Postings from My Facebook Page #14
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the fourteenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (12/3/16 - 2/20/17). 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:
OPENING THE HEART: How Sometimes We Need the Darkness in Order to Find the Light
I’ll warn you, this is one of my longer posts, and one of my more personal ones. Many of you probably know the famous old Zen story about the monk who is falsely accused of impregnating a teenage girl. The angry villagers bring him the baby, insisting it’s his, and demand that he take care of it and raise it. The monk’s reputation is ruined, the whole village now scorns him, he’s been accused of something he didn’t do, and he’s being forced to take on the huge job of caring for a child. His response when the villagers tell him all this is to simply say, “Is that so?” No anger, no urge to defend himself, no resentment, no concern with his self-image or his reputation being ruined, no fear of being disliked and reviled, no resistance to taking on the care of a baby. He simply accepts this new development and takes care of the baby. Many years later, the young woman finally confesses that it was her boyfriend and not the monk who got her pregnant. The villagers return to the monk and tell him the child is not his. “Is that so?” he again replies. They take the child away from him, and again, the monk doesn’t protest. He doesn’t insist that this is “his” child that he has cared for and raised. Once again, he simply lets go. He accepts each new development with a totally undefended, totally open heart.
This is, of course, a very idealized story about surrender, equanimity and acceptance. Few of us can measure up to this monk, and the point of the story is not to imitate his behavior (while seething inwardly), nor is it to compare ourselves to him and then feel like a spiritual failure. Nor should we hear this story as an admonition against strong emotions or standing up for ourselves, both of which may at times be perfectly appropriate. The point of the story, as I hear it, is simply to shine a light on a different possibility, a possibility that is always close at hand but often very hard to access because the force of our conditioning is so strong. We are deeply conditioned to think of ourselves and to feel ourselves as a separate self that must be protected and defended against an outside world that threatens to annihilate us. We are fighting for survival. It’s a force of nature, deep in our genes and our biology, perfectly appropriate on a certain practical level, so we don’t need to beat ourselves up for having these tendencies and for sometimes being overpowered by them. But there is a deeper possibility, and it is to that possibility that words such as awakening, liberation and enlightenment point.
I don’t see these as a finish-line we cross once-and-for-all and then we’re done. I’ve recently found myself in three different situations where I have behaved quite differently from the monk in this story.
First, there was the election of Donald Trump and the fact that millions of Americans were willing to vote for him either because of, or in spite of, his blatant misogyny and racism. A woman my age who grew up not far from where I grew up, a woman who had endured sexist attacks for decades, a woman with incredible experience and intelligence, had been defeated by a loud-mouthed, thin-skinned bully, an alleged sexual predator who had spent his life amassing money and power and scamming people—a man who (for good reason) had the enthusiastic support of the KKK and the white supremacist alt-right—a man who had picked a notoriously anti-gay running mate. Like many women (and many others), I felt punched in the gut. I was stunned and deeply concerned about what was ahead not only for women, but for the environment, for climate change, for working people, for immigrants, for Black people, for LGBT people, for Muslims, for the country as a whole, for the planet and for all living beings. I wasn’t devastated, suicidal, enraged, or overcome with despair, but I was definitely heart-broken, grieving and concerned—and at times, hurt and angry. I could feel a fury inside me at times, a raging fire. Fire is a powerful force, but it can easily be destructive, and I have a fiery temper that has caused pain to myself and others on many occasions.
Next thing I knew, I felt threatened by a dear friend’s response to the election. My friend, who happens to be a straight man, had a response very much like that of the monk in the old story. My friend said he wasn’t particularly bothered or upset by the election. What!!?? His equanimity pushed a deep button in me. Unlike the monk, I didn’t just say, “Is that so?” Instead, I got angry. It upset me that my friend was apparently at peace with the election results, even though my friend had voted for Hillary and was no fan of Trump, and even though being upset and fearful doesn’t really solve anything. Still, part of me believed my friend was ignoring the seriousness of what had just happened, or maybe not feeling it fully because he was a man, or that he had gone into some kind of transcendent state of denial or spiritual by-passing, all of which I found very irritating. And of course, what most irritates us is often either a mirror image of ourselves, or else something we long for but won’t allow ourselves to have. Was I afraid to let the upset go, afraid I would be betraying all suffering beings? What was it in me that was getting upset by my friend’s equanimity? What button was being pushed? Was I in some way attached to the drama and to my own suffering and to the self at the center of it all? The self, after all, thrives on having enemies and being at war.
At the same time that I was mad at my friend for not being upset, another part of me felt that this was one more example of how spiritually superior he is to me—after all, he had the “enlightened” response, while I had the “unenlightened, opinionated, emotional” response. He would come off looking like the good monk, while I would come off once again looking like the screw up. Was I envious, angry at the universe for making him "better" than me, angry at myself for not being more enlightened?
There were other buttons being pushed as well: he was the cool detached male, while I was the over-heated, hysterical female. He even used the term “mass hysteria” to describe the protests and the emotional reactions many of us were having to the election. All these loaded ideas (male, female, hysteria, etc.) have long histories attached to them, cellular memories, traumas that go back centuries, as well as deep-seated beliefs, attachments and identities. Many deep buttons, many old wounds, many triggers, many layers. And yet, in any moment of complete open presence, how real is any of this? Still, it all felt very real, and it got murky and messy and created a rupture in our friendship that still hasn’t completely healed.
Then, in the midst of the election and its aftermath, I found myself in an upsetting conflict in a business relationship. This was someone with whom I had always had a great relationship. But suddenly this person blind-sided me with a reversal that put me in a very inconvenient, stressful situation involving financial loss and unexpected upheaval. I didn’t just say, “Is that so?” and calmly move on. Instead, I impulsively fired off some emails to this person that were somewhat barbed and self-pitying and manipulative. Sometimes, it’s painful to see the things we do. In a talk on Conscious TV that I listened to recently, Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault spoke of “painfully bearing the crucifixion of inner honesty.” That’s a great description of “being with what is” when “what is” is not so flattering to our self-image.
And unlike the monk in the story, I was totally obsessed with this situation. After one particularly upsetting phonecall in which this person blamed me for things I didn’t do and refused to acknowledge the things she had done, I spent days composing a long letter to her, defending myself, trying to explain to her how I was being falsely accused, “explaining” what she had done wrong, and on and on. (Luckily, in the end, I deleted it without sending). I knew on some level that this was all a form of insanity—even if I was “right”—but on another level, I was completely hooked and absorbed in the drama and in the compulsive need to defend myself.
For many days and nights, over the course of the last month, in the midst of the unsettling chaos of moving, I have lived with these three situations, one after the other: the election, my anger at my friend’s undisturbed response to the election, and the difficulty with this person who I felt was treating me badly and blaming me for things I didn't do. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about one of these things. I’d sit down to meditate and think obsessively about one of these things. I’d be driving my car and composing self-righteous letters in my head. It was quite painful. There seemed to be similar themes and similar emotions in all three situations: anger, hurt, fear, and people not behaving as I thought they should.
And deeper down, closer to the bone, I could feel that at the center of all three situations there was that tight, hard, closed fist – that contracted sense of "me" – the separate self that feels threatened, violated, insufficient, misunderstood – the self that needs to defend and explain and justify itself, that needs to be right, that needs to protect its image, that needs to win over those who see things differently in order to confirm its own reality – the separate self fighting to survive. I could SEE all this, I could FEEL the contraction, and I "knew" on some level that all of this was an impersonal appearance in boundless awareness, but that "knowing" felt very much overshadowed by the thought-story-sense of being "me" in a world that was other-than-me, a world that threatened my self-image, my sense of right and wrong, and ultimately my very survival as a separate self. I longed for this contraction to release, but at the same time, there was a holding on, a holding back that seemed out of my control, and even after all these years of meditation and satsang and teaching and awakening – even after all of this, the way or the willingness or the ability to let go seemed entirely inaccessible. The neurochemical smog of emotion-thought was too thick, too dense.
It really felt like an on-going crucifixion. As I see it, the crucifixion-resurrection story is all about the heart finally opening and surrendering, shifting from “Why have you forsaken me?” to “Thy will be done.” But sometimes, that opening up, that softening, that letting go seems very elusive. The hard, tight, separate, defended little me is so fierce—so hurt, so fearful, so wounded, so enraged—holding on so tightly. Letting go seems so terrifying, so threatening. If I let go, I’ll be annihilated and everything I care about will be annihilated.
This kind of self-contraction is rooted in our survival system and our conditioning as human animals. It’s not personal. It happens. It’s like weather. And as I often say, different bodymind organisms have different weather conditions. Some of us have more of what Eckhart Tolle aptly calls the pain-body than others of us. We don’t get to decide how much of this shows up in our life, and we can’t force ourselves to open and surrender any more than we can force ourselves to fall asleep at night. But we can notice the contraction, we can be aware of how it feels in the body, we can be present with these energies and sensations as they move in the body, and we can see and question our thoughts. We can also pray or meditate or do loving-kindness practices or Byron Katie Work or talk to a wise friend or whatever we do that helps to soften the ground. But still, we can’t force the heart to open.
And so, for a long time, there was just being with all of this – watching myself uncontrollably writing and revising that self-justifying letter, unable to stop myself, feeling the contraction, seeing the obsessive thoughts, feeling the upset – taking in what my friend and the person from the business arrangement and others in the past had said about me and the truth of some of it, that in my anger and hurt, I can be abusive and difficult: “Painfully bearing the crucifixion of inner honesty,” and the pain of imperfection.
Finally, I can’t say why or how, everything opened up. I felt myself release the anger and the need to defend and justify and explain myself, and even the certainty of my views and my beliefs and the need to be right. I felt my heart open and release ALL of this, even my certainties about the election and the meaning of Donald Trump having won. I realized I didn’t really know ANYTHING. I didn’t really know what would happen as a result of Trump becoming president, and even if the guy blew up the world, could I know that was a bad thing? I felt the tight fist inside of me open, and the contracted, separate self dissolve and melt away into open, undivided, boundless awareness. I felt bathed in love, peace, equanimity, joy. There was a huge sense of relief, a sense of spaciousness and freedom. There was no me anymore, no problem, nothing to defend or protect.
Of course, this was not the first time this movement from contraction to boundlessness has occurred, and it probably won’t be the last. In my experience, this tightening up and releasing, this seeing through delusion, this crucifixion and resurrection, this awakening from the self-centered nightmare is something that happens again and again, not once-and-for-all and then you’re done. Some people do report a “final awakening” after which contraction and delusion and the identification as “me” never return (or at least never with any purchase or grip or believability anymore), but that hasn’t been my experience.
Of course, there is an awakeness that never disappears, an awakeness that isn’t mine or yours, an awakeness that is the groundless ground of all experiencing. This boundless awake emptiness (what I call Here / Now) is never absent or encapsulated, even when it seems that it is, even when consciousness is absorbed in a dream or a mental movie and totally identified with the character in the story. All the dramas of the apparently separate self appear within this undivided vastness. Delusion and contraction are movements of this seamless whole, like waves on the ocean, appearing in (and inseparable from) the ocean of boundless awareness (or Here / Now). Neither delusion nor awakening are personal, even when it feels (during spells of delusion) as if they are. When we’re awake, that’s obvious.
But hanging onto that as a comforting belief is not real liberation. Realizing that, making it real, actualizing it Here / Now, in the aliveness of THIS moment, is what liberates. And in my experience, that happens again and again as ever-deeper and ever-more subtle layers of conditioning rise to the surface. Maybe for some people, events such as those I’ve described going through in the last month never happen anymore, or only for a split second if they do. For others, maybe they spend a whole decade lost in one of these dramas I’ve described without ever questioning its reality. We need only look at the world to see how that can happen on a global scale.
But however frequently delusion shows up, and however long it hangs around, and however hypnotized by the storyline consciousness seems to be, the only actual reality is Here / Now. That’s the only time and place where awakening can ever happen. It doesn’t help to compare ourselves to others or to try to imitate anyone else’s awakening journey. Each journey from Here to Here, each pathless path through the gateless gate, and each moment, is unique and fresh—and ultimately, we are all waving movements of one whole undivided ocean. It also doesn’t help to have assumptions about what is or is not possible, because the truth is, we don’t know. And so, as I can’t repeat often enough, what matters is always THIS moment, right here, right now, just as it is—not what happened before, or what might happen next, or what supposedly may have happened to somebody else.
I want to be very clear that when I speak of releasing all my beliefs, I don’t mean that I am immune from becoming identified with and attached to one of my opinions ever again. And I don’t mean that I no longer have opinions, or that I will no longer act on those opinions, or that I now think all views are equally true. Nor do I mean that I now plan to ignore world events, or what Trump does as president, or that I have no concerns (if I think about it or when I read the news) about what is shaping up. I definitely do! But I’m very clear that my focus right now is on presence and awareness and waking up. I’m infinitely grateful for the courageous water protectors protesting at Standing Rock and the activists involved in the Black Lives Matter or Occupy movements or in other struggles for social justice, or running for elected office, or working in the many non-profit organizations that support positive social change. All of that is wonderful, and I did work like that in the past, and maybe I’ll be doing it again one day, who knows. But right now, in this moment, I am clear that my primary work is opening the heart. Each of us has a unique vocation, and all of them are important. But as I see it, dissolving the trance of separation and opening the heart ( NOW) is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer the suffering world.
And when I speak of the separate self dissolving, I don’t mean that the functional thought-sense of being Joan doesn’t still appear as needed, or that the delusional self-contraction won’t ever come again, or that my personality has vanished—I’m talking about an energetic felt-sense of moving from contraction to boundlessness, from identification with thought to being awareness, from the tangle of emotion-thought to the Open Heart—not once-and-for-all, but NOW. And this is really not some exotic mystical experience—it’s something I think we all experience in ordinary ways, often without noticing it.
Boundlessness (Here / Now) is never actually absent. Here / Now doesn’t come and go. It is ever-present. In any moment, we can check and see that this is true. What comes and goes is the thought-sense of separation, the self-contraction, the delusion of emotion-thought. The mirage-like separate self is an activity that appears intermittently in the vastness that we truly are, like a wave on the ocean—an activity that is sometimes functional and sometimes dysfunctional. “Going to the movies” can be enlightening or it can be a form of suffering, but obviously, it is something consciousness is prone to doing.
And to be clear, when I say that “THIS moment” is what matters, of course I don’t mean that we should ignore history or not make plans for the future, or that we shouldn’t envision how our societies and economies might be organized in ways that would better serve everyone. But the question is, where are we coming from in whatever work we are doing? Are we “standing in reality” (as Paul Gerstein and Yuan Wu put it in the talk I linked to in my Nov 28th post) or are we standing in the delusional sense of separation? As Yuan Wu said, "If where you stand is reality, then your actions have power." Reality is another word for Here / Now, presence-awareness, THIS that is empty of self and other. “Standing in reality” is what Eckhart Tolle calls “the power of Now,” and it’s what Jon Bernie so beautifully articulated in the except from his post-election satsang that I posted on Nov 30th.
And while consciousness may get lost in the self-centered dream many times, again and again, it is possible to wake up, to come back to Here / Now, to start freshly in this new moment – to listen to the birds and the traffic sounds, to feel the breathing and the sensations in the body – to allow it all to be exactly as it is – and to let it all unfold in its own way, in its own time…and to know that we are all (Trump included) in this together as one whole happening, a happening that is ever-changing and no way in particular that can ever be pinned down or grasped by thought.
Maybe you can relate to my story—maybe you’ve been through something similar. I find it helpful to know that we’re not alone in all of this. I am truly grateful for all of you reading this, and I’m grateful for the person with whom I had the messy and painful business deal, and for my very dear equanimitous friend who wasn’t upset by the election, and even for Donald Trump, who has unwittingly helped to facilitate a heart-opening just by being himself, and who may be the unwitting catalyst for a global transformation that could not happen in any other way. Sometimes it seems that we need the darkness in order to find the light. Medicine and sickness cure each other, as the old Zen koan says.
REFLECTIONS ON A RAINY WINTER NIGHT:
Sitting here listening to plops of rain hitting the roof. Tapping, tapping. Just this.
Watching the News. Eating dinner. Listening to the rain. Sitting down at my desk to write. Rain plopping, tapping of keys, outflow of words and rainwater, plopping, tapping.
I recently read a statement by one of the greatest contemporary Christians, Bishop Desmond Tutu. He said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor.” Some nondual teachers seem very reluctant to publicly “take sides” in the current political arena, and that’s often an admirable quality in a teacher, but neutrality can also be a way of allowing oppression to continue unchallenged. At some point, I believe it’s time to speak out. Trying to stay neutral under all circumstances may not be true freedom or true love.
Martin Niemöller was a German theologian and pastor who became an outspoken critic of Hitler (after initially supporting him). Niemöller spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps and narrowly escaped death. He famously wrote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
As Trump takes office, as right-wing movements gain traction around the world, as more and more people in the US are arming themselves, as the effects of climate change become more extreme in a world armed with nuclear weapons, what is our response-ability? What ability is there Here / Now to respond? There is no formula for this, no single right way to respond, and in each moment, the only possible happens, so there is no blame or shame in whatever we do. Each of us is moved in different ways. But whatever action we take, when we are “standing in reality,” when we are grounded in aware presence—in the power of Now—then the response in this moment is wholesome (from wholeness). It arises naturally. Simply. Intelligently.
Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to take your coat, give your cloak as well….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…Do good to those who hate you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
I consider Jesus a very radical teacher. As I hear him, he is pointing to the dissolution of the sense of separation and the opening of the heart to God (unconditional love, boundless awareness, vast emptiness) - something that only ever happens here/now, in THIS moment. It’s like what I described in my post on December 3. The light of awareness shines on the tight, hard, self-contraction—seeing it, sensing it, feeling it, listening to it, questioning the thoughts that create and sustain it, allowing it to reveal itself—and eventually in that light, the contraction melts and relaxes into the open boundlessness in which there is no other. The heart opens.
Our small mind finds this surrender that Jesus is calling for a terrifying and impractical prospect. We must fight back! We must defend ourselves! We must show them we are right! If we don’t, they will overrun us and win the day! We will be wiped out! But is that true? Consider the power of Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi or Thich Nhat Hanh in bringing about change. Consider the impact Ramana Maharshi and Thomas Merton had on the world. Consider the impact of Jesus himself, the man who died nailed to a cross.
I don’t hear these words from Jesus as a call to passivity, or to being a doormat, or to turning away from the suffering in ourselves and the world. As with the story of the Zen monk who raised the baby he was falsely accused of fathering (see my Dec 3 post), this is not about some idealized perfection, or not having strong emotions, or not caring, or not taking action when action is required. Jesus was outspoken on many occasions and even overturned some tables once. And there may be times when fighting back, maybe even killing, is the best thing to do for the greater good. It all depends on where the action is coming from, whether from love or from hate, from wholeness or from separation. Yes, ultimately it’s all one, but that wholeness includes our ability for discernment, for making distinctions, and for noticing what works and what makes our problems worse.
Some people say world events are nothing but a dream or an illusion. But when we see someone in pain right in front of us, or when we see someone being bullied right in front of us, we naturally respond. We don’t say, “It’s all an illusion,” or “Everything is perfect as it is—it’s all One,” or “Everything is a dream,” as absolutely true as that may be. We respond. We take action. THAT is the absolute in action. That is the very nature of awakeness: being Here / Now with open eyes, open ears, open mind, open heart and the thousand arms of Kuan Yin, the gender-fluid god/goddess of mercy and compassion.
Sometimes, of course, we don’t stop to help. Sometimes we are afraid to stop, or we’re in a hurry, or whatever it is. Life moves us to keep walking. I can’t say why I give money to some homeless people on the streets and not to others, or why I have courage in one situation and not in another. Life moves as it moves. Sometimes the heart is open, sometimes it’s closed. And as I said in my Dec 3 post, sometimes we need the dark to find the light. So again, no guilt or blame—but simply being awake to how it is.
Ultimately, we can’t save the world any more than we can save a newborn baby from eventually dying, or from the disappointments, pains and sorrows that life will bring along the way. But still, we do our best to care for that baby—to feed it, to nurture it, to protect it, to educate it, to love it. We don’t just say, “It’ll be dead eventually, and it’s only a dream-baby anyway, so why bother?” and walk away. No, we care for the baby as best we can. And like all parents and caretakers, we make mistakes. But we do our best. And it’s no different with the whole earth and the whole cosmos.
So, is it possible to be fully awake, fully present in the face of this darkness? What will we do when the bully starts bullying people, when environmental protections are threatened, when greed, hate and delusion seem to be running the show? Will we stand up for one another, for the earth, for all living beings?
I’m not suggesting we all need to become outspoken political activists. For some, the appropriate action may be sitting in silence, doing nothing. Describing his life as a Trappist hermit, Thomas Merton wrote in his wonderful little book Day of a Stranger, “Perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.” But he did that without turning away from the world even as he lived alone in a solitary hermitage in the woods at a Trappist monastery.
And if by chance the bully’s heart opens and he behaves decently, will we nurture the light in him and give him the space to change, as Martin Niemöller changed, and as we all change, moment to moment, in big and little ways? Is it possible not to get stuck on old labels and old ideas about who anyone is, ourselves included? Because in fact, we’re never really the same person from one moment to the next, and there really is no next moment, and we never can actually step into the same river twice. Can we be innocent but not naïve?
In any moment when we re-turn to simple presence, we can discover what is truly trustworthy, what supports us, what cannot be killed, what has never been absent. We can call it God or awareness or unconditional love or emptiness or the Heart or Here / Now or “the virginal point of pure nothingness,” but the words are only pointers to the living reality itself.
Plops of rain hitting the roof. Tapping, tapping. Just this. Most intimate. Utterly, beautifully, radiantly alive. Unexplainable. Beyond belief. The whole world is right here.
TRUTH OR ILLUSION, DREAM OR REALITY? In the nondual world, we frequently hear people say that everything is an illusion or that the world is a dream. Even one of our most popular children’s songs ends with the line, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” And there is the famous Taoist sage who wakes from a dream of being a butterfly and wonders if he is a man who was dreaming that he was a butterfly, or if he is a butterfly now dreaming that he is a man. As an adult, our entire childhood may seem like a dream. This dream-like quality of waking life is something we all in some way intuit or know.
But sometimes in the nondual world, this pointer is used to invalidate, discount or ignore relative reality. And to my sensibilities, that feels like a mistake. So, exactly what is dream-like (or illusory) about the world and what isn’t?
One Advaita teacher, when asked if the starving and wounded people in a war zone were real, replied, “They’re as real as you are.” How real is that? And what do we mean by “you” or “I”? Or by “real”? These are questions to live with and to wonder about in a meditative way—that is, by looking directly and letting the question work on us—feeling into it, rather than thinking about it, straining for an answer, or referring to what various authorities have said.
Right now, you can notice that there is undeniably an awaring presence and present experiencing: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, sensing, thinking, imagining, remembering—not any of these words, which seem to divide it all up, but the seamless living actuality to which they point. This immediate living reality is beyond doubt, utterly obvious, impossible to deny. If you hit your fingers with a hammer, assuming you have a functioning nervous system, there will be undeniable sensations that we call pain. Those sensations are no illusion!
What we don’t actually find if we look closely is a separate, encapsulated self, located inside the body, having all these experiences, authoring “our” thoughts and making “our” choices. We simply find an ever-changing flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, mental images, urges, actions and so on, all arising by themselves in this awaring presence. And this awaring presence seems to be what we most truly mean by “I” if we trace that sense of being-identity all the way to the bottom-line. And as we tune into it, we discover that this awareness is unbound and limitless, not personal or encapsulated. In our actual direct experience, the bodymind, the world, and time and space all appear in boundless awareness, not the other way around.
What we also don’t find if we look closely is any actual boundary between inside and outside, or between self and not-self, or between subject and object, or between awareness and content, or between seer and seen. What we find is an undivided, unbound, seamless immediacy that Zen describes as “most intimate.” The so-called outside world is inseparable from this awaring presence – at no distance – most intimate – not two. The divisions and boundaries that seem to be here if we don’t look too closely turn out to be non-existent when we investigate them carefully, either with meditation or with science.
When we are dreaming at night, the dream is a real experience. What is said to be unreal are the events that happen in the dream. They are real in one sense, in the same way the story in a movie is real as a story. And we’d probably say that the way the movie (or the dream) affects and moves and maybe even enlightens us is real. But dreams and movies are not real in the way “real life” is real. But what exactly is the difference? If our dream-life had the apparent consistency of our waking life, would it still seem less real? Or would we be like the old Taoist sage, not knowing if we were “really” a person or a butterfly (or both, or neither)?
The more we examine “real life,” the more dream-like, movie-like, or mirage-like it appears to be. When we look closely, we find that no-thing persists from one instant to the next. Change is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms in the way we think it does. And no-thing ever appears without everything it supposedly is not. It is all one, undivided, interdependent arising in which everything is the cause and the effect of everything else. What we call waking life begins to seem more and more like an act of creative imagination, very much like a dream or a movie.
When we look for our childhood, or yesterday morning, or an hour ago, or even a split second ago, we find that it has completely vanished. There may be a memory of it, arising now, but that memory is not the event itself. And that memory also vanishes instantly into thin air, never to appear in exactly the same way ever again, for as we all know, memory tends to shape-shift and change form over time. In addition to that, your memories of an event we both shared together are different from mine, so which was the “real” event, mine or yours? And was there even any single objective reality “out there” in the first place, or was that merely a false belief?
And what about all the people we knew who have died? As the husband of one of my close friends said after she died suddenly and unexpectedly, “Poof! She was gone!” So, if the past can vanish completely, and if my friend can simply vanish (poof!), how real was she or any of it?
I can bring up a mental image of this deceased friend. I have photos of her. I can remember things we did together, conversations we had. And yet that mental image is a presently arising sensation, as is the image in the photograph, as are my memories of our times together. My version of this woman is not the same as her husband’s version, or the version each of her children has of her – and each of us had different versions at different moments. So, again, which was the “real” version? Who was this woman really? Was she anything graspable, anything in particular that we could pin down? Or was she more like a whirlpool or a wave or a piece of music that had many variations?
And although yesterday has vanished, as have all our friends and loved ones who have died, nonetheless, in another sense, they are all right here, for the present is inseparable from the past and everything contains everything else. Like the ripples in a pond, actions, events and people continue long after “they” have disappeared. They show up as THIS moment! Everything has disappeared and nothing has disappeared!
The more you begin closely examining the actual texture of life, the less solid and substantial it seems. It becomes more and more obvious why it has been called ephemeral, wave-like, fluid—why it is said to have no objective or inherent reality apart from ever-changing, presently-arising appearances or sensations that vanish as soon as they appear. Our deeply held belief that there is a single, solid, observer-independent, objective reality “out there” somewhere that we are all perceiving in different ways begins to seem less and less credible. Everything begins to feel much more insubstantial and dream-like—a movement of consciousness with no inherent, fixed or lasting shape or form—an ever-changing playful appearance—consciousness expressing and beholding itself from infinite points of view.
When we realize this, it opens up a kind of freedom. We realize that nothing is what we think it is, that there is no-thing we can actually grasp or pin down, that no-thing actually exists in the first place that could ever be lost, and that whatever shows up in any moment is as it is because the whole universe is as it is.
This realization doesn’t devalue “the world” in any way or suggest that it should be ignored or discounted, any more than a great movie should be ignored or discounted simply because it is “just” a movie and not “real life.” Rather, this discovery simply reveals that the world is not what we think it is. It is not separate or solid or any one way in particular. It is not “out there” somewhere. As Ramana so beautifully put it:
“The World is Illusory;
God alone is real;
God is the world…
“When your standpoint becomes that of wisdom,
You will find the world to be God.”
Or to put it differently: Consciousness is all there is; all there is, is Consciousness. Everything is made of light (or awareness), not some dead matter in the way we commonly assume. The familiar old view of a universe “out there” made out of dead matter, with consciousness as an epiphenomenon of the brain, is deeply engrained and socially reinforced, so it takes more than just intellectually “getting it” to shift things in any way that truly liberates us. But as this realization seeps into and permeates our actual experiencing, things begin to loosen up and shift. We are free to play, to dance, to be creative, to play our part, to be just as we are, and to recognize that we are no way in particular—that we are everything and no-thing at all. We see only God everywhere.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we run around denying that there is something we call “Joan Tollifson,” and something we call “Donald Trump,” and something we call “The United States,” and something we call “Facebook,” and something we call “the war in Syria.” These things are real enough in a relative, everyday sense. If you hit your fingers with a hammer, the pain will be quite real. And for the people living in war-zones, or those who are homeless and hungry in winter cold, the pain is real enough. It’s every bit as real as our experience is right now. And to turn our back on the suffering in the apparent world and glibly dismiss it as “just a dream,” is not my sense of true liberation or true love.
And yet, the more closely we look at any of these apparent “things,” the less solid and substantial they seem. The word-labels create a false sense of something bounded and objective, something separate and substantial, something that persists over time, something that is “out there” as an observer-independent reality—something that would still be there if we were no longer looking at it or thinking about it—something that exists independently of everything else around it. That view of the world is deeply conditioned into us. It’s such a deeply-held belief that it has come to seem like our actual experience. But when we tune into bare sensations instead of thought-concepts, we find that all these apparent things (“Joan Tollifson,” “Donald Trump,” “The United States,” “Facebook,” “the war in Syria,” etc.) are fluid, ever-changing events, impossible to grasp or pin down, inseparable from everything else in the whole universe and from the awaring presence beholding it all.
This changes how we look at Donald Trump. It doesn’t mean we can’t still pay attention to what he is doing or think about the implications. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with his actions, or that we can’t organize a protest march or speak out against an injustice. It doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions or strong feelings at times. And it certainly doesn’t mean we run around saying, “There is no Donald Trump. It’s all an illusion. This isn’t really happening.” But we take our reactions, our opinions, our conclusions, our certainties about him a little more lightly. There is more space for humor, for compassion, for changing our minds, and for him changing as well. It’s like we’re dancing instead of standing frozen. We see that there is no single, persisting entity called “Trump” any more than we ourselves are the same from one moment to the next. And we see that we are not really separate from Trump. There is no actual boundary. And like it or not, he is something the universe is doing, something that cannot be pulled apart from everything else.
Nirmala has a wonderful section in his first book (Nothing Personal) where he compares the movement of Awareness (or attention) to the zoom function on a camera. Awareness (or Consciousness) can zoom in on one particular tree in the forest, and it can zoom in even closer on one small section of bark and everything that is going on there in that micro-universe, and then it can zoom out and take in the whole forest and the environment around the forest, and even farther out to see the whole earth, and farther yet until the whole earth is just a tiny speck of light and that tree is no longer visible at all. Consciousness can zoom down to the quantum subatomic level or out to the intergalactic astronomical level. It can be at the level of everyday life where it appears as a particular character at a particular moment in history with Trump being elected and a war happening in Syria, and it can zoom out to the boundlessness in which all of this (including every different level) appears.
As Nirmala points out, Consciousness has the capacity for both flexibility and fixation. It can dance freely between these different levels, but it can also get stuck or fixated, caught up in identification and grasping. As we all know, Consciousness can become identified as the separate self, but it can also become identified with and attached to the experience of boundlessness. We often get the mistaken idea in spiritual circles that our goal is to be zoomed out in some expanded state all the time—to never feel like an individual self ever again—or to not be in any way affected by world events. And of course, that is a set-up for disappointment and frustration. Ultimately, we find that ALL of life is included. We don’t need to deny or leave out any of these different levels of reality, and when we do, we get into trouble. The Self has no problem with any of it. The Self IS all of it, including our responses!
The world as we perceive and conceive of it is conditioned by nature and nurture. We each see a unique world. People who voted for Trump see a different world than the one I see, otherwise they couldn’t have done that. And we don’t choose our preferences and our conditionings. I didn’t “decide” to be a Young Republican who shook hands with Richard Nixon years ago when I was growing up, nor did I “decide” to switch and become an anti-imperialist, socialist leftist as a young adult. I didn’t “choose” the urge to vote for Hillary and not Donald. I don’t choose or control the fact that I find Democracy Now and The Nation Magazine more trustworthy as sources of news and information than Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart. This is simply the way I am expressed. It is the result of infinite causes and conditions. And I know this is equally true of Donald Trump and everyone who voted for him. And when that is clear, there is compassion for Trump and his supporters rather than blame and hatred. I still disagree with them, but I also see that they acted as choicelessly as I did, that we are all playing our different parts in the Cosmic Lila, and that we are all expressions of the One Self (or appearances in and of Consciousness).
I was in a very long check-out line at Walmart the other day in the nearby city where the majority probably voted for Trump. The faces of the check-out clerks and the shoppers showed signs of hard lives, lives lived on the edge economically, as did the conversations I was overhearing between them. Magazine racks on all sides of us as we waited in line showed a mix of glamorous women in sexy poses on glossy covers along with newsprint tabloids like the National Enquirer with headlines such as, “Muslim Spies in Obama’s CIA,” apparently a popular conspiracy theory now, blaring out as if it were real news. It felt like a slice of life, that checkout line, and it spoke volumes about what’s going on in America and why Trump was able to win. Fake news, unattainable glamor and wealth, people working hard for less than a living wage. And along came a powerful, wealthy, strong-man who lives in a gold-plated tower with a glamorous wife, a man promising change…jobs…greatness, and daring to be as sexist and racist and misogynist as he wanted to be, voicing the darkest “politically incorrect” thoughts that many people secretly (or not so secretly) felt. And of course, no presidential candidate in my lifetime has ever told as many outrageous, bold-faced lies as Donald Trump was firing off routinely throughout his campaign. And because Hillary is a woman, there was a level of visceral hatred directed at her reminiscent of the hatred directed at Obama because he is Black. Many Trump supporters actually believed Hillary was running a child sex ring in the back room of a pizzeria! Just as Trump had once convinced many people that Obama wasn’t a real citizen. Trump was the mega-salesman who said and did whatever it took to close the deal.
It seems that in the age of social media and demagoguery, the boundary between truth and fiction has all but disappeared. We don’t just have differences in perspective and everyone listening to separate sources of news and information, or all the ways media can be tilted left or right or corrupted by its corporate (or state) ownership, or filtered by the unique conditioning each viewer brings to it, but we now have totally fake news and conspiracy theories that go viral on social media—deliberate, outright lies—sometimes not even for ideological reasons, but simply to make money. Teenagers in Macedonia, for example, apparently got rich during the U.S. presidential election producing fake news for millions on social media. “The articles, sensationalist and often baseless, were posted to Facebook, drawing in armies of readers and earning fake-news writers money from penny-per-click advertising,” according to a report on NBC News. These fake stories made money by supporting Trump and attacking Hillary because apparently Trump-supporters were the most gullible and thus the most profitable to scam. (All things considered, it’s amazing Hillary actually did win the popular vote!) And those teenagers in Macedonia are not very different from what the corporate media did during the entire presidential campaign by giving huge amounts of free airtime to Trump and virtually none to Bernie Sanders, all because it served their bottom-line.
So, is there any meaningful distinction between “real news” vs. “fake news” from a nondual perspective? Yes, I think there is. It may be a relative distinction, but remember that zoom function and the importance of not getting fixated at any one “level” of reality. The absolute includes the relative, just as true nonduality includes duality, otherwise it becomes dualistic! As they say in Zen, “not one, not two,” or “leaping clear of the many and the one.” So yes, there is a (relatively) real and (relatively) very significant difference between real news and fake news, just as there is a (relative) difference between the hallucinated reality of a psychotic mental patient and the actual reality of that patient. And our ability to discern the difference between real news and fake news is an important one in this age of social media.
We also need to be aware of how easily we all accept second-hand information simply because it comes from a source we trust (as I instantly accepted the story about teenagers in Macedonia, for example, without actually traveling to Macedonia and researching it myself). And of course, we can’t personally research everything we hear, but we can always check out the source, be aware of its possible bias, hold things tentatively, have a willingness to receive new or contradictory information, and listen openly to people who see things differently.
And from a deeper perspective, we can also see that even the “real news” is—in the truest sense—a construction describing things that never actually happened in the way we think they did. We don’t really know what anything is, or what it means, or what will happen next. But that realization doesn’t prevent us from playing our part and functioning in relative reality.
Both this planet and the human species are momentary appearances in consciousness, finite manifestations of the larger whole, temporary (ever-changing) forms on their way to extinction, as every “thing” is. And that’s not bad news. That’s what makes life so alive, so vibrant, so capable of changing. And whatever appears to happen in this cosmic dance, whether it is Krishna playing his flute or Kali devouring her own children, the wholeness itself is uncreated, unborn, undying and indestructible. The deepest truth is subtler than space, prior to all names and descriptions, and at the same time, expressing itself as every name and every form.
The deepest truth is nothing mysterious or far away. It is right here, most intimate, showing up as trees and tables and birds and traffic jams and sounds of rain hitting the roof…and yes, even as Donald Trump and the war in Syria and Joan sometimes being caught up in an obsessive self-centered dream. It’s all included. Truth or illusion, dream or reality? If we land on either side, we miss the mark. No formulation can capture the living reality. But being here, being just this moment, THIS is beyond doubt. Once you try to say what it is, everything becomes doubtful and confusing. But the living reality is not confusing in any way. So whenever confusion arises, it can be a dharma bell, reminding us to stop and be still. To listen to the traffic sounds and the bird songs. To feel the sensations and energies in the body. To smell the rain on the wet earth. To be aware of the space in which all this is happening, the awake awareness that we are. Simply this. Ordinary and most extraordinary. No-thing and everything.
HOW SIMPLE CAN THIS BE?
I often speak of being liberated on the spot. That phrase isn’t original to me, but I love it because it points so beautifully to the only place where liberation can ever actually occur: Here / Now, on this very spot. And in using a big loaded word like “liberation,” I want to be very clear that I’m not talking about some spectacular one-time event, but rather, THIS moment, right here, right now, just as it is.
Liberation is not about having some big final experience or acquiring some secret understanding or knowledge about the universe. It’s simply about waking up right now to what actually IS. Not what might be, or what should be, or what used to be, or what someone else described…but what IS. Right here, right now. Exactly this!
Being liberated on the spot is about stopping the search (not forever, but NOW), and BEING right Here. It’s about dropping out of the obsessive involvement in the mental realm of concepts, thoughts, ideas and beliefs—trying to figure this all out, straining to “get it”—and instead dropping into simple presence—hearing sounds, seeing colors and shapes, feeling sensations and energies in the body, breathing…and seeing the thoughts and storylines that flit across the screen as what they are—momentary energetic events with no more “meaning” than the sounds of traffic or the tingling in the body.
Simply BEING this present experiencing and this awaring presence that is beholding whatever shows up without judgement, without needing it to be different, without trying to figure it out, without making anything out of it, without taking it personally. Being aware of the grasping tendency of the bodymind if and when it shows up—the mental grasping that seeks and tries, and the corresponding tightening in the gut, throat, face, heart, or wherever it might be—simply noticing this contraction, this tightening—not resisting it or trying to stop it, but simply being aware of it, feeling it fully, allowing it to be just as it is, giving it all the space it needs to eventually relax and open on its own, in its own time.
By simply coming home or waking up to Here / Now (this timeless, placeless immediacy that we never actually leave because it is all there is), our problems begin to melt away or be seen from a very different perspective. We begin to FEEL the spaciousness, the fluidity, the intimacy, the aliveness, the brightness of this awaring presence that we are.
The thinking mind will probably keep popping up, trying to bring the attention back to our personal dramas or our struggles to “get it” or whatever our favorite thought-patterns might be—but is it possible not to be seduced by the powerful pull of these habitual patterns? It’s our primary addiction really, our attachment to unnecessary and often painful thinking. We don’t need to resist thinking or try not to think, which doesn’t work, but simply let the thoughts pass through without getting involved. And if we do find ourselves caught up in some thought-train, at that moment of waking up (which happens naturally), can we simply return to the simplicity of what is, without judging ourselves for getting lost in thought? There’s really no one getting lost or being liberated—ALL of it is a movement in consciousness, like waves on the ocean. None of it is really personal.
Don’t take that as a belief, but look and see—is there anyone back there or inside here controlling what thoughts or sensations or urges arise, or where the attention goes, or what this bodymind is moved to do next? Can you actually find a boundary between what you think of as “inside of you” and what you think of as “outside of you”? You can certainly THINK of such a boundary, or imagine one, but if you FEEL into this inquiry with awareness, does any such boundary actually exist? Can it be found? This is the kind of meditative exploration and inquiry that can open things up—but it’s not a mental inquiry that we do by thinking about all this. Rather, it’s an experiential inquiry that happens by feeling into these questions and seeing what emerges. And it’s not about getting “the right answer.” It’s an ever-fresh, open discovery. There is no end to this discovery or this awakening, as there is no end to Here / Now.
All of this that I’m describing is not something we do once a day while sitting cross-legged on a cushion—although we may make time and space every day to simply be, and that’s a beautiful thing to do—but what I’m talking about is our whole life, or more to the point, right NOW. And it’s not about succeeding or failing, or comparing ourselves to others, or evaluating how well we’re doing at it or whether or not we’re enlightened yet, or tensing up and trying really, really hard to “be here now” all the time and then beating ourselves up for continually lapsing. All of that is more thinking, more distraction, more self-centered dream-stuff. Being liberated on the spot is simply being Here / Now, being awake—and not having any ideas about how “liberation” (or this moment) should look or feel. It isn’t “me” who is liberated, but rather, this whole happening (consciousness itself) is liberated (not forever after, but NOW) from the dream of being encapsulated and separate. It is the end of suffering and the discovery of true freedom.
As you’ve probably noticed, I come at this whole business from different angles—sometimes emphasizing “being here now” and sometimes emphasizing that Here / Now is all there is. Periodically, someone gets the mistaken idea that I am suggesting that we should try not to think, that story-telling and imagination are bad, or that enlightenment means being in a permanent state of thought-free mindful presence.
It is never my intention in any way to disparage creative thinking, functional thinking, or the wonders of imagination, story-telling, myth-making, mapping, conceptualizing and so on. These are wonderful human capacities—wonderful aspects of consciousness. I love movies, plays, novels, stories, poems, paintings, myths—and I spend much of my time immersed in language—I’m a writer, after all. The kind of thinking that is being questioned here is the kind that creates suffering. Thoughts such as, “I’m a loser,” or “You ruined my life,” or “John is a horrible person,” or “My religion is the only way.” Also being questioned here is how easily we mistake our conceptual formulations, ideas, explanations and beliefs for reality itself—i.e., how we mistake the map for the territory. But that’s not meant in any way to disparage maps, which are very useful, but only to point out the suffering that comes when we confuse maps with the territory itself.
Some nondualists insist that offering anything “to do” (such as dropping out of thought into sensory awareness, questioning thoughts, taking time to sit silently and “just be,” inquiry of any kind, and so on) serves only to reinforce the illusion of personal authorship and the dualistic notion that something needs to be different from how it is. These nondual teachers emphasize that everything is an undivided happening, and that there is no self who can influence it in any way. They stress that this happening is always already complete and whole and could not be otherwise from exactly how it is. They offer a description of reality, but never a prescription for how to transform our lives or relieve suffering. This way of expressing nonduality, including that uncompromising refusal to offer anything to do, is a powerful teaching and a perfectly valid expression. I often say exactly such things myself.
But I also feel, based on my own life experience, that there are indeed things that can be done, things that help us to wake up from suffering—to see the mirage-like nature of the separate self and to realize directly the unicity that underlies all apparent dualism. I have found intelligent meditation, various forms of inquiry, somatic awareness work, certain forms of therapy, koan work, silent retreats, and many other things immensely eye-opening, heart-opening and liberating. Of course, NONE of this can be done through some kind of independent, personal will. That kind of free will is an illusion. These things can only happen when everything in the whole universe comes together in a certain way, something over which no phantom-self has any control whatsoever. No wave can move independently of the ocean.
But that said, our apparent ability to make choices and undertake actions is part of how totality is functioning, part of how the ocean is waving. We can’t leave that out of the picture. I often give the examples of a coach training an Olympic athlete or a parent raising a child. The coach is going to give that athlete all kinds of instructions and feedback, and the athlete will hopefully be able to improve their performance as a result. Likewise, a parent will teach their child not to run into the street without looking, not to scream in public places, not to throw their food, how to talk and use a toilet and read and write and do their homework, and so on—and hopefully, the child will learn. Now if we look closely, ALL of this is a choiceless happening of the whole universe: the parent’s ability (or lack of ability) to teach the child, the child’s ability (or lack of ability) to learn, the athlete’s passion for his or her sport and his or her ability, talent, and physical capability, the necessary discipline and dedication, the right circumstances, the coach’s ability and insights, the ability of the athlete to utilize those insights, and so on and on—ALL of this is a choiceless happening of totality, the result of infinite causes and conditions.
If that choicelessness is fully realized, then there will be no guilt, blame, shame or recrimination when the inevitable failures occur—when the child behaves badly or when the athlete stumbles and falls. The child might still be disciplined—there might be consequences for inappropriate behavior, but if choicelessness is truly understood by the parent, this disciplining won’t be done in a spirit of spiteful punishment or shaming (and if, in a moment of anger, it is done this way, the parent will have compassion for their own unskillful behavior, knowing that—in that moment—it could not have been otherwise). And although choicelessness is fully realized, the coach and the parent will still carry on with the training or parenting, as they are moved (choicelessly!) by life to do. The coach isn’t going to just say to the athlete, “Everything happens by itself, so there’s nothing I can say to you, and nothing you can do to improve your game—it’s all a choiceless happening. Que sera sera.” That would be a misunderstanding of non-doership, a misunderstanding of no self or no choice, and a terrible job of coaching. The coach would be leaving his or her own actions out of the totality. And obviously no enlightened parent would do that either.
Because, in fact, as we all know, the bodymind CAN learn new skills. We can learn to read and write and drive a car and catch a ball. We can “decide” to go into recovery programs and sober up from an addiction. We can take yoga classes and become more flexible. We can learn new languages. We can learn to swim. We can learn to deal with anger in more skillful ways. Now again, NONE of this can happen unless the right conditions are there, and NONE of it happens through any kind of independent, individual will—although it appears that way if we don’t look too closely. But still, in a relative everyday sense, we must play our part. We have no choice! Thus, we tell our child not to run into the street, and we “decide” to join a gym. We don’t just sit back and refuse to do any of this because “there is no self” and “everything happens choicelessly by itself” and “no one has any control.” Our urges, actions, and apparent choices are part of the functioning of totality. So, as Adyashanti once cautioned, “Don’t hang yourself in an Advaitic noose.” In other words, don’t falsely disempower yourself by misunderstanding these nondual pointers.
There is always the danger, with any kinds of practices we take up, that they can be taken up in a rigid way, that they can become one more self-improvement program that starts with the idea of lack and then reinforces the notion of the separate self who is “doing well” or “doing poorly.” That can create an inner tension, even an inner war, against one's ordinariness and how one actually is. But with luck, and perhaps with the “coaching” of a skilled teacher, that added overlay will be seen and seen through along the way. Because clearly, a pathless path such as Zen is not about reinforcing the mirage of self or the story of lack. But the delusional mind will try to turn anything into that, so the job of any good teacher is to expose and undermine those tendencies whenever they show up.
If we do take up meditation, we will quickly realize that being in a state of mindful presence, like any experiential state, will come and go—although it may be awhile before we completely give up the hope that this might somehow change, that we might one day achieve a permanent experience of expansion. But if we have the idea that our goal is to be in ANY experiential state “all the time,” that is suffering.
Liberation is the realization of the openness that includes both the experience of expansion and the experience of contraction, both heaven and hell…the wholeness that includes apparent multiplicity…the nondual unicity that has no opposite…the groundless ground that is ever-present before, during and after every passing experience. Sometimes I call this the bigger context, sometimes I call it Here / Now. Some call it the Ultimate Subject or Primordial Awareness or God or the Tao or emptiness. It isn’t something apart from the everyday world, and it is never absent, and yet it can never be found as a particular object or experience. Any name we give it runs the risk of making this it-less-ness seem like an “it” — some-thing (this but not that). Like the silent, still, depth of the ocean, this ultimate reality is deeper and subtler than the surface-play (the waves) of ever-changing experiences, and yet every experience is nothing other than this. In the deepest sense, being lost in thought and being in a state of mindful presence are equally aspects of What Is, just as each waving movement of the ocean is equally ocean. Both experiences are temporary appearances in and of consciousness. In that sense, they are equal and interdependent and cannot be pulled apart.
But I’ve found that hanging out in mindful presence (“being here now”) can help us directly realize that nothing exists outside the present moment, that Here / Now is eternal, that the self is a kind of mirage, that free will is an illusion, that THIS (Here / Now) is boundless and seamless, that everything perceivable and conceivable is an appearance in and of consciousness, that awareness is ever-present even in the midst of delusion, and that all experiences (whether of unity or apparent separation, bliss or depression) are temporary. Without any kind of experiential practice, inquiry or exploration (such as “being here now”), we may end up adopting all of the above as mere philosophical ideas or beliefs. And belief is always shadowed by doubt. It doesn’t hold up when the ride gets rough. It doesn’t really liberate or satisfy the deep longing of the heart.
Eventually, with grace and practice and good luck, it will be realized that there is no “me” going back and forth between mindful presence and entanglement in thought. Both happen in boundless, ownerless awareness. Both are different waves in one ocean, equally made of water, and no wave can ever really be separated out from all the other waves. No wave moves independently of the whole ocean. It is all (our apparent choices included) one whole choiceless happening. No experience is personal, meaning that there is no separate individual who causes it or who owns it.
And as that realization sinks in, we’re no longer trying really hard to be mindful “all the time,” or judging ourselves for failing or congratulating ourselves for doing it right. It all just happens naturally. Sometimes we’re lost in thought, sometimes we’re tuned into sensory awareness, sometimes we watch a football game, sometimes we sit down and meditate, sometimes we dissolve into that which is prior to everything perceivable and conceivable, sometimes we get caught up in some form of suffering, eventually we wake up. There is really nobody “doing” ANY of this, and there never has been! The idea that one event is spiritual and the other is not gradually fades away, as does the notion that enlightenment and delusion can somehow be pulled apart, or that there is a “me” authoring or controlling all of this or being defined by it. ALL of this is one whole undivided happening. As Wayne Liquorman puts it, "As you walk the spiritual path, it widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all."
Awakening, liberation and enlightenment are all words, and people define them differently. But in this moment, I would say that liberation is the freedom to be as we are, to be unconstrained, even to be unconstrained about sometimes being constrained—to be this whole happening, just as it is, and to recognize that nothing is lacking or broken, even though relatively speaking, everything is always falling apart and problems are endless. Liberation moves freely between relative and absolute, not getting stuck on one side of any conceptual polarity: choice or choicelessness, self or no self, effort or effortlessness. Liberation is the recognition that what we consider failure and what we consider success are inseparable sides of a single coin, a coin belonging to no one.
And that doesn’t mean you can beat your wife, molest your daughter, kick your dog, shoot your neighbor and all the while call yourself a “liberated one” and claim that everything you do is “crazy wisdom,” “a manifestation of enlightenment,” or “just what is” (and therefore “okay”). As always, it’s so easy to turn tentative pointers into formulas, rationalizations or justifications, or to mistake conceptual maps for living reality and then get stuck in one-sided extremes and misunderstandings.
So again, and as I often say, there are many ways of expressing nonduality, many ways of approaching so-called awakening or liberation. Some ways are all about transcending relative reality and leaving this messy human life behind. Other ways are more about plunging right into the center of life, whether through sensory or somatic work, or through Zen koans, or through an emphasis on everyday life, or in other ways. Some approaches emphasize the path of negation (not this, not that), others emphasize the path of inclusion (nothing left out, recognizing everything as GOD), while others include both negation and inclusion. Sometimes, on our journey from Here to Here, a journey that always happens NOW, we need a transcendent message. Sometimes we need an earthy, inclusive message. Sometimes we need the uncompromising radical nondual message that “this is it.” Sometimes we need the pathless path of “being here now.” Sometimes we need an emphasis on choicelessness, and sometimes we need an emphasis on response-ability. None of these ways are inherently right or wrong, higher or lower, more or less advanced. They’re just different. And ultimately, they all lead to the same placeless place: Here / Now, where we always already are.
Which is why I like to say, it’s all about being liberated on the spot. Is that a doing? Is there a transformation or a shift involved? We can’t say yes; we can’t say no. But being liberated on the spot is definitely not about getting to some other spot, some other experience, some new acquisition, some better state. It’s about being awake to right here, right now—not knowing what this is, not needing any conceptual formulation of what this is (mind or matter, choice or choiceless, awareness or no awareness, self or no self), but simply BEING this that we already are. And “being” includes the free play of imagination, creative thinking and story-telling. It’s not about not thinking; it’s about not clinging, not grasping, not holding to beliefs, not mistaking concepts for reality, not fixating or getting stuck on one side of any apparent duality. Liberation is a deconstruction project, an undoing. It takes away the false. It leaves us with nothing to grasp, but that’s definitely not “nothing” in some nihilistic sense. It’s EVERYTHING, just as it is, which is nothing we can pin down, and yet, here it is! So simple, so immediate, so effortlessly presenting itself.
Response to a comment:
“The power of positive thinking” is an old and popular idea—my mother was a believer in this, and she practiced it all her life. “The Secret” is based on this idea, as is the work of Tony Robbins and many other popular New Age workshop leaders. We can easily notice the connection between thoughts and feelings, or between mind-body-world, which is really one inseparable event. And certainly positive thoughts (if believed) will bring forth positive feelings, and visa versa. This is easily observable.
But can we choose our thoughts? It may SEEM as if we can. We seemingly “decide” to engage in this kind of positive thinking, and we do it (or more accurately, it happens), and we feel better, and we get better outcomes, so it seems like “we” did it and it worked. But where did the initial interest in positive thinking come from? Why does it appeal to one person and not to another? Why does one person (like my mother) who has this interest stay with it and do well at it, while another person who has this interest either loses interest or finds that no matter how hard they try to think positively, their “real thoughts” are negative? This is where free will (personal agency or individual authorship) is revealed to be an illusion.
But that doesn’t mean we “shouldn’t” take up positive thinking! Just as an athlete can be trained, so the mind can be trained—the illusion is that it is our individual free will carrying this out (or failing at this). In both cases, it never is. But it SEEMS to be! In a sense, we have to play the game of free will—we have no choice!
So if positive thinking appeals to you and seems to work for you, by all means do it! I sometimes begin the day with a gratitude prayer, simply expressing gratitude for whatever comes to mind—obvious blessings and even the things I don’t like, and I find it’s a lovely practice that focuses me on the blessings in my life and that reveals the blessings in the things that don’t seem like blessings. But again, what moves me to do this on some days and not others? What brings up the different things that come to mind each time? Why does this bodymind find this a heart-opening practice, while another person might experience it as tedious or foolish? It is all a happening of life itself. Nothing wrong with positive thinking, gratitude prayers, forms of meditation that cultivate mindfulness or concentration, athletic training, or anything else—just don’t imagine that the separate self, which is a mirage, is at the controls.
THE PERFECTION OF IMPERFECTION—A NEW YEAR’S MESSAGE:
Many of us suffer from feelings of unworthiness or shame—a pervasive sense that we are not good enough. Many of us have a strong belief that the world is not as it should be. Bad things keep happening. And we keep making mistakes. And so, we do many things to try to fix this apparent problem of imperfection. We chase self-improvement in many forms, or we numb out or distract ourselves with various forms of intoxication. We beat ourselves up, and we beat each other up, for perceived failures and flaws. We twist around in the drama of guilt and blame, retribution and revenge, whether it is directed outward or inward. And in the spiritual world, we often set up impossible ideals of perfection and spend many years chasing some kind of total transformation that we hope will erase all our blemishes and bring forth peace on earth. We put spiritual teachers up on pedestals, and imagine that they are beyond delusion. Disappointment and disillusionment are the beginning of awakening.
For many years, I was chasing the carrot of final enlightenment. Or more accurately, chasing the carrot of final enlightenment was showing up and it felt personal—it felt as if “I” (the little self, Joan) was doing this searching, that it was a kind of compulsion over which “I” (Joan) had no control, and it was painful. “I” knew it was a form of delusion, but “I” couldn’t stop doing it. When this search was happening, the story behind it seemed believable. “I” compared myself to various “enlightened people” and felt that “they” were obviously less frequently mesmerized by the illusion of separation than “I” was. So, “I” was clearly not quite all the way “there” yet. There was something “I” (Joan) lacked, some final big permanent shift that would end “my” periodic re-identification as Joan forever and leave only a permanent identification as boundlessness. “I” (Joan) would never again be troubled by absorption in, or identification with, the messy dramas and emotional upsets of being Joan. Perfection at last!
Eventually, not in a Big Bang, but gradually, imperceptibly, over apparent time, it became clearer and clearer that any future “there” was a mental fantasy—the only reality was Here / Now. It also became clearer and clearer that this search and these feelings of inadequacy were all about “me,” the illusory separate character. It was all about “my” enlightenment (or lack thereof). It was rooted in identification as Joan and the belief that “her experiences” and “her behavior” belonged to “me,” the separate self, and were personal—that it all meant something about this “me.”
It was obvious “to me” that the “me” who got defensive was nothing more than an ever-changing bunch of conditioned thoughts and sensations, but the “me” to whom this was obvious, the “me” who was trying to wake up from being identified as that defensive me, the “me” who was judging and evaluating “my” progress or lack thereof—that “me” seemed real, until it didn’t. In fact, it was only another layer of that same mirage—a mirage that was happening not “to me,” but to no one at all. The entire show was an impersonal appearance in and of Consciousness, a movement of the Totality.
From the enlightened perspective, this whole problem of Joan’s enlightenment (or unenlightenment, worthiness or unworthiness) did not exist or have any meaning. It was only from the point of view of the apparent separate self that ANY of this seemed important, real or meaningful. This search was all about a mirage chasing a mirage. And the more clearly that was seen as it happened, the more this search lost its credibility and fell away, until one day I noticed it wasn’t happening anymore. The search for enlightenment had ended. Not because I now believed that “I” (Joan) was enlightened, but because it was seen that the word enlightenment points to what has never been absent—Here / Now—and to this whole seamless happening in which no separate thing actually exists and nothing is personal. Since then, I’ve been much more at peace with Joan’s neurotic quirks and stormy or cloudy weather patterns.
Consciousness can still get identified or entangled in the story of being Joan—I wrote a post recently where I shared just such an entanglement in a storm of emotion-thought that was quite powerful and that seemed to “take me over” for several weeks. I share these kinds of stories from time to time partly because they illustrate what I’m pointing to, but also because I think it’s helpful to demystify those of us who are writing books and giving talks and holding meetings and sitting at the front of the room. I’ve known enough teachers up close and personal over the years, some as close friends, to know that I’m not the only one who experiences this kind of delusion and cloudy weather from time to time. I’m sure there are some who experience far less of it than I do, but more or less really doesn’t matter. NONE of it is personal, and ALL of our human stuff is a dream-like display of changing weather patterns—conditioned arisings of the whole universe, movements of Consciousness—no more personal or meaningful than a thunderstorm, an erupting volcano, a hurricane, or a foggy day, and no more real than a dream.
In moments of cloudy weather, the delusional thought-story-feeling of being inadequate can still show up here. It’s a very old, deeply ingrained habit-pattern in this bodymind, and it can momentarily seem quite real, quite credible, quite believable: comparing myself to others, coming up short, feeling inadequate, unqualified to write or talk about waking up, wanting to throw in the towel and quit. I am reminded then of a particularly moving talk I once heard, given by Adam Bucko, a Christian who works with homeless youth in NYC. Someone had asked him once what his biggest challenge was in his ministry. Adam said the biggest challenge he faces is showing up at those times when grace doesn't seem to be present, when it seems to him that he has nothing to offer. His greatest challenge is showing up anyway, trusting that somehow God will show up too. I could really relate to that. And, of course, it is never the small self that does the teaching or the writing or the healing or anything else. As one satsang teacher put it when faced with a student who had been asked to teach, but who felt unworthy and not up to the task, “You’re absolutely right. ‘You’ can’t give satsang. But satsang can happen through you.”
In that same talk that moved me so much, Adam Bucko cited the great theologian and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen saying that "the spiritual leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own broken and vulnerable self." That I can also very much relate to. Rather than try to reinforce or create ideals of perfection that lead easily to feelings of inadequacy in others and to dishonesty and greater delusion in oneself, I am moved to be quite open about my human foibles. I can’t seem to do otherwise. I really feel that we’re all in this together—all equally expressions of the One Self, and all equally manifestations of the weather conditions of our particular bodymind (the whole ever-changing mix of genetics, neurochemistry, hormones, trauma, life experiences—the whole field of nature and nurture—utterly unique for each one of us). We’re all doing the only possible in each moment. Teacher and student are constructed roles that have their place—I’m not saying they have no functional validity—but ultimately, there is no teacher and no student. Sometimes the teacher is the student; sometimes the student is the teacher; and ultimately, there is no separation.
I’ve been listening lately to Leonard Cohen’s final album, “You Want It Darker.” The songs are dark but strangely peaceful, an old man preparing to depart this broken world. Leonard struggled much of his life with depression; he was very much attuned to the ways in which humanity was rushing toward self-destruction; and he was deeply spiritual – Jewish by heritage, a Zen monk for a number of years, and finally, a student of Advaita via Wayne Liquorman and Ramesh Balsekar. In his music, Leonard turned darkness into beauty and celebrated the fundamental imperfection of life. As he put it, “I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win. You abandon your masterpiece and you sink into the real Masterpiece.”
Pursuing our own ideas of what a masterpiece should be, wanting to be a masterpiece ourselves, wanting to make the world (or our children, or whoever else) into a masterpiece, we seek perfection. We chase final enlightenment, permanent satisfaction, the ultimate gold medal, a perpetual winning streak. We long for a personality and a world that can never actually exist, one in which the light has triumphed permanently over the darkness, where Krishna is always playing his flute and Kali no longer devours her young. And seeking these kinds of illusory masterpieces, we are endlessly disappointed. At some point, maybe we notice that this search for perfection is a drama occurring in a dream, with a fictional main character and an apparent outside world, neither of which have any inherent or fixed reality the closer we look, and neither of which can be separated out from the other. We begin to make peace with the world as it actually is and with our human lives as they actually are, not as we think they should or could be (if only).
That doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t still tune up our car, go into therapy, work out at the gym, read another spiritual book, learn a new language, discipline our children, “decide” to quit smoking, organize a civil rights protest, encourage the development of clean energy, plant and tend a garden, or whatever life moves us to do. But we recognize that all of these things are the activities of the Totality, the wavings of one undivided ocean, and not our individual doings. They can only happen when all the necessary conditions come together. And we no longer have the idea that someday, if only we do all these things, we’ll finally be okay. The car will be permanently tuned up, the garden permanently weeded, the world finally fixed and at peace, and “me” perpetually happy at last. Instead, we recognize that we’re already whole and complete, and that on the level of form, things will always be falling apart.
As an apparent individual, we will always be lacking in some way, making mistakes, stepping again and again into the Cosmic DooDoo. There will always be good days and bad days, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. But in a bigger sense, nothing is ever lacking or in excess, and the apparent mistakes are part of a larger whole. We’re not limited to this character that we seem sometimes to be playing. There is a bigger picture, a deeper truth, a subtler reality. And so, we “sink into the real Masterpiece,” the one that includes our brokenness and all the cloudy weather. It includes humanity racing toward self-destruction and Donald Trump in the White House and Hitler gassing the Jews and bombs falling on children in Syria and Joan feeling defensive and upset and all the rest of it. Awareness (unconditional Love) is already embracing all of this, allowing it all to be just as it is—knowing that all of it is its own dream, its own reflection, its own creative imagination, its own expression, its own exploration and discovery, its own waving play—the One Self appearing in endless variations and disguises, ever-changing forms that dissolve instant-by-instant into something new.
So, if you think you’re not enlightened yet, see if you can find the one who is not enlightened (and, of course, this applies equally if you think you are enlightened, but that delusion is less common). If you’re feeling inadequate or lacking or unworthy, see if you can find this unworthy one. You may find that there is no-thing solid here to be worthy or unworthy. You may find that this non-dual Totality includes absolutely everything, even these feelings of unworthiness, and that even the Almighty Self cannot avoid identifying with billions of different characters, being absorbed in billions of different plotlines and dream-movies, and being at times swept up in the emotional drama. It’s all the Divine Lila.
You may find that the whole situation is blameless and that you are not who you thought you were and neither is anyone else. You may discover that the common element in every different experience is equally present in the Cosmic Doo-Doo and in the most sublime Samadhi state, just as the ocean is equally present in every wave. You may find that what you are truly seeking (peace, freedom, love, joy, happiness, beauty) is not somewhere else. It is right here, right now. You need only stop, look and listen. Wake up. See the beauty in the crumpled cigarette package tossed into the gutter on a city street. The beauty is in the seeing, the awaring presence, the aliveness. Enjoy the sound of the siren, the traffic jam, the disturbances, the upsets. Feel the peace at the center of the war. Discover the love that includes the hate. Notice the freedom in the midst of limitation. Realize the perfection in the imperfection. Be the joy that is here at the heart of darkness. Actually, “you” don’t have to “do” any of this. It is already done. Here / Now is always already fully present and totally complete.
Starting in a few days, I’ll be on my annual silent retreat at home over New Years, and I’ll be back next year! But before I sign off for 2016, I’ll leave you with a few verses from one of my favorite Zen texts, Sengtsan’s Hsin-Hsin Ming (“Trusting the Heart-Mind”), translated from the Chinese by Richard B. Clarke:
“The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences…The Way is perfect as vast space is perfect, where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting that we do not know the true nature of things…Each thing reveals the One, the One manifests as all things. To live in this Realization is not to worry about perfection nor non-perfection.”
I wish all of you all blessings in this coming New Year. May we remember that our every urge, interest, thought, action and apparent misstep or difficulty is the One Self—the waving of the one ocean, in which each wave is inseparable from all the others—and that this applies to everyone and everything that shows up. It’s one whole, undivided, unbroken, happening. And even if our entire world as we know it blows up, as it actually does second by second, the Heart is at peace and all is well.
Happy New Year! And Love, joan
HOW DO WE MEET SO-CALLED EVIL? I don’t relate much to the word evil. I prefer not to call anything evil because the word seems to connote some kind of inherent and essential terrible-ness. I see what we call evil as ignorance or delusion—the result of life conditioning, including perhaps genetics, various forms of neurochemical imbalance, mental illness, PTSD, and/or brain anomalies that can produce exaggerated emotions, lack of ability to feel empathy, poor impulse control, paranoia, hallucinations, and so on. Under the spell of this kind of conditioned delusion, people can act in very unskillful and cruel ways. And to some degree, we all act unskillfully and unkindly at times. So perhaps the first thing in meeting so-called evil is not seeing it as evil, but having a compassionate understanding of the causes and conditions that brought it forth. Ultimately, EVERYTHING is God (or Consciousness, Unicity, Totality, intelligence-energy, the Self, the Tao, no-thing-ness, emptiness—whatever word one prefers). Nothing is other than our own Self.
Compassionate understanding is the natural response of awakened seeing. Compassion doesn’t necessarily manifest as sweetness or even as non-violence. It might even mean killing someone like Hitler or putting a serial killer or a child rapist in prison. But none of this would be done in a spirit of vengeance, hatred and rage. There would be compassion for that person, knowing that if we had exactly the same conditioning they had, we’d be standing in their shoes and doing exactly what they’re doing, because there is to “me” apart from the infinite causes and conditions of each moment.
What happens in our own experience when hate is met with hate? What happens when hate is met with love? Which approach solidifies and magnifies delusions and which one dissolves and disarms them? Can we choose to love or to not hate? And if not, can we have compassion for ourselves, for our own conditioned expression being just as it is? Is it maybe possible to pause before reacting, to give the fire of hatred and the storm of judgmental thinking open, loving, nonjudgmental attention—allowing it to be as it is, seeing it clearly, feeling it in the body as energy and sensation, letting it move and burn and dissolve by itself, and perhaps also questioning our thoughts and beliefs about how the universe “should” and “should not” be?
In my experience, sometimes that kind of pause is possible, and sometimes it isn’t. But even when it isn’t, even when reactive emotion takes over, even then, in the deepest sense, our True Nature (awareness, unconditional love) is always already accepting and allowing everything to be just as it is. Have you noticed? And whether we like it or not, everything always IS as it is.
Ultimately, the political left and the political right, socialists and capitalists, men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, prisoners and guards, armies on every different side, are all one whole undivided happening, impossible to separate or pull apart. The ever-changing and ungraspable movement of energy we call “the worst person ever” is as perfect an expression of wild nature as any cloud formation in the sky. Everything about this worldly drama is dream-like and ephemeral. There is no actual boundary between inside and outside, between ourselves and the world. We move in the apparent world as life moves us, and that movement, just as it is, is one whole undivided happening, boundless and seamless, without beginning or end, always Here / Now.
When I was growing up, my mother sometimes said to me, especially when I had been mischievous, "I don't always like you, but I always love you." That expresses quite well how I feel about pretty much everyone I've ever met or heard about—whether they are on the left or the right, whether they are child molesters or rapists or serial killers or the next president of the United States. I definitely don't always like them or agree with their ideas, and I am often deeply pained and sometimes angered by what some of them say or do, but as fellow human beings compelled to be as they are, I love them. The love I'm talking about is unconditional love, which is the nature of awareness itself. It's not "my" doing or "your" doing—it's the field in which you and I and everyone else appear. It's the single "I" to which we all refer if we trace it back, our True Nature and the ultimate reality of everything that appears.
I know that each of us is doing the best we can in every moment, and that our every urge, thought, word and deed is the happening of life itself—that no wave ever moves independently of the whole ocean. This love transcends political and religious differences. It doesn't wipe out these differences or eliminate my often very strong opinions. But it holds them in a bigger context. It also embraces my own human failings—the times I lose my temper or act in unkind and mean-spirited ways. It embraces everything—the countless daily acts of generosity and kindness, the dazzling beauty that is on display everywhere, the sheer wonder of life, the fact that there are elephants and zebras and giraffes and neon colored fish…and yes, also the atomic bombs, the genocides, the wars, the cruelty, the hate crimes, the ignorance, the changing climate, the mass extinctions, our human inability (so far) to stop all this, the immense pain and sorrow that is inseparable from the overwhelming beauty—the whole show.
Here are 6 quotes to consider (from Karl Renz, Darryl Bailey, Huang Po, Wayne Liquorman, and Toni Packer):
"You cannot avoid one single misery. Ignorance. None of that can be avoided. All of that is what you are. No end to it. There is no happy end. That's the beauty of it." --Karl Renz
"The hope for spiritual enlightenment is usually the hope of avoiding what we are, the hope of avoiding the pains and confusions of existence, but enlightenment is the realization we can't avoid them." --Darryl Bailey
"That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all."
"We're all a mixed bag of qualities. If any of us were capable of creating our own beingness, we would all be saints! We would be loving and kind and generous all the time, because when we're loving and kind and generous we feel better; everybody feels better, and it brings more joy into life. The fact that despite our best intentions and our most earnest observations and efforts we're still filled with positive and negative qualities, seems to suggest a certain lack of control on the part of the human organism. Perhaps, if you look, you will see deeply into the mystery and be freed from this crushing burden of guilt, blame and shame." --Wayne Liquorman
"Here we all are together—one complete movement of wholeness. Now moments of bright insight like fireflies lighting up a dark field on a warm summer night. Fireflies aren't lit all the time. Do they wonder, 'Why aren't we lit all the time?' They are what they are, and they don't seem to find fault. They just light up in darkness; and whenever it happens the whole field sparkles luminously. What a wondrous way of being—for at least one moment not to find fault with anything! Not because it's a splendid idea, but because there is nothing to find fault with! There's only what is. And that's completely unbroken, without possibility of lack. Every one of us inevitably contributes to this unbroken, pulsating wholeness, whether we're temporarily good or bad, ignorant or wise, selfish or selfless, violent or gentle, beautiful or ugly personalities. All of us together, as we are, are an ever throbbing, ever changing, never gaining, never losing creative whole, floating in spaciousness that does not know right or wrong." --Toni Packer
GOD’S WILL and THE PEACE THAT PASSETH ALL UNDERSTANDING: To me, God is another word for Unicity, Totality, One-without-a-second, intelligence-energy, the Tao, Here / Now, Consciousness, Truth, What Is, Just This, emptiness, or whatever we want to call the undivided living reality. It is THIS, right here, right now—the tweet tweet tweet of the bird, the whoosh whoosh whoosh of the traffic, the barking of the dog, the colors and shapes, the sensations of breathing, the awaring presence beholding it all—all of it an unbroken wholeness, seamless and boundless—ever-present and ever-changing, without beginning or end—at no distance, utterly immediate, without separation, no inside or outside, no subject or object—just this, as it is.
I don’t think of God as a guy-in-the-sky who is planning out and willing his next move, and therefore, as I see it, expressions such as “God’s will,” or “thy will be done” are simply pointers to the fact that life is as it is in every moment. It is as it is because of infinite causes and conditions (and even that is a mental overlay on top of what truly passeth all understanding). To add, as some people do, that everything is unfolding as it “should” (as “God’s will” seems to imply) feels extra to me—as if there is some plan for how things “should” be. Better to stick with simply it is as it is.
Obviously, as living organisms, we are incredibly vulnerable and subject to pain, disability and loss. No matter how much money we have or how many walls we build between us and “them” (whatever we think might threaten us), insecurity remains, for it is the very nature of organic existence. No form endures. When we are completely identified with one perishable and apparently separate bodymind, this is a very frightening situation. We are trying to survive as one wave on the ocean, trying to grasp and hold onto water, trying to freeze and pin down the movement that life is.
But when there is the recognition of the larger happening that we all are, the ocean itself, there is peace. We recognize what cannot be destroyed, damaged or broken. We see that there is no way we can ever go wrong, that EVERYTHING is God. We see that we ARE the movement of life, not some separate thing that is being swept along in it. No-thing ever really exists (stands apart), and no-thing is ever really born or ever really dies. When that is recognized, it ends the suffering associated with the illusion of being a separate fragment with free will on a journey toward a better (or more terrible) future. This is the peace that passeth all understanding. It is the peace that is at peace with apparent conflict, upset and disruption, the peace that depends on nothing.
But even with this realization, life inevitably includes pain. Just the mere thought of a painful illness, a terrorist attack, or being pinned under the rubble in a catastrophic earthquake can fill the entire bodymind with dread. These are scary thoughts—but that’s all they are right now, thoughts. And if one of these things actually happens, the reality of it won’t be the same as our fearful fantasy. And one way or another, whatever apparently happens, we will survive it, whether as this ever-changing form we call the bodymind or as the great (beginningless, endless) happening itself. Ultimately, our whole life, all of human history, and the entire universe is like a passing dream, a dream that includes everything imaginable and unimaginable. Recognizing the dream-like quality of all that appears doesn’t invalidate the beauty or the pain. It simply means it has no inherent or lasting reality, no ultimate meaning, no great purpose beyond simply being as it is.
Awakening is not about getting a grip, figuring it all out, having the right set of beliefs, landing in some correct formulation, or surviving as this form. It’s the releasing of all that, the relaxing (melting, dissolving, letting go, free-falling) into the unformulated and indescribable living reality of this (timelessly present) moment—prior to labels, judgments, categorizations, explanations, definitions, comparisons or any other conceptual overlay. Of course, this unbroken wholeness includes EVERYTHING, even labels, judgments, categorizations, explanations and all other conceptual overlays, so awakening isn’t about the absence of all that. But when consciousness mistakes the map for the territory, or the label for the thing itself, or any story for the living actuality—and especially the story of being a separate, independent self who has to “make something of my life” and “do the right thing” and “get somewhere” and “be somebody,” then there is suffering. Awakening sees through these mirage-like mistaken identities.
That doesn’t mean we deny the apparent person altogether—that would be ridiculous. I still know that I’m Joan and that this is a Facebook post. But simultaneously, there is also the knowing that I am not limited to Joan, and that “Joan” is no-thing that can be grasped or separated out from everything else that is apparently not-Joan, and that to call this present happening “a Facebook post” is a relatively accurate and useful description, but that ultimately, no one can say what this present activity (this Facebook writing-posting-reading) is. It’s never really some-thing that can be objectified, grasped and understood.
Liberation doesn’t fixate on any mental construct or cling to any particular experience or any single “level” of reality (whether absolute or relative, boundlessness or particularity, zoomed out to the undivided whole or zoomed in to the personal story). Life moves freely because EVERYTHING is included and NONE of it is actually personal, not even what seems to be our personal story.
The thinking mind is always trying to get a grip, so it will try to make something (some-THING) out of unbroken wholeness or boundlessness or God—even to put those words (“unbroken wholeness” or “boundlessness” or “God”) on this-here-now makes it seem like some “thing” (this but not that). We use words to point, but beware of clinging to the words—the word “water” is not water. Because totality has no limits and nothing stands apart from it, there is no way it can be objectified. As has been said, you can use a thorn to remove a thorn—but then you throw both thorns away. You don’t hang on to the helpful thorn or it quickly becomes an obstacle. Don’t cling even to the no-map map. And if you do cling, recognize that there is no “you” doing this apparent clinging, and that this too is simply a momentary activity of being, a momentary shape that undivided wholeness is taking, a momentary appearance in a fleeting dream belonging to no one.
If we let all our descriptions and conceptualizations and beliefs go, what remains?
If you’re thinking of an answer, or searching for one, drop that and simply BE what remains. There is no way to really say what this is, and yet, here it is—utterly obvious, unavoidable and undeniable. How simple can this be?
Here in Ashland, the wind is howling and gusting, rain is beating furiously against the windows, trees are bending this way and that, the day is dark and wild. And I find myself here at my desk, tapping on these magic keys, wanting to say or sing that EVERYTHING (without exception) is the Holy Reality, the One-without-a-second. So-called human beings are as much an expression of nature as rain, wind, rivers, tides, planets, asteroids, ants, beavers, tigers, bees, viruses, cockroaches, giraffes and elephants. Skyscrapers are as natural as beaver dams and ant hills. Paving over the planet, warming it up with greenhouse gases, triggering mass extinctions—all of this is every bit as natural as this present rain and wind storm that is battering this town. And of course, our responses to all of this are also part of this natural happening, just as in the body there are white blood cells battling infections and cancer cells wiping out the host organism—wars and conflicts on every level, predator and prey one whole happening. It’s all an amazing dance—the wind, the rain, the coming inauguration of Donald Trump, the protest marches that will happen here and all across the country, the countless different explanations of why he won, the countless different imaginings and predictions of what he will do, the churning in the stomach, the thoughts flitting across the screen, the Russian and American astronauts circling the earth together in the international space station traveling at roughly 17,150 miles per hour, circling the blue ball once every 92 minutes, passing over ice storms, wars, tornados, family dramas—these words emerging from no one knows where, coming out of nowhere, taking shape on the page, being read now through what unimaginable process—who can say what this all is? Or what it means? Or what purpose it has? Or why it is all happening? Perhaps it is possible to rest in not knowing the answers, in simply being this whole amazing unfolding NOW, just as it is—raining, winding, gurgling, splashing, whooshing, awaring, sensing, thinking, dreaming, waking—ALL of it the Holy Reality. All of it GOD. All of it worthy of devotion (i.e. open, loving attention), worthy of love, worthy of being here. All of it changing instantly into something new, something that has never been here before, this new moment, ever-fresh, unknowable.
DEATH AND THE DEATHLESS: The comparison to electricity is often used to describe what survives death. Electricity is the energy that enlivens a multitude of different gadgets. The gadgets come in all different sizes and shapes and serve many diverse functions: washing machines, toasters, refrigerators, televisions, CPAP machines, lamps, vacuum cleaners, cars, microwaves, toaster ovens, drills, computers, vibrators, blenders. All of these gadgets have a limited lifespan—eventually they break down and fall apart. But the electricity that gives them life is ever-present. It isn’t created by the gadgets, and it doesn’t die with the gadgets. And it’s not that the toaster dies and then reincarnates as a lamp—the electricity was never confined to any particular form or function, and no form or functioning is a static “thing” that reincarnates intact in a different appliance.
The electricity that runs the refrigerator is the same electricity that runs the toaster oven or the lamp. In the same way, consciousness shows up as a multitude of different forms. It appears as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and Marine Le Pen and Ramana Maharshi and Buddha and Adolph Hitler and Gloria Steinem and Meryl Streep and Kim Jong-un, as cancer cells and chemotherapy, as mass murderers and saints, as trees and environmentalists and loggers trying to feed their families, as subatomic particles and distant galaxies, as suns and moons, darkness and light. The forms are all temporary, while consciousness is boundless and seamless. It is the common factor in every different experience. We never actually experience anything outside of, or other than, consciousness. Verify this for yourself by noticing that even the belief that you are seeing a world that exists outside of consciousness is itself an appearance in consciousness. No such observer-independent reality can ever actually be found. No brain has ever appeared outside of consciousness. Consciousness is that which gives life and apparent reality to every appearance. It IS every appearance.
The first light of consciousness, the “I AM” as it is often called, is prior to name and form. It is the impersonal sense of bare presence, of being here now, being aware. Before the thought-story-memory that “I am Joan” arises, there is the knowingness of being present and aware.
Sometimes upon waking up from sleep, there is a moment of not knowing who I am or where I am. And then gradually (or suddenly) the story of “Joan” returns. Consciousness remembers “who I am” (or what part I am playing) in the movie of waking life, and there is once again a sense of being somebody in particular. The story comes back (I’m a writer, I live in Oregon, I’m 68 years old, I’m working on a book about aging and dying, I have a private meeting scheduled in an hour, I need to get groceries today, and so on). Sometimes, after someone we love has died or a relationship has ended, it takes a few seconds upon waking up before we remember this loss, and then when the memory comes (“I’ll never see her again”), grief suddenly floods the body. But for a moment, the whole story was absent.
In fact, the bodymind and the story of being a particular somebody appears intermittently within this unbound awaring presence. If you pay attention, you may notice that there are many moments in any ordinary day when there is simply walking, driving, eating, washing dishes, watching a movie, whatever it is—being here now, with no thought-sense at all of being a particular person. The story and the thought-sense of being “me” comes and goes. You might notice that sometimes you are simply being here as thoughtless presence (breathing, sensing, seeing, hearing, functioning) and then suddenly someone calls your name or asks you a question like, “What do you do?” or “How are you?” or “What have you been doing since I last saw you a year ago?” – and suddenly there is a sense of contracting and shrinking down into this encapsulated form and having to remember or conjure up a story about what I do or how I am or what I’ve done in the past year.
We can also notice that even that first sense of unbound, impersonal presence is temporary. Even the I AM comes and goes. In deep sleep, nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. The one who cares about getting enlightened or finding true love disappears. The one who worries about whether “I” will survive death is totally absent. Even the first bare light of awareness is absent. And this is not some terrifying void. It’s a wonderfully relaxing, relieving, rejuvenating experience, except that it’s not an experience at all. It leaves no trace.
People use the words consciousness and awareness in different ways, but we could say that consciousness is the apparent dividing up of formless unicity into apparent multiplicity and polarity—it is the world of waking and dreaming life—and it begins with that first bare sense of aware presence, the I AM. In this way of using words, consciousness itself is temporary. Electricity is temporary. Anything perceivable or conceivable or experiencable is temporary. That which is ever-present, beholding and being it all, is unnamable and inconceivable. Nisargadatta called it pure awareness. But this pure awareness is not a thing that can be objectified and grasped. Any-thing that can be objectified and grasped is a temporary appearance, a fleeting experience. But that which remains in deep sleep, that which is unborn, uncreated, uncaused, unconditioned—that which never comes or goes, that which never dies—THAT is what Here / Now IS: the timeless (eternal), spaceless (infinite), dimensionless unicity from which nothing stands apart. THIS (Here / Now) is what remains when everything perceivable and conceivable has disappeared, and it is the true nature of every appearance—the emptiness of form and the forming of emptiness, the no-thing-ness of everything, the aliveness of this moment.
To awaken (to be liberated on the spot) is to dissolve into this that we already are. And there is actually nothing real that needs to dissolve or disappear or be transformed in any way. So this dissolving is effortlessly always already so. This is it. Right here, right now. Nothing can really obscure this, not even the intermittent thought-sense of being a particular person, which is no more substantial than a passing cloud in the sky. The waves don’t obscure the ocean; they are a play of the ocean, and in the same way, the movie of waking life and being Joan (or Joan-ing) is the playing of THIS that is all there is.
Enlightenment, awakening, liberation, nonduality—so many fancy words to confuse us. So many different conceptual formulations or pointers: “You are not the body,” “There’s no self,” “All is One,” “Nothing is really happening,” “Everything is Consciousness.” So many different instructions to try to follow: Be here now, Stand as Awareness, Identify as Awareness, Stop thinking, Let Go, Rest as presence, Pay attention, Do nothing, Relax, Surrender, Be mindful, Give up trying to be mindful, Meditate, Don’t meditate. It’s easy to get confused. The habitual way of tackling all of this is to try to figure it all out and “get a grip” mentally by thinking and analyzing and trying to understand it all, and/or by trying to have some special experience other than the one that is happening now.
But this is all so simple. Whatever is happening right now is happening by itself, effortlessly: reading, thinking, hearing, seeing, breathing, digesting, moving, sensing, awaring. Can we pause for a moment and simply notice this happening right now that is going on effortlessly? Even what we experience as “our own effort” is happening effortlessly by itself. Can that be noticed? This eternal present is one whole undivided happening, even though it has many different colors and shapes and textures, and even though thought can identify many different and apparently independent objects: chairs, tables, people, dogs, cats, clouds, stars. But look more deeply, and it can be seen that none of these objects exist independently of everything else in the universe, and that all of these different things are ever-changing appearances in (and of) consciousness. They show up as one whole moving picture, one seamless happening. Don’t take that on as a new belief, but give attention to the living reality Here / Now and see for yourself how it is.
Thought can label this happening and all the different things that appear here—we have stories and theories and beliefs about cause and effect and how things happen and what they mean—scientific stories, religious stories, all kinds of stories. And these stories and theories and beliefs can all be questioned and doubted, and different people will hold conflicting beliefs and give differing descriptions of “the same” phenomenon, and over the centuries some of our apparent certainties may change. The flat earth turns out to be round, the earth goes around the sun, and so on. But the bare happening itself—before the labels and the stories about it—that is beyond doubt.
And this awaring presence that is right here beholding it all—this knowingness of being here now—this is also impossible to doubt. We can doubt our ideas about it, but not the bare actuality of being here, being present, being aware.
We may think that we are a person who is aware, that awareness is a function of the brain, that we are looking out at a world that exists independently of us, but the more closely we look, the more this deeply conditioned story about the nature of reality doesn’t actually hold up. What exactly is this person? Where are the boundaries? Is this the same person that was here 60 years ago, or even 5 minutes ago? What exactly is “my body”? Where does it begin and end? Does it stay the same from one second to the next? Is there an actual boundary between “me” and “not me,” or between inside and outside? Can any such boundary be found in direct experience? And if it seems that we’ve found such a boundary, how solid is it and where exactly does it begin and end, and what is beholding it? Doesn’t this body appear in awareness along with the chairs and tables, the dog and cat, the sky, the trees, the whole universe? Can an actual place be found where awareness ends and the body (or the cat, or the sky, or the tree) begins, or vice versa? Is there any actual boundary or division between subject and object, seer and seen, or is the reality undivided seeing-being? Don’t answer any of these questions from belief, and don’t rely on what anyone else says, but explore all of this directly for yourself. Look and listen. Feel into it. Discover for yourself.
That’s what true meditation and true inquiry (as I use the words) are really all about—not sitting in the lotus position trying not to move and concentrating on our breathing or asking ourselves over and over, “Who am I?” – but simply BEING Here / Now – looking and listening, questioning, wondering – not by thinking, but by paying attention, by being aware, by BEING awareness.
Is it possible to be here in this moment without an agenda, without needing to define what’s happening, without seeking something different, without judging what’s showing up or trying to control it any way—just being here? What is that like, to simply be here?
Is it possible to explore Here / Now without knowing what might be found? Can we simply feel this presence, this aliveness? Can we explore directly what we are referring to when we say “I”? What do we mean when we say, “I am”? Superficially, we are referring to an apparent person—this body, this mind, this personality, this “me” that has a name, a gender, a race, a nationality, an age, a story. But more deeply, if all of that disappeared, what would remain? Is it possible that the “I” to which we all refer is—at its depth—exactly the same I, the same boundless awaring presence?
Can we feel the spaciousness, the openness, the fluidity, the freedom that is Here / Now?
And if we can’t, or don’t think we can, then can we simply be with whatever IS showing up, just as it is? And whenever the sense of being separate shows up—when we feel hurt or defensive or angry or victimized or upset or misunderstood or overwhelmed or attacked or afraid or lacking or unworthy—can we explore directly what is going on? Can we hear the thoughts without being totally seduced into believing them? Can we recognize that they are a conditioned commentary and not an objective report on reality? Can we find the "me" who seems to be thinking these thoughts, the "me" who seems to be angry or lacking or who feels insulted or misunderstood—or is that "me" simply a bunch of changing thoughts, sensations, memories and mental images? Can we feel the bodily sensations without judging any of it or trying to change it in any way? Can we question our beliefs, our assumptions, our certainties, our stories about ourselves, about others, and about the world? Can we simply be here in the midst of a tumultuous storm of emotion-thought, being and beholding it all, in the same way we might behold a thunderstorm, without taking it personally or giving it meaning?
We are this storming, it is inseparable from what we are and all that is, and we are also that which beholds the storm, that which remains when the storm has passed, that which is untouched by the storm. And if the thinking-seeking mind is now about to go out in search of “that,” trying to figure out what “that” is—can that movement be seen for what it is? It is an old habit, to seek what we already are, to try to grasp what is ungraspable, to try to find wholeness as an object—trying so hard to get to this place Here / Now that we have never left, and then trying not to try. Instead of following this old habit, is it possible instead to simply be here as this undeniable awaring presence and this undeniable present happening, however it is? Not forever after, but right now, in this moment: hearing, seeing, sensing, awaring, thinking, trying, tensing, relaxing, contracting, expanding, breathing, storming, calming, opening, closing—BEING this whole seamless happening, beholding it all. Discovering the openness that is open enough to include being closed, the freedom that is free to be limited, the vastness that is vast enough to include specificity, the oneness that appears as multiplicity, the timelessness that includes all of time—THIS—Here / Now, just as it is.
What is it? Any answer we give is just a sound—a word—a label. But THIS—the direct, living reality itself—is effortlessly and undeniably presenting itself. Explore it, enjoy it, BE it. And recognize finally that there is no way not to be it. It is all there is.
In the last couple days, I’ve been deeply moved by the immense outpouring of love in the form of all the protestors showing up at airports nationwide here in the United States in support of refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and fellow human beings. I am writing to express my support for all these people, and my gratitude to the protestors for showing up and taking a stand for welcoming people rather than tightening our borders.
This is a long post and it contains political opinions (while also pointing beyond them), but if length or politics is off-putting to you, this post probably isn’t for you. But if you’re still with me, here goes:
I want to begin by saying that I know some of you may have voted for Trump, and I know that many of the people who voted for Trump are intelligent, thoughtful, good-hearted folks who are not overtly or intentionally racist, sexist, heterosexist or xenophobic. I know that many Trump supporters are generous, kind people who want the best for their children and for the world. I know that many of Trump’s supporters believe (or believed when they voted) that Trump would protect them from terrorism and bring back the long-gone economic prosperity of the 1950’s, when a white guy with a high school education could get a secure, decent-paying job with good benefits and a good pension and could buy a house in a decent neighborhood and see his children off to college. But of course, Trump can’t protect us from terrorism, and certainly not in the way he is going about it, nor can he bring back the 1950’s—and if you were Black or female or gay or disabled, the 1950’s were not all that great anyway. But even if the 1950’s were good to you, history has moved on, and for many reasons, the 1950’s won’t be coming back in the same way ever again.
Most of my readers did not vote for Trump, and I’ve heard from so many people since the election who are worried about the future they and their children and grandchildren will face now that Trump is president. Many people are worried about war, about climate change and irreparable damage to the environment, about deportation, about a roll-back in women’s rights, about the escalating racism and bigotry that Trump has stirred up and encouraged. It can be a challenge every morning to read the news. In only a few days, among other things, Trump has taken steps to make abortion less available and women’s lives more precarious, he has greenlighted the egregious Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, he has continued to insist that his inauguration drew huge crowds and that he won the popular vote, he apparently really does plan to spend billions building an absurd wall along the US-Mexican border, and now he has banned people from certain Muslim countries from entering the US and said that he will give immigration priority to Christians—probably creating the biggest recruitment tool ISIS has ever had. Trump has appointed the least diverse cabinet (in terms of gender and race) since Reagan, and they are an exceptionally unsavory and unqualified bunch from a progressive point of view. And there is the specter of the nuclear codes being in the hands of a man who often appears to be emotionally unbalanced, thin-skinned, narcissistic and unable to resist tweeting out his most reactive, defensive or offensive thoughts at any hour of the day or night, reportedly on an unsecured device. Trump is also working very hard to discredit the media so that he can put forward his “alternative facts” as reality. To my mind, he is clearly a very dangerous man.
Being awake to what’s happening is important. As was true during the rise of Nazi Germany, this is certainly not the time for burying our head in the sand or turning away and tuning out. I’m not saying that Trump is going to be another Hitler, but there are certainly some troubling similarities—and remember, no one expected Hitler to carry out a mass genocide when he first came to power—so it’s good to learn from the lessons of history and to be vigilant—by which I don’t mean living in terror and expecting the worst, but simply keeping our eyes open. We don’t know how far Trump will go or how bad this will get, but given what we’ve seen so far, I think it’s wise to stay alert.
I also don’t mean that everyone needs to become a political activist or take part in demonstrations. There is no single “correct” response to tyranny, bigotry or injustice. Some of us will be moved to protest in outward ways. Some will be moved to meditate and do inner healing and heart opening. Some will be moved to run for office or support people who are running. Some will be moved to take up the vital work of good investigative journalism. Some will be moved toward artistic expression, others toward being the best possible school teachers or parents. All these many different approaches will be important. But however life moves us, I pray that we may all find the peace at the heart of the storm, the light in the darkness, and the love that is possible, even across political divides. I pray that we will all remain open to asking challenging questions and to looking deeply into the nature of our own reactions.
What happens, for example, when we make someone else (or some group of people) “other than us,” when we see them as evil? It’s often easy to notice how other people are doing this—we may be able to easily see how the Nazis did this to the Jews, and how Trump is doing this right now to Muslims, but can we notice how we do it? Maybe we do it to Trump or to his supporters. Can we notice how easy it is to fall into this kind of divisive, dualistic thinking—to over-simplify the complexities and subtle nuances of life into rigid black and white categories, to freeze people into static positions? This is not a defense of Trump—I regard his presidency as extremely dangerous and concerning. But I can also see how easy it is to demonize the man and his supporters in ways that may not be accurate. None of us can really be put into the simplistic boxes and categories so easily suggested by statistics, not even the mercurial Mr. Trump, who seems to defy easy categorization.
Any time we are confronted with life not going the way we think it should and with this kind of strong, reactive emotion-thought, it is an opportunity to look more deeply at what is getting triggered and upset. Of course, there are intelligent and rational reasons for disliking and opposing Trump and his policies, and of course, our desire to stop these policies is born in part out of genuine love and compassion and caring for those who are being hurt (ourselves included)—the Bodhisattva impulse. I’m certainly not implying that it’s wrong to be upset or to take action. But can we also go deeper into the root of the emotional upset that we may sometimes feel, that giant “NO!!!!!” to “the way it is” that sometimes bubbles up?
What I notice when that inner “NO!!!!” arises here is a sense of being small and separate, a feeling that I am fighting for my life—that everything I believe in and care about and identify with is in danger of being annihilated—that “I” (as this vulnerable separate self) am in danger of being put down, ignored, wiped out. I also notice a kind of attachment to this feeling of being separate, being “right,” being a victim of injustice—an attachment to self-righteous anger and self-pity and this whole inner melodrama. The illusory “me” needs a drama to survive. It’s a very tight, contracted, me-centered state of mind and body, a sense of wanting to lash out—at the “other” or even at myself. It reminds me a bit of that familiar state of mind that shows up in a two-year-old’s temper tantrum—a kind of primal outrage with life not going my way. That whole swirl of reactive emotion-thought and upset at “What Is” is the territory that is interesting to explore and wonder about from a nondual perspective.
When we’re operating out of the confusion of emotion-thought and false beliefs, we rarely act in ways that are truly helpful. We just mirror everything we’re against and end up strengthening it. You insult me; I insult you. You hit me; I hit you. And we live in fear of things that may never actually happen. Nonduality may challenge our most cherished assumptions and our deepest attachments, and as a result, it can be very button-pushing and threatening to the “me-system”—but that’s exactly where it gets interesting. If you open to these tight places of resistance and self-righteousness, and if you inquire into them deeply, it can be liberating. And here’s a big clue: whatever upsets us most—whenever we feel our hackles rising and our mind spewing out adversarial thoughts and “yes, buts,” when we feel that inner “NO,” that’s always a dharma bell inviting a closer look.
Nisargadatta Maharaj posed a beautiful question: “Each of you is trying to protect yourself. What is it that you are trying to protect? However much you may protect, how long will it last? Go to the root and find out what it is that you are trying to protect and preserve, and how long it will remain.” Nisargadatta invites us to see that we are not limited to the body, that the entire movie of waking life including the current political drama and all of world history is a kind of dream-like appearance in (and of) consciousness, and that our True Nature is prior to all of this and will remain long after all of this has disappeared.
Moving in what initially appears to be exactly the opposite direction, Jesus asks us to open our hearts, to find the “YES” to this moment and to What Is, to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, and he provides a powerful example of this at the end of his life. Jesus was betrayed, falsely convicted, brutally tortured and executed—it doesn’t get much worse than that—and yet, he says on the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and he surrenders completely to What Is: “Thy will be done.” He says yes to the way it is. And out of this immense heart-opening and surrender is born the resurrection. Whether we take these events literally or metaphorically and mythologically doesn’t really matter. The point is the heart-opening, the surrender, the love that transforms cruelty and suffering into resurrection, the Cosmic NO that opens into the Cosmic YES of unconditional love. This is the path of inclusion and loving the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” to be tortured and killed and to suffer the deep wound of this world in order to transform it.
Nisargadatta embraced both directions—the transcendent and the inclusive—when he said, “Love says: ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says: ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two my life flows…Choiceless love is the touchstone of awareness.”
And as Francis Lucille once put it: “If we say that our universe, with all its richness and diversity—the apples in the basket, the loved ones around us, the Beethoven quartet on the stereo, the planets and the stars in the nocturnal sky—at every instant emanates from, rests in and is reabsorbed into our self-revealing presence, our words still fail to describe adequately the immediacy of this unveiling. They fail to do so because they still convey the notion of a transcendental presence from which the universe emanates as a distinct entity, whereas such a distinction is nowhere to be found in this unveiling. Our self-luminous background…constitutes the sole reality of all that is…Everything that appears in awareness is nothing other than awareness.”
If I feel flooded with an agitated storm of reactive emotion-thought and upset, what can I do? Maybe simply to let it be as it is, to behold it without judgment, without trying to get rid of it, and without acting on it—to simply feel it in the body as pure energy, to see the thoughts as conditioned commentary and not as an objective report on reality, and to let the whole storm move through in its own way, in its own time.
Can I really know that what I think is true? How does it feel to hold that belief? How would it feel if I didn’t believe that thought? Can I see a reason to hold onto that belief? And if I think I need to hold onto that belief in order to be a responsible, caring person who takes action, can I really know it’s true? How does it feel to hold that belief? How would it feel if I didn’t have that belief? Can we feel deeply into these questions, not answering from thought but from a place of real looking, sensing and seeing? (Some may recognize these questions as The Work of Byron Katie, but the truth is, these are basic spiritual inquiries that have been around in one form or another long before Katie formulated them into The Work—but that said, her Work can often be very helpful when we are stuck in self-righteous anger, judgment, self-pity or hatred). We can question the tendency to demonize, to over-simplify and hate, and we can we question the thoughts and beliefs that we’re holding most tightly. We can also give our attention to the Open Heart, the spaciousness of this awaring presence that we are, to being fully awake Here / Now.
All of this is not in any way meant to suggest that we can’t or shouldn’t organize and protest and speak out and so on. But when we’re not caught in the hypnotic entrancement of desperate, reactive, self-centered, emotion-thought, we will do that work in a clearer, wiser and more effective way.
As I see it, we humans can have legitimate disagreements about how big or small government should be, how much (if at all) and in what ways it should intervene to protect the environment or the civil rights of disenfranchised groups, whether health care is a basic human right or a privilege to be earned or given only to those who can pay for it, whether abortion is murder or a woman’s reproductive right, at what stage a microscopic zygote turns into a human being, and so on. We can disagree about what balance to strike between openness and self-protection, between risk-taking and caution, between security and individual liberty. We can disagree about whether violence is ever a legitimate response to attack or oppression, and when it is or isn’t okay, and how much (if any) “collateral damage” is tolerable. We all have different views on these issues because we are each conditioned in uniquely different ways.
For example, I came of age before abortion was legal, and I witnessed many close friends suffering through illegal, unsafe, backroom abortions. Women often get pregnant when they don’t want to—through rape, or because they don’t have access to affordable family planning and birth control, or because the condom breaks, or because they make one bad decision in the heat of the moment, often when they are very young. Many women get pregnant unintentionally in high school or college, before they have acquired certain life experience and skill and even before the parts of the brain associated with impulse-control and long-range thinking are fully developed. The friends of mine who got pregnant during our college years were responsible and intelligent young women who made one tiny slip—easy to do when you’re young, and your hormones are firing full-tilt, and sex is a new and exciting discovery, and you’re wildly in love for the first time, and you’re totally turned on, and the guy you’re with is totally turned on and pushing forward, and you want to please him as well—it’s easy to make a mistake, to think that you can get away with unprotected sex this one night because, after all, you’re at the tail-end of your period, so there’s almost no chance of getting pregnant, and so you give in to this overwhelming desire, and next thing you know, you’re pregnant.
When I was a teenager and a young adult, before Roe v. Wade, if you got pregnant and didn’t want to have the child, you either had to endure nine months of pregnancy and the stigma of being an unwed mother and then give the child up for adoption (a heart-wrenching act that often haunts you for the rest of your life), or you had to try some kind of “do it yourself” abortion that might kill you, or you had to try to find a doctor who would perform an illegal abortion, and then you had to get the money together to pay for it. I had a friend who met someone at night on a street corner in NYC, got in a car and was driven blindfolded to a secret location where a washed-up alcoholic doctor demanded sex before performing the abortion, and then after the abortion, my friend was returned to the street corner. Friends of friends endured coat hanger abortions on kitchen tables. I had a roommate who took some dangerous cocktail of drugs that induced a painful and scary miscarriage in our dorm room with lots of blood. Other friends went to Mexico or Puerto Rico for abortions, and others gave their babies up for adoption. These stories were commonplace back then. Many women died from botched abortions. Based on historical trends, it’s likely that Trump’s policies will actually increase the number of abortions by defunding family planning and women’s healthcare. Many women in the United States and around the world will die because of his policies. And, of course, the anti-choice movement has already engaged in many acts of domestic terrorism—bombing women’s clinics, shooting abortion doctors in the head, and so on—and under Trump, they will likely feel emboldened to do even more of the same.
I know from my own experience that women will have abortions whether they are legal or not, and so the only real question for me is whether they will be done in a humane and medically safe way. I’m pretty sure that if men got pregnant, abortion would be totally legal, easily accessible and very well-funded. My life experience has led me to be pro-choice. I identify with the women who are faced with an unwanted pregnancy, and I believe women should be able to make our own decisions about our bodies, about when to have a child, and about whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
But someone else, perhaps a man who is the child of an unwanted pregnancy that was almost aborted, may identify instead with the unborn fetus. He may justifiably feel that abortion is life-threatening to people like him. The men who push the anti-choice agenda seem generally to sympathize and identify more with the fetus than with the pregnant woman. Some opponents of choice have a religious belief that there is a soul that enters the body at conception, and to such a person, even the morning after pill is murder, condemning some poor soul to an eternity in purgatory. And, of course, some women are also anti-choice—maybe for religious reasons or maybe because they regret having had an abortion or because they are glad they didn’t. Who is right and who is wrong? When exactly does a zygote become a human being? And whose life should take priority, that of the fetus or that of the mother? These are, obviously, unanswerable questions. Each of us will have a different sensibility.
So, can I support reproductive choice without hating and demonizing the opposition? Can I listen openly to how they see it and what moves them to take the opposite stand from mine? Is it possible to work together to find common ground, a mutually acceptable solution? Can we meet as fellow human beings, conditioned differently by life, and even more deeply as the boundless unconditional love, the One awaring presence that we all truly are? Maybe sometimes this isn’t possible. And it may be that we are moving toward a second civil war in this country, one that will be fought with guns and bombs. It often feels that way. And if that turns out to be the way it is, then what will be, will be. But I hope these deep divisions can be resolved in a more peaceful and reasonable way.
As climate change escalates and as the human population continues to multiply exponentially, all indications (for those of us who believe in science) are that we will have more and more of the weather disasters, rising sea levels, famines, draughts, floods, water shortages, and so on that are already happening. We’ll most likely have more conflicts and wars, and more and more refugees streaming across borders. As I understand climate science, it’s already way too late to stop most of this, but with Trump and the pro-corporate, science-denying Republicans in power, it will likely escalate more rapidly and in more catastrophic ways.
There will be different and conflicting responses to these increasingly hard times and to this influx of strangers pouring across borders—some people will open their arms and their hearts and try to work together for the common good, while others like Trump and his supporters will want to close the doors, tighten the borders and protect themselves with more walls and bigger guns, as we are already witnessing. But the thing is, much as I disagree with what Trump is doing in this regard, I can also recognize that both of these responses—the open and the closed—will be needed to some degree. As individuals and as societies, we all need to set intelligent limits, have healthy boundaries, and protect ourselves—none of us survives without killing other life-forms, whether it is cows or carrots, insects or household germs. But if we set too many limits or have boundaries that are too rigid and heartless, we become inflexible, over-protected, provincial, stuck in stagnant grooves and lacking in compassion and empathy. There is no formula for how much openness (or how much protection) is too much, or how little is too little, and each of us will draw the line in a slightly different place, and perhaps differently in different moments and in different circumstances.
Every organism has a unique set of conditionings, sensitivities, inclinations, aversions and needs. Some people thrive on fast-paced, high-stress work environments, others need a quieter, slower, simpler environment. Some people are introverts deeply nourished by solitude, others are extroverts nourished by large social gatherings. Some people are optimistic risk-takers who see the glass half-full and are always ready for the next wild adventure, while others are cautious worriers who see the glass half-empty and are always scanning for potential dangers—and without both types, we would not have survived or evolved as a species. We’re all different and we all have a different role to play. There is an ever-changing balance in human society in terms of what things we prioritize, how much we emphasize openness and inclusivity and how much we emphasize self-protection and self-defense. We move back and forth between progressive and conservative directions, stepping on the gas and then applying the brakes, veering left and then right, and this balancing is probably a healthy and an inevitable thing. There are, after all, no one-sided coins or one-ended sticks.
Having different roles and preferences is not a problem in itself, any more than toasters (which heat things up) and refrigerators (which cool things down) have any problem co-existing in the same kitchen, each doing their different (and opposite) functions (see my recent Jan 24 post for more on this metaphor). But unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to identify with our roles and preferences, as if I am my role in life or my political preferences. And we have a tendency to stereotype and demonize those with different roles and inclinations—to see such folks as “other than us” and as a threat to our very survival—even evil. Instead of toasters and refrigerators co-existing in mutual harmony, we end up in a war of toasters vs. refrigerators, each out to exterminate the other. We identify with the gadget—the outward form of our lives—rather than with the electricity they both have in common or the boundless awareness beholding them all. We have a tendency to imagine that the world would be a perfect place if only the polarity we identify as “me” and “my side” would permanently win out and totally defeat and annihilate the polarity we think of as “not-me.” We tend to fall into very simplistic, oppositional, black and white, dualistic and dogmatic thinking, and in no time at all, we have gridlock and the absence of reasonable compromise, cooperation and healthy dialog—and perhaps eventually the extremes of genocide or war.
This polarizing tendency has become particularly apparent in recent times with everyone listening to different sources of news and information, sources that differ not only in what they choose to cover and how they spin the stories, but even on the most basic, seemingly indisputable facts. And we have social media in which fake news, false information and wild conspiracy theories can spread like viruses at amazing speeds. And of course, on a deeper or more subtle level, everything we think and believe is fake news—it’s all a kind of dream-like appearance created by consciousness, and each of us is watching a completely unique movie of waking life—no two are exactly the same. No one else agrees with us about absolutely everything. On the level of form and relative reality, disagreement and conflict is to some degree inevitable.
On January 20th, I watched the inauguration of Trump. I noticed that I was not upset or angry or horrified, and that I even felt a certain fondness for this man as a human being, and for his wife and young son, as they stood beside him. I don’t mean I felt fondness for his right-wing agenda, or for the bigotry and violence he has so freely stirred up, or for the lies and demagoguery at which he is such a master, or for the suffering he has caused and will continue to cause…I simply mean I felt a genuine fondness for the human being, this particular unique expression of consciousness, and for the entire show, the divine lila that was unfolding so perfectly. In spite of all the ways that I find him to be ignorant, unkind, hurtful, cruel, unskillful, deluded, dangerous and inappropriate, I can still see the innocent human being in there, and the light of awareness—the pure electricity (as I spoke of in my Jan 24 post), the beingness, even the love (twisted as it may be in its expression). I don’t hate this man. I’m even open to the possibility that he might surprise me in some ways. No one is all good or all bad. We are all a complex mix. And there is a deep trust here in the wholeness of life—the vastness that includes everything—the whole show with all its amazing twists and turns, the perfection of the imperfection, the unbroken wholeness that is never really broken. I know, in my heart, that all is well even if the whole world goes up in flames.
After watching the inauguration, I looked at Huff Post and was uplifted by the many photos of airplanes filled with spirited women enroute to Washington for the protest march the next day. When I got to the Ashland march that next morning, there was a HUGE sea of people—the local news estimated as many as 8,000. I’ve never seen so many people in Ashland ever…women, men, gender agnostics, children, dogs, old, young, gay, straight, bi-sexual, mostly white (as Ashland unfortunately mostly is) but with at least a sprinkling of racial diversity…all with wonderful signs and creative costumes and pink hats. Men in pink hats, women in pink hats. It was very inspiring and uplifting and playful and focused on what we want rather than on what we oppose.
When I got home, I heard from friends who had been at the marches in Oakland and Chicago, two places where I used to live, and I saw photos on Huff Post of demonstrations all around the world…from Washington DC to Antarctica… and subway stations in DC jam-packed with people enroute to the march awaiting trains that morning, a sea of people rising up. Millions and millions of people all around the world standing up for women’s rights, for Mother Earth, for social and economic justice, for human rights, for working people, for healthcare, for Native Americans and water protectors, for Black Lives Matter, for Muslims, for LGBTQ people, for the humane treatment of animals, for love and peace and unity. This was all immensely heart-warming for me, but for many Trump supporters, it was probably quite the opposite. They were more inspired by the (much smaller) anti-choice demonstration that took place a few days later.
That evening after the Women’s March on Washington and the marches around the world and here in Ashland, I sat down to finish reading a novel (Chicago by Brian Doyle) that had been given to me by a friend, and at the end, I started uncontrollably sobbing. I was sobbing convulsively, literally gasping for air. The last time I could remember crying with that kind of uncontrollable visceral intensity was during a Rolfing session many decades ago—it was the session they do in Rolfing on the inside of your mouth—and it triggered an emotional upheaval with no content or storyline at all, just convulsive, uncontrollable sobbing that didn’t stop for a long time. My crying at the ending of the novel seemed in some way equally inexplicable, and yet, this time, it also had some images and memories that came with it. It seemed to have something to do with my mother, who lived and died in Chicago, and with all the people I loved in Chicago, and with my love for that city, and with the fact that Brian Doyle, the author of the novel, is here in Oregon now, dying of a brain tumor. I was filled with a memory of the day I left Chicago for the last time, several years after my mother had died. It was raining that morning, and my friend Tom came to see me off, and after the movers had emptied my apartment, Tom and I packed the last of my belongings into my old Toyota, and I remember Tom waving, and me driving out of the parking lot in the rain, through the neighborhood where I had lived and where my mother had lived as a child, out to the expressway and west toward Iowa and beyond. I was on my way to Oregon, not really comprehending fully what was disappearing behind me forever. So much love everywhere, so much loss, so much that can’t ever be put into words.
After the tears subsided, I sat there in my armchair for hours simply being present and feeling all the energies of whatever this was moving through the body like a dark storm, ultimately a movement of pure energy that was beyond any story or explanation. When I finally got up from my armchair, after this overflowing day and night, I went to my computer and checked my email, and there was a message from a friend overseas, someone recently divorced, living in a new place, aware of growing old, wondering if I too felt lonely at times. It seemed as if this person and I were somehow One Mind, One Heart, one movement of energy, along with everyone else in this vast universe including Donald Trump and all the protestors around the world and all the universes coming in and out of existence—one whole amazing happening, one timeless Big Bang, ever-present, ever-changing, ever-fresh, Here / Now.
How do all the different threads in this post fit together—memories of leaving Chicago, sobbing after finishing a novel, reflections on Trump and abortion and the protest marches, and the possibility of using our upset as a doorway into a deeper inquiry? Maybe it has to do with the love that runs through it all—I was close to many Republicans in Chicago—several lived in my apartment building, and my mother had friends of all political persuasions, so I got to be with many of them up close. And my childhood in the Chicago area was filled with Republicans, including my own father and my uncle and my godmother and our neighbors and many others. I experienced their generosity, their love, their kindness and their care in many ways over many years. My mother said over and over, “We need to learn to love each other.”
The deepest comfort is not in getting our way or surviving as this form, but in seeing that what we truly are is indestructible even as the forms come and go. We don’t know how these global Trump/Brexit/alt-right movements will play out, or when the tide will turn (as it always does) in a more open and inclusive direction that some of us will welcome and others of us will fear and resist, but for every step toward greater social justice and the breakdown of barriers, conservative forces will always be there applying the brakes, and both sides of this gestalt undoubtedly play a vital part in the total balance in ways we cannot always understand. In fact, Donald Trump may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the left. He has certainly inspired progressives and woken up a huge progressive movement after being in office for less than two weeks. He has also brought the shadow side of America into the light where it cannot be ignored—he embodies (almost as a parody because it’s so exaggerated) the materialism, the grandiosity, the arrogance, the narcissism, the self-absorption, the lies, the cruelty, the greed, the ignorance, the racism, the misogyny that is the dark underbelly of America (tendencies that we all have within us to some degree, in some form). And for some of us, Trump has been the catalyst for spiritual openings we might not otherwise have had. And that’s really my focus on this FB page, to encourage all of us to look deeper and to use this great opportunity that the universe is providing to explore what it is that gets upset, how we suffer, how we perpetuate suffering, how we argue with reality. And perhaps to recognize that Donald Trump is not “out there,” apart from us or “other than us.” He is both our own Self and our own self in thin disguise. And perhaps we may even discover that we can love Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and this whole gang, even as we may be appalled by and opposed to most of what they do, and even as we gather together in many diverse ways to stand for justice and love.
Some of you may think politics and relative reality is not worthy of our attention—that as nondualists we should transcend all of this and give our attention only to the Absolute Truth. And if that’s your inclination, I’d say, go for it. Follow your bliss, as my mother would say. But I can’t leave the world behind. Maybe it’s the Bodhisattva impulse, I don’t know. But as I see it, God IS the world—samsara is nirvana—form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Not one, not two. Just this. As it is. One whole happening.
I sense a wild and challenging ride ahead for people of all political stripes, and especially for those of us with a progressive bent, and these next 4 years will certainly offer many opportunities for awakening and for creative new directions in political struggle and discourse. In my opinion, it’s not the time to turn away (even if our path is primarily inward and transcendent), and it’s not the time to fall into bitterness, cynicism, despair, or self-defeating anger, although those may arise—and when they do, can they be seen for what they are? Can we hold these conditioned states of mind and body lovingly and allow them to unfold and dissolve naturally? This tumultuous time is perhaps an invitation to really go deeply into the Heart and find the love and the light that heals the primal wound of apparent separation and opens into the resurrection, the new dawn, the new moment, the yet undiscovered possibility, the ever-fresh new moment.
May we all find that YES, the YES that is big enough to include even the NO, the openness that has space even for contraction, the YES that loves What Is, the YES that is not separate from What Is, the YES that is the very nature of Here / Now. Here / Now is always open to everything, always accepting everything—have you noticed?
We don’t really know what any of this human drama is, or what it means, or what will happen next. And when that is clear, it brings forth a natural humility. We also can’t do anything other than what life moves us to do at each moment, and in recognizing that, there is compassion for ourselves and all the apparent others, knowing that we are all the inseparable and ever-changing waves of one undivided and indivisible ocean, moving together even when it seems we are moving in opposition.
And always Here / Now.
LONGING, SEEKING, AWAKENING: Awakening (enlightenment, liberation) is a word that points to the realization of what has never been absent. It is not a new acquisition, but a recognition of—or a waking up to—the ever-present, ever-changing Here / Now, THIS that has been long overlooked or clouded over by all our thoughts and ideas ABOUT it. It is a waking up from the trance of separation and encapsulation and from the belief in a solid world outside of us made up of separate objects that persist through time and that seem to have an inherent, observer-independent reality “out there” somewhere. This waking up is not an intellectual understanding, but a direct knowing. This direct knowing is already present, although we may be overlooking it.
The notion of an enlightened person is, however, an oxymoron. “A person” is a conceptual abstraction—no such “thing” actually exists (i.e., stands apart from everything else) or persists in the way we think it does. The notion of time as a linear progression from past to future is a way of conceptualizing our experience, but the only actual reality is NOW, the eternal present. So, the notion of a permanently enlightened person is sheer nonsense. The notion of any permanent “person” or “thing” or experiential “state” of consciousness is an illusion. Yes, relatively speaking, in everyday reality, for practical purposes, we might say that some apparent individuals are generally clearer and freer from the trance of separation than others—and in that way, we might describe someone as enlightened or confused—but in doing so, can we remember that these terms are always provisional and that no such persisting entity ever actually exists? To be enlightened (NOW) is to realize that there is no separate “me” to be enlightened or not enlightened.
Nonetheless, people tell stories of how they went from being a messed-up seeker to being a fully enlightened sage. These stories may have some relative truth to them, but they always require thought, memory, imagination and abstract conceptualization to conjure them up. We are easily fascinated by the enlightenment stories of others, especially the stories that describe a dramatic, sudden and seemingly permanent transformation. We put people up on pedestals and chase after special experiences as ardently as any drug addict chases after drugs. But as has often been noted, seeking enlightenment (awakening, liberation) is one of the best ways to avoid finding it.
Unfortunately, we can’t just “decide” to stop seeking. Seeking is a conditioned pattern that has a momentum of its own. It is very much like any other addiction or compulsion. Any “decision” to stop seeking is simply a conditioned thought, and it’s actually another form of seeking (seeking the end of seeking), and that thought is powerless. All that can happen is to become AWARE of seeking as it arises—to SEE it for the conditioned habit pattern that it is, to FEEL the energy of it in the body as pure sensation—and perhaps to turn our attention away from whatever we imagine we are seeking and toward the living reality Here / Now. Of course, sometimes there is the ability to do that, and sometimes the urge to continue seeking is over-powering. So, if the seeking continues in this moment, is it possible to simply be aware of it and feel it in the body, without judging it or taking this momentary weather pattern personally or giving it personal meaning?
When we hear that seeking is the problem, we often misinterpret that to mean that we should give up meditation, stop reading all spiritual books, never listen to another spiritual talk or attend another satsang—basically, we should forget all about spirituality or nonduality or whatever the heck this is, and we should devote ourselves to watching football and drinking beer instead. Nothing wrong with watching football or drinking beer, but you get the idea. We may even pick up the BELIEF that watching football and drinking beer is enlightenment itself, or that there is no such thing as enlightenment or awakening—it was all just bullshit. And that would be a total misunderstanding. Of course, a Zen Master might say something like, “Watching football is the Holy Reality,” or “There is no enlightenment,” but these words would then be coming from a different place and would carry a very different meaning. To clarify all of this, I like to differentiate between seeking and longing.
Seeking is a basic form of delusion and suffering, a reaction to the fundamental dissatisfaction that drives so much of our human activity. Seeking comes from a sense of lack that it tries to assuage by chasing something “out there.” Whether that desired something is drugs, sex, romance, power, approval or enlightenment, the mechanism is very much the same. Seeking is all about “me,” the separate self, and it is always directed toward the imaginary future that never arrives. It is thought-based and result-oriented. It hurts. It lives on false hope and is endlessly disappointing.
Longing, on the other hand, comes from wholeness itself, from our True Nature, from the Truth that we already know but simply haven’t fully recognized. It is awareness-based, not thought-based. It points us not to some imaginary future “out there,” but to this-here-now, this present immediacy, what IS. Longing is the homing instinct that calls us back to the place we have never actually left, the placeless presence that we ARE. Longing is what draws us to meditation, to Zen practice or to satsang, to various teachers, and to the discovery that it is possible to be liberated on the spot. This is a beautiful discovery, and awakening is a never-ending (always NOW) journey into this-here-now.
Longing invites a curiosity about whatever is showing up and a willingness to go fully into the bare actuality of this-here-now without standing back from it, without judging it, without trying to control or explain or grasp it. Longing is about opening and letting go. It is about being fully present Here / Now, allowing everything to be just as it is, not seeking something different. When we go deeply into Here / Now, we find no-thing that is graspable. We dissolve as the separate self. Suffering disappears. (And by suffering, I don’t mean pain, which is part of life, but rather, the mental overlay—what we do with pain.)
Suffering is rooted in misidentification or limited identification as an apparently separate object in an apparently fragmented world. We feel small, vulnerable, cut off, lacking and often unworthy. Thought mistakenly conflates the undeniable knowingness of being present and aware—being Here / Now—being this whole happening—with the thought-sense-idea of being a separate person inside a separate body looking out at an alien world that is “out there” separate from “me” in here.
But the so-called body, the so-called mind, the so-called person, and the so-called world are conceptual abstractions. If we explore the actuality of what we call the body, we find ever-changing sensations. If we explore the actuality of what we call the mind, we find ever-changing thoughts and perceptions. If we explore the actuality of what we call the person or the world, we find ever-changing thoughts, stories, concepts, beliefs, sensations, memories and mental images. In other words, the so-called person is an activity more like a whirlpool or a wave than a solid, static, persisting, separate “thing.” The person and the world turn out to be intermittent and ever-changing appearances in and of this boundless awaring presence that is being and beholding it all. And “boundless awaring presence” is just a pointer. It’s not a “Thing.”
If you look deeply into what it is that you are referring to when you use the word “I,” you will discover that it refers most fundamentally to this undeniable sense of being here now, being present and aware—not as someone in particular—all of that (name, gender, nationality, etc.) had to be learned—but simply being presence itself. Being this present happening. In fact, this awaring presence is what Here / Now IS. The separate self is not really a “thing” that ever actually exists. It is a pattern of intermittent activity made up of thoughts, stories, concepts, beliefs, sensations, memories and mental images that together generate, in the imagination, a kind of mirage (“me,” the separate self) that seems and feels real if we don’t look too closely.
Meditation, inquiry, satsang and nondual teachings are all ways of looking more closely, seeing through the imaginary problem and recognizing what has actually never been absent. This may sound like a gradual or sudden process if we think about it, but in actuality, waking up can only happen NOW. That is the single biggest key to waking up. It’s always about NOW.
Awakening is not an experience. Seeking is all about chasing experiences. But experience, by nature, is fleeting. If it came, it will go. No experience or state of consciousness is permanent. Trying to hold onto an experience is like trying to hold onto water or smoke or air.
Longing invites us to question, what do I really, most deeply, truly want? We may discover that what we long for is simply to be here now, fully present, at ease, without seeking or needing anything different.
Intuitively we know (and it is our direct experience) that everything is Here / Now, that Here / Now is all there is, that everything is an undivided whole, that nothing really dies or comes into existence, and that this awaring presence and this present happening are impossible to grasp and yet unavoidable. We can never step out of Here / Now, and we never experience anything outside of or other than consciousness.
We don’t need to chase enlightenment. Simply see the seeking for what it is and relax into the simplicity of Here / Now, the ever-present groundlessness that is the ground of being, the no-thing-ness appearing as everything, the aliveness that is most intimate, closer than close, and yet inclusive of the most apparently distant galaxies. Come Home to what is impossible to doubt or deny: your own being and this present happening. Don’t get lost in thinking about all of this and straining to understand. Instead, listen to the sounds of the traffic, feel the breathing, feel the sensations throughout the body, enjoy all the colors and shapes of this-here-now, be aware of the awaring presence that you are, sense the vastness that is being and beholding everything.
The thought, “I’m not there yet,” instantly reincarnates the mirage-like “me” and the illusory separation between “me” and some imagined “there” that supposedly exists outside of Here / Now. Can that be seen, as it happens?
Like the mirage in the desert sands, this imaginary future is always just out of reach, never arriving. Or maybe, for a moment, what we think we are seeking does seem to arrive, but then it seemingly vanishes again. That happens whenever we mistakenly reference a particular experience as the object of our search. But since all experiences are impermanent, any experience of wholeness, no-self, bliss, spaciousness, peace, expanded consciousness, clarity or whatever inevitably goes away. The habitual tendency is then to try to repeat this experience and hopefully make it last forever—which is, of course, a recipe for disappointment, frustration and failure. We search in the past, in memory, trying to remember how we got to that past moment of clarity or bliss or spaciousness, trying to recapture that remembered experience. And, of course, the seeking and the dissatisfaction and the trying is itself the very dis-ease for which we are seeking a cure, as pointed out in the opening paragraph of this post.
With simple attention to our direct experience (a.k.a. intelligent meditation and inquiry) and with luck (sometimes known as grace), we may eventually see through this whole drama of searching outside ourselves for some non-existent, future “there.” When that habitual movement of the mind is clearly seen through, there is a natural letting go. The seeking, grasping tendency of the bodymind relaxes and falls away more and more. Experiences can then move through freely—sometimes expanded and clear, sometimes contracted and murky, sometimes the felt-sense of being a person, sometimes knowingly being the vastness that has no boundaries or seams, sometimes mindfully present, sometimes daydreaming. None of these experiences are clung to, pushed away, taken personally or given meaning. They are recognized to be simply the ever-changing weather of Here / Now. Through them all, Here / Now (awareness, presence) is the constant factor. And in deep sleep, even the barest sense or experience of being here now is gone—and yet, something remains. What is it?
We can say it is objectless awareness, or the vastness of totality, or unicity, or the Tao, or emptiness, or the absence of both presence and absence, or the Ultimate Subject, or the Self, or the nondual Absolute, or the One-without-a-second, or Infinite Potential—and those words may all be helpful pointers along the way. But the danger with words like this is that they tend to objectify and reify and separate out what has no substance and no opposite, what is actually boundless, all-inclusive and utterly non-objective. When we try to say what this is or grasp it with the mind, we immediately fall into delusion, for we make “it” into an object outside of us. We then try to “get it,” and soon end up once again feeling and thinking that, “This isn’t it” or “I don’t get it” or “I had it, but I lost it.” That which is subtler than anything perceivable, conceivable or experienceable cannot be seen as an object, experienced as an experience, or captured by any conceptual formulation or any word. It is not a thing. It is not outside of us or other than us. It is not an it. Words fail. And yet, here it is—ever-present and ever-changing.
Try to “get it” and you instantly separate “yourself” mentally (in the imagination) from “it.” That habitual movement of the mind creates the imaginary problem, the imaginary seeker and the imaginary goal.
The goal of the search is always an idea or a fantasy or a memory. And the “me” who appears to lack something is a dream-character made of thoughts-stories-sensations. What we truly long for is what we already are, what has never been absent, what cannot be found or lost. Liberation comes from clearly seeing (and seeing through) the habitual movement of thought that we call seeking—seeing it for what it is, not yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all, but whenever it shows up—and then relaxing into the utter simplicity of being Here / Now, which takes no effort since it is always already the case. Relax (or open or dissolve) into what is impossible to doubt or deny: your own being and this present happening, just as it is. See that everything we think about this—the story of my life and the world and me—is all a dream-like appearance with no actual substance.
NO SELF: The whole notion of there being no self can lead to much confusion, angst, even outright silliness. The confusion and the angst comes in part because people are imagining some gigantic shift while overlooking their ordinary, everyday experience of uncontained, unbound, all-inclusive wholeness that is always right here, right now. Our habitual focus—probably originally for survival reasons—tends to be on the multiplicity, the distinctions, the moving parts, all the different “things” in life—and as we grow up, more and more of our attention is on our thoughts and conceptualizations ABOUT all this, which we often mistake for reality itself. We also focus on the “me” who seems to be at the center of all this, and who seems to be what I am. Thus, we come to live in a map-world centered around an imaginary character, and we overlook or ignore the actual direct reality that is always presenting itself.
Right now, without referring to thought or memory, what are you? In your actual direct experience right now, if you don’t refer to thought or memory, do you find a self with boundaries or gender or age or race or life story? Doesn’t all of that require thought and memory—isn’t it all something that was learned? Without referring to thought or memory, are you not simply this undeniable awaring presence, this knowingness of being here now, and this present happening as pure sensory experiencing, minus any conceptual overlay or interpretation? And in that pure sensory experiencing, can you find an actual boundary where what you THINK of as “inside of you” turns into what you THINK of as “outside of you,” or is it—in your direct present moment experiencing—actually one seamless whole?
The notion of no-self also gets confusing because there is a functional aspect to this sense of being a particular bodymind that will continue to show up as needed—unless we have a brain injury or dementia or some serious form of mental illness—but otherwise, it will be there, functioning perfectly even in the midst of enlightenment. We respond when our name is called, we can distinguish between our fingers and the carrot we are cutting up for lunch, we can gage the distance and the difference between our body and the bus we are boarding, we know where we work and what our job is, we can discern the difference between ourselves and our co-workers, we have a functional sense of location and boundaries, we know certain things about our personality that are helpful to know, and so on. This is all essential for everyday life. In itself, this functional identity as a particular person is not problematic. It shows up intermittently as needed.
The psychological self (our self-image, the imaginary main character in “The Story of My Life,” the apparent author-chooser-controller-thinker-experiencer who is supposedly at the helm, encapsulated inside the body, separate from the world) is something else. That is an illusion and the source of all our suffering.
But ALL of this—even the illusion and the suffering—is one, whole, undivided seamless unicity from which nothing ever truly stands apart. And the so-called psychological self—which is not a “thing” that actually exists—has its roots in the survival mechanisms of the animal bodymind, so there’s nothing shameful or personal about these conditioned, reactive, reflexive, habitual patterns. But when we believe that this imaginary separate self is what we truly are, we inevitably suffer. To see through this trance of separation is to awaken, to be enlightened, to be liberated on the spot. It is not “me” who awakens; “me” is what is seen through. Inside and outside are realized to be one seamless immediacy. There are differences and variations and apparent boundaries in this seamless and boundless unicity, but the separation and encapsulation and persistence of “things” over time is illusory.
Still, there’s no denying Joan. We cannot pin down exactly what Joan is, nor can we find an actual place where she begins or ends—she is an ever-changing pattern like a wave or a whirlpool—and the whole story of her life is a dream-like appearance with no actual substance. And yet, we cannot deny that there is something here that we provisionally and functionally call Joan, and something else that we call the Oak tree in the yard, and something else we call a rose, and something we call the city of London, and something we call planet earth, and so on. None of these apparent forms can be denied. They just don’t “exist” (stand apart and persist) in the way we THINK they do. But to appreciate the exquisite uniqueness and particularity of each momentary manifestation, and to see the whole universe in a single snowflake or in a drop of dew is enlightenment itself. As Kabir so beautifully put it, “All know that the drop merges into the ocean but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.” Or as the Heart Sutra says, “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness, form.” And as the great Zen Master Dogen expressed it in Genjo Koan, “The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water…Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.”
Consciousness IS the apparent breaking up of unicity into apparent multiplicity; the apparent solidification of what is actually thorough-going flux and impermanence; the functional appearance of here and there, now and then—i.e., time and space—in what is actually the dimensionless, timeless, placeless Here / Now. The phenomenal world can only appear in contrasts and polarities extended in apparent time and space. And we cannot deny the relative reality of these appearances. These are useful—indeed essential—distinctions in everyday life, but they have no inherent or absolute reality. Opposite polarities arise together, always relative to each other. They have no fixed or inherent reality (the ceiling is up relative to the floor and down relative to the sky) and they cannot actually be pulled apart (birth cannot be separated from death). But we imagine that up can exist without down, or birth without death, or good without evil. We think the past is really back there, and the future is up ahead somewhere, and we are somebody on an important journey moving through time, and the world as we perceive it is a solid, observer-independent reality that exists outside of consciousness. And so, in our imagination (otherwise known as the movie of waking life), we chase after impossible dreams and flee from imaginary nightmares, desperately trying to survive as a self that doesn’t actually exist.
At first, if we take up meditation or begin attending satsangs or going on retreats or reading about nonduality, it seems that “I” am on a journey from here to there, a kind of self-improvement venture with enlightenment as a future goal—a finish-line that I may one day cross (if I’m lucky). But as the truth dawns, we realize that this is a journey from Here to Here, that the path is actually pathless and the gate gateless, that there is no finish-line and nothing at all outside of Here / Now, that there is truly no-thing to attain, no-thing that must be vanquished, and no one to liberate. Nothing is really broken; nothing is really lost. And yet, as long as we imagine otherwise, the pathless path of awakening from delusion presents itself. And in my experience, there is no end to this present-moment journey, this journey from Here to Here that only happens NOW.
Here / Now has no beginning. It has no end. Nothing comes “after Now.” Here / Now is unborn, undying, ever-present. Check this out for yourself and see that it is so, not as an idea, but as your irrefutable direct experience. What comes and goes are all the thoughts, stories, sensations, feelings, emotions, moods, mental images, plans, memories of the past, fantasies of the future—the night dreams, the day dreams, the movie of waking life—the thought-sense of being a person, the intermittent identification with the bodymind, the neurological sensations of agency and choice—the enlightenment experiences, the experiences of confusion and delusion, sickness, health—ALL of this comes and goes. Here / Now (this ever-present, ever-changing, dimensionless, timeless, placeless awareness) is the common factor in every different experience. It is equally present in mindfulness meditation and in daydreaming or a panic attack. It is what gives everything its apparent reality. THIS is what is real in a dream—the experiencing of it, the suchness of it, the awaring presence being and beholding it all, the Here-ness and Now-ness (the present-ness) of it. We might also call Here / Now by many other names: Awareness, Consciousness, the One Mind, unicity, intelligence-energy, interdependent arising, emptiness, the Tao, the Self, True Self, no-self, One-without-a-second—but whatever we call this, “it” is not really a “thing.” THIS is what remains in deep, dreamless sleep and after the whole universe is no more—this ever-present, ever-changing, unnamable, infinite potential that is the source and substance of everything.
We don’t need to get rid of the apparent person or our functional sense of identity as a particular wave in the ocean. We only need to see how fluid that wave is, how inseparable from all the other waves and from the ocean itself, how the boundaries are not really there, and how this person and this sense of identity is an intermittent appearance or experience that comes and goes within this boundless and seamless Here / Now that never arrives and never departs. In reality, we are beyond all name and form, and yet expressing as EVERY name and form. We are this awaring presence, this intelligence-energy, this vastness, this infinite potential that has no beginning and no end. Seeing this, there is no other, no enemy, and no fear of “me” coming to an end. We may still do things to improve the quality of our life or the life of others, and we may still voice our opinions or go out to protest some injustice or to protect the environment, but we will do all of this in a very different way and in a very different spirit. It won’t be coming from a sense of insecurity and lack, or from self-righteous anger, or from fear, or from a futile attempt to control the universe. Rather, it will be based in the total acceptance of what is and the recognition of wholeness—in other words, it will be rooted in unconditional love, our True Nature.
And, of course, this is an on-going, never-ending, always-NOW waking up from the trance of separation to the reality of wholeness, no-self and unconditional love. The old habits and delusions tend to recur, and how much or how often they show up is nothing personal—it’s the weather conditions of the whole universe showing up in the only possible way in this moment. So, this isn’t about striving for some ideal perfection or some personal achievement. It’s about waking up from delusion whenever it shows up and realizing (making real) the Truth, not once-and-for-all or forever-after, but NOW.
THE TANTRA OF POLITICS: As I write this, the wind is howling and gusting madly…trees are being tossed this way and that…windows and walls are being battered and slammed. It feels like Mother Nature is furiously singing along as these words pour out from who knows where.
One of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck, used to say that the best thing for our Zen practice, aside from Zen meditation, is an intimate relationship or a job in a busy office—and the intimate relationship not because it will make us happy, which it won’t, but because it will push all our buttons. Was Joko a sadist? No, but she saw that disappointment and upset are (potentially) our greatest teachers, for they show us where we are attached or deluded or stuck. I would add political engagement to her list of best things for our Zen practice (or any other awakening journey). I’m no expert on the Tantric approach, but as I understand it, Tantra points to the unity of form and emptiness and invites us to plunge right into the whirlwind of life rather than trying to disengage, transcend, or calm ourselves.
For some people, politics is a dirty word that seems to conjure up images of sleazy backroom deals, corruption, false promises and lies, demagoguery, mean-spirited partisan divides, angry protestors yelling and smashing things, global conflicts, bribery, and so on. But politics is really just a word for how humans organize ourselves in groups and communities. Clearly, there is no perfect human system, but the one that is currently dominating the world—corporate capitalism—seems to be destroying the planet. Of course, many spiritual teachings suggest that worldly concerns are best left behind. But I’ve never been able to entirely buy that idea.
I’ve spent much of my life, and certainly the last 4 decades, attempting to reconcile my deep caring for the world and my interest in politics with my deep pull to spiritual awakening and liberation. In years past, I explored liberation theology, engaged Buddhism and other avenues, and in some ways, I found harmony between these two directions in my life, but more often, politics and spirituality have felt like irreconcilable opposites. Politics can so easily veer into anger, self-righteousness, dualistic “us-against-them” thinking, and violence on all levels. Spirituality can veer into a kind of trance-like withdrawal from the world that feels addictive in nature—chasing experiences or numbing out the pain. And somehow, I have often felt as if I’m in the middle between them being torn apart. I’ve seen it as one of my own central koans, and it continues to unfold in ever-new ways.
As the world spins into what feels like ever-darker times, I see how easy it is to fall into despair, bitterness, hopelessness, hopeful fantasies, rage, arrogance, self-righteousness, self-destruction, hatred, violence, idealism or cynicism…how easy it is to get caught up in addictively following every breaking News story and in some way feeding on fear and anger and outrage, or else to go in the opposite direction, turning away and tuning out, disappearing into some disengaged, transcendent, spiritual quietude, dismissing the world as “just a dream.” I see (in my own mind) how easy it is to fall into mindless adherence to some political or spiritual philosophy or ideology that explains it all. I wonder on-goingly how to act from love, how to keep alive the not-knowing mind, how to not fall into self-righteous black-and-white thinking, or at the other extreme, into wishy-washy thinking. I listen and feel into and wonder about what I am moved most deeply, most genuinely, to do or say.
Brad Blanton’s Radical Honesty newsletter showed up in my inbox the other day, and it was just the medicine I needed for a dark mind-state that had washed over me. Brad shared a piece by Charles Eisenstein that hit home in a very deep way. Eisenstein is a writer and speaker whom I first heard of at the SAND (Science and Nonduality) Gathering a few years ago. He is probably in his late 40’s, and he writes and talks about politics and spirituality and economics and food and where the world is going and why it’s in such a mess. Oddly enough, I had read that very piece by Eisenstein shortly after the election, and I’m pretty sure I even linked to it in a comment on my FB page at the time…but reading it again yesterday, it had a much bigger impact, and I am now very keen to read his books.
And I found a link on Eisenstein’s Facebook page to an article called “The Violence of Silence” by John Steppling that appears in Counterpunch. Important article, I think. I very much resonate with what Eisenstein says about the article on his FB page in introducing why he is sharing it: “In partisan confrontations, often the most significant thing is what is invisible to both sides: the unconscious agreements, the invisible shared assumptions. Whichever side wins, those remain the same. In the case of US politics, what remains the same is driving the planet to ruin. Here is an article that lays out some basic facts about the world and the USA's role in it that are nearly absent from most of the discussion of the political situation I've seen on Facebook and the corporate media. I don’t entirely resonate with the article’s dehumanizing characterizations of certain political figures, but the basic historical information has got to enter the conversation if anything is ever going to change." I recommend Steppling’s article.
I’m not offering any grand solutions here in this post—just feel moved to share this much—the wind howling, my musings, these writers that I encourage folks to check out, and my encouragement to all of us to remain open, curious, sensitive and alert…to listen to different points of view, to read different sources of news and information, to be awake to how we fall into despair or hopelessness or fear or outrage or mean-spirited humor or stirring up ourselves and others or disappearing into addictions…and to wonder about how we truly, in our heart, want to respond to the current situation. I don’t believe there is one correct response—we all have different callings and different work to do—but I do feel it’s a question very much worth hanging out with at this particular moment in world history. Is it possible to bring together what matters most in spirituality and politics? That seems to be what Eisenstein is doing, and what I have the sense that I am also doing—breaking them out of their separate boxes and finding how they might work together and inform each other.
Response to a comment:
Beautiful! Your words touch me deeply. This certainly isn’t just a Trump phenomenon—this is clearly a global struggle, and also a struggle within each of us, between hate and love, between the awakened perspective and the angry, fearful perspective of the separate self. And when we can listen deeply and openly to the people on “the other side,” we may discover that our most fundamental concerns are the same, and that each perspective—the conservative and the progressive, the democratic-socialist and the libertarian, the communist and the capitalist—has a piece of the truth to contribute to the whole vision that we need. And those seemingly small steps—like taking time to be with someone from another culture, or time to walk in nature, or time to meditate—can make a huge difference.
NOT LANDING ANYWHERE, NOT FIXATING: If we look deeply, we see that ALL our thoughts, interests, urges and actions—our interest in nonduality, our attraction to meditation or to Advaita or to the Buddhist precepts, our ability or inability to follow those precepts in any given moment, our interest in or aversion to politics, the sources of information we trust or mistrust, what catches our eye, the ways our attention moves from one thing to another—ALL of this is a choiceless happening with no separate, independent thinker-decider-seer-chooser-controller-doer at the helm. All of it is a movement of the whole universe (Consciousness, Totality, intelligence-energy, Unicity), a waving of the vast undivided ocean of being. Our apparent conflicts and mistakes are in total harmony from this bigger or more subtle perspective. We are all inseparable waves in one ocean, and that ocean includes EVERYONE, even those we think and feel are the “bad guys,” and of course, we won’t all agree on who the “bad guys” or the “good guys” are.
The left eye and the right eye each see a slightly different world. There is some overlap in what they see, but the right sees some things that the left doesn’t and vice versa. Together they form one whole vision. Likewise, each of us sees a unique movie of waking life, and together, we are One Whole Vision, one whole Intelligence, one whole Ocean of Life moving together, even when it sometimes feels that we are separate and moving in opposition. This wholeness includes not only all the humans, but also the soil, the birds, the planets, the dust motes, the subatomic particles, the galaxies, the sun—all of it one intelligence, one happening, one being or interbeing. The apparent conflict that we experience at the human level is part of the whole, just as stormy weather often seems wild, chaotic and unpredictable—things blowing this way and that, winds and earthquakes over-turning and upsetting things.
When we look very closely, we can see that every breath, every heartbeat, every thought, every word we speak, every action we do, even our most apparently well-deliberated decisions emerge from a source we cannot find. EVERYTHING is a choiceless happening, and nothing could be other than exactly how it is in this moment. But at the same time, there is an undeniable SENSE of being able to make choices and initiate actions. That neurological sensation of agency and choice (as one neuroscientist calls it) is part of how the universe is functioning—it IS intelligence-energy in action. And undeniably, choices and decisions do occur. Multiple possibilities present themselves in consciousness, and one is selected. We can’t grasp exactly how that selection happens, but in some sense, we ARE the response-ability that is showing up Here / Now.
Sometimes our apparent choices seem to come through the filter of confused, self-identified, me-centered, reactive thinking and feeling—a cloud of emotion-thought and neurochemical smog (to use the wonderful terms coined by Joko Beck and David Bohm). We act in ways that might be called unskillful or hurtful (some might even say evil, although that is a word I avoid). We could also call such actions sinful, although I avoid that word as well because of the connotations it has come to have. But actually, the word “sin” simply means missing the mark. We miss the mark. We are out-of-sync in some way—not seeing clearly, acting on the basis of false concepts, second-guessing ourselves, over-thinking something, going forward with an action we intuitively know is harmful. We might also call this deluded action. Deluded action tends to produce more delusion, more conflict, more suffering.
At other times, our actions seem to come straight from wholeness, from the absence of separation, from open awareness, from what some might call “goodness” or unconditional love—we are “in the zone,” in the flow, in sync with the whole, seeing clearly, acting spontaneously with no thought-sense of separation or control. We might call this enlightened action. It FEELS very different from deluded action and tends to bring forth more wholesome results.
Of course, ultimately it ALL comes from and IS the activity of one undivided wholeness, and there is never really anything outside of, or other than, this seamless, boundless flow. In this larger (or absolute) sense, our so-called mistakes and stumbles are always in perfect harmony. To isolate out any part of the whole, reify it, and then call it good or evil, wholesome or unwholesome, is never entirely accurate. These are always relative distinctions, and the entities being so-labeled never really exist in the way we think they do.
But if we pick up “Oneness” as a belief, we may fail to realize how complete this nondual unicity is. We may think that, “Because all is one, it would be unenlightened to distinguish between right and wrong.” And yet this all-inclusive Unicity INCLUDES the capacity Here / Now to discern the difference between apples and oranges, between smog and clarity, between wholesome activity and unwholesome activity. Unicity INCLUDES the response-ability (when that ability is there) to choose love over hate, to stop and feel anger in the body rather than venting it externally. Unicity includes relative, functional boundaries and limits. It includes apparent multiplicity and duality. It’s ALL included.
Likewise, if we pick up choicelessness as an ideology or a belief—and especially if we fail to see how complete and all-inclusive this choicelessness is, we can easily end up mentally leaving ourselves out of Totality. With this kind of mistaken (or incomplete) view, we get the IDEA that we “shouldn’t” want to make changes or take action because, after all, “There is no self with free will to do any of that.” We have seen through the illusion that we are a separate part making autonomous, independent decisions, but without realizing it, we are still holding to a view of being a separate part, in this case a separate part that is being choicelessly pushed around by larger forces. This partial understanding isn’t complete enough.
The truth is, there is really no separate “thing” here to be either in or out of control. Both free will and determinism, choice and choicelessness, unicity and multiplicity, relative and absolute are pedagogical maps or pointers—conceptual formulations or descriptions of reality—as are all the other word-concepts we use such as “awareness,” “consciousness,” or “intelligence-energy.” None of these words or formulations captures the living actuality itself, because the living reality Here / Now cannot be grasped by any conceptual formulation. The map is never the territory, even though mapping is something the territory is doing.
We can use all these various maps to help us notice different aspects of reality, but as I never tire of pointing out, it’s crucially important not to get stuck in abstract concepts (i.e., maps), not to mistake the maps for the territory they describe, not to turn the map into an ideology or get fixated on one side of a conceptual divide, because then we end up with a new fundamentalist dogma, a new belief system that we are defending against other, seemingly opposite, abstract conceptualizations or formulations. We think we’ve gotten a grip on things because we have a concept that seems to make sense, but true liberation is actually letting all our beliefs and mental formulations go and opening to the Truth of reality itself, as it is, right here and right now, and THIS cannot be formulated.
How does this letting go happen? How do we move from hate to love? How does the heart open? How does the sense of separation fall away?
How does anything happen? Whatever we say is only a pointer, a map, a description. Such a map may be helpful. But ultimately, we can’t really say how anything happens. But somehow, when we notice that we are holding on, when tensing and grasping and seeking and resisting come into full awareness, the possibility of relaxing and letting go eventually reveals itself quite naturally. But if we have the IDEA that we “should” relax, or that relaxing will get us where we want to go, and if we TRY to relax, we only grow more tense. We are reinforcing the fundamental delusion of separation between subject and object and the thought-sense of being “someone” who needs to get somewhere better. Relaxing (opening, letting go, dissolving, surrendering, melting, softening) requires something other than willful effort. It is more like the efforting, the willful intention, the resisting stops. We allow what is, including the contraction, to be just as it is. And counter-intuitively, this total acceptance (or unconditional love) is the key to transformation.
Perhaps in order to relax and allow this efforting to stop, it is helpful to encounter a teaching or a map that shows us that Totality includes everything, even the tensing up, even the seeking and grasping, even the mistakes, even the delusion. We don’t need to improve ourselves, fix ourselves, save the world, or get somewhere. We can relax and be just as we are. Nothing is left out of reality. Totality includes the peacemaker and the tyrant, the impulse to meditate and the impulse to commit murder, exquisite gardens and war-ravaged landscapes, sunny days and the most violent and destructive storms. It’s one whole undivided and impersonal happening from which nothing stands apart.
But if we freeze that into a belief system or an ideology and then use it as an excuse to justify carrying on with harmful behavior, then it instantly becomes a form of delusion. Yes, that too simply happens. But so does the ability to see this for the slippery trick that it is. Whenever we land in any conceptual map and fixate on any abstract position, we’re missing the aliveness of Here / Now.
Thus, even though everything is already perfect and complete, that perfection INCLUDES the ability to see delusion as delusion. It includes spiritual paths to wake consciousness up from the trance of suffering. It includes medicine and meditation and addiction recovery work and movements for social justice and somatic awareness work and caring for the environment and white blood cells battling infections. Nothing is left out.
In the movie of waking life, we can seemingly “decide” to bring our attention back to the bare actuality of this moment, although when we look very closely, we can see that this “decision,” along with the urge or impulse that preceded it and the action that follows from it, are all a movement of the whole ocean. Letting go, waking up, or “deciding” to meditate instead of getting drunk or yelling at our partner can only happen when the right conditions come together. We cannot grasp how any of this happens; we cannot find any doer-author-chooser-agent at the controls pulling the strings. Still, it SEEMS as if we must “decide” to do these things or they won’t happen, just as we must in some sense “decide” to go shopping or the refrigerator will remain empty. And to refuse to do any of this because we have picked up a BELIEF that “there is no doer, no chooser and no choice” is to again leave ourselves out of Totality.
In fact, our ability to train the bodymind so that it has greater control, greater sensitivity, greater skill, greater abilities and so forth is all part of the movement of nature, the waving of the ocean. “We,” as apparently separate entities, are never actually in control of ANY of it. But at the same time, there is a power, a response-ability, right here that acts. And that power is not “me,” the separate self, but rather the true “I” to which we all refer. And within the play of life, “I” choose one possibility over another and even at times exert will or effort. In this manner, we work to improve our tennis game, to learn a language, to become a doctor, to recover from an addiction, or to wake up to Truth or the living reality. Neither the passive nor the active voice fully captures the living reality.
Radical nondual teachings that speak mostly in the passive voice and that emphasize the choiceless and compulsory nature of reality are not saying that you “shouldn’t” practice your tennis game or your language skills, or that you “shouldn’t” make a shopping list or go to the grocery store, or that you “shouldn’t” care about transforming the world, or that you “shouldn’t” get a college degree or take up meditation, or that you “shouldn’t” organize a political protest or do anything else that life moves you to do. Rather, these radical teachings are simply pointing out that ALL of this (the urge, the impulse, the interest, the action, the apparent results) is a happening of the whole universe and not the doing of any separate, autonomous, individual author who has free will. None of it is personal in the way we THINK it is. The wave is not separate from the ocean, and it can never go against the current of the ocean itself. Your interests, desires and apparent choices are an activity of the whole universe. Still, you must act! You have no choice! You ARE the response-ability arising Here / Now.
Likewise, when nondual teachings stress unicity and emphasize that “All is One,” that doesn’t mean we can’t discern a difference between apples and oranges, or that we “shouldn’t” have opinions or preferences. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have healthy boundaries or that we can’t set limits for our children.
Teachings—at least the intelligent ones—that offer a path such as meditation or inquiry are all about seeing through the illusion of the separate self and giving up the false attempt to control life. A true teacher knows very well that sometimes the urge, the interest, the ability, the commitment, the willingness and whatever else it takes to sit down and meditate is here, and sometimes it is not. They also know that these things can be cultivated and developed, just as other life skills can be cultivated and developed—at least, sometimes, when the right conditions come together. A true teacher knows that teaching meditation or going on a silent retreat or engaging in meditative inquiry is as much an act of wild nature as the white blood cells battling an infection in the body or the gravitational pull that keeps the earth and all the other planets in orbit. It is a happening of the whole universe from which nothing can stand apart. As bodymind organisms, we are all doing what the gravitational force of life moves us to do in each moment.
Sometimes, the map we need most on our journey is the “you have a choice; you are totally response-able Here / Now” map. Other times, the map we most need is the “choiceless, no-self, everything-happening-by-itself” map. These two maps have different strengths and different potential pitfalls when misunderstood or carried to a false or oppressive extreme. Neither is entirely true or entirely false. Use them as needed, but don’t fixate on either one or mistake it for reality itself.
Sometimes we need to focus on specific, particular things. We need to maintain healthy boundaries and set reasonable limits. We need to discern differences. At other times, we need to expand our focus to the boundless, limitless, seamless, all-inclusive vastness. We need to notice commonalities, sameness, interbeing and the absence of separation. True nonduality includes ALL of this. It doesn’t get stuck in some false IDEA of Oneness that excludes multiplicity and denies differences, or some notion of no-self that ignores the apparent person, or some belief in choicelessness that overlooks the response-ability Here / Now as this awaring presence (this intelligence-energy, this living reality) that we are.
Come back, again and again, from the map-world to the living reality itself. Be aware of how easily we mix them up. Notice how all our confusion is in the map-world, never in reality itself. Come home to the simplicity of what is: the sounds of traffic, the tree branches waving in the wind, the breathing, the sensations in the body, the listening silence, the stillness, the awaring presence, the vastness of Here / Now.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2016, 2017--
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