Not Landing Anywhere / Not Fixating
If we look deeply, we see that ALL our thoughts, interests, urges and actions—our interest in nonduality, our attraction to meditation or to Advaita or to the Buddhist precepts, our ability or inability to follow those precepts in any given moment, our interest in or aversion to politics, the sources of information we trust or mistrust, what catches our eye, the ways our attention moves from one thing to another—ALL of this is a choiceless happening with no separate, independent thinker-decider-seer-chooser-controller-doer at the helm. All of it is a movement of the whole universe (Consciousness, Totality, intelligence-energy, Unicity), a waving of the vast undivided ocean of being. Our apparent conflicts and mistakes are in total harmony from this bigger or more subtle perspective. We are all inseparable waves in one ocean, and that ocean includes EVERYONE, even those we think and feel are the “bad guys,” and of course, we won’t all agree on who the “bad guys” or the “good guys” are.
The left eye and the right eye each see a slightly different world. There is some overlap in what they see, but the right sees some things that the left doesn’t and vice versa. Together they form one whole vision. Likewise, each of us sees a unique movie of waking life, and together, we are One Whole Vision, one whole Intelligence, one whole Ocean of Life moving together, even when it sometimes feels that we are separate and moving in opposition. This wholeness includes not only all the humans, but also the soil, the birds, the planets, the dust motes, the subatomic particles, the galaxies, the sun—all of it one intelligence, one happening, one being or interbeing. The apparent conflict that we experience at the human level is part of the whole, just as stormy weather often seems wild, chaotic and unpredictable—things blowing this way and that, winds and earthquakes over-turning and upsetting things.
When we look very closely, we can see that every breath, every heartbeat, every thought, every word we speak, every action we do, even our most apparently well-deliberated decisions emerge from a source we cannot find. EVERYTHING is a choiceless happening, and nothing could be other than exactly how it is in this moment. But at the same time, there is an undeniable SENSE of being able to make choices and initiate actions. That neurological sensation of agency and choice (as one neuroscientist calls it) is part of how the universe is functioning—it IS intelligence-energy in action. And undeniably, choices and decisions do occur. Multiple possibilities present themselves in consciousness, and one is selected. We can’t grasp exactly how that selection happens, but in some sense, we ARE the response-ability that is showing up Here / Now.
Sometimes our apparent choices seem to come through the filter of confused, self-identified, me-centered, reactive thinking and feeling—a cloud of emotion-thought and neurochemical smog (to use the wonderful terms coined by Joko Beck and David Bohm). We act in ways that might be called unskillful or hurtful (some might even say evil, although that is a word I avoid). We could also call such actions sinful, although I avoid that word as well because of the connotations it has come to have. But actually, the word “sin” simply means missing the mark. We miss the mark. We are out-of-sync in some way—not seeing clearly, acting on the basis of false concepts, second-guessing ourselves, over-thinking something, going forward with an action we intuitively know is harmful. We might also call this deluded action. Deluded action tends to produce more delusion, more conflict, more suffering.
At other times, our actions seem to come straight from wholeness, from the absence of separation, from open awareness, from what some might call “goodness” or unconditional love—we are “in the zone,” in the flow, in sync with the whole, seeing clearly, acting spontaneously with no thought-sense of separation or control. We might call this enlightened action. It FEELS very different from deluded action and tends to bring forth more wholesome results.
Of course, ultimately it ALL comes from and IS the activity of one undivided wholeness, and there is never really anything outside of, or other than, this seamless, boundless flow. In this larger (or absolute) sense, our so-called mistakes and stumbles are always in perfect harmony. To isolate out any part of the whole, reify it, and then call it good or evil, wholesome or unwholesome, is never entirely accurate. These are always relative distinctions, and the entities being so-labeled never really exist in the way we think they do.
But if we pick up “Oneness” as a belief, we may fail to realize how complete this nondual unicity is. We may think that, “Because all is one, it would be unenlightened to distinguish between right and wrong.” And yet this all-inclusive Unicity INCLUDES the capacity Here / Now to discern the difference between apples and oranges, between smog and clarity, between wholesome activity and unwholesome activity. Unicity INCLUDES the response-ability (when that ability is there) to choose love over hate, to stop and feel anger in the body rather than venting it externally. Unicity includes relative, functional boundaries and limits. It includes apparent multiplicity and duality. It’s ALL included.
Likewise, if we pick up choicelessness as an ideology or a belief—and especially if we fail to see how complete and all-inclusive this choicelessness is, we can easily end up mentally leaving ourselves out of Totality. With this kind of mistaken (or incomplete) view, we get the IDEA that we “shouldn’t” want to make changes or take action because, after all, “There is no self with free will to do any of that.” We have seen through the illusion that we are a separate part making autonomous, independent decisions, but without realizing it, we are still holding to a view of being a separate part, in this case a separate part that is being choicelessly pushed around by larger forces. This partial understanding isn’t complete enough.
The truth is, there is really no separate “thing” here to be either in or out of control. Both free will and determinism, choice and choicelessness, unicity and multiplicity, relative and absolute are pedagogical maps or pointers—conceptual formulations or descriptions of reality—as are all the other word-concepts we use such as “awareness,” “consciousness,” or “intelligence-energy.” None of these words or formulations captures the living actuality itself, because the living reality Here / Now cannot be grasped by any conceptual formulation. The map is never the territory, even though mapping is something the territory is doing.
We can use all these various maps to help us notice different aspects of reality, but as I never tire of pointing out, it’s crucially important not to get stuck in abstract concepts (i.e., maps), not to mistake the maps for the territory they describe, not to turn the map into an ideology or get fixated on one side of a conceptual divide, because then we end up with a new fundamentalist dogma, a new belief system that we are defending against other, seemingly opposite, abstract conceptualizations or formulations. We think we’ve gotten a grip on things because we have a concept that seems to make sense, but true liberation is actually letting all our beliefs and mental formulations go and opening to the Truth of reality itself, as it is, right here and right now, and THIS cannot be formulated.
How does this letting go happen? How do we move from hate to love? How does the heart open? How does the sense of separation fall away?
How does anything happen? Whatever we say is only a pointer, a map, a description. Such a map may be helpful. But ultimately, we can’t really say how anything happens. But somehow, when we notice that we are holding on, when tensing and grasping and seeking and resisting come into full awareness, the possibility of relaxing and letting go eventually reveals itself quite naturally. But if we have the IDEA that we “should” relax, or that relaxing will get us where we want to go, and if we TRY to relax, we only grow more tense. We are reinforcing the fundamental delusion of separation between subject and object and the thought-sense of being “someone” who needs to get somewhere better. Relaxing (opening, letting go, dissolving, surrendering, melting, softening) requires something other than willful effort. It is more like the efforting, the willful intention, the resisting stops. We allow what is, including the contraction, to be just as it is. And counter-intuitively, this total acceptance (or unconditional love) is the key to transformation.
Perhaps in order to relax and allow this efforting to stop, it is helpful to encounter a teaching or a map that shows us that Totality includes everything, even the tensing up, even the seeking and grasping, even the mistakes, even the delusion. We don’t need to improve ourselves, fix ourselves, save the world, or get somewhere. We can relax and be just as we are. Nothing is left out of reality. Totality includes the peacemaker and the tyrant, the impulse to meditate and the impulse to commit murder, exquisite gardens and war-ravaged landscapes, sunny days and the most violent and destructive storms. It’s one whole undivided and impersonal happening from which nothing stands apart.
But if we freeze that into a belief system or an ideology and then use it as an excuse to justify carrying on with harmful behavior, then it instantly becomes a form of delusion. Yes, that too simply happens. But so does the ability to see this for the slippery trick that it is. Whenever we land in any conceptual map and fixate on any abstract position, we’re missing the aliveness of Here / Now.
Thus, even though everything is already perfect and complete, that perfection INCLUDES the ability to see delusion as delusion. It includes spiritual paths to wake consciousness up from the trance of suffering. It includes medicine and meditation and addiction recovery work and movements for social justice and somatic awareness work and caring for the environment and white blood cells battling infections. Nothing is left out.
In the movie of waking life, we can seemingly “decide” to bring our attention back to the bare actuality of this moment, although when we look very closely, we can see that this “decision,” along with the urge or impulse that preceded it and the action that follows from it, are all a movement of the whole ocean. Letting go, waking up, or “deciding” to meditate instead of getting drunk or yelling at our partner can only happen when the right conditions come together. We cannot grasp how any of this happens; we cannot find any doer-author-chooser-agent at the controls pulling the strings. Still, it SEEMS as if we must “decide” to do these things or they won’t happen, just as we must in some sense “decide” to go shopping or the refrigerator will remain empty. And to refuse to do any of this because we have picked up a BELIEF that “there is no doer, no chooser and no choice” is to again leave ourselves out of Totality.
In fact, our ability to train the bodymind so that it has greater control, greater sensitivity, greater skill, greater abilities and so forth is all part of the movement of nature, the waving of the ocean. “We,” as apparently separate entities, are never actually in control of ANY of it. But at the same time, there is a power, a response-ability, right here that acts. And that power is not “me,” the separate self, but rather the true “I” to which we all refer. And within the play of life, “I” choose one possibility over another and even at times exert will or effort. In this manner, we work to improve our tennis game, to learn a language, to become a doctor, to recover from an addiction, or to wake up to Truth or the living reality. Neither the passive nor the active voice fully captures the living reality.
Radical nondual teachings that speak mostly in the passive voice and that emphasize the choiceless and compulsory nature of reality are not saying that you “shouldn’t” practice your tennis game or your language skills, or that you “shouldn’t” make a shopping list or go to the grocery store, or that you “shouldn’t” care about transforming the world, or that you “shouldn’t” get a college degree or take up meditation, or that you “shouldn’t” organize a political protest or do anything else that life moves you to do. Rather, these radical teachings are simply pointing out that ALL of this (the urge, the impulse, the interest, the action, the apparent results) is a happening of the whole universe and not the doing of any separate, autonomous, individual author who has free will. None of it is personal in the way we THINK it is. The wave is not separate from the ocean, and it can never go against the current of the ocean itself. Your interests, desires and apparent choices are an activity of the whole universe. Still, you must act! You have no choice! You ARE the response-ability arising Here / Now.
Likewise, when nondual teachings stress unicity and emphasize that “All is One,” that doesn’t mean we can’t discern a difference between apples and oranges, or that we “shouldn’t” have opinions or preferences. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have healthy boundaries or that we can’t set limits for our children.
Teachings—at least the intelligent ones—that offer a path such as meditation or inquiry are all about seeing through the illusion of the separate self and giving up the false attempt to control life. A true teacher knows very well that sometimes the urge, the interest, the ability, the commitment, the willingness and whatever else it takes to sit down and meditate is here, and sometimes it is not. They also know that these things can be cultivated and developed, just as other life skills can be cultivated and developed—at least, sometimes, when the right conditions come together. A true teacher knows that teaching meditation or going on a silent retreat or engaging in meditative inquiry is as much an act of wild nature as the white blood cells battling an infection in the body or the gravitational pull that keeps the earth and all the other planets in orbit. It is a happening of the whole universe from which nothing can stand apart. As bodymind organisms, we are all doing what the gravitational force of life moves us to do in each moment.
Sometimes, the map we need most on our journey is the “you have a choice; you are totally response-able Here / Now” map. Other times, the map we most need is the “choiceless, no-self, everything-happening-by-itself” map. These two maps have different strengths and different potential pitfalls when misunderstood or carried to a false or oppressive extreme. Neither is entirely true or entirely false. Use them as needed, but don’t fixate on either one or mistake it for reality itself.
Sometimes we need to focus on specific, particular things. We need to maintain healthy boundaries and set reasonable limits. We need to discern differences. At other times, we need to expand our focus to the boundless, limitless, seamless, all-inclusive vastness. We need to notice commonalities, sameness, interbeing and the absence of separation. True nonduality includes ALL of this. It doesn’t get stuck in some false IDEA of Oneness that excludes multiplicity and denies differences, or some notion of no-self that ignores the apparent person, or some belief in choicelessness that overlooks the response-ability Here / Now as this awaring presence (this intelligence-energy, this living reality) that we are.
Come back, again and again, from the map-world to the living reality itself. Be aware of how easily we mix them up. Notice how all our confusion is in the map-world, never in reality itself. Come home to the simplicity of what is: the sounds of traffic, the tree branches waving in the wind, the breathing, the sensations in the body, the listening silence, the stillness, the awaring presence, the vastness of Here / Now.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017 --
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