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Blog #2

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (1/6/20 through 2/14/20): https://www.facebook.com/JoanTollifson.

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

January 6, 2020

Retreat Reflections

I’m back from my solitary New Year's retreat and it was wonderful and rejuvenating, blessed by the sounds of rain. At times, freezing fog would erase the mountains and the neighborhood, leaving only a white empty page, and then gradually the fog would lift and the world of colors and shapes would be painted anew on the empty page. After a night of rain, a gorgeous morning of brilliant sunshine appeared, wet pavement glistening with light, huge clean white clouds adrift in the blue sky, snow gleaming on the sides of the mountains, the air bracingly fresh, deer sleeping in the wet grasses at the park where I walked every day.

Everything is singing its own perfect and unique song, all of it in perfect harmony, even the parts that seem dissonant and unresolved. Everything is grace; God is all there is.

There are ever-changing experiences, ever-changing weather—inner and outer—the infinite faces of God, from the horrific to the sublime, all of it (and perhaps especially the horrific and the broken) here to be embraced and met in the Heart, in this alchemical fire of aware presence or unconditional love, in which a kind of miraculous transformation occurs that is not the doing of thought or human will. It is a movement of the Heart, a shift from the sense of separation and encapsulation to the realization of boundlessness, from resistance to devotion, from the crucifixion to the resurrection.

We create the horrors in the world through inadvertence, through delusion, or, in Christian language, through sin, which simply means missing the mark, turning away from God or Wholeness, getting lost in the map-world of dualistic thought and limited identity. Hypnotized by habit and conditioning and by the powerful tides of emotion-thought, we feel separate, alienated, alternately caught up in either arrogance or stories of deficiency. We miss the mark. We do hurtful, sometimes cruel, sometimes enormously destructive, things. And perhaps it is our human task—Consciousness embodied in form, the Ocean moving as wave—to recognize and heal these delusions by coming Home (again and again, Now) to what is “most intimate,” as they say in Zen.

And what is that? As Ramana Maharshi put it:  “Call it by any name, God, Self, the Heart, the Seat of Consciousness, it is all the same. The point to be grasped is this, that Heart means the very core of one’s being, the Center, without which there is nothing whatever.” The words can only point. What they point to is not an idea, a concept, or a belief, but a palpable reality that can be discovered and known directly by being still, and perhaps by inquiring (not with thought, but with open attention) into that proverbial question, “What am I?”

When we look back to the source of the looking, when we feel into what is most deeply meant by the word “I,” deeper than name and form, prior to everything that has been learned, before all ideas, before thought, before individuality, what is found?

In a way, nothing is found! A great emptiness. And at the same time, everything! The One Self to which we all refer. The cheeping of a bird, the sleeping deer, the sounds of traffic, the train whistle, the passing thoughts, the listening presence beholding it all—and at the very core, subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable, the radiant darkness, the infinite potential, the unfathomable intelligence-energy, the primordial awareness that remains even in deep sleep—the deathless unborn.

The weather of experiencing is ever-changing, while Here-Now (this still-point of timeless immediacy) is ever-present, without beginning or end—limitless, without borders, utterly still and silent—not unlike the fog, erasing and revealing everything. Such an amazing and beautiful mystery.

January 15, 2020

What is it?

This is a wonderful question to live with, asking it of anything and everything—and not settling for, or landing on, any answer that comes up (e.g., chair, truck, dog, my neighbor, mind, anger, sensation, experience, consciousness, emotion, God, presence, awareness, pain, arthritis, hand, foot, anxiety, coffee, my wife, etc.).

Let go of all those word-labels. Let go of the answers, the concepts, everything you think you know. Instead, simply open deeply to the bare actuality of whatever is presenting itself. Fall into the wonder of truly not knowing. Try it and see what reveals itself.

And if, after reading that last sentence, you find yourself expecting some Big Revelation, let that expectation go and simply be open to the bare actuality of what is, not knowing what it is, but knowing it directly, wordlessly. Allow yourself to bathe in the ever-changing, ever-unfolding, radiance and wonder of non-conceptual, unformulated, unlabeled, ungraspable being. There is no end to what is revealed.

January 17, 2020

The Anatomy of a Compulsion and the Value of Both Words and Wordless Awareness

Words, like the hands of a skilled bodyworker, can draw your attention to something previously unseen or overlooked. Something is illuminated, touched, revealed by the word as by the touch of the bodyworker—awareness floods the area, light comes into the previously darkened room, a flame is ignited in the heart.

--Joan Tollifson, from Death: The End of Self-Improvement

To name is to bring an attitude of wonder to the work of sorting, and even to the work of dealing with difficult states of mind. When we can name what is happening to us, we are no longer wholly identified with it and have begun to separate from the grasping dark. If what we feel is known and named to be a tiger, then the whole world is not tiger.

--John Tarrant

I write and talk a great deal about the problematic aspects of naming things, the map not being the territory, the label not being the thing itself. But of course, as a writer, I also love words and deeply appreciate their value. It was, after all, when Helen Keller grokked the word “water” that the whole world opened up to her. And on several occasions, I have found a label very liberating.

One of these occasions was when I encountered Eckhart Tolle’s term the pain-body, a word he coined for the hypnotic trance of ego-based emotion-thought that seems to take us over at times, resulting in outbursts of anger, waves of self-pity, addictive binges, relationship conflicts, wars, and so on. Of course, the pain-body is not really an entity or a “thing,” but somehow, having a single, simple name for all the myriad patterns of being possessed by emotion-thought made it easier to recognize and not buy into these patterns whenever one of them popped up.

Another time a label was liberating was when I did a Google search on a fingerbiting compulsion I have lived with since childhood and found that it had a name: Dermatophagia.  I found that name immensely healing because it instantly made it less personal and less shameful. It gave it some sort of credibility as an actual medical problem and not just my own personal screw-up. I learned it was classified as an impulse control disorder and sometimes as a form of OCD. And it let me know that there are many others with exactly the same problem. Dermatophagia is a specific form of the pain-body. Both labels gave me a new and helpful perspective.

I’ve had this fingerbiting compulsion since childhood and it is still with me in my seventies. People often think I mean nail-biting, which is related, but that’s not what I bite. In fact, I never bite my nails. I pick and then bite off the skin itself. Many people do a mild form of this around their cuticles, but what I do isn’t mild, and I don’t stop at the cuticles. I’ve spent a fortune over the years on Band-Aids and first aid ointments. For decades, I never met or heard of anyone else who had this same exact compulsion. It seemed like my own private hell, my own personal failure and shame.

Unlike an addiction, such as drinking wine or smoking cigarettes, a compulsion of this nature is not something you look forward to doing. It is something you dread. And unlike drinking and smoking, it is a very tense, contracted experience, not a relaxing or pleasant one. And yet, something is obviously compelling about it. It has even been described as a form of self-soothing. But it doesn’t feel soothing the way smoking a cigarette or drinking a glass of wine does. Compulsive fingerbiting feels like being torn apart, as if an immensely strong magnetic force that you cannot resist is forcing you to do something you don’t want to do, and although you desperately want to stop, you can’t—not doing it feels like it would be unbearable.

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of possible cures, and the most powerful one has involved dropping the label and the story and giving nonjudgmental open attention to the urge itself, and then, if it happens, to the biting—being aware of the whole thing, without labeling it, without telling a story about it, without trying to stop, but simply shedding light on the whole event, allowing it all to be just as it is. My main teacher, Toni Packer, suggested this possibility to me.

Awareness is intelligence itself, unconditional love, and it has its own action, very different from any action that originates in thought or will-power. Awareness accepts everything just as it is, and out of that total acceptance, transformation can happen. I remember Gangaji once saying to a person who was trying to quit smoking, “When you’re free to smoke, you’re free to stop.” In any moment of total, complete, open, nonjudgmental awareness and attention—with no agenda and no intention or effort to stop—the biting always ends completely in that moment. But it may start up again a moment later.

The compulsion has definitely diminished in frequency and severity over the years, and there are longer and more frequent periods when it falls away entirely. But so far, it still shows up. I’ve realized that it may keep showing up for as long as I’m alive.

In some way, this compulsion has often struck me as a very visceral enactment of the fundamental mechanism of our human suffering: we create a problem that makes us feel separate, and then we struggle to fix it, which also makes us feel separate. I create a loose end by picking at the skin, then I rip the loose end off with my teeth to “fix” it, thus making it worse, and voila! – pretty soon I have a huge problem called “FINGERBITING,” a problem that involves tension in the body, mental conflict, and a strong sense of being somebody with a terrible affliction. And yet, I’m doing it to myself. Or perhaps more accurately, one part of this Joan-whirlpool is doing it to another part of this Joan-whirlpool.

Our human suffering has often been described as a contraction, a kind of compulsive or habitual activity that we are in some way almost always doing, avoiding the openness and freedom of reality by contracting down into this apparently separate and encapsulated “me.” We do this in myriad ways—by seeking outside ourselves for what can only be found Here-Now, by asking endless unanswerable questions, by trying to grasp the nature of reality mentally, by obsessive thinking, and by creating various forms of targeted attention, such as I do with biting my fingers, or as many people do by playing with their hair or their hand-held devices. In all these myriad ways and many others, we continually create the sense of separate, independent existence, and thus avoid the open spaciousness, the ungraspability, the vast freedom of actuality.  We “pinch ourselves” in various ways, physically, emotionally or mentally, so as to endlessly re-create and reinforce the sense of separation, dilemma, division, and conflict between opposing desires, such as the desire to bite and the desire to stop. Dermatophagia is paradoxically described as both a form of self-soothing, calming the nervous system and reducing levels of stimulation, and/or as a form of creating stimulation or focus.

On the internet, I learned that people with dermatophagia are often called wolf-biters, apparently because wolves are the only animal that will chew off its own paw to escape a trap. One friend, who is a psychiatrist, suggested that this compulsion might have originated in reaction to the prenatal trauma of having one of my arms slowly strangled and amputated by an amniotic band toward the end of the time I was in my mother’s uterus, and/or that I might have experienced phantom limb pain early on that I no longer remember, and either way, I might have pressed my hand to my mouth to create a distracting sensation that would offer relief.

I had an experience years ago while being Rolfed that seems related. One of the basic Rolfing sessions is done on the inside of the mouth, and during this session, I began sobbing uncontrollably. It wasn’t physical pain, but I can’t say it was emotional either because there was no thought involved, no conscious memory, not even any emotional affect in the usual sense—it was just this powerful, unstoppable, uncontrollable sobbing, with no content at all. It was so deep that I had to rest for a long time in the waiting room after my session before I could go home. My guess is that this deep work inside my mouth triggered some pre-verbal memory from infancy or even from before birth, a memory that has been lost entirely to conscious recollection, a memory with no thought-content attached to it because it was pre-verbal.

Over the years, many people have offered me different theories and possible cures for fingerbiting. One doctor told me it might be entirely the result of a neurochemical imbalance, while a homeopath insisted with absolute certainty that the cause was calcified gallstones blocking the bile ducts in my liver, apparently since childhood. Many other theories have been offered to me as well—everything from the spiritual fear of dissolution, to the psychological fear of fully experiencing certain emotions, to a way of holding myself back from success, displaying my woundedness, calling for help, punishing myself, repeating the trauma of amputation by injuring myself in a controlled and safe way, or maybe simply the result of a genetic predisposition to OCD and teeth-grinding. (And I do grind my teeth during sleep, which they now believe is at least partly genetic in origin, and not entirely, or maybe not even at all, stress-related, as was believed for many years). Others suggested the compulsion might well be the psychological impact of growing up in the 1950’s as a lesbian with a missing arm and a sense of being in the wrong gender, all of which was quite stressful at times and emotionally challenging. One person suggested it was a natural reaction to being sensitive and awake in an insane world. After all, when animals are put into overcrowded cages, they often begin gnawing on themselves. So perhaps this is a natural reaction to stress or to feeling trapped.

But among all the many ideas I’ve come upon or that people have offered to me over the years regarding the possible origins of this compulsion, the one that has resonated most deeply with me in a visceral way is the brilliant suggestion one friend made that there might be a kind of energetic or neurological circuit that two-handed people routinely close by lacing together the fingers of both hands (or by bringing both hands together in prayer position, or by forming the cosmic mudra in Zen). Perhaps, my friend suggested, fingerbiting—pressing together teeth, hand and mouth—was an attempt, as a one-handed person, to achieve a similar kind of energetic or neurological closure or completion. This makes sense to me on a purely somatic-energetic level because I do at times experience a palpable somatic sensation of a kind of disturbing openness on one side of my body, not openness in a good way, but as if a door were left open that should be closed—and by pressing together hand, mouth and teeth, the disturbing sensation is at once eliminated.

While studying Feldenkrais in Chicago, I read a number of books on the brain, and came upon some very interesting material on phantom limb syndrome, and how the hand and face are next to each other in our internal brain map, and how the face invades the hand area after an amputation, and how amputees with phantom limbs can produce the feeling of stroking their ghost hand by stroking their faces. I stroke my face a lot as well as biting my fingers.

The internet also revealed that dermatophagia is related in some way to perfectionism (I’m a One on the Enneagram), and that it is often associated with body dysmorphic disorder, which is where someone who is actually fine in appearance thinks they are ugly—but in my case, with an amputation, I’ve actually been told by people at times over the years that they lose their appetite around me or that I should hide my arm because it is repulsive, and I’ve seen children be frightened or repulsed by it.

I’ve realized I will probably never know the precise etiology of this compulsion. And thankfully, I no longer need to know. I still have a natural curiosity about this pattern, but no longer an urgency to figure this out and find the solution. Understanding the choiceless and compulsory nature of life and the absence of an executive self at the helm has helped enormously to dissolve the sense of personal failure this compulsion used to evoke. I no longer feel shame over it, and I no longer need it to end. Yes, I’d love it to end permanently, but if it doesn’t, I’m okay with that. I no longer think it means I’m a failure. And that acceptance has brought great peace.

I’m sharing all of this for a variety of reasons. One, I think it illustrates the value of both having a name and an explanation for something and letting the name and the explanation go. While I often point to non-conceptual awareness and invite wordless attention to the non-conceptual actuality of life, I also see tremendous value in our human ability to name, label, categorize, analyze and conceptualize. It’s not either/or. I also feel this piece may be of some value to people struggling with addictions or compulsions. I hope it shows the complexity and multiplicity of factors that may play into certain patterns of behavior or habitual states of mind and body, and how many different models, explanations and potential cures are on offer for anything and everything that “goes wrong” in human life.

In the end, the deepest truth is that we don’t really know why the universe is the way it is, why we bite our fingers compulsively, why we get cancer, why we get anal cancer and not lung cancer, or why one person can’t stop smoking while someone else can. And at some point, you recognize that all the endless theories about such things are all conceptual overlays on a totally inexplicable, mysterious happening that will never be fully understood. Even something we take as much for granted as cause-and-effect is itself a conceptual overlay based on the illusion that unicity is actually broken up into separate parts that can then cause or be the effect of one another in some conceptualized temporal sequence. In the end, everything is the way it is because the whole universe is the way it is. It can’t really be divided up or explained. But it can be experienced directly, right here, right now—as the ever-changing marvel that it is.

And speaking of marvels, I’ve noticed that this “horrible problem” (as I once viewed it) has brought me many insights I might not have had in any other way. Without it, I would probably have concluded that anyone could simply “decide” to stop an addiction or a compulsion, as I had apparently successfully done with smoking and drinking. My inability to permanently stop this compulsion has helped me to understand how people less fortunate than myself might be compelled to commit serial rapes or murders in much the same way that I am compelled to bite my fingers, or how some people in the financial industry might become addicted to compulsive risk-taking or to running a Ponzi scheme, unable to stop themselves, or how countries can become addicted to guzzling oil or to waging war.

If I can’t “just say no” and snap out of it at will, then I can understand how it is that others are in the same boat. I can understand from my own direct experience how George Bush is compelled to be George Bush, and Donald Trump is compelled to be Donald Trump, and Osama bin Laden is compelled to be Osama bin Laden, and Kim Jong-un is compelled to be Kim Jong-un, and Hitler is compelled to be Hitler, and Ramana is compelled to be Ramana, and Eckhart Tolle is compelled to be Eckhart Tolle, and Mooji is compelled to be Mooji, and Robert Saltzman is compelled to be Robert Saltzman, and a cancer cell is compelled to be a cancer cell, a parasite is compelled to be a parasite, a virus is compelled to be a virus, Chicago is compelled to be Chicago, San Francisco is compelled to be San Francisco, and I am compelled to be exactly the way I am in each moment.

And because I’ve written openly about my fingerbiting compulsion, I’ve heard from countless people around the world who experience the same, similar or related addictions and compulsions. I’ve discovered that I am definitely not alone.

So paradoxically, this “horrible problem” has not only brought pain and limitation, but it has also been a source of compassion, wisdom, humility, and deep insight into the nature of reality. Life is quite often like that I’ve noticed, the light and the dark are deeply intertwined. Apparently we need the challenges and difficulties to evolve and grow and see more deeply. And none of it is personal; it's all impersonal weather passing through, empty of any persisting form, as marvelously meaningless as an abstract painting or  a changing cloud formation.

Note: This was one of the many chapters in my new book (Death: The End of Self-Improvement) that landed on the cutting room floor, and I’m sharing some of this deleted material on Facebook and on my website blog instead.

January 20, 2020

The All-Inclusive, Nondual, Groundlessness of Here-Now:

Nonduality gets subtler and subtler. It points to the reality of non-separation, that everything is an unbroken whole without borders or seams, without beginning or end, without inside or outside, without separate parts. Nothing is excluded, left out, or other than this timeless, limitless, unlocatable, dimensionless actuality that is fully present everywhere at all times for it is all there is.

This nondual actuality Here-Now includes apparent duality, apparent separation, apparent multiplicity, apparent individuality. It includes relative boundaries. Formlessness (or no-thing-ness) appears as a multitude of wonderfully diverse and utterly unique forms. But when we look closely at any apparent form, we find that it has no definitive beginning or ending, no actual boundary between it and everything else. Everything is an interdependent whole in which no “thing” could exist without everything it apparently is not.

Zen teacher Steve Hagen puts it like this:

“There are different ways of looking at…this realization that nothing dies…First, we could look to Nagarjuna’s observation that…a complete and thorough understanding of impermanence is that nothing is impermanent. What Nagarjuna is pointing to is that believing things are impermanent involves a contradiction. First we posit separate, persisting things (in effect, absolute objects); then we refer to them as impermanent (that is, relative). What we fail to see is that we are still holding to a view of substance. We don’t really appreciate the thoroughgoing nature of change, the thoroughgoing nature of selflessness. Nagarjuna makes it abundantly clear that impermanence (the relative) is total, complete, thoroughgoing, Absolute. It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.”

In the end, we cannot say whether THIS (Here-Now) is changing or changeless, immutable or impermanent. It never comes or goes, yet it never stays the same. It is ever-changing but always Here-Now. The relative is not other than the Absolute. When we try to capture this living actuality with words and mental concepts, it seems hopelessly paradoxical. And yet it is right here, right now—completely obvious and unavoidable. Even our apparent avoidance and distraction is none other than THIS showing up as what we call avoidance, distraction, confusion, sin, or suffering. Nothing is left out. Nothing is excluded from, or other than, this timeless, limitless, unlocatable, dimensionless actuality that is fully present everywhere at all times for it is all there is.

THIS is the yellow school bus, the sounds of rain, the taste of coffee, the smell of shit, the feeling of confusion, the feeling of clarity, the sense of contraction, the sense of expansion, the surge of anger, the ache of grief, the joy of laughter, the tension of fingerbiting, the release of orgasm, the pain of arthritis, the pleasure of eating a favorite food. It is night-dreaming and day-dreaming, thinking and awaring, fantasizing and imagining. It is the no-experience of deep sleep. It is birth and death, sin and salvation, nirvana and samsara. It is strong opinions, self-righteous judgements, old resentments, wars, genocides, famines, climate change, acts of cruelty, and it is gratitude, kindness, generosity and love. It is people we like, people we don’t like, things we agree with, things we find abhorrent. It is medicine and disease, germs and white blood cells, problems and solutions. Nothing is left out.

We can’t land anywhere in this free-falling groundlessness. It is “not one, not two,” “not this, not that.” It cannot be pinned down. You and I, just as we are—imperfect, flawed, unresolved, and full of contradictions—are never for one instant ever separate from this ever-present, ever-changing, ungraspable, unavoidable living actuality.

January 25, 2020

Spiritual practice in a nutshell:

In this moment,



Be Still

Be Free

January 27, 2020:

It’s easy to pick up nonduality or spirituality as merely a philosophy or a belief system, to understand it logically, to believe in it as a collection of ideas. For example, we might believe that “Consciousness is all there is,” that “waking life is a dream,” that “there is no self,” that “All is One,” that “free will is an illusion,” that “Consciousness is unchanging,” and so on. Sometimes it’s not actually easy to discern the difference between an idea that seems to make sense and the direct realization, through nonconceptual experiencing, of what that idea is pointing to. Mistaking the map for the territory is something we humans habitually do, not just in big obvious ways, but in ever subtler ways, very often without realizing it.

The real heart of spirituality, at least the kind that interests me, is not an ideology, a philosophy or a belief system—it is the living actuality Here-Now. Not those words, but what they point to, that which is here before those words. And what is that?

Spirituality is not about answering that question with a word or a concept. Instead, it’s about falling into the open wonderment of the question itself, not grasping for an answer, but instead opening into the groundlessness, the spaciousness, the boundlessness of presence. It’s about being this aliveness Here-Now. It’s heart-centered, not mind-centered.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use the intellect in intelligent ways, that we must throw out all our maps, or that we are trying to maintain some special state of presence all the time. It’s never about “all the time” or “forever after.” It’s always about Now. And it’s not about maintaining or controlling anything.

It’s an invitation to explore the actuality of this presence that Here-Now IS—to explore it not by thinking about it, but by feeling into it, sensing it, opening to it—listening, seeing, awaring, being—without seeking or expecting any result, without chasing any special experience, without trying to understand it all—simply being open, curious, interested, awake to the vibrant actuality of what is, awake to this whole happening.

Never mind what Buddha said, what Ramana said, what Jesus said, or what anyone else said. Look and listen and feel for yourself. Don’t try to formulate or understand what is experienced. Let it move freely, without trying to grasp or control or maintain anything.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t ever listen to the wonderful pointers of Buddha, Ramana, Jesus and many others, or that we need to forever abandon all the books and videos and teachers and teachings—they all have their place. But it’s important to know when to put them aside—not forever necessarily, but in the moment—when to put them aside, drop all the words and ideas we’ve learned, and tune into our own direct experience, without any handles, without words, without ideas and explanations.

It’s so easy to cling to the maps and never actually explore or abide in the territory itself, which is what it’s really all about. So is it possible to become ever-more sensitive, to discern when the maps are useful, and when we are simply grasping them as a kind of avoidance of groundlessness, a security blanket to hang onto, an attempt to get control of what feels (and is) utterly uncontrollable and beyond the capacity of the mind to understand? When we notice it is the latter, maybe it’s possible in that moment to turn attention to the living reality itself, falling into the unknown, discovering what’s alive and real. Maybe it’s possible right now. Just pause. Breathe. Feel. Be still. Open.

Out of that discovery, life moves in a new way.  

January  29, 2020:

This is a small section in my book Awake in the Heartland called The Kiss of the Beloved:

“No words can explain the color red, the blooming flowers in springtime, the green leaves wet with rain, the white clouds floating in the blue sky. You can’t analyze a kiss or a dance; you can only dissolve in its mysterious currency. Every sound, every smell, every taste is holy: the song of the bird, the roar of the traffic, the hum of the vacuum cleaner.”

--from Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is

January 31, 2020:

An excerpt from my new book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement:

Self-hate is pervasive in our culture, the feeling that we’re never good enough, that we always need to be improved, corrected or fixed in some way, the sense of shame and deficiency. Our society is obsessed with self-improvement, eternal youth… People feel tremendous pressure to eat the right food, go to the gym, excel in school, become somebody, be a winner, and never get old…. 

What a relief to finally let all this go!

… So, am I suggesting we should all sink into sloth and torpor, conclude that liberation is a pipe dream…and allow such things as disabling depression, destructive addictions, racism, sexism, environmental devastation or animal cruelty to continue unchallenged? Is that the message of this book?

Clearly not. After all, how genuine transformation happens has been one of the main interests of my life. I’ve experienced and seen undeniable positive changes in myself and others through meditation, psychotherapy, somatic awareness work, spirituality and nonduality. I’ve seen positive changes in society as a result of political movements, some of which I’ve participated in….

Life is a kind of balancing act in a way, between the recognition that everything is perfect just as it is, and the impulse or aspiration, which is part of this perfection, to grow and transform. If we pay attention, we can begin to feel the difference between misery-inducing self-improvement and what we might call healthy aspiration, genuine transformation or true happiness. There are no rules for precisely where one ends and the other begins. And in the absolute sense, everything is equally an expression of unicity, including misery-inducing self-improvement and the illusion of personal will. But on a functional and relative level, just as we can distinguish apples from oranges, we can distinguish what we might call healthy aspiration or genuine transformation from the kind of misery-inducing self-improvement that is itself a manifestation of the very problem it is trying to solve.

Self-improvement is always focused on the future, while true happiness is only ever found Here-Now… Self-improvement is oppositional and violent. It thinks in terms of fighting cancer, waging a war on drugs or a war on terror, killing the ego, vanquishing thought. Genuine transformation comes from unconditional love. It has no enemies. It recognizes everything as the Beloved. It sees only God everywhere. It embraces everything, recognizing everything as itself…. 

Happiness arises from a fundamental trust or faith in the Way It Is (the Tao), while self-improvement moves from fear and insecurity…. 

Self-improvement is rigid and perfectionistic, driven by beliefs, expectations and old answers, while genuine transformation is flexible, open to new discoveries and rooted in not-knowing… 

Self-improvement is primarily thought-based, while genuine transformation emerges from aware presence. Thought divides; awareness joins….

Sometimes when we have an idea that “everything is perfect as it is,” we forget that working to improve things is part of what is. We leave ourselves and our own abilities, inclinations and actions out of the picture in some way. So, nonduality doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate or pray or take vows or see a therapist. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to the gym and exercise, or that we leave a flat tire flat forever because we are “allowing everything to be as it is,” or because “we are powerless and have no choice.” That is a misunderstanding…

Awakening is not about denying relative reality. What happens in the world both matters and doesn’t matter. As a human being in the play of life, it breaks my heart to see someone torturing an animal or abusing a child. It breaks my heart to remember some of the insensitive, abusive or hurtful things I have done in my life. Having the bigger view, the absolute perspective, helps me to see all of this in a bigger context, to hold it more lightly, more compassionately, more gently, to be more flexible, open-minded and open-hearted—to see beyond the story that the world is going to hell and I have to fix it, or that I am a terrible person who should crawl into a hole and die. To recognize how ephemeral and insubstantial, how subjective and dreamlike it all is, is very liberating. But it doesn’t mean I don’t care, that my heart doesn’t break sometimes, or that I may not be moved to act.

--from Death: The End of Self-Improvement (excerpted from Chapter 5: Beyond Self-Improvement: Embracing What Is)

February 14, 2020

A quote from Joanna Macy caught my eye recently: "We will probably not know in our lifetimes whether we are serving as deathbed attendants to a dying world or as midwives to the next stage of human evolution." Very true, and I would add, perhaps we can’t really say which is which, womb or tomb.

Many decades ago, when I was sobering up from near fatal alcohol abuse, I saw a vocational rehabilitation counselor by the name of Lester D. Hazell, a marvelous human being. In addition to being a vocational counselor, she was also a psychologist, teacher, midwife, and author of one of the earliest books on natural at-home childbirth. During the time that I was seeing her, her teenage son (her first born child if I recall correctly) was killed in a car accident right after his high school graduation. I remember that the first time I saw her after this had happened, she said something to the effect that she had discovered that birth and death are very closely related, very much the same—I don’t remember her exact words, but that was the gist of it.

As I’m always pointing out, and as Buddhism has long pointed out, if we look very closely at the fabric of existence, we will find no birth and no death. Birth-death is one thing, happening moment-to-moment, and we can never actually find where any apparent “thing” begins or ends. Do we begin at birth, at the moment of conception, at the moment when our parents met, at the moment when they were born, at the moment when their great great great grandparents were born, or maybe with the Big Bang? And what was here before that? And is the self (the body-mind person) that we think of as “me” actually a separate, autonomous, solid, persisting “thing,” or is it more like an ever-changing whirlpool, inseparable from the water out of which it is made?

When we look closely at any form, we find that it is always changing, and that it is inseparable from everything it supposedly is not. When we die, our body goes back to the elements in one way or another, and I would suggest that consciousness is like space—it was never really divided up or encapsulated. This particular pattern of energy, this particular waving in the great ocean of consciousness that we call a person, disintegrates in death and becomes part of new patterns, new waves, new whirlpools, new ever-changing, interdependent appearances. Energy, consciousness, matter, whatever-this-is, doesn’t end; it changes shape.

Whether this present time is the beginning of the next stage of human evolution, or whether it is the beginning of a post-human stage in the evolution of the universe that begins with our extinction, we cannot know. But either way, there is a deep sense here that in the bigger picture, all is well. Unicity itself (the totality, the universe, the Self, the Tao, Consciousness, primordial awareness, intelligence-energy, God, Spirit, Presence, Here-Now, whatever label or concept you prefer) is indestructible. It never begins or ends. It never departs from itself. It depends on nothing. It has no other. It is ever-present, timeless, infinite.

In one sense, as awareness or presence or spirit, I have no gender, no age, no race, no nationality, no political leanings, no sexual orientation, no location in space or time. I am boundless, seamless, without preferences or attachments. I accept everything and cling to nothing. As awareness. I am shapeless and formless and whatever appears, appears in me and is not other than this presence that I am. This is not a philosophy; it is a palpable reality that can be recognized, seen, felt, opened to, melted into in any moment.

We could also say that as unicity, as the Totality, I am no gender and every gender, no age and every age, no race and every race, no nationality and all nationalities, no political leanings and all political leanings, no sexual orientation and every sexual orientation, no location in space or time and all locations in space and time. I am both boundless and apparently bound, seamless and apparently divided up. I am oneness and multiplicity, form and emptiness, at exactly the same time. Again, this is not a philosophy; it is a palpable reality that can be recognized in our present experiencing, right here, right now. We simply need to give our attention to what we actually see rather than to our conceptual maps and ideas about it.

As unicity, there is nothing and nowhere that I am not. I am expressing, discovering, revealing, exploring and unfolding myself as every imaginable happening, playing infinite roles in infinite movies, and I am what remains after all the movies end. As that primordial darkness—the unknowable, inconceivable, groundlessness—I am beyond all ideas, subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable. In me, everything disappears, and out of me, everything emerges. I am the no-thing-ness of everything.

We are each unique, never-to-be-repeated individuals with a date of birth and a date of death, and to deny this relative aspect of reality would be absurd. But at the same time, it is the larger totality, the seamless whole, the single I to which we all refer, that is being this whole show, including this dance called “me” and “you.” And beyond our seemingly limited identity as a particular person, we are that seamlessness, that infinite and unbroken wholeness, which is all there is.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

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