Postings from My Facebook Page #16
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the sixteenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (7/17/17 - 12/25/17). 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:
I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been sick for 12 days. I’m on the mend now, and (as far as I know) it’s nothing life threatening, but it has grounded me for almost 2 weeks. While I don’t in any way deny the reality of germs, viruses and so on, I also think that sometimes we get sick when our bodymind needs to externalize an interior state of mind or bring itself to a stop. Over these feverish days, a line from Huang Po kept floating up into my mind. It was from a passage that Toni would read aloud at the end of her retreats:
“Were you now to practice keeping your minds motionless at all times, whether walking, sitting, standing, or lying; concentrating entirely upon the goal of no thought-creation, no duality, no reliance on others and no attachments; just allowing all things to take their course the whole day long, as though you were too ill to bother; unknown to the world; innocent of any urge to be known or unknown to others; with your minds like blocks of stone that mend no holes—then all the Dharmas would penetrate your understanding through and through. In a little while you would find yourselves firmly unattached.” (Huang Po)
I wouldn’t put it quite the way Huang Po does, and I think Toni modified some of his wording a bit, but I resonate completely with what he’s getting at, and it was that line “too ill to bother” that kept surfacing in my mind. Not doing anything. There is something oddly refreshing and grounding about being unable to function, “too ill to bother.” It returns one to the essential. Years ago, when Zen teacher Maurine Stuart gave me the koan, what do I really want, it turned out that what I really want is Just This. To be awake now.
Awakening is always simple. Immediate. Right here. Not complicated. It is what we are. No separation. The search, on the other hand, is complicated, focused on past and future and on what seems to be missing, centered around “me” and how well “I” am doing, always imagining that what I’m seeking is “out there” removed from me, and that “me” is this little deficient imperfect person who is never good enough. Awakening from this story is utterly simple and immediate. It leaves the default state, the natural state, what is always already fully present, what remains when the me-thought and the overlay of story-lines are removed. Just This—boundless, seamless, ever-present, ever-changing presence-awareness showing up as everything, just as it is.
Whenever there is a coming home, or a waking up, to the simplicity of Just This—minus the thought-sense of identity as “me,” minus the psychological self with its endless problems that can never be fixed—when there is simply this awaring presence and this present happening, without interpretations or storylines or the “me” at the center of it, then suddenly there is no problem anymore. There may still be intestinal flu, fever, bankruptcy, war, a terrible president, troubling emotions or various neurotic habit patterns popping up, but these are not problems anymore. Nothing is taken personally. Nothing sticks. Nothing needs to be rejected.
In truth, awakening is not about “me” and doesn’t happen “to me.” It is the seeing through of the mirage-like me and the recognition of boundless awareness. It is actually Consciousness (not “me”) that gets misidentified with its own creations and mesmerized by its own storylines, and it is Consciousness (not “me”) that wakes up from this hypnotic trance, and all of it (the getting lost and the being found) is part of the Great Dance, the Divine Lila, the play of Consciousness. Awakening is timeless, always Now—it’s not an event in time or a permanent state that “I” (the dream character) have. It is the recognition of what I Am beyond name and form, that which is limitless and ever-present.
But relatively speaking, in the play of life, for some of us, so-called awakening may come in a big burst and be a more or less complete and permanent dissolving of the thought-sense of separation and identity with the psychological self, while for others of us, like myself, it may seem to be a long, slow unfolding in time—complete in one moment, seemingly clouded over in the next. The old habits of mind that pull us back into identification as the separate self may be quite strong in some bodyminds, the weather conditions stormier, due to infinite causes and conditions. In reality, there is no shame in this. It’s nothing personal. ALL of it is a movement of Consciousness, the total awakenings and the more gradual ones. But it often feels personal.
Joan is not a perfect character. She can behave badly, be caught in old patterns, identified as the small self, caught in the psychological drama. When these things happen, there is often a very old train of thought: “How can I still get so lost in the me-story after all these years of awakening? How can I still be so screwed up? What kind of nondual teacher is this messed up? I should be doing so much better. I’m a failure.” In one such dark moment, I had the thought, “I can’t stomach the mess I’ve made of my life,” and then I got the stomach flu!
I’ve noticed that in some way, when I’m identified as Joan, I’m oddly attached to my apparent problem, my apparent deficiency—it seems to keep “me” alive. The illusory separate self can only exist in a narrative, in a drama. And it’s always this same problem, and over the years, I have brought it like a precious treasure to one teacher and one friend after another in hopes that they can say the magic word that finally releases me, the imaginary one, from my imaginary bondage, permanently forever after.
Of course, I already have the key. I already know the secret. I write books about it. So, this is a bit absurd, isn’t it? Still, it happens. I think it will never happen again, and then it happens again. I feel foolish each time the cycle repeats. From the perspective of boundless awareness, this is all part of the Great Show, part of the Great Dance. But from the perspective of Joan, this can feel humiliating and there can be envy for those like Eckhart Tolle who seem to wake up in one glorious, permanent burst. Surely, this messy stuff does not happen to Eckhart. Identified as Joan, Consciousness has momentarily forgotten that it is playing all the parts, including both Eckhart and Joan.
Maybe, I think to myself, those of us who are not so lucky as Eckhart have something to offer as well, a voice from the trenches as it were. At least, that’s a better story than, “I’m a worthless loser with nothing to offer.” But even as that thought about my possible value as a voice from the trenches arises, I hear my inner Toni Packer saying, with passionate intensity, “How about not having any story at all?”
And, of course, that is true liberation. No me, no story, no problem. Let all the stories go.
Someone sent me a koan recently with this poem in it:
“Heart unclouded, heart clouded;
standing or falling,
it is still the same body.”
The One Body, the One Life, the One Consciousness…which of course includes the beautiful uniqueness of each moment, each person, each different body…so it’s not that there is no longer this (ever-changing) expression called Joan doing its unique dance, but the identity is not limited to or stuck inside that form, which is not even anything solid or independent or substantial to begin with. Our suffering is our identification as the psychological self, the main character in The Story of Me. Spirituality from that viewpoint is all about “my” enlightenment (or lack of it), “my” success (or failure), “my” stuckness (or moment of freedom), “my” clouded or unclouded life. That psychological self, being imaginary, is never perfectible in the way we want. It is, by definition, incomplete and lacking, always deficient. Its brief moments of triumph are always fragile. As long as we’re coming from that identity, locating ourselves as that imaginary entity, we’re set up for disappointment.
Spirituality is life itself. Being life. Being this moment. Not as a practice or an attainment or something an imaginary person does in order to get somewhere else, but just because it’s What Is. It’s the natural state, the ever-present, ever-changing thusness of Here / Now. The part that falls away (if we’re lucky) is the search, the endless search to “get it,” to become “okay” at last…the belief in (and identity as) the psychological self and its problems and the endless attempts to cure them.
As I see it, there is no end to awakening, no end to spiritual exploration and discovery, no end to devotion and celebration and wonder…but what can end (and only now) is the search to fix “me,” to unstick “me,” to enlighten “me,” to finally get control (by understanding how the universe works, by getting The Answer, by finally vanquishing all “my” neurotic quirks and tendencies and solving “my” problems). When all of that ends, there is simply this moment, as it is. Boundless and free.
And when identification as “me” happens…when I notice myself being judgmental, fearful, angry, self-righteous, self-pitying, arrogant, caught up in my story of deficiency, laboring over my tired old problem for the ten millionth time…instead of getting discouraged and cataloging how long this has gone on and comparing myself to Ramana or Eckhart and coming up short—instead, is it possible to simply stop? To return to simplicity itself, the heart of the matter, simple presence, bare being, just this, right here, right now—hearing the traffic, feeling the breeze on the skin, enjoying the dancing light on the shimmering leaves? Being Awareness. Being this moment. Being Just This. That’s what Huang Po was talking about. Instant enlightenment! (And it instantly deletes the whole idea of enlightenment as well!).
This is not some effortful practice that “me” does with gritted teeth and will-power, but rather, this “too ill to bother” is a relaxing, a surrendering, an opening, a letting go of all the efforting, a letting go of “me” and simply BEING the utter simplicity of what is, which takes no effort at all. We already ARE the spacious awareness beholding the bodymind and the whole drama. And if the misidentification as “me,” or the old thought pattern, or the compulsive behavior, or the hot temper, or whatever it is pops up yet again, don’t take it personally. Recognize the authorless, ownerless, insubstantial, dream-like nature of this happening. And crucially, recognize that what matters is always NOW. This painful drama can end in an instant if thought doesn’t keep it going with the story of “Poor me slogging along in the trenches” or “Lucky Eckhart with his permanent burst.” Instead, return to the Heart. Just This, right here, right now. Presence-Awareness. THIS is the Holy Reality. So obvious, so simple, and yet so easy to overlook.
Anyway, my friends, those are my reflections at the end of Day 12 of my Strange Illness that has brought me home once again from the story to the Heart…maybe it will speak to you. I encourage us all to be simple. Just This. Just This. Nothing more. Nothing less. Now. Now. Now. Simple. Simple. Simple. Just being. Right here. Right now.
Someone left this wonderful comment to the post: “The process you eloquently describe--so, so familiar!--reminds me of a favorite Ryokan poem that ends: ‘Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change.’”
[Ed note: The sickness turned out to be cancer, but I didn't discover that until November of 2017]
A (long for Facebook, consider yourself warned) reflection on suffering, pain, desire and fear, so-called evil, bearing the unbearable, and the dance of relative and absolute:
In my writing and in my life, I’ve noticed a kind of spontaneous balancing of relative and absolute—ultimate truth and everyday reality, myself as boundless awareness (formless unicity, no-thing-at-all) and myself as Joan, the apparent human being, subject to all the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I write and speak more from one side of that polarity and sometimes more from the other. In the end, the two sides are not really separate. The thinking mind divides reality up conceptually in order to point out different aspects of it, but ultimately, it is an undivided whole.
That seamless and boundless Absolute can only manifest in apparent duality, in relative polarities (up and down, this and that), in what appears to be space and time. Thus, the manifestation inevitably includes both pain and pleasure, astonishing acts of kindness and astonishing acts of cruelty. Consciousness dances as apparent people in the movie of waking life, and as those apparent people, we have many wonderful and joyous experiences, and we go through all sorts of difficulties and suffering. The dream-like course of history is filled with an ever-shifting mix of beautiful and terrible things, and what appears can (and often does) change from dark to light and vice versa in the blink of an eye. And as I’ve often said, there seems to be no resurrection without the crucifixion—somehow, they go together.
Many theories have been offered as to why “evil” exists. Because of whatever mix of ignorance, brain or neurological malfunction, genetics, and/or conditioning, some people lack a sense of empathy or an ability to put themselves in another’s shoes. Some people suffer from psychosis, hearing voices and being chased by imaginary demons. Some people have been taught or have come to believe that certain groups of people are inferior or inherently dangerous. Some people have been traumatized to such an extent that they do things to others that most of us find unimaginable. Anyone who has meditated and watched their own mind knows that we all have an inner Hitler as well as an inner Buddha. We all contain multitudes. And Kali with her necklace of skulls, devouring her own children, is part of the landscape.
Pain, we know, serves a biological purpose. It is a signal telling us something is wrong. It is what moves us to remove our hand from the hot stove. But then, it often persists or comes when no such discernable purpose is being served, at least not as far as we can tell. People live with chronic pain for years. Jesus died in agony. Yet somehow, it is all part of the Great Dance, the play of consciousness, the unicity that includes absolutely everything, from the most exquisite to the most horrific.
Desire and fear keep us alive in the biological sense, but extended into the psychological realm, in service to protecting and enhancing the imaginary “me,” they morph quickly into suffering. As I often say, no other animal smokes and drinks itself to death. With our ability to think, remember and imagine in complex ways, human beings have gotten to the top of the food chain and landed on the moon, but we also seem poised to self-destruct and take most of life on earth with us. Would this be a tragedy if it happened? Or simply another scene in the ever-unfolding dream of consciousness that never actually goes anywhere, for it is always only Here / Now?
We will never be able to explain why the universe is the way it is, or why consciousness does what it does in the multiple movies of waking life. In the end, at the bottom-line, all we can really say is that what is, is as it is. And no two of us perceive the same movie of waking life. What we have in common is the awareness prior to the movie, the One Consciousness that is dreaming us all, the common factor in every different experience. If we go down to the subatomic level or move out to the astronomical level, our human lives don’t even show up, and from either perspective (zoomed in or zoomed out), our human dramas have no meaning at all.
But at this human level where we live our lives, we naturally care about what is happening in our unique movie of waking life. We care about our children, our loved ones, our pets, our gardens, our planet, our country, our body, our mind. Many of us care about the people in war zones that we see on the news, or the animals on factory farms, or even the people we don’t like who are doing terrible things. Truly, it is all one undivided happening—and the truth is, we care about our own Self, which is all there is. Suffering hurts. And being awake, being open, entails a sensitivity, and shows up as unconditional love. In one way or another, we respond to suffering. We respond choicelessly, as the universe moves each of us to respond. There is no right or wrong response.
Some hardliners in the non-dual subculture insist that a “real” non-dualist would have no interest in national or world affairs or in human psychology and would not care about the characters or the events in a dream. A true non-dualist would be detached, they insist, feeling nothing, breezing through life without a care. But doesn’t non-duality include EVERYTHING, even our humanity? And isn’t it the observer-independent existence and apparent substantiality of everything that is illusory, and not the living reality itself? When our caring comes from the perspective of the separate “me,” it usually feels tight and oppositional, filled with the urgent need to survive and the fear of death—we are at war with reality. But when our caring comes from the Open Heart of awake awareness, there is an openness that has no agenda, a willingness to let go, to die into the no-thing-ness that is unborn and indestructible—an unconditional love that has space for everything to be as it is.
We all know darkness and difficulty to some degree or other. Even those of us who have relatively comfortable lives—we’re not in a war zone, we’re not refugees, we’re not starving to death or living on the streets—but still, we face moments (maybe even weeks, months or years) of inner darkness. Even those of us who are billionaires or “successful” award-winners in our field or enlightened sages seem to experience waves of darkness and difficulty, at least occasionally. Some of us experience more of this than others because of the infinite causes and conditions that make some places (and some bodyminds) sunnier and others stormier. And since we are not really separate individuals in the way we think we are, who can say that our present wave of darkness is not a response to something happening on what appears to be the other side of the world, something that we cognitively know nothing about, but nonetheless feel, because in a very real sense, what happens anywhere, happens to all of us.
A wave of depression or despair, a rush of anxiety or fear. The fire of anger or outrage. The difficulty of going on in the face of what can feel like an enormous weight pressing down on us. The thought that we are broken, deficient, not good enough, a failure. The thought that life is cruel, unfair, unbearable, that certain things that are happening in the world shouldn’t be happening. The anger, and below that the fear, that so many “others” don’t see something the way “I” do. The fear of the mob. These experiences are all to some degree rooted in our biology, our animal nature, our survival instinct—but in human beings, they are easily extended into the psychological realm where we are afraid of things that are entirely imaginary. Yet these imaginary fears may evoke the same neurochemical reactions, and the same freeze, fight or flight responses, as an encounter with an actual tiger in the jungle. Ultimately, as we know if we’ve looked deeply into the nature of reality, ALL of this, even the so-called “real tiger,” are dream-like appearances in consciousness, the ever-changing movement of a seamless unicity that never actually forms into solid, separate, persisting “things.” But even when that has been deeply realized, we still run from a “real” tiger, and the imaginary (psychological) tigers can still seem quite real at times, and the pain of a broken hip, a gunshot wound or a messy divorce will still hurt, and our human mind will still have the ability to imagine all the things that might happen to us and to those we love.
When Mother Teresa died and her journals were posthumously published, the world learned that she had struggled for the better part of 50 years with agonizing doubt and a sense of utter desolation. She felt abandoned by God, disconnected from the love of Jesus that she had felt so strongly in earlier years. Her mystical experiences had dried up. Some have speculated that this was a dark night of the soul that was never properly addressed by her spiritual directors. Others have suggested it was untreated clinical depression. Some think that perhaps she was merely absorbing the pain that she ministered to day after day. But in the end, no one really knows, and it doesn’t really matter. Whatever it was, she was struggling. And yet, she kept going in her ministry to the poor and the sick on the streets of Calcutta. When this first came to light after she died, I was as surprised as everyone else. I had imagined her to be an almost super-human person, full of faith and the presence of God. There was something strangely relieving about knowing that even a person as apparently perfect and saintly as Mother Teresa had struggled with inner demons—I felt less alone in my human imperfection and brokenness. Some have even suggested this was part of her ministry, unbeknownst to her, the relief and comfort provided by this disclosure of her imperfection and her suffering—a kind of Bodhisattva path.
Of course, Mother Teresa is not the only spiritual luminary to have faced darkness and doubt. Jesus himself famously cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And I have shared before the story of a talk I once heard given by Adam Bucko, an amazing Christian man who works with homeless youth in NYC. He said the biggest challenge in his ministry was showing up at those times when grace didn't seem to be present, when it seemed to him that he had nothing to offer—showing up anyway, trusting that somehow God would show up too. Some days, in the darkness, I feel like I can’t go on. I suspect we all have days like that. But then we do go on. And maybe, as Adam suggested, that going on is what true faith (by which I do not mean belief) is all about—going on, even when we feel we can’t. Faith in that sense is a kind of devotion, vigilance or unconditional love. It doesn’t always feel warm and fuzzy, as Jesus and Mother Teresa so aptly demonstrated, and it is not something the imaginary separate self can manufacture, nor is it even really about that phantom self. It is more like the deep truth about reality that we all embody, whether recognized or not, that carries us forward.
Our deepest reality is the boundless awareness that is ever-present, unconditioned, free and undamaged by the events in the movie of waking life—the wholeness of being, the unicity from which nothing stands apart. Pain is an unavoidable part of life. But our suffering is created and perpetuated by seeking to escape and resisting what is, and by thinking and believing false ideas about what we are and how reality is, and in particular, by imagining that we are the illusory “me” who seems to be at the center of our story, apparently authoring our thoughts, making our choices and steering us through life. As that “me,” we live in terror of death or failure. But as boundless awareness, there is no birth or death or failure or success. In reality, everything is already whole and complete, just as it is, pain and apparent brokenness included.
We are all being breathed, carried forward, lived and expressed by that which has no beginning and no end. Somehow, even our darkest despair is a perfect and essential part of the dance, inseparable from the light and the joy. The closer we look at anything that appears to be happening, the less solid and substantial it seems. We can find no real boundary between the awaring presence we are and what appears. And whenever we turn to look for the sufferer, the thinker, the captain of our ship, no one can actually be found. In these discoveries, the suffering lifts (maybe not forever after, but Now—which is all there really is). Guilt and blame disappear. Doubt vanishes in the undoubtable. As we wake up (always now) to the fluidity, impermanence and dream-like quality of everything that appears, and as we recognize that which is imperishable and ever-present, we find that whatever shows up is bearable, even the unbearableness.
In a comment, someone asks: “If good and bad are the front and back of the same thing, why is it that doubt and fear and blame disappear in the NOW of boundless awareness? Why is awareness associated with joy and release and openness and unconditional love? Does good win?”
My response: I appreciate the question—it seems like a paradox that unicity includes everything, that it’s all the dance of consciousness, even the “bad” stuff, and yet being awake as boundless awareness or being enlightened is always characterized by joy, peace, love, openness and liberation. (Which, of course, does not mean that supposedly "enlightened people," itself an oxymoron, are always happy or never make mistakes). But anyway, if we try to answer this question you are asking by thinking about it, it will most likely continue to seem confusing and contradictory. But if we notice our actual direct experience, it clears up immediately. Don’t we intuitively feel that something is false when we’re caught up in anger, hatred, defensiveness, self-righteousness, and so on? Isn’t it obvious in our own experience that love, openness or joy are somehow truer? Why is that so? I would say it’s because anger, hatred, etc. come from the false sense of a separate self, from delusion, while love, openness, etc. come from the wholeness of being, from clarity. It’s pretty obvious that someone like Hitler was not awake or enlightened, even though he was every bit as much an expression of consciousness or unicity as Buddha and Jesus. But again, we really can’t resolve this conceptually. When your heart is open, when you are resting in (and as) boundless awareness, when you are not caught in the self-centered dream, it is obvious. The question simply dissolves. I hope this helps.
HOW DO WE PULL BACK FROM FREEDOM? HOW DO WE REFUSE ENLIGHTENMENT? HOW DO WE OVERLOOK THE OBVIOUS?
In the beginning of our spiritual journey, we imagine that the goal is far away, that it is something mysterious and exotic that we must search for outside of ourselves. We imagine that we must practice diligently and make a great effort in order to (hopefully) arrive at this distant goal some day in the future.
Eventually, in a moment of waking up to what is obvious and most intimate, we recognize that we have never left the place we are searching for, that what we are seeking is what we are: the undeniable knowingness of being present, the infinite and eternal Here / Now that we can never leave, the boundless awareness being and beholding the whole show. This is not something—an object that can be grasped, seen, located, measured or pinned down, and yet, it is our most intimate and undoubtable reality, the common factor in every different experience, the reality in every illusion. This boundless awareness is our true Home, which we have never left, because it is what we are. In simple awake presence, free of thought and imagination, the sense of being a separate encapsulated self disappears, and yet, whenever the functional sense of identity as a person is needed, it shows up and functions quite naturally without in any way disturbing the spaciousness of awareness.
But this realization, as important as it is, rarely ends the search. Why? Because the non-functional psychological self reappears—that deeply-engrained thought-sense of being a separate, independent entity, cut off from the whole, entangled in various dramas, struggling to survive. So, for a while, it seems as if we “get” awakening and then “lose” it. One minute, there is only boundless awareness and no self and everything is luminous and full of love, and the next minute we seem to be Joe Blow again, upset over some personal drama. And it seems as if this fluctuation is happening “to me,” that “I” (Joe Blow) am alternately “getting it” and then “losing it.” We think that presence-awareness comes and goes, when in reality, awareness is ever-present. It is the ever-changing thoughts, sensations, emotions, moods and events that come and go. Joe Blow is actually not the author or the owner of any of this. Joe Blow is a movement of Consciousness, an intermittent appearance. Consciousness simply identifies with its own creation and momentarily believes that “I” am Joe Blow, a separate somebody on a spiritual search.
But if we look deeply into what we refer to with the word “I,” prior to name and form, we find that the true “I” to which we all refer is the impersonal awareness that is here before we learn our name or any other second-hand information. That pure Consciousness has no gender, no age, no nationality, no race, no size, no shape, no location—and there is nowhere it is not. It is the undivided wholeness of being.
Eventually we discover that any time we stop and check, no matter how upset we are or how dramatic the circumstances, presence-awareness (Here / Now) is always right here, being and beholding the whole show. Boundless awareness never really goes away. And whenever we look for the “me” who seems to be going back and forth between “getting it” and “losing it,” the one to whom all of this is apparently happening, all we find are ever-changing thoughts, memories, mental images and sensations. That “me” at the center of “my story” is a kind of mirage. When we move toward it, it vanishes. In recognizing this, the one with the problem evaporates into thin air along with the imaginary problem.
It also begins to dawn on us that all experiences are impermanent, that the movie of waking life is an ever-changing dance in duality that will always be made up of shifting polarities. We will never have a permanent experience of expansiveness and happiness. There will always be moments of tightness and upset, moments of darkness and confusion, moments of apparent imperfection. For as long as this bodymind is here, the full range of human emotion can still show up, albeit perhaps with less and less psychological involvement and less tendency to perpetuate emotional states or believe in the accompanying or triggering storylines that show up in the mind. But no matter what shows up or how much involvement in the emotional drama there is or isn’t, it all appears in awareness, all of it an impersonal movement of undivided Consciousness, the unicity from which nothing stands apart. None of it is personal. The apparent “owner” of these experiences is only a mirage—a character in a dream.
After a while, we know where freedom is—where peace is—where liberation is. We know it’s right here, not over there. We know that the counter-intuitive secret of being liberated on the spot is allowing everything to be as it is, opening and relaxing, dissolving into the simplicity of awareness, surrendering, melting into the Heart, letting go of what we are gripping and grasping—resting as this open, spacious, awaring presence that we always already are.
We know this, and yet, we don’t always seem able to let go, to surrender into that unbound vastness. It may feel like a kind of death, threatening to the survival mind. Our personal identity and our storylines are deeply engrained habits that in some way feel familiar and safe. Our stories can seem very believable and true, even after we’ve discovered that they aren’t true, and they operate very much like any other addiction or compulsion. The siren song of the mind is a powerful pull, one that engages the whole organism. And, of course, trying to “do” surrender it is one of the best ways of tightening up and reincarnating the mirage-like “me,” the apparent doer, who feels separate from the imagined goal and is desperately trying to get there. Surrender is actually the relaxing of that whole controlling impulse, dissolving into the immediacy of Here / Now, being just this moment, however it appears to be.
Maybe we start to relax and melt and dissolve into presence, and then suddenly a fear comes up. Thought issues some urgent warning: “Get a grip” or “Get back to reality” or “This is dangerous” or “Have you lost your mind?” We scare ourselves with stories that we will turn into some kind of spiritual nut case if we let go, all our friends will reject or ridicule us, we’ll go crazy, we’ll make a total fool of ourselves and ruin our lives, we’ll be turning our back on what really matters, we’ll no longer be able to function or earn a living, or whatever the story is. It feels as if our very survival is threatened. We tighten up and go back into the story of being me (the loser, the unenlightened one, the responsible one, whatever our story is).
Or perhaps just as we begin to dissolve into presence, the mind starts replaying one of our favorite old stories that are guaranteed to reincarnate our suffering and our sense of separation—stories of who hurt us, who abandoned us, what injustices we have suffered, what’s wrong with the world, all the ways we’ve failed, all the things we regret, or whatever our particular old favorites are. We each have our own unique ways of stopping ourselves from letting go, from being no-thing at all.
Maybe instead of simply being the aware presence that we are and opening into that, instead we rush to the bookcase and grab a spiritual book so that we can read about surrendering instead of simply surrendering. Or maybe we light a cigarette, or get out the ice-cream or the porn, or turn on the TV. Or we suddenly remember that we “need” to check our email or our Facebook messages, and next thing we know, we’re mindlessly surfing the internet. Pretty much anything will do.
But before we beat ourselves up for being hopelessly flawed spiritual losers, let’s remember to ask what is doing ALL of this? Is it “me” or is it Consciousness? And what is seeing all of this? Any time we stop and check, ALL of this is happening in awareness. All of it is happening Here / Now. All of it is a movement of impersonal, undivided Consciousness. And all of it, the whole drama (like every apparent form) is dissolving instant by instant like snowflakes in a fire. Unless thought reincarnates it and keeps it alive, the past is gone. Nothing has ever really formed or ever really been lost or damaged.
There is no distance at all between our very beingness (this knowingness of being here now, to which the word “I” most deeply refers) and Ultimate Reality or Supreme Enlightenment. The true “I” is this limitless, undivided, unbound, impersonal awareness that is utterly immediate, closer than close, at zero distance, with no separation whatsoever. What makes the full recognition of this so seemingly difficult is that it is so obvious, so familiar, so simple, so absolutely all-inclusive and ever-present. It also seems to elude us because it is non-dual, and thought functions in duality. Awareness or unicity or Here / Now is not some-thing that we can grasp (this but not that)—it is no-thing and everything. And the mind keeps looking for something. Eventually it is realized that we can’t find this with the thinking mind. We can only BE it and dissolve into it.
Awakening is simply a matter of recognizing (again and again, now) what is most obvious and ever-present. And then noticing (again and again, now) how Consciousness (posing as “me”) turns away, how thought and imagination reincarnate the mirage-like separate self and the emotional dramas and stories that keep us in a feeling-state of contraction, which then reinforces the belief in separation. And then recognizing (again and again, now) that we never really can turn away, that wherever we seem to go, Here is what we are. And noticing (again and again, now) that none of this is happening to “me,” the spiritual seeker, for that seeker is only a mirage-like appearance, a shape that Consciousness is momentarily assuming. It is ALL a happening in (and of) Consciousness.
The awakening from suffering to liberation can only happen Now—that realization is an essential key. It is never a future or a past event. But for most of us, the apparent journey from suffering to liberation does not happen once-and-for-all in a single permanent Big Bang event. For most of us, it is a gradual process, with peak moments perhaps, but overall a gradual process in which this realization of non-separation and no-self and the boundlessness and fluidity of everything gradually permeates every cell of our being as we seem to dissolve ever-more deeply and completely into the awareness that we are. There is no end to this process really, it is always now, always new, ever-fresh—in the aliveness of this moment.
Of course, any description of a process over time or an apparent dissolving of one thing into another is only relatively true, a happening within the dream-like movie of waking life, or an attempt to point to what cannot actually be put into words. In reality, which is timeless, it is always already accomplished. Nothing is missing, and there is really nothing to be dissolved. Liberation doesn’t happen to the person—it is a waking up from the person.
Thought may tell us that we, as the imaginary person, are at a particular stage in this apparent journey from suffering to liberation, but that stage (“beginner,” “advanced,” “almost there,” “hopeless case,” whatever it might be) is always only a thought-idea, and the one it refers to is only a mental image, and the apparent journey never really goes anywhere, for it is always Here / Now. No one has ever truly been lost or bound. All there is, is Consciousness dancing.
The mind will say, “Yes, but…” And when it does, question the mind. And rather than trying to think your way to enlightenment, which never works, simply notice what is here right now, prior to thought, in the aliveness of this very moment. Give your attention and your heart to this aliveness. Melt into that. Be devoted to that. Give your life to that.
Sometimes people say they have a feeling that they’re getting close to awakening. But what is aware of that feeling? The awareness beholding that feeling and that idea of a future “awakening” that might happen “to me” very soon—that awareness is the True Home, the True Self, always already 100% present and 100% awake. But we can't turn around and "see" it because we ARE it, and "it" is not an object.
Awareness is what Here / Now is—the infinite Here and the eternal (timeless) Now where we always are, and where every different location, time of day and season of life shows up. Here / Now is not just where we are—it’s what we are. It’s synonymous with boundless awareness. Here / Now (awareness, presence) has no beginning and no end. No inside or outside. There is no such reality as "before Now" or "after Now," except in thought or memory, both of which actually happen Now. It is always Now. We are always already Home. This ever-present Awakeness is closer than close, most intimate. We can't get any closer to Here / Now (or to awareness) than we already are.
The true "I" to which we all refer is this ever-present boundless awareness, this ever-present Here / Now, the true Self prior to name and form. And there is nowhere this is not. It is showing up as everything: the trees, the birds, the tables and chairs, the looming threat of nuclear war, the wildfires spreading over the landscape, the rainstorms, the freeways, the ants, the human beings, the whole show. Consciousness IS the dividing up of seamless unicity (primordial awareness) into apparent multiplicity.
Consciousness is pretending to be a separate person, on a journey in time, looking for an awakening that still seems to be missing. It's all a play of consciousness, like a movie. All experiences, from the most horrific to the most sublime, are in the movie. Awareness is beholding the movie, and like the screen on which the movie appears, awareness is never burned by the fires in the movie. (Please note: different words can be used to describe or point to all this, and the distinction I’m making here between awareness and consciousness is purely conceptual, like the line on a map between two places—there is no actual boundary in reality, and there are not really two separate things—it is one seamless unicity. The words simply point out different aspects of this one undivided whole. Others may use different words, or they may use these words differently—don’t get hung up on the words—go to where the words are pointing.)
All experiences are impermanent. Any experience that comes will go. Consciousness (or awareness) is the common factor in every different experience. By imagining (or pretending) that it is a person who is "getting close," consciousness creates within itself the appearance of time and space and distance, as well as the drama, the suspense and the anticipation that it so enjoys. It pretends to be “me” looking for “it.” This leads to moments of frustration, moments of hope, moments of despair, moments of desperation, moments of exhilaration—a wonderful, thrilling, sometimes painful movie! Will she get there or not? (Drum rolls). But this drama is never really happening to the character—it is an impersonal appearance in (and of) consciousness. The one who is “almost awake” has no actual existence outside of consciousness. Awareness is always awake.
The movie is very compelling. Consciousness easily gets absorbed in the story it is spinning and identified as the character it is pretending to be. But what is the substance of every form, the core of every sensation, the space in which it all appears and out of which it is all made? Feel into this. Don’t think about it—feel into it. Feel the openness, the aliveness, the ungraspable freedom, the awake presence that you are—the presence Here / Now that is boundless and limitless and totally free.
Response to a comment:
Consciousness can play as the ego or it can dissolve back into being awareness, which we might say is the purest, barest, subtlest form of consciousness—but there are never two things here (consciousness and awareness)—the actuality is one seamless whole, moving in different ways, like waves on the ocean. The true "I" is undivided impersonal boundless awareness, which is obvious when the small "I" (the "me" who seems to be at the center of my life) disappears, as it actually does many times in any ordinary day when thought is not bringing it into apparent existence. In many ordinary moments, we’re simply washing the dishes or driving the car, with no thoughts of “me”—and there is simply the activity itself with no doer—and then, a thought arises, e.g. "I need to understand this," or “I should have gone to law school,” and that thought creates (in imagination) this apparent "me" who seemingly needs to understand, or who might have taken the wrong turn in life by not going to law school. If this thought (and the mirage-like “me” at the center of it) is not seen through, if it is believed and identified with, it can set into motion a whole train of further thoughts, stories, bodily sensations and actions. But if it is seen as simply an impersonal thought, a movement of consciousness, then it dissolves back into consciousness. It isn’t “me” who thinks these thoughts or who sees through them. There is no “me.” Thought is a movement of consciousness, and that which sees through thought is awareness, the light of intelligence.
REFLECTIONS IN THE WAKE OF RECENT THREATS OF NUCLEAR WAR AND THE WHITE SUPREMACY AND VIOLENCE THAT ERRUPTED OVER THE WEEKEND IN CHARLOTTESVILLE: WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT WE CAN OFFER TO THE WORLD?
I hope it goes without saying that I am not a fan of white supremacy, neo-fascism, neo-Nazis, the KKK, terrorist acts (such as the brutal car attack in Charlottesville), US world domination, nuclear war, or rioting and violence in general. But I’d like to look at all this from a different perspective.
Perhaps the greatest thing we can offer to this troubled world is the realization of the common factor in every different experience and the abidance in that open presence, that unbound awareness that is Here / Now. This open awaring presence is our common ground, the singular “I” to which we all most deeply refer beyond name and form.
At the level of diversity and multiplicity, no two of us see exactly the same movie of waking life. But the seeing, the awareness beholding all the different movies, is one and the same undivided awareness. Consciousness is playing as form and multiplicity, pretending to be you and me, black and white, racists and anti-racists, Trump and Kim Jong-un, left and right, men and women, gay and straight—different waves on (and of) one indivisible ocean, all moving in perfect harmony even when—from our limited perspective—it looks like discord and mayhem.
This realization of unicity does not preclude also working to expose and dissolve racism, sexism, class oppression, heterosexism, nationalism, imperialism and all other forms of bigotry and injustice, both externally in their outward manifestations and internally within our own minds. But when we come to it from a place of openness, wholeness and presence, this activity emerges from a very different ground and takes a very different shape than when it comes out of the tightness and contraction of separate and divisive identity and that fundamental “NO!” to what is—arguing with reality, as Byron Katie puts it.
If you take up meditation and watch your own mind, no matter what race or gender or sexual orientation or nationality or social class you belong to, you will find racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the rest of it inside of you, even if you belong to the group in question, and even if you abhor racism and sexism and all forms of bigotry, and even if you work diligently to end such things both within yourself and in the world. This stuff is in all of us—some of it may have roots in our biology, which doesn’t mean it has to continue, and all of it comes in large part from our conditioning—we’ve all grown up in a world that has these tendencies. Having lived almost 70 years now, I’ve seen enormous progress in terms of undoing racism, sexism and heterosexism, and it’s important to remember that—younger people often feel that nothing is changing, but it is—and yet, obviously, these things are far from being completely rooted out and resolved, and right now, they seem to be having a rather powerful resurgence. We need only turn on the News to see that.
I have come to feel that fighting violence with violence (unless there is no other option), or meeting hate with hate, only pours gasoline on the fire. I don’t support people or groups who just want to get into a brawl with the other side. I’ve also come to feel that self-righteously insisting that everyone must engage in certain “politically correct” activities is not particularly helpful either, for example, insisting that white people “should” or “must” work on our racism, and men must work on their sexism, and heterosexuals must work on their homophobia and heterosexism, and we must all confess our sins and root them out and speak out for social justice, and so on. In my experience, people discover things in their own way, at their own time. Shaming and guilt-tripping each other rarely has desirable results. (I speak from experience).
Is it possible to have compassion for ourselves in our imperfection, and also to have compassion for those on the other side, even as we disagree with their ideology and their actions? Can we see what is most fundamentally at the root of this troubling (armed and organized) neo-fascist, white supremacist, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT movement that seems to be on the rise? Can we find a similar root within ourselves? Will the deepest change come from addressing that root cause or from addressing only the more superficial causes, or maybe both need to be addressed?
On the level of form, as characters in the movie of waking life, we each have our own unique costume: black or white, gay or straight, male or female, rich or poor, high society or low, American or North Korean, old or young – and the reality is, these polar opposites are not as absolute as they seem to be in our ideological conceptualizations of them. Many of us (some unknowingly, and more of us all the time) are mixed race, most of us—whether we know it or act on it or not—are somewhere on a spectrum between being entirely gay and entirely straight in our sexual preferences, many more of us than we’ve realized in the past are somewhere on a spectrum of gender fluidity between absolutely male and absolutely female, people born into poverty sometimes become rich and vice versa, the young eventually become the old—so these seemingly rigid categories are in fact much more fluid and mutable and made-up than we often want to admit.
And at a deeper level, what we truly are has no race, no gender, no age, no social class, no nationality, no sexual preferences. It is unconditioned and free. When we meet here in this awake presence, something new opens up. Of course, BEING this open presence is one thing, and having it as an ideology is something else. And I recognize that this nondual understanding, as an ideology, can be misused to gloss over or deny the very real problems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, economic inequality, and so on. I’m not suggesting that kind of ignorance (i.e. ignoring).
But is it possible that what we give our attention to actually has a huge impact, not only on our own lives, but on the world as a whole? Instead of attending solely to the divisions, differences and animosities, what happens when we attend more and more to the wholeness that is right here, right now? What happens when we focus on love rather than hate?
In closing, I offer something from the great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj, from I Am That: “When more people come to know their real nature, their influence, however subtle, will prevail and the world’s emotional atmosphere will sweeten up…A new golden age may come and last for a time and succumb to its own perfection. For ebb begins when the tide is at its highest…[Permanent perfection] includes all imperfection…Creation and destruction are the two poles between which it weaves its ever-changing pattern.”
So beautifully put. If perfecting ourselves and the world at the level of form is our goal, we will be frustrated and disappointed. But when we can see that all of it—the parts we like and the parts we think are horrible—are ALL the dance of consciousness, and that we (as consciousness) are quite literally ALL of it—that all of it is a creation of Mind—then perhaps the change of heart that follows from this realization will actually be what this world needs most. Just don’t imagine that such a change, however widespread, will produce a lasting utopia. The phenomenal manifestation can only show up in duality, and when we fix one thing, something else will inevitably break down. Still, that’s no reason not to fix a flat tire, feed our children, or speak out against racism or American belligerence on the global stage.
But in the midst of whatever may arise and whatever actions we take, I encourage us all to take time to be in silence, to tune into the stillness that is always right here in the eye of the storm, to drop into the Heart, to feel the energies of the emotions that sweep through the bodymind as pure sensation without getting lost in the labels and storylines, to recognize it all as a movement of consciousness and not take any of it personally, to not imagine that any of us (on either side) are in control, and to rest, if only for moments at a time, in (and as) the free and unbound awareness beholding it all. That just might be the greatest gift we can offer.
As a balance to my last post, which offered a non-dual, spiritual response to Charlottesville and the rising fascist movement in the US, I’d now like to share and highly recommend watching a two-part interview from today’s Democracy Now with Mark Bray, a lecturer at Dartmouth College, and the author of a forthcoming book about Antifa (i.e., the radical left and anarchist movement made up of many diverse and autonomous groups that share a commitment to defeating fascism, racism, white supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism by any means necessary).
Trump equated them with the alt-right and the Nazis in his speech yesterday, and while I would never do that, I have at times been critical of their sometimes-violent tactics. But Mark Bray offers a different perspective, one that is, I feel, very important to hear. He talks about the very real dangers of fascism, the lessons of history, and the past failures of liberal democracy to resist rising fascism until it’s too late, as with Hitler in Germany.
It also includes a brief clip from a recent interview with Dr. Cornel West on Democracy Now, in which West described how the antifa protestors saved his life and the lives of a small group of mostly clergy who were protesting the white supremacist rally. Dr. West went on to say:
“I think what we’re really seeing…is the American empire in decay, with the rule of big money, with massive militarism, facilitated by the scapegoating of the most vulnerable, of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, gay, lesbians, trans and bisexuals, and black folk. The white supremacy was so intense. I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life. We stood there, and nine units went by, and looking right in our eyes. And they’re cussing me out, and so forth and so on…it’s the way in which this capitalist civilization is leading us toward unbelievable darkness and bleakness. And the beautiful thing is the fightback. It was a beautiful thing to see all the people coming back. But they had more fascists than anarchists, more fascists than fightback.”
Anyway, in my opinion, Americans really need to see this. I very highly recommend this two-part interview about the very real dangers of the rising tide of fascism in the US:
Part One: https://www.democracynow.org/2017/8/16/antifa_a_look_at_the_antifascist
Part Two: https://www.democracynow.org/2017/8/16/part_2_antifa_a_look_at
How do we embrace and embody both the deep realization of unicity and emptiness, on the one hand, and the undeniable reality of also being unique and unrepeatable individual human beings in a world that abounds with suffering and injustice? How do we meet the rising tide of fascism and white supremacy without adding to the violence and the hate? Or do we ignore it altogether and focus only on the light?
My last two posts reflect two sides of myself that often feel like they are pulling in opposite directions. Maybe some of you can relate. This merging of difference and unity, relative and absolute, form and emptiness has been my central koan from the beginning. Over the years, I have moved from being a political activist to being primarily in the nondual-spiritual world, but I still cannot ignore or turn away from the suffering of all beings and the injustices in the world. Sometimes I wish I could. The spiritual direction certainly feels calmer, more spacious, more relaxed, more peaceful, happier. Whereas the political direction often feels agitated, uneasy, tumultuous, uncomfortable, messy, uncertain—filled with unsettling and sometimes turbulent emotions (anger, fear, sorrow, despair). But turning away from what is uncomfortable is not always the highest truth. Still, I sometimes envy those awakened beings who seem able to leave all worldly concerns behind and dissolve peacefully into the absolute, never to return. I seem drawn in a different direction, however, perhaps more akin to the earthiness of Zen, which tends to find the transcendent right in the midst of the everyday and the mundane: “This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.” Right here in the mess and the upset. I also deeply appreciate the way Zen doesn’t land on either side of apparent dualistic divides. It doesn’t even land in oneness, but speaks of “leaping clear of the many and the one.” Not one, not two.
Reflecting on this matter of removing monuments to leaders of the Confederacy, I totally support removing them. The Confederacy was about maintaining slavery, and it should not be memorialized in any kind of positive way. But as I watched video of demonstrators in Durham, NC toppling the Confederate Soldiers Monument and then kicking it as it lay in the dust, I felt a pain in my heart. I was thrilled to see the statue come down and to see people taking the power to do this into their own hands—it was the kicking afterwards that pained me. Why?
Because I've felt that kind of hate and it hurts. The Confederate soldiers, their generals, and their leaders were (knowingly or unknowingly) most definitely fighting for white supremacy and the continuation of slavery, but they were human beings doing what their lives had conditioned them to do. And as Jesus so wisely said, let the one among us who is without sin cast the first stone. Racism was, after all, not confined to the South—some of its worst and most egregious expressions have happened in the North. And racism is not just “out there” – it is in all of us who grew up in a racist world. Many of us are against racism, but in the dark corners of our lizard brain, racism is still in there. So, in a way, these statues represent the ignorance and the darkness and the hate within all of us.
So, I wonder—can we imagine these statues coming down in a different way? Can we imagine taking them down gently, lovingly, with tenderness—tenderness for those misguided human beings who owned slaves, traded slaves, and fought for slavery to continue—and tenderness for the racism and sexism and heterosexism within all of our psyches—tenderness for our delusions, our mistakes, our imperfections, our warts and blemishes? That kind of tenderness isn’t in any way about condoning or preserving or promoting these delusions, but in my experience, when we hate and resist our imperfections—when we kick and shame them—they tend to persist. Next thing we know, they’re wearing white robes and marching down the street with torches, either out there in the world or inside our hearts and minds. So perhaps there is another way.
The program I linked to in my last post made a convincing case for why we must not ignore the rising tide of fascism or wait until it’s too late to do something about it. And perhaps there are times when fire must be met with fire. I’m not a complete pacifist. But I do feel we accomplish more when we meet hate with love, and when we meet violence with non-violence. Otherwise, we all too easily become what we are fighting against in a different guise, and we also tend to make the side we are fighting against all the more violent and all the more determined. We need only look at our own experience. What opens our hearts and allows us to recognize our mistakes and change? When we are shamed, guilt-tripped, spat upon, clubbed or belittled, do our hearts open? Or do they close down? Do our views get less solid or more solid? And on the other hand, when we are met with genuine love, with compassion and understanding for our faults, when people see the light in us, isn’t that much more likely to open us, to soften our hearts and allow us to see our mistakes and change?
What turns someone from an innocent baby into a Nazi or a Klansman filled with hate? And what might turn them back to their original purity of heart? What fills any of us with hate, and what invites us back toward love? I’m not suggesting we be naïve. What’s happening is very serious, I think—and it may end up being another civil war or another genocide or even (given the nuclear option) the end of life on earth. And yes, in the absolute sense, that would be just another momentary waving in the ocean. Being awake to, and rooted in, that bigger context is very helpful. But sometimes I feel it gets misused as a buffer to shield us from the pain of life. As Issa, the Zen poet, so elegantly wrote after the death of his second child:
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet. . .
It has been said that the world as we see it—our movie of waking life—is a very convincing illusion. Something is undoubtedly showing up Here-Now—that is undeniable—but the illusion is the deeply conditioned belief that what is being seen is “out there,” separate from the seer—that it is a substantial, observer-independent, objective reality that persists in time and space. In other words, what is undeniably showing up is not what we think it is or what it appears to be if we don’t look carefully.
Whatever historical and current events we take to be real, whatever version of these events we feel is the truth, if we look very closely, we will see that it all happens in consciousness, and that 99% of it happens in imagination (memory being a form of imagination). Does that mean it has no validity, no truth, no reality at all—that we should ignore it? Or is that going too far in the opposite direction?
I would say yes, that's going too far in the opposite direction. It’s an all-too-common mistake in the radical nondual world to use the absolute truth that All Is One (or that everything is a dream) to deny or ignore relative truths and to overlook the ability of consciousness (or wholeness itself) to discern differences and awaken from delusion. In reality, we take care of our children—we don’t ignore them because they are “just a dream.” And while it’s absolutely true that Hitler was a wave in and of the One Ocean, and thus no less ocean than any other wave, we still (hopefully) don’t consider him an enlightened wave who spoke from an awakened perspective (which would mean speaking from the whole, from aware presence, rather than from a deluded thought-story of separation and division). We ignore relative reality at our own peril. But when we behold it from the place of wholeness, love is what comes forth, not hate.
HERE-NOW: OUR ORIGINAL FACE - It can be noticed that time and space are mental constructions, modes of perception. The only actual reality is Here-Now. And Here-Now, in this immediacy before thought, there is no “me,” no “world,” no past, no future, no present, no storyline, no history, no this, no that, no awareness, no consciousness, no matter, no mind. Yes, there is the living actuality to which words such as “awareness” point, but without the overlay of any thought-concept to seemingly objectify, reify, separate and divide “awareness” from something else that is supposedly “not awareness.” What there is, cannot actually be put into words, for it is prior to all words. It can be experienced directly, but it cannot be formulated or boxed up into any conceptual abstraction.
The words that point out or describe this nondual reality, and the ways we think about this living reality, are always only maps, not the actual territory itself. Although this doesn’t mean we should throw out maps. After all, mapping is something the territory is doing, and in that sense, the map is also the territory. But it is not what it re-presents or describes. The word water is not water. This seems obvious, but it is an incredibly subtle point that we miss again and again because our conceptualizations and ways of thinking about reality are so deeply conditioned, so ubiquitous and so seemingly real to us that we mistake the map for the territory again and again without realizing we are doing it.
We think of eternity as a very long time—a kind of infinite duration stretching out ahead of us. But Now is the true eternity: timeless, ever-present, without any before or after. It is always Now. Every time of day and night, every season of the year, every moment in history, every age in our lives, all show up Now. Memory of the past and imagination of the future show up Now. Now is the only actuality, the only reality. Of course, this doesn’t mean we throw out our watches and calendars. It doesn’t mean that we deny or ignore history, or that we have to reinvent the wheel all over again in every new moment. It doesn’t mean we can’t plan a vacation, or envision and work toward a different way of organizing social and economic relationships. But all of that happens Now.
We think of infinity as a very big space, and we imagine that we are here in one place, and someone else is “over there” in another place, and the stars we see in the night sky are “way out there” in another place far, far away. But all of it shows up right Here at no distance at all, without the least bit of separation. Here is the true infinity: the unlocatable, non-localized, immediacy of presence-awareness, which has no outside or inside. Every location shows up Here, exactly where we always are. Every step of the journey from one place to another happens Here. The starting point and the destination both show up Here. The imagination of elsewhere can only arise Here. We are always Here.
We cannot actually leave Here-Now, although it seems as if we can. But stop and check. No matter what mental movies and storylines capture the attention and seemingly take us to faraway lands or into past or future time—whether we are watching a movie on TV or lost in thought—it all happens Here-Now, and however far we seem to travel, we have never moved away from this timeless, placeless, ever-present immediacy. No-thing with any lasting solidity has actually happened. No one has actually gone anywhere. It was all a kind of imagination, like a dream. The last moment has vanished completely. How substantial was it?
The dream characters seem to travel to faraway lands and undergo life-changing experiences—wars, natural disasters, empires rising and falling, children being born and dying, years in prison, years of depression, years of addiction, spiritual breakthroughs, love affairs, marriages, divorces, struggles for social justice, bankruptcies, lottery wins, successes, failures, pain, pleasure, gains and losses of all kinds—and yet, the dreamer (consciousness itself) has never moved away from Here-Now, and nothing substantial has actually happened. Although it is a very convincing illusion, waking life is a play of consciousness in the same way a dream is. At the end of a long life, just as at the end of a dream, we have never actually gone anywhere. It all happened Here-Now, to no one. The person we call “me” is a dream-character in the dream. The dreamer is consciousness—the impersonal, unbound, infinite and eternal unicity. Everything in the dream is made out of consciousness. There is only consciousness.
Here-Now is another word for consciousness, awareness, thusness. It is the common factor in every different experience, just as the screen is the common factor that is equally present in every scene of the movie. It has been called the One Taste, or your Original Face before your parents were born. It is the reality in every illusion.
As a belief or an appealing idea, this is just more baggage to carry around—one more thing to eventually doubt. And the mind can easily turn a conceptual idea of “Consciousness” into some-thing that can be grasped and worshipped and clung to as a comforting answer to the uncertainty of life. But as this simple recognition of Here-Now (present awareness, awaring presence) becomes obvious as what we truly are, this is liberation itself.
So, check and see if it isn’t true—not by thinking about it, but simply by looking and seeing for yourself. You never move away from Here-Now. You never experience anything outside of consciousness. This is what the true “I” is, to which we all refer, prior to everything that gets added on later in the dream (such as name, gender, race, age, nationality, career, political leanings, spiritual leanings, life story—all the many identities we accumulate). If we come back to what is most simple, most basic, most immediate, closer than close, at the very core, impossible to negate, we find this unnamable, ungraspable aware presence in which everything is appearing and disappearing. And we can find no boundary between this awareness and everything that is showing up. There is no division between subject and object, seer and seen, awareness and content, form and emptiness. The divisions are conceptual. Reality itself is seamless, undivided, whole. I am at once no-thing and everything.
And yet, however awake we may be to this seamlessness, the movie of waking life continues to show up. We cannot ignore or deny this everyday reality. Consciousness continues to pour out the appearance of time and space, diversity and multiplicity. It continues to manifest itself as the sense of being located in a particular place as a separate person on a journey through life. It continues to label and categorize, to reason and imagine, to spin out stories and narratives—some relatively true and relatively important within the movie, some not. All of it the waving play of the seamless ocean—the typing and reading of these words, the preparation of breakfast, eating, sleeping, talking, listening, working, responding to current events, writing emails, thinking, awaring, dreaming, waking, giving birth, dying—all the various activities of life.
We can’t ignore this world of relative reality—this dream-like movie of waking life—but we can begin to hold it more lightly, to see it as the ever-changing, insubstantial, fluid dance that it is, empty of self or other, empty of inherent or objective reality. We can behold it from awake presence, from the openness of Here-Now, from the True Self (boundless awareness) rather than from the limited small self (the movie character called “me”). Actions can come from limitless wholeness rather than from the sense of separation and limitation. And we can play our part in the movie with abandon and joy, without the oppressive weight of guilt, shame and regret.
Response to a comment:
You're referring to the content of the Now, or what is sometimes called the present moment. And actually, because of the split-second time-delay in perception that you mention, the content is always of the past. But the Now that I'm speaking about is not in the past. It is timeless.
Here-Now is the Heart, the core of our being, the deepest Truth, the unconditional love that allows everything to be as it is, the boundlessness that has no limit, the Original Face that has no beginning and no end.
Here-Now is the aliveness, the vibrancy of being, the spacious openness of presence, the pure awareness that is subtler than space, that which is beyond name and form and yet inclusive of all names and forms—this utterly immediate, undivided unicity Here-Now.
In Advaita, Here-Now is called the Self. In Buddhism, it is called emptiness. Advaita emphasizes the unchanging, ever-present, immutable, imperishable nature of Here-Now. Buddhism emphasizes the ever-changing, interdependent, impermanent, ungraspable nature of Here-Now. These seem at first glance to be irreconcilable opposites. But as the great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna pointed out, the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence, for if we go deeply into impermanence, we find that the impermanence is so thoroughgoing that no-thing ever actually forms to even be impermanent. So, whether we travel the Advaita path or the Buddhist path, we arrive at the same empty-fullness, the same moving-stillness, the same ever-changing / ever-present Here-Now that we have never actually left, the same seamless, boundless, limitless wholeness or groundlessness that is all there is.
Each way of approaching and presenting this recognition has different strengths and different potential pitfalls, but what matters is always the territory itself, not the different maps that describe and point to that territory. “Here-Now,” “emptiness,” “the Self,” “pure consciousness,” “primordial awareness,” “thusness,” “the inexplicable dance of existence,” “beingness,” “the Tao” – these are all words. But they all point to what is here before any word or thought arises—and of course, also during (and as) all words, and after all words have fallen silent. Here-Now depends on nothing, and there is nowhere it is not. It is the common factor in every different experience and that which is real in every illusion. Try to grasp it with the mind, and immediately the movie of dualistic suffering and confusion starts rolling, the movie of “me” (the imaginary separate self) trying to grasp “it” (the imaginary prize), which is like a mirage chasing a mirage: “I had it…I lost it…Could this be it?...What if?...I don’t get it…I got it!...Yes, but…” – on and on the hamster wheel turns, chasing the imaginary carrot.
Of course, when I say the carrot is imaginary, I don’t mean there is no enlightenment or awakening or liberation. There is, but it’s not what we think it is. It’s not that imaginary carrot that we’ve been chasing just up ahead of us. It’s Here-Now, ever-present, most obvious, at the very Heart of this moment, beholding everything and at the core of everything. It’s what we truly are, our True Self (or no self at all). It has never been absent or hidden. And yet it is seemingly missed because the attention keeps looking “out there” (or “in here,” which is another form of “out there”) for some-thing it can point to, grasp and pin down. And Here-Now (awareness, presence, beingness) is not something. It cannot be grasped as an object. It has no borders or seams, no shape or color, no location or size. It is not a “thing” or an experience. It is the One Taste of all experiencing.
Because we hear that this Original Face is ever-present, that “All is One,” this can result in some serious confusion if understood only intellectually. When it is fully realized in the Heart, there is no more confusion—the apparent paradoxes dissolve. But the place where people often get confused intellectually is that, yes, everything, without exception, is a movement of seamless and boundless unicity, but not everything is an expression of the enlightened recognition or realization of this unicity. When unbroken unicity is deeply realized, there is peace, freedom, love, joy, ease of being, clarity. (Not forever after, but Now). And the action that comes from that realization is intelligent, holistic, loving, compassionate. It could be fierce and unconventional in some way—it’s not necessarily sweet or gentle—but it moves from wholeness, not from separation. In that sense, it is wholesome.
Enlightenment does not manifest in kicking the dog, carrying out a genocide, or raping your neighbor at gunpoint. Yes, those actions are all movements of the whole—part of the Great Dance of Consciousness—but they come from ignorance, from delusion, from the belief in separation. When the nature of reality is not clearly seen, when consciousness is lost in the self-centered dream, the actions that come forth create more confusion and more suffering. And while it’s all part of the Great Dance, it is not all liberation or enlightenment.
None of it is personal, neither the enlightenment nor the delusion. “Me” is not the author, the doer, the experiencer, or the owner of any of it. “Me” is a mental image, a bunch of memories and thoughts that produce a kind of mirage-like appearance in (and of) consciousness, a mistaken conflation of the undeniable, unbound aware presence Here-Now and the image that appears in the bathroom mirror. Consciousness gets lost in its own creations, temporarily identified with the characters it has created. And then it wakes up. None of it is personal.
In the beginning, spiritual exploration or realization may seem like something that “me,” the person, attains or does or has, but in reality, awakening is simply a recognition by consciousness of its own unbound and limitless nature. Any idea of “my awakening” or “my delusion” or “me” trying to “be the empty screen” and “not the character in the movie” is ALL in the movie. It’s all part of the story. In the immediacy of Here-Now, there is no story, no me, no enlightenment, no delusion, no movie, no screen, no form, no emptiness—just unbroken wholeness without division. Simplicity itself. So, it is not a matter of “me” becoming an Awakened One or a Permanently Enlightened One—that is all more delusion. It is a matter of recognizing what is always already awake Here-Now. And there is no end to this awakening. It is ever-fresh. This open awake presence is continually meeting new challenges. So, awakening is not once-and-for-all, or forever-after, or yesterday, or someday—it is always NOW.
Waking up from our suffering and confusion is the reason we have spiritual paths, spiritual teachings, spiritual teachers, retreats, satsangs, books, and so on. Kicking the dog and then justifying it by asserting that “it’s all one” and “there is no doer” is delusion. Yes, it is all the activity of undivided consciousness. But so is the ability to discern truth from falsehood, to identify and correct mistakes, to wake up. And yes, all of these distinctions that I’m speaking about are in the realm of relative reality, but enlightenment does not dismiss or ignore relative reality. It includes it, while being grounded in the absolute. The quality of enlightenment is open, awake, sensitive, naturally compassionate—it is unconditional love itself. Hate, on the other hand, is reactive, rooted in the false sense of separation and self-contraction. Hate does not arise from enlightenment.
There is a human tendency to put teachers, especially dead ones, up on pedestals. But most (if not all) teachers, even those who are deeply realized, still have moments of delusion, moments of ignorance, old habit patterns that persist, cultural blind spots, and some degree of human neurosis. Thus, we have a long history of enlightened gurus, sages and teachers doing everything from smoking cigarettes and having angry outbursts, to drinking alcoholically, sexually molesting their students, committing suicide, promoting sexism or racism, lying, cheating on their partners, abandoning their children, even molesting children and sending out hit-men to kill wayward devotees. Unless we redefine enlightenment to where it has no meaning at all, we can safely say that no human being is fully, permanently, completely, always enlightened, 24/7/365. That is a myth. In fact, no human being actually exists as a continuous, persisting, solid, separate entity. That in itself is sheer delusion. So, actually, there is no such thing as an enlightened person, or a permanently enlightened person. Those are both oxymorons.
If practice is needed to wake up, practice shows up. If letting go of all practices is needed, letting go shows up. If a wild ride through the movie-world of delusion is needed, that’s what shows up. If the Buddhist path is needed, Buddhism shows up. If the Advaita path is needed, Advaita shows up. If no path is needed, pathlessness shows up. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is not it. But at the same time, being awake to this undivided wholeness and not being awake to it is the difference between heaven and hell, between nirvana and samsara. Are nirvana and samsara the same or different? The Truth is, they are not one, not two. We can’t land in either extreme.
There is a depth, a subtlety, a flexibility, a fluidity, an aliveness in true awakeness, in aware presence. True enlightenment (by whatever name) is not dogmatic, fundamentalist or ideological. It is not fixated on one side of any conceptual divide. It is neither stuck in the absolute nor lost in the relative. It is fresh in every new moment. It moves. It breathes. It evolves. It dances. And yes, at the same timeless-time, nothing happens at all.
We all have a longing for death—for deep sleep, for absence. It goes with and balances our longing for life. As we age, the balance shifts more and more from a hunger for life to a longing for death. I don’t mean this in a morbid sense. It’s actually quite natural. We all at every age enjoy dissolving out of body and mind in deep sleep. And as children, we love to build sand castles and then smoosh them. We love watching a good movie, and we enjoy leaving the movie theater when it’s over. We love listening to music, and we love returning to silence. Life inhales and exhales. The tide goes in and out. It’s a natural movement from the unmanifested to the manifested and vice versa, from nondual unicity to apparent multiplicity and vice versa—all of it one whole undivided happening without borders or seams. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The ever-present IS the ever-changing.
Like many others, I often compare waking life to a movie or a dream. In the excerpt from Francis Lucille that I shared recently (8/29/17), he compares it to a painting. These analogies do not mean life is unreal in the sense that it is without value and should therefore be ignored or dismissed—although there are some schools of both Eastern and Western spirituality that do have that idea. But as I see it, EVERYTHING is the Holy Reality, the face of God, the Tao, the infinite expression of the One-without-a-second.
We are at once both the audience and the performance in this movie. The separate self, which reveals itself on careful examination to be only a mirage-like fiction composed of thoughts and mental images, is not authoring or directing any of it. But something right here, closer than close, is moving. Is it me or not-me? We can’t say, for no such duality exists. This movement is a choiceless, author-less happening—the hand reaching out for the glass of water, the bodymind typing a new Facebook post—a happening that is inseparable from everything else there is, from the most infinitesimal to the most astronomical, from the subatomic to the intergalactic. This seamless unfolding of the phenomenal manifestation emerges, dances for a while, and then vanishes completely in deep sleep, only to emerge again, ever-fresh moment by moment, never the same way twice.
The more there is a recognition of the all-pervading unicity that we are and that everything is, and the more there is a grounding in boundless awareness (groundlessness, non-grasping, open wonder, impersonal presence, the immediacy of Here-Now), the more the play lightens. It still contains all the textures of life: laughter and joy, grief and sorrow, a flash of anger, a moment of equanimity, waves of darkness, wonderful illuminations, unsettling thoughts, a clench in the gut, a delicious relaxing, pure silence, the screeching of a cat, the sounds of traffic, the scent of roses, the smell of garbage, the evening News, the tingling in the toes…but whatever shows up, it’s all part of the show, the Great Dance of Consciousness. It’s like being in a painting (noun), as the painting (verb) itself and simultaneously as the one who views and appreciates the painting, with no separation between subject and object, viewer and viewed, painter and painting.
So, I would say, don’t ignore or trivialize this ever-changing movie. Don’t try to turn it off because you think that other-worldliness is somehow “more spiritual.” Don’t look away because it seems too painful or maybe too blissful to bear. This movie, with all its levels of meaning and complexity, from bare sensations to storylines and narratives, is the Holy Reality itself—the Original Face. Be a devotee of this that has no other—no inside or outside—the One Self, the great emptiness, the magnificent fullness, whether it is manifesting as a movie or dissolving back into formless no-thing-ness. Enjoy the ride, the ride where there is no rider and no ride, only the riding. And know that there is nothing that is not this. In every instant, the universe is born anew. We’ve never been here before, in THIS moment, and yet, we’ve never left Here-Now, the eternal presence that we truly are.
Enjoy the possibility of dissolving into silence whenever it invites you. Contemplate deeply the emptiness of all form. Relax into simple presence. Enjoy the traffic sounds, the colors and shapes, the dance of sensation in the body that is no body at all. Notice in the midst of this movie of waking life that what is never really forms into any solid, persisting “things” to be dissolved. Any apparent form is always already dissolving. And in deep sleep, and finally, at the moment of death, enjoy the complete dissolving of body and mind—the falling away of everything. Recognize that you are the wholeness that is unborn and undying, without beginning or end, the nondual absolute that has no opposite, the indestructible tenderness of all that is.
As Ramana Maharshi (or maybe it was Shankara) put it:
The world is illusory;
Brahman alone is real;
Brahman is the world.
Love the world, for it is your own Self.
NOTHING REALLY MATTERS:
My mother said over and over in her final year, “It’s so freeing to realize that nothing really matters.” My mother was an exuberant woman who loved life, loved people, loved animals, loved plants, and cared deeply about the world. She didn’t say “nothing really matters” in a way that sounded nihilistic, despairing or cynical, but rather, in a way that sounded truly free. Joyous. The burden of accomplishing something (becoming somebody, fixing the world, doing the right thing) was dropping away. The need for a solution was dissolving. My mother became more and more translucent and filled with light. She was alive with simple presence, profoundly awake to the beauty and the holiness of every ordinary moment. And this is exactly the message of nondual teachings, that nothing really matters. This “nothing really matters” is not a resignation to the conclusion that life basically sucks—it is entirely different from that. It is the recognition that all of our concerns are like the problems in a dream—they vanish upon awakening. The dream-world has no substantiality. And the dreaming presence is untainted by the dream-dramas.
--Excerpted from the new book I’m working on about growing old, death, that which never dies, and the end of self-improvement.
What You Are Seeking Is Here-Now:
I had an email recently, like many I get, from someone who described feeling tortured and in despair because he had tasted awakening, but couldn’t seem to fully get it or stabilize there. I’m sure most (if not all) of us know or have known this feeling. This is an edited version of my response:
Please really take this in: What you are seeking is Here-Now. It is all there is. It has never been absent. You are That. Every moment of doubt or despair is nothing other than this undivided wholeness. It is unavoidable, inescapable. There is truly no way out. The “you” who seems to be “not quite there” is no more real than a mirage, and “there” is an idea, an imagination, or maybe a memory. Here-Now is the ever-present, omnipresent, living reality. There is nowhere and nothing that this One-without-a-second is not.
The problem is that you are looking for “something” — something you believe you don’t have, or a place you believe you haven’t arrived at — and you have ideas of what that “something” or that place will be like — it will feel good all the time, no more darkness, no more getting angry, no more feeling sad or confused or upset, no more I-thought popping up, etc.
Thought has divided things up: “you,” “that which is sought,” and “the obstacles to this.” None of these things actually exist. This is ALL just thoughts, a story, an imagination. And even this thinking process and this mirage-like division of what is actually indivisible is none other than the wholeness that is being sought – nondual unicity showing up as apparent duality, the One pretending to be lost, searching for itself. Even the seeking and the frustration and the misery is undivided unicity showing up as what we call seeking, frustration and misery, and without the labels, these are simply energetic waves in the great ocean of being—impersonal and without meaning. There really is no way to be separate from this undivided wholeness. It is all there is. The thought may arise, “Yes, but I don’t see it…I don’t feel it.” Even that thought is it. But that thought claims that “I” am separate from “it,” and that “it” shouldn’t look or feel like “this.” Reality should be different. “This can’t be it.”
The thoughts are all about duality: you and it, you and your undesirable situation, you and the awakening (you believe) you can’t find or don’t have, you and your persistent habit of self-doubt, you and your psychological wounds that (you believe) make awakening impossible, you and your over-active mind that (you believe) gets in the way, you and your work or family situation that seems to be an obstacle, you and your problems, etc. But all the while, nonduality is the ever-present reality, right here, right now, just as it is, just as you are. This IS it. Nothing needs to be different from exactly how it is—although already, in the time it took to read those words, everything has changed! There is truly no-thing to grasp and no-one to grasp it.
I would suggest not fighting the darkness or searching for the light. Simply relax. And if you feel tense, and you can’t relax, then simply be tense. Don’t fight it. Let it be. Let everything be as it is. Actually, you don’t even have to “do” this—everything already IS allowed to be as it is. Just notice that this is so. Everything is as it is. And whenever you notice the storyline (basically, everything you told me in your email is a story), perhaps it is possible to catch it, to see it as a story, to not believe it, to see that the “I” in this story is a fiction made out of thoughts, memories and mental images. It has never existed. Don’t TRY to see all that or “get it,” but rather, just let it happen. Relax. Be here now. Listen to the traffic. Feel the breathing. Enjoy the texture of this moment, however it is. Simplicity itself—effortless being. And recognize that whatever shows up (thoughts, storylines, tension, trying to get it, misery, despair and darkness included), it is ALL the One Reality, this one seamless ocean. None of it is personal. The “you” who seems to be at the center of it is only a mental image, a thought, a bunch of stories and ideas—it has no substance. That image and those storylines arise Here-Now in awareness and vanish again. And it’s ALL one whole happening, one seamless dance, that includes everything—the whole universe, all of time and space, from the subatomic to the intergalactic.
There is literally nothing to get. You are already Here-Now. You have never left. You are not apart from the wholeness you are seeking. This is it. Imagining that you are a “53-year-old man who is lost and tortured…able to see the promised land without being able to get there,” is all a kind of dream-story. It’s made up. It has no actual reality.
DOES NON-DUALITY MEAN A RETURN TO INFANCY?
I saw a post on Facebook recently that seemed to epitomize a certain trend in nonduality to which I may even have inadvertently contributed. The post displayed a series of photos—as I recall, these included Donald Trump, a group of ISIS fighters, and some Klansmen holding white supremacist signs—and the accompanying text informed us that these were all just colors and shapes. And it asked, isn’t it silly to be concerned or upset by a bunch of colors and shapes? While this post came out of, and pointed to, a liberating realization, at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that it missed the mark in some very important way. This is a place where I see many of us in the nondual subculture getting stuck. I’m not writing this to criticize that one particular Facebook post, and certainly not to criticize the person who posted it, who appears to be a very caring and awake being, nor to criticize any particular nondual teacher, all of whom I love, but rather as an open question for all of us to consider.
In some nondual circles—and I’ve been guilty of this myself at times—any attempt to talk about relative reality is met with a kind of robotic nondual dogma. The message is predictable and formulaic, with a kind of circular logic that allows for nothing new to enter the dialog. It feels closed and in some way fundamentalist. It holds uncompromisingly to an absolutist position. And as with the Facebook post I mentioned, it seems to leave out a huge part of what our life experience actually is. It is this general trend in nonduality that I’d like to question. This trend may indeed be an important step on our journey—it was for me—so I’m not putting it down or dismissing it altogether—it has some real truth in it. But I feel it misses what is perhaps most essential about awakening, so I’m suggesting we need to go beyond it and not get stuck in it. I’m suggesting that nondual awakening is not a return to infancy.
The great Zen Master Huang Po said, “The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see.” Many, myself included, have warned repeatedly against mistaking the map (the conceptual overlay) for the territory (the living reality). But as Eckhart Tolle wisely points out, awakening is not about sinking back down below the level of thought (as we do, for example, by getting drunk or watching mindless television programs to take our minds off our troubling thoughts), but rather, it is about transcending and rising above thought. And as Eckhart makes clear, this does not mean losing the capacity to think or conceptualize; it simply means we are grounded in awareness, not in thought. We are no longer hypnotized by thought. We no longer mistake it for an objective report on reality. This distinction between falling below thought and rising above it is an important one.
I often invite people to give open attention to the bare sensations of this moment—the sounds of traffic, the tingling in the feet, the sensations of breathing, the cool breeze on the skin. I often suggest that, in moments of emotional upset or mental confusion, it may be very helpful to stop thinking and simply tune into the bare sensations of this happening—without the storyline, without the labels, without trying to resist or control any of it—simply experiencing the sensations. Attending to sensation or energy rather than to thought is a way of directly recognizing the seamless, borderless, undivided, ephemeral, ever-changing, impersonal nature of reality. But the point of all this is not to return to babyhood, where all we had was sensations. These words you’re looking at right now are squiggly black shapes on a screen, but they’re more than that, aren’t they?
Awakening does indeed regain some of the beauty we see and love in a newborn or a very young child—the pure presence, the openness, the unfettered curiosity and wonder—the things that often seem to get lost as we grow up. But it regains those qualities not by regressing back to babyhood, but by going beyond the developmental stage of the average un-awakened adult who is totally lost in thought and caught in the self-centered dream.
Babies cannot take care of babies. Consciousness moves on—into human adulthood and beyond—and while there are problematic aspects with every stage of evolutionary development, and certainly with human adulthood (as we need only turn on the News to see), nature doesn’t resolve those problems by going backwards. Genuine awakening is not about getting fixated anyplace in particular, and definitely not at the earliest developmental stage of a human life. Rather, genuine awakening transcends and includes the magnificent adult capacities for thinking, reasoning, conceptualizing, story-telling, discernment, imagination, creativity and so on. It doesn’t get rid of all this. Indeed, ALL of this is the One and Only. There is no other.
Awakening sees the ways thought and imagination can be misused—the ways they can lead us into suffering and confusion if we mistake the map for the territory and fail to question our thoughts and beliefs. But awakening doesn’t deny or throw away the ability to create maps and use them intelligently! It isn’t about denying history or losing the capacity to imagine new possibilities, nor is it about losing the capacity for discernment and the ability to discriminate. It isn’t about becoming insensitive or numb to the pain in the world, or turning away from the immensity of joy and wonder. It isn’t about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or going back to babyhood!
They say in Zen that discovering the absolute is not yet enlightenment. Getting stuck in the absolute and ignoring or denying the relative is still a kind of duality. True enlightenment doesn’t ignore relative reality; it beholds it from a deeper place. And that deeper place is not a regression to the developmental stage of a newborn baby. That deeper place is awareness. Impersonal, unbound awareness. And from that limitless awareness, it is clear that relative and absolute are not two. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
The key to what I’m pointing out in this post is the evolutionary principle of transcending and including—not dismissing—previous levels of development. And yes, all ideas of evolution and development are only relatively true—they are conceptual maps, abstractions of reality—but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss them. Maps can be useful. Stories can be beautiful. Thought can be a functional tool. Imagination can be creative. Consciousness can play in its manifestation, and part of that play is an evolutionary movement that transcends and includes, dancing in ever-new ways. Just as the human body transcends and includes the organs within it, and the organs transcend and include the cells, and the cells transcend and include the molecules, and the molecules transcend and include the atoms, in the same way, the developmental stages of human consciousness and awakening build on each other. Awareness transcends and includes thought (and everything else). It doesn’t wipe everything out; it includes it all, including the capacity to think and discern differences and make relative value judgments.
One person who brilliantly articulates this evolutionary perspective, applying it to the evolutionary development of consciousness, and illuminating the common mistakes we make by ignoring or denying all this is Ken Wilber. Aside from being brilliant and incredibly well-read, he’s also a long-time spiritual explorer, practitioner and realizer, so he isn’t just coming from his head. He writes just as eloquently about the absolute non-dual truth as he does about evolutionary development, so his understanding of evolution and relative reality is grounded in the timeless, undivided wholeness that is always already complete and fully present Here-Now. (If you’ve never read his book A Brief History of Everything, I recommend it. I also recommend his new book, Trump and a Post-Truth World).
Along with delineating the different stages in the evolutionary development of human consciousness in very insightful ways, Wilber also draws a very helpful distinction between natural (healthy) hierarchies and (pathological) dominator hierarchies, pointing out that “a natural hierarchy is simply an order of increasing wholeness,” such as atoms-molecules-cells-organs-body. He points out how there has been a tendency in recent decades towards flattening everything—denying any kind of hierarchy or evolutionary development, thinking that every view is equally true, that every opinion is equally valid, that all truth is relative, and so on. These tendencies, he suggests, are exaggerated forms of what began as an evolutionary advance marked by the important new insights of modernity and post-modernity, such as the deconstruction of dominator hierarchies—an evolutionary advance that made possible the outlawing of slavery, the movements for civil rights by various disenfranchised groups, the rise of democracies, multiculturalism, ecology and environmentalism, concern for the welfare of animals, and so on. All beautiful and good. But then, Wilber says, these advances in consciousness have often been taken to extremes that became self-defeating, such as the denial of positive hierarchies, the idea that every culture and every opinion is equally right, extreme political correctness, exaggerated identity politics that heighten the sense of division and conflict, and so on. Wilber suggests in his new book, Trump and a Post-Truth World, that these sorts of out-of-kilter extremes opened the door for someone like Trump and the rising tide of fascism, white supremacy and xenophobia that we’re seeing now. I’m mentioning all this because I sense in certain forms of nonduality a similar kind of flattening and a similar kind of extremism—where genuine insights are taken to self-defeating extremes.
You may or may not agree with everything Wilber says, or share his assessment of why Trump was elected, and in the absolute sense, all such explanations of historical or current events are just “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” to quote Shakespeare (whose plays, it’s worth noting, no baby could have written or appreciated). Trump, the KKK and ISIS are all as much an expression of the One Reality as Ken Wilber or Jesus, and the whole of human history is ultimately a dream-like play, a dissolving dance, a wisp of smoke. Here-Now, there is no evolution, no human history, no current events, no gender, no race, no women’s liberation, no Black Lives Matter, no KKK, no Donald Trump, no Kim Jong-Un, no ISIS, no Alt-right, no antifa, no planet earth, no climate change, no enlightenment, no delusion, no me, no you, no duality, no nonduality—and all of our ideas and opinions about all this are like bubbles in a stream waiting to pop. That is a deep and deeply liberating truth—one to which the type of nonduality I’m questioning points quite brilliantly.
But in recognizing the dream-like nature of waking life and everything we previously believed was totally real, perhaps we don’t need to fixate at the opposite extreme of denying relative reality altogether or turning the absolute truth into a “Back to Babyhood” fundamentalist dogma that can’t be questioned. When that kind of fixation and fundamentalism happens, what begins as a liberating and true insight becomes a deadening new set of blinders and a way of closing down. It misses the subtlety and the all-inclusive nature of nondual awakening, the essence of which is non-grasping, openness, groundlessness, and not fixating or landing anywhere.
Even though unicity is the ultimate truth, it shows up as this movie of waking life that would not appear without duality and relativity. And no movie is just a bunch of colored shapes and sounds. It’s much more than that. And we all know that! Stories of the kind that make great movies, great novels or great plays can touch our hearts, give us new insights, change our minds, and wake us up. Yes, if we look closely, we can see that the apparent borders are not really there, that what seems solid really isn’t, that the “me” we imagine is seeing all of this does not exist as a separate or independent entity—and yet, each character is a unique and beautiful expression, and the stories of their interactions and journeys through life touch us deeply and open our hearts and minds.
Thus, it is possible to have a profound nondual awakening and still appreciate great works of literature or good movies, not just as meaningless sounds and colors, but as much more than that. It is possible to have a profound nondual understanding and still love and care for one’s children and teach them such important relative distinctions as the one between oncoming traffic and the empty street. It is possible to have a profound nondual awakening and still care about political events and even work to correct some injustice or heal some brokenness—and to see what’s going on as more than just meaningless sensations. It is possible to have a profound nondual understanding and still feel sad and grieve when your dog dies or your marriage ends in divorce. It is possible to have a profound nondual awakening and still, in the form of Ken Wilber, develop a complicated map of evolutionary development without losing sight of the nondual Absolute. Nondual teachers who point to the ungraspable, ever-changing, uncontrollable nature of life still have thoughts, opinions, preferences, likes and dislikes. In their private lives, off-stage, they talk about movies and politics and family matters and work situations just like everyone else.
The difference is that, in awakeness, it isn’t all taken as deathly serious. It is recognized, as I said in a recent post, that nothing really matters. But that “not mattering” doesn’t mean callous or dissociated indifference and insensitivity, nihilistic cynicism, or an inability to be serious in any way. It means an open-hearted vulnerability that truly sees everything as my own Self and as the Holy Reality, and a deep knowing that ultimately, all is well. So, although you grieve the loss, you don’t believe your dog “shouldn’t” have died, or that “your life is ruined” because your marriage ended, and you don’t blame yourself or your ex for that ending. You know you can’t save your children or the world, and you are not attached to your preferences or to the results of your actions in the same way as before. You realize that you don’t actually know what’s best for the universe. You know that your whole life and the whole history of humankind is like a dream, but that doesn’t make it worthless or dismissible. And although you’re not hypnotized by your thoughts or mistaking the conceptual maps for the living reality, at the same time, you’re not experiencing life the way a newborn baby does. You have thoughts, opinions, ideas – you talk and write and read and use words – you have an ability to consider complex subjects in nuanced ways and to have deep feelings of love, empathy and compassion.
Nondual awakening might be described as an evolutionary leap forward, out of the thought-created duality of self and other, into what has actually always already been the case. It is a waking up to Here-Now, to awareness, to the vastness that transcends and includes it all, the vastness that is not “out there” apart from “me,” but right here, utterly inseparable, completely unavoidable, ever-present and omnipresent in every moment and every situation. Nondual unicity leaves nothing out. Not even this ability to think and talk and draw distinctions and discern differences and imagine new possibilities and care about relative reality. It’s all included. Always Here-Now, always complete, and yet always moving toward greater wholeness, greater subtlety, greater capacities—this is the ever-unfolding, ever-fresh, evolutionary dance, the awakening journey, transcending and including, never the same way twice.
And if you’re tempted to tell me there is no “greater” or “lesser” in nonduality, let me repeat an important point: being awake to the nondual living reality Here-Now is characterized by non-grasping, openness, groundlessness, and not fixating or landing anywhere. To quote from the Hsin Hsin Ming, "You are free when there’s nothing left to hold onto." Even holding onto the absolute is a form of delusion. And, as Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully put it, “A wave does not have to stop being a wave in order to be water.”
“I would like to mention how important Satsang is at this particular time in human history. Since we are facing some catastrophic situations on a global scale, it's especially important that we gather together in Truth to soften and liberate the energy field as much as possible. Our awakening is not just for ourselves; it's for the benefit of all beings. The power of people sitting together from all over the world, even when we do so online, is immense and should not be underestimated. As we steep in Loving Awareness together, the collective consciousness does evolve and may possibly shift from further catastrophe to a more awakened state.”
--Michael A. Rodriguez
What Michael says about satsang applies equally to meditation, retreats, workshops, gatherings like the SAND Conference, and all the ways we come together to explore and share and deepen our awakeness to the undivided wholeness and infinite potential that we are. From my perspective, the greatest contribution any of us can make to world peace, social-economic-environmental justice, and human survival is to wake up. Otherwise, our actions come out of a divided mind that perpetuates conflict and division. When our actions flow from undivided awareness rather than ideology, from embodied presence rather than mental confusion, from equanimity rather than from upset, those actions tend to invite, encourage and bring forth love and compassion. Such actions are more wholesome, in the truest sense, for they come from wholeness and they serve the whole.
Response to a comment:
Many people feel that meditation or satsang is just "navel gazing," or as you put it, "preposterous and misplaced" in the face of the world situation. I was trying to suggest that I feel being present and awake Here-Now is actually very important and might even be the best gift we can offer. But I did not intend to suggest that other actions are not also helpful and needed. Obviously many other things are also very much needed.
My teacher, Toni Packer, who grew up half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, wrote this to me in an email near the end of her life: "am convinced that humanity will not survive as we know it or would like to see it continue, unless a massive awakening takes place, and that seems highly improbable. but then—what do or can we know?? plays have beginnings and endings, but the present one simply remains present, in whatever shape or form—forever present.”
Given the realities of climate change (and the denial of it by the current US administration, and an economic system founded on perpetual growth) and nuclear weapons falling into more and more hands, the likelihood of human survival is, in my opinion, slim at best. But a shift in consciousness could change everything. Either way, Ultimate Reality (by whatever name you give to it) will continue. But meanwhile, we each do what we are moved to do in response.
Response to another comment:
Doing nothing (outwardly) may be the right action. Not everyone is called to be a political activist. Ramana Maharshi and Martin Luther King both contributed to the well-being of the world in different ways. Would we want to turn either of them into the other? There is no single "right action." But whatever the action (or non-action), beginning from the place of presence, awareness, stillness, inner clarity is always better than rushing in from a place of divisive hate and upset. The latter usually just magnifies the problem and brings about more of the same.
We are not really separate. Thomas Merton wrote something to the effect that he felt it was silent monks, praying in the middle of the night, who were holding the world together. Rationally, that makes no sense. But when it is deeply realized that we are all One Whole undivided happening, then it makes total sense. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi had a wonderful phrase, playing with a line in the Lotus Sutra: "To shine one corner of the world--just one corner." When I first made the transition from hardcore political activist to Zen student, I remember this was a great concern to me. Many of my comrades in the left looked upon meditation as self-indulgent, selfish, navel-gazing. And, of course, the spiritual search may begin with a desire for personal improvement or well-being, which is not wrong, but as it moves along, something much deeper is discovered. It is also the case that we have cycles and seasons in our life, times of intense outward activity, times focused on inward exploration, times when we're engaged in both. Fields must lie fallow some of the time in order to bring forth abundance at other times. So I would say, trust your heart. If you are called to be quiet, don't let others guilt-trip you into believing this is irresponsible or wrong. (Of course, I'm not suggesting abandoning your responsibilities as a parent or just letting the garbage pile up around you). Our culture is focused on frantic, non-stop, outward activity. People are rewarded for that. But it hasn't always had great results. So, trust your heart.
The scratching sound of dried leaves blowing across the deck where I sit in the late afternoon looking out at the garden and the mountains. A cool breeze on the skin. Breathing. Sensations of breathing. Bare feet meeting the warm wooden deck. The barking of a dog. The distant hum of traffic on the interstate.
The sudden scent of roses brings a rush of joy. A bird chirping, a wasp buzzing past me, a white butterfly flitting through the garden. This vast listening silence beholding it all. No separation between inside and outside. One whole luminous happening.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a wave of despair fills me up, a scary empty feeling of being alone and lost. It fills the whole chest cavity with darkness. There is a brief attempt by the mind to tell an unhappy story, something about failure and impossibility and being trapped with no way out, to sink into an emotional gloom. But then there is a curiosity about this darkness—what is this? Not an urge to think about it and figure it out, but rather, to feel it in the body, to sense it. What is this wave of darkness? The question invites open listening, not knowing, wondering—being with this darkness, not knowing what it is, not needing to know, just being with it. And also, feeling the breathing, feeling the feet on the ground, feeling the open spacious presence that allows it all to be here, just as it is, without needing anything to be different.
As suddenly as it came, the wave of darkness is gone. I am filled with light and energy. I find myself dancing in the living room, without music. I am singing, moving the body, making sounds, playing with empty space, full of joy. I sit down in my bliss chair, my beloved recliner, and begin reading. The book fills me with more light. I get up and dance again.
Night comes. The crickets are chirping. They sound happy. I type these words, not knowing why, my version of chirping, my night bhajans, my hymn to life. A small insect has landed on my computer screen. And taken off again.
SIMPLICITY: Nonduality and being awake are about simplicity itself. It’s not about finally figuring out how the universe works, getting The Answer, or finally getting permanently established in a problem-free state of perpetual bliss. It’s about being awake Here-Now, to THIS that is ever-present and ever-changing. Or more accurately, noticing that this awakeness Here-Now is always already the case, that the living reality is everywhere and everywhen, impossible to avoid because it has no opposite and no other. You are That; there is Only That. This is it, right here, right now. Just as it is. We’re not on the way to someplace else. There is no other place.
Waking up is about subtraction, not addition. It’s a letting go, a falling away of ideas and beliefs, a relaxing into the open space of not knowing, not grasping, not landing anywhere. Being just this moment, just as it is.
We cannot see or “get” unicity. We can try our hardest to turn around and see the seer, but whatever we see is not it—it is only another object being seen. Just as the eye can’t see itself, we can’t see awareness as an object. Awareness has no color, no shape, no size, no location, no place where it begins or ends, no place where it is not. It is omnipresent. When that becomes clear, we stop trying to turn our metaphorical eyeballs backwards, or lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or run fast enough to catch our own tail. We relax, let go, and dissolve into BEING this open awareness, this presence, this intelligence-energy, this whatever-it-is that is showing up as this whole amazing movie of waking life, and the world of dreams, and the no-thing-ness of deep sleep. There is no more imaginary separation, no division between seer and seen—there is only undivided seeing—one whole happening without borders or seams. We ARE this. There is ONLY this.
Without thought, there is no “me” who needs to figure this all out, get somewhere, do the right thing, be a success, make something of myself, or become enlightened. There is no “me” who is failing or lacking anything or falling short or not getting it. There is simply no “me” at all! If we look for this “me” that we’ve come to believe is inside our body, authoring our thoughts, making our decisions, doing our actions and having our experiences, we find nothing at all—and we find EVERYTHING—the whole universe. One undivided whole.
In this seamless and boundless reality, sometimes known as Here-Now, or “Just This,” there are no teachers, no students, no seekers, no finders, no gurus, no devotees—there is only the Beloved, and everything and everyone is it. Simplicity itself. Not two.
If we’re feeling confused or uncertain, it’s a clue that thinking is clouding the picture, and that at the center of this thinking, there is the thought-sense of being “me,” the separate self. This, too—the thinking, the mirage-like “me,” the identification with it—is this same intelligence-energy, this same undivided unicity, showing up as thinking and confusion. We might ask if the apparent problem that the mind is trying to solve is a concern for boundless awareness or unicity, or if it only arises from the perspective of the imaginary little “me” who seems to be lost and looking for solutions. Identified as that imaginary “me,” problems are endless—something always seems to be lacking, uncertain or in the way. But as unicity itself, no problems remain. Nothing is lacking, nothing is in the way, nothing is an obstacle, nothing needs to be known.
And so, instead of getting tied up in mental knots, we might just stop and listen to the traffic sounds, the wind in the leaves, the barking dog, the lawn mower, the singing bird—we might enjoy the amazing dance of colors and shapes—and also the stories, the dramas, the whole unfolding—all of it one undivided happening. And it might be noticed that there is no listener, no enjoyer, no thinker, no one doing any of this, no one at the center of it all. It is all happening effortlessly by itself. Even effort and confusion and seeking is all happening effortlessly by itself—to no one. And it might be recognized that, at its core, everything that appears is no-thing at all—nothing that appears has any persisting form. It has no inherent (observer-independent) reality, no actual substance. The whole show is like a dream. And this no-thing-ness, this vast emptiness, this boundless awareness, this presence is not “nothing” in some dead, nihilistic sense—it is totally alive and bursting with energy.
This undivided intelligence-energy is showing up as tables, chairs, flowers, cigarettes, cancer, chemotherapy, traffic jams, Donald Trump, Eckhart Tolle, the irritating neighbor, the benevolent aid worker, the wonderful TV series we’re hooked on, the stupidest reality show that drives us nuts, the beautiful music that opens our heart, deep sleep, night dreams, the dreams of waking life, birth and death moment by moment. It’s all included. It’s all an expression of this undivided simplicity. There is infinite variety, but no separation, no division. The objects, characters and events in a dream are all movements of the dreaming consciousness. Like the waves on the ocean, the waving movement of the water is nothing but water, and the waves are not separate, independent or persisting forms—they move together as one flowing, ever-changing, dynamic whole. In the same way, the multiplicity of ever-changing forms in the dream-like movie of waking life is one whole undivided happening. It is all consciousness, intelligence-energy, nameless unicity. Ever-present, ever-changing, stillness and motion. Just This. Here-Now. Simplicity itself.
Response to a comment:
I have no idea who Jim Newman is, but many teachers and sages have used such phrases as "prior to consciousness" or "beyond awareness." The thinking mind immediately wants to "get" what that is. It sounds like the Ultimate Goal, the Most Advanced Place, and the ego wants it! But what is being pointed to is that ultimately there is no-thing to get. All these words like "awareness" and "beyond awareness" and "Here-now" and "presence" and "what is" are pointers. Finally, you drop the pointers, you put down the map that has guided you, you stop trying to grasp this, you let go, and you're simply here...as no-thing at all and as everything. The words are never quite right, and they can only point. What liberates is beyond the words. But it's not far away. It's right here, "most intimate" as they say in Zen, immediate, closer than close, ever-present.
Response to reply from the same person:
I would point out that you are only imagining that you are “a million miles away from liberation, lost in thoughts.” This in itself is only another thought, another imagination, another mental movie, with no substantial reality at all. This thought appears and disappears, and the body hums along with various feelings, and those feelings (or bodily sensations) also appear and disappear in this vast space that I call Here-Now (or boundless awareness, or what is), which has no boundaries, no inside, no outside, no beginning, no end. The “me” to whom this thought refers cannot actually be found. Being lost is a story. “Me” is a story.
I listened to a little bit of Jim Newman on YouTube and resonated with much of what he says. He does seem to be using the word “here” differently from how I use it. For him, it seems to refer to the sense of individual presence in the body, while to me, it refers to the boundless awareness within which that sensation of “me” appears—along with tables and chairs and traffic sounds and the taste of tea and the whole universe.
As I heard him, he was pointing out that the sense that “I Am” – that first sense of impersonal presence and bare experiencing, the knowingness of being here now – is the primary illusion, the beginning of the self-contraction and the dream that I call the movie of waking life. And it’s true. In deep sleep, there is no sense of being here, present and aware. Perhaps I will say more about this in a new post shortly. [I did, on Sept 24]
Response to another reply from the same person:
Teachers use words differently. Don’t get hung up on the words or on trying to reconcile one teaching with another. See for yourself. I can assure you that what I’m pointing to with the words “awareness” or “Here” is not about individuality or encapsulation. Others may use these words differently. But that said, as I said in the post of Sept 24, the first SENSE of being aware and present is the beginning of the movie of waking life, and the impersonal, un-encapsulated, boundless “I AM” (the sense of being present and aware without boundaries or identity) typically moves very quickly into “I am Joan” (the person). And then, in awakening from the dream of encapsulation, the boundlessness is recognized to have never been absent. The thought-sense-story of encapsulation and individuality appears and disappears within boundless awareness. This can be seen directly. Ultimately, there is no separation between awareness and content. They are different aspects of one whole happening, like apples and oranges or arms and legs. Yes, there is just life happening—that’s another way to put it, emphasizing the undivided seamlessness. But that, too, is only a description. The word water is not water. It can point to water, but you can’t swim, bathe, get wet, or satisfy your thirst with the word. The map is not the territory. The map can only take you so far. And there are many different kinds of maps describing the same territory (or different aspects of it) in different ways.
What is being pointed to as “what is” or “just this” or “Here-Now” or “awareness” is unknowable in the sense that it cannot be located, pinned down, grasped or experienced (as any particular experience). There is no such “thing” as “awareness” or “Here-Now” or “what is” or “unicity” that can be singled out (as this but not that), and there is nothing outside of it to grasp it (or know it) as an object. We cannot perceive, conceptualize, think, imagine, experience, remember or sense “awareness” or “what is” or “totality”— it cannot be defined, contained or limited to (or by) any experience, and yet, there is nothing that is not it. And none of our experiences have any real substance. Unicity cannot grasp unicity, any more than the hand can grasp itself—because what we call subject and object (grasper and grasped) are merely conceptualized aspects one undivided reality.
All attempts to “get” or “experience” unicity (as a particular experience) are based in duality. We can only be it, and whatever we apparently do or don’t do, we can’t not be it. It is what we are. There is only this.
Yes, there can be a felt-sense of presence (spaciousness, openness, beingness), and there can be an awareness of being aware—there is an undeniable and undoubtable, intuitive knowingness of being here now, but it is not the kind of knowing that we refer to as knowledge (although it can become that kind of knowledge when we think about it after the fact). Ultimately, even this felt-sense of presence and this undeniable, innate knowingness of being present and aware disappears in deep sleep.
The sense of impersonal presence and bare experiencing, the knowingness of being here now, the “I Am” as it is often called, is the first appearance, and thus it is (in a sense) the beginning of the waking dream and the beginning of the self-contraction (the thought-sense that I am a separate entity encapsulated inside an independent, separate body). First there is impersonal presence (I Am), and then there is the story of encapsulation and separation (I am Joan, I am a woman or I am gender-fluid, I am a writer, I am 69 years old, I am a success or a failure, and so on). In deep sleep, these stories and identities all vanish along with the one who cares about any of this. There is no sense any more of being here, present and aware.
What remains in deep sleep has been called by many names: primordial awareness, pure consciousness, the Self, emptiness, unicity, nothing, no-thing-ness, infinite potential, intelligence-energy, what is, the Ultimate Subject, the Unknowable, the mystery, spirit, soul, pure energy, God. Words inevitably make it seem like it is “something” apart from us that we can single out and point to. But Ultimate Reality (or what is) isn’t like that. It is nondual. It has no other, no opposite, no boundaries, no inside, no outside, no beginning, no end. It is omnipresent. It cannot be grasped as an object or as a particular experience. It is showing up as this waking dream and everything in it, and it is what remains when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears—it is no-thing appearing as everything, dreaming and that which is beyond (or prior to) the dream.
The mind wants to understand this, figure it out, grasp it, have an experience (hopefully a permanent experience) of it, “get it,” possess it, be “one” with it, and so on. The mind, identified as “me,” wants to be an “Awakened One.” It wants to be free from the pain of apparent separation. But that search never works out because an imaginary fragment cannot grasp the whole, and a character in a dream cannot wake up from the dream, any more than a movie character can escape from the movie. What we truly are is not bound by the movie or stuck in the dream. Nor is it a fragment broken off from the whole and trying to return home. There is only Home.
When the story of me is seen for the illusion it is, when the whole movie of waking life is recognized as a kind of dream with no actual substance or inherent reality, when our attachment to all concepts and beliefs falls away, when the bodymind stops grasping and relaxes into boundlessness, when there is no longer a sense of being separate and encapsulated (beyond what is functional in daily life), what remains is freedom, peace, love, joy, spaciousness, openness, groundlessness, ease of being—and this freedom has no owner, no center. It is not “me” who “has this” and is now “an enlightened one.” It is the absence of that whole story and the one at the center of it.
And if grasping happens again, or if the thought-sense of being “me” reappears, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not personal. It’s not happening “to me.” It never was happening to me. It’s always just another waving in the ocean, another step in the cosmic dance. The one who would care about it is only a mirage. And that mirage does not disappear permanently for someone. Someone IS the mirage, and the only permanence is Now, and with or without the mirage, there is always only unicity (or what is). The “me” is never real, and the “me” who wants to get rid of the “me” is simply another layer of the same mirage, and all of it is what is—impersonal, unbound, un-owned.
We can’t think our way to that liberating realization, because that very search is predicated on the illusion it is trying to dispel. That liberating realization is not an acquisition, but rather, the falling away of something extra, the dropping off of an unnecessary burden, a recognition of what has always been so. No one can make the searching end, but it can be seen for what it is.
Liberation is simply seeing the false as false. Not clinging to any of the words or concepts that describe all this. Relaxing into not knowing. Recognizing that none of what appears has any actual substance—all of it (including the main character) is no more real than a dream. That doesn’t make it worthless—on the contrary, it frees it to be beautiful and perfect, just as it is—a perfect expression of the infinite—perfect even in its apparent imperfection.
But whatever I (or anyone else) says about all this, it’s never quite right. Words are inherently dualistic and easily misleading, and different writers and teachers use them all differently. All words can do is point beyond words. The sound of traffic is not a word (although the words labeling or pointing to it are). Likewise, awareness itself is not a word. The living reality I’m calling “what is” is not a word, although it includes all words. The map is not the territory, but mapping is something the territory is doing. And at some point, you put down the map and stop looking for something other than just this—what is, right here, right now, just as it is. And the more you stop trying to figure it out, or get somewhere, or get something out of it, the more miraculous and unfathomable Here-Now turns out to be. Indeed, as has been said by many a mystic, there is only God. THIS is the Holy Reality.
Whether we’re meditating, or doing The Work of Byron Katie, or attending talks by radical nondualists who uncompromisingly refuse to offer any cure to an imaginary person for an imaginary problem, it ultimately comes down to the mind finally stopping in its tracks, giving up all hope, and recognizing that there is no one here to liberate. This seems to be difficult because the mind keeps insisting that there is something all these teachers and sages and radical nondualists have that “I” (the seeker) don’t have, such as a body that is free of all energetic contraction, or a mind that has no more “I” thoughts, or a heart that is totally open and loving.
But consciousness is only imagining that it is somebody attending a radical nonduality meeting, or somebody on a meditation retreat, or somebody reading this post, or somebody at a satsang who “isn’t quite there yet.” The whole event is imaginary!
Consciousness pretends to be “me,” comparing “my” self to “other” selves. Thought creates this whole story of being “me” who is “not quite there yet.” But there is no such reality as “there.” All there is, is Here. And Here, there is no one and no boundary. This thought of being “not quite there yet” appears Here, and the body hums along with various feelings, and that thought and the accompanying feelings (or bodily sensations) appear and disappear in this unbound vastness or immediacy that I call Here-Now (or boundless awareness, or what is), which has no inside, no outside, no beginning, no end, no boundaries or limits. The “me” to whom this thought refers cannot actually be found. Being lost is a story. “Me” is a story. Waking up from the story is simply seeing it as a story—seeing the false as false. Truth cannot be seen or grasped. It simply IS. And it even includes the illusory dream or mirage that we are calling the false. Nothing is left out. Nothing is not it. We are never really in the situation we imagine ourselves to be in, nor are we the one we imagine ourselves to be. What we truly are is utterly unknowable, and yet, here we are—obvious and unavoidable, plain as day. Just this. Woof-woof-woof.
IS THE UNIVERSE ACCIDENTAL OR PLANNED? IS EVERYTHING HAPPENING AS IT SHOULD?
Someone wrote me recently saying, “I read a lot about Advaita and nonduality and this concept makes sense. But I wonder, is everything happening by accident, or is everything happening the way it should? Do you think there´s a plan for the universe?” This is an edited version of my response:
What Advaita and nonduality are really pointing to is not a concept, a belief or a philosophy. It is the nonconceptual living reality, right here, right now, as it is. Without thought, this living reality is seamless, boundless, immediate, undeniable and yet impossible to formulate or grasp. The idea that everything is accidental and random, or the idea that it is all a plan unfolding exactly as it should—these are both concepts, formulations, beliefs. In simply being here Now as open awake aware presence, this question does not arise. It is a mental question, coming from the thinking mind, asked from the perspective of the imaginary separate self, the little “me” that is seeking security and control through getting a grip and having the right answers. Liberation is letting go into the open spaciousness and freedom of not knowing and not needing to know. Reality cannot be contained by any conceptual formulation or ideology. There is no right answer to this question.
I don’t see what is as either accidental or planned. There is too much intelligence operating in this living reality to regard everything as a mere accident—just consider the way everything holds together—the planets, the force of gravity, the ecosystems, the amazing complexity of a human body or the brain. It hardly seems accidental. On the other hand, who would be the planner? Is there somebody or something outside of this undivided reality creating, controlling, planning or managing it?
If you watch closely as you perform the simplest and most ordinary actions (lifting your arm, typing a Facebook message, reading a book, making a decision), you will find no one in control…no thinker behind the thoughts, no chooser behind the choices, no actor behind the actions. Looking closely, you will find no boundary between subject and object, awareness and content, self and not-self. There is nothing apart from the living reality to plan it. A plan presumes the reality of a future time. You cannot plan the Now. Relatively speaking, we can plan a vacation that we will (hopefully) take in the future, a vacation that (if it happens) may or may not go according to plan. But in reality, there is only the timeless, eternal Now in which both the planning and every moment of the vacation occur. What could step out of the Now (i.e., out of Totality or Unicity) to plan it, and where would this phantom planner step?
So, I would suggest not trying to define how it all works. Simply be awake to the living reality itself, moment to moment (or more accurately, Now). You ARE this living reality. There is ONLY this. Are you planning your next thought or is it accidental? You may find that neither formulation applies. And who decides what “should” be happening, and according to what standard? I would say, what is, is as it is. To say it should be otherwise is suffering. To say it should be this way is saying too much. It simply IS. And it is actually no way in particular.
Someone wrote me and said that he watched the interview of me on Conscious TV, and at one moment in the interview, pointing to the immediacy of what is, I slap my leg, making a sudden loud sound. The person reported that at that moment, he understood, everything was clear, but then thinking returned, and he was unable to remain in what he called “that state of being” that had arisen after the slap. He said he was “flipping between being here and being caught up in ego-driven thinking.” And predictably, out of that sense of identity as the flip-flopper, he had various questions about practice and ego-death and so on. This is an edited version of my response:
In that instant of the sudden sound (WHACK!), the imaginary problem (which is a train of thought and mental images) stops and there is simply what is. There is no problem anymore, no “you" in need of a solution, nothing to get, nothing to get rid of, simply WHACK! Just This!
Then thought comes in and says, “Oh! This is it! I got it! I understand!” And instantly, with that thought, the phantom “me” has been reincarnated (in the imagination). The undivided immediacy of WHACK! (in which there was no subject and object, no awareness and content, no “me” and “my life situation”) is divided by thought into the dualistic picture of “me” and “it,” and it seems as if “I” got and then lost “it.” Nondual unicity then seems to be an experience that comes and goes, and “you” seem to be someone flipping between getting it and then losing it…trying to get it back, trying to maintain it, thinking about it, practicing it, not getting it, wanting it, thinking others have it and you don’t, and so on.
But actually, nondual unicity is always present—it is all there is. The form it takes is always changing. Experiences come and go, but consciousness is the common factor in every different experience. Here-Now is the omnipresence in which it all appears and disappears. Here-Now is another word for unicity, boundless awareness, the Self with a capital “S.” What actually comes and goes are the thought-trains, the mental movies (including the one of “you” flipping between “getting it” and “losing it”), the daydreams, the night dreams, the fantasies, the memories, the future plans, the experiences, the thought-sense of being a separate encapsulated self—these all come and go, but they all happen Here-Now in boundless awareness. These ever-changing shapes and sensations are all movements of consciousness. And none of this is actually happening “to you.” That claim of ownership, taking it personally, is itself simply another conditioned thought-story appearing and disappearing in awareness.
WHACK! is heard and the imaginary problem vanishes. And then thought arises and the apparent problem comes back. We can’t make ourselves not think that thought. Instead, just see how that all happens, how the illusion is created. See it again and again, Now. The more clearly all this is seen for what it is, the more it loses its power to hypnotize and confuse. The thoughts, stories and bodily contractions may still show up, but they are increasingly recognized as just momentary shapes that unicity is taking, impersonal clouds floating through the empty sky of awareness (Here-Now).
It isn’t “me” who is seeing this or waking up from the illusion of separation. Awakening is waking up from our limited identity as that encapsulated, separate entity—recognizing that the seeing (and the confusion) belongs to no one—it is boundless awareness beholding itself in every imaginable form.
The thinking mind (posing as “you”) can’t maintain some imaginary state of “having no self.” Actually, there is no such state to maintain, and no one to maintain it. The self is a mirage. And Here-Now is not a state. It is the groundlessness in which all states come and go. This boundless unicity is never absent. It has no opposite. It is ever-present. The immediacy of that WHACK! is never not here. Simply SEE how thought comes in and creates confusion. See that even this is nothing other than nondual unicity appearing as duality and confusion. The seeing is the liberation. And the liberation is the recognition that there was actually nothing to liberate.
THE SELF: TRUTH OR ILLUSION?
“You” as an individual person are a movement of the totality, like a wave on the ocean. When we hear that the self is an illusion, what is being pointed to is not the wave, but our ideas about the wave. We believe that the wave is a separate, independent, autonomous “thing,” separate from the ocean. We think that “the self” is an entity encapsulated inside a body, an entity that is authoring our thoughts, making our choices and directing our lives. This whole picture leads inevitably to feelings of deficiency, inadequacy, alienation, guilt, shame and blame. It results in false hope and expectation, frustration, disappointment, addiction, dissatisfaction and conflict. In reality, we are all infinite consciousness, boundless awareness, unicity, the One appearing as many—the ocean waving.
All apparently separate forms (people, flowers, chairs, mountains, thoughts, sensations) are like whirlpools or waves—moving patterns of energy, inseparable from their so-called environment. No wave exists apart from the ocean; no wave has any persisting form; no wave is more or less water than any other wave. The boundaries between so-called forms are notional, and the apparent forms are conceptual abstractions carved out of an ever-changing, waving, pulsating ocean—as if a frozen wave could be cut out of the ocean. The undivided, seamless, aliveness of the living reality can be discovered directly by simply giving open attention to what is.
The sense of self and personal agency are part of how this life functions. But if we look closely with open attention, the apparent boundaries and the apparent author-thinker-chooser-decider at the center of all this cannot actually be found. The self and the sense of agency are neurological sensations, mental images, thoughts. And the body, upon close examination (either through science or meditation), is revealed to be nothing solid or persisting at all. It is an ever-changing dance, inseparable from its so-called environment, made up mostly of empty space.
The self can seem very real, and part of that is functional—we couldn’t survive or function if we lost all sense of bodily identity and location—if we forgot our names and could no longer differentiate or locate ourselves in any way. In the play of life, we are both infinite consciousness and a particular unique individual expression of that. We are the ocean waving, and we cannot deny either aspect—the whole or the particular, the ocean or the wave.
When consciousness is grounded in knowingly being the whole, the particular then moves in a free and wholesome way. When consciousness is lost in its own movie-story, hypnotized by the belief that it is a separate fragment born into in an alien universe made out of dead matter, we are then driven by the fear of death, by the sense of deficiency and lack, by a desire for wholeness that seeks it in all the wrong places and often turns into addiction. We live in a world of conflict and suffering. Our genuine individuality is often stifled and constricted by social conventions and fear. The more clearly the illusory aspects of selfhood are seen through, the more these illusions and beliefs lose their power to hypnotize and confuse. The false may still show up, but it can be recognized as an illusion, and as a momentary shape that unicity is taking. The more that illusion is seen through and the more it falls away, the more the individual expression is set free to be fully itself, knowing all the while that it is not limited or confined to any apparent form.
It’s not our business how this process of awakening unfolds, whether it is sudden or gradual. Thinking of it in personal terms as something that is happening “to me” is actually part of what is seen through as an illusion. For most of us, the seeing (and seeing through) of the false happens again and again, although when it happens, it is always Now. It is thus both sudden (Now) and gradual (again and again, over what seems—in the story—to be time). In rare cases, awakening can be a sudden, explosive, permanent shift—but even then, it seems to clarify, deepen and stabilize over what appears to be time (always actually Now). Comparing “me” and “my progress” or “my enlightenment (or apparent lack of it)” to “others,” or wanting the process to happen faster or differently, is all a form of useless suffering. None of it is personal. It’s not about “me.” All of this is as impersonal as the different weather conditions in different geographic locations, and ALL the weather in ALL locations is actually one, undivided, inseparable happening. The whole story of a process happening over time only exists in the realm of imagination—it takes thought and memory to conjure it up. In reality, there is only Now.
The “me” who is supposedly advancing, suddenly or gradually, toward some distant goal, is only a mirage, a momentary appearance that evaporates into thin air whenever we go looking for it. And the goal is actually not elsewhere or in the future. It is Here-Now, already fully present and totally complete. Awakening simply wakes up to what has never been absent—this living reality that is utterly obvious and totally unavoidable. Awakening is a falling away of the belief that “this isn’t it” and that there is someone apart from this living reality who needs to “get it.”
TRUE MEDITATION: Realization Beyond Belief
I always hesitate to use the word meditation, because it is used in so many different ways to mean so many different things. Meditation, as I mean it, is a way of discovering directly all that I point to in my posts. As I use the word, meditation has nothing to do with specific postures or practices, or with motionless timed sittings. It requires no incense, no special cushions, no cross-legged sitting, nothing fancy at all. It can happen in an armchair or on an airplane. It simply means being here, in stillness, without all the usual things that absorb the attention—simply being present and aware of what is, as it is—allowing it all to be as it is, without trying to manipulate or control it, without judging, labeling or telling stories about it. Not trying to get into any special state or accomplish anything; not trying to get rid of anything that shows up. And if controlling, judging, labeling, trying, resisting or story-telling happens, as it may, then it means simply seeing that clearly for what it is, feeling how that movement of thought shows up in the body as sensations, and allowing it all to reveal itself and fall away in its own time.
Instead of being lost in perpetual thought, meditation is about awareness—giving open attention to the realm of perceiving, sensing and direct knowing (breathing, sounds, bodily sensations, colors and shapes, fragrances, tastes) and to the awaring presence beholding it all, the listening silence, the spaciousness of being. Meditation is feeling into this spacious presence that we are, this undivided boundlessness Here-Now, this deep stillness. Thoughts will most likely continue to pop up, but once thinking is noticed, the attention can open and relax back into bare being.
For moments at a time, whether that is a few seconds between clients, or an hour in the morning or before bed, or while riding the bus to work, or sitting in a waiting room—instead of being constantly busy with doing something, reading something, saying something, knitting something, consuming food or information, checking our phones, our email or our social media, or thinking about everything—meditation is simply being still. Being aware. Being present. Just being. Doing nothing at all.
In addition to “just being,” meditation can also mean exploring the living reality in a meditative way—with open attention and awareness, rather than with thought—observing how decisions unfold, seeing whether the “me” who seems to be making these decisions can actually be found, whether there is a thinker authoring the thoughts, whether any actual boundary between “inside” and “outside” can be found, whether there is any limit to Here-Now…seeing how thought divides, categorizes, labels and tells stories and how suffering happens. All of this (and more) can be explored directly with awareness.
And when dark or difficult states of mind arise—depression, worry, anxiety, despair, loneliness, boredom, restlessness—instead of trying to resist or escape these uncomfortable states of mind and body by doing something or by thinking about them, these can be invitations to stop and do nothing at all. Simply be fully present with this happening that we have called “depression,” “anxiety,” “boredom,” “loneliness,” or whatever it is. Without the label or the story, what is it? Not to find a mental answer, but rather, to listen openly to the whole thing—to feel it in the body as pure sensation and energy, allowing our attention to go deeply into the sensations themselves as they unfurl and change. And simultaneously, seeing the thoughts and stories that set this emotional state in motion and keep it going, seeing them as what they are—habitual, conditioned thought-forms that don’t need to be believed. And being awake to everything else that is going on at the same time—the traffic sounds, the bird songs, the sunlight on the carpet, and the awaring presence beholding it all. We may find that when we turn toward the darkness in this way, when we relax into the boundless awareness that we are, these emotions no longer have a grip on us. They may even dissolve completely.
But if we “do” all of this in order to make an undesirable emotion go away, or in order to have an awakening or get enlightened, that is not true meditation—that is thought seeking a result, resisting what is. So, this gets very subtle. We can’t make ourselves stop seeking, or force ourselves not to try. That’s just another layer of the same thing: trying not to try, seeking the end of seeking, resisting what is. But in seeing this movement of the mind clearly, it can dissolve by itself. Awareness is the great illuminator and the great solvent.
Meditation is seeing and knowing the nature of reality directly, not as knowledge but as immediate experiencing and being. Then we’re not just picking up a belief or an idea that “There is no self” or that “I am infinite Consciousness,” but we are actually discovering and realizing (making real) all this for ourselves. We’re allowing it to permeate every fiber of our being, so that it becomes ever-more felt and embodied as our living reality. Experiences always come and go, so that doesn’t mean having some perpetual experience of bliss or oneness or thoughtless presence, or never again feeling tense or contracted or lost in thought. It simply means being awake Here-Now. Not as “me” becoming better and better, but as consciousness itself, awakening from its own dream.
DOES NON-DUALITY IMPLY VEGETARIANISM, SOCIAL ACTIVISM, PROGRESSIVE POLITICS, OR ANY PARTICULAR MORAL STANCE?
I had this question put to me recently: “Wouldn’t ahimsa [non-harming] expressed as vegetarianism be a natural fallout of the falling away of the delusion of separation and the non-dual perspective?” There was a powerful presenter at the SAND Conference this year who expressed a similar perspective, not about vegetarianism in her case, but about non-duality and progressive social activism. This presenter seemed to regard non-duality as a belief in oneness or non-separation, and she felt that our responsibility as nondualists was to live our lives in accord with that belief.
However, I don’t see non-duality as a belief system or as a prescription for how to live, but rather as a description of how reality actually is. Non-dual realization is simply the recognition of how it is, and a waking up from the hypnotic trance of how we think (or believe) it is. In reality, life is a seamless and boundless happening that has no beginning or end, and no-thing actually exists independently of everything it apparently is not. And while it’s true that a non-dual realization quite naturally brings forth love and compassion for all beings, how that manifests in each of us will be different.
One thing we can notice about reality is that life feeds on life. We cannot live without killing. Wipe your brow and you have killed or disabled a multitude of microorganisms. Walk down the street or through the woods, and you inadvertently crush insects and other tiny creatures. A sneeze may be a veritable genocide! Our bodies are made up of cells and bacteria, often fighting with each other, dying and being replaced, eating and being eaten. And in the larger sense, all this apparent conflict is in perfect harmony.
Would we kill someone like Hitler to prevent him from killing and torturing millions of others? Will we kill bedbugs? Cockroaches? Termites? Ants? Wasps? Mosquitoes? Viruses? Bacteria? Will we eat carrots? Lettuce? Cheese? Milk? Eggs? Fish? Chickens? Cows? Pigs? Veal calves? Where will we draw the lines? Will we eat only animals that we hunt and kill ourselves, or only those that are raised and killed in a humane manner? Or is no method of killing ever humane and no act of violence ever a manifestation of love or compassion?
It’s like the fight over abortion. Catholic dogma aside, there is no clear line where a human being begins or becomes “a person.” If we base the abortion struggle on trying to define that line, we will argue forever. I support a woman’s right to a medically safe abortion because I lived through the time in this country when abortion was illegal, and I saw firsthand what happens: women still have abortions, but they are done in hideous ways, in backrooms or with coat hangers and so on, and I know that neither birth control nor “self-control” are infallible, and that unplanned and unwanted pregnancies can happen even to the most responsible and careful of women. I also support the right to die and physician-assisted dying because I don’t see any purpose in prolonging needless suffering, and I would like this option myself if I am dying a slow death in terrible pain someday or if I am diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But others, especially many religious and spiritual people, argue that no life should ever be extinguished under any circumstances and that even birth control is immoral. Of course, in the end, we all die, one way or another, and we wouldn’t live as long as we do without such human interventions as medicine and surgery. So again, where will we draw the lines?
Each of us will draw them differently. And non-duality doesn’t actually take sides in these debates. Individual non-dualists may have strong opinions this way or that on all kinds of social and ethical issues and may act or speak out accordingly as individuals, as I do occasionally on the issues mentioned above, but non-duality itself simply sees that all our different movements are the movements of one undivided whole, that it all goes together in ways we cannot begin to fathom, and that nothing (including conflict, opposing positions, and what appears to us as cruelty or injustice) is excluded from unicity.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is horrified at the prospect of killing the people on the other side in a battle. But Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight. Krishna says to Arjuna:
“The presence that pervades the universe
is imperishable, unchanging,
beyond both is and is not:
how could it ever vanish?
“If you think that this Self can kill
or think that it can be killed,
you do not well understand
reality’s subtle ways.”
The Buddhist precept of non-killing, as I understand it, is not intended as a commandment, but as a multi-faceted meditation on reality. In daily life, it is an invitation to notice both the impossibility of not killing and also the many ways we kill, often not literally, but with words or looks or judgmental thoughts or by walking by those in need. In relative reality, the precept may invite us to consider non-violent alternatives to armed struggle, or it may invite us to take up a vegan diet or to listen openly to those on “the other side” rather than judging or blaming them. But in the absolute sense, the precept points to the very same realization of which Lord Krishna spoke in the Bhagavad Gita, that we cannot kill or be killed—that what we are and what truly is, is imperishable and ever-present.
As I see it, we shouldn’t ignore any of these facets of reality, the relative or the absolute, and of course nondual teachings are not intended as an invitation to behave in cruel, heartless, insensitive or mindless ways. But in fact, sometimes we do behave in such ways. And there is no single “right” answer to questions like abortion or diet. Non-dual teachings point to a higher truth, the truth of “not two,” the way it is.
Response to a comment:
Thanks for your comment. I resonate with your vision, but I would offer a word of caution. Whenever we imagine that we are teaching others, or saving the world, or that our way of seeing is right and other ways are wrong, we have perhaps wandered into the weeds of delusion (a place to which I'm no stranger).
As I see it, nonduality does indeed see the sacred everywhere, but that everywhere is all-inclusive (not exclusive), and as I said in this post, how that recognition shows up in each of us will be different. Each bodymind is conditioned and shaped in different ways. For example, my experiences in my late teens and early 20’s with friends suffering through illegal and often horrific backroom abortions led me to be pro-choice. But someone else, whose mother almost aborted him but then didn’t, may have a very different view as a result of his conditioning.
I’ve known any number of political conservatives who are amongst the most generous, kind, loving, compassionate, good-hearted people I’ve ever known…and they voted for George Bush and Donald Trump. I know at least one nondual teacher, one I dearly love, who I’m told is politically conservative. I’m a progressive, but I don’t feel that progressives have a monopoly on truth and goodwill. And my life has taught me that sometimes things need to hit bottom before they can rise…and conversely, however much they rise, they will eventually hit bottom again. Such is the nature of the ever-changing manifestation—it can only appear in polarities and nothing stays the same.
Yes, every tradition contains outdated ideas. For example, the Bhagavad Gita, which I cited in my post, is a beautiful scripture with much to offer, but it contains a number of ideas that I do not support, such as an embrace of the caste system. So, we must be discerning in what we swallow.
Of course I agree it would be great if such things as racism and sexism disappeared, and I can imagine better economic, political and educational systems than those we have now, but I also know that new systems will present new problems. So, we do what life moves us to do, but maybe from a place that recognizes the deeper and more all-inclusive truth.
Response to another comment:
I’m an animal lover, well aware of the horrors of factory farming, opposed to the abuse and mistreatment of animals. I’ve seen many videos and documentaries on this subject, read many books, and was once a devoted macrobiotic. I am not currently a vegan, although I have been during many periods of my life, and my diet still leans in that direction, but for health reasons related to digestive issues, I am no longer entirely vegan (or macrobiotic). I’m all for informing people about animal abuse and so on, but I do find some people get very dogmatic and myopic on this issue (as on other political issues).
The world is filled with cruelties and injustices and with critical issues needing attention. Animal abuse is one of many such issues. No one person can address all of these issues. We all do what life moves us to do. And no matter what we do, no matter how pure the life we lead, we will still be killing other life forms just by being alive. To my credit, I have not reproduced, which is the single biggest dent anyone can make on the environment, so maybe you’ll cut me some slack for that. [wink emoji]
Sometimes things are not black and white. For example, I am horrified and appalled by how veal is produced and would never buy or order veal…but I was once invited to dinner by a very kind friend of my mother, a woman in her 80's, who served us veal. The veal calf was already dead. I did not think it would be kind to this woman or helpful to animals to lecture our hostess on the horrors of veal production. I ate what was served and expressed my appreciation for an excellent dinner.
Thank you for being a passionate advocate for animals….
What is awakening? What is enlightenment? What is awareness? What is consciousness? Which comes first, mind or matter, consciousness or the brain, the chicken or the egg? What exactly happens at the moment of death? Who is asking and answering these questions?
The mind wants answers. It wants security, control. It wants to know, to grasp, to understand. It craves certainty in the form of the right ideology, the correct formulation, the winning answer, the highest truth. But what happens when we give up knowing ANYTHING and fall into the freedom of not knowing, the freedom of groundlessness—having no foothold, not landing anywhere?
Have you had a big enlightenment experience? Did kundalini shoot up your spine? Do you feel bliss and oneness with the whole universe? Have your neurotic tendencies and your volatile human emotions all melted away? Do you feel totally free from fear and desire? Are you always happy? Are you perpetually identified only as impersonal presence and not as a separate person?
We crave experiences. We have ideas about enlightenment. We hear stories. We compare ourselves to others, and we compare our present experience to past experiences. We want bigger and better experiences. We give meaning to experiences. We take them personally. A good experience means I’m doing well; a bad experience means I’m not. We are experience junkies, looking for the next fix, the next rush.
But what if experiences don’t mean anything? What if none of it is personal? What if the only REAL experience is the one that is Here-Now, the one that is utterly impermanent, ever-changing, gone before we can grasp it? What if there is no “me” (either as an apparently separate self or as impersonal boundless awareness) apart from this present experiencing? What if THIS is all there is?
What IS this? What does it mean? The mind wants to know. It imagines itself as some-thing apart from the flow, like a boat rushing down the rapids. Imagining itself to be this separate boat, it feels endangered. It wants security, control, certainty. It fears disaster, meaninglessness, failure, oblivion, death. But if we search for this boat—this “thing” called “me” or “my body” or “my mind,” do we find anything separate, independent, solid, persisting? Or do we find ever-changing flow, impermanence, and no separate “things” to even BE impermanent?
Is the thinking mind looking for the right answers, trying to “get it”? What happens when thinking stops, when all words and ideas fall away, when the seeking-mind lets go, when we give up knowing ANYTHING and fall into the freedom of not knowing, the freedom of groundlessness, the freedom that is only Here-Now—the freedom of having no foothold, not landing anywhere, the utter simplicity of what is?
In my last post, I mentioned that the mind imagines itself as some-thing apart from the flow of life, like a boat rushing down the rapids, and I pointed out that when it does this, it naturally feels vulnerable and endangered. The body, after all, is vulnerable to pain, disability and death. Now I’m wondering if, as a balm for that fear and uncertainty, the mind creates the idea of an unchanging eternal presence—whether that presence goes by the name God, boundless awareness, primordial consciousness, unicity, the Self, or the Tao. Is there actually an invulnerable and unchanging dreamer within which the dream appears, something that never changes, that always remains the same?
When we search for the boat—this “thing” called “me” or “my body” or “my mind,” we don’t find anything separate, independent, solid or persisting. We find only ever-changing flow, impermanence, and no separate “things” to even BE impermanent. So, what happens when we search for this unchanging eternal presence? Do we actually find anything other than present awareness, the present knowingness of being conscious, the undeniable actuality of Here-Now? Isn’t Now the only eternity we ever find? And isn’t this awaring presence, this Now, inseparable from present experiencing? Is there a difference, a boundary, a separation between the changeless and the changing, between form and emptiness, between the observer and the observed? Are they two different things? Or are they simply different ways of describing the undivided and indivisible groundlessness and immediacy of being—this whole happening, whatever it is, that presumably includes not only my own movies of waking and dreaming life, but the movies of billions of apparent “others” as well, movies I am not able to see or in some cases even imagine? Whatever “this” is, it seems obvious that it is unknowable in its totality, because what can stand apart from totality to know it?
As I say in my website “Outpouring” on “Mind / Matter,” because of our ability to abstract, conceptualize and formulate what we see, it's very easy to jump from simple (undeniable) observations into the realm of (speculative) metaphysical dogma and belief, making something out of no-thing-ness. It's easy to fixate on, and even become identified with, one side of what may be nothing more than an imaginary conceptual divide or a battle over words and labels. And it's easy to draw false or unverifiable conclusions from certain experiences. It’s then it’s so easy for these mental creations to become some-THING to hold onto, a new security blanket, a landing place, something to grasp, a position to identify with and defend.
True liberation is the discovery that we need no security blanket. Groundlessness is infinitely more liberating than any imaginary ground could ever be! And yet, we fear this free-falling in the void, because the mind tells us it is dangerous, and nothing sounds scary! Words such as emptiness and nothingness are frightening to the survival mind. But what is it that we are so determined to hang onto and preserve?
Is it the boat (this apparent bodymind), which is actually dying moment-to-moment, never truly the same way for even an instant, and actually inseparable from the stream in which it is seemingly riding? Is it the fictional “me,” the soul-like entity who seems to be steering the boat, but who turns out to be nothing more than thoughts, mental images, memories and sensations? Is it the experience of being conscious and aware, which we happily surrender every night when we enter into deep sleep? Is it some idea of God or Awareness or Infinite Consciousness or Brahman or Whatever? What exactly are we clinging to, and what is clinging?
I’m not saying there is no God or no immutable reality. I’m saying we don’t know. And we don’t need to know. And when we think we do know, maybe we are wandering into the weeds of delusion, once again pursuing security where it can never be found.
And beware, even groundlessness (as an idea) can be turned into a new ground to clutch and hang our hat on. That’s why the Buddhists say that even emptiness is empty. And that’s why emptiness is both a description of reality and a way of being in this moment. And that “way” is no way at all. It is the pathless path through the gateless gate of Here / Now: being just this moment, exactly as it is. Dying to the known. Dying, moment to moment. Letting go into the flowing that we are. And seeing how we grasp, how we resist, how the mind tries to get a grip and hold onto the way it was.
11/9/17: KILLING THE BUDDHA ON THE ROAD
How often do we take on the ideas we pick up from esteemed teachers and gurus, even though these ideas seem to be questionable or unknowable metaphysical conclusions or beliefs? How often do we override and push down our own doubts and questions? Faced with the uncertainty of life, we long for answers. It seems so easy to assume that certain spiritual luminaries must be more enlightened than we are. If they insist that all is one, or that consciousness is prior to matter, or that awareness is ever-present, or that souls reincarnate after death, or that we create our own reality, or that meditation is necessary or unnecessary, or whatever they say, then of course that must be true, even if it sometimes seems to us that what they are asserting is either untrue, questionable, or perhaps simply unknowable.
We easily jump from direct seeing into metaphysical conclusions. And we buy into the formulations of others. We fit our experience into pre-existing boxes, and we play pre-fabricated roles as both students and teachers. We hold onto certain conclusions as Final Truths that cannot be questioned. Once we’ve expressed these conclusions to a friend, dedicated years of our life to them, written a book or two about them, taught them, or otherwise stood behind (or on) them, we become identified with and invested in them. We don’t want to question them. Our livelihood or the credibility of our self-image may seemingly depend on continuing to uphold these apparent certainties that we actually secretly doubt.
The whole structure of religion (and sadly, this applies also to alternative spirituality, non-duality, and all the more non-traditional forms of the religious impulse) tends to freeze and solidify what is initially a living realization (a letting go actually, a seeing through, a dissolving of solidity) into a belief system or a metaphysical formulation that can be grasped—something solid that we can cling to and count on, something to protect us from the vicissitudes and uncertainties of life. It can actually be quite difficult to discern where direct seeing ends and metaphysical belief begins. It’s not always obvious.
I know I’ve done all this myself at times. It feels reminiscent of what happened to me as a radical leftist many decades ago. I swallowed so many ideas that seemed dubious to me. Finally, I became disillusioned with the revolution and the organization I was in, but I kept going for quite a while after that disillusionment because I had bought into and internalized the Party Line, which told me that by leaving, I would be abandoning “The People” and copping out to my “white, bourgeois, oppressor-nation privilege.” It took a while before I had the courage to trust my own heart and walk away. And I’m so glad I did, although initially, it was quite hard. It meant walking away from my whole life at that time: my household, my friends, the children I was helping to raise, the community of which I was a part, and the meaningful purpose to which my life had been dedicated.
As I mentioned in several recent posts, I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things, that Julian Noyce lent me while we were at the SAND Conference. Robert was then kind enough to send me a copy, and I am continuing to enjoy and resonate with this book, which I very highly recommend. I’ve dipped into a few videos of Robert as well, including the one I just shared the other day. Listening to him, or reading him, is often like hearing someone speaking what’s in my own mind, a confirmation of how I actually see things. And beyond that, he calls into question and peels away a number of things that I’ve picked up (and then shared) that I have secretly questioned but then eventually swallowed—it’s like a light shining on a gnawing doubt I’ve tried to ignore.
Robert also points out quite strongly the ways in which we can so easily become hypnotized, and perhaps especially those of us who are in some way “teaching” this. This was something my friend and main teacher, Toni Packer, was also very keen on pointing out. She was very aware of how easily we swallowed the ideas of authority figures, and how easily we could become hypnotized and seduced by our desires to have an authority, to be an authority, to be loved and approved and maybe venerated, to be secure, to be told the “right” answers, or to be the “The One with the Answers,” and so on. Toni was especially aware of the dangers faced when one became “a teacher,” a word she steadfastly refused to use.
Toni genuinely saw herself as a friend, not an authority. She met everyone as a peer, as a fellow being on a common journey of exploration and discovery, never assuming that she knew more than we did or that the answer she found yesterday still applied today. She was always ready to look freshly at a question, no matter how many times she had looked at it before or written and spoken about it. She was always ready to see something new. Much of her expression was in the form of questions rather than statements, inviting the listener to look and see for ourselves, to explore and to wonder. She invited us to question everything she said, to disagree, to take it further. Nothing was ever final. She was a tremendous living example of open awareness, open listening, being awake Here-Now and being truly free.
Along with reading Robert, I also just read a powerful, Pulitzer prize winning novel called The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American. I happened upon it at a friend’s house during my recent trip to California. I recommend it highly. It takes place during the Vietnam War, and the narrator is a man of many opposites. He is communist mole working within the South Vietnamese military and secret police. His father was a French priest, his mother Vietnamese, so he was shunned as a half-breed by both sides. He grew up in Vietnam, but went to college in the U.S. He describes himself as a man who sees both sides of everything, hence the title. I won’t give away the whole story, but suffice it to say that it had quite an impact on me. The Vietnam War was a center-piece of my coming-of-age years—I protested against it, idolized Ho Chi Minh and rooted for the North Vietnamese, who were fighting against colonialism and for socialism. I had friends, classmates and lovers who fought in the war with the U.S. military against the communists, and others who protested against the war, and some who did both. Long after the war had ended, I was (and still am) deeply touched by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher who lived through the war and now lives in France. I vividly remember the images on TV of monks from his order setting themselves on fire, protesting the war but not taking either side.
Anyway, reading Robert’s book and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, I could feel myself shedding layers of accumulated falsehood. I’m reminded of how I felt decades ago when I was leaving the radical left, only now it has more to do with the spiritual world. I’m not sure exactly how this shedding will play out—it might be nothing dramatic or obvious to others, or maybe it will be, I don’t know—but I can feel something releasing. In a strange way, it brings me back full circle to the questioning spirit of Toni Packer. But more to the point, it doesn’t bring me to Toni or Robert or any “Buddha on the road” (i.e. any Buddha outside myself, of which I have venerated so many). It brings me back to what I trust most deeply: the simplicity of what is, being awake Here-Now, just this, just as it is. Of course, you might say, isn’t that exactly what I’ve always been pointing to? Yes, it is, but this seems to be a further stripping and questioning. As I often say, there is no end to awakening. It’s always Now.
Is it possible to remain open to seeing things freshly, to seeing something in a new way, to discovering that the stories we’ve been telling for decades might not be true? Is it possible to step off the cliff of the known and the familiar into the unknown and the unfamiliar? How much are we willing to risk? Can we let go of everything? And by everything, I don’t mean our possessions, our relationships, our money, our jobs—I mean all the ideas we’ve picked up, all the second-hand information, all the beliefs we didn’t even see were beliefs. When all that goes, if only for a moment, what remains?
Response to a comment:
I’m not saying we don’t need teachers. Some people (myself included) apparently do (or did) need teachers, others don’t (or didn’t) seem to require human teachers. I’m not saying there’s no place for teachers. What I’m talking about is the danger of idolizing teachers and/or turning them into infallible authorities. Yes, teachers, books, videos, these Facebook posts, life experiences and many other things may all be very helpful! But the best teachers (books, etc.) are pointing to right here, right now. They are inviting a direct exploration and investigation, not adopting what they say as a belief or a philosophy, but seeing for oneself. And that’s what liberates—seeing for ourselves—not taking on and holding onto some idea that “all is one” or “everything is perfect” or “there is no self” or whatever the idea is. I see being awake as the natural state, the default state, what is already fully present right now. It’s the sound of traffic, the taste of tea, the pain of a headache, the song of the bird, the cool breeze on the skin, the ache of grief—just this! The so-called “process” of waking up is about seeing through the mental overlay that creates so much of our human suffering—the belief that we are separate, independent, in control, authoring our thoughts, making our decisions, and so on. Seeing through all of that may take time (although the seeing and the insight always happens now), but what I’m calling awakeness is timelessly always already fully present, right here, right now. Simply paying attention to the happening of this moment, not as a goal-oriented practice like mindfulness, but simply in an open way, because it invites us, is the best way to see for yourself how everything is changing, how no boundaries can actually be found between inside and outside, observer and observed, self and not-self. Being awake is simple, natural, already present. It doesn’t mean you’re always feeling great. It means you’re feeling what you’re feeling. And it doesn’t mean you lose all sense of being a particular person or that you are no longer human. But you begin to see the difference between the ever-changing reality of you and the self-images, thoughts and stories that make “you” seem separate and deficient and “not awake” and so on. Of course, there are teachers who are offering a very different kind of awakening—a more transcendent and beyond-it-all vision than what I’m pointing to. And there are teachers who are quite deluded, and some who are opportunistic and out for money, and so on. But no teacher is perfect, not even the very best of them. A teacher is an ever-changing human being, just like you, with conditioning and blind spots and neurotic tendencies and all the rest.
Response to another comment from same person:
You don't need to "slip into being awake." Awakeness (and awareness) are already 100% present. They simply get overlaid with thoughts like, "Is this all there is?" It's just a thought! When holding onto magical thinking and clinging to beliefs truly falls away, it is liberating, not a feeling of despair. The despair is from thoughts like, "Is this all there is?" and the belief that "you" are still deficient (lacking awakening). Sometimes despair can also come from depression, and there are many causes of that (psychological ones, neurochemical ones, things like untreated sleep apnea), so if something like that is going on, psychotherapy may be helpful in my experience--it has been for me. And don't worry about having a Big Bang awakening moment--many of those are pure bullshit--and either way, they aren't the point and don't matter. Blessedly, I have never had any line-in-the-sand fireworks-moment after which my life was totally transformed. I say blessedly, because I think such dramatic events often mislead those to whom they happen.
"What is ordinary is that people look for something special. But what is special is when people settle down in the ordinary.”
--Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center
Response to a comment: Yes, the ordinary is not always pleasant, as a few comments above might inadvertently suggest. It includes not only the singing birds and the smell of roses, but equally the smell of garbage, the pain of a headache, the grief when a loved one is lost, the bitter realities of war and violent crime, and so on. It doesn't always feel good. It isn't about bliss. It simply means being awake to what is, as it is--what the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa spoke of as "experiencing the uniqueness and vividness of phenomena directly," without the overlay of a belief system, without any attempt to transcend or explain or get to a better and more special experience than the one that is here right now. (And ofcourse, that doesn't prevent us from putting the lid on the garbage can, taking an aspirin, or fixing a flat tire).
“I am not awake” is only another unreliable, conditioned thought. You are awake in this moment, reading this post, hearing the bird cheeps or the traffic sounds or whatever you are hearing, feeling whatever you are feeling, and what else is there? Awake is the natural state, the default state, what is always already present—perceiving, sensing, awaring, breathing—the simple happening of this moment. Confusion and suffering come when it gets overlaid with ideas about “me” being awake or not awake, and enlightenment and the meaning of life and “my spiritual search” and “the world situation” and all the rest. But being here now is utterly simple, obvious, unavoidable, and effortlessly already so. Trying to “be here now” as some kind of practice is an extra effort, predicated on a story of “me” who needs to improve in some way. The same is true of trying to identify as boundless awareness and not as a human being. All of that is extra. In this moment, before thought, there is no “human being” and no “boundless awareness” and no “awakening.” There is no dividing line between “awareness” and “content,” or between “inside” and “outside.” There is simply this ever-changing flow of perceiving, sensing, awaring, thinking, feeling, being—not those labels, but the undeniable living actuality to which they point. Just this. Simple. Simple. Simple. So, don’t believe the “I am not awake” story. I’m not recommending the opposite story, “I am awake,” either. I’d just say, awakeness is here, naturally. And every night, it turns off for a while, and then turns on again. Amazing! And no one knows what this whole happening is, or why it’s happening, or what will happen next. And that isn’t bad news—it’s actually a huge relief, not needing to know.
Response to a comment:
I also find that awareness—or at least the experience of being knowingly aware—comes and goes. The notion that there is something unchanging that stands apart from the changing seems like a metaphysical belief to me, although I would not say it is necessarily false, simply unverifiable.
As for deep sleep, it seems that there must be some consciousness (or awareness) present during deep sleep since we respond when the alarm goes off in the morning, or if we smell smoke, or need to use the bathroom. So some consciousness or awareness must be present. But as I understand the science of sleep, there is no mental activity going on during deep sleep—no dreaming, and presumably no awareness of being aware. Some people do claim to have been knowingly aware (or “awake”) during deep sleep, and I believe they are reporting a genuine experience. But it seems to me this experience might be a dream, because by its very nature, as I understand it, deep sleep is without content. This is not an experience I have had myself, and I can’t prove it to be false any more than those who have had it can prove it to be anything more than a dream.
But whatever happens during deep sleep, as I see it, consciousness (or awareness) does not survive death, at least not in the way many people hope it does. Again, I cannot prove this, but that is my assumption. However, the movement of life, which includes consciousness and awareness, certainly goes on, taking ever-new forms. I imagine that dying will be just like falling asleep or going under anesthesia. And there won't be anyone leftover to be upset that my movie of waking life has ended! But again, I cannot know for sure what happens after death, and neither can anyone else. NDEs are simply experiences, and there is no way to know if they happen when one is losing consciousness, or regaining it, or at the actual moment of being technically dead. These may indeed be genuine experiences, but they prove nothing at all about what happens after death.
Ultimately, I don’t think any of this actually matters. Perhaps these are unanswerable questions. But in this moment of simply hearing the birds and the traffic sounds, breathing, feeling sensations in the body, and so on…I find that this question does not arise. If it does arise, it seems to come from the thinking mind that is trying to figure everything out and get “the right answer” to the mysteries of life, and/or comparing my experience to other people’s experience and wanting the best experience, and so on. So my suggestion would be to watch and see when this question arises and what is behind it. And then what happens if you let it go and simply relax into being just this moment, exactly as it is, not needing to know all these things. Do they really matter?
Perhaps I shlould clarify that when I said in this post that “I am not awake” is only another unreliable, conditioned thought, I was referring to waking life, when people insist that, "I am not awake yet." I did not mean to imply that awakeness (or awareness) is ever-present and permanent (e.g. in deep sleep or after death).
Another response to the same questioner’s follow-up question:
As I understand Nisargadatta, he spoke of awareness being prior to consciousness, and he said that even the impersonal sense of being present (the I AM) and consciousness itself (i.e., sentience, waking and dreaming life, thinking, sensing, perceiving, imagining, etc.) is temporary, but that awareness is the immutable background. Many Advaita teachers say similar things, and I've said this myself, although it relies, arguably, on either an unverifiable metaphysical leap, an intuition and/or what Rupert calls "higher reasoning."
Buddhism, on the other hand, says there is no Self (or self), but I don’t think it says there is “nothing” in some nihilistic sense, but rather, there is no-thing-ness (i.e., no solid, independent, persisting “things” in the way we commonly think). In Buddhism, impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even be impermanent. There is only flux. Of course, there are several different schools of Buddhism, and one of them does posit that everything is the “One Mind.” But other schools prefer to see that ANY way we formulate reality is incomplete and untrue, and therefore, they emphasize groundlessness or not knowing.
But again, I'd say, look for yourself and see what YOU see! And don't swallow what others say, however revered they may be. And I would add, don't assume that I or Robert Saltzman are authories or that we are awake and you are not.
Response to another comment:
I think we're using the word awake in different ways here. As I hear you, you are using it to mean a kind of clarity (a seeing of the false as false, etc), or perhaps even a stability in that clarity. In other words, as I think you are using the term, being awake comes and goes and maybe stabilizes more and more over time. And I certainly get what you mean. But I am using it to point to the obvious actuality that right here, right now, awareness is present. Awakeness is the natural state, the default state, the ever-present ground. What comes and goes are the thoughts (and accompanying feelings) that center around "me" and my progress or lack thereof. Many people tell me they are not awake, and I'm pointing to the obvious fact that awakeness is right here, fully present. I'm not suggesting that they should pick up the opposite thought that "I am awake." Some people tell me that story, that they are awake, and they mean it in the way you are using it, and it always sounds fishy to me. Because if there is truly clarity in this moment, why claim it as mine?
WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY? WHAT ARE WE DOING?
It’s raining lightly as I type. Wonderful, delicious sounds. And really, that’s what life is, these ordinary happenings like the sounds of rain pattering on the roof, these words forming, the taste of tea, the beauty of bare, rain-soaked branches, the mulchy smells of the balmy November air, maybe also a burning pain somewhere in the body, and the vast awaring presence beholding it all. Just this—this vivid aliveness, this undeniable present-ness.
In our mental world, we worry about the meaning or meaninglessness of life, we wonder about our purpose and the purpose of everything, we judge and evaluate ourselves and compare ourselves to others, we seek escape from the vulnerability and the pain and the heartache that life inevitably brings, and we seek exciting and pleasurable experiences that will thrill us and maybe also enhance our self-image in our own eyes or in the eyes of others. We go on long journeys, sometimes for decades, searching for enlightenment, or the perfect partner, or the perfect place to live, or the perfect career, or the perfect friends.
But meanwhile, here-now we always are, and right here, there is the utter simplicity and wonder of life itself—the sounds of rain, the freshness of the air, the ache of grief, the taste and texture of this moment, just exactly as it is. And it never stays the same, for everything is always changing. The universe literally begins anew in each moment. And really, this moment is all we have. But we so often ignore this vital reality, overlook or dismiss it. We don’t really notice the wonder and the beauty of it, even the wonder and beauty in its sharper, darker, more bitter and challenging forms. We want something else, something bigger and better, more exciting or more pleasurable, or simply different. This may be an evolutionary impulse that has gotten us to the moon, but it has also gotten us into a great deal of suffering.
As many of you know, I’m working on a fifth book now, a book that explores death and growing old. But it has another aspect as well, namely the embrace of groundlessness and not knowing, and the discovery of true happiness right here where we actually are—waking up to the simplicity of being just this moment, exactly as it is. Groundlessness means living in not knowing what all this is or why it’s happening or what will happen next—rather than desperately trying to find solid ground in some transcendent metaphysical knowledge, conclusion, ideology or belief—e.g., that nothing exists outside of consciousness, or that consciousness precedes the brain and mind precedes matter, or that consciousness continues after death, or that I am boundless awareness and not a person, or whatever that conceptual conclusion might be.
I’m not saying any of those assertions are untrue, only that they require a leap from direct experience into conceptual formulations or conclusions that can probably never be verified. Of course, certain realities about life may be deeply intuited and realized even if they cannot be scientifically proven—for example, that there is something here-now that is limitless, boundless, unborn and undying, and that we as this bodymind are a momentary expression of this vastness. Death may be the end of “me” and “my story” and my particular movie of waking life—I assume it will be—but it’s not the end of this larger wholeness of which “Joan” is a momentary and ever-changing movement, like a wave on the ocean. The fear of death comes from being exclusively identified as the wave, and imagining the wave to be a solid, fixed, independent, separate thing rather than a flowing movement of the ocean. All of this can be discovered directly by giving open attention to life itself.
This vastness did not begin with the birth of this body and it will not end with the death of this body. Whether I call this vastness the ocean of existence, the universe, the Self, the Tao, emptiness, primordial awareness, pure consciousness, the vibrant dance of existence, intelligence-energy, spirit, or no-thing appearing as everything, I know it intuitively as what I am and what everything is. Doubts come only when the thinking mind tries to grasp this vastness as another formed thing, another object that can be pinned down, some-thing to believe in, some ideological formulation or conclusion.
When I turn and look for the “I” in the knowingness that “I am,” no-thing at all is found—only open, clear, luminous, aware space, and everything, just as it is—the stream of present experiencing. I can feel this boundless awaring presence, the spacious openness of here-now that has no center and no edges. And I can see that even the first sense (or sensation) of presence-awareness comes and goes. There is an awareness of consciousness being here now, there has been an awareness of consciousness disappearing when I’ve gone under anesthesia, and there is an awareness of this movie of waking life returning every morning when I wake up from sleep. When I look, it is obvious that we can never experience anything outside of consciousness, and that every experience is an experience in and of consciousness. There is a deep sense that what remains in the absence of conscious experiencing (i.e., in the absence of waking or dreaming life) is not a dead void, but some kind of intelligence-energy. Some call this primordial awareness, some call it pure consciousness, some call it the Self, some call it spirit or the Tao. But we have no way of grasping this with the mind, and there’s a metaphysical leap, some teachers call it “higher reasoning,” that moves from these direct insights and intuitions into the metaphysical conclusions and certainties that I mentioned (e.g., that nothing exists outside of consciousness, that consciousness precedes the brain, that I am pure awareness and not a person in any sense, and so on).
I may even have said some of these things myself, based on felt experiences or deep intuitions. But when mixed together with metaphysical ideas that I was imbibing from others, and when translated into concepts and words, I discovered it was easy enough to arrive at conclusions rather than resting in the actual freedom of groundlessness and the simplicity and openness of being-without-knowing and without needing to know how the universe works. And again, I’m not saying any of these beliefs are false, only that they have moved from that open space of groundlessness into the solidity of a formed idea, an idea that cannot actually be verified. We cling to these formed ideas in our search to avoid uncertainty, vulnerability, lack of control, and the reality of not knowing. We try to grasp the infinite. We try to make some-thing out of the ungraspable mystery that we are. Science provides one version of certainty, religion provides another, but the ultimate truth is that we don’t know why we’re here, what this is, or what will happen next. The thinking mind and the psychological self desperately want to get a grip and have control. But our real freedom is in the groundlessness in which there is no separate “thing” to be gripped or controlled and no separate someone in need of doing that.
It can be seen that everything appears in awareness, and that it is always appearing here-now. Presence-awareness is the common factor in every different experience. We could easily conclude that awareness (or Mind, or Consciousness, or Here-Now) is that in which all experiences appear and disappear, the ever-present ground of being. Some assert that because this ground is ever-present (at least in our conscious experiencing), that it is therefore unchanging. It is the changeless ground in which the changing comes and goes. But that formulation always seems dualistic to me, so I resonate more with the Zen understanding that form is precisely emptiness, and emptiness is precisely form. But no formulation can capture the living reality. Whatever this is, it can’t really be pinned down as this or that. It’s so easy to slide over from the freedom that comes with letting go of everything we think and believe into the false certainty of metaphysical conclusions and beliefs. It’s a subtle line we cross, and we don’t always see it, especially when we are surrounded by a whole subculture that is reinforcing the beliefs. Instead of trusting our own direct exploration and discovery, we grasp at second-hand ideas that seem to provide a sense of security, certainty and comfort. But we may eventually notice that belief is always shadowed by doubt.
In such transcendent teachings as Advaita, which come out of Hinduism, one is too often no longer a mere mortal or a person, no longer a vulnerable body or a vulnerable human mind, but instead, one is pure boundless awareness, infinite consciousness, the Ultimate Subject, God—unconditioned, indestructible, imperishable, free, beyond it all. In my experience, there is a real truth in all that, and we can experience that truth, but it is only a partial truth, for we are also a particular bodymind, which is why, in Zen, they speak of “leaping clear of the many and the one.” As soon as we try to pin down the infinite or land anywhere at all, we have made everything too small.
If we fixate only on formlessness and emptiness, if we deny this world of ever-changing form and the reality and preciousness of this particular body-mind-person, this unique and unrepeatable wave that will never happen again in exactly the same way, and if we try to identify exclusively as the whole ocean and not the wave, we miss something very important. We miss the fact that the wave doesn’t have to stop being a wave in order to be the ocean. The ocean is expressing itself as the wave—as the taste of tea, the sounds of rain, the smell of garbage, a burning pain in the gut, the bright red fire truck streaking past, the joyous companionship of a good friend or a beloved dog and the grief when they die. If we try to deny or ignore or “transcend” all of that, we miss the actual life of this moment. And if we try to define the ocean (the whole) or grasp what exactly it is, we reduce the infinite to something too small. We make it into just another “thing” that we can use as a security blanket to avoid the real freedom of open groundlessness. Liberation is not in beliefs or ideas. It is in the living actuality of present experiencing and in the awaring presence beholding it all—prior to any interpretations or formulations about this. Only when we use words do “awareness” and “content” seem to become two separate things. Liberation is a letting go of all the words and ideas, not a grasping on to anything.
Many of us have given up alcohol and drugs only to become spiritual junkies. I’m not saying we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and renounce all of spirituality as worthless. I’m not saying we should give up meditating or stop going on silent retreats—I think spending time in silence or in satsang or in meditation is beautiful and enlightening and wondrous. I’m not saying we should renounce all teachers and throw away all spiritual books and never use the word “spirituality” again. There is something real in spirituality, at the very heart of it. But what is it? Is it some belief system, some set of answers and explanations for how the universe works, some metaphysical certainty about life that gives us a feeling of security? Is it some rarified transcendent experience where we leave this life of flesh and blood far, far behind? Or is it the raw, unmediated aliveness of this very moment, just as it is?
--Revised in February, 2018
I’ve recently received a diagnosis that will mean several months (or more) of painful and debilitating treatment. I want to focus whatever little energy I may have in these coming months on the book I’ve been working on for so long, the one about death, aging, and the end of the search for transcendence. A cancer diagnosis seems oddly perfect for bringing it all to a rollicking close, eh?
In the last few weeks, I’ve had a lot going on with tests and procedures and absorbing the reality of what is happening, and I have felt overwhelmed by Facebook at times, especially after a recent post (now deleted) that drew a super-huge and often contentious response. I have found that my tolerance for things that aggravate me is lower and my fuse shorter than usual. If I have been harsh or insulting to anyone in replying to comments, please accept my apologies.
I expect to be posting very little if at all in the coming months, and I may not be responding to friend requests, Facebook messages, posts or comments at all, or only sporadically. My last public meeting for now will be the one on December 10th, and I’m not scheduling any more private meetings or anything else until I have emerged on the other side of this.
Friends have been wonderful with an outpouring of love and support that has touched me very deeply. I feel I’m in the hands of a great bunch of doctors, and thank God for Medicare (hopefully those currently in power in Washington won’t totally destroy it with their tax breaks for the wealthy). I am quite amazed by all the diagnostic technologies such as MRI machines that the human mind has managed to invent and that I’ve had the chance to enjoy up close in recent weeks. And I’m so touched by the kindness and generosity of the many nurses, technicians and other staff at all the many medical places I’ve been frequenting lately. I truly feel surrounded by love.
“Stop thinking of achievement of any kind. You are complete here and now, you need absolutely nothing.”
In his wonderful book The Magic of Awareness, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten starts the book with a chapter called “Being Nobody,” in which he talks about the danger of “golden chains,” by which he means concepts and beliefs that seem to offer security, certainty and comfort but that actually enslave us. He then offers an unusual interpretation of the Buddhist practice of “taking refuge.” He writes, “The idea of taking refuge is to completely stop taking refuge in false comfort…and turn our attention to an inexhaustible source of freedom…the basic ground of who we are…a state of our consciousness that is unconditioned.”
He’s not talking about a belief or an idea or a concept. He’s talking about something we must each discover for ourselves, directly, not by thinking, but simply by noticing what is here prior to thought and belief.
Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center, puts it this way: “The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind…If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few…In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’…You should not say, ‘I know what Zen is,’ or ‘I have attained enlightenment.’ This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”
This open, spacious mind of not knowing is right here, right now. It feels quite different from the conditioned habitual mind that knows the answers, that has opinions and beliefs and that identifies with this and that—the argumentative, doubting mind that has so many things it is defending or resisting, chasing or opposing. The open spacious mind is complete here and now. It needs absolutely nothing. It is whole, not fragmented. (Of course, there are not really two minds, only different ways of seeing).
In the hospital, one of the many nurses who attended me was born in the Philippines, and one afternoon we had a long conversation about many things. I told her I feared the pain that would come with the radiation. She told me the way through pain is to keep your focus on Jesus. “That’s where Peter went wrong,” she told me, “on the sea, when he was walking on the water, he took his eyes off Jesus and then he began to sink. You have to keep your attention on Jesus.” I remembered that in the story, Peter had been distracted by the ferocity of the wind and had become afraid and filled with doubt and had lost faith. In my mind, I silently translated “Jesus” into my own language and understanding as “the Now” or “what is” or “primordial awareness” or “the present moment” or “open, spacious mind.” And perhaps “the wind” is the ever-changing play of thoughts, emotions and circumstances—and what a friend of mine calls the “doubt app” that is so strong in some of us, that doubting mind that feels separate from life and therefore endangered—the mind that loses faith—not faith in some external thing or some belief system (some golden chain), but faith in what is actually trustworthy—that beginner’s mind, that open, spacious unconditioned mind, letting go of all false comfort and simply being here-now. And I told her I agreed, that was the key, staying focused on Jesus, although not always easy. She nodded. “Not always easy, but that is the way.”
--Christmas Day, 2017
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017--
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