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Blog #1

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (10/19--12/19):

The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:

October 13, 2019

The Tired Old Myth of Final Enlightenment and Permanently Awakened People:

I don’t think of awakening as a state or condition that someone “abides” in, and I don’t think in terms of permanently awakened people. For me, the word awake simply points to the recognition that we are not limited to the bodymind; that there is only this immediacy Here-Now—at once ever-present and always changing; that nothing is outside of this unbroken wholeness, including the thought-sense-story that something is; that nothing that appears has the substantial, persisting, objective existence that it seems to have; that everything is happening choicelessly by itself as one indivisible whole; that this undeniable living reality is at once totally obvious and unavoidable (here it always is!) and at the same time utterly mysterious and unresolvable if we attempt to grasp it or pin it down. In my experience, that recognition is rarely, if ever, a one-time event that permanently wipes out all apparent confusion and delusion forever after. 

I spent a number of years desperately seeking some kind of permanent, total, Final Enlightenment. Thankfully, that search fell away—not in a dramatic way—but it was simply noticed, more and more clearly, that this search was all about “me” and some imaginary “there” that “I” might reach in some imaginary future. It was much ado about nothing, in other words! 

Confusion, delusion, identification as “me,” and all the myriad things that can follow from that—such as anger, defensiveness, feeling hurt or upset—can and do still arise in this vastness. I continue to enjoy hearing, reading and talking with other “teachers” (or non-teachers), and I continue to find it interesting to explore this living reality. I’m no longer seeking some endgame enlightenment or some final perfection for Joan, but I am still moved to discover where there is delusion, fixation or identification, and to open, again and again, to the larger reality.

I’m personally quite tired of the finish-line model of awakening or enlightenment. I’m tired of teachers acting like flawless superstars who have left all human fallibility behind and transcended to some error-free zone of purity and perfection. We're all waking up together as one whole happening.

October 19, 2019

Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary:

A friend at Springwater, the retreat center founded by Toni Packer where I was once on staff,  was cleaning out the closets there recently and came upon a spiral-bound xerox copy of Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of Ordinary Life, that I had given to Toni for her feedback. My friend mailed it to me. I wish I’d kept that subtitle—I had forgotten it. I changed it in the published version. But I like that old one: the ecstasy of ordinary life.

Many spiritual teachings emphasize a kind of detachment from the messiness of ordinary human life, rising above it, transcending it, rejecting any sense of being a person. I prefer a different approach, one that honors both the transcendent and the down-to-earth, the personal and the impersonal, the pure and the messy, the light and the dark.

I see the messiness of ordinary life as the Holy Reality and suggest going ever-more deeply into it rather than away from it. Liberation, awakening or enlightenment (as I understand them) are not “out there” in some special elevated state, but right here in this present moment. This approach avoids any pretense of being “beyond it all” and cuts off any search for an exotic future somewhere else.

Of course, by “going deeply into the ordinary,” I don’t mean being deeply lost in all the stories, beliefs and conceptualized situations that we often think of as ordinary life. I mean being fully awake to the actuality of this moment—the immediate, energetic, sensory aliveness and present-ness of Here-Now, just this, as it is.

And how is it exactly? The more closely we look or feel into the bare actuality of this moment, the less graspable and the more mysterious and wondrous it reveals itself to be.

Being fully alive as this present happening, this hearing-seeing-sensing-breathing-moving-thinking-awaring-being, we find that Here-Now, present experiencing, has no boundaries and no seams. This amazing happening includes the intermittent sense of being a particular unique person, but it isn’t stuck there or limited to that. There is no effort to be identified as one part of this happening and not as another part, nor to push anything away, nor to make something special happen. There is simply this present experiencing, just as it is: the sound of traffic, the cheep-cheep of a bird, an ache in the knee, a passing thought, the taste of oatmeal, sweeping the floor, changing a diaper, phoning a friend, cooking lunch, driving to the office, working on the computer, watching TV, sitting in deep meditation – just this. Nothing more, nothing less. The Holy Reality is right here, hidden in plain sight, in the apparently ordinary.

In Zen, tremendous attention and care is given to every seemingly mundane detail of ordinary life. Sweeping the floor, pouring tea, cooking rice, and cleaning the toilet are sacred activities, to be approached with the same loving care and attention that you would give to your dearest beloved.

What if we regarded every object we touch, every person we meet, every task we undertake as God? What if we realized that it is God moving as us, that there is no separation, that we are the whole universe? How would this change the way we function, the way we feel, the way we treat ourselves and everyone and everything around us?

October 23, 2019:

If it seems that presence is not always here, what is it that we are calling presence? Is it a particular experience that we can describe and remember and compare to other experiences? If so, then it will come and go, as all experiences do by their very nature. The experiences that happen in deep meditation, on retreat or at a satsang, will be different from the experiences that happen at the office on a busy day, at home with screaming children, while watching a thriller on TV, or when lost in a daydream-fantasy. But something is the same in all these different experiences. They all happen Here-Now. They all appear in awareness. They are all movements of the same presence, consciousness or immediacy.

Thought (claiming to be “I”) keeps asserting, “I’ve got it, I lost it, I need to get it back, I’m abiding in it, I’m not abiding, I’m a loser, I’m awake, I’m not awake,” etc. If we stop and check, we can discover that presence-awareness is here before, during and after all those thoughts. It is the ever-present groundless ground (the no-thing-ness) appearing as everything, the indivisible wholeness of Here-Now.

We usually focus on the figure and not the ground—the storylines, dramas, situations, and problems. That all has its place, and it’s never actually separate from, or other than, the ground. Stories are wonderful (I love them!). But it can be interesting to give open attention to the ground itself, to presence, to groundlessness—to notice what is the same in every different experience.

It can also be interesting to dive deeply into the actual textures of this ever-changing present moment—the amazingly rich colors, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily sensations. And what is the actual texture of thoughts, daydreams, fantasies, and mental movies below the narrative? Something to explore.

Of course, we can use words in different ways. As always, it’s helpful to find out how words are being used. There is certainly a profound and palpable difference between being lost in obsessive, me-centered thinking and simply being present and aware (“being here now”), and if thoughts arise, seeing them as thoughts and not as objective reports on reality—not being hypnotized by them, not believing them. If that kind of open attention and clarity is what is meant by presence or “being aware,” then it does come and go.

Although actually, it might be more accurate, even then, to say that open aware clarity is ever-present, and what comes and goes is the hypnotic entrancement in thoughts and stories.

Response to a comment:

Experientially, any sense of being present and aware disappears every night in deep sleep, although in that case we wake up if we smell smoke or hear an alarm, so some awareness obviously remains, simply without any experiential qualities, or at least none we remember. When we're dead, we don't wake up if the alarm goes off. Something is no longer there, at least, not as that particular (ever-changing, never really anything in particular) bodymind. And yet, awareness is right here, beholding the dead body, in the guise of other bodyminds. It is as if the bubble has popped, but the space inside and outside remains, and even the bubble was simply space bubbling. "Space" is a word here for what cannot really be captured by a word for it is the no-thing-ness and the everything-ness of all there is, the total impermanence and the seamless indivisibility. In the end, there's a huge not-knowing, perhaps because the eye cannot see itself, but there's also an intuitive certainty that the very notions we are talking about are somehow flawed, and that "nothing" is as much an idea as "something." And so, we try to express all this, but words are never quite right. If we try to parse it all out on the level of intellect, thought, logic and reason, we will miss the heart of the matter—at least, that is my experience. For some, intellect, thought, logic and reason are all that matters. For me, the real jewel is beyond that. I wouldn’t disparage intellect, thought, logic and reason—they are all valuable tools, and very useful for challenging beliefs and unseen (false) assumptions. But it doesn’t end there.

Mortality is both real and unreal in my experience. We cannot land on either side to the exclusion of the other. And no, I don't believe in reincarnation or heaven, that's not what I'm pointing to. I'm pointing to what Buddhism calls emptiness, interdependence, no-self, impermanence, and what Advaita calls the Self. They may seem like opposites, but follow them all the way and, in my experience, you end up Here-Now, ever-present, ever-changing.

October 25, 2019

Not Getting Fixated on Half the Truth

In my experience, this living reality has many ways of seeing itself, and they may all be real. But because of the binary nature of our thinking process, we tend to easily get stuck on one side of what is actually a purely conceptual divide between two polarities, polarities that only exist relative to one another. We lose sight of how they work together and depend on one another, how both have a part of the truth, how neither is completely true.

Examples of this abound. Some people get stuck on non-duality, as opposed to duality. Some get stuck on absolute truth, as opposed to relative truth. Some get stuck on one or the other side of these pairs: choice/no choice, practice/no practice, self/no self, spiritual/material, transcendent/down-to-earth, ever-present/ever-changing, progressive/conservative, and so on.

Can life be both totally real and also dream-like and ephemeral? Can mortality be both real and unreal? Can death be both utterly final and totally non-existent? Can the person we apparently are be both an undeniable reality and a kind of mirage-like phantom? Can it be equally true that history really happened and that nothing actually happened? I say, YES!

Our binary minds can’t handle the paradoxical nature of reality, the way it can’t quite be pinned down or captured by any thought-concept, the way it shape-shifts and refuses to hold still.

Many different perspectives feel true to me: science and spirituality; the world of everyday life (politics, family dynamics, cancer treatments, economic realities, climate change, and so on) and the world of vast emptiness; Buddhism (which talks about interdependence, emptiness, no-self, thorough-going impermanence and change) and Advaita (which talks about the immutable Self, the unchanging, ever-present Absolute), and so on. Maybe we don’t need to choose. I find when I go far enough to the west, I’m suddenly in the east. When I go deep into impermanence, I’m suddenly in seamlessness, and always Here-Now. When I explore form, I encounter emptiness. Anywhere I land is partial, not quite the whole story.

Maybe reality is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, layered, holographic, fractal. Maybe it only seems paradoxical because we want to pin it down. That’s how it seems to me.

We get easily identified with and fixed on viewpoints and positions, which we then defend and argue over. But what are we ever actually talking about? We think we know, but do we really? That’s not a question to answer, but to live with.

Introduction to the next post:

I started writing my new book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement, in 2003, so by 2019, I had over a thousand pages. I had to cut out much of the book in order to reduce it to a readable and affordable length. William Faulkner famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Stephen King later added, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings.” I first heard the quote from Faulkner when I was in Creative Writing school many years ago. Well, I killed a lot of my darlings this past summer.

I'm thinking I might share some of the chapters that ended up on the cutting room floor on Facebook. The first one I want to share is a section in the original manuscript called “The Dot and the Square.” In that original manuscript, it preceded the section in Chapter Eight (“Challenges on the Pathless Path”) called “The Observer-Independent Reality that Doesn’t Actually Exist,” and some of “The Dot and the Square” eventually migrated into that other section in the published book, but most of it landed on the cutting room floor.

November 23, 2019:

The Dot & the Square

“Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object, or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object.” --Dogen

I had used the internet and email for a number of years before I discovered that different email programs, browsers or monitors can display the same text or the same images differently. The font, type size, colors, and arrangement of items on the page can vary from one program, browser or monitor to the next. This seems totally obvious in today’s world with so many different platforms for connecting to the internet and things showing up in so many different formats, but before we had all those devices, when home computers, internet and email were still relatively new, this was nowhere near as obvious.  For a long time, I didn’t have a clue that what I saw on my screen when I visited a web site or composed an email was not necessarily what someone else saw when they looked at “the same” website or opened my email on their computer.

I first discovered this when I was trying to send a large dot to a friend whose name is Dot. To do this, I typed a period and then blew up the type size until what appeared on my screen was a large round solid black dot. I emailed this large black dot to my friend (Dear Dot), but her email program didn’t have the font I had used, so her program automatically converted the period into a different font. In that font, a period is a square and not a dot, so what she saw was a large solid black square (Dear Square). My friend and I then had a very strange conversation in which she seemed to be wondering why I had called her a square and what I meant by that.

Soon after, I emailed out an announcement for some upcoming events I was doing, and this same friend was one of the recipients.  In fact, she was planning to forward the announcement on to her mailing list. I put quite a bit of work into creating my announcement, carefully designing the page, selecting the right fonts, putting in a photo of myself, arranging it all on the page in an attractive way. When I was satisfied, I pushed send. Unbeknownst to either of us, what my friend received looked completely different from what I saw on my screen. What she saw was a jumbled mess with lots of different text sizes and colors appearing in random places and the photo of me stuck away in a corner at the very bottom. As she told me later, she felt mildly irritated that I had sent out my announcement without getting it into better shape first.  The thought went through her mind that I was sloppy, careless, and obviously in way too big a hurry. Since she had offered to forward the announcement to her mailing list along with an endorsement, she now felt that she was being forced to tidy up my sloppy work, which further irritated her.

After several unsatisfying conversations about what we both once again thought was exactly the same email, we were each getting a bit frustrated and defensive. Interpretations and stories were beginning to spring up in our minds. She was wondering why I hadn’t done a better job, and why I wasn’t admitting that I had been sloppy. I was feeling unjustly criticized over something I had worked so carefully on and obviously done such a beautiful job on.

Since we were both equally clueless about the technicalities of the virtual world, it took us a while to realize what was happening. One day at her house, I showed her the print-out of what had appeared on my screen, and I got to see what she was seeing on her screen, and at that point, we had a good laugh. It was finally clear to both of us what was going on. We realized that we had been looking at totally different images that we thought were the same image, and we were both then completely baffled and upset by the other person’s apparently bizarre assertions and responses. The more we had persisted in trying to sort it out, the more confused and upset we had become, and the more each of us had begun reading things—sloppiness, denial, lack of respect—into what the other person was saying or doing. You can see the potential for conflict and hurt feelings! In this case, it was between good friends and it was over something relatively trivial and harmless that was easily cleared up in a few days.  It ended in a good laugh. But it could have been something much more serious and far more difficult to unravel such as the situation in the Middle East.

This struck me as a beautiful metaphor for our human situation. We are all convinced that there is a single objective reality “out there” apart from us, and of course, we all deeply believe that our own view of this reality is correct. But what if there really is no objective, fixed, inherent reality “out there” that we are all seeing, more or less correctly? What if each of us is seeing and participating in our own completely unique movie?  What if nothing is “out there” apart from the seeing itself? It’s fairly obvious that the Palestinians and the Israelis are each seeing completely different movies, as are the Democrats and the Republicans, or those who believe in the importance of a woman’s right to a medically safe abortion and those who believe that abortion is murder, or those who think being LGBTQI is natural and beautiful and those who think it is a sin and an abomination against God and nature.

It’s fairly easy to understand the non-existence of objective reality intellectually, and on some level, every well-educated 21st century person knows this—it is reflected in physics, neuroscience, postmodern literature, and in a host of ways throughout the culture. We may even see and experience it on a deeper level through direct insight during meditation or spiritual inquiry.  But even then, the illusion of a solid, objective reality “out there” is so convincing and deeply imbedded that it tends to re-form itself, as does the deeply-rooted conviction that my way of seeing this reality is the correct way.  And, of course, it is correct as my way of seeing!  For Joan, a round dot really did appear—undeniably, just as for my friend, a square really did appear.  Both were absolutely undeniable and true appearances!  The only problem was that we each assumed that we were both seeing the same thing, and we therefore assumed we couldn’t both be right. One of us had to be wrong.

And of course, our very identity and survival seems to get wrapped up in our particular subjective view of things. Even in this very trivial example, my friend and I began to experience mild feelings of irritation and defensiveness based on the storylines that were taking shape in our minds around this incongruence. How much greater the potential for upset when we are dealing with bigger issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, where people on both sides have had their lives disrupted and damaged over many decades—loved ones killed, land taken away, homes destroyed. Everyone involved is seeing a completely unique and different movie, and yet everyone assumes they are all talking about a single, objective situation. When our views on hot-button topics are questioned or contradicted, we humans tend to become easily upset, angry, wounded, defensive, hostile and perhaps underneath all that, deeply fearful. We feel that our very survival is somehow at stake along with our whole perception of reality—the very ground on which we seem to be standing is thrown into question.

This all reminds me of the famous old story about the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant. One touches the elephant’s side, another the trunk, another a tusk. Another takes hold of an ear, another the tail, and so on. The blind men then get into a heated argument about what an elephant is like. One says with total conviction that an elephant is broad and solid, another insists it is wiggly and cylindrical, another describes it as flat and wavy, another asserts that it resembles the trunk of a tree, and so on. Of course, they are each perfectly correct in describing what each of them undeniably felt, but none of them has seen the whole elephant. Likewise, no individual ever sees the boundless Totality. We see only our unique viewpoint, our particular movie of waking life, and we mistake the object seen for the wholeness that cannot be seen. That’s how the virtual reality of consciousness works.

In this magnificent illusion, my view of the world seems entirely convincing as The Way It Is, even if I know better intellectually. On issues that matter to me, I am entirely convinced in my gut that I am right—again, even if I know intellectually that my view is inevitably subjective and never complete. And the sense of "me" frequently gets in there to muddy the waters. The mirage-like self-image gets identified with my viewpoint, so that there is the feeling, in some subconscious visceral way, that I am fighting for my very survival when I am arguing with someone on the opposite side of a hot-button issue. Such issues are usually far more serious than the dot and the square, but the basic mechanism—the way conflict and misunderstanding are created and sustained—is exactly the same. We feel put down or disrespected, misunderstood, not heard, not seen. Our feelings get hurt. Our identity seems threatened. We fight wars over this stuff. Genocides happen over this stuff. Friendships are destroyed. All because you see a square, and I see a dot, and we think we’re looking at the same object.

This article was originally a section in my book Death: The End of Self-Improvement. In the original manuscript, it preceded the section in Chapter Eight (Challenges on the Pathless Path) called The Observer-Independent Reality that Doesn’t Actually Exist.

I feel moved to share this particular chapter now in part because I recently got into quite a snarl with my publisher over the Kindle edition of my book. We were emailing back and forth about the problems I saw in the formatting of it, and each of us was getting increasingly frustrated. Finally, we exchanged screenshots of what we were each seeing, and it became clear that we were seeing astonishingly different layouts of the same text. I always knew the formatting of the text on Kindles could be altered by holding the device vertically or horizontally, or by changing things like type size, font and spacing. But I discovered that different platforms can also present it quite differently and can offer different variables that cannot be changed or controlled.

I read Kindles on my iPad using the Amazon Kindle for iPad app. My publisher was reading it on a different device—different hardware, different software. We were seeing two completely different images. What transpired in our frustrating attempts to discuss what we believed was “the same thing” had been a remarkable repeat of The Dot and the Square, only this time I was in the role that my friend Dot was in that incident, and my publisher was in the role I’d been in. And once again, even knowing all we both knew, it took quite a while to catch on to what was transpiring!

Every person is looking at “the world” from a unique perspective (different hardware and software with varying controls—i.e. different conditioning, different bodymind organisms, different point of view). No wonder there is so much misunderstanding and conflict in what we all take to be the same world. And I think this story of The Dot and the Square illustrates it quite beautifully.

December 5, 2019:

The “no self” or “no thing” description of reality is often greatly misunderstood. It is not about denying, ignoring or de-valuing the relative reality of each unique and precious person or each unique and precious manifestation—each utterly unique dog, cat, tree, stone, car, train, chair, table, thunderstorm, galaxy, planet, quark, cell, molecule, heart, lung, fingernail, mountain, or whatever it might be. But words (especially nouns like these) create the impression of independent persisting things when reality is not actually like that.

The “no self” or “no thing” description of reality is inviting a noticing or recognizing (not a believing, but a seeing directly) that no-thing (no person, no dog, no snowflake, no mountain) is ever the same from one instant to the next. Everything is changing. And no-thing exists independently of everything else. Reality is holographic, like the jewels in Indra’s Net. Everything is made up of everything it apparently is not. It is an undivided, seamless whole. That doesn’t mean there isn’t variation and apparent multiplicity. It doesn’t deny the relative reality of separate objects or the importance of healthy, functional boundaries. It’s ALL included. But it all goes together.

This person called Joan Tollifson is an ever-changing process like a whirlpool or a wave. Joan is made up of energy, stardust, sunlight, her ancestors, the food they ate, the books she has read, the movies she has watched, the people she has been with, the places she has lived—in short, she contains the whole universe. Like a jewel in Indra’s Net, she is a reflection of all the other jewels. Like a hologram, every apparent part contains the whole. She is an ever-changing manifestation of unicity, inseparable from everything else. Like a wave in the ocean, she cannot move independently of the ocean, and she is never anything other than the ocean waving.

If “I” look to see what “I” most deeply refer to by the word “I,” what this exploration reveals is no-thing at all, and at the same time, absolutely everything. We can call this wholeness or emptiness by many names: Here-Now, awareness, consciousness, presence, totality, God, the Tao. This True-I, to which we all refer, is here prior to our name and our story. We had to learn our name, and our story is an ever-changing narrative made up of memories, thoughts, images and ideas—a narrative that appears and disappears and re-forms itself like cloud formations.

To SEE that no-thing (and especially the self) exists in the way we think it does—as a solid, discrete, independent, persisting, separate, objectively-existing entity—is immensely liberating. It erases the psychological fear of death. But it doesn’t mean denying the relative reality of Joan and the world. In fact, it reveals ALL of that to be the Holy Reality itself—infinitely precious and beautiful. We ARE this unbound totality, this vast emptiness appearing as everything.

But if we try to grasp or pin down or cling to the ever-changing forms, it will be like trying to hold onto clouds. The result will be frustration and suffering. And if we imagine that there is some kind of little self with independent free will inside our head authoring our thoughts and making our choices, we will suffer from guilt, pride, blame, and frustration. To realize that we are all movements of the whole is to be free from all that.

We SEE all this by giving open attention to the actuality Here-Now. Usually our attention is on the map-world of ideas, concepts, thoughts and beliefs. True meditation or spiritual contemplation is about noticing the bare actuality, as it is—and noticing that we ARE this bare actuality, this undivided awaring-experiencing-being Here-Now, just as it is—ever-present and ever-changing.

And that undivided wholeness INCLUDES thinking and conceptualizing. It includes the intermittent thought-sense of being Joan Tollifson with all her opinions, ideas, behaviors and tendencies. It doesn’t deny or negate any of that. It simply sees it in a bigger context. And it sees how insubstantial, ungraspable, ephemeral and protean it all is. It doesn’t mistake the map for the territory. And that seeing is immensely freeing. It is the freedom for everything to be as it is.

December 12, 2019:

How Does One Reconcile Here-Now with Planning and Having Goals?

I recently got this question in an email: “I understand that in reality, in actual experience, there is no time and space, and our actual experience is in the Now. But then when related to work, I see that there is a conditioned pattern of working with goals, deadlines, systems, having discipline to make sense of the world. How does one realign when related to work?”

This was my reply:

In the play of life, there is the experience of time and space, and of course, we have practical goals, deadlines, organizational systems, labels, categories, narratives and so on. All of that is part of how life functions. But it all happens Here-Now, in this ever-present immediacy.

Here is a short excerpt from the section called “Here-Now” in Chapter Two of my newest book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement:

"Whatever time of day or night it is, whatever season, however old you are, it is always Now. Whatever location shows up, it always shows up Here, in the immediacy of presence, this unlocatable placeless-place where we always already are. However far we travel, every step of the journey happens Here, and when we reach our destination, we are still right Here. Time and space are a kind of mental construct, a mode of perception. We think of time as a linear progression, but the only actual reality we ever experience is Now, which is timeless and eternal. Likewise, the only actual place we ever are is Here in this immediacy or present-ness, which is unlocatable and infinite. We can never step out of Here-Now. Memories of the past, fantasies of the future, thoughts about elsewhere can only appear Here-Now. When the past was happening, it was happening Now. When the future arrives, it will be happening Now. If we take a trip from San Francisco to New York, the airport shows up Here, the plane flight shows up Here, and when we reach New York, we are still Here. Now is the only eternity, and Here is the only infinity that actually is.”  

Memory is a vital part of how we function, as is planning for the future, anticipating things that might happen, conceptual thinking and imagination. But all of these vital functions can also generate tremendous suffering. To take a simple example, it’s one thing to want a college degree, to plan intelligently for how to get it, and to do the necessary steps, including learning and remembering lots of information and thinking about which classes to take next. That’s all functional. But it’s another thing to believe that you will only be happy after you get that degree and that your happiness depends on that outcome. That is suffering. Every moment of planning for college and attending college happens Now. Memory happens Now. Planning happens Now. And every different classroom you go to shows up Here in this immediacy or presence. You never leave Here-Now, and yet there is apparent past and future, now and then, here and there, time and space. The actuality (the direct experiencing) of this is simple and obvious. There is no contradiction at all. Only in thinking about it and trying to conceptualize it does it seemingly become paradoxical and confusing. Reality cannot be captured in any conceptual formulation. A map is never the territory, just as a menu is not the meal—these can be helpful guides—but they are not the living reality. That living reality (present experiencing) is at once obvious and yet inconceivable. 

December 14, 2019:

I ended my last post by saying that the actuality (the direct experiencing) of reality is simple and obvious. There is no contradiction at all. Only in thinking about it and trying to conceptualize it does it seemingly become paradoxical and confusing.

In that last post, I was talking about how the ever-present Here-Now includes past and future, here and there, now and then, memory and planning. In the same way, this living reality is at once both undivided seamless unicity and infinitely varied multiplicity, both One and many. We are each independent individuals and, at the same time, utterly interdependent and inseparable wavings of one indivisible holographic Ocean in which each wave contains the whole Ocean.

There are lots of apparently different things and yet they all go together as one indivisible whole. We have the undeniable experience of making choices and the undeniable capacity to change things including ourselves, and yet it all happens choicelessly. The living reality is ever-changing and yet ever-present. It doesn’t hold still and yet it never departs from itself. It is absolutely perfect just as it is, and yet, this perfection includes the aspiration to clarify, heal, repair, and transform.

In direct experiencing, this is all quite simple and obvious. It is our everyday, ordinary, actual experience. In direct experiencing, there is no contradiction at all between unicity and multiplicity, or between individuality and totality, or between choicelessness and choice. They show up together. It’s obvious. Only in thinking about all of this and trying to conceptualize it does it seemingly become paradoxical and confusing.

We habitually overlook our actual experience in favor of our conceptual maps, and the mapping is so ubiquitous that we don’t even realize we’re doing this. It gets subtler and subtler.

Thought functions dualistically. It is forever trying to nail things down. It sorts and divides. It takes sides: this against that. And this all has its functional value and necessity. We can’t get rid of this activity. But we can begin to notice that our actual experiencing cannot be nailed down or divided up. It is ever-changing, unresolvable, indeterminate, impossible to grasp, and yet utterly obvious and impossible to avoid.

It is all-inclusive. Nothing is left out. It’s always right here, right now, always presenting itself. And yet, as soon as we start trying to capture it in the net of words and ideas, it feels confusing.

It seems to be our nature, the nature of this living reality, to be curious, to wonder what everything is and how it works, to explore, and to yearn for what will truly satisfy the longing of the heart.

But what is it that truly satisfies that deep longing for wholeness and okayness, and where is it found?

Our habit is to think, “This isn’t it,” and to look elsewhere and elsewhen. We search “out there.” And there’s nothing wrong with working with a teacher, listening to talks, reading books, attending retreats and satsangs, and so on—if we don’t do all this, we may never wake up, although waking up can happen in many ways, and none of this is required. But it can certainly be helpful, and in many cases essential. But ultimately, we see that ALL of this is pointing us to right here.

And although reading and thinking may be involved in the process, liberation is not to be found in ideas or beliefs.

The habit of trying to think our way to clarity, freedom and peace of mind runs deep. We jump on that proverbial hamster wheel again and again, chasing the proverbial Golden Carrot that is forever just out of reach, and it always ends in frustration. The living reality refuses to hold still. It slips out of every net that thought creates. Trying to fit reality into our mental boxes and nail it down is like trying to hold onto water or nail down smoke.

But we keep trying, and the harder we try, the more knotted up we feel, the more desperate, the more incomplete and lacking. Our bodymind gets tighter and tighter. We feel separate and lost—forever seeking some final answer or experience that will release us from this painful contraction and allow us to finally relax and be okay just as we are.

And the curious thing that can eventually be discovered is that we are doing this to ourselves, clenching our own fist until it hurts.

A rather bizarre and now deceased American guru named Adi Da, about whom I have very mixed feelings, did manage to say a number of things that I thought were right on the mark. Among them, he said: "Your suffering is your own activity. It is something that you are doing moment to moment....You will continue to pursue every kind of means until you realize that all you are doing is pinching yourself. When you realize that, you just take your hand away. There is nothing complicated about it. But previous to that, it is an immensely complicated problem...The self is just like this clenched fist. Relax the fist and there is nothing inside...This moment is the moment of reality... Nothing needs to be done to it, or to you, for this to be so. Nothing needs to be avoided, transcended or found for it to be so...It is always already the case. We are never at any moment in the dilemma we fear ourselves to be."

The phantom “me” at the root of our desperate search, the one who wants so desperately to understand and figure it all out and get somewhere, is nothing more than that clenched fist, the grasping-seeking mind on its hamster wheel. This clenching-grasping-seeking- pinching-running activity is something we are doing. And once that is noticed, the possibility opens up to simply stop. To just BE here, not doing anything. To relax and open the clenched fist.

In simply being still, doing nothing, allowing it all to be as it is, we may find that the problem dissolves, and if it doesn’t dissolve, it becomes at least bearable and maybe even interesting. The one who seemingly had this problem turns out to have been only a mental image created by thoughts, stories, memories, and ideas, felt in the whole body as tension and unease. The okayness we’ve been seeking is only ever found Here-Now. Not in some other imagined Here-Now in the future. But exactly THIS (one and only) Here-Now.

This unbroken unicity has the amazing capacity to seemingly split itself into two (or into seven billion) and then to observe itself, argue with itself, work on itself, give birth to itself, destroy itself, and love itself. What an amazing dance this is, what a show, what a play!

The true spiritual path is not about going somewhere else and acquiring something we don’t already have. It is about waking up to exactly who, what and where we actually are, right here, right now. It doesn’t settle for yesterday’s answers or someone else’s conclusions. It is always open, not knowing, full of wonder. It is a pathless path through the gateless gate. It takes many forms, but they all boil down to being-here-now. And it may take many years of apparent time to realize what that actually means, and to realize that we are actually never not here. And yet, there’s being here and being here. Are they the same or different?

In our apparently long journey from Here to Here, have we changed? Do we even exist? Is the whole play real? Is there a choice? Does liberation take time or is it timelessly present? Are we unique individuals or boundless unicity? Yes and no, both / and. We can’t land anywhere. And yet, here we are, the One and the many, real and unreal, plain as day.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2019--

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