The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (3/24/21--7/21/21):
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
March 24, 2021:
Meditation: What Is It?
The word meditation is used to mean many very different things. Because of that, I always hesitate to use the word at all. But as I mean it, meditation is nondual, meaning no meditator at the center of it, no observer, no one standing apart from what is. In this kind of meditation, there is no technique, no method, no goal, no intended result, no purpose, no prescribed form. It is marvelously useless, and can happen in any location, in any posture, formally or informally.
In my sense of it, meditation simply means being present here and now. It isn’t about getting into any particular state, getting rid of anything, or having some kind of transformative insight or experience. It accepts everything and clings to nothing. It is the natural activity of awareness.
Meditation might be described as a movement of curiosity and wonder, like a baby exploring the world, or a lover exploring the beloved, a movement in which lover and beloved are not one, not two. Meditation might be described as devotion—not to a guru or a god—but devotion to what is, a kind of unconditional love that allows everything to be just as it is. It might be described as enjoyment of what is, enjoyment of being.
It’s true that it may apparently bring many useful rewards (e.g., clarity about how the mind operates and how suffering happens; calming of the nervous system; direct discovery of the fluid, interdependent, ungraspable and indivisible nature of reality; direct recognition of the boundless Here-Now that is immovable and ever-present; increased ability to be present with unpleasant experiences; and so on), but these are not goals. There is no such thing as “good meditation” and “bad meditation.”
Meditation is open, free, unconstrained. It is nonconceptual, based in sensing and awaring, in simple being, not in thinking and analyzing. Of course, thought may (and almost certainly will) arise, but it is not the primary mode. Meditation invites a dropping away of the grasping-seeking mind and the habitual tendency to dwell in the conceptual map-world, inviting instead a falling open to the nonconceptual actuality of this moment.
Meditation is ultimately not knowing what meditation is. It is fresh and new in every moment.
Response to a comment:
Meditation is the openness that includes contraction and resistance. It's not about always feeling open or being in any particular state of mind or getting rid of anything. If the mind is busy, the body tense, and/or the emotions roiling, then simply be busy mind, tense body, and/or emotional turbulence.
I'd add, beware of believing thoughts such as "This is my current situation." Such thoughts are always over-generalized abstractions and often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
March 29, 2021:
Chasing some idea of awakening or enlightenment is a great way to ignore the living actuality that is presenting itself right NOW, from which “you” are not in any way separate. This present experiencing or awaring presence is obvious and unavoidable. You are not observing it, authoring it, or being pushed around by it. You are inseparable from it, like the waving in the ocean. Being awake right now is nothing mystical or complicated or exotic—it’s THIS, what is, here and now, before you label it, think about it, or try to figure it out and grasp it. It’s the sound of traffic, the bird flitting about in the tree, the taste of tea, colors and shapes and movements, breathing, the sensation of hunger, a conversation with a friend, the check-out line at the grocery store, a pile of dog shit, a good movie, a cup of coffee, a child’s laugher, the caw-caw-caw of the crows, a chocolate truffle, the airplane flying over—just this. The aliveness, the presence, the ungraspable mystery, the unrepeatable wonder that is right here. Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. Inconceivable, impossible to pin down, and yet utterly unavoidable and fully present right now.
April 3, 2021:
red-tailed hawk circling for days,
George Floyd being killed
over and over
from every imaginable angle
in the trial videos.
the officer’s knee on his neck,
the little green leaves unfurling
a rich emerald green
in the store video,
George is bouncing around,
happy and high, totally unaware
that in less than an hour,
he will be dead.
like that poem by Charles Bukowski
that I love, called
“the circus of death,”
where he says,
(speaking of death):
from the beginning, to the middle, to the
there from light to darkness…
consumes names and nations,
squirrels, fleas, hogs,
the bullfighter, the bull and
all those killers in the
it’s the red mark on the black widow.
it’s the mirror without a reflection…
it’s in the eye of the hen…
it’s moving as the sun
as you put your shoes on for the last
the red-tail circling again,
the knee pressing down,
the whole world watching
green leaves unfurling
an ant crossing the pavement
a foot descending
lover and beloved meeting
a gopher sprawled out in the sun
enjoying the spring day
while the man in the store video
is bouncing around, happy as a clam,
that the hawk is about to dive
the mirror about to empty,
that he has put on his shoes
for the last time.
“we’re clearly at the edge,” Bukowski says
could be our last.
the sun rising again
the days getting hotter
announcing the fires
that you know are coming,
the end of the world,
and you know it’s all okay,
the beginning and the end,
the hawk diving,
the shoe descending,
all the countless things
you thought were wrong
and shouldn’t have happened
but they did.
the wounds we carry,
the terrible pain
the unfathomable injustices
and the way it all vanishes
without a trace,
leaving only this traceless
from my April Newsletter to my mailing list:
Spring is bursting forth here in the Northern Hemisphere. Little green leaves are unfurling. The hillsides are greening up. The frogs are chanting, the birds are singing. The crucifixion has morphed into the resurrection. I’ve had my second COVID vaccination, and exciting new possibilities are emerging: having friends into my home again, hugging them, going to a movie theater, seeing a play, eating out, getting some bodywork.
At the same time, paradoxically, I feel myself moving deeper into a form of solitude and quiet that involves pulling back from talking and writing (and reading) about nondual spirituality, activities that have been at the center of my life for at least three decades now.
Talking and writing about nonduality involves explaining, pointing out, and formulating—activities which seem to necessarily engage, at least to some degree, the grasping mind that endeavors to pin things down in order to formulate and convey them clearly and accurately. Writing and talking about nonduality has been a part of how I have explored and clarified things for myself (as well as for others), so it’s been helpful to me in many ways (and apparently also to others). But it has also perpetuated in me the deep-seated need to get a grip, and has been, at times, a way of holding on to the known and pulling back from the openness where there is nothing to grasp.
I’m feeling a deep urge to allow that openness more and more, to fall into nonconceptual, nonverbal, wordless inconceivability. I’ve been turning down more and more invitations to speak or engage in events; there is no sense at present of another book in the works; I’m listening to more music, especially Gregorian chants and work by the minimalist composer Arvo Part. I’m wanting to be less engaged in thinking and conceptualizing and more engaged in the sensory-somatic realm, aware presence, nonconceptual being. And when I do write, I’m finding myself more drawn to the poetry I’ve been playing around with recently (I’ve shared some of these poems on my Facebook pages and on my website Outpouring page blogs). These poems seem to emerge from a different place than my expository writing. They feel freer to play, less tied to particular meaning, less pin-downable, truer in some way to the inexplicable flow of actual experiencing. They emerge from awake presence rather than being about it.
Over many years, since I was quite young, I have read and listened to many spiritual teachers and authors, both in person and through books and recordings. Much of this has been a wonderful supplement to my own direct exploration. But over the years, and especially as time went on, some part of it has felt addictive in nature, stemming from self-doubt. It has been at times a form of grasping, not fully trusting my own direct experiencing or the simplicity of what is, looking to others outside myself and trying to arrive at some kind of final certainty or confidence that they seem to have, and that I seem to lack. At times, I reach for a spiritual book or video in much the same way I once reached for a cigarette or a drink, to fill some emptiness.
I want to face that emptiness more fully, let all the authorities go, even let go (at least for a while) of the whole focus on spirituality and nonduality, and simply be alive as this inexplicable and unresolvable flow of experiencing, without needing to put it into any box or make sense of it so that I can talk or write about it. I want to abide more and more where there are no names or categories for what is.
This is not an entirely new project, but it seems to be calling me in a new and deeper way. I’m wise enough to know that I’ll almost certainly have slips back into the old familiar patterns, so this isn’t in any way about achieving some purified version of myself, dwelling in wordless silence forever after, fully surrendered and dissolved into the Infinite. It’s more a kind of general direction or aspiration, letting go (at least for a while, and to whatever degree I can) of talking and writing and reading about all of this, and opening more fully into simply being. And in the process, finding out what emerges from that.
So you may not be getting another mailing for a while. Then again, you never know. Life is full of surprises. I could begin writing another book tomorrow, or find myself a month from now moved to give talks, hold Zoom retreats and make podcasts. Who knows? If that happens, I’ll let you know. But if you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know why. I may soon be taking a break from my Facebook pages as well. As of now, I am still holding private meetings if people ask for them, and I will still respond to (brief) emails. I have one long-scheduled interview coming up on a podcast later this month. But otherwise, for who knows how long, I’m wandering off into the hills.
Wishing you all a beautiful, healthy and enjoyable spring, or if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, a beautiful, healthy and enjoyable autumn. Until we meet again, with much Love and deep gratitude for all of you,
June 19, 2021:
I’m currently reading a wonderful new collection of writings by Norman Fischer called When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen. Some of these articles were written years ago, some have been revised, some are new, and the collection is newly published. I very highly recommend it. Norman is a Zen priest and a poet, as well as founder and director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, and he’s a favorite of mine.
The piece in his book that I just read was about the stages of monastic life, which could apply more broadly and be about the stages of any life on a spiritual path (i.e., “the human heart on its way to wholeness” in his words). He emphasizes that no stages actually exist and that they can be simultaneous, spiraling, discontinuous, or repetitive in occurrence—rarely a straight line.
He talks about how, if we’ve never actually lived in a monastic community, we tend to idealize it as a place of calm, peace and tranquility—free from the problems of worldly life. And he suggests that maybe we have this fantasy because deep down all of us have a kind of inner monk—someone who “aspires to live, imagines it is possible to live—a true and perfect human life.” This may be a helpful and necessary aspiration, he says, but of course we never arrive (or stay for very long) at any such pure perfection. And when you actually live in a monastic community, you soon find that out. The stages that Norman identifies include the honeymoon, disappointment or betrayal, commitment, and letting go. And again, this can all apply more broadly to any spiritual or life journey.
I know this aspiration very well and this recurring inner monk who longs for purity and perfection, for a life where I am no longer assailed by anger, depression, sadness, loneliness, boredom, restlessness, compulsive behaviors, wasted time, foolish actions, and so on—a life where I am deeply equanimous, always fully present, full of love and joy—where my house is always clean and tidy, I go to bed at a reasonable hour every night, I cook and eat only the most nutritious foods, I never leave snarky defensive comments on Facebook or say hurtful things to people, I am always generous, kind, flexible and never judgmental. Of course, by my age, I know this is a fantasy, but it still persists in some deep way. As Norman points out, the aspiration to do better is not a bad thing, but the mistake is in projecting it “out there” into the future and expecting some lasting perfection.
Take my recent break from Facebook, and from writing and reading and watching videos or listening to talks about spirituality. In my imagination, this break was going to be very pure and clean. In reality, it wasn’t. I did, in fact, write a few pages now and then, and I did read and listen to and watch a few things—not as much as usual, for sure, actually very little, but my abstinence wasn’t perfect. And that seemed to be okay. And of course, my life was as messy as ever!
This fantasy of perfection, and this projecting it out into an imaginary future, somewhere else other than right here, is one that recurs in my life. In the beginning, decades ago, I wasn’t even aware I was doing this. Once I SAW it, I realized that it occupied a major portion of my time and energy. Once it had been noticed, the light of awareness began to erode it very slowly, but never with any absolute finality. Yes, it happens much less often than it did years ago, and I tend to wake up from it much more quickly, but it still happens, and sometimes I do get quite seduced and hypnotized by it before I see it and come to my senses once again.
For example, I recently found myself feeling down, thinking my life is a mess, and then next thing I knew, I was thinking about how maybe I should ordain as a Zen Buddhist priest after all and commit myself to a single practice in a single place—maybe this or that Zen Center. Maybe THAT would fix things! And off I went into imagining this. Until I woke up to what I was doing, and remembered that I don’t want to be a Zen Buddhist in any formal way like that, that this fantasy is completely absurd. But in the light of Norman’s article, I could see that it was a fantasy of purity and perfection—of finally being settled, at peace, totally present, utterly awake, deeply happy, with all my imperfections and unsavory tendencies gone. And SEEING that, I wake up once again (now) to the fact that the only reality is NOW.
JUST THIS! Right here. Right now. Whatever I imagine I’d be like as a Zen priest (more attentive, more focused, more present, more helpful, more disciplined, whatever it is), instead of imagining all that in some future scenario somewhere else, be that now! Postponement is illusion. As another Zen teacher (Cheri Huber) once said, if you think you’d be happier with a new car, skip the car and just be happier. Or in my case, skip the priest ordination and just be a priest (i.e., BE attentive, focused, present, helpful, etc.) without the title or the robes, not tomorrow or somewhere else, but right here, right now.
Awakening, devotion, enlightenment, liberation, the pathless path is always about THIS very moment, and THIS very life, just as it is, right now, not some imagined future where everything is finally smoothed out and purified at last. Possibly there is such a moment, and they call it death. But life is not dead. Life is messy. Human beings are messy. Consciousness is messy! Being a Zen priest is messy. And gradually, we become more at peace with how it is, with things being messy, which means that sometimes I’m not at peace, or I’m not disciplined or focused or helpful, and that’s okay, even when it doesn’t feel okay.
In the introduction to his book, Norman describes himself as a “person who has never been stable, sensible, or coherent, but has rather (like any of us, if we were to notice closely enough!) been in constant flux, shift, and burble: a changeable if discernable (to others, if not to himself) shape defining an empty space.”
When I actually come back (or wake up) to JUST THIS, everything changes. But it doesn’t change forever after. There is no forever after. There’s only NOW.
Response to a comment:
Yes, age does bring wisdom and insight, but also, at least in my own case (and I admit, I'm a very slow learner), it does not bring us to that imagined place where everything is perfectly resolved, all our imperfections and follies have been completely erased, and we are free at last from all traces of depression, anxiety, obsession or worry. Anyone who has read my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, published when I was in my late 40s (back in 1996), will recognize the delightful absurdity of this Zen priest fantasy and the fact that, even now, in my 70s, it can still pop up! Amazing! Apparently “waking up from the story of my life” isn’t something I finish doing, but something that happens NOW (again and again). Luckily, I have a sense of humor, which I think is a vital ingredient on the pathless path.
June 24, 2021:
This is from my first book, BARE-BONES MEDITATION: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, and Toni is my friend and teacher Toni Packer:
Toni urged me to go deeply into listening itself. Just listen, she said. Don't try to hold on to the things heard or seen, but instantly allow the next perception. Don't stop to analyze, or go back over them, or try to figure them out or clarify them. Just go on. Listening, holding on to nothing. Allow listening itself to unfold without interference of any kind.
… All the questions that arise, if I trace them back, arise from thought. Thought conjures up imaginary problems and then tries to solve them. It is all a form of postponement. The truth is exactly now. Immediate. Simple.
“There's nothing to get to the bottom of," Toni said. "Just one bottomless moment."
--from BARE-BONES MEDITATION: Waking Up from the Story of My Life
June 26, 2021
What is Nonduality?
I recently heard someone explaining why he thinks nonduality is nonsense. But what this person meant by nonduality wasn’t what I mean. And if you were to ask any number of writers, teachers, or speakers who use the term to describe their own perspective what they each mean by “nonduality,” you’d undoubtedly get a bunch of very different definitions, some of which would probably be quite contradictory. So, as with all words, and especially words like “nonduality” that have no clear and obvious referent, it’s important to understand what a particular person means when they use this word.
To me, nonduality means wholeness, and wholeness is not uniformity. Right now, in present experience, there are infinitely varied, ever-changing qualities of experience—different colors, shapes, textures, sounds, aromas, tactile and somatic sensations, tastes—and there are apparently separate and distinct forms (me and you, dogs and cats, tables and chairs, hearts and brains, planets and stars), each vividly and uniquely itself, and we don’t confuse them with each other or mix them up. There are also different dimensions of experience, from the relative world of personal relationships and everyday practical life to the subtlest realms encountered in meditation or yoga. But ALL of this infinite variation is appearing as one whole picture, one whole movie, one whole field of experience, one whole undivided happening. And the closer we look, the more we discover that the boundaries between apparently separate forms don’t actually exist, and the forms themselves are never really solid or persisting. None of them can be pulled out of the whole. In our actual experience, THIS is an infinitely varied seamless whole that never departs from Here-Now.
The One Self (the Totality or the single “I” to which we all refer beyond name and form—aware presence, aliveness, emptiness, intelligence-energy, no-thing-ness appearing as everything) is boundless and inconceivable. It cannot be pinned down or objectified. It is nondual in the sense that it includes everything, and also in the sense that opposite polarities in the manifestation go together and only exist relative to each other—they are not separate or opposing forces in which one side can or should defeat the other.
Nonduality thus includes (and transcends) apparent duality. Nonduality recognizes oneness and multiplicity, form and emptiness, relative and absolute, individuality and unicity, personal and impersonal, light and dark, good and evil, joy and sorrow, the (inevitably dualistic) maps and the (always nondual) territory as indivisible aspects, or ways of seeing, one reality. Nonduality doesn’t get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide (e.g., self or no-self, mind or matter, free will or determinism, powerlessness or responsibility, practice or no practice, it is or it isn’t). Nonduality might be described as “not one, not two,” or in the words of Zen Master Dogen, “leaping clear of the many and the one.” It might be called groundlessness.
“Nonduality” is, of course, a word, a conceptual idea, but it points to the nature of reality itself. It points to something that cannot actually be conceptualized! It points to THIS, right here, right now, just as it is!
The thoughts and ideas ABOUT this are always dualistic, but THIS is nondual. In other words, the maps of THIS are always in some way dualistic, but THIS (the territory itself) is nondual. Of course, mapping is something the territory is doing, and THIS includes thoughts and ideas and maps as happenings, appearances or waves of energy, but without mistaking the content of them for the actuality they claim to describe or re-present.
Getting lost in philosophy and metaphysics and trying to think our way to clarity and peace is not, in my experience, what liberates us from our imaginary bondage. What liberates us is direct insight here and now, open attention to the bare actuality of what is, prior to all the words and explanations about it—relaxing into the simplicity of just this, allowing the thought-created confusion to melt away naturally in the light of simple awareness.
These words are only pointers or maps. The juice is in the aliveness itself, and that cannot be truly captured by any words or concepts. Words can only suggest, point out, or invite the recognition of nondual actuality. Here’s a big clue: it’s always NOW, always right HERE, simple and obvious and never really absent. It’s not something in particular (this, but not that). And it’s not nothing. It’s this inexplicable aliveness—the astonishing presence and marvelously freeing no-thing-ness of everything.
Nonduality is not a philosophy. It’s the sounds of traffic and the taste of tea, the fragrance of blossoms and the smell of garbage, colors and shapes and movement—breathing, heart-beating, sensing awaring thinking feeling being – ever-present, ever-changing – not one, not two – just this.
July 3, 2021
Periodically, I experience mind attacks. Maybe this happens to some of you, too! Thoughts bubble up and throw out doubts, perplexing philosophical conundrums, and/or stories such as, “I am not totally free yet.”
That very thought (“I am not totally free yet”) brings into imaginary existence time (past and future) and the “me,” the apparently deficient person who seemingly isn’t free, who needs to figure out whatever imaginary problem it is currently chewing on, get to the bottom of it, find the Magic Key, and then…PRESTO!...finally, in that glorious future moment, “I” will be permanently, completely, totally, magnificently free at last, never again confused or muddled up.
These are, of course, all thoughts about thoughts about thoughts, and after we’ve been at this for a while, we do know that. But this gets subtle because the “knowledge” that “these are all thoughts about thoughts about thoughts” can be just another thought, which is different from a moment of direct insight or SEEING.
In my first book, I described one of the most important exchanges I ever had with Toni Packer. I told Toni that I was in despair because I SAW these old habits of mind, these mind attacks, these obsessions and compulsions, but they just kept coming back, year after year. Why weren’t they gone for good—totally finished?
"Here's where you have to be really discerning," Toni replied. "When you say that you see them, is it really seeing, or is it thinking? Thinking about how long they've persisted, how it's never going to end, how it's hopeless, wanting to know how to fix it. That isn't seeing. That's thinking."
That’s a crucial distinction. Awareness is what reveals and transforms; thought creates the muddles and the imaginary problems. But even when we’ve realized this, it’s one thing to remember it (as another bit of accumulated knowledge) and quite another thing to actually SEE through thinking in the moment and BE free of its snarls.
There seems to be an addictive habit of picking up the imaginary problems again and again and becoming mesmerized and gripped by them. Maybe it feels safer to identify as “little old confused me” with my old familiar problem, rather than relaxing into the inconceivable and ungraspable boundlessness of presence-awareness and nonconceptual experiencing.
And when that imaginary problem, that mind attack, gets going, the whole body hums along, and the ensuing tension in the body, that contracted energy and feeling of unease, seems to confirm the story that, “I am not totally free yet.”
Over the years, I’ve watched myself take my imaginary problem to one teacher after another, like a precious bundle, placing it at their feet, hoping for salvation. But the truth is, I know all the answers—after all, I dispense them—and I long ago discovered the Magic Key.
When thought falls away and there is simple presence, the problem dissolves. Thought may instantly bring it back by saying, “Yes, but, this keeps happening—why won’t it stop forever?”. But the only forever is NOW. It always boils down to NOW.
We can only be free NOW. That is the Magic Key.
In all of our seeking, what are we really seeking? Doesn’t it come down to peace of mind? Wanting to finally be able to relax and just BE? It’s as if we are pinching ourselves, and the solution is so simple—just stop pinching. Not forever after, but NOW.
How? Well, how do we stop pinching ourselves? First, we must notice that we ARE pinching ourselves, that this is something we are doing. We notice that it hurts, but that in some way, it is compelling. We get curious about it. We notice that willpower doesn’t work—we can’t make ourselves stop on command. Resisting this habit of pinching ourselves, thinking about it, taking it personally as our personal failure—that all makes it worse. We notice all this. We discover that by simply allowing it to be as it is, not resisting it, not trying to banish it, but simply giving it open nonjudgmental attention, BEING the space in which it happens, it gradually releases by itself. We even notice that it doesn’t need to release—that the space is free either way, and that both contraction and expansion are simply momentary appearances in this undivided happening, impersonal events like weather.
So, when we’re caught up in a mind attack, maybe it’s possible to shift attention from thinking to the nonconceptual simplicity of what is (sensations, awareness, presence). Feel the tension in body as pure sensation or energy, without a storyline or a label, without needing it to go away, without judging it. Feel into the spaciousness of the awareness being and beholding it all. Notice that presence-awareness is unbound, un-encapsulated, free—and that it is here regardless of whether there is tension or no tension, doubts or no doubts, thoughts or no thoughts, pinching or no pinching.
Some people say they never experience mind attacks or doubts or seeking in any form anymore. Maybe they are kidding themselves or simply not noticing, or maybe it’s true. But who cares? Only the little “me” cares about how “I” compare to “others.”
No matter how many times these things recur, the only time that matters is NOW. The only forever is NOW. The only time we can be free is NOW. And that freedom is always already right here.
Thinking about it won’t help. And, as with learning to swim or ride a bicycle, no one can tell us how to do this shift. We have to feel our way into it ourselves. Words like those offered here may be helpful pointers, but they can only offer clues. Everyone must liberate themselves (if I can get away with saying that, because language is never quite right, and it’s not really a doing, it’s more like a discovery or a recognition or a waking up or a letting go, and there’s really no one doing that and no distance to travel—the problem and the one who has it are both imaginary).
Freedom is already present—the freedom for everything to be just as it is. So enjoy the dance, with all its wild twist and turns, pleasant and unpleasant.
July 4, 2021
Knowing, Knowledge, and BEING:
There are two very different kinds of knowing. One knowing is direct, immediate, and absolutely impossible to doubt; the other is second-hand, once-removed, abstract, conceptual and always subject to doubt. Both are valuable, but in very different ways.
The first kind is direct knowing, by which I mean this immediate awaring, sensing, experiencing, perceiving, being—here and now—the undoubtable knowingness that aware presence is undeniably here, and something is undeniably appearing (not those words I just used to point to THIS, but the nonconceptual actuality itself). The actuality is impossible to doubt. We can doubt what this is, but not that it is. For example, I can doubt whether the object you appear to be holding is a gun, a phone, an avocado, an optical illusion, a hallucination, a shadow, or a floater on my eyeball—but I cannot doubt the bare suchness or presence of that shape.
What can be doubted are the beliefs and ideas we have about this bare actuality, the labels, explanations and conclusions, the ways we conceptualize it, the stories we tell about it. And that’s the second kind of knowing, the kind that makes up our knowledge about ourselves and the world.
This second kind of knowing is indirect and thought-based. It deals in abstractions, concepts, formulations, ideas and beliefs. It isolates and draws conceptual lines around bits of seamless movement and freezes them into apparently separate, discrete, independent, persisting “things.” It identifies itself as “me,” an encapsulated somebody in a fractured world.
In the naming of things, the words create (in the imagination) the apparently separate and persisting “things” they name by pulling them out of the ever-changing, ever-present seamless whole and solidifying them. And because we so easily mistake the word for the actuality, the things being named all seem to have some kind of enduring form and independent existence. But all such formed and named “things” are conceptual in that sense. They only exist as mental ideas (and then, to some degree, as conditioned perceptions if we don’t look too closely at the difference between what we actually see and what we have learned to think we see). We easily lose sight of the fact that all of this is an abstract map and not our actual, immediate experience. We mistake the map for the territory without even realizing we’ve done so. And none of our conceptual maps (cause and effect or random chaos, free will or determinism, self or absence of self, emptiness or Oneness, materialism or idealism, Buddhism or Advaita) can ever capture or truly re-present the living territory.
Of course, maps, concepts and abstract ideas are useful and necessary. They have gotten us to the moon and to the top of the food chain, they have created great art, but they have also gotten us into a great deal of suffering and confusion. The key is in being able to discern the difference between map and territory and not mistaking a map (a word, a concept) for what it claims to re-present. That sounds obvious, but many of our conceptual ideas are so ubiquitous and deeply engrained that we mistake the map for the territory all the time without realizing we have done so—and discerning the difference gets subtler and subtler.
Science handles second-hand knowledge in the best possible way, with the scientific method, where hypothesis must be tested and theories can always be questioned and disproven. There is so much we don’t know and can never know about the vast totality. Science now tells us that about 96% of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy. Science recognizes that it has blind spots and limitations. Its theories can change and evolve. Everything is open to re-examination and correction.
Much of organized religion, on the other hand, handles this indirect, second way of knowing in the worst possible way, with supposedly infallible beliefs and ideologies that cannot be questioned or changed. It admits to no blind spots. We all know the resulting horrors of fundamentalism, religious dogma, crusades, witch burnings, so-called holy wars, and so on—religion at its worst and most dangerous.
But as I see it, true religion or spirituality—that which is actually at the very heart of all the traditions, that which the mystics have always recognized, and that which interests me—is never about beliefs. Instead, it is about the first kind of knowing, the direct and immediate kind. It points us to Here-Now, to what is most intimate, closer than close, and to the nondual wholeness that includes everything. It recognizes that opposite polarities go together and only exist relative to each other—they are not separate forces in which one can or should defeat the other—they are simply conceptual distinctions and divisions with no actual independent existence. True religion or spirituality is about falling open into groundlessness, abiding nowhere, BEING Here-Now.
Response to a comment from Zen teacher Barry Magid:
Thanks for your comment. I’m with you on everything (thoughts and doubts included) being a manifestation of the Absolute, and also on the impossibility of a life without pain and painful circumstances. And I’m with you on the suffering created by curative fantasies.
But as I see it, “vulnerable interconnection” and “being mortal” are only half the truth—the relative, everyday dimension of reality—the way it is often experienced, which I certainly don’t dismiss or deny. But equally true, I would say, is the dimension of wholeness (which is not to be confused with some notion of individual autonomy), and in which there is nothing separate to die.
In my experience, freedom is very real—but it doesn’t mean freedom from pain and painful circumstances. It doesn’t mean the elbow can bend backwards without breaking. It doesn’t mean doubts or difficult emotions never again arise. It means being at peace with how it is and seeing it in a bigger context (i.e., not from the viewpoint of separation and individual existence). It means not being hypnotized by the thought-stories and mistaking them for reality itself.
As I tried to express in the post, in my experience, freedom is not something to search or hope for, as in a future attainment, nor is it “forever after.” It is always only here and now. And in freedom, as I mean it, there is no “me” who is now a “free me.”
Response to another comment:
My background and approach has always been quite eclectic, and I feel everyone has a unique path—no single right way. I’ve been in psychotherapy several times in my life, including within the last decade for several years, and it saved my life and helped me sober up from near fatal alcohol addiction back in 1973-74. Back then, hearing Toni Packer or someone like Nisargadatta would probably have been meaningless to me given where I was at then, and wouldn’t have resulted in my sobering up. I’ve also found somatic work such as Feldenkrais very helpful. As was studying martial arts. As was feminism, LGBT liberation and being part of the disability rights movement. As were friendships, animal companions, lovers, and even (apparent) “enemies.” The barrier is often the gate, as they say in Zen. Even having cancer was helpful! Many things!!! Human beings are very complex organisms, as I see it, and many different things can “go wrong,” so to speak. I don’t believe there is anything that solves all problems for everyone all the time. We all seem to find what we need, and for most of us, it is a combination of things. And I offer what has been helpful or liberating for me, and some people seem to find that it resonates and others don’t—all of which is totally fine and appropriate. And I think you do the same with what has moved you.
July 9, 2021:
Every time I’ve gone under anesthesia, I can feel myself going under—I can feel the knowingness of being aware and present slipping away – and each time, I’ve said out loud, “Here I go…” And then the lights are out and there is no one there who knows the lights are out.
We might wonder who is the “I” and where does “I” go?
In deep sleep or under anesthesia, what has often been called the I AM (the knowingness of being aware and present) and all of present experiencing disappear into the no-knowing germinal dark, the pure potentiality, the absence of presence and the absence of absence. Consciousness returns to zero. No experiencing remains, nothing perceivable or conceivable, not even the first bare sense of being aware and present. This is the germinal dark from which the radiance of presence, the light of awareness, and the movies of dreaming and waking life all emerge and to which they return.
In the brightness, consciousness meets itself everywhere—in the imaginary world of dreams and in the equally imaginary world of waking life—in the blossoming trees and the taste of tea, the sounds of rain and the screech of tires, the gaze of an infant and the last out-breath of a dying man.
In waking life, I AM everywhere and everything, including being a particular person in the Great Play of Life as well as the boundless awareness beholding the person. And ALL of this is the roiling wave-play on the surface of the ocean, while deep down, the I AM vanishes again and again into zero, the silent dark womb of creation.
This zero is most intimate, closer than close. It is what Here-Now IS. And from this zero, arises a dazzling play of appearances in which no-thing-ness dances as everything. The pure potential is unfolding, exploring, discovering, revealing and delighting in itself. It is a beautiful play, even in the painful parts that perfectly balance the happy parts, and that contrast between light and dark, along with the challenges and adventures posed by the whole show, are essential to the appearance and to the beauty itself. Everything is included. Everything belongs.
And all of it is gone in the same instant that it appears—the entire past, even the last nanosecond, has vanished into thin air. And the more closely we look at anything that appears, the more it opens infinitely into unresolvable, ever-changing, ever-new appearances dissolving moment by moment, and every night the whole show vanishes into that primordial darkness in which everything is erased. And yet, what remains—what is always present—is totally alive. It is here now. We might call it energy, intelligence or pure potential, but these are all words for what cannot be named or known—the unknowable, the ungraspable.
Response to a comment:
After my surgery in late 2017, my surgeon told me the next day that he and I had talked in the recovery room. I had (and still have) no memory of this conversation, or of the recovery room, or of the trip from there to my hospital room. My first memory is a nurse in my room asking me if I’d like a popsicle. Yet obviously I was conscious and talking to people during this entire gap in memory. Perhaps there is simply no memory of being conscious during surgery or deep sleep, since in both cases, some level of consciousness is obviously present (otherwise, for example, we wouldn't wake up if we smell smoke or hear an alarm). I notice that all the questions we have about starting points and so on only arise in conscious experiencing—in the dreaming or waking states.
A favorite quote from Zen teacher Steve Hagen: “When we fancy ourselves to be a particular thing with a name, we see ourselves as we would a cork in a stream. What we do not realize is that there is only stream. What we fancy as particular is, from the first, only movement, change and flow…It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.”
Response to another comment:
I quite agree! Everything we say is really just gobbledygook. It explains nothing, and there is truly nothing to explain. However, thinking and speaking and spewing forth gobbledygook seems to be something the universe is helplessly, compulsively, automatically doing. Even to call it gobbledygook is saying too much, for no word can capture whatever this is. Still, words can sometimes, like the hands of a bodyworker, bring attention to a place or a dimension in experiencing that is interesting (or enjoyable, or freeing), but alas, at times words simply create more confusion. Such is life.
Response to another comment:
I’m not sure awareness goes anywhere, in the sense of going to a different location. It seems to me that it sinks from apparent form and experiencing into apparent formlessness and non-experience, from knowing to not knowing—as from dreaming into deep sleep. But something (that is not something) surely remains, even if it is only the potential to burst forth again, and ultimately, as I see it, ALL of it is a seamless wholeness with many apparently different dimensions.
Response to another comment:
Actually, I never intend to be thought provoking. If my writing serves any purpose, it is to maybe (if only for a moment) stop the thinking mind in its tracks, to wake up this unfathomable presence to what cannot be thought.
Response to another comment:
Whatever we’re talking about here cannot be grasped or resolved into any word-concept-ideology-frame.
Response to another comment:
Obviously, I cannot speak for any of them. I've heard and read many people say they are aware during deep sleep--which means they are having some experience, however subtle, that they know and can remember and report--some bare SENSE of awareness and presence. I wonder, and I don't think there is any way to determine, whether this is actually a form of dreaming. The ultimate spiritual dream maybe! Or, maybe it is a very profound level of subtle experiencing. Either way, it doesn't matter to me. Clearly it is possible for any SENSE of being present and aware to disappear, so all I'm pointing out is that even this (the I AM) is a transient experience.
But importantly, I notice that all the questions we have about all of this, and all our explanations, only arise in conscious experiencing—in the dreaming or waking states. In deep sleep, the one who cares is absent.
Response to another comment:
Obviously, I don't know why you have “fantastical dreams” under anesthesia. But I would imagine that as consciousness swims back up from something resembling deep dreamless sleep, on its way back to the waking state (or waking dream), possibly it sometimes passes through a state of vivid dreaming (maybe this is what so-called near-death experiences actually are). Some people have experiences during surgery of floating over the operating table, and that experience can be produced apparently by touching certain areas of the brain with a probe. Many mysteries, but mysterious only when we try to think about it all, define it, explain it, and package it up. The actuality simply IS as it is--simple and obvious, but impossible to grasp.
Response to another comment:
The knowingness that I AM comes and goes. And this nothingness isn’t dead; it’s alive. It simply can’t be captured as experience, for it is subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable. It is the no-thing-ness of everything, the aliveness of everything, the infinite potentiality that is here now.
Response to a comment:
I find the scientific perspective very interesting, and what you suggest seems very plausible, but at the same time, the point of this, as far as I’m concerned anyway, isn’t to find some scientific explanation or metaphysical certainty about how the universe works, or what happens in deep sleep or after death, but rather, to discover this dimension of no-thing-ness here and now, in this moment. Not that it’s some-THING that “we” can find and experience, but rather, it’s what we are, what IS.
July 11, 2021:
ALL of this is a seamless whole with infinite holographic or fractal dimensions — e.g., subatomic, quantum, cellular, energetic, waking life, dreaming, deep sleep, imagination, daydreaming, movies and novels, the everyday world of relationships, jobs, politics and so on, formless presence, pure sensation, awareness, consciousness, thought, science, religion, billions of unique human perspectives, cow experience, ant experience, dog experience, octopus experience, and so on and on — the infinite jewels in Indra’s net, each only a reflection of all the others. But those are all words, labels, abstract conceptual categories. The actuality simply IS. We try to pin it down, wrap it up, get to the bottom of it, get it "right," and "it" (or more accurately, it-less-ness) slips through our fingers like smoke. THIS never coalesces or resolves into anything that can be grasped or pinned down. It is without beginning, end or middle. And yet, of course, apparent birth and death, as well as thinking, speaking, writing, categorizing, conceptualizing and labeling are all simply movements, appearances, holographic dimensions of this indivisible whole. Nothing is left out. THIS never departs from itself, and wherever it goes, Here it always IS. Just THIS. Here-Now. Exactly as it is! But how is it? It-less-ness can’t be caught in the net of words and thoughts, and yet, it is obvious and unavoidable, impossible to deviate from, for we ARE it, and this present experiencing, just as it is, is always it (or more accurately, is always it-less).
July 14, 2021:
The more we try to fix the imaginary problem of being unenlightened, the worse it seems to get, and the more convinced we become that there really IS a problem and an actual somebody who has this problem.
What exactly are we seeking? This is worth examining, not by thinking about it, but by looking to see, as it happens.
Usually, we want a better experience, a different state of mind, something we’ve read about or heard someone else describe, and maybe we want to be a special somebody who has gotten to the very top of the spiritual ladder.
So we chase after the fantasy of this imagined better future experience and/or this enlightened future me in all the myriad ways we do. SEEING how we do this is crucial, and SEEING is not thinking. Seeing is awaring, paying attention in the moment as this whole chase happens, SEEING exactly how we are doing it.
Waking up can only happen NOW, not a minute from now or next month. And what waking up realizes is here right now, fully present, fully available, not hidden in any way. It only SEEMS hidden or absent because attention is absorbed in both the story of “me” who is seemingly lacking something and the imagined solution that promises the desired result in the future. We are racing around and around on the mental hamster wheel desperately chasing the always-just-out-of-reach imaginary carrot. And although this is ALL just imagination, the whole body hums along, tensing and contracting, and this tension seems to validate the story that, “This isn’t it—this isn’t how I would feel if I were enlightened.”
What to do? Step off the hamster wheel. How? By simply relaxing, opening, letting go – BEING just this moment (hearing, seeing, breathing, awaring, being this present experiencing, just as it is). Not thinking about it, but simply BEING just this. As with falling asleep, we can’t exactly DO waking up. We can only allow it to happen, and in the case of waking up, by SEEING how this apparent problem, and the one who seems to have it, are ALL being created by thought and imagination. The seeing has its own action.
When the imagination ceases, THIS is clear and obvious. In simply being present and aware, being here as present experiencing, which is effortlessly always already the case, it becomes clear that the “me” who seems to be lacking, the “me” who hopes to become enlightened, and the future in which this might happen are ALL nothing but ideas, mental images, passing sensations, stories. This “self” who seems to be at the center of “my” life cannot actually be found. It has no actual substance, no actual existence. And the imagined enlightenment is also nothing but an idea. I’m not saying there is no enlightenment (or that there is). But what that word points to is never in the future or the past, nor is it a particular experience, nor is it something that somebody has.
And it’s usually best to drop the word and simply wake up NOW. And Now is neither forever nor a moment away.
July 17, 2021:
One of the things I most deeply appreciated about my friend and teacher Toni Packer was her willingness to look freshly, to question everything, to “start from scratch” as she would say, rather than regurgitating past conclusions. I loved the way she would welcome and invite and enjoy that kind of open questioning and exploring, that way of not knowing. Instead of asserting that she had The Final Answer to How the Universe Works and What This Is, as so many teachers seem to do, Toni would look and listen freshly—right now, in THIS moment—open to seeing something new and unexpected. She would tell us that anything she said could be questioned and/or taken further, that none of it was to be regarded as the word of some infallible authority. She often asked questions rather than making statements, leaving the listener in that placeless place of open wondering. She came to a conversation from listening presence and not from thought and belief. Instead of giving us something to hold onto, she left us with nothing. And that was the greatest of gifts.
July 21, 2021:
Response to an email question I received:
As you say, Presence / Awareness / Unicity is never absent, so what is this “I” that feels outside of it and that wants to abide in it? It’s the false self, is it not? The mental image, the thought-story of the separate little “me” and the whole story of future time.
But what is seeing that? What is aware of that?
Is THAT awareness lacking anything? Is it limited in any way?
In any moment you can stop and check and notice that awareness is present, that it is what “I” actually most fundamentally IS prior to all the learned ideas that have been added on about the little me (gender, race, age, nationality, personality type, career, life story, evaluations of success or failure, comparison to others, etc etc).
Even that mental image and what we call delusion and confusion is a movement of unicity, a dance of consciousness, is it not? What else is there?
Don’t take any of this as belief, but look and see—feel into it—again and again (NOW) whenever this thought-sense-story of deficiency arises.
You can’t make yourself fall in love with presence or awareness, you can only allow it to happen. Trying to fall in love is a fool’s errand. Thinking you’re not in love doesn’t help. Awareness IS love!
Simply notice what brings joy, peace, freedom, happiness and what brings uneasiness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and a sense of being bound or deficient. The direct seeing (or awaring) of all this as it arises is what transforms it, not willful effort or thinking about it. The heart naturally loves its home ground.
Responses to a comment on that:
Right. There is no actual false “I”. It's a kind of mirage generated by thoughts, mental images, memories, stories, sensations, etc.
But regarding the unreality of the false self, it's important to understand what is meant by this illusory false self. There is undeniably something here (some pattern of energy, like a whirlpool or a wave) that we call Derek and something else that we call Joan -- and there is a relative reality, in terms of the person, to such things as gender, age, race, nationality, personality characteristics, and so on. But the more closely we look for any of these things, the more elusive they seem. They are conceptual categories, not actual reality. And while there is a necessary functional sense of identity as this particular body, location, etc., the "me" who seems to be inside the head calling the shots, authoring the thoughts, making the choices, etc. is the illusion. It's never actually there.
One of the points I emphasize over and over in my books, talks and other writings is that the map is not the territory and the word is not that to which it supposedly refers. In fact, words create (in the imagination) the "things" they label by abstracting, isolating out, and reifying bits of an unresolvable, ungraspable seamless flux. So yes, this is a very important realization.
Regarding words, this is from a post of mine back on January 17 of 2020. It begins with two quotes, one from myself, one from John Tarrant, then the beginning of my text:
Words, like the hands of a skilled bodyworker, can draw your attention to something previously unseen or overlooked. Something is illuminated, touched, revealed by the word as by the touch of the bodyworker—awareness floods the area, light comes into the previously darkened room, a flame is ignited in the heart.
--Joan Tollifson, from Death: The End of Self-Improvement
To name is to bring an attitude of wonder to the work of sorting, and even to the work of dealing with difficult states of mind. When we can name what is happening to us, we are no longer wholly identified with it and have begun to separate from the grasping dark. If what we feel is known and named to be a tiger, then the whole world is not tiger.
I write and talk a great deal about the problematic aspects of naming things, the map not being the territory, the label not being the thing itself. But of course, as a writer, I also love words and deeply appreciate their value. It was, after all, when Helen Keller grokked the word “water” that the whole world opened up to her. And on several occasions, I have found a label very liberating.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 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