Postings from My Facebook Page #21
The following are selected posts from my Facebook page:
This is the twenty-first collection of posts from my Facebook page (2/26/19 - 6/9/19). 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:
Exploring Reality: A Meditative Inquiry
This piece is not meant to be read quickly as information for the thinking mind. I suggest reading it slowly, meditatively, pausing along the way to listen, sense and feel into what is being said.
Is it possible to simply be present in this moment without trying to do anything, or get anywhere, or get rid of anything that’s showing up? Just being here, plain and simple. No need to explain what’s happening, or understand it, or figure it out. Not judging whatever is appearing or comparing it to something else. Just BEING this whole inconceivable and ungraspable happening Here-Now, exactly as it is.
Hearing the traffic sounds, breathing, feeling sensations throughout the body, seeing colors and shapes—one whole seamless happening. Can you feel that?
Is it possible, right now, to experience this undivided hearing-seeing-sensing-tasting-smelling-touching-breathing-awaring-presentness without labels or storylines, only the naked non-conceptual happening itself?
Just seeing, with no conceptual division into “a seer in here” and “something seen out there”—just the actual undivided seeing. Just hearing, with no conceptual division into “a listener” and “a sound being heard”—just the actual undivided hearing. No separation. No gap. One whole seamless happening.
And when thoughts pop up, as they almost certainly will, can it be noticed how they create a virtual reality in the imagination with “you” (the imaginary person, the self-image) at the center of it all? Can it be seen that these thoughts and images are simply conditioned blips of energy and not objective reports on reality? These, too, are simply another movement in this seamless happening, but the pictures they paint and the stories they tell are fantasies. However, they can seem very real, more real even than our actual direct experiencing. We have a deeply engrained habit of mistaking the map for the territory. We live much of our lives in map-land without even realizing it.
Notice how seductive these thought-generated headlines and storylines can be, how believable they can seem, how easily they can hypnotize and mesmerize the attention, how captivating and addictive they are—and yet, how utterly ephemeral. Try to grab hold of a thought! What is it? It’s like a flash of lightning or a wisp of smoke. It’s nothing at all!
Is it possible to simply let the thoughts come and go, not holding on to them and not pushing them away, simply seeing them for what they are?
And if the attention does get pulled into a storyline or a train of thought, eventually there is a natural waking up. It happens by itself. Something is here prior to the thoughts and stories, upstream from them, as it were—a bigger context within which they appear. We can call this bigger context awareness, but naming it is inherently misleading, for it has no objective qualities, no borders or limits, no place where it begins or ends. It is not a thing. It is like vast space. Awareness is beholding and illuminating everything, including the thoughts. It has the capacity to see the false as false, and to recognize the dream as a dream, because awareness is intelligence itself—not the kind of intelligence we measure with IQ tests, but the intelligence that holds this whole universe together.
No need to take any momentary entrancement in thought personally or see it as a failure. It’s just another movement in this whole happening belonging to no one. It comes and goes in this bigger context, this awaring presence that we are beyond name and form. Awareness is beholding everything, including the body-mind-person we usually take ourselves to be. Awareness is the unbroken wholeness that is present behind and within every changing scene of the movie.
Notice how awareness is naturally always allowing everything to be as it is. Awareness allows thoughts, perceptions, sensations, storylines, everything perceivable and conceivable—the whole world and the entire universe—to come and go. Awareness even allows resisting and seeking and contracting. It allows war and peace, joy and sorrow. It allows the mental movies, the thoughts and beliefs. Awareness resists nothing. But it also clings to nothing. It has no judgements. It doesn’t take anything personally or give it added meaning. It simply beholds it all. Awareness could also be called unconditional love.
In this vast space of awareness, nothing needs to be seen as a distraction or a problem. Awareness is not trying to get into any special state or have some spectacular experience.
If trying (or seeking, or resisting) does show up, is it possible to simply be aware of how it feels in the body to try (or to seek, or to resist)? Trying not to try, resisting resistance, or seeking the end of seeking, is just more of the same. But simply illuminating it with awareness allows it to dissolve by itself. And we can also explore what is driving this trying-seeking-resisting, and to what does it refer. Isn’t it always the self-image, the story of “me” who supposedly lacks something, “me” who seemingly needs to get somewhere, or get rid of something, or become a better somebody, a better “me”?
Can this phantom “me” who seems to be living my life, thinking my thoughts and making my choices actually be found? Does it actually exist? Or is it nothing more than a kind of mirage generated by changing thoughts, memories and sensations—a dream-character in a dream? Look and see!
Notice that no one is doing any of this. It’s all happening by itself—reading these words, looking, seeing, thinking, awaring, sleeping, dreaming, waking up, seeking, not seeking. Are you choosing your desires, your interests, your urges, your opinions, your preferences, the things that attract your attention? Even apparently deliberate decisions, if you watch closely as they happen, arise choicelessly—the back and forth thoughts arguing for one choice or the other, and then the decisive moment—watch and see if you can find anyone who is in control of this whole unfolding process. Can you make the decisive moment happen any sooner than it does? How exactly do you perform such voluntary actions as raising your arm? And from where does the impulse to do this arise? You can’t say!
There are endlessly changing experiences, endlessly changing weather. Nothing stays the same even for an instant. And yet, consciousness or presence is the common factor in every different experience. And awareness (or unconditional love) is beholding it all.
The words seem to divide it up, but this is simply to call attention to different aspects of the undivided living reality. The words are a kind of helpful map. But don’t get stuck on the map. Use the map, and then put it aside. There is really no such “thing” as awareness or consciousness or experiencing or energy or intelligence or the universe or me or you. It’s one whole undivided and inconceivable happening, happening to no one. Notice that this is so.
If pain shows up, whether it is physical or emotional, is it possible to go right into the bare sensations in the body, without the labels and the storylines? Simply feeling it, exploring it—not by thinking about it and analyzing it, but by giving the bare, sensory-energetic actuality of what we are calling “pain” complete, open attention. In open attention (or awareness), there is no separation, no gap between a thought-constructed, imagined “experiencer” and a thought-constructed, imagined “experience”—no storyline that “I” am being “attacked” by “pain”—there is simply undivided, impersonal, nondual experiencing. What happens to the pain when we stop thinking about it and instead go right into the very core of it, experiencing it as pure energy and sensation, with no separation between “me” and “it”? Explore this when pain, or anything unwanted, shows up.
In many moments of any ordinary day, there is no thought-sense of being “me,” a separate self encapsulated in a body, independent of its environment. There is simply seeing, hearing, acting, doing—and then suddenly a thought arises (e.g., “I shouldn’t have said that,” or “I’ve missed the boat all my life,” or “I’m not awake yet,” or “I have so much to do,” or whatever it is), and instantly, this thought creates the mirage of “me” and “my problem,” and that mirage can seem so real. But how real is it?
Right now, can you sense into the simple fact of being present, being aware—the simple fact of present experiencing, prior to any stories or interpretations of what it is? Who (or what) are you if you don’t refer to thought, memory, imagination or anything you have learned second-hand? Can you notice that the body, the thoughts, the self-image—everything we think of as the person called “me”—appears and disappears in this vast space of awareness? Does this open awaring presence have a name, a gender, an age, a race, a diagnosis, a political viewpoint, a financial status? Does it have any boundaries? Does it have any problems? Was it born? Will it die? Or is it always right here, right now?
What is it like, consciously being here not as a separate object in a world of other separate objects, but as this open, spacious, boundless, awaring presence being and beholding everything? In awareness, there are no boundaries, no divisions. And maybe there are no actual boundaries anywhere.
See if you can find an actual boundary between inside of you and outside, or between the body and the world, or between awareness and content. Really look and see. Is there any actual border? Isn’t it all an indivisible, seamless happening? Yes, there are relative boundaries (like the skin), legal boundaries, healthy psychological boundaries and so on, but the more closely we look at any boundary, the more we discover it can’t actually be found or pinned down.
Notice that whatever season, stage of life, or time of day is showing up, it is always Now. Now is timeless, ever-present. There is nothing before Now or after Now. There is only Now. Notice this obvious but often overlooked fact. You cannot leave Now. Even memories and future plans happen Now. When the past was happening, it was happening Now. When the future happens, it will happen Now.
Notice also that whatever location shows up, whether it is New York or Paris or the airport or the plane flying from one city to the other, every place and every step of every journey always appears Here in this unlocatable immediacy or present-ness where you always are. There is nothing outside of Here.
You can never leave Here-Now. Here-Now is what we all are prior to name and form. It is our True Self, our original face before our parents were born.
Here-Now, Awareness, Presence, Vast emptiness, nondual unicity—many names for this undeniable knowingness of being here now, and this undeniable present experiencing, prior to any labels, interpretations, formulations or stories about it. Simply the bare happening itself, ever-changing, and yet never moving away from this ever-present (dimensionless) still point, right here, right now.
The sounds of rain, the whooshing of traffic, the cheep-cheep-cheep of a bird, the sensations of breathing, tingling in the toes, the aroma of food cooking, the taste of tea, the indescribable red of the flowers on the table, the sudden flight of birds across the white sky, the sunlight on the wall, the thoughts and the awareness of the thoughts—all of this is effortlessly presenting itself.
Awareness and bare experiencing are here before, during and after thought names all of this and conceptually divides it up into awareness and content, subject and object, this and that, here and there, now and then, time and space. Reality is one, undivided whole. Yes, it appears infinitely diverse and varied, and yet, Here-Now (presence-awareness-consciousness) is the common factor in every different experience. Everything is absolutely unique, and in another way, everything is absolutely the same. Reality is full of paradoxes.
This nondual unicity includes names and words, stories and thoughts, dreams and imaginings. It includes the mapping of reality, the abstracting and formulating, the planning and remembering, the conceptualizing. Nothing is left out of reality. Nothing is not this. Nothing is outside of this.
This nondual unicity includes apparently being a person in the play of life, but it isn’t limited to that appearance or encapsulated inside that ever-changing form. And no form is separate or persisting—everything that appears is impermanent, changing, interdependent and indivisible from everything else. Unicity cannot be grasped as an object, for it is not an object. Nothing can stand outside of it. It is everything and no-thing, but never anything in particular. It is 100% present everywhere at all times. It is all there is. To paraphrase an ancient statement, unicity is like a sphere, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference of which is nowhere.
The words are pointers. But if we let go of all the words, THIS is still here, effortlessly being just as it is. The mind wants to “get it,” pin it down, understand it, box it up in a formula and possess it. But THIS cannot be gotten or pinned down or possessed, for that would be like the hand trying to grasp itself, or the eye trying to see itself, or the sword trying to cut itself.
Can you feel the freedom of having nothing to grasp, the freedom of groundlessness, the freedom of not knowing what any of this is or why it’s here, the freedom of not needing any answers, the freedom of simply being this inexplicable dance that includes beauty and horror, joy and sorrow, birth and death, relative and absolute, everything and nothing?
How is it to simply BE just as you are? What a relief! Nothing to attain. Nothing to eliminate. Nothing to become. Nowhere to go. Simply what is, as it is, which of course includes everything we call the life journey—growing up, getting an education, having a job, falling in love, raising a family, paying the bills, meditating, searching for enlightenment, feeling confused, arguing with your partner, getting sick, feeling better, doing the laundry, growing old. Each moment in this journey is a miraculous gift, an expression of the whole. And part of what makes it beautiful is the impermanence and fragility of it, on the one hand, and the timeless eternity and indestructability of it, on the other. How ephemeral that whole journey is, how imaginary in a way. Where is yesterday or thirty years ago? Where is the child you once were? Where is the world of your childhood? Where is the last second? And yet, here you are, the eternal, infinite, unborn, undying, Here-Now.
Every night in deep sleep, and finally at the moment of death, everything perceivable, conceivable and experienceable disappears completely. Even the first bare sense of being present and aware is absent. What remains? Only this unfathomable darkness out of which everything emerges. In that darkness, no one is leftover to worry about whether I will wake up in the morning or be reincarnated or go to heaven after death. All such questions, and the one who is concerned about them, have blissfully dissolved.
Awakening is often spoken of as dying before you die, dying to the known, letting go of everything, holding on to nothing, falling into groundlessness, surrendering into the arms of God, which is only a metaphor for losing the illusion that you are ever actually separate from this unbroken wholeness.
Awakening is not a past event that happened once upon a time to me, making me now an awakened one. That is a delusion. Nor is it a future possibility that might come tomorrow, for tomorrow never arrives. That is only a fantasy. Awakening cannot be postponed. Awakening is now or never. Awakening is simply waking up to (recognizing, embodying, knowingly being) THIS that is utterly inescapable, completely obvious, and fully present right here, right now—the Original Face, the True Self, the One and Only behind all the masks. And here it is, showing up as traffic sounds...as snow falling...as a crumpled cigarette package...as the feeling of loneliness...as a toothache...as laughter...as the family dog...as a good movie...as deep sleep. Just this!
The questions posed throughout this article are not questions to answer with words or stories. The statements made are not ideas to be taken on (or argued against) as beliefs or as a philosophy. Rather, every statement and question in this article is meant to invite a kind of meditative inquiry, an open exploration or contemplation, and the direct discovery of what cannot be put into words. No words are ever quite right. Don’t get stuck on the words or in the map. Go where the words are pointing. And notice, this is precisely where you always already are: Here-Now.
Response to a question:
Good question to explore! I’d say that waking life is dream-like in many ways. Like a dream, it’s an evaporating appearance in consciousness. Even science, which assumes the reality of a material universe outside of consciousness, says now that what we perceive is a kind of construction of the brain. And certainly our stories and thoughts about life are another layer of construction. Each of us sees a different world due to our different conditionings, tendencies, abilities and perspectives. Is there actually an objective, observer-independent world “out there,” outside of consciousness? Nobody can say for sure, for all we ever experience is within consciousness. I feel that if you contemplate the statements and questions in this Note, the dream-like nature of waking life may reveal itself. But I’m not suggesting that we should ignore or dismiss everyday life as “just a dream.”
How do people respond to a terminal diagnosis? Some go into denial, indulge in wishful thinking, and cling to false hope. Some go into battle mode, fighting to survive to the last possible moment, trying every possible cure, refusing to give up the fight. Some get angry and look for who they can blame. Some sink into overwhelming grief and despair. And for some, a terminal diagnosis seems to open a door to a kind of awakening, changing them in unexpectedly positive ways. And certainly, facing the reality of death can inform us in practical ways, allowing us to make intelligent plans and use the remaining time as wisely as possible.
Growing up in the 50’s, death was denied. Women were often not even told by their doctor that they were dying—only their husbands were told. And the medical system was geared to keeping people alive as long as possible, at any cost. That has all gradually, thankfully, been changing. In the course of my lifetime, I’ve watched more women enter the medical field, and I’ve seen medicine change its approach to living, dying and healing in so many ways. I’ve watched the hospice movement develop and the right to die movement. A number of fine books have come out in recent years about facing our own individual mortality, navigating the medical system at the end of life, and so on. Katy Butler’s newest contribution, The Art of Dying Well, is one I’m reading now. In my opinion, it is healthy to look honestly at what kinds of things we are likely to face as we age and as we move toward death. As many of you know, I’m writing a book myself about aging and dying.
Today we are not just facing individual mortality, but the probable extinction of our species, and maybe all life on earth. Again, people react to this news in different ways. Some go into denial or cling to false hope. Some go into battle mode, fighting to survive. Some get angry and look for who they can blame. Some sink into grief and despair. But for some, it seems to open a door to a kind of awakening, changing us in unexpectedly positive ways. And as with our own personal mortality, facing the reality can inform us in practical ways, allowing us to make intelligent plans and use the remaining time as wisely as possible.
Catherine Ingram is a dharma teacher I have always appreciated, and she has just written a very powerful article called Facing Extinction: www.FacingExtinction.com.au – I encourage people to read it. It takes about an hour to read, longer if you explore the links, and it is definitely sobering, but I think you’ll find that it’s more than just one more depressing piece on climate change.
Although Catherine believes (as I do) that the best evidence indicates that the situation with climate change is now almost certainly incurable and terminal, with the end probably not far off, and with great suffering coming beforehand as resources dwindle and society breaks down, I have found something strangely comforting and actually freeing in facing this, in much the same way a terminal diagnosis might be freeing, or in the same way that cancer has been an awakening journey for me.
For those who may not have heard of her, Catherine is a journalist and a co-founder of the Buddhist Insight Meditation Society, which she left early on. She later spent time in India with Papaji, but she hasn’t become a Papaji-clone. For many years, she has held Dharma Dialogues and led silent retreats around the world. She currently lives in Australia. She has also worked for human and animal rights, and in recent years has taken great interest in climate change. She has studied it in depth (as a layperson), and reflected deeply on it as a spiritual teacher. This article is the fruit of that long and in-depth exploration. It faces the reality of the situation head-on, offering no false hope, but suggesting a way of meeting the coming catastrophe and extinction from a place of awareness.
There’s a great interview with Catherine on Buddha at the Gas Pump that you can find by googling, and she has a website you can check out as well. She has done a number of podcasts about climate change and extinction, including “Love for the Living World” (Feb 2018) and a conversation she did with Peter Russell called “Peter Russell: A Crisis of Acceleration” (March 2016), both of which you can find on her website podcasts.
And speaking of Peter Russell, he has a background in mathematics, theoretical physics, experimental psychology and computer science, along with eastern spirituality and meditation. I know him from the SAND Conferences.
This is an excerpt from his excellent (and evolving) piece called “Blind Spot” that you can find on his website in which he talks about exponential growth, acceleration, climate change and the mortality of the human species, offering a liberating perspective:
“Our species may be gone in a century or so, but that does not mean it is all for nothing… We've always known human beings could not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be some time way off in the future. We don't like to consider that our end may be just a few generations away. There are obvious parallels here with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we have some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow. Yet accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts of consciousness…The same may apply to humanity…The question then naturally arises: How do we spend our final days?...Do we party madly, consuming to the last drop of oil? Or bury our heads in depression and hopelessness? For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer such an avid follower of the news, getting upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving. Accepting the end is nigh does not mean that I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet, but now I want to do so for the planet's own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow. We will also need to take care of our fellow beings who will be in need of help and support—providing basics such as food, water, shelter, medicine. And there will be much needed emotional and mental support—care, comfort, compassion, coping with the fear and pain, and adapting to changing situations.” – Peter Russell
I’m sharing all this not to plunge everyone into despair, but to suggest that facing death honestly, whether personal or planetary, may be the best and most liberating option. Both Catherine and Peter point to that possibility. I’m also not intending to discourage people from doing whatever life moves them to do to address climate change. If life moves you to try to fix it, by all means go for it—and who knows, maybe it will work! After all, no one knows for sure what will happen next.
Ultimately, however, everything is impermanent, including the planet and the solar system. And that’s actually not bad news. (Norman Fischer had a beautiful response to the question of death in the article of his that I shared yesterday).
As I see it, what will be, will be, including each of our responses.
What I’m really bringing up here is an invitation to look at how we face a terminal diagnosis, and whether facing it might actually be liberating. I find that impermanence, fully understood, IS liberating.
Response to a comment:
None of this is meant to deny the grief of losing loved ones or of seeing what is happening to the planet. There have, however, been many periods in geological history when the earth was too hot or cold to support life, and many life forms have come and gone, as have many suns or stars. And yet, something continues, unborn and undying, endlessly changing shape.
Someone shares this Rumi poem:
Outside, the freezing desert night.
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.
The news we hear is full of grief for that future
but the real news inside here
is there's no news at all.
Joko Beck used to say Zen was about having no hope, or as she put it elsewhere, "What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured." Of course, she wasn't talking about sinking into despair or not taking intelligent action when you can, but she was pointing where Rumi is pointing here.
During most of human history, and certainly during Rumi's time, people faced devastating plagues, wars, famines, and so on, and they didn't have central heating, air conditioning, well-stocked supermarkets, state-of-the-art palliative and medical care, electricity, and so on. When someone got the cancer I had back then, they died an extremely painful death, vomitting poop. Life was hard.
We've lived in a kind of protective bubble of security and comfort--those of us in the developed world who are reasonably well off, that is. That bubble is beginning to crumble, but it is still largely intact, so I think we fall easily into denial.
Although they lived harder lives in Rumi's day, they also didn't have the capacity back then to destroy all life on earth with climate change or nuclear weapons...but still, in his prescient vision, he was able to imagine "a scorched, blackened ball."
I love that Catherine Ingram so beautifully acknowledged the grief, the heartbreak, and the love. I am reminded of a favorite part of a poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, who died recently of cancer:
"Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.”
Response to another comment:
Thanks for your "glimmer of hope," but as I said in my post, I don’t want to host a discussion here on whether climate change is real or reversible, or a discussion of possible fixes, or on all the other things that might also destroy life on earth—this isn’t the place for all that. What I’m really bringing up here is an invitation to look at how we face a terminal diagnosis, and whether facing it might actually be liberating. Since we can never be absolutely sure of what will happen next, even if we have Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic, lung, liver, kidney and bone cancer, there may come a point when giving up hope is not a bad thing. If there's another potential treatment to try, and we are moved to try it, I'm not arguing against that. But perhaps surviving forever is not really needed or even possible, for any of us. And I think Catherine Ingram addresses the possibility of green solutions rather soberly in her piece.
My Reflections on Mooji
This article was taken down on 3/14/19, and then, at the request of a number of people, it was re-posted on 3/15/19.
I wrote a note on 2/10/19 called “Reflections on Gurus, Devotional Love, Spiritual Authority, and Abuse” and a follow-up post on 2/16/19 called “Further Reflections on Gurus, Devotional Relationships and Abuse.” Many people guessed that one of the gurus I was speaking about, the one who has had a powerful and positive effect on me, was Mooji. I wrote these two articles after someone sent me a link to Amma Tanya White’s FB video, which she subsequently took down, in which she accuses Mooji of egregious sexual misconduct with young women devotees. Mooji responded with a video adamantly denying any abusive behavior.
Since I published these articles, I’ve been sent a widely-circulated new expose on Mooji written by Be Scofield, who describes herself as “the most prominent writer in the world exposing cults and abusive gurus.” I’ve also heard from a few people on FB who experienced what felt to them like creepy (sexually suggestive), angry, or hurtful treatment from Mooji while they were at his ashram in Portugal. Some have asked me why I still like and recommend him. This is my reply.
I have never been to Monte Sahaja, Mooji’s ashram-retreat center in Portugal. I met Mooji in person only once, in Chicago, probably around 2004, at a small private gathering of about twelve people. I felt that I was in the presence of a very genuine, warm-hearted, generous, deeply awakened being, and his pointing that night had a strong impact on me. Years later, I watched many of his live satsangs in Rishikesh on YouTube in 2017, after stumbling upon them accidentally, and was again very powerfully affected by them. I even attended an on-line retreat after that, wrote to him, and received a very lovely reply. I have been aware that his current partner is a much younger woman, who is also a devotee, and whom I have seen many times on the videos. I recently also watched several of his 2019 satsangs in Rishikesh because I wanted to see him again, freshly, in light of all these rumors. And I’ve spoken to a number of friends about what they know, including one whose judgment I trust, who has spent time at Monte Sahaja, not as a devotee, who feels the rumors and allegations made by Be Scofield are mostly “malicious hearsay and gross exaggeration.” So that is my history with Mooji in a nutshell.
People (all of us) perceive the same situation in remarkably different ways. On several occasions, to give an example, I felt that my main teacher, Toni Packer, was attacking me (not physically or abusively, but very aggressively) in a group meeting, and then afterwards, I’d talk to a friend about it, someone who had also been there, and they’d say they saw only great tenderness and love in how she was with me. So then I’d listen to the tape and discover to my surprise that, not only had it not been the way I had initially felt it, but in fact, she didn’t even say some of the things I “heard” her say! These misunderstandings happen all the time in human relationships. And in a big, guru-centric, devotional bhakti scene like Mooji’s with huge crowds, it’s no surprise that things happen that may be misinterpreted. I’m not implying that none of these reports of abusive conduct are real—they very well may be—I’m only explaining why I don’t automatically believe that someone on Facebook whom I don’t know is correctly perceiving a situation that I did not personally witness, especially when the situation they are describing to me is subtle behavior and not obvious, overt abuse. I neither believe nor disbelieve. I simply don’t know.
As for Be Scofield’s scathing expose, I don’t trust her as a reliable source of information. I’m sure she has good intentions and means well, but she has a big agenda and a mission, and she has a reputation and self-image to uphold as “the most prominent writer in the world exposing cults and abusive gurus.” All of this gives her a very strong confirmation bias. She also writes about teachers and teachings that she doesn’t actually understand, except maybe in some academic or intellectual way. I shared on my FB page some time back an expose she did on Bentinho Massaro, and then later discovered it contained exaggerations and things taken out of context in a way that distorted their meaning. I read a critical article she wrote about Eckhart Tolle in Tikkun, and it was obvious that she had no understanding or direct experience of what Eckhart is pointing to, so she misunderstood and misinterpreted him. I can see from the video clips in her expose on Mooji that she has selected material that will easily look and sound bizarre to those looking at it from the outside, and she has spliced together things taken out of context to create an impression that flies in the face of what I have actually seen in my own experiences with Mooji. Many of the inflammatory quotes she provides are anonymous and we have no idea how credible the speaker is, what the backstory is, or how accurately Be is presenting what they said.
It’s quite possible that Mooji does have a shadow side, and that he has hurt people. I don’t doubt that this might be true. Most of us have hurt people in the course of our lives! There is a long list of great spiritual teachers who have done terrible things, and several of these imperfect but great teachers remain on the recommended books page on my website because I feel they had something important to offer, in spite of their imperfections. None of us are perfect. As Rumi said:
Good and bad are mixed
if you don't have both
you can't be here with us
Of course, I think it’s important for abusive behavior to be brought into the light and not covered up. And I think it’s great that people are questioning the potential strengths and weaknesses in different forms of teaching. I added a mention of the rumors to my website write-up on Mooji to serve as a caution, then later deleted that part as I don't want to help spread rumors that may be false, and my own experiences with Mooji have been entirely positive. You can read the whole review in its entirety on my website recommended books page (refresh the page if you’ve visited before to be sure you get the current version).
Again, I’m keeping an open mind. This review may change again as this continues to unfold. I know how painful it is not to be believed when you are speaking out, and I am still listening. What disturbs me, however, is when I sense a kind of zealous, self-righteous, lynch-mob mentality behind this “bring down the gurus” trend that seems to be happening lately, and a willingness to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have participated in this trend myself in a few instances, including when I shared Be’s expose on Bentinho, so I am not exempt or immune. I’m also very aware that the ego thrives on having enemies and something to oppose. And I’m acutely mindful of the shadow side of social media, which can spread malicious gossip and false information at lightning speed around the world. And finally, knowing my own shortcomings as well as I do, I feel compassion for the perpetrators as well as for the victims in these situations. We are all doing our best.
I pray for Mooji, for his sangha, for those who feel they have been hurt by him, and for all of us in our ever-evolving awakening journey—it’s a bumpy ride sometimes, and on the personal level, we’re all watching a completely unique movie of waking life. No wonder there’s so much conflict! But on another level, we are inseparable waves on One undivided ocean moving together in perfect harmony, even when it seems otherwise. And in my own case, putting my attention there—on the Heart of what is—feels like the greatest priority. And it is to this that Mooji so beautifully points. And for that, I bow to him and remain ever-grateful, even as I know he is a human being like the rest of us who has flaws and undoubtedly makes mistakes. I hope he can be honest about all this, whatever the truth may be. But whatever he may or may not have done, I still love him and consider him an excellent teacher. I hope this discussion can be carried out in a spirit of love and compassion and mutual respect.
Response to comment:
I appreciate what you share here. There are many people pushing now for some kind of oversight, ethical guidelines, or body of people to hear, evaluate and respond to allegations of abuse. I am personally skeptical of this idea. It may make sense within the context of a particular organization or lineage, such as what many Buddhist sanghas have been doing, but "nonduality" or "satsang" or "meditation" or "spirituality" (we can't even all agree on the right label) is a huge, amorphous collection of widely divergent teachings and teaching styles, with no one even in agreement about who belongs and who doesn't or what it's fundamentally all about, so it seems very difficult to imagine who will oversee this and on what basis. Some of the people who have advocated for this are not the people I'd want in charge. Who decides? So, that idea, as well-meaning as it is, seems very problematic to me, and could itself easily become a new kind of abuse in the form of censorship and false judgments. It's such a delicate balance, the importance of exposing and stopping and responding compassionately to abuse, on the one hand, and not getting lost in rumor-mongering and self-righteous crusades and witch trials on the other hand. But I'm glad we're all talking about it. That's a good beginning maybe.
Response to comment:
I think he probably ISN'T a good teacher for people who are psychologically and emotionally unbalanced, vulnerable and needy (beyond the norm). But just because a few people had breakdowns or even committed suicide doesn't make that his fault. No one could be more different in style from Mooji than my main teacher Toni Packer, who wouldn't even call herself a teacher. But one of her students committed suicide, and when I was on staff at Springwater, a man had a schizophrenic breakdown on a retreat. Does this mean Toni caused this or should have been able to prevent it? I think not. I agree that Mooji's pattern of having romantic relationships with very young women devotees is a red flag, and certainly flies in the face of what feminism and Western psychology would view as a healthy egalitarian relationship...but I'm not convinced it is necessarily toxic, abusive or terrible either. I don't know. And I don't know any of the women in his inner circle personally, I've never met them, but they look to me like intelligent, functional people.
Response to comment:
I feel everyone and everything is worthy of devotion in the best sense! And I feel immense gratitude for all my teachers, although I don't worship any of them or consider any of them infallible. To me, that is the real danger, regarding teachers as perfect and infallible authorities, not devotion per se. Having experienced the devotional path, I can testify that for some people, it can be a potent heart-opening, and that devotion to the guru and merging with them in the Heart can open doors otherwise locked. But I do not deny the dangers as well. Obviously, it has much potential to run amok.
Response to comment:
His style is definitely not for everyone. Somehow, none of the formality or devotion I see around him bothers me. In fact, all I see is immense love and joy and light. But I do have a bhakti side! And years ago, I studied karate with two different teachers. One was totally casual--no uniforms, no belts, no tests, no dojo etiquette...and the other was totally formal--uniforms, belts (which could never touch the ground), regular tests, and lots of ettiquette, like bowing to the teacher and never showing them the soles of your feet. Although I tend to be a very informal, casual person in my own life and teaching style, I excelled in the formal school in a way I didn't in the casual school, and it seemed connected to the formality. So I find everything has its place and time.
Response to comment:
I feel that a certain amount of disillusionment with the teacher is actually a vital part of the spiritual path. It forces us out of our projections, as you suggest. And I also think transference and "a love object" as you put it can all be vital and useful parts of the process.
Response to comment:
Yes, I'm afraid the list of gurus, Zen Masters and teachers who have done abusive things is long indeed. But the fact that they had a serious shadow side doesn't necessarily negate the truth of their essential teaching. At its best, disillusionment may help us get past the spiritual infancy stage of idealization and dependency, which doesn't mean we necessarily leave the teacher behind, but we recognize that what matters is where they are pointing and being awake ourselves Here and Now.
Response to a comment:
Maybe such behavior is neither "okay" nor "not okay." Maybe things aren't that black and white. I can imagine how such relationships could be beautiful for both of them, the guru and the devotee, and I can also imagine how it could end up being traumatic, harmful and disillusioning for the devotee. And then I can imagine how such trauma and disillusionment, if it happened, could end up being a doorway to deeper wisdom and awakening, or how it could end up in suicide or addiction. Many possibilities in all directions. No simple One Truth. So, based on what I know at this point, I don't pass judgment.
Also, it seems sad to me that we sometimes throw out the baby with the bathwater--i.e., if the teacher ends up being imperfect or disappointing (as all do, to one degree or another), does that mean we must throw away everything about them and their message that was beautiful and true? It seems to me we are all a mix of light and dark, and perhaps the shadow side is actually an important aspect of the teaching. I'm not offering that as a "crazy wisdom" excuse or rationalization, but as a simple truth that many of us have experienced, I'm sure.
Response to a comment:
I appreciate everything you say. I'm very glad people are talking openly about these issues. I do feel there are many grey areas between the kinds of obvious coercion and abuse, such as rape or molesting a small child, that most all of us would oppose, on the one side, and the kinds of sexuality and romantic love that most all of us would embrace as beautiful or morally acceptable, on the other. In between those obvious poles, there are--in my view--many grey areas, on which we will not all agree so easily because the situation is not as clear-cut. Is it ever okay for there to be a sexual or romantic relationship between a teacher and student, or between a 65 year old man and a 20 year old woman, or a 40 year old man and a 17 year old boy, or a person and their best friend's ex-partner, or a guru and a devotee who happily considers the guru their Master in every way? Some will see all these situations as abusive, pathological or unacceptable. Some will see all of them as totally okay, or potentially okay. Some will see them as borderline and somewhat questionable, but still feel that nevertheless, they might be okay. Some will see some of these situations are possibly okay, and some as definitely not okay. We won't all agree. To me, in the case in question, it depends a lot on the guru's intention, and on whether the devotee is consenting to (or perhaps initiating) this relationship from a place that is mentally or emotionally unstable, or from a deeper and truer place, and age alone does not reveal this, in my experience. It also depends on whether the relationship comes from and brings forth genuine happiness and love and serves both partners, or whether it is actually harming one or both of them.
Response to a comment:
Yes, sex is natural and can be wonderful, and in the absolute sense, there is no good and bad. Yes, everyone acts choicelessly, as life moves them to act. I’m not advocating guilt, shame or blame. But do you feel it is okay for a parent to have sex with their child? Or for the Catholic priest to molest the altar boy? Or for a grade school teacher to molest a student? Hopefully, you would want to prevent these kinds of things if you could, no?
And what about someone in a committed monogamous relationship getting into a sexual-romantic relationship with someone else? No problem?
Some situations are not as black and white as others. There are certainly grey areas. What about a spiritual teacher and student? To me, it depends on how mature the student is, not in terms of chronological age, but in terms of emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity. Is the student an experienced peer of the teacher? Or is the student inexperienced, vulnerable, unbalanced, needy, wounded and totally idealizing the teacher? Is the teacher promising the student that having sex with them will hasten their awakening or bring them closer to God?
We won’t all agree on where to draw the lines in these grey areas, or whether there is a place for so-called crazy-wisdom or for a devotional relationship that includes sex. But I wouldn’t want us to falsely apply absolute truth to relative situations across the board. Yes, it’s ALL What Is, AND What Is INCLUDES our ability (that comes from life itself) to make distinctions and act to prevent harm. We don’t just stand by and let a fire burn down a neighborhood, or a rapist continue to rape, or leave our beloved lying in the road in pain after they’ve just been hit by a bus because nothing really matters. That’s mixing up levels.
I don’t know what Mooji is or isn’t doing. But even IF he’s doing something I would not condone, and I don’t know if that’s the case, but IF it is, even then, I’m not advocating shaming, blaming, or guilt-tripping him, or labeling him an unnatural, aberrant monster. Maybe there is a more compassionate way of intervening in such a situation, with understanding for the causes and conditions driving the perpetrator and with space for that person to see and change. No?
Another response to another comment from the same person (who reveals she was raped by her stepfather from age 4 thru 12):
Thank you for sharing this. It is beautiful to realize what you have realized, that everything (in the deepest sense) belongs, and that our core essence (the totality itself—emptiness, consciousness, whatever we call it) is never damaged or broken. I feel the same way about many so-called "unfortunate" things that have happened in my life. It is beautiful to move past anger, blame, shame, guilt, vengeance, bitterness and all those feelings that arise when we do not see that bigger context and know ourselves as That. And it's beautiful to recognize that whatever happens is, as you say, perfect for our seeing. Beautiful, and I’m with you 100% on all of this.
But at the same time, in everyday relative human reality, I am very glad people are trying to call out and prevent the kind of abuse you experienced and other kinds of abuse—lynching black people, gang-raping women, treating animals with extreme cruelty, exterminating Jews, shooting Muslims who are worshipping in a mosque, selling children into sex slavery, polluting the earth, and so on. Yes, it’s all What Is. Yes, it’s all a dream-like movement in consciousness, a play of energy. Yes, it cannot at this moment be other than exactly how it is. And yet. Our responses to this are also What Is.
Yes, there is a kind of true acceptance and equanimity that can arise from insight and clarity, from the awareness of being the bigger context (the unicity), and from the felt-sense or intuitive knowing of a more subtle reality. This acceptance frees us from unnecessary suffering and from being swept away in harmful tsunamis of emotion-thought and destructive behaviors. But I find there is also a way that these same insights can be turned into ideas that we use as defense mechanisms against feeling pain and heartbreak and against healthy anger and grief—a way to dull our sensitivity and vulnerability, rather than a way of opening more deeply and fully. And it becomes a way to justify abuse. I’m not saying any of this is what you are doing. But it’s a concern that comes up for me in reading what you write.
As for monogamy—I’m not saying people “should” be monogamous. I was speaking of a hypothetical couple who have chosen and committed to monogamy breaking their vows. But I know many people who live happily in non-monogamous relationships, which is fine with me. Having tried both, I always preferred monogamy, but I don’t consider it more or less natural than non-monogamy. It sounds though like you have a lot of ideas about how all people should live, which is kind of the flip side of what you are protesting—people who have different ideas about how all people should live. Something to consider maybe.
Another response to same person:
I'm reminded of one of my favorite sayings by Mooji:
Do not remind the world
It is bound or suffering.
Remind the world
It is beautiful and free.
Or the words of a wild guru named Ngeton whom I was briefly with once upon a time: "Bring only Love and Openness to me, for everything else that arises is of the mind and an illusion."
Another response to further comments by same person:
This thread continues to haunt me. It is such a delicate line here. Because yes, at the deepest level, all is well, and we do not serve anyone by reinforcing their sense of being a victim. Byron Katie's Work is very powerful in this way. On the other hand, as you acknowledge, most people do not have the perspective you do, and certainly not most 4 year old children, and most people who suffer the kind of trauma and abuse that you suffered are impacted by it in very deep ways. Somehow I feel something is missing when we see only the Absolute Truth. What your stepfather did to you was wrong. That may be a forbidden statement in nondual spirituality, but it seems like such an obvious fact! Yes, undoubtedly he acted out of his own conditioning, his own pain and suffering, his own limited sensitivity, and so on. So we don't need to call it evil. We can have compassion for him. But to rape a child, especially one who trusts and depends upon you for survival, is just plain wrong--i.e., it is harmful, unkind, cruel. Yes, you can see that it was in some way perfect for you, and that's a beautiful discovery. But if you saw someone raping your own 4 year old daughter, or viciously kicking your beloved dog right in front of you, or yelling hurtful racist or sexist slurs at a child, would you not move to stop this if you could? Somehow, I feel both sides of this gestalt are simultaneously true, and to deny either is to miss half the truth. But I deeply appreciate this thread--it continues to unfold within me. So, thank you!
Another response to further comments by same person:
Yes, as I see it, You (as the One Self) CAN be a helpless child! Yes, you CAN suffer. And certainly, as a human being, one is often helpless in the face of life's events. I'm sure it was painful for Jesus to be betrayed by his friends and nailed to a cross. Not a fun way to die. But Jesus was an adult with deep understanding. If anyone had the capacity to meet that pain, he did. But you were a 4 year old child. It's OKAY to feel pain, to acknowledge suffering. It doesn't diminish you or make you less strong or take away the ways you were able to survive. Because I see what was done to you as hurtful and wrong doesn't mean I see you as weak. Obviously, you have great strength and insight. But yes, as a child, you were helpless. You were dependent on the adults. And yes, as I see it, we are all BOTH fragile AND resilient, BOTH vulnerable AND (in the deepest sense) indestructible. It's not either/or. And I'm not convinced that it all comes down to the story we tell. Yes, that's a big part of it. But much of what we've learned in recent years about PTSD shows that it's not just a story. It's also in the body, at levels below conscious awareness. And while I deeply appreciate what Mooji and Ngeton were saying in the quotes I shared, I would not want that to become some rigid stance whereby we cannot talk about injustice, trauma, grief, or suffering--that to be "spiritually correct" or "enlightened' we must bottle it all up and put on a smiley face. I don't think that's what Mooji or Ngeton where suggesting, nor do I think it's what you are suggesting, but that's the danger of trying to erase pain as if it doesn't exist. Many previous generations simply denied trauma, especially men had to act as if nothing had happened. Be tough. Don't show weakness. Never be vulnerable. More recently, we've begun to talk about trauma and learn more about it. And maybe sometimes now we go too far in the other direction, giving it too much importance. To me, it's about balance. I just don't think it's either/or.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. Losing an arm very early in life was painful in some ways, especially emotionally, but being seen as “handicapped” and being pitied was the worst thing imaginable for me, so I cultivated a strong image. I made jokes. I never cried. As a young adult, I was tough. Eventually, I literally had no awareness of ever feeling sad or afraid. Of course, I HAD these feelings, but they were so completely suppressed that it took being in therapy for me to FEEL fear, to FEEL sad, to allow myself to cry. Having one arm has been a blessing in so many ways. I don’t regret it. But I no longer have to convince myself and everyone else that it has not involved any kind of pain either. Because it has. I don’t want pity, for sure, but allowing myself to acknowledge my vulnerability has felt like a strength, not a weakness. Again, not either/or.
Another response to same person:
I do understand and also experience what you are speaking about, at least I feel I do. Perhaps I don't, and you have reached a depth far greater than I anything I have experienced, that is certainly possible. But I'm just wondering if maybe there is space Here in this vastness for multiple perspectives, realities and experiences to co-exist (I feel there is), and I'm pointing to the possibility that realizing the Absolute does not have to mean dismissing the relative. In other words, it is possible, in my experience, to transcend suffering, to go beyond anger and hurt, to realize unconditional love, to recognize the nondual truth that is beyond good and evil, to have love and compassion for everyone, AND also to see that raping a child (or shooting people in a mosque, or exterminating Jews, or factory farming practices, etc) are wrong. That may be a forbidden word in certain nondual circles, but I am suggesting there is a bigger view that includes it ALL.
What do I mean by wrong? Immoral, harmful, hurtful...rooted in ignorance, delusion, greed, erroneous beliefs, lack of sensitivity...cruel. Obviously, there is no single moral or ethical code upon which all of us will agree, and postmodern thought has often favored a kind of absolute relativism, and various forms of absolutist nonduality have (in my view) become fixated in the absolute, and given to spiritual by-passing. There is deep truth in moral relativism and absolute nonduality, but in my opinion, both can get stuck on one side of a polarity and then become false.
I honestly don't know what the "answer" is here, but when I hear that all ideas of good and evil, right and wrong, etc. are meaningless, something in me feels that something essential is being missed. I heard one teacher say that rape is unconditional love, and another said that the Holocaust was liberation. Those statements intuitively felt off to me, although I understood (and could appreciate) where they were coming from, but I think they are off the mark. Rape and genocide are certainly aspects of What Is, and it is possible to behold them in unconditional love and to find liberation even in the midst of them--as you have done. But are these actions themselves unconditional love or liberation? If they are, these words lose all meaning it seems to me.
I am certainly not trying to convince you that you should suffer or be angry--that isn't my intention at all. Perhaps what we're trying to clarify here is too subtle to unpack in FB comments. So I think I will stop trying to express what I'm trying to express because I feel we are not meeting, not really hearing in some way. But I thank you for being here and for sharing all that you have. It is, I feel, a valuable contribution to this whole larger discussion, and it has certainly opened up a rich exploration for me. I wish you all the best.
Another response to the same person:
Upon reflection, I think XLH-J and I have much common ground here. We both acknowledge that we feel sorrow over many of the things that happen in this world, and both say that if we saw abuse taking place in front of us, if we could, we would try to stop it. We both seem to agree that the perpetrator is an innocent force of nature, like a hurricane or a tsunami, acting choicelessly, the outcome of infinite causes and conditions, and that “they are ignorant of the truth of what they are.” We both agree that when that truth is realized, such actions are not possible from that realization. We both agree that thinking of ourselves or others as victims is not helpful. We both agree that “suffering is the result of my desire for things to be different,” and I resonate very much with her statement that, “when I stop pretending that I know what is happening and what things are for, and admit that I really know nothing, I can let go of my investment in making the world a ‘better’ place, I can love what ‘is’ with no reservation, and I can face the past with no regret and the future with no fear.”
It seems that where we disagreed had to do with the concept that certain actions are “wrong” or “bad” or “should not happen.” In other words, a sense of moral right and wrong. I still have a toe in such beliefs, and she seems to have left them completely behind. She also seems more fully rooted in the absolute truth, while I seem to see the possibility that multiple perspectives (relative and absolute, spiritual and political) might all be true.
We both seem to have moved in some way as a result of our conversation. So in that sense, we have met. And if we could sit down face to face, and unpack what we mean by some of the things we have said, I am guessing we would both hear and move even more.
For me, this whole thread is connected to a koan I’ve been living with ever since I left the world of political activism for the world of spirituality and nonduality almost 4 decades ago now. Both political activism (social justice work) and spirituality have something to do with the alchemy of how we transmute suffering into love. The political world sees the external causes of suffering (economics, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so on), and the spiritual world sees the internal causes (the sense of separation, of self and other, the resistance to what is, the ignorance of our True Nature, and so on). My own sense is that both these perspectives have a piece of the truth. I cannot ignore either side of this equation, although my own focus has certainly shifted from the external to the internal. (And, of course, ultimately, they are not two).
I often feel that there is some obstacle here in my attachment to the political perspective, something that pulls me back from the deepest possible spiritual opening. I can also feel my old familiar desire to land somewhere, to figure this out once and for all, to find the One Correct Answer to this koan--and my discomfort with the unresolvability, indeterminacy and ambiguity that are so inherent in What Is, or at least, in our attempts to make sense of it.
A deep bow of gratitude to you, X Lyn Holmes-Johnson. And a line from a very wonderful book I'm reading, Let the Moon Be Free by Eric Baret: "Pretending to know what is right is violence."
ON HOLDING MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES AND NOT LANDING ANYWHERE:
This is how I introduce the Recommended Books page on my website:
“This list of recommended authors and books is in no way intended to be a comprehensive, definitive or authoritative list of nondual or spiritual books. I'm not endorsing every single word spoken or written by any of these authors (including Joan Tollifson). The list includes books from a variety of different perspectives, and in many cases, they may seem to contradict each other. Some of them say that life (including you and your whole spiritual journey) is nothing but a dream-like illusion, while others say this present happening is all there is. Some insist that there is nothing to do other than exactly what is happening, while others offer some kind of apparent process, practice or method for waking up. Some seem to suggest that "you" have the power of choice, while others say that everything is the result of infinite causes and conditions and that there is no one apart from this whole happening to direct or control it. Some say liberation is found in the realization of complete impermanence while others insist it comes with the recognition of that which never changes. Some insist that Consciousness is all there is, while others accept the prevailing materialist view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, and still others say there is no way to know what this is. Who has it right? What should you believe? No words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don't believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. The book that wakes you up one day may lull you to sleep the next. Always be ready to question your conclusions and to see something new and unexpected.”
In spite of what I’ve written here and the variety of authors I recommend on that page, and in spite of my life-long eclectic tendencies and inability to settle on any one way of seeing or speaking about this subject (whatever this subject even is!), I have also spent many years trying to determine which way of seeing things is The Best, The Truest, The Most Correct, The Highest, The Most Evolved, The Most Subtle, The Most Enlightened, The Most Radical, The Most Non-Dual, etc. And I have envied those teachers who seem to have a consistent, settled way of seeing, a consistent focus, a consistent message, wondering why I can’t be like them.
Bernard Guy has had an immensely liberating effect on me recently (see his piece that I shared the other day here), because he doesn’t land on one way of seeing. And the SAND talk by Almaas and Karen Johnson that I just shared also had a hugely liberating effect on me the other night in this same way. You might think this is something I’ve recognized before—don’t I often say as much? But as is so often the case, we teach what we need to learn, and we seem to get the same essential lessons, insights and revelations again and again, perhaps ever-more-clearly or in ever-deeper ways. And in the last few days, reading Bernard and seeing this video, I’ve had a new level of revelation in this regard. I’ve also appreciated this kind of openness to unresolvability and multiple perspectives in John Astin and Peter Brown. And in Toni Packer, of course, who was always open to seeing something new.
I’m reminded of a private meeting I had with Toni once on a retreat back in the 90’s—and this may be helpful to those who have worshipped a guru and then been disillusioned, because it strikes to the very root of what has been lost. For me, it was a huge moment of revelation. I had been thinking—while sitting in silence—about how I would react if Toni suddenly turned her back on all of this, if she suddenly announced that she now realized it was all a bunch of crap. Here’s the excerpt from Bare-Bones Meditation:
I began to wonder again about my dependency on Toni. I went into a meeting during retreat and brought it up. How would I feel if tomorrow Toni turned around and left us, saying that she was into something else now and that this whole thing had been a huge mistake. Would I be devastated?
"What's the whole thing?" Toni asks.
I laughed and laughed and laughed.
Because that's the problem. I've got a HUGE "Thing" in my mind that I'm dragging along, trying to maneuver, alternately fighting with or chasing after. This enormous dead object that talks, and it's nothing but thought!
"There can't just be nothing!" I said, laughing—but I was serious. It's too simple! I was quoting P'ei Hsiu in his dialogue with Huang Po that Toni reads to us at the end of retreats:
“Q: What is the Way and how must it be followed?
A: What sort of THING do you suppose the Way to be, that you should wish to FOLLOW it?
Q: Should we not seek for anything at all?
A: By conceding this, you would save yourself a lot of mental effort.
Q: But in this way everything would be eliminated. There cannot just be nothing.
A: Who called it nothing? Who told you to eliminate anything? Look at the void in front of your eyes. How can you produce it or eliminate it?”
In the meeting room later, feeling how I want something from Toni, from our meeting, some final and permanent insight that will set me free forever. Listening to the wanting and to an airplane passing overhead. The thought comes up, the airplane isn't enough.
"The airplane isn't enough," Toni says, "but the listening is. It can get so quiet."
And here’s just a bit more from Bare-Bones:
I was looking more and more deeply at wanting. Wanting experiences. Wanting to Get Somewhere. Wanting final, permanent enlightenment. Wanting to know, to understand, to figure it all out, to get it. Wanting security. The fear of everything blowing away. Wanting to control, to manage my life, to hold on. Seeing the mind doing this on ever more subtle levels.
Toni: “All of this experience-mongering, wanting enlightenment and so forth, is a form of resistance. In a flow without resistance you don't have to know how you're doing. It's alive. It's the airplane. The wind. You know, it's such a relief to realize that we don't have to be anything.”
(excerpted from Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, published in 1996).
Different Movies: Take Two
We all see a completely unique movie of waking life. It's like when you go to a movie with a friend and afterwards it's as if you've seen two entirely different movies. You loved it; they hated it. You saw the main character as lovable; they saw him as a twisted villain. Such is life.
I wrote a post earlier this week about a beloved teacher who is under fire, possibly for good reasons. I made myself vulnerable by putting it out there that I had a positive connection with this person, and that I see a beautiful being full of light where others see an abusive, ego-driven narcissist.
Who is correct? Is anyone actually “out there” in some observer-independent way, the Real Man, the objective truth, what “really” happened?
I’m not (and I wasn’t) saying that I know this guru is innocent of the rumors that so many seem to be getting off in some way on spreading, only that, as I see it, some of these allegations are obviously distortions, exaggerations and misunderstandings. I pointed out how many of them are based on a report that is no more credible in my opinion than an article in the National Enquirer or any other sensationalistic tabloid. I am amazed by how willing we humans are (myself included) to judge someone we have never really listened to or seen, and how vicious we can be in attacking something we do not understand or have not experienced. But then, an unbelievable number of people in this country still believe that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring. Social media has a dangerous shadow side worse than any guru.
I am not equating the serious and possibly true allegations about this guru with those utterly ridiculous claims about Hillary. I am not belittling any real harm this guru may have done or the very real pain anyone has felt. I’m not unaware of sexual abuse and how painful it can be. Three women I know personally were sexually abused by spiritual teachers in years past, and many women I know were brutally raped or sexually abused as children. I lost my virginity at age 17 when an older man I worked for came on to me sexually in a way that was totally inappropriate and, as I realized only decades later, abusive. I had many other experiences with men that were creepy or abusive. Back then, no one talked about these things. Sexism and misogyny were the unquestioned natural order, as were racism and heterosexism. It was another era. Young people today really have no idea what it was like back then. And obviously, although we’ve come a long way, we have a long way yet to go. The President of the United States is, after all, a proud pussy-grabber and racist who loves to stir up hatred and division. The emperor (or should I say the empire) has no clothes as never before in my lifetime (and that’s a high bar).
Being only a few years younger than me, this teacher I wrote about was raised in the same era I was, and in his case, in another culture, another country. He was not wealthy, or privileged in some of the ways I was. He isn’t white, and I’ve even heard him being accused of sleeping with “young European women,” which I think is code for young white women. How dare he? (Again, I am not excusing actual abuse if it is occurring).
I have personally not experienced the scene around this guru as sick and twisted, but as beautiful and full of light. I have seen wonderfully international, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, inter-generational gatherings of people filled with love. I have not seen him as a cruel narcissist, but as someone truly dedicated to waking people up. I see a man who is pouring out his heart and giving his life whole-heartedly in service to that. I see a man who wants people to hear his message, to wake up, not kiss his feet. I've even heard him ask people not to kiss his feet, although he doesn’t refuse them either, but he always seems to me to be far more interested in clarifying the essential matter than having people ramble on about how much they adore him. But admittedly, I’ve never seen him “off stage,” so to speak. I’ve never been to his ashram-retreat center. I’ve had limited exposure, almost all of it on-line. But I’ve seen much more of him than many of the people criticizing him!
Can I imagine this teacher having a shadow side? Yes, I can. I am long past the stage of idealizing teachers and imagining them to be infallible. But my overwhelming sense has been of a man with a fundamentally good heart, a sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, much clarity and insight, and a genuine caring for people. And perhaps because I understand very clearly what he is pointing to, not just intellectually or theoretically, but experientially, I am less prone to mishearing parts of it in some of the ways people do who haven’t yet had that insight or awakening. Spiritual pointers are easily misunderstood.
The scene around him is one I would not, years ago, have imagined myself ever feeling positively about. I was raised by atheist-agnostics, I had a top-notch education in critical thinking, my main spiritual teacher (Toni Packer) totally eschewed spiritual authority, devotion and hierarchy and worked in a very non-authoritarian, egalitarian way, and I’m a feminist. For many years, I looked upon people who got into devotional relationships with gurus as immature people caught up in false projections, magical thinking and delusional beliefs. But to my great surprise, midway through life, I found something beautiful and liberating in this kind of bhakti satsang scene. I found a heart-opening, a willingness to be vulnerable, to lose control, to be a fool, to be in love, to let loose, to lose face, to be wild. I have loved bhajans, and I have sung my heart out. Previously, I gravitated only to scenes that were plain and simple, bare-bones, Quaker-like. Elaborate stagecraft (as one friend calls it) turned me off completely. But then, again to my surprise, I saw beauty where before I had seen only pretentious posturing. I am not surprised that others see all this so differently from how I do, for I once looked through eyes like theirs and held the same views myself. And of course, I fully support efforts to expose and stop serious abuse.
In the course of these last few days, dealing with the post I had written and all the comments I was getting, including private messages, was consuming way too much time and energy. I wondered if I had been totally hypnotized by an abusive guru, the one I now seemed to be defending. I remembered my disillusionment in recent years after discovering that a man I had thought was a dear friend, and whose teaching career and book I had promoted, was not who I thought he was.
At the same time that all this was unfolding with this post and everything it was bringing up, I was sometimes in excruciating physical pain, as I have been for a while now, due to a medical condition that they initially thought was metastasizing cancer, but that they now believe is probably “just” degenerating bones, insufficiency fractures, arthritis and severe muscle spasms. Another diagnostic test is coming up next week, so once again, the sword of uncertainty hangs over my head. On a few occasions in recent days, finding myself unable to move because of pain, I broke down crying, which I don’t do very easily. I felt alone and vulnerable, aware of this body crumbling and of what might lie ahead if I can no longer function independently. I had a few passing moments of the darkest depression—moments that gave way into great light, as so often happens.
All of that doesn't excuse my being short-tempered, but it may help to explain it, at least in part. I found myself growing more and more irritated with some of the people commenting on my post, and I began leaving mean-spirited responses to comments that irked me. I heard I was being bashed on various other FB pages, and people who were trying to expose this teacher’s abuses told me that they were also experiencing a terrible backlash against them. Apparently, the spiritual community can be quite nasty and close-minded and judgmental all around, myself included. And social media gives everyone permission to unleash in callous ways they never would face to face. It all began to feel toxic to me, including (perhaps especially) what was going on in myself.
I erased my post. But even though it has been erased, many people read it. Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the ripples continue. And maybe it has contributed something to the dialog. Maybe not. We all play our different parts, choicelessly. The abused, the abuser, the judge, the judged, the hero and the villain, the guru and the devotee, the sober rationalist and the drunken lover. Which is which? Who can say?
I end where I began: We all see a completely unique movie of waking life. It's like when you go to a movie with a friend and afterwards it's as if you've seen two entirely different movies. You saw the main character as lovable or at least understandable and forgivable; they saw him as an unforgiveable twisted villain. Such is life. Maybe we even see “the same” movie again ourselves and see an entirely different movie! Life is like that—mutable and unresolvable. We never actually can see the same movie, or step into the same river, twice. There is no single right answer. No One Truth. And yet, how easily we all (myself included) fall into the illusion of certainty. How easily we take sides and stick to our positions. We think the movie we saw was reality. And in a certain sense, it was. But that reality is nothing solid or persisting or final. It is ever-changing, ephemeral, as ungraspable as water, as formless as smoke. And in every instant, we are each doing the only possible, as waves in an undivided ocean moving as life compels us. A friend quoted Rumi recently: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
Namaste to all.
Reality Is Simple
Reality is very simple. It’s just this. The sound of rain, the taste of tea, the sensations in the body, the cool breeze on the skin, the sound of the airplane passing overhead. In this simple experiencing, there is no subject and object, just undivided presence. Not those word-labels, but the seamless reality, the direct experiencing, to which they point. Simple, simple, simple. Just This.
Thinking shows up, conversations happen, we watch the News, we read Facebook posts, emotions arise—and suddenly reality seems much more complicated. We have the sense, intermittently, of being “me” and not “you,” of being “here” and not “over there,” of believing “this” and not “that.” And this is how reality functions—it’s not a problem. It’s the Great Play, the dance of polarity. Opinions arise, storylines, ethical questions, differences of opinion, arguments, agreements. We seem to have various problems that need to be addressed—a broken door, a bad knee, a flat tire, a sick dog, a difficult co-worker. And yet, ALL of this is also happening choicelessly and effortlessly—even the apparent efforts and choices we seemingly make.
Urges arise. Interests arise. Opinions arise. Stories arise. Decisions happen. Emotional weather passes through—happy, sad, fearful, angry, depressed, anxious, blissful, joyous. Different experiences show up—waking, dreaming, the no-experience of deep sleep. We feel alternately energetic or tired, passionate or bored, calm or agitated. We fall in love, we get divorced. Babies are born, people die. Empires rise and fall. Solar systems come and go. Pain happens, and pleasure. An infinite kaleidoscopic array of ever-changing experiences. And if we observe closely, they are all happening by themselves, effortlessly and choicelessly. And they all happen right here at zero distance. Even the appearance of “over there,” even the appearance of time and space, past and future, here and there ALL appear right here at zero distance—utterly immediate, no gap, no seer apart from what is seen, simply undivided seeing-being.
Thought draws lines around what is actually fluid and inseparable, thus creating “things” out of no-thing-ness. It labels these conceptual creations and puts them into categories. The baby sees only colors, shapes, textures and movements—one whole happening. The adult sees tables and chairs, mothers and fathers, teachers and students, awareness and content, meaning and purpose, good and evil. But it’s all one undivided happening, even the labeling, the categorizing, the formulating, the mapping, the evaluating, the planning, the remembering, the problem-solving—and it’s all happening effortlessly and choicelessly.
Thought claims ownership, assigns responsibility, parcels out credit and blame. “I did it,” or “You did it,” or “They did it,” or “He should have done it,” or “I could have done it better, if only….” And ALL of this happens effortlessly and choicelessly. The apparent author-thinker-chooser-decider-actor-doer is a mental image, a neurological sensation, a thought, a memory, an idea. It all arises by itself.
We have a spiritual story: “I” must get rid of “me.” This is a great game! Nothing is trying to get rid of nothing so that nothing can be a better nothing. What fun! How sweet! What an adventure! Maybe we should go to India…or take up meditation…maybe that will help!
And ALL of that apparently happens. Our trip to India, the hours of meditation, the hope, the disillusionment, the promise, the despair. Thought says, “I got it!” And then it says, “I lost it!” And then it wonders, “How can I get it back and keep it?” It’s a wonderful movie, happening to no one. And it all happens effortlessly and choicelessly, even the apparent “choice” to meditate, even the apparent “effort” of following the breath or labeling the thoughts or making enough money to pay for our trip to India. It seems so amazingly complicated, and thought says, “I have to make this happen (or I might fail and not survive).”
But reality itself is simple, no matter how complex and difficult and divided up and dualistic it seems. It is always Just This. Exactly as it is. Ever-changing yet always Here-Now, immediate and present, never the same way twice, yet always Just This.
Everything is a choiceless movement of an ungraspable, inconceivable and indivisible presence. There is space Here-Now for everything to be exactly as it is, and it is never the same way for more than an instant. Human beings with our complex brains have a habit of overlooking our actual present experiencing in favor of a conceptual story that we have learned—we overlook the territory itself, which is alive, and try to live in an (inaccurate and misleading) map.
By giving open attention to our actual direct experiencing here-now, by looking and listening rather than always try to think our way to clarity, by feeling into this spacious awaring presence that we are, we can discover that we are like moving waves in the Ocean—each of us is a momentary, ever-changing, fluid movement of the whole Ocean. We are not actually separate from the other waves, and we are never anything but the Ocean. We cannot go off in a direction other than the one in which the Ocean is moving, and when we “die,” we subside back into the Ocean that we never actually left.
The Ocean includes big waves and small ones, stormy seas and placid ones—but it is one, whole, undivided happening without borders or seams. Only when we identify exclusively as the wave do we worry that we are “too small” or “too big” or about what will happen to “me” when “I” die, as if a waving movement has ever been any solid, persisting “thing” to begin with, or as if it has ever been apart from the Ocean.
The true “I” to which we all refer prior to name and form is the Ocean. And we don’t have to stop being a wave to realize that we are the Ocean. The Ocean loves waving; waving is an activity or expression of the Ocean. To paraphrase Rumi, “You are not a wave in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a wave.” So wave on in whatever way you are being expressed, which you cannot help doing. And do not fear returning (at the moment of death) to the place you have never left.
Response to a comment:
Yes, I resonate completely. Reality seems to be holographic or fractal in nature, like the jewels in Indra's Net, each a reflection of all the others, each part containing the whole. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Not one, not two. Kabir had a line much like Rumi's. Kabir said, “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”
Response to a comment:
That's all part of the ocean's dance, isn't it? Our urges, thoughts, opinions, actions, etc? Nothing is left out!
Paradoxes abound in reality. Or more accurately, reality SEEMS paradoxical and mysterious whenever we think about it and try to capture it in the net of words, concepts and formulations. Any place we try to land dissolves beneath us. Here are some examples of this:
Waking up is immediate, only NOW, absolutely instantaneous and complete. AND it is a process, unfolding over apparent time with different stages (not always linear, often repeating, never exactly the same for any two people, and—like everything else in reality—impossible to pin down, but nonetheless different and identifiable).
You are always already 100% Here-Now! This is IT! THIS is timeless. Ever-present. Always complete. AND you can never arrive because NOW keeps unfolding, and anything you try to grasp turns out to be ungraspable, unresolvable, indeterminate, impermanent. There is no finish-line.
Everyone is equally IT. AND there are obvious and undeniable differences between apples and oranges, between enlightenment and delusion, between different stages of development, different levels of complexity, and different degrees of subtlety.
Singularity includes multiplicity; nonduality includes duality; unicity includes discernment, differentiation and endless variety. We cannot have heads without tails, up with down, left without right. There are no one-sided coins or one-ended sticks. The ceiling is “up” relative to the floor and “down” relative to the sky. There is no absolute up or down. Without a boundary or a context, there is no up or down at all—polarities do not exist in boundless, undifferentiated, infinite, unicity. And yet, there is no such “thing” as boundless, undifferentiated, infinite, unicity. There is only THIS, Here-Now, just as it is.
Everything is THIS (consciousness, presence, Here-Now, energy, intelligence, the Tao, unicity, the vibrant dance of existence, whatever you want to label it); there is only THIS; THIS is equally present in and as every different experience, it is the ocean in every wave. AND whatever-this-is, is ever-changing, totally impermanent, never the same way twice, infinitely varied and impossible to grasp.
This presence is obvious, unavoidable and never not here. AND it is ungraspable and unlocatable. It is at once invisible AND visible everywhere. It is no-thing AND everything.
The relative IS the absolute and the absolute is nothing other than the relative. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
There is only Here-Now. Nothing is outside of Here, and nothing ever happens before or after Now. AND there are trips to the moon, vacations in faraway lands, childhood memories and histories of the world (and thankfully, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel every day). There is an ability to imagine future possibilities, to plan for possible contingencies, and a never-finished, ever-unfolding realization that never leaves Here-Now, but is never the same way twice! It is never finished, but always complete.
There are infinite ways that reality experiences itself—as pure consciousness in deep sleep, as a person, as a feeling of anger, as a thunderstorm, as a bout of depression, as lovemaking, as war, as a subatomic wavicle, as a galaxy, as a dog, as a rock, as form, as emptiness, as the activities we call reading a novel or having a job or paying taxes or raising children or making love or getting drunk, as a beautiful sunset, as a heap of garbage, as random acts of kindness, as a genocide, as a baby, as an old person, as a particle, as a wave, as light, as energy, as night dreams, as waking life, as absolutely EVERYTHING.
There are many layers of reality: subatomic particles, cells, organs, bodies, families, communities, nations, planets, galaxies—they are all valid. It’s not like we must remain only with the subatomic level or perspective and renounce the community perspective or the body perspective. It’s ALL included.
But we have a deeply habitual tendency to fixate on one view, and a deep desire to pin down The One True Way or the One True Nonduality or THE Common Factor in every different experience, or THE Ground of being, or THE Ultimate Reality, or THE Highest Spiritual Truth, or whatever it is we are trying to decisively pin down with absolute certainty, but reality itself refuses to be pinned down or neatly resolved in this way. It is forever slipping out of our conceptual boxes and revealing new or opposite aspects of itself.
As I said to someone in a comment recently, you don't have to stop being a wave to realize yourself as the ocean. When teachings (at least the ones I resonate with or offer) point to no self, they are not totally denying the person, or the body, or the personality, or the neurological sensation of being an independent agent with free will apparently making choices, or our everyday experiences as a human being. But if we look closely at any of these "things," we find they don't actually hold up—they don’t have the solidity, the persistence, the continuity, or the independent existence that we THINK they do.
When we look for the "me" who seems to be living my life, making my choices, authoring my thoughts, having my experiences, and so on, we cannot find any such entity. All we find are ever-changing thoughts, sensations, mental images, memories, stories. We point to our baby picture and say, “That’s me,” but what remains of that baby? Every cell has long since been replaced.
If we watch closely and carefully as choices or decisions happen, we find no one in control of the process. Thoughts arguing for different possibilities pop up by themselves, and we cannot make the decisive moment arrive any sooner than it does, nor can we say exactly how it happens when it does. “I have decided to quit smoking” is a thought that arises by itself, and that thought has no power. It may or may not be followed by never smoking again. “I quit smoking” is another thought, a thought posing as “me,” the phantom agent who is supposedly in charge, claiming credit after the fact. This doesn’t mean we “shouldn’t” try to quit smoking—it simply means that ALL our intentions, urges, desires, plans, commitments, abilities, lack of abilities, and actions arise from the Whole and not from the phantom “me.” To realize this is to be free from guilt, blame, shame and the desire to punish ourselves or others. (And that doesn’t mean we let serial killers or child molesters go free, but simply that we know they acted in the only way possible when they did what they did).
If we look for a boundary where inside turns into outside, we find there isn't one. We can THINK of a boundary or picture one (“my skin,” for example), but if we tune into the felt-sensory actuality, we find no boundary at all. And if we examine “the skin” with a powerful microscope, we find it is porous and permeable, not solid—all kinds of things move through it. Anything we examine closely, including any apparent boundary, dissolves into infinite boundlessness.
In this sense, there is no self, no wave, no ocean, no form, no emptiness, nothing that can be pinned down. But relatively speaking, in everyday life, of course you are George or Tomas or Jennifer, and I am Joan, and you are in one country, and I am in another, and you are 30 and I am 70, and so on. We don't deny all of that or try to erase it. But we also see both a bigger picture and a more subtle reality. We see that this everyday movie of waking life is very much like a movie or a dream—the apparent objects, people and events, if examined closely, don’t have the solidity, the independent existence, the continuity or the permanence we think they do. No two of us see anything in exactly the same way, and even the notion that there are two (or billions) of us is an appearance IN the movie (or the dream), something we can never verify with absolute certainty because all we ever have is present experiencing.
We cannot deny being here, being present, being aware. But we cannot grasp what exactly we mean by any of those words. And as for what this whole appearance is, or why it’s here, or what will happen next….we are utterly clueless. We have lots of ideas and theories, lots of opinions, lots of predictions and measurements and so on…we can apparently send human beings to the moon, diagnose a brain tumor and remove it surgically, figure out what happened billions of years ago, predict how climate change will probably unfold, and so on, but at the bottom-line, we have no idea what any of this is, or how it happens, or what will happen next. And as the old Zen koan says, not-knowing is most intimate. Not knowing is open. It doesn’t land anywhere. It doesn’t fixate. It doesn’t conclude. This open, non-grasping, non-dwelling, non-clinging way of being is true freedom, true wonderment. It’s a never-ending falling away of everything we grasp.
AND, we can’t even land there, on non-grasping. Because maps and labels and categories and formulations and the ability to grasp and thinking and conceptualizing and so on are all part of this whole happening. They too are IT. Everything has its place. So we don’t reject all these things. But perhaps we learn to hold them more tentatively, with less certainty…to return again and again to what Suzuki Roshi called beginner’s mind, this placeless place of not-knowing that is always right here, right now. This alive immediacy, this open wonder—at once absolutely simple AND infinitely complex. Inconceivable and totally obvious.
“If we want to live without suffering, we first have to learn to live with it. When suffering is welcomed so completely that there is not the slightest resistance to it, what we are seeking, by trying to get rid of it, is revealed at its heart.”
– Rupert Spira
Response to a comment:
Well, I hear this quote from Rupert quite differently from how you both do! I don't hear it as being about reaching some ideal or perfect state in the future, but rather, about how we meet suffering in the moment, NOW. And I don't hear this as Rupert telling people to TRY, and certainly not to fake it, but more as a gentle invitation to be fully present with the suffering. That means feeling it in the body, sensing it, seeing the thoughts that trigger and sustain it, being aware of this whole happening, without resisting it, judging it, trying to escape from it, analyzing it or acting it out. Simply BEING it, whole-heartedly. And I am quite sure Rupert understands very well that we cannot always "do" this, that sometimes old habitual conditioning will over-power this new possibility and we WILL resist or try to escape (smoke, drink, yell at somebody, whatever we do), and I'm quite sure he would invite us to meet THAT with the same open awareness and compassionate presence--not judging ourselves or striving for perfection. I don't hear ANY notion here of "somebody" who "should" be doing this "permanently." That's the thinking mind. I'm sure Rupert would say, see that thought for what it is--a thought.
Response to a comment:
I hear this quote as about how to meet suffering in the moment, via acceptance and fully feeling it, and not trying to eliminate it. (See my previous response for more). I'm with you totally that idealized notions of enlightenment just generate more suffering. I also think the word suffering gets used in different ways. Physical pain and difficult circumstances are part of life. As are natural emotions such as fear, grief, anger, and so on, although humans have a tendency to compound and perpetuate these in psychological ways that no other animal does. It's also true, imo, that conditions such as depression or anxiety may be rooted in physical conditions. Expecting all of that to disappear would be foolish. But obviously, we humans do have a tendency to make those things much worse and much more painful than they would be for any other animal. And so it seems to me that we are all learning more skillful ways of meeting these experiences, and that it is to this that Rupert is pointing here. Yes?
It’s All for Your Benefit: A Koan
There’s an old Zen koan about two monks, washing their bowls in the creek, who see two birds fighting over a frog, tearing it apart. One monk asks the other, “Why does it have to be like this?” And the master monk replies, “It’s all for your benefit.” (or as it’s sometimes translated, it’s only for your benefit).
What on earth does that mean? Gang rape, genocide, torture, children sold into sex slavery, environmental destruction, mass shootings, war, the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms—all of this is only for my benefit!!??
A long thread emerged on a recent post of mine that went deep into this whole issue. It was one of my posts about the rumors of sexual misconduct that have been circulating about a popular guru. Someone commented there suggesting that all our rules of right and wrong, good and bad, are made up, and that sexuality is wonderful and natural, no problem. I replied, questioning if she felt the same way about incest, rape, Catholic priests molesting young boys, and so on. She then revealed that she had been raped by her stepfather from ages 4 through 12, and that after many years of suffering and being angry, suicidal, passive-aggressive, and so on, she woke up to a different possibility. She no longer sees what happened to her as bad, and she no longer sees herself as a victim. We had a long and involved conversation there in the FB thread that seemed to move us both. For me, it stirred up this whole question. Why is life like this? Why are things being torn apart? Why is there suffering? How do we understand and meet this reality?
This person and I both seemed to see the perpetrators of abuse as an innocent force of nature, like a hurricane or a tsunami, acting choicelessly, the outcome of infinite causes and conditions, and we both agreed that seeing oneself and others as victims is not helpful. But I seemed to be holding on to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, that she seemed to have dropped.
Like many of you, I care about political issues (i.e., social and economic justice, caring for the environment, humane treatment of animals, and so on). I spent many years as a political activist. I participated in, and witnessed the effects of, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, the disability rights movement, and various struggles against imperialism and economic injustices. I left the world of political activism for the world of spirituality and nonduality almost 4 decades ago. But I have never entirely abandoned my political side (as many of you have no doubt noticed).
As I wrote in my final reply to this person in the FB thread, both political activism and spirituality have something to do with the alchemy of how we transmute suffering into love. The political world sees and works on the external causes of suffering (economics, racism, sexism, heterosexism, factory farming, and so on), and the spiritual world sees and works on the internal causes (the sense of separation, of self and other, the resistance to what is, the ignorance of our True Nature, and so on). My own sense is that both these perspectives have a piece of the truth, and that action from both sides of the equation are essential. I cannot ignore either side, although my own focus has certainly shifted from the external to the internal. And, of course, ultimately, they are not two.
I often feel that there is some obstacle in my attachment to the political perspective, something that pulls me back from the deepest possible spiritual opening, back into an involvement with the movie of waking life. I can also feel my old familiar desire to land somewhere, to figure out this koan of politics and spirituality once and for all, to find the One Correct Answer to how they relate or how I should see all this, and I can feel my discomfort with the unresolvability, indeterminacy and ambiguity that are so inherent in actuality itself, or at least, in our attempts to make sense of it.
So, back to the koan about the frog being torn apart. Commenting on this koan, Zen teacher Susan Murphy writes: “It is a very harsh world; heaven and earth are ruthless…What gives us this amazing life also takes it away…We have to witness and endure things being torn apart in front of us…How do you go about releasing the blessing from the curse? How do you get off the wheel of reactiveness that we all seem to be chained to and convert a cursed condition or situation into a fiercely simple blessing?...Only by resting completely, right here in the heart of chaos.” (Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen)
Rupert Spira describes that quite beautifully in the quote from him that I shared earlier today, as does Eric Baret in his beautiful book, Let the Moon Be Free, which I am currently savoring, and which I very highly recommend. (You can read a review of it on the recommended books page of my website—and he actually has quite a bit to say about these issues). And of course, many other teachers address this as well, as I do myself.
In awake presence, we are not denying heartbreak or repressing grief or anger or sadness or fear, but we are not wallowing in the drama or the storylines either. We are not denying the painful things that are happening in this world, or papering them over with nondual aphorisms, but we are not caught in the drama either. We realize that in the deepest sense, we don’t know what any of this is, or what “should” happen next, or how it all goes together.
Awareness is the great transformer, the great solvent, the light that illuminates delusion. When there is simple open attention to what is, not judging it or trying to fix it, but simply SEENG or AWARING whatever is presenting itself, the false is naturally seen as false, problems resolve and heal naturally in their own time, and intelligent action (if needed, including intelligent or creative thinking) emerges effortlessly.
This kind of open attention is not the movement of thought, and it does not move from the perspective of being a separate self, but from the wholeness of unbound awareness. It sees from the place of wholeness, rather than from the place of fragmentation and separation. Awareness is nondual and unconditioned; thought is dualistic and conditioned.
Whenever there is a problem or some form of suffering—whether it is sexual abuse, domestic abuse, possibly abusive gurus, animal abuse, racism, sexism, cancer, addiction, depression, anxiety, climate change, whatever it might be—if we begin by simply SEEING it clearly, beholding it in the light of awareness—accessing what Eckhart Tolle calls the power of Now—we will have the best chance of responding intelligently, rather than simply reacting out of conditioning, hurt feelings, anger, personal opinions, and so on. We are less likely to pour gasoline on the fire or add a secondary problem on top of the first problem. And if intelligent, functional, creative or useful thinking is needed, it can arise from this aware presence. Intelligent responsibility (response-ability, the ability to respond) emerges out of awareness, while conditioned reaction emerges from ego-based thinking.
And it’s not the imaginary “me” who can “do” this awaring. That “me” and it’s thought-based agenda is all part of what needs to be seen clearly in the light of awareness, and awareness belongs to no one. It is impersonal, boundless, whole, undivided. It can also be called unconditional love for it beholds everything equally, neither rejecting nor clinging to anything. It never takes sides. And although it is often ignored, it is always Here-Now, ever-present.
There is space Here-Now in this boundless awareness for everything to be exactly as it is, and it is never the same way for more than an instant. Our suffering comes in large measure from our deeply conditioned belief that we are all separate, independent entities in a world of separate fragments. From that viewpoint, conflict is inevitable. From the perspective of wholeness, all the apparent disharmony is part of a larger harmony. In fact, terms such as harmony and disharmony no longer apply at all.
I have the sense that a life of nothing but sunny days and eternal youth would not be nearly as rich as the life we have, the one where things get torn apart.
This is all very much a living koan for me, all for my benefit indeed, and I welcome comments. I also have an article on my website “Outpourings” page on “How We Meet Evil” that grew out of some earlier FB posts, and that might be of interest to some. (And for the record, as I explain in that post, “evil” is a word I rarely use).
Response to a comment:
As you say, nature acts without intention. It simply does what it does. Humans are actually an expression of nature, and everything we do, from cluster bombs to factory farms, is in that sense every bit as natural as a hurricane. And yet...we humans also seem to have this possibility (not on command or through will, but when nature so moves us) to wake up to the damage and the pain we are causing. And so, we have political movements and spiritual paths. These are also movements of nature, like the white blood cells in the body battling an infection. (And there is quite a bit of violence and conflict going on inside the body!)
Thank you for helping me to notice an aspect of this koan I had previously overlooked, namely, that the birds are engaged in a conflict, probably with some anger, fighting over a meal. They have no ideas about "being present" with their hunger, they are simply doing what nature compels them to do. It's easy, on the spiritual path, to start thinking we "should" be beyond conflict and anger, we "should" always come from the deep acceptance and presence I describe...and then, when we fail, as we often do, we feel bad. Several people have brought this up here and in reference to the quote from Rupert. Which is why it's so helpful to SEE that we are a movement of nature...that our anger, our conflict, our spiritual remedies, our ability at times to access deep presence, our successes at this, our failures, ALL of this is a movement of nature that could not, in any moment, be other than exactly how it is.
Response to a comment:
Mooji said something I’ve always loved:
“Do not remind the world
It is bound or suffering.
Remind the world
It is beautiful and free.”
That’s the transcendent side, of course—emphasizing the light, the wholeness, the freedom, etc. And part of me just wants to go there, while the other side doesn’t want to ignore or whitewash the very real pain in this world. And as I think I expressed in this post, I find myself in between somewhere, pulled toward and wanting to honor both directions, unable to leave either behind. I can FEEL when I (or someone else) seems to be too exclusively focused on the transcendent, and I can FEEL when I (or someone else) seems to be wallowing in the suffering.
Also, in this post I talked about presence and action emerging from presence, but in my own life, I’ve experienced that sometimes expressing anger seems good—it releases energy and clears the air in some way, whereas if we are “trying” to come from presence and awareness and love, it can be very stilted and repressed when we are actually not there at all. Sometimes reactivity or conflict seems like it moves things in a positive way.
So I come back to balance and holding multiple perspectives at once, not landing anywhere.
Response to a comment:
Love often does bloom in the midst of disaster, like the grit that creates the pearl, or the mud that nurtures the lotus...and suffering is so often the crack where the light gets in, to quote Leonard Cohen.
As for whether it would "be easier to reconcile the internal before working for justice," I'm inclined to think the universe simply doesn't work that way. Perhaps in the moment we can "reconcile the internal" before we act, at least sometimes, but overall, it seems the inner and outer work in tandem. As has often been said, if we waited to be totally enlightened before we acted to address a problem, nothing would get done. And while it's true that many of our "corrections" seem to create new and bigger problems, I suspect that this, too, is the movement of nature.
If we hadn't had the Women's Movement and the LGBTQ liberation movement, I'm pretty sure I would have died long ago from alcohol and drug addiction, a slow suicide, and I might well have taken a few folks with me in a fit of drunken rage, to which I was quite prone back then. I would never have made it to spirituality or nonduality or any kind of healthy political activism. So, speaking personally, I'm grateful that there are people working tirelessly to end injustice and so on--even if they often do it imperfectly, as I certainly did in my days as an activist, when I was often driven by self-righteous anger and black-and-white thinking.
It is raining today, the mountain sides are green, flowers are blooming, frogs are chanting, new green leaves are unfurling everywhere, blossoming trees are in blossom, the sidewalks and streets are covered in wet blossoms that swirl and blow in the wind.
The days are getting longer, the light is returning, and I’m happy to report that the pain in my back is finally abating, it’s almost gone. Simple everyday movements we take for granted become possible again and bring forth great joy.
Being here right now, listening to the rain and the frogs and the sounds of the washing machine, feeling sensations throughout the body, breathing—being this whole effortless happening.
Without all the words and labels, without trying to understand it or have some particular kind of experience or get somewhere, there is simply this marvelous awaring presence humming and buzzing, blossoming and raining, breathing and listening, never the same, always fresh and new, always right here, right now, utterly immediate and present and vibrantly alive.
No distraction, no obstacle, no interruption—everything is included.
Confessions of A Failed Spiritual Teacher
I’ve had anger issues since I was in college almost half a century ago. That’s when I came out as a lesbian (before Stonewall), and that’s when I started drinking heavily. It was a tumultuous time, the Sixties—there was the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, the LGBT Movement, and there was lots of sex of all varieties, drugs of every kind, lots of alcohol, my first introduction to Zen and Vedanta, the collapse of the culture that I had grown up in…and for me, there were episodes of rage that began then. When I was drunk, I would turn violent. I was abusive, to myself and others. I smashed things. I hurt people. I hurt myself. I had many blackout drunks. I woke up in jail, I woke up in a foreign country once, I woke up in strange cars, I woke up many times naked in beds with people I had no memory of ever seeing before. But thankfully, I always woke up. It’s truly a miracle I didn’t kill myself or someone else.
In 1973, I sobered up with a wonderful therapist. And since then, in the decades that followed, I’ve done many forms of therapy, and lots of meditation and different spiritual practices, and bodywork, and so on and on. I no longer drink alcohol. I rarely get depressed anymore, and never seriously. My anger comes less frequently, dissolves more quickly, and it’s been many decades since I actually smashed anything. I rarely get triggered by world events anymore, even with Trump in power. But I still do get enraged at times, I still do get triggered every now and then, and I still have a tendency when that happens on Facebook to make snarky comments, to delete and block and unfriend people, and to be rather nasty. It’s like a tidal wave that comes over me. Most of the time in recent years, I am in good spirits, even when going through chemotherapy and radiation. But in the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of anger coming up. Powerful, overwhelming rage.
When someone alerted me to the way some of my writing had been taken out of context and used to trash a beloved teacher, I felt compelled to respond, and I did. I expressed my love for that teacher. And then, predictably, the comments came rolling in, in response, most of them supportive and appreciative, but (as I knew would happen) some of them critical of this teacher, some of them provocatively critical and mean-spirited and ignorant, and after a point, I snapped and started firing off angry responses. I deleted some people’s comments as well.
As I told one person in one of these threads, although I am no longer seeking any kind of final enlightenment or chasing self-improvement, I still find myself interested in exploring what's going on when I find myself suffering or causing suffering, and I mentioned that I’d been looking at this anger and exploring it in various ways (feeling the raw energy of it, the pure sensations...doing Byron Katie questions on specific triggers...praying about it...just sitting with it...etc.). I said that I would like to be less reactive, not as a self-improvement venture, but simply because it hurts and feels untrue, and I see that I hurt others. And, as I said in this thread, I can tell the nondual story that it's all Maya, it's all Consciousness, it's all What Is, it's all a choiceness happening of the universe, nothing is really happening, and so on—and I don't say these things lightly or just out of an intellectual understanding—but in the moment, I can also see that they feel rather glib and superficial...not so deeply realized in those moments of reactive anger...and so I'm curious about that and not wanting some glib answer. I’m not talking about trying to figure it out intellectually, but more about exploring it directly, without knowing what might reveal itself. And I mentioned that I find this is hard, even after all these decades. Something—a force of habit, the self-centered mind, all of that—pulls in the other direction.
And I shared a link to the transcript of a talk that one of the Springwater "teachers" (or non-teachers) gave recently because it points to this kind of exploration, which Toni Packer called "the work of this moment." Really looking into what it is that is getting triggered. At the bottom-line, I always seem to find it’s about survival as this apparently separate form—and rage because I’m not in control and the world is not the way I want it to be or know it “should” be (yes, I do see the irony).
Some people expressed appreciation for my "raw and real" replies, for my unabashed love for this teacher, for all of it. And in some way, it seems to be my part again and again in this Cosmic-Comic Play to be out there as a flawed human being (even while also deeply recognizing that I AM something much more, and much less, than a bodymind individual—that I AM the One Behind All the Masks, the radiant presence, the unborn awareness, the boundless, seamless, shoreless Ocean). It seems to be my role to step out of the closet again and again—yes, I’m a lesbian, yes I’m bi-sexual, yes I’m gender agnostic (or non-binary, or queer, or possibly transgender), yes I still have an uncontrollable fingerbiting compulsion and my fingers are bandaged tonight as I write this, yes I have episodes of rage, yes I have Mooji malas and sometimes I have a photo of him on my altar, yes I was a devotee of Gangaji whom I still love, yes I was once with another wild guru named Ngeton who died recently, yes I’ve got a bhakti streak, yes I still get confused and feel lost and uncertain…yes, I’m a screwed up, one-armed, aging primate with an ostomy bag full of poop stuck to my belly and crumbling bones, staggering into my old age…and I love being alive…as Lester says, after being shot in the head, at the end of American Beauty (my all-time favorite movie), “I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”
I’m tired of being a spiritual teacher. I’m the worst possible failure at the job. I’m way more comfortable being a writer. And yet somehow, in some way, in spite of myself, I’m still a spiritual teacher. I’m supposed to give a talk tomorrow to a private group that invited me. It’s supposed to be about “Everything is included” and “How we meet suffering.” Hah! I have no idea what I’ll say. I feel pretty clueless tonight.
It’s funny how we’re all here together in this strange on-line world. I’m deeply touched again and again by what people go through and survive—people who read my posts, people who have experienced things I can’t even imagine surviving—and yet they have survived and more than survived. They are shining lights. We are resilient beings. And even though the world looks rather dark these days in so many ways, and we may well be near the end of our time as a species, there is also a great deal of light, and an amazing amount of love. Sometimes it doesn’t exactly look like love. It looks like people fighting each other in the mud. But I do know the placeless place at the center—I could call it GOD, or Presence, or the Heart, or Here-Now—the immediacy at the eye of the storm or at the center of the wheel where all is well, where there is perfect peace and great joy and unconditional love. I am infinitely grateful to have discovered this place, and grateful to all those who pointed me toward it and who continue to remind me that it is ever-present and always right here, exactly where I AM.
Response to a comment:
Thanks for letting me know what resonates and what doesn’t. I’m not really sure which parts of this felt analytical or explanatory to you, or maybe the whole post felt that way? A kind of analysis or explanation of my anger maybe? I do find that writing, at least the kind I do, can be a double-edged sword for the writer. In my experience, it is both a way that I see and clarify things, a kind of magical alchemical process in which suffering is transmuted into love, on the one hand, and on the other, as you suggest, it can be a way of avoiding the bare energetic actuality of uncomfortable feelings. I don’t seem to be in control of it one way or the other—for me, it doesn’t emerge from careful thought and planning, but spontaneously and often surprisingly. If I hadn’t posted this last night immediately after it poured out, if I had waited until this morning, I probably wouldn’t have posted it. Some of the things I write feel very vulnerable and risky, as if everyone will finally see what a total jerk I am and shun me at last, and this was one of those pieces. But then, it’s often with exactly those pieces that, to my surprise, I get the most amazingly positive responses. One thing I have learned from the years of writing and publishing is that you can’t please everyone. Some people like my personal writing, but not the writing that feels more didactic, pedagogical and impersonal—while other readers have expressed exactly the opposite preferences. So I’ve finally learned that all I can do is what life moves me to do, and some will like it, and some won’t. But yes, always good to notice when the motive becomes one of self-defense, self-aggrandizement, avoidance, etc.
Spiritual Practices, Nondual Awakening, Different Approaches, and the Relationship of All This to Psychological Well-Being
First of all, what do we mean by spiritual awakening? It’s a term I have very mixed feelings about, as it tends to suggest some big finish-line event that happens to a person, whereas it is really just a simple noticing, by no one, of what is always already the case. For some people, there are flashy, dramatic events and sudden noticeable shifts, but these kinds of events are not important, and for many of us, this noticing happens quietly over time, and the shift that has occurred gradually may not even be noticed.
Basically, in my view, the central recognition of so-called awakening is that we are not a separate fragment encapsulated inside a separate body, looking out at an objectively existing, observer-independent world made up of solid, substantial, persisting objects. There is a dissolution of the apparent boundary between subject (awareness) and object (what appears), although a functional boundary still shows up as needed. Awakening means recognizing the ungraspable, unresolvable, insubstantial, impermanent, fluid, dream-like nature of whatever appears, including the whole spiritual search and any flashy enlightenment event that might seem to happen. It means recognizing that thoughts are not objective reports on reality, and that there is no thinker inside the body who is authoring the thoughts. It means seeing that there is no actual “me” making my choices or doing my deeds. Every apparent person is realized to be an expression of the whole, like the waves on the ocean, all equally water, and all inseparable, ever-changing movements of the whole.
Awakening means grokking all of this not intellectually as some kind of philosophy, but experientially, as something that is known directly and immediately—not acquired, conceptual knowledge, but rather, the innate knowing that is synonymous with being—and this knowingness is actually always already the case, for it is simply the undeniable knowingness of being here now, aware and present. Anything added on to that undeniable presence Here-Now is in the map-world of abstract formulation and belief. It may be relatively true within the movie of waking life, but it is no more real than a dream. The common factor in every different experience is recognized to be the present-ness and the immediacy of Here-Now, and this awaring presence is the reality in every dream.
In my view, there is no “awakened person” and no “permanent awakening”—those are both oxymorons. Awakening wakes up from exclusive identification as a person, and from the dream of time, distance and duality (past and future, here and there, self and not-self, subject and object). The only actual permanence or eternity is Now. In simple presence, there is no separate person to be either awake or not awake. There is never actually any real separation or any actual persisting, independent person. The person is an intermittent appearance, a kind of mirage, that is actually absent in many moments of any ordinary day, although this absence may not have been noticed.
And what is psychological health or well-being? What I mean by that is being a well-balanced, emotionally mature, functional person—having a healthy sense of self, healthy boundaries, freedom from addictive and compulsive behaviors, an ability to move through emotional weather without drowning in it, an ability to handle a reasonable amount of everyday stress without being overwhelmed, an ability to have healthy relationships, an absence of serious depression, anxiety, and other forms of neurosis or psychosis, and not being lost in projection, co-dependency, magical thinking, paranoia and other forms of delusional thinking.
Obviously, very few (if any) of us are perfectly healthy and flawlessly developed in all these ways, and so, in some paradoxical way, mental health also, and most fundamentally, seems to boil down to accepting myself as I am and realizing there is nothing really wrong with me. Like spiritual awakening, mental health is freedom from the pursuit of happiness, which doesn’t mean there is no place for imagining different possibilities, planning a career change or looking for a soulmate—but the idea that such events will bring lasting happiness or that happiness depends on such events has fallen away. In a way, mental health, like awakening, is the ability to live with paradox, ambiguity, uncertainty, unresolvability, and the fundamental insecurity and vulnerability of life. Obviously, there are many different schools of psychology and many different therapeutic methods, theories and approaches, but that is a general idea, as I see it.
So, how does spiritual or nondual awakening relate to psychological health and well-being?
There are many different kinds of spiritual and nondual expression on offer with different emphasis, different approaches, different styles and perspectives. Many people wonder how I can appreciate such diverse, and at times seemingly contradictory, expressions. Go to the recommended books page on my website and you’ll find (among many others) such diverse voices as Eckhart Tolle, Karl Renz, Pema Chodron, Nathan Gill, Darryl Bailey, Joko Beck, Mooji, Toni Packer, Rumi, Byron Katie and Robert Saltzman. And if you read my writing or listen to my talks, you’ll notice that I seem to be speaking as a radical nondualist one day and as someone more like Toni Packer or Eckhart Tolle in my approach on another day, and then on yet another day, I seem to be defending or enjoying bhakti guru-devotion. I feel it’s helpful to have many different ways of exploring life—it has been for me anyway. So what are some of these different ways, and how do they relate to psychological development or maturity?
Some spiritual teachings very much include working on what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body, or what (Charlotte) Joko Beck called emotion-thought—seeing the ways we identify as a person, the ways we get emotionally triggered and become reactive, the ways we are moved by desire and fear, the ways we defend our self-image, and so on. Such teachings would say that all of this is what tends to get in the way of recognizing the open, undivided, boundless presence that is always here and that we all truly are. By seeing the thoughts as thoughts, by questioning the stories we tell ourselves, by turning attention from compulsive thinking to sensory awareness, we begin to wake up from the trance of separation and encapsulation. We begin to experience the undivided flow, the impermanence, the immediacy, the present-ness of life itself. And we grow in our ability to notice when we are becoming upset and in our ability to be with the upset without needing to act it out.
Toni Packer and Joko Beck, two of my most important teachers, worked in this way. And many others I appreciate, such as Eckhart Tolle and Pema Chodron, also work in this way. In these kinds of teachings, there is an obvious connection between emotional and spiritual development, although even then, there are aspects of emotional or psychological development that these teachings may not be able to fully touch or unravel. Joko always acknowledged this, and would suggest psychotherapy where it was appropriate. Toni recognized the role of neurochemistry and was supportive of psychiatric medications at a time when many spiritual teachers looked down on these and insisted that meditation and spiritual inquiry could take care of everything.
Other teachings emphasize a transcendent movement from the personal to the impersonal, a kind of detachment from the whole realm of emotion-thought, a stepping back or opening up to the recognition of being the boundless awareness beholding it all, the Ultimate Subject, the unseeable seeing that is here prior to (or subtler than) anything perceivable or conceivable. Mooji is an example of this approach. Whenever this bigger, subtler, impersonal context is recognized and felt, this openness in which all ideas dissolve, in that moment, our emotional suffering falls away. But it can easily return in another moment. And much of our suffering, and what pulls us back into identification with emotion-thought, may not be addressed at all by this approach. For some people, especially if they misunderstand this Ultimate Subject as some reified thing, this approach may even become a false refuge, a kind of spiritual by-passing or dissociation, a way of avoidance and dishonesty. “I am boundless awareness and not a person,” someone will say. “I never get angry. There is no one here,” and so on. We’ve all heard such claims, I’m sure, and then observed what looks like reactivity, anger and personal identification happening in that person.
Other teachings begin with this movement of detachment and then re-turn to the body-mind-world in a new way, recognizing it as an inseparable expression of boundless awareness. The whole movie of waking life, which initially seemed to be hiding the deeper truth, is now recognized to be revealing it. The screen (as a metaphor for awareness) is simultaneously being and beholding the movie, and the movie is simultaneously hiding and revealing the screen. Rupert Spira is an example of this approach which begins with detachment (or wisdom) and moves on to inclusion (or love). Rupert (like Mooji, Toni Packer, Joko Beck, Eckhart Tolle, and most others) emphasizes that intellectual understanding is not enough, that to really embody and live from this realization is a process that unfolds over apparent time, even though it is always and only Now, and even though what is being pointed to is actually never not here. What is realized is timeless and ever-present; what takes apparent time is the seeing through, and falling away, of the false.
Some teachings put heavy emphasis on seeing the unreality of the messages conveyed by our thoughts. Byron Katie offers a great method for questioning thoughts, stories and beliefs. Other teachings put more emphasis on feeling the body at the somatic level of energy and sensation. Eric Baret, Jon Bernie and Jean Klein come to mind. And still others emphasize an equal mix of both—Joko Beck described Zen practice as seeing thoughts and feeling bodily sensations, nothing more and nothing less. In these teachings, whether the focus is on somatic awareness, or on being aware of thoughts and stories, or both, there is an obvious impact on our emotional or psychological development, but again, there are aspects of our psychology which these teachings may not be able to fully touch or unravel.
And then we have those expressions that I call radical nonduality. Examples of what I mean by this would be Darryl Bailey, Sailor Bob, Nathan Gill, Jan Kersschot, Chuck Hillig, Robert Wolfe and Tony Parsons. These expressions are descriptive but never prescriptive. They offer no path, no method, nothing to attain or become or refine or improve. They are not concerned at all in any way with emotional or psychological (or even spiritual) development. They simply point to the immediacy Here-Now, present beingness, just as it is—and how we can never know or say what this is because no-thing stands apart from it. These expressions, which don’t like to think of themselves as teachings, emphasize that there is no separation, no self, no free will, no enlightenment, no delusion, no teacher, no student, no practice, and no-thing that ever actually forms or persists in the ways we think. Nothing is on offer in these expressions.
In radical nonduality, the seeker is backed into a corner, every rug is pulled out from under them, there is no escape, no hope, nothing to do, nowhere to go. It’s a total checkmate, and with luck, the bubble of delusion pops, and both the seeker and the search dissolve. But as these teachings point out, there was never an actual bubble or an actual popping or anyone who actually went from bondage to liberation. All of that was a dream-like appearance. What is, is never absent. It is always complete. Whatever appears to be happening, whether it is apparent expansion or contraction, apparent anger or bliss, it is all equally no-thing at all, happening to no-one—all equally impersonal and equally meaningless. Radical nonduality points to the fact that any ideas or stories we have about past history, evolutionary development, progress, maturity, and so on are all imaginary. None of this has any actual substance or existence, including everything being said in this article.
While these most radical expressions don’t directly deal with emotional or psychological (or even spiritual) development in any way at all, when this message is truly grokked (not just intellectually, but experientially), there may indeed be a huge sense of relief and a falling away of much psychological suffering, including guilt, shame, blame, anxiety, deficiency stories, feelings of failure, and so on. But some of these emotional conditions may remain untouched by this recognition. And if these teachings are picked up on a purely intellectual or conceptual level, as a philosophy, they may become a way of avoiding painful feelings or justifying harmful behavior. They may even become a kind of fundamentalist dogma, like putting on blinders—a new belief system to use as a shield against a disturbing world. So, as is the case with ANY style of expression or teaching, there are always ways it can be misunderstood and ways it can end up perpetuating rather than exposing delusion.
Every way has different strengths and weaknesses, and in my experience, different people need different approaches, and each one of us may need different ways in different moments of our lives. Each approach can function at different times as the perfect antidote to the pitfalls in another approach. But NONE of these approaches or expressions will reliably result in, or guarantee, emotional and psychological maturity.
Why not? Because many factors are involved in human suffering and human maturity. We know that neurochemistry can play a role in our emotional weather, hormones can play a role, genetics can play a role. The condition of the brain (including anomalies at birth, impaired development or injury, the effects of everything from street drugs to psych meds to chemotherapy, brain tumors, the breakdowns involved in dementia, etc.) can play a huge role. In recent years, we have understood much more about the lingering impacts of trauma and PTSD. There is childhood conditioning (including various degrees of sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse) and the lifelong effects of that. There are social conditions—the impact of being female, black, gay, transgender, disabled, and so on in a society where these things often result in physical harm, bullying, reduced social and economic opportunities, discrimination, diminished self-image, and so on. Even sleep apnea, as I discovered, can have an enormous impact on our emotional and psychological state, as can a number of other physical conditions, many of which often go undetected and untreated. And then, some bodymind organisms are more sensitive in various ways than other bodymind organisms—more sensitive to noise or stress, more sensitive to the pain of others, more sensitive to various environmental toxins, more susceptible to illness, and so on. We’re not all made the same, and life doesn’t treat us all the same. Each bodymind has unique weather conditions, just as different geographic locations have different weather conditions—and it is equally impersonal in both cases.
Any form of spiritual or nondual work or insight will surely have some impact on the emotional and psychological state of the person, but we have many, many examples of people who have done years of dedicated practice and/or who have had deep insight and realization (not just an intellectual understanding, but a deep recognition), who are nonetheless still drinking alcoholically, losing their temper, yelling at people, hitting people, engaging in compulsive behaviors, having inappropriate or abusive sexual relations (often with students or devotees), committing suicide to avoid emotional pain, and otherwise showing themselves to be less than fully matured beings on an emotional or psychological level.
I consider myself an obvious example—I’ve done years of therapy, years of meditation and spiritual inquiry of various kinds, and there is certainly real insight, clarity and realization here (not just an intellectual understanding), and yet, I still identify sometimes as Joan, get defensive, lose my temper, behave in mean-spirited ways, compulsively bite my fingers, and otherwise demonstrate that I am not a perfectly emotionally evolved human being. By age 70, it becomes obvious that these apparent defects may be with me to the end. Of course, in reality, “I” don’t do any of these things—they are a happening of the whole universe with no more substance than a dream. But relatively speaking, they are quite real. I lead a very quiet and simple life, and I doubt that I would hold up well with several unruly children and a stressful full-time job. As anyone who follows my pages can see, I get my buttons pushed on Facebook periodically or by events in the News. I made it through months of cancer, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in surprisingly good spirits and then exploded in anger when an Amazon order didn’t arrive on time. In short, I’m not the model of perfect psychological health and emotional maturity.
Luckily, I’ve come to see all this human imperfection in a much more endearing and less judgmental way. On the personal level, I have improved in many ways over the years, but perhaps most importantly for my own happiness, I don’t find myself expecting or striving anymore for perfection or judging myself in the ways I used to do for falling short. And my own inability to perfect myself has given me enormous compassion for others who can’t do that either. This “me” that “I” am talking about here is of course a mirage that appears intermittently, a mirage made up of thoughts, memories, mental images, bodily sensations and emotional weather—a mirage that can momentarily feel real and seem believable, but that cannot ever actually be found. Emotional weather, compulsive behaviors, and so on all come and go, all of it actually impersonal, as is the mirage-character who seems to be at the center of the storm. The stories about “Joan” (or anyone else) and how awake or emotionally mature she (or anyone else) is or isn’t are all fictional narratives about a mirage. None of it has any actual reality. And yet, relatively speaking, it seems to have some apparent reality (if we don’t look too closely).
On the other side of the coin, people can be emotionally and psychologically very mature and yet have no nondual or spiritual sensibility or realization at all. I’ve known people over the years who seem remarkably happy, good-natured, grounded, and able to cope beautifully with high levels of stress, and yet they could care less about spirituality or nonduality. They’ve never questioned whether their self is real, or whether the world exists outside of consciousness. They’ve never meditated or attended a satsang. And yet, they are remarkably wholesome on an emotional and psychological level. So, once again, we find that these two threads (spiritual and psychological) are related, but not necessarily the same at all, and they may develop in very unequal and disproportionate ways.
I see radical nonduality as the deepest truth and the most liberating realization, but unlike some radical nondualists, I also see a place for meditative inquiry and practice. While those activities can reinforce the central illusion, they can also help to reveal its illusory nature. Awakening is not about picking up a new belief system. It’s about seeing through all beliefs. Our culture is so heady and overloaded with conceptual information that I feel it is enormously helpful to have things like meditation that invite us to spend time in silence, doing nothing, simply being. Such activities (or non-activities) bring attention out of the mental realm and into the sensory realm and the realm of awareness. Thoughts are by nature dualistic—they freeze and divide reality, whereas sensations are fluid, seamless, evanescent, ungraspable—and awareness is wholeness itself.
In my experience, as I said at the beginning, it has been helpful to have many different ways of seeing and being with life. Several different forms of psychotherapy have been helpful to me on my journey. Byron Katie’s questions have been (and continue to be) very helpful. At one time, it was useful to sit through hours of physical pain on Zen sesshins and to eat ritualized oryoki meals with special bowls while seated on a cushion. I learned something from all of that, even though I have no desire to do any of it again. At one time, it felt enormously eye-opening and liberating to do lots of silent meditation retreats in the open way of Toni Packer, although I’m no longer drawn to doing those. At one time, it was immensely liberating to encounter the satsang teachings that pointed to boundless awareness beyond name and form, and my recent enjoyment of Mooji and my occasional dips into the teachings of Nisargadatta and others like Robert Adams who point in this way, have also been immensely helpful. It was incredibly freeing to discover radical nonduality and to meet Tony Parsons, Sailor Bob and Nathan Gill many years ago. There are many other spiritual avenues that I haven’t included here in this article (koan work, mantras, visualization practices, Tonglen, bhakti devotion, karma yoga, etc.), some of which I’ve also dipped into and some I haven’t, but I’ve covered the main varieties of spiritual or nondual expression that have touched my life the most deeply and that I find reflected to some degree or other in my own expression.
I haven’t, however, ever been able to land permanently in any one of these approaches to the exclusion of all the others. And I find that my journey on the pathless path of waking up Here-Now is never finished. I am no longer seeking in the way I once was, but exploration, discovery and celebration continue. It seems, if anything, to get simpler and simpler. And I seem to realize the same basic truths again and again, perhaps in ever clearer, ever subtler ways. They say we teach what we need to learn, and it seems I am often the last one to get my own message. I remember many years ago when someone, referring to one of my books, said to me, “Joan, have you read this book?” God definitely has a great sense of humor.
All these apparently different ways of working are momentary expressions of one whole undivided happening. They are different, but not actually separate. Every teacher and every teaching is an expression of the whole universe. And as always, reality is impossible to pin down. It’s helpful to “be here now” (in the sense of bringing attention out of the storylines and into the bare actuality of this moment), and at the same time, it’s liberating to realize that there is ONLY Here-Now and that it is impossible NOT to be here now. It can be very helpful to see a therapist, go into a recovery program, or do healing work of various kinds, and yet the most liberating realization of all is that there is no one in need of healing and nothing wrong. But that doesn’t mean we “shouldn’t” see a therapist. It just means that seeing a therapist is what life is doing—a choiceless waving of the whole ocean. Meditation ultimately leads to the recognition that there is ONLY meditation and that no one is doing it. It’s helpful to recognize our mistakes so we can correct them, and it’s liberating to realize there are no mistakes. We can’t land on either side of these apparently contradictory aspects of reality. It’s all true, and none of it is true. It’s all included, and there is no-thing to include and no-thing to include it in. In the end, words fail, and yet, words pour out. Words can both seemingly hide and also reveal the wordless reality that is never not here, and this reality includes the words!
So, as I say in the introduction to my recommended book list, “no words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don't believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. The book that wakes you up one day may lull you to sleep the next. Always be ready to question your conclusions and to see something new and unexpected.”
That’s so important and so challenging—that willingness to question everything freshly, to see something new and unexpected, to let go of ANYTHING we are holding onto, to fall into the simplicity of what is. Sometimes that can seem pretty humiliating. It can mean admitting that we were wrong and feeling like a fool. It can even take away our livelihood or mean that we have to leave behind the community that has been our sole social life for many years. And yet, this is where the juice is, in this willingness to let go again and again. And of course, it can only happen NOW.
I’m tempted to erase this whole article—too many words and explanations maybe, all of them beside the fundamental point, which cannot be spoken, but if you’re reading this, it means the urge to share it won out. Life moves as it moves, words appear on the screen. It’s like the birds singing and the dogs barking. And really, it doesn’t mean any more than woof-woof-woof or tweet-tweet-tweet.
Giving up the Search: What Does It Mean?
Nisargadatta once said, “Just stop running away by running after. Stand still, be quiet.” The second part of that (“Stand still, be quiet”) is crucial. Because he’s not saying to just give up and resign yourself to a life of unnecessary misery and suffering—he’s not saying, “Life sucks and that’s that, suck it up, forget all this bullshit about awakening, it’s all just a load of crap.” He’s saying that awakening is right here—stop, look, listen, tune in, wake up.
“Stop the search” is a beautiful pointer. Heard clearly and at the right moment, it can stop the mind in its tracks and bring attention home to here-now. It can end the futile and disappointing search for a future event that never arrives, and wake us up to the ever-present jewel that has never been absent. But when misunderstood as a suggestion to just give up and settle for misery, or to quit before the jewel has actually been found, this pointer can have a much less beneficial effect.
The following from Jay Matthews, again from Jay’s Quora page, addresses this mistake of giving up the search prematurely:
“Imagine you’re looking for your car keys and someone tells you they’re in your heart. This is not a satisfying answer, is it? Knowing that something isn’t lost doesn’t make it an attainable asset unless we actually know how to attain it.
Until we do, calling off the search isn’t satisfying or realistic. A truncated spiritual search is not enlightening. I’ve met people who’ve turned resignation into a religion, and the result always concerns me. When we accept the ‘limitations of life,’ we are like children who no longer hope their absent parent who’s struggling with addiction will show up for their birthday party. I’m sorry if that was a painful analogy. This is what spiritual resignation is, and I want us to see it clearly. As with car keys and wedding rings, so with enlightenment - we shouldn’t stop seeking until we find. But we find here and now, always here and now. This is the paradox and the delight.” --Jay Matthews
So, it’s not about searching for something that is absent or missing, or trying to have some special experience other than the one that is presently appearing, but rather, it’s about really noticing and exploring what’s showing up Here-Now. Tuning in to what’s actually presenting itself. Tuning in to your own being. Tuning in to the aware presence that you are and always have been. Tuning in to the utterly amazing actuality of this moment.
We can’t say what this is, or how it all works—all our attempts to grasp it conceptually fall short. But experiencing itself is obvious and utterly immediate. This living reality is ever-changing, always moving, never the same way twice, impossible to pin down, without beginning or end—and yet it is always here-now.
Listen to the traffic sounds or the leaves swooshing in the wind or the birds tweeting or the lawn mower buzzing or the frogs chanting…really listen. Not in order to have some special experience or enlightenment event, but simply to listen, to actually hear the sounds, without the stories or the mental commentary (e.g., “I wish it were quieter,” “I hate traffic noise,” “This is so boring,” “This isn’t doing anything for me,” “What’s the big deal?”). None of that. Just whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, tweet-tweet, zzzzzz. Have you ever really listened?
Feel the breathing, not as a practice, not to get a result, not to make it calmer or control it in any way, but simply to really feel it.
Look around you. Really take in the colors, the shapes, the movement, the whole visual symphony that is presenting itself. Whether you are looking at a flower or a piece of trash, the Grand Canyon or a parking lot, is it possible to enjoy it as a pure visual expression, without the labels? If you’re taking a bus or train to work, instead of looking at your phone, try looking out the window, or looking around you. If you’re sitting in a waiting room, instead of reaching for a magazine, maybe try just sitting there, just BEING there. What is it like just to BE?
If there is a strong emotion or state of mind (anger, fear, grief, anxiety, depression, whatever it might be), is it possible simply to FEEL it, without the storylines or the labels, as bare sensation or energy? What is it like? How does it move? Where is it in the body? Does it change shape? What is it like to welcome it, to allow it to fully reveal itself, without resisting it or repressing it or acting it out, but simply letting it be, and being interested in it? Is it possible to explore it in the way a lover explores the beloved, with total devotion, or in the way a child explores everything new that it encounters, with wonder and curiosity?
Tune in to this listening-seeing-feeling-sensing-awaring presence, this present experiencing, this aliveness here-now. Wake up to the miracle. Stop waiting and expecting and searching for something else, and discover what IS. BE what you always already are. You can’t say what this is, but here it is! You can’t say what you are, but here you are! Without the labels, without the stories, without the explanations, without the metaphysical overlays—just the utter simplicity of the bare actuality itself. Just this! Open, free, unknowable, unresolvable. No "you" and "it," just THIS.
Life isn’t something that’s going to happen later when you get off work, or someday when you get your dream job, meet your soulmate, buy the perfect house, or take that upcoming vacation. Life is always JUST THIS, right here, right now, just as it is. And EVERYTHING is included, even thinking and labeling and story-telling and mapping and day-dreaming. NOTHING needs to be seen as a distraction, an interruption, an obstacle, or a mistake. It’s all here, just as it is.
Stop running away by running after. Stand still, be quiet (even if you are moving). Call off the search. But that doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a life of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau put it. It means being awake.
Being awake isn’t some flashy new experience. It’s not some conceptual or intellectual understanding. It’s not something anyone else can give you, or do for you, or explain to you, or magically transmit to you. It’s something only you can discover, and that discovery is always right now, closer than close, at no distance at all, and it is always ever-fresh, ever-new.
Response to a comment:
Maybe you're trying too hard. I'd say, relax! Life isn't always going to be a spectacular experience and it doesn't need to be. You don't need to be "AWAKE" in some self-conscious way "all the time." In one sense, there is always only awakeness, showing up however it shows up, including moments that we might label as dull, distracted or mindless. But if you notice that you are feeling bored or depressed or anxious, or that the mind is all tied up in knots trying to figure out the nature of reality, then maybe it's an invitation to stop, look, listen...to stand still, be quiet...to just BE. As you noted, the confusion is only in thought. Just SEEing that and letting it go. Maybe that's enough.
From Toni Packer:
“Would there be any quest for enlightenment if it weren’t for our sense of time? Time is created by thought, memory, and imagination: what I was, what I am, what I will be. Forever feeling insufficient and lacking, we want to become whole and complete in the future. We will submit to any spiritual path to overcome our hindrances in the course of time. Then, we imagine hopefully, there will come the day when we will experience enlightenment, the liberation from bondage that has been promised to us by the traditions of the past.
“I don’t think in terms of having experiences anymore. Things just happen. Rain is dripping softly. The heart is beating. There is breathing, in-out-in-out-in-out. There is quiet listening, openness…emptiness…nothing…
“Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance. Without any sense of passing time. Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our experience mongering is a form of resistance in time.
“Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here, now. It’s the hum of the airplane. The fog. The wind blowing gently, the rain dripping, breathing, humming, pulsating, opening, closing, nothing at all…
It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.”
— Toni Packer, from her book The Light of Discovery
Response to a comment:
Perhaps there is a big difference between CRAVING experience, or "experience mongering" as Toni put it, and ENJOYING experience! There's no problem with enjoying pleasant experiences or even with wanting them in the simple way that we might want a certain food, or we might want to make love with our partner, or we might want to take a walk. The suffering comes when we feel we NEED any of those things (or any other experience) to be happy or complete, when we think and feel that we MUST have that food or that drink or whatever it is. And as Toni says, when we are using experience to try to resolve that underlying feeling of being "insufficient and lacking," and as a way "to become whole and complete in the future," it will never work. If we think, "If only I can have some big enlightenment experience, then I can finally be okay and happy and at peace," that is suffering. And delusion. So yes, the problem is grasping, identifying, craving, and trying to resolve an underlying sense of deficiency by filling the (imaginary) hole with some kind of experience (whether it is a drink, a drug, eating, smoking, sex, romance, having spiritual experiences, or whatever).
Once there has been an initial recognition and felt-sense of open awareness and impersonal presence, it usually seems that this aware presence comes and goes. It is, after all, obvious that sometimes there is unobstructed clarity and spacious open presence, and then at other times, there is confusion and/or caught-up-ness in the hypnotic trance of emotion-thought, storylines and the sense of being “me,” a separate self. One teacher called it the flip-flop.
At first, we take this flip-flop personally as my clarity and my delusion, my success and my failure. And we have a whole story about “me” alternately “getting it” and then “losing it,” which is itself part of the delusion. Eventually, we notice that these changing experiences (cloudy or clear, contracted or expanded) are not really personal. They’re like weather—ever-changing and by nature not always sunny and clear, but sometimes dark and stormy.
We also notice or recognize at some point that awareness is actually here even when the weather is cloudy and stormy. Aware presence (which is what Here-Now IS) is the common factor in every different experience, whether the experience feels open and expanded, or whether it feels contracted and tense. Without awareness, without presence, no experience could appear at all. What comes and goes are the thoughts and sensations. Here-Now (aware presence) is ever-present.
At this point, the flip-flop is no longer regarded as a problem, or as something that means something about “me” and “my” success or failure. All of that is seen for what it is: a story, centered on a character who is a fictional creation, a mental image. The changing experiences (expanded, contracted, clear, confused, calm, agitated) are simply manifestations of impersonal, impermanent, changing weather. It is recognized that the awaring presence never actually goes anywhere. The whole effort to be permanently in any one weather-condition evaporates.
Toni Packer, who was my main teacher, although she never used that word, put it this way: “Actually, awareness is here even during times of darkness. Presence never goes anywhere. This is not a dogmatic statement but a simple fact that each one of us can come upon. See the cloud, the darkness! Hear the wind! Feel the breathing! Smell the flowers! Touch the swaying grasses! Clouds, wind, thoughts, breathing, fragrant flowers, and grasses change all the time, but seeing is here without time. Even though doubts may obscure it, it is here the instant the mind stops and every cell of the body opens up to hear and see and be.”
Toni used to compare the way we all seem to pulsate between enlightenment and delusion to the fireflies blinking on and off on summer nights:
“Here we all are together—one complete movement of wholeness. Now moments of bright insight like fireflies lighting up a dark field on a warm summer night. Fireflies aren’t lit all the time. Do they wonder, ‘Why aren’t we lit all the time?’ They are what they are, and they don’t seem to find fault. They just light up in darkness; and whenever it happens the whole field sparkles luminously. What a wondrous way of being—for at least one moment not to find fault with anything! Not because it’s a splendid idea, but because there is nothing to find fault with! There’s only what is. And that’s completely unbroken, without possibility of lack. Every one of us inevitably contributes to this unbroken, pulsating wholeness, whether we’re temporarily good or bad, ignorant or wise, selfish or selfless, violent or gentle, beautiful or ugly personalities. All of us together, as we are, are an ever throbbing, ever changing, never gaining, never losing creative whole, floating in spaciousness that does not know right or wrong.”
It’s a beautiful thing—a huge relief—when we are no longer worried about how enlightened or how deluded “I” am, or how “I” compare to “others.” There is simply the actuality of here-now, being just this moment, however it is—being what we cannot not be.
That doesn’t mean that we might not be moved to do whatever we can to alleviate some form of suffering such as depression, anxiety, addictive-compulsive behaviors, uncontrollable outbursts of anger, racism, sexism, environmental devastation or whatever it might be. It doesn’t mean we necessarily lose all interest in being a “better” or “happier” person in every sense, or in the world being a “better” or “happier” place for all beings. The urge to change in some way, to transform and grow and evolve, is part of how nature moves. So that might (or might not) still happen.
But we’re no longer expecting perfection, and we’re no longer taking our apparent abilities or our apparent imperfections personally. We know that the little self is not running this show, that we are not in control of how or when transformation happens, and that, as Toni said, “Every one of us inevitably contributes to this unbroken, pulsating wholeness, whether we’re temporarily good or bad, ignorant or wise, selfish or selfless, violent or gentle, beautiful or ugly personalities.” Our assessments of what is appearing—calling it good, bad, imperfect, perfect—are simply thought-judgments that arise unbidden. Nothing is actually ever all good or all bad, and we can never really separate the light from the dark or know what anything is—the more closely we look at anything, the more we find it to be infinite, indeterminate, unresolvable and inseparable from everything else. We also know that the whole appearance is very much like a dream—it appears in consciousness and evaporates instant by instant—and in that sense, it is often said that nothing ever happened—no-thing solid or persisting, nothing we can grasp.
We also know that within this appearance, each of us, and the world at large, will always be a mix of light and dark, and that there will always be apparent problems in the movie of waking life. This is the nature of the manifestation, that it can only appear in polarities and contrasts. But from a deeper or bigger perspective, whichever you prefer, we come to see and feel that in some way that we cannot fathom, all is well—even in the midst of what appears to be immense suffering and brokenness. That “unbroken, pulsating wholeness,” as Toni called it, is never really damaged. It is unborn and undying, unconditioned, unstained, dependent on nothing. And this is not some crazy fairytale, or a belief, or some rarified mystical experience, but this simple awaring presence that is right here, right now.
The words are only pointers. What they point to is not something to believe in, but something to feel and know directly. And the more it is recognized and felt into, the more a kind of faith grows in us, if I can call it that, and by faith, I don’t mean belief in some idea or outcome, I mean a kind of deep intuitive trust in what is most intimate, closer than close, right here, right now—the living reality, just as it is. And we begin to SEE that actually, this unbroken wholeness is never not here. We are this. There is ONLY this. And EVERYTHING is included. Nothing is a problem in the way we thought it was. Even the apparent problems, the apparent mistakes, the apparent setbacks, the apparent horrors, the apparent misfortunes are all aspects of this wholeness.
The leaves of the cottonwood tree across the street are oscillating joyously in the wind and light this morning, fluttering with delight. A huge rainbow stretches across the sky, plunging into the neighbor’s house. A mourning dove is sitting atop the street lamp sunning himself as tiny white clouds blow past behind him. When I look out the window again, he is gone—an empty space at the top of the street lamp.
We are the body, and the world, and all of creation—and when we really see and hear and feel all of this, it is fluid, boundless, ever-new, unrepeatable, ecstatic, bursting with love and wonder and joy—and at the heart of it, this still presence, this awakeness that is GOD.
You might be thinking, sounds nice, but what about all the bad stuff? And somehow, that too is included in this ecstatic dance. Speaking personally, I am endlessly grateful for losing an arm, for having cancer, for the years of alcoholic drinking, for my fingerbiting compulsion that still flares up, and for all the ways life has disappointed me, frustrated me, irritated me, insulted me, and not gone the way I think it should, because in all of that, something deeper emerges.
Enlightenment, Awakening, Liberation: Are these just concepts and bogus ideas or do they point to an actual reality? And if they do point to something real, what is it?
As I see it, all these big fancy words (awakening, liberation, enlightenment, salvation) refer first and foremost to here-now, to being awake right NOW, to an immediate waking up and being (knowingly, fully) present and aware NOW—as opposed to referencing a past event, a future goal, or a permanent identity.
These big fancy words also, as I see it, refer to a process, an unfolding over apparent time (although always only NOW), a never-ending process that has sometimes been called practice, or what my teacher Toni Packer called “the work of this moment.” This is the process of seeing the false as false, waking up from delusion, re-turning to the light, and what Thich Nhat Hanh describes metaphorically as transforming garbage into compost and thus into flowers and food—our “garbage” being all those experiences of emotion-thought that arise from delusion and generate suffering: jealousy, envy, defensiveness, irritability, worry, despair and so on—and the “flowers and food” being joy, love, compassion, equanimity and so on. This is the very practical work of spiritual liberation. It is not personal; it is not result-oriented; it is never finished. We do it (or it happens through us) for the joy of doing it, because we are naturally drawn to it.
Where I think we go terribly wrong—and I see this a lot in our present day nondual, satsang, spiritual subculture (and I have seen it in myself)—is when we think in terms of permanent states of enlightenment or permanently “awakened people” who are forever free from delusion and whose “little ego-me” has been totally and permanently obliterated once-and-for-all. Then we get into telling our awakening stories to legitimize ourselves in some way, comparing awakenings, seeking bigger and better awakenings, what Toni Packer called “experience-mongering,” and so on—and usually under all that, often unrecognized, feeling deficient and separate and concerned with our self-image.
As I see it, true awakeness manifests as humility, not as grandiosity. I saw that in my teacher, Toni Packer, and this is one of the many reasons I’ve been so deeply enjoying John Butler lately and recommending his YouTube videos here. He so beautifully embodies and radiates presence, stillness, awakeness, and genuine humility.
Response to a comment:
Yes, I would say the original longing for enlightenment or liberation (by whatever name) comes from what we are longing for…intuitively, in some way, deep down, we know the truth, and we long to wake up to it fully, to go home to the place we know is right here…and at the same time, we long to be free of our suffering. We can’t get rid of pain and painful circumstances, of course, but what can fall away more and more is what the thinking mind adds on top of that—the psychological suffering that is rooted in delusion. So the longing and the seeking is not entirely a bad thing, and some people hear these “give up the search” pointers and then give it up prematurely, having decided it was all just bullshit, which misunderstands the point of that pointer. But at a certain point, with luck, we see that the seeking itself IS the suffering, and that what we long for is right here, ready to be discovered as soon as we stop looking elsewhere. Usually, this doesn't happen once and for all in one big flash, but again and again. And there are many "practices" that can be helpful in revealing this, and Buddhism offers many such practices.
Response to another comment:
Some people have big, dramatic, sudden events...like Eckhart Tolle did...and what fell away never seems to return with any degree of strength or believability, but for most people, it is a more gradual unfolding, and yet, it always happens Now.
Some people have a formal practice, some do not (but they have their life, which is itself a kind of practice).
Some people talk as if there is a line in the sand to cross, maybe because for them there was a dramatic shift, but I don't find any such line in my own experience.
I spent many years chasing the Big Bang others described, or the line in the sand, until eventually I noticed that this whole concern was all about "me" and whether "I" was good enough yet. That noticing wasn't a one-time, explosive event either--it just got clearer and clearer that it was all about "me" (the phantom) until at some point I noticed I wasn't chasing any of that anymore, that the whole concern with that had vanished.
Someone who didn't read the last post asks me how I would define waking up:
There are many different definitions on offer, and many different shifts or recognitions to which this expression might refer, and I’ve probably used it in many different ways myself at different times. And I think that gets to the truth about it, which is that waking up (by whatever name) is multi-faceted and unending, forever revealing new aspects of reality.
It could mean just waking up from an obsessive train of thought and hearing the birdsong. It could mean, as someone else suggests here, seeing the false as false or waking up from any ideas about waking up. It could mean recognizing the unbroken wholeness, the seamlessness of reality, or seeing that the separate self cannot be found, or that there is no actual boundary between inside and outside. It could mean so many things. And if we think we've got it, chances are, the Zen Master (in some form) or life itself will pull that rug right out from under us. And wow, we'll be waking up again. Freshly!
Response to someone who says it is a sudden, irrevocable shift:
Some people do have very sudden, dramatic events in which it feels like everything is totally different, whereas for most people, it is a more gradual process, and when a shift occurs over 5 or 10 or 20 years, one may not even realize how much has changed. As Nisargadatta put it: “With some realization comes imperceptibly, but somehow they need convincing. They have changed, but they do not notice it. Such non-spectacular cases are often the most reliable.”
In a sense, once one has noticed that one is not actually encapsulated inside a body, that recognition of boundlessness never disappears; and when the illusion of the separate, independent self has been seen through, it is perhaps never entirely believable again; and when the dream-like nature of waking life has been recognized, it may never seem quite so solid again…but the strong thought-sense of separation and of being a self dealing with an outside world may recur, and usually does.
But when it is realized that there is no persisting person to be permanently awake or not awake, and nothing before or after Now, that pretty much takes the air out of the whole notion of permanently awakened people.
Another response to the same person:
Well, no one can know what anyone else (if there even is anyone else)'s experience is like. All we can know is our interpretations of what they describe. And there are so many words we may all be using in different ways. So I cannot know your experience, and you cannot know mine, and neither of us can know what Ramana's was or wasn't.
I would say, practice is immediate, not gradual. And practice is a word I don't particularly resonate with or use much. I don't think of myself practicing anything. It takes thought, memory and imagination to construct the story of an evolutionary process or unfoldment that is gradual (or, for that matter, sudden and permanent). So those can, in my view, only be provisional expressions.
I don't feel a separation between awareness and what appears, and I could also describe meditation as the ever-present natural state, although I also sit down once or twice a day and do nothing other than simply being, which might be called meditation. I do this not to get anywhere else but because I enjoy it and feel drawn to it.
I would not say that the egoic mind has been permanently obliterated in my experience, because I see ample evidence of it popping up here. But even if I didn't see any such evidence, I would hope I would be wise enough, based on my experiences in other areas of life, not to believe or announce on Facebook that "my" ego had been completely and permanently obliterated. Whether Ramana was making such a claim is debatable, imho, and either way, I do not hold Ramana or anyone up to be an unquestionable authority whose every word was 100% on the mark.
I have heard others talk as you talk, and I am perfectly happy to acknowledge that I am a work in progress. I am quite sure there are many people for whom there is less delusion and deeper realization than there is for me, although I remain simultaneously aware that this story of me and others and levels of attainment and so on takes thought and imagination to conjure up and is an appearance in the dream-like movie of waking life.
I cannot know your experience. But frankly, I wonder why you feel moved to share it. That is for you to question and wonder about, I'm not asking you to answer that. But from my perspective, if I may share that, it is not helpful to anyone else to hear such stories and claims, because it simply perpetuates what I call the Final Enlightenment Myth--the ultimate carrot before the donkey of the seeking mind, reinforcing the deficiency stories and setting up the search for an attainment that will (imho) never arrive except perhaps in the biggest moment of delusion of all.
But again, to each his own, and I respect your experience as your experience, and I'm certainly very happy for you that all suffering has totally and completely fallen away and that there is only Peace, 24/7/365. That's beautiful luck and grace.
I find there are many different flavors of experience, many layers or ways of seeing reality, many different perspectives or aspects to focus on, and they each reveal a different facet of reality, none of them more or less true than the others. Feeling into deep stillness or presence is one powerful way of tasting reality. Experiencing suchness (present-ness, is-ness, the immediacy of hearing-seeing-touching-tasting-smelling-breathing-sensing-feeling, just as it is), is another powerful way of tasting experience. Feeling oneself as the vast, unbound, impersonal, space-like awareness beholding everything is another way.
And there are many different practices and pointers on offer, each useful at a different moment: paying attention to present moment sensations or activities; noticing, labeling or questioning thoughts; inquiring meditatively into various questions (e.g., Who or what am I? What is this? How do decisions happen?); keeping company with a koan; feeling oneself as the boundless awareness—the space—in which everything perceivable and conceivable comes and goes; giving complete attention to the radiant presence showing up as every apparent form; discovering the formlessness and infinite subtleties of every apparent form; discovering the interdependence and undivided seamlessness of everything; taking mind-expanding substances that open certain doors of perception or by-pass the thinking mind; doing various forms of somatic or movement work; listening to music; singing bhajans or chanting; and so on and on. Again, none better or worse, higher or lower. All potentially valuable at the right moment.
Reality, when we try to conceptualize it, is always paradoxical. It’s totally complete just as it is. There is nothing other than here-now. And yet, there is an apparent process or an unfolding that seems to happen with ever-new discoveries and depths of realization. There is nothing to do, and yet, there are many things to do, or maybe more accurately, many things are happening, but then, we could also say, nothing ever happened. There is no separate or persisting person, and yet, we can’t deny there is something here we call Joan Tollifson. The map is not the territory, and yet, mapping is something the territory is doing, and in that sense, as a map, the map is indeed an aspect of the territory. Everything is impermanent, and yet, no separate things ever actually form to even BE impermanent, so in fact, there is no impermanence. It’s all one unbroken whole, and yet, we can discern the difference between apples and oranges. Whatever this is, it is not one, not two.
In a nutshell, reality cannot be grasped with conceptual thought. It cannot be formulated or boxed up in ideas. It is too fluid, too unresolvable, too indeterminate, too all-inclusive, too close (the eye can’t see itself, the sword can’t cut itself, the tongue can’t taste itself). And yet, even though it is inconceivable and ungraspable, here it is—obvious, immediate, unavoidable, never absent! And even conceptualizing, thinking, talking, writing, formulating and mapping are all aspects of reality. Nothing is left out. There is nothing other than reality.
Every way of seeing, exploring and experiencing is valid. Being a drunk and heavy drug user for several years in my youth may have been as essential to my “spiritual awakening” (whatever that means) as the many meditation retreats I did years later, or the many satsangs I attended after that, or my eventual encounter with the radical nondual message that “this is it, just as it is.” And looking back, this whole unfolding that we call “my life story” has vanished into thin air, and yet, it’s all right here now. So many paradoxes. And yet, the truth is so simple.
The rain is pattering on the roof. Inhaling. Exhaling. Heart beating. A slight ache in the knee. Thunder rumbling in the distance. An airplane flying overhead. Attention moving here and there, but always right here. Without these words and the thought-ideas added on, the sounds being pointed to here are not “in the distance” or “up in the sky” but right here, utterly immediate, and they are not “thunder” or “airplane” or “rain”—those are over-simplified abstractions, thought-forms, labels—the actuality itself is indescribable, ever-changing, and inseparable from colors and shapes and breathing and sensations in the body.
What is all this? We can’t really say! Nothing we say really holds up. And yet, the actuality of this is obvious, undeniably present, utterly simple and yet infinitely complex. We can’t land anywhere. And yet, here we always are. There is no end and no beginning to Here-Now, and it seems to be the nature of whatever this is to express and explore itself in infinite ways.
Woke up at 6:30 AM covered in poop. Ostomy bag had filled and come unglued. Exciting morning. Cleaning up myself, the floor, my pajamas, etc. Checking the headlines on-line. This country (and the world) are melting down fast. And still, the world out my windows is filled with immense beauty and my heart is full of love and joy at being alive.
Actuality is clear and obvious, but we tend to mistake our conceptual maps and beliefs—the abstractions and reifications of thought—for the living actuality they describe. This leads to endless confusion and suffering.
But if we drop out of thinking and tune into bare presence Here-Now, we may discover an open, spacious, stillness that is the very ground of being—ever-present, unconditioned, uncaused, limitless—closer than close, most intimate.
This is the jewel beyond all price. It is to this boundless awaring presence that the word “I” most fundamentally refers. It is what Here-Now is: the immediacy and present-ness that we never leave because it is what we are. Time and space appear within it. This presence has no gender, no age, no social class, no nationality, no race, no point of view, no beliefs, no opinions, no preferences, no likes or dislikes. It includes everything and clings to nothing.
The intellect is both a helpful tool and our biggest obstacle. The intellect deals with maps—the abstractions and reifications of thought. These serve a purpose. Maps are helpful. But we will not find the liberation, the love, the peace, the joy that we seek in any intellectual formulations or understandings.
What we most deeply long for is right here, closer than close, waiting to be noticed, felt into, surrendered to, dissolved into. The words are never quite right and can always be picked apart. There isn’t really anyone or anything apart from this aware presence to discover it or surrender to it or dissolve into it, but in the map-world it seems that there is. And picking up non-dual beliefs won’t resolve this felt sense of being separate, insecure, deficient and incomplete.
This is why I feel true meditation is so valuable—and by that word, I don’t mean any specific practices or special postures or anything like that—I simply mean being present, open and aware, right here, right now—seeing, listening, sensing, discovering and embodying the truth of this groundless ground directly.
In a sense, this is the ever-present (never absent) nature of reality, being present and aware, being Here-Now, but in the movie of waking life, for busy humans caught up in information-overload and in all our ubiquitous and often undetected mental maps, it is very helpful to take time, either deliberately or whenever it invites us, to simply be. To put down our phone, get off the computer, turn off the TV, put down the books, stop talking, stop running, stop doing, and simply BE.
Whether it is for five seconds, five minutes, five hours or five days is not so important. It can happen while riding the bus or the train to work, while flying on an airplane, while sitting in a waiting room or on a park bench or in an airport, in the break between clients, while the baby is napping, in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep, first thing in the morning, last thing before going to bed, basically whenever and wherever. Simply to stop, to be still, to listen, to sense, to feel, to BE.
And to SEE how thought operates—how it confuses us and creates the mirage of “me” and the apparent world of time and distance. And to FEEL the presence, the aliveness, the spaciousness, the openness of bare being, this aware presence Here-Now. Not seeking anything, not resisting anything, not trying to make anything happen or not happen, but simply being Here-Now, just as it is.
Response to a comment:
It does seem to me that there is often a period of time during which one seems to be going back and forth between "getting it" and losing it," and there is a lot of focus on trying to "get it back" and so on. I know I went through that. And then it fell away, but not because "I" was now permanently experiencing some perpetual state of thoughtless presence, clarity, boundless love and so on...and not because all flare-ups of me-centered emotion-thought had permanently vanished...and not because there was no longer any interest in seeing through and waking up from such delusional spells when they occurred...but because the meta-story, the story about "me" going back and forth and trying to stay permanently on one side of a conceptual divide, had evaporated. The concern with this had gone. And it had been deeply recognized that Here-Now, the ground of being, the Heart, is ever-present.
Response to another comment:
Yes, in the movie of waking life, there certainly appears to be evolutionary growth and development and all kinds of problems that we humans create and endeavor to solve, everything from climate change to racism and sexism and slavery and sex trafficking and animal abuse and so on--and I would say, ALL of that is also Reality, in the sense that there is nothing that is not Reality. As Peter might say, EVERYTHING is radiant presence. Of course, some would say the whole movie of waking life is only a dream and that it is not real. In Vedanta, it is said, "The world is an illusion, only Consciousness (or God or Brahman) is real, Consciousness is the world." And as one teacher put it when asked if the starving refugees are real, "They're as real as you are."
In the absolute sense, we might say that everything is perfect and complete as it is, and that the apparent problems are all only a passing dream. But in everyday life, we have pain, suffering, injustice, cruelty, insensitivity, and all kinds of things. Speaking for myself, my answer to racism and sexism and homelessness and so on would not be, "It's just a dream." And when my private parts were being burned by radiation when I was being treated for anal-vaginal-rectal cancer, it did not occur to me to think, "This pain is all an illusion." No, the pain was quite real. Perhaps Maya refers more to the stories and concepts overlaid on top of that raw sensation.
Response to another comment:
If you think of "Reality" as some kind of Ultimate Knowledge, then what you say is true, we cannot know what is real. But as I speak of it, reality is direct knowing, not any of the (thought-based, conceptual) conclusions about what is showing up (e.g., it's a dream, it's subatomic wavicles, it's condensed energy, it's physical matter, etc). This undeniable reality Here-Now is both infinitely multi-faceted (unresolvable, indeterminate, holographic, fractal layers upon layers) and totally simple (this presence Here-Now, this immediacy, not as an idea, but as felt-knowing).
Given that this is LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, intersex) Pride Month, let me say that I’ve lived through some amazing changes in my lifetime, and that much more still needs to happen. I hope that one day, if humanity survives long enough, we will truly embrace the fundamental equality of all of us in the human family. When I see the young people today, and all the changes that have happened in my lifetime, I feel very optimistic.
In the world where I grew up, lesbian and gay sexuality was illegal in this country. Being in an intimate relationship with someone of the same gender was considered a sin by most religions, and being gay was still officially classified as a mental illness. Teachers lost their jobs back then if their sexual orientation was discovered—it happened to a teacher of mine in junior high school. The only place you could meet other gay people was in underground bars. Gay men were routinely beaten up on the streets and sometimes killed. Lesbian mothers lost their children in custody cases.
It was totally unimaginable back then that we would one day have an openly lesbian US senator, an openly gay presidential candidate, openly gay and lesbian mayors and bishops, that the White House would be occupied by a black president and would be lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, that Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres would have their own shows on cable and network TV, that the Wachowski brothers would morph into the Wachowski sisters, that we’d see openly lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people in the military and on TV, that Harvey Milk would appear on a US postage stamp—all of this was utterly beyond imagination back when I was growing up.
I came out as a lesbian in 1967, in college, before Stonewall. I was always mildly bi-sexual and did have a few intimate relationships with men along the way, but my strongest attraction was always to women, and I identified as a lesbian.
Years later, in the early 2000’s, I realized I was (and had always been) somewhere on the transgender spectrum. I took to calling myself gender-queer, gender-fluid or gender-agnostic, and for a number of years, I seriously considered the possibility of transitioning. Had I realized this when I was much younger, I might very well have done it. And if I’d had the choice as a young child that many children do now, I know for certain that I would have chosen to be a boy, which is how I felt. But I was already in my late fifties when this began to dawn on me. And I eventually came to feel that, for me, at this stage of life, transitioning from one gender to the other was not really what I felt moved to do.
More recently, I discovered the term gender non-binary, which I now feel most accurately describes how I experience myself. It means I don’t really feel like either a man or a woman. I’m definitely no lady, and I cringe when people call me that, or when men call me sweetie (a term that always feels rather patronizing and sexist to me, unless the men who call women that are using it equally with their male friends, which they almost never are).
In practice, I’ve been celibate and single for many years, not because I decided to be, but my interest in all of that just fell away somewhere along the line. When I was younger, I would never have believed that could ever happen, but it did. I actually love being single. I was never really cut out to be in a couple, being rather solitary and reclusive by nature.
And honestly, for many decades now, I have been much more rooted in (and identified with) the spiritual or non-dual community than the LGBTQI community or the women’s community. Gender is not a burning issue for me anymore. And I find myself less and less drawn to speak out on social and political issues, although every now and then, I still do.
My main teacher, Toni Packer, questioned all identities and labels, including personhood, and certainly, they are all pretty illusory. In everyday life, I don’t really go around thinking of myself as anything in particular, and I have close friends of every gender and sexual orientation.
But until we live in a world where sexism and heterosexism have truly disappeared, and where gender no longer defines people, I feel it is important to speak out and to label myself, at least occasionally, especially when LGBTQI people are under attack, to let people who may not know that I’m one of “those people.”
And, of course, the LGBTQI community has been under attack in this country by the Republican Party and the religious right for many years, and by the Trump (and Pence) administration in particular since they were “elected.” Even the left and the Democratic Party in this country have been painfully slow to embrace the rights of LGBTQI people, and many are still holding out. And in many parts of the world, it is far worse, and gay people are still routinely killed, stoned to death, and ostracized from society. Many gay people here in this country and around the world must still live in the shadows, hiding their love, and many are still driven to suicide or addiction. Many gay youth are homeless, having been expelled from their families. Many are still bullied. Gay and trans people continue to be the targets of violent hate crimes. Many religions and spiritual groups still see us as sinful, spiritually inferior, or second-class at best. And we still have people trying to straighten us out. So, I do speak out from time to time.
I wouldn’t be alive today if it were not for the Women’s Movement and the LGBTQI Liberation Movement. I was killing myself with alcohol and drugs, a slow suicide, and I was very close to death when I was lucky enough by sheer chance (or grace, or destiny, however you see it) in late 1973 to meet a remarkable lesbian physician named Josette Mondanaro who was doing therapy with lesbian alcohol and drug addicts at the Center for Special Problems in San Francisco. And luckily, the Women’s Movement and the LGBTQI Movement were blossoming at that same time. My life took a new direction.
I’m so deeply grateful to all those women and men (sis and trans) and all those androgynous non-binaries who have risked their lives to come out, and who have worked tirelessly for equal treatment and full civil rights, and to all the wonderful straight folks and friends who have stood beside us in solidarity. Happy Pride Month to all!
Saving the World
You might think that being silent and not doing anything is a kind of selfish indulgence that won’t do anything to relieve all the suffering and injustice in the world. I remember when I was leaving the radical political left for Zen, many of my comrades viewed my departure that way. In their eyes, I had taken up useless bourgeois navel-gazing. I intuitively felt that this wasn’t true, although I had doubts that persisted for many years.
Now I don’t have those doubts anymore. When it is clearly known, not theoretically as an idea, but directly, as a fully embodied felt-sense, that there is no separation, that everything is one undivided whole, and that nothing is solid or fixed in the way we think it is, then it is clear that we are not isolated and encapsulated forms. Whatever this whole happening is, words like spirit, intelligence-energy, presence, emptiness, no-thing-ness, and so on all begin to feel much closer to the nature of it than the common everyday words that make it all seem like dense, solid, definable, clunky matter divided up into a multitude of independent fragments banging into each other according to understandable laws of cause and effect.
Years ago, I remember hearing or reading that the biologist Rupert Sheldrake considered the so-called “laws of nature” to be more like habit patterns than laws that were set in stone. When we think about the problems in the world, including what I see as the most urgent and pressing problem of all—climate change—we tend to think that solving them must happen in a way that conforms to our ideas of material reality, cause and effect, and so on. Sitting around in silence listening to traffic sounds or tuning into the subtleties of presence can’t possibly be of any real help, except maybe to make us better able to take action later from a less reactive, angry or agitated place.
But my sense is that sitting quietly, doing nothing, may actually be affecting the whole universe much more deeply than we realize. And by “sitting quietly,” I don’t only mean literally sitting quietly, but more fundamentally, I mean an absence of mental grasping and an open presence that can also happen while walking, or doing the dishes, or drinking a cup of coffee, or in many other situations. But sitting (or being still and silent in any posture) and doing nothing at all on a daily basis is, in my experience, foundational.
I’m not in any way, however, meaning to discourage people from outward activism if that is what they are moved to do. As I mentioned in my previous post and many times before, I wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for the Women’s and LGBT liberation movements coming on the scene when they did, and I’m certainly grateful that people worked over the years to stop slavery and other atrocities, and that people continue to work to undo racism and sexism and heterosexism and all forms of prejudice, to improve working conditions, to eliminate poverty, to treat animals in a more humane way, to care for the earth, to address climate change, to make the justice system more just, and so on. These are all certainly worthy undertakings. So please don’t think I’m discouraging anyone from doing such things. But speaking as a former activist, I know that activists often feel that everyone “should” be an activist. I remember feeling that way myself (and being rather obnoxious about it at times). Now I feel that we all have different callings, and different callings at different times in our lives. And I also know now that non-action can be a powerful action.
For myself, I know that I am being pulled deeper into silence and farther away from outward political activism. I am resonating very much lately with John Butler, whose videos I have been sharing here. John re-turns me to what matters most deeply: God, silence, stillness, presence, not knowing—Home, the Heart, the openness Here-Now. Although my main teacher Toni Packer and John are different from one another in some ways in how they express all this, John reminds me very much of Toni, whose emphasis was also on presence, and who also spoke out of, and radiated, a profound listening stillness.
In his latest video (The Lanzarote Tapes - #5), near the end, John says: “When I was young, I worried terribly about all the problems [of the world], but now, in this abandonment to ever-deepening prayer, I have no doubt at all that that is the most effective work that anyone can do for the world….if I’m speaking to any people agonizing over what to do, how can I serve the needs of this world, just think about the life of prayer…there’s no greater service to the world than to discover the kingdom of God.” And by prayer, as I hear him, John simply means meditation. Contemplative silence. Listening to God. Discovering the Heart. Opening the Heart-Mind. Being fully present and awake Here-Now.
Maybe it’s best not to say that anything is “the most effective” action, but simply to acknowledge that “abandonment to ever-deepening prayer” (by whatever name) is one very powerful possibility.
Response to a question about an excerpt from my book that I posted from someone who is concerned about not being able to get rid of the sense that “I am looking at the world from the vantage point of a body”:
The first and most important thing I would say is, don’t worry about it. The whole effort of trying to get beyond what is believed to be a problematic experience only serves to reinforce the sense of being a separate someone who is somehow deficient and in need of improvement. This kind of conundrum is all part of the seeking that creates the imaginary problem it is trying to solve.
But you might also notice that it actually takes thought (based on second-hand knowledge, memory, and so on) to conclude that, “I am looking at the world from the vantage point of a body.” The actual experience is simply undivided seeing in which ever-changing sensations appear that you have learned to call "my body" and "the world."
Finally, I would say that in the everyday reality of life as an apparent human being, there is a built-in functional sense of location and identity that operates as needed, without which you would be one of the seriously impaired patients that Oliver Sacks wrote about who literally can’t distinguish between their hand and the carrot they are cutting up for lunch, or between themselves and the bus they are trying to board. That functional sense won’t go away unless you have a serious brain injury or neurological disorder.
And in some sense, we could say that every apparent person is a completely unique viewpoint of the totality.
But rather than getting lost in thinking about all this and trying to figure it out, I'd say again, don't worry about it. And if you find you can't help worrying about it, or gnawing on it, then just recognize that mental gnawing and grasping as itself an impersonal movement of what is.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2019--
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