Postings from My Facebook Page #19
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the nineteenth collection of posts from my Facebook page (7/1/18 - 11/8/18). 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:
Living in a World that Is Not Perfectible
Quite a number of friends and people I meet with have expressed feelings lately of being deeply disturbed and upset by everything that is happening in the US under Trump—toddlers taken from their mothers; environmental protections and financial regulations being dismantled; gains for minorities, women and workers being rolled back; right-wing judges being appointed; violent attacks on the media being encouraged; an endless stream of lies and vulgarities being tweeted out. A few of you are probably happy about what Trump has been doing, and some of you are tuned-out and could care less, but a number of you have been describing serious upset. And so, I’m writing this post, and the main point I want to make is that perhaps the darkest times and the things that upset us most are opportunities for a deeper awakening and a more profound opening.
Of course, these upsets can also easily pull us in the other direction, back into divisive thinking, conflict, emotional upset and an ever-stronger, more solid, more defended sense of self (“me” against “them”), and believe me, I’m no stranger to all of that. This is why so many sensitive people simply shut their eyes and tune out. Living through the current situation, if you’re progressive and paying attention, can easily trigger what Eckhart Tolle would call major pain-body attacks. These are, to say the least, challenging times.
I was quite bummed out back when Trump won. And during the campaign, as some of you may remember, I even took to writing political posts on my Facebook page after I began to realize he might actually win, and after I saw so many of my fellow progressives saying they wouldn’t vote for Hillary, after she became the nominee, because she wasn’t progressive enough, that they’d rather have Trump. I often felt stirred up and angered over the sexism and racism of the Trump campaign. The whole thing was like watching a disaster unfold that I was powerless to stop. So many people were doing things I thought were wrong! And now that disaster I had feared is in full swing, and Trump’s base still seems to be thoroughly bamboozled by him. It won’t surprise me at all if Trump wins re-election in 2020.
But for whatever inexplicable reason, although I was pretty bummed out and often angry during the campaign and after the election, once he took office, something shifted for me. I still follow the news, I know what’s happening, I’m not tuned-out—but I’m not upset. I don’t like what’s happening, I feel sorrow sometimes, but I feel strangely at peace with all of it being just as it is. I couldn’t have manufactured this peace, and to be honest, it often used to annoy the hell out of me in the past when I was upset over world events and someone else in the spiritual world would tell me they were at peace with it. I wanted to slug them! I wasn’t trying for this peace, it just happened.
This seems like part of a natural evolution that has been occurring in my life over many decades now from political activism to nondual awakening—while I still care about world events, I find myself more and more at peace with how it is.
For one thing, I know that what’s happening is nothing new. It’s a story as old as human history. The history of the world is filled with violence, injustice, exploitation, human cruelty, and alternating waves of progress and regress. And let’s not forget, the US was founded on stolen land, genocide and slavery, and it has operated as a powerful empire gobbling up most of the world’s resources and dropping bombs on people around the globe for many years. It’s not really as if this “great democracy and beacon of freedom,” as American propaganda paints us, has suddenly plummeted into darkness. We’ve had many presidents before Trump who were overtly racist, sexist and xenophobic, men who were liars and predators, men who were serving the interests of the wealthy, but it was all more hidden back then, and more acceptable. Now it’s right out in the open, in our faces every day.
Of course, this country isn’t all bad. It has been (and is) in many ways a beautiful experiment in democracy and cultural diversity—a nation of immigrants (along with the surviving Native Americans and the freed slaves). But that democracy was originally intended only for wealthy, aristocratic, white, males. Each new wave of immigrants was met with prejudice, especially the ones who didn’t come from Europe. Over time, and after much political organizing and hard work to make it happen, Blacks and other minorities, women, workers, and LGBTQ folks have been included more and more in the process. I’ve witnessed enormous change in that regard in my lifetime. But in 2018, this country is still run primarily by white men with money, men like Trump, men with no sympathy or appreciation for multicultural diversity. And many of the gains in recent decades are now being rolled back or threatened.
One advantage of being 70 years old is that you’ve lived through a lot of things: the Korean War, the Vietnam war, the Sixties, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, Watergate, Nixon, Reagan, Bush junior, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mine was the first generation to grow up in a world of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war; we were the duck-and-cover generation. When my mother was born, women still didn’t have the vote in this country. When I came of age, women were having scary, sometimes fatal, coat-hanger abortions in back rooms if they unintentionally got pregnant or were raped, and gay people were routinely beaten up, killed, shunned, given shock therapy, and fired from their jobs if it was discovered that they were gay. The notion that gay marriage would ever be legal or that America would elect a Black president was beyond imagination. We’ve come a long way. And backlash is part of what happens, predictably.
When I was born, the world population was just over 2 billion. Now it is almost 8 billion. That means it has more than tripled and almost quadrupled over my lifetime. Life is getting faster, more complex, and more densely populated by the minute. I grew up in a world without computers, televisions, the internet, social media, global jet air travel, credit cards, bank cards, answering machines, voicemail, cell phones, or traffic jams. I remember the first traffic jams in Chicago, everyone honking furiously because no one understood what was happening. I remember the first jet passenger planes, the first televisions, the first home computers. I lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers, John Lennon. I watched in wonder with a gathering of neighbors as the first Russian satellite passed across the night sky, a tiny blinking light that signaled the entry of the human race into outer space. I watched the first humans orbiting the earth and then landing on the moon. I remember the first time I heard about climate change. I’ve watched global corporate capitalism become an ever-more powerful and consolidated force. I’ve seen the middle class declining, people losing their jobs, and many of these same people voting for Trump because he knew just how to appeal to their insecurities and prejudices.
By age 70, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that progress and regress follow reach other like the forward and backward foot in walking, as do war and peace, prosperity and recession, progressive governments and reactionary ones. You also know that species come and go, as do stars, suns, planets, and all apparent forms. You see the bigger picture. At least, if your eyes are open, you do.
And if you’ve been on a spiritual path, looking into the nature of reality and into your own mind, you realize that divisive and self-righteous anger, despair, or obsessive anxiety and worry are not really helping things. By being caught up in that raging storm of emotion-thought, you’re only making yourself and everyone around you sick. Of course, sometimes we can’t help it. That’s where we’re at. That’s where I was at after the election. And then, mysteriously, it changed.
One way or another, we all do what life moves us to do in every moment. Some of us do political organizing outside the system. Some people run for office within the system. Some write visionary books about alternative ways we humans might organize our economic and political systems. Some people make art and entertainment or play beautiful music. Some people teach meditation. Some teach mindfulness and conflict resolution skills to teenagers in the schools. Some talk of nonduality or awakening or the power of now. Some simply do their best to stay sober, to be good parents to their children, to be kind to their co-workers, their dog, their neighbors, the check-out clerks and the bus drivers they encounter every day. Some people get drunk and act belligerent. Some people are serial rapists or child molesters. Everyone has a different job or a different calling in every moment. There is no one correct way to be. I was once a belligerent young drunk. Then I was a self-righteous, crusading, anti-imperialist, leftist radical. Now I’m some kind of aging spiritual-nondual writer-teacher who talks about awareness and presence and what is. Who can say which was more helpful?
It helps in living through dark times to have discovered our own inner Trump, so that we don’t think the problem is totally “out there” with “them.” It helps to have realized that everyone is doing the only possible in this moment, ourselves included, and that all is well, even if the whole planet blows up. It helps to know that there are no one-sided coins, no light without the dark, no up without down—that medicine and sickness go together. It helps to know that life is a kind of dream with no solid or persisting reality, and that no one really knows why we’re here or what’s going on or how it all goes together. It helps to be able to see the little boy in Donald, the innocent kid who wasn’t always a real estate tycoon, a scam artist, a womanizer, or the president of the world’s most powerful empire. It helps to have compassion for the empire in its declining years, and for humanity as it moves toward probable extinction, and for all beings as the world heats up more and more. Love and kindness, the real kind, will be much needed in the years ahead.
It helps to recognize that there is no substantial, enduring, objective reality “out there” in the way we think there is. This whole world is a kind of dream-like appearance, and no two of us are watching exactly the same movie or having exactly the same dream, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Consciousness is dreaming infinite dreams simultaneously with different points of view, not unlike The Alexandria Quartet, that set of novels by Lawrence Durrell that told “the same story” from different (often radically different) points of view. And like fractals, holograms or the jewels in Indra’s Net, we are each a reflection of all the others. As Kabir said, the ocean contains the drop, and the drop contains the ocean. Somehow, it’s one whole undivided happening, Here-Now.
I’m very glad that people have taken to the streets and worked tirelessly over the years to end injustices and to bring awareness to important issues. What I’m saying in this article in no way suggests that people should abandon such actions if they are moved in that direction, as I was for many years. But perhaps we underestimate the gift we can offer by simply being here, present and awake, in the middle of the storm, without needing a cure or a fix. Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, a long-time activist for peace and social justice, creator of social service projects and founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, often spoke of "Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world" and of “taking action in the world with no idea of a cure.” This is action rooted in love, not hate. It is action that recognizes the power of non-action as well. And it is action that doesn’t imagine some utopian future in which the light will permanently vanquish the darkness, for it recognizes the larger truth that the light and dark go together. As the Titanic sank, people onboard responded in many different ways. I am forever healed and touched by the action of those musicians who reportedly sat on the deck of the ship as it sank and played beautiful music.
I think here of Leonard Cohen’s words from a 1994 Shambhala Sun interview:
“We live in a world that is not perfectible, a world that always presents you with a sense of something undone, something missing, something hurting, something irritating. From that minor sense of discomfort to torture and poverty and murder, we live in that kind of universe. The wound that does not heal—this human predicament is a predicament that does not perfect itself.
“But there is the consolation of no exit, the consolation that this is what you're stuck with. Rather than the consolation of healing the wound, of finding the right kind of medical attention or the right kind of religion, there is a certain wisdom of no exit: this is our human predicament and the only consolation is embracing it. It is our situation, and the only consolation is the full embrace of that reality.”
Or, as Leonard so beautifully put it in one of his books, “I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win. You abandon your masterpiece and you sink into the real Masterpiece.”
That real Masterpiece is life, just as it is. But how is it, really? Whatever we think it is, is not it. Beneath the apparently solid world we seem to perceive and conceive, closer in, more subtly, if we tune in to this living reality Here-Now either with open attention or with science, the apparent solidity and certainty dissolves along with all the apparent boundaries between this and that. Below the surface façade, there is simply energy, movement, vibration, indeterminate particle-waves, awareness, consciousness, beingness, radiant presence, no-thing-ness—the words can’t capture it because it cannot be grasped, pinned down, bottled up, formulated or objectified.
If we stay on the surface, in our ideologies and cartoon images, identified as the little-me, feeling separate and out of control and infuriated by the injustice of it all—then we can rage at the way everything is not going the way we know it should be going. We can revel in feeling separate and righteous and wronged and superior to those morons who are ruining the world and destroying our dream. And here I am reminded of a Rumi poem I’ve always loved:
“Borrow the Beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see the Beloved’s face
Let that happen, and things
you have hated will become helpers….
Those that make you return, for whatever reason,
to God’s solitude, be grateful to them.
Worry about the others, who give you
delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.
Friends are enemies sometimes,
and enemies Friends….
The Friend, who knows
a lot more than you do, will bring difficulties,
and grief, and sickness,
as medicine, as happiness,
as the essence of the moment when you’re beaten,
when you hear Checkmate, and can finally say,
with Hallaj’s voice,
I trust you to kill me.”
Rumi is talking about spiritual death, of course, dying before you die, dying Now, not yesterday or someday, dying to the known. He’s talking about the Great Surrender, dissolving into boundless presence, opening into unconditional love, living in groundlessness. I can honestly say that having cancer, having Donald Trump in the White House, and living with a bag of poop glued to my belly has all been a strangely great blessing in my life. Something has released, opened up, dissolved, given way. Maybe you know what I mean.
Is there a person, or is the person entirely imaginary? Do we ever have choice in any way, or is everything an utterly uncontrollable happening? Do we need teachers, or are they only a hindrance? Is it valuable to have a practice, or do all practices simply reinforce the root delusion? Is there such a thing as awakening or liberation, or is there no difference at all between Buddha and Archie Bunker? Is everything that appears “just a dream” and therefore best ignored, or is waking life worthy of our attention?
It seems that these questions make sense, and we may have strong opinions about the “correct” answer to each of them. Perhaps some of you may be feeling a powerful urge right now to put “the correct answer” to one (or all) of them in the comment section below and argue for it vigorously.
But can we notice that these questions all involve conceptual abstractions? Can we also notice that these either/or questions are dualistic in nature, as if only one side of the conceptual duality can be “right,” while the other side must be “wrong”? Can we notice that our actual experience doesn’t really fit into these neat little boxes? Can we see that each of these questions could be legitimately answered either way, and that if we fixate on either position to the exclusion of the other, we are clinging to one side of an inseparable polarity?
Sometimes people get the idea that nonduality is all about figuring this stuff out and getting the right answers. But that’s not the heart of this at all. The heart of this is the aliveness Here-Now that is beyond description. It cannot be formulated. Does that mean we should stop writing and speaking and thinking and using words? Of course not! But we can perhaps begin to recognize their limitations and remember that what this is really all about cannot actually be put into words.
Response to a comment:
I'm not pointing to thinking or to something that can be figured out mentally, and true stillness is here even in the midst of work and activity. But yes, in my experience anyway, it does help to have some time each day to be physically quiet and doing nothing, to simply be, and to be fully awake to the bare actuality of what's going on Here-Now (the thought-stories, the ever-changing somatic sensations, the sounds and smells, and most importantly, the listening aware presence, the spacious aliveness being and beholding it all). You obviously do have enough time to be reading Facebook and leaving a comment, so you must have at least a few minutes you could devote to this kind of simple being! It doesn't need to be hours on end. A few minutes, even a few seconds, throughout the day...maybe 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning or end of the day...almost everyone (if not everyone) has that much unscheduled time. But we tend to fill it up with Facebook, video games, TV, checking email, or pretty much anything else...and our present society offers abundant possibilities for this.
Response to another comment:
Once again, the question poses what appears to be an either/or duality, and wonders what I (presumably the mirage-like separate self) “should” do. How will such a “choice” happen? By thinking about it, by getting external advice, or by actually tuning in and trusting your own Heart-Mind Here-Now? And by that, I simply mean this awaring presence, this intelligence, that is naturally here, belonging to no one.
I don’t know what the word “bliss” means to you. It’s not a word I use a lot. It does seem that blissful (in the sense of pleasurable) states can be addictive in one sense—certainly in Zen, they’d hit you with the stick if you were hanging out in bliss while the dirty dishes piled up around you and your bills went unpaid—but then, on the other hand, Ramana Maharshi apparently sat down in bliss, deep meditation or samadhi of some kind when he first arrived at Arunacula, allowing insects to chew his legs and not eating, and his devotees had to put food into his mouth to keep him alive—or so the story goes. This seems to be something that sadhus do in India, so apparently it is looked upon favorably in some traditions, and maybe for Ramana, it was an essential part of his journey—apparently it was, since it happened!
But more importantly, rather than referencing what Zen or Hinduism or Joan or Ramana or anyone else thinks or says, I’d suggest attending to your own direct experience. When we do that, a natural sensitivity develops about what is truly helpful or nourishing and what is a kind of addictive clinging or grasping. Only you can know how it is for you in any given moment. And the truth of one moment may be different in another moment. Intelligent action follows naturally from simple awareness. Maybe you remain in bliss because it feels truly alive to you, or maybe you get up and wash the dishes.
Eventually, it is discovered that true Bliss (the bliss of Sat-Chit-Ananda) is not limited to any particular posture, activity or absence of activity. Here-Now (boundless awareness, radiant presence, unconditional love, joy, true bliss) is ever-present. Within it, washing the dishes can happen or sitting at the foot of a mountain allowing insects to chew up your legs, and it doesn’t really matter which it is.
Response to another comment:
I'm glad you like it. But to clarify, what I share doesn't come from thinking, although of course to put it into words, some degree of thinking is involved, but what I share comes primarily from direct seeing...awareness...presence...looking and listening...direct exploration. And it is to this that I am always pointing, not to thinking about all of this. Of course, thinking has its place, but it's not the key here.
Faith and Belief
Many people use these two terms more or less synonymously, but for me, these two words carry significantly different meanings.
Belief involves accepting a conceptual abstraction as an accurate model of reality or feeling convinced that a certain opinion or view is undeniably true. Belief is always shadowed by doubt, which is probably why we defend our beliefs so vehemently at times, because on some level, we know that no belief is entirely or absolutely true, and we’re secretly afraid that we’re standing on shaky ground. Many beliefs, if held tentatively, are relatively true and functionally useful. But, on the darker side, we fight wars over differences in belief, and some beliefs are founded in ignorance, misinformation, magical thinking, prejudice and other delusions.
Religion, at its worst, is a belief system, and in that context, faith often means having faith in absurd beliefs, which is why many people discard religion and faith as being all about magical nonsense (or worse). To my way of seeing, that kind of belief-based religion is a superficial (tradition-bound, dogmatic, fundamentalist) form of religion, not the true heart of religion, not religion at its best. Some prefer to call religion at its best spirituality, which is fine with me. But whatever we call it, in that context, faith is something else altogether, at least as I see it. And I’ll get to that.
But first, let me point out that science, which is often viewed as the opposite of religion, actually relies a great deal on belief. But science is a belief system that operates by the scientific method, which means that tentative beliefs or hypotheses about reality are subjected to repeated experimentation and testing, and always (at least in theory) remain open to questioning, change and revision. This is in stark contrast to religious beliefs, which are usually considered unquestionable and are often seen as having been given to us by God through some semi-divine authoritative intermediary such as Moses, Jesus or the Pope, and “God” in that context is understood to be some separate, all-powerful, all-knowing creator-manager who is running the universe.
True religion, as I understand it, is not about belief at all, but rather, it is about direct seeing, direct knowing, direct experiencing of (and as) the living reality Here-Now before we conceptualize it. Science can tell us that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, but religion (as I mean it, at its truest and best) is drinking the water or diving into it, not standing back and analyzing it. When we drink or dive into water, we are no longer separate from it, and our experience of it is immediate and nonconceptual. It is a totally different way of knowing reality from science. Religion and science are both valid ways of exploring what is. As Zen teacher and former science writer Steve Hagen points out in his wonderful book Buddhism Is Not What You Think, science is well-equipped to deal intelligently with beliefs, through the scientific method, whereas religion is ill-served by any kind of belief.
Of course, religion cannot avoid offering maps and formulations to some degree. We can’t put things into words otherwise. But in the best cases, these maps are presented and regarded not as something you are supposed to believe in, and certainly not as something you are supposed to confuse with the living reality they describe, but rather, as something tentative and provisional that is intended as a starting point for your own direct exploration and discovery. As in science, this kind of religious map is always open to being questioned, revised, discarded or taken farther. It is a tentative approximation that begins with the recognition that nothing we can say about reality is the Truth: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” Of course, the Tao Te Ching, after beginning with that statement, goes on to speak about the Tao at length, because as one Zen teacher put it, even though nothing you say is ever quite right, you have to say something if you want to invite people to look and see for themselves.
True religion (or spirituality) seems to me to involve a waking up from the hypnotic trance of confusion and suffering that comes from believing our thoughts, arguing with reality, identifying ourselves as a separate, encapsulated entity, and mistaking our conceptual maps for the living reality they describe. This awakening is in some way a direct discovery of Love, Joy, Peace, Happiness, Freedom, Beauty, Truth—whatever words we might use to describe the Heart of Here-Now, this boundless awaring presence in which both the “inside self” and the “outside world” are revealed to be a seamless, undivided whole that is at once no-thing and everything. Awakening is the firsthand discovery that, although the manifestation can only appear as inseparable polarities, the heart of it all is Love. In other words, we discover from our own direct experience that Love (or Joy, or Truth) is a more fundamental reality than hate, despair or falsehood, all of which are seen to arise from reactive delusion rather than from deep, unclouded insight or presence.
So now, back to faith. Faith in this context is trust in and devotion to what has been directly discovered. Devotion to Presence. Devotion to Here-Now. Devotion to Awareness. Devotion to Love or Truth. Trust in What Is. Not trust that What Is will do our bidding or behave as we want it to, but trust that it is always exactly the way it is, and that somehow—perhaps in a way we cannot comprehend—it all belongs. It’s all here. It’s all an interdependent, inseparable whole, and the basis of it is Love. This is not faith in a belief, a person outside of ourselves, an ideology, or a particular map. It is faith in our own True Self, the Heart-Mind, emptiness, boundless awareness, whatever word we prefer to use. It is faith in what we have found firsthand to be most true, most reliable, most valuable.
Some might even call this faith in God, but in using the G-word in this context, we’re not talking about a separate, all-powerful, all-knowing creator-administrator who is up in heaven somewhere running the universe. We’re talking about what the 15th Century German Catholic mystic Nicholas of Cusa meant when he famously said, “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” We could replace the word “God” in that sentence with awareness or Here-Now or the Tao or emptiness. THIS, right here, right now is the Holy Reality, and it is THIS that must be discovered directly, not as a belief or an idea or a concept, but as our most immediate and undoubtable reality.
That discovery or awakening doesn’t necessarily require religion or spirituality, at least not in any formal or identifiable sense. It may happen in a completely secular way, and one might describe it in words that have no overtly religious or spiritual connotations or associations whatsoever.
Ultimately, of course, the realization that is being pointed to here is not the result of a cause. It is ever-present, never not Here-Now. But that’s not always clear to us. Hence, we have religion—to clarify this and also to celebrate this. We have practices, teachers, pointers and apparent choices that we can discover and cultivate, such as the possibility in any moment of shifting our attention from thoughts to presence.
Of course, religions are practiced, taught and transmitted by human beings, and human beings make mistakes. No spiritual teacher is ever without flaws, and like all human institutions, no spiritual community or organization is either. Anyone who has ever spent time in a religious or spiritual community knows that it’s not all sunshine and light. All our human neurosis and delusion is there: conflict, misunderstanding, ambition, jealousy, envy, anger, despair, neediness—you name it, it shows up. But that’s all part of the awakening dance. It’s the grit that creates the pearl, the crack that lets in the light. If worked with intelligently, it is a gate and not an obstacle.
I mentioned apparent choices, such as the discovery that there is a possibility in any moment of shifting our attention from thoughts to presence. Some of you might be wondering, if there’s no self here, who makes such a choice? Ultimately, everything is a movement of one, undivided whole, from which nothing and no one ever stands apart. We can describe this movement as a choice or a choiceless happening, and we can also discern a difference between action that arises from reactive conditioning and action that arises from open presence, clarity, awareness and love. These descriptions and discernments are also the movement of this same undivided whole. Choice and choicelessness are different maps, each useful in different ways, in different situations. Neither is Absolutely True.
Is this choice or possibility to wake up always available? Yes/No (see my previous post from 7/13/18 about not getting stuck on one side of a polarity). We can argue endlessly over whether choice exists, but if I tell you to put your attention on your left foot, something responds and your attention moves, seemingly at will although you cannot actually find a doer or say how it happens. But in some way, there is a response-ability (a responsibility) Here-Now, an ability to respond, unless for some reason there isn’t. It isn’t thought masquerading as “me” that does this, but at the same time, it’s not something other than or outside of this aware presence Here-Now to which the word “I” most deeply refers.
And this possibility to “choose freedom” in any given moment seems to become more easily available the more it is accessed. No words are ever quite right, but if the interest arises, this possibility can be discovered. Faith in this possibility and what it reveals is something that develops and deepens over apparent time, and yet, it only ever arises in the timeless Now.
Don’t believe anything I say, but if the interest is here, explore for yourself, and perhaps that exploration and discovery will lead to stronger and stronger faith in what cannot be put into words.
MEDITATION: What Is It? Is It Worth Doing?
“Meditation is a dualistic practice that only reinforces the separate self,” or “I don’t have time to meditate,” or “I can’t meditate, my mind is too busy.” I hear statements like these rather frequently, and I wonder, are any of these statements true?
First of all, what is meditation? The word is used to refer to many very different things, but in the deepest sense, as I use it, it simply points to being Here-Now—present, aware, open. And actually, as any intelligent version of the formal activity we call meditation eventually reveals, this open aware presence is the ever-present nature of Here-Now. It is what Here-Now is – the nothingness, the zero, the ground from which everything arises and to which it returns. This openness is what we truly are, not something we practice or do.
Here-Now is the ever-present common factor in every different experience, whether we are meditating, busy at work, taking care of loud and unruly children, shopping for groceries in a crowded market, driving on a busy freeway, having a heated conversation, or sitting quietly on a park bench watching the birds. Whether we are feeling calm or agitated, blissful or miserable, it all happens Here-Now in this unbound awareness. Meditation is actually the nature or natural activity of this awaring presence that we are. But often, this goes unrecognized. We think and feel that we are a separate, encapsulated, deficient self. Hence, we have meditation in the more formal sense, to wake up from this delusion and to explore the living reality directly.
In that more formal sense of the word, meditation refers to putting aside our usual activities, remaining relatively still and quiet, and then doing (or not doing) various things. These various things in different schools of meditation may include following the breath, attending to sensations, labeling thoughts, saying a mantra, working on a koan, being aware of awareness, or not doing anything at all. There may be additional instructions given on correct posture, hand positions, keeping the eyes open or closed, and so on—and these will differ from one school of meditation to the next.
For me, meditation simply means being present and giving open attention to what is. And by what is, I mean the bare, sensory-energetic reality of this moment and the aware presence beholding it all. In other words, simply being awake to the sounds of traffic, the sensations in the body, the breathing, the visual dance of shapes and colors if the eyes are open—and also recognizing, tuning into, feeling into, dissolving into the vibrant presence that permeates it all, the spaciousness in which everything is arising, the listening stillness, the aliveness.
Meditation also means being aware of the thoughts that pop up and recognizing them as thoughts, without mistaking them for objective and credible reports on reality, and without getting sucked into the content or the storylines they are spinning—and if getting sucked in and hypnotized by thought does happen, as it probably will at times, meditation simply means being aware of that—seeing the allure of thought and how quickly and persuasively it creates an imaginary world that seems believable, and how it creates the apparent “me” at the center of that story.
Meditation is non-judgmental and not result-oriented. It isn’t going anywhere. And if judgments or seeking results should arise, as they may, meditation simply means noticing those movements of the mind without judging the judging or seeking the end of seeking. Nothing is resisted, nothing is sought. Everything is allowed to be as it is. Meditation as I mean it is not about getting into any special state or getting rid of anything that appears. It’s simply being present, being aware, being Here-Now, which we effortlessly always already are.
There is no such thing as a “good meditation” or a “bad meditation.” You can’t fail at meditation, although many people believe they have failed because their thoughts are running wild and they feel agitated, restless or bored, so they must be a failure at this. People often have the idea that meditation is about being calm and thought-free, and if that’s not happening, it means it’s not working. But true meditation simply allows all of this to be as it is, beholding it all with unconditional love. Meditation is not about results, or getting somewhere, or having a special mystical experience, or fixing and improving the imaginary “me.” It’s simply about being awake Here-Now, allowing it all to be just as it is—and noticing that everything already IS allowed to be as it is—obviously, because it’s all here, just as it is, even our moments of resistance and seeking! It is the mirror-like nature of awareness to allow everything to be as it is. Awareness includes everything and clings to nothing.
And ultimately, as any true meditation eventually reveals, there is no actual boundary between “meditation” and “the rest of my life.” But it is very helpful, especially in the beginning, to dedicate some actual, uninterrupted time and space to sitting quietly, doing nothing. This is something our society as a whole desperately needs, and something most of us are deeply hungry for, whether we recognize it or not. Far from “wasting time,” this is about discovering what is most essential and seeing the false for what it is. But it is best to approach meditation without any such lofty ideas, and to regard it as utterly useless and purposeless. That may sound dreadful, but only to the conditioned mind.
Although meditation is sometimes called sitting, being seated is not essential. You can meditate sitting, standing, lying down or walking. You can be in an armchair, a recliner, on a park bench or a meditation cushion. You can be at home, at the office, in prison, in a hospital bed, on an airplane or anywhere at all. A quiet location is helpful, but by no means essential. Nothing that shows up needs to be regarded as a distraction, an obstacle, an interruption or a problem. Your eyes can be open or closed. You don’t need to hold the body completely still, but simply allow a natural stillness to emerge by itself.
Everyone has at least a few minutes during any ordinary busy day that they could potentially devote to this kind of simple being. While riding on a bus, train or plane, or while sitting in a waiting room before an appointment, instead of reaching for a magazine or your phone, just BE here. This is radical in our society! For a moment between clients, between patients, between meetings, while on breaks, while the children are napping, or whenever there is a free moment in your daily schedule, simply stop and be. A few minutes, even a few seconds, throughout the day can be huge.
And maybe it’s possible to take some dedicated time, maybe just 5 or 10 minutes, at the beginning and/or end of the day to simply be here, doing nothing. Although formal meditation does take time relatively speaking, it is actually about opening to what is timeless, without beginning or end, ever-present and yet ever-changing. And the more this is recognized, the more it is known to be ever-present as what you truly are, not as an idea or a belief, but as an undoubtable felt-reality.
No one is without some amount of unscheduled, free time. But we tend to fill it up with noise and busyness: constant thinking and talking, video games, social media, cruising the internet, watching TV, reading, checking email, looking at our phones, or pretty much anything other than just being here. Our present society offers abundant possibilities for this kind of restless and increasingly addictive activity. It’s hard to find any public space anymore without TVs playing or background music or both going constantly. While none of these aforementioned activities are “bad” or inherently problematic in moderation, it’s a wonderful revelation to live without them for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days or weeks at a time.
When you first allow yourself to do this—to stop and be still, doing nothing at all—you may feel relief and joy, or you may feel an intense energy in the body that seems to demand that you do something like get on your phone or start thinking about something right away. If you do feel this powerful urge to do something, just feel this energy, this urgency, in the body as pure sensation. Explore it. Let it be. If there is what we call restlessness or boredom, just allow these things to be as they are and be curious about them—what are they, without the labels? See the thoughts, feel the sensations, tune into the bare energy of them. Letting go of all our busyness and hyper-stimulation can be like going through withdrawal from any other kind of addiction—there is often a period of discomfort. The challenge is to be with this discomfort without reaching for something to cure it. This is where you discover what you have been avoiding and what you have been missing.
Some people feel discipline and regularity is very important in meditation, others do not. Some regard meditation as a practice, others as simply a natural part of life. Some use a timer and follow a strict schedule, others simply meditate as often or as long as it invites them, perhaps without even thinking of it anymore as “meditation” or as anything special. I feel we can all trust that the best way for each of us will unfold naturally, and the best way may change over time. Even the apparent mistakes are all part of the Way. The Way is going nowhere (i.e., it’s always Now/Here), and we simply wake up to the reality that we are Here-Now. If we are trying to “be here now,” we are overlooking this. It’s never about the future or trying to get somewhere.
Meditation as I mean it is both practical and potentially transcendent, and by transcendent, I mean discovering what is unlimited and free, beyond the personal (and that doesn’t exclude or deny the personal, but is simply not bound by it). On both levels, practical or transcendent, meditation involves seeing how the thinking mind creates suffering and confusion, waking up from stories and beliefs, developing a capacity to be with disturbing sensations or emotions without needing to escape in harmful ways, and shifting from a life primarily rooted in and run by thinking to a life rooted more and more in awareness and presence. On a practical level only, this can all bring us a much happier and less stressful life, and for many, especially with secular forms of meditation, this is as far as it goes, and that’s fine.
But at a deeper or more transcendent level, meditation involves seeing through the mirage of the separate self. It is about a shift from being exclusively identified as a person to knowing that we are the boundless awareness being and beholding the body-mind-world. It is the discovery that we are not encapsulated inside a body and that the world is not “out there” separate from us. Meditation reveals the seamlessness, wholeness and interdependence of everything. In true meditation, there is no meditator. There is no boundary between inside and outside, between subject and object.
Meditation is how we realize or actualize what might otherwise just be a collection of beautiful ideas or beliefs (e.g., that there is no self, that we never experience anything outside of consciousness, that apparently separate and persisting things don’t actually exist, that unconditional love is our fundamental nature, that birth and death are imaginary divisions in what is actually a seamless whole, that our True Nature is never lost even in moment of upset and confusion). Meditation allows us to explore questions such as free will or the nature of reality not by thinking about them, but by observing and knowing directly. Meditation is not theoretical or philosophical; it is nonconceptual and embodied. And paradoxically, when we are fully embodied, it is clear that we are no body at all!
Who or what are you right now if you don’t refer to thought, memory, second-hand information or imagination? Do you as this undeniable awaring presence Here-Now have a gender, an age, a nationality, a body or a mind? Are you located anywhere in particular? Do you have any boundaries, any place where you begin and end, any place where you are not? Is there any boundary between inside of you and outside of you? Feel into these questions. Feel the relief and freedom of being no-thing at all and everything.
For a moment, leave past and future behind. Leave behind all ideas and beliefs, all second-hand information and accumulated knowledge. Leave behind everything you think you know about yourself and the world. Leave behind all expectation and anticipation, all opinions and judgments. Be completely open. Don’t resist anything. Allow the senses to function naturally. If thoughts come, let them come and go, but don’t get involved in the stories they spin. Simply be. Feel into the texture of this pure being. Feel the spaciousness, the openness, the energy, the vibrant aliveness.
What is aware of this openness, this spaciousness, this aliveness? Don’t look for the answer in thought, but simply look and listen and be open to what reveals itself. If any-thing perceivable or conceivable comes to mind as the answer, however subtle it may be, ask yourself, what is aware of that? Fall into the no-thing-ness that cannot be grasped by the mind, the information-less zero, the absolute emptiness.
Go deeply with awareness into any sensation (somatic, auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic), and you will discover the same absolute emptiness, the same vastness, the same radiant no-thing-ness. This limitless and all-inclusive unicity has no opposite. It is the stillness at the Heart of everything, the immeasurable, unlocatable vastness that is prior to (or subtler than) anything perceivable or conceivable.
This vastness Here-Now is appearing as ever-changing form and dissolving back into formlessness, like waves on the ocean arising and subsiding. Be devoted to this vastness that you are, your own Heart, expressing as waving movement and subsiding back into the silent deep that it has never actually left, moment by moment, breath by breath. Meditation is devotion, unconditional love, finding only God everywhere.
Meditation invites being liberated on the spot, not once-and-for-all, not someday, not once long ago, but right now.
And if you think you’re not liberated, meditation invites you to see if you can find the one who is not liberated!
Choice, Choicelessness and What Is:
Life happens automatically. Breathing happens, digestion happens, thinking happens, the entire ecosystem happens. Planets circle the sun, suns explode and die, ice ages come and go. At the subatomic level, there is an undefinable, indeterminate, ungraspable dance of energy that seems to solidify or particularize only in the observing of it.
Every thought we have, every interest, every urge, every attraction, every repulsion, every feeling, every movement of attention arises automatically from an unfindable source. This can be discovered by observing closely. And then thought, also automatically, poses as the self-in-charge and takes credit or blame after the fact: “I did it, I stopped smoking, I started up again, I decided to be a lawyer, I chose to have children, I took a time-out before speaking when I felt angry, I failed to take a time-out, I decided to meditate, I put my attention on my breathing,” and so on.
But when we search for this phantom “I” who seems to be at the controls, steering the ship, authoring the thoughts, making the decisions and moving the attention, we find no such entity or agency. And yet, we can all seemingly open and close our hand at will (unless for some reason we can’t). And undeniably, the bodymind can learn new skills and be trained and developed in various ways. The baby learns to roll itself over, pick up objects, crawl, walk, use the toilet, etc., and it develops greater and greater control of these abilities and functions. The athlete trains and refines their ability to perform certain actions. The medical student becoming a surgeon acquires amazing manual and cognitive skills. The meditation student learns to not move, to pay attention, to be with difficult feelings. A client in therapy learns new ways to respond to depression or anxiety. In all kinds of ways, there is an obvious ability Here-Now to initiate and carry out action and to learn new skills. But the more we search for the initiator or the doer or the learner, the more we find no-thing substantial at all.
If we look closely, ALL of this is happening by itself, including what SEEMS to be “my” effort, “my” will, “my” intention, “my” perseverance, “my” looking and listening, and so on. And for everyone who succeeds in various endeavors, there are others who fail. Some alcoholics are able to stop drinking and sober up, others are not. Some would say the ones who fail didn’t really want to stop drinking, or they didn’t try hard enough. But do we choose what we want in each moment? When we have conflicting desires, for example the desire to sober up and the desire for another drink, do we control which of these opposing desires has more energy and wins out in any given moment? It SEEMS at times that we do, for example, when we are able to resist a powerful impulse, but where did this ability come from in that moment, and what about all the times we were not able to do this—what was different?
When we truly get how automatic and choiceless everything is, how there is no independent author-chooser-doer, it frees us from guilt, shame, blame and so much more. It instantly dissolves layer upon layer of self-hatred and feelings of deficiency and imperfection, as well as so much of our judgment, anger, hatred and resentment of others. It brings forth instant compassion for ourselves and all beings.
This DOESN’T mean we let people walk all over us, or that we let serial killers run free just because we now understand that they couldn’t help doing what they did, or that we cannot work on ourselves or the world in various ways if we are so moved, whether through therapy or an addiction recovery program or athletic training or social change work or whatever. Recognizing the choiceless and automatic nature of life doesn’t mean we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” practice our tennis game, study a new language, make an effort, see a therapist, be a therapist, try out a new vegan diet, sign a petition or “decide” to join a movement for social change.
It means that the interest in such activities, the urge to do them, the ability to do them, and their relative success or failure is a choiceless happening of the whole universe and not the action of a separate independent self. No wave is actually separate or independent of the ocean. No wave can decide to go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean is moving. No wave can ever “do it wrong.” Every wave, big or small, tumultuous or gentle, is equally water. All of them are a movement of the whole ocean, and all of them have the whole ocean under them, like that famous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. You do what life moves you to do. You have no choice!
If we’re raising children, teaching school, training athletes or surgeons, flying an airplane, or performing a host of other life functions, we don’t just sit back and say, “It’s all happening automatically, so there’s nothing you or I can do—we just have to wait and see what happens.” Obviously, that would be absurd. It would be a misunderstanding of what is being pointed out here. Because, of course, we teach our children not to run into the traffic or scream in the supermarket, and we help the athlete or the surgeon we are training to develop and refine their skills and we point out the errors they are making, and in doing all that, we act—in a sense—as if there is free will. If our child screams in public, or if our athlete misses the jump, or if our students don’t do their homework, we naturally do what we are moved to do to correct this, and that might include discipline of some kind. But if we truly get the choiceless nature of life, then we naturally have compassion and understanding for these apparent failures and for our own apparent imperfections, such as losing our temper and yelling at our misbehaving child. We no longer take all this personally or imagine that it could—in that moment—have been any different.
In my own writing, I sometimes suggest the possibility of exploring something, or shifting attention, or sitting quietly, or whatever it might be. I’m not talking to the imaginary separate self. And I recognize that whether what I’m suggesting happens or not is not in my control or anyone else’s. Still, I make the offering. It is what life moves me to do! This is how life functions and moves. This is why I’m always stressing the importance of not landing dogmatically on one side of a conceptual duality such as choice or choicelessness, because reality itself cannot be captured in any formulation. The map is not the territory. And, of course, my stressing this point over and over, and the effects it does or doesn’t have on anyone else, is also a choiceless happening!
In this dream-like appearance that we call waking life, there seem to be billions of independent individuals involved in all sorts of important and meaningful dramas. There seem to be cause and effect, progress and regress, evolutionary development, plot twists and turns, purpose and meaning. And yet, all of that is a kind of conceptual superimposition upon what is actually an inconceivable, indeterminate, formless dance of energy. The movie-story is a creation of thought, an abstract map of the actual territory, and to some degree, it is a creation of conditioned perception as well, such as the way we have learned to see tables and chairs. A baby presumably sees different shapes and colors, but hasn’t yet learned where to draw the boundary-lines around different objects on the basis of category and function rather than simply on proximity and color. This abstract map-world created by conceptual thought and conditioned perception is a frozen, solidified abstraction of what is actually constant change and indeterminacy—it divides up what is actually seamless and indivisible. And it creates the illusory separate, independent “me” who seemingly stands apart from everything else.
This map-world gives rise to all our imaginary problems: the psychological fear of death, the pervasive sense of deficiency and lack, the fear of meaninglessness, the quest for purpose, the endless drive for self-improvement, all the various global and personal conflicts, and so on. We are fighting enemies that literally don’t exist, trying to improve a self that is nothing more substantial than a mirage, living in terror of sailing off the edge of the earth that actually has no edge, and worrying about whether we’ll still be here after we die. All of this suffering can disappear! And whether it appears or disappears is nothing personal and doesn’t matter either way!
Of course, in everyday life, we cannot ignore the relative reality of apparent cause and effect, or the relative reality of me and you as two different individuals, or the relative reality of apparent choice and responsibility, or the relative reality of apparent chairs and tables, laws and organizations, governments and countries, moral and ethical questions of all kinds, and so on. This is all part of how life functions. But we can SEE, if we look closely and carefully, that all of this is not the actual reality of what is. And when that is clearly seen, there is a significant decrease in the suffering we experience and cause.
Again, that recognition doesn’t mean we won’t act, or have opinions and preferences, or make apparent choices. We cannot help doing all that! But it is ALL a choiceless happening, and the closer we look, either with science or meditation, the more we see that nothing is solid, that no-thing exists or persists in the way we think it does, and that nothing is separate from the whole to be the cause or effect of anything else. It all simply is as it is. And how is it? We can’t say! And yet…words tumble out, choicelessly. And equally choicelessly, these black squiggles on a screen are seen and instantly translated into meaning. The meaning and the objects, ideas and realizations that the words magically bring into being all seem quite substantial, but look again…it all evaporates into thin air. What freedom! What relief!
BEING AWAKE HERE-NOW:
Listen to the traffic sounds, the hum of the air-conditioner, the cheeping of a bird, the train whistle, the crickets, the wind in the leaves. Feel the breathing, the sensations throughout the body, the cool breeze on the skin. Smell the coffee, taste it, feel the cup in your hands. Feel the open spacious presence that you are, the openness that is awaring this whole happening, permeating it, allowing it all to be just exactly as it is. Don’t think about all this, but feel it. Sense it. Let the labels and the storylines melt away or be transparent and simply feel this present happening as pure sensation, pure energy, pure being. Enjoy this! Don’t do this as a practice, to get results, but simply to enjoy being here now, being alive, being this moment.
Notice that everything is changing, pulsating, vibrating, tingling, moving. Notice the stillness, the listening silence, the ever-present awareness that beholds this ever-changing movement. Notice that it all happens Here-Now, in the immediacy of this timeless presence. Notice how everything is one whole undivided seamless happening in which there is both diversity and unity at the same moment—like one whole painting or one whole movie with many different shapes, colors and gestures, or one whole symphony with many different sounds, pitches, tones and moods, or one ocean with many inseparable but different waves.
Notice that this simple happening needs no metaphysical explanation or formulation. In simply being here, there is no worry about whether this is primarily mind or matter, or what role the brain plays in consciousness, or whether or not God exists, or what happens after death, or whether we have free will, or what “no-self” means. Notice the relief of dropping that mental hamster-wheel that endlessly chases control through mental understanding, analysis, grasping, formulating, mapping, desperately trying to figure everything out, looking for the security of some final certainty, and always being left in uncertainty and doubt. In practical matters or in science, this mapping function can be useful, but notice that right now, in this moment, it is not needed. It is a form of suffering. See that. Feel that.
When thoughts come, see them and let them go, without getting caught up in the storylines they are spinning out, the headlines they are asserting, the problems they insist demand solutions—simply come back (again and again, now and now) to the non-conceptual, sensory-energetic simplicity of this moment—hearing, seeing, breathing, sensing—just this! Abide in the simplicity of what is.
Of course, in daily life, there are times when thinking is functional, creative and necessary, and there are times when the attention needs to be focused on a task such as adding up numbers, doing various calculations, listening to other people, preparing food, reading or writing emails, designing software, proof-reading a manuscript, following directions, operating equipment, caring for children, performing medical procedures, arguing a case in court, driving a bus, teaching a class, studying for an exam, and so on. None of this needs to be a problem.
But notice when thinking arises that is not functional or creative—judging oneself or others, trying to figure out the nature of reality, going over and over something that happened in the past, fantasizing or worrying about the future, defending and justifying one’s words or actions, and so on. Be aware of how thought triggers emotion and creates moods, how it tells stories and forms beliefs and certainties, how it endlessly manufactures doubt, how it tries to do things it cannot do, how it creates the mirage of the separate self.
Can we see all the ways, gross or subtle, that we are manipulative, craving approval, wanting authority, looking for security, trying to escape discomfort, defending ourselves, putting down or elevating others, feeling entitled and self-righteous, pitying ourselves, and so on? These are not easy things to see, and they fly in the face of how we like to think of ourselves—our self-image that we defend and protect—so it takes honesty and courage to see all this. But all of this is our shared human stuff. So, can we see that these thoughts and behaviors are conditioned, impersonal, habitual movements—that we don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed of them? Simply SEEING them is enough. Awareness is the great solvent, the great transformer, the great healer. Awareness sheds light and dispels darkness. When thought, posing as “me,” tries to fix or purify or improve “myself,” it backfires. Instead, have faith in the power of awareness, the openness and freedom of simple presence.
And by faith, I don’t mean belief. I mean a kind of confidence or trust that develops, an undoubtable recognition of what truly matters and what actually dissolves our suffering. This must be discovered by each one of us firsthand. And that discovery doesn’t happen by thinking or trying to figure this out, or trying to grasp it mentally or ideologically. It happens by feeling, sensing, opening to and being this living reality Here-Now, just as it is. It happens by seeing clearly how suffering and confusion are created by unnecessary thinking, and letting go (again and again, now and now) into the simplicity of what is.
The living reality includes everything without exception. All experiences are equally the living reality. This includes enlightenment experiences, mystical experiences, bouts of despair, waves of fear, surges of anger, clouds of confusion—obviously, it’s ALL included in what is. It’s all here. And all of these experiences are momentary appearances without substance or inherent meaning. It may seem otherwise if we don’t look too closely. Then it may seem that “fear” or “anger” or “bliss” or “confusion” means something about “me” and that this experience persists over time. But actually, every so-called “experience” is an ever-changing, vibrating, pulsating, shifting, movement inseparable from the rest of the universe, all of it utterly impersonal and devoid of inherent meaning.
This can be discovered by giving open attention to bare presence, to sensations themselves rather than focusing exclusively on thoughts and ideas. When we tune into sensing and feeling, we find that experiencing is fluid, ephemeral, indeterminate and without solid boundaries. What thought divides up into seer, seeing and seen (or into awareness and content, subject and object, observer and observed) is one undivided, seamless reality. The divisions are conceptual, like the lines on a map.
Nirvana and samsara, heaven and hell, bliss and depression, spaciousness and contraction are all equally this undivided reality, but thought divides them up and then labels some of these experiences “spiritual” and others “problems” that must be fixed. Thought gives these experiences meaning and takes them personally. The word-labels make fluid, ephemeral, indeterminate, ungraspable aliveness seem like solid things or persisting states. Notice how thought insists, “This isn’t it,” or “This needs to go,” or “Something is missing,” or “I’m not all the way there yet.” Can these thoughts be questioned and seen as merely habitual commentary after the fact?
Life (the universe, presence, whatever this is) is always already complete, already fully present here now, just as it is. And it is never the same way for even an instant. If we go deeply into what we’re calling “anger” or “fear” or “anxiety” or “depression,” we will find nothing solid or substantial. And by “go deeply into,” I mean with open attention, with awareness, not with thought or analysis. Instead of labeling, thinking about, analyzing and constructing stories about these experiences, which is our habit, what is discovered by going right into the very core of the bare sensations themselves? In other words, feeling, sensing, BEING this moment, just as it is—seeing, listening, awaring—BEING the open, spacious, nonjudgmental attention and the bare presence that we naturally are, without seeking a result—simply exploring what is with open curiosity and interest, without trying to change or eliminate any of it.
When that happens, we discover that everything is empty. Empty of what? Empty of independent existence, empty of any persisting form, empty of inherent meaning or purpose. Feel into this. This emptiness is freedom. “Emptiness” or “no self” or “no meaning” may sound scary or dreadful to the thinking mind, like some kind of barren nihilistic void, but the actuality is freedom…unconditional love…uncaused joy…relief!
There is no solid entity here, no separate, encapsulated someone who is authoring and directing our lives. Everything is a happening of the whole universe. There is no finality, no final resolution, no end point, no finish-line. There is literally no-thing to grasp. The self (“me”) is an idea, a mirage-like appearance, an ever-changing whirlpool made of thoughts, memories, mental images, stories and sensations. This “me” who seems to be authoring my thoughts, making my choices, performing my actions and living my life cannot actually be located or pinned down. It’s merely an idea, not a reality. No actual boundary can ever be found between inside and outside, between self and not-self, between awareness and content. It is one whole happening, infinitely diverse but without any actual division.
Notice that all our spiritual questions arise from the point of view of the imaginary separate self who seems forever incomplete, vulnerable, deficient, lacking and in need of improvement. Thought is constantly attempting to get control, get a grip, make “me” secure and okay at last. We are programmed it seems to want to survive as this imaginary form that we think we are. But if this phantom self is not here, if there is no “me” in the picture (as there isn’t in many ordinary moments in any ordinary day), what questions remain? I’m not talking here about practical questions such as how to fix the car or which bus to take, or scientific questions such as why the apple falls down from the tree or what part of the brain lights up when we feel afraid—I’m talking about those spiritual questions that the mind keeps churning out about the nature of reality, endlessly trying to grasp this living actuality that cannot be grasped. When such questions arise, look and see: Who wants to know? Who has this question? Who cares about this? Why does it seem to matter? What are the words in the question actually referring to—do these “things” even exist?
Result-oriented, me-centered grasping and seeking can fall away, if we’re lucky, but open exploration and discovery continue endlessly because there is no final answer, no final understanding, no finish-line “enlightenment” after which you’re done and everything is neatly wrapped up and tied with a bow—although many teachers and teachings suggest otherwise. That suggestion of finality sets many of us up to seek (or manufacture) that kind of decisive event or final resolution, and then to settle on it with a kind of closure if it seemingly happens. That’s the beginning of dogmatism, fundamentalism and putting on a new set of blinders. Is it possible not to land anywhere, to live in groundlessness, in the openness of not knowing?
And if you find yourself thinking that "you" are not enlightened yet (or that you are), check and see if you can find this “me” who is not (or who is) enlightened. Perhaps we can drop all these fancy words like “awakening” and “enlightenment” and “liberation” and simply be Here-Now, as this present happening, just as it is. We may discover that THIS is the Holy Reality that we have been seeking elsewhere. And THIS is not a “thing.” THIS does not hold still. THIS is not a possession, or an achievement, or a particular experience as opposed to some other experience. THIS is simply the naked, unvarnished aliveness of this moment, the richness of experiencing itself. THIS is utterly obvious, utterly immediate, amazingly rich, totally alive, never absent, and yet so often overlooked or ignored.
Response to a question:
ALL we ever actually have is experience! And the answer to your question all hinges on what we mean by a separate self. Obviously, there is something here we call a person, and that person is in some sense “separate” from the chair across the room. But if we look more closely, either with science or meditative attention, neither the person, nor the body, nor the chair have the solidity or independent existence that they seem to have—they are all continuously changing and interdependent, and the boundaries between them or around them are not really solid, and it is all showing up as one whole picture, one seamless undivided happening.
The self that is said to be non-existent does not refer to this unique person with its unique features and personality, or this (ever-changing) body, or this stream of experiencing and present-ness. It refers to the notion that there is a kind of entity inside the body that is running the show, and to the notion that this bodymind exists independent of everything else. These are beliefs that can be seen through by paying attention to reality itself.
Emptiness or seamlessness or no self are not experiences—they are descriptions of this living reality. No description is the truth. The map is never the territory, the word water is not water.
NDEs are certainly real experiences, but the belief involved is the assumption that they mean something about life after death and that they happen during actual death, rather than like a dream, in the split second of losing consciousness or regaining it. They prove nothing about life after death. They are NEAR-death EXPERIENCES.
Another response to same person:
Yes, there is certainly, for most of us, at times anyway, the FEELING of being somebody with free will...I don't think anyone would deny that...one neuroscientist has aptly called it a neurological sensation. But neuroscientists and meditators alike can't seem to find this "self" at the controls (or this persisting, separate unit that would reincarnate from one life to another) when they look closely and carefully. I'm not denying the real EXPERIENCE that people then conceptualize into the BELIEF in a soul or free will, but it's a belief. The burden of proof is on those who insist Santa Claus is real and unicorns actually exist, not on those of us who say these are myths and fantasies.
Another response to same person:
Well, our experience, by its very nature, seems to be indeterminate and unresolvable. As I said in the post, there are (in my experience anyway) no final resolutions or certainties. And as far as I can see, all we ever have is experience. And as you point out, some experiences, such as love, are felt-realities that can't really be proven. Actually nothing can really be proven or pinned down if we go deeply enough.
We can’t be sure that the entire movie of waking life isn’t literally a kind of dream, a dream that includes our apparent evolution from single-celled organisms to human beings, and all our scientific discoveries and proofs, and all our social progress toward more just and egalitarian forms of social organization, and all our psychological and meditative insights into the way our minds work, and all our problems such as climate change, and our whole life stories—how can we ever know that these are not simply dream-events and not observations of some actual, substantial, objective, observer-independent, material world outside of us? We can’t!
Many of the Advaita persuasion insist with certainty that it is all simply a dance of consciousness, very much the same as a dream, and that in awakening, we (as boundless, impersonal awareness) are witnessing the dance, much as we sometimes witness our dreams as dreams while still dreaming them in episodes of lucid dreaming. This seems entirely possible to me, and for sure, we never EXPERIENCE anything outside of consciousness (i.e., outside of experiencing itself). But I also don’t see how we can be certain that this formulation is true, and meanwhile, we are living in the relative world of everyday life.
I consider science a belief system, but it is a very different kind of belief system from (most) religion. Scientific beliefs, such as evolution or gravity, are based on direct observation, and then the testing and re-testing of hypothesis, and these conclusions always remain open to being overturned, changed or taken further. In contrast, most religious beliefs are regarded as revealed truths that cannot be questioned. The scientific method seems to me like the best way to handle belief, while religion (of that type) seems like the most foolish and dangerous way.
So of course, in a certain sense, Santa Claus and unicorns are as real (as EXPERIENCES) as chairs and tables, and everyone's ideas and experiences are equally real (as experiences). But in another sense, they are clearly not all equally real. The psychotic person who thinks he is Napoleon is having a real experience, but we would probably agree he is delusional. I think we’re mixing up different levels of reality, or different perspectives on reality, here in some fundamental way. You’re arguing that everything is equally true, which is perhaps okay at one level, but at the level where we live and function, it is a dangerous fallacy—at least, that’s how it seems to me.
Response to another comment from same person:
Perhaps I haven’t yet taken some radical leap that you have taken. And to be honest, this question that you raise is one where I do not feel complete clarity, perhaps because it points to the impossibility of ever knowing anything other than present experiencing, and maybe in some way, I'm still clinging to the desire for some certainty or stability.
Experiencing itself is not a belief—how thought abstracts, reifies, formulates and interprets experience after the fact is where beliefs emerge. And I would certainly agree with you that people get very attached to (and identified with) our beliefs, and that all any of us has is our own experience. Even the notion that there are billions of other humans each experiencing a different movie of waking life is itself something that shows up in my experience—I have no way of actually proving that such people exist “out there” somewhere, independently of my experience of them, which could be no more real than a dream. And I agree that no mental formulation (no map of reality), however accurate it seems or may be, is ever the living reality it re-presents.
But at the same time, it does seem to me that certain qualities (such as impermanence, seamlessness, choicelessness, and so on) can be noticed through paying close attention to experience. And it also seems to me that this apparent body-mind-world showing up Here-Now is all I have to work with, even if it is “only a dream,” and to me, something feels inherently troubling (and repugnant) about dismissing relative reality entirely or concluding that all belief systems, all ideas, all political views, and so on are equally true (or equally false). In other words, I don’t buy the idea that a belief in racial inferiority is just as true as the idea that there is no essential difference. I don’t think that the belief that the earth is flat is just as valid as believing it is a sphere, or that it is correct that unicorns exist in the same way that my dog exists.
But again, you may have taken some radical leap, and you may have some clarity on this that I do not. I can only say that something about what you are putting forth feels off to me in some way, too extreme. But I find this an interesting question which I expect to continue exploring.
Response to another comment from the same person:
Sounds like we’re not that far apart at all in how we’re seeing things. What I’ve learned from this exchange: (1) It’s very important to see and acknowledge that anything I write or say is only my perspective, not The Truth, and (2) to assert that there is no self goes too far—more accurate to say that I have never found one, and that a long line of meditators looking closely at their own experience and neuroscientists looking with the tools of science at the brain have never found one either. That avoids falling into any conclusion, finality, certainty or belief. And if someone wants to claim that they traveled to heaven and met Jesus and their long dead sister during their NDE and that this proves the existence of heaven and the soul and the fact that Jesus and all our dead relatives are still alive, then I will endeavor to smile politely in quiet amusement at their bemusement. Thank you for a great exchange.
Response to a new comment in the same thread:
I’m with you 99%, but I have to admit, something makes me uncomfortable here, and I’m not entirely clear what it is. I agree that each of us lives in our own universe—even my notion that there are others, such as yourself, “out there” independent of me, is an appearance in my universe that I have no way of verifying.
At the same time, functionally and experientially, we seem to assume that you and I (and my universe of experiencing and your universe of experiencing) both in some way actually do exist. And in addition, we couldn’t function if we did not in some way act as if we inhabit a shared reality. And in that shared reality, it does seem to me that some things are true (e.g. 4+4=8) and other things are false (e.g. 4+4=7), and that when someone claims, for example, that Hillary is running a child sex ring out of the back room of a pizza parlor, this is false—and when someone who believes this shows up with a shotgun ready to kill people, we don’t simply say, “Go ahead and shoot—to each his own reality!”
I totally agree that race, sex, gender, nationality, age and other categories never have absolute boundary-lines in the way labels can suggest—they are abstract generalizations, as you point out—and those abstract categories are to some degree social constructions.
But I feel it would be false to get stuck or fixated on this view in such a way that the relative reality of these constructions is then denied. There are actual biological differences in genitalia, hormones, and other features between males and females, albeit they are not as absolute as many believe. Black people really have suffered, and continue to suffer, from racism. Women have suffered, and continue to suffer, from sexism. LGBTI people have suffered, and continue to suffer, from heterosexism.
Speaking as a one-armed, non-binary cis female who is bisexual but mostly lesbian and who is now 70 years old, I can assure you these categories have impacted my life in real ways. At the same time, of course I also agree that one can get stuck on these categories, on identifying with them, and so on, and that things can even go too far in the direction of extreme identity politics.
I think most of us on this FB page would probably like to see a world where diversity is welcome, where race, gender, sexual orientation and so on have no significance in determining how much you get paid or how the legal system treats you or whether you are likely to be killed in a hate crime. But we’re not there yet. And if we naively pretend that none of these things have any reality in a world where they still do, we’ll never get to that better future.
Oh, I can hear the Advaita Police coming for me. Because of course, I know that as a non-dualist or whatever I’m supposed to be, I’m not supposed to mention or care about the future, which doesn’t exist, and I’m not supposed to be political, because this is all only a dream, and I’m not supposed to identify myself as any of those non-existent categories because I’m supposed to be just boundless awareness or radiant presence or fluid no-thing-ness…but more and more, I’m coming to see all of that, when taken too far, is pure, toxic, absurd, foolish bullshit. A number of recent experiences have contributed to my disillusionment. And then last night, I watched a very powerful show on Netflix called “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette” -- Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian and writer originally from Tasmania, and she’s a lesbian, and this is one very powerful show that I wish all the nondualists who think these categories are imaginary would watch. I’ll post a link to the trailer on my page.
IS THERE FREE WILL?
Someone recently wrote to me: “I've got mixed feelings about free will. There was a good radio program about this recently. A number of brain specialists agreed that their investigations revealed decisions being made by the brain before the person was consciously aware that their decision had already been determined. But it was interesting when a philosopher pointed out that all of these tests had involved only the kind of decisions that didn't require any degree of reflection. For instance, the tests didn't need the kind of decision-making process that's necessary when we are wondering whether to move house, end a relationship or change our job. The experiments had involved very simple decisions, ones that required minimal deliberation.”
This is my response:
The thing about choices that involve deliberation is that if you watch closely, you’ll see that it all happens choicelessly: the thoughts arguing this way, the thoughts arguing that way, the urge to flip a coin, the reaction to the coin toss (either accepting the outcome or continuing to deliberate), and finally the decisive moment when suddenly you know what to do—these all happen choicelessly. And you cannot make the decisive moment happen any sooner than it does, nor can you catch hold of how it occurs.
Many people say that you can always quit an addiction if you want to quit, but do we choose what we want? Again, if we watch closely, we see that we often have conflicting desires—in one moment, we want to stop smoking, and in another moment, we want a cigarette, and no one is in control of which desire wins out in any given moment. If you doubt this, watch closely as choices and decisions unfold in your own life.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that what we call deliberating, and what we call choosing, and what we call deciding, and what we call taking action, and even what we call “taking responsibility” don’t all continue to happen—it’s just that it all happens choicelessly, as we can discover if we watch carefully. There is no thinker authoring our thoughts, no chooser behind the scenes making our choices, no decider in the background somewhere making our decisions, no actor separate from the action. The apparent actor is an ever-changing movement inseparable from everything it supposedly is not. And we cannot find the phantom “me” who is supposedly inside here somewhere running the show, deciding what to want and what to do in any given moment.
But for whatever reason, this seems very difficult for many people to allow themselves to notice—when not fully understood, it seems to make us into powerless robots being helplessly pushed around by life, and that seems very disturbing given our deep desire for security, control and a “meaningful, purpose-driven” life. Being a helpless robot and being pushed around sounds dreadful.
But that picture of being pushed around is actually a misunderstanding that still presumes a kind of false separation and independence. As Nagarjuna pointed out, the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence, because no-thing ever actually forms to even BE impermanent. The ocean waves are not separate “things” being pushed around by the ocean, they are the movement of the ocean. Waving is an activity of the ocean. No wave exists independently of the ocean, no wave has a solid or persisting form, and no wave can decide to go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean is moving. Likewise, we are an ever-changing movement of life itself, inseparable from the whole universe. We might say, we are an activity of the universe.
It’s easy to see that we don’t choose which sources of news and information seem trustworthy to us and which ones do not, or which subjects interest us, or to whom we feel attracted, or which foods we like and which ones repel us. Questioning our views and experiencing changes in our tastes, our interests, our prejudices, our opinions, our desires, and so on may indeed all happen, but is there actually a “me” doing all that? Are the changes the result of an independent will?
What is that “me” that we seem to believe is authoring our thoughts and making our decisions? If we look closely (and this looking, the interest in doing it, and the ability to do it is also choiceless—it either happens or it doesn’t), we find no entity inside somewhere who is doing all this. That entity is an idea, a mental image, a kind of mirage—a thought claiming after the fact that “I” (the separate wave) decided to go this way and not that way, or a thought insisting that “I” (the apparent agent) must make the right decision.
The absence of any such central agent is why we often fail to carry out our New Year’s resolutions, or why people struggling with addictions genuinely want to quit, but can’t seem to stay sober. It’s because the one supposedly running the show is a mirage. In one moment, the desire to sober up is winning out, and in another moment, the desire for just one more drink is winning out. We are a different “self” in every moment, with ever-changing desires.
We are deeply conditioned to believe in the myth of individual responsibility and free will, and this belief is socially reinforced at every turn. One neuroscientist refers to agency and choice as neurological sensations, and apparently those sensations may be stronger and more convincing in some people than in others. I saw through it all quite easily, while others, often people with brilliant intellects and years of meditation, seemingly cannot see it at all. Again, we don’t get to choose!
But if we are lucky enough to see this, it puts an end to guilt and blame and the desire for retribution, revenge and punishment. It puts an end to the anxiety of feeling we need to make the right choice, and the fear that we might screw up our life if we don’t. It doesn’t mean we don’t still feel this neurological sensation of agency at times, or that it may not momentarily seem believable, or that we lose the functional ability to act. It doesn’t mean we don’t still apparently have to make decisions and choices. It doesn’t eliminate regret or sorrow or the urge to change something. It doesn’t mean we won’t try anymore to quit an addiction or end animal abuse or anything else life moves us to do. It doesn’t mean we won’t still put serial killers in prison and try our best to keep child molesters away from children—but we won’t do those things as punishment or revenge. We will have compassion for the serial killer and for ourselves when we fail to stay sober or when we say or do something we later regret. This realization takes away a huge burden—the burden of trying to “do it right” all the time. It doesn’t mean we no longer care or that we now view whatever happens as equally acceptable and “okay,” but we recognize that no one is in control of any of it, that we don’t really know what’s best for the universe or how it all works, and that what is, is as it is, and could not—in this moment—be otherwise. That is a huge relief.
Finally, last but definitely not least, it is so very crucial to remember that the map is not the territory. Formulations about free will or choicelessness are abstract conceptualizations attempting to describe a living reality that cannot actually be grasped or pinned down in any way. Such formulations can be useful, and different maps will serve us in different situations. If I’m training an athlete, raising a child or teaching school, I will probably (choicelessly) not use the choicelessness map. Instead, I’ll be talking to them as if they have choice: “Do your homework,” or “Move your left foot closer to your right foot,” and so on. But if the athlete stumbles and falls, if the child misbehaves, if the homework doesn’t get done, understanding the choicelessness and compulsory nature of it all will naturally bring forth a far more compassionate response to those events.
Response to a comment:
Yes, of course, as a parent, your job is to socialize a wild creature and teach them how to survive in human society. So, of course you’ll have rules. These arise choicelessly. As I said in the final paragraph, if I’m raising a child, I will probably (choicelessly) not use the choicelessness map. Instead, I’ll be talking to them as if they have choice: “Do your homework, Don’t throw your food, No more video games tonight, Don’t run into the busy street, Stop hitting your sister,” and so on.
Every child develops at a different speed and in a unique way, but if you as a parent have this larger perspective, you’ll naturally communicate this perspective in appropriate ways, at appropriate times (or not)—choicelessly.
My own father was a determinist who read books about quantum physics in his spare time and didn’t believe in free will. I don’t remember how old I was when he told me that every happening could only happen in exactly the way it did in the moment it happens, that everything in the whole universe is the cause and effect of everything else, that a person, a tree, a table and a thought are all some kind of subatomic energy in motion, and that one day the sun will explode. Obviously, it all had an impact. But he and my mother also told me to clean up my room, do my homework, eat my dinner, treat others the way I’d like them to treat me, and so on.
Response to another comment:
Yes, it's possible that there may be some central intelligence somewhere in the bodymind or the universe that is directing the show--while I doubt that, I can't be sure it isn't true--but it CAN be discovered directly that my sense of personal control and agency doesn't hold up to careful scrutiny. And finally, a word of caution--once that open questioning and genuine not knowing that you so beautifully embody and express gets turned into don'tknowism, perhaps we are verging on another dogmatism, another ideology.
Response to another comment:
I don't use the word karma because it has so many different meanings to different people, some of them (imho) ridiculous...but I agree that in ordinary life, we need laws and rules and so on to live together in society. And we certainly won't go far if we tell our boss that we have no choice about whether or not we will do what they ask us to do. But I can actually imagine a much more just legal system, for example, that could be based on seeing this clearly rather than believing in free will. Such a system would still want to protect society at large from murderers and rapists and so on by locking them up and keeping them out of circulation, but it wouldn't treat them punitively or vengefully as if they had a choice in what they did.
Response to another comment:
Yes, there is definitely a deeper and more embodied realization (making it real) than merely having intellectual understanding, although I wouldn't put down intellectual understanding as worthless.
Since you mention Eckhart, he has an interesting way of formulating this question of choice and choicelessness: “Choice implies consciousness – a high degree of consciousness. Without it, you have no choice. Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns, the moment you become present. Until you reach that point, you are unconscious, spiritually speaking. This means you are compelled to think, feel, and act in certain ways according to the conditioning of your mind….Presence is the key. The Now is the key.” (ET)
I like that formulation in many ways. It’s a different map than my post, more prescriptive and pedagogical in nature, emphasizing the power of presence and awareness, but not (imo) contradictory. While ET seems to be positing an "I," I suspect it is a grammatical convention, just as my own usage just then. Can we choose to be present or aware? Yes/no--we can't really capture reality in formulation, concepts or words.
Response to another comment:
Yes, but what is the "I" who seems to be managing all this? There may indeed be an apparent process such as you describe of paying attention and becoming more aware of the conditioned patterns and more able to see the thoughts without believing them and more able to be with the somatic energies and so on, and thus perhaps more ability arises to "choose" not to light up the cigarette or to not say the angry word, for example, but ALL of that is a choiceless happening. And, as I said in a response above to Ralph, and in the post itself, different maps are applicable in different situations. As soon as we fixate on a particular map, turn it into dogma, and mistake it for reality, we are in delusion. But oddly enough, even delusion is reality (i.e. what is), and it ALL (including delusion, clarity, mapping, seeing, etc) happens choicelessly (as best it can be put in words, but no words can ever express how the living reality IS).
Response to another comment:
I find myself moving away from the idea of some unchanging awareness as the ground of being. I find myself more and more not knowing (and not needing to know) if there IS any ground of being at all, or if there is only groundlessness, or what either of those word-concepts even means. The notion of some unchanging awareness feels like a dualistic reification, making something solid and separate out of what isn’t any-thing at all.
It does seem helpful at a certain point to notice the awareness that is beholding everything, the awareness that SEES the drama and is free of it, not hypnotized by, or caught up in, the storyline—to notice the awaring presence Here-Now that is boundless, unencapsulated, limitless and impersonal—and to discover that it is always right here every time we stop and check. But then I feel in some teachings, especially Advaita, “Awareness” (or “Consciousness”) becomes some-THING. And actually, I can’t find a boundary between what I’m calling awareness and what I’m calling the content of awareness.
I’m not interested these days in being some transcendent Awareness…but rather, in being Joan Tollifson—fully embodying and bringing forth THIS body and mind here and now. I’m not talking about thinking of myself as a separate, independent agent with control who is “doing” this with some kind of intentionality, but more like the flower-image, an organic happening of the whole that is at once something utterly unique and particular and at the same time everything and no-thing at all. And when the flower dies (maybe before it has even fully blossomed), it dis-integrates back into the wholeness it never left.
Response to another comment:
Yes. The examining, the interest in doing that, the ability to do it, and the outcome is all choiceless—and the description of it after the fact, which also happens choicelessly, is a conceptual overlay. The living reality cannot actually be captured by ANY of these formulations (choice, choiceless, cause, causeless, spontaneous, deliberate, self, no self, free will, illusion, reality, etc.).
Response to another comment:
Why would you fight an addiction if you have no choice? Because life moves you to do so...your desire to stop an addiction arises choicelessly, as does every action taken on the path of recovery, as does every success and every failure in this endeavor in each new moment. The 12-Steps, which are one popular approach to recovery, are actually built around the idea of personal powerlessness. I sobered up decades ago with a doctor-therapist who used the model of choice, a very different approach from 12-Step. But even that model of choice and the fact that it "worked" for me all ultimately happened choicelessly. My teacher Toni Packer later invited me to notice that choicelessness, and that noticing happened. You'll find much more in my website outpourings and in my books on all this if the subject continues to mystify. I have an outpouring on my website about addiction and compulsion, and several there about free will and choice, and I go into this quite deeply in all 4 of my books.
Is there enlightenment or isn’t there?
Yes/no. It's a paradox: The pathless path through the gateless gate, the journey from Here to Here. First there are mountains and valleys, then there are no mountains and valleys, then there are mountains and valleys—is the last stage identical to the first or different? To talk of enlightenment is a hopeless undertaking, and still, enlightenment talks. In a way, there is something to find, but it's already here, and it's no-thing in particular. It’s not a special, sustained experience. It’s not a finish-line a person crosses. It’s not a personal attainment. It’s not a final understanding. It’s no-thing at all. And yet, it’s not nothing!
Maybe more accurately, it's not that there's something to find, but rather that there are a number of deeply conditioned and habitual misunderstandings or false beliefs to see through and wake up from. Most basically, this includes the root idea that we are an independent entity, encapsulated inside a discrete body, looking out through our sense doors at a separate outside world into which we have been born. Enlightenment also includes seeing through such pervasive ideas as, "I'm not there yet,” or “This isn't it,” or “She has it and I don't,” or “I had it on that retreat 3 years ago, but then I lost it,” or “I'm a loser, and I’ll probably never get it," or “I’ve got it! I’m awake now!” and so on.
Enlightenment includes seeing in ever more subtle ways how we mistake our conceptual maps for the living actuality they describe. It involves waking up from our desire to grasp life and recognizing the fact that THIS (here-now, the actuality or suchness of what is) is impossible to ever pin down or formulate.
The habitual hypnotic entrancement in our deeply-rooted misunderstandings, false ideas and beliefs is what gets in the way of fully appreciating and enjoying what is, just as it is (including our natural actions to change some of it).
Ultimately, of course, delusion and enlightenment cannot be pulled apart any more than you can have a one-sided coin, or a one-ended stick, or up without down. Even our most confused and agitated thoughts and feelings are empty of substance and inseparable from the light that reveals them. Everything is included in what is. We are never really lost and in need of rescue—that’s all a dream, and the dream is nothing other than this same undivided intelligence-energy-awareness-presence (whatever we call it that is not an “it” at all) moving as a dream.
So, you might ask, in that case, why bother with any kind of spiritual practice?
That was exactly Zen Master Dogen's burning question as a young monk. He wondered, if everything already has (or IS) Buddha Nature, then why do we need to practice? His response was that to regard practice as the MEANS by which we attain enlightenment in the future is to miss the point completely. Practice, he felt, is the EXPRESSIONof enlightenment here and now. And as he says at the end of Genjokoan, "If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind." In other words, don’t leave your own actions out of the totality.
I’ve never liked the word practice. But Norman Fischer, one of my favorite Zen teachers, said of the word “practice” that what it points to is not like practicing your tennis game or practicing the piano, but rather, it’s like practicing medicine or practicing law—it’s your life work. It’s the art of living and being awake. And in that way, I can appreciate it. The Zen poet Gary Snyder defines it as “a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to be more finely tuned to ourselves and to the way the actual existing world is.” As an example of the paradoxical nature of there being both nothing to tune and no way to be out of tune because this is already fully it, Jon Kabat-Zinn points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same.
So, in the end, we can’t say if practice is useful or useless, choiceless or deliberate, momentary or sustained, essential or only a hindrance. It can’t be pinned down. Practice in my book isn’t just sitting on a cushion and meditating in a formal way, or singing bhajans, or going to satsangs and retreats, or any other specific activity, although that may all be part of it, but it’s really about our whole life, and more to the point, it’s only ever about Here-Now, this very instant: Just this! (And that doesn’t negate memory and imagination—it doesn’t negate planning for the future nor in any way suggest that we must re-invent the wheel every day).
Life includes pain and sorrow, so whatever enlightenment is, it's not about always being happy and blissful. No matter how much enlightenment there may be, you can still get cancer, lose all your money, end up homeless, be buried alive in an earthquake, lose the love of your life, go blind, get old and senile, and experience the full range of human emotions. You can still be neurotic, imperfect and full of human quirks. Enlightenment is not being in some permanently spacious state, or always being kind and generous and calm. As someone said, enlightenment is not a get out of jail free card. It’s actually not personal. It’s not a denial of our personhood, but it’s not being stuck there either in a limited view of ourselves as small and separate and fixed. No such thing as a permanently enlightened person exists! In fact, no such thing as a persisting person exists in the way we think.
Enlightenment is a word. People use it differently. It points to an indescribable reality, what I might call being awake here-now, or recognizing that awakeness is always Here-Now. If enlightenment is not an end-result, then maybe it is simply the joy of exploring and celebrating and being this ever-unfolding here-now, which we can never not be. And it seems to be the undeniable nature of whatever this is to expand and contract, to get small and then big, to zoom in and out, to become hypnotized by its own imaginings and then to wake up. This getting lost and being found again is the pulsation of the universe, the divine lila, the great play, the dance without a dancer—and as far as I can tell, it has no final resolution, no end point, and yet in all its travels, evolutions and pulsations, this ever-changing unfoldment never leaves Here-Now.
The present moment is gone before it arrives, but there is no beginning or end to Now—Here-Now has no inside or outside, no before or after. This present-ness, this immediacy, this undeniable awaring presence, this present experiencing, this radiant aliveness—THIS is all there is. What is it? Immediately, the mind is off and running, trying to grasp what it cannot grasp.
Which comes first, consciousness or the brain, mind or matter, the chicken or the egg?
The confusion is apparent and purely verbal. What is, is. It is neither subjective nor objective. Matter and mind are not separate, they are aspects of one energy. Look at the mind as a function of matter and you have science; look at matter as the product of the mind and you have religion…Neither [mind nor matter] comes first, for neither appears alone.
The mistake in the beginning was to think of solids and space as two different things, instead of as two aspects of the same thing. The point is that they are different but inseparable, like the front end and the rear end of a cat…Take away the crest of the wave, and there is no trough.
There is no contradiction between body and spirit, between mind and matter. These are just words we use to understand one thing.
--Zen teacher Norman Fischer
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
--The Heart Sutra
A comment: There is consciousness without object ( deep sleep) while object outside consciousness are never found.
My response: Yes, maybe. In our actual experience, though, we never find consciousness without experiencing. We assume it exists, just as we assume all the furniture in our bedroom is still there while we are asleep. Science (and "common sense") assumes a material world independent of consciousness, and religion assumes consciousness prior to any appearances, but what is noticed here is that actual experience is nondual.
Response to another comment:
I find that no word-concept, neither stillness nor movement, change nor unchanging, can capture the living reality here-now. And so often, thought wants to figure out which comes first in an inseparable pair such as the chicken and the egg. You can't have one without the other. The very question of which comes first is absurd. Not to mention the fact that we speak (and think) of "brains" and "eggs" and "chickens" and "consciousness" as if these were actually discrete, findable "things" that we could pin down and grasp, this but not that. Is the living reality actually like that? Perhaps such terms as "first" or "prior to" are best understood not as referring to distance in time or space, but rather, in terms of subtlety. But even then, we seem to be dividing the indivisible.
Response to another comment:
Perhaps it's not so much that there's something to know or grasp, as knowledge, but rather, that these quotes are inviting a seeing through of certain apparent dilemmas that are actually nothing more than conceptual conundrums that arise when thought tries to make sense of experience and mistakes the conceptual maps for the living actuality.
What Did I Mean by “My Descent from the Transcendent”? Am I Against Transcendent Spirituality?
In my recent Zoom appearance with my friend Robert Saltzman and in some recent Facebook posts, I’ve referred to my journey this last year with anal cancer as “my descent from the transcendent down into the bowels of the human experience,” and I’ve spoken of “my return to my Zen roots.” Some people have taken this to mean that I am now in some totally new place, where I am totally rejecting spirituality and transcendence and sharing in Robert’s iconoclastic disdain for most all spiritual and nondual teachers and teachings. This is not at all the case, and I want to clarify this. This is a long article, not a quick read, please consider yourself warned.
I started out in Zen many decades ago. For me, Zen was about waking up to the bare actuality of the present moment: the sounds of rain, the breathing, the taste of food. It was about glimpsing how thought creates an apparent gap between subject and object that isn’t really there. For example, there was the discovery that when I opened completely to physical pain, when there was no more gap between “me” and “it,” when it was pure sensation, pure immediacy, then it was no longer overwhelming, but when I seemingly separated myself from the pain mentally by thinking about it and resisting it, then it seemed unbearable. Zen was the discovery of a sense of wonderment and an appreciation for the ordinary—for simply being alive. As Mel Weitsman, my first Zen teacher, said to me, “We’re always looking for diamonds in the mud. But the mud itself is pretty interesting. That’s what Zen is about. The mud.” What mattered was simply being awake here-now, in this moment. Just this!
Zen was also about discovering how thinking shapes our experience, how the mind churns out endless stories and headlines, how it labels, judges, evaluates, categorizes and measures everything—and how we mistake our thoughts for an objective report on reality and become hypnotized by them. Two of my teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck and Toni Packer, both put great emphasis on this. I began to see how easily we mistake our conceptual maps for the living actuality itself.
Toni Packer was a former Zen teacher who had left the traditional and hierarchical aspects of Zen behind to work in a more open way. I lived and worked on staff at her retreat center for 5 years. She was very much a kindred spirit to J. Krishnamurti (and later, Eckhart Tolle) in the sense that she pointed to a shift from a life totally hypnotized by thought to a life rooted in spacious, open awareness or presence. She pointed to being awake to the bare actuality of this moment (the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the sensations of the body meeting the chair). She invited us to see how thought shapes experience and how it creates the mirage-like illusory self (the apparent thinker, chooser, doer—the “me”), and to wake up from our entrancement in the thoughts and stories that usually run our lives. She pointed to the discovery of what she called “an inner/outer silence—stillness—spaciousness in which there is no sense of separation or limitation, outside or inside.” Eckhart Tolle speaks of it as discovering “the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death." Toni never regarded herself as an authority, she was always willing to look freshly and see something new. She approached what she called “meditative inquiry” with the open curiosity and unseducible precision of a scientist. Everything had to be tested out, discovered directly, never taken second-hand. And any conclusion reached always had to remain open to further questioning and new insights.
Going deeper into that awaring presence, I then discovered Advaita (Nisargadatta, Jean Klein, Gangaji, Ramana Maharshi, Douglas Harding, Francis Lucille, Adyashanti, Mooji, and others). These were wonderful, liberating teachings in which I discovered firsthand that there is no way to not “be here now,” that Here-Now is ever-present and inescapable, that what “I” truly is, is this boundless, impersonal, awaring presence in which everything else appears and disappears. I discovered myself to be the vastness beyond everything perceivable or conceivable, subtler than space, prior even to conscious experiencing. Yes, I was also Joan, the person, but I was not limited to Joan. I was the awareness beholding Joan. And while Joan is conditioned and limited, that awareness is free, unconditioned, unbound, limitless and clear.
From there, I discovered what I call radical nonduality—the uncompromising message that “this is it, just as it is,” that no practice or transformation is needed, that there is no self, no choice, nothing to do or not do. This was the message expressed by people like Tony Parsons, Nathan Gill, Chuck Hillig, Wayne Liquorman, Sailor Bob Adamson, Darryl Bailey and others. My third book, Painting the Sidewalk with Water, very much reflects my deep engagement with radical nonduality. All attempts to “be here now” or to “be present” or to “be aware” or to identify myself as impersonal awareness and not as Joan fell away. The belief that spacious experiences of presence were “it” and my fingerbiting compulsion or my mental agitation was “not it” fell away. Everything was included! Everything was it!
But I didn’t land there. I returned many times to Springwater, Toni Packer’s place, and was in touch with Toni until her death in 2013, and I still remain closely in touch with others in that community. I gave a retreat there a few years ago. I remained in touch with Joko Beck to the end. I attended retreats with Zen teachers Steve Hagen and John Tarrant, and with the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten. I did The Work with Byron Katie. I continued to attend satsangs with people like Gangaji, Mooji, Rupert Spira, Isaac Shapiro and others. I continued to read Dogen, Huang Po, Nisargadatta and various contemporary teachers, several of whom had become (and remain) personal friends.
My own teaching or expression absorbed all these different variations and ways of seeing and being what is. I continue to have very eclectic tastes, as the recommended books page on my website quickly reveals. I don’t land in any one camp. I find that I’m drawn in one direction for a while, then in another. I always seem to find exactly what I need in each moment. I also notice that we seem to keep getting the same essential insights again and again, that everything I heard in radical nonduality was also there in Zen, that every moment is totally new and at the same time, there is nothing new.
My writing reflects these ever-ongoing shifts, leaning this way and then that. As John Tarrant put it once, a teaching is like a medicine that cures a particular dis-ease, and then the medicine has unintended side effects, so we need an antidote to the medicine—and then the antidote has side effects, so we need an antidote to the antidote, and so on ad infinitum. That’s a beautiful metaphor for how we need Advaita at one moment, Zen in another moment, Tibetan Buddhism in the next moment, no teachers or books or practices at all at one time, a formal meditation practice at another, and so on and on. Just as when we walk, we are constantly losing our balance and regaining it only to lose it again, this is the way life moves!
So, did I ever leave my Zen roots? Have I rejected the transcendent? What is the transcendent anyway?
The word “transcendent” evokes many different things. According to the dictionary, it has something to do with exceeding usual limits. I am all for seeing through false or illusory limitations, and at the same time, I’m also for embracing and accepting the limitations of form (e.g., the fact that the body ages and dies).
The transcendent spirituality that does not resonate with me is the kind that denies or ignores or tries to escape from our human experience, insisting that “I am not the body,” that I am only pure awareness. I would not say that, and as far as I know, I never have said that.
What I would say (and have said) is that we are not limited to, or encapsulated inside, the body—the body isn’t all we are—the body is appearing in this impersonal, boundless, awaring presence that we are, but we are also the body (and everything else, too!). And “the body” is a conceptual abstraction of a living actuality that is not really the solid, discrete, persisting, substantial, separate, independent “thing” we think it is. And “awareness” (as anything we can think and talk about) is also a conceptual abstraction of a living actuality that is not really a separate “thing.” And the “me” who tries to identify as “pure awareness” and not as a “person” is nothing more than a thought-form, a mental image engaged in a process of self-improvement rooted in the idea of present lack.
I’ve always been drawn to direct experience over metaphysical conclusions. Listening to the rain or the traffic sounds feels alive; thinking about a philosophical question such as which comes first, the chicken or the egg, seems abstract and fundamentally unsatisfying because I notice it is unresolvable. I notice that reality can’t be pinned down. I notice that belief is always shadowed by doubt. I don’t know if consciousness or awareness is the sole reality or the fundamental ground of being. I know I never experience anything outside of consciousness, but I tend to feel that the apparent dichotomy between mind and matter, or consciousness and the brain, is a false conceptual divide—that reality itself is not divided up that way. As far as I can see, Here-Now (presence-awareness-experiencing) is infinite, inconceivable, unresolvable, ungraspable, indeterminate and impossible to capture in any formulation.
I can’t deny that the brain and nervous system, and the whole body, seem to play some kind of important part in either generating, transmitting and/or shaping our conscious experience. But if we look deeply at “the brain” or “the nervous system” or “the body” with modern physics, it seems we find nothing solid, only some kind of indeterminate particle-wave fluctuation of energy that is mostly empty space, and all of it is appearing in consciousness, maybe having no more substance than a dream—how would we know?
Because experience is inconceivable and indeterminate, I find that the only bottom-line I can really arrive at is groundlessness, free fall, not landing anywhere—being open, not knowing, not holding to fixed views, not dwelling anywhere, seeing through illusion without trying to grasp Truth, for Truth cannot by its very nature ever be grasped. It simply IS. I find that many teachers seem to have a metaphysical certainty that I do not. I greatly value keeping an open mind, being willing to see things in a whole new way, and not making anyone (myself included) into an authority whose words cannot be questioned. As I see it, the living actuality is infinite and cannot be grasped. And yet, here it is—plain as day!
I’m all for recognizing the awareness here-now that is beholding and being everything perceivable and conceivable. I’m all for seeing through (and waking up from) the false belief that we are each a solid, separate “me” encapsulated inside “a body” looking out at an observer-independent objective “world” that exists outside of conscious experiencing. I’m all for seeing through beliefs and noticing how thought habitually mistakes the maps it has created for the actuality they describe. I’m all for questioning our stories—and noticing the difference between stories that enliven and awaken us and stories that generate suffering. I’m all for seeing beyond unreal, imagined limits, and I’m also for recognizing and accepting the limits of the body and the apparent “material world.” I have no desire to survive forever as Joan. I don’t fear death. I know that birth and death are moment to moment, and that they are also nothing more than conceptual dividing lines on a mental map. I’m not worried about falling off the edge of the flat earth. I’m all for fully experiencing our human lives, including our emotions. I continue to feel great sorrow when I see the suffering in this world. I continue to have opinions and preferences, but I seem to hold them more lightly. I realize I don’t actually know what the universe needs or how everything “should” be.
For many years, I’ve been writing and talking about noticing and being awareness-presence-experiencing, here-now, just as it is. I’ve pointed to both the ever-changing nature of experience, and to the ever-present immediacy of here-now (presence-awareness). I’ve invited people to listen to the sounds of traffic, the wind rustling the leaves, the dog barking, the airplane flying overhead…to feel the sensations in the body as bare sensation…to feel the breathing…to smell the coffee and the exhaust fumes and the roses and the shit…in other words, to feel the ever-changing and infinitely rich textures of present experiencing prior to all the labels and interpretations of it—and to notice how it actually is, in contrast to how we think it is. I’ve invited people to look for the self that is supposedly thinking “my” thoughts and making “my” decisions and doing “my” deeds to see if that self (that “me”) can actually be found. I’ve invited people to look and see if there is any actual boundary-line where “inside” turns into “outside.” I’ve invited people to notice how we can’t deny that there is something here we call “Joan,” but how, at the same time, we can’t pin down exactly what that is—Joan is an ever-changing event inseparable from everything that is supposedly not-Joan.
Yes, my journey with cancer and reading Robert Saltzman’s powerful book and my subsequent friendship with him has all changed me—but EVERYTHING changes everything, moment to moment. Every moment is new and different. What I want to clarify here is that it’s not as if I’ve taken some totally new turn in this past year, rejecting everything I said before and now saying something entirely different. That simply is not the case. In fact, I’ve never left my Zen roots. I’ve never left the bowels of the human experience either. And I’ve always had a deep sense of the transcendent as well, by which I mean the unbroken wholeness, the vastness, the love that is at the very heart of this awaring presence here-now, the radiance, the no-thing-ness that is bursting forth as everything, the all-inclusive nature of totality.
Robert said in our Zoom conversation (I hope I’m not misquoting him) that although he does find some good things in Advaita Vedanta, he now sees it as rat poison. I do not share that view. I’m very grateful for Robert—for his book, for what he’s expressing, for my friendship with him, for the Zoom meeting we had. We have much common ground and great love and appreciation for each other. But I’m also grateful to all the teachers I’ve mentioned in this post, all the teachers I’ve been lucky enough to read or hear or work with in some way, and I’m even grateful for the things along the pathless path from Here to Here that seemed like mistakes or false turns. It all belongs. It’s ALL part of this amazing and unfathomable play, this dance without a dancer.
There seem to be infinite layers of reality or ways of seeing what is. There is the person in everyday life we call Joan. There is Joan’s ever-changing conscious experience, and there is whatever remains in deep sleep. There is the impersonal boundless awareness that is beholding Joan and the furniture in the room and the mountains out the window and the stars in the night sky. Inside Joan’s body, there are pulsating organs and fluids. Closer in, at more subtle levels, there are cells, then molecules, then atoms, and apparently, within each atom and molecule, there is vast empty space. And there are apparently all manner of things I don’t understand like quarks, particle-waves and dark matter. An infinite universe is here whether we go down into the subatomic or out into the farthest reaches of outer space. There is Joan’s distinct existence as a particular, recognizable person with coherent boundaries, and there is Joan’s boundless interdependence with, and inseparability from, everything that is apparently not-Joan. There is this text that seems to be emerging from Joan’s mind and more deeply from the One Mind, from life itself, from the whole universe. And there is the unfindability of every single thing that has just been mentioned, the way none of it can ever be grasped.
Are any of these layers or perspectives “more real” or “truer” than any other? What exactly is Joan? What exactly is reality? What is a body? Or a person? Or a cell? Or a molecule? Or empty space? Or a boundary? Or consciousness? Or awareness? We can’t say! Liberation is free fall into not knowing and not needing to know. It is the recognition that absolutely EVERYTHING is included in what is, that it all belongs. It is the realization that this moment has never been here before, and that already, it is gone. It is the hum of the airplane passing overhead, the sharp staccato barking of the dog, the rhythmic whooshing of the traffic, the caw-caw-caw of the crow, the piercing red of the flower, the aroma, taste and warmth of hot tea, the smelly poop being squeezed out of my ostomy bag, the spacious presence being and beholding it all. Spirituality is the ungraspable but undeniable aliveness right here, right now. THIS is the bowels of the human experience and THIS is the transcendent! It was never either/or.
--Note: This Facebook Note morphed and grew into an article on my website Outpourings called "My Path and What I Share."
Response to a comment:
Yes, as you notice, not knowing and not needing to know is actually very liberating! Paradoxically, when grasping stops and there is a relaxing into free-fall, it is a huge relief. It’s the thought of nothing to grasp that sounds scary, not the actuality. In fact, there's no one to fall and no ground to hit--although of course this doesn't cancel out the pain and disability to which the body is vulnerable, but the actuality of that is never what we think it is either.
Also, I’m not allergic to the word God the way Robert is. I was raised by atheist-agnostics, so I didn’t have any belief-based religion imposed on me, and I've always had a feeling for the sacredness of life. For me, God is another word for boundless awareness, the unconditional love that is always allowing everything to be just as it is—this presence, this experiencing, this intelligence-energy, this no-thing-ness that is showing up as everything, this vast unbroken wholeness that has no inside or outside. God is another word for Here-Now. But, of course, I don’t believe in some guy up in the sky with a white beard who created the world in 6 days and later sent down his only son to die for our sins. That, to me, is mythology, and when taken literally, it is fundamentalism. If people find those kinds of beliefs comforting, I have no objection, as long as they don't impose that kind of ideology on others--but in my own experience, no belief, even the most subtle, ever satisfies us, for it is always shadowed by doubt.
Take a moment to stop and feel into present experiencing, just as it is. Hear the sounds, feel the sensations throughout the body, feel the breathing, see the colors, shapes and movements, feel the textures, smell whatever fragrances or odors are present—simply be awake to the bare suchness of here-now.
Feel into the spacious, awaring presence that is being and beholding it all. Feel how that awaring presence is open and unbound, how it includes everything. It is showing up as the whooshing of traffic, the tweeting of the bird, the taste of tea, the breathing, the smell of exhaust fumes, and as the person you appear to be in the movie of waking life. But this awaring presence isn't confined to any particular form or location. It is free, boundless, whole.
It could be called unconditional love because it illuminates and allows everything to be just as it is.
The words can only point. What matters is not some intellectual or metaphysical idea, but the felt-reality, the aliveness of this open, awaring presence right now, the richness of this present experiencing, just as it is. And nothing is excluded! It shows up as every taste, every texture, every flavor. It can be bitter or sweet, painful or pleasurable, expansive or contracted, slow or fast—but in all these infinitely varied and utterly unique different experiences, there is a common factor. What is it?
Don’t answer with a word. Simply allow yourself to dissolve into this vast, open, ever-changing, ever-present immediacy here-now. Don’t try to figure it out. Simply enjoy BEING!
How It’s Been Here in the Last Few Days
Someone sent me a message last night saying that everything is the Beloved. It’s a beautiful way to see everything. And maybe this outpouring will get there eventually in its own circuitous and entangled way, or maybe it won’t—we’ll see. In any case, here’s how it’s been here in these past few days…
In Michael Moore’s new movie, which I saw on Thursday night, one of the more sobering moments was when he shared the editorial from a German Jewish newspaper during the rise of Hitler. The editorial was telling Jewish people to calm down, that Hitler wasn’t really all that bad, that he certainly wasn’t going to put Jewish people in camps, that this was Germany, after all—the most civilized and progressive place on earth—that such a thing couldn’t possible happen in Germany. And now, we hear the same from many people here—don’t worry, Trump isn’t Hitler, this isn’t that bad, it can’t happen here, this is America. Of course, when people say it can’t happen here because this is America, I wonder what America they are living in—apparently the one Trump wants to make great (i.e., white, straight, male and world-dominating) again.
My friend and main teacher, the late Toni Packer, was half-Jewish and had grown up in Germany through the rise of Hitler and the holocaust. She was deeply concerned and quite alarmed about the rise of the extreme right in America, which she said reminded her of Hitler’s rise. She didn’t live long enough to see Trump become the president, but I’m sure she would have been horrified.
On Friday, it became clear that Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, a man accused of sexual assault, who could barely contain his rage and who made blatantly partisan remarks during his hearing, would be confirmed. We now have the most far-right court in US history, one which will have the power to continue to dismantle financial and environmental protections and every last bit of legislation that supports democracy over plutocracy. Gone will be any hope of creating reasonable gun control. And, of course, under threat of reversal will be women’s rights, reproductive rights, LGBTI rights, voting rights, affirmative action, separation of church and state, and perhaps the right to a comfortable, medically assisted death (should that controversial issue reach the highest court, which let us pray it does not).
The old white Republican men of the Senate, for the second time in my life, had once again trivialized a very credible woman survivor of sexual assault or harassment and had once again knowingly confirmed to the Supreme Court the obviously partisan and dishonest man who this woman testified had assaulted or harassed her. The old white Republican men whined about how unfairly Kavanaugh was being treated, and they patronized the women who came to protest. The pussy-grabbing president even insisted that the protestors were paid fakes and he called them nasty names. The old white Republican elite seemed to have totally forgotten how they completely blocked Obama’s rightful nominee, Merrick Garland, from even beginning a confirmation process, and how they stole that Supreme Court appointment from Obama and gave it to Trump.
Speaking as a former drunk who did some terrible things in my youth while under the influence, I have experienced black-outs, and I recognize that it’s entirely possible that Brett Kavanaugh honestly doesn’t remember trying to rape Dr. Ford, but even if that is true, he surely remembers if he was a heavy drinker who abused women, and if so, he surely knows that this might have happened in a black-out, even if he honestly doesn’t remember it (although I personally suspect he remembers it very well). Generally, I’m not in favor of judging a middle-aged person by what they did as a teenager, but when what they allegedly did was this egregious, it calls the person’s character into question, and in the case of attempted rape, suggests the possibility of deeply rooted sexism. If he could admit what he did, acknowledge the sexism, show genuine remorse, apologize to Dr. Ford and other possible victims, and so on, that would be one thing. But he simply denies. Denies and lies. And to me, that very strongly suggests that he hasn’t really changed at all.
So, we now have a proud sexual predator in the White House and Kavanaugh joining Clarence Thomas on the bench. There can be no doubt anymore that sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are alive and well even after all these decades of feminist struggle.
In fact, feminism has been turned into a dirty word, one that even many women fear to use—some spiritual women prefer instead to speak of the divine feminine, which—in my opinion (as a gender non-binary, bisexual lesbian)—only reinforces tired old gender norms and encourages us to be feminine rather than feminist. Well, I’m a feminist. To me, femininity was something oppressive that I was supposed to embody, something I narrowly escaped after nearly killing myself first with alcohol and drugs. I have no use for the divine feminine. I’m proud to be a feminist. I want equal pay for equal work, reproductive choice, an end to the culture of rape and sexual harassment, a world where women can wear comfortable shoes that don’t deform their feet and still get a good job, and so on.
After I shared the humorous clip from SNL about Kavanaugh here a few days ago, I (predictably) heard from a few men who didn’t like it. I deleted their comments. I didn’t even finish reading them. I’d never done this before—delete without even reading—but quite honestly, I was just sick of hearing from and listening to those who feel sympathy for Kavanaugh, and I was in no mood to give those voices space on my FB pages. Those voices have taken up way too much space in this world for way too long. And if Kavanaugh wasn’t prepared to take the public scrutiny and the heat of a confirmation process, then he shouldn’t have accepted the nomination.
I’m very grateful for humor—without it I think we’d be truly sunk—but as Michael Moore’s new movie so viscerally makes clear, the situation we have going on here in the USA (and in so many other countries now) is really no laughing matter. We have a right-wing movement in the USA that is armed to the teeth and very serious. And progressives in this country have a bad habit of not taking Donald Trump seriously—regarding him as a joke or an impossibility—believing that things can’t really sink that low. By the time people took Hitler seriously, it was too late to stop him. And, of course, it’s not just Trump. It’s the entire neo-Nazi, alt-right, Republican movement that is now established at every level and branch of government. It’s no joke. So, what to do?
I noticed on Friday that I was being consumed at one point by anger and hatred, by a desire for vengeance and retribution, by the urge to riot and destroy and lash out. I noticed that this rage was tearing me apart, that it hurt, that it was a form of shooting myself in the foot, a form of self-destruction, because we truly are not separate. I noticed the pain underneath the anger, the deep well of pain and grief. I felt powerless in the face of a world run by idiots doing incredibly stupid and hurtful things. I felt powerless to stop the developing holocaust, the destruction of the environment and the warming of the climate, the separation of mothers and children, the cruelty to animals, the racism, the sexism, the hatred of Muslims, the hatred of gays, the anti-Semitism, the rapes, the wars, the genocides, the endless lies of the demagogue president, the whole bloody mess. All I could do was silently scream.
My last therapist once asked me if I could forgive the world for being imperfect and messy and fucked up—for hurting me and breaking my heart. Good question to live with.
Friday night, after my anger and pain and outrage over Kavanaugh’s confirmation had cooled, I was in my living room listening to Indian music, gentle sitar and racing tabla, and then later to rain pattering on the roof. And while listening, I remembered how I had recently discovered that my outrage over the particular cruelty on a factory farm that I had witnessed on a video was rooted in the lingering belief that the humans perpetrating this atrocity were somehow not an expression of nature (i.e., the universe, consciousness, the Tao, the Self, the One-without-a-second, GOD, the vibrant dance of existence, or whatever we want to call THIS)—that somehow, the people carrying out this cruelty could and should be behaving differently. They should be more sensitive. They should recognize that animals are sentient beings with feelings. They should treat them with kindness.
And then I had to see (once again) how no one can be any more sensitive or awake or kind or insightful in this moment than they are in this moment. And I had to see (once again) that if this same animal suffering had been the result of a hurricane, an earthquake, a forest fire, or any other obvious “act of nature,” I would have felt differently. I would not have been upset in the same way. And, in truth, factory farming is an act of nature, because human beings and everything we do is a movement of nature, of the universe, of intelligence-energy, of whatever this is.
And on top of that, I had to see (once again) that the more closely we look at anything, the more we find it to be an indeterminate, ungraspable movement inseparable from everything else. We can’t really say what any of it is, or what it means, or where it begins or ends, or whether it is good or bad. Kavanaugh and Joan and the factory farmers and the cows are one undivided happening, only apparently separated by the lines on our conceptual maps.
Our thoughts and stories about it make it all seem quite solid and substantial, but the more closely we look, the more we find that no solid, persisting, substantial “thing” actually exists, and that everything we think is happening is indeed very dream-like and ephemeral. It is all flashes of energy, with an interpretive overlay so easily mistaken for truth. And how easily we all confuse map and territory, concept and actuality, interpretation and actuality. My view of reality certainly seems like how it is! It’s a VERY convincing illusion!
And I can’t entirely (or permanently, or completely) dismiss the interpretive overlay, or its apparent reality, or the suffering I see unfolding as mere illusion. Yes, there are clearly multiple and conflicting narratives, and my own story changes over time, and it comes and goes—seemingly so real and true in one moment, and then seen to be nothing of substance in another—but I cannot simply dismiss it, at least not entirely or permanently. I cannot say that the holocaust or the rising neo-Nazi alt-right movement in this country are all nothing but indeterminate sensations and flashes of energy, or that all stories are equally true or equally false. I can’t turn away. And this concern on my part, this inability to turn away, is the same undivided energy, showing up as Joan being exactly the way she is, taking the drama seriously, feeling the pain, wanting it to be different than how it is. And, of course, if no one wanted things to be different, we’d still have slavery and Jim Crow laws and women not being allowed to vote and gay relationships being illegal and so on. Anger at injustice and a vision of something different is all part of how life moves, part of how evolution happens. Mapping and conceptualizing and story-telling are this same life energy, this same undivided functioning of consciousness, all of it inseparable from the whole. I can’t leave out any of it.
Michael Moore’s movie was a call to action. But honestly, I don’t know how to act or what to do. My leftist comrades from years ago (and my internal leftist voice) would say that my current spiritual or nondual perspective is one more way that the system goes unchallenged and that things like the Holocaust are allowed to happen by a populace that has been either ill-informed, numbed out, seduced by a charismatic leader, and/or rendered powerless by “the opium of the people,” namely religion, spirituality and nonduality. And part of me still believes that. I’m so glad those protestors are there in the capitol calling out this whole travesty. I’m glad there are animal rights activists doing what they do, and environmental activists, and Black Lives Matter activists fighting against racism. And ALL of this is one whole happening that includes Kavanaugh, Trump, and the neo-Nazis in Charlotte. It’s ALL the Beloved. It’s all GOD. It’s all What Is. It’s all THIS—by whatever name we call it.
And although I may think that I don’t know what to do, I notice that in every moment, I do know what to do. I notice one foot moving in front of the other. I notice that Joan has moved over many decades from being an activist to being someone who writes nondual books and posts like this one. It seems clear my role in the Great Play has shifted or is shifting. I’m playing a different part, no more or less valuable than the one I played as an anti-imperialist, lesbian-feminist, socialist radical.
I notice how illusory, ephemeral, shape-shifting, ungraspable, unresolvable and indeterminate it all is, truly nothing but momentary and incomprehensible flashes of energy creating a dream-world that vanishes moment to moment. I notice how good and evil can’t be pulled apart, how the light and the dark go together, how nothing can be separated out from anything else. And yet, the pain really hurts. I cannot reduce Brett Cavanaugh and Dr. Ford and Donald Trump and the rise of right-wing extremism to mere flashes of energy in a dream. But at the same time, I’m not moved to join the protests, even though I’m rooting for them. I’m hoping the Democrats will move in the direction of Bernie Sanders and away from their tired old centrist, neo-liberal compromising and colluding. I’m hoping the Republicans will be defeated in upcoming elections, and that the Republican Party will grow less extreme. But I also know that I don’t really know what the universe needs or what “should” happen next.
Jesus overturned the tables. He got angry. Fired up. Of course, Jesus also said turn the other cheek. And ALL of this is the natural expression of life—the anger, the love, the humor, the seriousness, the sounds of the tabla and the sitar and the rain, the wounded cows on the factory farm with their overloaded udders and their terrified eyes staggering and falling in their own shit while the workers brutalize their calves in front of them. How real is any of it? As one Advaita teacher said in response to this question, “It’s as real as you are.”
And how real is that? Another great question to live with and to investigate, not philosophically or abstractly, but immediately and directly, right now, in the moment. Deep in my heart, I know that all is well, even if the whole world blows up. And so, the dance continues, and no one knows what will happen next. For all we know, Kavanaugh may end up siding with the liberals, Clarence Thomas may drop dead, the Democrats may re-take the House and Senate in November, or the whole world may be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. We’re clearly in a backlash moment right now—with this sexist, racist president and his far-right appointees—but often you have to hit bottom in order to wake up. In any case, we can be pretty sure that the light and the dark, like sickness and medicine, will always co-exist as dance-partners forever inseparable from one another.
This post is a kind of strange embodiment of this dance called life, this conversation between form and emptiness, between relative and absolute, between ultimate truth and everyday reality. It’s a messy post—inconclusive, unresolved, unsatisfying perhaps. It offers no clear path, no resolution, no certainty, no answer, no formula for what to do. But it’s all I have to share at this moment. Maybe, for some, it will resonate. Maybe not.
If you are a Republican or someone who feels sorry for Kavanaugh, please, please spare me your comments. I’ll probably just delete them. I’m in no mood to listen to you right now. Things are a little too raw still. So, please, take it elsewhere if you want to defend Kavanaugh or Trump or the Republican Party.
And to everyone, please don’t comment unless you have read the entire post. And please, I don’t want to host a political debate here about what to do, or a philosophical discussion about how to reconcile the absolute truth with the relative world in which we seem to live, illusory as that seeming world may be. What I really want to invite is a noticing of this present-moment dance here-now in which relative and absolute are not two, a noticing of how the stories take shape and congeal around the ungraspable aliveness of this awaring presence, and how they dissolve into pure love. And I want to remind us all of the possibility, in any moment, of seeing EVERYTHING as the Beloved and of loving the world and ourselves and our so-called enemies just as it all is, unconditionally. That doesn’t mean no longer having opinions and preferences, memories and visions, maps and ideas—but it means holding them all more lightly, noticing how emotion-thought stirs us, noticing how we feed on identity and separation and having an enemy or an “other,” noticing the beautiful fire of anger as pure energy, knowing—not intellectually, but in our heart—that all is well, even when it isn’t, recognizing the Beloved even in the most bizarre and disturbing disguises. That, for me, is the pathless path of awakening here-now.
Response to a comment:
Well, speaking as someone who is about as far left as one can be, I do think it’s possible to be an economic conservative without being a social conservative, i.e., without being racist, sexist, anti-gay, and so on. And I think it’s possible and actually healthy for reasonable people to disagree and have different ideas and perspectives about many things. And it’s probably healthy in the evolutionary unfolding to have a balance between conservative and progressive (or traditional and non-traditional) tendencies, as I suspect they both serve different but important functions. My father was an Eisenhower Republican who ran a small business with one employee and worked very hard on his feet all day. He was a very decent, kind, gentle, honest, good-hearted man who was not a racist or a sexist, and he supported me 100% when I came out as gay. We argued a lot about political things, sometimes very contentiously, often disagreeing, but he would have been horrified by what the Republican Party has become and certainly by Trump. It was, after all, Eisenhower who warned the American public back in 1961 that, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
But I agree with you that so-called “compassionate conservatism” is often just a euphemistic disguise, and that conservative economics inevitably seem to benefit the wealthy and harm the poor.
Response to another comment:
Yes, I agree, the Democrats are better, but not that much. I definitely think the Democratic Party has moved way too far to the right with its neo-liberal policies, and that it is way too beholden to Wall Street and corporate interests that they rely on for the money to get elected. The mainstream media is profit-driven and controlled by large corporations, with right-wing Fox and Sinclair dominating. And, of course, Trump attacks the media in horrible ways and for all the wrong reasons, and creates his own utterly fake news. The educational system is in tatters, so between that and the suppression of good, independent journalism, we have a public that is increasingly misinformed and unskilled in separating fact from fiction. A perfect set-up for a demagogue like Trump. But the Democrats have failed miserably to provide a real alternative. Bernie Sanders tried, but was crushed by the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate media's atrocious lack of coverage of him while they gave hours of free media to Trump. And now much of the opposition to Trump is focused on Russia, and while I don't doubt they probably interfered in the election, this seems to me like a minor side issue compared to what Trump is getting away with that goes mostly uncovered. There does seem to be some hope of new blood in the Democratic Party, starting with Bernie's campaign and now some of the people running for office. We'll see what unfolds.
Response to another comment:
If you read the other comments, you may see that apparently many people found the post helpful, not hurtful. If you read the whole post, you may notice that I talk explicitly about how anger hurts. What you hear as vitriol (cruel and bitter criticism), I see as clarity about what just happened. I felt moved to speak out, to speak out in protest against what has happened, to share my own process with it--knowing that many others have gone through a similar process in recent days, and hopefully to do it from a place of love, a love that even includes and has room for the anger and the outrage and the pain.
And actually, I addressed that in the post, about no one having a choice, but I guess you missed that part. I also tried to say that everything is perfect as it is, AND that there's room for improvement--and that our human urge to end slavery or stop animal abuse or end racism is all part of the perfection and part of the whole happening. As was my anger and the anger of the many many women who have survived sexual assault. If you want to play nice to the likes of Trump and Kavanaugh, which in my opinion is naive, but if that's your idea of being spiritual, then go for it. But as I mentioned, Jesus overturned a few tables, and I'm with him that sometimes you have to stop playing nice. Sometimes you have to pull the "nice mask" off the apparently "nice guy" who has his foot on your neck. Anyway, enjoy being nice.
Response to another comment:
I know "Beloved," like "God," is not a word that resonates for you. For me, seeing everything as God or the Beloved is like saying that everything is What Is, and is not about saying that Trump is good, but simply that he is somehow part of this whole, unfathomable, inconceivable happening in which the light cannot really be separated from the dark, and in which no-thing is actually solid or persisting or separate from everything else. When I tune into what feels most true here, it is Love, not hate. When I feel hate, it feels painful, and on investigation, seems to come from false beliefs. But that doesn't mean I agree with or feel happy about Trump, Hitler, factory farming, rape, child abuse, ISIS, sexism, racism, or any other atrocity we can name, and it doesn't mean not working to change things. But when I hate Trump (or Kavanaugh, or the factory farmers), it feels destructive and different from seeing them clearly for what they are and from having a sense of the whole. I don't know if this clarifies it.
Of course, I don't mean Trump is dear to my heart. Just as I don't believe in a God who is up in the sky somewhere managing the universe. Maybe the illusion here, to which the word Beloved points, is that there are parts that can pinned down and pulled apart. So I'd say, it's a more transcendent level of Truth, which you may feel is total bs, and I agree it CAN be that, but in a felt sense, it resonates with my deepest experience. But of course, in everyday relative reality, I distinguish all the time between what I consider sick and unhealthy, ethical and immoral, good and bad, painful and pleasurable, etc. But at a deeper (more subtle, more all-inclusive) level, I notice the boundary-lines between good and evil, or between me and Trump, or between anything and anything else, aren't really there, and I can't really pin anything down, and I can't have only the light without the dark, and so on. The whole enchilada is what I'm calling GOD or the Beloved. I do have a sense that the Whole is closer to love than hate, but I don't mean the love that is the opposite of hate, e.g., the love I feel for you and not for Trump, but rather, the unconditional love that includes both. You probably think that's nonsense, and maybe you're right.
Response to another comment:
As for a world without politicians and religious leaders, that seems like perhaps a misplaced hope. Politics has become a dirty word, but all it really means it how we organize as a community (whether as a family, a business, a tribe, a village, a city, a nation, or a world community). Politicians are public servants who engage in making laws, treaties, deals, and so on on behalf of the group. Of course, they can be corrupted, as can human beings in any other endeavor, and as far as I can tell, there is no perfect political or economic system, and we certainly see lots of corruption in US politics and certainly in our major parties and especially in Donald Trump. But politics per se is not the problem. Also, I'm not against religion or priests. I've known some great priests. Yes, we must meet the problems at their root in each of us, but also "out there" in my opinion, as inside and outside are not really separate.
What does it mean to say everything is the Beloved or that everything is GOD? Is there a fundamental goodness to Totality? Is love closer to the truth than hate? Is everything an undivided whole or is it a collection of parts? Is there a ground of being, a common factor in every different experience, something that remains even in deep sleep and after death, something to which everything else can ultimately be reduced?
These questions arose in an exchange between myself and Robert Saltzman, who was commenting on my previous post—a post which I revised slightly, by the way, to eliminate all mention at the beginning of the nondual teacher who said everything is the Beloved, simply because his presence in the post was proving to be a huge distraction and sidetrack. But I kept the line, everything is the Beloved.
I don’t often use the word Beloved myself, but I resonate with Rumi and Hafiz and others who do, whereas Robert does not. And it was to that word and the end of my last post that Robert responded, the part where I said: “I want to remind us all of the possibility, in any moment, of seeing EVERYTHING as the Beloved and of loving the world and ourselves and our so-called enemies just as it all is, unconditionally. That doesn’t mean no longer having opinions and preferences, memories and visions, maps and ideas—but it means holding them all more lightly, noticing how emotion-thought stirs us, noticing how we feed on identity and separation and having an enemy or an ‘other,’…knowing—not intellectually, but in our heart—that all is well, even when it isn’t, recognizing the Beloved even in the most bizarre and disturbing disguises. That, for me, is the pathless path of awakening here-now.”
Here is part of the exchange between myself and Robert, and I’ve edited my part a bit for enhanced clarity:
Robert: Fuck Trump and the horse he rode in on. There's no goodness in this, and half my family tree was "pruned" by Nazis. The moment he gave his first campaign speech, I knew exactly what I was looking at. Call it the Beloved if you like, but that's a bit too nondual for this cowboy.
Me: Well, of course, I don't mean Trump is dear to my heart. Maybe the illusion here, that the word Beloved invites us to see beyond, is that there are parts that can pinned down and pulled apart. In other words, that “Trump” is something solid and discrete, something separate from me and you and the rest of the universe, something that could be isolated out and removed, something finite and graspable, something we can pin down and define. Whereas actuality itself is an undivided, ever-changing, indeterminate, ungraspable whole in which we can’t have the light without the dark. But of course, in everyday relative reality, I distinguish all the time between what I consider sick and unhealthy, ethical and immoral, good and bad, painful and pleasurable, etc. But at a deeper (subtler, more all-inclusive) level, I notice the boundary-lines between good and evil, or between me and Trump, or between anything and anything else, aren't really there, that I can't really pin anything down or say with certainty and finality what anything is. The whole enchilada is what I'm calling GOD or the Beloved. There is a recognition that the beauty of life in some way includes the darkness. There is a sense that love is truer than hate, and that Totality is better described as love (in which all apparent separation melts away), than as hate (which is rooted in the illusion of separation). But I don't mean the relative love that is the opposite of hate, e.g., the love I feel for you and not for Trump, but rather, the unconditional love that includes both love and hate. You probably think that's nonsense, and maybe you're right.
Robert: I don't think it is nonsense. There is an aspect of it that makes sense to me. However, for me, love has nothing to do with that aspect. Love is a human emotion, I say, and not the underpinnings of anything (assuming that there even ARE underpinnings, which is an idea that may be fallacious to begin with).
End of exchange with Robert and back to me, writing now:
There are obviously many forms of love: romantic love, the love of a mother for her child, the love we feel for our dog or our best friend or the tree in the backyard, the love we have for our car or our clothes. In some languages, there are different words for different kinds of love. But clearly, love can refer to a variety of warm, positive, caring human emotions.
And then there is unconditional love, which is not an emotion. I often say that unconditional love is another word for awareness, because awareness accepts everything, just as it is. Awareness doesn’t grasp anything or push anything away. It illuminates everything equally. It “knows” everything, and in that sense, some might even say it IS everything. It is by its very nature boundless, seamless, undivided, dimensionless and ever-present (i.e., Here-Now). And I don’t mean that as a philosophical idea or a belief, but as a palpable felt-reality that we can tune into in any moment as the very heart of present experiencing, the very essence of what is, the boundlessness beholding it all.
Hate and anger feel to me like reactions rooted in false ideas. As I pointed out in my last post with the example of my reaction to the factory farming video (and by extension, to the Kavanaugh confirmation), my response to the video (and to Kavanaugh’s confirmation) was different when I believed that the perpetrators had a choice, that they could (in that moment) be more sensitive and less cruel than they were. When I see the bird eating the frog, or the owl eating the mouse, or the tiger ripping apart its prey, or the devastation from a hurricane, I don’t feel the same kind of upset or the same righteous rage. I may feel sorrow for the one being eaten, or for the people losing their homes in the hurricane, but I would never say, fuck that bird…or that tiger…or that owl…or that hurricane…half my family was mowed down by the last hurricane, and I cannot see hurricanes as the Beloved. Hurricanes (or owls, or tigers) are evil, sick, horrible events—they should behave differently. But somehow, we think humans are not an expression of nature. We think humans are independent beings who are (or should be) in control of what they do.
Of course, humans do have complex minds and can therefore create all kinds of messes that other animals (and more primitive humans) do not create—like nuclear wars and climate change. And humans have an extraordinary ability to reason, to think, to discriminate—and a capacity for empathy, kindness, and a desire to move toward social and economic justice (and a capacity to have widely different visions for what justice looks like or how it would best be achieved). Thus, if we have enough sensitivity and empathy, we DO feel pain when we see what happens on factory farms, or when we see Trump separating children from their mothers, or when we see Hitler gassing the Jews, or when we see someone abusing a child or a dog. Unlike the actions of the hurricane or the owl or the tiger, we know that these human actions are arising from some kind of false belief, and that they come from fear rather than from love. They are arising from a divided view of life, an illusory view that sees “me” and “others” and a bunch of separate things. We naturally want to stop such human actions. We feel the pain. We see the suffering. And we see the potential for it to be different. But if we’re sensitive enough, we recognize the pain of the perpetrator as well, the fear and confusion in that person, and the fact that ALL of this is how it is right now, and that ALL of it is in some way a movement of nature, from which humans are not separate, and that all of it is as it is in any given moment because the whole universe is the way it is.
It’s relatively easy to see love and beauty and the sacredness of life (i.e., the Beloved or GOD) in a flower garden or a newborn baby. It’s a little more challenging, but definitely possible, to see it in a traffic jam, a parking lot, or in the burned-out landscape after a wildfire. It’s even more challenging to see the Beloved in a devastating hurricane or in a tiger ripping apart its prey. And most challenging of all, is to see it in Hitler or Trump or Stalin or Pol Pot or in the factory farmers or the serial child rapist…or in ourselves when we fall short of our own expectations and ideals.
And yet, these people and what they do (and what we all do) cannot actually be separated out from the tiger and the flower garden—it’s one, interdependent, undivided happening without borders or seams. And the Beloved (or the sacred, or the beauty) is not in the acts of cruelty themselves, but in the awareness beholding it all. Seeing everything as the Beloved is not a philosophical belief, but a felt-reality and a pathless path of awakening from delusion to actuality.
When we meet what is, however horrific, with unconditional love or awareness, there is a felt difference from when we meet it reactively with anger, fear or hatred. Love, in this sense, does not mean liking these things, enabling them, or not doing everything we can to stop them. It doesn’t even mean never feeling anger or fear, both of which can be healthy responses in the moment. But it points to not getting stuck in anger or fear, particularly the psychological kind that depends on conceptualization and false ideas. In my experience, anger, fear and hate tend to recreate the very problems they are out to solve. And furthermore, I can find the seeds of Trump and Hitler and Stalin in Joan as well.
It’s easy to be deeply present and awake on a retreat, or while walking in nature, or while sitting alone in the living room on a quiet evening listening to the rain pattering gently on the roof. And we could all use more of this kind of gentle, spacious, silent, listening-being. And some people who take up spirituality simply turn away altogether from everything that disturbs: no more news, no more politics, no more social media, no more learning about what happens on factory farms. Ignorance (ignoring things) is bliss. But some of us can’t turn away. And for me, that’s the great koan, the great challenge, the great exploration—how to meet the whole of life, the whole enchilada, the light and the dark, the beauty and the ugliness, and especially the hardest parts, with love. Seeing everything as the Beloved is a practice, a path, a way of life, a koan to live with, rather than a philosophy to believe in or argue against.
When there is a recognition of BEING that open aware presence, that unconditional love, it is obvious (not as a belief or an idea, but as a deep knowing) that all is well even when it isn’t, that the heads and tails of the coin arise together inseparably, that birth and death are conceptual dividing lines in a seamless reality. The Vietnam war gives us Thich Nhat Hanh, the election of Trump revitalizes the left, cancer becomes an awakening journey. This is the alchemy of awareness, of unconditional love—if you’ve tasted it, you know it beyond all doubt.
What I’m pointing to here doesn’t mean losing discernment or your ability to think critically, and it certainly doesn’t mean not feeling the pain. In fact, you may feel it more deeply from this open place. And it doesn’t mean you can’t act, but you may act more effectively, more intelligently, more wisely. And as I said in the beginning, I rarely use the word Beloved. So, if words like unconditional love or the Beloved or God feel too loaded for you, if they don’t resonate for whatever reason, just drop them. The words aren’t what really matters here. They’re not the point. Ultimately, no word can ever capture the actuality of THIS Here-Now. In the end, all the words fall away.
As for whether there is a fundamental ground, as a metaphysical speculation, I find this a waste of time. Better to simply be awake Here-Now, to THIS moment—to the whole of life, the actuality of what is, just as it is. And to SEE how we get caught up in metaphysical speculation and confusion, how we get caught up in divisive thinking and anger, how we fall into the assumption of control and the blame or guilt that inevitably follows, how we believe that we know how the universe “should” be, how we imagine that the light can (or should) triumph over the dark, how we don’t see the Beloved everywhere. That open, unconditioned awareness sees the false as false, it sees illusion as illusion, and it sees the Beloved ( by whatever name we call it) everywhere. That seeing (or awaring) is, in my experience, the opening of the heart, awakening, being liberated on the spot. And perhaps from love, we serve the world much more effectively than when we move from fear, hate, bitterness and reactivity. But always, check it out for yourself. Watch and see. Find out!
Mostly my spirits are bright, even in these darkest of times, but occasionally I descend into anger, rage, despair, grief, sorrow and other more challenging and less pleasant emotional states. The news, after all, keeps getting worse and worse, at least from my perspective—from body-slamming and dismembering journalists, to wiping out LGBTI rights and labor unions, separating mothers and children, confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (and with that extinguishing any hope in my mind of this country ever truly becoming a democracy and not an oligarchy or a plutocracy), and of course, the on-going refusal to deal with climate change (or even admit that it exists) and the dismantling of the few tepid environmental protections we have managed to get in place over the decades, thus increasing the certainty of extremely grim times ahead for today’s young people, with total extinction a likely endgame in the not-too-distant future, and so on and on. It’s not a very pretty picture.
Of course, it’s not the first time in history that cruel tyrants and demagogues have been in power or that horrific things have happened, everything from genocides to plagues to asteroids slamming into the earth. Zen (or Chan) was born in China, so they tell me, during a period where almost the entire population was wiped out from a combination of war and famine. The only difference now is nuclear weapons and climate change, and thus the potential for total destruction. But then, there have been periods in the geological history of the earth where the climate was too hot or cold to support human life, and at some point, the sun will explode and the earth will be no more. Impermanence is complete and thorough-going. No-thing survives. And yet, through all this ceaseless change, something remains, unharmed.
I’m thankful for the larger (non-dual) perspective—the recognition that no-thing actually exists in the way we think, that the entire movie of waking life is a kind of dream-like appearance in consciousness, that everything is one undivided and inseparable whole in which the light and dark go together, that birth and death are conceptual dividing lines overlaid on top of a seamless (unborn, undying) reality, that there is something (that is not a thing at all) that is subtler than everything perceivable and conceivable.
There’s an old Zen koan where two Zen guys, teacher and student probably, are watching a bird rip apart and devour a frog. The student asks, “Why does it have to be like this?” The teacher replies, “It’s all for you.” After all, it’s your dream!
What to do? Many things are on offer: meditation, koan work, The Work of Byron Katie, psychotherapy, political activism and social change work, or simply drinking this one cup of tea right now mindfully, with total presence, and also hearing the train whistle and the twittering birds and the wind rustling the autumn leaves, letting the thoughts come and go, recognizing that it’s all included, that it all belongs, even Trump and environmental devastation and factory farming and journalists being dismembered and feelings of anger or despair—it’s all included.
What this, or any other, ever-changing bodymind, which is inseparable from the whole universe, is moved to do in any given moment is a movement of the whole universe, whether it is getting drunk, watching a good movie, meditating, drinking tea, dismembering or body-slamming a journalist, or organizing the resistance (the resistance that seems to eventually so often turn into the problem, as we’ve seen so many times: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the state of Israel, the American revolution). We do what we are moved by life to do. Typing these words, reading them, reacting to them exactly however one is reacting right now (agreeing or disagreeing, feeling sorrow or anger, upset or relief, energy or boredom), it all IS just as it is. And however it appears, the appearance is a kind of illusion. The solidity and separation are imaginary, and the present moment is gone even before it appears. How substantial was it?
Yes, politics has always been my great koan. Why must it be like this? Why must the bird rip apart the frog? Why must we have genocides and terrorism and racism and sexism and torture and people like Donald Trump and Stalin and Hitler and Netanyahu and ISIS and the cut-throat, present-day Republican Party and the tepid, neo-liberal, centrist Democratic Party establishment? Why must we have people who think all of those things are great? There are a million explanations on offer—spiritual, psychological, sociological, economic, metaphysical, biological, astrological, mythological, genetic, and so on. But the truth is, nobody knows. It just is.
We can call it a fucked up mess, we can call it “what is,” we can call it the Beloved or GOD or the Tao or the Dharma or the drama (the divine Lila, the Cosmic Entertainment) or the dance of good and evil…but the truth is, no one knows what this is or why it’s here, one moment exquisitely beautiful and the next moment gut-wrenchingly horrible.
I do know that love and acceptance FEELS better than hate and anger. Katie’s brilliant questions: How do I feel when I hold this belief? And what would it be like if I didn’t hold this belief? FEEL into it. FEEL the difference.
And yet also notice, BOTH are present experiences—the tightness and the spaciousness, the fear and the love—something is the same in both experiences, and it’s the present-ness of them, the awaring presence being and beholding them—ALL are momentary, ever-changing expressions of this undivided unicity, this presence-awareness, this intelligence-energy, this no-thing-ness, this “vibrant dance of existence” (as my friend Darryl Bailey calls it). It’s ALL included. And it’s all changing, instant by instant. And none of it can be separated out from the whole of it. Look deeply into any apparent form, and it opens into infinity. Nothing holds still, nothing resolves, nothing can be grasped—and yet, we can never leave Here-Now, this eternal present-ness, this immediacy, this awaring presence that is, as they say in Zen, “most intimate,” closer than closer, all-inclusive, ever-present. And even that—or at least, any experience or sense of that—vanishes in deep sleep.
Whatever remains then is here right now, invisible and incomprehensible, beyond all words and concepts, beyond (or subtler than) everything perceivable and conceivable, beyond all experiencing, beyond this whole movie of waking life and all the turmoil of emotion-thought. This dazzling darkness (as Gregory of Nyssa called it), this groundlessness, is most subtle. It can’t be grasped or seen, and yet, here it is—as Rumi put it:
“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside.”
Nothing is outside of this radiant presence, this dazzling darkness, this uncreated light, this infinite totality. Nothing is other than this. And “this” is no-thing at all!
And so, as my beloved Samuel Beckett famously wrote at the end of his novel The Unnamable: “perhaps it’s a dream, all a dream, that would surprise me, I’ll wake, in the silence, and never sleep again, it will be I, or dream, dream again, dream of a silence, a dream silence, full of murmurs, I don’t know…it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am , I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
HOW DO WE RESPOND TO RISING FASCISM AND HATE?
In the space of a few weeks, we had the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, the dismembering of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Trump immediately praising a Republican congressman for body-slamming a journalist and breaking his glasses, various white supremacist attacks in the US including bombs sent to prominent Democrats and media outlets, Black people shot at a grocery store, and a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and Brazil electing Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing ex-military man known for his bigotry against women and LGBT people, his extreme disregard for the environment, and his enthusiastic support for torture and the extermination of his enemies. In response, I posted several political articles and then a link to a YouTube video of Pema Chodron with these words of mine as introduction:
I very highly recommend the wise words from Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron that you can hear on the YouTube link below. She writes about this same topic in her excellent book Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. In both the talk and the book, Pema is talking about “shenpa,” a Tibetan word that points to getting hooked, being stuck or attached—that overpowering itch that we feel compelled to scratch. Shenpa is not about thoughts, although they reinforce it, but what it points to is deeper than thought, more primal. It is that felt-sense, that compulsive urge, that over-powering energy that drives us toward addictions, compulsions, outbursts of self-righteous anger, and restless-seeking-craving behaviors of all kinds.
What I love about Pema is her honesty, her humanness, her sense of humor, her willingness to share her own foibles so openly, and her combination of razor-sharp clarity with warm-hearted kindness and compassion. Nothing is “bad” in this view, and everything is workable. It’s all about cultivating a willingness and an ability to stay with the bare sensation of the urge itself, the felt-sense of urgency, the itch, without moving away, without scratching. It can be applied to addictions of all kinds, to over-powering emotions, to the spiritual search, and to how we meet the current challenges of rising right-wing fascism in a way that doesn’t just pour gasoline on the fire and make matters worse. It’s the approach I have endeavored to practice and write about for many years, although in terms of practicing it, I am a beginner at best, often sucked into the undertow of emotion and the over-powering pull of that addictive compulsion to escape or lash out.
Anyway, I very highly recommend listening to this audio, and I very highly recommend the book. These are jewels, especially in these increasingly dark and troubled times.
Response to a comment:
In my experience, understanding alone is not enough to undo the deep conditioning of the bodymind, hence I do value such things as meditation or somatic work of various kinds, although I would never say they are essential or that clarity (or awareness) is the result of a cause. I also wouldn't say there is no person or no personality. I would say "the person" (like "the body" or "the chair" or "the city of Chicago") is an ever-changing process inseparable from everything else, like a whirlpool or a wave. And I would say that awareness is not limited to, or encapsulated inside, a body or shaped by a personality. But I don't deny the relative reality of the person (or the body, or the chair, or the city of Chicago) either. That, to my view, would be absurd. The self, as I mean it, is not the same as the person, but refers more to an image-thought-sense of "me" as the one authoring my thoughts and making my choices. That "me" is never found, and meditation can reveal its illusory nature. In my experience, even after deep insight into the emptiness of all phenomena and so on, upset and grasping and a sense of self (or selfing, as it has been aptly called) can still arise. Pema offers a way of working with this that is congruent with my own, so I offer it. If for you (and others), this is unnecessary and all suffering has vanished completely simply with the understanding, then that's beautiful.
Response to another comment:
Meditation is a trap if we approach it in a result-oriented way, although this is often inevitable in the beginning, but intelligent meditation will reveal this. Meditation is a word that is used in many different ways. I have several different articles that address it on the Outpourings page of my website if you are interested in my perspective on it and what I mean by the word. And rather than asking me or looking to authorities like Nisargadatta, I would suggest trying it out and seeing for yourself! In one sense, meditation is the very nature of awareness and is thus ever-present. But formal meditation is simply a space where you sit quietly, put aside the books and the phone and the computer, turn off the TV and the music, stop talking and doing things, and simply BE present with whatever shows up. See the thoughts as thoughts, notice how seductive they can be, feel the sensations in the body, listen to the traffic sounds and the birds, feel the breathing, feel the sense of presence itself--just this! Nothing fancy. Just BEING here-now, as it is. If you want to know if this is a trap or something helpful, try it out and see for yourself! That's my suggestion.
Response to another comment:
I think part of the rise of right-wing hate and fascism here and around the world has much to do with the collapse of long-held illusions of security and the increasing natural disasters and growing threat of extinction from climate change, all of which will only escalate and get more severe in the coming years. Meanwhile, here in the USA, the Republican Party, which has gotten ever-more extreme, has gained more and more control, at the state level and the national level. The population in the USA is increasingly poorly educated with Fox News and wild conspiracy theories as the main sources of information, and people are suffering in so many ways...which is a recipe for fascism and leaders like Trump to step in. And, of course, many people in the US are armed, especially hate groups, those in gangs, those who are most ignorant, and those with extreme right-wing politics. It's a powder keg. And I honestly don't know what to do. Many in the spiritual world suggest tuning out and focusing only on the light. But I am not drawn to tuning out. On the other hand, while I can understand the pain and ignorance behind their support for Trump (or for right-wing extremism), I don't have much patience and loving kindness with the deplorables, as Hillary called them. The challenge here for me continues to be not falling into bitterness, rage, despair, cynicism, addiction, hopelessness, or becoming a mirror-image of the right.
Response to someone who says I shouldn’t talk about politics:
You may be right, but that doesn't seem to be how this expression moves, at least not so far. It's definitely more challenging, not as pure and clean, and I sometimes envy the radical non dualists and wish I could be one (I tried for several years), and maybe for some my way of being is not as helpful, and for others it is helpful, but it's what this person seems to do. Of course, I'm not limited to politics or to "Joan, the person." But I wouldn't say I'm not that either. In my sense of things, it's ALL included.
Would you say it's bullshit to deal with the cancer I had? Or to deal with making a living? Or cleaning the house? Politics gets a bad name because it has so much corruption and demagoguery mixed in, but it's really nothing more or less than how we live together in communities or social groups (families, tribes, nations, and globally)--everything from traffic laws to climate change. It's about stuff that matters to all of us on a human level (what we eat, what kind of healthcare we have, what kind of jobs are available, how people are treated, how we respond to refugees at our border, how we manage or don't manage the forests to reduce wildfires, and so on). I would say everyone is political, whether they know it or not. Being anti-political or un-political (i.e., being totally disengaged, not caring at all, not voting, etc) is actually a political stance! Yes, politics gets very messy. People disagree. And these days, it's very polarized and inflamed. But it's part of life, messy or not.
And as I said above, I've never resonated with the perspective that I am not the body, not the world, etc. I would say, I'm not LIMITED to any of that, and ALL of that is not what we think it is (i.e., separate, solid, persisting, etc), but in my view, it's ALL included. Nothing is left out. Not even politics. And for this expression called Joan, when I see things that deeply trouble me, I am often moved to speak out. The expression called Mark is moved to be apolitical and to call that bullshit. Whatever this whole thing is, it is doing what it does, which seems to include BOTH you and me each being just as we are.
WHAT IS PRACTICE? A Personal Story:
My last sharing was a link to a YouTube video of Pema Chodron talking about Shenpa, a Tibetan word that points to getting hooked by that overpowering itch that we feel compelled to scratch—that felt-sense, deeper and more primal than thought, that compulsive urge that drives us toward addictions, compulsions, outbursts of self-righteous anger, and restless-seeking-craving behaviors of all kinds. In several comment threads on my personal page relating to this post, I got into a back-and-forth with another non-dual “teacher” (or messenger, as he calls himself) who was posting comments there that were, as I heard them, critical of Pema and that felt insulting to me.
My reaction to what I experienced as arrogance, dogmatism, ranting and criticism—what feels to me like not being seen clearly or respected or heard by him, being instead put down and “taught” by him—that reaction is the very “shenpa” that Pema is talking about. Right there, I’m hooked.
Intelligent practice (the pathless path of being awake here-now) is simply to fully experience that reaction, that upset, in the body. To feel it as sensation, as energy—without judgment, without commentary, without moving away. To simply BE that upset. In that undivided BEING, there is no “me” and “it” anymore, no self and other. Waking up is also seeing clearly what’s behind my upset: my desire that people agree with me, that they respect me, that they see me accurately (i.e., as I see myself), that they behave in the way I want them to behave. Rather than trying to change my reaction, or get rid of my upset, or correct this other person, practice is simply to experience what is actually happening, and to allow this whole upset to reveal itself—all the ever-more-subtle layers of emotion-thought, all the nuances of energy and sensation.
But instead of simply BEING this upset and experiencing it fully, I escape this fire by engaging this person in a back-and-forth. I try to tell him what’s wrong with him, that he’s being arrogant and dogmatic. I know this won’t work because he and I have been here many times before. It’s a predictable exchange of button-pushing, going nowhere. He will, of course, deny that he ever experiences upset or defensiveness—he will tell me (or imply) that he is an egoless manifestation of pure awareness, simply shining a light on my ego—and that will infuriate me even more. Shenpa. And once again, instead of simply BEING this upset, feeling it fully, I will escape into commenting (in my head and on-line). Even now, I may well be escaping by writing this comment. SEEING this, and re-turning to the body, BEING just this moment, again and again, now and now, is the slow (and yet always immediate, present-moment) effortless effort of practice (call it what you will).
It’s not glamorous. It’s not a giant one-time awakening or a finish-line. It’s a never-ending process. It’s not about feeling blissful. It’s not about self-improvement, and it’s definitely not about fixing this other person. It’s about being awake in this moment. Just this. As Pema says in this marvelous talk, it sounds so easy. And yet, our whole momentum is moving toward escape, in all the various ways we do that. Which is why I say, at best, I’m a beginner. I fail again and again.
It’s easy to throw around non-dual talk, to say all the right things, to say or think that there is no way not to be here now, which is—of course—absolutely true. But this gets so subtle, the ways we can deceive ourselves, the way we can glibly say there is no one doing this, no one to be deceived, no such thing as deception. And yet….shenpa. If we’re honest, we all know this suffering very well.
Tonight, the clocks go back here, daylight-summer time is over and the dark time begins, and on Tuesday, it is the first day of winter on the Chinese calendar, the day when the winter energy begins to enter the picture, for those of us in the northern hemisphere that is. It’s already feeling quite wintry here in Ashland. We have more bare trees and overnight temperatures dipping down into the 30’s (Fahrenheit).
November is also the one-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, so I’m in the midst of various tests and exams, and so far, everything indicates that I’m still cancer-free, that the treatment worked, although my white blood count is very low, which they are monitoring. It’s been a journey, and one that has made me deeply appreciative to be alive. We never know how long we’ve got, or what the next moment holds.
Tuesday is also, of course, election day in the US—and I encourage folks here in this country to vote! Whatever the outcome, and I certainly have my strong opinions and preferences, some will be celebrating and some will be weeping, but at a deeper level, I trust that whatever-this-is (the universe, Consciousness, the vibrant dance of existence, the Tao, whatever we call it) is doing what it does, in the only way it can in each moment, and that everything is as it is, and that how it truly is, is unfathomable, even as it may appear solid and fixed and urgent from our human perspective. Everything perceivable and conceivable is impermanent, and yet there is something here (call it the totality, or the Heart, or the unseeable seeing) that is indestructible and undivided, without beginning or end, without inside or outside, ever-present and always Here-Now.
EMPTINESS AS A PATH AND A PROCESS, NOT A PHILOSOPHY:
What is emptiness? I often give the example that we cannot deny that there is a place we call Chicago. And yet, the more we look into it, the more we find that we cannot actually say or pin down what Chicago is. The buildings come and go, the people come and go, and if you look closely at any building or person in the city of Chicago, you find only continuous change inseparable from everything else in the universe. The tides of Lake Michigan go in and out on one side of the city, and the boundary between Chicago and the surrounding towns is simply a legal convention. Go to the apparent boundary between Evanston and Chicago and there is no boundary at all. The air and the land are undivided. If you didn’t see a sign (or look at a map) informing you that you had crossed into Evanston, you wouldn’t know. The laws and customs of Chicago are also changing. Chicago has a distinct personality, different from San Francisco or Bombay or Paris or New York, and yet, what exactly IS that personality? You can’t get hold of it, and everyone who visits or lives in Chicago experiences it differently, and differently at different moments. So, we can’t deny Chicago, but as we look into what it is, we find it is empty of any permanent, persisting, objective, graspable essence. This applies equally to the person we call Joan, and what I call my body, and the thing I call my kitchen table, and everything else.
I’m currently reading The Fragrance of Emptiness: A Commentary of the Heart Sutra by Anam Thubten, one of my top favorite Buddhist teachers, someone I’ve been on retreat with, whose books and talks are wonderful. I recommend this most recent book of his very highly. He says, “Emptiness is not a theory…It is a powerful process of letting go and dropping all the illusions we are holding onto…We have to go beyond the realm of the thinking mind…Emptiness here means empty of all concepts, empty of all struggles, empty of all duality, and empty of all notions of self—empty of all your ideas of who you are…” He stresses that it is not a philosophy, but an unending, moment-to-moment process.
The process relates back to the talk I shared by Pema Chodron about Shenpa (see my post from October 30 called “What Is Practice?”). This is the process of seeing how we solidify things, how we identify and take them personally, how we create the sense of self and not-self, how we cling to views and opinions and grievances, how we grasp and try to get some solid ground under our feet. As Anam Thubten wisely points out, there is even a tendency to turn emptiness into “some external omnipresent thing,” to make it into SOMETHING that we can grasp and cling to, sort of like the way many people see God, as a kind of security blanket to believe in. But it isn’t that. It isn’t something. It is that process of seeing through illusion, moment to moment, and waking up, moment to moment.
Emptiness is groundlessness. It doesn’t mean nothingness (as in nihilism). It doesn’t deny Chicago (or the body, or the personality, or the world). But it SEES that Chicago (and everything else we can name) is ungraspable, ever-changing, infinite, indeterminate, unresolvable.
It’s very easy to get the hang of non-duality as a philosophy and to talk the talk. It can so easily become just another comforting, feel-good belief system, fundamentally no different from believing that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. This is why I don’t reject practice (by whatever name we call it) in the way many contemporary nondualists do. Because in my experience, questioning our pet ideas, our grievances, our identities and so on is not easy. We want to hold on for dear life. We want that cigarette. We want to be right. We want to be understood and acknowledged and treated fairly. We want to simmer in our self-righteous anger. This is not mental stuff. It’s not just thoughts, although thoughts are part of it, for sure. But it’s in the body, in our deep conditioning, in sensations and energies that can feel overwhelming. And of course, being awake doesn’t mean we have to renounce our opinions and preferences any more than it means denying the relative reality of Chicago. But at the same time, there is a letting go, as I described in that post on “What Is Practice?”. We hold them more lightly.
And in my experience, this process has no finish-line, no end. It is always now. Speaking personally, I obviously still get hooked. I get triggered. And then, instead of being able to respond with clarity and compassion, I respond with sarcasm or anger, or I block someone from my page that I later wish I could unblock (but I can’t figure out how). And it’s not pleasant to see these aspects of ourselves, but it’s not about beating oneself up for being a spiritual failure. That’s just more of the same: identifying, taking it personally, making solid what isn’t. So, to have tenderness and warmth toward ourselves as well is very important!
Response to a comment:
Yes, everything affects everything else, and pain is often a signal to move, and for sure, getting a loving massage is much more enjoyable than being tortured, and if there is no need to be in an unpleasant or painful situation and there's a way to leave that isn't harmful, by all means leave. I would never argue that anyone should remain in an abusive relationship, or refuse palliative care. But often we can't leave. Or we don't want to leave because it's basically a good relationship. And as many of us discover after years of addictive escapes and restless moves, scratching a (metaphorical) case of poison ivy only spreads it and makes it worse. And so, we begin to get interested in how we can meet the fundamental unease of life, or the sting of an insult, or the pain that doesn't go away in a new way.
Some people might say we can always choose to do this. But either such people are very lucky, or else they have not really looked closely at how life is. Because in my experience, sometimes the addictive urge or the emotional impulse overwhelms the new possibility. Sometimes we do lose our temper and lash out, or we do light up the cigarette, or whatever it is. And so, to me, this isn't about perfection.
But in my experience, it is possible to discover and to cultivate (or learn, or train in, or develop) a different possibility...maybe through intelligent meditation and meditative inquiry, maybe through psychotherapy, maybe through somatic awareness work, maybe in other ways...we can gradually develop the willingness and the ability to respond differently to these over-powering urges. And sometimes the old habitual way will take over, but gradually, our edge (the point where we get overwhelmed) expands. There's no finish-line. Anyway, that's how I see it.
Response to another comment:
Yes, once we have a word and talk about emptiness (or anything else), it becomes a concept. But what that word-concept is pointing to is not conceptual. That's the point I was trying to make. The concepts are useful as pointers, but as I tried to say, that's not where the juice is. "Chicago" is a concept, and yet it points to something that is not a concept.
Emptiness is a pointer about not grasping, not mistaking map for territory, not thinking "Chicago" or "Joan" is actually solid and substantial and independent of everything else. But pattern-recognition, mapping, conceptualizing, story-telling, etc is all part of this whole happening, part of what consciousness does. And in reading Yuval Harari lately (see my review in a recent previous post), he cites our ability to make up stories as one of the main reasons humans became dominant...so not all bad either.
Emptiness points to questioning, seeing through, deconstructing, not grasping any view. We want to figure out which view (or which way) is the "right view." But in Buddhism, right view is no view at all, or maybe more accurately, not grasping at or clinging to any view...holding all views tentatively and provisionally, not mistaking the map for the territory. But again, mapping is an aspect of reality, something that consciousness does, and it's not bad. Maps, stories, concepts, pattern-identification, etc. are all useful and not to be discarded.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018--
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