Postings from My Facebook Page #20
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the twentieth collection of posts from my Facebook page (11/20/18 - 2/16/19). 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:
Recognizing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary
THIS moment (here-now) IS extraordinary, whether it is a moment of pain or pleasure, ecstasy or mundanity...whether we are looking at the Swiss Alps or a trash can...whether we are doing the laundry or vacationing in Hawaii—when we are awake to it, THIS moment (here-now) is indeed always extraordinary. Nothing is ever really ordinary.
The beauty, the unconditional love, the extraordinary-ness, the vibrancy, the brightness is in the awaring presence. Whatever is perceived is the dance or expression of that awaring presence—the boundlessness that we are beyond name and form.
Question: Are you saying that from the perspective that the fact that we exist at all is extraordinary (along with all the galaxies, etc.)? Or do you FEEL in every moment of your life that everything is extraordinary?
Response: I'm not saying that I feel any particular way all the time. Feelings are ever-changing. I'm saying that every moment IS extraordinary, and that the more we are awake to it, the more obvious that is. And I don't mean just "the fact that we exist at all," but every appearance that is showing up, from a cup of tea, to the crumpled Kleenex on the table, to the trash can in the alley, to the feeling of boredom, or the pain in our tooth—it's ALL extraordinary. Meaning it is never what we think it is—and the more closely we explore it, the more it opens to a vast infinity and dissolves into ungraspable no-thing-ness. Every experience (every sound, every sensation, every breath) is a doorway to the spacious freedom and boundlessness of open presence.
Q: It must be an interesting way to perceive things. I must say that I am still on the non-awake side that views a Kleenex as something I have to throw away and that boredom is...boring.
Response: You might experiment. Try really looking at the Kleenex. Not in some result-oriented way, not with the idea of having some big experience or some big breakthrough, but just simply look at it, the way you might enjoy looking at your beloved's face, or a favorite painting, or a place you love in nature. Just really look at the Kleenex, the way a baby might, as something you've never seen before (because, in fact, you never have seen THIS Kleenex at THIS moment ever before). Notice the shapes, the hills and valleys, the way the light hits it, the shadows, the textures, the colors, the lightness of it. Really SEE it, instead of THINKING, "It's only a stupid Kleenex...nothing special...I’ve seen millions of them…it’s just trash, something to throw away."
And the same with boredom the next time it arises. What happens if you get curious about it? What IS this thing you're calling boredom if you really give it your whole-hearted, non-judgmental, open, loving attention? What does it actually feel like? Where is it in the body? How do the sensations move if you go deeply into them with awareness? What thoughts and storylines seem to evoke and sustain this so-called “boredom”? Feel all the textures of it.
Or the next time you're washing the dishes, doing the laundry, peeling potatoes, or any other "mundane" task, what's it like if you really give it your whole-hearted, open attention? Enjoy the sense of touch, the movements of the body, the colors and shapes, the sounds. Does it still seem mundane, unpleasant, something to get done with as quickly as possible?
When I was an art student many years ago, I remember discovering that most people draw what we THINK is there instead of what we actually SEE. That's why it took so long for painters to discover how to create the illusion of depth. They were drawing what they THOUGHT a table should be (a perfect square or rectangle) instead of what they actually SAW when looking across a room at a table. When they finally began drawing what they saw, it looked like it had depth.
Visual art teaches you to see. Music teaches you to listen. You can behold the Kleenex or the crumpled cigarette package in the gutter in the same way you might behold a great work of art, which actually everything is. It is all the dance of consciousness. You can listen to the ordinary sounds of traffic in the same way you might listen to a symphony. Suddenly these ordinary sounds are interesting and not boring at all. The essence of seeing or listening or any sense is awareness or presence. That awaring presence (or present-ness) is the heart of everything, the core, the totality, the vastness, the boundless and seamless wholeness from which nothing stands apart. Tune into this spacious presence, feel it, explore it, enjoy it.
This isn’t about philosophy or thinking or accumulated knowledge or belief. It’s about sensing, feeling, knowing directly, BEING. It’s about awareness, presence, silence, stillness, not knowing, openness, listening, seeing. The more this ever-present, all-inclusive, groundless ground, this open awaring presence, is felt into and recognized, the more available it seems to become. Of course, it is actually always here, but when I say it seems to become more available, I mean the more easily it is recognized and felt—and the less bamboozled we are by thoughts spinning the story of “me,” or thoughts insisting, “It’s just an old Kleenex,” or “This is so boring.”
The more we see these thought-stories for what they are, and the more the attention moves from an obsessive focus on the conceptual realm to the aliveness of the sensory realm, the more a kind of faith develops. This faith is not a belief in some idea, but rather a deep trust in what is most real, most precious, most intimate. Whenever we wake up to this present-ness, we know without any doubt that we are Home. Sometimes, this home seems lost, far away. But it is actually always right here, right now, where we are, in this placeless immediacy that we can never really leave. This timeless presence is what we truly are. We seemingly overlook it by seeking it, by telling ourselves the story that “this isn’t it.” But it’s right here, in the dish soap and the sounds of traffic, in the aisles of the supermarket and the fast-moving freeway, in the most seemingly ordinary events. It’s the presence being and beholding it all.
If we drop all the labels, ideas and beliefs about life and what’s going on here, if we let go of everything that can be doubted, what remains? Is it not this undeniable awaring presence and the bare actuality of present experiencing, just as it is?
In exploring experience, we may notice that it is ever-changing, impermanent, impossible to pin down or grasp. And yet, it all appears Here-Now in this unlocatable immediacy, this timeless presence that we are. This whole happening is boundless and seamless, with no inside or outside, no before or after.
Words and thoughts are never identical to the actuality that they attempt to describe or explain. Hypnotized by language, we tend to mistake these conceptual maps for the indescribable and inexplicable living reality in which every moment is fresh and new. There is no true explanation or description of actuality, and there is no final answer, no final understanding, no finish-line to cross. Freedom is letting go of the known, relaxing into groundlessness, and simply being what we cannot not be: this ever-present, ever-changing Here-Now, just as it is.
Response to a comment:
Thinking, chatting, mapping and story-telling are all part of what this living reality is doing. And it seems to be the case that consciousness gets periodically hypnotized by its own creations, as when watching a good movie, and then there may be emotions, bodily sensations, and all the rest—and then at some point, the movie ends, the spell is broken, and we’re back to the other movie, the one we call reality.
Response to another comment:
Yes, without thought or language, certain complications, delusions and forms of suffering would not exist, but language is a beautiful tool. I'm not in any way disparaging language or suggesting we should aim for some wordless, thought-free state. Such states may come, briefly, and they can be beautiful, but they will also go (unless you have a serious brain injury). Even the "verbal judgments and nattering" are something this living reality is doing, as is seeing through such thoughts, and none of it is personal. Something is the same in every different experience, whether it is a contracted experience or an expanded one, pleasant or unpleasant, light or dark.
Response to another comment:
The Dalai Lama has said many beautiful things, and he certainly embodies a beautiful and loving presence and has touched this world very deeply. But that said, I don’t particularly resonate with admonitions about what we must or should all do. I feel we are each expressed in different ways, and that so-called good and evil, enlightenment and delusion, are all inseparable aspects of this boundless totality. As I see it, we all do what life moves us to do in every instant, choicelessly, even when we appear to be choosing and acting intentionally or deliberately. We might say that the totality is unconditional love, but this is the love that includes everything.
Liberation is present moment 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. The whole past is totally gone! Nothing really happened, not in any substantial or objective way. And yet, NOW (the immediacy of timeless presence) never arrives or departs.
All we can know with absolute certainty, beyond all doubt, is the undeniable fact of being here now as aware presence and the undeniable actuality of present experiencing—not those words, and not any interpretive spin ABOUT any of this, but simply the naked actuality to which those words point.
EVERYTHING else is belief, subject to doubt. Literally, EVERYTHING! We accept so much belief as if it were fact—our whole story about what this is, EVERYTHING from our scientific explanations to our spiritual explanations to everything we think we know about life and the world and ourselves.
Without words, there is what I call the vibrant red of what I call my shirt, the sensations in what I call my leg and my belly, the hum I believe to be an airplane passing overhead, the sharp staccato barking of what I think is the neighbor’s dog, the rhythmic whooshing of what I believe to be “the traffic on the interstate,” the movement and sensations I have learned to call breathing, the taste and warmth of what I call hot tea. Without the thought-labels and the beliefs, these are infinitely varied, ever-changing sensations—with no solid borders or seams, inseparable from the awareness in which they appear. And of course, even “sensations” and “awareness” are words I have learned to describe what is actually indescribable—and even the notion that “I have learned this,” is a story, a belief that seems to instantly materialize me-the-learner and time in which learning occurred.
That doesn’t mean our goal should be to stop thinking and conceptualizing. What we call thinking, conceptualizing, pattern-recognition (or creation), mapping, remembering, dreaming and imagining are all part of this undeniable seamless happening. We don’t need to stop thinking. And unless we have a brain injury, we can’t stop thinking—at least, not for long. We don’t need to do anything at all to arrive at so-called Ultimate Reality, Truth or enlightenment. Being here now (unbound, impersonal, presence-awareness) and present experiencing is all there is, and THIS is already fully present—absolutely undeniable and beyond doubt—impossible to ever leave and thus impossible to ever attain. This is what we ARE.
Everything is whole and complete and perfectly expressed in this instant, just as it is. And NONE of it is ever what we think it is. The entire movie of waking life is a protean, morphing, dream-like happening, whether we believe it is a brain creation, a play of consciousness, or an activity of God.
No one is in control of this kaleidoscopic outpouring. None of it is personal. There is no right or wrong way to be, although there are infinite ideas, opinions and beliefs about right and wrong that arise before or after the fact. But whatever this whole happening is, it seems to include every possibility: the light AND the dark, the pleasant AND the painful, what we consider good AND what we consider evil. And ALL of it is so utterly ephemeral and ungraspable, disappearing as soon as it appears, vanishing instant by instant into thin air.
I got word a few days ago that an old friend, someone younger than myself, died last week suddenly and quickly of a heart attack. She was out having dinner before going to the theater when—pooff! She was gone in an instant. The older we get, the more such disappearances there have been. Friends and relatives who have vanished into thin air. How real were they? Fathers and mothers, friends and lovers, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, children, teachers and students, beloved animal companions, presidents and celebrities, whole decades of our lives, yesterday morning, earlier today, the last moment, all vanished like dreams. Isn’t it marvelous?
And this evening, sitting in my armchair, I had what I can only call a vivid experience of my father. My father has been dead for decades. But suddenly he was present in consciousness, and a series of memories of him from my childhood rolled through like a movie, and I felt in my heart that he was blessing me in some way, letting me know he loved me. It was a very vivid, powerful experience. Was he “really” here, like some kind of ghost? Or was this imagination and memory? I don’t believe in ghosts, so I go with imagination and memory, but that doesn’t diminish the reality of the experience or make it any less potent. Is my father dead or alive? Did he ever really exist? Does my sense of his presence tonight mean anything at all? Does it need to mean anything? Does it need to be explained? Does this paragraph fly in the face of everything else I’ve been saying here in this post?
In this vastness Here-Now, there is ever-changing experiencing—one moment watching the clouds changing shape in the sky, one moment focused on balancing the checkbook and paying bills, one moment listening to music, one moment lost in an obsessive train of thought, one moment trying to figure out some computer glitch, one moment watching the News, one moment talking on the phone, one moment feeling the presence of my long-dead father, one moment savoring the sense of spacious, open presence being and beholding it all, one moment everything perceivable slipping away as I go under anesthesia. There are night dreams, and there is whatever remains in deep dreamless sleep. There are the mental movies in the imagination, there are the Netflix movies watched on the TV screen, there is the movie that we call “real life”—ALL of it an ever-changing expression of the ungraspable but undeniable aliveness right here, right now. THIS is the Holy Reality! THIS is GOD! THIS is the sacred! THIS is the transcendent! It’s not somewhere else. It’s never been absent. It never can be absent. It is all there is. Nothing is excluded.
We try so hard to solve the imaginary problem, to fix this “me” that we think we are, to fix “the world” that we think is out there, the world that we think we are ”in.” We try to explain it all, to understand, to control, to make sense of the sensations. We can’t get rid of belief either—it is part of this whole happening—but it can be seen for what it is. When we re-turn attention to THIS that cannot be denied, this awaring presence, this present experiencing, this ever-changing and ever-present Here-Now that we are, what problem remains? There may still be a sensation in what I call “my hip” that thought labels as “pain,” but is it a problem?
As the dream-like movie unfolds—see how the mind creates imaginary problems and then seeks solutions. See how we defend the reality of our suffering, how we defend our self-image, how we defend our beliefs. See how attention gets sucked into stories—how we believe that something is missing, that we’re not okay as we are, that we exist as a person in a world, that we have to figure something out or solve some mystery or get somewhere. See that no one is doing any of this, and that no one is actually ever being damaged. See and re-turn. The seeing IS the re-turning.
This “return” takes no effort. It doesn’t require a single step, or even a turning of any kind. It is simply the recognition of what is beyond doubt, fully present, utterly immediate, most intimate, totally inescapable—right here, right now. Seeing that this apparent “getting lost in thought” and this apparent “returning to Truth” is all an imaginary journey taken by a dream-character in a dream.
Feel the simplicity of what is, just as it is. Feel the listening stillness, the spaciousness of Here-Now. Feel the luminous presence, the knowingness of being here now. Wonder what is beholding it all, and if any answer should arise (a concept, a word, an image, a feeling, an intuition, an experience of any kind), wonder what is beholding that. It gets subtler and subtler until no-thing remains, and this no-thing is everything. No separation. No other. No outside, no inside. Just this.
Response to a comment:
Thank you for your comment. I’m glad the writing resonates. The “nothing ever happened” pointer is not one I often use, in fact, this might well be the first time I have ever used it. But it has been opening up in a new way for me recently.
I appreciate your concerns, and on the human level, in this movie of waking life, from one human being to another, of course I would never want to deny the many forms of trauma that human beings experience both personally and globally, including genocides, wars, famines, slavery, racism, sexism, heterosexism, incest, rape, murder, abandonment, neglect, poverty, bullying and so on and on. Trauma can leave deep imprints in the bodymind, and I have personally been very grateful for the psychotherapy I’ve been through, the bodywork I’ve had, the addiction recovery work, and the political movements that have made it less painful to be a woman, a gender non-binary bi-sexual lesbian, an amputee, and now an elder. I would not want to deny the reality of trauma and injustice, or the important work of healing this, and as you know, I don’t think nonduality is about ignoring relative reality.
And yet, from a deeper, subtler, more radical (to the root) perspective, none of it ever happened in the way we think it did, or in the way we remember it, and none of it has the substance we think it does. This recognition is very challenging for the ego. And it’s fascinating to begin to SEE how we defend and cling to our suffering, and how threatened we feel if the reality of it is in any way questioned or denied. This is a profound place for inquiry, although of course, this can all be misunderstood or misused. And not everyone wants to go to this kind of radical place, and that’s okay. It’s undoubtedly not even advisable for some people. And it’s always important to discern what is appropriate at different moments and in different situations.
As I see it, pretty much ANY way of talking about nonduality, ANY pointer or map that is used, or ANY approach (or non-approach) to so-called awakening inevitably has both a positive and negative side to it, meaning that it can hit the mark and open everything up, or it can be misunderstood and end up causing unintended problems or (in the case of these radical and absolute pointers) serving as a vehicle for various spiritual pitfalls such as “spiritual bypassing,” “avoidance in holy drag,” “hiding in the light,” “being stuck in the absolute,” and so on. And many people (teachers and students both) have hidden their shadow behind absolutist assertions.
Everything I’ve just said in response to your comment is (in my view) relatively true, but none of it is absolutely true. It falls in the realm of belief. And many beliefs are functional and useful in everyday life. But the attachment we have to our beliefs, our personal identity, our suffering, our entitlements, our stories of being a victim, our stories about others and how they betrayed or hurt us, and so on may all be the biggest apparent obstacle to being free. So, it's a dance.
TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
Jesus famously spoke of turning the other cheek. Was he suggesting being a doormat for abuse, or allowing social injustices to continue unchallenged, or letting serial killers run free? I can’t speak for Jesus, but I think he meant pretty much exactly what Mooji meant when he once said, “Live as though you have no rights and you’ll begin to appreciate everything. Live as though you have no entitlements, and you’ll appreciate all that comes. Live as though you’re zero, and so everything that touches zero becomes zero.”
Zero might sound dreadful to the thinking mind, but it’s actually the most joyful, liberating, loving, gratitude-filled state of consciousness. And it’s actually always Here-Now—it’s the natural state, the default state, the very nature of presence-awareness (or unconditional love), but it often goes unnoticed, unrecognized and unrealized because attention is focused on thoughts, stories, concepts, beliefs, and on the emotional whirlwind these often bring forth. In other words, attention is focused on what Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck called “the self-centered dream” or “the substitute life.”
Joko was one of my most important teachers. She and my main teacher, Toni Packer, would both repeatedly call attention to the strong tendency we humans have to defend our positions, to defend our suffering, to feel entitled or slighted or put down or disrespected. Both Toni and Joko encouraged us, when this happened, in that moment of reactivity, to SEE (i.e., be aware of) the thoughts that were running—to see the headlines they were proclaiming and the stories they were spinning.
Toni and Joko would encourage us to look deeply into what it is that is getting hurt, what it is that we are defending. Almost always, if not always, it is our self-image, the psychological self, the little “me,” the ego—or whatever the ego identifies with: my family, my tribe, my nation, my race, my gender, my sexual orientation, my subculture, my religion, my version of nonduality, my political views, my beliefs, etc. Even if we are “right” in some relative sense, the emotional charge and upset over whatever it is, is almost always (if not always) ego or image related.
Joko especially encouraged us to fully FEEL this upset in the body, as energy and sensation—to feel all the subtle ways the body tightens up and contracts at these moments, the way our lip quivers or the blood rushes up to our head or our gut clenches or whatever it might be—and to totally feel this as bare sensation, minus the storyline or the labels. Often, these feelings initially seem unbearable, but as we learn to stay with them, we discover they are not only bearable, but actually interesting—and we find they are nothing solid at all—at the core of them, there is nothing there, just empty space. Eventually, in the light of awareness and sustained attention, they simply dissolve.
Both Toni and Joko also encouraged us to notice what we do outwardly when we are upset, whether we argue or justify or sulk or get drunk or engage in some passive-aggressive behavior—whatever we do, to notice what we do and how it feels when we do it.
Toni and Joko both felt that we cannot impose change through will-power, but that by simply shining the light of awareness (or open attention) on this whole tapestry of our attachments and delusions (our frozen, hardened, contracted places), these will naturally begin to soften, open and melt away. Our True Nature is already fully present, never absent, and the spiritual path is about discovering or recognizing that reality, and part of how that discovery happens is by seeing through the apparent obstacles and delusions that make us feel separate and that generate our suffering.
This is exactly what Pema Chodron talked about in something I shared here on my page back on October 28, and in in her excellent book Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. In both the talk I shared and the book, Pema speaks about working with shenpa, a Tibetan Buddhist term for getting hooked, stuck or attached—shenpa is that overpowering energy that drives us toward addictions, compulsions, outbursts of self-righteous anger, vengeance, and restless-seeking-craving behaviors of all kinds. Like Toni and Joko, Pema talks about how it’s possible to be with this powerful storm of emotion-thought-sensation in a new and different way.
In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle has a section about “Allowing the Diminishment of the Ego.” He writes: “A powerful spiritual practice is consciously to allow the diminishment of ego when it happens without attempting to restore it. I recommend that you experiment with this from time to time. For example, when someone criticizes you, blames you, or calls you names, instead of immediately retaliating or defending yourself—do nothing. Allow the self-image to remain diminished and become alert to what that feels like deep inside you. For a few seconds, it may feel uncomfortable, as if you had shrunk in size. Then you may sense an inner spaciousness that feels intensely alive. You haven’t been diminished at all….you realize that nothing real has been diminished.”
In a similar vein, Byron Katie suggests that the way to meet criticism is to agree with it, and to go to the place within where it’s true—not necessarily true in exactly the way the person criticizing you meant it, because maybe you didn’t do whatever they think you did, but in some form, there is a truth in it—find that place. Don’t argue or defend. Don’t fight back. Agree with the criticism, not just outwardly, but deeply, within.
Gilbert Schultz, an uncompromisingly radical (to the root) nondual messenger, suggests that our psychological suffering is completely unnecessary. He simply invites the direct recognition, right now, of this immediate knowing (or awaring) that is clear and obvious and ever-present. Just this, full stop!
The ego may be saying “yes, but…” (one of its favorite phrases), and protesting that suffering is real and complex and that it doesn’t just fall away that easily (note how we defend the reality of our suffering). Or the ego may be saying that all of this about living as zero and turning the other cheek sounds terrible, and the ego may be offering up arguments for why it makes sense to defend ourselves and fight back. And in certain situations, it very well may be appropriate and necessary to do extensive trauma work or psychotherapy, or to use psych meds—and in certain situations, it may be appropriate and necessary to defend ourselves and to fight back in some way. None of these teachers, as I hear them, are talking about being a doormat, not standing up for ourselves (or against some injustice) when it is appropriate, or staying in an abusive situation and inviting more abuse.
What I hear these teachers suggesting is a radical experiment, a radical practice (if we want to call it that), one that Jesus embodies in perhaps the most radical way through the crucifixion, where he moves through resistance (“God, why have you forsaken me?”) into surrender (“Thy will be done” and “Forgive them for they know not what they do”). That surrender and death IS the resurrection—and for me, the resurrection is metaphorical or symbolic, not literal—it is about what happens every time we let go of being right, every time we open, every time we relax and surrender.
Joko Beck was especially fond of a poem by Rilke called “The Man Watching,” which she often read aloud to us:
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
As things do by some immense storm,
We would become strong too, and not need names….
“Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.”
Or as Leonard Cohen put it: “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.”
In other words, to use 12-Step language, we surrender to a power greater than ourselves, which to me means a power greater than the thinking mind or the ego or the psychological self. We surrender to HERE-NOW, to presence, to boundlessness, to THIS that has no opposite and no other. We surrender to our True Nature, the Self, the One-without-a-second. We surrender to GOD. How? By becoming aware of how it feels to argue with reality, by seeing our attachment to the self-image and the story of me and my ideas for “my” masterpiece and for how I “should” be and how the world “should” be, and by letting go, opening into the bigger reality, the way it actually IS, the real Masterpiece, and BEING this unbound vastness, this unconditional love. It’s not a doing, but an undoing, a releasing: awaring, opening, melting, softening, relaxing, allowing, dissolving, letting go, doing nothing at all.
And very importantly, surrender is always NOW, not something we did in the past. It is not once-and-for-all or forever-after, but exactly THIS moment. And it simply means becoming sensitive to these movements of the bodymind that we call ego and allowing them to release. Not forcing them to release—that’s just more ego trying to be a better (more spiritually correct, more enlightened) ego—but allowing them to be as they are and to release in their own time. And then not making the result into a new identity (as in, “I’m an egoless Awakened One, unlike the rest of you poor fools.”). Living as zero or surrendering is definitely not a nice idea to believe in, nor is it a new, improved self-image to hold on to. That’s all just spiritual by-passing (aka “avoidance in holy drag”), a major form of delusion.
It takes courage, faith, willingness, and trust in that bigger reality to let go of what we are defending, to let go of being right, to let go of our precious self-image, to feel the feelings in the body that SEEM like they will kill us (and in a sense, they will!). And sometimes, the conditioned force of habit that we call ego, and the fear of annihilation, win out. We react. We tighten up. We lash out, at ourselves or “the other,” in one way or another. We defend our territory, our flag. But then that can be seen. And let go. Now. It always comes down to right NOW, right HERE. Not tomorrow or yesterday or a split second from now or somewhere else—but NOW, HERE.
This kind of surrender doesn’t in any way mean we can’t act in intelligent ways—and there are obviously times when it’s appropriate to defend ourselves or someone else and so on—but from this open aware presence, it’s no longer coming from dualistic thought, and it’s no longer about defending the ego, and so the action that emerges will be much wiser and more holistic—more in alignment with the whole, rather than being reactive, which usually just pours gasoline on the fire, solidifying everyone’s views even more, and making the situation worse.
Of course, in the absolute sense, even being lost in delusion or pouring gasoline on the fire is the perfect and only possible expression of the totality in that moment when it happens, and ultimately, nothing of substance has actually happened, and no one is in control of whether or not there is the ability in any given moment to surrender, or whether the force of habit, conditioning and delusion will be (in that moment) over-powering. In the absolute sense, it’s all perfect, and none of it is personal, and none of it is what we think it is. The light and the dark are inseparable aspects of one whole, and there is no light without the darkness. And this absolute truth is an important and very liberating realization.
But let’s don’t forget that this perfection—this undivided, nondual wholeness—INCLUDES our urges, interests and abilities—it includes our capacity for insight and healing, for psychotherapy and social justice work and spiritual inquiry and meditation—just as it includes the white blood cells battling an infection in the body. As Shunryu Suzuki so beautifully put it, “You’re perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.” It’s ALL included.
There’s room here for BOTH the uncompromisingly absolute message of radical nonduality (such as what Gilbert Schultz, Darryl Bailey or Tony Parsons offer) AND for the (apparently progressive, but actually immediate) paths of inquiry, meditation, questioning and exploration (that folks like Toni and Joko and Pema and Mooji and Katie and 12-Step programs offer). Sometimes we need one message, sometimes we need another. And it’s important to note that any intelligent so-called path is always about NOW. It’s never about getting somewhere better in the future—it’s about being awake Here-Now. And because this moment has never been here before, this path is of necessity pathless. It goes nowhere (aka, now-here). The most complete understanding of nonduality, as far as I’m concerned, is that it both transcends and includes apparent duality, just as the absolute includes the relative but is not trapped in or deluded by it.
Living as zero (as boundless awareness or impersonal presence) transcends but also fully includes living as the utterly unique, one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated, ever-changing expression of totality that you, as a person, are. As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, you don’t have to stop being a wave to be the ocean. It’s one whole inseparable dance. And when it SEEMS otherwise, that’s the invitation to stop, look and listen. To question. To wake up. To surrender. To allow everything to be as it is. To BE Here-Now. To BE this unconditional love that is always accepting and allowing everything to be as it is, not by THINKING that “I am unconditional love,” which is another ego-trip in thin disguise, but by actually BEING it—which is exactly the radical practice that Toni and Joko and Pema and many others are inviting.
And the paradoxical thing is that by allowing everything to be as it is, we open the way for the most radical (to the root) transformation. And in fact, nothing in this appearance ever remains the same for even an instant. It is always transforming and transmuting in the wild and unpredictable alchemy of this ever-unfolding living reality, this waving ocean of being.
So is there anything to do? Is there anyone to do it? If you say either yes or no, you will miss the mark.
Response to a comment:
Well, everyone has their own interpretation of Jesus and what he said. We don't even know for sure if he actually existed, and if he did, no one knows what he actually said or how much of the story is historically accurate, if any. Even it had all been videotaped at the time, we still wouldn't know for sure what Jesus himself meant or intended. And now, centuries and many translations and cultural evolutions later, we can be sure that much has been lost in translation. As I said, I can't speak for Jesus, I can only share how I hear him and what his words mean to me. I'm not a theologian or a Biblical scholar or even a Christian, although I've always had a strong resonance with Christianity and with Jesus (as I see him).
He did overturn the tables (or so the story says), and he did (apparently) say he had come not to bring peace, but a sword. Then again, he also (apparently) said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I tend to see him as a very feisty, radical kind of guy, but someone with deep compassion and love, especially for the poor, the marginalized, the ones outcasted by society. And for me, the heart of that message is always about noticing who I am marginalizing and outcasting, which in my case isn't poor people and prostitutes. For me, it might be Republicans, Trump, the NRA and the gun rights enthusiasts, the anti-gay fundamentalists, the white supremacists, the climate change deniers, and so on. So for me, the "practice" might be about noticing how I look at those people, how I dehumanize them, how I get triggered by them and what I'm defending when I do, and so on. That wouldn't mean liking what they do or not doing what I'm moved to do to stop them, but it might change how I do all that, and it might mean seeing that they are vulnerable, conditioned beings like myself and having actual compassion for them. Anyway, thanks for weighing in.
What nonduality or spirituality is really pointing us to (as I see it):
Sitting down to write, the delicious wet sounds of rain tapping, splashing, pinging in the darkness, filling the listening silence with delightful meaningless speech, touching me deeply, nourishing the earth and my heart, washing everything clean. This exquisite symphony of water needs no explanation, no translation. And now it has almost stopped. Just the occasional last drops, the final notes. And then it builds again, raining harder and faster and now again pouring down.
The thinking mind wants to figure everything out, to get control, to have security, to be right, to survive. In practical matters, this works well. But when we try to figure out such things as the meaning of life or the nature of reality, this mental grasping very often becomes the biggest (apparent) obstacle, keeping us on a mental hamster-wheel, chasing a carrot we never get. I’m pretty sure most of us know the feeling—kind of tight and contracted and desperate and driven and incredibly unsatisfactory. And no answer or explanation we find ever really holds up. In all of that desperate hamster-wheeling, there’s a mental picture of “me” trying to get “it,” the very dualistic illusion from which awakening awakens.
What nonduality or spirituality is really pointing us to, at least in my sense of it, is the non-conceptual living actuality Here-Now. All the words are simply meant to invite us to explore and enjoy this actuality directly, firsthand, un-mediated, as it is. not primarily by thinking about it, but by giving it open, whole-hearted, attention, BEING and beholding it.
With open attention, we may explore questions, not by thinking about them and trying to figure out the correct answers, but by looking and listening and awaring and sensing into them with open, nonjudgmental attention. We might ask such questions as: To what does the word “I” most fundamentally refer? In this moment, if I don’t refer to thought, memory or imagination, what am I? Can I find an actual boundary in direct experience where “inside of me” turns into “outside of me”? Do I ever actually leave Here-Now? Is there a thinker authoring my thoughts or a chooser making my choices? What is it that I am defending when I get defensive? These meditative inquiries are questions to explore wordlessly, without analytical thought or reasoning, simply by paying attention to the actuality Here-Now.
We may also simply enjoy the unfolding present moment as pure sensation: the sounds of rain or traffic, the sudden flight of birds across a white winter sky, the aroma and taste of coffee, the warmth of a fire, a cool breeze on the skin, the sensations of breathing, the sensations throughout the body, the barking of a dog, the sense of being present and aware, the spaciousness of this listening presence.
We may discover in this exploration and enjoyment that there is no actual separation between subject and object, between awareness and content, between self and not-self, between the listening presence Here-Now and the sounds of the rain or the barking dog—that it is all one whole undivided happening that is at once ever-changing and ever-present. It may be clearly recognized that there is no dividing line between “me” and “it.” There is the utter simplicity of BEING this undivided (nondual) Mystery that we call awaring, breathing, sensing, thinking, feeling, listening, tasting, touching, experiencing. This present-ness, this immediacy, this vibrant happening needs no explanation. It simply IS.
The words seem to divide it into parts (awaring, breathing, sensing, thinking, raining, barking). Words also create abstract categories in the imagination (dogs, people, nouns, verbs, chairs, tables, delusion, enlightenment). And all of that is useful for everyday functioning. But prior to all those word-labels and conceptual abstractions, there is the actual living reality of THIS once-in-a-lifetime breath that is occurring right now, THIS actual sip of coffee that has never been here before and will never be here again, THIS flight of birds across the sky that has already vanished, THIS sensation in the body that has already morphed into something slightly different, THIS ever-changing symphony of rain.
Books, talks, words, Facebook posts—these are all part of this indivisible living reality, and they may be helpful or enjoyable. But ultimately, the invitation is to actually eat the meal, not just endlessly read the menu and then argue with others over the names and descriptions given to the food. That doesn’t necessarily mean reaching some point where we never pick up another book or attend another satsang or another nonduality meeting—of course, it might mean that, but it certainly doesn’t have to. Talking, reading, thinking, gathering together in community, making maps, categorizing, fine-tuning the descriptions, and so on is all part of this ever-unfolding, ever-fresh non-dual BEING. None of it needs to be pathologized or eliminated. The problem comes when we expect nourishment from the menu, when we try to live in the map, when we mistake our thoughts for reality, when we confuse faith with belief.
But more and more, in the light of awareness (or open attention), we can discern the difference between map and territory, between thought and awareness, between reading that feels enlivening and illuminating (like listening to the rain) and reading that feels tight, contracted, desperate, driven and incredibly unsatisfactory. And when we notice that it’s the latter, we can perhaps dare to take that great leap into the unknown and put down the book or the screen. It can be scary in such a moment to do that, to set aside all our authorities, to let go of the handrails we are desperately grasping, and to JUST BE. To allow ourselves to not know what this is, or if there is any purpose, or what it all means. To simply BE this present experiencing, this awaring presence, this boundlessness that we actually always are, whether it is recognized or not. To BE it without needing any explanation of it, without trying to grasp it or get something out of it.
Of course, it’s important to also recognize that this nondual wholeness is fully and equally present even as the experiences that we call tight, contracted, desperate, driven and unsatisfactory, or the experiences we call being lost in thought or hypnotized by belief. Those moments, too, are simply this Mystery doing what it does. Nothing is ever really lost or damaged or obscured in the way we think it is.
In the movie of waking life, we can be lost in a strange city, and we can feel emotionally or spiritually lost on occasion, and that’s all part of life. Even those experiences of being or feeling lost are not in any way separate from this ever-present Mystery that we are and that everything is. The “me” who seems to be in search of some “It” that promises total satisfaction at last is only a mental image, as is the “It” we are chasing in our imagination. In reality, nothing is missing. Nothing is needed. Our lives are happening as naturally as the rain. No one is ever really lost. We’re already Here-Now. As the old Zen monk sitting silently on the meditation cushion in the cartoon says to the young novice expectantly sitting next to him, Nothing happens next.
WHAT IS REAL?
The first website I had was titled, “What is real?” It’s a good question. What is real and what isn’t? And perhaps more importantly, what does “real” mean? What does the word “real” mean to you?
Advaita teachers may tell us that real means that which never changes. The dictionary tells us, among other things, that real means having objective independent existence, not being imaginary or artificial, or occurring or existing in actuality.
But for right now, put all those definitions aside, and really examine what the word means to you. If you wonder whether “you” or “your body” or “the world” or “the past” or “the future” or “the chair” or “this question” or anything else is “real,” what do you mean by that?
Don’t answer the question; just explore it. This is an invitation to a silent exploration, not an outpouring of answers in the comment section. Just be with the question. Really get to the bottom of it. What does “real” mean to you? What are you asking when you wonder if something is “real” or “unreal”?
We throw words like this one around rather mindlessly in spiritual circles, as if we all know what we are talking about, without ever really considering it deeply.
Response to a comment:
You say what's real is what happens. What do you mean by "what happens"? Do you mean perceiving, sensing, thinking, imagining, experiencing? Do you mean things you've heard in school or seen on the News (e.g., that the earth orbits the sun, that there is currently a war and a famine happening in Yemen, that there is human-caused climate change occurring, that Trump is president of the US, etc.)? What do you mean by "what happens"? And when you say that this is real, what are you saying about it? What does that mean to you? Again, don't answer, just continue to explore (if it interests you).
Response to another comment:
Although I titled this "What is Real?," that question can be heard in two different ways. It can be heard in the usual way, where the spiritual inquiry is into the question of what is reality and what is imagination. But it can also be heard as a question about what we even mean by the word "real," and what we are saying about something when we call it either "real" or "unreal." And it was into this latter question that I was trying to invite an exploration. In the end, it may take us to the same place. It's easy to just adopt the prevailing views from Advaita or wherever, but to really inquire into it is (in my experience) where the juice is.
How Do We Meet Evil?
Evil is I word I rarely, if ever, use. But it is perhaps the best word to describe one of the greatest challenges we encounter on any spiritual path. Even if we have been lucky enough to have no first-hand experiences with evil, if we are at all well-informed about the world around us, we know that many unbelievably cruel things are taking place all the time. Children are sold into prostitution, women are gang-raped, prisoners are tortured, genocides happen, bombs are dropped, elders are abused and neglected, animals live tortured lives on factory farms, a journalist is dismembered with a bone saw, the list goes on and on. How do we meet all of this?
Theistic religions have struggled to explain why an omnipotent God allows evil. Nondual religions have offered their own explanations. Buddhism talks about the causes of suffering. Some traditions say it’s all only a dream—best to turn away and ignore all of these disturbing things—put the attention elsewhere, on the light. Or maybe we are told that all is One, that good and evil are inseparable polarities, that we cannot begin to fathom how it all works from a larger perspective—but that in that bigger context, all is well—nothing real is ever harmed or destroyed. These explanations may be nothing more than beliefs, or they may arise from deep insights and intuitions, but either way, being betrayed by your friends and nailed to a cross is painful, no matter how enlightened you might be—and seeing the evil in the world can be challenging for all of us.
Modern psychology, sociology, political science, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience have all given us many insights into how evil happens. We have learned, for example, that brain abnormalities can affect behavior, that psychopaths are born without the capacity for empathy, that not everyone has equal amounts of impulse control, and so on. We can see that each of us is the product of infinite causes and conditions, and that we are not all equally endowed or conditioned in the same ways.
Meditation—at least the kind that encourages insight—allows us the opportunity to see the seeds or roots of evil in our own psyches. If we are sensitive enough, self-aware and honest enough, we can find such powerful forces as hatred, prejudice, fear, anger, hurt, judgement, the desire to punish, out-of-control habits and impulses, and so on in our own minds. However much we abhor such things, if we’re sensitive enough, self-aware and honest enough, we can find racism and sexism and heterosexism in our own psyches. We may do everything we can to undo such prejudices in ourselves and in the world, but still, the seeds are there. We may never actually kill someone, but we’ve probably all felt the surge of anger, pain and hurt that might lead another to do that, and pushed far enough—if we were in a combat zone, for example, perhaps we would find ourselves doing the otherwise unthinkable. If we’ve looked deeply enough, we recognize that everyone is doing the only possible in each moment, and that guilt and blame are actually rooted in misunderstanding and delusion.
But still, we face those moments when we are confronted with evil. How do we respond? This is a wonderful question to live with—to watch and see how we actually DO respond. Maybe we rush for a comforting spiritual explanation of one kind or another. Maybe being faced with the existence of evil brings up feelings of hopelessness, cynicism, despair—the kinds of feelings that make us turn away from awakening and toward destructive escapes such as addiction in its myriad forms. Maybe we notice our shared human fascination with evil—it sells newspapers, as they used to say, because of this fascination. Maybe we notice that sometimes we are fascinated by it, and that at other times, we turn away, that we don’t want to face it, that it frightens and disturbs us too deeply. Is it possible to simply be aware, without judgment, of how we actually DO respond when faced with evil?
For many years, every time this ad for the humane society would come on the TV, an ad that shows emaciated dogs and cats who have been abused looking into the camera with their sad, frightened, sorrowful eyes, I would immediately look away. It was too painful to watch. One night, I got curious and kept watching, allowing myself to bear witness to this cruelty and to see the suffering without turning away—to simply behold it. I found that beholding the suffering was bearable. I could bear it. The “me” that turned away in fear was the ego-self, but the “I” that could bear it was boundless awareness. There was a Zen teacher, the late Bernie Glassman, who held annual “bearing witness” retreats on the tracks leading into Auschwitz. This wasn’t intended as some kind of masochistic immersion in pain, but as a kind of alchemy, as in the (metaphorical and experiential) movement from crucifixion to resurrection portrayed in Christianity. In a similar vein, I was once moved to watch all nine hours of the movie Shoah, simply beholding what had happened.
Still, sometimes when confronted with evil, I find myself losing faith in the light, and in one way or another, falling into fear or despair and turning in some way toward destructive behavior or thinking. It may be very subtle. But it happens.
So, I’m wondering, is it possible to simply see how we respond, to be aware of our reactive tendencies, whatever they might be (escape, self-righteous outrage, despair, self-destructive or outwardly destructive behaviors and thoughts, etc.), and to behold these without judgment? I am by no means suggesting that we “should” or “must” always force ourselves to watch such things as the humane society ad or the movie Shoah. Sometimes it may be perfectly appropriate not to take in deeply disturbing images and stories. But at the same time, perhaps we might wonder if it’s possible to meet evil not by covering our eyes and looking away, not by getting drunk or falling into cynical hopelessness and despair, not by hating the perpetrators and getting lost in self-righteous anger, not by rushing to find some comforting religious or spiritual explanation, but simply to behold it with open eyes, open mind, and open heart—with the light of awareness, which is unconditional love. To simply bear witness. To hold it in our heart as gently and lovingly as we might hold a distressed child, a dying baby or a beloved pet.
Maybe in the end, we don’t need to explain why evil exists. We can simply notice that it does exist (at least apparently, in this movie of waking life, however real or unreal we think all this is). And we can notice how we react to it each time it happens. We can allow ourselves to actually feel the pain and the sorrow, and we can discover that this is indeed bearable. We can notice the seeds of evil in our own minds. We can have compassion, the genuine kind that arises from deep insight and understanding, for the perpetrators as well as for the victims. We can simply be present for all of this. Beholding it all in awareness, in presence, in love.
Response to a comment:
It clearly seems to be the case that some people are more sensitive to disturbing material and more easily triggered, overwhelmed or flooded—probably for a wide variety of reasons including past trauma, brain chemistry or how the nervous system is wired. We’re all different. I seem to be more sensitive and more easily overwhelmed than some people I know, and less so than others I knows.
I’ve been through various forms of therapy and somatic work, but the main way I’ve worked with these issues (both with myself and with people I've worked with) is by simply being present and open to what is occurring—seeing the thoughts, feeling the sensations, allowing it all to be as it is, and also feeling into the spaciousness, benevolence and healing energy of this aware presence beholding it all. I’ve written about all this more extensively in my books, website articles, and other FB posts.
Sometimes that “works” in the sense that the disturbance ends, and sometimes, as you say, “the overwhelm overwhelms the practices.” When that happens, it is helpful to know and remember that these are powerful forces we’re dealing with, that we can only do our best, and that so-called failure is all part of the dance—and therefore, not to take it personally and believe that “I am a failure,” or “I’m too sensitive or wounded or broken or whatever to make it in life,” or "I'll never get over this," etc.
There are many therapists and spiritual teachers who specialize in, or work extensively with, trauma and with these kinds of issues, and I can’t claim that kind of expertise or extensive experience in working with many, many clients on these specific issues. People who might have much more to say than I do in response to your question would include Lynn Fraser Stillpoint Yoga Nondual Inquiry (https://lynnfraserstillpoint.com), Scott Kiloby (https://kiloby.com), Valerie Mason-John (https://www.valeriemason-john.com); Richard C. Miller (https://www.irest.org), Dorothy Hunt (https://www.dorothyhunt.org) and John Pendergast (http://listeningfromsilence.com) to name a few…and there are many more, but those came to mind. Also, my publisher, New Harbinger Publications (https://www.newharbinger.com) specializes in self-help and psychology books dealing with many of these issues and might be a great resource.
I hope this is helpful.
Response to another comment:
Yes, everything is included in what is—obviously! It’s all here! It can be very comforting to hold that as a conceptual understanding, to have what is often called a nondual perspective, and that understanding can penetrate very deeply beyond the merely conceptual. We can realize, as I say in the article, that good and evil are inseparable polarities, that we cannot begin to fathom how it all works from a larger perspective, that what seems like a disaster may be inextricably linked to what we see as grace or positive transformation.
But what I wanted to highlight and explore in this particular article was more about how we actually meet the things that we find most disturbing, whether it is the rape of a child, the torture of an animal, a genocide, a senseless murder, or whatever it might be. Beyond just a mental recognition that it’s all included, can we actually face it without turning away and hold it in a space of open-hearted presence, with a kind of tenderness that doesn’t ignore but actually deeply feels the pain and sorrow, without getting lost in ANY kind of conceptual overlay, whether it be the story of despair or some nondual explanation of how it’s all okay?
To actually not know, and to simply BE with this unfathomable horror or cruelty, and in being “with” it, to know deeply that it is not outside ourselves. This is why I love the word “behold,” because it contains both “be” and “hold” as one verb, one movement. But most importantly, I’m pointing here to something that is not mental, philosophical or conceptual.
Response to another comment:
Yes, as I mentioned, evil is a word I rarely, if ever, use. I generally prefer "what is," and avoid a heavily charged word like "evil" for a number of reasons—because what we consider to be good and evil can be relative to our point of view, and because the notion of evil seems tainted with a certain quality that ignores the causes and conditions that give rise to such behaviors--it seems to posit some demonic outside force. But I felt as I was writing this piece that it may be the best word to describe certain things that happen, things that are extremely painful to see because they are so obviously hurtful, cruel, and coming out of delusion and ignorance. Mainly, I wanted to invite the possibility of beholding them without any comforting explanations, without turning away, without blaming the perpetrators, but simply with open awareness, in a spirit of tenderness and love.
We may notice that we find such things as the rape of a child, a senseless murder, or the cruelty inflicted upon animals on factory farms far more disturbing than the painful injuries and loss of life caused by a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane. Why is this?
Isn’t it because one is an act of nature, utterly beyond our human ability to control, while the other is the result of human delusion or ignorance, and is thus something that could potentially be different?
In one sense, humans are an expression of nature, not an aberration of nature, and in that sense, everything we do—from paving over the planet to nuclear bombs and genocides—is every bit as natural as beaver dams, locust invasions and predators ripping apart their prey. The infinite causes and conditions that lead someone to rape a child, to commit a senseless murder, or to abuse an animal are not the result of individual free will in the way we often think they are. Our actions in each moment are a choiceless happening of nature, the result of infinite causes and conditions, a movement of the totality.
But in another sense, there is within us the potential, the possibility, the response-ability to wake up, to transform, to change. Many of us have experienced the realization (or making real) of this possibility through addiction recovery work, psychotherapy, somatic work, social justice work such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement, and/or through a spiritual path such as meditation and meditative inquiry. These human activities that transform our lives and our societies are every bit as natural as the white blood cells battling an infection in the body or all the myriad ways that wild nature heals and restores itself. This, too, is a choiceless movement of the totality.
We are not actually in control of whether the interest in such transformation arises, or the ability to carry it out, or the circumstances that make it possible, such as meeting the right therapist or the right spiritual teacher or living at the time in history when all the conditions exist for certain social changes to actually manifest. In that sense, we are powerless. Like a wave, we are a movement of the whole ocean. Our individual, independent, free will, as a wave, is a kind of illusion. We don’t actually create our desires, our impulses, our wants, our interests, our abilities or our actions any more than we create our brains, our nervous systems or our eyes and ears.
And yet, we can’t deny that in the play of life, there is apparent choice, and that our ability to respond (our response-ability) is part of how life functions, part of how the universe moves. Ultimately, we are not a small, limited form—we are this whole vast happening, this unbound presence, this intelligent awareness beholding everything, this undivided ocean of being.
We don’t just sit back and wait for the universe to bring us our daily food. We work to earn money, we go shopping, we cook, we eat, we take out the garbage, we clean the house, and so on. And likewise, we take action to address an addiction, a social injustice, a problem in our relationship, climate change, animal abuse, or whatever it might be. This is how the universe is functioning through human beings. To deny this would be to imagine that we are somehow outside the whole, like a small thing being helplessly pushed around by powerful forces. But that view is a kind of illusion, a presumption of duality, of separateness, and of persisting entities where no such “things” actually exist.
In the end, no conceptual formulation—whether it is free will or choicelessness—can capture the living reality. The living reality is too fluid, too subtle, too vast, too all-inclusive for any concept to contain it. Concepts are simply maps or pedagogical tools, useful as far as they go, but ultimately not the truth. When we cling to them and fixate on any one of them, we are missing the whole truth.
And so, when we see or hear about animals being brutalized, or children being abused, or a journalist being dismembered with a bone saw, we naturally feel something different from what we feel when we see the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters, because we recognize that there is the potential in human beings to behave differently, to wake up from our ignorance and delusion. We know that these kinds of insensitive and cruel actions are (at least in part) the result of delusion and ignorance in some form. The hurricane is obviously not operating out of that kind of delusion—it is simply doing what hurricanes do.
But at the same time, we need to remember that if the human perpetrators of these painful atrocities could be behaving differently in this moment, they would be. For myriad reasons, that possibility is unavailable to them right now. They lack the sensitivity, the insight, the capacity for empathy, the degree of impulse control, or whatever it might be that allows others to not behave in this way and perhaps even to find such behavior utterly unthinkable or unimaginable.
And also, we cannot know how all of this goes together—the totality that includes every possibility, good and evil, enlightenment and delusion—we cannot step outside the totality to see it as an object, so we cannot know that bigger picture.
But we can tune into the awareness, the presence, the vastness that is Here-Now—we can sense that at the deepest level, all is well. We can behold this whole happening with love and tenderness and compassion. We can recognize that none of it is outside of ourselves. We contain it all.
In one sense, the potential for waking up from delusion is always here in this moment. And yet, in another sense, it isn’t always here. Or maybe we could say that although the potential is always here, the ability to see and open to that is not always here. Sometimes the clouds of ignorance and delusion are too thick, too overpowering—and sometimes, other factors are involved as well (brain anomalies, neurochemical or hormone imbalances, genetic defects, and so on). The failure to wake up in any moment is not a personal failing. It happens to all of us at times that we are overwhelmed by delusion, by false promises, by confusion, by the forces of habit and conditioning. And yet, at some point, there is almost always a waking up. I don’t mean anything explosive or grandiose, but simply those everyday moments when we wake up from a train of thought or a fantasy, or when we suddenly let go of our defenses in an argument, or when we notice the breathtaking beauty of the simplest things.
Perhaps the so-called spiritual path is simply about attuning ourselves more and more to this simple awaring presence, this aliveness, this open heart, this unconditional love that we are beyond name and form. One teacher describes it as vigilance: keeping vigil at the flame of truth. Re-turning (again and again, here and now) to the simplicity of just this. Not as some grueling task, but as the lover returning to the beloved.
Response to a comment:
Yes, the poem you share beautifully captures one aspect of what the post is expressing, the choiceless aspect, which is an important realization, but I am also inviting people not to land (or get stuck or fixated) on this perspective and thus miss the whole truth, which also (paradoxically) includes our response-ability (as awareness, as the ocean waving) here-now to act and bring forth transformation. The apparent paradox is only there when we try to understand it mentally, but in actual life, experientially, both aspects are self-evident.
Response to another comment:
It's important to discern the difference between map and territory, which can be very subtle, and certainly it's true that the map is not the territory and that we can't actually live in the map or get nourishment from a menu...but I would say maps are useful and that mapping is something this living reality is doing...human life is so deeply entwined with our capacity for thinking, conceptualizing, story-telling, abstracting and mapping, much of which is very wonderful, that I wouldn't quite say that our lives have nothing at all to do with these maps, but I appreciate what I think you mean.
CHRISTMAS MUSINGS on Incarnation, Awakening and Being Human:
The word awakening usually refers to the liberating recognition that we are not limited to the body or encapsulated inside it. We are the radiant presence being and beholding it all, the no-thing-ness showing up as everything, the awareness in which the body-mind-world-universe appears, the all-inclusive Here-Now that is at once ever-present and ever-changing.
But at the very same time, being human and apparently embodied as a particular, unique expression of the infinite is also part of what we are, and it’s not some dreadful mistake that we need to transcend and leave far, far behind. It’s the ocean waving, the living reality expressing itself as you and me, just exactly as we are.
And how are we? Like an ocean wave, “the body” is not the static, persisting, independent, solid “thing” that any label seems to imply, nor is “the mind” or “the person” or “the brain” or “planet earth” or anything else. What appears to be solid and substantial is actually thorough-going impermanence, and what appears to be separate and independent is in fact an undivided and seamless totality. Nothing is ever actually “out there” or “in here.” No separation really exists between inside and outside, between subject and object, or between awareness and content.
Some forms of spirituality, particularly versions of Advaita, seem to suggest that we should totally deny being an apparent individual. Instead of saying that we are not limited to the body or encapsulated inside it, many teachers assert that we are not the body in any way at all. Period. According to such teachings, we should identify only as pure consciousness, limitless and impersonal, transcendent and beyond it all. This can be a very appealing idea because as “mere mortals,” we are vulnerable to pain, disability and death. Our human lives often seem messy, uncertain and unresolved. And many of us are deeply convinced that we are not okay, that something is fundamentally wrong with us. There is a pervasive feeling of not being good enough.
Many of us spend our lives trying to be somebody else—somebody other than the person we actually are, somebody we think is more talented, more compassionate, more enlightened, more intelligent, more fashionable, more beautiful, more handsome, more confident, more disciplined, more generous, more successful, more skillful, more peaceful, more manly, more feminine, wealthier, healthier, stronger, fitter, taller, shorter, thinner, younger, older—whatever it is. We are endlessly chasing self-improvement or the fantasy of escape.
Waking up is a process (always immediate, always now) of questioning and seeing through all these thoughts, stories, beliefs, and self-images. It is a process of recognizing the fluid, insubstantial, ever-changing nature of the apparent body-mind-world and also recognizing the boundless and impersonal awaring presence being and beholding it all.
But being awake also has something to do with being comfortable and at ease being exactly as we are—not just in the transcendent sense of being pure consciousness or no-thing at all—but also as a unique person in the play of life. THIS person. The one we actually are, not the one we think would be better, or the one we think we “should” or “could be” or “could have been” (if only…), but THIS person, right here, right now, just as we are.
In Zen Buddhism, there’s a lay ordination ceremony where you are given a little bib-like Buddhist robe along with a Buddhist name, a name that your teacher chooses for you. The name is usually in some Asian language, and in the Zen schools I’m familiar with, it has two parts, one being something about who you are, and the other something you are becoming or aspiring to (or at least, that’s my never-ordained, ex-Zen student understanding of it).
Once ordained, you have a shiny new Buddhist name like Myozen, Sojun, Dairyu or Ryuten—something foreign and exotic. The English translation is typically something that sounds idyllic, spiritual and above the fray, such as “Quiet Mountain/Heroic Effort” or “Way of Joy/ Boundless Equanimity” or “Lotus Flower/Empty Mind.” This definitely seems like a step up from being Joe Blow.
But there’s one Buddhist teacher in NYC (Barry Magid) who apparently gives people their own actual, ordinary, everyday names at lay ordination. In other words, instead of being named something exotic-sounding like those examples above, I would be given the Buddhist name Joan Tollifson.
I think this is so wonderful. Your Buddhist name, your sacred name, what you are and what you are aspiring to is exactly who you are—this very person, this vulnerable and transient lump of flesh right here, this utterly unique, ever-changing expression of totality, this human being that is messy, imperfect, unresolved, flawed and yet absolutely perfect, just as it is—THIS is who you are called to be. Exactly this. THIS wave, just as it is, not some other bigger, better wave somewhere else.
I’m not a Christian or a theologian, but I feel maybe this is what Christianity points to with the mystery of the incarnation—that God comes down to earth, takes on human form and human vulnerability and experiences human suffering and limitation—i.e., GOD is not just some transcendent, ethereal, beyond-it-all, heavenly being who lives far away in some sanitized heaven where everyone has left all this messy human stuff behind and dissolved into pure consciousness or pure light, but rather, GOD is right here in the nitty-gritty of ordinary life, hanging on a cross, feeling the excruciating pain of those nails. And, of course, GOD is also the resurrection, the way we can rise from the dead, metaphorically speaking, again and again.
God is both the transcendent (pure consciousness, pure light, unconditional love) and the relative world of apparent forms and earthly dramas. In fact, these apparently different realities are not two! This is the liberating message and realization of non-duality. Kabir expressed it by saying, “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”
THIS is the pure light, THIS is nirvana! Right here, right now. God is both the crucifixion and the resurrection, both enlightenment and delusion. These apparent polarities are two sides of the same coin. They are different, and those differences are discernable, but the two sides are also inseparable, and we can never say exactly where one side ends and the other begins. They are one event, and there is no such thing as a one-sided coin or a one-ended stick.
As human beings, we are all the expression of totality, the waving of the infinite ocean, the dance of emptiness—each one of us, exactly as we are. As a person, we are never exactly the same way twice, or from one moment to the next, for we are ever-changing and inseparable from everything else. And as boundless awareness or radiant presence, we are the whole, the totality, the alpha and omega: Here-Now, ever-changing and ever-present.
It seems to me that our true calling is indeed to fully embody THIS life, exactly the one we actually ARE, just as it is. So, enjoy the incarnation and the precious gift of life. Enjoy the whole show, even the messy, dark, scary, seemingly imperfect parts. Enjoy BEING the whole enchilada, the Holy Reality, right here, right now. And enjoy being YOU in every sense. This is it!
The Utter Simplicity of What Is:
Nonduality points to what is already full present. The naked actuality here-now isn’t something exotic or mysterious or absent that must be sought after and attained or figured out and understood. On the contrary, it is utterly simple, obvious, unavoidable and impossible to doubt.
What I mean by “the naked actuality” is simply present experiencing, just as it is. Right now, there is an undeniable knowingness of being present and of present experiencing. This indivisible suchness is effortlessly presenting itself.
What can be doubted are all the interpretations of this naked actuality, the explanations of it, all the words, labels, concepts and formulations (spiritual, metaphysical, scientific, psychological, sociological, political, etc.)—i.e., the abstract maps that describe the territory itself. These can all be doubted. But the bare actuality itself is impossible to doubt. It requires no belief. It is unavoidably always already the case.
If we attend carefully to present experiencing, we will notice that all apparent forms (tables, chairs, people, thoughts, emotions, images, bodies, maps, words, etc.) are made out of ever-changing experiencing (i.e., out of sensations, thoughts, mental images, etc.). We can also notice that the “me” we think we are, the one who is supposedly thinking my thoughts, making my choices and navigating my life, is nothing more than a kind of phantom or mirage created by a mix of mental images, memories, stories and bodily sensations. This “me” cannot actually be found as anything solid or substantial. It is an intermittent thought-sensation-idea that comes and goes. To some degree, it is functional, and in many ways, it is an unnecessary source of suffering and confusion. We don’t need to eliminate it, but we can recognize its illusory nature.
We can also discover, by watching as choices and decisions unfold, that we cannot control when the decisive moment arrives. We can notice that we do not create our interests, abilities, talents, urges, impulses, thoughts or feelings any more than we create our bodies, brains, eyes or ears. We don’t know what our next thought will be, or which of our often-conflicting desires will be the most compelling in any given moment—whether we will be compelled to drink or not drink, to clean the garage or not clean it, to speak up or stay silent, etc. We can observe that life is happening by itself—including all the things we habitually take credit or blame for. Even our apparently freely chosen and intentional actions (buying a house, getting into therapy, throwing a party, joining a movement for social justice, deciding to sober up, writing a book, proposing marriage, performing surgery, “deciding” to read this Facebook post) are all movements of life itself. Nothing stands apart from this undivided unicity. Like waves on the ocean, apparent individuals are an expression or a movement of the whole ocean, inseparable from the ocean and from one another. It is one whole indivisible happening. There is diversity and variation, but not actual separation or independent existence.
This doesn’t mean there is no person in any sense—undeniably, there is somebody here in this play of life that we call Joan Tollifson. But what exactly that person is can never be pinned down. It doesn’t hold still or stay the same, and we can’t actually find a place where it begins or ends. The more closely we attend to it (or to any apparent form), the more we find it to be insubstantial, indeterminate and unresolvable. Paradoxically, when we realize that this person is nothing solid, and that it is not all we are, we are then freer to play this role, to dance this unique dance, to the fullest. We don’t need to stop being a wave in order to recognize ourselves as the ocean. But the waving comes much more easily and freely when we’re not concerned with our self-image (trying to be a superior wave) or trying to get somewhere (seeking the ocean and desperately trying to experience it or understand it). When that falls away, we’re simply playing.
When it is clearly seen that all we can know for sure is present experiencing, and that this experiencing is an undivided, seamless, ever-present, ever-changing flow that never leaves here-now, and that there is no “me” standing apart from this flow or being swept along in it—that we ARE this flow—in that recognition, there is peace and freedom. Not the peace that always feels pleasant, and not the freedom to do whatever we want, but rather, the peace that is at peace even with conflict and upset, and the freedom for everything to be as it is.
This recognition is not some great attainment. It rarely arrives with fireworks and drum rolls, and if it does arrive that way, those are just superficial and passing side effects. In fact, this recognition is our actual everyday ordinary experience at every moment. It simply goes unnoticed, seemingly overshadowed by the focus of attention on the conceptual story, on our beliefs and ideas, on the abstractions of the map-world that we have mistaken for reality itself, and on the spiritual search that inevitably begins with the assumption that “this isn’t it.”
Although paradoxically, all those things, too, are simply what is. They are simply present experiencing showing up as thoughts, stories, ideas, mental movies, maps, images of “me,” seeking, and so on. But when we mistake the conceptual map for the inconceivable actuality, when we are bamboozled by the content of our thoughts and concepts, mistaking them for reality itself, then we suffer. But thinking, conceptualizing, mapping and suffering are all impersonal activities of the whole—they are not wrong, and we can’t eliminate them. The light and the dark are inseparable aspects of one event. But we can learn to discern the difference between the map and the territory, or between the description and the actuality. We can SEE, whenever it shows up, that our desperate seeking and confusion is rooted in fallacies and delusions.
When we identify as the separate person and think we are living in a solid, material world outside of us, we inevitably suffer. We can get very confused trying to grasp the undeniable living actuality with concepts and formulations. We compare this teaching to that teaching, trying to reconcile the different formulations and maps, trying to figure out what this life is and which teaching is right, trying to understand. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to grasp reality in this way, or chasing after spiritual experiences and states of mind that we have mistaken for awakening or enlightenment—expanded experiences of oneness, moments of love, bliss, clarity, openness and so on. But all such experiences come and go. Unconditional love is the openness that doesn’t come and go, the openness that is always already being and beholding everything that appears. It is not personal. It doesn’t always feel open. No word or concept (whether it is “awareness” or “unconditional love” or “naked experiencing” or “presence”) can capture the living reality. Every belief is shadowed by doubt. Whenever we think something is missing, and that we have to find this, or experience it, or figure it out, we are lost in the movie-story of me, the phantom self, on a journey in time toward an imaginary future goal.
But if we SEE that story for the delusional story that it is, and if for just a moment, right now, we let go of all our ideas and beliefs—all our word-labels such as consciousness, awareness, reality, mind, matter, self, world, presence, emptiness, etc.—what remains?
Isn’t it simply the undeniable knowingness of being here, being present and aware, BEING this undeniable present experiencing (hearing, seeing, sensing, breathing, thinking, awaring, etc.)? Again, the words I’m using are not the actuality—they are descriptive pointers to the actuality—but like all words, they create the illusion of separate things. The word “breathing” is not the actuality of breathing. The word “hearing” is not the actuality of hearing. So don’t get stuck on the words. Notice instead what is simple and obvious and never not here, fully present and absolutely undeniable and impossible to doubt. The sounds of traffic, the sensations of breathing, the taste of tea, the colors and shapes, the smell of garbage or flowers, the sounds of a washing machine, the barking of a dog—just this!
And then recognize that there is ONLY this. Present experiencing, just as it is. Nothing is really an obstruction or a problem, and no one is really lost or in need of awakening. That someone who is seeking something is an imaginary mirage, and time is a mental creation. Reality is always now. Nothing comes before now or after now. Now has no beginning or end. Seeing is nondual. “Seer” and “seen” are concepts, but seeing is not actually divided up. Hearing is nondual. “Listener” and “sound” are concepts, but hearing (or listening) itself is undivided. There is simply this ever-present, ever-changing happening, just as it is—hearing, seeing, sensing, breathing, heart-beating, waving, thinking, awaring, sleeping, waking—never the same way twice, and yet, always right here, right now, utterly immediate, impossible to doubt.
You cannot not be what you always already are. There is literally no way to fail.
The Pathless-Path through the Gateless-Gate Here-Now:
Right now, let go of all the words you’ve learned to describe what’s going on here: consciousness, awareness, mind, matter, energy, etc. Just let all these words go. Be here wordlessly.
Also drop all the ideas, explanations, formulations, conceptualizations, conclusions and beliefs that have been acquired: everything is consciousness, it’s all one, there is only God, there is no God, everything is a brain creation, mind is here before matter, matter is here before mind, consciousness is all there is, it’s all a dream, everything is made of subatomic particles, there is no self, I’m a woman, I’m a success, I’m a failure, I’m black, I’m white, I’m smart, I’m stupid, a person is only a mirage, my problems are real, all problems are unreal, evolution and history are real, the past really happened, nothing ever happened, it’s all an illusion, there is only now, everything is changing, awareness is unchanging, there is free will, there is no free will, etc.
For right now, let ALL these ideas, explanations, formulations descriptions, conceptualizations, conclusions and beliefs drop away.
There is no true or definitive explanation or description of what this is. We can call what remains consciousness, experiencing, presence, beingness, or what is. We can say it’s a dream, or it’s an illusion, or it’s reality, or it’s sensations, or it’s a subatomic-intergalactic movement of energy with atoms and molecules and planets and suns and black holes and brains and intestines and evolutionary development, or we can say it’s the Divine Lila. But if we drop ALL these words, concepts, labels, explanations and descriptions, what remains?
If you’re still trying to “get” what remains as some kind of definitive conceptual formulation or label—the “correct answer” as it were, notice this familiar old habitual movement of the thinking mind, this mental movement to “get a grip” or “locate yourself” and “get the answer.” This functioning may be useful and essential when you are figuring out which bus to take, or which answer to give on a school exam, or in many other practical life situations. But as a response to the direct recognition of nonconceptual actuality that is being invited here, it’s not functional at all. So if you can, let that grasping movement relax. Be here without knowing what this is or how it all works.
Also notice if you are trying to have “the right experience of this,” or any kind of special or particular experience. Notice if you are looking for some result or outcome—some big breakthrough or awakening maybe, some decisive clarity, some final resolution to the great question mark of life, the great mystery: What is this? Instead, simply be here, without any purpose or intention, without expectation, without words, without knowing what all this is, without needing to know, and without needing your experience to be other than exactly how it is.
Hear the sounds (traffic, wind, birdsong, barking dog, children playing) but without labeling them. Feel the bodily sensations (breathing, heart beating, tinglings and vibrations, pain, warmth, coolness) but without labeling them. See all the colors and shapes and movements in the same way you might enjoy an abstract painting. Simply be here, much as a baby might be here, present and aware, without words, ideas, thoughts or explanations.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we should try to be in some thought-free state 24/7, or that we should strive to permanently banish all words, thoughts and ideas. Words, ideas, explanations, formulations, conceptualizations and beliefs all have their place, and they need not be a problem when they are seen for what they are. They, too, are part of this whole undivided happening, but they can create immense suffering and confusion if we mistake the labels and the storylines and the conceptual formulations for reality itself. Yes, these storylines, labels and concepts are aspects of reality—it’s ALL included—but to really SEE that, we need to break the hypnotic spell of belief in their content by occasionally putting them all aside and discovering or noticing or waking up to what remains in their absence.
You may notice how spacious and freeing this is, this wordless, nonconceptual, aliveness that remains, how relaxing and enjoyable it is to simply be, to not know what anything is, to not need anything to be other than how it is. Or maybe you notice fear, restlessness, boredom or resistance. Whatever shows up, notice that these are all just passing experiences, whether they feel expanded or contracted, pleasant or unpleasant, calm or agitated. Notice that awareness is allowing it all to be just as it is.
If there is what we call fear, restlessness, boredom or resistance, you might explore what these experiences are made of—notice the thoughts driving and sustaining these experiences, notice the “me” at the center of them, feel the bare sensations themselves, go deeply into the sensations with open attention and see if there is anything solid, substantial or persisting in them. In the thought-story, these mind-states seem very real and solid, as does the “me” who seemingly has them. But look and see how substantial and persisting any of this actually is.
The pathless path of waking up now, which I would describe as immediate and not progressive, is simply to recognize this simple wordless presence, this open unknowing, this simple beingness that is always here-now, and also to see (in any moment it happens) how confusion arises, how suffering happens and what these experiences are made up of—the thoughts, the sensations, the storyline. See the identification as the personal self when it arises, the way we seemingly shrink down into being this little encapsulated me. In functional situations, that momentary identification as a person is not a problem—you answer to your name and so on. But notice when it’s not actually functional, when there is the thought-sense of being this little me who is supposedly thinking my thoughts and making my choices, the one who seems to be inadequate, deficient, confused, lost, uncertain, insecure, in need of guidance, not quite fully “there” yet, and so on.
See how that misidentification as a separate person brings with it the feeling of being small and deficient, separate and insecure. See how the mind then begins seeking and grasping, and how unsatisfying that is. Notice the tendency to defend the self-image, even to defend the reality and substantiality of our suffering. See if this apparent self can actually be found, if it has any actual substance, or if it is simply a bunch of ever-changing thoughts, sensations, feelings, memories and mental images. Notice the awaring presence being and beholding it all, the impersonal presence that is unencapsulated, boundless, limitless, unobstructed and free.
Notice that this awareness, this presence is actually always present, even in the midst of thinking and imagining and identifying as a person and feeling lost and confused. We never actually leave Here-Now, this infinite, eternal, timeless immediacy that is all there is. Stop and check any time it seems otherwise, and notice that this is so. Notice that you are this presence, this awareness, this whole happening. There is no actual boundary between inside and outside, between subject and object, between body and environment. Look closely and see that this is so.
As stories of past and future arise, recognize that this is happening Now, that the past has actually vanished completely, that the future is only a fantasy, that you are always Here in this immediacy, this present-ness. Notice that Here-Now has no boundaries or limits, no before and after, no beginning or end.
Isn’t it to this infinite and eternal awaring presence, this undivided unicity, this Here-Now that the word “I” most deeply refers? Is it possible that everyone shares (and IS) this same “I,” each with a unique point of view, a unique movie of waking life, but all happening in and as the same limitless awaring presence, the same vast intelligence, the same undivided energy?
Notice that everything is happening by itself, choicelessly, even apparent decisions and choices. We are always doing exactly what life moves us to do in every moment. And then, before or after the fact, thought, identifying as “me,” takes credit (or blame), or worries anxiously about possibly getting it wrong.
Notice how easily words reify and divide, seemingly turning even “awareness” or “presence” or “consciousness” or “unicity” into an object or a particular experience. Words such as these are pointing to something that can never be objectified. Every experience is impermanent—if it came, it will go. But unicity or awareness or presence is not a passing experience, although it includes and is EVERY experience. But it is not limited to any particular experience, and it is not an object we can stand outside of and see or grasp. It is the utter simplicity of right here, right now, just as it is—this whole happening—everything, without exception, included.
The words I’m using are only tentative pointers. What liberates is opening to the non-conceptual actuality itself. No words can ever capture that. So once again, let go of all the words used to describe what’s going on here: consciousness, awareness, mind, matter, energy, unicity, etc. Drop all the ideas, explanations, formulations, conceptualizations, conclusions and beliefs that have been acquired. And simply be what it is impossible not to be.
And then, the dance of form—the movie of waking life—will continue, and it will include thinking, conceptualizing, remembering, imagining, story-telling, and intermittently playing the part of a particular person, someone with preferences, opinions, interests, tastes, inclinations, tendencies, and so on—but all that can be seen for the inexplicable, inconceivable, ungraspable, unresolvable play that it is. It can be held more lightly, more playfully. Even occasionally getting lost in the story and caught up in the swirl of emotion-thought is no longer a problem. It’s not personal. It’s not some Cosmic Mistake. Consciousness or intelligence-energy or whatever we call this whole happening apparently enjoys experiencing many different things. It enjoys stories. It enjoys the game of hide and seek. It enjoys getting totally absorbed in a movie, and it enjoys waking up again. Have you noticed? This seems to be in our very nature as consciousness. Nothing is actually an obstacle or a problem for the totality. The clouds never damage the sky, the reflections never damage the mirror, the fire in the movie never burns the screen—and in the same way, all the varieties and extremes of experience never damage unicity itself.
We taste this truth every night, when all our dramas and concerns and experiences disappear completely in deep sleep. All the words and explanations, all the questions and problems are gone. The one who seems to be at the center of the story, the one who cares about figuring all this out and getting somewhere and being somebody and doing it right—that one disappears as well. Nothing perceivable, experienceable, or conceivable remains. What a relief! And we’re not terrified of this nightly disappearance—we look forward to it!
And then, out of this darkness, waking life appears—this utterly inexplicable, amazingly marvelous play. Enjoy the dance! Enjoy the show! See how ephemeral and transitory and protean and infinitely rich and unexplainable it all is. See how it is all made of this awaring presence. Enjoy BEING what you cannot not be. Just THIS, exactly as it is.
Embracing the Material World:
In a book edited by Stephanie Kaza titled Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume, one of my favorite chapters was by Zen priest Norman Fischer. It was titled “Wash Your Bowls,” and in it, among other surprises, he described his great love of shopping malls, especially at Christmastime—hardly what one would expect in a Buddhist book on greed and the urge to consume! But Norman was making the point that Zen has always put great emphasis on the material, practical aspects of our lives, and that, “To see the material world as it really is is to recognize its nondifference from the highest spiritual reality.”
In this article, Norman describes how he came to San Francisco Zen Center as a young man back in the Sixties with “huge metaphysical concerns…I was full of questions about what was real, what was right, what was enlightenment, what was consciousness.”
It seemed initially that his questions weren’t being answered at all at the Zen Center. In fact, as he says, these metaphysical questions “seemed to have very little to do with the Zen enterprise as it was presented to me. Instead of study and discussion (the only modes of truth discovery I knew at the time), I was taught how to mop the floor, wash the dishes, and tend the garden." At first, this was rather disappointing. But he goes on to say, "Actually…it was exactly what I needed. And out of the grounding that this training gave me, my metaphysical concerns began to be slowly and soulfully settled. As it turned out, the answers I was looking for were not propositional. Nor were they to be found in spiritual experiences, enlightenment flashes, or meditative states.”
As he explains, through tending to ordinary life (mopping the floor, cleaning the toilets) and meditating (sitting quietly simply being present and aware) on a regular basis, “I began to live my answers instead of talk them, to breathe and feel them bodily instead of intellectually.”
And as he puts it, “Far from offering a path to transcend the material world…the process of Zen practice deepens and opens the material world, revealing its inner richness…the material world is not superficial or mundane. What is superficial and mundane is our habitual view of the material world.”
I'm not recommending formal Zen practice, unless you happen to be drawn to it. But I find something very rich and true in what Norman is saying. Being awake isn't about some metaphysical understanding. It's the aliveness of right here, right now.
Elsewhere, in his commentaries on Dogen’s Genjokoan, Norman says something very beautiful. I think I have shared it here on my FB page before, but I'll do so again now. Norman says:
When you are lifting up the bowl, you are lifting up the whole universe. When you experience the bowl with whole body and mind, everything is there.
When we say, ‘I'm confused and upset, because I don't know how to change the suffering world,’ then we are forgetting this truth. We can change the suffering world by drinking a bowl of tea. This is the teaching of Zen. Just by taking a mindful breath, just by being aware in a moment, we illuminate one thing, and the entire world comes with it. This is not to say that we should spend all our time drinking tea and not run around and change the world. We can run around saving the world, but never forgetting this teaching.
All the enlightenment and all the transformation we need is to fully meet one thing that comes. And in every moment one thing comes.
To me this is so beautiful. This is why I so much love Dogen's practice, because it's really saying practice is not about overcoming human problems. It's not about becoming serene and transcendent. It's about embracing our lives as they really are, and understanding at every point how deep and profound and gorgeous everything is - even the suffering, even the difficulty. So we forgive ourselves for our limitations, and we forgive this world for its pain. We don't say, ‘That's not pain.’ It is pain. You don't say, ‘It's not difficulty.’ It is difficult. But when we embrace the difficulty and break through Genjokoan, we see this is exactly the difficulty we need, and this difficulty is the most beautiful and poignant thing in this world.
Response to a comment:
Yes, I feel the same way. I have found something liberating in both Zen and Advaita, but I tend to resonate more deeply with the more grounded approach of Zen...not all the traditional baggage, but the embodied, down-to-earth quality that Norman writes about here. There is a transcendence in this as well, but it's a kind of transcendence that I resonate with completely. This transcendence is a realization of the bigger context, the undivided wholeness...and a recognition that nothing has the solidity or continuity that we think it does. It is a waking up from our conceptual delusions and a recognition (and felt-sense) that we are not a small fragment in an alien universe, encapsulated and isolated...but as Norman so beautifully expresses, that doesn't mean denying this body or the pain and sorrow that comes with human life, and it doesn't mean insisting that we are not the body and that we are nothing but pure awareness. The body is not all we are, and we're not limited to it. But we don't deny it either. So it's a transcendence that includes our humanness and that embraces the so-called material world rather than trying to escape from it. And as you say, I feel this grounded and embodied approach has much less danger of misleading people into dissociation and denial and all that. Anyway, I'm glad you liked it!
Words and Stories: Are they a problem?
My first book, which was in the form of a spiritual memoir or personal narrative, was subtitled Waking Up from the Story of My Life. It was a story about waking up from stories. As a writer writing about nonduality, this is the paradoxical dance that has been engaging me for many years, writing about what is inconceivable and indescribable, pointing with words to the wordless.
No thought, no concept, no word, nothing we say or formulate can ever capture reality itself. And yet, reality is all there is. It is obvious and unavoidable. This is it, right here, right now. It even includes words, thoughts and stories. But it is only in the imaginary world of word-labels and thought-created stories that it can seem that we are apart from reality, searching for it.
Some might say that what appears in awareness is not reality, that anything that appears in waking or dreaming life is unreal, that thoughts and stories are unreal, that only awareness is real. But as I see it, what is unreal is only the belief that we are a separate, independent, encapsulated entity living in a solid, separate, material world that exists outside of ourselves. That is not our actual direct experience—it is a conceptual overlay, reinforced by bodily sensations, feelings and emotions and how those are (again, conceptually) interpreted. This is something akin to imagining that the events in a dream have an objective existence outside the dreaming, and that we actually are the character we appear to be in the dream.
A dream is a real experience, a real dream, an undeniable manifestation of reality, even though the world, the characters and the situations it depicts do not have any actual independent existence or substance outside the dream. The mountains in the dream are not really solid, or “out there” many miles away, or millions of years old. In the same way, the ever-changing flow of appearances in waking life are real as experiences—they simply have no independent, solid, persisting existence in the way we think they do. We can discover this through meditation, by which I simply mean giving careful attention to actuality, or through science. But experiencing itself is an undeniable fact—it is the interpretations of that experience that are unreal if we mistake them for what they describe.
Even if we say or believe that everything that appears is consciousness or awareness or a dream, that, too, is only a map, a formulation, even if we feel it is the closest approximation in words to the nature of actuality. But as a newborn baby, we have no ideas about “consciousness” or “awareness” or “the world” or “me” or “physical matter” or “dreams” or any of that. And yet, for the baby, there is undeniable, effortless experiencing. And this undivided, naked experiencing is still fully present for the adult, but it often goes seemingly unnoticed because the focus of attention is so heavily invested in the abstractions of thought—the conceptual map-world.
Experiencing is ever-changing, and yet it is always here-now. That present-ness or immediacy or thusness is the common factor in every different experience. Some speak of this ever-present aspect as the unchanging background, the screen on which the movie appears, but as far as I can see, the awaring presence beholding it all is inseparable from what appears. Only the words divide it up, and only apparently. It may be a useful distinction to make at a certain moment on the pathless path of awakening, to help us notice awareness or unbound presence, but ultimately, such distinctions vanish into the seamless actuality.
Seeing how words can hypnotize and confuse us is an essential aspect of awakening. But in pointing that out, I am in no way intending to disparage words, concepts or thinking. These, too, are a vital part of what this totality is doing, and as a writer, I obviously love words! I love poetry. I love stories. I love novels and movies and plays and myths. I love reading. I love watching movies. I love going to plays. All of this is an exquisite part of being alive. And I would never want to dismiss a poem or a novel or a movie as “unreal” in every sense. In a way, it is every bit as real as the movie of waking life! Yes, words and stories can put us into a trance of suffering, but they can also awaken and enlighten us.
The way thoughts and words and stories can deceive us is often the subject of my writing—recognizing how we get hypnotized by thoughts, how we mistake conceptual maps for actuality, how we try to nourish ourselves with menus, and how easily we spend our lives fleeing from conceptual phantoms and chasing imaginary mirages. The awakening journey definitely has something to do with waking up from this hypnosis. And yet, words are being used to point this out!
Mary Oliver, the poet whose recent death I mentioned in my previous post, was a master at using words to reveal the transcendent in the ordinary, to illuminate the wordless, and to evoke the subtlest realities. Her poetry is deeply spiritual, and comes from profound attention to reality and a deep sensibility. Zen teacher John Tarrant, author of the wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, is a master at using stories, myths, koans and imagination to unlock doors in the mind, break us out of imaginary conceptual prisons, and transform the heart. And these are only two examples of how words and stories can awaken us. I hope my own writing does the same!
So we’re not aiming at some perpetually thought-free, wordless state of being. Nor are we, as far as I’m concerned, aiming at transcending the so-called material world or our humanity. Yes, we are waking up from the thought-sense that we are limited to and encapsulated inside a separate body. We are discovering that “the body” is a concept, and that the living actuality to which it points is an ever-changing, permeable process inseparable from the rest of the universe and from the awareness in which it appears. We are discovering that we are that awareness, that limitless presence, and that there is no actual boundary between what we call inside and what we call outside, or between what we call me and what we call not-me, that it is one whole seamless happening, infinitely varied and diverse, but without separation. We are discovering that the so-called material world is not a bunch of dead, inert, unchanging stuff, but that it is alive, an unfathomable movement of energy and intelligence, and that everything that appears is an expression of this boundless presence that we are. We are discovering that love is our true nature, the unconditional love that includes and illuminates everything. In simple wakefulness, there is only love, uncaused joy, and true peace. We all know this in our hearts.
The mind may want to argue. That’s what it does! But rather than trying to figure out the nature of reality intellectually, or pin it down in some conceptual formulation that we can grasp and hang onto for dear life, perhaps a better approach is to dissolve in presence, to meet every moment with devotion and love and wonder, to enjoy the awesome and inconceivable mystery of each breath, each sound, each sight, each sensation—to find the transcendent right here in the ordinary, which is actually, when we look closely, not ordinary at all!
As I write this, the rain is speaking so exquisitely in the language of rain, falling harder and harder, making all the delightful sounds that rain makes, plunking and plopping and gurgling and whooshing and gushing and trickling, all those wet liquid sounds, nourishing the earth and the plants. Across the way, in the field, two deer are licking the rain off each other’s bodies. And amazingly, with this miracle of language, I can share all this with you.
Some time back, I was interviewed one night for about three hours by two lovely Korean men for a Korean nondual journal called Here-Now. The interviewer and chief editor of the magazine, who spoke almost no English, was in Korea asking the questions, and the other man, the associate editor, who happened to be in Vietnam at the time, was translating. It was a three-way Skype, and it went slowly, pausing for translations. I had the feeling that quite a bit was getting lost in translation, not through any fault of the translator, but simply because we were talking about such subtle matters. The other day, a copy arrived in the mail. It is entirely in Korean characters, so of course I cannot understand a word of it, but there was something strangely evocative and illuminating about seeing that long conversation transformed into several pages of these mysterious (to me) hieroglyphics. Maybe it makes more sense that way than if you can understand the meaning. Who knows.
And now the rain is letting up, the earth is washed clean, the sun is trying to poke through the clouds, and I will post this outpouring of rain-drenched words, afternoon musings and mysterious hieroglyphics on Facebook.
Response to a comment:
Yes, that was part of what I was saying, and it is the part I generally emphasize in my writings, but I was actually trying to point beyond this to also seeing the beauty and power and magic of words in a positive light. So, in a sense, we can drink and breathe them. From the Sufi poet Hafiz:
"A poet is someone
Who can pour light into a cup,
Then raise it to nourish
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth."
And consider this from the historian Yuval Noah Harari:
"Humans have the amazing ability to cooperate in very large numbers because we are able to create, spread and believe in fictional stories. Money is one example of this."
Letting Go of Control, Free-Falling into the Unknown, Abandoning Yourself to God –
Spirituality, nonduality, Advaita, Zen, awakening, liberation—whatever we call this—it isn’t about having some mental understanding or intellectual clarity, figuring it all out and getting a grip. It’s actually about becoming aware of that grasping impulse that wants to “get it” and be safe and in control, and relaxing it, letting go, falling into the unknown, abandoning yourself to God (and if God is a word you can’t relate to, substitute whatever resonates for you to describe the totality, the intelligence of the whole, boundless presence, the vastness that we all are).
Rather than trying to think your way to a better place, give yourself over to the felt-sense of presence—the aliveness, the spaciousness, the vibrancy, the boundlessness of this moment when thinking drops away and you are fully present with what is. Simply being here as this awake presence, open to whatever is showing up, allowing it all to flow through, not grasping or resisting anything. Seeing, hearing, breathing, sensing—awake to this whole happening, and awake to (and as) the awaring presence beholding it all. Just this. So simple, so effortless. This is the default state under all the self-centered trying and seeking and efforting and resisting.
Give yourself over to this effortlessness, this wordless presence, without trying to get something out of it, or have any special experience, or understand it, or make sense of it—instead, relax into simply being the sensations, the awareness, the presence. Let it take you. Give up control.
This is true devotion: being the space that has room for everything to be just as it is. This is our True Nature, the Holy Reality, our True Intelligence (beyond the mind). It is always right here just waiting to be recognized. It is never actually absent, although it is often overlooked because our attention is so focused on thoughts and the movies they project and the story of “me.” But all of that can melt away, not forever after, but right now.
Don’t worry about trying to “do” this letting go, or trying to do it “all the time,” or evaluating how well “you” are doing it. That’s all just thoughts and stories about the imaginary doer who thinks it has to control everything and get somewhere. See those thoughts for the fiction they are. Turn the attention to presence itself, to simply being here—seeing, hearing, breathing, sensing, awaring—let the thinking mind go, dare to not know what this is or what is happening.
Surrender to this open presence, dissolve into this not knowing, be this open listening, whenever it invites you. Let it have you. And eventually, a kind of trust develops, a knowingness that this is where the only real security and liberation is to be found—not by finally figuring out the right answers and formulations, not by having some fantastic breakthrough experience, not by understanding how the universe works, but simply by letting go of all that effort and relaxing into what is doing you and me and this whole marvelous universe. Call it God, call it Consciousness, call it Unconditional Love, call it Presence-Awareness, call it whatever you want. The labels don’t matter. The felt-sense, the direct knowing-being here-now is what liberates.
Awakening: Immediate, Always Fresh, Never-Ending
As I see it, awakening means waking up (in this moment) to the unbound presence, the spaciousness, the aliveness, the vastness of here-now and the suchness of present experiencing, just as it is. When we are tuned into this vast alive presence, we are simply being awareness, being present, being this whole happening. The thought-sense of being a separate, encapsulated self is absent. We are knowingly the undivided whole, not imagining ourselves to be a separate part in a fragmented world.
Of course, the sense of being a particular person still shows up as needed, but awakening is the melting away of the sense of being enclosed inside a separate, independent body, looking out at a dangerous outside world that we are constantly trying to manage and control so that we can survive as this apparently separate form. Awakening sees the dream-like (ephemeral, indeterminate) nature of both “me” and “the world,” that none of what appears to be solid and enduring has the substantial, persisting, observer-independent, objective existence that we think it does. Awakening (as I see it) is also a dropping away of beliefs, false certainties, magical thinking, all our security blankets and forms of idolatry and idealization. It is a letting go into groundlessness and not knowing.
Awakening removes the psychological fear of death, for it is clear there is no one apart from the whole to die. It removes the sense of personal authorship and free will that leads to anxiety, guilt and blame. It removes the fear of meaninglessness and the search for meaning. It leaves the simplicity of what is, just as it is.
Being awake, fully present and aware, feels alive, vibrant, spacious, joyful and full of love. When I say all that, however, I don’t mean to imply a perpetual good mood or state of bliss. I mean that even when there is physical or emotional pain or difficulty, there is a deep and pervading sense that all is well.
And that doesn’t mean repressing or denying feelings such as grief or anger—it means being fully present to them, experiencing them as sensation or energy, and seeing (and questioning) the thoughts, stories and beliefs that ignite these feelings and keep them going. And not “doing” all of that so that these unpleasant or unsettling feelings will go away, but instead, allowing these feelings to be just as they are, allowing them to unfold and dissolve in their own time—not resisting them in any way, not acting them out, not repressing them, not thinking about them, not analyzing them, but simply being open to them. Being the space that has room for everything to be just as it is, with no separation between space and content. So there is no more “me” and “my anger.” There is simply this bare experiencing that we call anger minus the label (“anger”) or any ideas about it (e.g., “unspiritual, not okay”). We are simply being this whole happening, without needing to know what it is or why it is.
For the awakened, there is no longer any need to be in any particular state, or to appear “spiritual” by hiding our defects and upsets. As Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi once said, “Enlightenment doesn’t mean dying a good death [i.e., calm and peaceful, with serene composure], but rather, not needing to die a good death.” The truly awakened are free to cry out in pain or look like a fool. The concern with self-image is absent.
As I see it, and as I stress over and over, awakening happens NOW, not once-upon-a-time, or forever-after, or once long ago, or maybe-hopefully-someday. It is always and only NOW. And it is an impersonal recognition. In other words, it doesn’t happen to “me,” but rather, it is a waking up from the thought-sense of being confined to this limited, separate, constructed self. It is an ever-unfolding journey into growing sensitivity, openness, subtlety and availability to life, a deepening openness to the vastness and the wonder of simple being. It doesn’t transcend the world by leaving it behind, but rather, it finds the transcendent right here in the sounds of traffic and the taste of tea.
And yes, in a way, once this open, unbound presence is deeply and clearly recognized, we could say (as many do) that this is a permanent shift in perspective or identity. I’m not fond of this way of formulating it because I feel it creates too much confusion and invites too much delusion. But it’s true that once the psychological self has been seen through, the mirage can rarely ever again be completely believable. It’s clear that the bigger context (boundless awareness, unicity, presence) never actually disappears. We know where freedom resides, right here, and our ability to let go and surrender into this open spaciousness grows.
But that doesn’t mean our personality disappears or that we can never again become momentarily swept up in the movie of waking life or identified as this bodymind person. Thus, so-called “awakened people,” which is actually an oxymoron, can still experience moments (whether long or short) of defensiveness, irritation, anxiety, wanting to be liked, feeling hurt, being troubled and upset by the world situation, being over-powered by addictive cravings, and so on. No one I’ve known leaves their human beingness behind them, and no one I’ve known is a perfect saint without the slightest blemish or trace of delusion. We all have moments of delusion, moments of not being awake, of being hypnotized by our thoughts, lost in what Joko Beck called “the self-centered dream.” We all make mistakes. We all have blind spots. We all have a shadow.
But to the awakened, there is no one to be either awake or not awake, and what awakening recognizes is ever-present, whether recognized or not, so the story of “me getting it and then losing it” no longer arises. We are no longer chasing some bigger, better, more final awakening. But again, that doesn’t mean “me” is perfectly free of delusion all the time. That is a dangerous myth, and it leads to more and more delusion, including the delusion of idolizing and idealizing teachers in false and misleading ways and the delusion of denial and spiritual by-passing. Honesty, not pretense, is the mark of awakeness. And there is no end to this unmasking—anyone who thinks they’ve completely seen through and eliminated their shadow side or all their blind spots and delusions is not seeing clearly.
In many ways, I feel it would be best if we dropped all these loaded terms such as awakening, enlightenment, liberation and so on. They create so much misunderstanding. But they also seem to serve a purpose, and so, for now, I still find myself using them. But I try my best to point beyond the false idea of “awakened people” who are totally free of delusion, or the idea of a finish-line after which one has arrived at some final, permanent destination. Instead, I try to emphasize that it’s all about right here, right now. THIS moment. Not the past, not the future, not forever-after, but NOW.
And what is being recognized in awakening is not something absent or exotic. There are many moments in any ordinary day for all of us when the false self (which is nothing more than thoughts, mental images, memories, and bodily sensations) is absent. We are simply driving the car, washing the dishes, cooking a meal, changing a diaper, brushing our teeth, feeding the dog—no thoughts about me, no feeling of separation. And then suddenly a thought pops up, maybe a thought such as, “I’ve ruined my whole life. I’m a complete failure.” Or, “You’ve ruined my life. I could have been somebody great if I hadn’t married you.” Immediately, the body contracts and tightens. These thoughts and contracted sensations instantly materialize, in the imagination, this phantom “me” and “my situation” that seems to be problematic. It’s all a mirage!
So, if you think you’re not awake and wish that you were, notice that this is a thought, and that this thought seemingly materializes “you” and your apparent problem (not awake yet) out of thin air. It’s just an old, conditioned, habitual thought, not a reliable or objective report on reality. See it for what it is. Let it go. Listen to the traffic sounds or the birds cheeping, feel the breathing, feel the sensations in the body, see the beauty of the light touching the coffee cup on the counter as if you’d never seen it before (because in reality, you haven’t), feel the spacious awaring presence being and beholding and permeating it all. Who is not awake? Can you actually find this phantom?
Waking up is now or never. And it’s as simple as noticing the undeniable awakeness that is already right here, right now—and seeing through what actually isn’t here, except in your imagination.
This waking up here-now is immediate, always fresh, never-ending. Just beware of believing the next thought that might pop up: “I’m awake now! I’m an awakened one! I’ve got it!” Immediately, delusion has reappeared. But there’s no need to take that personally and fall into the story of “I lost it.” That’s all just more thought, more mirages. Simply see the thoughts for what they are and let them go. Come back to the simple actuality of this moment, just as it is. In reality, you’ve never really left. You can’t leave. This is it. Just as it is. And it’s never the same way twice.
Does Awakening Solve All Our Psychological Problems?
I think it’s incredibly simplistic and naïve to think that awakening, by any definition, will resolve all psychological problems, or to believe that all such problems stem exclusively from identifying as a separate self and will therefore automatically vanish completely once that is seen through. We now know that trauma, childhood and life conditioning, social conditions such as racism and sexism, genetics, neurochemistry, hormones, sleep apnea, brain conditions, and all kinds of factors can play a role. Every bodymind is unique—no two are identical—and each has different weather patterns and conditions. Some have more stormy or cloudy weather than others. Some people are by nature more prone to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, obsessive-compulsive patterns of thought and behavior, restlessness, busy minds, and so on. Some people have better impulse-control than others. Some people have brain anomalies that apparently make them incapable of empathy.
Awakening will not solve every one of these problems. It may help with some; with others, it may not help at all. As an example, depression that stems from thoughts about “me” being a failure, or life being miserable, will indeed disappear or lose their believability and stickiness, as will anxiety triggered by thinking that “I” must somehow make the “right” choices in life. But depression or anxiety caused by a brain condition, a chemical imbalance, sleep apnea, or something of that nature will probably not vanish upon awakening. Problems, whether physical or mental, that are caused by social conditions, environmental toxins, brain anomalies, chemical imbalances, viruses, cancer cells, and so on, awakening will not remove.
What awakening does do is solve (or dissolve) the meta-problem on top of all the other problems, which is the tendency to see all of these conditions only as problems, to take them personally, and to feel that a cure must be found. Awakening changes how we relate to these apparent problems, how we see them, and what we believe about them.
So-called awakening (in any moment) shifts the perspective, so that we no longer think and feel that we are a separate, independent, encapsulated fragment with free will born into an alien and hostile universe. Rather, we are awake to something much more expansive and boundless. It is clearly seen that this body (along with this mind, and this world) is all an intermittent, ever-changing movement of this vast, seamless, inconceivable totality that we actually are. In other words, we are awake to the bigger context.
Of course, even so, pain still hurts, and it’s natural to seek relief. There is no problem in seeking relief or trying to cure something that hurts, but we no longer feel that this problem MUST be cured or must go away. We are no longer caught up in the story that “I” must fix “me.” We discover that pain (physical or emotional) is not what we thought it was when we were resisting it and thinking about it. There is a growing willingness for life to be exactly as it is in this moment, and there is a recognition that we don’t really know anything about what this all is or why it’s here. We no longer take the inner weather personally as meaning something about “me” and how successful or deficient this phantom “me” is. But all of this doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t take an aspirin or accept a morphine drip, change a flat tire, see a doctor, seek help from psychotherapy, work in some way for social justice, or have opinions about world events.
Feeling mad at life, feeling that life has treated “me” badly, feeling attacked by life, arguing with reality—these are all rooted in thoughts of separation, duality and a self standing apart from life. And all of that can be questioned and seen through.
I am 70 now, and many of my apparent problems still show up—for example, my fingerbiting compulsion still flares up, I sometimes get irritated and defensive with people on Facebook, I lose my temper at times, my gut tightens up when they tell me my cancer might be back or my bones might be deteriorating, and so on. But these no longer seem like problems in the way they did or might have years ago. They don’t seem like personal failures, or life attacking me unfairly, or dreadful mistakes that shouldn’t happen. They are simply impersonal, passing weather events—life doing what it does.
The same is true of the world—it still has many problems, many things happening that I don’t like, but I see now that it always will have problems, and that often our suffering is the mud in which the lotus grows. I also see that there isn’t even any single objective world “out there.” And thus, while I still have opinions and preferences, I don’t get upset about all of it very often anymore. And even when I do occasionally get triggered and upset, that, too, is not a problem. What a relief!
Many things have been helpful to me over the years—psychotherapy, somatic work, meditation, inquiries, satsangs, radical nonduality, political liberation movements, etc.—and some of my problems have indeed disappeared. I’m no longer a drunk or a smoker, I no longer have bouts of depression, I’m no longer seeking enlightenment or believing the story that “this isn’t it,” my fingerbiting compulsion happens much less often and much less severely when it does, and having cancer in the last year has not brought forth anger at the universe or a desperate desire to survive at all costs. Likewise, some things in the world at large seem to have improved over my lifetime, even as other things seem to have gotten worse.
But the most liberating change is that the meta-problem seems to have vanished—I no longer see the apparent problems in myself or in the world as problems in the way I did before. I see that apparent problems can be great blessings, and that none of it is personal.
So, don’t assume that spiritual awakening will solve every problem, or that “awakened people” shouldn’t need psychotherapy or palliative care, or that awakening will result in a permanent state of bliss and the ability to meet every moment with perfect equanimity and calm. But what waking up does offer is the realization that nothing that happens is personal, none of it is what we think it is, and what looks and feels horrible from our limited perspective may be the grit that creates the pearl in the bigger picture. And all of that is actually a very freeing change.
Response to a comment:
For me, awakening means waking up from the thought-sense-belief that we are a separate person encapsulated inside a separate body living in an external world of separate objects. It is like the wave realizing it is not actually separate from, of independent of the ocean and the other waves. It doesn't mean no longer being a person (or a wave) in any sense, but it is awake to the bigger context (the ocean). It is a shift from being totally hypnotized by thought into recognizing the awareness that is beholding thoughts, the presence that is unbound and impersonal. It is an awakening to the ever-present Here-Now that never comes and goes.
For most of us, this is not a flashy, explosive, one-time event after which we never again "forget" and get lost in stories of separation. But in any moment we stop and check, Here-Now (awareness, presence) is always here. And once this has been recognized, I would say that it never again completely clouds over and disappears. And of course, it never REALLY disappears. Awakening points to the natural state. It is always already fully present, simply unrecognized or unnoticed.
I hope this helps.
Reflections on Gurus, Devotional Love, Spiritual Authority, and Abuse:
Several recent events, emails, Facebook posts I’ve seen, and exchanges with friends have prompted me to reflect anew on these issues. Writing this has been a process of discovery, and this piece is the result for now, although the discovery will undoubtedly keep unfolding, and what I would say in a week or a month or a year might be very different. Nothing is ever set in stone. I’m tempted in some ways to delete this piece altogether, but if you’re seeing it, apparently the urge to share it won out. Here it is:
My friend and main teacher, Toni Packer, who never called herself a teacher, was very aware of the dangers of charismatic leaders and authoritarian structures. She had grown up half-Jewish in Nazi Germany and had witnessed the rise of Hitler. She saw what could happen. She was keenly aware of how easily human beings can be seduced, hypnotized and taken in by charismatic leaders, big promises, group-think, confirmation bias, comforting ideas and magical thinking of all kinds.
When she got to the United States, Toni became a Zen student and was eventually asked to teach. She noticed the competitive aspects of the Rinzai Zen culture she was involved in, the ways that Zen became a new identity, the hierarchy and the dogma that seemed to get in the way of simple being and clear seeing. She was uncomfortable when students began bowing to her and treating her as an authority. Eventually she encountered J. Krishnamurti whose message resonated with everything she had been thinking and feeling. She left formal Zen and started a center without rituals, ceremonies, dogmas or hierarchy, a place where everything could be questioned, explored directly, and looked at freshly. She worked in a simple and open way, with a kind of scientific curiosity. She called herself a friend and not a teacher.
When I arrived on the scene in the late 80’s, Springwater, the “center for meditative inquiry and retreats” that she and her students (or friends, as she preferred) had created, was still very new. And to my eye, although Toni would probably have denied it at the time, she still had Krishnamurti up on a bit of a pedestal. She frequently invited us into her apartment to watch videos of him, and she seemed in many instances to look up to him.
Some years later, I was with Toni in California when the book Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti came out. This was an expose of Krishnamurti written by a woman who grew up with K. In her book, the author exposed many things about him that flew in the face of his public image, including the long and secret romantic relationship between K and the author’s mother, Rosalind Rajagopal, who was the wife of K’s long-time friend, editor and close associate. The book revealed that in a number of ways, K was not entirely who many of his “devotees” thought he was. (And of course, K hated the idea of being an authority figure and certainly didn’t want devotees, but in fact, many followers did look up to him, and some emulated him in various ways—some couples apparently even gave up sex because they imagined he was celibate).
After reading and absorbing this book, Toni still loved K’s message, she was still grateful for having heard him, and she still read aloud to us from his books at the end of her retreats (along with selections from Mary Oliver, Nisargadatta, Rilke, Huang Po and others). But something changed. She no longer believed K was closer to the Truth than she was. She was no longer holding anyone up above her. It was a subtle but beautiful shift. She stopped showing his videos, and certain turns of phrase that sounded like his vanished from her talks. She was free in a new way, standing completely on her own. It was as if she had taken a final step in fully releasing her own authentic voice and completely trusting her own direct seeing.
Toni was a rare one in that she dared to put all the authorities and beliefs aside and simply be present in this moment, holding on to nothing at all. She didn’t want people to see her as an authority. She said repeatedly that anything she said could be questioned, changed or taken further. She had an amazing willingness to look at questions freshly, without reaching for yesterday’s answers.
Like Toni, I cannot imagine allowing people to bow down and kiss my feet, sing devotional songs about me, put photos of me on their altars, gaze at me with fawning adoration, or call me their Master. I cringe at the very thought. It would feel totally wrong, as if people were idealizing me in a false way and confusing me with the open awareness to which I am pointing, the awareness or presence that we all are, which is impersonal and belongs to no one.
And yet, in spite of this, I have loved and followed several teachers who do allow, and who arguably even encourage, all these things, and I’ve participated in all of it whole-heartedly on occasion. I’ve obviously felt that in some way, for these teachers, it was somehow okay for them to do all these things, even though it would have felt utterly unimaginable and cringe-worthy for me to do them. In some way, I’ve felt that these teachers were at a higher level than I was, more deeply stabilized in awake awareness—their hearts open deeply and fully enough that they were able to receive all that love and devotion without taking it personally or confusing it with sexual love or personal celebrity or success. I do think that’s possible. And I know that receiving love is not always as easy as it sounds! But of course, as we all know, many gurus and teachers have gotten quite confused and swept away by human desires, and have fallen into sexual misconduct and abusive behaviors of all kinds. It’s a story as old as the hills, and it doesn’t happen only with gurus.
But the guru format, especially when it includes a strong devotional component, can certainly make it more likely. I’ve always been extremely wary of turning individual human beings, however enlightened they may be, into spiritual idols or authority figures. This seems to me to be an approach laden with dangers, particularly if the teacher or guru is charismatic and has not fully dealt with their own shadow side. And no one, as I’ve said in my most recent posts (1/29/19 and 2/1/19), has ever completely worked through their shadow side and removed all their blind spots. No human being is above delusion. And yet, some gurus and teachers believe and/or pretend otherwise.
Being a spiritual teacher can be a heady thing. People projecting onto you, adoring you, looking up to you. Being the enlightened one with the answers. Being special. Sitting up there at the front of the room by the flowers dispensing the dharma. It’s no surprise that so many teachers have turned out to be abusers in one way or another, or in some way hiding their own imperfections and pretending to be beyond it all. Perfection sells better than imperfection, and is a better guarantee of a having large following and financial success, and let’s face it, most teachers do need to earn a living just like everyone else, and in some cases they need to bring in the money to pay a large staff and finance property and travel and so on. I know Toni Packer felt the pressure of being the primary bread-winner for keeping Springwater Center afloat. And in teachings that emphasize dissolving into the transcendent—identifying as presence or awareness and not a person—it is especially easy to fall into spiritual by-passing and ignoring shadow issues.
I’m infinitely grateful I had teachers like Toni Packer and Charlotte Joko Beck who saw these dangers so clearly and who tried to work and talk in ways that did not promote this kind of delusion. They put a great deal of emphasis on seeing the machinations and pretenses of the egoic mind, and they didn’t encourage people to imagine that they, or anyone else, were permanently awake. And in my own writing and work with people, I’ve always tried to be very honest about my human imperfections. I’ve done everything possible to avoid being put on a pedestal or viewed as beyond-it-all (and still, in spite of everything I’ve shared so openly about my delusions and flaws, people do see me that way sometimes, which never ceases to amaze me, but the forces of projection and transference are not to be underestimated).
You may be thinking by now that I’m totally against gurus, devotional spirituality and the transcendent, but that isn’t actually the case. Although I certainly see the dangers and pitfalls that exist in the devotional-guru way of working, and in religion and certain forms of transcendent spirituality in general, I have never been as entirely allergic to all of this as Toni Packer and Krishnamurti and many others are.
Before I met Toni, I had been a Zen student, in a different branch of Zen from the one Toni had been in. I’d had no problem with the rituals and ceremonies or with the bowing. In fact, I found the ritual and the bowing in Zen all quite beautiful. We bowed to each other, we bowed to the food servers, we bowed to the altar, we bowed to the cushions we sat on, we did many full bows to nothing in particular during every service, and when we went for a meeting with the teacher, we did a full bow to the floor in front of him. None of this ever bothered me in the way it bothered Toni and many other Westerners. I didn’t experience it as submission to authority, or as putting the teacher up on a pedestal, but simply as a gesture of respect, gratitude and reverence. We were acknowledging the sacredness of each other, of our cushions, of the food we ate, of life itself, and also of the teacher.
When I found Toni and Springwater, her open, bare-bones style, free of ritual and practices, felt closer to my heart, more open in some way, and it resonated with me more deeply. I lived there on staff for five years, immersed in this way of working, which has remained at the heart of my own expression. But in my last year at Springwater, I was already turning toward the Advaita satsang world, and I was already beginning a devotional relationship with a very popular satsang teacher who taught in a very guru-like way (more so back then perhaps, when she was just starting out, than currently), and this blossomed more fully after I left Springwater. I helped to put on her satsangs, wrote her devotional love letters, put pictures of her and other beloved gurus all over my living space, and gazed into her eyes during satsang hoping to be zapped more awake that I already was. I had another brief devotional relationship after that with a wild teacher from Hawaii, and that’s where I first sang bhajans, which I loved and found to be very heart-opening.
Yes, I saw things about this whole guru-devotional scene that I found questionable and at times disturbing, and it certainly didn’t have the openness and transparency that I had found with Toni and at Springwater, but it wasn’t entirely a delusional fall into magical thinking either. I found that this devotional experience broke me out of some of the confining boxes I’d been in, releasing my long-suppressed bhakti side. It was genuinely liberating in some real and valuable ways. It was a positive experience for me at the time, including the parts that were disillusioning. In devotional love, there is a willingness to be vulnerable and open, to give and receive love, and that can be very powerful in breaking through the limitations of the doubtful, skeptical, egoic mind. It can be a powerful heart-opening, and it was like that for me in some ways. So I can’t conclude that it’s all a terrible delusion.
When I came to Springwater in 1988, I didn’t think authority was an issue for me. It was obviously a big concern of Toni’s. But I had been part of the Sixties counter-culture, after all. Like many in my generation, I’d thrown the culture of my childhood out the window and embraced the world of free love, psychedelic drugs, rocknroll, and revolutionary change. By the time I met Toni, I had been an anti-war demonstrator, a lesbian-feminist, a socialist, an anti-imperialist radical. I’d been arrested for political protests. Obviously, authority was not my issue, right? It took me a long time to see how much it actually was my issue, and how easy it is for all of us to replace old gods with new ones and not realize we’ve done it. So I’ve learned that this is a question that is always worth examining anew: Who (or what) are we putting up above us, and who (or what) do we imagine is closer to the truth than we are, right here, right now?
To some degree in any teaching format, we’re assuming that the teacher has something we want, whether it is knowledge, information, wisdom, awakening, beautiful energy, or the absence of self-concern, and I see nothing fundamentally wrong with this dynamic. But in the guru format, as with popes, messiahs, divine avatars, saviors, saints, and the like, we’re holding that person up in some extra-special way as being closer to God, more divine, more awake, more special and holier than everyone else. That person sitting at the front of the room next to the flowers is the one with the answers. We aren’t exploring openly together, as we were with Toni. And while it’s obvious that being in the presence of certain people can be a powerful experience energetically, there are, in the guru scene, many questionable ideas floating around about shakti and transmission. People seem hungry for some magical transfer of energy, gazing into the guru’s eyes hoping to be zapped. Such a context easily promotes a kind of childish dependency, projection and idealization. And for people who are naïve and gullible and maybe recovering from childhood trauma and abuse, it can become quite addictive, and even deadly and damaging if the guru is unclear and crosses boundaries in an abusive way.
Every guru I’ve loved or been with has repeatedly delivered the message that what is being sought is right here now. It is what I truly am, and it is no more present for them than it is for me or anyone else. They all point to the placeless place we have never left, and they all say, You Are That and There Is Only That. Period. Full-stop. At least, that’s the overt message.
But in some way, their obviously elevated status seems inevitably to convey a different message more covertly. My friend and fellow non-dual writer Leo Hartong never got into holding meetings because he felt that the very structure of having a supposedly "awakened one" sitting at the front of the room answering questions from apparently "unawakened seekers" only perpetuated the illusion that what was being sought was not already fully present here and now, belonging to no one.
I don’t go quite as far as Leo, because I do think teachers are valuable, but I deeply appreciate what he was sensing. As someone once said, and as Leo saw so clearly, the medium is the message.
I’m not proposing some false egalitarianism, or suggesting that everyone is equally clear or equally free of delusion, or that there is nothing to be learned from teachers. Krishnamurti was obviously very important to Toni, just as Toni (and many others) have been important to me. But how we go about teaching (and how we go about being with a teacher) can make all the difference. As Toni learned from witnessing the rise of Hitler, and as we’ve all seen in the many examples of teachers who have done awful things, this natural human process of sharing and learning from one another in deeply beneficial ways can also take some very exaggerated and false turns resulting in great pain and suffering. Of course, even then, it’s all an expression of this whole happening, and in some way, it’s all very ephemeral and dream-like, never having the solidity or objective reality that our conditioned thinking gives to any of it. But the pain still hurts.
When I was in therapy back in the 1970’s sobering up from alcohol and drug abuse, my therapist asked me at one point what I felt about our relationship. I told her I felt like she had all the power. “I do,” she said. "You gave it to me. You gave it to me for a purpose, and when you're ready, you'll take it back. You'll learn all my skills, and you'll be your own therapist." And indeed, that’s exactly what happened. I think that beautifully states the role of parents, teachers, therapists and gurus, which is ultimately, to make themselves obsolete. That doesn’t mean we didn’t need them (if we did) or that they served no purpose, or that we should toss them aside and forget them entirely, or even that we necessarily leave their physical presence. But as happened to Toni with K, in a healthy relationship of this kind, eventually we must leave the nest and fly on our own.
Over the years, I spent time with many other satsang and Advaita teachers, but my own involvement in Advaita never again had that devotional aspect, at least not until a deep and heart-felt encounter with another popular guru many years later.
That happened only a few years ago actually, not long before my cancer diagnosis, when quite by chance one night, while exploring YouTube looking for a poetry reading by Charles Bukowski of all people, I stumbled instead upon a live satsang with this guru in India. I wasn’t looking for this, to say the least! But I was immediately drawn in and began watching these live satsangs every night. I had met this teacher many years before at a very small gathering in the US, and he’d had a profound impact on me at the time. I became quite immersed in these live satsangs and found them deeply wonderful. I sang along with the bhajans and felt a devotional love toward this guru and his whole sangha. I even attended an on-line retreat with him after that and wrote to him and received a wonderful reply. All of this felt positive and transformative and genuine overall.
More recently, I began hearing rumors of a shadow-side to this guru. I don’t know if these rumors are true or not. He has adamantly denied them, as have a number of the women in his sangha who have lived and worked closely with him. Based on my own sense of him and those around him, and on all the information I’ve been able to gather from sources I trust, I’m inclined (for now anyway) to give him the benefit of the doubt. I know of cases where teachers have been falsely accused, and some of the accusers in this case do not seem credible to me. But I also know of cases where teachers have denied accusations that turned out to be true. What I can say with certainty is that my own interactions with this teacher have felt totally wholesome, and my own sense of him (and of the sangha supporting him) is very positive. I feel love, affection and gratitude for him, and I don’t regret my involvement with him in any way. I continue to recommend him (along with many others) on my website recommended page. But that doesn’t mean I think he (or anyone else) is beyond human error.
This guru’s message is very focused on the transcendent, on taking your stand as boundless presence and not as a person. That’s an important aspect of awakening, of course, and what I find is that we deepen different aspects at different moments. So, as I see it, being drawn to him was all about deepening the transcendent, which is beautiful. But next thing I knew, I was going through cancer treatments, and I encountered Robert Saltzman and his wonderful book The Ten Thousand Things. And thus began what I’ve called my descent from the transcendent down into the bowels of the human experience.
I call it the bowels of the human experience because, as many of you already know, the cancer I had was anal cancer. The tumor there moved up my rectum and invaded my vagina. It involved all the body parts and bodily functions that we aren’t supposed to mention aloud or in polite company. It left me with a permanent ostomy, which means that the end of my intestine has been surgically re-routed out my abdominal wall, so that poop goes into a bag which is taped onto my belly. What is normally hidden inside the body is fully exposed on the outside in full view (when I’m naked, that is). I have been up close with a lot of shit, quite literally, in this past year—handling it, smelling it, cleaning it up, dealing with it in myriad ways. It has been the exact opposite of what is usually thought of as spiritual, although thankfully, not in the down-to-earth, upside down world of Zen, where—in response to being asked what Buddha is—an old Zen Master once replied, a dried shit stick (or in modern terms, used toilet paper). I have often been reminded in this last year of something my first Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, once said to me. “We’re always looking for diamonds in the mud,” he said, “but the mud itself is pretty interesting.” And then he added, “Zen is about the mud.” His teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, had once told Mel, “Just being alive is enough.”
During this journey with cancer, it was like I came back down to earth, down to the bare experiencing here-now, which has always been the heart of my own message in my books and talks. Of course, the bare experiencing here-now includes both the nitty-gritty human reality of everyday life and the recognition and felt-sense of being the open awaring presence beholding it all. It includes both the particulars of this moment, which might be a bag full of poop, and the bigger context, the unbound and impersonal awaring presence being and beholding it all—the form and the formless, the visible and the invisible—which are actually “not two.”
Because when we go deeply into any apparent “thing” in the so-called “material world,” we find that it is never what we thought it was. The actuality is inconceivably vast and mysterious, ever-changing, ungraspable and inseparable from everything else—and if we look closely, we find that there is no actual border between awareness and content, between subject and object, between observer and observed, been spiritual and material, between smelly poop and ultimate reality—it is one whole undivided happening that is impossible to pin down in any conceptual formulation, whether it be the formulations of Advaita or the formulations of Buddhism or any other formulations. The map is not the territory—it only serves to help us discover the living actuality, and then we put the map aside and swim freely in (and as) the naked actuality of being. We can find the infinite in the finite, and the transcendent in the apparently ordinary, but we don’t get stuck in the movie either or believe that the character we are playing is all we are. In the end, ordinary and transcendent are “not two.”
I’m grateful for all the different teachers I’ve been with or read, and for all the different styles in which they have worked and expressed this simple and liberating recognition. It was the Advaita world that freed me of all my efforts to “be mindful” or “present” as some kind of practice, and instead to see that awareness and presence are always effortlessly right here, right now, dependent on nothing. The devotional forms encouraged me to let loose, to be wild, to dance freely, to laugh, to express love, to be a fool, to let my heart break open and sing out loud with utter abandon, to sing praises to God—by which I simply mean celebrating and praising the wholeness of being, the light of awareness, the intelligence-energy at the heart of everything, life itself.
I love my friend Robert Saltzman, and I deeply appreciate the excellent questions and challenges he raises for all of us and his willingness to live with uncertainty and not knowing. But unlike Robert, I do have a bhakti side. I am not anti-religious or anti-spiritual as he is. I love Rumi and Hafiz. I love bhajans and Gospel music, not because I take the words literally, which I don’t, but because to me they are heart-opening love songs to the sacredness of life itself. And I do have a strong sense of this spacious unbound presence here-now, the undeniable suchness of present experiencing, the unfathomable and all-inclusive wholeness of being, and the sacredness or preciousness of all this—from every blade of grass to the most distant galaxy—and all this is what the word God means to me, not some deity up in heaven. And so, I do resonate with devotional expression—devotion to this whole happening—devotion to the rain and the traffic and the beauty and the horror and every moment of life. And I’m not totally adverse to all religious ritual either, some of which I find beautiful in very much the same way as great art, because it touches and evokes something deep within me. So in these ways, Robert and I differ.
But what I share with Robert (and with Toni Packer) is an appreciation for the naked, unvarnished actuality of this moment, just as it is, the waking up from beliefs and magical thinking, the questioning of authority, a grounding in everyday reality and direct experience rather than being lost in metaphysical notions, and a sense of not trying to totally transcend our humanness or leave it behind and escape into some airy beyond-it-all place, and finally, a willingness to not know, to be open to seeing something unexpected and never seen before.
I appreciate the great diversity of teachers and teaching styles on offer these days, and I’ve found different ones useful at different moments. Somehow, whether we like it or not, this dancing emptiness that we call life includes everything from the sober clarity of Toni Packer, Krishnamurti and Robert Saltzman to the swooning devotees of bhakti gurus, the pageantry of the Pope and the Catholic Mass, the craziness of Da Free John, the many abuses and scandals that never stop happening, the evangelical fundamentalists of every stripe, the prickly atheists, the bhajans, the gospel music, the Buddhist chants, the silence of the Quakers, the simplicity of Springwater, the rationality and social concerns of the Unitarians, the whirling Sufis drunk on the Beloved, the crazy upside-down stories of Zen, and each and every one of us on our unique and beautiful journeys that include everything from clarity to confusion, from soaring heights to stumbling into the muck again and again. Isn’t it all quite marvelous and amazing? Isn’t it a great movie!?
All the teachers I’ve been with are, like all of us, a mix of light and dark, clarity and delusion. In short, they are all human. And maybe that’s the point—that we’re all human. And the more openly we can acknowledge that, the less likely we are to start fooling ourselves and others into imagining that we are beyond all human foibles. The teachers I’ve valued and respected the most have been very honest about acknowledging their own delusions and short-comings.
I also think it’s important not to get too caught up in shaming and blaming gurus. Yes, it is important to expose false or abusive behavior in order to warn others and hopefully stop it from continuing, but it’s also important to see our own versions of these same tendencies and our own culpability, and to notice how we sometimes get off on taking someone else down or pointing the finger, and how the ego often sustains itself by opposing and fighting against things. And it’s important to keep an open mind, and not just swallow everything we read on the internet as if it were a proven fact.
Many of us, if we’re honest, have at some point longed for an authority or a divine parent to shower us with unconditional love, to tell us how the universe works, and to tell us what we should do and what we should think—to give us the right answers. And many of us, if we’re honest, have also longed at times to be an authority, to be the one in the know, to be looked up to and adored. And even if we’re the egalitarian or anarchist or rebellious type, more inclined to hate authority and insist that all hierarchy is false, that may just be the flip side of falling mindlessly at the feet of authoritarian figures. I suspect most of us have, or have had, bits and pieces of all these conflicting tendencies within ourselves at one time or another and to some degree. We are all acting out of our conditioning, in the only way possible in each moment, and we are all the expression of this undivided whole, and when that is clearly seen, we naturally have compassion for ourselves and one another.
Disillusionment can actually be a wonderful and even essential part of the teaching, discovering that the teacher is not perfect—that in the end, we all have to stand alone, on our own two feet, and also alone (or All-One) as the wakefulness Here-Now that has no boundaries or limits at all. I remember when Krishnamurti came down off his pedestal for Toni Packer and how liberating for her that was. And maybe sometimes being a fool, or needing others to wake us up in some way, or making the same old mistake for the ten millionth time is all a beautiful part of being human and alive, and maybe those “others” are never anything but our own Self in thin disguise.
Years ago, I had a phone conversation with my Zen teacher Joko Beck about my infatuation with gurus. Joko told me to pay careful attention to the urge for a guru or a savior when it arises, to feel it in the body. I told her, “I hope I don’t go back into this guru trip again.” And she replied, very matter-of-factly: “You might.” To her, that was no problem. If it happened, it was just life, doing what it does, and perfection was not the goal of Zen. The whole point of Zen was simply to be awake in (and as) this moment right now, just as it is.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, we finally get how simple this all is—being here-now, just as it is. Being aware, which is effortlessly always already the case. Being this ever-present wakefulness, this boundless presence, this common “I” to which we all refer, and also being a totally unique and unrepeatable expression of this unbroken wholeness. I’ve never appreciated being alive more deeply than I have in this last year. Even the scary parts and the smelly parts and the painful parts and the new limitations on my life…it has all been strangely marvelous and absolutely perfect.
My point in writing this is to share my own experiences and perspective on these important subjects, and to invite us all to keep questioning all of this with an open mind and an open heart. Our most important work, in my view, is looking within and seeing the delusion right here, rather than just pointing to it “out there” in someone else.
Response to a comment about transmission:
I like how you end this comment: "no answer, just a need to stay open to one's own experience as it unfolds." Yes! That resonates here.
My own sense about transmission is that everyone is always transmitting in the sense that we all in some way project, absorb and share energies, moods, thoughts, and so on. We are, in fact, one whole undivided happening. I think we’ve all experienced how energetically soothing or calming it is to be with some people, and how energetically jangling it is to be with others, and this can apply to friends, co-workers, check-out clerks at the supermarket, or anyone we meet—not just spiritual teachers. Even a statue of Buddha “transmits” something very different from Rodin’s Thinker that we can feel in our body as we look at each. And we probably all have experiences such as thinking of someone and then a second later they call us on the phone.
And then, it seems apparent that some people are more sensitive to subtle energies, and some people have greater abilities to share or play with energy in some way. And when someone is abiding fully and consciously in their True Self (boundless awareness, universal consciousness, radiant presence, whatever we want to name it), it naturally communicates and “transmits” that same open, spacious, transparent, open-hearted quality to anyone in their presence. Perhaps because a devotional relationship so openly and overtly invites and involves love and the open heart, it facilitates this even more deeply (when it works well). I feel you are someone with heightened sensitivities in this area, and you probably "know" much more than I do about it.
Response to another comment from same person:
Yes, I know what you mean, . And it can happen without the guru format—e.g., it did for me with Toni Packer many times—but what I have noticed in comparing the “Springwater model” of teaching (that’s the Center Toni founded) with the “satsang model,” is that they have very different advantages and disadvantages, useful to the student in different ways.
At Springwater, you could criticize Toni, you could question how things were organized or how she was teaching, and she would call everyone together to listen and hear you out and openly consider what you said. I’m not implying there was never any defensiveness, but Toni and the whole atmosphere was remarkably open and transparent in this way. And there were open discussions where anyone could bring up anything and anyone could respond. Toni did not want to be "the teacher" who was special and different and above it all.
Whereas, with the gurus I’ve been with, this kind of criticism, questioning or open discussion is not usually welcome and is often strongly discouraged. As the wild guru from Hawaii whom I was with once said, “Bring only Love and Openness to me, for everything else that arises is of the mind and an illusion.” The guru format holds your feet to the fire—the skeptical, doubting, fear-based, egoic mind is not given any platform; the guru calls you out on any attempt to move away from presence and back into your storyline and your identity as a person. So it allows that energy (of love, presence, boundlessness) to more fully expand. And in a devotional relationship, if it goes as intended, the guru is truly not being experienced as a person, but is really felt as an embodiment of presence or unconditional love.
We got to the transcendent at Springwater, but we got there by going through the muck, not around it, and we spent a lot more time in the weeds. I found strengths and weaknesses in each approach, and in the end, I’m glad both are available.
FURTHER REFLECTIONS on GURUS, DEVOTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS and ABUSE:
I’ve noticed again and again that things can look very different, if you’re looking at them from the outside, from how these things feel if experienced from the inside.
For example, at Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats, where I lived and worked on staff for five years, we held week-long silent retreats throughout the year. On these retreats, there was no talking, and people were encouraged to experiment with not making eye contact—not because talking or eye contact was considered “bad” or “unspiritual” in any way, but simply to facilitate a deeper experience of silence, with fewer things to pull us into our habitual storylines and conditioned ways of seeking approval or checking to see if people liked us. Between periods of sitting in silence, we’d have short walking periods. During these walking periods, people could get some water, use the bathroom, stretch, or simply walk around the sitting room together. We walked single-file, at normal walking speed, around the room. It felt good to move the body.
Occasionally, a newcomer to these retreats who wasn’t really grokking it, would complain to Toni (the teacher) that everyone looked like a bunch of depressed zombies, walking around in silence without smiling or making eye contact. But for those of us who had a deep feeling for silence and presence, our experience was typically one of feeling spacious, open, present and very alive—and totally intimate with everything and everyone around us. It was about the farthest thing imaginable from being a depressed zombie. But it’s easy to see how it could look that way from the outside!
I feel the same thing can be true of outsiders looking at swooning devotees singing devotional songs to a guru. If you’re the highly rational, skeptical type with no bhakti side to your personality, this might easily look like a bunch of hypnotized, gullible people caught up in cult-like behavior, magical thinking, and submission to a narcissistic authority figure who is drunk on power and taking these poor suckers for the ride of their lives. But if you’re grokking the whole thing from the inside, feeling it deeply, that’s not the experience you’re having at all. And in most cases, at least with all the gurus I’ve loved and respected, that’s not what is going on for the guru either.
There are people on the internet who seem dedicated to trashing teachers and gurus. They are looking from the outside, and they are looking for dirt, so that’s their confirmation bias, and they are out for blood. There are also people who feel genuinely hurt or angry or upset over something that happened to them with a teacher or a guru or in a spiritual community. In some cases, they really were mistreated in some way, either deliberately or unintentionally. In other cases, these are unstable, confused individuals who have misunderstood something that has been said or something that they have seen. Occasionally, there are malicious people who just want to bring someone down for whatever reason, and they are willing to lie to do it. And yes, there are also many cases of genuine, serious abuse or duplicity, and I’m all for exposing those to the light. But in this age of social media, it’s important for all of us to be discerning. Not everything we hear or read on-line is true. Not everyone who has been accused is guilty. One of the best things in our legal system here is that the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty, as opposed to the other way around.
I’m a feminist. I’ve been the target of sexual abuse and misogyny, as most women have at some time in their lives. I’m happy to see the #MeToo movement. It is long overdue and much needed. And I’m happy to see abusive teachers and gurus called out on their abuse. But I also have compassion for the perpetrators—for the conditioning, pain, lack of sensitivity and social conditions that allowed them to do what they did. I’m troubled when I see a kind of lynch mob mentality going after them, even if the anger behind that is totally understandable.
Women have, of course, been conditioned for centuries to take our pain out on ourselves (self-injury, eating disorders, depression), to keep quiet, to always serve and rescue and nurture and take care of men—so perhaps the anger and the occasional lynch mob mentality is a necessary and even healthy phase. And maybe men are not the best ones to advocate for compassion at this point! But it’s something for all of us to keep an eye on.
The ego—the thought-sense-identity of being “me”—thrives on having an enemy, an other, something to attack and resist, to take down and push away. We get to be right, morally superior to whoever we are criticizing. It feels powerful. We get to believe the problem is all “out there,” that we are above it all. Yes, there’s certainly a place for exposing wrong-doing and opposing injustice or abuse. But it’s so easy to get caught up in a kind of moral superiority and a vengeful, punishing spirit that only serves to strengthen the sense of separation that is at the root of our human suffering.
I’m a feminist, but as I confessed in my last article, I have loved (and still love) a number of gurus, male and female, all of whom have had very positive and powerful effects on my life. And I’ve experienced the devotional scene around them as beautiful and full of light and love. That’s how it has felt from the inside. Sometimes, I have found myself looking at it all from the outside and being more critical. But which is the deeper truth? This is a question for each one of us to live with and to reflect upon, moment to moment.
I certainly don’t want to lose my capacity for discernment and rational critical thinking or be swept away in delusional magical thinking, nor do I want to enable abuse. But I also don’t want to lose my bhakti side, my devotional nature, that within me which responds with love and an open-heart—because that is the deepest place, the place we all have in common, the unbound awareness (or unconditional love) beholding it all. In that wholeness, we are undivided, not separate from one another, not two. On the human level, we are all imperfect, conditioned beings who make mistakes. But there is a deeper truth, a more subtle reality, a bigger context, in which there are no mistakes—there is only God (call it what you want). If you’ve tasted that reality from the inside, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, or if you think you haven’t, then no statement will provoke more arguments from the personally-identified, rational mind.
Where do we put our attention? To what are we devoted? Again, these are questions to live with, moment to moment, now.
Response to a comment:
In general, it certainly does seem to be the case that most sexual abuse is committed by men, not by women, although there are exceptions—although I can’t offhand think of any women in the spiritual/nondual world, but I wouldn’t assume there aren’t any. I know you aren’t asking for answers here, but I’m guessing evolutionary biology might offer an explanation, and differences in hormones and physiology may help to explain it, along with patriarchal culture and all its social reinforcements and/or protections of such behavior. Thankfully, that reinforcement and protection is finally beginning to break down, slowly.
Obviously, I am all for exposing and rooting out abusive behavior. But I do think it’s important for all of us, especially in this age of social media, to be discerning—to separate fact from rumors, and to recognize that an accuser is not always honest or correct in their perception of what happened. Having romantic relationships with students (or devotees) definitely raises concerns from the perspective of feminism and western psychology, but such relationships may not always necessarily rise to the level of coercion or abuse. I think it depends very much on the maturity of the student (and I don’t mean their chronological age, but their emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity), and also on where the teacher or guru is coming from (whether it is genuine love and caring or some combination of lust and delusion), and on how open the situation is (i.e., is it kept secret or is it out in the open).
Mooji has denied the rumors about him, as have some of the women who live and work closely with him. While some people are fully convinced these rumors are true, other people I know and trust who have spent time at Monte Sahaja think these rumors are probably not true. It is no secret that Mooji’s current partner is a woman much younger than himself who is also a devotee, and it seems to also be no secret that he has had a series of romantic relationships in the past with other younger women as well. But I have yet to hear a credible, firsthand report from a woman claiming that Mooji sexually coerced or abused her. I’ve heard rumors second and third hand from anonymous sources, but unless I hear something more substantial, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. My own sense of him has always been very positive. Of course, while I hope the rumors are untrue, I cannot be sure, and there are certainly many of them swirling around, so for now, I’m simply keeping an open mind.
Response to a comment:
I agree with you that many (if not most) spiritual teachers, even those who do not set themselves up as infallible gurus, tend to come off as having The Answers. Toni Packer was a rare exception. She honestly felt that we were all looking and exploring together...although, in fact, she did have a great deal of clarity and insight...more perhaps than anyone else I've ever met...but she always stressed that anything she said could be questioned, looked at again, taken further or disputed, and that she did not want to be regarded as an authority. She felt the labels "teacher" and "student" got in the way of looking openly together. Her sharing was often in the form of questions, inviting us to look for ourselves, rather than in the form of definitive statements. And if you asked her a question about something (e.g. free will) that she had talked about many, many times before, instead of just regurgitating her previous conclusion, she might very well spend the whole next day looking into that question freshly and anew, as if for the very first time, before getting back to you about it. Those who are currently leading retreats at Springwater, the center she founded, have a similar approach...but this is very rare in my experience. Most nondual or spiritual teachers, even those whose who are personal friends of mine and/or whose message I really like tend to speak as if they have The Answer. I very much appreciate when you make clear, as you often do, that what you say is how it looks to you, not an Absolute Truth.
I do think it's wise not to judge someone after merely watching one or two brief YouTube clips. It's easy to grab onto a statement (taken out of context) and tear it apart, especially when you are already predisposed via a confirmation bias to see spiritual teachers as bullshit of the worst sort.
And as I tried to express in the second of my two recent FB articles on gurus, regarding devotion to a guru, things can look very different from the outside than how they feel experientially from the inside. I found this to be true in my own experiences with guru devotion, which were, for me, in some way heart-opening and liberating, breaking me free of certain limiting constraints and aspects of myself that I was repressing, such as my bhakti side. That doesn't deny that these immersions in guru devotion didn't also contain an element of magical thinking and longing for a kind of Divine Parent. They did. But it wasn't simple black and white. Like most everything in life, it was a mixed bag. Hence, I can't see it as all bad, all delusion.
I do feel that awareness is unconditioned and in that sense universal, and that when we tune into that dimension, we act from a very different (more holistic, more wholesome) place. And I do think that much (not all, but much) of our human suffering comes from our belief that we are all separate, independent entities in a world of separate fragments...and as I see it, that is a conditioned belief, not our actual direct present experiencing, which we have learned to overlook. We have (as I see it) learned to overlook the territory in favor of a false map. And as I hear you, this is what you also realized in awakening to the bare actuality of experiencing itself. And I very much appreciate that you didn't add anything (like a whole metaphysical philosophy) onto that bare experiencing...but rather, that you have the courage to remain with groundlessness and not knowing. This is a rare and admirable quality.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018-2019--
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