dissolves our human confusion and suffering. Awareness is the light that reveals Truth. Awareness is the groundlessness that is the ground of being, that which I like to call Here / Now. Awareness is unconditional love, accepting everything: the ever-changing weather, the thoughts, the mental movies, the spring flowers, the rush hour traffic, the drunk passed out on the sidewalk, the demagogue preaching hate, our own self-righteous reactions to the demagogue, the flat tires, the disappointments, the irritations, the moments of ecstasy—the whole show.
Response to a comment:
First, I would point out that awareness is always present. If it were not, you wouldn’t even be aware of everything you describe: buttons being pushed, emotional reactions being triggered, hurtful behaviors erupting, feelings of guilt and misery afterwards. All of this is appearing in the light of awareness.
Of course, it is certainly easier to feel and sense this awaring presence and to see through delusions in a quiet, peaceful setting—sitting in silence, walking in nature, being on a retreat. So that’s often where we start. But even in the midst of turmoil, if you stop and check, you’ll see that awareness (Here / Now, the suchness of experiencing) is still fully present. And the more this awareness is felt and noticed and relaxed into, the more available it seems to become.
It may be a very wonderful exploration to see if it is possible to bring open attention to a disturbing situation, without expecting the disturbance to go away or trying to get rid of it, but instead, just being fully aware of exactly how it works—can you notice what is going on as an upset first begins? Can you feel the blood rushing to the head, the lip quivering, the gut tightening—whatever shows up? Can you hear the thoughts that arise: “She shouldn’t have said that to me,” or whatever they might be? And when there is guilt after an upset, it is an opportunity to look for the one who apparently made a mistake—can this one actually be found? Does it exist?
And not to expect perfection. This is so important! In my post on Feb 29 about depression, I spoke about how the process of change is described in Feldenkrais, a form of somatic awareness work. They say in Feldenkrais that through these “Awareness through Movement” lessons, the body discovers new ways of moving, and once discovered or brought into awareness, these new ways become more and more available to us. In times of stress, the body may revert back to the old constricted ways of moving, but the new possibility is there, and over time, that new way of being becomes easier to access and more and more stabilized. As I said in that Feb 29 post, this has always seemed to me like a good description of the awakening process as well.
Some constricted habits (imagining a separate self, feeling guilty, getting defensive or frustrated or angry, drinking excessively, biting our fingers, thinking obsessively about the future, getting jealous, whatever it is) may dissolve quickly and permanently…other habits of the bodymind may continue to flare up under stress for the duration of our lives. This isn’t about attaining perfection.
But you may find that it is possible for there to be open awareness in difficult social situations and right in the midst of upset.
We’ve been conditioned to believe we are a person—a separate bodymind in a world outside of us. Is this true? Obviously, this picture has a certain relative, conventional, functional reality to it. But if we look more closely, does it actually hold up? Doesn’t it take memory, thought and imagination to conjure up this separate self who is apparently authoring our thoughts, making our choices and doing our deeds?
There is an undeniable sense of being present and aware, a knowingness of being here now that is not thought-based and that requires no belief. This present-ness is impossible to doubt or deny. And if you explore it right now, isn’t this awaring presence unbound and ownerless? Without referring to memory, it has no gender, no age, no race, no ethnicity, no social class, no name, no birth and no death, no me and no you. That all gets added on later by conditioning. And all of those infinitely varied appearances come and go within this awaring presence in an ever-changing dance. That dance is one whole undivided happening that appears to be unfolding in time and space, but it it is actually always Here / Now in this timeless and placeless presence.
That is our actual direct experience, not some philosophical belief or theory. In reality, there is only the boundless and seamless suchness of this-here-now, ever-changing and yet ever-present, infinitely varied and yet without division, always right here, most intimate, with no separation. Here / Now is the common factor in every different experience, whether it is a contracted experience or an expanded experience, an experience of unity or an experience of apparent separation, a pleasurable experience or a painful one—it is always Here / Now, a momentary movement in the dance without any solid, observer-independent reality. We can never leave Here / Now. We are not other than Here / Now.
The apparently separate self who seems to be encapsulated in a separate body, authoring our lives and making our choices, seemingly “getting it” and then “losing it,” is nothing more than an intermittent thought-idea, a mental image, a neurological sensation, a mirage. All our apparent suffering and confusion is rooted in the thought-sense of being somebody, and all of it is made up of ephemeral, ever-changing sensations and thoughts—a movement of energy inseparable from the whole universe. To wake up is to discover the bigger context, the all-inclusive wholeness, and the groundlessness or emptiness of every appearance.
We often imagine that enlightenment or liberation would look and feel different from this moment right now, just as it is. But how is it right now…before we assess or label or try to define it in any way?
Is it possible that our True Self—both in the boundless sense of undivided Totality and in the limited sense of this particular unique expression—is nothing other than Here / Now, just exactly as it is?
Can we notice that Here / Now is unchanging and ever-present, and at the same time, that it is nothing but thorough-going flux and impermanence, and that this impermanence is so thorough-going that no “thing” ever forms to even be impermanent?
Can we see directly that our present experiencing contains both unity and multiplicity, change and stillness, form and emptiness, and that without the words, it is one whole happening? Is it possible that unity (undivided wholeness, seamlessness, boundlessness, emptiness, formlessness, oneness) and multiplicity (difference, variation, independence, boundaries, location, specificity, particularity, form) are two sides of the same coin—different but inseparable, both present at once? Maybe the intermittent sense of being a particular individual is perfectly okay—part of how life is showing up. Maybe the sense of being a person doesn’t have to disappear or be pathologized, but simply recognized for the intermittent appearance that it is, appearing and disappearing in the larger Whole that "I" is.
Is awareness (or Totality, or boundless Unicity) absent even in the midst of that sense of being a particular person? And if it is, then how is that sense of individuality or personhood seen or recognized or experienced or known? Doesn’t everything, whether contracted or expanded, appear Here / Now in this vast, unified field of awareness? Don’t these thoughts, sensations and mental images that make up the intermittent sense of being “Joan” or “Bob” appear Here / Now along with the sounds of rain, the train whistle, the smell of wisteria, the sensations of a cool breeze on the skin—the whole boundless happening of this moment?
Can we question the thought-sense that “this isn’t it” or “this isn’t enough” or "this needs to go" whenever it shows up? Can we see that the search for some final grand event or ultimate breakthrough is always all about the phantom self, and that it is always predicated on the notion of some future attainment and some present lack? Can we question whether anything is actually lacking and whether anything is actually an obstruction?
Could this ever-changing human being—this unique expression—and this ever-present boundless Wholeness ALL be totally perfect and complete just as it is, mistakes and all? Could the things that we think are problems or obstructions actually be the Holy Reality itself in thin disguise? Could the apparent wrong-turns be themselves the One and Only perfect path from Here to Here? Could THIS actually be IT?
And without words and thoughts, what do we even mean by "this" and "it" and "be"?
Response to a comment:
Can you see that this instruction is simply another thought: "stop thinking - just be"? Is there a thinker who can stop thinking on command? And isn't that command another thought? This isn't at all what I'm saying in this post. I'm saying, thinking IS an aspect of being. Yes, the map is not the territory, and yes, we suffer when we mix them up, but maps are very useful. Thoughts and ideas can open our eyes. Science can open our minds; poetry and stories can open the heart. Thought and story-telling and imagination are beautiful capacities—not enemies to be vanquished. So although thought and imagination and our ability to abstract and conceptualize is the primary source of all our confusion and suffering, at the same time, thought and conceptualization and imagination is also part of how we wake up, how we sense and explore and discover and understand and find our way. And there is no central agent at the helm who can simply decide to "stop thinking and just be." That phantom decider is itself a thought.
We often think that there is something we want—it might be a home, a community, a partner, a meaningful vocation, a spiritual path, a teacher, an enlightenment experience, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a piece of cake. We might ask ourselves, what will this thing give us if we have it?
Don’t think about this question and try to work it out analytically, but rather, fall into the question with open awareness. Feel into it with your whole body, with your heart. If you have this thing, whatever it is, what will it give you?
Feeling into that question recently, I could feel tears coming, and then a deep sense of being held, like a tiny infant, by my mother—enveloped in that profound sense of unconditional love, warmth and security that mother-love can (at its best) provide—a feeling of oneness and completeness—total safety, nothing lacking. And then after I felt that, there was a very visceral awareness of the anguish of losing that—which, of course, we all do on the human level as we grow up—and some babies never have it at all. As a bodymind organism, as a human individual, we are in many ways alone, totally insecure, utterly vulnerable to pain and loss of all kinds and ultimately to death. Uncertainty and insecurity is the very nature of organic, embodied life.
And throughout our lives, it seems that we look for that unconditional mother love, that feeling of complete security and well-being, that place of utter relaxation and peace. We look for it in so many ways—through intimate relationships, through alcohol and drugs and comfort food and addictions of all kinds, through success in a career or having children, through owning a home or being part of an organization or a cause, through religion, through spiritual experiences of bliss or unity. And yet none of these things quite satisfies that deep longing, or at least, not for very long.
Sooner or later, the experience fades. Our intimate partnership ends in divorce, our intoxication ends in the pain of a hangover, our comfort food leaves us with indigestion, our spiritual ecstasy disappears, the gnawing pain of our arthritic hip returns, the irritating noise of our neighbor’s weed whacker starts up again, our favorite co-worker tells us they are planning to vote for the presidential candidate that we believe is dangerous, stupid and corrupt. We are back to feeling alone and insecure. Even in the best of lives, none of the external things that we chase after ever quite satisfies that deep longing of the heart for peace and certainty—that sense of being completely relaxed and dissolved into the loving arms of unconditional love and total acceptance—that place where we disappear and only love remains.
And yet, unconditional love and total acceptance are not far away or hard to get. They are, in fact, utterly close at hand, most intimate, no distance at all from Here / Now. Unconditional love, total acceptance, undivided wholeness, absolute freedom is the very nature of this simple awake presence that is right here, right now, being and beholding everything. This awake presence doesn’t depend on attending another satsang or going on another meditation retreat or meditating every day or having a partner or a home or a particular vocation or another glass of wine or a successful career or anything else. This simple awakeness is always right here—causeless joy, causeless peace—waiting to be noticed, waiting for us to open and dissolve into it.
You’d think that we wouldn’t hesitate to dissolve, but we do. It may be easy enough once we’ve discovered it to dissolve into open spacious presence when we’re feeling good. But when we’re caught-up in some hell-realm, dissolving requires the willingness to let go of our defenses, our ideas, the positions upon which our very life seems to depend, our certainties, our stories and beliefs, our most cherished opinions, our very self. It requires the willingness to die to the known, to let go of all the ways we are holding on, to relinquish all pretense of control—and instead, to dissolve into the openness that has no boundaries, no me and no you, no right and no wrong, no teacher and no student, no past and no future. And we don’t always want to let go of these things. We’re quite attached to our opinions, our defenses, our stories, our dramas, our self-images, our imaginary self! We’re even attached to our problems and our negative self-images, have you noticed? We don’t want to question the reality of all this. We don’t want to die or be undefended or let our precious self dissolve into no-thing-ness. And so we hold back.
I recently found myself caught up in a personal drama. Something that I perceived (or really, misperceived) as a rejection triggered old feelings of craving approval and not getting it, being left out, feeling imperfect, and so on. I didn’t even see at first how I had actually set the whole thing into motion. It was a very old, very familiar, push-pull drama where I felt rejected and victimized and self-righteous and better-than-everyone and worse-than-anyone, and all the rest of it, and I was quite busy gathering allies and stirring up the storm. It’s amazing how many times we can recreate the same basic drama without seeing it. Before too long, some small glimmer of awareness here could see that this was my own creation and that I was feeding the fire with thoughts and actions that continued to stir the whole thing up. I began to notice more and more how I was actually in some way getting off on the drama—on being the one who had been unjustly rejected, the one who knew how things should be, and on my own self-righteousness and self-pity, my sense of entitlement and betrayal. And I began to notice how tiring it all was, how profoundly unsatisfying.
At one point, in a moment of spacious, open presence in which this whole drama completely disappeared, I felt a sudden pulling back from this disappearance—a fear of dissolving completely into this open presence—a fear of losing “me” and my story of how things are, my point of view. I felt myself pulling back from the open space, reincarnating my story and myself, recreating my drama, insisting upon the reality of my problem. Have you ever noticed this happening? It’s fascinating, isn’t it?
It’s as if we crave something to oppose, something to blame, something to feel victimized by, something to defend and protect and fight against. All of that solidifies the sense of being separate, the sense of being “me,” the sense of being right.
And in that moment of hesitation between dissolving and holding on, I saw how there is always a choice—right now—to let go.
Of course, that isn’t always the choice we make—sometimes the force and the momentum and the addictive allure and the familiarity and the entrancement of old conditioning wins out. All of that is a powerful force. Sometimes we don’t even see the choice. And even when we do, it can seem safer or more pleasant or less threatening to go with the old habit, the known, the familiar, the past—even if what we’re going with is depression or self-hatred or conflict or misery or addiction or compulsion or another war—it somehow feels safer to go there than to let go into the unknown, the utterly new, the boundlessness of Here / Now.
We don’t always trust this ungraspable nothingness. We want something more solid—or more apparently solid. We want the illusion of control—even if that means picking up the old story, the old depression, the old addiction, the old conflict, the old drama. We choose that. It feels like we have no choice, that we are a helpless victim. But if we really see clearly how it all works, we begin to see that it is a choice we are making.
I can hear some of you thinking right now that I am contradicting myself, that I have pointed out many times that there is no choice, that everything is a choiceless happening, that there is no one apart from this happening to choose this or that. But for one moment, can we put that map aside? What happens right now if we drop everything we think we know about choice and choicelessness and just see.
What happens right now if I stop calling this present happening “depression” or “anxiety” or “addiction” or “a problem.” What happens if I’m simply present, right now, with the bare actuality of it—the sensations, the thought-stories, the whole happening—and also with the birdsongs, the traffic sounds, the breeze coming through the window, whatever else is showing up right now in this vast field of awareness? What happens if I’m not resisting any of it, or trying to get rid of it, or seeking something better, or evaluating and judging it, or telling stories about it? In other words, what happens if there is simply being here, being aware, being this moment, just as it is?
Gradually, as I’ve discovered over many decades, a faith or trust in this no-thing-ness and in this possibility of being awake Here / Now seems to grow in us. The possibility of letting go becomes more available, more accessible, more trustworthy. We begin to see more and more clearly how suffering is created and how it can dissolve in an instant. We discover the possibility of being liberated on the spot—not forever after, but right now. We find ourselves catching the dramas earlier and earlier, before they mushroom into global wars. We begin to notice that moment of choice that is always right here, right now.
But even after many decades, sometimes the old habits pop up, and sometimes—even after many years of meditation and after many awakenings, these old habits win out for awhile. We tense up, we feel defensive or abandoned or rejected, jealous or envious, angry or hurt, misunderstood or unappreciated. We rush for the wine or the cake or the cigarette or the spiritual book. We sink into depression. We start a war. We go shopping for things we don’t need. It happens. And then once again, sooner or later, we wake up.
What a miracle this is—that we wake up at all! Can we appreciate this miracle? Or do we immediately get lost in a secondary train of thought about how we screwed up again, what a hopeless case we are, how our life is a complete waste? How quickly consciousness can be re-hypnotized by thinking, and how quickly the whole neurochemistry hums along, producing a sinking feeling in the gut or a hollow ache in the chest—uneasy feelings that seem to confirm the reality of the stories. We’re afraid of these feelings in the body—they scare us—and so we do anything we can to escape them. We think, we smoke, we turn on our devices, we start wars, we go shopping—anything to not feel that sinking feeling in the gut or that hollow ache in the chest. It seems like if we feel that, it will destroy us.
But what happens if we don’t run away? What happens if we turn toward that feeling instead of turning away? What happens if we allow ourselves to fully feel the sinking feeling or the hollow ache? What if we go right into the very core of this sensation with awareness? What if we explore it with curiosity and interest? What if we open to it completely? We may discover there is nothing scary there at all—that in fact, there is nothing solid there. We may find that these feelings are simply vibrations of energy, passing sensations, ephemeral and ever-changing appearances with no substance at all.
We don’t usually wake up permanently, once-and-for-all, but rather, again and again—or more accurately, waking up only happens now. That really is the golden key to liberation. It’s always about right Now—this very instant. THIS, right now, is the moment of choice. If we postpone this choice for even an instant, then instead of stopping the old habit, we are caught up in a mental spin of trying to stop, which is itself part of the old habit. The habit is a movement away from Here / Now towards what we imagine will feel better (another cigarette, more thinking, another shopping spree, another war, whatever it is). Trying to stop is also a movement away from Here / Now towards what we imagine will feel better (some image of “me” free from my old habits, free from my problems). Actually stopping is something else altogether. It is the end of trying to stop. It is the end of the whole movement of the mind away from Here / Now. It is being fully present right here with no agenda. Not seeking anything different, not resisting anything, but simply being right here, awake to what is, however it is. Being liberated on the spot. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not forever after, but right now.
When we open to the bare actuality of simple presence, our problems dissolve. We dissolve. And then the trick is to see (and see through) how the thinking mind pops back up so quickly to reincarnate the problem and the one who apparently has it: “Yes, but…this problem is real…it’s been going on for decades…so what if I can be present for a moment, what good does that do?...my life is a total mess…this is serious…don’t tell me this is all an illusion…I’m a loser and I know it…depression is a serious problem…I’m a lost cause…this nonduality ‘being here now’ stuff is bullshit, it doesn’t work, where has it gotten me?...” And so on and on. And then, once again, we feel terrible. The problem once again seems very real, very solid.
And we will fight for our problem! If someone questions the solidity or the reality of it, we will argue for how real and solid it is. We identify with our problem. We cling to it. It is “me” in some way. “My problem / me” – we don’t want to let go. Just to notice this whole process is an amazing and wonderful discovery. Seeing how it all works is the beginning of dissolving it. And by seeing, I don’t mean thinking or forming an idea about it—I mean present moment awaring. Being aware right now, as it happens. Seeing it directly.
Awareness is the great solvent, the great dissolver. But awareness works differently from thought. Thought tries to solve the problem by strategizing and analyzing and figuring it out and fighting with it and imagining what would be better. That all has its place in certain situations. But very often, all that does is keep us on the wheel of suffering, spinning around and around in our heads. Awareness works differently. Awareness dissolves the problem by accepting it completely, by meeting it with unconditional love, by simply illuminating and beholding it, by revealing the transparency and no-thing-ness of it. Thought does not control awareness. Thought (posing as the self) cannot use awareness to do its bidding. That doesn’t work. But awareness can illuminate such movements of the mind—it can expose them for what they are. And counter-intuitively, total acceptance is the key to real transformation. In the light of awareness, intelligent action can arise and genuine creativity can emerge. Something new can enter the picture. There is space and possibility.
This isn’t something to believe (or disbelieve), but rather, something to discover for oneself. And eventually we may discover that wholeness is actually always present, even in the midst of confusion and drama and contraction—that even the most contracted experiences happen in this vast open awaring space of Here / Now, and that they are nothing but movements of energy or consciousness, evaporating second-by-second into thin air—no-thing at all.
Realizing this is a beautiful and liberating discovery. But even after that discovery, in any moment of entrancement in the drama, the felt-sense of that wholeness is seemingly lost or obscured. We feel contracted and tight and separate. Our problem seems real. Just as the movie in the theater seemingly hides the screen when the colorful moving images and the plot-line capture our attention, so the entrancement in our mental movies seemingly obscures this open awaring presence. And in those moments of entrancement in the movie, wholeness seemingly becomes nothing more than a distant memory or an idea. We’re back in hell, lost in the movie, or so it seems.
At that moment, when it seems like we are in hell, it does seem to require a kind of faith or discipline or courage or perseverance or vigilance or effortless-effort to make that very radical and scary choice (not once-and-for-all, but right now) to stop thinking and to open up to the bare actuality of this moment, just as it is—to let go and dissolve into the vastness of presence. This choice goes against the grain and the force of habit, the conditioning passed down through generations. And in the face of this new and radical possibility, a host of conditioned thoughts rush up to tell us not to bother: “It won’t do any good, this is hopeless, you’re screwed, there’s no way out, nothing really works, you can’t do it, there is no choice anyway, you’re a loser, have a cigarette,” and so on. And the radical new possibility is to catch those thoughts, to see them for the conditioned habit-pattern that they are, and to let them go, to not be hypnotized into believing them. That is the choice and the challenge of waking up and being liberated on the spot.
Who wakes up? Who chooses? Thought does not wake up. Thought has no power to make this choice. The illusory self, which is nothing but a mirage or an image, has no power to make this choice, nor does the illusory self wake up. But there is something—a vast and boundless power, the intelligence-energy of the universe, primordial awareness itself, whatever we call it—that can make this choice. This is already awake. This is our True Nature, what Advaita calls the Self, what Taoism calls the Tao, what Buddhism calls emptiness, what I sometimes call Here / Now.
This awaring presence (Here / Now) is the common factor in every different experience. Just as we are actually seeing the screen in every scene of the movie, so this awaring presence never really disappears, even when the movie playing in the mind is about “me being in hell.” Without awareness, we would not even be aware of the movie! So we don’t need to search for awareness—we are awareness. Here / Now is always here.
Consciousness easily becomes absorbed in virtual realities, mental movies, self-centered dreams. We get hypnotized by our thinking and conceptualizing, by our story-telling and imagination. We mistake these virtual realities for the living reality of this moment. We mistake the map for the territory. We believe we are a character in a movie. And then—as part of this hypnosis—we take it all personally, thinking that “I” have been hypnotized, “I” have gotten lost in a movie, “I” have failed again—and we think that this apparent “failure” is one more proof that “I” am not “there” yet. And ALL of this is a movie! “There” is a mirage, a dream-destination, a fantasy, and so is the “I” who seems to be lost.
So we can begin to notice the awareness that is ever-present, the awareness that is already allowing everything to be as it is, the Here / Now that is already accepting everything—and we can also notice the movement of thought and the hypnotic power thinking has to make something out of no-thing-ness and then to give that imaginary-something meaning and take it personally. And in any moment of waking up, this can all dissolve! No one is leftover to be liberated or not liberated.
If we think that the goal of the pathless path is to be in any particular state of consciousness all the time or to never get hypnotized again, we will inevitably be disappointed. We don’t need to strive to have a permanent experience of unity, or try to stay in spacious presence “all the time.” We don’t need to search for any final enlightenment. We simply need to wake up right here, right now. Being awake, being present is actually effortless. It is a matter of not doing anything for or against. Simply being. We may discover by looking closely at the living reality Here / Now that all of our passing experiences are not really as solid or as substantial as they seem. In fact, they are all very much like dreams. And when we notice that we are fighting for the reality of our dreams, maybe we can stop and wonder, what am I doing?
By paying attention, we can see clearly how suffering is created and how it dissolves into thin air when we stop separating ourselves from it, when we dare to open to it completely and illuminate it and touch it with awareness. In that awaring, the apparent problems dissolve by themselves or are no longer experienced as problematic. The Holy Reality is always right here. Nothing (and no one) stands apart, even when it seems otherwise. We simply need to stop imagining and telling the story that awakening should look or feel different from how it looks and feels right now.
What is meditation? And do I recommend it? The word meditation is used to mean many different things. Some schools of meditation suggest that you focus on a specific object, such as the breath—be aware of the breath, and when your attention wanders, bring it back to the breath. Other schools of meditation encourage you to push away all sense perceptions and thoughts and to cultivate a kind of empty, spacious, blank mind. Some schools of meditation suggest counting the breath or labeling thoughts. Some schools of meditation give you a koan to hang out with, and others give you a mantra to silently repeat.
What I tend to suggest, if it invites you, is simply a kind of open awareness—not focused on any one thing in particular, and not trying to avoid anything that shows up either. In this open, spacious awareness, all kinds of things come and go: the cheep-cheep-cheep of a bird, the sounds of traffic, a barking dog, children’s voices, sensations in the body, the sensations of breathing—it is like a wonderful symphony or an abstract moving picture, endlessly shape-shifting. And there are also thoughts popping up intermittently, sometimes very quickly creating a whole virtual reality in the imagination—a movie-world of past and future and elsewhere and “me” at the center of the thought-story. Sometimes the attention gets drawn into these stories, completely mesmerized for awhile by their plotlines and dramas, and then suddenly, we wake up again. Just seeing all of this, being aware of it, without trying to change any of it or get rid of any of it, without judging it or analyzing it—simply beholding it all—that, to me, is meditation. In other words, meditation is simply BEING this awaring presence and beholding everything, just as it is. As one teacher (Rupert Spira) puts it, meditation is what we are, not something we do.
We can never leave Here / Now—this vast unbound awareness. Here / Now is all there is. Even thoughts about the future or the past arise Here / Now as present experiences. The thought-story-image-memory-idea of “me” and “my life situation” appears and disappears Here / Now along with the bird songs and the traffic sounds and all the colors and shapes and textures of this eternal, ever-changing present moment.
Thoughts are not an enemy to be vanquished. But through meditation, through giving the living reality open and full attention, we become more aware of our thinking, more aware of habitual thought patterns, more aware of how thought creates a kind of virtual reality that we so easily mistake for Truth—and we begin to see how this creates our suffering and our confusion. We experience directly that the living reality is fluid and spacious and ever-changing, ephemeral and ungraspable, alive and moving. And we see directly, as it happens, how thought abstracts and freezes this living reality, how it conjures up “things” out of this ever-changing no-thing-ness, “things” that seem solid and enduring and substantial and inherently real—how thought creates the sense of separation and dualism. We see how the separate self is one of these imaginary “things”—and that in reality, it is an intermittent and ever-changing appearance, a kind of mirage, made up of thoughts, memories, mental images, and sensations.
In meditation, simply by giving our attention to the living reality Here / Now, we begin to see the false as false, and we begin to discern the difference between the map-world of thought and the actual territory that it describes. But we don’t need to eliminate thought or mapping, and we can’t eliminate either for very long. Thinking and mapping are part of what the universe is doing. They are functional and essential activities in many instances. But we begin to see when they are not needed, and when they are simply creating suffering. We don’t need to fight or resist them. Just seeing them for what they are is enough. Awareness itself is the great transformer.
Thoughts such as, “I’ve ruined my whole life,” or “I’m not enlightened yet,” create the mirage-like “me” in the imagination and then tell a story about this fictional creation, a story that is easily mistaken for reality. This is the dream-world that we speak of seeing through or waking up from in spiritual or non-dual awakening, and this is the separate self that has been called an illusion, for it has no actual reality.
But, of course, as I always point out, there is a functional sense of being a particular person that is part of how life operates—we know whose name to answer to, we can differentiate between our finger and the carrot we are cutting up for lunch. And we have a functional sense of space-time such that we can discern the distance, as we are driving, between our car and the car ahead of us, and we can identify the noise we are hearing as the smoke alarm in the kitchen going off, and we can arrive at work on time, and so on. This functional sense of identity and location as a particular bodymind-person in space-time shows up as needed, and it won’t go away permanently unless we have dementia or some brain injury. We’d be in serious trouble without it! We’d be a character in a book by Oliver Sacks.
So we don’t have to block all this out or try to make it stop. It is a natural functioning of life. But we can begin to notice when this labeling and evaluating and story-telling and identification and identity is functional and when it is extraneous or even a form of suffering. We can listen to the bird song or the barking dog as pure sound—and yes, the label “bird” or “dog” may pop up, and even an emotional reaction might pop up (pleasure or aversion), but none of that needs to be a problem. The label (or the reaction) appears briefly and then disappears, and with it the illusion of some “thing” separate and apart from “me”—and then without the label or the reaction, there is simply cheep-cheep-cheep or woof-woof-woof—right here, most intimate, at no distance at all. There is no idea of “me” and no idea of “a sound out there.” There is just cheep-cheep-cheep, inseparable from the awaring presence in which it appears—one whole undivided being. And actually, we can even begin to notice that the same is true of the label and the reaction and the mirage-like thought-sense of separation that they create. It ALL shows up Here / Now, inseparable from this awaring presence that I Am.
We can notice that there are many moments in every ordinary day when there is no thought-story of being John or Mary—when there is simply birdsong or traffic noise or driving the car or chopping up a carrot or reading a book. We can also notice that if we close our eyes and don’t refer to thought or memory, that what we are in our direct experience right now is a presence that has no age, gender, nationality, location, or boundaries. Without thought, there is simply an undeniable, undivided, unbound awaring presence inseparable from the cheep-cheep-cheep of the bird and the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the traffic. And when the sense of being John or Mary reappears in practical-functional ways, it is no problem. And even when this thought-sense of self appears in what we might call dysfunctional ways (ways that serve no purpose but to create suffering), even then, we can begin to see that this too is just another experience, another sensation, another thought-story, another image, another movie, another cloud formation appearing in the empty sky. And we can notice that our stories of past and future, along with the functional sense of space-time (the ability to tell time and discern distances) all appear Here / Now, absolutely immediate, most intimate, inseparable from the awaring presence in which it all appears and disappears.
By looking closely at the actuality of life, by paying attention to sensations rather than to thoughts, we can see through the belief that “I” am a separate entity apart from life itself, a cork in the stream as it were, encapsulated inside a separate body, looking out at a separate outside world that has an observer-independent existence “out there.” We can see directly that this separate, independent, persisting self is never really here in the way we think it is. It arises, mirage-like, with any thought that presumes its existence, such as, “I’ve ruined my whole life,” or “I’m not enlightened yet,” or “I am enlightened!” or “I’m a loser,” or “I’m an angry person.” These kinds of I-thoughts are very different from conventional-practical usage of the I-word in everyday ways such as, “I’ll cut the carrots if you wash the lettuce."
So we don’t need to drop the I-word, forget our name, stop thinking, or lose the ability to tell time, gage distances, or differentiate ourselves from our car. And we don’t need to try to maintain some special experiential state of no-self or make an effort to remain continuously identified as awareness and not as the content of awareness. We simply need to see when the thought-sense of separation is generating suffering for ourselves and those around us, when it is non-functional, when it serves no purpose other than creating and maintaining an illusion. The seeing of this is the waking up from it. And by seeing, I don’t mean thinking about it, or forming an idea about it, or understanding it intellectually. That may be helpful as well, but what actually liberates us from the trance of separation is awaring it as it happens, seeing it directly—not once-and-for-all, but right now.
What remains when the false is seen through? We can put labels on this that remains, but the labels are not the living reality itself. And the labels tend to turn whatever they are naming into mental objects (some-thing, this but not that), and then presto—we have the illusion of separation and dualism. So it’s fine to use labels, but can we also see them for what they are—a conventional abstraction? Can we come back to the bare actuality of what is, just as it is, before we call it anything or tell a story about it? The bare actuality of this living reality Here / Now (this present experiencing and this awaring presence) is impossible to deny. Not the words I just used, not any interpretation of all this, but the bare actuality itself to which the words are pointing. We know this living reality most intimately. We are it. And right here, in this ever-changing, ever-present aliveness, there is no me and no problem to solve until thought materializes all of that out of thin air. Meditation is realizing how that happens and waking up, not once-and-for-all, but right now.
Meditation is being open, being present, being awake, being aware, being Here / Now. And truly, that isn’t something we have to do. We are never really separate from this vastness—and whenever it seems otherwise, that is our invitation to stop, look and listen. To look closely, to see directly. To inquire. To explore. Not by thinking about all this, but by sensing and awaring and being this moment.
How does nonduality relate to current events, beyond some facile belief that “It’s all perfect” or that “The world is just an illusion”? There is a truth in those statements, for sure, but they can easily be nothing more than comforting ideas that we use to insulate ourselves from pain. How do we actually find love even in the midst of hate? Let me offer a very recent example from my own life.
Yesterday, in the News, I read about Donald Trump’s former butler. According to this article, this man had worked as Trump's butler for 17 years and was currently serving as the in-house historian at Trump’s estate in Palm Beach. The former butler had written numerous disturbing Facebook posts in which he called President Obama the n-word and a prick and many other hateful names, and suggested again and again that the president (and the First Lady) should be killed—he even suggested a televised lynching—all of this in the most hateful language you can imagine.
It was blatant, overt racism filled with ignorant, racist conspiracy theories, including the “birther” one that Trump has long promoted about Obama being a foreign-born secret Muslim. This former butler is (or was until this story broke) apparently someone very close to Trump, and thus he serves as an indication of what kind of people Donald surrounds himself with and what kinds of thinking Donald inspires. This is in itself no surprise—Donald’s connections to white supremacy, bigotry and fascist thinking have been on full display for quite some time. But this was a particularly visceral and ugly manifestation of Donald’s bigoted world, made more disturbing by the fact that so many people in this country enthusiastically support Donald Trump and that there is a very real chance that this man might actually become the next president of the United States.
Reading this article, I noticed a tumult of emotion arising in my own being—anger, rage, fear, despair. I noticed that in my anger, I was capable of exactly the same kind of hatred and rage and delusional thinking that this butler was exhibiting (albeit with a different target and different narrative). I noticed the urge (however fleeting) to kill.
I noticed that under my hatred and rage there was fear and hurt—and then deeper still, I could feel a downward-spiraling despair—thoughts that life shouldn’t be like this, that everything sucks, that human beings are horrible, that we’re doomed, that Donald will become president and all will be lost. It felt very dark, very hopeless. I could feel an old pattern of despair and bitterness taking me over like a virus—the pattern that once decades ago led me to very nearly drink myself to death and to rage violently and incoherently at whatever got in my way. This time I was sober—simply feeling the storm, watching it, seeing it—being painfully aware of the whole thing.
And as awareness deepened, I began to sense into the fear and hurt and despair that this former butler must feel, whatever in him had given birth to this much seething hatred. I began to feel a kind of compassion for him, a sense of how deeply wounded he must be and how much he is suffering, just as I was suffering reading his words and as I suffer whenever I am taken over by this kind of anger and hatred, fear or despair. I began to see that the butler is me and that Trump is me, that we are not separate, that we are one happening. And I don’t mean this popped into my head as some glib idea, but that it was a deeply-felt, fully-embodied reality.
I thought about all the people who have survived genocides and holocausts and wars and invasions and occupations and lynchings and slavery and torture and false imprisonment and rape and massive injustices and horrific acts of cruelty of all kinds. I thought about how some people come out of these sufferings filled with bitterness and twisted with hatred, while others manage to find love and compassion in the midst of the storm. As hard as it sometimes is to find that love, I know that I long to bring love into the world and not more hatred and confusion.
I thought about Republicans and Democrats, Israel and Palestine, conservatives and progressives, Sunni and Shia, black people and white people, men and women, gay and straight, anti-abortion and pro-choice, and all the conflicts and divisions and misunderstandings and hurts in this world that fester and simmer and often explode.
Real love can’t be faked. We can’t just put on a spiritual mask with a phony smile—well, we can—but that kind of cloying fake love is rather sickening. The love we long for is the real deal.
So I sat quietly on my meditation cushion and then in my armchair. I felt the fear and the anger and the hopelessness, and then I felt the unbound presence that has no other. I woke up slowly but completely from the powerful trance of hatred and despair that had briefly overtaken me, and I was left with genuine love and peace and equanimity. (Note the difference between waking up completely and waking up permanently—I’m not saying this kind of trance can never overtake me again—in fact, I suspect it can and probably will happen again—but in any moment of presence, it can be completely gone).
Some teachers suggest ignoring the News…just don’t read it, and then you won’t be disturbed. But to me, that feels like ignoring reality so that we can live in some kind of insulated pseudo-peace. If you don’t live in a war zone, if you or your children aren’t starving to death, if you have enough money and privilege to have a reasonably protected and comfortable life, and if you’re very lucky, then ignoring the News might work for awhile, but sooner or later, the News will be impossible to ignore—the Gestapo will finally come for your family, the child next door will be shot, your best friend will be killed in a hate crime, a water shortage or a wildfire will appear in your neighborhood, and suddenly, you won’t be able to turn away. It will be in your face. And really, it has always been in our face. We are One Being, and when a child in Syria or Palestine or Israel or Baltimore or anywhere in the world is wounded or starved or subjected to hatred, we are all in some way affected by that, whether we know it consciously or not. And sooner or later, all the chickens do come home to roost. So we turn away at our own peril.
Yes, it can be wise to take breaks from the News, to notice when the News becomes an addictive obsession, to not get caught up in a kind of trance-state of reading terrible stories and passing them along like viruses, and so on. Yes, it is helpful to see how much of the corporate-owned News is driven and colored by the profit-motive and by the need to entertain and generate ratings, and how conflicts are often hyped and our emotions played on and reactions deliberately stirred up. Yes, it is good to see the bias in the News, and to know that there is always another side to the story, or more to the story, than we are hearing. So yes, read or watch or listen to the News intelligently and wisely, with discernment. But at the same time, don’t look away. Don’t ignore the world.
Face the hatred and the horror and the ignorance. And use it as an opportunity to go deeper, to see into the mechanics of our human suffering, to recognize our own inner Donald Trump, and to find our way through the confusion, very much as Jesus found his way (whether historically or mythically) through betrayal and crucifixion and the sense that God had abandoned him to the total acceptance that opened (mythically) into the resurrection. That, to me, is a reliable spiritual path—to not ignore, but to use the upsets in our lives, whether huge or small, personal or global, as doorways to the deeper truth.
And the deeper truth is always love. That’s not a cliché or an idea or a belief. We can FEEL that hate is a form of confusion, a form of ignorance, a form of suffering—and we can FEEL that love is the deeper truth, the deeper reality. We know this in our hearts.
When there is love, whatever action (or non-action) arises will be quite different from the reactions that arise out of hatred, old wounds, fear and despair. When we see “the other side” as totally not-who-we-are, as “the enemy,” as inherently evil, we will act differently than when we see that everything is our Self in thin disguise. There is no one right response to ignorance or hate-mongering or injustice or bigotry, but where that response comes from makes all the difference in the world.
I hope and pray that Donald Trump will not become president of the United States. But I also know that the universe works in strange ways, that sometimes the darkest hour is right before the dawn, and that even if the whole universe blows up, all is well. And for me anyway, realizing that (making it real, not just a theory), requires going through the fire and being liberated on the spot again and again, ever-freshly.
Response to a comment:
I’m not suggesting that all ideas are equally false and worthless, or that realizing the wholeness of everything means that I no longer have strong opinions or that I no longer disagree with Donald Trump or his former butler. Because I most definitely still think that the ideas this former butler was expressing on FB are racist, uninformed, hateful and full of delusion, and I find the majority of what I hear Donald Trump saying to be (by turns) bigoted, untrue, racist, sexist, xenophobic, ignorant, uninformed, arrogant, and so on. I still see Trump as a very dangerous man, even while I have compassion for him. What dissolved was the hatred and anger toward the butler (and Trump), along with the fear and despair I was feeling. But the ability to discern differences and to make intelligent judgments is still alive and well, even while I see that I don’t absolutely know what’s best for the universe.
Response to another comment (someone quoting Ramana Maharshi saying that whatever is destined to happen will happen, and that silence is the best course):
I love Ramana, and I love and value silence, and if you (or anyone else) are being called to respond to racism and bigotry and the rise of Trump with deep, silent, aware presence—as Ramana was apparently called to respond to the many horrors of the 20th Century with that kind of profound silence—then you have my blessing (not that you need it). I’ve edited my response to you several times, and it is clear to me that your comment (and those of a couple other people above and below) has “pushed a button” in me. I have no idea if you are reading this, but I said more about the button that was pushed (and my reflections on that) in a new post on May 15.
I have no doubt that Ramana brought (and continues to bring) as much peace and freedom into the world as social and political activists I admire such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth. I remember once reading (and resonating with) something by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton where he said (and this is my paraphrase from memory) that the world is being held together by silent monks. But of course, Merton also cared deeply (and wrote about) the struggles in the world against war and injustice. And as I said to you in my previous and now deleted earlier response, I'm very glad that so many people over the years have not kept silent in the face of injustice. I'm grateful to all the courageous people who have given voice to the oppressed and spoken out for social justice. And I wonder, is it possible that we don't need to pit silence against words, and that maybe true silence is not absent in words, and that sometimes, speaking out is very important?
As for "destiny," while I resonate completely with what Ramana is saying, I think it is a misunderstanding of choicelessness when we use that as a reason not to act or speak out. And maybe that's not what you were doing or intending by sharing this quote. But if we think that, “because the script is already written, because the film is already in the can, because it’s all predestined, then why bother to take action or speak out—the outcome is already destined," then I wonder if it is possible that in doing that, we are getting stuck in a conceptual ideology, that we are disempowering ourselves with an idea, and that we are leaving ourselves and our actions out of the choiceless whole? If your child is running out into the street traffic, do you silently watch them and think to yourself that "whatever is destined to happen will happen," or do you yell, "Stop!" and run out to get them? Isn't your response also destiny? And yes, if your child gets hit by a car anyway, it may be very helpful to realize that this was the Only Possible at that moment, but this doesn't block you from speaking or acting, and it certainly doesn't make that "wrong" in some way.
Anyway, thank you for speaking out and sharing Ramana’s words. Your words have been helpful to me, and as I said in the post, there is no one right response to the suffering and injustice in the world, and I'm grateful for both Ramana Maharshi and Martin Luther King. It's not either/or, but more truthfully, both/and.
Response to another comment:
I’m with you all the way on radiating love instead of fear. And in the absolute sense, yes, all is and will be fine, as you say (and as I said in my post), and that’s such an important realization. In a more relative and everyday sense, all is not well—there are many serious problems and there is great suffering in the world. I have a sense that spirituality goes astray when it loses sight of either side of that gestalt—the absolute perfection and the relative problems.
You may not agree, and that's fine if you don't, but I think there is a place for healthy concern and for spreading the word about dangers and injustices. In my opinion, on the level of relative reality, Trump is a serious danger not to be taken lightly. And I can't leave that side out.
But maybe we each have a different calling in this regard. Some are called to focus totally on absolute truth (All is well), some to focus totally on relative reality (There’s a big problem here), and some (like myself) to attempt a balance between the two, as I hope I did in this post. And as always, we don’t choose the calling that calls us. So if your calling is to radiate love, that’s beautiful.
I noticed that a few of the comments to my previous post (5/13/16) “pushed a button” in me when I first read them—one person suggesting that we allow the fire of presence to “burn away ALL our ideas of how we think things (and people) ought to be,” another person posting a quote from Ramana saying that silence is the best course and that “whatever is destined to happen will happen,” another person affirming that “no matter what happens, all is well.” In each case, I could feel a kind of tightening up as I first read these comments, an instant urge to refute them, and below that, a kind of fear.
I find that it is always worthwhile to notice when my buttons are getting pushed and to hear that as a kind of dharma bell—because it usually means that something I am holding onto is being called into question. What am I defending? What am I resisting? What am I afraid of?
This morning, as I often do, I opened Nisargadatta’s I AM THAT at random. I’ve underlined almost the entire book, so my eyes went first to the passages I had underlined on the pages I had opened to. Oddly enough, this is what I found myself reading: “Stay open and quiet, that is all. What you seek is so near you, that there is no place for a way…Don’t concern yourself with others, take care of yourself…What you gave up is of no importance now. What have you not given up? Find that out and give up that. Sadhana [spiritual practice] is a search for what to give up. Empty yourself completely…In the light of consciousness all sorts of things happen and one need not give special importance to any…Go beyond, go back to the source…See everything as emanating from the light which is the source of your own being. You will find that in that light there is love and infinite energy.” (from Nisargadatta Maharaj as recorded in I AM THAT, pp 196-197, “Ignorance Can Be Recognized, Not Gnana”).
The part that really struck me was: "What have you not given up? Find that out and give up that. Sadhana [spiritual practice] is a search for what to give up. Empty yourself completely."
What have I not given up? Clearly, Maharaj is not just talking here about giving up material possessions, but about something much deeper. Many in the Advaita and nondual world would say (and some have said) that my concern with relative reality (i.e., with racism and sexism, with economic and social justice, with the dangers posed by a bigoted demagogue like Donald Trump rising to power) is holding me back from complete and total awakening—that I still believe there is a world to save, that I take the appearance seriously, and that this pulls me back again and again into the muck, into the illusion of separation and imperfection.
And indeed, this has been my central koan (in ever-changing permutations) from the day I left the world of political activism and found myself at the Zen Center many years ago sitting in silence instead of going to demonstrations. From the perspective of the activist world I left behind, I had fallen into useless navel-gazing, and my silence was a form of complicity with oppression.
I didn’t then (and don’t now) experience deep silent presence as navel-gazing or as complicity with oppression. I experience it as the deepest Truth, the Open Heart. But whenever the spiritual world seems oblivious to—or unconcerned with—injustice and suffering—whenever I think I hear people saying a bit too glibly that “everything is perfect” or “it’s all an illusion,” I often feel a resistance—a sense that something is being overlooked or avoided or tuned out. I remember how Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, and how easily spirituality can be a form of false comfort. One of my deepest fears when I left political activism for Zen (and later for Springwater and Advaita and nonduality) was that I was betraying the oppressed, that I know too much to turn away.
I don’t see a concern with relative reality as an obstacle to being completely awake, although this concern does pull me back into the muck and into the trance of separation at times, as I described in my previous post. But I see that different people are called to different vocations in the dance of life—and that Ramana Maharshi, who sat in silence, and Martin Luther King, who took to the streets and led a movement for social justice, were both equally important in going beyond suffering. And I seem to live partly in both worlds, the spiritual and the political, and I seem to find reality in both relative and absolute perspectives, and I somehow feel that the deepest truth (at least for me) is in holding them both and allowing them to inform one another while not getting them mixed up. And maybe this is what I keep trying (always rather imperfectly) to express. This seems to be my particular sadhana, my practice, my koan in this life.
Imperfection is not a bad thing in this instance. A koan doesn’t necessarily have a right answer, but rather, it is a living question that shows up again and again. It keeps us company, as one of my friends likes to say. It shows us different faces of the Truth at different moments. It questions our assumptions and our attachments. It shows us where we are tightening up, where we are grasping and holding on, where we are turning away or avoiding something, what we are not yet giving up. And we get these wonderful little dharma bells every time we notice that we are contracting, resisting, defending, or feeling a need to oppose or assert something. Always this is a clue to stop, look and listen. To wonder. To check out what’s going on inwardly in our own heart. To feel the body, to see the thought-stories, to listen deeply.
And that’s not to say that certain things shouldn’t be opposed or asserted or defended. In relative reality, in everyday life, I’m all for opposing oppression and injustice, asserting civil rights, and defending the downtrodden. But as always, the question is, how do we go about this? Where are we coming from? Do we recognize our own inner Trump? Do we see that even the Donald is “emanating from the light which is the source of our own being”? That doesn’t mean we agree with him, or that we don’t see what’s dangerous about him, or that we don’t try to stop him, but we do it differently. And perhaps we do it without expecting anything, without imagining some utopian future or fearing some dystopian one, but simply because this is what life moves us to do—to take care of what is in front of us, to respond, to manifest the response-ability that is Here / Now, showing up as all of us—hands and eyes throughout the body as the old Zen koan says. Some of us sitting in silence, some marching in the streets, some writing or reading Facebook posts—one whole happening, one whole awakening, without borders or seams.
Response to comment:
No right and wrong at all--yes! Absolutely true! AND, there is right and wrong. True nonduality, at least as I see it, includes BOTH relative and absolute truth--it doesn't leave out either side of the coin--and that was actually what I was trying to express. The wholeness of life--unicity--includes our ability to discern right from wrong, and up from down, and me from you. AND it includes the realization that it is all one seamless whole happening.
I personally tend to stay away from moralistically loaded words like "right and wrong" and "good and evil," because to me, it's about discerning the difference between wholesome action (rooted in awareness) and action that comes from suffering and causes suffering (rooted in the thought-sense of separation). I don't see "evil people," but simply ignorant and conditioned behavior. And yes, it is all included in the One Reality...but I have always resonated with the Zen expressions, "not one, not two" and "leaping clear of the many and the one"...i.e. not getting stuck or fixated in the absolute. To my eye, that fixation is yet a subtler form of duality.
Response to another comment:
To me, true non-duality includes both relative and absolute, both the boundless and seamless Totality AND our human nature, including our ability to distinguish right from wrong, wholesome from unwholesome, enlightenment from delusion, etc. But some people use the term non-duality to mean only the absolute perspective. As for Ramana, I've seen many photos of him reading the newspaper, so apparently he was not entirely tuned out, but who knows (and who cares). As for fully enlightened, as you probably know by now, I distinguish between fully (or completely) enlightened (or awake or liberated) and permanently enlightened--one being NOW and the other being a story about time (and other imaginations)--and I consider "permanently enlightened people" to be an unenlightened oxymoron. But relatively speaking (in the world of differences and comparisons), as folks go, I'd say Ramana and Nisargadatta were very high on the enlightenment scale. And then I'd say, there is no such scale, and that no such individuals can ever be located or pinned down or separated out from you and me and everything else. And whatever I say, it is never the Truth. The map is never the territory, although mapping is an activity of the living reality.
Response to another comment:
Yes, speaking out in this way is a political act in itself—and so, I would add, is meditation and satsang and being in silent presence and all the ways of seeing through delusion and waking up from the trance of separation.
And just to further to clarify one tiny (or not so tiny) thing, while I may have spoken of “opposing” oppression in my post, it feels to me like the awakening journey actually moves away from opposition and toward something more inclusive and nondual—something that is not ignoring or turning away from relative reality or from the suffering in the world, but that is not exactly opposing or fighting against it either, at least not in the usual ways. I called it love.
And love doesn’t mean rolling over and letting Donald Trump rise to power or keeping silent in the face of demagogy, racism, sexism, bullying and so on. But love begins with the acceptance of how it is in this moment and with a compassion born of insight into how each of us (including Trump) is doing what our particular conditioning and our degree of insight and awakeness moves us to do in this moment, and how we are not separate, and how none of it (and no one) holds still. From that open awareness and love, appropriate action or non-action flows. That can take many different forms. Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, and yet he also overturned the tables in the temple. We do what life moves us to do in each moment.
And sometimes old conditioning overpowers insight and love, and we react in the old ways—fighting violence with violence, pouring gasoline on the fire, meeting hatred with more hate. And then right in the midst of that, there is the opportunity to see that happening and to wake up again—and not to fall immediately into self-flagellation or shame or stories of being a failure, but to simply wake up. To be here in this utterly new, utterly fresh moment that has never been here before, and to not know what will happen next.
Response to another comment:
Anger is such a powerful form of energy. In feeling it fully—not acting it out, but just feeling it in the body as pure energy—there can be something very positive and life-affirming about it. And it seems to be a natural response at times—we can see it in other animals. And in some situations, it clearly comes from love—as when a mother screams “NO!” at her child who is running out into the traffic. But in human beings, because of our complex thinking and our identification with a self-image and a sense of “me” that seemingly needs to be protected and our ability to keep alive a story of “what you did to me” for decades and in some cases for generations, anger can get very messy. And underneath anger, there is almost always other, deeper feelings—hurt or fear, usually. And so before we explode and make matters worse, it can be very helpful to look and feel into what it is that feels hurt or afraid or threatened or insulted, what it is that we are defending. Sometimes it can be helpful to express anger, but more often it isn’t helpful because we say things that can’t be unsaid, and when someone is angry at us, what happens to us? Usually we tighten up. It doesn’t invite us to open up, to soften, to see or admit what we may have done to someone, to change perhaps…instead it tends to solidify us even more. We get more entrenched. So, for example, to have different political factions yelling at each other and sending each other death threats and calling each other names doesn’t really seem like it helps very much. Everyone just gets more polarized and less able to listen to or hear each other. We so easily become everything we are fighting against. Listening openly to those who see things differently is a great art, one at which I often fail.
Response to comment:
Yes, repressing anger (or any emotion) is not healthy and usually means it grows unseen into poison fruit of one kind or another. I’d much rather have someone just outright get angry at me than behave in passive-aggressive ways and then deny that anything is going on—that is crazy-making for both parties involved (and I’ve been on both sides of that one, as we probably all have at one time or another). Unfortunately, there is a lot of pressure in society (and in spirituality) to repress certain emotions or to deny to ourselves that we even have them. When we can fully experience our feelings (somatically, in the body, as energy and sensation), and when we can give them voice (not always aloud, but at least internally, so that we can fully hear out what they are saying, and what thoughts and ideas are involved), that always seems to feel better and have better outcomes for ourselves and the world around us than repression. Repression breeds depression and despair and addictive behaviors, etc. My own healing journey has been (and is) much like what you describe as yours.
What follows are several essential teachings conveyed to me by my first Zen teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman during a sesshin (a Zen meditation retreat) at Berkeley Zen Center in the 1980’s, as recorded in my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My life:
"In a certain sense," Mel continued, "limitation is freedom. Then you can let go of all the fantasies, all the possibilities, and just settle into what's actually in front of you. You find that really, the thing itself isn't so important, whether it's this activity or that one. But the settling in and penetrating to the root is very important. That's what sesshin is all about. Right now you're here. Exactly here. Energy needs to focus or else it turns to restlessness and daydreaming. Our suffering is our inability to settle. Suffering is believing there's a way out."
Later he told me, "We're always looking for diamonds in the mud. But actually the mud itself is pretty interesting. That's what Zen practice is about. The mud."
--from Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My life (p 39)
I’ve offered a few down-in-the-mud posts lately. And in my books and writings, I often use the nitty-gritty messiness of my own life as a vehicle for exploring and revealing the Holy Reality. As I’ve indicated in my last few posts, the mud is a kind of koan. What exactly is the mud? The great Zen master Huang Po once said, “On no account make a distinction between the Absolute and the sentient world.” Another one of my Zen teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, said of enlightenment or the absolute, “It’s nothing more than parking your car, putting on your clothes, taking a walk.” The great Advaita sage Nisargadatta—in part of the passage that I cited in my last post—said, “What you seek is so near you, that there is no place for a way.”
Although there is no distance from Here to Here, Nisargadatta spoke often about earnestness. Mel called it settling or focusing. Some teachers have called it vigilance (keeping vigil at the flame). What is that flame?
If we fail to see that enlightenment/liberation/awakening is Here / Now, we will miss it entirely. I once asked Mel, “What is settling?” And he replied, “Settling is waking up moment to moment.” (BBM p 210)
What is real? Long ago, that was the title of my website. That question is a rich inquiry to live with and to explore. Is it possible to let go of all the answers we’ve learned about what the word “real” means and what is or isn’t real, and instead, to actually feel into this question directly? What does it mean to you, in your own firsthand experience, to feel or think that something is real?
If we care about the state of the world, or about some group that is suffering, or about the well-being of our child or our dog or our friend, is it because we believe they are real? Are the school girls who were captured by Boko Haram or the journalists who have been beheaded by ISIS real? Were the people from Africa who were brought to the United States and forced into slavery real? Was what happened to them real? Is Donald Trump real? Are the clouds or the trees real? Is our house real? Was the moon-landing in 1969 real? Were World War II and the holocaust real? Is gravity real? Is our mother or our child or our partner real? Is this Facebook post real? Is a dream or a movie real? Is a thought real? And finally, are you real? How real are you? What is real about you and what isn’t?
If something isn’t real, does that mean it is unreal? What does it mean to be real or unreal? Can something seem real in one moment and unreal in another, and if so, which version is reality and how do you decide?
Again, don’t rush to answer these questions, and especially don’t answer them with whatever second-hand information you’ve read or heard or learned from spiritual teachers, parents, scientists or other authorities. Instead, really dive into your own immediate, direct experience, and actually live with these questions. Let the questions percolate inside you. Let them act on you. Notice what is going on in your life at the moment when one of these questions comes into your mind, and see what the question reveals in that moment.
This question (What is real?) is a kind of koan. It isn’t calling for an ideological or conceptual or metaphysical or philosophical answer (some word or “correct” formulation that thought can spew out). And it isn’t calling for a quote from some dead guru or some physicist or neuroscientist. This question is rather an invitation to really explore what you actually mean by reality, what you think and feel is real, and what it’s like to think and feel that something is real (or unreal)…to bring all these assumptions and feelings and beliefs about reality and what it means into the light, to really see them, to question them, and to genuinely not know what will reveal itself.
You may find that the word “real” begins to sound more and more absurd—as if it were a kind of gobbledygook, gibberish, baby-talk, nonsense sound that means nothing at all. You may wonder, what are we even talking about? You may suddenly wake up to the simplicity, immediacy, and vibrant aliveness of just this—the cheeping bird, the whooshing traffic, the crackling sounds of rain, the grey clouds blowing across the sky, the sensations of walking or sitting in a chair, the fragrance of flowers, the smell of garbage, the sensations of a headache—just this—real or unreal?
5/27/16: Someone asks: You have often talked about 'the inner task master'. Well he frequently ruins my day, stalks me at home, on the street, at work. Can you say something about him, how can I get rid of this bore? Thanks in advance!
My response: First of all, you might notice that you already ARE free of this phantom task-master in the sense that you can observe and report on him. The awareness that reveals all of this is not bound or ruined. Is it? Second, I would point out that what we resist tends to persist. Resistance tends to strengthen the thing being resisted—it validates it as a real obstacle. So instead of trying to get rid of this phantom, what happens if you simply allow him to be here whenever he shows up? I don’t mean buying into the stories he is telling you, but rather, just letting him ramble on and allowing him to do what he does—and instead of taking him seriously and fighting him, or believing his pronouncements and commands, simply hear them as old, conditioned thoughts that don’t need to be believed. The more these thoughts are seen for what they are (conditioned habits), the less believable they are and the less power they have to seemingly ruin your day. But if your day does seem ruined, you might stop and notice that this, too, is only another thought: “This has ruined my day…my day has been ruined.” Right now, in this instant, without referring to thought or memory, has anything been ruined? Is there anyone who has a problem? Is there a problem? The key is always about seeing the false as false and waking up NOW.
Every time I’ve had general anesthesia, I’ve been aware of losing consciousness as it happens. For a few seconds, I can feel consciousness slipping away, and the thought “Here I go” sometimes arises, as if “I” am something other than consciousness, something that is now “going” somewhere else—into the unknowable. There is no fear in this, just a knowingness that consciousness is disappearing—I can feel it going. Next thing I know, I’m waking up when the procedure is over and the anesthesia has worn off. The movie of waking life is back, and it is as if no time has passed. Maybe some of you have also had this experience of feeling consciousness slipping away. I have always imagined that the moment of death will be more or less like this.
This experience and the words that sometimes spontaneously accompany it (“Here I go”) suggest to me that even when consciousness slips away or is erased, what I truly am (beyond name and form, beyond memory and storyline and sensation) remains. This Ultimate Reality is unknowable in the usual ways of knowing, and yet it is not unfamiliar. Every night in deep sleep, everything perceivable and conceivable vanishes along with the one who is concerned about vanishing or not vanishing. Even the first bare impersonal sense of being present and aware disappears in deep sleep. And this nightly disappearance is experienced as peaceful, relaxing and rejuvenating. We are not terrified of disappearing into deep sleep.
If we look backward in any moment to see what is aware of being present and conscious, or if we dive into the very core of any sensation, including the sense of presence itself, we find no-thing at all. This not-finding-anything, this vanishing of everything we can grasp, is as close as we can get to experiencing what is beyond all experience. It may feel a bit like falling, and the thought may arise that this nothingness is dangerous or scary, that we are disappearing, or losing our grip, or falling into a scary dead void—but that’s just thought and the surge of sensation in the body that may accompany such a thought. But there’s nothing scary about deep sleep. And when we dive into any sensation or look back to see what is aware of being conscious, we not only find nothing, but at the same time, we find everything! This ungraspable no-thing-ness is a vibrant aliveness that instantly appears as everything.
When this body disintegrates after death, as it is in fact doing moment to moment, it goes back into the elements (the subatomic stardust or the pure consciousness) out of which it is formed. Life feeds on life. The living reality (the Totality) is unborn and undying, and the fear of death—or the concern with whether “I” will survive it—only arises from the (intermittent) thought-sense of being a limited, separate bodymind concerned about surviving as “me,” the apparently separate self.
I have always had a deep sense that there is nothing to fear in death. It seems clear that while forms disappear, the formlessness of life (the wholeness, the unicity, the undivided vastness that is at once infinite and most intimate) is never born and never destroyed. It’s not that I think some soul-like entity (presently called Joan Tollifson) will survive death and either reincarnate or go to heaven or hell. Rather, it’s that no such discrete and enduring entity has ever existed.
“Joan Tollifson” is a kind of fictional character. The bodymind itself is nothing but continuous change, like a wave or a whirlpool, inseparable from the so-called environment in which it exists. “The person” (like “the whirlpool” or “the wave”) is an abstraction, a concept, a frozen idea—whereas the reality of the so-called body-mind-person is ever-changing sensations, movements of energy, images, thoughts, body fluids, electrical firings, cells dividing and dying off, food and air coming in and being transformed and then going out again. Like a wave in the ocean, a person never holds still—it is never the same from one instant to the next—and it is never really separate from the other waves or the water.
When a river flows into the sea, the water is still there, but it no longer exists as a separate river. When a person dies, that person no longer exists as the separate entity they once seemed to be (and never truly were). They dissolve back into the ocean, back into the totality, from which they were never really separate. A dream has ended, an appearance has dissolved. And we might notice that this dream-like appearance we call “my life” is actually dissolving and changing (appearing and disappearing, dying and being born) all the time—it has never really been a solid, separate, persisting, continuous “thing” in the way that we imagine and conceptualize and think of it.
The great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj once said: “The sense of presence which has come spontaneously will leave spontaneously. The desire to be is the strongest of all desires and will go only on the realization of your true nature.”
Like most great teachers,Nisargadatta taught at different levels, highlighting different aspects of reality, all equally valid and not necessarily occurring in any linear order, but often circling around in ever-more-subtle realizations. Nisargadatta talked about paying attention and seeing how the mind works—stepping back from our thoughts and feelings and observing them. He talked about abiding in the sense of impersonal, unbound presence (what he called the I Am, or what Eckhart Tolle calls the Now). Instead of standing back and observing, this is more about simply BEING the happening of this moment, without division or separation—realizing that subject and object are one. And finally, Nisargadatta pointed beyond consciousness itself, to what is prior to the entire movie of waking life and even to that first bare sense of being present. Nisargadatta called this Awareness or the Absolute; Tolle calls it the Unmanifested; it has been given many different names.
Of course, the names and the dividing line between manifested and unmanifested, or between relative and absolute, are purely notional. The Unmanifest is not off somewhere else—it is actually right here, shining forth and expressing itself as everything—the trees, the clouds, the planets, the ant hills, the skyscrapers, the airplanes, the bombs, the medicines, the diseases—this whole amazing happening. As the Buddhist Heart Sutra puts it, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Or as Nisargadatta put it, I am nothing (the realization of which is wisdom) AND I am everything (the realization of which is love). There is the discernment of differences, and there is the recognition that there is no actual separation and no enduring forms—I am not encapsulated inside the body, I am not the imaginary self that thought posits, I am all of this and so much more, and none of this has any separate existence or any inherent objective reality.
We can’t ever find or see no-thing-ness or the Unmanifest or the Absolute as a particular object – as some-thing, this but not that. We can’t grasp it or “get it.” We can’t stand outside of it and observe it (because “it” is not something, but rather, the it-less-ness of everything). We can only BE this it-less-ness. And actually, we can’t not be this. This is always already all there is. So we don’t need to give up the body, or lose consciousness, or gain consciousness, or get into some rarified samadhi state, or deny the relative reality of being a particular person, or work very hard to identify as awareness and not as a person. We don’t need to have exotic experiences or be in some continuous state of mindfulness or get rid of all our neurosis as a bodymind organism. There is no way out (and thus no need of a way in). The Absolute is right here.
And still, if we are hypnotized by the thought that “this isn’t it,” and by the belief that I am a separate person, a person who doesn’t get it, then there will be suffering—and that’s why we have spiritual practices and teachers and teachings and books and Facebook posts like this one and all the many ways of pointing all this out. And what truly matters is not the pointers or the maps or the sign-posts, but the living reality to which they point. It doesn’t matter if one teacher says it one way, and another uses a different map or a different approach or different words. What matters is the living reality itself.
This is such a difficult “thing” to point out because it is not a thing! We can apparently stand outside of and observe our car, or the sensations in our left foot, or our thoughts, or the events in the world—but we can’t stand outside of Totality. And really, the more closely we look, the more we find that we are never really outside of ANYTHING that we are observing. The seer and the seen are abstract ideas superimposed onto the undivided seeing. The boundary-line between subject and object, or between inside and outside, or between me and you, is always conceptual, like the line on a map between one country and another. Reality is undivided, seamless, whole. Everything we see is our Self.
We can intuit the Absolute, but we can’t ever pin down or get hold of Ultimate Reality or Unicity. We can only BE it. And we can see through the ways we confuse and limit and delude ourselves with thoughts and ideas, the ways we mistake the lines on the map and the “things” they create for reality. In other words, we can see the false as false (not once-and-for-all, but whenever it shows up, now and now). We can see how thought creates the mirage of “me” and “it.” But any attempt to grasp or pin down or “get” the Truth is delusion, rooted in the illusion that it is “out there” and presently lacking. Whatever we get will only be another fleeting appearance in the dream, another passing experience, another idea, another belief that can be doubted, another map mistaken for the territory.
And at the same time, ALL of that is none other than Ultimate Reality, but Ultimate Reality is not limited to any of that. Ultimate Reality is not something in particular. It is everything and no-thing at all. And actually, this is true of everything from the piece of trash blowing down the street to the entire universe.
The mind is heavily conditioned to grasp and to want answers and formulas. It desperately wants to “get it.” In relative reality, this is useful. But in terms of the Absolute or the ultimate nature of reality, this habit is only a hindrance. It is what seemingly obscures the Truth that is actually obvious and unavoidable. But paradoxically, of course, even this habit of grasping and seeking is none other than the Absolute, the Holy Reality, the Self, the One-without-a-second momentarily appearing as this habit, this particular impersonal movement of energy. But don’t grab onto that as a belief, because if you do, it’s just another set of blinders and more baggage.
Waking up is about letting go of all beliefs again and again, not landing anywhere, relaxing into the groundlessness of not knowing and the aliveness of presence. This not knowing is not ignorance or stupidity, but rather, it is the openness in which there is truly nothing to grasp. There is just this, exactly as it is. How is it? As soon as you try to pin it down, you miss the mark. And yet, the mark can never be missed.
Response to a comment:
Indeed, not knowing (being open) is most intimate. As for why we tell stories, I never find that “why” questions serve us very well in this realm. They work fine on practical questions like why the car won’t start. But in this realm, they seem to lead only to theorizing and speculating. I do, however, find it very helpful to notice (or SEE) this tendency to add storylines and interpretations when it happens. It’s not always a bad thing, and it seems to be part of what human minds do: they compare and contrast and analyze and evaluate and explain and tell stories. But it’s helpful to be aware of this when it happens, and to see the difference between the bare facts and any kind of interpretive-storyline-overlay. The simple fact that “she was late for our meeting” is very different from the overlay that “she doesn’t respect my time, she doesn’t love me, she doesn’t take me seriously.” Likewise, the simple fact that it is raining is different from thinking “it’s a horrible day, this is depressing, my day is ruined.” So very helpful to SEE that kind of spin when it happens.
Response to another comment:
You don’t have to work to be aware, or to be awareness. Awareness is what “I” is before we learn to contract down and add on “I am Pat,” and then “I am a success” or “I am a failure,” and “I am in this situation,” and so on and on. Awareness is the natural state, the ever-present ground, that which is the same in every different experience. The one who is trying to identify as awareness is the separate self, isn't it? Only when we think we are this separate self do we imagine that we have to “do something” in order to be okay. Instead, I would say, simply see (and in the seeing, see through) the thought-story of being a separate person whenever it shows up. In other words, seeing the false as false rather than chasing after the Truth. You may also notice that much of the time—in the absence of thinking—there is simply the present happening and this boundless awaring presence, without a storyline. Is all of this a practice? We can call it that, but it depends what that word means to us. We could also say that meditation is what we are, not something we do.
If you stop thinking just for a moment, what remains? There is still hearing-seeing-smelling-breathing-heart-beating-sensing-perceiving-awaring...yes? Not those words or concepts, but the actuality to which they point—the green of the leaves, the sounds of the traffic, the sensations of breathing, the knowingness of being present...all of it, one whole effortless happening.
Thought comes and goes. It labels what is being perceived, comments on it, judges it, evaluates, compares, tells stories, etc. The more you pay attention, the more you can discern the difference between thoughts and sensations, and between thinking and awaring. You can’t think your way to “getting” this. Clarity comes from paying attention wordlessly, and this attention is an open, spacious, relaxed devotion to the present moment, just as it is. Listening, seeing, being aware, being this boundless present moment. This is what intelligent meditation is all about.
You begin to see that the “me” who is supposedly the thinker, the meditator, the doer, the chooser, the experiencer, the controller, etc. is nothing more than a kind of intermittent mental mirage made up of thoughts, mental images, memories, sensations, and emotions. The more closely you look for the “me,” the more you discover it can’t be found. It is like chasing a mirage. Simultaneously, you begin to feel yourself as the unbound spaciousness of presence-awareness, the seamless fluidity of present experiencing, the vibrant aliveness of Here / Now, the infinite and most intimate Ultimate Subject from which nothing stands apart. It’s not that you’re THINKING of yourself as unbound awareness, or TRYING to remember to identify yourself as unbound awareness. It’s that you simply notice that you already ARE unbound awareness. And you notice that this boundless awareness has space for everything to be just as it is.
The deeply engrained habit is to try to resolve our doubts and uncertainties by thinking about all of this and trying to figure it out mentally in our heads. But the key to waking up is in being present, being aware, being embodied—and by embodied, I mean awake to the somatic sensations and energies that we think of as “my body.” Paradoxically, the more awareness and presence we bring to the body, the more we realize experientially that there is no body in the way we think there is—“the body” is a concept, while the actuality of what we call “the body” is fluid and alive, moving and changing, subtle and space-like, with no boundary between inside and outside.
Feeling the sensations in the body, feeling the breathing. Hearing the birdsong, the traffic sounds, the barking dog, the airplane passing overhead, the rain pattering on the roof. Smelling the coffee, tasting it, savoring it. Enjoying the colors and shapes and the whole visual dance of the moment in the way that you might enjoy abstract art or a plotless movie or the tumbling shapes in the kaleidoscope, as pure visual sensation. Seeing the thoughts as they arise without believing them or following them or getting caught up in their content. Allowing them to come and go without resisting them or judging them or getting caught up in secondary thoughts about the thoughts. In other words, simply being present as the living reality Here / Now, just as it is, without trying to change or understand it. This is true meditation or devotion to what is.
But don’t try to “do” all of this perfectly or “all the time,” and don’t make it into some methodical practice, but simply allow it to happen naturally whenever it invites you. This isn’t some kind of effortful, goal-oriented task in which we need to strain and struggle in order to achieve some result. It’s not about getting anywhere other than Here / Now, and it’s not about getting rid of anything that is showing up. It is simply being Here / Now. Being here is effortless. There is nothing to get, nothing that needs to happen, nothing that needs to be achieved or resisted or eliminated or figured out.
And if you notice that you ARE trying to figure it all out, or trying to do something or make something happen or “get” something or get rid of something, or if you notice that you are judging yourself or evaluating your progress, simply recognize (SEE) that this is happening, and that all of this is nothing more than a movement of conditioned thought, an old habit, a compulsive pattern of the universe—see it for what it is and allow it to pass through. Don’t imagine that these old habits mean something about the mirage-like “me,” that they are signs of spiritual failure or personal lack. They are nothing more than conditioned patterns of energy happening to no one. You are the awareness beholding them, and awareness is unconditioned and free. So, simply see these movements of thought for what they are and allow them to come and go naturally. Allow the sensations that accompany these thoughts to unfold and move naturally in the body as pure energy, and allow them to dissolve in their own time. Awareness is unconditional love. It’s not about resisting and hating these old patterns, but simply bringing them into the light. This is all about devotion to what is. It’s not a self-improvement project.
So don’t look for results. That’s the trap and the old habit of the mind—to get lost in past or future. You’re not going anywhere. This isn’t about vanquishing thoughts or achieving some fantasy version of enlightenment in which you always feel calm and blissful and spacious and loving. Rather, this is about discovering how it actually is Here / Now, however it is. It’s not about coming up with a conceptual formulation or a label or a description or an explanation for how it is, or getting some kind of mental picture or mental map nicely arranged in your head, but instead, simply being awake Here / Now, effortlessly—noticing how it actually is without needing to grasp or define it in any way. Simply hearing-seeing-sensing-awaring-thinking-being, just as it is. Just this!
If it feels complicated or difficult, that’s a clue that we’re thinking again, trying to grasp it conceptually or make something happen. Reality itself is simple, effortless, always already here. So if it seems otherwise, that’s the invitation to investigate directly—to stop, look and listen—to explore, and to relax into the simplicity of what is.
Don’t go to war with complexity or restlessness or resistance or efforting or confusion or seeking or trying or obsessive thinking if any of that shows up, but simply be aware of it—see the thoughts, feel the sensations in the body—allow it to be as it is, feel how it is, allow it to move through naturally. Meet whatever shows up with awareness, which is another word for unconditional love or acceptance or welcoming or the openness of not knowing. Simply be aware—and notice that awareness is always already fully present.
This kind of true meditation can happen anywhere—in an armchair or on a meditation cushion, at home or while riding on the city bus or in an airplane or in a waiting room. It doesn’t require a quiet setting or any particular posture. Your eyes can be open or closed. In fact, we might even notice that meditation is always happening—that meditation is the very nature of Here / Now.
Sometimes in the world of spirituality, people get the mistaken idea that thinking is bad, memory is bad, visualizing or planning the future is bad, imagination is bad, story-telling is bad, fantasy is bad, sensuality is bad, caring about the world is bad, money is bad, watching TV is bad, and so on. People get the idea that being awake or meditating or getting enlightened is about being in some continuous state of thoughtless awareness in which imagination has been banished and all sense of being a person has vanished. But this isn’t what I’m pointing to at all.
Yes, it is very important to see how thought can confuse us, to develop the ability to discern the difference between concepts and actuality, to be aware of how we do our suffering—how we reincarnate the mirage-like separate self through thinking and telling the story of me and my problems, and how it feels if we spend most of our time lost in memories or fantasies or regrets. It’s very helpful to be able to see when a story is enlightening us—as in a good movie or a poem or a teaching story—and when a story is just a form of suffering—as in when we’re lost in stories such as “I’m a failure” or “You ruined my life.” It’s helpful to discern when watching or reading the News is part of our responsibility as members of the human community to stay informed and when it becomes a way of scaring ourselves, solidifying our opinions, passing along destructive mental viruses, and stirring up anger and despair. It’s important to see when imagination and visualization and fantasy are creative, entertaining or enjoyable and when these are a way of generating more and more suffering.
We break reality up conceptually into apparently different “things” in order to see different aspects of reality more clearly—and in that way, we distinguish between thought, awareness, consciousness, sensation, perception, conceptualization, imagination, fantasy, and so on. It is helpful to make those distinctions. But in reality, the dividing lines are notional and none of these “things” actually exist as separate “things.” For example, if you look very closely at thoughts as they are happening, they seem ever-more ungraspable. They are bursts of energy with no clear boundary-line between that energy and the storylines and mental images they evoke and the awaring presence beholding it all. It is truly one whole undivided happening. So it’s fine to use the labels and the maps that thought draws, but it’s also important to be aware of how we get bamboozled by them. And when I say it’s important to be aware of that, I don’t mean having that as a new idea or a new belief, that “we easily get bamboozled by our thoughts and concepts,” but rather, I mean SEEING it as it happens, waking up on the spot.
We may spend time in meditation simply being present in silent stillness—not looking at our devices, not reading or writing or talking or watching TV or listening to music or doing tasks, and to whatever degree possible, not thinking or daydreaming, but simply being fully present and awake to the bare sensations and energies of this moment. And that’s a great thing to do, in my opinion. It’s good for the body and the mind, and it’s very helpful in noticing how it actually is Here / Now—cultivating the ability to see and disengage from the conceptual spin where humans often live most of our lives and waking up to the spacious, open, awaring presence that we truly are. Meditation is great. But obviously, we won’t spend our whole life sitting in silence.
And in everyday life, things naturally get messier. Lots of things happen at once. Phones ring, children cry, dogs bark, milk is spilled, tires go flat, deadlines press in on us, decisions are called for, words fly around in our heads and out loud. Memory colors perception, thinking and awaring and sensing all happen simultaneously. We might enjoy a good conversation that includes a mix of deep inquiry, open listening, gossip, story-telling, humor, while maybe simultaneously eating a meal and also hearing the birds singing and the traffic sounds and enjoying the beauty of the flowers in a vase on the table, and intermittently dealing with shrieking children who run in and out of the room. We may watch a movie, read a novel, go to a play, read our children a bedtime story, or watch the News—and for awhile we are transported into another world. And none of this needs to be pathologized or avoided. None of this is an obstacle.
Yes, it may be helpful to set aside time for meditation, or to go on a silent retreat, or to attend a satsang, or to take breaks from watching the News. But if we think that retreats are spiritual and watching TV is not, we are lost in dualistic ideas. Yes, it’s helpful to notice how things affect us—how we feel after watching TV, or after meditating, or after eating a certain food, or after having a few drinks, or after spending time with a certain friend. Being aware of how things affect us—noticing what things bring suffering in their wake and what things bring forth well-being—that is intelligent and helpful. But dividing it all up into good and bad, spiritual or not spiritual, and then trying to improve or perfect or fix “me”—that is not helpful.
Spirituality tends toward various form of imbalance: fundamentalism, dogmatism, puritanism, authoritarianism—and religion, which is fundamentally about realizing wholeness and love, has been used to justify all manner of wars, purges, crusades and acts of unbelievable cruelty, repression or abuse—and while it may be easy to spot many of these tendencies in the world’s dominant organized religions, these tendencies can happen in nonduality as well. They may take a subtler form in nonduality, but they can still happen. So it’s always good to stop and see where we have latched onto a conceptual formulation as if it were truth itself, where we are being dogmatic about our way of formulating things, where we have reified the ungraspable no-thing-ness, turning it into “something” that we can hold onto, where we have closed down the openness and intimacy of not knowing with the false certainty of belief and ideology, where we are caught up in a conceptual confusion over different maps.
We don’t really need to figure out how the universe works or what role the brain plays in consciousness or which comes first—the chicken or the egg, or what exactly happens or doesn’t happen after death, or whether there is or isn’t ever any kind of choice. We can think and reason and knot up our minds trying to logically figure such things out. But true nonduality doesn’t mistake any map for the territory, and it doesn’t land on one side of a conceptual divide or fixate on one position as opposed to another. Nonduality isn’t about getting the right beliefs, but rather, it is about waking up from belief and simply being awake Here / Now without holding to any ideas about what this is. Truth is in the open mind and the open heart, not in formulas or dogmas. Everything we say is always only a tentative approximation.
Beyond all such conceptual arguments, we can experience directly the living reality—the vibrant energy, the brightness of present experiencing, the spacious openness of presence-awareness, the ever-changing and ever-present Here / Now. We can discover the freedom of not being caught up in false ideas. We can feel the sense of well-being that comes from the recognition of wholeness and fluidity and no-thing-ness. We can experience the liberation of being awake to the simplicity of what is. We can see that everything is a happening of the seamless whole, that all of it is impersonal, that none of it means anything about the mirage-like “me.” We can recognize that life includes both pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, and in that recognition, the search for a life of perpetual bliss can fall away along with our desperate quest to permanently rid ourselves of all uncertainty, confusion, upset, old habits, neurosis and pain—that search for a non-existent one-sided coin can finally end, and there can be a peace with how it actually is, knowing that it is always changing and that all of it is simply impersonal weather. We may also discover that in this very instant, there is a possibility of not going with the conditioned movement of habit and not resisting it either, but instead, simply being aware without doing anything at all. Being awareness. We can discover the transformative and healing power of awareness and unconditional love. And that’s what really matters. That’s where the rubber meets the road, as they say.
The awakening journey has many twists and turns—we open up, we close down; we advance and then retreat; we have moments of open-hearted love and a profound sense of wholeness, wonder and beauty, and then other moments of feeling separate, lost, contracted, oppositional, angry, defensive, wounded, confused, self-righteous, and so on. The more the light of awareness illuminates the darkness, ever-subtler forms of delusion reveal themselves. There is no end to awakening. We see things that we’ve been doing on hypnotic auto-pilot for decades but had never really seen before…and then, even after seeing them, we find that these patterns can still recur, sometimes decade after decade.
This can be discouraging and disheartening, especially if we are taking it personally as “my failures” and if we have perfectionistic, idealistic, dualistic notions of self-improvement and of the light triumphing once-and-for-all over the darkness, or “up” permanently defeating “down,” and a perfectly flawless “me” living forever after only on the sunny side of the street, or the world turning into a perfect utopia. But this notion of a one-sided coin is a fantasy, as is the self who takes personal credit and blame for the activities of the whole universe.
The world-journey also has many twists and turns. I grew up in a country that had kept Black people enslaved and then later relegated them to the back of the bus and to the hands of lynch mobs. I witnessed the arising of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Barack Obama. When my mother was born, women didn’t have the right to vote in this country. Women were the property of men basically. As I was growing up, it was rare to see a woman in elected office, or to see a woman doctor, or a woman lawyer, or a woman auto mechanic, or a woman news anchor. The people running this country and in positions of power were almost entirely white men. Being gay was considered a sin, a form of mental illness, a crime, and a social disgrace. The notion that people like myself could ever get married was beyond imagination. Less than 40 years before I was born, there was a law on the books in Chicago, the city where I was born, stating that anyone who was “maimed, mutilated, or deformed” (and I guess that would have included a one-armed person like me) was forbidden from being out in public. Years later, I participated in the month-long occupation of the San Francisco Federal Building by people with disabilities demanding passage of legislation to end discrimination and insure accessibility of public spaces.
One of the more positive things about getting older is that you do get a sense of how much has changed. At the time it was happening, the speed of change often felt agonizingly slow, and the setbacks and backlashes that happened along the way were often devastating and brought forth, at the time, a sense of despair and hopelessness. But the fact is, things do change.
What happened in Orlando (the ISIS-inspired mass shooting yesterday that killed some 50 people and injured some 50 more in a gay nightclub) is heartbreaking and sad—especially since we know this kind of thing will just keep happening. But at the same time, it’s always moving to see how people show up in amazingly generous and loving ways when terrible things happen, whether it’s an earthquake or a terrorist attack or a mass shooting. People line up to give blood, donations pour in for the survivors, signs of support are offered around the globe. Love is stronger than hate. I will never forget the relatives of those killed in the Charleston church massacre showing up at the shooter’s arraignment hearing and saying they forgave him or were working on forgiving him for what he did.
So how do we meet the things we dislike? How do we meet the nightclub shooting, or the rise of Donald Trump, or the existence of ISIS? How do we meet our busy mind, our judgmental mind, our obsessions and compulsions, our old habits that seem to flare up again and again, our unwanted personality traits, our neurosis, our delusion? How do we meet the loud weed-whacker or the blasting stereo that starts up just as we are sitting down to meditate? How do we meet the racist or sexist or heterosexist comment? How do we meet the headache, the acid indigestion, the arthritis pain, the chemotherapy, the fatigue, the terminal diagnosis? How do we meet the loss of a child? How do we meet climate change and the political and economic systems that seem to make any kind of meaningful response to it all but impossible?
Being awake isn’t about having some idea about how we “should” meet these kinds of things. It isn’t about trying to be happy all the time, or repressing sorrow or anger or grief, or dismissing it all as “just a dream.” It isn’t about any kind of prescription for spiritually correct (or nondually correct) behavior. It’s simply about being awake. Being awake to how we ARE responding right now to something we dislike. Change happens by itself out of this awakeness. This awakeness is love itself. It is the love that has space for our grief and our sorrow and our rage and for all our human failures and imperfections and set-backs. It is the love that finds grace in what is, however terrible it may seem.
My heart goes out to the LGBTQ community of Orlando and to all of us.
This isn’t going to be one of my usual “spiritual” or “nondual” posts. Orlando moves me to speak out about a number of issues. This is a message in part directed to all my Bernie-or-Bust and Green Party friends in the United States who are vowing not to vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s also a message to everyone about Donald Trump. And it’s a message about the long struggle for LGBTQ equality, and about the struggle against the gun lobby and the agenda that the Republican Party in the United States now represents.
It now appears that the Orlando shooter may have been a repressed or closeted gay person—and in reality, we may never know. But if he was, it adds yet another twist to this dark story—the possibility of internalized homophobia, something that frequently manifests itself as a strong anti-gay stance. Unfortunately, as we know only too well, all of the world’s major religions have had backward ideas about love between people of the same gender. In recent years, this has begun to change, and there have been progressive elements in all the major religions (Islam included) that are welcoming and open-minded and inclusive, but the backward and conservative elements in both Christianity and Islam (and other religions) remain. The shooter’s father was clearly anti-gay, so this young man was almost certainly raised on toxic anti-gay bigotry. If he then found himself attracted to men, one can imagine the internal tug-of-war, one familiar to so many LGBT people. Add in a possible mood disorder or some other form of mental illness and whatever factors attracted him to the message of militant fundamentalist extremist groups like ISIS, locate him in a country where (astonishingly) just about anyone—even someone the FBI has been investigating for links to terrorism and someone with a history of domestic abuse—can easily buy a military-grade assault weapon, and you have a recipe for mass disaster.
The Republican Party and the conservative (anti-gay) elements in ALL religions have fed into anti-gay bigotry, and the NRA and the Republican Party have blocked every effort at any kind of reasonable gun control for years now. I consider ALL these groups partly responsible for what happened in Orlando. All of these people have blood on their hands, the blood of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And now Donald Trump is enthusiastically egging on the hatred, the divisiveness and the fear, hoping it will get him the power and status he so desperately craves. Let’s be very clear, Donald Trump is no friend of LGBT people or Hispanics or women—he has made that abundantly clear on many occasions, as has the Republican Party in general. Donald is the Republican Party exposed nakedly for what it has become, the Republican Party with their nice-mask ripped off. And anyone who thinks otherwise has their head deeply buried in the sand.
So I have a message today for all my Bernie-or-Bust and Green Party friends: I understand where you’re coming from. I am a longtime fan of Bernie Sanders. I contributed to his campaign. I was thrilled that he got in the race and pushed the Democratic Party and Hillary to the left, that he drew in so many young people, and that he started a real conversation (and hopefully sparked an on-going movement) about the important issues that face us in this country and in the world. I understand the frustration with electoral politics and with corporate capitalism and with the two major political parties. Sadly, I once sat out an election many years ago because I believed the whole system was corrupt. Ignoring the importance of Supreme Court nominations and the difference certain pieces of legislation can make in the lives of real people, and ignoring the powers a president has to take us into war, I insisted that there was no meaningful difference between the two major parties and refused to participate. On another occasion, I voted for Ralph Nader (albeit in a state I knew would go Democratic). So I get where you’re coming from, my Bernie-or-Bust and Green Party friends.
But in my humble opinion, this is a crucial election. If you don’t vote, or if you write-in Bernie’s name, or if you vote for Jill Stein or the Libertarians instead of voting for Hillary, you will essentially be voting for Trump. And if Trump wins, we will have an ultra-conservative Supreme Court for a very long time; all our struggles for social justice will be set back; climate change will be unchallenged; we’ll have an impulsive bully and a hate-monger in command of our military and our nuclear arsenal; we’ll have a corrupt, greedy, bad businessman—the kind who deliberately scams and cheats people—in charge of the economy; we’ll have a president who mocks people with disabilities; and oh yes, we’ll have someone who is totally in bed with the NRA, committed to making sure that home-grown terrorists and mentally unstable people can continue to buy assault weapons and kill people. So please, my friends, vote for Hillary. And then yes, organize and work for all the issues you care about. I’ve participated in and seen the power of many social movements: the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, the environmental movement, the disability rights movement and many more—by all means, get involved and continue this work. But please don’t make it harder by putting a fascist in the White House.
Life is messy, and purity, idealism and all-or-nothing thinking can sometimes be dangerous things. I disagree with Hillary on a number of important issues, but I also have a lot of respect for her, and I think she’ll be very good for women (which we could use right now, frankly). As an older woman, I’ve seen what she’s been through over the years, the challenges she has faced, the sexist attacks on her (attacks that unfortunately some of Bernie’s young supporters are continuing, which has pained me deeply to see). Hillary isn’t perfect, but she has demonstrated tremendous resilience and stability under incredible pressure, and she is infinitely more qualified and will be an infinitely better (and certainly far more progressive) president than Donald Trump. She’s not perfect, but I think she’ll be good in many ways, and for me, it is powerful to see a woman finally become the nominee of a major party. I voted for Shirley Chisholm back in 1972 (the first major-party Black candidate for President of the United States, and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination). It’s been a long road from Shirley Chisholm to Obama and Hillary.
In those many years, we’ve come a long way toward LGBT equality, but we still have a very long way to go. We can get married now in the USA, but in over the half the states, we can still be fired from our job for being gay or transgender, and we can most certainly still be subjected to bigotry, bullying, violence, and murder. Although many of us have come out, many gay and transgender people are still living painfully in the closet. And what Orlando so vividly demonstrates is that LGBT people come from every race, every religion, every ethnicity, every social class, every part of the world. In too many countries, being gay is still punishable by death—often preceded by torture. And in this country, could an openly lesbian, gay or transgender person run successfully for the presidency? Probably not yet. So yes, we have a very long way to go to reach the place where being gay (or being Black or female or any number of other things) is truly no big deal. A Trump presidency and a Republican-controlled Congress will set us back on every important issue, not move us forward.
Donald Trump appeals to hate and fear. He tells and re-tells more bold-faced lies than any major political figure I can remember in this country (and that’s saying a lot, trust me!). He is willing to bully and insult and deceive and fight in the lowest and crudest ways imaginable. He has repeatedly shown himself to be thin-skinned, impulsive, and woefully uninformed and ignorant. This is not a man who should ever be anywhere near the nuclear codes. This is a dangerous man, a man who is appealing to the worst in people. As far as I can tell, his driving motive in life is, and has always been, personal power and personal wealth. He comes across as a shameless narcissist. He portrays himself as a populist, but this man is no populist. With his gold escalator and his trophy wives and his reality TV shows and his beauty contests and his million dollar inheritance and his scam “university” and his (knowingly false) birther campaign against our first African-American president, this man is no populist. This man is a racist, sexist, elitist, vicious bigot who must be stopped. So please, my friends, please vote for Hillary. And please help the Democrats take back control of Congress. And then please, continue to organize and build movements for progressive change if you are moved to do that. We need those movements if progressive change is going to happen. But meanwhile, please don’t let Trump win.
As a woman, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a person with a disability, as an elder, as someone who cares deeply about social justice and about the environment, and as a human being on this beautiful blue planet spinning through space, I urge my Bernie-or-Bust friends and my Green Party friends to vote for Hillary in November. Don’t let fascism and bigotry and sheer stupidity win this election. Please.
Okay, that’s my rant. Take it or leave it, and if you want to write anti-gay or pro-Trump or pro-Republican or pro-Green Party or pro-gun or anti-Hillary comments, please use your own Facebook page and not mine to do it on. Thank you.
“The circumstances of this life go all the way back to the beginning of the big bang and all the way out to the farthest galaxy. A calm presence is looking out through our eyes and recognizing itself in everything we see.”
– Zen teacher John Tarrant, from an article in Shambhala Sun
Responses to comments:
Perhaps the best way to hear koans and poems and words like these is to simply be with them and see how they act on you and what arises when you keep company with them--rather than trying to figure them out--and maybe that "inner disturbance" is not separate from the calm presence or the original face or the farthest galaxy.
Yes, just listen to it like music, or see when it shows up in your mind and notice what's going on at that moment..or maybe just live with the question, "Is there a calm presence here right now?" It's definitely not an invitation to try to be calm, or to deny or paper over the disturbance, or to believe in some philosophy...and it's not about reasoning it out. If it doesn't resonate, just let it go, but if there is a "ring of truth" (as you say) or if it seems to challenge you in some way that feels interesting, then just hang out with it...not by thinking, but just let it show up when it does and see what happens. It may be working on you below the level of conscious awareness, in the dark, like a dream.
If you are interested in what might have driven the Orlando shooter to carry out this atrocity, especially if he was indeed a repressed gay man himself, Rachel Maddow did a very interesting two-part interview last night with Sohail Ahmed, a young British gay Muslim man raised in an anti-gay, fundamentalist religious family. This young man suppressed his homosexuality and almost became a radical Islamic terrorist, but began to doubt and woke up before he actually carried out an attack that you can probably find by googling it. His story reminds me in some ways of my own story, albeit from an opposite side of the political and religious spectrum.
How people can be motivated to commit acts of terrorism has never seemed mysterious or unfathomable to me. I came of age in the Sixties amidst revolutions in many parts of the world for national liberation and socialism, and amidst fierce struggles in the United States for civil rights, Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation and LGBT Liberation. Armed revolutionary organizations in the United States were carrying out actions, people were killed and jailed and viciously beaten, assassinations became commonplace (President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton), students were gunned down at Kent State and Jackson State. It was a tumultuous and idealistic time.
Many of us believed the revolution in America was right around the corner. I read Mao and Lenin and lived in houses decorated with posters of smiling Chinese peasants enjoying the revolution in China. I learned about the hidden history of the United States, the dark side that they didn’t tell us about in school. I became convinced that the struggles for national liberation inside the United States (i.e. Black Liberation, Puerto Rican Independence, the socialist reunification of Mexico—returning the parts stolen in the Mexican-American War, the struggle of Native Americans for land and sovereignty, etc.) were the highest priority, and that only an armed revolution could accomplish these goals.
In the radical, anti-imperialist faction of the left that I joined, other issues were viewed as less important: women’s issues, class and economic issues, LGBT issues, environmental issues, animal rights—these were all seen as white people’s issues, and they belonged on the back burner. In many leftist organizations back then, there was an overtly anti-gay ideology, and while the faction I was in didn’t subscribe to that, we were nevertheless told that LGBT issues were not that important. Electoral politics were viewed as a total sham—the façade of a fake democracy, a narcotic to keep the people tranquilized and in line. We were convinced that there were no meaningful differences between the two major parties. Voting was seen as politically backward. So-called “terrorism” was the only way oppressed and dispossessed people could fight back against powerful nations with modern military capabilities.
Eventually, I found myself deeply embedded in this revolutionary ideology, arguing for the necessity of armed struggle. I was never entirely without doubts about all of this, but I was told that my doubts were simply manifestations of my petty-bourgeois, white privilege and my fear of death or imprisonment. I believed these messages. I was surrounded by others who believed them. Serious questioning was not encouraged, and friendships outside the organization were discouraged. When I began talking to a few others inside the organization who shared my doubts, we were told to stop talking to each other.
Thankfully, and only by the grace of God (i.e., good luck), I left before I was actually involved in any armed actions myself. Leaving the organization was not easy. I was leaving my friends, my identity as a revolutionary, and what I had thought of as my purpose in life. In my mind, and in the minds of my comrades, I was giving in to my fear and privilege. I was abandoning the oppressed. In many ways, it was like leaving a cult or an abusive relationship or an addiction. There were powerful external and internalized forces pulling me back. It was a long, messy, painful process.
Here’s how I described my journey into and out of the radical left in my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, published in the mid-1990’s:
“I got involved in the struggle to save the International Hotel, a residence hotel near Chinatown, which had been sold to developers who were planning to tear it down to make room for a parking lot. The residents were mostly old Filipino men, who would be left homeless if the eviction was carried out. The hotel became a battleground, and thousands of supporters were there to face the hundreds of riot police on horseback who came one night to evict the tenants. I had been sleeping inside the hotel for several nights. I was sitting in one of the hallways on eviction night, linking arms with hundreds of other people, listening for hours as the police moved through the crowd outside the hotel, smashing heads with their riot sticks. When they finally got to us inside, they dragged us out one by one, bouncing some of the organizers down the stairs by their feet, breaking their tailbones.
“I knew by then beyond any shadow of a doubt that the United States government was not a democracy dedicated to helping people all over the world as I had been taught. I was angry, and I wanted to change things. Our nonviolent resistance to injustice had been met with brutality.
“I worked at a variety of low-paid odd jobs. I did telephone sales, I ran a small offset printing press, I cleaned houses, I worked at an independent living center for people with disabilities, I had clerical jobs. I met a woman who was a radical leftist and we became lovers.
“From her I learned about the hidden history of the United States: the extermination of the Indians, the still ongoing theft of their lands, the reliance on African slave labor in building America's wealth, the way we had stolen the southwestern United States from Mexico, the colonizing of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, the evil deeds of the FBI and the CIA, the fact that we had political prisoners in this country, the way we supported dictators and death squads in other countries.
“I knew what prejudice and discrimination felt like. After all, I was queer, I was crippled, I was female. I had lived through the war in Vietnam. I had heard the horror stories firsthand from soldiers who came home and told me the truth. I had been there when the police evicted the International Hotel. I knew change was in order. I learned about people's liberation movements that were fighting for a non-racist, non-sexist society where the wealth and the work would be distributed more equally. I wanted to join that fight. I wanted to be a revolutionary.
“Next thing I knew I was in a radical, ultra-leftist, anti-imperialist, communist organization. We were a communist society in microcosm. The needs of the whole group prevailed over the needs of any single individual. You were part of a real community that truly cared for its members. You had a purpose in life, a mission. You were saving the world, fighting for the Good Future. As such, you were part of a worldwide community of revolutionaries.
“The lifestyle was rigorous and demanding. I worked during the day, then went to political meetings almost every night, did fund-raising work for the organization on weekends, spray-painted revolutionary slogans around town in the middle of the night, and did as much as fifteen hours a week of childcare.
“But I began to feel increasingly unsure about revolutionary violence, especially when it involved innocent people (as opposed to combat soldiers, who are supposedly not innocent). Everyone said it was the only way, nothing less was really effective. A real revolution inevitably entailed the use of force. I struggled so hard to believe what I was supposed to that in the end I didn't know anymore what I really thought. I myself was never armed with anything more lethal than a can of spray-paint or a bullhorn, but I felt as though I was part of the revolutionary vanguard.
“The people I worked with in the radical left were serious, hardworking, highly intelligent, well-educated, intellectually astute, warmhearted, sincere people who cared deeply about the injustices of the world and felt responsible to stop them. They loved their children, and each other's children. They were artists and musicians, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, gardeners. They were not at all what you might picture when you hear the word ‘terrorist’. But then, terrorist is a very interesting word, who gets called a terrorist and by whom. There's a certain irony in someone like George Bush calling someone else a terrorist.
“I saw more and more clearly that despite our good intentions and our understanding about global politics, we in the radical left were running in large part on self-righteous anger, dogmatism, and simplistic, oppositional thinking: Black Hats vs. White Hats. The mechanics of the organization gradually stripped us of our ability to think for ourselves. I saw us becoming the very thing we thought we were fighting against.”
—from Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life.
And so, eventually, I left the radical left. I was active in other leftist and progressive movements for awhile, but eventually my interest shifted from political activism to Zen and other forms of awareness work and nondual insight. I’m still interested in politics, I still care deeply about the world, I still follow the News, and I’m still a left-leaning progressive in my views. But I’m no longer drawn to political activism. I’m glad others are doing it, but my focus has gone elsewhere—more to the root of the problem and the bigger context.
I don’t think we can deal effectively with so-called terrorism if we don’t understand the forces that draw people into it. And I don’t think we will stop it by calling it nasty names or buying into a generalized and ill-informed hatred of Islam, or threatening to ban all Muslims from the United States. I don’t think hatred can defeat hatred, or that ignorance can stamp out ignorance. There may be a place for the use of force in combatting criminal activity at both neighborhood and international levels, but let’s remember that there’s a certain irony in dropping bombs on people, calling our own soldiers heroes, and then calling someone else who sets off a bomb a terrorist. As I said in my second book, Awake in the Heartland, “Seen through their own eyes, all terrorists are freedom fighters. They have come to the conclusion, often after years of peaceful work, that armed violence is the only way. This isn’t really as incomprehensible as people pretend. President Bush came to this same conclusion when he announced his war on terrorism. It’s a very common conclusion.”
I have no sympathy at all with Islamic extremism or acts of terrorism (nor with many of the things that the United States and Israel and many of our allies do and have done in the world). But I recognize that all these things arise in a context that we can easily overlook and that we would all do well to more fully understand. And they arise out of human tendencies that exist in all of us to some degree, tendencies that meditation (and other practices) can bring into the light and reveal and slowly dissolve and undo. But I don’t know anyone who is totally “beyond it all” in this regard.
Some news outlets won’t mention the name of the Orlando shooter. They seem to think he did this because he wanted attention and notoriety, so they won’t give him any. His autopsy was conducted in a separate facility from those of his victims, apparently so as not to “contaminate” the victims. Many people have called this man evil. But what I see in the shooter is a very tortured and confused human being who felt that this was the only thing he could do to make sense of his life, to get the pain out of him. What he did was horrific and terrible and inexcusable. But the shooter was in some sense as much a victim as those he shot. And until we can really deeply see that, the cycle of violence and hatred and misunderstanding will only continue.
I could say the same thing about Donald Trump and his ill-informed and often bigoted followers. As Jesus said, “They know not what they do.”
Response to a comment:
This channeling of discontent isn’t limited to Islamic extremism, of course. These (very common) feelings of not belonging, not fitting in, not being good enough—or actual experiences of being homeless, or not having enough money, or being harassed, profiled, bullied, discriminated against or whatever—these experiences and our emotional reactions to them get channeled, expressed or processed in any number of ways, some of which we generally consider “positive” and “healthy” (e.g., artistic expression, mainstream social and political activism, acceptable spiritual or psychotheraputic avenues) and some of which generate tremendous suffering (e.g., addiction, self-destructive behaviors, crime, religious fundamentalism, dogmatism, authoritarianism, genocide, terrorism, war). In the midst of profound emotional turmoil and pain, and in the absence of certain psychological skills or insights, a person (especially a teenager) is easily drawn into the more harmful channels. And then, sadly, society often reacts with blame, hatred, punishment, condemnation, and so on—rather than with compassion and understanding. That’s not to say we should let serial killers, child molesters and terrorists wander freely in society, but we don’t need to meet them with hatred either. We can see that their actions are the result of infinite causes and conditions from which none of us stand apart.
Response to another comment:
In my experience labels are both helpful and potentially dangerous. We couldn’t function without them, but they can easily divide and confine and limit us in false ways, as you point out. But I don't think the solution is to never speak another word.
As for political demonstrations—whether they are protests or celebrations—I feel that (in my experience anyway) they serve a purpose. Without them, I don’t think we’d have the degree of social equality that we now have, or the working conditions, or that the war in Vietnam would have ended as soon as it did. Yes, demonstrations certainly have the potential to divide and to create animosity and backlash. But speaking personally, I LOVE the gay pride celebrations.
I’m older than you, I think, so I came out at a time when being gay was officially a crime, a sin, a mental illness, and a disgrace—if you were discovered, you would most likely be fired from your job, and most gay people lived in the closet. When we came out of the closet, we were accused of “flaunting it.” But straight people “flaunt” their heterosexuality every day in countless small ways without even realizing it—talking freely of their romances and marriages, photos on their desks, arms around one another or holding hands in public, etc. But when we did this, suddenly we were "flaunting" it. The backlash seems to be an inevitable part of progress.
And so, my dear friend, I LOVE gay pride celebrations! I LOVE that gay people can proudly walk openly in the street. I love the creativity and imagination and wild exuberance and sense of humor that has always pervaded the gay community and manifested itself at these parades—at least the ones in San Francisco that I’ve been to in years past. To me, it is a wonderful, wonderful, powerful, liberating, life-affirming, joyful celebration.
And do I label myself? Sometimes I do, sometimes for practical purposes and sometimes in a way that feels freeing, not limiting—and sometimes as an act of solidarity. If gays are being persecuted or discriminated against or put down, for example, I may say, “I’m gay too.” Many labels might describe this person here: Joan Tollifson, genderqueer, woman, old, lesbian, bisexual, teacher, writer, white, one-armed, nondualist, progressive, etc. Some of those labels have been considered insults in the past, and in many places they still are, so to wear them proudly may serve a function. Some are simply factual. And yet, of course, in the deepest sense, I am no one and everyone and no-thing at all. The person cannot be denied, but it cannot be grasped or pinned down. The boundaries can never actually be found. At the same time, we can describe people (ourselves included), and that doesn't need to be a problem (although it can be).
So, can we use labels (and words and concepts and categories) without getting stuck in them or divided by them? And can we protest or celebrate in a way that is inclusive and rooted in love, rather than divisive and rooted in hate? I think we can. I’ve seen it with my own eyes! And to me, this is beautiful, not terrible.
But, if you prefer to not call yourself anything in particular, and if you prefer to avoid public demonstrations, that’s perfectly fine, too! I celebrate your right to be exactly who you are!
In a couple of my recent posts, I’ve ventured into the messy world of partisan politics and world affairs, even daring to suggest who I think people in the United States should vote for in November. Some (perhaps most) versions of nonduality would consider that a huge faux pas on my part. Many in the nondual and spiritual world would advise keeping one’s focus solely on pure consciousness, or on abiding in calm presence and thoughtless awareness, or on seeing everything that appears as nothing more than a passing dream. But somehow, the messy world keeps showing up along with my own opinions and insights and the sometimes irrepressible urge to share them. I know that politics is messy, that it easily brings forth heated emotions and a sense of division and conflict, and that it may seem to go in the opposite direction from awakening and enlightenment. But maybe it’s not so bad after all.
What follows is excerpted from an article I enjoyed by Zen teacher John Tarrant called “Return To The World: Politics And The Art Of The Impossible.” Here are some excerpts:
“We can ignore partisanship to some extent, we can try to avoid it, we can hide ourselves in peaceful places and call ourselves pure if we dare, but that’s not as interesting, or even as kind, as the world of delusion within which politics has its being. I’ve long been interested in the intersection between politics and an appreciation of the richness of the human mind…
“Politics belongs in the general realm of imperfection, heartless indifference, self-deception, desperate hope, strategic interest, and congenial affection we call civilization…
“To consider politics is to open yourself–your mind and body, your naked and unoffending skin, your naive hopefulness, and your joy in human company–to a tsunami of lies, humbug, drivel, false promises, masquerade, hypocritical piety, prejudice, greed, murder, and fattening food. To consider politics is to dive into this Hokusai wave of inauthenticity and to say, ‘Hmmm, this seems like a situation I can work with.’…
“You go towards and through uncertainty and difficulty…You begin by trusting in and working with the imperfection of embodied things…The spiritual benefit of engagement in politics comes from going into rather than away from imperfection…The spirituality in politics might not be visible to others or even to yourself. Down there in the heart of delusion you look like a demon too, just like the rest of us….in order to bring about any sort of transformation you have to work with what is actually the case, rather than what you might have wished for or pretended–in the world, in others, in yourself…
“When I accepted how the world is, I noticed that empathy is part of how the world is…
“Politics can also be the art of not having a self and of meeting the impossible…Politics and partisanship are usually a bit light in the department of not taking yourself seriously, so Buddhism might have something to offer here. It could be one of the spiritual advantages of politics: if you don’t take yourself too seriously, you might stop taking yourself seriously at all…
“If you are not the person you have claimed to be, limited in the ways you thought you were limited, then perhaps the world and other human beings are also not limited in the ways you thought. Politics might be able to rest on taking away foundations and standing on nothing at all; it could be the art of the impossible. This means achieving things that no realistic person would believe could occur…”
--from “Return To The World: Politics And The Art Of The Impossible” by Zen teacher John Tarrant.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2016--
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