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Blog #17

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

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

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

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, 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)

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022--

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