Is India More Nondual Than Chicago?
Selection from Painting the Sidewalk with Water
This chapter of Painting the Sidewalk with Water is a talk and dialog transcribed from one of Joan's meetings in Chicago sometime between 2004 and 2006:
Since so-called Eastern spirituality has come to the West, many westerners have rushed to Japan or India or someplace in the Far East to get the real goods. There is nothing wrong with traveling, but what these teachings point to is right here in front of you. You don’t need to go somewhere else. In fact, you never do go anywhere else. Places appear in you, in awareness. They come and go, dream-like.
It has been said that the truth is inside, not outside you. That doesn’t mean it’s in your intestines or in your emotions, but not in the chair across the room. It means it’s in the undivided awareness that beholds intestines, emotions, chairs, birds, and everything else. It points to the realization that there is no boundary, that inside and outside are one whole. In the same way, past and future are inseparable from Here / Now. When I talk about the jewel of Here / Now, I’m not in any way intending to disparage the study of history or the creative envisioning of the future. I’m simply pointing to the fact that it all shows up Here / Now as one indivisible whole that is boundless, seamless, timeless and spaceless.
How to realize that? Well, first of all, notice that the question itself is rooted in the assumption that it is not realized right now. Is that true? What are you imagining that such realization would look like? Perhaps the acquisition or the sighting of an enormous object like a giant dinner plate? Or maybe an experience like being permanently high on drugs? Or maybe some mental understanding like an algebraic equation or a verbal formulation that would be the final answer to every question? Does it make sense that totality would be an object, an experience or a formulation? Does it make sense that “you” would need to find it?
The truth itself is so simple that the mind habitually keeps overlooking it by looking elsewhere. Endlessly fascinated by glittering distractions (India, Japan, robes, bells, gurus, teachers, retreats, satsangs), we overlook the jewel of here and now. Of course, India, Japan, robes, bells, gurus, teachers, retreats, satsangs – it’s all the jewel. There’s no escape. But when we think the jewel is in India but not in Chicago, or that we need to go to a retreat or a satsang to find it, then we are like a wave looking for the ocean. The imaginary problem can only be resolved Here / Now.
After wandering all over the world seeking the truth “out there” somewhere, after having amazing spiritual experiences and breakthroughs, we inevitably end up back in our ordinary everyday life. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we wake up back in Kansas. The whole journey is inside us, and what we are seeking is inside us, too. And when I say inside us, again, I don’t mean inside the bodymind – I mean Here / Now.
And that’s really what all spiritual teachings are pointing to – that the heart of the matter, the jewel that is being sought is not “out there” somewhere apart from you or in the future. No one can give it to you. You must discover it yourself. And the only thing that makes this discovery seem difficult is how easy it is. It is already perfectly realized.
This moment is the Buddha. The thought of “somewhere better” keeps us from seeing that what we are seeking, we already are. The postponements, the ways we move away, get subtler and subtler. Wanting to never run off on another journey to Oz ever again is itself running off on such a journey! But luckily, the journey and the one taking it are both imaginary. You never really leave Here / Now.
Sometimes people say, “Everything is great when I’m at these meetings,” or, “It's all totally clear when I’m off on a meditation retreat, but then I get home and I lose it all.” I come back to Kansas and it seems like I’m this screwed up character again. But of course being on a meditation retreat is going to be different from being in the office. Sitting in silence listening to the rain is different from listening to other human beings. And yet both the office and the meditation retreat appear Here / Now in this ever-present awareness. What is, is so simple, so unavoidable. Everything is as it is, even if what is appearing is confusion or upset.
Participant: I feel very torn between this teaching in which there is no doer and nothing to do, and other teachings that talk about making something happen, improving yourself and the world, getting enlightened, being more present and aware and all of that. I see it one way on one day, then I see it the other way the next day, and I feel very confused.
Joan: Where is this problem right now if we don’t think about it?
P: I think non-doing is the ultimate truth, but I keep getting sucked back into doing things and thinking I have a choice.
J: Okay, more thinking. That’s all a story: “I know that non-doing is the ultimate truth, I keep getting sucked into doing things, I feel confused.” This story materializes the phantom “I” like a mirage. Then we worry about whether this phantom will make the right choice and pick the winning answer. Waking up is nothing more or less than seeing that whole story for what it is – thought and imagination.
The bodymind can’t not do things. It is the nature of the bodymind to act. Thinking, feeling, acting, choosing – these things all happen. There is no choice about it. There is the appearance of choice. But every apparent choice happens as it does because everything else in the whole universe is the way it is. But seeing that doesn’t mean you stop apparently making choices. You have no choice! But you see that the choice “you” appear to make is actually coming from the whole universe and could not have been otherwise. It is the action of totality, not the action of some phantom executive.
P: How can we be here now and get things done? It seems to me that we need to plan and think about the future. We can’t just sit around “being here now” all the time, can we?
J: Realizing that Here / Now is ever-present and seeing through the thoughts and stories that generate suffering doesn’t mean that you’re never supposed to think about the future or remember the past or plan a trip to someplace else. All of those things happen Here / Now. And they are essential to functioning in daily life. If you are Martin Luther King leading the civil rights movement, you obviously need both an understanding of history and the vision of a future without segregation. As he said, “I have a dream.” His life was about realizing that dream. That in no way contradicts what I’m pointing to when I talk about Here / Now. To take another example, if you want to punch through a board in karate, you may find it helpful to visualize your hand going through the board. In so doing, you are focused on the future. But as with Martin Luther King’s dream, that visualization is happening Now. And whether you can visualize your hand going through the board at that moment depends on everything in the whole universe. It may be that a fear of hurting your hand inadvertently pops up instead. Martin Luther King was an activity of the whole universe, as was the civil rights movement. No one can be anyone other than exactly who they are, doing exactly what they do. And that doesn’t negate the apparent making of choices or the potential usefulness of remembering the past or visualizing future possibilities.
P: When I’ve felt completely at one and at peace, usually there was very little productivity going on in my work at that time. There were long periods when I felt wonderful – I was traveling around going to satsangs and retreats – but I was going bankrupt [laughter]. So then I thought it was time to do something, to get back into the world and get down to business. But then that tended to feed some sense of being separate. And then I suffer more from not having that experience of beingness. It continues to be a dilemma for me.
J: It's a dilemma only when there's thinking about it, right? In this instant, right now, before you think about it, where is this dilemma?
It takes thought to dredge it up. What you describe is the natural rhythm of life. It’s like walking – we lose our balance and regain it with every step. We fall this way, then that way. We withdraw from the world, then we plunge back into the world. We inhale, we exhale. That’s the nature of the manifestation. And then the thinking mind comes in and creates confusion. We apparently have to decide if inhaling or exhaling is the true way, we have to choose between them. In that example, we can easily see how absurd it is. But choosing between a retreat and business is equally absurd. They happen in a natural rhythm, each in their own time and place. And stress and upset is not a bad thing. It can be every bit as enlightening and enlivening as blissful experiences of expansion and unity. It’s all part of the show.
P: But you must have had periods of sustained awakening and all your suffering must have stopped permanently, or else what's the point of all this?
J: I feel pain and upset just like you do. But I notice that Here / Now is ever-present and that it is not divided up into me and you.
It has been said that enlightenment is not final victory, it is final defeat. When we imagine enlightenment, we imagine me finally triumphing over all of my imperfections, me fearless and imperturbable at last, me always happy, completely successful, totally in balance. That’s our picture of enlightenment. But for the phantom me, enlightenment is not final victory, but rather, final defeat. For the phantom self, enlightenment is complete disappointment. Total failure.
Wholeness doesn’t need to be improved – it is already perfect and complete. It's only the little cartoon character who seemingly needs to be improved. And even that is questionable, because what kind of movie would it be if all the characters were without blemish or imperfection? Life itself is always in balance, and that perfect balance includes the imbalance of inhaling and exhaling, loss and gain, falling to the left and then falling to the right. It’s all part of the larger picture. Oh, I can hear, “Yes, buts,” floating in the air. [laughter]
I was walking in the park early this morning before the meeting. It was a beautiful morning. There were no clouds. It was absolutely clear and still. Little green leaves were just beginning to unfurl. The park was totally empty of people and absolutely quiet except for the beautiful songs of the birds. The water in the pond was as still as glass, and there were beautiful reflections in the water. Everything was sparkling with light. There was no “me,” only the immensity of silence and stillness.
All of a sudden, along comes this man walking his dog and talking on his headset telephone in a very loud voice. Immediately there was a tensing up in this body and a feeling of aversion and various judgmental thoughts about this man: “What an egotistical jerk – he's totally missing the beauty of this morning – he's ruining this exquisite silence by talking on his stupid cell phone at the top of his lungs.” And then more thoughts: “This is what's happening to western civilization, the world is going to hell.”
I’m unpacking all these thoughts and spelling them out in complete sentences so that we can hear them and look at them, but in that moment, in real life, these thoughts happened in a split second like a series of very quick energetic telegrams accompanied by a tensing in the body. We don’t think in complete sentences. It’s all much more instantaneous, which is why it isn’t always that easy to notice what we are thinking. It goes by very fast. That’s why meditation is often very helpful in revealing the workings of the thinking mind.
Anyway, after a short barrage of these judgmental thoughts, there was suddenly a different thought: “This, too, is what is. This loud man on his cell phone is also what is.” (And we might wonder, what came first, the thought or the realization?) And then a question arose in the mind, “Is it possible to listen to him just as I listen to the birds?” And immediately there was a relaxing that happened, allowing this human voice be there along with the bird voices and the stillness of the morning.
All of it was there – the stillness, the birds, the man on his cell phone, the dog, the aversion – and it was all okay, even the upset and the resistance and the judgment. Suddenly it all seemed beautiful. The man on his cell phone was no longer a problem – he was wonderful. And my own little upset was no problem either. None of it was personal. It was just weather.
It’s not like the goal of nonduality or Zen or Advaita is to get to someplace where we never tense up or feel irritated ever again. All of these things that happen are probably rooted in some survival function that gets misplaced in some way. Like this morning, the negative thoughts about this man were not needed for my survival, and all they did was make me unhappy. When they dropped away, I could see the beauty in everything – not just the birds and the stillness, but the man and myself as well. It was quite delightful.
But “I” didn’t make those thoughts drop away. It all happened spontaneously – the clouding and the clearing – no one is doing any of it.
P: How can you appreciate the moments of non-appreciation? I would have hated the man on the telephone and then started beating myself up for not accepting what is.
J: That’s just another layer of thought – taking the first layer (the resistance and the upset) personally and then judging myself for having such thoughts, telling a story about what it means about me – that I’m unenlightened or neurotic or mean-spirited or whatever the story is. But actually, getting bothered by this noisy man is not something “I” did. The whole universe was showing up in that moment as Joan being bothered. Ten other people could have been standing there in the park this morning and not felt bothered by that guy at all, but my particular conditioning is such that what came up here at that moment was dislike and negative judgments. It’s an impersonal happening, like the weather. And it's the same with those thoughts you describe about, “I shouldn’t have felt that way.” That is also an impersonal happening. These thoughts are all so momentary, so insubstantial. They seem so heavy and real and serious, but they can dissolve in an instant! This morning at the park is totally gone! Of course, I can keep the story alive in memory until the day I die, feeling angry at people who talk loudly on their cell phones in public places and telling the story of how they “shouldn’t” do this, or else going over and over my shortcomings and how judgmental I am, and feeling bad about myself. That is our human tendency, our human dis-ease, our suffering. So to see that as it happens, to wake up from these stories and ideas. Not once and for all forever, because that’s just another fantasy, but now. This is the only reality.
P: I don’t like it when I get caught up.
J: There are a lot of things that we don’t like, and there's nothing wrong with not liking things. We have preferences. That’s natural.
P: How can you say that there is nothing wrong with not liking things?
J: By nature, we like things that feel good to us and dislike things that feel bad. It’s a survival function – so we don’t eat the poison berries or the rotten meat, and so we do eat the good stuff and do what it takes to reproduce. Obviously what starts as a survival function can go somewhat amuck with brains as complex as ours. So in my experience this morning in the park, for example, my natural preference for quiet had no functional usefulness in that situation – it was only a form of suffering. There’s nothing problematic in the preference itself. The preference is fine. The suffering is when we are attached to our preferences or identified with them – feeling personally invaded if someone shows up talking loudly on a cell phone, or feeling personally insulted if someone doesn’t like the same movie I like, or feeling that I must have silence to be happy – then I suffer. But there’s nothing wrong with liking one movie more than another movie or having a favorite flavor. There’s nothing wrong with having a preference for silence and birdsong in the park. But if I feel I need that, as happened in my movie this morning, or if I think that silence and birdsong is spiritually superior, as also happened in my movie this morning, then the man on his cell phone seems to be an assault on my well-being from the evil empire that is threatening life on earth. That is a story, and that is unnecessary suffering. When it fell away, I found only beauty everywhere.
But it’s not like “my suffering” has now been vanquished “forever,” and from now on, Joan will see only beauty everywhere. That’s just another story – the enlightenment myth. I’m not saying there’s no enlightenment. But it’s not what we think it is. It’s not some final, permanent victory for Joan.
P: Sometimes when I’m afraid or agitated, if I can remember to breathe, it helps.
J: And that remembering happens by itself, right? Afterwards we say, “I remembered to breathe,” and verbalizing it that way paints the mirage-image of “me” the doer. But in reality, that thought or that impulse popped up by itself. Of course, you were already breathing, but you started paying attention to the breathing. Did the thought actually initiate that shift in attention, or did it describe the shift after the fact? Either way, it all happened by itself – the thought, the impulse, the shift in attention. And as attention shifts to breathing, to pure perception and sensation, thought stops. Instantly, you feel better.
But if you now try to do that as a strategy, it doesn’t work. Because that’s thought again looking for a result. And if you try to cling to the calm experience, that very clinging is agitation. No experience is going to be permanent.
P: I don’t get it.
J: There is nothing to get. There is simply what is.
P: Here seems difficult to access sometimes.
J: “Here seems difficult to access,” is a thought, and it seems that way because there's an idea of what “here” is. There’s an idea that this isn’t “here.” Can you see the absurdity of that?
P: But don’t you have difficulty accessing that space sometimes?
J: What space are we talking about? Here / Now is all there is. You don’t have to access it, it’s ever-present and unavoidable.
There's some idea that “here” was the experience I had for a moment in meditation when there were no thoughts and I was just feeling the breathing – that was “here.” But this busy mind full of thoughts, this “isn’t here.” But all of this is appearing Here / Now.
P: Paying attention is needed, it seems. Maybe like tuning a radio dial to a frequency – that level of work, rather than a complex strategy.
J: Wherever you tune on the dial, it is always Here / Now. What we’re talking about is truly unavoidable and unattainable. It requires no tuning.
P: So it's not work really.
Another P: There is a Feldenkrais lesson in which the instruction is: “Do it like you are wasting your time.” I love that because we are so used to goals and agendas.
J: That’s beautiful. Yes, we’re very programmed to not waste time. That’s a cardinal sin in the post-industrial world. Everyone is rushing around multitasking like crazy, working three jobs, barely getting any sleep. And so many of these jobs are all about creating false needs and filling them with toxic junk. I resonate with those old Zen hermits who did nothing all day but watch the clouds. Totally without ambition, totally useless.
P: I have so much fear.
J: The root fear is the story that I won't exist any more, that I’m going to get wiped out.
P: Which is true.
J: Everything we think of as “me” is going to get wiped out. This form, the bodymind, will be wiped out, although in fact it has never existed as anything but an ever-changing process. The movie of waking life, consciousness – in the sense of thinking, remembering, sensing, perceiving – all of that will be wiped out, as it is every night in deep sleep. All my memories and stories and accomplishments will eventually be wiped out. My children, if I have them, will eventually be wiped out. Even any idea of the Absolute Self or Ultimate Reality will be wiped out. Actually, all of that is wiped out every night in deep sleep and we find it enormously refreshing and rejuvenating.
P: So nothing survives death?
J: Nothing dies. Nothing is born. The body is only an idea. The actuality of what we call “the body” has no boundaries, no beginning, no ending. And the “me” who is supposedly located inside the bodymind is a bunch of ever-changing thoughts, stories, mental images, memories and sensations. None of this survives in deep sleep.
P: But something remains in deep sleep, doesn’t it? Pure awareness? Beingness? The Self?
J: None of those words remain in deep sleep. No idea remains in deep sleep. No concept remains. Nothing perceivable or conceivable or experiencable or describable remains in deep sleep. There is no experience and no experiencer in deep sleep. The concern with whether or not something remains, or what it might be, is totally absent. All sense of being present is absent. And any sense of being absent is also absent. No thing is there to be present or absent. And if we say nothing remains, this “nothing” is much too much. Can you feel how freeing this is? What a relief it is?
Because of this liberating quality in deep sleep, some Eastern teachings say that deep sleep is the closest state to Ultimate Reality, and yet, no temporary state is really any closer than any other state to Ultimate Reality. Ultimate Reality does not depend on the presence or absence of any particular state or experience. Ultimate Reality is not one frequency on the radio dial as opposed to some other frequency.
Ultimate Reality has been given many names. But whatever we call it, no word or description applies. We only name or conceive of it in the waking state – or in the dream state. And they’re very much the same, waking and dreaming. This naming happens only in waking or dreaming consciousness. But in deep sleep, there is nothing to name, and no one to name it, and no concern about what it is. In deep sleep, nothing stands apart from anything else. Nothing exists. To exist means to stand outside. In deep sleep, nothing is separate to stand outside of anything else. All separation between inside and outside is dissolved. When everything is erased, no such thing as “emptiness” or “space” remains.
Zen Master Dogen has this beautiful line in Genjo Koan: “When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated the other side is dark.”
There is no seer and no seen, only undivided seeing. Nothing is “out there” apart from us, and we are not “in here” looking out, but rather, everything is right here – no distance, no separation – only unicity and immediacy.
In waking consciousness, the lights are turned on, and the ten million things appear – movies roll, plot lines unfold, stories spin, whole universes come into being. And when that side is dark, as in deep sleep, everything disappears. What remains is not perceivable or conceivable. There is no way for waking consciousness to ever see or know what is present on the dark side, for when that dark side is “illuminated,” the very waking consciousness that seeks to know the darkness is absent.
There is no duality between the two sides or between subject and object. They do not co-exist, like the moon in the sky and its reflection in the water. They are each absolute. They each fill the whole field. They are not opposites. Each side contains the other completely. The noumenon is not other than the phenomenal manifestation. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
The whole universe appears as this chair, this water glass, this carpet. When you see one thing, you see the whole universe. When you take care of one thing, you take care of the whole universe. The noumenon or the absolute is not somewhere else. This is it, this very moment.
Consciousness cannot help waking up in the morning. It cannot help the emergence of Joan and her story and the world that appears around her with all its complexity – the beauty and the horror. It cannot help caring about what it cares about, and doing what it does. It cannot control where the attention goes.
Everything that appears is a kind of display, a painting in emptiness, with no substance and no continuity. It disappears completely instant by instant into the nothingness of death and deep sleep. Its beauty, its preciousness lies in its impermanence, its no-thing-ness. This understanding is not some cold nihilism that discards the world, but rather, total intimacy with the world.
This disappearance, this death is every moment. Everything is appearing and disappearing. Consciousness imagines itself encapsulated inside a particular bodymind, and then it worries about death, about “me” coming to an end. And to assuage that fear, it imagines life after death for “me” – heaven, hell, reincarnation, all that nonsense. But the whole problem is imaginary. What is it that would end? It is an idea based on false assumptions. All the problems we have, or seem to have, are problems of the bodymind. They only exist in consciousness, in waking life. In deep sleep, they are completely absent. This is a big clue. At the end of a long life, where did it all go? How real was it? Every night in deep sleep, there is no problem. Where did it go?
And this freedom of deep sleep or death is here right now in the utter simplicity of this moment –whoosh, whoosh, whoosh [Joan imitates traffic sounds]. When the stories drop and thought is silent, what problem remains?
Consciousness is painting pictures in emptiness. Like the paintings I did on the sidewalk with water when I was a child, it all evaporates moment by moment. That was very Zen, those paintings I did back then. I loved doing it. My paintings would quickly evaporate, but I didn’t mind. I wasn’t looking for permanence or achievement. I was simply enjoying the gesture of darkening cement, the activity of painting.
Like those sand paintings the Tibetan monks do. They spend hours and days and weeks meticulously creating an elaborate mandala in the sand. When it’s done, they enjoy it for a moment, and then they wreck it! Like children at the beach building sand castles and then smashing them.
Or like the painting of a whole lifetime at the moment of death – poof!
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2010 --
This is a chapter from Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality, currently published by New Sarum Press. It is from a talk and dialog held in Chicago. You may quote a small passage as fair use, but please do not re-post the entire chapter without permission from the publisher. Thank you!
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