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Blog #8


The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (10/26/20--11/27/20):
https://www.facebook.com/JoanTollifson.

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


October 26, 2020:

The living actuality Here-Now is obvious and unavoidable. It’s what we are and whatever is showing up. Nothing departs from it or stands outside of it. Nothing hides it. It is all there is.

When thought tries to pin it down and formulate or understand it, it appears confusing, mysterious and paradoxical because it is fundamentally ungraspable and unresolvable. And yet, this too is the living actuality showing up as what we call thought, confusion, mystery and paradox.

There is no one at the center of this whole happening pulling the strings and calling the shots—the appearance of agency is a kind of mirage. This living actuality is spontaneously unfolding by itself, as itself. It is one whole indivisible happening—seamless and boundless, without beginning or end, always Here-Now. It is no-thing (which is not nothing) appearing as everything (which is not something).

We can notice two aspects or dimensions of this living actuality: impermanence and presence. These are not two.

Impermanence is the ever-changing forms, but when we look closely, we find that it is an impermanence so complete that no separate, persisting, substantial “things” ever actually form to even be impermanent.

Presence is the ever-present Here-Now, which is not the instantaneous present moment (gone before it arrives), but rather, the eternal Now, presence itself. This is not some “thing” that we can separate out and grasp, but rather, it is the common factor in every different experience—the immediacy, the undeniable present-ness of it. This presence is by nature radiant and aware.

In conscious experiencing, there is the illusion of time and space—past and future, here and there. There is the illusion of solidity, substantiality, persistence and separation—as if each wave on the ocean were a separate, independent, solid, substantial, persisting thing. There is the illusion of being a separate self, as if “I” am that solid, independent, persisting wave, existing and moving independently from the other waves and from the ocean. And there is the illusion that “I” am the author of “my” thoughts, the maker of “my” choices, the doer of “my” actions, and the owner of “my” experiences.

These illusions bring forth much suffering and confusion, and yet even illusions and so-called suffering (in all the myriad forms it takes) are all nothing other than this same ocean of impermanence and presence doing what it does. Unicity never departs from itself. It is all there is. And everything, without exception, is an activity of this undivided totality.


October 27, 2020:

Being awake is not an intellectual pursuit. It is not about getting the right ideas and figuring everything out. It is not a matter of belief. Nor is it about having extraordinary experiences or altered states of consciousness, or trying to be a good person and do good things. There is nothing other-worldly about it. Being awake is not about seeing angels, having visions, leaving your everyday life far behind, or losing all sense of your unique individuality and being unable to function in everyday life.

It’s about what is most simple, most obvious, most ordinary and at the same time, most extraordinary. It is about being liberated on the spot and being awake here and now.

Being awake does not depend on any outward circumstances, such as a quiet setting or being in some special meditation posture. It is always already the case. And yet, because consciousness becomes easily hypnotized by its own creations—ideas, concepts, beliefs and stories—and especially by the central illusion or mirage of “me” as a separate, independent, persisting somebody existing in a substantial, observer-independent world “out there”—it can SEEM that “I” am a lost soul trying desperately to figure everything out and get somewhere. And much of our human activity comes out of this delusion, the sense of being separate, and is thus motived by fear, greed, anger, hatred, resentment and so on. And so, spiritual practices evolve naturally as ways of waking up from this delusion and suffering. They are movements of the totality.

The one we imagine would be the “doer” of any such awakening practice doesn’t actually exist. And yet, there IS a response-ability, a power to act, that is right here, right now. It is not the separate self or the thinking mind, but rather, our natural intelligence, awareness itself, the totality moving through us. Does it always triumph over delusion? No. Sometimes the force of compulsive habit is too strong and we act out of delusion. But that natural intelligence and aware presence can be discovered and (in some sense) cultivated.

In its most intelligent and direct forms, spiritual practice is a pathless path from Here to Here, going nowhere. It is an open exploration and enjoyment of the living actuality here and now.

Notice what’s actually showing up. Tune into the sensory-energetic textures, the felt-actuality of experiencing itself (sounds, somatic sensations, tinglings in the body, visual shapes, colors and movements), prior to all the labels, definitions and stories about what is showing up. Be aware of the present-ness of what appears, the undeniable presence of it.

Notice the simple fact of being undeniably present and aware. If there is a thought-sense that “you” are a subject “looking out” at the world, see if that “you” can actually be found. Is it really “in” there somewhere, or “back there” somewhere? Is there an actual boundary between “inside you” and “outside you” that can be found? Isn’t this separate and encapsulated “you” simply a kind of mirage created by ever-changing sensations, thoughts, ideas, mental images, visual images, memories, stories, and so on?

Feel the openness of aware presence, the way it has room for everything but clings to nothing. Feel that you ARE this openness, that “you” are not encapsulated inside a bodymind, but rather, that the bodymind and the experience of being an apparent person appear and disappear within this limitless vastness, as does the whole universe. You are at once being and beholding it all.

Without thinking, does this undeniable awaring presence Here-Now have a name? A gender? An age? A race, ethnicity or nationality? A political leaning? A life story? Or is it empty of all form and all identity? Many apparent forms are showing up—that cannot be denied—but by looking closely, we can SEE that the forms never hold still, that nothing ever resolves or coalesces into any persisting, definable “thing” that can be separated out from the whole. It may SEEM to do so. We can’t deny the appearance of chairs and tables, dogs and cats, you and me, all of which SEEM to be solid, separate, persisting things. But the more closely we look—with physics, or with meditation, or with the eye of an artist—the more we find that these apparently persisting forms are moving and changing, that they are inseparable from the whole, and that they are not solid or substantial. And yet, they can’t be denied either. They’re not nothing. But we can’t actually pin down or grasp what anything is or separate it out from the totality. Nothing holds still except presence itself (Here-Now), the common factor in every different experience.

In simply being here, awake and aware, without thought, we are discovering an alive emptiness that is boundless and seamless, empty of all definition, no-thing at all and yet not nothing—a vast presence with ever-unfolding subtlety and richness, appearing as everything we see, feel, taste, touch and experience.

And then, we can simply notice how thought comes in—how the mind begins to churn out questions and doubts, how the story-telling begins, the figuring-out, the comparing, the seeking, the resisting, the judging and evaluating. Notice how the “me” shows up, as the subject of a thought or as a mental image, and how our sense of what we are shrinks down from that vast impersonal presence to the capsule-identity of “me,” a particular person, a wave on the ocean of life. Notice how emotions arise and what keeps them going. What if we explore physical pain or unwanted emotions as sensations and energy in the body, without the labels or the storylines? Are pain or difficult emotions really the monsters we thought they were? Are they unbearable? Will they actually kill us, or do they turn out to be nothing of substance—maybe even interesting?

If we look closely, we can never find an exact place where any particular wave in the ocean begins or ends, nor can we find any actual boundary between one wave and another, or between a wave and the ocean itself. The wave is never anything other than the ocean. It never holds still or persists as anything in particular. There’s nothing wrong with being a wave, but when we forget that we are the ocean, and that the wave is never really a separate, independent “thing” that can get lost or go astray, we begin worrying about all kinds of flat earth questions: What will happen to “me” after death, and how do “I” compare to the other waves, have “I” fully attained or realized the ocean yet? We begin trying to figure out the nature of water: “What IS it?” we ask.

We want to nail it down once and for all. Is it mind or matter, consciousness or primordial awareness, this or that? But the totality cannot be seen as an object in the way we can see an ocean. We cannot stand outside of unicity and grasp it in any way. To do so would be like the eye trying to see itself, the sword trying to cut itself, or fire trying to burn itself. We cannot measure or analyze unicity in the way we can measure and analyze oceans and water.

We can give the totality various names (unicity, God, the universe, presence, awareness, Consciousness, the Tao, emptiness, the Self), but if we try to pin down what any of these words refer to as any particular experience, state of mind, substance or entity, we are limiting and objectifying what is limitless and ungraspable. We can never know (as intellectual knowledge) what this whole thing is.

And yet, at the same time, we DO know it directly and intimately, in exactly the same way we know water when we drink, touch or swim in it. And we cannot possibly fail to BE this totality. EVERYTHING we see, feel, touch, and experience is nothing other than this. We can never REALLY be lost. Nothing actually stands apart to be lost or bound.

But we CAN notice how we IDENTIFY as a particular wave, how we FEEL separate and IMAGINE ourselves independent and in control, how we defend our identities as this type of wave or that type of wave, how we become hypnotized by stories of victimization and entitlement, how we compare ourselves to other waves and feel alternately superior or inferior, how we SEEM to be lost or bound, how we seek the ocean as if it were something mysterious and far away, and how all of this drama and personal identity is both amazingly seductive and yet incredibly painful. We’re never really separate or bound—the problem is always imaginary, but we can certainly FEEL very separate and lost. And while Hitler and Ramana Maharshi were both equally waves on the ocean of unicity, we can SEE that Hitler was acting out of delusion and the sense of separation, while Ramana was acting out of the realization and embodiment of wholeness. Hitler was in a kind of trance; Ramana was awake.

So, on the one hand, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. EVERYTHING is the one reality doing what it does, ALL of it an indivisible movement that cannot in this moment be other than exactly how it is. AND, at the same time, as part of that indivisible movement, there IS something to do! We can’t land on either side. Both are true, and both are important. There is a natural desire to wake up, to move away from harmful behaviors, to live from love and not from hate. This natural desire comes from the totality, from wholeness itself.

Likewise, on the one hand, there is no separate author-chooser-doer, and EVERYTHING is a choiceless happening of the whole. AND, at the same time, there IS a power right here, a natural intelligence, a power of discernment—there is awareness. It isn’t “my” awareness, and yet, here it is, and “I” am not other than it. And so, once again, we cannot land on either the power of aware presence, or the powerlessness of the thinking mind and the imaginary “me.” Both are true: power and powerlessness, choice and choicelessness, something to do and nothing to do, and both are important.

And so, with practice, a growing sensitivity can develop to the difference between our conceptual maps and the living reality itself. Mistaking the map for the territory happens in such subtle and ubiquitous ways that discerning the difference is not always as obvious as it may sound. But with careful open attention, it becomes ever more easily noticed.

We can knowingly be both wave and ocean simultaneously—no conflict. This is called being in the world, but not of it. It is the unity of relative and absolute, impermanence and presence. We discover the possibility, in any moment, of leaving all our suffering behind—not forever after, but right now. It simply requires a shift of attention, a stopping, an opening.  

Once we have discovered this possibility, once we have clearly SEEN the difference between the map and the territory (the concept and the perception), and once we have noticed that presence-awareness is actually never not here even in our most deluded moments, it is simply a matter of confirming this again and again, exploring it ever more deeply. And this is not some grueling, methodical, effortful practice, something the illusory separate “me” might do to “get somewhere.” It can be playful and fun and enjoyable. Maybe devotion is a good word—being devoted to this realization, this waking up, allowing it to flourish, basking in simple presence. It is an exploration motivated by love, curiosity and interest, not a burdensome task aimed at self-improvement. It is something we are drawn to naturally like the bee to the flower. And no one is actually doing this. It is a happening of the whole universe. So we don’t need to worry about not doing it right or not doing it enough. However it is happening is the perfect expression. It is doing itself.

The more this possibility of being liberated on the spot is accessed or noticed or recognized or deeply known, the more readily available it seems to become. And the more the thoughts and stories are seen for the make-believe they are, the less hypnotic power and believability they have. We simply keep exploring and confirming the insubstantiality and unresolvability of what appears, the fictional nature of all our thoughts, storylines, beliefs and ideas, and we keep marinating in the open, boundless presence that we are and that everything is. Effortless and simple. Hearing the traffic sounds, feeling the cool breeze on the skin, enjoying the sensations of breathing, tasting our food, washing the dishes, driving the car, doing our job, changing a diaper…just this!

And it’s never about past awakenings, future awakenings, or once-and-for-all forever awakenings. It’s always only about NOW. Being awake now. Because NOW is all there ever really is. Just notice how it actually IS. Wake up to the living reality of this moment. Re-turn again and again (NOW) to what is wholesome and trustworthy. Find out what that is, and be devoted to it. That, as I see it, is the heart of spiritual practice and awakening.


November 12, 2020

What I’m pointing to in my writing is not intellectual. It’s not about figuring everything out. It’s not about a belief system or an ideology. It’s about THIS, right here, right now. The thinking mind immediately wants to figure out what that means. Thought wants to grasp it, get a grip on it, understand it. But what is being pointed to is here before that thought arises. It requires no figuring out, for it is obvious and actually unavoidable. It is the direct experiencing right now, THIS that is utterly immediate and undeniable. Instead of thinking about WHAT this is, what is being suggested is the possibility of allowing it to reveal itself. Stop thinking ABOUT it, and instead, feel into the naked sensory-energetic actuality of this present happening. Sounds, visual impressions, somatic sensations, tastes, smells—the feelings we call anger, or hunger, or fear, or pain, or pleasure—the texture of presence itself, the spaciousness of awareness. Dive into the naked actuality itself, prior to the labels and stories ABOUT it. BE it. Language can never quite say this correctly, because when we use words, it inevitably sounds dualistic. The words can only point or invite. Don’t get stuck on the words. What matters is the actuality itself: Here-Now, the ever-present wholeness of being and this ever-changing present experiencing—one inseparable presence. Explore it, enjoy it, marinate in it—not in a result-oriented way, not in order to get somewhere or achieve something or have some grand experience—but innocently, openly, like a child exploring the world or a lover exploring the beloved. This is a never-ending discovery, a never-ending adventure, always right here, right now.


November 12, 2020:

How Do Various Teachers, Speakers, Teachings or Messages Affect Me?

This is a wonderful question to live with as you read, listen to, or work with various folks who are writing or talking about nonduality, awareness, meditation, spirituality, or however they describe it.

Do they point you to right here, right now, just as it is?

Do you come away feeling that you lack something, that there’s something more to get, that they have something you don’t, that you need to go back to them again to really “get it”?

Do they speak from presence and their own direct seeing, or do they seem to be coming from an intellectual place or from beliefs? Does listening to them evoke open presence in you, or does it get you entangled in thoughts?

Do you feel relaxed, awake and relieved of seeking in their presence, or do you feel more and more entangled in mental confusion and wanting something you think is missing?

Do they make themselves seem special or different? Do they tell you their awakening story, or do they emphasize the awakeness that is right here, belonging to no one? 

Do they speak to you with humility, as a fellow-explorer, or do they speak as your superior in some way, as the Master, the One in the Know, the one with all the answers, the Authority, the Enlightened One?

Are you free to question what they say?

Can you interact with them “off-stage” as regular human beings, or do you only get to meet them in a very controlled setting, when they are “on stage” being the teacher?

Do they reveal and share their human side (their own shortcomings, doubts, uncertainties, mistakes, or whatever it might be), or do they come off as beyond it all and perfect?

Do they speak with certainty about metaphysical things that may actually exceed the epistemological limits of a human being? Do they claim to know how the whole universe works? Do they admit to uncertainty? Are they open to seeing things they hadn’t seen before, to changing their minds?

Are they pushing beliefs, conclusions and answers, or are they inviting a kind of ever-fresh, open exploration and discovery, not knowing what will be discovered?

Do you feel like you’re exploring together with them, that you’re looking and listening and wondering together in a shared way, as friends, or are they the one in the know and you’re following them?

Do they challenge you at times, push you, maybe even upset you? And if so, is it in a way you ultimately appreciate as being helpful, or is it in a way that feels abusive and demeaning?

What do you feel they want from you if anything? Is there a whole system they want you to sign up for, an organization they want you to join? If there is an organization or different events or programs being offered, do you feel like you need these to get somewhere better, or are they being offered in a different spirit, as simply ways to continue exploring and clarifying?

In one sense, there is no path to Here-Now because we are always already here.  And there is no awakening in that sense because we are already awake. But we don’t always recognize that. Fully realizing that (making it real), waking up to where we are, sobering up from the search for a better tomorrow and a better “me,” waking up from the hypnotic trance of our stories and ideas, discerning the difference between the map and the territory (between conceptual formulation and direct experiencing)—this is an unfolding process without end. Teachers can be very helpful in this process—they have been for me and sometimes still are. It’s healthy to acknowledge what we don’t know or haven’t yet fully realized, and to admit that someone else may be “farther along” on the pathless path in that sense, and thus able to help us. There’s no shame in getting help, and false egalitarianism is just as pernicious as authoritarianism.

These questions I’ve posed aren’t intending to suggest that everyone is equally clear or equally free from confusion and delusion, or that you should walk away prematurely and settle for a life of confusion and misery because you’ve bought into the IDEA that you “shouldn’t” want anything different. The longing to wake up comes from the deepest place in us. But it often gets hijacked by the ego and side-tracked into a search for exotic experiences, final understandings, a perfect personality, a pain-free life, or freedom from any kind of uncertainty.

These questions are intended to invite us all to question the ways we seek authority figures or parental figures, the ways we keep ourselves from standing on our own two feet and trusting our own insights, the ways we continue to search long after we have found. Many of us have a lot of self-doubt and a deep sense of lack and unworthiness, and it’s all too easy to assume that someone who sits at the front of the room and speaks with authority and certainty must be superior to us, and must know what they’re talking about. And that may not be true at all. So these questions can be helpful ones to live with as we engage with various teachers and groups. Ultimately, of course, life itself is the teacher. Every moment is the teacher.

The therapist I sobered up with back in 1973 from my near-fatal plunge into alcohol and drugs once asked me how I felt about our relationship. I told her I felt like she had all the power. "I do have all the power," she told me. "You gave it to me. You gave it to me for a purpose, and when you're ready, you'll take it back. You'll learn all my skills, and you'll be your own therapist." She believed therapy should be a relatively short-term process. You learn to stand on your own. I was with her for a year, and I did learn her skills. What she said was a beautiful description of the healthy parent/child, or teacher/student, or therapist/client relationship. These are all potentially helpful relationships, often essential ones, but it’s important that they not become a permanent dependency. The child must grow up and leave home, the client must leave therapy, and the student must leave the teacher—and that doesn’t mean that the student must never see the teacher again, or that the student might not learn something more from the teacher (or vice versa). They may still live or work together, maybe they remain friends, so the leaving isn’t always about physical distance. It’s about what the Buddha meant when he said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” It’s about trusting your own light. Which isn’t really YOUR light; it’s simply LIGHT. No one owns it. No one is actually separate from it.


November 14, 2020:

So, it was Friday the 13th, Otto (my ostomy) was plugged up so I had abdominal cramping, which is painful. It was raining and huge numbers of the last colored leaves were blowing through the air in the wind gusts. A huge ant invasion was happening on my kitchen counters. The power went out in half my apartment, a problem with the wiring apparently, which will require an electrician. Otto switched from plugged up to massive outflows of liquid diarrhea. As a backdrop to all this, there was the unfolding Trumpian coup attempt in all its ugly and dangerous horror.

And then there was Facebook, where I had reviewed Shiv Sengupta’s wonderful new book, Advaitaholics Anonymous, and in response, some extremely contentious comment threads had sprung up, both on my personal page and on his AA page, where he had also posted my review (although initially, he only put in one tiny part and failed to mention that it was an overwhelmingly positive review helping to promote his book, so his fans all began dumping on me, having misconstrued the meaning of the tiny part).

Before I knew it, I was firing off angry, belligerent, snarky, foul-mouthed comments. One woman friend got into a back and forth with Shiv and eventually called him a dick. He then called her a cunt. I said “fuck off, assholes” to a few commenters on his page. A discussion of the word cunt unfolded on my page. Someone quoted Shiv as having once said that my writing was “hogwash, the same spiritual crap we can read everywhere." Guruphiliac showed up. It was pretty wild.

As far as I could tell, the whole tumultuous mess was not helping my mental health, not to mention my public image (although thankfully I no longer care about that), and I thought many times of erasing the whole thing, but something kept me from doing that.

Some readers suggested that it was actually valuable for folks to see people in the spiritual or nondual field, people who write books, give talks and hold meetings, losing it like this, swearing like sailors, being offended and offensive, angry and nasty, defensive and judgmental. Maybe it was a refreshing change from the usual air of peace, love and tranquility so often exuded on the spiritual scene.

And I was, I realized, giving people a chance to see the wild angry drunk I used to be, my Charles Bukowski side, that tough one-armed dyke from decades ago who once flew in the face of convention, now rising up again and breaking all the rules of spiritual etiquette, hurling insults at everyone. She's still in there obviously, angry as hell at the whole fucking world.

It occurred to me that it might make an interesting book. My spiritual posts on one side of the page, my unhinged and uncensored bar dyke on the other side. In fact, oddly enough, I suddenly remembered that this WAS the original version of my first book—it went back and forth between the “Springwater Journals” written at the meditation retreat center where I was on staff and a novel based on my drunken bar days. I thought that juxtaposition was interesting, but the publisher cut the novel.

Years of therapy, years of meditation, and that rebellious wild dyke is apparently still alive and well. And there's something I like about her, and that others seem to like as well, as foul mouthed and unhinged as she is. She has an energy to her, an authenticity. She's the part of me that smoked 3 packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day, punched two different bartenders and was always getting 86ed, drank more than you can imagine while taking every drug imaginable, woke up in strange beds, strange cars, strange countries, even in jail. She didn't give a flying fuck what she said or what anyone thought of her.

OMG! Does she resemble Trump in some way? And what so many of his supporters found appealing about him? Wow! Yes, she does. Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

It seems that Shiv’s book, and now these comment threads, have brought out this whole other side of me, and maybe this relates to what was so powerful for me in Shiv's book. It reminded me of what Robert Saltzman had evoked in me, and what my exchanges with a guy who runs Night Sky Sangha, had brought forth in me. Only those were more like glimmers, and now it was getting clearer. It was the raging drunk of decades past. And while she nearly killed me, she wasn’t all bad.

While working with the amazing therapist and physician with whom I sobered up, we did gestalts when I was trying to stop smoking between the part of me that wanted to smoke and the part that wanted to stop. I called them the sober nun and the drunken lover. The sober nun was the rational, mature, healthy adult concerned about not getting lung cancer or spending money on cigarettes. The drunken lover was the rebellious wild creative child who just wanted to lighten up and have fun and be sexy and couldn’t care less about getting lung cancer. And it became clear that they were both an important part of me, and that my task in sobering up was to find other avenues besides alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and self-destructive behavior for that childlike wildness of the drunken lover to come forth.

Apparently that process isn't finished, as this whole eruption here has made me realize. It's like there are still two sides, the Joan who writes spiritual posts (or occasionally political ones, but very reasonable ones, often urging people to listen openly to the other side)...and this raging dyke who is angry and wild and has a mouth like a sailor and seems to want to smash things. And they’re both real, but the sober nun has been repressing that drunken lover.

And that wild one needs to be let out of her cage. Not in that self-destructive form from decades ago, not as a cigarette-smoking, heroin-shooting, cocaine snorting, LSD tripping, drunk—and hopefully not in exactly the form I've unleashed in my recent angry comments on Facebook either, but in some yet undiscovered form perhaps. This whole thing has stirred something within me.

And while I’ve come so close to erasing the whole post—that review of Shiv’s book on my personal page—because it's such a fucking mess and it's been so upsetting, something keeps telling me not to erase it, or maybe more to the point, not to erase that side of me, that wild rebellious voice, which maybe in some way spiritual Joan has been trying to erase.

So what is Joan holding back? That’s the question I’m living with now.



November 15, 2020:

A Story about the C-Word:

To understand this story and why I am sharing it, you need to read my previous post, the one that begins, “So, it was Friday the 13th…”

Okay, so back in the early 90s, I was on staff at Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats in northwestern NY state. We put on about 10 week-long silent retreats every year. If you needed to communicate with someone during a retreat, you were supposed to write them a note rather than speaking, and we provided small pieces of scrap paper that people could use for this. These note papers were made by cutting up sheets of paper that had been put in the paper recycling box. Typically, on the backside of one of these blank pieces of note paper, you might find a small fragment of text from a budget meeting or something like that.

But at some point, a rough draft of my first book, the one that contained the novel based on my wild drunken past, went into the recycling box. And it got cut up into squares for the retreat note pads.

So on day 4 or 5 of this silent retreat, this retreatant named Dave picked up a piece of paper to write a note on, and he happened to flip it over, and this is what he read:

"My lover left me, too," I said. "She has another lover now. We had a fist fight before I left New York. I think I knocked her out. Who knows, maybe she's dead."

"I knew a woman who shot her lover," LuAnne put in. "It was right here in the Saloon. Shot her in the cunt, in front of everyone."

"Goodness, how distasteful!" George said. "My wife is a psychiatrist. She moved out last week."

"She really shot her?" I asked.

"Really. In the cunt. Right over there by the cigarette machine."

"Did she kill her?"

"No. She was okay I think. I mean, of course she had to be hospitalized."

[End of fragment on back of note paper.]

So….you can imagine Dave’s surprise at finding THAT on the back of his note paper at a meditation retreat center deep into a silent retreat. It became a standing joke at Springwater.

And as a capping story, many decades later, I was giving a retreat at Springwater, and Dave attended it. When it was over, a bunch of us were sitting around chatting, and Dave and I discovered that we had gone to the same high school in Illinois, and had even been in the same class. How bizare is that?

And just for your enjoyment, here’s the next little bit from that novel excerpt:

George started to probe through the ashtray with his fingers. I watched him pick up a cigarette butt, put it in his mouth, and chew it. He selected another and did the same thing, as if he were eating bon bons from a box.

"What are these?" he asked curiously, peering drunkenly into the ashtray.

"They're cigarette butts," LuAnne informed him.

"Oh." He didn't seem disturbed at all.

Green chartreuse is the strongest drink they serve at the bar, and it was beginning to take control of me now. It was a blend I liked, the acid and the strong drink. I felt invulnerable, smooth, powerful. The pain and insecurity began to soften and dissolve.

[End of excerpt.] So you see, I have my own very long history with that controversial word.


November 16, 2020:

CLARIFICATION: Language Does Matter –

It was actually not my intention to suggest that everyone should begin freely using and relishing the c-word, although I can fully understand why people took it that way, because I was indeed (in part) trying to lighten up from what I had argued for previously, in the comments I made about this word back on the post where I reviewed Shiv’s book. There, I made clear that I regard cunt as a hate word, comparable to the n-word. There is a long history of women being seen as dirty, unclean, second-class, etc. The penis has been glorified, but the vagina has often gotten very different treatment, both culturally and literally.

I am not an enthusiast for overblown political correctness and cancel culture mentality, but I’m also not an enthusiast for sexism, racism, hate words, and hurtful language (albeit I sometimes slip into it). Language does matter. I shared this story (in my previous post) by way of balance, and with some humor, and maybe also to prevent myself from being seen as an uptight feminist. And that fear of being labeled an “uptight feminist” is actually a form of internalized sexism.

Contrary to what some have suggested, words are not just meaningless sounds, unless you’re a baby or it’s a foreign language to you. They DO have meaning. Yes, context does matter. When blacks use the n-word, it’s different than when white people use it. When women use the c-word, it’s different than when men use it. And yes, there are probably situations among friends with a common understanding where it may be fine for men to use it jokingly and affectionately. And yes, it may carry different meaning in different cultures, although those who have suggested that it’s a loving word in the UK are dead wrong. I know many women there who find it deeply offensive.

I deleted a few comments that were left on my previous post sharing YouTube videos that I found painful to see and couldn’t even watch. Just the titles alone felt offensive and hurtful. I didn’t watch them in their entirety, and no offense is meant to the person who shared them.

I’m not that drunken person anymore killing myself with green chartreuse—that young woman was actually full of self-hate and was committing a slow suicide through alcohol, drugs and high-risk, self-destructive behaviors. It is literally a miracle that she survived. Yes, I can see a beauty in brokenness…in my own past, in Alan Watts being drunk, in Charles Bukowski being drunk and hitting his wife and using vulgar language and writing amazing poetry…but I can also see the pain in all this.

When I sobered up, one of the things I encountered was people treating me like I was no fun anymore, I was “sober.” The word has a puritanical, humorless edge to it. So, it’s this balancing act again, between the sober nun (the feminist, the political radical, the spiritual person) and the drunken (broken) lover—between spirit and soul. Spirit is the part of us that moves toward the light, the transcendent. Soul is the part of us that is grounded, down to earth, messy, human. And we need BOTH. And that’s really what this is about.

I have been deeply moved by the overwhelmingly positive response to my November 14 post. Thank you all for your love and support, and may we all find a way to dance with our deep need for both spirit and soul, humor and seriousness, freedom and care for one another—there’s no right answer. It’s a dance, and I appreciate being able to dance with all of you. And if we step on one another’s toes from time to time, such is life. No one is a perfect dancer, and yet, as many have pointed out, the defect is where the light gets in.


Additional comment:

When a group of people picks up and owns a derogatory word that has been used to insult them, it is a kind of Aikido move. It doesn’t mean the word has now been washed clean and should be freely used by everyone in any way they wish. At the same time, we can easily get stuck in self-righteousness and victim mentality when we’re trying to expose and undo deep-rooted imbalances and injustices. Finding that balance between having a sense of lightness and humor and yet being willing to stand up and say serious and unpopular things. It’s always wise to remember that no person and no group of people has a monopoly on pain. The oppressor and the oppressed are both in pain, and how easily they can each find themselves in the opposite role, perhaps in a different situation. Life is never black and white. It’s always shades of grey. It’s messy. And we’re all delicate, vulnerable, wounded, broken creatures doing our best. And at the same time, we’re all perfect just as we are. Or as Suzuki Roshi liked to say, “You’re perfect just as you are, and you can use a little improvement.” How true!

From a comment I put up somewhere on the post about Advaitaholics Anonymous as a clarification of something I had said in another comment:

For readers of this thread where I dared to question the primacy of racism as the mother of all oppressions, let me say that I did it here in an angry, unthoughtful, triggered and triggering way, which I regret. I recognize that sexism is a more complex problem for obvious reasons (i.e., men and women have intimate relationships, raise children together and are woven into one another’s lives). I do think sexism has been taken far less seriously than racism, and that it is still often mocked, belittled, trivialized, and the struggle to expose and uproot it mischaracterized and demonized. I have watched the gains of the women’s movement being eroded.

A large part of my own anger over all this dates back to my years in the radical anti-imperialist left, when I took leadership from black nationalists and swallowed the ideology that I was part of the white oppressor nation, that women’s liberation was much less important, and that LGBTQ liberation was trivial or even backwards. (And environmentalism and animal rights were viewed as the petty concerns of wealthy white people). I swallowed that whole ideology and suppressed my own truth.

Much as I disagree now with some of how BLM has framed the struggle against racism and with much of the protesting that has gone on during the pandemic, I certainly do recognize that racism remains very much a problem, and one that I want to see rooted out. I have cared deeply about racial justice since I was a teenager avidly reading James Baldwin and listening to MLK and Malcolm X.

I also feel that the MeToo Movement and the surrounding efforts to undo sexual harassment and abuse, as courageous and vital as all that is, has sometimes been too harsh or over the top. And speaking as a lesbian with a disability, I feel that activists in the LGBTQ and disability rights movements have sometimes taken positions I find absurd, and that much of what I see happening in cancel culture and identity politics disturbs me deeply. I recognize, however, that in our efforts to correct centuries of oppression and injustice, it may be inevitable that there will be over-corrections, and that in time, these will be evened out. I suspect that such things as identity politics and affirmative action may initially serve a vital purpose, but can then become double-edged swords that at some point need to be left behind.

I DO very much want a society that has moved beyond racism, sexism and heterosexism, a society that is accessible to people with disabilities and that sees them as full human beings, a society that treats animals humanely and that cares for the environment. And from the vantage point of age 72, I can tell you that things HAVE changed, immensely, in my lifetime. Women didn’t even have the right to vote in the US when my mother was born. Interracial marriage was illegal and rare. Gay people lived in secrecy and often in shame, in perpetual fear of losing their jobs or the custody of their children if they were outed. No one had heard of ecology. We HAVE come a long way, a very long way. But the work continues, and much of it happens naturally now as society becomes more diverse and integrated and aware of all this at every level.


November 19, 2020:

An old Facebook post I wrote back in February 2017:

Years ago in San Francisco, I was in my car one day, stopped at a traffic light, when a taxi cab pulled up next to me. The cab driver leaned out his window and began loudly cursing me. He felt I’d made some error in my driving, which I was sure I hadn’t. So I started cursing him back. We were both yelling at each other, using foul language, gesticulating wildly, telling each other that the other was the one making the roads unsafe. And then the light turned green and he flashed me this huge gorgeous smile and said, “Have a great day!” and I did the same back to him, and we both drove off.

In an instant, my heart was filled with love and joy, when a moment before it had been a fire-storm of anger.

Why am I sharing this story?

As someone with a quick temper, I’ve lived with and seen the destructive force of anger up close. I’ve behaved at times in ways I’m not proud of, ways I regret. I’m certainly not advocating yelling and cursing, throwing things, hitting people, or being verbally or physically abusive. As we all know, anger can be a very destructive force. It can easily turn to war, and it can cause hurt that never fully heals. My sense is that violence tends to beget violence, that the expression of anger tends to pour gasoline on the fire, and that hate typically generates more hate. But at the same time, I’ve had the experience on several occasions, as with this cab driver, of anger being expressed and then turning to love and seemingly leaving no trace behind. Sometimes, blowing off steam and letting loose may be an essential ingredient in freeing something up energetically that is stuck, and this release may be the very thing that allows empathy and love to show up naturally, rather than trying to impose them through some act of spiritual will or pretense, which often fails.

As everyone has probably noticed, in spiritual circles, there can be a tendency to act calm and loving when we are actually seething inwardly. This kind of spiritual façade is often worse than just letting loose with the anger. I endeavor to not express anger, but more often than I would like, I fail, as I did that day at the stoplight. And yet, I look back on the exchange at the stoplight with great fondness.

Sometimes anger can be expressed and quickly forgotten, as it often seems to be with children and other animals—they have no agenda for spiritually correct behavior—anger arises, their hair stands up, they snarl or yell or bark fiercely, and then a few minutes later, it’s as if nothing happened. Whereas adult humans can carry grudges and vendettas for centuries. All it took for my anger to totally disappear that day at the stoplight was for the taxi driver to flash me that gorgeous smile and wish me a beautiful day. I think we’ve probably all experienced that magical moment in an argument when something lets go and our anger dissolves. What lets go is the self-contraction, that tight fist of imagining that I am a separate “me” who needs to be defended and proven right, a “me” fighting to survive in a hostile world.

Moving through anger to unconditional love is not something that happens once and then it’s done. It’s not always easy or pleasant. When people take up meditation, we are often horrified by what we discover in ourselves, things that fly in the face of our self-image and who we think we are. We may see ourselves being seductive, manipulative, deceitful, dishonest, hurtful, self-pitying, resentful, bigoted, racist, sexist, argumentative, judgmental, and on and on and on. But none of this can really dissolve until it is seen. The light of awareness is the great solvent, the great transformer.

The great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj was by all reports a fiery character who often got angry at people and even threw them out of his satsangs on occasion. He smoked cigarettes in satsang even as he was dying of throat cancer, and he lived and taught in a busy, crowded, noisy part of Bombay. I’ve always been grateful for these aspects of Nisargadatta’s life because they showed me that awakening was not a matter of eliminating all my neurotic quirks or having a beatific personality such as Ramana or Thich Nhat Hanh, nor was awakening dependent upon being in a quiet environment. I’m not saying that yelling at people, smoking cigarettes or being in urban chaos is good (or bad), but simply that enlightenment manifests in many forms and depends upon nothing. Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, but he also overturned tables. There is no single correct way of transforming anger into love, and the separate self is never really in control. Alchemy comes in many forms, sometimes out of the blue, at a stoplight, when you least expect it.

Response to a comment:

I love Nisargadatta, but these silly ideas that when gurus like Maharaj get angry, they do it from a whole different place than the rest of us...and when gurus rape their students, they do that from a pure place...and so on, that's crap. The idea that Maharaj was some super-human whose anger was totally different from yours or mine. And of course, his smoking also arose from purity and not addiction. And so on. This kind of spiritual idealization is bullshit. I find Nisargadatta's obviously imperfect humanity a beautiful part of his teaching. He was human. We all are.


Reply to a comment on a review I posted of Shiv Sengupta’s new book, Advaitaholics Anonymous, a comment suggesting that giving up the remedies is the remedy:

Well, yes and no. There’s a wonderful little exchange at the end of Dogen’s Genjokoan (“the koan of this presently arising moment”) where a Zen master is fanning himself, and a monk walks up and says to him, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself” And the Zen master replies, “Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent, you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.” The monk then asks, “What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” The master just keeps fanning himself. The monk bows. And Dogen comments, “If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind.”

Transformation, creativity and healing are all a vital part of being alive, part of the movement of life, and life moves as all of us, doing what we do. Many things can be transformative, including meditation, retreats, satsangs, reading books, listening to talks, working with a spiritual teacher or a psychotherapist. But what may eventually drop away is the sense of deficiency and lack, and the addictive, result-oriented search for a final fix, a perfect me, an ultimate understanding that will leave me permanently cured of all discomfort and imperfection. We wake up to the wonder of what is.

We may still enjoy meditation, or going on a retreat, or reading books. But we’re doing it in a very different spirit. It is no longer result-oriented. You may call this just common sense or the natural way of being, and in a sense, that’s very true. But human beings, with our complex abilities to conceptualize, to tell stories, to imagine the future and so on, can get ourselves tangled up in ways no other animal ever does. And thus, we have many forms of untangling on offer. But they are best approached, as Shiv suggests, as art forms or as play, rather than as deadly serious undertakings designed to fix me and the world.

And I'd add that sometimes the person, event, video or book that is supposedly untangling our confusion ends up getting us even more tangled up—sometimes because that person is not actually clear, and sometimes because we misunderstand them. And when we get tangled up by all our efforts at untangling, or when we come to believe that only someone else can untangle us, people like Shiv and Robert Saltzman and John can be very helpful. Paradoxically, they also serve as untanglers. And some teachings point to the total perfection of the tangles themselves. It seems to me, we need different messages at different moments.

The same person replies with, “Practice doing what comes naturally. You might be pleasantly surprised. It’s not that complicated.” My response:

Yes. I just don't land there. Why? Because what is it that "comes naturally"? I would also suggest that the deep recognition of impermanence, nonsubstantiality and interdependence, or the experiential deconstruction of beliefs, assumptions and certainties, or the realization that we don’t need to see and experience ourselves as a separate, encapsulated self is not really all in the realm of everyday common sense. In some way, yes, it’s all plain to see, but we live so much in our heads that we don’t easily see what is obvious. Thus, what "comes naturally" is often self-destructive behavior, and other follies. So, in my experience, teachers, books, retreats, daily meditation (of the kind that is not result-oriented and that is without an agenda) have all been immensely revelatory and liberating. And it ALL comes naturally and IS natural! One pitfall in the tendency to throw all of this out is the possibility that some may leave the arena prematurely without having discovered the jewel. Not that there is “a jewel” outside of us to find or attain, but there are delusions that can fall away, and greater joy and peace with life as it is that can be found. At least, that has been my experience and that of many other people I've known.

Response to another comment from the same person:

This is the old paradox, is there something to find or isn't there? And as I see it, landing on either side to the exclusion of the other misses the mark. In one sense, there is nothing to find. It's all right here now. This is where you land. And yet, at the same time, most humans are suffering in unnecessary ways because of the pitfalls that come along with our ability to conceptualize, to mistake our concepts for reality, to imagine the future, and so on. Unlike all other animals, for a human being to "just be natural" is no simple thing! So for me, working with teachers, reading books, hearing talks, meditating, going on retreats, and so on has all been a process of revealing that jewel, as I called it, which is not something outside myself, but is simply a poetic word for the seeing through and falling away of false beliefs, and a waking up to the wonder of this moment, the spaciousness of presence, the healing power of simple awareness, being at ease in my own skin while also recognizing I'm not actually encapsulated inside my skin, and so on. I say "process" because (in retrospect) it does seem to unfold or evolve over time, and yet, it is never about past or future--only ever NOW.

You apparently have had no experience of this kind of transformation. Maybe you never needed it or never felt any urge toward it. But for me, it is an ongoing, never-finished, present moment awakening.  I am still finding new insights (or maybe more accurately, a deepening of those already seen in ever more subtle and nuanced ways).

For me, this isn't the kind of obsessive "seeking" that I once did (addictively chasing some final transformation or final understanding of the universe). It's a love affair, an art form, a great enjoyment, a form of play involving curiosity and discovery. Obviously, this isn't of interest to most people on the planet, yourself included, and that's totally fine. Some people are passionate about science, others about business, some about sports, some about making the best and healthiest possible chocolate, some about politics or social activism, some about theater or painting or music, some about raising children--and that's all totally fine. But some of us seem drawn to this awakening journey, call it what you will. And yes, all the best teachings point out that it's not something outside of you that you are going to find or attain--it's right here, right now. But to simply tell someone who is lost in confusion, delusion and suffering that they should drop any form of spirituality and just "let it be" may not be very helpful. It may even discourage people from the very things that might be most helpful.

Finally, as I always say, there is nothing to grasp, and what I'm talking about has little or nothing to do with intellectual understanding or the ability to articulate it. I'm always talking about an experiential, firsthand exploration and discovery, and never about a belief system or an ideology.

November 22, 2020:

Is This Spirituality, Nonduality, Zen, Buddhism, Advaita….or What?

My work, my form of play, has always defied categorization. I’ve been called a Buddhist, a Zen teacher, an Advaitan, a radical nondualist, a spiritual teacher, and a few other less complimentary things like the c-word. I usually call myself a writer. I do meet with people and give talks, but I’ve never thought of myself as a teacher, except when I was briefly teaching college English. I’ve never found a label that I really like for the genre I’m in as a writer, or as a talker or someone who meets with folks. My expression just seems to defy categorization. I don’t mind the word spiritual, although I’ve noticed that many people hate it—probably because it suggests something airy, purely transcendent, or New Agey—none of which is my genre—but in my view of spirituality, it fully includes my ostomy bag full of poop and my recent flying off the handle into wild bursts of authentic anger.

Part of why what I offer defies categorization is that I’m very much about not landing anywhere, not fixating on one side of any conceptual duality. This is something I see many people doing. For example, some nondualists acknowledge only the absolute perspective and ignore or deny conventional, everyday, relative reality. (Most people, of course, have the opposite fixation). Both extremes feel dualistic to me. Or some people in the nondual or spiritual world will insist that there is no need for teachers or practices, while others insist that these are absolutely essential. Or some insist there is nothing to find, while others assert that there is. Other examples: enlightenment is just a myth, or it is very real. There is something to do, or there is nothing to do. There is a self, or there is no self. There is free will, or there is no free will. I find truth on both sides of all these apparent opposites, and when we land on one side, something is inevitably left out or overlooked. But ANY conceptual formulation is an over-simplified abstraction of a living actuality that cannot be captured by any formulation.

My own background is quite diverse. I’ve been with Zen teachers, satsang teachers, radical nondualists. And I find it possible to enjoy many seemingly contradictory perspectives, including varied versions of Buddhism, varied versions of Advaita, Advaitaholics Anonymous, Robert Saltzman, Taoism, Sufi poets and whirling dervishes, Christianity, Peter Brown’s Yoga of Radiant Presence, Darryl Bailey’s elegant minimalism, and so on. I don’t take any of them on as belief systems, but as different ways of exploring, enjoying, celebrating and playing in (and as) this living actuality. They each reveal a different aspect. And my own expression also seems to move through different phases or dimensions.

No wonder I can’t find the right label or successfully shrink it all down to one simple brand.


November 25, 2020:

Winter Morning

A string of birds
barely visible
crossing the milk white sky

Otto gurgles
the refrigerator hums
the iPhone dings

a morning walk
around the block
wet brown leaves on the pavement

a car with a loud radio passes twice,
once in each direction,
a lingering trace of cigarette smoke
tangled in the fading sound

a lone buck deer
crossing an empty field
the field is for sale

everything changes
vanishes and reappears as something new
haze lifting from the mountains

aging legs pulling me up the last hill,
lungs circulating the air
for 72 years now
breath after breath
landscape after landscape


November 27, 2020:

The Jewel Beyond All Price:

I AM (and You Are) unbound, seamless, all-inclusive awaring presence, Here-Now – AND, at the same time, we are each a unique and unrepeatable expression of the Whole on an apparent journey through time. The absolute (unbound, seamless, all-inclusive) aspect isn’t a metaphysical idea or a belief (although it can be turned into that), but as I mean this, both the absolute and the conventional are obvious, undeniable aspects of our own immediate experience that can be noticed. BOTH appear at once: stillness and movement, immovable presence and thorough-going impermanence, wholeness and multiplicity, boundlessness and particularity.

We can’t say there is a self, and we can’t say there isn’t. Each of us is undeniably here, recognizable as a particular person with a name, a personality, a history, and so on…and yet, when we try to pin down exactly what ANY of that is, or what “you” are or “I” am, we find unresolvability and groundlessness. We find the whole universe. No-thing and everything at once.

Trying to figure this all out with thought and logic is doomed to fail. The direct or pathless path that I invite is simply to give open attention to present experiencing, just as it is. Open attention means awaring, not thinking. And when thinking happens, awaring that. Not judging any of it, not conceptualizing it, not labeling or explaining it, not trying to get something out of it or have some special experience, but simply enjoying the whole symphony of this moment: traffic sounds, bird cheeps, colors and shapes, smells and tastes, sensations in the body, a dog barking, thoughts appearing and disappearing, breathing in and out—just this!

And yes, it gets ever-more radical, ever-more inclusive. “Just this” includes EVERYTHING, even the mental movies, the thought-stories, our outrage at Trump and his supporters (or the opposite), our drunken binges, our snarky remarks, the whole catastrophe. But holding that as a feel-good idea, or as a justification for harmful behavior, is another train of thought to see through and wake up from. It gets subtler and subtler. Remember, what truly enlightens and frees us from suffering and confusion is not a conceptual formulation or an idea to grasp and believe in.

As I said to someone recently in a comment, I do value our human attempts to wake up from addictive and hurtful behaviors. Such work has been the focus of much of my life. My own sense is that we need a balance of what I’ve recently been calling the sober nun and the drunken lover (our wild and domesticated tendencies), and it needs to be seen that both are vital parts of us. Both can come out in toxic ways, or in creative and helpful ways, and part of the awakening journey is discerning the difference and moving toward the creative and beneficial. But importantly, it's not always clear which is which, and ultimately, they can’t be divided and split apart.

Was my drunken past totally bad? I don’t think so. Remember the old Chinese farmer story, and the way the hardships, misfortunes and apparent mistakes in each of our lives have often turned out to be gifts. Like a forest fire that is incredibly destructive and yet, in the natural world, essential for new life to emerge, for seeds to open, for excess to be cut away, for fresh beginnings. Sometimes the process of how life moves is messy and uncomfortable and even destructive. And yet, I’m incredibly grateful I sobered up. I could so easily have died. And I’m grateful for the therapist who helped me do that, and for all the marvelous and wise spiritual teachers who helped me wake up to the wonder of presence, just as it is, here and now.

Each of us has our own unique and uncharted path. Reading or listening to others can be immensely helpful, as can various practices such as intelligent meditation, and I have no urge to throw all this out. But no one is an infallible authority, and no one can see for us. All true teachers and paths point to right here, right now, to what is already fully present. That’s the jewel beyond all price.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--

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