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Blog #5

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:


June 17, 2020:

The Joy of Not Making Sense


It seems to be in our nature to wonder what everything is and how it works, and to try to make sense of what seems to be happening. This compulsion has gotten us to the top of the food chain and to the edge of extinction. When we’re trying to figure out why the car doesn’t start or why our internet connection keeps going out, it’s useful. But when it turns to metaphysical questions, it can be a wild goose chase.

Many of us have been on that wild goose chase, and we may have noticed that it is a kind of painful compulsion. Because even after we have realized the futility and the unsatisfactory nature of this gnawing search for ultimate answers, we often seem compelled to keep doing it anyway. We keep thinking that if we just persist a little bit longer, if we just think this through one more time or read one more book, we’ll find the Magic Key to the Magic Kingdom. It’s like the alcoholic thinking they’ll just have one more drink.

We read books, we attend talks and meetings and satsangs, we speak with teachers, we read more books, we go to more meetings, we go to anti-meetings with anti-teachers, we leave it all behind, we pick it all up again, we think and think and think, we meditate, we chant, and we think some more. We strain to see the Truth, to experience the divine, to reach the Promised Land, to understand with complete and ultimate certainty once-and-for-all what this is, what we are, why we are here, what we should do, and what happens next. And for many of us, the answers we find (including the now popular answer that all of spirituality is just bullshit) never totally hold up or satisfy the deep longing we feel. Because very often, we have tasted deeply, or at least glimpsed, a certain freedom from our usual suffering, an ease of being, a joy or an openness, a spaciousness, and this naturally attracts us and spurs our longing. But when we try to “get” what has been glimpsed or keep it, it seems to elude us, and any beliefs about it turn quickly into doubts. Experiences of peace or freedom don’t last. The gurus (and the anti-gurus) turn out to be disappointingly human.

What now?!

Perhaps there is a different possibility. Maybe words like enlightenment and liberation are not just pure bullshit after all. But maybe we’re looking in all the wrong places. Maybe looking FOR something (out there, in the future) is how we are overlooking what is already here. Maybe the spiritual path is more about letting go than it is about getting hold of something.

What I’m suggesting here is the invitation that is actually at the very heart of many true spiritual paths, but in many organized traditions, it is lost and forgotten, buried under all the add-ons and complications. And what is this invitation?

It is the possibility, in this moment, of allowing ourselves to fall into the groundlessness of just this—this ever-changing moment, just as it is, always showing up right here in this ever-present Now, never appearing in exactly the same way twice. In other words, simply giving our whole-hearted, relaxed and open attention to the bare actuality of what is right here, right now, without trying to understand what it is, without trying to make sense of it, without trying to hold onto it or push it away, without trying to correct or modify it, and without trying to get something out of it.

Simply open…and feel…and sense…and listen…and look…and touch…and explore…and BE this present arising…without knowing what might be discovered, without expecting any final answer, any conclusion, any ultimate landing place. Letting the unknowable do us instead of trying so hard to do it. Letting this wild, inconceivable, unresolvable, ungraspable mystery that we are, and that everything is, simply BE as it is. In other words, we take our hands off the imaginary steering wheel, we let go of our imaginary control, and we fall open into groundlessness and not knowing. In this bare being, there is no me and no world, no inside and outside, no problem to be solved—there is just the utter simplicity of what is, as it is.

And when the thinking-grasping-seeking-conceptualizing mind pops back up and starts trying to figure it all out and get a grip on it, maybe this familiar old habitual, compulsive movement of the mind can simply be noticed and seen for what it is (an old habit that gets us into confusion), and in that seeing, maybe it can be allowed to drop away—not forever after, but right now. Maybe we can just STOP, relax the attention, and open to the actuality of what is right here, right now, without trying to figure it out or get something out of it or make something happen. And very importantly, this isn’t about resisting anything or trying not to do something, because that just tightens the contraction. It’s more like allowing it all to be as it is, including the contraction and the confusion—but being open to it, and curious about it, not totally caught up and hypnotized by the mental component of it.

Meditation can be very helpful. I don’t mean any kind of rigid formal system of meditation, but just being quiet and doing nothing. When we stop our usual activities and sit down and do nothing other than giving attention to the actuality of here and now, what do we find? Bird cheeps, traffic sounds, a twinge in the knee, the rise and fall of breathing, random thought-trains going off in different directions, airplane sound, car door slamming, breathing, and the listening silence beholding it all.

We can easily notice that this-here-now includes a chaotic mix of ever-changing appearances—sounds, smells, colors, shapes, movements, somatic sensations, thoughts, memories, daydreams, fantasies—bits of this, pieces of that. And meditation is often misunderstood (or in some instances presented as) a way of controlling this chaos and getting into some calm, thought-free state. But what I’m suggesting is letting it all be as it is. At times, this-here-now may include those things we call busy mind, restlessness, anxiety, depression, compulsive thinking, waves (or storms) of emotion, desires and fears—and the more closely we feel into these sometimes unwanted experiences, leaving behind the labels and the judgments and the narratives about them, and instead tuning into the bare sensory-energetic actuality itself, the more these apparently unwanted appearances may surprise us. We may find that at the core of them, there is nothing there! And this nothing is not nothing in some nihilistic sense; it is alive and brimming with energy.

We may discover that there is no author or owner of any of these appearances—they are all a movement of life itself. And in spite of how chaotic and messy and infinitely varied it all seems, we may notice that it always only shows up right here (in this timeless immediacy), and that it shows up as one whole seamless happening, like one movie with lots of different things going on. What holds it all together is the listening silence, the awaring presence that is equally present in (and as) every different experience. We may notice that this unbroken wholeness—this awaring presence being and beholding it all—is always here, and that it never departs from itself, even as it continuously changes appearance like the tumbling shapes in a kaleidoscope. This undivided wholeness includes, transcends and underlies all apparent opposites.

And yet, if we try to pin down what this wholeness is, there is nothing we can grasp. It is not an object. It’s not separate from us. It’s not something. It’s what we are. It’s all there is. It’s not something and it’s not nothing. It can’t be captured by words or concepts. And yet it is utterly obvious and unavoidable—not hidden in any way—always presenting itself. What we need to do is simply BE it, instead of trying to grasp it, or figure it out, or “get” it.

And if we do notice that familiar thinking-grasping-seeking mind activity popping up again, trying to get hold of this wholeness, maybe it’s possible to just feel the tremendous urge to make sense of it all, to nail down some “thing” that can be possessed: The Final Answer, The Ultimate Truth that will save us from all pain, uncertainty and insecurity forever after. Feel the urge itself and the momentum of it as pure sensation, pure energy. Where is this feeling in the body? What does it feel like? How does it move? What is at the very core of it? Is it possible to relax and open to the bare actuality itself, without trying to understand or make sense of it?

We may find that it is not “me” who is doing any of this. It is life itself, exploring and discovering and unfolding and revealing itself to itself.

Words are being used to say all this, and the words are never quite right. The aliveness and the real meaning is the direct, experiential exploration these words are inviting—the opening, the groundlessness, the purposelessness, the not knowing, the presence—being this moment, just as it is. Just this! Nothing more, nothing less.

And that seems to be one of the hardest things for us to get, that this is it. Really, truly, THIS IS IT! Exactly as it is! 

How is it? We can’t say!  And yet, here it is, clear and obvious. Even the confusion is clear and obvious.

Any attempt to say what this whole thing is, or to grasp it conceptually, or to pin it down in some final form and hold onto it, is always going to fail. Any such effort is like trying to grab a handful of smoke or mist, or like trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or like the eye trying to see itself, or the sword trying to cut itself, or the scale trying to weigh itself.

Instead, simply relax, open, and just BE. And eventually, paradoxically, we find that we cannot really ever do otherwise than this, that even the grasping and the conceptualizing and the apparently being lost in confusion is nothing other than this indivisible no-thing-ness appearing in ever-changing ways while never departing from Here-Now. We can’t get hold of it because it is unavoidable and all-inclusive. It is what we are. There is no separation, no gap. This is all there is.

And so, the direct pathless path is a never-ending NOW unfolding HERE, with nothing needing to be rejected or resolved. In fact, nothing can be rejected or resolved! It is all a movement of wholeness, even the apparent fragmentation and separation in which we appear to be someone who is lost in confusion and suffering. Just stop, look and listen. And see if any of this holds up or persists. And yet, even though it can’t be grasped, it isn’t nothing!

So, instead of trying to figure it out, enjoy the dance (or the opera, or the vaudeville show), even the agonizing parts—the comedy, the tragedy, the whole amazing play. And if you notice the mind is trying to get a grip, maybe it’s possible to relax that grip and fall open into the marvelous actuality here and now. And if the gripping persists, no worries—this too is just another apparent happening in the Great Cosmic Play, another momentary shape this marvelous actuality is taking.


June 19, 2020

Nonduality: The Whole Includes Everything

Non-duality doesn’t mean being all good, doing only nice things, never having goals or intentions or regrets, never feeling anger or fear or grief. It doesn’t mean we can’t change a flat tire because “this is it,” or that we can’t put a serial rapist in prison because “they are an innocent movement of the totality,” or that we shouldn’t engage in spiritual practice because “there is no one to do it and nowhere to go.” It includes ALL of this—the tire being flat and the changing of it, the raping and the subsequent imprisoning, the practicing and the fact that there is nothing to attain and no one to attain it. Nonduality includes our so-called “bad” behavior along with whatever urges, aspirations and actions may arise to improve or liberate ourselves. Nothing is left out.

For anything to appear at all, it must appear in duality: up and down, light and dark, you and me, birth and death, good and evil, unity and multiplicity. Our mistake is to think of these as separate things that can be pulled apart, and to imagine that one side of the polarity can and should triumph over the other. That mistake is what we call dualism, and it is what non-duality points beyond. In fact, the apparent opposites go together—they are one whole—they depend on each other to show up, and they only exist relative to each other: the ceiling is “up” in relationship to the floor, and “down” in relationship to the sky.

In our experience right now, we can see both the ever-changing and infinitely varied aspect of reality (the utterly impermanent appearances of present experiencing) and the ever-present aspect (the Here-Now-ness, the timeless immediacy, the suchness, the presence that “I Am” and “This Is” that is equally present in and as every different form that experience takes). We can see how this infinite diversity appears as one whole unbroken picture, much in the way a painting with many different colors and shapes shows up as one whole painting, or a movie as one whole moving picture with lots of different shapes, colors, sounds, stories and meanings all going on together. We see both these aspects simultaneously, the multiplicity and the unity, the diversity and the seamlessness, the ever-changing and the ever-present, the timeless now and the unfolding of time. They’re both right here, utterly obvious.

Also in our direct experience right now, we can see that we are showing up both as a particular person and as the boundless awareness in which the person appears. We are undeniably present as this unlocatable boundless presence that has no inside or outside, no borders or seams, no place where it is not—and at the same time, we are undeniably showing up, intermittently, in the play of life, as a particular person with a name, a history, a personality, and a specific location in space and time. We are both the character in the movie who gets born and eventually dies and this boundless presence that has no beginning and no end. We are both wave and ocean. As they say in Zen, not one, not two. Just this.

And when we investigate with open attention as so-called choices and decisions occur, it becomes obvious that these choices and decisions are a movement of the whole, that our desires, interests, urges, aspirations, abilities, and so on arise from an unfindable source, that the “I” who is supposedly authoring our thoughts, making our choices and steering the ship of our life cannot be found except as a thought, a mental image or a sensation. And yet, we still apparently have to decide what to wear, what to eat, and whether to do this or that. However awake and enlightened we may be, we must still play our part as the conditioned bodymind organism that we seem to be in the movie of waking life. We can’t “decide” to stop doing this or to be someone else instead.

We may be moved by life to engage in apparently intentional activities that seemingly change us (therapy, meditation, higher education, athletic training, world travel, having a gender change, taking psychedelics, and so on), but these, too, along with any so-called results, are all an impersonal movement of the whole. No wave ever moves independently of the whole ocean. And in recognizing this, there is more peace with the upsetting events in both our individual lives and in the apparent world “out there.”  And if we pay attention to actual direct experiencing, we find that the so-called “world” is not “out there” somewhere—it is right here, inseparable from this boundless awaring presence that I AM and that everything is—no inside, no outside, no gap, no separation.

The more all of this clarifies experientially, the less we are plagued by such things as guilt and blame, the desire to punish, the sense of lack and deficiency, the endless quest for self-improvement, and the psychological fear of death. We are more at peace with life being just as it is, including the upsets, the apparent difficulties or setbacks, and our own human imperfections. None of it is personal. It’s all an impersonal happening. We can still explore and discover, but we’re no longer doing it from a sense of separation and lack or deficiency, or with the idea of attaining something that is presently missing, or someday crossing a finish-line once and for all.

Actuality is obvious and impossible to avoid. But when we think about it, try to conceptualize and “understand” and talk about it, suddenly it seems confusing and paradoxical. We can’t quite grasp it! But the confusion is always conceptual. The living actuality right here now is simple and obvious. Nothing is hidden. And even the conceptualizing and the confusion and the doubt and the bewilderment and the identification as a separate person on a journey through time are all none other than this presence appearing in infinitely varied ways while never departing from itself—utterly ungraspable and yet completely obvious and unavoidable.

So is there nothing to be done? Does this mean it is totally okay to behave in cruel, mean-spirited, harmful ways? Do we just surrender to being miserable, short-tempered, judgmental or lost in despair? Well, yes and no.

First of all, that question is in the realm of thought. It presumes a “me” who exists separately from these moods or behaviors that thought has labeled, categorized and conceived of as actual, solid, substantial things…a “me” who is wondering what it should do…a “me” that seemingly exists in time, pondering the past and the future, instead of turning attention to Here-Now. The thinking mind has seemingly stepped away from the bare actuality and immediacy of right here, right now into an imaginary, dualistic conceptual realm. Confusion and uncertainty immediately follow. The original problem is compounded and extended.

So can this thought-question be seen for what it is? Instead of following it with more and more layers of thinking, can we instead return to the simplicity of presence, right here, right now? In totally accepting what is, a space opens for something new to emerge, for genuine transformation to happen—for being liberated on the spot.

We can feel the difference between being open, spacious, aware and fully present, on the one hand, and being caught up in mental confusion and grasping, on the other. One feels open and unbound, the other feels tight and contracted. One brings joy, love and peace, and the other brings suffering, confusion, and uncertainty. Intelligent action comes from the wholeness of presence, whereas a different kind of action (or reaction) tends to arise from the confusion of identified thinking and the illusion of separation. Both are aspects of the nondual whole, neither is personal, and at the same time, a sensitivity can emerge, an ability to discern the difference, and an increasing ability to “choose” spacious presence over being lost in emotion-thought.

Of course, this “choice” is not something that the phantom “me” can make on command through will power, and sometimes the old habitual tendencies over-power this new possibility. But the more the new possibility is accessed, the more available it seems to become. So this isn’t about perfection. It’s always about right NOW. What is being pointed to here is a shift of attention, an opening, and we can’t actually say whether it is a choice or a choiceless happening, because both of those are conceptual positions after the fact—the living actuality cannot be grasped in a concept like “choice” or “no choice.”

Again, this gets confusing only if we try to sort it out conceptually. Then we’re instantly in the realm of dualism: Is it this way or that way? But in the nondual actuality, if we return to the simplicity of presence, it is all clear and obvious. Just don’t land or fixate on any conceptual position (choice or choicelessness, effort or effortlessness, practice or no practice, self or no self), because none of them can capture the whole.

Nonduality is a word, a concept. The actuality to which it points is not a concept. The actuality is where the juice is, and where the possibility exists of being liberated on the spot—not once-and-for-all, not forever-after, not someday in the future, but only ever right NOW.

And when we fall short, as we all do at times, the point is to wake up—not to get lost in guilt, regret or stories about what a terrible failure we are and how we should have seen the light much sooner and so on—because that’s just more self-centered thinking. There is another possibility, and spiritual practice is about discovering and cultivating it. Words can only point to it. And what matters isn’t any ideas we have about it, but the living actuality, right NOW.


June 23, 2020

It’s ALL bliss—energy dancing, playing, doing what it does—even the parts we don’t like, even the cancer and the war and the social injustice and the irritations and our apparent reactions and successes and failures and all the habitual patterns of our personality that we think are a problem that needs to be fixed and improved and eliminated and corrected and transcended and dissolved and the thinking of that and the effort not to think and the apparent “me” at the center of our stories about “me” and the layers upon layers of “me” trying to wake up from “me” and EVERYTHING else—it’s all bliss, presence, JUST THIS doing what it does—dancing and yet never moving—always right here, always this. What a relief! What freedom! What bliss! Even the apparent ways this freedom seems to disappear, the apparent contraction and identification and upset and confusion, the apparent openings and the apparent closings, the efforts to save the world, the melting icecaps—ALL of that is just the divine play, the Great Dance, the doodling of the universe, the cosmic dreaming. It has no meaning, no purpose—just the sheer joy of doodling and dancing, and even the joy of suffering, of getting lost, of being terrified. It’s ALL included. Can you feel the relief?


Response to a comment:

It won't happen someday, only NOW. And actually, nothing needs to happen. You are already awake right now as present experiencing, here and now. Just notice that this is so. The way it appears is constantly changing—there is no permanent experience of "bliss" as some perpetually happy mood or state of mind. What is pointed to here includes ALL states, all moods. What makes this so seemingly elusive is that attention is going primarily to the conceptual thought realm (the stories, interpretations, explanations, narratives, etc. ABOUT what is showing up), rather than going primarily to the sensory, energetic bare actuality itself. One of the central thought-stories is that there is a "me" at the center of all this, a "me" who doesn't see this but hopes that someday it might. Can this "me" actually be found? Does this aware presence that you are ever actually depart from HERE and NOW? And even this "me"—which, upon examination, turns out to be a mirage created by thoughts, stories, memories, mental images and sensations—even this "me" and all those thoughts, stories, memories, mental images and sensations are ALL nothing other than this presence, this aliveness, this doodling universe playing at being every imaginable shape, color, sound and texture of experience.

Response to another comment:

Bliss is a word I almost never use. Using it was a kind of daring and provocative act for me. I'm well aware that it's a word that confuses or puts off many of us (myself included) as we read various Eastern spiritual books that speak about bliss as the natural condition, since none of us FEEL blissful all the time (or even most of the time), so what are they talking about?  I was at a Zoom meeting with Peter Brown the other evening--someone I greatly enjoy--and this post emerged after that meeting as an expression of what had so clearly been revealed. My memory is not what it used to be, but maybe the word bliss even came up in the meeting, I'm not sure. I know it's a word that appears in The Essence of Recognition, Peter's newly published re-translation and commentary on the Pratyabhijna Hridayam (a root text of Kashmir Shaivism), which I've been deeply enjoying lately--e.g.: "Through unfoldment of the focus of attention, the bliss of absolute consciousness is realized." Lines like that used to make my eyes roll and glaze over. Such talk either struck me as an offering of "rosy red" fantasies or else as indicators of how incredibly lacking I must still be. But I'm hearing it in a new way here. Laughter bubbles up as I say it. A delightful, amused joy at everything being just as it is--utterly ungraspable and yet right here. It's probably not a word I'll be using a lot--maybe never again! But it was liberating and transgressive using it in this post, in the very first sentence no less--a surge of joy not unlike that of doodling with colors. In fact, writing this post felt exactly like that--it felt playful and free and wild and unrestrained and utterly spontaneous and uncontrived. Just like playing with colors and shapes, for no reason at all except the pure joy of it.


June 29, 2020:

We long to have an authority—someone who knows the meaning of life and how the universe works, someone who can give us the answer to our deepest questions and resolve our most gnawing uncertainties and doubts. Religion has traditionally been an attempt to make sense of a world that often seems senseless and random, a way to quell our feelings of vulnerability.

On a practical level, of course we must make sense of things in order to function. Out of a sea of infinite potential, apparent forms emerge, moment by moment, crystalizing into an apparently coherent and recognizable world—our house, our partner, our computer, our dog, our groceries, the streets we travel from our home to our work, and so on. But beyond that practical, functional level of navigating everyday life, maybe we don’t actually need to make sense of present experiencing. Maybe those feelings we call “vulnerability” or “uncertainty” arise and persist in large part from stories we are telling ourselves and from our very attempts to find security and control.

Maybe the very notion of anyone being “an authority” on reality is a delusion. What if there is no ultimate authority? What if no one knows what this all is, why it’s all here, what it’s all about, how the universe works or what it all means? What if there’s no way of fitting the living reality into any conceptual formulation? What if all apparently identifiable forms are only tentative approximations, over-simplified abstractions of what is actually a fluid, indeterminate, unresolvable, ungraspable, indefinable actuality that has no borders or seams, no beginning or ending?

What if, right now in this moment, we simply let go of that enormous impulse to pin everything down, to understand, to control, to get a grip, to make sense? What if we simply dissolve into the groundlessness of being just this moment, exactly as it is? BEING what it is impossible not to be—this flow of experiencing that never departs from here and now while never staying the same.

The one who might appear to be standing apart from this flow watching it—“me,” the self, the observer, or even boundless impersonal awareness—is that observing presence actually separate from what is being observed, or is it simply another apparent form that seems to momentarily crystalize into some-thing that can be separated out and nailed down with a label? Isn’t experiencing itself an undivided whole with no actual border between inside and outside?

Even to say “experiencing” or “undivided whole” is saying too much. So, again, is it possible, right now, to simply let go of ANY attempt to grasp all this and make sense of it—ANY effort to “get it”? 

Can you sense the freedom, the joy, the ease of relaxing into being what we cannot not be—simply THIS present experiencing, just as it is? 

Perhaps you even begin to delight in the simple wonder of it all—the way the light dances on the wall, the shape of a shadow on the table, the play of cloud formations in the sky, the sounds of rain, the marvelous colors of all the cars on the freeway, the sudden humming of a laundry machine in the next room. And maybe this enjoyment even includes the waves of feeling we call anxiety, or the little mental movies created by thought that play briefly in the imagination and then dissolve, or the popping up of a memory, or the total absorption of attention in the narrative of a movie, a conversation, or an apparent problem at work. Maybe EVERYTHING is included in this dance, this play, this unfathomable and inconceivable beingness that we are and that everything is. And maybe we don’t need to understand it or make sense of it. Maybe we can’t do that. Maybe that’s the wonder of it, the aliveness.


July 1, 2020

One of the questions I frequently get is about wanting a final, permanent, decisive breakthrough where the imaginary self is no more. This is an expanded version of a reply I recently wrote to someone in an email about this:

I would say, just notice this thought about wanting or needing some final breakthrough that changes everything—see that this desire is just a habitual thought that pops up from time to time—notice that it’s all about “me,” the phantom self—and that it’s all about some imaginary future.

Feel this desire in the body as sensation. Notice the desire for this desiring to end—layers upon layers of the same basic desire for a better state of affairs for “me” in the future, a higher status in the spiritual or nondual world, a better self-image, perpetual happiness, whatever we think we would gain from such a final breakthrough.

The more clearly ALL of this is seen for what it is, the less believability and hypnotic pull it has. But whether this thought (and the sensations that go with it) show up occasionally until the day you die, or whether it ends permanently in some dramatic fireworks event doesn’t really matter, except to the phantom score-keeper who takes it all personally as meaning something about “me.”

As a person, there’s a socially reinforced tendency to compare ourselves to others, and in spiritual or nondual subcultures, so many stories are on offer of dramatic moments when somebody’s self supposedly fell away forever, never to return, and ever-after they have lived as an “enlightened one” in uncontracted joyous bliss.

This kind of dramatic, permanent, finish-line transformation certainly hasn’t been my experience, although for a long time I chased such an event, even knowing (as you do) that this was foolish—but it kept happening whether “I” wanted it to or not. As someone wisely said, spiritual seeking is like having sex with a 900 pound gorilla—you’re not done until the gorilla is done. But it was noticed (again and again) that this chase was all about “me,” and that it was only a thought that kept popping up. At some point, it seemed to quietly fade away, not in a dramatic event, but slowly. Although even now, sometimes I still find myself thinking there is something more that needs to happen, some greater clarity or more decisive breakthrough…or some behavior, or pattern of thought, or form of upset that needs to fall away.

Over the years, I’ve seen myself countless times bringing “my problem” (my story of me, the still deficient spiritual somebody who is not quite fully where I could or should be yet) to some teacher whom I imagine is more awake than I am, and placing it at their feet like some precious bundle, and asking for help, while all the while overlooking the marvelous miracle of this moment and the absolute sufficiency and wonder that is right here. I read once about an exchange (I think I even put it in my newest book) between a student and the Zen Master he was going to meet for the first time, and the student starts to tell the teacher the whole story of his spiritual journey so far, and the teacher cuts him off and says, “Why are you still carrying that dead corpse? Drop it!” But…easier said than done. And yet, is ANY of this really a problem?

And, of course, this obsession with “me” and with a search for self-improvement that is rooted in a story of deficiency and lack can be distinguished from the on-going curiosity, wondering, and love of exploration that endlessly delights in new insights and new ways of looking and playing. The self-improvement project is a form of delusion and suffering, while the latter is a never-ending adventure, a journey without end, because whatever-this-all-is (call it whatever you want: experiencing, presence, consciousness, beingness, the Self, emptiness, the universe, what is), it never stops changing. So really, there is no finish-line, no resolution, no final landing place. There is always more to see, more to discover, more to learn and unlearn. And it’s also fine to recognize that someone else may have something to teach me. I can appreciate that possibility and work with them without turning them into an infallible authority or assuming they are closer to Ultimate Truth (whatever that might be) than I am.

And whatever shows up, it’s always this present experiencing, this dancing no-thing-ness, showing up in endlessly changing ways without ever moving away from here and now—like the ever-shifting patterns in a kaleidoscope. ALL of it is this awaring presence, this beingness, this boundless and indivisible wholeness that includes and transcends all opposites.

So that even this thought, this impulse, this desire, this wanting some final event, is itself nothing but present experiencing showing up (momentarily) as this thought, this little blip of energy. It’s just another passing shape in the kaleidoscope. It is only a problem IN the story, and only from the perspective of the phantom me who wants to be done with me. It doesn’t actually matter at all in the way we think it does. This “me” is never anything more than a mirage created by a mix of thoughts, stories, sensations, memories and mental images. And this desire is also nothing more than a shifting mix of thoughts, ideas, stories, sensations and images. So there’s no need to judge “me” as a spiritual failure or believe that this thought means something about “me” and “my spiritual progress” or “attainment” or lack thereof. That’s all a fantasy!

Whatever-this-all-is (consciousness, presence, the universe) apparently can’t stop chasing itself, apparently losing itself, apparently finding itself, endlessly discovering new aspects of itself. It’s like a great Cosmic Game of Hide-and-Seek. This groundlessness appears as BOTH impersonal presence AND as a unique person. It shows up as every imaginable experience. It’s a wonderful dance, a great play. And none of it is actually personal, even the parts that SEEM personal.

The boundlessness, the wholeness, is never really absent or lost. In any moment, if you stop and check, it can be seen that this awaring presence, this present experiencing, is fully here—in whatever form it seems to be taking. What comes and goes are the endlessly shape-shifting forms, the endlessly different flavors and textures of experience.

Trying to hold onto any of those momentary flavors is a losing affair. But the one who wants to hold on and whatever it is trying to grasp are only appearances with no actual substance, both equally manifestations of this undivided presence. See this for yourself by investigating any experience, any apparent form, with open attention. Nothing holds still. And yet, it is always NOW, and always HERE. NOW-HERE is what “you” ARE.

But if you try to get hold of “NOW” or “HERE,” there is nothing to grasp! And that’s the magic! Everything is empty of substance or continuity and yet undeniably real as a present appearance and as this undeniable presence. It’s marvelously free and wonderous. But at the same time, it can be terrifying or horrifying. And trying to hold on to some EXPERIENCE of feeling free and full of wonder is a losing affair. There is literally no one to hold on and nothing to hold onto. There is nothing to lose and nothing to find. THIS IS IT.

And if you hear thought popping up and saying, “Yes, but…” or, “This can’t be it,” just SEE this thought for what it is: meaningless babble, conditioned habit, a momentary shape in the kaleidoscope, already vanished into thin air—no-thing at all.


July 2, 2020

The single greatest key to dissolving apparent problems and finding our way through difficult emotional states is to focus on Now. The thinking mind always wants to go to past and future—it thinks about forever after, once-and-for-all, someday, once before, what if, and if only. Can these thoughts be noticed when they arise, seen for what they are (habitual, conditioned messages), and allowed to pass through without being believed or followed? The key is to focus on Now—not the present situation, which involves interpretation and storyline, but the immediacy of actual presence. THIS moment. Right here, right now. The bare actuality (before the labels and stories) of JUST THIS, exactly as it is. Feeling the breathing, hearing sounds, smelling the rain, tasting the tea, seeing shapes and colors, feeling all the changing sensations in the body. Simply this.


Response to a question about pain:

I don't recommend leaving your hand in a fire, and if you're in pain, I see no problem with doing whatever you can to relieve it, assuming what you do isn't harmful to yourself or others. But sometimes there is no escape, and sometimes (especially with emotional pain) the escapes we try only make it worse, and sometimes we get curious about the pain itself and become open to exploring it.

What I've found, with both physical and emotional pain, is that a huge part of the suffering is the resistance to it and the thoughts about it (what if this doesn't stop, I can't take it, what if it gets worse, etc). When I can simply stop resisting and running from it and just totally BE with it, everything shifts.

Really opening to it, feeling it as pure sensation without a storyline, exploring the sensations with open attention and with curiosity and interest...going right into the very core of it. Suddenly, the seemingly unbearable becomes bearable, and sometimes it vanishes into thin air. But it's important not to be doing this in order to make it go away, because then it's just another version of resistance and escape. So it's about not moving away, being completely present to the pain, and being willing to feel whatever shows up. It's a kind of relaxing and opening, letting be, accepting it all, surrendering all resistance. And not thinking about it, but instead, totally BEING it. No separation, no gap between you and it. No story that "it" is attacking "you." Just pure sensation, as it is.


July 19, 2020:

Beholding Everything

I love the word beholding because it contains both the sense of being the aware space that is holding everything and also the sense of BEING everything. In the word beholding, subject and object are not two.

The discovery that I am not encapsulated inside a separate body, that I am this boundless aware space in which everything appears and disappears, is enormously liberating. Noticing and discerning when my speaking (or hearing) comes from the perspective of a separate person, and when it comes from the impersonal spaciousness of this open aware presence is immensely helpful. Being aware of awareness, aware of Here-Now, and discovering the felt-sense of BEING this boundless presence is vital.

But if we fixate there and mentally solidify “awareness” or “presence” into some-thing, this initially liberating discovery can lead to a new kind of duality or splitting. The “me” tries to identify as awareness and to disengage from the content of awareness, regarding the one as spiritual and real, and the other as mundane and unreal. Recognizing that there is actually no separation, that this awaring presence IS this present experiencing, is very liberating.

In this nondual recognition, it is clear that this living reality is at once both whole and infinitely diversified. It is at once ever-present, immovably Here-Now, while simultaneously being ever-changing in appearance and never the same way twice. It is utterly ungraspable and unresolvable, and yet it is totally obvious and impossible to actually avoid or overlook. It is not one, not two—neither permanent nor impermanent.

Whatever words we use to describe this living reality, it can never be captured in any word or conceptual formulation. Words are beautiful movements of this inconceivable unicity, much as waves are movements of the ocean, but it’s possible to hold all words and concepts lightly, to use them provisionally, and to open to (or rest as) the bare actuality of this awaring presence, this present experiencing, without trying to grasp it, make sense of it, control it or define it, except in practical ways, as needed.

Words like liberation point to the possibility of living in freefall or groundlessness, depending on no-thing, falling open to the simplicity of simply being what is, beholding it all without judgment or intention. And, of course, this openness isn’t some permanent state of mind that some “me” can land in forever after—it is this whole living reality Here-Now that includes EVERYTHING, every state of mind, even judging, defining, grasping, mapping, conceptualizing, identifying as a separate self, being confused—the whole enchilada, belonging to no one. Nothing is left out. This that we are is beholding everything. No separation, no division.


July 24, 2020:

Does Something Need to Happen?

In the spiritual search, or in spiritual work (or practice), or in meditation, or just in life, we often have the idea that something needs to happen. We’re looking and waiting and longing for something to happen. Whether it’s some idea of final enlightenment that we’re hoping will happen to us, or some experience we’ve heard about or that we remember having had once, or some mental clarity or understanding about the nature of reality that we hope will finally allow us to relax, or maybe just a calmer, quieter, happier, more thought-free mind…in some way or other, we are fixated on the idea that something needs to happen. Often the whole bodymind is craving this imagined something in the very same way we might crave the object of an addiction; and in fact, the spiritual search often becomes a kind of painful addiction.

Some radical nondualists emphasize over and over that nothing needs to happen, that there is just this—this very moment, exactly as it is, even if that momentarily includes what we call a busy mind, or confusion, or craving, or physical or emotional pain, or restlessness, or a heavy heart. THIS is the only possible in this moment, and nothing about it is really solid or personal. It doesn’t mean anything. And sometimes, hearing this radical message snaps us out of the search for something else and wakes us up to the utter simplicity and the relief of being just this moment.

That tight mental focus on some future fantasy or desired object lets go, the whole bodymind relaxes and opens, and there is simply the unvarnished actuality of here and now, the undivided (wholesome) spaciousness of simple presence. Suddenly there’s no problem, nothing is missing, nothing is needed, nothing needs to be fixed or eliminated or achieved. Nothing needs to be other or better or more or less or different from just how it is. And how it actually is turns out not to be the seemingly solid, fixed world of our thoughts and stories, but something alive and fluid and luminous.

In the simplicity of what is, there’s no me anymore. That “me” is the phantom at the center of all those thought-stories about what’s missing and what needs to happen. That “me” is a kind of mirage created by thoughts, sensations, feelings and mental images. It’s an old story, an old habitual pattern, a weather system with no actual substance. That mirage-like self seems separate and incomplete, never good enough, always lacking something, always vulnerable and insecure. It desperately searches for something to fill that lack, something to hold onto, some certainty or control, some kind of resolution or completion. It looks “out there” to find this—in objects, substances, experiences, relationships, belief systems—but everything it tries seems eventually to disappoint.

In any moment when thinking stops and there is simply present experiencing just as it is, this mirage-like “me” vanishes into thin air. The story that “I” am not good enough, or enlightened enough, or calm enough, or clear enough, or settled enough, or awake enough is gone. The sense of being separate from what’s happening—evaluating it, judging it, comparing it to something else, wanting it to be different, trying to control it—is gone. There’s simply what is with no division, no separation, no gap—no “me” and “it,” no “me” trying to improve “me.” Just the sounds of traffic, a bird singing, the smells of dinner cooking, shapes and colors, sensations in the body, breathing, a train whistle in the distance, a cool breeze on the skin. And yes, occasionally, thoughts passing through, but without the pictures those thoughts paint being believed in or clung to. Nothing is being grasped, nothing is needed.

Can you feel the relief, the freedom, the absolute okay-ness?

And the truth is, this bare actuality is always here. It’s not something we have to search for and find or make happen. It’s the natural state, the default mode, the unavoidable obvious. What comes and goes are the thoughts and stories that create the mirage-like “me” and the imaginary problems and deficiencies that seemingly need to be solved. When that virtual reality captures the attention, it SEEMS to obscure the simplicity of what is. But even this apparent obscuration is itself simply a movement of this same undivided reality doing what it does.

If you’re human, this hypnotic entrancement in thought-generated mental movies will most likely happen at times, and the whole body will hum along with accompanying sensations such as tension, uneasy feelings, anxiety, and so on. It seems to be the very nature of consciousness to become involved in stories. It’s like what happens when we turn on the TV or watch a movie. And thus, the sense of lack and the search for something to happen may very well show up again. In my experience, it does keep happening, perhaps in more subtle ways, or maybe in the same old ways.

But this can all be seen for what it is whenever it happens. It’s only a movie, an appearance. It doesn’t need to be permanently vanquished or beaten down. Only the “me” needs delusion to disappear forever. And forever is a fantasy. The only reality (the only real forever) is NOW. So, right now, when there’s a noticing of this kind of suffering, simply wake up! Be liberated on the spot.

Being liberated on the spot doesn’t require that we DO anything. It doesn’t mean that something needs to happen because “this” isn’t quite “it” yet. That’s the trap, the old story, the imaginary problem, the imaginary “me” who seems to have it, and the imaginary solution in the imaginary future. Feel the tension of that whole narrative in the body, the pull of it, the suffering it engenders. Simply notice all this, see it for what it is. It’s an impersonal happening like the weather. We don’t need to go to war with it—in fact, that only feeds it because that’s just more of the same. 

The shift (the shiftless shift from Here to Here) is in simply recognizing that Here-Now IS all there is! And THIS doesn’t need to be (and actually can’t be) any different than exactly how it is. And in fact, it never stays the same. Experience is constantly changing. There’s actually nothing solid, nothing fixed—except apparently, in the thought-labels, concepts and stories. And none of this is personal, neither the delusion nor the waking up from delusion. It’s not about “you” being enlightened or unenlightened, a good meditator or a bad meditator, a success or a failure. This aliveness right here, right now has no owner, no boundaries, no beginning, no end, no meaning, no purpose. No words can capture it. There is nothing outside of it. It includes everything, even the passing weather we call delusion or obscuration—that, too, passes away and has no solidity—like a cloudy day or a thunderstorm, it is a passing movement. It’s all this wondrous and inconceivable living reality.


Response to a comment:

When you're trying to attain relaxation, you aren't relaxed. When the trying stops, relaxation is naturally present. But the paradox is that you can't actually DO "not trying." You can't MAKE yourself relax or fall asleep at night. But in noticing the trying, it may begin to naturally relax.

I don't think it's about attainment. But there's always more to explore and discover and question and see in new ways. At least, that's my experience. But that's all quite different from that addictive search for a personal attainment driven by that sense of deficiency and lack. I don't think there's any finish-line or goal-post or final landing place.

Response to another comment:

I would distinguish between our story about the present moment (which is thinking) and the actuality itself (which is presence). When there's genuine awakeness or presence, in my experience, THIS moment is way better than any fantasy. Not in content necessarily, but in the presence. But in thought, we can always seem to imagine a better, happier situation (the "situation" being a thought-story).

Response to another comment:

I'm reminded by your comment of David Steindhl-Rast's beautiful book Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, which I loved, in which he had a chapter called "Hope: Openness for Surprise." Words get used in different ways, and when I point beyond hope, I'm not pointing to hopelessness or despair. What I'm pointing to IS openness for surprise.

Once anything becomes a dogma, it does become rigid and dead. And it's so easy for what begins as a genuine insight, an opening, to turn into a dogma and a new kind of fundamentalism. Religions have done this over and over again, and it happens in nonduality too.

The kind of hope I see as unhelpful is the kind that overlooks the wonder of what is, always wishing for what it thinks would be better...or needing to believe that a situation will turn out as I want it to turn out, rather than being open to how it actually does turn out and finding the wonder in that.

Faith, as I see it, isn't about belief or dogma, although the word is sometimes (mis)used that way. For me, faith points to a deep, experiential sense of the fundamental well-being and wholeness of whatever-this-is, this life, this totality. Faith in God, for me, isn't about belief in some magical deity up in the sky, but rather, a fully embodied sense of the sacredness and wonder that is everywhere, that IS this alive presence that we are. And THAT'S what matters.

Response to another comment:

I'd distinguish between the addictive kind of seeking that is never satisfied and that constantly overlooks what is, on the one hand, and the ever-unfolding exploration and discovery that is part of our nature, being drawn to that nourishment like flower to sun and bee to flower.

Response to another comment:

I would suggest that your belief that "It just isn't happening yet for me," which is a story, and your expectation of something you imagine is hopefully going to happen someday, is precisely what is creating the mirage-like sense that you are somebody who isn't free yet. What to do? I would suggest simply giving open attention, without expectation, to whatever is showing up--the sounds of traffic, the bird songs, the passing thoughts, the breathing, the sensations in the body, the cup of coffee or tea that you are drinking, the meal you are preparing or eating--not as some kind of effortful, result-oriented practice that you hope will bring about some big shift, but simply to enjoy the actuality of here and now, to tune into how it is, to explore and enjoy it. In the absence of thoughts about how you are doing, and in the absence of expectation that something bigger and better needs to happen, you may discover that there is no one left to be bound or unfree (or for that matter, to be free). There is simply what is, just as it is. Not as we THINK it is.


6/27/20:

Someone asked me recently about Love. Love is such a big word with so many different shades of meaning and different kinds of love. Unconditional love, as I mean it, suggests something akin to the love a mother has for her children. I'm not a mother, so I may be on thin ice here. But my mother said to me when I was a child, "I don't always like you, but I always love you." And I felt her love, even when she was angry with me.

When I see the wholeness of everything, the indivisible interdependence and unicity, then I can't (in that moment, in that seeing) hate anyone or anything. I may not like someone or what they’re doing. I may even try to stop them. But I don't hate them. Hate arises out of that thought-sense of separation, and out of not understanding how we are all showing up in each moment in the only way we can, and how we all contain everything, like the jewels in Indra’s Net.

In the next moment, it may all be different, and I won’t land on either the formulation that says we have a choice about that, or the formulation that says we don’t. Neither formulation captures reality, and I’d rather live with the open question of what’s possible right now, without knowing the answer or assuming that any previous answer is always true. In some way or other, evolution does happen, transformation happens, learning happens—old habits sometimes fall away, societies change, people change, new possibilities emerge—and the universe in some way moves through all of us and our apparent choices and actions, just as it moves through bees fertilizing flowers and the wind spreading seeds.

In my experience, things like indifference or boredom happen when we are not fully awake or fully present in this moment right now, when we are caught up in stories about it, or in resistance to what is, or in wanting something else. When we're really fully present here and now, there is naturally a sense of wonder and love even if what is appearing is a crumpled cigarette package in the gutter. But this doesn't mean we will always be filled with ecstatic feelings of love and bliss. That can happen at times, but if we start thinking that we "should" be feeling that when we’re not, it only muddies the water. Feelings come and go.

Unconditional love, as my mother was saying to me back in my childhood, is not dependent on feelings. For me, unconditional love is another word for the boundless undivided awareness beholding everything, or the beingness or presence that is everything and that everything is. Every word we use for this wholeness or presence has a different flavor and seems to capture or evoke a different aspect of what's being pointed to. For me, the word love has a kind of warmth, a heart quality, so it highlights and evokes that particular dimension or aspect of reality

It seems to me that the so-called evil in the world is what most needs to be bathed in Love. Hatred, in my experience, pours gasoline on the fires of hatred and division, solidifies positions, and exacerbates conflict. Love opens a space for things to change. Love can include anger and strong action. It doesn’t mean rolling over and doing nothing. But the action that comes from love, from open awaring, from presence, from wholeness, is a wholesome action. Not wholesome in some goody-goody sense, but truly whole and holistic. Love sees the way it all goes together, the light and the dark, and it moves from that seeing.


8/2/2020:

Responses to comments on another page:

ON HIERARCHY AND SPIRITUALITY

Toni Packer avoided the word teacher, albeit she did function as one, and I also avoid it. I don't think all hierarchy is bad--it exists throughout the natural world and often serves a healthy purpose. I find false egalitarianism no solution to the kind of dominator hierarchy that we are both interested in moving beyond. So I think there is a place for distinctions that include imbalances in power, knowledge or authority: e.g., parents and children, teachers and students, therapists and clients, doctors and patients, employers and employees. To blur the power-imbalances or suggest that both sides have equal knowledge or power or authority is simply false. There is a difference between authority and authoritarianism and between healthy power and abusive power. Of course, I am in favor of parenting that is not authoritarian, and teaching models that listen to students, and doctors who empower and listen to their patient's wishes, and so on. But to suggest that all of these relationships are simply the same as peer friendships is false. Yes, some of them may include that or evolve into that, but your therapist is not your friend while you're undergoing therapy, and if you blur that, big messes tend to result. And, yes, of course, friendships are equally valid and can be just as enriching as these other kinds of relationships and sometimes more so. I would never say everyone NEEDS a spiritual teacher, but I CAN say that I'm deeply grateful for all of my teachers. 

My first therapist, the one who helped me sober up back in 1973-74, once asked me how I felt about our relationship. I told her I felt that she had all the power. She said, "I do. You gave it to me. You gave it to me for a reason, and when you're ready, you'll take it back. You'll learn all my skills. You'll be your own best therapist." I think that's a beautiful description of all these relationships: parent/child, teacher/student, therapist/client. She believed therapy should be short-term, that it shouldn't become an on-going dependency. I saw her for about a year, and then she turned me loose. We became friends after that. I'm not sure the friendship was ever really equal in a way, because transference and counter-transference turn out to be real, and our relationship was a big one for both of us, but it was the 70s and we ignored that. I was 25 when we met, she was 26. We were a bit naive.  

Spirituality is a broad term, and it seems to mean something very different to you than it does to me. I use it NOT because I'm talking about spirit as opposed to matter, but because I simply haven't found a better word to describe what I write and talk about. I clarify my usage on the "Home" page of my website. Part of what I say there is: "What is offered here is a perspective that sees all of life as sacred, i.e. worthy of devotion, full of wonder, inconceivable and ungraspable, never the same way twice. The traffic jam, the office, the toilet are as holy as the temple. This is about direct experience, not belief or dogma. It is focused on Here-Now, not on some imaginary future or remembered past. We're not trying to get somewhere or get rid of anything." The spirituality that has interested me and which I offer is not about "seeking some wannabe state,” but rather, it is about exploring what is. 

And for me, the word GOD doesn't mean what it seems to mean to you and Robert. I was raised by atheist/agnostics, so I don't have a lot of baggage around that word. It points to something that perhaps some people simply have no sensitivity to, no experience of...or maybe they do, and they just use other words for it, or no words. Either way, it doesn't really matter. 

ON CERTAINTY, REALITY AND ILLUSION

Whatever we call this undeniable present experiencing (the knowingness of being here now and of something appearing, before those words--just the bare actuality itself), THIS is not conceptual.

What might be an illusion would be any assumption about what it is, i.e. any interpretation. We can doubt whether the shape we saw was a cell phone, a gun, or a banana...but the bare experiencing of that shape--the seeing itself, the presence of it--is not an illusion. A mirage is a real appearance--the water is an illusion.

There a place in the human eye where the retina meets the optic nerve and where there is no visual information. As a result, there is a blind spot in human vision, about the size of an orange held at arm’s length, and yet none of us experiences this hole in our visual field. In some way, the brain fills it in with what it assumes “should” be there. The image that is seen in our visual field is real as an experience--it has an undeniable presence--a thusness, as they say in Zen--or as Tim Freke puts it, "the quality of existing that everything has ... whether material of imaginal." But it is illusory as what it appears to re-present. The FEELING of stubbing your toe is not conceptual. Once you explain it as, "I'm experiencing pain because I just stubbed my toe," THAT is conceptual.


8/19/20:

Here-Now is simple, ever-present, obvious, effortless. Hearing, seeing, sensing, being this open, spacious awaring presence and this present experiencing, just as it is. This seamless, boundless awake presence is actually always the case, but often we don’t notice because attention is focused on thinking—perhaps trying to work out imaginary problems.

Have you ever noticed what happens when attention moves from this simple openness into trying to figure out some heady metaphysical question like which came first, consciousness or the brain, mind or matter?

Suddenly, attention narrows down and is sucked into a very contracted space, trying to figure out the answer to whatever conceptual problem is puzzling the mind. I notice that this mental efforting feels tight. It’s like brain-strain, trying to figure something out mentally, cognitively, conceptually.

Attention has left the sensory world, the spaciousness of open presence, the all-inclusive wholeness of awareness, the simplicity of present experiencing. That’s all actually still here, but it is no longer noticed. And now, there is a strong sense of “me”—the one who seemingly needs to figure out the answer to this problem in order to be okay.

And no matter how much I think, I never seem to solve whatever mental conundrum I’m trying to figure out. Instead, it just feels more and more knotted up, more and more confused. Know what I mean?

There’s a very simple solution. Stop thinking! Open, relax, let everything go, simply BE. Suddenly, there’s no “me” anymore, no problem, no need for an answer. The imaginary “things” the mind was trying to sort out don’t even have any reality. There’s a huge sense of relief.

In simply BEING awake and present, we discover what all true spiritual teachings are pointing to. But it’s not an idea or an intellectual understanding, a conceptual idea that we have to figure out or believe in, or a particular experience as opposed to some other experience. It’s just this—the living actuality of this moment. We don’t need to explain this aliveness, or call it anything, or make sense of it or formulate it into some metaphysical system, or understand it. And, in fact, we really can’t understand it! We ARE it.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

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