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Blog #16

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page from 4/23/22-6/16/22:

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

April 23, 2022:

Not Holding on to Anything

Out of some unfathomable, formless, unnamable, ungraspable, inconceivable intelligence-energy-potentiality, the seemingly solid and coherent movie of waking life magically appears. For the newborn, it probably isn’t solid and coherent at all. But what comes to be regarded as a substantial, coherent, persisting, objectively existing material world “out there” that “I” was born into and am now looking out at—this present experiencing—is actually more like a Rorschach blot in disappearing ink. This becomes increasingly obvious the more closely we tune into the living actuality of present experiencing rather than focusing attention on our conceptual maps and learned ideas about it.

We can’t ignore or dismiss all of these learned ideas and conceptual maps, many of which allow us to function within the play of everyday human life. But we can discover that many of these ideas and beliefs actually make functioning more difficult, and that even the functionally useful ones are only conjectures and over-simplified abstractions of an ineffable actuality. That realization helps us to loosen our grip on apparent certainties and approach things more openly, not getting so easily fixated or stuck on any position and recognizing that our current views are approximations at best.

This loosening the grip of certainty doesn’t come easily to humans. There seems to be a deep, primal urge to understand, to grasp, to control. In its more functional forms, this is a survival instinct that serves us well, but in many ways, for human beings in our increasingly complex and ever-more abstracted contexts, it becomes a source of endless frustration, confusion and disappointment. We want to nail down what this whole happening is, why it’s here, why we’re here, what we are, what the purpose of it all is, what happens to “me” after death, and so on. And, of course, a host of answers are provided by religion, philosophy, science and various other perspectives.

But we can notice that all the answers can be doubted. We can’t really get outside of this happening to look at it objectively. And even when we seem to be outside of something looking at it objectively, science has now discovered that the very act of observing influences and in some sense creates what is observed, so the appearance that “we” are outside of any “it” isn’t really accurate. All the answers turn out to be only conjectures and over-simplified abstractions of an ineffable and indivisible actuality.

But we don’t like uncertainty. We desperately want to know what this life IS, and we want to believe it is fundamentally benevolent and positive. We want to feel secure. And religion and spirituality are happy to supply comforting ideas and beliefs. We are told by supposedly awakened beings that this is all primordial awareness or pure consciousness or unconditional love or radiant presence or God or the Self or Brahman or the Tao or Unicity, and these labels give us a sense that we’ve nailed something down. We’re told that fundamentally, all is well, that the totality is fundamentally good, and that feels comforting.

And, for sure, it is possible to have deep experiences of unity, Oneness, unconditional love and the fundamental okay-ness and perfection of everything. But as soon as we start carving these experiences out of the whole range of experiences, putting them into words and giving them names, they become increasingly abstract and untrue. Before long, they turn into beliefs, and then into dogmas, and eventually into doubts.

But if we drop ALL the labels for whatever-this-is, and ALL the ideas about what it is and what we are, and if we relax into simply BEING this present experiencing here and now, just as it is—we may find that in this open groundlessness, in holding on to nothing at all, there is a wonderful freedom and joy.

Maybe it’s safer and more accurate to say simply that there may be a relieving absence of the thought-generated angst of trying to figure everything out and get a grip. But maybe even that is saying too much. Because saying anything at all about possible results is always potentially dangerous in that it can so easily trigger the whole imaginary problem of thinking that this isn’t it, that something more (or less) needs to happen, that something needs to be clarified, figured out or more fully experienced—that “I” am in some way lacking and not fully “there” yet. And, of course, ALL of that is right back to the old habitual move of trying to control and grasp and understand and “get” some kind of solution. So in dropping all the labels, ideas and beliefs, we also need to drop any expectation of results.

And in letting ALL of that go, what has been found here, again and again, is that when the grasping mind relaxes and stops trying to understand or “get” this, or have any particular experience, or feel any particular way—when there is just being here as present experiencing, however it is showing up, the imaginary problem dissolves and there is the utter simplicity of just THIS: the sounds of traffic, the taste of tea, dewdrops sparkling on the grass, breathing, and the spaciousness, luminosity and aliveness that permeates it all.

Of course, in hearing that, the problem-solving mind that identifies as a deficient self instantly wants to know how to make that relaxing and letting go happen. So if that thought pops up, as it may, is it possible simply to SEE that thought for what it is—an old habitual thought with no actual veracity or power? There is no entity here who can “do” relaxing any more than we can “do” falling asleep. But in simply SEEING and becoming aware of the thought-patterns and bodily sensations that create the tension (and the feelings of deficiency and lack), that contracted energy can relax on its own and those old thoughts can lose their believability.

There are meta-thoughts as well, thoughts about the thoughts, thoughts that tell us that this other thought, or the tension we feel, is unenlightened and wrong, that it’s “my” problem, that it needs to dissolve in order for “me” to be okay, and so on. And there are those thoughts that try to evaluate whether “I” am experiencing the “spaciousness and luminosity” that someone else described. Can ALL those thoughts be seen as simply old habitual thought-patterns and not as reliable sources of true information? It may be discovered that nothing needs to dissolve for present experiencing to be just as it is, however it is. Because any thought about how to DO this is predicated on the belief in future time, and what is being pointed to is always exactly right now, in the recognition that THIS is always already fully accomplished.

THIS is at once ungraspable and inconceivable, and yet utterly obvious and unavoidable. It is ever-changing and yet ever-present, right here, right now, never hidden in any way. It is the sound of the fan, the taste of food, the sensations of breathing, the smell of rain-drenched earth, the coo-coo-coo of the mourning dove, the red of the blossoms, the warmth of the sun, the ache of grief, the release of laughter, the darkness of deep sleep, the sound of the alarm clock, the reassembling of the apparently coherent movie, the thought-bubbles popping up and dissolving, the sensations of walking, the sounds of the shower, the feel of water on skin, the feelings of tension and the feelings of relaxation, the moments of delusion and the moments of clarity—the whole amazing dance of whatever-this-is doing what it does.

And for the record, I’m not saying we shouldn’t use all those words like God, awareness, Consciousness, the Self, etc.—I often use them myself, and they can be beautiful and evocative pointers—but when we find ourselves tangled up in confusion and doubt over them, or believing in them (and gripping them tightly) as Truth Itself, then it can be very freeing to drop them all and to simply BE here as what remains, without trying to grasp or understand THIS in any way whatsoever.

April 29, 2022:

Finding God in Unexpected Places

On Tuesday, I had my long-dreaded, long-postponed colonoscopy / sigmoidoscopy combo. I’ve had several sigmoidoscopies since my surgery and treatment 4 years ago for a stage 3 anal cancer. But this was the first colonoscopy since the one they did the day after they found the tumor on a rectal exam back in late 2017. I’d had many colonoscopies of the normal kind in the years leading up to that. But when you have an ostomy, they provide you with a special ostomy bag for the colonoscopy prep that is absurdly gigantic, and when you do the laxative prep the night before the procedure, the poop gushes out of the stoma (the end of your intestine that has been re-routed to come out on your belly and empty into a bag). The whole prospect of having to apply this strange, unfamiliar bag, not knowing if I could get it on successfully one-handed, followed by a night of poop gushing out of Otto (as I call my stoma), not knowing if the bag would stay attached or if I’d be covered in poop, had all sounded so nightmarish and terrifying to me that I had put it off for 2 years.

As is so often the case with the things that terrify us, the prep was a breeze compared to what I was expecting (admittedly a low bar)—but actually, it was a rather marvelous night. It had been much anxiety, procrastination and worry for a very long time over nothing. A good lesson in Mark Twain’s famous line: I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, and some of them actually happened.

It did entail fasting for 2 days before the prep, and then a two-stage prep that involved sitting in front of the toilet for 8 hours the night before the procedure emptying the giant bag over and over and getting almost no sleep—and then the anesthesia and the procedure itself the next day (I woke up twice during the procedure, and went back down again both times)—so I am still rather tired and wiped out, but basically fine. While sitting there at the toilet being totally cleaned out, I was awash in simple Presence and saw God everywhere. It was actually a profoundly deep time.

And the news was the best possible. Colon, anus, rectum all clean—no sign of cancer recurrence and no polyps. And this is the last time I need to do this. Hallelujah!

The whole thing—from the fasting, to the mystical night at the toilet seeing God shining in the toilet paper holder and in the swirls of liquid in the poop-stained bag, to the journey in and out of conscious experiencing on Propofol (the wonderful anesthesia that I love)—all seems to have jolted me in some mysterious way into a deeper place of Silence and Presence and Simplicity and Gratitude.

Leaving me once again amazed by how we humans, myself included, can manage to turn what is so simple and obvious and totally available into something complex and seemingly absent or not quite here yet, and how we can endlessly look to the future for what is right here in our own being, and how we can get so easily lost in our opinions and ideas and so easily irritated when things aren’t going as we think they should, and how we can be so terrified of imaginary problems. And all the while, GOD (the Beloved, the Promised Land, the Home we seek) is nowhere other than HERE-NOW in this one bottomless moment that we never leave, this simple Presence that we are and that everything is—this luminous aliveness shining forth everywhere in everything, this singular “I” to which we all refer prior to name and form, this whole marvelous happening, including the moments of apparently being lost and the delight in being found, again and again, right here in plain sight.

May 5, 2022:

Waking up boils down to something very, very simple—being Here-Now, present and aware. In one sense, we can’t not be here, present and aware, as this is the very nature of reality. But attention is often absorbed in the dream-world of thoughts, stories, ideas and beliefs—a world in which we seem to be a separate encapsulated self, caught up in a drama of fear and desire, past and future. This hypnotic entrancement in an illusory world is the source of our human suffering, confusion, conflict, unease, and doubt. This mental dream world is very seductive, much like an addiction, but also like an addiction, it is ultimately unsatisfying and painful, and we long to wake up, to let go, to relax.

Waking up can only happen Now. And it doesn’t mean we never get lost again. But over time, we begin to see more and more clearly how and in what ways attention is pulled into the dream-world, and as that clarifies, the seductive and hypnotic grip begins to lessen. It may show up again and again for as long as we live, but what matters is not being free always or forever but NOW.

In simple awake presence, we discover the beauty in what is most ordinary, and we begin to SEE directly the nature of this living reality—the fluidity, the present-ness, the wholeness, the boundlessness, the aliveness—and that seeing informs and acts on us. Instead of trying to mentally figure it all out, we let go of this efforting and relax into the simplicity of BEING this one bottomless moment, just as it is.

May 6, 2022:

Words divide a seamless actuality into many different seemingly solid and independent pieces. Hypnotized by words, we may get stuck on the binary idea that there is no place for duality in nonduality, or we may be caught up in believing that something conceptual, such as “free will” or “the self” or “time,” is either “real” or “unreal.” But what are we actually talking about? Reality itself is all-inclusive and inconceivable.

Everything is equally this singular awaring Presence Here-Now, whether it appears as me or you, dog shit or roses, what we call “good” or what we call “evil,” organic or inorganic, mind or matter—it is ALL this indivisible, seamless singularity. But singularity doesn’t mean uniformity. In fact, it is infinitely varied and diverse. And yet, as with the waves in the ocean, we can never actually find any solid boundaries, or pull any apparent “thing” out of the whole, or have one half of a polarity without the other. It all goes together—it all belongs.

And it INCLUDES the undeniable capacity to distinguish apples from oranges and suffering from joy—to feel the difference between action that comes out of divisive, ego-centered thought, and action that emerges from awake presence and wholeness—and there is a naturally arising interest in finding ways of waking up and alleviating suffering. ALL of this is something this wholeness is doing.

This wholeness, showing up as me and you, can discover the palpable difference between being lost in painful thoughts and being fully present to the sensory-energetic immediacy of this moment, the palpable difference between being caught up in some story about “me” and being awake to (and as) the spaciousness and openness of Presence itself. AND, paradoxically, we can also recognize that Presence is equally present as the present-ness of those painful thoughts and hurtful behaviors, that it is ALL one singularity in which all the waves are equally water and equally ocean, even as we can distinguish one from another and different qualities in each.

So there is a place for BOTH a pathless path of “being here now” AND the recognition that “all there is, is Here-Now Being.” There is a place for identifying and correcting mistakes, for practicing and refining our skills at something, AND for recognizing that even the apparent failures and mistakes are equally expressions or appearances of one undivided whole that cannot be pulled apart.

BOTH of these discoveries or realizations are aspects of what has been called awakening or liberation. To get stuck exclusively in either one of them to the exclusion of the other is to miss half the Truth. And yet, paradoxically, there is no way to actually miss the Truth since there is nothing else here except this one indivisible reality. A reality that paradoxically must include apparent division and duality and the capacity for discernment, along with the potential for transformation. It ALL belongs.

There is a place for BOTH being a particular unique individual person AND for knowing ourselves as the undivided boundlessness of this awaring Presence that has no outside or inside, no beginning or end, no center or periphery. We are BOTH the ocean and a particular wave.

There is a place for cultivating response-ability and exercising our ability, as Presence itself, to choose wisely, to discern what is healthy and wholesome and beneficial and what is painful and hurtful, and to choose presence over being lost in the dream-world. AND there is a place for recognizing that sometimes this ability to choose is absent, and that all apparent choices are a movement of the whole, and that there are ultimately no mistakes. Again, it ALL belongs. And no conceptual formulation, however elegant, can capture the living actuality.

So can we be aware of our tendency to turn the aliveness that is experientially realized into dead formulas and beliefs, to mentally freeze and concretize the living reality into seemingly solid positions, assertions and beliefs? Once we do that, we begin to argue over whether this is mind or matter, or whether there is or isn’t free will, or whether there is or isn’t a person here, or whether practices are helpful or only obstructions. But what are we actually talking about? Can we stop and be still and wonder? It gets subtler and subtler, the ways we divide things up and mistake our conceptual maps for the utterly inconceivable living actuality, a living reality which of course includes conceptualizing and mapping. So it’s not about throwing out the maps or trying to banish imagination and thinking—but simply SEEING when these are useful and when they become forms of unnecessary suffering.

May 8, 2022:

Early Summer Newsletter

It is raining this morning as I write this, a gratuitous blessing. The new green leaves are soaking it up. Rain drops are sparkling with light. Delicate sounds invite stillness and open listening.

The deepest joy comes from what is simplest and most immediate—it comes from the aliveness of Presence Itself. The more deeply we feel into this presence that we are and that everything is, the more it reveals infinitely subtle dimensions. This Presence, this immovable Here-Now-ness, is the common factor in every different experience. It is the immediacy, the vibrancy, the suchness, the aliveness, the radiance, the heart, the beingness, the IS-ness of what is.

Our attention is often absorbed in the world of thinking, the world of storylines—but in any moment of coming to our senses and waking up to presence itself, something shifts. There is a spaciousness, an openness, a stillness, a silence that is deep and profound. We see beauty everywhere. There is Love. Our problems no longer seem problematic. We find a quiet joy in simply being alive, being present. There is no longer a feeling of being separate or encapsulated, deficient or needy, worried about the future or fretting over the past. Everything is us, and we are everything, and all of it is no-thing that can be grasped, for this aliveness is marvelously empty of solidity or fixed form. There is space for everything to be exactly as it is, and space for the new and unexpected to arise. As a person in the play of life—a particular waving movement of the Great Ocean of Being—we are free to be exactly as we are—to be truly and authentically ourselves.

Wishing you all a wonderful summer, or if you’re on the other side of the spinning blue ball, a wonderful winter. With Love, joan

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May 10, 2022:

What does no-self and no-choice mean?

It doesn’t mean the person magically disappears in every sense never to show up again, or that there is no longer a bodymind organism with a personality and a functional sense of boundaries as needed. It doesn’t mean there isn’t the (choiceless) appearance of making choices and the need to apparently make all kinds of decisions in everyday life, nor does it negate the possibility of learning new skills and improving old ones. It doesn’t mean we are robots being pushed around by an alien universe. It doesn’t mean that we should “do nothing,” or that we should never express preferences or take initiative or speak in the first person or use the active voice or share parts of our personal story or care about our children and our dog and our friends or deny the existence of our personal life. It doesn’t mean not being seen (or not seeing others) as precious and unique beings. It doesn’t mean being dissociated, unfeeling, unemotional or dead. It doesn’t mean not living a full human life.

But who or what does all “my” thinking, feeling, choosing, acting and living? How do choices and decisions actually happen? And what exactly is a body, or a mind, or a person? How solid or substantial are these apparent forms that seem to exist and persist over time?

These questions invite us to discover what can never really be put into words or concepts, although words can certainly be used to describe or point to it. These are questions to explore directly, not by thinking about them or believing what anyone else says about these things, but by looking and listening and seeing and discovering for ourselves.

These questions are of a different nature than the questions posed to us in school. Meditative or contemplative questions are not looking for answers, although we can easily supply answers with the thinking mind. If we've been around the spiritual scene for any time at all, we probably know all the "spiritually correct" answers. What am I? "Pure Consciousness," we might think, or “radiant presence.” Or (if we haven't read very many spiritual books yet), we might say, "me," or give our name. Or (another "advanced" answer) we might say, "Nothing at all." Or, "empty space." Or, "The One Self." If we look at our computer and ask, What is it? We might say, "My computer," or we might be more sophisticated and say, "energy," or "consciousness," or "Oneness," or "emptiness" or “unform” or “Presence.” But notice right now that these are all words. Labels. Yes, they may be pointing to something that is not a word and not a concept. But the words themselves are not that to which they point.

It's relatively easy to learn the right answers, the right words – to talk the talk. But these questions are inviting something else entirely. They are inviting us to fall into the open space of not knowing. In the words of Steven Batchelor: “The penetration of this mystery requires that one not foreclose it by substituting an answer, be it a metaphysical proposition or a religious belief. One has to learn how to suspend the habit of reaching for a word or phrase with which to fill the emptiness opened by the question.” That emptiness, openness, groundlessness is where the aliveness is. The menu does not satisfy hunger.

So, in that spirit of open inquiry, we might look to see what we are referring to when we use the word “I”. Not by thinking about it, but by looking and feeling into it with awareness. On one level, in everyday life, the word “I” is often referring to ourselves as a person with a name, age, gender, life story, and so on. And that level has its reality and cannot be dismissed. But these are all things that have been learned. They rely on thought and memory. They are all over-simplified conceptual abstractions. As a newborn, we had no idea about being someone with a name, a gender, an age, a social class, a race, a nationality or any of that.

So, if we don’t refer to thought, memory or second-hand information, and we look to see what we refer to as “I” more deeply and fundamentally than any of that, it may be discovered that we are referring simply to the sense of being present, being Here-Now—not as a particular somebody, but as this boundless, seamless, unencapsulated aware presence.

This awareness or presence is no-thing we can grasp or see as an object. It is unlocatable: nowhere in particular and everywhere. There is nowhere in our experience where it is not, and nothing outside of it. If we look to see whether any boundary can be found between this awaring presence and everything that appears, we may discover it is all one whole seamless happening: awaring presence and present experiencing, the ever-changing appearance and the immovable aware presence (the Here-Now) that is ever-present.

Knowing ourselves as this all-inclusive, unbound vastness, we can play freely as the character in the movie of waking life, free from the burden of taking this role too seriously, free from imagining that we could actually get it wrong and screw up the whole universe. We can enjoy the play, as a play, and play in it playfully, playing our particular part with abandon. If anything, we are more alive, not less alive. We see the light everywhere, in everything. We’re not in any way dissociated, but we’re not lost in the storylines either or in the belief that we are a separate, encapsulated fragment.

Presence is unconditional love—it allows everything to be as it is, holds on to nothing, and sees beauty everywhere. It is total intimacy—no separation, no other. And at the same time, aware presence is not hypnotized by the mental overlay. It is free from the mental plotlines, free from beliefs. Thoughts will still bubble up, but they pass through without turning into full-blown movies.

If we watch as thoughts bubble up, we may discover that no author or thinker of our thoughts can actually be found. Are we in control of the thoughts that arise? Do we know what our next thought will be? Even if we seem to be "choosing" to think positive thoughts, from where does the urge and the intention and the ability to do this arise? Does it always work?

As we go about our daily activities, we might begin to actually watch, very closely, as choices and decisions and actions happen. If we’re making a decision, we might notice the back and forth thoughts that pop up making a case for this direction or that direction. Is there actually a “me” authoring these thoughts, or is that “me” simply another thought, a mental image, an idea? And can we make the decisive moment, when one side finally wins out, happen any sooner than it does? Investigate all of this not by thinking about it, but by giving it careful open attention with awareness.

It may be discovered that decisions happen and that we cannot pin down exactly how they occur or what sets them in motion. We have stories about "free will" and "determinism," but in the end, these are only conceptual models. Like the pictures in an anatomy book, they can never capture the fluidity and messiness of life itself.

This kind of meditative inquiry begins with letting all our answers and beliefs go, and not knowing what we'll find, always being open to the possibility of seeing something entirely new and unexpected.

Waking up is about seeing through the imaginary problems (the misconceptions) at the root of our suffering and confusion—not once and for all, but moment by moment, NOW. Any answer or solution that we pick up and stick to is a new problem. Inquiry dissolves all the answers.

May 14, 2022:

Exploring the Fundamental Tension in the Bodymind

I’ve found it interesting to notice and get curious about the undercurrent of restlessness or dissatisfaction that shows up sometimes in my experience and I suspect in that of most other human beings as well. We may find that this is sometimes quite strong and overt, and at other times, it is a very subtle, barely detectible undercurrent—a slight tension in the bodymind that is perhaps almost always there to some subtle degree, even in moments of pleasure.

It often manifests as the attempt to manipulate, control, change or understand experience. It might show up for some as an effort to identify as awareness and not as a bodymind, or as an effort to be mindful (to “be here now”) all the time. It might be the sense that something needs to happen, shift, clarify, drop away or be found. It might be a feeling that we can’t stand being here in this mind or this body or this situation. It emerges from a sense of separation—a sense of fundamental lack, of not being okay, of something missing or something frightening or threatening.

Nisargadatta described consciousness as an itching rash that comes upon us. Consciousness seemingly divides up the indivisible wholeness and freezes formlessness into apparently separate forms, giving rise to the sense of being an encapsulated separate self and the inevitable feelings of dissatisfaction, lack and endless seeking that follow from that. Buddha called it suffering, the delusion of being a persisting, separate somebody, driven by fear and desire.

Adi Da, a controversial America guru (about whom I have very mixed feelings), often posed the question, “What are you always doing?” He was pointing to what he called the self-contraction. And he said, "Your suffering is your own activity. It is something that you are doing moment to moment....You will continue to pursue every kind of means until you realize that all you are doing is pinching yourself. When you realize that, you just take your hand away. There is nothing complicated about it. But previous to that, it is an immensely complicated problem.” He also said, “The self is just like this clenched fist. Relax the fist and there is nothing inside... We are never at any moment in the dilemma we fear ourselves to be."

We often think so-called spiritual awakening is about getting something or finding the Truth. But it’s more about seeing the false as false, seeing through unnecessary mental activities, noticing and relaxing that metaphorical clenched fist in the bodymind. And we can’t actually “do” relaxing—that would be a contradiction in terms. In the seeing (i.e., awaring) of the tension, there is a natural relaxing that happens by itself—the storylines begin to lose their believability and their grip loosens. The clenched fist opens. It isn’t a willful efforting—it’s a relaxing, a letting go, an opening, a surrendering. It happens spontaneously. And it rarely, if ever, happens once and for all. It’s always about right now.

And sometimes, relaxing doesn’t happen. And then, it may be possible to notice that even the contraction or the tension is never really a problem—it is simply an impersonal energetic movement of this aliveness, a momentary dance that presence is doing. Taking it personally, giving it meaning, viewing it as “The Obstruction Standing Between Me and My Awakening” and then trying really hard to get rid of it, is all only a new meta form of the very problem it is trying to cure—a problem about the problem.

This efforting to get rid of effort, or trying to stop trying, is a common unintended side effect of otherwise potentially helpful pointers and practices such as recognizing ourselves as boundless awareness or impersonal presence, or “being here now,” or even attending talks by someone like Tony Parsons in which we are told that there is nothing to do and no one to do it. All of these things, when slightly misunderstood, can inadvertently feed into the very problem they are designed to expose or undermine.

The medicine that we need to cure a physical illness often has unintended but unavoidable side effects. For example, radiation treatments successfully and blessedly dissolved a cancerous tumor in this body that would have killed me, but it also caused some secondary collateral damage that continues to unfold (as they knew it would, and as I was told about in advance, and which was a price I was willing to pay).

In a similar way, spiritual practices and pointers can also have unintended collateral side effects or potential pitfalls. They can inadvertently reinforce the sense that “this isn’t it,” that “something needs to happen,” that there is someone here who needs to do something to finally be okay or complete or happy or enlightened. They can reinforce a dualistic sense of success and failure, okay and not-okay, a striving for future results, an endless evaluating of how we are doing, comparing ourselves to others, and believing that the speaker at the front of the room or the author of the book has something the rest of us don’t.

As with the radiation that cured my cancer, this doesn’t mean these pointers and practices are terrible and should not be used. It seems to be part of the journey from Here to Here that we inevitably stumble into various misunderstandings and their associated pitfalls (or unintended side effects), and then eventually (with luck), we wake up from them—or we don’t, and that, too, is simply how this dance is dancing.

Often different teachings serve as antidotes to the unintended pitfalls of other teachings. Thus, in my own journey, Toni Packer helped to dissolve some of the pitfalls inadvertently induced by Zen; radical nonduality helped to dissolve some of the pitfalls inadvertently induced by Toni’s approach; various Buddhist teachers and more encounters with Toni helped to dissolve some of the pitfalls induced by radical nonduality; and so on and on.

In one moment we need mindfulness meditation, in another moment we need Rupert Spira or Gangaji or Adyashanti, in another moment we need Karl Renz or Jim Newman or Peter Brown, and in another moment we need Robert Saltzman or Shiv Sengupta. It’s not about one being right and the other being wrong. It’s about pulling the most recent rug we’re standing on out from under us again and again and waking us up to THIS, right here, right now. The mind is infinitely skilled at turning rug-pulling and rug-less-ness into an imaginary new apparently solid rug upon which we can stand. Thus, waking up is not once-and-for-all, but always NOW.

So, you may find it interesting to give open nonjudgmental attention to the persistent sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction—feeling it in the body, that subtle or not so subtle tension, agitation or unease, and also seeing the thoughts and storylines that generate and sustain this unease. Not trying to fix or undo it or get rid of it, because that’s just more of the same efforting, but simply being aware of the whole thing—not thinking of it as a problem, but SEEING it as the neutral and only-possible expression of reality at this moment. This can be an interesting exploration, and if it invites you, I suggest approaching it lightly, with curiosity and interest, not in a goal or result oriented way. Allow it to do you, rather than you trying to do it—which is actually always how it is.

And remember, we are never really in the dilemma we imagine ourselves being in. The whole story of being lost, bound, incomplete, etc. is all imagination. There is no separate, independent, persisting person to be any particular way for more than a nanosecond. There is ONLY flow and nothing IN the flow. And paradoxically, the ever-changing flow never departs from the immovable instantaneous timeless immediacy of HERE-NOW.

May 18, 2022:

Meditation is like turning on a light in a previously darkened room. Openly, nonjudgmentally awaring whatever appears—thoughts, sounds, shapes, breathing, somatic sensations, feelings, subtle energies—this whole ever-changing happening, just as it is. Not trying to control or manipulate or change any of it, but simply beholding it all. Awareness is the unconditional Love that allows everything to be just as it is and that clings to none of it. Awareness is our fundamental nature.

Meditation provides a space for seeing how the mind works, how it creates unnecessary suffering and confusion, and for discovering where the joy is. Meditation is at once both relaxed and alert, effortless but not lackadaisical. It is relaxed in the way a bicycle rider or a long distance runner is relaxed. This delicate balance of alertness and relaxation, effort and effortlessness, must be felt into and discovered, in much the same way that we discover how to ride a bicycle or how to swim. No one can explain it to us.

There’s no need to worry about how often the mind wanders off into thought-trains, memories, fantasies and stories. Simply notice this. Discover what’s seductive about all of this, what’s pleasant and what’s unpleasant about it. Notice the particular habitual patterns of thought that show up again and again for you, whatever they might be: thinking about past or future, worrying, fantasizing, planning, going over and over past events, judging, evaluating, criticizing, comparing, spinning stories and telling them over and over—just SEE all of this, without judging it or trying to get rid of it. The light of awareness gradually (and always presently) reveals and dissolves these patterns, but they do tend to come back, and however often that happens, that’s just the way the mind works. It’s nothing personal. It’s like the weather.

At the same time, be awake to what else is going on Here-Now: the sounds of traffic, a bird singing, voices down the hall, sensations in the body, breathing, heart beating, a tingling in the toes, an airplane passing overhead—whatever it is. I’m using words to point to this, but listen and feel without labeling or explaining, simply enjoying it all as pure sensation. Yes, the labels may pop up, but let them go. Listen, feel, sense and BE without knowing what anything is, without needing to know, with no separation between the listening presence and what is heard—it is one whole seamless happening. Notice that.

Sense the spaciousness and the openness of the aware presence being and beholding it all, the aware presence that you most fundamentally are. Feel the boundlessness of it, the aliveness, the seamlessness, the infinite subtlety. Notice that is it everywhere and that everything is it. This aware space has room for everything. It includes everything. Thoughts, feelings and sensations are ever-changing and ephemeral, appearing and disappearing, but YOU never actually depart from the timeless immediacy of Here-Now (Presence-Awareness).

We begin to discover that fundamentally, it doesn’t really matter what shows up Here-Now, whether it is clarity or confusion, contraction or expansion, thinking or sensing, this or that. Trains of thought, restlessness, agitation, troubling emotions, old habits and compulsive behaviors are all just passing weather, passing shapes that consciousness is momentarily taking, ephemeral appearances in the immovable awaring presence that we are.

Like the events in a dream, these appearances are made out of consciousness and have no actual, substantial reality. They are never really a problem. Awareness, the boundless still-point of Here-Now, is ever-present. And like unconditional love, it is allowing it all and letting it all go—being and beholding it all. This is our fundamental nature that we can discover and feel into. This vast space is as unstained by the passing events as the screen is by the fires and floods in a movie, and it is simultaneously as intimate with all of it as the ocean and its waves—nothing is a problem. Nothing is separate. It all belongs. It’s all included.

What liberates us is not believing any of this as some nice philosophy, but actually discovering it. And that discovery is always NOW. It’s not a past event or a future hope or a permanent state that someone is always in—it’s NOW. And it’s never actually absent except apparently, in the thought-stories.

Meditation, we discover, is the very nature and the natural activity of awareness. Having made this discovery, we may still enjoy sitting quietly, doing nothing, formally or informally (I certainly do), but we also recognize that we can never truly leave meditation. Our whole life, NOW, is meditation. Emotions, thoughts, states of mind, bodily sensations all come and go, but awareness remains as the immovable space, the light, in which it all arises and passes away. This light is really all there is.

May 20, 2022:

All we know for sure, beyond all doubt and requiring no belief, is the undeniable, obvious, unavoidable actuality of present experiencing. By actuality, I mean the bare happening itself, not the interpretations, labels, explanations, thoughts and stories about it—although paradoxically, those too are part of the undeniable happening. But their content is never more than a map.

In fact, ANY way we try to formulate, conceptualize, or describe this experiencing is inevitably only a map—never the living territory itself (and, of course, that includes this post you are presently reading). The actuality cannot be grasped, pinned down or resolved into the concretized, abstracted categories that words and thoughts create. The lines on the map are not really there in the living reality that the map claims to represent. Maps can be useful, and mapping is something the territory does, but the map is never the territory. Like many others, I say this a lot, and it seems obvious, but it is a profound and infinitely subtle insight that is easily forgotten and overlooked even after we think we know it.

It can be noticed that this experiencing appears here spontaneously, automatically, by itself. No doer or author of this can actually be found. All of our interests, urges, desires, abilities, talents, thoughts, feelings, apparent choices and decisions emerge unbidden from an unfindable source, apparently the result of infinite causes and conditions, although even that is a conceptual overlay after the fact. The independent, separate self with free will that we have learned to believe we are is a mirage-like illusion. Like the water in the mirage, it can never actually be found.

This immediate instant is like a still photograph, but because of memory, present experiencing seems to be moving or flowing, and yet it never departs from the immovable timeless immediacy of Here-Now. Another word for Here-Now would be aware presence, but these are ALL just words (sounds, black squiggles).

The mind tries to grasp all this and ends up on the hamster wheel of thought chasing a carrot that is always just slightly out of reach. But all the while, present experiencing—this one bottomless moment—just as it is—is right here—undeniable, obvious, unavoidable, beyond all doubt and requiring no belief. We simply can’t get hold of it and fit it into the dualistic binary categories of thought: movement or stillness, ever-present or ever-changing, caused or uncaused, choice or choiceless, this or that.

And EVERYTHING is included—even what we call running on a mental hamster wheel, or being lost in thought, or being tangled up in confusion. Without these descriptive words, what IS even that? What is this whole happening?

Any answer is false. And yet, here it is!

May 23, 2022:

Dogmatic Nondualism?

If, as I often point out, there is no choice, no chooser and no doer, then why do I sometimes make suggestions? Who am I speaking to if, for example, I suggest sitting quietly and allowing everything to be as it is?

You might notice that what we call suggestions, invitations, instructions, orders and commands have been showing up all your life. Your parents probably said things to you like, “Don’t touch that,” “Look both ways before crossing,” “Finish your homework first,” “Don’t hit your sister,” and so on. And if you’ve been a parent, a teacher, an athletic coach or an employer, these and other commands, suggestions and instructions have likely been spoken by you as well. In school, at work, and throughout your life, suggestions, commands and instructions have shown up. They’ve come at you and from you. Sometimes the person being addressed follows them successfully and sometimes not. When not followed, there are often consequences. If your child defies your order to not touch the electric outlet, they might get hurt and you might get upset and shout at them. If your employee fails to follow instructions, you might fire them. If you fail to complete an assignment, you might fail a course.

Most people believe that we freely choose what suggestions to make, and whether or not to follow those directed at us. But is that actually true?

As we discover if we watch closely, no chooser, thinker, decider, doer, watcher, author or reader can be found. The little “me” long imagined to be inside our heads directing the show turns out to be nothing more than a mirage.

Some people, when they discover this, get the idea that therefore, no suggestions should ever be made because to do so would be spiritually incorrect. If the instructions or suggestions involve anything to do with meditation or awakening, these folks conclude that such suggestions are wrong and can only reinforce the central illusion. A real nondualist, they reason, would never suggest to someone that they might try meditation or see a therapist, or that they might pay attention to the sensory actuality of the present moment or let go of thinking. After all, who would be suggesting this, and who would they be talking to?

But as I see it, such an understanding (or more aptly, misunderstanding) of no-self, no doer, no choice and non-duality is incomplete. This partial understanding shows an initial degree of insight, but fails to understand that our apparent choices, suggestions and efforts are themselves also a choiceless part of how the universe functions. ALL these things happen choicelessly, including teaching our child how to cross the street and how to function in the world, as well as our reactions when the child misbehaves. It’s ALL included.

Understanding that the separate self is an illusion and that no doer exists doesn’t mean we can never do anything again. It doesn’t mean we can never use personal pronouns or that we must speak only in the passive voice. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our child to look both ways before crossing the street, or that if we’re training an athlete, we can’t offer pointers and corrections, or that we shouldn’t make an effort to improve our tennis game or deal with our depression. It doesn’t mean that teaching or practicing meditation might not be helpful to someone in ultimately discovering for themselves the illusory nature of the separate self. It means that ALL of this is a choiceless happening of the whole including ALL apparent choices, decisions, suggestions, efforts and emotional reactions. NOTHING is left out.

And yes, it’s true that spiritual practices may inadvertently reinforce the central illusion, just as the radiation treatment that cures your cancer may leave you with some collateral damage. But it still may be worth doing, and the truth is, there can be (and usually are) potential misunderstandings and unintended side effects to ANY way of expressing all this. Because we can’t really ever put this unfathomable reality into words, and yet, life moves us to say something. Languaging, wording, writing and speaking is something the universe is choicelessly doing.

We can try to talk only in the passive voice, without ever using personal pronouns, without ever offering suggestions—but to me, this feels like binding ourselves with an imaginary rope. It feels like dogmatism and fundamentalism, and yes, even radical nonduality can veer in such directions at times. This kind of spiritually correct absolutism feels to me like half-baked nonduality parroting the party-line that someone else has asserted is the One and Only Way to express certain insights, realizations and understandings about the nature of reality.

And, of course, you can find examples of me doing this very same thing in some of my recorded dialogs. But in more recent years, when avid nondualists enthusiastically pounce on and correct me (or anyone else) whenever a personal pronoun is used or a suggestion is offered, I frequently lack patience. I often roll my eyes and choicelessly make some kind of snide remark. I’m hoping this post will offer some explanation for my frustration and impatience with this kind of dogmatic nondualism. Yes, I know….I would probably be much much wiser to “just let it go,” if only there were someone here who could do that. So, may we all enjoy a good laugh at the marvelous helplessness, hopelessness and absurdity of our choiceless and always actually nondual situation.

May 27, 2022:

Dissatisfaction, Addiction, Seeking, and Unconditional Love

When there is simple presence and open, spacious, loving attention to whatever is showing up in this moment, even if it’s a crumpled Kleenex, a rusted beer can, an unpleasant sensation in the body, or the sound of a neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it reveals its beauty and its radiance, whereas when the mind is caught up in addictive thoughts about “me” and trying to figure everything out or become something better, we could be at the Grand Canyon or on a beach in Hawaii and feel dissatisfied.

Dissatisfaction, as the Buddha noted long ago, is woven into the very fabric of human life. The body is vulnerable to pain and painful circumstances, the mind has the ability to imagine future scenarios of all kinds, and the self-image (the apparently separate “me”) is forever threatened and in need of fortification. And so, not surprisingly, the human mind keeps wanting to jump on the hamster wheel of seeking, in search of some greater happiness, clarity, security or control—and this seeking is a kind of addiction, even when it takes the form of spiritual seeking rather than drugs and alcohol.

Of course, I’m not saying that all spiritual exploration is a form of addiction, but we can sense when we are desperately grabbing for a spiritual book or another YouTube video in the same way we might reach for a cigarette or a bag of corn chips. And none of this is bad—EVERYTHING is part of what is—but addiction inevitably becomes painful and unsatisfying. So, we naturally wonder, how does one get off the hamster wheel of seeking once and for all?

But here’s the catch. When we make anything into a problem and try to get rid of it, we are solidifying (in our imagination) the “me” who seemingly has this problem, and we are giving the problem a power and a reality that it doesn’t actually have. Wanting that final fix (“me” off the wheel forever) is itself a part of the addiction and a form of seeking. Addiction is a movement away from something that seems unbearable (the sense of separation, lack, dissatisfaction, imperfection, etc.) and a search for something that we think will make us feel better (in this case, the end of seeking).

And since there is no such thing as round-the-clock ecstasy or perpetual bliss, that itch of dissatisfaction shows up again and again. By its very nature, experience is ever-changing and includes all kinds of weather, not just sunshine and blue skies. But when we stop running away from dissatisfaction and instead turn to meet it, when we open to simple presence, being just this moment exactly as it is, something shifts.

The more we are able to stay with these uncomfortable places, not by analyzing them and thinking about them, but by SEEING the thoughts and FEELING the bare sensations in the body and BEING the aware presence beholding it all, the more these habit patterns dissolve. The more clearly the whole unfolding of addiction is seen as it happens, the more it loses its grip, its believability, its power to hypnotize, and the more it falls away.

But even after we have discovered this possibility, the willingness isn’t always available to stop and be still and simply feel the dissatisfaction—sometimes the dissatisfaction and the addictive urge are too strong, and we go with the seeking. It happens.

But what matters is not how many times this has happened in the past or how many times it might happen again in the future. What matters is always NOW. And even what we call seeking and resisting are simply momentary shapes that this seamless and boundless presence is taking.

The deepest and most profound healing happens through simply acknowledging and being present to whatever is showing up, whether it feels like expansion or contraction. The healing isn’t in the object or the content of experiencing, but rather, in the awaring presence. This boundless and seamless presence has no limits, no inside or outside, no place where it is not. Awareness is not judging us for our apparent human flaws or taking any of it personally. Awareness beholds it all with unconditional Love. Everything belongs. Everything is included.

So don’t expect some final, permanent perfection on the level of the bodymind. Unicity is always perfect, always complete—but the movie of waking life is by nature impermanent, imperfect, incomplete, always in a state of becoming or dissolving. It can only appear in polarities, and in experiencing, there will always be some oscillation between apparent opposites. Again and again, consciousness falls into its own traps and becomes mesmerized by its own illusory creations, while the Heart (primordial awareness, unconditional Love) remains ever at peace.

The Heart has space for everything. It allows all of it to be just as it is. And it recognizes the ephemeral, impermeant, non-personal, non-substantial emptiness (or no-thing-ness) of everything that appears. The Heart knows that there is nothing outside the all-inclusive and inconceivable wholeness of Here-Now, that there is no way to ever deviate from the Way It Is.

June 16, 2022:

This one bottomless moment, the undeniable aliveness and present-ness Here-Now, is whole and complete just as it is. AND, it is ever-changing and evolving, endlessly transforming itself, never resolving in any final way.

No conceptual formulations can capture nondual reality, because all concepts and formulations are inevitably in some way dualistic. That’s why it is so important to take all concepts and pointers lightly, to not get stuck on particular ways of describing or formulating or understanding the living actuality. Otherwise, we end up missing the whole picture and having arguments over which map is “The Truth.”

As we know, there are many apparently contradictory formulations and pointers on offer. Contradictory formulations seem confusing and paradoxical to the thinking mind, which can never hold both sides at once, but THIS to which these contradictory formulations point, the living actuality itself, is obvious, undeniable, not confusing in any way. It only gets confusing when we start thinking about it, trying to grasp it with the mind and pin it down or box it up as either this or that.

Buddhism speaks often about the Middle Way. At a superficial level, this is usually taken to mean a middle way between hedonism and asceticism, or maybe between withdrawing from the world and getting totally lost in the world. And it certainly can mean all of that. But at a deeper and more profound level, it points to not fixating on either side of a conceptual divide, such as it is or it isn’t, free will or determinism, practice or no practice, person or no person, changing or changeless, real or unreal. It means not landing on one side of what is only a map of an inconceivable reality that is alive, ever-fresh and utterly ungraspable.

We can discover that there is no separate, independent, persisting self at the center of our experience authoring our thoughts and making our choices. And yet, there is undeniably something here, some pattern of energy, that we call a person, and each person is a totally unique expression of the whole. No chooser or thinker can be found—as far as I know, neither neuroscience nor meditative exploration has ever found one. And yet, there is an undeniable ability right here to open and close my hand seemingly at will, to direct my attention, to write these words, to decide to go this way or that. And furthermore, it is obvious that our ability to do these and many other things, from playing tennis to speaking a foreign language to performing brain surgery, can be cultivated and improved through education, guidance, training and practice.

Everything is whole and complete just as it is—it all belongs and goes together; it can’t be pulled apart; it is fundamentally undivided and indivisible. And at the same time, an aspect of how this living reality functions is through our human ability to conceptualize, to discern the difference between what is wholesome and what is harmful, as well as our human urges and abilities to improve and transform various aspects of life in all kinds of ways. Both sides of the gestalt are true.

And so, we have seemingly contradictory messages that are not actually contradictory at all if you go beyond the words to the experience itself. But if you get stuck at the conceptual level, the messages seem irreconcilable, and it seems as if only one of them can be true. But let’s explore this further.

There is no self and nothing that needs to be done. There is no doer who can do anything. And yet, the ability is here to act. If we hear that it is all a choiceless happening, that it could not be otherwise, that every moment is the result of infinite causes and conditions, that recognition is a great relief from the burdens of guilt and anxiety, and a freedom from the destructive forces of blame and vengeance. If we hear we have a choice, that opens up possibilities and empowers action to happen. We can’t really land on either formulation. They’re both just maps, useful in different ways.

If we hear the suggestion to allow everything to be as it is, this can be helpful in not resisting or judging our experience. If we hear that everything already IS allowed to be as it is, that can free us from any idea that we need to “do” allowing. If we hear that “this is it” and “nothing needs to happen,” it can free us from notions of lack and endlessly unsatisfying efforts to improve. We can relax! And yet, if we’re trapped in a painful addiction, suffering waves of depression or outbursts of anger, having panic attacks, or simply not enjoying life, it may be enormously helpful to discover a practice or a way of working with all this—and indeed, there are things that can be done.

Done by who or by what? We can’t really say. Thought and action emerge from right here—this presence that has no inside or outside. We are both a particular human being and boundless impersonal being, and both have their place.

We can hear that non-interference and non-doing are the best ways to respond to the events in our lives, or we can be moved to take action—to end slavery, to stop racism or sexism, to expose the cruelty on factory farms, to defend a nation or a group of people under attack, to find a cure for cancer, to address climate change, to sober up from an addiction, to feed the homeless. Some of us by nature will be more inclined to non-involvement, focusing mainly on inner transformation, while others will by nature be more inclined to be active in changing the world. Both have their place, both are needed.

We fall easily into dogmatic arguments over such ideas as free will, the existence of the self, or whether there is or isn’t something to do. But can we begin to see that these are all ideas, and that life itself cannot be pinned down in any of these ways? These can ALL be helpful maps at the right moment, but no map is ever the territory. That sounds so obvious, but how easily we forget.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022--

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