logo rocks
 
home
books
events
joan
waking
contact
recommended
 

Blog #13


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:


September 15, 2021:

The Beauty of Spiritualizing Everything

I left formal Zen practice behind long ago, but I have internalized some of the things it taught me. And one of the things I’ve always loved about Zen is that it spiritualizes everything. Cleaning the toilet is as much a sacred act as sitting zazen or chanting. From a Zen perspective, listening to traffic sounds is every bit as enlightening as listening to a dharma talk. The bathroom, the office, the traffic jam, and the temple are all equally holy. Everything is worthy of devotion or loving attention. Everything is an expression of the whole universe, and the whole universe is there in every grain of sand.

Zen puts a great deal of emphasis on cleaning—everything is polished and sparkling, swept clean and in order. Great emphasis is also put on posture, on the way we sit and move. Tremendous care is given to many seemingly trivial details of form. On sesshins (Zen silent meditation retreats), meals are typically eaten in the zendo (the meditation hall) in a ritualized way—sitting on meditation cushions, using special oryoki bowls in a particular formal way, being served in ceremonial fashion, bowing to the servers, chanting before eating, expressing gratitude for the food, and so on.

When I was new to Zen, this emphasis on the minutia of form felt downright crazy to me at times, and certainly unrelated to spiritual awakening. What difference did it make if our shoes were arranged neatly outside the zendo, or if the incense bowl was lined up just so next to the Buddha statue on the altar? Who cares?

But I grew to appreciate all this. My first Zen teacher, the late Sojun Mel Weitsman, once told me, “Form is not sacred, but form allows the sacred to emerge.” In other words, there is nothing inherently sacred about Zen forms, such as using oryoki bowls, but as we do this ritualized eating, or the careful cleaning, or the endless bowing, we discover the sacred in every ordinary thing and every ordinary activity—in our bowls, our eating utensils, our food, the ingredients, the cooks, the servers, the other people—and when we return to everyday life, we find that there is a whole different quality in doing these ordinary things like cooking, eating, washing dishes, cleaning the house, changing an ostomy bag, and so on. They’re no longer tasks we need to mindlessly rush through so that we can get on to the really important stuff—they ARE the important stuff.

The importance is in the presence of them and the presence we bring to them, the way the sacred emerges and reveals itself in the suchness of everything, the way it shines in everything. We begin to see that THIS MOMENT is all we really have, that being awake is NOW or never, that THIS IS IT—that whatever we’re doing right now really IS the most important thing!


September 18, 2021:


Enlightenment is when Iowa is empty of Iowa and you can be in Iowa with all the problems of Iowa without wanting to be any place else.

-- Zen teacher Reb Anderson

That’s my recollection of something Reb said in a talk that I heard decades ago. I can’t remember anymore why he was talking about Iowa, but the essence of what he was saying wasn’t about Iowa in particular—Iowa is simply a stand-in here for wherever we actually are right now.


September 21, 2021:

Conflict and Wholeness

It seems that we live in especially contentious and polarized times. Of course, conflict, disagreement, actual conspiracies, false conspiracy theories, rumors and smears, greed, hate and delusion are all nothing new. What’s new is having all of this in the context of globalization, population density and diversity, the internet, social media, smart phones with cameras, advanced global corporate capitalism, and the possibility that humans can actually destroy life on earth.

I find myself triggered all too often by ideas, views and behaviors in others that I don’t like or agree with, and that I sometimes feel threatened by—and then losing my temper, being argumentative and at times even verbally abusive—defending my positions, defending me, getting caught up in judgement, anger, and divisiveness. Maybe some of you can relate. It seems to be epidemic.

We see a few seconds of video that has gone viral, and we think we know what happened and who the people in the video are. To take two examples, consider Jacob Blake, a black man shot by a white police officer, and Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who shot and killed two people at a demonstration protesting the Blake shooting. For many of us, after seeing a few seconds of viral video, lots of instant judgments were formed about everyone involved. But if you read this excellent New Yorker article here, you will find that both of these situations are much less black and white, and much more nuanced than you might have believed. And of course, EVERYTHING is like that. Everything is infinitely complex and fluid and inseparable from everything else. NOTHING actually resolves into the neatly delineated conceptual packages that make it so easy to judge and hate “the other.”

A friend recently suggested that I read a chapter in A. H. Almaas’s book The Enneagram of Holy Ideas, specifically the chapter about Point One called Holy Perfection. I’m presently making my way through it, and it’s quite powerful.

After initial resistance to the enneagram, mistakenly thinking it was a way of putting people in boxes, I studied it in-depth many years ago in Berkeley with Helen Palmer, and I found it very helpful in terms of both my own life and my relationships with others. In this book, Almaas focuses not only on the fixation aspect of each point, but primarily on the underlying “Holy Idea” that has been lost in each point.  

Point One, which is my point, is all about perfection, and this chapter on Holy Perfection captures exactly the primary koan I’ve felt myself exploring all my life: realizing the perfection of everything. My long journey of self-improvement and my concern with social justice both test this possibility (because the surface in both appears so imperfect), and yet both ultimately unfold and resolve into this realization of Holy Perfection (that being very much a work in progress in my case).  

Being born with a missing arm, especially back in the 1940s, I have lived all my life with a deep sense of being fundamentally imperfect, compounded by not fitting into my gender role and being a lesbian (again, especially back in the Dark Ages when I grew up and came out). Growing up in the 50s, and then coming of age in the tumultuous Sixties, in the social upheavals of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, worldwide revolutions and national liberation movements, the women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement, I was well aware of the horrific suffering and injustice all over the world and in my own experience.

How can everything possibly be perfect just as it is, right now?

Almaas writes, “If you experience things in the moment, without thinking in terms of the past and the future, just right here in the now…you will recognize the perfection we’re talking about.” He goes on to say: “Holy Perfection cannot be perceived from the point of view of ego, because ego wants to change reality to fit how it thinks it is supposed to be. Holy Perfection is a transcendence of that point of view. Realizing Holy Perfection is not a matter of intellectually asserting that everything is perfect so that you can go on being lazy and irresponsible. To experience Holy Perfection is to actually exist in an egoless state…What changes is one’s way of perceiving.”

He points out that if there is an earthquake (or we could also say, a terrorist attack or anything else), that the perfection is in the Whole, or as he puts it, “Holy Perfection recognizes that there is no separate rock and no person being hit by it. What we are calling ‘rock’ and ‘person’ are nothing but manifestations of the essence of God. So, from the perspective of Holy Perfection, an inseparable piece of the essence of God falls on another inseparable piece of the essence of God, and it is very graceful, because it is all the movement of the essence of God.” 

He is careful to add that there is (of course) a place for corrective and healing actions at the everyday surface level of things: seeing a doctor, fixing a flat tire, addressing an injustice, and so on. And he makes it clear that the realization of Holy Perfection “does not mean that you have the license to do whatever you want, justifying it with ‘all action is perfect.’ Only one who is established in Holy Perfection, who continuously perceives it, can act totally spontaneously. This action will naturally be an expression of fundamental goodness and love. Such action is spontaneously responsible, because Holy Perfection includes the intrinsic intelligence of Holy Will,” or what I might call the Whole.

I don’t know if anyone “continuously” perceives this, as Almaas suggests there. In my view, awakening is a never-ending, lifelong, always right NOW journey. But, I certainly know how different I feel, and how differently I act, when I DO perceive Holy Perfection!

Almaas writes that, “Holy Perfection implies…that one doesn’t perceive just the surface of things, but rather, one perceives this fundamental level. When we remain on the level of differentiation, details, and discrimination, we are involved with preferences and judgments, and this gives us a position. When we look from that position, we don’t see the full dimensionality of reality.”

What he’s talking about is a view from Wholeness. “Working on ourselves is really not a matter of trying to get ourselves to some place where we feel perfect,” he writes. “It is instead a matter of discovering the perfection that is already here, that is intrinsic to us and to everything. It is a matter of seeing through our obscurations with awareness and understanding, rather than a matter of making anything happen.”

(these quotes are all taken from the chapter on Holy Perfection in his book Facets of Unity: The Enneagram of Holy Ideas by A. H. Almaas)

This is very subtle work. As Almaas makes clear, it’s not adopting a belief that “everything is perfect” as a way of avoiding or denying the pain in life or justifying bad behavior. It’s actually REALIZING that perfection (or Wholeness), feeling it, embodying it, living it—coming from Wholeness rather than from fragmentation, from the Whole rather than from the illusory separate self.

My friend John Butler, the Christian mystic, puts it this way: “To make whole, be whole.” When we act from that surface level of conflicting views, we tend to create more and more divisiveness and misunderstanding. When we act from Wholeness, we act from love, compassion and intelligence. I’m guessing we’ve all experienced the difference, both as the one acting and as the one on the receiving end of such actions. So, this is a great koan to live with in these contentious times, a lifelong adventure in waking up, moment to moment, NOW.


Response to a comment:

I used "black and white" with full awareness of the double-edged meaning it might have, but in no way was it meant to downplay the reality of racial wounds and of racism. I am very much aware of the systemic injustice in this country and the long history of racism, and I am in full support of correcting this injustice and working toward a world without racism (or sexism, or heterosexism, etc). That said, I also find that some of the knee-jerk reactions that arise in all of us, especially when we are identifying as victims of oppression or their allies, are very simplistic and often false. I am a progressive, but I find some of the positions and actions on the left very troubling. I find the extreme right far more troubling, but I think ALL sides contribute to the violence and conflict. I certainly see the ways I contribute at times, as I hope I conveyed in this post. I used this example simply because it came up in the video I shared recently. But if you read the whole post, I think you'll find it wasn't the focus. And when you say, "of course nothing is black and white" as if this is obvious, I would suggest that it sounds obvious, but it really isn't. We humans have a very strong tendency to mistake the map for the territory, the conceptual for the actual.

Response to another comment from the same person:

I'm not suggesting that both sides are equally true! What I'm suggesting is that situations (and people) are often far more nuanced than we think, and our emotional reactivity often leads to exacerbating the problem rather than helping to solve it. People who oppose racism (including black people) don't all agree on how best to go about this. People who care deeply about climate change and the environment don't all agree on how to deal with this. Even people with a shared worldview who care deeply about education don't all agree on what that education should include. Not all Republicans are the same, any more than all Democrats or all socialists. No one is all good or all bad. 

Maybe it's time we stopped framing things as "picking a side" and then sticking to it dogmatically. Maybe there is a place for listening openly and respectfully to those we disagree with. Maybe it's time to have compassion not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators. That doesn't mean you like what they do or enable them to do it. But you understand what forces of nature and nurture and conditioning led them to where they are, and you meet that with compassion, not hate. 

I'm not your enemy here. I'm guessing our views on major issues are probably quite similar. Racism and all caste systems are about dehumanizing one group of people, and when you've done that, you can enslave them and drop bombs on them and put them into concentration camps and whatever else. So maybe dehumanizing the racists and the Republicans and the climate change deniers is not the answer. Maybe that just solidifies and enflames them. And again, I'm not saying all views are equally true. Not at all.

Response to another comment from the same person:

I'm not in any way trying to "normalize" racism or fascism. I'm all for working to address these issues that you mention. But I have always sensed that love is more powerful than hate. Love doesn't mean you agree with racists or you don't act. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great example of making political change with love. This is my author page, and my work now centers around nondual spirituality, not political activism (although I've done plenty of that as well in years past). So most of my posts focus on that. I try to bring that perspective, which I feel is much-needed, into the process. We all have different jobs. And that's okay. I wish you well in your endeavors.

Response to a comment from another person:

The perfection is in seeing EVERYTHING as an inseparable movement of the whole in which no separate, independent “things” actually exist to be destroyed or harmed. That doesn’t mean we deny or ignore the relative reality of pain and suffering. As Almaas points out, sometimes it is important to work at that level. But as he says, “When we remain on the level of differentiation, details, and discrimination, we are involved with preferences and judgments, and this gives us a position. When we look from that position, we don’t see the full dimensionality of reality.” So when we focus on all the many issues that we care about, we immediately step into the world of conflict, because no two people see the same world. On issues such as abortion, which you bring up, people disagree. 

Having come of age before abortion was legal in the country where I live, I witnessed what happens when women are forced to seek illegal backroom abortions or take it into their own hands with coat hangers and the like. I know women will have abortions whether they are done in a medically safe way or in a back room under horrific conditions. My views are shaped by that experience as well as by my views on life in general. And so, I fully support a woman’s right to an abortion, even including late-term abortions under certain circumstances. But I do understand your concerns.

Again, at the level of apparent forms and differences, there will always be conflicting views. In the case of abortion, even though I have a strong opinion, I can see and respect both sides. In the case of other differing views, for example whether or not it is okay to keep slaves or exterminate people in concentration camps, I don’t respect both views. I think one is definitely more wholesome and compassionate. 

But even then, the Holy Perfection of which Almass speaks is in ALL of it. The world will always include things we dislike and don’t agree with. No one will agree with you on everything. I’m guessing you and I agree on some things we care deeply about and disagree about others. That’s why it is indeed challenging to fully open to what Almaas is pointing to here, because we get very identified with our views and positions, and very lost in the apparently solid, substantial and fractured world that we think exists "out there."

Response to another comment from the same person:

If it's simply "a view," an idea we believe in, it isn't what is being pointed to at all. Yes, such an idea can certainly be misused. But what is pointed to is beyond all views. It is not a view.

And I guess it depends on the nature of what you mean by “being bothered.” It seems quite natural and wholesome to be bothered by acts of cruelty in the sense that we empathize with the pain and suffering...we care. But if we are “bothered” in such a way that we add to the suffering, as when we get angry and reactive and hostile and defensive and mean-spirited, that’s something else. It’s inevitable that we will have views, positions, opinions and preferences. And there is nothing inherently problematic in that. The problem is in our attachment to them and identification with them, and also when we hold them too tightly and rigidly, and when we see ONLY the apparently fractured and substantial world and DON'T see the wholeness and emptiness of everything. But at a relative level of everyday reality, some views are definitely more wholesome (i.e. coming from wholeness) and some views are clearly more deluded (i.e. coming from delusion), and our ability to discern the difference is very important at that relative everyday level. When we are truly coming from deep insight and embodiment of wholeness and emptiness, we naturally act with love and compassion.


September 24, 2021:

Nondual spirituality, as I mean it, is not a philosophy or a belief. It’s not an intellectual understanding arrived at through thinking. It’s much more immediate and direct and impossible to really put into words. It’s presence itself—open, aware, boundless, spacious, all-inclusive and most intimate—ungraspable and unavoidable—without inside or outside. Right here, right now.

We won’t “get it” by trying, for it is already here, and the realization of it has more to do with stopping the search, relaxing, and entering deeply into the undeniable actuality of simple being. Knowingly being the aware presence that requires no belief and no effort in order to be. Being what we cannot not be. Being what we most fundamentally are.

Allowing the exploration of this presence, the enjoyment of it—opening and dissolving into it. Feeling the sensory-energetic textures of what is. Letting the labels, the storylines, the doubting mind, the attempts to grasp it all conceptually fall away. Entering deeply into silence, into stillness. Sensing the pure potentiality that is subtler than space, subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable—the single I (eye) that cannot see itself.

There no “thing” to find, no special experience to have. There’s no “you” in need of liberation. There is only this vast aliveness without borders or seams.

When we meet here, in this vastness, there are no points of view, no conflicts, no judgments, no self or other-than-self. We are the inseparable and intermingling wavings of a single ocean. We can each do our unique and unrepeatable dance, knowing that we are the ocean and that all the waves are the ocean and that all of it is an ever-changing play in emptiness, a dancing of that immovable pure potentiality—appearing as the whole universe and disappearing into silence.


September 26, 2021:

from my second book, Awake in the Heartland:

Ultimately, there is no solution for the world and no need of one. The horror is horrible, the pain hurts, and at the same time, on a deeper level, all is well. Despite the fire that is raging in the movie, the screen remains undefiled. The world appears and disappears inside awareness, and awareness is not at war with anything. The heart of things is at peace.

Moreover, when you start looking into it deeply, it becomes very difficult to find the separation between light and dark. Enormous beauty and compassion have come out of the terrible experience of Nazi Germany. The horror of the Vietnam War created huge suffering, and it also created Thich Nhat Hanh and a social revolution in US society. It changed the course of history in so many ways, some favorable and some unfavorable. The apparent misfortunes in my own life have been the sources of my deepest wisdom, insight, compassion, humor, and strength. And yet, if I were choosing my life, I’d leave them all out. Perhaps that’s why we’re not consulted. We’d write a very flat script.

This is the fallacy of positive thinking and visualization—we never visualize ourselves with cancer, losing an arm, being a drunk, biting our fingers all night, our child ending up in a wheelchair, our bank account at zero, the world suffering yet another war. We visualize some all-one-sided, happy picture that misses the richness of life as it actually is. We visualize what can never actually exist: a one-sided coin, up triumphing permanently over down. But that’s not how it works. Up cannot exist without down. They are always in perfect balance. Neither one really exists.

Perfection never exists the way we imagine it in the mind. The only real perfection is exactly what’s here right now. That doesn’t mean I like everything that happens, and it doesn’t mean I don’t act to bring about something different. I wouldn’t hope for anyone to have a bomb dropped on them, or for any child to be born disabled, and if I could snap my fingers and have a new right hand, I’m sure I’d snap those fingers. If asked to choose between a million dollars or the loss of both legs, I’d pick the million dollars without a moment of hesitation. But I know from my own life experience that losing both legs could be incredible grace, and that having a million dollars could involve profound suffering. Life happens. Ultimately it is beyond the scope of the mind to evaluate.

From our human perspective, it would be a terrible thing if there was a global nuclear war that wiped out all life forms on earth. But from the perspective of the totality, it might be just one more tiny event, clearing the way for something new to emerge. From the point of view of the dinosaur, their extinction would seem like a dreadful mistake. From the point of view of the polio virus, the Salk vaccine would look like genocide. From the perspective of the universe, the disorder is all part of the larger order, in which there is space for all possibilities, for experimentation and mistakes, for play. There is room for everything in this dream, even the horror.

This doesn’t mean we might just as well drop a nuclear bomb on our neighbors, or let our children get polio. But it does mean that we no longer imagine that we know what’s best for the universe. We no longer imagine that we have to (or could) “save the world,” or that it would surely be a “good thing” if we could. We simply respond to life as best we can, doing whatever life moves us to do.

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

September 27, 2021:

from my latest book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement:

There is a palpable shift that occurs when attention drops out of the thinking mind into stillness and presence. When that happens, in the light of awareness, there is an increase in responsibility (response-ability), the ability to respond rather than react, to move in a more wholesome—holistic, whole, intelligent—way. This is the beauty of meditation, psychotherapy, various forms of inquiry, and somatic practices such as Feldenkrais, Continuum or yoga. They bring awareness to where we are stuck and show us what else is possible. We become less ensnared in old conditioning, and a new range of possibilities opens up. The habitual me-system is no longer always running the show. We are no longer totally a slave to conditioned neurology. We (as awareness) have more choices, more possibilities, at least sometimes.

Of course, this shift out of thinking and into aware presence happens choicelessly, in that there is no “me” who can bring it about by an act of independent will. But this shift may indeed require an apparently intentional move that we call a choice, a movement that itself arises choicelessly. The possibility of taking a time-out when we’re angry, of not lighting up a cigarette when the urge arises, of choosing to meditate when we feel upset, is only there when it is. Whatever happens is always a movement of the whole. But our functional sense of agency is part of that larger movement, part of how the universe, or consciousness, functions. In a sense, we have no choice but to act as if we have choice.

-- from Death: The End of Self-Improvement

Response to a comment:

I'm glad you like the title. Yes, whenever there is identification as a separate, encapsulated self, it is inevitable that a sense of being incomplete will be there and a search for completion will arise, translated and amplified in our present culture into a persistent sense of deficiency and lack and an obsession with self-improvement. Death is many things, and while no separate, independent, persisting thing (or person) ever actually forms (or solidifies) to die, at the same time, waves return to the ocean, whirlpools unravel back into the river, and when our loved ones die, we feel the loss and grieve.


October 3, 2021:

This presence that we are, and that IS everything, seems to have infinite holographic and fractal dimensions and ways of appearing or seeing itself—billions of unique and interwoven movies playing simultaneously. No words or formulations can capture or contain this aliveness, and yet words and the storylines they create are themselves a movement of this all-inclusive living reality.

What appears—the movie of waking life—is a kind of dream-like imagination, including even the first impersonal knowingness of being present and aware (the I AM that vanishes every night in deep sleep along with everything perceivable and conceivable). Our whole life journey is like a dream, and the dreamer is unknowable, for whatever can be known is in the dream.

But “the dreamer” is not some-thing that stands apart from the dreaming. The dreamer is simply another word for the True I, pure potentiality, no-thing-ness, primordial awareness, emptiness, zero. This pure potentiality is most intimate, closer than close, and at the same time, boundless, limitless and all-inclusive—there is no inside and outside in unicity, no center and no periphery. This boundlessness is showing up as you and me, as breakfast dishes and rolls of toilet paper, as saints and child molesters, as volcanic eruptions and mass extinctions, as sickness and medicine and all the wonders and horrors of life.

The imaginary nature of this appearance doesn’t make it worthless or dismissible. On the contrary, it is an amazing work of art to be enjoyed and played in. When we watch a good movie, even as we get involved and feel emotions, we never completely forget that it is a movie. Is it possible to enjoy the movie of waking life in much the same way—deeply involved and caring, not dissociated or turning away, but at the same time, aware of its dream-like, imaginary, evanescent nature?

Everything that appears is vividly present but radically impermanent and impossible to grasp—an unfolding painting in emptiness, a text in disappearing ink. Memory gives apparent continuity and form to what actually never forms or persists. Nothing stands apart from this wholeness to control it or to be controlled by it—it is choiceless and seamless. The apparent unfolding of time occurs in the timeless eternity of Now—one bottomless, ever-fresh moment.

All words are potentially misleading. The map is never the territory it describes, even though mapping is an activity of the territory. A wise friend once said to me, “Don’t give this to the mind.” The mind will just run around and around on the hamster-wheel of thought, desperately trying to pin down reality in some neat formulaic package that can be grasped and possessed, forever chasing the elusive carrot that is always just slightly out of reach. Meanwhile, what is sought is right here, never absent, omnipresent, obvious and unavoidable.


October 5, 2021:

Just This, As It Is!  (the current version of my website’s Home Page)

Morning breeze, sounds of traffic, taste of tea, smell of rain, thoughts popping up and evaporating, breathing, listening, sensing—no words or formulations can capture or contain this ever-changing aliveness. It is at once seamlessly whole yet infinitely varied, vividly present but evanescent and impossible to grasp, ever-changing without ever departing from the immediacy of Here-Now.

If we look closely at what seems solid and outside of us, or at the apparent self that seems to be authoring our thoughts and controlling our actions, nothing substantial or persisting can actually be found. The bodymind is an activity of the whole, just as every wave is an activity of the ocean, inseparable from it. The inner weather is as impersonal as the outer weather, all of it a spontaneous happening that vanishes as soon as it appears.

The pathless path through the gateless gate is a journey to the place we have never left: Here-Now, just as it is. What is offered here invites open exploration and direct discovery, not belief or dogma. It encourages an openness to surprise, a devotion to the ordinary, and a sense of humor and wonder. There is no finish-line, no goal, no method, nothing to accomplish, no one to fix or improve—only this ever-fresh aliveness.

 October 7, 2021:

Groundlessness

Many people in the spiritual and nondual worlds claim to know and offer the ultimate truth about reality, and many claim that it is possible to completely transcend human suffering. Those are seductive promises indeed, to be able to know the whole truth about reality and to be permanently released from all suffering!  

But I find (at age 73) that I know less and less, am certain of less and less, and have not by any means left all human suffering behind. Maybe that means I’m a loser who failed to get the brass ring, but it could mean I’m just someone who is honest enough to say that I really don’t know the Ultimate Truth about reality, and that I still have plenty of human imperfections and don’t always feel blissful.

Moreover, I keep finding out how wrong I was about certain things, or how incomplete or off the mark in some way my understanding was, or how I am still spouting things on occasion that I’m not really sure about as if I knew for sure they were true, or how I’m still hanging on to some consoling security blanket in a subtle (or sometimes not very subtle) new form.

It seems to me that there’s no end to waking up, that it’s a lifelong, always NOW, process that is never finished and always unfolding. And sometimes, being lost is exactly the right place to be.


Response to a comment:

I'm not trying to promote suffering or wallow in it, and I'm all for getting beyond suffering, personally and globally. I've dedicated much of my life to that transformative endeavor. What I'm questioning in this post is those who claim to be permanently free of all suffering and who promise this to others, and those who try to by-pass the difficulties, messiness and uncertainties of life through false certainties, dissociation, denial or turning away.

We should also clarify what we mean by suffering. I tend to distinguish pain (and painful circumstances), which are an inevitable part of life, from suffering, which is what we add on top of the pain, or how we try to deal with the pain or the painful circumstances in unskillful ways. And as I see it, suffering generally involves a sense of being separate and encapsulated, a fractured and dualistic view of what's going on, a caught-up-ness in various beliefs and storylines and in the mirage-world of psychological time and the belief in a substantial world that is "out there." All of this, I would call delusion.

As I see it, the (pathless, always NOW) spiritual path is about seeing through delusion and waking up to our actual direct experience.

I know from my own experience that suffering can end completely in any moment of seeing through the delusion that is creating it and keeping it going, and simultaneously relaxing into this open, boundless, non-personal, aware presence that IS Here-Now. What I don't experience is a permanent, never-ending absence of any and all suffering from that moment on. Perhaps there are rare beings for whom this happens, but I think for most (if not all) of us, delusion reappears. It may show up less often and be seen through more quickly, but it shows up. And for some people, perhaps because of trauma or social challenges or neurological reasons, it may be stickier and more persistent than for others. And certainly, if we think of the world at large, we can see enormous suffering, from which we are not really separate.

That's what I'm trying to express.

Response to another comment:

Thanks for your comment. In response to your question, I would say, all experiences are impermanent—the ones we like and the ones we don't like. And at the root of our troubles is that thought-sense of being a separate, encapsulated (and inevitably deficient) self, and our habitual tendency to become hypnotized by thoughts. As I see it, what we experience in those moments of joy is simply the absence of the me-system and painful thinking. What remains is simple non-personal being. And even when that is painful, we don't suffer over it. But that me-system (or what Eckhart Tolle has called the pain-body) tends to come back. Over time, it may happen less frequently and for shorter duration, and we may become more sensitive to how it happens and what allows it to dissolve, so it moves through more quickly. And we also become more accepting of the fact that it shows up sometimes, that it is simply weather, and we no longer take it personally. And maybe for some rare people, like Eckhart Tolle or Ramana or whoever, it may dissolve more or less completely and permanently—although I suspect even in those cases it still pops up here and there. But all I can work with is my own experience, and comparing myself to others or to some ideal of perfection is a form of suffering. And so, to simply notice when suffering is happening and get curious about it. What is it made out of? What sets it in motion and keeps it going? Does it have to continue right now? And if it seems like it does, what am I getting out of it? Those are some of the questions that arise here, not to think about, but to explore with awareness.

Response to another comment:

Maybe we're all in this boat together, all of us at once fully human and fully transpersonal, at once perfect and imperfect, each of us in exactly the right place in each moment, all of us a movement of the totality, like the waves of the ocean. How could we ever rank the waves? As the great Zen Master Dogen once said, "No creature ever comes short of its own completeness. Wherever it stands, it does not fail to cover the ground."


October 11, 2021:

My Story of Trauma, Rage and Healing

I’ve been watching the SAND event on “The Wisdom of Trauma” this past week, and it has been very powerful and deeply transformative, both in terms of better understanding my own life and the world situation, and also in terms of inspiring me to open in new ways. For one thing, it has moved me to finish and make public a piece that I’ve been working on for years. This piece was originally a chapter in an early draft of my last book, a chapter that ended up on the cutting room floor, and it has gone through many subsequent revisions. It’s my own story of early trauma combined with privilege and good fortune, leading to my becoming an abuser with uncontrollable rage, and my ongoing healing journey:

I was blessed with wonderful parents who loved me, and I had an overwhelmingly happy and privileged childhood. But I also had quite a bit of serious early trauma, some pre-natal, some very early pre-verbal, and some in early childhood involving reactions to my having one arm and also including both a traumatizing hospitalization and something invasive and sexual in nature. And then, growing up in the 1950s, in a very different world than we have now, I had the pain of gradually realizing I was gay and gender nonconforming in a world where such things were still illegal, hidden away, considered sinful, and classified as forms of mental illness. I had the additional pain of having one arm and feeling disfigured in a world where disability was seen much more negatively than it is today. I felt that I was fundamentally imperfect, wrong, alone, and even repulsive—and this imprinted on me in deep and lasting ways.

Like many people in our society, I am a mix of entitlement and privilege, on the one hand, along with oppression and trauma on the other. I’m white, and I grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago where our neighbors were bankers, corporate lawyers, CEOs, and several people who got cabinet positions in the White House. My father, by contrast, owned and operated a small printing company in downtown Chicago with one employee. My dad was on his feet all day, running those old printing presses himself, breathing in all the toxic chemicals that no one knew much about back then. He never took a single vacation. We weren’t nearly as wealthy as our neighbors, but we had a comfortable home in a lovely neighborhood, food on the table, great schools, and my college education was fully paid for by my parents. As an only child, and particularly as a girl with a disability, I often got my way, received abundant gifts, and thus grew up with an (unconscious) sense of entitlement alongside my deep sense of deficiency. It was a strange mix.

When I got to college in 1966 and started drinking heavily, I was often enraged and violent. I came out as a lesbian in my late teens, in those days before Stonewall, and was navigating my first intimate relationship with a woman in total secrecy. My lover and I were both sleeping with men at times as well, and we even got into a painful 3-way with my high school boyfriend, all of which brought up enormous jealousy and insecurity. The horrors of the Vietnam war were the backdrop to all of this, along with abundant drugs and alcohol, and the tumultuous social upheavals that were occurring in America and around the world at that time. I had no tools or skills for working with difficult emotions, dealing with trauma, or navigating these complex relationships and upheavals.

The trauma manifested in me most obviously as self-injury and violent rages. I burned myself with cigarettes, bit my fingers until they had large bloody wounds, drank and smoked and took drugs excessively. I punched and kicked holes in walls. I was sometimes abusive—emotionally, verbally and physically—to those I loved. I hit people, bit them, yelled at them, threw drinks in their faces, hurt them, frightened them—abused them basically. I was (idiotically) put on anti-seizure medication as a college student in order to cure my rage.

On my last drunken binge in 1973, I destroyed a whole house where I was living with my then lover, a junky prostitute who was also a sociopath—not a very healthy relationship, as you can imagine. During an argument, I threw her TV through the window, smashed all the furniture, swung a fire poker at her head (luckily missed), threw a knife at two other friends next door (again, luckily missed), swallowed a bottle of pills (thankfully, lived), and wound up several days later in the hospital having punched a bartender and then split open my head in a bad fall.

Through sheer grace, shortly after that, and seemingly quite by chance, I met a wonderful lesbian therapist whom I could see free of charge at a community mental health center in San Francisco. My life began to turn around. I began a healing journey that, over the next 5 decades, has included many forms of psychotherapy (including gestalt, transactional analysis, radical and feminist therapy, primal therapy, somatic therapy), various forms of somatic awareness work, years of meditation and spiritual work including Buddhism, Advaita and radial nonduality, martial arts, political activism, addiction recovery work, and more. It is, as I’ve discovered, a lifelong, never-ending, always NOW journey of transformation.

You’d think that, after all the things I had done in my drunken years, I would realize how abusive and hurtful I had been. And to some degree, I certainly did. But in an important way, I didn’t really grok it. Maybe absorbing it fully back then when I was newly sober would have drowned me in guilt and shame. In any case, I was shocked when my first boyfriend told me many years later, when we were in our 50s, that he regarded me as an abuser.

And then my first lover from college, whom I was with as she was dying when we were both in our 60s, told me in the months before she died that she’d had nightmares about me over the years. She said that back when we were lovers and I was drunk, I once hit her on the back with a chair and slammed her into a wall. I have no memory of this—I was often in black-outs when drunk. It was heartbreaking to hear that I had done this, and that I had given her a lifetime of nightmares.

It literally took decades, and these sobering words from two of the many people I had hurt, for me to really get how scary, hurtful and abusive I had been. Why was I so clueless? Because my internal experience in all these events was that I was the victim. In those moments of rage, I felt helpless, powerless, misunderstood, deeply hurt, unseen, threatened, victimized, betrayed, abandoned, wronged, lost, devastated and broken. I was lashing out like a wounded animal fighting to survive. I wanted to get the pain out of me. I felt powerless, not powerful, so I had no sense of how scary I was to others. I felt abused. And under the rage, I now realize there was tremendous fear and grief as well, fear and grief that I had completely buried—and, of course, there was unresolved trauma.

As a result of my own experiences as an abuser, I can totally get why OJ Simpson, after allegedly brutally killing and nearly decapitating his ex-wife Nicole with a knife, apparently said he felt like an abused husband, as outrageous as that seems. That’s exactly how I felt, that I was the victim. And I’m guessing that’s probably how many men feel who do terrible things like beating their wives or raping women.

Luckily, by sheer grace, I did not kill or seriously physically injure anyone, or kill myself, but I so easily could have done either or both. Over the years, thanks to sobriety, therapy and spiritual work, my anger comes less often and less intensely and, at least much of the time, I am able now to deal with it more skillfully when it does come. I haven’t hit anyone or been physically violent since I sobered up back in the early 1970s. But I did behave quite abusively a number of times in my early sobriety. And even in recent years, I’ve been emotionally or verbally abusive at times when my anger has boiled over. My anger has even spilled out at times on Facebook when I have been triggered by someone’s comment or by world events. The word “abusive" has been used more than once to describe my behavior. Sometimes my anger comes up so strongly that I am unable to take a time out—and it is painful to see the ways I can still be hurtful to people when that happens.

It would be easy to be drowning in shame, guilt and regret, but I can see that my rage and anger is a force of nature that is sometimes completely out of my control. In my drunken years, I didn’t have the insight, the skills or the sobriety to work with any of it in a constructive way. And even now, when I do have considerable insight and many skills in that regard, I can still find myself exploding at times—not in the extreme ways I did back then, but I can still snap, and when that happens, it feels out of control and choiceless at that moment. At other times, when anger rises up in me now, there is an apparent choice, and I can pause and feel the anger and what’s under it and not react. But sometimes, that possibility just isn’t accessible. It’s like my fingerbiting compulsion, which still persists—sometimes I can stop, sometimes I can’t. Both of these compulsive behaviors come less frequently, happen less severely, and pass more quickly—but I can’t say that either of them is completely gone.

My last therapist, to my surprise, regarded my anger as a positive force—it was my attempt to protect myself, she pointed out, and it was full of my aliveness and will to live. There was tremendous energy and power in it. Obviously, that doesn't mean she thought being hurtful and abusive was a good way to manifest it, but she was clarifying that it had positive aspects and that we don’t want to get rid of those—we just want to find other ways to work with it. Not pathologizing what I had long regarded as a "bad," “destructive,” “unacceptable,” “shameful” part of me was very healing. That wounded-violent-abusive part of me needs love, not condemnation, shaming and hatred. And, of course, this is equally true of OJ and all the people we each find it so easy to hate.

I’m not saying that abusive actions are okay, or that what I did was okay, or that rapists and murders should be turned loose on society, but is hating and shaming and punishing people the answer, does it break the cycle of abuse and pain?

We live in a culture that thinks in very black and white terms, a culture that assumes we are all acting out of free will and freely choosing to do everything we do. Our response to abuse is most often to shame the abuser, to punish them, to hate them, to tear them down—to meet abuse with abuse. We do this to criminals, locking them in abusive prisons, and in the present divisive political climate, it often seems that there is a kind of lynch mob mentality on both the left and the right. We often seem to lack compassion for perpetrators or for those we see as wrong or as threatening to our well-being.

What drives others and ourselves to harmful behaviors? What is the pain that gives rise to painful behaviors? Must we meet abuse with abuse? Does that really help, does it break the cycle or keep it going? When we have been abusive or hurtful, does being abused in turn help us to change, or is love what actually changes us? Love doesn’t mean tolerating abuse or not naming it clearly and putting a stop to it. It simply means seeing more deeply—seeing the whole picture.

My own history of abusive behavior gives me compassion for others who do terrible things. Of course, I don’t always feel compassionate or manifest compassion. Sometimes I am filled with anger and hate, and sometime I still do or say things I regret. When that happens, I do my best afterwards to repair the damage and to not get caught up in self-hatred. It’s a lifelong journey, this healing work, healing ourselves and healing the world.

This is my prayer: May we forgive ourselves and each other when we fall short, and may we all have the courage, faith and resolve to get up again and keep going, to once again ask the deeper questions and dare to touch that vulnerable place inside, to open the heart. May we have the courage to feel the human pain we all share. At the very heart of that pain is a jewel beyond all price. It is the bottomless presence at the heart of everything and the boundless awareness beholding it all, and it is the love that is trying to come forth even in the most broken and unskillful ways, the basic goodness of this aliveness that we are. Once we have discovered this jewel, this unconditional love, our work is in opening to it again and again, cultivating a growing faith in it and a faithfulness to it, and forgiving ourselves and others when we fail.


October 14, 2021:

There is no ‘wrong’ experience. However it is showing up or not showing up, it is always “just this” – the undeniable bare actuality prior to any interpretation or storyline. There is no ‘you’ or ‘me’ apart from present experiencing to get it wrong, and there is no ‘you’ or ‘me’ who needs to find, attain, embody or experience this in some better, different way. Sometimes this no-thing-ness takes shape as the apparent world of infinitely diverse forms, including you and me and the ten thousand things, but these apparent forms never actually have the solid, substantial, persisting, separate reality that we think they do. Sometimes this no-thing-ness returns to Zero or pure potentiality, the germinal dark in which nothing perceivable or conceivable remains and even the first impersonal sense of being present and aware is absent. When the appearance disappears, no one is leftover to miss it or to worry about whether it will start up again.


October 15, 2021:

Consciousness? Awareness? Thought?

What follows is a short excerpt from my second book, Awake in the Heartland. It recounts an exchange I had with my friend and teacher Toni Packer. Her work was very much about being present and aware and seeing through the mirage-like creations of thought, such as the separate self with free will, along with the many storylines that thought generates about that phantom self and the world. Toni was always about pointing out the difference between thought and the living reality it pretends to represent, and she was very good at noticing when someone was caught up in a purely conceptual conundrum, such as, “What happens to me after I die?” This particular exchange isn’t about death, however. It’s about consciousness and awareness. Here’s my exchange with Toni, from Awake in the Heartland:

I’m increasingly discovering how much of life happens outside conscious
awareness, and how thought may be more like after-thought than anything causative.  I wonder now if insight into thought is as essential or as central to waking up as I have believed it to be. I’m also increasingly “aware” of how many different ways the words "consciousness" and "awareness" get used, perhaps because no one is really at all sure what they mean or what they are!  They may turn out to be something like "ether" in the old science!

Toni responds: “Yes, yes, ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ are like the ether of old science—wonderful metaphor. In that case, all concepts are, aren't they?”

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


And from Darryl Bailey:

“People desperately want to describe existence and, historically, they speak of matter, energy, consciousness, spirit, oneness, and mystery. But descriptions are merely limited interpretations. All of them. They can never tell us what life actually is.”

--Darryl Bailey, from Dismantling the Fantasy: An Invitation to the Fullness of Life


October 16, 2021:

What is this whole happening that we call life or the universe? What am I?

These are perennial questions that arise in the human mind. Functionally, on a practical level, it is the job of the mind to figure out where I am and what’s happening—what’s safe and what’s dangerous. This is a basic survival function of the organism, and on a practical level, it works quite well. Thought can conceptualize and map out the living actuality in such a way that we can navigate and do what we need to do.

But when thought goes to work on these bigger, more abstract questions, it tends to create more and more layers of delusion and confusion. The questions themselves involve thought-generated conceptual abstractions such as, “me,” “the universe,” “life,” “I,” “person,” “body,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “awareness,” “totality,” and so on. These are all abstract ideas in which some aspect of the living actuality has been carved out of the whole and reified into an apparently separate “thing.” When we look carefully, we discover that none of the “things” that thought labels can actually be separated out from everything else or pinned down in any stable and persisting way. None of them, not even chairs and tables, have the solid, substantial, persisting, independent existence that the labels suggest.

At the same time, it would be silly to deny the apparent reality of chairs and tables and you and me. But we can’t actually get hold of any of these apparent “things.” We can’t really say that what shows up here is something, and at the same time, we can’t say it’s nothing either. THIS simply can’t be contained in any conceptual formulation. Permanent, impermanent, flowing, flashing, immovable, changing, unchanging, ever-present, ever-changing, self, no-self, oneness, multiplicity—none of these descriptions completely holds up under careful examination. Reality itself is simply impossible to capture in concepts and words.

Many of these abstract formulations are useful in everyday life—we can’t discard them. But when we mistake mental maps for the living territory itself, we end up confused and suffering. When we try to eat the menu instead of the meal, we end up malnourished. This always sounds so obvious, but in our actual experience, it gets very subtle and nuanced, and it’s remarkably easy to be fooled because the maps are so ubiquitous and so easily and commonly mistaken for life itself.

When we’re talking about chairs and tables, we don’t tend to get into too many problems. But when we start talking about “awareness” or “consciousness” or “the self” or “me,” what’s being referred to is much less concrete, in some cases non-existent, and different speakers may mean entirely different things by such words, leading to more confusion and misunderstanding. And when we ask such questions as, “What is the meaning of life?” or “What happens to me after I die?”, we are talking about totally abstract or imaginary things, including “meaning,” “me,” “after death,” and future time. But we tend to become completely hypnotized and bamboozled by these concepts and thus habitually give their apparent referents a reality they don’t actually have. Thus, these seem like meaningful and urgent questions, and our tendency is to think and think and think about them, and/or rush around to hear what various spiritual authorities think about them.

On the spiritual search, we get easily tangled up in the mirage-world of ideas, trying to make sense of everything in our search for security, comfort, control, permanence, and lasting satisfaction. We try to secure an advantage for this imaginary “me” who seems to be at the center of “my” experience by doing a variety of things. Such things might include trying to identify as boundless impersonal awareness rather than as a separate bodymind. Suddenly there is “me” trying to identify as “awareness” and not as this “body” or this “mind.” This effort often feels like trying to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps.

But all the while, through all this thinking and rushing around and tugging at our own bootstraps, life is effortlessly presenting itself. Hearing happens, seeing happens, awaring happens, hunger happens, eating happens, thinking happens, breathing happens, and so on. The actuality isn’t divided up into those neat separate categories, of course—the actuality is boundaryless, seamless, unresolvable and fluid. And it all happens by itself, even our apparent efforts and choices, even conceptual mapping, even rushing and tugging and seeking and thinking, even confusion and delusion. None of it is personal, all of it is empty of substance, no word-label is ever the thing it names, no “thing” is ever really a “thing” because nothing holds still, and because nothing can be pulled out of the whole, including a so-called “person” or a “me.” That “me” is a mirage. It has never really existed. So how can it be eliminated?

Awakening, as I see it, isn’t really about finding something or getting rid of something. It’s more like waking up from this conceptual bamboozlement, not once and for all, but here and now.

Who or what wakes up? As soon as we try to answer that question, we fall into confusion. The question itself seems to presume that it must have an answer, that by looking, we will find something or someone that is sometimes asleep and sometimes awake, some essential substance perhaps, or an observer-controller apart from the observed, or an awareness that stands apart from what appears. But what we actually find is nothing—and at the same time, everything!

This present appearance is undeniable. What is it? We can’t say!  THIS simply can’t be pinned down in any dualistic and exclusionary category such as existence or non-existence, real or unreal, permanent or impermanent, meaningful or meaningless. Nothing we say or think can capture the immediacy of what is. THIS here and now is obvious, undeniable and unavoidable. It cannot be doubted. What can be doubted are the interpretations of it. But even the interpretations are nothing other than THIS showing up as interpretations.

Truly, there is no way to not be this. There is nothing that needs to happen or not happen. There is no one apart from THIS to get it or lose it. There is only this.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021--

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!

back to “outpourings“ menu