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Blog #3

The following are the most recent selected posts from my Facebook author page:

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. And it’s a great lead-in to my next article, which I’m still working on (stay tuned for that in the near future). 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 5, 2020:

How Robert Saltzman Vanished from My Recommended Reading List and How He Recently Returned to It:

Lately, I’ve been reading Robert Saltzman’s new book, Depending on No-Thing, which I had started reading back when it first came out and then stopped reading when I found parts of it disturbing. Some months back, I told Robert I was done being friends with him, and I removed him from my website recommended list. Much of Robert’s work I love and respect, but at times, he infuriates me. We have often butted heads. I don’t agree with everything he says. But I do feel that he challenges all of us, myself included, in provocative and important ways, which is why I have put him back on my recommended list. And of course, Robert doesn’t agree with everything I say either, and that’s part of what makes a relationship interesting and worthwhile. 

What I see as the heart of Robert’s message resonates deeply with me: the questioning of beliefs, escapes, false comforts and magical thinking; the willingness to live in freefall without authorities, final answers or certainties; the recognition of being this ever-changing flow of present experiencing; and the uncompromising insistence that until the search “out there” for some future fantasy ends, until we are willing to stand alone without reaching for a lifeline or an escape, the freedom we are seeking cannot happen. There are some other ideas, assertions and assumptions in his books with which I disagree or which I would question, but the heart of his message is spot-on in my opinion.

Robert had a powerful impact on me when I first met him just before my cancer diagnosis back in late 2017, and his work has continued to challenge me in important ways. As a friend, he was very supportive to me during my journey with cancer. I have found him to be very generous, loving, tender-hearted, and open most of the time. Yes, like some of you who have contacted me with complaints about Robert—wondering how I could endorse him, I too have found him at times abrasive, insulting to people, strongly opinionated, defensive, quick to judge and make assumptions about others, sometimes unaware of his own confirmation biases and unquestioned beliefs, and not always able to listen openly or be curious about where a person is coming from who challenges him. But the truth is, I find all these same imperfections in myself as well, and we all have our shadow sides. None of us are perfect, and what a boring world it would be if we were all calm, gentle, soft-spoken, mellow and perfectly behaved all the time. I do know that Robert has a good heart and that he is, like all of us, doing his best (aka, the only possible in each moment). And it’s always worth questioning what is getting triggered in us when we get upset.

So if something he says triggers a reaction in you, that might be a sign that it's something worth investigating. Sometimes when I return to a chapter or a section in one of his books that initially infuriated me, I find myself completely agreeing with it. I hear it in a whole new way. Something in me has shifted. Reading is a kind of dance involving an ever-changing and alive relationship between author, reader and text. The printed word can seem set in stone, but it isn’t really. It’s alive, because both the author and the reader are ever-changing whirlpools swirling and exchanging. We never read the same book twice, any more than we step into the same river twice or are the same person from one instant to the next.

I greatly appreciate Robert’s invitation to question our escapist tendencies and to look deeply and honestly at what we actually know directly and what we have taken on as a belief. I love his encouragement to be aware of our human vulnerability to magical thinking, hypnotic suggestion, group-think, and confirmation-bias. I love the way he points to simply being the ever-changing stream of experiencing here-now without needing to have any metaphysical conclusions about it. And I deeply appreciate that he offers no final resolution, no grand explanation of how the universe works.

But I also resonate deeply with some of the teachers and perspectives that Robert considers toxic or false, so we definitely do not see eye to eye on everything. In my opinion, some of what he says about various teachers, authors and organizations seems to me to be based on misunderstanding, malicious gossip, or hearsay. But I do share his recognition that it is very easy, both as a teacher and as a student, to be seduced and hypnotized by second-hand beliefs, metaphysical conclusions, spiritual hoopla, charismatic teachers and grandiose claims of enlightenment. And Robert does rightly question the assertions that many teachers make about the nature of reality, especially in Advaita, and the way these assumptions are put forth as absolute truth, and that I appreciate.

In recommending him, I would continue to caution against closing your mind and heart to everything and everyone he dismisses as false. Don't turn his iconoclasm into a new dogma, in other words, or throw the baby out with the bathwater, or turn Robert into a new anti-guru guru or authority figure—as he himself constantly warns against.

But that said, I do very highly recommend both of Robert Saltzman’s two books, The Ten Thousand Things (aka 4-T) and Depending on No-Thing (aka DONT). And I apologize to Robert for unfriending him here on Facebook and in real life (which isn’t to say Facebook isn’t real life, because what isn’t?). I also apologize for removing him from the acknowledgements in my recent book (Death: The End of Self-Improvement), where he very much belonged. I also left the story of my friendship with him out of the book for a number of reasons.

“In each instant,” he writes, “things are as they are and cannot be any different. Whatever one perceives, thinks, and feels in each moment is ‘myself.’ Except in memory or a fantasized future, there is no other myself. No ‘myself’ stands apart from events and phenomena as the ‘experiencer’ of those occurrences. That myself is an illusion. One is not having experiences. One is identical to the totality of experience, conscious and unconscious. That’s what ‘I’ am: experience, and experience is only this aliveness, right now, in this very moment."  Beautiful!

And Robert, if you’re reading this and you want to respond, please feel free to do so. I hope our friendship can be restored and that you will always feel welcome to comment on my posts or what I share here on Facebook. I am very grateful to know you, grateful for the love and support you have shown me, and grateful for the ways you have challenged and infuriated me. I continue to learn from you.

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. From Wayne Liquorman:

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. 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.

Fear is an infectious disease that robs you of life. It shrinks your reality to a single focus. A horrific vision of a future that may or may not come into being. In its most virulent form it transfers rapidly from person to person, community to community and continent to continent. People begin eyeing each other with suspicion and the authorities take it as an opportunity to be even more authoritarian.

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.

May it infect you now!

With much love,

So those are Wayne Liquorman’s words about this pandemic, and I’ll share my own thoughts about it in my next post.

March 20, 2020:

My Thoughts on How We Can Meet the Coronavirus:

First and foremost, I urge everyone to be responsible and think not only of yourself, but of your fellow human beings. Please follow the guidelines and restrictions that have been put in place—and if you live in a place where this is not yet being taken seriously, please follow the guidelines in places that are taking it seriously. Hospitals are being stretched very thin, medical workers are risking their lives and working tirelessly, and people who need treatment for other things such as cancer are being turned away. And while older people and those with underlying conditions (e.g., cancer, asthma, COPD) are the most likely to get seriously ill or to die, many healthy young people have also gotten severely ill from this, and more than a few have died. This is not just an old people’s disease! And while it’s true that many who get this virus experience only mild symptoms, this it is not the flu—it is much more deadly. In addition to the risk posed to oneself, we can all transmit the virus before we realize we have it. So please, everyone, please practice social distancing, avoid unnecessary contact, wash your hands, and so on—be safe and be responsible. I also very much recommend and encourage staying informed, using reliable sources of information, because the situation changes daily, and this is not the time to look away or go into denial. And be aware that some people are exploiting this crisis to put out false information or run scams. Use discretion in what you believe, share or respond to.

As important as it is to stay informed, it’s not helpful to yourself or anyone else to think about nothing but the virus or to absorb news about it 24/7. It’s important, as best we can, not to live in fear and spread fear, as Wayne Liquorman emphasized in his message that I shared earlier. So, if you notice that your mind is churning out worst-case scenarios and “what if’s,” maybe it is possible to turn attention to the actuality of this moment, as Wayne also suggested. There is much more going on than just the virus. The birds are singing, the trees where I live are blossoming, the hillsides are greening up, the Italians are singing on their balconies, and so on. These kinds of disasters and challenges afford an opportunity for positive change, deeper insight and greater awakening to reality, as it is.

As for myself, I’m over 70, so I’m sheltering in place. As far as I know, I’m in good health so far. All dentists in Oregon have been closed except for emergencies, so I’m living with two temporary crowns until this is over, but that’s easy enough. There are not yet very many confirmed cases locally where I am, but everything has been shut down: schools, theaters, restaurants, etc. I’m not afraid of dying—although I don’t want to die just yet—but (if I think about it), I do fear being seriously ill and unable to breathe, and most of all, I fear losing some (or heaven forbid, all) of my closest and dearest friends, all of whom are old, and most all of whom are older than me. When the AIDS epidemic hit, I was in my 30’s. I lost friends, but they weren’t my only friends, and I had decades ahead to make new friends. At my age now, as a single woman with no siblings or children, that all feels quite different. And then there’s the financial meltdown, which could get much worse and impact all of us who are not billionaires and millionaires in adverse ways. Already, it is creating a huge financial strain and uncertainty for many people. But right now, I’m totally fine, and as these various scenarios of what could happen arise in my mind, I notice that right now, they are all thoughts. All of my friends may survive, no one I know may get critically ill from this, the economy may rebound. As Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, and some of them actually happened.” Being informed and taking this seriously is intelligent, but spreading or wallowing in fear and panic is not.

No one knows how it will all play out. It seems to bring up two different human tendencies: fear (accompanied by “get your gun, demonize the stranger, and build walls to keep them out,” whether literally or metaphorically, or total denial), on the one hand, and love and compassion (caring for others, and recognizing the unity in our globally shared situation), on the other. Trump (with his racist “Chinese virus” talk) mostly models the first response; the Italians singing to one another from their balconies model the second. Most of us, if we’re honest, probably contain a bit of both these tendencies when faced with a crisis, so it’s good to notice how we are responding from one moment to the next.

This situation has the potential to create both positive and negative changes long-term and also right now. It has already reduced air travel—thus helping to reduce climate warming—and it has cleared up pollution in many places such as China. It has slowed us all down, which is probably a good thing. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” That could have some truth to it. And this whole crisis may serve as a potent wakeup call about what is ahead with climate collapse and what we need to do to better respond. In many ways, it has brought forth compassion and human ingenuity in finding ways to stay connected even while practicing social distancing. On the other side of the equation, as Wayne also mentions, this is precisely the kind of crisis that can so easily play into authoritarian fascism, xenophobia, racism, and so on. It’s already impacting the US presidential election, and it isn’t hard to imagine how this could lead to some pretty awful erosions of democracy. So again, it’s good to notice how we are responding in each moment—are we helping or making it worse.

Maybe I’m making it worse by sharing my own concerns with all of you, but I think it’s also important to be honest and not just do some spiritual by-pass into “everything is perfect,” “all is well,” or “it’s all just a dream.” That may all be true in the bigger sense, but we live in the human world as vulnerable human beings, and I don’t think it serves us to ignore or deny that. My heart goes out to the people who are much more dramatically affected than I am: the healthcare workers, those now without jobs and income, the homeless, parents who are suddenly dealing with home schooling their children, people going through cancer and other serious health situations during this, and of course, those who are already ill or dying or gone and their families and friends.

But as Ram Tzu’s poem that Wayne shared so beautifully expressed, this kind of crisis is actually nothing new. It can seem that way to many of us in the developed world who have lived in a protective bubble of comfort and security most of our lives, taking for granted that water comes out of the taps, that our homes have heat in winter and AC in summer, that our supermarkets are stocked with every food imaginable, that we have excellent medical and palliative care available, and so on. But for much of the world, and for many in the developed world as well, this has never been true, and for most humans in history, this has not been how it is. People throughout recorded history have lived through wars, plagues, famines, natural disasters, genocides and all kinds of things in which most everyone they knew died—and they did it without modern hospitals or the benefits afforded by the internet.  What goes up must eventually come down. There are no one-sided coins, and death gets us all in the end. Eventually, the sun and the earth will be no more. But meanwhile, let’s do what we can to support one another.

So please, everyone, take this seriously—but keep your sense of humor. Be careful and follow the guidelines. Notice when you are scaring yourself unnecessarily with thoughts and imagination. Notice how you are responding and what you are transmitting, whether it is the virus of love or the virus of fear. Remember that it is always possible to simply be awake to the actuality of THIS moment, which is ever-changing and never static. And may we all get through this together as one human family. And thank God for all those Italians singing on their balconies.

Finally, I’d like to share a few words that arrived in my in-box a few days ago from a remarkable human being named Valarie Kaur: “I believe this is a time to love without limit. This is a time to see no stranger. In doing so, we gather information for the kind of world we want, where no one is uninsured or disposable, where our policies and public institutions protect all of us. And if panic or grief or rage seizes you suddenly, it's okay. It means you are alive to what is happening. The work is to breathe through it. It becomes a dance—to panic, then return to wisdom; to retreat then find the courage to show up with love anyway.” Thank you, Valarie.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

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