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Being Just This Moment: My Awakening journey

(This piece was originally published in the Spring 2014 Issue of
ONE: The Magazine (a discontinued publication associated with Gangaji) and it also appears in the anthology The Journey Home: Vol. 3)

I’ve never had one of those flashy, dramatic awakening experiences that some people report with kundalini shooting up the spine, nor have I ever experienced the kind of permanent shift some people describe where your life is a total mess and you’re utterly depressed, and then suddenly—BAM!—everything changes overnight and you are forever after permanently established in awake presence, never to be depressed or worried or caught-up in the story of me or the sense of separation ever again. In my case, awakening has been a much more gradual process of waking up and falling asleep and waking up again. And as I see it, there is no end to awakening. It is a never-ending and ever-fresh discovery that only happens Here / Now.  

Whenever I tell my story, I like to remind myself and my listeners that it is a mental creation. Memory offers a very selective and often unconsciously altered version of events. In constructing “the story of my life,” the thinking mind is selecting, abstracting, reifying, dividing and making sense out of an endless, ever-changing stream of sensations, relying on memories that are notoriously mutable, protean and incomplete. However relatively true that story is, it’s always an imaginary creation, a mental formation, and that’s important to remember. The main character is a creation of smoke and mirrors. So with that said, here’s my story and the story of waking up from my story.

As a child growing up in the Midwest in the 1950’s, I loved nature and felt the sacredness of life. Although I wasn’t raised in a religion, I had a deep sense of God. I knew from early on that spirituality in some form was going to be my vocation. My father, an atheist and a determinist with an interest in physics, told me that every action, from the biggest to the smallest, was the result of everything else in the entire universe and that nothing could be other than exactly how it is. He explained how free will was an illusion. He told me that everything is energy or subatomic particles dancing in and out of existence, that there is no real separation between a table and the room it is in, or between me and the trees in the backyard—it’s all one undivided, ever-changing, impermanent event. Everything he said instantly made complete sense to me. I totally got it. My mother believed in love and positive thinking and told me you can do anything if you put your mind to it. She modeled a life of selfless generosity, zest for living and friendships with people of every race, age, gender, sexual orientation, political persuasion, class background and social status. My parents were my first teachers, and I’ve spent my life reconciling their two seemingly very different teachings. It has been a kind of koan, this marriage of determinism and infinite possibility.

My right hand and part of my right arm were amputated by a ruptured amniotic band towards the end of my mother’s pregnancy when I was still in the uterus. My arm was slowly strangled until it fell off. Back in those days, being born with a disability, and perhaps even more significantly with a disfigurement, especially for a female, was much less socially accepted than it is today. I internalized a deep sense of being fundamentally imperfect and even repulsive. As it turned out, this gave me a great affinity for all other human beings who were regarded as less than perfect—people of color, foreigners, people with mental disorders, outsiders of all sorts. Eventually I realized everyone feels flawed and wounded in some way, that my missing arm was a kind of externalization of a condition that is universal but more often hidden. It enabled people to trust me with their secrets in ways they might otherwise not have done. Having only one hand has been one of my greatest teachers and greatest gifts, one of many opportunities in this life to discover perfection in imperfection and enlightenment in samsara—because that is the only place we ever find it.

I came of age in the tumultuous Sixties, an amazing time of social upheaval. I saw the unthinkable horrors my country unleashed on the Vietnamese people. I held several of the soldiers returning from that war in my arms. I saw the cruel injustices of racism, the vicious murder of Emmett Till and so many others. I heard Martin Luther King speak in person and saw Malcolm X live on television. They were my heroes and also my teachers. They showed me that nothing is set in stone, that things can change, that we can wake up from centuries of conditioning.

While in college in New York state, I came out as a lesbian—which was also not nearly as acceptable back in 1966 (before Stonewall) as it is today. This blossoming of first love was exhilarating and also very painful and difficult. I was filled with turbulent emotions and had no skills with which to navigate these waters. I began drinking heavily. The fingerbiting compulsion I’d had since childhood escalated and became very severe. It was the Sixties—I smoked weed, dropped acid, slept with lots of people, men and women, went to anti-war demonstrations, took a class on Vedanta and Zen, read Alan Watts and the Upanishads, and discovered Zen meditation.

I remember that on my first acid trip, I couldn’t talk. I was totally silent. Everyone was quite worried and kept asking me if I was okay. I wanted to reassure them, so I’d start to speak, but then it would instantly be obvious to me that any word I might utter referred to nothing at all. Words were meaningless sounds, and the apparently solid and discrete things they labeled, defined and created in the imagination were all make-believe. The world was much more fluid and much less graspable than words could ever capture. That realization is actually a profound spiritual insight, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.

I came West after college and lived in the lesbian bars in San Francisco for several years having black-out drunks and living a wild and reckless life. I shot heroin, snorted cocaine, ingested supposedly fatal combinations of alcohol and drugs of all kinds over and over again and survived against all odds. I woke up in strange countries, in bed with strangers, smoked several packs of unfiltered cigarettes every day, and one day, one of my friend’s children said of me, “Mommy, this lady smells like garbage.” My last drunken lover was a junky and probably a sociopath, just out of prison for prostitution. I went to some very dark places in these years, did things I would never have done sober, and I learned a lot about what drives human beings to do harmful things. I also had some amazing experiences of being helped out by total strangers, often ones that might stereotypically be considered threatening and dangerous, such as the car full of young black men who picked me up drunk, hitchhiking in the middle of the night out of a high-crime neighborhood in the East Bay, and took me right to the door of where I was going in San Francisco.

Eventually, at the end of 1973, I bottomed out. During a fight with my lover, I threw her TV through the window, broke all the furniture, swung a fire poker at her head (fortunately missing her), swallowed a bottle of pills, smashed my own head open on the sidewalk in a drunken fall and ended up in the hospital. By the grace of God, within days, I ran into an unconventional lesbian doctor and therapist who was working with LGBT alcoholics and drug users in a government-funded program. My therapist believed that alcoholism was a choice and not a disease, that I could become conscious of how I was making this choice and learn to make a different choice. I stopped drinking, taking drugs and smoking cigarettes. I felt reborn.

I became a political activist (feminism, Gay Liberation, eventually anti-imperialism). At the radical edge, I experienced how easily we can turn into everything we are fighting against. Eventually, I left political activism, studied martial arts and became a Zen Buddhist. I still remember the huge joy I felt listening to the rain on my first Zen sesshin (silent retreat). I also remember the excruciating pain that came with sitting motionless in the half-lotus posture for days on end. I remember discovering that if I relaxed into the pain, totally accepted it and went right into the core of it with awareness, it would dissolve or at least be completely tolerable and even interesting, whereas if I tightened up and resisted it, then it would seem unbearable, as if it were going to kill me. I lived at the Berkeley Zen Center briefly and did several sesshins with Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck as well. Joko and I remained in touch until her death in 2011.

In 1988, I ended up on a retreat with Toni Packer, a former Zen teacher who had left the ritual, dogma and hierarchy of Zen behind, keeping only the silent sitting, but in a much more open way. Toni had been greatly moved by J. Krishnamurti, and her work could be described as a combination of Krishnamurti and Zen. There was no prescribed sitting posture, you could even sit in an armchair if you wanted, and the sitting schedule was entirely optional. Toni emphasized open listening, awareness and meditative inquiry—seeing thoughts as thoughts, waking up from entrancement in stories and beliefs, discovering the undivided wholeness of presence, exploring the “me” at the center of an upset feeling, looking to see if there was any author of our thoughts or any maker of our decisions. I lived and worked on staff at Springwater, the retreat center Toni founded in rural northwestern New York, for 5 years. We had about 10 week-long silent retreats every year. In between, there were all the button-pushing challenges of communal living and working with a small group of people you didn’t choose, all stuck together in the middle of nowhere. There were also several hundred acres of beautiful land in which to have a vibrant connection with the natural world. These were amazing years, filled with rich discoveries, culminating in the publication of my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My life, in 1996.

In my last years at Springwater, I discovered Advaita. I read Nisargadatta, attended a number of retreats with Jean Klein, and stumbled upon Gangaji just as she was starting out in her teaching career. I fell totally in love. Eventually, I left Springwater and moved back to California. Being with Gangaji was all about devotion, opening the heart, melting into love, discovering the awaring presence that is ever-present—the Heart that is beyond name and form.

Encouraged by all my teachers at the time, I started holding meetings in 1996. In a sense, I did this before I was ready, although in the larger sense, everything always happens right on time. But I was still unsure, unsettled and seeking. After Gangaji, there were many years of seeing different satsang teachers, followed by a number of radical nondualists.

In 2000, I moved to Chicago to be with my mother at the end of her life, and that was a profound spiritual journey. I watched her letting go with incredible grace. I studied Feldenkrais (awareness through movement) in Chicago, taught English to students from around the world at a community college, published my second book, Awake in the Heartland, and held meetings on nonduality and living in presence. I attended several Zen sesshins with Steve Hagen and more retreats at Springwater.

I was in Chicago for 8 years, and somewhere during those years, seeking ended. Of course, there can still be moments of trying to seek pleasure or get away from some uncomfortable feeling by turning on the TV or checking email, but my desperate search for enlightenment “out there” somewhere (apart from this moment Here / Now) ended in Chicago. It didn’t end dramatically in a flash of light. I simply noticed one day that it wasn’t there anymore, that it had dissolved. Exploration, curiosity and discovery continue, but the search for some finish-line event or explosive transformation was over. I knew beyond any doubt where home was—right here, right now in the utter simplicity of being just this moment.

For a long time, that hadn’t seemed like enough. At least not when I thought about it. I’d get caught up in the story of not being as good as those teachers whose awakenings were more dramatic and apparently more permanent. I felt that something was lacking in my case, that I hadn’t fully arrived yet because I could still feel defensive or get depressed or bite my fingers. I still imagined a “there” outside of Here / Now. I wanted what these other teachers seemed to have—a permanent absence of the thought-sense of separation, a permanent dropping away of all delusion, an unbreakable stability in open presence. It took quite a long time to notice that these concerns were all about me, that they were the entrancement in thought that recreated the virtual reality from which they were so desperately trying to escape. Only from the perspective of the fictional separate self is there any concern with how I rank or compare with others. In unbound awareness or presence, such measurements and comparisons make no sense. There is only this seamless happening, just as it is. And Here / Now is always here, equally present in moments of contraction and moments of expansion.

During these years in Chicago, after my mother died in 2004, Toni Packer asked me to be one of the people she was naming to carry on her work at Springwater. At first I said yes, but I soon realized that I needed to be free of any institution. I sensed that my being on the teaching staff at Springwater wouldn’t really work for me or for Springwater. I think Toni realized the same thing, and we had a beautiful conversation where we mutually agreed that I would work on my own. Toni and I remained close until her death last year.

In 2008, the year I turned 60, I moved to Ashland, Oregon. Getting old is another spiritual adventure—you suddenly realize in a very visceral way that there is no future. You are beginning to dissolve. Everything is falling away. Growing old involves loss of control, loss of abilities, loss of independence, loss of self-image, loss of loved ones, loss of everything that has defined you. In the end, it is a total letting go. As someone famously said, “Old age is not for sissies.”

I have continued since 1996 to hold public meetings—in California, in Chicago, now in Ashland, occasionally in other cities and countries, and with individuals by phone and Skype. One of the attendees at my Chicago meetings recorded and transcribed those talks and dialogs, and they grew into my third book, Painting the Sidewalk with Water, published in 2010. I wrote and published Nothing to Grasp in 2012 and am currently at work on several more books, including one on aging and death. I continue to discover that the very things that seem like obstacles are the doorways into freedom, and that in any moment of coming home to Here / Now, there is no bondage or delusion. It all dissolves.

The single most important lesson I’ve learned about awakening is that it only happens now. It doesn’t happen by chasing it and trying to make it happen, but rather, by relaxing and allowing it. Awakening is not an achievement—something “out there” that we attain or acquire; it is our True Nature. It is our most immediate and intimate reality, what Here / Now (awareness, presence) is. Being awake isn’t personal. There’s no me in it. Awareness is boundless, uncontained, ownerless, all-inclusive. “I’m awake” or “I’m not awake” are thoughts. The “I” to which they refer cannot actually be located. The self is a collection of ever-changing thoughts, stories, memories and neurological sensations with no actual owner and no actual author. This separate self is always only a mirage. In reality, everything is one, undivided, seamless happening.

It’s still possible to get caught up in habitual patterns of the thinking mind and the compulsive body. But eventually, there is a remembering, a coming home. The mind stops, the body quiets, the heart opens. When this happens, in that natural stillness and wakefulness, everything is complete and nothing more is needed. There is no me, no resistance, no seeking, no conflict, no separation, no gap. Nothing is lacking. Nothing is a problem. And when contraction happens, then being just this moment is being contraction. Nothing personal, just a happening of life.

The deepest truth is that we really don’t know why the occasional person seemingly wakes up more-or-less permanently in a single moment, while for most of us, awakening is a much more gradual, zigzagging, spiraling, back-and-forth unraveling over many decades. We all have different weather systems as a result of our different genetics, neurochemistry, hormones, conditioning and life experiences. Each of us is absolutely unique in that regard. And yet, we’re not really the separate, independent, persisting entities we think we are. We’re actually fluid, borderless, permeable, ever-changing, wave-like events, inseparable from everything else in the universe. No wave more fully embodies the ocean than any other, and no wave controls the ocean. Who can say why one wave is bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker than another, or even where one wave ends and another begins? The ocean is seamless. If we identify as the wave, which is a frozen concept, we take our story personally and compare ourselves to others. But from the perspective of the ocean, the concern with not being the biggest or the best wave dissolves completely. We realize that our ideas of success and failure are just that, ideas.

Take my fingerbiting compulsion, something I’ve had since childhood that still flares up occasionally. Is it a good thing or a bad thing, an advantage or a disadvantage? It seems like a form of suffering, and yet, it has shown me the uncontrollable nature of life. I’ve seen that I can’t will it away, but I’ve also discovered that when there is open, nonjudgmental awareness, it stops by itself. It has given me compassion for those whose compulsions are much more serious—child molesters, serial killers, rapists—and also for humanity in our compulsive global warfare and destruction of the environment. It has shown me that we can’t simply decide, with thought and willpower, to stop these things. These happenings are a force of nature, a result of infinite causes and conditions, and these compulsory weather patterns unravel at their own pace. The so-called perpetrator is truly blameless, for there is no such central agent in command. At the same time, there is a possibility, right now, to stop, to be still, to be present and to completely allow the energies and sensations of this moment to unfold in total acceptance. And in that unconditional love, the chain of conditioning is broken and something new emerges.

This possibility is one we have to discover for ourselves, much in the way we discover how to swim or ride a bicycle, and once discovered, it becomes ever-more available. But still, it is not available on command through force of will. It is a kind of surrendering or letting go, and sometimes the force of habit and compulsion is stronger than our ability to relax and let go. As I see it, the pathless path of awakening on the spot is really about discovering and then allowing this surrender in ever-deeper ways, and forgiving ourselves when we fail.

I wish we could get beyond the "finish-line" model of enlightenment and the whole mythology of "permanently awakened people" who have supposedly left all delusion and all traces of the me-illusion permanently behind them forever. I wish we could see that everything is unfolding in the only possible way, that everyone is blameless, that nothing is personal. I wish we could wake up from our fascination with special experiences. The pathless path always begins now. Enlightenment is not “out there.” It’s not mysterious or exotic or foreign to us. It’s right here. Simple. Ordinary. Immediate. We can’t figure it out. We can’t grasp it. It’s not some flashy special experience—those all come and go, and they don’t really mean anything. Enlightenment is simply hearing the traffic, seeing the thoughts as thoughts, listening to the rain, going to the heart of our human suffering and finding the way through, not once and for all, but now, recognizing that our true nature has actually never been absent.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2014 --

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