The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (8/21/20--9/20/20):
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
August 21, 2020:
What is here when thinking stops?
This isn’t a question to answer with words. And it’s not a suggestion that thought is “bad” or that we should endeavor never to think. It’s an invitation to fall into wordless presence—the simplicity of what is, just as it is, right here and now.
Facebook is a place where we are deluged by words and information. Some of it triggers strong emotions. We often scan through it quickly, not really absorbing or digesting what we’re reading, much less our own reactions to it. Comments fly, back and forth, sometimes reactive, sometimes heady and mental, sometimes competitive or aimed at leaving our mark, showing our stuff or defending our territory. And for the record, I’m not suggesting for one minute that I’m immune from any of this. It’s our human stuff, showing up on Facebook. But unlike when it shows up on a meditation retreat or in a family, where we can actually sit down and look and listen together, when it happens on social media, it shows up in a very disembodied and easily mindless way. I suspect we’ve all experienced the ways this can be problematic.
In the more radical expressions of nonduality, it is often pointed out that there is no way not to “be here now,” that awareness is ever-present, that all separation is illusory, that everything is one undivided unicity which never departs from itself, and from which nothing stands apart. And these words point to a realization or recognition that is very liberating and real. But sometimes, people get stuck on this as a kind of conceptualized conclusion, and then this liberating insight becomes a kind of fundamentalist dogma or a new set of blinders. Any time anyone suggests that there is something to do, or a path of any kind, you can pretty much count on some avid nondualist pouncing with some clever assertion that there is no one to do anything and nowhere to go.
And in one sense, that’s absolutely true. But it’s equally true that there’s an enormous and palpable difference between being caught up in self-centered thinking and mental confusion, on the one hand, and being here as open, spacious, awake presence—free of all that, on the other. There’s a palpable and experiential difference between the heart being open and being consumed in anger and defensiveness. Yes, there is a significant common factor in every different experience, but that doesn’t negate the very real differences.
Most humans are totally lost in thought, lost in delusion—and not even aware that this is the case. But gradually, over the course of many centuries, there seems to be a waking up happening. In one sense, waking up from the thought-generated trance of separation happens suddenly and instantaneously, but that doesn’t mean it lasts forever, or that someone owns it and is now “an awakened one,” nor does it negate the gradual process in which the thought-stories are seen for what they are, again and again, gradually (in the light of awareness) losing their seductive power, their believability and their grip. There is, in my experience, no end to this process. It seems paradoxical, but only when we think about it: It’s an unending process that always and only ever happens NOW.
So when we find ourselves on a mental feeding frenzy, consuming too many words, thinking and thinking, trying to figure things out, seeking experiences or understandings, bashing one another or defending ourselves on social media, maybe that question will arise: What is here when thinking stops?
Maybe there will be a shift from the tight, narrow, contracted world of thought into a presence that is open and spacious and full of wonder and love—hearing the sounds of traffic or birds, feeling sensations throughout the body, feeling the breathing, seeing the luminosity of colors and shapes, tasting the tea we are drinking, smelling the rain-drenched air—simply awake to the miracle of here and now, just as it is. Ever-present, ever-changing, utterly immediate and obvious, and yet impossible to capture in concepts or metaphysical formulations, however profound they may be.
Maybe there will be a noticing, as it happens, of how thought comes back and recreates the imaginary problems. And with that noticing, a new waking up.
Maybe the mind is freaking out after that last paragraph, insisting that, “My problems are NOT imaginary!” And yes, our human problems are very real in one sense—powerful wildfires really are sweeping through California, hurricanes really are moving toward landfall, people really are dying of cancer, experiencing excruciating pain, going through horrible abuse, experiencing homelessness or unemployment or caring for screaming children. But right now, can we notice the essential and important difference between imagining these things and actually experiencing them in this moment? Our ability to imagine and prepare for such events can be helpful, but obsessing over what might happen is simply a form of unnecessary suffering. The actuality is never the same as what we imagine. And if these things ARE happening right now, can we notice the difference between thinking about them and fully experiencing the bare actuality itself?
Even if we are in pain, physical or emotional, what is here when thinking stops?
And remember, this isn’t a question to answer. It’s a question to fall open into.
August 27, 2020:
Crucifixion and Resurrection, Acceptance and Transformation:
We seem to be experiencing difficult and challenging times—a global pandemic, massive wildfires, hurricanes, riots in the streets, troubling leaders, environmental devastation, the on-going violence of racism, sexism and heterosexism, increasing polarization and acrimony, more and more people hypnotized by ever-more absurd conspiracy theories, and the often powerful storms of emotion-thought that arise in each of us in the face of all this.
I have a small painting on my desk these days, “Christ of the Americas,” painted by Father Arthur Poulin, a Catholic monk whom I’ve met. It shows a brown-skinned Jesus, in the position of the crucifixion or the Ascension, I’m not entirely sure which—and the fact that it suggests both possibilities is to me part of its appeal. Jesus has nail holes in his hands and open palms, a vibrant and colorful world of people and towns and fields behind him, a dove under his feet, ocean waves below him, and a sun and moon above him. It reminds me of Latin American liberation theology, in which spirituality and social justice are inseparable; it suggests the unity of ordinary human life and the transcendent; it evokes the powerful symbolism of the crucifixion and resurrection. I don’t take every part of the New Testament story literally, but it’s a powerful story in which God enters the world and suffers the difficulties of human life, including torture, betrayal and death—and then, rises from the dead.
Regarded as a mythic story, it is (for me) about the challenges of human life, finding the light in the darkness, opening the Heart (“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and “Thy will be done”), embodying love—a fierce love, and knowing that all is well in the deepest center of being, that the Heart of things is indestructible, imperishable and at peace. For me, the latter isn’t something to believe, but something to know experientially, something in which a growing faith can develop, a faith in this presence, which could be called God.
For me, God is another word for infinite potential, intelligence-energy, the Totality, the wholeness of being, the source and substance of everything, the ground (or groundlessness) that everything shares—whether we call it the ever-changing emptiness (or interdependent no-thing-ness) of Buddhism, the immutable and all-inclusive Self of Vedanta, the Tao of Taoism, Here-Now, “just this,” presence, spirit, the light of pure Knowing, primordial awareness, the Unnamable, the Heart, or any other name. It is our deepest core, and it is at once no-thing and everything.
God is speaking as flowers and trees and birds and traffic jams and suns and moons—the whole universe is God speaking and listening, getting lost and then found, suffering and being redeemed, being nailed to a cross and rising from the dead. God is the faith and courage it takes to walk on water (and again, I don’t take that literally, but symbolically). God is the unconditional love that both accepts and allows everything to be as it is, and that also transforms or transmutes the darkness into light. God is the particular unique human named Jesus (and every other unique human and non-human too) and the Universal Christ. The word God points to the sacredness of everything, that everything is worthy of devotion.
These may sound like far-fetched religious ideas or beliefs, but I’m guessing we all experience what these words are pointing to in our own everyday lives in myriad ways—when an argument ends or an old grievance is finally released, when we find the courage to do something that feels impossible, when there is a moment of love and compassion for someone who sees everything differently from how we do, when we find ourselves able to be present with the urge to indulge in an addiction without indulging, when we forgive ourselves our failures and find the ability to start freshly, when we find the blessings in a serious illness or loss, when we appreciate both the uniqueness of every individual being and the impersonal presence we all share that has no form or limit, and in many other ways as we move through the challenges of everyday human life.
Prayer for me is another word for presence, but with a focus—to me, it simply means expressing gratitude and bringing attention to certain people or situations. I don’t pray for specific outcomes. I simply bring the light of attention and love to various people or situations. And when I bring this light to such things as the November election in the US, which Noam Chomsky has called the most important election in human history, I always say, “Thy will be done,” just to remind myself that I really don’t know what’s best for the universe or what “should” happen next. Sometimes prayer is the Tibetan practice of Tonglen: breathing in the pain of the world and breathing out healing; breathing in the hate and breathing out love; and in doing this, recognizing that our very being is capable of this amazing alchemy, this capacity to transform or transmute, to turn darkness into light.
We can debate the question of free will and who does all this, and I have written extensively about the choiceless nature of life and the mirage-like nature of the individual author (or separate self). But I also see our human capacity for waking up, for learning, for seeing more deeply. I see that what we call God (or presence-awareness or intelligence-energy) is not something outside of us or other than us. And in these times, I see more than ever the importance of discovering and marinating in this boundless aware presence that is our shared nature beyond name and form, this presence that has no different sides—the deep Heart, unconditional Love, God—call it by whatever name. I feel for myself the deep importance of faith—not faith in beliefs or ideas, but that direct experiential knowing that comes from being fully present, open and awake here and now.
From that place, that wholesome place, intelligent action or non-action can emerge. As my friend John Butler likes to say, “To make whole, be whole.” Of course, we already are whole, but that wholeness includes our capacity to know this, to consciously be and embody this, to marinate in this, to turn our attention to this, to grow and deepen in this. It’s that old paradox: Ultimate Reality is already fully present here and now, AND there’s an apparent unfolding and deepening in time, although all of that only ever happens in the timeless immediacy of Now. Or as Shunryu Suzuki put it, “You’re perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.” This applies to each of us and to the world. And as my friend, the wonderful teacher and poet Dorothy Hunt says, “We create the world we live in by how we see it.”
So, do we see doom and gloom, or do we see possibility? Do we focus on the hate or on the love, the resentment or the gratitude? Do we hang out in our heads, endlessly thinking, or do we marinate in presence? Do we demand perfection, or do we recognize that God is right here in the messiness and the failures—maybe even especially there? Do we want only the light, or do we realize that the darkness is inseparable from the light, that the crucifixion and the resurrection are mysteriously joined? Can we forgive ourselves and one another and the world for being imperfect, for disappointing us, for frightening us at times? Can we find the perfection in the imperfection?
Comment: No problems when we don’t try to change “What is.”
Response: Oh, I wasn't saying that! I hope we DO try to change things like racism and sexism, environmental destruction, cruelty to animals, economic injustice, and so on. I mentioned liberation theology for just that reason. There's a huge difference between "accepting what is" in the moment and taking that to mean that we cannot or should not act to change it. If the car has a flat tire, we accept that the tire is flat, and then we change it! But it's easy, especially in some of these highly charged social situations, to act from a divisive and reactive place, rather than from wholeness and presence...and sometimes, the best action is non-action.
Periodically, people mention my health, hoping I’m doing okay or asking how I’m doing, especially after reading my most recent book (Death: The End of Self-Improvement), in which I write, in part, about my journey with a stage 3 anal cancer that had invaded my rectum and vagina. So, I thought I’d provide an update for those interested.
In recent months, I cleared my two-year CT scan, blood work, vaginal and anal exams—all with no signs of recurrence or cancer anywhere. Since most recurrences happen in the first two years, this is very good news. This November will be the third anniversary of my diagnosis and surgery.
Since publishing my book last November, much has improved. I’ve become ever-more adjusted to life with an ostomy and ever-more agile and adept at managing it. The whole thing is second-nature now, and just feels like normal life. Best of all, I’ve recently found a new ostomy product that provides a fantastic solution to the frequent leakage issues I was having, which makes me feel much more secure about leaving the house.
My stoma (the end of my intestine that sticks out my belly and empties into the bag) revealed his name to me one day as I was changing the bag—Otto. I often joke that I have a relationship to Otto not unlike that of Tom Hanks's to Wilson in Cast Away, although Otto and I are more irrevocably joined and inseparable. I talk to him, sing to him, gaze at him in wonder, and marvel at the many dances he does. All in all, he’s a good guy, and I wouldn’t be here without him.
The fractures in my back seem to be mending; it seems definitive now that it isn’t bone cancer; and the pain is greatly reduced—more or less just the normal aches and pains of an aging body now. My bone density has actually improved, which astonished me given that I went through radiation and chemotherapy since it was last tested (thank you, Fosamax—I’m very glad that, after weighing the numerous pros and cons, I decided to take it—and please don’t tell me why it’s a bad idea—I took in the arguments for and against it in depth, talking to many people and reading many things on both sides, and I respect both views, but for me, the balance went toward doing it).
Yes, the complications of living with an ostomy, and especially managing it one-handed, do limit some of the things I can do, and I still don’t see myself ever traveling again, but I’m at peace with these limitations. They would have been tough when I was younger, but now, they actually fit my life quite well.
And COVID has worked in my favor in that regard—enabling me to attend many things in faraway places on Zoom, and to be a presenter at this October’s (now on-line) SAND Conference, things I would otherwise not have been able to do. So, for me, the pandemic has had some unexpected blessings!
And luckily, I haven’t had to deal with most of the difficult issues that so many people are facing with COVID (unemployment, collapse of a business, home schooling children, and so on). There are certainly things I miss doing, but I’m a person who loves solitude and quiet; I work at home and most of my meetings were on-line or over the phone already; and I live in a place where it’s easy to take walks away from crowds, so being confined mostly to home has not been hard for me in the way it is for so many. I’m continuing to be very careful, and luckily, I live in a place where most people and businesses are taking the pandemic seriously and following the guidelines.
All in all, I feel incredibly blessed to have survived cancer, to have had such remarkable care and support during my treatment (including from so many of you here on FB), and to be healthy and alive at age 72. I’m enjoying life more than ever, even with its still occasional dips into the darkness, and I’m very grateful to be here. Otto is dancing as I type.
Thank you again to all of you for your love and support and good wishes.
August 31, 2020:
GOD (the groundless ground) is speaking everywhere in everything—in the bird song, the wailing siren, the traffic sounds, the bright yellow school bus, the crumpled cigarette package, the gaze of a loved one, our morning shower, the check-out clerk at the store, the hurricane, the fires, the politician we hate, the spring breeze, the autumn leaves, the ostomy bag, the malignant tumor, the blaring car alarm, the butterfly in the garden, the hummingbird at the feeder, the squirrel running across the street, the tingling in our toes, the sounds of wind rustling the leaves, the patterns of light and shadow dancing on the wall, breath flowing in and out, the whole universe breathing—this whole indivisible seamless inconceivable radiant unresolvable happening that is never the same from one instant to the next, yet always immovably Here and Now—immediate, timeless, boundless, without beginning or end, no inside / no outside.
God is the openness, the listening presence being and beholding it all. We ARE this awaring presence. It cannot be found as an object, so if we’re looking for it or trying to experience it as some particular experience, that can’t be done. That’s like the eye trying to see itself or the sword trying to cut itself. We can only BE this open listening. How? By listening!
And by listening, I mean listening with the whole bodymind, with all the senses, with our whole being. I mean turning attention away from thinking, stopping all the hyperactive doing, being still, being silent, being open, being present, tuning in to the subtleties of whatever is showing up, whether it’s pain or a beautiful flower, whether it’s the person who represents everything we’re against or our dearly beloved best friend, whether it’s a sunny day or a cloudy one—opening as this awake presence or unconditional love beholding it all, seeing it as God sees it, from our deepest Heart.
Of course, THIS is ever-present, whether we’re tuned into it or not, but the journey of spiritual awakening (which goes nowhere, i.e., is always NOW/HERE) is about tuning in, awakening to this dimension of stillness or unconditional love, realizing (making real) this awake presence that we are.
By simply listening to the traffic sounds or feeling the sensations in the body, we are knowingly BEING this listening awaring presence that we truly are. We can FEEL it in ever more subtle and delicious ways, but we can’t see it as an object. We know it only by being it. It has no form, and yet, it appears as every form. Don’t think about all this. Just be still. Be quiet. Relax. Open. Listen.
September 2, 2020
THIS IS IT!
This eternal present (here and now) is the only life there actually IS, and we often miss the richness of it because we’re too busy looking for some other life or some better experience, or we’re distracting ourselves from the actuality of this moment because just being here, naked and unoccupied, feels scary or boring. But if we turn toward what seems scary or boring or uninteresting, if we open to it, it may turn out to be quite wondrous.
Of course, whether we are moved or able to do that in any given moment is not a matter of individual will—it is an action of the whole. And in reality, EVERYTHING is a movement of the whole universe, even our so-called mistakes, distractions and escapes.
Life naturally has many holographic or fractal dimensions, from the everyday to the transcendental, from the personal to the cosmic, from the most gross to the most subtle, from the microcosm to the macrocosm—many dimensions, all of them aspects of what is. Trying to stay permanently in some transcendental state of mind is a fool’s errand. Being confined to your home in a pandemic, home-schooling several rowdy children while simultaneously trying to complete a difficult work project on time, is not going to feel the same as sitting quietly on the seventh day of a silent meditation retreat. Trying to feel spacious and open in every moment is a set-up for frustration and disappointment.
And yet, we may discover that there is an openness that never goes away, an openness that includes and allows everything to be as it is, an openness that is not a doing or a special experience, an openness that is our fundamental nature. Every different experience is like a wave on the ocean—each wave unique, ever-changing and unrepeatable. No wave is ever a solid independent thing; it is simply a momentary shape or activity of the whole indivisible ocean.
The ocean is the common factor in every different experience, the openness that is present before, during, and after (and as) every waving, and this openness is not some-thing that can be objectified, seen, grasped, or set apart. It is our very being, the groundless ground, the germinal no-thing-ness, the radiant darkness, the light by which everything is known, the source and substance of everything. We can call it God or presence or Consciousness or primordial awareness or emptiness or unicity or the Self—it is what Here-Now IS. Nothing is ever separate from, or other than, this unbroken wholeness.
We might be thinking, yes, okay, but what about enlightenment and ultimate reality? Well, what exactly do we imagine that to be, and where exactly do we think we’ll find it? All experiences come and go. So if we’re looking for some special elevated experience, even if we find it, it won’t last. But we might discover that the present experience, however seemingly mundane, is way richer than we could ever have imagined. And if we’re hoping for enlightenment (or love, or joy, or peace) in the future, we may eventually notice that the future doesn’t actually exist and never really arrives, that the only actual reality is right now. And if we look for the one who is not enlightened, it might be discovered that all we can find is mental images, thoughts, sensations, and storylines. What we truly long for is simply relaxing and being at ease with ourselves and everything just as it is in this moment—even being at ease with not being at ease.
Pain is an inescapable part of life, but suffering over the pain may be optional. Awakening, enlightenment or liberation are words pointing to waking up (now) from the trance of suffering and from the imagined sufferer upon which that trance rests and around which it revolves. By dropping out of the thought-realm into naked experiencing whenever it invites us, we can begin to notice how reality actually is, as opposed to how we think it is. In bare experiencing, there is no me—no seer apart from the seen, no progress or failure, no destination or goal. There is simply the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the whoosh-whoosh of the traffic, the sensations of breathing, the breeze on the skin, the light dancing on the wall—just this! And ultimately, we see that even being lost in thought and suffering is also an impersonal movement of this seamless whole. Nothing is left out.
The seeker is a kind of mirage, a mirage in search of a mirage. And like the proverbial fish in search of water, what is being sought is closer than close and has never for one instant ever been absent. It is omnipresent. There is nowhere and nothing it is not. If you try to turn around really quickly and see the openness that you are as an object, or think about it and try to figure out what exactly it is, or have some special elevated and hopefully permanent experience of boundless presence, immediately you seem to be separate from it, and the search has resumed—once again you are desperately running on the hamster wheel of hope, chasing your own tail. But here you are, right in the midst of this marvelously absurd activity, enjoying a good run.
September 6, 2020:
As has been pointed out many times, the living actuality cannot be captured by any word or conceptual formulation. Thus, those of us who are moved to perform the hopeless task of writing and speaking about such inconceivable things simply do our best, using the words and formulations that resonate for us, perhaps sometimes emphasizing one aspect, and sometimes emphasizing another (e.g., choice or choicelessness, practice or no practice). The arrows we shoot out will sometimes hit the target and sometimes not.
When the arrows don't hit the target, when the key on offer doesn't fit the imaginary lock that opens the gateless gate for you in that particular moment, I suggest just letting it go. I find it's not terribly helpful to try to figure it out mentally, or to pick apart a pointer if the words don’t resonate with you and then argue over it.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, I resonate with many different pointers and teachings, some of which even appear to contradict each other, but I find great beauty in the diversity of expressions, each illuminating a different aspect of this living reality. I share many of the things I like here on Facebook along with my own outpourings, and I as I often say, take what resonates and leave the rest behind.
Arguing over the finer points of philosophy is not really my thing. As I see it, the juice is not in the concepts; it’s in the living reality itself, the immediacy of present experiencing here and now—and it is to THIS that all true pointers are pointing us. Rather than trying to figure that out, I always recommend exploring this undeniable presence or present experiencing directly, by looking, listening, feeling, sensing and awaring. Just tune in to what’s presenting itself, and don’t settle for any conceptual frame that seems to wrap it all up in a neat and tidy, understandable little package. The map is not the territory. Maps are helpful, but it’s so important to discern the difference between concept (or interpretation) and actuality, and to become sensitive to when it’s time to put the maps down and BE here in (and as) the territory itself. That’s where the juice is.
September 8, 2020:
SPEAKING OUT AGAINST THE RISING TIDE OF FASCISM
Many people feel that spiritual and nondual authors and teachers should not talk partisan politics, and I always have mixed feelings about doing so here on Facebook. I think it’s important to understand that we are all products of our nature and nurture and our life experiences, and to have the bigger view, so beautifully expressed by the old Chinese farmer story—to know that the light and dark go together inseparably, and that none of us really knows what’s best for the universe or what “should” happen next. But I also don’t believe in the (limited and dualistic) version of nonduality or spirituality that dismisses everyday life as “just a dream” that we should ignore.
We don’t know how far Donald might or might not go if he is re-elected, but the warning signs of rising fascism and a growing, armed movement of white supremacists marching openly in the streets, encouraged and egged on by the president, is quite evident. Americans like to think that what happened in Nazi Germany can’t happen here, but that’s exactly what they thought in Germany. At age 72, I’ve lived through some terrible presidents and some major conflicts and upheavals in American society, but I’ve never been as concerned as I am now.
My friend and teacher Toni Packer, who grew up half-Jewish in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, and who lived through the war there, was deeply concerned when Rush Limbaugh—the man Trump honored with the Medal of Freedom—began doing his talk radio back in the late 80s and early 90s. Toni said that Limbaugh’s rhetoric reminded her of Hitler’s. She didn’t live to see Trump’s rise to power, but I know for sure that if she had, she would be deeply concerned. And I believe she would speak out.
Noam Chomsky has called the November election in the US the most important election in human history, and I agree. It's not just our fragile, would-be democracy here in the US that is at stake here, or the various groups that Trump is hurting—it’s the whole world and indeed all living beings. Human history is full of tyrants, authoritarian regimes, genocides, and wars that have come and gone. What's different this time is that we have catastrophic climate change and nuclear weapons in the mix. As Chomsky put it, "Four more years of Trump's climate and nuclear policies might simply doom the human species. We don’t have a lot of time to deal with the environmental crisis."
I’m a long-time progressive who spent a number of years in the radical anti-imperialist left. I understand that Trump is not an anomaly, that he’s a symptom of systemic problems that far pre-date his presidency. I also understand that Biden is far from perfect, that the Democratic Party is far from perfect, that both major parties represent a corrupt system of corporate capitalism, that what we have in the US is in many ways a far cry from true democracy, that the whole system is far from perfect.
But as the Democratic Party nominee, Biden is clearly the only viable (i.e. electable) alternative to Trump at this time. Elections alone won’t solve everything, and Biden certainly won’t solve everything, and I’m sure he’ll do some things I don’t like if he’s elected, as well as some things I do like. But I know he won’t be as bad as Trump and the present-day Republican Party. Biden-Harris will be accountable, at least to some degree, to the Democratic base and to progressive values, which I think they genuinely share as human beings, unlike Trump-Pence, who will continue to be accountable in large measure to fundamentalist Christians, right-wing extremists, and white supremacists.
So I want to urge those progressive voters who don’t plan to vote for Biden because they think there is no real difference between Biden and Trump to re-think this and to consider the power and importance of who sits on the Supreme Court, or who gets those lifetime appointments to the federal benches, and the very real differences that this alone will make for decades to come in how we are able to approach climate change, healthcare, corporate power, and the myriad issues of social and economic justice, including women's reproductive choices, LGBTQI civil rights, criminal justice and immigration reform, and moving towards a world free of racism and sexism. Please don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
I know I probably have a few Trump supporters reading this post as well, so let me say a few words to you. I understand that some small business owners are moved to vote for Trump because he has “cut red tape” (otherwise known as environmental, health and safety protections, and yes, sometimes bureaucratic over-reaches because no laws and regulations are ever perfect). Or maybe they voted for him because they like his unvarnished, uncensored, off-the-cuff style and his refusal to play by the rules. Back in 2016, I think some less-informed voters were unaware of Trump’s vast inherited fortune and his numerous bankruptcies and scams, and they really believed that he was a great businessman who could “make great deals” for the American people. Many people just wanted a change, and they didn’t like Hillary, so they voted for Trump. Some were reacting against what they experienced as the over-zealous cancel and woke cultures. And maybe today, some people see all the rioting and looting at BLM protests, and hear people on the left calling for the abolishment of the police, or they feel the hypocrisy of having mass BLM protests during a pandemic while condemning Trump for his unmasked rallies, and so they support Trump.
Sometimes, it seems to me, when we try to correct a deep-seated systemic problem like racism or sexism that has been going on for a very long time, in our zeal to fix it, we sometimes (understandably) over-react and over-correct. I don’t mean by this that the problem is solved, but simply that the things we do to bring that about are sometimes not really helpful. Then that over-correction (understandably, from a different perspective) provokes a counter-reaction back in the other direction. And, of course, no two of us will agree on exactly where the line is between positive correction and over-correction, or between genuinely helpful correction and off-the-mark absurdity. And thus we have battles over such things as the cancel culture, woke culture, political correctness, affirmative action, identity politics, and so on. And to my sensibilities, there is truth on both sides of these battles. And by that, I don’t mean there is truth in racism, white supremacy or sexism; I mean that sometimes the cancel and woke cultures and the various progressive movements on the left do and say things that feel absurd or wrong even to me, as progressive as I am. And I suspect that what many people on the right see as the excesses on the left, have played into Trump’s hand and may well play a huge role in re-electing him.
I get that if you’re a Republican, it’s tempting to hold your nose and vote for the Republican candidate, even if you don’t like the guy’s behavior. But if you’re a decent human being, it seems to me you need to take a good hard look at what you’re supporting. Donald Trump is a thug, a narcissist, arguably a sociopath, a demagogue, a conman, a racist, a sexist, a pathological liar, an incompetent businessman who was propped up by his father, a corrupt and power-hungry man who will do anything it takes to win. He clearly has no feeling for nature, for the earth, for animals or children or human beings, or for democratic values. He has no sense of humor, no humility, no basic human decency. He stirs up violence, incites hate, and tries to divide instead of unite. He is unbelievably childish and thin-skinned, tweeting away uncontrollably and addictively in ways no one in his position ever should, hurling vicious insults, bald-faced lies, and re-tweeting dangerous and absurd conspiracy theories. This is the President of the United States! He seems to me like a man without a conscience, a very dangerous man.
I believe it is a grave danger to humanity and to life on earth to have someone this self-aggrandizing and unhinged at the helm of one of the world’s biggest and most powerful countries, with access to its military might and its nuclear codes.
I hope with all my heart that those of you in the US who are reading this will join me in voting for Biden-Harris, as imperfect as they may be. This is the time to take a stand against rising fascism, a growing white supremacist movement, flagrant sexism and the Republican agenda to disempower women, and the environmental devastation that threatens our very survival. This is the time to do everything we can to make sure that Trump doesn’t stay in office for another 4 years (or beyond).
I know these are strong words, not the usual stuff of nonduality. But my version of nonduality includes Joan taking a stand against the rising tide of fascism in 2020.
Finally, as my mother taught me long ago, que sera sera, what will be, will be. Or, in other words, Thy will be done. That’s an important perspective to keep in mind. Ultimately, none of us knows what’s best for the universe, but this movement of the universe called Joan has been moved to write this post for whatever reason.
Message from my September 2020 Newsletter:
In the world drama, in the national drama and in our personal lives, there seems to be a great deal happening: presidential elections, protests, riots, pandemics, climate change, wildfires, hurricanes, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, upheavals and conflicts of all kinds, along with astonishing acts of generosity and kindness.
How real is any of it? And how should we respond?
I notice that I can see what is apparently going on "in the world" or “in my life” in any number of seemingly very different ways. In one moment, it appears very real and important, and in another it seems to be only a dream-like mental construction with no inherent (observer-independent, persisting, substantial) reality, a construction that dissolves into unresolvable no-thing-ness upon close investigation. So, which is it?
My sense is that it isn’t either/or. Reality has multiple holographic, fractal dimensions or perspectives, and there is truth in all of these perspectives. Fixating exclusively on any one of side of a conceptual divide and ignoring the other is a set-up for suffering.
In recent days, a catastrophic wildfire started about a mile and a half from where I live and spread rapidly due to extremely high winds and very hot dry conditions. Luckily for me, the winds blew the fire away from me, but friends living in the other direction were not so lucky. Mobile home parks were completely decimated, towns were wiped out, homes were lost, people were left homeless, some died. Now we have extremely toxic “hazardous” air quality. I cannot ignore this dimension of reality, any more than I can ignore the upcoming election or the global pandemic.
At the same time, I can notice that I have to go into memory, thought, imagination and conceptual interpretation to conjure all this up right now, to put names on it, and to make it into a coherent narrative. To put any kind of interpretive spin or storyline on THIS immediate and unfathomable actuality here and now is a step away from the bare experiencing itself. And yet, that ability to conceptualize and think in complex ways—to map the territory—is part of what this universe appears to be doing through us humans.
I often encourage us all to notice how dream-like our entire life story and the whole history of the world and the universe is, how this moment is gone before it arrives, how everything that seems so solid and real disappears like those paintings on the sidewalk that I did with water as a child. And yet, however deeply this is seen and realized, we still have to live and function in this apparent world. The pain still hurts, hearts still break, work still needs doing. The world still shows up—wildfires, pandemics, elections and all.
And I believe that it is important to deal with the causes of climate change and to work toward a world without racism, sexism and heterosexism. All of this is quite real and important and not to be ignored or dismissed. But it’s equally important to recognize that ALL interpretations are partial at best and ultimately always false, my own included.
Our particular view of reality—the way we see the world—seems so unquestionably real to each of us that we can easily forget the fact that we all rely on a great deal of second-hand information in forming our opinions about pretty much anything and everything. Our nature and nurture and our life experiences determine how we see things and what sources of information we trust. And we don’t get to choose what we find trustworthy or how we see things any more than we get to choose who we fall in (or out) of love with, or what thoughts pop up next. We don’t all see the same world.
The more we examine the living actuality to which any of our words point, the more we discover that we can’t actually pin down or get hold of what anything or anyone is. Nothing resolves into a solid, persisting, discrete “thing” that can be separated out from everything else. There’s only seamless flux (or immovable presence), otherwise known as present experiencing.
Furthermore, we can’t have up without down, and polar opposites only exist relative to one another. Duality is built into everything perceivable or conceivable. We can’t have the light without the dark, or the left without the right, because it all goes together. ALL of it is somehow an inseparable aspect of this luminous presence that we are.
So, even as we have our opinions—sometimes with passionate intensity—and even as we take whatever actions (or non-actions) life moves each of us to take, it’s helpful to remember the bigger picture in which everything goes together as one inseparable and seamless whole. It’s helpful to remember the old Chinese farmer story, in which we can never see the whole picture, or know what’s best for the universe, or even for ourselves and those we love.
It’s helpful to notice that by either zooming in to the infinitely varied particularities and textures of anything that appears (experiencing it as bare sensations or energy), or by zooming out to the vastness in which this whole universe is but a tiny grain of sand in a boundless infinity without beginning or end, in both cases, either by zooming in or zooming out, the dimension of reality in which our personal and world dramas unfold is clearly seen to be but one possibility.
And if we search for the “me” who is supposedly inside this body or at the center of present experiencing, this “me” who is supposedly pulling the levers, steering the ship, authoring my thoughts and making my choices, all we find is ever-changing mental images, stories and sensations. We can’t find an actual boundary between inside and outside. ALL of it is a seamless happening. A person is like a wave in the ocean. No wave can be separated out from the ocean or pinned down as any persisting and solid thing, nor can it move independently of the whole ocean. Our emotions, thoughts, desires, fears, intentions, interests, opinions, actions, and everything else about us are a happening of the whole universe.
By giving attention to bare experiencing itself, prior to all labels and interpretations, we can tune into the common factor in every different experience, the awaring presence itself, the here/now-ness or suchness of it all, the present-ness. And we can notice the openness that is at peace even in the midst of chaos and upset—the immovable still point (Here-Now) at the eye of the storm beholding it all. This openness is not an experience, an attainment, or something that we do, but rather, it is the very nature of awareness to allow everything to be just as it is.
This living reality that we are never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. Everything belongs. Everything IS this presence, this aliveness. There are no mistakes—not from this bigger perspective.
But, of course, and importantly, realizing this doesn’t mean we can’t notice and address mistakes and problems at the everyday level. When the car gets a flat tire, we change it. When our child runs into the traffic, we rush out and grab them. If we see a dangerous man in power doing harm, we do what we can to remove him. If we see a system that isn’t working well, we try to correct it. But perhaps it’s possible to do all of that without losing sight of the bigger picture.
And perhaps that discovery and deepening is what this awakening journey is all about. It’s not a journey to someplace else. It’s a journey to being right here, right now—to discovering, in ever-more subtle ways, what IS. This living actuality is both transcendent and down to earth. It includes everything, from the nitty-gritty and often contentious realms of politics, human emotions and our personal neurosis, to the farthest galaxies and the most infinitesimal subatomic mysteries—it includes experiences of every imaginable kind—the things we love and the things we hate. It even includes our judgments, preferences and conflicts. Nothing is left out. It all goes together, one whole indivisible and inconceivable happening. Meaningful/meaningless, serious/playful, comic/tragic, dazzling/dull, real/unreal, everything/nothing—not one, not two. Ungraspable freefall. Groundlessness. Freedom. The freedom to be just as we are, and for everything to be just as it is.
Finally, as my mother taught me long ago, "que sera, sera," what will be, will be. In other words, the universe will do what it does, and each of us will be moved however we are moved. And ALL of it, even the things we think are terrible, are an inseparable aspect of this boundless totality. And the more closely we look at anything we single out, the more it expands and dissolves into no-thing and everything. What an astonishing and marvelous magic show!
May we all find the beauty in what is and the perfection in the apparent imperfection.
September 19, 2020 (following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg):
To all my progressive friends who yesterday experienced both the loss of a beloved hero and one of our worst fears coming true—RBG dying before the election—to all of us, I want to say this: Remember the old Chinese farmer story, remember that nothing is what it appears to be, remember that we don’t really know what’s going on here in this unfathomable living reality, and remember that no side of a polarity ever defeats its counterpart—they dance together, endlessly. RBG was an amazing being—if you haven’t seen the documentary (RBG), I highly recommend it. We mourn her loss while recognizing that death is a natural part of life and that from a greater perspective, everything is perfectly timed.
September 19, 2020:
DIRECTLY PERCEIVING THE NAKED ACTUALITY OF WHAT IS
I often point to direct seeing and the bare actuality of present experiencing prior to labels and interpretations. This is often misunderstood. I would never deny that our perceptions are colored or filtered by our biology, nature, nurture, etc. I don’t think we are ever a blank slate in that sense. When I speak of direct perceiving or naked actuality, I’m not denying any of that. I’m pointing to the undeniable present-ness of present experience. The example I often give is that I can doubt whether the shape I saw was a gun, a cell phone, a banana, or something else, and I can doubt whether it’s a material reality, an optical illusion, a mirage, or a dream, but I cannot doubt the bare fact of seeing itself, the bare fact of that shape appearing—the undeniable presence of it. And when we tune into that naked actuality and explore it openly, all kinds of interesting and liberating things reveal themselves.
Response to a comment about noticing our interpretations and assumptions that are superimposed over this nameless experiencing:
Yes, and then it can be noticed that even those are themselves another shape that experiencing or presence is momentarily taking...mapping, interpreting, conceptualizing, thinking are all activities or movements that this living reality is doing...so it can never actually be obscured or lost. And if we explore the naked actuality (the sensory-energetic textures or qualities, the suchness) of these activities, we find they are incredibly ephemeral, ungraspable, protean, and unfindable as anything substantial.
Four Responses to the same questioner about direct perception:
It's not about visual seeing vs. dream seeing, or mirage vs. "reality." It's about the presence that cannot be doubted. When you see what you label and interpret as "the University of Chicago" in a dream, you can doubt whether it's the "real" University of Chicago that you see when you go to teach there the next day, or whether it's maybe some other university that you've mistaken for the U of C, but you cannot doubt the presence of that appearance, the bare actuality of THAT. When you see the floor rippling during an acid trip or the mirage of water on the highway, you may "know" (from past experience, i.e. memory, and/or intellectual knowledge) that it is an illusion, but you cannot deny the PRESENCE or actuality of that appearance. That's what I'm pointing to...that immediacy which has no interpretation (although one may arise).
When you say that you "stopped believing in perception itself," I'm assuming you mean that you stopped assuming that what you THINK you are seeing is necessarily what it appears to be. It might be a mirage, a dream, an hallucination, or a "misperception" (e.g., a cell phone mistaken for a gun). I'm not arguing with any of that. But it is impossible to deny that something is showing up here right now. We can doubt what it is, or what is seeing (or awaring, or perceiving, or sensing) it (e.g., is it universal consciousness, or a brain in a vat, or what), but we cannot doubt the presence itself. That would be absurd. You seem to be over-thinking this, and over-looking the actuality of presence (or present experiencing) in favor of ideas and interpretations. What I'm pointing to is utterly simple, obvious, immediate, impossible to doubt. And I'm not suggesting we should "trust" this to get us somewhere, or that we should discount knowledge, memory, conceptual thought, or anything else. I'm simply inviting an exploration.
When you say you're "left with the doubt that perception itself may be an illusion," what you're talking about is still interpretation. The experience you had when tripping was undeniable in its present-ness...it was a real experience...just as a dream is a real dream...the falsity was in the interpretation (Garden of Eden, enlightenment, etc). But the bare happening was undeniable. There is something real in every dream, every optical illusion, every mirage. It's not the interpretation that's real, but the bare FACT of it as a happening is real. The mountains in your dream are not "real" mountains, but the appearance of them is a real experience. To deny that something is showing up here now is absurd. You can doubt WHAT it is (whether it's a dream, an illusion, a mirage, physical matter, the Garden of Eden, etc), but you can't possibly doubt THAT it is, or that it appears. Yes, ALL your interpretations may be false. But there is something you cannot deny or doubt that you are overlooking. It's so obvious and so ubiquitous that it's easy to miss.
I’ll offer one more illustration. If you see a coiled rope on the ground and immediately mistake it for a poisonous snake, there will likely be an instantaneous rush of adrenalin, a jolt of fear, and some spontaneous reaction (generally some variation of freeze, fight or flee). The snake was an illusion—a false interpretation. And even to say later that it is a rope can be doubted—after all, maybe you are hallucinating or dreaming, or maybe it’s a hologram, or a piece of taffy disguised as a rope, or who knows what. "Rope" is also an interpretation. But what you cannot doubt is the bare fact of that shape—the seeing of it—the PRESENCE of that image, the raw IS-ness or being-ness of that experience, just as it is. The same is true of the bare sensations that were undeniably present, the sensations that you later label as fear. And again, I’m not suggesting we can or should do away with interpretations, labels or concepts, nor am I denying that our senses are conditioned and contextual. I’m simply pointing to a presence (an experiencing, an awareness, a happening) here and now that cannot be denied or doubted—the knowingness that something is happening—not those words, which can always be doubted, but the undeniable actuality to which they point. That presence would have to be here first in order to doubt itself.
September 20, 2020:
What is meant by no self? When we talk of no self, it seems important to clarify what exactly we mean. To me, it doesn’t mean we are no longer a conditioned organism with a personality and preferences. It refers rather to the recognition that we’re not a persisting, independent entity, but rather, we are an ever-changing process inseparable from what we think of as not-me. There’s no actual boundary, no inside and outside, no subject and object. We’re like a wave on the ocean—an activity of the totality. No self also points to a seeing-through of the psychological self (all those stories and ideas about who I am and what I’m like), and a seeing through of the illusion of independent free will or agency.
Those stories about “me” and that illusion of agency may continue to show up intermittently, but there is a recognition that the stories are not really true, that they are abstractions and over-simplifications of a living reality with infinite complexity—that the self at the center of “my story” is simply a bunch of thoughts, sensations, images, memories and ideas that create a kind of mirage in the imagination.
Of course, we must have some functional sense of location and boundaries, unless we suffer the kind of neurological problem that Oliver Sacks wrote books about. Otherwise, we would not be able to distinguish our hand from the carrot we are chopping up for lunch. And we have a functional sense of free will and choice that is integral to how we operate. We seemingly must “decide” what to cook for dinner, for example. One neuroscientist has called this functional sense of free will and agency “neurological sensations.”
But by giving attention to the making of decisions, it’s possible to discover directly that our apparent choices are a happening of life, that no actual decider can be found. In a situation of indecision, opposing thoughts arise choicelessly and unbidden, arguing this way and that, and we cannot make the decisive moment happen any sooner than it does.
It’s definitely possible to live without the thought-sense of being encapsulated inside the body, looking out at a separate world. And in many ordinary moments, there is no sense of identity as the psychological self—if we’re not thinking about ourselves, we’re simply washing the dishes, driving the car, watching the clouds, adding up numbers, or whatever is happening. There’s no “me” in the picture until a thought pops up, such as, “I wish I didn’t have to wash the dishes,” and suddenly that mirage springs into apparent being. For most of us, that sense of identity as the psychological self with free will and choice doesn’t vanish permanently and completely, but continues to show up intermittently—and is the source of such things as defensiveness, guilt, blame, pride, and so on. But it can be seen through, and seen for what it is, whenever it shows up. And it can be realized that ALL of this (the illusion of agency, the sense of being separate, feelings of guilt or blame, and so on) is itself simply another impersonal shape that presence is momentarily taking.
I would describe the self as a kind of mental image, an idea, a mirage, or an intermittent thought that claims ownership and authorship before or after the fact: I was thinking, I went shopping, I made a decision, It happened to me. The actuality is an ownerless, authorless happening of the whole. In truth, we are no-thing and everything. And yet, we can’t deny that we are also appearing as a particular, unique individual with a personality, preferences, opinions, interests, aversions, likes and dislikes. But we can come to see that ALL of this is a choiceless happening, a movement of the totality, and that even what seems most personal is really not personal at all.
We can still use personal pronouns and tell our life story, but it is all held much more lightly.
Response to a question:
I'd suggest that instead of trying to think your way to some "answer," you might explore the possibility of simply giving open, relaxed attention to thought as it arises, and feeling into what it is. What does it feel like (the sensory-energetic texture of it)? How does it move? You may notice how ephemeral it is, how it evaporates instantly, and yet how it "materializes" whole worlds in the imagination. Don't try to come up with an answer to your questions (a word, a label, a category, an idea, a concept), because that will never satisfy, but just feel into that sense of being located and at the center of experience--go right into this apparent location or entity and see if it's actually there....and is it a sensation, or is it an idea? Can you actually find it? No answer will satisfy, but the exploration can be very rich and enjoyable and revealing...and without end, ever-fresh, always new, never resolved. We can't really know what this is in the way the thinking mind wants to know, but we know it intimately as experience...enjoy!
Response to another comment:
I don't feel that what I'm pointing to is inconsistent with what Ramana pointed to at all. I may not express it the same way, and he was strictly Advaita, and I'm more a mix of Advaita and Buddhism and beyond. But yes, if you look for the self...or if you look for the looker, you find nothing...or you could say, you find EVERYTHING. Or...you could say, you find the vast open space of awareness in which everything appears and disappears. And yes, there can be powerful experiences of simply being this vast, boundless, awaring presence...or this can be a simple, ordinary noticing of what is always present, this timeless immediacy of Now-Here. Things can happen dramatically, or in very quiet ordinary ways. But however they happen, as experiences, they pass, even if they reveal what is ever-present. And sooner of later, you'll have to use the toilet, or go to work, or deal with your rebellious teenager, or do your income taxes, or cut up that carrot for lunch...and then, if you have no functional sense of location or boundaries, you will be in deep trouble. And most likely, as you go about your daily life, working and dealing with your kids and so on, you will exhibit preferences, opinions, and patterns of thought and behavior that we call a personality. Ramana certainly had all this. His personality was quite different from Nisargadatta's, and I'm sure that when Ramana was reading the newspaper, he was able to discern the difference between himself (as the person) and the newspaper. At the same time, ALL of that occurs NOW-HERE, or we could say, in awareness. And ALL of it is the Self, the totality. So there are two perspectives or dimensions, both valid: the boundless totality (the Self, as Ramana called it) and the everyday world of me and you where we can distinguish between roses and dog shit, and where we can cut a carrot without cutting off our fingers because we call tell the difference. But what is never actually real is the imaginary helmsman, the supposed author of my thoughts and maker of my choices, the "me" who feels emotionally threatened or in need of defending "my" identity...the "me" who seems to be encapsulated inside the body looking out at a separate and alien world. That "me" is a kind of mirage, the snake (in the rope) that isn't really there.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--
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