My Path and What I Share
Occasionally, I’m asked about my background, my path, what teachers I’ve been with, what it is that I write and talk about, what I do, what my essential message is. Is this Buddhism? Advaita? Nonduality? What is it? There doesn’t seem to be any simple answer to any of these questions. But here’s an attempt.
Of course, what I’m about to share is a story, a kind of fabrication in which the infinite and utterly ungraspable and undefinable immensity of what’s going on in each moment is selectively reduced and abstracted and reified into some kind of coherent narrative, centered around a character who cannot actually be found. It’s a true story, relatively speaking, but no story is ever the actual reality it attempts to describe. That said, here we go...
I started out in Zen many decades ago. For me, Zen was about waking up to the bare actuality of the present moment: the sounds of rain, the breathing, the taste of food. It was about glimpsing how thought creates an apparent gap between subject and object that isn’t really there. For example, there was the discovery that when I opened completely to physical pain, when there was no more gap between “me” and “it,” when it was pure sensation, pure immediacy, then it was no longer overwhelming, but when I seemingly separated myself from the pain mentally by thinking about it and resisting it, then it seemed unbearable. Zen was the discovery of a sense of wonderment and an appreciation for the ordinary—for simply being alive. As Mel Weitsman, my first Zen teacher, said to me, “We’re always looking for diamonds in the mud. But the mud itself is pretty interesting. That’s what Zen is about. The mud.” What mattered was simply being awake here-now, in this moment. Just this!
Zen was also about discovering how thinking shapes our experience, how the mind churns out endless stories and headlines, how it labels, judges, evaluates, categorizes and measures everything—and how we mistake our thoughts for an objective report on reality and become hypnotized by them. Two of my teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck and Toni Packer, both put great emphasis on this. I began to see how easily we mistake our conceptual maps for the living actuality itself.
Toni Packer was a former Zen teacher who had left the traditional and hierarchical aspects of Zen behind to work in a more open way. I lived and worked on staff at her retreat center for 5 years. She was very much a kindred spirit to J. Krishnamurti in the sense that she pointed to a shift from a life totally hypnotized by thought to a life rooted in spacious, open awareness or presence. She pointed to being awake to the bare actuality of this moment (the caw-caw-caw of the crows, the sensations of the body meeting the chair). She invited us to see how thought shapes experience and how it creates the mirage-like illusory self (the apparent thinker, chooser, doer—the “me”), and to wake up from our entrancement in the thoughts and stories that usually run our lives. She pointed to the discovery of what she called “an inner/outer silence—stillness—spaciousness in which there is no sense of separation or limitation, outside or inside.”
Toni never regarded herself as an authority, she was always willing to look freshly and see something new. She approached what she called “meditative inquiry” with the open curiosity and unseducible precision of a scientist. Everything had to be tested out, discovered directly, never taken second-hand. And any conclusion reached always had to remain open to further questioning and new insights. This, to me, is the best kind of teacher. In fact, Toni didn't even call herself a teacher. She felt the word created a false division. She met everyone with an open mind, an open heart and a listening presence, and that listening presence was really the essence of her teaching.
Advaita was the next thing that showed up in my life when someone introduced me to Nisargadatta Maharaj and Jean Klein. Advaita means "not two," and it is the non-theistic radical edge of HInduism or Vedanta, relying primarily on direct seeing rather than scriptures. I read Nisargadatta's I Am That, went on retreats with Jean Klein, became a devotee of Gangaji for several years, discovered Ramana Maharshi, and had wonderful encounters with Francis Lucille, Isaac Shapiro, Adyashanti, Mooji, and many others. These were (and are) wonderful, liberating teachings in which I discovered firsthand that there is no way to not “be here now,” that Here-Now (boundless awareness) is ever-present and inescapable, that what “I” truly is, is this boundless, impersonal, awaring presence in which everything else appears and disappears. I discovered myself to be the vastness beyond everything perceivable or conceivable, subtler than space, prior even to conscious experiencing and yet not separate from anything that appears. Yes, I was Joan, the person, but I was not limited to Joan. More fundamentally, I am the awareness beholding Joan. And while Joan is conditioned and limited, that awareness is free, unconditioned, unbound, limitless and clear.
Nisargadatta beautifully sums up the nature of Advaita: “Love says, ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says, ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two my life flows.” Advaita begins with the discovery that what I most fundamentally am is neither perceivable nor conceivable. This emptiness is not an experience or something you can imagine or capture with thought—anything you imagine or think or experience is not it. It is that which is beholding it all, that which remains when all of that is left behind. This primordial awareness is prior even to consciousness (or conscious experiencing), prior even to the first sense of impersonal presence (the I AM). It is what remains in deep sleep. And “prior to” doesn’t mean earlier in time, but rather, more subtle, more intimate. This emptiness (or presence) is not a dead void. It is alive, awake, vibrant with energy and intelligence. This vast spaciousness or immediacy has not only the quality of wisdom (or detachment), but also the quality of unconditional love (or total inclusion). This unconditional love is the total acceptance of the present moment, recognizing that in this moment, nothing can be other than exactly how it is. One is no longer arguing with reality. One is not hypnotized by the story of separation. One sees only the Self everywhere, in everyone and everything. We could say that in Advaita, there is both a zooming out (beyond everything perceivable and conceivable) and a zooming in (to include everything), and ultimately, these are not different. What you find by zooming out is the same infinity you find by zooming in. It is the discovery of boundlessness and total freedom—not the freedom to do as you want, but the freedom to be as you are, and the recognition that what you truly are is at once everything and no-thing at all.
From Advaita, I discovered what I call radical nonduality—the uncompromising message that “this is it, just as it is,” that no practice or transformation is needed, that there is no self, no choice, nothing to do or not do. This was the message i heard expressed by Tony Parsons, Nathan Gill, Chuck Hillig, Leo Hartong, Sailor Bob Adamson and others. My third book, Painting the Sidewalk with Water, very much reflects my deep engagement with radical nonduality. All attempts to “be here now” or to “be present” or to “be aware” or to identify myself as impersonal awareness and not as Joan fell away. The belief that spacious experiences of presence were “it” and my fingerbiting compulsion or my mental agitation was “not it” fell away. Everything was included! Everything was it! This is indeed a very liberating realization. But in Zen they warn that realizing the absolute is not yet enlightenment, and that getting stuck in the absolute can be the worst delusion.
And it became clear to me that anywhere we land can so easily become a fixation, a new kind of dogma, a way of putting on blinders and closing down. So, I found myself (not deliberately, but just naturally) never settling for any single message, approach, formulation, practice or rejection of practice.
I returned many times to Springwater, Toni Packer’s place, and was in touch with Toni until her death in 2013, and I remain closely in touch with others in that community including several friends who are teaching there now. I gave a retreat there myself a few years ago. I remained in touch with Joko Beck to the end of her life. I attended retreats with Zen teachers Steve Hagen and John Tarrant, and with the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten. I listen sometimes to dharma talks by these teachers and other wonderful Buddhist teachers such as Norman Fischer, Barry Magid, Paul Gerstein, and the late Richard Clarke (the man who introduced me to Zen in college years ago). I did The Work with Byron Katie. I became a regular presenter at the annual SAND (Science and Nonduality) Conference where I've listened to and conversed with a variety of nondual teachers and scientists. I still attend occasional satsangs, talks and retreats with other teachers, several of whom have become (and remain) personal friends. I continue to read Dogen and other old Zen Masters and classic Zen texts, as well as dipping into Nisargadatta and various contemporary teachers as well. I'm sure there will be more discoveries and changes in how I see things. There seems to be no end to this on-going conversation and discovery in which we are all waking up together.
My own teaching or expression has absorbed all these different variations and ways of seeing and being what is. I continue to have very eclectic tastes, as the recommended books page on my website quickly reveals. I don’t land in any one camp. I find that I’m drawn in one direction for a while, then in another. I always seem to find exactly what I need in each moment. I also notice that we seem to keep getting the same essential insights again and again, that everything I heard in radical nonduality was also there in Zen, that every moment is totally new and at the same time, there is nothing new.
My writing reflects these ever-ongoing shifts, leaning this way and then that. As John Tarrant put it once, a teaching is like a medicine that cures a particular dis-ease, and then the medicine has unintended side effects, so we need an antidote to the medicine—and then the antidote has side effects, so we need an antidote to the antidote, and so on ad infinitum. That’s a beautiful metaphor for how we need Advaita at one moment, Zen in another moment, Tibetan Buddhism in the next moment, no teachers or books or practices at all at one time, a formal meditation practice at another, and so on and on. Just as when we walk, we are constantly losing our balance and regaining it only to lose it again, this is the way life moves!
Of course, many other things have also been part of my path—my whole life actually, every single moment! Every leaf, every cloud, every clap of thunder, every traffic jam, every trip to the supermarket, every friendship, every love relationship, every beloved animal companion, every brief encounter with a stranger, every world event, every job, every place I’ve lived or been, every LSD trip, every drunken night, every moment of depression or anxiety, every illness, every stumble along the way, every apparent loss has played a part. The path is pathless and travels always from Here to Here.
The bigger and more obvious events that have shaped this life might include the pre-natal amputation of my right hand; my wonderful parents who were definitely my first spiritual teachers—among many other things, my father taught me that free will is an illusion, that one day the sun will explode, and that there is no essential difference between a table and a person, and my mother taught me the power of love; my experiences growing up and living as a gender agnostic, bi-sexual, mostly lesbian person at a time when these were all totally unacceptable; going to college in the tumultuous Sixties; my years as a drunk and drug user; my adventures with psychedelics that showed me a world beyond normal perception; my journey of getting sober; the civil rights movement; the anti-war movement; the women’s movement; the gay liberation movement; the disability rights movement; my years as a lesbian-feminist, leftist, anti-imperialist political activist; my experiences in many forms of therapy; my training in martial arts; various forms of somatic awareness work (especially Feldenkrais); being with my mother at the end of her life; the serious cancer that put me through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in 2017 and 2018, leaving me with an ostomy; getting older (I'm in my 70s now) and living through so many changes in the world – all of these things and many more were vital parts of my spiritual path. It’s ALL part of this amazing and unfathomable play.
And very interestingly, where is this whole past now, everything I’ve just described? Where is my father, or my first love, or my days at college, or my drunken nights in the lesbian bars of San Francisco, or my years at Springwater Center, or my recent journey through radiation and chemotherapy? It’s all vanished into thin air! It’s like a dream, gone completely in the morning. How real was it? It was undeniably real as experience, as it was happening, and the memory of it now is undeniably a real experience as a memory, but isn’t it obvious that the whole thing never had the kind of substantial, objective, inherent existence that it appeared to have or that it seems to have in the story? Realizing this doesn't mean we have to discard the story—I love stories—but it suggests that we might take all our stories more lightly. When we give close attention to bare experience itself, the story dissolves, as does the main character, the one who seems to be at the center of it all. What remains is the open space of awareness, the subtlety of presence, and the vivid actuality of nonconceptual bare experiencing, in which there is no separation or division, no gap between awareness and content, subject and object, form and emptiness, self and not-self, samsara and nirvana—it is one undivided, unbroken whole without borders or seams.
The word spirituality can mean many different things, and there are many forms of it that do not resonate with me. I’m not drawn to any kind of spirituality that is belief-based rather than being rooted in direct experience and firsthand exploration, nor to any kind that is authoritarian, dogmatic or fundamentalist. Although I see both choice and choicelessness as pedagogical models, each reflecting a different aspect of reality, I’m generally not drawn to teachings that suggest that we create our own reality, or those that emphasize the model of free will in a way that feels (to me) untrue to how life actually moves. I’m not an enthusiast for teachings that promise final enlightenment, or those that emphasize big or special experiences. And I’m not drawn to the occult, or to the kind of New Age spirituality involving angels and other fluffy (and to me) imaginary things. I’m not suggesting that everyone should share my tastes or see life as I do; I’m simply clarifying what doesn’t resonate here.
I’m also not drawn to any kind of spirituality that denies, ignores or tries to escape from our human experience. I’ve never resonated with the traditional Advaita pointer that, “I am not the body," although I understand what it's getting at—that the body is in me; I am not in the body—but I would rather say that we are not limited to, or encapsulated inside, the body—the body isn’t all we are—the body is appearing in this impersonal, boundless, awaring presence that we most fundamentally are, but we are also the body (and everything else, too!). And “the body” is a conceptual abstraction of a living actuality that is not really the solid, discrete, persisting, substantial, separate, independent “thing” we think it is. And “awareness” (as anything we can think and talk about) is also a conceptual abstraction of a living actuality that is not really a separate “thing.” And the “me” who tries to identify as “pure awareness” and not as a “person” is nothing more than a thought-form, a mental image engaged in a process of self-improvement rooted in the idea of present lack.
I’ve always been drawn to direct experience over metaphysical conclusions and beliefs. Listening to the rain or the traffic sounds feels alive; thinking about a philosophical question such as which comes first, the chicken or the egg, mind or matter, seems abstract and fundamentally unsatisfying because I notice it is unresolvable. I notice that reality can’t be pinned down. I notice that belief is always shadowed by doubt. I don’t know if consciousness or awareness is the sole reality or the fundamental ground of being. I know I never experience anything outside of consciousness, but I tend to feel that the apparent dichotomy between mind and matter, or consciousness and the brain, is a false conceptual divide—that reality itself is not divided up that way. As far as I can see, Here-Now (this undeniable, immediate, presence-awareness-experiencing) is infinite, inconceivable, unresolvable, ungraspable, indeterminate and impossible to capture in any formulation.
I can’t deny that the brain and nervous system, and the whole body, seem to play some kind of important part in either generating, transmitting and/or shaping our conscious experience. But if we look deeply at “the brain” or “the nervous system” or “the body” with modern physics, it seems we find nothing solid, only some kind of indeterminate particle-wave fluctuation of energy that is mostly empty space, and all of it is appearing in consciousness, maybe having no more substance than a dream—how would we know?
Because experience is inconceivable and indeterminate, I find that the only bottom-line I can really arrive at is groundlessness, free fall, not landing anywhere—being open, not knowing, not holding to fixed views, not dwelling anywhere, seeing through illusion without trying to grasp Truth, for Truth cannot by its very nature ever be grasped. It simply IS. I find that many teachers seem to have a metaphysical certainty that I do not. I greatly value keeping an open mind, being willing to see things in a whole new way, and not making anyone (myself included) into an authority whose words cannot be questioned. As I see it, the living actuality is infinite and cannot be grasped. And yet, here it is—plain as day!
I feel there are many important discoveries on this pathless path from Here to Here, and although they all happen NOW, they don’t necessarily (or usually) all happen at once. Seeing through false or illusory limitations is crucial, but at the same time, so is recognizing, embracing and accepting the limitations of form (e.g., the fact that the body ages and dies and that the elbow does not bend backwards). The ability to step back from total caught-up-ness in our thoughts and stories, to see what causes and sustains suffering is an essential discovery, but then so is the realization that everything is included in what is. Nothing is excluded! The melting away of the division between samsara and nirvana, between what we consider spiritual and what we consider unspiritual is one of the most liberating realizations of all. And at the same time, our ability to discern the difference between what brings about suffering and what liberates us from it is crucial. If we think of human beings as akin to waves on the ocean, both Buddha and Hitler are equally waves, equally movements of the indivisible whole, equally water. But clearly, Buddha realizes that wholeness and speaks and acts out of that realization, while Hitler is lost in the delusion of separation, trying to conquer and exterminate the other waves. They are equally a movement of the nondual whole, but one realizes that and the other does not. Samsara and nirvana are not one, not two.
Seeing through (and waking up from) the false belief that we are each a solid, separate “me” encapsulated inside “a body” looking out at an observer-independent objective “world” that exists outside of conscious experiencing is a very liberating and important realization. Recognizing the unbound awareness here-now that is beholding and being everything perceivable and conceivable and seeing that I AM THAT seems to be an essential recognition at some point, as is the discovery that there is no division—that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Seeing through beliefs and noticing how thought habitually mistakes the abstract conceptual maps it has created for the actuality they describe is a crucial recognition, as is questioning our stories—and noticing the difference between stories that enliven and awaken us and stories that generate suffering.
Ultimately, there has to be the recognition that none of the abstract generalizations created by conceptual thought have any actual reality—there is no such “thing” as the body, or cancer, or racism, or Zen, or Chicago, or tables and chairs, or consciousness, or enlightenment, or mammals, or evolution—each of these abstract categories is made up of ever-changing, utterly unique flashes of exprerience—and the more closely we look at any of these categories or at any of these flashes of experience, the more we discover that nothing can ever be pinned down or grasped. We perceive only a tiny fraction of what is, and we see it through the filter of our conditioning, and before it even arrives, the present flash of experience is already gone! It is functionally useful to have these conceptual abstractions, we use them as needed, and we certainly don't need to go around denying the existence of Chicago, or the reality of racism, or the truth of evolution, but we begin to recognize that all such abstract generalizations don’t actually exist with quite the solidity we think is there. In actuality, everything is indeterminate, unresolvable, ungraspable, interdependent, ever-changing, infinitely complex, and utterly impossible to pin down. The boundary-lines between one apparent “thing” and another aren't really there. Every apparent form includes everything it apparently is not, and impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even be impermanent. And none of it can be found outside of consciousness (i.e., present experiencing).
As this becomes clearer and clearer, the boundary between “meditation” and “the rest of life” dissolves. The boundary between what is “spiritual” and what is “not spiritual” dissolves. It becomes obvious that everything is included, that it all belongs. Thinking, being lost in stories and delusion, chasing after mirages, experiencing contraction, feeling anxious—it’s ALL included in what is, and none of it is personal. None of it means anything. None of it has any persisting form or substance. And the more closely we look at anything, the more it opens into infinity. There is no final truth, no final resolution, no final enlightenment, no finish-line to cross. There is only this ever-changing, ever-present, infinite and eternal Here-Now, ever-new, ever-fresh. And yet, this Now includes past and future, memory and imagination. Realizing the absolute truth of nondual unicity and formlessness is essential, but as they stress in Zen, realizing the absolute is not yet enlightenment. Nothing can be pinned down or separated out, and yet each thing is distinct and vividly itself. Both sides of the gestalt are true.
I’ve always had a deep sense of the unbroken wholeness, the vastness, the love that is at the very heart of this awaring presence here-now, the radiance, the no-thing-ness that is bursting forth as everything, the all-inclusive nature of totality. If that’s what is meant by transcendence, then I’m all for transcendence! But sometimes, transcendence seems to mean escaping, ignoring, denying or dismissing everyday ordinary reality, and that kind of transcendence does not interest me. I’m all for fully experiencing our human lives, including our emotions. I would never dismiss or belittle the pain in this world as “just a dream” or “only an illusion,” and my own life has benefited immensely from psychotherapy and from political movements for social change such as the women's movement, the LGBT liberation movement, the disability rights movement, and so on. I would never want to dismiss all of this. And yet, at the same time, it is very liberating to realize that nothing could, in this moment, be any other way than how it is, and that it all goes together in ways we can never understand, and that we don’t actually know what any of this is, or what the universe needs, or how everything “should” be. Everything is, in fact, very dream-like in nature (i.e., it is a fleeting and ephemeral appearance in consciousness, gone as soon as it arrives). I continue to have opinions and preferences, and as I see it, that’s all part of how the universe (or consciousness as a whole) moves, but I seem to hold these opinions more lightly, which is a relief.
For many years now, I’ve been writing and talking about noticing and being awareness-presence-experiencing, here-now, just as it is, and noticing that there is no way not to be this! I’ve pointed to both the ever-changing nature of experience, and to the ever-present immediacy of here-now (presence-awareness). I’ve invited people to listen to the sounds of traffic, the wind rustling the leaves, the dog barking, the airplane flying overhead…to feel the sensations in the body as bare sensation…to feel the breathing…to smell the coffee and the exhaust fumes and the roses and the shit…in other words, to feel the ever-changing and infinitely rich textures of present experiencing prior to all the labels and interpretations of it—and to notice how it actually is, in contrast to how we think it is. I’ve invited people to look for the self that is supposedly thinking “my” thoughts and making “my” decisions and doing “my” deeds to see if that self (that “me”) can actually be found. I’ve invited people to watch as decisions and choices unfold to see if they can find anyone in control of the whole process, or in control of when the decisive moment arises, or in control of what “decision” is finally made. I’ve invited people to look and see if there is any actual boundary-line where “inside” turns into “outside.” I’ve invited people to notice how we can’t deny that there is something here we call “Joan,” but how, at the same time, we can’t pin down exactly what that is—Joan is an ever-changing event inseparable from everything that is supposedly not-Joan.
There seem to be infinite layers of reality or ways of seeing what is. There is the person in everyday life we call Joan. There is Joan’s ever-changing conscious experience, and there is whatever remains in deep sleep. There is the impersonal boundless awareness that is beholding Joan and the furniture in the room and the mountains out the window and the stars in the night sky. Inside Joan’s body, there are pulsating organs and fluids. Closer in, at more subtle levels, there are cells, then molecules, then atoms, and apparently, within each atom and molecule, there is vast empty space. And there are apparently all manner of things I don’t understand like quarks, particle-waves and dark matter. An infinite universe is here whether we go down into the subatomic or out into the farthest reaches of outer space. There is Joan’s distinct existence as a particular, recognizable person with coherent boundaries, and there is Joan’s boundless interdependence with, and inseparability from, everything that is apparently not-Joan. There is this text that seems to be emerging from Joan’s mind and more deeply from the One Mind, from life itself, from the whole universe. And there is the unfindability of every single thing that has just been mentioned, the way none of it can ever be grasped.
Are any of these layers or perspectives “more real” or “truer” than any other? What exactly is Joan? What exactly is reality? What is a body? Or a person? Or a cell? Or a molecule? Or empty space? Or a boundary? Or consciousness? Or awareness? We can’t say! Liberation is free fall into not knowing and not needing to know. It is the recognition that absolutely EVERYTHING is included in what is, that it all belongs. It is the realization that this moment has never been here before, and that already, it is gone. It is the hum of the airplane passing overhead, the sharp staccato barking of the dog, the rhythmic whooshing of the traffic, the caw-caw-caw of the crow, the piercing red of the flower, the aroma, taste and warmth of hot tea, the smelly poop being squeezed out of my ostomy bag, the spacious presence being and beholding it all. Spirituality is the ungraspable but undeniable aliveness right here, right now. THIS is the Holy Reality! THIS is GOD! THIS is the sacred! THIS is the transcendent! It’s not somewhere else. It’s never been absent. It never can be absent. It is all there is. Nothing is excluded.
Every moment is new and different—fresh. It has never been here before, and it is gone before it arrives! Amazing!
I’ve always appreciated the words of one old Zen teacher from long ago who was asked what he was doing (teaching Zen). He replied that he was selling water by the banks of the river. He said this not disparagingly, as if he were doing something unsavory, but humorously, with great delight, recognizing the Great Play of the universe, the Divine Lila, the Cosmic Entertainment, the miraculous dance of existence, in which the One behind all the masks endlessly hides from itself and then discovers itself everywhere. And we (the person) don’t get to decide what part we’re going to play. We simply find ourselves playing, and at the same time, deeply enjoying the show.
As Lao-tzu famously wrote at the beginning of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao,” and then he went on to write 81 beautiful verses expressing the Tao. And so, the words pour out here from I know not where, dancing across the page or the screen, unfolding in consciousness, pointing to what is indescribable, inconceivable and ungraspable, and yet utterly obvious. There is nowhere where this aliveness is not fully and totally present.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018 --
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