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The Paradox of the Wave Seeking the Ocean

In what sense is it true (or untrue) that there is nowhere to go, nothing to become and nothing to do?  Obviously, if a wave is seeking the ocean, the wave already is what it is seeking, and what it is seeking is already fully, totally, abundantly present. In that sense, there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to become. But unless that is realized, the wave is suffering under the spell of a false belief. It longs to wake up to what is obvious and actually already known, but somehow being overlooked.

It is clear to anyone who has passed through the so-called “gateless gate” of enlightenment (aka being liberated on the spot, here and now) that there never was a gate or anyone who passed through it. Nothing was ever lacking, and nothing previously absent was attained. The entire search was an appearance, an imagination, a misunderstanding, a kind of mental movie. But at the same time, there is an undeniable difference between knowingly realizing this and being confused and entranced by the story of separation and lack, which is why there is said to be a gateless gate rather than no gate at all. As the Advaita sage Nisargadatta put it, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.”

So, what to do? Does “stop the search” or “this is it” mean that we should walk away from spiritual inquiry, contemplation and exploration altogether, that we should refuse to ever see another teacher, attend another retreat or satsang, or sit down ever again in meditation? Does it mean that life sucks and we should just settle for being miserable, depressed, anxious, unhappy cogs in the wheel of destiny? When a teacher says that enlightenment is “final defeat,” is that what they mean?

This is where it gets so very tricky to express the truth about liberation. My own experience in this hopeless business of expressing the inexpressible is that I lean in one direction in my expression and then in the other: something to do, nothing to do; transformation, nothing happening; improvement, acceptance; choice (possibility), choicelessness; be here now, there is only here-now; and so on. Some teachers emphasize only one side of these conceptual divides, in some cases exclusively sticking to that one side—and while that can be beautiful and highly effective in conveying that singular perspective without compromise, if we listen only to that teacher and imbibe only that one perspective, we can end up stuck on one side of a false duality, clinging to half the truth. A truly great teacher, in my experience, is one who sees which side of the false duality the student is currently fixated on and then pulls the rug out from under them so that they have to see and recognize the other side as well. Ultimately, we can’t land anywhere. Liberation is freedom from fixation. Awareness accepts everything and sticks to nothing. Thought, on the other hand, is in the business of picking and choosing, chasing and resisting, defending and promoting, dividing and conquering.

Clearly, as I see it, we need different teachings with different emphases at different moments. Sometimes we need the radical “this it is, just as it is” message (you are already the ocean; the ocean is all there is); sometimes we need the pathless path of “being here now” (meditation, inquiry, feeling into the sensory-energetic actuality of water, seeing if we can find an actual boundary between ocean and wave, and so on). Both ways of addressing the problem are valuable, both are true. Both have potential pitfalls. The radical “do nothing, give up the search, this is it” message can be taken on conceptually as merely a new belief, thus papering over the feeling of separation and lack with a comforting new ideology. Meditation and inquiry can inadvertently reinforce the story of being a separate something, needing to do something in order to get somewhere.

If we’re trying really hard to get somewhere and do it right and fix ourselves, it can be immensely liberating to hear that we are already the ocean, that nothing is missing. Just hearing this can sometimes trigger the actual realization of it. But it does no good merely to believe or think that this is true. Hence, we have teachers, books, videos, satsangs, retreats, meditation, inquiry, and so on to help us actually see and feel and realize this directly, and to live out of this realization from moment to moment (i.e. Now).

If we haven’t actually realized this—if “undivided awareness” or “no self” or “choiceless happening” are just concepts to us, then giving up the search (i.e., giving up inquiry, meditation, retreats, working with teachers, and so on) prematurely may be a great loss. Of course, sometimes that is the way it needs to unfold. And even then, that apparent loss is simply another impersonal waving of the ocean. Nothing is ever really lost in the way we think it is.

But if we’re suffering from depression, anxiety, worry, hatred, rage, self-pity, despair, addiction and so on, it may be very helpful and liberating to discover the possibility of sitting still and observing the mind, seeing the thoughts as thoughts and perhaps not being totally hypnotized any more by the stories they are spinning. It may be very helpful and liberating to shift attention from the thought-stream to the realm of sensing, perceiving and awaring—hearing the birdsong and the traffic sounds, smelling and tasting the coffee, feeling the breathing, feeling all the sensations and energies in the body without the storylines or the labels, and discovering that what had seemed unbearable is actually quite bearable and also ephemeral and impermanent. It may be very helpful to cultivate the ability to turn away from addictive compensations and distractions and to simply be present with the bare energetic, sensory reality of the ever-changing present moment. And it may be that by spending time in this kind of silent, non-conceptual contemplation and exploration, we discover for ourselves the actual reality behind such terms as impermanence, no-self, choicelessness, seamlessness, boundlessness, awareness, presence, Here-Now, liberation, enlightenment, and so on.

As I see it, the search comes from what we are seeking—it comes from the ocean itself. It is a movement of the ocean itself. The wave is longing to return home to the ocean, the place we have never actually left, Here-Now. We are longing to wake up from the story that we are somebody separate and deficient, on a journey in time and space, lacking something that we are searching to find. The search will continue, in one way or another, for as long as that story feels true to us. We may give up the spiritual search prematurely and then begin searching for new handbags instead, or new forms of intoxication through drugs, sex, money, power, whatever it is. Ultimately, until the truth is realized, we inevitably end up seeking and resisting, feeling briefly elated and then once again dissatisfied. And the “final defeat” is not resigning ourselves to this cycle of misery.

The “final defeat” is the realization that no experience is permanent or permanently satisfying. Often, on the spiritual path, we have a glimpse of freedom. In that glimpse, the thought-pattern we call “me, the separate self” momentarily vanishes, the accompanying bodily contraction relaxes, there is a felt-sense of spaciousness, openness, peace, love, joy, freedom. There is no me anymore, no boundaries, no limits, no problems. There is just the ocean, waving! We think, “Wow! This is it! I’ve got it!” And then suddenly, with that thought, there it all is again—the me-mirage and the imaginary division: “I” who got (or lost) “it.” If that thought is not seen for what it is, the self-centered dream returns, the accompanying “neurochemical smog” (as David Bohm called it) comes back, all of it producing bodily contractions, uneasy feelings and dark moods—and, in the blink of an eye, the felt-sense of confusion, misery and desperation returns. The story then arises, “I had it, but I lost it, and the person sitting at the front of the room next to the flowers is having that spacious experience permanently, and I want that, too.”  Of course, this is a misunderstanding and it doesn’t work.

But this seems to be a stage on the pathless path that most all of us pass through—trying to recapture a past experience, imagining that if only I could get that experience back and then get it to last forever, that would be enlightenment. Thinking that the teacher has something I don’t, trying to figure it all out by thinking about it, thoughts running around and around the mental hamster-wheel, chasing a pipe dream that is always just out of reach.

Often, at the very same time this is happening, we also begin to notice that the teacher we thought was so wonderful is actually flawed and imperfect and totally human. Not only that, but some of the people around them are also flawed. The rosy picture we had of this whole scene collapses. Disillusionment sets in. We run into other disgruntled students and ex-students and share stories together of how horrible this teacher is and how messed up the whole sangha and the whole scene is. This is briefly satisfying, finding allies in our disgruntlement and venting our disillusionments, but the satisfaction fades quickly.

Some people get very discouraged at this point and leave. Some even renounce the teacher and conclude that all of spirituality is nothing but a con game holding out false promises of some non-existent enlightenment in order to reel in suckers and make tons of money from their gullibility.

The disillusioned seeker can, at this point, see that the once-revered teacher is not permanently enlightened in the way the seeker had thought about and imagined enlightenment. Clearly, the teacher is sometimes deluded, caught up in some kind of reactive emotion, behaving badly, making mistakes, doing things wrong, whatever it might be. So obviously, that flawed human being is not really enlightened. And this is true. A permanently enlightened person is a total oxymoron.

But what is often spoken of as permanent or ever-present is not an experience that lasts forever, but rather the timeless awareness Here-Now in which ALL different experiences (contracted and expanded, self and selfless, pleasant and unpleasant) appear and disappear. Here-Now is never not here, and it is owned by no one. Even the first bare impersonal SENSE of being present and aware (what has often been called the I AM) comes and goes. That which is aware of that coming and going, that in which it happens, that shoreless ocean that is equally present in (and as) every wave and as what remains when all waving ceases, that unbroken unicity Here-Now has been given many names. But whatever language is used, the main point is that it is not an object or a particular experience (this but not that). No experience is permanent, and no separate, persisting object actually exists.

So-called enlightenment is not a permanent experience of any kind. And it isn’t about “me” (the illusory mirage-like self) crossing some finish-line in the movie of waking life and becoming a permanently Enlightened One at long last! It is the dissolving of that whole mirage and fantasy, such that even if the mirage still appears from time to time, we are no longer fooled by it. We no longer mistake it for reality and run eagerly toward the mirage-lake in the desert sands in search of water. Or to return to our earlier metaphor, as a wave, we are no longer seeking the ocean outside ourselves, and we are no longer imagining that we need to quiet down and stop waving in order to be the ocean. We realize that there is no way we can not be the ocean.

What we are searching for is truly right here, never absent, but we cannot experience it as an object (a sensation, a mental picture, a formulation, a feeling, a form of any kind). Those experiences or forms all come and go. We’re simply no longer chasing experiences, trying to hold onto them or push them away. Aware Here-Now, we are simply the space in which everything comes and goes. We are the whole happening.

Liberation begins with the total acceptance of what is, and yet, this acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. The ending of the search doesn’t mean leaving the flat tire on the car flat forever because we’re “allowing everything to be as it is.” It doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to being miserable because “this is it.” We see that we can’t not be the ocean, and at the same time, as the ocean, we are naturally moved to explore, to discover, to wake up, the be free. Recognizing our powerlessness as the wave, we discover our true power as the ocean. You can see why it gets so hard to express all this and why it can all be so easily misunderstood when it hasn’t actually been realized. When realized, it’s all so utterly simple and obvious and unavoidably right here, right now. We realize it was never not realized, and yet, that had to be realized. To the thinking mind trying to make sense of all this, figure it out, “get it,” experience it or stay in some particular state of consciousness “all the time,” it is all hopelessly paradoxical and absurd and frustrating in its apparent contradictions!

In one way, giving up (surrendering, relaxing, melting, softening, opening, resting, allowing) is exactly the needed move (or happening), but if that is misunderstood as surrendering to the addiction or walking away from meditation in the belief that it was all a pile of crap, then that isn’t it. Except in the sense that EVERYTHING is it! Once again, to the thinking mind, it is all hopelessly paradoxical and absurd, and it’s so easy to pick up a pointer (a map) as a mental idea, cling to it as a belief, and then mistake that map-belief for the actual territory itself.

So, I would say, don’t give up until it’s truly clear beyond all doubt that what you have been seeking is Here-Now, that THIS is what you most truly are, that this unbound, limitless, seamless unicity is expressing itself as EVERYTHING, that ALL of it is your own Self, that this Self is no-self or no-thing at all, and that this no-thing-ness is vibrantly alive and precious beyond all measure.

What am I talking about? Whoosh-whoosh [sounds of traffic, without the label, just pure sound], the astonishingly beautiful mountains and valleys of light and shadow and texture on the crumpled Kleenex sitting on the table, the aroma of coffee, the sensations in the belly, the tingling in the fingers, the open awaring presence Here-Now—just this! Before we think about or label any of this, what is it? No answer, no explanation of it (scientific or metaphysical) can ever capture or compare with the living actuality itself, nor can any word or concept satisfy the deep longing of the heart to be knowingly home, right here, just as we are. And in my experience, there is no end to exploring this, no end to discovery, no end to being liberated on the spot.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018--

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