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Blog #12

The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page (7/23/21--9/13/21) :

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

July 23, 2021:

Devotion: The Homing Instinct of the Heart

The pathless path of being liberated on the spot might be described as a path of devotion. I mean devotion to presence, to awareness, to Here-Now, to the aliveness of Just This (the sound of the airplane, the breathing, the warm breeze on the skin, the taste of tea). Devotion is a form of love, enjoying what is, like a lover exploring the beloved or a child exploring the world with infinite curiosity and wonder—ardent, attentive and alert in a relaxed and open way.

We fall in love with presence itself, with being present as this unbound, formless awareness that we are, beholding it all with infinite love. Beholding is a beautiful word: being and holding simultaneously. Effortlessly abiding nowhere. Holding on to nothing. Open. Fully present. Simply BEING. Just This.

Of course, there is ONLY the all-inclusive vastness of Here-Now, and there is actually no separate little “me” who can leave this aware presence—but in order to realize that, not just as a nice belief, but as an embodied experiential lived reality, there needs to be a shift from being lost in thought and feeling like a separate, encapsulated little “me,” to being awake as boundless aware presence. This is not a one-time shift, but a shift that happens again and again, always NOW.

Over apparent time, there is a seeing through (again and again) of the false, and a direct discovery (in the moment) of how our suffering happens, where it leads when we follow certain thoughts, and how the “me” supposedly at the center of it all can’t actually be found. This discovery is not a mental process of thinking and analyzing, but rather, it’s about seeing (or awaring) in the moment.

As this clarifying happens, habitual patterns of suffering and confusion begin to lose their allure and their grip, and there is an increasing ability to come back (or wake up) to the simplicity of right here, right now. We wake up or come Home to the Home we have never left. And as we taste the peace and freedom of simple open presence, there is a natural attraction and devotion that arises, like the bee to the flower or the lover to the Beloved.

The heart is naturally drawn to silence, to stillness, to spaciousness. It naturally wants to open, to empty out, to be filled with beauty and to find beauty everywhere. The body also longs to relax and open, to dissolve into the transparency and the vastness that we truly are. We are drawn to the emptiness and aliveness at the core of our being.

But, of course, this is never about arriving at, or striving for, some ideal state of permanent perfection. Doubt, distraction and delusion happen. It seems to be the nature of consciousness that it is easily seduced by its own creations, mesmerized and hypnotized by addictive and compulsive habits, negative mind states, doubts and delusions. Consciousness gets swept up in the News and the dramas of everyday life. It falls again and again into the story of being a lost little “me” for whom something needs to happen, comparing itself to others and feeling alternately superior and inferior. Conflict arises, apparent mistakes are made, things get dark and messy and painful. It happens (or at least appears to). And somehow, this is all part of the Great Dance. The obstacles are needed in some way, just as grit is needed to create a pearl.

The life force (the Tao, God, the Universe, What Is, emptiness, intelligence-energy) is speaking everywhere in everything—in the apparent obstacles (the unfaithful lover, the lost job, the cancer diagnosis, the dying friend, the murdered child, the latest political disaster, the wildfire, the flood, the warming planet), and in the cool evening breeze, the spring rain, the blooming flowers, the rushing stream, the summer heat, the winter cold, the light dancing on the green leaves, the crickets and tree frogs singing their nightly bhajans—it is an infinite call and response—flowers blooming in response to rain, leaves seeking the sunlight, lover responding to beloved—always the One pretending to be many, unfolding and discovering itself everywhere, exploring every possibility, even the darkest and most difficult ones, and finding out (again and again) how (metaphorically speaking) the crucifixion can (in any moment) turn into the resurrection—beholding it all, as God does, with unconditional love and infinite mercy.

July 26, 2021:

Seeing Through the Imaginary Defective Self

It’s a common human experience to have thoughts like these popping up periodically: “I’ve ruined my life,” “I’ve missed the boat,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m not fully realized yet,” “I need help,” “I can’t stand this,” “Compared to so-and-so, I’m a second-rate loser,” “I’m a total fake,” “I’ll never get it,” etc. When these kinds of thoughts are believed—and when the “I” to which they refer is taken to be real, and taken to be who we truly are—these thoughts then bring forth tension and unease in the body and emotional feelings of unhappiness or despair along with that itching-straining-craving for something seemingly just out of reach that promises to solve all this. And off we go in search of a fix.

But if we look for this “me” who has supposedly missed the boat or failed, who isn’t quite awake yet, who compares unfavorably to someone else, who seemingly lacks something or needs to get rid of something in order to be fully okay—if we look for the self to whom these thoughts refer, this encapsulated little “me” who seems to be inside the head authoring “my” thoughts and actions—it can’t actually be found. All we find are ever-changing thoughts, sensations, stories, memories, mental images, feelings. But no actual self. There is no “me” anywhere to be found!

And we might wonder, what is discovering this absence of “me”? What is seeing (and seeing through) these thoughts? What is aware of ALL these different experiences?

If we drop out of thinking into the simplicity of open aware presence or thoughtless being, we may find that what we truly are is vast and limitless, subtler than space, absolutely free, inclusive of everything but dependent on nothing. Here-Now, in this simple presence, nothing is lacking and nothing needs to be vanquished. Nothing can actually damage this boundlessness, just as the fire in the movie never burns the screen.

Awareness is upstream from thinking and experiencing. Thinking (and all those thoughts about “me”), as well as experiences of all flavors, can show up only if awareness is here first, whereas awareness does not depend on any thoughts or experiences to be. The sense of impersonal aware presence is the closest we can come experientially to the True Self—the un-seeable Ultimate Subject. That pure potentiality is ever-present regardless of what appears or disappears.

Awareness has no gender, no age, no nationality, no race, no personality traits, no economic status, no psychological conditions, no limits, no boundaries, no center, no periphery, no location, no beginning or ending. It isn’t born nor does it die. All these things (age, gender, birth, death, cancer, bankruptcy, wildfires, floods, losses and gains) are passing appearances in the dream-like movie of waking life. Even the first bare knowingness that I AM (as impersonal aware presence) comes and goes, disappearing every night in deep sleep. ALL experiences, everything perceivable and conceivable, even this first one, are impermanent—dissolving, moment by moment. But something remains, something that is the common factor in all of them—that which is real in every dream—that which remains when dreaming stops, that which Here-Now IS.

This is not some-THING, an object among objects. This non-phenomenal Absolute can only be intuited for it is closer than close, and the eye (the True I) can never see itself. If we try to grasp awareness or the True Self mentally, or if we chase it as some special experience, it seems to elude us. It cannot be grasped or sought because it is not “out there.” We can only BE it. And actually, it is impossible NOT to be it. It cannot ever really be lost. So this realization of our True Nature is effortless, always already fully accomplished. We can relax and have a cup of tea.

And even if we’re not feeling relaxed, even if there are profoundly difficult circumstances or excruciating pain (physical or emotional), the added layer of suffering over these passing events is optional. They are never as solid or substantial or persisting as thoughts about them would have us believe.

These thoughts about “me” and how I’m doing, and the identification as the separate and encapsulated little “me” rarely disappear permanently in one Big Bang awakening the first time they are seen for the illusion they are. This fundamental root illusion (the separate self) and its favorite stories about itself that sustain it and make it seem real tend to show up again and again. But over apparent time, and always NOW, this whole illusion can be seen (and seen through) more and more quickly and easily. It can be recognized for what it is: just old habitual conditioned thoughts referring to nothing real—meaningless imaginary wisps. And when these thought-stories are seen for what they are, they become funny or silly instead of serious and depressing. They don’t stick around. They have no impact. There is no one to take delivery of them.

And it really doesn’t matter how many times these old patterns show up or how many times they fool us temporarily into taking them to be real. Because who is that “me” who is supposedly being fooled? Who is the one taking ownership and keeping track of how well “I” am doing? To whom does that thought of being fooled again refer? Isn’t it the same old (imaginary) false self, now claiming that, “I was fooled again,” and using that to verify the thought-belief that, “I really am a loser.” But who is that “I”? Can that fool or that loser actually be found?

In any moment of having such a thought, we can stop and check and discover that this imaginary little deficient self cannot be found, that it has no reality. And we can notice that awareness is always right here, boundless and undamaged, ever-present, and that we ARE that. We can let go of the thought stories and open into the felt sense of being spacious awareness—boundless and free.

Who notices all this, or lets go, or opens? The one who WANTS to “do” all of that, the one who TRIES to do it or thinks that “I should do it,” is the false self again—a movement of thought claiming to be “me.” But the actual seeing or awaring of all this is not a thought, nor is the letting go or the opening. Awareness is not a thought or a result of thinking or mental efforting.

None of this is something to pick up as a belief or a philosophy. If the interest is there, it is something to explore and discover directly, and not by thinking about it. Thinking is the wrong tool for this. Silent contemplation, open listening, letting go into the vastness, surrendering and allowing it all to reveal itself is the way.

Remember, there is no distance to travel and NOW is the key.

Response to a comment:

Notice who is being referenced when this thought arises: "It is so difficult for me to really grasp the fact of not being who I think I am, to really and truly feel it in my bones." Who is that "me" for whom this seems difficult? It's that imaginary "me" again, isn't it? And yet, something is aware of this thought, something that is upstream from this thought. Thoughts like this one instantly seem to materialize (in the imagination) this deficient little me. But can this "me" actually be found? 

So, just to see (as it happens) how this materializing-in-the-imagination of a phantom takes place whenever such thoughts arise. And if you then simply allow yourself to be present without thinking, and if you don't refer to thought, memory, or anything you have learned, what are you? What does the word "I" refer to most deeply?

Don't try to grasp some answer, don't think about it or strain to have some special experience, but simply allow yourself to feel into that open wondering, and notice that you are no-thing in particular and you are everything--you are this awareness, this presence, this whole field of experiencing and the awaring of it--and within that, the image and story of Mary comes and goes intermittently. 

This isn’t about denying the relative reality of Mary—the healthy sense of boundaries, the particular personality, the functional sense of location and identity as this body—the illusion is the assumed subject of debilitating (or aggrandizing) thoughts—that self-image we humans are always defending and comparing to others and worrying about. And even "the body" and "the personality" are not as solid or substantial as they seem to be when we think about them. As we can discover through meditative contemplation and exploration, they are ever-changing patterns of energy, inseparable from everything else in the universe. So we don't need to get rid of them or deny them. But rather, simply notice the bigger context in which they appear and disappear. You are that bigger context, sometimes playing as a unique and beautiful expression called Mary, but never confined or encapsulated in that passing appearance. 

August 17, 2021:

Reflections from an early autumn day

Days of triple digit (F) heat and toxic air from the fires, and then a delicious break—fresh air, cool breeze, being able to walk outdoors for the first time in days. Overcast sky with occasional short bursts of sunlight alongside dark black clouds—the first colored leaves falling—autumn in the air—everything bone dry—the nearby pond totally dried up.

These last few days, the News, both globally and locally, has felt like one gut punch after another. I’ve been deeply absorbing the developments of recent weeks in my whole bodymind—the dire UN climate report, the catastrophic fires here and elsewhere, the Covid surge in many parts of the US, including a big one here in southern Oregon, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and yesterday, the collapse of Afghanistan back into complete Taliban control—the scenes of desperate people swarming the airport in Kabul, clinging to the outside of departing planes, falling from the sky—knowing what’s ahead for so many people there, especially for women and girls. Feeling the immense sorrow. Yesterday, absorbing all this, I felt fatigued and had a queasy stomach. Even if we are totally tuned out and oblivious to what is going on, we are not really separate from it—we are one reality. I’ve had such a privileged life—so far from what so many on this earth must endure. 

My koan, which may not (and need not) be your koan, but my koan is how to open to all of it, to not turn away—to see the horror, to feel the deep sorrow, and (perhaps) to behold it in unconditional love—not fake or pseudo love that represses, covers over, or denies rage and despair—but the genuine love that comes from seeing deeply the whole picture, from being broken open—love that brings forth the ability to offer care and healing to the situation, even if only in my own heart, rather than adding to the suffering by pouring out more rage, fear and despair.

At moments like this, I find myself not wanting to hear or dispense anything that might be—in this moment—a spiritual platitude or bypass, or an addictive comfort or security blanket—as in, “it’s all a dream,” or “it’s all perfect as it is.” Yes, there is real truth in such statements, but they can also be used in a way that is shallow and false. Context matters, as does where we’re speaking from when we utter them. And at the moment, I want to fully take in the immense sorrow of this world along with the immense beauty, for both are here in full measure right now, and of course, always have been.

I’m still working on how to be with the horror in a way that contributes love and care rather than falling into the old habits of despair and rage and adding to the sorrow. It’s a work in progress. I often fail.

I was reading Thomas Keating’s book World Without End recently. In it, he asks the question, “How much of God’s reality can you accept at this point?” The word “God” may not resonate with some of you, so you can just substitute “what is” for “God’s reality.” It’s a great question for all of us, moment to moment!

What I’m sharing here and inviting is a contemplative exploration in our hearts of how we meet (or sometimes ignore) the suffering in this world. And, of course, I’m not suggesting we all drown in sorrow either. I’m not offering any prescription here, only an open question, one that is very much alive in my own heart at this moment. It’s not a question to answer, but rather, one to live with, if it interests us.

Oh, and I appreciated Pema Chödrön words: "Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

August 20, 2021:

from my book Death: The End of Self-Improvement:

On the relative level of ordinary reality, the starving child really does need food to survive, and the hunger pains really do hurt, and the mother’s grief really is agonizing, and each of us will do whatever life moves us to do when faced with this reality. But from the cosmic perspective, whether the child survives or not, whether being hungry hurts or doesn’t, whether we join an aid organization or turn away, is all simply another momentary appearance in the seamless totality that includes everything. In that larger sense, it is one undivided energy, endlessly reshaping itself. It only appears to be a child or a famine or a sensation we call hunger or a feeling we call compassion. One moment our life drama and the world drama seem totally real and important, and in another moment, they seem no more substantial than last night’s dream.

--from Death: The End of Self-Improvement

P.S. This beautiful short (approx 13 minute) video clip from John Astin beautifully conveys the essential message of nonduality: View here.

August 20, 2021:

Nondual wholeness

This unfathomable living reality includes infinite, holographic, fractal dimensions, as I tried to convey in the short excerpt from my book Death: The End of Self-Improvement that I posted earlier today. This living reality shows up as both wholeness and particularity, form and emptiness, ordinary and transcendent, relative and absolute, personal and impersonal. It can be seen as a meaningless subatomic dance, as a waving ocean of pulsating energy, as a coherent story with a meaningful narrative, and in countless other ways—and all of them are valid. Nonduality includes it all.

We can look at the unfolding events in Afghanistan, to take but one current example, on the level of ordinary reality, or we can see them as ever-changing sensations appearing and disappearing in present experiencing, impossible to grasp or pin down. We can zoom way in on any scene in this unfolding drama and see it as a meaningless subatomic dance of energy, or we can zoom out and see it as human beings like you and me who are experiencing traumatic, scary, painful events, or we can zoom much farther out to where the entire planet earth is only a tiny pinprick of light that eventually becomes invisible. None of these vantage points is right or wrong—they are just different perspectives or dimensions of the same reality.

There is no independent separate “me” inside the body who chooses or controls which perspective will attract our interest in any particular moment. In one moment, we may be swept up in the emotional drama, and in another we may have a much bigger perspective—perhaps that embodied in the old Chinese farmer story, or maybe that expressed in radical nonduality. From that larger and more nondual or absolute perspective, we may still feel whatever raw emotions we feel, but without buying into any of the storylines that often accompany these emotions.

In nonduality, it is recognized that all polarities (up/down, light/dark, good/evil, even duality/nonduality) are artificial (conceptual) divisions in a seamless whole. These apparent opposites only exist relative to each other, so that there is no such thing as absolute up or absolute evil. The ceiling is up in relation to the floor and down in relation to the sky. The Yin-Yang symbol beautifully expresses the unity and interdependence of the apparent opposites. There are no one-sided coins, and there is no actual place on a coin where heads turn into tails, and without the abstract (conceptual) context of “a coin”—a “thing” that conceptual thought has pulled out of whole, abstracted, and drawn an imaginary boundary around—there are no different sides at all.

Nonduality is a perspective of wholeness that recognizes the seamless unicity so beautifully conveyed in the video clip from John Astin that I shared earlier. No wave exists independently of the ocean. No wave can ever go off in a direction independent from the whole. There is no actual place where one wave begins or ends. Every wave is equally water, equally ocean. Every wave is fresh and new—it has never been here before—and instantly it is becoming something else—and yet the ocean is ever-present and never actually departs from itself.

These are not just nice philosophical ideas to believe or disbelieve. They point to the ways reality actually is, which we can discover in our direct experience. If we look closely at what seems solid and outside of us, or at the apparent self that seems to be authoring our thoughts and controlling our actions, nothing substantial or persisting can actually be found. And yet, aware presence (i.e. present experiencing) is undeniably here. We think we are an encapsulated self, but when we explore our actual experience, we find this presence is boundless and inclusive of everything. 

This recognition, when really grokked, is very relaxing and liberating. It frees us from guilt and blame, from many forms of worry and angst, and from the constant efforts to improve and fix ourselves and the underlying belief that we (and life itself) are not okay just as we are in this (and every) moment. This bigger perspective helps us to take in the suffering in the world with more equanimity, even as we fully feel the heartbreak and the sorrow.

August 23, 2021:

We can’t find or attain so-called liberation. We can only see through the illusion that this Here-Now isn’t it. Whatever can be improved is a mirage, and whatever can be attained will be lost. Recognizing that doesn’t mean we won’t still be moved by life to do things – to fix flat tires, water gardens, sign petitions, meditate, work out at the gym, educate our children, or whatever else life moves us to do, including the things we consider to be undesirable, unhealthy, unproductive, lazy, hurtful or evil. But there is no separate, independent “me” deciding to do any of this, and whatever happens, it is all a movement of the whole. Happily, there is actually no way to fail at life, no way to ruin our life or not live up to our potential, or any of those things we’ve learned to frighten and beat ourselves up with. This living reality is equally present as the good guys and the bad guys, and we all contain both—it’s a marvelous and inconceivable dance. In this moment, nothing can be other than exactly how it is, and instantly, it has moved on to something new. As Zen Master Dogen said centuries ago, “No creature ever comes short of its own completeness. Wherever it stands, it does not fail to cover the ground.”

Response to a comment:

Of course I agree that there is a spectrum of human potential and that it is possible (when it is) to improve in all kinds of ways, as I have experienced in my own life in terms of both personal and social transformations.

Response to another comment:

I care deeply about the suffering in the world. And like you, I have lived through a serious cancer and many other difficulties in the course of my own life—albeit I consider myself incredibly lucky and blessed in comparison to what so many people on this planet must endure. This post was not meant to deny any of that. But actually, this perspective, when it really lands, is very liberating, especially when the water gets rough.

Response to another comment:

To be clear, I didn't say there is no liberation. What I was attempting to say was that rather than trying to attain liberation, what actually liberates is seeing the false as false, and what remains when the illusion and delusion is seen through IS liberation. For me, that is not a one-time event. It can be seen, from the relative viewpoint, as a long and gradual process, as you imply, but the seeing itself is always immediate and NOW, and in that seeing, it isn’t about “me” being liberated. Although every wave in the ocean is equally water, that doesn’t negate the ability that this wholeness has (through human beings) for discernment and making distinctions.

Response to another comment:

Liberation is actually the ever-present reality, not something special we can attain, and what we call liberation is the falling away of the illusion of separation and substantiality. And as I see it, that is rarely a one-time event. More like a NOW event. And NOW.

August 24, 2021:

Not One, Not Two: Leaping Clear of the Many and the One

Those are two of my favorite Zen expressions because they don’t land (or fixate) anywhere. Does the realization that everything is a seamless, undivided whole mean that we can no longer discern a difference between good and evil, or between enlightenment and delusion? Does an appreciation for the wisdom in the old Chinese farmer story and the recognition that everything goes together, the things we like and the things we don’t, in a way we cannot begin to fathom, mean that there is no difference between them? Does the realization that “this is it” mean that there is no place for any kind of spiritual path, exploration or work?

I would say, no. It doesn’t mean any of that. Some expressions of nonduality are uncompromisingly radical and absolute. They relentlessly assert that this is it, that nothing needs to happen, that everything is a choiceless movement of one undivided whole. My last post leaned in this direction. And those expressions are beautiful and potentially—at the right moment—very liberating. They certainly were for me when I first encountered radical nonduality after many years of meditation, retreats, satsangs and practices. And it’s beautiful that some expressions are totally uncompromising and completely undiluted—that absolutism is their power.

But much as I love radical nonduality, I never landed (or fixated exclusively) there. For me, it’s a great message, but it’s not the only message. Because in my experience, there is definitely a place for exploring, for genuine transformation, and for what my main teacher and friend Toni Packer called “the work of this moment.” She described that work as “[coming] upon a profound kind of listening and openness that reveals the intense power and momentum of our human conditioning, how we are caught up and attached to ideas about ourselves and each other…[and] the other aspect of this listening is to come upon an inner/outer silence—stillness—spaciousness in which there is no sense of separation or limitation, outside or inside.” (from my interview with Toni in The Light of Discovery)

In other words, becoming aware of and seeing through the illusions and delusions that generate our human confusion and suffering, and waking up to the spacious open presence that we fundamentally are and that Here-Now is. This, Toni said, was a moment to moment discovery and waking up, not a past event, a future hope, or a once-and-for-all forever-after done-deal. And I concur.

Everything is a seamless, interdependent, undivided whole, and that wholeness includes the capacity for discernment and making distinctions. I often give the example of Hitler and Buddha. If we use the beautiful metaphor of the ocean and the waves, Hitler and Buddha are both waves on the ocean of being—both equally ocean, equally water. They cannot actually be separated out—they are interdependent aspects of one whole movement.

But there is an important difference between them. Buddha realizes that he and Hitler are both the ocean, while Hitler is acting from the delusion of being a separate wave, out to conquer and exterminate other waves. Hitler is deluded; Buddha is enlightened. These two perspectives feel different, and they bring forth very different fruit.

Buddha sees that Hitler is an expression of the ocean, inseparable from himself, and Buddha also sees that Hitler is deluded. Buddha sees Hitler with compassion and understanding, not with blame and hatred, but Buddha certainly wouldn’t condone what Hitler was doing, and might very well work to stop it. In fact, Buddha's work was about uprooting the very delusions that were running Hitler.

And while these are both historical figures, it is more useful and to the point to see them as different states of mind or ways of seeing, and to recognize that we all have both. No one is always deluded or always enlightened—in fact, no one exists as a solid, discrete, persisting entity.

Spirituality is about seeing our inner Hitler whenever he crops up, not trying to fight him “out there” in some imagined “other.” There’s a place for doing that, of course, in various life situations, but spirituality focuses on the inner Hitler. And, of course, inner and outer are very much related. Hitler is a product and an extreme example of the delusion and illusion that true spirituality is waking us up from.

Spirituality is also about discovering our own Buddha Nature, not seeking it “out there,” although that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from books, teachers, retreats and the like.  But if they’re on the mark, they all point us to the Buddha right here, right now.

So, good and evil, enlightenment and delusion—same or different? We can’t land (or fixate) on either extreme. Some people have distinguished between relative medicine and ultimate or absolute medicine. Relative medicine would include such things as meditation, somatic work, psychotherapy, yoga, The Work of Byron Katie, addiction recovery programs, social activism to change society, and so on. Absolute or ultimate medicine points out that no medicine is needed because the disease and the patient who supposedly has it are both imaginary. Relative medicine offers prescriptions, while absolute medicine offers only descriptions. Is one right and the other wrong? I say, there is a place for both!

We don’t have to choose between Darryl Bailey and Eckhart Tolle, or between Toni Packer and Tony Parsons, or between Buddhism and Advaita. There are many different ways to express and realize what liberates us from false views and frees us from unnecessary suffering. Sometimes we need one kind of medicine, sometimes we need another. Everything has its place. And in my experience, whatever is needed is always exactly what shows up.

September 1, 2021

The Different Worlds of Religion and Science

There is much debate about whether consciousness is a function of the brain or whether the brain is an appearance in consciousness. It takes a sophisticated degree of abstract thought to even come up with this problem, for in simple present awareness (or nonconceptual experiencing) Here-Now, this problem does not exist.

Consciousness is the most obvious and unavoidable reality there is, the ever-present ground and common factor in every experience, something all of us know intimately and with doubtless certainty, and yet, no one really “knows” what consciousness is, at least, not in the way that science knows things.

Theories and beliefs about consciousness can always be doubted, and they change as our understanding changes. But the bare actuality of present moment seeing-hearing-sensing-breathing-awaring-being is not a theory or a belief. Being here, aware and present, is beyond doubt. It needs no proof.

Scientific knowledge deals with the world that can be measured and analyzed. It tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Whereas the kind of direct knowing that is at the heart of all true religion or spirituality is the undeniable experiencing of water—drinking it, swimming in it—knowing it directly. This direct knowing is immediate and nondual. There is no separation in direct knowing between subject and object. There is diversity, but not separation. The chemical make-up of water can be questioned and doubted, but the direct experiencing of water cannot be doubted. It is self-evident. It doesn’t need to be figured out.

Science and religion are two equally valid but very different ways of knowing. They each have their place. Sometimes in spiritual circles we also hear about “not knowing,” and that doesn’t mean ignorance, but points rather to a way of being that is open, spacious and free—not grasping, not trying to understand with the thinking mind what cannot be understood with thought—opening up to the immediacy and the boundlessness that is beyond the reach of conceptual knowledge.

As we begin to knowingly sense and open to this boundlessness, and as we realize the emptiness (or no-thing-ness) of everything that appears, we find a freedom, a freedom for everything to be as it is, and a dissolving of the contracted sense of being separate, deficient and alien. Much of our suffering (the thought-generated overlay on top of pain and painful circumstances, as well as the worry about imagined future scenarios) begins to drop away. The burden of fixing ourselves and saving the world loosens its grip—we find the attachment to our opinions, projects and certainties beginning to let go more and more. We may still have an interest in transformation, healing and removing suffering, but it happens in a very different spirit. There is a sense of wonderment with everything just as it is. This kind of awakeness is the territory of true religion and spirituality.

Science might study what changes in the brain when we are meditating or what parts of the brain light up when we feel love, or how the capacity for love relates to evolutionary survival. Science deals in theories and explanations. It measures the distance from the earth to the moon and enables us to design the technology that gets us to the moon. And of course, science exposes many religious beliefs as the fabricated nonsense that they are, at least if those beliefs are taken literally as scientific facts. But the heart of religion isn’t about belief.

If we try to approach religion with logic and reason and the scientific method, we will kill the very heart and spirit of it and miss the point entirely. Likewise, if we try to approach science without logic and reason and the scientific method, it will go completely astray, although I suspect that many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs actually originate in a state of open presence or “not knowing.” Science can study the brain waves of meditators, and that may have its usefulness, but that isn’t the same as actually sitting down and meditating. Religion is like a dance or a kiss. You don’t analyze or measure it or try to explain it. You LIVE it. Religion and science both have their place. We don’t need to abandon or denigrate either of them. But when we mix them up, we get into trouble.

Religion at its best wakes us up to the undivided, nondual, living actuality Here-Now, not as an idea or a concept, but as a felt reality. Thought divides this seamless unicity up into different, apparently separate pieces, thus creating the map-world of dualistic relative reality. The ability to divide and discern differences is functionally necessary, and we can’t ignore relative reality or dispense with maps, but religion helps us to recognize their tentative and dream-like nature. While not ignoring or denying the world of conventional reality, religion points us to another dimension and way of being.

In the map-world, thought divides “the brain” from “consciousness,” just as it divides “the chicken” from “the egg.” It takes these imaginary objects that it has just created as real, regards them as truly independent and separate, and then wonders which imaginary object came first in time, which is another mental construction. Long arguments follow. We race and race around the hamster wheel of thought chasing the imaginary carrot that is always just out of reach. This is where intelligent meditation can be so valuable.

In stepping off that hamster wheel and simply being awake as this bottomless present moment Here-Now, without thinking about it and trying to figure it out—just listening openly with the whole bodymind, BEING this awaring presence (or present experiencing), just as it is, we may discover an ever-fresh aliveness in the most ordinary moments—wind rustling leaves, traffic sounds on the freeway, smell of rain, taste of tea, breathing, tingling in the toes, and vast listening silence beholding it all. The beauty is in the listening presence, the awareness, the unconditional love. Words are being used, and they inevitably seem to divide and suggest “things.” But presence, awareness, unconditional love, silence, and Here-Now are not objects with borders.

September 5, 2021:

Broken and Vulnerable, Whole and Indestructible

This is from an old FB post of mine back in 2015, and I dug it out just now to share with a friend, and then I decided I’d share it here again, some 6 years later:

I just read an email from a friend who was awake in the middle of the night on the other side of the world feeling a sense of aloneness. Only moments before opening her email, I had been in the living room, the sun had gone down and the hills were growing dark outside, and I too had suddenly felt this great wave of sadness and aloneness...and then I shut the curtains and turned on the lights and came in here to my office and opened this email from a friend whose words mirrored my own experiencing. Alone and not alone at all! 

I heard a very moving talk recently that was given at a beautiful seminary graduation ceremony in NYC that another dear friend sent to me on DVD, a talk by a young man named Adam Bucko, originally from Poland, who works with homeless youth in NYC. He said that someone had asked him what his biggest challenge was in his ministry. The biggest challenge he faces, he said, is showing up at those times when grace doesn't seem to be present, when it seems to him that he has nothing to offer. His greatest challenge is showing up anyway, trusting that somehow God will show up too. He quoted (or paraphrased and maybe added to) Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and author, saying that the spiritual leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own broken and vulnerable self. I love that. I was very deeply moved—not just by the words, but by this man, Adam, who was on fire—God was moving through him.

To just be here...as we are...feeling what we feel…moments of sadness, that empty sense of being all alone in the world, everything seeming strange and foreign, and then in the next moment, ecstasy and joy, everything warm and familiar....all alone and then strangely connected by email to someone across the sea who is feeling just the same way.
I feel much love and gratitude for all of you, my friends in this mysterious virtual community—all of us here together, inseparable waves of the ocean, broken and vulnerable, whole and indestructible. May we all keep showing up.
(from 2015 FB post)

September 8, 2021

I read recently that in Centering Prayer, they begin with “consenting to God’s presence and action within us.” Opening to God, allowing God. God is not a thing. God is a way of seeing and being. When I open to God, immediately there is no me and no God; there is only this vast openness. God is the awareness that beholds everything with unconditional love. God is True Nature, presence, the Self, no-thing-ness, unicity, wholeness, the Tao, the Heart, the Beloved, beauty, Truth, infinite ever-fresh possibility, pure potentiality, intelligence-energy, seeing the sacred everywhere, seeing the light in everything. God is inconceivable—most intimate, closer than close, and yet infinitely vast and boundless, all-inclusive, without borders or seams. This openness or pure potentiality that we are is shapeless and limitless, and yet it can appear as infinitely diverse and varied shapes, shapes that may seem solid and fixed at first glance, but looking more closely, what reveals itself is an impermanence so thorough-going that no-thing ever even forms to be impermanent. That emptiness is freedom. It is the openness that is open to everything. None of this is something to think or reason about. It is something to feel, open to and dissolve into. It is what Here-Now is.

September 9, 2021:

Fully Including Both the Human and the Transcendent

One of the books I’ve been reading lately is Reflections on the Unknowable by the late Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who died in 2018, and who was one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement. The book opens with a transcription of his interview on Buddha at the Gas Pump. And then, in one especially beautiful chapter called “The Science of Love,” Keating talks about the Christian Trinity, and he describes God as “emptiness containing infinite possibilities” or “absolute Nothingness.” He describes Jesus as “every possibility fully realized, fully actualized,” and the Spirit as “the love that rushes back and forth between the Father and the Son, never satisfied with just one and not the other.” [And for those, like me, who find the patriarchal language challenging, we could say instead, between pure potentiality and embodied manifestation, or between the transcendent absolute and the relative world of our human beingness]. Keating adds that, “These three relationships are one reality, or rather what is beyond all reality including Reality itself.”

We don’t need to use Christian language or the whole mythos of Jesus Christ in order to appreciate what is being suggested here. It speaks to me of the relationship between the transcendent and the ordinary, between our humanity and the Absolute, between the personal and the impersonal, and between the absolute perfection of everything as it is and the undeniable messiness and difficulty that is part of human life. And in my experience, spirituality that ignores either polarity is incomplete. That relationship is beautifully contained in Christianity’s primary symbol: God nailed to a cross, experiencing the full catastrophe of human life.

I’m not a Christian, but I resonate with many aspects of Christianity, and there are some wonderful Christian writers I love and highly recommend: Brother David Steindl-Rast, Anthony deMello and Thomas Keating among them. There is a warmth, an emphasis on love, a heart quality in Christianity that I love, also a concern for the dispossessed and the outcasted, and a union of the human and the transcendent. As is the case with all organized religions, Christianity has done both tremendous good and terrible horrors. Like all religions, it contains a wide range of understanding, from the Bible-thumping fundamentalists to the subtle, nuanced and sophisticated perspectives of folks like Thomas Keating.

As you may have noticed, I have a strong preference for simplicity and nonconceptual direct realization, and for me, much of the theological complexity in Christianity gets in the way and feels like excess baggage. But I recognize that myths, symbols and stories can be helpful, especially when we don’t take them literally or dogmatically. And I find a deep truth embodied in the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. No, I don’t take the resurrection literally. I see it as a beautiful mythic story about how suffering is fully met and ultimately transcended.

September 12, 2021:

Making It Real Here and Now

My interest has always been in realization (i.e., making real, embodying and living this), rather than philosophy or mental understanding. The latter may be a helpful adjunct, and if what is realized directly is put into words, it will most likely show up as what can be described as a particular philosophical perspective. But if that philosophical perspective turns into a belief, or even worse, into a dogma, then it becomes counter-productive. And the juice is always in the living reality itself, the aliveness that is both vividly present and completely ungraspable.

My interest has also always been practical and down-to-earth. How do we wake up from the conditioned dream-world that we mistake for reality, and most fundamentally, from the painful belief that we are separate and encapsulated? Can suffering end, both our personal suffering and the collective suffering of humanity? What is my deepest calling? What is the most important thing?

What I’ve found is that the way to realization and liberation, and the answer to all those questions I just posed, is in one place only, the immediacy of Here and Now. Our deeply conditioned human habit is to move away from this immediacy into thinking, fantasizing, seeking, resisting, and so on. As a result, most of us have to rediscover and then learn to come back, again and again (NOW), to presence itself, however it is showing up.

In other words, opening fully to the aliveness of this moment, allowing it to be just as it is, and BEING this sensory-energetic reality that is prior to all the labels, explanations and storylines. When attention shifts from thinking to sensing, and from thought to awareness, the illusion of separation and encapsulation dissolves. What reveals itself is a spaciousness in which there is room for everything to be just as it is, and a boundlessness that is all-inclusive. We ARE that spacious openness, that boundlessness, that limitless aware presence that has no inside or outside.

But if we do find ourselves still feeling separate and encapsulated, if there is resistance or contraction or turbulent emotions, if we simply allow all that to be here and actually explore it on the level of somatic sensations—not with thinking, but with awareness—feeling into the sensations, going to the very core of them, allowing them to unfold and reveal themselves fully, we will find that healing happens naturally. When we allow resistance, disturbance or contraction and explore the sensory-energetic textures of these arising with genuine curiosity and interest, without seeking a result, without judging any of it, but simply exploring it, it unwinds itself. Awareness is the great transformer. Thinking has its place, but often it is just a form of avoidance, spinning our wheels, and reinforcing the root illusion.

Our difficulties may not unwind as quickly as we would like, and in any moment of inattention, the apparent problems may all come back. For most of us, this is how it is. This happens. Not just once or twice, but many times! And when it does happen, it’s important not to get bamboozled by thoughts that say things like, “You see, it’s hopeless, you’re a loser,” and so on. Instead, see if it’s possible to bring the focus back to NOW, to THIS moment, not to what happened before, or what might happen in the future, or some fantasy of once-and-for-all forever. The only actual eternity is the timeless, ever-present NOW. Liberation can only happen now.

And that liberation includes the realization—the felt-reality—that we are not separate, that everything is one whole indivisible happening in which everything belongs. People sometimes misunderstand “everything belongs” or “allow everything to be as it is” as meaning that we shouldn’t do anything to correct a problem or change an unjust situation. But it doesn’t mean that at all. When we begin with accepting and being fully awake to what is, and seeing it clearly, intelligent and wholesome (of the whole) action will follow naturally. So it doesn’t mean we don’t change a flat tire, see a therapist, or work to improve society. But are we rooted in aware presence or in the sticky realm of me-identified emotion-thought when we act? That will make a big difference.

Finally, it’s so important to see that this is a never-ending, lifelong journey of waking up NOW. Our human conditioning is a powerful force. The evolutionary journey—whether we’re talking about geological, biological, psychological, spiritual, personal or global—happens slowly, and it inevitably includes mistakes, backslides, and periods of darkness. If we’re expecting perfection or some final, permanent, utopian resolution either for ourselves or for humanity, we are going to be endlessly frustrated and disappointed. The manifestation can only appear in polarities, and these cannot be pulled apart. You can’t have the light without the dark.

Speaking personally, I often stumble, backslide and fall short. A Zen teacher once said that the life of a Zen Master is one continuous mistake. Even a Master is imperfect! Imperfections, delusions and setbacks are part of life. Pain and difficulty are part of life, but we suffer over all of this in unnecessary ways because of how we think about and relate to it. And we often seek relief in things that only make it worse. At some point, we discover the power of awareness, of simply BEING right here, right now, open and fully present. And then gradually, we learn to come back to this.

And since I’m sure someone will feel compelled to point out that we can’t ever actually leave Here-Now, I would simply end with where I began, by saying that my interest has always been in the realization of this, the practical place where the rubber meets the road, not in having it as a philosophy or a belief. And while it’s true that we never leave Here-Now in reality, there is a world of difference between being awake and being lost in the hypnotic trance of delusion. As I’ve often said, Hitler and Buddha are both equally waves on the ocean of being, both equally water, but Buddha realizes this, while Hitler is lost in the delusion of being a separate wave out to exterminate other waves. Or as the great sage Nisargadatta put it, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.”

September 13, 2021

Not Getting Stuck in Emptiness

Most of humanity is stuck in the illusions of separation, substantiality, and identity as a persisting encapsulated self, struggling to survive in an outside world. This perspective is deeply conditioned, socially ubiquitous and continually reinforced, so it tends to be a very persistent illusion. Spirituality, therefore, often tends to emphasize oneness, boundlessness, interdependence, absence of self, emptiness and the nonsubstantial nature of phenomena—the no-thing-ness of everything. This, after all, is what we need to discover and realize.

But discovering this is not the end of the line in awakening. Because it’s equally important not to get stuck in oneness, emptiness, or the absolute—not to get fixated on one half of a conceptual divide. This fixation often happens, though, in spirituality. Once they discover it, people sometimes get so lost in the absolute that they go around denying that there is a person here in any sense, or that there is multiplicity, particularity, individuality, relative healthy boundaries, and so on. They insist that nothing is happening, that no one is here. This denial of what is obvious to anyone is just as delusional as being fixated on the other side of the equation. 

We can’t deny that there is something here that we call Joan (or Chicago, or the kitchen table, or racism, or whatever it is). But when we try to pin down exactly what Joan (or anything else) is, we find it is ungraspable. Everything is nonsubstantial, impermanent, in flux and inseparable from everything else. And yet, each thing is vividly itself and undeniably present. Joan is not you or the table. Joan is Joan. And yet, try to get hold of exactly what that is, and you can’t.

So in the course of our awakening journey, we come to see the emptiness, the interdependence, the thorough-going flux and nonsubstantial nature of everything, but at the same time, we can’t deny that there is Joan (and Chicago, and the table, and racism, and this and that). Both aspects are always showing up simultaneously—the particularity and the wholeness, the emptiness and the presence, the timeless Now and the apparent movement of time.

Being awake, as I mean it, includes both relative and absolute perspectives. It includes the human and the transcendent, personal and impersonal, difference and unity, particularity and wholeness, independence and interdependence. As various Zen texts express it, form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This living reality is not one, not two. Waking up is leaping clear of the many and the one, the merging of difference and unity. Our practice is polishing the mirror even as we recognize that there is no mirror to polish. We miss the mark when we land in any one-sided view: choice or choicelessness, self or no self, practice or no practice, death or deathlessness. Because both sides are undeniably showing up, and no conceptual formulation can ever capture the living reality.

On the one hand, from the absolute perspective, everything is whole and complete just as it is, no practice is needed, there is no one to practice and nowhere to go. And equally true, from the relative perspective, there are problems, mistakes, injustices and delusions, and there is a journey over time that addresses all of this, and each of us is a unique, one-of-a-kind individual who must make this journey ourselves because no one else can see or wake up for us.

Some teachers and teachings come down more on one side of this gestalt than the other, and sometimes—at different points in our lives—we need one perspective more than the other. But the bigger picture includes both. As we can notice, both are obvious in actual direct experiencing right now, and we can’t really pull them apart.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021--

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