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Blog #7

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (9/26/20--10/9/20):

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

September 26, 2020:

Is Consciousness the ground of being, the source and substance of everything?

How will we approach such a question? I would suggest that we begin by putting aside any beliefs we have about this and any “answers” that have come to us second-hand. And instead of approaching this as a metaphysical or philosophical question that we try to figure out “the answer” to by thinking and reasoning, I would suggest it might be much more interesting and liberating to approach it experientially, by tuning into and exploring, or investigating, our actual direct experience here and now.

When we do that, what do we notice?

We can notice that whatever-this-is, this present experiencing that is showing up, is an ever-changing movement that never resolves or solidifies as any kind of fixed or persisting “thing” that can be pinned down, grasped or separated out from everything else that it apparently is not. As they point out in Buddhism, impermanence is so thorough-going that no independent, persisting thing ever actually forms to BE impermanent.

And yet, at the same time, experience is always showing up right here, right now, in this immediacy or present-ness that is immovably always the case. We might describe Here-Now as the ever-present timeless (or eternal) infinity or vastness that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. It might also be described as spacious awareness or boundless presence. It is the still point, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. It is the unconditional love beholding and allowing everything to be just as it is.

We can also notice that present experiencing is infinitely varied or diversified. There is a multitude of different colors, shapes, sounds, sensations, textures, tastes, smells, emotional states, feelings, and qualities of experience. And at the same time, present experiencing is always showing up as a seamless whole, a singularity—one whole moving picture that never departs from right here, right now. And if we look closely at any particular thing within this moving picture that we might single out, we find that it has no beginning or end, no inside or outside, no actual boundaries—everything opens into infinity and is made up of everything it is not. This wholeness is holographic, fractal, like those jewels in Indra’s Net that are each only a reflection of all the others.

Noticing the wholeness of everything, the way it all goes together, the seamlessness, the interdependency, the non-separation, the non-duality of everything—the fact that polarities are inseparable and only exist relative to each other, that there is no actual boundary between inside and outside, or between self and not-self, or between subject and object—can be a very liberating realization. It shows us that everything belongs, that it all goes together. The name we put on this undivided and indivisible wholeness—whether we call it Consciousness, Unicity, the Tao, Buddha Nature, God, the Self, the One-without-a-second, Primordial Awareness, the universe, or bloopity-bloop—seems much less important to me than the recognition of it experientially. And that recognition is not some amazing achievement or some exotic transcendental experience that we must search for and then maintain—it’s simply a noticing of how it is in our actual direct experience right here, right now.

And giving it a name—any name at all—carries with it the side effect of reification—making this wholeness into an (imaginary) object in our minds, a particular finite thing, SOMETHING that can be experienced, grasped or nailed down—this but not that. And, of course, any such version of wholeness is illusory. Because there is no way to stand outside of EVERYTHING and objectify it as SOMETHING. There is no way to understand totality. It is literally inconceivable. And yet, it is also inescapable. It cannot be attained because it cannot be lost. It is all there is. It is totally obvious, albeit ungraspable.

If we give complete and open attention to any apparent “thing” that appears, however solid and substantial it might initially seem to be, we find that it actually has no substance at all. The more closely we enter into any apparent thing as bare sensation or pure experiencing, the more it dissolves into nothing at all. And yet, this no-thing-ness is not a dead void, but rather, an alive emptiness that is suffused with energy, intelligence, creativity, possibility—infinite potential. It is absolute freedom. And yet it is no-thing at all. It is utterly without form or substance, completely unknowable as any kind of object. We ARE it, but we cannot see or find or possess it.

That inconceivability, that emptiness, that groundlessness and ungraspability is wonderfully freeing, and yet, at first glance, it often scares us. The desire to locate ourselves and know what’s happening, to get control, is deeply rooted in our biology as part of our survival instinct. In a practical sense, this is functional and necessary, but in terms of finding any kind of truth about the nature of life, all our attempts to get a grip or find a foothold are unsatisfying. Because any answer we find becomes doubtful, anything we grip slips away, and any foothold we land on turns out to be unreliable. We crave something that we can believe in and hold onto, like a security blanket, and a concept such as “Consciousness” offers itself as a possibility. Answers are very seductive to the mind, and our tendency to seek and grab onto them is generally quite strong and persistent.

But what exactly IS “consciousness”? Is it another word for sentience, for aliveness, for experiencing, for the undeniable certainty of being present? Is it the light that illuminates everything perceivable and conceivable, the light behind attention? Does it include the darkness before the light? Is it this awaring presence, the alive emptiness at the core of everything, the still point that contains it all? What IS it?

On the one hand, consciousness seems to be our most obvious, undeniable, immediate actuality—the very substance of experiencing itself, the common factor in every different experience. And yet, when we try to get hold of consciousness or pin it down, we can’t really seem to find it. We can notice that we never experience anything outside of, or other than, consciousness (or we could say, other than present experiencing). If there IS anything else, we can never know it. We can only imagine it (as an experience in consciousness). That may be a tautology, but it’s one we cannot get past, except speculatively. All we have is experiencing. Of course, concluding that there cannot be anything “out there” (or “in here”) is arguably a step too far. 

After all, what about all the things that are apparently going on below the level of conscious awareness—the infinite complexity of our nervous system, our brain, our heart and lungs and liver and intestines—the whole functioning of the universe at infinitely varied and fractal levels of complexity from the subatomic to the intergalactic? What about the evolution that has supposedly occurred over time from insentient matter and energy, to primitive forms of organic life, and finally to increasingly complex nervous systems and brains and degrees of consciousness?

Of course, we know about ALL of this only through consciousness, as something appearing in consciousness, and made of consciousness in that sense, and yet we presume that it all exists outside of consciousness, or that it existed before there was consciousness. And so, from this perspective, based in thought and rationality, it seems that there must be a bigger happening, a bigger totality in which consciousness as we usually mean it is but one possibility—something that comes and goes.

And this isn’t just something we can think and reason about, but in our own actual experience, every night we leave the movie of waking life, or maybe more accurately, the movie disappears along with the one who seems to be watching it, the one who cares about it. In deep dreamless sleep there is no experience at all, and no experiencer in any perceivable sense. Of course, awareness is still there—after all, we wake up if we hear an alarm or smell smoke. But will awareness still be there in that way, as a non-experience or a potential, after death? Is primordial awareness the ground of being?

How can we know and does it even matter?

Instead of getting lost in speculation or belief, if we return to the simplicity of present experiencing here and now, this question vanishes. It takes thought and imagination to conjure it up, to imagine some future time “after death,” and to wonder if “I” will still be there as this conscious experiencing, this awaring presence that knows that I AM and that THIS IS, this conscious presence that disappears every night in deep sleep or under anesthesia. And we can notice that in that absence, in deep sleep or under anesthesia, there is no I AM there to miss the I AM—it’s not like being buried alive. So from there, the question of what happens to me after death is totally meaningless.

Trying to know what ultimate reality IS, is rooted first in the idea that we can step outside of it and see it as an object, and beyond that, it is rooted in the strange idea that it is something other than simply what it is. When we ask what something “is,” we’re trying to put it in a category of some kind. And it’s a fool’s errand to do that with ultimate reality, because totality cannot possibly be put into a category. And yet, here it always is, just as it is. We simply have to let go of trying to define it and settle into simply BEING it. And even if we seemingly can’t let go and settle in, even that activity and apparent disturbance is itself nothing but ultimate reality doing what it does. No wave ever moves independently of the ocean.

We’re not really separate from this aliveness, this boundless wholeness that is without beginning or end. We’re not actually EVER some independent “thing” that needs to “get a grip” by figuring it all out, so that we don’t fall into some bottomless void. That’s ALL imagination. That’s the wave imagining it is separate from the ocean and worrying about what will happen to it when it subsides back into the ocean.

Counter-intuitively, what is most liberating is having nothing at all to hold onto—simply the groundlessness of this moment, a moment that is fleeting and ephemeral and yet seamlessly whole and complete. It’s like we’re free-falling, but there’s no one falling and no ground to hit.

Instead of some deadly serious search for final enlightenment or salvation, or some effortful practice aimed at either self-improvement or self-dissolution, maybe it’s possible to simply ENJOY what is, just as it is. And maybe there’s a natural, playful curiosity and interest in exploring this living actuality, not as a practice, not as a form of seeking, not in a result-oriented way, not looking for some future attainment, not about me improving me—but simply as an enjoyable, playful, open exploration. We don’t know what this will reveal because every moment is fresh and new and has never been here before.

This exploration can take many different forms: science, meditation, spiritual practices of different kinds, psychotherapy of many different varieties, somatic work, lovemaking, relationships, travel, philosophy, the arts. But one way of exploring is simply to be open here and now to whatever is presenting itself, allowing it to be just as it is, to move as it wants to move, noticing that there is really no possibility of getting it wrong, that what we call “distraction” or “obscuration” or “confusion” is itself just another shape that experiencing is momentarily taking. Nothing is left out. Nothing needs to be other than how it is. Nothing is excluded. And whether we turn our attention to the ever-changing appearances (sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings) or to the awaring presence being and beholding it all, in either case, we come to the same vastness, the same alive emptiness, the same groundlessness, the same openness, the same dazzling darkness, wonderment and freedom from all concern.

Response to a comment:

Well, as I said, consciousness is the very substance of experiencing itself, the common factor in every different experience. And yet, when we try to get hold of consciousness or pin it down, we can’t really seem to find it. It can't be experienced as an object, as some-THING. There is an undeniable knowingness of being conscious, and I would say, of being consciousness. But we can easily get into word-play here, and all these words get used in such varied ways, as I tried to suggest. In the end, we're dividing up what is indivisible, and the divisions are imaginary, and the word-labels just nonsense sounds.

Response to another comment:

I'm not keen on the notion of "stabilization." To my ear, it calls forth the notion of progress and future attainment for somebody. What is apparently being stabilized in is actually never absent. I used to talk (and sometimes still do) about the falling away of the hypnotic trance (the me-story, the thought-sense of separation, etc) that SEEMS (intermittently) to obscure this indivisible wholeness. But more and more, I encourage us all to see EVERYTHING as an expression of this seamless totality, and to explore it as sensation, energy, texture or presence rather than as storyline and interpretation, and to discover the infinite emptiness right in the apparent obscurations. I'm also not a big believer in permanent, finish-line transformations (or "final stabilizations"), in which the thought-sense of separation or personal identity never again arises. It seems to be in the very nature of consciousness that it loves to become absorbed in stories and gets easily entangled in its own creations, and I regard both the entanglement and the waking up as impersonal happenings, both equally expressions or activities of the undivided whole that is without borders or seams.

Response to another comment from same person:

I deeply appreciate several different approaches to finding the peace and the freedom from unnecessary suffering that we all seek. One approach is that taken in Advaita, recognizing that we are the boundless awareness in which everything appears and disappears, and realizing that this unbound awareness (the True I, the Ultimate Subject) is ever-present regardless of what appears. And that approach might include consciously turning attention to that open spacious awareness and away from the thought-stories of me, seeing that the separate “me” is a kind of mirage, and falling open into that vastness (now and now and now), and gradually stabilizing more and more in the felt-sense of that, while being less and less entangled in the me-story, etc. Another more Tantric or Zen approach goes in what appears to be the opposite direction, including everything and going right into the appearances, finding that they are ever-changing, ungraspable, no-thing at all—that they ARE, in fact, nothing other than this awaring presence. (No separation / not-two). Some approaches negate ordinary life (not this, not that), while others fully embrace it. Some emphasize a path, while others uncompromisingly point out that what is sought is never absent and that any move to remember it, get it, stabilize in it, deepen in it, or anything else of that nature is a way of over-looking that it is fully present right here, that this is it. Having tasted deeply of many of these different approaches, I find beauty in all of them, and I find they can all be ways of discovering and realizing that peace and freedom from unnecessary suffering that we all seek. Different approaches seem to work for different folks, and perhaps for each of us at different moments. At least, that has been my own experience. And yes, of course, relatively speaking, there is an unfolding over time, and what we can call a process of stabilization (or less and less entanglement in the illusory sense of being separate and small). I don’t deny that. I just prefer different language because I have found it especially helpful and liberating to recognize that we can never actually be apart from this wholeness and that there is no one to stabilize as something else.

Response to a question about Jim Newman compared to Rupert Spira:

There's that famous story of the blind men feeling different parts of an elephant, I'm sure you've heard it. The elephant is a metaphor for Totality, the One Self, the Infinite, Unicity, the Shoreless Ocean, All There Is, God, Here-Now, Just This. No person can see the whole elephant. Each of us has a unique perspective, no two are exactly alike. Words like “awareness” get used in different ways. There are many different, and sometimes contradictory, pointers or maps of this ungraspable actuality Here-Now. Sometimes one pointer can serve as an antidote for the unintended toxic side effects of another. It has been my experience that we find exactly the pointer or the teacher or the book that we need when we need it. In another moment, we may need an entirely different pointer. Reality cannot be captured in ANY map or conceptual formulation, and when we try to grasp it, we inevitably end up with apparently unresolvable paradoxes: path / no path; something to realize / nothing to realize; choicelessness / total responsibility; there is only awareness / there is no awareness; be here now / there is only Here-Now, etc. You won’t satisfy the longing at the root of your question by thinking and trying to figure out the right answer, nor by asking anyone else what they think. You might find that the question comes from the sense of being a separate somebody who needs to figure something out and "get it right" in order to be okay. And you might discover that this "me" and this thought-story-sense of not being okay and needing to "get" something are both mirage-like creations. The problem is imaginary.

October 3, 2020:

FIND YOUR OWN MIND: The Addiction to Authority and the Search for Certainty

They say in Buddhism, “If you meet the Buddha on the road (i.e., outside of yourself), kill him.” Or as my friend Robert Saltzman likes to say, “Find your own mind.” We so easily assume others must know more, or be wiser, more awake, more evolved, or more whatever than we are. We’re deeply conditioned to look “out there” (to experts, authorities, gurus, scriptures, etc.) for answers, and to trust those we imagine have something we don’t (or else rebel against them, which is simply the mirror image of the same phenomenon).

Of course, there is a place for humility, for recognizing what we don’t know, for allowing others to help us, and for learning from others. I’m not advocating a false egalitarianism or saying we should throw all experts, teachers and teachings out the window and reinvent the wheel. But at a certain point, in a way, that’s exactly what we must do—we must stand alone and be true to our own mind, our own vision, our own explorations and discoveries. Because ultimately, no one else can do this for us, and every one of us has a unique path and a unique vision. No one else knows what we need. And no one has the One True Answer, the One and Only Right Way.

This has been one of the hardest things for me to fully grok, this finding and trusting my own mind. And sometimes, this standing alone and being the unvarnished bare actuality of this moment, just as it is, doesn’t happen. The search for some kind of final explanation, some certainty or security, some authoritative truth is profoundly addictive.

When I first landed at Springwater Center back in the late 80s, the retreat center founded by Toni Packer, she would talk a lot about our desire for authority. It was clearly a major human issue as far as she was concerned, as it had been for J. Krishnamurti. But at the time, I didn’t see craving for, or dependence on authority as my issues. I was raised by atheist-agnostics to be a free thinker, I went to a liberal arts college that encouraged thinking outside the box, I had been a counter-culture rebel in the 60s, an acid tripper, a wild bar dyke, someone who flew in the face of convention in every imaginable way, a political radical—obviously I wasn’t someone who craved authority. Right? It took me quite a long time to realize just how deeply I did (and at times still do) look outside myself for the “right” answers, put others up above me, and mistrust my own mind and my own insights. I’m still working on this one.

I’ve done this with both “political correctness” and “spiritual truth.” I stayed in the radical left for quite a while after I began to feel that many of the positions we were taking were totally wrong—but I silenced myself. I believed what they told me, that my doubts were symptomatic of my white petty-bourgeois privilege, that I just needed to quash that and submit to the party line. I kept trying. And then in the spiritual world, I have looked up to a number of teachers and authors over the years, from Toni Packer to Tony Parsons, trying to fit myself into their (often contradictory) perspectives or win their approval. And I still find myself at times doubting my own seeing and looking to someone else.

I see this happening in others as well, including people I meet with. I can sometimes tell, for example, that someone I’m talking to has adopted the supposedly “correct” (or “highest” or “truest”) form of nonduality that someone else is preaching—that this has become a belief or a dogma, that the one who preached it is being held up as an infallible authority, and that this is blocking the natural expression and creativity of the person I’m speaking with. It’s like a box they’re in.

I’m not saying here that we shouldn’t read books, attend retreats or satsangs, listen to talks or watch YouTube videos. Everything has its place. But we can begin to discern the difference between when something is truly nurturing us, and when it is a kind of desperate or addictive seeking for the right answer. We can feel whether we are viewing some teacher or some book as an infallible authority or simply as someone we respect and find interesting and worth hearing, but whom we feel perfectly able to question and disagree with. Of course, we can’t make ourselves drop the insecure, addictive part, even when we see it. And yet, the more clearly it is seen for what it is, the less grip it has and the more it falls away. For some, this may be a decisive and permanent happening, for others (like myself) it seems to be more of a gradual process. And we don’t get to choose how it unfolds for us.

Ultimately, life is doing us, we’re not doing it. Although paradoxically, we ARE life. We are indeed responsible, in the sense of responsive, for everything, because we ARE everything, and we can’t really nail down how realizations, thoughts, actions, choices and decisions happen. Are we doing them or are they happening to us? Or is there a false separation in both of those formulations, a false division? As always, it’s so important not to cling to conceptual maps or to imagine that our innate curiosity and the deep longing of the heart will be satisfied by anyone else’s answers or by any conceptual formulation.

In Zen Buddhism, there’s a lay ordination ceremony where you are given a Buddhist name that your teacher chooses for you, usually in some Asian language, and the English translation generally sounds very spiritual and exotic, something like “Way of Joy/ Boundless Equanimity” or “Lotus Flower/Empty Mind.” But one of my favorite Zen teachers, Barry Magid in NYC, apparently gives people their own actual, ordinary, everyday names at lay ordination. In other words, my Buddhist name would be Joan Tollifson—this very person, this vulnerable and transient, utterly unique, totally imperfect, unresolved, flawed and yet absolutely perfect, ever-changing expression of totality, THIS is who I am called to be—not Tranquility Mountain or Pure Emptiness or Lotus Flower, not Toni Packer or Tony Parsons or Nisargadatta or Darryl Bailey, but THIS particular, unique, one-of-a-kind human being, just as I actually am, moment to moment. That’s such a powerful lesson, to be yourself, to find your own mind, to be as you are, to not hide behind anyone else, parrot anyone else, or try to fit yourself into anyone else’s shoes—to be true to your own truth—in spirituality, in nonduality, in politics, in whatever realm.

And, of course, this doesn’t mean that “myself” is any substantial or persisting “thing” that can be grasped, nor is it pointing to egoic self-centeredness, or to the kind of rugged individualism that ignores society, nor to some uncompromising version of “my way or the highway,” nor does it negate wholeness and the recognition that one is inseparable from the totality and that absolutely everything is myself. It is perhaps the living koan of a lifetime to find out exactly what it DOES mean to be you (or me), and to be true to that, to BE that. No facile, second-hand, conceptual “answers” or conclusions will satisfy. It is an unresolvable, ever-unfolding, living koan that can only be answered by life itself, moment to moment, right now.

Response to a question:

I suggest not approaching all this as something effortful and demanding, but more as an open exploration rooted in curiosity, interest and even playfulness. And I suggest not having a result-oriented approach, and not expecting perfection—or anything else. I’m 72 years old. I began meditating half a century ago, and I’ve been writing books and giving talks and meeting with people about all this for almost a quarter of a century now, and I’m far from perfect, nor am I always clear and centered. The things you describe are very human and commonplace. Yes, some people have more of those tendencies, others less, due to the infinite causes and conditions that make each moment and each organism just as it is—in the same way different locations have different weather patterns. But by being curious and interested, these patterns do reveal themselves, and gradually (or in some cases suddenly), they lose their grip and their believability, and they shape behavior less and less. But they may never entirely disappear, nor do they need to. Whatever shows up, whether calm or stormy, cloudy or clear, it is ALL a movement of this one indivisible whole. It’s not personal. In seeing that, there is greater peace with being just as we are, including being at times cloudy or confused or insecure. It’s all included. Nothing (as far as I know) “always cuts it.”

Response to a comment:

Well, as we all know, it's easy to SAY all this about "all is one" and "no others" and "you can say whatever you want because there's no one else to impress," or to know it intellectually, but not always so easy to shed the conditioned patterns that tell us otherwise. And, of course, in one sense, we are all unique and different individuals, and we are social animals, and we do have a natural desire for belonging and to be loved and valued. If the tribe totally rejects us, after all, and abandons us on the tundra, we starve to death. So it's deep in our animal nature and our biology as well as our human nature.

Response to another comment:

What I wanted to express in this post was that these are deep-seated human tendencies. It's easy to criticize hierarchical and authoritarian structures and formats "out there," but the problem is deeper than that. When Toni Packer and others left the Rochester Zen Center to work in a more open way, they thought they could leave all that behind. No hierarchy, Toni as a friend and not a teacher, everyone free to question anything and everything, democratic structure, no pomp and ritual...but they soon discovered that we carry the seeds of these tendencies within us and they re-emerge, perhaps in more subtle ways. We weren't bowing to Toni or kissing her feet or calling her Roshi or Guru or anything, but still at times, in spite of ourselves, we nonetheless found ourselves putting her up on a pedestal (or tearing her down on the flip side)...etc. So what I hoped this piece would be, is an invitation to all of us to see these tendencies in ourselves when they show up.

Response to a questioner who asks, “If we have no choice really, as you say, then how does one consciously re-turn to the common ground of presence?”:

Ah, it’s that old question about free will.

As I have said many times, no conceptual formulation (free will or no free will, self or no self, something to do or nothing to do) can capture this living reality. It doesn’t fit into those boxes. Choice and choicelessness are different pedagogical pointers, useful in different ways.

I encourage people to explore this for themselves by watching as choices and decisions unfold to see if they can find a chooser or a thinker or an author behind the thoughts, desires, urges, and impulses that arise, or—in a case of indecision over something—if they can make the decisive moment arrive any sooner than it does. Now, who exactly is going to do this exploration and do they have a choice? That is the question you are posing. And again, no conceptual formulation can capture this living reality. In one sense, my inviting people to explore all this happens choicelessly, and their interest and ability or inability to do it also happens choicelessly. But if I “decide” that I can’t offer the invitation because there is no free will, that will be a misunderstanding. I’ll be leaving myself out of the totality.

There is no choice (or no independent agency apart from the totality to make such a choice), and yet, we function with the appearance of making choices. We “decide” to do all kinds of things for our well-being or improvement, from going to the dentist or to a psychotherapist, to studying a new language, taking lessons to improve our tennis game, getting bodywork or doing yoga, going into a recovery program for an addiction, etc. Meditation is one such activity we might take up. And there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence now as to the potential benefits to our physical and psychological health and well-being in doing this. Again, if I “decide” not to do it (or not to suggest it) because "there is no choice" or because “self-improvement is an illusion,” I will have missed something that is quite obvious.

In one sense, the urge to do anything happens choicelessly, and our interest in something like meditation, our ability to carry it out, the results of it, and so on all happen choicelessly. But at the same time, part of how we function is through the sense of making choices, so we might (seemingly) “choose” to meditate every morning, in the same way that we might (seemingly) “choose” to go to the dentist, see a therapist, or take a new experimental drug for our auto-immune disease. And presumably we do all these things because we have some interest in improving (or maintaining) certain aspects of our life.

Surely, as a psychotherapist, you helped people to see how some of the “choices” they were (apparently) making were causing them suffering, and you helped them to discover other possibilities that they could perhaps (apparently) “choose” in the future. Perhaps you also helped them to see that they might not always be able to make those healthy choices because sometimes the power of old habits overwhelms our intentions to do things differently. Hence, accepting how it is in any moment and not expecting perfection is a key to happiness.

If you have children, you must teach them to be members of society, and you will find yourself inevitably talking to them as if they have agency, telling them to look both ways before crossing a street, to not hit their sister over the head with a brick, to not throw their food at dinner, to do their homework, and so on. But if you deeply understand the choiceless nature of every moment, you will (perhaps) have more compassion when they sometimes fail, or with yourself when you sometimes lose your temper and yell at them.

As I’ve discovered from my own experiences with psychotherapy, somatic work such as Feldenkrais, and years of meditation and explorations of that kind, YES, we can choose to shift our attention (when we can—sometimes we can’t). In one sense, it is NEVER a choice. But it SEEMS to be a choice, that’s how we function. So, at some moment, there is a seeing that we are caught up in useless thinking, and there is a possibility then (seemingly, when there is) to “choose” to bring our attention either to present moment sensations or perhaps simply to the sense of presence. So, yes, this is possible. Not always, but sometimes. And the more it is accessed, the more possible it seems to become. And yes, in my experience, it results in greater joy and my being less of an asshole, at least in that moment.

Again, I go into this in all my books and in a number of articles on my website. In my most recent book (Death: The End of Self-Improvement), I recommend the section called “The Curious Paradox,” pps 58 thru 71. It deals with improvement, transformation and free will in some depth. On my website, I recommend the articles about free will and the one on addiction and compulsion. They also go into this in depth. In addition, you might read my book Nothing to Grasp. You might also read two books by Sam Harris: Waking Up and Free Will. I review these books and say more about who Sam is on the recommended books page of my website.

But most importantly, I would suggest giving attention to your own direct experience. When you notice you are caught up in a storm of reactive emotion-thought, is it possible to stop thinking and shift your attention to the sensations of breathing and the sounds you are hearing (traffic, bird cheeps, silence, whatever it is)? You may find that sometimes it is possible (if only for a moment), and sometimes it isn't (the compelling energy of emotion-thought is too strong at that moment). When it is possible, how does this change your experience and your behavior?

Understanding the choiceless nature of reality doesn't preclude our ability (also choiceless) to make suggestions or have intentions or anything else that seems to involve agency. That's how life functions! And there is an ability to act, a response-ability, right here (when there is). And, as close observation will clearly reveal, this responsibility never belongs to the imaginary self who we believe is authoring our thoughts and making our choices. And yet, we can't really say it's not myself either, and we can't really say if it's a choice or a choiceless happening. Neither the passive nor the active voice (in grammar) captures the living reality.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

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