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Blog #20


The following are the most recent selected posts from my Facebook author page:
https://www.facebook.com/JoanTollifson.

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



December 21, 2022

Solstice Musings


Lately, in my mind, I seem to be falling out of spirituality and nonduality and the whole scene I’ve been so much a part of and so deeply immersed in for so many decades. That’s probably an exaggeration to say I’m falling out of it. But something is shifting. I find myself so profoundly tired lately of all the religious-spiritual-nondual bullshit….the endless awakening stories, the efforts to transcend everyday life and human vulnerability, the whole idea of enlightenment, the beliefs, the magical thinking, the endless experience mongering (as Toni Packer called it), the gurus and their promises, the one-track ponies cloned from Tony Parsons all endlessly saying over and over that there is no one here and nothing is happening and their self-contraction has dissolved so you might want to keep listening to them because maybe then your contraction will dissolve too…the whole spiritual industry. I’ve never liked that term, spiritual industry, used by my two beloved iconoclastic friends Robert Saltzman and Shiv Sengupta, but suddenly it resonates with me.

Zen teacher Barry Magid defines religion as, “moment to moment reverence and awe, and the kind of attention that treats ordinary things as extraordinary and worthy of that kind of attention,” and if that is religion, then I am definitely still religious. But I’m not religious in any formal or traditional sense, although I’ve been known to enjoy religious rituals and mythologies. And I’ve enjoyed and seen the beauty in many gurus and teachers and in Tony Parsons and many of his clones, so I’m not knocking any of these wonderful beings or what they do. Everything is beautiful and perfect in its own way. I still meditate every day, meaning I sit silently simply being present, and I love doing this (or this doing or undoing me).

I just feel suddenly very, very fed up with the dishonesty, the pretense, the false certainty, the special people at the front of the room (and I’ve been one of them), and all the ways I’ve gobbled it up and in some way continued to put all these people up above me. Maybe “suddenly” is not quite the right word for this fed-up-ness, given that I’m a septuagenarian and thus obviously a very slow learner, but the fed-up-ness did arrive with a certain suddenness quite recently and with a sense of finality it never had before. Something feels very over and done with—although knowing me, it might not be.

In my view, we each have a unique path. No one else knows what anyone else needs to do. And we are all equally inseparable movements of the universe, like the waves of a single ocean. There is no such thing as awakening or enlightenment other than present experiencing here and now.

I’m not against teachers and spiritual communities and practices of various kinds. I think many of these things can be helpful in many ways—they have been for me. It’s one of the best forms of play that I’ve found. And there can certainly be all kinds of experiences and insights and shifts and transformations that happen. But why they happen when they do, no one really knows. They aren’t personal, and they don’t really matter. They all pass. Death takes it all, and that’s not bad news.

Because in the end, it all comes down to the utter simplicity of right here, right now. I’ve been saying this for decades in books and talks and Facebook posts—but I’m always talking to myself. Because the truth is, I’ve never entirely shed the curative fantasies of a more enlightened me, or the efforts at times to make that happen, or the desire for some great all-knowing parental guru to finally zap me awake in a whole new way, wipe out all my doubts, relax all the contracted energies, dissolve all traces of ego, and free me at last from all my neurotic imperfections (my hot temper, compulsive fingerbiting, all the ways I’m ungenerous and defensive and self-protective, the waves of darkness and depression that can still move through). But here I am, older than I ever imagined being, living in a retirement community no less, and suddenly, for no good reason, out of the blue, in a wave of darkness, the waves parted and I was suddenly fed up and finished.

But, of course, that’s just another story—another enlightenment story—more bullshit—all about me, the main character, triumphing at last. Nothing is ever finished. But maybe, just maybe, the bullshit is slowly being worn down. Or maybe I’m just learning to embrace it, to find the beauty in it, to love everything, even myself, just exactly as it is. Who knows.

Happy HolyDaze! Happy Solstice. Enjoy the dark time and the gifts of darkness. I love you all. Thanks for being here.



December 23, 2022

A Postscript to My Previous Post (based on edited responses to some of the comments I got, along with some added thoughts)


Perhaps the opening lines in my last post were a bit misleading, where I said, “I seem to be falling out of spirituality and nonduality and the whole scene I’ve been so much a part of and so deeply immersed in for so many decades.” I don't really feel that I'm leaving spirituality itself, as I mean it, or that I'll never write another word on this subject. What seems to have fallen away is another layer of looking outside myself and outside of right here, right now for some kind of imaginary salvation and certainty for that illusory deficient "me". Not trusting myself, in other words (and by myself, I mean THIS, right here, right now). I call it a "layer" (rather than a final breakthrough) because I’m wise enough to know that things have a way of circling around and reappearing, just when you think they’re gone forever.

And after listening for these many decades to so many people yammering on and on about blablabla (enlightenment, awakening, self-realization, no self, no choice, this teacher, that teacher), I was venting a bit of sick-and-tired-ness over being in the middle of this crazy spiritual circus (all of it primarily in my own mind, of course, of which "out there" is but a reflection).

Yes, Tony Parsons was such a breath of fresh air when I first heard him around 2000, and the message was (and still is) so liberating, maybe the most liberating message of all. But repeated ad infinitum and then repeated and repeated and repeated by an ever-growing chorus of new clones on YouTube, it becomes very dead and stale. It's the old danger of creating an "ism" (even if you say you aren't doing that) out of THIS that is alive...and I think it's also that the message is so one-sided, such a one-trick pony. In contrast to something like Zen that has so much more nuance and ability to embrace both sides of any apparent divide without landing in, or clinging to either side. My sense is that Tony and his unofficial, but unmistakable, lineage are stuck in the absolute and have inadvertently made it into an "ism"—a new dogma. The message is still liberating, and I still love Tony dearly. He's a lovely guy. But the result has been a hive-mind, as one person put it in their comment.

I'm not advocating any kind of false egalitarianism either. As waves in the ocean, we are all equally ocean, equally water...but the Buddha-wave knows that and the Hitler-wave doesn't (to take two extreme examples), and they have very different experiences and behaviors as a result. So there is a place for teachers and for hierarchy, but it too often comes with toxic versions of power over others and authoritarian false certainty. And students or seekers often give away their own power and want a kind of divine parent to feed them. Ultimately, we must stand alone and no one can see for us.

Sometimes keeping our mouth shut is the wisest and best thing to do, especially if we think we're right, or we have The Answer, or we have some rather paternalistic and self-serving idea of "helping others." But, on the other hand, I'm so grateful for all the folks who have spoken and written...and for all the sharing...so sometimes, it's great to open our mouth and see what falls out and how it dances in the world. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

I don't actually believe in something called self-realization anymore, unless that word simply points to the whole experience of a lifetime (here and now). I find that being alive is both incredibly simple, and yet also incredibly difficult and bewildering at times. There are many different things that fall away, and many different things that are noticed or discovered. And yet none of these discoveries or fallings away seems to result in a life completely free of suffering and delusion. In fact, I would say the search for that ultimate cure and final finish-line is one of the things that falls away. And in my experience, which is really all I can ever talk about, it seems to fall away in ever subtler layers, or again and again. And for sure, all the hype and the endless enlightenment stories aren't helping matters.

Different teachers are pointing to different things, different realizations. Each can only speak from their own experience. However far we go, we're always right here. And still, the ability to distinguish apples from oranges shows up. Duality and non-duality. They both appear right here, right now.

I wouldn't quite say spirituality and enlightenment is all taken care of and out of the way...it's more like another layer of looking outside myself has fallen off...and I'm old enough to know that things can reappear in ever-more subtle ways, or even in not very subtle ways, so I tend to think that those folks who announce that they are permanently enlightened, awake and self-realized are in for a rude awakening. The very idea strikes me as a complete oxymoron. As I see it, the journey of exploration and discovery is without end. And this latest shedding feels really more like dropping in than dropping out. Life is full of paradoxes.

To be clear, I'm not rejecting spirituality itself, as I mean it, nor am I rejecting teachers, communities, practices, retreats, satsangs, or the reality of a transformative process or unfolding—albeit it takes thought and memory to conjure up a process over time. Where I see the problem is more about the ways we get stuck in grooves, turning the living actuality into dead "isms" (Buddhism, Hinduism, radical nonduality-ism, etc)—and all the pitfalls that come with creating institutions and teaching as a career (neither of which I'm rejecting, exactly, but there are dangers), and the ways we look outside of ourselves and seek what doesn't actually exist. So, it’s not that we shouldn't have teachers or read books, but there's a way of never really getting the message. We read the menu over and over instead of actually eating the meal. And we each have a unique meal to eat, a unique path to walk, so at some point, we have to let go of all the things we’ve absorbed from others and trust in THIS, this ever-changing present experiencing, this one bottomless moment here and now, just as it is. And know that life (or so-called awakening) is doing us, not the other way around.

There are many different ways to see through delusion and wake up to the beauty of every ordinary moment, many different ways of being with our human suffering and complexity. I don’t believe spirituality is the only way, or that any one version of spirituality is the only way or the right way. But I have found great richness in the spiritual world. I’ve been lucky to have been with some truly great teachers, and to have lived in a few very wholesome spiritual communities. The teachers were ordinary people that we knew and interacted with in everyday life, they were honest and unpretentious and not abusive or authoritarian, and they had real wisdom and insight, as well as humility. They pointed us to right here, right now, and to trusting our own heart-mind and not some external authority. They didn’t want to be put on pedestals or seen as gods. They appreciated not only the simplicity, but also the nuanced complexity of being human.

And I’m not against teachers who make a living from teaching (I myself derive an important income-stream from holding meetings, but I don’t make grandiose claims or promise any results). I’m not against spiritual communities or even organized religions. All these things can be great. They can also be terrible. For me, the important thing, if we’re involved in any of these things (working with or being teachers, being part of spiritual organizations and institutions, engaging in practices, etc.) is to see where the potential pitfalls are and to be honest about what’s going on and where we’re at. I see a whole lot of dishonesty, grandiosity, escapism, curative fantasies and magical thinking in the spiritual and religious worlds (and in myself, which is what my last post was really about). But I see a whole lot of beauty and possibility and real transformation as well in the best of spirituality and religion.



December 25, 2022

My Solstice post was one of the most widely “liked” of anything I’ve ever written. Clearly, it spoke to many people. My Dec 23 clarification was somewhat less popular, although it also seemed to resonate with many people. One person called it back-peddling, which it really wasn’t. Another person commented on my Dec 23 post that, “We sometimes overthink and create an endless circle of Samsara.” I wasn’t sure if she was saying that’s what she thought I was doing, but at the risk of creating yet another endless circle of samsara, I will foolishly make another attempt at putting recent developments into words.

I do so partly to clarify it for myself, and partly because some of you have been trying to name, define or diagnose what exactly I’m describing or experiencing—is it a “grey night of the soul,” a loss of interest in all things spiritual, a dry spell? Have I finally realized that all organized spirituality is a corrupt industry, or that all of spirituality is nothing but magical thinking? None of that hits the mark, prompting me to try again.

I think it’s really all about addiction and sobriety. Addiction shows up a lot in this life. I’ve been addicted at different times to alcohol, sex, cigarettes, caffeine, fingerbiting, self-centered thinking, myself, self-doubt, and (at times) spirituality—that latter addiction being the main subject of my solstice post.

To be clear, I have known and been deeply engaged with a spirituality that is not an addiction and that is not about finding some illusory comfort or leaving our human-ness behind, which I tried to make clear in my clarification post, and that is the spirituality I have tried to convey for many years in my writings and talks.

But I’ve also known the addictive kind, the kind that seems to promise a way out of human vulnerability and uncertainty, the kind that feeds on that inner sense of deficiency and lack, the kind (as Barry Magid like to point out) that uses a lot of capital letters (Awareness, Truth, Consciousness, the Self, etc), the kind that holds out the carrot of a final complete end of the self, and a dissolving of the self-contraction that you don’t even know is there until it’s gone (according to Jim Newman, whom I confess I’ve listened to more than once), the kind where the teacher, who claims to be permanently without self, speaks with absolute certainty about what’s going on here. They have no doubts. I have longed for that certainty, that confidence.

And on many occasions, I have reached for a spiritual book or a YouTube video in the same way I once reached for a drink or a cigarette, to ease some gnawing discomfort and uncertainty, hoping to finally cure that persistent sense of lack and self-doubt. And I could feel this. I wrote about it. I saw it. I felt it. But it still happened.

And the thing is, I don’t think getting drunk, smoking cigarettes, masturbating to porn, getting high on devotion and bhajan singing, drinking black coffee, biting my fingers, or watching a Jim Newman video is an inherently bad thing. I remember when I was sobering up back in 1973 with a therapist who had me having conversations between the part of me that wanted to smoke or drink and the part of me that wanted to stop. I called these two parts of myself the sober nun and the drunken lover, and I discovered they were both an important part of me. The sober nun was the healthy mature adult, and the drunken lover was the wild, childlike, rebellious artist. I didn’t want to get rid of the drunken lover, I just needed to find healthier ways of embodying and expressing that part of me. So, it’s complicated. It’s not black and white. This is part of why I’m loving Jack Haubner’s Zen memoirs (I’m on the first one now, which I also highly recommend), and why I love Leonard Cohen’s music. Because they both see how the light and the dark, the spiritual and the erotic, the monastery and Boogie Street are entangled and inseparable, and they live with that koan and with the koan of turning the suffering that is an inevitable and fundamental part of life into beauty through art. So being sober is complicated. It’s not about purity or purification or self-improvement. But it’s not about drinking yourself to death either. It’s a big koan.

Anyway, recently, as I’ve been trying to express, something seems to have released and fallen away (whether temporarily or forever I don’t know). And that something was the addictive aspect of spirituality. I wasn’t battling it at the time, trying desperately to stop, not at all. Winter was setting in, the days were getting cold and dark and rainy, and I was going through some off and on depressive states that often give rise to this and other addictive behaviors. It wasn’t some big dark night of the soul, just some passing dark clouds that I’m familiar with and that I’ve learned not to be too troubled by. Just passing weather. And then suddenly, the clouds parted and I was struck sober. That’s way too dramatic, but it really felt like that. I felt something fall away or shift (and again, whether temporarily or forever, I don’t know).

This did not feel scary or gray or bleak or dry—not at all. It feels alive and light and bright. Freeing. Relieving. It has to do with trusting what is. Trusting myself, by which I mean this body-mind-world right here-now, this present experiencing, THIS. It was like the falling away of self-doubt and that sense of lack, that addictive search for certainty, and the persistant idea that someone else has something I don’t that I can maybe get from them. All of that was suddenly just gone. But it wasn’t like I lost interest in all things spiritual. It wasn’t like I’ll never read another spiritual book or watch another video or attend another retreat or give another retreat or hold another meeting or write another word about any of this. Not at all. It was very specifically the addictive part, the self-doubt, the longing for certainty and resolution. That seems to be gone in a way that feels new.

As an addict, I know better than to announce that this tendency, this addiction, is gone for good. In fact, one of the most seductive and addictive spiritual enticements was precisely that holy grail of a final Self-realization from which your neurotic self never returns, the end of the self-contraction that you don’t even know you have until it’s gone, the total end of Joan’s ego. Secretly, more often than I like to admit, I was still chasing this fantasy of final resolution or hoping for it. And I know some of you believe in that stuff, and what do I know? Maybe it’s real. I can’t know what anyone else experiences, but suddenly I just feel so totally done with chasing that particular holy grail. And done with the kind of spirituality that promises it or dangles that seductive carrot in front of you (“This is it,” some folks in this business say, and in the next breath they speak of the self-contraction that has fallen away for them—and of course, they add that it doesn’t matter, that nothing really happens—but they’re at the front of the room and you’re paying to lap this up). I’m done with the kind of teachers who claim to be beyond it all, and the spiritual scenes that promote this kind of addictive hook.

As Joko Beck once said, no rat will go down a tunnel with no cheese at the end of it over and over again, but we humans will. Hope is a very strong drug. And I’m not advocating hopelessness. That’s just the flip side of hope. Both sides are all about the future and all about me. The answer to our problem is always right here. Exactly right here and exactly right now. When we turn to face the imaginary problem, it evaporates. But this isn’t a once-and-for-all thing. It’s a NOW thing. As I said in response to a comment recently, there's a very important difference between something (like enlightenment, realization, awakening) being complete and it being permanent. The latter is the oxymoron in my view. But in any moment, it may be complete. What the next moment might bring, we do not know.

So I’m not exactly saying there is no such thing as liberation—as in, life sucks and that’s as good as it gets. But liberation isn’t the end of all our problems. It’s a different way of seeing and being with them. And it’s not a permanent condition that a permanent self is always in forever after. That, in my view, is delusion.

For the record, I’m not in love with the word spirituality, but I haven’t found a better word. What exactly IS spirituality as I mean it? Good question. In a way, it’s just life. But it’s a particular way of living. It has to do with seeing through the self-centered dream, the endless delusions, the ways the mind works, the ways we create suffering and confusion out of thin air. It has to do with waking up to the beauty and aliveness and wonder of the ordinary, of this very moment, just as it is. It has to do with grappling with life’s most fundamental questions, such as what am I, not so much philosophically, although that’s in the mix, but more importantly, in a very embodied and lived way.

Spirituality as I mean it isn’t anything other than washing the breakfast dishes, emptying my ostomy bag, having cancer, listening to the rain, reading a great book, brushing my teeth, having dinner with a friend, doing the laundry, playing with the dog next door, or writing a FB post. It is life itself. It’s the discovery that it all goes together, it all belongs, you can’t get it wrong, and you can’t pin it down. Whatever-this-is (this living actuality) is in one sense eternal (timeless, always now, seamless, indivisible, unborn, undying) and in another sense utterly impermanent and interdependent and evanescent (no-thing survives for even an instant or exists independently of everything else), and we can't land on either side, mortal or immortal, this or that. It's about including more and more. It’s about love. And it’s about devotion to what is. And in the end, spirituality seems to defy all attempts to pin down exactly what it is.

I’ll be on retreat soon. Every year I take a bunch of days over New Years to be in silence at home. Staying off the screens, off email and social media and Netflix—not holding meetings, not seeing friends, not talking on the phone, not socializing. Just being here. Listening to the rain, taking walks, sitting quietly doing nothing, sometimes writing or reading a bit, but writing only by hand, not on the computer, and not reading much, if at all. It’s a good way to end the old year and begin the new one. But who knows, I may sneak in another post or two before that begins. Or maybe not. Anyway, Merry Christmas.



January 4, 2023

Emerging tonight from my at home solitary New Year’s retreat in the middle of a wild windstorm. Two Zen phrases have echoed throughout the week: “Vast emptiness” and “Not knowing is most intimate.” The willingness to let go into the listening silence, to be this ordinary moment, just as it is, however it is. Ordinary mind is simple, unadorned, open—and every moment is the gate.

The silence of open spacious presence—and the play of the mind. Awareness illuminating the habitual movements that come and go: grasping, resisting, contracting, trying, wanting, not wanting, opening, closing…and the endless stream of thinking like chewing gum for the mind, and the seeking that can still arise for some final certainty and the quiet desperation in that—and at one point, a line from Nisargadatta comes to mind, someone asking him a question over and over about something to do with illusion as I recall, trying to figure it out, and Maharaj finally saying, “What illusory word do you want that will satisfy you?”

There was lots of rain and fierce winds. Walking in the rain, rushing water everywhere. Wet sidewalks were like mirrors—I was walking on the trees. Everything washed clean, gleaming, raindrop jewels everywhere. At one point, standing watching rain pelting the surface of the pond when suddenly a huge white egret floats down right in front of me, lands in the water and begins fishing. Gratuitous blessings. Another moment, sitting in my cozy living room, gazing out the window, a hummingbird appears at the window and then visits the small frail redbud tree outside my window that I love so dearly and keep rooting for, its thin branches bare now except for two last brown leaves.

Reflecting on the paradox of agency and how it relates to this pathless path that involves a kind of effortless effort to see through delusion and re-turn again and again to that simple ordinary mind. Before retreat, a friend who is spending time with a baby lately was telling me about watching him as he discovers that he can open and close his hand, that he has agency, that this isn’t just happening to him mysteriously, that he can initiate it. And we can see this with babies, how they discover the ability to turn over, and eventually, to stand up, to speak, to walk. It is all a choiceless movement of the whole universe, and yet, that doesn’t mean there isn’t agency or choice in any sense.

Clearly in spiritual work, in psychotherapy, in somatic work, in addiction recovery work, we are learning to see how we turn pain and painful circumstances into needless suffering, how we confuse ourselves, how we chase after the impossible and try to avoid what cannot be avoided. We are learning to see our magical thinking, our confirmation biases, our prejudices, the stories we believe about ourselves and others and the world, the self-centered dream. We are discovering different possibilities for how to move, how to meet the difficulties that arise, how to allow everything to be as it is, how to surrender, how to relax and rest in the ordinary. And awareness is the key. We (the thinking mind identifying as the person and exerting will) doesn’t actually do any of this, but rather, it happens when we finally let go and allow what is to be as it is, and then, by simply being aware of the confusion and the delusion, transformation happens.

Six days of retreat full of so many different dimensions of reality, so many weather systems, so many moments of light and dark—all of it vanishing as soon as it appears, and yet, the egret is still here, still floating down, and the hummingbird, and my friend’s grandson opening and closing his tiny hand.

It was mostly a week of silence, staying off all my screens, the phone turned off, sometimes sitting on my meditation cushion, sometimes in my armchair, sometimes taking a walk…cooking and eating…sleeping and waking…a bit of house cleaning. And although mostly silent, it wasn’t entirely silent…there was running into a dear friend on a walk, exchanging a few words and a hug…there were a few unavoidable phone calls about medical appointments…there were a few things I had to tend to on my iPad…there was even a brief visit to the dentist on the final day of retreat to consult with him about a problem. One night I listened to Gregorian chants, and a few times I dipped into a spiritual book for a few pages…and occasionally I wrote a few words by hand in my journal…but mostly, it was silent and solitary, simply being here with the rain and the wind and the ever-changing movies of waking and dreaming life and the deep place when the theater is totally dark and nothing at all is happening.

This is a wonderful thing to do, this kind of retreat. I’ve done it every year over New Year’s for many years (except last year when I was moving over New Year’s), and I hope I remember to make the time to do it more often, even for just a day or two, throughout the year.

And now, back to the world of conversations and news and social media and appointments and meetings and phone calls and a trip to the hospital in the morning for a blood draw and the whole wonderous whirling dance of daily life.



January 8, 2023

Being Here Now and Here-Now-Being


The phrase “being here now” can describe both a practice and the ever-present nature of reality. Both are valid. As a practice, it refers to seeing how attention gets caught up in thoughts and stories, many of which create tremendous suffering and confusion when mistaken for accurate reports on reality. Being here now involves deliberately shifting the attention from these thought-generated mental movies (the self-centered dream) to the sensory actuality of this moment here and now. This is, in my experience, a very valuable endeavor, well worth undertaking.

But it does have a potential pitfall, namely its tendency to reinforce the illusion of a “me” (the apparent thinker-author-chooser-doer) separate from experiencing who is supposedly “doing” this practice, and then either succeeding or failing at it. This can lead to a tense goal-oriented kind of trying accompanied by endless stories of frustration and failure. The fact that this potential pitfall exists doesn’t make the practice wrong or useless, and hopefully, the practice itself eventually reveals this pitfall for what it is. Sam Harris discusses all of this very eloquently and clearly on this podcast.

By engaging in this “being here now” endeavor, we begin to recognize the differences between thinking and awaring, between our stories and beliefs and the ungraspable actuality of sensory experiencing. We discover the powerlessness of this illusory “me” who, we think, “should” be able to do this “being here now” on command. And we begin to see that this “me” doesn’t actually exist—that it is simply a mirage created by thoughts, mental images, memories and bodily sensations. And as Sam describes, we may begin to notice experientially, that consciousness itself is unbound, not encapsulated inside the head, and that the body, the world, and the whole universe are all appearances in consciousness or shapes that consciousness is taking, all of them appearing in this boundless open awareness being and beholding it all.

So, that’s “being here now” as a practice.

But this still seems like something that we need to keep doing, something that requires ongoing maintenance. And there still seems to be a duality between boundless awareness and the thought-sense of being a person. This all dissolves in the realization that there is never anything other than being here now. This one bottomless moment, this ever-present immediacy (here), this eternal timeless presence (now) is all there ever is. Even what we have learned to regard as distraction, useless stories, the me-illusion, harmful beliefs, destructive actions, energetic or somatic contractions, and so on are all simply some of the many ways this aliveness here-now can momentarily appear. None of it is personal. It’s all just weather—ever-changing, momentary, ungraspable, evanescent.

In this realization, the whole search for a better experience and an improved “me” evaporates, and there is a tremendous freedom and relief in not needing anything to be other than exactly how it is. There is also an appreciation of the wonder right here in each ordinary moment. The search for bigger and better experiences, or for some final understanding, dissolves. There is simply this indescribable present experiencing from which nothing stands apart.

This perspective is beautifully expressed by many people including Darryl Bailey, John Astin, Robert Saltzman, Peter Brown, Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, Nancy Neithercut, and many others, myself included. The potential pitfall here is that we may become stuck in or fixated on a particular conceptual mapping of reality (no self, no choice, nothing to do or not do, no practice, etc.). This can become almost a fundamentalist dogma in which a healthy sense of self and the possibility of genuine transformation is all denied. All practices are condemned, and any distinction between someone like Hitler and someone like Buddha is erased. It’s as if apparent duality has been dualistically excluded from nonduality, and the functional sense of agency and choice has been wiped out along with the realization that everything is a movement of the whole.

So, in my experience, different messages and approaches are needed at different moments. Whatever this is—this whole happening—it includes everything, and it doesn’t seem to have any final resolution. It keeps on unfolding, while never departing from this present immediacy here and now. Practicing “being here now” is one way that “here-now-being” shows up.



January 14, 2023

Present experiencing is what we are. Experiencing is centerless, edgeless, seamless, ever-changing, totally immediate. Experiencing is the breaking wave of time in the timeless (eternal) now. Reality shows up as infinite holographic fractal dimensions appearing in the immediacy of here, this present-ness that never departs from itself, even when the light and the movie of experiencing vanish every night into the darkness of deep sleep where no experiencing remains, and what remains is inconceivable.

The person is a kind of avatar for something that is truly unfathomable. The avatar appears in the mirror, in photos, and to others—but the subjective actuality of experiencing is centerless, boundless presence, the breaking wave of becoming, the ever-present here-now of being, and the unseeable germinal darkness into which everything dissolves and from which it emerges.

In all this, in boundless presence, in present experiencing, in germinal darkness, there is no subject or object, no inside or outside, no me apart from you. Everything is included and nothing is actually personal in the ways we often think it is. This living reality is an indivisible whole that cannot be pulled apart. Everything belongs. Nothing could be other than how it is, and yet, nothing actually stays the same for even an instant. There is no getting it wrong, and no arriving at or departing from this one bottomless moment.



January 2023 Newsletter:

EVERYTHING is included!


Hello Friends on the Pathless Path of Exploration and Waking Up to the Wonder of Here and Now...

We humans seem deeply habituated to look for a better experience, a better me, a better partner, a better house, a better teacher, and so on. And sometimes that’s perfectly appropriate, it may even be how we have evolved. But often it’s just an old addictive pattern repeating itself over and over. Life is by nature in some ways unsatisfactory—it includes uncertainty, what we consider mistakes and imperfections, and many other things we don’t like or want.

We seem deeply inclined to believe that “this can’t be it,” and to seek something we imagine would be better, some conclusive resolution or understanding about the nature of reality that will give us the unassailable peace and security for which we long, or some final shift, finish-line enlightenment or awakening experience that we hope will permanently end the sense of vulnerability, uncertainty and dissatisfaction that is a part of embodied human life.

But what if ALL of this, including the dissatisfaction and the seeking and the apparent imperfection, is ALL simply the infinitely varied, ever-changing, evanescent ways in which reality momentarily appears—and what if NONE of it is ever actually personal? What if ALL of it is nothing other than this indivisible luminous awaring presence, this present experiencing?

It's wonderful to read books, watch YouTubes, go to retreats, hear talks and so on, but ultimately it comes down to exploring and experiencing directly for ourselves. No one can do it for us. At times, we may find ourselves reaching for another spiritual book or another video in the same way we might reach for a cigarette, a shot of whiskey, or a bag of potato chips. Instead of actually exploring and simply being the direct, immediate experiencing to which all the best teachings point, we read yet another book describing it instead. It’s like we’re addicted to reading the menu over and over instead of actually eating the meal. Something about the menu feels safer. It’s more pin-down-able. And of course, sometimes the book or the video or the teacher is actually helpful, and the reaching for it is not an addictive move at all. But sometimes it is. And yet, even our addictions and compulsions are also nothing other than this indivisible reality doing what it does. Even to call them addictions is just a label—the actuality itself is inconceivable.

Truly, everything is unfolding in the only way possible. We can’t get it wrong. Nothing can be pulled out of the whole. No wave can decide to go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean is moving, and no wave is ever separate from, or other than, the ocean moving. The “me” who seemingly might “get it wrong” (or right) is a kind of intermittent mirage-like appearance made up of mental images, thoughts, stories, memories, and somatic sensations. It has no actual substance or persisting form—and no real inside or outside.

The body in which this “me” seems to live is itself an ever-changing process inseparable from everything it supposedly is not (air, sunlight, earth, everyone else, the whole universe, consciousness). Experientially, “the body” is ever-changing sensations (somatic sensations, colors, shapes, sounds, feelings, thoughts). The word “body” suggests a solid, delineated “thing” in a world of other separate “things.” But the actuality of this present experiencing is seamless, boundless and indivisible.

Polarities, contrasts and dualities are an undeniable aspect of this manifestation—but the boundaries between them are porous and ultimately unfindable. Where on the coin does heads become tails? Where in this present experiencing does inside become outside? Where does awareness become appearances? Or night become day? Or deep sleep become waking or dreaming? We can’t deny night and day, or you and me—each vividly and uniquely itself—but we can’t actually find any solid boundary-lines.

We also never find any substantial, persisting, objective “thing” that we can grasp, and we never find the one who is looking or grasping. We simply find so-called looking-grasping-sensing-perceiving-awaring-thinking-feeling-being endlessly morphing into new shapes, infinitely varied but always showing up as one seamless present experiencing.

When the thinking mind tries to figure it all out, confusion appears. But right here, right now is not confusing at all. Sounds of traffic, taste of tea, bird cheeping, sensations of breathing, reading these words, thoughts popping up and dissolving—one whole happening, one bottomless moment. Radiant, alive and unfathomable. Just this, as it is. And EVERYTHING is included.

Love to all of you,

joan

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January 16, 2023

Love and Light


In the final decades of her life, after my father had died, my mother moved to an apartment in downtown Chicago, and she used to throw a huge party every year on her birthday. She’d invite about 80 people—and she had friends of every age, social class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and political persuasion. She would meet strangers on the bus and invite them to dinner and they’d become lifelong friends. And these 80 very diverse people would fill up her not very large apartment, and she would provide food and drink, and she would say, “We need to learn to love each other.” She told me to love myself, to love everyone, to love the world. It’s not easy to love the people we see as threatening to us in some way—the people we demonize or fear. Martin Luther King Jr. was a remarkable example of someone who moved from love and not hate, even in the face of enormous prejudice, hatred and violence being directed at him—and ultimately, even in the face of death. I have a deep feeling that love is the answer to what ails us. Love is the very nature of awareness—it includes, allows and illuminates everything and clings to nothing. It is the true alchemy of transformation. Everything is made of light, and sometimes, we can see and feel that. In these often polarized times, when people (myself at times included) plant our flag on one side of some issue and then won’t listen openly to any other perspective, it seemingly solidifies and divides what is never really solid or fixed or divided up. This polarization isn’t really a new thing, but social media has amplified it. So my prayer tonight at the end of Martin Luther King Day here in the US is that we may all open our hearts and find the way to love ourselves and each other and this world. And yes, we will often fail. But the missteps are all in some way part of the dance. And in each new moment, we can begin anew.



January 19, 2023

The most liberating realization in my experience is that everything belongs, nothing is excluded.

This living reality is an indivisible, seamless, all-inclusive, boundless, nondual whole from which nothing stands apart. There is no way to get this and no possible way to lose this because there is nothing separate from this.

The apparently separate self and all the apparently separate forms (people, dogs, galaxies, atoms, quarks, brains, thoughts, emotions, concepts, words, plants, rocks, skyscrapers, nuclear bombs, and so on) are like the forms in a dream, or the waves in the ocean. They are ever-shifting kaleidoscopic appearances with no substantial or persisting existence.

The sense of personal agency is a functional illusion that doesn’t hold up to close examination. The imaginary author-doer-chooser-decider is a mirage. Everything is a movement of the whole, including this intermittent mirage.

Realizing all of this is enormously freeing—there is nothing “I” need to do or not do other than exactly what I am apparently doing. Nothing is really a mistake or a problem. EVERYTHING is included, even compulsive seeking, addictive behaviors, confusion, anxiety, depression, boredom, anger, defensiveness, irritability, longing, sadness, grief, or anything else that appears. This indivisible whole includes genocides, factory farms, pollution, rape, murder, Ponzi schemes, viruses, pandemics, and everything else. It includes the light and the dark, the right and the left. Nothing is left out. It also includes our responses to all of these things, which are also choiceless movements of the whole.

Nonduality includes the fact that fixing flat tires, curing cancer, recovering from addictions, shopping for groceries, or learning to play a better game of baseball can all happen. Nonduality and no separate self doesn’t mean that the desire might not arise here to take up meditation or undergo psychotherapy and that all kinds of different insights and experiences and changes might not happen. There’s just no one choosing or doing any of it, even when it seems as if there is. But it can all happen.

Within this dream-like movie of waking life that turns on every morning and turns off again every night, there can appear to be a journey of transformation, a process of healing, and seeming improvements of many kinds. Or the opposite. And ALL of this is a choiceless happening, even when it appears to take effort and will and the deliberate making of seemingly carefully considered choices.

Nondual unicity (emptiness, wholeness, nonsubstantiality, no-self, no-thing-ness, no inside or outside, no center)—aka present experiencing—does not deny, exclude or negate the apparently real everyday world of you and me, dogs and cats, choices and decisions, or the ability to discern a difference between this and that, or to identify and correct errors, and so on. All of this is an aspect of this seamless totality, all of it a movement of the whole. It can be discovered that none of it has the solidity or the continuity that it can seem to have. It all appears and disappears instantaneously here-now.

Nondual unicity includes both the apparent realization or recognition of this undivided wholeness and the apparent hypnotic mesmerization in the delusion of separation, encapsulation, independent existence, persisting and substantial forms, free will, and so on. Each of these possibilities is simply another appearance in and of this indivisible totality that includes dreaming, waking, deep sleep, being born, dying, the Big Bang, the end of the universe, and everything else. And none of it is personal. It all goes together and cannot be pulled apart.

It is the One and Only falling asleep and waking up, identifying as a separate fragment in a fractured world and discovering the seamless, edgeless actuality. Nothing stays the same for even an instant, and no two snowflakes are identical, and yet, there is a common factor in every different experience—whether it is an experience of contraction or expansion, sorrow or joy—it all shows up here-now as this present experiencing, this awaring presence.

All the words that point to this all-inclusive totality (Mind, Consciousness, Unicity, Totality, the Self, and so on) are misleading in the sense that they suggest this is some-THING, some giant container or ultimate substance out of which everything is made and/or within which everything is contained—but all such graspable or conceivable forms are part of the dream-like appearance. The living actuality is ungraspable, and yet totally unavoidable. Here it is, right now, never hidden. Just exactly what is, as it is.


Response to a comment:

Who can say what moves one person to be a serial killer and another to be a saint? We could say, infinite causes and conditions. It can seem that we have chosen to stop smoking, to take one example, but the urge to stop, the thought that appears to make this decision, and the ability to carry it out is all not in our control. The thought that, “I’m going to stop smoking,” is powerless. In another moment, the urge to smoke is stronger than the urge to stop, and another thought arises unbidden and says, “Go ahead—have a smoke. You can quit tomorrow.” This is why our New Year’s resolutions so often fail. One person being interested in ethics, believing in ethical principles (the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path, whatever it might be), trying to follow them is a happening of the whole. Just as for another person, the irresistible urge and compulsion to commit serial murder arises, not by choice, but from the same web of infinite causes and conditions that produces the saint. The illusory “me” (the thinking mind) likes to take credit after the fact for “my successes,” or blame others for “their failures,” or blame ourselves. But when we see that this self with agency is a mirage, we have compassion for ourselves and others. We may still be moved to quit smoking or to do our best to follow our ethical principles, but we will see that our success, if we are successful, was grace (otherwise known as luck). And while we may still put the serial killer in jail to protect everyone else, we won’t do it in a spirit of hatred and punishment. We will know that, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

But, as I often try to point out, we can't put reality into concepts. There is certainly a SENSE of agency, and there are many ways in which humans are able to refine or expand our abilities, sensitivities and behaviors. We see this in education, athletic training, learning other languages, working on issues in psychotherapy, doing The Work of Byron Katie, etc....and in meditation and other spiritual practices. And if we're teaching our children about road safety or other vital issues, or if we're training an athlete or teaching school, we will speak to the people we are training as if those people have agency. But even if we are using the model of free will in training someone or working on ourselves in some way, if we see the ways it isn't entirely true, we will have more compassion for ourselves and others when we or they fail.



January 25, 2023

Why Spiritual Practice?


People can get very confused about whether there is or isn’t something to do. If “this is it” and “there is no self,” then it’s easy to think, why do (or not do) anything and who would do it anyway?

The doer of any action is not the imaginary self, which is simply a mental image along with thoughts. I would say that actions come from either habit and conditioning or from awareness and presence. In either case, they are a movement of the whole universe, but they show up as apparently deliberate actions seemingly initiated and carried out by a person. So when I use personal pronouns, I’m referring to one or the other of these possibilities (awareness or habit) moving through an apparent individual person.

Why would the universe bother with any kind of spiritual practice or exploration? Why questions are not very helpful, in my experience—but in our everyday, ordinary, direct experience, we all know the natural desire to clarify confusion and end suffering. Pain and painful circumstances are part of life, but suffering is in how we react or respond to them. We can learn to discern which habitual reactions create suffering and which responses bring forth something very different. We can come to see how we create confusion and how we do suffering. We can wake up from delusions and discover the nature of the presence that we are and that everything is. And that is the spiritual journey, as I see it. And in my experience, it has no finish line and is always only NOW (even though we can describe it, before or after the fact, as a process seemingly happening over time).

So, is there actually anything to accomplish?

The best answer is in the old Zen story, of which there are several versions, but this is my favorite version—and although it describes a process over time, remember it is always talking about NOW:

1) Before I took up meditation, there were mountains and valleys, and mountains were mountains and valleys were valleys. (This is our usual delusion.)

2) After I started meditating, there were no mountains and valleys. (This is a very liberating realization, the discovery of seamless unicity, unresolvable impermanence and no-thing-ness, but it is still not enlightenment.)

3) With enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys, and mountains are mountains and valleys are valleys.

Is the last “stage” the same as the first? In one sense, yes. But in a profoundly liberating sense, no. The last stage includes the second but is no longer stuck exclusively in that absolute perspective. True nonduality includes duality, just as the absolute includes the relative. We return to the everyday world and can play in multiple dimensions of reality without being stuck in any of them.

Reality is right here, right now. But we overlook it because we are hypnotized by the self-centered dream and the delusions of separation, encapsulation, substantiality, and past and future time. Seeing through those delusions is what can happen through meditation or other forms of contemplative exploration and inquiry. And by contemplative, I mean experiential rather than conceptual—relying on awareness, attention, and direct experiencing rather than on thought and analysis. Conceptual understanding can be helpful, but it can also get in the way, because concepts can never capture reality and the juice is in the aliveness of experiencing and presence, not in our ideas about it.

We’re never actually going anywhere. We’re always already here. And yet, it can seem otherwise. And thus, the universe brings forth spiritual paths and practices, waking itself up again and again to what has never actually been absent.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022-2023--

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