Postings from My Facebook Page #15
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the fifteenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (2/25/17 - 6/29/17). 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:
Years ago in San Francisco, I was in my car one day, stopped at a traffic light, when a taxi cab pulled up next to me. The cab driver leaned out his window and began loudly cursing me. He felt I’d made some error in my driving, which I was sure I hadn’t. So I started cursing him back. We were both yelling at each other, using foul language, gesticulating wildly, telling each other that the other was the one making the roads unsafe. And then the light turned green and he flashed me this huge gorgeous smile and said, “Have a great day!” and I did the same back to him, and we both drove off.
In an instant, my heart was filled with love and joy, when a moment before it had been a fire-storm of anger.
Why am I sharing this story?
As someone with a quick temper, I’ve lived with and seen the destructive force of anger up close. I’ve behaved at times in ways I’m not proud of, ways I regret. I’m certainly not advocating yelling and cursing, throwing things, hitting people, or being verbally or physically abusive. As we all know, anger can be a very destructive force. It can easily turn to war, and it can cause hurt that never fully heals. My sense is that violence tends to beget violence, that the expression of anger tends to pour gasoline on the fire, and that hate typically generates more hate. But at the same time, I’ve had the experience on several occasions, as with this cab driver, of anger being expressed and then turning to love and seemingly leaving no trace behind. Sometimes, blowing off steam and letting loose may be an essential ingredient in freeing something up energetically that is stuck, and this release may be the very thing that allows empathy and love to show up naturally, rather than trying to impose them through some act of spiritual will or pretense, which often fails.
As everyone has probably noticed, in spiritual circles, there can be a tendency to act calm and loving when we are actually seething inwardly. This kind of spiritual façade is often worse than just letting loose with the anger. I endeavor to not express anger, but more often than I would like, I fail, as I did that day at the stoplight. And yet, I look back on the exchange at the stoplight with great fondness.
Sometimes anger can be expressed and quickly forgotten, as it often seems to be with children and other animals—they have no agenda for spiritually correct behavior—anger arises, their hair stands up, they snarl or yell or bark fiercely, and then a few minutes later, it’s as if nothing happened. Whereas adult humans can carry grudges and vendettas for centuries. All it took for my anger to totally disappear that day at the stoplight was for the taxi driver to flash me that gorgeous smile and wish me a beautiful day. I think we’ve probably all experienced that magical moment in an argument when something lets go and our anger dissolves. What lets go is the self-contraction, that tight fist of imagining that I am a separate “me” who needs to be defended and proven right, a “me” fighting to survive in a hostile world.
Moving through anger to unconditional love is not something that happens once and then it’s done. It’s not always easy or pleasant. When people take up meditation, we are often horrified by what we discover in ourselves, things that fly in the face of our self-image and who we think we are. We may see ourselves being seductive, manipulative, deceitful, dishonest, hurtful, self-pitying, resentful, bigoted, racist, sexist, argumentative, judgmental, and on and on and on. But none of this can really dissolve until it is seen. The light of awareness is the great solvent, the great transformer.
The great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj was by all reports a fiery character who often got angry at people and even threw them out of his satsangs on occasion. He smoked cigarettes in satsang even as he was dying of throat cancer, and he lived and taught in a busy, crowded, noisy part of Bombay. I’ve always been grateful for these aspects of Nisargadatta’s life because they showed me that awakening was not a matter of eliminating all my neurotic quirks or having a beatific personality such as Ramana or Thich Nhat Hanh, nor was awakening dependent upon being in a quiet environment. I’m not saying that yelling at people, smoking cigarettes or being in urban chaos is good (or bad), but simply that enlightenment manifests in many forms and depends upon nothing. Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, but he also overturned tables. There is no single correct way of transforming anger into love, and the separate self is never really in control. Alchemy comes in many forms, sometimes out of the blue, at a stoplight, when you least expect it.
Response to a comment:
Yes, I agree completely that expressing anger doesn't always (or even often) end well, as it did in my taxi cab story. And what you describe doing (taking a time-out instead of expressing anger) is certainly the prescribed approach to anger in Buddhist and other circles dedicated to non-violent communication and anger management. And it's a beautiful approach! Either doing something else as you describe; or else feeling deeply into the anger in a meditative way, experiencing it as pure energy and sensation in the body while also seeing the thoughts and storylines, as I often suggest; or knowingly being the awareness beholding it all, as many satsang teachers suggest—these are all possible ways of meeting anger. The only catch, as you've noticed, is that it doesn't always work. Sometimes the ability to stop and step back and take a time-out is present, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes the energy of the anger is too strong and it explodes uncontrollably. And even when the ability to take a time-out is present, sometimes the anger dissipates and sometimes it only gets bigger and bigger. Ultimately, we (as the separate self, the thinking mind with its good intentions for anger management) are not in control. We do our best, otherwise known as the Only Possible in that moment, and the results are never entirely predictable. Sometimes an explosion turns out to be a beautiful thing, although often it doesn't. But in many situations, it might be more honest and lead to better results than a passive-aggressive pretense of non-anger. Guilt, which you mention, comes from the belief that "I could and should have behaved differently." But actually, whether you explode or take a time out is not in your hands as the person. It seems to be a choice, but actually, it is a happening of life, a movement of the whole ocean. And when our buttons are pushed, it always a great opportunity to inquire more deeply into what is getting hurt or upset.
Why are we so attached to our opinions, often fighting for them as if our very life depended on it? How can two people see “the same situation” or “the same person” so differently?
Years ago, when I was on staff at Springwater Center, the meditation retreat center founded by Toni Packer, the staff got into a very contentious argument during a staff meeting about something that was in fact quite trivial but that seemed to bring forth a very charged reaction in many of us, myself included. I can’t even remember how we resolved it, but the struggle over it gave me an invaluable direct insight into how much is behind our reactions to people, events and situations.
Springwater put on maybe 8 to 10 week-long residential silent retreats led by Toni throughout the year during the years when I was on staff. Every day on the retreat, Toni would give a talk in the late morning. We allowed people, members of the Center who were not on the retreat, but who lived nearby, to attend the talks. Our contentious argument at the staff meeting was over whether or not to change our policy and allow these visitors to stay for lunch after the talk. It may sound trivial, and it was, but it brought up quite a passionate struggle.
At the time, I was very attached to the deep and profound silence that occurred on these retreats. I think we had maybe 40 or 50 people on retreats in those days. Retreatants would stay at the Center all week, and aside from Toni’s daily talk and the opportunities to meet with her, silence was strictly maintained. I’ve never been anywhere as silent as those Springwater retreats. When you’re in silence for a week with a relatively small group, sitting quietly together hour after hour, eating in silence together, and so on, an intimacy develops. The group becomes a small community, and there is a kind of rhythm or vibration or shared energy field that develops. Things slow down and quiet down as the days and nights progress. And when people arrive from the outside world, people who are not on the retreat, even when they are seasoned meditators themselves who have been on many retreats, they inevitably bring with them a different kind of energy. They are coming from the busy world of work and family, and they cannot help but be in a different place energetically from people who have been immersed in silence, doing nothing but being, for days and nights on end. I wanted to minimize the energetic disruption and preserve the silent stillness. I didn’t want these visitors to stay for lunch.
But the staff was divided. Some on staff very much wanted to allow the visitors to stay for lunch. It was almost lunch-time, after all, when the talk ended, and some of these folks had come from an hour away, and it seemed like the generous, friendly thing to do—invite them to join us for lunch. Why not?
We got into this rather heated debate over it. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that it really didn’t matter either way. If the visitors stayed for lunch, the retreat would not be ruined by some subtle “energetic disruption,” and what good was meditation anyway if it couldn’t roll with a few subtle interruptions? And if the visitors didn’t stay for lunch, they certainly weren’t going to starve to death if we didn’t feed them. They could be home within an hour, and there were plenty of local restaurants and food stores along the way where they could stop if needed. But somehow, as meaningless as this really was, the staff was arguing back and forth. I felt quite attached to my position and was fighting hard for it.
That night, I dreamed that I was being raped. I realized when I woke up in the morning that the argument I had been making in the staff meeting wasn’t just some rational attempt to preserve the silence or protect the container of the retreat, but rather, this issue of letting people stay for lunch was standing in for something else, something that was giving it the emotional charge and the sense of life-or-death importance.
Working with Toni, living at a retreat center in the middle of nowhere with a small group of people, doing all these silent retreats month after month, this was a process of questioning and stripping away layer after layer of identity and belief, letting go of more and more of my cherished opinions, letting go of my boundaries, dissolving the separation between self and other, giving up control (or realizing that there was no “me” to have any control). It was an unmasking, a demolition project—demolishing (or seeing through) the little me. I often felt like all my defenses, all my ideas about myself, all my certainties, everything I held to for security were all being stripped away. And somehow, this decision about the visitors staying for lunch had become a kind of symbolic representation in my subconscious mind of one more boundary being stripped away, one more place where I was holding on being called into question, one more thing I couldn’t control. Somewhere below conscious awareness, letting visitors stay for lunch felt overwhelming, invasive, threatening and painful—like being raped. The separate self was hanging on for dear life. If I let those folks cross this boundary and invade my silence and stay for lunch, who knows what would be stripped away next?
As I sat there the next morning remembering the dream and putting it together with the staff meeting, it dawned on me that the folks who were on the other side, arguing in favor of letting the visitors stay, were probably propelled by equally deep associations that had nothing more to do with the actual situation at hand than my fears of being raped. As I reflected back on their arguments, I could see that to them, allowing the visitors to stay was somehow connected to not abandoning people—as if by not serving them lunch, we were like parents refusing to feed our children or a tribe turning its backs on some of its own members and exiling them to the wilderness to starve.
The funny thing is, if I were on staff at Springwater today and we were having this debate, I’d almost certainly be in favor of letting the visitors stay. I’d probably feel that the folks who didn’t want to allow that were “too attached” to their experience of silence. In fact, I did feel that way on several occasions at Springwater when other people were complaining about some disruption that wasn’t bothering me. Indeed, we can find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue at different moments, arguing for the side we’ve identified with in that moment as if our life depended on it, as if a victory for the opposition would be tantamount to being raped or killed or starved or abandoned by our parents or shunned by the tribe and left alone on the tundra to die.
We so easily get triggered by certain ideas or labels, by abstractions, by people on “the other side,” by authority figures like Trump (or Hillary, or the Pope, or whoever), by events such as welcoming refugees or trying to keep them out, or by a controversial issue such as abortion that can quite reasonably be seen as either reproductive freedom for women or as the murder of the unborn. We identify with one person but not with another, we are reminded of past experiences. The person or the situation reminds us of our father or our mother or our boss or the way we were bullied as a child or whatever it is. And on top of childhood memories and life conditioning, who knows what unseen memories we all carry in our cells and our DNA from our ancestors that may also influence our reactions. These bodymind organisms contain the whole universe and all of history. And at the center of every situation, every conflict, every drama, there is the little “me” fighting to survive and maintain its image and its boundaries.
It amazes us how others can see what we assume to be “the same situation” or “the same person” in such a completely different way from how we see it. How can some people see Trump or Hillary or Obama so differently from how I see each of them? How could anyone vote for that person who seems so abhorrent to me!? A close (and usually like-minded) friend recently told me how much she dislikes a certain TV commentator, and I was stunned because her perception of this person was completely different from mine. She hated him; I loved him. She saw arrogance, condescension and entitlement where I saw a gentle confidence and humility. Which of us was right? The question assumes that there is an observer-independent objective reality “out there” apart from us. We’ve grown up believing that there is, but is there?
Maybe the next time we catch ourselves arguing for or defending something as if our life depended on it, or being triggered by a situation or a person, maybe it can be an invitation to question what it is that is getting upset or defensive or feeling hurt or put down or ignored or disrespected or not seen. This whole bundle of emotion-thought-memory and neurochemical smog is part of what any true spiritual path reveals and uncovers and slowly unwinds. It can be a messy and painful process, and in my experience, there is no end to it. One teacher compared it to opening up the sewer system of a large city. And it’s not a matter of psychological analysis or digging through our childhood. It happens quite naturally by itself in the light of awareness. And it’s so important to realize that none of it is personal in the way we think it is—our neurosis and our delusion is an activity of the whole universe, the result of infinite causes and conditions.
After those silent retreats at Springwater, it was amazing how open and clear and fresh everyone looked after being bathed in silence for a week. People who had been locked in conflict before the retreat started were now looking at each other with love and affection. There was a wonderful feeling of openness and aliveness. Everyone was palpably in touch with the undivided awaring presence that we all are, the vastness of being, the pure light, the spaciousness that lacks nothing and resists nothing. All the smog had been burned away. The world was sparkling and miraculous. Of course, the smog would come back, slowly but surely. The contracted sense of being “me” would show up. Conflicts, arguments and disagreements would erupt again. Buttons would be pushed. Feelings would be hurt. Tempers would be lost. Defensiveness would arise. Liberation is rarely (if ever) once-and-for-all, but more typically an on-going process that always boils down to right here, right now—this one eternal present. We open and then close again. There is no final perfection on the level of form. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the dance.
BEING THE HOST: This that we are seeking (peace, freedom, truth, enlightenment, awakening, liberation) is actually the absence (or transparency) of something, not the attainment of something new that is presently lacking. That which is realized in enlightenment is right here, never absent, belonging to no one. The so-called spiritual path is an apparent journey from Here to Here that can only happen Now. It is the seeing through and the falling away of what seems to obscure what is ever-present and without blemish.
In Zen, they often talk about the host and the guest. The host is home; the guest is traveling. The host is Here / Now: ever-present boundless Awareness, True Nature, Presence, emptiness, groundlessness, that which is being and beholding it all. The guest is the seeking, grasping mind, restless and unsettled, chasing a mirage down the road and around the next bend into the never-arriving future, never satisfied. Waking up is being Home, knowingly being the host, being what has never been absent but may have been long overlooked. To awaken is to see, and to see through, the mental movies that make it seem as if I am lost and separate from home.
That means seeing the habitual thoughts that reincarnate the phantom self and the story of lack: “I don’t get it,” “I’m not there yet,” “This isn’t it,” “Ramana had something I don’t have for sure,” “If I go to this next satsang (or retreat or whatever it is), maybe I’ll awaken,” and so on. See how these thoughts posit (and thus bring into being in the imagination) the separate self—“me”—and the story that something is missing. See how the mind tries to figure this all out by thinking about it, around and around on the hamster wheel chasing the ever-elusive carrot. Feel how unsatisfying this kind of thinking is, and how it doesn’t really work. In seeing all of this seeking, grasping, resisting and imagination for what it is, it becomes less and less believable. It begins to let go and fall away. Trying to MAKE it fall away is another form of seeking, grasping and resisting, rooted again in the thought-sense of “me” who needs to get rid of something or make something happen in order to finally arrive at the desired destination and “get” what “I” presently lack.
But it is possible to stop and check and notice at any moment that Here / Now never goes away. Time and space are ways of perceiving and conceptualizing, but in reality, it’s always Now, and we never move away from Here, and there is no border between inside and outside. This can be seen directly. This boundless and seamless immediacy is undeniable and utterly obvious, although we may seemingly overlook it when our attention is lost in thoughts and ideas of past and future, self and other, attainment and loss.
Consciousness IS the apparent breaking up of unbroken wholeness into apparent multiplicity. It is the appearance of subject and object, time and space, me and you, and the illusion of substantiality. Without all this, nothing could appear. Much of this dividing up is there even in bare perceiving. But then on top of that, thinking and conceptualizing begin labeling and categorizing; mapping and drawing boundary-lines; reifying; dreaming up stories of cause and effect, progress and regress, success and failure—in short, thinking produces an abstract map-world in the imagination that doesn’t actually exist. Consciousness gets lost in its own creation—it conflates the undeniable knowingness of being present and aware with something that appears—a perception-thought-story-image called “the person” or “me.” Consciousness (identified as this person) comes to think and feel that "I" am inside a body looking out. We identify thought as what we are. We begin to think that thinking is all there is. We become literally hypnotized by the belief that we are a separate fragment looking out at a world “out there,” apart from us, and we believe that all of this (me, the world, the ten-thousand things) has actual substance—that it exists independently of consciousness. But when we look closely, we find that none of this really holds up.
Intelligent meditation is one way of looking closely. Meditation as I use the word has nothing to do with being in any particular posture, or wearing any special costume, or employing any methodical techniques. As I mean it, meditation is nothing more (or less) than stopping all our usual activities, being still, and simply being Here / Now. With nothing to occupy attention or keep us busy and distracted, we begin SEEING all the grasping, seeking movements of the bodymind, the way thought and imagination create confusion and suffering. All of this is illuminated (and dissolved) by the light of awareness, and more and more, we can begin to catch the thoughts and stories and recognize them for the old habit that they are. Along with seeing how suffering and confusion are created, we also begin to discover the possibility of relaxing back into the simple actuality of Here / Now – the whooshing of traffic, the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the cool breeze on the skin, the sensations of breathing in and out, the awareness beholding it all, the openness and spaciousness of this awaring presence—not these words, but the living reality to which they point.
Meditation invites an exploration of this living reality—not by thinking about it, but by giving it full and open attention. For example, we may look closely to see if any actual boundary can be found between inside and outside or between awareness and content. We might look and feel deeply into what “I” truly is (prior to name, gender, self-image, occupation, life story, memory, etc.). We might watch to see if there is anyone in control of what is showing up or if every thought, every urge, every decision, every plan, every movement of attention, every action happens by itself. These are non-conceptual, awareness-based inquiries that rely on open attention rather than on thinking.
Meditation is dropping out of the thinking mind down into the body—feeling energies and sensations in ever more subtle ways, being in the realm of pure sensing and perceiving, prior to labels, explanations and conceptual formulations—resting in this ungraspable, living reality—letting go into groundlessness. Meditation is the discovery that there is no meditator, only this undivided intelligence-energy—this unbound, un-localized, timeless awareness (a.k.a. Here / Now) showing up as everything.
And, of course, this way of being and exploring isn’t just about what happens for thirty minutes while we are sitting quietly in what we might think of as meditation—although making time for that in daily life is very helpful in my experience. But ultimately, there is no boundary between meditation and the rest of life. This kind of simple being, resting in presence, and this kind of open exploration of the nature of reality can occur while we are making lunch, driving the car, riding in a bus or on a plane, waiting in a waiting room for an appointment, mulling over a big decision, walking through nature or through the city, or even in the midst of a conversation or an argument.
Having teachers who were clear and awake was very helpful for me in my journey, as were many fine spiritual books. And sometimes I still find a teacher or a book or a video helpful. But it is also important to discern when to put all of this aside and—as Buddha famously said—“be a lamp unto yourself.” That doesn’t mean trusting your thoughts. It means trusting Awareness, the Heart, what Eckhart Tolle calls “the power of Now.” Trusting your own direct experience, your own direct insight, your own seeing and being.
Stop being the guest, in other words, and be the host. Or more accurately, notice that you already are the host and always have been, that being the guest on a long journey was only a dream that happened Here / Now, in you (the Self). Here / Now (True Self) has never been absent. You have never really been lost, or separate, or on a journey, or encapsulated inside a body. You ARE Here / Now. Boundless awareness is ever-present, most intimate as they say in Zen, closer than close, all-inclusive. Here / Now is all there is.
And if and when the thought-story pops up that you are not home yet, that something is missing, that “this isn’t it,” that you don’t get it, is it possible to see that train of thought for what it is—a conditioned habit referring to a phantom? In an instant, the thought is gone, and with it, the whole mental movie world it triggered in the imagination. What remains? (Don’t answer that question, just marinate in what remains, as that).
Who am I? or What am I? – These are classic spiritual questions. The point of these questions is not to repeat them over and over mechanically like some kind of mantra. Nor is it to come up with an answer in the form of a word, a label or a concept. It’s easy to learn the “right words” to answer various spiritual questions, but those answers are not the direct knowing that these questions invite. Nor are these questions meant to induce some kind of fantastic, extraordinary, mystical experience that we must then try to sustain permanently. That is a losing endeavor. Experiences come and go. These questions point to what does not come or go.
These questions invite us to turn attention back toward the source of present experiencing, the source of our next breath and our next heartbeat—to deeply feel into what we mean or refer to when we say the word “I”. Please note—and this is so important—attention is not thinking. Attention doesn’t mean thinking about these questions and trying to figure them out by reasoning, nor does it mean dredging up what we’ve read or heard. And it doesn’t mean looking for some “thing,” some object of perception, that is “out there” (or even “in here”), apart from the looking itself. Attention means feeling into these questions in a very direct, immediate way to discover what “I” refers to at the deepest, closest, most subtle level.
If I don’t refer to thought or memory, what am I in this moment right now?
Without thought or memory, do I have a name, a gender, a race, a nationality, an enneagram type, a bunch of neurotic tendencies, a history, an age, a life story, an occupation, a problem, a social status, a purpose in life? Do I have a boundary, a limit, a place where I begin or end? In my own direct experience, am I a chunk of dead matter (a hunk of meat) or am I pure consciousness? What is my actual experience?
Feeling into these questions, letting our thoughts and stories dissolve, we feel ourselves as boundless awareness, impersonal presence, the vast space of Here / Now in which everything comes and goes. And we can notice that this is not some new acquisition, but simply the noticing or recognizing of what has never not been so, what has always been right here—our True Nature or True Self beyond name or form. We can feel the silence, the stillness, the peace, the unconditional love, the freedom, the vibrant aliveness that is the natural state of being, the groundless ground of Here / Now.
(And if we’re not feeling this, if we’re telling ourselves the story that “I don’t get it” or that “I’m not experiencing it,” can we notice that this is a story? However true it SEEMS to be, it is a story. It is a story told from the point of view of the apparently separate self, identifying as the person. Can that be seen? Can it be seen how this story and the desperate attempt to “get it” or to have a certain experience is actually what is preventing us from simply noticing the ever-present awareness in which this whole drama is unfolding? Can we notice that awareness is beholding the seeking and the dissatisfaction, allowing it all to be as it is, and that this whole drama has no actual substance? It is made up of disappearing thoughts, sensations and stories, isn’t it?)
Of course, being at the office under pressure, or at home with children who are screaming and throwing a tantrum, or simply out and about at the supermarket or on the bus or at the airport—this won’t feel exactly the same as sitting quietly and sensing deeply into boundless awareness on a silent meditation retreat or at a satsang. Experience is always changing, and if we try to hold on to any particular experience, that is suffering.
But if we stop and check at any busy or seemingly disturbing moment, we can notice that we’re still Here, that it’s still Now, and that everything—all the turbulence, all the sound and fury, the whole drama of emotion-thought—is happening in this vast space of awareness that we are. And all of it is made out of consciousness. We can discover that there is no separation or essential difference between awareness and content, between form and emptiness, between the sound of the jet engines or the cheeping bird or the screaming children and the awaring presence that I am.
And yes, for most of us (myself certainly included), there will be times when the storyline feels believable, when the smog of emotion-thought (what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body) is strong, when the hypnotic trance of separation is momentarily over-powering and feels like reality, when we identify as the little me (the character in the story, the person we take ourselves to be), when we feel hurt or put down or abandoned or not seen, when we lash out or get defensive or hide in our room or fall into some kind of addictive behavior. This happens to human beings (or really, to consciousness, which gets easily absorbed in its own creations). And it happens more to some of us than to others simply because the weather conditions are different in different bodymind organisms. Maybe for some lucky ones, this kind of entrancement falls away completely. But for most of us, it happens sometimes.
So, if and when this happens, is it possible not to add on any additional storylines taking it personally as “my” fall from grace or giving it meaning (e.g., “I’m a hopeless case,” “This proves how different I am from Ramana and what a loser I am,” etc.)? Is it possible to simply allow the stormy weather to be as it is, to see it clearly for what it is, to feel it as energy and sensation in the body, to see the thoughts and stories running in the mind—and to really SEE how we do our suffering? The more clearly this is seen, the less power and believability it has, and the more ability there is to be free of it, to choose to let it go—not by will-power and effort, which doesn’t work, but in the same natural way that we can relax a tight muscle. And the more we bring our attention back and abide in presence-awareness itself, the easier it is to access this shift from encapsulation to boundlessness, from separation to wholeness, from thought to awareness—and the clearer it becomes that awareness is the ever-present common factor in every different experience.
Waking up is always Now. And at the same time, there is a kind of journey over time in which the false sense of separation and encapsulation and identity as “me” gets thinner and thinner and the knowingness of myself as boundless awareness or pure presence gets stronger and more stable. But it’s so crucial to see that this journey is not about “me.” It isn’t “me” who wakes up. The story of “me” going back and forth, alternately getting it and then losing it, is just that—a story, a mental-movie made out of consciousness, appearing in awareness. And the apparent evolutionary journey that happens over time only has a relative reality. It requires thought, memory and imagination to conjure up the story of this journey. And that story easily reinforces the sense that I am the little “me” at the center of the story, making progress or failing to do so. Time is itself a mental construct. In reality, it is always Now. And there is no such thing as “after Now.” There is only Now. And even when the movie playing on the screen of awareness is the most disturbing one imaginable, the screen itself is never damaged. The movie-story has a relative reality, but it vanishes in an instant. Whatever happened an hour ago is completely gone. A memory trace may remain—Now—but the happening itself is totally gone. And ALL of it happens in awareness.
So rather than comparing ourselves to others, or evaluating our progress (or apparent lack of it), or telling the story of being an enlightened one or an unenlightened one, is it possible to simply BE Here / Now as no one at all, to dissolve into the formless presence that knows and cares nothing about success or failure? This is peace. This is unconditional love. This is true freedom. And from here, as life itself, we can move in the apparent world, doing whatever life moves us to do, enjoying the whole show, even the parts we don’t enjoy, seeing the beauty even in the apparent darkness, knowing that in the deepest sense, all is well. Here / Now, no problems remain. Yes, there may still be pain or cancer or bankruptcy or ignorant people in power, and yes, relatively speaking, we can still take steps to heal an illness, to fix a flat tire, to recover from an addiction, to change the educational system or the economic system or the political system, to address injustices, and so on—but we do all this from a place of knowing that everything is unfolding perfectly and that all is well even when it seems otherwise.
And we come home, again and again, always Now, to rest and abide and marinate and dissolve in the wholeness of presence. This in itself is perhaps the greatest healing and the greatest gift we can offer the world, for we are not separate from the world.
Life is a messy and varied affair. It includes heaven and hell, ecstasy and heartbreak, boredom and excitement, exquisite beauty and unfathomable cruelty. The manifestation can only appear in this way, in contrasts and polarities (a.k.a. in duality). There are no one-sided coins. The nondual absolute is ever-present, but curiously, it shows up (and can only show up) as apparent duality. Even a passing experience of oneness or unity is in duality, recognizable only in contrast to the opposite experience of multiplicity and separation. Nonduality isn’t anti-duality, but it points to a way of being that isn’t caught by duality. Awareness is nondual. Nondual awareness includes duality, but awareness doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t fixate, grasp, stick to things, or push things away. It has space for everything to be as it is. Humans, hypnotized by dualism, have a proverbial tendency to try to wipe out darkness and have only light. We want up without down. Usually, as we all know, this doesn’t end well.
Even after profound awakenings and deep spiritual realizations, human beings can find ourselves caught by intense emotions and hypnotized by core beliefs, deeply embedded storylines and old habits of attention. No one is exempt. There is a long history of enlightened teachers, sages and gurus yelling at people, getting drunk, being unfaithful to their marriage partners, molesting women, making unwanted sexual advances, embezzling money, lying, committing suicide to escape depression, going senile, making unreasonable demands, threatening people, and so on. And while there are certainly many teachers who haven’t done any of these things, it would be hard to find a flawless teacher who never experiences a moment of delusion. In fact, one of the greatest teachings any teacher offers to the student (usually unintentionally) is the disillusionment of discovering the imperfections and the humanity of the teacher, thus toppling them off the pedestal and forcing the student back on themselves, or more accurately, back on reality itself.
No one can see, or be, or wake up for us, and the only life we can live is the one we actually have. How it compares to any other life is utterly irrelevant. We must each find the nondual vastness that is our True Nature for ourselves—no one can give it to us, and believing in it as an idea won’t answer our deep longing to be free and at peace. Of course, we don’t really have to find our True Nature, we simply have to notice that we already are it, that it is (and always has been) right here. But to imagine that this discovery will result in some kind of human perfection or some unblemished experience that endures permanently forever is a delusion.
Many of us are very hard on ourselves. We seem to focus relentless attention on our flaws and failures while barely noticing any evidence of our beauty, intelligence, wisdom or generosity. Shame, guilt, regret and blame are rampant in this world. And of course, the more we believe we are a loser, the more we tend to lose. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Years ago, when I was a serious student of karate, I remember our teacher telling us that the mark of a great karate master is not that they never make mistakes, but that they don’t get tripped up by their mistakes. If they make a mistake while performing a kata, they go right on without missing a beat as if nothing had happened, as if the mistake they made was completely perfect, giving no indication that anything had gone wrong. That could just as well be said about great musicians, actors, or anyone else. It doesn’t mean we don’t see the mistake, but we don’t get defeated by it. We don’t collapse on the spot and get lost in the story of being a failure. It also doesn’t mean covering-up our mistakes or denying them. In many life situations, it is very important to acknowledge mistakes, to apologize, to make amends or correct things when we can, and certainly, to learn from our mistakes. But we don’t have to carry around a heavy burden of guilt and shame and a story of failure. In other words, we don’t need to take it personally and give it added meaning.
So if we notice that we are carrying around that kind of baggage, can we stop and investigate how real this baggage really is—what is it made out of, what sustains it, what keeps it going? Can we notice that all the thoughts, stories, memories and sensations that make up “me and my burden” are all appearing in what “I” truly is—boundless awareness, this open awake presence Here / Now? Can we see how ephemeral, insubstantial and dream-like all the baggage really is?
We all fall short at times. We miss the mark. We stumble and fall. We screw up. It happens. And yet, perhaps each mistake is exactly what is needed. As Ram Tzu (a.k.a. Wayne Liquorman in thin disguise) once said, “Your every blemish is perfectly placed. Your every absurd action is perfectly timed.” This recognition of perfection extends to what we view as the wrong person becoming president, or to someone (our partner, a world leader, a spiritual teacher, whoever it might be) doing things we feel are terrible, or even to horrific things like genocide, child sex trafficking, or serial murder. There is always a bigger picture. We don’t know how it all goes together. That doesn’t mean we won’t act in the ways we are moved to act to stop a genocide, or rescue a child, or impeach a president, but it changes the ground from which such actions come. We are no longer attached to the results or convinced that we know what’s best for the universe. As has often been noted, the darkest hour is right before the dawn, and what looks like the worst failure or misfortune may be the grit that creates the pearl, or the mud in which the lotus can flower, or the compost that nourishes the rose.
When we really see how everything is one whole seamless happening and how none of it is really personal or substantial in the way we think it is, we have instant compassion for ourselves and everyone else. Perfecting the person (or the world) is a hopeless task. There’s a famous Zen koan to that effect: “Why can’t the clear-eyed bodhisattvas sever the red thread?” The red thread is our humanness: desire, passion, emotion, sexuality, blood, fire—all those things we can’t quite get under control no matter how hard we try. Acknowledging this imperfectability or powerlessness to control doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best in life, or that we can’t try to change the world (or our marriage, or our living situation, or whatever it is) for the better, but if we do any of this in a spirit of perfectionism, we will suffer endless frustration and disappointment.
In addition to the tyranny of the inner critic, we also get easily thrown off by messages from the outside telling us we’re not good enough. Long before I had published my first book, I remember a successful writer telling me that what distinguished a real writer was simply that they keep writing no matter how many rejection letters they get. I saw a wonderful book once full of rejection letters that had been sent to writers early in their career, writers who eventually won literary prizes, became famous and were considered to be among the greatest writers of all time. These rejection letters were rejecting books that went on to be considered great literature. Many great writers get a lot of rejection letters before ever being published. Some great writers never get published. And meanwhile, a lot of garbage does get published. Life isn’t always fair or reasonable. As Zen Master Hakuin famously said when falsely accused of getting a village girl pregnant, “Is that so?” He accepted the way it is, as totally unfair and unjust as it was. He took the baby and cared for it without complaining.
And, of course, he might just as easily have lost his temper and yelled at the villagers. It would be a mistake to turn this story into a perfectionistic ideal for how we “should” behave. It simply illuminates a possibility, a possibility of recognizing that this is how it is right now, like it or not—Donald Trump is president, ISIS is killing people, bombs are falling on children…and maybe our marriage is ending, or the bodymind still experiences bouts of compulsive behavior or depression, or maybe our house just burned down, or our bank account is empty, or we just lost our temper and said something we regret, or our child just flunked the third grade or got arrested, or we just found out we have terminal cancer, or whatever it might be. These things happen. Transformation begins with the complete acceptance that can also be called unconditional love or simply awareness. Out of that awareness, intelligent action flows. That is the natural response-ability of life itself.
And when we act out of habit and hypnotic entrancement instead, lost in thought, caught up in the self-centered dream, that too is ultimately the same unbroken wholeness discovering itself and finding its way home. This cannot be grasped conceptually—to the thinking mind, it’s a paradox—but it can be felt and seen and realized directly—and then there is no paradox at all. It’s all included. Everything is as it is, and nothing is what it seems to be. Light and dark go together. Nothing is left out. Nothing is unworkable or unworthy of love and attention. This moment has never been here before and already it is gone. The universe is born anew again and again, always Here / Now. The burden is imaginary as is the one carrying it. Reality is fresh, alive, open, undefined and inconceivable.
There is truly nothing more magnificent than listening to the sounds of rain. Plopping, tapping, splashing, gurgling—all these exquisitely beautiful sounds filling the silence and the darkness of a spring night. Rain nurturing the buds that are unfurling, bathing the blossoms on the blossoming trees. The next morning, opening the window shade, a herd of deer grazing on the wet emerald green grass across the street. A single bird flying through the milk-white sky. Fog draping the green mountains. Blossoming trees everywhere, lining the streets, shouting their ecstasy at being alive. The cry of a mourning dove, the chirping of frogs. Later that afternoon, a beautiful meeting in Ashland, and when it ends, opening the door to leave and being greeted by a riot of pink and white blossoms bathed in this marvelously strange light with a dark sky behind them, and then a rainbow. Miracles of ordinary, everyday life—the Holy Reality. Happy Spring Equinox!
How to awaken? Stop thinking about it. Stop trying to get it. Stop trying to have (or not have) any particular experience. Relax into the pure experiencing of right here, right now, just as it is. Listen to the sounds, feel the sensations, see the colors and shapes (the pure visual sensations before the labels). Be quiet. Be still. Listen. Sense. Simply BE, effortlessly, simply.
Be aware of being aware. You can’t see awareness or grasp it, but there can be a simple noticing that awareness is here, an awareness of being aware. Feel the sense of presence, of being present. Feel the spaciousness, the openness, the aliveness of this awaring presence. Notice that whatever time of day it is, it is always Now, and that whatever location shows up, it always shows up Here. Feel (sense) into the vastness, the boundlessness of Here / Now, this timeless immediacy. Notice that Here / Now (awareness itself) has no beginning or end, no edges, no limits, no place where it is not.
Feel into the deepest core of what you mean when you refer to “I”—prior to thought and memory, prior to everything learned second-hand (such as your name, gender, age, occupation, nationality, life story, and so on), before all that, what are you? You know without a doubt that you are here. Feel deeply into that knowingness that I AM. In your direct experience, is that awaring presence encapsulated inside a body? Does it have any limits or any particular form? Feel the vibrancy, the aliveness, the spaciousness, the present-ness, the no-thing-ness that I AM.
Ask yourself, what is beholding ALL of this, even the most subtle sense of presence? Don’t try to come up with an answer. Instead, allow this question to invite a direct exploration, feeling into this without seeking any result. What is being pointed out with this question is not something you will see or “get” as an object. Nor is it some flashy new experience. In fact, you won’t find any-thing at all. (And if you do find or experience something, ask yourself, what is beholding that?). We can call what is being pointed out by many names: Primordial Awareness, the Ultimate Subject, the Self, True Self, God, emptiness, no-thing-ness, Unicity, Zero. But the actuality of it is prior to any name we put on it. It is more subtle than anything perceivable, conceivable or experienceable. It is ever-present, and it is the very Heart of your being, so if you are looking for it, you are actually looking out of it. And although it is nothing perceivable or conceivable, at the same time, there is nothing you can see or experience that is not it.
Thoughts may pop up (they probably will), storylines may arise (they probably will), the fog of emotion-thought may thicken and the pull of re-identifying as the separate self may be very strong at times. I am reminded in such moments of that scene in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus has his men plug their ears and tie him to the mast as they pass by the island of the Sirens—those creatures whose mesmerizing voices were known to lure sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of the island. Our stories, beliefs, old habit patterns and identities are like those Siren songs, and they can be very strong, sometimes irresistible. It’s as if we fall briefly under a hypnotic spell. Consciousness, it seems, is easily entranced by its own creations. What to do?
Start by not doing anything. Simply allow everything to be as it is in this moment. Don’t resist what shows up or chase after something else. See the thoughts that pop up for the habitual, conditioned movements of mind that they are—don’t believe them or mistake them for an objective report on reality. See if it is possible to hear them without getting hypnotized by the storylines they spin, to hear them the same way you might hear traffic sounds or bird songs. And if you do get temporarily hypnotized and caught up in these storylines, when waking up happens, as it does naturally by itself, don’t judge yourself for having been caught up, don’t take it personally, don’t hold onto it or give it meaning—simply let it go and gently return to simply being present as awake awareness: hearing the traffic or the barking dog, feeling the breathing, feeling sensations in the body, being aware of being aware, sensing the spaciousness of boundless presence, BEING the listening silence that you always already are.
Awakening is simply a shift in attention from thoughts to presence, from separation to wholeness. It involves a relaxing (or opening) of attention, allowing the narrow, hard focus of seeking, resisting, controlling and grasping to soften and let go, surrendering everything, falling into the arms of the Beloved, dissolving into the Beloved, being no-thing at all.
And from this open, relaxed, awake presence, action can happen as needed. Focused attention can return and narrow as needed, but without hardening, grasping or fixating. And however the attention moves, it doesn’t ever actually disturb the vastness in any way. That open, spacious field of awareness is ever-present. It is the groundless ground of every experience. Don’t take that as a belief, but stop and check at any moment—is awareness here? You’ll find that it always is. Here / Now is ever-present. And just as the movie screen is never burned by the fire in the movie, it can be noticed that awareness (Here / Now) is never damaged by anything that appears in the movie of waking life. The focus of attention will shift or narrow or expand as it needs to, and experiencing will feel different in different moments—you talk to children, teach a class, do your taxes, perform surgery, work on the computer, drive a bus, visit a friend, care for an aging parent, organize a protest march, talk things out with a spouse or a housemate, attend a business meeting, plan for the future and learn from the past in appropriate and functional ways, and so on. All of this is the Self functioning. It is the movie on the screen, the movie of waking life, the dance of emptiness, the expression of the Absolute in form. It is not other than the Absolute, but the Absolute is not trapped in the movie. The Absolute dances freely as the movie.
I find it immensely helpful to make time every day to sit quietly doing nothing, just being. I recommend this. And then throughout the day, when it occurs to you and the opportunity arises, simply pause for a moment and listen to the sounds, feel the sensations, be aware of awareness, be knowingly present as the boundless awaring presence that you are. This can happen anywhere—at work, on the city bus, while walking or eating a meal. Even as you are talking to someone, both as you talk and as you listen, see if it’s possible to also be aware of sounds, sensations in the body, breathing, the sense of presence, the listening silence, the stillness, the whole happening of the moment. You may find that this changes how you talk and how you listen.
And don’t be caught in some idea that you “should” or “must” do this “all the time” or perfectly. Don’t evaluate how well you’re doing it. Actually, you (as the separate self) are not doing anything—you don’t actually exist! Those thoughts about progress and success or failure are all coming from the perspective of that imaginary separate self. Awakening is about waking up from the dream of being that little, separate, encapsulated me. So, don’t compare this illusory phantom self with other illusory phantom selves. That is a waste of time! And if these movements of the habitual thinking mind do pop up, simply see them for what they are—conditioned habits—and let them go. Relax back into simple being.
The most important realization you can have is that it is always Now. Awakening is never about yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all or forever-after or the next moment or the last moment. It’s always NOW. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t (relatively speaking) a kind of evolutionary process involved, a gradual unfolding over time, a deepening or stabilizing or embodying that occurs, but that process only happens Now.
Waking up is the dissolution of the sense of separation and encapsulation and the mistaken identity as a separate self. That doesn’t mean you forget your name or lose the functional sense of boundaries and location that are needed to survive, but your true identity is with the boundless awareness in which all of this comes and goes. Awakening is never about the separate “me” achieving something or becoming an improved, enlightened or awakened “somebody” in “The Story of My Life.” That is all a kind of delusion. Being awake is about being no-thing at all. And paradoxically, when there is no thought-sense of being somebody, the person is set free to be the truest, most genuine expression it can be.
There is no distance at all between you right here, right now and boundless awareness, the True Self. Here / Now is what “I” truly is. You can never actually leave Here / Now. You can only imagine that you have left, that you are lost or lacking. All of that drama is in the movie.
The more clearly that is seen, and the more we explore and feel into the open spaciousness of presence-awareness, the more deeply realized and embodied this all becomes and the less alluring the Siren songs of old habit are. There is no end to this awakening journey. There is no such thing as after Now or before Now—there is only Now, and yet, there are ever new subtleties, ever new discoveries, ever new challenges. Every moment is new and fresh—it has never been here before.
This dialog below from Nisargadatta Maharaj’s I Am That was a favorite of my teacher Toni Packer. She always read it aloud on the last day of retreats:
Questioner: Maharaj, you are sitting in front of me and I am here at your feet. What is the basic difference between us?
Maharaj: There is no basic difference.
Q: Still there must be some real difference, I come to you, you do not come to me.
Maharaj: Because you imagine differences, you go here and there in search of ‘superior’ people.
Q: You too are a superior person. You claim to know the real, while I do not.
Maharaj: Did I ever tell you that you do not know and, therefore, you are inferior? Let those who invented such distinctions prove them. I do not claim to know what you do not. In fact, I know much less than you do.
Q: Your words are wise, your behaviour noble, your grace all-powerful.
Maharaj: I know nothing about it all and see no difference between you and me. My life is a succession of events, just like yours. Only I am detached and see the passing show as a passing show, while you stick to things and move along with them.
Q: What made you so dispassionate? …
Maharaj: Who can say? It happened so. Things happen without cause and reason and, after all, what does it matter, who is who? Your high opinion of me is your opinion only. Any moment you may change it. Why attach importance to opinions, even your own?
Q: Still, you are different. Your mind seems to be always quiet and happy. And miracles happen round you.
Maharaj: I know nothing about miracles, and I wonder whether nature admits exceptions to her laws, unless we agree that everything is a miracle. As to my mind, there is no such thing. There is consciousness in which everything happens. It is quite obvious and within the experience of everybody. You just do not look carefully enough. Look well, and see what I see.
Q: What do you see?
Maharaj: I see what you too could see, here and now, but for the wrong focus of your attention. You give no attention to your self. Your mind is all with things, people and ideas, never with your self. Bring your self into focus, become aware of your own existence. See how you function, watch the motives and the results of your actions. Study the prison you have built around yourself by inadvertence. By knowing what you are not, you come to know your self. The way back to your self is through refusal and rejection. One thing is certain: the real is not imaginary, it is not a product of the mind. Even the sense ‘I am’ is not continuous, though it is a useful pointer; it shows where to seek, but not what to seek. Just have a good look at it. Once you are convinced that you cannot say truthfully about your self anything except ‘I am’, and that nothing that can be pointed at, can be your self, the need for the ‘I am’ is over—you are no longer intent on verbalising what you are. All you need is to get rid of the tendency to define your self. All definitions apply to your body only and to its expressions. Once this obsession with the body goes, you will revert to your natural state, spontaneously and effortlessly. The only difference between us is that I am aware of my natural state, while you are bemused. Just like gold made into ornaments has no advantage over gold dust, except when the mind makes it so, so are we one in being -- we differ only in appearance. We discover it by being earnest, by searching, enquiring, questioning daily and hourly, by giving one's life to this discovery.
--from Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That, Chapter 2, “Obsession with the Body”
What is a teacher? The true teacher is awareness—silence—your own True Nature—the One-without-a-second—the Now—the intelligence-energy that knows the way—emptiness. This teacher is always Here / Now, closer than close. But because we seem to lose touch with our own True Nature, most of us require human teachers to point out our True Nature and to help us see what is apparently in the way—in other words, how we fall into confusion and how we do our suffering.
Is this human teacher somebody for whom all delusion has ended, somebody who lives in perpetual bliss? Is there any such human being?
I function as a teacher—giving talks, holding meetings, writing books and so on—and I do use the “teacher” label occasionally for practical descriptive purposes. But I truly don’t think of anyone I meet with as my student. The way I experience my meetings with people is more like the Self meeting the Self, and simultaneously on another level, one human being meeting another. I don’t ever assume that I know what anyone else “should” be doing or how their path needs to unfold. I think of myself as a companion or a friend on a common journey—not a journey to someplace else, but a present-moment journey from Here to Here. I feel we are all exploring and unfolding together as one inseparable whole, one immense sangha that includes the whole earth and the whole universe and that in which it all appears.
The more closely we investigate the “I” to which we all refer and the nature of Here / Now, the more clearly it is seen that we are not actually separate or independent beings. As people, we are like waves on the Ocean—inseparable expressions or movements of one seamless, undivided Whole. We can easily see that no wave is wetter or closer to the Ocean than any other wave. The tallest and most powerful wave is not separate from the shortest and gentlest wave—they are one waving energy. We cannot find a beginning or ending to any wave. No wave worries about whether it will survive death—the very idea would be absurd. The Ocean is unborn and undying. Like Now, it has no before or after. As the Ocean, we are the whole show, from the surface froth and the infinitely varied waving to the deepest, darkest, stillest, most silent depths.
Student and teacher, Guru and disciple, lover and Beloved are one whole happening. The beauty is in the relationship, the encounter, the meeting between them—the dance—and it’s also in the discovery that they are not separate, they are not two. Or as they say in Zen, perhaps more accurately, “not one, not two.”
As a human being, as I endeavor to make clear, and as I’m pretty sure regular readers of my books and FB posts already know, I am far from perfect. Identification as the limited, separate self still happens at times, albeit as a passing cloud within the infinite space of boundless awareness. But the movie and the identification lasts long enough and feels real enough at times that I can still get defensive, or feel angry or hurt or fearful, or lose my temper and lash out. I still have flare-ups of a fingerbiting compulsion, a form of OCD, that has been with me since childhood, a compulsion that still seems to be over-powering once it flares up. I make plenty of mistakes. In short, I’m very human, very ordinary, very imperfect. There are any number of teachers, sages and gurus who seem to be freer from these sorts of old habit patterns than I am, and perhaps more deeply settled, stabilized or grounded in True Nature. On the other hand, many well-known and widely revered teachers, gurus and sages have struggled with addictions and compulsions and many have done harmful or abusive things far worse than any of my neurotic imperfections, and yet these folks are still widely regarded as great gurus and teachers. I’ve seen that we all, as bodymind organisms, have different weather patterns as a result of infinite causes and conditions (genetics, neurochemistry, childhood trauma, life experiences, and so on), and that this weather isn’t personal. And I’ve come to recognize that I can only live the life I’m given, as it is. It does me no good to compare myself to others.
This particular bodymind has a very old tendency to fall into self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness and imperfection, a story of not being good enough, a story that even now can still flare up at times and feel momentarily believable. I’m sure many of you can relate, for this is a common form of delusion and suffering in our culture. One of my teachers, Gangaji, often called me on this. She would say, “Tell the Truth.” She didn’t mean by that, that I should confess my sins and imperfections. She loved my honesty and my willingness to expose my humanity in my writing, so she wasn’t telling me to give that up, but when she spoke of telling the Truth, she was pointing to the bigger Truth. She saw how easily we can use the supposed little truth that says, “I’m just little old fucked up me” as a cop out, a kind of safety zone, a way of holding back and denying the real Truth—that “I” am not limited to this bodymind, that what “I” truly is, is boundless awareness. It’s like we’re totally identifying as the separate self and then saying, “Don’t hit me, I’m already down.” Or, “Don’t criticize me because I’ve already admitted to being the Worst Person Ever.” This kind of putting down of self or making oneself small feels familiar and safe—a good place to hide. Whereas if we speak the bigger Truth, the Truth of being boundless awareness or the Self with a capitol S, we are inviting challenges and even crucifixion. There is a thin line between true humility and false humility, between openly and honestly acknowledging our humanness and being stuck in and identified with our limitations or hiding out in them. For me, this is an on-going dance, one that continues to unfold itself.
Both self-aggrandizement and false humility are twin movements of the ego, like two sides of the same coin, both predicated upon the sense of being a separate entity. Many of us feel both of these movements at different moments. Sometimes I notice that I am irritated or hurt that someone doesn’t seem to be giving me the respect I deserve, and in another moment, I notice that I’m feeling that I don’t deserve any respect at all. As someone once famously said, “I think I’m a piece of shit and the world revolves around me.” This is a common state of mind for the psychological self, the little “me,” especially in our present-day culture that is so rooted in lack and separation and unattainable ideals of perfection, and perhaps especially for those who were told as children that they were not good enough, or those of us who belong to groups that have been in some way regarded as worthless, less acceptable or inferior. These old programs or core wounds become quite deeply embedded and can reappear even after years of therapy, meditation, spiritual insight and awakening. It’s very helpful to remember that it’s nothing personal—just old conditioning, impersonal weather—a cloud passing briefly through the sky, not damaging the sky in any way.
One of the many liberating experiences I had with Gangaji was when she told someone else at a satsang, a woman who had a particularly harsh inner critic, to agree with everything the inner critic said. What!? That seemed like the opposite of what we are usually told. I went home that night and tried it out: “I’m a terrible person. I’m so fucked up that I shouldn’t be holding meetings or writing books at all. I’m a complete spiritual failure, a fraud, a wannabe, a loser.” On and on I went. And very soon, it became humorous. I was laughing out loud. The words no longer had any power, they no longer frightened me. It was an Aikido-like move perhaps akin to what happens when Blacks reclaim the n-word, or gays reclaim the q-word, or when women happily don pink pussy hats to protest the pussy-grabbing president. In any case, it was very liberating. I recommend it. Byron Katie offers similar advice for dealing with external criticism received from others—simply agree with it, she says. Go inside and find the place where (in some form) it is true and then agree with it.
So, getting back to teachers, I find there is a subtle but important balance between the twin delusions of, on the one hand, putting teachers up on pedestals—idealizing and idolizing them and drinking the fatal Kool-Aid—and, on the other hand, pretending that we’re all the same and insisting on some false equivalency. There is a place for showing respect and gratitude, even for healthy devotion in some cases where that is allowed or encouraged, and certainly there is a place for acknowledging that the teacher has something we are drawn to, or that they have lost (or seen through) something that still seems to be plaguing us. But that doesn’t mean the teacher is all-wise, all-knowing, and beyond delusion.
When Joko Beck created the Ordinary Mind Zen School, one of the founding principles was that the teachers never stop being students. This, to me, is very healthy—to never stop deepening and being open to new discoveries. I still find it very helpful at times to listen to talks or read books by other teachers. In my life, sometimes I am the teacher, sometimes I am the student. But truly, I am nothing at all. As Nisargadatta said in the chapter (“Obsession with the Body”) from I Am That, that I shared in my last post, “What does it matter, who is who?” If we think it matters in any moment, that is fertile ground for investigation. I also find that in teaching, honesty and authenticity is very important—to speak from direct experience and not from second-hand beliefs, and not to pretend that one is beyond all human delusion.
The brilliant therapist who saved me from near-fatal alcohol and drug addiction back in the 1970’s once asked me how I felt about our relationship. I told her I felt like she had all the power. She said, “I do. You gave it to me. You gave it to me for a purpose, and when you’re ready, you’ll take it back. You’ll assimilate all my skills, and you’ll be your own therapist.” That’s exactly what happened, and that feels like a remarkably good description of what ideally happens with teachers, healers, gurus, therapists, and anyone we turn to for healing or guidance in some form. To some degree, we do put ourselves into their hands and give them power, and wisely so at times, but the true teacher or guru (or parent, for that matter) recognizes that their ultimate job is to make themselves obsolete. As the Buddha famously said on his deathbed, “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation in the truth alone.” Or as Nisargadatta Maharaj put it: “Your own self is your ultimate teacher. The outer teacher is merely a milestone. It is only your inner teacher that will walk with you to the goal, for he is the goal.” Of course, none of that means that we should dispense with teachers or be deluded by false equivalency in ways that actually hold us back and perpetuate our delusions.
My main teacher, Toni Packer, who rejected teacher/student labels entirely, told me when I first started working with people, “Listening is everything. Not knowing. Not having any system at all.” A teacher is not so much giving the answers as inviting the student to discover them for herself or himself.
Long after that therapist who saved my life had died of a brain tumor at the age of 57, and after Toni Packer and Joko Beck, two of my earliest and most important spiritual teachers, had both died, and after my mother and father had both died—I felt a bit like the poet W.S. Merwin when he wrote: “Now all my teachers are dead except silence.”
This silence is not the opposite of sound. It is the listening silence that Toni spoke about, the not knowing. It is the silence that is beholding every sound, the silence at the heart of every sound, the silence that remains when every sound is finished, the silence in which there is no you and no me, no teacher and no student, no enlightenment and no delusion. This all-pervading listening silence is the very essence of Here / Now, this open awaring space in which the wind is howling right now, and the trees are bending this way and that, and a miraculous wave-like carpet of white and pink blossoms just blew down the pavement dancing and swirling in wild ecstasy.
AWARENESS, CONSCIOUSNESS, LIBERATION, PERMANENCE, IMPERMANENCE: Someone asked me recently, if everything disappears in deep sleep, including any sense of being aware, how can we say that awareness is eternal? First, it’s important to note that words such as “awareness” and “consciousness” get used in different ways by different teachers, and even sometimes by the same person in different places, and this can lead to much confusion. We may be talking about the same thing using different words, or we may be seeing things differently. It’s always helpful to clarify how terms are being used if it’s not obvious, and it’s also important not to cling to any particular usage or way of expressing deep insights because then we become closed and rigid and unable to listen to anyone who expresses the same essential insights differently. Second, what do we mean by “eternal”? Some may think it means endless duration in time—forever after. But in my sense of how reality is, eternity is another word for Now.
I would say that consciousness is the undeniable, direct, knowingness of being present (being here now). We don’t need to look in a mirror or read about it in a book or have someone else tell us—we know beyond the slightest doubt that we (as this aware presence and this present experiencing) are here. Consciousness, as I use the word, is also the dividing up of boundless unicity (formlessness, pure energy) into apparent multiplicity and separation, including most basically the thought-sense of subject and object, self and not-self. Consciousness is also the appearance of time and space in what is actually the timeless, dimensionless, placeless, ever-present, utterly immediate Here / Now. Without the appearance of time and space, and without the appearance of duality, nothing could be perceived or experienced. Consciousness draws boundary-lines around “things” and reifies or freezes what is actually thorough-going flux into apparently substantial, separate, persisting entities: chairs, tables, nations, planets, atoms, molecules, people, emotions, historical events, life situations, presidents, and so on. It tells stories about cause and effect, success and failure, gain and loss. In short, consciousness is what I call the movie of waking life or present experiencing. It includes sensing, perceiving, thinking, conceptualizing, remembering and imagining. Its creations are not unlike the dreams that come during sleep.
Awareness is subtler than consciousness, subtler even than space. Awareness is aware of consciousness—aware of sensing, aware of perceiving, aware of thinking, aware even that consciousness is disappearing as we go under anesthesia or fall asleep. Unlike consciousness, which seemingly divides everything up, awareness is the wholeness, the boundlessness, the seamlessness, the unicity, the no-thing-ness, the emptiness or groundlessness of everything. Awareness is what underlies all the apparent diversity and duality, like the movie screen or the mirror in which all the movies and reflections come and go. Awareness is the unconditional love that allows everything to be as it is. Awareness is the unseeable Source being and beholding it all. Awareness is another word for Here / Now—timeless, eternal, immediate, infinite being.
In deep sleep, even the first, most subtle sense of being present vanishes along with everything perceivable, conceivable and experienceable. Whatever remains cannot be found or seen as an object, or experienced as an experience. We may call it primordial, unborn, boundless, objectless awareness…or we may call it the Tao or God or the Self or the Supreme or the Absolute or simply “I.” It is the single, undivided “I” to which we all refer. “I” (or boundless awareness) is another word for Here / Now.
Awareness is not separate from the movie of waking life, but it is not entangled in the movie or trapped in the drama. Consciousness, on the other hand, gets easily mesmerized and hypnotized by its own creations, sucked into its own imaginary dramas, identified with the characters it has created, lost in the stories it is spinning, whereas awareness is what beholds the drama and recognizes it AS a play. Awareness is the light behind attention that illuminates and dissolves all imaginary problems and identities. You cannot find awareness as an object that you can see or grasp or get. It is less tangible than consciousness. You can only BE it.
Here is how Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it: “Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginning-less, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change. Consciousness is on contact, a reflection against a surface, a state of duality. There can be no consciousness without awareness, but there can be awareness without consciousness, as in deep sleep. Awareness is absolute, consciousness is relative to its content; consciousness is always of something.”
Of course, in reality, there is no such “thing” as awareness or consciousness. These are words, labels, conceptual abstractions that we use to point out certain aspects of the (actually seamless) living reality. What such words point to is not a concept, but as always, it’s important not to mistake the pointers (the word or the map) for the territory it helps us to understand and navigate. There is no actual boundary between consciousness and awareness, or between self and not-self, or between inside and outside. No such “things” actually exist.
The separate self, if investigated closely, is simply ever-changing thoughts, sensations, memories, mental images and stories. It cannot actually be found as any kind of substantial or persisting entity. It is the ever-present, unchanging awareness that lends the illusory sense of continuity to what is actually ever-changing. Your thoughts are conditioned by language and culture, by everything you have heard and read and learned. If you try to grab hold of a thought, you can’t! It is a burst of energy, gone in an instant. You can have a memory of it, but the original thought has vanished. “The body” is actually nothing but ever-changing, thorough-going flux, inseparable from the so-called environment around it. You cannot find any place or moment in time where this body began or where it ends. You can think that it began at conception or at birth, but where did the sperm and egg begin? In nature, everything is recycled—dead bodies become fertilizer for the soil and food for other life forms, and everything is made up of everything it is not. The body could not exist without air, sunlight, water, food and everything that makes the food possible (soil, cows, carrots, rain, sunlight), parents, grandparents and everything that sustained them—in short, without the whole universe being as it is, the body would not be here.
Are you limited to the body or encapsulated inside of it looking out? We’ve learned to believe that this is true, and we believe it so strongly that it actually SEEMS like our experience. We mistake the map for the actuality without realizing it. But if we look very closely and carefully at our actual direct experience, is it really true that you are encapsulated inside a body? Or is the body appearing in you (i.e., in boundless, impersonal awareness)? What is changing and what remains the same?
If you look closely, you won’t find an actual boundary between inside and outside of you, or between self and not-self, or between awareness and the content of awareness. The functional sense of being a person and having appropriate boundaries and so on will still show up as needed, but it can be noticed that it all shows up Here / Now, in this vast field of awareness that is unlimited, unborn, unending and unbound. Everything that appears shows up at zero distance, right here, utterly immediate, inseparable from the seeing (or awaring) of it. Even the functional sense of distance and separation and time shows up Here / Now, at no distance, inseparable from the seeing (or awaring) of it.
Liberation is the falling away of imaginary problems (flat-earth problems, based on a false understanding of how reality is). Liberation is a relaxing of the grasping mind, a letting go, an opening of the Heart-Mind, a dissolving into boundlessness, an intuitive sensing or apperceiving of what is always here prior to everything perceivable, conceivable and experienceable—this that is closer than close, subtler than space, vaster than infinity. If you’re looking FOR this, you are looking in the wrong place. You are looking in the realm of objects and experiences for what is limitless, nondual and unbound—your own Heart, from which nothing stands apart. Liberation is the recognition that nothing perceivable or conceivable is what I am, and yet at the same time, everything is myself, and myself is no-thing at all. Don’t be confused or mystified by words. Simply be quiet. Listen. Sense. BE. Be the awareness (the Here / Now) that you can’t not be.
SHAME AND PERFECTIONISM: I was asked recently for my advice in dealing with a sense of shame regarding the past. The person asking this said he has a hard time extending love and compassion to himself. He noted that the mind tends to fixate on past mistakes and that it can be quite perfectionistic.
Shame is a common form of suffering in our culture, and many of us tend to be very hard on ourselves. And of course, relatively speaking, in the dance of consciousness (aka, the movie of waking life), it is important and helpful to see our mistakes, to recognize that we said or did something that was hurtful, unkind, unnecessarily provocative, or in some way unskillful or off the mark. We cannot correct or learn from something if we don’t even see or admit it. Simply recognizing a mistake as a mistake is a healthy, functional part of how life finds its way. But to go over and over past mistakes in our mind—berating and judging and shaming ourselves for having made them and taking them personally as a kind of identity—this is not helpful in any way. Nor is it helpful to expect or demand perfection. All of that is suffering. So, how can we deal with this kind of shame and perfectionistic self-judgment?
The first crucial step is simply seeing the whole situation: the past events that seem to be mistakes, the shame over them, the pattern of being hard on oneself and being perfectionistic, the absence of compassion. That seeing (or awaring) is already happening for the person who asked this question, because if it wasn’t, the question itself could not have arisen. And that seeing (or awaring) is actually the first step toward the ending of this particular form of suffering. Awareness is the great solvent, the light that exposes and dissolves what is false. Seeing what’s happening, seeing the false as false—this is what transforms us.
We can also notice that awareness is bigger than the person we think of as “me.” Awareness is boundless, limitless, ever-present, without beginning or end—the person is an intermittent, ever-changing appearance in awareness. That can be discovered by investigating all of this directly, giving it open (loving) attention. If we look to see what “I” truly refers to, we will discover that, beyond name and form, it refers to this boundless awareness that is always already free, whole and complete. We all refer to the same “I” in the deepest sense. But even after this has been discovered, the ego-mind (i.e., consciousness lost in its own creation) still wants to identify as the person and get mired in stories about personal mistakes and imperfections. The ego-mind loves that kind of drama and self-torture because it keeps the false self and the illusion of separation alive. The ego-mind can only exist in the drama of life-as-a-problem and “me” as somebody with a problem. So to be aware of that tendency, to see it in action as it happens. The seeing is what transforms. Gradually, the ability grows in us to recognize and not be bamboozled and hypnotized by the machinations of the ego-mind.
But not to expect perfection in this. It is the ego-mind itself that evaluates our progress or failure in all of this and takes it all personally. It is the ego-mind that passes judgement, that feels shame, that interprets any apparent failure as a sign and gives it meaning in “The Story of Me.”
Shame is rooted in the thought-sense of being a separate, independent “me” who has free will and who “could” or “should” be doing a better job. So, I always suggest exploring how choices and mistakes happen to see if we can actually find the thinker-author-decider-chooser-doer who “could” or “should” have done better. We may find that no such entity actually exists and that our apparent “choices” or “mistakes” are a choiceless movement of life as a whole.
Finally, who can say if mistakes are really mistakes. Our limited vision can see only a tiny part of the vastness of manifestation. We never really know how things play out or go together or what leads to what in the bigger picture. Clearly, the manifestation can only show up in polarities. By its very nature, it includes every possibility. We can’t have the lotus without the mud, or the pearl without the grit, or the roses without the compost, or the light without the dark. We can’t have birth without death. And no one gets through life without making many so-called mistakes. We all hurt other people sometimes. We all do things we regret. We miss the mark. It’s part of life. But in the larger (absolute) sense, the mark is never missed. Everything is exactly as it needs to be. We tend to think we know what’s best for the universe, but the truth is, we don’t.
When we really see how choicelessly it all unfolds, there is a natural compassion and forgiveness for all of us, ourselves included. And beyond that, when we recognize the dream-like nature of the whole play, how ephemeral and transient and insubstantial it all is—it loses its seriousness, its heaviness. We no longer see life as a terrible tragedy or a huge problem that needs fixing. We’re no longer obsessed with self-improvement or with saving the world. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about anything, or that we don’t do our best to correct mistakes, or to take responsibility in a relative sense, or to make appropriate amends, or to heal what is broken, and so on. But we see that it is all the dance of consciousness, that it is always perfect and complete just as it is, and that nothing is really happening in the way we think it is. This is freedom. It isn’t the freedom to do as we please or to have life be exactly the way we’d like it to be—but rather, it is the freedom to be as we are, to allow life to be as it is, and to behold it all with unconditional love.
Is suffering optional?
Pain and painful circumstances are an unavoidable part of life, but it has often been said that suffering is optional. Suffering is what we do with pain and painful circumstances, our thoughts and beliefs, our false ideas of limitation, our exclusive identity as a limited bodymind, the ways we resist what is and seek happiness in all the wrong places.
Babies and other animals experience pain and painful circumstances, but they don’t suffer over it in the same way adult humans do. Because of our wonderful (but also problematic) capacity for abstract thought and imagination, adult humans can remember every past hurt and imagine future scenarios both pleasant and unpleasant. We’re not just afraid of the attacking predator in the immediacy of the moment—a functional survival fear that floods us with adrenalin and helps us to escape—but we are equally afraid of what might happen someday in the distant future. Our bodies are often flooded with hormones and neurochemicals in reaction to nothing more threatening than a passing thought that arises while we are seated in a comfortable armchair in no present danger at all. Unlike babies and other animals, we think about life through a variety of abstract and dualistic conceptual filters such as fairness and unfairness, justice and injustice, good and evil, enlightened and deluded, and we easily confuse our mental maps with the actual territory they describe.
No baby and no other animal has these problems, and as I often point out, no baby and no other animal smokes and drinks itself to death as a result. Suffering involves psychological fear and desire, blame and shame, beliefs and ideologies that have been mistaken for reality, and storylines about injustice and how life “should” be different. To be clear, many of these concepts, beliefs, mental maps and storylines that can generate needless suffering also have a relative usefulness within the play of life. They serve us in many ways, so we’re not trying to eliminate all thought and imagination, nor can we, but only to see if it’s possible not to be bamboozled, hypnotized and hooked by these uniquely human capacities in ways that don’t serve us.
Do we have a choice about being bamboozled? Or about whether to suffer? Can we choose to wake up? Don't answer these questions from past experience, or from what others have told you, or from beliefs and spiritual ideologies. Live with these questions, explore them freshly—not by thinking about them, but by looking and listening and feeling into what's true right now in the living reality of this moment.
You may find that there is no choice at all when we are totally hypnotized by our thoughts, stories, conceptualizations and beliefs, and that on one level, everything is a choiceless happening, a waving of a singular, undivided ocean in which no wave has any independent power to go off in a different direction from how the ocean as a whole is moving. But at the same time, you may discover that there is an undeniable power right here that can question our thoughts and beliefs and see the false as false, a power that can feel into the boundlessness, the spaciousness, the no-thing-ness of presence-awareness, a power that we might say IS the power of the whole ocean. There is an intelligence right here that can choose to let go and dissolve into the Heart. This power isn’t thought masquerading as the little “me.” It isn’t a movement of will-power. It is our True Nature, the One Self, unconditioned boundless awareness, “the power of Now.” It is a relaxing of the grasping mind, a seeing through and a dissolving of the imaginary problem and the one who seems to have it.
In order to access the potential to choose freedom over suffering in any given moment, we must first discover how exactly we do our suffering and what is at the root of all our habitual, addictive patterns of resisting and seeking. What happens when we get triggered, when our buttons are pushed, when we get defensive or feel hurt, angry, upset or afraid? What are we defending or avoiding? We must discover directly that the self we are defending cannot be found, that it does not actually exist, and that all our imaginary problems are based on a false sense of identity as a separate person. We must discover that what we are running from is no-thing at all—that we are battling against phantoms and chasing after mirages. It does no good merely to read this and then believe it. It must be discovered by looking and listening and giving open attention here and now to the whole process of how suffering happens until it is clearly seen and seen through.
And then, even more importantly, there must be the direct discovery of the unbound, unconditioned, unborn awaring presence that we are beyond name and form—the wholeness that is always already perfect and complete. This is not something exotic that we have to search for in distant lands and hopefully someday find. It is our natural state, our True Self, the ground of being, this that is most intimate, closer than close, never absent—it is what Here / Now IS, this placeless place that we never arrive at, and that we can never leave, because it is what we are and all there is. Yes, it can sometimes SEEM as if this boundless wholeness is nothing more than a pipe dream or a distant memory. But then it’s important to really stop and check—is awareness here? Is presence here?
We may discover that there is something in us that is attached to our suffering—something that doesn’t want to let go of our anger, our hurt, our self-righteousness, our misery, our story of being wronged or of being a failure or whatever our story is. The ego-mind loves this emotional drama, it feeds on it. The false self needs this kind of juicy, me-centered drama to survive. So, can we see and feel the ways that something in us doesn’t want to let go? That seeing is the first step in letting go. Then it really is a choice: suffering or freedom, being the ego-mind or being the unbound awareness that is already free and complete. If a voice pops up and insists that, “I can’t let go,” which “I” is this that is speaking? Is it the separate self or boundless awareness? The choice is always Now and must be discovered directly and freshly in THIS present moment. Yesterday’s choice or some imaginary future choice—these are totally irrelevant. The choice-point is always only Now. What do we really want? Suffering or freedom?
An Advaita sage was once asked if the starving refugees (or whatever suffering beings you care deeply about) are real. Are the suffering beings in this world real? The Advaita sage replied, they’re as real as you are.
I’ve always loved this exchange because it leaves us with a wonderful question to explore: How real am I? What is real about me and what isn’t? To what am I actually referring when I use the word “I”? Without referring to thought or memory, what am I right now? And without referring to thought or memory, what is this present experiencing (this hearing, seeing, tasting, sensing) that I call “the world”? What is real?
Much of what we think of as “me” we have learned: our name, our gender, our nationality, our age, our race. We can change our name, our gender, our nationality, our hair style. Many other things that feel like “me” can and usually do change over time: political leanings, spiritual leanings, sexual preferences, tastes in music and food, fashion preferences, appearance, abilities and disabilities, occupations, friends and partners. The bodymind is actually nothing but continuous change, all of it inseparable from the so-called “environment” and “others” around it—one undivided seamless happening.
Even that first bare impersonal sense of being present and aware—what is often called the I Am—even this vanishes every night in deep sleep, under anesthesia, and presumably at the moment of death. What remains? What is real Here / Now?
This is not a question to answer with the correct word or with second-hand information. It’s a question to dive into and explore directly, not by thinking about it, but by feeling into it, opening to it, dissolving in it.
BEYOND POLITICS: I was recently introduced (on a SAND webinar) as one of the few non-dualists who writes and talks about politics, perhaps a dubious distinction. Politics is usually a hot-button subject, one that can trigger bitter arguments, end marriages, ruin family dinners, drive apart loved ones, and lead to wars and genocides. It is one of the main realms in human life where it becomes crystal clear that no two people are seeing exactly the same movie of waking life.
Politics is about how we organize and function together as a society. It deals with things that matter to our everyday survival: jobs, healthcare, education, civil liberties, criminal justice, the well-being of the planet and the eco-system (including clean water, clean air and a livable climate)—issues that can easily trigger our strongest and most basic survival instincts, the pre-rational ones rooted in the lizard brain.
And to each of us, our current viewpoint—our current movie of waking life—seems irrefutably real. We are all convinced that the way we see things is the way they really are. The illusory appearance that consciousness creates is, after all, very convincing! And yet, no two of us see everything in exactly the same way, and some of us see things in completely opposite and utterly irreconcilable ways. In fact, most of us have seen things in quite different (often opposite) ways over the course of a lifetime, but our own changes in perspective and opinion feel like simply course corrections in which we’ve moved from a mistaken view to a correct one, whereas the dissonance between what we see now and what others see is quite upsetting and easily brings forth anger, frustration, explosive arguments, bitter divorces and bloody wars.
Deeper down, this dissonance also triggers a deep-seated fear in us, one that may not even be noticed amidst the fire-storm of anger and the drama of divorce, all of which may be a way of keeping this fear out of sight. It is a fear that arises because everything we think and believe and take to be real is thrown into question. The fact that others see things so differently undermines our whole sense of reality. It occurs to us, if only in a quickly suppressed flash, that everything we see, and everything we think we know may all be illusory. And perhaps this sudden and disorienting sense of groundlessness, along with our survival instinct, is at the root of why we get so angry and fight so hard for our positions. We are holding on for dear life, trying to survive as this form called “me.”
My own political history began in the 1950’s as a Young Republican, a political conservative. In my pre-teen and early teenage years, I shook hands with Richard Nixon, read Ayn Rand, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the far-right Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. I believed we should nuke Vietnam. Then a few years later, in my later teens, I had a huge change of heart. I learned about racism and the Civil Rights Movement. I learned more about what was happening in Vietnam. I heard and saw Martin Luther King speak in person several times and heard Malcolm X on TV. I was profoundly moved by both of them. I grieved when they were killed. I opposed the war in Vietnam. (For the record, I never hated the American soldiers who were drafted into the war, some of whom I knew as friends and classmates, a few of whom were even occasional lovers, but I hated the war and what the Americans were doing over there). The first time I voted in a presidential election, in 1972, I voted for Shirley Chisolm. (Shirley Chisolm was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination). Needless to say, she didn’t win.
As I moved into young adulthood, and as the Vietnam war raged on, I was dealing with the cumulative pain of coming out as a lesbian before Stonewall, not fitting into my assigned gender role before the word transgender had even been invented, being an amputee—physically disfigured in a world that judged women by their physical beauty above all else, and realizing that the United States was not the totally wonderful country I had grown up believing it was. I had been taught that this country was a beacon of freedom and democracy around the world, a shining light, and now I was learning (and seeing) that it was actually an imperialist empire, a violent global bully, increasingly controlled by giant corporations and by a few very rich white men—a racist empire driven by fear and greed that had installed and supported brutal dictatorships around the world and that was now napalming Vietnamese children and burning their villages in my name. I didn’t have the tools, the skills, or the supportive community to deal constructively with any of this back then. I sank into almost a decade of alcohol and drug abuse and very nearly died.
When I sobered up, I became a lesbian-feminist. I was active in the disability rights movement. I became a socialist and eventually an anti-imperialist. I joined a very radical, far-left organization that believed in revolutionary armed struggle as the only path to liberation. We considered electoral politics to be a total farce. I had grave doubts about all of that. Over time, I became disillusioned with the radical left for many reasons, and I moved on to other less extreme progressive political work for a while. I traveled to Nicaragua after their revolution to see firsthand what was happening in a socialist country, and I was deeply moved there by the influence of liberation theology.
Over time, I found myself being drawn more and more into Zen Buddhism. My political comrades viewed this as treason—a descent into bourgeois navel-gazing. For a while, I tried to blend the two seemingly different worlds of politics and spirituality—after liberation theology, I explored engaged Buddhism—but the political was slipping more and more into the background, slowly fading away from its once central place in my life. I discovered Toni Packer and spent 5 years on staff at the rural meditation retreat center she founded. There I saw ever-more deeply into how the mind works and how the false self is created and maintained by thought, and there I discovered the boundless awareness beholding it all. After that, I got into the Advaita satsang world and radical nonduality. For the better part of a decade somewhere in there, I tuned out the News almost completely. And then I began letting it back in again. I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. I wanted real change.
Even during the years when I tuned out the News, I still cared deeply about the world, and I still held strong opinions, but as the years went on, I rarely went to demonstrations or engaged in political activity beyond voting and occasionally calling my elected representatives to register an opinion. I still felt sorrow when I saw all the cruelty and human-induced suffering in the world, but there was no longer the same sense of horror I had once felt or the belief that this can and must be stopped. The recognition that human activity is the activity of nature as a whole was taking a stronger and stronger hold, as was the recognition that we don’t know how it all goes together. And the felt-sense that all of it was a kind of dream-like appearance was also growing stronger.
My most recent upsurge of strongly opinionated political concern and taking the world drama very seriously happened, as many of you will remember, when Donald Trump became the Republican candidate for the US presidency. I’ve lived through some terrible presidents (including Democrats), but this seemed to me like a very dark turn in the worst possible direction. I felt this had to be stopped. I was upset with fellow progressives who were refusing to support Hillary because she wasn’t progressive enough, and I feared that Trump would win. I could see that he was a brilliant salesman and that he was tapping very effectively into the very real discontent that so many felt, while playing on deeply rooted (and often unconscious, unintended, subtle) racism, sexism, xenophobia and nationalistic identity and fervor. I posted several articles here on Facebook trying to influence people. Election night felt like a punch in the gut.
But then something began to shift—not immediately, but gradually, in the months that followed—I began to experience a seismic shift in my attachment to politics and the world. First, I began to see how Trump’s presidency, which in my view is an exaggerated caricature of the worst and most dangerous aspects of the American Empire, might end up being an unintended gift to the progressive movement by waking people in this country up from a deep slumber that would most likely have continued to slumber on uninterrupted had Hillary won. I began to see more deeply how the light and the dark go together, how there is no lotus without the mud. And more importantly, I began to see more clearly than ever before that everything is a dance of consciousness. I began to question in a whole new way how the world actually changes, how solid or substantial any of it is, and whether these changes matter at all—of course they matter relatively to the characters in the movie-story, and the pain really does hurt—but ultimately, is anything real ever damaged or destroyed? From the political perspective that once guided my life, these are dangerous questions.
In the US, we’ve been witnessing violent and bloody brawls lately between Trump supporters and “antifa” protestors in places like Berkeley, California. Antifa means anti-fascist, and these folks seem to adhere to some combination of radical leftist and anarchist politics, with zero tolerance for what they regard as fascist speech and an apparent zest for violent confrontation. As I watch people on the TV News slugging and kicking each other and trying to ram dumpsters into each other, I think to myself, this is definitely not the way. Clearly, the people getting violent in these brawls are not representative of most folks who voted for Trump on the one side or most progressives who abhor his policies on the other. These are fringe people on both sides overcome with anger and hatred. But this is precisely where attachment to ideology and lack of deep insight into the human mind can all too easily lead all of us. It’s how revolutions that start out with the best intentions so often turn into repressive dictatorships, and how good people end up supporting tyrants and allowing genocides. And it’s part of why I’ve become disillusioned with political struggle. Too often, we seem to be mirroring everything we are fighting against—metaphorically (if not really) shoving dumpsters at each other and calling each other names.
I feel it’s important to acknowledge here that I’ve also witnessed some moving political activism of a very different kind during my lifetime, most recently at Standing Rock and in other places as well. I saw a moving video of US veterans asking forgiveness from the Native Peoples at Standing Rock for how the US government and the white settlers have treated Native Peoples and the earth. I’ve seen video of demonstrators and Water Protectors at Standing Rock shaking hands with the police there. Quite a contrast to the dumpster shoving in Berkeley. Martin Luther King also showed a very positive way of standing up for social justice. And the spirit of love that I found years ago in newly-liberated Nicaragua, in a revolution strongly influenced by liberation theology, was very inspiring. So, this post is not meant to disparage political activism.
But maybe opposition and resistance is not the best way to go. And is it possible that waking up really is the greatest gift anyone can offer to the world? When awakening is Here / Now, what world remains to save? We may still be moved to act, but it won’t happen in the same way.
I’m still interested in the world drama and how it plays out, but something has fallen away in the last couple months. While I still follow the News, I consume much less of it every day and seem to be watching it from a much more detached and equanimous place. As you can no doubt tell from this post, I still have a fundamentally progressive, left-of-center view of things, but I notice that the absolute certainty about my views is not there in the same way. I can’t say I’ll never be triggered by political events again—I’m guessing I probably will be. But something is definitely shifting.
Last night in my dreams, I was seated next to Donald Trump at a large, very plain and sparsely populated banquet table at what seemed to be the end of a meal. Donald was huge and partly slumped over. His body seemed shapeless and without real substance, like a slightly deflated version of those giant blow-up dolls that are sometimes floated above businesses to attract the attention of potential customers. He seemed tired and sad rather than menacing. On his plate were many small, bite-sized, untouched pieces of steak. I had my hand on his back. I was comforting, soothing or reassuring him in some way, and I was asking him a question. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the question.
Like the old Taoist story of the sage who wondered in the morning if he was a man who had dreamed that he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that he was a man, I wonder which is the real Donald Trump—the man progressives see as a menacing neo-fascist liar and con artist, the one many conservatives hailed as a long-awaited champion of the forgotten men and women, the huge sad man sitting next to me in my dream, the caring father that Ivanka Trump seems to have known, the young boy sent off to a military academy by his very strict father—which is the real Donald Trump?
Of course, there is no real Donald, and no real Joan, and no real anybody. We are all shape-shifting apparitions in a universe of dreams, all of us, like the jewels in Indra’s Net, empty of self and filled with (and made up of) the reflections of all the apparent others. The world may not be “out there” at all, and it may not be made up of bits of dead matter and chemicals and a few highly-evolved life-forms whose brains are sophisticated enough to somehow produce consciousness. That may all be a flimsy story that doesn’t hold up to close investigation. It may indeed be true that consciousness is all there is, and that all there is, is consciousness—that matter is an appearance in consciousness. Nothing may be as solid or as substantial as it seems. The apparent persistence and continuity of forms may be entirely an illusion—the reality may be thorough-going flux from which no-thing stands apart. In fact, this is what the awakened throughout the ages have seen—an ever-present, unbroken, seamless and boundless field of ever-changing appearances. And nowadays, it is what a small but growing number of scientists are seeing as well.
For many of us, we seem to live with one foot in each worldview (or dream)—one foot in the awakened knowing-seeing-being, and the other in the old, deeply conditioned view on which we were brought up. We’re flowing along as impersonal boundless awareness and then suddenly everything freezes and feels personal and threatening. Our view of some situation solidifies and seems irrefutable. We assert our views, and when they are questioned, we grow defensive and angry, and maybe below that, afraid and unsettled. The rug is being pulled out from under us again and again by the Great Guru of Life Itself. Our conditioned reflex from the past is to hold on and struggle for solid ground. But liberation may be in precisely the opposite direction. Will we hang on tightly and continue our argument with reality, or will we let go and fall into the Unknown?
In any such moment in my life that relates to politics, the thinking mind and my whole political conditioning tells me to hold on, to fight for social and economic justice, to oppose tyranny, to fight for the good future. It tells me I know too much about history and how things work to drop out, that I have a responsibility to do something with what I know, to speak out, to act. My spiritual heart, the listening silence at the core of my being, tells me to open and let it all go, to risk everything, to fall into the Unknown.
Is there actually someone with a foot in two different worlds—pulled in opposite directions, going back and forth—or is all of that a dance of consciousness? What is it that chooses? What is any of this? How real are you? How real am I? How real is the world? How real is my (or your) current way of seeing the world?
I don’t want to abandon the world or ignore suffering. But what is the most effective healing? In my life, this is the koan that just keeps showing up, decade after decade, in ever new guises. And lately, it seems to be triggering a major shift of some kind. I’m not sure exactly how that will shake out or where that will take me, but I do know that wherever I seem to go in that movie-story, Here I always Am, Here / Now—and as this vast open awaring space, this unbound presence, there is no me and no you, no left and right, no world to save. Of course, as I often say, we can’t entirely dismiss or ignore relative reality (the apparent world of you and me, left and right, this and that). In one way or another, we (as life itself) cannot help responding, moment-to-moment—we are part of the dance. But where are we coming from in this response? Are we coming from the past, from old conditioned thought-habits and ideologies, from a sense of separation and solidity, from fear and hatred? Or are we coming from open awareness and the immediacy and aliveness of presence, the wholeness of being that has no other? Maybe doing nothing at all other than beholding it all in silence is, in fact, the action of unconditional love itself and the deepest healing. Ultimately, ALL of it is the dance of consciousness, the One Reality, even what appears to be folly, cruelty, and utter disaster.
To all of you I’ve argued with in the last year—the Republicans, the enthusiasts for capitalism, the pro-Trumpians, the die-hard Bernie-or-Bust folks, the proud “Jill Stein in a swing state” voters, the Hillary haters, the fake news and conspiracy theory enthusiasts, those who believe a total meltdown is the only way to real change, the spiritual folks who told me silence was superior to talking about political issues—I bow to you all. Thank you for showing me where I’m holding on, where I still identify, where I mistake my own movie of waking life for reality itself. Thank you all for being my guru in thin disguise and my dance partner in the movie of waking life. I apologize for not always seeing you clearly as who you truly are. I apologize for being reactive at times, for moments of anger and defensiveness, for not listening more openly. And I pray that somehow we may all find the courage to let go and fall into the unconditional love that is at the very core of our being.
What matters most is staying true in THIS moment to the simplicity of what is. What do I mean? I mean waking up from the trance of being absorbed in thoughts and stories about the psychological self and all the convoluted mental efforts of the spiritual seeker to “get it.” Instead, simply hearing the traffic or the birds, feeling the breathing and the sensations in the body, being awake to the spaciousness, the aliveness, the immediacy, the boundlessness, the vibrancy of bare being. Recognizing this open awareness that is here prior to (and during, and after) all the thoughts, stories, imaginings and experiences—this impersonal, unbound awareness that is what “I” truly am beyond name and form. All the fancy words (Heart, Self, Truth, etc.) point to THIS, Here / Now.
Awakening to this can only happen Now. Now has no end, and it cannot be postponed. This “staying true” requires no effort, will or exertion. It is a simple noticing of, and relaxing (or dissolving) into, the ever-present ground of being—the aware presence that you always already are. How? By letting go (in THIS moment) of all beliefs, stories, worries, expectations, fears, desires, goals, judgments, evaluations, comparisons, attempts to understand, ideas about yourself and world—let ALL of that fall away. Simply BE. Notice what is ever-present, what is the same in every different experience—and notice that everything in phenomenality is changing. No-thing stays the same. Trying to hold on to any particular experience is a set-up for frustration and disappointment. Instead, recognize the spacious awareness in which all experiences come and go. That spacious emptiness is the true nature of every passing experience, and it is what remains when everything perceivable and conceivable has vanished.
From this simple being, action can happen as needed, functional or creative thinking can happen as needed, the functional identity as a person with a name can show up when it needs to in the play of life—but you (as consciousness) remain true to the unbound awareness beholding it all, the undivided wholeness from which nothing stands apart.
The holiness, the sacredness, the beauty, the love, the peace is in the awaring presence, not in the objects—and all apparent objects are nothing but the dance of consciousness, this vast ocean that is appearing as different (but inseparable) waves, waves that never remain the same from one instant to the next, waves that are all equally and completely the ocean.
Don’t try to figure it all out by thinking. That will only leave you racing on the hamster wheel round and round. Instead, for a moment (whenever it invites you), put everything aside (the phone, the tablet, the books, the thoughts, your life story, the whole spiritual search) and simply BE.
We spend our lives trying to be somebody, trying to be special, trying to get somewhere. We don’t see the entire story of our life, including our spiritual search and all our spiritual attainments, as a kind of imagination that is no more real than a dream, a movie, or a soap opera on TV. We take our life drama (and our spiritual search) very seriously. We take our problems and our struggles with them very seriously.
Awakening is not about attainment or achievement. It is not about having a permanent experience of spaciousness or bliss or being in a perpetually calm and peaceful mood. All of that is in the dream. Awakening is not about the person we take ourselves to be crossing some magical finish-line and becoming an Awakened One. It is about deconstructing and seeing through that person that we think we are, and the outside world that we take to be real. Awakening is about dissolving as a separate self and recognizing the story of our life (and the story of the world) as a dream.
What remains when the "me" disappears is not nothing in some nihilistic sense, but it is not some-thing that we can see or experience or grasp. We can only be it (and we have never not been it). The manifestation does not disappear. The apparent person still shows up, doing whatever it does, and the world still shows up, doing what it does, and our thoughts and opinions and neurotic tendencies still show up, doing what they do, but we’re not identified with any of it in the way we were. We’re not clinging to it, trying to hold onto it, trying to “get it” or make sense of it or fix it. Life is more vibrantly alive, more beautiful than ever before, and yet it is seen to be no-thing at all—a passing dream.
“All know that the drop merges into the ocean
but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”
“Although the light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water…Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moon in the sky.”
“Allow yourself to be profoundly nurtured and nourished by the love and unconditional acceptance that’s inherent in the space of awareness. That’s what heals us. That’s what liberates us.”
There are the gentle sounds of rain pattering on the roof and now the tapping of the computer keys. Sensations of breathing, of body meeting chair, of feet on the floor—the pure sensations prior to those descriptive labels. There is the sense of spaciousness, of no-thing-ness, of the aliveness of presence.
Here / Now (boundless awareness, unicity, unbroken wholeness, infinity, eternity) is completely and wholly present at every point of space and time. In fact, both space and time are creations of consciousness, ways of perceiving what is actually dimensionless. Like a hologram, every part in this appearance contains the whole. As Kabir put it, the ocean merges into the drop. Or as Dogen expressed it, the whole moon is reflected in the dewdrop, and the dewdrop realizes the limitlessness of the moon. Indra’s Net, in the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra, depicts the universe as a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others.
In Genjo Koan, that same piece I cited in my last post, Dogen goes on to say, “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point…Here is the place; here the way unfolds.” There is no place outside of Here. There is no such reality as before Now or after Now.
Nisargadatta Maharaj: “You are complete here and now, you need absolutely nothing…That which makes you think that you are a human is…a dimensionless point of consciousness, a conscious nothing…You are pure being—awareness. To realize that is the end of all seeking. You come to it when you see all you think yourself to be as mere imagination…It is the clinging to the false that makes the true so difficult to see. Once you understand that the false needs time and what needs time is false, you are nearer the Reality, which is timeless, ever in the now…Reality is what makes the present so vital, so different from the past and future, which are merely mental. If you need time to achieve something, it must be false. The real is always with you; you need not wait to be what you are. Only you must not allow your mind to go out of yourself in search.” (from I Am That, “All Search for Happiness Is Misery”).
And finally, from Jon Bernie: “As your attention returns to the present moment, you may notice a new a vividness, a brightness. As you arrive here fully, things become enlivened. In Zen they say you will be enlightened by all things, and you will enlighten all things.”
The rain pattering on the roof—is it inside me or outside me? Is it separate from me? Is there a boundary between these sounds and the listening presence that is hearing them? What happens when full and open attention is given to something: the rain sounds, the sensations of breathing, a surge of restless energy, an unpleasant mood, the crumpled Kleenex on the table, a pencil, the tree outside my window, the felt-sense of presence?
Could the way we eat breakfast or drink a cup of tea actually touch and affect the war in Syria or Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un or the changing climate or the lives of the animals on factory farms?
To the thinking mind, that sounds like a ridiculous idea, and to the hardcore political activist struggling to change the world, it sounds like the worst kind of spiritual nonsense.
But I’ve certainly experienced in my own life how everything is transformed by attention and by awareness, which is the light behind attention, and I’m guessing most of you have experienced this as well. And when we truly realize the seamlessness and the unbroken wholeness of everything, doesn’t it become obvious that when any one of us wakes up, in a very real sense, the whole world wakes up? Is it possible that simple acts of attention actually touch, heal and inform the entire world?
I’m certainly not saying in some facile way that if everyone who reads my Facebook page gazes with total attention at a flower for the next hour, that this will bring about world peace. But when we really see that the world is not “out there,” that it doesn’t have any inherent, observer-independent existence outside of consciousness; and when we realize that every one of us sees a unique world, and that each of these worlds is an ever-changing appearance; and when we really see that “the others” are all showing up inside this awareness that I Am, that “I” contain multitudes, that we all refer to the same “I” beyond name and form, and that, like the jewels in Indra’s Net, we are all reflections of one another, empty of self and full of everything else—when all of this is truly seen or grokked, isn’t it obvious that when any one of us wakes up, in a very real sense, the whole world wakes up?
This realization in no way cancels out relative reality. In the movie of waking life, we will still need to change a flat tire, take out the garbage, do our food shopping, earn a living, and do whatever we are moved to do to take care of our self, our family, our community, our nation, and/or the world as a whole.
But what I am suggesting here is that we shouldn’t undervalue or discount the power of simple acts of presence, simple acts of attention: feeling the breathing, mindfully drinking a cup of tea, feeling the bare sensations of a disturbing emotion or the pure energy of restlessness, listening to the traffic sounds, hearing the song of the bird—being fully awake to the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of this moment, just as it is. Awareness is unconditional love. When we meet any single drop with unconditional love, we are meeting the whole ocean with that love. We are that love. And in that love, separation is dissolved—ocean and drop, seer and seen, lover and beloved are one whole happening without borders or seams. No separation remains. No independent “things” remain. We see that, truly, no-thing is happening.
Is it possible that the greatest gift we can offer to ourselves, our family, our community, our nation, the world and all beings is to start by waking up here and now, being fully present in this moment, right now, just as it is? Here / Now is timeless (eternal, infinite, ever-present). There is no end and no beginning to Now. In awareness, it is clear that there are no boundaries, that what happens to you, happens to me. From awakeness (awareness, presence, unconditional love), action happens much more intelligently than when it comes out of old habitual conditioning and mindless reactivity rooted in the false sense of separation and dualism. Awareness is the great solvent. It dissolves illusions and enlightens what it touches. It is what we all truly are. It is at the core of every sensation, every sight, every sound, every apparent happening. It is what “the world” truly is. Awareness is the no-thing-ness being and beholding everything.
What I’m pointing to here is not a concept or an idea or a belief. I’m pointing to what is most real, most undeniable, most true, right here, right now.
On the relative level, from the personal point of view, the world will always seem to be imperfect, incomplete, out of balance. The manifestation can only happen in duality, through contrasts and polarities and through apparent separation (subject and object, me and you, this and that). From that relative perspective, the movie of waking life will never be entirely beautiful, happy, peaceful, calm, sunny, loving and gentle. To imagine that it will be is a utopian fantasy and a set-up for disappointment.
Yes, it is possible that, in this dream-like movie of waking life, human beings may indeed develop a more sustainable and wholesome economic system, or that we may find cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s, or that we may eventually leave racism and sexism and heterosexism behind us forever, or that we may reduce the murder rate or the frequency of rape, or that factory farming may be abolished in favor of a more humane system—these things could all happen. But even if they do, new problems will arise in their wake. There will always be a mix of light and dark, joy and sorrow, and what we regard as good fortune and bad fortune. And, of course, what looks like good fortune or a wholesome economic system to one person may look like bad fortune and a terrible economic system to another.
We need only examine human history, or our own minds in meditation, to see that nothing stays the same—enlightenment experiences come and go, feast and famine follow each other like day and night, opinions change, empires rise and fall, and there are always good guys and bad guys (both “out there” and “in here”). Realizing this doesn’t mean we won’t still do our best in whatever ways life moves us. But it may mean that we lose interest in endlessly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—i.e., struggling to change the world or pursuing endless self-improvement. We may become more and more like those musicians who sat on the deck of the Titanic and played music as the ship sank.
When the entire movie of waking life is seen from the place of emptiness (wholeness, unconditional love), then whatever shows up is in some way seen as perfect and beautiful. In that sense, the world is made whole by seeing it from wholeness. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still flat tires, divorces, ship wrecks, diseases, wars, tyrants, and empires rising and falling. It simply means that all of that is seen in a different light. It is no longer seen from the place of separation and fragmentation. It is not mistaken for a solid, substantial, objective reality that is “out there,” set in stone and persisting over time. Awareness is no longer identified as the imaginary person, and so the need to survive as that limited (and imaginary) form falls away, along with the fear of death. Instead, the whole show is recognized as a dream-like play of consciousness in which nothing real is ever damaged or destroyed. Pain still hurts and sorrow or any other emotion may still arise, but none of it is taken seriously or personally in the way that it was. The beauty and the perfection are in the seeing (the awareness).
I often compare waking life to a movie, and in many eastern teachings, waking life is compared to a dream. This is an insight not confined to spirituality. Even the old children’s lullaby “Row, row, row your boat” ends by saying, “Life is but a dream.”
Sometimes, people hear that as a way of dismissing or belittling life or “the world.” But these kinds of statements are not meant to dismiss or invalidate our experience, nor are they meant to suggest that we should ignore relative reality or that we should have no human feelings anymore. The dream-like movie of waking life is, after all, the dynamic expression of Consciousness, the dance of the Limitless One, the play of unbound, seamless Unicity. In other words, it’s all GOD. In that sense, EVERYTHING that appears is sacred and holy. Enlightenment simply means seeing it that way—as it is, rather than as we think it is. We might say that this dance of Consciousness is a work of art or a form of play. Hinduism calls it the Divine Lila. Perhaps the beauty of this dance lies precisely in its purposelessness, it’s uselessness, it’s pure gratuity. So, awakening isn’t about dismissing the manifestation or “the world” or everyday life any more than we would dismiss the music of Mozart, the plays of Shakespeare, the paintings of Picasso, or the joy of children at play in a make-believe world of their own imagining.
But what our everyday life doesn’t have is the solidity, the observer-independent existence, the substantiality, or the continuity that we think it does. It is empty of all that. It is much more ephemeral, impermanent, ever-changing, insubstantial, fluid and cloud-like than it appears to be at first glance. Our everyday life and “the world” are also empty of self. In the movie of waking life, there are approximately 7.5 billion human beings on planet earth, and we have been taught that each one of us is the independent author of our thoughts, the maker of our choices, the doer of our deeds—that we each have free will. But actually, the 7.5 billion are like the waving movements of one seamless ocean—all of us the activity of one intelligence-energy, one boundless awareness, one vast Unicity. Oneness is appearing as multitudes, no-thing-ness is showing up as everything.
Our everyday experience is as real as a movie or a dream and also as unreal as a dream or a movie. If we reflect on what is real and what is unreal in a movie or a dream, it may help us to recognize what is real and what is unreal in our waking life.
Enlightenment is often defined as simply seeing the false as false. When consciousness is no longer hooked, deluded, hypnotized or bamboozled by the false, when it is no longer identified solely with the character in the movie that it has created out of thin air, then there is quite naturally peace, joy, love and freedom—even when circumstances in the movie are painful and emotions are raw, even then, there can be an underlying peace that comes with acceptance, with knowing that all of this is whole and complete just as it is, and with recognizing all of it (especially “me”) as a kind of evaporating dream with no actual substance.
What’s real in a dream or a movie is not the content, the storyline, the characters or the situations they seem to be in. What’s real is the awareness, the consciousness, the beingness, that which beholds the whole show and plays all the parts.
“I’ve come to see that there is no such thing as criticism, there are only observations. And there is no observation that does not enlighten me, if my mind is open to it. What could anyone say to me that I couldn’t agree with? If someone tells me I’m a terrible person, I go inside myself, and in two seconds I can find where in my life I’ve been a terrible person; it doesn’t take much searching. And if someone says I’m a wonderful person, I can easily find that, too. This is about self-realization, not about right or wrong. It’s about freedom….If a criticism hurts you, that means you’re defending against it. Your body will let you know very clearly when you’re feeling hurt or defensive. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling rises and becomes anger and attack, in the form of defense or justification. It’s not right or wrong; it just isn’t intelligent. War is not intelligent. It doesn’t work. If you’re really interested in your own peace of mind, you’ll become more and more aware of that sense of wanting to defend yourself against a criticism….Criticism is an immense gift for those who are interested in self-realization.” --Byron Katie
“Live as though you have no rights and you’ll begin to appreciate everything. Live as though you have no entitlements, and you’ll appreciate all that comes.” --Mooji
When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, when Byron Katie suggests agreeing with criticism rather than defending against it, when Mooji says to live as though you have no rights and no entitlements, are they saying that we should turn into door mats, that we should stay in abusive situations, that we must do nothing in the face of cruelty and injustice, that we should never be angry or never defend ourselves in any way under any circumstances? No. They are all pointing to the suffering that happens when we take things personally and act out of the sense of personal entitlement, rooted in and protecting the illusory thought-sense of separation and selfhood. That is what all the great spiritual teachings (in their truest form) are questioning and pointing beyond—this illusion of separation and encapsulation, this identification with a passing form, and all our second-hand beliefs that we mistake for reality.
In relationships, in families, at work, in traffic, in the world of political activism, in global relations, in virtually every arena of life, even in our own inner struggles for self-improvement, we are often fighting for our rights and for what we believe we are entitled to, whether it is civil rights, clean water, an understanding spouse, or freedom from addiction or pain—and in one sense, this is fine—it is how life is expressing through us, and it may be relatively helpful in bringing about certain changes. But we all have different ideas about what is right and desirable and fair and good—ideas that come from different conditioning, different life experiences, differences in bodymind make-up. Even within ourselves, we have conflicting voices—a team of rivals vying for control in every moment—the one who wants to quit smoking battling with the one who wants to light up. Each of us sees a unique and ever-changing movie of waking life, a unique and ever-changing “world,” and when we try to resolve our fundamental discontent by rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic or defending our self-image, it never seems to really work out, or not for long.
So, it’s interesting to wonder what might happen if no one fought back, if everyone surrendered, if no one felt entitled to anything—not to think about this possibility, but to feel into what it evokes in us as we let this possibility percolate and unfold inside us.
It has been said, when there is no resistance, there is no conflict.
This that is being pointed to is a counter-intuitive, Aikido-like move. The survival mind, the personal mind, the psychological mind is always fighting for “my way,” defending “me,” feeling threatened by whatever is perceived to be “not me.” The psychological self thrives on conflict and drama. It struggles to survive as this particular form that it thinks it is. It resists and fights against any form of surrender or annihilation. But there is a deeper (vaster, subtler, more primary) place in us, a place where there is no me and you, no self and not-self, no separation, no division, no other, no outside or inside—a placeless place that is always already surrendered.
We could call this place (which has no location) the Heart. Or we could call it Awareness, or God, or emptiness, or presence, or unconditional Love, or simply Here / Now. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What the words point to is not a concept or an idea or a belief. Of course, once we use words, we are in the conceptual map-world, and the words inevitably tend to create the sense of “something” tangible and particular, this but not that. In trying to describe totality or nondual reality (that which has no other, no inside and no outside), words fail. Still, we use words. As with maps, words and concepts can be helpful in finding our way. But the words are not pointing to the map. They are pointing to the actuality itself, the living reality of this moment, the groundless ground, our True Nature, this aliveness that is closer than close.
What liberates us from suffering and confusion is not thinking about all this, or believing in all this, or trying to figure this out, or searching for this, or trying to “practice” this in order to someday achieve it. Liberation is in simply BEING this. Being what we already are, but what we may be overlooking because the attention is habitually mesmerized by thought. Liberation is a falling away of something extra, not the acquisition of something new. It is what remains when the tangle of me-identified, dualistic thinking relaxes and dissolves.
We habitually live in the thinking mind, the virtual reality of abstract representations—the map-world of concepts, ideas and information. We are so accustomed to focusing on the maps, and this focus is so socially ubiquitous, that we often don’t even notice that we are mistaking the map for the territory. It can be very, very subtle.
Awakening is a shift of attention from this mental map-world into the immediacy of what is—the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the whooshing of the traffic, the red of the poppies, the fragrance of flowers, the sensations of breathing, the felt-sense of being present, the stillness, the listening silence that is Here / Now, the formless presence that we are beyond name and form, this awareness that has no location and no boundaries. Mooji calls it the information-less place, a name I love because we live in a culture so addicted to and overwhelmed by information, and in our spiritual search, we often rush around collecting more and more information and missing the point altogether. In Zen, they speak of not knowing. This information-less not-knowing is an openness, a spaciousness, an aliveness, a freshness, a wonder that is always right here, but we tend to overlook it because our attention is fixated on thoughts of past and future, on the maps and the formulations, and above all else, on the fictitious “me,” the main character at the center of the story of our life. We are hypnotized by the false, the abstract and the superficial.
It is possible to wake up from this hypnosis, not by effort or will-power, but by simply seeing it for the mirage that it is, and by surrendering—relaxing, letting go, softening, melting, dissolving, opening—and simply being. Being Here / Now. Resting in presence, rather than getting tangled up in thought. Allowing the power that has always been doing everything to do us. Of course, practical and creative thinking can still happen as needed, but we’re not identified with the me-thought or lost in habitual stories (e.g., “I’ve ruined my life,” “I’m such a loser,” “You ruined my life,” “This shouldn’t be happening,” and so on). Awakeness is rooted in the Heart rather than in the thinking mind.
The Heart (presence, awareness, love) is not an object. It is not “out there” (or “in here” in some secret place that “I” as the searching mind must find). It is no distance away from what the word “I” most deeply and truly refers to—it is “most intimate,” as they say in Zen, closer than close, identical. And there is nowhere this awareness is not. It has no form, and yet it appears as every form. We cannot see or grasp it as a particular object. We can only BE it. It is not something. It is no-thing and everything! When we are awake to this information-less, placeless place, this immediacy, this present-ness, this aliveness, everything is transformed. What we thought was samsara is suddenly seen to be nirvana. The shift is not in the external circumstances or the scenery. The shift is in the seeing.
Can we choose to wake up, to shift, to turn the other cheek, to live as if we have no rights or entitlements, to agree with criticism instead of defending ourselves from it? Who is it that would make such a choice? “I will turn the other cheek,” is a thought. That thought arises by itself, and like all thought, it is powerless. It may or may not be followed by turning the other cheek. Everything is a movement of Consciousness or Totality—every thought, every urge, every interest, every action, every intention, every movement of attention. The individual waves in the ocean are not separate from one another or from the ocean as a whole—they cannot “decide” to go off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving. Likewise, the individual author-chooser-decider-controller is a kind of illusion, a mirage, a neurological sensation, a deeply conditioned thought-belief. It has no actual reality. This doesn’t mean we are helpless robots being pushed around by life—it means there is no wave apart from the ocean—there is only the ocean waving. There is no “me” being moved along by the flow; there is ONLY flow, only ocean, only the One Reality.
The “I” that is speaking in the thought “I will turn the other cheek,” is the phantom self, the mirage. This mirage desperately wants to vanquish the ego and become an enlightened someone. But a mirage cannot defeat a mirage. Of course, this mirage-like ego is itself a movement of Consciousness, part of the Great Play, and not the action of a separate “me.” Ultimately, it is in seeing through the many layers of this illusory self, and dissolving the identification with this false self, that Consciousness awakens from the dream of separation and recognizes itself as the unbound, unborn, imperishable, seamless awareness that it has never not been.
The words are just pointers or maps. Don’t get stuck on the words or confused by them. If they hit the mark, great. In that case, they self-destruct on impact. If they don’t hit the mark, let them go. Dissolve into the Heart. Simply BE. That’s where the juice is—not in gathering information and figuring out the maps. Be still. Listen. Listen to the silence of the Heart. Be that silence.
In the beginning, there is simply aware presence. No labels, no stories—just one whole seamless happening. There is variety but not separation or interpretation. As we mature, we gradually begin to develop the sense of individuality and separation, and as we acquire language, we learn to see the world more and more through a kind of conceptual map-filter. We come to identify as a separate person, encapsulated in a separate body, and we seem to be looking out at what we believe to be a separate, substantial, inherently real, observer-independent world. We live in our stories of who we are, who the others are, and what we think is happening, fully convinced that our stories accurately reflect reality. Our life revolves around “me,” the central character with whom we are totally identified. We are also identified with me-friendly groups and things that seem to be an extension of “me,” such as my family, my tribe, my nation, my subculture, my political party, my religion, my addiction history, and so on. We are easily hurt or angered if “me” or any of these things or groups with which the “me” identifies are criticized, threatened or harmed. When this character we call “me” faces difficulties, we take them very seriously and feel totally absorbed in the drama and the emotional swirl.
If we’re lucky, someone points out to us—or we notice—that there is an awareness of this drama, an awareness of our emotional state that is free of emotion and free of the apparent problem that seems so distressing (our depression or anxiety, our current worry, our relationship difficulties, our financial problems, the world situation, whatever it is). There is something observing all of this drama that is not involved in it, an intelligent awareness that can SEE a thought as a thought and a story as a story, something that beholds everything without being involved. This beholding has a quality of unconditional love in that it accepts everything equally, just as it is. Awareness has no judgments or preferences—those belong to the thinking mind. We notice that in the absence of thinking, what remains is a kind of open, impersonal presence, a formless awaring that is boundless, limitless, unencapsulated, spacious and free. There is room in this aware presence for everything to be as it is.
At first, we assume that this observing awareness and this boundless and impersonal presence that we have discovered is a temporary state that comes and goes. Sometimes we seem to “have” this aware presence, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we seem to be lost in a story, and sometimes there is an awareness of the story that allows us to question its veracity, an aware presence where the suffering temporarily disappears and we feel a sense of freedom and peace. We may tell ourselves that we are meditating or doing other practices in order to cultivate more presence or a more stable awareness. We are still identifying as a person who alternately “gets it” and then “loses it.” When there is only spacious presence, the mirage-like person disappears, but thought comes in afterwards and reconstitutes the mirage by reporting that “me” was temporarily free of “me,” that the person disappeared “for me,” and then came back “for me.” In this story of what happened, we once again habitually identify and locate ourselves as the character, rather than as the open awareness in which ALL of this is appearing and disappearing.
But then we begin to notice that we never experience anything outside of consciousness. We have always believed that consciousness is a brain function through which we are witnessing an external world that is really out there, independent of consciousness, but we begin to realize that this cannot be verified. All experience occurs in (and as) consciousness. Consciousness is the common factor in every different experience, equally present in an experience of impersonal spaciousness and in an experience of personal anxiety, contraction or upset.
And we see that this observing awareness is actually never absent, that any time we stop and check, here it is! Without it, the confusion or the anxiety or the story would not appear at all. We begin to realize (not as a belief, but as an irrefutable direct knowing) that this awareness is the ever-present ground in which everything else shows up. It dawns on us—or maybe we read or hear from a teacher—that we ARE this ground—this all-encompassing awareness—that the person is a kind of costume that we (as consciousness) put on intermittently, an ever-changing part that we are playing in the movie of waking life. What we truly are (before, during and after our play as the character) is the impersonal presence, the boundless awareness that is being and beholding it all. And the more we investigate, the more that is realized to be true. We are not limited to or encapsulated inside the bodymind, and in fact, the bodymind is an ever-changing event inseparable from the whole universe and from the awareness in which it all appears. We confirm this again and again by simply giving open attention to Here / Now.
This movie of waking life that starts playing every morning begins to be seen and experienced more and more as a dream-like appearance in and of consciousness. We see that each of us is seeing a unique movie, all of them reflections of each other. The movie loses its substantiality, its inherent reality, its unquestioned believability. We realize that we’re never seeing an observer-independent outside world, and that there is no actual border between inside and outside. We ARE this whole happening and the awareness beholding it all. And we’re also this person, but we begin to see the person as a kind of dance that we (as consciousness) are doing, a costume we wear intermittently, a role that we play rather than what we truly are. Our primary identity begins to shift from person to presence, from part to whole, from wave to ocean. Yes, we can still identity as the person in practical, functional ways, but this happens within a bigger context—we are the ocean waving, not a lonely lost wave searching for the ocean.
At first, there may still seem to be a dualistic divide between the ocean and the wave, between the person and the impersonal aware presence, between the relative and the absolute perspective, between God and the world, between moments of spacious openness and the busyness of everyday life or the caught-up-ness in mental agitation. But more and more, we begin to see that there is no actual dividing line, no place where awareness ends and the objects that appear within it begin. As Zen Master Hakuin put it, “Nirvana is right here, before our eyes. This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.” And as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “A wave does not have to stop being a wave in order to be water.” We don’t have to stop being a person in order to realize that we are not limited to or encapsulated inside the bodymind. In fact, by deeply exploring the bodymind, we discover directly that “the person” (or “the body” or “the mind”) is not as solid, separate or continuous as these nouns would suggest. Our body is the whole universe.
There is no separation anywhere. All the dividing lines are conceptual or imaginary. There is only this seamless and boundless Here / Now. When we seem to separate (mentally) from what is, that is the beginning of our suffering. If we’re in pain, for example, and we separate (in our mind) from the pain, the pain then becomes a “thing” that seems to be attacking “me” from “outside” – we resist, try to push it away, try to escape, and as we do this, the pain just gets bigger, louder, more painful, more frightening, more overwhelming, and more seemingly unbearable. We are hypnotized by thoughts ABOUT the pain: “I can’t stand this. This will kill me. What if it gets worse? When will it stop? I can’t take it!” When, on the other hand, we totally open to the pain and go right into the very core of it with awareness, so that there is no felt separation anymore between “me” and “it,” but instead simply undivided being, then everything changes. The pain no longer seems solid or overwhelming—we notice that it vibrates, pulsates, changes shape, comes and goes—it may even disappear entirely, or maybe it becomes interesting. And it is now totally bearable. There is no “me” and “it” anymore, there is simply pure experiencing—being just this moment, exactly as it is.
When we are identified as a separate person, looking at life from the personal point of view, believing our thoughts, mistaking the map for the territory, there is no end to problems. When we know ourselves to be the aware presence that is boundless and impersonal, when we realize that we are the Whole and not a separate part, when the focus of our attention shifts from the map to the territory—from the mental to the sensory, from the head to the heart, from the endless loops of abstract thinking into simple presence—when we are simply present Here / Now, no problems arise. Things we would previously have considered problematic still appear (bankruptcies, illnesses, divorces, deaths, losses of all kinds, terrorist attacks, presidents we don’t like, climate change, empires rising and falling, ice ages coming and going), but these are no longer seen or experienced as problems. We see the perfection in the apparent imperfection, the wholeness in the apparent conflict and division, the peace at the heart of it all. We are no longer imagining that one polarity can or should defeat its opposite, for we see that they go together as one whole that cannot be pulled apart: up and down, light and dark, good and evil, conservative and progressive, pain and pleasure. We can put on our costume and play our role with a freshness and a spontaneity that is unconcerned with personal success or failure or with the meaning of it all. We know that all is well, even when it seems otherwise.
Maybe you’re thinking that it doesn’t feel this way to you, or it doesn’t feel this way all the time. Can it be noticed that this is a thought arising in awareness, a thought that magically reincarnates the illusory self, the imaginary problem and the illusion of time—a thought that brings with it an emotional feeling of discontent and lack? Can that all be seen? This mirage of “me” and “my problem” and past and future may indeed show up occasionally (or even frequently), and it may be accompanied by the mix of thoughts and sensations in the body that we call emotion and mood. But so what? Who cares? Our moods are just weather. Isn’t it only from the point of view of the illusory separate self that this mirage or this cloudy day seems to be a personal problem that must be fixed, a problem that is ruining “my” life, a problem that means something about “my” spiritual status? Does awareness or totality have a problem with anything that is showing up?
Waking up can only happen now. Forget about past experiences or the hope of future breakthroughs or any ideas of permanent finish-lines that the phantom “me” might one day cross “once-and-for-all,” and simply wake up NOW. How? By simply seeing the mirage for the mirage that it is, and noticing what is always already present, the groundless ground of aware presence, this ever-present Here / Now. Simply BE. Hear the sounds of traffic and the bird song, feel the breathing and the cool breeze on the skin and the tingling in the hands, see the red poppies and the yellow school bus, smell the fragrances of wet earth after the rain, taste the tea, enjoy the coffee, be awake Now. Just this! Simple, simple, simple.
Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “It is your very search for happiness that makes you feel miserable.”
And this is Zen teacher Barry Magid, from his book Ending the Pursuit of Happiness:
“Since I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher, my professional life is all about working with people who say they have problems and who indeed are suffering, often quite visibly and terribly. How can I tell them that there is really nothing wrong with them?...Everyone who comes to therapy or meditation practice feels something is wrong and wants something to be fixed. That’s to be expected. We come seeking a relief of suffering, however we may conceive of that ‘suffering’ and that ‘relief.’ Yet Zen is telling us that our search itself may embody the very imbalance we are trying to correct, and that only by leaving everything just as it is can we escape a false dichotomy of problems and solutions that perpetuates the very thing it proposes to fix. But before we too glibly arrive at that conclusion we will have to investigate thoroughly all the ways we feel that we are broken and be honest about just what kind of fixing, treatment, or salvation we think we need.”
Barry Magid is a Zen teacher (and psychiatrist) in NYC who does a beautiful job in this and all his books of questioning all our "curative fantasies" of transcendence, perfection and imperviousness. But he’s not suggesting that we replace these fantasies with any glib or facile ideology or belief that “everything is perfect as it is.” (And neither is Nisargadatta). Instead, Barry proposes that we must look and see, moment-to-moment, how we are imagining problems and/or fantasizing about solutions. He’s not suggesting that psychotherapy and meditation (or medicine, auto repair, political and social activism, or anything else that has to do with healing and transforming ourselves or the world) should be thrown out or abandoned, but that these activities can be approached in an entirely different way.
It is often said in Zen that Zen is useless. Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen teacher who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, spoke about practicing Zen without seeking a result, without gaining-ideas. Zen teacher and social activist Bernie Glassman has talked about taking action in the world without the thought of a cure. Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “Nothing profits the world as much as the abandoning of profits.” Jean Klein, another great Advaita teacher, spoke about “being without purpose.” And yet, even as Suzuki Roshi suggested a way of being that was not result-oriented, he also acknowledged that we do want to bake bread that looks and tastes good (the Zen Center ran a bakery in those days). Or as he put it on another occasion, “You’re perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.”
Not one, not two. Not this, not that. Not landing anywhere. Not grasping. Not fixating. Being open. Living from groundlessness, from not knowing, from simply being open and present, without beliefs or ideology or expectations. That is true freedom.
That means we’re not tensing up and trying really, really hard to get somewhere or improve the imaginary self, but at the same time, the pathless path is not some kind of laissez-faire sloth and torpor where we simply “give up the search” in a rather cynical way, having concluded that it was all just a bunch of bullshit, and then go on living “lives of quiet desperation,” convinced that there is no such thing as awakening or enlightenment or liberation after all. We don’t land in either of these extremes.
In the kind of approach to which I’m always pointing, we’re not trying to “do” meditation, but rather, we’re allowing meditation to do us. We’re not trying to “make” something happen or “get” something (or get rid of something), but rather, we’re allowing everything to be as it is. And we don’t even have to “do” that allowing – we simply stop struggling and notice that everything already IS allowed to be as it is! (Even the struggling!) This open allowing—this all-inclusive groundlessness—is the very nature of awareness, which is another name for Here / Now, or unconditional love. Consciousness, which has been pretending to be “me,” the separate self, simply opens, softens, relaxes and dissolves into the uncontained boundlessness that it already is. (The words are never quite right, but they can point to a shift or a recognition that must be discovered and known directly—not as an intellectual understanding, but as a non-conceptual, felt-reality).
Liberation is simple, effortless, already present. It is no distance away. It is nothing you can grasp or pin down. But it can be recognized, realized (made real), dissolved into and embodied. The false can be seen as false; delusion can lose its grip and its believability. Then the person can appear as needed, like a wave on the ocean, as a form of play, but there is not the accompanying idea that the person (the wave) is all I am, or that I am encapsulated inside a body, or that awakening is about improving and fixing the wave in some way. Consciousness knows itself as the whole ocean—boundless, free, unlimited, unconditioned, unborn awareness. We are no longer searching for what is missing or trying to push away what we regard as an obstacle. And paradoxically (or counter-intuitively), when we simply open fully to Here / Now and accept everything as it is, that very move is the alchemy that allows genuine transformation to happen and the truly new to appear.
But whatever appears, it is all a fleeting appearance, a purposeless play, like a dance or a song, going nowhere (i.e., always being Now/Here). And that’s not a despairing or nihilistic realization—it’s a freeing and joyous realization.
Is getting lost in thought good or bad or simply what is? And if it’s bad, is there anything to be done about it? Is the goal of meditation to stop all non-functional or non-creative thinking? Are awakened people completely empty of thoughts?
Any ideas of good and bad are evaluations by the mind, and in my experience, thinking about anything in life in terms of good and bad (or good and evil) is not usually that helpful. Maybe a more useful way to think about these questions is in terms of suffering and not suffering. Certain activities are a form of suffering, while other activities may liberate or enlighten us.
The first and most essential question here has to do with the one presumed to be at the center of these quandaries about thinking, the apparent “thinker” or “author” of our thoughts—the one who is thought to be either good or bad, improving or not improving, awakened or not awakened—the one who wants to get somewhere and who fears failure—the one who is trying desperately to “do it right”—the one who is being judged and evaluated, and the one from whose point of view the judging and evaluating is happening—who is this one? Is this the impersonal, boundless, aware presence that is discovered when we don’t refer to thought or memory? Or is this the imaginary “me” which is a mirage-like creation of thought, memory and imagination?
If you don’t refer to thought or memory, right now in this moment, what are you? Do you have an age, a gender, a nationality, a life story, a purpose? In this open, spacious awakeness, does any “enlightened person” remain as the owner of this? Without referring to thought or memory, what is this present happening (the seeing, hearing, sensing, experiencing that is arising right now)? If you don’t refer to thought or memory, is there a storyline to this happening? A meaning? A history? A future? A beginning? An ending? You may find that all such words no longer apply in the simplicity of Here / Now, this listening presence, this pure experiencing, this simple bare being that is undivided, whole, utterly immediate and totally complete, just as it is.
Of course, thinking, conceptualizing, imagination and verbalization are all part of how life moves, and these activities are not inherently either functional or dysfunctional. They can be a source of suffering, and they can also be a source of creativity and beauty. They can be useful, and they can be the source of our illusory bondage. I’m guessing we’ve all experienced both ends of that spectrum. In spiritual circles, when we talk about “being present” or “being here now” or “being aware” or “not believing our thoughts” or “questioning our thoughts” or “not thinking,” what is being pointed out is a seeing through and a waking up from the kinds of thinking that are a form of suffering. But obviously, thought and imagination are a vital part of human life—we’re not trying to return to the unitive state of a newborn baby or a cow.
When thoughts and stories capture the attention, obviously, this being caught-up-in-thought is part of what is—a movement of consciousness, like a wave in the ocean, inseparable from the whole. But it may be a form of suffering. Being lost in the story that “I’m a failure,” or going over and over the story of some injustice and feeling hurt-angry-resentful-fearful-etc. is a form of suffering. That can be seen. It’s not bad, and it doesn’t mean anything about the imaginary “me” at the center of the story (e.g. that I’m a spiritual failure), but it hurts. And it tends to bring forth the kind of unskillful and reactive action that exacerbates the wound and amplifies the suffering. So, there is a natural desire to wake up from these stories and from the belief that “I” am the person in the story, encapsulated inside a body, separate from the rest of life, never good enough, always struggling to survive and improve and get somewhere.
This natural desire to wake up, which comes from the Heart, can be easily hijacked by the thinking mind. When that happens, we have the kind of addictive seeking that makes us miserable and/or the kind of result-oriented spiritual practice that reinforces the very problem that it is seeking to cure. The mirage-like person gets split by thought into two conflicting parts, “me” the Spiritual Dictator shouting orders at “me” the Deluded Thinker: “Wake up! Stop thinking! Get back to listening to the traffic and the birds!” — judging and evaluating how well “me” is doing — applying labels like good, bad, success, failure — holding up an ideal of where this phantom-me “should” be, comparing “me” to others — the whole story of “my problem” and “the search for a cure” and so on. ALL of this is simply layer upon layer of thinking: thought thinking about thought, “me” thinking about “me,” “me” trying to control “me,” “me” trying to get rid of “me,” thought trying to control thought. And the truth is, no one is in control of ANY of this—it is all happening by itself, in the same way that a dream happens by itself. In fact, it IS a kind of dream! A painful dream.
So, what to do? The real solution—the one that works—can never really be put into words. We point to it with words such as surrendering, welcoming, relaxing, letting go, resting in what is, resting in the natural state, being just this moment, not doing, not knowing, being here now, opening, dissolving, accepting, not grasping, opening the hand of thought, being in the Now…etc. But the words can only point. The reality must be discovered firsthand, in the same way no one can tell us how to swim or how to ride a bicycle—it must be felt into and discovered directly. No one can do it for us, and no one can really explain it. Thinking about it and trying to figure it out mentally is no help at all. And the “me” that we think we are (which is just a mental image and a bunch of compulsive thoughts) cannot do this surrendering (or anything else)—that “me” is a powerless mirage.
But what is it that beholds this mirage, that SEES it for the illusion that it is? What is it that sees thoughts as thoughts? What is it that is discovered to be present here and now when we don’t refer to thought or memory? This open awareness, this boundless and formless presence or beingness is actually never absent. It is here even in the midst of thoughts and stories, like the singular electricity that runs all the different gadgets and doesn’t die when the gadgets break down, or like the empty screen that is equally present in every scene of the movie, or like the water that is equally present in every waving of the ocean, or like the mirror that accepts and reflects everything equally and never clings to anything. That mirror-like awareness is what we most truly are, the “I” that we all refer to prior to name and form, the beingness that is equally present in every different experience. This aware presence is what Here / Now IS. Ultimately, it is what everything is.
When consciousness is identified as “me” (the person) and feels lost in the story of “my problem” and “my search for a cure” and all of that, there is suffering. When consciousness wakes up as the boundless awareness being and beholding the whole show, there is peace, freedom, joy, love, compassion. Nothing is needed, nothing is lacking. There is no problem anymore. There might still be pain or painful circumstances, but the suffering over them is gone. This “waking up” is not a future event, so postponing it or seeking it elsewhere and elsewhen is delusion—waking up is simply being awake to Here / Now. There is no distance to Here / Now. We ARE Here / Now. What is being pointed out is the natural state, the default state, the groundless ground, the aware presence that is never not here.
When being lost in thought happens, at some point, there is a natural waking up. At that moment, simply notice how the thinking mind can come in with judgement, evaluation, blame, shame, strategizing, taking it all personally, looking for a solution, giving it meaning, justifying it with nondual philosophy, and so on. That is ALL more thinking, more dreaming, more suffering. But that movement of the mind can be seen! And that which sees is not caught in the trance or the storyline. That which sees is already free, already whole. Boundless awareness sees that consciousness is pretending to be a person, like an actor playing a part, and that consciousness has a tendency to become identified as the character it is pretending to be and a tendency to get involved in the drama it is creating—to become hypnotized, as it were, and mistake all of this for reality.
ALL of this (including the identification as a person and the hypnotic entrancement in the dream-drama) is an aspect of the nondual Totality. None of it is personal or “bad.” But some of it is a form of suffering. The person is an expression of consciousness, just as the wave is an expression or a movement of the ocean. Neither thinking nor playing the part of a person is inherently good or bad. Sometimes these activities can be a form of suffering, and sometimes they can be a joyous, playful, creative expression. The more discernment there is about which is which, and the more clarity there is about how suffering happens, the more possibility there is to instantly be free of both suffering and confusion.
In Truth, we are always free. But sometimes, we dream we are bound. That which is imagined to be in bondage is always the phantom-me. That which wakes up is consciousness, which was actually never bound—it was only dreaming or pretending. And in any moment when waking up happens, the dream-story is no longer a concern. The one at the center of that story was only a dream-character. The bondage was imaginary.
To believe this as some kind of comforting philosophy is useless. Beliefs are always shadowed by doubt and will crumble as soon as challenges arise. So, this freedom must be discovered, not intellectually as an idea, but directly as a felt-reality, by relaxing or dissolving here and now into open, aware presence.
Contrary to many enlightenment stories and popular mythologies, this liberation is rarely, if ever, a once-and-for-all happening. It is not a finish-line that the imaginary character crosses, thereby becoming a “permanently enlightened person,” which is a total oxymoron. Rather, this liberation can only happen Now. It is a present moment realization in which the character and the storyline are seen for what they are—nothing substantial—and what remains is recognized to have never been absent.
Certain activities seem to be conducive to awakening and liberation (e.g., silent retreats, satsangs, working with a teacher, reading nondual books, walking in nature, singing bhajans, and so on), while other activities often seem to increase the tendency to identify as a separate self, to be lost in seemingly overwhelming waves of negative emotion-thought, and to be overtaken by what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body. What activities should we avoid?
I don’t believe there is any one-size-fits-all answer to questions about how much TV-watching is compatible with awakening, or what diet is the healthiest or the most moral, or whether intoxicants are okay or not okay to use, or whether it’s vital to our awakening (or irresponsible as a world citizen) to stop watching the News. We each need to discover how different things in life impact us (different foods, different social situations, different friends, different intoxicants and medications, different teachers and teachings, different types and amounts of internet use and screen time, different forms of exercise, different amounts and kinds of sexual activity or use of porn, different amounts of news consumption, different amounts of shopping, different amounts of sleep, and so on). The answers for each of us will be different, and what makes us sick one day, may nourish us on another, so nothing is set in stone. Things change.
The most essential key is being awake now, being aware, being present, listening openly—discovering our own truth—and then not turning the relative truth of one moment into a dogma that we cling to forever after or that we assume should apply equally to everyone else. In other words, what truly enlightens and transforms us is cultivating an alive sensitivity to the present moment and being the open awaring presence that we truly are, rather than picking up or clinging to an ideology.
I know there are a number of teachers who offer very specific dietary guidelines or injunctions against any alcohol or drug consumption. And there are a number of teachers I greatly respect who caution against watching any TV, movies and/or News, and I can certainly understand why they say this. All these things can have a powerful impact on our state of mind and on the whole bodymind system. On the other end of the spectrum, some teachers will tell you it makes no difference at all what you do—and while that may be absolutely true, in my experience, it doesn’t hold up at the everyday level of relative reality. What I’m suggesting is an approach that doesn’t land in either extreme.
I am reminded of a small group I was in once on a retreat at Springwater, the retreat center founded by Toni Packer where I had once been on staff. At the time, I was living in Chicago, and I was drinking wine sometimes in the evenings, and it felt addictive. I have a history decades ago of near-fatal addictive drinking, so that history added to my concern about the wine drinking, and I brought it up in a small group meeting with people I knew at Springwater. A woman in the group who was in AA immediately asserted very emphatically that this was very dangerous, that it was the disease reasserting itself, that I should stop immediately or else I would be plunged back into severe alcoholism. Someone else countered that Ryokan and other Zen Masters drank and that Alan Watts had been dead drunk when he gave those marvelous lectures—implying that maybe drinking wasn’t a problem after all since lots of enlightened people had done it. At that point, another person in the group pointed out that both of these two responses to my situation were based on citing outside authorities and models (AA or Alan Watts), in contrast to the radical possibility of looking freshly for myself, moment-to-moment, here and now. That was exactly what I needed to hear. I realized that the only true “answer” was nothing more or less than being fully present in THIS moment. Listening openly. Trusting the process. Trusting awareness. And ultimately, that is what I did (or what life did, through me).
When I got back to Chicago, in the months that followed, there was simple awareness of the drinking as it happened: the arising of the urge—how that urge felt in the body, what thoughts were triggering or fueling it, the inner struggle over “to do or not to do,” the feelings in the body as I shopped for the wine, as I opened the bottle, as I took the first sip, and then how I felt after one glass, and what propelled me to have a second glass if I did, and so on. Simply being aware of the whole unfolding in a very open, spacious, curious, non-judgmental way—not seeking a result of any kind. Eventually, the drinking ended completely, but not because I believed the AA story. (And in saying that, I’m not in any way intending to disparage AA, so please don’t hear it that way—there is a place for vows, intentions, contracts and agreements, and for recovery programs of many different kinds—what I’m pointing to is not in opposition to any of that—it is rather about where all of that emerges from and what makes it effective or ineffective).
So, my advice about such things as drinking or TV-watching or porn or marijuana or cigarettes or diet or anything else is to see for yourself. Trust awareness. Pay attention and see how things affect you. And there is a crucial difference in perspective between conducting this exploration from the place of open awareness (our True Nature), or (on the other hand), doing it from the identification as “me,” the separate self, endlessly striving to “do the right thing” and “improve myself” and “get somewhere” and hopefully someday be “okay” at last. Awareness is unconditioned and whole, alive and free. When we are rooted in and coming from awareness, there is the possibility for something truly new to emerge. Whereas when we are coming from the false identity as a separate self, we are coming from thought, which is habitual, conditioned and from the past, and we are starting from and reinforcing the story of lack and imperfection.
Some of you might be stuck in some kind of absolutist nondual dogma, thinking or believing that "All is One" and "Everything is It," and that any concern over TV, alcohol, smoking, and so on is just dream-stuff, ways of improving the dream-character, totally irrelevant. But as they say in Zen, realizing the absolute is not yet enlightenment. We can’t ignore relative reality or our life as a person. Ultimately, relative and absolute, form and emptiness, are not two. Real awakening, real freedom is not some facile mental gloss. It’s about real vulnerability, openness and letting go. There is a felt-difference.
As I see it, anything (other than basic survival activities such as eating and sleeping) that we do compulsively every day and that we find it uncomfortable to imagine not doing or being without—anything of that nature is worth giving up for a period of time as an experiment just to find out what happens. That might mean taking a day (or a week or a month or even just a few hours) to not use your smart phone, your tablet, your computer (or any other device of this kind). It might mean taking a day or a week (or an hour) to be in silence, not talking or reading or writing. It might mean not watching any TV or any News for a while, or not watching a movie in the evenings for a period of time, or putting aside pornography for a while. It might mean experimenting with not drinking alcohol, or not drinking caffeinated beverages, or not getting stoned for a period of time, whether that time-period is a week or a month or several months.
There’s always an initial withdrawal to go through, a period of discomfort that can take various forms (physical pain, mental agitation, depression, restlessness, anxiety, etc.), but once that initial withdrawal phase passes, you may discover that you are quite happy, maybe much happier, without this substance or activity. And you may then be able to pick up your phone or turn on your TV or watch the News or whatever it is once again, but in a more moderate and less compulsive or addictive way, with greater sensitivity to when it is too much, and with greater ability to stop when that happens.
In some cases, letting something go for a whole month, a whole week, or even a whole day may feel completely impossible. In that case, you might start with simply pausing for one minute after the impulse first arises to do whatever it is. Take just one minute to sit still and completely feel the urge itself in the body before you act on it. You may be surprised at how powerful that simple practice is.
By doing these kinds of experiments, we learn a lot about how different substances and activities affect us and what drives us to engage in them in the first place. So, when the urge to indulge arises, we simply experience the urge itself as pure bodily sensation, pure energy—not trying to get rid of it, not analyzing it or thinking about it—but simply feeling it, experiencing it, allowing it to be just as it is. We see the thoughts that arise as thoughts, without believing them or following them—thoughts that urge us to indulge, thoughts that rationalize or justify why that’s okay, thoughts that urge us not to indulge, thoughts that tell us what it will mean about us if we do or don’t indulge, and so on. Can we hear ALL of these conflicting thoughts as simply conditioned outpourings of the brain? Can we allow all the thoughts to drop away and simply be present with the bare sensations, the raw energy itself?
We may discover that we can survive these uncomfortable feelings that we thought would kill us, and we may find that they eventually evaporate and disappear by themselves. We will also begin to discover what we do instead of doing the thing we are putting aside. Maybe instead of watching TV or reading a porn magazine or consuming one more political blog, we may find ourselves taking walks or writing or reading or drawing or meditating or having a wonderful conversation. Maybe instead of drinking coffee, we drink a soothing cup of herbal tea instead. Maybe instead of smoking a cigarette, we dance or do some yoga. And then we can notice how we feel, how this change affects us.
There’s no right and wrong in all this, no good and evil. There’s simply suffering and not suffering…feeling bound and being liberated…skillful activity and unskillful activity…what works and what doesn’t work...what supports being awake and what undermines it. And there’s no such thing as absolute perfection or purity either. When we strive for that kind of idealized perfection, it usually ends up being anything but. Genocides are often motivated by ideas of purity, and we’ve all met “spiritually pure” people who reek of ego and self-righteousness. Even our worst and most harmful flaws can often be important parts of our spiritual journey. I certainly feel that way about my own history with over-the-top alcoholic drinking and drug abuse decades ago. I’m grateful I’m not doing all that anymore, and it came very close to killing me, and I did some very painful and hurtful things to myself and to others, and I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, but I’m grateful it happened. I saw things I wouldn’t have seen in any other way. It gave me insight, wisdom and compassion that I probably would not otherwise have. Also, things fall away in their own time. Some things are very tenacious, some things come back again and again, and some habit-patterns may never totally disappear as long as the body continues. But there’s always room Here / Now for everything to be just as it is. And when we’re simply and fully Here—rather than lost in memories and stories of past and future and “me” and my progress or failure—when we’re simply and fully Here, everything is workable, however it is.
And counter-intuitively, when we welcome whatever is showing up with open-hearted, non-judgmental curiosity and interest, without seeking a result, oddly enough, that is the key to real transformation. Whereas when we go to war with whatever old habit is showing up, when we resist it or try to escape from it, we inadvertently strengthen it. This is the mysterious alchemy of surrender. Spiritual surrender is not some kind of passive, fatalistic resignation—it’s an openness that is alive, awake and aware—sensitive and delicate. That openness of Heart is the unconditional love that provides the ground for something truly new to emerge. Surrender of this kind cannot be explained; it must be discovered.
I encourage all of us to experiment, to explore, to find out directly what works and what doesn’t work here and now.
What can we do about difficult emotions and painful states of mind—anxiety, fear, depression, anger, uncertainty, doubt, despair, grief, restlessness, anguish—all those feelings that seem unbearable and that tend to make us think and feel that we are separate, isolated, lost, not good enough, alone in an unfair, scary, cruel world?
First, instead of thinking about what we “could” or “should” do, we might begin by looking to see (rather than think about) what we actually are doing. Often what we notice is that we’re doing things that make it worse. If we’re feeling uncertain and uneasy in some way, for example, we may rush for a drink or a cigarette or a spiritual book that we think will make us feel better, rather than simply being fully present with the uncomfortable feeling that is showing up. Or we may think and think and think about our uncertainty, trying to think our way out of it, rather than simply letting it be as it is, feeling it in the body, and allowing it to move through.
If we’re feeling angry, fearful or upset about the latest political development or the latest outrage at our work-situation, we may get swept up in powerful feelings of anger, hate, resentment, fear, self-pity, self-righteousness or hopelessness—feelings that we often compound by sinking into thought-patterns of cynicism, bitterness, self-protective dark humor, whatever our habit is—perhaps firing off emails or having conversations with like-minded friends in which we exchange worrisome stories, scenarios of doom, righteous indignation, and/or hatred of a shared enemy. Maybe in our swirl of upset, we get drunk, eat a pint of ice-cream, start smoking again, or stay up late into the night churning over disturbing thoughts, channel-surfing through horrible TV shows, or in some other way basically shooting ourselves in the foot.
So, the first step is to notice and to really see what we actually are doing in reaction to “bad news,” difficult feelings or uncomfortable states of mind.
The next step is what I talked about in my last post in relation to habitual activities. The same approach applies here.
We simply drop out of the story up in the head, and instead bring our attention lovingly down into the body. We experience the feelings that are showing up as pure somatic sensation, pure energy, without labels, judgements or stories, just simply the bare sensations themselves—not trying to get rid of these sensations or change them in any way, not analyzing this situation or thinking about it—but simply feeling it, experiencing it, allowing it all to be just as it is.
When we shift from thinking to sensing and awaring, we may find that the “me” dissolves—for it was only a thought, the character in an imaginary story, a mental image kept alive by the swirl of emotion-thought. In pure sensing and awaring, there is no “me,” no sense of separation, no borders or boundaries—everything is fluid and transparent, open and spacious. At the center of the storm, there is stillness.
If thinking persists, which it might, we simply see the thoughts that arise as thoughts, without believing them or following them—we allow them to pass through without getting hooked by the headlines and the storylines they are proclaiming and spinning. And if we do get momentarily hooked and involved, that’s okay—eventually there is a natural waking up that happens spontaneously by itself, and then we can simply return our attention to the sensations in the body without adding on any guilt or regret or self-recrimination about having been hooked. Simply see it, let it go, and move on. We might also notice that thinking is very seductive and compelling—very much like the allure of any other addiction—it promises something that we want. The more we are aware of this addictive pull and this false-promise, the less power it has to seduce us.
In addition to feeling somatic sensations, can we also be awake to the sounds of birdsong, traffic, rain pattering on the roof? Can we feel the breathing, the tinglings in the body, the sensations of cool or warm air on the skin? In other words, can we be fully awake and present to the whole happening of this moment, the living reality Here / Now, without trying to change it, or figure it out, or get rid of it, or get to someplace better? We’re not thinking about our problems or our scary feelings anymore; we’re simply BEING this present happening and the awaring presence beholding it all.
As I mentioned in my previous post, when we are rooted in and coming from open, boundless awareness, we are awake to (and as) what is unconditioned and whole, alive and free. Whereas, when we are coming from thought and the identification as “me,” the illusory separate self, striving and seeking and trying to “get somewhere,” we are coming from what is habitual, conditioned and of the past. We are starting from and reinforcing the very suffering that we are supposedly trying to cure. And often, if we look closely, we find to our great surprise that we’re not even totally trying to cure it—we’re actually enjoying the suffering in some way, reveling in it, wanting it to continue—because it affirms our separate self and feels in some way juicy and familiar and safe. It is a kind of addiction. Just to SEE that, as it happens, is huge. We can’t make any of this go away or force it to not happen—but in simply seeing all of this for what it is, it loses its power and its believability, and it gradually unwinds and dissolves by itself.
Open awareness is without an agenda. It is not seeking a result or resisting anything. It has no judgements. It simply allows everything to be exactly as it is. We might call this unconditional love. It is open, spacious, welcoming. It meets all the apparent ugliness in the world and in ourselves with tenderness and kindness. It is warm-hearted. And it is curious and explorative by nature—by which I mean it has a quality of wonder (or wondering, or wonderment) about everything, an attitude of devotion to what is, a recognition that everything, without exception, is the Holy Reality. As open awareness, we meet everything that shows up with the unconditional love of a mother for her only child, with the curiosity and delight of a baby discovering the world, and with the passionate devotion of a lover exploring and caressing the Beloved. Awareness is the light that transforms ugliness into beauty and suffering into liberation.
In my last post, I spoke of experimenting with not doing some of the unskillful things we habitually do to escape our suffering, but there are some things that often seem to cause suffering that we can’t not do. For example, most people can’t leave their job—and many people are working in jobs they don’t really love or enjoy—and many people have family responsibilities (partners, children, aging parents, pets) that they cannot responsibly walk away from. Not everyone is free to go off on long meditation retreats or spend hours every day in undisturbed, contemplative silence. Often, we have more opportunities for such things than we allow ourselves to notice, but still, many people have very full lives with lots of responsibilities. So how do we meet these everyday challenges at home and at work?
As I see it, spirituality is not an escape from life. It’s about living fully. One of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck, often said that the best thing for Zen practice, other than daily zazen (sitting meditation) and periodic sesshins (silent retreats), was an intimate relationship or a job in a busy office—and the relationship not because it would make us happy, which she assured us it wouldn’t, but because it would push all our buttons. Joko herself worked in a busy office and raised her children as a single working-mother. She definitely walked her talk.
Joko saw the challenges, upsets and disappointments of everyday life as the grit for Zen practice. These were the situations that would push our buttons, reveal our edge, show us where we were still holding on, where we could still be hooked. So, these daily challenges were to be viewed as practice opportunities, not as unwanted distractions, obstacles or interruptions. Likewise, Zen meditation and Zen sesshins were not about retreating into some kind of calm, peaceful, blissful escape from life, but rather, they were a kind of furnace in which our usual ways of avoiding or buffering life would be removed so that we would come face to face with physical pain (sitting cross-legged for hours on end without moving) and with our fundamental chronic restlessness and unease and our basic strategies for resisting life. In everyday life, Joko encouraged her students to deliberately do things that would push our buttons—e.g., if we were a shy introvert, that might mean going to a party; and if we were an extrovert, it might mean spending time in solitude. Joko’s approach was somewhat tougher and more rigorous than mine—I’m not in favor of deliberately sitting for hours in physical pain—but the essential idea is the same.
We may discover that a large part of what makes our job (or our family responsibilities, or the events in the News, or anything else) unenjoyable or seemingly unbearable is not the actual job (or situation) itself, but how we are thinking about it and approaching it. We may find that it is possible to be happy, at peace and full of joy in the midst of upsets and challenging circumstances.
Of course, this is a pitfall if it becomes a new ideal, the way we think we are “supposed” to be in order to be a “spiritually correct” person. The Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi once said something to the effect that enlightenment is not about dying a good death, but rather, enlightenment is not needing to die a good death. In other words, ideals about how I “should” behave on my deathbed, or with the screaming children, or under pressure at work are not helpful. What is being pointed out here is not ideal behavior, but rather being fully awake to how it actually IS Here / Now. So, if we find ourselves losing our temper and screaming at our children, or feeling wounded and defensive after our boss criticizes us, or feeling upset with the News, or getting lost in a delusional train of thought, we don’t need to add a layer of guilt and shame and concoct some story about being a spiritual failure. We simply need to be awake to what is happening right now and start where we are, however that is. See the upset. Feel it in the body as pure energy and sensation. See the thoughts as thoughts. In a nutshell, return to simply being the bare energetic happening of this moment and simply being aware. And don’t hold onto the past. The universe is born anew in every moment. Begin freshly, right now!
It always comes down to being fully present, here and now, in this moment, with whatever is showing up. Being fully present does not mean thinking about the situation, analyzing our feelings, trying to figure it all out mentally, or trying to cure the apparent problem before we’ve even realized what it actually IS. Being fully present means stopping all our frantic efforts to escape and get somewhere else and simply being Here / Now. Feeling the body. Breathing. Hearing the traffic. Just this! Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t think in functional ways as needed, or that we don’t go to the doctor if we break a bone or have chest pains, or that we can’t take intelligent action to end an addiction, or to stop some injustice, or to help our children—what’s being pointed to is the immediacy of this moment and whether our thinking and our actions come from this welcoming awareness or whether they come from reactive conditioned habit—that is the difference between nirvana and samsara, between heaven and hell, between suffering and being liberated on the spot.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017--
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