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Blog #17

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page from 6/20/22-7/26/22:

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

June 20, 2022:

What Is It?

“What is this?” –This question makes sense and is useful in many practical everyday situations. What is this? It’s a box of chocolates. Or, what is this? It’s a liquid made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. By asking this question, we can put things into recognizable categories or take apart the ingredients that make them up. It allows us to communicate and to manipulate things in useful, practical, functional ways.

But when we ask this same question of this whole inconceivable totality, this living presence that we are and that everything is, there is no place outside of this where we can stand to see it as an object. It makes no sense to put it into a definable category or a limited box of any kind. And yet, this is what we try to do. We argue over whether the fundamental reality is mind or matter, consciousness or quarks—but what are we actually talking about? And how could we ever know all the ingredients of this moment?

Instead, if we simply notice that we ARE this living reality and that there is ONLY this seamless actuality here-now, we realize we really don’t know what anything is or what it all means or why it’s here—and we don’t need to know. We can begin to see beyond the conceptual categories, boxes and lists of ingredients—all of which are over-simplified abstractions mentally dividing up an indivisible whole. We can begin to appreciate the wonder of what is, just as it is. And we don’t need to throw out our conceptual abstractions—we really can’t throw them out. But we can see them for what they are. And we can notice that these abstractions are ALSO an aspect of the indivisible wholeness or nondual unicity that no words (including these) can ever accurately capture. They, too, are simply a movement of the whole, something the universe is doing.

Boundless unicity includes everything. There's no possibility of being separate from it, losing it, or not having it yet, because there's no one apart from it. The thought, “I'm not fully here yet,” is only a thought. That thought and the melodrama it creates are themselves nothing but unicity.

Sometimes there's clear, sunny weather – the wonderful feeling of joy and aliveness where everything is glowing and sparkling and bright and beautiful – and at other times the experience is one of flatness, agitation or upset – cloudy, stormy, overcast weather. Each of these experiences, made up of sensations and thoughts, is nothing but unicity doing its dance. Even the thought, “This can't be it,” is it.

There's nothing that has to fall away or be dissolved. The “me” we often think of as a problem or an obstruction that we need to vanquish is only a mirage, a mental image, and that mirage-image is itself an expression or movement of the totality. There are different patterns of energy that we tentatively call Joan or Bob or chair or rug or tree, but there's no solid, separate, persisting “thing” behind any of these words, only seamless flux, and there’s no actual self inside Joan or Bob authoring their thoughts or making their choices.

There are preferences – we'd rather eat ice cream than cow dung, we'd rather see peace on earth than war (or so we like to believe). Those preferences are also this same seamless flux appearing as cow dung, as ice cream, as war, as preferences. If the mind is busy saying, “Yes, but…” – that, too, is the same energy, questioning itself, exploring itself, discovering itself, forming and unforming and informing itself. This entire appearance that we call “the world” or “the universe” has no findable substance. The closer we look at any apparent substance or form, either with direct meditative exploration or with physics, the more we find empty space and unresolvable formlessness.

Try to find the thought that you had five seconds ago – it's completely gone. Vanished. Earlier this morning is completely gone. Everything about it is gone. You might THINK that the kitchen table where you had your morning coffee is still there, but it is not the same table or the same kitchen or the same you from one instant to the next. It's all a disappearing subatomic dance, a dream-like display in consciousness. Your whole life up until this second is completely gone! Vanished. How real was it?

Everything is happening effortlessly on its own. Sunlight is happening, seeing is happening, hearing is happening, breathing is happening, movements of the hands are happening, thoughts are happening, these words are happening. And every night in deep sleep, and actually, second by second, it all vanishes completely into thin air. And yet, here it all is!

Isn’t it marvelous? Wonderfully free? Wildly amazing? Nothing lacking, nothing in excess, everything perfectly just as it is, nothing staying the same for even an instant, everything fresh and new.

--the second part of this post is adapted from part of a chapter in Painting the Sidewalk with Water called “It’s Hopeless.”

June 24, 2022:

In his wonderful book Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, describes an event that occurred early in his life in Nazi-occupied Austria, where air raids were a daily experience. On one such occasion, he was on the street walking when the warning siren sounded. There was no air raid shelter nearby, so he ran into a church and dove under a pew. Bombs exploded nearby, the ground shook, he felt sure the building would collapse and he would be buried alive. But when the siren went off announcing that the danger had passed, to his surprise, he was still alive. He describes dusting himself off and then, “stepping out into a glorious May morning. I was alive. Surprise! The buildings I had seen less than an hour ago were now smoking mounds of rubble. But that there was anything at all struck me as an overwhelming surprise. My eyes fell on a few square feet of lawn in the midst of all this destruction. It was as if a friend had offered me an emerald in the hollow of his hand. Never before or after have I seen grass so surprisingly green.”

That scene struck me so powerfully when I first read it, and it has stayed with me. It seems to capture some fundamental truth about the crucifixion and resurrection (metaphorically speaking) that is our human life, and our alchemical task of finding beauty in the rubble and light in the darkness.

For many of us in the world, these have been dark days. And the other day, I found myself in a very dark place. It doesn’t really matter what brought it on, and who really knows all the infinite forces and conditions that shape our inner weather, but it seemed related to a combination of personal and world events. I found myself submerged in waves of anger, hopelessness, despair, alienation, desire for things to be different, aversion and resistance to how they are—feeling overwhelmed and lost.

In spite of all my years of spiritual and psychological work and my abundant toolbox of skills, I couldn’t seem to find the light or the way through the dark, or any of the things I talk and write about. And that made it feel all the more awful, the fact that I write books and give talks and meet with folks about nondual spirituality and waking up, and suddenly that seemed terribly absurd. I felt miserably unqualified. It all seemed worthless. I wanted to cancel everything on my schedule and run away. I could feel the tears in my chest wanting to be released, but they were not coming out. Everything felt clogged and tight and dark, encapsulated in the sense of being separate and alone.

Finally, I took an evening walk and was touched by the beauty of the last light on the green leaves. I came home. I stopped trying to escape. I stopped alternately rifling through my toolkit and then imagining myself resuming my past life as a raging drunken Charles Bukowski. I sat down and gave up trying to get away or trying to solve this. I sat down and let it all be as it is. I let the pain unfold.

Finally, I opened my iPad and listened to a guided meditation by a favorite Zen teacher. I felt my whole being relax and open. There was a beautiful tenderness in his words, an invitation to resist nothing, to welcome everything, even to love everything. I felt how much we need one another—how inseparable we are from everything and everyone. The darkness evaporated, the heart was broken open in love.

This same movement from the crucifixion to the resurrection, from the terror of bombs falling to the glorious surprise of life carrying on, has happened so many times in my seventy-some years, this fall into darkness and then the alchemy of transformation, the way I remember once again that the answer is right here, that it has to do with not running away, with turning to face the darkness, not trying to avoid it in any way, allowing it to be as it is, opening to it completely, opening the heart, resisting nothing, BEING this vast aware presence that truly is unconditional love, allowing the vulnerability of tenderness to emerge.

This morning, turning on the headlines, another metaphorical bomb falls. I can feel the instant pull into anger, resistance, outrage, despair—and I can feel the separation in that, the pain, the closed heart, the hatred. And I know that isn’t the way. Ignoring the pain in the world and turning away isn’t the way either. Somehow, opening the heart and seeing deeply allows a different response to emerge, a different possibility. Right now, it is the writing of this post. Next it will be emptying my ostomy bag and then heading off to my Friday ping pong game. Not knowing what will come next.

May that patch of emerald green in the midst of the rubble—that light in the darkness—that surprise and gratefulness for the whole catastrophe—may it find us all. Someone once said, everything is grace when we see it as grace. But seeing isn’t thinking or believing—it’s a different dimension, and finding it, being it and living from it is the true work of this one bottomless moment.

June 28, 2022:

On Abortion, Polarity, Nonduality, and Listening Openly to the Other

(This was written after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that gave women the right to an abortion.)

If you believe abortion should be illegal, please watch this video here. This is ZDoggMD talking with Dr. Alexandre West, an OB/GYN. They talk about so many nuanced situations—it’s a very helpful and informative video.

As an elder, perhaps I must speak up. I strongly believe in reproductive freedom. No woman wants to have an abortion—it is a last resort to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or a pregnancy that is unviable, and/or one that threatens the life of the mother, a decision that I think is sometimes the best possible for all concerned. But let’s be honest—no one can actually determine where life, or where a human being, begins—whether at birth, or conception, or in this or that trimester, or maybe when the parents first met, or at the Big Bang. There are no actual dividing lines. So I fully understand why some people consider abortion murder, particularly in the later stages of pregnancy. And as someone who was born with only half a right arm and no right hand, I am well aware that I could have been aborted by a mother who didn’t want an imperfect baby—and I’m very happy to be alive!

But I also understand that making abortion illegal won’t stop it. It will just drive it back underground and force it to happen in unsafe and dangerous ways, as it did for many years. Many women will die or suffer permanent damage, as they did in the past, from backroom hatchet jobs. Others will die or suffer permanent disability as a result of being forced to give birth. And some will be saddled with a child they are not in a position emotionally or financially to care for, damaging both the lives of the woman and the child. So I understand why making BOTH effective contraception AND medically safe and legal abortion available to all women who want it is vitally important both to women’s health and to the ongoing liberation of women.

I came of age before Roe. I witnessed many friends of mine—responsible, caring, intelligent young women—being subjected to horrible illegal abortions—meeting some washed up alcoholic doctor on a street corner in NYC, being driven blindfolded to a secret location, being raped before he performed the abortion, having medical complications afterwards because the conditions were unsanitary and the job poorly done but not being able to seek treatment…or having to go to Mexico or Puerto Rico and find the money to do that…or having it done at someone’s home on the kitchen table with a coat hanger…on and on. It was a nightmare. And I know that many women have late-term abortions for very good reasons, such as when they find out that the fetus has no brain and that it will only live a few hours after birth—so why put a woman through the 9th month of pregnancy for that. At least it seems to me that she deserves the choice.

How do women get pregnant when they don’t want to be? It’s incredibly easy! It happens all the time. The most obvious examples are rape and incest, but that’s just the most overt tip of the iceberg. Some women are just super fertile—if they have sexual intercourse at any time of the month they almost always get pregnant. Many women feel pressured by a man to go through with the sex act if he has been aroused—many women have been told that we shouldn’t give a guy blue balls, and we may know he won’t react well if we stop him. And when you’re young, and your hormones are firing, and you and your boyfriend are both turned on, and you’ve each had a few beers, and your boyfriend left the condoms at his place, but you both want to have sex, and you also really want to please your boyfriend, who already has a hardon, and you’re on your period, so you think the odds of getting pregnant are almost zero—in that situation, at age 18 (and certainly if you’re younger, and even if you’re older), it’s pretty easy to give in and risk it. That’s what happened to one of my friends. She was a very responsible person, but she gave in that one time and took a chance. She paid a heavy price—her boyfriend got away scot free. And, of course, many women are still dominated by husbands or religious institutions or beliefs that prevent them from using contraception and/or want them to have as many children as possible.

And when abortion is illegal, it hits poor women and women of color the hardest. Because if you’re wealthy, you can fly to another state and have it done there.

As a nondualist, I recognize that this happening we call life will always show up in polarities—that no two of us are seeing exactly the same movie of waking life—that there is no up without down and no left without right, that you can’t actually pull them apart—in some unfathomable way, they go together—it all belongs—it’s all here. And in a very profound sense, nothing is what we think it is, and nothing ever actually resolves or fits neatly into the abstracted categories of thought that we have conceptually carved out of a seamless and fluid whole.

All of us are doing the only possible in each moment—and that includes both AOC and Clarence Thomas, Putin and Zelenskyy, Biden and Trump, Buddha and Hitler, me and you and everyone else. Like waves on the ocean, we can’t really find where one ends and the other begins, and all are equally a movement of the whole, all equally water. In some sense, we have no choice but to trust the universe, to trust what is, knowing it is as it is. And that includes each of us doing and saying exactly what life moves us to do and say in each moment.

In these divided and polarized times, I do find it helpful to listen to the other side. While it can be initially triggering, in the end, I find that it always expands my view and softens my heart. Last night I listened to Megyn Kelly on Roe. She’s very pleased with the recent Supreme Court decision. She’s a strong, independent, intelligent woman with whom I sometimes agree and sometimes strongly disagree. I can respect that she has a different view from my own and that I really don’t know how the universe “should” be any more than she does.

And along those lines, here is an excerpt from a chapter called The Observer-Independent Reality that Doesn’t Actually Exist in my last book, DEATH: The End of Self-Improvement:

“Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object, or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?” —Dogen

Even if we know better intellectually, we are all in some way convinced that there is a single objective reality “out there” apart from us, and of course, we all deeply believe that our own view of this reality is correct. But what if there really is no objective, fixed, inherent reality “out there” that we are all seeing, more or less correctly?... What if nothing is “out there” apart from the seeing itself? What if we are all waves in one ocean of Consciousness simultaneously dreaming a multitude of dreams?

It’s fairly obvious that the Palestinians and the Israelis are each seeing completely different movies, as are progressives and conservatives, as are those who believe in the importance of a woman’s right to a medically safe abortion and those who believe that abortion is murder. Is it possible that we’re all in some way equally right and equally wrong?

On some level, every well-educated twenty-first century person knows that their viewpoint is one of many. This understanding is reflected in physics, neuroscience, postmodern literature, and throughout the global culture. We may even realize it on a deeper level through meditation or spiritual inquiry. But even then, the illusion of a solid, objective reality “out there” is so convincing and deeply imbedded that it tends to re-form itself, as does the deeply-rooted conviction that my way of seeing this reality is the correct way. And, of course, it is correct as my way of seeing! The only problem is that we each assume that we are all seeing the same thing, and that what we see is objectively and inherently real, and that therefore, we can’t all be right….

Our very identity and survival seem to get wrapped up in our particular subjective view of things. When our views on hot-button topics are questioned or contradicted, we humans tend to become easily upset, angry, wounded, defensive, hostile and perhaps underneath all that deeply fearful. We feel that our very survival is somehow at stake along with our whole perception of reality. The very ground on which we seem to be standing is thrown into question. And when you have something like the Palestine-Israel conflict, where people on both sides have had their lives disrupted and damaged over many decades—loved ones killed, land taken away, homes destroyed—it’s easy to see how this can escalate.

I identify with all the women I knew who went through horrible, sometimes near-fatal, back-room abortions before abortion was legal, and I don’t want to see that happening to young women ever again. And because I don’t believe in the notion of an individual soul that enters the body at conception, I don’t feel that stem cell research or having an abortion early in a pregnancy are in any way the same as murdering a baby. I don’t even feel that terminating a pregnancy late-term is wrong if the fetus is found to have no brain, for example, or if the life of the mother is at risk. Those who oppose abortion seem, on the other hand, to identify with the unborn “person,” the absolutely unique, unrepeatable, lost soul they believe is being deprived of its one and only God-given chance for life, condemned instead to an eternity in purgatory. And indeed, every snowflake is unique, and every fetus is potentially a unique and utterly precious, one-of-a-kind human being. Of course, that view could be carried even further, as Ladies Against Women did with their absurdist slogan, “Menstruation is murder.” Every egg and every sperm is a potentially unique and utterly precious, one-of-a-kind human being. So it comes down to where you draw the line, and that will always be arbitrary, because you cannot actually find a place where anything begins or ends. “Pro-choice” and “pro-life” are two different pictures of reality, both equally valid within the conceptual construction they have each accepted as true.

I attended a workshop once on nonviolent communication, and on the last day, we were paired up with another participant who had the opposite view from ours on a hot-button issue. I was paired with a woman who wanted abortion to be outlawed. Our assignment was to take turns speaking, first one of us, then the other. The speaker would tell the listener why we held the view that we did. Notice that this is not the same thing as arguing for our view. The listener would simply listen, not interrupting. When we finished, we would switch roles. At the end, I had a deeper appreciation of the other view, and I think my partner did as well. Neither of us changed our opinion on the subject, but in some way, we were both more able to understand the opposite view and to have compassion for those on that side of the issue. And, of course, there is truth on both sides of this issue. No one is really pro-abortion, after all, as if abortion were some wonderful and desirable thing. It’s a last resort, a way to end an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, and/or to in one way or another spare the life of the mother or to spare the potential unborn future person from a life of needless suffering.

If I look closely, I can see that none of us chooses the particular construction of reality that we accept as true. None of us sits down one day and decides what our political leanings will be or what sources of news and information will seem trustworthy to us, any more than we “choose” our sexual orientation or “decide” who we will fall in love with or what things in life will interest or upset us. The way each of us sees things is the result of infinite causes and conditions. People with different conditioning see things differently. As in the famous old story where one blind man feels the elephant’s trunk, another feels the elephant’s leg, another the elephant’s ear, another the tail, and then they argue over what an elephant is like. But no one has seen or felt the whole elephant, and in the case of totality, no one ever can. The eye can never see itself.

How does seeing the relativity, subjectivity and conditioned nature of all perception change my response to people on the other side of hot-button issues such as abortion, marriage equality, female genital mutilation, factory farming, climate change, or Palestinian statehood? Do I decide every view is equally true? Do I stop caring or distinguishing between what feels right to me and what feels wrong? No. It seems that I still care about what life moves me to care about. I still have judgments, preferences and opinions, some of which I may even be willing to fight or die for. But perhaps there is a greater openness and willingness to question my own beliefs and ideas, to hear where the other side is coming from, and maybe to see the other side in the light of compassionate understanding, even when they are doing something I regard as utterly horrific.

I was the offspring of two very different people. My mother was a progressive who loved Noam Chomsky and did a lot of social justice and civil rights work, and my father was an Eisenhower Republican and a small businessman who read The Wall Street Journal. My father was a determinist who believed free will was an illusion, while my mother believed in the power of positive thinking and felt you could do anything if you put your mind to it. My father was an introvert and my mother an extrovert. My father, a very sensitive and once idealistic man, tended toward a slightly cynical disillusionment, while my mother was a beacon of optimism and possibility. How two such different people managed such a happy and loving marriage is a great mystery, but they never fought and clearly, they loved, appreciated and respected each other immensely. They were one of the happiest and most compatible couples I’ve ever seen. And I often feel that I’ve spent my life in some way trying to reconcile these two very different, and seemingly irreconcilable, strands from my childhood, both of which I carry within me.

In our world today, things are getting more and more polarized. People listen to different sources of news, some of it on all sides prone to exaggeration and omission, much of it strongly biased, and we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions—if the politician we hate is saying something, it must be wrong. We won’t even listen. If our beloved spiritual teacher is saying something, it must be right. We lose all critical discernment. We scan an article on the internet to see if it agrees with our point of view and, if it doesn’t, we won’t even read it. Our thinking is easily muddied by such distorting factors as confirmation bias, false reasoning, inferring causation from correlation, magical thinking, and a human tendency to overestimate our own knowledge and understanding… Even when you’ve been educated in critical thinking and done years of meditation and therapy, as I have, you’re still greatly prone to delusion. Speaking for myself, I still tend to get easily polarized, defensive, argumentative, and prone to confirmation bias. At least I know it, so perhaps that’s a very small step in the right direction…

It’s wonderful to begin to notice what happens to us when we come up against the “evil” in the world, the suffering, the bigotry, the prejudice, or when we encounter disappointment and disillusionment in any form, big or small, when life isn’t the way we want it to be or think it “should” be.

Hating racists and sexists is not the same as being opposed to racism and sexism. Hating the people who have these prejudices is rooted in the false idea that we are all freely choosing to be the way we are. By hating them and acting out of that hatred, we tend to drive them further and further into those views. When we feel loved, heard and understood, we are far more likely to be willing and able to question our views and see things in a new way, whereas when we feel hated and attacked, we are more likely to defend our positions to the death. Of course, this openness is easier said than done. One moment, my particular viewpoint seems impossible to question and essential to defend. My very survival seems to be at stake, and maybe in some instances it is, at least on the level of the bodymind. But isn’t it amazing how this defensive bubble can pop in an instant? …

Is it possible to love the people on the other side, and perhaps most challenging of all, to love ourselves with all our warts and imperfections?

--excerpted from DEATH: The End of Self-Improvement (pp 105 through 111)

July 1, 2022

“Being Here Now” and “There Is Only Here-Now”:

Many teachings emphasize that we are awareness and not the content of awareness or the bodymind, all of which appears IN awareness. In a common analogy, it is often said that we are the screen and not the movie, the empty space in which everything appears and disappears. We discover that the screen is ever-present no matter what is happening in the movie, that it is equally present in a scene of violence and a scene of beauty, and that the fire in the movie never burns the screen. Here-Now is the ever-present ground of being, and as this groundless ground (aka awareness), we never actually leave this eternal, timeless immediacy in which all times and locations appear. We ARE Here-Now. This can be an enormously liberating recognition, recognizing the bigger context and seeing directly that we are not actually encapsulated inside the character or caught in the story—not really, not ever.

But this perspective of being the screen is still subtly dualistic and can lead to a kind of detachment from life and an efforting to always remember to experience myself as the screen and not as the character. Trying to BE the screen, or rest as the screen, or identify as the screen, is a dualistic endeavor that actually reinforces the illusory “me” who might (in the thought-story) be either resting as the screen or misidentified as the character in the movie.

So it’s a helpful “next step” to notice that there is ONLY the indivisible movie/screen of present experiencing, THIS which cannot be grasped or pinned down or dissected into parts. Any idea or sense of “awareness” as some particular experiential flavor (this, but not that) is itself part of the movie. In direct experience, there is no actual boundary between inside and outside or between seer and seen. There is Just This. What Is, as it is—which is no way in particular—indivisible, seamless, boundless and always whole. But even to say that is ultimately saying too much, because everything is truly empty of any substantial, persisting, separate, objective existence—and even experiencing, as well as any SENSE of being present and aware, comes and goes. And so, we begin to recognize that it’s ALL included, it’s ALL what is, even what we call misidentification or feeling like a separate person, and NONE of it is EVER what we think it is.

Meditation and other explorative and contemplative practices can definitely help us to realize all this experientially. But all such endeavors are always a double-edged sword, for they can not only reveal reality and illuminate delusions, but they can also inadvertently reinforce the illusory meditator who seems to be “doing” them.

So, in response, the universe shows up as radical nondualists who renounce all forms of contemplative exploration as dualistic endeavors aimed at personal fulfillment or self-improvement. These folks assert that this is it, that there is no self, that nothing is really happening, that this is no-thing being everything or that there is no way to say what this is. And at the right moment, that radical and uncompromising message can pop the whole (imaginary) bubble of “me” on a journey from here to some imaginary there, “me” who is sometimes awake and sometimes lost in delusion, “me” who is endlessly searching for some final breakthrough, resolution, clarity, or peace that always seems to be just slightly out of reach.

But the pitfall in these radical expressions is that this kind of radical pointing, if not experientially grokked, can simply be taken on conceptually as a mere belief—and then it all too easily becomes a new fundamentalist dogma, a new set of blinders. So as I often say, EVERY approach has potential pitfalls or ways it can be misunderstood.

The beauty in the radical approach is that it is all-inclusive (EVERYTHING belongs), and it doesn’t leave any wiggle room for “yes, but…” It is absolutely unwavering and uncompromising in its bottomline message, holding our imaginary feet to the fire and leaving no way out. And at the right moment, in my experience, it’s the perfect medicine and the ultimate medicine, the medicine that points out that the disease was imaginary, as was the one who supposedly had it. There never was a separate “me” on a journey, or a self-contraction or a delusion that needed to fall away, or a truth that needed to be discovered or stabilized in or awakened to—it was all a play of appearances. Nothing was ever happening in any solid or resolvable way, and nothing was ever really missing.

And yet….sitting quietly, doing nothing, shifting the focus of attention from the content of the thought-stories to the bare actuality of this sensing-awaring-experiencing presence (that ultimately INCLUDES thinking and story-telling) can make this radical insight abundantly clear (to no one). And as the subtle efforting and bodily tension rooted in the idea that “this isn’t it” and that “something more needs to happen” is seen and noticed and felt, the more it begins to relax and open. And when the recognition dawns that even being tense and contracted is just an impersonal movement of energy, then there is freedom from the need to be free. It ALL belongs. And NONE of it is personal, or truly problematic, although it may seem so in the movie of waking life. But the waves are all equally ocean, equally water, all inseparable movements of the whole. And while no wave acts independently, the ocean expresses itself through waves, so there’s no need to deny being a wave.

As the ocean waving, we’re not detached from the so-called world or the movie of waking life. We play our part as a particular wave. We have opinions and preferences, urges and interests and ideas, likes and dislikes. We care about things. We have the full range of human feelings and a so-called personality. But there’s the recognition that ALL of it is the ever-changing and ephemeral play of the ocean. Thus, we’re not caught by the drama in quite the same way, and even if being caught does happen at times, it isn’t taken personally as “my failure” to be a fully enlightened somebody. Because it’s clear that there is no solid, independent, persisting wave to be in any permanent shape or condition of either so-called enlightenment or so-called delusion. It’s clear that these are all insubstantial word-labels that only apparently and conceptually carve up, freeze and abstract a seamless event that can never really be grasped or divided or caught in the net of words—and we are never separate from this event. We’re not “in the flow” or “not in the flow” – we ARE the flow. Everything is this undivided boundless flowing.

All effort to “be here now” is gone, but we may still enjoy sitting quietly just being, and we may still be drawn to exploring the ever-changing textures of what is. And we don’t need to land or fixate on either side of an imaginary duality such as “something to do” or “nothing to do,” for these are both just pointers to different aspects or ways of seeing and being what is.

July 6, 2022

The Power that Knows the Way

In 12-Step programs, it is said that we are powerless to stop our addictive behaviors, and that only a power greater than ourselves can transform and liberate us. Many people understand that “higher power” as something outside of us, “up there” somewhere, and some folks find 12-Step language intolerable because it talks about God and prayer. But for me, God is simply another word for awareness, presence, Here-Now, intelligence-energy, this vast openness that Here-Now IS—and prayer is another word for "being here now" or "true meditation" or "listening presence" or “opening the hand of thought and letting go.” God is not “out there” somewhere; God is our own essential nature. The imaginary “me” is nothing more than a thought-form mixed with sensations—it has no power at all, no free will. All the power is in God (and remember, I’m not talking about some distant deity or some separate force outside of us).

So, we might wonder, if we are powerless, does that mean that there is nothing we can do in the face of our human suffering and confusion?

Well, we can pray—or in other words, we can be still and listen. And in this listening presence, it might become clear what “we” are and what “we” are not.

It may be discovered that the self that is powerless over addiction (and over everything), the self that has no free will, is the thinking mind and the mirage-like character imagined to be at the center of “my life.” Our so-called personal will or intention is never really free. It is a conditioned happening, an appearance in a dream, an illusory sense of agency and choice, a thought-form rooted in the illusion of being a separate, independent self. Liberation or freedom, on the other hand, is the absence of that sense of separation, and the felt-sense of wholeness (boundlessness, openness, spaciousness, seamlessness). It is the freedom for everything to be as it is.

That wholeness, the unbound awareness and intelligence-energy being and beholding everything, is the true source of all power. Consider how it is when you want to jump from one stone to the next in order to cross a rushing river. You have to go beyond thinking and let go of trying to control the situation. You have to leap into a kind of trust that the universe will carry you from stone to stone. You surrender yourself to the arms of God, as it were. In sports, this is known as being in the zone. There is a felt-sense of being the whole and acting effortlessly. There is no separation, no limitation, no second-guessing, no hesitation, no fear, no holding back, no grasping, no trying to control—in fact, there is no imagined “you” anymore, there is simply the flowing whole and you are that—there is only that. And you land perfectly on every stone (unless thought trips you up by suddenly imagining separation).

This open effortless being is what Eckhart Tolle calls “the power of Now,” and what Robert Adams calls "the Power that knows the way." It is this boundless awaring presence that every “I” most fundamentally IS (if we don’t refer to thought, memory, imagination, or second-hand information). This presence includes everything but is not bound or limited by anything that appears. It is what illuminates everything, what reveals delusion for what it is, what beholds it all. Awareness is like unconditional love—it allows everything to be just as it is, which gives everything the freedom to move and transform.

Of course, in one sense, we can never be anything other than that undivided wholeness, but as we all experience, consciousness can become confused and hypnotized by its own creations—lost in its own dream. To take the example I often use, if we think of Buddha and Hitler as different waves on the ocean of being, both are equally movements of the ocean, both equally water, but Buddha knows that, while Hitler is caught in the delusion of being an independent wave, separate from the ocean, out to conquer or control the other waves. We might say that samsara and nirvana are not one, not two. In response to its own capacity for confusion, for being lost in samsara and overlooking nirvana, consciousness has apparently dreamed up meditation and satsang and nonduality and Zen and Advaita and psychotherapy and 12-Step programs and all sorts of ways of waking itself up from this trance that is our human suffering and delusion. And thus, it’s helpful BOTH to consciously “be here now,” AND to recognize that there is ONLY here-now-being.

By consciously “being here now,” I mean a kind of open attention to what is. In this open listening presence, there is a simple noticing that happens by itself, noticing when the mind is spinning around in mental confusion, when the body is tense and contracted, when there is grasping or resisting, straining or seeking. That noticing is an invitation to relax the mind, to open, to listen to the sounds of traffic or wind, to feel the breathing, to allow everything to be just as it is.

We can’t make ourselves let go of straining and seeking, any more than we can make ourselves fall asleep. But by giving it open loving attention, allowing it to be just as it is—not resisting it, not trying to get rid of it—sensing it in the whole bodymind—feeling it with curiosity and interest—in that open attention, something shifts on its own.

In that effortless seeing and attending and allowing, we are being awareness itself—we are being unconditional love—we are no longer trapped IN the tension as some kind of victim of it—“we” have actually dissolved, the bubble of apparent encapsulation has popped—it was never really there—it was only a mirage. There is only wide open space and indivisible presence. And it’s clear that this is never actually absent, that we are never really bound or encapsulated or separate. What comes and goes are only these imaginary bubbles, and the bubbles are never really a problem—they are imaginations. Even when thoughts create confusion, even when we feel like a separate “me,” even when we miss the stone in the river and land on our ass, ALL of that is only ever a dream-like appearance. Here-Now is beholding (being and holding) it all.

Liberation is always right here. Discovering it is not the product of thought or effort or will. It is rather a relaxing, as when a tight fist opens. And that begins with simply noticing the tightness—and in the light of awareness, the relaxing happens naturally by itself. We notice that Here-Now (boundless awareness) has never actually been absent.

If we look for awareness, or for God, we won’t find it, and in that searching, we’ll seem to be back in that encapsulated little bubble of “me,” the always deficient seemingly separate self, feeling again like something more needs to happen, that this can’t be it. That straining, grasping, seeking can be felt in the whole bodymind as a kind of tension or contraction. So once again, simply see and feel the contraction—allow it to be here, just as it is—explore it with open attention, see what it is made of (ephemeral thoughts, stories, ideas, bodily sensations). Let it dissolve by itself. We already ARE boundless awareness—we don’t need to find it, and we can never see it. The eye (the True-I) simply can’t see itself. It can only BE itself.

There can be endless arguments over words and formulations—and no words or formulations can ever truly capture the living actuality. The felt-sense or direct discovery and experience of what is being pointed to here is what liberates, not thinking about it. And liberation is always NOW—not yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all or forever after. All of that is dream stuff.

We can think about a progressive journey from childhood to old age, from delusion to enlightenment, from samsara to nirvana, from confusion to clarity, from suffering to liberation, and so on. But it always takes thought, memory and imagination to conjure this up—to conjure up the story (of progress or lack thereof), and the “me” at the center of the story, and the time in which it all apparently happened. But where is it all now? And where is this “me”? How real was any of it?

The reality is always NOW. And right now, there can be a simple noticing when consciousness is lost in a story, identified as the separate “me,” spinning its wheels, suffering and creating more suffering. That can be seen (and seen through). We don’t “do” seeing; seeing happens—but certain things such as intelligent meditation (being still, listening) can perhaps make it more likely. The seeing IS that boundless aware presence being and beholding it all, the open space of Here-Now in which all appearances come and go—ephemeral, dream-like, gone in an instant.

This boundless aware presence might be called no-thing-ness, zero, emptiness, no-self. Or it might be called fullness, everything, Totality, the Self. It might be called God or the Tao or the power that knows the way. But we don’t need to call it anything. What matters is feeling this aliveness Here-Now—being a devotee of this vast aware presence that we are, being a lover of letting go, a devotee of what matters most and feels most deeply real and true and alive and nourishing and wholesome—THIS Here-Now that is at once so ineffable and yet so utterly omnipresent and beyond all doubt. Just this: the breathing, the wind in the trees, the swaying grasses, the chirp of a bird, the sounds of traffic, the hum of the air conditioner, the listening silence being and beholding it all.

Message from my July 10 Newsletter:

It’s been a challenging time for many people—wars, earthquakes, rising prices, mass shootings, disturbing Supreme Court decisions, the lingering effects of the pandemic—but all this is really nothing new. We’ve had wars, famines, genocides, plagues, slavery, witch burnings, and all manner of challenging things throughout human history. And we’ve also had incredible acts of human kindness and generosity. This is the nature of this happening we call life—the light and the dark go together and cannot be pulled apart. It’s one whole undivided happening and in some unfathomable way, everything belongs. It’s all here. It all goes together.

And although we often imagine that we are independent agents freely steering our little ships down the watercourse of life, and then sometimes beating ourselves up for apparently doing such a bad job of it, the reality is that there is ONLY the watercourse, and we are inseparable from it. Our interests, urges, desires, aversions, talents, thoughts, emotions, opinions and actions are all an inconceivable movement of the whole universe, as are those of everyone else, and in each moment, none of us could be other than exactly how we are. And although we have many ideas about ourselves and each other and the world, the truth is, nothing is what we think it is, and we don’t actually know how we or anyone else or the universe “should be.”

So here it all is, just as it is—and in the next instant, everything has shifted because nothing stays the same. So, if you can, enjoy the dance.

July 11, 2022

“Why am I afraid of this unadorned quietude?” the Buddha apparently asked.

I suspect we all know that fear of quietude, of being still, of stopping the search—in all its myriad forms, for something that we believe will finally make us okay. When we sit down and do nothing at all, it can often feel scary in some way, as if we are in a place with no handles and nothing to grasp. Perhaps we can explore that fear when it arises—not judging it or trying to get rid of it, but really exploring it.

At one point in my book Awake in the Heartland, I compared this discomfort to withdrawal from an addiction: “It is painful, and yet, there is always something I love about withdrawal. It is the stopping. You finally stop running, and you sink in. You meet what you’ve been running from. You don’t move. And it feels like a huge relief. Like some enormous noise has finally stopped. And you’re just here.”

We can’t make ourselves stop seeking, resisting or grasping. But maybe it’s possible to simply be aware of these weather patterns when they arise in the bodymind. Notice what is alluring about them—what they promise to deliver. And notice in what ways they are disappointing and a form of suffering. Feel the tension and contraction in the body that accompanies them, the unease that the imagined object of our search promises to relieve. See how seeking, resisting and/or grasping actually exacerbates the unease it is promising to relieve. Feel the desperation, the urgency behind these activities. Notice the particular forms they take. Look (with awareness, not with thinking) into what is at the root of it all: the felt thought-sense-story of “me,” the imaginary separate self, who is supposedly lacking and in need of something in order to be okay—more knowledge, a better experience, more mental clarity, another drink, another cigarette, another spiritual book, less confusion, less uncertainty, whatever it might be.

We long to feel okay and at peace. And yet we do the very things that have the opposite effect. This habitual seeking, resisting and grasping is conditioned behavior, like weather—it’s not personal, and it’s not bad or wrong. But it hurts. And the more the light of awareness illuminates these weather patterns and reveals how they work, the more their grip and their believability loosens. They may return again and again—in some cases, they may never permanently disappear—but what matters is NOW, not forever after. And we can’t postpone peace. That never works. If we’re waiting for a better understanding or a better experience or less confusion or more peaceful circumstances, we are overlooking the only place where peace can actually be found, which is Here-Now.

July 12, 2022

Reflections on the Cosmic Dance

On my morning walk, there was a noticing of light dancing on green leaves, water rushing over rocks, light sparkling on water, cows in a field hanging out together, sleeping next to one another, drawn together by some magnetic force, and then later, seeing images from the James Webb space telescope of galaxies dancing together in so-called gravitational interactions, just like the cows in the field, and apparent mountains and valleys made of dancing gases, and an image showing thousands of colorful galaxies as they looked billions of years ago, a slice of the universe that, we are told, “covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.” This dancing holographic, fractal, multi-dimensional radiance with infinite universes in a grain of sand and eternity in an instant, showing up as galaxies and leaves and cows in a field, all of it an appearance in consciousness – although “consciousness” itself is only another label for…what?

What is it all? What are we? What am I?

There are no real answers to these questions, only a vastness that is endlessly unfolding and revealing itself, always NOW.

On the level of our everyday human lives, there are many things that can apparently be done to bring about insight, to expose delusion, to relieve suffering, to make life more comfortable, enjoyable and functional. And we can send giant telescopes far into space, light-years away, and put human beings on the moon.

But if we look closely, we discover there is no one—no separate, persisting, independent self—that is doing any of this, and we can also see that all our ideas of cause and effect and progress and space-time are conceptual overlays that rely on memory, imagination, over-simplification and abstraction. And these abstractions are themselves momentary, instantaneous, vanishing appearances—no-thing at all. And yet, no-thing-ness is not nothing! Here it is—showing up as cows and galaxies, chairs and tables, Facebook posts, me and you.

The living reality is always THIS – immediate, present, Here-Now, ungraspable, unavoidable, inconceivable, all-inclusive. And in THIS, there is no subject and object, no me and not me, no inside and outside, no past or future or identifiable “present moment” – there is only this boundless and seamless no-thing-ness appearing as everything. We can put many names on THIS – pure being, intelligence-energy, presence, infinite potential, aliveness, what is, consciousness – but these are all just labels—sounds we make, black squiggles on a screen.

The living actuality includes memory, thought, imagination, labeling, conceptualizing, and the intermittent appearance of being a person living on planet Earth at a particular time in history gazing at cows in a field and images from a space telescope and then writing about it all on Facebook. But the more closely we look at this narrative or any detail within it, the more all of this apparently solid and substantial “reality” dissolves into thin air. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Our conventional sense of things may be functionally useful and necessary at times in the dream-like movie of waking life – but it never actually exists in any solid, substantial, persisting, objective way. At the same time, no-thing-ness is not nothing!

So this doesn’t mean we might as well kill ourselves because all of this is just fake, as someone suggested to me in a recent email. No, this is a marvelous wonder, all of this. Recognizing the emptiness or no-thing-ness of this whole magnificent appearance actually reveals how alive and radiant and full it is. So the message of radical nonduality isn’t that we should be detached from life (as if that would even be possible), nor does it mean that we need to deny such things as medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, healing work of various kinds, addiction recovery programs, social justice work, efforts to protect the environment, and so on. It’s all part of the dance. ALL dimensions of reality from the subatomic to the intergalactic, from the absolute to the relative, are included in THIS. But the ultimate medicine is the recognition that it is ALL one indivisible happening that is inseparable and inconceivable and immediate and always Here-Now. It cannot be pulled apart or grasped, and all attempts to make sense of it ultimately fail. And yet, here it is! Amazing and gorgeous and never the same way twice.

July 16, 2022

The Meaning and Purpose of Life

I was recently asked if I would share my take on the meaning and purpose of life. This is my response:

What does the word “meaning” mean to you? It seems to be about what message something is conveying, or what significance it has, or what purpose it has. And purpose seems to imply some goal or intention, a reason that something is happening or being done, its use in bringing about something else, some result.

I would say that any message, significance or purpose we assign to life is something after the fact that will inevitably be a limited and conditioned idea, whereas life itself is not an idea. THIS (the living actuality of present experiencing here and now) is itself the message. Any added interpretation or formulation of that living message will be a thought-idea, a conceptual overlay, one step removed from life.

I notice that the search for meaning and purpose often arises out of a fear that life is meaningless or purposeless. But why is that scary? That might be something to wonder about, and that dark hole or abyss that many people fear may turn out to be nothing like what is imagined.

I also notice the search for meaning and purpose doesn’t tend to arise in the midst of joyful experiences such as admiring a beautiful flower garden, dancing, making love, walking in a favorite place, eating a favorite meal, and so on. It seems to arise when faced with difficult or troubling situations: a terminal illness, a cruel war, a vicious crime, a child dying…then we often wonder, what is the meaning of it all? What is the purpose of this life? And we hope for some comforting answer, that all of this has a higher purpose. But we fear that maybe it doesn’t, that maybe it is all random and meaningless and without any purpose at all. And that seems very scary. But why?

I find that life needs no added (conceptual, thought-based) meaning, and that being here without purpose is enormously freeing. When difficult or troubling situations arise, as they will, is it possible to simply behold them with unconditional love, not needing any stories about why they are happening or how they might be serving some larger purpose, but simply allowing them to be exactly and simply what they are, including whatever emotions may arise in us—grief or fear, sorrow or anger—actually allowing the heart to break open without instantly reaching for a fix or a cure and without picking up any kind of story—whether the story is one of horrifying darkness or one reassuring us that it’s all perfect as it is? Is that possible, to be here without a story?

My friend and teacher Toni Packer would never say it is or it isn’t. She would say, “Find out!” She also once asked: “No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?”

In that open listening presence, thoughts about meaning and purpose simply don’t seem to show up, nor do scary thoughts about some nihilistic meaninglessness. There is simply what is, as it is, which is no way at all. The more openly and fully we explore it, the more we discover it to be ever-changing, ungraspable, unresolvable, inconceivable and beyond all ideas about it.

July 19, 2022

Random Grunts

No one really knows what this is—this life, this universe, this consciousness, this present experiencing. There are many differing conceptual maps, frames, formulations and explanations offered by science, religion, spiritualty, nonduality, psychology, astrology, common sense, and so on. Our gaze can seemingly go deeper and deeper into outer space and the distant past with the new space telescope, into subatomic space with quantum physics, into the subtlest realms of inner space with meditation and psychology, into boundless space with nonduality—we can travel to foreign lands and to the moon and from infancy to old age—we can have a multitude of different experiences and view life from a multitude of different perspectives—but it ALL appears right here in the ever-presence of Now and the immediacy of Here. And even the most subtle sense or experience of this awaring presence vanishes every night in deep sleep.

We long for a cosmic explanation of the terrible cruelties and injustices of life, for a way out of depression, anxiety, loneliness and despair. We long for the peace, joy, love and freedom we may have tasted, but when we find it, or when it finds us, it never seems to stay put. We long to end our addictions, compulsions and harmful behaviors and all the injustices we see in society. We try to make sense of this whole happening.

And we find many different methods and approaches, many different explanations and philosophies, many different ways of seeing and being, and they may each provide a measure of relief and in some cases significant transformation and peace of mind. But if we’re honest, none of them completely resolves or permanently dissolves the apparent uncertainties and dissatisfactions of human life. However perfect the vacation, sooner or later, a mosquito will show up, whining in our ear, ready to bite and bring forth another itch.

What to do? Well, again, there are many things that can be done, from meditation to psychotherapy to social justice work—and although no independent autonomous individual doer of all these activities can ever actually be found, such things can nonetheless happen. They may or may not be followed by the desired improvements, and all stories of cause and effect are conceptual overlays requiring an enormous amount of abstraction and over-simplification. And in my own experience, even though I’ve found many such activities very helpful, certain emotions, moods and behaviors I’d prefer not to experience still happen, and I am ever-more aware of how little I know with any real certainty.

So when ALL the maps and attempted solutions are dropped, what remains?

As soon as we try to answer that, we’re back in the realm of map-making. And to some degree, as many have noticed, there is no way out of maps—even in bare sensory thought-free experiencing, seeing and perceiving happen through conditioned filters, those inherent in our biology along with all our subsequent experiences and conditionings—nature and nurture, and language. And, of course, this too, what I’ve just said, is another map.

It seems there is no way out, no escape. But who exactly is trapped?

What if there is just life happening—no separation—only the ocean waving, relentlessly doing what it does—meditation, psychotherapy, Zen, Advaita, radical nonduality, physics, neuroscience, wildfires, fingerbiting, alcoholism, heat waves and mosquitoes all included? What if there is nothing to do other than exactly what is happening? What if nothing has any actual substance or persisting form and it’s all a dream-like appearance happening to no one? What if there is no such thing as liberation (or bondage) and no separate or persisting somebody to be liberated (or bound)? What if there is only indivisible unicity or no-thing-ness?

Yet even this is another perspective, another explanation, another map of the ungraspable aliveness that is right here, right now.

Maybe, with luck, we eventually find a certain acceptance of how life is—that it includes everything from mild forms of irritation and dissatisfaction to wars, child abuse, scary illnesses and all the massive uncertainties, vulnerabilities and unresolvabilities of life—the whole gorgeous and terrifying catastrophe.

And perhaps, with luck, we wake up more and more to the beauty of ordinary life—evening light on the green leaves, flowers in the garden, the love of a beloved dog, a child’s smile, a good meal, a cup of coffee, the sounds of rain, a sudden rainbow in the sky, the song of a bird—even the beauty of a crumpled cigarette package in the gutter. We may even find ourselves enjoying parts of our cancer treatments or the emptying of an ostomy bag. We may find that we are moved to care for ourselves and each other and the world in various ways even though we know that all of it is disappearing second by second and that nothing will last.

We may find that life doesn’t need any added meaning or purpose beyond the richness of this one bottomless moment, just as it is. We may find that it’s survivable and okay and maybe just part of life to sometimes feel restless or bored or pissed off or defensive or hurt or filled with despair or overcome with grief. We may find we are ever-more at peace with not always being at peace, with not knowing what we’re doing, or why we’re here, or what will happen next, or what we’re even talking about. We may simply enjoy chirping and mooing and barking and caw-caw-cawing in our own human way.

Some will say this amounts to settling for less than full and complete liberation. And I’m perfectly willing to grant that this may be true, but in my experience, imagining that something more needs to happen, or seeking some future ideal, or comparing myself to others who claim or appear to have realized some such total and complete freedom, is all simply a form of suffering and a way of overlooking the only actual reality.

And in the end, even with the clearest maps and formulations and expressions, it’s all a lot of hot air—a bunch of apes making random grunts. And maybe that’s not bad news. In fact, I find myself smiling with delight and relief as those words mysteriously appear and find their way through my single finger tapping the keys, shooting these mysterious black squiggles onto the screen and on through cyberspace, into whatever it is that sees and receives them right now, instantly and spontaneously translating the black squiggles on the screen into a whole world of meaning. What an amazing dance!

Do we really need to make sense of a dance or know why we’re dancing? And isn’t sense-making itself a form of dancing? And is it senseless just because it never reaches any final conclusion? And is a dance meaningless because it doesn’t last forever? And does it ever really end, or does it just keep taking endlessly different shapes? And in all the amazing transformations, does it ever actually depart from the ever-presence of Now and the immediacy of Here, this ungraspable and un-pin-down-able aliveness of present experiencing, just as it is? And when experiencing ends, as it does every night in deep sleep, who is leftover to miss it?

July 24, 2022

More Random Grunts

In my previous post (Random Grunts), I was talking about the impossibility of reaching some permanently resolved, utopian, pain-free, perfection—or some final knowledge about the nature of reality. I spoke about the end of seeking some final liberation in which all of this would be neatly resolved. And in the penultimate paragraph of that post, I said that “even with the clearest maps, formulations and expressions, it’s all a lot of hot air—a bunch of apes making random grunts.”

Although there is no final knowledge about the nature of reality, there is ALWAYS a direct knowing/being of reality. It is never not here. THIS is it. By knowledge, I mean secondary conceptual conclusions or ideas ABOUT this—maps of the territory. Knowing/being, on the other hand, is simply THIS – right here, right now, before we call it anything at all.

It is certainly possible to be with—or more accurately, to BE—the wave-like movements of energy that thought might label as uncertain, scary, unpleasant, turbulent or painful in a way that is equanimous, without judgement, and without giving it personal meaning—in other words, without any thought-sense of being something outside of, or other than, this all-inclusive and actually inescapable whole that is without borders or seams, and that can never be grasped, held onto, or decisively pinned-down as either this or that.

But even if what arises is a sense of separation, resistance and upset, that too is simply THIS showing up momentarily in that way. If by suffering we mean the mental overlay on top of pain or painful circumstances, then it is certainly possible for suffering to end. But there is no “me” for whom it has or hasn’t ended.

In speaking of apes making random grunts, I did not mean to suggest that we are fundamentally apes or that we are encapsulated in any persisting or limited form. In our direct experience, this is never actually the case. Independent forms are always conceptual, not actual. And all concepts and ideas can be doubted, including the notion that we are human beings descended from apes. This is the most current scientific theory in biology of what we are and how we got here, and I’m not saying this is false. It’s quite an elegant and beautiful map. But, of course, from the perspective of physics, the so-called human being collapses into infinitely smaller particles and waves and ultimately into what seems to be mostly empty space. And if we explore this apparent human being in a meditative way by simply giving attention to the bare actuality itself, we find nothing solid, persisting or separate from the so-called environment. We find ever-changing sensations, vibrations, energies, passing thoughts and mental images—a waving movement that can never be extracted from the larger ocean.

When we look deeply into what we most fundamentally are prior to everything we have learned second-hand, we find simply this aware presence or present experiencing. This is the only thing we cannot doubt. Here-Now (aware presence) is the common factor in every different experience. And yet, if we look for this awareness or presence as something we can see or experience, we find nothing (apart from everything). And if we go deeply into the core of any sensation, we also find nothing at all. Everything is vanishing as soon as it appears, and yet we never depart from the ever-present immediacy of Here-Now. Indeed, the more closely we explore it, the more waking life seems very much like a dream—an appearance with no inherent reality outside the dreaming.

And yet, in my experience anyway, the waking dream can at times feel or SEEM very solid and real, and the sense of “me” can still show up. Emotional storms can pass through, reactive or compulsive behaviors can appear. When ANY of this is investigated, the whole thing turns out to be without substance, the “me” cannot be found, and the emotional storms are seen to be weather, as impersonal and un-pin-downable as a thunderstorm. Beginnings and endings, boundaries and seams simply cannot actually be found. And yet, the apparent world of this and that still shows up in a very convincing way.

Trying to make that never happen again or seeking some final liberation from all of this always seems to be about the imaginary “me” feeling deficient and trying to find security, control or some advantage for itself. The more we pursue it, the more real it all seems to be.

In any moment of waking up, that kind of seeking can end. But there seems to be no end to exploration, curiosity and wonder. And there seems to be no final resolution, only a never-ending unfolding of THIS that is never not here.

If the mind starts chewing on some mental perplexity, there can be a felt-sense of confusion, separation, encapsulation and identity as the apparent Joan character who is desperately trying to figure something out, resolve something or find something that seems to be missing. When there is a sense of being the Joan character, there can be feelings of being threatened, disrespected, misunderstood or hurt. There can be comparing myself to others, and a whole picture can begin to take shape in which I am “more awake” than some characters, but “less awake” than various other characters. In all these dream-like situations, there seems to be “me” and other separate people, some of them above me or below me, some of them threatening me, and so on. And if the mind begins spinning over the news, it can begin to seem as if there is a very real world full of very real situations, and these situations can seem “really terrible” or “deeply concerning” or whatever labels and stories thought puts out. But again, when any of this is investigated closely, it all collapses. How real was it?

That is a question for deep inquiry, a question that can be very profound to live with. But it is not meant in any way to dismiss the experience of pain and suffering, nor am I ever suggesting some kind of detachment or dissociation. Rather, what is discovered is total intimacy or inseparability.

I am also certainly not suggesting that if we are depressed, or immobilized by chronic anxiety, or drinking ourself to death in despair and rage, or married to someone who is beating and abusing us, that there is nothing to do and that we should just recognize that life sucks and that’s that. That’s not my message at all. There are many things that can be done, even though we’ll never be able to pin down exactly who or what is doing them or what exactly they are.

And in any moment, if (for one instant) we simply STOP – really just stop – stop thinking, stop the story, stop resisting, stop seeking – just STOP, we may find that (if only for a moment) all the apparent problems and conundrums vanish and there is simply THIS, and it’s perfectly okay just as it is. (And that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t then find a therapist, take medication, leave an abusive marriage, or whatever else life moves us to do). We simply see that none of it is or ever was what we imagined it to be.

It seems to be the nature of reality to endlessly explore itself, to play hide and seek with itself, and to keep discovering and unfolding itself in ever new ways, waving and moving and dancing – while never leaving this eternal infinite ever-present all-inclusive inescapable ungraspable Here-Now. THIS is obvious, never hidden, and always fully realized, yet it remains always indescribable and inconceivable, ever on the move without ever going anywhere.

July 26, 2022

One More Random Grunt

In speaking of the ungraspable, indeterminate, un-pin-downable, ever-changing, seamless, dream-like qualities of present experiencing or the transcendent qualities of boundless awareness or seamless presence, I am never intending to deny or negate our human beingness. As I see it, whatever this whole happening or appearing is—this universe, this life, this experiencing—it has many different dimensions or perspectives from which it can experience itself. And one of them is certainly the sense of being a unique individual human organism or person embedded in a society of other humans and in a world of other beings, both human and non-human.

I would never want to deny the actuality of being this particular unique waving movement of the ocean that we call Joan Tollifson, with its unique shape, form and personality—nor would I want to deny the experiences I spoke about in my first random grunts post back on July 19, where I said, “If we’re honest, none of [our various answers, discoveries, awakenings or forms of healing] completely resolves or permanently dissolves the apparent uncertainties and dissatisfactions of human life. However perfect the vacation, sooner or later, a mosquito will show up, whining in our ear, ready to bite and bring forth another itch.” That, as I see it, is the nature of life.

Nondual and spiritual teachings can open us up to a bigger or more subtle context. They can break us out of conceptual boxes and false limitations, and free us from unnecessary suffering and imaginary problems. They can help us discover the wonder of this moment. And all of that is beautiful. But whenever a nondual or spiritual system seems to be offering what Zen teacher Barry Magid likes to call “curative fantasies” of some purification or transcendence that is impervious to the vulnerability and messiness of life, I sense a kind of dishonesty and escapism at play.

So, for example, while death is an imaginary boundary line in a seamless process where nothing stands apart from the whole to be born or to die, at the same time, as I say in my last book, “Every living being is a unique and precious expression of the universe, a unique point of view, a unique and unrepeatable pattern of energy. When someone we love dies, they are gone, never to return, and one day, this life we are experiencing right now will end.” And so, from my perspective, it is enormously helpful to see beyond fixed views and false certainties, but that doesn’t mean we completely deny conventional reality. We can see BOTH the experiential reality of death, AND its ultimate unreality. We don’t fixate or get stuck in either the absolute or the relative perspectives.

And so, I still follow the news and know that there are many things happening to human beings and other living beings right now that involve terrible pain and suffering—and to wipe that away with some transcendental fantasy feels off the mark in some very vital way. And at the same time, to wallow in it and give it a fixed solidity that it doesn’t actually have is equally missing the mark. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Or at least, that’s how I see it.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022--

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