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Blog #18

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page from 8/1/22-10/9/22:

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

August 1, 2022

Shouldn’t We Be Renouncing the World and Sensory Experiencing?

Several people have raised questions recently about experience and renunciation, wondering if I agree with the teachings that tell us to ignore the senses and tune out the apparent world because all of that is illusion.

As far as I’m concerned, the illusion is in mistaking our conceptual map of reality for the living actuality, including the belief that we are separate from the whole and that what appears has some kind of substantial, persisting existence. That, and our me-centered fantasies of personal attainment, our stories of success and failure, the sense of personal control—all of that is the illusion. All of our interpretations, beliefs and explanations (including this one) are illusory.

I’m not a religious scholar, but I would guess that variations on the notion that the body is bad, that we should be celibate and sleep on a bed of nails, live in a dark cave and wear blinders so we cannot be distracted by the flowers or the trees, are probably found in some form in all the major religions. Perhaps exceptions would be Taoism or Chan (early Chinese Zen), both of which I love, and both of which are very earthy, finding the transcendent right here in the cherry blossoms, the dog shit and the breakfast dishes.

These ideas of leaving the body and the world far behind have never resonated with me. I would never say I’m not the body. I would say, the body is not all that I am, nor is “the body” what we think it is (namely, a solid, separate, persisting, independent “thing”). I find that tuning into the sensory world (hearing, seeing, breathing, somatic sensations, and so on) is a powerful way of realizing the seamless, boundless, fluid, ungraspable, indeterminate, ever-changing, ever-present nature of reality. The more deeply we tune in, the more we find the silent stillness at the core of everything. And so much beauty and wonder is here to be enjoyed and so much gratitude and love to feel!

Yes, I also find it helpful to discover the spacious awareness beholding it all, but that can easily become a new dualism if we mentally reify awareness into some kind of separate “thing” that “I” am trying to identify as. Awareness and content can no more be pulled apart than the ocean and its waves. Waves are the play of the ocean. Aware presence, or what I often simply call present experiencing, is what Here-Now IS. And at its core, there is no-thing at all. But no-thing is not nothing! Tuning into the silent stillness of the Heart, feeling the spacious awareness beholding everything, enjoying and entering deeply into the sensory-energetic actuality of sounds, visual images and somatic sensations—these are not in opposition to one another. All can be enjoyed and explored.

Yes, in deep sleep, as far as we know, all experience subsides and only awareness remains. Or we could say, only the germinal darkness or the infinite potential or the intelligence-energy or the Mystery or the Heart. And yes, in a sense, the waking world is very much like the dream world, all of it a play in consciousness, a waving of the ocean of being. But the waves are beautiful!

Of course, I’m not advocating a life of addictive gluttony—that’s not what I’m pointing to when I speak of exploring sensations. And when I speak of experiencing, I’m not pointing to some form of experience mongering, when we crave certain experiences or collect experiences or mentally freeze certain happenings into “experiences” that we then label good, bad, enlightened, unenlightened, and so on. Experiences are like nouns (some objectified thing that has been artificially carved out of the flowing whole)—and they seem to refer to past or future. Experiencing is a verb—it is NOW. By experiencing, I simply mean this present happening, this awaring presence, doing what it does without ever departing from right here, right now. Just THIS.

As for how much attention we “should” give the apparent world, I would say this depends—there are no rules. If you are a parent, hopefully you give attention to your children. If you have a job, hopefully you give it attention when doing it. If you are a citizen of a town, a country, or planet earth, it may be helpful for you to give at least some attention to relatively reliable sources of news and information, so that you can vote or act intelligently. I’ve gone through periods of completely ignoring the news, and periods of taking in enormous amounts of it, and periods of being somewhere in between. I don’t think there’s a “right” amount of news. We each have to find out how it affects us and how much is too much.

But isn’t it all just illusion? Well, as I see it, conventional (or apparent, relative, everyday) reality and the actuality of emptiness (ungraspable impermanence, no-thing-ness, seamless interbeing, the dream-like nature of it all) both show up together in every moment, as do multiplicity and unicity, or form and emptiness. We might say that such apparent opposites are a bit like those optical illusion images that can appear to be a duck or a rabbit, or a vase or two faces, or an old woman or a young woman. Many people—probably most humans—see only one of these possibilities, even though the other is right there in plain sight, never actually hidden or absent. Awakening, as I mean it, sees both. But let’s bring it down to earth. If your child is running out into a busy street, it’s probably not helpful to dismiss this as “just a dream.”

Are the people fleeing the war zone real? As one teacher said, they’re as real as you are. And how real is that? That is a wonderful koan to live with, not to slap down some second hand traditional answer, but to explore for yourself, directly, here and now. Live with it, let it percolate.

August 2, 2022:

How simple can this be? This aliveness that is right here, right now—before we name it, before we think about it, before we divide it up with word-labels and try to figure it all out. This simple presence, unfindable but undeniable—the spaciousness, the stillness, the energy, the silence, the all-pervading love.

August 5, 2022

Musings on the Nature of Reality

We can’t stand apart from and SEE reality; we can only BE reality—and we can’t ever NOT be reality. Reality is all there is; and all there is, is reality. And actually, EVERYTHING we see (the apparent forms that appear in everyday life, as well as what we see in dreams or on 5-MeO-DMT, LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA or Ayahuasca, or anything we think or imagine) is ALL reality.

The notion of finding The True Reality, as if it were some particular “thing” that could be found and grasped at last, or the notion of stabilizing in some apparent state of consciousness that we think is “It,” is all a dream. All such fantasies presume we are some-thing apart from this imagined IDEA of reality.

Whatever THIS is (let’s call it reality), it is ever-changing, unresolvable, ungraspable and utterly un-pin-downable, yet it never departs from the present-ness and immediacy of this infinite and eternal Here-Now. It is always Just This, however it may appear. Our worst moments of confusion, upset, and so-called entanglement in delusion are no less reality than our most profound mystical experiences or moments of apparent clarity.

The one who seems to be HAVING these different experiences, the one who seems to be IN this or that state of consciousness, the one who hopes to REALIZE the Truth or STABILIZE in some particular experiential or behavioral state, the one who seems to go back and forth between “getting it” and “losing it,” or between encapsulation and boundlessness, that one is a mirage—it SEEMS to be there, but it cannot actually be found. In looking to find what “I” am, no-thing at all can be found, and at the same time, EVERYTHING is right here. I am at once no-thing and everything. There IS only no-thing-ness appearing as everything. Reality is all there is; and all there is, is reality. The ocean can show up in infinitely varied ways, but it never departs from being the ocean.

In the example I often give, 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 and purify the ocean. Their experiences and actions will be different as a result. But no “Hitler” or “Buddha” can ever really be carved out of the flowing whole as some static, persisting, substantial, independent, autonomous “thing” apart from the whole. “Buddha” and “Hitler” (like chairs and tables and dogs and cats) are always only conceptual ideas. We can call one of them “good” and the other “evil,” but BOTH are a choiceless movement of the ocean, inseparable from one another, and neither ever departs from being the ocean. The actuality is never really divided up—it is seamless. The perfection includes it ALL.

Within the dream-like movie of waking life, as dream-characters, we may seemingly be moved to make apparent choices and take actions of various kinds, and these may seemingly bring about various results. But this whole story has no more substance than the plotline in a dream, and the apparent “me” (the chooser-actor-thinker-observer-doer) at the center of this story has no more volitional ability or power to affect reality than a character in a dream. This is actually a wonderfully freeing realization.

And still, however ephemeral and substance-less it may be, this magical appearance is showing up—this marvelous and sometimes excruciating play. Trying to detach and shut it all out because it is supposedly “unreal” feels lifeless and dead to my particular sensibilities. But, of course, this apparent detaching (which can never really detach) is simply one possible move that reality is making, one possible dream-event that can appear to happen.

And meanwhile, this dream character here who appears to be typing this post right now seems to prefer a different possibility, a different way of dancing, which might be called love. But both detachment and love are equally movements of the whole, inseparable from one another, without any substantial, independent, persisting existence—they are simply different possibilities like clouds in the sky, shape-shifting, shapeless, disintegrating into no-thing at all. How real was any of it?

And yet, here it all is! The morning breeze, THIS cup of tea, the beloved dog trotting toward me, the green leaves, the wildfires, the wars, the child sex-trafficking, the floods, the droughts, the blossoming flowers, the falling leaves, the changing climate, the mass extinctions, the distant galaxies being born and dying—this whole amazing unnamable and ungraspable reality. What a magic show, what a dance, what a wild love affair—blessedly without meaning or purpose.

August 7, 2022

Thinking (as an energetic movement) is as formless and evanescent as sensing, but what thought does is to conceptually carve up present experiencing and then concretize or solidify all the seemingly separate pieces it has just created, including the imaginary "me." It creates objects, situations, storylines, narratives, headlines, explanations, problems, etc. But none of these apparently solid, independent, persisting "things" actually exist in the way thought suggests. They are abstract over-simplifications, and the map is never the territory it claims to represent. And yet, mapping is something the territory is doing, and in that sense, as a map, the map is as much the territory as what it depicts.

August 18, 2022

Being Fully Who We Are

I’d say that fully being who we are in EVERY sense (ocean and wave, boundless and particular) is one of the great koans of a life. Of course, in one sense, we cannot ever NOT be who we are in every sense. There is only what is, just as it is. No actual deviation is possible.

And yet, it is clearly possible to imagine and believe and feel that I am a separate individual encapsulated in a separate body, alone in the universe. And when we feel this way, there is inevitably a sense of lack and deficiency and often a real desperation to survive as this form. In our quest for connection, improvement, success, and survival as “me,” it becomes very easy to try to be someone else rather than who we actually are, or to fit ourselves into various boxes that we imagine to be “correct” or “right” or “good” – whatever we think will keep us safe or give us an advantage. For example, we may pretend to be loving when we are actually angry. We may pretend to be straight when we are actually gay. We may pretend to be happy when we are actually sad. We may try to be Nisargadatta or Eckhart Tolle instead of Nancy Smith. We may try desperately to hide our apparent defects and we may actually imagine those defects into apparent existence.

Awakening most commonly refers to a popping (whether suddenly or gradually) of the imaginary bubble of separation and encapsulation, a waking up in which we realize that we are not actually a separate encapsulated entity, but rather, an inseparable and ever-changing movement of a boundless and seamless whole from which nothing stands apart. We are a waving of the ocean, and as such, we are the ocean.

But in many schools of awakening, this realization seems to entail a complete denial of any kind of identity as a particular unique waving of the ocean. Our human being-ness is seen as entirely illusory. The reality of embodied life is completely denied—we are told, for example, that aging is totally an illusion because awareness never ages. Any number of teachers claim that this wave-identity is a delusion that has been left completely behind, a claim I find both highly suspect and dismissive of an undeniable aspect of what is.

In my view of awakening, we are simultaneously both ocean and wave, and both aspects are real—they are not one, not two. The mistake from which awakening wakes up is the false belief that we are only a limited wave, that the wave is separate from the ocean and that it has any solid or persisting form. But being awake as the ocean does not deny the ability to distinguish one waving movement from another. So-called awakening recognizes not only the boundless and seamless wholeness, but also the utterly unique particularity of every snowflake, every leaf, every fingerprint, every wave, every human being—no two are exactly the same.

And oddly enough, as many have noted, when we realize ourselves as the whole ocean, as no-thing and everything, we are free to wave in the most uninhibited, unconcerned, care-free, genuine, natural, wild, unrestrained and authentic way. We are no longer desperately trying to survive as this apparently separate wave, and we no longer feel threatened by, or in competition with, the other waves. We no longer feel driven to look to the other waves to complete us, or to give us the answers, nor is there the need to imitate some other wave or compare ourselves to the others. We recognize that we are all an inseparable whole. And in that recognition, we can be exactly this particular person that we are in each moment and not some other person that we think is better, smarter, more attractive or more enlightened.

Simply being as I am, in every sense, can seem to be quite a koan. And yet, importantly, there is no “me” being both ocean and wave, nor is there any phantom operator-author inside this particular wave steering it along, making choices and deciding to either be true to myself or untrue. Everything happens choicelessly in some utterly ungraspable and inseparable way. And so finally, we come back to the recognition that no actual deviation is or was ever possible. And yet…

Reply to a comment (saying “We are neither ocean nor wave. We are water.”):

I’m assuming that you are thinking of water as analogous to consciousness, while I was using the ocean in this post to represent the indivisible and inconceivable totality, which might well be called consciousness. And of course, I would agree that there is, in the absolute sense, no ocean, no wave, and I would also say, no water. From my perspective, “the ocean” and “the wave” and “water” (and any conceived “thing” they represent including so-called “consciousness”) are all conceptual forms conceptually carved out of a seamless, inconceivable, unresolvable, ungraspable actuality.

Donald Hoffman, a scientist whose work you may know, and who likes the idea that consciousness is primary, would say that all apparent forms, including brains and neurons and people and oceans and waves, are like the icons on our computer screen that allow functioning to happen but that have no actual connection to what is really going on inside the computer—or in this case, what is actually happening right here, right now.

Or like the dream world that seems to contain time and space and people and events, all of which actually occur in the dimensionless realm of dreaming, where there is no time, no space, and no actual objects or events.

And yet, there is undeniably the experience Here-Now of being both the boundless whole (call it consciousness if you like) and also a particular individual. Both of these show up in our immediate experience. Yes, the more closely we look at that individual, the more we find it to be evanescent, ever-changing, and inseparable from everything it apparently is not. I like the analogy of whirlpools or waves for people…but no analogy holds up beyond a certain point.

So as I see it, while we can’t actually get hold of the person (or anything else), we can’t deny that there is something here in our experience that we call a person—just as there is something we call the taste of chocolate or the feeling of heat or the sound of rain—and each of these is at once un-pin-downable and yet also vividly and uniquely what it is. And I'm suggesting that we don't need to deny the particularity in order to appreciate the formless unbound, and that, in fact, experience dances in both of these dimensions, and that they are, as they say in Zen, not one, not two.

August 19, 2022

The Attraction of Maps and Menus, Formulations and Ideologies

How many times have I found myself metaphorically reading the menu over and over instead of eating the actual meal? Many times. The meal can seem scary in some way, and the menu can feel safer. The menu is so neatly organized and compartmentalized. It is graspable. It makes sense in a way the meal itself never will. But of course, the nourishment and the real joy is in the meal, although the meal isn’t always pleasant either. So the menu can also be a kind of buffer from the unwanted parts of the meal, or a way of imagining some other, better meal. After all, the menu always sounds perfect and delicious, while the meal itself is always messier and sometimes bitter.

The meal, the nondual actuality, the living reality, is always just THIS—the utter simplicity of what is, just as it is—including the moments of feeling sad or lonely or irritated or disappointed or misunderstood or whatever it is that we deem “unpleasant” and “problematic.” It’s all included. And the labels are only labels – but they seem to solidify what is actually ungraspable and unresolvable evanescent flux.

That imagined solidification is what turns pain and painful circumstances into unnecessary suffering. It’s also what makes life seem knowable, manageable, understandable and controllable—delusions that always come up short in the end, leaving us with some mix of frustration, disappointment and confusion. The actuality is so much more alive, and nothing stands apart from it to manage or control or understand it.

At the heart of every different experience is the aware presence beholding (being and holding) it all, and THIS is the real jewel, the radiance that shines out equally from a flower garden and a trash heap, the presence that you are and that everything is. Being JUST THIS is effortless and simple. It’s always right here, always fully present. It’s what Here-Now IS. It’s our very being, what the “I” truly refers to prior to name and form.

If any so-called spiritual practice takes effort or seems complicated, it’s a clue that we’re operating in the mental realm of ideas, thoughts and beliefs, trying to work things out in the menu-world, while ignoring the meal itself. It’s also a clue that we’re identifying as the imaginary little “me” who seems to be the thinker, chooser, doer, observer inside an apparently separate bodymind. That’s all a kind of mental movie, an imagination generated by thought and memory—a story we’ve been told and are continuing to believe. It’s never our actual experience if we pay attention to what is here prior to thinking about it.

Simply notice that this whole story and thought-sense-idea of being an encapsulated separate entity appears in this vast boundless field of aware presence. This thought-sense is one appearance in a multitude of appearances, all of them showing up Here-Now as one seamless moving picture, an indivisible waving Ocean of ever-changing images and sensations, all equally water. And at the heart of it all, beholding (being and holding) it all, is this aware presence that has no shape, no color, no age, no gender, no past, no future, no inside, no outside—and yet it shows up as every shape, every color, and as all of apparent time and space. All of this is a passing appearance, but THIS is eternal (i.e., NOW) and infinite (i.e., HERE), all-inclusive and ever-present. THIS has no other. But THIS can imagine that it is separate and in search of itself. Thus, the imaginary seeker is born and the movie of “Me on My Journey to Enlightenment” starts rolling. It’s a movie, a story, a fiction, an imagination.

The pathless path, as I see it, is a kind of present moment relaxing, opening or letting go into presence itself—a noticing of what is most fundamental, most obvious, impossible to doubt, but impossible to grasp—the common factor in every different experience.

It is the recognition of always already being this, even in moments of apparent contraction and obsessive menu-reading, for in truth, there is nothing other than THIS, however it appears and whatever shape it momentarily seems to take in the dance of life. The movie story of “me seeking the end of me” is nothing other than THIS showing up as that movie. But just believing or thinking or asserting this as a nice idea doesn’t realize (make real) the aliveness and the actuality of it. And the juice is in the realization.

And that is never something that might happen in the future. It can only be realized right now. So, right now, as you finish reading this particular menu, notice the listening presence right here beholding it all and shining forth everywhere. Notice that everything being seen and heard and thought is a momentary shape that this alive presence is taking, a way of dancing, a waving of the Great Shoreless Ocean that you are, all of it appearing and vanishing Here-Now in this infinite and eternal presence that has no beginning or end.

And if thought pops up and says, “I don’t get it,” notice that this thought is simply an old habit, an old story. Notice that the false “I” it refers to cannot actually be found, that it is a kind of mirage, magically materialized in the imagination by that very thought. Notice that this person who supposedly doesn’t get it has no substance. Notice that this whole story is simply a passing shape appearing here along with the computer and the lamp and the wall and the body and the dog and the whole universe. Notice the aware presence (the true “I”) beholding (being and holding) it all. Notice that there is nothing that needs to be gotten or eliminated. Notice the perfection (the wholeness) of THIS, just as it is.

August 22, 2022

Not One, Not Two

In present experience, I am both Joan Tollifson, a particular unique human being with an age, a gender, a nationality, a personality, a life story, and many opinions and views on all kinds of things…and I am boundless presence-awareness, perfect and complete. We might call these two aspects relative and Absolute. Both seem to be here right now, albeit the focus can shift between them, much like those images that can appear as either a duck or a rabbit, or an old woman or a young woman—but it’s always the same picture, just different ways in which it can appear.

Now, if I investigate Joan Tollifson or the bodymind, I find nothing substantial or persisting or separate or independent. When I tune into what the word “I” most deeply refers to—without referring to thought, memory, or second-hand information, but referring only to present experiencing—I find no-thing at all and absolutely everything. In other words, I find presence-awareness (also known as Here-Now or THIS or present experiencing). This aware presence is boundless and seamless, without beginning or end, infinitely diverse and ever-changing without ever departing from Here-Now. It has no age, no gender, no nationality, no race, no opinions for or against anything. Like unconditional love, it has space for everything to be just as it is. It includes everything and sticks to nothing. The apparent forms in waking life are often compared to the apparent forms in a dream—they seem real within the dream, and as a dream, they are real, but all the apparent objects, people and events are nothing other than the dreaming consciousness, and upon waking up, they vanish into thin air. They had no actual substantial independent existence.

To totally deny Joan Tollifson in every sense would be absurd, just as it would be absurd to deny the world or my computer or the sandwich I’m eating or the dog next door. And yet, when we investigate the body-mind-world, or any of these apparent forms of so-called relative reality, we find that none of these “things” exist in the way we think and imagine they do. They are all, in fact, conceptualized, abstracted, over-simplified ideas artificially carved out of an indivisible, inconceivable and ungraspable wholeness and mentally reified into something seemingly solid, substantial, discrete and persisting. In seeing that, we don’t need to deny the apparent reality of the world we see and the people we seem to be, but we can hold it all more lightly, as a form of play. We see the bigger picture, the seamless boundless whole, the water in every wave, and we know THIS to be what we are and what everything is. We know that even when consciousness seems to contract down into identifying as a separate person in a seemingly dysfunctional or delusional way, this too is simply another passing appearance in a dream. It’s all the same indivisible presence, and none of it is really personal. Here-Now never actually expands or contracts. The movement is always in the movie.

We are tempted to give this wholeness a name. And that’s fine, names are useful, but can we be aware of how easily this naming makes it seem like we’ve grasped some kind of substance, some-thing that exists separate from everything that appears—some final truth that can be nailed down? Because unlike water or a movie screen or an empty mirror or any other analogy, THIS cannot be found as an object (a thing apart from other things—this but not that, here but not there). THIS is all there is. True freedom, as I see it, is in not grasping any-thing, but rather, falling open into groundlessness. Not knowing what anything is. Absolute cluelessness. Just this. Presence—being this present experiencing, this awaring presence, without needing to understand or explain it. Because really, it cannot be explained. And yet, here it is—obvious and unavoidable.

Response to a comment:

Actually, aware presence is ALWAYS here. This can be noticed. What comes and goes is the sense (sometimes functional and sometimes simply reactive) of being an individual. This too can be noticed. Eventually, it becomes clear that even what we might call "the reactive individual" is also nothing other than ocean and water waving. That realization doesn't mean we can't discern the difference between functional self-identity (such as we need to answer to our name, or cut a carrot without cutting our finger, and so on) and the more dysfunctional kind (egotism, self-aggrandizement or self-deprecation, feeling offended or put down, and so on). And it doesn't mean we have no interest in clarifying and dissolving what is hurtful. We may. But it becomes ever more clear that we can't really separate the light from the dark, that it all belongs. And that we can't really land on one side of what turns out to be conceptual divisions such as self or no-self, boundaries or no boundaries, etc. We realize that THIS cannot actually be captured and pinned down by ANY concept.

I would say, “Die before you die” can only happen NOW. It’s not a one-time event. It's a timeless non-event. And in awakening, it is realized that awake-ness was actually never not here. Yes, in the relative world (the appearance, the dream world), relatively speaking, there are definitely people who get caught up in delusion more or less frequently and more or less completely than other people—and there are people who aren’t even aware that they are caught up in delusion, and there are varying degrees of self-awareness (in this sense of that term). All of that I would never deny, and I have never denied or hidden my own imperfections in the human realm or claimed enlightenment.

I do point out that there are many factors (other than spiritual insight or how much one has meditated) involved in why one person seems to have a huge and seemingly quite permanent and stable shift, while most people have a much more gradual shifting, and some people have a lot more entanglement in self-centered, neurotic tendencies than others even after major awakening experiences and years of spiritual practice. These factors may include such things as genetics, neurochemistry, brain injuries or disorders, childhood or other traumas, poverty or social oppression, and so on. Who can say why one person turns into Hitler and another into Buddha? Ultimately, we don’t know. (And remember, this is all relative, dream-world stuff).

But we may discover that, contrary to how we think about it, Hitler and Buddha are actually inseparable waves in a single seamless and indivisible ocean, both of them equally water and equally movements of the whole ocean. The difference is that Buddha realizes that, and Hitler does not. Hence, they behave very differently and see and experience life very differently. But they are both activities of the ocean, both equally water, and you can’t really pull them apart or find where one ends and the other begins.

As this is seen more and more clearly, and as the dream-like nature of the apparent body-mind-world is seen more clearly, we become less and less inclined to idealize spiritual super-heroes and compare ourselves to them and to one another. Eventually, we notice that presence-awareness is always here, and that it is the delusions of solid form and personal identity that come and go, and we stop counting how often these things come and comparing that number to our dead super hero’s imagined number, which we never really know, or to anyone else’s claims. This score-keeping and ladder-climbing all becomes obviously absurd and beside the point. All that stuff is about "me" and some future perfection (or present lack) for "me." It the delusion that something needs to happen, that this isn't it.

The point is waking up NOW, because there is no other time. Or at least, that’s how I see it. It took me a long time (relatively speaking, in the dream-world) to realize this—I stuck to the belief that "this isn't it" and "I'm not there yet" quite tenaciously! But the "I" who isn't "there" yet is a fiction, as is this future "there" we are imagining. The true I is ever-present, timeless, eternal, dimensionless, Here-Now. The so-called pathless path is simply seeing the false as false.

Response to another comment:

By "not knowing" I'm pointing to not grasping, fixating, getting stuck in a conceptual frame, turning no-thing-ness into Some-Thing to possess. I'm not talking about what is immediately, directly, wordlessly, intuitively, undoubtably known.

August 31, 2022


I’ve been reflecting lately on faith, belief, doubt and skepticism. Faith is something that I, and many others, distinguish from belief, although they are sometimes used synonymously. Belief, as I see it, is a conceptual idea that we take to be true. Faith is a kind of confidence or trust that MAY be associated with belief (if I have faith in my beliefs, for example), but that may not be about belief at all. We might speak of having faith in life, or in presence, or in the power of love, or in some deep intuitive felt sense of fundamental harmony and wholeness unconnected to beliefs.

This Joan personality has what one friend calls a strong doubt app—a skeptical questioning doubting mind. This can be both an asset and a road block depending on what’s behind it in any given moment.

Sometimes the thought arises here, “Everything I’ve ever said and written is total bullshit…I have no idea what I’m talking about….I’m a complete fraud.” Of course, this is absolutely true, and sometimes the thought amuses me in its wonderful truthfulness, but occasionally, if I’m taking myself seriously, it brings on a wave of existential angst. I feel myself in the grip of doubt, and may then find myself habitually (and with a quiet desperation) grabbing at straws, usually in the form of different spiritual, nondual or anti-spiritual books that live quietly on my bookshelves. I’m searching in them for certainty, and I’m filled with doubt. (Yes, this still happens on occasion). And it feels tight, contracted, desperate, and all about “me.” Maybe some of you know this.

And, of course, I never find what is being sought in the pages of a book—although occasionally the book does serve up an effective Zen blow or slap, stopping the mind in its tracks and re-turning the attention to what is doubtlessly present, requiring no belief. And HERE, in this ever-present aliveness of NOW, all doubts dissolve. It feels open, peaceful, alive, in harmony with life. So the books can serve as a helpful reminder, but they can also be an addictive distraction.

But whatever brings it about, as soon as there is a shift in attention from the thought-story to simply being this awake presence Here-Now that is boundless, clear and unobstructed, and this present experiencing in its undeniable IS-ness or thusness (prior to any interpretive spin)—suddenly, there is no problem. There is nothing to believe and nothing to doubt. There is simply THIS, needing no explanation. It is instantly totally trustworthy.

By trust, I don’t mean guaranteed to keep this bodymind safe, secure, healthy, pain-free, happy and at peace with everything. Because clearly, nothing can guarantee that. It’s more a deep sense of fundamental, all-pervading okay-ness, a sense that everything belongs—and there’s an absence of any thought-story that something is missing, that something more needs to happen, that this isn’t it—it’s an absence of “me.” Nothing is being taken personally any more as “my” problem that “I” must solve. And it is instantly clear that even those occasional addictive doubt-fueled runs on the hamster wheel of thought, chasing some imaginary carrot, are themselves simply impersonal gusts of energy appearing in this vastness.

And by the “me” that is absent, I mean the me-centered thoughts, the self-image, the thought-sense that I am an independent entity encapsulated in a body, born into a hostile outside world in which I must survive and “be somebody,” somebody special, somebody who has fulfilled My Life Purpose, and all of that. That mirage-like “me” can never actually be found. It is always only a mirage—made up of thoughts, stories, mental images, memories, sensations—having no actual existence. But it does tend to re-appear, and even when you’ve discovered it’s only a mirage, it can FEEL very convincing and real at times, even though you might never be totally taken in anymore.

When I say the “me” is a mirage, I’m in no way denying the functional sense of location and boundaries and self that appears as needed in the play of life—there is certainly, apparently, what we call a body and a brain and a nervous system and a personality (certain conditioned patterns of behavior, likes and dislikes, ways of seeing things). But none of this has any independent existence or any solid, persisting form. None of it is actually personal.

And my subjective first-person experience (unobscured by the thought-story of “me”) is simply this impersonal aware presence that is boundless, seamless, shapeless, ageless, unlocatable, all-inclusive and dependent on (or stuck to) no-thing that appears. The me-thoughts appear and disappear in this openness that is never actually absent.

We can THINK (and believe?) that there can’t be any conscious experiencing without some kind of nervous system, but even those thoughts and the brain and the nervous system and the story of evolution and all the findings of biology and neuroscience are all (experientially) appearing IN this awareness. Without consciousness, they would not exist, at least, not in the way they appear to us—because even science now suggests that the very act of observing affects what is observed, that consciousness seemingly divides up or collapses an indivisible field of energy into apparently discrete objects—objects that one scientist has compared to the icons on our computer desktop. But, I digress, and I’m definitely getting into the weeds here in what is not my field.

So, back to doubt and faith and belief. I’m all for healthy doubt and for recognizing beliefs for what they are—ideas that can be questioned and doubted and possibly disproven or shown to be mistaken. Beliefs, if held lightly, can be useful and functional and relatively true. Unquestioned belief taken to be infallible can be very dangerous, as we see on display every day in the News, and if we’re aware enough of our own mind, in our own everyday thinking. No one is immune.

But doubt can also become a kind of thought-generated, me-centered, fear-based activity that is always on guard against being fooled or looking like a fool. And when we tune into direct experiencing, or into being simply impersonal boundless aware presence, or when we feel into what might be called the Heart, there is nothing to grasp—nothing we can pin down with the thinking mind. So then the little-me, the survival mind, can feel frightened because this seems like jumping out of an airplane with no parachute and being in freefall—utter openness and cluelessness—nothing to grasp, no foothold anywhere. But, as has been noted, there is actually no ground to hit and no one separate to hit it, so the danger is imaginary, much like the fear our ancestors had of falling off the edge of the earth if they sailed too far out to sea.

So, perhaps we may become ever-more sensitive and discerning as to when doubt is helpful, and when it turns into a way of pulling back from letting go—allowing ourselves to fall in love, to be vulnerable, to take our hand off the (metaphorical) steering wheel, to let GOD do us, instead of us trying to “get” GOD. (And if you hate the word GOD, pick another, such as the intelligence-energy of life itself, the Tao, the One without a second, the living reality, What Is).

And remember, this is all bullshit poured forth out of utter cluelessness. And still, it seems to be part of the Great Dance doing what it does.

September 6, 2022

What’s It All About? What’s the Essential Message Here?

The most liberating realization in my experience is that there is only THIS. Everything is THIS. We can call what I’m pointing to with the word THIS by many other names: Reality, Presence, Totality, Unicity, Consciousness, the Universe, God, the Tao, no-thing-ness, It, It-less-ness, Buddha Nature, the Unborn. We can think of it as emptiness in the Buddhist sense of impermanent, ever-changing, interdependent relationships in which no persisting, separate things ever actually form, or we can think of it as the Self spoken of in Advaita, in which the movie of waking life is compared to a dream, and everything is simply the play of consciousness. Importantly, those are BOTH conceptual formulations or descriptions after the fact. THIS (what that word is pointing to) isn’t an idea, a belief or a concept. It’s the vibrant, alive, ever-fresh living actuality here and now. No word or concept can contain it. And yet, THIS includes all concepts and beliefs, all thoughts and stories, all imaginations and daydreams, for THIS is everything.

I’ve always resonated with a variety of different ways of pointing to the nature of reality, and with a variety of different approaches to freeing us from unnecessary suffering and confusion. These include different forms and schools of Buddhism, Advaita and Kashmir Shaivism, mystical Christianity, Sufism, what I call radical nonduality (e.g. Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, etc.), and unclassifiable folks like Toni Packer, J. Krishnamurti and Shiv Sengupta. I appreciate BOTH Mooji AND Robert Saltzman; Gangaji AND Barry Magid; Toni Packer AND Tony Parsons; Zen AND Advaita; the transcendental AND the everyday; the personal AND the impersonal. One moment I’m singing bhajans and another moment I’m sitting in bare silence doing nothing. I admit, sometimes I do find the diversity confusing, but only when I get lost in thinking ABOUT it, trying to sort it out in my head (so to speak). But when I tune into direct present moment experiencing (the aliveness of this moment), all confusion instantly vanishes.

I’ve shifted away more and more in recent years from emphasizing a perspective of immovable boundless awareness in which the ever-changing body-mind-world appears (the screen/movie type view), and I’ve moved more and more toward an emphasis on indivisible and inconceivable experiencing (the ocean/wave perspective), although I still use both conceptual models at times pedagogically. And they ARE both conceptual models, which is always important to remember.

What I feel really matters in terms of liberating us from unnecessary suffering and confusion is the understanding of non-separation and non-duality, whether this is understood through the Buddhist concept of emptiness (impermanent, ever-changing, interdependent relationships in thorough-going flux where no persisting, separate things ever actually form) or through the Advaita-Dzogchen concepts of everything as consciousness or Mind (like all the events and characters in a dream, with boundless awareness as the immovable underlying reality). To me, nonduality simply means that reality is a seamless, unbroken (fractal, holographic) whole in which everything belongs, and in which the apparent polarities arise together and can never be pulled apart. (And wholeness does not mean uniformity).

Also very important for liberation, as I see it, is getting an experiential sense of the openness, fluidity and groundlessness of everything, really grokking that no solid boundaries or fixed forms ever actually exist, and realizing that the self we imagine ourselves to be is a mirage-like fiction—a mental image, a thought-story.

I often emphasize that the map is not the territory, although mapping is something the territory is doing. I feel that distinguishing thought and imagination, on the one hand, from perceiving, sensing and awaring, is very valuable, and then beyond that, discovering that they are all equally indivisible movements of a seamless whole, like waves of the ocean, that can never actually be pulled apart. But much suffering and confusion arises from mistaking the map for the territory and trying to eat the menu instead of the meal.

The ultimate and most liberating realization in my experience is that it is all happening spontaneously, that there is no one apart from this to control it, and that EVERYTHING without exception is included. THIS is absolutely everything, and everything is THIS, and THIS can never be captured by any words or concepts, for it is infinite, ever-changing, ever-fresh, unresolvable and ungraspable. Nothing matters, and at the same time, everything matters.

September 11, 2022

There is a wonderful freedom in simple being—being alive, being Here-Now, undeniably present and aware, no-thing appearing as everything. This is not the freedom to do whatever we want, but rather, the freedom for everything to be just as it is—which is ever-changing and ungraspable, yet always Here-Now in this one bottomless moment.

There is freedom in the groundlessness of not knowing what this is or how it all works, and not needing to know. Of course, we always DO know it directly by being it, and yet it can never really be known as knowledge ABOUT it. In that latter (conceptual) realm, there will always be doubt and uncertainty.

When the mental movements of seeking and resisting and trying to grasp and figure it all out stop (if only for a moment), when there is the simplicity of what is, just as it is, however it appears or seems to be, suddenly there is infinite depth, beauty and wonder in the most ordinary things—the sounds of traffic, light dancing on a wall, white clouds drifting across blue sky, the smell of rain, the taste of tea, the shape of a door knob, a piece of trash in the gutter, a squirrel running up a tree with a gigantic sunflower in his mouth. All of it has a radiance, an aliveness. And none of it is “out there.” Not really. It is all right here at zero distance. No separation. No boundary. No inside, no outside, no other. Just this.

September 15, 2022

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once said, "What is ordinary is that people look for something special. But what is special is when people settle down in the ordinary.” How true! When we stop looking for something bigger and better, when we open our eyes and ears to what’s right here, we discover that the ordinary is actually extraordinary.

September 17, 2022

Seeking and Discernment in Today’s Spiritual Marketplace

What are we seeking? On the one hand, we can feel that sometimes we are seeking such things as security, control, escape, pain relief, relief from doubt and uncertainty, self-improvement, self-aggrandizement, advantage in some form for “me” or my tribe, entertainment, bigger and better experiences, numbing out or being stimulated.

At the bottomline, we are seeking an end to seeking. Ultimately, we simply want to feel okay and at home right here and now, just as we are. We want to be free from the nagging sense that “this isn’t it” and “I’m not okay” and “something needs to happen.”

The search always revolves around the mirage-like self-image, the imaginary “me” who feels separate, inadequate, disconnected, deficient and lacking. But in a deeper sense, this longing to return home is coming from our own heart, from the home we have never really left, from the presence that we always are, the aliveness of this one bottomless moment just as it is.

We keep looking “out there” for the solution, and this isn’t entirely misdirected, because teachers, books, talks, practices, retreats, spiritual communities, and so on, can all potentially be very helpful, and we always (and only) exist in relationship—we’re never actually separate or independent, so in a way, we are always listening to ourselves even when we are apparently listening to others. I often think of us and all living beings as jazz musicians riffing together. We grow through community.

Of course, teachers, books, satsangs, and so on can also all be addictive ways of endlessly searching and never finding. But over time, we are perhaps more and more able to discern the difference between what is truly helpful and what isn’t. And in the end, everything is in some way perfect, even the apparent mistakes and detours.

All the best teachers and books are always pointing us to right here, right now. And really, all they can ever do is point and invite and encourage and perhaps model, but the fact is, no one can stop, look, listen, wake up, leap or let go for us. In that sense, we must each stand alone.

And we face unique challenges. In the space of my lifetime, the world has transformed into a global community with instant communication and unimaginable amounts of information at our fingertips. In the world I was born into, we had no computers, no cell phones, no Google, no internet, no YouTube, no answering machines or voicemail, no jet passenger planes, no credit cards, no social media. The world population was approximately 2.5 billion. As far as I knew growing up, there were no Buddhists in the US (there actually were a few, but none that I knew about), and I’d never heard of Advaita, satsang or nonduality.

In the developed world today, teachers, gurus, anti-gurus, books, videos, apps, satsangs and retreats in every conceivable flavor are at our fingertips at any hour of the day or night. In many ways, this is marvelous! But as I suspect we’ve all noticed, it can also become a kind of glut or overload, a consumer feeding frenzy in which we addictively consume more and more while actually taking in less and less. We’re going faster and faster, skimming the surface with ever greater speed, but perhaps never really going deep or developing a certain kind of constancy. It makes it much easier to mistake the menu for the meal, to imagine we’ve actually eaten and digested something, when in fact we’ve really only read about and imagined it.

It can be quite challenging in this present atmosphere to clarify what really matters and to not get lost in and hypnotized by the endless forms of constantly arriving information, entertainment, news, controversy, and the flood of ever new teachers, anti-teachers, books, podcasts and YouTubes that are continuously popping up. Everything is trying to grab our attention. We seem to live in a world of click-bait everywhere, bombarded by advertisements designed to create a feeling of lack, desire and need. I certainly notice this cacophony and the challenge of cutting through to what really matters, as I know many of you also do. And I’m not offering any grand solution here—but sometimes just noticing and acknowledging something is the first step to a change.

What drives us to consume and search in any given moment? What truly satisfies the longing we feel? There’s beauty in living with a question and not rushing to answer it one way or another.

September 26, 2022

Response to a comment in reference to the difference between the “I am not the body / Everything is Consciousness” view of Advaita and the “I am the body / There is only impermanence and interdependence” view of Buddhism:

I'm with you that there will always remain much that is unknown or uncertain. I also don't doubt that there is a brain inside my skull, but the more closely we look into any material object, the more we find indeterminacy, unresolvability, interdependence, and a whole lot of mostly empty space. So, I'm not sure exactly what that brain is or what role it plays in conscious experiencing. On that, I remain open to new discoveries.

I have no sense of any experience in either deep sleep or under anesthesia, but others have reported experiences in deep sleep (I'm not sure how they can know for certain that the experience occurred during deep sleep and that it wasn't a dream), and some people do seem to have experiences under anesthesia where they are looking down on the operating table or they hear the surgeons talking and can report on it afterwards (I'm not sure how well verified any of those things are). But it may just be that there is no memory trace from deep sleep or anesthesia.

I've had a vivid "non-experience" of this no-memory-trace while fully awake. When I woke up from my colostomy, my surgeon apparently talked to me in the recovery room, and I was obviously conscious, but I have no memory of that conversation, or of the recovery room, or of the gurney ride from there to my hospital room--my first memory is a nurse in my room asking me if I'd like a popsicle. So it seems there are levels and degrees of consciousness.

Unicity, flow....I find no word is exactly right for THIS that is at once immovable (always right here, right now--immediate and timelessly present) and at the same time ever-changing (never the same way twice, and no-thing that appears ever actually forming in any persisting way), infinitely varied and diverse while also appearing as one seamless whole picture, showing up in polarities but impossible to actually pull apart (e.g., you can't be here without the whole universe being just as it is). We can call it unicity or flow or presence or present experiencing or the Tao or no-thing-ness or everything. Or in Zen, "not one, not two." And maybe all we can really do is say what it is not.

Yes, I do think it's easy to get entangled in unresolvable conceptual conundrums, like which comes first, the chicken or the egg, that have no solution. But at the same time, how we conceive of life will have a very real effect on how we feel and act in a multitude of ways. So it does seem valuable, at least in my view, to at least see the false as false, to wake up from delusion. And maybe leaving it at that. Trying to grasp Truth always seems like a fool's errand.

October 6, 2022

I’ve had some interesting and provocative discussions on Facebook and on Zoom in this last year with a Zen teacher named Barry Magid and several other teachers associated with him. Barry is a Zen teacher in the lineage of Charlotte Joko Beck, who was one of my main teachers as well, and he is also a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Barry teaches Zen at Ordinary Mind Zendo in NYC. He writes that, “Zen offers us a perspective that is fundamentally nondualistic, anti-essentialist, and anti-transcendent.” He challenges our "curative fantasies" of transcendence and purification, pointing instead to being just this moment, awake to our impermanence, interdependence and human vulnerability. In Barry’s view, everything is empty of any essential self-nature, but is rather a momentary formation that is always impermanent, interdependent and brought forth by ever-changing relationships with everything else. I think he's said, it's relationship all the way down (as opposed to turtles), and he sometimes speaks of his campaign against capital letters, as in Truth, Reality, the Self, etc. His approach doesn’t feed our hunger for the transcendent (wanting to be the screen that is never burned by the fire in the movie, safe from the vicissitudes of life), but rather, it emphasizes our human nature (limited, vulnerable, impermanent, messy).

Barry gave a talk recently in which he laid out two directions, one the perspective of Advaita, the other the perspective of Buddhism, which he sees as irreconcilable.

To describe the former, what he called the “Awareness Only Paradigm,” Barry cited Ken Wilber:

“I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body, and what can be seen and felt is not the true Seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that has nothing to do with my inward I. I have a body, but I am not my body.

I have desires, but I am not my desires. I can know my desires, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they do not affect my inward I. I have desires, but I am not desires.

I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true Feeler. Emotions pass through me, but they do not affect my inward I. I have emotions, but I am not emotions.

I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I can know and intuit my thoughts, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward I. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.

I am what remains, a pure center of awareness, an unmoved witness of all these thoughts, emotions, feelings, and desires.”
(Ken Wilbur)

And then to describe the other perspective, which he called “Buddha Nature is Impermanence,” Barry wrote this:

“I am my body, a living breathing body, with all its physical sensations of comfort and discomfort, relaxation and tension, changing each moment with each inhalation and exhalation, dependent each moment on the air I breathe and the environment which sustains my life.

I am desires: my appetites, my needs for love and attachment, my ambitions and my ideals. In each moment, I may experience satisfaction or lack, fullness or emptiness, learning gradually to distinguish my needs from my wants, the conditions for my flourishing from the fleeting effects of gratification.

I am my emotions: my love and my anger, my sadness and my joy, my calmness and anxiety, moment after moment reflecting my inescapable dependence on others, and my vulnerability to the vicissitudes of their attention.

I am my thoughts, which pass through my awareness moment after moment, like clouds through the sky, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Whatever their content, I can recognize them as “thoughts,” part of the ongoing flow of my consciousness, a necessary part of what feels like “me,” to be neither banished or suppressed, but acknowledged in their passing.

I am my intention to practice the values and ideals of the Buddha Way, which are not of my own creation, but are passed down to me through generations of students and teachers, on whom I depend for the forms and discipline and understanding that make practice possible. I am simultaneously the product of that long tradition, its manifestation in the present, and its shaper for the future.

I am a whole person, whose body, desires, emotions, thoughts, intentions and awareness are all inseparable from my Buddha nature, all continually manifesting their inherent interdependence, impermanence and perfection, just as they are, right here and right now.”
(Barry Magid)

In response to all this, I wrote:

I resonate with both perspectives to some degree, and I would question both assertions: "I am not the body" and "I am the body." To what exactly do the words "I" and "body" refer? The more we explore the referent to which each of these words is pointing, the more we find no-thing at all and absolutely EVERYTHING. And the more we try to pin THIS down as either changing or unchanging (or in any other way), the more it eludes us.

The great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna pointed out that the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence, because the flux is so thorough-going that no "thing" ever actually forms or persists to BE impermanent. In that sense, the emptiness of Buddhism and the Self of Vedanta are perhaps pointing to a very similar realization of wholeness and ungraspability, of present experiencing (or awaring presence) as seamless and boundless, without beginning or end, without inside or outside...and yet showing up as apparently discrete forms with apparently very real beginnings and endings and insides and outsides.

In any case, I seem to resonate with different (and seemingly opposite) formulations. And importantly, THIS (the living reality) cannot be contained in any formulation. They all fall short. And they are ALL expressions of THIS. And THIS is not some-THING. Alas, words fail.

Where I don’t resonate with Barry is where he says: “I am my intention to practice the values and ideals of the Buddha Way, which are not of my own creation, but are passed down to me through generations of students and teachers, on whom I depend for the forms and discipline and understanding that make practice possible. I am simultaneously the product of that long tradition, its manifestation in the present, and its shaper for the future.”

I have no intention to practice the values and ideals of some tradition that has been passed down to me. What I call meditative or contemplative exploration emphasizes open presence in this moment, starting freshy here and now, without knowing what might be found, open to new discoveries. It doesn't need to happen in any special posture or setting. Yes, of course, as Barry would point out, this bodymind is conditioned by everything it has seen and heard and experienced, and yes, of course I value what I’ve learned from teachers and books and past experiences—and I continue to read and listen and talk with others—so what “I” am in each moment is always arising in relationship to all of this, not as something independent from it, but for me, the aliveness is in the freshness and the presence here and now, which has never been here before.

I do see and have experienced something valuable in traditions and religious rituals and forms as helpful containers, albeit I engage in almost none of them anymore, if any, perhaps because I also see the tremendous dangers. I see the ways things get frozen and stiff and dogmatic, rote and rigid, stale and limited, narrow-minded. And at the worst, I see fundamentalism and all it can bring forth. So I see traditions and traditional forms as a very double-edged sword. I have never thought of myself as either a Buddhist or an Advaitan, even though I have clearly been influenced and shaped in many ways by both of those traditions, and of course, both of them are umbrella terms for a multitude of variations.

I don't think in terms of practice, although I still sit quietly every day, and I still naturally (without intention) engage throughout the day in many of the things I absorbed from years of Zen practice and working with Toni Packer, such as noticing thoughts, tuning into the sensory world, doing tasks in the spirit described in Barry's talk on the koan of polishing a tile, in which Barry says:

“I think it's probably very basic in Japanese Zen that when they talk about appreciating something for its own sake, they usually manifest that by cleaning it… And it's not really the kind of cleaning that is to be contrasted with things being dirty, because very often when they wipe down the floor in the zendo, it's already as shiny and clean as you can imagine, and yet we clean it one more time. The cleaning is an act of appreciation and attention that means we're getting down there on our hands and knees and touching and feeling, stroking, caressing the floor in our cleaning. We're really appreciating the feel, the texture, the substance of the floor. We're appreciating it's floor-ness, we're not just getting rid of the dirt… It's an act of appreciation…reverence… dissolving of any kind of dichotomy between our ordinary mind and Buddha nature and enlightenment. In that very act…practice and enlightenment become one thing.” (Barry Magid)

Thankfully, I no longer find myself seeking enlightenment or trying to perfect myself, although I do make an effort to work out at the gym, to do my stretches every day, to avoid biting my fingers when possible, to not step into the same holes again and again, and other things that could be described as efforts towards improvement or well-being. And I do feel that my years in the meditation world did help me enormously to be less hypnotized by painful thought patterns and more awake to here and now...so paradoxically, engaging in an activity that was described by the teachers as useless, not result-oriented, and having nothing to do with benefits, did, in fact, seem to bring forth benefits. And, of course, freedom from curative fantasies and being at peace with life as it is, feels much more satisfying than being caught up in the opposite endeavor. But I no longer feel an urge to spend hours on end sitting motionlessly in silence, or deliberately sitting through excruciating pain, or engaging in various rituals such as chanting and bowing...although I do feel all of those things (paradoxically) changed me in positive ways. Of course, it takes thought, memory and imagination to construct the story of "my journey" and "my transformations."

I've always leaned more toward the Zen direction (what Barry describes) than the Advaita direction (that Ken Wilber's quote describes), but I've long had a foot in both camps, not so much ideologically, but in a very experiential sense. And I continue to explore these questions.

October 9, 2022

Compulsion to Closure: article from my October 2022 Newsletter

Somewhere recently, I heard or read the phrase, “compulsion to closure.” I can’t recall how it was used by whoever said it, but it feels like a great description of our human difficulty in tolerating unresolvability and uncertainty, and our compulsive desire to pin things down, get a grip, secure a foothold, nail down the right answer, figure everything out, and know The Final Truth with doubtless certainty. This compulsion has obvious survival benefits in practical matters, but when it translates over into other realms, it easily becomes a problem.

This compulsion to arrive at the Final Truth is, of course, foiled again and again by life itself, which simply doesn’t seem to stay put in any of the neat and tidy little boxes into which we try to put it. And so, for as long as we are trying to find this kind of certainty, it is pretty much guaranteed that uncertainty and doubt will always be nipping at our heels.

That nipping produces a kind of anxiety in us, an uneasiness, which sets us up to be easily attracted to people and systems that offer seemingly comprehensive answers that explain how the universe works and that promise us the kind of safety, security and certainty for which we long. But for many of us, these answers never really satisfy us. And paradoxically, when we stop searching for certainty and focus instead on the immediacy of present experiencing, without trying to grasp or understand it, this anxiety vanishes. We don’t actually need any Final Truth.

Science handles human curiosity and the desire for answers in an excellent way, while belief-based religion and spirituality are prone to handling it in the worst possible way. The scientific method is based on testing things out, actually trying to disprove rather than prove a hypothesis—and if it holds up to all that scrutiny, then it becomes a working theory, like the theory of evolution, but even then, theories are always open to being proven wrong. (Of course, science—like all human endeavors—can be corrupted by such things as greed, ambition and politics, but eventually, these errors are uncovered and corrected by the very nature of the scientific method—and remember not to conflate science with technology.)

Religion, on the other hand, when it is based on belief, regards its ideas as Truths that cannot be questioned. In many cases, these Truths are believed to have been revealed by God. They are considered infallible and of divine origin. This leads easily to dogmatism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, magical thinking, gullibility, exploitation, holy wars, crusades, witch burnings, and generally lots of suffering.

But at its best, religion is not about belief. It is about direct experiencing and a devotion to the aliveness of this moment, here and now. It involves a direct exploration of this living actuality. My friend and teacher Toni Packer always stressed that she was not an authority, that anything she said could be questioned or taken further, that we should test it out for ourselves. She was always willing to look at a question freshly, to start from scratch. She was open to seeing something new, to changing her mind. She was like a scientist in her approach, but she was also religious in the sense that her exploration was not the objective (dualistic, subject/object) kind that science engages in, but rather, it was a nondual subjective (contemplative, meditative) exploration of our firsthand experiencing.

This living actuality can never be pinned down or grasped. It is moving and changing—never the same way for even an instant. And yet, in another sense it is immovably always right here, right now in this ever-present immediacy or presence that we can never actually leave. This one bottomless moment is infinite and eternal, without beginning or end, without edges or limits. It has no inside and outside. It is undivided and indivisible. There is infinite diversity and variation, and yet it all shows up as one seamless whole. There are apparent polarities, but they only appear relative to each other, and they can never actually be pulled apart.

Reality is simple. It is right here. Present experiencing, just as it is. The morning breeze, THIS cup of tea, the beloved dog trotting toward me, the green leaves, the blossoming flowers, the galaxies dying and being born millions of light years away—this whole amazing magic show. And yet, we can never really pin it down, get hold of it, or explain it in any final way. We ARE it. This indivisible present happening is both obvious and inconceivable. It never resolves into any final shape, it never departs from this present immediacy, and we are never separate from it.

So is it possible to be okay with not having any Final Truth? Can we live with the openness of not knowing, of groundlessness? Can we be at home with the absence of closure, and with the fluidity and multiplicity of dimensions in which life is presenting itself moment by moment? Actually, we have no choice. But in not resisting this, it may turn out to be enjoyable and miraculous, even when it apparently isn’t.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022--

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