The Awakening Journey
As you walk the spiritual path, it widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all.
Our appearance, direction, and actions simply happen. This realization is freedom. From that point on, there is no meditator, no meditation, no doing, no knowing, and no realization. There is only a mysterious happening that can’t be understood in any way. It becomes obvious there has never been anything else.
That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.
Whether our project is the flight from pain or the pursuit of happiness, the outcome is the same: a life in flight from itself and from this moment. And this moment turns out to be the only answer there is, the only self there is, the only teacher, and the only reality. All hidden in plain sight.
The hope for spiritual enlightenment is usually the hope of avoiding what we are, the hope of avoiding the pains and confusions of existence, but enlightenment is the realization we can't avoid them…Spiritual liberation frees you from the misery-inducing fantasy of perfecting yourself. In this moment, I am what I am; you are what you are; we’re both the dance of the cosmos. Liberation isn’t the act of breaking free of this. Liberation is knowing it can’t be otherwise.
It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.
Once we know ourselves to be Ocean in the form of wave, we become free to be ourselves in a way we never dreamed possible. It is as if we had spent our life driving with the emergency brake on and suddenly it is off.
We could have the biggest problem going, and I mean the biggest neurotic obsession imaginable, and still it is all nothing but present experience. This understanding is completely liberating, once we get used to it. There are no solid and abiding subjects and objects of experience which are divided from each other as if by a pane of glass.
I don’t think in terms of having experiences anymore. Things just happen. Rain is dripping softly. The heart is beating. There is breathing, in-out-in-out-in-out. There is quiet listening, openness…emptiness…nothing…Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance… Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our experience mongering is a form of resistance in time.
In the beginning of our spiritual journey, we imagine that the goal is far away, that it is something mysterious and exotic that we must search for outside of ourselves. We imagine that we must practice diligently and make a great effort in order to (hopefully) arrive at this distant goal some day in the future.
Eventually, in a moment of waking up to what is obvious and most intimate, we recognize that we have never left the place we are searching for, that what we are seeking is what we are: the undeniable knowingness of being present, the infinite and eternal Here / Now that we can never leave, this ever-changing stream of present experiencing and the boundless awareness beholding it all. Awakeness is here right now, reading these words, hearing the bird cheeps or the traffic sounds, breathing, feeling sensations—just this—the simple happening of this moment. Confusion and suffering come when this simplicity gets overlaid with ideas about “me” being awake or not awake, and enlightenment and the meaning of life and “my spiritual search” and “the world situation” and all the rest. But being here now is utterly simple, obvious, unavoidable, and effortlessly already so. Awakenes is the natural state, the default state.
Presence, awareness, this present happening—this is not an object that can be grasped, seen, located, measured or pinned down, and yet, it is our most intimate and undoubtable reality. Awareness (or here-now) is the common factor in every different experience, the reality in every illusion.
When we look for the supposedly separate, encapsulated self, we discover that the boundaries between self and not-self, or between awareness and content, or between subject and object cannot actually be found, nor can we find any entity who is authoring our thoughts or making our choices. And yet, the functional sense of identity as a person shows up and functions quite naturally as needed.
But even after all this has been discovered, the deeply-engrained thought-sense of being a separate, independent entity, cut off from the whole, tends to recur and seem believable. So, for a while, it seems as if we “get” awakening and then “lose” it. One minute, there is only the simplicity of present experiencing and the spacious awaring presence beholding it all, and everything is luminous and full of love, and the next minute we are upset over some personal drama. And it seems as if this fluctuation is happening “to me,” that “I” (Joe Blow) am alternately “getting it” and then “losing it.” We think that presence or awareness is something that comes and goes, when in reality, it is the ever-changing thoughts, sensations, emotions, moods and events that come and go. The thought-sense of being a separate self comes and goes. And Joe Blow is actually not the author or the owner of any of this. Joe Blow is a movement of consciousness, a wave in the ocean, an intermittent appearance.
What happens if we look deeply into what we refer to with the word “I,” prior to name and form? That impersonal consciousness, which is not other than the ever-changing flow of experiencing, has no gender, no age, no nationality, no race, no size, no shape, no location—and there is nowhere it is not. It is the undivided wholeness of being.
Eventually we discover that any time we stop and check, no matter how upset we are or how dramatic the circumstances, it's always happening Here / Now in this awaring presence that is always right here, being and beholding the whole show. And whenever we look for the “me” who seems to be going back and forth between “getting it” and “losing it,” the one to whom all of this is apparently happening, all we find are ever-changing thoughts, memories, mental images and sensations. That “me” at the center of “my story” is a kind of mirage. When we move toward it, it vanishes. In recognizing this, the one with the problem evaporates into thin air along with the imaginary problem.
It also begins to dawn on us that all experiences are impermanent, that the movie of waking life is an ever-changing dance in apparent duality and multiplicity that will always be made up of shifting polarities. We will never have a permanent experience of expansiveness and happiness. There will always be moments of tightness and upset, moments of darkness and confusion, moments of apparent imperfection. For as long as this bodymind is here, the full range of human emotion can still show up, albeit perhaps with less and less psychological involvement and less tendency to perpetuate emotional states or believe in the accompanying or triggering storylines that show up in the mind. But no matter what shows up or how much involvement in the emotional drama there is or isn’t, it all appears in awareness, all of it a waving of the ocean, an impersonal movement of consciousness, the undivided and indivisible unicity from which nothing stands apart. Nothing that happens is actually personal. None of it means anything about "me." This "me," the apparent “owner” of these experiences, is only a mirage—a character in a dream.
After a while, we know where freedom is—where peace is—where liberation is. We know it’s right here, not over there. We know that the counter-intuitive secret of being liberated on the spot is allowing everything to be as it is, opening and relaxing, dissolving into the simplicity of present experiencing, just as it is, and into the awaring presence beholding it all, surrendering, melting, softening, letting go of what we are gripping and grasping—resting as this open, spacious, awaring presence that we always already are.
We know this, and yet, we don’t always seem able to let go, to surrender into that unbound vastness. It may feel like a kind of death, threatening to the survival mind. Our personal identity and our storylines are deeply engrained habits that in some way feel familiar and safe. Our stories can seem very believable and true, even after we’ve discovered that they aren’t true, and they operate very much like any other addiction or compulsion. The siren song of the mind is a powerful pull, one that engages the whole organism. And, of course, trying to “do” surrender it is one of the best ways of tightening up and reincarnating the mirage-like “me,” the apparent doer, who feels separate from the imagined goal and is desperately trying to get there. Surrender is actually the relaxing of that whole controlling impulse, dissolving into the immediacy of Here / Now, being just this moment, however it appears to be.
Maybe we start to relax into simple presence, and then suddenly a fear comes up. Thought issues some urgent warning: “Get a grip” or “Get back to reality” or “This is dangerous” or “Have you lost your mind?” We scare ourselves with stories that we will turn into some kind of spiritual nut case if we let go, all our friends will reject or ridicule us, we’ll go crazy, we’ll make a total fool of ourselves and ruin our lives, we’ll be turning our back on what really matters, we’ll no longer be able to function or earn a living, or whatever the story is. It feels as if our very survival is threatened. We tighten up and go back into the story of being me (the loser, the unenlightened one, the responsible one, whatever our story is).
Or perhaps just as we begin to dissolve into the utter simplicity of what is (seeing, hearing, sensing, breathing, awaring, being), the mind starts replaying one of our favorite old stories that are guaranteed to reincarnate our suffering and our sense of separation—stories of who hurt us, who abandoned us, what injustices we have suffered, what’s wrong with the world, all the ways we’ve failed, all the things we regret, or whatever our particular old favorites are. We each have our own unique ways of stopping ourselves from letting go, from being no-thing at all.
Maybe instead of simply being the aware presence that we are and opening into that, instead we rush to the bookcase and grab a spiritual book so that we can read about surrendering instead of simply surrendering. Or maybe we light a cigarette, or get out the ice-cream or the porn, or turn on the TV. Or we suddenly remember that we “need” to check our email or our Facebook messages, and next thing we know, we’re mindlessly surfing the internet. Pretty much anything will do.
But before we beat ourselves up for being hopelessly flawed spiritual losers, let’s remember to ask what is doing ALL of this? Is it “me” or is everything a movement of the totality, a movement that no one controls? And what is seeing all of this? Any time we stop and check, ALL of this is happening in awareness. That awareness is always already here. And all of it is happening Here / Now. All of it is a movement of consciousness, just as the waves on the ocean are a movement of the whole ocean. And all of it, the whole drama (like every apparent form) is dissolving instant by instant like snowflakes in a fire. Unless thought reincarnates it and keeps it alive, the past is gone. Nothing has ever really formed or ever really been lost or damaged.
There is no distance at all between our very beingness (this knowingness of being here now, to which the word “I” most deeply refers) and Ultimate Reality or Supreme Enlightenment. The true “I” is this limitless, undivided, unbound awareness that is utterly immediate and totally infinite, closer than close, at zero distance, with no separation whatsoever. What makes the full recognition of this so seemingly difficult is that it is so obvious, so familiar, so simple, so absolutely all-inclusive and ever-present. It also seems to elude us because it is non-dual, and thought functions in duality. Here / Now is not some-thing that we can grasp (this but not that)—it is no-thing and everything. And the mind keeps looking for something. Eventually it is realized that we can’t find this with the thinking mind. We can't "get it" because we aren't separate from it. We can only BE it, and in fact, we can't not be it. This is all there is.
Awakening is simply a matter of recognizing (again and again, now) what is most obvious and ever-present. And then noticing (again and again, now) how consciousness (posing as “me”) turns away, how thought and imagination reincarnate the mirage-like separate self and the emotional dramas and stories that keep us in a feeling-state of contraction, which then reinforces the belief in separation. And then recognizing (again and again, now) that we never really can turn away, that wherever we seem to go, Here-Now is what we are. And noticing (again and again, now) that none of this is happening to “me,” the spiritual seeker, for that seeker is only a mirage-like appearance, a shape that consciousness is momentarily assuming, a claim after the fact by the thinking mind. It is ALL a happening in (and of) consciousness.
The awakening from suffering to liberation can only happen Now—that realization is an essential key. It is never a future or a past event. But for most of us, the apparent journey from suffering to liberation does not happen once-and-for-all in a single permanent Big Bang event. For most of us, it is a gradual process, with peak moments perhaps, but overall a gradual process in which this realization of non-separation and no-self and the boundlessness and fluidity of everything gradually permeates every cell of our being as we seem to dissolve ever-more deeply and completely into the spacious awaring presence that we are. There is no end to this process really, it is always now, always new, ever-fresh—in the aliveness of this moment.
Of course, any description of a process over time or an apparent dissolving of one thing into another is only relatively true, a happening within the dream-like movie of waking life, or an attempt to point to what cannot actually be put into words. In reality, which is timeless, it is always already accomplished. Nothing is missing, and there is really nothing to be dissolved. Liberation doesn’t happen to the person—it is a waking up from the idea of being separate, encapsulated, and independent of the whole. In any moment of waking up from the me-story and the dream of separation, the bodymind and the personality is still here, free to be the unique and ever-changing expression of the ocean that it is, no longer constrained by expectations, social conventions, me-stories, and old ideas.
Thought may tell us that we, as the imaginary character in "The Story of My Life," are at a particular stage in this apparent journey from suffering to liberation, but that stage (“beginner,” “advanced,” “almost there,” “hopeless case,” whatever it might be) is always only a thought-idea, and the one it refers to is only a mental image, and the apparent journey never really goes anywhere, for it is always Here / Now. No one has ever truly been lost or bound. All there is, is emptiness dancing, a dance without a dancer.
The mind will say, “Yes, but…” And when it does, question the mind. And rather than trying to think your way to enlightenment, which never works, simply notice what is here right now, prior to thought, in the aliveness of this very moment. Give your attention and your heart to this aliveness. Melt into that. Be devoted to that. Give your life to that.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017 --
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