The following are the most recent selected posts from my Facebook author page:
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
November 29, 2020:
Longing for an Awakening:
So many people are searching for the awakening experience or enlightenment breakthrough that others seem to have had. And then some people tell you there is no enlightenment—it’s all just a load of crap. As I see it, these words like awakening, enlightenment and liberation do point to something real. But importantly, what it is, is always already here now. It’s what remains when we are not hypnotized by what Joko Beck called “the self-centered dream” – the thoughts, stories and beliefs that create the sense of being separate (and then, invariably deficient). In my view, awakening is now—not in the past or the future. To speak of it as a permanent state for an apparently unchanging person is to completely miss it. But even when apparently missed, here it always is, belonging to no one.
I had a comment recently from someone who said it was hard not to yearn for this shift or “seeing through” that others reported. This was my response:
Yes, some people do report sudden, dramatic awakenings, and in some cases the shift does seem to endure (albeit not perfectly in every moment, but generally, overall). Eckhart Tolle is one such person. For others (myself included), and for most people, it is a much more gradual (and undramatic) process. But whether it is sudden or gradual only matters from the perspective of the apparently separate self, the egoic mind, which feels envy and wants what others seem to have. See if you can find this one who is supposedly not enlightened or not awake yet. You may discover it is only a thought, a mental image, a sensation.
Nisargadatta once said, "With some realization comes imperceptibly, but somehow they need convincing. They have changed, but they do not notice it. Such non-spectacular cases are often the most reliable." He also said, "If you wait for an event to take place, for the coming of reality, you will wait forever, for reality neither comes nor goes…. Because you imagine differences, you go here and there in search of ‘superior’ people…. If you need time to achieve something, it must be false…. You need no more experiences. The past ones are sufficient...It is not experience that you need, but the freedom from all experience. Don’t be greedy for experience; you need none." (Nisargadatta, from I AM THAT)
And this is from Toni Packer:
“Would there be any quest for enlightenment if it weren’t for our sense of time? Time is created by thought, memory, and imagination: what I was, what I am, what I will be. Forever feeling insufficient and lacking, we want to become whole and complete in the future. We will submit to any spiritual path to overcome our hindrances in the course of time. Then, we imagine hopefully, there will come the day when we will experience enlightenment, the liberation from bondage that has been promised to us by the traditions of the past.
“I don’t think in terms of having experiences anymore. Things just happen. Rain is dripping softly. The heart is beating. There is breathing, in-out-in-out-in-out. There is quiet listening, openness…emptiness…nothing…
“Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance. Without any sense of passing time. Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our experience mongering is a form of resistance in time.
“Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here, now. It’s the hum of the airplane. The fog. The wind blowing gently, the rain dripping, breathing, humming, pulsating, opening, closing, nothing at all…It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.” (Toni Packer, from her book The Light of Discovery)
December 1, 2020:
Message from My December Mailing to my Mailing List:
I’ve been reflecting lately on what spirituality or the pathless path of awakening means to me. I know that some people are allergic to the word spiritual, but as I mean it, the grocery store and the office are as spiritual as the temple, and my ostomy bag full of poop is as sacred as the holy books. There’s a huge difference between a genuine, lifelong pathless path of exploration and discovery, which is what I'm pointing to, and the kind of obsessive "seeking" where we are addictively chasing some imaginary future result: a final transformation, an explosive experience, a final and complete understanding of the universe.
What spirituality means to me is a love affair, a devotion to life, an art form, an enjoyment, a form of inquiry and play involving curiosity and passion. What I'm talking about is an experiential, firsthand, never-ending path of discovery. It's never about belief or ideology, and while the intellect can sometimes be a helpful adjunct, it is never the primary mode. I’m talking about something that is alive and fresh in every moment, not dead and embalmed.
Each of us is at once the whole universe, the great vastness with no inside or outside, seamless and boundless, Here-Now, and at the same time, each of us is an absolutely unique, one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated, ever-changing expression and movement of the Whole. We often spend years trying to be someone else, trying to hide or erase parts of ourselves, or perhaps trying to be no-self at all, to eliminate all traces of particularity. But perhaps our job, at which we cannot ever really fail, is to fully be exactly who we truly are in every sense, to be true to our own authentic and uncharted path, just as it is.
December 5, 2020:
Isn’t it amazing how tenaciously and vigorously we often defend our assumed deficiencies, the deficiency stories about ourselves (not yet enlightened, hopelessly screwed up, and so on), and how we insist on being small and separate?
We so deeply long to simply relax, to enjoy being exactly as we are, to need nothing, to be at peace, to be at peace even with feeling agitated, restless, anxious, upset, confused or conflicted—to let it all wash through. To simply BE this whole happening—limitless and vast.
But often we don’t feel at peace with agitation or upset because of the way we think about it, and because it seems to be something substantial and unenlightened or unspiritual that is happening to “me.” A personal defect. We take it personally and give it meaning. We imagine that we stand apart from it, as if it is attacking “me.”
The “me” is a mental image, a cluster of sensations, the thought-sense of being separate, substantial, encapsulated, limited and incomplete. It is the thought-sense that “the world” is “out there,” apart from me, that what appears to be happening is solid, substantial, and knowable.
From that perspective, it seems important to defend what “I” know (or believe I know) about this apparent world. Otherwise, “I” might lose my grip or my footing and be annihilated. And so there is a clench, a contraction, a deep unease, and the illusion of an apparently divided reality (separated into inside/outside, self/other, good/bad, true/false, enlightened/unenlightened) that “I” must navigate and somehow fix, improve or save.
But the divisions are imaginary. The substantiality is imaginary. The separation is imaginary. “Me” and “the world” are imaginary. “Enlightened” and “unenlightened” are imaginary. It’s not that there’s nothing here, but it’s not what we think. And it’s not divided up. What we label “agitation” is an idea, an imagination, as is what we label “tranquility.” The bare actuality that these words seem to represent is not a solid, separate, substantial, persisting, objective “thing” at all. The experience we label “agitation” and the experience we label “tranquility” are not fundamentally different. They feel different. But they are both energetic movements of this indivisible awaring presence (this ever-present Here-Now) that is seamless, boundless and ownerless.
Only in imagination is there someone who isn’t enlightened yet, or someone who is enlightened. Only in imagination is anything wrong, deficient or lacking. Only in imagination does something need to happen or stop happening. Only in imagination do we seem to know what’s going on here.
There’s nothing wrong with imagination. It’s a beautiful and creative capacity. But when we mistake the imaginary for a solid or fixed reality, we suffer. And that, too, is never really a problem—it just feels unpleasant.
So we take up a path or a search or an exploration, and we imagine we are looking for an attainment or a purification or some superior destination. And instead, we are pointed to right here, right now—just this! THIS IS IT, we are told. And we think, this can’t be it. Surely, this can’t be it.
But we haven’t really allowed ourselves to fully be right here, to fully enjoy just this—the sound of the train whistle, the rain pattering on the roof, the breath moving in and out, the tingling in the toes, the colors and shapes around us, the sensations we call “anxiety” or “restlessness” or “joy”—the amazing symphony of this moment, ever-changing and yet never departing from Here-Now.
December 7, 2020:
“Just this” (or, “there is nothing to attain”) doesn’t mean resignation. It doesn’t mean deciding you’re a hopeless case and then throwing the whole of spirituality out the window and settling for a life of unnecessary confusion and suffering. (And by suffering, I mean what we do with pain and difficult circumstances—how we think about them—how we meet them. Pain and difficult circumstances are an unavoidable part of life; suffering over them can be optional).
In my experience, intelligent spiritual teachings, working with teachers, and/or engaging in various practices (e.g. meditation, retreats, koans, The Work of Byron Katie, Peter Brown’s Yoga of Radiant Presence, Mooji’s Invitation, Toni Packer’s meditative inquiry, and so on) can be very helpful in illuminating how we do our suffering, how we make (or imagine) ourselves small, how we mistake our conceptual maps for the living actuality and overlook the wonder, beauty, freedom and immensity that is right here, right now. These kinds of explorations can be revelatory, mind and heart opening, liberating and deeply enjoyable. And, of course, exploration can also happen independently of any teacher or formalized practice. Teachers, practices, books, teachings and so on may or may not be part of your journey—and it’s okay either way.
But however it unfolds, there is no end to this exploration—we can discover ever-new subtleties of delusion and ever-fresh dimensions of wonder. There is no finish-line, no end to delusion, and no end to enlightenment (or awakening, or being liberated on the spot). It is a lifelong, present moment exploration and discovery, going nowhere, for it is always Here-Now. And it becomes ever-more inclusive and delightfully without purpose—playful in the best sense.
It’s fairly easy to grasp many of the great insights intellectually, but to realize them experientially and to embody them in our lives seemingly takes time. Of course, it never really takes time in the way we imagine, because all of time is Here-Now, and what we realize is never not fully present. We are never really lost or bound in the ways we imagine. All our apparent delusions are like mirages in the desert. In that sense, nothing needs to happen or stop happening. This is it! Just this! Right here, right now.
And yet, for human beings with our complex minds, the simplicity of natural being can seem remarkably elusive. Hence, the spiritual journey, which is itself a movement of the totality, a natural movement of life. And, as we realize ever-more deeply, it’s not a journey to a better future or a more perfect “me,” but rather, a seeing through of the whole story of deficiency and obsession with improvement.
As we wake up from the trance of conceptual abstraction and open more and more to the wonder of ever-fresh present actuality, we find that our happiness increases and our suffering decreases. We still have problems, losses and difficulties: we get cancer, our business fails, a pandemic sweeps through the world, our child dies, we have a toothache, the car breaks down, a wildfire wipes out our entire town, painful emotions pass through, compulsive behaviors may still flare up. We haven’t been turned into perfect saints, nor are we perpetually blissed out. But how we meet all of this and how we see it seems to have changed. Not that we never get irritated or lose our temper, not that we have perfect equanimity in every moment. But somehow, we’re at peace with the whole catastrophe, even the upsets. In fact, we may even find the upsets interesting, and the difficulties may be genuinely welcomed as gifts.
The fear of death is gone. We still have the instinctual biological fear of death that floods the body with adrenalin in a life-threatening situation, allowing us to act appropriately, but we no longer have the psychological fear of death, the worry about what will happen to “me” after I die. We understand the thorough-going nature of impermanence, in which no-thing ever actually forms (or persists) to BE impermanent (to die or be born), and we know (not intellectually, but directly) the wholeness that is unborn and indestructible. We see that the “me” is a kind of mirage—that we are never really separate, solid, substantial or persisting in the way we imagine. We know ourselves as the totality, the seamless whole, the vastness, the emptiness from which everything emerges and to which it returns, the radiant presence that everything is, the boundless awareness beholding it all, the openness that remains when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears, the groundlessness Here-Now.
Those words may seem to be suggesting some mystical experience or metaphysical idea, but they are intended only to pull the rug out from under everything we assume we know, to leave us right here, open and awake—not knowing anything. Simply BEING, just as we are, which is no way we can ever pin down, define or grasp conceptually. Awake presence doesn’t exclude thinking and imagination, but it doesn’t get hypnotized by the stories and conclusions they spin, or at least, not for long and never entirely. The belief in substantiality, in a solid objective reality “out there” is gone. Everything is ALIVE and right here, most intimate. This is a present moment waking up, being liberated on the spot, now. Enjoying this moment, just as it is.
There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Just the sound of the train whistle, the rain pattering on the roof, the last autumn leaves fluttering in the cold wind, the taste of tea, the sensations of breathing, dying and being born again moment to moment, washing the dishes, driving the car. We’ve never been here before, and we’ll never be here again. And yet, Here we always are!
And we realize, what we longed for was here all along—this vastness, this awake presence, this freedom, this beauty. Every single moment of our life, every apparent distraction or mistake, was (and is) perfectly placed. It all shines. It’s all the Holy Reality. There’s never been anything else. And it was (and is) never what we think it is, for thought cannot capture both nondual wholeness and the infinite complexity and thoroughgoing impermanence of particularity.
So, is there something to do or nothing to do? Is there continuous transformation or no change at all? Was a teacher or a practice necessary, unnecessary, helpful, or only an obstacle? We can’t really come down on any side of such questions. Any hard and fast positions inevitably miss the mark. Life cannot be caught in the net of formulations, so beware of clinging to one side of an imaginary conceptual duality. Upside down is a whole new world.
December 9, 2020:
Winter Morning #2
The pond is frozen over
the world is upside down.
In my old age,
I discover the magic
Without my glasses,
a softer world
Houses hide in the fog,
mountains drop out of the sky.
On naked branches
the last dry leaves
twirl in the cold wind,
leaves and sky indistinguishable.
It is the winter of my life
the great stripping away
the last leaves letting go,
into the dazzling darkness
December 14, 2020:
All morning the sounds of rain
accompanying black coffee,
the smell of incense and mountains
barely visible through mist
and fog. No leaves remain
now on the bare branches
outside my window,
soaking up sky water.
Rain subsiding finally
leaving vast silence,
fertile germinal emptiness
from which the sudden humming
of the refrigerator
emerges like music.
We could spend a lifetime
exploring and enjoying
one drop of rain. Our whole
universe, a drop
in an infinite aliveness,
the whole fully present
in each drop,
the greatest wonder
December 20, 2020:
We each have many apparent problems. In my own life, it might be flare-ups of anger and resentment, or all the things that trigger these flare-ups, or it might be a lifelong fingerbiting compulsion that I still have at age 72, or that feeling sometimes that I can’t stand being inside my skin—that it is utterly unbearable and I have to escape, or it might be various self-righteous and controlling tendencies. Maybe each of you has your own list of apparent problems, neurotic tendencies and character faults, as well as things about the world that you find irritating or seemingly unbearable and enraging.
Like many of you, I’ve tried many solutions to all of this: alcohol and drugs, recovery work, organized religion, psychotherapy, meditation, Zen, Advaita, retreats, satsangs, somatic work, dietary changes, lifestyle changes, social justice work—you name it, I’ve done it.
And yet, these apparent problems, neurotic tendencies, and character faults still show up. Maybe they happen less frequently and with less severity and for shorter duration, maybe the storylines that trigger and sustain them are never entirely believable anymore, but still, these things happen. And the world and other people continue to behave at times in ways I don’t like and can’t control.
For a long time, I was hopeful that eventually I’d find the right solution, and these upsets and blemishes would disappear once and for all and never come back. To be honest, sometimes I’m still hopeful! (I’m truly a fool).
I remember pouring all this out in a private meeting with a Zen teacher once, and he said, “It sounds like you think there’s a problem.”
Wow! That was a wake-up moment!
Another one of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck, famously said, “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” And Wayne Liquorman: “The sense that things should be other than they are, is suffering.” And then just the other day, a friend of mine, who also happens to be a Zen teacher, said to me, “Nothing works!”
This is it, just as it is. And what if the life we actually have, with all of its warts and imperfections, is actually the perfect life?
And what if ALL of this is utterly impersonal? Whatever this whole apparent happening is (this whole universe, consciousness, dark enigma, life, intelligence-energy, unicity, the Self, whatever you want to call it), it can’t seem to help itself from falling into apparent holes again and again—and by holes, I mean identifying as a separate somebody, taking delivery of what is apparently happening, taking it personally, getting upset, reacting badly, and then searching for a cure! And if all THAT is taken personally, an even deeper hole and more upset! Layers upon layers of delusion, holes upon holes. And we keep imagining that someday, this will end! We’ll be fixed at last, and the world will be fixed.
But what if ALL of this is simply life dancing in the infinite ways it dances, playing hide and seek with itself, fooling itself, losing itself and finding itself? What if there is no one doing any of it? What if none of it actually matters? What if it’s not even real in the ways we imagine, meaning that it vanishes as soon as it appears, and it’s got no more substance than a passing dream? What if no cure is needed? What if the apparent imperfection is perfect just as it is?
There are indeed many things to do, such as meditation or yoga or inquiry, and we do seem to have a natural urge to repair what is broken, but there is no one who can choose to do or not do these things, and any notion of cause and effect is a conceptual overlay predicated on imaging time and the dividing up of a seamless reality so that one part can seemingly cause or be the result of another. But maybe it’s possible to meditate or explore in a totally different way, without seeking a result, without knowing why we’re doing it or what might reveal itself or emerge from it—approaching it as we might a dance or an art form, or as a baby exploring the world, or a lover exploring the beloved.
We may consider some behaviors and states of mind more enlightened (i.e., less caught up in the delusions of separation, substantiality and duality) than others. But ALL of it is this undivided wholeness doing what it does, and we can’t have the light without the dark. The mistakes are part of the whole fabric. Nothing needs to be other than how it is, and in an instant, it will be fresh and new. Our problems and their solutions are ever-changing appearances in an immovable presence/absence that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same.
All the words we use to describe our problems create the illusion that they are solid, fixed, persisting things, and that we know what they are. But the living actuality itself can never really be pinned down or formulated. We ARE this living actuality. It is not other than us or outside of us. It is our direct experience in every moment. It is most intimate, right here, utterly immediate. In that sense, it is obvious and unavoidable. And it never goes away, even when it shows up as what we label anger, fingerbiting, or an especially horrible president.
In thinking about this living actuality (or present experiencing) and trying to formulate and pin it down, we seemingly miss it entirely. And yet, even that grasping, conceptualizing and mental mapping is nothing other than just this. We never actually lose it, nor can THIS ever be lost or found.
Maybe being awake is nothing more or less than simply being okay with the whole thing, just as it is—including our attempts to change it. And not just being okay, but actually enjoying the whole marvelous show, even the moments that don’t seem very enjoyable—being grateful for the whole wondrous catastrophe.
So, Happy Solstice, everyone. Happy beginning of the Age of Aquarius. Happy Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Happy HolyDaze. And may we all enjoy the final days of 2020. It’s been quite a year!
I’ll be taking my usual at-home retreat from the end of this month through the beginning of the New Year. So I’ll say now, Happy New Year!
Response to a comment:
The impersonal I spoke of here wasn't in any way intended to deny the personal in the sense of human emotions and concerns relating to our specific, individual lives...and I agree completely that we often come to the vastness through our very human experiences of love and loss and caring and so on. Perhaps "impersonal" was not the best word to describe what I was trying to say, which is that EVERYTHING is a movement of the whole including our most intimate and personal feelings and actions. But I wasn't intending to suggest it was "impersonal" in the sense of being cold, detached, uninvolved, beyond-it-all, disconnected from our humanity, and so on.
Response to another comment:
Oh dear. I didn’t mean impersonal in that way [no person at all]. I meant that EVERYTHING is a movement of the whole, INCLUDING the person, which is akin to a wave in the ocean. But I did NOT mean that there is no person in any sense. That is just plain silly. As Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully said, you don't need to stop being a wave to be the ocean. I love dear Tony Parsons, but his new story of his self falling away (apparently for the second time, this time with a carpet) is utterly ridiculous in my opinion. OF COURSE there is a person. I am never intending to deny our humanity and the richness of our human experience both as a unique, one-of-a-kind individual and as a member of the human community. Waving is something beautiful that the ocean does. Yes, like a wave, the person is ever-changing and inseparable from everything it apparently is not...and yes, the image we have of the "me" who seems to be inside this body thinking my thoughts is an illusion (a mirage created by thoughts, images, memories and sensations)...and it's true that we can't find "the mind," and that "the body" is not the solid, persisting, independent "thing" we think it is...but seeing all of this doesn't mean going to the opposite extreme of completely denying the person or any sense of personal identity. Without any sense of personal identity, you would not be able to function and neither would Tony Parsons. He answers to his name, can distinguish between the carrot he's cutting up and his hand, and would undoubtedly resist if a stranger came up to him on the street and tried to feel him up. He has a sense of location and boundaries. He can relate his life story. He loves his wife Claire. Yes, he's a person....very distinctly Tony Parsons and not someone else.
It’s the separation from the whole that’s the illusion, and also the “me” who feels deficient or inflated, who takes blame or credit, who imagines itself to be the thinker of my thoughts and the chooser or my actions, an enlightened one or an unenlightened one—that “me” is only a mirage, a creation of thought, mental image, sensation, memory and storyline. That sense of being identified as that phantom “me” and of being encapsulated inside the body can indeed fall away, and the recognition of boundlessness and what Tony calls nothing being everything can indeed happen. This can be a dramatic event, but it needn’t be, and in fact, my sense is that it is actually always within everyone’s ordinary experience, even if it is going unnoticed. But importantly, it doesn’t mean we permanently lose all sense of being this particular person—this unique, one-of-a-kind individual that has a location and a lifespan, a personality, preferences, opinions, and so on. Tony Parsons has all of that, I’m quite sure.
Response to another comment:
Nothing I write is ever intended to be the whole truth. I wouldn't say that "Awakening is simply the acceptance of everything – including that there isn’t a ‘problem’." I have a long section in my most recent book where I distinguish between what I call "self-improvement" and what I call "genuine transformation."
You may be putting me in a box I’m not actually in (of people “downgrading” awakening to mean anything and everything). I find all these words like awakening get used very differently by different people. I don’t subscribe to the idea of permanently awake people—a person is not a solid, fixed thing, and awakeness (in my view) is not a permanent state or condition that someone achieves and then abides in forever after. For me, it’s always about NOW.
Yes, some people (like Eckhart Tolle, e.g.) do seem to have sudden events where delusion falls away more or less permanently (although that has not been my experience, and I think it's not common), and yes, there can be shifts and realizations of various kinds that may persist for a lifetime—for example, I left certain addictions behind, and I can’t ever unsee the (direct, nonconceptual) recognition that what is here is both a particular person called Joan and this boundless awaring presence that includes everything.
But I would never claim that I no longer have moments (for whatever duration) of delusion, of being identified as the psychological self (my self image) and then being defensive, irritable, unkind, angry, controlling, or whatever it might be. And it would not occur to me to pass this off as “awakened behavior.”
In one sense, awakeness (presence, awareness, undivided wholeness) is inescapably always here, and nothing ever departs from it or stands outside of it. But clearly, this is not always recognized. As I often say, both Buddha and Hitler were equally manifestations of unicity (equally waves on the ocean, equally water), but clearly Hitler was seriously lost in, and operating out of, the delusion of separation and duality, while Buddha was awake to and operating out of wholeness. Most of us are a mix of both, and I suspect that even Buddha undoubtedly had moments of delusion, and Hitler may well have had wholesome moments. I doubt that anyone is completely one way or the other. Certainly, I'm not!
It is undoubtedly true that some people have more or less delusion than others, and I certainly don't claim to be at the high end of the delusion-free club. But I'm not actually interested in ranking people in this way, and all I can deal with is what shows up here. Seeing "my delusion" as a personal flaw is not helpful, nor is desperately striving to purify myself.
For me, being at peace with my defects and seeing through my curative fantasies has been enormously liberating, and was the subject of this post. But as I said, no one post will say everything. I endeavor not to land on any fixed side of a conceptual duality such as practice or no practice, self or no self, choice or no choice, effort or effortlessness, etc. because my sense is that no formulation captures actuality. And I certainly was not intending to suggest that there is no place for spiritual practice, psychotherapy, recovery work, social justice work, aspiration, or fixing a flat tire on the car, or that being an abusive drunk is just as enlightened as anything else and that we shouldn't do anything to change it. But how we approach such endeavors matters greatly in my experience.
Response to another comment:
There can be an experiential sense of this impersonal presence Here-Now that is boundless, unencapsulated, vast, beginningless, endless—the eternal present, the unlocatable immediacy in which every location appears, primordial awareness. And we can experience that vastness in ways that truly have no flavor of the person or the personality and no sense at all of boundaries or limitations. But when I spoke of our apparent defects being impersonal, I wasn’t pointing to that experiencial sense of unencapsulated vastness. I was pointing to the fact that the “me” who feels deficient or inflated, who takes blame or credit, who seems to be authoring my thoughts and making my choices, is only a mirage, a creation of thought, mental images, sensations, memories and storylines, and that EVERYTHING that happens is a movement of the totality. No wave ever goes off in a direction independent of the ocean. We’re never really separate in that way. But I’m NEVER intending to deny our humanity, our human feelings and experiences, or the fact that we are each a unique and precious being.
December 22, 2020:
PS to my previous post (Nothing Works):
I wasn’t in any way attempting to deny the efficacy and value of many life-changing human endeavors such as psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, inquiry, spiritual practices of various kinds, social justice work—nor was I attempting to say that we can’t or shouldn’t take action to change things, or that nothing has changed in my own life or in the world at large.
Indeed, in my own life, I recovered decades ago from severe alcohol addiction and stopped smoking cigarettes and using drugs. While I can still get angry, it passes fairly quickly, and I no longer have the violent rages I once had. I haven’t been physically violent in many decades. I haven’t been seriously depressed in quite a number of years. I still have opinions, and I do occasionally get triggered (as many of you have witnessed), but I rarely get upset over world events in the way I once did. I feel happy most of the time—glad to be alive and enjoying this life. Problems that haven’t gone away, such as my fingerbiting compulsion, happen less frequently, less severely, and (perhaps most importantly for my own well-being) without the shame and storylines of personal failure that used to accompany them.
And it’s the falling away of that sense of shame and deficiency that my previous post was attempting to celebrate, along with the ways we take our defects personally as our fault (as if we could and should be doing better than we are), and the curative fantasies we so often have of some final solution and ultimate perfection, of enlightenment as some kind of finish-line we hope to one day cross, and all the ways that spirituality can so often reinforce these idealistic tendencies and hold up certain supposedly “awakened ones” as Perfect People who have transcended all human problems.
“Nothing works” was intended as something delightfully and surprisingly liberating, not some horrible resignation to living a miserable life. It was an embrace of life as it is, which is no way in particular, and which ALWAYS includes a mixture of light and dark. Somehow it all goes together, the light and the dark, and no wave can ever actually go off in a direction independent of the ocean. In that sense, there are no mistakes.
But at the same time, our ability to discern errors and correct them is part of our make-up. In Buddhism, there’s a vow to save all beings and put an end to all delusions—it is, of course, an impossible vow. We can never accomplish it, and yet life moves us to do this in all the various ways we each are moved. I was in no way suggesting that this natural aspiration for transformation should be pathologized or crushed. Indeed, it is a beautiful part of our humanity and seems also to be an evolutionary tendency that the universe and all of nature has—reaching for the light.
My post was pointing to the possibility of acting without the expectation of a cure or the fantasy of perfection. It was pointing to the perfection in the imperfection, the ways the defect is always a gift, the place where the light gets in. It was pointing to waking up to the wonder of this very moment, just as it is, even if it seems to be hopelessly flawed.
And that doesn’t mean justifying harmful behaviors as some kind of enlightened crazy wisdom or using some kind of spiritual ideology about the perfection of everything to avoid taking responsibility (response-ability) when we can (sometimes we can; sometimes we can’t). Rather, it simply invites seeing what is, as it is, without adding ANY of these overlays (good, bad, should, shouldn’t, okay, not okay, my fault, not my fault, enlightened, unenlightened, etc.).
In other words, to take one hypothetical example, we don’t need to excuse or romanticize our own excessive drinking on the grounds that many great spiritual teachers and Zen Masters have been alcoholics, nor do we need to condemn ourselves if we have a drinking problem. And we don't need to either write off those teachers because they suffer from alcoholism, or glorify and justify their drinking as some kind of crazy wisdom. We can just be with the simple actuality that we are all mixtures of light and dark, and the balance never stays in some fixed position—every moment is fresh and new. And we can see the beauty in that mixture as it manifests in every different form.
My being a drunk years ago informed my life in so many ways. I can’t say it was all bad, or that it would have been better had it not happened. And the same is true of my still arising fingerbiting compulsion. I’m very grateful I sobered up, and I’d be very happy if my fingerbiting compulsion never came back. But I’m willing for this compulsion to show up for the rest of my life if that’s what happens; it’s not a big deal to me anymore, and I no longer see it as shameful proof of what an unenlightened failure I am—it’s simply an impersonal movement of the universe (as were all the different cures I’ve tried over the years).
Many things I’ve done over the years have opened me up and been helpful to me, and many continue to open me up in new ways. These things include psychotherapy, meditation, meditative inquiry, koan work, somatic work of various kinds, martial arts, working with a variety of wonderful spiritual teachers in different traditions, as well as wonderful friendships, intimate relationships, animal companions, being in nature, being in cities, works of art, movies and plays, this wonderful world of internet connectivity and all of you, and the many rich offerings of every moment of ordinary everyday life.
I’m never intending to deny our humanity, our human feelings and experiences, or the fact that we are each a unique and precious being. If we look right now, we can see that we are at once both a particular human being and this vast impersonal awaring presence that is without borders or seams. As that vastness, we have no gender, no age, no nationality, no political views, no opinions. And at the same time, as a particular individual in the great play of life, we have all those qualities. BOTH are true. We are both wave and ocean, and to deny either is to miss something essential.
As I see it, this human experience is not some giant mistake that we must strive to transcend and leave behind. It’s a wonderful gift, and sometimes a very challenging gift. Fear, sorrow, anger, grief, loss—these are part of this human experience, as are joy, love, and laughter. It’s ALL included. Sometimes this life hurts like hell. There’s no need to sugarcoat the difficulties or deny the horrors that can and do happen. But when we’re awake to the wonder of this moment, we may discover beauty and joy even in the darkest of times.
All day a fierce wind howling and slamming into the house, a metal chair flying off the deck into the garden, rain off and on, and all day, rainbows one after another.
And now, in the night, the delicious wet sounds of rain, pouring, running, gurgling, splattering, plopping, tapping, crackling, whooshing—a veritable symphony of sounds.
January 4, 2021:
It’s past midnight
The moon has not yet risen.
In the deep dark we see a face from long ago
But you don’t recognize her.
Don’t be surprised by this.
--from Dongshan’s Five Ranks
The universe is always reaching out to us, calling to itself. It has a great imagination. Every face it shows us is new and different, and yet it is always the same face, the Original Face, the Beloved, my very own Self in infinitely new disguises. The universe likes to trick us by showing up as a mad president trying to pull off a coup, or as an irritating neighbor, an unpleasant sound, a burst pipe or a fatal cancer. This makes for great drama and adventure, and it’s how we grow in compassion and wisdom as we wrestle with our demons and confront all the ways the universe isn’t behaving as we want it to, and all the ways life is disappointing us yet again, and then emerge from our turmoil and darkness into the recognition that it is always my own face, God’s face, the Original Face, endlessly morphing into something new. And this plunging into the darkness and emerging into the light isn’t a linear progression toward a final resolution of the kind we have imagined, but rather, it is a circular or spiraling journey that repeats itself over and over and yet is never the same way twice, and it never departs from Here-Now. And at the very heart of our pain, grief, fear, rage and never-ending failures at being the person we imagine we should be, there is a wonderful jewel—our own heart and the ways it can suddenly open in love and forgiveness and amazement at the wonder of it all.
January 6, 2021:
Well, it was quite a day here in America. We witnessed a sitting president, a man too mentally disturbed and fragile to acknowledge his electoral defeat, incite a terrorist attack on the US Capitol and continue to push baseless conspiracy theories about a stolen election. It continues to stun me that some 70 million Americans actually voted for this despicable man, apparently unable to see how deranged he is. I pray that Mike Pence and other Republicans will have the wisdom and the guts to invoke the 25th Amendment. Trump needs to be removed from office ASAP before he does something far worse. This was a truly shocking day, although anyone with a shred of intelligence could see it coming from the day this vicious demagogue began his presidential campaign of lies, slurs and deceits.
As I’ve said before, both Buddha and Hitler are equally waves on the ocean, equally ocean, equally water…but clearly, Buddha is awake to this indivisible wholeness and Hitler is lost in the delusion of separation. The recognition I pointed to in my previous post should not be used to ignore relative reality or our capacity for discernment. It’s all a seamless whole, AND, we can discern the difference between a nourishing meal and rat poison. There is a difference between being judgmental and having discernment.
Someone commented that “all perception is projection,” and that’s true in a sense, but it’s equally true that some perceptions are more accurate than others. If two police officers see a suspect pulling an object out of his pocket, and one officer “sees” a gun and the other “sees” a cell phone, one of these perceptions will turn out to have been more accurate than the other, and it might make the difference between life and death. Likewise, not all beliefs are equally true or equally false. People who believe the earth is flat are holding to an idea that is far less accurate than those who believe the earth is a sphere. In the absolute sense, ALL of this can be doubted, but in this everyday relative world, to dismiss or ignore all of this is not wisdom, it’s spiritual hogwash and delusion. When someone like Hitler rises to power and begins invading other countries and exterminating millions of people, is it spiritually advanced to ignore this, to assert that those who express concern are simply “fearful,” that all of this is a dream to be transcended? I think not.
January 8, 2021:
How Do We Go from Hate to Love?
There’s an old Zen koan about two monks, washing their bowls in the creek, who see two birds fighting over a frog, tearing it apart. One monk asks the other, “Why does it have to be like this?” And the other monk replies, “It’s all for your benefit.”
Politics is a vital part of how we live together in this everyday world, in communities great and small. Politics will always involve conflict, because no two of us sees things in exactly the same way. Some would say that it is our responsibility as citizens in a democracy (however imperfect that democracy may be) and as members of a global community (however fractured that community may seem) to stay reasonably well-informed and participate in some way. But there are many ways to participate.
For some, it will be direct engagement in electoral politics or social justice work. For others, it may be devoting oneself entirely to spirituality—as Ramana Maharshi did, or as my friend John Butler, the Christian mystic, does. John would say that this is the very best form of engagement one can offer, for it goes to the root of all our problems and opens us to the only real place from which they can be resolved (the open heart, awareness, love, Here-Now, or in John’s language, turning back toward the light, toward God). On the other hand, one of my Zen teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, said the best thing for Zen practice was being in a situation that would push your buttons and reveal where you’re holding on and holding back. And so for me, the political realm may have a value precisely because it is messy and unresolvable, and because—like any intimate relationship—it so easily pushes my buttons and forces me to confront the darkness and the ways I get caught in suffering and then perpetuate and transmit that suffering to others.
On Wednesday, when the Capitol was under siege, I could feel myself caught up in the drama. I could feel the relishing of that drama, the way we love the excitement of it, and also the fear of what might happen. I could feel the self-righteousness, the us against them (or me against how it is) mentality, the tightness of it, the divisiveness, the sense of separation. I became angry with someone on FB who seemed to be “above it all” and seemed to be trying to teach me to be more loving. I felt threatened and put down by this person’s comments—I deleted them, unfriended her, said some hurtful things—and later apologized to her privately. I watched too much News. The whole thing was painful, but also addictive.
We now know that four protestors and one police officer died. One of the protestors, a woman who had served in the Air Force and who had then apparently gotten sucked into QAnon and hypnotized by Trump, was shot and killed by the Capitol police. The police were attacked with metal pipes, chemical irritants and other weapons—I read somewhere that one officer would probably lose an eye. I think fourteen officers were seriously injured in addition to the one who was killed, and three other protestors died from medical causes including a heart attack. Journalists and their equipment were also attacked. The Capitol was trashed, people’s private offices violated. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, with some Republicans still objecting, Joe Biden’s win was certified.
Probably after great pressure from people inside the White House, Trump delivered a short speech yesterday in which he committed to a peaceful transfer of power, condemned the violence, and called for unity and reconciliation. We can be pretty sure, based on years of watching this man’s behavior, that this was a forced performance and not a real change of heart, and that once he leaves the White House, he’ll most likely be back to his old victim identity, spewing vitriol and whipping up more division and violence, claiming he’s been terribly mistreated, that the election was stolen from him, trying to salvage his self-image as a winner at whatever cost. Even in this “nice” speech, he still didn’t admit defeat or acknowledge that Biden won, that the election was not stolen. Thus, his followers can still believe the false narrative of a stolen election and gear up for further violence and insurrection.
I think of how gracefully many others in my lifetime from both parties have faced electoral defeat, painful as it must be: Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Al Gore, George HW Bush, Jimmy Carter. But Trump is too deeply wounded, too emotionally unskilled and spiritually asleep to rise to this level of grace and humility, to put country and the well-being of humanity ahead of his wounded ego, to face and admit defeat. He’d rather start a civil war and burn everything down.
But here’s the thing—it’s easy to put this all “out there” on Trump. It’s easy to talk about how terrible he is, and to feel superior and self-righteous by doing that. But the truth is, I can find that place in myself as well, that place in my own psyche that feels mistreated and misunderstood, that becomes defensive and hostile, that would rather hold on to my self-righteous position, protect my self-image, and start a civil war than surrender or admit defeat. It’s the part of me that wants to burn the whole thing down in the adult equivalent of a two-year-old temper tantrum. And I know I’m not alone, that most (if not all) of us have at times felt that way in moments of anger and fear, faced with our powerlessness and lack of control, raging at the way life (or our partner, our job, our president, our fellow citizens, or own self, or whatever it is) isn’t behaving as we “know” they (or we) should be.
I suspect we all know that war inside us, that tight and contracted energy, that isolated defensive stance, and we also know how the heart can suddenly break open and once again there is the seamless whole, just as it is. We feel love instead of hate, generosity and gratitude instead of anger and fear. And it always feels so good, that breaking open. It can take a while to get there—we resist and resist, holding tight to our wounded selves—but when it happens, it feels so freeing. We’re not alone anymore. We know then, in the deepest sense, that all is well.
There’s no formula for how to “do” this heart-opening. We must feel our way each time in the dark. It’s hard in those times of fire and darkness to turn toward the things that help—we are pulled in those moments toward self-defensive cynicism, isolation, hopelessness, despair, self-pity, anger, rage, whatever form it takes. Being with others, hearing their stories, knowing we’re all in it together—this is helpful. This is where I see great value in sangha or spiritual community, practicing together. In these spiritual friendships, we’re not just supporting each other’s positions and agreeing with each other about how terrible the other side is, or feeding each other’s fear and hysteria, but instead, we’re waking up together from our self-centered dream, our attachment to our positions, our defenses and layers of protective armor. That waking up is our shared aspiration.
I felt this yesterday in a Zoom with a Zen sangha in Kentucky that I’ve been joining recently, and I felt it during the years I lived on staff at Springwater, the retreat center Toni Packer founded in rural New York. Kentucky is Trump territory, and so is the part of rural western New York where Springwater is. I live now in a small blue bubble surrounded by Trump supporters—most of Oregon (outside of Portland, Eugene, Ashland) is really a deep red state. The county I’m living in voted twice for Trump. We can’t really get away from each other.
We must find a way to work together, to live together. But it’s not easy. We’re more polarized than ever in this country. We listen to separate sources of news and information, search engines and social media tailor what we see to our already-formed opinions and preferences, and all of us, even those of us with higher education and critical thinking skills, are easily and often subject to confirmation bias, logical fallacies such as mistaking correlation for causation, and being identified with and defending our positions as if our life depended on it. We all have an inner Trump. He’s not just “out there,” easy to hate. He’s a beautiful outward embodiment of a part of our human psyche that we can all recognize in ourselves. And it’s far more important to see it “in here” than it is to point fingers at it “out there.”
And there is always a deeper truth—that open heart, that unconditional love, that all-inclusive awareness. My mother had friends of every race, social class, sexual orientation, age and political view—and she always said we need to love each other. She threw parties that included the most amazing mix of people. She made an effort to reach out, to find the common ground (she often suggested food or chocolate), to find the love. I’m not nearly as spiritually advanced as she was, but I aspire to that opening of the heart, that love.
In my most recent book, I begin a chapter with that koan about the frog being torn apart, and I end the chapter with this:
“Perhaps, in the end, the greatest contribution any of us can make to world peace and social justice is simply to wake up. Otherwise, our actions come out of a divided mind that perpetuates conflict and division. When our actions flow from awake presence, they are more wholesome in the truest sense, more whole. But there will never be absolute peace and justice in a relative world. There will always be things falling apart and things that we regard as terrible from our human perspective. The frog will always be torn apart, the birds will always fight over it, the savior will always be crucified—somehow it all belongs. And I have the deep sense that a life of nothing but sunny days and eternal youth would not be nearly as rich as the life we have, the one where things get torn apart.” (from Death: The End of Self-Improvement).
At that sangha in Kentucky, the gathering closes by singing The Four Boundless Vows, which Pacific Zen Institute (of which they are a part) translates as: “I vow to wake all the beings of the world, I vow to put endless heartache to rest, I vow to walk through every wisdom gate, I vow to live the great buddha way.” These are impossible vows, endless vows, but they are our aspiration, our commitment. Again and again, we fail, the heart closes. But then it opens again and we start anew.
Last night, just as we were singing these vows, at that very moment, my first Zen teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, was taking his last breath at his home in Berkeley, California. He was ninety-one years old. It was Mel who told me long ago that we’re always searching for diamonds in the mud, but that the mud itself is pretty interesting. Zen, he said, is about the mud. Sojun has died and yet he lives on. He’s right here, in this very breath. I bow to him, to all my teachers, to the Great Sangha that includes all beings and all of you, my readers and spiritual friends on this pathless path to being awake Here-Now. May we all find our way through the darkness and turn toward the light, again and again, now.
January 10, 2020:
Message from My January Newsletter:
It’s been an intense time here in the US in the last week, and many people are feeling some mix of anxiety, anger, sorrow and deep concern about what lies ahead. Right-wing militia groups are threatening armed attacks in the coming weeks, and sadly, many Americans actually believe the president’s repeated false claims that he won the election, by a landslide no less. We are a divided country, many lost in conspiracy theories.
How are we responding to this? And how do we want to respond to this? And is there a choice? In my last book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement, I began one chapter with a Zen koan about two monks, washing their bowls in the creek, who see two birds fighting over a frog, tearing it apart. One monk asks the other, “Why does it have to be like this?” And the other monk replies, “It’s all for your benefit.” I end that chapter with this:
"Perhaps, in the end, the greatest contribution any of us can make to world peace and social justice is simply to wake up. Otherwise, our actions come out of a divided mind that perpetuates conflict and division. When our actions flow from awake presence, they are more wholesome in the truest sense, more whole. But there will never be absolute peace and justice in a relative world. There will always be things falling apart and things that we regard as terrible from our human perspective. The frog will always be torn apart, the birds will always fight over it, the savior will always be crucified—somehow it all belongs. And I have the deep sense that a life of nothing but sunny days and eternal youth would not be nearly as rich as the life we have, the one where things get torn apart.”
Waking up isn’t a one-time thing. It’s moment to moment. And sometimes it’s hard work, really hard work. The waking up itself isn't hard, but getting to the willingness to let go can be very hard. The undertow of delusion and resistance is often strong, pulling us down into self-righteous rage, contempt, cynicism, victimhood, hate, anxiety, depression. We get tighter and tighter, more isolated, more defended. And yet, in every moment, right now, there is this amazing possibility to stop. To open. To let go. To simply feel the pain and the heartache. To be that aware space that has room for all of it. To be liberated on the spot, and to transmit love instead of hate. Is it a choice? We can’t really say yes or no. But in every moment, we can wonder, is it possible, right now, to let go, to open?
In this openness Here-Now, there is room for everything to be just as it is—including our turbulent emotions, our failures at times, our actions and the actions of apparent others, all of it one whole seamless happening. Awareness is unconditional love. We don’t really know what will happen next or how the universe "should" be. But when we turn our attention from thought to the sensory-energetic, vibrantly alive immediacy of this moment, when we open our hearts, something shifts. There is space. And stillness. And presence. And the aliveness of whatever appears: raindrops on a leaf, the sounds of traffic, a crumpled Kleenex, the song of a bird, a cup of tea. Just this, and the wonder of what is, just as it is.
Wishing all of you, and the world, and all beings, happiness in 2021...
January 10, 2021:
We’re all in a dance together, each of us a jewel in Indra’s Net reflecting all the others, relating to and interdependent with all the others. We’re all needed and we all belong: left and right, establishment and anti-establishment, Proud Boys and Antifa, progressives and conservatives, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, pro-choice and pro-life. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the face of God in some of the others. Sometimes all we see is a threat, a challenge to our sense of order and security, our sense of right and wrong. I was at a gathering this morning with Zen teacher John Tarrant, and he said, “The Zen way is to accept the dance invitation,” and “Every time we’re faithful to the moment, it helps everyone else.” Being faithful to the moment means being here wholeheartedly, awake to how it is, without any barrier such as thinking anything is “out there” or “in here.” Without any “me” in the way. Then it’s all right Here, all this magnificent diversity dancing in this vast openness that includes it all.
Response to a comment:
The reality is, they're all here, whether we like it or not, so obviously, we're all included in whatever this whole dance is. And ALL of us are imperfect and flawed. What I'm pointing to here doesn't in any way mean we must like, or agree with, or approve of, or allow whatever the KKK or the Proud Boys say or do, nor does it mean we cannot speak out against their actions or beliefs, or take action to stop them from doing harm. But we'll do all of that in a different way when we come from presence and love. That's not always easy; I often fail. But it's my aspiration. People can change. What kind of treatment makes you open to listening and changing? When someone meets you with hate or with love? As MLK said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
January 11, 2020:
I’m obviously no model of how to handle anger. It often overwhelms me. I feel unsettled since the domestic terrorist attack last week, knowing that more is coming, and that many in the police and military may be on the wrong side. I’ve seen governments fall. It happens, as do civil wars. I feel that I’m trying to balance the spiritual perspective (waking up to Here-Now, listening openly to those with whom we disagree, seeing the light in everyone, not demonizing people or treating them with contempt, recognizing that in some way it all belongs) and the political perspective (we are in a very serious crisis, and this is no time to tune out, to ignore the dangerous and very real rising tide of fascism, or to use meditation or spiritual ideology as narcotic escapes). My balancing act is imperfect to say the least, and I often tumble into anger, anxiety, and a very dark state of mind. Sometimes I explode on FB. If you are tempted to leave some consoling comment, or to suggest (as one rather irritating woman did) that I listen to calming music and do The Work of Byron Katie and that should solve the problem, please think twice and refrain. While I do encourage all of us to wake up moment to moment, I also encourage all of us not to tune out.
Response to a comment:
I wasn't in any way intending to disparage calming music or doing things that calm us down. Nor was I disparaging The Work of Byron Katie, which I often do, and of which I'm a fan. But if people think calming music, meditation, and doing The Work will by itself resolve the present situation, then I think they are deluding themselves. That's what I was talking about. i don't agree with the idea that nondual spirituality is incompatible with staying informed and taking action if need be. But hopefully, spiritual practice helps us to see it all and to act from a place of wholeness rather than separation.
Response to another comment:
I'm not an enthusiast for ignorance (i.e., for ignoring things), and in my experience, "being loving" (truly loving, not pseudo-fake loving) is not always that easy, especially when we're awake and paying attention (in contract to ignoring things). But to meet whatever shows up with love is a wonderful aspiration, and one I certainly have, even as I often fail. The more awake we are, the more sensitive we are as well. Sometimes it can be way more painful than being asleep. And tuning out is a form of being asleep.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020-2021--
You are welcome to link to this page or to quote brief passages from the blog writings on it as fair use, but if you wish to re-post any piece here or a long excerpt anywhere else, please ask permission first, give appropriate copyright credit to Joan, and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!
back to “outpourings“ menu