logo rocks

Non-duality, Advaita, Buddhism, Awakening—What's This All About in a Nutshell?

It is the dissolution of every answer to that question, the openness of not knowing.

If we put aside everything that can be doubted, what remains? The knowingness of being here and the bare actuality of present experiencing are impossible to doubt. No one needs to tell us that we are here. We don't need to look in a mirror or read about it in a book. We know it directly and absolutely. But what exactly is it that is undeniably here? Is it a person with a name, a gender, an age, a nationality—or is all of that second-hand information that we have learned and come to believe?

And what is this present happening if we don’t refer to thought, memory and second-hand information? We’ve learned that this is "a world," "a dog," "a chair," "a moon that is approximately 238,855 miles away from the earth," "a universe that arose with a Big Bang some 13 billion years ago," “a person with a life story,” and so on, but if we come back to the bare actuality of this moment before labels and thoughts, what is it? Cheep-cheep-cheep is undeniable, but the thought, "That's a bird that I am hearing," is a conceptual overlay, something we've learned, something that mentally freezes and divides the ever-changing (non-dual) flux into apparently solid and separate things.

I'm not saying that all of this "second-hand information" that we have acquired is "wrong," or that we should dismiss it—it may all be relatively true and useful for functioning in the movie of waking life—but it isn't absolutely true. So, can it be held more lightly?

If we don't refer to thought or memory, right now, what are we? And if we don't refer to thought or memory, right now, what is this present happening? These are wonderful meditative inquiries, not to think about, but to look directly and dissolve into.

We may discover that everything other than the knowingness of being here and the bare actuality of present experiencing can be doubted. We all see a unique movie of waking life. No two of us perceives or understands life in exactly the same way. All the ideas, interpretations and explanations of this living reality can be doubted and argued about—the abstract maps drawn by conceptual thought—the stories and beliefs. And yet we all share the undeniable sense of being present and aware, of being Here-Now, of being just this moment, exactly as it is. Perhaps this that cannot be doubted is our common ground—not the forms it takes or the thoughts about the forms, but the simple fact of being, the simple actuality of Here-Now.

Can we find an actual boundary in our direct experience where "inside of me" turns into "outside of me," or is the boundary an idea or a mental image like the line on a map between two countries? What do we find if we look inside for the "me" who is supposedly thinking my thoughts and making my choices? Do we find an actual entity, or do we find only ever-changing thoughts, memories, sensations and mental images? What is seeing all of this? Is that perceivable? Does that have a shape, a size, an age, a gender, a nationality, a life situation, a place where it begins or ends? Is it possible that what everyone most deeply refers to as “I” is the same boundless awareness, the same ever-present Here / Now, which we never actually leave?

Is it possible to wake up from the map-world and from our limited identification with the mirage-like “me” who is supposedly encapsulated inside “my body,” looking out at an apparently substantial and supposedly observer-independent “outside world” that we’ve been told exists outside of consciousness, a world supposedly made up of dead matter?

This waking up is a simple shift of attention from focusing on the thought-sense of separation, independence and encapsulation to recognizing the seamless, boundless present happening that has no actual borders, no actual beginning or ending, no actual self or not-self, no actual forms that persist and endure. This is a shift from being totally captivated by our thinking to living more from the awareness that can see thoughts for what they are, a shift from being totally caught up in stories, beliefs and ideas to instead being awake to the non-conceptual living reality of sensing and perceiving. This doesn't mean thinking stops, but the belief in our thoughts falls away more and more.

We spend our lives trying to be somebody special, trying to get somewhere. We don’t see the entire story of our life, including our spiritual search and all our spiritual attainments, as a kind of imagination that is no more real than a dream, a movie, or a soap opera on TV. We take our life drama (and our spiritual search) very seriously. We take our problems and our struggles with them very seriously.

And yet, every night in dreamless deep sleep, the whole show vanishes completely along with the phantom observer, the one who cares. What remains? Any answer (anything perceivable or conceivable) is absent in deep sleep. And yet, what remains in deep sleep is Here / Now, showing up as this amazing kaleidoscope of ever-changing forms—people, hummingbirds, subatomic particles, stars, emotions, traffic sounds—one seamless and indivisible whole.

Awakening is not about attainment or achievement or getting somewhere other than right here, right now. It is not about having a permanent experience of spaciousness or bliss or being in a perpetually calm and peaceful mood. All of that is in the dream. Awakening is not about the person we take ourselves to be crossing some magical finish-line and becoming an Awakened One. It is about seeing through all of that.

There are many moments in any ordinary day when the thought-sense-story of "me" is not there. There is simply driving the car, washing dishes, or being absorbed in a movie on TV. When the thought-sense-story of "me" is absent, the manifestation does not disappear. Life does not grind to a halt. In fact, everything functions much more smoothly. "No self" does not mean there is no longer an apparent person here. The functional sense of identity and location still shows up as needed. The apparent person still shows up, doing whatever it does—more freely and with less constraint than when the "me-story" is clouding the picture—and the world still shows up, doing what it does, and our thoughts and opinions and neurotic tendencies still show up as well, doing what they do. What falls away is the identification as this little-me, the belief that "I" am the author of my thoughts and the maker of my choices. There is the recognition that everything is as it is in this moment because the whole universe is as it is, and that in this moment, it cannot be otherwise. We’re not clinging or resisting or seeking anymore in the way we were. But we're still human. We still have desires and fears, likes and dislikes. We still feel emotions and experience pain. Life is more ordinary than ever, and the ordinary is vibrantly alive, more beautiful and precious than ever before, and yet it is also seen to be nothing substantial at all—a passing dream.

Pain is an unavoidable part of life, but it has often been said that suffering is optional. Suffering is what we do with pain and painful circumstances, our thoughts and beliefs, our false ideas of limitation, our exclusive identity as a limited bodymind, the ways we resist what is and seek happiness, love, peace, freedom and pain relief in all the wrong places.

Do we have a choice about whether to suffer? Can we choose to wake up? Don't answer this question from past experience, or from what others have told you, or from beliefs and spiritual ideologies. Live with this question, explore it freshly—not by thinking about it, but by looking and listening and feeling into what's true right now in the living reality of this moment.

We may find that there is no choice at all when we are totally hypnotized by our thoughts, stories, conceptualizations and beliefs. But can these be questioned, looked at more deeply? Can their grip on us loosen and dissolve? Is that possible? The separate self that we think is "doing" this questioning and making our choices is actually a powerless mirage, but is there another possibility?  Is it possible to discover exactly how suffering happens—what gets it going and what keeps it going? What happens when we get triggered, when our buttons are pushed, when we get defensive or feel hurt, angry, upset or afraid? What is it that feels threatened? What are we defending? Are we the character in the movie of waking life, or are we the awaring presence that beholds all of this (the character, the upsets, and the whole movie, including our spiritual journey)?

Every wave in the ocean is inseparable from the ocean. Waving is something the ocean does, a constantly changing movement that never holds to any particular form. There is no actual boundary between one wave and another, and every wave is equally water. No individual wave can decide to go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean as a whole is moving. When we know ourselves as the ocean, we can still be a wave, but we no longer think we're in control or separate from the other waves or from the ocean itself. The bodymind is the waving movement of a seamless unicity from which nothing stands apart. Underneath all our accumulated ideas about who we are, prior to name and form, what we all are is this seamless unicity.

The search for freedom is rooted in the belief that we are bound, that we are separate from the whole, that we are the captain of our bodymind, the author of our thoughts, the maker of our choices, the one who should be doing so much better, the one who needs to get somewhere and accomplish something. What if it is seen that this captain is a mirage with no actual existence, that a universe made of dead matter is an unverifiable belief, that time and space don’t actually exist in the way we think they do, that everything is Here / Now, that everything, including what seem to be “my” independent decisions, are movements of a seamless and boundless unicity?

The deep longing of the heart will not be satisfied by intellectual explanations, beliefs, ideologies or philosophies. What we long for is not "out there" somewhere. It is right here. It is this knowingness of being, this presence-awareness, this seamless unicity, this vast undivided intelligence-energy that is growing the trees and keeping the planets in orbit and beating the heart and breathing. It is this moment, just as it is!

This moment will not always be pleasant. One of our deluded ideas is that relative polarities can be separated and that one half can permanently defeat the other: good can triumph over evil, health can win out over sickness, enlightenment can conquer delusion, and so on. But these pairs of opposites go together. The manifestation can only appear in duality. To see things as they are is to realize that pain, sickness and what we call evil are part of life. That isn't to say we won't do what life moves us to do to recover from an illness, fix a flat tire, or correct a social injustice. But we will recognize that all of this is the play of life.

There is an openness Here / Now that is fully awake, vibrantly alive, luminous, full of energy. The so-called awakening journey is a never-ending, present moment, pathless path that is simply seeing through delusion, relaxing the grasping mind, opening the heart and dissolving into the groundlessness, the aliveness, the sacredness that is right here, right now. And even when that doesn't happen—even when the bodymind tenses up, gets defensive, feels upset, or does something unenlightened, that too is the movement of unicity and cannot be otherwise in that moment. It is nothing personal. To see that is to be free from guilt, shame, blame and perfectionism.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017 --

You are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post the whole article or a long excerpt anywhere else, please ask permission first, give appropriate copyright credit to Joan, and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

back to “outpourings“ menu