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Blog #4


The following are the most recent selected posts from my Facebook author page:
https://www.facebook.com/JoanTollifson.

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


May 1, 2020:

POLITICS and SPIRITUALITY:

My two Facebook pages are primarily spiritual in nature, as are my books and the work I do—this is the main focus of my life. (For what I mean by spirituality, see the Home page of my website). I’m also a former political activist who cares about the world. I follow the News, and periodically, I post something political. I also notice that a lot of the political posts on Facebook are a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s great to share information in this global and immediate way. But often it seems the posts are inflammatory and basically either preaching to the choir and sharing our righteous indignation at the “other” side…or else getting worked up by the horrible things “they” are saying. Political issues often involve life and death, of course (as is very evident now with the pandemic), and so not surprisingly, they can push deep buttons.

It’s always worth questioning the way thought divides this seamless totality up into these seemingly separate categories like spiritual and political. It’s also worth questioning the ways each of these categories is often looked down upon by the other.

In the spiritual world, politics is often a dirty word. But politics is really nothing more than how we organize ourselves as communities: families, tribes, organizations of various kinds (including spiritual ones), cities, states, nations, and globally. Politics is about how we make decisions that affect us as a whole. Because human beings are imperfect and subject to the pulls of greed, hate and delusion, these matters often become tainted by corruption and ill-will. And, of course, we’ve all seen plenty of that. Hence, the idea that politics is dirty. But there’s nothing inherently dirty about creating and maintaining a system where people participate in decision-making and agree on certain ethical ideas and courses of action. Of course, no two people have exactly the same idea of how things “should be,” so this inevitably involves disagreement, conflict, and in the worst cases, outright war. And no human system is ever perfect.

In the political world, spirituality is often seen as an escape. It is thought that by turning away from the world, spiritual people are allowing the status quo to continue—even if the status quo involves slavery, sexism, racism, animal abuse, environmental devastation, exploitation of workers, and so on. Spirituality is also considered rather woo-woo and all about unreal fantasies. (Of course, spiritual people may see the world of politics as unreal—merely a passing dream). No one is really apolitical, because even being apolitical or disengaged is itself a political position and has consequences.

Recently, I posted a review of a documentary I’d seen (Planet of the Humans, a critical look at the environmental movement from the left—from people who care deeply about climate change and environmentalism, but feel that what we’ve been doing so far isn’t really working). Anyway, I immediately began hearing criticisms of the documentary, so I took the review down. Then I put it back up, with links to both the documentary and some of the criticisms. Then I took that down because I found myself getting embroiled in lots of back and forth on Facebook and elsewhere over this movie, sometimes getting irritated, and feeling like it was not how I most wanted to use my time—and my feelings about the movie had become quite mixed and uncertain as well.

But this is an old koan for me, as you’ll know if you’ve read my books, this question of how these two things come together—spirituality and politics. And, of course, there is no one way. The mix is different for each of us. Ramana Maharshi and Martin Luther King Jr. both served the world in different ways, and neither was better than other (at least, not as I see it). So there is no one size fits all answer here. And my own “answer” keeps shifting and moving. For sure, over many decades now, I seem to be moving ever farther away from activism and a political focus, and ever more deeply into a spiritual focus. But that’s just how this life seems to be moving. Every life is unique.

Anyway, since this recent turmoil over the documentary, and given the deepening divisions that are erupting in this country in ever-more disturbing ways, with unmasked demonstrators armed with automatic weapons now massing inside state capitols, yelling right in the face of police, inches away, in defiance of the pandemic guidelines, demanding their right to get sick and to spread sickness as they please, not to mention the upcoming presidential election in this country—I have found myself immersed in this old koan (spiritual and political) in a new way.

So, in the next while, I’ll be sharing some things from a number of spiritual teachers that I feel relate to this question, not necessarily overtly. They offer a variety of different perspectives, ALL of which I resonate with. These sharings will include material from Christian mystic John Butler; Advaita sage Jean Klein; Zen teacher Barry Magid; Zen Master Lin-chi; nondualist and former Buddhist monk Darryl Bailey; singer/songwriter and long-time Zen practitioner Leonard Cohen; creator of the Yoga of Radiant Presence Peter Brown; and a passage from my own most recent book. In addition, the two videos I just shared of talks by Zen teachers Steve Hagen and Norm Randolph can also be included. Again, these are all people and perspectives that I resonate with and respect.

Anyway, stay tuned….. [for the links to all the things mentioned in that last paragraph, see my Facebook pages from April 29 thru May 11]


May 13, 2020:

Spirituality and Politics Revisited

Back on May 1, I posted an article about “Spirituality and Politics,” and at the end of it, I said I would be sharing some things I resonate with from different perspectives that would relate to this (not necessarily overtly). These sharings have included material from Zen teachers Steve Hagen, Norm Randolph and Barry Magid; Zen Master Lin-chi; Christian mystic John Butler; Advaita sage Jean Klein; nondualist and former Buddhist monk Darryl Bailey; singer/songwriter and long-time Zen practioner Leonard Cohen; creator of the Yoga of Radiant Presence Peter Brown; and a passage from my own most recent book.

As I said in my post back on May 1, politics is really nothing more than how we organize ourselves and live together as communities—how we structure an economy, what behaviors are permitted and what ones are not, and so on. And spirituality, as I mean it, has to do with an exploration, through our direct experience, of the nature of reality—and with a sense of wholeness, and a sense of devotion (awe, wonder, reverence, love) to the sacred, to that which is sacred or holy or whole in every experience.

As I pointed out in that previous post, in the realm of politics, no two people have exactly the same idea of how things “should be,” so it inevitably involves disagreement, conflict, and in the worst cases, outright war. And however good it might be, no human system is ever perfect. And when we’re dealing with social and political issues, as soon as we name them and begin to think about them, we are engaged in the world of interpretation and conceptual thought, which is always the world of delusion in the sense that it is never the actuality itself—it is always an over-simplified, fractured, reified, dualistic virtual reality.

So if we live ONLY in this political dimension, our life will almost certainly be full of conflict, frustration, disappointment, and misery. I think we all know what it’s like when we are completely caught up in and hypnotized by our thoughts and emotions over political issues. Take any issue that you care deeply about: economic inequality, access to affordable healthcare and education, racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, abortion, reproductive rights, foreign policy, Palestine/Israel, climate change, the environment, the treatment of animals, vaccines, how we should respond as a society to COVID-19, immigration, gun control, you name it—when we are completely caught up in and mesmerized by our thoughts and emotions over issues we care deeply about, it’s very hard to listen openly to the other side and very easy to get swept away in self-righteous anger, fear, grief, hatred, confirmation bias, polarized thinking, and so on. It’s easy to become violent (in our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies). These issues can feel like matters of life or death, and our very survival (or that of something with which we identify) can seem to be (and may actually be) at stake.

But beyond our deeply held ideas of what is right or wrong, I think many, if not all, of us have experienced how both sides in a political struggle can be strangely like mirror images of each other. And we’ve seen how the best of intentions can lead to terrible outcomes (as in some communist revolutions), or conversely, how horrible events can bring forth good things (for example, the Vietnam war that shaped Thich Nhat Hanh and led him to be a world teacher). As in the famous old Chinese farmer story, things that we think are terrible can turn out to be gifts, and things we think are wonderful can turn out to be terrible. The worst things in our lives are often the things that lead us to greater strength, wisdom, humility, and understanding. Each of us sees things from a very limited perspective, and from that limited perspective, they look good or bad. But we don’t see how they are inseparably connected, as in the Chinese farmer story, to other outcomes. From the bigger perspective of totality or wholeness, there’s no way to separate the light from the dark.

So what did the various things I shared in these past two weeks offer in terms of how we might see and be with all the events of this world?

Some might have found the writings and videos I shared contradictory and irreconcilable, yet I resonate with all of them, perhaps because I hear a common thread, however differently it may be expressed.

And what is that common thread?  It is the bigger context to which they all in some way point, and the possibility of not being totally bamboozled by our thoughts and ideas and our limited views.

Some, like Jean Klein and John Butler, point to resting as awareness or Spirit. The perspective is transcendent. Others, like Barry Magid and Leonard Cohen, talk about being this moment, just as it is—very down to earth, everything included. That might seem very different from the transcendent. And yet, that simple acceptance of everything that appears IS actually BEING awareness! And while it might seem that Barry and Leonard are just saying that life is painful and that’s that, they are actually pointing to the acceptance of that, and paradoxically, when we embrace the darkness, it turns into light. They are finding the transcendent right in the midst of the full catastrophe of life as it is. Peter Brown and Darryl Bailey point to the ungraspable, inconceivable and choiceless movement or presence that is all there is, and in their different ways, they both invite a more nuanced exploration of what is showing up. They also both point out that this moment can never be other than exactly how it is, and that we will each do exactly what life moves us to do in each moment. All these different teachers point to something that is experiential and non-conceptual. They’re not talking about belief, intellectual understanding, philosophy, or getting the right idea about things. They’re all pointing to what is right here, right now—clear and obvious.

In our lives on planet Earth, we are confronted with many issues, many problems. As we live now with COVID-19, whatever that entails for each of us, and as we encounter (whether on the News or in person) heroic healthcare workers and first responders, mobs of armed demonstrators waving swastikas and Confederate flags, long lines of cars snaking toward food banks, people out of work, small businesses collapsing, mothers at home trying to be the teacher for multiple children, Donald Trump being Donald Trump, how do we respond?

Everything I shared invites us to behold all of this, to explore and be with it in a way that is not our usual conventional approach. It invites us to wake up (now) from that total involvement in the storylines that overlay all this, and to see the ways we are identifying, taking things personally, and how we are seeing it all from a limited perspective—and that we can never know the full story of how it all goes together. These various teachings invite us to perhaps experience these storms of emotion-thought as sensation, as energy, as impersonal and meaningless happenings in the flow of life, and to see beyond all our conceptual divisions: good and evil, right and wrong, superior and inferior, spiritual and political, relative and absolute, us and them. They invite us, in their different ways, to recognize a more subtle or all-encompassing dimension of reality.

That doesn’t mean we won’t still have opinions and preferences, or that we “shouldn’t” act or speak out about something if we are so moved. Withdrawing completely from any active involvement in political matters and being instead deeply engaged only in spirituality may be the perfect response for some people. But for others, there will be a deep pull to get into the fray and work to bring about certain changes within the dream-like movie of waking life. I’m calling it a dream-like movie, but it’s as real as we are in this moment, and this relative reality cannot ever be completely dismissed as long as we are alive in this dimension.

For myself, life seems to have been moving me away from any kind of activism and ever more deeply into spirituality (call it meditation, Zen, Advaita, nonduality, meditative inquiry, whatever name you like). But that’s just how it is for me. Everyone has a unique path.

And as I told someone in a comment recently, I find myself being more and more pulled into the experiential realm and less and less drawn to sit at my computer and write. That’s part of why I’ve been sharing so many things by other people rather than more of my own writing. I’m not writing much lately. This might all change tomorrow, but for now, that’s how it seems to be.

Thank you for listening.


May 14, 2020:

As a postscript to my post yesterday: I was born in the 40’s and grew up in the 50’s. It was a very different world back then for women, Black people, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other minorities. If you were alive then, and if you were a member of any of these groups, you know what I mean. I’ve seen enormous positive changes in my lifetime in all these areas—HUGE changes. Also around caring for the environment and the humane treatment of animals and many other things. And some of those changes have had profoundly positive effects on my own life (as a lesbian woman with a disability). And I’m quite sure most of these changes would not have happened simply by everyone meditating. So, I’m infinitely grateful that there have been, and that there continue to be, people dedicating themselves to activist work. In the dimension of ordinary, everyday reality, it definitely matters.

I also see that people who devote themselves to prayer or meditation also have a HUGE impact on the world. It’s a much less visible impact. But once the seamless and energetic nature of reality is understood, it becomes obvious. As has been said, when I awaken, the whole world awakens.

And as I tried to express in my previous post, the things we consider horrible and unjust (slavery, war, genocide, racism, sexism, environmental devastation, factory farming, and so on) are all part of a larger whole and, as in the famous old Chinese farmer story, we can never know all the positive things that come from such evils, just as the crucifixion led to the resurrection (which I interpret mythologically, not literally, but it’s a beautiful pointer). In my own life, having one arm, struggling with addiction, and having cancer all presented challenges and were at times quite painful, but they have all been enormous blessings, albeit I would not have chosen any of them! 

In the ultimate sense, the more closely we look at any apparent thing, the more it reveals itself to be nothing solid, separate or graspable. The world around us looks solid and persisting, but both physics and meditation reveal that it isn’t. The actuality is more like freefall with no one falling and no ground to hit. But any formulation we come up with, including that one, for what’s going on here, at any level, is always a tentative approximation that never really holds up. Still, formulations are useful for functioning and communicating. But ultimately, everything we say is just gibberish. We have no clue what’s REALLY going on here, whatever that might even mean. Any yet, this living actuality is continuously presenting itself—ever-present, ever-changing, and utterly obvious. And it seems to me, from my experience anyway, that we can’t land on either the conventional or the absolute perspective. Because no matter how enlightened we are, no matter how much we see through the illusion of solidity and substance and separation, we still have to make a living, feed the kids, take out the garbage, and so on.

Response to a comment:

I have no idea what the future will bring. I think speculation is mostly a waste of time. I’m definitely not into holding out hopeful scenarios, and my own sense is that humanity is headed for extinction preceded by some pretty catastrophic times, which we’re already beginning to see. However, I might be wrong, and even if I’m right, I don’t see this as a tragedy. The larger reality is without beginning or end. And as you suggest, nothing can appear without polarity or duality—there is no up without down. While I’ve witnessed many wonderful changes during my lifetime, they are only wonderful from my perspective. To white supremacists and misogynists, they are terrible changes. And I’ve also seen some changes that are terrible from my perspective: the climate is warming, the population has quadrupled during my lifetime, many species have gone extinct, corporate power has grown, we’ve had a series of senseless wars, there have been genocides, Donald Trump is the president of the US, and so on. But as I’ve been saying, as in the old Chinese farmer story, we don’t really know how ANY of these (the ones we consider positive or the ones we consider negative) play out or how they fit into the bigger picture.

Response to another comment:

Yes, as you know, many people, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr. Helen Prejean, and many movements such as Engaged Buddhism and Christian Liberation Theology have combined spirituality and politics, or found them inseparable. At one point in my life, as I moved from activism to spirituality, this was very alive to me, this possibility. I don't find myself drawn to it anymore, but I'm glad many others are drawn to it, because I think political activism is at its best when it is grounded in a spiritual perspective and practice. And while I'm no longer an activist, I still follow the News, care deeply, and occasionally do jump into the political fray here on FB and elsewhere in conversation...and I vote. And I might also add that spirituality that denies the world or totally turns away feels off in some way.

Response to another comment:

It's a sweet idea, and if life moves you to do this, that's beautiful. But as I see it, we are not the independent agents with free will and choice that we've been taught that we are. We don't choose our personalities, our talents, our desires, our fears...we don't decide what sources of news seem trustworthy to us, or who we find attractive, or what we're most drawn to in life. We can seemingly decide to do something like what you suggest, but if you look closely, you'll find that the urge to do this arose by itself, as does your ability or inability to carry it out. I fully agree, there will never be a perfect world from our limited perspective, but my sense is that there is a perfection in the Whole.


May 18, 2020:

IS REALITY CHANGING OR EVER-PRESENT?

Someone asked me a question about Darryl Bailey and why he talks only about change and not about ever-present awareness. I responded, but thought my response might be of interest to others as well:

Somewhere in one of his books, Darryl says that change is also an inaccurate description. And somewhere else in one of his books, he says he used to think he was awareness, and then he noticed he couldn't really find that as any graspable "thing" apart from everything. 

No conceptual attempt to capture reality is ever going to be able to nail it down. "The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao." The map is not the territory. The word water is not water. There are many pointers (words, analogies, metaphors, descriptions, etc) that are helpful at different moments on the pathless path, but none of them is the Truth Itself. They are potentially useful in helping us notice a certain aspect of reality, but if we cling to any of them, they become obstacles. 

If we attend to our actual present experiencing (rather than to second-hand ideas), we find that whatever-this-is, it is BOTH ever-changing and ever-present or immovable (i.e., it is always Here-Now, always JUST THIS, and yet it never appears the same way twice). 

The great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna said that the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence. Why? Because, as Darryl so beautifully points out, no-thing ever forms as a solid, separate, persisting entity. So there is no-thing to BE impermanent! Buddhism calls whatever-this-is "impermanence" and "no-self," and Advaita calls it "the immutable, immovable Self." Both are just conceptual formulations. Neither is the Truth. They are both just different maps. 

Apparent forms have no actual continuity at all; awareness gives the sense of continuity. But again, that's just words, just another pointer, another description. As Darryl says, “Ultimately, my descriptions are false too, but they invite you to step out of description, in order to experience a sense of freedom and well-being that is impossible to create or to understand." 

Reality itself is right here at every moment, just as it is--and yet, we can't ever put how it is into words, not really. But we can SEE it, and we ARE it, and we actually can't not be it, and it is always totally obvious and unavoidable. The confusion comes only when we try to capture it in the net of words. It won't be caught. And yet, here it is. You are it. There is only it. This is it. I hope this helps. 

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

You are welcome to link to this page or to quote brief passages from the blog writings on it as fair use, but if you wish to re-post any piece here or a long excerpt anywhere else, please ask permission first, give appropriate copyright credit to Joan, and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

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