Postings from My Facebook Page #17
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the seventeenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (1/12/18 - 4/24/18). 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:
Cancer is proving to be an awakening journey, a stripping and grounding process, a waking up to the immediacy of this moment. The location and type of cancer I have (an anal cancer that has invaded my vagina) has sent me on a journey into the bowels of the human experience, precisely the journey I needed. We so often (falsely) measure dignity as being independent, squeaky clean and tidy, and needing nothing—but I’ve needed help, and I’ve been down there grappling with all the things we can’t talk about aloud in polite company (poop, pee, bad smells, the body parts that are kept hidden, all those places unfortunately associated with shame).
In my book on aging, I am endeavoring, among other things, to show the hard side of aging, the gritty details that are so often air-brushed out of the picture, and to do this not in a way that invites despair or horror, but in a way that finds the beauty in how it actually is. I’m taking a similar approach to writing about this cancer. I’m not mincing words, and some of you may find it “too intimate,” “too personal,” “too graphic,” or “too unmentionable,” but I am trusting that it will speak to some of you. After all, we’re all in this human boat together.
It’s hard to believe it has been only a month since I had surgery. It feels like years have gone by since that day when I was wheeled into the operating room. And it’s been less than two months since I was diagnosed. My home health nurse reminded me how much I’ve accomplished since the colostomy a month ago—that I can empty and change my ostomy bags (one-handed) by myself, that I don’t really need home health anymore (and I’ll be cut loose very soon), that I’ve been working on my book, and that, for the most part, I’ve been cheerful and in good spirits.
One of the gifts of limitation, in any form, as I’ve discovered in other life situations and now in this one, is a waking up to the immensity of freedom right here, in exactly this moment. If that sounds like something I might have said before, it is, but I’m awake to it now in a whole new way. The other morning, for example, I had plans—things I wanted to do. Instead, I had diarrhea, a side effect of the radiation. I had to keep emptying my ostomy bag, again and again (and this is a somewhat involved operation in which I take off my pants, prepare various needed supplies and implements, and then go through a process of coaxing poop out of the bag into the toilet—it’s messy and it takes time). As this kept happening, there was a brief second of resistance – “This isn’t the morning I had in mind, I don’t want this” – and then something shifted, and there was the realization, this IS my morning…this IS what’s happening…and suddenly it was no longer a limitation, a disappointment, a drag, or an unpleasant smelly task—it was wide open, interesting, perfectly okay. Every bit as good as a beach in Hawaii or a trip to the Grand Canyon. (Yes, I really mean that).
There was a James Joyce character in Dubliners, a Mr. Duffy, who “lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” In recent years, I’ve discovered that I have lived a short distance from my life in many ways—pulled back somehow, a step removed. Cancer is erasing that gap. No gap between me and diarrhea. No gap between me and THIS moment, exactly as it is. No more of those thoughts I’ve had all my life about how this place (wherever I am at the moment) isn’t the right place to live…or the right community…or the right occupation…or the right way for my morning (or my life) to be going. Those thoughts don’t arise, or if in a rare moment they do, they find no purchase anymore. Instead, this IS my life, exactly this…THIS place, THIS community, THIS occupation, which, at the moment, might be emptying my bag or typing an email or leading a retreat or taking out the trash. Again, I know this sounds like something I’ve been saying for decades (and that many others have said as well), but it seems that (as the old saying goes) we teach what we need to learn, and that awakening is not a one-time finish-line we cross, but an ever-deepening unfoldment without end, always Now.
One dear friend in NYC died suddenly in the last month, and I’m told that one of the many teachers I love at Pacific Zen Institute, a woman who lives in southern California, woke up recently to a wall of mud crashing into her home, and escaped in pajamas…On the News, these mudslides look horrendous—a fast-moving river of mud, strewn with boulders and cars and giant logs, racing toward you. Yes, life is a fragile affair. And yet, something survives all the blows and carries on, one way or another.
In the hospital, they rang soft, gentle little tinkling bells whenever a new baby was born—I heard those bells at least once while I was there. So, this One Life, endlessly recycling and evolving, dying and being born, like the waves on the ocean, distinct and yet inseparable, moving, intermingling, never the same from one instant to the next, ever-changing and yet ever-present as the ocean itself…whether we call that ocean consciousness, matter, primordial awareness, boundlessness, unicity, God, intelligence-energy, the Tao, the vibrant dance of existence, the universe, or no name at all…it flows on, always Here, always Now. It is our most intimate reality—obvious and unavoidable—and yet we cannot know it in the way we know information or grasp it in the way we grasp objects, for it is not outside of us—it is what we are and all there is. In this unbroken wholeness, there is no inside or outside, no self or other-than-self. And yet, each wave, each person, each newborn, each snowflake, each moment is utterly unique and beautiful and precious and unrepeatable and perfectly formed, just as it is.
Winter is the dark time, the bare time…and yet, already, the light is returning.
Recently, a friend told me that after decades of meditation, he had finally dared to let go of focusing on the breath. He pulled up the anchor, gave up control and drifted freely out into the open sea! Another person emailed me that she had finally stopped trying to “be a no-self and identify as awareness and not as a person.” She started simply listening to the traffic sounds, the barking dog, the cheeping bird, the airplane flying overhead—being this moment, just as it is. What a relief for both of them!
Now the woman who was trying so hard to identify as awareness is simply being awareness, hearing the birds and the traffic, seeing her thoughts as they come and go, feeling the breathing…and her “true self” is ALL of this, the whole happening of this moment, just as it is, awareness included, and not that cartoon character in her imagination who believed that she lacked something and needed to improve herself by being identified as awareness and not as a person.
And my friend whose attention is no longer chained to his breathing is freer of any agenda at all and of the long-held belief that he is not quite okay as he is, and that by concentrating on his breath, maybe one day he will be okay. He is discovering the okay-ness of everything, just as it is—and of himself, just as he is.
In recent years, I attended two retreats with John Tarrant (author of the wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros) along with a number of the other teachers at Pacific Zen Institute (PZI) who co-teach with him, and these retreats freed me from pathologizing the imagination, trying to be in a special state of presence, and thinking I knew what meditation was about. Rachel Boughton, one of the PZI teachers, said in a talk about meditation at one of those retreats (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Whatever you think you need to be or do in meditation (e.g., be calm, loving, clear, present, full of light, mindful, etc), what if you didn’t need to?” Another teacher from the PZI lineage, Joan Sutherland, wrote that, “Chan [Zen] has been described as a move from pacifying, cultivating and contemplating the mind to letting the mind be free.” And, of course, there is the old Zen koan that proclaims, “Ordinary mind is the way…if you turn toward it, you turn away from it.”
Any practice that takes effort almost inevitably has a “me” behind the effort—a “me” with a story of deficiency and lack, a story that “this isn’t it” and that “I’m not there yet,” wherever “there” is imagined to be (basically, anywhere but here). Of course, I’m not saying all effort is bad. In some ways, practice does take effort. But it’s a relaxed effort. I remember hearing Adya talk years ago about the great Olympic runner Carl Lewis, who apparently said (and I’m paraphrasing again), “At a certain point in the race, I relax and go faster.” That’s a very different kind of effort from the tensed-up, me-centered kind that is trying very hard to “do it right.”
I’m experiencing right now with cancer how we find a powerful medicine, in this case chemotherapy and radiation, to cure what ails us, but then the side effects of the wonderful medicine begin to make us sick, so we need various antidotes to these poisonous side effects. John Tarrant used this basic truth about life as an analogy for the spiritual path and all its variations. As he pointed out, we find a path (such as following the breath, or recognizing ourselves as boundless awareness, or being in a state of open presence, or repeating a mantra, or working with koans), and this path opens many doors and heals many wounds, but then it has unintended side effects. Pretty soon, we need an antidote to that path to cure the side effects, and we find a new path. And for a while, that new path opens doors and sets us free, but then it, too, has side effects and begins to limit us, and we need a new antidote to the antidote. This process of finding an antidote to the antidote to the antidote goes on forever in an endless dance—sometimes occurring over centuries, as religions such as Buddhism evolve through different stages and take on different qualities in different countries—and sometimes occurring in one lifetime as an individual evolves.
My journey certainly feels that way. I went from formal Zen to the former Zen teacher Toni Packer…on to Advaita (Nisargadatta, Jean Klein, Gangaji, Francis Lucille, Isaac Shapiro, and so on) and then to radical nonduality (Tony Parsons, Nathan Gill, Sailor Bob, Karl Renz, and so on)…back (or forward) to Toni again…then back (or forward) to Zen again (this time, Steve Hagen)…dialogs with my friend Darryl Bailey…retreats with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher (Anam Thubten)…then retreats with the out-of-the-box Zen of John Tarrant…then back (or forward) to Advaita (dialogs with Rupert and my friend Michael Rodriguez, YouTube satsangs with Mooji)…encountering Robert Saltzman and questioning everything…on and on and on, doubling back, spiraling and circling, a journey without end, finding antidotes to the antidotes. The Way just keeps opening up. Any notion that we have arrived is our worst enemy. Although of course, we are always already here! We just keep arriving here ever more fully, ever more deeply, ever more completely. And we keep discovering new facets of here-now, and of ourselves and the world, that we hadn’t noticed before.
I used to think I was a fake teacher because I hadn’t found the One True Way…because I kept changing…because I was inconsistent…and because I still saw other teachers and learned from them. I was teaching radical nonduality one day, Zen the next! What was wrong with me!? Why couldn’t I pick one and stay put? Of course, I didn’t see the consistent threads that were there in my own expression through it all—that was more obvious to others—I saw mainly the inconsistences, the doubts, the unresolved questions, the obvious imperfections and unsettled nature of my character.
I’m happy to report that the long-standing ambivalence I’ve had about teaching has vanished with the arrival of cancer. I could see suddenly how none of this mattered, that there is simply the work of this moment, whether it is emptying an ostomy bag, leading a retreat, writing a book or washing the dishes. The true person of no rank simply does what needs doing, without concern for the results. And the true teacher is always still a student, always learning, seeing things not seen before, evolving, growing, letting go of more and more, waking up moment to moment, and each new moment has never been here before, so it is always (potentially) fresh and unknown. As Suzuki Roshi knew so well, beginner’s mind is the key, not being an expert.
There’s no end to this dance, no finish-line, no goal-post. I feel a little bit like Carl Lewis: I’m relaxing and going faster, with no concern about how I’m doing or where I’m headed. Something else is running this show, not “me.” Which brings me to a favorite quote from Wayne Liquorman. He notes that paradoxically, when the false sense of individual authorship dissolves, when we recognize our personal powerlessness, suddenly a new kind of power flows in, an impersonal power: “Once we know ourselves to be Ocean in the form of wave, we become free to be ourselves in a way we never dreamed possible. It is as if we had spent our life driving with the emergency brake on and suddenly it is off.” Awakening doesn’t mean that we dissolve into formless emptiness, devoid of personality or individuality. Instead, we become ever more fully, freely and authentically this utterly unique individual waving of the Ocean that we each are.
And that brings me back to Mr. Duffy again, that James Joyce character who “lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” That was me, doubting my work as a teacher, doubting my life, being slightly removed from my life, holding back in some subtle way, never quite fully or whole-heartedly engaging. It took years to really recognize this pattern, to see and feel it, and it took cancer to release me from it. I cannot begin to explain how that seeing or that releasing happened. It was definitely not my doing! And I cannot say with certainty that it is finished. I have no idea what the next moment will reveal or bring forth. I don’t believe anymore in “done” or “The End.”
So, on this winter morning, I bow in deep gratitude to this mysterious malignant tumor, this literal pain in the butt, that has served me so well.
Response to a comment:
For the record, just to clarify, I wasn’t actually saying formal practice is a bad thing that would best be left behind. I was trying to say that what we need in each new moment keeps changing (the current medicine eventually needs an antidote, which itself eventually needs an antidote, and so on without end). Following the breath, saying a mantra, working on koans, or whatever might be great for certain people at a certain point on their journey, and then at another point, “effortless non-doing” might be the best practice (or non-practice). I’m not saying one is better, truer, more advanced or some final truth. You may be saying that, but that hasn’t been my experience. I’m glad there are many different paths and antidotes available. In my experience, we find what we need in each moment. And sometimes what we need is being lost for a while, seemingly finding nothing that “works.” Maybe then we begin to question our ideas about results and outcomes. And maybe that's really the key here--the spirit in which we are doing (or non-doing) whatever we are doing (or not doing)—i.e., whether we are coming from a deficiency story and effortfully seeking results or simply being this moment (the effortless effort of relaxing and going faster). And, of course, we can't make seeking a result or effortful-effort disappear. But these patterns can be seen and felt and recognized, and in my experience, the light of awareness is the great solvent and transformer.
MEETING WHAT IS WITH KINDNESS: Touching Our Human Pain
Often, we humans find ourselves in conflict with one another, from different political factions and social groups to our closest friends and intimate partners. We see things differently. We have different life experiences. We’ve been wounded in different ways. We clash, often over seemingly trivial issues that are not trivial because they trigger deep layers of old pain in each of us. Under the anger, there is often fear. If I were to put words on that fear, the words might be, “How can you not see my pain?” Don’t we all have a deep longing to be seen as we truly are, to be understood and forgiven and loved unconditionally?
I’ll give you an example of a seemingly trivial conflict from my own life. I have a very close friend, a gay man and feminist, with whom I have argued several times about women’s high heel shoes. I see spike heels as akin to Chinese foot binding or full burkas—as forms of imprisonment. In my mind, high heels represent the oppression of women (even though, I have been conditioned to see them as sexy, and in spite of myself, I do!). My friend, on the other hand, unabashedly sees them as something sexy and fun—liberation from the constraints of being a man. For him, putting on heels was an act of rebellion and freedom. For me, putting on heels for the first time back in high school was painful, physically and emotionally—I didn’t want to be a girl or a woman. It’s easy for my friend and me to argue over this issue in a very superficial way—one version of feminism clashing with another version—ideology vs ideology—opinion vs opinion, and thus to ignore and never touch the deep fear that is being triggered in me (and I suspect in both of us), and that deeper question: How can you not see my pain? And that primal longing to be truly seen and loved.
For me, it is the pain of growing up in a patriarchy and living all my life with women’s oppression, being a girl who wanted to be a boy, being a one-armed girl who felt ugly even in sexy heels. Layers and layers of pain, going back to my childhood and probably back into history—witch-burnings, gang rapes, the whole history of patriarchy. It’s all there, symbolized in those high heels. For my friend, on the other hand, I’m guessing that what gets triggered is the pain of being a gay man, of being forced into a role he didn’t want to play, of being denied the clothes he wanted to wear—layers and layers of pain going back to his childhood and probably beyond into centuries of gay oppression and puritanical social constraints. For him, high heels symbolize the freedom from all of that, the unbinding, the letting loose, the liberation. For each of us, high heels trigger a very different set of associations. But instead of touching this pain, we’re arguing over the political meaning of high heels. We might even mention these very real issues, the ones I’ve just named about patriarchy and gay oppression and puritanism and so on, but if we do, we’re talking about all that from our heads on the level of ideology, without ever touching the actual present moment pain and vulnerability in our hearts.
Decades ago, when I was drinking heavily and doing all manner of drugs, when I was coming out as a lesbian before Stonewall, navigating the wild Sixties and the horrors of the Vietnam war, and long before I had any tools for working with difficult emotions or interpersonal relationships or social upheaval or anything else, I was often enraged and violent. I punched and kicked holes in walls. Once I threw a TV through a window. Sometimes I was abusive, emotionally, verbally and physically. I hit people, bit them, yelled at them, threw drinks in their faces, hurt them, frightened them—abused them basically. But it took decades for me to really get how scary and hurtful and abusive I had been, because my internal experience at the time was that I was the victim. In those moments of rage, I felt helpless, powerless, in pain, unseen, hurt, afraid, victimized…and I was lashing out. I wanted them to see my pain, to understand, to love me. I wanted to get the pain out of me. I was like a wounded animal fighting to survive.
Because of my past experience as an abuser, it doesn’t surprise me when someone like OJ Simpson seems to see himself as the victim of Nicole, his ex-wife whom he allegedly hit and threatened on many occasions and eventually brutally stabbed to death. Domestic abusers often seem to feel they are the real victims. Many Trump voters seemed to feel that way, too, and for reasons I can easily understand. Don’t we all have this human pain? Haven’t we all been wounded in some way? Is it so hard to imagine how OJ was injured by life, how he might see and experience himself as the victim and not the perpetrator? Of course, I’m not saying what he allegedly did was okay or that his pain justified his behavior, or that rapists and murders should be turned loose on society, or anything of the kind, but is hating and punishing people the answer, does it break the cycle of abuse and pain?
We live in a culture that thinks in very black and white terms, a culture that assumes we are all acting out of free will. Our response to abuse is so often to shame the abuser, to punish them, to hate them, to tear them down. We do this to criminals, and in recent months, we’ve been doing it to men who abuse women (or other men) sexually. Make no mistake, I’m very happy that this kind of sexual abuse is finally coming to light, being named and brought into public view, that it is being taken seriously and no longer being tolerated in the same way, that women (and men) are standing up and saying, enough, no more. That’s all great! I’ve been the victim of this kind of abuse myself, and I admire the courage of all the women (and men) who have come forward. We’ve come a very long way since the OJ Simpson trial in understanding domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse, and violence against women. Obviously, we still have a very long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. And that’s beautiful. I’m 100% behind that! But what disturbs me is the kind of lynch mob mentality I sometimes sense, and the absence of compassion for the perpetrators—the absence of any awareness of their pain, of what drove them to such behaviors. Instead, if we’re not cheering them on (as some are still doing), then we seem to relish destroying their career, publicly shaming them, and basically shunning them from the human community.
We do this with politicians we don’t like. We don’t like what Donald Trump (or Hillary, or whoever it might be) has done and is doing, but we seem unable to also see him (or her) as a human being, a wounded person like all of us who is acting out of his (or her) conditioning. Instead, we respond with hatred. I’m not saying we shouldn’t oppose many of the vile things various people are doing, or that we should be passive and let abusive people roll over us—but is the only alternative to this to meet abuse with abuse? Can we not find the seeds of these behaviors in ourselves as well? Have we never done things that were hurtful? Have we never mistreated anyone? Have we never acted out of greed or lust or ignorance? Have we never been afraid or hurt or enraged? And when we have been abusive, does being abused in turn help us to change, or is love what actually changes us? Love doesn’t mean tolerating abuse or not naming it clearly. It simply means seeing more deeply—seeing the whole picture.
I wonder what might happen if—at the moment when my friend and I begin to clash over high heels—we were able to feel into that wounded place within each of us, to really feel that, and to allow that open, vulnerable place in the heart to guide us, rather than immediately pulling back into that all-too-common Mr. Duffy* (who lived at a little distance from his body and his life) human move into the realm of thought and abstract positions and arguments. Would we respond differently? Might we be able to talk about the subject in a more open way? Might we find that we each have a piece of the truth? Might we be able to feel into one another’s pain? Might we find that there is a middle way between the extremes of a corporate culture that requires women to wear disabling spike heels in order to succeed and a puritanical culture that seeks to ban or outlaw heels (or anything sexy or queer)? Are those the only two options?
What would happen if we could call out abuse without abusing or shaming the abuser? I’m wondering if perhaps our task at this moment in human evolution is to find that other possibility. And I’m suggesting it begins with our ability to go below the surface of our anger and outrage, to touch the fear and the pain underneath—and to be in this open, vulnerable place, not by thinking about it, not by dredging up the past, but by awaring it and entering into it presently, right now, as it is, in the heart. And by recognizing that this same place is there in every one of us—that there is truly no boundary between self and not-self. Trump is me. The abuser is me. The abused is me. It’s all me. And when we get that, everything changes.
And I don’t mean just “getting it” as an idea. I mean waking up to it in the heart, in that open, vulnerable, innocent, aware place that changes everything. Living from that open place—being open, being vulnerable.
Most of us don’t wake up in that way once and for all in some permanent awakening that endures forever after. My sense is that we awaken again and again, always right now. And then old conditioning clouds the picture and pulls us back into habitual grooves, and once again, we argue, we get hurt, we hurt people. And then we wake up again. That’s the awakening journey, the journey we’re all on together.
May we forgive ourselves and each other when we fall short, and may we all have the courage, faith and resolve to get up again and keep going, to once again ask the deeper questions and dare to touch that vulnerable place inside, to open the heart. May we have the courage to feel the human pain we all share. At the very heart of that pain is a jewel beyond all price. We could call it unconditional love or awake presence or nirvana, but maybe it is best left unnamed.
*[Note: Mr. Duffy is a character in a short story by James Joyce in Dubliners called “A Painful Case.” I’ve been referencing Mr. Duffy in several of my recent posts. Joyce describes him as a man “who lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.”]
Everyone tells me I’m doing amazingly well with having cancer and an ostomy. Apparently, I’m handling the big stuff like cancer really well. But what happens when I order a book through Amazon Prime called Boundless Heart, a book about cultivating “kindness, joy, compassion and equanimity,” and it doesn’t arrive when it’s supposed to? I become incensed and get quite worked up about it. I mumble bitterly to myself about what’s wrong with this situation. I leave a nasty complaint on Amazon feedback: “Crappy service,” I tell them. I feel like an entitled Prime customer who has been slighted in the most outrageous way. Later, the humor of it hits me. I’m having an egoic meltdown over the late arrival of a book about compassion and equanimity. We humans are really very endearing and sweet in our endless foibles. We miss the mark again and again, and yet there is a seeing of that, and in the seeing, we wake up. A sense of humor is a big help in this journey. There is a tendency in spiritual circles at times to beat ourselves up for such lapses in clarity. But that doesn’t really help—it’s just another imagined lapse, taking the “lapser” for real. Comedy sees the beauty in all of it.
The book, Boundless Heart: The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity, is by Christina Feldman, a Vipassana teacher about whom I’ve always heard good things. The book was highly, highly recommended to me by a dear friend during a recent phone conversation in which he read the first paragraph aloud to me, weeping as he read it. We had had a particularly deep and meaningful conversation, and this passage seemed to cap it perfectly. I felt I had to have this book. And it did arrive, a day late. Well…it looks like a lovely book full of great wisdom and insight, but honestly, it turns out that it’s just not my cup of tea, at least not so far—so it sits on my table unread. Again, the irony does not escape me—I thought I had to have this book because it seemed like it embodied everything I was feeling in that phone conversation, but of course, no book could capture or embody that conversation, and when I opened the book, the conversation I was trying to grasp was not in it. The conversation was gone, but what it had touched and evoked is right here, in my heart—no book needed.
IS EVERYTHING “JUST A DREAM”?
Centuries ago, the Taoist sage Zhuangzi awoke from a dream and famously remarked, “I don’t know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly, dreaming that I’m a man.” As children, many of us learned to sing, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” The observation that life has certain dream-like qualities has been made in many different cultures throughout history.
In Eastern teachings specifically, we are often told that life or the world is a dream, and that the person we think we are is a dream also. We may even hear that everything we perceive is “unreal.” What does this mean? Does it mean, as many people believe, that everything is “just” an illusion, best ignored entirely? I would say, no—that’s not it.
Misunderstood in that way, that life is “just” a dream (and therefore unreal and unimportant), this dream analogy easily leads us to become like Mr. Duffy, the James Joyce character in Dubliners who “lived at a little distance from his body” (and his life). It becomes a way of disengaging, dissociating, dismissing, ignoring, turning away, shutting down, closing ourselves off and missing our actual life. I’ve encountered many folks into Advaita who stop with the path of negation or detachment (neti-neti) and never get to the path of inclusion or love in which everything is recognized as a manifestation of the infinite wholeness.
So, this dream-pointer isn’t about dismissing and ignoring, or transcending and leaving behind, our ordinary life here-now. It’s about seeing everyday life in a more open, fluid, realistic way. So, in what ways can we notice that this life is dream-like?
Where is yesterday? Or an hour ago? Or three minutes ago? What about all the people we used to know who have died? And our own childhood? What about that terrible problem or that passionate love affair we had last year or ten years ago that has disappeared entirely along with all the tumultuous emotions that surrounded it? If all of this has vanished into thin air, how solid was it?
When we look for the “I” who is supposedly authoring our thoughts, making our choices and doing our deeds, do we find anything other than thoughts, sensations, mental images, memories and ideas? Do we find an actual self at the controls? And what is looking and seeing all of this right now? When we look for that seer, do we find anything? Or is there simply open space, clear unbound awareness, and everything, just as it is? Can we locate an actual boundary where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me”? We can think of such a boundary (“the skin,” maybe), but when we feel into what we’re calling “the skin” with open attention, do we find anything solid or any solid boundary, any place where the chair or the air in the room ends and “I” begins? Even “the skin” turns out to be nothing but vibrating sensations and a porous, breathing membrane. So, how real is “the self,” and is anything really not myself?
Why do we all see the world so differently, sometimes in absolutely irreconcilable ways? Have you ever gone to the movies with a friend, and you love the movie, but it turns out that your friend hated it, and as you talk about it, it seems as if you each saw two entirely different movies? Maybe you did! Not to mention the differences we can have with other people politically or in how we understand current events, or the ways we can disagree with our spouse or our siblings over “what really happened” at that Christmas dinner.
We hold the deeply engrained belief that there is a single, pre-existing, inherently real, observer-independent, objective reality “out there” that we are all seeing in different ways, and we feel deeply certain that our way of seeing it is the right way—because for us, what we see undeniably is what we are seeing! So naturally we think, how could others not see it!?!? But could it be that there is no such objective reality “out there,” that the universe (whether we call it Consciousness, intelligence-energy, no-thing-ness, Mind, the Self, emptiness, the Tao, or whatever) is dreaming infinite dreams simultaneously, and that, like the jewels in Indra’s Net, they each reflect the others in one amazingly interrelated whole?
How do I respond and think and behave when I think Donald Trump is “out there” as an observer-independent, objective reality that I am seeing correctly and many others are seeing incorrectly? And how does that change if I see Donald and all those “others” as a kind of subjective dream? What changes when everyone and everything I see is my own self, my own reflection, my own dreaming? How do I respond and think and behave then? Which way of seeing is more likely to bring forth peace and love, and which is more likely to start a war?
In this dream-like life, I still have my point of view and my opinions about Donald Trump and many issues from the Middle East to abortion to climate change. My heart still breaks for the pain and suffering that I see. I’m all for correcting errors and injustices and making things better, as best we can. But I recognize that we don’t (and never will) all agree on what constitutes “better,” and I don’t imagine some future utopia where suffering will no longer exist, because I know that (as an old Zen koan puts it) “medicine and sickness are in accord with each other” and “the whole world is medicine.” Or, as Leonard Cohen observed, the crack is where the light gets in. Without that crack, no light. Seeing that, I hold the world situation, and my own life story, a bit more lightly in some way, with a deep trust in the Way It Is (or the Tao). I recognize that I don’t actually know what’s best for the universe (or for Joan). I’m awake to a vaster, more inclusive reality that has room for all these billions and billions of different simultaneous dreams.
Am I always awake in this way? No. Sometimes old habits of mind pop back up and Joan is re-hypnotized into a story of one kind of another. My Amazon Prime order is delayed and I react like a like a two-year old whose toy has been taken away. Or I blurt out my opinion about a hot-button issue in a hostile, unskillful way. Or I find myself trying to control how life goes. But actually, is it “Joan” who is hypnotized and doing these things, or is it all a movement of this infinite wholeness (Mind, Consciousness, no-thing-ness, the Ocean, the One Self, the Tao, whatever we call it) dreaming and hypnotizing itself into imagining it is Joan (and seven billion others) playing out an amazing drama, dancing an amazing dance, realizing itself in ever-new ways? When that is clear, there is no secondary layer of involvement, no taking all this personally and feeling guilty or beating myself up because “I” was deluded again. Delusion is simply delusion—an impersonal happening, like a thunderstorm or a cloudy day.
Hypnotic entrancement or delusion can simply be seen for what it is when it happens. That’s how awakening works. There’s no enlightenment without delusion, no lotus without the mud, no roses without the compost, no light without the crack. Awareness is the great solvent, the great transformer—and paradoxically, it is through our mistakes that we find the way. One Zen teacher happily described the life of a Zen Master as “one continuous mistake.” And when we wake up, we realize that even the mistakes were perfectly “it” as well (or maybe better said, they were all perfectly it-less).
Knowing that the light and the dark go together doesn’t mean we rush out to invite pain into our lives. Would I have wanted an ostomy? No way! Would I have wanted to go through chemotherapy and radiation? No way! And yet, I can see that this whole journey of having cancer is an awakening journey, for my benefit, and I’m grateful for all of it. As someone once replied (in a piece of writing by John Tarrant), when asked how it was being sick, “It was marvelous!” I concur!
I was surprised after my diagnosis to discover how much I want to be alive. I was re-turned, more vividly than ever, to the present moment. I am continuing to discover something about love and community and the interconnection of all being and how important it is to show up for each other.
My prognosis is good, but I know that death—when it eventually comes, as it always does—isn’t the end. I don’t fear it. My death will be the end of Joan, the end of a particular dream, but not of the vastness, the dreaming wholeness, the Tao. Similarly, I don’t want a nuclear war or another genocide or a racist-sexist president, but I also know intuitively that all these things, and everything that happens, cannot be other in this moment than exactly how it is, and that the light and the dark go together like yin and yang, and that there is something that will still be here even if the whole universe blows up, and that I am That, and that That is all there is. So, I rest more easily. Yes, my adrenaline still fires up in certain threatening situations, if a car swerves towards mine on the freeway or someone points a gun at me, and that’s part of our human biology and how we survive. It’s a gift. It helps us deal with an emergency. But I don’t sit around worrying about a nuclear war—that’s something different.
Of course, some people are prone to anxiety, maybe partly for purely biological or genetic reasons, and we don’t control our incoming thoughts or the neurochemical tides that sweep through the bodymind. So, if you do find yourself awake at 2 AM worrying about a nuclear war, what to do?
Again, awareness is the great solvent. Is it possible to simply see the thoughts as thoughts, to feel the sensations as pure sensation, without the labels or the storylines, and also to notice the rest of what is actually here-now—the sound of wind or traffic, the felt-sense of breathing, the hum of the refrigerator? Can it be recognized how everything is changing, moving, dissolving—how it is very much like a dream? Simply being this moment, being aware, being present, and being curious about the situation we seem to be in, whether it is an anxiety attack or cancer or a traffic jam or an argument with a friend—and I mean curious not in an analytical way by thinking about it or rushing to the bookcases in search of answers (that’s our old habit that sinks us deeper into the quicksand), but in a very different way, by awaring it, entering it fully, opening the heart to it, being right here in the center of it.
There’s no denying present experiencing: hearing, seeing, breathing, awaring, thinking, dreaming and so on. Even if it’s all a dream, it is undeniably showing up. That which is real about a dream or an illusion—the bare is-ness or suchness of it—is undeniable and impossible to doubt. Being here (aware and present) is beyond doubt. Present experiencing (the bare fact of it, not the interpretations of it) is beyond doubt.
But once we begin to think about it, once we put words on this present happening – “Joan,” “cancer,” “dream,” “reality,” “illusion,” “is-ness,” “it,” “it-less-ness,” and so on – once we do that, we have entered a conceptual map-world in which the infinite, unbroken wholeness is broken up into apparently separate, independent, persisting bits and pieces. Even a word like “wholeness” or “infinite” cannot help coalescing in the mind as some-thing that is different from its opposite, fragmentation or limitation. And then we (apparently) have two. So, as we use words, can we be aware of this danger? Can we play with them lightly, without getting caught by them and without fixating on one side of a conceptual duality that doesn’t really exist?
Consciousness itself is the dividing up of unbroken wholeness into a world of apparently different things, the world we perceive and sense, the world of time and space, past and future, here and there, subject and object. Thoughts and words, which are an aspect of consciousness, make these distinct and different forms seem separate, independent and persisting, and they spin stories about these pieces and how they relate to one another: I’m a man, you’re a woman, we were in love, now we’re divorced, the divorce was your fault, I’m a failure, I would have been a success if only my life had gone differently, what happened to me as a child caused me to become a drug addict, America is a great democracy, America is a greedy imperialist empire, you’ve ruined my life, Donald Trump is ruining my life, Hillary was running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizzeria, the moon is made of green cheese, astronauts have landed on the moon several times, the moon landing was faked, the moon is nothing but consciousness appearing as the moon, astronauts are dream-characters in a dream, and so on.
Now, some of these stories may be relatively truer than others, some are obviously false, some are purely speculative, some depend on point of view, but all of them, even those that are relatively quite true and seemingly indisputable, are stories—reports on reality, conceptual overlays. They require memory, imagination, conceptual categorization and so on to conjure them up. They are not the actual events or “things” they describe. They are maps of the territory. They are real as maps, and mapping is something the territory is doing, something that has a functional value, but the maps are frozen, abstract representations of what is actually ever-changing, partly invisible, and impossible to grasp or capture in its infinite living wholeness. Even to call it “infinite living wholeness” is too limiting. And this living reality is not “out there” apart from us. It is right here—utterly immediate, no separation, no division. The map seemingly puts it “out there” for us to look at objectively, but reality isn’t actually like that. Nothing is actually “out there.” There is no actual solid boundary between “inside” and “outside,” or between “me” and “you,” or between “awareness” and “content.” Don’t take that on as a belief or an ideology, but look closely, meditatively, with open attention, and discover it directly for yourself.
When we recognize this, not just as an appealing idea, but when we actually grokk it in real life situations, as they happen, something changes. This change is often called liberation. In my experience, this is not a one-time, permanent event that somebody attains and then possesses forever after. It is an ever-fresh discovery that only happens now, and when it happens, the one to whom thought says it is happening is seen for what it is: a cluster of thoughts-sensations-memories, a fleeting image in a dream, no-thing substantial at all, vast emptiness. In that seeing, no seer and no division between subject and object remains.
So, is it all “just” a dream? Cancer, anxiety, genocide, President Trump, Martin Luther King, climate change, the people at Standing Rock, nuclear war, your newborn baby, your beloved dog? It is all dream-like in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we should deny the dream, ignore it, turn away from it, or dismiss it as “just an illusion.” In truth, we really can’t turn away. We’re here in this moment, as this moment, like it or not. Even the apparent turning away is a movement of this infinite wholeness. “Life is a dream” is an invitation to be awake to this whole happening in a new way—without division, without the belief in solid, persisting “things.” The dream analogy is a useful map, a poem, an illumination—it has the potential to free us from a false way of seeing—but don’t fixate on it, make it into a belief, or use it to overlook or ignore the vivid reality here-now.
Response to a comment:
Science would say that the world that appears is a creation of our nervous system, and that what appears to a human is quite different from what appears to a honey bee, a dog or a bat. Each nervous system “creates” a unique world out of whatever is here (energy, consciousness, subatomic wavicles, or whatever this is). Science also seems to have discovered that the act of observing alters what is being observed, perhaps because observer and observed are not two separate things. I notice that the world that appears is often entangled or conflated with the storyline about the appearance. Even bare perception is conditioned—we have learned to see tables and chairs, to draw the boundary-lines in certain ways and not in other ways. And there is something here that we could call presence or awareness—something that is not a “thing” that we can see or grasp, and yet it can be palpably felt, experienced, known directly. Some call it the unchanging ground or the still point, and in a way, I can relate to that, but I also can’t find a boundary between this open, boundless, awaring presence and what appears. Is what appears “all there is”? I’d probably say no. Then again, maybe I’d say yes. Ultimately, I don’t think it can be grasped in these terms.
Response to another comment:
I’m not sure if we know (or even can know) whether the brain (and nervous system) are simply an appearance in, or a modification of, consciousness…or whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain and nervous system. I suspect that all such debates, such as this one between the metaphysical conclusions of Advaita and most neuroscience, are predicated on false dichotomies. “Mind” and “matter” may simply be two ways of looking at and understanding the same thing. What we can know, directly, is that no brain or nervous system ever appears outside of awareness or consciousness. Also, words such as awareness and consciousness are sometimes used synonymously and sometimes with different meanings. It's all rather fuzzy, as everything involving words turns out to be.
Do our questions, our feelings, our actions come from the sense of separation or from the realization of wholeness, from the mental world of thought or from the boundless awaring presence that is prior to thought?
The spiritual journey involves the discovery of that boundless presence that has always been right here although we may have overlooked it, and it involves seeing through the thoughts and stories that make us feel separate and lost. Gradually, we begin to discern the difference between questions, desires and actions that come from the thinking mind and those that come from the heart. And as this discernment grows, the possibility of turning our attention away from useless or dysfunctional thinking and toward the boundless awaring presence that here-now is becomes more and more available to us.
Stories like “I don’t get it” or “I had it but I lost it” all refer to the imaginary “me” who seems to be at the center of “my life.” The psychological (as opposed to the instinctual, immediate) fear of death, the fear of failure, the fear of future loss—all such fears refer to this phantom “me.” When we are upset, when we feel insulted, misunderstood, abandoned or put down, these thought-story-feelings always center around the imaginary “me,” the self-image, the character in the story of our life. When we find ourselves on a self-righteous crusade to save the world or to teach others, we may notice that there is often a thought-sense of “me” at the center of this, the one who knows, the one who is right.
For sure, there is something happening here that we call Joan or Joe or Yolanda or Jose—each of us is a unique and distinct expression of the whole, and our personality, sense of humor, tastes and sensibilities, life experiences, bodily sensations and so on are all real enough as passing experiences. The illusion is the self-image, the author-controller-executive who seems to be at the center of our story, the one who appears to be authoring our thoughts, making our choices, directing our life, having our experiences. Thoughts such as “I don’t get it” or “I shouldn’t have done that” or “I’m a loser” instantly “reincarnate” this phantom self in the imagination. It isn’t this imaginary person who wakes up. It is consciousness itself waking up from its own dream, or more accurately, within its own dream.
Waking up is simply recognizing these stories as fictional, conditioned thoughts whenever they show up, and recognizing that the “me” to whom they refer is a fictional character, a mirage-like imagination created by a mix of neurological sensations, somatic contractions, thoughts, memories and mental images—all being mistaken for an actual, solid, substantial entity. Recognizing this doesn’t mean we can’t still stand up for ourselves, feel emotions, work to correct some injustice or heal some form of suffering, and so on. But all such activity can come from an entirely different place.
Waking up is seeing the false as false, not once-and-for-all in some explosive and permanent awakening, but Now, whenever the false shows up, and relaxing back into the undivided wholeness of being. And by “the undivided wholeness of being,” I don’t mean anything other than what is being experienced right now: the sounds of traffic, a bird singing, the sensations of breathing, and the undeniable awaring presence being and beholding it all.
When we feel confused, when we have questions or concerns, when we feel we have failed, when we feel outraged, hurt or upset, we can stop and check out who it is that is confused or upset or hurt, who has these concerns, who feels incomplete or unenlightened or “not quite there yet.” Is it the infinite wholeness of Here-Now, non-dual unicity itself, boundless awareness? Or is it the imaginary “me” created by thought? This “me” seems to be real. It’s a very convincing illusion. But again and again (and always Now), we can investigate what this “me” actually is. Can this self who seems to be thinking my thoughts and making my decisions actually be found?
Awakening is not about “me” successfully identifying as awareness and not as a person. That’s the same old story, all about me. Awakening is letting go of all our ideas and beliefs and certainties—everything we think we know. It is not knowing anything—simply being. Being just this moment, exactly as it is. Before our name or our story, before words and ideas, there is simply the undeniable knowingness of being Here-Now, being present, being aware, being no-thing and EVERYTHING! Before we name it or tell a story about it, there is the undeniable living reality of hearing, seeing, breathing, sensing, awaring, moving—this whole seamless happening. There is no actual division between awareness and content, or between subject and object, or between inside and outside—it is one whole undivided seamless happening. It shows up as apparent time and space, apparent division, apparent multiplicity and change, and yet, nothing ever actually leaves the ever-present, timeless immediacy of Here-Now. And by simply giving open attention to Here-Now, just as it is, all this can be discovered directly.
Response to a comment:
Beautiful to discover the freedom and relief of not clinging to any answers or beliefs. I would just point out that there are two kinds of knowing. There is the conceptual, mental knowing that we call knowledge—all our accumulated information, beliefs and conclusions. Many of these beliefs are relatively true and useful in daily life. For example, I “know” that if I step in front of a moving vehicle that doesn’t have time to stop, I will be injured or killed. This is useful information that I have acquired. But nothing we know in this way is absolutely true or absolutely certain. And many of our beliefs are obstacles, as you have discovered. And this is what we mean when we say that the thinking mind cannot really know anything for sure, and when we speak of the freedom of not knowing.
But there is another kind of knowing. Direct, immediate, impossible to doubt. When I ask myself what I know in this way, I find only two things (that are not really “things” and not really two): the undeniable knowingness of being here, present and aware, and this present experiencing, just as it is (hearing, seeing, breathing, etc.—not the labels I’m giving it or any interpretations of it, but the bare happening itself). This knowing is beyond belief and beyond doubt.
When we ask, Who am I? and allow ourselves not to think about this question, but rather, to actually turn our attention toward what we mean when we say “I,” when we actually look and see what is found, we may find mental images, thoughts, memories, stories and so on…the story of “me”…but no separate solid thing is actually “in here” in the way the thinking mind had imagined. And when we keep looking, beyond all these images and stories and memories, toward what we are most deeply referring to when we say “I,” we find only the open space of awareness and EVERYTHING, just as it is. Yes?
The thinking mind, steeped in spiritual information and grasping for certainty, can then turn this direct knowing into a kind of idea—“the witnessing position.” But before that idea arises, or any of the mental gymnastics of trying to “be the witness” or “identify as awareness and not the body” or any of that, there is awareness and present experiencing, undeniably. Simple. Obvious. Effortlessly so. I’m using words to describe this, but the words are not what they are pointing to. What they point to is undeniable, not a belief. But the thinking mind can turn it into a belief. And that belief then becomes an obstacle and something to doubt. So, to see that happening, as it happens. That seeing is the freedom, not forever after, but always now.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY AWAKE OR AWAKENING?
Like many other words in the nondual lexicon, “awake” and “awakening” get used in different ways by different teachers, or even by the same teacher at different moments. I often seem to speak of being awake as something that comes and goes, while many other teachers speak of awakening as the discovery of that which does not come and go—the One Self, the boundless awareness that is ever-present whether the psychological self is showing up or not. This boundless awareness is often compared to the screen on which the movie plays, or the empty mirror in which all the different reflections come and go. It is that which is fully and equally present in every scene of the movie, and it is never damaged by the fire or the gunshots or any of the horrific events in the movie. Discovering or recognizing this ever-present aware space (Here-Now, vast emptiness, what we are before and beyond name and form) is a vital discovery.
Many teachers speak of being permanently awake—and (hopefully) when doing so, they refer not to “me” (the character in the movie), but to this boundless awaring presence, this vast emptiness, which is (truly) ever-present and always awake. In a sense, once this awareness, this ever-present here-now, this that is the same in every different experience, once this has been recognized or noticed, you can’t actually un-recognize it. Yes, your attention can go temporarily to the content of the movie, and you can momentarily ignore awareness or the ever-presence of here-now and become mesmerized by the story of time and separation and “me,” but in any moment that you stop and check, you will discover that this aware space is still present and that nothing can really damage it.
Speaking of awakening as permanent points to the ultimate Truth that awareness is ever-present, but it can also (in my experience) be a kind of slippery slope in which the harmful, hurtful or addictive behavior of the so-called “awakened individual” is then denied, excused or somehow rendered irrelevant, as when some teacher claims, “I am boundless awareness, Ultimate Reality, not the guy who just abused you or got angry or seemed to be defensive.” Actually, there is no “permanently awakened individual.” That’s an oxymoron. Awakening is recognizing that there is no separate and continuous individual, and that our True Self is limitless and unbound—no-thing and everything. But because we tend to think in terms of people being awake or not awake, and because that does have some relative reality and usefulness if you are looking for a teacher, I often speak of awakening as a never-ending process with no finish-line. One moment there is delusion, and in the next moment, there is clarity and awakeness. The weather doesn’t stay the same, although some places (and individuals) have more changeable or more dramatic weather than others. The best teachers I’ve known have not hidden or denied their human flaws. More accurately perhaps, we could say, as I often do, that awakeness is ever-present, and that selfing (or delusion) is what comes and goes. Selfing may show up only very rarely in some cases, but I haven’t met anyone who is totally beyond getting at least occasionally caught up in the delusions or storms of human emotion-thought.
Such a one may exist, I won’t say it’s an impossibility, but to claim this for oneself is a dangerous folly in my opinion, and I would be very dubious of any such claim. Such a claim would most likely come from the small self, seeking to aggrandize itself by claiming a kind of special perfection.
And yet, even though no human being (as far as I know) is completely beyond delusion, at the same time, awareness is ever-present and undisturbed, like the vast empty sky in which the ever-changing cloud formations of delusion and enlightenment come and go. The image and story of being a person is like a cloud. It appears and disappears, changes shape, comes and goes. It is ephemeral, impermanent, insubstantial, dream-like. But the sky is unchanging, ever-present, imperishable, never damaged in any way by the passing clouds.
Most importantly, as I like to stress over and over again, no formulation or analogy (including any that I’ve just spelled out) can capture the living reality. All formulations, words and concepts are inherently in some way dualistic and potentially misleading. And none of them is big enough to hold all of reality. So, we must always hold them lightly—and go to where they point rather than getting fixated on the pointer. The pointer can turn into a belief that we alternately doubt or defend.
But where the pointer points is not a concept, a belief or an idea. It is something alive and vibrant and ungraspable. It is the Heart, the core, the wholeness of being, the living reality itself—the living reality of this very moment, your own true self, what you most essentially are. This must be discovered directly. The words simply invite us to directly explore and discover and experience this living reality, to marinate in this awaring presence, to be this aliveness that we already are, to be empty (and at the same time, utterly full), and to let the words go finally, to put the maps aside, to step off the edge of the mind into the unknown, the vastness, the groundlessness of here-now—the actuality itself, prior to any description or formulation or interpretation. Abiding here-now, in the Heart—that is awakening.
And then when the dark clouds appear, when selfing happens, when consciousness seems to contract back down into being “little me” with all my apparent problems and deficiencies, when attention becomes fascinated with the movie-story, simply SEE the “little me” and that story for what it is—passing clouds. Don’t get involved, don’t “take delivery” as Nisargadatta used to say. And don’t take it personally as “my problem, my slip, my loss of clarity, my delusion,” but simply see it as an impersonal, passing cloud in this vast sky of awareness. Remain as that open awaring space. That is being awake.
And this doesn’t deny the person. Every tree, every flower, every snowflake, every raindrop, every cloud, every sensation, every person, every moment is a beautiful and perfect expression of this vastness. Nothing has to be denied. And as a person—as a human being—we don’t need to deny that we sometimes get angry or defensive or feel hurt or terrified or upset. But we recognize that we are not limited to some mental image or some character in a story or some passing weather event—we are the vastness that contains it all. From that recognition, we can be this person fully, without second-guessing ourselves, without being bogged down in endless self-doubt and stories of lack and deficiency (or grandiosity). We can dance our dance whole-heartedly and with genuine humility and grace, knowing it is all an expression of vast emptiness. We’re not holding back anymore, we’re not judging ourselves, we’re not taking ourselves (as a person) personally.
That’s what being awake is. Living whole-heartedly. Not holding back. Being alive, right here, right now. Being everything and nothing. Being this moment, just as it is. Dropping out of the head into the heart (which doesn’t mean we no longer think in useful ways, but we’re not stuck in the thinking mind). Our center of gravity shifts from the psychological self to the vastness, the boundless wholeness. Being the vastness, and also dancing our particular unique dance, knowing that these are not two—the vastness and the dance, the whole and the particular, form and emptiness, relative and absolute—it is one whole happening. Call it pure consciousness or God or the Heart or the Self or the Tao or the Ultimate Subject or no-thing-ness or intelligence-energy or vast emptiness or presence or here-now or primordial awareness or what is—call it anything or nothing—but here it is. Right here, right now—just this! No-thing-ness showing up as everything!
Don’t look for it, for “it” is not an object apart from you that can be seen “out there” and then grasped. It is not an it. It is your very self, the ultimate true self, most intimate, closer than close, the boundless living reality to which the word “I” most deeply refers, that which is at once invisible and yet visible everywhere as everything. But it is no-thing in particular. It cannot be found or singled out, nor can it be lost. It is not an object (this, but not that). It has no boundaries, no beginning, no end, no place where it is not. It is truly all there is.
You know this intuitively, undeniably—that you are here, present and aware. Awake. Beholding it all. Being it all. And then watch how the thinking mind comes barreling in to create apparent division and dualism, to sow confusion, doubt and uncertainty, to reincarnate the thought-sense of separation and inadequacy. Suddenly you feel small and lost. Just see how that happens, as it happens, and don’t be fooled. Come back (again and again, now and now) to the center, the core, the Heart, the timeless presence here-now that you undeniably are—that which never moves in the midst of all the movement, the still point, the vastness that contains it all. Don’t get hung up on the words. They’re never quite right. Go where they point. Be right here. This is the jewel beyond all price.
AM I AGAINST TRANSCENDENT SPIRITUALITY AND GURUS?
If you listen to my interview on Scott Kiloby’s Radical Recovery Summit that begins airing this Friday, or if you read some of the things I’ve written recently, you might believe I’m against transcendence altogether, and that I’m allergic to gurus and regard watching videos of them as an addictive activity. But actually, none of that is true.
Awakening is about transcending our limited identity as a person and our false idea of being separate from the whole. We are shifting our attention and our center of gravity from the limited to the limitless, from the bound to the boundless, from the transient to the undying whole, and from the obsessions of the psychological self to the wonder of this moment, just as it is. Awakening involves the discovery of the open, spacious, vast, impersonal, awaring presence that here-now is, and the seamless wholeness in which impermanence is so complete that no-thing ever actually forms to be impermanent. And you can certainly describe all of that as transcending…transcending our old, habitual ways of living and our false ideas. And I’m all for that!
What I don’t resonate with is a spirituality that gets stuck in the transcendent in such a way that it denies our personhood, our human life and relative reality altogether. From my perspective, that’s only halfway home. Awareness is not “out there” somewhere—it’s right here, most intimate, inseparable from everything that appears within in. The transcendent is not “up there” either (up, up and away)—it’s in the very core of everything and everyone and every moment. It’s the Heart—not some distant asteroid. And every distant asteroid is within it. Our human life is an expression of the whole, not something other than the whole.
I don’t resonate with pointers such as “you are not your body” or terms such as “the bodymind mechanism.” I resonate with discovering that you are not limited to the body or encapsulated inside it, and that the body is not the solid, separate thing you may think it is. But the body is alive; it’s not a machine. It’s a beautiful, sensitive organism, and in my experience, when we attend deeply to the body, that is one of the best ways of discovering that there is no-body in the ways we have thought. So, I don’t resonate with trying to leave the body far, far behind. The bodymind is a beautiful expression of the whole, not a gigantic mistake. As I see it, mind and matter are just two words for one thing—two ways of seeing and understanding one event. Whatever label we put on the whole, whether we call it primordial awareness or pure consciousness or the Tao or the Self or intelligence-energy or emptiness or silence or stillness or vastness or the universe or the vibrant dance of existence, what matters isn’t the label—it’s that to which the label points and our direct knowing of that. And when we know that directly, as what we truly are, we know that this vastness doesn’t die, that it has no beginning and no end, that it is ever-present, that it is alive and vibrant and full of wonderment—and that there is nothing that is not it.
As for gurus and the guru style of teaching, it’s not my way of teaching, and I do feel it has dangers, especially when the guru is unhinged, deluded, arrogant and/or abusive, and I think we’ve all seen those dangers play out in any number of examples. It all depends on how clear and awake the guru actually is, and how mature they are as a human being, whether being a guru becomes problematic or not. My own sense is that the guru model is on the wane and that more egalitarian teaching models are on the rise, and I think that’s probably a healthy development generally. But I’m not against gurus.
I have experienced in my own life how the devotional relationship with a guru can be a profound heart-opening. I’ve had several living gurus in my life who have opened my heart in a way that I sense was inseparable from the form in which they move and express their teaching. I’ve also had powerful gurus who are no longer living, such as Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi and Robert Adams, all of whom opened my eyes and my heart. And I’ve had many teachers who could be called gurus in the sense that the word ‘guru’ simply means ‘dispeller of darkness’: Toni Packer and Eckhart Tolle would be high on that list, even though neither would use the word ‘guru’ to describe themselves.
What we see in a guru, and what we are devoted to is ultimately not “out there” in some other person, but right here, in the Heart of each and every one of us. And it is to this that every true guru is pointing. I never got the message from any of my gurus that they had some special thing that I lacked. On the contrary, they pointed relentlessly to what is always right here. They saw who I truly am, not who I sometimes thought I was.
So, I’m not anti-guru. What I don’t resonate with are authoritarian teachers who think they know it all, and the model of awakening that suggests there is a finish-line and some kind of human perfection—as if the person is now forever after utterly free of delusion or cannot make any mistakes, and as if they know exactly what everyone else needs, and as if they are in some elevated state that no other human has reached. I value humility and honesty.
Of course, honesty doesn’t just mean confessing our human flaws. When I was with Gangaji, she often urged us to “tell the truth,” by which she didn’t mean confessing all our imperfections, but rather, actually acknowledging our true position as the limitless, boundless whole. She loved my honesty about my human flaws, and she never discouraged that, but she did discourage and call me repeatedly on the kind of self-doubt, deficiency stories and identity with those stories that I often lapsed into—she saw that as a kind of safe hiding place: “Don’t hurt me, I’m already down…don’t challenge me, because I’m just little old fucked up me.” It wasn’t the truth. It was a mask. It was the false self. It takes a certain courage to step out of that small, limited identity and be here as no one at all, simply this wide-open space of boundless awaring presence. And Mooji once said, “Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering. Remind the world it is beautiful and free.” I continue to find that a most powerful challenge.
And to be totally honest, I’m really very much a bhakti fool at heart, in love with God, by which I simply mean the vibrant dance of existence—what is, just as it is. But I’m deceptively dressed up (at least some of the time) as someone with a very rational and intellectually-trained mind, a mind that has too often repressed or overridden my wild and devotional bhakti side. I’m grateful for those who have allowed that devotional side to come out and flourish, just as I’m grateful for those who have questioned all my beliefs and shed light on all my addictive tendencies and on all forms of selfing and suffering—and the fact is, all my teachers and gurus did some of both, whichever way they leaned. I’ve always been eclectic, and I resonate with many different forms of expression. As you know if you’ve ever visited the recommended books page on my website, I love Mooji, Robert Saltzman, Gangaji, Toni Packer, Rupert Spira, Darryl Bailey, Adyashanti, Joko Beck, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sailor Bob, Dorothy Hunt, Krishnamurti, Jon Bernie and many others. For me, there is no contradiction.
I feel there are many valid ways of teaching, from plain and egalitarian to ritualized and guru-esque and everything in between—each with its own dangers, its own pitfalls, its own shortcomings, and its own beauty and perfection. Each form has something to offer. And each of us walks a unique path. No two are identical. We all need different teachings, different teachers and different teaching styles. There is no one size that fits all people or all moments. I’m grateful for all my teachers and gurus and for all the different forms I’ve moved within. They all contributed something to where I am.
And I have no problem with people being teachers or gurus. The fact that some beings are clearer or less lost in delusion than others is nothing I would ever deny, because I’ve been blessed to know many such beings. That doesn’t mean that teachers, gurus and sages are incapable of making mistakes or lapsing into delusion, and it doesn’t mean they have something that everyone else lacks, only that it is perhaps more deeply recognized and realized. The false has perhaps been seen through more fully and clearly. But in my opinion, false egalitarianism is no better than destructive authoritarianism.
I do support us all in having discernment and not drinking fatal Kool-Aid or idolizing human beings in false ways, and I certainly support questioning authority in helpful ways. I also fully support and encourage paying attention to what truly nurtures us and what feels addictive and false, and that may change from one moment to another, and it may be different for each person. Attending satsangs or watching them on YouTube can be very helpful and beautiful—it usually is, in my experience, but it can become a kind of addiction, and by simply paying attention, we can discern the difference and see what’s true for this moment. But don’t assume what’s true for this moment will therefore be true for all moments or for anyone else.
In my journey, teachers and gurus have been essential. For others, that may not be true. I still find myself learning and unlearning, evolving and deepening. And I still find that certain teachers and gurus, dead ones and living ones, can be helpful. After a certain point, some teachers never again read any spiritual books or listen to any other teachers. But I still read spiritual books and sometimes watch videos of other teachers and gurus and occasionally go on retreats with other teachers, and I find all of that enlivening. I’m no longer searching for something that I feel is missing…I’m no longer imagining that the teacher or the guru has something I lack…I no longer believe that I have a big problem to resolve…I’m no longer filled with questions that seem to need answers…but I find that books, videos, retreats and gatherings like the SAND Conference are a beautiful way to deepen and sometimes to see new possibilities. They are a way of soaking, marinating, basking, deepening, celebrating, embodying and enjoying the vastness—they are, for me, a form of devotion. As a teacher and a writer, I’m also interested in how others see and express this. I’m always learning and unlearning. So, I would say, stay open. Don’t close the door on anything too quickly.
The Freedom and Aliveness of Groundlessness
What do I know for sure, without doubt? Being here now as this awaring presence and this present experiencing – the bare actuality of this happening, prior to those labels or any conceptual interpretations or formulations of it – this is undeniable.
Everything that is appearing is changing, and yet, it is always happening here-now in this timeless, unlocatable present-ness. And although there is diversity in what appears, it always shows up as a unified whole picture.
All of that is what I know for sure, without a doubt. Of course, the words I am using to point to this are not the bare actuality itself, although words are undeniably part of this present happening. Whatever this is, it includes thinking, conceptualizing, formulating, abstracting, labelling, and so on—and yet the concepts and formulations are never the thing that they are describing or pointing out.
It seems that I am a separate subject, observing an outside world into which I was born. But when I look for this “me” who is supposedly the experiencer, the observer, the thinker or author of my thoughts, the maker of my choices, the doer of my actions—I find nothing solid or substantial. The “self” who is supposedly at the controls turns out to be nothing but ever-changing thoughts, mental images, sensations, memories, stories—and beholding it all is this undeniable awaring presence that has no form, no boundaries, no limits, no place where it is not. It seems that in reality, I am at once no-thing and everything!
When I observe closely the making of a decision or a choice, I cannot get hold of precisely how it happens, nor can I find anyone actually in control of the decisive moment. There is a neurological sensation and an idea that, “I am making a choice to go left and not right at this intersection,” but the more closely this choice and the one apparently making it are observed, the more clearly this “choice” is seen to be the movement of something much larger, something that is ungraspable and unlocatable.
And the more closely I examine the so-called “outside world,” the more I find that it only exists as present-moment experiencing, inseparable from the awaring presence beholding it. It also becomes increasingly obvious that the world I see is never precisely the same world that others see. There is some common ground—most everyone sees someone we call “Donald Trump” in the White House—but how we see this person differs widely. Although the labels make it seem otherwise; in fact, there is no one, solid, substantial, observer-independent “thing” called Donald Trump (or Joan Tollifson, or the city of Chicago, or the USA, or France, or the war in Syria, or nonduality, or the alps, or the SAND Conference, or anything else we can name).
And when I look for an actual boundary where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me,” I cannot find any actual dividing line. I can picture or think of one, such as “the skin,” but when I look closely at the skin—either with science or by sensing it in meditation, it turns out to be porous and changing and not very solid at all. And curiously, the skin (like my entire body) appears inside (not outside) this awaring presence, this boundless here-now that I know I am beyond all doubt.
When I remain with the simplicity of what is—the sounds of traffic, the snow falling, the morning light, the breathing, the body moving about, doing what it does—there is no problem to solve, no mystery to unravel. There is simply this present happening, just as it is.
Experience is always changing. One moment there is the experience of vast spaciousness and openness, another moment there is the experience of tightness and contraction…one moment there is joy, another moment sadness, another moment nothing special. Sometimes experience seems exquisitely subtle and formless, at other times it seems solid and mundane. Sometimes there is sitting quietly in meditation, sometimes there is doing my taxes, sometimes there is watching a movie, sometimes there is cooking dinner, sometimes there is writing a Facebook post.
Who or what is writing these words? Where are they coming from? If I turn my attention around to find the source, I find nothing graspable. These words are simply pouring out. The typing finger is darting rapidly about the keyboard, the words are appearing on the screen—all of it a happening of life itself. Thought can come in afterwards and say, “I wrote that.” And maybe, if someone else reads it and says, “That bit Joan wrote on Facebook was a pile of crap,” maybe there will be a reaction of some kind in the bodymind—perhaps defensiveness, perhaps deflation or hurt, perhaps an urge to argue or to explain what was possibly misunderstood—or perhaps there will be no reaction at all. If someone else “loves” what was written, maybe there will be a rush of happiness or an inner smile, or again, maybe no reaction at all. Perhaps each of these readers—the one who loves it and the one who doesn’t—will have each read an entirely different post, filtered through their unique conditioning. Because, as with Donald Trump, there is no solid “thing” that this piece of writing actually is. It only exists in a relationship with the reader, and that relationship is very fluid.
We are deeply conditioned to want to get a grip, to want control and security. This serves us well in many practical matters. But when it comes to understanding how the universe works or the nature of reality, it doesn’t really work. Ultimately, we don’t know what this is—this present happening—and we don’t need to know. We don’t need to know if anything exists outside of consciousness, or whether consciousness antedates the brain or is an epiphenomenon of the brain. We don’t need metaphysical certainty. If we relax into the groundlessness of not knowing, we may find, to our surprise, that groundlessness is remarkably freeing and alive.
There is no ultimate security for the body or the mind. There is relative security, but in any moment, that can be dashed by a financial meltdown, an extreme weather event, a traffic accident, or a sudden illness. Everything can change dramatically in an instant. But whatever happens to the bodymind, this flow of experiencing—this here-now presence—continues to show up in both dreaming and waking life. But every night, it vanishes completely in deep sleep. This flow of experiencing comes and goes as we move from deep sleep to dreaming and waking—and every night, when the knowingness of being here now and this present experiencing disappears completely in deep sleep, that’s not frightening at all—it’s relaxing and rejuvenating.
We scare ourselves with ideas about “nothing.” What if there is nothing after death, we worry. To the mind intent on surviving as “me” and “my story,” that sounds dreadful. But the nothingness we dissolve into every night is deeply enjoyable. And no one is leftover in deep sleep to worry about not waking up again. No one is there missing “my story” or calling deep sleep “nothing” and feeling fearful. The self and all of its problems are totally absent.
The more closely we look at anything—a thought, an emotion, a chair, a person, a mountain—the more clearly we can see that everything is actually an ever-changing no-thing-ness in which nothing ever really forms as a solid, continuous, persisting “thing” in the way that it appears to when we don’t look too closely, or when we are bamboozled by the words and labels that make everything seem separate and solid.
This no-thing-ness or groundlessness is our true freedom, our only true (absolute) security. But it is the security that depends on nothing—the security that is at peace with the bodymind disintegrating. In groundlessness, there is no one separate from this present happening who does or doesn’t have free will, who is or isn’t enlightened, who should or shouldn’t be doing this or that, who will or won’t survive death—all such conundrums dissolve completely. There is simply what is, including all of the actions and reactions that arise in this ever-changing bodymind, this bodymind that, like a wave on the ocean, is inseparable from everything that is supposedly not this bodymind. It is all one flowing wholeness, one undivided unicity—showing up as apparent multiplicity, as amazing diversity, and as the intermittent neurological sensation of being a separate person with a choice to make. It all happens by itself, effortlessly, even the apparent efforting and choosing. We don’t need to figure it all out and get a grip, and in fact, any grip we seem to get on no-thing-ness turns out to be very slippery and doubtful. And that’s not bad news. That’s the invitation to let go and relax into being groundless.
LISTENING TO THE FROGS
It’s raining, the frogs are singing, the trees are blossoming, the freight train is whistling. We might wonder, why isn’t the simplicity of this moment enough for human beings?
Perhaps it is because we live so much of the time in a movie-world in our heads put together by thought and imagination, a movie-story centered around a fictitious “me” who is forever lacking something and forever in danger of being extinguished. The attention is occupied with thoughts about past and future, with comparing ourselves to others, with worries, anticipations and regrets, with attempts to manipulate our experience and get somewhere else—and the whole body hums along with muscular tension, contracted energies and queasy feelings, all of which reinforce the apparent reality of the movie-story. But all the while, as this movie is playing in our head (and throughout our entire body), the rain is washing the earth, the frogs are singing, the trees are blossoming, and the freight train is whistling.
A wonderful Zen teacher and writer in Australia named Susan Murphy says, “Whatever confronts you, there is your entry—to knowing less, seeing more!”
When we are simply awake to the miracle of each moment exactly as it is, we find the light in the darkness and the extraordinary right here in the most ordinary: the sounds of the rain, the taste of coffee, the yellow school bus, the birds flying past the window.
Seekers often get stuck on the idea that all of this is “just” the phenomenal manifestation, and they get stuck on trying to go “beyond it all” in some detached or dissociated way, trying to make “awareness” or “consciousness” into some separate “thing” outside of present experiencing, and then working very hard to identify as pure awareness and not as a human being, or trying to hold onto some perpetual state of “open, spacious, aware presence.”
Mooji (one of my favorite gurus) has said that the Truth lies “beyond the transient play of phenomena we call life—beyond everything we can see or perceive.” But very importantly, he adds, “When I say beyond, I don’t mean beyond in terms of distance, but beyond in terms of subtlety. The search for truth is not about running away from the things of this world but about understanding their ephemeral nature.”
This Truth he also calls “what is” or “Is–ness” or “pure awareness,” and by this (as I hear him) he means what remains when you leave behind your stories about the personal self and the world, your future expectations, your memories of the past, your beliefs and ideas, including all your ideas about enlightenment or awakening, your imaginings, your hopes and dreams and anticipations of what’s next…in other words, when you are simply here as this awaring presence that you have never not been, being just this moment, which you have never not been, but without all those mental overlays that are so often the focus of attention, overlays that create a virtual reality of separation, solidity and alienation.
Darryl Bailey (my good friend and one of my favorite nondual writers) calls this Is-ness “the vibrant dance of existence” (a phrase I often borrow), and he speaks of “a complete opening to the unformed, the undirected, the uncontrolled, the unexpected, and the unpredictable.” He writes that, “This openness is often called love,” and he says, “This love is not some cold, intellectual understanding; it’s an openness of heart...a truly sensitive vulnerability to what is.” In other words, this is not a new ideology we cling to and believe in and defend, but an openness to the groundlessness, the not-knowing, the no-thing-ness, the living-breathing-ever-changing-reality that Darryl also calls “unform.”
Steve Hagen (one of the clearest Zen teachers I’ve ever met or read) explains unform this way: “When we fancy ourselves to be a particular thing with a name, we see ourselves as we would a cork in a stream. What we do not realize is that there is only stream. What we fancy as particular is, from the first, only movement, change and flow.” Or as he puts it elsewhere, “A complete and thorough understanding of impermanence is that nothing is impermanent…believing things are impermanent involves a contradiction. First we posit separate, persisting things…then we refer to them as impermanent…What we fail to see is that we are still holding to a view of substance. We don’t really appreciate the thoroughgoing nature of change, the thoroughgoing nature of selflessness…Impermanence is total, complete, thoroughgoing…It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.”
This streaming has been variously called the Tao, the Self, Consciousness, Awareness, no-thing-ness, emptiness, intelligence-energy, God, Spirit, What Is, Is-ness, the vibrant dance of existence, unform, and many other names. The labels make it seem like some-thing, but it is really not a “thing” at all. It has no inside or outside, no before and after. It is at once ever-present and ever-changing. It is this present experiencing and also what remains when this experiencing disappears, as it does in deep sleep and presumably at the moment of death. As such, it is subtler than any experience we can describe—subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable.
But if you’re trying to see this no-thing-ness, or get it, or have some experience of subtle formlessness, you’re missing the boat. Forms naturally continue to appear, stories naturally continue to unfold—the world of tables and chairs and frogs and mountains and freight trains and human beings continues to show up. But as Steve and Darryl point out, these things are never really there as the separate, persisting, independent objects we have imagined them to be. They are momentary appearances in and of this ever-present, streaming unicity that has no actual boundaries or seams, except apparently, if we don’t look too closely. When we simply hear the freight train whistle, or see the shapes and colors of the rain-soaked branches or the bright yellow school bus or the way the light falls on the table, we are automatically awake to this subtlety, this aliveness, this vibrancy, this openness that might also be called love. Love is simply another word for open attention. We are this love, this attention, this awaring presence and this present happening, just as it is.
Toni Packer (my friend and main teacher) once said to me, “Sink all the way to the bottom, and then put it in your own words.”
And this “bottom” is not some other place we have to get to, or some other way of seeing that has to happen, like being high on psychedelics or something. It is simply being here now as present experiencing, as it is, without trying to see it in any special way or have any special experience or get something out of it. This awakeness is not an attainment but a falling away of the grasping-seeking-resisting mind. It’s not any particular experience as opposed to some other experience. It is simply being awake as this moment, this streaming that never stops changing but that never leaves here-now. We can’t grasp this with thought. No formulation can hold the living reality. No concept is big enough, subtle enough, or fluid enough. This awakeness is nothing special, and yet, it reveals the extraordinary right here in the most apparently ordinary, not yesterday or someday or permanently, but right now, right here.
And, of course, being awake doesn’t mean there won’t also at times be thinking, conceptualizing, imagining, story-telling, and a functional sense of personal identity, boundaries, distances and so on. The words and images of this Facebook post are pouring out along with the rain and the frog croaks and the blossoms, all of it an expression of this infinite wholeness. But this word-dance can all be held lightly, playfully, like the rain and the croaks…seen for what it is (and isn’t). In awakeness, we can still use maps and menus, but we’re no longer mistaking the map for the territory, the menu for the meal, or the description or the pointer for the living reality itself. We’re simply here, being just this moment, being what we cannot not be, doing what we cannot not do (croaking, raining, blossoming, writing or reading FB posts, whatever it is).
If you’re imagining that something needs to happen to “get there” or “make this happen” or “realize this fully,” then you’re imagining a separation—a distance—that isn’t actually real. And you’re imagining a “you” who is much too small, who somehow needs to arrive somewhere else or attain something that is presently lacking. But that “you” is an imagination (a mental image, a story, a thought, a neurological sensation). What “you” truly are is simply present experiencing, awaring presence, here-now, just this, exactly as it is.
Even the thought-story of separation and seeking is nothing other than this, and none of it is personal because the one who seems to “have” this apparent “problem” of seeking and feeling separate is imaginary. There is actually no way to not be this moment, this present experiencing, this streaming Is-ness. The thought-story about the imaginary self (and the past and the future and time and space) is not any distance at all away from here-now, but it occupies the attention and creates a sense or an idea of being a separate entity in an alien world made up of solid, separate parts. It creates the illusion of distance and separation where none actually exist. It’s like watching a movie and being momentarily absorbed in that movie-world. It’s a real experience, but the world being imagined into existence has no independent existence or ultimate reality. It’s like a dream. It’s an imagination, a momentary appearance, a dance of sensations—a happening of the universe.
Some movies, like the best ones in the movie theaters, have the potential to wake us up, bring us to our senses, enliven us, and expand the field of what is included here-now. Other movies, like the habitual or compulsive ones that run in our heads, simply generate suffering and confusion.
When that happens, we simply need to see the movie for what it is and wake up to the bare actuality of this moment—this seamless stream of hearing-seeing-breathing-experiencing, and the boundless openness of here-now, and the unconditional love shining out of everything: the chanting frogs, the blossoms, the sounds of the traffic on the interstate, the taste of coffee, the light dancing on the water glass, the crumpled Kleenex on the table, the barking dog, the cool breeze on the skin. Just this. No metaphysics, no cosmology, no grand purpose, no ultimate meaning. Just this, as it is. The words can only point to and evoke what is beyond words. And yet this Is-ness includes words, and is right here shining in the words as well. There is nowhere this vibrant present-ness is not.
PS – You may wonder, why do I quote Susan Murphy and Mooji and Darryl Bailey and Steve Hagen and Toni Packer – why not just put it all into my own words (as Toni seemed to suggest)? I can’t really say why I do anything, but if I had to offer an explanation, it would be that I feel a common thread running through all these very different teachers (and many others I have not quoted here)—and I feel we are all one whole happening. We are all in some ways very different from each other, me and Susan and Mooji and Darryl and Steve and Toni (and the many others I also love and resonate with). We each come at this in a somewhat different way, with a different emphasis, a different teaching style, a different personality, a different vocabulary—and I don’t want to blur or minimize those differences or deny the absolute uniqueness of each expression—but there is common ground at the heart of all these voices, at least I feel there is. No two people will express this in exactly the same way—even those most similar to one another will be different in some ways. Just as the table expresses this aliveness differently from the chair or the freight train or the rain or the frogs—and yet they all express this vibrant aliveness, this love, this presence, this present-ness—and they all invite wonder, attention and gratitude. There are many different maps all pointing us to the same home that we have never left, not even for an instant.
Response to a comment:
Yes, Steve is saying (and Darryl also) that if you really look closely, nothing ever forms in the first place to even be impermanent…i.e., there are no solid, persisting, continuous, independent forms in the way we imagine. A form is an abstract idea. “My body,” for example, is actually continuous change inseparable from everything that is supposedly not my body. The mind wants to find something to grasp—something that is being or doing this ever-present, thorough-going flux—and we have many names for it (emptiness, the Self, the Tao, the vibrant dance of existence, intelligence-energy, spirit, consciousness, and so on), but the danger in all the names is that they make it seem like something (this but not that, another formed thing, another abstract idea). Letting go of that need to grasp this is very freeing, and then, this simply is. Ungraspable but undeniable.
I’ve exchanged a number of emails recently with a person who, like so many others, has been looking for a “sudden, permanent shift,” in which “the illusion of the person and the personal will be seen through once and for all.” This is my most recent reply to this person, and because so many others have the same questions and confusions, I thought I’d share it here:
I’m not exactly saying that “all that’s needed is simply to stay fully focused on whatever is arising/happening in the moment without judgement or effort,” and “doing this without distraction.” That is pretty much an impossible task, and the one who wants to “do” it is the phantom “me” (thought posing as a self who is supposedly in control), trying to get some future result.
I am suggesting that the more the attention rests with present experiencing, and the less caught-up and mesmerized it is in the thought-stories about “me,” the more our suffering and confusion will disappear. Meditation, as I mean it, is a process of paying attention—not in a driven, effortful, goal-oriented, willful kind of way, but in a very natural and effortless way—noticing how thoughts create confusion and suffering and beginning to discern the difference between thinking and sensing-perceiving-awaring.
But as soon as the mind imagines some goal-post or finish-line after which “I” will be happy all the time, we’re lost in another train of thought about “me” and my imaginary future. The manifestation can only appear in polarities—and there are no one-sided coins. There is no up without down. Painful sensations and emotions still arise “after awakening,” but it is possible not to suffer over them in the same way we habitually do. And the phrase “after awakening” is so terribly misleading, because awakening is always only now, and it’s not usually some explosive, flashy event. It’s simply seeing the false as false in this moment and waking up to what has been right here all along (presence-awareness and present experiencing). There is no “awakened person” who has crossed a finish-line and is now permanently in some special awakened state. And we can’t “make” the shift from delusion to awakeness happen. But by simply being aware of suffering and how it gets created and sustained, it begins to unwind and dissolve on its own. We can’t force suffering and confusion and delusion to vanish, and wanting all that to vanish actually keeps it all going. As they say, what we resist persists. Resistance is a thought activity. But awareness accepts everything just as it is. It resists nothing, not even resistance! Counter-intuitively, transformation begins with total acceptance!
Some people, e.g. Eckhart Tolle, apparently do experience a sudden, dramatic, complete, permanent shift from being lost in the swirl of emotion-thought to being awake to the simplicity of here-now. What they wake up to is here right now for all of us, fully present, it is simply overlooked by most people most of the time because the attention is focused on the thought-stories. Sudden awakenings of this kind are rare, as Eckhart himself says. For most of us, it is a much more gradual unfolding—with lightbulb moments of great clarity along the way perhaps, and moments of being free from the thought-story and simply present and awake here-now—but not the kind of dramatic, lasting shift that Eckhart had. Wanting to have what Eckhart had, or striving for it, is just a form of suffering, as Eckhart would be the first to point out. I’m quite certain that some teachers even construct an awakening story because they think that’s what they’re supposed to have—they may even believe in their own construction. (I watched my own mind trying to do this at one point—I may even have written about it in my second book, Awake in the Heartland—but thankfully, I had Toni Packer as a teacher, and I couldn’t con myself in this way—I saw through it too clearly). Also, fwiw, people who know ET personally have told me that he sometimes gets upset. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t assume that he (or anyone else) is totally “beyond it all,” and especially if they claim that they are!
The whole “no-self” thing is very misunderstood. There is undeniably something here we call a person—it’s just not the solid, persisting, separate, independent thing we think it is. It’s more like a whirlpool or a wave. And there is undeniably a functional sense of identity with the body that is essential—you answer to your name, you can cut a carrot without cutting off your fingers, you know where you live, etc. The illusion is the way thought poses as the author of our thoughts, the maker of our choices, the doer of our deeds, the controller of our life. That author-chooser-controller doesn’t exist. It can’t be found. It’s just a thought and maybe a mental image. For most (if not all) of us, that illusion will be seen through again and again, not once-and-for-all. It will gradually lose its believability. So, when a thought such as, “I”m not awake yet” arises, that thought will eventually no longer be taken seriously. It will be seen clearly that the “I” to which it refers is an ever-changing event that is not permanently in any particular state.
Thankfully, no dramatic awakening happened here. (I say thankfully because this whole idea of dramatic, permanent awakenings has created so much suffering for so many people who are chasing that, so I’m happy not to be adding to that delusion and suffering!). Here, it has been a gradual unfolding. Yet it is only gradual when I think about it after the fact. In reality, waking up is always now, and what is woken up to was never not here! Delusion can still happen (thoughts can seem or feel believable even when I “know” they aren’t, reactive “me-centered” emotions can arise, etc)—and the teachers I’ve found most trustworthy acknowledge that this is true for them too. But what seems to have fallen away here is a secondary layer of taking these “lapses into delusion” personally and getting lost in a story about how “this means I’m not all the way there yet.” It is clearly seen that there is only here—“there” is a fantasy. And I’m no longer trying to be somebody for whom such things no longer happen. I see them as impersonal events in the happening of life. That doesn’t mean I don’t apologize if I notice I’ve hurt someone. That, too, is part of the happening! Relatively speaking, I still have to “take responsibility” for Joan, even though I see very clearly that there is actually no such thing as choice in the way we imagine there is.
If you’re still looking for things to read, I recommend my most recent book, Nothing to Grasp, and I also would highly recommend Darryl Bailey, Toni Packer, Robert Saltzman, and maybe a little book by J. Jennifer Matthews called Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just As You Are. There are many teachers, the best teachers in my opinion, who don’t tell awakening stories or claim to be in some special state—they don’t claim to have anything you don’t have right here, right now. They just keep pointing to the obvious—and pointing out how we (seemingly) miss it by being bamboozled by our thinking—and how even being bamboozled is simply another movement in this impersonal and undivided happening.
Someone comments: “I also feel that work/life circumstances will determine how much time can be directed to being aware. Eckhart Tolle had given up his old life because he was miserable, not everyone can do that.”
My response: Awareness is always here, whatever our life circumstances. And paying attention can happen at any time, in any circumstances. Meditation, as I mean it, and certainly awakening, requires no change in circumstances. There is no real boundary between "meditation" and "everyday life." As I recall, ET was a grad student when his awakening happened, and it was only after that when he "did nothing" for several years. But that doesn't mean everyone else has to quit their job and sit on a park bench! One of my teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, was a single mother of several children and worked full-time in a busy office before she became a full-time Zen teacher. She often said that a job in a busy office was one of the best things for Zen practice. Silent retreats are great, but relationships are usually where our buttons get pushed, where we encounter our edge (so to speak), and where the chance to wake up is wonderfully available! So I don't buy what you say at all! Awakening, as I mean it, has absolutely nothing to do with getting into some special samadhi-type state that might only be possible in uninterrupted silence.
If consciousness is universal, why can’t I see what billions of living beings are seeing at this moment?
I was asked to comment on this question: “It is clear that consciousness is universal, impersonal, without limits, it is not separated from anything, nor edges, without beginning or end, without form or name, infinite, and that It is at no distance from anything…But if the consciousness is infinite and universal, why does it seem that in some way it is linked to this set of sensations called ‘my body,’ and cannot perceive from other points of view? If consciousness is universal, if there is no separate self, why is everything seen from a particular point of view? Why can’t I simultaneously see what billions of living beings are seeing at this moment?”
This is my response:
Who is this “I” who “cannot simultaneously see what billions of living beings are seeing at this moment,” and where are these “billions of others” who seems to be “out there” somewhere, separate from myself?
Whether we call this present happening “mind” (consciousness, awareness, thought) or “matter” (the whole range of subatomic, organic and astronomical “stuff” and energy), these are only different words or different ways of understanding (or mapping) the same (indescribable) event. Everything is one, whole, seamless reality that is only apparently divided up into separate “things” (mind and matter, tables and chairs, France and Germany, me and you, here and there, now and then, this and that). But the boundary lines are notional, and we can discover that firsthand simply by giving open attention to the living reality itself rather than to our conceptual maps. The different “things” are like waves on the ocean—inseparable, interdependent, co-arising, ever-changing, fluid movements of the whole. Whether we call the whole “the universe” or “consciousness” or “unicity” or “what is” or “the Self,” these are all words for what no word can capture or contain.
When we say there is no self, we’re not denying the individual wave in the ocean or the person—we’re pointing out that the wave or the person is not a static, persisting, separate thing—that it is a movement of the whole that has no persisting form and no independent existence. And we’re also pointing out that the apparent author-thinker-chooser-controller who we think resides inside the person, at the steering wheel as it were, is a mirage and not an actual reality. All of our thoughts, urges, intentions, interests and actions are arising from the whole. Just as no wave can decide to go off in a direction separate from how the ocean as a whole is moving, so no person is actually making independent choices in the way we think they are.
It all comes down to what you refer to when you say “I.” When you ask, “Why can’t I simultaneously see what billions of living beings are seeing at this moment?” – the “I” in that sentence refers to what? It refers to the individual person, the apparently separate wave, does it not? It refers to the particular stream of experiencing that is being identified as you, the person—and it assumes the actual, independent existence of billions of others outside that stream. It is a question that arises from thought, from mentally trying to figure out the nature of reality. If you relax into simply being present and aware here and now, without thought, this question does not arise.
In the same way that the ocean is simultaneously expressing itself as countless different waves, we could say that consciousness is simultaneously experiencing countless different points of view, through what appear to be some seven billion humans and many other sentient beings. Just as the ocean is simultaneously enjoying countless different waves, consciousness is simultaneously enjoying infinite movies and dreams, each apparently colored by, or filtered through, the particular conditions and conditioning of the perceiving organism. And remember, when we speak of “an organism,” it is like a wave on the ocean—fluid, changing, inseparable from the other waves. You appear in my movie of waking life, and I appear in your movie. We are each a slightly different character in every different movie in which we appear. I see you one way, your mother or your best friend or your boss sees you somewhat differently. I see you one way today and a different way tomorrow. And the (ever-changing) form I call “you” is simply a momentary appearance in this boundless awaring presence that you and I both know as our deepest reality.
In the Buddhist image of Indra’s Net, this undivided, interdependent arising is compared to a net of jewels in which each is a reflection of all the others. Everything is contained in everything else, like a hologram in which every part contains the whole, or like the definition of God (or totality) as an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
As consciousness itself, as the whole, you are “simultaneously seeing what billions of living beings are seeing at this moment.” But as a person, as a particular point of view, you are apparently not seeing the whole. But actually, the whole is there in every part. As Thich Nhat Hanh has so beautifully illustrated, the whole universe is there in a single sheet of paper. The paper would not exist without the sunlight that grew the trees that became the paper, and the logger who cut down the trees, and the cows that the logger ate, and the grass that fed the cows, and the soil in which the grass grew, and the rain that nourished the grass, and the rancher who raised the cows, and the parents who gave birth to the rancher, and so on and on. And ALL of this (the paper, the rancher, the cows, you, me, the world situation) is a dream-like appearance in and of consciousness. It’s one, whole, undivided happening like the waving ocean or the jewels in Indra’s Net, this boundless and seamless unicity whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
The content of consciousness is different for each of us, the particular movies of waking and dreaming life that we see, but the fact of being conscious, of being aware, of experiencing, of being here-now, is equally true for all of us. And in deep sleep, as in death, all of that content vanishes. The “I” who asks this question vanishes along with the question and the billions of apparent “others.” Everything perceivable and conceivable is utterly gone. What remains?
If you are trying to grasp what remains, it is a hopeless endeavor. Anything you grasp, however subtle, is another object, another concept, perception or sensation. That which remains is nothing perceivable or conceivable. It is the very core of your being, the very heart of this moment. It is neither large nor small, for it is dimensionless, timeless, spaceless, ever-present, unborn, undying. Just as the eye cannot see itself, this unicity cannot be seen or grasped as an object. And yet there is nowhere that it is not. It is all there is.
If, for one moment, you don’t refer to thought or memory or second-hand information of any kind, what are you? What is this? Does this awaring presence have a location, a size, a shape, a name, an age, a gender, a nationality, a set of opinions? Or is it prior to all of that, subtler than all that, vaster than all that, more all-inclusive (or whole) than all of that? Don’t answer with the thinking mind or by referring to what you’ve read or heard, but feel it out for yourself. If you’ve tasted this (and you’re actually always tasting this whether it has been noticed yet or not), you know that this is where true power is, true intelligence, true creativity, unconditional love, joy, peace. This is the Heart, the Now, the aliveness and vitality of everything, the wholeness, the emptiness, the fullness.
You say yourself, “It is clear that consciousness is universal, impersonal, without limits, it is not separated from anything, nor edges, without beginning or end, without form or name, infinite, and that It is at no distance from anything.” If that is really clear, as your own direct knowing right now, and not simply as an idea or a belief that you’ve picked up second-hand, then what is the question? Deeper than name and form, when we speak of “I,” doesn’t everyone refer to this same awaring presence, this same waving ocean, this same eternal and infinite here-now? As human beings, are we not like the waving movements of the ocean, all of us equally water, equally ocean, not really separate or independent at all, and yet, each of us utterly unique and distinct and unrepeatable?
When you ask the question that you posed, does the “I” refer to the ocean or the wave? The wave may be asking why it can’t experience what all the other waves are experiencing, or why it can’t move in just the same way the others do, but the ocean has no such question.
The End of the World and What Remains
I open the window and the smell of blossoms wafts in. A friend calls, someone whose intelligence and sensitivity I greatly respect, someone who follows climate science very closely. She tells me that she thinks the human species has perhaps ten years left, twenty at most, and that what’s coming soon is a rapid escalation in both the intensity and the geographic spread of what is already happening in many parts of the world: catastrophic weather events, floods, droughts, water shortages, climate refugees streaming across borders, conflicts, wars, violence, extremism of all kinds, a collapse of basic law and order. According to my friend, even if everyone in the whole world woke up tomorrow and did everything possible to reduce our carbon footprint and our methane output, the science shows that it’s already too late. We’re past the point of no return.
The bulk of this is not new information to me, although the time-lines my friend offers are shorter than those I’ve previously heard. And if climate change doesn’t get us first, some kind of nuclear war or catastrophe seems increasingly inevitable. This doomsday scenario has been in the air for as long as I can remember, but suddenly, with this conversation, the apparently looming reality of this devastation captures my attention. It’s scary to imagine living through this collapse and the horrors of it, witnessing it, feeling it, experiencing it. It will involve great pain and suffering. It’s scary at my age to imagine being an old person, older than I am now, increasingly incapacitated and vulnerable, in the midst of this kind of collapse.
Over the next few days and nights after this conversation, I notice that vague feelings of depression and fear are passing through repeatedly like waves on the ocean. I feel heavy, weighted down. I lie awake in bed one night staring into the darkness.
But I notice again and again that it’s all happening in my imagination. And I know from long experience that the way we imagine certain things is never how they are when they actually happen (if they happen at all). For example, I was expecting the radiation and chemotherapy that I recently went through to be much worse than they actually were, and in the end, I found my cancer to be in many ways a blessing—an awakening experience. Of course, it also involved pain and discomfort, and it might still kill me, but the point is, it wasn’t all bad and it wasn’t how I imagined it would be.
No one actually knows for sure what will or won’t happen next. Science typically assumes that the universe is made of matter that follows certain physical laws, but perhaps this universe (or so-called matter) is not what we think it is. Perhaps this intelligence-energy, this subatomic-intergalactic unfathomability and indeterminacy, this vibrant dance of experiencing, this play of consciousness is not actually bound by these laws. We don’t really know. Didn’t the biologist Rupert Sheldrake once suggest that the laws of nature are more like habit patterns than laws? Many people think a mass spiritual awakening will somehow turn the tide of climate change and save humanity, maybe by changing the universe in some way that seems utterly impossible if we think of the universe as dead matter bound by certain fixed and predictable laws rather than as a mutable and effervescent dance of consciousness.
But still, my rational mind argues, while no one can predict the future with 100% accuracy, when a person has Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic, lung, liver and bone cancer, their chances of survival are pretty much zero, and that’s basically the situation the human species is in right now as I understand the scientific evidence. Do we just ignore this or pretend it isn’t happening?
Lots of people, enamored with technology and imagining it to be more powerful than it probably really is, expect that some technological breakthrough will save the day, and I suppose nothing is impossible, however far-fetched and unlikely that scenario seems to me.
My friend says these are all forms of magical thinking and denial. She says the political right is in denial that this is even happening, which means any intelligent action is effectively blocked, and the progressive political left is in denial of another form—they’re like a doctor who refuses to stop suggesting different treatment options to a patient with an incurable cancer, instead of recognizing that it is time for hospice, time for comfort care, time for surrender, time to welcome death, which is, after all, a vital and indispensable part of life.
But what would that mean in terms of humanity as a whole, to move from trying to treat the incurable cancer of global warming, if it is incurable, to being (metaphorically) on hospice, welcoming death rather than fearing it and trying desperately to stave it off? And are we really at the point where no treatment can make a significant difference? Many highly intelligent people who study climate science seem to think we’re not. People like Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken and Naomi Klein don’t seem to have thrown in the towel yet. Paul Hawken has a new book out called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, a book that I hear is filled with ideas for what we could do. And Naomi Klein chose to have a child while researching her book on climate change, which would suggest that she doesn’t think the worst is inevitable. Are they all in denial? Maybe they are. I don’t know.
Even if the human species and many other species are wiped out, and even if that annihilation is preceded by a period of catastrophic global suffering, or even if we have a nuclear war, who can say that this is a “bad” thing or a tragedy, or even that it has any more substance or inherent reality than a nightmare or a dream? Geologists tell us that there have been many periods when the earth was too cold or too hot to sustain life. And many life forms have come and gone. The dinosaurs were wiped out, which might have seemed tragic to them, if they’d had human minds with which to think about it, but their extinction opened the way for something new, and eventually, for us. Who can say the same might not be true if we wipe ourselves out? Life is continually morphing into something new, all of it one whole seamless movement in which nothing is ever really wasted. Nothing holds still. Impermanence is so thorough-going that no “thing” ever even forms or persists to be impermanent. The whole dance is without added meaning or need of meaning beyond its simple BEING. It seems otherwise because we are so used to mistaking our mental maps and explanations for the living actuality.
Death is a vital part of this living reality, and death is moment-to-moment, not some future event. The form each instant takes dies instantly and the universe is born anew. Creation and destruction, birth and death—this is the rhythm of life. Unicity is vibrantly alive, constantly dying and being born.
In the virtual reality created by thought and conceptualization, there seem to be solid, persisting, separate forms that exist independently of consciousness, “out there” somewhere in what we think of as space and time. “I” seem to be a separate bodymind, vulnerable to pain, disability and discomfort of all kinds and ever in danger of being extinguished. As the apparently separate self, I live in perpetual anxiety and fear about what might happen next, alleviated to some degree by hopeful fantasies and wishful thinking. But ALL of this is a dance of consciousness. Space and time are creations of consciousness, ways of experiencing.
The actual reality is timeless (eternal) and spaceless (infinite), i.e. Now-Here. Every time of day, every season, every age, every location shows up Here-Now. We can never leave Here-Now. There is no edge where Here begins or ends, and nothing ever happens before or after Now. There is only Here-Now. This is our actual experience. But we ignore our immediate, direct experiencing in favor of the conceptual map-world, because the map gives us a sense of control, of certainty, of knowing what’s going on. Whereas, if we try to grasp this immediacy, this living reality, this awaring presence, this present experiencing, it cannot be grasped.
But when we finally relax into groundlessness, it turns out to be freedom itself. So-called liberation is simply seeing the false as false and not grasping the Truth by trying to formulate it or pin it down. Liberation isn’t about having the right answer or the right view, but rather about waking up from all the answers and views—not landing anywhere. Being this moment, just as it is.
And, of course, sometimes thinking about the future is a functional necessity, a perfectly appropriate activity here-now—if we are planning a trip, organizing an event, trying to correct some form of social injustice, taking care of our car, saving money for retirement, or hoping to prevent catastrophic climate change from wiping us out—these activities all require an ability to imagine and plan for the future. And that’s not a problem as long as we know that the future may not go according to plan.
In the morning, I go for a walk and delight in the blossoms everywhere, the tiny new green leaves, the sparkling raindrops on the blossoms and leaves, the bracing cold wet air. I feel full of joy and love and fresh energy.
I hold an on-line meeting, do some writing, cook a meal and eat, read a bit. Later in the day, I am bone-tired, utterly worn out, probably from the lingering effects of radiation and chemotherapy. I take a nap. In the evening, I watch a crime drama on TV. Afterwards, I sit in silence, doing nothing, simply being present, listening to the frogs and the faint hum of traffic on the interstate.
I notice, on the one hand, how easily attention gets totally absorbed in the dramas and stories that it focuses on, like my imagination of the end times, and on the other hand, I can see how prone we humans are to denial in the face of certain realities.
I also notice that there is a common factor in every different experience, whether it is a wave of joy or a wave of fear, an expanded experience or a contracted one. That common factor is consciousness—the present-ness or presence of everything—the ever-present here-now, the awaring presence being and beholding it all. The content of consciousness is ever-changing, but the vastness itself (consciousness, intelligence-energy, unicity, no-thing-ness) is ever-present as everything and no-thing at all. And the more closely I tune into the actuality of this living reality instead of my conceptual maps of it, the more empty of solidity and the more open and spacious and subtle and unknowable and radiant and wondrous it is. The no-thing-ness IS the wonder, the radiance, the effervescence, the aliveness!
This body, this room, the furniture in this room, the image of the whole earth as seen from space, the story of Joan, the story of climate change, the story of the world, the stories told by geologists, by physicists, by biologists, by climate scientists…the stories told by astrologers and poets and mystics…the political stories, the economic stories, the celebrity stories, the endless stories in the daily news of human cruelty and human kindness, of despair and hope…the subatomic particles and the distant galaxies…all of this appears Here-Now in consciousness. It is made of consciousness. We never actually experience anything outside of, or other than, consciousness.
How real or substantial are the ever-changing forms that appear to persist, the stories, the maps, the way it all seems to be (if we don’t look too closely)? Or maybe a better question would be, what about all of that is real (if anything)?
To paraphrase a famous saying from Vedanta, the world is unreal, consciousness alone is real, consciousness is the world. As consciousness itself, the world is real. A mirage or a dream is real as a mirage or a dream. It’s a real experience. It’s not real as what it SEEMS to be. “The world” that we conceptualize, imagine, project, remember and believe in—the supposedly observer-independent world that we think exists outside of consciousness—that is illusory. The world that we actually experience is an ever-changing, vibrational dance of sensations, a waving movement of consciousness—and that is reality itself.
In recognizing this, we may still have our opinions about politics, economics, climate change and everything else—that’s all part of the dance—but we hold it all more lightly. We realize we don’t know how the universe “should” be or what “should” happen next or what will happen next—and in fact, we realize that nothing actually happens next, because there is only Now.
And the fear of death or social collapse or what we think of as evil or misfortune, that all vanishes completely when our attention leaves the thought-story and returns to the simplicity of here-now, just as it is. The death of a person, or of the whole human species and many other species, or the inevitable death of the sun itself one day and of our whole solar system is not a tragedy when seen from the perspective of the whole (Here-Now). Yes, we may feel grief and sadness and even rage as much of this unfolds, we may be screaming in pain or trembling in terror—again, that’s all part of the dance. But humans are not some aberration apart from nature—we are an expression of nature, and in one sense, everything we do—from our super-highways, to our industrial civilization, to our nuclear weapons—is an activity of wild nature, an activity of the whole universe, as natural as beaver dams, bee stings, predators ripping apart their prey and volcanos erupting. It’s all a movement of one, undivided, seamless whole. No wave can ever go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean is moving. And ultimately, this happening is not definable or understandable. It simply IS. To call it good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate is in some way extra.
And yet at the same time, our capacity for discernment and our impulse to relieve suffering, to stop injustice, to heal what is broken is also a movement of the whole. We can’t leave anything out. And it’s clear that much of our human behavior comes from our delusion, our ignorance, our false sense of separation, our mistaking of map for territory. When we are fully and simply present here-now, seeing clearly, there is naturally love and compassion and acceptance of how it is. And that acceptance doesn’t mean passivity—it means that whatever action (or non-action) arises from that comes from wholeness and not from the illusion of partiality and separation. But even that illusion and the actions that spring from it are also what is. It’s ALL one seamless whole. Thought divides it into good and bad, favorable and unfavorable, enlightenment and delusion, wholeness and fragmentation—and that discernment is part of the total functioning—but ultimately, it’s ALL included. Nothing can be pulled apart from anything else.
However we try to abstract, formulate, conceptualize, pin down or grasp this living reality, whether with religion or science, it will always slip through our fingers. Awakening is the end of the world as we know it, or more accurately, as we imagine or conceptualize it. It is a process of letting go or seeing through, a process of relaxing into the bare actuality of this moment, a process of dying to the known, a stripping process in which nothing remains except what cannot be stripped away.
I call that which remains the simplicity and vibrant aliveness of what is—this undeniable awaring presence and this undeniable present experiencing, just as it is—and in our actual direct experiencing, awareness and content are an undivided, infinitely subtle, unfathomable happening. And this vibrant happening even includes conceptualizing, abstracting, mapping, and apparently being lost from time to time in the thought-sense of being a separate person who is growing old and living at a time when humanity is probably coming to an end. It’s all a kind of dream. If humanity comes to an end, something (that is not a thing) remains. This intelligence-energy that is here-now doesn’t die. This no-thing-ness that is showing up as everything has no beginning and no ending. As Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “in you is the presence that will be, when all the stars are dead.”
And now, on a spring evening, the frogs are croaking madly, the warm air is filled with the fragrances of blossoms, the almost-full moon hangs over the mountains, and I sit at my desk, typing these words, not knowing why life moves me to do this, nor what results such sharing might seemingly have. I’m like the frogs, singing my song, dancing my dance, being the only possible waving of “the great ocean of being” that I can be in this moment. And while I don’t know what the next instant will bring, I have a deep certainty that even if the whole universe blows up, all is well. That doesn’t mean the pain or the grief or the sorrow won’t hurt. But even that hurting is a vibrant expression of the whole, a passing wave of sensations and energy in a vast openness that is limitless, imperishable and utterly free. When the movie ends, the screen has not been burned by the fire in the movie. When we disappear completely every night into the nothingness of deep sleep, or at the moment of death, or when the apparent world ends, that disappearance and that no-thing-ness is nothing to fear. It is the very Heart in which we have been held all along.
Maybe the best gift we can offer at this time is the total acceptance or unconditional love that is the very nature of awareness and presence—being this moment, just as it is—being fully awake to this living reality here-now and not getting bamboozled by our capacity to imagine every possible future, or to endlessly re-run our memories of the past, or to fall into despair and bitterness or rage over what we think is happening—and when we do sometimes get bamboozled in these ways, to see these habit-patterns as part of what is, to not take them personally, and to simply wake up anew. Maybe our challenge is to see only God everywhere, to find the beauty even in the darkness.
Response to a comment:
I’m not against strategies or efforts to release trauma or otherwise reduce suffering and injustice, but too often, these things seem to come from a dualistic view, a fear of death, a desire to survive forever in our present (imagined) form, an obsession with self-improvement and self-help, and an overlooking of what is already whole, which I think is what you’re getting at. And on that, I'm with you 100%. My favorite Buddhist comment from the AIDS epidemic was from the wild gay Zen teacher Issan Dorsey, who eventually died of AIDS. He had been to some interfaith conference about AIDS, and he apparently told them, “AIDS is not the wrath of God. AIDS is God!”
Response to a comment:
Why? Well, if an effective intervention is still possible, whether to my own cancer, or to a social injustice, or to a global catastrophe, then doesn't it make sense to do what we can to avert it or at least to reduce the suffering? Intelligent thinking and action doesn't need to be based in fear, and endlessly looping fearful thoughts are certainly not helpful, but such action and caring might actually be based in love! The fact that the world "looks good," means you are probably one of the very lucky ones who is living a relatively comfortable life and ignoring a lot of what is going on and certainly the science of climate change. Many of us in the developed world live in a kind of bubble of affluence: air-conditioning in summer, heat in winter, electricity, water pouring out the taps, food stores stocked with everything we could want. And if we simply ignore all the places where this isn't the case, and if we ignore the science of climate change, then what is there to be concerned about? I think this is called denial. In my view, there is a balance between being lost in useless fears and hopeless concerns, on the one hand, and being utterly ignorant and in denial on the other.
Response to another comment:
It's certainly true that apocalyptic thinking is nothing new...probably in part because people have always noticed impermanence and intuited that the world itself is impermanent...and of course, in earlier times, the causes of eclipses and earthquakes and so on were not as well understood as they are now, so all those things seemed to suggest impending doom...and, as you say, we love drama.
BUT, if you look at the science, this "apocalyptic thinking" now is grounded in what appears to be pretty solid data. Of course, no data is beyond question and nothing is ever 100% certain, but I'd say it's comparable to a terminal medical diagnosis. Also, it is only with nuclear weapons that humans have had the capacity to easily wipe out all life on earth with the push of a few buttons, and the likelihood that someone will eventually use them again, or that a nuclear war will be triggered accidentally, is quite high. So I feel this is not exactly the same old "apocalyptic thinking" that has been seen throughout history.
In reality, of course, it's an illusion to think we could have done anything to turn it around, because if we could have, we would have, and free will is basically an illusion, as I continually point out. IF enough people had taken the early warnings seriously and felt empowered and moved to do something, IF governments and corporations and other powerful forces had taken the science seriously and not been swayed by all the things that swayed them, and so on and on, many "ifs," then yes, we might have been able to stop this. (And many argue this is still possible, but one can see even by reading this comment thread, your own included, how unlikely that is). And even if we had been able to avert this particular looming crisis, the human species, the planet and the sun are all finite. The apocalyptic stories are true in the end.
The arctic ice is melting much more rapidly than scientists expected. It really doesn't look very promising for human survival as far as I can tell. And while nothing is certain, some things ARE predictable with a high degree of accuracy. (Of course, this all pertains to relative reality, which some nondualists dismiss entirely as being completely illusory and irrelevant, but I still regard it as part of the whole).
But I'm with you 100% on carrying on with everyday life, doing what the universe moves us to do or not do, whatever that is. For some, that will mean dedicating their lives to trying to do something about climate change (or for others, trying to undo racism, sexism, heterosexism, animal abuse, or whatever moves them most). I'm no longer moved to be an activist, but I'm still moved to write this post, which some nondualists would not be moved to do. As I see it it, we take care of the whole with every action, whether it be painting a picture, taking care of our mother, drinking a cup of tea or listening to the frogs. I think often and with deep appreciation of those musicians on board the Titanic who sat on the deck and played beautiful music as the ship sank.
Response to a comment:
I think you totally misunderstood the post. Whether a person with lung cancer is able to stop smoking depends on many factors, and even if they do, it may be too late to stop the cancer. I was NOT saying we shouldn't act. I was saying it MAY be too late, and that as a species, we MAY not be capable of the necessary changes, and if we ARE wiped out, that's not a tragedy. I'm all for doing our best to do whatever we can. I was a smoker and I quit. I recently underwent chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. I'm not saying we shouldn't do what we can. But as you can see from many of the responses, lots of people don't even think there's a cancer called climate change or that smoking (i.e. the carbon and methane we're putting into the atmosphere) is linked to it in any way.
Response to a comment:
When we ask why life is the way it is, we can come up with many possible answers, and religions have been doing that for many centuries, but none of these answers really satisfies us because the bottom-line truth is that we don't know why everything is as it is. And we don't need to know. Life is as it is. Period. But we can notice, it's never any one way in particular. It's always changing. It can't really be pinned down, resolved, formulated or boxed up.
Without opposite polarities, contrasts and differences, nothing would appear at all. We'd be in a state of perpetual deep sleep. Somehow, whatever this is, it moves to wake up, to experience...and then after a while, it moves back into deep sleep. Why is there experience at all? Again, many explanations have been offered, but the bottom-line truth is that we don't know why. But what we can see is that if there is pleasure, there will also be pain. They go together, one whole gestalt. The manifestation cannot appear in any other way. If there is up, there will be down.
The word Love is used in so many different ways, to mean such different things, and I have no idea what it means to you. When people speak of Love as the ground of being or the nature of reality, or when they say love is another word for awareness, or when it is said that God is Love, this all refers to unconditional love, the love that includes everything. That does not mean that we always feel emotional love, or parental love, or romantic love, or anything like that. That kind of relative love will always go together with its opposite: love and hate. But when we are fully present Here-Now, when we are not lost in thoughts and stories, we can feel this open, spacious, awaring presence that is always accepting everything just as it is, this presence that we are, and this is sometimes called Love in that larger sense. And if we stop and check, even in the midst of chaos and confusion and despair, we may discover that this awaring presence, this unconditional love, is always here, that it is what here-Now IS.
Response to a comment:
You ask what sources I listen to on climate change. Aside from News reports (in both the mainstream and progressive media) about reports from climate scientists, there’s the UN and NASA, which offers a list of scientific organizations on their website. I’m not a climate scientist myself, or even a scientist, so like most people, I rely on second-hand information from sources I trust. I don’t remember all the people and authors I’ve heard or read or all the documentaries I’ve seen. I read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring when it first came out in 1962—it was my first spark of interest in environmental destruction. The issue of climate change and global warming has concerned me at least since the 1980’s, maybe before that. I remember a man named John Seed, a deep ecologist, whose early warning impressed me deeply decades ago. Over the years, I read Joanna Macy, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and many others. I saw Al Gore’s movie and other more far-reaching documentaries the names of which I can no longer recall. I follow Democracy Now and various other progressive media sources on climate change. One little book I read a couple years ago and found very captivating was Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton, an Iraq war veteran.
I don’t necessarily agree with the timeline my friend suggested. It is shorter than most estimates that I have heard. On the other hand, the collapse is already underway in many parts of the world and the arctic ice is melting faster than had been expected, so she may be right. I just don’t know, and I doubt that anyone can predict a timeline with real certainty. My friend mentioned only two sources for that timeline, Guy McPherson and Paul Erlich, both biologists, not climate scientists, both of whom have a history of making dire predictions for catastrophic events that didn’t happen, so I don’t regard them as entirely reliable. I do know my friend has read lots of other material, is very up on this issue, and (in my experience of her) is not the conspiracy theorist type. I keep an open mind on timeline.
Response to another comment:
Yes...humanity as we know it is a blip...all form is impermanent, including our species, the earth, the sun, the galaxy, etc. And when we truly realize how thorough-going impermanence is, it is very freeing! As Zen teacher Steve Hagen puts it, "Nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.” Only when we have the idea that we are solid and separate and persisting do we fear our disappearance.
I don't know what you mean by (neo) Advaita--people seem to mean different things by that term--but I don't hear Advaita or Buddhism or nonduality denying evolution any more than they would deny our infancy, childhood or adolesecence, and I don't think that's the implication of recognizing that the only reality we ever have is Here-Now and that space-time is a mode of perception that doesn't exist in the linear way we think it does or have the objective reality we think it does. When our childhood happened, it happened Now. And we cannot get back to it Now. The memory of it occurs Now. And when the future arrives, it will arrive Now. And we cannot get to it Now. The imagination of it happens Now. When we really look closely at what is Here-Now, either with science or meditation, it reveals itself to be very ephemeral, fluid and ungraspable. Ultimately, whatever we formulate in words and concepts, whether through science or spirituality, it is always only a map. Maps are useful. We need them. And in order to function, we need to think about both past and future. None of that is inherently a problem. Our suffering comes when we mistake such thoughts, concepts and formulations for reality itself, when we mistake the map for the territory or the menu for the meal.
Finally, in my experience, science does frequently ask why, and not just how. And the explanations it arrives at may be relatively true and functionally useful. They are never absolutely true. And the great thing about science (at its best) is that it is always open to seeing things differently, to abandoning the current models when new information comes to light. Whereas religion (at its worst) all too frequently turns what begins as a direct experience into a belief system it then regards as revealed truth that cannot be questioned...and at that point, it's no longer the direct experience (the territory itself, the living reality Here-Now), it's a map, a map that cannot be questioned and that is mistaken for the territory. That, imo, is where religion frequently goes astray and becomes a delusion rather than a path of liberation. At its best, religion and spirituality invite us to open to the living reality itself. In other words, at its best, it's not about beliefs at all.
Additional comment of my own:
In this piece, I posed the question of what it might mean if we shifted from the stance of trying to cure the illness of climate change to the stance of hospice care. I found this question beautifully addressed by Peter Russell in an excellent (and evolving) piece called “Blind Spot” that you can find on his website. In it, he talks about exponential growth, acceleration, climate change, the mortality of the human species, and how we might live with this situation. This is an excerpt: “Our species may be gone in a century or so, but that does not mean it is all for nothing… We've always known human beings could not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be some time way off in the future. We don't like to consider that our end may be just a few generations away. There are obvious parallels here with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we have some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow. Yet accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts of consciousness…The same may apply to humanity…The question then naturally arises: How do we spend our final days?...Do we party madly, consuming to the last drop of oil? Or bury our heads in depression and hopelessness? For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer such an avid follower of the news, getting upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving. Accepting the end is nigh does not mean that I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet, but now I want to do so for the planet's own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow. We will also need to take care of our fellow beings who will be in need of help and support—providing basics such as food, water, shelter, medicine. And there will be much needed emotional and mental support—care, comfort, compassion, coping with the fear and pain, and adapting to changing situations.”
--Peter Russell: https://www.peterrussell.com
There is a fascinating interview of Peter by Catherine Ingram on this subject titled “Peter Russell: A Crisis of Acceleration” (March 2016) that you can find on Catherine’s podcasts: http://www.catherineingram.com/podlist/ -- also there, you can find her own take on climate change in a podcast titled “Love for the Living World” (Feb 2018) – a view very much akin to the friend I mention in my note.
I got this message recently: “As humans we sometimes fall into the trap of taking things personally even though there is no ‘person’ in ultimate reality. We know this but occasionally we can't help but feel some hurt or pain within whenever we encounter someone or something ‘negative’. It's like we are on auto pilot due to conditioning and negative programs that were ingrained in us. Could you say something about this?”
Feeling hurt or pain is natural. It’s part of being alive. It happens. As for taking things personally, just to SEE this habitual movement of the mind as it happens is already the freedom from it. Awareness is already impersonal and free, as is everything that happens, including this habit of taking things personally. Seen for what it is, this habit loses its power and believability.
We think in terms of “negative” and “positive” feelings, events, programs, etc., but is reality actually divided up in this way? Can we really separate the light and the dark? In conceptual thought, we can. But that’s the map-world, which is an abstraction, and we so easily mistake the map for the territory. If attention moves away from thinking and instead feels into the bare (sensory, energetic, non-conceptual) living actuality of what we are calling “hurt” or “pain” or “taking something personally,” it’s very different from the label or the story or the explanation. In the living reality, there is no problem, no self, no obstacle, no goal.
In reality, “we” don’t actually fall into any trap—that very conceptual notion or story is itself the apparent trap—and nothing is really trapped. We discover this not by believing it as a comforting idea, but by feeling into our actual direct, immediate, present moment experiencing, just as it is—whether thought is labeling that experience “positive” or “negative,” “trapped” or “free.” Go beyond these labels into the felt-reality itself—the energy, the sensations, the awaring presence being and beholding it all. And then see, who is trapped? Is there a trap or anyone to be trapped in it?
Consciousness hypnotizes itself, creates and falls into its own traps, and wakes up. It does it all. In the story told by thought, which is also consciousness appearing as thought and storyline, “I” (the apparently separate person) fall into an apparently real trap and lose sight of the wholeness that I actually am, and this is all a very real and serious problem that must be fixed. But this is all a story, and even this story and the apparent “losing sight” within it is all a movement of wholeness like a wave on the ocean.
As apparent human beings, we are all conditioned organisms. EVERYTHING we think or imagine or feel or do is a happening of the whole universe. Some of it seems very deliberate and intentional and willful and premeditated, and some of it seems like the knee-jerk reactions of an unconscious auto-pilot, but ALL of it is an impersonal movement of the whole, a waving of the vast ocean of existence.
Nothing is really the problem that we think it is. Our apparent bondage and imperfection don’t actually exist in the ways we think they do. The effort to be permanently free of delusion, or permanently free of hurt or pain or so-called “mistakes” is hopeless, and yet even this efforting is nothing other than the impersonal and perfectly natural waving of the ocean.
And let’s be clear that “impersonal” doesn’t mean detached and dissociated. It doesn’t mean denying the relative reality of what we call a person—it simply means recognizing that the person is like a wave on the ocean—a fluid, ever-changing, inseparable movement of the whole. In another sense, we could say that EVERYTHING is personal! It’s all right here, utterly immediate, what I am. There is no other.
Instead of getting lost in metaphysical speculations and beliefs, can we feel into the insubstantial, ungraspable, undefinable and yet undeniable nature of this present moment? Can we feel into the energy, the tingling vibrations, the impermanence that is so thorough-going that no solid or persisting “thing” ever forms to BE impermanent? Can we sense the vastness, the depth, the subtlety, the openness of the awaring presence that we are? Can we discover the boundlessness, the seamlessness, the undivided wholeness of what is, not as an idea or a belief, but as a felt-reality, directly seen to be so? Can we question our stories, our beliefs, our conclusions, our narratives, our explanations, our judgments, our certainties?
We don’t need to get rid of anything—and we really can’t—but can it all be seen for the gossamer and unreliable creation it is? And even when it SEEMS solid and persisting and substantial, can we know that this appearance of solidity is simply another momentary shape in the shifting kaleidoscope of experience, gone in an instant?
Can we enjoy the free-fall of not landing anywhere, the freedom of nothing to grasp, the relief of groundlessness, the openness and unresolvability of this living reality, just exactly as it is? No finish-line, no final understanding, no ultimate formulation, no neat and tidy package in which we sum up the nature of reality at last. What a relief!
Response to a comment:
This relief includes the willingness to feel the disturbance of these unsettling times and the sorrow and heartbreak that may arise when we witness the suffering that is going on, without needing to paper it over with any comforting assertion that "everything is perfect as it is" or "it's all just a dream anyway." I'm certainly not in a state of perpetual bliss. But I find there is more and more willingness just to be with how it is, as it is.
You ask, is this shift in attention, this openness, this aware presence, this clarity, this relaxing into groundlessness "something we can choose or cultivate? Or is it something that just happens for some?" Some of both, I'd say. On the one hand, we don't choose what interests or attracts us in life, and certainly many people have no interest in any of this. And there's no separate, independent "self" at the controls making our choices. Every thought, urge, interest, and movement of attention arises out of the whole, and that can be discovered by watching closely as it all unfolds. In that sense, there is no choice. And yet, as There is an undeniable ability right here (when there is) to seemingly make choices and do things, and the more that capacity to look and listen and simply be here is tapped, the stronger it seems to get, or the more available that possibility seems to be. That's my experience anyway. How it all happens, who can say? But if the interest in this arises, if it resonates, then I'd say the possibility is here to explore it--not to control and direct it at will, but to explore this living reality, to see and listen and feel and sense and let this actuality inform us as it will.
Response to another comment:
I put these as questions in the hope that it might invite an open exploration NOW, or that these might be questions to live with and explore...but I didn't ask these questions so that the thinking mind could scan through past experience and arrive at a conclusion. So maybe rather than referencing the past and closing off possibility with the belief that this cannot happen, maybe to just be open to the possibility.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about ALWAYS being able to do any of this, or being able to do it ALL THE TIME, or being able to do it PERFECTLY, nor am I holding this out as something everyone “should” do. But are you really denying that there is an ability in you to move your attention, and (for example) to deliberately put your attention—if only for a moment—on the sensations in your body such as the felt-sense of breathing, or to listen to the traffic sounds for a moment? Really, you don't find this ability in you at all?
Of course, if we are talking about who is doing this and the whole question of choice and free will, that’s a whole other question, and I find so many in the non-dual world who are hanging themselves on this conceptual noose. To be sure, as I write about in many other posts and in my books, there is no “you” authoring your thoughts, creating your urges, making your choices, deciding to pay attention to your breathing, shifting the focus of your attention, or anything else. And yet, there is an undeniable ability (when there is) to open and close your hand, or to shift your attention from a train of thought to the sensations of breathing or the sound of traffic.
Now maybe for some people there is a neurological or brain condition that literally makes this impossible, I don’t know. But I would encourage you not to close the door on the possibility, IF this interests you as something to explore. Maybe it doesn’t, and that’s okay too. I find it enormously pleasurable and interesting to listen and see and feel…and often incredibly painful to think and conceptualize and try to figure everything out. And while there is no “me” here who can simply “decide” never to think again, I do find that there is a possibility in many moments to shift attention. And the more this is cultivated or enjoyed or explored, the more available this possibility seems to become. And I find it reveals a great deal about the nature of reality and puts an end (in the moment) to a great deal of suffering and confusion. So maybe just stay open to the possibility?
Response to another comment:
You say that you CAN tune into sensations, but then you say, "So what? Nothing unusual or unexpected." This is the thinking mind coming back in and closing the door on this exploration. And if you're tuning into sensations with the expectation that it will do something special for you or have a desirable result, that's already a different approach than what I'm pointing to, which is totally open and not result-oriented.
That said, it's fine if you don't resonate with my writing or if my pointers don't seem to do anything for you...totally fine. No one appeals to everyone. But since you keep reading my posts and commenting, maybe something in it is interesting to you in some way. Maybe not. Just a guess.
The insight that impermanence is so thorough-going that no solid or persisting “thing” ever forms to BE impermanent is something to discover for oneself, if the interest is there. It's actually one of the insights that sensation reveals and thought conceals. I first heard it from Zen teacher Steve Hagen, who was citing Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist teacher. It immediately clicked for me and opened up something very freeing. But for someone else, it might just sound puzzling, which is okay, too. When I first got into Zen, practically everything I would read sounded puzzling and unfathomable, but at the same time somehow rang true and seemed to beckon me to keep listening. For others, it just turned them off and they never looked back. Different strokes for different folks. All okay!
Response to another comment:
It's really hard to sort out some of these very subtle misunderstandings or questions through Facebook comments because it's so easy to misunderstand what someone is trying to say. My sense is that you are to some degree stuck in a conceptual confusion over the concept of no-self that you've heard about, and you still imagine there is an "I" that somehow needs to fall away. On the other hand, you describe a "relaxation into unknowing" and a feeling of not needing to "do" anything, all of which suggests moments (however long or short in duration, and always Now) of being free from this conceptual confusion. Although the confusion comes back and seemingly leads to that final "help?" at the end. But honestly, I'm not sure if I'm understanding you correctly because it's hard to sort such subtle things out on Facebook.
You say, "I don’t think the ‘I’ can ever view the Now because it also thinks there can not be a Now, how is that ever a possibility?" This is sheer mental confusion.
To start with, what do you mean by "I"? Do you mean the functional "I" who answers to your name and has a functional sense of location as a particular body in space and time? Or do you mean the false sense of being the thinker, controller, chooser, doer...the self-image, the story, the mirage of "me" created by thought and imagination, what some call the psychological self? Or do you mean what some would call the True I, the "I" we all share, which is simply this impersonal, boundless, awaring presence that can also be called Here-Now, this infinite and eternal, timeless and dimensionless present-ness? Depending on what you mean by "I," the answer to your question will be different.
The false self cannot do or discover anything. It is only a mirage. The functional self isn't concerned with any of this. The "True I" (Consciousness or Awareness) IS already NOW. They are not two. That "I" doesn't need to do anything or find anything or get rid of anything. It is always already whole and complete.
The false self is not an actual entity that needs to fall away. It is simply a thought accompanied by a kind of tension in the body. In any moment that it is SEEN (with awareness) for what it is, it dissolves because it has no actual substance. But that doesn't mean the functional self will vanish--you'll still know your name and be able to differentiate between your body and the bus you are trying to board, allowing you to function in relative reality. People get very confused about all this "no-self" stuff.
I hope this helps.
Response to another comment:
Many experiences are possible, including what you describe. I haven't personally had the kind of dramatic experience you describe, except maybe on psychedelic drugs decades ago. I don’t see spirituality as being about chasing big experiences, and I don’t give them any special value if they happen. For me, a silent mind is not some extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime state of consciousness. It is simply being fully present Here-Now, not caught in the obsessive tangles of thought and emotional reactivity (about me, my situation, the future, the past, the world situation, and so on). Simply being awake to the open, spacious, awaring presence that is actually always here, but usually overlooked because the focus of attention is on thoughts and concepts and mental abstractions. There is a stillness, a silence, a vastness right here that is beautiful to discover.
Where we can then get into a new muddle is by trying to experience (or “be in”) this thought-free stillness "all the time," thinking that this is good and thoughts and emotions are bad, and “I” am someone trying to stabilize in presence and trying to get rid of these pesky distractions and obstructions. All of that is just another mental movie story, centered around the imaginary me, resisting what’s here now and trying to get someplace else in the future. It’s the same old pattern that IS our suffering. So, it’s important to discover that this awaring presence never actually goes away. What comes and goes are the thoughts and emotional reactions that SEEM to obscure it. But when that is pointed out, if it is not actually realized directly, the thinking mind may latch onto this as another idea, another belief, and then anything that encourages open, still presence is thought to be wrong. We see this in many “radical nondualists” who claim that any kind of exploration or practice is not only unnecessary, but actually a hindrance that will only reinforce the false self.
So, rather than trying to understand all this, I always recommend just exploring what’s here right now. In other words, simply be here, listening to the traffic or the birds or the wind, feeling the breathing, seeing thoughts come and go—occasionally getting caught up in a train of thought and then waking up again, feeling the subtlest sensations in the body, feeling the aliveness, the vibrancy, the energy of presence—not trying to make anything special happen, not trying to get into any particular state, not resisting anything, not seeking anything, not evaluating how it is—simply being awake here-now. Just this.
Response to another comment:
Thanks for sharing all this, and definitely there are many ways to get to the place we have never left: Here-Now (and many ways to induce kundalini and other energetic experiences as well).
As for Bernadette Roberts "passing through phases of expanded awareness" until she "eventually arrived to the experience of no-self," as I see it, the experience of no-self is a very ordinary experience that simply goes unnoticed. And yes, there is an insight that happens (and it happens in various ways, more thru a seeing for some, more energetically for others) that there is no one "in here" authoring our thoughts or making our choices, and that the "self" at the center of the story of our life is nothing more than intermittent thoughts usually accompanied by bodily tension and a mental image. Rarely, if ever, does this "awakening" mean that no me-thought (or the accompanying bodily and energetic contraction) ever arises again. The boundless awareness beholding it all is discovered to be ever-present, which is an important discovery, and within it (as you describe) the mirage of being a separate self comes and goes like clouds in the blue sky.
But in the spiritual world, "no self" has been made into a very mystified, misunderstood Big Deal that it isn't. Yes, some people do have big sudden dramatic events, but much more commonly, it is a very gradual undramatic unfolding. That's been my own experience. And sadly, many people like myself who don't have kundalini shooting up our spine spend years chasing those dramatic breakthroughs that some people report. I did that for many years. And yes, I'm sure many of these stories are true (Bernadette and Eckhart Tolle for example, or your description of your experience). But what awakening wakes up to has never been absent. That's how I see it.
We can never see through anyone else’s eyes. Each of us is a universe, and no two of us are seeing the same world. Our world dies with us. Does that sound scary?
Maybe if we think about it, it does. Much in the same way that our ancestors imagined the danger of sailing off the edge of an earth they believed to be flat, we imagine ourselves after death buried alive in a dark empty void, unable to get the TV back on so that we can watch the next episode of The Story of My Life and The World Drama. What could be more dreadful than this? No more Netflix! No more me! No more “My World”! NOTHING! But as with the edge of the earth, such fears are based on a misunderstanding about the nature of reality.
Our “world” has actually been dying and being born moment by moment. Nothing stays the same. The impermanence is so thorough-going that no solid or persisting “thing” ever forms to even BE impermanent. We can discover that by giving careful, open attention to our actual (sensory, energetic, non-conceptual, present moment) experiencing.
And when we go into deep sleep or under anesthesia, and (I assume) at the moment of death, consciousness empties out. We disappear. The world slips away. Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. There is no more world, no self or other than self, no time and space, no drama or storyline, no meaning or meaninglessness, no purpose or purposelessness. Even the awareness of being here is gone. And the one who cares about all this is gone completely. No one is leftover to worry about not waking up again, or to feel lost in some dreadful empty void, or to wonder what remains.
Does anything remain? We can’t say yes, and we can’t say no. Like the eye that cannot see itself, the all-inclusive no-thing-ness of totality cannot be seen. Infinity is not an object in any way whatsoever, although religious and metaphysical thought keeps making it into one, because the mind wants something it can grasp. And that desire for SOMETHING to hold onto, something eternal that is more than this ever-changing moment, is the pitfall of all these words such as “God” or “Consciousness” or “Here-Now,” or “primordial awareness,” or “the Tao,” or “the Self,” or even “no-thing-ness,” or “emptiness,” or “infinity,” or “it,” or even “it-less-ness.”
I’m not suggesting we must abandon all such words—they have their use in pointing to the wholeness that Here-Now is—but can we let them serve us (if they do) and then let them go? Words are sounds, vibrations, black squiggles on a page, symbols, animal grunts, pointers, evocations. But it’s more or less impossible to point to infinity because where will you point? There is nothing and nowhere this infinite reality is not, and it is no way in particular. It is ever-changing, unresolvable, ungraspable, indeterminate, indescribable—and yet utterly obvious and unavoidable.
This infinite reality is not somewhere else waiting to be realized in the future. It is here-now. It is just this—the aroma of coffee, the afternoon breeze, the feeling of uncertainty, the tingling in the toes, the steady waves of inhaling and exhaling, the sound of a vacuum cleaner, the woof-woof of the barking dog, the searing pain of a toothache, the taste of oatmeal, the frogs happily singing their bhajans in the garden.
Does this undeniable present happening need meaning? Purpose? A metaphysical explanation of what it is? Or can it just BE as it is? Does anything need to be added or taken away? Yes, the toothache may move us to take an aspirin and call the dentist, nothing wrong with that, it’s all included, but right now, the searing pain is just what it is. Without the label or the story, is it the same from one second to the next? Is it a problem? Is there a “me” separate from these sensations? Do we need to add some comforting thought that “It’s all Consciousness” or that “Everything is perfect”? Or can it just BE exactly as it is, without any overlay at all?
We don’t know what happens after death any more than we know what will happen in the next second. But we don’t actually need to know. All we need to do is to be awake here and now, in this moment. And we don’t actually need to “do” that, because that is already effortlessly happening by itself. Can it be noticed that this is so? Each one of our unique universes is exactly the way it is, choicelessly, and it is never the same way twice.
No two of us are seeing the same world. We are each a universe. And yet, like fractals or holograms or the jewels in Indra’s Net, each universe is a reflection of all the others, every part containing the whole, an infinity of ever-expanding, interdependent ripples. These are just suggestive words and images, but we can sense this infinite wholeness as a felt-reality by giving open attention to the bare actuality of present experiencing—not the storylines or the labels, but the pure sensations (visual, auditory, tactile, somatic, etc.), the energetic, non-conceptual actuality of what is and the awaring presence being and beholding it all. The only real infinity is Here (this dimensionless presence or immediacy in which all locations and distances appear). The only real eternity is Now (this timeless present-ness in which every hour, season and age appears). Here-Now is another word for awareness or consciousness or the unconditional love that is always allowing everything to be as it is. This (infinite, eternal, ever-present, ever-changing) living reality has no beginning and no ending, no inside and no outside. This is it.
Very often, people read or hear something—and this pointer triggers a profound insight or shift for them. Something opens and clarifies. They see the truth of what is being pointed out. But then, very often, they fixate on the pointer and make it into a dogma. I see people do this all the time with a number of popular pointers: the idea that there is no choice, the idea that there is no self, the idea that there is nothing to do and no one to do it and therefore any practice or exploration (such as meditation or inquiry) automatically reinforces the false self, the idea that there is no such thing as awareness, the idea that awareness is the ultimate reality, the idea that there is no way to describe the living reality and therefore anything anyone says (other than that) is false and should be dismissed, and probably a few others I’m not remembering at the moment. Each of these ideas points to a truth (or an aspect) about the nature of reality that can be directly realized. The mistake comes when people fixate on the pointer and land on one side of a false, dualistic, conceptual divide (choice or no choice, self or no self, practice or no practice, effort or effortlessness, something to do or nothing to do, something that survives death or nothing that survives death, the world is real or the world is unreal, and so on).
Pointers are useful, but they become a hindrance when we fixate on them and turn them into fundamentalist dogmas. It’s easy to see this tendency when it shows up “out there” in fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Islam, but it’s harder to see it in ourselves. We think we’re beyond all that. But I see this dogmatic fixation and fundamentalism happening all the time in the nondual subculture. We fixate, for example, on the notion that there is no choice, that everything is a choiceless happening, that there is no individual chooser. This is a very liberating discovery, a profound insight. But it’s only a partial truth—reality itself can’t be boxed up that way. And if we fixate on that as the whole truth, then if anyone dares to speak of “choosing” in any way whatsoever, we instantly pounce. Wrong! We tell them. We don’t listen anymore to what the person is actually saying. Our mind has already been made up. We’ve landed. We’re stuck on one side of an imaginary divide, identified with a particular formulation, ready to defend it to the death. I’ve certainly seen this tendency in myself at times—it’s quite human. It’s how the mind habitually works.
Some people look at the list of recommended books that I include on my website and wonder how on earth I can reconcile such seemingly opposite viewpoints. As I say at the top of that page, “This list includes books from a variety of different perspectives, and in many cases, they may seem to contradict each other. Some of them say that life (including you and your whole spiritual journey) is nothing but a dream-like illusion, while others say this present happening is all there is. Some insist that there is nothing to do other than exactly what is happening, while others offer some kind of apparent process, practice or method for waking up. Some seem to suggest that "you" have the power of choice, while others say that everything is the result of infinite causes and conditions and that there is no one apart from this whole happening to direct or control it. Some say liberation is found in the realization of complete impermanence while others insist it comes with the recognition of that which never changes. Who has it right? What should you believe? No words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don't believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. The book that wakes you up one day may lull you to sleep the next. Always be ready to see something new and unexpected.”
I want to encourage all of us to stay open to new possibilities, to seeing things in a new way, to questioning our assumptions and conclusions. It’s easy, especially if you’ve written Facebook posts or books or been teaching something one way for twenty or thirty years, to feel uneasy about seeing things differently or changing your mind! How will that look? What will people think of you? But who cares? In fact, this living reality is no way in particular. It is ever-changing, evolving, dancing, vibrating, unfolding—while at the same time never leaving Here-Now. It never resolves into some final package, some ultimate formulation. There is no finish-line on this pathless path from Here to Here, no definitive model or map that captures reality. What all true pointers are pointing to is the living reality, and the living reality is ALIVE—fluid, spacious, open, ungraspable. It’s not frozen or solid or one way only. It can’t be pinned down. To take but one example, unlike the picture of it in an anatomy book, the living breathing human body is porous, ever-changing, moving, pulsating, oozing, circulating, being born and dying moment to moment at every level, and utterly inseparable from its so-called environment. It is more like a verb than a noun. No map is the same as the territory it describes. Whatever we say (choice or no choice), it can never capture the ungraspable, unresolvable, indeterminate, living totality that it attempts to describe.
Sometimes everything opens up when we hear a teacher say that there is nothing to do. And at another time (or for someone else), everything opens up when we meditate or engage in meditative inquiry of various kinds. Sometimes formal meditation is helpful. Sometimes it becomes a hindrance. Sometimes we need to hear there is no choice, and sometimes we need to hear that there is a choice. Nothing is just one way. A good teacher pulls the rug out from under wherever we try to land. If we assert there is no choice, they push us to see how there is. If we insist there is a choice, they point out that there isn’t. We can’t pin them down. They don’t fixate. They don’t offer rugs to stand on—they pull all the rugs out from under us.
There’s a great Zen story in which the teacher and student have been talking late into the night, and finally the teacher tells the student it’s time for the student to leave and go back to his sleeping quarters. The student opens the door and says, “It’s very dark outside.” The teacher offers the student a lighted candle to find his way home. Just as the student receives the light, the teacher blows it out.
A few years ago, I read a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, a skeptical network TV reporter who took up Vipassana meditation after he had a panic attack on live television one day while delivering the News. I was especially fond of the title. In the world of “awakening,” teachers (and others) often present themselves as permanently awakened beings who have totally transcended the mundane world of pesky human emotions and self-referential thoughts. People claim to be 100% happy, permanently and totally free of delusion, perpetually clear and blissful, beyond error. So, I loved it that someone dared to describe himself as 10% happier instead of 100% blissful.
So-called awakening does not cure us of all our human imperfections and neurotic tendencies, nor does it remove all our problems. It simply allows us to accept ourselves, more and more, just as we are—and to accept this moment and the world and our neighbors more and more just as they are—and when we don’t feel accepting, when we feel judgmental or irritated or upset, accepting that as how it is in this moment—not imagining that this bodymind could or should be manifesting in any other way in this moment.
Of course, it’s natural to want to heal and improve in certain ways, but when we take things personally (imagining we are in control), and when we get fixated on achieving future results and focused on impossible ideals of perfection, we suffer. All genuine transformation and healing begins with accepting what is.
The acceptance I’m pointing to is immediate, right now—it doesn’t in any way preclude intelligent action coming out of that acceptance. In other words, we don’t leave the tire on our car flat forever because we’re “allowing everything to be as it is.” But there is acceptance that in this moment, the tire is flat. That’s how it is. No added storyline, judgment or whirlwind of emotion-thought is needed—no blame or guilt over whose fault this is. We simply get to work changing the tire or calling for help.
And, of course, if storyline or judgment should arise, then this acceptance accepts all of that as well, without taking ANY of it personally, giving it meaning, or adding a secondary storyline about the storyline, or a judgment of the judgment. EVERYTHING (without exception!) is allowed to be as it is. And it’s not that the imaginary “me” (the phantom controller, author, thinker, chooser) willfully “does” this acceptance. The reality is that awareness (or life itself) is ALWAYS ALREADY allowing everything to be as it is. Have you noticed? Everything IS as it is.
None of it is really personal. And that’s a crucial realization that liberates us from the perpetual quest for self-improvement and the endless stories of deficiency and lack. All our neurotic quirks and all the global suffering that humans perpetuate are the result of infinite causes and conditions—in short, each moment is the way it is because the whole universe is the way it is. And ultimately, it is no one way at all. When we try to pin down how reality is, it slips through our fingers like smoke. We are not actually a separate, persisting entity encapsulated inside a separate body looking out an outside world that exists “out there” somewhere, independently of consciousness. Everything is one whole undivided happening. No wave can “decide” to go off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving. And ALL our stories about what’s happening are ultimately make-believe.
There is no finish-line, no ultimate understanding. NOW is the ever-present, only reality. HERE is the place where we always are. Awakeness is the very nature of Here-Now. Awakening is nothing more (or less) than seeing through the habitual thought that “this isn’t it”…seeing the unreality of the “me” who seems to be either awake or not awake, the “me” who seems to be authoring my thoughts and making my decisions…seeing through the illusion that there is a single, substantial, objective reality that exists independently of consciousness…recognizing the undivided seamlessness that is showing up as infinite diversity, the eternal and infinite Here-Now that is showing up as time and space…relaxing into not-knowing, free-falling into groundlessness, letting go. So-called “awakening” is a recognition of what has never been absent. It’s a shift from being completely bamboozled by our mental maps and conceptual beliefs to simply being this moment, just as it is. On the personal level, as a human being, we may only be 10% happier, but we’re no longer measuring or taking it personally. We’re not even caught by labels or generalizations such as “happiness” or “unhappiness.” We recognize that life itself isn’t really boxed up that way.
I don’t see spirituality as being about having or chasing big experiences, and I don’t give them any special value if they happen. Awakening is nothing more than seeing the false as false, here and now (not yesterday or tomorrow or forever-after). What remains when the false is seen through is indescribable, inconceivable, and yet utterly obvious and unavoidable. And no own owns it or “has” it. Nothing stands apart from it. It has no inside, no outside, no before or after. Nothing is left out.
Rather than trying to understand all this or figure it out, I recommend exploring directly what’s here right now. In other words, simply be here, listening to the traffic or the birds or the wind, feeling the breathing, feeling the subtlest sensations in the body, feeling the aliveness, the vibrancy, the energy of presence—not trying to make anything special happen, not trying to get into any particular state, not resisting anything, not seeking anything, not evaluating how it is—simply being awake here-now.
And if thought pops up and says, “So what? What’s the big deal? What does this do for me? What’s next? What about final enlightenment?” – is it possible to see that these are just conditioned, habitual thoughts?
See how thoughts like these come and go—notice how thought creates a virtual reality in the imagination, how thoughts seem to “materialize” the mirage-like “me” and “my story” out of thin air…notice how seductive thoughts can be…notice how consciousness gets caught up in a train of thinking and then wakes up again, naturally. Give open attention to how choices and decisions actually unfold—is there actually a chooser in control of this process, a thinker authoring the thoughts, or is at all happening by itself? Watch and see. Track down this “me” who seems to be inside this body running the show, see if it can actually be found. See if you can find an actual boundary, in your direct experience, between what you think of as “inside you” and what you think of as “outside you.” Feel the open spaciousness of this awaring presence that is beholding it all. Feel into the realm of bare sensation and energy, feel how everything is moving, vibrating, tingling, changing instant by instant. See if you can find an actual boundary, in your direct experience, between awareness and everything that shows up. Without the words, is there any separation? Feel the breeze on the skin. Simply BE, just as you are.
What I’m pointing to is not about “me” doing some special activity all the time, or doing it perfectly, or doing it with some result in mind. It’s simply about the possibility of opening to this direct exploration and discovery, if it interests us, whenever it invites us—not forcing it or using it as a means to an end—and noticing that this is ALL happening by itself, including our interest in this, our lack of interest, our explorations, our discoveries. It’s ALL a dance without a dancer, this whole undivided happening—and no name can ever do it justice or pin it down. For a moment, let all the word-labels go and see what remains.
Response to a comment:
Thank you for your question. You write: “It doesn't seem reasonable to me that all of the unity of existence considers my plight with the flat tire and causes me to make the decision to call for help or to change it.”
I’m not saying all of existence “considers” your flat tire, collectively reaches a decision, and then reaches over and pushes you into the appropriate action. What I’m saying is that every urge, every desire, every impulse, every thought, every action is the result of an infinite web of interdependent causes and conditions. This exchange between us wouldn’t happen without Facebook and computers and the internet, for example, and without all the ten million things that led to the creation of those things—everything from Mark Zuckerberg’s parents to the ecosystem that supported the food that kept them alive and the sun and oxygen on which we all depend.
But I’m certainly not denying that we have a sense of making choices—one neuroscientist calls it a “neurological sensation.” And, of course, in the play of life, we must apparently make countless decisions every day about what to wear, what to eat, whether to cross the street against the light, whether to buy the house or not buy it, whether to marry someone or not marry them, whether to have the surgery the doctors are recommending, whether to eat oatmeal or granola, and so on and on.
But if we watch closely as these decisions happen, we find that thoughts pop up by themselves offering the pros and cons of oatmeal and the pros and cons of granola, and then suddenly one option is selected, we’ve “decided” on granola, and yet we can’t say exactly how that choice happened, nor can we make it happen any sooner than it does. In short, the decisions happen by themselves and then thought (posing as “me”) takes credit after the fact: “I decided to have granola.” Or the thought arises later, “I should have had oatmeal." As if that was possible in that moment, as if time and space and this bodymind could all be pulled apart. And then maybe we think, "Tomorrow I’ll have oatmeal for sure.” But whether we actually follow through and have oatmeal tomorrow may or may not happen. Many New Year's resolutions have been broken.
I base all this on many years of watching very closely as decisions and choices unfolded and discovering that I could not find a decider or say how the decisive moment arose when it did. It’s also based on things I’ve read by a number of neuroscientists.
I’ve written about this subject extensively, especially in my last book, Nothing to Grasp, and in several articles on the “Outpourings” page of my website and in many previous Facebook posts.
As for unity, or I might call it unicity, it does not deny apparent multiplicity or diversity, but simply means that nothing exists independently of the whole. To imagine otherwise, to think that the universe (or whatever this is), is a bunch of disconnected fragments floating around (in what?) simply makes no sense to me. But that said, I'm always open for being surprised. I think metaphysical conclusions and certainties about how the universe works or what consciousness is and so on are always on shaky ground (i.e. belief) and should always be held tentatively with a willingness to look freshly. And of course, whatever we say about reality is never quite right.
Response to another comment:
I thought it was such a wonderful, refreshingly daring title in a publishing world awash in gigantic self-help promises. If you bother to read the book, Dan actually benefits greatly from meditation, but he's making a point in the title that I think is a good one, similar to the point I'm making in this post, which is why I referenced it. He's not saying meditation isn't transformative or worthwhile. Quite the opposite actually. I don't approach meditation from the perspective of benefits (self-help, self-improvement, etc). It's fine with me that some people do...I'm a great fan of Jon Kabat-Zinn's work (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), for example...and probably most of us take up a spiritual path initially because we want to be free of suffering. But the great relief, in my experience, comes from finally being at peace with myself and life as it is...no longer trying to banish all my neurosis, fix all my imperfections, and achieve some sort of perpetual happiness.
Response to another comment:
Thank you so much for your comment. I can relate to what you describe—I’ve had a fingerbiting compulsion since childhood that still flares up, and I’ve dealt with both addiction and depression at various times in my life. And it appears to me that low self-esteem is rampant in our culture. What I notice with all the things I just mentioned is that ALL of this is happening by itself (when it is), as are all the various cures that I’ve been moved to try over the years (therapy, somatic work, meditation, Zoloft, and so on). ALL of it is always allowed (by life itself) to be exactly as it is.
What has shifted over the years is that I no longer feel ashamed of these things, and I’m no longer trying to fix them or taking them personally as signs of spiritual failure. I also see how they have informed my life and been a gift in so many ways—for example, without my fingerbiting compulsion, I might have believed that anyone who wanted and decided to stop an addiction could do so, just as I had apparently “chosen” to stop drinking and smoking—but this fingerbiting compulsion was something I obviously couldn’t control. I learned something about the nature of reality. I also learned from this that unpleasant experiences, such as the tightness and compulsive feelings of fingerbiting, are simply experiences, and that life is made up of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. The suffering was in thinking that “I” was doing this, that I “should” be able to control it, that “I” was a failure because I couldn’t. I’m grateful for all the things like this in my life that might look on the surface like misfortune (being born with one hand, getting cancer, having a compulsion, and so on).
I’ve also found that having a diagnosis or a name for what seemingly ails us can be both helpful and not helpful. It is helpful in that it tells us this situation is something many other people experience, we’re not alone, and it shines a light on this particular pattern so that we can perhaps see it more clearly. It may also reveal causes (genetics, neurochemistry, trauma, etc.) that can replace the false idea that we are simply a loser, or we aren’t trying hard enough, or whatever the belief is. It may also help to suggest what treatments might be more or less effective. So, labels can be helpful.
But they can also be a hindrance if we make them into an identity (“I am ADHD,” for example, or “I am an alcoholic”), or if we take them too seriously as absolute truths of some kind. The label can often help to create the reality it is describing. For example, if I call certain bodily sensations and thought-patterns “depression,” that may instantly make it seem more depressing than it is! Or calling something a “disorder” suggests that it is unnatural, whereas it may not be at all. I remember hearing a talk by a wonderful educator in which he told the story of a child who was “hyperactive” and unable to concentrate on school. This child grew up to be a famous dancer. The educator was suggesting in his talk that from early on, this child’s body wanted to move and her mind simply didn’t want to focus on school work. And instead of pathologizing this, they went with it, and she turned out to be a successful dancer. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but it’s a revealing story. Labels often turn situations or patterns into “problems” or “disorders.” So, it’s fine to use the labels, but to be aware of these pitfalls as we do. And to perhaps wonder—in the moment it is arising—what is this if I don’t label it or see it as a problem? And not supplying a verbal answer, but simply openly exploring the actual texture of it, in the moment, with curiosity and interest, and without judgement.
Response to another comment:
I'm suggesting that what you're calling a choice is actually a choiceness movement of life. I'm not offering that as an idea to believe in or to think about, but as something to discover through paying attention to actual direct experiencing, a discovery that many of us have found immensely liberating. As I said in the post, nothing wrong with identifying problems and doing our best to resolve them--that, again, being a choiceness movement of life that may or may not happen--but "trying to be a better person" is predicated on the belief that you are in some way presently deficient and in need of improvement. That might be something to question, if the interest arises. But if what you describe makes sense to you, and you're happy, and it's working for you, and you're able to do it, by all means continue. I'm not out to win converts. I'm only talking to those in whom this interest arises...and often, it arises in those whose life experience shows them they're not in control.
Response to another comment:
Sometimes looking for an explanation is helpful in order to learn from a mistake or avoid repeating the same event. That can be quite practical and intelligent and functional. But there's a difference between that and looking for who to blame, being consumed in guilt, thinking that life "should not" be the way it is, and so on. Acceptance as I mean it is not passive, but the action (or non-action) that arises from it is wholesome (rooted in wholeness or clarity) rather than divisive (rooted in separation and delusion). But ultimately, ALL of it is what is, and as you say, the little "me" doesn't control any of it.
Comment on a post by someone else that I was tagged on:
When I speak of the Now, or Here-Now, I am referring to what is ever-present...the common factor in every different experience (whether that experience is a thought, a sensation, a contraction, an openness, a "positive" feeling, a "negative" feeling, whatever it is). In other words, the Now is not the fleeting present moment, but rather the timeless eternity in which all times of day or night and all seasons and ages appear. We never leave the Now. There is nothing before Now or after Now. Likewise, when I speak of Here, I refer to this ever-present, dimensionless, boundless, immediacy or presence in which every different location shows up. We are always Here-Now. We ARE Here-Now. Apparent time and space unfold Here-Now.
“Be here now" pointers are suggesting the possibility of bringing our attention out of the realm of thinking and into the realm of presence-awareness, noticing the actual ever-changing texture of this moment and the quality of this spacious, open, awaring presence, seeing the passing thoughts as thoughts, rather than being lost in (or hypnotized by) the content of thought-stories, and especially the thought-sense of being an encapsulated little "me" who is supposedly in control of my thoughts, choices and actions, and who "should" (or "could") be doing a better job of it.
In Buddhism, it is said that impermanence is so thorough-going, that no-thing ever actually forms to even BE impermanent. That, to me, is the real and most radical understanding of impermanence. Our common view is that there are all these persisting "things" (tables, chairs, houses, myself, my friends, etc), and that all these "things" are impermanent. But the more closely we look at any of these apparent things, the more it is realized that they are nothing but ceaseless flux, inseparable from everything they supposedly are not. In that sense, birth and death are imaginary, conceptual dividing lines on what is actually a seamless reality, much like the dividing line on a map between New York and New Jersey. Of course, when someone we love dies, they are very definitely gone in one sense...and yet, they were never really here as any single, persisting "thing" (except in our thinking), and strangely, they are still here (not as ghosts or spirits or anything woo-woo, but simply as this ever-changing presence itself). And when we die, something ends (our movie of waking life), but that movie ends every night in deep sleep and there is nothing frightening or sad about this, and this bodymind is actually dying moment by moment, and this movie is ever-changing anyway. So I wouldn't say death is "The End" and there is "nothing" after death. But that doesn't mean I believe in heaven or reincarnation.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018--
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