The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (1/20/21--3/22/21):
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
January 20, 2021:
Realizing the absolute truth of nondual unicity and formlessness is essential. But as they stress in Zen, realizing the absolute is not yet enlightenment. Nothing can be pinned down or separated out, and yet each thing is distinct and vividly itself. Both are true. The melting away of the division between samsara and nirvana, between what we consider spiritual and what we consider unspiritual is one of the most liberating realizations of all. Everything is a seamless whole, everything is included. And at the same time, our ability to discern the difference between what brings about suffering and what liberates us from it is crucial. If we think of human beings as akin to waves on the ocean, both Buddha and Hitler are equally waves, equally movements of the whole, equally water. But clearly, Buddha realizes that wholeness and speaks and acts out of that realization, while Hitler is lost in the delusion of separation, trying to conquer and exterminate the other waves. So we can say that they are equally a movement of the whole, but one realizes that and the other does not. Samsara and nirvana are not one, not two. Everything is what is, including humanity’s most horrific cruelties, but that wholeness also includes our interest in, and our capacity for, discernment and transformation.
January 22, 2021:
One of the very first Zen talks I heard years ago at San Francisco Zen Center was given by Issan Dorsey, a gay priest who later died of AIDS. Issan had been a female impersonator, a prostitute and a drug addict before becoming a priest. He started a Zen center in the Castro district, and later a hospice where he cared for men dying of AIDS, and where he eventually died himself. Issan took Zen seriously, but not somberly. He was always funny and always profound.
I was there at the Sunday talk at Green Gulch Zen Center when Issan revealed that he had AIDS. He told us in his talk that morning that he had recently been at an interfaith conference where liberal religious leaders were trying to counter the prevailing notion amongst religious fundamentalists that AIDS was the wrath of God. Issan had told them, “AIDS is not the wrath of God; AIDS is God.”
This morning I picked up one of my favorite books, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, by Brother David Steindl-Rast, and opened it up at random. I landed in the middle of a chapter about faith, which Brother David distinguishes from belief. He describes faith as a journey of “Living by the Word of God,” which he says “means feeding on it, being nourished by it, eating, drinking, and assimilating that Word.”
And what does he mean by “the Word”? According to scripture, “God speaks,” and Brother David talks about “listening with our heart.” In that open listening, the Word is everywhere—in the sounds of traffic and the barking dog, in the beauty of raindrops on a bare branch, in the cup of hot tea and the child’s smile.
“God’s message is always the same,” Brother David writes. “You may perceive the message in an apple orchard in full bloom. But the same message is also there in a wild fire.” Brother David speaks of the temptation of Jesus, when Jesus was hungry and God gave him stones and not bread. And then later, when God gave Jesus the cross—a slow death by torture. It’s easy to find God in the apple orchard, but much more challenging in the pandemic, the wildfire, the riot at the Capitol, or simply in those dark and difficult days when we feel lonely and lost.
I know that for some of you, the word God raises your hackles and turns you off. So feel free to substitute some other word that speaks to you. I’m certainly not talking about an old white guy with a beard up in the sky, and I’m sure Issan and Brother David weren’t either. Rather, God is a word for a palpable presence that is ungraspable but always right here, at the heart of this very moment, in everything seen and unseen, in the seeing itself, in the aliveness, the present-ness. God is the love that feels like the deepest truth there is, that unconditional love beholding it all.
Response to a comment:
Sometimes it seems that we cannot find that presence. I think we all know that darkness. Even Jesus cried out, "God, why have you forsaken me?" And yet, that presence is always right here. Sometimes all we need to do is stop. Stop seeking it, stop telling the story that we can't find it, stop trying to figure out what it is, stop thinking about it, stop looking for a different or better experience than the one that is showing up right now, and simply BE right here. And we may find that we ARE that presence, that it is all there is, that it holds us and is actually impossible to lose. Even though, at times, it feels lost. But again, we can stop. And open. And listen.
Response to another comment from same person:
Yes..."trying to reach any state other than what is here now is a form of seeking." But when we can stop trying and instead open to what's actually present here now--not the thoughts and stories about it, but the bare actuality itself--things often shift. But if we expect them to shift, or if we seek results, we're back in that seeking mode. It's a subtle art, that stopping and opening, and one at which we often fail (or at least, I do). So not to expect perfection. You've certainly been through a lot of trauma and loss, and so it's not surprising that grief, anger, rumination and confusion show up at times and may sometimes feel unbearable. And it makes perfect sense that the desire to escape all that arises. Hopefully you can be kind with yourself when that happens. As you have no doubt discovered, there is a huge difference between experiencing emotions such as grief or anger in a nonconceptual way as energy and sensation, on the one hand, and being lost in thoughts and stories, on the other. In the thoughts and stories, we seem to contract down to the encapsulated little "me" who feels separate and lost. In the pure sensory experiencing, there is no "me" apart from "it." But the thoughts and stories tend to come back, again and again, so it always boils down to now. Just now. Sending you much love and good wishes.
January 23, 2021:
A solitary deer walking the labyrinth at North Mountain Park,
a three-legged dog greeting me on my morning walk.
Dark sky, everything illuminated with light.
Sudden shower of graupel, then rain.
A duck sliding down the cascading waterfall in the creek,
then flying back up again.
Cloud dragons gliding slowly across the face
of the mountains,
an airplane flies over.
Clouds swirl into a giant birth canal,
a tunnel to GOD.
When I go under anesthesia,
each time, I feel conscious experiencing
slipping away—“Here I go,” I say,
like that duck,
over the edge,
back into the dark before the dark,
before presence and absence.
Everything comes from that dark.
Awakening is doing us; we’re not doing it.
All day, clouds veiling and unveiling the mountain
faces, turning pink at sunset.
Rivers of energy flowing, pulsing—
geese crying out in flight,
a hazy morning moon slowly erased
by light. Traffic sounds,
listening silence, openness,
What is Zen?
Snow in a silver bowl.
January 31, 2021:
Spirituality and nonduality can so easily become facile, deluded, and/or addictive, and I encourage all of us to question our beliefs and assumptions, and to wake up (again and again, here and now) to life as it is, without needing to overlay it with any kind of comforting metaphysical ideologies and explanations. The real magic is in the actuality itself. We keep looking for some final resolution, some ultimate certainty, someplace to stand—but for some of us, everything we find crumbles away. That can feel terrible while it’s crumbling, or in the desperation of seeking, but strangely, it turns out to be a great blessing. What a relief to just be here, not trying to control ourselves or the world, not knowing what anything is, not needing to pin anything down.
Life is doing us; we’re not doing it.
February 4, 2021:
Some people wonder how I can resonate so deeply with voices so seemingly contradictory: Toni Packer, Karl Renz, Eckhart Tolle, Jim Newman, John Butler, Darryl Bailey, Mooji, Barry Magid, Rupert Spira—to name but a few I have recommended and deeply enjoyed. Then again, you might have detected similarly diverse strands in my own writings and talks, and you might wonder how I can live with all those seemingly conflicting perspectives or aspects of myself? Or you might enjoy and contain similarly diverse perspectives, tastes and resonances within yourself. And you might want to know which one is right? Or which has the highest truth? Here’s a Zen koan that might offer a response to these perplexing questions:
What is the sharpest sword?
Every branch of coral holds up the moon.
A koan isn’t something to explain. It’s something to hang out with, to see how it acts on you and what emerges, what comes to light in its presence. It’s not expository; it's evocative—like a poem or a work of art. It can’t be grasped. It unfolds.
At the start of the recommended books page on my website, I say this: Sometimes when I return to a book, I hear it in a whole new way. In fact, we never read the same book twice, any more than we step into the same river twice or are the same person from one instant to the next. The printed word can seem set in stone, but it isn’t really. It’s alive, and reading is a kind of dance between reader and text. This list includes books from a variety of different perspectives, and in many cases, they may seem to contradict each other. Who has it right? What should you believe? No words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself, which is alive and ever-changing, and can be seen in many different ways. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don't believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. Always be ready to question your conclusions and to see something new and unexpected.
Each branch of coral holds up the moon.
Response to a comment:
Shunryu Suzuki always praised "beginner's mind," and he said something to the effect that the mind of an "expert" is closed and has few possibilities, whereas the mind of a beginner is open and has many possibilities. People who think they have arrived are the least interesting to me. I prefer humility and an open mind, a willingness to fall into the dark.
February 7, 2021:
What is the Way?
The clear-eyed person falls into a well.
Another Zen koan. Contrary to what some people try to convince themselves and others, in my experience, no matter how clear things get, eventually we have to fall back down into the dark. It’s part of the movement of life to circle back and forth, around and around, between light and dark, presence and absence, form and formlessness, birth and death, summer and winter.
Recently, I fell into a dark well—or maybe I hadn’t fallen yet, maybe I was still holding on, trying to find purchase, unwilling to let go. Often it’s the resistance that is so painful, and the actual falling can be quite a relief. In any event, I was having a hard time with a few people I love very much, and that was bringing up a mix of pain, sorrow, anger, disappointment, and the discomfort of a closed heart (my own). It was the anger of a two-year old not getting her way, the rage at the world not being as I “know” it should be. It was the sorrow of knowing that, in the personal dimension of life, I am completely alone—that no one sees the world exactly as I do. It was the grief of separation, of not being seen or understood. There was despair and self-pity and that self-destructive urge to burn everything in my life down. I behaved badly, unkindly. I got into fights.
But in the dark, there were friends reaching out to me, and there was the deeper truth of being All-One rather than all alone. There was a gradual willingness to let go into that deep current of unhappiness and pain, to fully meet that dark. And then it was gone.
I went to a Zoom gathering with John Tarrant at Pacific Zen this morning—felt so happy to be there with the sangha, listening to John give a talk. He said, “I don’t believe or disbelieve in the tree outside, but it’s got something to do with my heart-mind.” He spoke of “stepping into the field of the heart-mind.” At one point, he suggested that, instead of feeling slighted or abandoned by others, it might be possible to wonder instead how we were treating them. It was a beautiful talk, and then suddenly, right in the middle, my screen went dark. The power was out in my apartment.
As it turned out, a squirrel had shorted out a line at the power substation in northwest Ashland. My apartment grew gradually colder. I sat in my big armchair, simply being present. My phone rang. A dear old friend, in her 90s, was calling to tell me how much she loved my latest book, the one on aging and dying (and being alive). We talked for a while. Eventually, just at the time the Pacific Zen Zoom was scheduled to end, the power came back on. Very Zen, eh?
Something had shifted. At the bottom of the well there was light and a new beginning. Relationships are tricky—navigating the ways we don’t quite meet, the places where we clash and disagree, where we misunderstand one another or see the world differently. Sometimes that leads to judgment and irritation and regrettable words. Sometimes it opens to an appreciation for each of us being just as we are, an appreciation for all the ways we meet and for all the ways we miss or bump up against each other, and then there is love for the whole beautiful messy actuality, just as it is.
But this light, this clarity, this love can’t be held onto. There’s no avoiding the next unanticipated well into which we inevitably fall, the next challenging obstacle that turns into a doorway, opening the heart-mind again, on the pathless path of waking up to right here, right now.
February 9, 2021:
A student once posed an age-old question to Zen teacher Dalung: “This physical body perishes, decays,” the student noted. “What is the imperishable, what is the hard and fast body of reality? What is the body that doesn’t decay? What is the everlasting body of the real?”
Dalung replied, “Mountain flowers bloom like brocade. The valley streams run deepest indigo.”
Some might want to call blooming brocades and flowing streams by other names such as energy, subatomic wavicles, quantum fields, Consciousness, Primordial Awareness, dark-enigma, the Tao, the Self, unform or emptiness. But these are all words for what no word can contain. All words tend to reify what cannot be grasped and create dualities in the mind where none actually exist in reality. The mind is always trying to get a grip, to create substance and substantiality out of no-thing-ness, and in a way, that’s the mind’s job—it’s a survival function. But it can be held more lightly. And it’s important to note that no-thing-ness is not nothing; it simply can’t be pinned down as something in particular.
“Abiding nowhere, the Heart-Mind comes forth.”
February 14, 2021:
Everything is a seamless whole, always Here, always Now. This Here-Now contains every location, every time, every apparent thing. Presence (present-ness, immediacy, nonseparation, here-ness, now-ness, consciousness, awareness) is the common factor in every different experience. This Here-Now is not “here as opposed to there” or “now as opposed to then”—it’s not the present moment or the present location—it’s that boundless unicity that includes every location, all times, all individual perspectives, all the many dimensions in which life can experience itself from the conventional to the absolute. Nothing is left out. And importantly, Here-Now is not some-thing. It’s not an object or a substance or a particular experience or a special state of consciousness. It’s no-thing and everything.
No apparent forms actually persist as discrete, consistent, separate, graspable entities. Look closely, and they don’t hold still. They have no actual borders or independent existence. They are each made up of everything they supposedly are not. Reality is holographic in nature. The whole ocean is fully present in each wave. We are each both ocean and waving, the same as everything else and utterly unique. Nothing perceivable or conceivable ever resolves or congeals into any-thing that can be nailed down. Forms have no actual substantiality, no inherent, objective or observer-independent existence.
We can’t ignore or dismiss the conventional, everyday, relative world of apparent forms, of this and that, cause and effect, you and me, past and future. This is the world in which we function. But we can come to see how tenuous and insubstantial it all is, how it can’t really be captured by words or conceptual formulations, how it shapeshifts and dissolves instant by instant, how it’s so much more (and so much less) than what we think it is. We can recognize the common factor in ALL of it, so that it no longer seems as if some things are “it” and some are not. We can feel deeply that everything belongs, that everything is inseparable from everything else, that everything is a movement of the whole, including our apparent choices, and that none of it can be other than how it is in each moment. We can discover that the apparent experiencer is itself simply another experience, that subject and object are both conceptual abstractions while the actuality has no such divisions or reifications, no center, no location, no time or place where it is not. Recognizing all of this is profoundly liberating and allows us to hold the everyday world more lightly, more playfully.
Our ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy may have a relative truth that cannot be entirely ignored or dismissed in practical ways—but these ideas are never absolutely true. And we can never actually separate the light from the dark or have only one half of a polarity, nor can we ever actually find the place where inside turns into outside, or where any apparent form begins or ends. In seeing all that, there is a relaxation of our compulsive judging and fault-finding, our painful stories of deficiency and lack, our desperate searching for perfection. We see that the overcast stormy weather is as vital to the whole dance as the peaceful sunny weather, that all of it is the same indivisible presence, the same seamless wholeness from which nothing stands apart. This doesn’t eliminate all the things we find painful, upsetting and confusing, but they don’t upset or confuse us in the same way. They are simply the shape that experience is momentarily taking, the weather of this moment, with no overlay of good or bad, and no “me” apart from the undivided experiencing.
This living reality has many apparent dimensions and perspectives from which it is seeing itself, and they all have their place. In the dimension of apparently separate forms, of you and me as unique individuals in a world of cause and effect, we will always have disagreements and conflicts. No two of us sees the same world. As human beings, we are deeply hypnotized by the illusion and the belief that all the people and things we see have an objective, observer-independent existence, that they are substantial and really “out there,” and that my way of seeing them is the right way. But in the dimension of boundless and seamless presence, awake to thoroughgoing impermanence, insubstantiality and the ungraspable nature of all apparent forms, there is no division, only wholeness. Even conflict and apparent separation is seen as a manifestation of wholeness. And like the jewels in Indra’s Net, or like a hologram, each of our unique worlds contains the whole. Perhaps this realization of wholeness (or nonduality) is exactly what the suffering world needs most, but it’s probably best not to indulge such a thought.
What feels most true here and now is not trying to pin down the nature of reality or decide what the world needs most, but rather, letting go into openness, into not knowing—abiding nowhere.
February 18, 2021:
Rain battering the windows, this second day of Lent, washing the pavement. Taste of black coffee, sounds of car tires on wet street, a single frog croaking in the garden, harbinger of spring. Rain tapping the roof, warm poop sliding out my belly into the bag. White sky and rain curtain over barely visible mountains. Pines swaying in the wind. How do we bear the sorrow? The dynamic blossoming forth moment to moment—now—of all time and space. The tiny fetus that grows into a young man who years later laparoscopically guides my intestine through the muscle and out my belly, while my own experiencing is suspended in the dark absence prior to all knowing. And then the light is on again, the world appears. Never the same way twice. Black coffee, a pile of laundry, rain trickle on window glass, my high school boyfriend on the phone, an old man now. The dull pain of a toothache, the coiled question, the softest touch, the endless washing away.
February 24, 2021:
There is indeed great suffering and sorrow—as well as immense joy, wonderment and delight—in this ever-changing world with so many possible viewing points. And these crumbling aging vulnerable bodies can bring forth many feelings from fear to grief. I feel there is great beauty in being awake to all of it, sensitive and aware, not shutting it out or papering it over with feel-good ideas. But this definitely isn’t always easy. Perhaps the heart needs to be broken open again and again. Impermanence and fragility are essential components of beauty, and of love. In some mysterious way, we are all here together, one whole happening, awake to the sorrow, the joy, and the inconceivability of every fresh and instantly vanishing moment, each of us a bright light in the dazzling darkness.
Response to a comment:
There are countless things that can be done: meditation, mindfulness practice, psychotherapy, somatic work, and on and on the list goes. Whether you are moved and able to take up any of these things, and what effect they do or do not have if you do, is not in the control of the (imaginary) separate self. It is ALL a happening of life itself. Some teachings offer what has sometimes been called the ultimate medicine, which is the recognition that the apparent illness is imaginary and no cure is needed, that everything is already complete, everything belongs, everything is one indivisible whole, and nothing is what we think it is (because thought cannot actually capture or pin down reality). From that absolute perspective, nothing is actually a problem, and none of it is personal. It's all like weather. Other teachings and practices, like those mentioned above, offer a more practical or relative approach to seeing through imaginary problems and waking up to the wonder of what is. Both perspectives are valid.
February 28, 2021:
Early spring /Late winter poem
The washing machines next door
spinning through their cycles
on the other side of our shared wall
siren wail in distance
single bird cheep
sunlight on bare branches
white clouds sailing above
of blue skies
in the dark, at night,
I move between a detective crime series
a book about autumn in Japan
two books of poetry
the autobiography of a recent
president, and dreams
in which my mother’s bones are
exhumed as described
in an old sketchbook
for the sun, hungry
unborn leaves coiled inside,
waiting to unfurl—
early spring’s liminal moment
between snow and wildfires
darkness and light
poised for the transition
the bursting forth
of unborn leaves
and unknown futures
the washing machines
have fallen silent, a moment
of pure silence
floods the universe
March 1, 2021:
I left the following comment on a post by Shiv Sengupta from Advaitaholics Anonymous:
I agree whole-heartedly about the toxicity and dishonesty that pervades a great deal of the spiritual and nondual subcultures, and from which I suspect none of us who swim in those waters are entirely immune. And what matters to me is seeing it in myself, not “out there” in others.
At age 72, and after writing many books about all this, I still find myself at times doubting myself, imagining the superiority of some other teacher, seeking some higher, better, more advanced version of myself, and/or reaching for a spiritual book or video in a moment of unease in the same way I might once have reached for a cigarette or a drink. And although I don’t think of myself as a teacher, I do function as one in many ways, and I can feel myself acting at times in top-down ways. In short, seeking an authority and wanting to be one still happens—imagining myself to be either inferior or superior to someone else. Yes, much of this has fallen away, but if I’m honest, much of it hasn’t. It gets subtler and subtler. And I've learned the folly of claiming that any trait or behavior has fallen away for good. I have seen that there is no end to delusion, no finish-line. And yet, I’ve been seduced more than I like to admit by those who pretend or claim to be totally awake or totally free, apparently more so than I am.
I do want to say that there are teachers and spiritual groups out there that do not make these kinds of grandiose claims. My friend and main teacher (who refused to call herself a teacher, and who considered the teacher/student model divisive and unhelpful), the late Toni Packer, and those who now carry on her work at Springwater Center, have genuine humility and openness. Toni always stressed that anything she said could be questioned, taken farther, or shown to be wrong. She never pretended she was beyond it all or that she knew it all.
Another one of my teachers, Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, spoke of giving up hope and said, “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” One of her dharma heirs, Barry Magid in NYC, continually challenges our "curative fantasies" of transcendence, in which we endeavor to find some kind of unchanging ground of being either deep below the surface or above it all. Instead, he invites us to simply be with the bare actuality—the impermanence and interdependence of life, just as it is. For him, Zen is not about detaching from life, purifying oneself, or being some kind of unchanging awareness impervious to the vulnerability and messiness of life. It is simply about being awake here and now to how it is.
John Tarrant, author of the wonderful book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, is another example of someone who embraces both the light and the dark and the full spectrum of our humanity. The Pacific Zen Institute that he founded, and the many teachers there, are another place where all of life is welcome and teachers do not come off as beyond it all or all knowing. They often reveal their own foibles.
So there are teachers and spiritual communities in which honesty, humility, openness, and unending exploration are encouraged. Perhaps Buddhism, or at least some versions of it, tends to be more down to earth and honest about reality than more transcendent perspectives such as Advaita, or the kind of tiring stuff we see in various currently in vogue nondualists who endlessly insist they are no longer a person and that nothing is happening. (Not to say Buddhism can't also go off the rails, as it often can--the point being that we ALL can!).
March 2, 2021:
I’m never saying seeking is wrong or bad, nor am I ever saying that suffering is inevitable or that liberation is a myth.
There’s a Zen koan that goes like this: A student says to the teacher, “I’m reaching for the light. Please show me the light.” To which the teacher replies, “Forget about the light—show me the reaching.”
When I was hanging out with this koan, I noticed that everything is reaching. Plants are reaching for the light, evolution is reaching for some new possibility, humans are constantly reaching for new understandings, new places, new experiences. It seems to be the very nature of the universe to expand, to explore itself, to reach out.
The spiritual search typically begins because we want to stop suffering, and we sense that some of our suffering may be unnecessary. We sense that there is a bigger picture, a different possibility, a potential for not being lost in misery and confusion, for not being seemingly trapped in this separate little capsule-identity of “me,” desperately trying to defend ourselves psychologically, to be somebody special, to belong, to be understood, to compensate for our feelings of deficiency and lack. Maybe we have tasted a radically different possibility. Maybe we have seen that nothing is as solid as it seems, or that somehow everything goes together as one indivisible whole. Maybe we have tasted moments of spaciousness, free from all self-concern. Naturally, we want to find that ease of being, that wonderment, that spaciousness that we sensed was somehow the deepest possibility. And so, like a plant reaching for the sun, we reach for that light.
At first (and probably for most of us ongoingly in ever-more subtle ways), we imagine that what we seek is outside of us: in someone else, in the future, in some event or special experience. And that may be a natural and necessary aspect of how we discover, again and again, that what we seek is closer than close, ever-present, right here.
But, contrary to what we may have imagined, making this discovery does not mean that we live forever after in perpetual bliss. Pain and painful circumstances are indeed inevitable. But the ways we suffer over all of that pain can indeed fall away (not forever after, but right now). I can certainly testify from my own direct experience, as I know many of you also can, that there is indeed the possibility of freedom from suffering, of being liberated on the spot.
But importantly, there is no persisting separate self to be in some particular persisting state of feeling free or feeling happy. All experiences are transitory, and life is necessarily a dance of inseparable polarities. There is no light apart from the dark. Yes, boundless presence is actually never lost, but the realization of that is not always our lived experience. For most (if not all) of us, or we could say, for impersonal consciousness itself, there is a never-ending dance in this manifestation between enlightenment and delusion. As human beings, sometimes we feel contracted down into that tight little capsule of “me,” seemingly lost in a movie of confusion and misery. And yet, there is always the possibility of waking up from the movie, of being liberated on the spot, not forever after, but right now.
So I’m not denying the possibility of enlightenment, if that word simply means waking up in this moment from the trance of encapsulation, waking up to the boundless wonder of here and now. But I AM denying that there are permanently enlightened people, and I AM suggesting that seeking to become such a person, or claiming to be one, is delusion.
Enlightenment (awakening, liberation, realization, whatever you want to call it) is not in some remembered past experience, nor is it in some hoped for future. It is only NOW. And while it may be helpful to have the IDEA that, “Everything is boundless presence, even apparent delusion,” or that, “There is no self to be liberated,” or that, “Nothing needs to happen,” as ideas or beliefs, these won’t hold up when the going gets rough. Belief is always shadowed by doubt. As Nisargadatta so beautifully put it, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.”
Hence, we have spiritual teachings, teachers, practices, methods, non-methods, and so on, all of which can potentially help us. But, of course, paradoxically, they can also hinder us, especially when the teachers are themselves lost in delusion, as ALL teachers sometimes are. The fact is, all teachers are human beings, and all spiritual communities are made up of imperfect humans like you and me. Even when the community is founded on the sincere intention to be open, undogmatic, and non-hierarchical, the opposite tendencies will sometimes show up because those things are built into our human psychology and biology. Sometimes the imperfections will be big and obvious and horrific, and sometimes they will be very, very subtle, but imperfections will always be a part of every human endeavor, spirituality included. To expect otherwise is folly.
But we do tend to expect spiritual teachers to be perfect, and many of them are only too willing to accept our projections and pretend (to themselves as well) that they are indeed perfectly enlightened beings. We also tend to want our spiritual journey to result in our own perfection. And that never happens. In that sense, disillusionment is a good thing. But it may not be such a good thing if it leads us to throw away the baby with the bathwater. Because there IS a baby in there, there really is. And we discover that jewel (that precious newborn) not once and for all, but again and again, always NOW.
The spiritual path is truly going nowhere, i.e. now-here. It is a pathless path in the sense that every moment is fresh and new, and every person is a unique being from moment to moment. We never step into the same river twice. And yet, our path may include practices that seem to be (but never really are) repetitive.
Teachers and spiritual companions can point out the (ever-present) destination, that which is already right here—and they can help to illuminate the apparent obstacles and common pitfalls. And all of that can be very helpful. But no one can wake up for us. We must each see and feel and think and pay attention and discover what’s true for ourselves.
As I tried to illuminate in my previous post, in part through my own confession, spirituality can become toxic when teachers pretend to be all knowing and permanently beyond it all, when they feed into our deficiency stories and create the expectation of a future finish-line to cross, a line that they supposedly have crossed. And those pretenses can get subtler and subtler. The desire to be somebody special might be easy to see in people who exude grandiosity, but this desire to be special is a very common human tendency, fed by our culture, and in some form, we probably all have it—not every minute, but at times. Some of us may not be self-aware enough to have noticed it. It can be very hard to see things in ourselves that fly in the face of our self-image and our best intentions. We all too easily see these defects in others, but not so easily in ourselves. And seeing delusion in ourselves is what really serves us, not pointing fingers at others.
Of course, anything we try to say about spirituality inevitably falls short because the spiritual journey is so apparently paradoxical. Both sides of these apparently contradictory recognitions are true:
Nothing needs to happen, and there is a liberating shift that can happen.
There is nowhere to go, and there is the possibility of being liberated on the spot.
There is no choice, and there is a choice.
There is a path, and there is no path.
You are already whole and complete just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.
It’s all a dream, and it’s totally real.
Nothing matters, and everything matters.
Lots of teachings land on one side or the other. But the teachings I find most true and most alive don’t fixate anywhere. They SEE that no map is the territory, that no formulation can capture the ever-changing, ever-evolving living reality. Wakefulness, as I mean it, is BEING ALIVE as this here-now living reality. And, of course, we always already ARE that—there is nothing outside of that, not really. But again, if that is not realized (made real), it’s just a belief, subject to doubt. That’s where the rubber meets the road, as they say.
And, as I keep repeating, the living realization of what sets us free and what seems to bind us is rarely, if ever, a one-time event that permanently ends all delusion. The dance is unending, always NOW.
And this liberation to which spirituality points includes having cancer, losing all your money, and being in a world where there is all manner of unfathomable cruelty and horror along with astonishing beauty and kindness. We each contain it all, and the manifestation will always be a dance of polarities. Utopia is a fantasy. Human perfection is a fantasy. But still, life moves us to reach, to seek, to wake up, to find that new-born heart-mind.
March 4, 2021:
Sometimes we find ourselves trying to figure out some big question, like whether life is fundamentally good and trustworthy, or fundamentally insecure, dangerous and painful. Or maybe, whether this reality is fundamentally made of matter, or whether it is fundamentally made of consciousness. Or whether we have free will or don’t have it. Whatever the question is, thought tries to work it out. It argues this way and that. But what if we don’t pick up either view? What if we’re simply alive in this moment, just as it is, not needing some ultimate explanation, some decisive conclusion about the nature of reality, or some better experience than exactly the one that is showing up (which has already disappeared and morphed into something new)? Being just this moment is very simple, and totally unavoidable actually. Thought loves complication. But how simple can this be?
March 6, 2021:
BEING HERE WITHOUT ANY SYSTEM, FRAME, OR PURPOSE
There are many forms of spirituality, some as different from one another as night is from day. And there are many versions of nonduality, some claiming to be the one and only true version. Each of these systems or perspectives on reality offers us a different way of seeing and approaching our moment to moment experience. And we often find ourselves trying to see in accordance with one of these systems, or trying to do what has been suggested.
Some forms of spirituality encourage us to be mindful of whatever is arising—pay attention to bare sensory experiencing (feel the breathing, hear the traffic, see shapes and colors and light, feel sensations throughout the body, etc.), while also noticing thinking whenever it pops up, and learning to see our thoughts without getting swept away by the stories they tell or believing the conclusions they assert—to discover that we are not this voice in our heads, that the thinker (or the self) supposedly authoring our thoughts is a kind of mirage generated by thoughts, mental images and sensations. There is actually no center to experiencing.
Other approaches encourage us to identify ourselves as the open space in which everything is happening, to see that we are the boundless impersonal awareness in which body, mind and world appear and disappear.
Some approaches invite us to discover that there is no boundary between this awaring presence and everything that appears, that it is an undivided, seamless, self-aware happening from which nothing stands apart. We are not some pure awareness standing apart, or some blank screen on which the movie appears, but rather, we ARE this ungraspable flow; there is no “me” (and no separate “awareness”) apart from “just this.” There is nothing to attain and no one to attain it. There is simply this ever-present, ever-changing thusness—with no actual separation.
Many of us have tasted a variety of approaches perhaps including those I just mentioned. And they can all illuminate different aspects or dimensions of this living reality. Nothing wrong with any of them—they are all an activity of this whole happening.
But is it possible to be here right now without any frame at all, without trying to fit present experiencing into any of these models, without trying to “do” anything or get anywhere or make anything special happen, without trying to understand this moment or experience it in any particular way? Simply being. Aware, present, attentive to what’s happening, but with no frame. No overview. No method. No perspective. No goal. No purpose.
Some of you will instantly be tempted to offer an intellectual answer, perhaps based in philosophy or brain science, or even drawn from your own past experience. But is it possible to drop all such conclusions and truly not know? To actually experiment and wonder and not conclude anything?
I’m finding this to be a very rich exploration. Maybe some of you will also find it interesting and alive. And if not, that’s fine too. But either way, see if you can avoid the temptation to put an answer in the comments. See if it’s possible just to explore.
March 9, 2021:
Spirituality, as I mean it, stripped of all the whistles and bells and all the dogmas and beliefs that so often accompany it, is about immediate direct present experiencing here and now. It invites an open exploration of this living reality, a nonconceptual exploration based in awareness rather than in thought. While the intellect may be involved to some degree, spirituality as I mean it is not primarily intellectual, conceptual or thought-based at all. It is experiential, alive, embodied, and impossible to truly capture in any verbal formulations—although verbal formulations may help to point the way. And “the way” is not about attainment or getting somewhere. It is about being awake to (and as) what is, here and now.
In one sense, it is impossible not to be awake to (and as) what is, here and now, because even if we are daydreaming or lost in thoughts or memories, that is simply the momentary shape that “what is” (or boundless presence) is presently taking, and that presence includes awareness to some degree, or else nothing would appear at all. And there is never really a “me” (an author, observer, chooser, thinker, doer) at the center of our experience, even when it seems otherwise. But when attention is hypnotized by the conceptual map-world, we imagine and feel that we are a separate self in an alien universe, beset by all sorts of imaginary problems (and I’m talking here about the psychological problems rooted in that sense of separation). This, too, is simply life doing what it does—and both the imaginary problems and the one who seems to have them are never actually real. But they SEEM real. Which is where things like meditation and meditative exploration can be helpful.
By meditation, I’m not talking about sitting in the lotus position doing something special for an hour while burning incense. I’m talking about simply giving open attention to our actual experience here and now. And by meditative exploration, I don’t mean thought or analysis, but rather, actually paying attention with awareness. It might mean looking for the self we imagine to be thinking our thoughts and making our choices—can this self actually be found? Or it might mean feeling into whether we can actually find a boundary where what we think of as “inside of us” turns into what we think of as “outside of us.” Is there an actual place where one becomes the other? Or it might mean watching as choices and decisions unfold to see how they actually happen—seeing if we can find the imagined chooser, or if we can control when the decisive moment arrives.
Meditation might be simply enjoying whatever appears—the sounds of traffic or rain, the taste of tea, the sensations in the body, the beauty of a flower or a crumpled cigarette package in the gutter. It might be noticing the thoughts that appear—the endless headlines that thought spews out, the stories it spins, the conclusions it asserts, the way it replays the past and plots out the future—seeing how it creates a virtual reality in the mind, a map-world—seeing all this without judgement or resistance.
It’s fairly easy to understand the wholeness and fluidity of life intellectually by reading about quantum physics or ecology or by studying certain philosophers and thinking it through logically. We may know from physics that the table is not really solid even though it seems to be.
And it’s easy to understand intellectually that the map is not the territory, that the word “water” is not water. But we mistake the concept for the actual in countless subtle ways without even realizing it. We think “the body” or “the table” is something real, but if we explore any apparent thing directly and closely, we find it can’t really be pinned down or separated out from everything else.
It’s fairly easy to understand impermanence superficially: we are impermanent beings in a world of impermanent things. That seems obvious enough. But it’s not so easy to understand impermanence more deeply: no-thing ever actually forms or persists to even BE impermanent. But again, if we pay close attention to actual experiencing, this no-thing-ness (that is neither nothing nor something) begins to reveal itself more and more subtly.
It’s one thing to have the belief that there is no self or no free will, and it’s another thing to discover all this directly through paying attention to the living actuality. Belief is always shadowed by doubt. It crumbles under pressure. But there is something right here that is not a “thing,” that doesn’t crumble, and that cannot be doubted. Spirituality is direct discovery, moment to moment—not forever after, not once on a retreat years ago, not someday maybe—but right here, right now. Ever-fresh. Alive!
Ultimately, whether we “do” any of this is not in our hands. Our interests, urges, abilities, talents, choices and so on all arise out of the whole, as a movement of the whole, and they cannot be otherwise in this moment than exactly what they are. But that doesn’t mean we “shouldn’t” meditate or explore. It simply means there is no actual self who can decide to do or not do that. The universe is exploring itself, enjoying itself, discovering its own infinite possibilities.
Response to a comment:
Yes, when we look for the self, all we find is thoughts, sensations, memories, mental images, stories. It's a kind of illusion, useful in some ways for our survival and everyday functioning, but often the source of our suffering and confusion as well. Trying to get rid of the (imaginary) self is a kind of fool's errand--something only the self would try to do--i.e., eliminate itself in order to have a better, higher, more spiritually advanced, more pleasant experience. Instead, simply seeing it for what it is, is enough. There are many moments in any ordinary day when it is absent--you're just washing the dishes or driving the car, no self in the picture at all. But it pops up again, intermittently. No problem really, except when it is, and then it can be investigated and seen through, not once-and-for-all, but now, when it shows up. In some ways, functionally, we do need a sense of location, boundaries, agency, etc. But if you pay attention, I think you'll discover it's not really continuous at all. It's intermittent. And I don't think it's really trying to obscure direct perception--it's just trying to protect the person, to make sense of things, to orient us, to survive basically.
Response to another comment:
I think this word "self" means different things to different people and perhaps in different traditions as well. There's certainly a pattern of energy here that we call the bodymind, but on close inspection, it is in constant exchange with the environment, is made up of and depends upon everything it is apparently not, and is continually changing at every level from the subatomic to the cellular and so on. The bodymind is like a whirlpool or a wave, an activity of the whole, inseparable from the whole. Similarly, there is a so-called personality (certain characteristic patterns of thought and behavior and a kind of flavor or temperament), but again, this is nothing solid that can be pinned down. And there is the functional sense of location, boundaries and so on that is required to survive (e.g., we can distinguish between our hand and the carrot we are cutting up for lunch, we answer to our name, and so on). The more problematic self that people often want to leave behind and that I was referring to as absent in many ordinary moments is the self-image, the conceptual idea of "me" (the supposed thinker of my thoughts, maker of my choices, etc), the "somebody" who is the main character in the story of my life, the one who sometimes feels insulted or abandoned or put down or guilty or proud...the one who is always thinking about itself, defending itself, trying to improve and fix itself, comparing itself to others, and so on. It is the (imaginary) subject of thoughts such as, "I've ruined my life," or "I'm a failure," or "You've ruined my life." That self is not needed to watch a dragonfly, or to see a twig falling into the water, or to watch ripples, or to scurry home in a storm. It may arise in any of those situations, but it isn't needed there at all.
Response to another comment:
If "I am" is simply the sense of presence (aware being), common to all, then it involves no story. But when it becomes "I am Joan," or "I am a writer," it moves into the reified, conceptualized, map-world and shrinks down into something seemingly separate and particular, and then when it slips into "I am a failure" or "I am the greatest," the false-self, the phantom "me" is there in full swing with its endless storylines. What an amazing theater it all is.
Response to another comment:
I would like to suggest first of all that what matters for you is YOUR mind, not anyone else's. And secondly, I'd like to suggest (not just to you, but to all of us) that direct exploration is WAY more valuable than discussing this ad nauseam on FB. And finally, of course not all thinking presumes or centers around the imaginary and problematic aspect of self. "The flowers are coming up early this spring" is but one example. And many thoughts include the "I" in a purely functional way, such as, "I should feed the cat now," or "I'm getting my vaccine on Thursday." But ALL thoughts create a kind of abstract map-world in which there seem to be separate, independent "things." Much of the time, this is functional and unavoidable, but it also generates much if not all of our human confusion and unnecessary suffering.
Response to another comment:
I resonate with everything you say here [about meditation with no intention, purpose or method, with no meditator] except your dismissal of mindfulness towards the end. I'm not a mindfulness teacher myself, but I do think there is a place for meditation as a tool of sorts, and paradoxically, one of the first things they teach people in mindfulness meditation is that it cannot be result-oriented, it must be simply about being present now. And by dropping out of thought into the sensory world, people begin to discover the difference between map and territory. Maybe they even begin to question the sense of self they've had or the belief that they are encapsulated, separate and independent. In the beginning, they may seem to be an observer standing back and observing the flow of life, but perhaps eventually they notice that the observer is a kind of idea or image, and that the observing is without any center--they ARE the flow of life. They may have started meditation as a tool for stress reduction and ended up discovering many things about the nature of reality. We enter where we enter, and things unfold as they do.
People meditate for many different reasons and in many different ways. One person takes it up for stress reduction, another to find a way out of suffering, and another as a way to explore the nature of reality. All can be valid. But yes, in its highest sense (although it isn't really "higher"), there is no technique, no purpose, no idea what meditation even is. The word itself becomes redundant. Meditation is the very nature of awareness. Every moment is meditation, but not as a doing or a strategy of any sort. It is useless, purposeless, without any goal or intention, without a frame.
When I first started practicing Zen long long ago, they gave very minimal instruction, and most of it was about posture. A whole world opened up to me. When I met my main teacher, Toni Packer, a former Zen teacher who had left the tradition behind, there was no method, no technique, no observer standing apart. Later, I encountered many other teachings (Advaita, Kashmir Shavism, Dzogchen, other versions of Buddhism and Zen, even some very practical mindfulness meditation teachings). They all have their place, as I see it. But thanks for sharing your perspective.
Response to another comment:
I went through many similar things myself, chasing the enlightenment others seemed to have, trying to see things as they did through the frames they offered. And it does come down eventually to waking up from all that and simply being. Seeing for oneself. It seems, though, that some of these "pitfalls" along the way are inevitable, at least for most people, and in a real sense, they are often the gate that opens, grist for the mill, in some way essential. In any case, it seems to me that different things help (or hinder) different people. So I find there is no one correct way to communicate this. Thanks for your comment.
March 12, 2021:
Thought loves complexity, trying to work everything out conceptually. But the actuality of this immediate and ever-changing living reality is simple. Imagine for a moment that you are newborn (which actually, moment to moment, you are), and imagine that you have never learned or heard words such as “awareness” or “consciousness” or “mind” or “matter” or “awakening” or “God” or “dualism.” Imagine you are simply here, wordlessly, without any conceptual frames at all for what is happening. What’s here?
Simple presence, here and now, inescapable and obvious (so obvious it may be overlooked by the conceptualizing mind). Open, spacious, inclusive of everything that appears, including the ever-changing sensations and thoughts we label “contraction” or “anxiety,” including both narrow focused attention and expanded unfocused attention, including all of apparent time and space. This vast awaring presence includes it all. And it all shows up right here, right now.
All of it is already allowed to be as it is. And none of what appears has any actual substance, independent existence, or continuity. It SEEMS to, when we think and talk about it, which is the conceptualized map-world of over-simplified, reified abstractions, the world of apparently substantial, independent, persisting “things.” But these are all concepts—concepts that are so ubiquitous that we easily mistake them for reality without noticing that we have done so.
Of course, this map-world is also nothing but this awaring presence showing up as maps and concepts, but the maps are never the living actuality they represent. These maps can be functional and necessary—we can’t get rid of them—but they create illusions such as independently existing separate things. Whereas in reality (in actual experiencing), everything arises in relationship to everything else as one whole indivisible and ever-changing happening, so that nothing can actually be separated out or pinned down. Nothing holds still in reality, except the stillness of presence itself, the immovable “still point” of Here-Now that is timeless and spaceless, in which time and space appear to unfold.
And magically, this apparent happening, this present experiencing, dissolves as soon as it appears. Every moment is fresh and new. We never step into the same river twice, and we are never the same river for even one instant. Our thoughts and memories create the illusion of continuity where none actually exists. And yet here we are, undeniably always right here, right now.
Many words have just been used to point to the living reality. The words are empty of any actual substance. They are like playful nonsense sounds. And so once again, let them all go. Don’t try to make sense of them. Return instead to bare sensation, to simple being, to presence, to what requires no belief and cannot be doubted—being here now. Just this, exactly as it is. Imagine for a moment that you are newborn, that you have never learned or heard words such as “awareness” or “consciousness” or “mind” or “matter” or “awakening” or “presence.” Imagine you are simply here, like a baby, wordlessly, without any conceptual frames at all for what is happening. Allow yourself to be here, if only for a moment, without knowing anything, simply awake to the absolute wonder of it all.
Big storm blowing in,
the Forsythia bushes
and the first trees
in the rain.
Radical Trust (Radical = to the root):
People often confuse or conflate faith and belief. But they are actually quite different. From my perspective, belief is poison in a spiritual or religious context, whereas faith is essential. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, says this about faith:
“Faith is radical trust—trust in life and trust in God…Going forward in faith is not a train ride [where “we just need to board, and then it will bring us to our destination”]; it’s more like walking on water.” (from his book i am through you so i)
Walking on water brings to mind a paragraph from my book DEATH: The End of Self-Improvement, from a part during my cancer journey where I’m in the hospital, having just had a colostomy, knowing that I will soon be starting radiation and chemotherapy:
One of the nurses who attended me was born in the Philippines, and one afternoon we had a long conversation about many things. I told her I feared the pain that would come with the radiation. She told me the way through pain is to keep your focus on Jesus. “That’s where Peter went wrong,” she told me, “on the sea, when he was walking on the water, he took his eyes off Jesus and then he began to sink. You have to keep your attention on Jesus.” I remembered that in the story, Peter had been distracted by the ferocity of the wind and had become afraid and filled with doubt and had lost faith. In my mind, I silently translated “Jesus” into my own language and understanding as Presence, Awareness, Here-Now, God—and perhaps “the wind” is the ever-changing play of thoughts, emotions, circumstances, and also what a friend of mine calls the “doubt app”—that doubting mind that feels separate from life and therefore endangered, the mind that loses faith—not faith in some external thing or some belief system (some golden chain), but faith in what is actually trustworthy—that open, spacious unconditioned aware presence Here-Now. And so I told her I agreed, that was the key, staying focused on Jesus, although not always easy. She nodded. “Not always easy, but that is the way.” (from DEATH: The End of Self-Improvement)
March 22, 2021:
Another poem, composed from fragments in an old journal:
As the rain,
I discovered my love for the pear blossoms,
at touching them.
I could picture myself
smoking a cigar
and dispensing the dharma
from behind a bar
along with the drinks.
Lucky Strikes was my brand
smoke rings rippled infinitely
dissolving into rain
the thrush singing at dawn,
the ocean rolling, waving—
What is consciousness?
What is matter?
Brain waves, neural firings,
the breath made visible
by the smoke,
the sweet inhale and then
white smoke pouring
from each nostril—
the trees dripping with fog,
rose petals scattered on black earth—
a yellow finch on the rusted gate.
Cancer has come and gone
swept through the wild
leaving behind this fierce deep
love of life—
a (gender-agnostic) monk biting their own fingers,
a monk who watches crime thrillers
at night, listens to Arvo Part and Leonard Cohen,
and sometimes Gregorian chants—
who can’t fit into any religion,
a wandering monk, ever unsettled,
always biting, gnawing
brought home by cancer
and pinned to the present place,
just as it is.
Someone said that compassion
is loving the demons, and the
Bodhisattva is listening
to the world.
the breath made visible,
all concepts dissolving
that is beyond the grasp
of all words and concepts,
the primordial emptiness,
before the dark.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021--
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