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Blog #3

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (2/25/20 through 4/26/20):

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

February 25, 2020:

Gertrude Stein famously said on her deathbed, “All my life I’ve searched for the answers, but what was the question?” 

It has often been pointed out that the spiritual search ends in the realization that what we were seeking is what we are, and that this is no-thing in particular and all there is. It can never be found because it can never be lost. Nothing stands apart from it. THIS IS IT!

But the mind may read that and then immediately want to know, “What does ‘this’ mean? What IS ‘it’?”

We tend, for a long time, to seek “out there” for SOMETHING that we imagine will save us: a guru, a savior, an all-knowing and all-powerful god, a final answer to the meaning of life and what this all is, a cure for all our problems, a state of perpetual happiness and ease, a huge explosive experience after which we never feel any disturbing human emotions ever again.

Again and again in this search, we are briefly elated and then disappointed or disillusioned. If we’re lucky, we begin to see through the imaginary problem and the phantom who seems to have it and who wants to fix it. This phantom is the seeker, the meditator, the apparently separate, independent self who believes itself to be the author of its thoughts, the maker of its choices, the one steering the bodymind person through the watercourse of life. If we’re lucky, we come to recognize the insubstantiality of everything we think and of all our apparent dilemmas. We begin to realize that the very question, “What is it?”, is absurd except in certain practical, everyday, functional ways.

As a child growing up, we needed to learn to identify, categorize and label things in order to function and communicate. And for our survival, it’s important to know if the sound we hear is a tiger coming closer or just wind rustling the leaves. The question (“What is it?”) can help us discover the chemical components of water, the ingredients in a cake, or the source of a disturbing sound coming from our car or a painful sensation in our chest. That’s all part of how we function. And in those practical ways, it makes sense that “I” can step back and observe “my car” and discover why it is making “a funny sound.” That kind of relative or apparent separation is how life functions.

But when we ask what “reality” (or presence, or consciousness, or unicity) IS, we cannot stand back and observe it in the same way that we can observe our car or our foot. As they say, the eye cannot see itself; the fire cannot burn itself; the sword cannot cut itself. Unicity cannot stand apart from itself. The very question (“What is it?”) immediately creates a separation: me, the thing in question, and something else that this thing IS. The question implies that reality must be something other than the actuality of this very moment, Here-Now. The question seems to make “reality” into some “thing” (an object) that can be set apart from ourselves, observed, circumscribed, delineated, conceptualized, analyzed, measured, and in some way re-presented in another form: “This” IS “That.”

So we can never really nail down “reality” or “consciousness” or “presence” in the same way that we can seemingly nail down “my car” or “my foot.” (Actually, if we look closely, we can’t really nail those down either, but in practical-functional ways, we can).  And yet, while we can never grasp reality or nail it down, it is always right here, utterly obvious and impossible to avoid, ever-present and ever-changing. But as soon as the question arises, “What does she mean by that—what exactly is it?”, we’re lost in the map-world of thought again, seeking what cannot be found, looking for an object amongst objects. And of course, that seeking is also reality, doing this amusing dance of chasing its own tail. (Amusing only if it’s not taken personally and given meaning as “a problem” that “I” must get beyond).

In any moment when we notice that the mind is busy doing this kind of tail-chasing, racing around and around on the hamster wheel of thought chasing the Great Carrot that is forever just out of reach, if we STOP, just for a moment, we might begin to notice the simplicity and the wonder of what is. Just this—the sounds of traffic, the aroma of coffee, the colors, shapes and textures, the somatic sensations, the awaring presence being and beholding it all, the whole symphony of life, just as it is—not those word-labels, but the bare actuality to which they point before the word.

And then we can just notice how the urge to “get it” pops up again, how the story that something is missing starts playing, how we seem to shrink down from being this unbroken wholeness (no-thing and everything) to apparently being this encapsulated separate self, how we immediately feel incomplete, not quite “there” yet, how we crave whatever we imagine will satisfy this dissatisfaction, how the search gets reactivated, how the doubting mind jumps back on the hamster wheel, and how promising and alluring that carrot seems to be—just like heroin or alcohol to the addict—and then how the meta-story begins to roll as well, the story about “me” (the addict, the seeker, the one with a problem) and the urge to fix myself. 

And maybe, if we’re lucky, we realize that this too—this whole movie—is nothing but the same unnamable unbroken wholeness doing its dance, all of it happening to no one, all of it meaning nothing, all of it going nowhere, all of it gone in an instant.

March 1, 2020


I’ve shared this short video before, but it’s worth revisiting. This very amusing little video (under 3 minutes long) is the work of a guy named Dan (aka Braying Jack Cass), and I can totally relate to it because it’s poking fun at an addictive tendency I see in myself, even now. And maybe some of you—if you’re honest—will see it in yourselves too. The character in the video is obviously pushed to the extremes for comic effect, but what makes it funny is that we know from our own experience where this guy is coming from—we’ve been there, and maybe still are there at times, desperate for a spiritual fix. And word of caution—some of you may be tempted to see this as a put down of all the teachers mentioned in it, or of everything spiritual, and that might or might not have been part of Dan’s intent when he made it, I don’t know, but it’s definitely not my intent in sharing it. What I’m interested in is what’s happening in myself, seeing the addictive pattern that’s showing up here, because in my view of addiction, the problem isn’t primarily the substance; it’s the addictive relationship to it.

March 20, 2020:

I’ve been asked to comment on the coronavirus, and as I was reflecting on what I might want to say, this popped into my email in-box, from the Advaita Fellowship. Wayne Liquorman begins it with a poem that I think is from his book No Way for the Spiritually Advanced, which he wrote under the name Ram Tzu. He (Wayne) then follows it up with some current thoughts of his own. Altogether, it seemed like it said much of what I was thinking about saying, and while I may share some of my own reflections later, this seemed pretty good for starters. So, from Wayne Liquorman:

“Your New Age
Is neither new
Nor will it last an age.

You ride a pendulum

On a clock wound
To run for eternity.

Your despair has

Today turned to hope.
Tomorrow it will
Turn back again.

The walls of oppression

You tear down here
Will be rebuilt

The meek shall

Inherit the earth
Then the clever ones
Will take it back from them.

The torture chamber

Will empty
And refill.

A disease will

Be conquered
And a new one will
Appear to takes its place.

This strikes you

As a bleak vision
But Ram Tzu knows this…
It is your hope for a better future
That keeps you in chains today.
What Ram Tzu didn't say.... but I will...is that the fear of a worse future also keeps you in chains today....

This Living Teaching of Advaita encourages you to take a deep breath and relax for a moment...if you can. Look around. A million things are happening this very instant that have nothing to do with the thing you fear. Life is unfolding wherever you look. The birds, the clouds, the wind moving the trees, the barking dogs. Even the sirens and the worried looks on the faces of passersby are all part of this huge and spacious movement of living. In a moment of Grace you see the wonderful, ridiculous wholeness...the sublime perfection of it all.

With much love,

April 2, 2020:

A Word about Listening:

As I wrote in my introduction to Toni Packer’s book The Light of Discovery, “One of the most striking aspects of Toni Packer’s talks and writings is the listening presence out of which they emerge…A talk is listening, open space, silence, bird song, airplane hum, chainsaw buzz, wind, cough, heartbeat and words. But most importantly it is listening.”

If you listen to someone like Toni Packer or Eckhart or John Butler with whole-hearted attention, you immediately know that they are speaking from presence to presence, and you really hear them. The words then are secondary. But if you listen to talks of this kind only with the thinking mind, as if this were an intellectual lecture at a university, you will be listening in a very superficial way. There is, of course, a place for that kind of thinking and intellectual reasoning. I’m not suggesting that human capacity should be abandoned, nor am I suggesting that intellect and thought have nothing at all to do with how Toni and Eckhart and John and others like them communicate. But what’s going on here is something much deeper. And it requires deep, open listening. If you only half-listen while multi-tasking and doing something else at the same time, you will miss it. Listen with your heart—that spacious, open, boundless, listening stillness that is right here.

April 6, 2020:

I haven’t been moved to write much lately. Since finishing my book on DEATH, I’ve been in a kind of silent place. (Not anti-words at all, and not wordless, just more silent). Plus I haven’t yet gotten it together (and may never) to figure out how to make videos or podcasts and put them up on YouTube or Facebook. And even if I had figured that out, I’m not sure I’d have much to say right now. So I’ve mostly been sharing other people’s words and videos lately, and including a variety of teachers and perspectives that might be helpful to folks in this present situation.

And as you have undoubtedly noticed over the years, or in these recent sharings, or on my recommended books list, I have very eclectic tastes. I appreciate both Robert Saltzman and Mooji, Barry Magid and John Butler, Pema Chodron and Gilbert Schultz, Steve Hagen and Anam Thubten, Eckhart Tolle and Darryl Bailey, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Wayne Liquorman, and so on. Some would say, but they totally contradict each other! And I would say, yes, but life itself is full of apparent contradictions.

Life here cycles or spirals through various flavors of experience, cycles that for me might include my bhakti-devotional streak, my bare-bones “just this” Zen streak, my transcendent presence-awareness Advaita streak, my “open listening” Toni Packer streak, my “this is it” radical nonduality streak, and so on. Round and round it goes.

I used to think this was a problem, that something was obviously wrong with me, that I was “unsettled,” that I should figure out which one of these perspectives or flavors was right (or best, or highest, or most advanced, or most true) and stick to it, the way other teachers seemed to do. But finally, as I got older and older and this kept happening, I realized this is just how I am. And as I see it, this aliveness seems to have multiple dimensions and perspectives and ways of seeing and enjoying and revealing itself. And I seem to love them all. Didn’t someone once say that consistency is the mark of a petty mind?

I’ve also been feeling ever-more ambivalent about being a spiritual teacher—not that I ever felt comfortable with that label, and I rarely used it, but it did seem like a reasonably accurate description of what I was doing, holding meetings and giving talks and writing books on the subject of awareness and waking up and nonduality and so on. But for the last several years, I haven’t held public meetings. And now I no longer travel, so I no longer speak at the SAND Conference. So gradually, it seems that all this has been falling away. I still hold private meetings, but I don't have huge numbers of those. Maybe it's just wanting to find a new form or a new way of happening, or maybe it's dissolving altogether.

Having finally finished that DEATH book that was so long in the making, I seem to be at some kind of transitional moment—a kind of not-knowing place. Mainly wanting to be quiet, not wanting to do much, enjoying the sounds of the frogs doing their bhajans, the emerging green leaves unfurling themselves, the white and pink blossoms blowing down the pavement in the wind gusts, the hillsides greening up, and the earth perhaps enjoying this small respite from human madness.

The world itself seems also to be in a transitional moment—a kind of not-knowing place, going through this unprecedented global event that will change us all in ways we cannot yet know—undoubtedly some positive ways and some negative—but in some way, as with 9-11, life will never be the same after this global pandemic as it was before.

And in the meantime, many of us are suspended or cocooned in this immense silence, waiting to see who comes out alive, and what the world will look like and how humanity will move in this new world. Of course, for many people, this is a very active and demanding time—medical workers on the frontlines, parents working from home while simultaneously home-schooling children, people in many places on earth trying not to starve to death, and many working harder than ever before. But for some of us, it is a very quiet time, although we easily fill it up with on-line activity, some of which supports the silence and some of which does not.

But blessedly, ALL of it is included in the Great Play of Life—the so-called distractions as well as the so-called spiritual depths, the silences and the movies, the letting go and the taking hold, the searching and the stopping, the waking and the dreaming and the deep sleeping, the being born and the dying, the immense beauty and the horrific horrors…it’s all included in this indivisible wholeness that has no edges, no boundaries, no beginning and no end.

May the Force be with us all.

April 11, 2020:

Zooming in and Zooming Out: Not Two

There are many directions and approaches in spiritual practice. For starters, there is zooming in and zooming out.

Zooming out is the approach often found in Advaita, recognizing that I am not the contents of consciousness, but rather, I am consciousness itself. I am not the body, not my thoughts, not my emotions, not my life story, not even that first sense of impersonal presence that we call the I AM. Even prior to that subtlest sense of presence or space, I am the primordial awareness, the radiant darkness that is here before anything perceivable or conceivable shows up. What I truly am is beyond all imagining, prior to all experiencing, subtler than space, subtler even than the first bare sense of presence. I am the Ultimate Subject that can never be seen, the eye (the True I) that cannot see itself, the unicity from which nothing stands apart. That is zooming out—transcending.

Zooming in takes the opposite approach. It includes everything. Everything belongs. Nothing is a distraction or an obstacle. Nothing is other than this unnamable and inconceivable living reality here and now. Thoughts, emotions, unpleasant noises, air pollution—nothing is excluded. Everything is what is. And the more closely we enter into the naked experiencing of any form that appears—whether it appears to be a chair, a dog, a thought, a feeling, a mental image, or even consciousness itself—the more it shows itself to be infinite, unresolvable, ever-changing and inseparable from everything else. This absolute intimacy, this complete inclusion, might be called unconditional love, for it accepts everything just as it is. And in love, lover and beloved merge, and it is clear that awareness and content are not two, that there is simply THIS—undivided and indivisible.

In my own journey, I started as a visual artist and then as a Zen student with zooming in, giving attention to the actuality of sensual experiencing. Later, in working with Toni Packer, we were zooming in, listening to the birds and watching the mind, but what was revealed was the spacious openness of zooming out! And then at some point I got into Advaita and explored zooming out even more—being ever-more aware of this luminous, clear, empty space that I Am in which all experience appears and disappears.

Some teachers in the Advaita world, like Rupert Spira, take you on a contemplative journey that begins with zooming out and then comes around full circle to zooming in. One way or another, eventually you begin to wonder, which is which? Without a reference point, you can’t say which way is in and which way is out, and both are recognized as movements of an indivisible unicity (your own being) that never moves away from itself (Here-Now). You realize you can’t find the boundary between awareness and content, or between form and emptiness, subject and object, self and not-self, inside and outside. It’s one unbroken continuum, one seamless and boundless whole.

Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn in both directions at different times, and my own expression has included both. But I seem to be most at home with zooming in—it feels more effortless, more natural to me. Zooming out, I’ve noticed, can easily lend itself (at least in my case) to subtle imagination and a kind of efforting, trying to stay zoomed out. I’ve found expressions that invite me to relax and simply allow everything to be as it is the most freeing—and even to say “allow” is too much, because everything already IS allowed to be as it is, even the resistance and seeking that may arise.

Response to a comment from a fellow spiritual teacher:

Oh thank you! Your comment brings a great surge of joy and relief. I've also recently been "consciously wondering what the hell I was doing with this work and also wondering why in the hell I was doing it." And in fact, I often find myself wondering this. Sometimes (often) I think that means I should give it all up, this so-called "teaching," but somehow, I find myself still doing it...or more accurately, I find it is still happening, in spite of "me." Maybe this doubt and uncertainty and discomfort is actually a healthy thing. Maybe "teachers" who don't ever feel this way are the most dangerous ones. Maybe it's important in this work especially to constantly be questioning, wondering, not knowing, seeing freshly, living with the uncertainty of impermanence and everything changing...never landing anywhere or getting a grip or having that closure of Final Certainty for which the mind so persistently hungers (and which it often creates as the ten million possible false idols we all know (or don't know) so well, from the most gross and obvious, to the most subtle). Thank you! And a very deep bow on this Easter morning.

Response to another comment:

Yes, that kind of spiritual by-passing is probably easiest in a transcendent path such as Advaita, and it's also very easy to mistake a subtle idea or imagination for an actuality in that kind of approach. On the other hand, a path like mindfulness or insight meditation can have the opposite pitfall of getting overly lost in sorting out the conditioned psychological material and never really finding the transcendent. Those results aren't the intent or inevitable outcome of either approach, of course, but any path we take has its advantages and its potential dangers, and it's good to know that they are. And in my experience, it is often the case that one approach becomes an antidote for the unintended side effects of another approach, and then further down the line, yet another approach is needed as an antidote for the new side effects, and so on, perhaps in a journey without end, and always Here-Now.

Response to another comment:

Yes, [the justification of abusive behavior] is a danger in zooming out, although I have to say, it can happen with any approach, and there are plenty of teachers of all varieties (as well as psychotherapists) who have run amok to prove it. Our human susceptibility to delusion seems to know no limits. And some of these abusive or ill-behaved characters have also been great teachers, both helpful and harmful (I'm thinking of Trungpa, Maezumi, Katagiri, and many others...and to be clear, I'm not meaning the teacher you dealt with, who is someone I don't know and know nothing about). I'm just saying, we humans are all a mix of light and shadow, all of us in each moment doing the only possible. That doesn't mean we should ignore, excuse or tolerate abusive behavior, but it does mean there can be compassion even for the most twisted amongst us, knowing that "there but for the grace of God go I."  Happy Easter to you too, and thank you for being here in this virtual community on our shared journeys from the crucifixion to the resurrection, moment to moment.

Response to another comment:

Yes, there are many paths and many different names for them, often used differently by different speakers. Nisargadatta famously said, “When I see that I am nothing, that is Wisdom; when I see that I am everything, that is Love; and between the two my life flows.” Zooming out is often called the path of wisdom or detachment, and zooming in is often called the path of inclusion or love...but of course, one can experience love in either approach, and in the end, they are not two! Other names might be soul and spirit. Love is there in all of it. Thank you!

Response to another comment:

Teachers tend to teach what worked for them--the path they took. And that's exactly what Rupert does. But in fact, each of us is unique and no two of us have exactly the same path. We must each find our own way--or more accurately, notice how our own way is unfolding. We can't really "find it." It shows up. There is no "me" apart from 'it," and 'it" is not somewhere else. My way has not been like Rupert's, though, and so I can say with certainty that his way is not the only way. If anyone tries to tell you their way is the only way, don't buy it.

What I notice is that both zooming out and zooming in can happen while immersed in daily activities. Of course, unlike sitting quietly doing nothing, when you're at work calculating numbers, teaching a first grade class, performing brain surgery, talking to a client about a business deal, repairing a car engine, cooking food, or whatever--and especially if it's mental work--you can't just totally let loose and zoom in or out in either direction, because you need to stay very focused on the job at hand. But still, even then, you can notice how it all happens in awareness (the zoomed out perspective), and you can notice how it's all made of presence or experiencing, and how you're not separate from it, and how it's all happening by itself, even your apparent decisions, and you may be able to deeply enjoy the textures and feel of it along the way (zoomed in perspective).

So, I'd say, go where life invites you. Feel what attracts you, what you enjoy, what seems to open things up for you. Notice how it feels to zoom in, or to zoom out. Notice if there's a "you" in the picture trying to "do" either of these, and notice if there's some imagined goal or result that is being sought. See what you find. Be curious. Be interested. And as someone famously said, "Follow your bliss." You can't actually go wrong. Wherever you go, here you are.

April 20, 2020:

“If you are interested in awakening, it is advisable, I say, to begin by discarding all beliefs you may have acquired, no matter what their source. Just wipe the slate clean and make your own inquiry, starting from scratch without depending on anyone or anything at all. Forget concepts. Forget what others claim to have known. Forget what you know…There is no path from here to here.”

-- from Depending on No-Thing by Robert Saltzman


I can’t speak for my friend Robert, but I don’t take the quote of his that I just shared to mean that we “should not” read or listen to anyone else, or that any input from teachers, books or videos is useless or harmful. In my experience, it’s quite helpful and eye-opening to read or listen to others who have some clarity and insight (including Robert).

But I notice how easily this can hook into and inadvertently reinforce our deep sense of insufficiency and lack, and our habitual tendency to look outside ourselves, to someone else, for the answers. As most people drawn to this page have probably discovered, this seeking outside ourselves can become addictive, and it’s all too easy to substitute reading another book or watching another YouTube video for simply being this moment, as it is, without needing it to be any other way, and without needing to explain what’s going on right now, or figure out how the universe works, or know why suffering exists or which metaphysical philosophy is most true, and without having any method for fixing whatever seems unsatisfying or deficient in our present experience. It’s all too easy to cling to the apparent security or comfort offered by conceptual maps and by our latest authority figures (even if that authority figure is an anti-authority figure like Robert Saltzman, Toni Packer, Jiddu Krishnamurti or UG, all of whom warn us not to make them into authorities).

Being this moment right here, right now, and exploring it without any preconceptions or maps (as Robert’s quote invites us to do) can feel initially like stepping off the edge of the known into the bottomless void—we’re falling into groundlessness, uncertainty and not knowing. To the survival mind bent on keeping us safe by figuring everything out and getting a grip, this feels dangerous and scary. Although paradoxically, when the grasping relaxes and the seeking stops, what reveals itself is not the scary void that thought had imagined.

But the survival mind and that old pattern of thought tends to recur. And it’s all too easy to become a follower, not necessarily in any obvious outward way, but internally, in our own mind. And we can even become a follower of people whose whole message is about not doing this! It gets very subtle. I’ve seen all these tendencies in myself. Even when I’m reading or listening to someone who emphasizes not making anyone into an authority, I can often notice the tendency to do exactly that, to make this person into my new authority.

I spent 5 years on staff at Springwater Center with Toni Packer. Toni and friends had left the Zen Center where she taught to create a more open way of working without hierarchy or authority, without rituals and dogma, without beliefs or final answers. Toni wanted to be seen as a friend, not a teacher—someone who was exploring along with the rest of us. But, of course, she was functioning as a teacher, and what we discovered was that you can’t just click your heels together 3 times and magically leave all these hierarchical and authority-seeking tendencies behind. We bring much of it with us, internalized and deeply conditioned, and often unseen. So in spite of our intention to do otherwise, in fact most of us at Springwater did (inadvertently) in one way or another make Toni into an authority—someone to either follow or rebel against. And she continually invited us all (herself included) to SEE this and question it. But it didn’t just magically vanish.

And often, we don’t even see it. When I arrived at Springwater, I didn’t think I had issues with wanting an authority. After all, I’d been part of the Sixties counter-culture, I’d taken every drug imaginable and broken every rule of conventional society, I was a lesbian and a feminist, and then I’d been an anti-imperialist radical on the left out to smash the whole system—I had rebelled against the Zen Center where I had lived, and I definitely looked down on people who went off to India and followed gurus—how could I possibly have issues with wanting an authority?

Meditation of the kind we did at Springwater, which is without a method or a goal, simply SEEING what is, as it is, has a way of revealing all kinds of things about ourselves that we never imagined were there. I discovered I could be manipulative and oppositional and judgmental and needy and self-pitying and all kinds of things that flew in the face of my self-image and how I imagined myself. And I realized that I do, in fact, make people into authorities. And at age 71, many decades later, I still find myself doing it!  

I’ve spent much of my life trying to be someone else—trying to be Nisargadatta or Ramana or Tony Parsons or Toni Packer or Darryl Bailey or whoever else I might be appreciating at the moment. Primates learn by imitation, so it’s part of our biological nature to do this, at least to some degree. We learn from our parents and teachers, from our colleagues, from our friends and partners, from our students and our children, from our dogs and cats. In many ways, it’s a perfectly natural and healthy lifelong process. But humans seem to have a unique capacity of feeling that we are fundamentally deficient, lacking, not okay, not good enough, not quite “there” yet. And we tend to idealize others who seem to have what we lack: self-assurance, complete confidence, certainty, wisdom, infinite kindness, enlightenment, whatever it might be.

Thus the old Buddhist saying, if you meet the Buddha on the road (i.e., outside yourself), kill it. The real Buddha is right here. You are it. I am it. Just exactly as we are. And we are no way in particular, for we are all an ever-changing process inseparable from the whole.

That infinite wholeness is expressing itself in infinitely unique ways, and my job is to be Joan Tollifson, not Nisargadatta or Toni Packer or Eckhart Tolle or Steve Hagen or Robert Saltzman or anyone else. I can learn from those people and from many others as well, they can all be helpful to me, but ultimately, each of us has a totally unique path. Maps are useful, but it’s important to discern when to put them down. And that’s not, in my experience, something we do once-and-for-all, but again and again. And it's not something we do by force with will-power, but simply by SEEING what isn't really working, in the moment, as it happens.

I still enjoy reading books and watching YouTubes, many of which I recommend and share here or on my website. So I’m not in any way saying this is bad, or that we shouldn’t do this. But a sensitivity can develop to where we’re coming from in any moment—whether we are desperately seeking the security and comfort of “the answer” that will save us, or whether reading this book or watching this video is simply a part of our exploration and unfoldment, our enjoyment, our dance.

Ultimately, of course, it’s ALL part of the dance, including the apparent mistakes. And there’s no “me” in here choosing any of it. And none of us really knows where we’re going, why we’re here, what it’s all about, or how the universe works. And yet, when the need to know relaxes, and there is simply THIS, just as it is—ever-changing and yet never departing from right here, right now—there is a peace and a joy, even in the midst of what we call pain (whether physical or emotional). But whether there is grasping or relaxing, pain or pleasure, the truth is, every moment is fresh and new and—if we’re awake to it—precious and sacred.

April 26, 2020


I had a high school film teacher back in the 1960s who, in the first class, had us look at our thumbs. After about 10 minutes, he asked how many of us were bored. He told us that if we were really seeing, we wouldn't get bored. He gave us homework assignments that involved sitting in front of trees and looking at small sections of bark for an hour, or watching grass blow in the wind. One night I was lying on the floor in our dining room in the dark, watching shadows move on the wall. My mother came in, a bit upset, and asked me if I had finished my homework. I told her I was doing it. And I was! What a blessing to have a teacher like this in school.

As I told someone recently in a FB comment, the "ordinary" is actually extraordinary, and what we think is "the same old thing" is never actually the same from one instant to the next. The more closely we attend to anything that shows up (whether it is a visual appearance, a sound, a somatic sensation, a taste, a smell, a tactile sensation), the more it unfolds into ever more subtle dimensions with no end to that unfolding.

By simply looking and listening openly, we can notice and enjoy the fluidity and playful nature of reality—the clouds moving through a puddle of rainwater on the sidewalk, the gorgeous hills and valleys in a crumpled Kleenex, the way light dances on the wall, a tingling in our feet. We can notice it is all one seamless, infinitely varied but undivided happening, and that all our words for it and explanations of it can never capture or nail it down. We also begin to notice the common factor in every different experience: the presence of it, the immediacy of it, how everything is the immovable, infinite and eternal, ever-present Here-Now that never departs from itself.

The ever-changing appearances are not other than this immovable presence. Like the tumbling patterns in a kaleidoscope, the appearances are the ever-changing shapes, textures, patterns and flavors that Here-Now (presence-awareness) is momentarily taking, the infinite dimensions of reality. No boundary can be found between awareness and content, seer and seen, subject and object. These are all words for an indivisible and inconceivable happening always right here, right now. We might say that the ever-changing appearances express, reveal and celebrate this ever-present unicity—but again, those are just words.

And calling it unicity or awareness or presence or God or the universe or any name at all runs the risk of reifying or objectifying the groundlessness of what is in a way that isn’t really true. Because whatever-this-is, is not an object. It has no opposite, no other. It is timeless and spaceless. Time and space are appearances within it. Here-Now (this awaring presence, this present experiencing) has no size, no shape, no color, no location, no form, no beginning or ending, no place where it is not. It is showing up as every color and shape, and as what remains even in deep sleep, when even the first impersonal sense of being here now (aware and present) has vanished. It is subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable, subtler even than the subtlest experience, the first knowingness of being, and yet it is magically displaying itself as this whole universe in all its wondrous diversity.

The more closely we attend to any apparent object, the more it dissolves into ungraspable no-thing-ness, and yet this no-thing-ness is not nothing in some nihilistic sense. It is vibrantly alive and endlessly (presently) revealing itself.

Belief is always about maps, ideas, concepts, formulations. Actuality is not in that realm. Actuality is just this, right here, right now, before any interpretation, label, or formulation. It is ungraspable, impossible to pin down or capture in any formulation. It is YOU! Not the bodymind, the self-image, the story—but rather, that to which the word “I” most deeply refers—which (if we look) turns out to be no-thing in particular, nothing we can grasp, and at the same time, absolutely everything. In other words, this present happening. Actuality is what cannot be doubted, which is not something mysterious or hidden. It is right here—this present experiencing, just as it is. But it’s so easy to confuse how it is (which is no way at all) with what we think it is (which seems solid and formed).

We’ve all heard that the map is not the territory, that you can’t eat the menu or drink the word water. And that all sounds very obvious. But in fact, it gets very subtle.Because our human tendency to mistake map for territory is deeply conditioned, ubiquitous, pervasive, socially reinforced, and often incredibly subtle and completely unnoticed. We automatically assume the reality of the map-world, mistaking it for a solid objective reality that is really “out there,” without even noticing that this is happening.

The interpretations of experience are entirely questionable and can always be doubted, but the bare fact of experiencing—the IS-ness of it—is impossible to doubt. You cannot doubt being here now, present and aware, and you cannot doubt that something is showing up (present experiencing). The actuality being pointed to is not in those word-concepts, but what they are pointing to, which cannot be grasped by thought. All interpretations are false approximations.

As they grow up, babies learn how to draw lines around certain parts of amorphous masses of shape and color and put things into abstract categories, and thus they learn how to "see" tables and chairs. The tables and chairs are doubtful—they are interpretations—but the amorphous masses of shape and color are not. Likewise, we may, at a quick glance, mistake a cell phone for a gun, a man for a woman, or a mountain lion for a large dog. In other words, the interpretation may be faulty. But the immediacy of JUST SEEING (or just being) is impossible to doubt—the shape itself and the seeing of it (not two) are beyond doubt—the interpretations are all doubtful, even the so-called “correct” ones.

You can doubt the label "seeing," which is also an interpretation, but the bare fact of seeing cannot be doubted. You can doubt being a person, or being on a planet called Earth, or being a certain age—all of that had to be learned. But you cannot doubt the fact of present experiencing—not those words, but the actuality itself. It's a subtle point, but it's a world of difference between actuality and interpretation. And, of course, mapping, interpreting and story-telling are all aspects of this actuality as well, things that unicity is doing, and in that sense, the map (as a map) is as real as the chair, but the map is not what it claims to model or re-present, and “the chair’ is an idea (a category) abstracted out of a seamless actuality, as is “the map.”

Concepts and thoughts tend to create (in the imagination) an apparently solid, substantial world full of separate and persisting things, including “me,” a seemingly independent and vulnerable entity struggling to survive in a world “outside myself,” along with notions of past and future, here and there, us and them, this and that. Attending to direct experiencing reveals something quite different. Direct experiencing reveals the fluid, undivided, seamless, boundless, indeterminate, unresolvable and alive nature of reality, as well as the way it is always just this—the ever-present and unmoving immediacy of Here-Now.

The words “dog barking” are not the actuality to which they refer. When you put that experience into language, it suggests that “you” are hearing “a dog barking,” and that “you” and “the sound” and “the dog” and the “barking” are all separate things. But the actual experiencing is not divided up that way. It’s just woof-woof-woof. Right here, no distance, no gap, no separation, utterly immediate. The hearer, the hearing, and the thing heard are mental concepts. Actuality (woof-woof-woof) is undivided, seamless, immediate. Check it out for yourself.

It takes careful attention to begin to notice the difference between the conceptual and the actual, and it gets ever-more subtle and potentially ever-more radical. Radical because you begin to realize that EVERYTHING is not what we think it is. That can feel a bit dizzying at times, and a bit threatening, because it challenges our whole view of “reality” and everything we hold sacred and dear. After all, we might think, what about everything I care about, everything I identify with, everything I hold dear—my family and friends, my beloved pets, Mother Earth, saving the environment, economic and social justice, animal rights, putting an end to war, saving the whales? And what about ME—my whole life, my journey to spiritual awakening, my struggles along the way, my deficits and addictions, my triumphs, my life purpose, my breakthroughs and setbacks, my memories, my whole life story—is ALL this no more real, no more substantial than a dream? That sounds quite disturbing!

But as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher once said, the point of all these visualization practices that they do in Tibetan Buddhism is to eventually realize that you are visualizing (i.e. imagining, generating, creating) everything! And the “you” who is doing this is not the person you think you are—that person is one of the things being visualized.

In the map world of thought, you seem to be “somebody” who occupies “a body” and makes choices, somebody on a journey through time and space. If we don’t look too closely, this seems unquestionable. But start attending to direct experiencing, and the “you” who supposedly occupies this body cannot be found, the “choices” that get made all come out of nowhere, the past (even a split second ago) has vanished into thin air, and “the body” turns out to be an amorphous, ever-changing mass of somatic sensations, visual images, mental images—with no persisting shape, no solid boundary, no enduring form.

And, in fact, whatever you examine closely dissolves or disintegrates in this same way. What seems solid turns out to be nothing graspable at all. And yes, that does seem to include everything we hold sacred and dear, although when this is realized, our beloved dog doesn’t disappear into thin air, and if (for example) life is expressing us as a person who cares about a particular issue, that caring may still continue—and yet, none of it seems solid or separate or fixed in the way it seemed when attention was focused on thoughts. It is all simply an inexplicable happening doing what it does, and no one stands apart from it to control it.

All of us are susceptible to the seductive pull of the conceptual map-world because it seems much more familiar, much more certain, and much more solid and safe. And it looks so convincingly real—if we don’t look too closely. And of course, it’s a deep animal survival instinct to get a grip, to figure out where we are and what’s going on. On a certain practical level, this is obviously functional and essential, but in the territory of spiritual awakening, it’s in the way, although paradoxically, nothing is ever really in the way. But to discover that, what is needed is not the security and certainty of seemingly being in control and having the answer, which is always an illusion, but rather, relaxing into freefall and unknowing.

So, throughout the day, whenever it invites us, we might simply enjoy the textures of naked experiencing itself—the sounds of rain or traffic, the ever-changing sensations in the body, the wonderous array of shapes and colors, the bare actuality of whatever is showing up, without labeling, interpreting, analyzing or telling a story about it. Just simply BEING it, and noticing how it is all happening by itself, even our thoughts, moods, urges, interests, and actions.

And if we find ourselves feeling anxious, depressed, confused, restless or uneasy, we might experiment—just for fun—with sinking deeply into directly experiencing these things, without the mental spin. What is this thing we are calling “anxiety” or “confusion” if we don’t call it anything? What does it feel like? Where is it in the body? How is it moving? What do we find if we go deeply into the bare sensations themselves with open attention? And what if we shift attention and listen instead to the traffic sounds, or watch the leaves fluttering in the breeze outside the window? We may find that the imaginary problem we thought we had disappears, although it’s best not to expect that or any other result from this exploration. This isn’t a practice, something we “should” do, or something we can do well or fail at, but simply the natural activity of life itself—being curious, open, awake to whatever is presenting itself in the moment.

And if we find ourselves beginning to think that being with sensory experiencing is “good” (or “enlightened”), and that being lost in thought, eating a pint of ice cream, or losing our temper is “bad” (or “unenlightened”), it can be noticed that this is just another story, another idea. It’s true that much spiritual practice focuses on trying to “be here now,” which simply means shifting attention from thinking, conceptualizing and story-telling to the immediacy of sensing and perceiving—from map to territory, in other words, and this “being here now” is indeed a valuable practice, not unlike my high school film class.

But it gets tricky, because we can’t actually ever BE anywhere else other than Here-Now. This is what we ARE. And trying to “be here now” can easily turn into a new way that thought seemingly splits up reality into good and bad, enlightened and unenlightened, and then inserts “me” into this imaginary picture as the one who is suffering from persistent bouts of “inattention” (or, “not being here now”), and then desperately trying to do better and yet always falling short.

Lost in this story of success and failure, imagining ourselves as the main character, we think we must find a way to eliminate our various so-called “distractions,” “addictions,” or “defects.” And we try everything imaginable to stop them, thinking that they are standing between us and enlightenment. We fail to notice that “me” and “enlightenment” are both ideas, that the future doesn’t exist, and that what this word enlightenment actually points to is right here.

In spite of our best efforts to perfect ourselves and get rid of our apparent problems, these pesky things tend to recur. But we may begin to notice that trying to stop them (i.e. resisting them) feels tense and controlling. It mentally splits experience into two parts (the controller and the uncontrollable event), which then seem to be two separate things locked in conflict. It’s like being torn apart or trying desperately to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s painful and it doesn’t work.

But, blessedly, if we’re lucky, we eventually come to see that nothing is ever actually left out of this undivided and indivisible whole. So-called “distraction” is just another flavor of unicity, another impersonal shape that this awaring presence (Here-Now) is taking. And in spite of the infinite variations in appearance (contracted or expanded, pleasant or unpleasant), it is all fundamentally the same—i.e. empty of substance and full of awaring presence. Nothing is left out of this seamless totality. It’s all included. Everything is it. This realization is incredibly relaxing and freeing—and interesting!

Of course, as I know from my own life, we can see something like this directly and clearly, and we can understand it mentally as well, and we can even write books about it, and still little corners of our actual life seem to get left out, and we keep uncovering or noticing them. It seems we learn certain basic lessons over and over in an unending awakening, perhaps in ever more subtle and ever more radical ways, noticing ever new ways the dualistic mind has split reality into two, and being ever more willing to let go and relax into the naked happening of this moment, releasing the controlling grip of the survival mind that is forever trying to hang on and save “me” from annihilation. Or at least, that’s been my experience. And yet, “my experience” is another story, isn’t it? In actuality, whatever-this-is has never been absent and has never for one instant ever departed from itself.

So when the gripping or the splitting or the resisting or the grasping or the seeking happens, that too is simply another texture of this awaring presence—ALL of it an ever-changing, inconceivable happening that appears and disappears—evaporating from one instant to the next. How real was any of it? It is dream-like, isn’t it? And yet, it’s right here, vividly alive and real! Undivided. Whole. Simple, simple, simple—and yet, infinitely rich and without end. Never absent and never lacking anything, except in the story, where duality plays out its great imaginary dramas of finding and losing—the Divine Lila. What a hoot! And yet we take it so seriously, but that too is all part of the show.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

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