Postings from My Facebook Page #18
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the eighteenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (4/29/18 - 6/30/18). 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:
NO-SELF: What Does It Mean?
First, let’s look at what is doesn’t mean. There’s a functional sense of self that we need to survive, a sense of location and identity with the body that allows us to answer to our name, chop up a carrot without cutting off our fingers, distinguish between ourselves and the on-coming bus, and so on. And there’s also a personality—certain tendencies, qualities, interests, inclinations and so on that distinguish us as individuals—our unique flavor as it were. And there’s undeniably a body, a form that is continuously changing and yet it has a certain pattern that allows us to recognize someone at a distance on the street whom we haven’t seen in decades. To deny any of this is simply silly. And none of this is the problematic and illusory aspect of “the self” that spiritual teachings often point beyond.
What is problematic and illusory is the thought-sense of being a separate, independent entity, cut off from the whole—the thinker who is supposedly authoring my thoughts, the chooser who is supposedly making my choices, the “me” who is forever seeking control and certainty, trying to “do it right,” always in danger of being extinguished. That is the false self. It is as if a wave forgot that it was a moving, changing, dynamic expression of the ocean, inseparable from all the other waves, all moving together as one whole happening. It is as if this wave saw itself as a static and solid form, cut off from the ocean, responsible for moving itself and choosing its direction, imagining itself capable of going off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving, fearing that when it subsides, everything will die. That is the illusion.
The absence of that illusion (or what is sometimes, misleadingly, referred to as “the experience of no-self”) is actually a very ordinary everyday experience that simply goes unnoticed by most people, most of the time. I’m sure there are many moments in any ordinary day for almost everyone (if not everyone) when there is no me-thought or me-story running, when the body is relaxed, when there is simply the boundless happening of the moment: driving the car, washing the dishes, breathing, seeing, hearing, tasting, sensing, functional thinking—simply this. And then suddenly a thought like this pops up: “I shouldn’t have said what I did. I’m such a loser. I always screw it up.” (Or it could be something more positive: “I’ve got it! This is the awakened state everyone is talking about. I’m enlightened now!”) Each of those thoughts instantly creates, in the imagination, the mirage-like “me” who is the apparent subject of these sentences. And the body hums along, producing various feelings or tensions, all of which seem to confirm the reality of this phantom subject and the imaginary problem (or the imaginary accomplishment) it seems to have. And while it may be functional to notice a so-called “mistake” and learn from it, the assumption that anything could (or should)—in that moment—have been otherwise, or that “I” did it (or “you” did it), and the subsequent guilt or blame (or pride or envy in the case of something “positive”), or even the certainty that it was ultimately a bad (or a good) thing, is all rooted in a mistaken idea about what’s going on here.
Because in reality, ALL of this is happening by itself. And the “me” (or “you”) who seems to be willfully doing this is nothing more than passing thoughts (blips of energy), bodily sensations and mental images. There’s nothing solid or persisting here at all. The thought-story-sense of being a separate encapsulated “me” comes and goes. And when it comes, it’s never an actual substantial entity. It’s a mirage.
As we look into this directly by examining our own present moment experience with open attention, we discover that there is no one "in here" authoring our thoughts or making our choices, that the "self" at the center of the story of our life is nothing more than a kind of mirage-like appearance made up of intermittent thoughts accompanied by bodily sensations and mental images, and that all of this is simply a momentary aspect of a much larger happening, all of it showing up in this boundless space Here-Now.
Rarely, if ever, does this discovery mean that no me-thoughts (or the accompanying bodily and energetic contractions) will ever arise, or ever seem believable, ever again. But more and more, it is ALL seen to be an impersonal happening of the whole universe. That infinite, seamless, unbroken wholeness or totality is ever-present. The mirage of being a separate self is an aspect of that totality that comes and goes, and when it comes, it’s an impersonal movement of energy. That movement of energy doesn’t mean anything “about me” (e.g., that I’m a spiritual failure because “my me” keeps showing up). That “me” who is seemingly plagued by the illusion of believing it is “me” doesn’t actually exist in the first place! And the bodymind is only ever doing what life moves it to do, just like the waving of the ocean. Even being lost in obsessive thoughts or hypnotized into mistaking a mirage for reality is itself part of this whole happening—this, too, is an impersonal, unfathomable aspect of totality. None of it needs to be otherwise than exactly how it is. And there is never actually a separate, independent “self” doing any of it.
But in the spiritual world, "no self" has been made into a very mystified, misunderstood, personal achievement that it isn't. Yes, some people do have big sudden dramatic events, but much more commonly, seeing through the false self and the sense of separation is a very undramatic unfolding, seemingly gradual when it is thought about after the fact, and actually always momentary, occurring Now. That's been my own experience—no big fireworks, no explosive finish-line after which my whole life was totally different, except in the sense that every moment is the Big Bang and the finish-line in which a new universe flashes into being and dies instantaneously.
Many people spend years chasing (and/or manufacturing) those dramatic breakthroughs that some people report. I'm convinced that many teachers conjure up an "enlightenment story" out of thin air because it's expected in this business, perhaps even convincing themselves of its veracity and believing in their own story (I watched my own mind doing this several times in the past after some peak experience or insight, constructing such a story, but thankfully it was seen for what it was and immediately dropped). What awakening wakes up to has never been absent. What comes and goes, and (if we're lucky) is seen through more and more clearly, is the thought-story-sensation of separation and encapsulation and of being the one in control. And none of this happens “to me.” It just seems that way, sometimes, and that appearance is itself an aspect of this infinite wholeness.
And even if the false self completely vanishes and never returns, we’re still very much a person on one level, with a distinct personality, and with a functional sense of bodily identity, location and boundaries that arises as needed, still apparently making choices, living in the everyday relative world. We still experience pleasure and pain and the full range of human emotion. To deny all that, in my opinion, is simply ludicrous. We’re not just a body, we’re not encapsulated inside a body, and “the body” is not the solid, separate, persisting thing we think it is, but to believe that we are not the body (or the personality, or the person) in any sense is delusion. This unbroken wholeness or infinite presence can never be captured by any word or concept. It unfolds at many levels, we might say, and to deny any of them is a form of ignore-ance. They are ALL included in this vast totality.
Bare energetic sensory experiencing is one level. Stories and imagination are another level. In this present experiencing that is here right now, we can see BOTH multiplicity and unity. We can look from the absolute perspective or the relative one. We can zoom out to the farthest edges of the galaxy where our planet is nothing but a tiny pinprick in the blackness of space; we can zoom in to the microscopic or subatomic level where there is mostly empty space and indeterminate quantum events; we can be at the level of everyday life (family, job, sickness, health, marriage, divorce, world events); we can be in the realm of imagination conjuring up fantasies or enjoying movies and novels; we can be in the realm of dreams; we can be in the absolute emptiness of deep sleep. None of these levels are better or worse, higher or lower, right or wrong. They are all the movement of one unbroken reality, one dance without a dancer, one shoreless ocean. The problem comes, as always, when we fixate on one level and think that’s all there is, or that’s the Supreme Reality, or nothing else exists, or whatever we think. To be liberated is to move freely throughout the levels, to not mistake the map for the territory, to not chase after mirages (or not take it personally if we do), to BE the whole happening, just as it is—in other words, to be what we cannot not be, which is effortlessly always already the case and cannot be otherwise. All we know for sure is that this present experiencing is showing up. All our ideas about what it is or how it all works are ultimately stories or conceptual maps, arising by themselves as another aspect of present experiencing. And the phantom self (i.e., the neurological sensation of agency and/or thought posing as “me”) is not in control of any of it.
Response to a comment:
In my experience, old habits of mind and body ("the old programs of 'me-training,'" and "the daunting memories of feeling unloved and abandoned" that you mention) may persist for the duration of a lifetime, off and on. But they are simply impersonal appearances in this vast space of awareness that seem momentarily real and believable and compelling. They don’t mean anything--they're just old, conditioned habit patterns, as you know. Yes, they may be unpleasant, but they may also be the grit that creates the pearl, the challenge that develops discernment and strength, the opportunity to see the false as false and to relax once again into this unbroken wholeness Here-Now that you have never actually left, not even in moments of darkest despair. We're not in control of this unfolding awakening. It's not personal. It is all happening by itself. And even the unpleasant bits are very much part of the dance, or at least, that is my experience. All the best you.
Question: “Could you say something about feeling the ‘need’ or obligation to do something...Many times I find myself ‘thinking’ I need to say or do something out of obligation or to ‘appear’ a certain way...I know this is simply the ego at work and the false sense of ‘me’. About 50% of the time, I'm really not wanting to do or say such and such but the mind says I ‘should’ or need to...”
My Response: All of this is being effortlessly noticed…feeling obligated, not wanting to do what I feel I “should” do, wanting to appear a certain way, seeing that this comes from the false sense of “me,” and so on. ALL of this is being seen by the awaring presence that you are beyond name and form. These are common, conditioned human thoughts and feelings to which I’m sure everyone can relate.
But is anyone in control of these thoughts and feelings? Is there a thinker who is authoring the thoughts, or a chooser who is choosing the feelings? Is thought, identified as a person and posing as you, creating the feeling of resistance, or the concern with how others see you, or the conflict between feeling you “should” or “must” do something but not wanting to do it? Isn’t ALL of this a compulsive happening that is arising by itself?
Who is the one being disturbed by all this and seeking a solution of some kind? Isn’t that the “me” again? And isn’t that “me” nothing more than thoughts, mental images and sensations combining in the imagination to create a kind of mirage? Does that “me” who is concerned about all of this and who feels a need to do something about all of it, does that “me” have any actual substance? What is beholding all of this?
All of this emotion-thought and inner conflict that you describe is part of the bodymind organism, its conditioning and its desire to survive. We are social animals, conditioned by our society and our family, and our survival depends, to some extent, on being approved by the tribe—if they totally shun us, we will be unloved, unemployed, homeless and hungry—so, it’s part of our survival system to “fit in” to some degree. Of course, it gets tied into our self-image as well and the ideals we have about how we “should” behave. And often we feel pulled in different directions—e.g., we genuinely want to help someone, but we also want the time and energy that this would require for something else—like taking a nap because we’re really tired, or spending time with our family. Or maybe we don’t really want to help, but we feel we “should,” and we think that if we don’t, we will feel guilty, or others will think we are selfish or lazy. And we think that “I” am in control of all this.
But actually, in every case, life moves by itself—we help or we don’t. If we believe there was a choice and that “I” freely made that choice, then we feel guilt or pride—otherwise, we recognize that whatever happened was the action of life itself. If we think we really are our self-image, then it matters greatly whether it conforms to our ideals and those of the people we care about or depend upon. We can’t “decide” not to care about all of this. But the more clearly it is all seen for what it is, and the more clearly we recognize that we are not just a bodymind organism, the less it all troubles us, and the more such conflict and concern falls away. And that seeing is already happening, naturally, by itself. It's not as if "you" have to DO this seeing. And every night in deep sleep, this whole problem vanishes along with the one who is concerned about it.
Response to a comment:
For the record, although it's true that Advaita has been a major influence in my life (along with Buddhism, especially Zen, and the work of non-traditional teachers such as Toni Packer and Krishnamurti), I don't consider myself representative of any particular tradition. My writing comes first and foremost out of my own direct seeing and experiencing. What I say veers in different directions and emphasizes different aspects of reality (as I see it) at different moments. Hopefully, over the course of a lifetime dedicated to awakening, there is more clarity, more openness, and less delusion, but in any given moment, the balance may shift and delusion may win out.
Response to another comment from same person:
I love Nisargadatta, and he has had a profound effect on me, but I don't regard him as an infallible authority, the way some people regard the Bible. And as I said before, I am not married to Advaita. I do not see the apparent world or our personhood or this dance of existence as "a worthless show and a fraud." I don't see the absolute as something separate from our present experiencing--something "out there" somewhere, some unchanging background. I find myself resonating less with the word unchanging and more with the word ever-present to describe Here-Now (awareness or that which is subtler than everything perceivable and conceivable) and with Zen Buddhism in the understanding that emptiness is right here in the apparent chairs and tables. Yes, any SENSE of being present and aware vanishes in deep sleep, but for me, that does not make presence or awareness worthless.
How simple can this be? Listening to traffic sounds, a jet plane passing overhead, frogs cheeping in the garden, a dog barking next door, the train horn tooting in the distance. Feeling the changing textures of this moment, all the subtle vibrations and tinglings, seeing the movements of light and color, the gesture of shapes. Before these words, just this bare happening, as it is, indescribable and ungraspable, and then the words emerging from an unfindable source, the index finger pecking at the keyboard, the blank page filling with dark squiggles, the dark squiggles conjuring up, by the amazing magic of language, frogs and dogs and whole worlds in the imagination.
If we don’t look too closely, and if we remain mostly with the map-world of thoughts and concepts, everything may seem fairly solid and stable—a world of independent objects, all separate from “me,” the observer. But the more closely we look at anything, either with open awaring attention or with the tools of modern science, the less solid and discrete and persisting it turns out to be, and the more it dissolves into inconceivability and indeterminacy. The seemingly independent objects turn out to be more like waves in the ocean—different but inseparable, all moving in the same direction—and the apparent boundary between observer and observed cannot be found—subject and object is one whole indivisible event.
It takes no effort to hear the traffic, to feel the breathing, to see the thoughts flashing past, to listen to the wind and the frogs. Can it be noticed that there is space Here-Now, in the openness of this vast awaring presence, for everything in the whole universe to be just as it is? It’s not as if the “me” has to “do” some spiritual practice of “accepting and allowing” everything. Everything already IS as it is, effortlessly—have you noticed? It all belongs. It’s all here. And it’s never the same way for even an instant. Awareness, which is another word for unconditional love, is always accepting it all without judgment or resistance. Awareness even accepts the judgment and the resistance that may arise—all of it an impersonal movement of the whole.
Can there be an effortless noticing of how thought divides and reifies, how it seems to make solid “things” out of the thorough-going flux of experiencing, how it draws conclusions and creates apparent certainties, how it conjures up doubts and forms itself into beliefs and ideologies, how it spins narratives and inserts the mirage-like “me” into the center of these stories as either hero or victim, winner or loser? Can it be noticed how pain or painful circumstances are turned into suffering by the ways thought frames them and keeps them alive in the imagination, by the way it creates the story-sense of “me” being threatened by “things” outside of me? Can it also be noticed that thoughts are ephemeral flashes of energy, invisible telegrams, intermittent and fleeting, gone in an instant? And yet, they have this amazing capacity to seemingly materialize solid and persisting forms, and especially the mirage-like “me” who seems to be at the center of “my” life, seemingly directing the show.
Thought, posing as “me,” this apparent person, always wants to know, what should I do? The phantom “me” wants to understand, what is this? What does it all mean? What is true? What is real? What should I believe? This “me” wants to get control, to be okay, to be loved and reassured, to be on the winning team, to do it right, to survive. It wants certainty and comfort and security. It wants answers—the right answers.
But what if the only real certainty or security is in the total absence of certainty, the groundless freefall, the impermanence so complete that no-thing ever even forms to be impermanent? What if there is no final answer to how the universe works or what it is, no ultimate understanding to arrive at? What if all the words and concepts (awareness, consciousness, mind, matter, atoms, molecules, quarks, changing, unchanging, cause, effect, me, you, unicity, multiplicity)—what if all of these are simply abstract formulations or tentative approximations describing a reality that is at once obvious and inescapable but at the same time utterly ungraspable and unresolvable? What if all beliefs are false? What if there is no choice about what to do—what if it is all happening by itself, compulsively, effortlessly, even the apparent choosing and intending and efforting? What if NOTHING perceivable or conceivable remains after death? What is it that tenses up at that thought? And what, exactly, is “nothing” anyway? What could that possibly be?
What if everything and no-thing are words for the very same THIS Here-Now? What if relative and absolute are not two? What if Ultimate Reality is not something separate from, or other than, present experiencing? What if “primordial awareness” is not something "out there" somewhere, some unchanging background that stands apart from the ever-changing experiences? What if emptiness is right here in the apparent chairs and tables? What if there is nothing behind this living reality, this vibrant presence, this amazing dance that can shift its focus in an instant from form to formlessness, from intergalactic to subatomic, from ordinary and everyday to quantum and mysterious, from seamless unicity to infinite multiplicity, from the sense of being somebody in particular to the sense of being boundless and impersonal presence, and then back again to being somebody in particular?
We may think that our job as a spiritual “me” is to keep the zoom lens of attention permanently zoomed out to the boundless impersonal position and not let it zoom in to the sense of being a particular person. But the truth is that boundlessness or unicity includes it all—the zoomed-out perspective and the zoomed-in perspective, the personal and the impersonal, the intergalactic and the subatomic, the everyday and the quantum, the relative and the absolute, the one and the many. Nothing is left out. Liberation means that the lens of attention can move freely, and in truth, it is NEVER being moved or controlled by a mirage called “me.” We are never really in control, or in the bondage we imagine.
What happens if we put down all the books and devices, let all the words go, just for a moment perhaps, and we’re simply here, not knowing what this is, or how it all works, or what it means, or where it’s going, or where it came from, or what happens to the dead, or what remains in deep sleep, or what the primary substance is, or if there even is such a thing? What if everything is simply as it is (as it appears to be) in this moment, which (we can notice) is ever-changing and yet always Here-Now, utterly immediate and without separation?
This realization or recognition doesn’t mean that this living reality, moving through these apparent human forms, can’t notice and correct a so-called mistake, fix a so-called problem, change a flat tire, aspire to a more just society, undergo treatment for an illness, write a Facebook post, or sit down in meditation to explore what reveals itself when we stop all outward activity and simply allow everything to be just as it is. ALL of this is a movement of life itself, and none of it needs to be otherwise than exactly how it is, including the urge to change it! It’s ALL included!
When we find ourselves getting lost in metaphysical confusion or caught up in what seem to be unbearable problems of the body-mind-world, is it possible to come home to the simplicity of this moment, the listening silence, the bare energetic-sensory happening itself, the awaring presence, the sounds of traffic, the smell of rain and wet earth, the colors and shapes of the crumpled cigarette package in the gutter, the felt-sense of breathing…just this…not needing to explain it, or understand it, or get something out of it, or figure it out, or do anything with it or to it, but simply being just this moment, exactly as it is?
How simple can this be?
Response to a comment:
In a certain sense, yes, a particular person seemingly "chooses" to take a certain action (such as changing a flat tire) and the tire gets changed as a result, and clearly, it is that person (that bodymind organism) that is changing the tire. What I'm pointing out is that ALL of that is a movement of the whole, and the "me" who seems to make that decision to change the tire is only a mirage. No such executive self actually exists. This is what has been discovered here by many years of direct observation. Neuroscientists who study the brain seem to be coming to a similar conclusion. One neuroscientist calls the sense of agency a "neurological sensation," not an actual reality. I would refer you to my April 29 post titled "NO-SELF: What Does It Mean?" for more in-depth clarification.
Response to another comment:
Perhaps more precisely, it appears (if we don't look too closely) that a "me" (i.e., an inner executive supposedly at the helm of this bodymind) is making a decision. But in reality, the decision arises--actually not from thought, but from a process below the level of thought--and a split second later, thought (posing as "me") takes credit. Neuroscientists have discovered that when the thought "I need to feed the cat" arises, the body is already in motion to perform this action. And then afterwards, thought claims, "I decided to feed the cat." And clearly, it was this organism that we might call "me" that fed the cat, which is why I think you may be confused here about what "me' refers to when I use the term. These words like self, ego, me, I, etc. get used in different ways by different people, which can lead to misunderstanding because we're talking about different things.
I think perhaps you may still believe in the actual existence of that phantom executive, and/or you are confusing statements about the nonexistence or mirage-like nature of this imaginary helmsman-executive with what you perceive (I think correctly) as a tendency in some nondual circles to throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the reality of the person or the body or our humanness altogether--which is not where I'm coming from at all.
Response to another comment:
Yes, we could say that, "Our body/mind as a totality apparently makes decisions." We'd have to add that much (probably most) of that process occurs below the level of conscious awareness and that it is conditioned by an infinity of factors "outside" the bodymind (environmental, genetic, family, school, religion, culture, etc.).
What I'm really pointing out is that we have an illusory sense that "I" am willfully directing my life, making my decisions, authoring my thoughts, choosing my course of action, etc.--but when we really watch the unfolding of decisions and the arising of thoughts, we don't find this controller or this control.
That doesn't mean, however, that the bodymind can't develop new skills, improve its tennis game, learn a language, or find ways to work more constructively with difficult emotions or difficulties in relationships. Obviously, these things do happen.
The illusion is that "I" am this executive self who can willfully create the urge to do such things, the ability to carry them out, and thus, "I" can make these things happen. And when we fail, we then feel guilty or ashamed--or when others fail, we blame them. Our whole legal system and social order is built on this presumption of executive selves endowed with free will. But it's an assumption that doesn't hold up to careful observation, or to the discoveries of neuroscience.
When I was teaching basic English at a city college years ago, as a pedagogical convention or teaching tool, I spoke to my students "as if" they had this kind of free will. I instructed them to do their homework and so on. But I knew that my doing this, and their ability or lack of ability to follow these instructions, was not really a matter of free will. Sometimes in my writing, I invite people to explore something, but I know that whether they are moved to do so is not really in their control any more than what I write is in my control.
But, in the end, no map (choice or no choice) can really describe the living territory, as I try to point out in the articles on my website I mentioned.
Response to another comment:
To further clarify, what I mean by the word "me" is the sense of being a separate independent existence with free will (e.g. a wave that believes it is separate from, and independent of, the ocean). I think this is probably exactly what you mean when you say, "I think of [the me] as a sense of self (different to self-esteem, personality or ego)." Yes? So, I think we're on the same page there. But when I spoke of a "process below the level of thought," I was talking about how decisions happen--that was not a definition of what I mean by "the me." I hope this clarifies.
Response to another comment:
What you describe about an expansive opening being followed by a contraction of the bodymind (what Eckhart Tolle would call a pain-body attack) is a very common experience that many people report. I remember when I was on staff at Springwater doing 9 or 10 silent retreats every year, that this would often happen. Of course, I’ve noticed that the reverse often happens as well—an intense contraction or upset, or a serious illness, is often followed by a deep opening of some kind. Maybe these swings get less dramatic over time, maybe not, but it seems to be part of how this manifestation works—a storm is followed by a calm, and a sunny day clouds up eventually.
I don’t see any contradiction between psychotherapy (or trauma work, or working on the pain-body) and nonduality, especially when the therapist and client both have an awakened understanding. We can work on different levels and in different ways. Being stuck in the absolute is not true nonduality imo.
When I first read Tolle, I had a negative reaction to his term “pain-body.” I felt he was making a solid and substantial (and negative) “thing” out of what was essentially just an impersonal movement of energy, sensations and thoughts. But my mind changed on this. I came to experience it as a helpful term, a way of identifying and recognizing what was happening.
As I said in a response to someone else recently, I’ve 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 shines a light on this particular pattern so that we can recognize and identify it more quickly and see it more clearly. It also tells us this situation is something many other people experience, that we’re not alone. It may also help to reveal causes (genetics, neurochemistry, conditioning, 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. And it may also help to suggest what treatments or responses might be more or less effective. So, labels can be helpful.
But obviously, they can also be a hindrance if we make them into an identity (“I am an alcoholic,” for example), 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. So, imo, it’s fine to use the labels, but important to be aware of these pitfalls as we do. And to perhaps wonder—in the moment a contraction of some kind is arising—what is this if I don’t label it? 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. Awareness is both the great solvent and unconditional love. This, in my experience, is how we “truly and fully love the apparent enemy within.”
THE MOST LIBERATING DISCOVERY
Recently, a friend asked me what is the most liberating realization or discovery that I’ve come to in all these years on the pathless path of spiritual awakening. I replied that the deepest gift, the one for which I am most grateful, the greatest discovery, the most liberating realization, is the power of Now. I don’t mean Eckhart Tolle’s book, although it’s a wonderful book, but I mean what he was pointing to in that title—the possibility of simply being fully present and awake Here-Now. Not trying to get anywhere else, not trying to push anything away, not trying to understand anything conceptually, but simply being. Being awake. Relaxed and alert, fully and simply here as this open, awaring presence that we truly are. Just this.
This awaring presence permeates the whole body, but is not limited to or encapsulated inside the body. It is not located anywhere in particular. Boundless and utterly immediate, this awaring presence is the dimensionless infinity of Here, the timeless eternity of Now, the vastness in which all of time and space appears. This awaring presence is a palpable felt-reality although it has no shape, no color, no size, no age, no gender, no objective qualities whatsoever. It is prior to thought, subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable. It is ever-present whether noticed or not. But it is possible to be more or less tuned into it. Our attention can be focused on our limited psychological identity as a particular person and on all the thoughts and stories about the body-mind-world, or attention can shift to being the boundless awareness in which all of this drama occurs. This listening stillness, this spacious openness, this vast awaring presence is our true home, and every time I re-turn attention to it and relax fully into it, it is exactly like coming home.
In the deepest sense, no one has ever left this True Home, for there is nothing outside of it. The “me” who seems to alternately “get it” and then “lose it” is a mirage-like imagination appearing and disappearing intermittently within this ever-present awareness. It is the thought-sense of being a separate, encapsulated “me” that actually comes and goes, not the awaring presence. The focus of our attention is also ever-changing, capable of zooming out to impersonal boundlessness or zooming in to the sense of being a person. In the beginning, we may find ourselves trying very hard to keep the attention zoomed out to boundlessness, and then feeling like a spiritual failure whenever it zooms in to the sense of personhood and psychological drama, but eventually we recognize that the awaring presence is here regardless of what appears or disappears in the lens of attention.
The liberating recognition that Here-Now is actually ever-present, even in the midst of chaos and confusion, is a fully embodied discovery, not merely a mental ideology to pick up and believe in. I think we all know how tangled up in confusion, despair and bitterness the human mind can be at times. It’s easy to say of such confusion that, “This, too, is the vibrant dance of existence, the play of consciousness, a mere passing appearance in the vast field of awareness.” That’s all true enough—it is all included, and it is all a dream-like and fleeting appearance, but it’s also very easy to settle for that as simply another superficial, comforting belief, without actually realizing it or fully embodying it in this very moment Here-Now. It’s possible to talk nondual talk without ever actually discovering the reality to which these words are pointing.
I have found that no matter how great the despair or the confusion or the upset, there is this wonderful possibility of letting go of all my efforts to run away or chase after or solve or fix, and instead, to stop and be still. To listen. To breathe. To feel the body. To be this silent awaring presence. Suddenly, there is relief. I’m Home. There is no problem to solve. There may still be a practical situation to be addressed (a flat tire to change, a medical decision to be made, whatever it might be), but it’s no longer a problem. And there’s no longer a “me.” There’s simply this vast, spacious, open presence and the ever-changing happening of this moment, just as it is. This is the power of Now.
We can’t say whether this shift in attention, this relaxing and opening that is sometimes called “being here now,” is a choice or a choiceless happening, or whether it requires practice and effort or is always effortlessly already the case. Nothing we say in this regard is quite right. No conceptual formulation captures the living reality. There is a possibility and a power right here that must be discovered and perhaps in some sense practiced, but this discovery and practice is not a movement of individual will or control or some external force. It is the power of life itself, the power of awareness, the power of this whole shoreless ocean, and we are not other than this.
Of course, there have been many other liberating realizations over the years that grew out of this awake presence and this open listening, things that revealed themselves in the light of awareness and open attention—the way everything is a seamless whole without actual division or separation; the way that everything belongs and that nothing is what it seems to be (nor is it otherwise); the way that experience is ever-changing while Here-Now is ever-present; the power of awareness to illuminate and allow and dissolve everything; the mirage-like nature of the self; the way choices, decisions and actions actually happen; the absence of any executive in control and yet the possibility of re-turning Home in this moment; the beauty of not-knowing, of living in groundlessness without grasping or landing anywhere; the deep knowingness that everything is okay even if the whole universe blows up; the realization of the perfection of imperfection and the discovery of the extraordinary in the most seemingly ordinary; knowing finally that I don’t have to fix the person to be fully awake and fully Home, that liberation is not about perfecting “me.” And at the very heart of all these liberating realizations and discoveries is this awake presence—awareness itself—unbound and all-inclusive. Being Here-Now. Just this.
As I never tire of pointing out, it’s so easy to slip into the thought-based realm of conceptual ideas and beliefs. We all do this at times, mistaking map for territory and menu for meal—and in the beginning, we don’t even know we’re doing this. We think the menu really IS the meal, and we keep eating it and then feeling perpetually hungry and malnourished. Concepts never satisfy the deep longing of the heart to come Home.
Genuine realizations (like the meal or the territory) are always alive and embodied and non-conceptual, but they get turned afterwards into concepts (menus and maps). These menus and maps have their usefulness, but often these concepts are picked up and repeated by others as mere ideas instead of as felt-realities. Then they become beliefs that we identify with, fight to defend, and cannot question. Or they become ideas that we resist and believe are untrue, or not truly nondual, or not as advanced as some other idea, and so we condemn the menu without ever actually tasting the meal it is describing. Lost in a mental spin, we get into all kinds of murky misunderstandings. All it takes to set some people off is hearing the phrase “the power of Now” and seeing Eckhart Tolle’s name, and without reading another word, they’re already in gear to tell me that Eckhart Tolle is a jerk, “the Now” is bullshit, all of spirituality is a con-job, and so on and on. If you’re feeling that urge, perhaps you might pause and simply be here, silently, fully feeling that urge and the urgency of it as pure sensation and energy, and also noticing the open space in which it is appearing. Maybe in opening to the living reality of this moment, you’ll find that the need to attack and “be in the know” has vanished.
Having cancer, waiting to learn whether it’s gone or not, whether the treatment worked or didn’t work, having the possibility of death in front of me in a much more real and visceral way than ever before, I find myself wanting very much not to waste time. I want to really clarify what’s at the very heart of everything I write and talk about, the most important thing I have to say—and that truly is the power of Now, the gift of awareness, this unconditional love, this awake presence, the unconditioned openness of Here-Now, this space that allows everything to be as it is while simultaneously allowing the truly new to emerge—and I mean this openness not as an idea or a concept, but as our most immediate and profound reality, our True Nature. It’s not what you think. It’s what you are. And it’s not an idea. It’s a direct discovery, a felt-reality, ever-fresh, totally alive, always right here, right now, most intimate. And while it is never really absent, it can indeed be overlooked or ignored. So, I want to encourage us all to stop whenever life invites us, to be quiet if only for a moment, to put down the books, turn off the screens, stop trying to think it all out, and for just a while, to feel deeply into the subtle reality of Here-Now, to soak in this awaring presence, to discover this open free unconditioned Home.
Response to a comment:
It seems to me that you are saying that you are realizing that even overlooking or ignoring Here-Now (i.e., being lost in suffering or confusion) is not ultimately a problem…and that the coming home or waking up happens when it happens, all of it one whole impersonal happening, and it’s ALL okay, even the suffering and confusion. That’s what I heard you saying. Yes?
So, I was trying to say that in the post, I tried to balance both sides of that: that on the one hand, “overlooking or ignoring” IS a problem (because suffering and confusion are painful and tend to cause more pain all around) AND, on the other hand, they are NOT a problem (because everything is included, and it’s all part of the dance). BOTH are true, I was trying to say. I feel we go astray if we land or fixate on either side. If we get stuck on thinking that “overlooking or ignoring” IS a problem, we tend to fall into a perpetual struggle to be problem-free, to improve, etc.—it feeds our sense of deficiency and lack, encourages judgmental thinking, and leads to endless disappointment because we are always falling short. We are stuck in the “getting it and losing it” story. But, on the other hand, if we land on insisting that “overlooking or ignoring” is NOT a problem, we can fall into a kind of mental-conceptual “nondual” belief-system that I see people stuck in frequently in the nondual subculture, in which we go around telling ourselves it doesn’t matter if we’re kicking the dog, beating our children, shooting heroin, or whatever else, because it’s all okay. Is it all okay? Yes and no. It is and it isn’t. BOTH are true. At least, that’s how I see it. I was pointing to not getting stuck in the absolute.
Being awake Here-Now, fully present, on the one hand, and overlooking or ignoring this possibility and being lost in what Joko Beck called “the self-centered dream” of emotion-thought on the other hand is the difference between heaven and hell. In that sense, it matters totally. In another sense, “What is” includes both heaven and hell, and even in hell, if we stop and check, Here-Now (awareness) is still here. And delusion seems often to be the doorway to enlightenment, as in, “the crack is where the light gets in,” so ultimately, there is no either/or. I hope this clarifies.
Further response to same person:
My experience, like yours, has been a gradual unfolding…some peak moments or moments of great insight perhaps along the way, but nothing like what hit Eckhart Tolle one night. I think the gradual unfolding is much, much more common than the sudden. But the stories of sudden, complete, permanent enlightenment have been a source of great suffering for many who chase after such an event and feel endlessly deficient in not finding it.
Words like awakening and enlightenment are used in so many different ways with different meanings…I use the words enlightenment, awakening, liberation, realization and so on more or less synonymously, and in a very ordinary way, not as some final finish-line triumph or permanent state of perpetual bliss—that I think IS a myth (even people like Eckhart and Ramana and whoever else all have their reactive or deluded moments, I’m sure)—but I mean these words as pointers to simply being awake here-now, being free (not forever after, but now), free from the unnecessary psychological suffering that plagues human beings (the “conditioned program” and “interpretative overlays” in your words, and most fundamentally, the thought-sense of being a separate, deficient me).
Animal predators ripping apart their prey are simply having a meal—it’s perfectly healthy, natural behavior, essential for their survival, and it keeps the entire ecosystem in balance—whereas kicking the dog or beating our children comes (at least in most cases) from that me-centered psychological suffering, so it is different in some important and fundamental way. (In some cases, it may come from a damaged brain or a severe mental illness rooted in neurochemistry and genetics, and not from me-centered psychological suffering and confusion, but even then, it isn’t the healthy natural activity of the hungry predator). Of course, in the absolute sense, we can say that everything belongs, even kicking the dog, torturing small children, firebombing Dresden, and nuking Hiroshima, and it may all be perfectly and harmoniously serving a larger ecology of the universe that we cannot know or understand.
I know some teachers regard any emphasis on the psychological as unimportant and lesser forms of nonduality (or even as dualistic false nonduality, or whatever they think)…and two of my teachers, Toni Packer and Joko Beck, were heavily criticized in traditional Zen circles decades ago for bringing this stuff in and staining the purity of Zen…but they felt (as I do) that this IS precisely what gets in the way of being fully liberated here-now. That doesn’t mean we have to focus on psychological self-improvement or turn spirituality into psychotherapy, but it does mean that (for me, from my perspective) it’s worth exploring such things as what’s going on when we feel defensive, irritated, ignored, misunderstood, abandoned, hurt, afraid, and so on. Because at the root of all that, in my experience, we find the mirage-like false self and the thought-sense of identity as a separate, independent entity.
Where’s the Bliss, the Radiance, the Love?
Question: “I’ve been focusing more and more on direct experiencing like you talk about rather than focusing so much on concepts, ideas and beliefs. And I feel a sense of spaciousness and openness when I do that. But teachers frequently talk about this presence being radiant or compassionate or loving or full of light...seeing only God everywhere and that kind of thing…and I don’t seem to be experiencing any of that. My experience seems more neutral, maybe even flat. Where’s the radiance, the light, the Love? Why am I not seeing God everywhere and feeling that my heart is bursting open with love? What am I missing?”
My Response: First of all, can we notice that this question does not arise from direct experiencing, but rather, that it arises from thought? There may have been nothing but direct experiencing the moment before—the bare sensory-energetic happening of the moment, just as it is—but then thought comes in and judges how it is: “This isn’t like what many teachers describe and talk about. This is too flat, too neutral. Something is missing. Where’s the love and the radiance? Something is wrong. I’m not getting what they’re getting.”
These labels (“I,” “other teachers,” “neutral,” “flat,” “radiance,” and so on) turn what is actually ungraspable, ever-changing, thorough-going flux into apparently solid, persisting, fixed things. This train of thought creates (in the imagination) the apparent problem and the mirage-like “me” who seems to have it. Prior to this thought, in the simplicity and immediacy of pure, naked, unvarnished, sensory-energetic experiencing—the happening of this moment, just as it is—there was no “me” separate from “my experience.” There was simply undivided experiencing.
Can that be seen, how thought creates the imaginary problem? And can it be seen without judgment and without getting caught up in a potential secondary train of thought about how, “I failed to stay with direct experiencing,” or something like that?
This is what waking up comes down to—seeing how we get confused, how suffering gets generated and sustained, and coming back (again and again, now) to the simplicity of what is—not judging any of this, or taking it personally, or giving it meaning, but simply seeing it clearly for what it is. Awareness is the great solvent that illuminates and dissolves our suffering. What remains when a train of thought like this vanishes is impossible to capture with any word or concept, and it’s always moving, never the same from one instant to the next.
One of my all-time favorite quotes from my main teacher, the late Toni Packer:
"No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what’s here now, is that possible?"
As writers and teachers, we use words. We use words that resonate with us. But sometimes a word or words used by a speaker or a writer just doesn’t click or resonate with someone else. And then if thought comes in and hooks into our deficiency story, it’s so easy to think that, “I’m not getting it,” “I’m not having the experience this other person is having,” and so on. Sometimes words such as love, radiance, the open heart, light, stillness, spaciousness, bliss, happiness, freedom, God, presence, etc. actually seem to transmit and call forth what they’re pointing to and help us to notice and feel it as well, and sometimes they do just the opposite. Sometimes they don’t match our felt-reality or our ideas about what God or love or radiance would be. And then we begin thinking that we must be lacking something, or not getting it. Waking up is never about having someone else’s experience! It’s about the actual experiencing here-now, just as it is. The trick is simply to be that. Nothing more, nothing less. Just this! As my first Zen teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman put it to me many decades ago, “We’re always looking for diamonds in the mud, but the mud itself is pretty interesting. That’s what Zen practice is about—the mud.”
During my recent journey with cancer, I’ve been feeling a great deal of heart-opening and gratitude, often just looking at leaves on a tree, or hearing the train whistle tooting in the distance, or smelling the rain. Everything seems to shine with light. It’s been a strong and noticeable experience in these recent months. But as you hear me describe this experience, you may be picturing something much more dramatic or grandiose than what I am intending to convey, or you may be comparing it to your own experience or to someone else’s description of their experience.
Whenever consciousness is free of the thought-sense of separation, not caught up in the self-centered dream, but fully open and present here-now, this kind of open-hearted gratitude and love for everything is actually quite natural—it is the very nature of awareness itself. And when we really see any ordinary thing (a chair, a leaf, a piece of crumpled Kleenex), whole-heartedly, it quite naturally appears to have a kind of brightness or radiance or sparkle. It is no longer ordinary. But I certainly don’t feel or see this way (or notice this experience) all the time, and I’m pretty sure no one does. Experience, like the weather, is always changing. I would never conclude or say that any particular feeling, perception or experience is “The True State” that we “would” all be in “if” we were truly awake. Rather, awakeness is naturally present, here-now, unowned, and the content is ever-changing, never exactly the same way twice.
If I were to try to feel this heart-opening and see this brightness (when I’m not), or if I were to wonder why I’m not feeling or seeing this (when I’m not), that would simply lead into suffering. It doesn’t work that way. The very act of trying presumes (and creates, in the imagination) apparent separation and lack. It presumes that what I am seeking is not already the case, or that whatever actually is being experienced here-now is somehow inferior and not good enough. It presumes separation between “me” and “experience.” This kind of desperate trying is a result-oriented, thought-based, me-centered activity that is doomed to fail. As always, what liberates us is a counter-intuitive move—waking up from the thought-story, stopping this desperate search, and simply being here-now, without trying to change or fix what is or get something out of it. (And when I speak of stopping, I mean right now—this doesn’t mean never again working with a teacher, seeing a therapist, going into a recovery program, reading a book, or anything else that may be helpful. It means, right now, in this moment, stopping).
Blessedly, I no longer care if I experience what anyone else experiences, or if I’m as free from obsessive thought-activity as someone else, or if my heart is as open or my gratitude as deep or my realization as great as anyone else’s seems to be. I’m finally content to simply be here, as this very moment, which I notice is no way in particular because it is ever-changing—one moment radiant, one moment flat, one moment anxious, one moment full of love and an open-heart, one moment dark and frightened and depressed, one moment peaceful and calm, one moment restless—always changing. Only when the mind takes these states personally, gives them meaning, and tries to get rid of some of them and cling to others does it turn to suffering. And that, too, passes.
I’ve also noticed that there is a common factor in every different experience. They are all experiences in and of consciousness. They all show up Here-Now, in this present immediacy, this awaring presence that I am. They are an interdependent happening, inseparable from one another, like the waves of the ocean. They are all momentary aspects of an undivided, seamless, boundless unicity that has no opposite, no inside or outside, no before or after. None of these different experiences are actually personal—or, we could say, ALL of them are personal. But none of them is created by the phantom “me,” and none of them means anything about that mirage-like character. They are simply weather events—the ever-changing weather of this moment, sometimes sunny and clear, sometimes cloudy and overcast, sometimes placid and calm, sometimes stormy and wild. And when the thought-sense of “me” shows up, as it sometimes does, it’s nothing personal—it doesn’t mean anything about “me.”
As human beings with complex brains, we have many problems that other animals don’t. We have the capacity to form an elaborate self-image, to conceive of ourselves as independent agents (the “me” we think we are), and to think in highly complex ways about this apparent self and its apparent problems. We can imagine future possibilities, both positive and negative, in great detail, which has been both a tremendous evolutionary advantage and a cause of much suffering. Desire and fear, which are healthy survival functions in other animals, carry over into the psychological realm in humans—no other animal smokes and drinks itself to death or spends its life searching for enlightenment. No other animal suffers from the abilities or problems that leads us to drink or seek enlightenment!
But none of this is our personal failing. It’s all simply the movement of life unfolding itself in ever-new ways, as are all the many “cures” (and antidotes to cures and to our curative fantasies) that humans have devised, everything from yoga and meditation to psychotherapy and anti-depressants to radical nonduality, Advaita and Zen. It’s ALL included in this vast happening. And however we think about all this and try to box it up in concepts, the reality is never like that. The reality is moving, changing, ephemeral, ungraspable, indeterminate, unresolvable. It cannot be fit into any neat and tidy formulation. There is no such “thing” as “flat” or “neutral” or “full of love” or “radiant.” The words are pointers to what cannot be pinned down.
So, as we read and listen to teachers or others expressing their experiences of how it is, can we be aware of the trap of comparing ourselves to others, comparing our experiences to the descriptions given by others, and feeling either superior or inferior as a result. If the words used by someone resonate and hit the mark, that’s great. If they don’t, let them go. Chasing other people’s awakening experiences or reported states of consciousness is a losing affair. Be yourself. Be as you are. Be the absolutely unique and perfect expression of this vast totality that only you can be at this moment. Be what you cannot not be. As Toni Packer said, “No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that?” No need to label it, judge it, evaluate it or make it into a personal story. And in the next instant, everything has changed!
ADDICTION / COMPULSION: What to Do?
I had a question recently from someone struggling with food addiction. The person obviously had lots of insight and had tried many things with mixed results. The person described diets, weight loss, weight gain, “winning,” “losing,” “bouncing from one teacher to another,” and being at a loss about what to do or how to be with this. I’m sharing an edited and expanded version of my response:
Compulsive eating is not something I’ve dealt with personally, but I can completely relate to what you describe. As you may know, I’ve lived since childhood with a fingerbiting compulsion (not to be confused with nail biting). When I was in my teens and early twenties, the level of self-injury from it was quite severe. I’ve spent a small fortune during my life on bandaids. As with compulsive eating, one can’t remove the temptation (food in your case, fingers in mine) from one’s life in the way one can remove cigarettes, alcohol, porn and other objects of addiction. So, these forms of addiction and compulsion are especially challenging.
Over the years, I brought this fingerbiting compulsion to one spiritual teacher and therapist after another like a strangely cherished object, plunked it down in front of them, and hoped they would finally give me the golden key to cure it once and for all. And I got many helpful keys.
My main spiritual teacher, Toni Packer, advised me to simply attend to the whole unfolding from the first urge to the aftermath, without judgment, without seeking a result, simply awaring it—giving it open attention, observing it. Another teacher I worked with, Joko Beck, advised me to feel this whole movement of compulsion in the body as pure sensation and also to hear the thoughts as thoughts, without mistaking them for credible reports on reality. Over the decades, I tried a multitude of other approaches as well, including transactional analysis, gestalt therapy, The Work of Byron Katie and the Living Inquiries of Scott Kiloby, all of which shed light, gave me new tools, and helped in some way.
When I told another Zen teacher about it, he said, “It sounds like you think there’s a problem.” That was revelatory. Oh! It might not be?
As the years rolled by, the biting happened less frequently and less severely, and in the last decade, there were a handful of times when it fell away completely. Not because I took a vow or decided to try harder, but just out of the blue, for no apparent reason, it suddenly just stopped happening. The urge was totally gone. My wounded fingers would heal up, I’d be pleased by how good my hand looked and felt and by how relieving it was not to experience the compulsive biting and the inability to stop, which is a very tense, conflicted, unpleasant, rather torturous experience. In the absence of this compulsion, I could feel my whole body unfolding and relaxing. It was lovely.
And then, after a month or two, again seemingly out of the blue, for no apparent reason that I could detect, I’d notice the first precursor behaviors starting to happen (it took me many years to recognize these), the things I did before I started biting, such as feeling for rough edges, running my finger over my lip, picking at a loose end. And soon thereafter, the biting itself would start again, uncontrollably. The compulsion would be back.
Finally, about a year ago, it stopped for so long that I really thought it was over for good. And then I got diagnosed with cancer. And once again, this time perhaps in reaction to the diagnosis and what I knew was ahead of me, it came back. It’s still happening, off and on, although it’s not happening at this very moment and it hasn’t for a short while now, and who knows, maybe this time it could be gone for good. I never know when (or if) that might happen!
What has changed over the years, aside from the decrease in frequency and severity, is that I have finally stopped seeing it as a problem that I have to cure. I’d love it to go away, and maybe one day it will, but maybe it never will. Maybe it will visit me periodically for as long as I live. The nature of life is that it includes both the pleasant and the unpleasant, the wanted and the unwanted. I’d love to never feel depressed again…or worried…or irritated…or angry. I’d love to not have an ostomy bag. I’d love to know that the cancer won’t come back, that I’ll never get dementia or break a hip or have a stroke, that the Cascadia earthquake won’t happen in my lifetime and bury me alive under the rubble of my home. But the truth is, life includes all kinds of things we don’t want, and sometimes they turn out to be exactly what we need. For me, losing my right hand, being a drunk for a number of years, having an uncontrollable fingerbiting compulsion that still flares up, and having cancer have all turned out to be gifts, doorways into a deeper place, ways of seeing something I might otherwise never have seen. They have all been awakenings. Many people report this same experience.
I would say, first and foremost, recognize that you’re not running this show. Recognize that your apparent problem may be just the door you need. Embrace it. Love it. Recognize that it doesn’t actually matter whether you can cure this problem. This problem is part of the texture of life, and how you think about and conceptualize it is not the bare energetic-sensory actuality of it. In truth, it’s not personal. And it’s not your identity. Contrary to what Twelve-Step programs advise people to declare, I would say, you’re not a food addict (or an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or a workaholic, or a sex addict, or any other kind of addict). Addiction or compulsion is an activity, a pattern of thoughts and behaviors, not an identity. There are many moments for any of us when that addictive activity is not happening, and even if it were happening continuously, it still wouldn’t be your identity. You are not limited to the bodymind or to anything the bodymind is doing, and the bodymind is not really a solid, persisting, independent “thing” separate from the rest of the universe as we’ve learned to think it is, any more than a wave is solid or independent of the ocean.
By all means, if life so moves you, try whatever approaches to resolving this habit beckon to you. Nothing wrong with seeing different teachers or trying different recovery models or whatever life moves you to try. All of this is the activity of life itself. There is a natural desire in us to get away from suffering and to find happiness, to heal what is broken. The search for awakening or liberation or for a cure to problems such as addiction serves a purpose and is a step that probably has to happen. And relatively speaking, some cures can be helpful.
But paradoxically, after much searching and efforting, what we finally come to is the discovery that suffering ends and happiness is revealed when the searching or trying falls away and we are simply here, fully present in this moment, just as it is. Enlightenment, it turns out, is now or never, and it’s right here, right in the middle of this seemingly dreadful mess that we are convinced can’t be it. Of course, pointers such as “give up the search,” or “this is it,” or “allow everything to be as it is,” or “nothing matters in the way we think it does,” can all be misinterpreted to mean that we should just give up in some fatalistic or cynical resignation, leave the flat tire flat forever, and sink ever-deeper into depression and addiction because “life sucks, there’s nothing to do about it, liberation is just a myth,” etc., and that would all be a huge misunderstanding of the true meaning of these counter-intuitive pointers that suggest turning toward the difficulty and in some way embracing it. Liberation is not a myth, but it’s not what we think it is, and we can only find it Here-Now, not someplace else.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin, or if you can’t stop yourself from eating that piece of cake, or going on another diet, or screwing it up, or whatever happens. That’s the most liberating realization. But at the same time, of course it matters in some way what weight you are, just as it matters in some way if my fingers are bitten bloody, or if someone is passed out in the gutter from a heroin OD. It matters relatively, and it may even be a matter of life and death. But it doesn't matter absolutely. The universe includes birth and death, up and down, the whole catastrophe (as Zorba put it). And whatever happens, it is ALL a movement of the whole universe, never an individual triumph or individual screw-up. That's what "not mattering" means.
Also, part of our desire to be thin or sober or addiction-free comes from a concern over our self-image. We want to look good and to be thought of as successful or enlightened or socially acceptable or something along those lines, and that doesn’t seem to tally with this compulsion that we can’t get rid of or control. But we may begin to wonder about what exactly this image (and this mirage-like “me”) is that we are always defending and protecting and trying to fix-up. And sometimes, we may notice that we even seem to be attached to a negative image or identity, and that perhaps in some way, we even enjoy the drama of “me” struggling against this powerful compulsion. And the more we look for this “me” who we think “should” be in control, and “should” be better than I am, the more we discover that no such entity can actually be found.
We may also notice that addiction always (sooner or later) involves an inner conflict between the desire to stop and the urge to indulge, both of which are a movement away from the present actuality of Here-Now. Both are a movement toward something that is imagined to be more desirable than what is, whether that something is the addictive pleasure or the dream of “me” being free from the addiction. Trying to stop is part of the addiction, and is different from actually stopping. Actually stopping can only happen now. And sometimes, the fact is, it doesn’t happen.
Compulsive eating and struggling not to do this—tensing up, trying, resisting, seeking, trying not to try—are ALL included in the totality from which nothing stands apart. And “you” (the phantom agent, the imaginary author-doer) are not doing ANY of it. It's a happening of the whole universe, just as the wave is a happening of the whole ocean. It’s happening because of infinite causes and conditions. And it all happens in this vast open space of awareness. Awareness is not addicted or struggling. Awareness is another word for unconditional love. Awareness is an openness that is so open that it is open to being closed. Awareness accepts and includes everything. It never resists the resistance, judges the judging, or seeks the end of seeking. Awareness is at peace with not feeling peaceful. It is the calm in the midst of the storm, the empty sky that is equally present whether the passing weather is sunny or cloudy. And it never tries to hold on to the pleasant or expanded experiences either. Awareness accepts everything and clings to nothing. And in any moment that we stop and check, awareness is always present, beholding this whole happening, allowing it all to be just as it is.
The more awareness illuminates a compulsion or an addiction, the more that habitual pattern begins to unravel. Awareness, i.e., simply giving whatever is showing up our open, loving, non-judgmental, attention, is the single-most important key to transformation in my experience. Awareness is at the root of all the different methods, techniques, therapies and approaches that I have tried. And all these methods can be boiled down to simple attention, here and now. Here’s what I mean:
As the urge to eat (in an excessive or addictive way) arises, pause and completely feel that urge as pure sensation, pure energy...feel it in the body...be with the changing sensations themselves. And also, hear the thoughts that are urging you to eat or not eat...see that they are familiar, habitual, conditioned thoughts. When possible, shift attention from thought back to the bare sensations themselves. Just be with all this. You may discover that this urge, this feeling in the bodymind which initially seems unbearable, is actually bearable. It may even become interesting. It may even dissolve.
But if the urge to eat is over-powering and the body moves to satisfy that urge, then be aware of how it feels to open the refrigerator or the package of food, to unwrap it, to get the fork or spoon out of the drawer—notice and feel (in the body) the anticipation, the excitement, the dread, the resistance, whatever is there—again, feel all this as pure sensation. See the thoughts. What stories are the thoughts telling you? And then as the eating happens, what is that like? Again, feel it as sensation. What is pleasurable about it? Is it also unpleasant in some way? And then in the aftermath of a binge, what is that like? Again, feeling the sensations, seeing the thoughts. Give all of this from start to finish your complete, open attention, without judgment or trying to correct any of it.
And that last part is very important. You’re not doing all of this so that this problem will be cured, because that's the thinking mind again, with an agenda, seeking a result. Instead, see if it’s possible to do all this in a spirit of total openness, curiosity and interest, without seeking an outcome of any kind. And if seeking a result does show up, then see that for what it is—hear the thoughts driving it, feel the tension of that result-oriented movement in the body. In other words, simply be aware of the whole unfolding from that first urge on through to whatever comes after the binge (satisfaction, discomfort, purging, guilt, whatever it is).
What I'm pointing to here is a kind of scientific curiosity and exploration. We actually get interested in this compulsion: What is it? How does it work? What sets it in motion? What's the allure? What energetic experience or bodily sensation are we resisting or avoiding or trying to soothe when we get this over-powering urge to indulge? This open investigation is not about fixing the addiction, but rather, exploring it. It's not about self-improvement, it's about curiosity and interest in how this all works. And it's not some heavy-handed practice that we "should" do, or that we are trying to do "all the time," or anything like that. It’s just a natural interest and curiosity that we can tune into whenever it invites us. Consciousness is by nature curious. And instead of thinking about the situation and analyzing it in that way, this is an exploration with awareness, with open attention—listening, looking, sensing, feeling, awaring—being with this whole happening. We’re feeling and awaring the whole unfolding, rather than thinking about it and trying to come up with a conceptual explanation or a story about why it’s happening or what it means. Thinking about it and trying to figure it all out is often part of the addiction. Thinking seems to promise control, whereas feeling sensations seems very amorphous and ungraspable and maybe even scary or unfamiliar. It doesn’t transform things in a way that the thinking mind can easily understand.
Transformation doesn't happen on the mind's time-table. Maybe this compulsion happens less frequently and less severely over time, maybe it ends completely at some point, maybe it keeps coming back. Maybe sometimes you find that you don't need to eat when that urge arises, that you can simply feel the urge and let it be there until it dissolves. And at other times, maybe the urge is over-powering and you eat. It doesn't ultimately matter either way. You just give ALL of it open, nonjudgmental attention whenever this exploration invites or interests you.
I hope this helps, and I wish you all the best. You’re not alone. Perhaps this whole movement in and out of addiction and compulsion is consciousness, or the universe, or life itself discovering how to handle increasing evolutionary levels of sensitivity and complexity in a more skillful way, without self-destructing, or maybe the totality is simply pretending to tie itself up in knots and then discovering how to get free. Perhaps it’s all a form of play, and we don’t have to take it all quite so seriously. Whatever is going on, and the truth is, we don’t know, nothing really matters in the way we think it does. And that’s not a cynical or nihilistic realization at all, but one brimming with love and gratitude and freedom. You’re not on your way anywhere else. You’re always Here-Now, and what you truly are is not somebody with an eating addiction (or somebody who has triumphed over it). That “someone” is a mental construction, a mirage, and nothing that happens in this life is ever what we think it is. The map is never the territory. Life is ungraspable and unresolvable. And at the same time, it is most intimate, utterly immediate, never lacking or in excess. The more closely we attend to this moment, the less solid it all seems, and the more we discover that there is nothing here that doesn’t belong.
PS—I go into the subject of addiction and compulsion in all my books, especially Bare-Bones Meditation, Awake in the Heartland, and Nothing to Grasp, as well as in the article on my website Outpourings page on “Addiction and Compulsion” and in several other Outpouring articles as well. I was interviewed in February 2018 for Scott Kiloby’s Living Inquiries about addiction, and you can see that interview by going to the Living Inquiries website and purchasing the series for that time-period. I may do another video with the same interviewer that I’ll eventually put on YouTube and on my website for free—that’s on my to-do list.
Response to a comment:
Wonderful to hear that addiction has lost most of its grip for you, and I do think the exclusive identification as a bodymind (or as a particular gender, race, social class, nationality, and so on), or the false identities we often acquire such as “I’m a failure,” can all play a huge role in driving addiction and compulsion, and when these false identities fall away, the urge to get away from the resulting suffering goes as well. Of course, it’s always important to note that there is a functional sense of identity as the bodymind that remains as long as we are alive, and the bodymind is subject to myriad forms of pain and difficulty, as well as conditioning that is outside the realm of awakening. I’m not implying that you were suggesting identity is the sole cause of addiction, but I think it’s important to note that, in my opinion anyway, the causes of addiction and compulsion cannot be reduced to any single thing. I feel that many things may be involved, including but not limited to genetics, hormones, neurochemistry, trauma, childhood conditioning and lifelong social pressures (including such factors as sexism, racism, heterosexism, poverty, economic struggles, relationship difficulties, and so on). In my own case, I think it’s quite possible that fingerbiting comes from a different cause (or set of causes) than the other addictions I’ve had that have fallen away (alcohol and cigarettes). I mention all of this simply because many people assume that if a person just meditates enough, or is enlightened or awake, or goes through enough psychotherapy, or whatever, that all addictions and compulsions will then automatically fall away, along with all forms of depression, anxiety, impulse-control problems, obsessive behaviors and so on, and that does not appear to me to be true.
QUESTIONING and INQUIRING: Is It Useful?
Someone asked me recently whether I see a value in questioning and inquiry, and the short answer is yes. I’ve found direct, firsthand investigation, exploration and discovery to be a vital part of awakening and liberation—and to be clear, when I speak of awakening and liberation, I’m talking about being awake Here-Now and being liberated on the spot (i.e., Here-Now) from delusion, suffering and confusion—not once-and-for-all or forever-after or in the past or someday, but Now.
So, how is questioning and inquiry helpful?
I’ll start with an example from my own life that I may have mentioned before. It was on a Zen sesshin (extended retreat) with Maurine Stuart Roshi many years ago, when she was dying of pancreatic cancer. I must have gone to her in a dokusan (private meeting) with some dilemma in my life, and she gave me the koan-question, “What do you really want?” I then spent days thinking about the question and desperately trying to figure out if I wanted to be in formal Zen or with Toni Packer, who had left the tradition behind, and whether I wanted to be living in NY or in California, and so on. This thinking, I noticed, went round and round in circles and got me nowhere but into suffering and confusion. It was a form of torture. Finally, in a moment of breakthrough, I viscerally got that what I most want is to be awake now. The tortured thinking, the “me” at the center of it, the idea of future time, and the whole effort to control my life and “get it right” and survive as Joan all fell away in that instant, and I was left Here-Now in (and as) the utter simplicity of awake presence. Just this! And I knew that this was the jewel beyond all price.
Of course, that’s not to say that obsessive thought never returned. It did. But once I had made this discovery, there was a new wisdom about what I really most deeply wanted in life, and what really mattered, and what actually worked when faced with a dilemma, and there was a possibility of shifting from the obsessive thought-spin to simple aware presence, and the more that shift happened, the more available it seemed to become.
In my years on staff at Springwater, the “Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats” founded by Toni Packer, I found that living with a question such as, “Is there free will or choice?” could be very revelatory, not by thinking about the question and trying to figure it out mentally, but by paying attention—watching carefully as choices and decisions actually unfolded. In doing that, I discovered directly that I could not make the decisive moment happen any sooner than it did, nor could I find the chooser or say how a choice was made. It all happened by itself! I discovered firsthand that the little “me” (which is thought masquerading as the phantom self) was not running the show.
I also discovered in the course of this same inquiry that it wasn’t quite accurate or true to land on the conclusion that “there is no free will and no choice.” Because I came upon the palpable and undeniable sense or direct knowingness that there is something Here-Now that is unconditioned and free—namely, the impersonal awareness beholding the whole show, the space in which everything happens, the listening silence, the light that allows everything to appear, the open presence that is actually what the word “I” refers to beyond all the things that we have learned to identify as “me,” such as my name, the image I see in the mirror, my life story, my age, my gender, my occupation, and so on. All of that appears in this vast open awareness that I am. And by investigating, I came to see that this open awaring presence is always here, that it is the very nature of Here-Now. Every time I stopped and checked, no matter how confused or upset or lost in thought I seemed to be, this awareness was always here, boundless and limitless and most intimate. I could never deny that I am here now, present and aware, and that this infinite and eternal awaring presence (aka Here-Now) is what “I” most fundamentally IS.
By investigating “the body” with open attention, I found it to be nothing solid. It was ever-changing vibrations. And these vibrations and sensations and the image in the mirror and everything that I call “my body” was appearing and disappearing in this boundless awareness along with the whole universe. Another related inquiry that showed up for me out of the blue one day was looking to see if I could find an actual place where “inside of me” turned into “outside of me.” Was there an actual boundary-line that I could find? I could think about or conceptualize such a boundary, for example, “the skin.” But if I looked with the light of awareness rather than with thought, could I find any actual boundary in my immediate, direct experience? And if I felt into what I label “skin” as bare sensation or energy, was there actually a solid boundary there? As my arm rested on the arm of the chair, could I find a place where “the chair” ended and “my skin” or “my arm” began? I found no such boundary, only ever-changing, indeterminate tinglings and vibrations. And then I began looking to see if I could find any boundary where awareness stopped and the content of awareness began. Was there any actual dividing line between what I thought of as subject and object, or seer and seen, or was the only reality the undivided seeing, the seamless awaring? I could never find any boundary. I discovered I am nothing and everything!
This is often discovered through the classic spiritual question “Who (or what) am I?” With this question, the thinking mind expects to find something. But the question actually leads to finding nothing at all! Whenever I would turn attention around, back to the source of present moment thinking or seeing, or if I looked to see what the word “I” most deeply referred to, I found no-thing I could grasp. I found only empty clear space and the knowingness of being present and aware, not as somebody, but as this impersonal, boundless awareness—and at the same time, I found EVERYTHING, present experiencing, just as it is. But I didn’t ever find “Joan” or “me” or the “self” who seems to be thinking my thoughts, making my choices and leading my life. Of course, if we are looking in the realm of thought for the answer to such questions, we may find all of those apparent things, but if we are looking with open attention, with the light of awareness, it is discovered that we are actually not a separate, encapsulated entity but rather the unbound awareness in which the body-mind-world appears and disappears. We are this whole happening and the awareness beholding it all.
What seems to follow from this discovery of being limitless awareness is not an erasure of the person or the personality, but actually a greater freedom for it all to be as it is, instead of as conditioned thinking tells us it “should” or “must” be. What falls away is not the functional sense of being a particular person or the unique flavor of that personality, but rather, it is the sense of separation and the sense of encapsulation and solidity and fixed identity as “me.” As recovered addict and Advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman put it, “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.” We don’t need to deny being a wave, but we realize that we are the whole ocean momentarily playing or waving.
With an addiction or compulsion, as I mentioned in my previous note on that subject, a kind of scientific curiosity and exploration can be very helpful in shedding light and dissolving the habitual fixation. We get interested in this compulsion. What is it? How does it work? What sets it in motion? What's the allure? What are we resisting or avoiding when we get the urge to do it? What does that urge itself feel like in the body as pure sensation or energy? Is it possible to simply feel it without acting on it? And we do this investigation not by thinking about these questions, but by feeling and observing and awaring the whole unfolding. This approach is not about fixing the apparent problem, but rather, exploring it. It's not about self-improvement; it's about curiosity and interest in how this all works. And paradoxically, this complete acceptance and curiosity can dissolve the addiction, rarely in a single dramatic flash, usually gradually, over time, simply by illuminating it and by developing an increasing ability and willingness to be with the uncomfortable states of bodymind that feel unbearable and that drive us toward addictive behaviors.
This inquiry into addiction and compulsion can be expanded to an exploration of how consciousness moves from resting in simple open presence, the spacious no-thing-ness of awareness, back into some kind of familiar form—how we seem to become uncomfortable with formlessness and boundlessness and thus contract again into a form, something we can grasp—a thought-form, an object, a book, a storyline, a problem, a mental movie, an actual movie, our identity as a particular person, our to-do list, our phone, whatever it might be—in other words, how we re-incarnate again and again, not from one lifetime to the next, but many times in the space of a single day.
And I’m not suggesting here that we “should” remain forever in some particular experience of formless presence and never engage with form again. For one thing, as long as we’re alive and embodied, this will be impossible. We may be able to go into some utterly formless samadhi state for a while, maybe even a long while, but sooner or later, we will need to use the bathroom or eat or go to work or care for our children. So, this isn’t about pathologizing form and trying to cling to some rarified experience of emptiness. In fact, as they say in Zen, “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” They aren’t really two things. It’s simply about getting curious about how we become uncomfortable with silence or boundlessness and how our attention seems to condense back into familiar forms. And yet, the more closely we look at the apparent forms, the more we discover that they are actually formlessness, empty of form. The deepest understanding of impermanence in Zen is that there is no impermanence, because the impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms (or persists) to be impermanent. We find that we can’t ever actually move out of formless presence!
I’ve often reflected on the question of what is the most essential thing that I want to convey in my writings and talks. What is the core, the essence, the most essential key? What is this awakening journey, or what we sometimes call nonduality or Buddhism or Advaita or spirituality really all about? This is a wonderful question to keep asking. I addressed this in my post back on May 12 called “The Most Liberating Discovery.”
So, yes, I see a tremendous value in questions and inquiries, but not as metaphysical topics to think about philosophically. What I find helpful and interesting is the direct exploration with the light of awareness. Giving open, non-judgmental attention to the actuality Here-Now. In this way, we see for ourselves how life is, rather than picking up and holding on to beliefs or second-hand ideas. And it is so important to do this exploration without expectations, not knowing in advance what will be discovered, not seeking a result, and not fixating on anything that is found, but like a scientist, always being open to discovering something new and unexpected. As they say in Zen, not knowing is most intimate. There’s a beautiful connection between the word “wondering” (as in questioning) and the word “wonder” (as in amazement and joy).
I had this question put to me recently: “How to deal with people (especially, loved ones) who are not at all interested in this (the power of now, inquiry, meditation, awareness), especially when we see how they suffer by missing the freedom inherent in this moment?” In other words, what to do when your partner, loved one, or close friend doesn’t resonate with the liberating power of awareness and presence, or the nondual perspective on life that feels so profoundly freeing and important to you?
I suppose this same question might apply equally to how we deal with it if our loved ones disagree with, or don’t share, our political views, our aesthetic taste, our moral sensibilities, or anything else that feels important to us. That kind of difference can sometimes feel very upsetting and threatening. Our spirituality, our political views, our taste in music or movies or literature or art, our moral sensibilities can all seem to be part of our identity as the separate “me.”
So, we might wonder, what is it that finds this difference between us upsetting or unsettling? And what is it that feels uncomfortable with the suffering of a loved one that we think could be easily avoided if only they would “be here now,” or wake up from their identity as “me,” or understand the absence of free will, or see their True Nature as unbound awareness, or whatever it might be that we feel would end their suffering?
I came across a beautiful statement today by Douglas Harding: “Can’t you see, I’m just space for you to be.”
Maybe we communicate and offer much more by simply BEING present and aware than we ever do by talking about it. Can we simply be space for our partner (or friend or loved one) to be just as they are in this moment? Space (or awareness) is not judging them, or needing to fix them, or feeling uncomfortable in the presence of their pain, or feeling superior or frustrated because they’re stuck in the mire that we think we’ve left behind. Awareness is always allowing it all to be as it is.
Isn’t it only from the perspective of the separate self that we need others to see things the way we do, and that we find it somehow disturbing and upsetting when they don’t? Isn’t it when we’re identifying as this separate self that we feel alone if our partner doesn’t share the things we value most? Does space (or awareness) feel alone or disturbed in that way?
And instead of focusing on our partner’s problem and their suffering, we might wonder, are we present and awake to our own suffering about their suffering? Are we perhaps more concerned (or at least just as concerned) about our own discomfort as we are about their suffering? What is it that we are actually anxious to relieve?
Is it possible to just be there for them, to listen openly, without judgment and without needing to fix or save or cure them—allowing our partner to be exactly as they are, knowing they cannot be otherwise in this moment, and maybe being aware of our own discomfort and our urges to change or “help” them in some way?
Is there genuine curiosity about what’s happening for them? That’s very different from assuming we know. My main teacher, Toni Packer, often put things in the form of questions rather than injunctions, prescriptions, commands or assertions. Byron Katie’s Work is also put forward in the form of questions that invite a person to look deeply into their own direct experience rather than telling them what they should find. Therapists and spiritual teachers often ask questions rather than offering conclusions or prescriptions. Questions often work much better because a question opens a space and allows the person to be as they are and to make their own discoveries, rather than having our “better ideas” rammed down their throats.
And sometimes, maybe even asking skillful questions is too much. Usually, with a close friend or an intimate partner, we have a pretty good idea of when we’re going to be pushing their buttons, stepping on their toes, or otherwise upsetting them and triggering resistance and conflict. And sometimes, we may notice that we’re even deliberately crossing these lines, deliberately provoking the person, because in some way we’re itching for a fight or a conflict. We get something out of that. What is it we get from a fight? That’s a wonderful inquiry if we notice ourselves knowingly pushing our partner’s buttons, perhaps under the passive-aggressive pretense that we are “helping” them.
Can we begin to develop a sensitivity or a discernment about when we are asking genuine questions from a place of true curiosity, interest, love and care, and when we are trying to “teach” someone or fix them or get them to see things the way we do? By giving open, nonjudgmental attention to this whole event (their suffering, our reactions, the whole show) as it happens, we can begin to discern our own motives, which may be a desire to eliminate our own discomfort or to provoke a conflict. What’s going on for us when we seem to need our partner to be happy or free or awake or different from how they are? Or when we want them to share our interests and passions and perspectives on life? Can we just BE with this whole uncomfortable swirl without trying to manage or control or fix ANY of it?
Awareness is contagious. Actually, it’s ever-present and all-inclusive, but what I mean is that open, spacious, nonjudgmental attention and genuine love are contagious in the same way that anger or anxiety or restlessness can be contagious. If we are meeting this other person’s suffering with simple, open attention, with genuine love, with awareness—if we are simply being space for them (and their upset) to be, that in itself may communicate something much deeper than any words ever could.
And, of course, sincerity is everything here, because when we fake these kinds of “spiritual” responses and put on a saccharine facade that oozes “loving kindness” or “open listening” or “compassion” in a kind of sickeningly pretentious and superior way, that is pretty much guaranteed to start a war because anyone who knows us intimately can feel this. Better in that case to just get openly angry or fearful or irritated!
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to notice where we are coming from in this moment, right now—are we coming from the place of identity as the little me, the separate self, feeling deficient and threatened, alternately superior or inferior, or are we coming from open, free, spacious, all-inclusive, boundless awareness, our True Nature? And what do we really, most deeply, want? Where is the peace, the love, the joy, the freedom, the aliveness actually found? Is it dependent on anything? On our partner being a certain way?
Response to a comment:
Very happy to hear there aren't any superego attacks on the poor ego, but only "a quiet flow of love and trust, holding all of this like a mother patiently and lovingly holds a child that goes through a tantrum." Beautiful!! The "me" is never really enlightened, since all that word really refers to is a waving pattern of ever-changing, conditioned thoughts, memories, images, sensations and beliefs that together create a kind of mirage. But there is an awareness of all of this, and that awareness (our True Nature, the nature of Here-Now) is already whole, boundless, free, open, unconditioned, and we could say, totally enlightened and awake. Delusion is just a passing weather event, never really personal in the way we think when thought identifies it as "me" and "mine." So we can see our human follies with humor and love and tenderness, instead of with harsh judgment. It's all rather endearing really, and we all know this stuff, don't we? Much love to you. Thanks for being here.
On Being (or Not Being) a Spiritual Teacher:
Many friends and colleagues (if I can call them that) in the world of awakening, liberation, nonduality, or whatever we call this, have abandoned the word spirituality altogether. After all, what is not spiritual? By suggesting that some activities or things are spiritual and others are not, we have created a false duality. And on top of that, the word too often seems to suggest a wide array of beliefs, experiences, happenings and perspectives that have nothing whatsoever to do with what we are pointing out or expressing—stuff like angels, reincarnating souls, creating one’s own reality, choosing your parents before you are born, going into special samadhi states, going to heaven during a near-death experience, seeing blue lights, and a host of other things.
And then there’s that pesky word teacher—my main teacher, Toni Packer, refused to use this word. She simply called herself my friend. And we were friends. But the truth is, she was also my teacher. Of course, in some ways, I was her teacher, too, but for the most part, she was my teacher. I used to argue with her about this, telling her she was in denial, but when I started holding meetings myself, I knew where she was coming from, because I never think of myself as a teacher, nor do I think of the people I meet with as my students. That would feel strangely pretentious and divisive, and would seem only to reinforce false ideas about who we each are. Occasionally, for practical purposes, I do use the word, as did Toni. But when I gave a retreat at Springwater a few years back, that’s the Center Toni founded, my job assignment was listed as “giving talks and holding meetings,” not “teacher.” Their choice, not mine, but it made me smile.
I’m much more comfortable calling myself a writer than calling myself a teacher. And the truth is, I’m none of these…I’m no-thing at all, being Here-Now as this present experiencing and this awaring presence, and sometimes that shows up as this activity we call writing, and sometimes it shows up as giving a talk or meeting with someone, and sometimes it shows up as what we call eating lunch or vacuuming the house or doing the laundry or sitting in my armchair doing nothing at all.
When people ask me the dreaded question, “What do you do?” I always feel stumped. Hmmmm. What do I do? Such a mysterious question. One friend of mine always answers this question when she is asked by saying, “As little as possible.”
After a moment of feeling clueless, I come up with a range of replies depending on the context and who is asking. If I say I write books, they want to know what they’re about. Then I’m back to the same dilemma. Sometimes I say I teach or write about meditation and awareness, because most people understand that in some way, although it isn’t actually how I would describe what I do at all. Sometimes I say I write and talk about nonduality, but that doesn’t really completely hit the mark for me either, and many people have no idea what that might mean, and if they ask, then what do I say? Clueless again. If I say I point to liberation, awakening or enlightenment or to being awake Here-Now, that can sound a bit pretentious and can create false ideas of something exotic or grandiose. Sometimes I use the word spiritual, and maybe they think I talk about angels or channel disembodied entities or meditate on blue lights.
Alan Watts called himself a spiritual entertainer, and I always appreciated that. Karl Renz once called himself a rug-puller, as in pulling the rug out from under you, and I like that one too. Some of those old Zen guys called themselves cloud-watchers or said they were not doing anything. I got a fortune cookie once years ago that said, “You will be paid thousands of dollars daily for doing nothing.” But I have found that doing nothing can be trickier than it sounds. One old Zen guy said he was engaged in selling water by the banks of the river, which is a perfect description of this strange and baffling job. Or, as someone else in the business once said, I just wasn’t qualified for anything else.
Response to a comment:
Hi Sal -- You're right, you did inspire the post, both by rejecting the words spiritual and teacher in your books and then by describing me as that—but to be clear, I wasn’t in any way upset that you described me that way, I totally got it, I use those generic terms myself in describing people, and what you said about me was lovely, and I was really writing this in a spirit of amusement, albeit a serious topic. I’ve been variously called a spiritual teacher, a Zen teacher, a nondualist, a Buddhist, a meditation teacher, a writer, an author, a satsang teacher, a student of Toni Packer, the person whose job is giving talks and holding meetings, and a few less flattering names as well, and I’m actually fine with all of them…totally no problem!
Response to a comment:
You raise many points here. I personally don’t resonate with thinking of myself as someone who “helps people wake up,” although it might be an accurate description. I seem to have an aversion to the notion of being a "helper." I like what Robert says about expressing himself. If someone would tell Toni Packer she was engaged in something noble-sounding like “helping people” or “awakening humanity” or “saving the world” or anything like that, she would shake her head and say she was just doing what she couldn’t not do, what life was moving her to do. My good friend Darryl Bailey, author of several wonderful nondual books, also says he’s just expressing what he’s moved by life to express. That’s very much how I feel. If it helps anyone, great. If it upsets or further confuses some people, such is life. I’m just doing what life moves me to do.
While I don’t deny the relative truth of evolutionary development on either a global or personal scale, I notice that these are stories put together by thought, memory and imagination that create the illusion of past and future time and of some-thing that is developing over time. When we look closely, none of this really holds up. There is only Now. The Big Bang is Now. That doesn’t mean there is no relative value in studying history, envisioning a “better” future, or thinking about evolutionary development in the many different ways that different disciplines have done, including evolutionary biology, and Ken Wilber’s theories of the evolution of consciousness, the stages of development, and so on. It all has its use, and I find some of it very interesting and worthwhile. But it can also be very much at the root of how we suffer, by imagining ourselves as something deficient that is moving toward perfection in the future.
What interests me most, and what I point to above all else, is Here-Now. I don’t talk about enlightenment as a distant goal that a person might one day reach through many years of arduous practice, but simply as a pointer to what is fully present, right here, right now. And I try to clarify the illusory and insubstantial nature of what seems to be in the way, to expose the false as false.
Anyway, thanks for weighing in.
Someone recently asked me to address this question: “How to deal with the lack of control over the body (which can often be humiliating) when sickness is here?”
I’ve been writing a new “Note” that I’ll be puting up soon about the illusion of control, which will perhaps address some of this question. But the other aspect of it is the feeling of humiliation. We have the idea that dignity means being in control, not being overwhelmed by emotion, not screaming or crying in pain, not losing control of our bowels, not vomiting on ourselves, not peeing in our pants, not losing our minds, and so on. We have the idea that we must be in control, and that bodily functions and emotions are all somehow a bit dirty or unspiritual or best hidden away—at the very least, they must be controlled.
As we age, and for some people much sooner in the wake of an illness or a disability, all this begins to crumble away. We may start having falls or losing our cognitive skills. We may not be able to function independently anymore. We may need help, sometimes with very intimate tasks. We may lose bowel control, perhaps in a crowded restaurant while eating Sunday brunch with a large group of younger friends (that happened to my mother in her last year of life). If you’ve been with people who are dying, you know that there are usually body fluids involved and all sorts of messy things that don’t fit our (limited and unreal) picture of dignity. A friend tells me that his father was senile and terrified at the end of his life, and had to be restrained because he kept getting up and falling down and hurting himself. He no longer recognized his family. He was lying in bed, in restraints, in terror, screaming. I have an ostomy bag now, following an anal cancer, and I’ve had some pretty messy moments in the last six months while going through chemotherapy and radiation and managing the bag one-handed. Are all these events undignified? Are they humiliating? Or are they simply part of life?
In fact, we’re not in control…and I’ll say more about that in my upcoming “Note.” And meanwhile, maybe we need to re-examine our ideas about what constitutes dignity. And also, we might look into what exactly it is that is getting humiliated. Isn’t it a self-image of some kind, an ideal of how we think we are or should be? There’s actually a gift in having this destroyed.
Near the end of my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, I quote Hubert Benoit. He was a French surgeon (and later psychiatrist) who was severely wounded during a bombing in World War II that left him unable to move for many years. He got very into Zen and wrote an excellent book about it, in which he says that all negative states are at bottom humiliations, and that humiliation is the gateway to awakening. From my book Bare-Bones Meditation:
“Humiliation, [Benoit] says, comes from trying not to see our powerlessness, holding on to a picture of a ‘me’ who is separate from the totality, striving to triumph in some way. Benoit maintains that the true guru is ‘reality as it is, our daily life,’ which inevitably defeats our ambitions and provides us with evidence of our powerlessness and lack of control…Benoit points out that our deliberate spiritual ‘doings’ tend to prevent awakening because they all aim, directly or indirectly, at ‘on high,’ whereas awakening awaits us ‘beneath,’ in finally, fully experiencing the defeat that we have been running from so frantically. This defeat is the end of all imagined limitation and bondage, and it is the end of all imaginary salvation. It is the end of imagining that there is someone to save.
“It is of utmost importance to realize that humility is not a facade to be worn or a method to be practiced. ‘If I don’t understand that,’ Benoit says, ‘I shall avoid humiliations instead of using them.’ Merely to abstain from all situations that may involve ego-aggrandizement or pride is nothing more than an attempt to cultivate a false humility that is actually about safety and image, and has nothing whatsoever to do with true emptiness. True humility comes from jumping into the fire, and fully experiencing the conflagration that life offers. Awakening is giving up all hope of improvement, all need of something better. It is fully present, immediate being, with no escape from exactly what is. Not as a method with an imagined result, but as a possibility, moment to moment.”
It has been said that enlightenment is not final victory, but rather, final defeat.
A series of responses to someone who criticized a Toni Packer quote I shared on 6/10/18:
You're not hearing her, or even really listening. Toni was pointing to a possibility, an openness, that is non-conceptual, right here. By asking a question, she was inviting, wondering, not asserting. You're seeing the "me" where there is none. This is what happens when people hear all of this only mentally, as ideology. Having worked closely with Toni over many years, I can assure you she was well-aware of the illusory nature of the self, the illusory nature of free will, and the many subtle disguises of the "me"--these were central themes in her expression. But she understood all this directly, not as an ideology she believed in. And she wasn't hung up on thinking she couldn't pose a question such as, "Why not leave it alone completely, come what may?" She wasn't worried about being "spiritually incorrect."
Yes, it's a gentle suggestion of a different possibility from the habitual one to which humans usually gravitate. Is that a problem? Making a suggestion does not imply a self, in the problematic or illusory sense, any more than expressing an opinion or a preference, coaching an athlete, teaching mathematics, changing a flat tire, or earning a living. ALL of this is the movement of life. The self that is illusory and problematic is something else. As for spinning the truth to stay in business, I'm 100% certain that Jed McKenna makes a hell of a lot more money on his books than Toni Packer ever did. Toni made practically nothing from her writing and teaching and this was, I can assure you, not her motivation for doing it. She definitely wasn't "spinning the truth to stay in business." What you're arguing here is the kind of nondual dogmatism, spiritual correctness and misunderstanding of "no self," "no choice," and "nothing to do," that I address in my new Note, which I just posted on my author page (referring to 6/13/18: The Other Most Liberating Realization, see below).
Reply to another person in this same thread:
Beautifully put! I love Mooji, by the way. And one of the many things I love about him is that he doesn't fall into this kind of simplistic dogmatism or getting stuck on one side of any conceptual divide...he moves fluidly. And yes, on your other point, there seems to be a popular crusade going on against spiritual teachers making money, often implying that many popular contemporary teachers are driven by the desire to get rich. That may be true for some teachers, but when I hear people saying that about folks like Mooji, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira, Eckhart Tolle or Gangaji, I have to disagree, having met and talked with and been with all of them except ET, and knowing him rather extensively through his teachings. I'm sure they're all doing well financially, but their success is well-deserved in my opinion, and when people assume how wealthy they are, what is often overlooked are the extensive costs of paying staff, renting retreat facilities, traveling, publicity, maintaining a state-of-the-art website, and so on. That's not to say they may not be doing well financially, but why not? It is clearly not what motivates them! Anyway, I see a lot of silly teacher and guru-bashing going on these days. It's like the flip-side of the way some people think everything a teacher or guru says is true, and the teacher is beyond human error, and cannot be criticized or questioned, and must be worshipped, and so on.
Another reply to new comment from the first commenter:
I have nothing against therapy, but none of the teachers mentioned are offering what I would call therapy. You say you did listen to them, but apparently you didn't really hear or get what they were pointing to. That's not your fault. It happens. And we all need and resonate with different things. Apparently, they weren't helpful to you, and maybe your interest in them was cult-like or therapeutic or whatever. But I can assure you they have been helpful to many people, myself included!
I don't have any problem with questioning or disagreeing with a particular thing someone says or with their style of teaching, but to attack their motives and assume they are dishonest, greedy, disgusting charlatans is something else. This is a trend I see going on now, and I find it disturbing, false, unkind, and malicious. Social media seems to encourage this kind of trashing.
Your initial comment felt to me like a clever, head-based reaction to and put-down of what Toni intended as an open invitation. It made me sad that you missed it so completely and then felt the need to piss on it. But you did and I responded. You went on to suggest that Toni was spinning the truth to stay in business. I have no problem with the fact that some people don't resonate with Toni Packer, but I get tired of clever comments on FB to put someone down, and if they want to attack Toni Packer as someone who tried to "stay in business," then I will speak up and say, no, that's not true.
Responding to your question about what teachers get paid for, like everyone else, they get paid for their time and energy, and in this case, for the service they provide. All the teachers I mentioned above (not to you, but in my response to someone else in this thread who first mentioned Mooji and the subject of money), namely Mooji, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira, Eckhart Tolle and Gangaji, are all in the business of deconstructing the ego, as was the late Toni Packer. They are all pointing to the illusion of separation and solidity, and to the illusory nature of the little-me who seems to be in control, the apparently separate self that is at the root of most of our human suffering and confusion. These teachers are all pointing to something beyond thought and beyond this illusory sense of separation and encapsulation, namely awareness, presence, the unbound immediacy of Here-Now, reality as it is rather than as we conceptualize it.
Yes, they all, on occasion, to greater or lesser degrees, respond to questions they get about what you might call psychological issues or common human situations and emotions (fear, anger, child-raising, intimate relationships, jealousy, etc.), but their responses always point to recognizing the illusory nature of the "me" that is upset and discovering the awareness that is beholding it all. So they are not responding in the way a psychotherapist typically would at all (although there are many types of psychotherapy and many therapists now who are "awake" in this way and who might include this perspective in their therapy). But these teachers are not talking about self-improvement or how to function better within the dream-like movie of waking life, although that may be a result or side effect of awakening to what they are pointing out.
Each of the 6 teachers mentioned comes at all this in a slightly different way, with a different emphasis, with somewhat different language, and certainly with different styles of teaching, all of which in each case often change and evolve over time. I have personally found all 6 of them very helpful, and I have witnessed their impact on many, many others. Many of their students are highly intelligent, wise, high-functioning, deeply insightful people...although some of their students may be psychologically needy or damaged or whatever. But to imagine that these 6 teachers are simply conning a bunch of gullible fools is truly off the mark, in my experience.
I do hear that these teachers did not get through to you, that you didn't "get" what was being pointed out, that you found them all disingenuous and corrupt...and I'm truly sorry this was your experience. It is pretty much a fact of life that no one (no teacher, no therapist, no doctor, no lawyer, no potential friend, no writer, no musician, no politician, no one in any field) will appeal to everyone, and it's also a fact of life that everyone who teaches will be misunderstood, misquoted, and misinterpreted on occasion. They will be disliked by some, and adored by others. It happens.
I'm not saying I agree or resonate with every single thing these 6 teachers say and do, but on balance, I love all of them, would (and do) recommend them all very highly. I have known them all well enough to feel 100% certain they are totally sincere in what they do, and not motivated by financial greed or a desire to con people. That's not to say they may not want to make a good living, or that they might not be deluded in certain areas, as we ALL are (imho)--they are, after all, human beings with human foibles, as ALL teachers are. I have heard all of them acknowledge this in different ways, some more than others, but none of them claims to be infallible or perfect. They all point to what is here right now, owned by no one, and none of them claim to possess something their students do not have equally and in full measure, albeit perhaps unrecognized or not yet fully realized, which is why we go to teachers, because we sense they can help us in some way to see the false as false and to uncover or discover what we long for, and if we're lucky, they point us beyond the need of help, as all 6 of these have done at various times for me.
There may, of course, be teachers who ARE corrupt--motivated entirely by financial greed or whatever--but that has not been my experience with any of these 6 people.
I didn't intend to suggest that your initial comment was a deliberate attack on Toni...it simply felt like you had entirely missed the depth of what she was saying, had heard it only on a mental level, and were feeling compelled to make a clever "attack" on what you felt was incorrect in it. You heard "the me" where there actually was none. It was like the Spiritually Correct Language Police giving the quote a ticket for seeming to suggest there might be a doer and something to do. God forbid! I see this kind of reaction a lot on FB, and it brings up sorrow in me, but sometimes also impatience. Hence, my response.
I would add that psychotherapy and spirituality have a certain amount of overlap. They both deal with the human mind and its delusions, and they both have something to do with finding a way through and beyond suffering. There are, of course, many different forms of both psychotherapy and spirituality with different methods, different emphasis, and often widely different perspectives.
In the beginning, we typically enter into either therapy or a spiritual path with the idea that “I” am in some way deficient and in need of being fixed, and we think that therapy or spirituality will fix us. We hope to be able to avoid the pain, uncertainty, disappointment, vulnerability and sorrow that is an inevitable part of embodied life as a human being. In my experience with both therapy and spirituality, what we find in the end of each is not the perfection of “me,” although some things may improve, but more importantly, we come to an acceptance of our imperfection and all the apparent imperfections around us. We develop a greater ability or capacity to meet the pain, uncertainty, disappointment, vulnerability and sorrow of life without running away and turning to the habitual escapes (e.g. addiction, resistance, taking it all personally, and so on) that only create more pain and sorrow.
Being a therapist or a spiritual teacher involves a service that is much less tangible and measurable than the services provided by a dentist, a trash collector, a truck driver, a surgeon, or a brick layer. But in my opinion, that doesn’t mean the service isn’t real or doesn’t merit financial compensation. No one expects a psychotherapist to work another full-time job and then do psychotherapy in their free time, free of charge. But for some reason, perhaps because of deep ideas that money is unspiritual and dirty, we often do expect that of spiritual teachers. I find it very curious. For teachers like those I mentioned, spiritual teaching is a full-time job, and it's a very demanding job! They all work hard! Maybe it looks easy from the outside, but it takes a great deal of sustained energy and hard work.
Of course money or business can be potentially corrupting. This is true not just in spirituality, but in medicine, law, science, politics, social services, the restaurant business, and pretty much anything else you can think of. But no one expects doctors, lawyers, scientists, and others to work for free so as to avoid this possible corruption. That would be absurd!!!! What is different with spirituality? Of course, we have old traditions where monks and gurus and spiritual teachers cannot touch money, but they are then supported by those who do touch it!!! These are old, outdated ideas that are best left in the dust bin of history. Spirituality in the 21st century is not about withdrawing from the world and living on nettles in a cave somewhere. It's about being in the world (so to speak), in ordinary life, with the same pressures that other people have in ordinary life (finding shelter, putting food on the table, paying the bills, and so on).
While I'm on the subject of money, writers are another group everyone thinks should work for free. I can't tell you how many people make a point of not buying books...they share them, use the library, buy them used, whatever it takes to make sure the author never gets a penny...and the author gets only pennies when the book sells new...the publisher gets the lion's share. I'm not against libraries or sharing books, but people seem absolutely oblivious to the impact this has on the writer. I've written the equivalent of about 8 books all published for free here on FB...I'm not complaining, but sometimes when people get into this nonsense about how spiritual teachers ought to work for free so they're not corrupted, I honestly just want to scream. AAAAArrrrrgggghhhhhh!!!!!!! Wake up!!!!! Wake up!!!! YOU work for free if you think that's a good idea, and stop telling other people to work for free!!!! Be pure yourself, if that's your idea of purity. And while you're at it, buy a new book occasionally and help support a starving author. Okay, end of my rant for today.
Reply to another person in this same thread:
The "ego collapse experience” you mention is an experience. No experience is permanent. What happens in those initial glimpses is that the thought-pattern we call “ego” momentarily vanishes, the accompanying bodily contraction relaxes, there is a felt-sense of spaciousness, openness, peace, love, joy, freedom—everyone will choose different words. And then, of course, eventually, the thoughts and the bodily contraction (what Toni in her quote called the “thirty thousand chemicals”) come back, and the story then arises, “I had it, but I lost it, and the person at the front of the room is having this spacious experience permanently, and I want that, too.” Of course, this doesn’t work.
This is a stage on the pathless path that most all of us pass through—trying to recapture a past experience, imagining that if I could get that experience to last forever, that would be enlightenment, and so on. We are chasing a pipe dream. Often at this same time, we begin to notice that the teacher we thought was so wonderful is actually flawed, and some of the other people around them are flawed. Disillusionment sets in. Some people get very discouraged eventually and decide the teacher is a con artist and that the whole of spirituality is a racket holding out false promises in order to reel in suckers and make tons of money from their gullibility. That seems to have been the case with you if I'm hearing you correctly. Many such people end up drawn to Robert Saltzman, who caters to their conclusions that it was all bullshit, because he sees it that way, too. While I agree with much of what Robert says, there are parts of it that do not resonate here, and i don't share his extremely harsh appraisal of the spiritual scene. (That's not to say I don't see things I don't like in it from time to time).
I would say that what is permanent or ever-present is not an experience, but rather the awareness in which ALL different experiences (contracted and expanded, me-centered and without self) appear and disappear. Even the first bare SENSE of being present and aware (what has often been called the I AM) comes and goes. That which is ever-present has been given many names. Mooji calls it the What Is. Eckhart Tolle calls it the Now or Being. I often call it Here-Now. Buddhism calls it the One Mind (although not all schools of Buddhism like to speak of anything being permanent—they simply point out that the deepest understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence because the impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms or persists to BE impermanent). But whatever language is used, the main point is that no experience is permanent. So-called enlightenment is not a permanent experience of any kind.
You’re welcome on my page. What I don’t welcome is trashing teachers. And my pages are not really intended as a forum on other teachers. My pages are intended as a place for me to express my message and respond to people who have sincere comments and questions. Being human, or as I often say, being just another bozo on the bus like everyone else in this movie, I sometimes become impatient. Occasionally I lose my temper and snap. I'm not perfect. But I will stand up for teachers who I think are outstanding in their clarity and depth, and that certainly includes Mooji and ET. I hear that for you, they were a very big disappointment. Again, such is life.
And now, can we please all move on...
The Other Most Liberating Realization
Recently, on 5/12/18, I wrote a post with a similar title, in which I said that the most liberating discovery was the power of Now, not meaning the book by that name, but rather, the recognition that Here-Now (otherwise known as free, unconditioned, boundless, spacious, all-inclusive awareness) is our True Home, what we most fundamentally are. And I spoke in that post about the transformative power that naturally flows forth from that recognition and from knowingly tuning into and BEING that open, awake presence, which we can notice is always right here, anytime we stop and check.
The other most liberating realization in my experience, and what I’m writing about today, is the recognition that everything (awareness and content) is an ever-changing and seamless whole, without actual division or separation, in which nothing stands apart to be either in or out of control. In other words, the notion of solid, independent entities with free will and individual responsibility is an illusion. When we realize this, it brings a natural compassion for ourselves and everyone else and an ability to be at peace with ourselves, with others, and with the world at large.
We see that everything and everyone is the only way it all can be in this moment, and that anything we think about any of it is only a map, a conceptual abstraction, a description, and never the living actuality itself. Life is truly a kind of dream-like appearance or inconceivable energetic burst, happening spontaneously by itself. By dream-like, I mean that it has no observer-independent existence, no solidity, no substantial reality, no permanence or enduring form—it is vividly, radiantly, undeniably present and yet utterly ungraspable and indeterminate. This realization is immensely liberating and freeing.
When, on the other hand, we believe that we and everyone else are solid and enduring separate entities in a substantial real world, and when we think that we all have free will, we inevitably suffer as a result from such things as guilt, shame, pride, anxiety, envy, blame and the desire for vengeance. We punish criminals, shame addicts, blame and hate politicians, wage wars, judge ourselves mercilessly, envy those who are apparently more successful, feel deficient in comparison, strive endlessly for self-improvement, anxiously worry about making the “wrong” decisions, and so on. In short, we suffer and in turn create more suffering.
Some people misunderstand the “no choice” or “no chooser” (“no self”) pointer to mean that we are mere robots being pushed around against our will, as if we were a rudderless boat in a rushing stream being tossed helplessly around. We fail to see that the so-called “boat” (this bodymind person) is a conceptual abstraction or frozen image of what is actually nothing but ever-changing movement, inseparable from the stream that seems to be surrounding and carrying it, all of it one whole undivided streaming, like the waves on the ocean. The waves are not being pushed around by the ocean; they are the ocean. And it’s not that there is no rudder, it’s that there is no central agent controlling it.
Which brings up another common and related misunderstanding of the “no choice” or “no chooser” pointer, which is that people sometimes take it to mean that we can’t (or “shouldn’t” as nondualists) practice to improve our tennis game, suggest or teach meditation, go to a therapist to deal with serious depression or addiction, tell our children to do their homework, take serial killers out of circulation for the protection of society, join a movement to work toward some cause that moves us, speak up if we see a child or an animal being abused, express a preference for what movie we want to see, or anything else that seems to involve making a decision, taking action or having any kind of goal or intention—because we think, who would do these things if there is no self and no choice? We get the idea that “nondual correctness” means some artificial kind of passivity and “not caring.” If the tire on our car goes flat, we must simply sit down in the road and passively wait for “grace” or “the universe” to change it, since there is no one here with free will to it. This is, of course, absurd. We leave our own activity (our own urges, interests, intentions, actions, abilities, movements, preferences, feelings, and so on) out of the picture in one way, while still considering ourselves to be a separate entity trying to “do it right” in another way. These ideas are all rooted in a misunderstanding or partial understanding of this pointer.
In fact, the realization that free will is an illusion doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t practice to improve our tennis game (or anything else I mentioned above). It means that whether the interest and the urge and the ability to do this arises in any given moment is an activity of the whole universe and not of some separate self that is actually only a mirage. The individual waves in the ocean cannot “decide” to go off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving. They cannot “get it wrong.” They are not independent of, or separate from, the whole. And they do not persist as any kind of solid or enduring form—they are an ever-changing movement of the whole. There are no actual boundaries between one wave and another.
And it’s the same with human beings. Even the apparent destruction we seem to cause and the conflict between us is all in perfect harmony in some larger sense. Predator and prey, white blood cells and germs, birth and death—these are all aspects of one undivided whole. Even the cancer cells that turn against the host organism or the species that seems to be threatening life on earth are all in perfect balance in this larger context. This is an immensely liberating realization. (And it doesn’t mean we can’t take medicine, offer suggestions or try to make changes, as this too is part of this whole, undivided happening).
Paradoxically, when our personal power is recognized to be illusory, we suddenly feel free in a new way to fully express the power of the ocean moving as this particular wave. That energy or life force is no longer being dammed up or bogged down by our efforts to “do it right” or our worries about not being “spiritually correct.” We’re no longer second-guessing and blocking ourselves, or, as one teacher put it, driving with the emergency brake on. Of course, all that, too, was in perfect harmony, but we feel a difference. It’s like being “in the zone” in sports. When we fully recognize that the self is an illusion, it doesn’t mean we turn into a nebulous blob of nothing—on the contrary, we are actually much freer to express this unique personality without holding back or trying to be spiritually correct. We no longer have to avoid personal pronouns, speak only in the passive voice, never make suggestions, pretend that we have no preferences, or give up our gym membership.
Even though I know there is no self and no choice in the ways we think there is, I feel quite free to suggest to someone I’m meeting with that they might experiment with shifting their attention from thoughts to sensations, or they might watch as decisions unfold to see how it actually happens. When I was teaching English at a college, I felt entirely free to tell my students they needed to turn in an assignment or they would not pass the class. When caring for small children, I’m quite comfortable telling them they can’t run into the street or play with matches. Who am I speaking to, and do they have the power to follow my suggestions? And who (or what) is speaking?
In every case, I know that whether or not the person I’m talking to has the ability to do what I’m suggesting is not in their hands or mine. And I know the result is not in either of our hands. I know that my suggesting such things is also a movement of life that could not, in the moment it happens, be otherwise. And so, if the person I’m meeting with, or the child I’m caring for, or the student in my college class doesn’t do what I suggest, I am less likely to react in the way I might if I thought they had free will.
But at the same time, it’s entirely possible I might yell at the child who is running out into the street, or get irritated by someone who cuts me off in traffic, or feel angry or hurt if my friend disappoints me in some way. I know that my reactions are also choiceless movements of the whole ocean, weather-patterns of a conditioned bodymind organism, not the results of free will. Thus, I am free from guilt and stories of deficiency and failure.
Recognizing the choiceless nature of something that happened doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t or shouldn’t say I’m sorry if I lose my temper or show up late for a meeting. I’m playing the part of Joan in this show, after all, and as Joan, that’s the kind, appropriate, responsible thing to do! But if I see clearly, I don’t feel guilty or ashamed about what I did. I don’t take it personally, even as I may be “taking responsibility” in an appropriate way for “my action.”
Responsibility (response-ability) is an interesting word. It can be broken down to mean the ability to respond, and when we are knowingly awake Here-Now as unbound awareness, that ability will be significantly freer and more flexible than when we are entranced in a reactive habit-pattern and exclusively identified as a separate or deficient self. And, of course, there is no “me” who is entranced or not entranced, identified or not identified. It is ALL the activity or waving of the whole ocean. But although there is no individual agency in the way we think there is, the bodymind organism can, in fact, develop and grow and learn new skills, not “at will,” but when the right conditions come together. The brain, we have learned, has plasticity.
Coaching someone on how to improve their tennis game, teaching mindfulness and non-violent communication skills to teenagers, working as a therapist, writing Facebook posts like this one, or making an effort to periodically shift attention from thoughts to presence are ALL movements of the whole ocean. The interest in such things, the urge to do them, the ability to do them, the outcome or results of doing them—NONE of that is a matter of individual will. But still, we can’t deny that there is an ability right here to open and close our hand seemingly at will (unless for some reason there isn’t). If we look closely, we can’t say how we do this, or where the urge arises from, but we can’t deny the ability here to do it either. We can watch babies discovering their ability to do things such as rolling over, grasping objects, and so on. In a sense, we could say that they’re learning how to operate and control their bodies, except that there is no central operator or controller doing all this, and the baby is not verbalizing or conceptualizing it yet. The baby doesn’t have a story about “me, the operator,” who is, or should be, in control. That’s how we get into trouble, when we start taking it personally and mistaking concepts and formulations for actuality.
If we make “no free will” or “no self” into some kind of absolute law or nondual dogma, or if we understand these things only conceptually as philosophical ideas, then we easily mistake the map for the territory. No formulation or map, however accurate it is, can fully capture or encompass the living reality. A map simply is not the territory, although mapping is something the territory is doing, but the map is not identical to what it represents. And while the bodymind is not endowed with individual agency in the way we commonly think it is, Here-Now, there is something (that is not a thing at all, for it has no objective qualities) that is totally free, unconditioned, unlimited and unbound, aware and present, totally immediate, and immensely powerful. And the more we are consciously in touch with, or awake to, this fundamental reality, the less we seem to be caught in the hypnotic trance of reactive habits and compensations, and the more available other possibilities seem to be.
That doesn’t mean that other possibilities will always be available. Nor does it mean that “we create our own reality” in the way some New Age teachings suggest, or that we now have immense personal power to manifest our desires, or anything like that. Conditions such as depression or addiction do not always magically disappear even when a person “awakens” from the trance of separation and limited identity as a person—these conditions may have many causes including (but not limited to) genetics, neurochemistry, hormone imbalances, sleep apnea, trauma, childhood conditioning, and social conditions (racism, sexism, heterosexism, poverty, bullying, and so on). And there seem to be cases that do not respond to treatment in any form.
I have a book on my website recommended reading list called Falling into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross MD. The author is an inpatient psychiatrist who writes about some very profound and often bizarre forms of human suffering, like the woman who compulsively and repeatedly swallows razor blades, bed springs, broken light bulbs, nails and other sharp objects and then undergoes repeated surgeries as a result, or the people who amputate their own limbs, or the mothers who murder their own children. I include it on my list as an antidote to the popular belief that spiritual awakening or psychotherapy or psychiatric meds or a vegan diet or anything else we know about can cure all forms of human suffering. That doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re not really running this show.
As my good friend Darryl Bailey puts it: “The hope for spiritual enlightenment is usually the hope of avoiding what we are, the hope of avoiding the pains and confusions of existence, but enlightenment is the realization we can't avoid them…Spiritual liberation frees you from the misery-inducing fantasy of perfecting yourself. In this moment, I am what I am; you are what you are; we’re both the dance of the cosmos. Liberation isn’t the act of breaking free of this. Liberation is knowing it can’t be otherwise.”
In the wake of recent celebrity suicides and the apparently rising suicide rate in America, someone asked me the other day to say something about suicide. There are probably many things I could say about suicide, but the main thing I want to say right now is that whatever happens in life, that is the only possible at that moment, and all of it is a dream-like appearance. When this truth is deeply realized, there is peace with whatever happens and compassion for all concerned. That is the bottom-line, as I see it.
That realization doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t feel sorrow, or that we might not be moved to support the suicide prevention hot-line, or have a talk with our children, or whatever else we might feel moved to do in response to these events, but we can’t un-do or re-do what’s already past. If we imagine that time and space and people and events are all separate “things” that can be pulled apart and rearranged, if we believe that we could be someplace else right now other than exactly where we are, doing exactly what we’re doing, then we can imagine that somebody else might have found a “better” way to resolve their depression or whatever drove them to suicide. But in reality, that kind of thinking is rooted in false ideas. We can’t actually pull all those things apart any more than we can pull apart the waves in the ocean. We can’t actually be anyplace right now other than exactly where we are, doing exactly what we’re doing. And that person who ended their own life couldn’t have done anything different in that moment. There was, in fact, no choice. Liberation is knowing that everything is as it is and can’t be otherwise.
In reality, we’re always Here-Now, and Here-Now, if we pay close attention, we can notice that no-thing ever really happens or exists in the way it seems to when we think about it. Truly seeing this, not just thinking or believing it, but truly realizing it, is peace. And it manifests as true compassion for all beings, ourselves included.
Response to a comment:
You raised this with me once before, and as I said then, it's true that the present moment is actually the past due to the split-second time-delay that you mention...but as I use the word Now, I am referring to the timeless, ever-present, eternal presence in which all times, seasons and ages appear. And when I speak of Here, I am not referring to our present moment location (such as Ashland or Chicago or Paris or the airport), but to the placeless immediacy in which all locations show up. The pointer to "be here now" can have multiple meanings...it can suggest paying attention to the actuality of the present moment (the sound of traffic, the breathing, the feeling of agitation, whatever might be showing up) or it can suggest being aware of awareness itself, being aware of Here-Now...or it can mean both of these. In one sense, we can't not "be here now," because Here-Now is what we are and all there is, but in another sense, we can shift attention from thought-loops to sensations, from day-dreams to traffic sounds, from resistance or judgment of agitation to the bare actuality of the feeling itself in the body. And although it might be said that in reality we are looking out the back window and not the front windshield of the car as we drive down the highway, of course, in a practical sense, we must look out the front in order to steer the car. Who exactly is steering the car? Even as we supposedly do this steering activity, we can notice that it is happening rather automatically by itself and that we cannot possibly explain how "we" drive a car. Likewise, experiments have shown that by the time a thought such as, “I need to feed the cat” appears, the body is already in motion to perform the action.
6/18/18: Response to a comment on a Jon Bernie post I shared:
Well, I can certainly relate. I spent many years in that particular hell. As I see it, this expression of life called humanity has brought forth both incredible beauty and also incredible pain. The pain seems to me in large measure rooted in our delusion of being separate from the whole, our mistaking of thoughts for reality (map for territory), and the ways our natural biological tendencies (such as fear and desire) can so often fail to serve us in the ways they serve other animals because they get misdirected by our complicated psychology and our circumstances that no longer match the conditions in which our earliest ancestors lived. As I often say, no other animal smokes and drinks itself to death.
It doesn’t feel to me that we help this situation by being lost in rage or despair. It feels to me that the more we can come alive to our senses, be present and awake in the moment, see our thoughts and beliefs for what they are so that we’re not always totally hypnotized and bamboozled by them, and learn to be with feelings (sensations, energies, thought-patterns) that feel unbearable without needing to turn to addictive escapes—the more that happens, the more possibility there is for intelligent and compassionate action. In my experience, love and awareness is what transforms. And the peace and love (or the rage and despair) here in this bodymind is not actually walled off from the whole—we are one, inseparable movement, like the waves on the ocean. All these things are contagious.
Yes, the house is on fire in one sense. This may well be the final decades of human life on earth. We don’t know. But in a deeper sense, that fire (impermanence, thorough-going flux, seamlessness) is the very nature of life. If humans are wiped out, something new will emerge. Ultimately, every body, every species, every planet, every star, every solar system will die. Actually, it all is dying instant by instant. This is the nature of form. When we truly realize that the fire is all there is, something shifts.
I find I can now read the News, see what’s happening, have my opinions, feel sorrow over the suffering I see, and yet not be consumed with hatred, rage, frustration, and feelings of helplessness and despair. I see, this is how it is. It is as it is, for infinite reasons.
And if those feelings show up, Jon is pointing beautifully to how we might be with them. Rather than acting them out by getting drunk, yelling at the television, kicking the dog or giving ourselves a heart attack, perhaps we can simply feel them as bare energy and sensation and see where that might take us. We might be surprised!
Wishing you (and all beings) all the best…
PS--"you" and "all beings'--not two.
Another response to same person:
You didn't choose to be born a white American male, or to be conditioned or privileged in whatever ways you have been as a result, and I'm guessing you didn't personally steal Native lands, enslave Africans, participate in lynchings, enforce Jim Crow laws, keep women in second-class status, outlaw homosexuality, or invade a bunch of other countries. And even if you did serve in the military, you did it because you were conditioned into thinking that was a good choice at the time, just as the people who did do all those other awful things were acting out of their conditioning. We don't all really have free will in the ways we've been taught we do.
It's also worth noting that there are many painful and difficult aspects of being a male in a sexist culture (it isn't just women who suffer). In fact, it is never only the victim who suffers. The perpetrator is also suffering--their actions often come out of their suffering. The more we can all get beyond guilt and blame, the better.
I think most of us have (or have had) moments of feeling like a victim and moments of feeling like a bad person did something hurtful or who "should" be better. But the more we can be still in the midst of the storm of emotion-thought and allow it to clarify by itself...seeing the thoughts, feeling the sensations, being aware and present, just that...not resisting the storm, simply awaring it...out of that, intelligent action can emerge.
And we each have different roles to play...there's no single correct response to suffering and oppression. Martin Luther King was one response, Buddha was a different response. Both are valid and important. As is being a good parent. That may be one of the most important jobs there is! And don't underestimate simple acts of kindness in everyday life, like being nice to the check-out clerk at the grocery store or taking time to call a friend who is having a hard time. Again, we're like waves in the ocean, not really separate.
The world is in the situation it is because of infinite causes and conditions. It's not as if we all got together and "decided" to create a world on the nuclear brink with pollution, climate change, genocide, child abuse, and all the rest. And in my view, love and compassion are much more likely to have positive results than action that comes out of rage and fear. Love and compassion doesn't mean we don't try to stop an injustice or that we just let serial rapists go free on the streets...but when we see clearly, we don't hate and blame them or want to punish them either.
The Paradox of the Wave Seeking the Ocean
In what sense is it true (or untrue) that there is nowhere to go, nothing to become and nothing to do? Obviously, if a wave is seeking the ocean, the wave already is what it is seeking, and what it is seeking is already fully, totally, abundantly present. In that sense, there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to become. But unless that is realized, the wave is suffering under the spell of a false belief. It longs to wake up to what is obvious and actually already known, but somehow being overlooked.
It is clear to anyone who has passed through the so-called “gateless gate” of enlightenment (aka being liberated on the spot, here and now) that there never was a gate or anyone who passed through it. Nothing was ever lacking, and nothing previously absent was attained. The entire search was an appearance, an imagination, a misunderstanding, a kind of mental movie. But at the same time, there is an undeniable difference between knowingly realizing this and being confused and entranced by the story of separation and lack, which is why there is said to be a gateless gate rather than no gate at all. As the Advaita sage Nisargadatta put it, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.”
So, what to do? Does “stop the search” or “this is it” mean that we should walk away from spiritual inquiry, contemplation and exploration altogether, that we should refuse to ever see another teacher, attend another retreat or satsang, or sit down ever again in meditation? Does it mean that life sucks and we should just settle for being miserable, depressed, anxious, unhappy cogs in the wheel of destiny? When a teacher says that enlightenment is “final defeat,” is that what they mean?
This is where it gets so very tricky to express the truth about liberation. My own experience in this hopeless business of expressing the inexpressible is that I lean in one direction in my expression and then in the other: something to do, nothing to do; transformation, nothing happening; improvement, acceptance; choice (possibility), choicelessness; be here now, there is only here-now; and so on. Some teachers emphasize only one side of these conceptual divides, in some cases exclusively sticking to that one side—and while that can be beautiful and highly effective in conveying that singular perspective without compromise, if we listen only to that teacher and imbibe only that one perspective, we can end up stuck on one side of a false duality, clinging to half the truth. A truly great teacher, in my experience, is one who sees which side of the false duality the student is currently fixated on and then pulls the rug out from under them so that they have to see and recognize the other side as well. Ultimately, we can’t land anywhere. Liberation is freedom from fixation. Awareness accepts everything and sticks to nothing. Thought, on the other hand, is in the business of picking and choosing, chasing and resisting, defending and promoting, dividing and conquering.
Clearly, as I see it, we need different teachings with different emphases at different moments. Sometimes we need the radical “this it is, just as it is” message (you are already the ocean; the ocean is all there is); sometimes we need the pathless path of “being here now” (meditation, inquiry, feeling into the sensory-energetic actuality of water, seeing if we can find an actual boundary between ocean and wave, and so on). Both ways of addressing the problem are valuable, both are true. Both have potential pitfalls. The radical “do nothing, give up the search, this is it” message can be taken on conceptually as merely a new belief, thus papering over the feeling of separation and lack with a comforting new ideology. Meditation and inquiry can inadvertently reinforce the story of being a separate something, needing to do something in order to get somewhere.
If we’re trying really hard to get somewhere and do it right and fix ourselves, it can be immensely liberating to hear that we are already the ocean, that nothing is missing. Just hearing this can sometimes trigger the actual realization of it. But it does no good merely to believe or think that this is true. Hence, we have teachers, books, videos, satsangs, retreats, meditation, inquiry, and so on to help us actually see and feel and realize this directly, and to live out of this realization from moment to moment (i.e. Now).
If we haven’t actually realized this—if “undivided awareness” or “no self” or “choiceless happening” are just concepts to us, then giving up the search (i.e., giving up inquiry, meditation, retreats, working with teachers, and so on) prematurely may be a great loss. Of course, sometimes that is the way it needs to unfold. And even then, that apparent loss is simply another impersonal waving of the ocean. Nothing is ever really lost in the way we think it is.
But if we’re suffering from depression, anxiety, worry, hatred, rage, self-pity, despair, addiction and so on, it may be very helpful and liberating to discover the possibility of sitting still and observing the mind, seeing the thoughts as thoughts and perhaps not being totally hypnotized any more by the stories they are spinning. It may be very helpful and liberating to shift attention from the thought-stream to the realm of sensing, perceiving and awaring—hearing the birdsong and the traffic sounds, smelling and tasting the coffee, feeling the breathing, feeling all the sensations and energies in the body without the storylines or the labels, and discovering that what had seemed unbearable is actually quite bearable and also ephemeral and impermanent. It may be very helpful to cultivate the ability to turn away from addictive compensations and distractions and to simply be present with the bare energetic, sensory reality of the ever-changing present moment. And it may be that by spending time in this kind of silent, non-conceptual contemplation and exploration, we discover for ourselves the actual reality behind such terms as impermanence, no-self, choicelessness, seamlessness, boundlessness, awareness, presence, Here-Now, liberation, enlightenment, and so on.
As I see it, the search comes from what we are seeking—it comes from the ocean itself. It is a movement of the ocean itself. The wave is longing to return home to the ocean, the place we have never actually left, Here-Now. We are longing to wake up from the story that we are somebody separate and deficient, on a journey in time and space, lacking something that we are searching to find. The search will continue, in one way or another, for as long as that story feels true to us. We may give up the spiritual search prematurely and then begin searching for new handbags instead, or new forms of intoxication through drugs, sex, money, power, whatever it is. Ultimately, until the truth is realized, we inevitably end up seeking and resisting, feeling briefly elated and then once again dissatisfied. And the “final defeat” is not resigning ourselves to this cycle of misery.
The “final defeat” is the realization that no experience is permanent or permanently satisfying. Often, on the spiritual path, we have a glimpse of freedom. In that glimpse, the thought-pattern we call “me, the separate self” momentarily vanishes, the accompanying bodily contraction relaxes, there is a felt-sense of spaciousness, openness, peace, love, joy, freedom. There is no me anymore, no boundaries, no limits, no problems. There is just the ocean, waving! We think, “Wow! This is it! I’ve got it!” And then suddenly, with that thought, there it all is again—the me-mirage and the imaginary division: “I” who got (or lost) “it.” If that thought is not seen for what it is, the self-centered dream returns, the accompanying “neurochemical smog” (as David Bohm called it) comes back, all of it producing bodily contractions, uneasy feelings and dark moods—and, in the blink of an eye, the felt-sense of confusion, misery and desperation returns. The story then arises, “I had it, but I lost it, and the person sitting at the front of the room next to the flowers is having that spacious experience permanently, and I want that, too.” Of course, this is a misunderstanding and it doesn’t work.
But this seems to be a stage on the pathless path that most all of us pass through—trying to recapture a past experience, imagining that if only I could get that experience back and then get it to last forever, that would be enlightenment. Thinking that the teacher has something I don’t, trying to figure it all out by thinking about it, thoughts running around and around the mental hamster-wheel, chasing a pipe dream that is always just out of reach.
Often, at the very same time this is happening, we also begin to notice that the teacher we thought was so wonderful is actually flawed and imperfect and totally human. Not only that, but some of the people around them are also flawed. The rosy picture we had of this whole scene collapses. Disillusionment sets in. We run into other disgruntled students and ex-students and share stories together of how horrible this teacher is and how messed up the whole sangha and the whole scene is. This is briefly satisfying, finding allies in our disgruntlement and venting our disillusionments, but the satisfaction fades quickly.
Some people get very discouraged at this point and leave. Some even renounce the teacher and conclude that all of spirituality is nothing but a con game holding out false promises of some non-existent enlightenment in order to reel in suckers and make tons of money from their gullibility.
The disillusioned seeker can, at this point, see that the once-revered teacher is not permanently enlightened in the way the seeker had thought about and imagined enlightenment. Clearly, the teacher is sometimes deluded, caught up in some kind of reactive emotion, behaving badly, making mistakes, doing things wrong, whatever it might be. So obviously, that flawed human being is not really enlightened. And this is true. A permanently enlightened person is a total oxymoron.
But what is often spoken of as permanent or ever-present is not an experience that lasts forever, but rather the timeless awareness Here-Now in which ALL different experiences (contracted and expanded, self and selfless, pleasant and unpleasant) appear and disappear. Here-Now is never not here, and it is owned by no one. Even the first bare impersonal SENSE of being present and aware (what has often been called the I AM) comes and goes. That which is aware of that coming and going, that in which it happens, that shoreless ocean that is equally present in (and as) every wave and as what remains when all waving ceases, that unbroken unicity Here-Now has been given many names. But whatever language is used, the main point is that it is not an object or a particular experience (this but not that). No experience is permanent, and no separate, persisting object actually exists.
So-called enlightenment is not a permanent experience of any kind. And it isn’t about “me” (the illusory mirage-like self) crossing some finish-line in the movie of waking life and becoming a permanently Enlightened One at long last! It is the dissolving of that whole mirage and fantasy, such that even if the mirage still appears from time to time, we are no longer fooled by it. We no longer mistake it for reality and run eagerly toward the mirage-lake in the desert sands in search of water. Or to return to our earlier metaphor, as a wave, we are no longer seeking the ocean outside ourselves, and we are no longer imagining that we need to quiet down and stop waving in order to be the ocean. We realize that there is no way we can not be the ocean.
What we are searching for is truly right here, never absent, but we cannot experience it as an object (a sensation, a mental picture, a formulation, a feeling, a form of any kind). Those experiences or forms all come and go. We’re simply no longer chasing experiences, trying to hold onto them or push them away. Aware Here-Now, we are simply the space in which everything comes and goes. We are the whole happening.
Liberation begins with the total acceptance of what is, and yet, this acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. The ending of the search doesn’t mean leaving the flat tire on the car flat forever because we’re “allowing everything to be as it is.” It doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to being miserable because “this is it.” We see that we can’t not be the ocean, and at the same time, as the ocean, we are naturally moved to explore, to discover, to wake up, the be free. Recognizing our powerlessness as the wave, we discover our true power as the ocean. You can see why it gets so hard to express all this and why it can all be so easily misunderstood when it hasn’t actually been realized. When realized, it’s all so utterly simple and obvious and unavoidably right here, right now. We realize it was never not realized, and yet, that had to be realized. To the thinking mind trying to make sense of all this, figure it out, “get it,” experience it or stay in some particular state of consciousness “all the time,” it is all hopelessly paradoxical and absurd and frustrating in its apparent contradictions!
In one way, giving up (surrendering, relaxing, melting, softening, opening, resting, allowing) is exactly the needed move (or happening), but if that is misunderstood as surrendering to the addiction or walking away from meditation in the belief that it was all a pile of crap, then that isn’t it. Except in the sense that EVERYTHING is it! Once again, to the thinking mind, it is all hopelessly paradoxical and absurd, and it’s so easy to pick up a pointer (a map) as a mental idea, cling to it as a belief, and then mistake that map-belief for the actual territory itself.
So, I would say, don’t give up until it’s truly clear beyond all doubt that what you have been seeking is Here-Now, that THIS is what you most truly are, that this unbound, limitless, seamless unicity is expressing itself as EVERYTHING, that ALL of it is your own Self, that this Self is no-self or no-thing at all, and that this no-thing-ness is vibrantly alive and precious beyond all measure.
What am I talking about? Whoosh-whoosh [sounds of traffic, without the label, just pure sound], the astonishingly beautiful mountains and valleys of light and shadow and texture on the crumpled Kleenex sitting on the table, the aroma of coffee, the sensations in the belly, the tingling in the fingers, the open awaring presence Here-Now—just this! Before we think about or label any of this, what is it? No answer, no explanation of it (scientific or metaphysical) can ever capture or compare with the living actuality itself, nor can any word or concept satisfy the deep longing of the heart to be knowingly home, right here, just as we are. And in my experience, there is no end to exploring this, no end to discovery, no end to being liberated on the spot.
Religion and Spirituality: Wonderful or Horrible?
I’m a big fan of questioning tradition, authority and belief, and I’m all for recognizing the potential pitfalls and dangers in different modes of spiritual and religious expression. But I’ve also noticed over the years that it’s possible to become dogmatic and fundamentalist about tearing down dogma and fundamentalism. In our over-zealous enthusiasm, it’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Of course, no two of us will agree on exactly where the baby ends and the bathwater begins, and there is no actual boundary-line except conceptually. In addition, we may all have a different understanding of what the words “spiritual” and “religion” mean. And obviously, there are many different versions of both religion and spirituality.
As I see it, spirituality and religion are (at their best) about seeing through and waking up from the false sense of separation, fragmentation and encapsulation. They are about realizing unbroken wholeness. This shift from being completely hypnotized by the sense of being a separate, independent fragment to a recognition of being the undivided and seamless whole that is at once everything and no-thing at all, this shift (or awakening) naturally brings forth love and compassion (the real kind, not the fake kind). All of the above seems to be at the heart of all true religion and spirituality.
In addition to that, the kind of spirituality that has interested me involves a shift from a life that is totally thought-based and entranced in stories, beliefs and concepts, to a life that is more awareness-based and open to the groundlessness of not-knowing. It is a recognition of the dream-like nature of the whole movie of waking life and the fictional nature of the “me” who is supposedly authoring “my” thoughts and making “my” choices. It is the discovery that there is only ever Here-Now, the timeless eternity and the placeless infinity of this awaring presence that is showing up as this ever-changing manifestation. It is the realization that nothing that appears has any observer-independent or inherent, objective reality—that all there is, is subjectivity—that no “thing” ever actually persists or has the continuity or independent existence that it appears to have if we don’t look too closely. It is the realization that we don’t know what or why anything is. It is the openness of not-knowing, of simply being.
Of course, at its worst, religion is all about beliefs and the supposedly “revealed Truth” of scriptures. It involves believing in (or taking literally) such fanciful (or metaphorical) notions as heaven and hell, reincarnation, Jesus rising from the dead, wine turning into blood during the Eucharist, and so on. Religion at its worst becomes encrusted in often-corrupt institutions with authority and power over others. There is a long history that we all know of holy wars, crusades, witch burnings, inquisitions, and all manner of religious horror and stupidity. Probably no one who is drawn to my expression resonates with that kind of religion. And, of course, spirituality at its worst is woo-woo, New Age, magical thinking—and some of you reading this probably are attracted to various versions of that to one degree or another, and we may all have different ideas of what is woo-woo and what isn’t.
And, of course, people can be involved in religion and spirituality (and in ritual or devotional practices) at many different levels, from sophisticated theologians and mystics at one end of the spectrum, to uneducated or gullible people steeped in superstition and magical thinking at the other end.
A word like “God” can mean anything from an old white guy with a long beard hanging out up in the sky, which I’m guessing no one reading this post believes in, to something more akin to the Tao of Taoism, the Self of Vedanta, the emptiness or interdependence of Buddhism, the awaring presence of which (and out of which) Toni Packer spoke, what I often call Here-Now, what Eckhart Tolle calls being, what Sailor Bob calls intelligence-energy, what Darryl Bailey calls unform or the vibrant dance of existence, or what Trungpa called groundlessness.
I don’t “believe” in this awaring presence; I know it intimately! I AM it! It is the one thing I cannot doubt or deny—being here now, present and aware, experiencing whatever is showing up. I don’t mind calling this God, and I sometimes do, but then, perhaps I can do that as freely as I can because I was raised by atheist-agnostics, so I don’t have the history of childhood religious scarring that so many people have, leaving them forever after allergic to the words “religion” or “God.”
For me, the boundary-lines between religion, spirituality, psychology, science and art are not solid and impermeable. I feel there is a great deal of common ground, and from my perspective, these are artificial categories that we use in a functional way for practical purposes to telegraph a general idea of what ballpark something or someone is in. That has its usefulness. But the categories are not actually divided up as sharply as the words can suggest.
I find much of religious art very powerful—architecture and interior design (everything from elaborate Catholic cathedrals or Tibetan temples to the bare simplicity of Zen centers), painting, sculpture and mandalas, music (hymns, chanting, bhajans, spirituals, Gospel music, shape-note, the works of Bach and others), rituals (from the Eucharist in Christianity to oryoki meals and bowing in Zen). Yes, these can all be a form of hypnotic intoxication, I suppose—my friend and teacher Toni Packer and J. Krishnamurti certainly felt they were, as did U.G. Krishnamurti, as does my friend Robert Saltzman. But I have experienced all these things as sometimes very powerful, transmitting something essential, whether it is the bare-bones simplicity of Zen, or the colorful elaborations of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism or Catholicism. I often find religious art in all these forms heart-opening, freeing, inspiring, enjoyable. If you haven’t ever had that experience, then maybe it’s not one that you can appreciate. On this, Toni and I never quite saw eye to eye, and neither do Robert and I. And that’s okay. We’re all different.
And then there is the issue of priests, popes, gurus, teachers, guides, spiritual friends, people who write books and give talks, and the various degrees of hierarchy or equality that are encouraged or discouraged. Some people are drawn to totally egalitarian modes, although they often contain hidden hierarchies. Others are drawn to gurus who seem (at first glance) to possess something the seeker lacks, and yet the guru’s message (in the case of any true guru) is always that the guru has nothing whatsoever that you don’t have—that what you seek is fully present Here-Now, not owned by anyone. Some people see Adyashanti as a bit guru-like in his presentation, but when I went up and spoke to him in a satsang many years ago, I was telling him my “I’m not quite all the way there yet” story, and he basically kept showing me that this was a story, and in the course of our exchange, I saw very clearly how I was choosing to pick that story back up again and again. He never said, “Follow me, and I’ll take you there, because I’m there and you’re not.” Quite the opposite. That’s been true of every teacher I’ve ever been with or worked with.
And then there is the issue of money, long considered unspiritual and dirty. Many monks and gurus refuse to touch money, but they are supported by people who do touch it. Some people seem to assume that any teacher who makes a living from teaching, and particularly a good living, is therefore “in business” in some rather corrupt sense—meaning that they are motivated primarily by financial gain, always looking for new customers and trying to hang onto old customers, offering enticing or seductive things that will lure and hook gullible, needy people. While there may be such teachers, I simply don’t buy the old idea that money is inherently dirty and unspiritual. I charge money for private meetings. I do it because I need some income and because it screens out people whose interest may be more casual. I get royalties for my books, but authors get a very small percentage. I write Facebook articles and reply to emails for free. I do most of my public meetings by donation.
Of course, the fact that I don’t think money is dirty or unspiritual doesn’t mean that I don’t see how paying someone for their time can inadvertently reinforce the notion that this person who is getting paid has something the person who is paying does not. But this can be offset by what happens in the meeting, as with my example of talking to Adyashanti years ago. I’m also not oblivious to how making a living within a capitalist-consumer society can potentially corrupt every profession from medicine, to scientific research, to the educational system, to the pharmaceutical industry, to the art world, to psychotherapy, and yes, certainly religion and spirituality. But this is the world we’re living in at the moment. Sitting down in deep meditation at the foot of a skyscraper in NYC in the way Ramana did at the foot of Arunachala is unlikely to yield the same results.
And as a spiritual teacher (or whatever you call yourself), if you want people to hear your message and know what you’re offering, you have to engage in some degree of marketing, i.e. getting the word out, and if you’re not independently wealthy or retired or someone with enough energy to work double jobs, then you have to charge money. Many of the more popular teachers have a staff to pay, an office to rent, all the expenses of publicity and travel, and they must either maintain their own retreat center or rent facilities, often at a high price. People often imagine that such teachers are raking in the entire retreat fee, but this is rarely the case. And these teachers are not necessarily popular because they are offering an addictive form of spiritual bullshit. It may be because they are actually truly awake, skillful teachers with the best of intentions (which is no intentions at all). There are longstanding ideas that spiritual teachers (and artists) should be poor—barely making it, living on bread and water. But does this really make sense?
There is no one way to Here-Now, the place where we always already are. Each religion, each teacher, each approach or style seems to emphasize a different facet of Here-Now. Different words are used, different maps, different pointers. I am endlessly discovering new facets of the jewel, and new ways of seeing. Perhaps, like all the different specialized cells in a body, we all have different tasks in this unfolding. Even the cancer cells have their part in this play, as does that highly evolved primate who now seems poised to destroy all life on earth. Apparently, there is space here for all of us, just as we all are. Apparently, it’s all part of the show.
I love an amazing diversity of teachers and approaches. I resonate with Toni Packer, Alan Watts, Nisargadatta, Buddha, Dogen, Huang Po, Rumi, Peter Brown, Eckhart Tolle, Karl Renz, Gangaji, Robert Saltzman, Mooji, Joko Beck, Wayne Liquorman, Rupert Spira, Darryl Bailey, Tony DeMello, Jesus, Salvadore Poe, Jed McKenna, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sailor Bob, David Steindl-Rast, J. Krishnamurti and many others. I find things I resonate with in Buddhism, in Advaita, in Christianity, in the Sufis like Rumi and Hafiz, in neuroscience and physics and evolutionary biology, in psychology and somatic awareness work, in art, literature, movies, plays…and above all, in being just this moment, feeling the movement and sensations of breathing, hearing the train whistle and the faint sounds of traffic on the interstate, the frogs doing their bhajans in the garden, the tapping keys, the black squiggles moving across the white page. One whole amazing happening, dissolving instant by instant like snowflakes in a fire.
Yes, these different teachers and approaches often seem to contradict each other, just as the different cells in the body often oppose one another in the play. But as Jon Kabat-Zinn pointed out in his writing that I just shared about the path and the pathless, and as I pointed out in my recent Note on “The Paradox of the Wave Seeking the Ocean,” reality is like that. It’s not something you can pin down and put in a box. It’s full of apparent paradoxes and seeming contradictions. When you go to where the different fingers are pointing, to the actual territory that the many different maps are describing, you wake up to Here-Now. And you’ll notice that Here-Now is ever-changing, ungraspable, unresolvable, indeterminate, dialectical. No description or formulation ever contains it.
And, of course, IT is not for sale, nor is IT anyone’s property, nor is IT ever lacking. And yet, buying and selling, seeking and finding, falling asleep and waking up are all part of what IT (or it-less-ness) seems to be doing!
Enjoy the play!
Response to a comment:
People do seem to use the word “awakening” to mean different things...or at least seemingly different. Robert Saltzman writes, “We are lost in a fantasy of separation in which I am ‘in here’ while the world I see—the ten thousand things—is ‘out there.’ It is from that confusion that one awakens.” Mooji might describe awakening as a shift in identity and focus of attention from personhood to presence. Toni Packer might speak of a shift from a false sense of encapsulation and separation to a realization of boundlessness or wholeness. Byron Katie might say awakening is waking up from believing our thoughts and stories. Nisargadatta might say that awakening is the recognition that all of waking life is a dream. Some might say awakening is the recognition or noticing of the ever-present boundless awareness of Here-Now that we are, within which the ever-changing body-mind-world appear and disappear. Wayne Liquorman might say it is the permanent disappearance of the false sense of authorship. Others might say this disappearance is never permanent—that the only permanence is the awaring presence in which it all appears, while still others might say nothing is permanent, there is only flux, and the realization of this is awakening.
Many can relate to that familiar old thought-feeling-story that there is something more to be found, something yet undiscovered or not yet fully realized. The habitual thought, “I’m not there yet,” or “This isn’t it,” is one that most of us have heard in our heads, more than once.
Of course, in one sense, it is absolutely true that something always remains undiscovered and not yet fully realized. After all, Here-Now is infinite, ever-changing, ever-fresh, indeterminate, unresolvable, impossible to pin down, always moving—so there is always more to see, more to discover, more to see through. In that sense, waking up is moment-to-moment (Now), not once-and-for-all, and there is no end to it. But there's a difference between this never-ending exploration and discovery, on the one hand, and addictive seeking based on a delusion, on the other.
When the thought, “I’m not there yet,” relates specifically to the illusory self with its deep sense of deficiency and its endless quest for self-improvement, and when that quest has taken the form of seeking future enlightenment, then this thought-feeling is, in fact, the bottom-line delusion. Because enlightenment is never “out there” somewhere in the future. It is only Now. And this very moment, just as it is, however troubled it seems, is never not it! We are always already Here-Now, or more accurately, there is only Here-Now, and in this undivided whole, there is no “me” to be either “fully enlightened” or “not quite there yet.” Here-Now, there is no “there” to be reached and no future in which to get somewhere else. As Ramana Maharshi so beautifully put it, “Realization is nothing to be gained anew...Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized.”
When the dream-like nature of the entire movie of waking life has been seen, one doesn’t need to continue discovering the illusory nature of each new object or event that shows up in the dream, just as when one realizes that the distant lake in the desert sands is only a mirage, one no longer runs after it in search of water. But this recognition of the mirage-like nature of the self and the world generally takes time to be fully absorbed. The believability of the mirage has a way of continuing to come back and reassert itself. It is, after all, a very convincing illusion.
Only in the thought-story does the apparently separate self and the ever-alluring prospect of "more and better," arise and seem real, but the thoughts are connected to emotions and neurochemistry and sensations and contracted energies in the body, all of which lend credibility to the story and to the apparent reality of the main character at the center of that story. By definition, the separate self is always incomplete, for it is (or seems to be) a fragment in a universe of fragments, moving through time on a journey of becoming, trying to reach wholeness and prove itself worthy of being alive. But it’s all a story, a kind of dream, a movie with no substance.
Of course, if that dream-like appearance and the false sense of being a separate, encapsulated, independent agent has not been fully seen through, or if it keeps popping up and once again seeming believable, then the search will continue. As someone (it might have been Wayne Liquorman) once said, the spiritual search is a bit like having sex with a 400-pound gorilla—you’re not finished until the gorilla is.
One of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck, was fond of saying that no one can pay the price of freedom for us. She once compared human beings on a spiritual search to baby birds waiting for mommy to put the food in our mouths. At the very beginning, this is appropriate. But soon, like those baby birds, we must grow up, leave the nest and find our own food. And no one can do this for us.
But in fact, we cannot simply “decide” to give up the search, for no such controlling agent or decider exists. Leaving the nest can only happen when it happens, when all the necessary causes and conditions come together or when the dream turns in that direction, however you want to look at it. And in my experience, for human beings, leaving the nest is rarely a one-time event, but more commonly, something that happens again and again.
When we are simply present Here-Now, without doing anything, it is not uncommon to feel uneasy, restless, bored. Unlike our distant ancestors back in those long-gone hunter-gatherer days, we 21st century humans are used to constant stimulation, speed and complexity. When the action stops or slows down, we go through a kind of withdrawal, very much like going off an addictive drug. When we look more closely at what we are calling "boredom" or "restlessness," we may find that there is an energy in the body that seems overwhelming and almost unbearable. It may even feel like it will kill us if we don’t do something to get away from it or discharge it. We may feel a swirl of mental confusion and agitation as well, waves of emotion-thought, over-powering feelings. There may be a deep sense of lack, uncertainty or insecurity. Faced with this powerful sense of unease, we long to reach for something that will take the edge off and relieve the pressure, whether it is a drink, a cigarette, our phone, an on-line shopping spree, a movie, a new teacher, or a spiritual book. The spiritual search very easily becomes a new form of addiction—albeit a better one for our health than cigarettes or heroin.
But at a certain point on the spiritual search (as with any other addiction), the possibility arises of not moving, not doing anything at all. The interest arises in discovering what will reveal itself if, for one moment, we stop the desperate quest for solutions, answers, security, certainty, control, relief, excitement, whatever it might be—if we’re simply fully present, right here, on the spot, without reaching for anything to relieve the discomfort or resolve the uncertainty. We might say, the courage arises to step off the cliff into the darkness, into the unknown, alone and empty-handed, depending on no one, clinging to nothing at all.
For a rare few, this may be a one-time event, a big, dramatic moment in which the sense of being a separate self permanently dissolves, the search ends forever, and one is never again caught up in the self-centered dream. But this isn’t how it unfolds for most of us. Certainly, in my experience, this “stopping” or “stepping off the cliff” or “leaving the nest” is not a one-time event on a linear journey with a decisive finish-line, but something that happens Here-Now, not once-and-for-all, but again and again. Karl Renz likes to say that even the Almighty Absolute Self (the One without a second) can’t help falling into its own trap again and again.
And what I’ve noticed is that over (apparent) time, the ability grows to be with the seemingly unbearable discomfort and uncertainty of being Here-Now without needing to reach for something to fill the emptiness or release the pressure. There is a growing ability or willingness to face the uncertainty and the insecurity of not-knowing without grasping for an answer or a solution or someone else to tell us what to do, and without needing some metaphysical explanation of how reality is. We get more comfortable with free-fall, with groundlessness, with not-knowing.
And yet, it’s important to note, not everything we reach for is an addictive escape! Sometimes a new teacher, book, method, video or whatever is actually enlivening and important, even after profound awakening and deep realization. And sometimes, having a drink, smoking a cigarette or watching a good movie is just an enjoyable thing to do. Being awake is not about rigidly “being here now” in some state of hyper-alert mindful attention 24/7. Yes, it’s about being awake and aware and present, but it’s also about being open, alive, relaxed, seeing that there is no way to fail, enjoying the show! And sometimes opening a spiritual book or going to hear a new teacher is a movement of life that opens new doors, reveals new subtleties, exposes yet unseen falsehoods, or maybe it is simply an enjoyable and nurturing way of basking (marinating, soaking, dissolving) in this open awaring presence, allowing this awakeness and this freedom to permeate every cell of the body and unfold in ever-deeper ways.
Perhaps when that seemingly irresistible urge arises to reach for another book or another teacher, we can pause for a moment and question what’s going on. Perhaps the interest will arise in us to feel what’s going on in the body at the level of energy and sensation. Perhaps there will be an awareness of the thoughts and what they’re telling us without getting instantly hooked, mesmerized, hypnotized, swept away, or bamboozled by them. Perhaps we will take a moment to simply be still, to open up to the actuality of this moment, just as it is, to see what it’s like just to be here, present and aware, without resisting or grasping, without judging or analyzing, but simply being this moment, just as it is. And then, maybe we reach for the book or maybe we don’t. Either way, there are no mistakes.
When we realize the automatic or compulsory nature of this whole happening, there is naturally a compassion for our occasional flare-ups of spiritual babyhood, knowing that nothing is really personal. Because the truth is, there is no “me” in here running this show. Whether we are moved in one moment to stop and be present, whether the ability arises to do nothing, or whether we compulsively reach for a book or a drink or a new teacher is not in our hands. It’s that 400-pound gorilla again, otherwise known as Life, God, Consciousness, the One and Only—i.e., our own Self in thin disguise, endlessly fooling and entertaining and discovering itself. And even what looks like a terrible mistake or a great misfortune is all part of the dance.
Response to a comment:
I'm guessing dissatisfaction and a search for more is probably programmed into our genes. Desire and fear are part of our survival mechanism, after all, albeit they get carried over in humans into some rather dysfunctional places, but basically, we avoid what hurts and chase what feels good, and in many ways, that serves us well. We also seem to be naturally curious and inventive, which may explain why we no longer live as hunter-gatherers. This has brought us everything from global travel to modern medicine to our ability to communicate with people around the world here on Facebook. And in many instances, an ability to remember history, to not have to re-invent the wheel every day, and to envision future possibilities serves us extremely well. But ALL of this happens Here-Now. ALL of this is what is. And there can be a growing capacity to discern where desire and fear are serving us and when they are not. (e.g., desiring the food that keeps us alive is functional, while desiring heroin might kill us). As for hostility, when What-Is includes circumstances we find miserable and people whose views and behaviors we find appalling, it's not hard to see how fear, anger, hate, rage and hostility arise.
I shared this quote from my book Painting the Sidewalk with Water:
“The wonder of life is in presence, it’s not in the scenery that happens to be showing up. That’s why you can be looking at the Grand Canyon and feel miserable, or you can be looking at trash blowing down the street and feel ecstasy. The wonder, the ecstasy, the joy, the beauty is in the quality of the looking. It’s in the presence. If you’re looking at the Grand Canyon and thinking that you’ve wasted your whole life, you’ll probably feel miserable. If you’re looking at trash in the gutter and you’re totally present and open and not caught up in thinking, you’ll feel wonderfully alive.”
And wrote this response to a comment:
Actually, we ARE this awaring presence, it is what Here-Now IS, but our attention is often absorbed in thoughts. In any moment when the thoughts fall away or become transparent, open presence remains. Beauty, love, joy, peace, freedom and wonder are inherent in simple presence.
Is this falling away of the entrancement in thought a choice? Yes/No. Whatever we say, it can’t capture the living actuality and how it moves. Can you open and close your hand at will? Assuming you don’t have a disability that prevents this, you’d be crazy to say no. But on the other hand, the urge and the ability to do this in any given moment is unfathomable and no "initiator," “decider” or “doer” has ever been found. Is something other than you doing you, or are "you" much more, and much less, than you have imagined?
You ask, "Can this quality of presence arise by a kind of osmosis through being around that understanding and ethos?" Presence is not the result of a cause, but yes, many things may apparently help to facilitate a shift from entrancement in thought to presence--meditation, being in satsang, being around a person who is fully present, and so on...and it can happen out of the blue. By seeking it, we overlook it.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018--
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